My father's advice was that Feb. 14 be ruled out as a wedding date. "It could ruin Valentine's Day for the rest of your lives," he told us. We all laughed, my mother, my fiance and I. As it happened, we were married just before Christmas, in 1964. A few weeks shy of our 20th anniversary, he left. "We want different things," he said. "It's no one's fault."

I was alternately sad, relieved and excited. One minute, I would be diligently working on my newspaper column. I'd write a line, a line I liked. I might even be smiling. And then, suddenly, I'd find myself in the bathroom, sobbing and burying my face in the worn, familiar folds of the flannel robe that hung from the hook on the back of the door. By evening, with the best of my middle-aged means, I'd have metamorphosed into the belle of the Personals, ripe for fun, romance and adventure.

In fact, I did feel adventurous. The separation had not been my idea. But even in my more subdued moments -- such as when I realized that on my erratic earnings as a writer, I couldn't qualify for a loan or a mortgage, and that it was only a matter of time before I was Ratso Rizzo, sick, poor and living in a cold, filthy room, dreaming of Florida -- I knew that within my grasp was an opportunity. No matter what, things were going to change. There were only two possibilities. I could take what had happened as a challenge, or as a defeat. I decided it was better not to be defeated.

For support and insight I turned not to "The Road Not Taken," nor any of the other currently "helpful" books, but to Miss Manners, whose "Advice to the Rejectee" better suited my temperament. " . . . the proper behavior for someone whose heart is breaking," she advises, "is to be cheerful, not pained; ungrudgingly forgiving, not accusing; busy, not free to be comforted; mysterious, not willing to talk the situation over; absent, not obviously alone or overdoing attentions to others." Besides which, as only Miss Maners could put it, " . . . a broken heart is a miserably unpleasant thing, making one feel ugly and unattractive, an enormous disadvantage in courting others."

I wanted to be good at being separated. And what may have been an act at first, slowly started making its way under my skin. My healing began with painting the kitchen. To exorcise my husband from the premises, I chose a surprising shade of pink. I forged ahead, spending time with my friends, working, puttering in the perennial bed, and nurturing my youngest child through her last year of high school. Then, just when I was beginning to think fondly of what it would be like to hold hands with a man again, I began dating.

It was, as I had anticipated, an unsavory, if youthful, process. An otherwise mature 40-year-old does not slip easily into the role of an adolescent. It was a little odd, kissing my date good night at the door while my daughter sat up inside waiting to ask whether I had had a nice time. I was not the pliant young wisp I had been at 17 -- which was the good news. Threats of being a "prude" would do little to create an atmosphere of negative self-esteem. Nor would a replay of the statistics -- eight women to one man. If I didn't have a place to sit down when the music stopped, it was OK. The bad news started at the neck and went all the way down. In preparation for one of my first outings as a single woman -- it was a squash game; I had been billed as an athlete -- I spent an inordinate amount of time tracing miles of broken capillaries and other vascular disasters with a stick of Erase. But for all its inherent difficulties and, I have to admit, unexpected delights, dating was one thing; divorce, as I discovered, was another.

One afternoon last September, my phone rang. The familiar gruff but not unfriendly voice of my lawyer said, "Congratulations. You're a divorced woman."

Congratulations. Such an inappropriate word for how I felt. Congratulations are for things one can be proud of. I was anything but proud. I felt emotionally devastated, and ashamed. When the papers came, there was a phrase, "irretrievable

breakdown," printed in the upper right hand corner of the decree. It seemed a rude and incorrect diagnosis that sounded like it belonged to some other couple.

I never truly believed that it was irretrievable. Maybe I, we, let it go. Maybe we didn't try hard enough. Yet, there was something else about that phrase, and the fact of the divorce, that deeply disturbed me, something that would have been the case no matter what the circumstances. I did not like the word divorce, or the image it evoked, though there was a time when divorce -- and divorcee -- had a chic, Wallis Simpson ring to it. Now I was appalled. It was not how I saw myself, as someone who got divorced.

I liked to think, as I suppose everyone who goes through it does, that my divorce wasn't one of those; it was different. I had had the right instincts, married the right person. For nearly two decades, he was someone I looked forward to seeing every day. A woman once said to me, "If you are what you choose, you choose something different at 40 than you do at 25." I might not choose that man today; but there is no question that I would choose that kind of man. If we couldn't live together now, he was still the most important man in my life, the one who gave me my connection to the world.

Recently I received a letter from an old friend. It contained the usual catch-up data, the work she's doing, news of her children, where they go to school, what their interests are. Then there was a paragraph that began, "Arthur and I . . . still manage to find each other exciting and interesting. . . ." With those words, I felt the enormity of my loss all over again. I knew that, once again, I would not write to the alumnae office of my college, would not announce that I was no longer married, for, though it was not a secret, it was something tawdry that I was unwilling to tell.

And yet, I do tell, must tell, all the time. Some time ago, I received an invitation to attend an ordination at Yale University. My best friend from high school, and the person I had admired most, was about to become a minister. I wasn't sure I could go, wasn't sure I could face our relative positions. For here was a woman, I thought, who would never be separated, never be divorced. She had always had such clarity, such personal strength, that that kind of failure would always be outside her.

I remember when, on a visit home from college during my freshman year, I stopped by my high school, and was talking with a former, and formidable, English teacher. I was on academic probation at the time, an apparently unstartling development to this woman, who met my announcement with an indifferent silence, borne, I believed, of abject boredom. To ease my discomfort, I quickly added, "But Kate is doing very well."

"Yes," she said curtly, "one would have expected her to do well."

Now I imagined meeting my English teacher again, in just that way, standing awkwardly in the same hallowed hall, and telling her of Kate's entrance into the ministry -- and my divorce. "Yes," she would say, as though she already knew, "of course."

Divorce is hardly the disgrace it once was. Indeed, it seems these days to dominate the social horizon. Behind nearly every dinner party guest is a previous marriage, a property settlement, tight-lipped exchange, sotto voce, between confidantes, "Did you get the house? I got the house."

Why, with so much company, should I feel ashamed? Perhaps it's the pervasive flow of reminders of the pain we have inflicted on our children, articles headlined, "Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don't Heal." How bitterly we have disappointed them, the people we love most. Or maybe it's the dissolution of dreams, such as walking with my husband and grandchildren on a rocky strip of Maine coastline, collecting sea glass. Even an innocent old movie can prove perilous, evoking feelings of guilt and despair.

One dreary day in that first fall of my single life, I flipped on the television set to see "Father of the Bride." There were Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett giving their daughter, Elizabeth Taylor, into the bonds of matrimony. The movie set the mood for things to come, events in which my husband and I would act as separate agents, rather than two people united in a journey that had brought something wonderful to fruition: college graduations, weddings, the births of our children's children. "You won't get to see how I am with the baby," he reminded me before the divorce was final, his voice cracking with realization.

No. I won't. A friend and I are talking on the telephone about First Husbands, as though they were a generic commodity. She suggests that our first husbands are our only husbands, the father of our children, the men we grew up with. Her second husband has been her second husband for 15 years. Still, she thinks of him more as her lover than her husband. "There is my husband," she says. "And then there's this man I live with."

In a few months, I am to be married again, to a man with whom I expect to spend the last third of my life. I have a vision of those years, packed with simple pleasures: good food (in this marriage, I am to be demoted, happily, to sous-chef); lots of tennis, to fend off our stiffening joints; travel; witnessing, we hope from short distances, the kaleidoscopic development of our collective offspring.

In our attic, there will be two boxes of family photographs, two sets of stills from a marriage. One will belong to the man I live with; the other, to my husband and me.

SUSAN DUNDON is a free-lance writer living in Philadelphia.

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