I Broke My Knee, Which Fractured My Marriage

I think I have a condition where I think I have a condition. I have to go to the hospital, or the doctor’s office, or on Google, more than most.

This is why when I rang my husband at work one morning to tell him thatI had shattered my kneecap, he suggested a rest on the couch. Great advice if I could walk. But I was calling him from the concrete slab outside of our house because I couldn’t even stand. An ambulance was on its way. As my husband processed that I had involved 911 this time, I explained how I was carrying our toddler and didn’t see a glossy flier on the ground when —

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Was it a flier for roof repairs?”

I squinted past my baby’s screams and saw the advertisement that tried to kill me. It was for roof repairs and, if we were interested, we could get 20 percent off —

“Wait a minute,” I said. “How did you know it was for roof repairs?”

I asked the question but I already knew the answer. My husband had seen the flier as he left for work that morning. Instead of picking it up, he stepped over it. Two hours later, I had the opposite experience: I didn’t see the flier and stepped on it.

As my right leg flew out in front of me, I knew bad things were about to happen. But I couldn’t let those bad things happen to our son, so I Baby Bjorn’d him to my chest with both arms, leaving zero free appendages to stop my fall. One horrifying sound later, I was glad that I did. I had saved my baby’s life.

My fragmented patella, wedged in the middle of my thigh, was not impressed.

After surgery, I needed help with everything. I had two young children, many hours of physical therapy ahead of me, and required assistance for every single bathroom activity. My mother gave up her life and moved into mine. My displaced husband moved his pillow to the couch.

He and I lived separately but together like this for days, weeks, then months. Everything was hard. Rehabilitating my knee. Going on Percocet and then struggling to get off Percocet. My mood.

Somehow a year passed. My surgical wound became a five-inch scar. My mom went back to sleeping in her own bed. And my husband had some big news.

He got a job offer.

“Great,” I said but didn’t really mean it because I could tell from the weird look on his face that there was more. And there was.

His new job wasn’t close to his old job. It wasn’t in California. Or the United States. Or even the Northern Hemisphere. This is when I heard him say New Zealand for the first time. I burst into tears.

I couldn’t live in New Zealand. I was a TV writer in Los Angeles!

Plus, New Zealand was too far away, too small, too in the middle of the ocean somewhere even though I wasn’t exactly sure where. I would never survive without all of my people. He told me it was just for a couple of years and asked me to think about it. I assured him I would and then actively didn’t. That’s when all of my people cornered me with so many aggressive words: “Are you crazy?” “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” “You have to go!”

Ambushed by their logic and a map of the Pacific, I realized my people were right. This offer would never come again. So I said yes and began wrapping up our lives in Bubble Wrap. A month later, I started to get excited in the pots and pans cupboard when my husband’s phone dinged and distracted me.

He was in the shower when I found the one-word text: “Hey.”

It seemed like nothing. But it also seemed odd because I didn’t recognize the number and no other text preceded it. I opened his inbox before contemplating whether I should, and there it was. An email from an address I didn’t recognize with the same one-word subject: “Hey.”

These two messages were obviously a pair. Like salt and pepper. Fork and knife. Oh and my god. I read more: “I had a dream last night … I kissed you a lot, a lot.”

Everything suddenly went dark and sad and silent. I wanted to throw up in the sink but it was full of clean dishes to pack so I swallowed my bile and slid down the dishwasher to the ground instead.

“How did this happen?” I sobbed to the kitchen floor.

“How could it not?” the kitchen floor answered.

The kitchen floor had a point. A wire cage had held my six pieces of knee in one stable place for a year, but there was no such supportive structure for my marriage. Every human needs care. My mother had replaced my husband that year. This email sender was clearly trying to replace me.

Or maybe she already had.

My brain was looping on this thought when my husband came into the kitchen and found a puddle of me. The sight of his phone in my hand explained it all. His words raced to comfort me. “This isn’t what you think it is!” “Nothing happened!” “I love you!”

I rejected them and him, and left the kitchen floor for a bedroom with a door.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night so at 6 the next morning I stopped trying. I got up, put on mascara and wrote him a note. I was going to the emergency room. The nurse in triage asked what brought me in so early. I wanted to tell her about the flier for roof repairs but that seemed too complicated so I said possible heart attack. She looked at me like I was nuts. I didn’t stop her.

After a series of tests proved I was not in cardiac arrest, the examining doctor couldn’t help but wonder if anything stressful had happened recently. I blinked once for yes. A tear rolled down my cheek in corroboration. My mascara had no choice but to go with it. One soothing sedative later, I was released.

I returned home and was confronted by our life. It was divided into two piles. One pile was going to Auckland in a shipping container. The other was off to Redondo Beach to live in a storage unit for two years or forever. The hatred I felt for my husband fit in neither. I wanted to suffocate him with my unused Bubble Wrap but the sound of the doorbell reminded me that my in-laws were here. They wanted to see their grandchildren while we were still there. Little did they know “we” were already gone.

I made my husband tell his parents what had happened. His father hugged me tightly. His mother went to work. Thirty years in human resources had inadvertently prepared her for this moment. She took my hand and led me outside to her pop-up office — a bench in the backyard. I cried and she listened. I told her I didn’t know what to do. She empathetically nodded like only someone in HR could and told me I had two choices.

I could not go and it won’t work out. Or I could go and it might.

My parents divorced when I was 7. I never lived with my father again. I knew what “it won’t work out” looked like and it looked a lot like snot. I thought of my boys. One was 6 and the other just 3. I knew I would never have enough tissue.

I also knew “might” is all any of us really have.

We live in a constant state of possibility. We might win the lottery. We might not hate our new haircut. That might just be a cough.

That morning, when I came home from the hospital, I found a Post-it note on my night stand. It said, “I will fix this.” I stared at those four words for days before realizing that my husband just might. So I moved to New Zealand. It was hard and fun and easy and a nightmare. There was still snot. But there were also close schools, writing jobs for me, a nearby office for him and time. As it turned out, that tiny country, too in the middle of the ocean somewhere, was exactly what our marriage needed to heal.

Eleven years later, we live in Australia with universal health care, which is amazing for my condition where I think I have a condition. Our boys are 18 and 15 and have two passports. And my husband is still my husband but now his pockets are full of glossy fliers.

Tiffany Zehnal is a screenwriter for television and film in Sydney, Australia. She is writing a feature film about a woman who leaves herself off her to-do list and disappears.

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