Opinion: After divorce, a miscarriage and career failures, my Los Angeles life surprised me

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Opinion: After divorce, a miscarriage and career failures, my Los Angeles life surprised me

At 46, I’ve made some sense of my life by thinking about it as a story of second chances. If my evil twin were the author, it would be a string of dead ends — of not being a good enough writer, mother, wife, daughter, friend, teacher, sister (the list is endless). But I see my life as an endorsement of second chances. Almost everything that defines me happened because I failed and then tried again.

My first marriage was an early one. I was 23, lacking all confidence, and had moved to London for my boyfriend. At the Chelsea Old Town Hall I clutched a bouquet from my best friend, Lexy, the only person in my life who knew about the wedding. Afterward, we celebrated over coffee and Danishes at a nearby Starbucks before my new husband returned to work and I wandered the streets of Kensington, pressure building behind my eyes, the sky blooming dark gray.

I hoped then that my charismatic spouse, who worked in finance, would protect me from myself, from uncertainty, from the world. Instead, we had months of fights and half-hearted reconciliations, culminating in the morning I packed a duffel, went to Heathrow and boarded the first flight home to L.A.

Months later, hoping to restart my life while still haunted by the hurt and shame of London, I met Philip at a mutual friend’s house. I fell for him at first sight. An unexpected second chance at love, I thought, realizing that clichés exist for a reason. A cinephile and aspiring film producer, Philip cannon-balled into our friend’s pool wearing only see-through white briefs. Bold, I thought. Later that afternoon we sat in his Ford Explorer in the driveway, the interior smelling of crushed M&Ms and old tennis shoes. He turned to me: “I’m going to marry you.” “Yeah, I know,” I said.

A few years after Philip and I married, I got pregnant. When September arrived with its dry arid heat, I was at 28 weeks, well past the big 20-week scan and, I thought, the danger zone. But I had noticed a reduction of the baby’s movements. On a Friday morning, I went to my gynecologist for a last-minute visit before the weekend, just in case. When she checked for a heartbeat, the machine echoed the rush of my own blood but nothing else.

I felt I had been cursed with the evil eye, my first child spirited away. I was convinced that I was already a bad mother, lacking the intuition or vigilance to protect him from death, that the gods had cursed me for wanting a child too much — or not enough. I had failed at motherhood, enduring the awful contradiction of birthing a child who was no longer alive. After numerous tests, pathologists examining placental tissue and vials of my blood, his death remains a mystery.

Two years later we tried again, this time under the supervision of a doctor for high-risk patients. Starting at 27 weeks, every day for 30 minutes, I went into the doctor’s office for a “nonstress test” to listen to her heartbeat. Every morning I sat with the nurse who administered the test, talking about the weather, books, the blissful ordinariness of my daughter’s heartbeats. I remember her saying, “Boring is perfect in pregnancy.” She too had lost a child, her first.

Miraculously, after about 60 uneventful tests and on the first day of spring, the season of renewal, my daughter, Lucia, was born. Her name means light bearer. It was raining, the L.A. Marathon in full swing, and I held her to my chest, knowing she was so hard-won.

A few years later, my third child, Levi, slid into the world, my water breaking on the upholstery of my husband’s new car en route to the hospital, the labor barely lasting three hours. On Levi’s first night home, he laughed in his sleep. My husband and I stared down at him in astonishment. Maybe he could hear his older brother cracking jokes.

My daughter just turned 13; she slams doors in my face, is always willing to give me a makeup tutorial and will, in unpredictable moments, put her long arms around me and whisper, “I love you.” My son is almost 11; he calls me “bro” on occasion, loves to cook and is addicted to basketball YouTube shorts. He says I’m the best mom and also the most annoying mom in the world. They are becoming more of who they are while I mourn their fading littleness: chicken nuggets thrown on the floor, reading fairy tales to them in bed, hours spent helping them craft dioramas for school and tending to their fevers.

They fill me with so much love, and I spend so much energy trying to soften my parental panic as I mourn my first, lost child, the son I’ll never know.

My work life is a story of false starts too. The first time I applied to graduate school I was rejected. I waited a year, kept writing, took a job in my local bookstore and reapplied. I was accepted by Emerson’s MFA program in creative writing, which led me to USC’s PhD program in creative writing and literature. I’ve taught at USC for the last 15 years.

When I submitted my first novel to publishers, they commented that a young woman’s early marriage and exploration of her sexuality was uninteresting. Plus, she wasn’t likable. Every single editor — I think 30 total — passed.

Five years later, my second novel sold to Random House. I got the phone call while changing my son’s fully soiled diaper. Exhilarated, I held him down with one hand while he squirmed, my chest surging with opportunity.

More recently, I was passed over for a prestigious literary prize for which I’d made it to the finalist round of interviews. Once I had finished crying loudly and dramatically alone in my office, I reread the email: “We strongly encourage you to apply again next year. It’s often the case that candidates reapply and have more success the second time around.”

Despite the piercing disappointment, I knew I had been here before.

Twenty years after meeting my husband, reuniting with him at the end of each day floods me with warmth, with OK-ness even when things are far from OK. When he walks into the kitchen, his eyes find mine and he pours red wine into our favorite glasses. He lights candles on the kitchen island while I remember that we’re out of floss and laundry detergent. The kids fight in the background, trading insults. He unfurls his palm and I slide my hand into his. This is our life. Thank goodness for second chances.

Alexis Landau is the author of the novels “The Empire of the Senses,” “Those Who Are Saved” and the forthcoming “The Mother of All Things.”

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