January 31, 2005 12:00 PM

No midnight ice cream runs. No post-breakup sweatpants. No puffy eyes—at least not in front of the cameras. Rather, in the wake of their Jan. 7 separation shocker, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have proceeded to act a lot like they did while they were married: They’ve each been working (on different continents) and even wearing their respective wedding bands. There was Pitt—wedding ring on display—doing his rat-pack shtick with pal George Clooney while promoting Ocean’s Twelve in Japan on Jan. 13. And there was Aniston, smiling broadly—ring also on hand—as she left the Los Angeles set of her new gal-pal comedy-drama Friends with Money on Jan. 12. “She was very up and almost bubbly,” says a source who spotted her during shooting. That’s a dramatic difference, though, from the last time the former superweds were seen together in public. On Jan. 8, the day after announcing their split, they grimly departed the St. Maarten airport at the conclusion of a Caribbean getaway. Preparing to return to L.A., a visibly distraught Aniston “was wiping tears from her face,” says an observer.

Somewhere between the tears, the on-with-the-show work schedules and the reappearing rings, Pitt, 41, and Aniston, 35, have begun striking out on their new, postsplit lives. Since his return from Japan, Pitt has variously been spotted riding his motorcycle, appearing on the Jan. 15 NBC tsunami-relief telethon and walking on the beach in Santa Barbara, where he and Aniston own a home. Aniston, meanwhile, jumped straight into filming Friends with Money. But the two are still living together at their $13.5 million Beverly Hills mansion, says a Hollywood executive who knows both stars: “They’re still friends. Both of them are in a good place after making this decision.”

So how are they doing? “I feel like they are leaving their relationship with the same grace and respect that they went into it with,” says actress Kathy Najimy, a close friend of Aniston’s. Having recently spoken with her, “Jennifer seems very positive—as positive as she can be under the circumstances.” Asked to elaborate on those circumstances, Najimy adds, “Well, [the split] certainly wasn’t a snap decision. There were things leading up to it.”

Things—or people? In the aftermath of the breakup, intense speculation—bordering on a national conversation—swirled around two perceived trouble spots: (1) tension over whether to start a family; and (2) talk that Pitt got too close to Angelina Jolie, his costar in the upcoming summer caper Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Jolie, who like Pitt has denied any affair, was shooting a documentary in Niger when news of the separation broke. “She was surprised,” says a source close to Jolie. “She knows what people are saying. She told a friend that there’s not a doubt in her mind that he’s never cheated on Jennifer. She doesn’t believe he’s done that or ever would do something like that.”

Clearly in evidence on the Mr. and Mrs. Smith set, however, was the actor’s fondness for Jolie, 29, which sources have said bothered Aniston. “There was a platonic relationship going on,” says Efren Ramirez, who appears in the film. Pitt and Jolie often relaxed in a patio area that Pitt set up outside his trailer, according to one crew member. “We called it Brad’s grotto,” says the crew member. “Quite often Brad and Angelina were out there talking while her little boy [3-year-old Maddox] was playing next to the grotto.”

As for the issue of when to start their own family, not everyone is convinced that the popular perception—he wanted kids, she wanted a career—is accurate. “Everyone is saying she doesn’t want kids, and so he left,” says the Hollywood exec close to both. “That’s so untrue and mean. Brad is not pressuring her to have a baby. He wants a family. She does too. In an ideal world, they’d have a child. But this is real life, and neither one of them wants to have a child under conditions that aren’t right.” Another insider says that the two “didn’t split because of one bad problem. It’s a little bit of many things, all wrapped up…. As much as these two people care about each other, and they really do care about each other, they just want something different. They still love each other.”

Aniston and Pitt had been thinking and talking about their problems for “at least a year,” this source says. Still, they remained close, often exchanging the loving gestures that were a hallmark of their 4½-year marriage. Although Aniston was never sighted on the Mr. and Mrs. Smith set, “she’d send over little food things that she made for Brad’s dinner,” says the crew member. For his part, Pitt would occasionally request that his wife run an errand and then surprise her by arranging to have an old friend meet her there. Even as the breakup neared, many people close to them held out hope the marriage would survive. For Christmas last month, Pitt’s mother and sister (for more on their families, see box) gave Aniston a ring monogrammed in the center with a “P.”

Now, as the reality of their separate lives sets in, Aniston and Pitt must decide whether to move forward with divorce proceedings (see box) or attempt to rebuild their relationship; the rings still on their left hands indicate they haven’t given up on the marriage. One industry source says they are currently “dating” each other in an effort at reconciliation; another source notes skeptically, “I see very few people in Hollywood separate and then get back together.” Both parties would seem to be looking to put the pain of the split behind them. “My hope was that they could work it out,” says pal Najimy, “but my greater wish is for them to be as happy as they can be.”

Michelle Tauber. Lorenzo Benet, Tom Cunneff, Michael Fleeman, Kwala Mandel, Brenda Rodriguez and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles, KC Baker in New York City, Steve Helling in St. Maarten and Kate Klise in Springfield

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