divorce

b-side

I can’t bear to hear about any more divorces. Every where I turn, someone has news. I run into a friend at the coffee shop – someone I have not seen in months – and within moments, he says: “I think we’ll probably divorce.” Twenty-two years. Our poet friends, twenty years. Work colleagues – fifteen, seventeen, twenty-five years. I want them to be happy, of course, of course, but it frightens me, destabilizes me, to hear of all this loss.

I remember my mother saying – in one of her many proclamations about love – that once the word divorce is uttered in a marriage, there is no turning back. It then becomes only a matter of managing the speed with which you travel toward the inevitable end. “Be careful with your words,” she’d say, though she was careless and cruel with her own. “You can apologize all you want, but you can’t take them back.”

How is it that it ends, then – love?

Do you wake one morning with the idea lodged deep? The image of yourself, walking out the front door, down the wooden steps, and onto the sidewalk. You look to the right and then to the left, shove your hands deep in your pockets and walk, keep walking toward a light in the distance – a light just beyond where you can see?

Or standing in the kitchen at the sink, staring out the open window? The neighbor in her garden with her wide-brimmed hat, kneeling and bending, gathering branches, and you think, my god, I will not make it through this year.

Or in the bright light of a summer afternoon, in front of the courthouse where the papers have been signed, your copy of them rolled into your hand. With your other hand you shield your eyes from the blinding sun as you say, “No thank you,” to his invitation to lunch. “Maybe some other time.”

Or is it always ending? Are we always rescuing love from the brink where it teeters? So that the end of love is really just a series of small moments of inattention? Of looking away for too long? And looking back just an instant too late?

And what of the years that seem like magic? The years where the light is warm and endless. You drive to the beach with the windows open and spend the afternoons in the sand, the sea spray leaves you salty and damp. You picnic in the shade of the ancient trees and the sunlight is dappled on your skin. You walk holding hands as the light fades along the river that runs through the city. You stop on the bridge to look out over the water and embrace, breathe in the scent of him like it is oxygen itself, let it fill you up.

How then, does it end?

My friend says: “He asked me whether I had ever said I was sorry.” She is talking about the lawyer.

“Sorry for what?” I ask.

“Sorry that we could not make it work.”

I wait for her to continue, but she does not.

“And what did you say?”

“I said, do you mean the night that I begged him to let me stay? When I said whatever we needed to do, that I would do it? When I said, we are stronger than this, we are better than this, that whatever we are going through will pass – it will pass, if only we can hold on?”

“And what did he say to that?”

“He said. Oh. I guess you have, then.”

 

At the café, he says: “I don’t want to leave, but it’s just this constant battle. She wants me to change, I am not going to change. I’m fifty-six years old. I am not going to change.”

I am waiting for someone, but he sits down and I let him. “I mean, for god’s sake, I may be awful, but I’m not that awful. She could have done worse. I mean, after all this time, she still can’t bear me the way I am?” A man waiting in line at the counter turns around to see who is speaking. My friend lowers his voice, leans in across the table. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I am telling you this.”

I assure him it’s ok. Try to make a joke of it. Say: “But who is going to wheel you around when you are old?”

He laughs. “I know, I know. I can’t imagine trying to get to know someone new.”

“Can you imagine,” M. says, when we are with our friends, “the tedium of having to learn someone else’s music collection?” We are listening to old records we had forgotten we had. “All that history,” S. says, shaking his head. “How do you start over?”

We’re talking about a couple we know in common. “I really didn’t see that coming,” I say. We all nod in agreement, then are quiet for a moment. The record ends, and M. gets up to change it.

highway, circa spring 1998

The phone call comes so early in the morning, I am not sure, for a moment, if I am dreaming. It is B. He is at the airport, but he has forgotten his passport. Will I bring it to him? Of course.

It is the spring of 1998. We don’t know it yet but our marriage is ending. Z. is curled up with me in the bed, her round body radiating heat. The wispy hairs on her forehead are damp. I slip out of bed, dress quickly, find a small blanket to wrap her in.

His passport is on the kitchen table and I take it and tuck it into my purse. I scoop up my sleeping daughter in the blanket, and carry her out to the car.

We had stayed out late the night before. Dinner and too much wine. We had argued about faith, our lack of it. He was willing to go to further extremes than I was, which is also a fair statement about many aspects of our marriage.

When we leave the restaurant, there is nothing resolved – another fair statement – and we stumble home to the graduate student who stays with Z. a few hours a week and the occasional evening. “We did yoga together tonight,” she tells us.

On the ride down, it is still dark. The streets are empty. Z. remained asleep through all the buckling of car seat straps and the car is quiet except for the occasional snuffling reports from her dreams.

B. is standing at the curb when I pull up. He reaches in through the passenger side window and I hand him the passport. He is sheepish. He looks back at our daughter sleeping and then at me. Says thank you and then disappears through the automatic doors.

He will return from this trip to Japan, three weeks later. He will bring back tiny notebooks that unfold into long wide ribbons. Bags of jelly candies. Squares of silk. He will talk of the lingering business dinners and the plates set before him. He will tell of how he impressed and delighted his hosts by trying everything, everything presented to him. He will tell me of the long evenings in the smoke-filled bars.

He will be the same, but different. He will return with a different hunger. And I – for my part – will have developed my own appetites, too.

On the ride back from the airport, the sky is getting light. Streaked with pink. In the back seat, Z. is just beginning to stir. I turn the radio on very low – some soft music for her. The forsythia is in bloom along the highway – great drifts of yellow – the slender branches quivering. I feel as though I could drive like this forever – the gradual light, the forsythia, my daughter drifting in and out of sleep. The gray highway – endless. 

throw your hearts open wide

At the bar, K. and I talk about her divorce. “It’s moving along,” she says, although he is angry and spiteful sometimes. “If that’s the way he needs to play it, whatever,” she says, “I just want it to be done.”

The owner of the restaurant sees her, comes over, asks about some meeting they were at earlier in the day. They talk together for a while, in a language of local politics. I hear a few words: council, pension, licensing. A man I know walks in and from across the room, waves. I wave back, turn back to the bar. He makes his way over and we talk about a work project. “We should catch up some time,” he says as he moves toward an open table. I say: “Oh, definitely, yes.”

Later in the evening, our friend comes over with pie. We all stand around together in the kitchen while M. puts away dishes. It’s good to see him – he is an old friend and we’ve all seen each other through some trying years. There is little trace of those difficulties on him now, and I marvel at his resilience, the path that he has taken. There were moments – for all of us – where it could have gone very differently.

It is easy to be is his company. We catch up on the usual things – our jobs, our families, the friends we have in common.

People all around us, it seems, are ending relationships of decades. The news of one couple, in particular, is unexpected and saddening. I think of my friend whose mother, now in her seventies, talks about leaving her father after forty years of marriage.

“I think after a certain number of years, it should be illegal,” I say, “like the statute of limitations just runs out after a time.” I mean this to be a joke, of course, but not without its point. Building love together is a wearying thing: You put years and years of love and work and care into tending this bond. Isn’t there a time at which the benefits of that outweigh any possible promise of starting anew? After a time, isn’t the comfort of knowing and being known – to the extent, at least, that any one of us can know any other – its own reward, its own gift?

But I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of our human hearts. I am just grasping here, really.

Before he leaves, we promise to stay in better contact. To see each other more frequently. I walk him to the door and he shouts something through the mail slot, something to make me laugh. I watch him walk down the front steps and to the driveway before I turn off the light on the porch.

Later, I tell M.: “We have to stay together forever because I want you to take care of me when I am old and sick.” He says, “That will be difficult, since you will be taking care of me.”

Over the weekend, J. comes into town, but we hardly get to talk at all. At a café, we run into a man she used to know here, and he lights up when he sees her. “Wow,” he says, “it’s such a treat to see you. Wow.”

“Yet another reason to move back,” she whispers as he walks away, but later, when she shows up at the art opening that he invited her to, there is a woman with him. “I don’t think he was avoiding me,” she says, “but let’s just say he didn’t seem dying to talk to me, either.”

I remember my mother once saying that to be lonely in a marriage was far worse than being alone. The idea has lingered with me – this notion of the dangers of loneliness – and with it, her sense of foreboding. As if the feeling, once felt, becomes its own irreversible truth. As if love was a static thing that could not accommodate a multiplicity of emotions – as if the very elasticity of love was not itself its greatest, most redemptive gift: Let me offer up my loneliness on the table of our love and you can set down your own. Lay your burdens down here. Here, where we can share them.

Before we leave the bar, I ask K.: “Are you alright? Will you be ok?” We hug. “I don’t know,” she says, “can I say that I really just don’t know?” We stand there for a moment longer. I nod, of course, and say the only thing I can think to say. It sounds trite and hollow as I hear myself say it, but I mean it: “There will be a time when it will not feel this way. You will be fine – maybe not right away, but you will be.”

The bar has filled up now – clusters of men and women encircling the tall tables, holding their glasses, laughing. At a table nearby, a couple sits side by side, their heads close together, their fingers touching. As I walk past them toward the door, I can’t help but think: Go forth, brave lovers. Go out into the night and throw your hearts open wide. If in the morning, you find them empty, don’t lose hope. They will be full again. 

the marrying kind

After my divorce, a friend introduced me to a man, G., also recently divorced. He would come by, we agreed, after dinner one evening, we’d have coffee and talk. He brought applesauce that he had made that afternoon with his kids. We ate it out of tiny pink bowls I had bought at the thrift store.

We sat on the couch in my living room. It was early fall. He told me about the woman he had met, before his marriage had ended. And how he wondered whether he should see her again, now that things had changed. I told him about M. About how the intensity of it was frightening. About how sometimes, I didn’t know who I was.

He told me about a trip to San Diego that he took with this woman, before she went back to Paris, where she lived. About standing on a deck overlooking the bay. How they looked down and he pointed out two otters playing in the water. She couldn’t see them, he said. She kept looking and he kept pointing, but she couldn’t see them.

Follow my hand he said, and she watched him move his hand until he stopped, and pointed, insistent. “There. They’re right there.” He was getting annoyed. How could she not see what was right in front of her.

Still, she couldn’t see it, but she smiled at him. “This big, blinding smile,” he said. And she leaned in, kissed him on the cheek. “It’s enough that you see it,” she said. “See it for both of us.”

The friend – the introducer – was worried about me. No need to get involved again, so quickly, she said. Take your time. Maybe you should date for a while? The word “date” sounded forced, even as she said it. But I agreed to it, to please her, to move on to other things.

When I told her, a few months later, that M. and I were getting married, she seemed visibly disappointed. We were at lunch, and she paused, her fork mid-way between plate and mouth. “I guess you’re just the marrying kind,” she said.

My parents’ own divorce seemed to happen quickly and without occasion. We were on vacation – our annual trip to the New Jersey beach house – but it was just my mother, my aunt, my sister and me. No explanation was given or needed. My father often only joined us on the weekends.

On the last day of our stay, after breakfast at a diner, my mother slipped into a phone booth, leaving my sister and me standing on the sidewalk, shaking pebbles from our sandals. My aunt paid the check then came down the stairs from the diner to take our hands. It was a quick call. My mother emerged from the booth with her sunglasses on. Her brown hair was long then, and standing there, in her tank top, her tanned shoulders, she looked glamorous and unfamiliar. Like a woman we had never seen. She and my aunt exchanged glances, and my mother nodded.

When we arrived home, later that day, he was gone. The closet, just off the dining room, where he had stored his off-season clothes, was open, a few coat hangers on the floor. A brown paper bag stood in the corner, with some loose papers in it. There were some coins near the front door that must have fallen from his pockets. I picked them up while my mother unpacked our bags.

Later, after G. had walked the French woman to her rental car, tapped his hand on the driver’s side window before she pulled out of the parking lot, he went back to that spot. He said he stared out for a long time at the point where he had seen the otters. The sun glistened on the water, it looked black and slick, he said. I saw driftwood, big pieces of it, that I hadn’t seen before. Floating there, in the middle of the bay. “I think that must have been what I saw, just driftwood. And she saw it, too. But just didn’t want to say.”