Riffs on the end of a marriage, the importance of vows, and a child caught in the crossfire of divorce.
“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.” –Tom Waits
I am recently divorced, as in just over two weeks ago. Writing coherently about my marriage is impossible. The events are still too fresh.
For some reason I keep thinking of Wordsworth and his poem “Lines” (composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey). This poem was presented to me as an undergraduate as a kind of blueprint for how people write in general: you have an experience and then go home (or to some secluded place) to write about the experience. It is impossible to write about the experience while you’re having it.
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy
We see into the life of things.
So the reason for this pretentious-seeming quote from Wordsworth, I think, is that my eye is not yet quiet. There is no harmony. I cannot see into the life (or rather into the death/afterlife) of my marriage. I’m still on the mountain a few miles above Tintern Abbey, a sublime landscape where beauty meets terror, and I harbor a secret wish to be blown off the cliff and into the chasm below. It isn’t a suicidal, destructive feeling but rather a sense that something else could happen, something just outside my ability to control, and I’m hanging on to the rocks, the wind prying at my fingers, praying.
I’ve read too much poetry for my own good.
I told my ex-wife that I was writing an essay about marriage. The first words out of her mouth were: “Don’t say anything about me or your son that will embarrass us. And I want to see it before you submit it.” I said something very much like, “Fair enough,” and immediately began searching for loopholes.
We already know what every woman wants. We learned it in English class through the knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale; this character is essentially Chaucer’s mouthpiece. A woman wants “Sovereignty” and my ex-wife’s comment bares this out. Too right you are, Geoffrey, too right you are. I would even go so far as to say that if your wife isn’t the sovereign of your marriage and you the serf, or at the very least if you are not co-sovereigns (which is really her sovereignty in hiding; sovereignty-by-proxy) then you, good sir, are an asshole.
There is only one thing that I know for sure about marriage: the vow is everything. These days you can’t say that in public without getting kicked in the junk. The question comes: What about my happiness? The question is cause for lynching in various parts of the country. Fuck your happiness. Worry about your kid’s happiness, your spouse’s happiness.
I used to teach essay writing back when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were getting divorced. Somehow class discussion veered toward them, and one (female!) student remarked, “Oh yeah, Angelina Jolie is hot! Brad Pitt had to go for her.” That student, on that day, sucked more than anyone on earth should have the right or capacity to suck. What we’ve lost in this country is the ability to say: “Stay married, you douche bags!”
“But what if one spouse is being beaten?” Well of course then you can…
“But what if my rights as a woman are being violated?” Oh…well, I’m sorry…in that case…
“But what if I want a dog, and I’ve always had a dog in my life?” Well maybe a compro…
“But what if I…” all right, all right, ALL RIGHT!
Making the vow can be like going shopping when you’re hungry. That cart gets loaded up pretty quick, not the best or healthiest foods. You just keep throwing stuff in there because you’re starving to death and can’t wait to get home and eat (oh no! I’m making an allegory!). And then you buy it all (which is the vow—you’ve committed). But then your belly gets stuffed (I can’t eat another thing) and now your wife wants you to go shopping for clothes with her when you’d rather stay home and masturbate to porn while she’s gone.
How does this happen to a person?
I want to say that it was all my wife’s fault. It wasn’t, of course, but let’s just pretend for a moment that it was. That will not serve truth, but it will make me feel happy, so humor me. I don’t have the energy to record a chronicle here with dates of events and commentary like “This is where it all went to hell”. It would be pointless and boring.
My wife and I were separated on two different occasions. On the first one, I moved out of the house and got an apartment with a friend of mine after his apartment had serendipitously burned down a couple of months before. That was really a lucky break for me because I didn’t want to go it alone—his newfound homelessness served my needs. During that first separation, I was ready for the divorce. But here’s the part where my ex-wife sucks (of course not, but just humor me). She asked me to come with her to her counseling sessions so that we could have “closure.” I was annoyed but went along with it.
After a few sessions, suddenly she wanted to get back together. Closure-cum-opensure.
What? All that time I had been sufficiently pissed off at her to have jettisoned myself away from the marriage with barely any scar tissue. But now she wanted me back. My depression worsened for a while (a vampire lifestyle: sleeping by day with cardboard in the windows) and my friend asked, “Why is it that when people go to therapy they actually get worse?”
I said something like, “Well, feelings come out, cans of worms, closets, skeletons, erectile dysfunction, etc. et. al.” But then all I could think of was my son. I’d get to be his father again on a daily basis.
I moved back in.
This only bought us another two years, after which time our house was nearing foreclosure (yet another closure) and she left with our son to live at her mother’s, leaving me to live alone in the house until foreclosure turned into a very stark closure indeed. Two years earlier I’d been ready to go, man! Jesus-just-left-Chicago style! And she tricked me into wanting the marriage back—she tricked me, do you hear? I’m tempted to keep saying things like this that will make you, the reader, love me and hate her. As I place my tongue very firmly in my cheek, can’t you please do this for me?
Obviously, I am no longer able to write from the perspective of the person whose marriage has succeeded. I wish that I could be that sagacious writer preparing lists of the top 10 reasons why my balls are harrier than yours. We all know that those lists are horseshit. But those lists are numbered which implies order, and the promise of order is the siren song when confronted by uncertainty and chaos.
The good news is, for me at least, that my uncertainty is now over. I no longer have to worry if I’m going to get a divorce or what will happen to my son. It’s a lot like being Christopher Marlowe the day after he died, his eyes stabbed in a tavern brawl, and I’m looking down at earth from heaven saying, “Damn, I’m glad that’s over! Hey, thanks, God for these new ‘spiritual’ eyes; I can see perfectly now!” I both envy and pity all of you still plodding on in your marriages, looking at the person on the other side of the kitchen table at breakfast not knowing that next year or ten years down the line your spouse may have an epiphany that doesn’t involve you. (What I’ve written here is the seed of distrust. Don’t plant it or anything). I never would have dreamed that I would get divorced. My wife and I were once happy. But the “vow” is what sets marriage apart from dating, this concept that we’re going to be sitting on each other’s faces for life and nothing is going to stop that, not even our own volition.
Divorce is such a normal thing that when I posted “I’m divorced” on Facebook, a friend of mine actually congratulated me. As if every divorced person on the planet is secretly happy (or is required to feel happy) that their marriage is ending. “Fuck her!” cries the jubilant divorced man who throws a party with strippers. “Fuck him!” cries the equally jubilant divorced woman who promptly goes out with friends to a club where she makes out with a twenty-year old kid, tequila on his breath. There is this unspoken (more and more often spoken) expectation that one must turn the divorce into a celebration, the bawdier the better!
But then I think of my 6-year-old son. I think of the day my ex and I went to his school to discuss with a panel of specialists that he has learning autism and can’t focus on anything. I think of how the meeting was at the end of the school day and afterwards we got to take him out of the school together. He bounced in between us holding both of our hands and the joy on his face said it all. It accused us both of failing our marriage and failing him. But he was happy for that brief walk down the hall, dangling in between his shitty parents who couldn’t keep a promise.
Photo by stephanski