My wife divorced me by text message.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. What she texted was a message that she’d signed and sent in the MSA, the marriage settlement agreement, the legal document prepared by our mutually-agreed-upon mediator that, once signed, notarized and approved by a judge after the state-mandated six-month waiting period, would officially end our marriage.
Text: “I just sent in the msa”
Six words to signal the end of a marriage, the end of a near-decade-long relationship.
And of course, that’s not entirely true either. There were far more than six words; there were in fact thousands of words over dozens of pages, parsing, dividing, untangling the each of us from the life that we had built together.
It takes only four spoken words and a one-page legal document to get married; one wonders what happens in the meantime that requires so many more to undo it.
A marriage certificate. “I do.” “I do.” It seems simple at the time, but of course it isn’t. And what happens in the meantime surely contributes to that inflated word count at the end. Years of talking to, at, past each other. The good, the bad, the miscommunicated. The beginning of the end: circumlocution, the talking around the problem, the denial that anything is wrong. The acknowledgement that things are very, very wrong. A flurry of words, pleas, begging. And finally: silence, and a legal process that stands in for resolution.
And now, words on a page, trying to sort it out. There is a question that won’t be answered, not fully. A riddle, some sort of neurotic version of a Zen Koan. When a relationship ends, this is the question: What went wrong? And if the person who asks the question doesn’t get a response, what then? What does it mean to answer one’s own question in this context?
I spent part of today pruning back my bay tree. The weather this week was hot and I forgot to water it; by the time I glanced out the window today many of the once-green leaves had been scorched brown. So I cut off what was dead, pruned back what needed shaping, tried to impose some sort of order on that which had been neglected. I saved what could be saved, pulling healthy leaves from dead branches, washed off cobwebs and pine needles that had carried over from our last house.
When I leave this back yard behind, after the divorce is finalized and the house sold, I will take with me the bay tree and my Yuzu tree. I will leave behind three citrus trees, two blueberry bushes, and an entire herb garden. I have moved these plants from three successive houses now, literally wanting to put down roots, never feeling confident the I could until now. This was supposed to be The House, the one where we settled down, trading upwardly mobile aspirations for a bourgeois sense of having arrived. Three bedrooms, three and one-half baths, a partial ocean view and a sense, finally, of putting down roots.
I will leave behind the plants that I leave behind because it is no longer realistic for me to keep a traveling garden. Now that my future will likely involve more movement, it seems important to accept that I will be rootless for a while and to leave my plants in the ground. It feels good to leave something behind, to narrow down my horticultural companions to the bare essentials. When I move into my next home, I will plant a new herb garden, regardless of how long I plan on staying there.
If forced to pick one mistake from the myriad I made over the course of my marriage, it would be this: At some point I began to believe that my marriage was permanent. Despite all the prevailing evidence–parents divorced, friends divorced, and everything one learns growing up in a post-pill, semi-liberated, no-fault divorce world–I somehow lapsed into the belief that my marriage would escape all this, that we would endure, that we would in fact grow old together. I began to believe that our marriage would be the one constant in my life, that we would stay the same. There is no underestimating, in my case at least, the power of self-deception, the seduction of narratives of nostalgia, of fairy tales. Nothing is more dangerous than the way in which those who imagine themselves to be disillusioned view conventional aspirations. We don’t believe in the traditional formulations of these institutions, so when we engage in them we imagine the traditional rules won’t apply to us. We believe that we are too smart, too jaded, too hard and cynical to fall into the same traps our parents did–even as we find ourselves slipping into the very traditional roles we claim to disdain. Ironical exceptionalism: the belief that, despite everything one claims to know, one will be the exception to the rule. But rules are rules for a reason, and variances most often return to the mean.
“Marriage is work,” a newlywed friend’s grandmother tells her. Not “marriage takes work,” she is quick to point out, but “marriage is work,” and if my friend thinks any different she can expect a rhetorical (and probably literal) slap upside the head from her grandmother. But what does work really mean, especially for a generation as fundamentally skeptical of the American dream as ours? A generation that doesn’t necessarily believe that work is work?
Here is what I know: marriage is difficult. Maybe it is work. If it is, that provides a useful capitalist metric to determine success and failure. By these standards, I didn’t work hard enough. Or my ex didn’t. Or both of us didn’t. But then maybe I don’t understand capitalism. Would working harder really have saved our marriage? Is there a profit/loss sheet out there that we didn’t know about, one that could have calculated how much time, how much effort we should have put into the relationship? When it was time to quit? The language of work escapes me when it comes to love; I want to believe that marriage is work because I know how to be a hard worker–industrious, responsible, dependable–but in the end I don’t find the metaphor convincing. The heart wants what the heart wants, goes the cliché, and part of me is deeply happy because loving my ex never felt like work. Difficult, yes, but never work.
The church down the road advertises a seminar on how to “Fireproof your marriage.” I laugh every time I go by because I have no idea what the sign means. I think about all the associations of heat and love and relationships: on fire, passion, hot, etc. Is the danger that hot, passionate love and all its non-Puritan excesses will literally burn up a marriage? Or is the fire from the outside world–does one need to guard against the burning temptations and sizzling soap opera-like seductions? I laugh and can’t make sense of the ad one way or the other. The fact that I live in a county that routinely faces apocalyptic wildfires makes the metaphor only more puzzling.
Three things no one tells you about getting divorced:
That you will lose a language, an entire lexicon, at the end of the marriage. That there are words that you will never use in the same way, with the same meaning, ever again. Words you won’t dare to utter to another human being ever again, not in the way you once meant them, not with the same intent.
That music will become more important. In the emptiness Money is a means of final payment, whereas student credit cards is a promise to pay money in the future, or means of delaying final payment. of the house casino I once occupied with my wife, the silence at times was unbearable. Pop music filled the void, and I had the experience of discovering that all the clichés and melodrama of pop music once again spoke to me. I thought I was too old for this, that I had passed the age where I could feel as though a song had been written specifically about my experience. But I was wrong, and without shame I found myself clinging to music for sustenance, salvation.
That divorce will disrupt and distort your sense of time. Divorce will cause time to compress and expand: The end of May feels like a decade ago; a decade ago feels like yesterday. The events of my divorce are all very recent, but feel like a lifetime ago. And all the while, I’m still pulling things out of the freezer, eating things she made and left behind. I do laundry and find her hair tangled up in my socks. Time has lost its consistency.
I have been trying to figure out what it means to be single again, after nearly a decade of being half of a couple. I go out to bars, restaurants, parties, but something for me has changed. Not in an exclusionary way, but in a manner that indicates a gulf, a chasm, one that can be bridged perhaps, but which nonetheless exists. I’ve picked out curtains with another person, not for a semester, not for a year, but with the intention of permanence. Window coverings signify some kind of commitment beyond just blocking out the sun. Imagining a life, a future together. To have done that once means something, is different, somehow, from not having done that.
What does it mean to build a world around someone? Or not a world, but an ecosystem, perhaps? But the metaphor isn’t quite right. More like a solar system. Planets moving around each other, coexisting within each other’s gravitational pulls. Orbits and timing and a place in the sun. And then, what does it mean to fall out of orbit?
I commented to my neighbor the other day that it felt like fall, and when I checked the calendar it was. The air has changed, and the plants, animals, even humans know it. The seasons are changing, and in my most narcissistic moments I imagine that this has something to do with me.
And of course this is not true. The changing of the seasons has nothing to do with me, though I have much to do with them. These days, I find metaphors everywhere. And so October is the month when the daylight grows shorter, the moon’s orbit crosses the Seven Sisters, and the dry Santa Ana winds bring the threat of wildfires. Autumn on the East Coast is the season of decline, when the days fade into winter. Out here in California it is the season of rebirth. Wildfires, rain, the greening of the arroyos. Summer is when the landscape dries up and dies. Autumn is when it reawakens. I’m standing here at the end of something I’ve known and the beginning of something I don’t, and the timing of it all seems laden with meaning.
In trying to find a way to end this essay, I come across the vows I wrote for our wedding. There is particular section that sticks out for me now:
When Galileo first published that the Earth revolves around the Sun, he was brought before the Church and made to recant. This did not sway the planets, however, and the Earth continued to orbit around the Sun. It is said that, at the end of his recantation, Galileo whispered under his breath, “e pur si muove:” And yet it moves.
When your faith in your love for each other is put to the test, remember that even the movement of the earth and stars was once in doubt.
When your faith in your love for each other comes easily, when it seems as ordinary as the air, remember that it is powerful beyond measure. It has already re-shaped your universe. By its gravity you have been brought here today.
Whether easy or difficult, your love will remain constant. This is what it means when you vow “for better for worse.” In good times and bad, your love, your faith in each other remains constant. And yet it moves.
It is that last line that puzzles me. What did I mean back then? What does it mean now? As best as I can remember, back then it was a way to reconcile the dynamism of a relationship with the permanence of the institution of marriage. And now? Now it reads as an allegory of gravity. That even the planets are slowly, incrementally falling out of orbit. That nothing lasts, that permanence is an illusion that distorts perspective, misses the point.
What is the point? That nothing lasts, but some things survive. And they survive by not staying the same. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Nothing stays the same, nothing lasts. And that’s OK.