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It's Not What She Meant
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Eve just told me on the phone that she’d talked with a lawyer. It’ll be $475 for a no-contest, no-fault divorce, and she wants us to split the fee. "Does that strike you as reasonable?" she asked.

"Whatever," I said.

She sounded uncomfortable. But then I thought she'll quickly get over it because she's getting exactly what she wants, with no hassle from me.

Despite the content of the conversation I found her voice pleasing. I imagined her sitting on the couch, the phone in the crook of her neck, Buster on her lap. I actually was savoring the brief discussion even though she was telling me things I didn't want to hear.

Savoring is the wrong word. To be more precise, I was just glad to once again hear her speak. My wife. My soul mate. My best friend in all the world. It's just you and me, sweetheart, and to hell with all the people who have hurt us. We will have each other, always, and that's all we’ll ever need. You can count on me. I'll always be there for you, no matter what.

I close my eyes. She intends to make this legal and permanent, and she wants to do it sooner rather than later. Her determination, her desire to do it now, right away, takes me by surprise. What's the big rush?


My task is to say nothing and absorb it all. I have no choice. There's nothing I can do. I don't like it. Yes, I know—it’s nothing personal. I'm not being singled out, this sort of thing just happens to people.

I remember: Eve held Buster up and made him dance. She moved his paws up and down, and then she laughed and smoothed back his ears, and stroked his fur and scratched behind his ears.

"Buster-bunny!" she said to him. "Isn't this the greatest cat you've ever known?"

And she turned to me, expectantly.

"Yes," I said. "The greatest."

Eve knew how much I loved Don Quixote, a blue-eyed seal point I had a long time ago. HE, of course, was the greatest cat I'd ever known. But Eve expected—demanded—that I put Quixote aside and acknowledge Buster as the greatest. And so I did.

In the kitchen. She says to me: “Wanna dance?”

“Hell, yes,” I say.

"Do you come here often?" she says.

"As often as I can."

I slide my knee between her legs and lift her right off the floor, turn half a circle, then gently set her back down again, and we continue our dance to a tune we hear in our heads. Will I be able to do that with the next woman in my life? Will she be light enough? As willing?

Somehow I don't think so

When did Eve know?

Probably last Thanksgiving.

She knew it was over, but despite the downward slide I thought there was still a chance we could work it out. It was my last solo at the piano with Ma, and the rest of them singing the chorus.

"When I was a lad, I served a term as office boy to an attorney's firm,” I sang. “I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor, and I polished up the handle of the big front door."

Eve was quiet, remote. I sat alone, near the piano. She wouldn't join the singing as long as I was there. She and I would never sing together. She knew it. I didn't. Ma later said I was "morose." Eve told her I was morose all the time. Not true. I was in a bad mood that Thanksgiving for a compelling reason—my wife was in the process of detachment, getting further and further away from me.

* * *

At the Naval Academy I took photographs of a Marine gunny giving drill instruction to a bunch of midshipmen. Poor babies, their hearts weren't in it. A perfunctory performance. Also shot some of them preparing to cast off in a small sail boat. I took about a dozen rolls of Ektapress.

The Academy was formidable, massive. Grey granite buildings that seem much, much larger than they need to be. Big boxes clustered together, with no way to walk between them, you have to walk a long way around. On their facades are hundreds, thousands of windows. I passed a young man in mufti, and he said good morning and I nodded and returned the greeting.

I left the Academy grounds and walked the streets of Annapolis, below the tall bell tower of the State House. A charming little village, except it was still early and most of the shops hadn't opened yet. I stopped at a coffee house, got a cup of Columbian, a piece of carrot cake, and a copy of that morning's Washington Post. Sat at a table outside in the sunshine, eating and reading. The cake was surprisingly fresh, moist. At Borders, and also at Barnes & Noble, where Eve and I would go all the time, the cake was stale. Always.

After a while I put the paper down and closed my eyes, felt the warm sun on my face. I concentrated on sending Eve a mental telepathic message. Call me. Tell me you want to try again.

You know I still love you.

I'll love you forever.

I bore down on it. Repeated it over and over.

When she gets this powerful message she'll realize she made a huge mistake. She should never have asked me to leave. I hope by now her new lover has gotten to be a pain in the ass. The novelty has worn off and she realizes sadly he is just like all the rest of them. Jealous. Controlling. Too demanding. Complaining all the time about how distant she is. Not respecting her need for solitude.

Peter Matthiessen says, regarding Zen, that sorrow is the essential fact of life. And an even more essential fact is that everything passes, even unhappiness. So I must remain in the moment and be attentive to everything, even this.

* * *

After the Annapolis shoot I polished all the lenses, wiped down the camera bodies, put the bag in the storage closet. Then I called for a pizza delivery. Double cheese with sausage, green peppers and anchovies. I continued reading "The Snow Leopard" as I ate, to keep my mind occupied. I didn’t feel like watching Channel 6 Action News, which is what Eve and I would do when our weekly pizza arrived.

The taste of the pizza brought me right back to our living room in the Bryn Mawr house. We’d sit together on that couch I got at the flea market, and eat from the coffee table Eve made out of a remnant of a bureau.

When we finished our pizza she'd linger for about a minute or two, anxiously searching her mind for the right words to announce her intention, then she’d bolt upstairs to our bedroom, to resume her reading from the stack of paperbacks we'd get at Borders on our bi-weekly jaunts.

So here I am now, belly full of pizza and Diet Coke, just like at the Bryn Mawr house. And what's the difference between being here in this apartment alone, or being in Bryn Mawr alone? At least here I don't get a sense of somebody not meeting my desperate needs.

Or betraying me.

I like to believe she thinks of me at least as much as I think of her.

But most likely not.

Her new lover is a standup comic who works clubs in Center City Philadelphia. He’s perfect for the rebound thing. The expectations of a new partner are enormously distracting and all consuming. But then, bummer: The comedian is sure to turn out to be exactly like all the others. He will want it all, her full attention and absolute loyalty, not the weak tea that she’d felt for me.

I think about the photograph one of the guests took of Eve and me at our wedding up at the lake. We stood at the end of the dock, in the sunlight, heads bowed toward each other. I see that image as the moment I believed I’d finally found the capacity to truly love a woman.

Silly me.

But then if she were to call me, say later this evening, and timidly and tentatively say: "Are you really serious about wanting to try again?" I'll not hesitate. I'll tell her, "Absolutely, sweetheart. I love you."

An exchange of just two simple sentences would be sufficient to restore the relationship. How sweet it will be to be in her arms once again! Because if she takes me back it means she finally realizes that what we had was truly valuable. She and I will work hard to resolve our problems. And that will be enough for me.

You’ll see.

I can imagine us sitting at the Marlane Diner. Comparing notes. "Well?” she’ll ask. “Did you have a lover?" And I'll say "Sure, dozens! Couldn't keep the babes off me!”

She’ll laugh. And then I’ll say, “No, I’m kidding. The last sex I've had was on December 9. You crawled into bed. Damp, warm, fragrant and naked after your shower. Do you remember?"

* * *

Fitful sleep. I awake with the sheet tangled in my legs. A vivid dream. I'm still with Eve, during that awful period between her announcement it was over and my final departure. We're sitting close together and she's singing some song and is having difficulty remembering the lyrics. It sounds like, "Baby, baby I love you...ain't no doubt about it..."

When Eve finishes singing she and I embrace. And I think, great! She's changed her mind. And yet I'm very cautious, I don't start assuming things are all right again. I don't want to open myself up for another great disappointment. It's really lovely being physically close to her again. I love her body, those dynamite legs. The closeness has given me an erection, which brushes her leg, and I wonder how she'll react.

She jumps up.

"Oh, no, that's not what I meant a-tall," she says, quoting Prufrock.

* * *

Eve finally breaks through the lath and plaster of the wall between the dining room and kitchen. Dusty debris is all over the place, a real mess. But nevertheless the effect is surprising. The room now is much more open, less claustrophobic.

My soon-to-be-ex-wife. In her dust-covered overalls, clear plastic goggles, a big screwdriver in one hand and a crowbar in the other. Hair pulled back in a pony tail, wisps flying about here and there. Darting, restless dark brown eyes. Paint-spattered sneakers.

This morning I thought of Lake Eliot, in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania, her parents’ summer cottage, where we were married. There's a phone, but no shower. One bathes in the lake, early in the morning, when the mist is rising over the still water and the deer move silently on the opposite shore. I’m going to miss it.

I don’t like this. But then what is divorce in the ultimate scheme of things? Just a little glitch on the graph, a trifle. I suppose I'm doing all right. I'm not bawling or sniveling. Like that guy next door. George. A pudgy human resources manager at First Union Bank. Eve and I heard him shouting one afternoon. We pressed our ears against the wall.

"You have no idea how much you're hurting me," George wailed. "After all these years and all we've been through together, you just walk out. How can you do this to me? What have I ever done to deserve it?"

"For Christ’s sake, grow up," his soon-to-be-ex-wife replied.

* * *

Ten days after telling me I had to leave she was much less afraid of hurting my feelings. In her mind we were truly finished. But nevertheless we agreed to make these last days as comfortable as possible. We also agreed to share the chore of fixing dinner. One night I’d do it, and she’d clean up, and vice versa. We ate, as usual, off the coffee table in the living room and watched the six o'clock news. We sat there and pretended nothing had happened.

She pulled the blanket over her lap, and said, "Why don't you turn up the heat?" So I did. Dave Roberts, the Channel 6 weatherman, came on.

"A low pressure area is moving in from the west, heh-heh-heh, which ought to be out of the picture by the end of the week, heh-heh, and we'll have the five day forecast for you. When. We. Come. Back.”

We finished eating. Always an awkward moment. She didn’t want to stay there beside me any longer than she had to.

"I think I'll take a hot bath," I said.

While I was soaking in the tub, I heard her climb the steps and go into our bedroom. She closed the door. She always closed the door when she went in there. I continued reading Alice Koller. The expert on solitude. One must not be afraid to be alone, Koller says. People flee from solitude, but it's just the starting point of an exhilarating process of creating a life you wish to live.

* * *

The phone rang.

I listened to the answering machine. It was her sister, Margaret. "Hi, Evie! Hi Jimmy! If you're there, pick up. Well, okay. We're all here and we want to wish you guys a merry Christmas. Bye!"

As my sister-in-law spoke I heard music and laughter. Another family reunion. Singing at the piano, opening of presents under the tree, a big turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Eve hadn't yet told them the news.

Was that something she expected me to do?

The next day, December 26, I took off my wedding ring and put it in the bureau drawer. And then we had another discussion.

"You told me you don't feel in love,” I said. “Why? What, exactly, keeps you out of love?”

My question annoyed her.

"It's not just one thing,” she said. “It's a hundred things."

"A hundred?"

"All right, fifty."

"Wait a minute," I said. "We exchanged vows. I’ve honored mine. That has to mean something."

She picked up Buster, and sat in her grandmother's rocking chair. She stroked Buster's fur. Scratched him behind his ears.

"Promises of eternal love and fidelity are totally unrealistic,” she said.

After that conversation Eve and I resumed our cordiality. Once in a while she asked me if I'd like a sandwich, or an apple. At Giant she bought two ice scrapers, one for her and one for me. One morning she poked her head in the door of my office and said, "How are you doing?"

"Pretty good," I replied. She nodded, then left.

Our routine: She, in our bedroom with the door closed, reading. Me, downstairs watching TV. At night I quietly ease into bed because she usually is asleep. No sex is offered, none is expected. I keep to my side.

One night she tossed about for a while and her knee came up and rested on my thigh. I didn't move. After a while she pulled her leg away. She was in the middle of a dream, mumbling something. She laughed. Then turned over, fell silent.

* * *

One moment I am confident, strong. The next I feel cold and clammy. I'm impatient to move out of here, and into my new apartment, but it won’t be available until the 15th of January. I dislike change, therefore I want to get it over with.

Eve is uncomfortable. She’d like me out of here, right now. But why should I worry about what she's feeling? All right. It turns out the marriage was a self-delusion. Mine. She never was invested in it.

I labored on the the script I wanted the minister to read during the service on the deck overlooking the lake. She skimmed my draft of the text. “Sure, fine,” she said. “It's okay.”

We shopped for our wedding rings in a shop on Jewelers Row. The clerk put a blue velvet tray full of gold bands on the glass counter. “Here, try this one on,” she said.

I did. It fit. She found one for herself.

“We'll take them,” she told the clerk. “Now let's go.”

“Wait,” I said. “I want a ring that is wider.”

She frowned. “That'll cost more.”

* * *

Eve always went for the laugh, especially if I was looking for something serious, or intimate. She’d wiggle her eyebrows like Groucho Marx. Or say, “What’s up, doc?” like Bugs Bunny. Lately she’s abandoned her comedy routines. Sometimes I think we aren't in real life, but in an old movie that's coming to an end. A melodrama no longer than 90 minutes. It's been fun—for her. Now it’s time to pick up the script for the next project.

It occurs to me that in three years we’ve never been to a movie together. She’d never go because she gets acutely anxious in crowds, confined spaces. Maybe my next partner will be more drawn to these pleasures.

At the moment she is banging and clattering in the kitchen, hurriedly chopping, mixing, opening cans. Every once in a while she takes a deep breath, and lets it out.

One day fades into the next.

I get back from a photo shoot and I grunt a greeting to Ms. Solitude, put my camera gear away, then go look into the fridge. I don't say anything to her because the last time I came home from an assignment I flopped down on the bed beside her and gave her a long monologue about what had happened. The more I talked the more I sensed I was annoying her. By now she’s just sick of the sound of my voice. In the evening I hear her open and close the front door. I look out the window. She’s getting into the new car she just bought herself, a shiny green Toyota. She used to always tell me when she was going someplace. Not anymore. I look at the calendar. Two days left.

* * *

I loaded the last of my stuff into the bay of the truck. She and I stood at the door.

"Time for me to go," I said.

"James, I'm sorry things didn't work out."

Tears came to her eyes. I didn't allow myself to embrace her. I just nodded.


"I'd shake your hand now," she said, "but I know you hate that."

Her tears gave me an odd satisfaction. I was glad that I did not cry myself. She touched my arm.

"Are you going to be all right?"

"Yes.”

"We can talk about the legalities when we feel like it."

“All right.”

We stood there for a few moments, then I opened the door. My truck was parked in the driveway, its engine running. All I had to do was walk over, climb in, and drive off.

She was supposed to say, “Wait, hon. Let’s talk some more.”

I really thought she would, but she didn’t.

* * *

This morning I was struck by a severe envy attack when I encountered in a magazine a color photograph of an ancient castle on the outskirts of Florence that had been converted to a restaurant. The text was by a woman who goes to Tuscany five, six times a year on business. She stays in a nearby hotel and she wanders the Northern Italian countryside. Then she takes a swim, and later dines at that elegant place. The photo was taken in late afternoon, and the hills and vineyards and olive groves are suffused with a poignant golden light.

I said to myself: Why don't you just go to Italy?

There’s absolutely nothing for you here anymore.




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Oh, how tangible this pain is for me right now.

I truly enjoy reading your writing.

Well, underneath it is what someone once said, "Happiness, too, is inevitable." Thanks.

These words were a balm to me on a very, very difficult day. I sincerely thank you. xo

this is so sad. i have been on both ends of this. i do hope that happiness, too, is inevitable.

Memoir writing brings enormous satisfaction, largely because you can paint yourself in the most flattering light. In this piece, for instance, I have religiously avoided mentioning the large number of negative aspects of my personality that led to her dumping me! Unfair? Well, if you-know-who doesn't like this wholly self-serving narrative, she's always free to write her own.

haha. the only problem with that is that most people who are written about never become scribes. the privilege is in the pen (well, the keyboard, but you get the idea). i am curious about what it would like if you wrote in the negative aspects? even though i love reading you as an innocent, a man who offers himself to love and pain. there is a certain fantasy of the self offered to the reader, as well.

It's largely a matter not of truth but aesthetics. The implied author of memoir or fiction, by long-standing convention, must above all be likable. Ditto for his/her protagonist(s).

What's interesting in this case is that the more my friends read about her, the less they liked her. Many said she did me a big favor by dumping me. They insisted that I should get OVER it, 'cause "she wasn't worth it."

Well, I never agreed with that assessment, and it's not for nothing that I like to call her my favorite ex-wife.

again i like the way you write it, but sometimes we love our characters distinctly unlikeable. there's a certain aesthetic in the macabre. doestoevsky's stuff, for example; jean genet; william s. burroughs; chuck palahniuk. i know a some female writers especially who specialize in characters that are both sympathetic and repulsive.

out of curiosity, the people who say she did you a favor - are they all your friends, do they know you personally? perhaps i'm biased and weird, but i thought your ex-wife is written in a sympathetic way much of the time. like the way you described the dance in the kitchen, and wondered whether your next partner would be as light, or as willing... these are beautiful, and dare i say, authentic moments (through their realism and attention to detail) that evoke a greater complexity than your typical protagonist-vs.-antagonist framework.

Not real in-person friends but fellow LJers who apparently got annoyed with my relentless blathering about this charming yet deeply troubled woman, whose graduate thesis by the way was on George Eliot. She had a resemblance to that novelist, as well as a resemblance to Georgia O'Keefe. Which of course fascinated me.

On an entirely different subject, New Orleans and BP and millions of gallons of toxic sludge....a true ongoing nightmare. Folks there must be utterly furious.

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