In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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to whom I bring the last bits of our marriage,
written on legal sheets with Alan’s lawyer’s name at the bottom,
has hair dyed the color of an Easter chick
and sharp black mascara,
but her eyes are green and tired and not unkind.
She can’t resist
looking over her bifocals at me and asking, “Is it amicable?”
I don’t know what to tell her.
“No, I would rather have died than come to this place”?
I’ve just handed her the letter,
from the man who called himself my husband,
listing the division of our property.
“Sort of,” I say, not
that it’s any of her business, unless as women
we’re obligated to share
any stories that might prove helpful for survival.
“I don’t want a divorce,” I confess.
She cuts her eyes at me. “Why, then?”
“It’s a long story.”
She leafs through the document, the size of a skimpy novella,
reads me the paragraph I have to agree to, asks me to raise my right hand.
I can’t. I don’t agree. I don’t think people should get divorced,
even if they’re miserable. I think if Alan and I were chained together
in a small room and made to work it out, we could.
I think we could work it out.
God knows, my husband was a river to me —
that’s how I think of him still.
And it’s my right to think however I want.
Because no one who wasn’t there can know:
not his lawyer; not this notary; not the judge,
nor our families, nor our friends.
Not even we who were there
can fathom completely
what we lost when we lost each other.
I can’t raise my right hand,
can’t answer her.
She lowers her glasses, looks at me
like a mother giving her reluctant child medicine, and says,
“It’s over, you know.”
“I know, I know,” I say.
Then she tells me the story of her sister’s husband,
who had an affair, yet wanted to stay married —
“Can you believe it?” —
and, as if this were the coup de grâce, about the child he fathered
with a Japanese woman:
“I told him God was punishing him,
giving him a half-Japanese son to go with his two Scandinavian daughters.”
“I think God blessed him with a child,” I say. We exchange a look
in which bitterness, understanding, and anger are mixed.
Through these parries and feints we move
beyond grief’s deepest sinkholes and into life,
with its unwinnable arguments.
And I realize she has been trying to help
me, however clumsily, past the gates of hell.
Then she tells me about her husband,
disabled fourteen years, whom she supports
and visits weekly in a veteran’s hospital.
“It’s not what I expected from life. When he dies,
I won’t marry again. No,
I’ve had it. I’ll take my freedom.”
“Do you love him?” I ask.
“Sure, I love him,” she says,
in a tone that asks what the hell that has to do with it.
I can see that her pain, too, goes down to the core of the earth.
Then it’s time for me to fold up my papers and go.
She gets up formally, as if we have just been through a ritual together,
which we have, and says, “I wish you the very best.”
“Yes, and to you also.”
And we almost bow to each other,
the way Japanese people,
schooled in the importance of ceremony,
know to do.