Through the twisted danger of memory fades a day from long, long ago. It was a lovely day, sunny, with only a slight chill in the air, unusual for February in New York City. Dan and I rode with four friends on the Avenue B bus downtown to the municipal building where a grey haired judge with kind eyes asked some questions and said some words. I wore a purple velvet suit that I had sewn myself and carried a few lavender roses. Dan looked dashing in a black vintage suit. After the ceremony, we walked with our friends across a park to the old City Hall where Lincoln had lain in state in the sad spring of 1865. One of our friends took a photograph of Dan and me in our wedding attire that day. We were standing in one of the grand rooms under an ancient oil painting; we were looking out at an uncertain future. Hope, history, loss, beauty, betrayal, and terrible mistakes turn the tides of memory and all that was or never was is gone forever.
Some memories, though, are seared into the flesh and may never take their leave. Such was the moment that night at the Dylan concert when I noticed that Dan was not wearing his wedding ring. I did not speak. I only reached out and touched the bare skin of his finger. All he said to me was “I don’t want to be married.”
So soon! So coldly soon. Dan had told me nothing of his feelings until two days prior, but now, already now, so soon after his first announcement at the dinner table, here was the realization as to where all this must inevitably lead. I managed to ask, “But we’d have to get divorced?” A dizzy swirl of fear fell on me as I looked to him for confirmation but hoped for denial.
He said, “Yes, we’d have to get divorced,” and he began to tell me about cheapie, easy, do-it-yourself divorces that his buddies at work knew all about.
I sat beside Dan in the stadium seats of the concert pavilion, the arm rest between us, and over this I stared. I stared at what he was saying and that he could say it.
Divorce. The word ran through my veins, through my nerves. Divorce. I had always had a horror of divorce. It was one of the reasons I waited so late in my life to marry. Divorces were so dreadful.
When I was very young, my first job was working at a bank in downtown Memphis. I worked with thirty or forty other women. We took breaks together, and over the course of the three years I was there, I heard enough divorce sagas to put the fear of marriage into anyone: he cheated on me, he stole my kids from the babysitter and went off to Arkansas with them, he put his hands on somebody at his job and he’s in jail now. So many horror stories! I came to view marriage as a high-risk experiment with the odds heavily in favor of disaster to be followed by the doom of divorce and the deadly warfare that seemed to rage all around it.
It took my own marriage years to get there, but finally I was there, right where I had always dreaded to be. I did not want to call its name, so I just called it The Dreadful.
During the back and forth emails when we were working with the settlement papers, Dan had said he wanted to be present at our court date, but when the dread day did arrive, he said he would be working. A girlfriend said she would go with me because she remembered her own divorce and how it had helped her to have a friend waiting when she walked out of the court room. But when the date arrived, she said she couldn’t go because she had to babysit her grandchild. I considered asking Max to go with me, but quickly put that aside. A child does not attend the divorce of his parents.
I would have to go alone. Like Woody singing the old gospel song, there was a lonesome valley up ahead for me, and I’d have to walk it by myself.
The Dreadful was scheduled for a day in early October, a month that is usually gloriously warm and beautiful in the South. It was the best month of the season that had been my father’s favorite and mine. He used to say he loved the fall of the year because the weather was mild with very little wind unlike spring when, though the weather is nice, it is often windy.
Now my favorite month of the year would be forever tainted. And, strangely, this October, coming as it did during the season of the Crack-up, did not follow the usual autumn weather pattern. The whole week and especially the day of The Dreadful were grey and rainy and dark. There was a hopeless bitter wind blowing and the sun was gone forever.
The time I had been given was 9 AM. I had worried that I might oversleep because I was taking several prescriptions at the time, but I did not sleep at all, so waking up was not a problem. Driving was. Driving with a blur before my eyes, my chest compressing my heart that was breaking, and beating, and breaking like a lost cause.
I was so alone walking the sidewalk, the cold stone that led the lonely to the columns and the walls and halls of the county court house. I had no idea what to do. Courtroom B, I think I had been told. I went in, hesitated, and then sat to the side in the back on a very cold bench. Nervously, I wondered, where is the lawyer? Does she find me, or am I supposed to find her? Up front the judge was questioning a man and then granting him a divorce. Next there was a woman. She had two friends with her.
Finally, my lawyer came and spoke to me. A few minutes later, I was the one standing up front being questioned by the judge and being granted a divorce. It was not until I was downstairs in the clerk’s office that I broke down. The room went dark; I gripped the counter to keep from falling. My lawyer tried to comfort me, but I just wanted her to hurry up the filing process so I could go, so I could get out on that lonesome road and run and keep on running.
Finally, it was over and I was home. I felt so destroyed, so driven down to nothing that the only thing to do was go to bed. When I woke up, I remembered that Maria and Mark and several other close friends had planned a little dinner for me at a restaurant in Decatur. I began to get ready. The rain and dreary weather continued making for a dark afternoon.
Max came home from school and stepped back into my bedroom to check on me. I turned when he walked in; I was still weak and weepy. He looked at me without talking for a minute, and then said, “How are you?” I said, “I’m sad, so sad, but I’m going to be OK.” He reached out his arms, so very kind, I walked toward him, and we embraced. It was then that I noticed my son is now grown so tall that he can put his chin on the top of my head when we hug.
I told him that I loved him. He said, “I love you, Mom. I’m sorry this had to happen to you.” It was very sweet of Max, very generous, and very brave, because, of course, the loss, the sudden loss of love and of our old life had happened to him, too.
The dinner out on the rainy night with friends was darkly, somberly pleasant. Everyone wore their sweetest smile, their deepest hope that I would last through my sorrow. It was reassuring. It did help to spend the evening with people I had known and loved for so long. Although the lonesome road lay up ahead and was not to be avoided, although I was sinking lower as the unfamiliar aloneness of divorce crept nearer and nearer all around me, at least for this first post-Dreadful night, I would raise a glass to dear friends, and I would blink so no one could see the tears.