During 1973, the fifteenth and last year of my marriage to Bill Por-terfield, Bill, wanting out, wrote me a letter that began, “Jose, why fight it? After all, every-I thing in nature changes, nothing is permanent.”
I, wanting to stay in, answered with a reversal: “Bill, how can you say that? Nothing in nature changes, everything is permanent.”
As usual in our arguments, then and now, we were both right. Our divorce, when it came, was a no-fault divorce.
During lunch at The Grape last week, Bill and 1 laugn over the desperate sophistry in that exchange at the end of our marriage. “You could always make everything you wanted to do so-so literary,” I complain.
“And you were a damned clever Jesuit-still are,” he says.
We have another glass of wine and agree: If divorces are made in heaven, as Oscar Wilde wrote, some friendships are, too. What for both of us finally became an unendurable marriage has become, mysteriously and miraculously, a satisfying friendship.
Maybe it always was a friendship, I say, and our problems came when we imposed the conventions of marriage upon it. Maybe we didn’t fail. Maybe, as Margaret Mead suggests, marriage as an institution has failed us, has caused us to live in bad faith-publicly honoring a contract while privately disliking it or reneging on it. Maybe divorce is as creative and necessary for 20th-century Americans as marriage was sustaining and vital for early Christians. Maybe.
I’m being Jesuitical again.
“It’s your turn to pick up the tab,” Bill points out. “But you didn’t finish your sole.”
I’m working on it. Let’s call this an essay (like Montaigne’s “essai” or “trial”) in the completion of my soul. When I last wrote about the divorce, I still regretted the marriage; I still saw myself as a victim, a sacrificial lamb on the altar of masculine frailty. Four years later, that view seems shortsighted, even silly. I gained quite as much as I lost in the crucible of that marriage. I’m glad we married. I’m also glad we divorced. Plenty of good came from both, including two children and this friendship. The children are ours: Two people who have children are always married in a way. I’m leaving the children out of this story, however, to focus on the changes in the relationship between that original pair, Adam and Eve, stumbling around in the Garden. As real friends we have outlasted other mates, money muddles, and the malaise of monotony. After 25 years, together and apart, we feel like blood kin.
Raise your glasses, then. Here’s looking at the happily divorced couple.
Billy Mack Porterfield was the oldest child of an oil-field worker and a woman who never held a job outside her home in the 45 years of her marriage. Bill grew up with a full crop of curly hair of which he was inordinately vain, a talent and love for fine words, and a wispy notion that all women were like his mother and the little Mexican girls he’d dated in high school.
He was wrong.
Miss Mary Jo Reid was the oldest child of a dragline operator and a history teacher. She grew up with skinny legs, a passion for books, and a desire to marry a tall bookish Harvard man in horn-rimmed glasses and a gray sweater.
Bill wore black muscle shirts and black pants, and he lifted weights. He didn’t wear underwear. His last two years at Southwest Texas, he fed on Thomas Wolfe and drank Tchaikovsky, and brooded because it was pathetic that he couldn’t go home again. Not that he wanted to, really.
As a cub police reporter at the Houston Chronicle, he pulled down the curtains in his one-room apartment to use for blankets when his college friends came to visit, and offered them the Chronicle as toilet paper. He read all the time that he wasn’t drinking and dancing with pretty girls. His refrigerator contained a six-pack of Carta Blanca and something furry. When his car stopped one night, he pushed it to a Humble station, left it, and never went back. For 21 days one winter, a banana peel lay in the middle of his kitchen floor.
He was, of course, an atheist.
Jo wore saddle shoes, a red sweater, and her green gym shorts from Belhaven College, where she’d majored in English (what else?). At 17, she and a Mississippi girl friend had once gotten drunk on gin and lime sherbet. At Belhaven, a girls’ school, Jo went in for drama: playing Ariel, junior misses, and old ladies; she was too short to play men and not pretty enough for ingenues. She was asked to sing more quietly in the singing Christmas tree.
Teaching seventh-grade English in Houston for $3500 per annum, she took long walks at night (throwing a mouton jacket over her gym shorts during cool weather), left a large number of ungraded student papers in the back seat of her 1951 Oldsmobile, and wrote sonnets about the city.
Though she insisted she was not an atheist, she was, of course, an agnostic. Nevertheless she tithed ($350 per annum) to the First Baptist Church of Houston. She was always a girl to hedge her bets.
She loved newspapermen, she said. Loving newspapermen is not hedging your bets.
Americans are dreamers. We marry out of hope, and we hope that our dreams will come true.
That is why we continue to marry even though the United States has the largest divorce rate in the world. We are a mobile and unauthoritarian people, increasingly rootless, shedding our past, evading our future. We live for today and shut out the reality of tomorrow in the same way that we shut out the reality of death.
People marry when there is a curious and too often temporary alignment of expectations and need between a man and a woman.
Sheresky and Marines, Uncoupling
Bill and I got acquainted over a couple of Mexican babies. Like many young people, we came together largely because of proximity.
My second year of teaching, 1957, I blithely decided to write a novel, and moved to my own apartment for “privacy,” as well as to separate myself from what I smugly considered the terminal messiness of my roommates. I chose to live in a second-floor triplex behind a Venetian blind factory on West Alabama, because it was, as I recall, $65 a month, bills paid, and because on the early fall day I looked at it, the tiny courtyard was inhabited by a tall bookish man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a gray sweater and reading Ulysses.
He was not Bill Porterfield.
Bill lived downstairs. I thumbtacked my magenta and green William Steig prints to the living room walls, arranged Pier One pillows on my sofa-cum-bed, and decorated the kitchen simply by naming the views from the two windows. One, which overlooked the tile roof of the Venetian blind factory, I dubbed “Paris Roofs”; the other, a close-up of the brick wall next door, was “Infinity” or “Eternity” – I can’t remember which. I was home. 1 was also apparently noisy.
Ulysses introduced himself to me one day to inform me that when I hit the floor every morning at six to get to Jane Long Junior High by seven-thirty, I sounded like “a herd of water buffalo.” His real name was Burt Schorr, he worked nights as a reporter for the old Houston Press, and he didn’t really appreciate my morning stampede to the river. We became good friends – he later married one of my supremely messy roommates -but we were doomed as lovers from the beginning. He wanted romance, of course, and he would look at me and shake his head in wonder: How can 105 pounds sound like that? He introduced me to Bill, a shadowy figure who rarely seemed to be home and never noticed my galumphing.
About nine o’clock one October evening, I was slumped in my ratty green Morris chair poetically comtemplating the human condition in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate…”
I looked up, exalted. Someone was rapping lightly at my door -Bill, hair curlier and T-shirt blacker than usual. Oh, I was flustered and flattered, but was soon set straight. Two of his old friends were visiting from South Texas, and they wanted to go out dancing. Would I sit with the babies while he cha-chaed with the mamas? 1 carried Camus downstairs and watched Bill whirl off with two pretty young senoras. The disorderly apartment smelled like pee and perfume. As I studied the sleeping brown babies, I couldn’t get back to my book, though I tried. “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again.”
There were some mountaintops in our 10-month courtship (I’m smiling as I use the lovely old-fashioned word; I’m not sure we ever knew who was courting whom). We both pored over Camus, both read Dylan Thomas aloud, both felt populist surges listening to Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmy Rodgers, the Mississippi brakeman:
Standin’ around the water tank
A-waitin’ for a train
A thousand miles away from home
A-standin’ in the rain.
Bill taught me about progressive jazz, and I taught him prosody (condescendingly assuring him he could never be a poet until he mastered the double dactyl).
In those first halcyon days of a new friendship, the two of us formed The West Alabama Amalgamated Poets and Artists League, taking as our credo a line from Siegfried Sassoon I’d learned at Belhaven: “You’ve got your limitations? Let them sing!” We planned to meet every week, each bringing a manuscript to read and discuss; but the first week Bill had to skip because he had a date, the second week I did. Nevertheless, we fed each other’s dreams of literary success.
I think I first realized he had different dreams about me when he invited me to his aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. I accepted a little shyly and reluctantly; it sounded like the kind of family get-together that a self-respecting Bohemian would avoid. “Just wear your green shorts,” Bill urged. “That’ll be fine, José. They’re easygoing people; this is no big deal.”
Something-my mother’s training? – told me better. I wore my sometime church dress (printed silk with a wool jersey jacket), hose, heels, and the whole respectable bit, and saw his aunt give me the once-over. I passed muster – hard to argue against a schoolteacher – and later, Bill told me a widowed uncle there had mournfully compared my skinny frame to his dead wife’s.
Our biggest arguments came – how funny it seems now! – over my dancing. Four years at Belhaven of dancing with other girls or with imported boys at our twice-yearly proms hadn’t prepared me to please Bill with my sensuous poise at Rosalie’s, the beer joint on South Main where we drank Champale and danced. I was about as conscious of my body as my Morris chair was, and a lot less comfortable with it. Bill, accustomed to the dark-eyed verve of a lithe Lola or a buoyant Bertha, was appalled by my Anglo-Saxon decorum.
“Where’s your lilt, José?” he would demand under his breath, immediately driving my poor beleaguered lilt into hiding, like a holed fox. The more he exhorted me to relax and flash, the stiffer and duller I became. Under the blue lights that turned white into ultraviolet, I turned coward; our evenings on the town often ended with me sunk in Champale and misery and him at once contrite and disgusted. We should have paid attention, but we didn’t.
But I should get married I should be good
How nice it’d be to come home to her
and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
God what a husband I’d make! Yes,
I should get married!
Gregory Corso, “Marriage”
As winter turned into the ephemeral Houston spring, we began to see that we were, to use our terminology, “serious.” I made no bones about it: I wanted marriage. Everything in my background and experience advised me to translate our relationship into marriage, the sooner the better. Bohemian be damned, marriage was what people did, certainly all the people I knew.
Bill was reluctant. Marriage hardly suited his image of free young manhood, and what about Lola and Bertha? To prove to himself I was worth the sacrifice, he, probably unconsciously, imposed a series of tests on me. He called me in the middle of the night to get out of the Pier One pillows and come pick him up at the Chronicle office or the bar across from it. When he worked the night police beat, I’d sit all night in the pressroom at the station with him, John Harris, and Jim Maloney, drinking salty dogs and playing gin rummy. Fidelity and strength -those were the tests.
Finally in June, when school was out and I went to work downtown for an independent oil producer, the acid test came. “Let’s not see each other for a while,” he suggested one afternoon. “We need to find out how we really feel about each other.”
He called me early the next morning. “Can you have breakfast at One’s a Meal?” he asked.
“I thought we weren’t seeing each other.”
“It’s okay when I ask you,” he explained, with the mad illogic of a cornered man.
But it was the wrestler who turned the trick. All that summer I swam at the apartment pool of my ex-roommates, getting thinner and browner daily. There I met a professional wrestler, a sweet, slow guy with the mentality of King Kong and the body of- metaphors fail me. He lay on his towel, tanning his perfect body and watching me with a sweet, slow smile on his sweet, slow face. He adored me. “You’re a real lady,” he told me -he almost but not quite said “duh”-“Much too good for someone like me.” I smiled mysteriously; secretly I agreed. He didn’t appeal to me at all.
One afternoon, Bill, all strutting machismo, came over to pick me up at the pool and got a good look at my sweet, slow swain. An intellectual he could have resisted; a wrestler, never. I had him in a full nelson. In a month we were married.
Why? As Will Rogers says about being born, “I was born because it was the custom in those days. People didn’t know any better.” Bill and I didn’t know any better. We liked, maybe even loved, each other: I, this cocky little man who could squeeze the juices out of life; he, a fragile poetic, but – above all-good woman who deserved to be cherished and protected.
We had our ulterior motives, of course. I wanted security, someone to matter to; I also suspect now I thought I could handle him. He wanted “a completely independent woman who needs me,” the mirage for men everywhere. We both probably wanted to be grown-up, solid citizens, married, and therefore real. It was the custom in those days.
“Whatever being in love means.”
Charles, Prince of Wales
Unlike Lady Diana, I was married in a rose-flowered cotton satin chemise -very high style for the summer of ’58. Bill was torn between pride at my fashion progres-siveness and dismay at the dress’s cut; he liked women in clothes that fit.
That first year we were married, my mother made some dresses for me, with Bill directing the tailoring. At his instruction, she got the skirts so snug that I literally couldn’t go to the bathroom when I was wearing them. In the highly scented lavender restroom at Rosalie’s, I virtually undressed to answer the call of nature. I’ve sometimes wondered what my Baptist mother thought when Bill had her sewing rose sequins or gold braid on the shoulders of my sundresses. She never said a word, perhaps because my parents loved Bill from the beginning. Besides, he was so happy, so much the young husband: I was female, I was pretty enough, I was his. My chemise days were over, at least for a while.
As for me, my immediate campaign after marriage was to get Bill out of black muscle shirts and into underwear. I was quite sure all Harvard men in hornrimmed glasses wore athletic-looking jockey shorts, and thinking of Bill so naked under his pants shocked my wifely sensibilities. The horn-rimmed glasses were out, obviously -he had 20/15 vision or something. But we would see the dentist twice a year, and those damned weights could go into a closet.
Bill, who had never had a cavity in his life, was puzzled by all this. But he wanted to please me, so he tried. For most of the 15 years we were married, he signed his paychecks over to me. Gone were the bachelor pleasures of cashing his check, walking around flush until the money ran out, then living on Grapenuts until payday – always filthy rich or cleanly poor. I reduced him to what I considered the golden mean.
Then he painted our door gold. I came home from school one afternoon to discover a brightly gilded surface, still wet, on our massive apartment door.
“My god, it’s pure South Texas,” I groaned to myself, but I didn’t say a word.
Bill smiled at me proudly as I slipped gingerly in. “Did you see it, José? Just thought I’d give the place some class.”
As we sat down that night to our wiener surprise, a long irate peal of the doorbell announced that Parker Edwards, the aging interior decorator we rented the place from, had noticed the new paint job. When we let him in, an apoplectic Parker was quivering with distaste.
“Off!” he squealed. “I want it off. When you finish that ungodly mess you’re eating, get it off!” The door slammed.
“Never mind, honey,” I said to my crestfallen husband. “We’ll go to Rosalie’s tonight, and I’ll wear my new pink Spring-olators.”
I submerged myself in marriage. We had not been married a week when I began darning Bill’s socks. I bought an ironing board and ironed his shirts. At my insistence he bought me a sewing machine for Christmas, a domestic tool that seemed to certify me as a real housewife-my mother had always sewed. Now, when his shirt collars were torn, I turned them, an act of frugality and patience even my mother had never done. I would beat my mother. I would be the best wife ever. We would have an ideal marriage.
Bill, of course, would have to acquire my father’s virtues, along with underwear and a gray sweater. My father, a quiet, gentle man, was as predictable as the sunset. He came straight home from work; supper was on the table, hot and waiting for him. It never got cold. Poor Bill. When he was having fun, he had no more sense of time than a cat. He could never be my father, but he tried.
We bought a house in the suburbs, acquired a station wagon and a VW sedan, a daughter, Erin, and a son, Winton. I quit teaching, of course, when Erin was born. We had good friends, other newspapermen and their wives, for whom 1 learned to cook charming Friday and Saturday night dinners. I sewed; it was fun to dress my little girl, my little doll.
Some of this domesticity pleased Bill, I think, else why would he have supported me all those years, allowing me the luxury of staying at home when we often badly needed my salary? He took his role as paterfamilias seriously. He built a patio outside our den, spading the groundwork so earnestly that our neighbor asked if he was digging a well. In spite of our religious rebellion, he learned a grace for big family meals. The Selkirk Grace, it placated my Protestant parents, yet nicely accommodated our atheism/agnosticism. As well as I remember, it went:
Some ha’ meat and canna eat
And some would eat that want it,
But we ha’ meat and we can eat,
And so the Lord be thankit.
When I visited my parents in Mississippi, he wrote me:
Wed, Apr.. 10,’62
After I wrote you yesterday morning, I toiled until almost dark in our little green yard. 1 never did get around to ordering bank sand, but I planted two new trees -white ash, which grow as fast as Erin; more fig ivy on the front bedroom outside wall, and some evergreen grass around the edges of the front yard trees. I mowed, spread some extra fill dirt around the clothesline. For dinner, Puck and I had barbecued beef. God, it was hot. 92. I got a little sunburn and burnt off some suet around my midriff. It was Kaopectate for breakfast this a.m.
Frank Agee and me and Jack across the street are going in together to buy a motor-powered lawn edger. It’ll cost about $15 apiece, and we’ll all have access to it. That hand thing i bot was a waste, and no matter how often you mow a lawn, it still looks lousy without edging.
I ran out of Gas on the way to work this morning.
Tonight, I’ll give the whole house a good scrubbing and wash the mountain of dirty towels. Tomorrow night, I’ll go the ballgame with Gene -he got free passes.
I plan on putting the car in the garage early Friday, so it’ll be ready by Sat. morn. Sat. afternoon, I’ll spread the bank sand, and then get a good nights sleep. Plan to drive to Austin Sunday, leave there Monday for Olive Branch, in hopes of missing Easter weekend traffic.
That’s about it right now. Got to write some 2nd final stories. I look forward to Tuesday and seeing my girls, whom 1 miss VERY much.
The only part of the old Bill here is the running out of gas -but he wouldn’t dare abandon this car at the nearest Humble station. It was my car, too.
Staying home, I began to use Bill as my index of reality. I had no opinions of the outside world that weren’t his first. If, as he says now, in those years I was often a mystery to him, I was a mystery to myself as well. To put it less flatteringly: I was not a mystery, I was a big blank. I failed us both by losing myself.
Oh, there were good times, often, oddly enough, in the midst of calamity. We were never so close as we were in the fall of 1962 driving to Arkansas to see Bill’s family at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis. Horribly, Thomas Wolfe seemed literally right now. Afraid that we could never go home again, we saw each action as a symbolic last. I knew Bill’s would be the face I saw as I died. At some point during that fearful week, we came up with 93 years as an image of permanence, and all our notes to each other afterward pledge fidelity and strength for 93 years.
They didn’t last that long.
The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
Denise Levertov, “The Ache
Most of the harm we did to each other in those years we did in completely unconscious response -abreaction, to use Freud’s word. When I commented enthusiastically on Johnny Cash’s raw masculine sexiness on late-night television, Bill (wondering, was I remembering the wrestler?) told me Cash was only 5’2″ and stood on boxes hidden from the camera to sing. I believed him, and he never told me better for years.
When Bill acted the least bit irresponsible, occasionally calling me from bar after bar as he pursued his snail’s path homeward, instead of laughing about it as I’d done during our courtship, I made him pay for it dearly. The more he loved the world, the less love I suspected there was for me. The looser he was, the tighter I became. As Saul Bellow’s Herzog says of his first wife, Daisy: “By my irregularity and turbulence of spirit I brought out the very worst in Daisy. I caused the seams of her stockings to be so straight, and the buttons to be buttoned so symmetrically.” I was another Daisy.
And I quit dreaming of sonnets and double dactyls. Perhaps I believed that to have my father as a husband, I had to be my mother. Who knows? It is a fact that for the first 10 years we were married, 1 never wrote anything but recipes and letters.
But let Bill tell it. In a Times Herald column on “the writing mamas of Dallas” in 1979, he wrote:
I’ll close with this proud confession. Jo Brans is the mother of my kids. She’s never owned up to this in her columns in D Magazine, though it’s obvious this subtle Southern lady bard loves to dwell on the past. She’s more circumspect than her readers think. When we first met, some 21 years ago, I was convinced she was going to be more of a writer than me. But in all the years we were married I don’t think she ever wrote a line. Now I realize she was just biding her time, and sparing me the embarrassment of being an also-ran.
Actually, the fears were all on my side. That changed.
Girls sometimes make passes
At men who wear glasses.
Ogden Nash, revised
When Bill, the children, and I moved to Austin in the summer of 1968, we had a dream: Bill would support us by freelancing, and I would at last get the graduate degree in English I’d planned for years. Beyond the degree I didn’t think. After 10 years out of a classroom, I had no idea whether I’d succeed or fail in graduate school.
We bought an old house near the university with a basement Bill converted into his office. Timidly, I enrolled in some classes, and with him to baby-sit as the need arose, we put our plan to work. It worked all right, but with completely unexpected results.
For the first time in almost a decade, our roles were reversed. 1 was out in the world, a dazzling university atmosphere where multitudes of male intellectuals strolled around wearing gray T-shirts with peace symbols or bent over Ulysses with horn-rimmed specs. Austin during the late Sixties was a hot place to be: demonstrators, hippies, dopers. You could buy anything but a sewing machine on the Drag, lovers copulated at dusk in crannies on the front campus, a gentle haze of grass smoke sometimes drifted through the library stacks in the Tower.
I loved it. I really didn’t pay too much attention to the hippie shenanigans. My courses excited me enough. I had William Arrowsmith for classical civ, Gould for Plato, Mills for symbolism -hard stuff, I thought. At first I sweated and trembled in class, and 1 never learned to speak up much. But the atmosphere of tolerance gradually affected me. I was made to realize that here I was not Jose, not Mommy, not a 35-year-old wife and mother, but just Jo, someone I’d misplaced a while back who was now accepted with the serene smile we students reserved for each other. Everything was okay except oppression and war. Carl Rogers was in vogue, and we practiced being “significant others” in the thin but rarefied mountain air of the post-couple era.
Meanwhile, Bill was in the basement. Toiling away grimly, he missed the pressures of the city room, the raw oysters or hot pastrami and beer for lunch, the five o’clock camaraderie at his favorite haunt across the street he’d so often called me from. Now I would come home, chattering away endlessly, endlessly, about the admirable Arrowsmith or the marvelous Mills, and find him sunk in gloom and wads of yellow copy paper. If he pulled me down, I drove him mad.
Once again, as with all our dreams, we tried to make this one come true. Most of the people we knew in Austin were figures from Bill’s turf, so I brought my new friends home. Ten years younger than us, they seemed raw youths to Bill. I, caught up in the Austin aura, knew age didn’t matter. Most of them were male, as, for that matter, most of Bill’s newspaper friends had been. Bill and the young wives made conversation or shot each other glances while the scholar/husbands and I talked about signs versus symbols or the Ideal versus the Real. There were plenty of signs, most of them more Real than I was aware.
Bill did take pride in my work, as I always had in his. He read my tentative papers, declared them all publishable, thought I was the smartest thing at Texas in years. But as I got closer and closer to becoming the girl he’d first met, he became more and more uneasy. We were both relieved when he decided in December to come to Dallas to work for KERA’s Newsroom show. I would stay in Austin to finish my degree. Neither of us thought of it as a “separation.”
But it did give us both what he’d requested all those years ago, “time to see how we really feel.” I soon discovered I needed freedom, movement, adventure; I’d had it with the pumpkin shell. No one could supplant Bill in my heart, and I never meant to break up my marriage, but “the soul wants what it wants,” as Bellow says, and I was in a tizzy with wanting.
Bill, seeing me wing it, felt differently. Early in January 1970, he wrote me from the Tolltec in Dallas:
Special paper for you. Bond. The one between us.
How can I tell you the fresh urgent way I feel about you and have you believe me? After 11 years of marriage, of intimacy and alienation and compromise. It isn’t just that I’m alone and blue in Dallas. I suppose it started with your liberation, via the U of T, and my seeing you not in four wall wifely terms but as a swinging young woman who can make it very well on her own, and on her own terms.
Your going free has been hard on me and my primordial instincts as a sentinel at the cave door. I knew that as long as I had you cloistered, you would grow faint on my musk and remain meekly mine. I didn’t think this out, and intellectually I would have denied it, but it is probably so, and reason enough for our both growing stale. We both breathed one another’s carbon monoxide too long. But now you are out of the cage, the cave, and can take true measure of your man. And that is how it should be.
I’m saying that, I hope I’m strong enough to say this, you are a free woman, responsible to me only as you see fit to be or want to be, that I expect no more than you want to give me. You too, woman, have rights in the matter. Having said that brave-new-world thing, …
He wasn’t at all sure he meant it. And when he came to Austin on weekends, unable to take his own tumultuous and conflicting feelings, often as not he escaped from the house to go off and drink with friends, tramp around the hills, get away. We were a mess.
If I’d been more proportionate, closer to that golden mean I’d once extolled, able to “worship freedom in moderation,” as some idiot counsels in a Euripides play, perhaps we’d have been okay. But freedom is free, it doesn’t follow rules; revolution is violent; and I simply couldn’t help myself.
Or if Bill had been more secure, able to give the little woman a silken cord instead of enough rope to hang herself, we’d have been okay. 1 certainly didn’t want a showdown.
If. The sad thing about human beings is that we can’t be smarter than we are. The showdown lurked on the next page.
Easter came early that year. One Sunday afternoon right after Easter, I sat out on a red-checked bedspread on the lawn, wearing a green bikini, my books and notes spread around me. I was getting a tan and studying for my qualifying exams. The children were playing on the swings, the cat ambled over to my side. Bill sat nearby reading the paper; all seemed – for the moment -well. Bill got up, stretched. “Think I’ll drive out to Bob’s for a while,” he said.
“Sure, you go ahead,” I answered, deep in a closed couplet. “See you later.”
It was later. Afternoon died slowly, lazily, deepening to evening. The children took naps, had supper, watched television. No Bill, not even a call.
I felt cold in my green bikini, took a warm shower, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, put my books away. Waited.
By now it was eight o’clock, and I knew he had to drive back to Dallas. One part of my mind said, “This is what he does when you only have weekends!” The other part answered coolly, “Who gives a damn?”
At last he came in carrying a beer, smiling, making us drinks, making up. “Hey José, you look brown.” The liberal, liberated me disappeared and I found myself screaming at him, crying out wildly, “You’re trying to do it, you’re trying to break up this marriage!”
He turned, foolishly holding out a gin and tonic, studied my face. Then he very deliberately hurled the drink in his hand across the kitchen floor. We faced each other over the shards of broken glass.
That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds.
John Updike, Too Far to Go
Let us look at these two young people, as they stand locked in mortal combat. He is going gray a bit, steely hairs visible in his mustache and the sparse curly locks on his head. His sharp brown eyes are squinted as if against the sun, and his face is very red. Her brown hair is straight and center-parted, her shirt reads, “Make Love, Not War,” and her face is filled with passion. How angry they are! How misunderstood they feel! How can two people so far apart ever get back together? Simple. They get a divorce.
It took us three years.
I brought the petition. Bill never would have. In the comic opera routines of those ensuing three years -painful and tragic at the time, of course, but funny now -Bill learned that a living wife was great protection against the predatory attentions of women smitten with TV stars. He loved the attentions, but was not eager to marry again.
When we finished all the hysterical melodrama of intercepted letters, strange keys “found” on the mantel, whining into a phone to our friends, the marriage counselor who cried over us, “But you have everything! If I ever saw a couple I hate to see get a divorce, it’s you,” we discovered we could talk again. We were legally, technically separated for 17 months, from May of 1972 to October of 1973. The divorce came through a few days before Bill’s 41st birthday. During those 17 months, we let go. We discovered we no longer wanted to or even could be married to each other, but we also learned to see each other again as individuals, not as partners in some script written in the heavens.
Freed from the necessity of having supper hot and waiting for him, I could once again delight in Bill’s ability to immerse himself in the moment. I didn’t care when he came home, since I didn’t live there, and I’ve often been guilty of detaining him.
After the divorce, his fecklessness with money was peripheral to my life. When he paid child support from a wad of $100 bills, I realized he had cashed his paycheck and was temporarily rich. But I didn’t have to worry about the end of the month. I was lucky that the children’s money came first in his mind; statistics indicate that, after two years, 80 per cent of husbands stop paying child support.
Having no legal claims on me, Bill genuinely rejoiced in my independence as much as he’d bravely promised to three years earlier. Out of sheer generosity, he put a down payment on a car for me just as the divorce became final, and on Valentine’s Day I got a card that read: “Dear Jose, love that’s shared grows deeper in tender quiet ways.” That’s good, I thought: I’m glad we’re back to tender quiet ways.
I don’t mean to gloss over the difficulties of divorce. We both suffered a great deal through the changes in our lives. We inflicted suffering on each other. Because it was Bill who finally pulled out, he carried a heavy load of guilt, evident in this note he wrote the children in 1976:
Dear Erin and Wink,
Babies I am very tired and sore right now and I may have to leave for awhile and rest. My mother is dying and I want to go and be with her. That way I can rest and redeem myself with her at the same time. I feel very strongly right now all the times I have failed her as a son. I feel my failures to you as a father. It hurts me to think about it. But I must say it so that you understand how deeply I love you. You know a man can be a fool and still love with all his heart.
And a woman too.
The children suffered too, and though I haven’t meant to make this their story, obviously their suffering and their health have been our greatest common concern. Whenever either one of them screws up now, I hear a little voice go off: “If you hadn’t divorced.” Maybe somewhere in the stratosphere the Ideal exists, but human children are born into an imperfect world, to imperfect parents, and they have to take their lumps. History has no record of Plato’s progeny.
Bill and I have tried to keep the sense of family for them and for ourselves. We live within blocks of each other, and we’ve put together some pretty odd Thanksgiving and Christmas tables over the past eight years, with children, stepchildren, stepgrandparents, husbands and ex-husbands, wives and ex-wives, and grandparents – all sitting down to, sometimes, the Selkirk Grace. One of Bill’s subsequent ladies pronounced the whole scene “decadent,” but she didn’t last long. My second husband calls Bill “a great soul.”
I married again first. I believe in marriage. I’d never agree with my wise older friend who said, “In my next life I think I will have outgrown marriage, and I’ll be able to go it alone.” I like to be married, especially to my husband, a tall bookish man with horn-rimmed glasses and a gray sweater who wrote his thesis on Ulysses.
My successors with Bill have been beautiful, voluptuous women with a great deal of lilt and not a double dactyl among them. I don’t want Bill to be a lonely old man with dirty underwear -notice my continuing obsession with this article of clothing – but I have mixed feelings about these women. Their presence seems to say that Bill and I were an aberration in each other’s lives. But such an aberration.
One more comment. You read a lot these days about “the failure to communicate” in marriage. That was rarely our problem. Bill and I have communicated long, hard, and insistently for the last 25 years. Take this recent communication, for example.
I had written most of this piece when I gave it to Bill to read.
“Uhh,” he says when he finishes it. “That’s quite a story, José.”
“Is it us?” I ask nervously.
“A lot of it,” he says. “But what amazes me is how dumb we were, how much smarter we are now. Thank God, people grow up and change. After all, nothing in nature stays the same.”
“How can you say that, Bill?” I begin. “We’re the same underneath as we always were. People don’t really change all that much. Nature appears to change, but everything in nature is perman -“
I break off suspiciously. Sure enough, he is laughing at me.
Well, it’s a start.