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Memories of a Bad Marriage


Late winter feels like a bad marriage. You are not ready to admit that the thrill is gone, or that things are not quite ready to end for good. But when you look up through the bald trees and see a dull sky looming over you, it's very much like the argument you had that won't resolve itself. I don't mean my present marriage, my second, where things have worked out well. I mean my first, at the age of 20, when I was in my second year of college and my wife was growing restless and resentful that I should have this privilege of taking classes while she nursed our infant son. She was smart, willful, and did not want to be stuck with household chores. She had no clutch on her temper, and when the mood came upon her, she let go everything and became savage and brutal. She once flung a diaper pale full of soggy cloth diapers through the screen of our window, where it dripped and festered for a day. It hung there suspended in the overcast light like a luminous gravestone that had been flung down out of heaven. It was an omen, but I chose not to heed it. Instead, I went out into the late winter rain and stood there smoking a cigarette, wondering when the sun would come back.

No one ever divorced in my family. It was not done. People stayed together through the bitter years, believing that something would intervene, aging itself, to mellow the rancor and make it possible to laugh gain. It worked as far as I know among the various aunts and uncles I saw on summer vacations. Everyone seemed resigned to their lots, good or bad, and would put out big meals on Sunday evenings and sustain the old customs, like smoking a cigar on the porch, or drinking the home-made wine with our pasta dish. Old marriages that had worn down their sharp edges, and where the weather was muted by a light wind, a carpet of sunlight drifting across the living room floor.

So when I showed up one mid-summer with my sour wife and a son reluctant to try out his score of new words on us, we made a poor impression on the relatives gathered at the table in the tiny courtyard. It was muggy in July, and New Orleans was gloomy with the threat of a impending rainstorm at four o'clock. The air was still and our faces glistened in the heat. And my wife excused herself sullenly and disappeared. I was handed my son to hold as the old stories were rehearsed for the hundredth time. I rocked the boy to sleep and he held onto his bottle until it dropped noisily from his fingers. The banana trees had been whipping their leaves into tatters earlier, and were now limp in the sultry air. I was limp, too, worried about where Jane had gone. Maybe she was walking down the empty sidewalk on Bourbon, the listless hour when the bars catered to a few veteran drunks. Tourists sat at the Cafe du Monde eating French doughnuts, baignets, and slurping chicory coffee.

A funeral was in progress a few blocks away, and a small crowd went along beside the band clapping to the beat of an old bass drum someone pounded with a mallet. They were heading for one of those cemeteries where the crypts were built above ground to prevent the bodies from being washed out by a flood. Even the dead were eager to escape, I thought. The poor departed soul rocking in a coffin pulled along by a gimp mare with a filthy tail bag swaying behind. Hot, immobile rooms on either side of the street with the curtains hanging full of the dust and torpor of a long, uncertain summer. And me staring out the window onto Barracks Street, where two old women sat on a wooden stoop chatting over cigarettes and bottles of beer.

Jane is long gone, having died of cancer after a tumultuous life of several other husbands and a few lovers. She ended up with four more children besides our son. She raised them well; I spoke to two of them on the phone who told me they loved her and missed her. They thanked me warmly for calling to offer my condolences. My son grew up and worked at a string of fast food joints over the years. There was no way out of that marriage, and I realized it as I saw the pavement darken with polka dots as the rain started. The old women went inside to continue their conversation. I heard my son stir on his day bed and figured on walking to the cathedral later. My legs were sunk into the mire of the old city, as if turned to concrete. I was stuck in my life, immobilized by fear to do anything about it. I knew a rock was forming in the air over me, a huge rock of granite and mold and indecision about leaving Jane, about raising the issue of divorce to her. She was unhappy, but I could do nothing more than stand like some lamp post casting a shadow.

So that is why the gray embroidery of the trees and the stagnant grass remind me of a bad marriage. I had mine, I grieved enough over it, and went on to live my life around the crater it had made of my emotions. I don't think the first moon walkers had anything over me after the long lunar hikes I took in the aftermath of my divorce. Huge black craters, soft, undulating dunes of lunar dust, old stale heavens hanging close enough to touch as I put one foot in front of the other.

The aunts and uncles died off one by one, and the houses they had lived in for so long were let go to strangers. No one ever led me back to them when I visited the city. Even my grandmother's house was flung off into the wind after she died; the ancient, echoing parlor with the out-of-tune piano stood idle behind closed shutters. Eventually Exxon bought the place and had some company research its original plan and reproduce it for visiting VIPs. I saw the remodeled house one day and it was exactly as I remembered it -- even the old green dryer was the same, and the narrow back porch where I learned to walk. But it was dead, another varnished relic set up to create the illusion of continuity with the past. The woman who answered the door greeted me with some confusion; she thought I was an invited guest attending a convention of oilmen. I told her I used to visit here years ago, and she let me look around and then opened the door for me to leave.

You can't go home again. No matter how faithfully the past has been reconstructed for you. The floors were like mirrors of polished wax; the walls were deep white, as if they had been made of summer clouds. The cries my cousins made at bedtime were muffled in the dry wooden rafters sunk behind the plaster and lath. All the footsteps I heard through the shutters on Saturday nights of men and women heading to the jazz bars on lower Bourbon had slipped away like cicada songs.

Tonight the sky will grow a coat of blue paint chinked by a stray star or two. The woods will brood in their tumbled bed of rock and clay. The coyotes will hunt down by the reedy banks of Otter Creek, unaware of time or change. But the winter, like the middle pages of some long Victorian novel, will hang there in dusty folds, suspended by the weak suspense the writer keeps manufacturing out of some profound belief that change is the principle of life. I pity time, all its ruses and ploys to keep us guessing about what will happen next. The weather, like some vast display of Mardi Gras floats, has no earthly tether to keep it constant. It rides the wind, it rolls on the breaking waves of rain or snow; it has no soul or heart beat. It is there, above us, vast, illusory, a vaporous backdrop to an opera no one has written.

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