Addendum to Dissolution of Marriage for Self-Represented Parties with No Minor or Dependent Adult Children
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks (or more), I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Addendum,” by ac shetler. ac is a queer writer in Des Moines, IA. You can follow her on Twitter @acshetler. This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
We decide on it together, lying side by side, naked, in our bed. Our window is open to the world, and the world that day is warm, warming still. We talk ourselves into some kind of cadence, an urgent back and forth, until the agreement comes and our voices drop to a lull. My eyes reach through that window, toward the tree just beyond it, the old hackberry in our backyard with arms both lush and determined, leaning toward the frame. Memory runs a finger down the wound at its trunk. Soon my tongue embraces it, and I speak of it, of the audacity of the wind or the lightning or whatever it was that weakened its strongest limb a year before. Your eyes trace it. You do not respond. It is the second year of our marriage. It is the first of our divorce.
We have it all, I think, the life so many of us imagine, the full and easy breaths so often gasped for in the silence of a dark room, alone. Our parents still speak to us. Our friends see us as whole. We have a house with a fence and a dog. We have our own little family—and no, we are adamant, children do not make a family. It is love.
We will not rush it, we agree, our divorce. The world around us is too unsettled, and we have debts to pay, a house to update, a mortgage. We cannot afford to live alone so we will stay here together, in this home we first made together years ago. We have car payments, credit card bills, therapists to support. Because that, we have learned, is the juncture at which queerness and healthcare converge: the higher price, the pre-existing condition, a breath the same as all the others, yet just Out-of-Network enough.
We sleep in the same bed, but not together. You work nights and I work days and long ago my body reclaimed the thrill of sleeping alone. It was a slow learning, reluctant and fitful, until my body began stretching in the night, unprovoked, rooting itself in the divots where your own body once turned, or still turns, in the hours opposite my own. Some nights, nights you do not work, you lay yourself beside me. Your shoulders settle. Your breath lifts. My eyes open. On those nights I do not sleep.
We update our house to sell it. We update our home for someone else. One Sunday while you sleep, I trim two chicken breasts of their blood spots and fat. I dice them into one-inch cubes, as the recipe says, and slide them into a silver bowl spun with soy sauce and honey, vinegar and garlic. They marinate while I slice broccoli into florets. They soak as I prepare the rice. They swim in their bath of sweet honey and salmonella, bobbing and patient, softened and waiting, until I realize the range will not switch on. My fingers press and turn each knob left and right, convulsing with every failed click. I unplug it, plug it back in. Time dissolves, first to a series of zeroes, then to nothing at all. I move the silver bowl to the refrigerator. I wait, try again. The unplugging. The plugging back in. A third time. A fourth. Still heat does not come. At some point, late in the night, just before you wake, I abandon what I had prepared, what I had planned. I warm leftover pizza. I eat alone on our couch.
We update our house because its vitals are failing. It takes them six weeks to deliver the new range and in that time we decide to finance its whole family: a matching microwave, a dishwasher, a refrigerator requiring a new water line. After long enough, we cook again. We bake. Our water is filtered now; ice cubes shoot into glasses without ever greeting our palms. We drink and we drink because those glasses fill so easily and because the rush of it occupies our restless breaths. We drink because the water is cool and the air in our home is somehow hot, nearly blistering now, sour and laden with unfamiliar weight.
A man comes to taste it for himself, to walk in it, to run some tests. He tells us what we already know: the system is too old. He can remove a part, replace it. When we ask, his head swings, his towering frame hurls up, down. He says it may sustain it a few more days, a couple months, a whole year. He cannot know for sure.
We finance a new HVAC. Our debts extend. We live in fall throughout that summer. I wrap my arms in flannel, sip hot coffee instead of iced, trudge up and down our stairs in my favorite pair of boots. The room we share is sucked of its humidity and when we wake, separately, legs pinning back the duvet, bodies burrowed into the contours of our halves, the air sighs relief against our skin. Our faces no longer flush. Our lungs revive. It is incredible, we each mumble to the other, how money can so simply make the air lift. We remind ourselves: it is money we have promised, money we do not yet have.
Our dog senses the shift. Like a child she hovers between us, scouring our movements for waning intimacy, pleading with her big and generous eyes for meaningful conversation. Years ago, as she grew and grew and each graceless blunder earned her a new nickname, as time revealed her quirks and softened her fur, you took to calling her your brown-eyed girl. “There you are, my brown-eyed girl,” you would say when she snuck between us on the couch. Then, leaning to me, embracing my forehead with your lips: you’d say, “Here you are, my blue-eyed girl.”
When you are gone, more and more often now, she takes your place in our bed. She nestles her head into your pillow and curls herself, unkempt tail to nose. She knows I am alone and lonely and gives up the bits of herself that yearn for independence to fill the budding hollowness at my side. Now it is her silhouette across from me, her shadow on the wall. Now it is her exhale in the air. I reach for her. I tell her I love her. I promise I will not leave her. I will leave her, should I leave this city. She will be yours alone.
I meet people —friends and acquaintances — and they ask about you, about us, about our life and our family. That is the convenient volley we lull ourselves into over drinks, over dinner: the knowing, more intimate version of some observation of the weather. And because we are trained to expect platitudes, and to give them, their eyes often shuffle downward, graze a menu, check a phone. We know each other’s lives from those phones, from the bodies we pose, the smiles we stretch, the moments cropped to square frames. We take whole existences and slice them into pieces fit for glass screens. We sculpt. We shape. We filter until what remains is the image of how we wish to be seen, of real life, whittled down to fit a trend: #relationshipgoals and #loveislove and #lovewins. But what happens when #loveends? What becomes of those images when we no longer love as we once did, when it is now obvious that the life presented is not nearly the whole life lived? In person I must fill those spaces with words. Over drinks, I admit aloud what we have lived discreetly in the months between frames. Over dinner, I explain that divorce can be amicable, that we still live together, that we are not hiring lawyers, that we are attempting it on our own. They marvel at our maturity, our boldness. They wonder if it is possible. I say it has been, so far. I say it must be. I say it is too expensive for us not to agree.
You begin to meet people, new people. You do not call it dating. We discuss it, first in our bed, then in our living room, swaying farther and farther from each other as if adolescents on a seesaw at a park. You stretch across the couch. I recoil on the piano bench. You are numbing yourself to our reality, you explain. You say it is meaningless. You say it is what you need. I know it is what you need. I know you reach for other bodies to calm the molting of your own.
I wish for you to belong to me, and me alone. I wish to possess you, not because I want you, but because possession is what we master from a young age. We are instructed: Hold tightly to what is yours. Stack it in a corner. Dump it in a box. Your basketballs, your barbies, your two-seater electric jeep. Remember the virtue of sharing, of course, but be sure to mark the dimpled leather, the whittled plastic legs, the wheel well. Brand them permanently with your name.
I wish to possess you because in America everything exists to be possessed. Jobs. Credit. People. I wish for you to belong to me, and me alone, because for so long we have belonged only to each other. I have a spouse, I would say. I have a wife, you would say. We have a house with a fence and a dog. We have it all.
Soon we will each possess one half of the vestiges that made us whole. We will stand opposite each other in the living room and heave items into the air and determine whose box they will drop into, whose name they will take. The pots and pans, the wine glasses, the silverware. The luxury wedding album fashioned of ultra-thick, Layflat pages. The thumb drive forever burdened with preserving the lively, thrumming motion of that day. Our day. A day so palpable and sincere it was enough to turn hearts, we were told— or at least soften them. A day so clearly radiating with love. I remind myself: possessing the right to marry means possessing the right to divorce.
I learn this late at night while you work and I possess sole custody of our bed. I cannot sleep, so my fingers search for the answers my mind does not yet have. Gay divorce, they qualify, so that Google presents coastal lawyers who specialize in it, studies into same- and opposite-sex divorce rates, the essential article that will tell me Everything I Need to Know. There is a Wikipedia page on a musical written long before the qualifier belonged to us, its plot brimming with adulterous straights whose choices feel convoluted and confusing and not at all gay. There are opinion pieces in the big places—The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Times. The image beneath their titles often of two plastic bodies in tuxes atop a cake, holding each other, or one leaping from the other, because cake is still the foundation on which all of our unions are predicated.
I consume them, these other peoples’ divorces, alone in our bed. Each feels different. Each courses with its own kind of sorrow. But after so many words they all seem to ebb toward a shared sensation: that shame so inherent in our DNA, apparently inseparable from it, relegating us once more to the silent, dark rooms of our youth. They write of guilt. They probe regret. They uncover something new to us, something fresh: a pulsing vein bound tightly to this, our still incipient right. Failure. Disappointment. A betrayal of all who came before. How can we do it. How can we renounce a right we once so proudly demanded. We are human, they all conclude together, each in their own words. We are human enough to come together in union. Human enough to separate.
I try this thought on every night for weeks. I speak it aloud to our emptiness. It fits like someone else’s clothes. Soon the only answer I know comes from abandoning my phone and burying myself in our bed. I find comfort only through sinking again and again into what has become the unspoken rhythm of our home. The vibration. That agitating pulse.
I sleep. I wake. You return home. We speak flatly, my eyes as your mind—dipping, whirling, too dense—and I say too much, and you offer too little, and our bodies surrender to the water that we are, ebbing to stillness, to silence, to those dark rooms we departed long ago. Separate now. Alone again. Grieving, listless, hammering fists firmly against memory, pounding it fruitlessly to forget. Until, in time, you flow from it, again, and you fall to our bed, and you toss and you turn and you do not sleep. I work, I read, I walk our dog. I eat alone, the sun descending on the year’s longest day, and you rise again, at night, night into day, and I sleep again, day into week, and I wake, we mumble, you sleep. Weeks in which lasting light is more hope than promise, and we soften, we harden, we incite, we shrink, we hurl and rip and stare and plan and doubt and wish and lurch wordlessly at the edge of this rim, flirting with denial, forcing anger from our lungs, toward each other, against ourselves. We bargain, we steep, we are despondent, anxious, mired in gloom—a gloom we have chosen, you say, this shared judgment, a self-imposed fate—and we swivel our faces to the sky, you in darkness, I in light, our chests heaving for air, for relief, our lips resisting this, refusing acceptance, and we shrivel within it, this sorrow, this regret, and we weep, we tense, we love, each other, we love, ourselves. We relive, remind, crack, discard, and there are days I stack boxes, stretch tape, and there are nights you drown in drink, mornings you leave, mornings you fuck, mornings you return and shower and drop to our couch, your eyes plunging, your gaze unwilling, unable to swim to mine. There are whole hours our living room careens, contradicts with air opaque, cleansed with the easy exhales of peace, and long days in which we close, limbs rigid and compact, thoughts without purpose, without hope. And then, there are sudden moments when we open to each other, sweet, fragrant, free as loose-leaf tea, and somewhere, in the time between, I lose myself in the rhythm. This, our final season, our summer into fall, fall into winter, into dispossession, into severance.
It’s winter now and still the hackberry stands, the gash at its limb laid bare for the world to see. I see it now as I saw it then, when that window was open and the world was warm, when the amassing imperfections of limb and trunk and life appeared so glaring, so obvious. And I see, too, what I could not see then: its steady healing as days turned to weeks, as weeks turned to months. How winter softened to spring, and with it, tender bark learned to strengthen, to blend. I see now how time breeds new growth, and how growth nurtures new love. And I learn that there is pride in this, too.