A Natural History of Divorce
IMAGINE A PROPELLER. Imagine it implanted in your chest, held in place by a nail shot through your sternum. Memories make it turn—memories of family gatherings, washing dishes at the kitchen sink while kids watch The Simpsons, reading Where the Wild Things Are while husband watches the news. Memories of a home. Each time a memory surfaces—(that can happen anywhere, with no warning, even here, under the moon, as we talk)—the hub begins to revolve slowly, so slowly you can still count the twelve blades of the propeller. But as you dive into the scene, recalling the smell of the detergent, the colors of the quilt, the words of the lullabies, the hub gains speed. The blades turn and swirl. So fast you can’t count them. All you could see, if you were to peel away my skin, soft as a five year old’s, would be a circling whiz. Then, as each blade passes from below this point right here, the meeting point of the clavicles, down, towards the left, like this, it clips off a slice of my heart. If you can imagine this, then you will understand the pain I feel today, a year after I left my husband and children…. Blood splatters on the blades, eventually covering the entire propeller. So rather than a pulsing red thing that ticks in its cavity like a metronome, giving rhythm to life, I have a bloody propeller.
—The rhythm of life is gone.
—So it seems.
—But you look so good. You’ve never looked better.
—On the outside, I look good. I grew my hair long and wear it in a ponytail. But rather than looking like the sophisticated fifty-four year old I imagined, I look more like the seventh grader who chopped off her bangs. I’ve made peace with mousy blonde. L’Oreal Ash Blond shows only on the ends. I stopped dyeing, pretending. Can you see my twenty-four strands of gray in the moonlight? I earned each one when I was deciding what to do. If he doesn’t leave, will I? Can we work it out? Can I make him leave? Can I make him love? Can my kids survive separation? Can I exist without my family? Is loneliness in marriage preferable to loneliness living alone?
—Each dilemma, a gray hair.
—And each decision, a wrinkle.
—That’s because I ignore my lips. They rest naturally over the cavern of my mouth.
—This may sound silly, but such a restful pose is something that has eluded me for almost fifty years, ever since my mother told me when I was five that my lips were too big, that I should hold them in, pressed, closed like a…like a new moon. At ten she told me to take trumpet lessons. That will flatten your wide lips, she said. Wide lips were not fashionable in 1955 and my mother, whom I love, was. I imagined my lips brought shame to the family.
—Did you take trumpet lessons?
—Instead, I learned piano. I sang romantic songs from “South Pacific” in a room where nobody watched. Now I’m letting my fat lips rest the way they please…the way a nose hangs on a face…the way a penis lies between a man’s legs.
—I can’t imagine a mother criticizing a child for the way an organ relaxes.
—Why not? Mothers are people. They hurt their children, but don’t mean to. Today I let my full lips rest in their natural state, slightly puckered.
—What do you do at home, when you’re not here, visiting the kibbutz?
—I spend a good deal of time relaxing my mouth. For decades, I smiled. Now I no longer care if every kid in junior high doesn’t know my name and give me a hearty Hi! between classes. I can live without their Hi’s. I don’t care if I’m not elected Most Friendly Girl in ninth grade or School President in twelfth. And besides, the bloody propeller depletes my strength, so the facial muscles don’t have energy to push the lips to a smile. Those muscles worked overtime when I was sixteen and seventeen, smiling at my mother’s friends.
—So you never go out? No dates? No men?
—I found a gym. I have been going religiously since one day in March when the family doctor told me the weight lifting machines could stop the escape of calcium from my high-risk bones. Fifteen minutes, three times a week will stop the breakdown, she said. I’m lucky if I get out of there in an hour and fifteen minutes….Did I mention that once the heart is torn to shreds, blood splattered on the blades like so many Kandinskys, that the heart, somehow, miraculously, regenerates? Only to start the process again…
—Here. You can use this.
—Thanks. I guess I shouldn’t go out without tissues….I wanted my marriage to work. I pursued happiness—a family—the two plus three—a nice home, the trips, Friday night dinners (even if I ran out crying), the bar mitzvah parties, Purim costumes, graduations, first girlfriends, extended family Seders. I was addicted to wanting that life to succeed so I dragged my husband to five couple therapists over a ten-year period, hoping one of them might have the secret, the magic, the technique, the solution, the word, or the sponge that could erase my loneliness. I thought—no, I believed that one day, one day, it will be all right. I believed in the Theory of One Day.
—It’s very Israeli, you know. Yeliiyeh beseder. Always future tense. Sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.
—I had the perfect medium—silence. Twenty-six years of silence.
—You mean you never talked?
—Yes, like we’re doing. Words pass through your mouth into my air space. I listen. Ponder. Then I give you some back.
—Words didn’t work that way for him. See that barbed wire fence over there, at the foot of Gilboa?
—That’s what words were like for him. He used them to keep me out. I got tangled in barbed wire words.
—How did you figure that out?
—After each talk, I felt no closer to him than before. Talking was an intellectual exercise to maintain distance. It was like being in a fourth grade spelling bee. He was the judge and I was the little girl. He edited my sentence structure, criticized my choice of words. My vocal chords annoyed him. I always lost. At the end of a “talk,” he’d say, Think about that for a while. After twenty-six years, I didn’t want to think. I wanted to kill. That’s when I realized words function differently for him.
—How do they work for you?
—Like scalpels and bricks. First, I peel myself open with them. Then, once I am bare, I build rooms around myself
—Until when did you believe in the Theory of One Day?
—Until someone said. Maybe your husband is unable to give you what you need. Those were the words. Maybe your husband is unable to give you what you need. That sentence set the first blade in place. On that day I let go of the Theory of One Day long enough to realize I was asking for something that he could not give me. Everyone else saw it. They saw it years ago when he insulted me in public. But I couldn’t see it, because I was locked into Yehiyeh beseder.
—Sounds too familiar.
—I knew then it would never be all right. That’s when I started checking my options.
—How did you find the courage to leave him and the kids?
—It’s not courage one needs. It’s imagination.
—What do you mean?
—I could only do it after I imagined myself living alone in a different space, in a specific apartment by myself.
—Do you still love him?
—Do I love my mother?
—For the past thirteen months nobody has told me I’m crazy, dumb, stupid, abnormal, worthless and selfish. These were the hardballs.
—What were the softballs?
—He threw my wet towels on my desk. He shoved my potholders into a corner of the windowsill. Foolish things, now, when I say them, but then they seemed portentous.
—Sounds like he wanted to throw you out.
—Yes. That’s what I thought.
—I hardly recognized you when you walked into the dining room tonight. Do you want to try again?
—Do you think it will be different next time?
—Because I can imagine intimacy. Before I didn’t know what it looked like. I only knew something was missing. But now, with you, this, I have a hint, so I can imagine.
—That’s good. If you can imagine, it is no dream. Tell me. Why did you many him?
—What do you mean?
—I imagined we were dancing the hora on a moonlit night on Kibbutz Jezreel in 1944.
—But Jezreel didn’t exist in ’44.
—Neither did I. That’s why I say imagination. You need to know when it’s your enemy and when it’s your friend.
Judyth Har Even is a writer living in Israel.