We are on our way to Parents' Weekend at our daughter's college -- me and the man I fell in love with at 17, married at 25, and separated from at 50. We are not divorced, and even if we were, we agree (as we do on many things) that we would never resort to ID'ing the other as "my ex."
Hurtling down I-81, we talk about this problem of terminology, the man with whom I have a pre-paid burial plot, and I. That's what we do, what we did. Words were our connective tissue.
During the worst of "the troubles" as Dave was so fond of referring to the last long patch of marital agony, we continued to talk about what we were reading and writing. Even in the midst of blind fury, one or the other of us was capable of a sudden fascination in the linguistic bent of the battle. "Wait a minute, when you just said willing, was that as an adjective or gerund?"
While other couples document the history of their union through love letters, our marriage left behind a cache of fight letters. For years we pleaded our cases to one another in writing, slipping sheets of loose leaf paper under closed bedroom doors, later emailing from within the same house where we both worked, as if what could not be resolved in the three-dimensional world could be made right on the page.
The epistles and explanations, entreaties and apologies were exhaustive and verbose. More was more, and we wielded similes with abandon. Any high school student assigned a lit. crit. paper on these letters could readily identify the recurring motifs. I was partial to describing the marriage as a boat, one that we did not seem to be rowing in the same direction. He was fond of casting the future in Garden of Eden, Peaceable Kingdom imagery. Both of us indulged in and took shameful liberties with Sisyphus and his rock.
Had a marriage counselor gotten hold of those letters she likely would have encouraged us to cut bait, and move along. But the act of writing them in some strange way balanced out the disturbing content. We were able to sweep our disparate realities under the rug of our shared identity as "great communicators."
And that identity was shored up by the decades-long reference project in which every couple is always engaged. The "private language" of our relationship was culled from high and low culture and a few chance encounters on the street. By his own account, the man I was married to had an auditory memory like a glue trap. And whatever he captured, he shared. Certain houses in town always prompted a shout of "stately Wayne Manor," as we drove by. Declining seconds at the dinner table, he'd tell you he was "getting big enough to eat hay." The cagey behavior of a friend, relative or public figure was summed up with, "he's acting like someone found pictures of him in bed with a Dachshund." An unpleasant task was met with, "lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake." When the kids complained about the high school administration, their father would invariably offer "what's next, Double Secret Probation." And then there was the poetry he could recite from memory, more than a little of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English, and random verses from Yeats, and Frost. And, of course, the Woosterisms. If you were going on about someone he did not know, he'd say, "so who is this Fink-Nottle, anyway?"
We're about an hour outside our daughter's college town. The rain is torrential, and Dave's zipping along in the passing lane. "Long time since you've been strapped into the seat of terror," he says. He looks over at my hands braced against the dashboard. "And I can tell you miss it." I laugh despite myself and realize that what I do miss is his targeted sense of humor, designed to take down no less than two of my neuroses in a single quip. And I laugh because I'm momentarily relieved.
Of all the things I have lost and still stand to lose by the dissolution of our marriage, I am afraid that I will lose my linguistic consciousness. The man I lived with all those years informed my voice -- the one I use for writing books and the one I use for narrating experience to myself moment by moment. My brain, still young and malleable when I first met him, trained itself around his speech patterns, his rhythms, the unmistakable imprint of his unerringly ironic diction. My sense of humor is inseparable from his now. The mismatch between word choice and syntax that in one moment showed off both his erudition and bad boy personas leeched into my mouth, my mind, my pen.
In a sometimes constructive and often twisted way, he was my muse. His idiosyncratic take on the world and the drama he brought, unwittingly, I think, to daily life, afforded me material, just as his verbal pyrotechnics almost always put me in a state of acute lyrical awareness. In a pathetic rewriting of Flaubert's famous dictum about being regular and orderly in your life so that you may be original and violent in your work, I once screamed at him, "I can only handle one drama at a time, and right now I need to focus on the one on the page." I was sitting at my computer, writing the last section of a novel, and he was pacing behind me in our bedroom, the need to explain what had happened a minute ago or the night before or a year earlier, come upon him like a fit.
When our daughter ditches us on the second night of Parents' Weekend, we drive to a nearby town and have dinner at a bar where a band is playing. During a break in the music, the guy sitting next to Dave leans over, comments on our accents and asks what brings us "all the way down here." When we tell him, he says, "You two don't look old enough to have a freshman in college."
Greedy for the flattery, I mention we have a son who's even older.
"No way. How long you been married?"
Dave does not hesitate, "Twenty-six years."
"Wow," the guy says. "I'm impressed. You been talking to each other all night, not like most married people."
Dave says thanks, and I poke at a fried green tomato on the plate in front of me. "Actually," I say, "we're not really married any more."
"Even more impressive," the guy says. "Me and my ex can't hardly be in the same county."
Dave excuses himself. He wanders off towards the men's room, then listens to the entire next set from the back of the restaurant. As we walk to the car, he crosses to the other side of the street.
It's a bit of a ride back to our two motel rooms, and I tell myself I can do it. I can sit quietly in the car and not ask what's wrong. One of the upsides of the dissolved marriage is that the heavy lifting is supposed to be over. No more obsessive attempts to fix what's broken between us, because there is no more "us." And one of the downsides of so entrenched a union, is that I, of course, know exactly what's wrong.
"You don't have to tell every yahoo our business," he says as he backs the car out of the municipal lot.
"He wasn't a yahoo?"
You just said it to be dramatic."
"Said what?" Though I know perfectly well what he's referring to.
"That we weren't married any more."
"It's not a secret."
"I know it's not a secret," he says.
"I did say it for dramatic effect. I said it for our sake, to make sure we remember we're no longer married." I stare straight ahead, careful not to look at him. "It seems to me you sometimes forget."
"You can't say that." He brings the car to a slow stop at a light under a railroad bridge. I have never been to this town before, but I have been in this scene countless times. "You can't say that." How often had the injunction been issued, and how many times, over decades had I thought, yeah, he's right, I can't say that, can't think it, can't feel it.
The next day as we drive the hundreds of miles back to New England I begin to think about what I haven't said and haven't written, the truths I haven't spoken, or more significantly, even acknowledged to myself. I would love to be able to blame Dave for silencing me with a continuous round of "you-can't-say-thats." But for close to 30 years I was incapable of sending out any piece of writing, a letter, a course description without having him proofread it. We may not have spoken to one another for the better part of a week, but I would leave "copy" on his desk for his edit. When he told me to cut something, I did. Were I to come across a word I did not know, I would consult one of the three dictionaries we owned, including that O.E.D for which you need the magnifying glass. And then I would ask him for his definition. Apparently I found him more reliable than a passel of Oxford dons. He was my linguistic answer man, an external editorial consciousness that I internalized.
There are a great many trade offs that come with the ending of a long marriage. I know that without the patter of his voice in the background my style will suffer. I also know that if language informs thought, then without his familiar lexicon in every room of my house and head, I may come into some new perceptions.
We have been in agreement about our abhorrence of the term "ex," replete with the consonantal finality of a guillotine. We concur that it is misleading, reductive. But as we cross one state line after another on our trip back north, I wonder if our inability to name our new relationship to one another, our unwillingness to adopt the generic label is really just one more verbal sleight of hand, one more instance of using language to obfuscate, to soften the blow of the truth that actually does need to be spoken and written, and above all believed.