As my divorce rounds the bend of its first anniversary, the one place it most commonly ambushes me is at the dry cleaners, with its cheery pastel-colored offer to clean and preserve wedding dresses.
For five years, a hermetically sealed wedding dress sat boxed in my now ex-wife's closet, but we always had nagging doubts about what was within. Who knew if the dress was really laundered and folded for posterity as promised? What if the grime and stains from a night of matrimony were still there? Maybe the right dress wasn't even in the box? Or worse, maybe there was no dress in the box at all. The only way to know was to split the neatly sealed cardboard, spill its contents out, and ruthlessly examine what was inside--only once opened, the box didn't look designed to be put back together again.
Maybe it's morbid, but it reminded me of a box-related experiment the physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed: lock a cat in an opaque box along with a vial of poisonous gas that the cat might knock over. An hour later, the cat may or may not be dead, but you can't know definitively unless you open the box, and until you do, technically the cat is both simultaneously alive and dead because you can't verify it either way.
My marriage was like that. From the outside the box looked sturdy, but neither my ex-wife nor I were ever all that confident it contained anything living, no matter how desperate we were for that to be true. For years, we weren't brave or candid enough to open the box and find out what was, or wasn't, alive inside. Even years of marriage counseling were, until the end, mostly an exercise in artifice rather than honesty. When we finally did rip open the box, there was nothing inside worth keeping. Maybe what we hoped had been there never existed. Maybe we waited too long to take a hard look to save it. Maybe the way we finally tore the box open insured nothing could remain within.
It makes me wonder what my ex-wife did with her gown. Is it haunting some new basement or attic? Is it entombed in some massive warehouse, a repository for the world's nuptial items too personally powerful to destroy but too potent to keep, sitting stacked like the Arc of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Did she throw it out? Recycle it? Burn it? Did it fetch a good price on e-bay, being an uncommonly vegan-friendly wedding dress?
A wedding dress at least has the potential for re-purposing. It's not like photo-albums from the wedding, or the personalized champagne flutes meant as a tribute to a life event you would prefer to forget, or the other random commemorative flotsam and jetsam. For those items, the choices are more limited -- the trash, some dark corner in your home (which only promises to serve as a caustic land-mine of nostalgia you'll discover years later), or, and this was my personal solution, you can package it all up and send it with the other things transferred to your ex via legal counsel and UPS . Sticking all these items with my ex-wife may have been callow and lazy, but it effectively got them out of sight and out of mind, transferring the burden to her to determine their fate (assuming she opened the boxes).
Of course, in our modern age, ridding yourself of the physical things doesn't mean you are free from the evidence of your past. Like an episode of CSI Matrimony, there are probably incriminating electronic copies of every wedding photo and video scattered like bits of digital DNA on each personal and family member's hard drive.
And then there is human memory, although just like electronic memory it too can be corrupted. Memories of the worst moments of discord, distrust, and dissonance in my marriage (and by the final years there were many) sometimes morph and metastasize so that they are all I can recall. Other times, memories of the best moments of love, humor, tenderness, and companionship (and in the first months there were many) can make me forget the rancor, drama, and disappointment.
This is when, if you are lucky (and I am), you can go to your back-up mental hard-drive--your friends. Armed with perspective (and perhaps cocktails), they will remind you as kindly as possible that they patiently had the same conversation with you about the misery in your matrimony for far too many years, while waiting for you to finally have something, anything, new to say.
Thankfully, fresh memories eventually overwrite old ones, and life furnishes new experiences if you let it.
Walking down the street, a hand gives mine a little squeeze if I pause when passing a dry cleaners. My girlfriend is blessedly patient with me, knowing my thoughts when I see the smiling advertisement of a woman in white. I know she knows (because she explained it to me) that none of us arrive in our mid-thirties without scar tissue from our prior attempts to love-- and in my case the scar tissue seems to involve laundry (dirty and clean). As she and I start assembling our own box of accumulating memories, maybe we can keep the lid open to keep tabs on the contents, and make sure they remain healthy and un-poisoned.
But there are still moments when I can't help but wonder what happened to that wedding dress.