Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pioneers



(Photo: National Archives/Flickr Commons)
I carried her over the threshold. She laughed and wriggled in my arms, pretended to try and break free, swatted me with her bouquet. I remember some purple and white petals tumbled onto our new-to-us wooden floor when she did that. I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling her to stop, to keep from saying she was making a mess. I had to be the grown-up, even though I sometimes resented it. Later I swept up the petals with a broom and dustpan, wedding gifts from some long-married couple who knew we'd need these things more than custom-patterned china.

We weren't the first women in our state to marry each other, but we were the first to divorce.

Local reporters descended on our house the day after I dumped the documents at the county clerk's office. That hadn't occurred to me, that I was doing something historic, when I got in my car and drove to the courthouse with the stupid folder of printed-out forms on which I'd cited the bland "irreconcilable differences" as the reason for our failure. I mean, it's not like I check the stats on gay relationships in our state every morning. "What's the weather forecast, what's the news, what local gay couples have busted up?" It's not like I was in some rush to claim that distinction. I wasn't thinking about history or our reputation or anything like that.

I didn't give a shit about anything -- I just wanted my wife back.

I never wanted the divorce. She wanted it, but she was too flaky to deal with the paperwork. People who don't know better say, "Well, if you didn't want it, you could have just not done the paperwork that she never would have done -- then you'd have stayed married forever."

I admit it crossed my mind.

The reporters all wanted to do some trend story. The religious-conservative ones wanted to prove we couldn't sustain our lifestyle, that God had somehow made his opinion clear, that others like us would soon follow in waves. I could see it in the leading questions they sent to my work e-mail; they already had their story and only needed a few proper nouns to fill in the blanks.

The liberal reporters, including the local college paper, wanted to quickly put the saving spin on the story, to show that we are only human, too. To show that you could be a symbol of civil rights, of a shining new enlightened time in history, and still punch holes in the wall during a fight. 

Still cheat and not want to tell the person who would punch the hole in the wall during a fight.

The reporters couldn't bother her about it, because by then she had taken flight. She had no fixed address at that time, which is what I think she always wanted. They asked me where she was, and I told them truthfully that I didn't know.

I didn't talk to the reporters, but now I wonder what I could have told them. They'd want to hear something exotic, some kink in the fairy-tale page that creates an aberration, what might seem at first an optical illusion, that creates two maidens in love and no Prince Charming in sight.

I could have told them we shared our ceremony with twelve couples who had been waiting just like us, on the first day we were legally allowed, at City Hall with a sea of strangers waving rainbow flags. We were the seventh couple married that day, and I remember thinking that was lucky. But these arbitrary numbers, these firsts and sevenths, broken records and new milestones, don't mean anything to me now.

I could have told them to look back in their own archives for the picture of us kissing in the local paper, and the caption with the word "pioneers" in it.

I could have told them we had to break it to our families, and that none of them were happy. We didn't have brothers or sisters; this meant no natural grandchildren for anybody. My parents accepted it eventually, grudgingly. In small increments. I think part of them had always known -- after all, I was the one our friends called "the husband." I was the one who carried her over the threshold.

Her parents never did. She didn't like to talk about that. I never met them; for a while I wondered if they even knew. Finally she stopped talking to them, stopped talking about them. After that she drifted in a rootless cloud, free of umbilical cord or other tethers.

She hated tethers. I think that's why she wanted out of our marriage.

At first it was an exciting idea -- rainbow flags at City Hall, front page of the local news. We bought a house (I bought a house; she was still a student). We had neighbors who mostly accepted us; we let them think we were roommates until we heard a sign, an indication, usually a political comment about something in the news, that they might be cool with it. We had IKEA bookcases, cupcake pans, a hammock we planned to hang in the back yard. We had friends over for a housewarming, we planned a vacation to Portugal. Readers of our LiveJournal blogs thought everything seemed great.

Then it became everyday, normal. This was fine for a while, even after we started referring to our house as "the money pit." ("See you back at The Money Pit!" It sounded like a knockabout bar.) There was our broken toilet that two different plumbers charged us too much to fix, our sagging roof that needed costly repairs. There was our never-ending pile of dirty dishes and no dishwasher, and her "I'll do it tomorrow" attitude.
There were mortgage payments and car payments and not enough money to take a vacation. ("Maybe next year.")
Dust bunnies in neglected corners and her long hair clogging up the shower drain. I did my best to keep the house's cleanliness from becoming too "bohemian" but I resented her reluctance to help.
Slowly it became a life in which we had to come up with dinner every day and weren't always in the mood for the same thing, a life in which we no longer even slept at the same times (she stayed up late to study or go out, I had to get up early for work in the morning). We fell out of sync.

There were nights I drank too much at our friends' favorite bar and said things I wish I could take back. I said she needed to get a part-time job and help me out. I said she had these big "Peace-Corps-idealistic" ideas but was too lazy or impatient to do anything about them -- she wanted to see the world but would need to borrow money for the ticket and bum a ride to the airport.
I yelled at her. I accused her of flirting with other women. I apologized and hoped for make-up sex in the morning. Many mornings I woke up to find her place in bed cold beside me.  

Still I loved our life together, all of it, because it was with her. I had this idea that we could work anything out. We're chicks, after all. Aren't we supposed to be awesome at communication?

She grew curt and restless. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, "Nothing. I'm fine." She went out more often and started staying over at someone else's place, until someone else's place became her new home. I punched right through the drywall when she told me. Then she left that place, too. A friend of ours told me she had a new girlfriend, someone I don't know.

I still find things of hers around here. A book on knitting mixed in with my science-fiction novels. A hopeful "house to-do" list, in her beautiful near-calligraphic handwriting, that started with the fun stuff: paint the living room peacock-blue, hang the hammock. The more arduous or grubby work, anything involving toilets or the basement, was listed at the bottom and left up to me. We never got around to most of it, but she did paint the walls. She did that right away, one day while I was at work, to make the otherwise dreary 1970s house a place she might happily inhabit.

Cooking magazines with recipes she'd hi-lited. "Stuffed Summer Squash." "Chocolate-Zucchini Bread." She'd crossed out ingredients and jotted in new ones and different amounts -- three-fourths cup of flour instead of half, walnuts not pecans.

I lived among these remnants for a while. None of it broke me. Then one day I found the velvet-lined box with the ring in it, a robin's-egg-blue stone because she was anti-diamond, that I gave her when I proposed. She left it here. No ceremony, no note. Just left it on a desk in the attic when she last went up there to get some other things. I opened the box hoping to find it empty. When it was not, I had to leave for a while.

I took a trip to Patagonia with a group from the college in our town where she was a student; I saw a flyer about the trip at the organic grocery store I'd started shopping at because of her, and where I still go hoping to run into her. I couldn't really afford the trip but I went anyway -- on my "Finances" spreadsheet, I filed the expense under "mental health." The trip was an "expand your horizons" kind of deal, organized mostly for younger students. We were required to keep a journal and fill it with life goals, regrets, next steps, things like that. I mostly went as an escape and felt like an impostor among my hopeful, earnest tripmates.

To my surprise, I met someone new on the trip. The someone new has just graduated from the nearby college and is back in her home state, but we have cute Skype chats and write long, lusty e-mails to each other. I think she's someone I could move to another state for. I'm lonely but trying to be cautious.

I have to see my ex again at the courthouse so we can make it final. I'm afraid I'll ask her to come back to me. I don't know if I'm strong enough yet to not do that.

After a few months of Googling her, I found her name on something recent. She had been a member of a local scuba-diving club. The club went to Thailand shortly after she left me. Her name and the name of her new girlfriend were listed on the official club blog among those who went on the trip. 

I don't wake up and search for news about couples like us who broke up. But I see it everywhere.

At a Gloucestershire wildfowl sanctuary, researchers were stunned when two swans--an animal long romanticized for its tendency to "mate for life"--divorced. The swans returned to the sanctuary after an annual migration to arctic Russia, each with a new partner.

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