Joan Didion famously wrote: “It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” but I don’t know. As I waded through my divorce, all I saw was End End End. Myopia is one of suffering’s dirtiest tricks, temporarily stripping us of our ability to imagine a future.
There in the murk, the water was wide, but my chest felt narrow, constricted by fear, as if my body planned on holding its breath until the divorce papers were signed.
D., whose wit and kindness had attracted me when we shared a cubicle in the newsroom of a local newspaper, had come to regard me more as a roommate and a buddy than a lover and a wife. After less than five years together, our life had begun to feel like one interminable Sunday night, the ominous tick of the 60 Minutes clock, my belly taking on Monday-morning dread like water. When I left D., our cat, our books, and our inside jokes, I felt like Peter, floundering on the sea, hopping off the boat, sinking fast, bullied by the brute force of the wind.
The water was wide, and despite all I just told you, I half-hoped D. might pull me back.
But in the end, he let me go.
I was born into a family of bitter-enders, parents who stayed together, no matter what.
My parents married young—Mom claims she hadn’t even finished growing the day she walked down the aisle—bought a house, painted it blue, and stayed.
Between immigration in Mom’s family and divorce in dad’s, somebody was always missing somebody. Dad was saddled with a no-show father who seemed to glide from job to job, marriage to marriage. Once Grandpa cut out for New York City—and ultimately, his third wife—Grandma was forced to scare up work where she could, moving my dad year after year, across three states, to towns like Hope, which, from all accounts, failed to live up to its name.
We’ve never determined my paternal grandfather’s occupation. We only know that in 1920s Harlem, Salvatore Granieri fought professionally as a lightweight boxer called Willie Mack. The broken legend of Willie and Aleda has always gone something like this: Willie picked up and left when they were living in Upstate New York—couldn’t keep a city boy down on the farm—and rarely saw my father again. Willie Mack was a lightweight in more ways than one.
But maybe that’s not quite right—my no-show grandfather, “gliding” from marriage to marriage, Rosa-to-Aleda-to-Connie. Did he glide, exactly? Or was his heart squeezed hard upon leaving the dark-eyed son named William, after the boxer, the persona and not the man?
Maybe it was more like this: The lightweight found himself cornered, contending with his own Sunday-night dread. Did he feel like Peter too, staggering on the churning sea? Did the water feel too wide on that upstate farm?
The water is wide in the midst of my legal separation from D. Nights and weekends are all about force-feeding myself Cheerios, negotiating panic attacks, and lacing up my running sneakers, only to boomerang back home and lock the door.
The water is wide when, after the divorce, I land back in my childhood bedroom with its peach-colored walls bearing the blue residue of adolescence, Sticky Tack from all those Springsteen posters. The window displays a sun-bleached “C” sticker alerting emergency fire personnel that a child sleeps inside.
If the house catches fire, will they break the glass and save me first?
A priest once told me that marriage isn’t an act of love—it’s an act of faith. So is divorce. Perhaps Didion has it right, because when I considered leaving D., I suppose I did see the beginning, if only for an instant. The beginning: the still, small belief that life out there, without my husband, our cat, our books, and our inside jokes, had to be better than life on the inside.
At the time, leaving didn’t feel for one second driven by faith. But faith can murmur too. Because there I was, at the end, at the beginning, and I left with this vague notion holding my head above the surface of the churning water: that Sunday night doesn’t have to have the last word.