On Tearing It Down.
I have been stalled in my writing while dealing with the well-maintained trauma of divorce. There was a moment a few weeks ago where a friend reminded me of my suffering and I asked aloud, “What suffering?” because I had no recollection of it at that moment. Women have learned to take trauma in stride for so long, that when confronted with the outside, objective observation that there was suffering at any point it sounds like something a different person experienced, an alien to one’s own being. But the body knows.
The first night of the cruise, I pulled a shoulder muscle. Then I fell out of bed, earning a huge raspberry just below my left knee and a deep contusion in my right pinky toe. My ankles swelled by day four—too many dirty martinis and too much humidity probably—and I had such bad vertigo I couldn’t climb all the way to the top of the Mayan ruin we visited in Belize. Only once did I use my vacation identity and it was with the wrong person—a brusque older woman with flame-red hair who consistently played trivia at 5 PM every day and never had any friends to play with. By the end of the cruise I was my total self again: anxious, stressed, injured, exhausted. When my students asked if I got homesick on the cruise I replied, “I was effectively homeless, so yeah, I was homesick, but like for any home at all.”
There is a certain varicose vein forming in the shin of my left leg. My mom told me to buy some compression socks before it’s too late, and now, I wear them around the house at night and when I work out, though I work out so irregularly it’s almost as if the holiday season has already begun.
After the cruise, I don’t drink for six weeks, from the first week of October to mid-November. There are two reasons: My body is wrecked from summer and the cruise. Also I drink too much over the holiday season as it is, so I like to give it a break. It dictates what I do so often because my mind is clearly detached from it, like a cognitive balloon filling up with neuroses, suspended by a single thread.
I’m never getting enough sleep; I don’t know if it’s allergies setting in or the burgeoning eternal fatigue of aging. Since I separated from my husband, sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself as beautiful as if for the first time. Other times I see myself as older for the first time, a smile that is strained in the temples. I don’t believe necessarily that these are mutually exclusive truths. They just are. Nothing else is.
In the wake of my failed marriage, I have found myself returning to this Jack Gilbert poem (no, not the one entitled “Marriage,” though he is some kind of expert on marriage I cannot fathom):
“Tear It Down”
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of racoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wilderness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.
When Jack Gilbert’s penultimate collection came out, I had just fallen in love with a boy but I was about to travel to Europe alone and stay with friends, a rite of passage, a promise I’d made to myself. I remember driving downtown to see him one afternoon and happened to tune the radio in to NPR, where Gilbert was being interviewed about his career. I remember the way he talked about his life, and the three great loves in it: not one, but three. They had an equal gravity and vivacity, and he spoke about them with a candor and a reverence that made so much sense to me. I always knew a kernel of quiet truth within myself that I would have more than one great love, but never really said it out loud to anyone in a way that resembled conviction, more like resignation; a ship that had sailed into the shadow of an unrealized life. At that moment in time, however, I believed that boy was one of my great loves. (He wasn’t.) And I wept in the car, knowing I was about to leave him for weeks, driving through the April rain.
Now that boy—a man, with a family of his own—hates me. I know because he told me once, several years ago.
I don’t know if I get this poem more now than I did when I was sixteen, the first time I read him. There was something about me at sixteen that was so weirdly precocious in my realism about love, a quality that I lost with the romance of young adulthood. Maybe it’s because love felt so rotten at sixteen I had no choice but to be cynical in order to survive. What I do know to be true is the “dismantling” of the heart. Divorce feels like this: A reevaluation of how you have come to define love. And once you’ve broken it apart, you realize that was an ad hoc definition anyway, made under the pressure of circumstance; you were working with the work to get by. It’s not what it really is for you, what you really needed, your truth. This internal process is what becomes difficult to navigate in conversation with people who have never been divorced; they mean well, they’re just relegated to two stalwart pieces of advice said out of politeness, and neither come close to the maddening duplicity you wrestle within.
Shortly after my friend alluded to that inchoate sense of suffering I allegedly experienced, I had a nightmare about my marriage. It was nothing but a domestic scene, a normal Tuesday evening: the dishes were stacked high in the kitchen, we were both too tired to do anything about it, a vicious fight was forming out of a teardrop of tonal misunderstanding, I was surreptitiously texting my best friend in gasping, frantic hopelessness. Nothing about it was particularly tragic in anything other than an inevitable Yatesian way. But that’s precisely it; that was the way I felt misery and the way I suffered. Then I woke up and remembered I didn’t have that anymore, and it was okay. This is what the heart knows, this is the memory of the body.