Writer in Residence · 08/17/2013

Artifacts of a Marriage

This sad story by Susan Rebecca White chronicles most of a woman’s adult life. That’s quite a feat in this short space. The harsh realities of love lost and life continuing on despite that are displayed here with terrible sorrow, but also with hope.

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You remember looking down at Cam’s soft brown eyes while you rocked on top of him. He murmured your name with such warmth, such openness; it broke your heart. You hurt for the hurt boy he once was. You hurt for the hurt boy who had to put up such a shield of achievement. You told him you loved every inch of him. You told him he was your man. You rested your hand on his hard cock and said to him, “This is mine and I am yours.” When he wanted to clean up immediately after sex you discouraged him. Told him sex and life were messy; don’t try to sterilize it. You wanted to offer a safe haven for this troubled man. You knew he was troubled early on, but you believed you could save him.

(You foolish woman. You poor fool.)

You believed if you were only open enough, warm enough, wise enough, caring enough, nurturing enough, you would save him and he would love you forever. And then your period didn’t come and you developed a hound dog’s sense of smell, and soon the doctor confirmed that yes, you were gods; yes, you had created life.

After Lucy was born, Cam suggested you not return to Greenwich Country Day at the end of your maternity leave, but quit teaching altogether. He made enough to support you, the best thing you could possibly do was stay home and take care of your little girl. You missed receiving a paycheck—however paltry—in your name, but you loved that long stretch of time with your babies (first Lucy, then Mandy), the simple, redundant routines. Now that the girls are away, you picture those early years of motherhood with a sepia lens. Even the moments that ignited some deep rage within you, when you would have to stand very still, head bowed, and count to ten rather than strike out violently, on impulse. Like the time you left the room for one minute and returned to find two-year old Lucy smearing Desitin on your bedroom wall, big loopy circles of enriched petroleum jelly ruining the pricey paint.

Later that same afternoon, after everyone had calmed down and Lucy had woken from a two-hour nap, you fetched her, yelling “I’m coming to getcha!” as you high-stepped your way to her crib, your fingers dancing, itching to pick her up, she shrieking in exquisite anticipation.

During Lucy’s first two years you had a recurring dream of placing her in a kitchen cabinet and then forgetting where you left her. When you finally found her after hours of searching, you discovered she had turned into an emaciated, mangy cat, neglected and vengeful, hissing furiously. Upon waking you would rush to her crib to make sure she was still there, stroke her warm, velvety cheek with your finger. She had the fattest red cheeks, which everyone felt compelled to squeeze. You never stopped thinking of her. Even when you hired a babysitter and went for a much-needed lunch with a friend, or an even more needed dinner alone with your husband. You were obsessed, consumed, in love, and you loved the man who made her with you, though that man was increasingly moody and agitated.

When Lucy was almost four, you got pregnant for the second time, and you fell in love all over again, though this time your attention was divided. As Mandy grew from infant to toddler to girl, Cam became moodier, more critical. Any request you made of him launched a tirade of how tired he was, how overworked, how underappreciated. At 38 he was the vice president of a small investment firm in New York, but he was always looking over his shoulder at what the big boys were up to. Why hadn’t Goldman Sachs poached him? Why wasn’t he making millions? No one appreciated him, no one got him, no one recognized his brilliance. And then, he raged, he came home only to be further criticized. (What had you asked of him? To change a lightbulb? To throw a load of clothes in the dryer?) Sometimes he would schedule trips all by himself, just to rejuvenate, just to “rev up the juices.” You would stay at home alone with the girls, and even though it was hard—the single mom bit—it was nice, too, because away from each other, your marriage was better.

Away from each other you could have simple conversations on the phone, just to touch base, just to say hello. The girls would have their turn to say goodnight to Daddy, and then you hung up because it was time to get the little monkeys into their jammies and let them pick out dessert, a choice of two Pepperidge Farm cookies or one ice cream sandwich, before brush-your-teeth time. And then you all went to Lucy’s bedroom for stories and songs. Afterward you would carry Mandy to her bed, kissing the soft dark hair on her head after you pulled the blanket up under her chin. You would turn and leave your sleepy girl in the semi-dark, the nightlight, shaped like a bunch of balloons, glowing. Often there was a final request for a sip of water, or one more trip to the bathroom. Sometimes you had to speak harshly to keep one or the other of the girls in their bed, but within 10 minutes of lights-out they had usually entered that good, hard sleep that overtakes children who spend the day running around, playing. You would fix yourself a drink and sit on the couch with a book or a magazine and feel deeply satisfied with your life and yourself. Always more satisfied when Cam was away than when he was home, but you tried not to think about that. You tried to push that thought right out of your mind.

God, you were lonely during so much of your marriage. It’s easy to see that now. Cam was gone so much of the time and when he was home he was often either irritable or checked out. Once the children started school, you would wander over to quaint downtown Old Greenwich. Spending offered a temporary lift. There was a preppy little store that sold sleeveless pastel dresses in the summer and cashmere sweaters in the fall. You thought nothing of popping in and buying a hundred-dollar something or other—a handbag on sale, a silk scarf, a cute top. You would take the new item home, cut off the tags and bury the shopping bag in the garbage so your husband wouldn’t see. Cam often complained about money, but did not scrutinize the credit card bills.

Besides, he had even more expensive habits than you. He bought a new car every three years, began dressing in Brioni suits, bought whatever technological gadget had just come on the market. You were the first among your friends to own a VCR, a video camera, a car phone.

As a couple you spent flagrantly, eating out, hiring babysitters. Cam was almost always able to relax if out for dinner. At home he was mercurial, and the mood of the evening depended entirely on him. If he came home happy and at ease, you had a fun meal. But if Cam had a bad day and was distant or quiet, you all felt it. The girls, you noticed, grew more animated, tried to entertain Cam out of his funk. From an early age you taught them how to accommodate an unhappy man. Sometimes their antics buoyed Cam’s mood, but sometimes he would turn on them—Mandy in particular, who took after her father and therefore knew how to get under his skin. Once Mandy, sitting next to Cam, asked him if he liked seafood. When he said yes she opened her mouth, full of half chewed chicken, and said, “See Food. See Food.” He grabbed her hand, pulled it close to him, and slapped it hard enough to leave a bright red mark. You all stared at Mandy, shocked and embarrassed. She blinked for a few moments, trying to look dignified, but finally opened her mouth and wailed, “Everybody stop looking at me!”

You think back to that now and have no memory of speaking with Mandy about the slap. You must have said something to Cam about it after dinner, something to the effect of, “Was that really necessary?” But you can’t remember talking it through with your daughter. She must have been too embarrassed to bring it up, and you suppose you were too. Or maybe you had been annoyed with her yourself, maybe you secretly thought the punishment was justified, if not for her dinnertime antics then for countless other infractions she had committed throughout the day.

Mostly you were a good mother. This you know. You were good at the story telling and the pushing on the swing and the setting up of play dates and the consoling over schoolyard bullying. But what of all of the terrible moments left unmentioned? You kept so much hidden during your marriage. What all did you ask your daughters to hide?

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You have dinner in the city with Sarah, your best friend from boarding school. Sarah says you are cutting loose a weight that has been strapped to your back too long. Sarah tells you she has been waiting for you to do this forever. Sarah says she is proud of you. (Proud of you for what? Allowing your husband to leave after he impregnated another woman?) She gives you the name of a good lawyer. All of your friends are concerned that you hire a good lawyer. They tell you how angry you should be. They tell you to get in touch with your inner bitch. They say you should make him pay, pay through the nose. And maybe they are right. You have been such a pleaser your whole life, afraid to really confront anyone for fear they will think ill of you. Afraid to piss people off. (Sarah has never been afraid to piss anyone off.) And maybe this is life’s big test: How much will you fight Cam over this divorce? Will you let him once again bully you through this final round?

But to battle with Cam is to stay entangled. And isn’t the point of divorcing to untie the knots?

You walk around your house, empty of people if not stuff. You live in a museum of your marriage, surrounded by artifacts. Your efforts at unity nailed to the wall: the framed antique portrait of your grandparents sitting on the hood of a 1928 roadster. The picture of your mother and her sister Kate when they were young, in swimsuits that ended at their knees, sunning themselves on the dock at Doolittle Lake, where half a dozen of their friends had summerhouses. How deliberately you displayed your family history (that is, on your mother’s side. Your father had no history to speak of.)

Did Cam even notice? If he did, it was probably only to wonder how much it cost to get everything framed. You look now and see how desperately you were trying to establish a sense of continuity, a line from your grandparents through your daughters. A beautiful story of roots and inheritance, progeny proving destiny. Children were born, and so of course your union was fated.

You have always told stories about your family, but you wonder now what was fiction, what was real? Beyond Cam, beyond the fiction of your marriage. What did you know of your own father? That reclusive man who held everything in reserve, most notably his affection. The doctor married to his work, his research. You had to look hard for signs of his affection. He showed his concern in his fastidious attention to detail: He tended to his compost pile as one might tend to a beloved, turning it carefully every evening, marveling at its aerated blackness. He would spread it around the vegetables in the garden, growing strawberries sweet as candy, tender asparagus, deep purple potatoes. He made bread every Saturday morning, letting the dough rise in the refrigerator, then baking it Sunday night, the sweet smell of yeast and honey filling the downstairs of your old house in Roxboro, his love contained in a loaf.

Mysterious Daddy. Though your house is filled with old family photographs, you have none of your father from when he was a child. None from his side of the family. The son of Italian migrant workers in California, there was no money to hire a photographer. And then his mother died when he was seventeen, only a few years after his father died, and Daddy was left an orphan. All trace of family gone.

Daughter of an orphan, you have nailed to the walls the proof of your family. There is the picture of your mother-in-law Taffy in the white dress she wore at the St. Cecilia’s Ball in 1938. The height of the Depression and Taffy’s family could still afford for their daughter to come out. Taffy was so beautiful, with her sharp cheekbones and her wide, innocent eyes. Mandy looks a lot like her. There are framed photos of your beautiful girls all up and down this stairwell, posed school pictures as well as candid shots. Cam must have taken the ones with you and Mandy and Lucy in them. Look at you in this one, twenty-something years old, your hair down to your waist, your mouth thrown open in delight as you hold stout Lucy by her waist, “my big country baby,” as you used to call her.

You imagine now that Cam was thinking of something else the whole time he was snapping those photos. Thinking of a merger he was handling that afternoon, or whether or not his golf game would be rained out the next day, or what his chances for having sex were that night.

There will be baby toys scattered on the floor of his new house. He will be a better father to this baby than he was to his girls. His testosterone levels will drop; he will be more patient. You will fade from his memory. You will be the bad old past. This new woman, growing this new baby, will be the new center, the focus.
Life pushes forward, relentless.

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Susan Rebecca White is the author of the critically acclaimed novels A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. She has taught creative writing at Hollins University, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and Emory University. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia. You can visit her website at susanrebeccawhite.com.

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posted by Jamie Iredell