A Can of Paint
My husband and I separated this summer. The divorce is something I want very much and he wants not at all.
“Is he there?”
“Who is ‘him’?”
It was a Thursday night. I had called to speak to my son before leaving for a conference the next day. Bewildered, I looked around my half unpacked apartment.
I expect anger. I accept that there will be much crying and begging and promises of change for many months to come. I even expect jealously. This paranoid, delusional jealousy, though, this was something different.
It scared me a little bit. I don’t like being intimidated. Therefore, it pissed me off a lot.
“No. There is nobody here except me and the dog and the rabbit.”
I excused myself from the phone and went back to packing for the weekend. The following Monday morning, I sat him down in front of my netbook and told him to read the following essay while I took our son out for breakfast:
I bike under a railroad overpass between my lab and my home. The concrete pillars offer an ample canvas for the local graffiti artists.
I have borne witness to an inordinate amount of heartbreak in the past few months. I caused a fair bit (most) of that heartbreak myself. I know that few feelings cut as deep as those of romance. Still, this sort of thing, this dark testament that I ride past every day, this is not okay.
No matter how much you feel for another person, you can never own him or her. It does not matter how long you’ve been together. It does not matter how much you’ve done for that person, what promises were made, or what intimacies were shared. Although all these things should make it less likely, nothing will guarantee that tomorrow the person that you love won’t walk out the door. And although people should be honest and keep promises, nothing will guarantee that the person you love won’t cheat.
This should be painfully obvious, but many times, when motivated by jealous rage, a person will forget that one human being cannot own another human being. It is also hypocritical for us as a people to make personal liberty our cornerstone, yet at the same time normalize such possessive behavior in songs such as “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood. It is not okay to use violence or intimidation to keep someone around, whether it is for manual labor or companionship. Another person’s body is not your possession. It is not okay to retaliate against that person for what he or she does with it. Such behavior expresses a greedy sense of entitlement that forgets that person’s humanity. That is not noble. That is not love.
We can’t help how we feel. Giving time and attention to someone who does not want to be with you, or who proves not to be worthy of your time and attention, feels much like a fork twisting up your intestines like spaghetti. The feeling of foolishness and disappointment can make even the most reasonable person want to punch a hole through something. What matters is what we do with that anger. One can give in to that anger, or one can harness that anger and do something productive, or at least not destructive, with it. Nothing is to be gained by feeding fear and brutality. The slings and arrows of love already sting enough.
So, if anyone near Ames has some paint to recycle, contact me. It doesn’t matter what color it is, as long as it will stick to concrete.
His first response was to be defensive. He said he never threatened to physically harm me, which was true enough. I told him I wrote the piece for a general audience, not just for him, but considering that he was angrily demanding to know with whom I was spending time, he needed to read it any way.
Within a few days he apologized. This weekend, he came to spend time with our son, and he brought along a can of paint. We loaded up the red radio flyer and took a walk.
We went painting six years and a day after we went and got hitched. Funny thing about ceremonies, they are supposed to mark important transitions in life, but the situation before that boundary in time is essentially the same as the situation after it.
Walking from the ceremony to the reception with my new husband, I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel “married.” This excursion to the railroad overpass was similarly anticlimactic. As I anticipated it in the week leading up to it, I thought the exercise would be a good bookend to our married life. I thought of it as a signal that before, we were married, and now, we are not, and we will move forward and not be vindictive to each other. It seemed more meaningful than the court decree to come. Again, a deep sense that a chapter of my life was ending and a new chapter was beginning failed to appear in my gut.
It similarly seemed to fail to bring closure to my soon-to-be-ex-husband. On the walk back, I tried to bring up things that needed to be done on his end to move the divorce forward, and he did not want to talk about it. Or, perhaps this paint job did bring some closure, and that is why later that night he said through tears that it all seemed so final.
In the end, I think this small ritual will bring me closure as well. Looking back over the past few years, there was a difference between dating my fiance and being married to my husband, and the boundary does seem to fall somewhere near the wedding, along with buying a house, getting a dog, filing a joint tax return, and countless other little acts that go into building a life together. Countless little acts will also go into reassembling our lives apart- the first appointment with an attorney, the new apartment, selling the house, telling friends, taking back my maiden name. It will be these rituals, however, that stick out like signposts. They are chances to be intentional, to express what these changes in life mean.
This divorce is something my soon-to-be-ex-husband wants not at all. He has taken that anger that he first expressed towards me and pointed it inward. I do not know if everything will be okay, and I worry that it won’t. I hope that somewhere inside himself and among the people who love him, my soon-to-be-ex-husband will find the strength to pick himself back up, however slow that process may be. I hope he chooses resilience over despair. That choice is what this ritual means to me.