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Break: Scenes from a Separation

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS


 

Part Two: Light Arms

I saw the inside of my husband’s apartment today. Saturday, April 19th, at around noon. Neither of his two roommates was home. One was in Puerto Rico, one was probably at his boyfriend’s. David seemed kind of excited to show me the place. Not because it was anything particularly special, but because it was his. I took a couple of pictures of him in the living room, bouncing this new paddleball he got. He says he can hit the ball seventy times in a row.
    David’s bedroom is downstairs, next to the Puerto Rican girl’s. Hers is a mess, his is Spartan. She used to live in David’s room, and she left behind these painted shelves for his books, CDs and movies.

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He has a small desk where his laptop sits, and I’ve loaned him my favorite lambswool throw to brighten up his new futon. I told him that if he ever gets close to inviting some girl into his bed, he has to give the throw back.
     Upstairs, I sat on the couch, waiting for David to unpack his groceries. We’d just been to Whole Foods. We used to go every Saturday morning when we were together. This time, though, it was different. We still paid for the food on the same bill, but we asked the cashier to pack it separately. I recognized this woman. She’d rung us up a bunch of times before. I kept wanting to tell her we were separated. Not that she would’ve cared. I just thought she might’ve been wondering why we suddenly wanted our stuff divided up.
    In the car on the way home from David’s apartment, he said I seemed depressed. I told him I was but that I couldn’t say why. He asked me to try, and I said that he seemed different to me. Like I didn’t know him anymore. This wasn’t really true. Of course I knew him. Only there he was, with that new bedroom, and all his clothes hanging on a rack without mine. He seemed excruciatingly out of context.
     It’s been a weird three weeks. At first we thought we’d want to see each other a lot. Make dinner. Watch TV. Stuff we used to do. Then we found that being together was really difficult. I kept crying because I was having sexual feelings. Nothing major, but then David would say he didn’t have any at all, and I would get upset.
     So we cut down on the visits. It helped that I had a couple of short trips coming up. The first was to Portland. I’d been invited to serve as a juror for the Maine Arts Commission, and they paid my way up on the train.

“Did you take off your wedding ring?” I asked. He paused, then said yes. I hung up on him.

From Penn Station to Boston, I worked on my novel and slept a little. From Boston to Portland, I started reading Jarhead by Anthony Swofford. I’ve had a crush on Swofford ever since I read his essay in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. It was about being a marine during the first Gulf War, and how marines are excited about killing, and that they’re not supposed to talk about this with reporters. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was one of the most honest pieces of writing I’d come across in a while.
     In Portland, I had twenty minutes to get to my hotel, check in, then head over to the first jury meeting. I thought I might actually be on time. Then it turned out that my cab driver’s son had just gotten his leg blown off in Iraq. The driver wanted to talk about this, and about his other son, who was with a tank battalion in Baghdad. And about his third son, who couldn’t wait to turn eighteen so he could enlist. He was a retired marine, and his dad had been a marine, too, just like Swofford’s. The driver had done three tours in Vietnam. He’d been a medic. On his first tour, he’d tried to save another soldier whose face had gotten blown off by a mine. He’d rolled the guy over, then jumped back when he saw the state of him. “I’d just been at my senior prom five months earlier,” he told me.
     The driver parked in front of my Holiday Inn and kept talking. He showed me where there was a steel plate in his head, and how his hands were held together by pins, all from having been blown apart by grenades. Chuckie would lob them at him (“Army called him Charlie, Marines called him Chuckie”), and all he could do was throw them back. “They didn’t give us medics much to defend ourselves with,” he told me. “Just, you know, pistols.”
     “You mean light arms?” I said. I’d just come across this term in Swofford’s book.
     The driver nodded approvingly. “Yes,” he said. “Light arms.”
     The last story he told was about a little girl. She had been wired with explosives and was walking toward the driver and his fellow Marines. The sergeant commanded this girl to stop in English, French, and Vietnamese but she wouldn’t. So he made the driver shoot her. The driver hit her in the leg, hoping just to injure her, but then the sergeant pushed him aside and shot the girl in the head. “She would definitely have killed us,” the driver said then, turning to me, and I agreed that she would have. He was quiet for a second, and I knew this wasn’t the kind of killing Swofford had in mind.
    The driver started talking about his wife — how she had died ten years earlier and now it was just him and his cats. He’d tried dating, but the women weren’t the same anymore. Finally I said I had to go, that I was late for my meeting. “Oh,” he said, embarrassed. “I’ve kept you.”
     “No,” I said. “That’s okay. It was really interesting.”
     He cheered up a little at this and handed me his card. “Call me if you want to hear any more stories,” he said, and I told him I would.
     David picked me up at Penn Station when I got back on Friday night. He seemed depressed, so I asked him what was wrong. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “I feel badly that I don’t feel so badly anymore.”
     This wasn’t what I’d been expecting to hear. “You shouldn’t be telling me stuff like that,” I said.
     “You asked!” he said.
     The next night, he went on a sort-of date. I didn’t find out until afterward. I’d left him a couple of messages, and when he finally called back, he told me he’d been having dinner with a girl from work whom he used to have a crush on. He explained that she’d called him and said she was moving to Canada, then suggested they get together. “Did you take off your wedding ring?” I asked. He paused, then said yes. I was furious. I hung up on him. Certainly taking off the ring was his right. It was just that two weeks seemed a little soon. I called my girlfriends to double-check, and they agreed. “You take yours off, too!” they insisted. “Right now!” I did for a while, then I missed it and put it back on.
     A couple of days later, I drove up to see my friend Holly in New Paltz. She’s kind of like a sister to me. We’ve been friends since college, and sometimes we fight, but mostly we try to help each other out. Holly isn’t Jewish, but it was her idea to host an early, potluck Seder. She just happens to love that particular ceremony.
     It was a nice evening. Dinner was served in Holly’s next door neighbor’s apartment, because he had a big table. There were twelve of us, and we passed around the Haggadah, taking turns reading from it as we ate.

I said, “This is nice. I’m not used to sleeping with people.”

This is not, apparently, the way you’re supposed to do things, but Holly’s Jewish friends said they liked it much better, because it went faster. After dessert, some people left, and others retired to the living room to tell jokes. I don’t really like jokes, so I wandered back to Holly’s apartment, where her six-year-old son Holbrook was sitting alone at the computer, listening to Kermit the Frog sing “The Rainbow Connection” over and over again, and drawing.
     I’m not much of a kid person, and Holbrook in particular can drive me nuts. That night at dessert, he’d removed the flourless chocolate cake I’d baked from his plate, preferring to eat it directly off the tablecloth — whipped cream and all. It was a mess. So I tend to make a practice of ignoring him. It’s not so much that I don’t like him; he’s probably a pretty standard little boy. I just don’t want to feel that kind of agitation toward someone so small. It makes me want to crawl out of my own skin.
     In that moment, though, I felt different. There was something about the sight of his tiny back at that computer, his hand moving that little mouse around. I went over and admired his picture. Then I sat on the couch and tried to pay attention as he told me a bunch of stories that didn’t really make any sense.
     I ended up putting him to bed that night. After he’d gotten into his pajamas and brushed his teeth, I carried him over to his bookshelf so he could pick out a bedtime story. He chose Bugs in 3-D, which I’d given him the previous year. He presented it with a flourish, and it got to me, this pain-in-the-butt kid clearly trying to make me happy.
     Back in his room, I kicked off my heels and climbed onto his spaceship bed — something I know his mother does. I’m a lot taller than Holly, though, and Holbrook was concerned that the bed wouldn’t hold the two of us. I told him not to worry — that if it didn’t, I’d get back down. “But it’ll already be broken by then,” he said. He had me there. What he didn’t know about was all the weight I’d lost since David moved out.
     The bed held us just fine. Holbrook looked at the bugs through the 3-D viewer, while I read to him about what he was seeing. I was developing a migraine from the wine I’d had at dinner, but I knew I couldn’t quit now. Not with the boy and I, against all odds, floating so peacefully through space.
     I slept in Holly’s bed that night, and by morning my migraine was gone. At around eight, there was a soft knock at the door, and Holbrook appeared in his pajamas. “My mom wants me to wake you up,” he whispered, hopping onto the bed. I told him he didn’t have to whisper, and he stopped. Then Holly came in and got in bed, too. The little guy was between us. I said, “This is nice. I’m not used to sleeping with people.” Holbrook laughed and said, “Yes, you are! You sleep with your husband, David!” I looked at Holly over his head. We didn’t say anything. We were both thinking the same thing, I knew. That we wouldn’t dream of telling him. 

Part One: Lost Cause
Part Two: Light Arms
Part Three: Stumbling
Part Four: Push and Pull
Part Five:
Forced Perspective

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alicia Erian is the author of a novel, Towelhead, and a collection of short stories, The Brutal Language of Love. Alan Ball wrote and directed a film version of Towelhead, which will be released later this year.

 

©2003 Alicia Erian and Nerve.com