A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 8

Marriage and Divorce

There’s an interesting contrast between today’s pieces, one about joining, one about separating. The poem is marked by a sense of inevitability—the wife in it felt she had no choice as to her marriage, a feeling she seems to have feared and then, somehow, came around to accepting. In the story, meanwhile, there is no such sense of fatefulness to the divorce, no one clear reason. In fact, the couple seems like a good match, balancing each other out, finding humor even in betrayal. Just as there is mystery in what brings the couple of poem together, there is mystery in what drives the couple of the story apart. Maybe there’s a lesson here for writers about allowing for the presence of mystery, of the unsaid or unexplained, in their work; not everything has to have easily-mapped reasons or resolutions.

Excavation by William de Kooning

Poem

Marriage

Years later they find themselves talking   
about chances, moments when their lives   
might have swerved off
for the smallest reason.
                                     What if
I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?   
What if you’d been out,
as you were when I tried three times   
the night before?
                           Then she tells him a secret.   
She’d been there all evening, and she knew   
he was the one calling, which was why   
she hadn’t answered.
                               Because she felt—
because she was certain—her life would change   
if she picked up the phone, said hello,   
said, I was just thinking
of you.
            I was afraid,
she tells him. And in the morning   
I also knew it was you, but I just   
answered the phone
                            the way anyone
answers a phone when it starts to ring,   
not thinking you have a choice.

—Lawrence Raab

Who is this guy?

Born in 1946, Lawrence Raab has written ten books of poetry, as well as two screenplays, and taught at a number of universities, including, apparently, my alma mater! Today he teaches at Williams College. In the Boston Review, Don Colburn wrote, “Lawrence Raab’s gracefully haunting poems explore the fine lines of our temporal lives‚ between distance and intimacy, limits and possibility, present and past … In Raab’s poems, reason and faith are not as far apart as they sometimes seem.”

Story

The Divorce

He died while they were in divorce proceedings. She tried to be philosophical about this. Gary himself would have laughed if he’d been there to laugh. But she tried to think of it not as the work of a God with a sick sense of humor but as a kind of alternate message. She tried to be—what?—light about it. Light? An odd word, light, especially as it applied to her. She wasn’t light; she had no lightness. If you asked people they would have said, Oh, no, not light, whatever you mean by that, no, Sheryl’s, you know, serious. And yet today, now, she feels wrongly buoyant. Even the casket itself seems like it’s bobbing in water. She loved him. Some people that you come across in this world you come to love. He was one of them. Why? Why did God give us toes?

Nothing in particular doomed their marriage, and perhaps that’s why they decided to end it formally in the eyes of the state of Indiana before they had a true reason they could quantify to themselves in their heart of hearts. Heart of hearts: her mother used to say it. What did it mean? She wept before the casket. Affairs on both sides years ago more of a strength, making each of them more interesting to the other. Once she’d run into him on the street downtown, and he wasn’t wearing his wedding ring, and she’d laughed and socked him in the face and laughed and stomped his foot, and then she took his arm and together they jaunted down the block. Wherever you were going, now you’re going this way. It wasn’t that. And to the end they’d laughed. She wasn’t light, but they’d always laughed. Together they’d laughed. It was more baffling than sad. She wept out of confusion. Just the past weekend he was packing boxes and asking, politely, if he should take or leave for her the ashtray they’d stolen from that hotel in New York. You want it? No, you take it. No, I want you to have it. Neither of them even smoked anymore. What happened to smoking? She wept before the casket. She was in the seat of honor, the seat closest to him, the seat of most grief, and sometimes she reached out. The casket was too far away for her to touch it. She reached, and somehow that felt more right, to reach but not to touch. Still, she wished she came from the sort of people who flung themselves on a casket. She saw that once. At the funeral of a Filipino coworker. The lack of restraint was inspiring. She was envious. But her own situation was awkward. Most of their friends knew what had been going on between them. And their kids too. Their kids were troupers. They never passed judgment. I mean, who wasn’t divorced? Mom, Dad, do what you gotta do. They’d stayed out of their parents’ lives as their parents stayed out of theirs. Not out exactly, maybe better to say that in the family everybody kept a respectful distance, and when they did meet at home for holidays, parents and children (the three kids in various stages of their twenties and thirties), they would all examine one another with interest as though they were visiting a museum—for an hour or two.

“Oh, Sheryl, I’m so, so—”

“I know. I know.”

When it was over she went home, got undressed, and stood before the mirror in what had been their bedroom. What was it now? He’d been sleeping in one of the kids’ rooms while he apartment hunted, a phrase he took literally. Gary was hunting down a home, a place to land now that their bedroom was no longer their bedroom, their house no longer their house. Funny how even familiar rooms, even architecture you know in the bones of your fingers, can one day deny you. An ordinary house gets haughty. Now you’re a guest. Now you take up space. She would have to get dressed again to go to his sister’s house. His sister had offered to host the after-funeral, and it was generous, given that it might be uncomfortable for the mourners to see his boxes packed up like this, as if he were only leaving town or the state. The question of what to do with his things would be decided by the children, at which time the fact that everything was already boxed would be helpful. She put on a dress. Then, hating it, tore it off. She remained in front of the mirror and wept. Not as she had at the funeral, but out-loud sobs that embarrassed her, even though it was only her and the cat on the bed. The cat on the bed like nothing happened. Gary was the only one who loved the cat. He’d needed to find an apartment that accepted pets, or at least cats, which he’d said wasn’t so easy these days. Everybody was against pets. Or they tried to shake you down for a deposit. How much damage would a single cat do? A lot, she’d said. Think about what Molly did to the wallpaper. All he was doing was moving out. It was ridiculous. She looked at herself in the mirror. Not so bad. Her arms could use a little work, but not so bad. She would be wanted again. I will be wanted. She stood sobbing before the mirror, watching herself. Will be wanted. Naked, he was always nervous, jittery. He was self-conscious about what he considered his small penis. How did he know it was small? Did he go around comparing it? Their sex? Not unloving, just hasty. They’d turn on the light again, start reading again in their books where they’d left off. And he packed his boxes not in anger but in bemusement, holding up things, asking, Do you mind? Or, This blanket is definitely yours. He was magnanimous about the fancy wedding-gift cast-iron pots, the good saucepans. He took only what he might need for a small one-bedroom apartment. Still, she could sneak a few things back now. The painting, for instance. He’d packed it up with Styrofoam peanuts. They’d had a friend once, an angry aspiring painter. The friend had painted what he called a portrait of the two of them. It was abstract. It was of a mound of some sort. The mound was blue. The background was yellow. You couldn’t know it was a portrait of the two of them unless you were told. It had always bothered them. It’s as if we’re already dead, Gary once said, banished to a hippie cemetery. They’d held on to it, hung it in a corner of their bedroom (behind the standing lamp) in case their friend one day became famous. He was certainly angry enough to be famous. Then they’d be able to say they’d known all along how talented he was. Their painter friend—what happened to him? People, they evaporate. She stood before the mirror. But somebody who was just here? How do you remember somebody who was just right here a minute ago? Gary used to sit at the kitchen table and read to her things out of the paper. One day, one lost day decades ago, he’d said something about Egypt. Something about the Suez. How it all started with the Suez. Strange, he’d said, canals usually cause more problems than they solve. Why do you think that is? She’d taken a bite of her toast. She’d never answered.

—Peter Orner

Who is this guy?

Peter Orner was born in Chicago, where many of his stories are set, though he now lives in Vermont. He has written two novels, three story collections, and a book of essays. In the New York Times review of his most recent collection, “Maggie Brown & Others,” Elizabeth Graver wrote, “Orner captures the power of flickering encounters that don’t count as major milestones but persist in memory for what they have unleashed: a violent urge, a sharp regret, a renewed estrangement from or connection to the self.”

Prompt

Write a scene between two characters, each of whom wants something from the other. What they want should be at odds in some way. Include lots of dialogue.