You only remember fragments of the first few days. Everyone knew, but pretended they didn't. You kept imagining them whispering the word fragile, and the kindness they displayed just wounded you further. That morning, you force yourself to leave the hotel room. You need to meet your parents (they are afraid to leave you alone) and your boys at the airport. You can't stop thinking about what Jason said: "You wore sweatpants to bed. How could I be with someone who wears sweatpants to bed?" You remind yourself that you tried in so many other ways. The absurdity of it all hasn't registered yet (although, you haven't worn sweatpants since). That morning, you aren't wearing anything. You have to get dressed. You have been on the floor crying all night. More than crying, really, because eventually the tears stop, but your body doesn't, and you are left with that slow, soundless, unsynchronized heaving. Like an old film, you remember flashes of your life together in black and white. You exist in slow motion. You are strangely aware of how ridiculous this all is. It's like watching someone else fall apart. You are that detached. And even though your eyes are swollen almost shut, "get up," you think. Just get up.
Divorce is a special kind of agony. You exist in this liminal space somewhere between land and sea where nothing can survive for more than a few hours. Think about the word beached. Things get beached: whales and driftwood, seeds and shells. These things are left to desiccate. They don't belong, but they become a part of the landscape. Their bodies feed other animals or provide shelter or decompose back into the transient earth. In divorce you are completely exposed to the elements. The sea does not care for them, just as you have witnessed a series of promises and vows that have been thrown carelessly and ceaselessly against an inaccessible, rocky coast. You remember a time when the shore was a welcome respite, safe even — even when the shore has been challenging to reach. Even when you were both far apart, in your most vicious moments, your marriage had the illusion of safety. Yes, there were always difficulties, strong winds and currents, but you studied them, and you persevered past the coastline, because the shore was home. He was home. Or, he used to be. Until one morning you wake up and realize that there is something desperately wrong. You realize that the tide is always out.
Looking back, it makes sense. How you got here. You tell yourself that no one gets to escape these "rights of passage." You list your friends' names that are divorced: Jennifer, Talia, Rebecca, Sam, Jessica. You repeat this list like a drumbeat. You begin to include people you barely know so that you can make the list longer. You tell people that our lives are made up of choices and that this is clearer to you now more than ever. Your therapist tells you to write down three things you're grateful for every day. He gives you rules: You can't ever repeat an item on the list, and you're not allowed to be negative. In the beginning, you walk down to the beach and write: sunlight, breeze, coffee. You are waiting to feel like you are slightly beyond surviving each moment. You watch your children create and destroy their sandcastles. You write down: children.
When you arrive at the Atlanta aquarium, the water looks stunning. You follow the boys through the dark tunnel into the electric blue hallways. The light is almost oppressive; you haven't slept in days. Tarren and Wes are in awe of the exhibit from the moment they walk in. "Mom, look! Mom, look at that one!" You watch their wonder and that thing inside of you, that incomprehensible heaviness, breaks all over again. You want to keep the boys just like this in this moment: innocent and unaware of the heartbreak waiting for them at home. You want to wrap them in the fun aquatic colors, the soft sounds, the extraordinary life and possibilities of the ocean, the diverse crowds watching the seascapes unfold before them. The simulated ocean is so unnatural, you think, misplaced. Atlanta boasts the world's largest aquarium — hundreds of animals existing in ten million gallons of florescent lit water. You pick up a pamphlet that someone has left on one of the benches. It reads: "I Do Under the Blue." People have weddings here. You imagine your wedding here. Jason would have hated it. You are so weak, that even though you are aware that you just smiled, your face muscles refused to move. You watch the schools of fish move as one big harmonized furious pack, darting suddenly from one place to another. They seemed so unpredictable to you. So full of fear.
You are allowing yourself to be swept up in that unnatural chorus of color and display when you see them. Their translucent, tentacled umbrellas seemed to be floating as if by magic or something more secret. They're beautiful: contracting and expanding with each rhythmic pulse, propelling themselves up further into the bright blue. Soft-bodied and superficial; they belonged here.
"Look at those beautiful Jellyfish!" you say to Tarren.
"Actually, they aren't really fish," the volunteer, a frail looking woman with large fish eyes who is standing next to you, responds. "They are just Jellies," she says. "They have no head and no heart. People think they're beautiful, but don't be fooled by them, they're deadly."
You suddenly can't catch your breath. You imagine yourself sitting on your big blue couch, explaining your children's new life to them, saying serenely to the boys, "Your father is like a Jellyfish..." You can already hear Wes's tearfulness, "How many sleeps away from you, mom?"
The night he left you was unremarkable in many ways: Jason stands imposingly in the doorway of your study that is filled with shelves of dog figurines and books, walls cluttered with your sons' art projects and many careful drawings of world maps. In this room, everything feels so small. Jason, at 6'4" and 250 lbs., encloses you. In the moment before, you were reveling in accomplishment. You had just fixed the printer. It had taken you two whole hours, but you fixed it, without him, on your own while he put the boys to bed.
"Aren't you proud of me?" you ask him. He stands in silence. Another one of his moods, you think. He had a long day at work. You've both had a long week. But by now, you begin to recognize that Jason has been inserting himself with the kids more than usual: taking care of bedtime, fixing an occasional snack, buying them extra gifts.
"I want a divorce," he says in the same way someone would comment on the weather. So familiar and formulaic. So planned. He remains in the doorway, and his motionlessness feels concerning.
"You what?" you say slowly and confused. And, despite your robotic response, it's incredible to you that in your state of shock you are able to speak at all. You don't believe him. You wouldn't believe him. You convince yourself that his statement has seemingly been pulled out of the ether. It is a Thursday night. It is a school night. You stand there in study, locked in. His grey eyes are as empty as ever. They were as empty as always.
"Don't you love me? ... Is there someone else?"
"There is someone."
"But ... what about the boys? We have a home ... a business."
"It's over, Lauryn."
Hearing him say your name is like getting all of the wind knocked out of you. And it's stupid, but in this moment you are even willing to pretend that someone else doesn't matter. You ask him what you should do now, and he tells you that he already has his lawyers on board. He says that you'll have to get one, too. You are another business transaction, but you are so delusional that you reminded him of the plans for Saturday night that you both have with your friends, and he says that you can still go. He is packed to leave for a business trip to Dallas in the morning. You later learn that his someone else also lives in Dallas. You ask him if he still wants you to pack his food for the plane, and he says yes, but tells you not to put on too much seasoning. He explains that he can't sleep on the couch, because it hurts his back, so you will have to. You make a joke about you going out with a friend that evening anyway; he laughs. You don't sleep on the couch. You don't sleep anywhere. You wait until 5:30 a.m., until you couldn't possibly wait any longer. You call his mother.
You say, "Mom, you have to help me. Jason wants to leave. He wants a divorce."
"I know, honey. I've known for a while," she says in an echo of Jason voice.
"I'm scared for him, Mom. I feel like he's lost his moorings."
"You don't have to scared anymore."
The next time your ex-mother-in-law reaches out to you is three months later through a text message. "Darling," she writes, "I'm planning a shower for Dr. Dadoo. You're so creative! I was wondering if you could help me with centerpiece ideas — the theme is 'around the world.'" You text back, "I'm not feeling that creative."
At the aquarium, the woman with fish eyes tells you that Jellies hunt passively using their tentacles as drift nets. Jellies are carnivorous, feeding on plankton, crustaceans, fish eggs, small fish and other jellyfish, ingesting and voiding through the same hole in the middle of their bell. Usually, Jellies swim in a bloom or swarm or smack; but Jason was utterly alone. He had never had any friends as long as you had known him. When you met Jason through your roommate, they had been fraternity brothers in college, you were twenty-four, and you had assumed your meeting was accidental. You answered your landline one night and the deepest voice you had ever heard asked for your roommate. You talked to this voice for an hour. It felt like the most intense job interview, because it was. He seemed challenging and exciting, and you were intrigued by his bluntness. He said all of the right things. He was Jewish and single. He called himself an artist. He liked to travel. When you hung up, you called your best friend, Susie, and told her that you had just talked to the man you were going to marry.
The excitement over your magical phone conversation was short-lived. When your roommate got home he said, simply, "No. Way." He told you that Jason and you were different people and that Jason was strange. You later learn that the first time you actually saw Jason was not the first time he had seen you. He had invited himself over while you were out of town and had scoped out your room, your pictures, your art and books. When you finally meet, he is wearing a string bracelet that his little cousins had made him. You read this as compassion. It is sweet. It makes you want to include him in conversations, but people don't gravitate towards him. And in fact, given a choice, your friends seem to avoid him, but you were sure that in time they would see what you saw: intelligence and confidence. At a time when your closest friends could barely make a decision about what movie you should go to, this was a guy who knew what he wanted. But your friends didn't see what you saw and they were having a hard time accepting Jason into your group. Jason, of course, picked up on this right away. He gets louder. He asks you when you are going to grow up. He says you can't live and party like this forever.
The morning after the first night you sleep over at his apartment, he insists that you stay for breakfast. You had stayed up late drinking the night before, and you were ravenous. In the kitchen, he pulls out a bag of bagels and says he'll be back. He returns with only half of a bagel for you. When you call Susie, you decide that this is a deal breaker. You try to end things, but he keeps calling. He keeps showing up. One evening he runs through a thunderstorm from his apartment across town to your parents' house where you are having dinner. He insists that you let him in, but you go out into the rain instead. He kisses you too hard. Too fast. He uses too much tongue. He spends the next few days sitting with you until the early morning hours as you paint quotes on the floor of your new studio space and talk about your business plan to open an art gallery. He is attentive. He listens to every detail just like you need him to.
The Jellies are all pulsing in unison, and Wes's face is pressed up against the glass. He is mesmerized, and Tarren is showing off on the ledge behind him. The Jellies swarm closer, and unexpectedly, Tarren jumps from the ledge; he falls hard and scraps up his leg. His reaction is delayed, but once he decides that he is hurt, he begins to wail. As you wipe away his tears with your sleeve and pull him close, it strikes you that you can't call Jason. You are solely responsible for them — you no longer have a partner. You sharply and desperately want the outlet, even for something so minor as a scraped leg. You want the shared experience. You want the false sense of thinking that an engaged, connected someone is going to actually be on the other end of that phone. You are terrified. How are you supposed to keep your boys safe? How are you going to protect them when you are this broken, this wounded? You take a deep breath. You remind yourself that you make hundreds of these decisions every day. Your boys are okay. You are all going to be okay. The truth is, that you had been doing it alone your entire marriage: You just wanted things to go back to the way they never were.
You spend most of your time on the beach. So many months later, you like to close your eyes when you remember the wreckage. A cold wind starts in. The waves get a little angrier. You wave to your boys. You watch two teenagers, hands entwined, walk down the beach. They push and pull each other into the crashing surf. You walk down the beach in the opposite direction of them. You turn when you hear Wes shrieking in excitement. "Come quick! It's a Jelly, Mom!" he points, jumping emphatically. You join the boys crouched around the beached Jelly. "We have to save him, Mom," Tarren says. But, you tell them that it's too dangerous, that people can die if they're stung, and that even a dead Jelly can sting you. You notice how far the Jelly is from the receding tide. You can smell it beginning to rot. You tell the boys that soon, other animals will come to eat the Jelly and that we should let the Jelly go, undisturbed. You tell them that it's important not to interfere with nature. That everything happens for a reason.
"Like if we move him, then another animal might not get to eat?" Tarren asks.
"That's right," you say.
The sea gulls begin to accumulate, and you close your eyes again to remember how you had told yourself, "I thought we were so happy," and how you had asked Jason, "Just tell me, why?" You remember the last time he was inside of your home, the moment before he walked out of the door he said, "You never did like the way I kissed." You said nothing. Locked in him again. You never really got an answer to your question. Not from him. You open your eyes and see the clouds are coming in. You think about how if it stays calm enough the clouds will allow this evening's sunset to be even more brilliant. You want to keep everyone on the beach until that moment. You want them to see the sky transform, how the whole world can change so drastically in just a matter of seconds.
Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). Her other work can be found at NPR's Prosody: Pittsburgh Radio for Contemporary Literature, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, Cimarron Review, CALYX Journal, Spork, Luna Luna, and Marie Claire, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press and a Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH.
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