The night before the court date arrange your outfit on your bed: a black blazer and pleated skirt, high-heeled, black leather boots. Lay out your silky black raincoat, too – the one with the high, ruffled collar. It will not shield you from the brutal winter weather, but this will be irrelevant. The look will be what matters. When you dress in the morning and slip on your oversized, movie star sunglasses you will think: A superhero’s costume. Or a villain’s. Either way, the clothes of a contender.
When you call your lawyer to ask where at the courthouse you should meet, an unfamiliar woman with a lilting voice will answer and say, “I’m sorry, Attorney Wilson is in Virginia.” Take a moment to do the math: Virginia is nine hours away, and you are scheduled to stand in front of a judge, your wife and her attorney in an hour and a half. Punish yourself with the thought that your wife would never have been disorganized or unlucky enough to hire an attorney she’d paid in advance not to show up as the woman says, “Hello? Are you there?”
Lay your phone on the kitchen table. Raise your raincoat’s ruffled collar around your face and go look at yourself in the bathroom mirror. Make little guns with your hands, fire a few rounds at your reflection and blow on the tops of your fingertips. Then return to your phone. The woman with the lilting voice will still be on the line. “Are you there?” she will say. “Is there anything I can do to help?” You will fail to think of a single way in which she could help. “Miss?” she will say. “Is there something I can do?” She will sound so earnest, so kind. When she says, “I really am so, so sorry,” just hang up.
You will leave your apartment an hour before you are scheduled to appear. You will assume this will give you plenty of time, given that the courthouse is less than three miles from where you live, but the power company will be digging up a few city blocks, and there will be endless detours and backups. You will wonder whether this is how easy staying married could be: choose a thief for an attorney and fail to arrive at court due to road work. You will wonder, too, whether your wife will be able to get divorced without you, whether she was wrong about it taking two to tango. You’ll laugh a little at yourself when you think this, but only a little.
Fifteen minutes after you should be standing in front of a judge you will finally find a parking spot. It will be on the roof of the only garage with any space left, and it will be half a mile from the courthouse. Once you’ve double-checked that you haven’t forgotten the emergency brake, grab your bag from the seat next to you, slide your phone into your coat pocket and start hurrying. Look for an elevator and see nothing but an unsheltered staircase a few hundred yards away. A Styrofoam cup will sweep up in a swirl of sand and graze the tops of your boots. This is when you will feel how the wind is whipping, and how thin your coat really is.
Outside the courthouse roughly fifty people will be shivering and shifting in a line stretching down the front steps. Inside security guards will be asking everyone who enters to empty their pockets and take off their belts. They will be combing through bags in search of scissors and nail files and cigarette lighters. You will think: I should call my wife, my ex-wife, whoever she is, I should call her. As you look for your phone you will empty your pockets and bag to find only your wallet, business cards belonging to people you can’t remember, old lip gloss and a few beaten-up Tampax. You will not find your phone because it will not be there. It will have slipped through a hole in your coat’s lining and be in pieces on floor five of the parking garage staircase.
When you are finally through security you will understand you have no idea where to go. Stand in the courthouse atrium and look at the massive, dome-shaped skylight four stories up. Scan the crowds behind each floor’s railing. Look in vain for your wife.
In the atrium’s center will be a seven-foot tall triangular brass directory growing somehow out of the marble floor. On two of its sides will be memorial plaques, and on the third will be a map bearing an unhelpful red dot that shows you exactly where you are.
As you stand studying the map too long you will look sinister enough to attract security. “Hello, Miss?” a female guard with a gentle voice will say. “Miss, are you ok?” Feel the guard rest one hand on your forearm as she says this, and see the other on her gun when you turn toward her. Begin to cry, and when you do, focus on the shiny brass buttons that pin down the epaulet on her left shoulder. “I’m looking for my wife,” you will say. The guard will leave her hand on her gun then, but when you say, “Well my ex-wife, actually, I’m supposed to be getting divorced somewhere,” she will let go. Then she’ll introduce you to Bill, a burly court officer who leafs through a gigantic paper roster of the days proceedings until he finds that you’re expected in Courtroom 4B. He and the guard will wish you well and point you toward the elevator.
When you get off at the fourth floor, decide that a few more minutes won’t make a difference, and slip into the ladies’ room to compose yourself. Plan to spend just a moment checking your makeup, but then there, under the unforgiving fluorescent lights, your skin will look as dry as it actually is, and you won’t be able to compose yourself at all. You will see too clearly the lines around your eyes and mouth, across your forehead. You will think: Will my face always look like this? Barren and cracked, a dried-up lake? You will wish you hadn’t tried to save appearances with silvery eye shadow or mascara which, because you cried through it, clotted into tiny balls of tar.
You will try to arrange your short hair in the way that best hides your face, and as you do, you will spot your jagged fingernails and browning cuticles. You will think: I could have spent my thieving attorney’s fees on manicures. You will torture yourself with the math: one hundred and fifty manicures, manicures for years, that’s what my smart wife would have done. You will want to stay in the bathroom until whatever is supposed to happen happens without you, but you will know you cannot. Give yourself a little more time, but then stand up straight, raise your collar, put your sunglasses back on your face and head to Courtroom 4B.
Your wife will be standing in the far corner of the room. She will be wearing a crisp pink shirt and tailored black slacks, and her hair will be styled perfectly, patiently, into place. She will be standing with her arms crossed and her fingernails on display, and her attorney will be standing next to her in the same way. The attorney’s hair and makeup will be as understated as your wife’s, and she will be dressed in a pinstriped suit you can tell from where you stand is made from expensive wool gabardine. Together they will look like an ad for an executive staffing firm. You will feel too tall, too menacing. Menacing is not what you meant, really. You will think: They are dressed appropriately, and I am dressed like a French assassin.
Press your jagged fingernails into your palms and walk toward your wife. Begin with an apology. Tell her about your runaway attorney and the road work, about the unhelpful directory and the security guard. Tell her about your missing phone, you have no idea what happened. She will be quiet. She will listen. And then her perfect, blazing blue eyes, your favorite eyes, will fill with tears. These will spill onto her powdered cheeks, and this will undo you exactly as it has for the last six years.
You will want to retrace your steps then. You will want to walk back through the courthouse doors, climb up the parking garage staircase, drive back to your apartment and replace your clothes on their hangers. You will want to go back farther, to a night at the beginning of the end of your marriage when you’d fought to bitter exhaustion over demanding work schedules, waning sex drives and the garbage disposal no one arranged to have fixed. You’d lain next to her and seethed in silence as you waited for her to acquiesce at least to your point regarding the disposal. She turned her back to you and fell asleep. You turned your back to hers, moved to the edge of the bed and hung your knees over the side. You did this instead of inching toward her, slipping your arm under hers and placing your hand on her chest. In all the years you’d shared a bed your wife had done nothing but put her hand over yours and press it to her chest when you did this but still, that night, you stayed on your side of the bed.
Then will come the worst moment. The one in which you swear, against all reason and knowledge of relationships’ textbook trajectories, that if you’d only moved toward instead of away from her that night the end of your marriage would never have begun. You will torture yourself, too, with thoughts of the early, unfettered days. Like the ones you’d spent working in California and calling her every day at the same time from the same coffee shop. Over egg sandwiches and iced coffee you’d told her about your days, and listened to her tell you about hers. You’ll want to go back to that shop, to the day you’d called and she’d asked about the weather as she always did. “What’s it doing outside?” she’d said, and you looked out the window to see her standing there. In your mind’s eye you will see her smile and tap her fingers against the glass. “Hello!” they said. “Surprise!”
Back in the courtroom take her in all at once. Her eyes, her cheeks, her pressed pink shirt, her fingernails. Imagine the gentle weight of her hand pressing yours to her chest. Crave this
“Well,” your wife, your ex-wife, will say.
“Well,” you will say.
There will be a long pause. Then she will say, “Here we go,” and you will.
Photo by Kevin D. Clarke