Monday, April 17, 2006

There and back again

Since we seem to be on the subject of marriage(s):

Making love to your second ex-wife after thirteen years of bitter separation is akin to reliving the happiest day from your childhood, fishing in your favorite trout hole with your favorite aunt, a worm and a bobber on the end of a cane pole, fresh strawberries from Knutesmeyer's farm along with a thermos of cream. The aunt is youngish--Mother's baby sister--and she dotes on you, her favorite nephew. You notice her long, wet legs (she's had to wade out to unsnag your hook) without really realizing why there's a warm feeling down below your belly. You carry home a creel of brookies wrapped in the big leaves of an old dogwood. Mother fries the fish in butter and your aunt tells stories of life at the far-away women’s college where she's studying art history with designs on being a sculptor but more likely teaching in art in an elementary school. She thrills you with a first-hand description of Michaelangelo's pieta, which she saw during a semester spent studying in Rome. You fall asleep on with your head on your youngish aunt's thighs while the family is gathered around a campfire in the back yard, your father picking out a claw-hammer tune on the banjo from deep within the blood from the sharecropper side of his family, his rich voice at the same time haunting and soothing, creeping into your dreams. "Her skirt smells like cedar smoke," is your last thought before you drift off for good.

I met Ruth Apfelstein, my ex, at a dinner arranged by my youngest daughter, Billie Holiday Trout, this past weekend in our nation's fine capitol. It was a combination Seder/Passover/Easter meal hosted in the back room of my favorite Tuscan restaurant outside of Castilina-in-Chianti. Francesco was out of town, but we were well cared for by Levon, his second. Levon, like many of the great chefs, has studied under the best and has had all of his education solely in the kitchen. He showed up on Francesco's doorstep one afternoon looking for work, his only credentials being that he "liked to cook." Francesco was skeptical, so he pointed to the walk-in cooler and said, "Show me something." Levon whipped up an imitation of his auntie's sweet potato pie and was hired on the spot. Six years later and he's nearing the top of his game. He recently spent six months in the kitchen of French genius Joel Rubichon.

How Levon managed a menu of kosher-Tuscan is beyond me. It was too elaborate to get into the details, but the twelve in our party were stunned and sated. He'd even located several bottles of kosher Sangiovese from a Jewish vintner with an estate near Montalpulciano. Ruth is not a strict observer of her faith, but she did go through a spiritual stage when our marriage began to deteriorate. The kosher menu was more seized upon as a challenge by Levon rather than designed to accommodate believers.

Ruth and I were intently conversing by the end of the meal, oblivious to the others. We raced as we talked, breathless, each eager to recount our exhaustive strings of unlucky relationships. I told of the end of my affair with Shirleen, and the final, unspoken marriage proposal. Ruth's latest lover had been a realtor from West Palm Beach who was much too proud of his deep sea fishing boat. "He didn't read and I found myself yawning whenever I was alone with him for more than two hours at a time. 'Why do you do that?' he kept asking, but I couldn't answer. Finally my jaw got stuck in mid-yawn one know my TMJ...and he took me to the hospital. I had my face in a towel to catch the drool. He dropped me off in emergency and left. He sent a cab to pick me up after they injected muscle-relaxants and unhooked my jawbone, but I never heard from him again."

She twirled her hair in one finger the way she used to do when we dated. When she finished the story I laughed so hard that I had to excuse myself to pee. When I came back she was still laughing. "Fuck BT, we're getting old, aren't we?" Then she left to pee.

When she returned we decided right then to see what else in our aging, decrepit, repetitively divorced bodies was--and was not--still working. We returned to her hotel in Columbia Heights to learn that, while some of our flexibility had atrophied, most other things were still in fine working order. In the morning sunlight I asked her to stand naked in front of the window. "I'm an old woman, BT," she said, but complied and I sat on the edge of the bed fighting tears. She was still as gorgeous as when we'd been married.

"What happened?" we both asked simultaneously. We left it open-ended, laughing some more at a corner café over a croissant and an espresso that made my heart skip.

Marriages (and the subsequent divorces) can rip your guts to bits more than any other experience outside the passing of a child, which is something I hope to never experience. When I stopped by Billie's to say goodbye and congratulate her on taking the Foreign Service Exam, she asked me how my night went. Ruth had been a good stepmother to the girls, and I know Billie thinks I'm no good alone, which is true. She had arranged this whole weekend to try and spark something lasting between Ruth and this old Professor. I told her that it was wonderful but that I had no idea what the future held. I’ve been writing well lately, so I don’t want to make any sudden changes. She frowned when I said that you can't swim in the same river twice, or so has said a wise old poet. I was a little disconcerted to see that Levon had spent the night at Billie's, and when she noticed my raised eyebrows when the big chef ambled into the kitchen in his PJs, she said, "Daddy, I'm twenty-four."

Now I'm back home and through with airplanes for the forseeable future. I'll try to finish out the semester by focusing on my students. The whole episode left me both healed and wounded anew. But such is life and such is marriage.

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