Scenes From a Marriage Museum
The Scream, Edvard Munch
Our daughter’s understatement: I know this is a simple note for a huge milestone—Happy 30th Anniversary! It probably feels like the wrong time to celebrate… Hmm. You are clutching your face with both hands, mouth open in paralyzing anxiety. When you’re not doing that, you hold your head in your hands or compulsively line up items on the coffee table. You are on medical leave from a new job; you believe the house we purchased four months ago is worthless. And we are living across the country from almost everyone we know. A neighbor I ran into at the grocery store said, Hello, how are you? I said, Other than my husband having a breakdown, just fine. She got away as fast as she could.
Boating on the Seine, Pierre-August Renoir
We are like the two relaxed women in their rowboat. Drama is behind us. The ripples are small. Our reflections in the water are like theirs—still, calm. Is that a modest sailboat across the water? It, too, is steady. What are the women saying to each other? La vie est belle, probably. Talking conversationally, gently, as we do these days. The sun makes all the colors brighter. Even their rowboat looks golden. The water is sapphire blue, the grass on the bank, emerald green. Tranquility.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso
Also known as Father’s Day 2009.
You: I don’t want to be married anymore.
Me: Should we talk…?
You: No, there is nothing to say. I’ve looked into a collaborative divorce.
Upstairs our daughter rips up her Father’s Day card.
You—smug sullen bull.
Me—open-mouthed horse shrieking. Me also—open-mouthed mother looking to the sky, open-mouthed victim hands raised, lifeless man on the ground, outstretched hand clutching a knife.
You move into the basement, our daughter visits a boyfriend, I hike. In early August, I volunteer at a camp for incarcerated dads and their kids. When the director drops me home a week later, you meet us at the car. Something is different. You help me with my suitcase, a humbled look in your eyes, a returning. Like my dad and your mom thought, you had a crisis. I don’t know why it began. I don’t know why it ends.
The Approaching Storm, Gustave Courbet
Half the sky is a pure, solid black. The other half, streaks of blue. Trees bend. Leafy branches hang at ninety-degree angles. It is a Sunday afternoon April 2008, and outside our living room window, the rain pours, yard debris spins, a churning sound begins. My phone conversation with a sister ends: My god, a tornado. We don’t usually say this in Maryland. I drop the phone, run to the basement, scream for our deaf old dog. Fifty-year-old oak trees crash through the roof.
You and our daughter arrive home later that day and only then find out. There had been no cell service on the train from New York. Head in hands, our daughter sits silently on the curb across the street from our damaged house, her bedroom open to the sky. Your depression begins five days later and goes on as we move to a rental for half a year.
Running Man, Kazimir Malevich
The Running Man will always wear a green jacket and white pants. The sky behind him will always be blue. He will always be upright. One early March morning, your brother starts his usual run down a quiet Winchester street. His heart stops, he falls. Our sister-in-law sleeps until their radio emits static at that same moment—6:20 a.m. on a Thursday. Two days later, you speak at his funeral service, make a joke or two, return home, and promptly go into a frenzy of work, denial, and not sleeping. We rarely talk and cannot mourn together.
Grazing Sheep, Dunquin, Irene Woods
This edge of the world won’t let me fall off. Are they both yours? Your daughters are sweet. Are they twins? The assumptions I love. The illusion I preserve. No one knows us. My eight-year-old and her best friend. Both ours in a foreign country. Peeling their soaked clothes off them in the Irish B & B. Helping them into dry clothes. The softness of the sheep and the mossy hills. The Atlantic is calm. Those could not be gray clouds among the white in the painting. I love you more here than I do at home. I am happy.
Mother and Baby, Mary Cassatt
Do you hate dad? A heart-ripping question from our six-year-old. Of course not, the answering lie. An adoption fall-through and you are done. There will be no second child. So yes, I hate you. I want to run away. The painting taunts. There will be no toddler’s hand on my wrist, no fingers reaching up to my chin. I will not hold a baby on my lap again, my arms encircling chubby thighs.
In one of my mother’s finer moments, she encourages me to have a child with someone else. Do whatever it takes. She loves you, with reservations about your steadfastness, but I am her first love. She only wants me to be happy.
The Peasant Dance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Centuries after Bruegel painted, this is what our life and neighborhood feel like. Children running in and out of homes, neighbors drinking and eating in the park, a couple kissing at a picnic table (maybe you and me), houses close together, new friends, conversation, being part of something. We don’t know it at the time, but this is why we bought our house, the first we saw. Never mind the avocado green carpet everywhere that needs tearing up, the gouge you make when you try to refinish the living room floor. We are beginning.
Nursing Mother in Front of Birch Forest, Paula Modersohn-Becker
The nursing mother is plain and solid in shades of brown—her hair, her clothes, the woods around her. I look down at our baby the same way she looks at hers. In the middle of the night, I hold our six-month-old in the pink and blue striped rocker. I always wanted to feel normal, maybe like everyone else. Now I do. We are doing what people do.
Orpheus and Euridice, George Frederic Watts
A joke is the beginning. You tell me what your new colleague said, and I somehow know about this man I’ve never met: I love him. When I meet him soon after, I do. He is the one. Or would have been. I recognize him. I want him. When we meet across the ping-pong table or on the softball field or at a house party, the silent movie in my head runs wild. I am Orpheus clawing for Euridice, my clothes torn, my hair windblown. He tells you, Treat her well.
Mr. and Mrs., Margaret Singer
A wedding gift from my artist aunt, a framed black and white charcoal of a man and woman in the front seat of a car. An unexpected subject since my aunt never wanted to marry and never did. It turns out I do, and in time to have a child. We are not as somber as this couple, the woman especially, with her downcast eyes. You love me without reservation, we know what the other has come from—the harsh father, the yielding mother, music, museums, books. This is the right thing and the right time. A wedding guest watches us slow dance. I can tell how in love you are. I wonder what she sees.