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Cleaving November 1, 2000
The tides of a marriage
Have you ever thought about the word 'cleave'? It's one of those funny words, the kind that is its own antonym. First you cleave together - husband and wife, cleaving unto one another - and then you cleave apart, a crack down the middle of a marriage that splits the unity back into two. Think of the cleft in the rock, or the cloven hoof.
I've been thinking about it, because last weekend, as it turned out, two of our couple friends cleaved. In opposite senses.
On Friday afternoon, our next-door neighbor, Sunshine - the one who lives in the octagon house and snacks on dandelions - told Tom and I that she and Phillip had done the deed. Or, rather, undone it. She told us this with a beatific smile on her face, the way she says everything: 'I wanted to let you guys know, Phillip and I went ahead and separated.' Smiling, smiling.
We were standing in her dusty driveway in the blazing June sun, around the side of the barn where their mountain bikes and kayaks are stored. She had her wide straw hat on, the one she wears for gardening; I noticed some little weathered crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She looked - not exactly aging, but not quite young any more. The same way I've been feeling. Like time hasn't gotten away from me yet, but it sure is passing.
Tom and I stood there squinting against the sun, echoing her smile and trying not to act surprised.
'We went down to the courthouse, you know, and, it cost ninety-nine dollars so we each wrote out our checks for fifty-four fifty,' she laughed. It seemed forced. 'And we kissed and said, 'With this kiss, I thee unwed'.' She laughed again. They had been together more than ten years, since college.
Later, when I thought about it, I realized I wasn't surprised after all. We'd become intimate in a strange way over the years - the way you do with long-term neighbors even if you're not especially close - and I'd always known a little more than I wanted to about their relationship. They traveled separately: he to Europe, she to New Zealand. She had an affair a few years back, but they worked through it. He once told me at a party that he envied Bill Gates, which made me wonder why on Earth he was living in an octagon house with a girl who eats roots and twigs. At a low point, one night when he was away, she cut off her long blonde hair with the scissors from her Swiss Army knife.
They weren't what you'd call happy.
But still. I mean, who is, right?
'We're still really close, you know? It's hard when you love somebody so much, but I just keep reminding myself, this is right, this is the way it's meant to be.'
Sunshine believes in higher forces that rule the lives of humans: Nature or The Universe or The Goddess. That must be how she keeps that smile on her face.
As for me, I don't know about any higher powers; I mostly believe in making choices and living with the consequences. But I think I have felt the forces that can cleave a marriage apart.
Some days, eight years into it, I chafe at being half a twosome. On those days I wish I had my own bed. I want to buy just what I want at the grocery store, and eat it all myself. I want all the men at City Market to stare at me. Those days I wonder why it's worth it, and I rebel against all the ways that marriage softens and humbles you, makes you more human: I don't want to be willing to compromise, to maybe be wrong, to put someone else first.
In memory, the old, single me looks larger than life: wild, and radiant.
So it was just the following day that Donna and Henry did the other deed, and cleaved unto one another.
Their ceremony took place mid-afternoon, in the mountains above town, overlooking a grassy alpine valley with jagged, stony peaks rising in the distance. The crowd sat on the hillside on jackets and blankets: there were her colleagues from the homeless shelter, from the middle school now that she's a teacher and his from the engineering firm, their teammates from Ultimate, the people from the book club and from the co-housing they were going to join, ski and raft buddies, and of course relatives old and young. It seemed like most of the guests had kids or dogs or both, and it all added up to a regular hullabaloo. A bagpipe player, red-bearded in kilt and sock garters, bleated out his thin drone on the rise behind, making everyone talk a little louder.
I sat there on the grass with Tom, brushing off ants, and I couldn't help remembering another wedding, Sunshine and Phillip's, years ago. Everyone had held hands in a circle and offered their blessings to the bride and groom, who wore crowns of ribbons and flowers. A storm was coming in, and it started spitting rain halfway through the blessings. Thunder rolled. Sunshine laughed.
And then I thought about our wedding, how my best friend felt left out, and my brother didn't like my mom's new boyfriend, and my lipstick was weird in the pictures - how mad I was, and how it all seemed like a bad sign. Not that I've ever even believed in signs. And whatever bad thing it might have portended hasn't come to pass, not yet at least.
The bagpipe music changed then, its wail resolving itself into a version of the wedding march, small and thin in the vast open space. Henry marched front and center, scrubbed and blushing, dressed in a Western vest and cowboy boots. Everyone beamed. He was followed by a parade of brothers and sisters and college roommates, and Donna's two dogs, Kira and Tavi, bringing up the rear with garlands around their necks.
After a long expectant pause, Donna emerged from the aspen grove. Her dress was snow-white lace and froth, her long train borne by two bearers, boy and girl relatives dressed as junior bride and groom. Donna had ribbons woven into her hair. She was beautiful, just like a bride. Across the meadow, her eyes met Henry's, and their faces lit up in smiles so wide they looked almost painful.
The best man stepped forward; he had a scruffy beard and a sunflower in his buttonhole. He said, 'I'd like to invite the spirit of the mountains to be with us here today. The spirit of the river, and the spirit of the rain.'
I reached for Tom's hand. He looked at me with his familiar face, the one I've been looking into for eight years: thin straight mouth, high forehead, sea-blue eyes. He raised his eyebrows and gave a little shrug, and it seemed he might be thinking about the same things I was. We were like two people who have been to war together. This struggle to stay married and really be married, and make it good.
I thought: everyone wants to join together. If we didn't have this, we'd be off looking for it. There is something holy in a twosome, a deep satisfaction, rest, the sense of something completed, finally.
It was then that it occurred to me, about the word cleave: it has two poles, like a magnet. Inexorably we are drawn together, and inexorably drawn apart. The tides of a marriage. The heartbeat.
The best man said, 'The spirit of the desert. The spirit of the rainbow.' The valley was a green cradle that cupped the sky, cloudless. There wouldn't be any rain that day. A good sign for Donna and Henry, maybe.
And we sat there, Tom and I in our twosome: cleaving, one way or the other.
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