I knew something was wrong when Twila gave me the stink eye outside the student union. Divorces are difficult enough. Being young – too young, I remember my grandmother saying – made it that much more difficult. Having a three-month-old daughter made it even more so. Getting divorced while being married with a three-month-old daughter on a small college campus in Eastern Kentucky pretty much guaranteed that only Sisyphus had a more difficult load to bear.
Perverting common wisdom, a divorce has more than two sides to the story. There’s the usual… what one partner says and what the other partner says. Then there’s what really happened, which tends to be somewhere in the middle. And then there’s what everyone else says. And depending on who it is, where their loyalties lie, what their predilections are, and what their own (inevitably skewed) views on marriage are, there are any number of stories, all of which sound true enough to pass the gossip test regardless of how close to the truth it happens to be.
The usual unofficial morning kaffeklatsch of what was then called the Non-traditional Student Union was congregated in it usual corner spot in the upstairs student cafeteria. Woody, Shyla, Tammy, Jack, Ernie, Barb, Babs, and Shane were all in their usual spots drinking their usual coffee and having the usual conversations – all of which can be boiled down to how most college students have it easy. Marie and I gained entry to this group not so much because of our age, as our ages fell within what is (still) considered the traditional age, but because of our marital and parental status. Young marriages were increasingly less common in the 90’s, even in Eastern Kentucky with its sometimes self-proclaimed penchant for the traditional and the morally unambiguous. Both Barb and Babs, both of whom were products of failed marriages forced by cultural shotgun, applauded our decision not to resort to sin by partaking of marital fruits outside the sanctity of the marriage bed. Tammy, Shyla, and Twila didn’t say that in so many words, but Twila – who was a grandmother with granddaughters who hadn’t headed the words of Jesus since being baptized Old Regular Baptist style in a coal sludge dirty creek at the age of seven – demonstrated her clear approval by speaking often about how she wished her Becky and Sue had inherited some stiffer moral fiber like me and Marie.
Ernie, Shane, and Jack had no opinions on the topic. Or at any rate they didn’t express any openly. Woody asked me once when none of the others were within earshot – with no small amount of incredulity, I might add – how I could saddle myself so young when there was a campus full of beautiful young girls to occupy my time. Jack kept his own counsel about anything that didn’t involve the NCAA and Ernie, who was trying to be a writer, mostly talked politics.
Shane never said anything at all. But since I knew he was the guy Marie was currently fucking, I felt like I knew what his opinion was on the subject of marriage.
The group fell silent when I approached. When I sat down everyone but Ernie and Jack moved their chairs back a little… not like they were making more room but like they were afraid that whatever was wrong with me might rub off.
Ernie eyeballed the women carefully before uttering a neutral welcome.
What’s going on, he asked.
Not a thing. Just waiting between class.
Barb made a harrumphing sound and Babs just shook her head. Jack nodded at me, the way men sometimes do to show solidarity right before the bombs fall and its every man for himself.
I tried making conversation, though I didn’t much feel like it. I wasn’t sleeping and even the copious amount of drinking I was doing wasn’t helping. Going to class was more an exercise of habit than purpose at that point and my professors treated me with increasing levels of shock, annoyance, or unsympathetic pity. I wasn’t doing anything. But I still made it to class. I was still working, if for no other reason so I could give money to Marie for Rhea. After we split up she moved out of the trailer we shared and in with a friend to help defray expenses. I was staying with friends who would ensure that, if nothing else, there would be beer and tater tots to eat and who could give me a ride to campus.
Barb made another harrumphing sound. You don’t need to be here drinking coffee like you have friends here, she said. You need to go and take care of your daughter.
Babs, Tammy, and Shyla all nodded and vocalized their agreement with Barb. Ernie and Woody shrank back into their chairs. Jack shook his head and kept his eyes on his coffee. Shane sat there rubbernecking and waiting for the actual carnage. It didn’t take long.
You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Barb went on, thoroughly encouraged by the congregation present. Your wife and daughter are living up in some shack with no electricity because you threw them away. And here you sit like you deserve to be around civilized people.
That wasn’t what happened. I knew that. Marie knew that. I’m pretty sure Shane, as amused as he was with the show, knew, too. The only thing that was true was that I left. The arguments and accusations, the yelling and recriminations by both Marie and me weren’t anyone’s business. The misery we’d inflicted on another wasn’t anyone’s business. And it wasn’t anyone else’s business whether Marie or I were screwing anyone else. I wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t change the fact that the marriage was over, that my daughter would grow up never knowing her parents as being a married couple. It didn’t matter that nothing in my experience had prepared me for that level of failure – not that anything does, really. But I didn’t even know any kids with divorced parents when I was a kid. My parents were happy. My friends’ parents seemed happy. That was what I expected when I got married, for all of the right reasons. And in spite of what Twila thought, it wasn’t to stave of immoral carnal lust. I was in love… or I thought I was, anyway.
But none of that mattered. Just like it didn’t matter that I had just seen Marie and given her money and asked if she needed anything. No, she said, like I insulted her dignity. We don’t need anything from you.
If there was any real justice in this evil world, Barb intoned, someone would take you out to a deserted holler and show you how we treat men that abandon their babies.
The congregation was silent. So was the entire cafeteria. Ernie and Woody refused to look at me. Jack met my eyes briefly and I knew he knew what was what. But he also knew, like I did, that no amount of words would change anything. Sometimes you take your beatings whether you think you deserve it or not.