What Was Known
What did I know handing in my final paper before heading off to spring break? What did I know as I hurried the mile home from school, my tennis shoes scuffing on the warm sidewalk and the sun baking the first freckles of the season on my face and the air smelling green? What did I know as my hand grasped the splintered railing to haul myself up the narrow back stairs to the scorching glassed-in porch that opened onto our kitchen? What did I know as I faced my husband who had lipsticked a red heart on the new dishwasher he had just installed?
I knew terror.
Terror clattered my bones and muted my voice and tasted like metal in my mouth. Terror roared in my ears as if threatening that one false move and it would blow my soul to kingdom come.
I knew only two words, the two words left in me. Two words I had the strength to shove out before my lungs gave way.
My husband stood smiling by the dishwasher, my lipstick mashed to ruin in his hand. He stood as he always did—like an awkward child in a photograph, his shoulders hunched down, his belly out, bobbing from his knees, nervous puffs of air blowing out his nose. He knew what was coming. The red heart gave him away.
He said Hi Bun like he was surprised to see me. I hated that he called me Bun. I wanted to be called Babe, or Sweetheart, or The Love Of My Life. Or even my name. I hated that he never said he loved me but substituted instead a red heart he crayoned with my only tube of lipstick.
I said my words. I said I'm leaving.
Then he hit me.
I was glad of that—the sting, the mark. It put an end to my worry about the heart smeared on the dishwasher, my worry that maybe he would change, my worry that I had no right to leave after the vows I made in our wedding five years ago saying through thick and thin or whatever crackpot thing I said.
I knew that's what my parents would say. They would say what about in sickness and in health? They would say you're splitsville? Going south? Splitting the sheets? Then they would turn their backs on me. This is what I knew. This is what took my breath away. This is why it took me so long to say I'm leaving. Because leaving, you see, wasn't just leaving my husband. That would have been easy. Leaving was leaving my family, too. There had never been a divorce in my family going way back to before the Mayflower. There had never been this kind of disgrace brought down. This is what I knew.
What I didn't know was that the roaring wind in my ears would be no match for the thundering relief my family would feel that I was out of that marriage. I didn't know that my mother would clasp her hands to her chest and weep while she gasped out little prayers like thank God and finally, finally. I didn't know that my father would stuff hundred dollar bills into my coat pocket while he hugged me and said are you okay and how can we help. I didn't know any of this.
So, with all that I knew, I packed what I had in the back of my car—a car I hadn't driven in years because my husband said it was fine for me to walk. It took me half an hour, tops. All I needed were my few clothes and my school books. I wanted only what I could fit in my trunk and carry on my back. At the bottom drawer of the white painted desk where I studied I found an old journal, the one I started when I got married. I peeled it open, the pages stiff and crackling. The first entry, June 12, 1976, was the day after my wedding. It said I feel like a maid. That was the first sentence. I'd forgotten that it had happened so soon. That it had been so long.
He said maybe we could just be roommates, it looks bad you know.
I said no.
He said you have nowhere to go.
My ears roared and the metal taste swelled.
He said you have no money.
I had some, but I didn't say. Every month he gave me an allowance for groceries and I embezzled from that. When I came home from my waitressing job at the pub he sat in the kitchen and watched me clatter my quarters onto the table and hand over wads of dollar bills. He stacked the money and counted it. I called him King Solomon. I kept cash back from the tips, too. I had money. I wasn't stupid.
Still, I saw myself three months from now. I saw how skinny I would be. I saw the ramshackle room I would rent above the hardware store. A dim, musty room with a bathroom down the hall, the floor spattered with murky puddles of pee and yellowish plugs of phlegm dried on the grimy sink. A room with a flimsy lock. I saw myself pushing my squeaking metal bed frame against the door every night to be safe.
I chose that day to ruin my life, to save it, because my parents were gone to Mexico for a month. I decided to hole up at their house until I found something else. I felt like a burglar. I had agreed to water the plants, to collect the mail, but instead I was squatting. Crashing in my childhood bedroom. My bedroom that still smelled like cinnamon candles. My bedroom with shiny orange shag carpeting and one whole wall covered with cork, posters of Simon and Garfunkel and the Alman Brothers still tacked there. My high school graduation picture tacked there, too—me wearing a floppy pastel hat and looking sweet and young. Friends' phone numbers covered the pink blotter on my small oak desk along with doodles of flowers and puffy letters that spelled out peace not war.
I climbed exhausted into bed wondering what I had done. Wondering how I would feel in the morning. Wondering if I would be eaten alive from the inside out by loneliness, by terror, by shame. Wondering if I would buckle, shouldering the humiliation of going back because I wasn't strong enough, because I wasn't good enough, because I was wrong.
I woke up in the black tar of night wondering where I was. I was doubled over in my bed, my head thrown back, my hands gripping my stomach, hooting wild howls of thrilling laughter. Glory thrummed like hummingbirds in my chest bursting out in irrepressible roaring tides of happiness with the rhythm and gusto of song. I struggled to catch my breath but collapsed, overcome with peals—peals!—of shrieking gladness. Tears of holy water gullied down my face. I couldn't stop. I tried. I clambered through warm tangled sheets to the edge of the bed, my hands gripping my knees, grasping for calm, for breath, but euphoric laughter erupted from me like a boiling geyser, tipping me helpless onto my aching side, crippling me with inexhaustible rapture. Oh my I panted. Oh wow. What on earth I wondered. What? I strained and gulped for air, sucking in lungfuls. But it would not hold. My face cracked open with delight, unable to contain the divine splendor and I split again into uncontainable whoops.
I guess I'll be okay I wheezed, my face steamy and pink from sweat. My chest heaved with what remained of my exuberance. I'm okay. Everything's okay.
I let go my hold on the bed. I breathed. I knew. There are times when your soul knows more than your
mind knows. And my soul knew joy.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >