A Perfect Circle

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The first snow of the new year has fallen in the night. This morning the world is white and lacy as a bride’s dress. I open my front door and smile at the man standing on the porch. He smiles back-a familiar, lopsided, heart-stopping grin.

“Ready?” he asks.

Good question.

In my brief hesitation, the past comes pouring over the wall that I’ve built to contain it. The man on the porch is my husband of twelve years. He’s here to pick me up for our day in court.

The first time he stood on a front porch and smiled at me was at my parents’ home in Atlanta. We had never met. He had come to pick me up for our first date, arranged by his sister, my sorority sister Joyce.

Joyce was more confident than I was-probably because she hadn’t had as many blind dates as I had. “Not to worry,” she smiled, dismissing my apprehensions. “It’s gonna work.”

I vaguely recall opening the door and seeing his face-boyish, square jawed, handsome-ice blue eyes with nice crinkles from smiling, thick, wavy brown hair too beautiful for a man. My gaze shifted past his shoulder to the white mustang parked on the street and I sighed audibly with relief.

Then I remembered to suck in my stomach, wishing I had worn something prettier than my white culottes with a navy-and-red striped cotton sweater. I was thankful my parents weren’t home so we didn’t have to muddle through introductions and stilted conversation about what he was studying at school.

As I stepped down off the porch he took my elbow, something I had watched my father do countless times for my mother. I think I fell about half in love then and there. We walked down the driveway and he opened the car door for me. I remember we both lit cigarettes before driving off into the warm spring night.

The dog, pushing past me to greet him, jolts me out of the memory. As he bends to scratch her long ears, I think how little he’s changed. Just a few gray hairs and a few more crinkles around his eyes, not all of them from smiling. Once more I find I am sucking in my stomach and wishing I had worn something prettier than the gray wool suit I will wear to work this afternoon. Even in the face of the impending dissolution of “us,” part of me still wants him to think I’m beautiful and to feel the same irrational longing and regret that I do.

We’ve been separated for over a year-long enough to almost forget why we can’t live together. Even now, in defiance of all reason, I hear the voice in my head. What if something happened? What if power lines were downed by ice and we got stuck in traffic and we didn’t make it to court and we ended up spending the day together? Just talking. And we…

No. God knows, we’ve been down that lane before, separating and reuniting enough times for a whole season’s worth of All My Children. Let’s just be done with it.

“We need to get moving,” he says.

I glance at my watch, the one he brought me from a Hong Kong business trip.

He always gave me presents for my birthday and Christmas, but never spontaneously for no reason. As an engineer, his spontaneity was circumscribed by the mathematical precision of his mind, as was his choice of presents. Flowers were a waste of money; they didn’t last. Godiva Chocolates would sabotage my diet. Jewelry was frivolous.

Gifts he proudly bestowed upon me included a perpetual motion machine for my desk, a top-of-the-line vacuum cleaner, an automobile first aid kit, and any number of other items that ended their lives as garage sale fodder. Of all of them, only this watch was not tied to some occasion. And it’s the only one I’ve always liked and still use.

The divorce proceeding has been completely bloodless so far, as promised in the book I bought months ago, Do Your Own Colorado Divorce. “No attorneys!” the banner on the front cover trumpets. “No high fees.” As the old television commercial said, no muss, no fuss, no bother.

We flipped a coin to see who would be the petitioner and who would be the respondent. I won(?) and faithfully followed the book’s instructions on filing. Three weeks later we each received a notice in the mail giving a hearing date and time, along with a street address. True to form, he’s already consulted a map and knows exactly where to go. As we weave through the light mid-morning traffic I watch him from the corner of my eye. He drives seriously, purposefully.

We were riding along a curbless suburban street on a hot Houston afternoon. I was lost in a daydream of houses and gardens. A very old woman dressed in black inched her way across the street with the help of a cane. A car was coming toward us, one of those cars that had to belong to a guy whose part-time job was robbing gas stations. It was dirty brown, one fender primed but not painted, front bumper missing, tires bald. As it passed the old woman, the guy on the passenger side threw the contents of his cold drink cup out the window, soaking her.

Before it even registered with me, Jerry had turned the car around and was in pursuit. In classic cinema car chase fashion, he caught them within two blocks, wedging our Dodge Charger in front of them so they couldn’t move. He got out and ran over to the passenger side, opened the door with one hand and dragged the guy out by the front of his shirt with the other.

Jerry is not a big man, but he’s strong, and at that moment he was also ablaze with righteous indignation. The kid looked about seventeen years old and scared. Jerry got right in his face, speaking so quietly that even in the intense silence, I couldn’t hear what he said.

After a few minutes he relaxed his grip on the shirt, and the punk actually slithered back into the car. The driver oh-so-carefully backed away from our car, circled around it and drove away. Jerry came back to the car and sat for a moment, breathing heavily.

“What did you say?” I asked.

He looked at me sheepishly. “I told him I was an off-duty cop.”

“It’s a wonder his buddy didn’t pull out a .45 and kill us both,” I said. But I was secretly thrilled.

He gave me a loopy grin. “You knew when you married me that I had a thing for old ladies.”

I don’t think I ever loved him more.

The address on our official notice turns out to be a new three-story office building on an I-25 frontage road in my Denver suburb. The only visible sign says The Rusty Nail Pub and Grill. We find the suite number on the official hearing notice. The room reminds me of a high school multipurpose room. I almost expect to see a volleyball net set up at one end or a folding table laden with donuts and an industrial size coffee urn.

Light comes from green-hued fluorescent tubes and skinny windows near the top of the beige walls. In the middle of the vast linoleum floor, like a tiny island lost at sea, is a metal office desk, behind which sits a gray man wearing a gray suit. A plastic desk plate announces that this is Mr. Nolan Thomas, Arapaho County Court Referee. I choke back a hysterical giggle. Do we arm wrestle for our decree?

Mr. Nolan Thomas asks us if we have a property settlement. My soon-to-be ex-husband produces the notarized document. Mr. Nolan Thomas then asks us if we are Jerry C. Ryan and Judith D. Ryan, as named on the petition, and if we are certain the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” We both answer quietly but firmly that we are. Mr. Nolan Thomas scribbles his

As much as I try not to, I am remembering our wedding–the months of planning, the unexpected complications that occurred anyway. Vickie, my maid of honor, went out with one of the groomsmen after the rehearsal dinner, fell in the back door at three a.m., kneewalking drunk. Halfway between my parents’ house and the church, I realized I’d forgotten my shoes. Jerry’s best man Alan fainted in the minister’s study right before he and Jerry were supposed to take their places at the altar. A pregnant guest from north Georgia went into labor during the reception. These are the things I remember-not the vows that we labored to write, not the way he looked at me when he slipped the ring on my finger. The ceremony itself was just a blip on the screen.

We are escorted from the room by a clerk, who tells us that we will each receive an official copy of the decree by mail within thirty days. The door clicks shut behind him, and my ex-husband and I are standing alone in an empty hall, just us two statistics.

I say the first thing that comes into my head, which is, “I’m hungry.”

“Me too.” He tries a weak grin. “Let’s have the reception at the Rusty Nail.”

Lunch is pleasant. The food is good and our conversation is intimate, but not painful, more like that of two old friends at the end of a visit than lovers about to part. He tells me that he is going to San Diego again this summer and that he and Karol, the woman he has been seeing there, plan to marry. The news hardly comes as a surprise, but when he reaches across the table and touches his napkin to my face, I realize that I am crying. His eyes are wet, too.

In a few minutes we compose ourselves and finish our lunch.

“Well, it’s been a lovely party,” I say lightly, “but I have to be at work at 1:30.”

He signals the waiter and pays the check while I think of the thousands of times I’ve watched him perform this ritual. He casually figures the tip (I would have had to count on my fingers or hunt for my pocket calculator) and signs the credit card slip.

The cold air burns my lungs after the overheated restaurant. We both automatically look up at the heavy gray clouds poised over the front range of the Rockies.

“Looks like another front coming in,” he says.

“We’re supposed to get more snow tonight.” Then, forgetting he is no longer mine to protect, I admonish, “You be careful driving up to Boulder.”

He starts to say something, but the only thing that comes out of his mouth is a cloud of breath.


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