My husband and I were a writing couple, communicating over the years via marginalia on drafts, cultivating a shared vocabulary, a compendium of metaphors. We referred to him as our “Chief Analogous Officer” for his habit of using analogies and metaphors to describe even the most straightforward ideas. Most of them were nothing more than wordplay that two writers found amusing. I didn’t really think he saw the planning of our wedding as us co-managing a fantasy baseball team, for example, but we both laughed when he made the comparison. Just as we laughed when he referred to our unborn son as “Godot,” though we fully expected the baby to actually arrive.
Some of his metaphors, though, I believed. When he gave me a framed photograph of Haystack Rock, he pointed at the huge boulder located just off the coast of Oregon that we had visited many times and said, “This is me.” I took his promises of stability and protection literally.
It’s not surprising, then, that when our marriage first started to crumble, I searched for a metaphor that would give it some weight. Our marriage is a roof, I told my husband in our therapist’s office. I was craving physicality: the bulk of a structure that was our shared responsibility to hold up.
My husband crafted his own metaphors. The woman with whom he’d had an affair was, he told me, a toxic drug. He’d sought her like an addict, he said, to avoid the pain of his father’s death.
After he agreed to cut off contact with her, I watched him burn unread an eight-page letter she’d written. When it was done, he said it felt as though the drug had left his system. I believed him because metaphor — like marriage — is a kind of covenant. The ashes of the letter settled beneath our fireplace grate, and I hoped they’d be a fertilizer out of which something new would grow.
Still, we separated, my husband citing a need to go through his detox alone. I convinced myself that he was simply out of his mind with grief and that he would come back to me if I gave him the space he needed. I held the weight of our roof up by myself, and though it crushed me, I didn’t put my arms down.
Metaphor, I learned two months later, is a covenant easily broken. Toxic drug didn’t mean to my husband what it meant to me. Alone — a word I would have previously sworn was not open to interpretation at all — turned out to be slippery as well. No words were safe anymore. Marriage, fidelity, alone, affair: Apparently, none of these words held actual meaning. The covenant of metaphor had become a conspiracy.
I sat under the roof of our house, wondering what I had been holding up, not just during the past few months of turmoil, but over the entire 12 years of our relationship. I should have paid closer attention, I realize now. When he’d told me he didn’t want the role of the husband, what he meant was that it had always and only been a role to him.
The next morning, I replaced the house key that dangled from his bus pass holder with my wedding band. It wasn’t a metaphor when I left it for him to pick up. It was just anger, hurt. The ring became a metaphor, though, after he carried it for three weeks, flashing platinum at the bus driver ever morning, but failing each time he pulled it from his pocket to even notice it was there.
Our marriage, it turns out, was not a protective structure whose weight we jointly bore. To my husband, our marriage was a weightless thing: easily ignored, or mistaken for something else.
Three months after my marriage fell apart, my brother asked me to officiate his wedding. It was a simple thing: stand in front of two people I love and read the words I’d written for them. Drafting the ceremony, though, confounded me. I’ve been trained in my craft to avoid abstraction, but what is more abstract than love? What is a marriage anyway? Standing amid the ashes of my own, I didn’t feel qualified to say.
We often say that marriage is forever. But that’s just two abstractions bound together by a helping verb. I wanted the ceremony I wrote for my brother and his wife to have more substance. I wanted their marriage to be more durable than mine.
Their ceremony took place in Sea Reach, Calif., on a rocky bluff buffeted by winds, overlooking the Pacific. He and his wife were drawn to that spot — her to the ocean that foamed, white-capped, 20 feet below their huddled families, him to the trees that grew in smooth arcs away from the sea.
“Your marriage can shape you the way the ocean shapes the shore,” I told my brother and his bride. I didn’t mention that it can also swallow you whole.
I told them, “Like the trees that humble you with their stature and longevity, your marriage can provide you shelter in a storm.” Was it my job to say that it is also so much more fragile than it appears?
I didn’t discuss my own yearning for a marriage I could live a lifetime beneath because I knew my marriage was not theirs. It was only my roof that had collapsed. My husband who had left. Though the betrayal had been his, the failure felt like mine alone.
So I didn’t bring up my failed metaphor. Instead I said to my brother and his wife the only thing I know to be true: A wedding is about hope. Two people come together, in front of their community, and they dare to hope that they will spend a lifetime together.
Hope is, of course, another abstraction. In the face of these abstractions, the couple seeks solidity — the tokens they might hold on to. Their rings. Their wedding finery. Their photo albums and love notes. Divorce is an abstraction, too, and I’m still seeking my tokens. So far, I’ve found nothing solid to hold on to, only things that need to be let go. Most painful to me: a novel — his debut — dedicated to me and released two months after he left. I didn’t attend his book launch, though I heard that he thanked me. That night, I doused a signed copy of the book in whiskey and reduced it to ashes in my backyard fire pit. It’s the only book I have ever, will ever, burn. Its ashes blew away, fertilizer for nothing.
None of this made it into my brother’s ceremony. What I did tell him and his bride, as they stood holding hands in front of me:
You will face problems throughout your lives together — small problems and large, concrete and abstract, problems that might on the surface seem intractable. In the face of these trials, remember the feel of your hands here together today. And when you need stability in your lives, let the solid thing you seek to hold be each other.
What I might have added, were I being completely honest: Let the solid thing be each other because the metaphors will not sustain you. Marriage is not a roof, or an ocean, or a tree. It cannot be contained within the pages of a novel, or reborn from a pile of ash.
At the end of the ceremony, my brother and his wife exchanged their rings, the tokens of their commitment. As I watched them, I wondered what had happened to my own wedding band. I assume that my ex-husband no longer carries it around on his bus pass, but we are beyond the sharing of such intimacies. He stopped wearing his own ring while our divorce was still ongoing, but only after I asked him to take it off. He’d intended, he told me, to wear it until the papers were signed, as though it were the piece of jewelry that was legally binding.
He couldn’t recognize the metaphor, or the way it had been stripped of all meaning.