I had to dress formally, though the hearing was online. I wore the divorce suit that I’d purchased months ago and that had lingered in the closet as the pandemic kept pushing back our original court date. The suit was simple, made of white linen. I wanted to feel formidable, even if I was on the verge of bawling. Before the call, I did my hair and applied my signature lipstick: a bright, matte blue-red. My lawyer sent me instructions to download the software. I was to be ready 10 minutes before our call time at 9 a.m., and she would send me an email when the county clerk called to allow us to “enter” the virtual courtroom. We were first on the docket.
My virtual divorce felt dreamlike — weeks later, I sometimes wonder whether it really happened. So much of dreaming feels like you’re trying to grab the hem of something that dissipates right in front of you. Videoconferencing has the same effect, inducing an exhausting sense of placelessness. I wanted the courtroom iconography (eagles, maybe?), a backdrop of dark mahogany. I wanted the formalities, the trappings. Instead, I had my lawyer’s voice hovering in my speakers — her camera wasn’t working — and a view of the judge in his black robe on the bench.
I was sworn in and answered a series of questions that I’d reviewed ahead of time, a litany of “yes-yes-yes-yes.” It’s difficult not to look at yourself in these digital environments, and I kept glancing at the corner of the screen that showed my webcam’s view. How many people get that kind of mirror during their divorce proceedings, showing their own faces in real time, making them witnesses as well as participants? Six minutes later, the judge clacked the gavel. I had my maiden name back: Knight. He joked that I should brag to my friends that I got divorced on TV. I was thankful for the moment of levity.
My divorce was amicable but still difficult. He and I were millennial church kids, filled with shame about our locked lower bodies. We were almost happy, until we couldn’t pretend anymore. We were so tired of carrying our personal crucifixions around our necks and calling that a marriage. But the process of officially separating was one long limbo. We made our decision in the summer of 2019, then had to wait six months to get residency status in Tennessee, where we’d recently moved. When we filed in February, that started a 60-day waiting period. Our court date was pushed back because of the pandemic, then indefinitely postponed. For weeks, I had no idea when it would actually happen; there had been so much stalling. When it finally did, on May 13, it happened so quickly that I barely processed it.
Divorce might have felt bewildering even without the coronavirus’s delays. After all, what does it mean to officially “end” a union that already felt over, years before we admitted it to ourselves and then to each other and now to a judge? The truth is, I didn’t feel that different after I crossed the divorce finish line. I switched tenses. I went from saying “I am going through a divorce” or “We are in the process of divorce” to: “I am divorced. I am single. It’s over.” And I had my maiden name back — titles changed, back to the old-new me. But I still felt like I missed something.
Perhaps I craved the physicality of a courtroom because I wanted something to lend gravity to the proceedings. Instead, my online divorce felt like I was watching a simulacrum of myself in a YouTube clip. The coronavirus has drastically changed the usual pageantry of finality for so many people — compressing the proceedings, scattering the participants. It has robbed us of the pomp and circumstance that give psychological shape to life’s transitions: graduations at the end of school, funerals at the end of life.
After I closed my computer with a tiny click, my brand-new ex-husband told me that he was glad he had married me and that he regretted nothing. I agreed and squeezed his hand; the contact felt like a novelty in such a touch-hungry time. We hugged. We fought, briefly, about money. We made up. Apologized and walked our dog. It almost felt like any other day. But now, we belonged only to ourselves.
Friends called and texted, saying “Congratulations.” Later that day, I went on a socially distant walk with a friend also going through a divorce, and we talked about Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying.” The poem compares the end of a marriage to the fall of Icarus and recasts the event as a triumph instead of a failure: “But anything / worth doing is worth doing badly.” I bought myself flowers to give the occasion more tactility, overpriced peach, pink and white peonies that, the next day, busted open from their tightfisted buds into silky, luscious blooms of floral lace. Each morning after the divorce, I gazed at the fluffy flowers and smirked while making my coffee. Finally, one started shedding loose petals on my desk, the drops softly audible. I Googled how long peonies flower: seven to 10 days. So brief in their beauty and delicate bloom.
The pandemic has stretched out the days like saltwater taffy on a pulling machine, thick and cyclical. Waves of pain hit me at random moments — like when I’m looking for a pre-sliced pineapple pack at Publix, wearing black gloves that my mother mailed me with a note that read: “Be safe. You are loved. You are wise.” Waves of thankfulness overwhelm me, too. The official court proceedings did not bring me out of my seesawing state of transition, and perhaps they never had that power in the first place. I tip back and forth between grief and gratitude. Buffering and blossoming on repeat.
I’m still confronting the difficult gift of loneliness. I keep repeating and rubbing lines from Rilke, like rosary beads in my brain: “I love the dark hours of my being. . . . Then I know that there is room in me / for a second huge and timeless life.” Back to my maiden name in mere minutes. Sometimes, there is still a terrified bride inside me, afraid to walk down the next aisle in my life.
This story was updated on July 2.