I am in the Corcoran in Washington, D. C. Everywhere, I am surrounded by the Annie Leibovitz exhibition, A Photographer’s Life, and everywhere, I am undone by the evidence of love. There are, of course, the famous Rolling Stone images, the ones loved by the world: giant prints of naked John Lennon and clothed Yoko Ono, Meg and Jack White as circus performers with Meg strapped to a wheel and Jack aiming a dagger. But this exhibition also contains the photos of a dead Susan Sontag: of Annie taking care of Sontag, of Sontag being wheeled onto planes to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, and, finally, controversially, of her corpse, alone. I look at that thin, still body, the signature shock of white hair, and I know that all of these images are love.
But I am newly in love, and death is far off in the background of my world. I’m still in Act One, and Mortality is merely a dusty prop in a dark corner, to be exposed once, only, in the very final scene, the very last act. I know that I see love, but my love has never died—will never die, I think. And so, I have to round the corner before I find the photograph that undoes me and brings tears of recognition.
Small, square-framed amidst two or three other minor works, it is a picture of a handful of seashells. “Susan’s Shells,” it’s called. I weep openly. Strangers look over to see if they are missing another picture of the corpse, squint at the tiny image, glance sideways at me. After all the chemo and bones and death and pain, Annie Leibovitz took pictures of her lover’s things. She took pictures of the shells because Susan was loved, and because Susan loved them, the shells are loved. The shells are love. I am surrounded even here by love: these images of what the lover has left, in the end. The beloved, the beloved may be dead, but still her objects remain, and anything she touched with her notice has become love: all that it was and all that remains. I am surrounded by love. And because I am in love, I feel this, and I weep.
I go back to Alexandria, Virginia, to my beloved’s home to which I have a key, and I feel it again. I am here again from Missouri, and I let myself in with this key his hands have touched. I feel it again in his closet. Sam’s shirts. Surrounded by these artifacts of him, imbued with their “him-ness,” the smell of him, I am surrounded by this love of him concretely: tactile, viscous, the densest reality of this man with whom I am in love, perhaps more than I’ve ever been. I sigh with happiness to be this close to him, even amidst the merest traces. He seems so present that I turn, instinctively, to look for him in the doorway. But he is on a business trip, and I am here in his closet, looking through his stuff for evidence, the proof that his divorce was the best thing ever to happen to him and to me.
I am a snoop. If you are in a relationship with me, and I have not yet sounded out the depths of your heart, unpacked and analyzed the degree to which you love me, I will secretly read your diary, pour over your photo albums, maybe look under your bed to find, among the dust bunnies and crumpled, mislaid receipts, the measure of your love for me. It is not that I am empty, low on self esteem and skittish in my trust, but rather that I cannot accept “enough” when I could find out “more.” I am a museum with a permanent source of funding; I am the curator herself, rubbing her hands with glee over each new acquisition, considering its possibilities, reconstructing the exhibit again and again. I know each love is a story with the details missing, with multiple threads, and the fuller I can make the story, the more of it I can tell. And feel. And tell again.
This story, the story of Sam and Bryn, has infinite possibilities and has borne infinite retellings—a strong initial framework, rife with blank spaces, waiting to be filled with evidence:
We meet in Kansas, 1994, both in separate graduate programs, but he walks into the used bookstore where I work, and he smiles at me. I think to myself—I really do: “He is the handsomest man I have ever seen.” He approaches the desk.
“Hey, do you have a copy of The History of Saturday Night Live?”
In my head: “Oh god, and he is funny, so lovely, the man of my dreams.”
Not in my head: “No, but if you leave your name and phone number, I can call you if it ever comes in.”
The book comes in the very next day.
We become friends of a sort, despite his girlfriend, on whom I ask him to cheat before he returns to New York; he will say thank you and gently refuse, in the third email I ever receive. I will receive one email from him every year, and so, we stay in touch.
And when he visits me in Seattle, 2003, just before they get engaged, I am mid-way through my doctorate and my own happy relationship. It will not seem so strange, although I have my suspicions, suspicions confirmed years later, in bed, when I ask him why he visited then, why I was not invited to the wedding. Sam turns to me and holds my face. “She wanted to get married, but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep, so I came to see you. And you seemed so happy. I wanted to invite you, but you were the hope, and I couldn’t bear to see you.”
We are that story: old friends with bad timing. It bears retelling.
We decide to retell it. I am a professor in Missouri when she leaves him 2007, and the email I receive is, somehow, not entirely surprising: “I’m getting divorced and will be in Kansas in May. Want to meet up?”
It is not surprising—is this not how the story goes?
We meet again in Lawrence, Kansas—not the city of our meeting but the city in between that of the business trip bringing him back to Kansas, and the small, depressing university town to which I’ve willingly exiled myself, not fully anticipating the loneliness of the single, small-town professor. We decide to meet at his hotel room. Between us, we have eleven years of unconsummated desire, an implicit agreement that we are soul mates, permission newly granted. And we meet at a hotel room.
Is this not how the story goes?
We begin to fly back and forth between Missouri and Washington, D. C. I take to singing the Magnetic Fields’ song “Washington, D. C.,” joyful in its specificity, how it’s about him, it’s about me:
Washington, D. C.
it’s paradise to me
It’s not the people doing something real
it’s not the way that springtime makes you feel no no no
It ain’t no famous name on a golden plaque
That keeps me that makes me ride that railroad track
It’s my baby’s kiss that keeps me coming back
Occasionally, he has more business trips—one or two days during the three or four I visit. I stay, rather than return to my miserable town, consider these days in D. C. without him my chance to try out being the second wife. I prowl the rooms, feel out a space for myself in this home recently abandoned by the first one, familiarizing myself with his neighborhood, his life, his things.
By which I mean I snoop.
Still in the closet. The mother lode is behind the shirts. I push aside a box of files and find a giant document, beautifully illuminated with scrollwork, elaborately framed. It’s the first ketubah I’ve ever seen, but I recognize it from the mini-lessons in Judaism Sam’s been giving me—an explanation of a blessing here, “you cover the bread so it doesn’t get embarrassed,” a definition of a word there, a “lulav” is a palm frond. I gather in the lessons greedily: Sam’s faith. I laugh when others ask if he is trying to convert me. “No,” I say. “Not yet,” a part of me whispers, hearing the echoes of the not-yet-ex-wife, the phrase “cultural differences.” But here it is, this ketubah, her explicit agreement that even if she is not Jewish, their children will be . . .and that she will love him forever, as will he. I find his signature (Sam’s signature) and read the lines: “And I, Samuel Edward, say to my beloved, Sara Renee . . . .”
It is beautiful. But I am the beloved now. It moves and irritates me, these words of forever dismissed after two years of marriage. Our story is just as long as theirs, and our marriage will be longer. Is that not how the story goes?
I set the heavy frame aside, impatient, glimpsing the wedding album stacked in the corner. This object better fits my need for evidence, contributing to the details of my collection in a more satisfactory way. Images never lie like words. These photographs are sepia-toned, as if from an event well in the past, one for books closed, books of mistakes not likely to be repeated. There are many posed family portraits and few candids, and the curator inside likes this: the “not us” portion of our love’s retrospective. I will give it not even a full wall, this marriage never meant to be, a function of convention, John Lennon and Cynthia, Jack and Meg White’s brief marriage before the real fame came, the youthful, unquestioned “next step, later justly questioned.
The curator ignores the fact that it is the wife, the first one, who did the questioning.
Beloved, beloved . . . the writing actually on their wall. “I, the beloved, promise to break these solemn vows, beloved, once loved, I will no longer love.” Even as I look through this album, this bride’s face looks happily out at mine, and I know she is beginning life again with another, the bad one; they are the cheaters. I know this from her blog. My search is not limited to this home. An academic knows to diversify her sources. A curator will accept an anonymous donation, if it serves her purposes.
I close the album, full of his pain, giddy with the pleasure that I know it now. It’s not enough, and I want more. And then I know it’s here, somewhere. If all these things were kept, there is another object in this house. I will trace the failure of this marriage to its first object. I will find it and know it all. Love him fully. And somehow, I will know that I am, too. Loved more than her.
I look for some place small. Like me, my lover believes in ritual, and so, I think like him. That’s how it is, in these stories: two hearts, one mind.
And I find it sooner than you’d think: in the small, shallow drawer of his valet.
His wedding ring is placed inside another circle—a bracelet of beads, protecting it from further harm. It is a gesture so Sam, I catch my breath. Sam’s gestures. I pick it up, note the two diamonds inside the band, and (I do), I put it on.
It is, predictably, too big for me, but there’s a coldness to this ring. I feel less, not more. I feel, in fact, so small: smaller than this world I’ve made of Him and Me, smaller than a shell.
Even if this ring did fit, I know with sudden clarity what fact this evidence supports. I am not inside this circle. In fact, I am so far out of it that it embarrasses me. I need to be covered, like bread. This is the truth. It’s not the truth I meant to find. It is, however, the truth that must be faced, and for now, there is no other corner to turn and find my face in love.
This is what it means to go through a divorce. You exit a life that has been years in the making, and you leave it so fast, you leave a wake—not breadcrumbs leading you back to home but the pieces of the home itself. They’ve led me to see that you are the one who never wanted to leave, the one who can’t yet break the circle. I have presumed that I could break it, reform it in my own image, simply by looking to understand you, my love, my darling, by feeling out these crumbs of a home and thinking they were mine. But they are not mine, just as no collection of you can ever make you mine.
This is the end of this story. Beloved, beloved—there is a blank space in another story not my own, a story of you, a stranger, this quiet hoarder. Here is all the proof you’ll ever need that, once, you were not loved enough, not even enough for her to take the wedding china or these photos and save you from the things that were your things together. I know now these things will never be my things. This is not my story. I will not be the next wife.