Coverture by Meredith DiMenna
As the judge read the terms of their agreement, Suzanne could tell by their shoulders that they hoped the rest of the people in courtroom were impressed with how reasonable it all was. Did everyone see how civil, even kind, was their treatment toward one another? They both seemed extremely proud of themselves, Suzanne thought, watching from the back of the room.
The kids would go here on certain days, there on others. He would keep this money; she would keep that money. This money from that would be split. The house was being sold, proceeds to be divided as such. She would be paying the alimony. Ah, Suzanne thought. She makes the money. That’s why it’s so fair and equitable.
She laughed to herself at this assessment. That she was still willing to claim the superiority of her own gender after the behavior that had landed her here, sitting in the fourth row, behind these expressive shoulders, waiting for her own terms to be read aloud in a room of strangers, was laughable. The person sitting next to her might say typical . . .
Just as Suzanne’s mind began the downward spiral into self-flagellation, the judge brought down the gavel. Saved by the knock.
The next couple was in their sixties. She resembled Rue McLanahan and she was getting the house in Florida, which seemed fitting. He might have made a good presidential candidate. They were selling their house in Connecticut, and she would get a pretty big check. As the judge read the terms, she held her head high, keeping her eyes forward. Her salmon colored dress fit her beautifully. When it was over, her now ex-husband offered her a hand as they stepped down from the platform, which she took gracefully, a clear indication to Suzanne that she had been replaced by someone younger. They walked out together.
A problematic theory invaded Suzanne’s mind. She had always felt strongly that married people had an obligation to keep themselves looking good and fit, or at least as close to good and fit as they were when the other person decided to sign up for life. Anything else was a bait and switch, a breach of contract. But this was an example where the woman had done exactly that and was still replaced, replaced for a version of herself with whom nature ensured she could not compete. She had now seen this a few times among friends of her parents. The women who aged well and stayed beautiful were left for newer versions of themselves, while the ones who chopped their hair and became thick around the middle seemed to keep theirs. An important side note might be that, in these cases, the men were thick around the middle and short on hair too. So maybe that was it, if both parties let themselves go, then both parties have no reason, no incentive, no chance really, at moving on. Was it possible that these wives who kept themselves up, actually did themselves a disservice by keeping their husband’s game up, alive and awake enough to attract a new model?
Her mind spiraled – maybe attractiveness ITSELF elevates hormone levels – maybe the wife’s attractiveness actually stimulates testosterone, maybe male and female hormones are in a never ending feedback loop based on mutual exposure or non-exposure, maybe there was a sweet spot – a level of attractiveness that kept your husband at home, while still maintaining a sex life, maybe . . .
She heard her name.
The judge said “Suzanne . . . Winters”.
Not her. Another Suzanne. Somebody else’s future ex-wife.
What a funny joke that was when they were all in the bar scene in their 20s. This is my future ex-wife. Ha ha ha ha!
This theory regarding the attractiveness clause in the marriage contract was one of dozens that her brain forced her to acknowledge on a regular basis. Though she struggled to banish these thoughts completely, over the years she had come to identify them in total as the Economic Theory of Love. She hoped that keeping them to herself meant they would have no power over her, but she feared that it was the opposite. Refusing to expel them verbally most likely meant she had actually made her decisions informed by them.
There was plenty of evidence to support this.
In fact, her husband represented a real life illustration of two of her theories, two of the more insidious and the more presumptuous, developed before she had appropriate knowledge of anything that would entitle her to develop thoughts on either economics or love.
The first theory concerned the percentage of available men that truly wanted to be with a woman forever. At the tender age of 15, she felt certain that this percentage was approximately 15%, a number that reflected that this population is significant but rare, and that furthermore, if a woman were so lucky as to meet one of these men, she should immediately marry him if he asked. She proffered this theory for years, repeated it often, both as an empowering basis for moving on from any member of the 85% or more often as the basis for accepting him and working with what you got. Ancillary to this theory was that members of the 85% can and must be strategically cajoled into a commitment relationship by your average intuitive, intelligent woman.
The second theory claimed that the marriages that have the best chance of survival are those that emerge from the man’s instincts, from that magic moment that happens to some men when they see a woman and know instantly, “It’s her!” It is a moment much dramatized in literature and film, and therefore subject to widespread skepticism, cynicism, and disbelief, but it does exist, she was positive, and it is powerful.
On one particular night, in the downstairs of a suburban bar, her future ex-husband had told her, “if I could make my perfect woman, it would be you.” Despite the fact that this declaration filled her with fear and dread, she decided to act in accordance with her two theories, and marry this man, one of the 15% who had claimed her as his own.
In her purse, she now carried a piece of paper her new shrink had given her. It featured that quote about “thoughts become things”. It occurred to her suddenly that it was also quite possible that she ordered up a member of this mythic 15%, predisposed to have a “that’s my girl” moment upon their meeting.
In eighth grade science they learned the scientific method. Theories had to be proven and in order to prove them you had to test them. She had tested her theories, and the results were surprising. She was right on both counts, but the theory simply didn’t account for what it felt like to be the woman. See, theories are based on a set of facts. Suzanne’s economic theory of love was based on the assumption that women always wanted to be married, they just had to find the right guy. This fact turned out not to be a fact. In essence, it wasn’t so much that the theory had been disproven. It was more that the theory questioned its own assumptions.
The theory made an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. Ha ha ha ha!
She glimpsed her husband’s hands folded in his lap. Her husband, at least for the next twenty minutes or so. Then he would become her ex-husband. She would be someone with an ex-husband.
Was there a more hideous phrase in the . . .
Another knock. But this time it was at the door of the courtroom. The judge looked up. Everyone looked around confused. A man opened the door and peaked in.
The judge continued, raising an eyebrow to a bailiff to take care of the interruption. The bailiff started walking slowly, nonchalantly toward the man, who began speaking . . .
“I’m sorry, your honor, so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I know, this is probably so strange . . . I’m so sorry, I, uh, was just wondering, did my dog come through here?”
The judge responded immediately, “Sir, please leave the courtroom. Bailiff, please help this man.”
The man’s eyes darted around the room and took a couple of steps past the doorway, slightly hunched over, the posture of a man looking for a dog.
“Judge, I’m sorry, I know you are probably certain that he is not in here, but he is a real subtle kinda dog, real stealthy, you know? I’m pretty sure he’s here.”
The bailiff reached the man and put a hand on his shoulder. “Sir, please.” He guided him to turn around and head back out the door.
“Oh, look!” said someone from the front row.
A tiny white bichon trotted out from behind the bench. He seemed to realize everyone was staring at him. He turned around and looked at the judge who had no choice but to smile.
The humor of the situation made its own stealthy, slow-motion journey through the courtroom, which up until now had been utterly humorless. Suzanne knew she was not the first to giggle, but once she did, hers joined the wave of giggle fits creeping through the room like a cool breeze.
She looked over at her husband. He was laughing too.
The judge recovered quickly. “Sir, you have your dog. Please leave the courtroom. Baliff, help the man, please.”
The man and the bailiff each bent over to retrieve the dog who was determined not to be retrieved. The bichon scurried under the benches where the previously solemn couples sat, most of them now turning side to side trying to follow the sound of the tiny footsteps or bending over feeling voyeuristic as they suddenly felt intimate with each other’s ankles.
To Suzanne’s surprise the bichon jumped up from under her bench and landed on her lap, looking up at her with what felt like recognition. She petted its head instinctively, as did her still-husband. She remembered that his family had a white bichon when he was growing up which instantly reminded her that he also used to have three or four white bunnies that he had raised himself when he was nine. A wolf or coyote or something had broken into the cage one night and eaten them all. He had awakened in the morning to find their cage ravaged, strewn with hair and blood. He reenacted for her his devastated reaction, running back into his house to find his mother, face streaked with tears.
The image of this event, of which she had no actual memory except the retelling, but with her husband’s youthful face, she supposed was almost as good as the real thing, haunted her frequently. It was one of the first things to come to her mind when he confronted her about her indiscretion, when she first saw his face after he let her know that he knew. It came as a tsunami, a tidal wave of guilt and shame, her own shame somehow reflected in his face as it battled his rising emotions. He struggled to remain calm and dignified, hoping for her to deny it, but because he knew it was true, hoping she would confess so he could at least cling on to a shred of respect, so he wouldn’t have to throw ten years in the same heap with every other relationship in his life that had ended in betrayal.
She had denied it. She was kinda stealthy herself.
The bichon nuzzled their hands even more. Though she was afraid to, she raised her head up, catching her husband’s eyes. He gave her a knowing look. A real stealthy kinda dog.
Takes one to know one.
The man called out, “China! Come here, China!”
The dog jumped down and ran to his owner, who scooped him up, and was quickly ushered out by the bailiff. The room continued to mumble and stifle laughter.
The judge pounded his gavel. “Order.”
The rumbling settled into quiet. He called the next name.
It was finally their turn. In their case, the facts were that they owned nothing and they shared nothing. Each went back to his corner basically with what he had when they started. They had no children. If she wanted to, she could pretend that nothing had ever happened and just start over. Ten years of nothing. Except for that one something which made her realize that she was in a test tube of her own creation, a living experiment being forced to prove the theories of a precocious teenager; that same something that reduced her husband to a nine year old boy crying over his dead bunnies.
She looked over at him. He was as he had always been – compact, imperceptible, and immaculate. She would have to make a change to her set of facts. She was the one reduced to a child, who would now begin to grow up. He had been and remained a man.
© Meredith DiMenna, 2015
Meredith DiMenna is a writer, performer, and producer. She co-wrote and -produced the animated short DEAR BEAUTIFUL, an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. As an occasional blogger for the Connecticut Post, her unconventional ideas about community, politics, and culture earned her regional recognition including such unlikely bedfellows as firefighters, unregulated fire dancers, members of the banjo society, local rap stars, police officers, and prisoners at the Bridgeport Correctional Center. Formerly the lead singer for the rock band, Saint Bernadette, her lyrics are said to appeal to “ethical sluts from Bridgeport to Boca Raton”. Currently, she is a singer and songwriter with the pop duo, Oh, Cassius!.
Coverture was read by Michaela Morton on 1st April 2015 for Kiss & Breakup