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Fidelity
(a Story)

by Susan Moon



They made an attractive couple, wearing black, smoking marijuana, dropping out of college to go south and join the civil rights movement.

"When I talk to you, I have a rose in my throat," he told her. They made love standing up in the shower.

She wanted to get married. But "I'm not the marrying kind," he always said. Then he went away on a fishing trip, and he missed her so much he called her up and suggested she come and join him. "I guess we might as well get married," he said when she got there. Their wedding was in the woods. He wouldn't have his family or hers -- they were rebels, after all -- but some fishermen came, and the woman at the motel hung paper bells from the ceiling and made a banana cake.

They moved to a big city. He was a writer and she was a teacher. He set up an aquarium for her in their apartment. She crocheted a codpiece for him for a Valentine's Day present. They had babies.

He learned welding. He made a cage for a chameleon, but it got out and one morning they found it fried on the heating grate, dry as a leaf.

As time went by, he chafed under the constraints of domestic life. She needed his help -- with laundry, carpools, walking the dog -- and he was oppressed by her need even more than by the tasks themselves. He broke things and took drugs. He drank. He burned his manuscript. He stamped on his African thumb piano. Sometimes she sat in the coat closet, in the dark, and cried. When she was out of town visiting her mother, he went to bed with whichever of their woman friends would have him. They threw things at each other, including chairs. Their children woke up in the middle of the night, howling, dreaming of bugs and snakes.

When he left her, he took nothing with him except his African mask. "I told you I wasn't the marrying kind," he said.

"But you married me," she said. "I'll never fall in love with anybody again."

Soon after he moved out, she had an affair with the next-door neighbor, and when her husband asked if she'd slept with anyone since their separation, she told him the truth. In a jealous rage, he called her a bitch, and said, "Now we can never get back together." Not long after, he moved to a faraway city. She did the divorce herself, out of a workbook.

Now her love was focused on their children, and everybody said she was a good mother. She read them stories, took them camping, helped out in their grade-school classrooms. She had boyfriends, both tall and short, kind and unkind, bearded and cleanshaven. But she dreamed about him almost every night -- that he came back to her and took her in his arms and told her she had hair like new-mown hay.

The children visited him occasionally in the faraway city. And when they came home, they sometimes brought photographs of him, holding a string of fish. He lived alone in a little apartment. He drank a little too much, he grew almost fat, his hair turned gray, but she didn't mind. When you love somebody, you love him as he is.

She understood in her heart that they were still married. He continued to come to her in her dreams, where they grew old together. He stopped rebelling against her. He learned how to barbecue salmon, and they entertained old friends in the back yard. He got a good job as a computer programmer. He coached their kids' soccer teams. He belonged to her and she knew it. Hadn't she crocheted him a codpiece, born him children, hidden his African mask when he set about to destroy everything that was precious to him? And even when she had another boyfriend, wasn't he the man she dreamed of, just like in the country songs?

So, gradually, she stopped seeing other men, as she realized the depth of her commitment to him. She had given herself to him utterly. She could identify with her friend who was a nun, married to Jesus. Not that her husband was like Jesus, but just that a husband doesn't have to be around in an ordinary way for you to feel married to him.

She was busy with her teaching, with raising her children. She took up study of the tarot.

One of their old friends used to tell her they'd get back together some day. After all, they had loved each other so much. Loyal to him, she always said, "Oh no, he's not the marrying kind." But she knew the friend was right -- in fact they had never parted.

They never spoke, except briefly on the phone when he called for the children.

Her hair turned gray, too, and her skin dried out, but she was still attractive. Every year, on their wedding anniversary, she bought herself roses. The dishes and household objects they had received as wedding presents became chipped and cracked and tarnished and frayed over the years. They were indistinguishable, as wedding presents, from all the other objects in the house. But they were marked, for her. When a helpful dinner guest carrying too many dishes at once dropped a certain wooden salad bowl and it split in half, she shocked her friends by bursting into tears. She was usually so casual about material possessions.

Their children grew up and left home.

Once, she had occasion to go to the city where he lived, for a conference. She spread the tarot cards, and the Two Or Cups came up in the position signifying the immediate future - a card representing the unification of love, the bonding of the sun and moon. So she called him and asked him to have dinner, and he agreed. They hadn't seen each other for many years. They talked politely about their children, but the way their eyes met was more than polite. She recognized him as her husband. He still had the same annoying habit of getting so lost in his own thoughts that he didn't hear what she was saying to him until she said it a second time. "You broke my heart when you left me," she said, twice.

"I'm not the marrying kind," he said. "I'm better off living alone. I'm not monogamous by nature."

"I noticed that," she said, "when we were married." But she was pleased, because she knew the real reason he lived alone was that he was married to her. His heart belonged to her. He looked at her and smiled sadly. They kissed goodbye. They had been divorced for 19 years.

A year later, she learned from her children that he was getting married. To me? she thought at first, remembering herself in the burlap mini dress she had worn at their wedding. But that wasn't what they meant.

She couldn't believe it. Perhaps it was some kind of test.

On the phone, the children told her he had sent them their plane tickets to come to the wedding. As the date grew closer, she became increasingly anxious that he might go through with it.

From her tarot teacher she got the name of a woman who practiced the healing art of witchcraft, and she went to see her.

"I only work through love," the witch said.

"Good," she said. "I'm here because of love." She said she wished to prevent her husband from marrying another woman. "He's mine," she said, "till death do us part. He's not the marrying kind, but he married me."

The witch told her to bring back one of his letters, a photograph of him, and an article of his clothing, and they would perform a ritual.

Out of a trunk she dug an old love letter, in which he told her she had hair like new mown hay, and a photograph of the two of them at their wedding, standing under the paper bells. But she didn't have an article of his clothing.

The witch placed the objects in a woven grass basket. She burned some special herbs in an incense burner, and passed the basket back and forth through the smoke. Then she prepared a tea. "Drink a cup of this tea every day, burn the herbs, and play a song you both used to love when you were together." The ex-wife went home and drank her tea, and played a cut on an old Motown album, of Percy Sledge singing, "When a man loves a woman." She burned the herbs in a jam pot they had received as a wedding present.

But the wedding plans proceeded. The children flew to their father's a week before the wedding, to visit with him.

She was not invited, of course, but she knew she had to go. He wasn't supposed to be marrying anybody else. He was actually married to her.

When she got off the plane, she took a cab to a motel near the church, where she got a room and prepared herself for the wedding. She shaved her legs and even her underarms, so as not to offend her mother-in-law, and put on a pretty flowered dress she'd bought for the occasion.

She arrived at the old stone church as people were going in. It was a hot sunny day, but a dark bank of clouds was rolling over the trees. She followed everybody into the church and sat at the back. All her in-laws were there -- his parents, his siblings, his aunts and uncles -- the ones he'd refused to invite to their first wedding. It was right that they were here now, because they had all liked her, and been sorry to miss the first wedding. And this was, in a way, their second wedding.

He stood with a strange woman at the front of the church, and they read aloud from Rumi, and the I Ching. Quite suddenly it began to rain. The witch's work had affected the weather. She waited for the minister to say "Does any person present know a reason why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony?" She thought they always said that in church weddings. But the roar of the rain through the open doors right behind her made it hard for her to hear what the minister was saying. She got up and closed the heavy doors, and as she sat down again, she saw that her father-in-law was looking around at her from the front of the church, but she couldn't tell whether he recognized her.

She realized she must have missed the words she was waiting for, or they weren't part of the ceremony, when the minister began, "Do you take this woman . . . "

She stood up. "Excuse me for interrupting," she said to the minister, "but he can't do that. He's married to me already. We never really got divorced. I never gave him a divorce. Those are our children sitting there in front of you." She addressed the bride, "It's better for you to know now than later."

"She's crazy," the ex-husband said. "Don't pay any attention to her. We've been divorced for 20 years."

"We're married," she said in a clear voice, "and you know it. Till death do us part!" She gripped the pew in front of her.

"I'm sorry," the minister said to the bridal couple, "but I really can't marry you until this is cleared up. I'm afraid I'll have to see proof of your divorce."

Nobody said anything to her. Nobody looked at her. She was sorry to have embarrassed the children but it couldn't be helped. She called to her husband, "I'll be waiting for you at the Lakeside Motel, Room 6."

There was a taxi waiting right outside the church. "I'm supposed to wait for the bride and groom," the driver said.

"It's okay," she said, jumping in out of the pouring rain. "I'm the wife. I'm going to the motel ahead of my husband. You can come back here to get him after you drop me off."

Back in the room she put on her nightgown, drank her special tea, burned some herbs, and fell into a deep sleep.

She was awakened by a knock. It was her husband, of course. The rain had stopped and outside the door of her motel room the hot pavement of the parking lot was steaming. He was alone. "I knew you'd come," she said. "I'm really your wife."

He said, "You've gone completely mad. My fiancée is terribly upset. She's gone back to her parents' house."

"Of course she's upset -- she was about to marry another woman's husband!"

"She doesn't believe you for a minute."

"You're not the marrying kind, but you married me. Look at me. Look into my eyes and tell me we're not bound together for life."

"We got a divorce," he said bitterly. "D-I-V-O-R-C-E. And if I want to save myself the trouble of digging up ancient documents, Polly and I can just go before a justice of the peace."

"Like we did? No you can't. She won't want to marry you now. You don't have to live with me, but you belong to me. Polly! Who's Polly! Will you give me the ring?"

"Are you out of your mind?" he said.

But the fiancée decided not to marry him. She moved to another city and went to graduate school.

He was very angry at his ex-wife. He said she must never contact him again. But back at home she burned her herbal mixture and drank her tea and played Percy Sledge singing, "When a man loves a woman."

Her friends were kind to her and treated her as if she'd had a nervous breakdown. They urged her to consult a therapist. To separate herself from him. But they were separate, living alone at opposite ends of the country.

As the years went by, he called her occasionally, then more often, for some piece of information pertaining to the children, or the name of a book by a mutual friend. He wrote her long letters, about the city he lived in, about the music he was listening to, and she wrote back. She did tarot readings for both of them. She sent him books with leaves pressed between their pages.

Neither of them ever married again. She continued to dream of him, and every once in a while she burned herbs.

Originally published in the January-February 1993 issue of Boston Review



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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