The End of a Marriage

They had only been married four years, though together for much longer. It was no secret why they married: their son, Joseph. The greatest accident in Kelly’s life was Joseph. She loved him more than she had known herself capable.

She thought it was old-fashioned, in a way, the way they married. There they were, a hip couple of Baltimore artists, Billy a musician and she a painter, living in the eclectic neighborhood of Mt Vernon. They were not the type, she thought, who got married because of an accidental pregnancy. And they did not do it because it was the right thing to do, though their Midwestern upbringing could have arisen something ingrained in them. They did it because, at the time, it felt right.

They had sat across from each other at their kitchen table, their “every” table, in their tall, narrow, rowhome, the wooden floorboards scratched and scuffed, illuminating their imperfections in the morning light. Kelly watched the dust drift underneath the refrigerator. She noticed the crumbs across the linoleum countertop. She looked through the small square window on the door at the back of the kitchen, black wrought iron bars across it.

“We’ll have to move,” she said. “We’ll have to move to a better school district.” She had recently looked up the zoned school’s rating online and the 3 out of 10 brought a pain to her stomach.

“It’ll have to be smaller.” Billy was pouring himself a cup of coffee; he was not sure whether she intended for it to be a conversation. They each had the luxury of their own studio in the four-bedroom rowhome. It was one of the reasons they rented the house in the first place.

“Smaller is fine,” Kelly responded. “Less dust.” She looked at him, at Billy. He cupped his hands around his ceramic coffee mug, the steam circling out the top. His blue eyes were bluer against his denim work shirt. His hair was un-brushed, tucked behind his ears like the way Kurt Cobain did. He was already so many things to her: a friend, a lover, a companion. And now, a husband? A co-parent? Wasn’t that the expression she had heard recently. She wasn’t sure whether co-parent applied to couples who were together or to couples who were separated.

“And I think we should get married,” she said suddenly. She had not meant to say it. She had been thinking about it, but she had not planned to say it out loud. A part of her wished Billy would ask her, but she didn’t want to wait for that. And she didn’t want to be disappointed if it never came.

He smiled broadly, and then, sheepishly, “You’re asking me to marry you?”

She was suddenly embarrassed. “I think we should make the mutual decision to get married. We’re going to have a baby. It’s practical.”

“Sure. Ok,” he said, her tone changing his. “Where do you want to do it?”

The biggest decision, or bigger decision, had already been made months before. The one where they decided to keep the baby.

They were in their mid-thirties and there was a clock and it was ticking. Kelly imagined it, the clock, made of a uterus and intestines and veins ticking inside her. When she found out she was pregnant they both realized, without ever saying so out loud, that this could be it, their only chance at parenthood. They had been friends with a married couple at the time who were trying desperately to get pregnant. The irony was not lost on any of them, and the friendship had not lasted.

Kelly painted it before she discovered she was pregnant: the clock and the baby and the veins. The painting was bright reds and burnt oranges laced with thin, cobalt blue lines. It hung in a café in near Johns Hopkins.

A month before Joseph was born, they moved from the rowhome to a cottage tucked into the backyard of an old Victorian house. The house had been turned into apartments sometime in the early eighties. The property was on a pretty, residential city block between Roland Park and Hampden. The elementary school was a good one, for the city.

The cottage was quaint, if not stuffy. It had a porch that ran along one side with a door that opened into a kitchen. The kitchen was just large enough for their every table. Next to the kitchen sat a small living room, and beyond that a narrow staircase. There were two bedrooms upstairs with a bath in the middle. The bedrooms were identical in size and shape, with deeply sloped ceilings and one window each, at either end of the house. Joseph was a long baby and they joked that when he was older, he would not be able to stand up straight in certain corners of his bedroom.

Their favorite feature of the cottage, by far, was the yard. A lovely, grassy, fenced-in yard that the landlady told them was theirs exclusively. No one else renting on the property had access to it. It was a perk of renting the cottage. They filled it immediately with a table and chairs, a grill, a raised bed garden. And later with a swing and a sandbox, a water table, and a small, stand-alone slide.

Even in her confusion, frustration, desperation, Kelly knows it is a beautiful day. It is early spring at its most spectacular. The air is breezy and warm. Joseph is playing quietly by the raised bed gardens. It is a most envious trait: his ability to play alone. From where Kelly sits on the side porch, she can watch Joseph, but he is out of earshot. She is sitting erect on the porch swing; her feet are firmly planted on the ground so that the swing stays in place. Her back is straight, and her shoulders are pulled up tight against her ears. Billy is leaning against the porch railing, tuning his guitar.

She watches as the warm breeze rustles Joseph’s fluffy, brown curls. He has the kind of curls that are light enough for gravity to sink them. He is occupied with a pinwheel. Every year the three of them place pinwheels around the chicken wire fence enclosing the raised bed garden to keep the creatures at bay. This is the first spring that they have not planted anything, but Joseph remembers the pinwheels from the year before and he has carefully stuck each one through the netting around the garden. He is a careful, thoughtful four-year-old. Not delicate, but gentle. He blows the pinwheel as the wind briefly goes still and smiles with delight between breaths as he watches it go round and round.

“Billy,” Kelly says, quietly. He does not hear. “Billy,” a little louder.

He looks up at her, eyebrows raised. It is such a causal response, no words are needed. It is the ease of conversation between two people who have been together for too long.

“Billy,” She takes a deep breath. “Billy I think we should separate.” It comes out in one quick breath of a sentence.

He does not hear her. Or he does, but he doesn’t respond. Not with words, anyhow. He looks at her again, his eyes wide. “What,” he says. “What did you say?”

“I think we should separate,” she is quiet and still. It kills her, the way his face looks. He hears her now. He does not understand. But he hears. And he is shocked.

“You’re serious?”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about it for a while now and–“

He does not let her finish. His eyes are red and hot. He didn’t see it coming. She sees this now. Her words, as he begins to understand them, have come from out of the blue. She sees this now.

Everything she has been feeling and seeing in their marriage was hers alone to feel and to see. Billy’s eyes are wet. He takes one fist and wipes them. It is a rough, masculine gesture. She thinks now she should have waited, spread it out. In the scheme of things, what’s another month? She thinks now she should have been gentler, like their son.

Billy cannot look at her. He lifts himself from the porch railing, his guitar still hangs around his chest.

“Well, isn’t this a shitty fucking day,” he says. He goes inside and lets the screen door slam behind him.

Kelly gulps a chunk of air and lifts herself from the swing. She said it. She has been thinking about saying it for some time now, months, or even years, she is not sure anymore but now she has said it, finally. She had not thought much about how she would feel after she said it. Relieved, maybe? Now that she has said it, she doesn’t know what she feels, but she knows it is not relief.

She stands in front of the screen door and looks inside. She does not see Billy.

The morning they got married Billy walked to the Royal Farms and bought Kelly a red Slurpee for her nausea.

“I’m not hungover,” she said when he returned. “I’m pregnant.”

He looked hurt and it made her feel bad. As his expression soured, she really thought, for a moment, that he wasn’t going to go through with it. He stood in front of her, holding the paper cup out in front of him. The condensation made the cup soft. The wrapped straw hung limply in his other hand.

She was surprised by her sudden fear that he would not go through with the marriage and a nervous flutter formed in her stomach. She gestured towards the drink, and he handed it to her. She took a sip of the bright red stuff to be nice, to make amends, and then she took more sips because, unbelievably, it tasted really good.

They got married at City Hall. A friend of his from his band came to bear witness, as did a friend of hers from childhood. The four went out afterwards for tapas and celebrated with sparkling water in flutes.

There is a photograph of Billy and Kelly from that night. Kelly’s friend took it on her phone and when they printed it, the unintentional grainy quality added to the image. It sits in a frame on their dresser in the bedroom. In the photograph Kelly looks directly into the camera, her dark, thick hair is wrapped up into a thick bun, her chin rests on her fist at a table in the busy restaurant. Her eyes sparkle against the dim lighting. Billy sits next to her. He is leaning on the back legs of his chair the way misbehaving children do at school. His arm rests casually on the back of her chair and is his looking at her. He stares at her as she stares at the camera. When Kelly remembers the day, she remembers it as a happy one. It was festive and fun. But whenever she looks at the photograph, she wonders why neither of them is smiling.

After Kelly tells him, Billy goes inside. He walks up the stairs, towards their bedroom. He stops in the small hallway. Joseph’s bedroom is on one side, Kelly’s and his on the other. He wills himself into his, refuses to look inside Joseph’s room. But he doesn’t have the strength, and he goes inside Joseph’s bedroom anyway. He sits on the small bed, sinks his head into his hands, and cries.

He had known she was unhappy. It was hard to mistake it for anything else. But hadn’t she always been? Not unhappy, exactly, but quietly melancholy, prone to tears. Hadn’t that been what made her a great painter, or what used to make her a great painter? Of course, she had not painted since Joseph was born. Billy had encouraged Kelly to return to her painting but whenever he brought it up, she would ask him, when? When was there time in the day? When she was not at work, she wanted to be with Joseph. When she was not with Joseph, she was at work. He had not thought it would come to this, though. Billy gets up from Joseph’s bed. He decides he will go outside and talk to her.

He barely feels the warm breeze or the warm sun as he walks towards her in the yard. Her back is to him. Joseph is playing with the pinwheels along the garden beds. Kelly is sitting in the blue Adirondack chair, watching Joseph. Her hair is long and brown and looks shiny no matter whether it is freshly clean or days ripe. It hangs down her back in perfect, thick rows. He sees how tense she is and wonders how he had not noticed it before. Her back is perfectly straight, and her shoulders are pulled up tight against her ears. The edge of her bottom barely sits on the edge of the chair. They are plastic, the chairs, and he worries if she moves even the slightest bit forward, she, and the chair, may fall over.

As he nears her, he touches his hand to her shoulder. Lightly at first and then a bit firmer. He feels her shoulders release under the weight of his hand. She does not turn around, though. She does not look up at him. She does not take her hand and place it on top of his. This is how he knows it is over.

Before Joseph was born, before Kelly was really showing, she took an administrative job at MICA. Until that point, she had been waiting tables at night and painting during the day, but she knew that was no longer an option. She needed the health benefits and a steady income. It did not bother her, at first, that Billy continued to play gigs. She had told herself she would set aside time for her painting. But the fumes bothered her when she was pregnant and when Joseph was born, she worried the fumes were too much for him. She no longer had a studio.

When they moved into the cottage Billy began giving private music lessons to kids in the neighborhood. He had always been a good teacher and it turned out to be surprisingly lucrative, word amongst the parents spread, but it was not enough.

“Why not teach?” Kelly asked him one evening. Billy was finishing up a session with a middle school guitarist from down the street. Kelly sat at the kitchen table holding Joseph in her lap. She was on her last week of maternity leave and was preparing herself for the following week when she would have to leave him. She held the baby close to her, grazing her lips gently across the top of his head, his soft hair.

“Yeah, Billy,” the boy said, as he carefully returned his new guitar to its case. “I wish you taught at my school.”

Billy laughed and walked him to the door, mussing the top of the boy’s shaggy, red hair. “I don’t know about all that, but I’ll see you here next week.” The boy shrugged and left. Billy gently pulled the screen door closed until it latched.

“Why not?” Kelly asked again. “The schedule’s great.”

Billy was clearing sheet music from the kitchen table and humming to himself. He stopped what he was doing and looked at her. “What about my music? I couldn’t play gigs at night and wake up with the energy to teach a bunch of kids? And anyway, who would watch Joseph?”

She shrugged, too. She did not want to pursue the conversation. She did not have it in her to tell him the truth. She did not want to say what was so brutally clear. You do not play the gigs. An image of her hands covered in paint surfaced. The visceral feeling of scrubbing the paint off of each finger under warm, soapy water. She blinked her eyes and shook her head as if to shake the image away. She gave up on her passion for Joseph. Did they both need to sacrifice something they loved, for something they loved more? If she had continued the conversation, on that early evening after the red-headed guitar student went home, would things have changed?

She noticed the fruit basket on the counter was still empty. Billy had not gone to the grocery store. She had planned to make dinner using ingredients from the list that was still stuck on the refrigerator underneath a magnet.

She turned Joseph around so he could face her, holding him underneath his armpits, his plump cheeks pressed against his shoulders, his neck hidden, and he smiled at her. Every cliché they say about a baby’s smile is true, she thought. Billy was pouring himself a bowl of cereal.

“Shit,” he said as he opened the refrigerator. “We’re out of milk.”

Mama,” Joseph says, and again, louder. “Mama!”

“Yes, babe, what is it?” Kelly is staring at her son, has been for several minutes, but she is lost in her head and his words are not registering.

“Where’s Dad going?”

Kelly turns around and watches as Billy walks past them, a duffle bag in one hand and his guitar in the other. His eyes are red and wet, but he manages a smile at Joseph. Just a moment ago his hand had been on her shoulder, had she imagined that?

“I’ll see you soon Bud,” Billy says quickly to Joseph.

“But where are you going?” Joseph is curious. “And why are you bringing a bag?”

Kelly stands up and grabs the back of Billy’s shirt. He turns towards her and speaks in a sharp whisper. “I’m giving you what you want. Isn’t this it? Isn’t this what you want? For me to leave, right?”

“No, Billy. You can stay here, or we can find a new place. I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that part through. I didn’t mean for you to leave so suddenly. I thought we could make a plan.”

Billy draws in close to Kelly and for an instant, she thinks he is going to kiss her. It is the most intimate they have been in months. But he stops close to her face. “I don’t know what the fuck you want me to do. You haven’t even given me a reason.”

Kelly does not know what to say so she just stands there. Her mouth is open as if she is about to speak. Her arms are limp at her side.

It was late fall and Billy sat on the porch steps with his guitar as a three-year-old Joseph stood above him, leaning against the porch railing himself, holding his own ukulele. It was a weekday, quiet. Joseph held his ukulele up high, close to his face, as if tuning the strings, the way he had seen his father do. Billy sat with his own guitar, mindlessly strumming. He had not written a song since before Joseph was born. Joseph had recently started a preschool program a few mornings a week. The preschool was housed inside of a church at the end of their block. The two of them, Billy and Joseph, would set out, hand in hand, down the street to school in the mornings after Kelly left for work. It disappointed Kelly that she left too early to take Joseph herself, watch him interact with the other children, greet his teacher. Billy knew this so he took photographs on his phone for her, something he rarely did. Kelly loved the photographs and stared at them throughout the day, zooming in on every detail- the kid in the doorway crying, the teacher’s manicured fingernails, the hooded raincoat hanging on the very edge of the hook in its cubby, about to fall to the ground. She inspected the cleanliness of the classroom floors through these pictures, the teacher’s expression, the organization of the shelves filled with bins of blocks and puzzles, and most of all, Joseph. His face, his hair, his scuffed, blue sneakers.

Billy and Joseph had had lunch and a nap and were waiting on the porch for Kelly. Billy was disappointed, he had hoped that during the two hours while Joseph was in school, he could begin writing songs again. But the two hours passed quickly, and Billy found himself walking back down the block to pick Joseph up without having done much of anything.

“Listen,” Joseph said, and Billy did as Joseph strummed away on his ukulele. “Music.”

“Yep, that’s music,” Billy smiled. He loved that his son said listen instead of watch.

When Kelly came up the sidewalk, her eyes were red. She had been crying and Billy could tell. But as soon as she saw Joseph he ran down to her, squealed “Mama” with such delight, she couldn’t help but lift him up and laugh into his hair. “I missed you so much,” she whispered in his ear, and he took her hair in his own little hand and played with it until she finally set him down on the porch steps.

“You ok,” Billy asked.

“Uh-huh,” she walked past him into the house, Joseph trailing behind her.

Billy got up then too, leaning his guitar against the porch railing.

Kelly sets the table. She orders pizza and salad to be delivered but she puts each slice on a dinner plate and mixes the salad in a serving bowl. She does not have the energy to cook but she wants a nice dinner anyway, for Joseph. As if, years from now, when Joseph remembers this day, he will be comforted by the plates they ate their pizza on. Billy does not eat his food. His pizza lay untouched, and his fork sits clean on his folded napkin. But he engages with Joseph. They laugh together at a joke Kelly does not know and at one point he reaches his hand across the table and gives Joseph’s forearm a squeeze. The three of them clean up the dinner plates together and Billy gets Joseph in the bath.

Afterward, Joseph climbs into his bed, his hair still damp, and Billy slides in next to him, one arm around his son’s shoulders and one hand holding a book. Kelly wants to stay in the doorway and watch them, but she does not. She feels like she is intruding so she goes into the kitchen and finds there is nothing for her to do there, either. She puts the kettle on the stove and boils water for tea.

Before she goes up to bed, she stops in the living room where Billy is watching the television. He does not look at her.

“Let’s talk more about everything tomorrow,” she says. She takes his silence as confirmation.

The next morning Kelly wakes up early. She feels more rested than she has in months. She turns next to her. The bed is empty, the covers still drawn up over the pillow beside her. She looks at the closet, the door left open, and sees Billy has taken his clothes with him. She does not sit up. She can’t. She lays in her bed, alone, in the early morning while her son sleeps in the next room.

She does not feel relief, still. Nor does she feel numb. Tears begin to escape from the corners of her eyes. She sits up, finally, as the tears slide down her face. She just feels sad.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Ashly Emmer holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College. She is currently raising her family in her hometown of Baltimore.