memoir-in-progress excerpt: gauntlet
Last night Books & Books, an independent bookstore in Coral Gables, hosted the annual FIU MFA Alumni reading. I read from my memoir-in-progress, currently titled “Secret Stories: A Memoir of Domestic Violence.”
The background is that Lee and I were married for eight years. Separated in April of 2007. Divorced in September 2007. He crashed his motorcycle on the Florida Turnpike in December 2007. On the night I found out he died, I also learned, along with nearly everyone else who knew him, that he had secretly remarried about a month before our divorce was final. This scene is from the viewing, the night before his burial. Here’s what I read:
When I entered the Caballero Rivero Woodlawn funeral home, I found myself in a crush of people. Some of them I knew well. Some I recognized but couldn’t have named. Some I didn’t recognize, but they seemed to recognize me. I imagined their thoughts: “that’s the ex-wife,” perhaps with more adjectives. In comparison to extroverted Lee, I was sometimes seen as aloof or cold. Casual observers saw us as incompatible. More intimate observers had some idea of how difficult and complicated our relationship had been. Two of Lee’s childhood friends hugged me. I was happy to see them, but at a loss as to what to do next, so I sought an appropriate default gesture and found and signed the guest book, and then walked through the anteroom and into the room where Lee’s casket was displayed.
The front of the room was also the location of Maria. I imagined that people wondered about us, how we would behave, whether there would be anything for them to talk about. Maria was a symbol of pure grief and devastation, and I was a symbol of ambivalence.
I made my way through what felt like a rope line, a receiving line, a farce, an absurdity, a slow-motion dream, people coming out of their seats as I walked down the aisle, sometimes never seeming to make any progress at all toward my dual destination of Lee’s casket and the meeting with Maria.
Every few steps someone would approach, needing to hug or be hugged: a couple who sold Amway with Lee twenty years earlier, and more recently helped him find investment houses during the real estate boom. Motorcyclists who shared his passion for Harley Davidson. High school friends I had never met before. Customers whose lawns he had cut. Believers from his various churches. Musicians he performed with at different stages of his life. Neighbors from the community of the lake where he lived before and after our marriage. Men in suits and ties, men in guayaberas, women in church lady collars, women in cleavage-enhanced blouses.
Finally I arrived. My hands and back and shoulders and upper arms were covered with people’s handprints, and my cheeks were smudged with tiny bits of other women’s foundation and powder and lipstick.
I faced the casket, my back to the room. After the gauntlet that I walked through to get to there, I felt like I had zoomed in on a picture too close—for a moment I couldn’t see anything but wood: dark and expensive-looking, smooth, shiny, suitable for a furniture polish ad. Maria and Lee’s friends had made the arrangements in keeping with Lee’s love of luxury.
The other part of my zoomed-in-too-close view was hundreds of flowers, thousands of petals: wreaths on stands and vases and baskets on pedestals. I had wondered whether to send any myself, but then imagined asking the florist for advice, explaining the situation, saying, well, I divorced him three months ago, and his not legally married wife is the grieving widow. I sent no flowers.
As I stood next to the closed casket, I don’t think anyone was nearby, but I wouldn’t have known or remembered. It was just me and the smooth wood, the sweet-vegetation smell, the conversations behind me becoming white noise. For one of the few moments of the first few months after his death, I grasped the reality of what had happened. I took a deep breath. He was dead. Here was his casket. He could never hurt me again. I was standing in a funeral home where I had come with him a dozen times over the years, but we were all there this time for him. He was dead, and the woman crying behind me was his “wife.” The two facts competed in my mind for the title of “most surreal.”
I moved the paper death announcement that I must have picked up at the door into my hand that already held my purse, and I touched the wood, so overvarnished that it felt like plastic. It seems like I was there for a long time, but I closed my eyes and said a short prayer and a goodbye. I was finished.
I turned to face Maria. I had seen pictures of her with Lee in a Miami Herald article that praised him as her loving husband and step-father to her sons.In the pictures, taken at various parties and their wedding at the Coral Gables courthouse, she looks happy, relaxed, in love.She was my age, Colombian, pretty, medium height and figure, with shoulder-length dark hair and brown eyes. Despite the efforts of her friends, she was keening, wailing, weeping, rocking, on the edge of losing control.She seemed to struggle to emerge from her grief enough to realize who I was, standing in front of her.Lee’s closest friends were also nearby, and I asked one of them to introduce us.
I may have blocked out the conversations of the crowd, but conflicting emotions and questions raged in my mind. She’s not a blonde bikini model—how was this possible after all the hours Lee spent berating me for my failure to transform into one? Who was she? What did she know about Lee? What did she know about me? Stop. I made myself focus on doing what I saw as the right thing in that moment. So I crouched down in front of her so that I could see her face, and I told her I was sorry and that I would help her in any way I could. I hugged her. She cried and nodded.
I stood and started moving again, still meeting people, talking, chatting, acknowledging, remembering, hoping to find a seat. The funeral home was set up with doors that opened from one room to the next to create bigger and bigger rooms. At least four rooms were open for Lee’s mourners, and still people spilled into a hallway. Finally I sat down with my family and friends in the back of one of the side rooms and watched.
Eulogists had begun to speak from a podium by then, but the sound system was inadequate to bring their words to all the rooms. People moved about in a hallway behind us, talking, laughing, on their way out for or in from a smoke, expressing their disbelief and sadness and sharing stories of Lee’s outrageous greatness and wacky exploits, and the disconnect between Lee’s public and private stories became even larger in his death than it had been in his life.