I didn’t remember how it had come to that; I couldn’t tell how it happened that I had divorced my wife. I could recall my saying something; her responding to my words, and then it somehow got out of hand — out of anyone’s hand, in fact, like a roller coaster roaring down its iron track with the brakes turned off and unscrewed completely. All the things that had, till then, been neatly suppressed, elegantly kept in check, and smoothly concealed from the outside world beneath the veneer of our good manners and uneasy smiles, with a cute bow on top, on top of everything, suddenly exploded and blew the lid off our marriage — along with the said bow and everything — like a tire that blows out during a police chase and sends a getaway car careening down the hill.
After it was all over, after not so much the dust as the bits of broken trinkets and the fragments of our shattered dreams and illusions about ourselves, had settled, I couldn’t believe what had just taken place — that it had happened at all. I found myself perching on the edge of the empty bathtub, my heart pounding unrelentingly, as if hoping to extricate itself in time from this atrocious mess. It was like a burglar trying to disappear before the police arrive at the scene. I perched there; the bathroom door still closed; the bits of glass still blinked at me from the floor, like shipwreck survivors lost at sea and sending distress light signals to potential rescue craft sailing by. I was more than confused; I was more than baffled; I was stupefied — I couldn’t remember who had struck the first blow, who had drawn the first nuptial blood. I felt like the victim of a hit-and-run accident, who can still see the paralyzing flash of the headlights but can’t call to his mind the moment of an actual collision. It was all hazy and blurred, like the testimony of a drunken witness.
I glanced at the bathtub’s drain; I saw the content of various smashed flasks of perfumes, shampoos, and other cosmetics mix and blend and, eventually, go down that very drain — this picture quite nicely summed up the state of my marriage. There was no use picking up the once-shiny pieces.
“We’ll all meet there,” I murmured to it faintly, my head aching. “We’ll all meet down there, in the end.”
After it turned out that our till recently domesticated rage had erupted only to, later on, have subsided and retreated, like one’s hairline before morphing into an embarrassing comb-over, and after it gave way to the more civilized proceedings, I took my seat at the edge of that bathtub once again. But this time, the floor was clean, the glass had been swept away, and the drain was relieved of the presence of the cutting carcasses of our failed relationship. The bathroom cabinet and shelves — at least those that survived the turmoil of our break-up — had been exemplarily emptied and cleaned of any traces of our long-time residence there. The same thing had happened to all the bookshelves and drawers, and to every closet or a secret hiding place in the whole apartment that we knew of. It had never been so cold and empty there. It seemed as if we had never lived there — there was not a single object or even a fingerprint that might testify to our having been there longer than for an overnight stay. Cleaning and wiping every corner and piece of furniture, thus tirelessly and feverishly obliterating the last verifiable proofs of our abortive marriage, had seemed to be the source of great pleasure for us. It had been like tidying up a crime scene — with the two of us being the only victims or casualties of that unnamed crime — or like cleaning up the place after the real perpetrator has already left.
The apartment’s interior gave that austere and nearly sterile impression, like a hospital ward at night. There was no human feeling in it. There wasn’t even an ounce of warmth or kindness to be found curled up under this sofa or that piece of rug, for it had long been emptied of all the furniture and furnishings; there was none of it — there was nowhere to hide. The bare walls and suddenly exposed corners gaped at me from all directions, like a person surprised while taking a shower when someone walks in on him. I could have sworn — before we had moved the first table or peeled off the carpets — that we would find there the lost scraps and shreds of our marriage that had fallen off the table, off our bed, off our everyday habits as well as routines, and then rolled into some distant and dark corner to start accumulating in there for years. I had kind of hoped to discover them there — at least a handful of them — the evidence of that our better days hadn’t been a myth, a mere hallucination, a practical delusion that we had somehow shared unknowingly, like the members of some ridiculous sect or other. But there was nothing; there had never been anything.
I walked into the empty room that used to be our living room. My shoes thudded unpleasantly on the bare hardwood floor — there was nothing to soften or muffle the sound of my footfalls. Through the open kitchen door, I caught a glimpse of my wife — my former wife, that is — leaning against the wooden worktop; it hadn’t been disassembled after all.
I gazed through the window; it was the view I had seen and stared at mindlessly over the years. It hadn’t changed that much, if at all. To think that my life would be, from then on, deprived of it, robbed of its — until now insignificant, as I used to think of it — presence, made my heart sink, as if it were a drowning man with a pair of childish floaties on his arms, and it turned my chest into a void as deep and hopeless as if it were a vacant socket left by an extracted tooth. I watched the thin mist hover above the ground in the still languid morning light, like ethereal padding designed to soften the pain of the fall caused by the newborn day. I had my fall that day, all right.
I heard her walk into the living room — I didn’t turn around; I knew that she was there without looking. I heard her stilettos stab the floor with her every studied step — the entire apartment seemed to reverberate with that light thumping sound.
I glanced down at the set of keys resting in my hand, and I jingled it with forced levity.
“I guess that’s about it, then.”
She gave me that long stare, and I wondered whether she had detected a trace of wistfulness in the tone of my voice, beneath that crust of counterfeit lightheartedness, hiding there like a cherry pit inside the cake. But then she lowered her eyes, as if she wanted to imply that she couldn’t care less about it, about all of it. I abandoned that cheerful pose, like a comedian whose new material fails to provoke so much as a ripple of embarrassed laughter.
Then, as I was ready to go, I glanced around one last time, pensively visiting with my gaze the empty corners, the bare nooks, and the lifeless rooms. In one of such spots, I discerned a deserted little object, a morsel that must have chipped off from our joint life and that we had almost unknowingly left behind, as if it were a wounded soldier stranded behind enemy lines, one of our own.
“What is that?” I asked.
“What’s what?” she followed suit, mildly curious.
I went over to the corner near the window, my window, and picked up that tiny affair. It was one of the negligible bric-a-brac, one of those silly souvenirs, which one buys by the handful during the trips to exotic faraway lands in the hope that they will keep one’s best memories fresh and vivid and everlastingly alive — which, to be honest, they never do. We must have bought it during one of our journeys, still early in our marriage, but then it had gradually lost all its power and charm, just as the same qualities of our relationship had worn off with time, like the taste of a chewing gum that one maltreats with one’s teeth and tongue, ganging up on it, too insistently and for too long.
“You can take it,” she shot at me offhandedly, almost at once.
“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“You can have it. I don’t want it.”
“What makes you think you can tell me what I can and what I can’t take?” I snarled.
“I thought you liked it.”
“Then take it,” she shrugged her shoulders.
“Hold on a second,” I pointed that little souvenir and the culprit of all that ungodly commotion at her, as if it were a miniature and rather fanciful pistol. “Who told you that you can order me around like this? Who?”
“No one,” she hesitated. “I merely suggest that you can take it if you want and I won’t hold it against you.”
“No, I will not.”
“You’re too kind,” I rolled my eyes. “You’re really far too kind, my generous lady. What else are you willing to let me take with me, while we’re at it?”
“Take it!” she erupted in a manner that I knew all too well.
“No, you take it!” I snapped. “You take that thing with you!”
“As you wish, I will take it,” she sneered. “You’ve won. I’ll take the damned thing. Give it to me.”
“The hell you will!”
Just as countless times before, I couldn’t tell who had fired the first shot, who had dealt the first blow, but in a short while we found ourselves on the floor — panting and growling and barking, our limbs grotesquely tangled, as if we were a part of some artistically convoluted modern sculpture or other, while, in truth, we both just did all we could to scratch each other’s eyes out; there wasn’t anything particularly artsy about that. We wrestled fiercely; we bit and we clawed without end — I guess that fighting dogs can afford more mercy for their canine opponents than we were ready to offer each other after so many years of living together.
But then we froze; we froze abruptly as we heard a joyful whistling, like caged animals at the sound of their trainer’s footsteps. We heard the notes and tones of a merry and catchy tune, drifting to us from behind the thin apartment door. It must have been one of the neighbors walking up the stairs; he must have heard everything; he must have heard it all.
I looked down at the souvenir, now shattered to jagged pieces scattered all around us, like the specks of dandruff that rain from a vigorous dancer.
“It broke,” I said numbly. “It’s broken now.”
“It has always been,” she said. “It has always been like that.”
We sat there, in the middle of the empty room, our bruised bodies oddly interlocked — neither hugging nor fighting — and we listened to it; we listened to that tune.