Up in Flames

Our marriage was like a blazing fire that quickly burned itself out

Moving to Cambridge had been a bad idea right from the start. Or maybe getting married to Helen when we hardly knew each other was the bad idea. It was my fault, no sense blaming her. What good would that do? I wanted someone to take care of me, someone who looked presentable and that's about as deep as I took it.

I must have thought going to Harvard would change my life—or our life. And maybe it did. I mean, I loved going to my graduate school classes. It was the first time in my life I truly felt inspired by education, felt I was part of the process, really growing as a person. But then I'd come home to our squalid little apartment in East Cambridge, and try to tell my wife about the amazing class I'd sat through with Robert Coles or John Holt, and she'd just stare off into space and scratch her nose.

The weekend after the first term was complete, we planned to take a trip back to Philly to see some old friends and my family. We decided to take the Greyhound cause a storm was being predicted with lots of snow. And when it snows in Massachusetts, it really snows.

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Before we left, I went down to the car, which I had bought for myself as a college graduation present. If a person can truly love an inanimate object, I loved that vehicle. Yeah, it was slow, and the heater never kept you warm enough, but it had a sun roof, that rolled back with a hand crank, and a handle down under the dash that would give you an extra gallon of gas if you ran out, so you never had to worry.

I locked it up, even though I didn't think anyone would bother stealing such an inexpensive car. Just then a couple of the neighborhood kids walked up to me. They couldn't have been much older than 10 or 12. "Hey, mister," the taller, dark-haired kid said, "You want us to watch your car? You know, make sure it's safe and all."

"No," I said, hardly giving it a thought. "I'm good."

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"Well, you never know," the kid said. "Some bad people in this neighborhood."

I thought about what we'd discussed in some of my ed school classes. "People aren't really bad or good. They just respond to the circumstances they're born into."

"Yeah, well, whatever," the boy said. "It's only a dollar a day."

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"No," I said again. "But thanks for asking."

I think they might have been laughing when they walked off.

I told Helen about the encounter with the kids. But she only said, "Well, it's your car. I guess you can do whatever you want." We gathered our stuff together and went off to catch the bus for the long ride south. As we walked out the door, and down the street, I took one last look at my beautiful little Bug. Everything will be fine, I told myself. It will all work out.

The week in Philadelphia drove Helen and I even farther apart. It wasn't any one particular thing. If asked, I could come up with a whole string of complaints. As, I'm certain, could she. But nobody was asking. Not our friends and not my family. They all acted as if our unhappy marriage was invisible. Even my mother, never one to hold her tongue, didn't have anything to say about her prodigal son and his shiksa.

Maybe going to Harvard had finally won her over. But I doubted that. In fact, when I had first told my parents about my acceptance, Mom said, "See, that proves you could have gone to medical school." I didn't quite follow her reasoning, but decided to say nothing. Growing up with my mother's out-size expectations, going silent had become my go-to defense. If I had been more thoughtful I might have seen that I was now doing the same thing with Helen. We spent the major portion of our time together that week, including 10 hours of riding the bus, in near-silent mode. I didn't know if I was angry with her or if she was angry with me. It was a pointless exercise. And I was feeling old and world-weary way before my time.

As we traversed the final miles on the bus back to Cambridge, I decided that I had to put an end to our misery. I knew it would be a difficult conversation to have, but also felt clear (finally) that I couldn't allow the situation to continue. Maybe Helen would have something to say that would change my mind, but I doubted it. I looked over at her then, curled up on the bench seat, peacefully asleep, and felt for a moment an affection for her and a sadness for what we were about to lose. Helen started then and rubbed her eyes. "Are we close?" she asked.

"Almost there," I said, and reached over to touch her shoulder.

Helen was the first to see it. "Look, is that your car?" We were walking up the street toward our apartment, weary from the long trip. I wanted only to get inside and collapse on to the couch. Helen pointed. "Over there. Isn't that where you left it?"

"No. I don't think so." There was only a heap of green metal where she was pointing. "Can't be. You know what my car looks like."

"Well, don't get mad at me," she said. "You're the one."

"The one what?" It all came into focus then. Charred black streaks crisscrossed the once shiny green metal. And there was the sunroof, now twisted open. The tires were melted into the asphalt of the street. My car had clearly been set on fire, and left to burn. "What the fuck happened here?" I screamed.

"I think you know," she said. "I'm sorry, Butch. But you should have thought this through."

"Now what do I do?"

"Come on inside," she said, and took my arm, gently pulling me away from the ruined car. "I'll make you a cup of hot chocolate. Maybe we can talk."

I shook my head, trying to clear the frustration and the anger, then looked at Helen. "Something has to change," I said.

"I know," she said. "It does."

Tags: marriage