“I want a divorce.”

Faith and I had been married for twenty-five years, and I had been waiting, terrified at first and later indifferently, even impatiently, for these words, this conversation, for the last fifteen. We were driving around in the Hockley Valley, looking at the fall colours. They were magnificent. I was pulling over on the gravel shoulder every kilometre so that Faith could take pictures. As usual, she took the panorama shots, and I borrowed the camera for quirky close-ups, maple leaves in the water, that sort of thing.

“What would that accomplish, other than making life more expensive for both of us?”

“I don’t care. I’ve had it. I’m bored, and I need a real relationship.”

“It seems to me, judging from the ‘late nights’ at work, you’re not waiting for formalities for that.”

I just couldn’t resist. Faith’s mystery evenings out, over the last two years, which she explained in last-minute phone messages simply as “dinner with someone from work” and then more recently with just “Out for dinner, I’ll be home late” had been the latest in her not-so-subtle ways of telling me that something was very wrong with us, that she wasn’t happy. There were all the other usual tell-tale signs as well — more attention to her appearance at work, purchases of expensive lingerie, the rush upstairs to change when she first got home, you know the drill. As with her earlier messages, I pretended to ignore them, said nothing.

“Well what do you expect me to do? There’s more to life for some of us than just sitting in front of a fucking computer all the time.”

She was right. But I was content, she wasn’t. Faith had always lived in the moment. I just dreamed of possibilities. I began imagining us ten years from now, living our separate lives, her with a series of passionate flings, but determined not to make the mistake of marrying again, living alone in a comfortable house with a big garden, but never really alone; me living in my dream house — energy and space efficient in the middle of wilderness, living communally with a bunch of people who engaged me intellectually, but left me emotionally untouched, alone.

I realized it was my turn to say something, but I didn’t know what to say.

“So what does this mean? You want to move out, you want me to move out, what?”

“How can either of us afford to move out? All our money is tied up in the fucking house. I feel like a prisoner. You wonder why I stay out, I’m suffocating.”

I was watching where I was driving, taking the curves in the valley road, but I could tell from Faith’s voice that she was losing it. She wasn’t a talker, about important things, anyway. Her emotions were a private thing, to be demonstrated but not articulated. As usual she had answered my question with another question, which I took not as deference but rather a ruse to avoid committing herself, to avoid saying what she really wanted. I really had no idea what happened during her late nights ‘at work’. I didn’t blame her for them, but I didn’t want to think about them either. She made it clear they were my fault. She was right. I sighed.

“We can sell the house, I guess. It’s worth a lot, we could each buy a decent place and still be mortgage free. It would be a shame, though. It’s such a great setting, and the neighbours are so great. I could never live in the city again.”

She said nothing. Faith had extracted a concession, a commitment from me. As far as she was concerned, I figured, the conversation was over. This always infuriated me. It was like a game, a contest. She knew I wouldn’t let it go at that, and she was right.

“So is that what you want to do?” I said.

I knew I would not get an answer to this, but I couldn’t help myself. From now on I might as well be talking to a wall, and Faith was a great wall — silence was her survival mechanism, her strength. So I stopped myself from pursuing the discussion further. I realized at once that everything I had said was wrong. The correct reply to her initial four word statement would have been an impassioned denial, an emotional recapitulation of everything that had been wonderful in our marriage, and could be again, an acceptance of responsibility for everything that had gone wrong, and a fervent promise to be better, to try harder, to be what I was supposed to be and do what I, the husband in her second, long-faltering marriage, was supposed to do. To Faith, anything less was an admission of failure, and Faith did not accept failure lightly.

But I was not up to this speech, I no longer believed it, and Faith knew that. That was why the four-word statement had been so long in coming.

I stopped the car beside a spectacular White Oak tree, grabbed the camera from the car seat, and hopped out. I lay on my back under the tree, looking up at the profusion of colours, the rays of late afternoon sun diffusing through. I took a series of shots, the camera pointed straight up, and then put the camera down and just lay there.

In his novel Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins keeps asking the question: Why is it so hard to make love last? I was beginning to think his question was too pat, that the real question was why we try so hard to make it last. I knew I still loved Faith. She was an amazing woman, driven and uncompromising and indefatigable. She had picked me up from a wicked, deep depression, and given me a reason to live. I respected her enormously, she made the most of everything she had, and never gave up. We shared the same tastes in most things, and we almost never fought. And I had no doubt she still loved me, in her own way. I had been good for her, too, given her something to focus her energies on, given her courage and self-confidence and a belief, for the first time, that life was not always unfair. All of this was enough to make me satisfied with the relationship even as its spark dimmed, as our love became, bit by bit, little more than two sympathetic people living together in peace and contentment. Except Faith was not content. She knew what had been slowly lost more acutely than I did. What was for me mellow and comfortable, was for her a hell on Earth.

I knew this intellectually, but I didn’t understand it. To Faith, the way the game worked was simple: The man makes all the moves, and the woman pulls all the strings. The man appears to be in control (even to the woman), while the woman really is in control. Every birdwatcher understands this — it’s a universal. But now in our marriage, the strings had become tangled, and I wasn’t making any moves at all. And Faith had lost control. She kept waiting for the news that there was another woman pulling the strings now, because no other explanation made sense to her. She accused me often, in the years when our marriage began to fall apart, of unfaithfulness, because that’s what she expected. She wanted to know who the other woman was, and when I told her there wasn’t one, she accused me of lying. At first this caused fights, but I soon just ignored the accusations, as there was no possibility of convincing her, and finally the accusations stopped, at about the time her late night dinners began. At first I was bitter and angry about these, but finally I just accepted them. We all do what we have to do, and when it is no longer important enough, we stop.

Now I wondered what it was we were trying so hard to hold on to.

Faith had got out of the car and was walking towards the river. I called out “Where’re you going?” but I knew she wouldn’t reply, and I also knew from past experience that if I lost sight of her she’d keep walking until she got home, or someone else offered her a ride. It always annoyed me when she pulled this stunt, and I’d learned to go after her, keep her in my sights. This was hard, because she was tall and fit and moved fast. But looking ridiculous chasing after her was one of my roles, so I did it. I didn’t even try to cajole her to get back in the car, and didn’t bite when she told me to leave her alone. I wasn’t that dumb.

We walked for miles. No words had been spoken. It was starting to get dark, and I was worried because I couldn’t remember if I’d locked the car before I took off after Faith. And the two dogs at home would be waiting for supper, and we’d left no lights on for them.  Faith’s refusal to go back to the car was a broadcast message, meant more for herself than for me: I don’t need you. I needed no convincing of this fact, but sometimes I knew she needed to persuade herself. We were still a long way from home, too far to walk, and hitch-hiking at dusk would be precarious, especially with so little traffic left on the road. She circled back on a road we’d never been on, and I said I thought we were lost, but she found the way, and by the time we arrived back at the car it was pitch black and I was exhausted. We drove home in silence.

(Photo: Tom Hsiang, U. of Guelph Dept. of Environmental Biology)