Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Snow, Salt, Honey (2012); Keeping Them Alive (2011); Postcard on Parchment (2008); Unbound & Branded (2006); and The Love of Unreal Things (2005). Her piece “An Archeology of Secrets” was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2012. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Arts & Letters, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and Shenandoah. She teaches at South Dakota State University.
Marriage and Marble
Before you and our three-year-old son joined me in Prague, I worked in Poland for two weeks without you. The separation from your hugs, from your sleep-filled breaths, from your chitchat over an evening meal, from your gourmet cheese omelets, from your memorized punch lines, from your presence in my bed, electrified my desire for your touch. You wouldn’t walk the St. Charles Bridge with me at dawn – you preferred to sleep in – but we watched fog lift from the Vltava River, drank beer in low-lit pubs, toured hill-cresting castles, and followed a guidebook’s scavenger hunt. “Like geocaching with art,” you said. You led us down winding, cobbled road after winding, cobbled road until we saw all the listed David Cerný sculptures: babies crawling up the Žižkov Television Tower, a statue of St. Wenceslas riding a dead horse, the two “peeing men” outside the Kafka Museum.
Cerný’s “Hanging Man” – Sigmund Freud dangling by one hand from a four-story building – took the longest to find. I would’ve missed the intersection of Husova and Skorepka streets if you hadn’t scrutinized the map. How bleak Freud seemed there, suspended from the building, its burnt-orange pipes and gutters like veins against the building’s buttercream skin. “It represents the human need to make the decision to live life or let go,” you read aloud.
The sculpture that drew me in adorned Prague’s park on Petrin Hill, a height to which we ascended via cable car. It wasn’t one of Cerný’s. The male figure supported the female figure’s shoulder with one hand, the other cupping her cheek; her arms wrapped around his neck, she’s sinking into the embrace, marble skirt pooling around his feet. They kiss as if nothing, not even the green lawn with its handful of strolling, rain-drenched tourists, existed beyond them. Do you remember kissing me in a deli the October weekend you met my parents? We’d finished our sandwiches and chips, were still sipping sodas and chatting with my mom, when you slipped your arm around my waist, dipped me back, and kissed me long and deep in the middle of lunch rush.
Grabbing your hand, I pointed to the sculpture. I wanted that kiss. You wouldn’t lean in. Not even to peck my cheek. Not even when I asked. I wondered if you loved me as this sculpted man adored his beloved. Now, I see that love’s end emerged here in the ways we moved, spoke, kissed, danced – or didn’t.
“I feel like we’re spinning away from each other,” I said after we returned from Prague, and I found the words. You sat on the deck stairs that hot July day, and I stood in front of the ornamental crabapple tree, many of its branches barren. Even though I lopped off those I could reach, from across the yard anyone could tell it was dying.
“You’ve been pulling away from me. Even before the trip. Hours playing video games, watching movies alone, checking your email until midnight. What’s going on?” I grabbed a few leaves off a low branch, studying them for blight. None were curled or frayed. No leaves displayed spots or clusters of mold. I couldn’t tell why some branches refused to bud, as if immune to the pull of summer’s heat.
Your expression hardened. “What exactly do you want?” you asked. I didn’t have the courage to say to feel loved again.
“I want to spend time together. Go on dates. Go dancing,” I said.
I waited a few seconds, imagining you’d say, “Let’s go out this weekend. I’ll find a sitter.” Instead, your eyes narrowed, gazing into the chasm between us.
“Nothing I do seems good enough,” you said.
In Russia, I visited the Fallen Monument Park in Moscow with my colleagues. The park was started after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russian citizens toppled statues of Lenin and Marx, workers and peasants, and dragged them to rest – haphazardly – here. Usually curators shape the gestalt of the viewer’s experience by making deliberate choices about how to place statues and metal sculptures in relationship to each other. And in the newer sections of the sculpture park, I could tell that the curator had considered the dynamic architecture of landscape; how, for example, each piece in the newer section conformed to a hedge’s bend, a hill’s slope, a boulder’s angle.
You often sought such direction from me. You often said, “Just tell me what you want me to do” about cooking, tending the yard, planning a date night, whatever. So it went. If I asked you to clean the bathroom on a Tuesday, I’d spend three days ignoring the toothpaste speckles on the mirror and the grime lining the toilet bowl. On Saturday, I’d interrupt your videogame campaign. “When will you clean the bathroom?” I’d ask. You’d march off, emerging ten minutes later with the toilet, sink, and mirrors sparkling. But something would always be left undone. I wouldn’t notice that you skipped the shower until the next morning when I’d see the ring around the porcelain tub. When I’d tease, “I think you missed a spot,” you’d sigh, your gaze narrowing.
In the newer areas of the sculpture park, I found myself studying couples. One piece, “Minuet,” depicts two Victorian dancers, arms held up and locked, hand-over-hand. Such fine-chiseled costumes: the woman’s fancy handkerchief and the man’s detailed pockets. When I followed the gaze of each dancer and observed a neglected park – litter tumbling between installations, grass nine-inches long sprouting tufts, weeds creeping up pedestals – it was clear the groundskeepers didn’t share the curator’s meticulous care. I never wanted to map out the long-term dreams or daily directions for our married life; I wanted us to curate together.
Remember when you bought me dance lessons as a Valentine’s Day gift the year we got engaged? Swing, salsa, foxtrot. I loved watching you pivot and step, your body’s muscle memory retaining the poise and fluid motion from years of martial arts training. You had perfect posture – head up, shoulders back, elbow right-angled. Lean and muscled, strength swept you across the dance floor. You just needed to learn the dance sequences and how to communicate your intentions to me with pressure from your hand. Even when you looked away – toward the instructor, toward the door, toward the parking lot – I was supposed to understand your intentions by the turn of your hand. When you forgot to signal me, I anticipated the movement of your hips.
From the angle I snapped the photograph of “Minuet,” I notice the woman’s arched eyebrows, her lips drawn into a pout. I can see only the back and side of the male dancer’s body. Without his face, I can’t see the hard gaze of disinterest.
“Do you want this life?” I gestured to my body, our bedroom.
You were angry because I’d asked you to help me plant my garden before I flew to Russia. You hate being outside, sweating and dirty, and I know this, but I asked for an afternoon of digging so we could enjoy fresh beans, tomatoes, carrots, and squash. You gave me four hours on Saturday, but for the rest of the Memorial Day weekend, you avoided me by staying up late and slipping away to run errands. Exasperated, I confronted you.
From where I stood next to the bed, I could see the garden, the spiral structure for herbs at its center. Our five-year-old had helped me lift the concrete squares to form its base, and he hugged armfuls of dirt to fill it in. In the following weeks, we watched our sculpture sprout basil, dill, oregano, cilantro, chives, parsley, tarragon, rosemary, and sage. He cut sprigs for salads, and he remembered how we planted the sand-sized seeds. You always forgot what we grew and returned from the store with herbs sealed away in plastic containers.
“Yes,” you answered. “I want you.”
For two years – since that Prague trip – I heard words come out of your mouth that your actions contradicted. Yes, I’ll go to the street dance, but you sat on the side, even when other men tried to dance with me. Yes, I’ll go to the parade, yet you listened to a podcast on your iPod and leaned against a tree, unable to hear our son’s excited chatter, unable to see the happiness on his face as he caught Tootsie Rolls and Smarties thrown from the floats as they passed.
During a break from walking in the Fallen Monument Park, I sat on a bench across from a twenty-something couple – close to our age when we met. I chuckled because I knew you’d make fun of their matching clothing: white t-shirts, white shorts, black sandals. The woman lay across the red-slated bench, head on his right thigh. She clutched his hand, as if she dreamed she needed to hold on tight, as if she felt his attention spinning away. On his left thigh rested a mini-laptop computer; his left hand pecked out words. They fit into the park, as if planned. The man attended to the computer screen as a dance instructor would study the alignment of a student’s heels and bones or scrutinize a dancer’s plié to see if her scapula lay flat. I don’t remember when you started to choose screens, two-dimensional games and movies as an easy way to pass time. I wanted to approach the woman, to pull her to my bench and warn her, “Be careful, be careful.” Instead, I photographed them.
When I saw a pair of marble figures beyond a smattering of shrubs in Moscow, I still believed work and creativity could renew our relationship. From a distance, one figure had long hair, curls flowing as if in defiance of the form. She knelt in front of a seated figure, his head in front of her hips. An intimate kiss. My breath quickened and my heart softened. I walked closer to see the expression on her sugar-colored face. From this new perspective, I could see that the male figure was kissing her smooth torso, and I recalled your lips against the stretched skin of my swollen, pregnant belly. Even heavy and tired and scattered by hormonal surges, I floated from moment to moment with you, the sharp edges of our lives rounded out. At night, with your arm over my hip, I felt an intense dimension of love – love triangulated with this person we’d created together. The shift in evening sunlight brought me back to the figures and my new understanding of our muted love.
A few weeks after you say “divorce,” I sort my photos from Russia. I realize I photographed more than pairs. Among the couples, Alexander Pushkin sculptures, and busts of Stalin, are three singles: Child Hugging an Object, Man Alone, and Woman on a Bench.
I scrutinize them. I wonder what it means that I photographed these statues. Was I trying to tell myself something? Face your fear. Admit your family is broken, so broken that its elements can’t exist in the same piece of art. A wave of panic seizes my heart. Where another viewer of Child Hugging an Object might see the child’s chubby arms, full cheeks, and smooth, bald head and say “adorable,” I obsess about his posture: he kneels, sitting over his thighs, and he hugs a pillow almost his size; his eyes are closed, his lips drawn to a pronounced pout. Is this our son, heartbroken? No. Child Hugging an Object represents the past when our unhappiness burdened him. The future will free him, too.
Man Alone’s arms hug his knees against his chest. His curly beard and longish hair age him beyond your years. Cottonwood seeds blanket the green blades of grass around the statue like snowflakes. Sunlight filters through the branches and leaves making shadows on the statue’s back and casting his face in darkness. You say you want to live alone. I can’t imagine this means happiness for you, now or ever. I finally understand that you don’t curate life experiences. You live them.
I’ve sat the same way as Woman on a Bench, arms resting on her thighs, elbows drawn into her body as if she’s cold. The sculptor carved her from rough-hewn rock and placed her on an unadorned pedestal. To her right, the bench is empty. Her face turns away from the space, chin resting on her shoulder. Her eyes are closed, lips frowning. She grieves the emptiness beside her. Yet the evening sun warms her face and the left side of her body, lightening the cement-gray stone. Her toes are pointed like a ballet dancer’s. She’s ready. All she needs to do is step away from the space into a new rhythm.