by Stacey Engels
I am sitting here with my divorce papers in hand.
By “here”, I mean in my apartment in Brooklyn, in the present; by “here”, I mean nine months ago, in August, on the wide, wide steps of the Bronx County Courthouse. My divorce papers in the imaginary Bronx of the past moment are real; my divorce papers in this moment, the present, in Brooklyn, are imaginary.
The papers exist. They are filed somewhere neatly. I’m sure I could figure it out quickly if I reacquainted myself with my system. For someone whose world was anarchy – sheer, churning, flotsam/jetsam, brains-boiling-in-the-acid-filled-cauldron-that-was-my-cranium anarchy – my systems remained remarkably orderly.
This moment in memory is a warm New York day. My body doesn’t remember it as unbearably hot. My memory does not appear to have stored the details of what I was wearing that day. I try to remember my shoes, because I have almost none, especially for summer. I know I was looking at my feet. I know I was sitting on those wide, wide stone steps, looking out over the Bronx wondering how, in every sense, I got here, looking down at my feet on the stone stair, looking at the papers and the big flourishing sweep of words that said, what. “Judgment Final”? Something like that.
I don’t remember the words, because I am not trying hard enough, because I don’t care, because I don’t want to, because what I remember was the font. Cartoonish. I couldn’t believe it when the mean queen pushed the papers at me from under his plexiglass shield in the old, old court house from the days when buildings were made with things from the earth – wood and stone – that this was what I had been waiting for for nine months. For almost three years. This document on cheap copy paper with, on the back of the last page, a couple of wide, grey arcing words, fattening as they go, like the letters for Superman!
I wrote my ex-husband and told him. “we are”, said the subject heading, “officially divorced.” And then I told him about the cartoonishness of the font. It upset me and it was funny and I didn’t know what to do with myself. “can you send the papers to philly instead of here?” he wrote back. “my father’s oncologist called so i am going to be there sunday.” I gave him the papers in the car six days later when he picked me up at the Torresdale train station, so his mother wouldn’t have to see them. JUDGMENT FINAL! was sort of visible through the envelope. I could tell by the way he handled the envelope that he was going to pore over the typed pages later, the way he always did with maps and anything to do with money.
I’m sitting here on the wide, wide stone steps of the Bronx County Courthouse.
You know I’m not, really; I’m sitting on my futon couch in Brooklyn, I’m just in the Bronx in words and memory. Amazing how little it takes. I don’t remember what I’m wearing but I do feel the sun on my skin. On my shoulders and arms, my neck, I guess my hair was up, my calves and ankles. Does that mean I was wearing my running shoes, because I don’t feel the memory-sunshine on my feet? I am looking at the green, loving the green, the expanses of park, the tops of trees, loving this paradox that I have always loved about the Bronx: that it has more green than any other borough, and yet its name scares people. Starts with a The, ends with an x; that is one hard-ass place.
When I was new to New York, new to the relationship that became my marriage, I met one of my later-to-be-ex-husband’s friends from undergrad who had grown up in the Bronx. Went to Bronx Science, he told me, like this explained a lot about him. Later, when I was working with high school students, I understood what it was supposed to mean. How New Yorkers use the city’s geography to sum up their identity. Where is it you have to go so fast in conversation that you need to sum yourself up in that way? It isn’t that the same thing doesn’t happen in Montreal, or Philly. I lived just outside Westmount, by a hair. Means nothing to you, right? You can’t imagine what it meant to other people, and to me.
The summer we finished grad school, we ended up at The Bronx Zoo, more than once, I think, with our best friend. Going through the hundreds, thousands, of photos from our ten-year marriage, I find lots of pictures of the three of us at the zoo. Tapirs, and gorillas, and some prehistoric elk skull, and our friend stretching out his arms to show how wide the antlers are. He had a mustache then, just a mustache without a goatee, because he, like my ex-husband, is an actor, so they were always changing their facial hair and, more often than other men, their head hair. This was one of the things I liked about being with an actor; they change. They play. They know things are malleable.
When I was working with high school students, I had occasion to come to the Bronx. Most often to the community college, I think it was, where I was meeting with an educator who was trying to create opportunities for his students to participate in arts events. He had the students, I had the arts. We wanted what each other had, sort of, but it was always a weird relationship. It was almost like he felt a little sorry for me for being a white girl from Canada with my head up my ass. Clearly I knew a thing or two about the arts, but the rest of it – the Bronx, and teenagers, and people’s lives – I felt like he looked at me like he couldn’t believe people like me existed.
In the days when I was looking for my own apartment, after living with my sister in Toronto for two years and my friend in Harlem for six months and for five months in a house in Bushwick-Ridgewood haunted regularly by its owner, who had bought it when she was going through her divorce, gutted it and rebuilt it tailored to her unique needs, married the man who helped her with the reconstruction and moved to Long Island before her house was finished but found a way of always coming back to this perfect, perfect unfinished home that never was, so that it became less and less perfect for me, less and less my home, after I’d decided to leave this place, when the cranium-boil had finally ratcheted down to low, I looked at places all over the city. Not that many, really. One in the Bronx.
I got out, I don’t even know where, but the further along this street I walked, the weirder it got. The Bronx is hilly, like Montreal. And here was this street, swooping and sloping, and you expect human mayhem in the Bronx, but this was architectural cacophony. This was eyesore upon anomaly upon mish-mash upon smash-up upon who put LSD in the urban planners’ coffee. Is this for real? This was a July afternoon before I knew about JUDGMENT FINAL!, when I was trying to go about my business, that would be the business of living, of being a grown-up, of standing on my own two feet, of finding a home, because ultimately, when someone swears in front of whatever he is substituting for God that he is going to stay with you forever and leaves, and when you realize your word, your vow, your oath, the only thing you have in the world as a writer, your word, is breakable, and you have to break it, that leads to the breaking of your home and the breaking of your life. So here I am, on this Bronx street of my memory, and all I can think is Beirut. And all I can think in response to that is Shut the fuck up, someone will hear you, that’s ridiculous. That is wrong. But something in my mind is humming along like a bad kid as I walk through this pile of houses and stores and apartment buildings and I could swear there were cars on cinderblocks, Beirut, Beirut, Beirut.
And there were days in a room somewhere, somewhere, I have no idea where, really, days when I sat around a table with people from other non-profit orgs, “orgs” we call them, and people from foundations, and maybe even a few artists, adjudicating on the Bronx Council for the Arts panel, and I am learning a lot. It is comforting to have this perspective, to understand that it is not because people hate me or want to kill me that they reject my grant applications. There are other factors. Even if they almost do kill me sometimes, it’s not their intention. That’s comforting.
And none of this, none of this – not the Bronx Science guy who became an army reservist and sent us emails about a Christian Children’s Fund, not the friend who has now been brought back to me by time and love though he drifted far away for a while, maybe because we inadvertently gashed open some secret Freudian artery when we got divorced and he couldn’t face me for a while, not the educator who couldn’t believe I existed, not the street in Beirut, not the arts panel, not even dumping out the contents of my pockets into the yellow bins that look like the backs of toy dump trucks at the Courthouse and thinking: God, are you ever going to be a streamlined person, are you going to get hit by a car and people are going to go through your mess and find a fucking tape measure, and keys with a NYPL tag and one from Petsmart though your dog lives in Toronto, and pens, half of them not working, and stray ob’s and lint and these homemade sliced-up Post-its you’ve filleted so you can mark things in the books you read on the subway without writing in them and sunglasses without a case and a reject old Nokia cell phone your ex-husband gave you in Slovenia because he wanted to give you something, wanted, still, to make you safe. Who are those women with neat purses? Who are they, how do they live? – none of it answers why this key moment in my life is taking place atop the wide, wide stairs of the Bronx County Courthouse, with a wide, green-patched swath of New York city spreading out under my eyes.
Because I doubt she’ll ever read this, I’ll tell you a secret: on a couple of occasions I met a Marxist lesbian feminist radical revolutionary filmmaker with a big house in Brooklyn and a tenured academic position who salivated about the violent lefty politics in Quebec, and how these people were the real thing and hooked up with the real thing in Cuba. Parenthetically, I wonder about her purse, or bag, or pockets. At any rate, all I can tell you is that I have the impulse to say, secretly, because I do practice yoga and study Buddhism and generally I am very conscious about right speech, but the impulse arises to say, in response to this celebration of the violent lefty radicals, Fuck you.
That was my home. I was thirteen and adults spat on me because I spoke English. Girls I went to school with were taken out of their house in the night by the police because their fathers received death threats. Mailboxes blew up and people showed up dead in the trunks of cars. My mother tried to hide her alarm, her sadness, I don’t know what noun to use, but she tried to bury it under the layers of her face when she and my sister and I came out early one morning to the car and found someone had written MAUDITS ANGLAIS across the windshield in lipstick. It just means Damn English, but it sounds worse. I don’t have a French etymology dictionary and I don’t care enough to try to track it down online, but it believe me, I grew up speaking French too, and it means more than “damn”.
So this, maybe, is why I’m here, here in Brooklyn, in the present, here in the Bronx, in memory, looking out at this wedge of the city over these wide, wide steps, this wedge of city that is hilly and tree-filled, like Montreal, despite the endless parade of fast food joints and dollar stores. I’m here because I tried to make a person a home, and it failed. But it didn’t fail, because something, something happened that day, looking out over the wide, wide steps, down the slope, over the concrete and green: time started to flow together. Time and place, and I was here, finally, and my mother tongue started to grow back.
Stacey Engels was born and raised in Montreal, and lives in Brooklyn. She is a playwright, screenwriter, novelist and writer of creative non-fiction. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of rEvolution Arts & Integration and blogs at untiedstatesofam.blogspot.com.