Summer 2011

A Holy Fire

As one marriage nears, another comes to an end, and in both cases a submission to scrutiny is required.

Michael Greenberg


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My friend Matt paid me a visit to confide his anxieties about his impending marriage. “I wonder if I’m cut out for the whole thing, the enormity of it,” he said. “It’s not hesitation about the person, just a reckoning with the profundity of the challenge ahead, even in the best of circumstances.” He ticked off a list of four busted marriages among his circle of friends that had occurred during the past year. One bereft husband was currently crashing on Matt’s couch in Chelsea, with fifty bucks to his name and a vague plan to move to New Zealand. It was as if matrimony presented not the possibility of gain but the certainty of ruin, “a bargain with devastation,” Matt called it.

My own marriage had recently unraveled, and I was temporarily living on the top floor of a six-story building in the far northern reaches of Manhattan. The building was situated at the crest of a steep hill, its lobby decorated in a faux-gothic style with pale red floor tiles and yellow griffins in relief on the stucco walls. To get to the building, you had to climb forty-three steel-reinforced concrete stairs that had been cut into the island’s most resistant bedrock, connecting my street to the neighborhood below. Climbing those stairs with groceries and a briefcase bulging with books I had requisitioned from my library back “home,” I sometimes felt as if I were trekking into a fortified village where life was sharper, and slightly slowed down.

I watched Matt take in my digs, crowded with the furniture and family pictures of the married couple from whom I was subletting. With mild interest, he examined the few books I had accumulated, while noting my clothes stacked on chairs and in the suitcase that, after four months, I was still employing as a kind of portable drawer. My dwindled state seemed to satisfy Matt; it was what he had expected. He told me he had been thinking lately about Kafka’s miserable romantic life, and though this wasn’t the source of his misgivings, it had certainly done nothing to assuage them. Believing that he was “mentally incapable of marrying,” Kafka broke off engagements to two women. He wrote to his father that “each time I resolve to marry I cannot sleep, my head throbs day and night. Life loses all meaning, I stagger about in despair.” As soon as he retreated from a fiancée, however, he was able to write more freely. For Matt, a painter of abstract cityscapes and still lifes, this was the clincher: Marriage, he feared, would finish him as an artist. After one of his former fiancées married someone else and gave birth to two children, Kafka wrote that he loved her “the way an unfortunate commander loves a town he could never take and which has nonetheless somehow become great.” Matt admired this sentiment, which he saw as the altruism of an artist who had chosen isolation over love. “A genius makes for an unsuitable model,” I said, with no intention of offending him. “It’s like trying to follow in the footsteps of a king or an amputee.”

I suspected that Matt was counting on me to confirm his doubts with yet more hard evidence, but I surprised us both by delivering an impromptu defense of wedlock. My domestic troubles had the paradoxical effect of making me believe in the institution more strongly than ever. I reminded him that Kafka considered marriage and family life to be the pinnacle of human achievement. What prevented Kafka from taking the step, more than anything, was his unpleasant relationship with his father. “Marriage certainly promises the clearest form of self-liberation and independence,” he wrote to his father. “Through it I would have a family . . . I would be your equal, all the old and continuously self-renewing shame and tyranny would be consigned to history.” Yet for this same reason marriage was impossible, ruled out precisely because it was his father’s own exclusive domain. “Sometimes I imagine a map of the earth laid out and you stretched diagonally across it. And then it seems to me that I can only lead my own life in those areas that are neither covered by your body, nor within your reach.” Matt’s relationship with his father, I knew, was completely harmonious. They still went to ballgames together and would often spend whiskey-fueled evenings discussing the treacheries of the art world and the vicissitudes of Matt’s career.

I listened to myself grow increasingly impassioned. Marriage was an act of imagination, I said, a moral act, because you submit yourself to the scrutiny of another, you become each other’s witness, you get the news you would never get otherwise about who you really areeven when it feels like war. “Scramble around the letters of the Hebrew words for ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’” I said, “and you know what they spell? Holy fire.” When I finished, Matt was quiet. Walking him down the cement stairs to the A train, I couldn’t tell whether he was moved or annoyed. Perhaps I had disappointed him. Or did he think I had become softheaded and nostalgic?

The following day, I went to visit my twelve-year-old son, Brendan, at home. As I entered the apartment, a huge beast leaped on me, pushing me back out into the hall. This was Chino, a powerful, tawny, ridgeback–pit bull mix that Brendan and my wife, Pat, had rescued from certain death at a city shelter. Male, impulsive, bullying, and childish, with a shrill, impatient bark, he was, as I saw it, my replacement. He nipped at the hand I held up in self-protection, possibly playful, possibly not. I wrapped the hand in a paper towel to keep the blood from dripping on the floor. I was both fascinated and terrified, drawn to Chino yet wary, tensing as he approached, backpedaling away from him until I was stopped by a wall. The apartment felt as if it had shrunk by half, Chino bounding about with an enthusiasm that made me feel minimally alive. The couch was destroyed, the slipper chair reduced to gnarled gobs of green and white cloth. When I scolded him for ripping at Brendan’s pants, Brendan demanded that I desist, as if I were impinging on some inviolable part of his being. “He’s only like this because you’re here. You excite him. You upset things,” he said. Chino was his, I had no rights. Chino was the child, and he the father—the opposite of Kafka, in effect, a father who wouldn’t let his dependent down, as I had let him down by leaving.

Outside, on a chain leash, Chino dragged Brendan behind him, a potent force, emitting curt barks of desire, intent on throwing himself at anything interesting that happened to come along. Brendan laughed helplessly, then seemed about to break into tears. Finally, he allowed me to help him force the creature to heel. I thought of Freud’s analogy about the ego and the id: Sometimes the rider has to let the horse go where it wants. Chino, the id, was uncontrollably in control.

At home, Brendan sat unconsciously in my lap, then, remembering, jumped away with indignation. I reminded him of my love for him, that I hadn’t left him, the breakup wasn’t his fault, I remained his father and would see him as much as he desired. “Let’s wrestle,” he said, craving, like me, raw physical contact. We clenched and went at each other with mock abandon, rolling on the floor, gripping each other’s arms. Chino joined in, and we locked him out of the room. He pawed and screeched at the door, but we gleefully ignored him. “Go ahead, pin me! Try to pin me!” Brendan cried, a measure of order temporarily restored.

Pat returned from work, and Chino stood regally beside her, straining forward, eager to nip at me again and go wild. She assured me the dog was improving daily. “He only bites when he wants to tell you something,” she said. I wondered what capacity of imagination had failed us. Or had we lacked some form of courage that we would only be able to see clearly when it was too late?

A couple of weeks later, Matt called to tell me he had set a date for the wedding. “You were right, Michael. I snapped out of it. I had the jitters of a fool. Would you consider being my best man?”

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