Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage

Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage

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Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage by Dennis Covington, Vicki Covington

"Marriage is like a rain forest," Vicki Covington writes in Cleaving. "The story of a marriage contains all that grows in the canopy, all that is visible from an aerial, or public, view. The understory of a marriage is the place where . . . we struggle, fight, and conceive. It's the place where compost is made, where anything can grow, including forgiveness." Told in the authors' alternating voices, Cleaving is both the story and the understory of a marriage.

Childhood acquaintances, Vicki and Dennis meet again in their twenties and wed. they "promise each other nothing" and get more than they'd bargained for: alcoholism, infidelity, infertility, uncertainty. tumult gives way to sobriety, parenthood, and meaningful work, but a yearning remains. In a quest to root themselves in the larger world, they embark on a mission to dig water wells in Central America, assuaging a spiritual thirst by addressing a practical need. Yet even this is part of the story-the visible, overarching canopy-of the marriage. The understory-and the triumph of this haunting book, which is neither sentimental nor cynical-is its portrayal of the eddying of passion through the institution that enshrines but cannot contain it.

A soulful and unsparing portrait of the forces that threaten-and sustain-a relationship over time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865475892
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/28/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.52(d)

About the Author

Dennis Covington is a journalist and the author of Salvation on Sand Mountain, a 1995 National Book Award finalist. Vicki Covington is the author of four novels, including The Last Hotel for Women. They live in Birmingham, Alabama.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


On a Tuesday night in January 1997, a woman appeared in the foyer of my house. She'd walked in without knocking. She had wild and beautiful dark curls. She was waving a handful of letters. "You're fucking my husband," she spit.

    I made her go outside.

    I did this because one of my daughters was standing nearby. I knew the person. Her name was Kira. Her eyes, that night, were demonic. I swear the irises were red.

    "That's not true," I told her, "and I can pass a polygraph." I meant it, although it was also true that I'd written the letters she was holding, and they were addressed to her husband.

    The word polygraph did what it was supposed to do. She shut up long enough for me to say, "You can do to me whatever you want, just don't hurt my children."

    This conversation occurred in my front yard—on a nice lawn, manicured monthly by a landscape service. In summer, the grass is verdant. I plant orange impatiens to border the shrubs. I plant pansies by the mailbox. I don't water any of it, though, and sometimes things start to die. My neighbors forgive my inept gardening. They forgive the whiff of white trashiness they occasionally sniff in us, the way boards and pipes and newspapers and trinkets accumulate on our porch, the way women arrive at night with papers in hand, screaming, "You're fucking my husband."

    We live on a cul-de-sac. As a mother, I have a twofold purpose on the street. I let kids dance on the tables, and I bury dead animalsin the side yard. I've buried frogs, lizards, chipmunks, butterflies, rats, birds, and a golden retriever. I like pet funerals. They make me feel worthwhile. I always say a prayer with the kids. They never close their eyes or look at the earth. They peer up at me. Perhaps they're looking for signs of phoniness, or maybe they're just taking a mental snapshot to file in their internal scrapbooks.

    I wonder if the neighborhood kids were drifting off to sleep the night Kira was waving the letters in my face. I wonder if they heard my voice saying "Polygraph."

    There are a lot of ways to get the truth out of somebody. The lie detector is one. Torture is another. Hypnosis. Cross-examination. Asking the right questions—as skilled journalists, therapists, attorneys, and investigators are able to do.

    Most of the time people want to talk. Southerners find it satisfying in the way that overindulgence in anything is satisfying, and they'll tell you more than you want to know. They love a story even when the truth contained therein wrecks their reputation and sets fire to things. For the writer, the truth is harder to find. Before I knew anything about well-drilling, I used to think that hitting water meant tapping into a flowing, underground river. I didn't know that you get to water by gradually coming to the place where saturation has occurred, and that this layer of earth is called an aquifer. I didn't know that water, like truth, craves release from whatever is holding it back. When you drive a well, you are relieving pressure. So pure truth, like pure water, comes not under pressure but when the pressure is taken away. You can submit to oath or torture or lie detectors, as many do. But it won't be as pure as the truth that comes from the well you've driven into yourself.

    Dennis convinced me that you can drill a well by yourself. A hand auger is all you need. You rotate the handle the same way you turned the handle of your grandmother's old eggbeater.

    The first water you come to, if you auger down far enough, isn't the water you want. It's surface water. The good water is four to twelve feet deeper. To get this water you have to drive a well point. Water, like truth, wants to be freed from its hiding place. It wants to come up. It will rise.

    A couple of days after Kira came over, I went to talk to a polygrapher; I'll call him Grady. Grady knew I was a writer, and he said, "You need this information for a novel?" He was a calm, scrupulous man with degrees in law and counseling, somebody who didn't intimidate, despite his job.

    "No," I told him, as we stood by the polygraph instrument, a big brass plate with wires, set down in a desk well, which administers what is formally known as a "forensic psycho-physiological detection test." I told him I was writing a memoir of my marriage. I told him I wanted to be hooked up—not to be questioned, but to sit in the big black chair. He was very accommodating. He put the pneumograph tubes over my chest to monitor and record movement in my thoracic cavity. He attached finger plates to monitor and record galvanic skin response. "Sweating," he noted. Finally, he put the cardio cuff on my arm to monitor and record changes in heart rate and blood pressure.

    I stared at the wall.

    I was wearing a blue sweater, a white turtleneck, and a T-shirt.

    "You've really got on too many layers of clothes," Grady said. "If we were actually questioning you, this wouldn't be accurate."

    He told me that I would—if this were real—be asked to keep my eyes open, find a spot on the wall, and focus. I did this anyway.

    "Now what?" I asked him. It struck me that some people might start crying at this juncture, and I asked him if this was so. He said yes, it had occurred. I almost started crying then, myself, because I realized why I was there.

    "See," I told him. "The writer is in the big black chair. The reader is the polygrapher. The reader is going to know when the needle flutters. The reader is going to know when I'm lying. Do you understand?"

    "Not really," he said. Then he smiled, as if to say, "Dispense with the metaphors."

    But I was all strapped up, focused on the spot on the wall. I waited for him to say something. "The instrument doesn't differentiate big lies from little lies. A lie is a lie," Grady told me.

    I looked at the Velcro on the finger plates. "My nails are fake," I told him. "They're acrylic." He smiled, shrugged.

    If this were real, he told me, he'd adjust all the knobs to bring the instrument into balance with my personal physiology. Then he'd ask me to make any last-minute movements. "Most people start to itch," he noted.

    "Or cough," I said.

    "Yes," Grady affirmed.

    We'd gone as far as we were going to go. He unstrapped me, and I stood by the instrument. I stared at the big black chair. I knew that even though I was free to go, I'd return, in my mind, to this room whenever I sat down to write this book, to see if my body might be reacting to the stress of lying. Fight, flee, or freeze?

    The writer better freeze. There are questions to be answered. Like the one Kira asked me in her kitchen the morning after the incident in my yard. I'd told her that Dennis knew about the relationship I'd been having with her husband, and she'd looked at me incredulously.

    "What kind of marriage is that?"

    The poet W. H. Auden says, "Tell me the truth about love."

    I hope we can.

Kira's husband called me the morning after his wife appeared at my door, screaming. He asked if I would come over. He and Kira wanted to talk to me. I wanted to go, I'm not sure why. I threw on some jeans. They live in a nice place, set back from the road. I parked in the driveway. It was raining hard. Kira's husband let me in. We walked through the garage, up carpeted stairs to the kitchen. They had a new floor. It was sparkling, but Kira was dabbing up a spot with a washcloth.

    "Chocolate milk," she said, and I knew I'd always remember her saying this. I knew I'd remember it in the way people remember insignificant details about a car wreck.

    We sat at their kitchen table, the three of us.

    "How long?" she asked, cutting me in two with her eyes.

    I wanted to make a big deal out of the fact that we hadn't done it. I wanted to justify it. I wanted to say, "Look, my mother has Alzheimer's and my daddy has Parkinson's disease, and I'm taking care of them, and I'm forty-four, and your husband is older than me and he came along at a vulnerable moment and I latched on to him like a leech." But she had her chin up. Her eyes were unyielding. It crossed my mind that she was gorgeous.

    "How long?" she asked again.

    "A few months," I told her.

    The rain had picked up. My daughter, Laura, is afraid of storms. She's also psychic, like her grandmother. Once, I popped an ivory-colored balloon while I was cleaning up her bedroom because I was tired of looking at it. When I picked her up at school, she was crying. "Why did you do it?" she asked. "Why did you pop it?" I felt horrible, horrible and caught, just like I was feeling now.

    "Did you really think this would work?" Kira asked, her eyes augering deep.

    I studied her.

    "Who did you think you were fooling?"

    I didn't know what to say.

    "You tried to seduce him with words," she said, gesturing at him with the letters. I tried not to look over at him.

    "I'm going to sue you for alienation of affection," she said.

    I didn't know what this meant. "I don't have any money," I told her, and this was true. We'd already spent the first part of the advance for the book to get ourselves out of debt.

    "It's not a civil suit," she said. "Your name will just be on my divorce papers." I thought of judges. Alabama's secretary of state is my neighbor. I wondered if he'd find out.

    I think Kira's table was made of wood, the walls a dark red. The window was directly in front of me. Kira looked at me, then at her husband, and finally she pulled out the big guns. "So you're a deacon in your church," she said.

    I felt myself disappearing.

    "What are you going to do? Keep standing up there, reading your Scripture? You're going to have to account for what you do someday," she said, and I noticed that her nails were a natural color. They weren't fake like mine.

    "God isn't mean," I said to her. I meant it. Even though I'd wronged her, I meant this.

    "Maybe you don't belong in a Baptist church," she said. Her eyes were on fire again.

    "No, I probably should be Episcopal," I replied.

    "Dennis knows about this?" she demanded.

    "Yes," I told her.

    "What kind of marriage is that?" Her eyes widened, and I tried to decide if they were blue or green. I knew that her favorite drink was a Rusty Nail. He'd told me.

    "We just figured there would be things like this, along the way," I said.

    "Like what?"

    "You know, you'll be attracted to other people. You'll try to not act on it, and I didn't for all these years. Then sometimes you walk in deeper than you meant to. This is life."

    The word life incensed her. "No," she said, "no, this isn't life, Vicki. You don't have to get involved. You can choose to be faithful to your husband, like I have." I knew that she hadn't been faithful to her first husband. Her current marriage had begun in an affair. I knew she was capable of deceit. But I didn't bring this up. She had me.

    The strange thing is that I didn't want to leave. Even when we had all stopped talking and I knew it was time to go, I tarried. I toyed with the drawstring of my blue windbreaker. I took a sip of water. Kira and her husband were drilling holes in one another with their eyes. "There's a lot we need to talk about now," she said, without looking at me. "Just us," she said evenly, and I knew then that I had to go.

    "If you see him again, I'll do something to hurt you," she said.

    "What will you do?" I wanted her to say it out loud. I wanted him to witness it.

    Her eyes traveled from me to him, back to me. "I'll either hurt you physically or I'll do something to make your life unbearable."

    Right before we got up from the table, Kira's husband gave a brief sermon on forgiveness, which surprised me, since he's not prone to religiosity. Then we all rose. I took a wrong turn, and they had to steer me correctly. We started toward ground level, and that's when I lost it. I lost it because photographs of all their children were hanging along the stairwell. I caught glimpses of the straw-colored gymnasium floor, the baseball fields, the friends, weddings, family vacations, the faces of their children giving it all to the camera or to the sporting event at hand. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I turned abruptly. I was in her face.

    "I'm sorry," I told her.

    "I haven't cried yet, and I don't want to do it now," she said.

    I wanted to hug her. "Can I touch you?" I asked.

    "No," she whispered, and the word was ripe.

    I turned for the door. It was raining cats and dogs. He asked me if I wanted an umbrella. I didn't. I wanted to make a dash for it. I backed the car up into the street. I drove home, and on the way home I didn't turn the radio on. I didn't think anything. When I got home, Dennis was in the living room drinking a cup of coffee.

We live in a house we can't afford, in a neighborhood we can't afford, in a life we can't afford. Our neighbors are lawyers, CPAs, stockbrokers. Our place is modest, I suppose, by middle-class standards—three bedrooms, two baths. But we're writers, and we can't always pay the bills. We don't manage money well. We give a tenth of our writing money to the church, though. We always write the tithe check, right when an advance comes in. We do it in the same way we charge plane tickets on Amex or put Christmas on Visa. We do it without thinking. We do most everything without thinking. I'm not sure we know how to think. We're impulsive—both of us.

    Dennis was on the loveseat that morning.

    "I'm in a mess," I told him.

    He leaned forward, cradling his mug. I sat on the couch. It's made of ivory material, with rose and blue lines. The walls are gray. The entire living room is minimalist, monochromatic, like a black-and-white photograph, a documentary of what might be.

    We talked about Kira spreading the news.

    "The letters," I said to Dennis.

    He looked at me.

    "They made everything seem more than it was. You know, I wrote it up better than it happened. You know," I said, hoping he'd know.

    Dennis noted that no newspaper would print them, and this was a comforting thought, especially since I used to do an editorial slice-of-life column for The Birmingham News. I knew Dennis was mad at me, though. We'd tried to give each other freedom in all things, and he was getting burned for this one. We'd had a big fight a few months back about my relationship with Kira's husband, but he'd let it go, not asking any more questions, figuring, I suppose, that it would play itself out. Plus, he'd had his own dances over the years. But whatever irritation or anger he was feeling, he was, I could tell, mostly worried about me. I saw it in his eyes. He was siding with me the way people side with a family member who's been arrested.

    "The book," I sighed.

    This was a painful topic lately, anyway. In light of the current event, the book we'd planned to write about our marriage seemed virtually out of the question. Here was the intended starting point: A couple of recovering alcoholics with two miracle children and dual careers, happily settled in the suburbs. The couple had held on to their sobriety and their passion for one another, but were still vaguely unhappy and unfulfilled. Love had not been enough. Work had not been enough. There was something else we were longing for. We called it "living water," because that's the phrase Jesus had used to describe the abundant life he was offering the Samaritan woman at the well.

    So we'd turned the metaphorical into the actual and trained ourselves to hand-drill wells so that we could bring clean water to places that didn't have any, redeeming ourselves and our marriage by simple Christian service. That had been the concept, anyway.

    A few nights later, Dennis came in from teaching with light in his eyes. "I've got it," he said. "I've got a radical idea. I know where you can begin the book."

    I looked at him, hopeful.

    "It begins on a Tuesday night in January 1997, when a woman comes to the front door waving a batch of letters in your face."

    I felt the hairs stand up on my arms. Dennis is a journalist, and he believes in reporting the truth. He believes you can be an unethical person and still be an ethical writer.

    "I can't do that," I said, but my eyes were wide open, and I knew that he saw that I could.

    A few weeks later, I sit here typing this. I'm typing it from a loft we rent and can't afford. We don't live here; we just write here. In winter, the bare trees allow a view of the apartments, homes, and condos sprinkled along the slope of Red Mountain. Birmingham lies in a valley, and this particular neighborhood is called Five Points South. It's not a place for raising children, but it's a good place to write. Many landmarks of our life together are here, like the theater where my brother directed and Dennis used to act, the bars where we used to drink, the settings for a lot of stories we've written. You can see the white concrete-block building where we first went to meetings after getting sober. You can see the church we belong to now. You can see Twentieth Street hill, which leads to Vulcan, the big statue who holds a torch that burns red if somebody's been killed in a car accident during the past twenty-four hours, green if nobody has. We almost rented a loft that faced east. We would have had a view of the viaduct that takes you to the neighborhood where we grew up. But we took this one, facing south, instead. It faces the cut through the mountain, the one that takes you directly to our present address. During the day, we can write in the loft. We can remember. We can make up things if we want. But in the end, we go home to children.

    Marriage is like a rain forest. You have the canopy and the understory. The story of a marriage contains all that grows in the canopy, all that is visible from an aerial, or public, view. The understory of a marriage is the place where other things thrive. It is in the understory that we struggle, fight, and conceive. It's the place where we toss things, where compost is made, where anything can grow, including forgiveness.

Table of Contents

In the quick29
War zones63
Living water195

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