The Precipice by Danielle Perry


You are twenty-one, your husband is in jail, and you are scared.

They say he attacked a woman, though it is never made clear what exactly everyone means when they say attack. They are careful not to say anything when they know you're in earshot, so you really only know what you hear in snippets, what you read in the headlines of small articles buried in the back of the paper. You went to the jail, once, alone, to tell him you are divorcing him (your parents insisted on the trip, of course, but refused to go with you) and everyone was nice, called you miss like the marriage never happened. No one says anything about the event. It seems like they are afraid of damaging you, but truth be told, you would rather be damaged than keep going on in ignorance.

After all, this man is your husband, whatever else he may be. You have a right to know what he did. There is no question in your mind that he is guilty. You are scared and though you may feel dumb, you know that you are not. Knowing terrifies you but you realize you should know. You wonder if your parents know, hidden behind their disapproving glares. They don't fit well in this time; you can't tell if they disapprove of the divorce or the fact that you got married in the first place. Middle-born in a sea of daughters, you were the one your father hung his hopes on: you were to follow in his footsteps. No one counted on this.

 Poor dear, they say, and, of course she must be brave, going all the way out there, and other things that sound too antiquated for this or any other situation. They sound like your parents, these ubiquitous they. You feel ostracized, on top of your fear, unable to connect to the people who were supposed to protect you from things like this. You feel completely and utterly alone. The person you thought would save you from this, from feeling like the black sheep, has betrayed everything. Your wedding ring feels like a fetter on your finger, but you can't quite bring yourself to take it off. What does one do with a wedding ring after a divorce, anyway? Sell it, you assume. Certainly you won't save it for the children you still hope to have, someday. What are the chances? You feel ruined, and who will want you now? You are only twenty-one, but now you feel destined to be the maiden aunt. You're not sure where such a notion would have come from.

No one had ever paid much attention to you, pretty but not enough to hold a candle to your homecoming queen sister. Besides, you were not meant for such things; you were meant for continuing your father, the closest he had to a son. He started showing you the ropes as a young girl, tying you in a knot it will take you years to undo, though you do not quite realize this yet. So when this man - your husband - happened to notice you, it felt special. He looked rebellious in a way that you had only dreamed of being. Naturally your parents disapproved of such a match. (Now they cannot let go of that initial disapproval, so proud of themselves and their judgment that they cannot help their middle daughter, stranded as she is.) 

You kept at it, though, all the way to the altar - how did you manage that feat? - and your mother cried at the wedding, though you know it was not out of happiness, like she said. It felt like a victory, more than anything else in your life ever had. In the wedding pictures you look like a cat, furtive, smug. When they came back, you thought to yourself, I've never seen myself look like that. Everyone else probably thought the same. The whole courtship and marriage was out of character, and that's what you liked about it. You were tired of being your father's daughter.

But now everything's gone to rot, and you're left alone. You'll have to go back to the prison, soon, to get the divorce papers signed. You think an attorney or two will be there as well, but the thought provides little comfort. You wish your parents could just get over themselves and support you. That should be more important than being right, but apparently social standing wins out.

Still, all those years of being the good daughter stand in the way of actually getting angry at your parents. Instead you are just sad. No, not just sad: jumbled, a scribble a child draws in the margins when frustrated. Sitting in the too-empty living room of your house (all yours now, presumably), you wonder how all the strings got knotted like this. An eerie silence seems to have settled over everything, a fine dust. It's claustrophobic, almost, and you realize in this silence that you are forgetting already. The good parts are slowly disappearing like fairy food, or else turning to sand. Surely there were good parts, because you could not have married him if there were not something redeemable about him. (His smile, mostly, a robber's smile, could usually get him out of trouble; not this time.)

Where was it you first met? You can't quite remember; you just remember his smile, and his hair - which clearly had been slicked back that morning but was by then quite disheveled -, and the look of him, like one of those writers from the Fifties, Jack Kerouac or some other author you've heard of only in passing. He was handsome, and since handsome men never noticed you, it was hard not to fall. He took you to the movies, and you stood on the edge of a precipice and let yourself be. You almost didn't notice when you wound up at the bottom, because of that smile.

You shake your head; these aren't thoughts you want to think right now, anyway. The silence is getting to you.

You think, Maybe I should get a dog.

Instead you call your mother. "Oh, hi, honey," she says, as though nothing could be wrong. You have a clear image of her, in the kitchen with its awful yellow wallpaper and avocado-green telephone, probably cooking or preparing to cook, stuck in her youth. "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay, I guess. You know, considering. I'm thinking about getting a dog. It's too quiet here."

"Well, honey, you know a dog is a big commitment."

You can't quite believe that she just said this. "Mother, honestly? I got married."

"And look how that turned out."

A silence hangs over the line; you can feel tears well up and wish your rebellion extended to your relationship with your mother. "I know," you say, and it comes out squeaking like a mouse, because you have in an instant resolved not to cry on the phone. There is another slight silence before your mother says, in an unconvincingly cheery tone, "Chin up, honey, it'll get better."

You say goodbye, hang up, and sob. There's no reason for it - or, more accurately, there are a thousand and one reasons for it - but there is no stopping it. The sound swells and fills up the rooms of the apartment. It feels like drowning; soon you are gasping for air, surrounded by saline. You halfway think of how comforting a dog would be right now, to love you in that way that dogs do, and then maybe you could cry into its fur, but this is only a passing thought, floating by too quickly to grab hold. You heave, and sob, as though some great tragedy has befallen you and, you suppose, it has. You know that you have led a sheltered life, because you were put on a path from which you could not, must not, stray, and so tragedy was only hinted at, a creeping vine edging its way across your path.

Now you are choking on it.

You try to frame it differently to yourself, as the crying starts to subside, try to tell yourself to look at what you can do, what you are capable of. This works, but only marginally - this is enough for now, you find yourself only sniffling. It seems a little pathetic, this drama that you enact more days than not, especially once you have made it through the worst of it; the important thing is that it feels real each time. It is genuine, at least.

The next day after work, you go to the pound, determined. You run across a dog that, when it sees you, tries to leap toward you, and you smile. It is the color of wet sand, and you think to yourself that Sandy is a very good name for a dog. You put in the application and go home, make yourself a sandwich (you've never been an adept cook, but especially not now, with hardly any energy left after just making it through the day).

The television, set up on a stand that dwarfs it, lulls you into a gentle stupor. You halfway wonder why you didn't think of it last night. (Sometimes you just have to cry, simple as that, you suppose.) You're not even sure what you're watching, some game show perhaps, as you nibble at your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You check the clock. Nine. Late dinner, early bedtime, you feel grown old before your time.

You shuffle into the bathroom to brush your teeth, familiar fog hovering over everything. You think about your sisters, lives that you never could have led: graduate student, homecoming queen. They seem distant - exotic, somehow - though they are really just your sisters. Even so, their lives seem far enough away from yours that they may as well be princesses, circus acrobats, other glamorous things you pretended to be as little girls. No one ever pretended to be the twenty-one-year-old divorcee.

The tears start to well up again; you can still hear the television in the other room. Fuck, you think. (Maybe you say it out loud, you're not really sure at this point.) The reflection in the mirror studies you, bags under her eyes, hair falling limply around her face. Surely this isn't you. 

A few days later, the shelter calls to tell you the dog can be picked up. There are forms to fill out, shots to get, vets to call. It feels good to be doing something, especially something that doesn't have anything to do with the divorce or him or your parents. This is for you, and this dog. Finally you are able to take the dog home and you get swept up in her enthusiasm. When you get home you call your mother: "Well, Mom, I got the dog. She's great, I'm going to call her Sandy, she's not much older than a puppy-"

"That's great, sweetie. Say, when do you have to go back about the papers?"


"Because I was thinking since you'd be out already-"

"Mom, I don't want to talk about it right now. I just wanted to tell you about this dog."

 "Well, I just think you should really be focusing on the things that are important right now."

 "I've got to go, Mom. I think the dog needs a walk."

You say goodbye and hang up. Near tears, you sit on the floor and the dog bounds to meet you. She is so happy and you want it to rub off on you. You want to be happy. It will get better, you try telling yourself, to no real avail, I just have to get through this. The dog nuzzles up to you and you can't help but smile. This little creature will be good for you.

Everything becomes routine, after a while. You take the dog for walks, go to work, come home, try to forget. (Though sometimes, just to switch it up, you try to remember. You're not sure which hurts more.) Occasionally the routine hiccups, sure, and a visit to your parents' house - or, once, to prison - becomes necessary. You adjust, slowly, day by day, to this new life in which you find yourself.

So you are caught off guard when one day, on a walk with the dog, a man catches your eye and smiles. Sandy bounces over to greet him, pulling on her leash. The man squats down to pat her head, muttering all the usual things strangers say to dogs. He looks up at you and asks, "How old is she?"

You half-smile, nervously, and answer, "I'm not sure. She's from the pound. Young, though, still a puppy."

"She's beautiful." He grins up at you, making you wonder when the last time you had a casual conversation with a man was. Months, maybe. "Do you live around here?"

There it is: the question brings up all the anxiety you've been trying not to feel. "I should go," you say, trying to sound sorry, pulling on the leash. The man stands up and nods. He looks slighted. "Maybe I'll see you around," he says.

You make some noncommittal noise and pull on Sandy's leash again. Back home, to safety - you're not ready for even that casual suggestion, still too raw from being done wrong. You're not even sure if he was coming on to you, and yet you've mostly convinced yourself it was some kind of cruel joke. You hate thinking like this, but it's the only way you're surviving lately. You're not even really sure how long it's been. A fog has descended around your brain. It's no way to live. 

Slowly, things start to be okay again. You are still holding yourself back, but this dog has a way of pulling you out of the fog, out of the darkness. It is exactly what you wanted from the puppy. You smile more, and are glad for it. Increasingly it seems like those days of lawyers and prison and crying yourself to sleep were just a bad dream.

In short, you are healing. 

Then one day you get a piece of official-looking mail.

You are officially divorced.

Without knowing why, you collapse to the floor, sobbing. This is exactly what you wanted, what you have pursued for what feels like eternity, and yet you are on your floor, still crying your eyes out. Sandy gambols over and gives a little bark for attention. You wipe your cheeks with your sleeve and fetch the leash.

On the way back from your walk, the man who approached you the other week holds up his hand in a greeting, somewhere between a wave and a salute. You catch yourself smiling and waving back. He does not come over, leaving you somewhere in between relief and bewilderment. (Did that one encounter scare him off? Are you that fearsome?)

You see him a few more times, each with a smile and a wave, before another conversation occurs. "I was wondering," he says, in a halting way that makes you question again your possible ferocity, "if maybe you'd like to go out for a drink sometime."

The suggestion catches you off-guard. For some reason, it hadn't occurred to you that he might actually ask you out. After all, you are damaged goods now; who would want a twenty-one-year-old divorcee? (But then, how would he know what you really are?) "Um, sure," you manage to stammer.

His relief is palpable; it shows in the grin that breaks out across his face. "Great! How about tomorrow night?"

You nod. "That's fine." The arrangements are made and you are left to consider the fact that you have a date. The following day passes in a blur, a weekend daze of sleeping in and playing with the puppy and ignoring the telephone. Suddenly you need to get ready and you wonder at the passing of time and how it deadens wounds. It has to, you know, people can't keep bleeding, but it seems strange to you, this healing.

He picks you up and you sit in the passenger seat, fretting. The evening - awkward at first - turns into an entirely pleasant affair, and when he drops you back off at your house, he walks you to the door and kisses you. In a split second, you realize - somehow - that this is the father of your children, and you kiss him again.




Danielle Perry has never been married. She has been published by Luna Station Quarterly, The Toast, and Memory Insufficient, among others.