Issue #59, Spring 2016

The Math of Marriage

Winner: Best Essay Prize, "Marriage"

Elane Johnson

The Math of Marriage

You are walking down that plushly carpeted aisle for the first time, your satin heels sinking into the rug so that you wobble a little on your daddy’s arm, and you see through the mosquito netting of your veil the pewter pipes of the organ, flat against the back wall like a display of rifles in a gun rack, and the looming, gilded cross hanging in front, illuminated just right so the carved Christ, Episcopalian and clean and tidy—not the Catholic church’s slumping, half-naked, bleeding, suffering Savior—gets most of the glory. Suspended on wires that make Him dance, not unlike a puppet, in gusts from the central A/C, the Son of God waits with His arms outstretched as if He’s planning to grab you when you get there. You turn your head left and right, nodding slightly at the mayor, at some friends from high school, at some faces as foreign to you as this thing you are about to become: married.

And, God, you want to run. You want to snatch up the hem of your swishy, off-white gown with its seventeen layers of lace, and you want to wrench free of your daddy’s grasp, and you want to turn around and hightail it right back down that blood-colored runner, past all those shocked stares and out those bright red doors to your freedom. God! This is that fucking temptation you’ve heard so much about. And the wooden Christ with His knowing gaze, with His slight smile. O! He just bobs along, nothing but taunting, because He sees exactly what you’re going to do. You’re not going to flee. You are going to teeter on up there and join in holy matrimony with this poor, sweet, good-hearted sap who doesn’t know the math: thirty-one percent of marriages between college graduates aged twenty-three to twenty-eight end in divorce.

OK. That’s not so terrible. You graduated together last year in the top 3 percent of your college class. But. People who wait until after age twenty-five to marry are 17 percent less likely to get divorced. Damn. You’re both twenty-three. All right, let’s see . . .  If your parents are still married, your risk of divorce decreases by 33 percent. Well, that’s a wash; his parents are the ’til-death-us-do-part types, and your parents are the kind who throw away twenty years over a drinking-directly-out-of-the-milk-jug argument. Oh. And then this. Living together before marriage increases the odds of divorce by 33 percent. Shit. You’re doomed. You rent separate apartments for appearances, but you’ve been sneaking around and living together in one of them for the past year. What’s worse is all the years of sneaking around with your high school boyfriend, the one you are dying to marry, the one you called last night, praying to the Almighty Christ that he’d agree to run away with you so you wouldn’t now be processing to the altar with your false intentions and some incalculable percentage of certainty that this union will not last.

Forty-four percent of first marriages end in divorce.

Check.

A couple of years after your first marriage ends, you scramble to the justice of the peace. You time the ceremony impeccably: as soon as the last bell rings, the two of you, both teachers, squeal out of the school parking lots—one middle, one elementary—and head for the OB/GYN’s office, where somebody dips a stick in an inch of your pee and delivers the verdict. You’ve already lined up the judge just in case, and after the doctor’s appointment, when you stop to fill up your fiancé’s Honda at the Shell station, you say, “So, do you still want to go through with it?” And he does. So you do.

The judge looks at your application and says, “Ohhh. That’s not a good sign, that she’s been married before.” He sucks something out of his teeth and squints a little at your soon-to-be, maybe kind of encouraging him to rethink this whole thing. You’re pissed. How dare he question your commitment? Asshole. Surely you think of this later when the ink is drying on your divorce papers, and you acknowledge the bastard’s grasp of the math.

Up to 34 percent of second marriages for people over the age of 25 end in divorce.

Check.

Some sources posit that 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce. But this time, you ignore the math because this time—get this!!—you’re marrying the old high school sweetheart, your one, true love, the one who crowded your first marriage. Of course, this one is going to stick because it’s so romantic, right? “Reunited and it feels so good,” right? What could possibly go wrong, right? Yeah. Two years later, you’ve had your second kid and your third affair, and you’re single again.

Now, according to LegalHandle.com, a shady website that proclaims its content is for entertainment purposes only, “93 percent of fourth marriages end in divorce within five years,” and you’re inclined to believe it even though your own fourth marriage lasted more than fifteen. At the end of number four, you swore you would never, ever, ever walk that plank aisle again. But here you are, happily married for five-and-one-fourth years to lucky number five, and goddammit, you ought to be an expert by now.

***

His family threw a royal fit when you married, and one of his sisters declared he was going to end up “broke and broken,” which made you kind of hate her with a white-hot passion for a while. But you’re over it, and neither of you has anything to prove to anybody. You experience the normal ecclesiastical highs and desire-to-strangle-you-in-your-sleep lows of marriage, and you really can’t imagine life any other way. He’s been married almost as many times as you have, and you can both recite the agreed-upon reasons that the marriages happened in the first place as well as the causes of their deaths. The latter are much easier to pinpoint: infidelity, money squabbles, disagreements over child-raising, job stress, incompatibility, immaturity, growing apart, losing that lovin’ feelin’. Those things are easy to spot. What’s confounding is why anyone ever gets married. Anyone. For example, your official first boyfriend from third grade, Chris—who, it turns out, liked you but actually had a crush on your dad, who looked like Mr. Brady. Yeah.

Exactly two weeks after SCOTUS’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, Chris married his longtime love, Victor. Naturally, the Facebook announcement of their nuptials incited an outpouring of love and congratulations, to which you added your shrieking approval. Wedding! Cake! Celebration! Kisses! Rubbery chicken and a crappy cover band! What wasn’t to love? Now, of course, it was only fair that they were allowed to wed, but since gay divorce rates are shaping up to be only slightly lower than those of heterosexual couples, you couldn’t help wondering why in God’s name, after eighteen years of togetherness, they felt the need. Was it the spousal benefits? Social conformity? The legal rights to make end-of-life decisions or to share custody? The public proclamation that one is wanted, loved, taken? What is it that makes people risk the financial ruin, the emotional upheaval, the gaping wounds of probable divorce? What is it that makes your own heart nearly burst from the utter joy of the phrase getting married, that spurs you to get on that ride five fucking times?

***

The morning of your fifth wedding, an ashen first-of-January sky, low over the shallow waves of the Atlantic, threatens to spoil your beach ceremony. Bleary-eyed at the breakfast buffet on the fourth floor of an oceanfront hotel on Tybee Island, Georgia, with God’s view of the shore, you’re irritated, worried that your dream venue isn’t going to pan out. You’re sipping coffee, picking at some buttery grits, when you spot the pair of silver dolphins somersaulting out of the water. They are as mysterious and unexpected as finding true love at forty-five, and the surprise fills you with hope. Two hours later, the sun has burned away the gray scrim, and the ocean blurs into azure heavens, making the perfect backdrop for the ceremony. Your minister, his hair still dripping from a morning paddle-surfing expedition, draws a gigantic heart in the sand and positions you and your intended inside. Your family—who’ve all traveled hours and hours to witness this joining—gather at the point, their hair askew in the salty breeze, their shoes flung off or dangling from two fingers, bare feet barely tamping down the euphoria waiting to spill over after the I-do’s. At half-past eleven, the minister intones, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God to bless this union,” and you ignore all the questions, all the probabilities and uncertainties, and all the math—except the only important equation: 1/2 + 1/2 = one.

* Illustration by Tugboat Printshop.

Author Bio

Elane Johnson

Elane Johnson’s nonfiction has been anthologized, featured in college creative writing curricula across the United States and... read more

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