We’d come to the point in our marriage where I’d forgotten my husband’s name and I barely remembered mine. He was husband. I was wife. I’d been reading spiritual teachings that lauded the virtues of boredom, and when my husband and I stared dead-eyed at each other across the dinner table, I took deep breaths and tried to connect to my vibrant essence. “How was your day?” my husband would ask. “Oh, you know…,” I’d answer. He did know! He could have easily summarized my day for me: I had two or three possible days I cycled through and he knew them all. This familiarity made us strangers. “How was your day?” I’d ask him. He’d say exactly what I knew he would say, and we’d gape at each other.
One night, after once more failing to connect to my vibrant essence, I said, “I want a divorce.” The words just sprang out, like a scroll from one of those joke guns. In the early days of our marriage, we used to demand a divorce as a running gag: You don’t like black olives? I want a divorce! It was funny because it wasn’t true. This time it was true, or not patently false, but my husband laughed anyway. I joined in the laughter and convinced myself I’d spun comic gold.
A few days later, he came home straddling a motorcycle. “How the hell did you pay for that?” I asked.
“It’s a Triumph,” he said, as if that were an answer. “Like Fonzie rode.” He knew of my childhood love of Fonzie, the chaste fantasies I’d concoct to help me sleep, where I’d hoop my arms around Fonzie’s leathered trunk as he zoomed us through the sexy Milwaukee streets. Oh, to be whisked away from my fighting parents! Their every word, gesture, action had significance, was some sort of act of war. Or every so often, a call for peace. But nothing was neutral.
“You looked up Fonzie’s motorcycle?” I asked.
He nodded shyly. “Want to go for a ride?” How could I not? I climbed on.
We drove through the unsexy but not unpleasant streets of our nondescript lower-middle-class residential neighborhood. My husband showed surprising facility with the bike, and I enjoyed the deep leans of our turns, the brief surrender to gravity only to flout it. We returned home exhilarated and holding hands. I let the grim matter of money drop. If feeling alive meant more debt, so be it.
The next day, when my husband came home in a black leather jacket and beckoned me with a flick of his head, I skittered right over and followed him outside. He’d done something different to his hair: a slick substance molded it back, lending his trim Anglo features Mediterranean oomph. I leapt onto the bike, donned my helmet like a pro, and off we rode.
My husband had an obnoxious habit of leaving lights on, but that night, not only did he turn off lights upon exiting rooms but he did so by punching the wall with the side of his fist. Within days, our sex life exponentially improved. It was like back when we first met and each touch a was a new weather, flouting forecast.
I continued with my self-paced spiritual studies and practices. Long ago, someone had told me that marriage was like meditation: the key was, come what may, to hold your seat. So each evening, I’d plop down on my meditation cushion and observe my breath, the rise and fall of my chest, the cool wind entering my nose and the warm air that emerged.
One night, I experienced a sensation of rising from the floor. I chalked it up to spiritual wooziness. But the sensation increased: the beige carpet dropped down beneath me. I’d never aspired to levitation, but now it was just happening: had I achieved a true magic, a transcendence beyond the Fonz?
I sensed something behind me and turned. My husband held his thumbs up, pointing outward, the classic Fonzie stance.
“Put me down,” I snapped. But he was so enamored of his own powers he didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. “Put me down!” I repeated.
“But it’s amazing. A miracle.”
I’d thought those same words once, about us. Our love had been the Fonz: it was cool and fiery; it fixed broken things; it walked in a room and people cheered. Maybe not: but it felt like that, that together we were enchanted and enchanting. As my husband lowered me, I felt the letdown of our lives.
“Didn’t you like it?” he asked. I did. In fact, the second my hips touched the floor I felt a loss I couldn’t measure. But it was just another trick, and, worse, a trick played on me instead of by me.
“No,” I said.
“But I did it for you. I thought you liked magic men.”
“You’re not magic,” I said, channeling my parents’ habitual antagonism. “And I don’t like you.” All these years I’d kept it down. Most of the time. But being miraculously lifted and lowered shook it out of me.
I locked the door to our bedroom and tried to recreate the levitation on my own. I knew trying wasn’t the answer, but neither was trying not to try. I had to accept the trying without trying to try or trying not to try. This required a lot of failing, which I also had to accept. These conundrums humbled me, and I felt ready to apologize to my husband without making things worse.
I found my him hovering high in the living room, his denimed legs tucked in a full lotus, a position I could never achieve. His half-closed eyes saw nothing but his own bliss.
I wanted him to teach me. We could do this together. I’d rack up debt with my own bike and leather gear. We’d sit on air side by side.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m really sorry about before.”
Nothing. He was lost in the ether, I thought, but then his face, as if painstakingly adjusting itself to lower realms, registered my presence. “I want a divorce,” he said, his legs uncrossing as he drifted to the floor.
I spat out a laugh, but the croak that emerged only punctuated my foolishness. He didn’t crack a smile. My husband, who, if I was honest, had always looked a tad ridiculous as The Fonz, suddenly looked 100 percent not ridiculous. He’d become the Fonziest Fonz there ever was, his white tee a beacon of everyone’s dreams, his jacket a sheath for the blade of his greatness, his coif a plush arrow to heaven.
“Please,” I said. For what can you say to a god in desperate times but “please, please, please”?
He shook his head, and I knew all was lost. I ran outside, and there was the motorcycle poised at a fetching little tilt. I jumped on and rode through our little streets, waiting for a sign from a different god: one that hadn’t failed me; one I hadn’t failed. I should have been meditating, but I was done not trying. I needed a higher power, not an earth-bound cushion. And there, in a corner backyard, was a homemade skateboard ramp, a shallow “U” that if entered right would harness my horsepower and shove me aloft. Though I was barely controlling the bike as it was, I somehow ascended the skate ramp beautifully, launching over tangled backyard grass, a yellow whiffle-ball bat, an abandoned rake, and for a moment—let’s call it a very short eternity—before the humiliating crash, before the endless convalescence, before my husband sold the wrecked bike for parts and lost the leather and became my same old husband again, I soared.
Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. She lives with her family in Colorado.
3 thoughts on “Jumping the Shark by Jennifer Wortman”
I really love this story.. Beautiful and ultimately bittersweet…
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