A social services worker talks about the misery of marriage, the healing power of lawnmowers, and the best way to get attention on an army base.
When she entered the University of Vermont as a freshman, Alison enrolled in the Living/Learning Center, a program that divided resident students into living suites based on their common interests. There was “Spanish Immersion,” and “Outdoors and Hiking;” Alison’s suite was “Celtic Myths and Mushrooms.”
Across the courtyard from her suite was the sci-fi suite, where Alison met a boy.
It was her first year of college; nothing seemed very serious. The thing with the boy wasn’t serious, and neither was the time Alison hooked up with one of the girls in his suite.
“There may have been beer involved. He was like ‘This is pretty good–my girlfriend’s seeing a girl.’ It was college, you know.”
When her girlfriend proposed a year later, it was sort of a blindside. But sort of not. The relationship had moved really fast, with a lot of crying, screaming, threatening and intimidating. Alison’s response to loud, messy conflict is to check out, and let it blow itself out. It was what she’d been doing for the past year, whenever her girlfriend drank too much, or cut herself in demand of promises that Alison would never leave.
“I remember the night she proposed–just standing in the bedroom–those three heartbeats before you can marshal a thought.
“I remember thinking, I should say no. But I can’t; I don’t know what will happen if I say no. There will be a huge scene.
“So I just went with it.”
Alison’s parents were displeased; her new in-laws were worried. At one point, her girlfriend’s twin sister pulled her aside to ask if she was being physically abused. That, says Alison, only happened one time, in a scuffle that came to blows.
Her new wife bought a house out in the sticks, that they moved into as soon as Alison was done with school. They were miles distant from anyone they knew, and intentionally bereft of any media access. They had dogs, cats, chickens, and a tentative peace frequently broken by Alison’s wife’s violent, alcoholic mood swings.
Alison’s parents told her that she could leave, that she could just come home and they’d help her get out of the marriage. She asked instead if they could take one of her cats. The stress of her relationship was making the cat throw up every morning, which enraged Alison’s wife to the point that she threatened it with a shotgun.
Telling all this, Alison maintains a phlegmatic composure, her normally warm eyes preserving an impassive look of surprise, as she talks about it. Listening to her, I’m not sure what’s more unnerving–the story, or that she can talk about it without getting emotional. In fact, her ability to remain composed in the midst of chaos seems to be exactly what kept her in it.
“If I’m upset or freaked out, or somebody’s screaming at me, I’ll just sit here and look at you. ‘All right, just do it–I’m not going to do anything about it.’ I’ve always been like that, not real reactive to volatile stuff.”
She thought constantly about leaving, but couldn’t imagine finding a house, a job, all on her own. The feeling was that she was stuck in an inescapable, irrational rut; the reasons behind it she describes as some alchemic combination of mental block and patent ridiculousness.
“I said I’d do this, I made a promise, I’ve got to follow through on it.”
The memory seems surreal to her now.
Following graduation, Alison did a summer internship at a horse farm on the Canadian border, across the state line. Her wife’s demand that she commute back to Vermont twice a week, as well as on the weekends, made for an exhausting schedule. When that was done, she took a job at an animal shelter under a manager who was, in her words, another alcoholic bully. By 2005, she was glad to end up fired.
She asked a temp agency for something “low-stress.” They sent her to a lawnmower factory in Shelburne. Alison had never worked with machines before, but that proved not to be a hindrance in getting the job.
“It was ‘Can you use a power tool?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, here you go.'”
The environment was like the Island of Misfit Toys, she says. The staff were a mix of alcoholics, sociopaths, people in and out of trouble with the law, and people on methodone. It was a loud, noisy place, where people would blow off steam with sporadic conflicts that were over as soon as they began.
“There was this crazy old guy named Bobo. His name was Robert, but there were so many Bobs, he was transformed into a Bobo. And Bobo was a career alcoholic, and bipolar, and he was a wonderful guy. He had wondeful stories. But he was the sort of man that if you had to stand next to him on an assembly line for eight hours, you wanted to throw heavy sharp things at him. He’d start to holler, or sing, in some way that would just be completely grating. You’d be putting your things together and be like ‘Ugggh.'”
She utters something between a grunt and a growl.
But even that frustration, she says, was nice in its way. It was even fun, because it wasn’t serious. They would quarrel and fight while standing next to each other for eight hours a day, and return to being friends the next day.
Alison liked coming in to work and having people be happy to see her. She liked the rote, repetitive nature of the assembly line. She liked coming in to work, building something from start to finish, and then going home. It was the first time in four years that she felt happiness waking up inside her.
The only downside was the contrast between the happiness of her workday, and what lay on either side of it. Her boss noticed it; Alison remembers him saying to her once, “The worst part of your day should not be going home.”
“Have you ever been so unhappy for so long that you almost don’t realize you’re unhappy anymore?
“It’s like when you’re hiking, you get a blister, and you don’t feel it until you come home, and you take your boot off, and there’s just blood everywhere.
“It was like that.”
By this time, Alison had been talking nearly every day with her best friend from high school. She would call in the mornings around 6am, on her way to work; it was the only time she could contact him without risking her wife’s anger.
Six months after Alison’s marriage, he had called her to say he’d also gotten married, to a stripper with tow kids whom he’d met while training in Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I said to him, ‘This is crazy. You’re going to wind up like me.'”
They saw each other later that same year, when they were both back in Providence for Thanksgiving, later that same year. He was already undergoing divorce proceedings.
Though her wife hated him, Alison somehow managed to be alone with him for a while, long enough at least for him to confess that he’d had feelings for her for a long time.
Despite having felt the same way toward him since they were in high school, Alison repeated the same thing she’d been telling everyone–she had to stick with her marriage, there was nothing she could do.
He told her to meet him back in Providence. He’d be back for a weekend leave over Presidents’ Day.
“He showed up at the door of my parents’ house.
“I remember collapsing into his arms. I was like, ‘I just can’t…’
“And then I ran off to North Carolina with him.”
The memory brings out a laugh from her. But the laugh sounds more like a gasp.
Her parents encouraged her to go away with him; they’d always considered him a second kid, and were happy to see her run away from her marriage. From the road, she called her boss at the lawnmower factory, and said she was taking the remainder of her vacation time right then. Finally, from somewhere in New Jersey, she called her wife and told her, “I’m going where you can’t get me.”
Arriving in North Carolina, she said, felt like landing on Mars. The years all caught up with her at once; she fainted as they were crossing Simmons Army Airfield.
“That’s a way to get attention from army guys–just to tank, in a skirt, on an airfield.”
The ten days that followed are best described, she says, as a “torrid affair.” But as her vacation time came to an end, Alison had to acknowledge that not only was her Army guy still technically married, but was also on the verge of leaving base for a month of training exercises. She couldn’t think of waiting for him in Fayetteville, whose scrub pines and all-night barbershops she found “hideous” compared to the woods in northern Vermont.
They agreed that they’d find a way to stay together long-term. Then Alison caught a bus going north to Boston, picked up her car in Providence, and drove back to Vermont.
The first place Alison went was back to her old house. She intended just to get her clothes and possibly her cat. But while she was gone, her wife seemed to have flipped a switch. She said she’d been wrong, that it had all been her fault, and pleaded that they go to couples counseling.
Alison wound up spending the night on the couch. Part of her, she said, was still just susceptible to bullying. But part of it was a fear of being interrupted at work with a shotgun to the face. While she had no intention of being pulled back into the relationship, she was willing to make temporary concessions to protect herself.
The next morning, after promising to attend counseling, she went back to her job at the lawnmower factory. She spent the next several nights sleeping in her car.
“It was March; it was kind of a warm snap. I was honestly too cheap to spend money on a hotel. It was ‘I’ve got to preserve all the resources I’ve got.’ I needed to not make a commitment.”
Eventually, a friend from work asked if she needed a place to stay. He was a good-looking, prep-school type who had dropped out of school in Boston, smoked weed to counteract his chronic anxiety, and lived with his mom. Alison remembers feeling like a stray cat–skinny, exhausted, and grateful to be taken into a home.
The therapist they visited for couples counseling was utterly helpless, not least because she’d never dealt with a same-sex couple before. Alison sat mutely through the sessions while her wife screamed; they stopped going after only a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Alison was realizing things were not going to work with her Army boyfriend.
“I really sat down and looked at it. I looked at all the places that he could be stationed, and I did not want to be in any of them. I said, ‘If I go with him, I’m going to be stuck in a place I don’t want to be. He’s going to be the only thing in my life.’
“I never felt a moment’s regret or sadness about leaving my wife. Nothing. By the time I left, it was like no feelings at all. But deciding that I couldn’t make things work with him was really hard.
“I said, ‘I’d do anything for you, except give up my entire life. I can’t do it.'”
After six months of silence, Alison got a call from her wife, who said “File for divorce.” It cost her $225–“the best $225 I ever spent in my life”–and she had to take a class on how to represent herself in divorce court. She wasn’t interested in contesting anything. All she wanted was to get out.
Her coworker’s mother, who was an attorney, came with her to the final hearing, just in case something unexpected came up. The judge, a kindly older man, walked Alison gently through the process of the hearing. She remembers that him asking, “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”
“I said, ‘All I want is my dog.’ He said, ‘If that’s what you want, okay.’ And it was done.
“And I have not seen her or heard from her since.”
It was December 28, 2006. A year later, Alison moved back to Providence, so she could go to grad school more cheaply by living in her home state.
She’s now dating the sweetest person she’s ever known, and has little interest in getting married again. However, both their families are eager to have a nice wedding. So she’s thinking about it:
“Maybe sometime next summer.”
Alison and Sean have a growing compendium of photographs they’ve taken from their travels around the country and the world. They are planning to walk across the country in the near future.
Find and follow them here.