Feature: Of Essays and Exes
by Holly Baker
“My vanished husband is neither here nor there,” Jo Ann Beard writes in her 1996 New Yorker essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” She’s describing a relationship caught in the freeze-frame of a collapse. The rafters have buckled and the walls are caving in, but the marriage structure is falling, not yet fallen. Beard, though, is not centrally concerned with the catalyst of this disaster, nor its aftermath. She does not reflect on settling dust or salvage work. Instead, with a sense of foreboding, her essay captures the days and hours preceding a series of inevitable tragedies: divorce, the death of her dog, and a horrific campus shooting that leaves seven people dead and a survivor seeking new self- definition.
Beard’s lack of control over these horrible intertwining events permeates the writing, and her failing marriage hovers continuously and gloomily in the back- ground as she thinks about her “vanished” husband. But why vanished? Why does Beard paint him this way, not as estranged or simply gone, but vanished? In this word, she seems to want to elicit a magic trick, and readers may just as well finish the phrase in their minds: vanished without a trace. Unexamined and unexplained—this is exactly the approach Beard uses to distance herself from the heartbreak of impending divorce, from allowing herself to mourn a relation- ship that has died. To spare herself and the relationship from bare examination, she instead creates buffers and barriers as tools to cope with and contextualize these losses.
The first barrier comes in the form of misplaced attention, or rather, willful distraction. Upstairs, in the spare bedroom, squirrels have burrowed their way into the house, causing a ruckus at night so irritating Beard has taken to sleeping downstairs on the couch with her dogs. How long this has been going on isn’t clear, but she’s losing sleep and causing her friends concern:
“I’m weary,” she tells a friend.
“What are you going to do?”
“Exactly what I’m doing.”
Which is to say, nothing at all. She could deal with the squirrels, and restore peace to her home, but she doesn’t. Why? Because the squirrels aren’t the only thing in that closed-off room. It also contains the memories of the vanished husband.
We have entered the narrative at a time in Beard’s life when the husband is gone, but we never see the leaving. Leaving is an event, an action, and despite the drama such a scene would provide, Beard gives us no moment fraught with tension, raised voices, slamming doors, squealing tires, or even quieter moments of dissatisfaction, distrust, or dismay. She provides little explanation of what went wrong. Instead, she creates a mood, one of acute emotional absence. Her husband has left something of himself (or former self), but it’s just scant evidence that he’d ever been there. Behind a closed door, a room containing the evidence of a life once shared—boxes of textbooks, Goodwill suitcoats, an old Rolling Stones T-shirt. Only, she refuses to look at the traces he left behind. Keeping the invading squirrels from getting into the rest of the house is merely an excuse for keeping the door closed.
The truth is that she is clinging to a hope that if something of the vanished husband stays in the house, a part of him will always remain, and things may turn around. In effect, she denies him any existence in the rest of the house, their former shared space, by relegating him to a different space—there, not here; his, not hers. The trouble is, sequestering him is not relocating him to his true space—gone—so he remains as a kind of ghost in the essay, and this is part of the point, as the piece explores the ways in which sadnesses intersect.
The body Beard does decide to deal with directly is that of her dying dog. The unnamed collie has been on her last legs for some time, and we are shown an animal who suffers frequent strokes, who can barely stand, who pees indoors and soaks blankets, which Beard washes every day without complaint. There is an undeniable co-dependency between her and the dying animal as she writes:
During the day she sleeps the catnappy sleep of the elderly, but when it gets dark her eyes open and she is agitated, trying to stand whenever I leave the room, settling down only when I’m next to her. We are in this together, the dying game.
The poor creature’s death is a slow one, to be sure, and unlike the vanished husband’s disappearance, this one comes with plenty of leavings and requires constant care. It’s another distraction from heartbreak, a way for Beard to replace one with another and avoid the potentially familiar topic of romantic love lost. But the heart needs to grieve, and it will find a way.
Like the squirrels, the dog becomes a kind of metaphor for the vanished husband. But this time, instead of ignoring the problem as if it doesn’t exist, she clings to it and refuses to let go. And unlike with the squirrels, she draws the comparison starkly: “I wish my dog were out tearing up the town and my husband was home sleeping on a blanket.”
But perhaps the more apt comparison is between the collie and Beard herself, as evidenced in this exchange between her and Chris, a close friend and coworker:
“You have control over this,” he explains in his professor voice. “You can decide how long she suffers.”
This makes my heart pound. Absolutely not, I cannot do it. And then I weaken and say what I really want: for her to go to sleep and not wake up, just slip out of her skin and into the other world.
Beard seems to be projecting her wish for herself onto the collie. She is depressed, unwilling and unable to face her own suffering, even confessing to Chris that she spends so much time at work because she is “hiding from [her] life.” Refusing to put the dog to sleep, however humane the act might be, is not so much an act of cowardice but a vain hope that the problem will simply and painlessly solve itself, which is just as likely as the vanished husband’s return. Being unable to grant herself the mercy of letting go, the essay becomes about the ways we persist—both in love and in pain.
Somewhere in the middle of what seems to be a straight-forward heartbreak essay—with a dying dog enhancing and standing in for the pain of a breakup— Beard points us in a new direction. There has been a horrible shooting at the university where she works, and her friend Chris is one of six people killed before the shooter takes his own life. With this shocking event, the challenge of the essay becomes how to wind personal pain and public trauma together, and Beard succeeds by deftly bridging the divide between her private losses and communal grief.
Beard’s close relationship with Chris is one she describes as “genial,” but there is an intimacy between them, the kind she no longer shares with the vanished husband. In fact, she says, she spends more time with Chris than she ever had with her husband. They know the details of one another’s private lives and struggles, and she trusts Chris enough to share even her most personal troubles, from the dying collie to the split with her husband. He is sympathetic, some- times offering advice and encouragement, never judgment. Amidst the slow deaths of her marriage and beloved animal, Beard draws Chris as something of a buttress that keeps her upright and stable.
Though Chris belongs to her story, his sudden death is an important part of the larger story as well, one punctuated by violence and a heartbreak that affects an entire community, including his students, coworkers, family, and the friends and family of the other victims, too. Beard’s individual pain, therefore, is just one of hundreds. She makes no attempt to diminish others’ grief but neither does she diminish her own struggle.
The day Chris dies, November 1, 1991, is “the last day of the first part of her life.” It is an event, abrupt and final, and quite unlike the slow dying of the dog or marriage. Indeed, Beard describes for us everything about the shooting in thorough and impersonal detail. Also unlike the slow deaths she has attempted to avoid, Beard is not an eyewitness to the murders, and we can only assume that she relays the terrifying moments from police and news reports well after the fact. Loss and trauma have taken a new shape and require a different handling, but within the same essay, and all of the pains—though represented in varying degrees of intensity—are all treated as meaningful.
For Beard, the deaths are compounded into a single tragedy, and the essay becomes a vehicle for exploring how the different losses impact each other. It is this last devastation that brings together all the disparate losses in her life, and as much as one would seem to outweigh the others, that is not the way people experience loss. Instead, public catastrophes might act as a kind of companion for seemingly smaller personal pains—breakups and other grief. As Beard treats each loss thoroughly, she explores the connection between oneself and a larger disaster. Often, we read our stories into these events, and vice versa. In the midst of heartbreak, having perspective about ‘the grand scheme’ doesn’t feel like the whole truth.
In the essay, the vanished husband hears what happened at the campus where his estranged wife works, and he is, in a sense, resurrected; he returns to the house to comfort her. But he is a man she doesn’t recognize. He’s wearing a shirt she’s never seen before, suggesting he has constructed a new life, distinct from the one they had shared. Beard does not record any of the words they speak to each other. But she does reflect on the way he looks at her:
I understand that he wishes even more than I do that he still loved me. When he looks over at me, it’s with an expression I’ve seen before. It’s the way he looks at the dog on the blanket.
The vanished husband sees her more clearly than she sees herself—a suffering woman still clinging to something that only causes her pain. In fact, any moments of clarity about who she is are filtered through perspectives other than her own. She is a woman lacking definition, returning from we to I, but not yet having arrived. So to understand who she is becoming in this post-relationship life, Beard constructs herself through the eyes of coworkers, through comparisons to her animals, and even in front of a mirror, where she has to remind herself, after the tragedy, that she isn’t totally gone. She has divided her life and identity into before and after, having been reshaped by loss.
The truth is, the vanished husband himself has moved on, from here to there. He is defined. It is Beard who has vanished from herself, and this is the topic of the essay. But as she faces herself in the mirror, she is beginning to re-solidify. “I’m still Jo Ann,” she tells her reflection, “white face and dark hair.” And at last, she comes to accept an inescapable truth about those she loves. It is while listening for the squirrels, who have disappeared by the end of the narrative, that she hears a branch scrape the side of the house and feels a momentary “surge of hope,” believing they have returned:
I stand at the foot of the stairs staring up into the darkness, listening for the sounds of their little squirrel feet. Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone.
Holly Baker’s short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in literary journals such as Crab Orchard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Blue Earth Review, and in YOU: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person. From 2015 to 2016, she lived abroad in Bucharest, Romania, on a Ful- bright research grant, spending the year conducting research in support of her first novel. There, she also taught creative writing to students at the University of Bucharest. Baker currently lives in Indiana and teaches at Purdue University.