By the time I was four, I had been married so many times I had lost count. More accurately, I couldn’t count because I could only count up to the number ten. I was four, for Christ’s sake. I could sing the alphabet, though, and was quite proud of that. So much so that I sang it at every opportunity. In the car. On the way to the bathroom. At the top of my lungs in a crowded restaurant. I had a larger repertoire than the Alphabet song. It included “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “I’m a Little Tea Pot,” and bits and pieces of other songs, like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “The Hokey Pokey.” I liked movement songs. Still, the Alphabet Song had a special resonance for me. That middle bridge, LMNOP, could be sung in one furious blur that made clear to anyone who was listening that the sounds of the song had no real connection to the symbols we associate with letters of the language.
Counting, well, that was perhaps another year away. So when it came to how many times I had been married. It was inconceivable. Quite literally. That summer in the greeny backyard that connected endlessly to other greeny backyards in our suburb, Drexel Hill, just outside of Philadelphia.
The reason I married so often was nothing as prosaic as being a serial marriage toddler. Rather, it was the product of my evil-genius, older sister, Susan. Susan was two and a half years older than me. She stood a head above me, which she strategically used to chew on my hair when she stood behind me in a line. I think she did this because she was jealous. Her dark brown hair was a wild nest of clumps thrusting this way and that in a battle against our mother's brush. Notably, Susan had taken possession of me when I was born, and our parents seemed okay with this. She had the organizational and productions skills of those guys on “Queer Eye," and I featured prominently in her elaborate plans.
In the summer of 1964, Susan was disappointed that our parents knew no one getting married because she so wanted to be a flower girl. That’s when she decided at five years old to take matters into her own hands. She would become the world's first child wedding planner—slash—justice of the peace—slash—divorce judge. All she needed was for me and Mary Lawler, the girl who lived in the house behind us, to allow her to perform the sacrament, a full service marriage factory. There wasn’t really any question about whether or not the two of us would agree. We just did everything she said. That was our world. There was nothing to question about it.
Instead of a Vegas Wedding Chapel, she imagined more of a backyard, “Our Gang” extravaganza where I was perhaps Spanky and literally the girl next door played the role of Darlene. Susan was a visionary. Mary and I were the vehicles through which she would work out the kinks. Thinking back now, I appreciate Susan's skill set as a kind of ur-performance artist. She would be done well back in the 60's in Greenwich Village and Soho at performance spaces like LaMama and the Kitchen.
Mary Lawler lived directly behind us. Her parents had an above ground pool, which was a real attraction. We, on the other hand, had only one of those tiny plastic wading pools you could buy at the front of the supermarket or Ben Franklins. Mary was a pretty girl my age with dark wavy brown hair with bangs that fell onto her shoulders. I wanted to grow out my white-blonde crew cut so I could have bangs. She was tall, at least as tall as me. Our eyes could meet across the crowded kitchen table, just barely. She wore Keds, just like me. She liked to swing and loved popsicles. I did too. We both lived for the time in the afternoon, not sure when that was since I couldn’t tell time yet, when the Good Humor truck rounded the corner and rang its bell. The driver would jump out of his freezer truck dressed in a white suit, black bow tie and hat, looking just like he did in Leave It toBeaver. We lined up clutching a nickel in our fists to purchase the amazing Rocket, shaped like a rocket about to explode off the stick and colored blue red blue. We knew about rockets and we wanted to fly in them when we grew up and lived on the moon.
That summer though, our activities focused marriage. Susan had me dress in my best Sunday suit, a green plaid suit of short pants, jacket, matching tam o'shanter, white shirt, red bow tie, and suspenders. Mary was advanced for her age so she was already taking dance classes. She wore her pink dance tutu, which was very formal in its own way. Susan would line us up in front of the metal swing set. Then, she would stand on the tiny suitcase where she kept her Barbies. She held a book turned open to a page and acted like she was reading from it, just like that guy who stood in a big tall thing at the front of the church and was boring. I have no idea if Susan was able to read or not. She was so much older that it always seemed to me that she could do everything. She probably could read the Bible from front to back and back to front or whichever way she decided to read.
Susan was not only in charge of me, but she was my guardian, my protector, my ombudsman who ensured that my world was fully curated by her. When our parents went out and hired a babysitter, my sister made sure I was safe. I refused to eat babysitter-food until Susan touched it. She didn’t have to take a bite like a Beefeater for the Queen, but she had to rub her fingers over my pork chop and mashed potatoes before I forked any into my mouth. She would also stand between the babysitter and me, just in case. In case of what, well, I never had to find out because Susan stood between me and the world.
That beautiful sunny, summer afternoon, the idea of getting married to Mary Lawler made perfect sense. Susan would never steer me wrong. As Mary and I stood before her, I had a queasy anxiety flip in my stomach. I wanted this to be real. I wanted to marry Mary. Those two beautiful words went so well together. They rolled off the tongue with an ease and bubbliness of soda pop. Marry Mary marry Mary marry Mary marry Mary marry Mary marry Mary… She was so beautiful and she had an above ground swimming pool.
The ceremony ended as quickly as it took Susan to step onto her Barbie suitcase, but now it was time for the reception. Susan had contracted a caterer, our mother who came out with a tray of red Koolaid in waxed paper cups and finger sandwiches with the crust cut off (cream cheese and olive and pb&j). Even after the reception, the ceremony seemed so short, especially when something so important was happening. I wanted it to last longer. To share this moment of joining in union with Mary for hours. When I had chewed, open mouth, the last finger sandwich and drained my cup of Koolaid, I looked over at Mary. She was smiling. You might think it was because of the refreshments, but I knew then we had a special connection. I knew without even saying it to her that we would be together for the rest of our lives. Three years to infinity. It didn’t matter that she had now skipped over to our awesome metal swing set and was hanging upside down from the swing bar. Her long hair brushed the freshly mowed lawn beneath her. I knew what was on her mind. The same as mine.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to reflect. Susan felt the ceremony was short too even with the reception. She didn’t get the sense of utter satisfaction that she had expected. In some ways for all us, Susan, Mary, myself, we had imbibed something else with our Koolaid, something much more intoxicating. This was the thrill of holy matrimony. Like us, there are many out there find themselves consuming this elixir and finding that their thirst can never be quenched. And thus, need to return to the trough again and again. Fortunately, Susan had remedy to our post-ceremony ennui. She wanted to do it again. She'd get it right this time. Susan was like that. She'd put her nose to the grindstone until whatever task and goal was accomplished. Now, she called Mary back over and told us that she needed to marry us a second time, but the only way that could happen was if she divorced us first.
I had never heard the word “divorce.” How did Susan know about a word like that? It seemed so impossible. None of the people in my tiny circle of acquaintances had ever been divorced, at least as far as a I knew. I mean, Miss Victoria at the Bonnie School could potentially have been divorced, but she never shared that with me or the other three and four year olds. My sister’s decision just seemed inconceivable. How can you undo a sacred bond? Just thinking about it gave me an ache in my stomach. It had never occurred to me that once I was bound in matrimony, this holy bond could be cast asunder. I mean, Mary and I were destiny. We liked Rocket popsicles. She had an above ground pool. She had bangs. I wanted bangs.
But all of this was about to end, because Susan said so. Something beneath my ribcage thumped. I wish I had known anatomy. Still, I couldn’t disobey. How can you disobey god? Mary and I dutifully lined up. Susan waved her hand and said, “You are divorced.” And we were. I could feel it. I could feel the sorrow. The loss. The loneliness.
That lasted less than a minute though.
Susan stood back up on her Barbie suitcase and married us again. This time the ceremony lasted longer and clearly gave Susan greater satisfaction. I was glad for that because the marriage ceremony was where it was at. So much so that she divorced us again and remarried us. It was if not only her satisfaction, but Mary's and mine and even the entire universe, the sum total of satisfaction could not hold.
As these long summer days passed, we played in the wading pool, went over to Mary’s to jump in the above ground pool, slurped frozen Rockets, and married and divorced and married and divorced and married and divorced and married and divorced. In the evening as darkness settled in our backyard, Susan would always make sure that she ended the day by divorcing us one more time. I guess she was worried that either Mary or I would invoke our right for a sleepover if she didn’t.
I didn’t understand just how important these rituals would become in my life. How important and central marriage and divorce would become.
We moved away a couple of years later. I never saw Mary Lawler again, but somehow I have been searching for her ever since. I have been trying to return to that time when I could marry the most perfect girl in the world, again and again, and then swim in her above ground pool. Mary is who I remember from those days, not our dog Pow who died. The dog is a complete blank. Only my sister testifying to his existence safeguards his memory. I mean. He's not like the giant red balloon I dragged for hours through downtown Philadelphia only to lose when we returned home. I can still see that bright red sphere rise higher and higher until it was just a pinprick in the sky.