When Joseph Weissmann divorced his wife, he was seventy-eight years old and she was seventy-five. He announced his decision in the kitchen of their apartment on the tenth floor of a large, graceful Central Park West building built at the turn of the last century, the original white tiles of the kitchen still gleaming on the walls around them. Joseph, known as Joe to his colleagues at work but always called Joseph by his wife, said the words “irreconcilable differences,” and saw real confusion in his wife’s eyes.
Irreconcilable differences? she said. Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce?
In Joe’s case it had very little to do with divorce. In Joe’s case, as is so often the case, the reason for the divorce was a woman. But a woman was not, unsurprisingly, the reason he gave his wife.
Betty was surprised. They had been married for forty-eight years. She was used to Joseph, and she was sure Joseph was used to her. But he would not be dissuaded. Their history was history to him.
Joseph had once been a handsome man. Even now, he was straight, unstooped; his bald head was somehow distinguished rather than lacking, as if men, important men, aspired to a smooth shining pate. His nose was narrow and protruded importantly. His eyes were also narrow and, as he aged, increasingly protected by folds of skin, as if they were secrets.Women liked him. Betty had certainly liked him, once. He was quiet and unobtrusive, requiring only a large breakfast before he went to work, a large glass of Scotch when he arrived home, and a small, light dinner at 7:30 sharp.
Over the years, Betty began to forget that she liked Joseph. The large breakfast seemed grotesque, the drink obsessive, the light supper an affectation. This happened in their third decade together and lasted until their fourth. Then, Betty noticed, Joseph’s routines somehow began to take on a comforting rhythm, like the heartbeat of a mother to a newborn baby. Betty was once again content, in love, even. They traveled to Tuscany and stood in the Chianti hills watching the swallows and the swift clouds of slate-gray rain approaching. They took a boat through the fjords of Norway and another through the Galápagos Islands. They took a train through India from one palace to the next, imagining the vanished Raj and eating fragrant delicate curries. They did all these things together. And then, all these things stopped.
“Irreconcilable differences,” Joe said.
“Oh, Joseph. What does that have to do with divorce?”
“I want to be generous,” Joe said.
Generous? she thought. It was as if she were the maid and she was being fired. Would he offer her two months’ salary?
“You cannot be generous with what is mine,” she said.
And the divorce, like horses in a muddy race, their sides frothing, was off and running.