Featured Art: “Ready for Anything” by Barbara Carter
Standing before the row of designer clothes hanging haphazardly in my closet, I pondered what to wear for such an occasion. The woman whose fingers brushed over the delicate fabrics spent the last two years in yoga pants and Birkenstocks as a writing graduate student. The clothes in my closet, representative of my former professional life as a sales and marketing executive, mocked my lack of identity and laughed at my confusion about how to present myself to the judge who would, on that bright June day, render me financially bankrupt.
I worked hard my entire adult life, was often the higher wage earner and the sole provider for the family’s health insurance, and regularly contributed to a 401(k) and IRA, both of which I foolishly liquidated to purchase our first home. Then I made the most egregious of moves—I exchanged board rooms for car pools, became a stay-at-home mom and, after nearly two decades of unhappiness, filed for divorce from a volatile man. I traded financial security for food stamps when the divorce storm made landfall and the marital joint checking account stopped receiving deposits. It was months before the legal system caught up to my pleas for financial provisions—the friends who scoffed that courts required a maintenance of lifestyle during divorce litigation were wrong—and the wheels of debt-nonpayment circled faster than I could ever catch. My vengeful ex made destroying me financially, at the expense of our kids and my sanity, his full-time hobby.
My financial ship sank faster than the Titanic—a middle-aged mother with a Master of Fine Arts and several years’ carpooling and laundry experience was in low professional demand— and an adviser offered bankruptcy as a viable life boat to get me back on my feet while I applied for jobs as an adjunct college professor. I would clean the slate of the thousands in debt I inherited as part of the divorce, could walk away from the soon-to-be-foreclosed home that was worth less than what was owed, which I could never afford in the first place but fought for as the only tangible security my children had to cling to, and have a shot at rebuilding with student loan debt my only remaining obligation. I stared at the row of stylish clothing and wondered: how did such a capable woman end up so worthless?
Society has established standards of worth based on finance. How much we have, or don’t have. Which car we drive, or, better still, cars. What brands of goods are inside the packages underneath the Christmas tree. My years of therapy, shelves lined with self-help books, and stockpiles of O Magazine have taught me that money is fluid—it will come, and it will go—so we must define ourselves on something larger than our career and checkbook balance. Yet, we do, and, by proxy, what we earn now translates to who we are. So how do you create self-worth when you have nothing? And does what you wear when presenting yourself as worthless influence the judge’s determination? I wanted to present what I felt: remorseful yet hopeful, willing to work hard to get back on track and most of all, ashamed that I married someone who pushed me towards destitution with utter pleasure.
I pulled a lapis silk suit from the row of clothes in the closet and gave it the once over. The trendy pencil skirt with flared, fitted jacket adorned with oversized metallic buttons had been my reward for closing my first major sales deal. I recalled that I had been wearing it as I was putting away groceries after work one day and watched, in horror, as my son’s and his friends’ bikes sailed through the air landing in a haphazard pile of metal on the front lawn. My husband hadn’t liked the kids’ toys impeding his parking space; why couldn’t I pick up before he got home, he barked as he entered the kitchen, angry and red-faced. I tossed the suit onto my bed—it was time to get rid of the painful memories tangled among the threads of my past.
The khaki linen pants were next. I breathed in the earthy scent of summer; dinners on Martha ’s Vineyard, Fourth of July pool parties and mimosas served by white-gloved waiters at Sunday brunch. I had been wearing them the first time I admitted my marital unhappiness out loud to anyone other than my therapist. My mother faced me, eyes wide and mouth in a shocked O, in the small bathroom stall of the upscale restaurant as I tearfully pleaded with her to help me leave him while the extended family dined on poached salmon just outside the restroom door. She assured me that it couldn’t be that bad and that I could fix it—I could fix anything, she reasoned. Think about my six-year-old son, she reminded me, he was emotionally unsteady and just couldn’t handle a divorce. I solved that dilemma by producing his sister a year later. Now he wouldn’t have to face the tough stuff alone, like I had as an only child, and it would be easier for me to leave. I released the memory, along with the linen pants, through the air and onto the donation pile.
I pulled out my favorite white pants: cotton, twill flat front with side slit pockets and flared bottoms. I remembered wearing them on my wedding anniversary weekend with tall, wedge espadrilles adorned with clear and silver crystals. I felt like I’d stepped out of a magazine that night as we walked in the humid June Martha’s Vineyard air. We ate Mad Martha’s ice cream for dinner; a small chocolate stain along the left pocket seam the reminder. I suddenly felt guilty for denying my husband sex that weekend—shouldn’t a wife want to be intimate with her husband rather than endure it? My entire marriage was a lesson in mutual sexual frustration: his with me not ‘putting out’ enough, and mine with his carnal clumsiness, erectile dysfunction, and expectation that I perform like a circus pet with props. I lived on eggshells according to his oft-reminded sexual credo: sex is like a misdemeanor; da more I miss, da meaner I get. I thought back to the ledger he’d started when we returned from our honeymoon to record the frequency of our sexual activity ensuring I was “fulfilling my wifely duties” adequately and tossed the white pants onto the donation pile.
The raspberry blazer with thick, white, wide-spaced stitching was one of my favorites. I removed it from the hanger, ran the durable cotton between my fingers, and was reminded of wearing it to court years prior. Robert, the pro-bono divorce attorney hired on my behalf by the local domestic violence shelter where I received counseling, suggested I wear a bright color to court to challenge the predator/prey mindset that prevailed in my case. Prey blended and hid from what stalked them; I needed to be seen and heard. Robert had recently given me a large dose of tough-love reality: I had to fight for what I’d earned rather than sneaking quietly into the night, ashamed of my own role in the marital demise. I’d waived alimony. Accepted 1/8 the worth of the largest marital asset—my husband’s business that my family funded—to speed the divorce to a close. Yet here I was, Robert reminded me, years later, defending myself against selling a snow blower to keep the lights on. I’d hated then to admit that I was afraid of my ex, but I was. I hate even more to admit that, all these years later, I still am. He successfully alienated me from my extended family of origin, many friends, and went door-to-door to inform the neighbors of the Hester Prynne living in their midst. Raspberry didn’t save me that day in court. I had to re-pay what I made pawning the snow blower to keep the lights on. The jacket flew onto the donation pile.
I pulled out the plastic bin from the closet floor and considered the heap of pricey heels that had once walked me to professional success. Birkenstocks and flip flops left my feet undisciplined to the ways of stylish career footwear and few of them fit anymore. I retrieved one of my most prized heels from the bottom: a storm grey suede, peep toe, platform, slingback with contrasting suede embellishment from an upscale Italian designer. I brought the shoe to my nose and breathed in the memory of the night my marriage unraveled for good. His name was Christian, and he was the brother-in-law of my cousin’s wife. I had been wearing the gray heels the night we walked his new pup with my son on the middle school track behind my cousin’s house during a bonfire when his family was visiting from D.C. He was heading overseas for his latest deployment as an army intelligence officer and was conflicted about leaving his wife, whom he was sure was cheating on him. We bonded over marital misery and desperation for romantic passion and personal fulfillment. Christian jotted my number from the ‘In Case of Emergency List’ from my cousin’s fridge and contacted me by phone regularly in the months before his departure. We became comrades in the desolation of marriage, mine in the early stages of divorce, his in the misery of uncertainty. When he called me from overseas, I cruelly told him to contact me again only when he grew a spine and made a decision about his marriage. Christian and I never spoke again. I did hear from his wife after my husband had learned about the communication between me and Christian and megaphoned the news to my extended family; his successful attempt to cast me as the marital jezebel, the wrecker of homes. Like me, the grey shoes were tossed onto a pile of old, soon-to-be-discarded memories, never to be valued again.
How does one find self-worth standing before the evidence of broken dreams, unrealized potential, and past mistakes? This is what plagued me as I stared at the row of clothes that mocked me and my unraveling. What image should I portray when facing a judge who will, with the zip of fingers over a keyboard, accept my admission of worthlessness? Does jewelry send a message of ostentatiousness? Are heels too confident? Flats too complacent? Which clothes and accessories, or lack thereof, portray appropriate despondency over the mess of my own making without implying laziness and un-employability? Will the judge see promise for a better future and sign off on what those around me are so certain is merely a bump in the road? Or will I be judged as taking the easy way out and expecting society to bankroll my personal financial failure? And whose judgement, really, was I feeling? My own. I spent half a lifetime running the hamster wheel of false security and living an illusion of contentment and was now paying the price. I decided that bankruptcy was both the funeral for my former life and the celebration of the one yet to be lived.
I settled on plain black slacks paired with a simple white cotton, short-sleeve top. Black implied mourning; the loss of my newly divorced impoverished life, the one in which I had to choose between toilet paper OR paper towels during the same grocery trip. White, the implication of a clean slate, better things to come, and trust in those who believe in me until I felt able to do it again myself. Slate blue suede wedges, bought on clearance at 90% off retail, suggest good taste, quality yet not flashy, purchased for the cost of a designer latte. Minimal makeup indicated humility. Around my neck laid a gift from a remarkable man who would, years later, become my second husband: a copper, industrial looking chain on which hung a tarnished, brass key inscribed with one word: believe.