Once upon a time, back in the olden days when dinosaurs such as the AMC Gremlin, the Chevette, the LUV truck, the original Subaru Brat and other such worthless vehicles populated the earth for a short time, I was married. Shocker, I know. I have since been divorced and remarried, and that original marriage has faded into a distant memory that only once in a great while comes to bear on something that is happening in my life, which, is to say, not very often. My wife often says that it’s as if I was never married before her, as I obviously didn’t learn anything during that ill-fated short marriage, which may be why it was so short and so ill-fated. In actuality, there could not have been two people less suited for one another than she and I. As a matter of fact, I actually even liked her as a person, just not as my wife.
We were married in a land populated by coal mines, meth labs, moonshine stills, food stamps, mullets and Z-28 Camaros, if you could afford one. If you could, that was the epitome of cool, particularly if you had the Camaro and the mullet. Our problem? We married too early. I was a scant twenty years of age, with her just behind me on the calendar. Another problem? I have since learned in the many years since that failed attempt at a relationship that one can indeed be southern, and one can also be a redneck. They often coincide, but they do not necessarily coexist. This poor girl was redneck to the bone, but considered herself to be a gentle southerner. There is nothing scarier than a redneck girl who thinks she is a gentle southerner. There is also nothing more vindictive, punishing, unforgetting or just plain mean than a redneck girl with an agenda.
I’m reminded of all of this as I begrudgingly drag my canoe around the yard in a search for where to store the thing. I have an ancient, by canoe standards, Mad River Explorer that is roughly sixteen feet long. At least, that’s how long it originally was. It has since been folded around rocks, dropped off the roof of cars, chased down the New River during flood stage and suffers from sun fading and gunnel rot. It once proudly wore the Mad River flagship ash gunnels with pride – now it just kind of wears them. It’s a shame, I think, that a boat that I was once so proud of, through a sequence of nearly impossibly steep terrain and home remodeling has become such a nuisance. The problem was that every time I wanted to build a canoe rack a bit more permanent, it was either in the viewshed of Laura’s new office or where we were planning to build something more permanent, such as a sunroom, garage or garden. (So far, the only thing coming to fruition is the garden.)
This is a sad thing to happen to what is essentially a great friend of mine. It was a tandem purchase, bought in the spring of 1995, I think, just when my first marriage was truly falling apart. We felt, like the couple who thinks a child can save their relationship, that a canoe was just the thing. Something we could do together, a hobby we could both enjoy. I envisioned running rapids as I did in the metal atrocity that we called a canoe when I was a kid, she, picnics by the lake. I outfitted it with whitewater gear and relentlessly studied maps of the Gauley River, the Lower New and watched video on running big rapids in South America. She imagined children frolicking between the gunnels with a dog while she sat backwards in the front and I paddled them heroically across a calm lake to a lake to a campsite prepared by others.
Needless to say, I did go on to have my adventures. The canoe followed me to the Everglades, where I slept on raised wooden platforms and shoved cottonmouths back into the water. It channeled me back and forth across to a campsite on St. George’s Island, made the trip to Coya Cosa, helped me buy a Cheeseburger in Paradise (not the original) on a dank Georgia night. I lost her one night on the New and raced madly to intercept her at the Pearisburg Bridge. We paddled on Lake Tahoe, made multiple trips cross country and very carefully ran “Pure Screaming Hell” on the Gauley, still one of my life’s crowning achievements. She took me camping, helped me meet someone new and that, my friends, ultimately led to my divorce.
I didn’t get the order of new girlfriend/ex-wife right. I separated from my wife, but we hadn’t divorced when I met someone who turned out (funny isn’t it) to be a heinous bitch on wheels who very nearly ruined my life. I barely escaped the new someone years later, much wiser, thinner and much more miserable than I had ever been. The canoe followed me – stored in breezeways, in parking garages, under pine trees and on top of my ever-present old Suburban truck as they both painfully rotted in Northern Virginia.
My wife did find out about my new, thinner, younger more glamorous version of her. Although we were indeed separated, at least in spirit, the state of Virginia does not feel kindly about cheating men. Especially when there are pictures and the judge is a blood relative of the wife. Under the advice of a truly worthless lawyer and a truly savvy friend, I abandoned all our bank accounts, pocketed what cash I had, quit my job, concentrated on graduate school and moved into a camping trailer in a summer camp. It was not summer.
So that is how, after a few months of phone tag, I ended up being served my hearing papers by a nice young man pretending to deliver supplies to the camp. I arrived at the courtroom to realize that we were proceeding with the divorce (FINALLY) and dividing our assets (HYSTERICAL). I had no assets. The judge droned on and on, making sure she got every broken down couch, dishwasher, single-wide house trailer and hand knitted quilt that we had ever owned or seen. I couldn’t have cared less. I had a tent, climbing gear, an old truck that nobody else could start and my canoe. At that point, I didn’t want anything else.
Until the matter of an $80,000 student loan came to light. You see, due to a guilty conscious and full knowledge that I would indeed leave her (“her” being my soon to be ex-wife) someday soon, I had insisted that she attend Virginia Tech while I was in graduate school and get her degree. She didn’t want to, that interfered with having babies. I begged, cajoled and pleaded until she finally applied and was accepted to the land of the Hokies. Where she discovered that if you filled out a form, checked the “married” box, you would get a check for all the funds available for you to go to college after your tuition was covered. Only a fool wouldn’t realize that you had to pay that back, with interest. Only a bigger fool wouldn’t have checked into how his soon to be ex-wife was paying her tuition bills.
So the judge, out of the goodness of his heart and after listening to a pretty blond relative explain that she didn’t realize you had to give the money back, saddled me with the bill. I nearly fainted that day, there in the courtroom, over the realization that there was no escape from that bill, no getting away from the reminder that I once made a terrible mistake and married the wrong person. With tear soaked; glaring eyes, she pronounced that she also wanted the canoe.
At this point her dad, who had remained silent, leapt to his feet, slapped his hand on the table and said, “For God’s sake – let him have the canoe!”
As I drag the canoe around searching for a place to get it out of the weather, batting gnats out of my eyes, I recall why I still have this unwieldy, sadly unused piece of plastic and wood. My wonderful wife waves at me from the porch and my little boy gurgles and kicks happily in her arms. This is the best $80,000 canoe ever built.