Ring Cycle, Last Act

Edvard Munch, Separation

         We exchanged the rings in 1983, in my parents' Conncticut living room, during a winter storm so outrageous that my whimsical mother chilled the champagne in a snow drift behind the house.

         Unusual rings. On the inside, next to the skin, the classic smooth circle. On the outside, to meet the eye, an octagon-eight shiny edges joined at forty-five degree angles.

         Standing at the counter of a jewelry shop in Greenwich Village, my intended and I had instantly agreed that these were the bands for us, beautiful and propitious. Only recently he'd drawn the symbol for infinity on a cocktail napkin (he's a mathematician, never without a pen), and I'd observed that it looked like a skinny eight lying on its side. It had taken us forever to find each other, but we would be together for the rest of forever.

         So I was surprised-rocked to my socks-the other day, when I noticed the absence of gold on his ring finger.

         For nineteen and a half years, neither of us had taken off our wedding bands. Not during prep for surgeries (when they practically try to get you to remove your toenails), or our foolish flirtations with others, or even during a trial separation a decade earlier. I didn't think we could slip them off if we tried. I'm a pastry chef who loves to practice on the family. Like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel story, I was guilty of fattening up our fingers, among other body parts.

         "You took off your ring!" I blurted

         "Yeah," he said sheepishly. "About a week and a half ago."


         "Well, I've lost some weight," he said--a bit smugly, to my ears. Then he offered a rueful smile and added, "I used soap. Lots and lots of soap."

         He rubbed the place where the ring had been. The crease looked like a wound, deep and painful. I felt an ancient maternal urge to kiss it. But then he said something about how the finger was getting better, and my urge was to bite.

         I glanced down at my own ring. The world seemed out of balance. I felt has if I'd been caught wearing last year's shoes. I was just plain hurt.

         Surprised? Hurt? The rational mind mocked the bleeding heart.

         We are divorcing. We sleep under separate roofs. We communicate by Email, increasingly terse. We each have a therapist, a lawyer. We've divided our CDs--a task that was sadly easy, music being one of many areas of profound disharmony (Oh, but thank you for Dvorak and Chuck Brodsky's baseball songs.). We were only meeting, this particular afternoon, to help our son plan his summer. Our rings had outlived their meaning.

         When I got home, I made a half-hearted attempt to remove mine. Lots and lots of soap didn't do it.

         No matter the rational mind. I was only relieved. It seemed so wrong, this furtive act at the bathroom sink.

         It was time for the ring to go, but not without ceremony.

         I wanted a Gershwin tune. I needed a blessing from the judge who had married us in secular language and then invoked divine protection for our union. I wanted my dead parents' permission. I imagined the best man pocketing the rings and hopping back on the bus that had gotten snowbound in the next town and my father had to rescue him.

         Mostly, I craved symmetry. We had put those rings on each other's fingers, and we should have taken them off each other's fingers, laughing and crying as we struggled to dislodge the time-scarred gold. Then my band to him and his to me, souvenirs of the hope that had been. A sip of champagne for the road, a slice of unwedding cake-bittersweet chocolate, but of course. One last soft kiss.

         The next day, I felt less sentimental. (Another Email disagreement.) I was in the kitchen, about to make an omelette, and it occurred to me that butter might work where soap had failed. I scooped up a gob, slathered it over the ring, twisted and tugged. Ouch.

         I distracted myself from the pain by thinking how annoyed my husband would be that I was using organic butter, $5.95 a pound. And just like that the band was off my finger, sitting in the palm of my right hand.

         I rubbed the dent, the shadow of the ring, and wondered how quickly it would disappear--or would there be a permanent scar?

         Permanent, forever, infinite. Beguiling words for mortal folk.

         Most of the math lessons flew over my head, but one concept stuck: that there are greater and less infinities. Don't ask me for the proof. I just know it's true.

         Our marriage turned out to be a lesser infinity, octagons notwithstanding. Two amazing children notwithstanding.

         I tossed the ring into a saucer, washed and dried my hands, and started breaking eggs for the omelette.

Nancy Weber is an American writer known primarily for her non-fiction work, The Life Swap (1974; re-issued 2006). Her twenty-some other books include The Playgroup (1982) and Brokenhearted (1989), both speculative novels with medical themes, and eight romances written under the byline Jennifer Rose.

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