After I lost my life I went to the DMV. Because when you are an open wound of a human, you should surround yourself with compassion.
It is just a simple errand – renew your license – but it’s where I came apart.
The office is silent, isolated. The last remaining storefront in a formerly bustling strip mall, steadily outstripped by the endless change of the surrounding community.
I walk in. Take a number. Sit down with a handful of other people and keep my eyes fixed on my phone, leaving at least 3 chairs in between me and the nearest stranger — I can read a room.
Everywhere people are celebrating milestones.
“My daughter just passed her driver’s test.”
“I just moved to Iowa.”
I suppose I am celebrating a milestone too. They say 40% of marriages end this way. In my family it’s 60%, but we’ve always been overachievers.
They finally call my number and I approach the booth. The woman is mildly friendly and nonthreatening. It’s the Midwest.
I need to renew my license, I say.
And then this mildly friendly, nonthreatening woman destroys me.
It has only been a week since he left me. The life I built, the future I planned – it is over. This comes after 14 years of friendship, 7 of which was a relationship, 5 of which was a marriage. It was all over, unceremoniously. I asked him what he wanted for brunch on an average Sunday in mid-October and he wanted a divorce.
This woman doesn’t know this. I look just as mildly friendly and nonthreatening as she is. I maybe haven’t cried in public that day, but I probably have. Maybe she sees some smudged mascara? She asks me the questions anyway. Normal questions that are a knife in the heart for the jilted.
“Is this still your address?”
“Have there been any changes we should be aware of?”
And as she prepares to print out my license, it occurs to me.
I am getting divorced.
“Wait!” I say. I don’t think I raise my voice very much, but the absolute silence of this sad government building, on this sad, abandoned strip mall, understaffed with disinterested government workers makes it seem like I am getting hysterical. Maybe I am.
“Wait. I think I need to change my name.”
“Oh, ok ma’am. Did you get married?” Her voice lifts at the ends and I can sense she’s smiling. She is grasping for positivity from the slumped woman in front of her who is refusing to make eye contact.
“Not from a marriage.” I can’t bear to say it.
“Ok.” She nervously looks at her co-worker, then at the clock – anything to transform into a life preserver. “What are you changing it to?”
“I don’t know yet.” I know I can’t bear to return to my maiden name, but I can’t bear to keep my married name. Nothing belongs to me.
“Well, ok,” she says. “Anything else?”
“Yes. I don’t think I’m going to live in Iowa anymore.”
“Where are you going, ma’am?”
“I don’t know.” Over the last week I sent resumes to New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, but no news yet. Nothing belongs to me. “What is it like to get a driver’s license in another state? Is it difficult? What do I do?”
Silence. Even more than before, if that’s possible.
I realize I am asking the stranger at the DMV to help me save my life.
She is unqualified to do this.
I think I may be unqualified to do this too.
“Ma’am. I cannot help you because you don’t know where you’re going.”
Everything feels thick. The air around me changes consistency and struggles to be inhaled. But it has no problem doubling the pressure on my crumpled frame, as I nearly bend in half in the world’s coldest, most uncomfortable chair. My throat aches. My eyes burn. I am falling apart.
“I need your picture, ma’am. Please do not smile.”
So I sit up. And I make eye contact for the first time in nearly a half hour – with the machine that will be taking my photo for the driver’s license that has the wrong last name, the wrong address and the wrong future. Not smiling is not a problem.
She hands me the gritty print-out of my renewed license. “Don’t worry. This is just temporary.”
I make eye contact for a second time. My first experience with someone pitying me as a divorcee is at the DMV. It won’t be the last time.
I look down at the photo on my temporary license. It’s awful. But I think it’s a remarkable machine because it captures me as a whole person.