''What about the money?'' I asked.
In the three years in which we had struggled toward, floundered against, and pulled back from the idea of separating, I had played the accountant. I was bad at math -- I disliked even the minor computation involved in paying bills, usually postponing the chore for so long that late fees appeared on the following month's statements -- but I had sat down and figured out the cost of supporting two households, and tax disadvantages of filing separately, what I made, what I'd need, and what my wife and our daughter would need.
Twenty years after finishing college, I was finally earning a decent though hardly spectacular salary. If we separated, I'd again end up living like an undergraduate. I saw the life quite clearly: a shabby railroad apartment, bookcases made from milk crates, fried-egg sandwiches, a portable black-and-white TV with tinfoil wrapped around the antenna. My wife's situation would be just as grim, and probably, in the long run, even worse. She had no job. She had come down with Parkinson's disease shortly after our daughter was born, and her medical condition would make it difficult for her to find work now. What was she supposed to do? How would she support herself in the years ahead?
''We can't stay together just for the money,'' my wife said.
I thought about the phrase ''an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.'' There is something deceptive about it. The passive, impersonal structure, the dry legalities of the language, conceal a lie. It suggests that a marriage has an independent organic existence. It exonerates us by portraying us as merely the clinicians pronouncing the body dead.