My ex-husband has had two serious girlfriends since we separated. The first relationship lasted about a year; I never met her, but the children did (I kvetched about it here). When they broke up, he was bereft. (So bereft that he confided in me, weeping, in what still stands as the most surreal post-marital encounter I have ever endured.) Then he became extremely fixated on expediting our actual divorce. By the time the paperwork was finalized, a new girlfriend was in the works. He calmed down, which calmed me down , and all was reasonably right in the world.
The kids liked her. She, apparently, liked them. All the scraps of information that trickled back to me sounded good–she was our age, she was divorced, she had no children, she had a delicate little nose piercing (this particular fact enchanted both my kids, who marveled that their father had managed to snag somebody “cool”). In her spare time, she apparently pursued rollerderby. (Is that the correct locution? I am not an aficionado of the sport, though I must say it amused me greatly to think of my boring scientist ex-husband spending his weekends watching tattooed, pierced women with vaguely misandric pseudonyms shove each other around in the name of empowerment while circling a gymnasium.) She had a dog and several cats, she was an anthropology professor, her sister taught at my older son’s Quaker school. She had an interesting first name and drove a green Mini Cooper. On Facebook, she was tall and pretty and raven-tressed. (I have always coveted raven tresses.) She liked hiking and camping and scuba diving, apparently, and convinced my shark-and-boat phobic ex to get his diving certificate in Mexico shortly after they started dating. She baked cookies and pineapple-upside-down cake with my kids. She adopted damaged animals from the pound. In short, she sounded like a total catch.
I toyed with the idea of writing a whole post about her. It’s not a relationship you hear much good about, is it? The ex-husband’s new squeeze? Friends seemed generally to assume that I would be hostile to her, particularly with regard to the children, but I honestly never have been. When you instigate a divorce, the person your ex takes up with is your golden ticket to emotional freedom. And maybe I’m conceited, but I don’t think there’s a human being alive who could displace me in my children’s affection. As long as she’s nice to them, I’m delighted to have her in the picture. Sometimes she even sends them back to me with the fruits of their weekend baking, which are always delicious.
She and my ex-husband have never lived together. When they started dating, she still lived around here; after several months, she had to take a tenure-track job at a university five hours away. This bit of distance is awfully nice; I think that kids have a much easier time accepting a parental love interest who isn’t constantly around. Long-distance relationships are tough on the participants but soothing for their offspring, who still get to have their parents all to themselves most of the time. I strongly suspect that my boyfriend’s kids and my kids would be much less keen on us (and on each other) if the six of us (or any assorted four) were together even one weekend a month.
I finally met her a couple of years ago, at one of my older son’s baseball games. My younger son and I got there late–there had been horrible traffic, and we’d been clowning around in the car with the windows all open, with the result that my hair looked like Bridget Jones’s hair when she loses her headscarf on her mini break with Hugh Grant. And there she was, of course, a tall raven-tressed person next to my ex-husband’s familiar slump; even if I hadn’t done my due diligence on Facebook, I’d have recognized her as his girlfriend by the way they sat together. My younger son lit up with excitement and ran ahead. She turned around with a big smile, and I left off trying to finger-claw the biggest snarls from my hair. She was lovely.
Lovely, and also charming. Talkative, a little nervous, very eager to please. My ex was obviously uncomfortable that we were getting along so well. My younger son sat by me for half the game, and then moved one row down on the bleachers to sit by her, which made me happy; when it got chilly late in the game, my ex-husband offered her his sweater, which struck me as rather gallant and made me happy, too. The game went on forever, but I didn’t mind; she was wonderful company, and when we said goodbye I told her so. “I’m so glad I got to meet you, finally,” I said. “The kids talk about you all the time. You really mean a lot to them, and they’re thrilled to have you in their lives. And so am I.”
Her eyes filled with tears and she hugged me. “Oh, thank you,” she said. “That…that really makes me happy to hear. Thank you so much.” And I was forever smitten.
Since then we’ve crossed paths a handful of times at piano recitals or baseball/soccer games or in one or another driveway while swapping out the kids. She was kind to me when my grandmother died. She has sent me nice messages on Facebook. I’ve often told friends that I hoped that she and my ex-husband would get married, or that she would move in with him; you really couldn’t have mail-ordered a nicer ex’s new squeeze.
There are ways to convey information, and ways not to, and I think we can all agree that having your kids tell your ex-spouse that you are remarrying is not the most tactful way to break the news. “No, we’re not supposed to talk about this!” my younger son blurted, after his big brother spilled the beans. “No, it’s okay, we can,” my older son said. “It’s fine! Mom likes her. Mom’s happy about this, right, Mom?” I smiled gamely. “But Dad said not to tell her,” my younger son said, unhappily. “No, no, he didn’t. It’s fine, we can tell her, this is good news,” my older son said, while I struggled to maintain a convincing expression of pure delight while turning left across two angry lanes of after-school traffic.
“Wow, that’s great!” I said, trying to meet my younger son’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. He was slumped down, not looking at me. My older son, oblivious, chattered away. The proposal had taken place during their week on the Outer Banks. No, my son didn’t know when the wedding would be. He didn’t know when she was going to move in. Actually, he didn’t even know whether she was going to or if she was going to quit her job, or what. From the back, my younger son kicked his brother’s seat; I quit with the leading questions. My older son is going to college next year anyway; the arrival of a stepmother would hardly rock his world. But my younger son is only eleven. He’s presently in the throes of middle-schooldom–prickly and insouciant one moment, tearful and sensitive the next, obnoxious when he’s not heartbreakingly sweet, charming when he’s not a total brat. Alone in the back seat, he looked awfully little.
After we got home and my older son disappeared upstairs with his laptop, I sat next to the little one on the sofa and poked him. “Quit it, Mom,” he said. “I’m serious, stop! Stop poking me.” A tiny grin broke through. “Come on. Leave me alone! You’re so annoying!”
“So,” I said, poking more and more till he giggled. “A wicked stepmother, eh? I wonder if she’ll make you sleep in the fireplace.”
“That tickles, go away!” he said, squirming, laughing. “That’s not funny, Mom.” But the ice was broken. That night at bedtime, he snuggled in when I kissed him. Clearly he wanted to talk.
While muddling through the pre-settlement negotiations, I had numerous occasions to remember the last house my ex-husband and I sold. It was in Berkeley, a lovely little cottage on a hill with a balcony deck that overlooked Mt. Tam and San Francisco and the Golden Gate, and a Meyer lemon tree in the postage-stamp back yard. We sold it to a friend of one of my cousins. “Hey, my friend wants to buy your house,” my cousin said, and we said, “Groovy, man,” (because that’s how everyone talks in California) and my cousin said, “So, like, how much do you want for it?” and we named a price and my cousin said, “That’s righteous,” and we said, “Sweet!” and then the friend bought it. No hassle. No realtor. No haggling over inspections. In fact, we got a 25K termite report at one point, and my cousin’s friend said, “Dude! Let’s just pretend we never saw that.”
It was totally chill and mellow, in other words. Nothing like selling a house on the uptight East Coast, which turned out to be (as the Californians say), way harsh and a beating.
At first, everything seemed run-of-the-mill. There were some standard-issue old house problems that ran the gamut from big deal (a partially collapsed sewer line; termites in the garage; asbestos in the basement) to no big deal (a few outlets not up to code; a minor leak; a bit of repainting). But even the big deal problems were really only a question of throwing money at various workmen, and throwing money heedlessly into the great gaping maw of the marital house is something I grew accustomed to years ago. More vexing were the issues that actually required my participation. The seller wanted everything out of the garage (so un-California, so uncool) so I dragged my poor boyfriend over there the minute he foolishly drove down to visit. “How bad can it be?” I said, cheerfully, hustling him out of his car and directly into mine. “I mean, we took everything out when I moved, remember?” Except for the garden tools and a hose and a couple of busted plastic bins and some deflated basketballs and a broken lawnmower and that old tarp with the spiders and some wood and the refrigerator that stopped working and those dangerous chemicals and my sister’s antique furniture and the paint cans and the two dead car batteries that I left as a favor to the tenants, who might have needed to use them, I thought.
One of the garage doors wouldn’t budge at all. The other rolled reluctantly up, creaking, and I was hit by a stale wave of muddy air, a wet and dirty stench that ambushed me like all the dark despair of homeownership distilled into a few miserable breaths. There are no lights–no electricity, even–in the garage. We stood there, my boyfriend and I, blinking, waiting for our eyes to adjust. Slowly, the outline of a tremendous mountain took shape.
There were chairs and tables and a sofa on its side, all of which looked vaguely familiar. There was a coffee table leaning up against a side table propped on top of a couple of teetering sawhorses. There were all these doors–doors! Screen doors, metal doors, wooden doors, closet doors–and pieces of a dismantled Ikea bunkbed. There was a giant Thule top-of-the-car pod, which looked exactly like the giant Thule pod my ex-husband and I used to own, but that he’d asked for after we split up. There were splintered pieces of flooring from the guest bedroom, and plastic buckets of what looked like concrete, and bins of old jars and what looked to be a bunch of broken flowerpots I vaguely remembered stashing before I moved. My boyfriend looked at me. “Maybe that’s the renters’ top-of-the-car pod,” I said in a tiny, daunted voice.
It felt like the return of the repressed. Surely I had gotten rid of that ugly upholstered chair? I actually remembered putting it out on the curb, returning it to the great curb-furniture gods, I’d joked at the time, whence it came. Live by the curb, die by the curb. From the curb we are born, to the curb we all return. I’d found it during the last year of my marriage–it and a mate, a matched set, set out with a “FREE” sign taped to them down the street–and rushed over with the car to pick them up, thrilled by the windfall. When we separated, my ex-husband had taken one (the better one, the one without the stain) and left me the other. But hadn’t I put mine back out on the curb? Had it waddled back, somehow, and hidden itself away in the garage?
Deep in my subconscious, something stirred. Where had I seen that sofa before? It wasn’t mine, was it? Nor was that coffee table, but it looked so familiar. My boyfriend was poking around, checking out the car pod. “This is actually worth something,” he said. “These things cost money.” I was preoccupied. The wicker chair, for instance, with its seat all splintery and the paint peeling off in dreadful dandruffy flakes. I’d bought it with my mother years ago, at Pier One, and brought it home triumphantly. I’d nursed my younger son in it on the porch. It was the same chair, no question about it, but what was it doing in the garage?
We left that day in defeat. I couldn’t face any of it. And I was furious at myself for letting it all come to this. What the fuck was my problem, anyway? I’d had a dumpster parked in front of the house for weeks before I moved out! Why on earth had I saved that stupid broken wicker chair? Now there was too much snow to put anything out on the curb, and I didn’t even have my big old Volvo any more to haul anything to the dump. I’d have to pay someone to remove everything, and it seemed like the very last straw. We were closing in two weeks. There were a million things to do. I’d never get it all coordinated, and the damned snow wouldn’t stop falling, and it wouldn’t stop freezing, and the tree guy couldn’t come when he said he was going to, and there was all sorts of confusion with the plumber, and eventually I just sort of folded my anxiety about the garage into all the other million things I was anxious about.
It was a shitty, shitty time. I felt terrible for the tenants, who were besieged by radiator guys and radon inspectors and sewer guys every five minutes, and I hated having to talk to my ex-husband multiple times a day. On the face of it, things were fine. We were both a little giddy, a little incredulous that things were finally moving toward a sale, but it wasn’t exactly restful to have to interact with him more than I had at any time since the end of our marriage. In fact, being in the realtor’s office with him, the day we heard all the offers and decided which one to accept, reminded me of nothing so much as the day we got divorced. There we were, sitting around a table with a bunch of professionals, signing things and initialing them, on the cusp of something new. Finances were front and center. There was paperwork up the wazoo. There were tasks to be divvied up. “I’ll deal with all the crap in the garage,” I said, in a moment of generous fellow-feeling. He nodded, and the realtor and I got to chatting about the termite man and the radon inspection, and eventually we all went home.
In the middle of the night, I sat bolt upright in bed. I knew where I’d seen all that furniture before. It was my ex-husband’s. The chair, the wicker, the tables, the pod. All of it–some ours, some acquired post-split–had once resided in the Cottage Formerly Known as Dream, and must not have made the cut when he moved again. He’d snuck it back into our old garage without saying a word last summer, the dirty snake in the grass.
I was furious. What did he think, that the Debris Fairy was just going to show up and spirit it all away? All night, I ground my teeth in rage. The worst part was, I couldn’t even yell at him about it, couldn’t even insist he cope, because he’d skipped town. He’d taken his girlfriend away for a week in a cottage on the Outer Banks, and by the time he was due to return it would be too late.
All week, I brooded and stewed. By the time I met the hauling-away guy at the garage (he was very nice, it turned out, and all I had to do was point at things and pay him) the little speech I’d prepared for my ex-husband’s return was a triumphant masterpiece of passive-aggressive discourse, dripping with sarcasm, drowning in hauteur. I spent a lot of time practicing it between the hours of three and five a.m. Meanwhile, my new best friend the realtor and I hit the ground running every morning, tracking down radiator specialists, soothing tenants, getting estimates from tree guys, and sweet-talking inspectors. It’s funny–in retrospect it doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, it’s not like I had to fix all the radiators myself or anything. But being at the mercy of various professionals (who can, and sometimes do, show up late or not at all or drop off the planet altogether) coupled with a firm deadline made me frantic, and the uncertainty of it all drove me nuts. Things kept going wrong. The movers my sister hired to cart away her antique furniture showed up six hours late on a freezing night in the pouring rain. The termite damage in the garage turned out to be much worse than originally thought. Two days before closing, the radiators on the third floor still didn’t work. No one could figure out what was wrong. Then the plumber got offended that the realtor had called in reinforcements for help with the radiators, and I had to talk him off a ledge.
In the middle of all this, my older son turned eighteen.
You know, as much as it annoys me when my ex-husband drops the ball on dealing with the kids, I do get a little codependent fix out of it. When, for instance, he comes back after time away and doesn’t make any effort to tweak the custody schedule to make up the days he missed, I don’t ever insist–I like being with the kids, and I really like feeling superior to my ex-husband, so it’s win-win. But motherhood demands self-sacrifice, and if it’s someone’s birthday, a big-deal birthday, the last birthday at home before heading off to college, and if the kid in question might have his feelings hurt by not seeing or hearing from his father…well, then I’ll selflessly waive my need to feel smug. The day before my son’s birthday, my ex-husband sent me a text asking if I had made any plans. When I wrote that yeah, I was going to cook supper and make a cake and so on, no big deal, nothing set in stone, he didn’t write back.
I stared at my phone a while, waiting. A million possible scenarios came to mind-they could have breakfast together! Lunch! It was spring break–they could spend the day hanging out! My son could take the train to my ex-husband’s lab, even! Or I could drop him off! I waited and waited. My fingers itched to text. “You know what’s lame about this?” consoling-windows friend said, when I finally called her to complain. “The kid’s eighteen. Presumably an interested party could call and ask him what he wants to do for his birthday. Directly.”
Which my ex-husband, to his credit, finally did later that afternoon. I was stirring cake batter and both kids were hovering around, acting goofy, angling to lick the spoon, when my older son’s phone buzzed. “Oh, hi, Dad!” he said, cheerfully. “Oh, that’s so nice. Yeah, it’s been a great day so far. Yeah, I think Mom has a plan for tonight. She’s making me a cake and all, and we’re just going to chill at home. Yeah, no, I’ll see you on Wednesday like normal. Oh, Thursday? You have a dinner Wednesday? Okay! See you then. Thanks! Love you!” He hung up and stuck a finger in the icing bowl, grinning at me. “Like we wouldn’t already have plans,” he said, in an affectionately-fed-up tone. “Dad’s a goofball.”
All was well, in other words. They’d see their father on Thursday. And be back to stay with me–it was my weekend, after all–on Friday. Which was the day we were scheduled to close. “Tonight’s the last night I’ll have to wake up worried about the house,” I told myself at bedtime. And it was, never mind that I got a frantic text from the realtor as I was walking to her office five minutes before closing–with the buyer and my ex-husband already there–about a last-minute crisis that had me hyperventilating into my sleeve as I rushed to the ATM to withdraw enough cash to pay a fixer–don’t fucking ask, okay? You didn’t see anything–so that the deal could go through. Which it did. I couldn’t believe it. So amazed and happy was I, as I signed my name to the dotted line and melted in a puddle of relief, that I forgot about my excellently honed bitter speech about the garage and the abandoned furniture. I even forgot the codicil I’d specially crafted the night before, about proper birthday behavior and the delicate feelings of our elder son. Who cares, who cares, who cares, I practically sang. The realtor hugged me. I hugged the buyer. My ex-husband stood on the sidelines, as happy as he ever gets. It was done. It was over. I was–we all were–finally free.
I walked home about six inches above the sidewalk, got in the car, and drove to pick up the kids. “Guess what?” my older son said, the minute he got in the front seat. “Dad’s getting married!”
I thought all you readers from across the world would have excellent foreign superstitions I could deploy!!! Is there nothing about, say, swinging a cat? Sacrificing a goat? Is there anything magical I could mutter? Something I could ritually burn? A strange symbol I could scratch into the beam above my door? A potion to scatter in droplets around the house’s perimeter? Should I wear something till it falls off? Collect my toenails and a snippet of hair and make an amulet? THERE MUST BE SOMETHING!
(The waiting game sucks. Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos!)
There were five offers (!!!) on the house, all above asking price.
We accepted the best one last night, and I floated a foot above the ground all day long.
I dare not go into detail, or even celebrate too much (there is still, after all, the inspection to get through)–but oh, my god, to have this behind us? It’s a bigger milestone, in several ways, than the actual divorce.
If everything goes according to plan, we close in a month.
Oh god, I shouldn’t be writing any of this down, I shouldn’t even be THINKING about it. I should spit three times, spin around counterclockwise, make the sign of the horns…what else? What do you do when you talk about a thing that you dearly, dearly hope comes to pass, but that you don’t dare talk about for fear of jinxing it?
The house is on the market again.
The tenants have gone out of town for a few weeks, and gave their permission to show it in their absence. So I hired a new realtor, and together she and I hired a cleaning team and a guy to do a couple of repairs and spiff up some of the paint and then we went over there and tidied a little bit ourselves. The tenants are much posher than I ever was. They have neat-o modern furniture, and trendy objêts lying around (silver antler candlesticks, decorative fedoras) and the house looks pretty good, if I do say so myself (ptooey! ptooey! ptooey!). The yard is covered in snow, otherwise known as Nature’s Staging–better snow than sticks and mud, which is basically what we’ve got going around here this time of year.
There wasn’t time to worry too much. There wasn’t any point in getting all worked up. Every time I started to get all worked up, I reined myself in with a very firm hand. Alone in the house the day before the first showing, I chanted Selling The House mantras as I windexed a few windows the cleaners had missed, wiped scuffs off the walls, polished doorknobs. We’ve lowered the price, I chanted. We fixed the fireplace. We upgraded the electricity. We replaced the furnace. I purposely avoided my old, desperate mantras (All Houses Sell Eventually! It Has To Sell! It Has To! It Simply Has To Sell!) because they made my throat close up in remembered panic. Besides, they didn’t work.
It was odd being back in the house. I’ve been inside several times since the tenants moved in, but never for long, and never alone. Now I wandered from room to room, floor to floor, in unconscious imitation of my old habits. I stared out my old bedroom window at consoling-windows friend’s house, across the snowy way. The house felt both familiar and deeply alien–I remembered what it was like to live there, but I couldn’t imagine living there any more. It hasn’t been that long since I moved out–just a little bit over a year–but being back in my old digs made me realize how much my life has improved since I left.
It’s not the house’s fault. It’s just a house. But god, I spent some unhappy years inside it. Moving out, I now realize, has been by far the best thing I’ve done since the marriage fell apart. There is something almost mystical about leaving the place where you spent the worst time of your life. Walking around our old house–ours, and then mine–felt like visiting the backdrop of an especially bleak and upsetting dream. I couldn’t put my finger on anything specific–though if I tried, I could certainly remember ghastly, horrible scenes that took place there and there and there. Mostly, I just felt unsettled and sad. And chilly. It’s a cold and drafty house anyway, and the thermostat was turned way down.
There have been several showings already (spit! Spin! Sign of horns!). We are waiting to hear offers, if indeed there are any offers (god, I’m out of counterjinxes! Help!) until Sunday. In the meantime, some more people are coming to look at it today, tomorrow, and over the weekend. A couple of people have come twice.
Now, forget I ever said a thing. And leave your counterjinxes in the comment section, please.
I planned to go to California for Christmas, flying out a week before, flying home (cheaply) on a red-eye on Christmas night itself. The kids were with their father this year, and his mother was going to take the whole crew to Hawaii, so I booked a flight to San Francisco to visit my delightful divorced friend and her teenaged daughter. We were going to do what we did two years ago at Christmas–eat and hike and eat and go to the Korean baths and eat and slope around my old haunts and eat. Between the eating and the sloping and the bathing, I was going to finish an assignment, have lunch with a couple of my old professors, and buy presents for Belated Christmas, that traditional holiday (highly recommended for the chronically disorganized) of dissolved/recongealed families of divorce. And then my stepmother’s father, who was ninety-six, died two days before I was supposed to leave.
I met my step-grandfather when I was six. My stepmother’s side of the family is huge–my step-grandparents begat four children, who begat fifteen grandchildren, who begat (so far) nineteen great-grandchildren. This is the family I lucked into when my dad remarried, proof that divorce can have happy side effects. My step-grandfather was the patriarch–a wonderful man, kind and generous to me from the moment he met me right up to the day he died. His death marks the end of an era. I canceled my trip to California and flew to Dallas instead.
There were going to be two funerals–a small graveside ceremony in a family plot three hours south of Dallas, and a gigantic church ceremony the following day. I would arrive in Texas on Wednesday, fly home the Saturday before Christmas. The kids would be gone by then, and my boyfriend volunteered to drive down and meet me at the airport. He was happy we were going to spend Christmas together after all, and I suppose I was too. I couldn’t really focus on it, however, since the change in plans meant I was fucked sixteen different ways as far as getting presents to everyone at the last possible minute.
Listen, I am a world-class expert in getting presents to everyone at the last possible minute. I’ll see your Amazon Prime and raise you six times the value of the gift in shipping. Every year I procrastinate, hyperventilate, and lie my lying little ass off about why nobody got whatever-it-was until December 29th. This year, I’d punted the whole thing to California–figuring that my arrival six days before Christmas would give me plenty of time to locate and purchase everyone’s presents, fail to mail them, plus come up with a fresh batch of excuses about why nothing arrived on time. Besides, Belated Christmas meant I didn’t have to get anything for my children or my boyfriend or his children until, oh, you know, sometime way way off in the future, after I got back. I was the most laid back person with no shit whatsoever together you’ve ever seen right up to December sixteenth, the day I changed my plans to fly to Texas.
And then I flipped out. Denial will only take you so far–even I, world-class expert, couldn’t delude myself quite to the point of thinking that I’d manage shopping/wrapping/shipping amid the chaos of a massive family funeral, in an unfamiliar city, with no means of independent transport. I had to send packages that very day, before I left, or they wouldn’t get sent at all. Motivated by the twin goddesses of familial giftgiving (Fear–my mother never forgets a tardy Christmas present–and Filial Affection), I bought everything, wrapped everything, boxed everything, addressed everything. I went to the post office, where there was no line, and mailed everything. It was extremely stressful, let me tell you. I had plenty of time in the morning to complain on the phone to consoling-windows friend while I wrapped and taped and labeled, and time left over in the afternoon, before I had to pick up the children, to get a little loafing done, too.
Then I oversaw the packing of the children’s suitcases for Hawaii, delivered luggage and children to their father, and flew off to Texas bearing presents (wrapped! early!) for all my funeral-bound kin.
The funerals were–if you can say this of funerals–wonderful and perfect. It was a joy to see my dad and stepmother and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews and nieces. And I didn’t even think about Christmas, except to wake up every morning at five to remember that I had already done everything, and therefore could go back to sleep. I was finished! I had mailed things in advance! I had hand-carried other things right to their grateful, startled recipients! It was very exciting. I decided to turn over a whole new leaf, and get Christmas done in advance every year from now on. This must be one of those milestones people are always talking about, I thought happily, snuggling back down in my sister’s childhood bed. I’m finally a grown up. I’ve finally arrived.
Back at home, still well ahead (three days!) of Christmas, I brought in the mail that had accumulated while I was gone. I felt rather smug, thinking how surprised various relatives (who’d probably assumed the worst) were to be receiving packages from me right about now. Why, I hadn’t even had to use my totally legitimate excuse–a family funeral!–to explain why everyone’s packages were going to be just a few days late, just this once, just this year. Maybe I can save it to use another time, I thought as I sifted through my mail. Shame to let a perfectly good excuse like a funeral go to waste. The mail was full of Christmas cards, which was nice and all, but truth be told I was a little miffed not to see thank-you-notes already. It was only when my boyfriend and I drove to his apartment the following day, and I was confronted with a lovely stack of charmingly wrapped presents under his tree–from his children, and from him–that I realized my fatal mistake.
Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck fuck. I had forgotten that blowing off the trip to California meant I was going to spend Real Christmas with a bunch of people I had absolutely zero presents for. I woke up at five in the morning on December twenty-third in a horrible cold sweat. I tossed. I turned. “For crying out loud,” my boyfriend murmured in my ear. “Presents aren’t important. Your grandfather died! You don’t have to get me anything.”
Oh, my god. I got out of bed and staggered to the living room, where the charmingly wrapped presents sang a cheerful greeting. I was going to get everybody stuff in California, I mumbled grumpily. Outside, it was raining and horrible. While my boyfriend made coffee, I stared into space. Technically, I wasn’t completely giftless. I had taken my kids shopping for his kids, and I had a couple of things for him–a book, a CD of a pianist we were going to see in January. But both were–how to put this? Kind of obvious gift choices, and there was a good chance he’d gotten the very same book and CD for me. I’d been counting on California, specifically on the weirdo shops in San Francisco, for inspiration. Now here it was, two days before Christmas, and I had wasted all my energies on a bunch of faraway ingrate relatives while neglecting my kind, thoughtful, long-suffering, deserving boyfriend.
It was a terrible day. I ran around town with no umbrella like a lunatic, soaked and miserable, dodging the hordes of tourists who were taking their sweet time apparently buying Easter presents ahead of the rush. At an especially low moment (shuffling up one aisle and down another in a horde of wet-woolly-smelling folk at the MOMA gift shop, eyeing the eighty-dollar hideous chrome tea sets and Magritte refrigerator magnets), I pictured an alternate version of myself flying triumphantly back from California, bearing a taxidermy unicorn or something, with that special happiness that comes from knowing a beloved other is about to open a thoughtfully chosen present from you–something he mentioned months ago! Something he had no idea you knew he wanted! Something you’d magically intuited he’d longed for ever since he was small! Something that perfectly expresses the profundity and loveliness of your special bond, something that will bring joy and fond remembrance decades from now, a gift for the ages, a gift for all time!
At Rockefeller Center, soaked to the bone, feeling like an utter twat, I ducked into J. Crew and bought two deeply discounted men’s cashmere sweaters. Both would be too small, but the proper size was sold out. Besides, isn’t it the thought that counts? Without quite meaning to, I crossed the street to Banana Republic, where I accidentally bought two more sweaters. Back out in the rain I actually felt a tiny bit triumphant, like I was finally getting the hang of this whole present thing. Then the paper bag holding everything ruptured as I splashed toward the subway, and I dripped all over everyone on the ride home, my arms full of crumpled tissue paper and damp wool.
On Actual Christmas, I opened thoughtful present after thoughtful present (things I’d mentioned months ago! Things I had no idea he knew I wanted! Things he’d magically intuited, profoundly lovely things that will bring joy and fond remembrance decades from now, and, as I’d feared, the very same book and CD I’d gotten him. Rats.) Meanwhile my poor boyfriend opened sweater after sweater after sweater after sweater. “These are great!” he said. “I needed sweaters! Wow! You can’t have too many sweaters! Though, uh, maybe this one is a little bit…snug.”
“The other cashmere one won’t fit, either,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “I love them! It’s the thought that counts.”
A few days later, my children came back from Hawaii bearing an actual orchid-and-orange-blossom lei in a plastic clamshell, which they’d taken turns holding on their laps for the entire flight home. Another perfect present. It smelled amazing, and it lasted for days. I even wore it to Belated Christmas, which took place as originally scheduled with my boyfriend and all four of the kids, and was very merry indeed.
In January, I got my comeuppance: three bad colds in a row, a sinus infection, a tag-team relay of sick children, and a frozen pipe (which did not burst, thank Zeus) at the old house. I botched an assignment so badly that I had to rewrite it from the ground up. Twice. It snowed and froze and snowed and froze till it was no longer cute or fun or festive, and I quarreled with one of my sisters, and just when the children were well enough to go back to school, an ice storm closed everything down for three days. For my forty-sixth birthday last week, the children gave me a laundry basket. In other words, the Goddess of Bad Gifts has had her revenge, in spades.
Still. Six years ago this month my ex-husband and I separated. At the worst part of that horrible winter, I truly didn’t know whether I’d ever be happy again, and look at me now. I’m lucky, and happy, and ridiculously blessed.
(Though I do apologize for failing to update this blog, and for neglecting to wish you a happy New Year in anything resembling a timely fashion. What can I say? I meant to, really I did, I always mean to. I think about writing here every single day. But, well, you see, there was this family funeral…)
I just sent my former mother-in-law a birthday present, over a month late. I don’t know how I forgot her birthday this year, but I did, and though I know she won’t hold it against me (and, in fact, I seem to remember she forgot my birthday last year and sent me a book late, with profuse apologies which I waved off when I thanked her), I still feel a bit guilty.
My mother-in-law and I got along decently for the eighteen years her son and I lived together. Which was good, since we went to graduate school practically in her back yard, and saw rather a lot of each other. Does anyone besides me consider the whole in-law juggernaut deeply, fundamentally bizarre? Consider: you tie the knot, and you’re immediately plopped into the cozy bosom of a bunch of people you hardly even know. The biggest thing you have in common is the person they begat and you fell in love with. You think you know him better than they do; they think you’ve come late to the game, and couldn’t possibly know him. During the holidays you’re honor-bound to spend together, you cast upon each other a slightly jaundiced eye.
Time marches on, and you go on vacations together. You do time in each others’ weddings and baby showers, and you make each other grandparents and uncles and aunts. Your relatives have a connection to your spouse’s relatives, your siblings and your spouse’s siblings are co-aunts and uncles, your parents and his share grandparent duty. Everyone’s connected. You’re the grafting points for whole new limbs on each others’ family trees, until the day you split up. Then you’re snapped off neatly, like twigs.
Since my divorce, I’ve been astonished to discover how fragile the in-law bond turns out to be. Even if you like your in-laws enough to still exchange birthday presents five years later, it’s amazing how quickly the we’re-all-family pretense gets unceremoniously dropped. And somehow, neither party seems to mind. All breakups should be this simple! Still, it leaves a strange aftertaste. Is it really possible that all those polite interactions–years and years of polite interactions!–could add up to so little in the long run?
Of course, the alternative is worse.
I’ve written before about my mother’s supremely irritating habit of sucking up to my ex-husband. (Actually, it’s not the sucking up that infuriates me. I couldn’t care less if the two of them ride off into the everlasting sunset together. What bugs me–what really, really bugs me– is the way she apparently feels compelled to report back, all proud and defensive, every damned time he crosses her mind.) “I miss him,” she told me tearfully one day last fall. For the love of fuck, I thought. “Well, you shouldn’t,” I snapped. “He’s right here. You can see him or talk to him any time you want. In fact, I wish you would! He needs more people in his life.”
(I thought that was a nice touch. He certainly does need more people in his life, though I’m willing to bet my mom is not going to go too far out of her way to be one.) “Invite him and the kids to your house!” I said, going for broke. “He always did love South Carolina.”
My mother cut me a sideways look–she is, after all, the very person who taught me how to call someone’s bluff–and muttered something indistinct. We let the topic pass. But I stayed mad for a while, because I’m petty and have nothing better to do. It struck me that my mom was a very bad person, going out of her way to stir things up just when I’d finally stopped thinking so much about the divorce. Then it struck me that I was a jerk for getting upset. Then my dad, who lives halfway across the country and had no idea any of this was on my mind, called. “I sent the boys’ father a birthday card,” he announced. “I hope he gets it.”
God damn it. “Great, great, you should have him come visit you or something, he’s right here, and he needs more people in his life,” I spluttered. “In fact, why limit it to birthdays? Why not write him a heartfelt letter every fucking week?” After a startled silence, my dad burst out laughing. “You’re a little touchy about this, aren’t you?” he said. I admitted I was. “You know, I stayed in touch with your mom’s mom,” he reminded me. “Your mom and I were only married for a couple of years, but I wrote and visited your grandmother right up to the day she died.”
This is true. He even came to her funeral, last spring. I’m an ass.
When my grandmother died, my ex-husband called my mother especially to tell her how sorry he was. This shocked and surprised me–I had underestimated him–and it made me happy, even after the fiftieth or sixtieth time my mother brought it up within my earshot. His mother called me, too. She even called my mom.
There’s no way to spin this as anything other than kindness. Still, I bet it bugs my ex-husband that his mother keeps in touch with me. I bet she rubs his nose in our semi-friendship without meaning to, out of some vague feeling of guilt crossed with loyalty. I bet he grits his teeth and curses below his breath whenever his mother brings me up. I bet he wishes she would never talk about me, just as I wish my parents would never talk about him, and I bet all of them, on both sides, always will.