September marked what would have been my twentieth wedding anniversary. It’s stupid to dwell on phantom milestones–you don’t get to think about your twentieth anniversary if you divorced your spouse right around what would have been your fifteenth. Still, my nerves twitched a bit as the date approached. Then, on the anniversary itself, I forgot. I’m sure my ex did, too–after all, he’s married now, starting the count all over again. Twenty years ago if you had shown me this particular future–us divorced, him remarried–I would have been horrified and appalled. But what do you know? I’m fine, better than fine, happier than I have ever been in my life. Marriage, as the amazing Louis CK said, is just like a larva stage for true happiness–which is divorce! Here, watch this.
Remember how last Christmas I’d planned to fly to California, and then my grandfather died, and then I wound up here instead? I rebooked the ticket, finally, about a week before it was set to expire, and I went to San Francisco to visit my lovely divorced friend. I have other friends still out there, too–friends from each of the three towns we lived in over the course of nine years, plus my old professors, my dissertation advisors, and so forth. I could easily have spent the entire week rushing from one to another, driving up and down the peninsula and across the bay to visit old haunts. In fact, this is what I have done, other times I’ve flown back to visit.
But this time I didn’t feel like haunting. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming, save my hostess herself. I didn’t make a single plan. I stayed away from my graduate school campus, from the first house we ever owned, and especially from the little house that made me so sad the last time I visited, and the time before that. Instead, I holed up in San Francisco, a city we never actually lived in, a place with no fraught memories. It felt a little bit like avoidance, but it also felt really good. I’m sick of revisiting the past, actually. I had no interest in going back to my old stomping grounds, and then taking my psychic temperature, the better to blog about it.
West coast jet lag is a beautiful thing. Every morning I woke up right at sunrise, and watched the light over the rooftops across the street from my friend’s apartment–that incredible, limpid California light–shine free of the fog and take hold. God, the light in California. The trees, the water, the smells, the sky. I hated living there, but good grief, it’s a spectacular place.
The weather in San Francisco in October is surreal–I had to keep reminding myself, as I walked around basking in the sun, that these particular parts were foggy nine days out of ten the rest of the year. Mostly, I ate and walked and went to bookstores and ate again. My friend and I had plenty of time together–she’s a midwife, and all of her clients politely stayed out of labor while I was there. But I also had plenty of time alone.
The last day, right before I got on the red-eye home, I walked through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach to Point Lobos to Land’s End and then the long way back. It was a brainless day of sun and beautiful scenery. Here, look:
You just don’t get this on the East Coast. I sat down by the water’s edge and watched some seals for a while, as the tide came in and their rock grew smaller. They bickered, clambered, got splashed by the mounting surf. One jumped in and swam closer to me, bobbing up and down on top of the waves, till he finally flipped under one of them and disappeared. The sun beat down–I was getting burned, but I didn’t care. My head was empty, but my heart wasn’t quite light.
My ex-husband grew up in Palo Alto. He was so happy when we moved to California for graduate school, and he would gladly have stayed in the Bay Area for the rest of his life. I made us move back East, a move I’ve never regretted, though I bet he has. These were his rocks, his waves and sky, his seals. Does he hold this against me, too–that I took California from him as well, along with the marriage and the house and the kids and the safe future he once had? I would probably hold it against him if the tables were turned.
Or does he now think, Thank god all that shit happened, because I’d never have met my new wife otherwise? Does he feel–as Louis CK and I do–happier every single year? I’d like to think so. But I don’t know, and it’s none of–and never will be–my business.
I can’t wait until he has been married to his new wife for longer than he was married to me. I can’t wait until the years of our divorce outnumber the years of our marriage. I can’t wait till those shadowy paths not taken–the lives we would have lived if things had turned out differently than they did–don’t haunt me any more. I can’t wait until I stop feeling guilty for leaving him.
Those of you who are divorced, please answer: When, exactly, will that be?
I’m nursing a cold, which might explain the horrendous mood I’ve been in for days. Nothing is right, everyone vexes me, the bit of writing I’m working on continues to be a boring, incomprehensible, long-winded piece of shit–you get the idea. Tonight I went running, the first real fall run of the year, and came home and sneezed for about forty-five minutes straight. My younger son is upstairs with his best friend, who is also my best friend these days. He’s an adorable child, lives right behind us, comes over constantly, hung around listening to me talk about the cultural differences between the ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire (what? He brought it up) for half an hour after supper tonight. “I like it here,” he said, when my son begged him to come upstairs and play Wii. “It’s peaceful, and I like this music.” (Beethoven was on the stereo.)
Also? He raves about my food.
His mom, for the record, acts quite surprised when I tell her how wonderful and polite and charming and helpful and sweet her son is. She tells me he’s actually quite a pill; she reports that in their household, it’s my son who’s the favorite child. “He’s so patient, and he always pitches in with the younger kids without being asked. And he thanks me for everything, and asks me about my day, and I swear he’s a good influence on everyone else. We love having him,” she says.
It works out pretty well, in other words. Because my younger son, without his brother, seems to be at loose ends.
Going from two kids to one–going from any number of kids to one fewer kid–is always a relief. Squabbling ceases, there’s less food to buy and cook, fewer dishes to wash, less laundry, fewer bodies lying about, less noise, fewer people talking. The first month or so my older son was off at college, all I could think about was how streamlined my life felt. I had just gotten back from a whole month in which I had to cater to nobody but myself–a whole month during which my most pressing decision every day boiled down to whether I wanted a burrito or a sandwich for supper. Coming home to only one set of demands felt like a reprieve. Back to school with only ONE kid? One soccer schedule? One back-to-school night? I hadn’t had things so good in twelve years.
And after the sensory deprivation of being gone for a month, only having the quiet kid seemed like a blessing. No one was following me from room to room yakking. No one flopped down on my bed at night and told me every single thing that had happened to him in the last twenty-four hours. Or yammered about the play he’d just read. Or the weird thing that happened in philosophy class. Or what his best friend said that was so damned funny, which usually WAS so damned funny, so that I’d go to bed every night in a good mood, having ended the day by laughing helplessly and shooing my big hilarious kid out of the room, because it was BEDTIME, dammit.
The little one is twelve. Seventh grade. He’s a mysterious little creature. He takes himself extremely seriously these days. I can’t tease him, really, because he’s quite sensitive about…well, about everything. The jokes he thinks are funny are things I don’t really get. His friendships are fraught–there is some big social kerfluffle occurring at school, and I can’t wrap my head around it, and he won’t really give me the lowdown–and his personality, at this stage, is muted under layer after layer of self-consciousness. He won’t really allow himself to be silly. He’s obsessed with his hair. He’s still sweet to me–it’s rather heartbreaking, actually–and still sleeps with a stuffed bear, but he’s all full of himself during the day in some weird prepubescent insecure way.
He’s never been out from under the shadow of his big brother in his life. I said to him, at the end of the summer, “Well, I had six years with just him before you were born, and now he’s off to college and I’ll have six years with just you before you go to college!” He liked that, and has repeated it several times.
As have I, in my head, with decidedly mixed feelings. Six more years. What was I thinking, having them so far apart? Eighteen years of childrearing down, six to go. We’ll hit our stride, I’m sure, but we haven’t quite hit it yet.
1. What happened next?
With the kid, you mean? At bedtime? Jesus, how do you expect me to remember? It was months ago.
2. It’s your fault. You’re the one who disappeared, leaving us hanging.
Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that.
I don’t mean to sound flippant. I really AM sorry. You’re all admirably loyal and patient.
4. Flattery will get you nowhere. Anyway, quick, before you run off again for six months. What the hell happened?
He wanted to talk. He was all little and clingy. In his oblique eleven-year-old way, he managed to say that he was worried about a lot of things–his father moving to a different house, the new stepmother, his brother going to college…
5. Wait, his father moved? Again?
Oh, I forgot to tell you about that! Yes, the ink was hardly dry on the marital-house-selling contract when my ex-husband bought a new house, roughly twice as far away from mine as the one he rented last year, the one I’d complained bitterly was too far away. What could I say? I’d said it all before, and it made no difference. I did manage to talk him out of buying a house even farther away by suggesting we change our custody plan if he did so–since the custody plan, with its twice-weekly switchovers, was designed to suit a family where both divorced parents live in the same town. He said, no, no, he didn’t want to change the plan (neither, for the record, did I) and settled for a house forty-five minutes away from mine. School, happily, is between the two of us, which makes it marginally less annoying for my son, I hope.
This makes four houses my ex has lived in since the divorce, but now I think he’ll stay put. And though the drive is horrible, I do like not having him in my town. It’s very restful.
6. But then he went to sleep, right? Your son?
Yeah. And was very sweet and affectionate. And then the big one wanted me to sit with him and chat a bit, too. He still loooooves the bedtime ritual, even though he’s eighteen years old, for crying out loud.
By the time they both fell asleep I was so exhausted that I did too. And then, the next morning, I woke up feeling very peculiar indeed.
I got up and fixed myself a cup of coffee and retrieved the paper and sat outside, wrapped in a blanket, on the wicker chaise on my front porch. Something was not quite right. I watched the steam curl from my coffee cup, and stared into space. It was going to be a gorgeous day once it warmed up. The kids were still sleeping. I thought about calling consoling-windows friend, but somehow I didn’t feel like talking to anyone.
7. You were sad, you idiot. You were feeling all sad and weird because your ex-husband was getting remarried.
I know. It took me forever to figure it out, and then I couldn’t quite believe it. But I was actually sad.
8. You do know that you have no right whatsoever to be sad?
Yes, I most certainly do.
I gave myself shit about it all day. I eventually did call a couple of people–consoling windows friend, and my lovely divorced friend in California–and confessed that I was feeling a mite wistful. In my head, I paged through several whole volumes of Unpardonable Post-Marital Emotions, trying to diagnose my moral failings. I catechized myself, but it wasn’t terribly productive.
Was I jealous? No, not at all. I don’t want to be married, and I certainly don’t want to be married to my ex-husband.
Was I worried that the new stepmother would somehow usurp my kids’ affection? No, hardly. I have a stepmother whom I like very much, and I know there’s just no comparison with one’s own mother. The more people my kids love, the better life will be for them. And my childhood was wonderfully enriched and expanded by all my various step-relatives. So, no.
Was I mad because I am a controlling bitch, and because my ex-husband’s remarriage will diminish my control over him? Not really. I am indeed a controlling bitch, but I have plenty of other outlets. And controlling my ex-husband, or trying to (see above re: moving far away) makes me nuts. I’m happy to let someone else take over that particular project.
Well, then, what was my problem, exactly? I don’t know! I still don’t quite know.
I thought and thought, while feeling unsettled and vaguely bereft, all day long. I couldn’t figure it out. It felt an awful lot like grief–the same grief I felt during the end of the marriage. But the grief felt purer now, somehow–no longer muddied with anger and guilt. I kept dwelling on sappy thoughts, kept returning to familiar sadnesses. The love I’d once had for my ex-husband–the love we had for each other–was gone, I kept thinking. What happened to those two young people who loved each other and married and had babies and puppies and houses together? Where did all that love go?
It felt like I was mourning the end of the marriage all over again. Actually, it felt in some incomprehensible way like I was mourning the end of the divorce. Though why would I mourn the end of the divorce? Oh, god, I thought–is this just the way middle age works? From now on, will everything be marked only by new lows: the end of this, the death of that, the loss of something I hadn’t even realized I was clinging to? Am I all fucked up? Am I incapable of joy?
And then I woke up the next morning totally back to normal. Whatever that little blip of wistfulness was, it passed quickly. I’m glad to know I can still feel a pang of something in relation to my ex-husband, actually. It reminded me that once upon a time, I really did love him, really did think we’d stay together until one of us died. And he loved me, too. And now he loves someone else, and so do I, and life goes on.
9. Enough about you. What about the kids?
The big one was fine. He had other things on his mind–his first girlfriend, the school play, senior project, college. The little one stayed close to me for the next several days. He seemed vulnerable, a bit undone. I babied him in unobtrusive ways, which he liked.
When they went to their dad’s midweek, I missed them in a way I hadn’t missed them in a long time. I put this off to my own neediness, my dumb emotional state of fragility. I was in the car driving the two hours to my boyfriend’s apartment when my phone buzzed–a missed call, a voicemail from my ex. He’s probably calling to say he’s at my house with the kids, getting something they forgot, I thought. It was the first baseball game of the season for my younger son, and I’d skipped town right after dropping him off at the game with his brother…
10. Why didn’t you go to the first baseball game of the season? Seems kind of cold.
Honestly, I don’t remember. It does seem cold, doesn’t it? I think it was just because there are a billion baseball games between April and August, and I wanted to get to New York before I fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the turnpike to explode in a fireball of death. It was a weeknight. I don’t go to every single baseball or soccer game my kids play. If I did I’d never do anything else.
I wish I’d gone, though.
11. Go on.
I didn’t listen to the voicemail. I called back, which I usually don’t until I’m off the road, because I had a funny feeling. My ex picked up right away. “So, we’re still at the ER, and they’re putting a splint on it,” he said.
My heart dropped into my stomach. I babbled something incoherent about how I hadn’t yet listened to his message, and my ex, instead of answering, handed the phone to my son. “Mom? I broke my wrist,” he said, and burst into tears.
He had tripped over his own feet playing shortstop in the first inning, and come down hard on his right hand. It was a nasty break. There would be surgery, a pin in the bone, then a huge cast almost to his shoulder, and finally a smaller cast, and then a year of watching and X-raying every two months or so to make sure the growth plate wasn’t affected. Baseball was out, obviously. While he had the huge cast he couldn’t shower or cut his meat or tie his shoes or put his socks on or his contacts in, but he managed very well in most things, and he was admirably brave. I have to say, I felt very tender toward him as I helped him bathe and dress and so forth. His little upturned face in the tub, eyes squeezed shut as I poured cupful after cupful of water over his hair to rinse it, brought me right back to his toddler days.
So it was kind of an intense spring, as far as the kids went. A few days after the small cast came off the little one, the big one graduated from high school. Family descended on me from all four corners of the earth, and after they left I got shingles on my face and ear again. My acupuncturist bled me, and I was completely better in two days. No lie. All hail Eastern/medieval medical practices, I guess.
12. But what about your ex’s wedding?
For a long time, nobody knew anything. The kids didn’t know when or where it was occurring. They weren’t sure if their stepmother-to-be intended to quit her teaching job five hours away and move in. This, I felt, was something their father should probably discuss with them, but an evil combination of pride and pissiness prohibited me from bringing it up.
Well, officially I didn’t even know he was getting married at all, remember? He never even bothered to tell me! He made the kids do it, like a coward! And the emotional stress of it all made my poor innocent baby shatter his precious, perfect little wrist!
14. Oh, honestly. Calm down.
I’m calm, damn it. Eventually I sent the fiancée a message on Facebook.
15. Jesus. Is this what we’ve come to, these days?
Evidently. It was a very nice message, if I do say so myself. I said that I just wanted to tell her how thrilled the kids were that she was going to be a permanent part of their lives, and that I, too, was delighted that she and my ex were getting married, and I wished them both the very best. Two seconds later she wrote back.
16. Didn’t you realize none of this was really your business? Who do you think you are, going around blessing their union like some kind of weirdo fairy ex-godmother?
Luckily, the fiancée is a truly lovely individual, unlike some people around here. She thanked me for writing, she gushed a little about the kids, and she immediately spilled all the essential beans–she was quitting her job and moving in with my ex, she was nervous about the job part but thrilled about everything else. “Sometimes life gives you a second chance at happiness,” she wrote.
She’s divorced, too, and has had some real hardships in her life.
17. This would all be very touching if it weren’t taking place via Facebook.
It does lower the tone, doesn’t it?
I called the kids downstairs and showed them our exchange. They were both quite interested to learn she was moving in, et cetera. I reminded them that they could, of course, simply ask their father what his marriage would mean to them.
I can’t figure out quite what the father/son relationship dynamic consists of, now that I’m not around to act in my preferred/former role (see under: Controlling Bitch). My older son frequently jokes about his father’s failure to communicate. My younger son is harder to read. As the wedding drew nigh, the mysteries multiplied. Where was the ceremony going to take place? When? What were the kids supposed to wear? Could they invite a friend, maybe? Were they expected to prepare little speeches, or do anything during the wedding–carry the rings (were there to be rings?) or read a poem (were there to be poems?) or stand up next to their dad (was there to be standing?)
I congratulated my ex-husband on his impending nuptials once I’d broken the ice with the fiancée, but I drew the line at grilling him about the particulars of the ceremony. Besides, I was going away.
To a four week long writing residency. I know! Unprecedented.
19. So you just abandoned your poor, sweet children, and went off selfishly for four whole weeks? During this important transitional period in their young lives?
I did. I actually did. It was great. I should have been a selfish asshole all my life. Selfish assholes get a lot more done.
The wedding, it seems, went off beautifully despite my failure to micromanage it from a distance, and the kids didn’t die of starvation or grief. They wrote me actual letters, and I wrote them actual letters, and we spoke on the phone a few times, but only a few times. They were fine.
20. But it was the last month your older son would be living at home before college!
It was, indeed. I came home at the end of August, then drove him to school the next day.
He couldn’t be happier at school. He hangs out with my boyfriend’s older daughter a lot–I did tell you that they decided to apply to the same school, didn’t I? Both of them are thriving. I suspect I will have more to say about this at some point.
Meanwhile, my younger son and I are settling into a peaceful routine. I suspect I will have more to say about that, as well. I will try to be better about updating this website, truly I will. “Shorter and more frequent!” is my new mantra. I chant it every day.
I hope you all had wonderful summers. Did you? Please, tell.
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.