I spent yesterday looking for an old document I suddenly decided I needed on one of our computers–on all of our computers, as it turns out. I started with the candy-colored iMac we bought in graduate school, on which I typed most of my dissertation and nearly every article I’ve ever written. The iMac, once our pride and joy, has been demoted to a rickety TV table in a closet in my erstwhile office, and I knelt before it in dusty supplication for over an hour, balancing the keyboard and track pad on my thighs, squinting at and clicking on folder after folder, following false trails, struggling to remember how to search the damned hard drive, all in vain.
So then I tried my ex-husband’s discarded barely-functioning titanium PowerBook G4. Finding it (in the top drawer of a desk no one uses) was a triumph, though turning it on took another forty-five minutes (it takes a different power cord, of course, than the youthful computers of today, and the battery is so dead that it no longer functions at all unless plugged in. You also have to sacrifice a goat.) Finally, I set it up on the dining room table and started clicking and searching and opening and deleting all over again, plunging down dead-end rabbit hole after dead-end rabbit hole, excavating forgotten downloads and obsolete applications, waiting, waiting, waiting (were we all so patient, way back then? No wonder it took me so long to finish graduate school. You can write an entire paper on Russian Formalism in the time it takes simply to open Microsoft Office.) Bleary hours passed. Cursing occurred. When the working day ended, as it always does, with the rumble of my younger son’s school bus rounding the corner to our house, I still hadn’t found the particular document I was looking for. (Nor, come to think of it, did I find any of my old papers or articles or essays or what-have-you, which is disturbing. Where ARE they?)
I’ll tell you what I did find, though: hundreds and hundreds of old pictures and video shorts (very shorts–our digital camera could only film in thirty-second increments) of the kids when they were little, my ex-husband when I still adored him, our beloved, beautiful dog in all her glory, and a younger, goofier, indifferently dressed, sloppily coiffed, cheerfully child-besmirched me.
I haven’t avoided old photos since the divorce. I haven’t sought them out, per se, but I haven’t avoided them. I’ve gotten out the albums for my boyfriend’s daughters, to show them what my kids used to look like, and we’ve played the little videos of the baby walking or the baby giggling in the tub or the baby being read to by his charming, gap-toothed, seven-year-old brother plenty of times. I’ve read my journals and I’ve poked through archived emails and I even visited our old house in California by myself this Christmas break, though at first I was afraid to, on a gorgeous sunny day. I drove myself there and parked right in front and stood on the sidewalk for god knows how long, and everything was familiar and nothing felt the same. Eventually I walked up to one of the little parks we used to frequent, and watched a father and son throw a tennis ball for their dog. The sun was warm on my hair. The sky was blue. A penny my older son once wedged into a crack in a gigantic rock he liked to climb was, unbelievably, still there. I wanted to call my ex-husband and tell him about it, but of course I couldn’t.
What happened to those people in that house, at that park, in those pictures? Where did everything go? I spent the rest of the day wandering old paths, feeling like a ghost made flesh. Later, I emailed my brilliant wise editor friend, whose long-term marriage is genuinely and authentically happy, mutually satisfying, and good. I told her I’d been haunting our old neighborhood, and that even though I knew quite well I didn’t love my ex-husband any more, I missed him so violently sometimes that it felt like a kind of attack. She wrote back right away. “I know, honey,” her email said. “The house where we were newlyweds, and where our first baby was born, was torn down a few years ago, and I was so sad. I missed that house, and that young husband, and that drooly fat baby. Even knowing I still had them all, really, I missed them. I missed the me I was in those days, too. So young and hopeful and stupidly impatient for the future.”
It helped, of course, to hear that my self-indulgent melodrama was not unique to divorce. We middle-aged people are sappy by nature, it seems. Still, it was hard to look at all the old pictures, and harder still to tear myself away. I miss my babies, our dog, my husband. I miss my own certainty that life was happy and would remain so. It’s a naive state of mind, and some of us are snapped out of it by circumstances that are much harsher and more desolate–illness, death, and their dreadful like–than a mundane and reasonably sanely transacted marital separation. Ten years of water under the bridge later, I wouldn’t have those babies, that particular youthful husband, or even that lovely innocence any more, no matter what.
There’s no moral to this story, unless “enjoy your stupid impatience for the future while it lasts, sucker” constitues a moral. I closed the laptop, having wasted my day, and welcomed my younger son home.