Friday, April 10, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce #10: Gossip and TV Dinners

I was driving a new car and no one recognized me. In this claustrophobic small town ant farm that was an unexpected luxury and a relief. It wouldn’t last, of course. Soon people would see me with my new Escape, and start to identify me with it as they had identified me for years with my battered old Aspire . Then the drive-by socializing would resume. People would wave as their cars approached mine on Milestone Road. If I failed to see them (and I often did; I was in my own world when I drove, most of the time -- looking out for deer crossing in front of me or cops in my rear-view mirror, but pretty much oblivious to the faces behind the oncoming windshields), I would inevitably have to explain the lapse a day or two later, in the canned soup aisle of the Stop & Shop or the Fast Forward parking lot. People actually got insulted. It was like ‘cutting them dead’ on the street in some nineteenth century English village.

But that was only the most superficial level of the ritual. You adjusted your responses according to how you felt about the other driver. There was the full wave, lifting the arm and flopping it around. That was reserved for your real friends. Acquaintances got a descending scale of gestures: the raised arm, the partial raise; the fingers extended from the steering wheel, the nod and finally the most minimal of all, reserved for people you really didn’t like but couldn’t afford to ignore – the chin lift. You could start a round of gossip just by stretching your neck a little when the wrong car was going by on the way into town. It was a finely calibrated machine.

“You having problems with Bob Liddell?,” someone might ask. “He says you gave him the chin on Polpis Road last week.”

I had actually lost a customer that way the winter before.. The guy had been truly offended. And on top of that, a few days later I had failed to stop my car in the middle of Broad Street and have a brief chat with him while traffic piled up both ways. That was a serious lapse; almost as bad as refusing to flash your headlights when a cop was giving out speeding tickets. It was an exhaustingly complex web of courtesies and protocols and I was glad to be out of it for a while.

Anonymity was precious. I cherished what privacy I could scavenge. When I hear all the panicky talk about the coming surveillance state, I have to smile: there’s no surveillance state as omniscient and merciless as a small town. Anything you do or say will be passed along the web of social relations, the crude social internet, with strands connecting your kids to their kids and their parents, your neighbors and co-workers with their friends and yours.

Gossip had almost wrecked my life twice during my marriage, and I had been startled each time at how little traction the banal truth had against a juicy lie. No one cared that Lisa had been doing part-time caretaking for an elderly friend of her mother's, delivering soup and old videos and chatting for an hour or two, when her car was noticed parked in front of Ted Larner's house.

Ted was technically an ‘old boyfriend' since the regrettable weekend they had spent together more than twenty years ago. But she barely spoke to him any more and Edna Greenhouse just happened to be renting the garage apartment in the back. The talk intensified when Cindy's car was there all night during a slow week in February. I had picked Lisa up because she wanted Edna to have a car to use when we went off-island for the weekend. By the time the situation emerged from the rumor mill, it had been scrambled into Lisa using my trip to Boston for a week-end of illicit fun with her old flame. Ted, who enjoyed burnishing his reputation as a smooth and irresistible sexual predator, never denied the story and it went around the island like a bacterial infection, worsening and mutating as it passed from person to person. By the timemy friend Roy Haffner took me aside for ‘a little talk' during the big push on a job in 'Sconset, Lisa was not only leaving him for Ted Larner, she was carrying the other man's child and had taken up most of his bad habits including snorting heroin and jacking deer out of season. The general feeling around the island was that a woman who would have a baby with her lover was a scandal; a pregnant woman doing drugs was beyond redemption; but one who wouldn't share the illegal venison was just plain selfish.

Then Roy added a few twists of his own. One of his friends (he never mentioned which one) had seen Ted and Lisa having lunch together at the Brotherhood; other people had spied them walking Ted's dogs at Ram's Pasture and driving in his F-150 on Milestone Road. All this took place during the day, when Lisa was supposed to be working at the boutique. But Ted had apparently been sighted there, too, lingering next to the racks of exquisitely ugly clothes and scaring away the customers.

It all made sense to me.Lisa had been distant lately. She had been unwilling to talk about her job. Sex had dried up. My marriage was drifting the way marriages do when one of the parties has something more interesting to think about. 'Parties' -- it was as if I was already reading from the divorce papers.So I confronted Lisa, we fought about it; one of those ricocheting battles that kept coming back at us. The first round was about Lisa’s infidelity, but that was just the beginning. When it rebounded at them, it was about my distrust. The third bounce had to do with our marriage itself, which was so flimsy and corrupted that any lie seemed plausible and any attack seemed fair. She slapped me. I punched the wall. She cried. I left the house and drove off fuming. Ten minutes later I skidded across a patch of black ice and skated off the road into a tree. The truck was drivable and I drove it home. We both apologized in the morning. We stitched the wound to the marriage and it healed with only a faint scar.

But the accident started the other rumor, and that one turned out to be much more serious.

I had wrecked the hand carved quarter board (It said Cutting Edge Painters) I had attached to the driver's side door of the truck. It took several weeks to get a new one made, which seemed like nothing more than a minor inconvenience. But I didn't know a small crucial fact: according to Massachusetts state law, you had to remove all commercial identification from your vehicle when you filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Several contractors and other acquaintances saw me driving around without the sign on the door and "did the math".

The word was out: I was bankrupt.

I lost jobs, crew members quit on me. Soon I actually would have been broke and the lie would have been true. Pat Folger was the one who told me what was going on, and he was just in time. A makeshift quarterboard and a few phone calls had cleared up the misunderstanding, but people seemed disappointed by the news. It wasn't just the delicious tale of financial ruin they had to abandon, but all the theories about what had brought it on: binge drinking, blackmail, too much gambling at Mohegan Sun; a terminal illness not covered by my insurance; a secret child from a teen-age liaison going to college. A whole rowdy world of conflicting stories was collapsing into the sink hole of ordinary life, and it depressed people, especially in February.

The surveillance state might be an improvement; if the NSA was actually tapping your phone and reading your- e-mail, at least they’d get the facts straight.

When I was a kid, I loved TV dinners because the serving tray partitioned the food. Those low aluminum retaining walls meant that the turkey would never touch the peas, and the peas could never foul the apple crisp. Finally – a solution to the appalling anarchy of ordinary dinner plates, where the gravy contaminated the string beans with impunity, or worse yet, mingled with the salad dressing creating an inedible mess that filled me with a childish despair that no parent could even pretend to understand. As an adult, I use salad plates.

But I still like boundaries, and I was living in a world with none. While I was with Sasha, Lisa seemed to know my every move; when we broke up I became the town pariah. No one really knew why it happened. I wonder what they would have thought if they realized the truth. Sasha broke it off because she was jealous. That sounds normal, but the big trifecta of emotional resentment wasn’t involved at all: I wasn’t seeing any other women, I wasn’t ditching her to be with my friends, she didn’t resent my work. I could have understood all that. This was different: A whole new phenomenon that I would get to know all too well, with other women, as time went on. And it was the least likely women you could imagine playing this strident, unbecoming role: feminists and single moms, battling for child support, gradually giving up hope on their hustling, distracted ex-husbands.

Sasha Wilhite was the first of them, my earliest exposure to this bizarre new grievance. She was jealous of my kids.

Details next time.

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