Friday, April 10, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce #4: Trimming the Hedge

My grandmother used to say :”Don’t eavesdrop. You’ll never hear anything that makes you happy.”

Good advice.

So why stalk my ex-wife? Why would I do something so alienating and disturbing and off-putting? Because I needed to feel connected. That’s the absurd paradox of it. You need to touch that severed life. It’s like a phantom limb after an amputation. In your dreams you’re still clutching a baseball bat, playing piano, dancing. Awake, it torments you with impossible flicker of sensation.

I wanted information, that was all. Just to know what she was doing, and eventually, what she was thinking. To be fully included in my utter exclusion, a voting member of my own disenfranchisement, in complete control of my helpessness.

It wasn’t strictly stalking at first. It began with drive-bys. I would check her house or Ned’s when they were supposed to be working and the kids were in school. At night when I really needed to know what was happening, I had the kids with me and they shackled me to the house. I had thought of hiring a baby-sitter while I spied on Lisa, but she would have found out about it eventually. Everyone talked to everyone else about everything. Some stray comment from the baby-sitter’s mother and I’d have to deal with the inevitable self-righteous interrogation from Lisa: where was I on a school night? Why did I leave my children eating pizza with some teen-ager when they needed a good dinner and help with their homework?


No, I was virtually under house arrest and Lisa could do as she pleased.

Still I checked on her whenever I could. Opportunities came up. The kids had sleep-overs, sometimes both of them on the same night, and I got a free evening to snoop. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t care. People paid detectives to do this kind of thing. The police even did it, when they had a potential suspect. It was like a stakeout. That sounded good; all I needed was the coffee and the doughnuts. As a rationale, it worked pretty well until I progressed to the next stage. This one was somewhat harder to justify. Even naming it made me a little queasy. Was it “On-site surveillance”? Or perhaps “Illegal search and seizure”? But I wasn’t seizing anything and how could it be illegal to visit your own house? Even if you did have to break in, because your wife had changed the locks? And it wasn’t much of a break in, anyway: Lisa still hid the key under a shingle, the classic Nantucket security procedure, roughly analogous to hiding your money inside your shoes at the beach.

But I didn’t kid myself. Breaking and entering was what the police would call it. Criminal trespass, at least. Which was appropriate: I felt like a trespassing criminal when I sneaked into the Polpis house one clear windy December afternoon, looking for evidence of Ned. I wasn’t sure what I expected to find--- an extra toothbrush in the bathroom, Ned’s brand of beer (Stella Artois) in the fridge; perhaps a bottle of unfamiliar aftershave in the bathroom, perhaps a Yanni CD on the coffee table. Something that would connect me to her life now, let me into it, if only as a voyeur.

I found Lisa’s diary in her underwear drawer, during a quick furtive check for new racy lingerie. But she was still wearing the same old plain cotton panties. The diary was tucked under them, the pink and gray flowered cover held shut with some sort of elastic ribbon. I picked it up gingerly, memorizing its exact position in the corner of the drawer, careful not to disturb the tidy pile of clothes above it.

Whatever Lisa was thinking about me, whatever she was feeling about Ned, whatever was really going on in her life now, it would be described in this book. With one bold gesture, I could find out everything I needed to know. I looked down at the small hard-covered volume, turning it over in my hand, simultaneously knowing I could never violate my ex-wife’s privacy by reading it; and studying the elastic ribbon to be sure I could replace it exactly, if necessary.

I stood suspended there for more than a minute; then I heard someone at the door. I flinched as my mind starting running the numbers, calculating the magnitude of my catastrophe. My car was in the driveway, there was no hiding that. I needed a good excuse. Was there anything of mine here I could have come to pick up? No, I’d cleared out of the house weeks ago. Something for the kids? But they’d have to lie to back me up and that wasn’t happening, that was a line I wouldn’t approach, much less cross.

My mind was a blank.

I stood still, not breathing, listening hard.

There were no other sounds, just the wind pushing at the north side of the house. After another minute I slipped out of the room and walked to the head of the stairs. I could see down to the front door. Envelopes were scattered in front of it.

The mailman. Of course.

I let out a long breath. I was safe for the moment.

But it was dangerous to be here. I should put the diary back and get out while I still could. Lisa was probably on her way home right now. She had only gone to pick up the kids at the Boy’s and Girl’s club. Even with the usual traffic jam on Sparks Avenue and a stop for hot chocolate at Fast Forward, they couldn’t be much longer. I didn’t want to be caught here and I didn’t want to be caught leaving. It would be best to go back the long way, and loop around through ‘Sconset; even seeing me on the Polpis Road would arouse Lisa’s suspicions.

I went back into the bedroom, but I paused at the dresser, listening to the low whimper of wind in the eaves. I stared down at the book in my hand. I couldn’t seem to put it back. I studied the way the elastic ribbon was looped around the cover, hooked over the top right and the bottom left corner: easy to replace. If I was actually going to do this thing.

The silence goaded me. I could feel time pushing past me like a crowd on a train platform. It was now or never, because I knew I would never be able to summon the nerve to do this again.

I took a quick breath, opened my ex-wife’s diary and started reading.

I can’t go into the details, but it was bad. It made me think of the new Krav Maga classHes they’re offering on the island. It’s a close-quarters Israeli martial art. I had watched the teacher pull a student to him by the back of neck and pantomime a series of blows, from the knee to the groin from the forehead to the nose, from the elbow to the throat. That was what this felt like: being yanked into some brutal parody of an intimate embrace, trapped there and beaten.

I read a description and thought, had I been cruising Ned’s house at that moment? Or helping the kids with their math homework? Or possibly - and this would be perfect sick irony - lying in bed, draining off the fluid pressure of my own longing with the image of my ex-wife’s breasts which, I knew now, I would never see or touch again.

There were a few sentences that I’d never be able to forget, images that would permanently mark and disfigure me, like scar tissue.

And somewhere in Heaven, my grandmother was shaking her head sadly, too kind to say “I told you so.”

But reading the diary had at least one good result. It disinfected me of any further interest in Lisa’s activities. Some critical portion of the love I felt for her had been replaced by a cold, glinting hatred. You really think I’m going to have a meltdown over you?, I thought as I drove away from the house that afternoon. Don’t hold your breath. And don’t bother dangling the chance that we might get back together in front of me to get me to do you any more bullshit favors, you manipulative bitch.

I’m over it.

The resolves came quickly after that. The stalking was over. I had more important things to do than scratch that itch. I would do my work, take care of my kids, leave my ex-wife alone.

I would trim the complications out of my life, prune it like a hedge and let it grow back full.

It was time to start living again.

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