Friday, April 10, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce #6: The Second Epiphany

I had just walked away from the most significant opportunity of my writing life. I had written a spec script for my favorite sit-com. Through a lucky set of circumstances, my script wound up on the desk of possibly the most prominent and successful television writers’ talent agent in Hollywood. Just getting my work to such a person, from three thousand miles away, from Nantucket, from another world, was like winning the lottery; more precisely, it was like discovering that your ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes represented one of the horses in the race.

The horse still had to win.

And this agent, let’s call him Barry, still had to like my script.

Well, he did. He said it was the best spec script he’d read in ten years, and lots of other nice things. He wanted to sign me. The timing was perfect – pilot season was just beginning. He was sure he could get me on staff at any one of a dozen shows.

He had only one question: when would I be arriving in L.A.?

This stopped me cold, stupidly, like walking into a chair in your dark living room, banging your shins, shouting in pain and surprise but mainly in annoyance: how could you have not known it was there? What was I thinking? I guess I hadn’t been thinking. I wrote the spec for fun, and when the chance for Barry to read it came up, I was curious. When he liked it I was pleased. It was nice rush for the ego, a moment of vindication, nothing more.

But this guy was serious. He wanted my new contact information.

And I knew in that instant, as I had known in the instant that we found out Lisa was pregnant that we were absolutely going to have the baby, that I couldn’t leave. That was my Dad’s move -- walking out on his family on Christmas eve, leaving nothing behind but a present for my mother picked out by his new girlfriend.

There’s a photograph of the two of us on one of his movie locations. They were shooting in Brooklyn and I’d been let out of school for the day to watch. I was my son’s age in that picture. Dad was my age now. I’m looking up at him adoringly; he’s smiling down on me. He was the King of Hollywood then -- one of the kings, anyway, at the pinnacle of his success. I remember the story in Life magazine about the making of that film, and the pull quote from him about the unknown Italian bomb-shell who played the female lead: “She’s a star because I say she’s a star.”

That’s where he was at that moment in his life. Where was I? Struggling to make ends meet, giving up on them ever over-lapping even for a moment, painting houses on Nantucket, writing reduced to a hobby, living in a converted garage apartment so small my landlord called it ‘skylab’ with three hundred dollars in the bank, owing more in back taxes than I could make in a year.

But my son had a father.

Not a super-star who blew into my life the way Sinatra came to Las Vegas, for lavish two week engagements, but a real father. My daughter was going to be one of the only women I ‘d ever met who didn’t have some kind of screwed up relationship with her father – at least that was my goal, and I was working on it every day. I was proud of it. Those kids needed me. And I needed them.

I read an article when Lisa was pregnant with Caroline – one of a fashionable stream of father’s point-of-view essays. The man described a day at the playground with his wife and daughter. The little girl fell off the jungle-jim and ran for past him screaming “Mommy!Mommy! Mommy!” He might as well have been a fireplug. It broke his heart.

I knew even then, before my daughter was born, when she was just a speck on the ultrasound screen, that I never wanted that to happen to me.

And that’s what was going through my mind while Barry waited on the other end of the line.

I told him I wasn’t moving.

He said, “I can’t be your agent if you won’t be my client.”

And that was that.

The moment seemed to sum up my life perfectly: an endless set of self-extinguishing sacrifices for the sake of my children, the two of them presiding over the center of my life with my own ambitions and desires and needs exiled to the outskirts, junked and forgotten. Sacrifice is supposed to be noble. You’re supposed to feel good about it, pure and strong and righteous. I felt bad and puny and resentful. I was in a funk for weeks.

And then Caroline got sick.

I had the kids that February night – we split the child-rearing duties with rigorous precision.

Caroline felt queasy at dinner, but she woke up at two in the morning with the bug raging.

“Daddy” she cried out, thrashing out of sleep. “Daddy!”

I rolled out of bed and ran to the room she shared with Tommy charged with adrenaline but still thinking somewhere: “She called for me, not her Mom.” It made sense, she was at my house not her mother’s, but she could have called for Lisa anyway. And I would have called Lisa and awakened her and she would have come over, driving through the thin spitting snow, over the black ice, in her nightgown. But that wasn’t going to be necessary.

Because Caroline called for me.

I got her downstairs and into the narrow little bathroom, and she projectile vomited all over the walls before I could guide her to the toilet. I held her hair back, talked her through it, gave her a cool glass of water, helped her navigate her way back upstairs, put a lobster pot near the bed in case there was another emergency and read her to sleep (The Catcher in The Rye; she loved Holden’s little sister Phoebe).

Then I went downstairs and started cleaning up.

And that’s where it happened. I was on my knees, scrubbing my daughter’s puke off the bathroom walls at three in the morning and I realized: I would much rather be doing this than writing some sit com. in Los Angeles.

This was where I belonged. I was in the right place, doing the right thing.

I finished up and went to bed, feeling a satisfied exhaustion, a quiet, resonant bliss and something else, something more; gratitude, perhaps.

The resentment was gone, banished forever in the space of an hour.

And it’s never come back

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