The thing they don’t tell you about divorce, the secret benefit that no one likes to discuss, is the time off. When you’re married you’re locked into the situation relentlessly, day after day, week after week. That may be why men invented business trips. But that was over at last. Now I only had to deal with Lisa occasionally, generally by telephone, and the kids were gone three or four days a week. I could walk into my tiny house on a Tuesday afternoon and feel the resonant silence of their absence – no music playing, no TV, no shouts and arguments, no chaos and squalor. Just the silence, and the residual mess of their last visit. A few minutes to pick up and vacuum and the place was my own again. Sometimes I would just sit there, listening to the wheeze of the north wind against the eaves, watching the blank television screen, letting the stillness smooth the pelt of my nerves, stroking it with the nap, and I knew I’d be fresh and rested the next time I saw the kids, ready for the next onslaught of cell phones and ipods and bickering friends, the next outbreak of sibling civil war.
Sometimes I didn’t even do the dishes. I’d leave them there in the sudsy water, just because I could, because there was no one to comment on them, or judge them. They weren’t a statement of any kind now, they weren’t a “passive-aggressive” attack or a symptom of dysfunction and co-dependence. They were just dishes. It was wonderful.
When my friends squinted at this claustrophobic little garage apartment, I just shrugged. They didn’t understand: it was a life-boat. All it had to do was float. It didn’t feel like home but the big house with the harbor view never had, either. The only sanctuary I had ever been able to construct for myself there was the bathroom: for a few minutes each day, alone with the door locked against screaming children and attention hungry dogs and my exigent wife, I could actually hear myself think. The phrase was frighteningly accurate. I could no more pay attention to the workings of my own mind in that jangled chaotic house than I could carry on a normal conversation at a dance club. When I was younger, and still went out dancing occasionally, I had understood that those ear bruising baselines were at least partly intended to make conversation impossible. Maybe the nerve-scraping anarchy of a house full of children, animals and marital discord served the same function. Anyone who could put a coherent thought together would be gone the next minute. It was almost funny; a cartoon of desperation: nothing left behind but a me-shaped hole in the wall and a puff of smoke.
But of course the fact is I never left until I was kicked out, and if I hadn’t been kicked out I’d still be there.
Lisa thrived in the jumble of personalities and animals, though. She had recently added another stray cat to her collection. I said to the teller at the bank one day, when I had to sign a check under Lisa’s endorsement, “How could two people with such radically different handwritings ever get married?” The teller didn’t get it, wasn’t even looking at the signatures, couldn’t have cared less. But the thought persists. Her legible tight round vertical letters were from a different universe than my slanting unreadable scrawl. Her signature could have looked at mine once and told her the obvious: that I might eventually learn to clean off the kitchen counter when I was finished doing the dishes -- but I’d never get all the crumbs, and I’d leave it wet. Or mine could have looked at hers and told me, that’s the kind of crap she cares about.
But we weren’t paying attention. I remember thinking her handwriting was cute.I remember thinking that the differences between us made us interesting and strong. Differences nourish people! That’s what I thought at twenty.
Now I know better.
Differences metastasize. Each unusual and exotic and eccentric thing that made the person so desirable the first week you knew them will render them hideous and loathsome and nerve-peelingly annoying a few years down the road.
Sorry, but it’s true.
A perfect example: the day her parents came to visit us on Nantucket. One of many visits, all of them horrible in their own ways. But on this occasion, Lisa had been staying with them in Los Angeles; they were all coming back east together. It was a kind of sick game – whenever Lisa came back from a trip she would find something to complain about, some proof of my inadequacies. The house wasn’t clean enough; or I’d cleaned up and neglected to make her dinner (After she’d been travelling all day it was the least I could have done); or if I made dinner it was overcooked. Or something.
On this occasion it was that much worse, the stakes were that much higher, because she would have her mother in tow. Without going into detail I think we can safely say that she inherited many of her mother’s less appealing traits. They hold on to grudges the way some girls hang onto horse-show ribbons and old love letters. Separately they’re bad enough, but together they become some kind of mythical two-headed blame monster. On her death bed Lisa will croak out a reminder of the little pile of dirt from a tipped geranium plant that I neglected to vacuum in our first apartment, the very first time we were ever apart.
Anyway. Expecting the worst, I spent two days cleaning the house, ticking off every detail because I knew that any detail I neglected would be the one thing she would pounce on. I scrubbed, dusted, vacuumed, mopped, disinfected, even painted the door she’d been complaining about – plus doing the kids homework with them and getting them and the dog spit shined for the big arrival.
So she walks through the house, which actually may have never been in such good shape the whole time we lived there, and she mentions just one thing. I have to explain this. She bought (Yes, she bought some unnecessary crap for the house, what a shock) little white ceramic baskets with cross hatched lattice lids. She asked me to pick flowers and put them in these baskets. The baskets were supposed to sit on the bedside tables in the guest room. So I did it. But, here it comes, I failed to stick the flower stems through the spaces in the lattice lids. Can you believe that? I just kinda jammed them in there! What a clod. And that is the one detail in the whole house she chose to mention. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
I remember thinking – I should be glad. It could have been much worse. What if she had noticed the half-assed job I did on the tub? A great way to live: avoiding abrasive nasty bullshit. Have a good day? Oh yeah, sure – I avoided a whole lot of abrasive nasty bullshit today. Gee, when I think of all the abrasive nasty bullshit I almost had to deal with and just barely avoided, I feel like singing in the fucking rain!
Well, what can I say? Marriages die slowly, like any other diseased living thing. There are periods of remission but they don’t last. They’re just … I don’t know; life commenting on itself. It could have been this but it isn’t; or it was and it never will be again. Take a good look before it goes for good.
And the worst part is it turns out that we are the kids’ first evidence that life isn’t perfect and no one except possibly the little mermaid lives happily ever after and most of all that things don’t turn out the way you want them to. The world does not cooperate. God is not on your side. And the kid with the “Look Mom, no cavities!” grin often winds up with gum disease.
No one wants to be the bearer of that particular piece of bad news. To embody it, to be its living symbol and standard bearer for a pair of innocent children learning life sucks at their father’s knee, is infinitely worse.
A sink full of non-subtextual dishes, an empty apartment and a few nights off a week don’t make up for that one. The only thing that might ever truly make up for it would be finding a way to be happy, constructing a life that made sense with a woman they liked, living a sustainable definition of true love in front of them every day.
But right now, that seemed like the most impossible goal of all.