Saturday, August 22, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: Siblings

The transformation started with the kids.

Despite the divorce, with its bitterness resentments, we had launched ourselves into an extraordinary collaboration, a grand project that demoted our personal feelings into irrelevance.

Children had always been status changers. Carrie’s arrival had shifted everything, splitting Lisa’s nuclear family and settling her mother and father in the distant role of grandparents, turning us from lovers into care-givers, reducing our friends without kids to acquaintances. Everyone took a hit. Even Carrie herself, when Tommy arrived: knocked down from her privileged ‘only child’ status into the gritty world of sharing toys and sibling rivalry.

Now things had changed again, though perhaps it was a promotion this time. Lisa and I had remained partners, where we might have easily have become strangers when the statute of limitations of curiosity and even courtesy lapsed between us. Instead we found ourselves still working together, still raising two kids, in two separate households with two sets of rules. We went to the chorus performances and the band concerts together, attended the grim teacher meetings and fall orientations at Nantucket High School, explained to the teachers there that Tom’s lack of interest was boredom, not ADD, protested when Caroline’s math teacher (“I’ve never actually worked in a school situation before”) refused to read her homework assignments.

We had a job to do and we were still doing it. But we had a short-hand for our communications, developed over more than twenty years. It turned out we were good at being divorced. We no longer chafed against each other; living apart had liberated us from the need to fix each other. She could be a spendthrift, I could be a slob – at opposite sides of the island it didn’t really matter.

We still argued and struggled. But we remained a team, with a shared goal: not totally fucking up the extraordinary creatures we had somehow brought into the world.

And then, after my infatuation with Sophie Zambarano, we started talking again. We gossiped about our love-lives, we commiserated, we gave each other advice. It made sense: no one was better qualified. We had known each other longer than anyone else. Together and apart, we had been in love since our second year in college. She knew my body before the bicycle accident that permanently damaged my back; I knew hers before the breast reduction surgery, and after it; no other man had been with her on both sides of that transformation.

She knew my father and step-mother, who never even met our kids; I knew her Mom before she contracted rheumatoid arthritis. I knew her brother in the troubled years before he committed suicide.

She knew me before I went out to Hollywood, cocky with nepotism, and after I fled in stunned defeat. She knew my Mom before she finished her undergraduate work and went on to the Harvard School of Education. We watched her graduate, together.

We had endured break-ups, and love triangles, a purgatorial four years in Los Angeles, a disruptive move across country, a hellish decade of blue collar toil on Nantucket. We had celebrated two pregnancies, accomplished two home births, endured a miscarriage. We were like veterans of the same war, our own war, with its own treaties and reparations, and no one who hadn’t been there could really understand. The events that remained so vivid between us would be hollow anecdotes to anyone new in our lives. I had known her as an innocent nineteen-year old who believed in me passionately and as a disillusioned forty-year old who despised me. We had shared too much of our lives to do anything but accept each other, finally -- flaws, disappointments and all. Time exhausted our antagonisms. I moved from roommate to stalker to stranger to neighbor, to partner and ally in the parental struggle to secure our children’s self-reliant adulthood, striving for the ultimate goal: to render ourselves obsolete.

It’s over now; the kids are grown. But the ties endure. We take care of each other’s dogs, share holidays, count on each other in emergencies. I will always answer that late night call, always listen, always come running when she really needs me. I’ll always be glad to see her; and I’ll always be glad to see her go. There’s a name for this new relationship but I never realized what it was until the last week’s big foreclosure yard sale.

Lisa was losing her house. It was sad but inevitable In many ways she could have been the poster child for the bubble economy. For years she had leveraged every asset to provide the illusion of a prosperous life. First, after the divorce, convincing her father to help her buy the house we had lived in, then selling it at the top of the market and buying a larger house, and then another one, all of them on the narrowest margins with the smallest down-payments possible. Every scrap of equity liquefied into the cash flow required to finance the vacations and cars. That doesn’t mean she was lazy. Far from it. She worked like a sled dog throughout those years, in the store her father helped her buy, and she paid him back every cent he loaned her. I watched her slave away for sixteen hours a day in the retail hell of Nantucket (crowded with appalling rich people all summer; dead for the rest of the year) with awe-struck, horrified admiration. But the fact remains: she tried to expand the store, also, and took out bigger loans to do it, and God knows what cross-collateralizing she did with the houses. She had a genius for it. If she could juggle actual balls and torches half as well she could have joined the circus.

But it was all based on the ever growing economy, in which the value of her house kept on rising into the glare of the sun and out of sight, like a helium balloon

Then it all ended, gravity reasserted itself. The world is strewn with deflated helium balloons – they always come back to earth eventually. A more fitting analogy comes from one of my best customers, a derivatives broker from New Jersey: the crash was a tsunami. Everyone was affected. Many people lost much more than Lisa, but that was cold comfort when the possessions she had accumulated over twenty years were set out on the lawn and to be picked over by greedy strangers.

Lisa absented herself from the actual sale. I worked it with the kids, passing out Downeyflake doughnuts, making up prices on the fly, chatting with people I hadn’t seen in years. Carrie had worked in the store and knew how to move merchandise. Tom had set the whole sale up and stayed with me, moving furniture and making change. Carrie’s fiancée is a computer whiz and he managed to off-load about half a ton of used electronics. We had a steady stream of customers traipsing through the yard and the sale went well into the afternoon. It was a success. Despite the sadness of the occasion, we all had fun. We had drinks afterward to celebrate.

Two days later I saw one of the women from the sale (She had bought the matching bookshelves and some earrings).

“It was so nice of you to do that for your ex-wife,” she said.

That was when the thought occurred to me. “She doesn’t feel like an ex-wife,” I said. “She feels like … my sister. She’s much more of a sister to me than my real one.”

The lady smiled, and patted me on the shoulder.

“Well,” she said. “You’re a very good brother.”

That’s who I’ve turned into.

That’s who I am; and that’s good enough for me.


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