I’ve been hating the desk in my dining room for months now. We moved it down there after R moved out and tenants occupied the third floor of our house, where I previously had a little office. It’s a big, clunky piece of furniture whose main virtue is that it holds a lot of stuff. But I never use it anymore. I’ve spent months plotting to get rid of it and to replace it with something sleeker and more dining room-like and finally, this past weekend, I made it happen. Prior to ditching the desk, though, I had to empty its seven drawers, an experience that turned out to be something of an emotional landmine. A few of the random, meaningful, meaningless things I came upon:
It’s clear what I should do with the hospital bracelet (stick in box with other baby memorabilia) and the invitations (toss into recycling), and the mini-cassette recorder (save because no other way to play mini cassette tapes of girls saying ridiculously cute things at age 2). But what about the R-related (but not necessarily R-rated) stuff? These random desk-drawer findings are just the tip of that iceberg. There’s a box in my closet that contains assorted pieces of my past, from my junior high school diary to another stack of love letters from R. (I threw this particular pile of them at him during the ghastly, wrenching pre-separation months and also offered some suggestions for where he might want to shove them.) And then there’s an entire freestanding wardrobe filled with photo albums chronicling our 18 years together.
It’s been a couple of years since R left now and I have some distance. I have transferred my romantic feelings to another person. I can come across the odd Valentine’s Day card from R without it sending me reeling. But still. Still. I shared almost half of my life with this person and it’s hard to know where to put it all, literally and figuratively. Reading these gushy missives is an out-of-body experience. I know all of that happened and that this was the most significant and lengthiest relationship of my life, but it all seems so, so distant already. It’s still hard to process how those passionate written exchanges, once focused on our mutual adoration, could have devolved in to the quick, terse, business-like email affairs that they are today. Looking at letters and photos from my married days brings up something different than the sweet nostalgia I feel when I read something saved from a college or high school boyfriend. Those relationships were meant to be finite. The scenes from a marriage, on the other hand, still sting and feel like reminders of failure–as if they don’t really count because it didn’t last.
So where do I store this stuff emotionally, how do I make a place for it in the modular add-on system of past experiences growing inside my aging brain? Do I want my kids to come across those letters one day so they can see that in fact their parents loved each other once? (Does one keep naked pictures of one’s ex? What’s the protocol there?) Or should I get rid of all of it, sending it off with the ship that has sailed?
While I was unloading stuff from the desk drawers to the dining table, a little gift card fell open. It was signed ”I love you, R,” and it landed right on top of a folder labeled “Separation Agreement.” Really. You can’t make this stuff up, and I didn’t.
On Friday during my lunch hour, I went shopping for a birthday present for R on the girls’ behalf. As usual, they had grand ideas about what they wanted to get their dad–all of which were way out of my price/affection range–and no ideas about when we would actually have time to do the shopping required in the 24 remaining hours prior to his birthday.
I tried to convince them that the most meaningful gift would be something they made with their dear little daughterly hands–something out of Sculpey, maybe? (I love Sculpey, btw.) I should have just pinned a “kick me” sign on my butt, given the withering, disgusted looks that sweet suggestion inspired from my teenager. (Sometimes I worry that her eyes will roll so high into her head, we’ll have to go to the ER.)
So, fine, I offered to grab R a shirt on their behalf—a shirt being the default 11th-hour gift for all men.
This is the kind of task that you still have to do even when you’re no longer married to your kids’ father. Even if you don’t care anymore about appropriately acknowledging your ex’s birthday, you need to make sure your kids do.
And if you’re me, such an exercise reminds you that you did care once, which leads to having a blog-worthy experience in the men’s shirt department at H&M. (No, nothing like that.)
In the old days, back when I loved R, I would have spent weeks trying to find the perfect item, even if it was just a pair of socks, even if it required me to splurge on something at Barney’s or Bergdorf Men. I would not have dashed into the closest, cheapest store I could find, hell-bent on getting out of there with enough time to eat my sandwich in the park.
But, because I tend to analyze everything to death, I became profoundly aware of my ever-shifting level of investment in the shirt purchase. Here are a few of the thoughts that went through my head:
Last Thursday was my younger daughter’s birthday, so the four of us went out for dinner to celebrate.
The four of us means R was there.
We’ve done this before, of course–re-enacted scenes from our former life as an intact family. We’ve done it on Christmas morning (twice) and on the girls’ birthdays.
I realize it’s good that we can pull off the amicable thing. I sense how happy it makes the girls to have both of their parents in the same room. According to Constance Ahrons’ rubric in The Good Divorce, R& I are “Cooperative Colleagues.” She defines five types of divorcing couples, ranging from “Perfect Pals” (i.e. such good buddies that they should just stay together) to “Dissolved Duos” (think icky, mean Hollywood-style splits). Says Ahrons: “Cooperative Colleagues don’t consider each other close friends, but for the most part cooperate quite well around issues that concern the children … They spend occasional time together–usually special occasions, such as birthdays, school plays, or parent-teacher conferences.”
As sad and second rate as it is, I take pride in the fact that we effortlessly deceive restaurant staff into thinking we’re just another intact family, one where the parents don’t regularly meet in a mediator’s office. We leave the restaurant and walk together down the street, with the youngest daughter up on Daddy’s shoulders. We totally pass.
I find these times of temporary togetherness both grounding and unsettling. On the one hand, I’ve so adapted to my single-mom role with the girls that when R joins us I feel vaguely intruded upon–like, who is this guy who thinks he knows my kids so well that he can tell them what to do as if he’s their parent or something? But it’s also such a gift, one that I took for granted during all those years when the-four-of-us was a given. Another parent? Seriously? Someone who understands these two children–their dynamics, their strengths and weaknesses, their histories, their everything–exactly as I do? Someone around whom I can let down my guard a bit, as if I’m not the only one in charge? It almost sounds too good to be true.
When R showed up at the restaurant the other day, part of me wanted to say: “What are you doing here?” while another part wanted to shout: “Well, it’s about time you showed up! Where the @#$%^&* have you been for the past 20 months?”
But, being that we’re so amicable, and that it was our daughter’s birthday, I simply said “Hi.” Then we ordered sushi.
On Saturday night, I went to a Valentine’s day dance at my 3rd grader’s school. It was 1980′s-themed, so I spent the afternoon helping my girls outfit themselves in leggings and big shirts with belts.
The school was brilliant enough to provide a little pub in an adjoining room, so that the parents could buy cheap wine and beer in support of the PTA. Every now and then, we wandered into the gym to watch our kids dancing under ghastly flourescent lights to songs by such 80′s phenoms as The Violent Femmes, Billy Idol and Blondie. Our songs.
The combo 80’s/Valentine’s day theme had me waxing nostalgic in a big way. That was the decade when I first experienced the joys and miseries of romantic love, real and imagined. (For a while, I was sure I would DIE if Matt Dillon did not step out of the movie Little Darlings and instantly become my boyfriend.)
I also wrote a lot of bad, angst-ridden poetry during that decade, as I recently discovered while sorting through boxes of stuff. Allow me to share some excerpts (and please try to cut me some slack. I have never shown anyone these fine works, not even those for whom they were written):
* * *
Our love is like a dried-out Flair pen
No longer works, it tries.
It dies. It tries.
My optimism brews beneath a haze of lies.
* * *
This is not the first time.
This is nothing but self-slaughter. This is nothing but used crime.
Latent vacancies destroy the pillow
So blatant is the urgency
* * *
Beneath the crisp white smile of your work shirts
It’s your heart I want to taste
Even if it’s just one big bruise
Or beating red and salty
Like a healthy animal
* * * *
I happen to think the last one has some merit, but, um, a dried-out Flair pen? I can LOL at that now–but back then, it was not a laughing matter.
The 80′s ended with me meeting R, who caused me no angst whatsoever until well into the millennium. By the time I felt angsty about him, I had two kids and zero inclination to write poetry (though I did hit send on a few emails from hell itself).
Now, at the beginning of the 2010′s, I’m feeling too old for angSt. Or maybe just too wise to worry about Flair pens, dried-out or otherwise. Or maybe I’m kidding myself.
Hey, whatever happened to Matt Dillon, anyway?
So I went to a lovely, elegant dinner party on New Year’s Eve, as befits a woman of my age and station. But since that kooky script writer often shows up unannounced, a sitcom-esque drama ensued.
Here’s what happened: During the cheese and crackers phase of the evening, a few of us were
chatting about the movie It’s Complicated. We chuckled about a scene where Meryl Streep’s character smokes pot for the first time in 27 years and gets completely, stereotypically wasted. One of the guests at our New Year’s Eve party said maybe it would be fun to smoke pot again sometime. Eyebrows raised among the rest of us, who were no doubt thinking what a devilish, oh-so-naughty and vaguely tempting notion that was.
During dinner, we talked about how challenging it is to be parents of teenagers, to want to tell your kids to just say no, even though every one of us said yes at some point during our youthful years, with varying results, ranging from No regrets to Damn, I wasted my college education because I was stoned all the time.
Then, a few minutes after our age-appropriate midnight champagne toast, a joint landed on the dinner table, again upping eyebrows, along with the ante. Some, but not all, of the guests partook, and the banter got wittier until we noticed that one of the guests was slumped over on the woman sitting next to him. Was he just an affectionate sort, we wondered, or was something wrong?
Something was wrong, because the next thing we knew, he had slid to the floor and 911 was being dialed. Soon there was a fire truck and an ambulance outside and several EMS guys streaming through the front door.
Our passed-out friend came to, but his face was the color of mushroom soup and he was out of it. The EMS guys, who looked all of 19 years old, delivered their stock New Year’s Eve line (“Had a little too much to drink tonight, sir?”) After checking him for signs of stroke or a heart attack, they didn’t come to a conclusion as to what had happened, but it seemed clear to us that he had inhaled on that joint quite vigorously and that after two decades living a cannabis-free life, it had simply knocked him out. Fortunately, he was fine, and the scene did not devolve into an episode of ER.
Then, right after the emergency vehicles pulled away, our hosts’ teenager returned from his New Year’s Eve party! Hopefully he had no idea what the old people been up to.
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? The grown-ups trying to hide their pot-smoking from the teenager?
If you experimented with drugs when you were young and are now a parent, how do you walk the line between being honest and not?
Last weekend, my daughters and I got our Christmas tree. Pulling out the decorations had a similar effect as the one I described in my post about my country house, where the familiar backdrop forces you to acknowledge the things that have changed in the intervening months.
Two Christmases ago (my, but it still seems like yesterday sometimes), R & I knew our separation was inevitable, but he was still living with us and the kids had no idea that our cozy foursome was on un-cozy ground. Not surprisingly, it was hard for me to enjoy Christmas that year. Everything we did–getting the tree, decorating the tree, hanging up our four stockings–was laden with the awareness of it being the last time we’ll ever do this. The last time we will all four decorate the same tree and wake up on Xmas morning together. The last time for this, for that. I happen to be especially bad at last times. When we took down the tree and packed up the ornaments into their usual boxes, I wondered which ones had spent the holiday in my house for the last time.
Last Christmas was difficult for the opposite reason: It was full of firsts. The first time I bungee-corded the tree on top of the car (may she RIP), the first time only three stockings hung on our mantel, the first time the girls woke up on Xmas morning and came into a bed that was mine alone. R joined us for breakfast, which felt absurdly normal and also miserably not so. I felt incredible pressure to hold myself together, to exude a see-everything-is-OK! attitude for the girls. The minute they left with R to visit his family, I sobbed for an hour (maybe two). Then, for the first time ever, I spent Xmas day alone, reading a new book–sad, but also, secretly, guiltily enjoying the solitude just a little bit.
And here we are one whole year later already. The girls and I decided we didn’t really need to drive to get a Christmas tree, so we got one around the corner and brought it home in the shopping cart. When we discovered that the trunk was too wide for our tree stand, I cursed, but at least I didn’t feel helpless or cry. I went into Mom-saves-the-day mode, grabbed the bread knife and shaved the trunk ’til it fit.
I can’t say that everything has come up roses (one look at my checking-account balance will quickly convince you of that), but a few aspects of my life are indeed much rosier than they’ve been for a while. For one thing, the gap on our mantel where the fourth stocking used to hang is not nearly as glaring.
On Xmas day, R will again join us for breakfast and I imagine it won’t feel as awkward as it did last year or as poignant as it did the year before that. To quote an old friend, it will feel, as so much now does, like the new normal.
And I won’t be spending the rest of the day alone this year either. What a merry thought.
It’s not always easy to come up with ideas for blog posts, so when a holiday like Thanksgiving rolls around, it’s like a freebie from the blogosphere, a no-brainer. You simply write a post about being thankful, even if everyone else is doing the same thing, and even if the holiday was four days ago.
So, while this blog has chronicled the assorted forms of emotional and financial devastation for which I am decidedly not thankful, I am also genuinely grateful for many things in my life.
Here we go:
Oh, and one more thing: I’m very thankful that I got over my blog-aversion, read WordPress for Dummies, and created this blog, which I enjoy working on more than almost anything else I do all week. Mostly, I am thankful to you for reading it.