The Transcendent Familiar 8: Guilt Stricken Sobbing

There are no conclusions to draw here from the story of my divorce, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

I was in class on a sweltering June day in 1997 when Jacob’s preschool teacher noticed a blister on his chest and called to tell me that he had chicken pox. Abbie had her first blisters by evening.  Late June and early July are the hottest weeks of a New Mexico summer, and that day, the third Monday in June of the year when I was 26 years and not quite 3 months old, was a day to sit poolside, not a day for statistics lectures.

For all the heat and misery in that classroom, I was loathe to be called away. That spring, in our final effort to save our marriage (or to find our way out), Robert and I had started marriage counseling, and when the therapist looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”, the answer tumbled out of my mouth with no warning, no forethought, a total surprise. “I want to go back to college,” I said, and although I’d had no inkling that school was a thing I’d wanted even five minutes before I said it, I needed no time to consider. I registered Jacob and Abbie for daycare for the first time, filled out my financial aid forms, and picked up my education where I’d left it the year I fell pregnant with Jacob.

I remember the final weeks and months of my first marriage as if they happened in snapshots instead of real time. A bitter word here, a despairing moment there, and giving my scabbed, spotty children tepid oatmeal baths between stolen minutes of studying. I remember the last time Robert and I found each other’s hands under the covers, seeking comfort in what had been familiar. There were the moments when my fear for our kids made my heart thunder and my breath catch.

I hung on, even though I knew the thing was dead. If it had been broken and ugly from the beginning, it had, however briefly, been a marriage, but not anymore. By the fall of 1996, it hung, limp and breathless. By summer 1997, it had begun to smell, and we waited.

My motivations for waiting were complex and largely unconscious, but one reason I allowed it to linger as long as it did was for Abbie. She was very much my baby, and while she adored her dad, I feared that if he moved out while she was so young, she would never really bond with him.

I wanted out. In every moment, I wished for it to be over, but my fear for Jacob and Abbie knocked the breath out of me. While I knew the marriage was doomed, I couldn’t quite take that last step and ask Robert to leave. For a year, he waited for me to leave, and I waited for him to leave, and together, separately, we waited.

So it was that a marriage, long dead, ultimately ended on an impulse of anger on July 4, 1997.

I don’t remember before. I don’t remember waking, or making coffee, or changing Abbie’s diaper, or any of the first-of-the-morning activities. My memory begins in media res. I was wearing pink shorts. Jacob was naked. I was holding Abbie, my left arm wrapped around her, my left hand on her juicy thigh, and was I plugging in a fan to cool us all off? Perhaps, or maybe I was putting The Land Before Time tape into the VCR for Jacob. We had plans to go to my parents’ house in the afternoon to barbecue.

Robert (Had he been sleeping? Did I say something first?) screamed, “How can you expect to fix this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? How can you be married to me if you won’t have sex with me?”

“Why would I have sex with someone who hates me?” I screamed back.

“You know what? You’re right. I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I’m leaving. I don’t love you,” and he seemed to be testing the words and the sounds they made, and he picked up a pencil and a pad of paper, and he left.

That argument is Jacob’s sole memory of his parents marriage.

Robert came back an hour later and sat down on the couch. “Were you looking for an apartment?” I asked.

“Yes, as soon as I find a place, I’m out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, “but if you’re leaving, go now. Couch surf or something.”

He put a few things in his backpack and rode away on his motorcycle, and as soon as he was gone I took off my wedding ring and put it in my jewelry box. When our final decree of divorce was granted almost a year later, it was nothing but the punctuation. I got divorced on July 4, 1997, whatever the court records may say.

I had lost almost everything—dignity, integrity, hope, even my voice. What I had left, what I clung to as the ground under me rocked and shifted, was my love for Jacob and Abbie. I wanted nothing for myself (and oh, is that not the great mistake, that we can hope nothing for ourselves and everything for our children?) and all things for them. That they should feel secure, loved, and safe was the rock in front of me, and could I scale it? Could I climb that thing, with my fear and my shame weighing me down, holding me fast to the ground?

Sort of.

A little.

Not really.

Eventually, not at all.

If I am clear-eyed, if I look into the past, no matter how dark that glass may be, I see that I failed.

Which is not to say that I didn’t do the best I could. I did.

Oh, how I want to flagellate myself some more. I could stay awake for a week—a month—a year, even, and whip myself raw. I could bang my head against every wall, cut myself with every available sharp thing, starve myself until I am flesh stretched over angles of bone and eat until I am immobile, and no punishment, not even my death, would change the past.

I can stay awake as many nights as I want, hurt and punish myself in all possible ways, and I will still have married a man who hurt me, and I will have hurt him. I will still have had children with that man, and we will still have hurt those children. That happened.

I did that.

In some space of my heart, I will never lay down that burden. The weight of it belongs to me and I would be faithless, even treacherous, if I cast it aside.

There is a time for everything, as the saying is, and the two years after Robert and I broke up were a time for all things. I wept, and I laughed. I broke down, and I built up. I embraced some of the wrong men, but I eventually got around to refraining from such embraces.

Not quite two years after Robert moved out, my close friends had a baby, and watching them with their sweet, wonderful new daughter, I remembered the day we brought Jacob home from the hospital. I lay our baby in his Moses basket, swaddled tight, and Robert stood over him, rubbing his hands together. “I’m so proud, I just can’t stand it. Look at him! He’s too perfect. I’m so proud,” he said, over and over.

Someone told me once that in Italian, there is a word for a person you once loved but don’t anymore. I wish there was a word in English for such a person. My relationship with Robert was never, will never be, simple or clean or easy. We were wrong together.

But.

There was good. There was some happy. There are those two extraordinary people who would not be, had we not done our damage with each other. In that terrible, terrifying, impossible-to-reconcile juxtaposition of two realities, each true, but completely at odds with the other, I learned to live balanced atop a fence. I regret; I celebrate. I hate; I love.

For those two, for my children, those enchanting people who are flesh of my flesh, who are living their own lives and bearing their own witness to the ways their parents have succeeded and failed, for those two, I stay here, in reality. I will not hide in bitterness or fantasy. I will not blame their dad, nor will I blame myself. I claim my part; I release to Robert his, and if it lays on the ground unclaimed, so be it. I do this imperfectly, with almost no finesse or style (no points for such things, anyhow).

There are no conclusions to draw here, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Midmorning on the day after Robert moved out, I was kneeling in the hall, folding sheets and putting them away in the cabinet. The kids were there, playing and goofing, giggling at each other, and we were singing that little song about the hole in the lake, and the log in the hole, and the frog. All of a sudden, relief poured over me like water. He’s not coming back. I’m not married to him. We are not married anymore. I will sleep alone tonight.

For just one minute, maybe 2, surely no more, it was almost too wonderful to bear. I grabbed those two kids up and we three rolled together on the carpet and laughed.

 

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We’ve tried to wash our hands of all of this.
We never talk of our lacking relationships,
and how we’re guilt stricken sobbing with our
heads on the floor.

The Transcendent Familiar 7: Choking on the Ashes

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
If you haven’t read parts 1-6, that’s OK. This one stands pretty well all by itself.

Peek with me into a house and observe the family therein.

There’s the dad, young and handsome, laughing at two tiny children who are splashing and playing in the bath.

There’s the mom, also young, and she would be pretty if she didn’t look so tired and puffy, getting small jammies out of dresser drawers.

The dad lifts the older of the two children out of the bath and towels him off. The boy runs across the hall and into the bedroom where the mom is waiting. He flings his tiny body onto his bed, howling, “To infinity…and beyond!”

“Silly boy!” the mom says, and she reaches for him, pajamas at the ready, and he grabs her arms, pulling her to the bed with him.

“Read Sam, Mommy! Can we read Sam?”

“Again? Jacob, we have tons of books! Let’s read a different book, OK?”

“No,” and the little boy shakes his head firmly. “Read Sam.”

“OK,” the mom sighs, “but jammies first.”

The little girl comes in then, all pink pudge and halo of ginger hair. She climbs onto her brothers bed, imitating his shouts with her own, “Ifity! To ifity!”

They are beautiful children—healthy and exuberant and sweet. The mom puts a diaper on the little girl and helps both children with their pajamas. She reads Green Eggs and Ham while the boy sucks on two of his fingers and the girl sucks on her binky.

The mom tucks the little boy into his bed while the dad tucks the little girl into hers. They pass each other in the hall, switching rooms so that she can kiss the little girl and he can kiss the little boy.

The dad goes to the couch in the living room and turns on the television. The mom moves past him, to a desk in the den where she turns on a computer. She connects to the internet and spends an hour on UseNet, reading and responding to messages on boards about depression, marriage, politics, and parenting.

At 8:00, her husband appears in the doorway. “Hey, you wanna get it on?” he asks, and she turns to him, fear and disgust plain on her face.

“I…” she begins, but he interrupts her.

“God, you make me sick. How do you think we’ll save this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? Why the fuck would I want to touch you, anyway? Look at yourself! Look at you!”

She does. She looks down at her stained shorts and sloppy t-shirt and her face is desperate and despondent for a moment. She slumps in her chair.

“Jesus, you don’t even try,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing the people in that goddamn computer can’t see you or they’d tell you to go fuck yourself.”

“Like you’re any better,” she says, standing and moving toward him. “What the hell is that? Wanna get it on? Is that… what? Romance? Love? You haven’t said two words to me since you came home from work!”

“Whatever. I’m sick of talking to you. Why don’t you just get the fuck out? If you won’t have sex with me there’s no point. Just go away.”

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll get the kids.”

“Like hell you will! You won’t take my kids out of this house!” he shouts, and one of the children cries out. He blocks the woman’s path so that she can’t go down the hall to the bedrooms.

“I’m taking the kids!” she screams at him. “Move!”

He laughs at her, shoves her backwards into a bookshelf. She looks stunned as books and photos thump to the floor. He is nearly nose to nose with her, shouting, “Those kids are mine. I’ll tell the judge you’ve been in the nut hatch and you’ll never see them again! You could just kill yourself right now and no one would give a shit. You’re crazy! Fat and crazy! You disgust me!”

There is another cry from one of the children. The woman makes another attempt to push her way past her husband and he shoves her again. This time she lands on the floor atop the books and photos.

She sees the phone amid the clutter and grabs it, running for the back door as she dials. “Dad?” she says into the phone, stepping onto the back patio. “I need you to come over right now.”

She waits on the back patio until she hears her dad’s truck in the driveway. Walking through the house she sees her husband, still standing sentry near the opening to the hallway. “My dad is here,” she says.

He shakes his head and smirks at her a little, then sits down on the couch and turns on the TV.

When her dad comes into the house, the mom picks up the children, one in each arm, and takes them to the car. She buckles them into their seats and drives the six blocks to her parents’ house. She sings the children back to sleep then lays, listening to her babies’ breath, until dawn. She does not cry.

At breakfast, her parents ask her, “What happened?”

“Just a fight,” she says.

“You should go home after we eat,” her mom says, “before it turns into a big deal.”

“Yeah,” says her dad, “the longer you wait the more uncomfortable it will be.”

And so she does.


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What else could I write?
I don’t have the right.
What else should I be?
All apologies.

The Transcendent Familiar 6: Love Is Not a Victory March

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 6. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

During Jacob’s first year, I controlled every bite of food that I put into my body. I subsisted on vegetable soup, oatmeal, and dry salted potatoes, a diet so low in fat that eventually I became deficient in fat-soluble vitamins, and by consequence was covered in bruises. Every time I scratched an itch, bumped a table, or Jacob bit my shoulder, I would get a black-and-blue mark all out of proportion the to the injury. My doctor sent me to have something like 20 vials of blood drawn so he could test it for God-knows-what-all, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when those tests proved I didn’t have leukemia. The doctor seemed unconcerned that I was so thin I wasn’t menstruating and had to sleep 12 hours out of every 24 in order to maintain my brutal workout schedule. He prescribed a multi-vitamin and sent me home.

During that year, I also kept our house in pristine order. Everything was perfect. I washed my cloth diapers and hung them out to dry and they were so perfectly even and white out there on the line, they looked like movie star teeth. I swept the floors daily and mopped them twice a week. My dishes were clean and there were no sticky jam spills in my refrigerator. My jeans were size 4 and my breasts had all but disappeared.

Everything was perfect.

Eventually, not long after Jacob’s first birthday, I lost the thread that connected me to whatever force enabled me to do all of those things that were so unnatural for me. I ate some cookies or I watched TV instead of cleaning the bathroom, and soon it all unraveled and I was me again, laundry half done, dinner unmade, my nose in a book, and candy bar wrappers hidden at the bottom of the trash can. Robert told me I was “marshmallowing out” again and asked how a person who couldn’t cook anything more complicated than Jell-O could possibly manage to get fat.

When I lost hold of the thread, my period came back, and in April 1995, the rabbit done died again.

When I was four months pregnant, Robert got a new job and he asked me not to come visit him there, in spite of the fact that he would be working less than a mile from our house.

“Why? Don’t you think Jacob wants to see where you’re working?”

“You can come when you look more pregnant. I don’t want people thinking I have a fat wife.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how.

My weight had fluctuated widely since my late teens, but during my pregnancy with Abbie I became genuinely fat for the first time. Part of that was almost certainly due to the fact that I entered the pregnancy on the rebound from a year of near-starvation, but also, I was angry. With food to nourish my brain, I couldn’t ignore that anger, and since I couldn’t starve it away anymore, I ate it. I ate my anger with omelettes and toast, with roast beef and mashed potatoes, with ice cream and cookies. I ate and ate and ate until I had stretch marks in places I didn’t know people could get stretch marks and I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.

I was so ashamed, I almost never left the house. All my emotional and mental energy was consumed with food and weight, planning how I would find that thread and get back to being the perfect, tidy, slender person I had been a year earlier. I spent hours lost in a daze as I planned the diet I would pursue beginning the instant I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Awful as it was, it was better than feeling so violently, helplessly angry.

And then there was this:

Oh, the pink juicy wonder of my Abbie. She smelled so good, I thought I might accidentally suck her up my nose. She was round and rosy and sweet and always, unmistakably, her own person, sharp and opinionated and stubborn.

Two babies were a heavy load on a weak and shaky marriage. Soon after Abbie’s birth, the cracks in our relationship’s foundation began to grow. By the time she started to crawl, I could fit my hand in those cracks, and when she learned to walk I discovered that I could climb right into some of those cracks and take a nap.

Maybe there’s a God above
All I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Part 7

The Transcendent Familiar 5: Down Comes the Night

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 5. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies.

January 2, 1994

When Robert and I married, we moved into a house with an adorable green-and-white tiled kitchen. I rented it, hell-and-gone though it was from the part of Albuquerque in which we had always lived, because it was not an apartment, a word Robert said as if it tasted like curdled milk. It wasn’t a house, either. Not precisely. I suppose it could have been called a row house if you stretched the definition.

For Robert, what we lived in was far more important than where we lived, and where we lived was damn scary. In the three years we lived in that neighborhood (first in the row house, then in an actual house a few blocks away), we were robbed 3 times, our house was set on fire, and someone threw a large rock through a bedroom window and into the baby crib just minutes after I had gotten Jacob out of it. Once, as I pushed the stroller into the house, I heard POP POP POP and the squeal of tires. The drive-by shooting killed one boy and seriously injured another. My babies had smiled and waved at those boys when we walked past them less than 90 seconds earlier.

But all of that was in the future on the second day of 1994. The world was a haze of milk and dampishness and overzealous hormones. I knew that having a baby would be an emotional experience; that I would be exhausted, weepy, and maybe even depressed. I knew that I would love my baby. What I could not have comprehended was how deeply I would feel all of those things. I could not have imagined that falling in love with Jacob would be my first real encounter with divinity.

Over everything, there was a veil. I was me, but not quite me. More instinctual; more animal. Some kind of hormonal magic made me feel as if I was one step removed from everything and everyone except Jacob. He and I were learning to dance together, moving to primal rhythms in our slow, warm bubble.

On that Sunday evening that was the second day of 1994, Jacob was asleep in his bassinet and I was drying off after a shower. The derelict water heater provided hot water for approximately 4 minutes, or tepid water for about 6, so in the winter I finished every shower shivering since I could never manage to get the conditioner entirely rinsed out of my hair before the water ran cold. I stepped out, towel wrapped around my head, intent on dashing to the bed and huddling there under the blankets until I was warm, but Robert was standing in the bathroom door.

“Jackie called,” he said. I recognized the name of his high school girlfriend. “She was calling to talk to me about my son. I have a seven year old son.”

“You told me Jackie had a miscarriage.” I wasn’t shivering anymore. I felt like a dead tree, rooted in place but lifeless.

“I guess she lied. Jackie’s crazy.”

“What’s his name?”

Robert looked around the bathroom as if someone may have written his son’s name there somewhere. “I don’t know.”

A few days later, an envelope full of pictures arrived in our mailbox. They left me with no doubt that the child in the pictures was Robert’s son.

His name is Anthony.

And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again
I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.

May 9, 2011

I was at Robert’s apartment, chatting with Abbie while we waited for Jacob to come home so the three of us could go shopping, when I saw a picture on the wall of a girl about Abbie’s age who l I didn’t know but who was, somehow, familiar.

“Who’s that?”

Abbie shrugged. “Casey. I guess she’s my sister.”

I recoiled and caught myself. Trying not to let anything but curiosity show on my face I said, “She looks about the same age as you. Have you met her?”

“Oh, that’s an old picture. She’s 20, I think. Or maybe 21. She doesn’t want to talk to us. Dad just found out about her last summer.”

“Do you want to meet her? Are you curious?”

“Nah. I don’t care, really.”

Robert and Jacob got home. “Abbie told me that’s your daughter.” I gestured toward the photo. “She’s Amy’s, right? You always said that wasn’t your baby.” I remembered Amy, a wisp of a girl with a blond baby on her hip, from the early years of my relationship with Robert. We ran in loosely-connected social circles but none of my friends was close with Amy.

“Yeah, whatever. Amy’s crazy. Neither of them will talk to me.”

“Have you talked to Anthony lately?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but hey, do you know his last name? Maybe I can find him on Facebook.”

Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence – damn the dark, damn the light.

Part 6

Follow That Rabbit

I wrote part five of The Transcendent Familiar (No idea what I’m talking about? Here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Really, I did. As it turns out, though, what I thought was part 5 is actually part 6 (I think, though who knows? Maybe it’s part 7, or 12, or 34.).

I think that, if I was writing a book, it would go just like this, with the back-and-forthing, the rearranging, the jumping-in-and-out of memories, the expanding-and-contracting timeline. The weird/wonderful thing about blogging is that the process is on display as much as the story and you get the story as I go along, instead of after everything has been all cleaned up and neatly arranged.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about writing books. I haven’t written a book since I was ten and my friend Sarah and I wrote the definitive sourcebook on endangered species.

In any case, I wrote a story about something that happened when Jacob was a year old, but then I realized I had to tell a story about something that happened when Jacob was a newborn first. I wrote it, and I’ll post it soon, but I’m treading deep into the land of Other People’s Stories, so it seems wise to go slow and let the words settle a bit before I release them into the world.

Also, I’m fascinated by memory and can’t stop turning it over and around, playing with it and following the rabbit into all his strange little holes. Over the weekend, while I was writing stories from 1993 and 1994, I was overwhelmed with a desire to listen to Fleetwood Mac, like a food craving. I dug through stacks and stacks of CDs (Almost all Brian’s; he is possessed by a need to own every sound ever recorded by The Grateful Dead or any portion thereof.) until I found a “best of” Fleetwood Mac album and loaded it onto my computer.

I haven’t listened to Fleetwood Mac beyond the occasional song that’s come on the car radio in over a decade, but in the early 1990s, they were a musical staple. The memories of that time rang a Fleetwood Mac chime in my brain and I was compelled to respond. Thankfully, Little Lies is as awesome as ever.

In other news, we’re moving! Not just moving, but moving into the The Ugliest House in Albuquerque.

I’ll forgive you for assuming that I’m speaking hyperbolically because I so often do, but this time? Not a chance. Now, I haven’t seen all the houses in Albuquerque, so I can’t be positive that ours is the absolutely, positively, for sure ugliest, but it’s easily the ugliest one I’ve ever seen so we’re going with The Ugliest House in Albuquerque as the title of the new estate.

Behold, the kitchen:

Did I tell you? Oh, and before you ask me WHY in the world we would want such an ugly house, it’s because the location and the floor plan are perfect. What are orange countertops compared to having all the walls in the right places?

Oh, my friends, we are going to have some fun. You know how Brian and I are somewhat directionally challenged? You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen us get our DIY on. The Ugliest House in Albuquerque has no idea what’s coming.