My son, Eli, is a second grader. He has big front teeth that don’t fit his face and tawny hair cut straight across his forehead. A toothy smile, and hair that flips into funny shapes from being slept on at night. He refuses to comb it when he wakes up — he’s too busy watching a Spongebob movie or absorbed in some book called Monsters. In the morning he keeps this book in front of his eyes no matter what he is doing — walking down stairs by feeling each step carefully with his foot; stepping into his underpants; eating toast.
In second grade this year, Eli’s class is learning about probability. Posted on the wall outside his classroom are sheets with three columns: Possible, Probable, Impossible. Under “Possible,” Eli has written, “I will wake up.” Always the optimist, under “Probable” he has written, “I will get candy.” Under “Impossible,” he has written “I could live without my head.” Beneath each column he’s drawn pictures. For the first, a stick figure in bed; for the second, a candy cane. The third shows a stick figure with a head floating beside it. In the picture, the head is smiling.
After parent-teacher night, Eli brought the sheets home and I posted the “impossible” column on the refrigerator. I like to look at it — that smiling head, and the resilience it seems to promise — because, lately, I’ve been thinking about getting divorced.
I was in college when I met Bram, who is now my husband. I was a shy, uptight WASP, glued to the nineteenth century novels I read for my literature classes. Bram was a funny, expansive Jew. While I cringed against the walls at parties, Bram, at twenty-one, was already one of those people who could talk to anyone and find some connection. Stick-thin from an inherited illness, he sported a hip haircut, and was free with his caustic opinions and overconfidence. It was the contradictions — the wasting disease, the hubris — that fascinated me. In spite of them — or maybe because of them — Bram seemed to do well in the world. I wanted to be close to him. I wanted to know how he pulled it off.
Too, there was the excitement of seduction. In the beginning, arguments were a form of foreplay between us. We both studied literature and Bram pooh-poohed my interest in the Victorians, while I scoffed at the Moderns. Fascinated with our own sophistication, we argued over the subtleties of Henry James, the feminism of Angela Carter. Our fights generally ended the same way — Bram would corner me against a wall and jam his hips into mine.
“What I say goes, y’know,” he’d say in a growly whisper.
I’d thrust my hips back. “Oh yeah?”
I protested at times, but we both knew I reveled in his need for me, the urgency of it, the way he kept coming back. When Bram leaned in to me like that, I didn’t know if it was love — I didn’t know if I knew what love was — but I felt his need. My parents divorced when I was fifteen, after eighteen years of seemingly happy marriage. My father’s announcement was a shock to all of us, my mother most of all. By my mid twenties, I had internalized a frightening truth: love can end, just like that, unexpectedly. There are no guarantees. Bram’s need for me felt like something I could count on. My body seemed like a physical assurance that I would not be left.
It took only a few years for us to stop fighting over literature and start fighting over more essential things — what was wrong with the other; what misconceptions the other one had; whose personality was defective; what was the right way to live. Back then, we were stupid enough to think that you could win a fight like that. We slung insults recklessly. Hurting each other was a necessary evil in the service of getting to the Truth. Everyone who knew us was used to our drama: the slammed doors and sarcastic comments; the way we’d arrive separately for a date we’d made together with a mutual friend, then refuse to speak to each other, having argued on the way there.
Three decades is a long time to argue, and everything has its tipping point. Mine came during our last session of couples counseling. Somehow, between the crying and the yelling and the accusations, I realized that there was no point to this. I was never going to get the love I wanted from him. We were never going to see things the same way.
So now there’s silence. Not so much truce as dÃ©tente, a recognition that we’re stuck. We keep to silence because we know it’s better for Eli than out and out fighting. Beneath it, though, there’s a live current of tension, a downed power line running through the center of the house, which we all must step around. Everything is tinged with its presence. The onions I cut up for the stew; discussions about Eli’s guitar lessons. The self-control is honorable, I guess. But it’s no use pretending Eli doesn’t feel it.
“No fighting now,” says Eli in a high voice as he stands over the cats, who are tussling over their breakfast. “I want you to be a happy family,” he says. I ask myself what’s worse for him — the atmosphere of despair and anger that accompanies an unhappy marriage or the loss and loneliness divorce would bring.
It doesn’t seem like much of a choice.
My father left in 1976, the summer of the Bicentennial. He packed his things into his van and drove away from the house. After that, the changes and losses never stopped coming, but my parents never asked my brother and I how we felt about them, or gave us a choice. We had been the center of their lives. My mother took me on Girl Scout camping trips; my father read to us from the classics. After the divorce, my brother and I were leftovers; reminders of a failed relationship. In oblique and then overt ways, we tried to get our parents to listen to us, to recognize the ways that their actions were hurting us. In the end, though, that seemed too much for them to do.
At the corner where we wait for the school bus, Eli’s hair is even bumpier than usual. He spins, swinging his school backpack in an arc beside him.
“Am I a blur?” he asks me.
“No,” I tell him. He spins faster.
“How about now?”
“Wow,” he says. “It’s so hard to be a blur!”
Watching him, I think about the distance between children and parents, the parallel but separate lives we lead. How hard it is, sometimes, to bridge the gap.
Eli’s bedtime is when we’re at our best, most like a family. Bram wrestles with Eli and gives him horsey rides. “Again, again,” Eli demands. The giggles squeeze out of him, escalate. At the end he’s laughing from a spot buried deep within.
After that, it’s Mommy time: we lie in bed together reading a book, then turn the light off and talk. Tonight, it’s a question. “Mama, is anything possible?”
I lie on my back and think about it. Possible column: Bram and I will have a good divorce, the low-conflict kind. Probable: If we do divorce, even amicably, Eli will feel a huge loss. Impossible: Eli will suffer the pain and heartbreak I went through.
The worst casualty of my parents’ divorce was love — the loss of it. Not just the way they abandoned us, but how, seized by hatred for each other, they fought it out through us. During our college years the fight over who would pay for what culminated in a confrontation at their lawyer’s office. With both parents present, my brother was pulled in to the room and asked which one he wanted to live with. Here are the two people you love most. Now choose between them.
I look at Eli, in bed beside me, already grinning, ready for mischief. He rears up and crouches on me, sticks his hand under my armpit. “Tickle, tickle,” he says. Happiness is fragile. He doesn’t even know that yet. Right now his life is enclosed in mine. I need to be careful. Don’t move too fast.
He gives up and lies down again.
“Well Mommy,” he says. “What do you think? About my question.”
Is anything possible?
“Honey, I don’t know. Really. I don’t know.” He glares at me.
“But what do you think?”
I look at his feathery eyebrows and dark, shining eyes. I bury my nose in his hair and inhale the smell of his sweat. His very life force is exhausting; I want to get away from it. At the same time, I want it never to end.
“Sleep,” I say firmly. “Now.”
I get up, turn the light off. I allow myself one last stroke of his cheek, and then, his question still echoing in me, I leave the room and close the door behind me.
I save my answer for another day.