Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages
In March 2007, after a lifetime in southern California, I move to Boston to live with Kate, a twenty-four-year-old singer–songwriter and college student. I step out of the taxi onto the icy street and fall on my ass. Welcome to Boston. Only my dignity is injured.
I’m not in a mid-life crisis. I’m too old—sixty-six. Anyway, it doesn’t feel like a crisis. Something strong pulls me to Boston, and for the first time in my life I pay attention to such things. I need to get away from the life I have lived. I want to be alone, but I need the comfort of a friend nearby, like a cat I once had, who wanted my presence, but not too close.
Kate fits my needs almost perfectly. She ignores me most of the time. Occasionally, that hurts my feelings, but usually I‘m grateful. I feel her comforting presence, even when we’re apart. Her dirty laundry on the bathroom floor and unwashed dishes in the sink—I would have bitched at my wives—strangely add to my comfort.
Since, among other things, Kate is so much younger than I, there is no complicating romance. I’m writing short fiction, and Kate becomes my writing teacher. She recommends books written by Natalie Goldberg, a well-known writing teacher. I read them and more than a dozen others on writing, and attend two of Natalie Goldberg’s workshops in late 2007.
Writing becomes the focus of my new life. I decide to write about my three marriages. The need roars inside me, though I don’t yet know why. Kate and I discuss potential structures of a memoir, and I write an outline of incidents. I start the first draft.
In April 2008 I visit my daughter, Lisa, in Ventura, California. I sit at her kitchen counter and down the last of a Hendricks Gin martini. On the opposite beige granite counter, Lisa ar- ranges fish sticks in pale blue plastic bowls for her children’s dinner. The shrimp for the adults’ dinner thaws in a colander in the sink next to her. Emily, four, draws at her table in the fam- ily room to my right—“Pooh Bear,” she says. Ryan, eighteen months, looking like a baby from a magazine ad, hair the color of straw, sits in his high chair behind me demanding his dinner. I want another martini, but I should be ready to lend a hand with my grandkids if Lisa needs me, and I’m sure she will.
Lisa brings their dinners to the table, tells Emily that hers is ready, then goes back to the sink to check the shrimp. I get up and sit at the table. I shovel strained peas into Ryan’s mouth. He still likes the mushy stuff. I try to keep it off his face, but as I scrape it off his chin, he lets more dribble down and smiles.
“Thanks for feeding Ryan, Dad,” Lisa says. “As the family’s Director of Domestic Operations, I still can only do one thing at a time.”
“Glad to help,” I say.
A half hour later the children’s dinners rest in their bellies. Lisa quietly calms a screaming Emily, who objects to her broth- er playing with one of the cars to her train. I grab a Thomas book from the floor, pick up Ryan and take him to the couch. He sits quietly while I read to him.
The hum of the garage door opening announces the ar- rival of Lisa’s husband, David. Lisa leaves Emily tranquil and grabs wipes to clean Ryan’s high chair. David comes through the door. He hugs and kisses Lisa, the messy wipes clutched in her right hand.
I make another martini, while Lisa turns to the adults’ dinner, tearing Romaine lettuce leaves.
“We’re having shrimp with linguini and green salad,” she says.
“Sounds great,” says David. I nod in agreement.
David plays train on the floor with Emily and Ryan. With Dad in charge, their anger toward each other of moments ago disappears. Emily pulls her fingers down through her blond bangs to straighten them, as I’ve seen her mom do to her bangs all her life. Ryan crashes his train into the couch and laughs as the cars topple over.
“Ryan,” says David, “it’s almost your bedtime—three minutes. Lisa would you set the timer, please?”
“Okay,” says Lisa.
David turns to Emily. “When Ryan goes to bed, would you like me to tell you a story about a bride?”
“Yes,” shouts Emily, bounding up and, like a referee sig- naling a touchdown, throws both arms in the air.
David smiles and looks up at Lisa. “How can I help?” “You can put Ryan to bed,” she says.
“Okay, glad to.”
When the timer dings, David picks up Ryan, who waves ‘bye, his entire face grinning. After dinner David and I clear the table, and he begins washing dishes. “Thanks, David,” says Lisa, giving him a pat on the shoulder.
“You’re very welcome,” he says, smiling. “I’ll bathe Emily,” says Lisa. When David finishes the dishes, he says to me, “After I tell Emily a story I have to do some work up in the office, so I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay,” I say.
These moments are precious, but bittersweet, I think. When I had a chance to be a father and husband, to be in a family, I didn’t have it in me. Three tries, all ending in turmoil, resentment and divorce—a three-time loser.
Lisa’s lucky to have a home and family like this. I didn’t get to raise any of my children to adulthood. Lisa has a beautiful home, two great kids and, luckily, a wonderful husband who adores her.
It isn’t luck though, is it? Through martini haze and dinner wine, remembrances rock me like a California earthquake. I worked long hours too, but I stayed at the office. When I came home, I poured a drink and sat in my recliner. I didn’t play with the kids or put them to bed. I didn’t help with the meals or wash the dishes. I usually had another drink. The most I did was read a bedtime story, if I was home in time. Often I went drinking with co-workers. Maybe if I’d put as much into my family as David does, I could have had the family I wanted. I could have helped raise my kids and grown old with a loving partner. My chest freezes. My eyes tear. I lose awareness of where I am.
“Are you all right, Dad?” Lisa had come back in. I’d been staring through her.
“Yeah. I’m okay.”
“Emily’s ready for Goodnight Moon.”
I struggle upstairs and read to her. When I kiss her good night, she looks up at me. God, she looks just like Lisa at that age.
“Thanks, Pa B. I love you,” she says.
“I love you too,” I say, and turn my head so she doesn’t see my tears. When Lisa was her age, I saw her only every other weekend. But what could I do? Her mother left me. Christie was crazy.
Back downstairs, I have another glass of wine and stop thinking about my marriages.
A week later I fly home to Boston. Not long after, on the first spring like day, I lounge on a bench, gazing at the cold blue of the Charles River. Hulls glide silently through the wa- ter, bodies perched inside rowing in perfect sync, like graceful robots. The M.I.T. buildings across the way reflect the pale yellow sun, as if it is trying to penetrate my mind.
My cell phone rings. It’s my third wife, Susan. After we catch up, she tells me she’s disappointed that I moved to Boston. She thinks we should have gotten back together— given it another try. Why, after twelve years apart? I think, but don’t say.
We’ve both changed since our divorce, she says. I don’t say no. I mumble something about enjoying life in Boston and change the subject. After we hang up, as I’m sitting on the bench by the bucolic Charles River, I feel a knot in my belly. Would living with Susan be any better now? Whose fault was our divorce? Both of us, I suppose. I have never tried to under- stand how I participated in the destruction of our thirteen-year marriage. When we separated she said that I had withheld my affection for years, that I had emotionally withdrawn from her. What did she mean? Those thoughts enter my mind but float out into the ether without any deeper thought.
Questions of why all three marriages failed the “‘til death do us part” test have lingered under the pillow of my mind for years, sneaking out every now and then, but I always shoved them back. I never let them out long enough to gain much insight, just a passing acknowledgement that I must have contributed.
Could I have done something to prevent my divorce from Stephanie, my second wife? I sat on this same bench more than a year ago pondering that question. I had been talking to Kate when Stephanie called. Kate left the room. I hadn’t heard from Stephanie in a long time, but she got right to the point.
“I haven’t had a job for three months,” she said, “and I can’t pay my rent or my car payments. I’ll be out on the street. Could you please loan me the money? I’ll pay you back when I get a job. Please. You’re the only one I can turn to.”
I hesitated for a moment, thinking about how she had nev- er paid me back when I loaned her money before. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not willing to do that.” She said she understood and hung up. My muscles were tense, but I was energized, a little pride resting on the guilt that settled in my belly. I did the right thing, I told myself.
When Kate came back, I told her what I had done. “It was really hard for me to say no,” I said, “and I don’t understand why. I don’t owe her anything.”
“Well, Boyd,” she said, “I think Stephanie was the love of your life.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said.
Later, I walked and found the bench. Was Stephanie really the love of my life? How could that be? She was a hopeless alcoholic and drug addict. There was nothing I could have done.
I can’t penetrate. Each time I think about my marriages I scrape a little dirt from the surface where the truth is buried. Instead of continuing to dig, I stash the shovel.
In Spring and Summer 2008 I am consumed with writing the memoir. By the end of August I finish a rough draft, nearly three hundred pages.
On August 31st, I move across the river to Cambridge. Kate moves to the Cambridge Zen Center to study meditation. The next morning Kate comes over and reads my rough draft on the computer. I have not yet read it all the way through. I sit on the couch reading a novel. In a few hours Kate turns away from the computer screen toward me.
“It doesn’t work,” she says, shaking her head. “My advice to you is to throw it out. Don’t look at it again and start over. I’m sorry, but you can do better.”
I feel devastated. “Can you be more specific?”
“You tried marriage three times and failed. What insights do you have about your role in the failure of those marriages?” She asks.
I hesitate. “I’m not sure.”
She wrinkles her brows and looks straight at me. “Twelve years since your last divorce, and you have no insight into what your role was?”
Humiliation rises up through my throat and heats my face. I don’t know what to say. “I guess not,” I reply.
“That’s astonishing,” she says. “I always thought you were courageous when you told me you were willing to marry again. Apparently, you’re willing to subject yet another woman—and yourself—to the same old suffering.”
I can’t speak. My throat and chest tighten. I swallow. Tears flood my eyes, the way men cry, not like women, who sob freely when they’re in pain.
“If you are going to write about the destruction of your marriages, you’ll have to understand your role,” she says. “That has to be in the memoir.”
After Kate leaves I go over to the computer and read the draft. She’s right. It’s terrible. It’s not me. It’s boring.
I walk toward The Plough and Stars, a bar down the street from my apartment. I have always handled my life’s traumas by cloistering myself for a few days, looking at what’s ahead and moving on, pushing the trauma down to the bottom of a hole somewhere and burying it, never to be uncovered. Isn’t that what self-help gurus tell you to do—move on? The problem is that if all you do is move on, you don’t learn anything.
I could just avoid marriage. Then I won’t have to go through a painful introspection, I think, as by rote I press the button on the pole to light the walk sign at Mass Ave and Hancock Street.
Is there something about the way I related to my wives that could be important? Will I ever find peace if I don’t under- stand how I acted during most of my adult life—twenty-seven years? Kate is right. If I’m writing about my marriages, I have to understand my role in their failure. When I wrote that first draft, I didn’t do what I’d learned from Natalie Goldberg. I can hear her now, “Dig deep. Write what scares you, not what monkey mind says you should write.” I realize now I didn’t dig down to the gold that I know is deep within my mind. I didn’t get to the bottom of it, nowhere near.
I decide to start thinking about my first marriage. That will be the easiest. Still, like a child standing on the edge of a high-dive board, shivering, afraid to jump, I am held back by fear. I sip my third martini before I can begin.
My stomach churns as I think, through the alcohol, back to when Christie, my “crazy first wife,” was committed to a mental institution. Eventually, she was diagnosed as bipolar and cured with medication. I have always believed that she left me because she was insane, that her hospitalization con- firmed that.
I get out my notebook and pen. It occurs to me: she wasn’t committed until three years after our divorce. Did she have any bipolar symptoms when we were married? There’s an interesting question.
I don’t remember her ever acting depressed. She worried a lot about her work, but that was normal for some- body who had never had a full-time job before. She was never manic. On the contrary, she seemed calm. I feel dryness in my throat, from the gin, I assume, and ask the bartender for a glass of water. I knew Christie was odd after our first date, but I don’t believe she was mentally ill, then or during our marriage. I take a long drink of water. I’ve been deluding myself all these years. I need to take a closer look. I’ll start at the beginning.
She was called Christine when we had our first date. Several years after we married, she told me she wanted to be called Christie, but I kept calling her Christine. I wasn’t consciously trying to irritate or demean her, but I didn’t call her the name she wanted to be called, a telling lack of consideration for her. Maybe she should have called me “Bud.”
Our first date was blind, a sorority party early in October of my senior year at the University of Southern California. I had a full tuition scholarship for debate. My friend on the debate team, Sharon, had arranged the date. I’d never been to a sorority party or had a blind date.
On the afternoon of the party, I had second thoughts. What if she was ugly or obnoxious? What if I wasn’t sorority girl dating material? I had always been shy, but since puberty I had been especially shy around girls and felt that I wasn’t attractive to them. I never dated much.
I decided to walk the four blocks to the sorority house. It was cool out, but I sweated through my deodorant. As I walked down 28th Street, I breathed deeply, trying to relax, but it didn’t help. I was so nervous I didn’t notice the row of soror- ity houses. I had clenched my fists so tight that my wrists hurt. I worried about not having anything in common with a sorority girl. I wasn’t ugly—average looking, I guessed—awfully skinny though. As long as I could think of things to say to her, I’d be okay, I thought. I had to date. I was marrying age, and I’d never get married if I didn’t date.
Just as I prepared for a debate, I thought it was best to prepare for a date. I had planned topics to break the ice- -what she thought of Redlands, where Sharon said Christie had gone to college the first two years; the national collegiate debate topic; what she thought of President Kennedy; where she grew up; questions about her family, such as whether she had siblings and what her father did. As I walked, I went over these topics in my mind, until I realized I had passed the so- rority house. I turned around and walked back. Like many of the others, it was one of those old wooden three-story former mansions displaying the sorority’s Greek letters, well kept, with a broad front lawn.
My knees trembled as I stood at the big oak door, hesi- tated a moment, then knocked. A girl let me in and asked whom I was there to see. “Christine,” I said. “I’m Boyd.” She told me her name, which I didn’t hear, and said she would get Christine, then bounded up the stairs. Sharon and a girl I assumed was Christine emerged on the semicircular stairway. Christie stumbled on the bottom stair, but recovered all except her dignity. Her face was still flushed as Sharon introduced us. Christie’s hair was brown, medium short, curled at the ends. It sloped down from the middle of her forehead and covered her ears. She had light olive skin. Her face was oblong. Not bad, I thought, a little skinny, but so was I. Sharon led us to the punch bowl. She chatted a little about plans for future sorority events, while I poured punch for Christie and me. Then, the moment I feared–Sharon left.
In less than a minute, Christie and I exchanged the information college students who just met invariably asked about, alternating questions and answers like a script. What year are you in? She was a junior. I was a senior. Where are you from? La Cañada. Alhambra. What’s your major? Dental hygiene. Double major—poli sci and speech.
“What’s poli sci?” she asked.
Is she kidding? I wondered. I better assume not. “Political science,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry I’m so dense,” she said with a weak smile, her shoulders hunched.
After some awkward conversation about the sorority and the university, Christie chattered on about her family. At least it kept me from having to create conversation, I thought. I relaxed a little. Her father was an architect. She had a ten- year-old sister.
“I’ve always wanted a little sister,” I said, “but I’m an only child.”
She said her family lived in La Cañada. I had never been to La Cañada, but I’d heard it was a wealthy community in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. I imagined the mansion they lived in—three stories, a dozen bedrooms and bathrooms.
I didn’t tell Christie what my father did. He was a blue- collar worker. He wore a blue shirt with his tie. He even wore a blue shirt and tie at home. He was proud of rising from his parents’ poverty to the middle class. One summer when he painted the house, he wore slacks and a blue shirt with his maroon tie neatly tied and tucked into his shirt between buttons to keep it out of the paint.
I told Christie I had been raised in Alhambra. She said she knew where Alhambra was. It was on the wrong side of the tracks for dating an architect’s daughter. The houses in my neighborhood were small, with the neat, clean look of middle-class America. I was proud to have a date with a professional’s daughter. Beneath the pride I felt inferior, but as Christie’s awkwardness and self-consciousness surfaced, I gained confidence.
I’d better say something, I thought. I launched into the top- ics I had planned. After a while, she stifled a yawn. My shaky confidence fell.
Somebody turned up the stereo. People were dancing. A slow song played and I asked Christie to dance. We shuffled stiffly around one corner of the room, careful not to step on each other. Thank God she didn’t dance much better than I did. After a while, relief, even warmth broke through my nervousness. It felt good to hold her. She smelled faintly of hairspray and flowery perfume. I pulled her a little closer, but not so close that our bodies touched. She said she didn’t like dancing to fast songs. Neither did I. I felt like a klutz trying to dance fast.
After a few people left, I told her I had to get up early to work on my arguments for the debate team, which was true. I had to do well in debate to keep my scholarship. She walked me to the door. “Thanks for coming,” she said, as I opened the door.
“Thanks for inviting me,” I said. I thought I’d like to see her again. At least she was a girl, and we were on a date. I’m twenty-one; it’s time I had a girlfriend, I thought. I wondered if she would go out with me again. I asked for her phone number, and she gave it to me.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call you.” We stood in the doorway staring at each other long enough to make it awkward, until I finally reached for her, said, “Good night,” and kissed her, a peck on the lips.
I walked home thinking the evening had gone well. I was actually coming home from a date. I felt loose and a bit smug. I was glad Christie was shy and lacked self-confidence. Outgoing, confident girls scared me.
I checked in at Barnaby’s the day after Thanksgiving. If I had been serious about leaving Stephanie, I would have looked for an apartment that weekend. She called me at the office Monday.
“Please move to the new house with us, Boyd. Everything will be different there. I promise. The children need you. I need you. We’ll be a family again, and we’ll get our sex life back on track.” She knew what would get me back.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Anita is moving to Washington with Dan and the baby,” she said. That’s why she needs me, I thought.
I really wanted to move back. I was lonely. I couldn’t face failure again. I didn’t want to live apart from my children. What would I do with Lisa? I couldn’t leave her with Stephanie. We would have to sell the new house right away if I didn’t move in. I couldn’t afford two places. We would lose all the money we put into it. There were a lot of reasons I thought of. I believed what I wanted to believe—that Stephanie would come to her senses. I moved into the new house. If I had understood my motivation better, I might have realized that it probably was Stephanie’s promise of sex that I really couldn’t resist. Without realizing it, I was desperate to allay my sexual insecurity.
The first night at the new house, with boxes all around us, Stephanie made good on her promise of sex. We had good sex several times that week. My spirits rose. The house was as peaceful as it could be with three children. No parties. No cocaine, as far as I knew, and a moderate amount of alcohol. Stephanie cooked dinner for the family every night.
A week before Christmas I came home from work to Pat, Bonnie, Jennifer and her boyfriend, Rich—she and John had divorced—and a girl I didn’t know playing gin on the family room floor. A mirror with lines of coke sat beside Pat. “Merry Christmas,” somebody said. Oh, god, no, I thought. I walked into the bedroom. There was no door between the master bedroom and bathroom where the Jacuzzi hummed. Stephanie was in the Jacuzzi with a glass of cognac.
“Where are the kids?” I asked.
“Jeff and Jennifer are at Mrs. Backer’s. Lisa’s sleeping over with a girlfriend,” she said. “Come on in.”
Well, I suppose I shouldn’t deny her a party once in a while, I thought. It is Christmas season. I undressed and joined her. I could feel my muscles relax from the warmth of the churning water. “It feels really good,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, “This is the best feature of the house. Her breasts floated on top of the water. I imagined the rest of her body below and got hard. I moved toward her and massaged her breasts.
“I’m too warm,” she said. “I’m getting out.”
I got out too, pulled on my shorts, and went out to the family room. Richard asked if I wanted to take his place in the gin game. I did a couple of lines of coke, sat down, and picked up my hand, a good one, mostly hearts. Richard stood and watched. Stephanie did a couple of lines, her breasts spilling from her robe as she bent over. I also caught a glimpse of her ass under the short robe. So did Richard, I thought. Oh, well. In a few minutes Stephanie got up and went into the bedroom. I didn’t notice Richard leave. I played my winning hand, and then another.
“Hold on just a minute. I have to pee,” I said. I hurried through the bedroom door and into the bathroom to the toilet. As I peed, I looked over toward the tub. I had to stare a few seconds to realize what was happening. Richard was sitting on the edge of the Jacuzzi, naked, his feet in the water. Stephanie was in the water, kneeling between his legs, sucking his cock. Neither noticed me. I stood speechless for a moment, as I finished peeing.
“What is going on?” I finally said, as if I didn’t know; rage, but no other words popped into my mind. They broke apart, but said nothing. Richard pulled on his pants, grabbed his shirt and, with head down, left with a faint, “Sorry.”
Stephanie said nothing for a moment. She looked down at the water. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. He came in and grabbed my head and shoved his cock in.”
“Oh, bullshit, Stephanie. From what I saw, you weren’t resisting in the slightest.” If I hadn’t come in, they would have been fucking by now, I thought.
I felt about to burst from the pressure of anger and hate, as I walked downstairs and out the door, turning right at the sidewalk, going nowhere. I have to leave her, I thought. I walked around the block. My anger turned to sorrow. When I went back in and up the stairs, everyone had left, and Stephanie was sitting up in bed, sipping on a drink.
I pulled my large suitcase down from the closet shelf and began packing. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“What does it look like?”
“I’m sorry, Boyd. I really didn’t mean to. I was drunk.”
“I can’t accept that, Stephanie. I don’t do anything like that when I’m drunk.”
She looked away. I checked back in at Barnaby’s. The vision of Stephanie and Richard stayed with me. But when she called a few days later and asked me to come over, I went. She initiated sex, then told me she was going to have surgery for possible cervical cancer. I agreed to stay until she recovered. The parties and her abuse of drugs and alcohol continued, and so did sex until her surgery. She knew what she had to do to keep me there; she knew that she was a sex object for me. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I thought I loved her, but I avoided spending time with her. I didn’t consider her needs. I didn’t want a relationship. I just wanted sex from her and the comfort of thinking I had a family, nothing much more.
After writing about Stephanie as a sex object, I realize that until recently I always looked upon women I met as sex objects. When I saw a woman, her physical appearance was all I considered at first. Looking back, I avoided women that were not physically attractive to me, when it was practical. It has only been since I became close to Kate and to Howard’s daughter, Carla, in non-romantic relationships that I have been able to look at them and other women as whole human beings. I believe that they, unknowingly, changed my view of women. Both were uninterested in sex with me, but we connected platonically. I got to know them well and appreciate their strengths, intelligence and humanity. We became like family to each other. Of course, they are sexual beings, as we all are in part, but I did not look at them in that way. I was finally able to accept women as whole human beings.
Three months after Stephanie’s surgery, I was still with her. I finally drove around Manhattan Beach looking for signs for apartments for rent. I found a dinghy one-bedroom. I couldn’t live there. Our nice houses had spoiled me. I felt overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t want to leave my family. I sat in my car and cried. I drove to a bar near where Christie and I had lived in Granada Hills. I drank four rusty nails, my first since Christie had gotten sick in Colorado. I fell asleep in the car. It was dark when I woke up—eight o’clock when I got home. I walked into the kitchen. Stephanie was washing dishes.
“Hi, where’ve you been?” she asked.
“Oh, just driving around,” I said. “I’m depressed. I don’t want to leave. I’ll see how it goes.”
“Okay,” was all she said.
A week or so later, after work, my secretary, Dora, and I went down to the Greek restaurant on the first floor for a drink. “Order a glass of wine for me, please, something sweet,” she said. “I don’t drink much.” What a relief that would be, I thought.
She took her glasses off, and we looked at each other for a moment and smiled. She had blue eyes and medium blond hair with natural loose curls and that creamy pale skin that blonds have.
When we finished our wine, I walked her to her car. “Thanks for the wine,” she said. “I know you’re going through tough times. If you need to talk, you know how to find me.”
I smiled and moved closer. “Thanks,” I said. I put my hand on her shoulder and kissed her. She kissed me back, and I pushed my tongue into her mouth.
She didn’t resist, but when we ended the kiss, she said, “That was nice, but if we’re going to do that any more, you’ll have to leave Stephanie. I don’t fool around with married men.”
“I understand,” I said.
I guess she really likes me, I thought, as I waived to her. She’s a really nice girl. She doesn’t drink much. She’s quiet and conservative. It would be peaceful with her as a girlfriend, and I wouldn’t be alone.
I went home early that Friday to pack for Stephanie’s tenyear high school reunion in Pasadena. I wondered if she’d take cocaine to the reunion. She was in the bedroom packing.
I started to pack. “Oh, Boyd. I’m afraid you can’t go to the reunion. I’m sorry. I couldn’t get a babysitter.” “What about Mrs. Backer?”
“She can’t. She has some family obligation this weekend. And Amy is out of town. I couldn’t find anyone. Doug is going with me as my date. You don’t mind, do you?”
“I suppose not,” I said. Doug was African-American, and Stephanie had told me she was not attracted to AfricanAmerican men. But I knew her not being able to get a babysitter was a ruse. She could always get a babysitter, and she had known about the reunion for months. She just didn’t want me around. She probably wants to fuck somebody. Visions of the men she’d been with filled my head.
An hour later, she carried her suitcase out the door and set it down. “See you Sunday,” she said. “It should be around mid-afternoon. There’s a brunch Sunday at the hotel.”
“Okay,” I said. “See ya Sunday.” I went up to her expecting a kiss or a hug, but she turned around, grabbed her suitcase and headed for the garage.
That Sunday was Father’s Day. I had a hangover: dry mouth, churning stomach and pounding head. I wondered how many guys Stephanie had slept with the night before. I took two Tylenol and went to make coffee. The kids’ cereal bowls and puddles of milk were on the kitchen table. I heard their voices outside. I gulped down a large glass of orange juice and started the coffee maker. I sat down heavily in front of the only clean place on the table. I really should leave Stephanie, I thought. This is no way to live.
After I had two pieces of toast, my stomach felt a little better, and the Tylenol quelled my headache. I still had that wrung-out hangover feeling.Will I ever stop drinking so much? I wondered.
About eleven o’clock Jennifer Weil called and invited the kids to go with her and her son, Ezra, to the carnival at Old Town Mall. I really didn’t want to owe her any favors, but I said yes. Having them out of my hair would be a relief. I drove the kids to Jennifer’s house and went back to bed. I woke up in an hour feeling worse. At about two I heard Stephanie’s car in the driveway. She strolled in, Doug behind, carrying her suitcase. Her eyes were bloodshot and her nose red. She patted it with a tissue. Slimy white stuff clung to the corners of her mouth.
“Looks like you had a rough night,” I said.
“Yeah, it was pretty wild. I don’t remember much.”
I followed them upstairs. Doug took a bottle of coke out of his pocket and handed it to Stephanie. “This is yours,” he said.
“Have some,” she said.
He took a snort in each nostril, as did she. She offered me some. I declined. Doug left.
“Where are the kids?” asked Stephanie.
“Jennifer took them and Ezra to the carnival at Old Town,” I said.
“That’s nice,” she said.
“So, tell me about the reunion,” I said.
“Oh, it was fun seeing all those people. I got to dance a lot. The food wasn’t very good. I have some pictures. I’ll get them.”
She went into the bedroom and returned with some Polaroid pictures. I glanced at the first two. The third picture I stared at. It showed Stephanie and Chris, one of the guys she’d slept with when we were separated, with their arms around each other. Stephanie’s eyes were glazed over, her drunk look. In the background was an unmade bed.
“So, you were with Chris, I see—in a hotel room.”
“Well, yeah, he was there. We didn’t do anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“That you can remember?”
I threw the photos on the floor and walked out. Then I turned around and came right back in. Stephanie was changing into her nightgown.
“I’ve had enough, Stephanie. I’m leaving you, and this time I won’t come back.”
“Do what you have to do,” she said. She turned away.
As I write about leaving Stephanie, I think about how phony my gesture was. I didn’t leave because of the photo. I didn’t suddenly summon the courage. I was finally able to leave because I thought I wouldn’t be alone. Dora was waiting in the wings.
I went to the closet and for the last time pulled down the large suitcase. Stephanie walked out of the room without looking at me or saying anything. I heard the kids laughing and shouting downstairs. Jennifer must have brought them back. I focused on packing. When I had packed everything I needed I closed the suitcase, picked it up and walked slowly down the stairs. I grabbed my briefcase from the kitchen floor and walked out to the garage. The kids were playing in the back yard. Stephanie didn’t come out. When I dropped the suitcase into the trunk of my car I had a sense I was doing something momentous that would change the rest of my life. I knew at a deep level I had finally made a decision that would improve— no, save—my life. It felt uplifting. The pressure cooker that had been my body all this time felt like it was expelling the steam.
As I drove down Manhattan Avenue, I passed Becker’s Bakery, where we always bought the kids’ birthday cakes. I turned up Manhattan Beach Boulevard past Highland Avenue, where we lived before we bought our first house, past the Safeway, where we had shopped for nine years. I turned left on Ardmore, by the walking path next to the abandoned railroad tracks. A dozen or so people were jogging down the path. My feelings turned to a mellow sadness. I wasn’t scared anymore. I left my car with the valet and checked into Barnaby’s. I hadn’t taken any cocaine with me, and I didn’t buy any afterwards. I drank less.
It starts to snow again. In my apartment I pull off my clothes, except my shorts, and put on a sweatshirt. I light a stick of incense, Nag Champa. I turn off the lights and sit on my couch, tucking a leg under me, like girls sit. I gaze at the flakes swirling outside my window like pillow feathers descending from above. I think about what I might have done to save my marriage with Stephanie. A while later, I write. Since then I have rewritten the conclusion of this part many times. Now, another winter has come. I sit down at the computer and delete the conclusion and start over. I think I am finally ready to write the truth—at least my truth.
I carried my failure with Christie to my relationship with Stephanie. Given that failure, my need to prove that I was a man and my fear of loneliness were even stronger. My quick sexual successes with Stephanie and her demonstrated adoration, generated in me powerful feelings of confidence, pride and manhood secured. For years I looked upon the early period with Stephanie as the happiest years of my life. I didn’t realize it, but that was because I finally felt like a man, physically and emotionally adored by a woman I saw as exceedingly beautiful and sexy. My sexual insecurities were at bay, temporarily.
As I had with Christie, I looked on Stephanie as a sex object, inferior to me in every other way. With Stephanie, at first, I was inflated with male ego from her physical and emotional adoration—much more than I was with Christie because I saw Stephanie as much sexier and more beautiful. I was so grateful that I was willing to give up control of my own life to give her whatever she wanted. That was our unexpressed, unconscious contract. My expectations are clear to me now. I thought that I had to give her everything she wanted to keep her sex and adoration. I believe she came to expect that, but what she expected initially I must speculate about.
She had been neglected by her mother, who gave greater attention to her younger sister. Her father had given her a taste of the security of male adoration, but he died when she was sixteen. To feel secure she needed the love and attention of a man. She needed to be noticed, and there is a lot of noticing in sex. I think she also wanted material security and status. Since she was unwilling to go to college, she needed a man to provide those.
Our contract was that she would give me all the sex and adoration I needed to make me feel like a man and the prestige of a beautiful wife, and I would give her the notice and attention through sex and adoration, and also the status and material security that she needed. The early sex was so good because it drove away my sexual insecurity and gave her some of the noticing that she needed.
She demonstrated her needs and insecurities by demand ing and acquiring more and more material things that satisfied that need and her need for status. When I stopped noticing her by withholding my attention, except for sex, and tried to withhold material things, she felt betrayed, and responded by denying me what I needed—sex.
I demonstrated my needs and insecurities by an almost singular focus on sex. I was happy only when we had regular sex. I was devastated when she withheld it and almost destroyed when she betrayed me. I kept going back to her when she promised or provided sex, even in the face of the pain and humiliation she had made me suffer. I left for good only when I had another potential sex partner available—Dora.
Neither Stephanie nor I could perform our end of the contract. She couldn’t eliminate all my male insecurities, and I couldn’t give her everything she wanted—for long. Once we both broke the contract, failing to fulfill the other’s expectations, it would have taken a monumental, perhaps superhuman, effort to repair the damage and enter into a different contract. Neither of us was up to it.
Why couldn’t I leave, despite my suffering? Why did I keep coming back? For the sexual goodies, and because I couldn’t face another failed marriage. My life had been driven by achievement. Good people didn’t fail at marriage—certainly not twice. I had let my love affair with Stephanie define who I was. I didn’t realize that fulfillment had to be based on myself, on who I was, not on the love of someone else.
My expectations of both Christie and Stephanie were similar: sex to ameliorate my insecurities and status by way of marriage. Although the result was the same, it played out differently because Stephanie’s needs and expectations were different from Christie’s.
Maybe Kate was right—Stephanie was the love of my life, and I hers. I don’t know. It must remain one of those mysteries of the human heart. But I know now that the marriage couldn’t work with the unconscious contract we entered into and could not possibly perform.
Understanding something about my role in the destruction of my marriage with Stephanie and the similarities to my marriage with Christie brings, not the jolt of an epiphany, but the melancholy peace that comes with some understanding of myself and what drove me. Digging up what was buried within me is bringing it to the surface. Writing is letting me dig deep; it is healing me.