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Archive for March, 2005

Passive

Anna was in a melancholy mood on our most recent date.

She was sitting with my head in her lap, stroking my hair. I felt very relaxed and not a little sleepy, having had an early morning with the kids.

She has been thinking of me a lot, she said. Not as in “thinking of you,” but giving serious thought to how I am adjusting to my new life. She is trying to understand what makes me tick.

“I’m not that difficult to figure out,” I said. “I mean, I’m pretty open about my inner mechanics.”

I know you are, she said, but I don’t think you fully understand all that goes on inside. You don’t understand how hurt you still are by the divorce. You don’t understand how that hurt affects the choices you make, the things you do.

I listened, eyes closed.

She talked in a low tone at great length, dissecting the pain and confusion the attributes to me. She said that sex is a nice balm on my pain, but warned that promiscuity will only leave me feeling hollow inside.

“What experience have you had with promiscuity?” I teased.

“I’ve been busy this week.”

I opened my eyes. Her face was serious.

She told me that she had meet a few guys online in the past week, and had sex with all of them.

“And did you enjoy that?” I asked.

She shrugged. “One of them is okay. I may see him again.”

“You don’t seem too thrilled about this,” I observed. “If you don’t like it, why do it?”

“You’re not the only one who can fuck around, you know.”

I remembered last week, when she announced that she had had sex with another man, saying that now we were both nonmonogamous. Now she had seen several men, saying that now were both promiscuous.

She wasn’t just thinking about what made me tick. She was synchronizing her clock to match mine. In trying to understand me, she was emulating me. What’s good for the goose may be good for the gander, but what’s good for me seems ill-suited to her.

I closed my eyes. “You don’t have to do as I do.”

“I know. But it does give me insights.” She went on with her analysis of me. Her words wafted over me. I felt passive, sinking as she spoke. Was she being promiscuous as an experiment to better understand me?

I waited for her to end this. She knows that I am not comfortable talking in detail about other people I see, and yet she brings it up almost every time we meet.

My answers are always the same. I am bisexual. I am seeing other people. I am very sexually active. Beyond that, I don’t provide details about specific people—she will only try to determine if someone else holds a higher place in my heart.

It’s fair enough that she wants to talk about our relationship. But her persistent return to studying my psyche so closely—in some ways on target, in some ways off the mark—leaves me feeling inert.

I escape into my eyelids.

As she spoke, in a low even tone, she touched my leg. “Don’t you agree?”

“What?”

“I asked if you agreed that we are both free to do as we want?”

“Uh, yes, I agree.” I’m not sure she believes that. My body and mind were limp.

I’m not sure what she is after in this ritual of analysis and release.

She wants to get behind my defenses to bring me intimacy and pleasure, yet I don’t know what defenses she rails against. She seems to believe that my disinterest in monogamy is a rampart put in place to insure that I won’t be hurt again. She assumes that I avoid commitment to one person so that I won’t risk the pain of losing that person.

Her assumption is based on the premise that anyone who is not interested in monogamy must be avoiding commitment, as everyone wants to be loved by that special someone.

She doesn’t get it when I explain that I am not avoiding anything. Monogamy has plenty going for it, but it isn’t what I want now. I prefer honesty. I enjoy having multiple partners. I enjoy sex with men as well as women.

She doesn’t get it. My choices don’t square with her paradigm of happiness.

“Do you want to sleep?” she asked.

“No,” I replied.

We went into the bedroom and shed our clothes.

She left in high spirits. Her melancholia had shifted to me.

Over the weekend, as I parented sick children, she dropped off a box containing children’s novels, animated movies and—for Dad—a bottle of bourbon.

A care package.

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Soldier On

In combat situations, good soldiers emerge as heroes when they withstand extraordinary duress with clear thinking and utmost regard for their comrades.

Would that divorce made good soldiers of us all.

My two younger kids are sick again, having missed most of this week at school due to fevers and the croup. They are with me today, as I work feverishly on deadline.

Yesterday, their mother took on the task of calling their doctor about a prescription. Around noon, she called to say it would be phoned to a pharmacy in my neighborhood at noon. Would I please, please call them in a half hour to be sure it was ready?

Yes, I can handle that.

I called and it was not ready. It would be ready in late afternoon. And by the way, it could not be delivered. I needed to pick it up with the insurance card in hand.

Going to the druggist would mean bundling up two sick kids and dragging them along as—remember—I am a single parent with no one to watch them at home. But if that is the way it is, that is the way it is.

If it were ready for pick up in the late afternoon, at least Jason would be home from school to stay with the younger kids, so I could race off for a few minutes.

Jason is eleven, and I have begun to rely on him as a babysitter when I make short outings in the neighborhood. It is so much easier and efficient than dressing his younger siblings and dragging their complaints into the winter every time I need eggs or milk.

It was about three when the medicine was ready. Lillie was conked out, and I was not going to wake her for a bracing walk in freezing weather. Jason was due home at four thirty. I would just wait it out.

Now, all you armchair generals take note: this was a pivotal decision! Had I rallied the troops and marched forward, that medicine might have been working its magic by three thirty.

But I drew up a divergent tact of engagement.

Jason came home and I dashed off to pick up the medicine. It was to be administered twice daily. It tastes chalky, so the doctor recommended mixing it with ice cream.

Twice a day . . . ice cream . . . it was already approaching the supper hour. I opted to reserve the medicine until after dinner.

Another crucial decision made. Perhaps it was the right one, perhaps not. All I know is: I will live with it for the rest of my life.

My ex Lucy called as I made dinner and asked to speak with Lillie and Collie. I handed the phone to Lillie and went back to frying chicken.

In a few moments, Lillie brought the phone to me. “Mommy wants to talk to you.”

I took the phone. I held it away from my ear as she ranted.

“Why haven’t you given the children their medicine?! Henry, the children are sick. The medicine will make them better. The prescription was phoned in at noon, and it is now nearly six o’clock! You have to give them the medicine! Why don’t you understand that? Please, please give them the medicine!”

“Well, the doctor said . . . hello?”

She hung up on me. Pretty common practice, actually. You get used to it, though I don’t have to tolerate it.

I did as I often do. Adopt a very soothing tone and call back.

I got the machine.

“It is very rude to hang up on someone, particularly family. But you know that, and you do it anyway. At any rate, the medicine was only ready late this afternoon. The doctor suggested giving it with ice cream, so I am giving it to them after dinner. I guess that’s all. Bye.”

I got a snippy email about how a mother worries and I wouldn’t understand that.

Yes, it’s true. I will never know what it is like to be a mother.

I replied that the kids have had their medicine, and I would see her in the morning when she picked up Jason for school at six thirty.

The next morning, my cell rang a little after six. I was in the bathroom and missed it. I woke Jason and made his lunch. Collie woke up too, so I gave him his medicine.

Six thirty came and went. No sign of Lucy. I called.

“Good morning. Are you picking up Jason?”

“No I am not. I called to say I was on my way, and there was no answer. So I am at work.”

“I’m sorry we missed your call. But the plan was . . .”

“I can’t trust plans with you! That’s why I had to call!”

“But if you had done as planned, we would have heard you at the door. Did you drive to the apartment?”

“No I called because I knew you would oversleep!”

“Well, we didn’t oversleep. We are up.”

“I can’t do anything about that.”

“Okay, I’ll get Jason to school. Bye.”

She had already hung up.

We killed a little time. I left the younger kids alone and took Jason to the corner. It was snowing. I put him in a cab.

He is growing up fast thanks to this divorce.

He’s a good soldier.

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Scars

The longevity of my marriage was largely derived from my ability to disguise my wife’s . . . eccentricities.

I had a secure place in her life. She had me to anchor her, so that she would behave as people are supposed to act.

She grew up hiding her own mother’s eccentricities. She was very appreciative that I could manage all the quirks she inherited, while never losing respect for her.

In public situations, I knew when to lean over and whisper, “Ix-nay on the olitics-pay. ” I could tell her, with a glance, when an opinion became a rant, or when the drinks had made her incoherent. She trusted me to do this.

In private, I endured her hypercritical assessments of yours truly.

She was trained to avoid any imperfections. Her mother was a model, a copyeditor, and an alcoholic in the Fifties. You couldn’t ask for a more volatile mix to create a perfectionist.

Lucy did a number on herself, battling depression and anorexia in her struggle to live up to her mother’s ideals. Then she found good clay to mold in me, a talented kid who needed direction and ambition.

No more sleeping in. I was up early, responding to her monologue.

No more late nights with friends. Why go out when I could be with her?

No more dead end jobs. I needed to make more money.

She trained me well. Under her tutelage, I became a responsible husband and father, just like my own dad before me.

But there were some things she could not change.

I snore. She tried waking me. She tried nudging me. She hit me, so hard there were bruises. Nothing made me stop. I was sent to my doctor to seek a cure.

The doctor said that if she could do anything, she would have cured her own husband’s snoring years ago. She recommended my wife get earplugs.

Lucy was not happy with this diagnosis.

Lucy decided I had bad breath. I was sent to the dentist to seek a cure for chronic halitosis.

The dentist told me I did not have chronic halitosis. She asked why I thought I had bad breath. My wife says so, I replied. Try gargling when you get home from work, she recommended.

Lucy had no interest in touching me. When we passed in the hall, I tried to steal a kiss. She turned away, grimacing awkwardly.

Sometimes she allowed me to snuggle next to her as we slept. I gulped that human contact.

Other times she flayed her arms, telling me to get the hell off her and back to my side of the bed.

She complained that my erection pressed against her as I slept.

We went into couple’s therapy. Every week. For years.

Lucy was encouraged to initiate physical contact when she wanted it. By this point, I was too discouraged to start anything sexual. I thought I was repulsive. I was encouraged to use words rather than touch to suggest intimacy.

It was a good thing that I was so interested in her pleasure, I was told. But what about my own?

I was really embarrassed about this. I get off sometimes, I protested.

How often do you have sex? Now and then.

How often do you orgasm during sex? Umm, sometimes.

Lucy, he enjoys giving oral sex to you. Do you reciprocate? No.

Why not? Because that is disgusting and demeaning to women.

Henry, do you enjoy receiving oral sex? Yes.

Do you want Lucy to give you oral sex? Well, no.

Why not, if you like it? If she doesn’t like it, she shouldn’t do it. Right?

Well, yes, no one should do what she doesn’t want to do. But it can be satisfying to pleasure your partner. You are both in your mid-twenties and in good health. You are really too young to live as companions. You are sexual partners. You need to take care of each other’s needs. Will you work on that?

We nodded.

We had more sex, doing our homework like the diligent graduate students we were. No blowjobs, of course, but I orgasmed now and then.

We made some progress.

I never, never told anyone that we had no sex life to speak of.

I never, never told anyone how she railed at me, and made me feel like dirt.

I never, never told anyone about the many times she threatened to leave me.

She didn’t hit me often, and I only had scars now and then. The scratch she tore into my face on the night before our wedding was awkward to explain, but everyone put that down to wedding day jitters.

That’s just how she was. I could deal with that. She was worth the effort.

So long as no one else knew.

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Shame

Just after Christmas, the kids and I went shopping for books. Collie picked out Judy Blume’s It’s Not the End of the World, a novel about a girl whose parents are getting divorced.

“It’s like me,” he said brightly.

My middle son, Collie, is a sensitive boy. He tends to observe and comment on things. He is a real stickler for playing by the rules.

When other boys play ball, he referees. When he and Lillie gather their stuffed animals, she spins fantastic yarns that he embellishes with plot lines anchoring their play in reality.

My kids think about and talk about the divorce a good deal. For Collie, though, it is a living breathing entity. He keeps holding it up and examining it, trying to understand its genetic make up.

Picking up the kids one evening, Lucy noticed Collie’s new book and took me aside.

“Judy Blume is not appropriate reading material for a third grader,” she chastised me. “The language is too advanced, and the subject matter is geared towards pre-adolescents. She writes about menstruation, stuff like that. Collie isn’t ready for that!”

I have to concede Lucy’s superior expertise on children’s literature. I put the book aside for later.

This morning, parents were invited to join the third grade class to discuss the class reading projects.

The teacher had assigned Judy Blume’s It’s Not the End of the World.

Collie was in a reading group with his new best friend, Cindy. He has hand picked her as his new pal because her parents are also divorcing. He liked that they had this in common.

In a classic Slaves of New York manner, Cindy’s parents continue to live together as they divorce. I can only imagine.

(Side note: Cindy’s mom has got it going on.

She’s a real head turner, attractive in a way I find completely unappealing.

She has full, shoulder length hair, streaked blond. Her gym-toned body is perfectly tanned in winter. She works hard to achieve a look that seems very cookie-cutter Malibu/Park Avenue.

You can take this look apart and price its individual components. Hair salon, tanning salon, nail salon, gym membership, personal trainer, teeth caps . . .

I like her well enough, and I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But dang, my kids’ school is crawling with moms working that look. Give it a rest, sisters!)

I joined the reading group to discuss the book. The kids were talking about ways the divorce had impacted the central character’s life.

Cindy said that the divorce had caused many things to change, like where the girl would live.

Isabel said that because of the divorce, a lot of decisions had to be made.

Collie, sitting on my lap, noted that the parents had to be “strict” (his word) in explaining the divorce to the girl, so that she would understand it.

Mark added that grandparents and aunts were encouraging the mom to remarry, which might mean a new dad for the girl.

We talked about these ideas, and I was impressed by their understanding of the text and the issues discussed.

I wanted to leave the room. I thought I might cry.

The students were engaged in a very open, rational discussion about something in a book, something affecting the real lives of two of the students. Collie and Cindy talked about things they had in common with the girl in the book.

And as they did so, I felt churnings of resentment, anger, and shame.

I am deeply ashamed of my divorce.

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