My grandparents shocked everyone at their Golden Anniversary when they informed us that they would be taking a break from their relationship. I for one did not know this was something grandparents were allowed to do. If you made it fifty years, you are expected to get all the way through the end—either leave in the first thirty or stay for the whole ride, a rule valid for schooners as well as married people. How could one have predicted that a solid fifty was the furthest they could go? You have to admit, though, there is a certain appeal to the cleanliness of the numbers: George and Dora Hartford’s love (March 31 st 1966 - March 31st 2016).
Surprisingly enough, no one spilled their drink once they’d heard the announcement. We all just stood there astounded; glasses of champagne all suspended in the air still waiting for the toast. The toast was supposed to reassure us that we, too, could be one of those few people who got what my grandparents have, or, better, had—or, better yet (doesn’t get any better than this), didn’t have after all. We had, thus, all been grossly deceived by their true love’s farce, and required an explanation. If they were sick of each other, how come they managed to stay together for so long? It is wrong to deceive people like this, you see. They might waste their time trying to learn the secret to a perfect marriage from you.
Now, everyone was unsure of what to do with their glasses. Someone turned her back pretending to be looking for something, slowly lowered it and finished the pirouette carrying the glass at chest level.
Once the initial splurge of silence was finished, quiet voices started asking questions. My grandparents answered them together holding hands. It felt as if we had all, separately, subscribed to a panel to see those two tell us there was no secret, after all. We all wanted our money back, too.
Question Number One: “But... why?” —my mother. Relevance: evident. Delivery: dishevelled. Overlook: obvious question, but still necessary.
ANSWER: “Well, I can see why this comes as a bit of a shock to you. But your mother and I have been growing apart for years. We love each other, and we want that preserved, you know? So, I’m going to buy a boat and sail all the way to the Bahamas, and your mother is going to be writing the great American novel, and we will not sacrifice anything for the other during that period of time.
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: “And she can’t write the novel on the boat?”
ANSWER: “What a stupid question. You know I hate boats, Madlyn. They make me sick.”
Questions number two, three and four: “Do you even know what a break is?” “Does that mean you’re planning on getting back together once you do your... stuff?” —Aunt Shirley. Relevance: debatable. Delivery: sufficiently articulate. Overlook: I wouldn’t say she wasted her questions.
ANSWER: “Nothing in life is definite, my dear. Right now, we are just calling it a break, but who knows what will happen once we are apart? We might just enjoy it. Obviously, at first, we are both going to enjoy it. It’d be like a reverse honeymoon period. Finally, alone!”
Questions five and six: “Wait, but are you going to get a divorce?” — Cousin Harold. Relevance: substantial. Delivery: tone invasive and accusatory. Overlook: perhaps this was too sensitive a matter for the entire family to discuss right then and there with the news so fresh in our heads.
ANSWER: “I don’t know. This journey is simply about exploring other options. I don’t understand why you are all so stunned.”
(It’s because you are old), the elephant in the room whispered.
“Calm down, George. They don’t understand. Everything is fine, kids. This is just something we have to do. We have to be alone for a while. That doesn’t mean we’re getting a divorce.”
Question Number Seven: “But why are you throwing fifty years of marriage out the window like this?” — Me. Relevance: substantial. Delivery: precise. Overlook: this was pretty much what everyone was thinking, though they couldn’t have phrased it, disturbed as they were.
ANSWER: “Dear, we are not throwing fifty years out the window! We did good, you know. We had a good, successful marriage. Just because it’s over for now, doesn’t mean it constitutes a failure. When you retire from your long-serving job, for instance, does your retiring negate everything you did at the job? Are you being disloyal in any way?”
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: “How is that the same thing?”
HER: “Do not raise your voice, Tess. I know better than you. Some day you will understand that marriage is work.”
ME: “How do you expect to write the Great American Novel when you are such a conglomerate of clichés?” (I wanted to tell her she would write a decent enough Eat, Pray, Love for old people—Sit, Lie, Cough—but I thought it unwise to do so.)
HER: “When you are older, you’ll understand.”
This is just one of those things old people say all the time—it’s right up there with “I’ve seen more of this life than you (Insert name),” and “Things were different back then. People didn’t (insert activity frowned upon by middle class) on the street.”
Nevertheless, “When you are older, you’ll understand” is particularly frustrating to hear because it suggests somehow wisdom can only ever be achieved through old age, and that is when no one listens to you anymore. It suggests wisdom cannot be transmitted through words or generations or stories vicariously—only by individual experience. Every time someone tells me I will only understand something when I’m older, not only do I feel powerless but also weary of a future filled with disappointments.
Furthermore, I’m not even sure I want to understand. I don’t want to let myself be happy with what I get, if what I get happens to be shit. All this disillusionment come from tired ideals from their youth seemed to them a consequence of one’s inevitable life trajectory, an anecdote for when they were young and stupid and expected too much out of the world.
So, are they cynics now? No, Tess, at old age, people can no longer be cynics or idealists, we are just trying out what we think might work for us. When you are older, you’ll understand.
I hear someone ask if this was anything like the time when Ross and Rachel took a break on Friends and then fought about it for seasons to come. They said that it wasn’t. Yes, they were sure. Yes, they were aware they didn’t have as many seasons left to work things out. No, Ross and Rachel could never have spent as many years together as they had. They had probably broken up five minutes after the series finale.
“I’m sorry, Shirley, but that is the truth,” my grandmother said. “I know how much you like that show, but it simply doesn’t hold up.”
My aunt laughed.
“This isn’t about a show. It’s about you, hiding the fact that you’re not happy from us.”
“Oh, we’re not unhappy. We’re just tired of living this particular kind of happiness. We’ve had it for a long time,” said my grandfather. My grandmother added:
“You get married, you raise your kids, help raise your grandkids, and when that’s over you start feeling lonely. You have nothing left to talk about. I’m too old for this crap. I want to use the time I have left doing something different.”
“How long have you been feeling this way?” I asked them.
“I don’t know. It’s one of those things that start wearing you out. We’re not the same people we were when we got married and I don’t think we have anything in common at this point other than having been married for fifty years. Before, we had you kids to talk about,” said my grandmother.
“Are you saying you only stayed together because of us?” asked Uncle Eric. While this was a very straight-up question and admirable in its own way, I had a feeling no one in that room would enjoy the answer.
“Maybe. We never had a talk, like we had to be together because of the kids. But when things were really bad, then yes, I told myself to get through because there were children involved. I think at some point everyone does that for the kids. You think, I could always get a divorce, and then you have kids, and it gets more serious.”
That’s when my Uncle Eric dramatically sunk into his chair. My Uncle Eric said he was sorry if he had inconvenienced his parents. All he ever wanted was to make them happy, and now he saw he’d been standing in their way for so long. I was not sure whether he was being sarcastic or not—I’m not even sure if he could tell. His tone was high-pitched mad but cracking on the sides of sentences a little.
He had been a late-born child and was still a late-born child; spoilt and lonely. Probably he was thinking the outcome could have been different, had he not come into the picture. I kept thinking about my grandparents thirty-something years ago when they had Eric, and whether they at that point already wanted to take a break only to find there was yet another child to be cared for. Or perhaps he was the Hail Mary baby; the one they thought could save their relationship. Anyway, it was not looking good for Eric. You could tell he was ready to take the blame for his parents not getting divorced, even if it wasn’t really his fault.
Eric had just left home a couple of years ago and planned to propose to his girlfriend Mary Ann at the party. None of us knew that at this point, but he had a whole speech prepared for the toast and all. We would all have been very happy to see him get engaged, since my grandparents were tired of having him hanging around the house, talking about his top-secret tech business he’d been working on for years. Unfortunately, the break-up announcement failed to establish the appropriate atmosphere for a proposal. He told my mom about this a couple months later over beer. “It’s so sad, Tess,” my mom said to me when she came home crying.
“His speech was talking about how Mom and Dad inspired him to find love and that if it weren’t for them he wouldn’t believe in it. Then he proposes to Mary Ann and says one day they’ll be at their Golden Anniversary.”
I wanted to tell her this was a shitty proposal idea, given that crediting your parents, instead of the girl you intend to marry, as the motive for your faith in love, can be a hit-or-miss. Sure, you could cite them as role models, but when your three siblings, born from the very same parents, had all gone through very nasty divorces, that could not have a nice ring to it.
“You know,” my mom said after we’d got home after the party, “I have always blamed my relationship problems on my parents’ perfect relationship. They always made it look so easy. Who am I gonna blame now?”
Cousin Rashida, whose mom had been staying at our grandparents since her parents’ divorce and made sure she stayed with her on weekends, was still texting me long after we’d left. She sent me a couple of out-of-context recordings, though it seemed like Uncle Eric and my grandma were still arguing:
GRANDMA: (unidentifiable noises)... I am being cruel for answering your question truthfully? Oh, I’m so sorry, I forgot you were only thirty-three years old … Let me sugar coat it for you, son (RASHIDA: Oh my God)... Your father and I never had, in fifty years of marriage, any problems whatsoever (RASHIDA laughs). I’m sorry for not lying to you. Do you want me to make you some chocolate milk?
RASHIDA, closer to recorder: mike drop (noise of which is presumably Rashida imitating the sound of a microphone hitting the ground). Now I see that I texted her back with a bunch of surprised little yellow men emojis. Seemed like an appropriate response. God, future generations are never going to decipher this.
Then Rashida sent me another recording, and this time she seemed to be alone.
RASHIDA: It’s really sad, though. I mean, fifty years, Tess. God, I always thought they were one of the last couple of soul mates left in the world. Am I allowed to be sad? They think we’re all grownup now, but I don’t think we’re grownups at all.
I answered her with an eggplant emoji. Later I realised that proper texting etiquette required that I provide a more satisfying answer. I started a recording of my own: Yeah, I know, right? They keep saying our generation is made of cynics who don’t believe in love, but we don’t really have anyone to make us believe in it. The only reason people end up together at all is because they die before breaking up.
Rashida started texting me back immediately, so I closed my messages. I didn’t feel like having a heart-to-heart with my twenty-year-old cousin. She needed to learn all of her favourite love songs were actually all about breakups for us to have this kind of conversation, the one where I tell her about the importance of letting love go before it leaves you completely for good, so that it’s still worth something when you lose it.
It was almost summer already when we got to the harbour to drop my grandpa off. He wanted to leave before noon and follow the fish south, even though I was under the impression fish were not going south for the summer. The only people who accompanied him there were my grandmother and me. Everyone else was working and also mad. My grandparents were telling me about how immature everyone else was, even though I secretly thought everyone else had their reasons to be mad. Divorce is never easy, whether you’re ten or forty-three. I actually think that the best interval to experience your parents’ divorce is zero to five. Toddlers and babies have more important things in their heads than questioning the bourgeois ideal of romantic love—they first need to learn a whole new language, not to mention all the time invested in potty-training. They couldn’t care less whether their parents live in separate places; they’ve always lived in separate places, for all they know.
I watched Grandma ask Grandpa about fishing hooks and baits, and then she asked him whether he had wi-fi installed in the boat and to look out for icebergs. Then they hugged, and he came to say goodbye to me.
“Please don’t die in the ocean,” I said and meant it. He smirked and thanked me for supporting him. I told him I didn’t support him at all, but I still wanted to say goodbye.
Once he was gone everything still seemed normal. Grandma and I went to get tea and scones at a shop nearby.
“Are you not sad at all?” I asked her.
“Sad? Not really. I rented a hotel room in California for the next three months. I’m gonna write my book.”
“What are you gonna write about? A woman who just got out of her fifty-year marriage and isn’t sure what to do with herself?”
“I can’t get you, Tess. Make up your mind—are you mad at us or not?”
“I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at this whole thing. I just wish you two still loved each other, that’s all.”
“Your parents traumatised you, didn’t they? I always told your mother marrying him was a bad idea. I mean, obviously it wasn’t, because you came out of it—but God, you could have come out of some other marriage.”
“Right. That’s not how that works, Grandma.”
“I know, I know. But all of this bad stuff you got from your father’s side, you know.”
“What bad stuff, Grandma?”
“And, Tess, it’s important that you know that we do still love each other, your grandfather and me. Just not like that. That doesn’t last, never does.”
“But what’s the point, then?”
She stopped for a second, and her face was blank.
“Oh, honey—just because we’re over now doesn’t mean I never loved your grandfather.”
“It just means you weren’t right for each other.”
“How can you be so cynical and naïve at the same time? You have these preconceived notions that only when things are good should they last forever. Forever is way too long a time. Sweetheart, one day this planet is going to explode, and then it’s gonna take another five million years for there to be life again in the universe at all, and meanwhile the universe will be all wiped out of love, because the universe doesn’t really give a shit about it. Love isn’t larger than life. And, even if it is, it’s still insignificant in the overall picture because life isn’t all that big compared to everything else.”
“But don’t you feel empty at all? I feel empty just thinking about it, two people spending fifty years together and then deciding to part ways like they are strangers again—makes me feel light in the stomach.”
“Is that how you see it? Interesting.”
“What? What is interesting? I hate it when you do that, like you have all the answers but can’t tell us. You don’t have a clue, even, of what you’re doing.”
“Maybe the fact that we are parting ways after fifty years simply means your grandfather and I have gotten the most out of each other. So, if we’re strangers again, and we meet a year from now, we can fall in love again.”
“So, you are getting back together?”
“It’s impossible to talk to you, Tess.”
“I’m sorry, Grandma, but it’s hard to understand why you’d stay with Grandpa during all those rough patches you’ve been talking so much about lately—even though we had no idea—and now, when everything’s fine and you’ve made through it, just give up. I don’t get it. It’s anti-climactic. It’s like those guys who survive wars only to die from a stray bullet.”
“Well, life is ironic just like that, isn’t it?”
“No, because it’s not a clear hit—it’s just sloppy. I want to change my metaphor, if you’re OK with it: the guy shot by the stray bullet doesn’t die, because that would send too clear a message about irony. Instead he is put into a coma and the people involved don’t know whether to pull the plug or not, so they keep unplugging and then changing their minds and plugging again. That’s such a pathetic scene, isn’t it? It’s like what I used to do when I was a kid, turning the light on and off, off and on, it used to drive everyone crazy, remember? The only reason I ever did it was to drive everyone crazy.”
“Drop the metaphor, Tess, will you? This is ridiculous.”
The lights in the tea room flickered a bit with perfect timing. “Is it?” I said. She didn’t find it funny.
“There’s one flaw in your reasoning—one huge flaw. You say we shouldn’t split up because it’s anti-climactic—but surprise, surprise! It happened anyway. It happened because this is reality, and reality isn’t properly edited and crafted for your utmost comprehension. I’m sorry if this is an unpleasant concept for you. I know it wouldn’t make a good story with all the half-assed motivations. But you’re gonna have to stop trying to make sense of it and just live with it. And while you’re at it, tell your mother to return my calls.”
Turns out Uncle Eric didn’t propose to Mary Ann after all. They were still together, but Eric is a very superstitious guy and thought the disaster which took place before he got a chance to propose had been some kind of sign sent by the higher powers to warn him against his move. What if next time he attempts to propose, something even worse happens? What if someone dies? What if he isn’t supposed to marry Mary Ann after all?
“Oh, no. You’re supposed to marry her—it’s in her name, for God’s sake," my mom joked. It fell flat and heavy.
“I know, that was my first thought too,” said Eric. I wanted to tell him that he was displaying classic OCD symptoms, but my mother had forbidden me to talk about it. I had gone through years of cognitive-behavioural therapy myself to be able to live with mine, and I wanted to help him with what seemed like a crisis, but the family told me long ago I had to stop seeing OCD everywhere just because I had it. They still refuse to believe OCD is partly genetic, partly triggered by environmental factors. It usually comes when you feel like there’s nothing you can do to change things. Poor youngest child Eric, really bad at not getting what he wanted, felt completely powerless as he tried to make sense of his own existence. You couldn’t just tell him the egg met the spermatozoid; he knew that part. He wanted to know why him, and why his parents, and why Mary, and none of us had the heart to tell him there was no particular reason, and that the world was out of control. It would break him even more.
Meanwhile my boyfriend Patrick proposed to me at a burger place. It was nice that he proposed to me at a burger place. I had been thinking about what my grandmother had told me, about everything eventually fading away, and I thought to myself Hey, at least he didn’t do anything super romantic, so there’s no awkwardness once it stops being romantic. This is a down-to-earth, thought-through decision. Let’s just enjoy it while it lasts.
So, from the burger place we went to the bank and opened a joint bank account. When I told Uncle Eric about it, I tried convincing him that, because the proposal which followed the announcement had been Patrick’s, not his, the jinx was over, and he could ask Mary Ann to marry him. He’ll think about it. He said he’ll think about it.
My friend Scotty from high school died sometime around Christmas—motorcycle accident. I was confused when his mom called to deliver the news. To my mind, Scotty was still seventeen and living inside my laptop on my Facebook wall. I hadn’t seen him since I got out of college, and it was hard to conceive of him as a live person with the potential to die a tragic death.
“How random is this?” I said to my mom. She was appalled with my reaction.
“Well, obviously it wasn’t random to his family.”
“You know what I mean. Why now? It’s just strange. I haven’t talked to him face to face in years. ”
I went to Scotty’s wake, met his wife Maureen and talked to someone who looked like an aged version of his mother. I didn’t want to look at the body’s face. It would be old, and Scotty wasn’t there. Knock-knock, I would say, and no one would answer. Scotty did love knock-knock jokes. I pictured his body knocking on the grave saying Knock-knock (who’s there?). No one! Gotcha! And then the person would search for the voice and would find Scotty’s ghost right behind them, and finally drop dead as well.
I thought about telling this joke if they asked me to speak, but it didn’t seem like the kind of humour they were ready for. It surely would have cracked Scotty up, though. He just loved knock-knock jokes. What an idiot; to die like this.
Something felt disconnected about this whole situation—a random situation. I sort of wished he had died before, when we were closer, so his loss would mean something other than the usual shit happens. It was a selfish wish, yes, but part of me wondered why he had to die now, if he was always going to die young.
God, Tess, stop talking about destiny. You don’t believe in destiny. You don’t believe in meaning. You only believe in the absence of meaning, because it makes no sense; for this to happen now and not at a time when his death would have deeply affected you, and maybe convinced you to go to med school or something.
But this isn’t about me, really, I know. It’s just—it is about me in the way that it wasn’t about me—I shouldn’t even have been there. Poor Scotty, dying too young, too late for me to know him the way he died.
I went to visit my grandmother in California at Christmas. There’s nothing like a sudden death to remind you of the old people in your life. My grandmother was grateful to see me—turns out she wasn’t having the time of her life after all. She was, in fact, having none of it.
“Salad bars everywhere,” she complained, in the most grandmother-like rant to ever come out of her mouth. “Where is the comfort food? I feel so fat, Tess!”
I told her about my getting married. She congratulated me. I told her about my friend dying. She gave me her condolences. I wanted her to tell me something nice, but she had nothing nice to say about California. I asked her if she hated it here. She said it was messing with her blood pressure, being in California.
All the time she thought she was going to either faint or throw up.
“See? You don’t fit here, Grandma,” I said. “Can you come home now?”
“No. I can’t come home. I don’t fit there, either. I’m not sure where I can go.”
“What about your book; how’s that going?”
“Lousy. I can’t write. Turns out I have nothing of substance to say. I’m gonna die here in this hotel room trying to come up with a good last sentence.”
“Well, don’t worry, if you’re going to die alone, no one will hear your last sentence, so it doesn’t have to be good. For all we’d know, it could’ve been Baudelaire.”
Accidentally, that made her cry. I said I was sorry and she wasn’t going to die alone at all and that if she wanted I would stay with her all the time until she died.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said.
“You’re right. What if I took a bathroom break and then … poof! You died. I would feel terrible. Unless we went together, that’d be fun, huh?”
“You are really terrible at offering solace, Tess. But it’s not your fault I’m like this.”
“What is it, Grandma?”
“I have no idea what I am doing with my life! I am seventy years old and I have no idea what I’m doing!”
“Have you heard from Grandpa?”
“He forwards email chains to me at least once a day. But I haven’t heard directly from him in a while now.”
“Do you miss him?”
“I spent nearly every day of my life with him for fifty years. Of course, I miss him.”
“Then take him back.”
“Oh, I don’t want him back at all. I just want to be twenty years younger. God, even ten years younger would be nice. I wasted myself, Tess. When I said your grandfather and I had taken everything out of each other that we could take out of each other, I meant it. There’s nothing left of me.”
“Maybe you’ll change your mind when he gets back.”
“Maybe. I don’t think so. What makes you so sure he’ll want me to take him back?”
“I don’t know. I just think he will. Did he tell you when he was coming back?”
“God, no. I don’t even know if he is coming back at all. Maybe it’s better this way. This way I don’t change my mind.”
“Grandma, there’s a bunch of things that you could do that don’t involve sitting in this hotel room crying about being old. You could, I don’t know, volunteer at a soup kitchen. Learn Danish. Convert to a religion so you can come to terms with the reality that all things must perish, even you. Or even better, that nothing perishes at all and there is life in another dimension.”
“That’s enough, Tess. I can’t tell if you’re mocking me or not.”
“It’s just a couple suggestions. I just want you to come home. Everybody misses you. The family is growing apart without you.”
“Obviously. You can’t be friends with everyone in your genealogy tree. It’s high time our family learned that.”
“But you’ll be back for my wedding, right?”
“When is that?”
“A couple months after Uncle Eric’s.”
“Eric is getting married?”
“Shit, he didn’t invite you?”
“No, he didn’t. Well, that’s nice.”
“Well, to be fair, you did ruin his proposal, Grandma. He was going to propose at the Golden Anniversary party. Maybe he thinks you being there is bad luck.”
“Oh, God. How come all my children are still such children?”
“I won’t talk about this anymore. Get your coat, I wanted to show you a salad bar.”
“This place is filled with salad bars. I think it’s the proper touristic adventure to take you on.”
So, I got my coat and we went to a salad bar.
Since I was already there, I decided to pay a visit to my dad before I went home. My dad lives in San Francisco with his wife and three kids, Oliver, Salvador and Juniper. He had them all in his forties, so they are just getting into their teens right now. However, I guess you couldn’t say they were late-born children like Uncle Eric, because they were all born within short intervals of time—if anything, you could say I was the early-born child. You know that child, right? The one you have with someone before you meet the love of your life and eventually have happier, less problematic children?
When I sat with them at the dinner table, I felt like an outsider, like I was sitting at some random family’s dinner table. It’s the same feeling you get when you are a kid and have sleepovers at a friend’s house. Except that in this case, your friend is your dad, and that makes it a hundred times lamer.
My dad’s wife made a big deal out of us going out for pizza, given that my being there was a special occasion, and I was scared to say I didn’t like pizza because the kids had been looking forward to that special occasion of pizza dinner ever since I said I would be coming. You see, when you take away the pizza, my siblings don’t really see what’s so special about my visits. And I get that. It’s always awkward when I visit.
“So, what grade are you in right now, June?”
“Do you like it?”
“What grade are you in?” asked Oliver, the youngest.
“Oh, I’m done with them. It’s been a long time since I’ve been done with them.”
“You are so lucky,” he said. Kids were always very impressed when I told them this. “You don’t have to go to school?”
“No, I don’t have to go to school.”
Oliver smiled at me. Last time I’d seen him he was about seven, and I think he is not quite sure who I am, or perhaps he’s completely forgotten about me. I could certainly picture my father telling him about his other sister, and his not being able to conceive of it. How could Juniper, whom he saw every day, had fights with, knew everything about, and this older girl who showed up to visit once in a while hold the same position in his life? They couldn’t. I couldn’t, and I didn’t really want to. I could never be his sister the way Juniper was. It was more like a formality, really. See, these were good kids, but I didn’t know them at all.
“You’re my favourite sister, Tess,” Oliver said to me. I wanted him to stop talking about this.
“That’s because you hardly see me. If you saw me every day, you would hate me.”
“Yeah, like I hate June.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Oh, I’m so hurt, Olly. Look at the tears coming right out of my eyes,” June mocked him.
“You’re both idiots,” said Salvador. “She doesn’t want to be our sister.”
That, right there, was an Oh shit moment. Few of those will happen to you in life—so, enjoy yourself; take a picture. One day you’ll be laughing at this.
“That’s not true,” I said. Then there was silence, and I wanted one of the adults to interfere, but apparently, they considered me as one of the adults. “Look, I am all grown up,” I told them. “But we have the same dad. Of course, I’m your sister. It’s just, I can’t be here all the time.”
“Dad is always saying you should visit more, but you don’t want to.”
“Doing what? You’re all done with school!”
“Dad says you could be nicer to us.”
“So, your dad set you up for this?”
“Our dad. Why don’t you just call him Dad? See? I just … hear things around the house, you know. But that’s fine, really. I’m not like them; Mom and Dad and those two idiots. If you don’t want to be family, then fine. We’re not family.”
“Fine. Then I don’t have to be here, right?” That’s when my dad spoke:
“Sit down, young lady. You’re behaving horribly.”
“I am behaving horribly? He said...”
“You are almost thirty, you should know better than to argue with a twelve-year-old.”
“He’s right, though. This isn’t my family. I’m sick of this. You know, Salvador, I was your age when my dad left my mom. How would you feel if your dad left your mom tomorrow and then a couple of years later had a thousand other children with his new wife far far away from you? Like shit, right? So, there you have it.”
“Well, my dad isn’t gonna leave my mom because she’s not a total bitch and he actually loves her.”
Grandpa sent me an email a couple of weeks after I got back from the California trip. It read:
Subject Title: Hello! It’s Grandpa (George)!
I got back a few months ago and would love to see you. Don’t tell anyone, ‘cause I don’t want to make a big deal out of this. I’m in Florida, but I’ll buy your ticket in case you decide to visit. I miss you folks. Btw, do you think your grandmother would take me back? Not that I want her back just checking in... It’s been a while since we talked, and you know how things are. Get down here so we can talk. I’ll teach you how to hunt alligators.
Grandpa George 😉
So that’s what he’s been doing; hunting alligators. Oh, that’s nice—almost worth breaking up with your wife of fifty years for. I did however go to see him in Florida, not really knowing what to expect. His email suggested he wanted to come back home to Grandma, but she wasn’t home anymore, and I wondered if he knew that. She had also become kind of a downer-type, who you wouldn’t really invite to a party. Too bad I had invited her to my wedding already.
Anyway, I got to Florida expecting pretty much anything. Had I found my grandfather dressed up in alligator skin, it would not have surprised me in the least. And yet … once again I was caught off guard when he told me—in a very casual tone, mind you—that he had met someone, you see, and that she was pregnant with his child, and so he was wondering whether I could tell my grandmother he needed a divorce.
“Oh, damn it, Grandpa,” I said.
“Yes, I know. It was very imprudent of me. This whole thing was a mistake, Tess. I sailed and I sailed for days only to realise I was in—guess what—Nova Scotia! That’s in Canada.”
“I know, Grandpa.”
“My compass was all messed up. But I got down anyway to do a little tourism, since I was there, and ended up renting myself a little cottage by the beach. It was pretty nice up there. Lots of snow. Exactly what you’d imagine Canada to be like.”
“Can you get to the part where you impregnated a woman? What happened? Did you slip on ice?”
“Manners, Tess. Manners. I just … I didn’t know what I was doing. I was cold, so I got my boat and thought I could come here for a while, since the year wasn’t over. But then I met Michelle … I should’ve just gone home.”
“And she’s keeping the baby?”
“She says so.”
“Are you sure it’s yours?”
“Then get her to do a DNA test.”
“I’m not gonna tell her to get a DNA test …”
“Then what, Grandpa? You’re not even going to tell Grandma about this? You really expect me to do the dirty work?”
“Tess, I think maybe this was meant to be … I mean, if my compass hadn’t been broken, I would be in Belize right now, but somehow the sea brought me here … I think I should raise this kid.”
“Oh, God. Well, I’m not gonna break up with Grandma for you, so good luck.”
“Tess, please, I can’t see her again.”
“I can’t imagine standing next to her trying to make small talk about the weather and then dropping a bomb like this... God, I don’t know how I’m ever going to talk to her again...”
“That’s because you’re ashamed.”
“I’m not ashamed. I just wish things could be different.”
“Would you go back to her if the kid wasn’t yours? Because, to be honest, I’m not sure you would.”
“I was going to come back.”
“But you didn’t.”
“What do you think I should do, Tess? Leave the woman pregnant with my child and go be with my wife? She wouldn’t take me back.”
“I don’t know what you should do. I just want to be left out of this. If you can’t see Grandma, email her about this. If she has a heart attack, I’ll let you know. By email.”
They all came for Uncle Eric’s wedding, even though they hadn’t been invited. By “they,” of course, I mean my grandparents and my second cousin Harold, who was kind of a downer at parties. The others were presumably righteous guests.
This happened when it was almost summer again. They were having the ceremony in a church, for some reason, and the church had this oppressive Gothic layout of which I was not terribly fond. Grandma was in blue and looking younger. We made sure Eric didn’t spot her, so that he remained calm during the ceremony. Mary Ann walked down the aisle to "Guns and Roses"—a very peculiar choice, in the very least, and it all went down as planned.
We were only aware of my grandfather’s presence once we got to the reception part of the wedding and saw someone wearing something so completely dissonant with the tone of the event we at first thought he was lost. Turns out he had simply spent too much time in Florida.
My grandmother realized who he was before I did, but she didn’t go talk to him. All she did was raise an eyebrow and ask me whether I’d noticed my grandfather was there. Then she went to get herself a cocktail.
I had no clue what I should do at that point. I wasn’t even sure it was my business anymore—it wasn’t; it so wasn’t. As far as I was concerned, none of the circumstances had changed, and none of them presented a simple solution. But maybe, I thought—maybe, if they talk … they could work things out.
The room was still pretty empty, apart from us and a couple of relatives from Mary Ann’s side. Slowly I made my way to my grandfather. The band had started playing “As Times Go By” (which, again, not good for weddings) way too fast—which exempted it of its casual sadness, but also made the lyrics attached to it completely meaningless.
“Are you gonna talk to her?” I asked.
“It would be rude of me not to.”
“Good. Has your baby been born yet?”
“Yes and no. I was prepared to raise him, Tess, you know I was. I was so glad I was going to have another kid. And then … she had the kid.”
“And you realised it wasn’t your kid after all?”
“I just … I saw this man in the waiting room who looked way too much like the baby. He was holding flowers and he seemed impatient and I was sure he was there for Michelle.”
“How did he look like the baby? The only thing newborns look like are oversized slugs.”
“He just … did. I just knew. And he knew it was his kid, too. He was there to see the baby. I went to get iced tea and when I came back there they were, the flowers, in a vase, in her room. So, I left. I’m done.”
“Ok, Grandpa, but are you sure the flowers you saw were the same flowers that—?”
“I felt it in my gut, Tess. This was the epiphany I was looking for this whole time.”
“That you never should have left in the first place?”
“No, silly, I had to leave, so I could come back.”
Despite the fact that this made no more sense to me than it did the day they announced their separation, there was nothing else I could say at that moment because a wave of family members suddenly noticed my grandfather as they were coming in, one by one. There was, in fact, a string of realizations (“Oh my God”) (“No! It can’t be”) (“Hello stranger!”) (“He’s back! I can’t believe it! Have you seen him, Tess? Have you heard that Grandpa is back?”)
Naturally I became very annoyed with all these touchy-feely relatives trying to inform me of something I already knew and had in fact known for a long time—e.g., “Did you know he’s been in Florida?” There’s nothing more horrible than being deprived of telling people the news. Except maybe have them tell you old news as if they were fresh off the gossip teacup. I wanted to scream, I knew, I knew! While I recognize this is infantile, I wasn’t really winning anything that day.
Everybody wanted to know why I had cancelled my wedding. They wanted the whole story. They acted shocked and miserable and loud for me, despite my not being any of those things. I started to think that the fact people’s expressions seemed more perturbed with the breakup than me was one of the main reasons why cancelling the wedding had been the right call.
Oh, darling, what happened? and the best I could say was “I don’t know. It just did.” Patrick was being transferred to Austin and there was no way in hell that I was moving to Texas, so we sat down and agreed that things would never work out and there was no need to prolong a doomed relationship. Sure, it would have been a good marriage under the right circumstances, but it was different now that things were different, too. “It’s actually all right,” I kept telling people. “I’ve come to terms with it already. It would’ve been much worse had we actually gone through with it, you know?”
“Hey, Tess, you know what might cheer you up? Your grandfather is here somewhere,” someone would say. “Oh, really? I’ll talk with him later, then.”
At one point—a very low point—I decided to go outside to get some air and peace. I hid behind a staircase and sat there for quite a while looking at the scribbles on the staircase. One said Parker and Eve, 99. Another said Al Gore rules. I wondered how long it had been since this had been painted, and why there weren’t any more recent things. Maybe it was some kid who wanted to mess with time; put a date already gone, gone for a while already, and pretend it was brand new. Who could deny a doodle that said 99? Who would bother with such a menial mind task? Thus, the kid would forever alter the course of time and history, and attest to the fact that the staircase had never been painted again.
My grandparents were talking not far from where I was sitting. They couldn’t see me, and I did my best not to listen to their conversation because I was so sick of trying to understand them. But right now, I couldn’t leave—otherwise they would see me. Besides, I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving knowing what was going on down there—it would only give me anxiety.
All I wanted was to morph into the staircase and become a fly on the wall—on the staircase. Now that I was there, I had to listen in.
“So, you had fun, I hear,” my grandmother said.
“I learned how to hunt alligators.”
“Well, isn’t that useless?”
“Why must everything be useful?”
“That’s very profound, George. How many epiphanies did you have?”
“Not that many. Turns out I’m not that special.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“So, what now?” said my grandfather.
“I don’t know. I guess now we look at the river. It’s getting late and the river is more beautiful when it’s just getting late.”
“This is nice.”
“It is, isn’t it? Just like old times.”
“You aren’t coming back, are you?” my grandfather asked.
“I don’t think there’s a way back, George. It would all feel sort of out of place, don’t you think?”
“For years I’ve felt nothing but out of place.”
“I hope that changes for you.”
“You’re going to California, then?”
“Oh, no, I hate California.”
“Good. You’re staying. I’m staying too. It’s important to be with family.”
“So, you want to get divorced?”
“Oh, no, George. We’re too old to get divorced, don’t you think?”
They stayed out there looking at the river go even though it was pitch-black now, and they probably couldn’t see anything in the river. The time I stayed there, and they stayed there, is still one of those moments that get caught in Time—moments that seem like, somewhere, they are still taking place, and always will, somewhere in time. The river murmurs were slow and steady; the stream was late, and that was fine with me, because they were still looking at the river go, and the river was peaceful. That river is to me now always that night’s river, and it really is very beautiful to look at, just as it is starting to get late.