I put down the book. Once I saw where it was going, I couldn’t continue to follow the words to their inevitable conclusion. That’s new. I used to make a fetish of finishing every book I started. The writing was fine. Closing the book had nothing to do with the writing, just the story. It’s about a woman older than young, younger than old, who has been done wrong by the world. Bad childhood. Then the usual devastating blow from the husband: he walks out umpteen years into the marriage. Leaves for a much younger woman. Our protagonist is left alone to carry on, make a living and worry about her troubled teenage daughter. It’s true, she doesn’t pay as much attention to parenting as she should, but who can blame her? She’s got money trouble, she gets pushed around at work, she is lonely. Meanwhile, she obsesses about her declining looks and without saying it in so many words the question looms: how is she going to attract another man? Maybe that’s reactionary. Maybe it’s her generation. Maybe it’s her. I believe it’s all of us. Lonely, and worried that lonely is a life sentence.
She encounters a string of thoughtless or worse men who do thoughtless or worse things to her. Then a good man comes along. There are stumbling blocks. There are issues. But he’s a good man, and things look up. Yes, maybe it’s going to be all right. Even the daughter shows signs of shaping up. Then the good man dies. Freakishly. Well before his time. That’s when I put down the book. At that juncture, I couldn’t read anymore. Bravo for the author, I guess, for making me feel this way. Lousy. Caring about someone who isn’t real. Hooray, writer. Boo to the literary world that never allows for a happy ending, even for a character who has clearly paid her dues. Happy is too pat. Really? Here I am, a full-grown man, getting worked up to the point of dropping the book. Feeling what I don’t want to feel about a woman who isn’t real.
I sat in my empty house and thought: too bad we never met. Because I know where you’ve been. I said this in my head to a character in a novel. I’ve been there, too, close enough anyway. Too bad you’re not real, though, of course, you are real. Maybe with a different hairstyle or an inch shorter or ten pounds heavier, but you are all over the place. In every Whole Foods, fretting about how much everything costs but fishing out your credit card anyway. Behind the wheel of a late model Honda in need of a wash. Harried and hurried and haunted about being alone. It’s just too bad. Because I would treat you right.
My cell phone rang and it said it was Frank, my twelve-year-old son. My heartbeat sped up because he doesn’t call just to chat. Text is by far his preferred mode of communication. Same for his ten-year-old sister, who just recently got her own phone.
“Hey, everything okay?”
“Yeah, Dad, sure.” His voice was steady, calm. My heart rate settled down.
“Good to hear your voice. What’s up?”
“Ummm. About Saturday.”
“Yeah, looking forward to it. Feels like a long time since I saw you. And Stacy, too.”
“Me too. You know I have the soccer game at 10:30.”
“Right. I’m going to take you there and Stacy with us. Then we’ll come back here after. So make sure you pack a backpack if you need anything from the house. For school or whatever.”
“The thing is Richie invited me to sleep over at his house on Saturday. It was his birthday a couple days ago and his mom is letting him have like three friends for a sleepover. So it’s kind of special.”
I let the air flow out of my mouth for a good five seconds. I don’t know if it was audible. “Ah,” I said, not knowing exactly what ah signified. “When did he ask you?”
“At school just today. That’s why I’m calling now.”
“Yeah, sure, if that’s what you want to do, that’s okay,” I said, doing the best to keep my voice neutral. It hurt to lose hours with him on any of my every other weekends. So little time. But, I told myself, he has a burgeoning life of his own. If I force him to spend Saturday night with me, it will push us further apart even if it means a few more hours physically together. I got the logic. But it burned in my chest. It burned and I so hated all of it. I live forty-five minutes from my ex-house, which remains occupied by my ex-wife and her live-in boyfriend and my non-ex-children. There’s a lot of driving involved.
On Saturday morning I got to the house and texted my children from my parked car at the curb. “I’m here.” My daughter replied quickly. Any excuse to use her new phone. Margit called me a month earlier about whether Stacy should have one. How nice of you to call. Coparenting, so modern, so mature. I didn’t say any of those words to Margit. Sarcasm, I knew, would end the call. Did I think she was too young? Margit kept her voice flat, the one she used in the grocery store, or for making an appointment with the dentist. She was careful not to use the voice I knew, the hushed, slightly husky thing that made you feel like the two of you were in it together, if not against the world then operating in some parallel place to everyone else. An intimate place. I thought about us driving upstate to that cabin we used to rent, before the kids. Margit in the passenger seat, talking about her friend Mara’s most recent complaint about Mara’s obtuse husband. Could I believe it? I nodded empathetically, what a dolt, while I looked ahead and navigated the bends in the road. Never considering for a moment that Mara might have heard some things, too, from my discontented wife. Margit’s flat voice reminded me someone else now got to hear her real one.
“What do you think?” I asked Margit. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Most of her friends have them, but I guess that’s not a good enough reason. I feel like I’m giving in to peer pressure from ten-year-olds.” She laughed without self-consciousness, a laugh I’d induced thousands of times, which increased the pain just below my ribs. “I vote yes,” I said after a pause, pushing myself to focus on the cell phone question. A cell phone would give me better and more direct access to my daughter, not filtered through the home phone and Margit, let alone boyfriend Bill.
Frank came out of the house first, in his soccer uniform, with his cleats in a bag hung over his shoulder that also held a water bottle and a towel. He looked muscular. In two weeks? He slipped into the car, calm and casual. Stacy wore a face that screamed annoyed. She wanted that to be noticed. She thudded her backpack onto the back seat.
“Is there some law that I have to wake up early on a Saturday so I can stand around watching Frank’s stupid soccer game?”
“Hello to you, too,” I said.
She made a sound that would be written as “Hrrumph,” in a nineteenth century novel. I drove. After the soccer game, I suggested lunch at the diner in town they liked. I figured it didn’t make much sense to drive all the way back to my place and then return to drop Frank off at Richie’s house. Still, the drop-off wasn’t until 5. Lunch was over and the check sat on the table, but I didn’t reach to pick it up. I would have before the divorce, because even if there was nothing else immediately on our schedule, there was no reason to linger in the diner, noticing the pallid wallpaper for the first time and that the clock above the counter ran ten minutes fast. Before the divorce, it was just life, and these were your children, so you didn’t have to think about where and when you could see them and why it so often was in public places and involved dead time. You simply paid the check and moved on. Now I calculated how much longer we could sit in the red, upholstered booth before the children became too antsy to bear.
It was hot for April and I wasn’t thrilled about hanging around my ex-town, where I desperately wanted to avoid former friends who knew about Margit and me, or worse, more distant acquaintances who didn’t know. One member of the latter group, when I ran into him a few months earlier (he and I coached one season of t-ball together) graciously said when I informed him of the divorce and that I now lived in another town, “I guess that’s better than what I imagined. I thought you died or something.”
The children burrowed into their phones as we sat post-lunch on a bench at the duck pond, whose path I trod so many weary hours pushing them as infants in strollers or later trotting alongside as they pedaled on training wheels.
“Can I go over to Lauren’s house for like an hour?” Stacy asked. “She just asked me.”
“Who is Lauren?” I asked.
“Just like my best friend.”
“Do you know Lauren?” I asked Frank.
“It’s hard to tell her dorky friends apart but yeah I think I know her, she’s been at our house a lot lately.”
I didn’t know Lauren or her parents or even the street where Stacy said Lauren lived. “Maybe I should call Mom since I don’t know the parents.”
“Daaaaaaad,” Stacy said. “It’s Lauren. Mom knows Lauren. Everyone knows Lauren. She’s in my class. You’re the only one who doesn’t know Lauren.” I was the only one who did not know Lauren. We drove to Lauren’s house. Stacy refused to let me walk with her to the front door to introduce myself to whoever opened it. So I stood at the curb, leaning back on the driver’s side of my car, and when a Lauren’s-mom-looking person opened the front door, I waved and shouted “Hi, I’m Stacy’s father.” The mom-like-person waved back. Stacy shot me a look.
After a couple text entreaties for time extensions, I let Stacy stay at Lauren’s until I dropped off Frank at Richie’s. Then Stacy and I made the drive back to my house. We ate dinner at the diner in my town. It’s inferior to the diner in my old town. We had ice cream. When we got back, I asked Stacy if she wanted to watch a movie.
“How about The Parent Trap?” which I knew she loved.
“No, thanks,” she said, staring at her phone. “I’m going to go to my room.” It made me feel good that she called it her room. They each had one at the small house I rented.
“Okay, kiddo,” I said.
We picked Frank up at Richie’s on Sunday a little after 11. He was sullen.
“Didn’t get much sleep last night?” I asked. He grunted.
“Was it fun?” He grunted at a higher pitch, which I took to mean yes.
We had an early lunch at the same diner as the day before. I’d agreed to a Sunday drop-off of the children at 5 because they were having an early evening barbecue with Margit’s brother and his family. Also, it was a school night and it was unclear if they had finished their homework Friday night. They were vague about it. I calculated the time it would take to drive back to my house and then back again to get them there by 5. It didn’t seem worth it. But, I didn’t have any compellingly fun alternatives to offer. My children sensed the dilemma.
“Dad, is it okay if we get dropped off early today?” Frank asked. “I’m really, really tired.” Stacy nodded, a rare agreement among the siblings.
“Okay,” I said, embarrassed by the relief that spread over me. I was a terrible father, so easily handing over some of the meager number of hours I was allotted by the laws of divorce. I pulled up to the curb outside my ex-house and the children gathered their possessions. Neither Margit nor Bill was outside or visible through the windows.
“Bye Dad, love you,” Stacy said.
“Love you,” Frank said.
“I love you both very much,” I said, trying to infuse the words with as much gravity as possible. The children were half out of the car before I finished. But I believe they understood me.
I watched them wander toward the house. Then I looked at the driveway, which was like a radioactive barrier separating me from my former life. I remembered the hassle involved in getting the driveway widened from one car width to two. We’d done it just after Stacy was born, when two cars became the order of the day. The town had ridiculous rules about traffic studies and water drainage, even though we lived on a tiny, quiet street. Maybe twenty cars passed by each day. And there was never a problem with the runoff of rain water. The contractor wouldn’t do the job unless I went through all the town-permitting rigmarole myself. I did it. Unhappily, but I did my part. I looked again. The driveway was still in good shape.