Sunday, March 22, 2009

Discovering Divorce

Somewhere in the later years of elementary school, say the fifth or sixth grade, divorce became an important topic of conversation on the playground during recess and lunch. I had at least one friend whose parents either were divorcing or had already completed the process. Prior to this time, I'm sure the word "divorce" had come up—I mean, I knew what the word meant and knew that some portion of my classmates' families were "broken" (which was often the word that accompanied divorce back in the 1970s and early 1980s, despite being linguistically judgmental and rather inconsiderate of the families in question)—but it had nothing whatsoever to do with my family. I remember sitting outside with my friend, in some more secluded spot on the school grounds, not far from the "bungalows" that served as our classrooms. We sat on a cement ledge, I think, facing a couple of trees, and this I remember, too: we'd eat pomegranates and sunchokes, foods that most people in America did not have any acquaintance with in those days. (They were definitely "California" items; I was in Los Angeles at the time. While we could find these products in the grocery store quite easily, I'm not sure they'd yet been elevated to the status of Thomas Keller's haute cuisine, either. Now, the super-antioxidant pomegranates are ubiquitous, and you can expect to pay a premium for sunchoke velouté or some such at Per Se here in New York.) Anyway, we'd sit and bite into the deep red clusters of pomegranate seeds, juice staining our fingers and chins, and we'd talk about our parents' marriages as though we truly understood them, which at our age was pretty much impossible. It was one of these years, when I was ten or eleven years old, that I had a bit of a shock. I was with my mom, in the car (naturally enough, because in L.A. you are always in the car). She was driving the 1979 white-0n-white Volkswagon beetle convertible that day, not the station wagon (I'll confess: the wagon was a Mercedes; honestly, though, we couldn't have cared less about the stupid hood ornament), and I think we may even have had the top down, although this part would have been unusual, because my mom didn't like the convertible, or the manual transmission for that matter. We were on Sunset Boulevard, just beginning to cross over the 405 (that is, I-405, the San Diego Freeway), and I was looking out the passenger side window at the traffic and the round high-rise Holiday Inn (now the Hotel Angelino). My mom said something about my father and a woman named—I'll call her Jane Doe. "Who?" I asked, whereupon my mom repeated the name like it should've been familiar to me, as in: you know, Jane, your father's first wife. The memory of this moment is always oddly (or not so oddly, maybe) linked to those pomegranate seeds that my friend and I used to spit full force across the school yard once we'd stripped them of their ruby flesh. I remember that I felt like spitting; I was seeing red, messy like the juice of that mythic fruit with its own violent legend attached to it. I had no idea what she was talking about and said so. My mom was surprised in turn: she insisted that she (or she and my father together) had told me about this first wife, back when we were living in Chicago. Now, I have what is generally considered a very good memory, but it's a trait I likely inherited from my mother—so, which of us is right in our assertion? No matter how many years have passed since then (and that's about thirty years), we have not been able to resolve our dispute: I am still sure that there, over the freeway, was the first time I heard anything about it; she is still sure that I'd been informed a year or more before. I admit, of course, that the key to it all may be in the word "heard"—often, things are told to us and we simply do not hear them, either because we are not paying attention at the time, or because some part of the psyche does not want us to hear. It's still strange: I have never completely lost an event before. I've forgotten things, yes, but then if someone tells me about it, I remember. The fact my father had been married before, though? Zip, zero, not a single spark of recognition. I asked all the questions you would expect: How long were they married? Why did they get divorced? Did they have kids? (I couldn't imagine my father would have other kids that he never had any contact with and that I didn't know about, but then, I hadn't known about the wife either, so suddenly everything seemed possible. The answer was a relief: there were no half-siblings.) I'm sure all this sounds melodramatic on my part, after all, what difference should it have made to me? I was not a child of divorce, even if my father had been through a failed marriage. I was not the one from a home that was "broken," did not have to experience the hardships my friend no doubt suffered as things like visitation were resolved through lawyers and holidays became fraught with negotiations. But at the age of ten (or eleven), this "new" information dragged doubts along with it, and the effect was unsettling: if my father was a person who could have divorced once, what was to say it couldn't happen again? And right then, in the admittedly warped reasoning of a child, my whole family foundation seemed shattered—though really, in retrospect, it was just the infantile illusion that one's parents have no history before their romance with each other. Now it's no big deal, not disturbing in the slightest. On the contrary, it's reassuring to know that my father, like anyone else, is a person in evolution; a person with a past, with mistakes made and lessons learned. So is my mom (who, as it turns out, was also married once before, very briefly and to no effect). Maybe I only say this because, all these years later, my parents are still together, and because they seem happy. In the long run, that's the only thing that counts. Not my ideas about families whole or broken; not any anxieties I myself may experience as I navigate the challenges of married life; not even the fears of a ten-year-old girl being driven over the 405 in Los Angeles, wanting to do the impossible and turn back time to a moment that felt more pristine, the moment before any fruit is bitten or any unwanted knowledge received.

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