After my friend Terri, her two younger sisters, and their mom arrived at my house, Terri whispered to me, “Do you know why we are here?” This was not a philosophical question about the human condition posed by a precocious 11-year-old but a point of clarification during a confusing time for us.
I was 11 as well and I nodded yes only because earlier in the day my mom had told my brother Ken and me that Judy and Ed from my parents’ couples bridge group were going through a divorce. This was landmark news for us. Even though it was 1972, the U.S. divorce rate was 40%, and we lived in not exactly conservative Boulder, Colorado, we did not know anyone who was divorced. Judy and Ed were the first, which left Ken and me with lots of questions: why were they getting divorced?; how would they get divorced?; why, again?; what happens after they get divorced?; and also, why?
Something had occurred that day between Judy and Ed so the women from the couples bridge group came to our house not to play bridge but to talk quietly upstairs with Judy. Meanwhile our dads were already at Judy and Ed’s house, packing up Ed’s belongings and moving him out. The 10 of us couples bridge kids were sent downstairs with orders from our moms to play with Judy and Ed’s son and daughter but not to mention anything about the divorce to them. So that eliminated the activity of sitting-on-my-bed-and-talking-about-the-divorce as something for us all to do. Ken and I were faced with a distinct hosting issue: most of our toys and games, plus the TV, were upstairs, as well as the fish tank with our Japanese fighting fish that when you held up a mirror, the fish would go into attack mode, flare its gills and fins, and bump the glass with its face, which was a show stopper with guests.
Because Ken and I didn’t have much to work with in the way of downstairs entertainment, I decided to show the kids my new “Map to the Fabulous Homes of the Stars: A Complete Tourist Guide, with All Points of Interest” that I’d bought that year for $2 during a spring break trip to Hollywood. I showed everyone that guide fully knowing that no one, including the couples bridge kids, was ever as interested in where Groucho Marx once lived as I was. For the record: 1083 Hillcrest Drive, Beverly Hills.
We wandered down the hall to Ken’s room and looked at his collection of die-cast Corgi cars that included a Batmobile that shot rockets from a launcher behind the seats and an Aston Martin DB5 with a miniature James Bond action figure that ejected through the sun roof. So that took one minute and then we stood, awkwardly, silently, until someone–maybe one of the Seward brothers or possibly Terri or her sisters–suggested that we go outside. What brilliance. Why hadn’t I thought of outside entertainment?
We stampeded to the yard to swing on the metal swing set that my dad–who was not the handiest of men–hadn’t secured fully into the ground so that when we rose high, the entire set lifted slightly, which was scary and thrilling at the same time. Then we climbed the box elder tree, rode bikes, and kicked and threw various balls until the summer light faded and we became nothing more to each other than disembodied voices in the dark.
By the way, if you’re looking for insight on the human condition, the last part of that sentence is as close as I’ll ever come.
In 2009, when my own marriage was being devoured by my husband’s alcoholism, there was no couples bridge group for me and my two sons, who were 16 and 11 at the time. First, I mean, bridge. Who among us plays couples bridge any more, if ever? And second, by then we did not have the community of couples friends that we once did. My husband’s social world gradually transitioned from our employed friends who were done for the night after a beer or two to folks I didn’t know who day-drank and doctor-shopped for benzos.
During one of my husband’s more and more frequent disappearances in which he’d leave for days at a time, I found a napkin in his pile of papers on the kitchen counter that had the name “Crock Pot” written on it and a phone number which, out of desperation, I called. A man answered, I told him my name, and before I could explain the nature of my call, he said, “Oh, you’re Billy’s wife! I love Billy! How are the kids?” as if we actually knew each other and I had called him for my regular weekly check-in. When I told Crock Pot that my husband had been missing for three days and I was concerned for his well-being because of an escalation in his drinking, Crock Pot said, “Oh, Billy’s not drinking any more.”
I found out later from my husband that during the phone call he was indeed drinking while sitting right next to Crock Pot in a shit hole bar on Shea and 32nd Street.
At the beginning of the summer, after the years of worry and arguments about his drinking, marriage/family/and substance abuse counseling, and tours of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs that he refused to attend, he unexpectedly drove himself, drunk, to a facility in Wickenburg for the first of a handful of rehab stays. Thirty days after he arrived, my older son and I were invited to attend what was innocuously billed as Family Weekend, as if my husband was in college and we would get to visit him and go to a pep rally and then watch a football game together. The weekend was anything but innocuous and I learned as much of the truth as I’ll ever want to know: he was not only an alcoholic but a serial cheater. For years he’d been having affairs, two with women I knew. I understood now, firsthand, one of the “why’s” of divorce. There were many more but infidelity was my limit. So at the age of 49, after almost three decades of marriage, I became the Judy of my friends.
Once my eventual-ex moved out of the house, I told my boys that there was a new sheriff in town and she was a lot nicer than the old one. But even with the general household calm and quietness that followed his departure, my kids and I had to learn how to live without his constant chaos. Laughter–and intensive ongoing counseling–helped. Plus my upstairs, downstairs, and outside entertainment game had improved over the years. We wore plush tugboat, duck, and frog slippers from the Target $1 bin around the house for the rest of the summer. We binge-watched every season of “Arrested Development.” I put together The Happy Box that contained novelty items like a Wooly Willy keychain, a small scale Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots set, and a mini Build Your Own Stonehenge kit. It is humanly impossible not to feel joy in one’s heart as one assembles a mini Stonehenge.
However, late one night when the doorbell rang, I felt that old familiar sense of danger and dread. Was it the police again because the wasband–as my counselor called my almost-former-husband– had been in another hit-and-run? Was it a new process server with more unpaid photo radar speeding tickets for him? I took a deep breath and prepared myself for anything. But when I opened the door, there stood Connor, one of my oldest son’s friends from 1st grade, Little League, and freshman year carpool, during which he inexplicably began calling me by my first name. Behind him in the cul-de-sac was a red pickup truck, music bumping from the speakers and, in the bed, a half-dozen other 16-year-old boys in swim trunks and sunglasses who were splashing in a swimming pool made from a rigged-up tarp.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked, stepping onto the porch as my boys pushed past me to run to the truck.
“Wendy, isn’t it obvious?” Connor said. “We’re having a pool party. It’s great, right?”
“No, no, no,” I told him. “Oh, hell no.” All I could imagine were paralyzing spinal cord accidents and traumatic brain injuries on my watch, civil lawsuits and out-of-court settlements that were my sole responsibility.
Suddenly Connor put his arm around my shoulders and then it happened. Somewhere in the depths of the Internet, there may still be a selfie of us, his face wide with a smile while my arm reaches toward his phone, and my other hand covers my face to deny on each social media platform any involvement that I had with everything going on behind us. In the background are my boys and the rest of the guys in the truck bed swimming pool where they were happily carrying-on in a moment of their own making. Although right then I couldn’t see that time for what it was, the photo captures them–with copious amounts of testosterone, hyperactive sweat glands, and teenage-boy-brain recklessness–on the cusp of the next stage of their lives that none of them could even yet imagine. And in a similar way, but one that was accompanied instead by middle-aged iron poor blood, escalating lactose intolerance, and occasional skin-searing hot flashes, the same could be said for me.