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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Single Parent Skills

Starting Over
Daniel Haight


Items needed for starting your life over at 38:
* A new futon.
* Kitchen utensils (don’t forget the garlic press…hah!)
* That repro poster of Metropolis that you couldn’t talk yourself into buying.
* TV / DVD combo player.
* Subscriptions to Maxim, The Onion and Men’s Health

He caught himself staring at the list he’d stuck under the fridge magnet with a real estate agents smiling face on it. Chewing on a piece of Mexican white cheese, he stared at the face while trying to figure out for the millionth time why their smiling faces frightened him so much.

The boy would be visiting on Saturday and he knew she’d be there to drop him off. She offered to do it in a neutral place but he loftily said "no, no – my place will be fine". She muttered "whatever" and hung up. He played the Allman Brothers and drank a beer in the shower. He washed his dish and put it away in the cupboard. He took the trash with him when he left for work – the complex he had moved into was curiously silent for those several minutes – he could feel the heat building to one of those scorching summer days. The contrast of the dry, stale air coming from the AC felt good and he left the radio off. The swish of air, the muted thrum of the engine – it gave him the space to think all those thoughts he was afraid to have when the lights were out and he was alone.

He still banged awake at 2 in the morning, heart thudding and sweat beading on his brow. What the heck was he gonna do now? 38, divorced and staring down the barrel at alimony and child support. The awkwardness of his son’s visits – the inevitable moment when his son would look up at him and say, "Why did you have to leave Mom?"

* Frozen chicken breasts
* Hibachi
* Nerf Football

His clothes were piled on the floor of his living room and he slept on a futon pad that he still needed to buy the frame for. His dirty laundry was piling in one corner – he was going to have to make a run to the complex Laundromat before long and needed to buy a roll of quarters.

* Laundry detergent
* Bleach
* Fabric softener
* Beer

Driving to work was the worst time – he wanted to call her up. There wasn’t anything else to say, he just wanted to hear her voice – to feel her knowing he was at the other end of the line. It felt like emotional chicken; he wanted her to know he wasn’t afraid. Let her take everything I’ve got…I’ve still got me…it’ll be better this time – my life is a do-over.

He listened to The Velvet Underground.
He listened to Ugly Kid Joe.
He bought a heavy bag.

He took a drive after work on Friday to Pigeon Point and fell asleep behind the wheel watching the sun go down. When he woke, the fog had crept in and he made the drive back over the summit with his high-beams stabbing the night.

Total Loss. Total Failure. The words kept reverberating in his ears when no one else was speaking. To prevent them from bothering him too often, he left the TV on and played his radio at a volume that annoyed the old lady downstairs. She left notes on his door and he used it to focus his rage – how dare she tell him what to do? The resident manager was an older Russian guy who had seen it all. In his thick Gorki accent, he tells him to call him "Joe".
"I know how it is," Joe is saying. "You’re just getting back to your feet, yah? Just take it easy on the sound, she is saying she’ll call the cops and then I can’t do anything."

He bought a bicycle – he takes long rides. His thinning sandy hair is cropped close to his head and he browses personal ads on Craigslist.
No, he thinks after a couple of weeks. There are no normal girls out there.

When the boy visited – he packed their Saturday full of trips to the zoo and a ball game at night. The boy fell asleep on the drive home, his five-year-old shoulders were slumped under the burden of Mommy-and-Daddy-love-you-but-they-don’t-love-each-other. He could never get used to sleeping next to him as an infant but let him sleep on the futon rather than the floor. The boy twitched and jerked in his sleep – just as he did when he was a baby…He didn’t move, just let the boy sleep and attempted to doze with the scent of his son’s hair filling his nose.

His performance at work was just coming out of the post-divorce slump his boss had told him would happen. A sympathetic man, he was gay and had never been attached to anyone permanently or as long as he had. Therefore it all sounded like the same things he’d read in Who Moved My Cheese? "I knew this would happen," he said. "I’ve seen it three times before…every guy going through a divorce needs about four months to turn around and figure their lives out again."

* Thai Green Curry Paste
* Pasta
* Pinot Noir
* Chocolate-covered Espresso Beans

He experimented with his cooking and with his clothes and with his hair. There was no one to give him the eye or to say "Uhhhmmm…" in that tone he’d hated so much. He could banish the concept of potpourri from his life with no fear of reprisal. He watched late-night episodes of corny TV shows and drank wine out of a Mason jar that started life as a spaghetti sauce container before he washed off the label.
This is great…this is so liberating.

He started back at the gym. Going back to the gym after not going for several years has several different stages. First, you feel completely intimidated by the gym rats who were so much more in shape. Then, as you start feeling those pounds coming off, you start noticing the hot chicks who may or may not be looking for a date. You’re still not in their league but it’s nice to dream all the same.

That first alimony/child support payment hits and it’s a bear. You remember screaming at your lawyer, "It’s costing me more than when we were together!" before slamming the phone down. Yes, yes it is – welcome to California Divorce Law. You thought those guys who were divorced and complaining about how much it sucked were kidding.

On Saturday mornings he wakes up with needles behind his eyes and a pile of Michelob longnecks to remind him about the night before. He didn’t mean to drink that much – her sister-in-law called him and although she started out the conversation with "I don’t want to take sides," it was clear she did have a side, it wasn’t yours and now you can add "Worthless Pig" to the list of names people are calling you.

For about five minutes, he seriously considers suicide.
Does anyone else do this, he wonders to himself as he idly considers the least messy, least painful way to drop down the rabbit hole. Why not? She’s taken everything else – might as well leave her with a nice painful reminder of what her ‘emotional violence’ can do to other people. The final middle-finger-salute. So long, sweetie – I’ve just said something and you can’t say anything back to me now…hope you enjoy explaining it to the boy.

The whole episode leaves him feeling very unsettled – enough to write the local suicide hotline in dry-erase on his fridge. He doesn’t title it – who needs to explain that one away? I’m doing fine – just ignore this phone number here…it’s no reflection on how I’m doing – I write random phone numbers down all the time. Ha ha.

The heavy bag and the mitts are getting a lot of use – he smashes a hole in it and duct-tapes it shut; that only holds for two or three days. He makes sure it’s out of sight when she drops the Boy off.

It’s weird how divorce focuses you on the quality of raising your kid, he realizes. Before – he left her to do the doctor visits, the shots, the PTA conferences. Now it doesn’t matter if the teacher has already met with her – he’ll meet on his own and he will be involved with the Boy’s education.

"Good for you…you’re such a great parent ('sarcasm')," she writes in a recent email. His attorney is getting tired of being forwarded these little barbs, he finds out. Turns out, you can say all kinds of mean things to each other that have absolutely no bearing on how the divorce turns out. It doesn’t mean anything, Lawyer Bob, says.
"Face it," Bob says one afternoon. "The fact that you guys don’t get along isn’t a surprise to the judge. It has no bearing on how well she’ll do having full custody. You get what you got – that might change later, but this stuff," he gestures to the 15 or 20 emails he was forwarded and printed out for the file, "doesn’t mean anything."
For that bit of information, he paid $300.

* Liquid Drain-O
* Cottage Cheese
* Fried Pork Rinds
* Beer
* California Salad Mix

Six months later and still no dates. He begins attending a nearby church divorce support group. Some of the women look date-able and his stories about not being around his boy seem to strike a chord. One agrees to meet up but not for drinks. "I’m a recovering alcoholic," she says. "That’s why he left me."

* Self-help books
* Book shelves (particle board with oak veneer)
* Futon frame
* 15 Western and Action DVDs

One day, the transmission on his Jeep decides to go and he’s stuck for a ride to work. Post-divorce issues like this are what makes him the most depressed about breaking up. He mentally goes through the list of his co-workers who live nearby and might be in a position to give him a lift. It’s a toss-up between the emotionally brittle maintenance tech and the guy in Sales. The brittle guy is in recovery – the 12-step-speak is exhausting after a while, he decides. The guy in Sales would be awkward to ask a favor of, you can only call someone a putz to his face so many times.

In the end, the brittle maintenance guy jumps at the chance to give him a ride to work. He gets to listen to how management has it in for him, right-wing talk radio discussions and the latest in home medical cures that the drug industry doesn’t want you to know about. He’s exhausted by the time he arrives for work.

$2500 to rebuild the transmission – he throws it on his credit card. His budget is only good for the minimum payment and he hasn’t the slightest idea when he could pay it off. Credit card counselors seem to sense this and fill his mailbox with ads for improving his credit score.

In lieu of therapy, he’s taken to talking with some of the other gym rats. One in particular, a grizzled veteran of 65 years speaks with authority. He’s sympathetic – in his time he was putting away a quart of Jack a day. You move on, he says. Nobody says this, but the suggestion isn’t too deeply buried. You need to move on.

At 38 years old, he just expected to have this figured out. He sure wasn’t planning on this when they got married – even during the dish-tossing days that marked their second or third year. They had some crackerjack fights, boy – but they were sticking it out and the boy seemed to strengthen their resolve. When the divorce papers were served – he was at work and the sudden shock of them, the hey-this-must-be-a-joke-no-wait-it-isn’t, the universal cream-pie-in-the-face feeling left him feeling like a child once again.
We’re all children when the lights go out.

When you’re staring at the lights that climb the wall as cars go by in the night. When you’re staring at the green LED of the clock radio as it goes from 12:30 to 4:45am. When you’re in the fetal position on the floor of your bathroom – crying and playing the music loud so that no one will hear. Yes, we are all children. The thing that makes us children is that feeling that you’ve never felt before, the ones you used to feel all the time when you were younger. And now, after all this time, after all the yeah-yeah-yeahs of the past 15 years – she’s giving you that mad, out-of-control feeling that only comes when you are feeling something for the very first time.
Utter loss.

You’re surprised to know just how vulnerable you can still feel. Are men supposed to feel this way? Did John Wayne feel like this? After one too many hangovers, you know the answer isn’t at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Nihilism was never much of a policy. The nagging doubts are something that only you can resolve – you’re sure not going to admit to them to your friends and least of all, to her. There’s a whole subsection of malehood being accessed here and the way you were raised leaves you completely unprepared on how to proceed.

In a moment of weakness, you call her. You’re drunk and lonely. You’re planning to beg her to come back – or let you come back to her. You made a cute couple once – it could work again, couldn’t it? There may or may not be tears; you haven’t decide. The drunkenness is by design – you wouldn’t dare make this much of a fool of yourself sober. She takes your call calmly…she’s been waiting for it, no doubt. After gibbering mindlessly, saying whatever is on your mind, she interrupts you with a single piece of information. It’s touching, she says, but I’ve met someone.
There isn’t enough booze in the world to deal with this.

He hangs up suddenly – another whiskey-fueled cryfest ensues. He calls in sick to work the next day and spends it drinking water and slamming punch after punch into the heavy bag. Somehow – being away from work is worse. The daytime TV schedule does nothing to improve his mood. However bad this is, he’s gotta move on – to stay here is slow suicide.

Several months go by, of course. The nights aren’t looking as dark and you and the boy have developed your own ‘happiness ritual’. Lazy Sundays that start with breakfast at the coffee shop around the corner and a trip to the batting cages. Or sometimes you’re going to the zoo. Or sometimes you’re just driving somewhere and there’s nothing more to it than being together in a single moment of time. You can start to look at him and see his mother’s features and not feel that single stab just below your breastbone.
Just before you drop him off, you tell him to tell his mother ‘hello’ for you. He gives you a significant look but says, "sure", with all the resilience that a six-year-old can muster. It’s getting close to summertime and with school letting out soon, maybe everyone can take a trip together. You, the boy, his mom and the new guy in her life.

There isn’t anyone in your life right now. Save the boy and the constant presence of your former relationship. You’re not misogynistic enough to pretend that your relationship didn’t matter. It did matter – it still does. Even if that relationship is now only about the boy and whether he’s okay. She still needs you and even if you wish you’d never met her sometimes, there’s still the little guy and your love for him is larger than that.

You’re cleaning up on Saturday afternoon and a half-erased phone number is on your whiteboard. It takes you a minute to remember what it is. When you do remember it, you stand there staring at it in rueful reflection for like a minute.
And then, you reach out and erase it completely.

© Daniel Haight
daniel.r.haight@gmail.com 1 October 2009

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