As my marriage deteriorated six years ago, I argued with my wife that we had put in too much time to let it end. We had three children, a home in the suburbs and fifteen years of shared history.
We were fighting over a business trip. She argued that I should not go to the Persian Gulf during the invasion of Iraq. I argued that the trip was perfectly safe and provided a great opportunity. She was accustomed to getting her way, as I kept the peace by acceding most things on a day-to-day basis. I only stood my ground as I built my career over her objections.
Whenever we fought because I stood firm, she would declare that we were “finished.” We were “finished” when I wanted to move to New York, “finished” when I applied to graduate school, “finished” when I took the job that started my career. She declared us “finished” to win this fight, but I had heard that before. After fifteen years, I was pretty much finished with “finished.”
In the end, I went on the business trip. It was uneventful. I watched the invasion of Iraq on CNN just like everyone else. I did my work and came home.
The business trip was over. I was home safe. But these facts did not end the fight. I had defied her. She ordered me to sleep on the couch. I replied that if she didn’t want to sleep with me, she was welcome to take to the couch. She responded with the silent treatment, one of her most effective ways of controlling me. This was her tried and true standby. She knew I was humiliated if anyone detected her rage.
Above all, I wanted people to think we were normal. That meant hiding her depression. Her employment of the silent treatment was an effective way of asserting power over that subterfuge. She refused to speak to me privately in order to punish me. She refused to speak to me in front of friends, family, neighbors and, later, the children, to humiliate me in front of others.
At times, Lucy hit me. She gashed my flesh with her nails. She woke me with pummeling fists, outraged that I was snoring or that she had had a dream in which I angered her. I knew these assaults and I knew how to defend myself from them, within the context of our relationship. It generally happened privately. The humiliation of her silent treatment, though, left me defenseless. I could not make her speak. Her refusal withstood any argument, any geniality, anything I could say or do. The longer she remained silent, she knew, the more she controlled me.
Controlling others by controlling her environment was a lesson Lucy had learned as a child.
When Lucy and I started dating in nineteen-eighty eight, following the threesome of our first date, we sat on my front porch to unload our baggage. I had an unmatched set. I was bisexual, which everyone knew. But also, I had a six-month-old daughter, which no one knew. I had agreed to keep silent about that as my daughter’s mother wanted her boyfriend to believe my daughter was his child. I told Lucy these things knowing she might beg off any further relationship. We were just out of college. My life was already complicated.
She listened, nodding and smoking. Finally she asked, “You’ve never met your own daughter?”
“No,” I answered. I took a swig of Rolling Rock. “I probably never will. I don’t see how that would work.”
“Look, you have to meet her.” She stared at me intently. “You have to do that. You have to be in her life. Promise me you’ll do that.”
I shrugged. “How can I promise that? Rachel lives with her mom and dad, you know, the guy who thinks he’s her dad. The live like a hundred miles from here. How screwed up would it be if I just showed up and got in their lives?” I took another drink of beer. “I don’t even know Rachel’s mom all that well. The only thing we have in common is Rachel.”
“Look at me.” Lucy sat on her knees and grabbed my wrist. “Look at me and promise me you’ll meet your daughter. You have to do this. Promise me.”
I shook my hair from my face. “Um, okay, maybe. I guess I can. I talk to her mom all the time, so . . . I guess you’re right.”
Lucy released my wrist. “Of course I’m right.” She reached for a beer. “You know I’m right.” She twisted the top from her beer and took a drink. “Look, I’m sorry, this is just really important to me. I didn’t really know my dad growing up, and I can tell you, it’s not healthy.”
“Wow, seriously?” I rubbed her leg. “That’s awful.”
She nodded, avoiding my eyes. “Yeah, he left my family when I was four. My brother was two. It was the Sixties, he didn’t want to have a family, so he just left.” She picked up a lighter. “He worked for Playboy, so . . .” She shrugged.
“God.” I rubbed her leg. “What an asshole. Who does that?”
“No, it’s cool, we're cool.” Lucy reached for her purse. “We get along okay now, he was great when I was in college. He really helped me out.” She retrieved the Ziplock bag that held her pot and her one hit. “It’s just this: when he left, it was because he didn’t want a family. He abandoned all of us; me, Mom, my brother.” She used a finger to scoop pot into her pipe. “But then he met someone else, got married and had another daughter, my half-sister. He said he didn’t want a family, and then he got another family. He got another daughter. It wasn’t that he didn’t want a family or a daughter.” She toked on her one hit. She held up a finger, waiting. I waited. She exhaled. “He wanted a different family. He wanted a different daughter. It felt like he didn’t really abandon us. He abandoned us because of me. I wasn’t the daughter he wanted.”
I leaned forward to wipe a tear from her face. “I already hate your dad. Who does that?”
Lucy sniffled. “Look, my dad is fine. Don’t worry about that. The thing is, you have to be there for your daughter. You have no idea how much a father matters. Can you promise that?”
I sat back, grabbing my hair into a ponytail. “Okay, look: I’ll try. Okay?”
She nodded. “You’ll see. I’m right.” She sniffled and then laughed. “So, this is some date.”
I laughed. “I’ve never had a date like this.” I looked over my shoulder. “And look—no William!” She laughed and reached for her one hit.
Later that night, she told me that her mother and brother were both gay. “You’ve got a father who abandoned you, a lesbian mother and a gay brother,” I said. “Now you’ve found a bisexual boy with a daughter he’s never met.” I held out my beer bottle. “I’d say we are well matched.”
Lucy tapped my bottleneck with hers. “That’s right. We’re both broken in the same ways.”
I took Lucy’s words to heart. I asked Rachel’s mother how she would feel about including me more deeply in our daughter’s life. She thought it over and didn’t object. As a result, I was a part of Rachel’s life as she grew up. Rachel knew Lucy as her stepmother and knew my other children as her siblings. She bonded with my family as her own, and also regarded Lucy’s family as an extension of her own.
As my relationship with Lucy deepened, I got to know her family. I met her father as the man he was twenty years after he abandoned his family. Lucy said she had forgiven Bernard for leaving her, so I bore him no grudge on her behalf. I could take him as he was. He was charming and welcoming to me. I enjoyed his conversation and felt I could go to him for advice. Well before I married his daughter, I regarded him as family. When Lucy and I had our first child, I wanted his family name in our child’s name. Lucy and her brother are the end of the line for their lineage, and her brother had no interest in having children. I am the eldest of four boys in a family that favors prodigious progeny. Lucy’s father regarded this passing on of the family name as a special favor. I felt it was just what family does.
Years later, following my business trip to the Middle East, as Lucy dug in and refused to speak to me, Bernard interceded. He suggested I leave our home to stay at his empty apartment in Manhattan. “It won’t get better so long as you are both fighting,” he reasoned. “You should leave and let her cool off.”
“I can’t leave,” I said. “We can’t give up on being married. We have the kids, the house, our whole lives.”
“Just go,” he said. “Let her calm down. Just go to the apartment and wait it out. Leaving is the only way to solve these things.”
“And do what? Wait until Lucy isn’t mad? What if she is always mad? Then what? Do I stay until we divorce, I fall in love, marry again, have another kid? When does a separation end?”
Bernard chuckled. “When Lucy is angry, you just need to give her what she wants and keep quiet. You can’t do that if you live in the same house.”
I saw the wisdom of that. I knew the only thing to do was to placate Lucy’s anger. Her father was right. And so I moved out to live in an apartment Bernard had inherited from his mother. Lucy knew it as her late grandmother’s home. She had visited it throughout her childhood. We had moved into it during graduate school and conceived each of our children there. Now, it was to be my place of exile.
I accepted that Bernard was right in placating Lucy’s rage. A few years later, I saw things differently. Lucy had long ago learned that the best way to earn her parents’ attention was to be angry with them. I had long since inherited her family’s expectation that Lucy’s anger should always be placated.
If Lucy was angry with her mother, she was rewarded with a fight. Throughout our relationship, I was impressed with how often they spoke and how often they fought, “You know, you are much closer to your mother than I am to mine,” I observed. “My mom and I talk now and then, but I can’t imagine getting into a fight with her. You and your mom argue almost every day.”
“I am not close to my mother,” she snipped. “I hate that bitch.”
If Lucy missed her father, she would pick a fight or create a crisis demanding his attention. I doubt they were ever closer than when Lucy and I divorced. Lucy simply refused to talk to me. Our attorneys stayed above the fray of the personal, keeping the divorce on the level of passing papers. Lucy used her father to communicate the day-to-day needs of two parents trading children back and forth.
“Why doesn’t Lucy just talk to me?” I would ask, exasperated. “I have no idea what is going on unless you tell me.”
“She miserable,” Bernard would say. “Just miserable. And she has no one to blame but you.”
“But what did I do?” I asked. “I went on a business trip. She treats me like I abandoned her. But when we broke up, I only left home because she absolutely insisted on it. She was punishing us all. You, me, the kids, all of us. You know what it was like.”
“I know what it was like,” Bernard said. “I don’t remember her mother being so distasteful. This isn’t like any divorce I’ve seen. I don’t think you’re to blame. I don’t think it’s her fault either. It’s my fault. This happened because I left Lucy’s mother in nineteen-sixty eight.”
I didn’t get that. “Bernard, Lucy’s divorce wasn’t fated. You didn’t make it happen. It’s a choice she made.”
Bernard hesitated. “I don’t see it that way.”
The divorce and its aftermath gradually separated me from Lucy’s family. This saddened me, as I had come to regard them as my own extended family. I had no experience with divorce, but I assumed that, after fifteen years, we had forged our own familial relationships.
That may happen in some families, but Lucy wasn’t interested in allowing me to continue in her family. She needed to cut me off from her parents and siblings and, ultimately, our own children. She voluntarily cut herself off from my birth family and, saddest of all, from her stepdaughter Rachel.
Divorce, in Lucy’s mind, was definitive. That’s how she had experienced it at age four. Her father left her and he was gone bye-bye. He had decided he liked another little girl better.
I would come to survive our divorce. I adored my four children. I made new friends, enjoyed new romance, and, to my astonishment, I fell in love.
Lucy seemed unable to let go of the past. She was the abandoned child left alone in the house we once shared, afraid to move the furniture lest it mean moving on.
Her family had taught her that the past is ever present. The future requires a break from stasis. The past, whatever its terrors, offers the comforts of familiarity.
The past is a fight always ready to be revisited. Fights, in that way, offer the constants of love.