Joel Schwartzberg offers this advice to newly-divorced men: Don’t even think about going “home.”
Based on a version originally published in The New York Times Magazine
To my naïve 40-year-old eyes, my parents’ third-floor condominium was just a place to sleep while my first wife and I, separated after 10 years of marriage, “figured things out.” I had my own room, which was cluttered with a museum’s worth of cheaply framed photos. Wherever I turned, I saw myself—at my bar mitzvah, at my senior prom, at my high-school graduation. Scanning all the frozen faces, it was hard to resist the feeling that, on some level, I belonged there.
But to my parents, my presence endowed their home with an exciting purpose: to foster a child who hadn’t needed fostering since 1986, the last year I lived in their house. I’d been a traditionally nerdy Jewish kid, programmed to please and vastly unschooled in the vocabulary of emotion. Bypassing any made-for-TV teenage rebellions, I sailed through my adolescence like a Stepford Son.
Twenty years later, as I dressed for work each weekday morning, my mother interrogated me. She asked what time I needed to leave, what I wanted for breakfast, if I wanted one of Dad’s multivitamins, when I would return, and what effect all this would have on the chicken dinner she was planning to prepare in her brand new pressure cooker.
Occasionally she’d say, “So, are you two getting back together?”
“I don’t know,” I’d reply.
That would freeze the conversation. Talking about actual feelings in my family is like talking about extraterrestrial life—the subject matter is alien, and entirely hypothetical.
To their credit, my parents valiantly found solutions to their interpretation of my problems. When I talked about the high price of lunch, they bought me a pound of processed turkey. When they saw my clothes strewn about, they got me a wicker hamper. They washed my whites and colors—together—and dropped my work shirts off at the cleaners. They cleared shelf space for me and collected my spare change in a cup. They gave me the guest bathroom and half the medicine cabinet.
Within a few weeks, the turkey went bad, my toothbrush disappeared, and I caught my dad wearing my white socks, now somewhat pink.
On the evenings I couldn’t invent a reason to stay out late, my mother would ask hopefully if I wanted to watch something “on tape.” In my family, we share an addiction to other people’s drama, perhaps to compensate for burying our own, and my mom had no fewer than three VCRs working day and night to support her habit.
She and I would sit and stare at cop-and-lawyer shows until I couldn’t tell one perp from another. One evening, halfway through Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, she hinted about my Dad’s coming birthday. She wasn’t sure I had enough good sense to buy him a gift.
“Your point being…?” I teased her.
“Be nice,” she said. But her awkward way of laughing it off made me regret the remark. I could see that I was returning their invasive caretaking with resentment, but I couldn’t help myself.
A week later, I stayed out late for an after-work party and took the last train home, sneaking back into their condo like a burglar. I had already rationalized going to work late and turned off the alarm. Around seven the next morning, my Dad knocked.
“Do you need to get up?” he said through the door.
“No, it’s okay,” I said, my voice muffled by the pillow.
Less than 15 minutes later, my mother threw open the door.
“Oh my Gah-ahd!” she exclaimed. “You’re going to be late!”
“I told Dad it’s okay! Didn’t he tell you? It’s okay. What’s wrong with you?!”
She paused while I dug my face farther into the pillow, clutching every last moment of sleep in the most dramatic manner.
“So…,” she said calmly. “What time do you have to be there?”
We were all stuck in the same bad sitcom together, re-enacting old roles we’d never explored to full potential. I became the defiant teenager I never was. They became the intrusive parents they never were. To make matters worse, my bedroom was feeling smaller by the hour, and those smiling photos would not shut up.
Two months after I moved into my parents’ condo, I packed while they slept and took off with as much as I could jam into my little Sentra. But my departure wasn’t their fault any more than it had been nearly a quarter-century ago.
It was just time for me to leave home.