Steve Axelrod reflects on the difficulties of balancing fatherhood, dating, and divorce.
“That’s it. I’ve had it,” Lisa said into my ear: no greeting, no pretense of civility. I had knocked over a glass of water, grabbing for the phone. It was six thirty in the morning. “You can flaunt your sex life all over town if you feel you have to, but not in front of my children.”
I sat up in bed. “What?”
“There are laws against this shit. We’re still married, technically. You’re traumatizing my children and I won’t stand for it.”
I was waking up now. “Your children? You have kids you never told me about?”
“You can turn your life into a porn movie, you can do whatever you like now, but I won’t have them exposed to it.”
“But exposing them to you and Ned is fine.”
“Oh, so that’s what this is about. If you’re just trying to get revenge on me for Ned, you’re deluded. I couldn’t care less what you do with that disgusting pig. Just don’t tell me she’s the love of your life because we both know that’s ridiculous.”
“I don’t do that ‘love of my life’ stuff any more, Lisa. It gives man-hating tyrants too much power.”
“And that’s supposed to be me? Because if it is, you should take a good long look at yourself. Ned would laugh at that comment. I don’t hate him. I don’t tyrannize him. We have a real relationship. We have mutual respect and passion and—”
“And I’m sure the kids find it very uplifting when they catch you smooching in the kitchen.”
“How did you know—?”
“Just a guess. But obviously a good one. You know, Lisa, you really are the queen of the double standard. Nothing applies to you, nothing sticks to you. Nothing counts when you do it. You make the rules and you’re above the rules. Well, not any more. You don’t scare me any more. There’s nothing you can do to me, so stop dancing around making scary faces. It’s unbecoming.”
“I certainly can do something to you, Steven. I can take the kids away from you. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m suing for full custody and no visitation rights.”
“Good luck then, because you won’t get it and you don’t even want it. You’re the one who calls me up screaming when you have to have them for one extra night, or I screw up your love nest by having to work through the weekend. In case you’ve forgotten that was three weeks ago when I was finishing a job before the floor guys showed up.”
“Fine. I admit it will make things harder for me. There’ll be some sacrifices, but I don’t care.”
“Oh really? When was the last time you made a sacrifice? When you waited three weeks to get the sale price on a new couch?”
“At least my house is furnished properly.”
“I have to go.”
“Fine. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”
A lovely way to start the morning—better than two cups of coffee, and no less grating for being so predictable. But the pressure was coming from both sides at once. Sasha had to weigh in on my post-divorce relationship with Lisa, also. It was her business because my “total abdication” affected her life-style.
We were eating dinner a few nights later—over-cooked pork chops with some sort of honey glaze, served with bottled apple sauce; some kind of sticky German white wine. I had just told her I couldn’t afford to go to Boston for a concert.
“I can’t believe this,” she said. “We never have any money to do anything, we’ve never been off-island, not even to see a movie in Hyannis, and you’re paying almost three hundred dollars a week in child support! You have those kids half the time! You feed them, they’re sleeping under your roof and Lisa makes more money than you anyway! She should be paying you child support!”
“Actually, she’s kind of strapped right now, and—”
“That is such bullshit! She’s just playing poor like every other rich bitch in the world! Ooo, I’m so broke! But I can afford an iPhone and a trip to Hawaii for February vacation! During which you’ll have the kids and her stupid dogs will be kenneled here, turning your house into a war zone while you buy the dog food and clean up after them. She rules you like a Roman Emperor and she can’t even house-train two dogs! She doesn’t need to! She took you to obedience school a long time ago. And you don’t even get a milk bone for your trouble! It makes me sick.”
A deep breath; I blow it out slowly. “I think it would be better for everyone if we tried to separate these areas—”
“But they’re not separate! She gets everything and I’m living on table scraps! Listen to me. No, no, I mean it. Just listen for a second. I went over to Ned’s house to pick up the kids and there was a vase on the dining room table with about two hundred dollars worth of Oriental Lillies sitting there. Who do you think bought him those? Some work buddy?”
“Maybe … his parents?”
“His dad is dead and his mom is in a home with Alzheimer’s. Anyway—Jesus! Nobody buys fancy flowers for their kids. Who would do that? I’ll tell you something, I’d love to see your ex-wife’s credit card bills. She probably has a gold American Express card with tons of restaurant dinners on there. Cozy little dinners for two. Wait till summer when the really expensive places open. But it’s nice to know you’re paying your share. The least you should get is a doggy bag with the leftovers. That would be so perfect.”
I was getting a little tired of the canine metaphors. Maybe I was a dog, but I prided myself on being a good dog. Man’s best friend. Loyal and faithful. Maybe a Saint Bernard; I could definitely see bringing brandy to freezing people in a little barrel around my neck. Nice work if you can get it.
Arguments like that could frustrate us but they couldn’t break us up. I could let them roll over me like white water from a breaking wave—duck under and keep swimming. It was the argument over the kids that I couldn’t dismiss or ignore. I think of the old proverb “The straw the broke the camel’s back”; in fact that rarely happens, or at least it doesn’t feel that way. This was more like the hay-bale that crushed the camel – or the grain shipment that buried him.
Here’s what happened:
It was a Sunday night and the kids were officially with their mother. Sasha’s kids were with Ned. The elaborate configurations of child custody aligned this way just once a week and Sundays were precious. We were having some stupid argument when the phone rang—I was trying to explain why I didn’t like sugar in salad dressing and fruit served with real food. She had prepared a side dish of mashed potatoes and grapes: whole green grapes nestled into the lumpy white mass. I was trying to be reasonable, holding back my initial gag response, but this was pretty much a culinary deal breaker. I forget how we had gotten onto the sugar issue—though I hadn’t been able to eat the salad, either. I remember saying “There are places where sugar does not belong. Would you put sugar on a steak?”
“What’s wrong with that? That sounds delicious!”
Then the phone rang. It was Tommy and he was crying. I talked him down to the hiccup stage and got the full story—his first romantic catastrophe. Welcome to the club, kid.
Susie Cummings had told him Caitlin Joyce didn’t want to eat lunch with him anymore; Caitlin herself wouldn’t even answer the phone. But he still had to sit next to her in English class on Monday. You couldn’t change the seat assignments. The school board Nazis had actually drawn a line down the center of the school’s main corridor to make sure everyone walked in the proper direction—toward the library on the right, toward the front doors on the left. They were tired of the “anarchy” and “uncontrolled jostling” between classes. So shifting seats was out of the question. It was cruel and horrible and most of all it wasn’t the kind of thing you could discuss with your mother. I told Tommy I’d be there soon, hung up, explained the situation briefly to Sasha—and left. She was icy and restrained.
It took her about sixteen hours to get angry.
I heard all about it the next day, at lunch. She had carefully organized her grievances: I was just making excuses to get away from her (Of course, I denied this but I had to silently acknowledge the gust of relief I’d felt as I pulled out of her driveway), she was always my last priority. She gave everything and got nothing in return. Tommy had me wrapped around his little finger. He was out of control. He was a brat. I was spoiling him.
I said, “You spoil kids with things, not attention.”
“Tell yourself whatever you like. You’re turning that child into a monster.”
I was stunned. Was this the same woman who had gassed on about what a great dad I was and how wonderful it was that I made time for my kids, that I was always “there” for them?
Apparently, “there” meant anywhere but here.
And my commitment to them was fine, as long as it didn’t cut against the grain of her plans and desires in any way, because at that moment the hero of paternal devotion suddenly became a spineless reactive wimp, the puny nutless Dagwood Dad who let his kids tyrannize him at every opportunity, who couldn’t say no or structure their lives with rules. Talk about anarchy! The lunatics had taken over the asylum.
Quite an assault in response to one lonely night. But of course it had all been building up for a while. Maybe she was right. But it was not the best tactic to use if she wanted to keep me around.
I said, “You have children. I can’t believe you don’t get this. I’d kill for that kid. So standing you up for a night isn’t even an issue. You know, if your friend Carla called you up because her boyfriend had just dumped her and she was miserable and she needed to talk, you’d have been over there instantly. You’d have run out of here without your coat. But if it’s a kid who’s crying, then it’s manipulation and bullshit. My kids deserve better than that. So do yours.”
“So I’m a bad mother? That’s how you’re twisting this?”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to. If you feel that way about me maybe we shouldn’t be together at all..”
“Maybe we shouldn’t.”
“I think you should go.”
So I did.
I went back to my little apartment and sat in the silence with phone unplugged and the door locked and breathed the dusty air and listened to the cars droning by on Bartlett Road and the occasional deeper note of a plane engine above me and the soft rumble of the surf—when it was high you could hear it this far inland as a sort of low grumble like distant thunder. I closed my eyes. This felt right. Maybe I was meant to be alone.
I had the kids that night. I started thinking about what I was going to make them for dinner. Maybe I’d try them out with some arugula in the salad, with a nice olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing. Maybe a dash of celery salt whisked into it, a little dry mustard. But no sugar, and best of all, no fighting about the ingredients. That chapter was over.
What the next one would be, I had no idea.
This story originally appeared on OpenSalon.
Photo: Runar Pedersen Holkestad/flickr