Every summer, Robert Barsanti returns to Nantucket, where his marriage died—and where his two boys still need him.
Standing in the kitchen, making my ex-wife’s favorite cake for her birthday, I wonder if there’s a Tupperware in the cabinet with my testicles in it. If my divorce were a self-help book, I’d be on the “Moving On” chapter—yet here I am, preparing the home that was once my home for the woman who was once my wife.
My time on Nantucket ended years ago. I don’t teach here, my parents don’t own a home here, and my marriage died here. But my children live here—and so I return, this and every summer since my divorce, because they need a dad to throw a baseball around with. To read them the Lego catalog. Hell, I’ll start from page one.
I’m a living, breathing father. But when I return to Nantucket, I become a zombie husband.
There was a time when I fought to keep our marriage alive. I was determined to revive it, no matter what the cost. I worked at what I could do better; I had elaborate and painful plans to help her be happier. I would listen, I would be more considerate, I would try to make more money. I stood in this same kitchen, making the meals that she loved, hoping that she would love me again. Other times, I simply threw up my hands and walked away. And after a while, I wanted to take every one of these utensils and bowls and dump them all in the harbor.
All these times have passed. Now, standing next to a preheated oven underneath a “Happy Birthday” banner, I’m still tottering around, going through the motions, feeling like the living dead. Loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, picking up clutter, feeding the boys dinner, taking them to summer school, camp, and play dates, reading them stories—I’ve continued to “do the right thing” long after she cared.
The other divorced men in my past all emerged from their marital crises as older and grayer adolescents. They had regular tee times, new pickup trucks, a training regimen for the next marathon, and wandering eyes. After I stood in front of the judge and nodded my assent, I thought that I could, at the very least, get a golf handicap. That hasn’t happened.
But admittedly, my life is pretty good. Many would happily trade their ant-like drudge for my grasshopper life. I come to the house in the morning, play with the boys for a while, then start ferrying. Nantucket is a great place to go plodding around. At noon, the boys and I have lunch, put on our swimsuits, and go out to a beach for an hour or so. Sometimes, after I put them to bed, I slip out to the beach with a sandwich and a book. If you have to be a zombie, this is a pretty good “undead” life.
I don’t have all that much time with the boys. Soon, Labor Day will come and I’ll return to the Berkshires, where more than a hundred language-challenged students await me. I’ll take whatever seconds my boys want to give me on the telephone, but I won’t feel that heavy child weight as they fall asleep on the sofa, watching the Red Sox.
It won’t be long until their boyhood succumbs to the sullenness of young adulthood. The wolf pack will pick them up and whisk them out. The excitement they feel when I walk in the door will shortly devolve into resentment that I have to be around at all. At age nine, they can be flung into the surf and treated to Laffy Taffy afterward. In two years, when they’re 11, all I’ll be is the bastard on the couch.
The Age of Lego: blink and you’ll miss it. It’s at this age, this brief flicker, that I can teach them to take their hats off inside, to hold the door for their mother, to wait a fraction of a second to swing at a curve ball. They’ll be thrilled by the gift of a dollar. They’ll take their dishes to the sink, and later, read for a few minutes before going to bed. You can say words like “courage” and “duty” and “responsibility” without seeing their eyes roll.
At this one fertile moment, you can plant the seeds of how things should be done, before the winter of adolescence freezes the ground.
The cake in the oven may be for my ex-wife. She may blow out the candles, take the first cut, and smile at the bite—but I am not making it for her. I am making it for two little boys, who in 20 years might find themselves in a different kitchen at a different woman’s birthday. At that age, I want them to be able to bake a cake, fold shirts, clean toilets, and split the fairway.
During these long Nantucket summers, the sun rises over the Atlantic, the sand sings, and the cobblestones knock about. My friends will buy me drinks in bars, toast my health, and order another round. The fog graces all that I have.
My marriage is over, dead and buried—and that’s OK with me. But I’d do anything to prevent my fatherhood from descending into that same grave. If that means standing in my ex-wife’s kitchen, so be it. I would take a bullet for my kids. I can swallow my pride.