It was a case of whatever you do, you’ll regret it.
When people ask if I thought I made the right choice when I divorced, I always say, “No.” Whichever way it had gone, stay or leave, my answer would have been the same.
It has been nearly 9 years since I left with two light suitcases but a hell of a lot more baggage than I thought I had and got into a taxi while Jane was at work. I walked out of a comfortable old house that I had renovated in a good area of town; walked away from 14 years of friendship and struggle, horrible fights and laughter, trouble, love, and dreams. I refuse to say I walked away from my son, because I don’t think I’ve ever done that, but the jury is still out. Certainly I walked away from full-time fatherhood. I felt I wasn’t stepping into a cab so much as stepping off the edge of the world.
It was for love, I told myself. I had met someone I was certain I was to be with for the second half of my life. When you love someone so intensely, I thought, you were supposed to do something about it. God wouldn’t have made me feel this way if I were not meant to be with Her for the rest of my life.
I haven’t seen Her since Memorial Day weekend four years ago.
I am still divorced. Nowadays I live in a studio apartment with a kitchenette. I often sleep in my clothes and rarely bother to open the sofa bed. I wake at 4:00 a.m. with the television strobing shadows or staring sightlessly back at me like some electronic surveillance camera into The Abyss. The remnants of last night’s microwave dinner will invariably be on the coffee table next to me surrounded by several empty beer bottles and a full ashtray. It is in that 4:00 a.m. hour that shadows hover in the room like regrets, consequences, the ghosts of choices.
At that hour my first thoughts are variations on I’m middle-aged, how did that happen and how long has it been going on? Oh yeah, I’m living in San Diego on Nutmeg Street. I’ve moved a half-dozen times in nine years. I’m not married to Jane anymore; that was just a dream…the young boy in the dream…was that my son or was it me?
Jane and I met in 1970. I was 19 years old, she was 26. Pictures I have of us in Central Park show two beautiful flakes in the snow: me in white-fringed jacket, shoulder-length hair, and lamb-chop sideburns darker than my straight, light-brown hair beneath an oversized denim cap, the kind I’d seen John Lennon wear. Janey is wearing an ankle-length white Afghan coat trimmed with colorful, embroidered patterns. Exactly as tall as I am, her hair is to her waist and she is smiling into the camera — into the future. I can’t look at that photo for too long. Not because there remains any painful wound; no, the scar tissue is in place and the emotions have fossilized. The reason I can’t stare too long at that picture and Janey’s smile is simply because she outstares me.
It would have been the summer before that we had tried to avoid staring into each other’s eyes over red wine in a cafe at Bethesda Fountain, a place that no longer exists. (The fountain does, not the cafe.) Norman Mailer would eat lunch there and Germaine Greer, Zero Mostel, and Lauren Bacall. We began to feel like stars ourselves, as if we were actors in some romantic, intellectual art film. We would spend hours at that great, good place whose name I can’t remember — until 5:30 approached and Jane’s husband would be returning home from work.
Gregg was a television sitcom producer who got his job through his famous father. Gregg would throw parties at his East Side apartment with semi-famous, now-forgotten actors. The parties were popular and took place nightly. Wine, vodka, and marijuana flowed. Gregg was a hip guy with shoulder-length hair, suede shirts, and faded denim bell-bottoms. One night I found myself at Gregg and Jane’s, following a convoy of revelers from another party down in the village. I had my guitar and a few musician friends along, and we entertained Gregg’s showbiz guests. Gregg insisted I could stay as his houseguest for as long as I liked if I taught him guitar. He said I could even sleep with his wife and laughed, clapping me on the back.
The apartment on East 70th Street was huge by New York standards: three bedrooms and a large living and dining area. On some nights I’d give Gregg a guitar lesson, or try. I was a bad teacher and he was an easily distracted student. Gregg brought women home — girls, really — and disappeared with them for hours into the master bedroom. When there wasn’t a party raging in the other rooms, during which time Jane kept everyone’s glasses filled, she would sit in the living room crocheting or reading. She felt she wasn’t terribly hip because she didn’t share Gregg’s concept of “open marriage.”
Jane never seemed jealous of Gregg’s dalliances so much as confused. She sensed, rightly, that it was swine-ish behavior rather than hip, but she did so in a quiet, seething way. She said little about it because it was the ’60s (or near enough) and she was probably just “hung up.” We would often end up talking late into the night, sometimes until dawn. Some days Jane looked for work as a copywriter on Madison Avenue. I played guitar and wrote bad songs and worse novellas on an old Olympia.
One night, while Gregg slept with the latest of his “friends,” Jane and I fell asleep in each other’s arms in the guest room. We were fully clothed and my guitar lay between us. Two empty bottles of Almaden Claret stood like useless sentinels on both nightstands. I won’t say nothing happened (neither will Jane; to this day neither of us remembers exactly), but it couldn’t have been much.