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A San Diego divorce story

The word was, he'd abandoned his family for a cocktail waitress

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? - Image by Michael Kupperman
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?

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.

Gregg, hung over, maybe still drunk or high, discovered us and decided to throw me out.

It’s 4:17 a.m. now in my apartment on Nutmeg. Staring at the soundless television on which a 1982 made-for-TV movie called Don’t Go to Sleep (Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper) is flickering inanely around the room, I decide to write all of this down.

I remember the first part of the fistfight with Gregg, but not what happened after he struck a blow to the side of my head that had me dizzy and unsteady on my feet. I didn’t go down, though; I remember that.

“I’m leaving, Gregg. All right? Jesus.”

“I’m going with you,” Jane had said.

“No, you’re not!” Gregg and I said in unison. But Gregg had grabbed Jane’s hair and tried to pull her into the bathroom. Gregg was already inside, Jane was at his arm’s length resisting and crying. The door swung open or closed from the outside, so I slammed the door on his hand and leaned on it hard. Released, Jane ran to the front door, stopping only to grab her oversized crocheted handbag.

Gregg was screaming, “My hand, you son of a bitch! My hand!” That was the last I saw or heard from him.

That’s how Jane and I started.

Inauspicious. Sordid enough too, I suppose; in a dramatic haze seen through red wine bottles and marijuana smoke.

We hitchhiked across the country, waited on tables, and worked bookstores. We traveled through northern Europe where, outside the British Museum, we adopted an image of our future selves: A couple in their late 60s in sensible walking shoes, khakis, rucksacks, and armloads of books. The man wore a tweed fishing-type cap, and the woman had long silver hair in a ponytail. They walked briskly, at a matching pace with a similar gait, and spoke energetically, smiling at each other with an affection that could be nothing but genuine. Their body language, faces, and eyes said they were at home with each other and the world, and excited about both.

We were married at Manhattan city hall in a roomful of mostly black and Hispanic couples accompanied by a dozen children. The heat was equatorial. Jane’s mascara ran and she felt faint; my white shirt was plastered to my chest and back as I sweated out the previous night’s champagne.

A month later in the same record-breaking heat wave, our son Justin was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village. I was in the delivery room at 3:00 a.m. for his birth. I remember deep gouges in my arms where Janey had dug her fingernails in, snarling obscenities I didn’t know were in her repertoire. I don’t remember the gouges being inflicted, though; I had a rapidly evaporating hangover. By 3:07 a.m. when Justin emerged from Janey, a bundle of snot and blood and beauty, I realized that I had never done anything important before.

Flash forward 17 years: 4:35 a.m. No moon. Darkness except for the computer monitor and the skirling of shadows at my back cast by the silent television screen. I think: I was going to write about my divorce, not my marriage. Yet divorce isn’t about itself, but what went before. Most of the clichés you hear on the subject are so much happy crap: that divorce is “a beginning, not an ending”; that “it takes about nine months to get over it, about as long as a pregnancy”; or the one about how “it’s always hardest on the children.” I’ve found these things to be untrue. For one, children tend to be more resilient than adults. And a divorce is something you may never really get over (much less in nine months), like an old gunshot wound or scarlet fever. Finally, it is not the beginning of anything; it is an ending, make no mistake. It is not often a symbolic rebirthing but a very real death, not just of a shared dream, but of a piece, large or small, of two flesh-and-blood human beings.

After Justin’s birth we moved to Queens, where we could afford a larger apartment. I tended bar at two places in Manhattan while Jane took a leave of absence from advertising, a leave that would stretch into three years.

We fought over money.

Sex became infrequent, usually because we were both exhausted. I worked nights and tried to sleep during the days. Jane tried to sleep whenever she could. Justin was our center of gravity. I managed to write a long autobiographical novel about an Irish family, which Jane and I were both excited about — it would solve our money problems. It remains unpublishable (and for many pages unreadable) to this day. I drank at work, and I drank on my days off when I wrote. Jane never gave me any shit about it.

In 1980 we moved from Queens to San Diego, where Jane’s father in the real estate business had scouted out a nice little “fixer-upper” for us in Old Town, built in 1883. The price was $50,000. He would put up the down payment; I would contribute the sweat and the time and the mortgage payments.

Got a job tending bar at an expensive Italian restaurant downtown and a gin mill in Coronado.

Hung sheet rock. Laid cement flooring. Tile roofing. Brick patio. Wallpaper. Strip, sand, stain wainscotting and ceiling beams. Terrace back yard with railroad ties, dirt fill, and ice plants. I wasn’t very good at any of it, but I learned, taking more time at it than someone who was naturally handy. Jane planted nasturtiums, gardenias, roses, ferns, baby’s tears, garlic, and forget-me-nots. She was good at that and still is. I glazed windows fairly well and hacksawed trumpet vines away from the roof planks and gutters.

Now Justin and The House were the twin suns we orbited, gliding effortlessly past each other without friction. We joked about our “edifice complex” and drank white wine together once in a while at night. If we drank enough, we made love. Justin grew.

It took four years to get the house and grounds into, if not cover-issue-House Beautiful material, something less than a neighborhood eyesore and more than a pleasant home. Justin was seven and doing well in first grade, and we loved him madly as we always have. I was making decent money behind a popular bar in Mission Valley and selling some magazine articles to pay extra bills. Jane had landed a well-paying job as an advertising manager with a Del Mar firm, and we were better off than we’d been four years ago when Ronald Reagan first came into office.

But I didn’t think so. Not really. I still don’t know why and can only feebly point to Edgar Allan Poe’s concept of “The Imp of the Perverse.” I felt I had become “Ozzie” in someone else’s teleplay for Ozzie and Harriet in the ’80s. I was having trouble breathing.

Instead of the long-haired, crocheting, Rimbaud-quoting romantic who had hitchhiked to Los Angeles with me a dozen years ago, I was living with a woman with short-cropped hair who was thinking seriously about voting Republican, who dressed for success with power skirt-suits, Adidas, and a briefcase. She made more money than I did bartending and freelance writing. She rarely said anything, but once in a while she would suggest, innocently enough, that I might find a job with the airlines or take some computer and business courses…maybe real estate. It wouldn’t hurt to cut the hair and moustache either, the ’60s were long gone. I could still work on the novel in my spare time, of course, but now the idea of “writing” became analogous to hubby putting model airplanes together in the attic on weekends — a harmless but silly idea.

Maybe that’s not how she felt, but it’s how I felt she felt.

Jane still smoked pot, something I had long given up (it made me stupid, passive, and paranoid simultaneously) but had switched to much better wines and seemed to be learning a great deal about them from someone. I had switched from cheap wine to midpriced scotch. Our sex life in the last two years of our marriage became a delicate alchemical balance between these mind-altering elements and coinciding free evenings. Jane worked long hours, and when I wasn’t working, I was in the study typing.

One afternoon at the bar in Mission Valley a woman came in wearing a gray flannel skirt and bolero jacket over a white, high-necked blouse. She had amber blonde hair frosted with natural silver, and the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes looked like some exotic facial tattoo drawing attention to her fawn’s eyes, the same color as her hair. Her earrings were bone or ivory. She asked if I was the manager, and for a moment I forgot whether or not I was.

She certainly wasn’t young, close to 40, and was probably a more classic beauty 20 years earlier, but when she spoke, her voice reminded me of caramel and cognac and I felt nervous; a very warm, amphetamine-like pulsing of blood coursed through my chest, cheeks, and the back of my neck. She later told me she felt something similar.

I will not write that this was love at first sight, but it was exactly what is meant by that phrase. More accurately it was very powerful chemistry at a critical pheromonal distance.

She was here about the hostess job.

That was Annie. She got the job because the personnel manager was not immune to her charm and figure any more than I was. I completely avoided talking to her or being near her when it was possible. She did the same. On slow nights, she would smoke cigarettes and speak Spanish to the kitchen help rather than lean against the cocktail station and shoot the shit with me the way many of the waitresses did. That was all right; I knew that if she came near me for any length of time, I would be long gone down that deep drain of desire.

In the meantime, Jane was coming home later and later. She would often be giggling, smelling of Beaujolais, carrying a bottle or two of some “puckish, yet not ponderously ethnic little Bardolino” or whatever. The nights I worked, I wouldn’t know what time she got home. The babysitter once asked me for extra money because she had to stay until after 11:00 p.m. on a few occasions. I didn’t think anything about it; the ad business was, Jane said, “like warfare: days of boredom interrupted by weeks of desperation and madness. There are always casualties.”

One night behind the bar, I was examining my burgeoning pot belly. The busboy reassured me, “It’s a beer muscle, dude.” But I was half serious as I groused about an old friend who came in and mentioned my “prosperous girth… You look like the jolly fuckin’ innkeeper,” he had said.

I asked the waitresses if I was getting fat, and they all said versions of “Yeah. And you’re losing your hair too.” Or “Pretty soon, your semi-annual hard-on is going to become your annual semi-hard-on.” Things like that.

I responded with like insults to the staff — things unnecessarily crude, but highly witty, I was sure. Annie walked up to the bar and said, “I think you look very good.” What I heard was I want you, take me now. I was gone. That was the precise moment my life changed in an irretrievable way. I tried to get it back over the next several months as I had the affair with Annie, but it was like trying to pick a dozen raw eggs up off the kitchen floor with one hand.

Being virtuous, true, a wonderfully honest man, I told Annie from the first that I was married. I showed her the white-gold wedding band. She said, “I know. You would be. I was married twice. To the wrong people, but I still believe in marriage.” We had drinks after closing time and talked. We ended up in her condo in Fashion Valley one night, drunk. I was so hammered, nervous, and guilty, I couldn’t do anything, though I tried. We met again and again and eventually chemistry won out over my Catholicism. It was sadistically ironic — and thoroughly Catholic and correct — that the sex was unlike anything I had ever experienced before because of the elements of passion and taboo.

I would go home and sit next to my son’s bed, reeking from gin, talking quietly so as not to wake him, and then start crying. One night I woke him up, and it was “his mother” (as I now thought of Jane) who asked me what was wrong.

I said, “We have to get divorced.” This was three months into the affair.

Silence.

“No,” my son said, “don’t.” He had no idea what the word meant, but he knew it was not a good thing. He could smell death the way children can, could not pretend it was something else. He began to cry.

“You drunken asshole. Are you happy?” Jane shushed him to sleep and whispered to me, “Go to bed.” I fell asleep on the floor of our bedroom, no longer feeling it was right to take my usual side on the four-poster.

Excuses have a hollow sound. Lies have an earnest tacky melody.

— John D. MacDonald,

The Turquoise Lament


5:25 a.m., 1994: This is scab-picking, nothing less. Mailer once wrote something to the effect that a Catholic with a hangover needs to clean up some dog shit or something to mortify the spirit. Writing this is an equivalent, I figure. Nine years. Nine years and still I feel like a Cossack who invaded and pillaged his own home with base appetites and unimaginative visions of glory dancing in his vodka-crazed head. I also feel it is vain to judge yourself, so I can’t win on this one.

Birds are starting to sense dawn and call to each other with a surprising range and articulation of sounds. Almost no traffic on First Avenue. I could be in the country, but the jays and crows and starlings sound mocking, annoying. It’s insane to take it personally, but they seem to be chanting a far more primordial, universal commentary. This is the song. Here’s a riff, a variation, the morning chorus by nature’s unruined choir. Your story is unimportant, man-person.

Yeah, well, fuck you.

I try to go back to sleep on my sofa-bed couch and find that I cannot. I can’t get to the truth of anything, maybe. But not to try…the birds would drive me nuts forever.

Oh, join in with your own ruined chorus anytime.

Annie and I were completely caught up in each other, or who each of us thought we were. We didn’t fight until I lost my nerve. I couldn’t leave my “babies.” Justin was literally “my baby,” but I now found it cripplingly real that I thought of my wife in this way as well. It was a bad hour in the middle of the day involving much clutching of pillows and odd sounds coming from my throat. But Annie was something I needed. I don’t feel I’m wrong about that, even today. But with hindsight, I was as wrong as is possible for a man to be. I don’t know. Most likely I never will.

Jane asked me to stay until Justin finished the school year. The idea was, she had read something about children of separating or divorcing couples taking a nosedive in the scholastic area. It was a delaying tactic, but I had to agree. Of course, of course, it’s the least I can do.

I stayed until the first week of July. My son seemed confused but did not appear to be suffering. Jane and I suffered. Annie suffered too, paying for my guilt and vacillations. I was surly at times with her, probably blaming her, cowardly unconscious, for wrecking my home. It didn’t help that we worked together. On one morning after an all-night fight, Ann quit the restaurant. She wouldn’t work again for a year.

A La Jolla maître d’ named Walter seemed to be at the house every Sunday morning when I’d drive over to pick up Justin to go to the beach or the movies. He would be sitting in my old chair, watching my old television, drinking coffee from my old mug and announce, “Justin! Bob is here.” Not Your dad is here.

One morning he pointed to the wall shelf I’d mounted above some wainscoting I’d replaced on the dining room wall and smiled, “That’s not exactly a right angle, is it? Are you sure you measured that?” Maybe, feeling momentarily awkward, he meant it as harmless “guy talk,” but it had the effect of making me want to clean my ex-toilet with his beard.

I lost weight, too much. I chalked it up to separation, divorce, and the increasingly roller-coaster–like relationship with Ann. Within six months of moving in with Annie, I moved out again to an apartment in North Park. Ann and I still saw each other several nights a week and tried to work things out, but we could barely go for three days in a row without an eruption of drama and flying crockery, which once brought the police in the middle of the night.

My weight loss was due to a rapid degenerative disease of the central nervous system: MS. I experienced numbness and tremors, loss of balance. It was seven months after I walked out the door and into that taxi that the doctor had used the term multiple sclerosis.

I remember saying, “Fine. Just great. Whatever. I really don’t care.”

The sun is up now and I close the Venetian blinds. Make more coffee. God, don’t get into the MS thing. This isn’t about disease. It’s about your divorce. But I don’t see how you can separate the two things. Was it just some horrible coincidence that within months after leaving my wife for another woman, my nerves began to devour themselves with a deadly disease?

Yes. Yes. That’s all it was, coincidence. Bad luck. Bad timing.

I’d suddenly rather have a beer than coffee. For chrissakes, it’s 6:30 in the morning. I make the coffee.

I reacted every way there is to react. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I cried and felt sorry for myself. I resigned myself to dying in a year or less, and for days at a time I really didn’t care. I decided I had to go back to Jane before it was too late, the divorce wasn’t final. If I went back, everything would be all right; this judgment would be lifted. Besides, I was still on Jane’s health plan. I couldn’t afford months of expensive medical treatment on my own.

But it was too late. Walter had moved in with his cases of wine, record collection, and meerschaum pipe filling the house with the scent of coconut and vanilla.

Among my reactions to the bad medical news was now anger.

One night I called to say good night to Justin, and Jane told me he was doing a sleepover in Balboa Park with the Cub Scouts. It was a chilly night, and I asked if he had enough blankets, warm clothes. She assured me he had, but I told her the Boy Scout camp was only a few blocks from my apartment and I thought I’d walk over and check on him, see who was supervising the thing.

“Fine,” she said. What she didn’t say was that it was Ol’ Walt supervising the campout. He was the designated den leader for that activity.

Searching through the twilight gloom of the park, past tents and kids in blue-and-gold or green khaki, cooking fires burning marshmallows and hot dogs, I found Justin. He was running around a collapsing tent with four of his friends shouting Indian war cries.

Flailing away at the tent pegs with a steel mallet — voice hoarse from shouting at the kids, firelight catching his flushed cheeks, sweat gleaming on his forehead, his eyes deranged with frustration — was Walter.

I called to Justin to settle down and he stopped running. The other kids piled onto his back. Walter looked up at me, and I could see, almost hear, something snap. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Clearly pissed, he looked at me as if I were the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“I’m just checking on Justin. I’m his father, Walt.”

Probably not aware he still had the mallet in his hands, Walt stood and walked slowly toward me. “This is my time with Justin,” he said with an edge in his voice. “You understand? I don’t tag along with you when you take him to the movies or whatever you do. I don’t appreciate your horning in on our weekend, Bob!” His voice rose too much, and he had approached that critical distance known as “in your face.” The kids were all looking on in horror: a sweaty, hairy, wild-eyed man with a large hammer was shouting at another, equally hairy, larger man around a campfire. A scene of ugly primordial menace.

Very quietly I asked him, “You wanna put the hammer down, Walt?”

He looked at it and dropped it onto the grass. Behind him, the tent collapsed again. “Hey, I.…” he dropped his voice.

“First of all, Walt,” I turned my back on him and walked away from the campfire, out of earshot of the boys. I jerked my head to indicate he should follow me. He fell into step behind me. I continued in a conversational tone. “I didn’t know you were gonna be here.” I laughed so the kids would know everything was okay.

“Secondly,” I turned and backed him into a tree. I was now in his critical, personal space. He flinched. From a distance it looked as if we were just conferring secretly. Grown-up to grown-up. “Secondly, Walt. There is no such thing as an inappropriate time for me to visit my son whenever it is physically possible to do so. Never. No such thing. Third, Wally…” I was speaking in low, friendly tones. “You are not Justin’s father. I am. Justin knows this and I do too. Jane has that down real well, so it’s just left to you to get it. See?” I put my arm past his ear and leaned my left hand against the tree. “You’re Jane’s boyfriend, and that about covers it, wouldn’t you say?”

“Look,” he said. “These kids are driving me nuts. I’ve got to get back.” He sounded exhausted. “I guess you’re right. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

“Okay. But we’re clear on this, right?”

“Yes. Yes.” He nodded. I clapped him on the back real hard and let out a loud chuckle as if we had been talking about those idiot Padres.

I waved to Justin. “Hey, Jus’ — help Waldo put up the tent, okay? I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Justin gave me the okay sign we used between us and I left. I knew he would have the tent up in five minutes. I kind of felt sorry for Walter. I’ve rarely seen anyone who needed a drink so badly. I hoped he’d brought some beer, for his own sake.

Jane agreed to hold off on divorce proceedings in order to keep me on her health plan. I was grateful. I was not getting any healthier, so I signed over a Quit Claim Deed on the house for enough money to live on for six months.

It was a bad year that stretched into a bad 16 months of medical treatment, poverty, and disillusionment, as well as a hopeless, melodramatic relationship with Annie. We broke up, got back together. I developed trouble with double vision, and sometimes my jaw would go slack and my speech would be slurred when I was stone-cold sober. Annie didn’t bargain for this, and who could blame her? Well, I did, of course.

Jane got most of the friends from our old life. The word was that I had run off, abandoned my family for an old cocktail waitress. This was a much more interesting version of the truth than the facts. My worst fears came to pass: I lost my family and I was losing the woman I loved and left everything for. A certain relief began to fill me: the worst had happened. Whaddya gonna do now, God? Kill me? Ooohhh, I’m shaking. Go ahead. Do it. No, really…

For a year or so, I felt like an animated corpse. The MS was under control, but how was I supposed to live? More importantly, why?

After I was in remission for six months, Jane said she wanted to marry Walter. She wanted the divorce. I told her that was fine. I was okay. Ann and I had broken up. I got a book deal and lived in Mexico. My health plan would consist of thinking good thoughts and writing. The tough part was switching gears: I had rehearsed my own death for nearly a year; I was sure the MS was going to kill me — and now the rules had changed.

By the time Jane agreed to let me spend time with Justin in the company of Ann, Ann was no longer in the picture. Three weeks to the day after our divorce was final, Jane and Walter were married. Justin wore a suit and bow tie. I saw pictures of the wedding.


8:00 a.m. Justin will be on his way to school in half an hour. Walter will drive him; I’ll pick him up at 2:15 at San Diego High on my motorcycle and take him to a bookstore to find Dungeons and Dragons books and a copy of Huxley’s Doors of Perception for his philosophy class. Then we’ll get a pizza. Afterward, maybe we’ll see Addams Family Values at a cheap theater at 54th and El Cajon. I won’t take him to my apartment to show him my new computer or the human skull I just bought at an auction in Anaheim, though he would like to see these things, I think. This place is too much like the dorm room he’ll probably inhabit in a couple of years at UCSD or Stanford.

He is 17. Jane is turning 50 this fall. I’m gonna say I’m in my mid-40s, but maybe that’s stretching it a tad.

Soon I’ll have him over to look at my library and maybe even share a beer. That’s a ways up the road, but not far. At that time, maybe Justin will understand that I’ve been to a sort of college myself in the past eight years. A slow student.

I’ve got the scrapbooks gathering dust: Justin’s old soccer pictures and baseball trophies he wasn’t interested in at the time. I could show him posters of artwork and blown-up reviews of my stuff, book covers and pieces in national magazines. But I suppose he’ll find it secondary to what interests him most. And that would be: Who are we, you and I? What went wrong with you and Mom? You seemed to get along so well after you left. And:

“Whatever happened to whatsername, Annie? And do you have 50 bucks? Can I drive your motorcycle? Anything to eat around here? How old is this pizza? You really sleep on that?”

I see it like this: “Here’s the keys. Be careful. If you do drugs, uh…use a condom.”

“Hah hah, don’t worry.”

“What? Me worry?”

“Yeah, Dad. You do. You do.”

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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? - Image by Michael Kupperman
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?

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.

Gregg, hung over, maybe still drunk or high, discovered us and decided to throw me out.

It’s 4:17 a.m. now in my apartment on Nutmeg. Staring at the soundless television on which a 1982 made-for-TV movie called Don’t Go to Sleep (Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper) is flickering inanely around the room, I decide to write all of this down.

I remember the first part of the fistfight with Gregg, but not what happened after he struck a blow to the side of my head that had me dizzy and unsteady on my feet. I didn’t go down, though; I remember that.

“I’m leaving, Gregg. All right? Jesus.”

“I’m going with you,” Jane had said.

“No, you’re not!” Gregg and I said in unison. But Gregg had grabbed Jane’s hair and tried to pull her into the bathroom. Gregg was already inside, Jane was at his arm’s length resisting and crying. The door swung open or closed from the outside, so I slammed the door on his hand and leaned on it hard. Released, Jane ran to the front door, stopping only to grab her oversized crocheted handbag.

Gregg was screaming, “My hand, you son of a bitch! My hand!” That was the last I saw or heard from him.

That’s how Jane and I started.

Inauspicious. Sordid enough too, I suppose; in a dramatic haze seen through red wine bottles and marijuana smoke.

We hitchhiked across the country, waited on tables, and worked bookstores. We traveled through northern Europe where, outside the British Museum, we adopted an image of our future selves: A couple in their late 60s in sensible walking shoes, khakis, rucksacks, and armloads of books. The man wore a tweed fishing-type cap, and the woman had long silver hair in a ponytail. They walked briskly, at a matching pace with a similar gait, and spoke energetically, smiling at each other with an affection that could be nothing but genuine. Their body language, faces, and eyes said they were at home with each other and the world, and excited about both.

We were married at Manhattan city hall in a roomful of mostly black and Hispanic couples accompanied by a dozen children. The heat was equatorial. Jane’s mascara ran and she felt faint; my white shirt was plastered to my chest and back as I sweated out the previous night’s champagne.

A month later in the same record-breaking heat wave, our son Justin was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village. I was in the delivery room at 3:00 a.m. for his birth. I remember deep gouges in my arms where Janey had dug her fingernails in, snarling obscenities I didn’t know were in her repertoire. I don’t remember the gouges being inflicted, though; I had a rapidly evaporating hangover. By 3:07 a.m. when Justin emerged from Janey, a bundle of snot and blood and beauty, I realized that I had never done anything important before.

Flash forward 17 years: 4:35 a.m. No moon. Darkness except for the computer monitor and the skirling of shadows at my back cast by the silent television screen. I think: I was going to write about my divorce, not my marriage. Yet divorce isn’t about itself, but what went before. Most of the clichés you hear on the subject are so much happy crap: that divorce is “a beginning, not an ending”; that “it takes about nine months to get over it, about as long as a pregnancy”; or the one about how “it’s always hardest on the children.” I’ve found these things to be untrue. For one, children tend to be more resilient than adults. And a divorce is something you may never really get over (much less in nine months), like an old gunshot wound or scarlet fever. Finally, it is not the beginning of anything; it is an ending, make no mistake. It is not often a symbolic rebirthing but a very real death, not just of a shared dream, but of a piece, large or small, of two flesh-and-blood human beings.

After Justin’s birth we moved to Queens, where we could afford a larger apartment. I tended bar at two places in Manhattan while Jane took a leave of absence from advertising, a leave that would stretch into three years.

We fought over money.

Sex became infrequent, usually because we were both exhausted. I worked nights and tried to sleep during the days. Jane tried to sleep whenever she could. Justin was our center of gravity. I managed to write a long autobiographical novel about an Irish family, which Jane and I were both excited about — it would solve our money problems. It remains unpublishable (and for many pages unreadable) to this day. I drank at work, and I drank on my days off when I wrote. Jane never gave me any shit about it.

In 1980 we moved from Queens to San Diego, where Jane’s father in the real estate business had scouted out a nice little “fixer-upper” for us in Old Town, built in 1883. The price was $50,000. He would put up the down payment; I would contribute the sweat and the time and the mortgage payments.

Got a job tending bar at an expensive Italian restaurant downtown and a gin mill in Coronado.

Hung sheet rock. Laid cement flooring. Tile roofing. Brick patio. Wallpaper. Strip, sand, stain wainscotting and ceiling beams. Terrace back yard with railroad ties, dirt fill, and ice plants. I wasn’t very good at any of it, but I learned, taking more time at it than someone who was naturally handy. Jane planted nasturtiums, gardenias, roses, ferns, baby’s tears, garlic, and forget-me-nots. She was good at that and still is. I glazed windows fairly well and hacksawed trumpet vines away from the roof planks and gutters.

Now Justin and The House were the twin suns we orbited, gliding effortlessly past each other without friction. We joked about our “edifice complex” and drank white wine together once in a while at night. If we drank enough, we made love. Justin grew.

It took four years to get the house and grounds into, if not cover-issue-House Beautiful material, something less than a neighborhood eyesore and more than a pleasant home. Justin was seven and doing well in first grade, and we loved him madly as we always have. I was making decent money behind a popular bar in Mission Valley and selling some magazine articles to pay extra bills. Jane had landed a well-paying job as an advertising manager with a Del Mar firm, and we were better off than we’d been four years ago when Ronald Reagan first came into office.

But I didn’t think so. Not really. I still don’t know why and can only feebly point to Edgar Allan Poe’s concept of “The Imp of the Perverse.” I felt I had become “Ozzie” in someone else’s teleplay for Ozzie and Harriet in the ’80s. I was having trouble breathing.

Instead of the long-haired, crocheting, Rimbaud-quoting romantic who had hitchhiked to Los Angeles with me a dozen years ago, I was living with a woman with short-cropped hair who was thinking seriously about voting Republican, who dressed for success with power skirt-suits, Adidas, and a briefcase. She made more money than I did bartending and freelance writing. She rarely said anything, but once in a while she would suggest, innocently enough, that I might find a job with the airlines or take some computer and business courses…maybe real estate. It wouldn’t hurt to cut the hair and moustache either, the ’60s were long gone. I could still work on the novel in my spare time, of course, but now the idea of “writing” became analogous to hubby putting model airplanes together in the attic on weekends — a harmless but silly idea.

Maybe that’s not how she felt, but it’s how I felt she felt.

Jane still smoked pot, something I had long given up (it made me stupid, passive, and paranoid simultaneously) but had switched to much better wines and seemed to be learning a great deal about them from someone. I had switched from cheap wine to midpriced scotch. Our sex life in the last two years of our marriage became a delicate alchemical balance between these mind-altering elements and coinciding free evenings. Jane worked long hours, and when I wasn’t working, I was in the study typing.

One afternoon at the bar in Mission Valley a woman came in wearing a gray flannel skirt and bolero jacket over a white, high-necked blouse. She had amber blonde hair frosted with natural silver, and the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes looked like some exotic facial tattoo drawing attention to her fawn’s eyes, the same color as her hair. Her earrings were bone or ivory. She asked if I was the manager, and for a moment I forgot whether or not I was.

She certainly wasn’t young, close to 40, and was probably a more classic beauty 20 years earlier, but when she spoke, her voice reminded me of caramel and cognac and I felt nervous; a very warm, amphetamine-like pulsing of blood coursed through my chest, cheeks, and the back of my neck. She later told me she felt something similar.

I will not write that this was love at first sight, but it was exactly what is meant by that phrase. More accurately it was very powerful chemistry at a critical pheromonal distance.

She was here about the hostess job.

That was Annie. She got the job because the personnel manager was not immune to her charm and figure any more than I was. I completely avoided talking to her or being near her when it was possible. She did the same. On slow nights, she would smoke cigarettes and speak Spanish to the kitchen help rather than lean against the cocktail station and shoot the shit with me the way many of the waitresses did. That was all right; I knew that if she came near me for any length of time, I would be long gone down that deep drain of desire.

In the meantime, Jane was coming home later and later. She would often be giggling, smelling of Beaujolais, carrying a bottle or two of some “puckish, yet not ponderously ethnic little Bardolino” or whatever. The nights I worked, I wouldn’t know what time she got home. The babysitter once asked me for extra money because she had to stay until after 11:00 p.m. on a few occasions. I didn’t think anything about it; the ad business was, Jane said, “like warfare: days of boredom interrupted by weeks of desperation and madness. There are always casualties.”

One night behind the bar, I was examining my burgeoning pot belly. The busboy reassured me, “It’s a beer muscle, dude.” But I was half serious as I groused about an old friend who came in and mentioned my “prosperous girth… You look like the jolly fuckin’ innkeeper,” he had said.

I asked the waitresses if I was getting fat, and they all said versions of “Yeah. And you’re losing your hair too.” Or “Pretty soon, your semi-annual hard-on is going to become your annual semi-hard-on.” Things like that.

I responded with like insults to the staff — things unnecessarily crude, but highly witty, I was sure. Annie walked up to the bar and said, “I think you look very good.” What I heard was I want you, take me now. I was gone. That was the precise moment my life changed in an irretrievable way. I tried to get it back over the next several months as I had the affair with Annie, but it was like trying to pick a dozen raw eggs up off the kitchen floor with one hand.

Being virtuous, true, a wonderfully honest man, I told Annie from the first that I was married. I showed her the white-gold wedding band. She said, “I know. You would be. I was married twice. To the wrong people, but I still believe in marriage.” We had drinks after closing time and talked. We ended up in her condo in Fashion Valley one night, drunk. I was so hammered, nervous, and guilty, I couldn’t do anything, though I tried. We met again and again and eventually chemistry won out over my Catholicism. It was sadistically ironic — and thoroughly Catholic and correct — that the sex was unlike anything I had ever experienced before because of the elements of passion and taboo.

I would go home and sit next to my son’s bed, reeking from gin, talking quietly so as not to wake him, and then start crying. One night I woke him up, and it was “his mother” (as I now thought of Jane) who asked me what was wrong.

I said, “We have to get divorced.” This was three months into the affair.

Silence.

“No,” my son said, “don’t.” He had no idea what the word meant, but he knew it was not a good thing. He could smell death the way children can, could not pretend it was something else. He began to cry.

“You drunken asshole. Are you happy?” Jane shushed him to sleep and whispered to me, “Go to bed.” I fell asleep on the floor of our bedroom, no longer feeling it was right to take my usual side on the four-poster.

Excuses have a hollow sound. Lies have an earnest tacky melody.

— John D. MacDonald,

The Turquoise Lament


5:25 a.m., 1994: This is scab-picking, nothing less. Mailer once wrote something to the effect that a Catholic with a hangover needs to clean up some dog shit or something to mortify the spirit. Writing this is an equivalent, I figure. Nine years. Nine years and still I feel like a Cossack who invaded and pillaged his own home with base appetites and unimaginative visions of glory dancing in his vodka-crazed head. I also feel it is vain to judge yourself, so I can’t win on this one.

Birds are starting to sense dawn and call to each other with a surprising range and articulation of sounds. Almost no traffic on First Avenue. I could be in the country, but the jays and crows and starlings sound mocking, annoying. It’s insane to take it personally, but they seem to be chanting a far more primordial, universal commentary. This is the song. Here’s a riff, a variation, the morning chorus by nature’s unruined choir. Your story is unimportant, man-person.

Yeah, well, fuck you.

I try to go back to sleep on my sofa-bed couch and find that I cannot. I can’t get to the truth of anything, maybe. But not to try…the birds would drive me nuts forever.

Oh, join in with your own ruined chorus anytime.

Annie and I were completely caught up in each other, or who each of us thought we were. We didn’t fight until I lost my nerve. I couldn’t leave my “babies.” Justin was literally “my baby,” but I now found it cripplingly real that I thought of my wife in this way as well. It was a bad hour in the middle of the day involving much clutching of pillows and odd sounds coming from my throat. But Annie was something I needed. I don’t feel I’m wrong about that, even today. But with hindsight, I was as wrong as is possible for a man to be. I don’t know. Most likely I never will.

Jane asked me to stay until Justin finished the school year. The idea was, she had read something about children of separating or divorcing couples taking a nosedive in the scholastic area. It was a delaying tactic, but I had to agree. Of course, of course, it’s the least I can do.

I stayed until the first week of July. My son seemed confused but did not appear to be suffering. Jane and I suffered. Annie suffered too, paying for my guilt and vacillations. I was surly at times with her, probably blaming her, cowardly unconscious, for wrecking my home. It didn’t help that we worked together. On one morning after an all-night fight, Ann quit the restaurant. She wouldn’t work again for a year.

A La Jolla maître d’ named Walter seemed to be at the house every Sunday morning when I’d drive over to pick up Justin to go to the beach or the movies. He would be sitting in my old chair, watching my old television, drinking coffee from my old mug and announce, “Justin! Bob is here.” Not Your dad is here.

One morning he pointed to the wall shelf I’d mounted above some wainscoting I’d replaced on the dining room wall and smiled, “That’s not exactly a right angle, is it? Are you sure you measured that?” Maybe, feeling momentarily awkward, he meant it as harmless “guy talk,” but it had the effect of making me want to clean my ex-toilet with his beard.

I lost weight, too much. I chalked it up to separation, divorce, and the increasingly roller-coaster–like relationship with Ann. Within six months of moving in with Annie, I moved out again to an apartment in North Park. Ann and I still saw each other several nights a week and tried to work things out, but we could barely go for three days in a row without an eruption of drama and flying crockery, which once brought the police in the middle of the night.

My weight loss was due to a rapid degenerative disease of the central nervous system: MS. I experienced numbness and tremors, loss of balance. It was seven months after I walked out the door and into that taxi that the doctor had used the term multiple sclerosis.

I remember saying, “Fine. Just great. Whatever. I really don’t care.”

The sun is up now and I close the Venetian blinds. Make more coffee. God, don’t get into the MS thing. This isn’t about disease. It’s about your divorce. But I don’t see how you can separate the two things. Was it just some horrible coincidence that within months after leaving my wife for another woman, my nerves began to devour themselves with a deadly disease?

Yes. Yes. That’s all it was, coincidence. Bad luck. Bad timing.

I’d suddenly rather have a beer than coffee. For chrissakes, it’s 6:30 in the morning. I make the coffee.

I reacted every way there is to react. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I cried and felt sorry for myself. I resigned myself to dying in a year or less, and for days at a time I really didn’t care. I decided I had to go back to Jane before it was too late, the divorce wasn’t final. If I went back, everything would be all right; this judgment would be lifted. Besides, I was still on Jane’s health plan. I couldn’t afford months of expensive medical treatment on my own.

But it was too late. Walter had moved in with his cases of wine, record collection, and meerschaum pipe filling the house with the scent of coconut and vanilla.

Among my reactions to the bad medical news was now anger.

One night I called to say good night to Justin, and Jane told me he was doing a sleepover in Balboa Park with the Cub Scouts. It was a chilly night, and I asked if he had enough blankets, warm clothes. She assured me he had, but I told her the Boy Scout camp was only a few blocks from my apartment and I thought I’d walk over and check on him, see who was supervising the thing.

“Fine,” she said. What she didn’t say was that it was Ol’ Walt supervising the campout. He was the designated den leader for that activity.

Searching through the twilight gloom of the park, past tents and kids in blue-and-gold or green khaki, cooking fires burning marshmallows and hot dogs, I found Justin. He was running around a collapsing tent with four of his friends shouting Indian war cries.

Flailing away at the tent pegs with a steel mallet — voice hoarse from shouting at the kids, firelight catching his flushed cheeks, sweat gleaming on his forehead, his eyes deranged with frustration — was Walter.

I called to Justin to settle down and he stopped running. The other kids piled onto his back. Walter looked up at me, and I could see, almost hear, something snap. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Clearly pissed, he looked at me as if I were the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“I’m just checking on Justin. I’m his father, Walt.”

Probably not aware he still had the mallet in his hands, Walt stood and walked slowly toward me. “This is my time with Justin,” he said with an edge in his voice. “You understand? I don’t tag along with you when you take him to the movies or whatever you do. I don’t appreciate your horning in on our weekend, Bob!” His voice rose too much, and he had approached that critical distance known as “in your face.” The kids were all looking on in horror: a sweaty, hairy, wild-eyed man with a large hammer was shouting at another, equally hairy, larger man around a campfire. A scene of ugly primordial menace.

Very quietly I asked him, “You wanna put the hammer down, Walt?”

He looked at it and dropped it onto the grass. Behind him, the tent collapsed again. “Hey, I.…” he dropped his voice.

“First of all, Walt,” I turned my back on him and walked away from the campfire, out of earshot of the boys. I jerked my head to indicate he should follow me. He fell into step behind me. I continued in a conversational tone. “I didn’t know you were gonna be here.” I laughed so the kids would know everything was okay.

“Secondly,” I turned and backed him into a tree. I was now in his critical, personal space. He flinched. From a distance it looked as if we were just conferring secretly. Grown-up to grown-up. “Secondly, Walt. There is no such thing as an inappropriate time for me to visit my son whenever it is physically possible to do so. Never. No such thing. Third, Wally…” I was speaking in low, friendly tones. “You are not Justin’s father. I am. Justin knows this and I do too. Jane has that down real well, so it’s just left to you to get it. See?” I put my arm past his ear and leaned my left hand against the tree. “You’re Jane’s boyfriend, and that about covers it, wouldn’t you say?”

“Look,” he said. “These kids are driving me nuts. I’ve got to get back.” He sounded exhausted. “I guess you’re right. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

“Okay. But we’re clear on this, right?”

“Yes. Yes.” He nodded. I clapped him on the back real hard and let out a loud chuckle as if we had been talking about those idiot Padres.

I waved to Justin. “Hey, Jus’ — help Waldo put up the tent, okay? I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Justin gave me the okay sign we used between us and I left. I knew he would have the tent up in five minutes. I kind of felt sorry for Walter. I’ve rarely seen anyone who needed a drink so badly. I hoped he’d brought some beer, for his own sake.

Jane agreed to hold off on divorce proceedings in order to keep me on her health plan. I was grateful. I was not getting any healthier, so I signed over a Quit Claim Deed on the house for enough money to live on for six months.

It was a bad year that stretched into a bad 16 months of medical treatment, poverty, and disillusionment, as well as a hopeless, melodramatic relationship with Annie. We broke up, got back together. I developed trouble with double vision, and sometimes my jaw would go slack and my speech would be slurred when I was stone-cold sober. Annie didn’t bargain for this, and who could blame her? Well, I did, of course.

Jane got most of the friends from our old life. The word was that I had run off, abandoned my family for an old cocktail waitress. This was a much more interesting version of the truth than the facts. My worst fears came to pass: I lost my family and I was losing the woman I loved and left everything for. A certain relief began to fill me: the worst had happened. Whaddya gonna do now, God? Kill me? Ooohhh, I’m shaking. Go ahead. Do it. No, really…

For a year or so, I felt like an animated corpse. The MS was under control, but how was I supposed to live? More importantly, why?

After I was in remission for six months, Jane said she wanted to marry Walter. She wanted the divorce. I told her that was fine. I was okay. Ann and I had broken up. I got a book deal and lived in Mexico. My health plan would consist of thinking good thoughts and writing. The tough part was switching gears: I had rehearsed my own death for nearly a year; I was sure the MS was going to kill me — and now the rules had changed.

By the time Jane agreed to let me spend time with Justin in the company of Ann, Ann was no longer in the picture. Three weeks to the day after our divorce was final, Jane and Walter were married. Justin wore a suit and bow tie. I saw pictures of the wedding.


8:00 a.m. Justin will be on his way to school in half an hour. Walter will drive him; I’ll pick him up at 2:15 at San Diego High on my motorcycle and take him to a bookstore to find Dungeons and Dragons books and a copy of Huxley’s Doors of Perception for his philosophy class. Then we’ll get a pizza. Afterward, maybe we’ll see Addams Family Values at a cheap theater at 54th and El Cajon. I won’t take him to my apartment to show him my new computer or the human skull I just bought at an auction in Anaheim, though he would like to see these things, I think. This place is too much like the dorm room he’ll probably inhabit in a couple of years at UCSD or Stanford.

He is 17. Jane is turning 50 this fall. I’m gonna say I’m in my mid-40s, but maybe that’s stretching it a tad.

Soon I’ll have him over to look at my library and maybe even share a beer. That’s a ways up the road, but not far. At that time, maybe Justin will understand that I’ve been to a sort of college myself in the past eight years. A slow student.

I’ve got the scrapbooks gathering dust: Justin’s old soccer pictures and baseball trophies he wasn’t interested in at the time. I could show him posters of artwork and blown-up reviews of my stuff, book covers and pieces in national magazines. But I suppose he’ll find it secondary to what interests him most. And that would be: Who are we, you and I? What went wrong with you and Mom? You seemed to get along so well after you left. And:

“Whatever happened to whatsername, Annie? And do you have 50 bucks? Can I drive your motorcycle? Anything to eat around here? How old is this pizza? You really sleep on that?”

I see it like this: “Here’s the keys. Be careful. If you do drugs, uh…use a condom.”

“Hah hah, don’t worry.”

“What? Me worry?”

“Yeah, Dad. You do. You do.”

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