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Archive for June, 2009

secretdiary 001I’m slumped in an airport chair in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Flight delayed.  I won’t be getting home till after midnight tonight.  Rachel’s at O’Hare airport in Chicago, also delayed

Our house, 500 miles from me, 250 miles from Rachel, sits empty.  Rachel’s boys are 30 miles north of our house, with their dad.  My daughter is 10 miles south, with her mom.  The dogs are in the kennel. 

I’m tired.  I was home alone last night and couldn’t sleep.  My dad is ill and I’m anxious about it.  At two am I gave up trying.  I  stretched across the bed and looked through the basket of Rachel’s books on the endtable on her side of the bed.  I accidentally knocked the basket over. The contents spilled onto the floor.  Among the books was Rachel’s black journal.   

I occasionally come in the bedroom at night to find Rachel, her back against the headboard, writing in that journal.  Often she writes after something between us has upset her.  She writes fast and hard on those occasions, her hand gripping the top of it, her eyes flashing at me from behind the journal. 

“Whatcha writing?” I asked once.

“It’s private,” she said.

It’s an odd thing to sit next to someone who, in your imagination, is pouring vitriol about you onto journal pages.

We recently watched a Nicholas Cage movie, The Weatherman,  about a man estranged from his wife.  He is a tv celebrity and was frequently unfaithful.  In a last attempt to salvage something, the man and his wife go to a marriage encounter group.  As an exercise in trust, the facilitator has each person write down secret thought they’d had that would hurt their partner if they read it.  She tells them to fold the paper and exchange it.  “Never read it” the facilitator instructs.  “That’s trust.”    Nicolas Cage exchanges folded pieces of paper with his wife.  They smile tenderly at each other. 

In the next scene, Cage walks into the mens room, frantically paws open his wife’s note, and reads it.

When the movie is over, Rachel says, “What a loser!”   She cites as evidence not the husband’s extramarital affairs, but that he read the note.

I’m not tempted by the journal laying on the bedroom floor.  Beyond the trust issue, I prefer the nice things Rachel says to my face to whatever rants are in the black journal.

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bathingsuit 001

Today, the day after Father’s Day, I take Alani shopping for a bathing suit.  She needs one for summer camp, and it has to be one-piece.  She’s displeased by the limited selection at Macy’s and then Penny’s. 
I try to help, picking a striped model off the rack. 
 
I hold it up. “What about this?”
Alani scowls at me.  “Don’t you know me at all?” she says.
When she was four, Alani asked if I would ever die.  She was brushing her teeth at the time, standing on a little stool in front of the bathroom sink.  I took a moment to answer.
“Not for a long time, honey” I finally said.
She spit toothpaste into the sink.  “Daddy,” she said, “A long time is not never.”
The reproach in her voice was clear.    I was a mere mortal. 
In the movie  “The Man Who Would Be King”, Sean Connery and Michael Caine play British soldiers who discover a lost tribe in the Himilayas.  The tribespeople, having never seen white men before, take them for gods.  Connery and Caine rule the kingdom  happily, worshipped and obeyed, until the day that Connery cuts himself shaving.  Gods don’t bleed:  The tribespeople realize they’ve been deceived.  A sullen mob gathers , murmuring angrily.  Connery attempts to assert his authority.  A stone bounces off his head.  Then another.
Fatherhood is like that.
At seven, when I was giving her some fatherly advice in the kitchen (I suggested that she might want to be kinder to an irritating classmate, because the girl had a difficult homelife), she rolled her eyes in derision.  I hadn’t expected that till the teen years.
 
When she was ten, I followed her into school one morning to pay a tuition bill.  After paying, I noticed Alani talking to a knot of friends by the stairwell.  I veered over to say hello.  A look of horror bloomed on Alani’s face.  She hurried to intercept me, and escorted me to the door as if I were a terminated employee.
A year ago, in the spring, I parked my Taurus station wagon on a busy street full of shops and diners.  Alani was in the back seat.  The area was a favorite teenage hangout, thick with adolescents.  I put money in the meter.  Alani stepped from the car.  We turned to head up the street.  Alani’s hand rose in a habitual, automatic gesture, to take mine.   Since she was a toddler, we always walked hand in hand.  But this time she spotted teenagers loitering on a bench ahead.  Her hand slowed just shy of mine, then accelerated, swinging  up to her head.  She patted her hair, as if that had been her intent all along. 
April 23, 2008:  The end of father-daughter handholding.

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001

Rachel and I have an open marriage.   At the moment, only Rachel is taking advantage of this feature of our relationship.  Yesterday, a vacation day for me, we were home in the late morning and happened to be making out.  Rachel patted my chest in mid-kiss.  “I have to go,” she said.  “I have a hot date with Teddy. 

That’s not really what she said.  She actually said she had to leave for an  appointment with her therapist.  Teddy. 

And we don’t really have an open marriage.  But forget for a moment the “therapist” concept and tell me what this sounds like:  A woman gets together with a man.  They discuss movies they’ve seen, books they like, and deepest feelings. They banter.  They laugh.  Remind you of anything?  That’s right: a DATE.  All that’s missing are a couple glasses of wine and an awkward kiss at the end.  

After one of her sessions, Rachel came home and mentioned something Teddy the therapist had said about his wife.  And children.

“I thought therapists weren’t supposed to talk about their personal life?” I said.

“He’s not a very traditional therapist,” Rachel said.

Just what a husband wants to hear:  That the widely accepted rules that set boundaries in the intimate environment of psychotherapy don’t apply to your wife’s therapist.  As reported by Rachel, much of their conversation seems quite different than the usual and-how-did-that-make-you-feel therapy talk.  Rachel and Teddy talk about child-raising, politics, and whether or not Rachel and I can afford to remodel our home.

That’s right.  Before the bottom fell out of our 401ks, Rachel and I were considering a home remodel that would have cost half again the cost of the house.  Rachel, home from a visit with Teddy, casually mentioned that Teddy said we could totally afford it.  “Really, ” I said, steaming,  “I didn’t know Teddy was a qualified financial advisor.”  Then I completely boiled over.  Teddy,  I said, should stick to childhood traumas and stay the hell out of our home remodeling.

Rachel hasn’t offered Teddy’s advice since.  She does, however, continue to occasionally mention something funny or insightful that Teddy said.   Here’s the thing about therapists:  They are the perfect date.   They listen attentively to everything you say.  It’s all about you.   They are so fascinated by every word that comes out of your mouth that sometimes they take notes  on what you say.   Teddy never leaves a wet towel on the bathroom floor, never snores.  He never makes an irritable remark. Ever.  What husband can compete with that?

I’m suspicious of him.  I know how wonderful my wife is.  Obviously, he secretly desires her.  “He’s hot for you,” I say to Rachel one day while we’re out for a walk. 

Rachel laughs.  “He is not,” she says.  “He’s completely professional.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’ll act on it” I say, “but every morning he has an appointment with you scheduled there’s a spring in his step when he walks to the office.  He thinks ‘Ah, Rachel’s coming in today!'”. 

I imitate Teddy the therapist walking with a spring in his step.

Rachel laughs at my walk.  “He doesn’t walk that way,” she says.  He’s chubby.” 

That, I liked hearing.  Chubby.  Like the Pillsbury Doughboy. 

The only thing they don’t talk about is sex.  Rachel’s a very private person, and has no interest in delving into that topic with her therapist.  She told me that according to Teddy, everyone eventually talks about sex in therapy. 

You wish, pervert. 

I know, I know, I’m being ridiculous. Too bad.

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divorcerate2 001I’d always heard that the divorce rate for second marriages was higher than for first marriages. I was curious, though: what about the divorce rate for second marriages that included stepchildren? I did some googling. Yikes.

 

The overall U.S. divorce rate is about 50%.

 

The divorce rate for second marriages is 60%.

 

The divorce rate for second marriages where one of the spouses already has children is 65%.

Drum roll: The divorce rate for Rachel and my category – where both spouses already have children – is a whopping 70%.

I immediately call Rachel. I tell her the statistics.

“Jesus,” she says.

I tell her I’m actually pleased to discover the difficulty of what we’ve undertaken. It’s as if we’re climbing the highest marital peak. We’ll leave Mt. Hood to lesser couples: we’re tackling Everest. “We rock!” I say to Rachel on the phone.

“Yeah,” she says, “Or, we’re screwed.”

The statistics don’t worry me. Nineteen months of marriage has dispelled any starry-eyed visions we may have had about a very Brady stepfamily life, but I am as sure as I was on our wedding day that we will be married till death do us part. Why? I could list a bunch of stuff: we get each other’s jokes, have the same values, and both prefer Dairy Queen to Baskin Robbins. Plus, Rachel’s hot. But ultimately it comes down to this: we’ve decided this is it. Whatever happens, we’re together. The cross-currents in stepfamilies are treacherous – the work of traditional first-marriage families is child’s play compared to what stepfamilies must navigate. But even in the most difficult moments, I have always known that Rachel’s commitment to me and to my daughter is unshakeable. Same with me, to Rachel and her sons.

And there’s this: Two years ago, after Rachel and I got engaged, but while it was still just Alani and I living together in this house, my daughter and I lay together one night. I’d just read to her. She was nine.

“Dad,” she said after I put the book down, “You wouldn’t get divorced again, would you?

“No, honey,” I said, “I won’t.”

“Because, that would be….” she trailed off.

“Lame?” I said.

“Yeah.”

Most brides and grooms make vows to each other. Rachel and I did that, but we also made vows to three children. How do you break that promise? You don’t.

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dogsuck2 001Rachel and I are in bed together. It’s 6:30 am. There are no kids in the house. Just Rachel and I. In bed. She has to leave at 7:45, for a work trip. I wake her gently, with a kiss. She kisses back sleepily, without opening her eyes, and throws a leg over me.

I calculate the time it will take Rachel to dress, pack, and inject a cup of coffee – forty five minutes, I estimate. That leaves, maybe, half and hour.

Maya whines.

Maya is a lab-mix puppy I brought home for Rachel three months ago. The puppy is now in a crate downstairs in the kitchen. I rub Rachel’s back, hoping to distract her from the distant, pitiful whine. It turns into a high pitched howl.

“Babe,” Rachel says, “We have to let Maya out.” “We”, in this context, means me.

“No,” I say. I burrow in against her warm body.

Maya howls again. “Babe,” Rachel says.

I flip the covers off, exasperated. Downstairs, Maya’s tail thumps against the crate as I approach. I don’t reciprocate. I let her out of the crate and open the back door. Maya steps out onto the porch, and sits down. This irritates me. If she didn’t have to go,  why the howling? I shove her with my foot. “Do your business,” I say. She doesn’t budge. I shove harder, pushing her down the steps while she looks back at me with reproach.

She dawdles, making no move to get business done. My choice is to either stand by the door in my boxers while my spot in the bed grows cold, or go back upstairs and risk her barking and irritating the neighbors. I decide to risk it. I slide in next to Rachel. After the cool morning air by the back door, her skin feels all the warmer.

I hear a faint howl outside. It’s Maya.

 “Is that Maya?” Rachel asks.

“No,” I say.

Rachel gets up this time. When she comes back up the stairs, Maya thunders after her. Max, Alani’s German shepherd, follows. They burst into the bedroom, hunting cats. They find one and chase it under the bed. The cat emits an ugly, angry mewl. Rachel tries to herd the dogs out. “Git! Git!” She yells. “Git!”

I stay under the covers. My theory is that if we’re not both out of bed at the same time, we’re not officially “up” yet, and all possibilities remain. Rachel finally shuts the door on the dogs. She gets back in bed. We embrace. A little time goes by.

Rachel twists in bed to look at her clock. She turns back to me. “Do you want to come with me to walk the dogs?” she asks.

“What?”

She points out that she’ll be gone on her work trip all day, and the dogs will be cooped up in the house. They need a morning walk. “Come on,” Rachel says.

“No,” I say.

Five minutes later I’m on the sidewalk, yanking Maya’s leash, trying to get her to heel. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t surprised Rachel with this puppy, having a baby would still be a possibility.

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dogsuck 001At 6:27 p.m Rachel and I sit down at an outdoor cafe for a much- anticipated date. Alani is with her mom, the boys with their dad. We are giddy with freedom. A young man unpacks his violin nearby and begins to serenade us.

At 6:53 p.m. we are sitting in stony silence. We’d had a fight. The waiter took orders from a hand-holding, romantic couple, and delivered entrees to two sullen adversaries.

We’d eaten at the same cafe a month ago, on a sunny spring day, and had so much fun that I suggested going back. This time, by the time we were seated, a grey overcast had replaced the sunny afternoon sky. A chill had settled in. A mild stench drifted in from the sewer grate in the street.

There was a comment, perhaps innocent, perhaps taken wrong, which prompted a return comment with a little edge to it, which in turn prompted a certain tone, and then . . .whap! whap! whap!

Our argument included exchanges like this:

“When you said [insert incendiary remark], it felt like an attack.”

“I didn’t say [incendiary remark].”

“You certainly did. That’s exactly what you said.”

“What I actually said, was, [slightly toned-down version of incendiary remark].”

“Huh.”

There would be no more hand-holding that evening. After struggling manfully in the face of our sourness, the violin player finally packed up and fled.

We end up sitting in the parking structure, staring ahead, wondering what the hell happened. We had squandered one of the great advantages of second marriages: When the stars are aligned just right, all kids are with their other parent and you get: Date Night.

The fight wasn’t about nothing. It was a bone of contention we’ve been chewing on for awhile. Stepfamiliy life provides plenty of opportunities for discord. We drove home and continued what had by then become a full-fledged Relationship Talk in the driveway, sitting in the dark, for another forty-five minutes. Then in bed. We talked in circles. We resolved nothing.

Finally I said, “We have to stop talking”. I went downstairs to the bookshelf and picked out three books I thought Rachel would like. I walked back upstairs and fanned them out on the bed. “Pick one,” I said. “I’ll read to you.”

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Child Abandonment

susanboyle 001

I’m sitting on the couch, surfing the internet.

Alani is in the dining room with Jack, making a “tent-fort” by draping sheets over the dining room table and nearby chairs. She’s using heavy books to hold the sheets down, just like I did when I was a kid.

“Dad,” Alani says, walking by, “want to help?”

I glance up. She’s carrying an encyclopedia.

“Uhh…”

I can’t remember now what I was looking at on my laptop. Susan Boyle’s Youtube performance? One of those teaser AOL Headlines, like “Obama Calls Clinton a Bald-faced Liar – Find Out What Has Him Steamed!”? It seemed fascinating at the time.

I get up, reluctantly. “Sure,” I say.

I walk into the dining room. The tent fort has an impressive footprint, covering most of the dining room. Alani’s trying to extend one side. I suggest using the piano bench, and pull it within range of a big blue sheet held down by the family bible. I drape the sheet over the bench, pulling the bench a little closer so the end of the sheet hangs down to the floor.

“There,” I say. I consider getting down on my hands and knees to explore the dark interior of the fort, but Susan Boyle is waiting. I head back toward the couch.

“Dad,” Alani says. “Aren’t you going to help?”

“I did help,” I say.

“You used to love making tent forts” Alani says.

“It is fun,” I say. But Youtube’s pull is strong. I settle back onto the couch and tap on my keyboard.

What an idiot.

Alani is 12, 13 this fall. Every month she is busier with her own life, school, theater, friends. Every month she is less a kid, more an adult. And every month, I guarantee, she will be less interested in building tent-forts with me.

Sometimes I am acutely conscious of the sand running out of the hourglass of her childhood. And sometimes I squander my opportunties.

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