Long after we divorced, long after you died of alcoholism, I still remember that day when I stepped out of the clinic, blinked hard against tears, sank into your VW Bug, pulled the door shut, and whispered, “I’m pregnant.”
You immediately and with no hesitation said, “Well, I’m glad, because now we can get married.” And you held my hands in yours and looked at me with an earnestness I had not seen in you before.
We weren’t in love. Marriage was the last thing either of us wanted. You had recently been offered a contract to sing with a folk group like the New Christy Minstrels. You were going to leave college and tour the country. We sat in front of the clinic for some minutes, silent. Then we went to Shakey’s for pizza and drove more than a hundred miles to tell your parents. Your mother, who had always wanted a daughter, planned our wedding that night. The year before, my own mother had told me that if I ever got pregnant before marriage, I shouldn’t bother calling home. So I didn’t until after all the arrangements had been made.
It was 1968, and we had met a few months earlier in economics class. You had a magnificent handlebar mustache. The handlebars were long and thick and drooped below your mouth before curling upward. You daubed the tips with a wax made especially for mustaches. You did laundry just once a quarter, and, by the time you did, you were wearing a poncho over a T-shirt and jeans every day. Your hair was shaggy and wild, but that mustache was impeccable. After you graduated, you shaved it off so you could find a job better than pumping gas. By then we were married, and Bobby had been born. I had never seen you without your mustache. You looked like a stranger.
Shortly after we met, I got expelled for drinking in the dorm, and we moved in together. Later we learned that Life magazine had just published an exposé on the phenomenon of unmarried college students living together. That we were part of a trend was news to us; our college was in a conservative ranching community, and we hadn’t heard about anybody else who was “shacking up.” We told only a few of our friends.
I don’t remember why we moved in together. I guess we thought we were being radical.
We lived in a basement — half a basement really. Dark, steep steps, then a narrow aisle through the landlord’s piles of stuff to get to our apartment. You took a big stoneware bowl from that heap, saying nobody would ever miss it. I disapproved but didn’t put it back. (I still have that bowl. I mix salads in it.) I had a key, but it wasn’t necessary; my Fashion Bar credit card shoved between the door and jamb popped the lock open. The floor was cracked linoleum: brown and black squares. Brown walls, black curtains. Living room to the right, kitchen doubling as the hallway to the bedroom, a bathroom dominated by a claw-foot tub.
Bobby was born just weeks before you graduated. We named him Robert after your little brother, who’d died when you were small. You were carrying more than twenty hours in courses and working full-time at the Mobil station across the street from campus. Lilacs bloomed in the alleyway outside our casement windows.
Your mother, my mother, and the doctor all told me I would know when it was time. “Oh, you will know,” they said. But the night I went into labor, I didn’t know that was what it was. All day I’d had sporadic cramps. We’d spent the afternoon riding your motorcycle and then stopped for pizza. After you left for work at the gas station, I noticed that my cramps were a steady four minutes apart. I thought it was probably the pizza, but when I called the doctor, he said I was having the baby. I called you, and you rushed home to take me to the hospital. You looked scared. I remember thinking you didn’t look old enough to be a father.
In a fuzzy photograph you took over fifty years ago, I am holding two-week-old Bobby like a precarious bundle of laundry. I grip him to my chest, one arm wrapped around his middle, the other around his legs. We face the camera. Bobby squints. The way I’m holding him is not unlike the way I’d held a cat in a photo my mother had taken when I was two. The cat, too, had squinted, his ears flattened back.
Later I read that you shouldn’t nurse a baby in bed — that you could fall asleep and roll over on top of him. But nursing in bed was the only time I felt like I was doing something right. Curled around Bobby, both of us dozing as he suckled, I felt like a mother cat.
When Bobby was two, we moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, and bought a single-wide trailer. You and Dan, our across-the-street neighbor, smoked pot and drank beer together. Dan worked at the local cable-TV station, developed sad-looking black-and-white photographs in his makeshift kitchen darkroom, and played “Reveille” every morning on his fiddle. You were working for a food-service company and traveling a lot to Denver, and you encouraged Dan and me to do things together when you were gone. I told you I felt uncomfortable with that because I thought Dan might be interested in me. (I had a bit of a crush on him, too, but I didn’t tell you that part.) You said Dan could have any woman; it wasn’t likely he’d fall for one who was married and had a toddler. But you were wrong. We came close but didn’t act on our feelings. I often wished we had.
Remember the Japanese doll you bought me after we moved to Denver? She was over a foot high, had a white face and a shiny red kimono, and stood locked inside a glass case. She was the opposite of anything I would want.
You said you knew how much I admired dolls like her. Why did you think that? It was like you didn’t even know me.
Afraid I would be doomed to a lifetime of such gifts, I spoke up. I don’t remember what I said or how I said it, but I hope I was kind, because I did appreciate the thought. I did.
You snatched the doll out of my hands and stomped outside. I heard the clang of the garbage-can lid. Your car door slam. Your tires squeal.
I never told you, but I went out to retrieve the doll. I lifted the lid, and there she was. She and I stared at each other for a minute. Then I left her there. That’s how much I didn’t want her.
While looking through the help-wanted ads, I glanced in the personals section. A man was looking for a companion to sail around the world with him. She should be unencumbered and preferably in her forties, he said. I never told you, but I called and begged him to take me and Bobby. I remember crying.
One night when we were high with some friends and listening to music in our darkened living room, I watched you and a woman whose name I have forgotten gaze at one another. They are sleeping together, I thought. Or want to. What was significant to me in that moment was not that the two of you might be having sex, but that I didn’t care one way or the other. I really didn’t. And I hadn’t realized how much I didn’t care until that moment.
There was never a fight. We didn’t talk enough to generate one. When you came home from work, you flipped on the TV and asked what was for dinner, and that was it between us for the night.
You left a few weeks before our fifth anniversary, saying something about giving us both some space. By then it had been two years since you’d touched me.
You came home for our anniversary. We dropped Bobby off at the sitter’s and spent the day in the mountains. For once you didn’t complain about all the rocks and leaves and pinecones that I picked up to bring home. We stopped at a fancy German restaurant for a late lunch, and, in the show-offy manner you had begun to assume, you ordered a bottle of wine. You raised your glass and asked, “Are we good for another five years?”
Five more years.
I looked into your eyes. “No.” My voice sounded thin.
I had not thought about divorce before that minute. I swear to you I hadn’t.
Here’s what I wanted: To come home from work and, after supper, read a chapter or two of The Borrowers to Bobby. To sit in the darkness and watch the fish tank, my eyes growing heavy as tiger barbs and red-tailed sharks and neon tetras darted through undulating plants. To fall asleep listening to the air pump gurgling. That’s it. Yet I couldn’t support Bobby and myself on what I was making as a clerk typist. And you contributed only the bare minimum. We were our worst selves and said awful things to each other. I’m sorry for that.
Then a man I knew from work stepped in to “rescue” me, and Bobby’s and my life went off on a terrible new trajectory, one that would take us four years to escape and from which we would never fully recover.
Years after our divorce you said, “All you ever really wanted was just to be loved, didn’t you?” You said it like you had finally unraveled a great mystery about me.
I wonder now if you believed you were responsible for your little brother’s death. You were five, maybe even four. Robbie was a year and a half younger. Your father was a drinker and couldn’t hold down a job, and his mother watched you and Robbie while your mother worked. On this particular day you and Robbie were playing by the drainage ditch behind the house, where you weren’t allowed to be. Robbie fell in. You pulled him out somehow and carried him to the house. Your grandmother scolded you for getting wet and messing up her floors. She spread newspapers on the kitchen table and put Robbie on top. All this before she called the operator for help. By the time the ambulance arrived, Robbie was dead. Your grandmother didn’t call your mother because she didn’t want to bother her at work, so your mother didn’t learn of her baby’s death until she got home. She divorced your father, and the two of you moved away.
I may have forgotten some of the details. You talked about your brother’s death only once or twice before we were married. And you were drunk when you did.
Now I picture a skinny boy crying and frantically pulling his little brother, almost as big as he is, from a slippery, muddy drainage ditch and half carrying, half dragging him, stumbling and falling, into his grandmother’s kitchen, where he is yelled at for dirtying her clean floors and playing where he shouldn’t have been.
We genuinely liked each other once. If we hadn’t married and had coparented instead, we probably would have always liked each other. We might even have come to love one another. But being an unmarried mom wasn’t considered an option back then, and neither of us was brave or radical enough to make it one. I’m sorry for that.
By the time Bob got married, you had been dead for almost ten years. I missed you that day. Which took me by surprise. It was the first time I had missed you since before we divorced.
I thought of you when our grandson was born. He looked exactly like Bob had as a baby. I wish you could have been there.
You would be proud of Bob. He’s a good husband, a good father. He has your singing voice, your work ethic. He has your gift of mimicry, too, though his chimpanzee isn’t nearly as good as yours.
It’s funny; when I think back to the years we were married, I can barely remember you. Or much of myself, for that matter. But that first year of our marriage and the months that came before it are still fresh. Like how we’d drink coffee all night at LaSalle Diner and talk about Vietnam and civil rights and the Beatles and reincarnation and whether California really could fall into the ocean. And how, when the new car models came out, we’d take turns test-driving them, pretending we could buy one. And how we decoupaged a poster of Mae West on the black coffee table in that horrible little basement apartment.
But I particularly recall that afternoon in your VW Bug when I told you I was pregnant, and your response catapulted us into a life neither of us had planned on.
By the way, I never thanked you for stepping up the way you did that day. Thank you. I mean that.