Issue 207, Winter 2013
It started a few weeks after we separated for good. In this line of work, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. But to call it “flying” might be to misrepresent it. It wasn’t as if I were soaring above the housetops, gliding west over the wide boulevards to see the sun setting over the Santa Monica Pier. If it was anything, it was a hovering: a little lift, when I least expected it.
You’d think it would have happened when I was feeling most free. Jogging around the tar pits early on a clear morning, which is something I do to get myself out of the house on the very quiet weekends when Jack is with his father. Or even sitting at my computer, as I am now, looking at the flat roof below my window, where the wind rolls a basketball, bleached white, back and forth across a damp depression in the tar paper. But this isn’t the case. Instead, it’s during the times I am doing those jobs I used to complain about to Drew: cooking or laundry or sorting the recycling, tasks I had imagined would be shared in a contemporary marriage and which automatically fell to me because I was the one whose work yielded a smaller and more erratic income, and who was home all day.
I was standing over something on the stove, a quick-cooking grain like bulgur or amaranth that requires constant stirring—something my mother would never have bothered with—when I noticed that I had to bend to reach the pot. And then that the stove seemed be receding as well, and I remember thinking that the floor was collapsing under our feet, and that a stove that fell that way would surely explode. I lunged toward Jack, who was sitting at the kitchen table, eating cheddar-cheese crackers shaped like rabbits, and my feet, without traction, simply pedaled the air before I landed with an awkward stumble. My son looked up in mild surprise—I am always asking him not to stomp, because it’s a duplex and there’s a single woman below us—his mouth edged in brilliant orange.
“Amy,” he said, which is the name of the other tenant.
That was the first time.
It’s true that I’ve been doing yoga for the past three years. In fact, the yoga was one of the things that bothered Drew, something about my enthusiasm for something that everyone else is enthusiastic about, too. Well? Yoga is good for your body, and it calms you down, and maybe the herd is sometimes right. On the other hand, even I have to admit that I enjoy talking about it more than I actually like doing it, and that I’m not one of the shining stars of the class—not the worst, certainly, but somewhere in the bottom third. I have trouble getting myself from chaturanga dandasana back to downward dog, and so it seems unlikely that I have learned to levitate, which rules out the only vaguely plausible explanation for the thing that started happening to me since we agreed to a divorce.
I can’t help feeling that other people had better reasons for their breakups than we did. (This is characteristic of me, Drew would say, the way I am always comparing. How can you be happy if you’re constantly measuring your life against the lives of others? And not even examining, he would say. Inventing ... fictionalizing! How can you know what anyone else’s life is like?) I think of Helene, a woman I used to teach with at the Y, who married a Czech architect she met on vacation in Prague. Life in the United States didn’t suit him and he moved back after eighteen months. Or Drew’s old friend Jim, whose wife left him for her high school boyfriend, with whom she reconnected through social media soon after the birth of their second child.
With Drew and me there was nothing so concrete to explain it: one night last spring we sat down in the living room after dinner, looked at each other, and knew.
“When was the last time you were happy?” he asked me.
I was indignant. “Just this afternoon,” I told him. “Jack asked if I wanted him to zip or button my jacket for me.”
He shook his head. “Not with Jack,” he said, and it was one of those moments in an argument when you know it’s very important to respond quickly, but you don’t respond, and the length of the pause makes the question irrelevant.
“Well, what about you,” I said, and he just shook his head. One of the things I’ve always liked about Drew is that he doesn’t have any trouble crying, and his crying then made me want to take him in my arms and promise it would be fine. I did do that, with the predictable result that we had sex, and it was so clearly the last time, even while it was happening, that I cried, too.
My friends have gently suggested that Jack’s attachment to a bag of King Arthur unbleached self-rising flour has something to do with our separation, that he sensed it coming, and it’s the kind of allegation you can’t dispute without sounding defensive. But I know for a fact that Jack had no inkling of our problems until we told him his father was moving out and that his relationship with the flour began several months earlier, coinciding exactly with the time he began asking questions about death.
“What do people do after they die?”
“How do dead people pee?”
“Will you die?”
And then one afternoon when we were pulling into the parking lot at Gelson’s, me looking in the side-view mirror to make sure I didn’t hit one of those giant concrete columns, and Jack watching me from his booster seat:
“Will I die?” His face white like a mushroom in the gloom of the backseat.
“Not until you’re very, very, very old—not for almost a hundred years.” Drew and I had agreed on this answer, and that time I think I did it perfectly, turning around to face Jack, saying it in an upbeat way but without any false heartiness. He waited until we were getting the cart from the line outside the door, wrenching it away from its fellows.
“I am really afraid of dying.”
And so I put him in there, hoping I wouldn’t get stopped by a manager; he’s a skinny kid, but tall, more than forty pounds now. People glanced at him, but I thought this was one of those times when you give in, as long as the request isn’t too unreasonable.
“Can I have something?”
“From the grocery store?”
“Just one thing?”
“I don’t mean that,” he said. Maybe if he hadn’t been up in the cart, he wouldn’t have noticed the flour, with the knight waving his pennant: a Greek cross, red on a white ground.
“There,” he said, grabbing the metal shelf so that I had to stop.
“But we’re not baking anything.”
“Not to use. Just to keep.”
“In my room.”
So I bought him the flour. It sat on the shelf with the books he’d outgrown. Sometimes it was incorporated into a building made of Bristle Blocks or a playground for the Lego people, who used it for a trampoline. He named it Malfin, which he pronounced to rhyme with dolphin. Drew didn’t notice Malfin, and uncharacteristically Jack didn’t mention it to his father, and so it didn’t come up, at least until he started sleeping with it.
“No,” I heard him say. I was in the kitchen making dinner, and Drew had come home early enough to put Jack to bed, as he used to do most nights. Their voices escalated, and then Jack was in the kitchen, close to tears, his arms around the bag of flour. There was a dusting on the front of his navy-blue pajamas, the pair that features dogs in spaceships, and a faint white trail on the carpet behind him.
“Daddy says I can’t sleep with Malfin.”“He’s leaking,” I said weakly.
“I slept with him last night.”
“Here.” I gave him a Ziploc gallon bag and sealed it up. He didn’t like having the flour under plastic like that, but I could see he was going to compromise. “But when he starts to come out of this bag, he’s going to have to go back on your shelf.”
He nodded. “Just don’t throw him away while I’m at school.”
“How long will he last?”
I almost said forever, and then changed my mind. “As long as you need him.”
The year he was three, when he wanted to wear one of my necklaces to school every day for several months, everyone thought it was sweet, including the teacher. I give Drew credit, because he was born in the sixties. The idea that Drew’s father would’ve allowed his son to wear a necklace to school is laughable, but Drew went right along with it, talking about how well Jack was negotiating separation. I don’t know why the flour didn’t work the same way, but it didn’t—with the teacher or with Drew.
When she called to make an appointment, I figured it was about the flour. Either that or his problems with another boy in the class who seemed to be picking on him. I hoped it was Malfin, and I tried to make a joke about it. But the teacher didn’t laugh.
“Nothing serious, but I think we should talk about it. If you can come in?”
“Just me?” I’d asked, but she said it would be better if we could both come.
The boy whom he was having problems with was also called Jack: Jack H. They have a playground with a climbing structure that incorporates round, wooden “barrels” elevated off the ground and big enough for five or six children to sit inside. One day our Jack had come home saying that Jack H. had told him he couldn’t come into the barrel, even though there was room, and, when he’d tried to go past him, had pinched his ear.
I looked at the ear, which did seem a little red. Then I tried to distract him, since these things usually blow over quickly. But I kept hearing about Jack H., who organized games of bad guys/good guys in which Jack wasn’t allowed to take either role.
“Can’t you go play with someone else?”
Jack let out an exasperated sigh. “I told you—if I go somewhere else, he follows me.” This was on a Sunday night, when we try to have dinner in a restaurant, all three of us, in order to ease his transition from me to Drew, or vice versa.
“Maybe he likes you,” Drew suggested. “He just doesn’t know how to show it.”
Jack looked at his father with disgust. “The problem is our names are the same. Why did you give me this name?”
“Why did his parents give him the name?” Drew said. “It’s your name—you had it a long time before you met Jack H.”
Jack shook his head. “You don’t understand. His birthday is March, and mine is July, so he had it first.”
“It’s actually very impressive,” I told Drew when he called me later for our weekly scheduling talk. “Most kids his age don’t have a sense of time like he does. Some of them don’t even know the order of the months. His abstract-reasoning skills are strong—that must be from you.”
I thought a little flattery would help, but Drew didn’t go for it. “Do you know the kid?”
“No. I’ve met his parents at school, but that’s it. They’ve never played together.”
“There was this bully, Christopher, in middle school,” Drew said. “A big Irish kid who took lunch boxes. He’d throw them up in a tree, and they’d get stuck there. Then he said he’d break your nose if you told—he did break one kid’s nose. My dad told me Italians were tougher than Irish, but I knew we weren’t real Italians. I was so scared of that kid, I couldn’t sleep at night.”
“Jack H. is Chinese,” I said.
“Can you imagine a Chinese bully when we were in school?”
“I can’t really remember.” I have trouble remembering the details of my childhood, which Drew used to say was strange. I remember the setting: the bougainvillea over the garage, the smell of the Santa Anas, the fact that it was a coyote who killed our black-and-white cat when he wandered into the golf course across the street. But I have to think for a moment to remember that the cat’s name was Fletcher.
“Of course not—the Asian kids were all first-generation then. That’s where our stereotype comes from, but you see Jack’s going to have a completely different set of references.” Drew is the HR director of a midsize technology company, but as an undergraduate he studied anthropology; he has always loved an explanation, particularly when it overturns some piece of empirical evidence.
“What does the teacher say?”
“I thought I’d wait until the conference. I’m not crazy about her.”
“She’s a little cold. Like with Malfin—the first day he brought him in to share, she just gave me this look. Like, ‘Flour?’”
Drew was incredulous. “He brings the flour to school?”
“Just for the past week or so.”
“Jesus,” he said, and used my name, which he never does. “Why the fuck do you let him do that?”
“Because he wants to. And I didn’t want him to feel embarrassed about it.”
“You’re supposed to feel embarrassed about things that are embarrassing! How else do you learn?”
“What’s embarrassing!” Drew sighed, as if someone had just sent him a big assignment that hadn’t previously been part of his workload. “Of course he’s getting bullied by a Chinese kid. Christ.”
I ran into Jack H.’s mother a few days before the conference, standing outside the one-way mirror, through which we could look into the classroom and see our children. They weren’t supposed to be able to see us, but Jack said that he could see “my shadow,” and he often looks up near the end of the school day and gives the window his patented half smile. That day, I was relieved to see, he was nowhere near Jack H. but was sitting on the floor with a three-year-old named Ava, one of the younger children in his mixed-age classroom. Ava was lying rigid on a small red carpet, and Jack was measuring her with a wooden stick. Malfin was sitting (if that is the right word) by his left hip.
Jack H.’s mother greeted me by name, and I wondered for the millionth time what it is about me that keeps me from remembering the names of people I don’t know well. I’m always afraid I’ll make a mistake, and usually I don’t risk it.
“I love when I can be here early to watch them.” She was beautifully dressed in a gray silk pencil skirt and heels. I did remember that she worked at Google.
“I’m usually early.”
“Oh, you’re lucky,” she said, but not in an unkind way. If she noticed that I was wearing exercise pants and a hooded cotton sweatshirt, she didn’t show it. “I’m taking him to the dentist today. Here he comes.” The teacher opened the door and Jack H. bounded out, a wiry, handsome kid, a little shorter than our Jack. He didn’t know who I was, and ignored me, throwing himself on his mother and burying his face in her elegant skirt. She suggested that he go to the bathroom before they left, and he obligingly went.
“That’s great that he goes alone.”
“Yeah,” she said. “But you wouldn’t want to use it after him.”
We laughed, and I thought that I should suggest a playdate. Maybe if it were just the two of them.
We could hear the water running on the other side of the door, going off and on again. Jack H.’s mother rolled her eyes in the direction of the bathroom, and then suddenly put a hand on my arm.
“I’ve been meaning to say, I’m so sorry about—whatever it is.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I said, too quickly. “They’ll probably be best friends by next week.”
“Maybe—but it’s still not okay.” She looked suddenly flustered, and I felt an unexpected sympathy.
“Jack told me—I’m so sorry.”
One thing I hadn’t expected about getting divorced was the way everyone wants to talk to us about it. There’s a predictable voyeurism in it, but also a sense of duty. I wonder sometimes if it’s a particularly American thing, an obligation to probe the domestic upheavals of strangers.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s okay—really. It wasn’t for a while, but now it is.”
Jack’s mother gave me a searching look and lowered her voice. “I can imagine it would never be okay. And now you’re going through this, too.”
Did she mean the bullying? “Um—I hope not. I mean, I hope it will all be okay.”
She nodded uncertainly. “I can see how the flour . . . helps. Do you think if he stopped bringing it, though, it might be easier for him?”
“For my Jack?” The other Jack was coming out of the bathroom, drying his hands on his T-shirt, and so his mother lowered her voice:
“I was just thinking, maybe the other kids would tease him less?”