Friends, Home

Choosing Teams

We need others to bring us back into the comity of human life. This appears to have been the final lesson for me — to appreciate someone’s embrace not as forgiveness or as an amicable judgment but as an acknowledgement that, from time to time, private life becomes brutally hard for every one of us, and that without one another, without some sort of community, the nightmare is prone to lurk, waiting for an opening.

Barry Lopez, “Sliver of Sky” in Harpers Magazine, January 2013

Bug has his seatbelt off before I’ve even pulled up to the curb. He reaches for the door handle. “My team! My team is here!” he cries. Up the low hill at the park, the big kids play basketball in the deepening dusk. Bug jumps out of the car, clambers over the fence, and starts across the grass. But it is not the court he is after. He veers right and aims for a tree with low branches at the corner the blacktop.
A small gang of boys swarms around tangled limb and leaf. Bug makes a beeline for this flush-cheeked hive of activity. I follow my son and once I am closer, familiar faces resolve into view. Our upstairs neighbor. The bully from the pool. The shaggy-haired big kid from the townhouses who watches out for the little guys. Half of them hold sticks. One is directing some kind of game. Several dangle from the higher branches.
I get Bug’s attention, or some fraction of it, and tell him I’ll be sitting over at the playground. He nods, his head already turned away from me. The group swells to absorb him before sucking itself back into the shadows like some kind of amoeba. A moment later, my boy is nothing more than a white-blonde streak at the center of a stick-brandishing, howling horde galloping across the grass.
I chat with parents whose names I’ve just learned and whose history with each other takes up far more room on the bench than I do. Too soon, the last of the light recedes carrying reluctant children off with it. It is dark a little earlier each visit. Soon, we won’t have time to come after school and we’ll have to make do with each other.
My kiddo and I are the last ones. We find a place to sit together. A bat dips low. Bug leans his head back against the bench and laughs when another one flutter-bumps against the sky.
The next night, he is not with me. This is the way. Half the nights, half the weekends. It is a whole life scored right down the middle. Not quite torn in half, but thin enough at the seams that you can see through to something far worse.
It’s risky to pull too hard.
When my son is with his dad, this new home, this first-place-of-my-own home, is warm and full with the kind of space that invites me to open into it. A crowd of authors chatters at me from the shelves. The music whispers my bones awake.
When my son is with his dad, this place is as empty as an abandoned grave. Silence is a hungry throat closing around me.
When my son is with his dad, I am me with me with me.
Except for the dog. Ain’t no getting around the dog.
When I drag in from work, she and I walk. These days, we don’t speak much to each other. We have a way of finishing each other’s thoughts. We meander over to the shortcut that passes through the park. When Bug is not with me, it is only a path I am after. My head has gone off on its own magic carpet ride. I float along the sidewalk in a bubble of dog-padded solitude.
It’s only when I am halfway through the playground that I see someone waving. A face I recognize. One of the moms from the townhouses. Then one of the other moms whose kid is in Bug’s class. And a dad, too, whose son is Bug’s favorite and most disastrous friend.
I lift my head. My hand. My attention. The dog’s tail wags bigger. As we cut through the woods, I lean down and give her a head scrub.
My team! My team is here!

Divorce, Letting Go

This is not Then

It is impossible to run from the truth of him anymore. Without another man to hide behind, my naked heart receives the full blow. He walks into the house to drop off our son and he towers now in a way he never did. The sensation is not desire but it is similar enough to make the ground tremble. He is not the weak one anymore. That role is mine now.
In the Saturday sun, Bug and I pound a volleyball back and forth before picking our way through brambles at the neighborhood park. Our path takes us around by the community gardens where folks till black soil into stirring plots. An erratic series of reports through the brush leads us to a basketball court glistening with a damp frenzy of male limbs. We watch for a moment before climbing a hill to a buttery yellow house trimmed in white.
“Right here, buddy,” I say. My feet find their way to the precise spot. For a blink, everything is a bright a June day. Bug climbs up behind me.
“Right here what?”
“This,” I say, spreading my hands, “is the spot where your daddy and I got married. He was there looking at me. This tree was absolutely covered in white blossoms.” Back then, two of the flowering trees had stood side-by-side. The arch studded with sunflowers had formed a bridge under the canopy of snowy petals. Now the larger twin is gone and just one tree stands bare. Eight years have passed. There isn’t even a trace, not one scar in the earth. Bug and I gaze all around the grass as it makes its tentative appearance into early spring. A few pink and purple pansies have been planted in mulch by the door.
“Everyone was in chairs here. Your grandmas and grandpas, all your aunts and uncles and cousins.” I retrace my steps backwards along the path I took holding my father’s arm. Oh, how I had laughed during that walk! The giddiness returns in a shiver. It is as potent as the moment I strode out between all the people I loved towards Tee, sweating and grinning there by the blooms.
“Were you embarrassed?” Bug asks as he follows me. We make our way through the trees and down to the tennis courts.
“Embarrassed? Why?”
“You were in front of all those people.”
“No,” I say. “I was happy.”
Bug darts ahead into an empty court. A brisk wind has been cutting into our collars. Bug follows the white lines, kneeling occasionally to press his cheek to the sun-warmed clay. On the neighboring courts, groups of doubles thwack and scrape, hollering at one another. We make our way around the back and look for the next trail into the woods. A man calls out and asks us to toss back a ball.
“Where?” I ask.
He shrugs and laughs. “Somewhere out there.”
We walk on, scanning. “I see it!” Bug hollers. Hiding in the grass is a lighter shade of green. He grabs the ball and races up to the fence. It is chain link nearly two stories high. Bug stops a few feet from the edge, pulls back, and hurls the ball. It sails up and over, clearing the top by at least twelve inches. Everyone on the court whoops and cheers. Bug’s pink face shines.
Early in our courtship, Tee spent weeks teaching me how to throw a baseball. First he had to un-teach me and then I practiced the awkward new pitch until it became second nature. In the field near his apartment, I could send that ball soaring over the power lines. He had to walk further and further back to catch it, and he smiled so big and called out his praise when it really flew. “Can you feel the difference? I can see it!”
The return of my maiden name has restored other lesser lords to their previous stations. Old muscle memory has regained its dominion. Solitude has settled back onto its cinderblock throne. This regime was not democratically elected, and so it happens that it is not easily unseated. I understand now that a coup d’epouse is an impermanent solution to the challenges of becoming a truly human creature.
That passage from the white-trimmed door to that lush duet of foliage is now only a neural pathway. It turns out I could not plant a new civilization in the soil of me just by crossing those 20 feet. Like the whole of the absent sister tree, the petals I remember are black earth now. Neither grass nor root has a record of our covenant.
Bug and I walk on. The yellow house where I donned my white dress recedes behind us. The park is not just the place where Tee and I married. It is the place where Bug celebrated his 5th birthday, burying pirate treasure in the volleyball sand with his preschool friends. It is the place where a visiting friend joined me on a stroll earlier this winter and we stumbled across fallow garden plots I did not know existed.
It is the place my son shows me that he has inherited not only his daddy’s pink glow but his throwing arm, too. Undoubtedly, he will be as ignorant of the rarity of his innate athleticism as he is of his fortune in the assignment of fathers.
Today, it is where I learn that I did love that man once. And it is where I practice walking under the weight of my own name in the other direction.
As it turns out, a swath of awakening earth is up ahead, warming itself for my arrival.