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Dance to the Old Words

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

Only one year of separation, but look how much his children had already taught him. For the first six months, Eli, five years old, then six, would cry at night, the middle of every night, and Jake would have to lie down with him, pressed firmly against his back like a lover. Next morning, Eli didn’t remember. And not just that he didn’t remember: you couldn’t believe this was the same creature who’d wept so hard, who was barely in the shared world, barely aware of his father’s comfort. Morning sweetness. Still, often, those, first months Jake held him the way he had when Eli was two.

It was getting better for Eli now. Jake loved the brave way Eli would hold up his skinny frame, like a knight, and breathe to fill his chest with grown-up-ness. But Noah, at 11, was still often furious and unforgiving. When he wasn’t storming, he was sullen, storing up grievances. Jake learned to respect Noah’s silences but to hold firm.

This morning, as he caught one of Noah’s sour looks—they were hustling to get Noah to his soccer game—Jake held him by the shoulders. “Look—we’ve done you damage, and it’s lousy, it’s not fair, and that’s what you’re saying with those crappy looks of yours. Right?”

“No, it’s not. But it stinks, it does stink, if you want to know.”

“All right, so it stinks. And I’ll work as hard as I can to make the damage matter less in the long run. But I won’t be guilt-tripped. You can yell at me or punch a pillow, that’s okay, Noah, but when you’re finished, you’ve still got to set the table and make your bed and keep your things in order and get to bed at a reasonable hour and be ready on time in the morning.”

All the mad precision of scheduling to keep the children on an even keel while they lived in one house for a week (but with time to see the other parent), then the other for a week—was absolutely required to turn a mess into a reasonable life. It was fucking exhausting. But there was no good option. Children were conservative creatures, nurtured best in habit and ritual; even predictable oppression was better than chaos. Chaos was the alternative, the enemy, chaos was the real devil. “Let’s get out to the field,” Jake said. “You want hot cereal?”

Noah’s eyes softened, his shoulders slackened. “Eggs. Okay?” He had such deep, soulful eyes, Jake thought; he imagined him as a young man looking into the eyes of a friend. Grateful for the softening, he found his own eyes welling up.

“Sunny-side, coming up,” he said in his short-order voice.

“This has been a tough time for husbands and fathers,” Jake began one of his articles. “They’re seen as large, clumsy beasts that need to be domesticated. Valuable for fixing electric wiring but resented for somehow keeping a monopoly on such knowledge. Resented for keeping emotionally distant from their family; resented, too, for emotionally intruding. They’re seen as dangerous to women and children.”

Jake, on the other hand, believed in a child’s need for a father who could help establish the moral parameters, the ground rules, who gave a child a firm structure to push off against. Not that he saw himself as this model father; but he felt he knew what was at stake.

At gentle heat he cooked up eggs for the three of them. Hell with my cholesterol. Toast from his own baked bread. Noah had settled down. He laced up his cleats and told how fast and slippery the Cambodian center on the other team was rumored to be.

Jake sat high above the field in the wooden bleachers. All the fathers, a couple of mothers, hunched up in parkas on this cold, gray Saturday. Jake had his eye on one of the mothers, a single mom he’d spoken to a couple of times. Thickening in torso, curly hair turning gray, Jake saw himself as still a handsome man, maybe on the rough side but handsome; he never had a problem getting women to want him. The problem was how to fit new women into his life with work and kids, and eventually how to imagine making a deep connection again. On second thought, he gave up this new woman as a bad idea right now.

Noah took the ball down on wing; Eli hunkered against his father, yelling, “Come on, No-eee! Yes!”

A whistle for the half. No score.

Now a strange thing: a man by the players’ bench waved at Noah, and Noah waved back. Eli poked Jake. “Dad! Daddy! “That man there, it’s Carl. Mom said not to talk to him. Can I talk to him?” He ran down the stands between the fathers. “Carl, Carl!”

A couple of months ago, Jake would have been pissed. This guy invading my turf! Confusing my kids. Screw him! It was different now. Christine had dumped Carl, too. Just as with Jake himself—no warning, she made the decision, that was that. “Ha! Y’see?” Jake gloated. “She dumps everybody.”

So when Carl climbed the stands, Eli trailing, Jake grinned at him as if they shared a joke. Carl looked uneasy, wanting permission. “You’re Jake Peretz. Noah and Eli’s father—I’ve seen your picture. I’m Carl Degler. I’ve been wanting to meet you.” Lean, nice-looking, red-haired, Degler was dressed in an elegant suede belted jacket and suede boots and fine corduroy slacks—casual clothes that must have cost nearly a thousand bucks. He was a few years younger and looked younger still. Jake held out his hand. “Have some coffee?” Jake found a styrofoam cup and poured.

Jake is a Jew. He hears a name like Carl Degler? Probably an anti-Semite. His kids brought up by an anti-Semite! Country house and BMW he knew about; the rest he made up. Christine told him that Degler bought software and medical technology in Eastern Europe. Jake turned him into a ruthless business type, maybe trading in weapons, maybe hiring nuclear scientists for Iran.

So now he was giggling because that sinister Nazi wheeler-dealer in the BMW had turned into a prep-school type who spoke in complete sentences, precisely, with no expressive edge. “I’ve read quite a number of your articles in The Nation,” Degler said. Jake was always listening for language. He was aware that, talking to Degler, he himself was speaking Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of his childhood, exploding the stressed syllables, hitting the dentals hard, pumping up the city beat of his sentences. Hostile?—i.e., street-smart, populist, hip, against Connecticut prep-school politesse? Yeah, maybe hostile—but expressive, too, of male comraderie. One-on-one.

Maybe the mix of his father and his mother’s ex-boyfriend confused Eli. He could sit still only a few minutes. “Dad, I’m going down to the field, okay, Dad?”

As Eli danced off, Degler said, “They always talked about you. You were always there with us.”

Jake shrugged off the gift. “Yeah. Well, I’m not letting go. I’ll hang on with my teeth like a fucking pit bull.”

“I came here to say goodbye,” Degler said. “Christine won’t let me near them.”

“I know. She told me.” Jake guffawed—but shook his head in sympathy.

After the game—someone on Noah’s team ricocheted a last-minute goal off someone’s shins—the two teams lined up and passed one another, shaking hands. Jake had an idea. “Hey, Carl—why don’t you come back with us, have cold cuts back at my place? Yeah, yeah, it’s all right. It’s my place. You ought to be able to say goodbye, for chrissakes. It’s only right.”

The boys walked together in front. Jake caught a glimpse of Noah’s solemn face and could read his subdued excitement. “That Cambodian kid was good, but you guys, ha!—you took them to the cleaners,” Jake called out, and Noah turned and grinned. Eli was blabbing, high-pitched, dramatic; he danced a soccer ball down the path to the cars.

Digging through the refrigerator, he called out, “Noah, Eli, I want you guys to go pack, and straighten up your rooms, you’re leaving at five. I’ll get lunch on the table. Check lists are on your desks.” He opened bags of cold cuts. He saw Degler look the place over as if trying to find something nice to say.

It was a beat-up old kitchen, nothing like the new kitchen in the house he’d had to leave two years ago. Jake did the work himself to keep costs down—took a sledge hammer to the old plaster walls and in rage and pleasure pulled the lathing until all his muscles ached and his throat was full of dust. He only griped once in awhile, but he had to admit it was a come-down to this rented place. Here he was, still paying half the mortgage for that beautiful old Newton house while he had to live here like a student.

The furniture he took was the old stuff that came to him from his parents or from his first marriage. Old sofa that had weathered two marriages—the new sofa, Christine held on to. Well, he didn’t want to change the home the boys were used to. So for himself he bought used tables and chairs. The scratched, white enameled kitchen table was just like one his mother had stored away when he was a kid. It embarrassed him a little, bringing Degler to a place like this. But he loved sticking it to Christine. It would bust her balls!

With the boys away getting packed, Jake and Carl fell silent. “I get you a beer? You probably think this is typical— cold cuts, I mean,” Jake said. “I don’t know what she told you.”

“Actually, she said you were a good cook.”

“I like cooking, anyway. Last night I made “Adventurers Stew”—that’s actually boeuf Bourguigonne but don’t tell the kids. And you?” Jake asked Degler. “You have any children?”

“No. I was married to a businesswoman,” he said, as if that explained something. Then Degler wandered off. And after awhile Jake, making up a pitcher of lemonade at the sink, overheard him talking to Noah and Eli. “Just so you understand—I want you to understand. I’ve really cared about you both. I’ll always feel love for you, for both of you. Just so you know . . . I regret so much the way things worked out. Just so you know . . . .”

“Sure. Thanks,” Noah said. “Mom gets real mad sometimes.”

That was when Jake’s heart opened. Until that moment, Carl Degler had been a decent, if white-bread, guy, and the meeting had been a joke on Christine. A men’s joke. The Guys, teamed up against Women for an afternoon. A confirmation of blamelessness—ah, who could figure that bitch? But standing at the old, stained white porcelain sink, squeezing lemon halves into a pitcher, even with the water running Jake could hear Carl’s stammering pain, and instantly, the situation became something else, something sadder.

Now, without asking again, Jake opened a beer for Carl and carried it in and handed it to him. Without a word Carl followed him back into the kitchen. Jake laid out the cold cuts on a platter. “A real kick in the stomach for you, huh?”

Carl didn’t pretend not to understand. “A real kick in the stomach. I didn’t expect it. You read about men, they get so obsessed with a woman they go to restaurants on the offchance she’ll be there. They haunt the neighborhood. But you see, ordinarily, I’m a pretty conservative person. I never imagined.”

“I didn’t know—I mean, that it was that bad.”

“She actually took out a restraining order.”

“I didn’t know.”

“I’m embarrassed, being so foolish. And—well, I’m not the type to hurt anyone,” Carl said, palms out, grinning. “But I can imagine it looked bad, my hanging around. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Then I wanted at least to say goodbye to the boys.”

“I’m sorry. Noah’s right. She’s one angry woman.”

“Sure. Christine’s angry, it’s true,” Carl said. “Oh. But. She can be a wonderful, generous woman, too,” Carl said. “I know it’s a funny thing to say—I never met a woman so splendid.”

Jake laughed. “Splendid, sure. Splendid I won’t deny. I remember a few summers back, a cocktail party in Wellfleet, I look up to see Christine in a long white summer dress, her skin all tan and her hair loose, lightened gorgeous by the sun, and all around her a circle of these big shots in thrall— professors and analysts and CEO’s—she shone like some kind of goddess. It made me hold my goddamned breath. “I”m married to her?” I said. “Soon I wasn’t.”

“It’s funny,” Carl said. “She used to tell me how different I was from you. She used to say I knew her better in a few months than you in ten years. I looked at your picture over Noah’s bed. I started looking up your articles in different magazines. I felt good, being able to take care of her better than you. By the summer, she said I was just like you after all. Another arrogant male. Selfish, inconsiderate, controlling.”

“What is it about Christine?” Jake said. He meant it rhetorically, like, What’s with that woman? But Carl Degler took it as a straight question.

“I think I know,” Carl said, “what Christine had for me. She gave me a gift. A long time now, I’ve been a success in my work, and in my work I’ve felt expansive—you know what I mean? I don’t put limits on myself. But in my emotional life—a lot of the time, I live in a box. A box under brown glass.”

“So she helped you feel free, Christine.”

“Oh. . . . At least she gave me the sense that I built the box. I screwed the thing together, you understand? So then maybe, maybe, I can dismantle it and walk away.”

“But not without Christine?”

Degler didn’t answer. He sipped his beer. The two of them sat at the kitchen table, and Jake began to see something peculiar: to see middle age peel away from Carl Degler, began to see him the way he must have been 20 years ago. He stared. He didn’t want to be rude, but there was something— and he said, “I think I know you. I know you from somewhere.”

“You know me? . . . Have you done any articles on the Young Presidents Organization?”

“It’s not that. No, no. Long ago. Wait a minute—you have a sister—am I right?”

“You know my sister? You know Jenny?”

“Jenny. But not Jenny Degler.”

“No. A half-sister. Jennifer Corcoran.”

“Of course. Jenny Corcoran. Sure, I was with her for awhile. A few months. You used to visit sometimes.”

“The farm! The commune in Vermont.”

“Half-acre Farm. It was a joke, the name. Remember? I lived up there. We lived up there.”

“Oh, my God—of course. Jake. You lived with Jenny. You played guitar. Right? I’m not sure I ever knew your last name. Jake. Sure.”

“You came up on weekends.”

“You played folk guitar.”

From the other room, noises of Nintendo violence. Ordinarily Jake would have stopped daytime TV and especially video games of male violence and especially when the boys were supposed to be packing. But now he sat grinning at Carl Degler. And Carl smiled back. And then they were laughing and a little too shy to look at one another, and it was like the old days, being stoned and knowing more than you usually let on you know, not censoring it out. Laughing—and finally it was Jake who said it. “Okay, okay. You slept with my wife, I slept with your sister.”

“Well, it’s really funny.”

“It is. How is your sister? How’s Jenny?”

“Good. Married. She has a boy and a girl. She’s a lawyer in Denver.”

“Good. See, I should have stuck with her.” Jake grunted. “But should she have stuck with me? That’s a whole other question. And the answer is, Fuck, no. I was a wild-ass punk, acting out like crazy.”

“Well, it was the times, Jake.”

“Naw. I refuse to get off the hook that easy.” Jake sighed. “The times just let us be the arrogant pricks we wanted to be.”

“But Jenny, too,” Carl said, “she married and divorced. This is a second marriage. Her first marriage a disaster. She wound up in a terrible depression . . . Jenny’s been through things.”

“I’m sorry. She was so fine. She deserved better.” Now, as Jake walked into the livingroom, he remembered her red hair, like her brother’s, only so long!—remembered it loose—like sea-wrack, he thought, under him in bed, and he imagined a whole other life he hadn’t had with Jenny. He couldn’t even remember why they stopped being together.

Now, back in the world he was actually living, he shrugged at the boys, palms up (like Carl, he thought)—like saying, What’s this daytime Nintendo crap? “Lunch, you guys.” Noah shrugged back, got out of the game and called “Eli?” and they came into the kitchen.

And while the boys set the table, Jake poked through his old records and pulled out American Beauty by the Grateful Dead. He switched on the small kitchen speakers he’d wired up. It was music he hadn’t played for a long, long time. But he was certain that when he sat down at the table, Carl would be nodding to the rhythm of the Dead. And Carl was.

Jake thumbed at the music. “I never listen to that stuff anymore.”

“That was my music.”

“Sure. That was our music. I never listen anymore.”

Jake honed in on Carl’s face, his sad eyes. The old face was there, more and more, but it had developed distinction during the past 20 years. He was the kind of guy who looked like a wimp in high school, Jake thought, but now at reunions he looked youthful and handsome while the others had gone to pot. For a moment Jake thought he saw Jenny’s eyes in him.

Now over the music, Carl, spreading mustard on his pastrami, said something something, Bob Dylan . . .and Jake said something something Herbert Marcuse, and Carl said, Cambodia incursion, March on Washington . . . Woodstock . . . Norman O. Brown. It was like a dance of the old words.

Eli looked over at Noah, who, not wanting to admit he didn’t understand, wouldn’t look his brother’s way. But Noah drummed his fingers to the rhythm of the Grateful Dead.

Jake realized he himself wasn’t speaking Brooklyn anymore and maybe Carl, too, wasn’t speaking in the same way. And so deeper losses—or if not deeper, communal—entered the kitchen. It was as if the music of a shared history were vibrating like invisible guy wires supporting this platform in space and time and feeling, two men in a fluorescent-lit, rented kitchen.

“I helped manage the alternative news service,” Carl said. You remember?”

“Freedom News.”

“Freedom News. Right. I think—often I think—that was my best time,” Carl said.

“And now you make money.”

“I certainly try,” Carl laughed.

“Those days, you worked with Jonas, right?”

“Jonas Segal.”

“Jonas Segal. Brilliant hyper kid who killed himself.” Jake said this not to remind Carl but to memorialize. Everything came back: the old Volkswagen on the hill, vacuum cleaner pipe from the exhaust into the window. I retrieved the paper from his pocket, where his will, his money, were to be found. The list of jobs that needed to be done at the farm. Jonas died on a sunny day on a hilltop reading The New York Times.

“That was terrible,” Carl said, “Maybe the beginning of the end.”

Jake thought a minute. He got ice cream and handed the scoop to Noah, “So that’s the part of you—the part that was alive during that time—Christine woke up again?”

”. . .Something like that.” Carl was embarrassed to talk in front of the boys, and the boys kept their eyes on their bowls, and Jake realized once again what a loudmouth he himself was. So he shut up; they sat, silent.

“We’ll take our ice cream into the bedroom, okay?” Noah asked.

Sure. Jake was glad. “This once. Finish your packing and straightening up. Just be careful with the ice cream, okay?”

Noah rolled his eyes and looked glum.

Gently, Jake called him on the eye rolling. “Okay. What’s that supposed to mean, Noah?”

“Why are you coming down so heavy?”

“What heavy? I just said, “Be careful.” Is that so terrible?”

“Dad. In your house, we can’t eat in the bedroom but we can eat in the livingroom. In Mom’s, we can’t eat in the livingroom but we can in the bedroom.”

“I’ll talk to her. We’ll all try to work out some sensible rules in common. I promise. But look—there are going to be differences. There just are.”

After they were gone, Jake sang to the Grateful Dead, “. . . and if I knew the way, I would take you home.” He shook his head and thought again about the commune. “Well, it was my time, too,” he told Carl. “Narcissism and vanity. Masked by ideology,” he added. “We were full of experiments. On ourselves, on our children. A professor I knew at UCAL Santa Cruz, he believed in giving his three and four year-old kids acid on weekends. I often wonder what happened to those kids. . . .” But that wasn’t what he really wanted to say. . . .”I know about my own kid.” That was it.

“You don’t mean Noah and Eli. You mean your daughter.”

“Christine must have told you? My daughter, my first marriage. Look at her now, Ellie’s almost 25, in and out of jobs, in and out of school, hospitals, relationships. Hah— relationships! . . . And drugs. Christine told you that, too?”

Carl nodded.

“When we divorced, her mother and me, 20 years ago, we were freeing ourselves from boxes. Same way you were talking. And what about our little kid? Well, of course a child would be happier after a separation, right?—because her mother and father would be truer to their authentic selves. . . . Makes me sick. Makes me sick to think.”

“You think you wrecked your daughter?”

“See, the times—the times were full of chaos, I grant you. They still are. Worse, now, because it’s without hope. But that’s all the more reason I needed to watch over her. It was up to us to make up for what the community couldn’t give.”

“So do you see her? Your daughter?”

“In my mind’s eye.”

“I’m sorry,” Carl said. They sat in silence. The music ended. They heard Eli and Noah clomp outside to throw a football around. Then Carl said, “Still, I believe in our old life, those days. The old hopes. I was this really straight kid. Maybe I wasn’t free those days, but I believed in the possibility of becoming free. Like Jenny. The same. I still believe in having believed, caring enough to believe some-thing. What can you give a child, Jake, you don’t bring that?”

“I see what you’re saying,” Jake admitted. “All right. I grant you. I grant you. Maybe something good got lost. Maybe it wasn’t all vanity and narcissism. You know what I think?” Jake said. “We were right back then. We knew it wasn’t just politics. It wasn’t just out there we had to fight. We had to turn ourselves inside out. We just didn’t know how fucking hard that would be. We’re half crazy, cripples, all of us. Christine. You. Me, too, sure. Me, too.”

“I would have been a good stepfather.”

“You would have been. I sympathize. You wanted a readymade family. Well, why not? You seem like a really good man. No—you do. You do.” Jake waved a hand at the air, as if getting rid of a bug or a bad smell. Enough. He let his eyes close. He felt the afternoon growing sour. . . .Christine: I say her name, Jake thought, and all this freight attaches to my heart. Enough. He looked at the ceiling where the landlord still hadn’t fixed the cracks, and he sank down deep inside himself and wished Carl would go home.

The boys came in, laughing at something, and Carl motioned toward them with his head and smiled. “Thanks for this afternoon,” he said.

The kindness of the remark made Jake look at him and soften. Softening, he wondered how gentle a man had to be to get Christine’s approval. “You know,” Jake said, a hand on Carl’s arm, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to say. There’s some quality about this talk between you and me that makes it feel like an absolute moment. I haven’t talked like this for a long time; you know, one of those times late at night, you’re drunk or stoned—especially stoned, especially years ago, stoned—and get to talking about your lives. I remember back then talking like this with a friend all night long. You lift above the selves you pretend to be everyday, and it’s not that you won’t be the same tomorrow, it’s not that the talk changes any goddamn thing, but you feel like you’ve stepped outside your lives and you can look at them. I feel that with you.” Not wanting to force Carl to confirm the feeling, he said, “I’m glad it worked out.”

“Me, too.” Carl got up, went into the livingroom. “Eli? Noah? I’m going now.”

He reached out his arms, and Eli ran into them while Noah hung back. But after Eli, Noah came up and hugged Carl.

“If either of you ever need me for anything . . . you understand?”

Jake put a hand on his arm and led him to the door. “Remember me to your sister. . . . Look—maybe—what d’you think?—maybe we can get together, play some tennis—you do play tennis, right? You look like a tennis player. I’ll give you a call, okay?” They shook hands and Carl Degler walked down the front stoop and the boys waved and Jake felt he’d known him a million years and wondered, would they get to be friends—or maybe not see each other for another 20 years?

And he was thinking about this and puttering around the kitchen when he heard a car door slam in the driveway and looked through the glass of the kitchen door to see Christine in her usual violet Lycra stretch pants and runner’s sleeveless shirt coming along the flagstone to the back deck and right away knew she was pissed and knew why. He couldn’t help particularly liking the way she walked when she was mad— long, strong hippy strides, blonde hair wild.

So the boys wouldn’t see Christine, wouldn’t have to hear the brawl he knew was coming, he went out onto the deck to meet her.

She waited till she was up the stairs, level with him—taller than Jake by an inch or two—and, arms akimbo, spoke huskily and precisely, as she always did when she wanted to make a really intense statement. “I am simply furious. I resent this terribly. God, I can’t trust you for a minute. And you—you think it’s funny? You’re so smug!”

“What happened? You were driving by?”

“I wasn’t snooping, if that’s what you’re implying. I was on my way home, I thought maybe the boys would be ready early. We’re going to Connecticut, I wanted to get an early start.”

“Sorry. Fuck you. You get them at five on the dot.”

“I couldn’t believe it, I saw his car, I couldn’t believe it. What right do you have? To undercut me that way? How dare you let him near my children? Do you know what I’ve gone through?”

Leaning against the deck rail to suggest calm, Jake said, “He came by the game. I’m not saying the guy has rights, but he’s got a lot of heart invested in those boys. I felt bad for him.”

“YOU!” she said, as if the word were a curse. “You love this, don’t you! You don’t know the first thing about him. Heart! You don’t know what he was like with me. Well, do you? You can’t judge, Jake. One week Mr. Sweetness, next a cranky, depressed bastard. Do you know what he did after I told him to stay away? He sneaked into the house when the sitter was there. Only by pure chance, I came home and caught him.”

“Maybe he wanted to say goodbye. And maybe he still wants you.”

“He sneaked into my house! Frankly, I was scared. Wants me! How can I trust him after that? I had to get a restraining order.”

“Ahh, he’s no abuser, Christine. He’s a kind man. He’d be good for you. In fact—maybe you should marry the guy.”

“Don’t you dare tell me who to marry! Don’t you dare! I’d rather bring up the boys alone.”

“Alone, huh?”

“Oh—I don’t mean without your help. I mean I don’t need to lock myself up inside some businessman’s fantasy of a 19th-century marriage. His friends. His house. His career.”

“Oh, come on, Christie. He’s a decent guy, a sad guy.”

“You’re all just “sad guys.” He just likes to come off like a sensitive man. Men, nowadays, they want the old prerogatives plus a stamp of the new sensitivity.”

“Then why go out with men? If we’re all such low-lifes.”

“I didn’t say all. And then—it gets hard, it gets lonely—listen, you’ve been sleeping with dozens of women for every man I’ve seen. I don’t have a thing to explain to you.”

“Dozens! Look, baby: the problem is, you’re bringing up my sons. And they’re going to be men.”

Good ones. Decent ones.”

“Not like their father?”

“That goes without saying.” But she said it—through half-clenched teeth.

“Me and Carl, we were discussing ideology,” Jake said. “You, Christine, you use ideology to cover your anger. “Men’s selfishness, men’s arrogance.”“

“And you weren’t selfish? You weren’t arrogant?”

“Maybe. Yeah, I’m a handful. But you—you wanted and wanted. You were hungry and nobody could feed you. You think I wanted to push you around? I wanted to live a decent life with you. I was 12 years older. I figured I knew what was up. “Stick with me,” I said. “Stick with me and maybe we can get through this life in one piece.”“

“You mean you wanted me to shut up and let you drive. That’s ideology too. The ideology of men in power keeping women in their place.”

“Yeah, you lecture me on politics!”

“And that’s another thing. You think you’re so full of political virtue. The great healer. At $1,500 an article. It gets tiresome, sweetie, you can’t imagine. But we were discussing you and Carl,” Christine said, “You just make sure you never—”

“Hey, it’s my house, my kids, sorry, baby.”

“And you may not know it, but your swaggering “MY” and that “Baby”—that’s ideology, too.”

“I was saying to Carl, we’re all cripples. We are,” he sighed. “We are. Come on, Christie. Please. Carl was just saying goodbye. He’ll leave the boys alone now. You ought to thank me. He said goodbye and finished something and you didn’t have to be involved. See what I mean?”

She saw. She let out a huge breath and closed her eyes. Sitting on the edge of the old wooden table they’d once had in their basement playroom, she said quietly, “You make me so mad.”

“Well, it must have been a shock. Like we were ganging up. He’s still in love with you, you know.”

“Stop that. Yes. Yes, I know.”

For the first time in months, Jake felt a sexual warmth around Christine. Must be from the fighting, he thought. In his mind’s eye he saw an image, quick, incomplete—must have been their bedroom, scene invented or remembered, books and clothes scattered in their joint mess, hot water bottle from the time she wrenched her back in modern dance class. He saw a tennis racket, a crumpled leotard, a pyramid of paperbacks with half-glasses on the top. The debris of married life. The weary debates halfway to morning, nobody giving an inch. Or sometimes the surprise of laughter and surrender, your own or hers, and lovemaking that seemed like the satisfying last piece of a puzzle.

“You got to be an angel,” Jake said. “A complete angel. I mean, to be married. Especially in our times.”

“Sometimes,” she said, quietly, so quietly he almost missed it, “we were.”

Now that they were quiet, Noah and Eli came out onto the deck, and Jake realized that they must have heard the rumble of a fight and waited. It was sad—how politically adroit children had to become after a divorce.

“Hi, guys,” Christine said breezily. She opened her arms.

Jake said, “Noah, Eli, please get your things ready. Your mom’s going to take you a little early. You’re going off to Connecticut, remember?”

Christine looked at him in surprise. “Thank you.”

But suddenly, the children stopped being all that polite. Noah hunkered down over folded arms as if battered by a cold wind. “You see what I mean? You see? The way you jerk us around?”

“Come on now,” Jake said. “A couple of hours, what’s the big deal.”

“It is a big deal. And I can tell you why.”

Noah waited for the go-ahead, and Jake found himself irritated but at the same time goddamned pleased, proud, that Noah was bucking them like this. “Okay. Why?”

“You don’t even ask us anything. You just push us and pull us and we’re supposed to do—whatever whatever whatever!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Christine said. She heaved one of her dramatic great breaths. “But I am really exhausted,” she said, her voice rising in pitch with each word. As if somehow this formulation did something good for her, she said it again, “I am really exhausted. I try to make a pleasant weekend for us, and you know all the work I’ve got!—and I don’t need all this . . .”

. . . crap, Jake finished in his head. “Boys,” he said calmly, hands upraised like a Pentacostal preacher offering blessing, “boys, please, help your mother out.”

Christine shut her eyes and, her fingers fluttering like a drowning swimmer stretching for a hand, she waved at the boys to come, just come, for godsakes, and now Eli—this amazed Jake—got into the act, and he yelled “No way!” and for support hugged his brother around the waist, and there stood Jake and Christine on the deck facing off against Eli and Noah, and now Jake began to laugh at the stalemate, he couldn’t help it, and Christine said, “I don’t see anything so funny,” but soon she was giggling and Jake crumpled in laughter on the deck, legs crossed yogi-style, and maybe the laughter was half fake, pumped-up to help smooth things over, but it was half real, too.

Then Noah was smiling and shrugging, and Jake went up to him and kissed him hard on both cheeks, and he turned and went inside for the bags. Christine was hugging Eli.

And soon she and the boys were gone, hugs and goodbye and gone, waving, into her Volvo station wagon and back down the driveway. Jake felt his laughter dry up, like nothing would ever be funny again, like his mouth, his heart, were full of sand. He straightened up the boys’ rooms, and laying back on his battered two-marriage sofa, called his current woman friend to see if she maybe wanted to get together a little early.


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