Essays - Winter 2015

For Better and for Worse

The aftermath of a disorienting divorce

By Clellan Coe | December 10, 2014


My husband and I once had a fight in the yard, at dusk. I pushed at Fran with my fists and he grabbed my arms and flung me to the ground and I scrambled up and got hold of his shirt and threw him down and he grabbed at me as he was falling and I also went down, and fell on him. The grass was wet with early dew, and our clothes were streaked with green and splotched with damp. We were panting. There were no neighbors to see us, and the kids were asleep on the other side of the house. In the growing gloom, we weren’t very visible anyway, and besides the hard breathing from our exertion, we didn’t make any noise.

When I think about that fight now, I am neither indignant nor even terribly ashamed, because it seemingly happened to someone else. When we made up, we told each other that we had not been ourselves, had not meant what we’d said, had not wanted to do what we’d done. Within the year Fran was gone, and soon we were divorced.

Six years later, on a beautiful September day, he came to the house in a new car to collect the last of his things to take to his new apartment. They were in the hórreo, a square wooden storehouse on stone pillars that stands in the yard. Along with papers and books and old family pictures were the remains of family heirlooms. Broken crystal chandeliers, glass candelabras, statuettes of the Virgin, an antique copper teapot, one of those incense burners used in church ceremonies—quaint and useless things. I was glad for the help of the boys—nine and nearly 12 at the time—in boxing up the books and papers and wrapping up the breakables. We’d been at it for two hours when Fran drove up, tooting his horn. The sun glinted on the deep red of his car.

The elder boy hopped down from the stone steps of the hórreo to run and open the gate for his father, who rolled the car in and then got out and rubbed his face. He’d only come from across town, but he shook his head as if to clear away the fatigue of travel, then tugged a handkerchief from his rear pocket, patted his forehead, and put it back before turning to hug the boys, who bounced and clambered about him. I watched from the stone steps.

Hands on hips, he surveyed the yard. He looked trim in white slacks, a checked shirt with the cuffs turned up, and a pair of sandals. I wore shorts and an old T-shirt, both dusty, like my hands and knees. We had a number of boxes already brought down and sitting on the grass, and I pointed to them. “Those are ready,” I said, to which he replied that it was rather warm to be working so hard. Then he sat down on the wooden bench under the apple tree and called for a glass of water.

While he sat in the shade, complaining of the heat and how tired he felt, the boys and I loaded up the car. Soon he lit a cigarette. His grousing grated on me, and I cast disparaging glances at him, though a part of me was secretly pleased by his indolence because it made me look good.

The boys and I worked away. They were excited—they liked to see their father take possession of what was his, and it was made sweeter because the hórreo would become a sort of clubhouse for them. And I was glad to think he’d soon be gone.

“No more,” Fran protested as the boys and I continued to load boxes. “Enough.” But it was my back aching, not his, so I ignored him. When he said, “Save some for another day,” I answered, “There won’t be another day for this.”

“Can’t you ever relax?” he asked.

I let that pass and labored on, stimulated by the prospect of having him fully out. When he did finally leave, I closed the gate behind him and rubbed my hands together to shake away the dust and signal my satisfaction.

The next day, going through the things he’d recovered, Fran found the report of his maternal grandfather Conrado’s interrogation by the franquistas toward the end of the Spanish Civil War. Moved to tears, he called me.

Conrado had been the chief mining engineer of the province of Asturias, responsible for keeping the mines operating. Someone—possibly a jealous associate—named him for suspected collusion with the miners. At the time, merely expressing sympathy for the wrong side could cost you your life, and the report recorded his fearful and servile responses to the tribunal. Fran, reading aloud over the phone, got to the part where Conrado reminded his interrogators of the murder of his wife’s politician father at the hands of the republicanos, “the vile and evil enemy,” during the earliest days of the war. I could hear Fran choking up with emotion. A mortifying use of a personal tragedy. Cutre was his word, cheap.

“This was, what, 60 years ago?” I asked.

“Seventy. And?”

It was all so long ago, and the man was dead. But Fran would only yell at me if I pointed this out, so instead I asked, “You didn’t even know that grandfather, did you?”

“Nor the other. His story’s no happier.”

The other grandfather was an architect and rich, and when, in 1936, he fled Madrid to escape the siege, he left behind a fortune in stamps, coins, and antiques. When he returned at the end of the war, he found his home had been looted—not by starving and vengeful Republicans, but by his fellow franquistas. This after losing two sons fighting for Franco. He died within the year.

But he was no hero and deserved no pity. His neglect nearly ruined his youngest son, Luis, who became my father-in-law, and through him, Fran. “You’re just like your father,” I’d often had reason to say. “That’s the tragedy,” he would answer.

Luis, 18 at the outbreak of the war, lived in Asturias, which had remained loyal to the Republic. To avoid conscription, he volunteered for the ambulance service and spent a year pulling cadavers off the beaches—the bodies of those executed by both sides, tossed into the sea and then returned by the waves.

After Franco took Asturias, Luis was called up and eventually sent to Valencia, a Republican stronghold now controlled by the franquistas. “What did you do there, though?” I once asked Luis.

“I’ll tell you what we didn’t do,” he said, “and that was eat.”

At the time, all was chaos, no one certain whose side anyone was on, fear and doubt the order of the day. In all likelihood, Luis had been sent to a work camp of some sort, a holding pen.

After the war, Luis returned to Madrid and knocked on the door of the family home. His father, not recognizing his son, asked, “What do you want?” They would never see each other again.

“Was it diabetes he died of?” I asked Luis.

“It was a broken heart,” he said.

Luis wore ratty old sweaters, a blanket strapped around his waist, and sweat pants. His two remaining teeth were brown and stubbed, but he was unashamed and liked to show them off along with a pliers-like device he carried in his pocket to mash his food. He smoked a pipe, and if you brushed the ash off his sweater, he’d raise his eyebrows in a show of surprise. One day in the park, when my children were little more than babies, Luis, strolling with his arm through mine, held up his walking stick. With a sly smile he asked what I thought the stick was for. Luis didn’t want an answer—he never did—so I kept quiet, and with the next step, he turned sharply on his heel and took a crack at a bench. That, he said, was how to disable a would-be attacker. My boys stared, and a small child standing nearby whimpered and hugged her mother’s legs. Luis winked. He raised his stick again.

As far back as Fran could remember, his father had done things his own way, without regard for anyone else. No wonder Fran threw up his hands and yelled. “What would he have been like,” Fran asked sometimes, “without the family he had, or the war?”

After the war, Luis lived in a big house with his mother and unmarried sister and eventually his wife and two sons. In a picture Luis showed me, he poses in the garden, high smooth forehead, wire-rim glasses, suit, and wavy hair, still the son of privilege.

“Can that be you, Luis?” I asked, and he chuckled.

“Who’d guess it,” he said.

But what was the use, I wondered, in thinking about any of this right now? Besides, I was busy. With only a telephone connection between us, I was about to make my escape.

“By the way,” Fran said, instead of taking the boys for the weekend, he was going on a trip, and I was not to count on him.

“What?” I blurted. “You can’t do that. We talked about this. We agreed. I have plans.”

Well, now I have plans too, he replied, and I’ll do what I want, and you can’t stop me. And sure enough, he was right.

Hatred is hard, and like staying awake, staying angry is something you have to work at. But instead of a glorious sunrise for your effort, all you get—what you insist on—is stormy weather. After hanging up, I thought about that for a while, remembering the cold, wet winter Fran left. It was the worst weather in years. The wind off the ocean was frigid and the garden sodden. I tied a string to a bent hazel branch and notched some sticks for arrows and sent the boys out to play when the rain let up. From the window, I clapped when they hit the target and turned their surprised faces toward me. Their blond hair rose on their heads with the gusts of wind that blew through the garden, rattling branches and yanking the last leaves off the apple tree. A mal tiempo, buena cara, I told Luis when he called to make sure the boys and I were warm. It was one of his favorite sayings: “Put on a good face for bad weather.”

Spring came, and then summer, and by fits and starts Fran and I found ourselves settling into our separate lives. One day a couple of years after our divorce, Fran called midweek to say he was coming to the house. “No,” I told him, but he insisted.

I thought of our divorce agreement with its stipulated visitation days. “I’ve got a paper that says you can’t.”

“You be careful,” he said. “It’s not even your country.”

After I hung up on him, he left a message on the answering machine that he was coming anyway.

Stepping in past me and piling his leather satchel and a bag of treats on the porch table, he embraced the boys. Over the tops of their heads, he told me not to worry, he wouldn’t be staying long. Then he asked for a beer and something to eat.

I was still fuming two days later when I delivered the boys to his apartment for the weekend, and just as angry when I went to pick them up on Sunday. It was 11 A.M. Often I would take my coat off and have a cup of coffee while I waited for the boys to collect their jeans and dirty socks, pencils and notebooks, and put on their shoes, and when one of them would ask if we could go to the flea market, I’d say sure, and, as if it had just occurred to me, ask Fran if he wanted to join us.

The invitation was mine to give because when I walked out the door with the kids, they became mine again, back in my custody and under my care, and they occupied a place where their father had no right of entry, and we did what I wanted and went where I decreed. Or so I’d thought. That morning, still full of anger, I felt the need to reaffirm this.

So I turned down the coffee and disdained the seat being offered. I stood there, sweater still on, snapping my fingers to get the boys moving. Then, as they gathered their things, I sat on the sofa, just to signal that I was at ease. Things were about to get difficult, and I wanted to be prepared. I faked a smile, said yes to the flea market, and when one of the boys asked if their father could come too, I said firmly, “No, not today.”

My elder son, who’d been pulling his shoes on in the entryway, came clumping toward me. “Can’t Daddy go?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said, and immediately my son collapsed into tears.

The younger is like me—stubborn, and at times insistent, but then quick, almost too quick in his case, to shrug off trouble in a show of casual indifference; the elder is like his father, a lot of bluster until he gets hit, whereupon he caves in, as if knowing there is no chance for escape. One so preternaturally nonchalant and the other precociously attuned to loss and failure. Did our divorce do this to them? I sometimes asked myself.

“It’s not going to work today,” I said in a reasonable voice.

Fran appeared in the bathroom door. “Says who?” he demanded. He was buttoning his fly, and his lack of propriety stoked my anger.

“It won’t be good for anyone,” I said, now sounding steely. “We haven’t been exactly getting along, have we?”

“That’s your problem.”

“No,” I corrected. “It’s everybody’s.”

And with that, we were into it, insults on his part, accusations and reminders of past infractions on mine, his voice loud and his tone contemptuous, my voice shrill and tone bitter. We kept on, and the boys heard it all. So he’d come calling when I’d asked him not to, so he’d as good as forced his way in, so he’d asked for a beer, so he gave the kids candy and made them laugh at a funny story, so he’d laughed too, and loudly, so I’d felt him to be an intrusion—so what? These things happen between friends, he was telling me, and I could hardly protest that I’d been damaged by his rude and clumsy handling.

But I had been. Under different circumstances, I might have gone into my house and locked the doors; as it was, with the boys climbing on their father, unaware that my schedule and plans and peace had been ruined, I was forced to suffer his presence, and our divorce was shown to be small protection. It was a lie, like our marriage, and my sacrifice of my children’s sense of well-being was nothing but a meaningless gesture, a pointless and selfish act without more consequence than stomping my foot, or hurling a dish across the room, good for nothing but a sore heel or a mess to clean up.

In Fran’s apartment, the light changed. The room lost its golden cast and turned a bluish gray. I looked toward the window. The September skies, so clear when I’d left my house full of determination that morning, had clouded up and seemed to promise rain. Here was my out. No one would be going to the flea market, I said, cutting short the argument. The elder cried all the harder, and the younger calmly asked if that meant he could watch a video at home. Fran said, wasn’t that like me to ruin it for everyone. “Don’t do this. You’ll regret it.”

But a drop and then another hit the window. There—no story or excuse, just nature at work.

This was our first serious falling-out since our divorce, but we had been advancing toward it for a while, and I had a choking sense of how it would be from now on, hatred flattening into resentment then flaring again. Month after month. On and on. All my energy for this. For years. Until, eventually, the boys would be grown and gone, beyond our care and beyond our harm.

But they were still little on that Sunday morning in September. I could feel the coming cold, and there came to my mind an old song. I’d always liked it for its wistful hopefulness. “Try to remember,” croons the voice, but there was no warm September to recall. We’d never had one. We’d never had anything, nothing worth looking back on.

Anger is work, true, but only when something better is at hand, and at that moment, with everything lost, it wasn’t difficult at all. I’d been slow to realize it, but I had ruined my life and the boys’ lives as well, and there was no righting the wrong. Oh, it was horrible.

With Fran still standing in the bathroom doorway, glaring at me with his fingers entwined in the buttons of his fly, I wanted nothing to do with him. Often enough I’d wanted distance, but now I wanted not to be there when he came looking. I wanted to be utterly absent. I wanted out.

I was so incensed that blaming Fran wasn’t enough. I blamed myself for ever having met him, and I blamed Luis for being his father. “Imagine him,” Fran had sometimes said, “as a young man, with a young man’s energy,” and I screwed up my face in concentration. “Frightening, isn’t it?” he asked.

Fran wanted me to understand what it had been like to have this noble but self-engulfed man for a father, but instead I thought of how Fran’s undisciplined energy was the same kind that bolstered Luis to the end. I grimly thought of it that Sunday morning as I led my two children away, one untroubled and the other sobbing, dire warnings still issuing from behind us as I shut the door.

“What can I do?” I asked even before my son turned his reproachful look on me. We were in the elevator. “You heard what he called me. You see how he is.”

Out on the street, the sun was back and the sky blue and distant.

“He says he won’t be like that.” It was the younger one who spoke.

“And if he is?”

“Um, don’t pay any attention?” he suggested. “Like you tell us to with each other?”

He had a point. Ignore the bad, encourage the good. Except they love each other, my two children, and I hated their father. But what could I do?—he was their father. All the way to the car, my elder son’s distress distressed me. “Look,” I said, “you want me to call him? And see if he’ll go? You do? Okay, I’ll do it.” They stayed in the car while I ran into a café to call.

“What did you say?” they wanted to know when I got back.

“What you say whenever you have a disagreement with someone and you want to get past it.”

“You win,” said my younger.

“Sort of. But with other words,” I said. “I apologized.”

Yes, I had humbled myself, taken the blame. But I was elated, for I had cut short the hurt to my son and come off as a hero to both of my boys. And I knew the turnaround was neither connived nor dictated by their father but by the children’s needs. That made it okay—neither calculation nor capitulation.

My son sat there, and then smiled a timid, grateful smile. “Thank you,” he said. Then he added, “I bet if you’d said that about him winning, he would have said this isn’t about winning or losing.”

“I bet you’re right,” I said.

The following weekend when I dropped off the boys, I accepted Fran’s offer of coffee, smiled at his teasing, and then, after a suitable time, took my leave—on tiptoe because I’d promised myself never to give him the opportunity to ruin one more hour or day or week of my life.

Feeling the usual surge of desolation after leaving the boys, I went for a walk in the park across the street from where Fran lived. After a turn around the park and past the pond where the ducks and geese congregate, I ended up on a playground bench, with running children and their parents all around, trying to breathe in the air of other people’s happiness. I tried not to think of my children and what I was missing.

While I sat there, dusk came, settling as lightly as the plane trees’ leaves that in the autumn appear about your feet, to rise and shift and resettle without your ever having noticed them falling. Night was coming on, and in clusters all over the playground, parents looked this way and that for their children. Children were reined in, toddlers caught and strapped into strollers. Lone mothers coaxed their small children from the sand pile; lone fathers, perhaps divorced and trying to fit a month’s worth of fun into two weekends, swept theirs up with a profusion of kisses, tickling, laughter, and protestations; middle-aged parents turned from half-grown children to extend an arm or stretch out a hand to an elderly parent resting on a bench. An elderly couple moved through the park with trepidation, clinging to each other, until a child cutting across their path brought them to an unsteady stop. Overhead, the branches of the great poplar trees met, twigs entwining, last leaves rustling. In groups of two or three, people moved away from the park’s crowded center. I almost felt the grip of fear as one mother jerked her head around, her movements erratic, her body as tense as if poised to run, before spotting her young son at the top of a slide. A child came by astride a small toy truck. He stopped at my bench, and I remembered when my sons had trundled along, just like this boy. Nearby, a father cajoled his daughter with a lollipop. Slowly, a sense of fellowship welled up within me.

As the boy struck off on his wobbly way, I patted him on the head, feeling the softness of his hair. How lucky that in Spain these small gestures remain an acceptable part of society’s shared interest in children. He looked up at me, but there was no recognition or flow of feeling, and he pushed on when his mother called.

The sound of laughter came again, and of someone calling. The figures moving under the trees were shadowy now but their voices clear. As the park emptied, the realization came that these children were not mine, and when I heard the call again, there came too the realization that this was not even my country, not my history. My feeling of oneness with these people dissipated little by little, and then it was gone.

What a mystery, I thought—what a mystery how we endure. The weather, the night, and the cold are already almost too much. And then the mistakes. The fights. The humiliations and messy sympathies. Kids and what happens to them. Old parents getting older, and age forever closing in. Mist gathered over the pond, and I began to feel quite chilled. Night had come, and I was nearly alone, and I stood up to go.

On my way out of the park, I watched the water birds settling on the banks of the pond and on the island at its center, milling in and out for the moment, squabbling with one another but taking no great offense. Some fright, some warning signal passed between them, and the flock took to the air, hovering and squawking, only to slowly settle again, then rise, then settle. And then rise again.

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