It started as soon as Dad got home from work, 4:53 p.m., 7 minutes before he had an online meeting related to the online school he works for. He didn't hear what Mom was saying, claiming he was doing five things at once. He wasn't. He logged onto whatever program is used for the meeting, got a sheet of printer paper and folded it to write down notes, and a black pen was right against the base of the computer monitor. I don't remember what Mom was trying to talk to him about, whether it had been the arrival of the bird cage she had been waiting a while for, or the frustration she'd had a few days ago in Petsmart not really caring whether the cage box they sent had arrived. I wasn't listening to that part; I think I was close to my room, thinking about watching the rest of Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. But, there was my dad, as usual, not admitting that he hadn't heard her, not apologizing for it, not explaining to her that he was doing something which precluded him from hearing her for the moment. Familiar territory for me; familiar since the age of 3.
It's hard to respect my father when he doesn't take responsibility for what he clearly did. His not hearing Mom led to a small tiff that stopped until the meeting was over. Actually, not many words were said afterward, but there was the familiar chill in the house of the two not talking. Mom had warned him after the last fight that once more and she was done. "Done" has always been a mysterious word. Does it mean divorce? I'm not sure how that could go because she doesn't work because she's semi-disabled, she doesn't drive, and what would be the destination in this economy? Done? Does that mean she's not talking to him for a while, yet remaining here? And Dad didn't even acknowledge what he had done afterward, didn't even see how ridiculous it was. How hard is it to listen to someone? I remember hearing them argue early one morning not too long ago. I think it was on Veteran's Day when he had the day off. He suddenly charged into action, suddenly adopting an interest in the bird cages she was putting together, asking questions about them. It's such a fake interest. He doesn't care about those. It's always been obvious. They merit nothing more than a cursory glance. And that's not so bad. It's not his fake interest that gets me, but his lack of doing anything to try to make up for what he did.
Today, after he and Mom traded the usual poisonous words that I've heard for years, he stayed in their bedroom past 7 p.m., and then brought his laptop out to the dining room. He honestly pays more attention to that than he does to Mom. And then later, after Meridith, Mom and I had had dinner, he brought it back out again, towards 8:30 p.m. A few more things to check on, no doubt, the same few more things every evening. He walked right past Mom, didn't try to repair the rift, didn't take responsibility for what he did. She quieted down, he was his usual stony self. That would have normally sufficed for me when I was growing up, relief enough that they had stopped fighting, at least for a few moments, but now, I despise what he does. If she quiets down, he believes the fight to be over and that's that. If the fight's over, then it's time to move on. But he's been doing this for their entire marriage. They've been married for 26 years, I've been around for 23 of those years.
Their story is complicated, parts still not entirely clear, yet every time they fight, I think about two things: First, the worry about how this particular fight will end. Will life go on or will our lives endure such an emotional earthquake that after it's over, we won't be sure yet what has changed?
(Right now, I'm watching one of the worst episodes of "Roseanne," toward the end of its run, with Roseanne and Dan trying to repair their damaged marriage. John Goodman's got the Walter Sobchak beard and haircut, because he had been filming The Big Lebowski, and it looks like he still had more filming to do.)
The second thing I think about is what I can use from their marriage for my own benefit? What could become a short story, a play, a set of essays? The first time I was aware of some kind of gaping hole in the marriage that could not possibly be fixed was at three years old, at night, on the way back to our apartment in Sanford, near Orlando. I remember that my room had a paper shade that covered the window when I was put down for an afternoon nap. I also had a glass night table with a lamp.
That night, Dad got stopped for speeding. The officer wrote the ticket, handed it to him with his license and registration, and we went home. I was put to bed, and I heard faint arguing. (There was good insulation in the walls of that apartment.) I knew it was Mom and Dad, obviously, but I wasn't sure of the reason or the context, or that this would go on for years after. Little did I know that it had gone on before I was born too, like when their wedding money went toward paying Dad's credit card bills and other bills, bills that I think he lied to her about. Arguments over his parents, my grandparents (though Grandpa is long decased), arguments over his uncaring attitude, which as you've read already, still lasts to this day. And of course, I'm going to go to bed toward 6 a.m., his bedside alarm is going to go off, he's going to turn on the TV, and god knows if I'll be able to get to sleep right away because if she wakes up, that's it. The argument will continue, starting small and then growing. I can't sleep then, not because it bothers me so (it still does, just not like when I was 11 and the back of my neck would have a burning feeling whenever they fought), but because that's too much noise. I wish my subconscious would not sense it when I'm sleeping and jolt me awake to hear the latest, as it was during the fight before this one.
To be honest, I felt like writing more. I felt like documenting all the fights I've heard, which must rise to a number no one should count. I remember the fights in Coral Springs, including one in which she nearly walked out on Dad with my sister and I and suitcases in tow. I remember the fights in Grand Palms and the fights years later about Grand Palms, how we had to climb a set of stairs after we opened the door, to get to our condominium floor. Not good for her weak legs, and her anger about that was understandable, her firm belief that Dad didn't care, that he'd move anywhere. There's a lot of that in the many stories I could tell. There was the huge, roaring fight on the day of Reagan's funeral, and I alternately watched the hearse drive down the freeway near his library, with people standing on the overpass, and went to the bathroom in their bedroom (where I was watching the proceedings), feeling sick, my mouth dry, not able to feel better, not with the rage going on in the living room. It's never been physical, just verbal.
It should be known right here that I'm not fishing for anything. Not encouraging words, not stories from those who could relate to me, not any of that. For a time, I tried to figure out exactly what makes them stay together, and I guess for Mom, it's necessity. What else is she to do, at least right now? For Dad, I don't know. I'm not sure I care anymore. Maybe there's a story in all of this to use on my own, maybe there isn't. I don't know. I ought to find something just so it's not only been harrowing to witness sometimes.
Usually, the fight begins on Friday. Dad comes home, he's stressed from the week that just finished, and something triggers the argument which lasts into the weekend, unless they go out at some point and can't continue to snipe at one another in public. I guess this is close enough to Friday.
Geez, I should lighten up the next time I stop by. It's hard when you're uncertain yet again of what the future is, when you're not settled into what you hope will be the next, and best, phase of your life. If this had happened while we lived in Las Vegas, at least I'd have some foundation on which to steady myself. Right now, I want to stretch each hour of this day into their own days, so I can wrap each one around me. Hopefully tomorrow gets better, but I'm not sure how much better. But at least there's the books from the library, that Sondheim DVD, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, and whatever else I can think of watching. So at least there'll be a bit of something good.