One big mostly happy family

My dad and I divorced our spouses in three beds under one roof.

By Zachary Karabell
July 21, 2000 11:03PM (UTC)
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Whenever I hear people talking about relationships, I think about the one that always gets left out. People talk about marriage; they talk about dating. They talk about parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, priests, children. They talk about the search for relationships, also known as being single; and they talk about more mysterious relationships, such as the one between a man and his dog. But they don't talk about a relationship that millions of us experience, not always willingly: divorce.

Divorce? A relationship? That's right. Divorce, a whole stage on the road from being married to living single. It's not just the end of a relationship. It's its own odd thing.

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Or in my case, its own very odd thing.

After eight and a half years together, my wife and I decided to get a divorce. There's probably never a convenient time to do this, but this decision happened to coincide with a move back to New York after an absence of nearly a decade. Basking in the amiability of our impending separation, soon-to-be-ex and I agreed that until she found her own place, we would both stay at my father's apartment in the city. So we packed up our two-bedroom home in Cambridge, Mass., put our belongings in his-and-her mini-storage compartments and decamped to Manhattan.

For more than a month, we shared a bedroom while she looked for an apartment. And not just a bedroom. A bed -- technically a pullout sofa, but a bed nonetheless. And we didn't just share it. We shared it. So there we were, sleeping together, eating together, discussing apartments, separating our assets, going to the occasional movie and crying every now and then.

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For years, I thought that divorce marked only a slight improvement over being torn limb from limb by rabid dogs. In the worst moments of my marriage, I consoled myself with images of me alone, sitting in a barren apartment surrounded by pieces of a shattered life, waiting by a phone that wasn't ringing because people judged me too pathetic to even chat with. If that was divorce, then marriage was a safe haven, Eden and salvation all rolled into one.

Well, it wasn't. After too many painful years, my wife wisely suggested that it was time to put our marriage out of its misery. Relieved to be at last letting go, I found that cohabiting while divorcing was far less stressful than cohabiting during the last few years of our marriage.

Still, our arrangement struck many of my friends as weird. "You're sleeping together?" several asked me. "Like, sleeping together?" And they had a real field day when they learned that we weren't the only divorcing couple under the same roof: While soon-to-be-ex and I were breaking up in one part of the apartment, my father and his wife were divorcing in the other.

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After two kids and nearly 25 years, my father and my stepmother had called it quits. Actually, she had called it quits, and her move into the room next door marked the beginning of the asset-splitting phase of their relationship. At the time soon-to-be-ex and I moved in, that phase had lasted six months. So there we were, four of us in three bedrooms, one big happy family coming to end.

When I told friends about the setup, the conversation tended to falter. "Wow" was the response of one of my more loquacious acquaintances. Others raised their eyebrows and downed their drinks. Some asked me to repeat what I had just told them. And a few just shook their heads and said, "That must be really weird."

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Then there were the predictable "I'm so sorrys." It's as if I'd told them that I had cancer and had only six months to live. We tend to see divorce as a tragedy, the unwanted end of dreams and aspirations, the dark underside of "Do you take this woman? Do you take this man?" But divorce can also be the beginning of something new, something enjoyable even.

Toward the end of an evening, the four of us would often find ourselves congregating around the kitchen table, talking about the day's events. Just like a family, only we were all getting divorced. My father and stepmother would talk about my two half-siblings at college; soon-to-be-ex would tell us her apartment-hunting sagas; step, ex and I might go to a movie and try to decide who was going to pay for dinner.

One night, as Dad and I ate in a nearby restaurant with a friend of his, ex and step went drinking. Both are very attractive, and as two seemingly single women they were approached by a number of seemingly single men. They were invited to a party and away they went, all the while taking great delight in informing their various oglers, "She's my stepmother-in-law" and "She's my stepson's soon to be ex-wife."

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That night they both staggered in and went to their separate rooms. Soon-to-be-ex undressed and crawled into bed next to me. Moments later, my stepmother wandered into our room and sat at the foot of the bed. "How can you two share a bed?" she asked drunkenly. "I mean, how?" We told her that it really wasn't that big a deal. After all, just because we were getting divorced didn't mean that we had suddenly decided that we weren't attracted to each other. "Maybe I could do that," she giggled, and left.

Fifteen minutes later she staggered back in and lay across our feet. "I tried," she sighed. "But I just couldn't. It didn't work for me." It took me a moment to realize that she was talking about the past quarter of an hour with my father. She could just as easily have been describing their marriage. We gently nudged her as she started to fall asleep. The following morning, as I reached over to turn off the alarm, I found the detritus of soon-to-be-ex's night out: a stack of business cards on the table by our bed, complete with handwritten home phone numbers.

The hodgepodge quality of our divorces was something of a surprise. I always thought divorce simply meant the end. Finito. See ya. But while divorce does inevitably head in that direction, getting there is as mysterious as any burgeoning romance. For my father and stepmother, divorce encompassed nearly a year of coexistence while my father tried to persuade her to stay and she tried to persuade him to give her more money than he wanted to give. Much of that time was predictably unpleasant, replete with anger, recrimination, blame and assorted nastiness. While there were flashes of sweetness, those moments were rare.

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Anger and blame week in and week out require considerable energy. For instance, my parents split when I was 3 and for nearly 10 years they fought, regularly, over alimony and visitation, over who was a better parent, a good parent, a better person, you name it. With several hours a week devoted to these fights and the hours dedicated to thinking about the fights, they shared as much emotionally intimate quality time as most married people. So they had a 20-year relationship, 10 married, 10 divorced.

Those last 10 strike me as excessive. Yes, at times, our foursome was sufficiently offbeat to be fun, but sometimes it was uncomfortable. I kept coming into the room I shared with soon-to-be-ex and noticing all of her stuff. The closets overflowed with her clothing, and I had to fit my things in different nooks throughout the house. And the bathroom was full of her unguents, creams, oils, soaps, shampoos, floss, sprays, spritzers. What were they doing in my bathroom? Why were my closets packed with this woman's clothes? For years, I had either identified her stuff as mine or taken a quiet delight in what was hers. Now it just bugged me.

It was hard to know what to make of this dance. No one seemed to discuss it very much. How-to books proffer advice on the legalities of divorce or on how to survive it. The occasional article promises 10 easy steps to getting over your ex. But I found few models of how to live with your ex. We were in uncharted waters; at the very least, lots of people have been keeping the charts to themselves.

Sometimes, I would wake up in the morning and see her sleeping beside me, and be overwhelmed with affection. Her face was the last picture I'd gone to bed with for more than a decade and I still found it achingly beautiful. Perhaps the knowledge that soon I would wake alone, or with someone else, made her even more beautiful. In those weeks, I discovered again why I had married her.

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On our last night, the two of us went to dinner, shared a bottle of wine and walked through the city. We didn't talk much about her moving out. We just spent an evening like any other couple in the city. We could have been mistaken for two people on a first date, or old friends, lovers or a married couple. In truth, we were all of these things.

Eventually, my father and stepmother agreed on a settlement and soon-to-be-ex moved into her own apartment. My father and I still share his apartment, and now and then we walk around, bumping into ghosts.

"I do miss her," he said to me one day.

"But, Dad, it wasn't much fun at the end. You two weren't exactly treating each other well."

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"That's true," he answered, "but still ..."

I know what he means. I don't miss being married, but I do sometimes miss our divorce.


Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

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