Telling Erika

No matter how acceptable, how common divorce has become, telling the soon to be child-from-a-broken-home that their world is about to change is never simple.

We stayed together for the children's sake might be my mother's explanation for her life, but it wouldn't be mine. The only thing that caused me anguish was Erika. She was ten years old. She was my only child, a beautiful child, a trouble-free child who had brought me and my soon to be ex-husband great joy.

I spent many hours rationalizing my behavior so I could act on the decision I had already made. I found solace in books on childcare and parenting that proclaimed the first three years of a child’s life were crucial in forming the whole person they would become. After that, not much else mattered. Maybe those first three years as a family had been our best, living in Eastgate, a high-rise apartment tower on the edge of the Charles river overlooking the Boston skyline. It was built on the edge of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) campus. Reserved for grad students, faculty, and staff. Pete, my husband, a former Olympian with an alcohol problem he refused to acknowledge, was the Sports Information Director and head track coach.

At the time, talk of genetics was not in the common lexicon. I would have used that argument too since her dad had been a world-class athlete. He had stamina; by inference, so would his progeny. To smother any nagging doubt about the effect my upcoming decision would have on her I reminded myself I was not leaving my daughter - I was leaving a marriage. It was not my intention to shut Pete out of my life, either. Ideally, my plan was to continue to have some form of a relationship, just not the kind that left you behind a picket fence in a cull de sac. Erika would have the option of moving in with me in my downtown loft. I would enrol her in a Boston public school. In my heart, I had to acknowledge this would not be the greatest thing for her, but we would manage. As it now stands, she could decide to stay in our house in Newton, a comfortable suburb of Boston. She would still have her dad, a walk to school with all the friends she'd known for most of her short life, and her own room with the four-poster bed and pink rosebud wallpaper she picked out herself. While I told myself she had options, if I was honest, there really wasn’t much of a choice.

I knew she sensed something was amiss. The late nights when I’d creep back into the house like a criminal after a full day trying to transform my studio from the turpentine and paint encrusted industrial space it was into something approaching a home so I could leave the old Victorian house I now occupied as resident wife and mother. How do I tell this unsuspecting child, the innocent bystander whose life I am about to upend, that I love her and my leaving our home is not the same as leaving her?

It was summer. Erika had not yet started day-camp, so she and I had taken the train to New London, Connecticut where we picked up the Cross Sound Ferry to visit my parents in their waterfront home in Mattituck. Pete and I were no longer keeping up the facade for my mom and dad, so he stayed home, but they all were humoring me, thinking my current escapade was a temporary malaise that would soon pass. It was ironic the man my parents had so intensely argued against me marrying was now embraced as the family mascot.

So many summers we had driven down from Boston, together, as a family and waited in line with all the other families, their cars packed with beach towels, picnic coolers and the promise that school vacation offers, to take this same ferry across the Long Island Sound. In my memory, the sun was always shining then, but I know that’s not possible. My dad would be eager to take us all out for a day on the water. He enlisted Pete to promote the practical idea that his intention was to go fishing. His “fishing” boat was a 42-foot cabin cruiser, more like a floating hotel lounge, big enough to protect you from any salt spray, and well equipped with plenty of comfortable leather seating, a head, a galley, a fridge, a well-stocked bar, and TV. A day on the water was often spent maneuvering the boat from one posh marina to another, docking next to friends, and hazily drinking away most of the afternoon. Like Pete, dad always had a beer in his hand. They were comrades, best buddies, and alcohol was their constant companion.

Now, despite the heat from a blazing July sun there was the chill anxiety of the unexpected in the air when my dad picked us up. Erika spotted her grandpa standing next to his Caddy as the ferry slipped into the dock at Orient Point on the Long Island side of the Sound. She was excited to be there. She loved to swim and poke around, catching fiddler crabs in the sand at low tide and as the first grandchild she was special. I knew she would feel safe in this environment that embraced her. She had taken to the water early on. Before she could walk, we would go to the pool at the local YMCA to attend mother and baby swim classes. Soon she moved beyond dog-paddling and no longer needed the arm flotation devices that most of the other kids feared giving up. She excelled at swimming, to the point that MITs swim coach suggested to me and Pete that we start training her. He said she was potential Olympic material.

On the short drive to their house, dad kept his eyes riveted on the road while tossing words, idle conversation over his shoulder to Erika who was buckled in the back seat. I caught his furtive glance towards me. Sitting next to him in the passenger seat, he would often pat my thigh, one of the casual intimacies shared between father and daughter that let me know, in spite of all that had passed between us, he loved me. But not today. Both hands gripped the wheel. I could see the tightness in his jaw. His teeth were slightly clenched when he spoke, making his attempt at normalcy seem like a supreme effort. It’s as though I’d morphed into an alien he no longer recognized as being his own offspring. We pulled in the drive, Erika dashed up the front steps, while I helped unload our suitcases.

“How’s Pete?” These were the first words directed to me now that Erika was out of earshot.

“Fine.”

We both know he is not fine. Dad is fishing for a sign of hope. We are balanced precariously in a moment of calm before a storm. He throws me a lifeline. I don’t take the bait. There is nothing left to catch. It is not Pete my parents are interested in saving, or me, or even Erika, it is the Marriage, the institution itself is being threatened by their daughter and it must be defended. I’ll never know what they each sacrificed to maintain their life together, but the long unbroken silences and toxic atmosphere in my own childhood home did not set a good example.

By mid-afternoon, an uneasy detente settled over the house. Mom was busy plucking the dead heads from her geraniums. Her life was an ordered set of protocols. She learned them in her youth and executed them as an adult. For her to consider an exploration into the disorderly unknown was unthinkable.

The well-manicured lush green lawn flowed gently down from the neatly edged flowerbeds to their private stretch of beach. The sun-scorched air barely moved the water’s surface. Erika and I were swimming together off the family dock. Erika was floating. Her long, lanky body half submerged in an inner tube near me, gave hint to the shape of the woman she would become. We were chatting. We were alone. She seemed relaxed. I seized the moment and began to explain that things had changed for mommy at home, that the mommy who was an artist needed more space for her work, that soon the artist mommy would be moving into a studio, but that we would see each other often, every day if she wanted, and that I loved her. As I babbled on, determined to create a picture of the future that was as bright and sunny as this day, her face froze, fixed in solemnity beyond her years. She said nothing. She quietly dipped her arms below the water’s mirrored surface, spinning herself around and around and around, away from me in her inner tube. The water circled us in ever-widening rings. Standing neck deep, I watched as the space between us became a chasm. My heart sank into the murky depth, its leaden weight pulling my hope downward where it settled in the sand at my feet.


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