The D-word

It seemed like a strange system to me, once I had figured it out at the age of six. You grew up, got married, had a kid or two, and then once you got old, like about forty, you were no longer allowed to live with your spouse. It wasn’t fair, but those were the rules.

This was the only logical explanation for my family arrangement. My parents lived together with me and my baby sister, but my maternal grandmother lived upstairs by herself. Her husband, my grandfather, lived alone in an apartment on 26th Street, just down the block from the Dalcamo Funeral Home. We’d drive out to see him once a year or so. The way my parents talked about him, I got the impression that he was kind of crazy.

My grandparents on my father’s side were at our house for every birthday and every Christmas, sitting across the room from each other. They didn’t live together either. They always came and left in separate cars.

It was a few more years before I learned what “divorce” meant.

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An unschooled farm girl named Anna Maria Zuccarello left Italy about the time of her thirtieth birthday, the last of her siblings to immigrate to Chicago. Her brothers arranged for her to marry a man named Joe Trovato, who farmed a few acres of land south of the city. Joe dressed well and carried himself with an air of success.

Mary thought her new husband would be rich. Joe thought his new wife would be beautiful. They were both wrong.

My mother was born in 1942. But the new family was in trouble. Joe’s personality was changing for the worse. He was becoming secretive and paranoid. Years earlier, he’d suffered a serious head injury in a fall at a construction site, reportedly having a steel plate installed in his head, and it was now beginning to affect his sanity.

Over time, Joe became impossible to live with. Mary and her daughter moved out.

I have dim memories of the times we would go to visit my grandfather on 26th Street. I remember that he lived in relative squalor. The apartment was dark and sparsely furnished and a thick layer of dust covered everything. He kept pigeons on the back porch, which was encrusted with droppings. Grandpa would pat my head, reach for a piece of jelly candy from a box on the shelf, and press it into my palm. He’d been a boxer as a young man and his hands were very big and very dirty, and my parents always made me throw the candy away after we left.

Grandpa took ill in 1970 and could no longer live alone, so he came to live with us for a time. He lived upstairs on a cot in my grandmother’s TV room, and my grandmother cared for and fed the old man without complaint, or at least without much complaint. I remember her venting to my mother one day, “He say I’m-a try to poison him!”

Just like old times, except now my grandmother could laugh it off.

While my grandfather was in the hospital, he underwent brain surgery. There was no plate in his head, just an eight-ounce mass of tumor and scar tissue from a wound that had been allowed to heal on its own. The surgeon was amazed that a mass of that size pressing on his brain had not crippled him.

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Jennie Piazza grew up on the family farm near Rockford, Illinois. She had a few years of grade school, but dropped out at the insistence of her father. “Why do you need schooling to wash pots and pans?” he said.

Jennie’s brother Henry was close friends with Tony Pontillo. Tony’s older brother Joe was a smooth-talking, charming fellow, always working on one money-making scheme or another. Henry and Tony conspired to hook Joe up with Jennie, and it worked. The first few years of their marriage were a whirlwind of parties and socializing. Joe fancied himself a man-about-town, and Jennie had her first opportunity to actually enjoy life.

They had a son in March of 1941. Not long after my father’s birth, however, Joe began to distance himself from his family. The responsibility of a child wasn’t compatible with the lifestyle he enjoyed. He started coming home late, or sometimes not at all. When my father was about five years old, a woman came to the house looking for Joe, and was surprised to discover that Joe had a wife and son – just as surprised as Jennie was to learn that Joe had a mistress, and a pregnant one at that.

Claiming he had to give the baby a name, Joe divorced Jennie and married his mistress, Pearl, with the promise that he and Jennie would get remarried at a later date. Soon thereafter, Pearl gave birth to a boy and they named him Joseph Jr.

But Joe did not move out of the house. He’d drop in after work, shower and change, and then leave to go to his “second job.” Jennie now found herself raising my father entirely on her own, and stigmatized by the church and community for “living in sin.”

Joe would remain married to Pearl for the rest of his life. Jennie never remarried.

At my parents’ wedding in 1962, Joe strutted about proudly, chatting up the friends and business associates he had invited. Some of them came up to my dad and told him how fortunate he was to have such a generous father. As it turned out, Joe hadn’t contributed a dime to the festivities.

Joe was a foreman on a Streets and Sanitation work crew. City workers were required to live within Chicago proper and Joe lived in the suburb of Maywood, so he used our house as his mailing address. Every Saturday, he’d come by to pick up his mail. My mother always had to scrub the toilet after he left, because he would leave a big splatter of shit above the water line.

Eventually Joe moved to a house within the city limits and didn’t need our address anymore. We didn’t see him very often after that. Nonetheless, he had provided for us, having bragged to us and his brothers for years about the “five figures at St. Paul,” money he had set aside for my father in savings accounts at St. Paul Federal.

When my grandfather’s health began to fail, he, Pearl, and Joe Jr. prepared to pack up and move to Las Vegas. Around this time, my father was applying for a mortgage and listed the accounts at St. Paul as collateral. The loan officer checked each account. My father’s name had been removed from all of them.

He called the old man to find out what had happened.

“I need the money for Vegas,” Joe told him.

I never saw my grandfather again. He spent his last years in the hospital, as diabetes ate up his limbs and his savings. At the funeral Pearl begged Joe’s brothers for the money to bury him.

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The earliest memories I have of Christmas are of my father starting up the reel-to-reel tape recorder and interviewing the family for posterity. On those recordings, I can hear my mother as she decorates, singing along with Christmas songs on the stereo and laughing at my father’s wisecracks.

By the time I was fifteen, my mother didn’t laugh much anymore. And we hadn’t used the tape recorder in a long time.

It’s 1979. My bedroom is right next to my parents’ room. We always slept with our doors open. It’s 6 a.m. and my mother and father are having a quiet conversation in bed.

I don’t have to get up for an hour. I should still be asleep. I should point out that we live less than a mile from the airport, and the freight tracks run right behind our house. Between the planes and the trains, I can sleep through anything. But for some reason my parents’ quiet voices awaken me like a poke in the ribs.

There’s a tone to the conversation that I’ve never heard before. My mother is not happy. And she’s quoting incidents, chapter and verse as to why she’s not happy.

My father is floundering. He has no idea what to say or do.

The conversations continue every morning for a week. And each morning when they start talking, I bolt awake. I try to ignore them, to close my eyes and shut them out. But I can’t. And each morning they sound more ominous.

I hear my father say, “Well, are you saying you want a divorce?”

The words hang in the air. My mother doesn’t answer.

And I hear nothing else, only the blood rushing in my ears as I press my face hard into the pillow.

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Michelle and I met in college. She was a “townie,” a Peoria resident attending Bradley University. We were introduced by a mutual friend. He later told me that he hooked us up because she was chasing him and he wasn’t interested. This was unlikely. Jason McDowell was one of the most unappealing human beings I’d ever met, grossly overweight and pompously, unrelentingly British. But regardless of his motive, Michelle and I hit it off, especially after I saw her the second time and told her she looked thinner. She beamed.

Some friends of mine were getting married back in Chicago and I needed a date, so I asked her to go. Technically this was our first date, but at the time, I hadn’t made up my mind yet if I was going to pursue her romantically. As long as I was home, I introduced her to my family. Mom didn’t like her, but my relationship with my mother was pretty strained at that point, so I considered that a plus.

Back at school, a few weeks had passed. We’d gone out several times and had been spending a lot of time together, but I was still on the fence. I’d blown chances before by being too enthusiastic. This time I would pace myself.

Then Michelle came to my dorm room and broke up with me.

It was for my own good, she said. She’d hurt guys before, and she liked me too much to ruin my life.

I stood there and listened to her, and an amazing thing happened. For the first and only time in my life, I experienced what they call “intuition.” I heard her tone of voice and watched her body language, and they were communicating a different message. They said she was falling for me, and it scared her. They said she was protecting herself because I wouldn’t show my cards. They said she would be mine if I would only commit myself.

So I did.

Michelle had a heavy class schedule as well as a part time job. I was on dorm staff, and one of the perks of the job was being able to score an extra room key for your girlfriend. Now she could stay on campus between classes and catch afternoon naps. Plus, it was nice to have someone to come “home” to after class.

We were both scheduled to graduate in December, 1986. I was finishing up a Computer Science minor with a COBOL class which I hated, knowing it was useless knowledge. So I had blown off the seven programming assignments that comprised 70% of my grade.

As November came to an end, I finally accepted the fact that I was in trouble. I negotiated a deal with the professor: if I finished four of the programs, he’d give me a C. So I started work on the first assignment. A week later, I still could not get the program to even compile, let alone run.

I was dead meat. I was not going to graduate.

Michelle was in my dorm room when I returned from the computer lab. She saw the look on my face. “What’s wrong?”

“Hold me,” I said, and I fell into her arms and broke down.

Once I finished sobbing, we sat down and she patiently explained to me that there was no reason to panic. I could finish the assignments over the summer and get my diploma later.

“We’ll get through this, okay?” she said.

She’d said we. We would get through this. I was going to marry this woman.

She was my rock, the smart, sensible one who would indulge my erratic behavior and then guide me down for the landing. No matter what the problem, she only had to put her arms around me and tell me everything would be okay. And it would be. I even managed to graduate, but that’s a story for another time.

I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. She was intelligent, funny, beautiful, and for some damn fool reason she loved me.

I had always teased her that I wasn’t going to propose– she was going to have to ask me to marry her. We both knew that wasn’t going to happen, especially after I’d seen her senior thesis in Women’s Studies, on depictions of marriage in feminist literature. Overall, they were pretty grim – women trapped in hopelessness and despair, sacrificing their identities, and eventually, their sanity.

In fact, Michelle only married me because I saved her life.

After we graduated from college, Michelle moved to the Chicago area to live with her friend Lynne, who owned half of a duplex in Bellwood. I worked nearby, and would come over most weeknights for dinner and sex. Late one afternoon, Michelle was home alone cooking dinner. She was lying on the living room couch when I arrived, and took a very long time to answer the door.

As the door opened, two things hit me immediately: an overwhelming odor of natural gas, and the realization that Michelle was in a stupor. She had turned on the oven, not realizing there was a leak in the gas fitting. After a while she had felt faint and gone to lie down on the couch. If I had arrived a half-hour later, she’d have been dead.

I turned off the oven and aired out the house, then took her out to dinner. The sex was exceptionally good that night. Most importantly, Michelle had destroyed just enough brain cells to agree to marry me.

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They say love is blind, and it’s true. Love doesn’t see warning signs, imbalances and inequities that over time can sour the relationship and tear you apart. Love makes everything seem insurmountable. You can fly, turn lead into gold, conjure sunlight from a midnight sky.

But eventually that feeling fades and you find yourself having to deal with the practical problem of how two very different people can live in the same house without losing their minds – the sort of thing everyone else was trying to warn you about while your head was in the clouds.

When we were first married, she had to teach me how to argue. Years of living with my mother and sister had taught me that the only way to end an argument was to lock myself in my room and wait for the noise to stop. If Michelle and I disagreed on something, my immediate response was to shut down and capitulate. That wasn’t right, she explained. An argument was give-and-take, an intellectual exercise, and never in anger. She wasn’t always going to be right, she said, and I should challenge her if I disagreed.

It was a good concept but it didn’t work very well in practice.

As time passed, the arguments became more frequent, and angry, and frustrating. Her feelings were always hurt, and I couldn’t understand why. What she was saying made no logical sense to me. I was floundering. I had no idea what to say or do. I shut down.

I knew that whatever the problem, she would be able to handle it, and so I lapsed into a complacent helplessness. The tone of our relationship had been established in that moment of graduation panic and remained fundamentally unchanged.

At one point when we had been married about twelve years, the two of us were in a store trying on mood rings, which had begun to rebound in popularity. Mine turned blue instantly. Michelle’s remained resolutely black.

“I guess they don’t work on me,” she said.

Actually, the ring was working perfectly. Stress and tension. That was essentially her mood for the last five years of our marriage, at least when she was with me.

Then she had a breast cancer scare. It turned out to be just a cyst, but it was a life-changing event. She took stock of her situation, and came to the conclusion that if anything happened to her, she could not count on me to take care of her. I could barely be responsible for myself.

We were forty when we separated. It wasn’t fair, but those were the rules.

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We met occasionally to have coffee (hot cocoa for her) and exchange mail. As happy as I was to see her, she wasn’t the same person anymore. She had closed herself off to me, protecting herself as before, but there was no seeing through her now. Our familiarity and intimacy had been replaced by a cool civility. We were now acquaintances, polite associates. Alone at night I would lie awake and think how much easier it would be for me if she had died rather than continuing to exist in this half-life – a ghost that I could still touch but no longer feel, a lingering vestige of the person who had been my lover, my closest friend in the world.

Now I understood how Jimmy Stewart felt in Vertigo.

On the advice of my counselor, I went on anti-depressant medication, but I quit after six months because the pills made me numb and stupid. I decided that feeling sad was preferable to feeling nothing.

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Destiny is a useful plot device in epic fiction. Luke Skywalker had a destiny. Harry Potter had a destiny. In real life, destiny is a myth, a cop-out. I was no more destined to relive my parents’ marriage than I was to win the lottery. Repeating mistakes may be human nature, but it’s not destiny.

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I met her today in the hallway at the Lake County Courthouse. We had been separated three years and were divorced in every sense except on paper, but there was still a little wobble in my step as I approached.

We hadn’t seen each other face-to-face in months. She commented on my new glasses and on the additional gray in my hair. She didn’t look any different to me, just a little heavier, which I chose not to comment on.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

“I think so,” she said. “I just want to have this over. How about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” I lied.

Our attorneys were surprised at how cordial and comfortable we were with each other. “Some couples kill each other in this hallway,” my attorney said.

“That’s not a bad idea, come to think of it,” I said.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?” Michelle stated rhetorically.

I smiled and held out my palms. “That’s why we’re here.”

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Judge Strickland’s courtroom strikes me as the unhappiest place on earth. We see three other couples deposed before we are called. At this point, a series of failed marriages have been boiled down to terse questions and answers. Irreconcilable differences blah blah blah all attempts at reconciliation have failed and we agree to split the property as follows. All the disappointment, pain, and deceit has given way to pat requests for dissolution. I wonder what the stories really were. The young, thin woman with the low cut top and the smoker’s voice, whose husband is not present. The woman in her fifties, her face drawn tight and sad, as her soon-to-be ex waits his turn to speak, showing no expression behind his cheesy mustache. What has pushed them to this point? Were their issues more salacious than ours? Infidelity? Addiction? Or had their marriages ended like mine, a casualty of lost faith? There is no telling. The yes and no questions are answered without a hint of emotion. These people have all clearly moved on.

Our case is called, and Michelle and I approach the judge to be sworn in, flanked by our attorneys. Michelle takes the stand first, and I sit off to the side to wait my turn.

Please state your name…were you and Mr. Pontillo married on October 1, 1988 in Peoria, Illinois…there are no children born to or adopted during the marriage and you are not now pregnant…

Blah blah blah. I look down at my hands.

Do you state before the court that irreconcilable differences have arisen between you and your husband, and that attempts at reconciliation have been unsuccessful, and you are therefore petitioning the court for a dissolution of your marriage?

Michelle does not answer immediately, and I look up to see that she is in tears, and my first thought is to go to her and hold her, which of course I cannot do.

My second thought is that if any of the spectators have been playing my game, trying to read into the circumstances that have brought us here, that they are thinking I am a total scum bastard. I wonder if they are right.

This is the moment where it becomes real, of course. The public declaration that our marriage is over. I know why she is crying, and I fight off tears myself.

“Yes,” Michelle answers, her voice wavering.

“Do you need to take a moment?” her attorney asks, offering a tissue. Michelle waves her off. She answers the remaining questions regarding the particulars of the settlement, and I take the stand to basically repeat the word “yes” eight times. The judge says his bit, we’re done, and I squeeze Michelle’s hand as we rise to leave the courtroom.

A few more words in the hall with the attorneys, and suddenly Michelle and I are alone together, looking at each other. She offers to drive me to my car, which I have unknowingly parked illegally in the monthly permit lot. As we pull up to my car, I see a cop writing tickets. He is two cars from mine. I have to hurry.

I lean in to Michelle, say “I love you,” and kiss her. We hold the kiss for a few moments. It is not passionate, nor is it perfunctory.

It is goodbye.

“I love you, too,” she says, and I believe her.

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