The Spoils of Civility

Ritter Skates

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

–Patti Smith, M Train

Tee’s face fell when I told him my Mister and I broke up. “That’s a bummer,” he said. “He’s a really good guy. What happened?”

I kept it vague. It would take a steadier hand than mine to fill in the fine detail of our shared briar patch. Attending to the perennial questions that twine their way through our story has worn me out. It’s all a little too bright and raw inside me at the moment, and anyway, it would be a mistake to cast my ex-husband in the role of confidant. He’s kind though, and he held the news gently. He told me he was sorry, and that both the boyfriend and his two kids were a positive influence on Bug. Tee seemed genuinely disappointed that our son would miss out on having that family in his life.

I was equally crestfallen when he told me he and his gal had also recently split. It’s been a comfort during the past three-ish years to know that my boy and his dad are in the company of a thoughtful, loving, responsible woman. Divorce can twist people into odd moral contortions, and I’ve seen far too many former spouses become bitter creatures hell-bent on wreaking havoc on the lives of exes, and by default, their own families. Tee found Eve, who has acted with care and welcome from the start. Her kids are Bug’s best buddies. She and I actually like each other. In different circumstances, we might have been close friends.

Tee asked if the no-longer-boyfriend and I would stay in each other’s lives. My snort escaped before I could choke it back. “Unlikely.” My man may have been my love and heart, but he appears to be the clean-break type.

That said, it would be disingenuous to lay the entirety of the choice on him. Proximity might be too hard even for me, at least for the foreseeable future. The passion, affinity, and hope still pull powerfully, and sharing his company — even indirectly, even socially — would involve a brutal internal battle. This is true despite knowing that separation is the best thing.

Rational action is possible, I remind myself, even where irrational desire dominates.

It’s true that my Mister and his children were, as Tee put it, “positive influences” on our son. It’s true that Bug identifies those two kids as his favorite people in the world after his own dad (and definitely before me). Nevertheless, they will now be erased from his life. Happy memories and only that.

I understand now why we counsel single parents — often in vain — to wait a lo-o-ong time before introducing and integrating a new partner. During the upheaval that accompanies the transition from being a spouse to emerging as a whole and independent self, we build houses on tidal zones. No matter how earnest our intention, the ground shifts. And while we can’t protect our kids from the storms of loss and change in this life, we can certainly avoid doing a rain dance in the living room.

It kills me to subject my son to this stark and sudden ending. He grew to love my man and his family, and he found his place among them. Yet the option of maintaining that relationship is off the table and out of his hands. This seems terribly unfair.

Thankfully, Bug’s dad and I have take a different path. From the start of our divorce over 5 years ago, Tee and I have chosen to fortify the structure that exists in the distance between us. The two of us would be perfectly happy to walk away from each other forever. Nevertheless, we understand that our son deserves to have a solid place that is family. We live as if we are our more enlightened selves, even when that means acting against our baser instincts or even just our tastes. We’ve committed ourselves to a co-parenting relationship that is familial and neighborly. This can by very challenging for a girl like me who lives atop the emotional equivalent of the San Andreas Fault.

Tee, on the other hand, is the model of insouciance. It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s managed to stay friends with his former love.

In the intervening months since he and Eve split, they’ve enjoyed a few events with friends. Bug and Tee even landed at an unplanned playdate at her house after a group activity. They are easy together, though he admits it’s a little sad.

Knowing that Bug will have occasional contact with Eve and her kids is a relief. This way of nourishing community makes sense. All of us in these mixed-up circles of affection and history can make room for one another. As long as our relationships are absent abuse or vitriol, it seems sensible that we’d ride out the inevitable ebbs and flows of closeness while staying connected.

This use of “we” encompasses more than just intimate partners. It includes neighbors, friends, family members. We go through changes in degree of intimacy and frequency of contact, yet we still recognize the ties binding us to one another. And we refrain from burdening our kids with our caprice by staying friendly and civil with the adults in our community. This keeps doors open between children who may or may not share our preferences. This allows them to work out their own friendships.

So as I’m surfing around on Meetup looking for something to get Bug and me out of the house, I see that Eve has posted a roller-skating event at a local community center. Without missing a beat, I click RSVP.

We pay our $4 and head in just as the DJ cranks his 90s tunes. Bug snaps on his blades and takes off. A few minutes later, I see Eve with her son and daughter lugging their rented skates across the rink. I wave down Bug and point them out, and a big grin spreads across his face. He zips over and starts chattering at them. A couple of other parents from the Meetup group are there. After a round of introductions, everyone wobbles off with their kids.

As usual, the adults’ energy flags first. Against a backbeat of shrieks and stumbles, “More Than a Feeling” plays at an almost deafening volume. Eve takes a detour to the bleachers for a break. She looks fantastic. With her lit-up eyes and ruddy glow, she is the glimmering opposite of my sour and peevish self. We spend the next 20 minutes catching up. She is effusive as she shares how she’s fared since the breakup. “It was really hard the first month,” she says. But now she’s running 10Ks, taking belly dancing, spending more time on herself and her kids. She knows that letting go was the right thing, and she’s glad she and Tee have continued to be civil and friendly.

She talks of Tee wistfully. I barely recognize my ex-husband in her narrative. This is the man with whom I am forever out of step and out of sync. We are, like they say of the Americans and the British, two people divided by a common language. The Tee of Eve’s life is another man entirely. She goes so far as to say he is her “perfect match.” Emotion, temperament, values, chemistry — they are suited to each other. The differences that divided them only emerged when trying to lay a foundation for a future together. They hit bedrock and had to move on. Even so, she still adores and respects him, and he inhabits a place of prominence in her heart.

This is weird and lovely to hear. Tee baffles me, yet he found someone who understood him, who fit in some of the most important ways.

I can see that despite surrendering this precious relationship, Eve is thriving. I tell her so. From my place here in the eye of the breakup storm, it’s nice to catch a glimpse of what might be waiting when the skies clear.

After skating, Eve suggests frozen yogurt. Another old friend from Tee’s circle joins us as we head across town. The kids top their treats with crushed kit-kats and gummy worms. We gossip and laugh as our troop of clowns, overtired and hopped up on sugar, chase each other under tables and through the shop. When we part ways, it’s hugs all around. Bug and his buddies play tag down the sidewalk to the cars.

It’s possible Eve and I will cross paths again, accidentally or on purpose. It just as possible that we’ll drift our separate ways. But I am deep-down happy to know that even as our grownup hearts break, we can keep our children’s circles intact. And by choosing to nourish the bonds of their communities, we also weave ourselves back to whole.


Photo Credit: The Online Bicycle Museum

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6 thoughts on “The Spoils of Civility”

  1. I want to say something about this, having a mother and father who both dated and remarried after their marriage to each other ended, but I don’t have anything poignant enough to match your words.

    Suffice it to say, your son will be okay. You all will.

  2. ^I should say, dated others, broke up with others, and married others. (I made it seem as if they remarried each other; they didn’t, and my sister and I are grateful for that.)

    1. Oh, that made me giggle. Right now, my son still asks for Tee and me to live together again. He has no idea. Thich Nhat Hanh is right when he says “If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.”

  3. Now as the year turns toward its darkness
    the car is packed, and time come to start
    driving west. We have lived here
    for many years and been more or less content;
    now we are going away. That is how
    things happen, and how into new places,
    among other people, we shall carry
    our lives with their peculiar memories
    both happy and unhappy but either way
    touched with a strange tonality
    of what is gone but inalienable, the clear
    and level light of a late afternoon
    out on the terrace, looking to the mountains,
    drinking with friends. Voices and laughter
    lifted in still air, in a light
    that seemed to paralyze time.
    We have had kindness here, and some
    unkindness; now we are going on.
    Though we are young enough still
    And militant enough to be resolved,
    Keeping our faces to the front, there is
    A moment, after saying all farewells,
    when we taste the dry and bitter dust
    of everything that we have said and done
    for many years, and our mouths are dumb,
    and the easy tears will not do. Soon
    the north wind will shake the leaves,
    the leaves will fall. It may be
    never again that we shall see them,
    the strangers who stand on the steps,
    smiling and waving, before the screen doors
    of their suddenly forbidden houses.

    “Going Away” by Howard Nemerov

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