Ray Romano's new show Men of A Certain Age hit a nerve this week when Ray's character, Joe, tries to find his footing in the week-to-week rental hotel where he is staying while going through a divorce despite the fact that his kids have to visit him there and the whole thing makes him so desperately unhappy that he relapses into the gambling habit that was at the core of his marital problems to begin with. I have been to that Divorced Dad's hotel. And I have had that feeling of wanting to throw up as a result.
I woke up on my brother's couch. The sun hurt my eyes. I heard the rumble of the Red Line trains nearby. I realized it was Sunday. Slowly the pain crept back. I had to go to work in the morning. I had no clothes. The ones I was wearing were stained with tears, snot and perspiration. I got up and looked for coffee. I found none. A cat wrapped its body around my leg looking for food. I had no idea what to do next. I picked up the phone and called what used to be my home.
As a boy my father often read to us about real life shipwrecks, the most famous of which involved Shackleton, the British explorer who set out to traverse Antarctica. He never landed, getting stuck in the ice pack with no choice but try to wait out the endless dark of winter aboard the aptly named Endurance. The silence on the other end of the line made makes me feel like Shackleton, futilely hoping beyond hope that I am not going to have to abandon ship with the only alternative to lug a life boat across miles of barren ice. On the line I could hear the angry creaks and thunderous cracks that were a sure sign that the massive oak hull would be swallowed whole if I didn't get out immediately, despite the slim odds at survival. I explained that I needed clothes. She said that she would be at church with the kids for a couple hours and I could get them while they were out.
I drove the hour and a half from my brother's house in Dorchester to my old house, noticing the warm sunshine and blue skies along the way. I exited the highway and drove through the center of Barrington. Only when I turned right, just past the elementary school at the end of our street, did my stomach begin to churn. I pulled onto the cul-de-sac and saw the house at the far corner. Kids played in the street. I waved weakly.
I hit the remote control to open the garage door and parked my Saab in its spot. I opened the door to the mud room and walked into the living room. It was strewn with Kerry's toys: bright colored blocks, orange plastic vehicles, and stuffed animals. Seamus's bouncy chair sat empty in front of a large television set. Just yesterday morning I had laid on this very floor, building block sky scrapers with Kerry while Seamus watched a video. Now it was all gone. "I will never do that again. I will never lie on that floor as their father," I said to myself. I struggled to remind myself that my babies were not dead, just at church.
I decided I needed to get in and out of the house as quickly as possible. "This is enemy territory now, move it jack-ass," I coached myself. I bounded up the stairs, into the master bedroom and our walk-in closet, grabbing two blue suits, an arm full of starched white shirts, a couple ties, underwear, socks and black lace up dress shoes. Enough work clothes to last indefinitely as soon as I could find a dry cleaner downtown. I threw them all in a garment bag, stopping in the bathroom to pick up my Dobb kit. I walked back downstairs, through the kitchen and then living room, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the kids' toys this time. I ran out to the car, tossing the bag in the back and hitting the garage door opener once more.
As I drove away, I couldn't help picturing Kerry and Seamus in my mind's eye and thinking that I was driving straight out of their lives.
I slept on my brother's couch for a second time. This time he only checked on me once during the night, a bit more confident that I wouldn't try to kill myself. I kept thinking that maybe this was all a dream. But the day's events had given me tangible evidence that I was not dreaming.
I arrived at work early, eager to see my co-workers who knew me outside the world which had been blown to pieces. Just sitting at my desk I breathed easily for the first time in two days. The company had been sold, and my job was going away, so even that was temporary. But none of that mattered.
"Hey JoAnn, how was your weekend?" I asked my secretary as she put her Styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffee cup on her desk just outside my office.
"Caitlyn scored two goals in her soccer game on Saturday," she reported. "I'd a date with a Hill-Billy Saturday night. Same old crap. He had to make up an excuse to leave before dessert."
I spent the day focused on the other things that had not changed, walling off anything outside 75 Fountain Street: the proud old office building that housed the newspaper. The huge open space on the first floor where the presses were originally located had long since been converted to the news room with massive photos of breaking stories on the wall--hurricanes and assassinations. But the floor under my desk was still suspended on springs to insulate the executives from the vibration of the printing presses below. I was surrounded, cocooned, comforted by the knowledge that I had this physical protection from violent vibrations.
I picked up a copy of the paper, pulling out the classified section and stuffing it in my brief case. I couldn't bring myself to look at it right away. But I knew I had to soon. I couldn't drive an hour and a half to work, sleeping on Will's couch, forever.
The Regency Plaza was a large 1970s era apartment building in the Howard Johnson's architectural genre. It was three blocks down from my Providence Journal office, overlooking route 95 and the Italian section of town, Federal Hill. The Regency advertised fully furnished week-to-week rentals.
That Monday after getting thrown out of the house, I called to make an appointment for my lunch hour. When I walked into the rental office the manager asked what I am interested in. I awkwardly explained, "I'm not sure."
He nodded with a sympathetic smile. After a moment, he came from behind his desk. "It'll get better, buddy," he said softly as he motioned me out into the hallway.
On the way to the elevator he pointed out a pool and tiny weight room, saying they have various social events in the lounge a couple times a week for residents. It struck me as amazingly pathetic, but I tried to banish the thought, not being able to take smug prisoners of the mind quite the way I used to.
On the fifth floor, he showed me a furnished studio with plush beige carpet. I noted more than few stains. The furniture was plastic with Formica counter and table tops. I inspected the pots and pans, the kind you can buy at a discount department store for $99 a set. There was one large smudged window. The traffic hummed below. I smelled Chinese food, unsure if the odor was next door or embedded in the dirty drapes. The rental agent told me they could arrange a weekly cleaning service; the dry cleaner picked up on Thursdays. I stared at the bed, queen-sized and tucked in the darkest corner of the one open room. I imagined hiding there, curled up in a ball--a hibernating bear, unaware of the winter outside. I knew I had to take the apartment, but the thought depressed me so thoroughly I told the agent I'd have to think about it. I couldn't quite admit, on the spot, that my life had been reduced to this.