Tuesday, May 19, 2015

How To Fight

I hung up on her. Our 30-minute battle exhausted me and I needed to retreat. Instead of a neutral corner, where a trainer urging me to re-enter the ring would tend to me, I dropped into the cushion of my lounge chair. My abrupt halt to our cell phone conversation didn't make me feel like a champ; instead, I felt flattened, as if I were an over-the-hill boxer.

I returned to the paused TV show I had been watching before the phone call. As the images on the screen moved from scene to scene, and characters' voices bounced from one to another, I realized I couldn't focus. So, I left my viewing chair and paced as I rehashed my recent fight.

First I cried at our mutual behavior. Then, I fumed. I built a case against my foe and layered it with past arguments. I found the pattern, and while the themes were not fresh, my response was new: I had fought back. With cell phone to my ear, I yelled at her. And while the hot exchange left me exhausted, I was glad I had held my ground, gone toe-to-toe with my tough opponent.

This experience spurred me to review my squabbling style, as well as the one I had witnessed in my childhood. I propped two pillows on my bed, stretched out, and let the file tape flow across my brain.

In my 2006 memoir, "The Division Street Princess," I wrote this about my parents' quarrels: "Whenever I heard their arguments, Id duck for cover, like a recruit frightened of battle. And although the two of them never came to blows and seemed to recuperate quickly, my wounds took longer to heal."

Forgive me for the marketing, but I just love that sentence. I believe it was this early experience that led me to the style I chose for my first marriage. I was determined to not repeat those painful scenes, so when I felt injured by my husband's actions, I chose silence. I sulked; complained to friends, let my children fight my battles -- anything to not engage. And so, during our 30-year-marriage, the two of us constructed a wall. Tiff-by-tiff, the bricks grew taller and more impenetrable with each year, until it toppled in divorce.

In comparison, my second marriage was a pleasure cruise. We sailed along -- watching the same TV programs, walking our dog, taking occasional vacations -- and on the rare instances we argued, it was always Tommy who said, "Let's not be mad at each other. Let's talk about it." A few words, maybe a tear from each of us, hugs, and then it was over.

I remember once, when my first husband was at our house -- gratefully, we had stayed friendly through the divorce and in the subsequent years, and Tommy enjoyed his company -- my second husband and I began to squabble. I can't remember what the issue was, but we tapped lightly, as if we were first-time kids in the ring.

"Why couldn't we have done that?" my first husband had said, as he watched Tommy and I  tussle, and then make up quickly.

He was wistful as he asked this, and at the time, I answered, "I have no idea." But I do: my parents' union had infiltrated that first marriage and successfully silenced me.

Was husband #1 jealous that I had landed in a stable second marriage, or was he wondering it could've been different if I had only learned how to fight?

It isn't as if he and I hadn't booked therapy appointments way back then, where each on our own time would spill our secrets, our unhappiness, and our frustrations. But somehow, those scholarly souls couldn't solve our problems, and so after our three-decade marriage and a six-year separation, we signed the divorce papers.

After my most recent clash with a dear one, I pondered how I had journeyed from watching on the sidelines in my childhood, to righteous silence in my first marriage, to simple taps in my second, and finally, to the loud-mouthed, hotheaded battler I had become. Was it age that had toughened me, a conviction I was the injured party, or a desire to see only what I wanted to see?

It's likely my opponent and I will take a few days to lick our wounds. We'll kvetch to friends about the other's stubbornness. Then hopefully, we'll edge our way back towards each other, and to love.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


I used a fingernail to lift the silver circle on the key ring. When there was enough of an opening, I pushed the hole in my new YMCA fob through the circle until it closed and sealed.

That's when I felt a tap on my shoulder, soft as a feather, but familiar.

"Finally." It was the voice of Tommy making himself heard in my head at the Hollywood-Wilshire YMCA.

My response to my deceased husband was mental, rather than aloud, as I didn't want those in earshot to think me loony. "I knew you'd show up at the Y," I said, as I pictured Tommy in his tank top and shorts, his body trim with muscled biceps and calves.

At once, the small chest of drawers that stood at his side of our bed appeared in my mind's eye. Second drawer; that's where his gym clothes lived. Neat piles of tank tops and shorts, most purchased from thrift shops, for my husband of 14 years was as slim in his spending as he was in body.

I could see him choosing the outfit he appeared in during this imaginary visit. First, he'd have removed from the closet the gym bag he had used during his 40-year membership at Chicago's Lakeview Y. His weathered shoes would already be stowed, along with a towel. Would he find the note I had left him?

Tommy taught me that. At the beginning of our romance -- both in our 60s at the time -- he would write tender Post-its and hide them for me to find sometime during my day. Imagine, at that mature age, being reminded there was this fellow who thought I walked on water.

I hadn't learned this sentimentality previously, but I leaped in, stowing my own notes to Tommy in one of his gym shoes, or in a drawer, surprises I knew would light his morning.

Sadly, it's not all mushy stuff when I recall my guy and his beloved Y. Much of that switched to spy games when in 2009,  he was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Degeneration and lost his ability to speak. To be certain I would be contacted if anything happened to him when he was not under my watch, I bought him a medical ID bracelet. The band’s metal plate was engraved with his name, his illness, and my cell phone number.

But, my Tommy refused to wear the band. I didn't pressure him because I figured the gym was his sanctuary, free of a hovering wife. It was the place where he didn’t have to talk; where he was proud of his three times a week attendance, and routine of 33 minutes on the elliptical, then 20 minutes of weight lifting. At the Y, he was a strongman, not someone needing a medical ID bracelet.

"Hel-lo, are you still here?" It was my fictional Tommy waking me from a scene that he evidently didn't want to revisit.

"Sorry, honey," I said, miffed at myself for clouding his drop in. "Were you surprised to see me here, signing up at a Y rather than some fancy health club?"

"I knew you'd come around eventually," he said. "Sure L.A.'s sunshine is great and the glitter is fun, but I knew you'd wind up in a place that felt comfortable, familiar. And affordable."

Ah yes, there was my budget-minded buddy reminding me of my, um, tendency to fudge finances. "Have you been keeping an eye on me since I landed in California? Were you worried I'd be living on credit cards and wishful thinking?"

"Well, I can't say it hadn't entered my mind," he said. "But, it's more than the low membership fee that makes me happy to see you here. It reminds me of the days we'd go to the Y together. Remember when we first married, the time I took you on a tour and showed you how to operate each machine?"

"Of course I remember," I said, as the slideshow slipped across my vision. Before then, Tommy had been a long-time bachelor, and I felt his pride as he paused in his instructions to introduce me to all of his gym pals.

"My wife," he'd say, puffed as if he had won the state's lotto.

"He's the best," his cronies would say.

In real time, my Strength Class was about to begin, so I shook my head to tuck my spouse back to my brain. I entered the Women's Locker Room and placed my belongings in an empty space. But before closing the lock, I rummaged through my gym bag to be certain I hadn't left anything behind. My fingers probed each corner.

Could a long-ago note be hiding somewhere? Nope, all gone.