The title of this post is a lyric from the Wonder Stuff song “Size of a Cow.” Back in 1995, when I was living in France and my best friend, Nanette, was studying calligraphy at Roehampton, in south London, she had this boyfriend called Steve. Steve was a lad. A blond-haired, wide-shouldered lad who lived in a third floor apartment on a sunny, curving street somewhere near Putney Bridge. Apparently, they met when Nanette was walking to the bus and heard the Wonder Stuff blasting out of his French windows, so she stopped in midstride and looked demurely up through her long eyelashes, which was enough to send Steve scurrying down with the jewel box.

Such was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Not for those two, but for Nanette and me and the Wonder Stuff. It wasn’t her usual style; she listened to BBC1 and Afropop Worldwide, plus had a habit of doing things like putting Carmen on and living to nonstop Bizet for three days. And I was a little more college radio in my tastes. But we spent a lot of time afterwards rollicking around to all of the songs on Never Loved Elvis. That CD made it to Columbia County, Oregon and the Mendocino coast. It has — particularly in songs like “Size of a Cow,” “Mission Drive,” and “Caught in My Shadow” — an appealingly incongruous combination of lyrical pessimism, strongly conventional pop/rock sensibility, and a propensity for cheesy musical flourishes (many involving keyboard riffs that take on a grandiosity reminiscent of the self-indulgent guitar solo, violins, or what appear to be electric banjos), that makes it irresistible to slightly nerdy American girls with car stereos. Also, check out the Royal Stewart plaid three-piece suit with ruffled tuxedo shirt. Wow.

(Another thing that occurs to me is that for Nanette, half-English Britophile that she was — she used to shamelessly fake a straight London accent with taxi drivers in order not to ‘stand out’ — the Wonder Stuff locates a pop sensibility and experience in English ritual: tea, binge drinking, self-reflective loathing, etc.)

Steve was a flash in the pan. My one memory of him is when, on one of my frequent visits to London (this was pre-Chunnel but not pre-cheap Channel flights; I never traveled by sea) was of smoking pot in his apartment. He got the munchies and went to make an enormous tray of buttered toast in the oven. How charmingly old-fashioned and basic, I thought. In the U.S. of A., we have snack mixes sprayed uniformly with dried cheese expressly for this purpose. Nanette got paranoid and freaked out that he was angry with us, so we left Steve high and dry with a piece of toast halfway to his lips, and I never saw him again.

But lately I’ve been thinking of that song. Because it hearkens back to a time when I didn’t have such pressing and weighty matters. Because it expressed, even then, an acknowledgment of the sorrow and dissatisfaction we all feel. Because, clearly, life is not what I thought it was.

Yesterday we had our first counseling appointment in two weeks. The last one, you may remember, we missed to go to a movie, a move I thought was perhaps indicative of our ability to have fun together and which probably was just a way of taking a break. Maybe it’s OK to take a break. But that movie experience isn’t leading to some kind of repair in our relationship, as I’d hoped it would, but rather underscoring that K. is willing to tolerate me for casual amusements but not willing to explore what there is of real relationship there.

The first half of the appointment was taken up by talking about parenting strategies. I raised my concerns about K.’s roughness, Thing One’s complaints that “Daddy was pulling me. I cry when he pulls me. I’m bad and then he scares me. He doesn’t pull you because you’re nice.” This is just one in a long litany of comments that seem to indicate that Thing One is not entirely comfortable or safe with K., and I’ve seen plenty of things that give me pause. I’ve seen K. pull by one wrist, all the force of Thing One’s weight pulling in the opposite direction, and I’ve said, “I think you’re hurting him,” and K. has said, “What else am I supposed to do?” I’ve heard K. express that Thing One just needs to be punished; his view seems to be that if Thing One, at age three, does something K. doesn’t like, K. should, as his parent, crush that behavior with lightning swiftness by a) yelling “Don’t do that! Stop that right now! STOP IT. NOW!” and/or b) punishing (which used to be spanking, but has become, per my insistence, removal of privileges and/or being sent or dragged to his room). Obviously, these behaviors are extremely problematic in my view: they create an expectation that a) grown-ups get to yell, spank, yank, or otherwise demonstrate verbal and physical violence when angry; b) children do not get respect or forbearance even when engaged in behaviors that they do not necessarily view as ‘misbehaving’, and c) a vicious circle of attention-getting misbehavior is created by the presiding parent’s refusal to take responsibility for redirecting the activity. Basically, I think it’s terrible. Punishment, as a concept, is terrible, and as someone who had parents who conceived of it as a necessary evil, I can say that I still grew up an ungovernable slob who only learned to clean up after myself and respect other people when I started having to deal with the natural consequences of living on my own in the world. I’d like my children to start dealing with those natural consequences before age sixteen.

The second half of the appointment involved talking about our relationship. I asked K. to talk about Sunday night. After much hemming and hawing, he informed the counselor that I had first given him a litany of reasons why he was fucking up our children forever (they were examples cited from Wallerstein’s book Second Chances) and then (even more hemming and hawing) given him a ‘lover’s list.’ He said that he was unsettled by hearing that. He said that all he could say was that he hadn’t known. He said that Jezebel called him that night, so he went and met her and her friends at a bar. To distract himself, he admitted.

I talked a lot. K. didn’t have much to say, and the counselor asked what we needed from each other. So I told him, with reference to our Tuesday conversation, that I needed him to be present in this. That I had lost our friendship as well as our marriage. That I was reminded of my mother’s acknowledgment that severing the bonds of her marriage so abruptly was one of the most painful things she’d ever done and that she had a lot of regrets. That I could work around to us agreeing that it would not work out to be married, but that in the absence of that, in this situation where K. is unilaterally leaving the marriage and, in many ways, the family, I could not accept that. That this was an unresolved loss, and that I was not whole, and that I would not be whole.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I can move on and heal and have another relationship and do all these things. Bullshit. You don’t commit your life to someone and have them abruptly disappear and get over it. You learn to live with it. There is a difference.

I am not whole, I said. I will not be whole. And when I said that in ten years you would wake up and regret, I meant that I don’t think you don’t care. We cannot end a marriage this way, we cannot do so great a disservice to each other and our children, so violently, without suffering great personal consequences. Perhaps in ten years you will wake up and feel that loss. And I will too. But I will have been feeling it every day for that time. I will not be whole.

We left the counselor. I came home. I drank some water to replace the tears.

This is what I think:

This isn’t about a failed relationship or a broken family — even though it is. It’s about the promises we made to each other that we have to keep. You can be released from a promise. You break it at your own peril. And the peril of the person who shared it.

And I think of that moment in Office Space when he says, “Every day is worse than the last. So every day you see me is the worst day of my life.”

“So today is the worst day of your life?”

“Yes.”

“Wow.”

It’s like that.

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