The problem with this story is that I'm wilfully ignorant of so many of the details. A lot of people would think that should disqualify me from narrating – especially, probably, the people this story's mostly about. I tried, once, to get my mother to tell me what had happened so I could maybe think differently about myself while I was still young enough for that to be an option.
We were sharing a hotel room during a trip she took all her children on the spring before they graduated college. We each got a leg of a European tour. One was London, one was Paris. I picked Athens. Several days in, after 80 straight hours with her, I felt bold enough to ask. In close quarters, a truly tiny room, she agreed. Staring at her Suduko book as maybe a crutch, she started where I wanted: the last day. I asked specifically about it, as if there was even something so technically clean as I imagined. I realised, only words in – I think all that came out was "Well, your father," before I cut her off – that I didn't want to know. I'm happy with my memories the way they are, even if they aren't happy memories. Even if the truth may change things, make me less of a myth of my own creation.
This actually happened: I found out I didn't even know how old I was when my parents divorced. I was, I am certain I was, two months old. But when my mother read an essay of mine about my first tattoo that contained a glancing reference to the divorce, she had a note to give me.
"It's great," she said, as though a mother would have any other feedback. "But can I correct one thing? You were eight months old when your father and I separated. Not two months."
I'd always thought I was two months old. That's how I tell the story – one I frequently use, one that's so central to why I feel the way I do, about everything.
"What do I know about love?" I reflexively respond when women I've dated ask me what's going through my mind, when they ask me if I feel the same way about them that they do about me. "My parents got divorced when I was two months old."
I say it to shock and shut down the conversation and it always works. I used it repeatedly with one person, stretching a three-day breakup at the end of college into three years of torment, reminding her all along that this wasn't me being intentionally mean or malicious, that all it was was I didn't know how to feel about love. It worked. It always works, silencing people, shutting them up, because no one's parents would ever be so cold and so callous as to get divorced when their kid was two months old.
Apparently not even mine.
I haven't changed the way I tell the story, or my reasons for doing so. I used it to convince myself that my parents didn't bring me into what anyone would call a loving family. Not that they didn't love me – they did and they do – but you know how doctors recommend playing classical music to your baby when it's still in utero to jumpstart its intelligence? If my parents broke up when I believed they did, I gestated to screams and shouts, the sounds of a relationship gone sour.
That makes me think a lot about me being a baby. I don't truly know what I was born into, yet it's hard to believe it wasn't bad. I imagine I understood anger and vitriol before I even knew what the words being used meant. Those emotions ensconced me, seeped into me.
I've coped in my own way. I've been a shitty person to every woman I've ever dated. Cheated on all of them, every one (there's only been three, but still). I pick fights and I lie. It feels good to try to hurt the other person, because that's what you're supposed to do. Make the ones you love hurt.
If my parents broke up when I believed they did, I gestated to screams and shouts, the sounds of a relationship gone sour.
There's another story I tell people about my parents' relationship, one that's ingrained in me that also might be bullshit. It begins with my mother on the phone with my father. Upset, if I recall, but then again maybe not. The fight – argument, conversation, whatever – was about who would drive. The deal we had was that my mother drove us to our father's Friday after school. Sunday afternoon, after church, our father brought us home (he didn't like that we called that house "home," but as kids, there was no way that a place we stayed two nights a week merited the same recognition in our hearts as the one we stayed in for five). That schedule never varied. The problem this time was that neither of my parents wanted to drive the entire round-trip journey in the middle of a snowstorm.
Well, it was snowing. Maybe it was a blizzard, maybe only a light blanketing. Whatever it was, it was enough for adults to declare the roads bad.
If you aren't from Northern Virginia, then you've never heard of Seven Corners Shopping Center and that's perfectly fine. It's just a place. Why it made such an imprint on me is that it's the biggest landmark that's most equidistant to my mother's and father's house. That's what I remember the fight on the phone being about. What point on the map would be a fair meeting point? And that's where the story picks up, with my sister and my sister and me, wrapped in our snow clothes, waddling through the unploughed parking lot of the Fuddrucker's in Seven Corners, heading from one car to the another, the most important thing being that the handoff was completed before it became too dangerous to drive.
It's not really a memorable story and some times I'm not even sure it's happened. But it had to have, since it's given me one of my my only uncompromising tenets.
"It's hard to believe in unconditional love," I remember telling a woman when we were in bed (her four drinks in and me probably something like 12) and she asked if we had a future, "when you hear your parents fight about how far they're willing to drive to come pick you up."
I don't want to have a future with anyone if the future can be like that. People always, always, always tell me that it won't be, that it will be different, but just knowing that it can is enough to scare me away. To stop me from ever trying. Isn't that the right thing? To avoid it all lest I do it to someone else? To a kid of mine?
My parents fought about everything involving us. How to raise us. What schools we should attend. (You haven't lived until you've been six and heard over the phone one side of a fight about whether you should take the gifted and talented test for a third or four time.) Or which way we should be disciplined.
If they were pressed to explain that, my parents would give some answer like, "Well, yes, of course we fought, but only because we wanted what was best for each of you."
You can't argue with that, but it also seems so boilerplate. Like they had a convention where all the divorced parents were given a handbook. "You say this. Your kids will have to accept that." I guess I'm glad parents get to use lines like that. It must be hard. There are things you need to know you can fall back on.
I only saw my parents fight in person once. That's the beauty of being too young to remember their split.
"At least we didn't pit you against each other." Every kid's heard that one. Sure, they didn't, not directly. Our mum always told us not to feel bad when we blew off our dad. That it was OK. Did it stem from her feelings from him? We listened to her. Maybe we would have felt the same way without her advice, but still, that helped. Is it our dad's fault that we weren't close enough with him to get his perspective? On the other hand, does he get points for never saying the same thing? Because all us kids keep score, biased as it may be.
Fortunately, there's a fairly low bar for divorced parents. All you have to do is not be awful about it.
And mine weren't. They weren't awful about it. I guess. I don't know. I guess it was fine. I'm fine, I think. I could be worse.
What I do know about me is that I only saw my parents fight in person once. That's the beauty of being too young to remember their split. Unlike my friends, whose parents divorced in middle school and high school and later, I never saw the tumult that precipitated the break. I'm mostly thankful for that.
There are times I'm not. In college, I dated a girl and we fought about our parents' relationships. Hers – who to the best of my knowledge are still married – fought all throughout her childhood. She said it was terrible. That it hurt her to see. That she'd run up to her room when it happened.
"At least you saw them together," I countered. (I've never been good with empathy.) I guess the idea behind my remark is that if I had felt what it was like to be held in a living room, with the two of them holding me and bouncing me and looking at each other and smiling – knowing the world was good because they were with each other – I would be a different person. Maybe I would. Both my sisters were older than me when it happened and they're beautiful people now. The best parents. They worry about their kids but I don't. Their kids are going to be fine.
Fight all yours may, at least you get to say, "my mum and my dad."
Anyway, the only time I saw my parents fight was when I was 20, after I was arrested for drinking and driving over Memorial Day weekend.
They felt they needed to meet with me, together, in person, to, you know, parent. The meeting came after the court sentenced me, meant as an addendum of punishments because the two of them felt the state hadn't been harsh enough.
We met at a Starbucks in that same Seven Corners Shopping Center. Neither of them had moved since the snowstorm and neither of them were willing to drive an extra inch this time either. My dad arrived with a yellow legal pad, and scribbled in his illegible script on the first page were all the topics he wanted to cover: whether I'd be allowed to spend that upcoming semester in South Africa (no), whether I could go back to college (fuck no), and a litany of other shit, like whose house I would have to live in. We all got coffee. Drank it and talked. Fifteen minutes in, still on the subject of if I could go back to college, they started fighting. They stopped talking about me and began arguing about something else entirely. What were they bickering about? I couldn't care to decipher their words because at first I couldn't believe they'd fight in front of me when they were trying to save me. But then I came to enjoy it. A lot.
This is what it's like, I thought.
That summer was by far the most depressed moment of my life. I woke up in jail, was picked up by my father, came home to my enraged mother, couldn't explain away to either of them what I did, and that meeting the one I dreaded the most. But here I was, happily watching this moment. They didn't notice, but I was grinning. My parents were acting like normal parents. Imperfect, not entirely in love, but together. There. My mum and my dad.
That's what I was trying to say to my girlfriend. That's what she didn't get. Fight all yours may, at least you get to say, "my mum and my dad." Together, in the same room. In the same sentence. I've rarely had the privilege of saying that.
Now that my sister has a baby and my other sister has two, my parents are in rooms together more frequently. Typically Thanksgiving, but sometimes other big events: birthday parties, preschool graduations. Hell, I think they once both stood together at the bottom of a slide as a grandchild came down it. At the beginning of these encounters, when their paths first cross in a foyer or parking lot or the mulch of a playground where unwitting kids are enjoying themselves without care, my mum and my dad will say hello to each other. It's exactly what you imagine, curt and tense and bullshitty and so, so insincere, and each time it happens, it makes me so happy I want to cry.
Then, as soon as the greetings over and they move to opposite sides of the room and don't interact anymore, I want to cry again.
Then I remember we're all adults. And it's too late to care.
David Covucci is on Twitter.