Spring 2012 — THE POTOMAC

Family for Sale
  Eric Goodman

It's a shame, when you think about it, that you can't trade in a family. Like a car or a girlfriend. Just put a family portrait up on Craigslist, make a few appointments, and hand over the birth certificates and Social Security cards.

Hey, don't scowl. Not until you've walked a few miles in these sole-worn penny loafers. You'd probably feel the same way if you were standing on my side of the picket fence. It's damn easy to pass judgment on someone you don't know squat about.

Sometimes people grow apart. They detach. And sure, sometimes the feeling isn't mutual. I should know.

My name's Shane. My ex used to call me "a shame." It started as a joke, but ended, like our marriage, as a truth. An ugly shame, me and Jo ever getting married. A dirty shame we ever had kids, three of them. It was terrible when we all lived under the same roof. Some would say it's even worse now that we never see one another. But again, save your shouts for the next episode of Judge Judy.

Have you ever noticed how we can get more emotionally involved with a story—a movie or television show or book—than we do with those around us? Those we're supposed to be most connected with? How is it that millions of kids know more about the childhood of Harry Potter than that of their own parents? We take time to care for people who don't even exist, yet we don't offer the same time and emotion for our own loved ones—the ones who are real flesh and blood.

It's simple, really. When we're living, we're busy doing things: taking care of business; completing routine chores; going through habitual tasks; working out problems. We don't have time to become involved with the stories of our own lives or those who are supposed to care for us.

It's different when we're settling into a movie or show or book. We're investing our time in the art of relaxation—letting go of any cares or worries and simply letting things unfold before our eyes. We allow ourselves to become involved in the story, in part, because we know we're not going to be asked to do anything in the end—to offer advice or make a decision. All we have to do is veg.

There was another family before my last one. Another beautiful woman, Casey, boiling with passion—enough to convince me to tie the knot. That union churned out two kids. They're grown and have families of their own. When they call from time to time (on birthdays and holidays), I talk with them. It's not like I'm not open to building relationships where there's something to build with. But I'm not on any mission to make them proud of their old daddy-o. And if the history professor and pharmacist are on such missions, they aren't having much success. Contrary to popular thinking, grandchildren aren't automatic keys to a person's soul. There are a lot of kids in the world—a lot of people in the area—who need and deserve love as much or more than a couple privileged brats who happen to be pulsing with my blood. I never hear from Casey.

I'm not bitter. I love people. But I no longer feel an obligation to love the people I'm supposed to love. I want to focus my energy on those who genuinely attract me.

Case and point: Dax. He was my best friend in high school. And in grade school. We must have been in the second grade when we first connected over a game of Chutes and Ladders. I considered him my "best friend" until about 40. Then, I began to question what "best friend" means. Someone who, for about 10 or 12 years of my life, I ate lunch with every day, talked about girls with every afternoon, caught movies and concerts with over weekends? Other than once–in–a–while reunions and semi-annual phone calls, the only tie we have is a three-decade-old past. We had some laughs. I was there when his wife died and he was there for me during my first divorce. We graduated from elementary school to high school, from Candyland to Monopoly. I guess it was when we were around fifteen, after a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that we packed our loose association into a tight bond. He was dressed up in fishnets and leather—just a costume for the show, mind you. He got jumped in the two a.m. parking lot by a bunch of punks. Me and a few guys stood up for him, kicked some ass. From that moment on, it was like Dax was a wookiee with a life debt. Loyal as a dog. Then we went off to separate colleges, surrounded ourselves with different sets of friends, discovered opposite politics. There comes a time when you gotta send the beast away.

I didn't want a high–drama annulment. But what's wrong with drifting quietly apart? It happens every day, easy as trading in your fifteen-year-old bug for a gleaming new Corvette, an old spouse for a new.

Dax was there for me when Casey had an affair with another man and let me know with a bulge in her tummy. My parents were there for me too, very supportive. I'd been wronged, everyone knew it, and I was the good guy then. It was different when I told Jo I wanted a divorce. That I was in love with another woman. That I wanted to spend more time with my friends in a smoke-filled bar than with her in our immaculate empty nest. She was livid and let everyone know. It seemed like the world was against me. So I turned against them—disowned my parents and siblings and old friends. The old world was a thing of the past. The new world beckoned.

It's a fairly easy and accepted procedure, to trade in your old spouse for a new one. More people get divorced than stay married. What's wrong with doing the same with blood relatives? Just trade them in for a new group of loved ones. My contact with my parents and siblings was about as regular as my contact with my first wife and kids—a few phone calls and emails scattered throughout the year. Visits on Thanksgiving that started with strained smiles and idle chatter but ended with reddened faces and angry fights. We'd been estranged, more or less, since my second divorce.

Oh, I'll admit it hurt when everyone took Jo's side. When they took her in as a daughter and shunned me, acting like I'd done something wrong by following the truth instead of living a lie. They thought they were encouraging me to take her back. What man in his right mind is trading his sexy new Corvette for that rusty old bug? My family was driving me further away, until it seemed best to just trade in the whole family—mom, dad, brother, sister—and dedicate myself to my chosen set of loved ones. My friends—especially the lovely Jeannine—who I spend time with every day, by choice. They more than take the place of those I see rarely and don't miss.

"How can you do this?" Mother said when it became apparent I'd found love in a new place.

"You've butchered your mother's heart," Father yelled on that Thanksgiving day phone call, the one that came after the shock of a turkey dinner without me.

"Mom, Dad," I tried to explain. "I've decided to live in the moment, not in the past. I'm giving my loyalty and my love to the present. To those who care for me for who I am at the moment. To Jeannine."

"It's a mid-life crisis," Mother said. Dad griped, "A bunch of fruit loop nonsense if you ask me!"

And that was the difference: I didn't ask him. I decided to stop living in the past and to focus on the only place and time we really have—right now. I decided to give my attention—my energy—to the present. Nobody thought that was where it was supposed to go.

They—the old families—expected me to devote my loyalty and love to the past. To my last wife, my grown and moved–away children, my judgmental parents. But close out convention and consider truth. Isn't it better to live in the present? To devote your efforts to those around you right now? To share in conversation with those who make you laugh and think and enjoy? To love the woman who makes your skin dance every time you see her beaming smile? To lovingly stroke the house pet that pays you attention?

Shane is not ashamed. I'm here now, with Jeannine. That's where I'm supposed to be.

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