The Divorce Next Door

Once upon a time, two couples with two little girls had charmed parallel lives. And then they didn’t.

By Emily White December 27, 2008 Published in the August 2008 issue of Seattle Met

IT WAS 1997 and my husband and I had lived in Leschi for a few months when Lee and Sandra moved in next door. Like us, they were a childless couple in their mid-30s. Like us, they left early on weekdays and returned late, always working. Initially we both kept the front yards of our Leschi ramblers presentable, but gradually we let them go: dandelions, moss, no sprinklers to preserve the green. If Lee and Sandra* mirrored us on a superficial level, there were deep differences, too. They were Chinese American Midwesterners. Rich and I were Caucasian Americans, native Northwesterners. They drove new cars and ran a high-end clothing business. We drove cars into the ground, and my husband’s clothes were thrift-store specials. They threw meticulous, quiet daytime parties. We threw parties that lasted late into the night, and one of our regular guests was an anarchist whose booming voice literally rattled windowpanes.
Every house facing the water had a deck, no matter how decrepit. Ours came so close to Lee and Sandra’s that there were times when we were barbecuing six feet apart from each other. It was disconcerting. We could’ve been living in the same house, except for the two-story drop between us.

I spied on their parties from a kitchen window that offered a bird’s-eye view of their deck. I’d come to Rich with dispatches: “Sandra is really dressed up! There are a lot of old people there, do you think someone died?” We wove a story out of nothing because we had no history for them, no context larger than the block we lived on. We never asked personal questions. We had driveway chats about windstorms or woodpeckers or the sound of gunshots the night before. She always seemed to be listening for something. She looked you in the eye and laughed easily. I found him faraway, eyes downcast, like a kid who had been grounded. I am not sure if I ever saw him laugh.

As if in unspoken agreement, they never invited us over and we never invited them.

Our clear separation lasted until 2003. I was three months pregnant, nauseous, and cleaning detritus out of the car: CDs long ago orphaned by their cases, smashed French fries, and crumpled to-do lists. Sandra was in her yard, puzzling over her roses. She was unmistakably pregnant, too; swaybacked, swelled up. She pointed at her belly when she saw me looking: “Yep!” she said. “I am, too,” I said, wide-eyed. We briefly embraced across the hedge, exchanging congratulations. But we were still solitary women to each other, even if we were not alone in our bodies anymore.

For months after the girls were born we -rarely saw Lee and Sandra and the infant, Mei-Mei. I holed up in our house waiting for Josephine’s milk cry. It was winter and the girls were like little larvae carried around in car-seat buckets, creatures to be hurried in from the cold. Yet as they turned into real girls, Mei-Mei and Josephine started to notice each other. Out on the deck, they stared at each other the way kids stare at each other in restaurants: There is another one.

As they learned to crawl and then walk, as they entered the realm of speech, they learned to call each other’s names from the deck: Mei Mei. Josie. Holding onto the rails, they’d peer through the bars at each other. They engaged in what psychologists call parallel play, pulling all their toys out and playing side by side, sometimes imitating each other. They both had these infernal Elmo radios, which they would crank up simultaneously, until I taught Josie what “Mommy has a headache” means. For reasons we could not hope to fathom they found one another extremely funny and their laughter was unspooled, wild, electrified. The sound was a current connecting our houses the way nothing ever had before.

It has been bad for a long time. There was no way to fix it.

One thing we did not know when we bought the house was that two days out of every year, Leschi becomes a wild, screaming war zone. These are the days that belong to Seafair and its celebration of America’s military might that climaxes with the Blue Angels’ air show directly above the I-90 bridge. Bombers fly so close to our house you can see the pilots inside them. Often we retreated during Seafair, but last summer Josie became fascinated by the planes, so we threw a small party complete with a wading pool. At the last minute, seeing Mei-Mei on her deck, Rich invited her to join the kids. Sandra seemed reluctant. “She might get really scared, just bring her home if that happens, I’ll leave the door unlocked.”

Sure enough after the first planes screeched across the sky Mei-Mei’s eyes teared up. Home, she said. As she cried quietly, I reassured her: It’s okay, it’s just a show.

Walking the short distance to her front door, I felt her fear attach itself to me. Maybe I sensed that there was trouble inside this little girl, a fear she couldn’t or shouldn’t be talked out of. Long after the planes had departed I had a trembling, unsettled feeling. The war was on. The oceans were rising. Inside our house, my marriage seemed fragile. I had visions of Josie falling off the deck. Perhaps Mei-Mei had every reason to be afraid.

The day Sandra told me she was divorcing Lee, I was out in the driveway with Josie. She was riding her trike in hypnotic circles, reminding me of the kid in The Shining. Sandra and Mei-Mei pulled up and I waved. Mei-Mei ran over, checking out the tricycle. Walking behind her, Sandra had an intense look on her face that I recognized as Big News. She said, “After next week, it will be just Lee next door. I didn’t know when to tell you.”

Maybe it was because Rich and I were in the midst of a 24-hour fight, or because I’d drunk too much the night before, but I started to sob. “Oh, my dear girl,” I said, addressing her like a child. She started sobbing, too, and said, “Let’s go into my house.” Their living room was a maze of moving boxes. The one toy that remained unpacked was Mei-Mei’s Barbie car. The girls started on a trip. California, they decided. Barbie country.

In the kitchen Sandra poured out her story: It had been bad for a long time, two years. There was no way to fix it. She was moving to Indiana to live with her parents until she figured out what to do.

She wrote down the phone number and address, tears running down her face.

I know it can get really lonely, I said.

I have wondered about you too, she said.

I know you will find your prince charming, I said. I am 41, she answered.

I was offering her hungover fairy-tale answers, a product of Josie’s Cinderella craze. I was talking to Sandra as if coupledom was the ultimate happy ending, but I didn’t remotely believe this. Now during fights with Rich, I might drop bombshells like, Maybe this is Divorce Block, maybe it’s a cursed place. I tried to reassure myself: I knew of many couples who divorced when their kids were toddlers; it is a difficult and exhausted time that will end, just wait it out. I repeat the words of a couples counselor who told us, “The fight is a pattern that is bigger than either one of you.” And though for a long time Mei-Mei’s name was embedded in the patterns of Josie’s speech, little by little her name recedes as other children fill her thoughts and monologues. “She knows Mei-Mei is gone,” Rich says. And then I realize maybe I am the one who has not quite accepted it. I am the one who gets all mixed up and thinks the past is not past and she is still home. Just call her name and she will open the door.

* Names and details have been changed.

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