Thursday night was pizza night in the Allen household. My last appointment of the day was scheduled for eleven a.m., and at three o'clock I would ride the train home to Westport, thumbing through patient charts and returning phone calls. I liked to watch the city recede, the brick buildings of the Bronx falling away on the side of the tracks. Trees sprang up slowly, sunlight bursting forth in triumph, like cheers at the end of a long, oppressive regime. The canyon became a valley. The valley became a field. Riding the train I felt myself expand, as if I had escaped a fate I thought inevitable. It was odd to me, having grown up in New York City, a child of concrete and asphalt. But over the decades I had found the right angles and constant siren blare to be crushing. So ten years earlier I had moved my family to Westport, Connecticut, where we became a suburban family with suburban family hopes and dreams.
I was a rheumatologist--the chief of rheumatology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. It was a specialty that most people didn't recognize, concerned they'd guess with the watery eyes and phlegmy cough of a bad pollen allergy. But in truth, rheumatology is a subspecialty of internal medicine and pediatrics. The term "rheumatology" originates from the Greek word rheuma, meaning "that which flows as a river or stream" and the suffix -ology, meaning "the study of." Rheumatologists mainly deal with clinical problems involving joints, soft tissues, and allied conditions of connective tissues. We are often the doctor of last resort when patients develop mysterious symptoms involving most of the body's systems: nervous, respiratory, circulatory. The rheumatologist is called to consult when a diagnosis remains elusive.
I was a diagnostician by trade, a medical detective, analyzing symptoms and test results, looking for the most pernicious diseases and intangible traumas. After eighteen years I still found the work fascinating and often took it to bed with me, mulling patient histories in the slippery moments before sleep, looking for patterns in the grain.
June 16 was a sunny day, not too hot but with the threat of New York summer in the air. You could smell the first wisp of humidity rising off the macadam. Soon any breeze would feel like the hot breath of a stranger. Soon you would be able to reach up and smudge car exhaust across the sky like oil paint. But for now there was just the threat, a slight smother, a trickle in the armpits.
I was late getting home that night. Afternoon rounds had taken longer than expected, and I didn't step off the train until close to six. I walked the nine blocks to our house through rows of manicured lawns. American flags hung from mailboxes. White picket fences, at once welcoming and prohibitive, ran beside me like the sprockets of a bicycle wheel, half seen from the corner of my eye. A sense of motion, of one thing being ticked off, then another. It was a town of affluence, and I was one of its citizens, a medical expert, a lecturing professor at Columbia.
I had become an MD in the era before the HMO, before the nickel-and-diming of doctors, and I had done well for myself. The money afforded certain freedoms and luxuries. A four-bedroom house, a few acres of hilly land with a weeping willow and a faded white hammock that swung lazily in the breeze. On these early evenings when the weather was warm I walked through the suburban quiet with a sense of peace, a feeling of accomplishment, not smug or petty but deep-seated and human. It was the triumph of a marathoner after a race, the jubilation of a soldier after a long war is over. A challenge had been faced and overcome, and you were better, wiser for the facing.
Fran was already working the dough when I walked in the door, rolling it out against the marble countertop. The twins were grating cheese and scattering toppings. Fran was my second wife, a tall redhead, with the slow curves of a lazy river. Turning forty had changed the quality of her beauty from the athletic glow of a volleyball player to a languid voluptuousness. Contemplative and sure-footed, Fran was a woman who thought things through, who took a long-term approach to problems. These were not qualities my first wife shared, prone as she was to impulse and the full roller coaster of emotion. But I like to think that one of my better qualities is that I learn from my mistakes. And that, when I asked Fran to marry me, it was because we were--for lack of a more romantic word--compatible in the truest sense of the word.
Fran was a virtual assistant, which meant she worked from home, helping people she'd never met schedule appointments and make flight reservations. Instead of earrings, Fran wore a Bluetooth earpiece, which she put in when she awoke and didn't remove until just before bed. This meant she spent large portions of every day conducting what appeared to be a long conversation with herself.
The twins, Alex and Wally, were ten that year. They were fraternal and not in any way similar. Wally had a harelip and a slight air of menace about him, like a boy who is just waiting for you to turn your back. In truth, he was the sweeter of the two, the more innocent. A miscoded gene had given him a cleft palate, and though surgery had mostly corrected it, there was still a quality to his face that seemed off-kilter, imprecise, vulnerable. His twin, Alex, fair-haired, comparatively angelic looking, had gotten into some trouble recently for fighting. It was a familiar problem for him, starting in the sandbox era as a willingness to battle anyone who made fun of his brother. But over the years, that instinct to protect had evolved into an irresistible need to champion the underdog--fat kids, nerds, kids with braces. A few months back--after being called to the principal's office for the third time that semester--Fran and I took Alex to lunch and explained to him that while we approved of his instinct to protect the meek, he would have to find less physical ways to do so.
"If you want these bullies to learn a lesson," I said, "you have to teach them something. And I guarantee, violence never taught anybody anything."
Alex had always had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. I suggested he sign up for debate classes, where he could learn to beat his opponents with words.
He shrugged, but I could tell he liked the idea. And over the next few months, Alex became the top debater in his class. Now he turned every request to eat his vegetables or help with the chores into an Aristotelian voir dire.
I had no one to blame but myself.
This was our nuclear family. A father, a mother, and two sons. Daniel, the son from my first marriage, had lived with us for a year during his sullen teens, but had departed as impulsively as he'd arrived, waking me one morning before dawn to ask if I could drive him to the airport. His mother and I had split when he was seven, and he had stayed with her on the West Coast when I had come east.
Three years after his brief stay with us, Danny, eighteen, had started college. But he dropped out after less than a year, climbing into his car and heading west. Later, he would say that he just wanted to "see the country." He didn't tell us he'd left. Instead, I sent a card to his dorm, and it came back unopened, with a stamp occupant no longer at this address. This had been his way since childhood. Danny was a boy who never stayed where you left him, who popped up in unexpected places at unexpected times. Now he called infrequently; sent e-mails from Internet cafes in the flat states of the Midwest. The occasional postcard scrawled in a moment of summer nostalgia. But always at his convenience, not mine.
The last time I saw him was in Arizona. I'd flown in for a medical conference. Daniel was passing through on his way north. I bought him breakfast in a hipster coffee shop near my hotel. His hair was long and he ate his pancakes without pause, his fork moving from plate to mouth like a steam shovel.
He told me he'd been doing a lot of camping in the Southwest. During the day he hiked. At night he read by flashlight. He seemed happy. When you're young there is no more romantic conceit than freedom--the boundless certainty that you can go anywhere, do anything. And though it still bothered me that he had dropped out of college six months earlier, knowing him as I did, I can't say I was surprised.
Daniel had grown up traveling. He was a teenage gypsy, shuttled between Connecticut and California, living partly with me and partly with his mother. Children of joint custody are, by nature of the divorce settlement, independent. All those Christmases spent in airports, all those summer vacations shuffling back and forth between mom and dad. Unaccompanied minors, crisscrossing the nation. Daniel seemed to survive it without major trauma, but I still worried, the way any parent does. Not enough to keep me up at night, but enough to add a layer of doubt to each day, a nagging sense of loss, like something important had been misplaced. And yet he had always been self-sufficient, and he was a smart, likable kid, so I convinced myself that wherever he went, he was fine.
Last fall, sitting across from each other in that Arizona coffee shop, Daniel teased me about my coat and tie. It was Saturday, and he said he didn't see the point.
"It's a medical conference," I told him. "I have a professional reputation to uphold."
He laughed at the thought of it. To him all these grown men and women acting and dressing in a manner that society deemed "professional" was ridiculous.
When we parted I tried to give him five hundred dollars, but he wouldn't take it. He said he was doing good, working odd jobs here and there. He said it would feel strange carrying that much money around with him.
"It'd throw off the balance, you know?"
The hug he gave me when we parted was full-bodied and long. His hair smelled unwashed, the sweet musk of the hobo. I asked him if he was sure about the money. He just smiled. I watched him walk away with a deep feeling of impotence. He was my son and I had lost control of him, if I'd ever really had it. I was a bystander now, an observer, watching his life from the sidelines.
When he reached the corner, Daniel turned and waved. I waved back. Then he stepped into the street and I lost him in the crowd. I hadn't seen him since.
Now, in the kitchen of our Connecticut home, Fran came over and kissed me on the mouth. Her hands were covered in flour and she held them up the way I had held mine up a few hours ago walking into the ICU.
"Alex got in another fight," she said.
"It wasn't a fight," Alex corrected her. "A fight is where you hit someone and they hit back. This was more like a mugging."
"Mr. Smart Ass has been suspended for three days," she told me.
"I plan on being furious," I told them. "After I have a drink." I took a beer from the fridge. Fran had returned to the pizza stone.
"We figured pepperoni and mushroom tonight," she said.
"Far be it from me," I told her.
Apropos of nothing Fran said, "Yes, the seven-fifteen flight to Tucson."
Tucson? Then I noticed the blue light.
"Yes, he'll need a car."
I started to speak, but she held up a finger.
"That sounds great. Will you e-mail me the itinerary? Thank you." The blue light went off. The finger came down.
"What can I do?" I said.
"Set the table. And I'll need you to take it out in ten minutes. That oven still scares me."
The TV was on in the corner, playing Jeopardy! It was another ritual in our house, this watching of game shows. Fran thought it was good for the kids to compete with contestants on TV. I had never understood why. But every night around seven our house became a cacophony of barked non sequiturs.
"James Garfield," said Wally.
"Madison," corrected Fran.
"In the form of a question," said Alex.
"Who is James Garfield?" said Wally.
"Madison," said Fran.
"Who is James Madison?"
I had gotten used to the nightly confusion, looked forward to it. Families are defined by their routines. The pickups and drop-offs. The soccer games and debate clubs, doctors' appointments and field trips. Every night you eat and clean. You check to make sure homework is done. You turn off the lights and lock the doors. On Thursdays you drag the Toters to the curb. Friday mornings you bring them in. After a few years, even the arguments are the same, as if you are living out the same day over and over. There is comfort in this, even as it drives you mad. As a virtual assistant, Fran was militant about order. We were her family, but also her ground force. She sent us e-mails and text messages almost hourly, updating calendar events in real time. The dentist appointment has been rescheduled. Glee club has been replaced by ice-skating. Armies are less regimented. Twice a week in the Allen household we synchronized our watches like a special-ops team tasked with blowing up a bridge. The occasional annoyance this raised in me was tempered by love. To have married once and failed is to realize who you are in some deep and unromanticized way. The veneer of personal embarrassment about your weaknesses and idiosyncrasies is lifted, and you are then free to marry the person who best complements the real you, not the idealized version of you that lives in your head.
This is what led me to Fran after eight years of marriage to Ellen Shapiro. Though I had long thought of myself as a spontaneous and open person, I realized after my marriage to Ellen fell apart that I was, in fact, a creature of rigidity and repetition. I cannot stand living with uncertainty and forgetfulness. The bright-eyed, hippie ditziness that seemed charming in Ellen at first glance quickly became infuriating. Similarly, all the qualities that made me a good doctor--my meticulousness, my love of redundancy, the long hours I worked--proved to be qualities that Ellen found oppressive and dull. We took to fighting at every opportunity. It wasn't so much what I did or what she did. It was who we were. And the disappointment we voiced to each other was disappointment in ourselves for making such poor choices. This is the learning process. And though our marriage produced Daniel, it was a union best dissolved before any real damage was done.