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Amity Gaige's Schroder is a triumph of voice. Part road trip escapade, part liar's lament, this absorbing, expertly crafted book takes the form of a self-serving but moving apologia written in an Albany jail cell by an untrustworthy but genuinely heartbroken father and ex-husband with astonishingly bad judgment. Filling hundreds of pages while seated on a stool that is "kindergarten short and dented like an old cookie sheet," he attempts to explain to his ex-wife why he absconded with their six- year-old daughter during his court-sanctioned weekly visit, precisely what happened during the seven days they went AWOL, and why he isn't who she thought she married.
Ordinarily, I'm about as keen on road trip novels as I am about driving — so I nearly made the mistake of leaving Schroder by the wayside. Of course I recognize the usefulness of a narrative device that literally keeps the action rolling and provides a world apart for its traveling characters. But with the notable exception of Nabokov's clever cross-country cat- and-mouse chase in Lolita, to which Schroder bears some resemblance, my response to such tales is often to feel trapped — in-car-cerated — and motion-sick long before new emotional borders are crossed.
There's nothing tedious or overly programmed about Schroder, however. By throwing a case of custodial kidnapping and assumed identity into the front seat, Gaige picks us up with her opening line — "What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance. My lawyer says I should tell the whole story" — and refuses to drop us off until we've reached her devastating destination. Schroder's deeply flawed narrator may have exhausted his wife's sympathy, but, remarkably, through Gaige's nuanced portrait, he manages to win ours. To a point.
If the outline of Schroder sounds vaguely familiar, that's because the much-publicized Clark Rockefeller hoax was a source of inspiration. You may recall the sensational case in which German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter assumed multiple aliases — including, most notably, that of a Rockefeller — to secure a toehold in American society. After his breadwinner wife, a Harvard M.B.A. and successful business consultant, filed for divorce, he went on the lam with their daughter in July 2008, was eventually convicted of parental kidnapping, and has since been indicted for a 1985 murder in Los Angeles. His story was the basis for a television movie, Who Is Clark Rockefeller?, and Mark Seal's 2011 nonfiction book, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit.
Gaige's narrator, too, is an unreliable fraud who tries to leave behind his troubled German history in favor of a more promising American future. But, as in her two previous novels, O My Darling (2006) and The Folded World (2009), her focus is domestic, and specifically on marital strain and pain. What lifts Schroder above its essentially maudlin plot is its sure- footed prose, psychological acuity, and moral subtlety.
One way of looking at Schroder is as a story about passing. Instead of trying to pass for white — as Coleman Silk does in Philip Roth's The Human Stain — Gaige's protagonist, born Erik Schröder (with both a k and an umlaut) in East Berlin in 1970, tries to pass for an American with a famous last name and a sunnier background than his own. That initial deception, grounded in colossal insecurity and a desire to belong, engenders a lifetime of compounding lies.
The central trauma of Schroder's life occurred in 1975 when he and his electrician father managed to escape to West Berlin — without his mother. Why? Was she dead? The truth was in fact so painful that both he and his father had an unspoken pact never to talk about it, even after they immigrated to bleak Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1979. Gaige conjures a remarkable image, one of many in this novel, to describe the disconnection engendered by that transatlantic voyage: "The yolk of my heart came loose."
Young Erik's father dropped the umlaut but never bothered with naturalization. Erik, tired of being an outsider, took matters into his own hands as a teenager, creating a secret new identity in order to apply for a scholarship to an idyllic New Hampshire summer camp. He chose for his new surname that of the most famous "Berliner" — Kennedy — and invented a bucolic childhood on Cape Cod in a fictional enclave near Hyannis Port. As with racial passing, Schroder's transformation into Eric Kennedy ultimately necessitated a clean break from his past, including his reticent, distant German father.
Eric's imagined American childhood is a teenager's simple fantasy — yet it's one he's stuck with for decades, emblematic of his arrested development. Only in his desperation not to lose his adorable, wise daughter does he risk exposing his secret.
A key to Gaige's novel lies tucked in Schroder's assessment of the American family court system, filled with millions of despairing men and women waging custody battles. They're all deranged, he says, "Because, of course, there is one thing that really deranges us, and that is the disappearance of love." Three themes that connect Schroder's childhood and adulthood are the unbearable pain of lost love, "[h]ow abandonable a child is," and the excruciating eloquence of silence.
Schroder is by turns a terrifically fun and dangerously negligent father. Easily distracted from his daughter by his own narcissistic needs, he repeatedly loses focus, endangering his sweet "Butterscotch." He brings her to a "church where everyone was crying" — an AA meeting! — and, most horrifically, actually starts to stow his sleeping child in the trunk of his Mini Cooper (stolen from a friend) with the idea of escaping to Canada. Yet we come to understand the source of his failings — and, most movingly, to believe that he truly loves his daughter.
How convincing is Schroder's "pall of regret"? He's motivated by desperation to see Meadow again, but, as he reminds us, he's also driven by "a legal obligation to humanize myself. For my own defense." Could he really have believed, "right up to the moment when I saw myself on TV — that I had not 'kidnapped' Meadow but that I was merely very, very late to return her from an agreed-upon visit"? Is it possible to accept his argument that his "spontaneous field trip" with his sweet, trusting little girl was a "wrong thing-done in the service of rightness" and that, anyway, all childhood is in a sense an "involuntary adventure" embarked upon without consent?
Schroder naturally invites us to think about other stories involving unmoored, unreliable, often divorced parents who take their trusting, skeptical, wise, and often bewildered children on the road with them: Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here springs to mind, as does the 1973 Peter Bogdanovich movie, Paper Moon, starring Ryan O'Neal as a con man and his daughter Tatum O'Neal as his adorable albatross turned sidekick. When it comes to the annals of divorce, few offer a more fascinating, split picture than the Wolff brothers' memoirs: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, about his peripatetic childhood with their mother, and Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception, chronicling his experiences with their father, an inveterate con man who falsified everything — except his paternal devotion. As in Schroder, one heartrending lesson from all these narratives is that even a deeply flawed parent can be a loving one.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.
My lawyer says I should tell the whole story. Where we went, what we did, who we met, etc. As you know, Laura, I’m not a reticent person. I’m talkative—you could even say chatty—for a man. But I haven’t spoken a word for days. It’s a vow I’ve taken. My mouth tastes old and damp, like a cave. It turns out I’m not very good at being silent. There are castles of things I want to tell you. Which might explain the enthusiasm of this document, despite what you could call its sad story.
My lawyer also says that this document could someday help me in court. So it’s hard not to also think of this as a sort of plea, not just for your mercy, but also for that of a theoretical jury, should we go to trial. And in case the word jury sounds exciting to you (it did to me, for a second), I’ve since learned that a jury gets all kinds of things wrong, cleaving as it does to initial impressions, and in the end rarely offers the ringing exonerations or punishments that we deserve, but mostly functions as a bellwether for how the case is going to skew in the papers. It’s hard not to think about them anyway, my potential listeners. Lawyers. Juries. Fairy-tale mobs. Historians. But most of all you. You—my whip, my nation, my wife.
Dear Laura. If it were just the two of us again, sitting together at the kitchen table late at night, I would probably just call this document an apology.
Once upon a time, in 1984, I created another fateful document. On the surface, it was an application to a boys’ camp on Ossipee Lake in New Hampshire. I was fourteen and had been living in the United States for only five years. During those five years, my father and I had occupied the same top-floor apartment of a tenement in Dorchester, Mass., which if you’ve never been there is a crowded multiracial neighborhood in Boston’s southern hinterlands. Even though I had quieted my accent and cloaked myself in a Bruins hockey shirt, and tried to appear as tough and sulky as my Irish American counterparts who formed Dorchester’s racial minority, I was still mentally fresh off the boat and was still discovering, on a daily basis, the phenomena of my new homeland. I remember the electronic swallowing sound of a quarter by the slot of my first video-game machine, as well as the sight of a vibrating electronic toothbrush, and how, one day while I was waiting for the bus, a boy not much older than me drove up to the curb in a Corvette convertible and hopped out without use of the door. I remember seeing many sights like this and more, because the feelings they brought up were confusing. At first I’d feel a pop of childish wonder, but this wonder was followed by the urge to stuff it back, because if I were a real American I would not have been in the least impressed with any of it. Self-consciousness was my escort, a certain doubleness of mind that I relied upon to keep myself from asking stupid questions, such as when Dad and I drove across the border of Rhode Island one day on an errand, and I resisted asking why there was no checkpoint between state lines, for I had—if you can believe it—brought my German passport with me.
I first saw the brochure for Camp Ossipee in my pediatrician’s office. I studied it every time I was sick until I slipped it in my jacket and took it home. I stared at this brochure for weeks—in bed, in the bath, hanging from my pull-up bar—until its pages started to stick together. The American boys in the photographs hung suspended in the air between cliffside and lake water. They walked in threes portaging canoes. I started to envision myself swimming with them. I imagined myself crawling through the wheat or whatever, learning to track and to mushroom. I would be the go-to man, the boy out in front, not so much the hero but an outrider. I was particularly interested in the Ossipeean rite of passage available only to the oldest boys in their final year—a solo overnight camping trip on a remote island in the middle of the lake. And here is where my future self was really born to me, in this image: myself, Erik Schroder, man alive, stoking a fire in the night, solo, self-sufficient, freed from the astrictions of society. I would fall asleep as one boy and wake up the next day a totally different one.
All I had to do to apply to the camp was to fill out a form and write a personal statement. What sort of statement were they looking for? I wondered. What sort of boy? I sat at my father’s card table, gazing out the window at the corner of Sagamore and Savin Hill Ave., where two classmates of mine were fighting over a broken hockey stick. I slipped a piece of paper into my father’s typewriter. I began to write.
Mine was a tale that, by certain lights, was the truest thing I had ever written. It involved the burdens of history, an early loss of the mother, a baseless sense of personal responsibility, and dauntless hope for the future. Of course, by other lights—the lights that everyone else uses, including courts of law—my story was pure canard. A fraudulent, distorted, spurious, crooked, desperate fiction, which, when I met you, I lay bound at your feet. But this was 1984. I hadn’t met you yet. I wasn’t lying to you—I was just a child, sitting at my father’s typewriter, my legs trussed to the knee in white athletic socks, my hair still rabbit blond, not dark at the roots like it is now. I addressed the envelope. I filched a stamp. When it came time to sign the bottom of that crowded page, it was with some flair that I first signed the name by which you came to know me. The surname wasn’t hard to choose. I wanted a hero’s name, and there was only one man I’d ever heard called a hero in Dorchester. A local boy, a persecuted Irishman, a demigod. He was also a man who’d spoken to cheering throngs of depressed West Berliners circa 1963, leaving them with a shimmering feeling of self-regard that lasted long beyond his assassination, his hero status still in place when my father and I finally got there much later. In fact, you might say John F. Kennedy is the reason we showed up in this country at all.
I spent months intercepting the mail looking for my acceptance letter from Ossipee. The letter would offer me full acceptance to camp on scholarship, as well as sympathies for my troubles. I dreamt of this letter so often that I had a hard time believing it when it actually arrived. We at Ossipee believe that every boy deserves a summertime… We are dedicated to supporting boys from all circumstances… Come join us by the shores of our beloved lake… Ossipee, where good boys become better men. Yes, yes, I thought. I accept! I’ve got plenty of circumstances! My excitement was tempered only by the sound of Dad’s key in the downstairs foyer, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to show him the letter itself, which was addressed to a different boy. Instead, I showed him the disintegrated brochure. I told him of the man-to-man phone call from the camp director. I even made the scholarship merit based, rounding out the fantasy for both of us. We trotted around the apartment all evening. It was as close as my father ever got to joyful abandon.
No one ever checked my story. When the time came, I took a bus two hours north from Boston to a bus stop called Moultonville, where a camp representative was to greet me and another scholarship boy we picked up in Nashua. When we got off the bus, a stout woman in canvas pants came toward us. This was Ida, the camp cook and its only female. The other boy mumbled an introduction. Ida looked at me. “Then you must be Eric Kennedy.”
Why did they believe me? God knows. All I can say is it was 1984. You could apply for a social security number through the mail. There were no databases. You had to be rich to get a credit card. You kept your will in a safety deposit box and your money in a big wad. There were no technologies for omniscience. Nobody wanted them. You were whoever you said you were. And I was Eric Kennedy.
For the next three summers, that’s who I was. Steady-handed Eric Kennedy. Iron Forge Eric Kennedy. Eric Kennedy of the surprisingly tuneful singing voice. My transformation was amazing. The first summer I spoke in a quavering voice that only I knew was meant to prevent any trace of an accent. I harbored a fear that some real German would come up to me and ask me, “Wo geht’s zum Bahnhof Zoo?” and I would answer. But this never happened, and besides, nobody distrusted me or scrutinized me or seemed to wish me harm; at Ossipee, the boys were taught that trusting other people was something you did for yourself, for your own ennoblement, and this old-fashioned lesson, however perversely I received it, is a debt I still hold to the place. Over time, I left the periphery of the group and moved toward the center of things. I took off my shirt and joined in dances around the campfire. I led the chanting for food in the dining hall. By the end of my first summer, they couldn’t shut me up. After that, I never really stopped talking.
The time eventually came for my solo camping trip. It was my third and final summer at Ossipee, a strikingly clement one. A steady wind swabbed the surface of the lake, forming darkly iridescent wavelets that tapped the bottom of the camp Chris-Craft. All the boys I’d lionized in previous summers were gone. The younger arrivals, their hair still bearing the ruts of combing, hung around on the dock watching me set off, and I realized that I had become the older boy, the one they’d remember once I was gone. The boathouse counselor motored me toward distant coordinates and left me there on a hard beach wearing a crown of gnats. The night was endless, but that isn’t the point of my story. The part I want to tell you about is the morning, how when I heard the sound of the Chris-Craft approaching through the fog, I zipped out of my nylon tent as from a skin and knew that I had achieved something truly monumental: I had chosen my own childhood. I had found a past that matched my present. And so, with the help of enthusiastic recommendations from the folks at Ossipee, as well as a series of forgeries I hesitate to detail here despite the fact that Xeroxes of them have been pushed across tables at me quite recently, I was accepted—as Eric Kennedy—to Mune College in Troy, New York. I was a work-study student at Mune, operating the tollbooth at a multistory parking garage, and the rest of my tuition was furnished via Pell Grant (which I paid back, by the way). I majored in communications. I was a B student. Smart in class, you know, but inconsistent when actual work on my own was required. My secret bilingualism led me to excel in the study of other languages—Spanish, even conversational Japanese. When I graduated, I got a job nearby as a medical translator at Albany’s Center for Medical Research, and there I stayed for six uneventful years, as free as a bird.
Of course, birds aren’t free. Birds do almost nothing freely. Birds are some of nature’s most industrious creatures, spending every available hour searching and hoarding and avoiding competitive disadvantage, busy just having to be birds. Like a bird, I was constantly at work being Eric Kennedy, and like a bird, I did not think of it as work. I thought of it as being. The earliest and cruelest deceptions had already happened—meaning, my deceptions of my father. Whenever I was Eric Kennedy, I’d made myself hard for Dad to contact. Even at Ossipee, I had told him there were no telephones in the wilderness of New Hampshire, but that if he wanted me to call him, I would happily set out on foot to the nearest town, and of course he said Nein, nein, Erik. Then, in measured English, I will see you when I see you.
Right. He would see me when he saw me, which was seldom. During college, I was like any other young man, busy trying to appear more interesting than I was—you know, amassing a music collection, composing mental manifestos, once or twice appearing in a piece of student theater. I drove down to Dorchester only when absolutely necessary. I commenced alone, in my black gown and mortarboard, and then waited until July to bring Dad up for a campus tour, when the place was desolate except for the students at an adult tennis camp. I had befriended a childless professor during my time at Mune, and it was this man, not my father, who cosigned my lease on my first apartment, a sunny one-bedroom kitty-corner from Washington Park.
I was happy in Albany and rarely left it. I liked its protected horizons, its belligerent small-time politicians. And there was always a girl—some girl or another—and laughing, and making fun of tourists in the South Mall. These relationships were easy and promise-free. I had a talent for choosing women who were already temperamentally predisposed toward happiness and therefore wouldn’t use me as a catchall for their disappointments. In my free time, I worked erratically on my research (see page 15) and played soccer with a bunch of foreign transplants on a hill we borrowed from the College of Saint Rose. And the thing after that, I supposed, would be the thing after that.
I did not know the thing after that would be you.
You. The first time I saw you, you were strapping a splint onto a child who had just fallen out of a tree. About a dozen other children were standing in a loose circle watching you. By then the boy was screaming so loud that no one but you could get near him. It was my lunch hour, and the noise annoyed me, and so I stood to leave. But my gaze caught on you, and I paused. What caused this snag? What was it about you, or about the moment in which you came to my attention? Was it the way you continued to wrap the boy’s wrist so coolly, despite the fact that he was hysterical, kicking and screaming? It was August. Late, hot, rotten summer. I would later learn that you had been charged with leading twenty of Albany’s neglected children through the poison ivy since July. You looked in need of a shower. But my attention snagged on you. My mind cleaned you off and put you in a sundress and placed a glass of Chardonnay in your hand and turned your face to mine. So I stood up and walked toward you, offering my help, wondering if the feeling would last, wondering if I could string together two or three more moments of this rapturous attention that was commanding me. Who knows why, Laura? Who knows why so-and-so falls in love with you-know-who instead of what’s-his-name? Reams of poetry have languished in the guessing. I mean, I’m sorry for you, that I chose you. But I guess part of my motivation here, with this document, is to remind you that it wasn’t entirely a waste. Listen:
Were we compatible? I believe yes, we were, very compatible, for a while. Although you made a pretty brittle first impression, you turned into one big marshmallow as soon as you decided I was a decent guy. You couldn’t stop yourself. Soon you were bringing me books, loose tea, candied apricots. Your flirtations were sweet, a little fussy. It was as if you’d been sequestered from men your entire life and therefore could only seduce me as if I myself were a young girl.
Although you were the real American, I was by far more Americanish. I was more spontaneous. I was more relaxed. I was still, in many ways, Eric Kennedy of Camp Ossipee, a persona for which I’d been richly rewarded at Mune College, but who, as I climbed toward thirty, was in need of an update. With you, Eric Kennedy matured. You were four years his junior, but no one would have guessed. You were prompt. You were responsible. You were deliberate. You were health conscious. You often traveled with your own baggies of gorp. You were easily offended. There was a whole list of social issues over which you took quick offense (e.g., the lack of handicap accessibility in public buildings). The mere mention of such issues made your cheeks red. You were always ready for polite but tense debate. It was as if throughout the course of your life, you had been traumatized by chronic misunderstandings.
How quickly I dropped all other commitments, all other friendships, clubs, and interests. I had a sense of loving you, despite your youth, as if I were your student, and therefore whatever you did—however obscure, however specific—was, to me, the right thing. You had such a careful way with the truth. You wanted everything you said to be true on several different levels. It took you a long time to fill out simple forms in a doctor’s office, tapping the pen to your lips. Did you exercise daily or weekly? Well, you exercised several days a week but not daily. I leaned over your shoulder to help you scrutinize whatever bit of inconsequentia was capturing your attention. I was happy to study bar codes and ingredients and all genres of fine print with you. The grocery store, the DMV. In America, the opportunities to be accurate are endless. And nothing escaped your eye. Nothing, of course, except me.
Marriage. The clashing of expectations produces a new chord. We had a small civil ceremony. A honeymoon in Virginia Beach. And after these rituals, there was the renting of the apartment, and the rearranging of furniture, and then an idleness descended upon us, and we were like any newly married pair, nervously wondering, OK, what next? How should we go forward? For a while, there seemed to be someone missing—someone else, like a leader, or a chief. An urgently needed third party whose role it was to direct traffic between us, to negotiate conflicting plans, forge compromises, translate cultural or religious differences. Or were we really supposed to go it alone? Us? The bride—you—struggling to outstretch her parochial upbringing, born as she was to slightly ignorant but good-hearted Catholics from Delmar, New York. And the groom—me—raised in a (completely fictional) town on Cape Cod he called Twelve Hills, a “stone’s throw from Hyannis Port,” a treasured only child, endowed with a last name that could only be uttered in rapture.
For the record: The groom never told the bride that he was related to the Kennedys of presidential fame. This has been reported in the papers, and the groom categorically denies it. No, it was simply the word “Kennedy” plus the words “near Hyannis Port,” and everyone started rushing to conclusions. The groom will admit that once or twice late at night with his female peers at Mune College, he did not sufficiently debunk the rumor of himself as a second cousin twice removed to the Hyannis Port Kennedys. And he does not deny that the name often greased the gears of bureaucracy, making what would otherwise have been dull encounters with bank loan officers, traffic cops, etc., slightly charged, even when he denied any family connection.
The bride, however, never seemed much interested in the groom as a “Kennedy.” If the bride was impressed by the name, that day they met in Washington Park and all the days thereafter, she never talked about it. The bride was a serious and moral woman, not easily wowed. She was also a woman who acquired (by the way), in the period of years in which the groom loved her, an incredible, inflationary beauty, and the groom just wants to mention that here and to put it here in words in case either of them forgets it. The truth is, she stunned the groom whenever he saw her. I mean whenever he saw her. Just the simple fact of her. Whenever she came into one room from another room. For example, stepping out of the kitchenette in Pine Hills with a plate of scrambled eggs. The groom was in love with her. That was no lie. And when he was in love with her, a minute no longer seemed like the means to an hour. Rather, each minute was an end in itself, a stillness with vague circularity, a gently suggested territory in which to be alive. This trick that love did with minutes endowed hours and days with a kind of transcendent wishy-washiness that encouraged an utter lack of ambition in the groom and was the closest thing he had ever felt to true joy, to true relief, and he still wonders what would have happened if they could have kept up with it, if they could have stayed in love like that, if maybe they could have crawled through a wormhole to a place where their love could find permanence. Because in the end, the great warring forces of our existence are not life versus death (the groom has come to believe), but rather love versus time. In the majority, love does not survive time’s passage. But sometimes it does. It must, sometimes.
Anyway. Soon after his wedding, the groom became a real estate agent, but not by his own choice. It wasn’t a bad choice. It just wasn’t his. The bride’s father had started to bug the couple about the groom’s future plans. He suspected that the groom made little money as a medical translator and even less on his “independent research” (see page 49). The bride resented this intrusion on the part of her father. She did not think the groom needed to conventionalize his lifestyle. She liked the idea of him at home, deep in thought, and she liked finding him sitting in the same place she’d left him when she returned from her teacher training. In fact, the bride maintained that if the groom abandoned his research, he would be selling out. He would be selling out his dreams, which deserved a chance. In retrospect, it seems that the groom was an exemplar of the kind of suicidal integrity toward which the bride liked to encourage her middle schoolers.
So the bride told her father to back off. She told her father that the groom’s independent research would come together. The bride told her father that her groom was working very hard, that he might even be a visionary, a term that must have alarmed her father, visions sounding an awful lot like hallucinations.
Still, the man was her father. He remained concerned. Soon after the pair returned from their honeymoon, the father-in-law came over for a tête-à-tête. The groom remembers this interview very well. The father-in-law—let’s call him Hank, because that’s his name—sat across from the groom on their used sofa in Pine Hills, knees cracking arthritically, and the two of them spoke at length about the number of automotive accidents occurring on a low salt stretch of Hackett Boulevard, before they fell into an awkward and loaded silence.
“Eric,” Hank finally said. “I’m not sure how to say what I want to say, so instead I’m going to tell you a story.”
The story was about Hank as a young man of twenty. The story was about how, back in Troy, New York, when Hank first married his then-slender wife, he had been lectured by his own father-in-law in an apartment not unlike this one. In the story, Hank had to sit and listen to his father-in-law drone on about responsibility and the future and savings and the importance of being heavily insured, adding such stress into the mind of young Hank that he almost wanted to take the whole thing back, the whole marriage. He swore to God that he would never be like that. He would never pressure his own future son-in-law. Because a newly married man, Hank said, was like the captain of a rudderless ship. Out there, at sea, with no compass, no stars, no crew, no sight of land. But in the end—and this was the story’s moral—young Hank had followed his father-in-law’s instructions, albeit with a lot of resentment, and only after the old man passed away did Hank understand that he had been right about things, and that maybe he’d even loved Hank. Hank missed him sometimes, this unasked-for father, on certain bracing winter mornings.
The groom had listened, laughing gratefully, wincing with sympathy, his bride blending ice angrily in the kitchen, but all the while the groom kept thinking: What stress? What rudderless ship? The groom had never felt happier in his life. Never more carefree. In that modest hotel on Virginia Beach, both of them hilariously pale with northern winter, they had honeymooned for five days. Every night, they ate mounds of food garnished with pineapple, and every morning, they arrived at the beach early, when the tide was still out, and they placed their two chairs straight on the sandbars, which they called the cheap seats. Those honeymoon mornings seemed to be suggesting something to the groom. The suggestion was this: Be happy. Decide to be happy. If you want to be happy, be happy! No one cares if you’re happy or not, so why wait for permission? And did it really matter if you had been deeply unhappy in your past? Who but you remembered that? It was really one of the groom’s most standout moments, and it liberated him. After realizing that he could be happy, that he could thrive, it seemed to him that there was no one powerful enough to make him unhappy again, and thereafter his happiness would always belong to him, even if he lost everything else. His body braced, his heart roused, he finally got it—the American secret—that the only person who could obstruct a man was himself.
So there is no other reason for why he would continue his elaborate and ultimately disastrous deceit re: his bogus identity except that he was just firmly and sentimentally committed to it. His decision to be happy seemed only to invite him to rededicate himself to his made-up past. On the final morning of their honeymoon, he watched the children on the beach, and he watched his bride watch the children, and he thought, No, I will not tell you. I will never tell you. I’ll cut out my tongue first.
Then he pointed into the distance. “Hey, Laura,” he said. “Look over there, at that old lighthouse. There was one just like that outside of Twelve Hills. Total déjà vu. Huhn.”
The bride smiled. “Tell me about it.”
“About the lighthouse?” He lifted his sunglasses and smiled. “Well, you could climb all the way to the top of it. Up these old stone steps. No rail. All very spooky and dangerous. Once you got to the top, you could see for miles. And there were those viewfinders that open up when you put a quarter inside. You could see all the way to Boston. Tiny Boston. Tiny mother, waiting below in the shade. Huhn. It’s funny what you remember.”
The bride closed her eyes. “That’s beautiful, Eric,” she said. “You’re lucky. You’re lucky to have memories like that. What a sweet childhood.”
“It was,” the groom said. “I am.”
Her eyes widened. “We should go there sometime,” she said. “To your lighthouse on the Cape. Do you think it’s still open? Could we go? I want to see what you saw. I want to see where you grew up. Twelve Hills, and everything.”
The groom’s eyes lit up, he was so touched.
“Let’s!” he agreed.
Her smile was so loving, and the beach so breezy, his happiness so incontrovertible, that for a moment the groom believed that he actually would take the bride to the lighthouse, and that he actually had climbed it as a boy, and that there actually was such a place as Twelve Hills, and his mother really did stand waiting in the shade. Closing his eyes, he even saw distant Boston as if through two little portals of memory, sitting in petticoats of mist.
By the time the groom had returned from his daydream and back to his father-in-law on the sofa, the moment to make objections had passed. In fact, explicit plans had been laid for his future. Plans had been made, and the groom took no objection. Good. His father-in-law was nodding at him. Then I’ll have a talk with Chip Clebus, and he’ll show you the ropes. I’m glad we understand each other. By sheer coincidence, the men did understand each other. Apart from his research, and loving his wife, the groom had few ideas for how to organize his time on earth. And so within days he was sitting in a classroom with a bunch of other unfocused extroverts, preparing for his real estate certification by studying the contractual nuances of sale-leasebacks.
Turns out the groom had a talent for making money in real estate, and for the three or four years in which his larger dreams were totally and effectively repressed, the groom made a shiny pile of commissions. These commissions took the young couple through the birthing and infancy of their daughter, Meadow. The money bought the baby a cradle that swung via a mechanical arm, and it bought calendula oil for her bottom and pretty music and as many spins on the carousel as someone who would never remember any of it could wish for. And they were happy years. Seriously. If the groom could have wrung all the necks of his lies and eccentricities, he would have done it. There is no explaining—and it pains me to think he will never be believed now—how much the groom loved his life then. How grateful he was. Once, looking out over Poestenkill Gorge in winter, the baby asleep in her sling against her mother’s chest, he watched the new-fallen snow glitter at the base of the trees, and he watched the naked branches form an overlapping lace through which he could see down onto the church spires and chimney smoke of the valley, and he felt as if he’d been walking for a long time—years—and had finally arrived at his intended destination.
Oh, Laura. If I had lived my life as one man, one consolidated man, would I have been able to see what was coming? Would I have guessed that it was all bound to fail, and that within five years, we would separate? Would I have been able to prevent it—I mean that night when, your face streaked with tears, you asked me to get out? You’d had it with me. You’d felt for years—you’d explain this later—like you were living in a house with tilted floors. We’d gone wrong.
Pine Hills. We were in the kitchenette. You were facing away from me, leaning with both hands against the sink basin. We’d been arguing for some time. Arguing and washing dishes. Meadow was asleep. She was four by then, old enough to hear raised voices, and so we tried to keep disagreements strictly late night. What were we fighting about? You name it: your increasingly fervent Catholicism, my laziness, your need for order and structure, my lack of discipline, your martyred reticence, my tendency to talk too much. We had a mouse infestation. I’d caught one of the rodents and, without the heart to kill it, had given it to Meadow for a pet. As we argued, I watched this mouse tunnel in the infinite corner of its plastic box.
“Is this about school?” I was saying. “Fine. I’ll be better about school. I’ll get her there on time, and it’s a negative on the spontaneous field trips, OK? Effective immediately. I don’t love the school—you know all this, hon—the bloody Jesuses hanging all over the place. It’s just not my idea of a place for children. You know, ‘sweet childish days, as long as twenty are now’?”
You said nothing.
“But OK, OK,” I said. “I’ll be better. I’ll work on my attitude. You know, you told me you were Catholic when we got married, but I didn’t think you were serious.”
Finally, you turned around. I could see now you’d been crying. This astonished me. I’d been trying for a joke.
“Oh, Eric,” you said, crying. “We’re so far apart.”
My hands were still poised to dry the dish you’d been washing. Palms up, a damp cloth draped over one forearm.
One thing I’m sure of is that despite the late-night arguments, despite our differences, despite the way the light in our marriage had dimmed, even to my blind eyes, I never thought of leaving you. Not once. But there was a gap between how bad I thought things were and how bad you thought things were, and our life fell into that gap.
“We are?” I said.
We may no longer remember that until the mid-nineteenth century, children and their mothers were viewed as a man’s property. When marital strife led to that carnival we now call divorce, the child was whisked away to the father’s arms, leaving the mother sobbing in the street, without recourse. We have all read, or been told abridged versions of, Anna Karenina, yes? But it did not take long, you see, for the custody pendulum to swing in the other direction. By the late 1800s, a maternal preference in divorce cases was supported by the “tender years” doctrine. This doctrine held that children of “tender years”—that is, younger than eight—should be raised by their mothers. Therefore, men who wanted custody of their children appeared not only misled, but also slightly skeevy. But the issue of custody did not arise much, because divorce itself was fairly rare.
Well, time passed and for reasons I will not go into here, divorce lost its edge. Somewhere in the bowels of the 1970s and ’80s, some people started to see divorce as an act of empowerment, for stifled men and women alike. Marriage became the problem, and divorce, the solution. Soon, everybody wanted one. Divorces became much easier to obtain. They might as well have passed them out on street corners. You could get divorced on a boat, or on a train, or in a mall, or in a box with a fox.
Coterminously—and I’ll be done with this soon—those decades lent the field of divorce litigation some new and exciting ideas. For example, the no-fault divorce, in which a marriage was alleged to have malfunctioned somehow on its own, independent of its participants. And even though the concept of a divorce with no fault is oxymoronic, and a better term might have been fault-fault divorce, as a legal category, it caught fire. The upshot to no-fault divorces and my point at present is that they presumed neither maternal nor paternal preference in matters of custody. What’s more, when parents were encouraged to settle custody disputes prior to a hearing, via the quieter process of mediation, divorce lost its inherent staginess. Gone were the exciting, perjured testimonies of one family member against another. This enabled a legal preference (in twelve states) for the concept of joint custody.
You and I picked a hairy little folknik as our mediator, an MSW from Cornell who wore shorts and huaraches even in cold weather. You sat across from me at his table, your eyes downcast, your shyness on display, the lonely, bookish girl beneath your righteous exterior, as you struggled to defend your desire to deep-six our union.
Is it damaging to my case to say that I looked forward to seeing you at divorce mediation? I shaved, I aftershaved, I picked out shirts you had once bought for me. The mediator worked out of a cottage near the thruway. In the backyard he’d created a pleasure garden full of autumnal dahlias, and two chairs tilted hopefully toward one another on a slate patio. Our separation was still very fresh. I still didn’t understand why we were separating, and I’m fairly sure you didn’t either. We’d been living separately for a couple of weeks, and this apartness gave our meetings an air of courtship. I missed you, OK? Even though you had been granted temporary custody of Meadow, you always let her come to see me at my whim or hers. It felt like we were still on the same team. She would arrive to my new place in North Albany in the backseat of your father’s immense black Chevy Tahoe, looking rather glamorous through the tinted window. Your father’s friendliness contributed to my sense that the situation was, like the custody arrangement, temporary. If I handled it well, you would come to your senses.
If ever there was a man who deluded himself with dreams of reconciliation, I was that man. How much legal leverage I lost in the effort to win you back! I chronicled your talents as a mother, as well as the faithful way Meadow loved you back. When allegations were cast my way—that I was insensitive, that I had ignored numerous warning signs, that my behavior was occasionally “erratic” and my parenting style “unpredictable,” that my research interests were “esoteric” and finally just tedious and maybe even make-believe—I accepted these criticisms and heaped a couple of fresh ones atop the pile. You’re right, I said. You’re so right. I wanted to persuade you that I was flawed on purpose. Because if I was flawed on purpose, then I was just as capable of being perfect as I was of being flawed. I was in total control of who I was. I was capable of change.
You blushed and barely looked at me. I see now that you were embarrassed for me. You were embarrassed for me that I knew so little of the cold nature of the law. Only after I found myself the noncustodial parent did I realize my error, my wasted sacrifice.
In one of our final meetings, when I finally sensed the sour turn my fate had taken, the mediator assured me that if I had objections in the future—if I were to change my mind—I could do so within the court of law, during a hearing. In the meantime, it seemed to him that there was a lot of good in giving one parent sole physical custody and that this arrangement would still provide me with a bounty of visitation rights. For some children, especially young ones like Meadow (our hippie said), it was better to live in one home. My new place could be Meadow’s sleepaway home. An exciting change of scene.
With this parental “agreement” in place, thereafter you and I worked through the mail. Without the hit of seeing you, our correspondence took on a chill. The fact that I was getting screwed dawned on me slowly. The many visitations I was initially promised were scratched down to every other weekend. These impersonal negotiations unsettled me and began to absorb restless nights.
I took a stand and arbitrarily demanded that in addition to my weekends, I’d get Meadow every Wednesday. After this request was received, Meadow was curiously unable to make it over to my place for an entire two weeks. I called many times; no one answered. I visited our hippie; he was powerless. And then I returned to my new home—the water-damaged ranch I was renting off New Scotland Ave.—and sat paralyzed, listening to the sump pump labor away in the basement. It was the sort of week in which the clock’s ticking seems recriminatory (Look how you’ve been imprisoned by your unwillingness to kill yourself!). I drank, but that failed to bring about worldwide revolution. So I sat at my kitchen table to think, and I thought until my mind became raw from thinking, and for the first time in years I became aware of my essential conundrum. I was Eric Kennedy. I knew it, and I had decided it, and it was true. It had been true for too long. But whenever I ventured out into emotional and physical joint space—that is, society—my identity became predicated on some sort of collective agreement. In other words, I was Eric Kennedy only inasmuch as I could secure a consensus that I was. And suddenly I saw that achieving a total consensus, a unanimity, was a campaign for which my life was too short. For example, I had no legal recourse. I couldn’t get mixed up in a custody battle! It would be only a matter of days before someone went digging for old records, looking for someone who knew me in high school—hell, looking for Twelve Hills on the map. After all, I had written my life story at the tender age of fourteen. It wasn’t a very sophisticated one.
You may be surprised to hear that until then, I rarely worried about being found out. Maybe I didn’t worry about it because I am insane (as most people who’ve read about my case now assume). But I’ll tell you: I think that I didn’t worry about it because I had become Eric Kennedy so long ago and with such appreciation that I was, years later, truly and squarely him, more than I had ever been anyone else. More than most people are themselves. Because where other people are accidentally good or bad or upbeat or pessimistic, I got to shoot for a deliberate self, a considered, researched self. And that self was a good guy—I really thought so, and a lot of other people did too. And I assumed he would be granted the rewards and allowances given to good guys (e.g., Clebus & Co. Realtor of the Month, February 2007). But during that stretch of days, denied access to my daughter, sleepless, unshaven, dehydrated, the true flammability of my life became clear to me.
I saw that my love for Meadow would be the last thing to burn.
Just as I started to dream about throwing myself off a cliff in Thatcher Park, I received, in the mail, your act of kindness. You had granted me my Wednesdays.
Of course, there were limitations. I would be allowed only to pick her up from school (that Catholic academy we used to fight about), returning her to your home by six p.m. sharp. Net time of togetherness: three hours and twenty-three minutes.
Giddy, exhausted, I signed.
Our parental agreement floated through the courts of Albany to be stamped into officialdom.
Meadow arrived that very afternoon, bearing oatmeal cookies the two of you had made together. I can’t quite describe my happiness at seeing her step from her grandfather’s SUV. It was as good as all the best moments. As good as when I first held her as a newborn. As good as the moment I discovered she’d defaced all of my professional stationery with her newly mastered alphabet. I hugged her and let myself believe there were better times ahead. Times of healing and beginning again. She seemed happy to see me too. We ate the cookies in one sitting.
Restored to insanity, I once again harbored notions that you still loved me.
After that, well, I suppose I was my one remaining enemy.
Winter came. The first winter of our separation. There was a horrendous slowdown of real estate sales, the first baby step of what would become the Great Recession. I tried again to further my research. Instead, I ended up catching a virus that left me delirious in bed, clinging to your old body pillow. I watched Animal Planet on mute and tried to think of what the animals were really saying. I tried to remember the folk remedies of my primitive childhood. I tried to forget it was almost Christmas. It was at this juncture that I began having difficulty making child support payments.
The tender years.
No kidding they were tender.
What do I remember of my own tender years, long ago? The wheezing of the kettle. My mother and myself deep in parallel silence. The pleasure of a banana. The friendship of a dog. A song about Lenin’s forehead. Flurries of pollen in springtime, steam tents, a cream-colored Trabant that suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns, searchlights, salted caramels in wax paper, the unique humiliation of being dressed in a bow tie. That’s it. So little, and so much.
But let’s move along. You want to know how I arrived at what is universally regarded as my catastrophic decision regarding our daughter. There’s been some embarrassing and poorly researched news coverage, and I know that this is exactly the sort of easily misunderstood intrigue that could find its way into the tabloids or the lesser glossies, so I will hurry up and try to address several of the most common questions about my case.
#1. Were the actions of the accused premeditated?
In order to answer this question, I really have to start with a description of North Albany in February:
In North Albany in February, the flora and fauna are dead, the traffic turns the snow the color of tobacco juice, the children are shuttered away in their schools, and the long days are silent. The cats grow wet and skinny, and the rain grows hard and bitter, as if it is not rain but the liquid redistribution of collective conflict; it’s a frigid rain, a rain that pricks the skin of any upturned face, a damning rain that makes men eke corks from bottles. O February, you turn our hearts to stone.
Now, at every other time of year, Albany is a delightful city. With its magnificent state capitol, cribbed from some Parisian design, and its city hall based on that of our sister city, Ypres, Belgium, and the thirty-six marble pillars along the colonnade of the education building, Albany surprises the casual tourist. How, the tourist wonders, in the middle of upstate New York, did he stumble across this European metropolis? He walks out into the wide open of the Empire State Plaza and is awed by the scale, the towering buildings—even the one that resembles an immense egg—doubled in the reflecting pool, which is itself end to end the length of three football fields.
I took to walking this plaza in February, looking for a way out of my situation. I could not get a good critical angle on my life. Since our separation that fall, I’d hosted Meadow every other weekend at my ranch, and these visits seemed to be meeting expectations. Two days of puzzles, glitter, screaming, and contraband Hostess products. Two days of soaking up her prattle, of being her stooge in games of house or school. And Wednesdays were sweet, when we snatched them. But Meadow’s entrance into kindergarten was a passage into a new life for her as a distinct person, and occasionally I only sat ignored, watching her play with a friend we’d run into at Washington Park. Or worse, I’d receive news that preparations for a competing event meant there would be no Wednesday visit at all.
Besides, there was the underlying problem of days. Between every allotted weekend visitation sprawled the weeks themselves. Worm-eaten, heartsick, exaggerated days bookended by conciliatory Saturdays and Sundays in her presence. Then, every other weekend without her. Grief made those weekends drag. I sat like a teenage girl by the telephone hoping that some scheduling conflict would necessitate my services as a babysitter. As the cycle went on relentlessly, I found myself getting tired from it. Anticipating her arrivals, I would pace the marshy carpeting of my ranch for hours, but when she’d finally pull up in the back of her grandfather’s Tahoe, fatigue would hit me. I had exhausted myself waiting. In the end, the hardest thing about having once been screamingly happy is that after your life takes a turn for the worse, you wish you’d never known anything different. Watching her emerge from the car, I’d wonder if it was all worth it, worth these few days. Meadow herself wore the same optimistic smile she always wore walking up to my stoop. She would not have approved of my self-pity; no soul of a shop girl had she; she was always the best of the two of us, Laura. I knew that the moment she was born.
And yet you and I were still not divorced. You had not filed for divorce. I began to wonder why. Was it on religious grounds? Or did you want me to pull the trigger? Or were you genuinely considering coming back to me? I’ll never know. I rarely saw you. I rarely spoke to you. You were protected by your parents and your diplomatic child. You sent your father as emissary. He and I waved to one another through the window of his terrifying car. Polite to a fault, having borrowed some notion of chivalry, I tried to give you space. Time to think.
This patience was an act—my hardest, hands down.
March brought a spate of sunshine. I sold two houses. I began having sex with a fellow Realtor at Clebus, a woman you knew and never liked much.
When I told her you and I had separated, she seemed disappointed and instinctively took your side.
When I first walked into the law offices of Rick Thron, I did not look my best. I was in need of a haircut, and I was freezing cold. I’d left my winter coat behind while showing a house in Delmar and, inexplicably, never went back to get it. Thron’s office was on the upper floors of a building that overlooked Quackenbush Square, where, in the summertime, amphibious trolleys collected Albany’s tourists to carry them back and forth across the Hudson. But it was not yet spring. The world utterly lacked an upshot. March was almost over, but a late winter snowstorm had covered the streets of Albany with slush. My boots squeaked all the way down the hallway to Thron’s office door. When I entered the office, I was dulcified by the pretty secretary, who must have been installed precisely for men like me, desperate men, men who had come at last (too late, way too late) for help.
“Here’s what I hear you saying,” said Thron after listening to my sad tale. “I hear you saying that you love your daughter. I hear you saying that you were a coequal parent, if not a genuine Mr. Mom, before the separation. I mean you were, in fact, a stay-at-home dad for a year—the primary caretaker—when your daughter was three. Am I hearing that correctly?”
“Yes, you are,” I said.
“And I hear you saying that in a gesture of goodwill toward your estranged wife, you got your nuts crunched in mediation, and now you’re left with this sense that—the sense that you feel—”
“Spiritually squandered,” I said. “Without meaning. Void.”
“Bad,” said Thron. “You feel really bad. Your feeling bad is made more bad by the sense that you—out of the goodness of your heart—forfeited your paternal rights—out of—of—”
“Love,” I said.
“Love.” Thron sat back. “Right.”
“I still love my wife,” I said. “My estranged wife.”
Thron, a broad-shouldered man whose generic office lacked a single plant or photograph, made an axing motion with his arm. “Forget. About. That. Your estranged wife does not love you. Someone who is trying to estrange you from her and from your child does not love you. Don’t be like the battered wife, Eric, stabbed fifty-seven times by her own husband. How does a person hang around long enough to get stabbed fifty-seven times by somebody? Because they’re still waiting around for love. Don’t get distracted, Eric. Don’t let your estranged wife stab you fifty-seven times. She stabs you once, that’s it. You stab right back.”
“OK,” I said.
“Do you know, Eric, that spouses who initiate divorce often think of the divorce as a ‘growth experience’? They even show better immune function. But you—the spouse who stuck around, the loyal one, the one who meant his vows—what do you get? You get left holding the bag. Your divorce could make you sick.”
“It has!” I cried. “I’ve had bronchitis for months.”
“If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times, Eric. You should have come to see me a long time ago.” Pertly, Thron stacked some papers. “Now, who filed the petition?”
“The petition for divorce.”
“We haven’t filed. It’s—we’re separated. It’s a trial separation.”
“Then we’re filing today.” Thron licked his thumb and peeled a form off a thick pad. “We’re going to file today, so we can start litigation. You can’t litigate with no divorce. Otherwise, it’s just a friendly disagreement. And you tried that already, right? You need to sue.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“You can. File first, Eric. Be the plaintiff. Don’t be the defendant. Don’t spend your life counterpunching.”
“I need a day,” I said.
“One day. One day. Tomorrow you come in and file. Then ASAP we’ll also file a petition in family court for a modification of the custody agreement. If your estranged wife does not agree to it, bam—we go to court.”
“OK,” I said.
“We’re also going to hire—granted, at some expense—a topflight, independent child custody evaluator. This individual will observe you alone, and also you with your daughter—you know, playing checkers, sharing a soda—and he or she will write what I’m sure will be an A-plus report on your skills as a father. This report will be on file to aid the judge’s decision should we go to trial. OK?”
“Because you know what, Eric? You are a good father.”
“I can tell you are a good father. I can see it in your eyes.”
They could not help it; those eyes filled with tears. My heart let its ragged doves to the sky. I hadn’t realized how much I’d wanted someone to say just that to me. You are a good father. I was sweating everywhere, my underarms, my forehead, my back, secretions that seemed born of relief.
At the same time, a different voice inside me said, Don’t. Don’t do this. Trottel. Idiot. Don’t you know a thing?
“Now, Eric,” said Thron. “Let’s go over some basic information. Let’s start with your date of birth.”
“March 12, 1970.”
“Place of birth?”
I looked out Thron’s window. The clouds were easing down the Hudson, as they often did in the afternoons, leaving the sun canting down into the valley in shattered-looking rays.
I came very close to telling Thron the truth in that moment. I am not who I say I am, I almost said. When I was five, I crossed the East German border holding nothing but my father’s hand (I almost said). I spent my shitty adolescence in an immigrants’ ghetto in Dorchester, Mass. And that’s just the beginning (I almost said).
Out Thron’s window, between the buildings on Quackenbush, I stared at the Hudson. How pitiable is a river. Nothing belongs to it, neither its water nor its sediment. This will never be over, I reminded myself. You created it to have no end.
“I was born,” I began, “in Twelve Hills, Massachusetts, not far from Hyannis Port.”
“Sounds nice,” said Thron, taking notes. “A small town?”
“And you lived in town?”
“Right in the middle of town,” I said. “Our house was a modest saltbox. Sixteen hundred square feet, not counting the finished basement. We weren’t rich, although both of my parents came from money. My paternal grandparents lost their entire fortune when they were betrayed by a trusted business partner in the late fifties. They moved into the Cape house, and my father grew up there. And I grew up there. The property itself was a gem. Oceanfront. Landscaped with beach heather, wild roses—”
“Fine,” said Thron. “And your parents? Alive or deceased?”
“My mother passed away when I was nine. She’s buried right there in the village cemetery. My father, an entrepreneur, now lives overseas. I rarely see him.”
Thron squinted at the page, and his eyes took on a greasy iridescence. “Hey. You’re not related to the Kennedy Kennedys. Are you?”
I smiled, shrugging.
“The connection,” I said, “is distant.”
I had been bullied in Dorchester. Habitually. The black kids were decent to me on the whole, if only by turning away from my vulnerable stare as if I wasn’t even present, but the Irish American princes who looked like me and lived, like me, in sagging three-story tenements were looking for a fall guy. They tricked me, shoved me, and suckered me, while never being so cruel that I could easily recognize any one of them as the enemy. They made fun of my German accent long after I could have sworn that I no longer had one. On one occasion, a boy no bigger or stronger than me confronted me in the concrete drainage ditch we used as a shortcut home from school. I had never considered this boy an enemy. In fact, we often compared homework on the school steps in the morning—and so I was surprised when he put up his fists and began hopping from one foot to the other.
“Come on, Schroder,” he said anxiously.
I was confused. “Come on and what?”
“Come on and fight. Fight!”
“Because! That’s why!”
I could have fought him. I probably would’ve won. I knew that a victory would bring some relief from the teasing and unchecked xenophobia that surrounded me every day. But I didn’t fight him. I had been taught only to escape. I spied a swinging gate in someone’s chain-link fence and I ran through it and slammed the gate back toward my pursuer.
I ran. I ran for a long, long time. I ran in a hysterical pattern that was random enough to lose anybody sane. Tearing my way through the weeds and broken tricycles and dirt yards of Dorchester, I didn’t even turn around to see if the boy was still behind me. I ran crazily, crisscrossedly, as some sort of artistic expression, now that I look back at it, of what it felt like to be me.
Later that evening, against my will, I began to cry in front of my father. I was ashamed. I told my father what had happened, that a boy had tried to fight me, but that I had not stood and fought him, but instead I’d run away.
My father put down his fork and looked thoughtful. I stared at his beard, cranberry red at its thickest, and hoped that whatever he’d say would relieve me. He was a man of very few words, and the longer we lived in Boston, the fewer of them there seemed to be. After a moment, he picked up his fork.
“Natürlich hast Du nicht gekämpft,” he said. “Es ist nicht natürlich, zu kämpfen. In Wahrheit ist es natürlich, wegzulaufen.”
I will not rehash here the series of contortions, gambits, and hurt surprises that took our custody battle onward to its next, more acute stage. Of course, any shred of hope for marital reconciliation was lost as soon as I enlisted Thron’s services, but I guess I expected that. And although my time with Thron would turn out to be short, for several months that spring he was something of a friend, and I trusted him. So when he proposed we go ahead with the child custody evaluation, I agreed. I would have several long, probing conversations with the evaluator, in the privacy of his or her own office, but first I would meet him or her in public, with Meadow, during a regular visitation.
I picked my site—the playground at Washington Park. This was the playground on which Meadow had virtually grown up. When she was a tot, she had feasted on its wood chips, and when she was old enough to grip the handlebars, she had sagged back and forth on the metal spring horses. In recent years she had learned to kite on the adjacent hill. Whenever I wanted to spoil her, I’d buy her some huge, delta-winged kite made out of brightly colored ripstop, and we’d wait for a good day to try it out. So I pictured us there on our hillside, tethered to the broad blue belly of the sky via one taut string, looking favored, looking somehow worthy of endorsement.
The first stumbling block came with the news that Thron’s pick for our evaluator had been nixed, and soon we were forced to accept a last-minute substitution of a different expert by The Opposition. Also, there was no wind. Awaiting our rendezvous, Meadow and I tried to force the kite into the sky. Several attempts left it flightless in the grass. We tried again, and a rogue gust tacked the kite sharply sideways, where it looped itself around the low branch of a large beech tree. This augured poorly. And I—maybe I was making Meadow nervous?—because the whole goddamned thing was making me nervous, but still—I proposed we rescue the kite. I figured Meadow could easily reach it if she stood on my shoulders.
Usually, it’s easy to get Meadow excited about things like that. All you have to do is add a dash of intrigue, a little pretending, in which our small task becomes a principled affair. (If we don’t retrieve the kite, the Stalinist zealots will swarm the city by nightfall!) But that day, I couldn’t get Meadow to play along. She seemed put out, suspicious of me. I could tell she’d been talking about me with her mother. I didn’t really blame them. I think I speak for a lot of divorcing parents here when I say that there’s so much bad shit coming at you during a divorce that a child’s emotional distress takes its place in a whole constellation of problems, and these problems are so numerous that one starts to pin one’s hopes on a legal resolution as some kind of final, almost atomic solution, something obliterative, and until then, well, it’s almost a personnel problem; you don’t have the staff; there aren’t enough yous.
“What’s the matter, Butterscotch?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess I’m just not feeling partyish.”
“Well, you don’t have to feel partyish. But if nothing’s wrong, maybe could you put a little pep in your step? A little zip in your skip? You look like someone just killed your puppy.”
“I don’t have a puppy.”
“Exactly. Come on. Crack a smile. Please? For me?”
She wandered across the old playground, making a halfhearted sally across the monkey bars. She wore an old purple jumper and white stockings, dingy at the knees. Her hair was lank and flat, slipping out of her headband. Here was one of many moments in which I might have walked away, called the whole thing off, gotten used to being powerless, learned to be patient and conciliatory, and spared us all of what was to follow.
But a car door slammed nearby, and here she came—our potential savior.
I had never seen anyone who looked quite like her. The woman’s face was as round and white as a potato, but her hair was black and coarse. Across her puffy cheeks was a spray of pigmentation, dots too big to be freckles. On each wrist she wore a black splint. She walked from her beat-up Toyota with a slightly neuralgic gait. Although she was one of the homeliest women I’d ever met, I remember thinking, Good. Here is a woman who can sympathize with me. Why else had she entered the field of psychology, but because of her own rich ache?
“Thank you so much for coming,” I said, shaking only the fingers of her hand. “Your expertise means so much to me and Meadow. We just want to resolve this dispute and get our lives back to normal. We’ve been kiting—” I gestured to the snagged object in the beech tree. “Too bad you missed it. Meadow is an excellent kiter. She has excellent motor skills for a child her age. Please…” I gestured toward a picnic table on which I’d set up some supporting materials. “I’ve got some things to show you.”
The evaluator, a Ms. Sonja Vang, followed me. I whistled for Meadow. She peered around the tree and pleadingly shook her head no.
Please? I mouthed.
I turned to Ms. Vang, who was gazing at me evenly, and said, “Meadow can be shy at first. She’ll come around.”
The woman shrugged and rested her splints against the edge of the picnic table.
“To me,” I began, “fatherhood is no onus. It’s not a burden. Some men, I know, take a kind of martyred pleasure in feeling trapped by the family? They like to believe—and this is just my armchair analysis—that were they not trapped by the family, they would be, what, disabling bombs somewhere, breaking a world record, what have you. This belief enables them to a) come up with an explanation for their lack of personal success and b) get out of the more tedious aspects of child rearing—you know what I mean, the bottom wiping, the shushing, the nagging, in general, the relentless being aware of the child—by suggesting that they have been dragooned into the role, away from a higher purpose. Do you know what I mean?”
I smiled, waiting for encouragement. Sonja Vang made no movement except to adjust her bottom against the picnic bench. She was panting slightly. I had my first flash of doubt. Had The Opposition planted a mole?
“From the moment Meadow was born,” I continued, “I was involved with her care. Not because I thought I should be. It was because I wanted to be. When the recession hit, I spent a year at home with her, as her primary caretaker—a stay-at-home dad—which in any court of law would qualify me for custody, though I don’t have to tell you that, right? And so—right—it was my close attention during that year which yielded what I have come to see as a unique understanding of her needs, and the way her mind works. Children aren’t mysteries. We don’t have to teach them sign language, like gorillas. No. We only have to pay attention to what they’re already saying. Do you know what I mean?” I checked to see if Ms. Vang knew what I meant; she was rubbing her eyes with the back of her splint. Helplessly, I continued, “Fathers don’t have to be ‘like mothers.’ Men aren’t soft. Men don’t smell good. You know, floral. But a good father can take a kind of abstract, human interest in the child that a mother is incapable of taking. A good father can help a child develop her aptitudes vis-à-vis a broader social backdrop. I have located a study”—and here I pushed forward several pages, printed off the Internet—“that has proved that children of both genders show better psychological health when living with the father as the custodial parent, due to—well, you can read it yourself.”
The woman removed a case from her battered handbag and withdrew reading glasses. She peered down at the report.
“Your splints,” I said, finally unable to bear her silence. “Did you fall?”
She did not look up. “Repeated stress.”
I pushed forth my next bit of evidence. “Now, I’m just plain old bragging here, but I wanted to show you this piece of paper. Given to me when Meadow was three. The results of an IQ test, done over at the medical center, by old colleagues of mine, on a lark.”
A shadow of irritation crossed the woman’s face. I had the sense I should wrap it up.
“This material is significant only in that I feel, as a scholar myself—and I won’t bore you with the details of my own research here—I feel more than ever required as Meadow’s father. This gifted child needs two parents to—jointly, and with all the resources they can muster—lead her through—”
“Excuse me,” Ms. Vang said. “Where is the child?”
I blinked back at her. “Meadow? She’s here somewhere.”
“Because I’m here to observe the two of you. Together. You know, playing and stuff. Being together.”
“I’m not a jury, Mr. Kennedy.”
“No, no you aren’t.”
“And I’m not innerested in theories about parenthood.”
“No, of course not.”
I turned and scanned the playground desperately for Meadow.
“And with the divorce rate in the United States at about fifty percent,” she continued, picking up steam, “higher than any industrialized nation, I do brisk business. And mostly what I see in these custody battles are people who think too much. People who could easily sort out their differences if they weren’t so full of ideas. People who’d rather be right than happy.”
I stood, panicking now, the woman close at my side. Meadow was nowhere to be seen. She was not on the play structure, the rock climber, the swings. A stampede of young men with their shirts off blew through the playground, the Saint Rose cross-country team.
“This is awful,” I said, walking briskly downhill toward the water fountain, where I was sure I’d find Meadow petting the dogs. “Sorry to make you walk so much.”
Unsurprisingly, Ms. Vang withheld reassurance.
“Meadow is always wandering off. Just ask her mother. She’s always petting someone’s dog. Admiring someone’s bicycle.”
“Should watch out,” grumbled the woman, loping beside me. “What I’ve seen done to children would give you nightmares.”
“So how did you get into the business?” I asked.
“I started out in law enforcement.”
“And then I was managing my father’s seafood business, but then he died.”
Excerpted from Schroder by Amity Gaige Copyright © 2013 by Amity Gaige. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 9, 2013
Beautifully written. Although the story seems improbable, I believed it, I felt it, I loved it.
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Posted March 8, 2013
I "enjoyed" reading this story. It delves deeply into divorce and the failure of a marriage. The emotions are familiar and although circumstances may differ, the feelings will resonate with anyone who has gone through divorce and the resultant loss of home and family. Assigning blame is irrelevant, the horror is the same. Schroder's reaction is understandable.
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Posted February 21, 2013
Posted January 6, 2014
I greatly enjoyed reading this book with the exception if the very last chapter. I found the parts about the main character's ability to change his identity so easily a challenge to believe - especially considering he had a job, paid taxes, got married, and had a child....all under a fake name. I did enjoy the way it was written - the words flowed so nicely.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 8, 2013
Fabulous writing. Great story. But is there anything worse than investing time and emotional energy reading a book only to get to the end and have it just leave you hanging? What happened to Schroder?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 17, 2013
I waited to read this book, i wished i never purchased it - i kept on reading thinking this has to get better it never did- what a joke this book is! Do not waste your time
Posted March 19, 2013
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Posted May 9, 2013
No text was provided for this review.