Part 4 of “Wreckage, Wonder & Ways Through the Impossible: Writing Life’s Hard Stuff.”
The Divorce Girl is the book I started writing in my mind when I was a teenager, narrating events that were so entirely crazy that only through telling myself the story could I have enough distance to see the events as short, although insane, episodes in what would become my long life. I started writing the novel itself over 16 years ago, taking the framework of what I had lived — two parents who barricaded themselves in separate parts of the house during a year of domestic warfare, followed by a year of finding myself in the role of daughter-wife when I lived with just my father, followed by our middle-class Jewish family merging with a working class Catholic family — and then inserting all new characters.
Here is an excerpt with my main character, teenager Deborah Shapiro, who negotiates the world through her camera, running into her mother in the kitchen in the middle of her parents’ divorce:
“I know why your dad goes there,” Mom began one afternoon. She’d cornered me as I was reaching into the refrigerator, trying to dislodge a pudding cup from behind a casserole. “That tall blonde waitress, the one with no bust. You know who I mean.”
I stood up and turned to find her staring at me earnestly, dressed in her white tennis outfit. How could I tell her she had it all wrong? I saw my camera lying on the counter and picked it up. It was an Olympus Dad got me from some sidewalk vendor in the city, or at least it looked like an Olympus.
“Oh, not that again,” Mom said.
“But you look good in that tennis outfit,” I told her, adjusting the F-stop.
She sighed. I thought she’d complain about how Dad should wait until he moved out of the house, how it wasn’t fair that he went out at night while she was home crying, worrying about the live baby and the ghost of a dead baby. But she didn’t. She just stood there, her hands on her hips, staring at me as I snapped a few pictures, the cacophony of the shutter quickly unfurling.
Dropping the screen that often made her seem too distant and unfamiliar to be my mother, she took my wrist between her thumb and fingers and looked into my eyes. “I want you home with me each night. Home,” she said.
I had never seen her cry before. She came up behind me now and put her freckled arms around my bony body, her voice shaking. “I don’t want this to hurt you, not to hurt you.”
I froze, wishing this scene were just another photograph. She never touched me, not with Roger still climbing in her lap and the baby always screaming from her playpen until Mom picked her up. I tried to remember the last time she told me she loved me, but it was too far back – before we moved to Jersey, before Joshua and before he died. I wanted to push her away and run, and at the same time I wanted to melt into her.
“You’re my girl,” she whispered, and something in me softened. I let her hold me tight, but I still didn’t lift my arms.
I lifted my hand now and placed it mechanically on her arm, part of me wanting her to hold me, part of me wanting her to let go.
Having spent so many years on this book, it’s an immense gift to see it out, in my hands right now. Each reading, I feel my heart lift up, like a small boat riding a new wave across the lake. Having excavated the toxins out of my life through decades of writing, years of therapy, and opening my spirit to the vibrancy of this living earth and living communities, I have come home to who I am in The Divorce Girl. Toward the end of this novel, Deborah explains this return better than I could:
Amidst the stars, suspended as if we were sailing through them, hung the moon in its old circle of cloud. I had watched this same moon as a child as it hovered steadily, the light around it a ring of pink fading into blue. Maybe I had seen this very scene all my life, yet it was what made me pick up my camera again and again. But now, for the first time, I was in the scene. And no matter how far I flew, the moon remained the same distance away, like a god who actually loves us from afar, or like love made visible – a darkness that the light shines on, a darkness ringed with color.