Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Divorce
All the names have been changed to ensure some relative anonymity.
I was married, briefly - six years - to a nice mama’s boy from Arizona named Clem who was terribly attached to his family in the Southwest. His mother, Annette was a frightening matriarch — an ex-stewardess (a breed of human I find to be made of molten, unspeakable evil — any woman who has had to consent to a weigh-in before being allowed to serve drinks to businessmen harbors a special kind of hatred for women who haven’t) on her third marriage to Andy, a man only a couple years older than my husband. Andy, a temperamental software engineer, was heavily scarred all over his bald round head due to his having been in a terrible car accident that was fatal for the other driver. He had invented some type of software — some office networking solution — which was selling like gangbusters; Annette had been installed as the company CEO. She wore bright red power suits with her white hair in a Caesar-style haircut and big gold jewelry. They were enjoying the fruits of having a successful product together, getting profiles in their local paper, and liked to throw their weight around.
Clem’s sister Laura was a sweet Christian woman with three lovely blonde kids: Missy, an aspiring pop singer, age 12; Trent, a very shy, serious little sportsman at age 10; and Davy, age 6, who I took an immediate liking to because he was game and rambunctious and would do strange little dances when excited.
When we went to Arizona for the first time for Christmas, I felt I really needed to take the bull by the horns, since Clem was the children’s favorite uncle, and force the children to love me by writing a script for an elaborate Christmas movie that they would all be compelled to star in.
The first film, with a plot I lifted from John Wayne’s “The Searchers,” involved “Karate Davy” coming home from the Civil War, only to find that his sister (Missy) had been abducted by the Comanche. It was amusing, making the kids all do Southern accents and have coffee-ground beard-stubble and behave in various states of pioneer-style drunkenness. Davy’s big climax came when confronted with the Comanche chief (played by Clem, bedecked in a construction paper war headdress) and he screamed “I can no longer control my karate!” He flew into a spastic tornado of karate chops and kicks attacking Clem’s knees, all the while screaming comic-book inspired fight words like “Ying!” And “Yatcho!” — which he beautifully improvised.
Making a film was to become our annual Arizona Christmas ritual.
The next Christmas, we tried for something a little more upscale - a period piece that took place in Tzarist Russia called “Consumption,” which took place in the tuberculosis ward of a private sanitarium run by a deranged general (Davy) who used to subject the wheezing, blood-coughing inmates to unspeakable horror by letting wild animals loose in their medical building and shooting them for sport. (We achieved this through the use of string, stuffed animals, and a long hallway.) My favorite scene was when the entire family, dressed in long white nightgowns and white stocking hats, were despairing.
“We shall all die!” Davy lamented.
“We shall all die on Christmas!” Andy wept, before succumbing to emotional hysterics, which prompted Missy, a beacon of Christian hope, to slap him across the room. It was, in my opinion, the best moment of the entire holiday, and I liked playing that part over and over again.
One year was devoted to making an infomercial for a product called “The Flogger,” a length of garden hose which the children would enthusiastically beat themselves across the back with for self-motivation. “It’s a great tool for seniors,” Davy announced.
All hell broke loose the year we were to do the most ambitious project yet — an action film devised by Davy called “Shades,” which featured Missy as a down-on-her-luck B-girl, singing rude lyrics (penned by me) to an old instrumental number called “Shall We Gather At The Boat Dock” by an orchestra leader named Dean Randazzo. Shades, played by Davy, was a hard-nosed private detective, bringing down a Las Vegas crime ring. Missy hated the lyrics I wrote for her, because she had become part of the congregation of a local evangelist church, and one of the words in the song was “bitch.” On some weeknight evening, we all had to go to a church ceremony and witness her singing some country/pop number with the church synth player. As she sang, an unctuously conservative tear-jerker invoking America, Dad and Jesus, I realized that Missy would never love me, and probably regarded me as some kind of frightful object-lesson about what would happen to you if you blithely strode down the wrong path in life.
Andy, in his infinite software engineer wisdom, decided to inject his own “creativity” into the Shades project. Up to this point, the movies had all been edited by me inside the camera, by filming each scene chronologically — that way, we were all able to view the complete movie on Christmas Day. He had a new toy — some Adobe editing software, which he assured us would make assembling the film a breeze. So we shot for a few days —there was some great stuff shot from the inside of a car trunk — and I excitedly turned all the raw footage over to Andy, so he could work his computer magic.
The night of December 23, Andy announced that there would be no Christmas movie. It was too much, he was overwhelmed, and he had no idea what his fat stupid fingers were doing with the editing software. I tried to reason with him. The film, I argued, was all-important — the essence of Christmas, as it were. It would be an insupportable loss for the children if we didn’t have a cut of the film in time for Jesus and Santa Claus. He showed me his efforts — what he had been doing to my dailies — and it was truly dismal. Instead of understanding anything about timing or drama, he had been seeking out visual cues to blend each shot from the last, resulting in an impossibly slow, dramatically turgid first scene. When I pointed this out, Andy did something unimaginable: he backed up, and kicked me in the ass as hard as he could, with his horrible brown leather softwear-engineer geek shoes.
I was just agog.
“Kicking me in the ass is not going to solve your problems, Andy,” I said before leaving the room and barricading myself in the back spare bedroom that I had been sharing with my husband.
I dissolved into tears. There was a brief commotion as my husband and his cousin Hadley debriefed me and attempted to understand the situation.
“He physically assaulted you,” said cousin Hadley, a handsome woman and general ally, who knew that Andy was a loose cannon.
Clem went to “talk” to Andy —but not much on the level of the Charles Bronson revenge that I wanted happened there, because after a few minutes, I could hear Andy and Annette laughing uproariously in their bedroom through the hollow stucco walls.
I didn’t know what to think or do, so I found a flight to California online and resolved to book it out of Arizona before I ever had to deal with Andy again. He wrote me an apologetic note on a single post-it with a happy face scrawled on it, and left it on the guest bathroom mirror, but somehow this wasn’t sufficient to earn back my trust.
On Christmas Eve morning, I found myself alone at an airport in Scottsdale. My husband would fly to California and join me in a few days, but I was in a deep funk. The Arizona family had never really liked me, I reasoned, and now that I was making damned sure I was never going to be in the same room with Andy again….it all spelled certain doom for my marriage. It seemed to me that everyone in that family had been dreaming of kicking my ass for a long time.
I called my writing partner, with whom I had been struggling over a screenplay for the last year.
“That is one of the most pathetic things I have ever heard,” he said, when I told him where I was, and why.
I hung up and cried by myself for a while before boarding the plane.
The divorce happened a short time later. It was sort of a no-brainer after the ass-kicking - it really only took one terrible trip to Sicily to seal the deal. It was a fairly amicable split, as far as these things go.
But there is still a VHS tape somewhere in a drawer in Arizona, in which Missy slaps Andy’s fat stupid face and he flies across the room. That will never stop being funny to me.
And as soon as my cousins were old enough to read, I started making movies with them.
Artwork: “Julie,” oil on canvas by Cintra Wilson