DIVORCED FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS ALL-STARS
By Jesse Fink
Nineteen seventy-nine was UNESCO’s International Year of the Child. I remember it for its exquisite irony because it was the year my parents, Sal and Alby, decided to break up our family.
The five of us – me, Mum, Dad, my younger sister Tammy and younger adopted brother Toshi, an orphan who’d got out of Saigon on one of the last ‘Operation Babylift’ rescue missions during the Vietnam War – were living the idyllic Australian coastal life in an old house on the hill overlooking Balmoral Beach, one of Sydney’s most beautiful suburbs.
As a six-year-old, though, I spent a good part of that year getting caned by teachers for wanting to run home and be with my mother and father to stop them breaking up. One of the few photographs I have of them together, a Polaroid, was taken right after I’d separated them during a fight. Asleep upstairs, I’d been woken after midnight by the yelling and screaming and came down to the living room in my pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. They did their best to smile for the camera, their arms warily around each other. By taking the photo, I thought I was magically saving my family.
It was futile, of course.
My father wasn’t getting what he needed physically from the marriage and had a string of discreet affairs. It was his way, he told me decades later, of not going spare while managing to stay with the woman he loved, my mother. But it got messy. After discovering his infidelity, Sal found the understanding and intimacy she hadn’t got from my father with one of his friends.
While putting up a TV aerial on the roof one day, Alby had an epiphany that he wanted to save what they had and give up on the other women. But the relationship by then was totally fractured. Sal told him she needed time for herself. She went to Bali on her own and stayed in rat-infested guesthouses. When she got back to Australia they tried to make it work, but it was over between them. She asked him to leave. Her friends, just as my wife Lara’s friends would three decades later, encouraged her to go through with the separation.
My father ran off to Auxerre in France with a side trip to the Far East and worked on a barge, later hiding away in the Balearic Islands of Spain, writing me postcards and letters, asking after Sal. ‘Hope soccer and scouts are OK,’ he wrote on one postcard from Japan. ‘Love to Mummy. Your bud, Dad.’ He even wrote a 24-page book of poems that he self-published and dedicated to my mother. A little book of verse spilling over with sadness, homesickness and yearning. It wouldn’t break her resolve, even when out of sheer desperation he got me to ask her to come back. She got the divorce. A couple of years later my father met an attractive younger woman, Penny, and they remain married to this day.
My mother, by contrast, would largely give up on men. In her 40s she fell in love with a nudist carpenter from a hippie hamlet up north (he’d been introduced to me in my early teens wearing nothing but a nail bag), had a third son and went on to have her heart broken again when the nudist ended the relationship. She was 59 when I split from Lara. My father was 61.
By now you’d think Sal and Alby might have buried the hatchet, kicking back together on a garden seat on a summer afternoon, long drinks in hand, reminiscing about the good times before their own rupture and watching their grandkids gambol about on the lawn like bear cubs in a summer meadow. But for the most part they still act like it’s 1979.
I’d been putting up with this cold war between my parents for longer than I cared to remember and without doubt it had dramatically affected my personality, my own view of relationships and the loyalty I felt to both of them. I tend to take Dad’s side in arguments. My sister, Tammy, usually takes Mum’s.
I never wanted this kind of thing to happen to Lara and me. Which was why I’d only married her totally convinced that I could never want another woman and we’d never break up. At our wedding, a picnic for friends and family in the beautiful grounds of an art college with a string quartet playing Led Zeppelin, we’d even stood before a reverend of the Uniting Church and listened to a long but utterly compelling speech about the true test of marriage being how you get through those times when you can barely stand to look at each other. Love wasn’t just about happiness, passion and companionship; it was about trial and perseverance.
Yet all around me, at every bar I propped my elbows on, in every row of seats I sat on at the soccer, on every beach I jogged up and down trying to pass the minutes, hours and days when I was without my daughter Evie as a divorced father, I’d come across lost and lonely men just like me who’d had similar hopes of the permanence of love and made the decision to get married but were now picking up the pieces of their shattered lives, wondering how they could have got it so wrong.
They were easy to recognise. The guy with the laptop in the crowded pub. The guy eating Japanese alone. The guy with the paunch and the dreadful gait trying to get fit in the park. The guy lifting weights that were far too big for him in the gym. The guy with the son wearing school shoes on a weekend because his ex had forgotten to send over in his schoolbag the pair of new sneakers he’d bought for his son to wear. I met one man late on a summer’s afternoon on Sydney’s Tamarama Beach who confided while our two daughters played in the surf that he’d just gone to his ex-wife’s wedding. She’d left him not long before, married a man as old as her father and now lived in a mansion. He was living in a rented room. He said he was happy for her but I could sense he was just trying to put on a brave front. I wanted to hug him. Instead we just stood there, as so many men do in these situations, folding our arms and keeping a safe distance, united by wretchedness while watching the last light of a summer’s day evaporate over the Tasman Sea.
Why is there this epidemic of heartbreak when finding true love is supposed to be easier than ever because of technology? Simply because getting out of relationships is also easier than ever because of technology.
The online and mobile worlds and the ease with which they facilitate hook-ups between people who would otherwise never have met in ‘real life’ means the rules of relationships have changed. The rules of dating have changed. Women have become more like men. Men, already by their very nature incorrigible sexual opportunists, have become worse. Few men can really be bothered with old-fashioned courting when it’s so easy to bed a different girl every night of the week. And not just in their suburb or city, but around the country, around the world.
Technology allows liaisons to be more secretive. Online dating, chat rooms, social-networking sites and apps such as Tinder encourage curiosity, flirtation and infidelity. The web has become one vast treasure hunt for the perfect mate.
Before the internet, taking a picture of an erect cock or set of tits and getting it delivered to the desired recipient took some doing. Now it can be done instantly to anywhere on the planet. Porn and raunch culture have upended ideas about what is considered standard in the bedroom and set higher benchmarks for sexual performance and physical appearance. So many couples exist in a state of perpetual anxiety. Is the life they have made together actually good enough? Is their partner someone they really want to fuck for the rest of their lives? Can they do better? In this new connected world, sure they can. Or they’re fooling themselves into thinking they can. We’re living in the age of distraction, where inexhaustible options haven’t delivered us serenity. Rather discontent, dissatisfaction. Technology is having a massive impact on traditional relationships. They’ve effectively suffered the fate of porn movies: been reduced to ‘scenes’, designed for short attention spans and instant gratification rather than rewarding patience.
The internet and smartphones have had as catastrophic an impact on modern love in the 21st century as refined sugar did on waistlines in the 20th. There are more Apple products in American homes than there are married couples. We’re only now starting to wake up to the genie we’ve unleashed but it’s not something that can be put back in the bottle. It’s out there. In many cases destroying lives, not improving them.
My relative popularity online, courtesy of my ability to write coherent sentences, decent looks and a rapidly thinning face, meant I could take my pick of virtually anyone I liked, vetting candidates on the most superficial attributes. I was a bastard because I could be. It was all so mercenary but all so ridiculously easy. I assured myself I wasn’t doing anything that anyone else wasn’t doing. And, having lost my moral scruples, I saw no reason to stop unless someone amazing came along. I had one life. And Lara, in the throes of passion with her new man, wasn’t about to have some road-to-Damascus moment and come back to me.
As my father would often say, and he knew this as well as anyone from all those nights howling at the moon on the deck of a barge in Burgundy: ‘Life’s a marathon, son. Not a short-course sprint race.’
Ron didn’t look like he could do any short-course sprint racing. He wasn’t up for much movement at all. A big unit in his early 40s with close-cropped graying hair and a couple of chins, standing well over six foot and packing 120 kilograms under his company-monogrammed polo shirt, he spent his working week driving his big Ford sedan from Sydney to the dusty outback in the far west and back again, visiting clients of his financial-planning business and spending far too much time in McDonald’s drive-thrus.
We had been introduced through mutual friends and Ron had become my financial adviser. Seeing as I’d taken to searching for coins in the folds of my sofa, it wasn’t an especially lucrative arrangement for him, but he knew a bit about soccer, was a father to two young girls around Evie’s age and, as I was to discover the first time we met for coffee, was going through a terrible divorce of his own, a real War of the Roses donnybrook, with serried ranks of lawyers and child psychologists. It was all very fresh.
On returning home from one of his road trips, he’d pulled into the driveway of his house and heard noises coming from inside. When he parted a bush and put his nose to the window he was greeted by the sight of his naked wife of 15 years entangled with a complete stranger, also naked, on the living-room floor. But when Ron tapped the window, they didn’t stop. Being a gentle, sensitive soul not given to confrontation, he returned to his car and sat in the driver’s seat while the pair continued fucking. He waited a few minutes then went back.
‘Is it over?’ he asked his wife through the deadlocked front door.
‘What do you fuckin’ reckon?’ she shot back. ‘Now leave me alone so I can keep fucking this guy!’
Her ‘guy’ turned out to be a serving police officer. When the police weren’t attending to domestic disputes like mine with Lara they were right in the middle of them, pants down, cocks out, inside other men’s wives.
Like me, Ron pitched up at his mum’s. But he was smart enough to go straight to his lawyer. He didn’t end up unconscious in a garden bed with his glasses smashed and potting soil in his mouth. He was now in court, embroiled in a bitter custody dispute which was further complicated by the delicate matter of extricating his wife from his business (she was a part owner) and fending off an apprehended-violence-order application she had made through her cop lover.
Having her removed from the family company, gaining equal access to his kids and putting the restraining order to bed would end up costing Ron hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he was resolute in not giving her any more than she deserved.
Just as I was resolute in making sure he didn’t make the same mistakes I had early on in my separation, slide into a pit of depression and despair and attempt to go back to the woman who’d been so cruel to him. When he was at his lowest there wasn’t a day when I didn’t ring Ron to make sure he wasn’t going to do something stupid. Frequently when I got him on the phone he’d just gibber like an idiot. His decision-making was totally shot. Rubbing one out was vitally important.
‘Mate, wank as much as humanly possible – wank five times a day if you have to,’ I urged him, just as I had to get through the loneliest times when I physically ached for Lara. ‘Flog yourself.’
Ron was doing it particularly tough, having to go through a solicitor to schedule mediation for the most basic parenting decisions, such as school pick-ups and drop-offs – even what bed he chose for his kids to sleep in on their scheduled visits. As much as my own wife had been awful to me, at least I could talk to Lara about such things without acrimony.
To lighten Ron’s emotional load I suggested our abbreviated families regularly meet for dinner at Itami, a Japanese restaurant in Darlinghurst. The truth, though, was that I also needed the company. We called it the Divorced Fathers and Daughters All-Stars, a play on Woody Allen’s Sunday baseball team in Manhattan, the Divorced Fathers and Sons All-Stars. Our girls – none older than seven – would make a terrible mess of their sushi rolls. Almost as bad as the mess Ron and I had made of our marriages.
‘How have you been?’ he’d start when we sat down.
‘Good, mate, good.’
‘Okay, but are you right … in yourself?’
It was a mark of his character that he asked me this question every time I saw him. Though outwardly a typically inscrutable Australian bloke, my new friend was a sensitive man.
Far from being emotional islands, Ron and I were just looking for someone to tell us everything was going to be alright, even though we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing ourselves. It’s why we gravitated to each other and, with our daughters, became a kind of family of our own. It’s why we sought out the company of women who appreciated us when the women we loved wouldn’t, even if it was only for an hour in an unfamiliar bed or the back seat of a car. Being inside our own heads was like walking a wasteland of regrets.
My father, the only other man I could really confide in about my deepest problems, understood that. It was why he told me to ‘stop being Hamas’ with Lara and find some inner peace.
‘Continuing to lob rockets just reduces everything to ruin,’ he said in a letter. ‘Change tack. Forgive the hurt that has been inflicted on you. Endure with grace what you can’t change.’
It was why he dropped by my flat unannounced at all hours of the day, seeing if I needed anything fixed and, if I didn’t, fixing things anyway. He put up bookshelves. He made me hat racks. He sorted my shirts by colour. He cleaned my toilet, a forbidding sunken cave of black terror.
It was also why he told me to start running. When he’d separated from my mother, that’s what he’d done. Sixty-five kilometres a week. Day and night. Whatever the weather. No matter how bad he felt. He’d even written a short story about it, published in Billy Blue, a Sydney literary magazine, back in the 1980s. Then, he’d been ‘a troubled man taking it out on the concrete’, and now, 30 years later, so was I. Through rainstorms along the coast at dusk. Along country trails. Half marathons. Father and son. The full circle. A proud lineage of shin splints and wrecked families.
What had I done to have this cruel symmetry imposed on me? By now Lara was even accusing me of using Evie against her, much in the manner Sal had accused Alby of using me to try to save their marriage. Sal backed her up. It was, she maintained, why she’d called me a ‘cunt’. It wasn’t true. All I wanted was my family back. The whole. Hadn’t I spent my childhood and adult life learning from the mistakes of my parents? Or had I just been destined to repeat them? Looking back on it now, I should have seen the train wreck that was coming. My mother had been right all along. I was a ‘little Alby’ to the laces of my running shoes.
But at least I was finally starting to look like the man I used to be. I dropped 32 kilograms because of running. I saw abdomen muscles I hadn’t seen since I was 21. Physically I was in the best shape of my life. I’d started working out daily, for two hours straight, mostly at a community gym run by the local council. There I met former ice addicts and ex-cons who’d lost everything and hit rock bottom only to turn their lives around through exercise.
I had no excuses not to get fit. Mentally I was starting to tame my demons simply by feeling better about myself and having a focus outside my obsessions. Emotionally, though, I was still struggling. Hoping clarity and peace would come but sabotaging my recovery with a succession of stupid decisions and an excessive amount of self-blame.
The biggest challenge newly separated men face is filling time. Quiet moments are pregnant with terror. Nights are the worst. When no one calls. When no one is poking you on Facebook. When you can’t watch TV or read a book because your overtaxed mind is like a blown circuit board. So you do something physical. You lift weights. You pound the streets. Or you punch a bag. And if you can’t get to a 24-hour gym, you sort black socks, whack off in front of porn, drink a bottle of whisky or crank up AC/DC’s Powerage, the most visceral, honest insight into the psychology of damaged men available anywhere. Anything to take yourself away from that place you don’t want to go: inside your head.
Out of sheer loneliness I did some monumentally dumb things. Like inviting over a 48-year-old stranger I’d met online to give me an erotic massage only to discover when she arrived that her bum literally filled the width of the doorway to my flat. She was like the fat lady in the Eddie Murphy movie Norbit. There was no way out. But it worked out better than I expected. With my eyes closed, she ended up giving me one of the best blowjobs of my life. So much for ‘types’.
Another time, an interior designer I’d only spoken to on the phone booked a cab at 3am and fronted up to my place in her dressing gown and night slip. When she got in my bed she froze like she’d seen a ghost.
‘I want to go back to my husband,’ she stammered, putting her gown back on and closing the door behind her without so much as even looking back at me.
Then there was my date with two women. I thought it was going to end up in a threesome until it dawned on me I was just being used a bit of comic relief to two bored narcissists that were using me for entertainment. I walked out.
The worst encounter of all was a woman who caught me at a time when I was feeling particularly desolate, Lara having gone to court to file for divorce. This individual contacted me online, paid me compliments and made me feel so much better about myself in our subsequent instant-messaging exchange that the fact she hadn’t shown me her photo seemed an irrelevance. She went on to talk dirty and I masturbated, albeit with little pleasure, to the words she was typing on the screen.
When afterwards she gave me her address and asked me to come over and fuck her for real, I asked her to oblige with a photo. I came to wish I hadn’t. She was a dumpy brunette, plain and unattractive. I made up some story about having to be somewhere the next day and logged off. I felt terribly ashamed and stupid. When she tried to get in touch with me again, even sending me an email from a holiday abroad recounting her activities like we were already lovers, I ignored her.
Months passed and an email landed in my inbox from a woman who said she lived nearby. She told me she’d only just listed her profile on the dating site I was on, hadn’t had time to put up a photo and what did I have to lose but to go meet her for a drink? She assured me I’d be happy when we met in person. It was late on a rainy Sunday night and I had nothing else to do. So I walked into the pub and a girl at a corner table wearing a hat with a peak that obscured her eyes beckoned me over. I ordered a drink and we began talking. But there was something about her that seemed familiar. It bugged me. I asked her if we’d met before. She said we hadn’t. I replied that I was sorry, I was sure we had. I must have mistaken her for someone else. To which she looked me coldly in the eye and said something that still chills me to this day.
‘Really? And was she a psycho?’
I held her gaze. It was the same girl I’d brushed off for being unattractive; she’d just picked another name, put on a hat and dyed her hair. I was genuinely scared. I didn’t even finish my beer. I got up as fast as I could and left without saying another word, swearing to never again be so fucking cavalier with my and my daughter’s safety.
That’s what being accidentally single does to men. It scrambles their brains, makes them do things they would not normally contemplate. Your sex drive is like it was when you were 20 but you don’t have the same social freedoms you did back then, especially when you factor in the single father’s gift/single man’s curse of equal custody. So you take risks. Take what you can. And more often than not find yourself going home unhappier than you were before, much lighter in the wallet and wondering whatever happened to your dignity.
Going from the social cachet of marriage and the structure of family in your mid-20s to being separated and single again in your mid-30s is like being transported from the paradise of earth to the harsh red planet of Total Recall. You can’t so much as breathe if you leave the mental bubble of your past. You try to erase the memories of the life you used to have but feel compelled to relive them, over and over, looking for the clue that’s going to solve the riddle of your pain. The gravity of it all hits you hardest when you get turned away at nightclub doors and those dinner invitations you used to get with your wife don’t come anymore. They liked her. Not you. Or at least they could tolerate you with her. Or you walk into a bookshop and come by the ‘Parenting’ section. You used to spend a lot of time there. Full of hope, planning for the future. Now it’s time to move a couple of feet to the right. There. You’ll find everything you need in ‘Self Help’, you dismal old fuck.
This is an edited extract from Jesse Fink’s acclaimed memoir Laid Bare, which is being published by Xoum Publishing on 1 September. You can preorder now through Amazon, Booktopia, NewSouth Books and other retailers. Visit bonthelasthighway.com/laid-bare.html or Goodreads for more information.