“Who’s getting which car?” Mom asks when I tell her I’m getting divorced.
Really, Mom? This is what you want to know?
Weeks later, I have an answer. My soon-to-be ex-husband will get the Honda. I will get the Subaru, which is two years old and in mint condition. A year ago when I joined a support group for women coming out later in life, I learned that Subaru is a go-to brand for lesbians. Maybe that should have been a sign.
Two months after this conversation with my mother, I back out of the driveway of the home where my ex still lives and where I no longer do, with a borrowed fanny pack that I will take with me to the Women’s March in D.C., in January 2017.
I’m excited and nervous about the march. It’s my first big protest, one of many firsts ahead of me. Leaving a safe and comfortable life where the division of labor was defined along traditional gender roles was a milestone. It feels, at age 55, like I’m learning to be an adult for the first time.
I exit the driveway I’ve backed out of for seventeen years in a hurry — why, I can’t remember now. Maybe it’s because I feel uncomfortable being with my ex. Now we interact like polite business acquaintances, not like people who raised two sons and shared a bed for three decades. Or maybe I gun the gas because I can’t wait to get started on my new life — although I’m equal parts exhilarated and terrified. Whatever the reason, I fail to take the needed care and scrape the driver’s side of the car on a wooden gate post as I speed away.
I will get the Subaru that is now the banged-up Subaru. I avert my eyes from the dents and scrapes, reminders of my carelessness, which for some reason feels unforgivable. I vow to get the car repaired.
I do not get the car repaired. I drive it to my new hometown, and it becomes the practical car in my new relationship. My girlfriend drives a stick-shift Mini convertible.
I am 4 or 5, and today I have a new Slinky. Mommy let me pick out a toy when we were shopping. On the ride home, I lift the Slinky out of the box. It feels cool, like the handlebars on my tricycle. I love moving it back and forth in my hands, watching it start out like a big I and then fold over to make a little n. Big I, little n. Big I, little n. I can’t wait to show it to my friends.
We go to the playground behind our apartment building. The trees have baby leaves on them; the sky is blue. The air smells yucky, like fish. I am wearing a sweater and a kerchief tied around my neck. Mommy doesn’t want me to be cold.
“See what I got,” I say to my friend Margaret.
“Can I play with it?” she asks.
“Yes, but be careful.” Mommy says it’s important to take care of our things.
I climb the steps to the big slide. Mommy waits for me at the bottom. When I reach the top, I see the water on the other side of the tall fence. The water is like the water at the little wave beach where my sister and I go with Mommy in the summer when Daddy’s at work. We only go to the big wave beach when Daddy can come with us.
Wheee! I go down the slide and Mommy catches me. I want to play with my Slinky again. I look around for Margaret. She’s over by the seesaw but she doesn’t have the Slinky. Her brother Sean has it.
I run over to Sean. “Give it to me,” I say.
“No,” he says as he runs away from me. I am older and faster than Sean, and I catch him and grab my Slinky. He holds tight to the other end.
“Give it to me!”
I pull and pull, and Sean finally lets go.
My Slinky is twisted and bent and tangled. My Slinky is ruined.
I show it to Mommy. “It’s ruined!” I say. “I’m going to throw it over the fence.”
“Don’t you dare,” Mommy says, holding my arm.
I don’t care what Mommy says. I can’t stand to look at my ruined Slinky for one second more. I pull away from her and run to the fence.
“Suzette!” she yells, but she can’t stop me. I throw the Slinky as high and hard as I can and it goes over the tall fence and disappears into the swampy grass.
I feel happy, very, very happy that I will never have to see that terrible, ruined Slinky again.
I go to a party at a Lexus dealership, have a couple of glasses of wine, and look longingly at the shiny new SUVs on display. Maybe I should buy a new car. Since moving to my new hometown, I’ve added a second set of scrapes on the driver’s side of the Subaru when I grazed a yellow post exiting my parking garage.
Thanksgiving weekend, my younger son buffs the scrapes on my car. It looks almost as good as new. I no longer have to avert my eyes. I don’t have to buy a new Lexus. A month later, I pull out of a gas station in a hurry and dent the passenger side.
My wife gets me an estimate for the body work. Thousands of dollars — and who’s to say I won’t scrape it up again.
“The family,” Mom wails after she asks me which car I’m getting in the divorce. “Suzette, I don’t understand you. How can you destroy everything you have?”
Photos of the perfect family that no longer exists line the walls of her home. They remain there long after I am divorced, long after I remarry.
Maybe I am a ruiner by nature.
As I try to decide what to do about my car, I think of little Suzette, the girl who couldn’t bear to look at her ruined Slinky. I wonder if I’m still the same, unable to tolerate imperfection, especially my own. That’s consistent with my personality type. An Enneagram type 1, my shadow side is The Perfectionist.
I turn over the Slinky story again and again, examining it from all angles to discover the deeper meaning. As a book coach, I’m well-versed in this practice. “You get to make meaning out of your own experiences,” I say regularly to my memoir clients. “You are the author of your own story.”
Maybe that Slinky story is about perfectionism, but maybe that’s only part of it. The other side of my Enneagram type is The Advocate. Standing up for what I believe is right. Maybe the Slinky story is also about knowing what is right for me and having the courage to take action on that knowing, despite what other people may say or think.
Maybe that little girl wasn’t a ruiner after all. Maybe she just knew her Slinky couldn’t be salvaged, just like her older self recognized the need to let go of a 30-year marriage when it no longer served her or her husband.
I decide to keep the Subaru, dents and all. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few months or maybe I won’t. At this stage of life, I’ve earned the right to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of. I am the author of my own story.