I could not have anticipated the boon to my freelance journalism that 9/11 presented. The year-and-change leading up to it, I’d been in a bad place, work-wise and otherwise. In hindsight, at 35, I was going through something resembling a nervous breakdown, holed up in a shared house in rural Rhinebeck while I rented out my shitty E. 13th Street tenement for crazy dot com bubble money, and lived off it.
I was nursing a broken heart. June of 2000 brought the end of a three-year on-again-off-again relationship with a guy I should never have been with. I compounded the fracture by restarting my nine-year on-again-off-again relationship with yet another guy I should never have been with — this time long-distance, which initially added a level of excitement, but later made it easier for him to cheat on me and lie to me about staying sober.
My mind was a mess, my thinking clouded. But it wasn’t like I didn’t work at all. During my year upstate I was mostly ghostwriting. It wasn’t going well. One client couldn’t agree with her editor on aspects of the book, and I found myself caught between the two of them. Another had zero regard for the fact that I could only get paid when we had sections of the book accepted by the publisher, and took her sweet time getting me the information I needed to produce said sections.
I would have preferred to write articles and essay, but the couple of pieces I worked on for women’s magazines got killed after acceptance, for no real reason (fortunately the glossies were flush in those days and I got paid in full anyway) making that work clearly unreliable for me.
At the end of May, 2001, the super in my building called to tell me the landlord was asking whether I still lived in my apartment. I’d need to come back if I wanted to keep it. By June 1, I was re-situated in the East Village.
That summer was lean. I was too much of a mess to pitch and write effectively, and I’d been away from New York too long for editors to think of me for assignments. Then the towers fell, and suddenly, surprisingly, I was back in business.
News items for the City section of the New York Times and the Daily News somehow led me in the direction of a particular beat: relationships in a time of crisis.
I made it my business to investigate and report on who was getting married, who was hooking up, who was getting divorced, in the wake of tragedy.
This wasn’t any kind of a stretch for me. It was already my beat in life. I have always been obsessed with romantic relationships — a Libra in love with love, for those who believe in astrology, and a divorce kid committed to promoting interpersonal bliss among couples, thus (theoretically, anyway) reducing the number of breakups in the world.
In Island Park, NY, the blue collar suburb adjacent to Long Beach that I grew up in, that’s what we called kids whose parents had split up: divorce kids. I tried desperately to avoid becoming one of those sad, disheveled urchins who were shuttled back and forth between two households, whose needs now took a back seat to their parents’ new social lives.
I was 10-and-a-half when my parents announced the might be separating, but there was a chance they wouldn’t. I took their lack of a definitive choice to mean all hope was not lost — that if I was well behaved enough (and I was already pretty well behaved!), it would somehow keep them together. For the few months my father occupied my sister’s bedroom and she bunked with me, I became hyper-vigilant, cleaning my room even more immaculately, signing up for extra-credit assignments at school, writing essays about how wonderful my family was and reading them over the loud speaker at school, where my father was a teacher and my mother was a sub.
Of course, it didn’t work. In the summer of ‘76, my dad moved out. By the fall of ‘77 he was remarried.
But that has not stopped me from trying to keep every single unhappy couple I have ever known from breaking up, for the rest of my life.
Seriously. At a very deep level, I seem to think it is my job to make sure everyone stays together, whether or not they should. And I am someone who got divorced myself, at 26.5. (Thank goodness I did. It made it so I could remarry, quite happily, at 39.)
I’m not an idiot. I know that often relationships run their course. I know that leaving a bad relationship frees you up for better ones. But I still experience terrible heartache any time I hear about couples I know parting ways. Every single time, it’s like my parents are breaking up all over again.
This crisis, I’m not writing any journalistic round-ups on people’s relationship choices. (I swore off round-ups of any kind a long time ago.) But I am creepily, obsessively observing couples I know on social media to try and determine whether they remain together and happy.
I can’t help but notice when someone who used to post a lot about his “goddess” of a girlfriend is now only posting what look like dating-site selfies. Hmm, looks like they haven’t been photographed together in a few months. Ditto for the guys who used to share so many happy images from their wedding that took place right after the marriage equality act went into effect. WTF — what does so-and-so mean “for those like me, who are single right now”? I am afraid to tell you how many other of these pairs I am studying too closely, in the moments when I’m not distracting myself from the pandemic and the dismantling of democracy by cooking and working too much.
Don’t worry — intellectually I know this is ridiculous, and I that I have no power over other people’s happiness. What’s more, I am against couple-privilege.
But there’s a part of me who will always be that little divorce kid certain that if she keeps smiling and doesn’t make any sudden moves, everyone will stay together and live happily ever after.