It was a bit after 4 PM on the third Friday in October. The sky was clear and there was little traffic. In fact, my ex’s Toyota and the Jeep that hit him were the only vehicles in sight. The CHP has invited witnesses to come forward, but so far no one has.
According to the report, Carl made a left turn onto the highway right in front of the Jeep. The woman driver said she tried to avoid the collision, but the front of her car plowed into him.
He was T-boned. His old Toyota isn’t known for side protection. He died on the scene, probably instantaneously, possibly without pain.
I got the news from my former stepson, four days later. Mark apologized for taking so long. That was weird; I haven’t seen Mark for over twenty years and haven’t communicated with his father for at least ten. He said he understood from his current stepmother that his dad and I had been in touch from time to time. That’s not true. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Carl occasionally raised my specter in his third marriage.
I always wondered if I’d hear. I assumed that if Carl died his old law partner might find me. Never did I suspect that it would be Mark.
I was chronologically insignificant in Carl’s life. He was married to his children’s mother for seventeen years, then with me for seven, and now with Hilary for about twenty-five. We had no children together. We parted amicably. There was infrequent communication afterward and my last birthday email to him, about a decade ago, went unanswered.
It was only seven years, but it was an intense seven years.
I was Carl’s midlife crisis. He was forty-one when we became a couple, and he already drove a red roadster. I was the younger woman (thirty-two). We met through work. We had an affair that only lasted about six weeks before he declared we were soul mates and had to marry. I didn’t disagree.
I wonder now, if a man’s forties could be his most significant adult decade. I asked my brother, and after consideration he opined that it isn’t an age as much as it’s the decade when you lose your father. He said that’s when you confront your own mortality, which is what it takes to make that final lunge into manhood. It happens that my brother was in his forties when our dad died. And so was Carl.
But there was more. Carl lost his law mentor, the senior partner in his firm, the man who introduced us, while we were together. He lost his younger sister to adult respiratory distress. He lost his career as his old firm imploded in the era of deregulation. In addition, we terminated an unwanted pregnancy, went through the subsequent vasectomy together, weathered the medical crisis that resulted in my hysterectomy, and parented four children who all needed counseling because of the abrupt dissolution of their parents’ marriages (our deal) and the questionable mental health of the spouses we left (theirs).
Those seven years felt longer than childhood. We lived half a century during the 80s.
And we were as intense as the years. Carl had been placidly married before. He never revealed himself to his wife. She was far prettier than I – slim and blonde and buxom – and she bored him to tears. They married right after college, and they prospered more than they expected. She led him to larger homes, season symphony tickets, high-ticket travel: the customary purchases of increasing wealth. She loved their life together but it seems she didn’t know him, for through those seventeen years he remained the repressed Republican drinker I encountered.
Like I said, I’m not so pretty. But I’m pushy, and I’m obsessed with figuring out life and making mine count. With me Carl opened up emotionally, described the military/sexual history about which his wife never asked, outlined the book he wanted to write, took up laughing.
And we didn’t last. There was too much stress, between challenging kids, dysfunctional offices, hysterical exes. There were too many occasions when I blew up about his drinking and he, ritually pouring hard stuff down the kitchen sink, promised to stop. Our fights grew more passionate as our tenure stretched. Ultimately he accused me of not loving him enough. By then he may have been correct – he was drinking again, crying again every time the booze took effect, otherwise stuffing his emotions. I realize now he had no idea what to do with them.
He left, to determine if we were driving him crazy or if he was doing it on his own. He didn’t return. Then an old college girlfriend looked him up. She’d been an also-ran to his first wife, but finally Hilary prevailed. She moved here to be with him, they took a place in the suburbs and, as far as I can tell, Carl resumed the type of boring but sane life he’d endured before me.
The last time I had lunch with him, it should have been civilized and amicable, but he took a pot shot at me. I was surprised. I knew he’d been angry, but I didn’t realize till then how wide it went. He criticized me for failing to explain the meaning of Chanukah to him. WTF? I mean, say what? I remember how stunned and almost entertained I felt. As if Chanukah meant anything to an adult!
He told me Hilary was Unitarian. She’d taken him to her church and that’s where he heard the Maccabee story. Somehow he found the story, or my failure to tell him the story, significant. As if.
I think that was our last face to face interaction. How the profound had fallen! After that were a few birthday emails, where we found nothing to discuss other than the kids. We really hadn’t been about parenting; of course we petered out.
Now Carl is dead, and his forty-four year old son is seeking pictures. Carl was always the cameraman, so there aren’t many with him in front of the lens. Maybe I have them all. His first wife moved recently, and put things in storage. His third wife has not stepped up with photographs. When we split up, we agreed I’d keep the snapshots. Carl knew he could always visit them.
They’re all snapshots. My father and my first husband were slide photographers. They had backlit viewers and portable projection screens. They debated the merits of carousels versus cartridges. And after Carl left came the age of digital photography: first in camera-shaped machines that stored images on memory sticks and then of course on smartphones. The Carl era, also known as the 1980s, is all on snapshots and mostly in three albums.
As far as I’m concerned, my job is to support and respect Carl’s kids, but not to insert myself or intrude. Asked to find photos, I’ve now spent days poring over the shots in the albums and the shoe box of fuzzy unbound pictures. Scanning them to Mark. I’ve been pushed down memory lane. I’ve been awakening each morning to recollection.
Viewed now, I wonder if I was the love of Carl’s life. It didn’t feel like that at the time, but I was the only one with whom he tried to be himself. His first and last wives were attractive and conventional and comfortable. They used subtext and practiced passive aggression. They never asked him the important questions.
There’s a reason I have his poetry, the pictures of him laughing or mugging for the camera. There’s a reason I have his anger.
I knew him. I’m sure he was still drinking. The liquor that spiced our initial affair and the first couple of years of marital sex became a drag for us in time. We recognized that he had a problem. We made a few rehabilitative attempts. Home attempts, doomed to fail.
It got worse with Hilary. I had lunch with her once, at her request, ostensibly to discuss Carl’s awkwardness with peri-adolescent daughters. But as soon as I said, “and the booze,” Hilary jumped into the conversation with what seemed like eagerness. “Do you think he’s an alcoholic?” she clamored.
“Certainly,” I said. And then she dumped. She revealed how much worse he then was. Hiding bottles between the wall joists in the garage. Blaming Hilary for driving him to drink. She even mentioned a few car scrapes.
I’m sure Carl was still drinking because, if he’d found a way to stop, he would have let me know. He would have sought some resolution. Or closure. Something.
And I’m pretty sure Carl never got comfortable with Hilary’s daughters or his own. Poor Carl. He had a younger sister but he was sent away to military boarding high school, out of state, when Amy was just 12. His son Mark was an only child for ten years. Then Robin was born, four months after my son, and we raised those babies like they were twins till we split up when they were seven. I wanted the kids to keep seeing each other, but Carl insisted on a clean break. My son got years of therapy; that wasn’t the case for Robin. Hilary said she was obese (at ten) and had trouble with honesty. So was my boy. But he got better.
Here’s what I know. Carl died a bit after four on a Friday afternoon. On Robin’s thirty-fourth birthday.
Here’s what I think. He was driving home from his job, a now unnecessary position but Carl’s a workaholic too, so he’d keep at it as long as possible. He’d had a few nips from the bottle in his office. It might be Jack Daniels. It might be vodka. It was certainly hard liquor.
He was a good driver. He was seventy-five but he still had reflexes. He was in his Toyota and he made a left turn directly in the path of the only other vehicle in the area. He always got sentimental when he drank. I’ll bet his eyes were watering. I’m not saying it was a suicidal turn. I just think his vision was blurred by tears.