by Sarah Eisner
We don’t always eat together—a necessary downside to our dual entrepreneur, Silicon Valley household—but we try to often, and tonight we do. We eat in the faded drape of winter evening light, all of us returned to each other from our busy days, at the dinner table. We eat in the same seats as always: ten-year-old Wilson across from me, eight-year-old Ben across from my husband, Noah.
Wilson is eating oiled broccoli with his fingers. Noah wipes his hands on a paper towel and says, “Hey buddy, use your fork please.”
Wilson is mid-chew, and Ben giggles and says to his dad, “You didn’t.” Ben is jolly, and right—we all love to eat with our hands. We take an irrational pride in not being formal, and we don’t dine so much as heartily consume.
Noah picks up his fork and spears a floret. “You got me,” he smiles at Ben.
“Hey,” Wilson says. “Let’s play thumbs up, thumbs down.”
We nod and Wilson starts. “Soccer,” he says. Our thumbs go up. We’re all on teams. Noah and I play in the co-ed adult league, our version of church, on Sundays.
“Donuts,” Ben says. He often dreams about chocolate glazed. I like apple fritters and the other two just eat plain.
Technically, it’s Noah’s turn next, but Wilson interjects.
“Divorce,” he says.
I look at Wilson across the table, surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, while getting my thumb in a low down position.
Until I was twelve, my family ate dinner together. I don’t mean usually, or on most weeknights. I mean every night. In our suburban family room in Concord, California, we sat in the same seats—Rick across from Mom, and Dad across from me.
With a classical music record on low and the TV off, we ate slowly, with our utensils, and we discussed our days as we listened to each other, just like studies—not yet conducted—now recommend.
Dad got home from San Francisco every night at five-thirty. At six o’clock, give or take five minutes, Mom would call Rick and me to the table by clanging her oversized, festive wall-mounted dinner bell, though our little house hardly called for such fanfare. We were usually just a few feet away doing homework or playing Chinese Checkers. Once seated we were not, under any circumstances—aside from the threat of death, destruction, or bladder emergencies—to get up, especially not to answer the telephone. That was fine with me, until boys started calling in junior high. I loved dinnertime and moved toward it like a sanctuary throughout my days.
The only part I didn’t like was saying grace. At six-o-five-ish, we held hands around the table, four voices together, and said thank you God for our food, Amen. I had no use for the flimsy promises of church or God and Jesus. I had faith in dinnertime, and the reliable calm of Rick, Mom, and especially Dad.
Every night we sat at the monumental oak table Dad had restored from a cast-off Boeing office desk, once used for blueprints of warplanes, jets, and cruise missiles. The surface was smooth enough to bowl on. Its deep drawers now held decks of cards. In California, earthquakes came, and the table sheltered us, Dad leading us with controlled urgency to duck, cover and hold on beneath our breaded veal cutlets and his single nightly Anchor Steam beer.
Then one September evening in 1986 after a dinner I don’t remember, the earth didn’t move, but Mom told us Dad was going to.
“We love you both very much,” she said, somber but composed, “but your dad and I have decided to get a divorce.”
Dad didn’t say a word. I suspect he couldn’t. He bowed his head and brought his white cotton handkerchief to his eyes. We’d given it to him, Rick and I, for Christmas.
I looked at Rick. Rick looked at Mom. “Can I go to Craig’s now?” Rick asked.
Mom told him to be home in an hour. She understood the disorientation, his nine-year-old desperation to escape. I sat there a bit longer, watching Dad try to lower the handkerchief, breathe, and raise it again, but Rick’s anxious exit marked the last time we all four sat at that table together. It’s the last thing I remember until I watched Dad labor to heft the table—that amber altar of my childhood—into a U-Haul six days later.
My dad’s wedding gift to us was the worn, oatmeal-crusted table we sit at now. I plan to keep it always.
“So,” Wilson says. “You and Dad won’t divorce, right?”
I don’t think Wilson is overly worried about Noah and me. But, with Noah’s divorced and remarried side too, Wilson has eight grandparents. He has three close friends that split their weeks even-steven, and not always amicably, between Mom and Dad. Over the years he has asked me questions: “Did Grandma ever love Grandpa?” and, “Does Ethan’s mom hate his dad, now that they’re divorced?” And I wonder how often he imagines what he could lose.
I’m not overly worried. My relationship with Noah is good. We are devoted to each other, our kids, and also to our soul-crushing business affairs. Our love and care for our startups, our employees, and to some extent our investors, is intense and heady. What makes us solid is that we have our own lives while loving one another without omission.
We’ll be mulling around making peanut butter and jelly for school lunches—I assemble, Noah cleans up—and he’ll say to me in front of the kids, “It’s amazing how many cities you’ve launched,” or to the kids in front of me, “Boys, Mom’s in the news again.” And I will pull him into my chest and promise myself to make more than five minutes to lay with him that night.
But lately, in what has seemed like a series of small misfortunes I couldn’t control, it’s become clear that I will lose my company. Now that it’s in jeopardy, I’m surprised to find myself wondering about the permanence of everything else. When my business fails—when I lose one of the routine mirrors I rely on to see myself—what else might I lose?
“Right Mom?” Ben says. He smiles at me, raises his eyebrows.
I reach across my near-empty dinner plate to rearrange the decaying nectarines in the bowl at the center of the table and look at Noah. He crosses his eyes at me and sticks out his tongue.
“Nope,” he says. “No divorce for us.”
“No,” I say. And I mean it.
While I don’t say it, I also mean “probably not,” and “I will work hard to prevent it.” Because a parent cannot say to a child: “We are a family. Husband, wife, brother, sister. This is our home. We live together, love each other, and we are forever. Thank you God for our food Amen.” Then say: “Actually, no. We are not a family. Ex-husband, ex-wife, part-time son and part-time daughter. Together, we have no home, Mom and Dad don’t love each other, and we will take turns with you. Let’s eat at the counter.” Or, a parent can say these things. Mine had. When they did, they taught me things about permanence and faith.
They taught me that the spoil of a marriage can be a gradual mellowing, a plum that goes soft inside before the bruise appears on the surface. It can sit protected in the silver coiled fruit basket for days before the small flies circle and one or the other of you finally reaches over, feels the rot, and says oh! And in this knowledge I am lucky, even thankful for what I gained, by the breaking of my home.
Sarah Eisner is a current student at Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.