I feel I’m doing our crippled economy a favor by shooting for zero offspring. She wanted four.
In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
“Relationships are very simple,” Chris Rock says in Rock This! “Only two things can happen: You get married or you break up. That’s it. There’s no third thing.”
Back in 1997, I took pretty much everything Chris Rock said to be the ironclad truth. Then, I watched as my own family members complicated Rock’s simple rule. My family does not break rules: It drinks warm caffeine-free Diet Coke and considers accountants rock stars. But as my childless uncles cruised into their 60s living with women to whom they were not married, I realized that Chris Rock had the right idea but the wrong framework: You have kids or you don’t. That’s it.
When I found my own loophole in Rock’s rule—I got married, and then we broke up—I managed to emerge from the divorce on relatively good terms (we did not have kids). In fact, the loss opened its way into a sort of freedom: I was a 30-year-old single man with a month’s worth of severance pay, a vast apartment for which the rent was already paid, and no impending job prospects—the comedy talent management business spends the first half of December throwing holiday parties and the second half on paid vacation. I don’t typically look on the bright side, but I decided to view this as a kind of state-sponsored retreat. I could play PS3 all day, tweet about meaningless bowl games all evening, and keep myself open to anything at night.
On one such night, at a friend’s birthday party at the Improv, that meant Elise. I had spent the better part of the evening hanging around the dark part of the bar beneath the signed headshots, hoping to escape the notice of the comedians I used to work with. My approach was not smooth, or even preconceived, but the Freudian subtext was off the charts. My very recent ex-wife was slender, witty, bookish, Southern. Elise was the kind of girl I met at Jewish youth groups back in Philadelphia. I think Rob Schneider looked on approvingly.
Elise and I left at the same time. I walked her to her car. “We should hang out,” I somehow managed to spit out. Texts were exchanged. Then, enough time passed for me to talk myself out of thinking I had just asked her out on a date. Less than a month out of my marriage, I had made no attempt to hide my baggage with this woman. Besides, an occupational hazard of my old gig included watching literally hundreds of stand-ups relay stupendously unfunny reports from L.A.’s dating scene. I was not eager to begin doing my own research. Still, hanging out with new women seemed superior to the dull shame of spending my adult years deep in Madden Dynasty Mode. I haltingly suggested a Sunday night drink at a bar within walking distance of my apartment.
She agreed. When we met, I resorted to airing my resentment at my old job. She told me to stop talking about myself. For a while, we watched as Machete played silently on a TV across the bar. She seemed like she was having fun, but she also seemed like she would be having fun regardless of whether or not I was there. I figured I was going to go home and just sort of stare off into the middle distance—the new James Blake album had just leaked, after all. As I headed toward my apartment, she pulled me back in: “You’re not even going to ask me in?”
My relationships generally evolve slowly—we discuss Built To Spill until we spontaneously start making out or whatever—but I was not opposed to her approach. I figured this was how it worked for everyone else—two people decide they are attracted to one another, and figure out whether they actually like each other later.
Did we like each other? I don’t think we disliked each other. Clinging tight to our patch of common ground, we fell into a typical entertainment biz relationship—what could we do for one another? She took a strange pride in the fact that I was on the rebound and had never been with a Jewish woman. As Chris Rock would say, I guess I just wanted to feel pretty. None of this transferred well to actual conversation. Sleeping together became less complicated than, say, sitting through dinner.
But quickly, our pillow talk advanced to the level of therapeutic confession. Once you recognize the fact that you’re sleeping together in what was three weeks ago a married couple’s apartment, there’s no real need for secrets. She told me she wanted kids. I explained that I viewed not having children as a matter of social and fiscal responsibility: my fitness for parenthood can best be demonstrated by the fact that I consider Lean Pockets to be a proper meal, and maintain a longform Tumblr in which I write about Lean Pockets for up to 10,000 words at a time. I feel I’m doing our crippled economy a favor by shooting for zero offspring. She wanted four.
Was I ok with that? After being in a relationship with my best friend for over six years, I felt I owed it to myself to find out. But before long, the issue had quietly turned our relationship into a race to find out who was going to let the other down easy. It wasn’t so much a mood killer as it was a game-changer—an issue on which each of us could pin our opposition to the other. One morning, she made the move.
“You’re telling you me you never wanted kids?” she asked me. “Never. Not even when I was married,” I replied. She told me she didn’t think this was going to work. I drove her home.
She called about a week later, wanting to know “if we could talk.” Considering the run of luck I had at that point, I was ready to concede that she was somehow pregnant. (I’m an Eagles fan with male-pattern baldness on both sides of my family—I’ve amassed enough evidence that God likes a laugh at my expense). Instead, she told me she thought we had rushed the whole breakup thing. I told her I needed to get my life together before I started something serious with someone else.
But I didn’t need to get my life together so much as I needed to take inventory of what was left. I realized that when you lose your wife and your best friend, you lose a third thing—a life partner.
We had a plan together, she and I. With all of our disposable income, we could ride things out as the cool aunt and uncle—the ones the kids secretly wish were their parents because we’d have jet skis and live in a place with great weather and terrible schools. We’d subscribe to a kickass cable package and leave out a vodka bottle with the understanding that they’d fill it with water when they started sneaking shots in their teens. Maybe we’d even take up smoking pot once we retired—good pot.
The armchair psychiatrist would tell me there are two options in relationships this close to a divorce: The one that offers the security, mutual understanding, and respect you’ve just lost; or the one that simply fosters your own arrested development. Of course, I'll always want that third thing—where the former facilitates the latter, and ensures the only kids in the relationship are ourselves.