They’d originally come to the U straight out of grad school, when my dad was offered an assistant professorship there. At the time, he’d just found a publisher for his first novel, The Narwhal Horn, while my mom was pregnant with my brother and trying to finish her dissertation. Fast-forward four years, to my birth, and my dad, riding a wave of critical and commercial success – NYT best-seller list, National Book Award nominee – was heading up the creative writing program, while my mom was, as she liked to put it, ‘lost in a sea of diapers and self-doubt’. When I entered kindergarten, though, my mom came back to academia with a vengeance, scoring a visiting lectureship and a publisher for her dissertation. Over time, she became one of the most popular professors in the department, was hired on for a full-time position, and banged out a second, then a third book, all while my father looked on. He claimed to be proud, always making jokes about her being his meal ticket, the breadwinner of the family. But then my mother got her endowed chair, which was very prestigious, and he got dropped from his publisher, which wasn’t, and things started to get ugly.
The fights always seemed to begin over dinner, with one of them making some small remark and the other taking offense. There would be a small dustup – sharp words, a banged pot lid – but then it would seem resolved… at least until about ten or eleven, when suddenly I’d hear them start in again about the same issue. After a while I figured out that this time lag occurred because they were waiting for me to fall asleep before really going at it. So I decided, one night, not to. I left my door open, my light on, took pointed, obvious trips to the bathroom, washing my hands as loudly as possible. And for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t, and the fights started up again. But by then my body was used to staying up way late, which meant I was now awake for every single word.
I knew a lot of people whose parents had split up, and everyone seemed to handle it differently: complete surprise, crushing disappointment, total relief. The common denominator, though, was always that there was a lot of discussion about these feelings, either with both parents, or one on one separately, or with a shrink in group or individual therapy. My family, of course, had to be the exception. I did get the sit-down-we-have-to-tell-you-something moment. The news was delivered by my mother, across the kitchen table as my dad leaned against a nearby counter, fiddling with his hands and looking tired. ‘Your father and I are separating,’ she informed me, with the same flat, businesslike tone I’d so often heard her use with students as she critiqued their work. ‘I’m sure you’ll agree this is the best thing for all of us.’
Hearing this, I wasn’t sure what I felt. Not relief, not crushing disappointment, and again, it wasn’t a surprise. What struck me, as we sat there, the three of us, in that room, was how little I felt. Small, like a child. Which was the weirdest thing. Like it took this huge moment for a sudden wave of childhood to wash over me, long overdue.
I’d been a child, of course. But by the time I came along, my brother – the most colicky of babies, a hyperactive toddler, a ‘spirited’ (read ‘impossible’) kid – had worn my parents out. He was still exhausting them, albeit from another continent, wandering around Europe and sending only the occasional e-mail detailing yet another epiphany concerning what he should do with his life, followed by a request for more money to put it into action. At least his being abroad made all this seem more nomadic and artistic: now my parents could tell their friends Hollis was hanging out at the Eiffel Tower smoking cigarettes, instead of at the Quik Zip. It just sounded better.
If Hollis was a big kid, I was the little adult, the child who, at three, would sit at the table during grown-up discussions about literature and color my coloring books, not making a peep. Who learned to entertain myself at a very early age, who was obsessive about school and grades from kindergarten, because academia was the one thing that always got my parents’ attention. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ my mother would say, when one of their guests would slip with the F-word or something equally grown-up in front of me. ‘Auden’s very mature for her age.’ And I was, whether that age was two or four or seventeen. While Hollis required constant supervision, I was the one who got carted everywhere, constantly flowing in my mom’s or dad’s wake. They took me to the symphony, art shows, academic conferences, committee meetings, where I was expected to be seen and not heard. There was not a lot of time for playing or toys, although I never wanted for books, which were always in ample supply.
Because of this upbringing, I had kind of a hard time relating to other kids my age. I didn’t understand their craziness, their energy, the rambunctious way they tossed around couch cushions, say, or rode their bikes wildly around culs-de-sac. It did look sort of fun, but at the same time, it was so different from what I was used to that I couldn’t imagine how I would ever partake if given the chance. Which I wasn’t, as the cushion-tossers and wild bike riders didn’t usually attend the highly academic, grade-accelerated private schools my parents favored.
In the past four years, in fact, I’d switched schools three times. I’d lasted at Jackson High for only a couple of weeks before my mom, having spotted a misspelling and a grammatical error on my English syllabus, moved me to Perkins Day, a local private school. It was smaller and more academically rigorous, although not nearly as much as Kiffney-Brown, the charter school to which I transferred in junior year. Founded by several former local professors, it was elite – a hundred students, max – and emphasized very small classes and a strong connection to the local university, where you could take college-level courses for early credit. While I had a few friends at Kiffney-Brown, the ultracompetitive atmosphere, paired with so much of the curriculum being self-guided, made getting close to them somewhat difficult.
Not that I really cared. School was my solace, and studying let me escape, allowing me to live a thousand vicarious lives. The more my parents bemoaned Hollis’s lack of initiative and terrible grades, the harder I worked. And while they were proud of me, my accomplishments never seemed to get me what I really wanted. I was such a smart kid, I should have figured out that the only way to really get my parents’ attention was to disappoint them or fail. But by the time I finally realized that, succeeding was already a habit too ingrained to break.
My dad moved out at the beginning of my sophomore year, renting a furnished apartment right near campus in a complex mostly populated by students. I was supposed to spend every weekend there, but he was in such a funk – still struggling with his second book, his publication (or lack of it) called into question just as my mom’s was getting so much attention – that it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. Then again, my mom’s house wasn’t much better, as she was so busy celebrating her newfound single life and academic success that she had people over all the time, students coming and going, dinner parties every weekend. It seemed like there was no middle ground anywhere, except at Ray’s Diner.