I don’t remember much of my life prior to 1976. I remember little isolated moments from a narrative I’ve managed to piece together. I’d spent my entire life to that point, my first nine years, on the same Indiana block around the same group of kids. My best friend Eric, red-haired and two months younger than me, lived across the street and three doors down. His dad built a tree house that we slept in most weekends during the summer. We walked seven blocks to school and went sledding on saucer sleds in the winter. At age five we rode our bikes to the grocery store a half-mile away. The old guy next door to me wore a jumpsuit to work in the yard and smoked a pipe that smelled like rotting apricots.
Then everything changed in 1976. After second grade in 1975, Eric moved away to upstate New York . I didn’t really know what to do without Eric; we’d spent every free moment together since age four. My parents fought every night for a long time, maybe a year or two. My brother and I didn’t sleep much as we listened from our beds in the basement. They managed to keep it together during the day, but at night it would all come out. We couldn’t make out our father’s hushed, steady words, but our mother ignored his pleas to keep it quiet. Occasionally we would peek through the door to the kitchen and try to hear all of the words. The air smelled of cigarettes.
One day in the late fall of 1975 our parents sat us down in the living room. Our mother smiled weakly as she sipped her coffee. My father spoke first. “I’ve…I’ve decided to get an apartment. I have some things going on, um, at work and, well, I…we think it’s best for now. You’ll still see me plenty, though.” I can’t remember what else was said. At eight years old I didn’t understand what was happening. I think they asked if we had any questions. We didn’t even know what to ask. I tried to imagine what the apartment would look like. I hoped at least it would mean an end to all the fighting.
My brother and I didn’t talk about it much, if at all. We never really spoke about the fighting or the troubling things going on in the house. Sometimes we would talk about things indirectly, such as acting things out by creating characters with our stuffed animals. The animals said what we had trouble voicing. My brother is two years older, but I don’t think he understood things any better than I did. Nothing was ever really explained, not until much later anyway.
The third-floor apartment was in a large, non-descript building near the Indiana University campus, where my father taught English. It was called Poolside Apartments, though the tiny pool never seemed to be fit for swimming. The apartment had two identical rooms, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchenette. In one room he set up a trundle bed, built some shelves for the stereo with stained wood boards and cinder blocks, and he set up a card table with folding chairs. For the other room – our room – he bought a new television (our first color set) and set up bunk beds. The apartment had greenish carpeting with several large spots, maybe piss stains from a prior tenant’s contraband pet. The windows looked out to the back of a decrepit party house that seemed deserted during the day but came alive hours after we went to bed.
During the year my father spent in the apartment, my brother and I stayed over practically every Saturday night. It doesn’t seem that my father wasn’t all that involved in our lives prior to moving in to the apartment, but during those weekend visits we had his full attention. That winter we developed a routine. We’d come over on Saturday to watch Indiana play basketball. That was the year they went undefeated; we didn’t miss a game. At night my father would cook a frozen pizza and we’d watch a show called Almost Anything Goes, a sort of proto-reality show where teams representing suburban towns would participate in wacky games. Then we’d get up on Sunday and my father would cook pancakes – humble beginnings for a man who would later become a world-class cook. Sometimes we’d go to the student union on campus and shoot pool, or we’d walk a few blocks up Hunter Street to the IGA for Twinkies or Gatorade. I loved those weekends.
Almost immediately following the separation both of my parents pursued new romantic interests. My brother and I began to understand that he really wasn’t coming back to the house. My father’s new girlfriend was a slim beauty in her early twenties named Nancy. The first time we met Nancy, I asked her to sit while I drew her portrait. She sat very patiently, and I did my best to make it look like a photograph. I didn’t know how to draw blonde hair so I made her a brunette. I wondered if she would be my stepmother, and if I would call her mom. I didn’t think that would ever feel right. After a few weeks my father didn’t talk about Nancy, and I didn’t ask. I saw her once a few years later. I said hi, but she quickly looked away.
Sometimes we’d to go to this pizza place a few blocks down the main drag from campus called Café Pizzeria or another place downtown called Rapp’s Pizza Train. Both places had juke boxes with lots of great rock music. I wished I knew the names of the bands. I know the names now: I heard Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t even sure what instruments made the sounds I loved. One song I especially loved – Rock n’ Roll All Nite by Kiss. I knew some of the words, but I didn’t know the name of the band or the name of the song. I told my father that I wanted to buy a record, a “hard rock” record – like what we heard on the jukebox. I wanted that particular song, but I felt too embarrassed to say the few words I knew. He took me to a place called Schoolkids Records, the place he went to buy his jazz and blues records and everything by Dylan and the Band. I thought if I looked at every record cover in the place I would know which record to buy.
I chose the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record, because it had a picture of a cool guitar piercing a heart on the front cover, and the guy looked sort of tough. My father talked me out of buying it, however, and urged me to buy The Eagles Greatest Hits. He didn’t have to twist my arm, because he told me it was hard rock, and the front cover had a picture of some kind of skull. I thought it might be the right record. Anyway, I hoped it would be.
We brought the record back to the apartment and I eagerly placed it on the turntable. I felt let down when I heard the songs, though, because it sounded sort of like the country music my dad listened to on the radio. He apologized, explaining that he thought it would be harder rock. I didn’t like it much at first, but I listened to it all the time because it was my record – my first record, other than a couple Glenn Campbell records my parents gave me when I fell hard as a toddler for the Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour. Eventually I started to like the Eagles record more – particularly the song Witchy Woman, because it was sort of like hard rock and the lyrics seemed sort of creepy. Many thousands of listens later, the album still holds up for me. Later that year this badass kid from my class named Jimmy brought Kiss Alive to school, so I knew what to buy the next time we went to School Kids. Sometimes Jimmy brought Skoal tobacco to school.
After the fall of 1976 my father moved to a rental house, and then later he bought a beautiful old limestone house three blocks from our mother. Our country celebrated its Bicentennial, and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about for weeks. My parents finalized their inevitable divorce, and things were shaky for a few years. My brother and I bounced back and forth between our parents’ houses in various experimental joint custody arrangements, and the fights continued. We had a well-intentioned Sunday family meeting with the four of us, which often degenerated into bickering or worse. My brother and I learned to sit and wait. Eventually everyone ended up okay, but we endured some tough times.
But during that one year things felt okay. For that short period of time my parents seemed happy to be moving on to the next phase. It didn’t feel like the end of our family; it felt like an adventure.