Sabrine, “Not Sa-breen, Sa-breen-ah!” as she wants everyone who first meets her on paper to know, looks like a typical eighth-grade student. In most ways, she is.
Junk food is her ambrosia; she is partial to chocolate chips and cheesy pasta. She has dropped her mom as her confidant, and her default tone of voice is sarcasm. She may or may not need antiperspirant – she insists not. For Sabrine, homework has started to feel like work (“Mr. Murray doesn’t give As!”). Her friend group navigates school hallways with a bottomless self-assurance that comes from being the oldest kids in school, the kind of feeling that might not be warranted, but is there anyhow. You can see it in their decision not to curtail their voices, hear it in the way their footsteps ring out, sharp clacks, unmuffled.
Of her friends, Sabrine was first to claim the title of fourteen, one which is, to them, when you become a real teenager. Her precursor to the birthday was the acquisition of high-heeled mini boots. She has four pairs. These rotate throughout the week, depending on whether she is staying with her mother or her father. Sometimes, she couples them with a wiggly black slash across her eyelids, markered in by hand. This is off-limits when at her mother’s house. Makeup is a no-no for school. Her father, however, is oblivious.
When I ask Sabrine about herself, she tosses around a few nouns and adjectives. She is awkward. She dances. She loves chocolate. She is an environmentalist. Seated in one of her two kitchens – the other is three miles away and in a different house – Sabrine also happens to be a child of divorce, but she chooses other descriptors for herself. “American” and “short” define her more than her parents’ marital status does.
Out of the main people in her inner circle, Emma, Johanna, Michael, Isabel, and Nathan also have divorced parents. Six other friends do not.
“If it’s helpful,” Sabrine suggests one Saturday in her kitchen, “you can say that I was first.” She puts yesterday’s mac and cheese in the microwave and sets the timer to sixteen seconds, her birthday number. “The first in school to have divorced parents,” she explains. “Yeah, that was Kindergarten.”
In those early elementary school years, she remembers learning fractions and trotting to school with a Velcro lunch box. She also met Oria Shadmon.
Born in Israel, Dr. Shadmon works with children in the Greater Boston area. Her Newton Centre office, which sits beside Walgreens, won Sabrine over for its location. The two of them would begin most one-hour sessions by buying Oreo Cakesters at the convenience store.
As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Shadmon does not discuss Sabrine’s conversations, although they have not met for several years. She does, however, offer her own description of what Sabrine may have encountered.
“Initially, the separation and divorce process can be hard on kids, especially younger ones,” Dr. Shadmon explains over the phone. “They fear change, and they fear the unknown. They want their family together, for better or for worse, the way they have always known it….”
But divorced is the only way Sabrine knows her family. “It’s not like there’s something I can feel nostalgic about,” she says amidst mouthfuls of pasta. “I don’t remember them together. You could even say that it would be worse for them to be together. It would just be weird. So weird.”
Sabrine is not bitter. Not about her living situation, which her peers think provides her with double the Christmas gifts (“I wish!”). Like most other eighth-graders, though, she is in a phase. She borders on argumentative. She has a flair for proving her family members wrong. She is five-foot-one and exasperated. At both houses, Sabrine is testing out being a teenager.
Most often, Emma tags along while Sabrine does this. Emma is thirteen years old, a sass-master with stick legs, and Sabrine’s best friend. Both girls inhale chocolate and binge-watch Riverdale or Pretty Little Liars. Aside from Emma’s outrageous height – she has five inches on Sabrine – the girls are uncommonly similar. They are brunettes. They vacation together. Their parents are divorced.
“But it’s not the same for me,” Emma says one Saturday afternoon. She sets down a duffel bag and her pillow in the entranceway to Sabrine’s dad’s house. Tonight she is sleeping over. “I mean, it’s harder. My parents only stopped being together a few years ago. I like my parents’ new partners fine, I guess, but I’m much more used to my mom and dad being each other’s partners. You know?” Emma’s mouth twitches as though she doesn’t know if she should say more. “Sabrine probably can’t imagine it changing from divorced back to together. I didn’t want change, so, I don’t know, why would she?”
That evening, the girls bake chocolate chip cookies. Some of the dough gets molded into ramekins and sprinkled with salt for deep-dish cookie pies. Spotify is on and neither girl even thinks of going upstairs until after two in the morning, once their stomachs are swollen and their minds are numb from Cole Sprouse and Scandal. They will not let sleep tempt them, but instead exchange gossip, because sleep means waking up, and waking up means homework.
There is an army of kids like Sabrine and Emma who live their lives as though they are perpetually on vacation. Half of all children in the United States witness the divorce of a parent. Their backpacks become suitcases stocked with the necessities. Their bags aren’t worth unpacking when each item has to go back in the next morning. Mom’s house, school, Dad’s house, school, practice, Mom’s house, school, dance, Dad’s house, practice….
Then homework gets mixed in, too. “Look, arghhhh, my teachers want me to die!” The next morning, after Emma has left, Sabrine spreads out all of her assignments across the kitchen counter, and then she drapes herself over the back of her chair for dramatic effect. English essays are the most problematic for her. She thinks the curriculum should scrap them “for everyone’s safety.” When it comes to numbers, however, there are not enough to satisfy Sabrine. She loves math, in part because it comes naturally to her, in part because she knows it does not come naturally to her sister. Maybe also because her life and mathematics are made of patterns. With math, there are square numbers, formulas, rules. With her life, there is a legal schedule.
Sabrine lives a pattern. The one for this week goes:
Monday: Mom’s house
Tuesday: Dad’s house
Wednesday: Dad’s house
Thursday: Mom’s house
Weekend: Dad’s house
The next week, every day except Monday will be flip-flopped. This is the one simple catch to her schedule, in addition to alternating Christmas Eves and birthdays between her parents’ homes. Each holiday has a cut-off at two in the afternoon, when she must switch houses.
None of this is confusing for her.
“It’s always been like this,” Sabrine shrugs. For her, it is a fact. Nothing more. What she isn’t so sure about is how to remember the capital of Wisconsin, or how to tell the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks on her worksheet, or how to use “enigma” in a sentence that shows she knows its meaning, or even how she is going to get all this homework done in time for tomorrow.