Weekly Derivative: Fenestration

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Double the Spaghetti: A Profile of a Child of Divorce

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.

Six-year-old me

Six-year-old me was a miscellany of adjectives, two of which were the most manifest:

Well-read: I posed as an Animorphs expert. Sure, I could pick out some of the words for colors or animals from the text, but it was the book covers that allowed me to “summarize” the plot for any unfortunate passerby (meaning Mom, Dad, or my crib-confined sister). The idea of turning into a starfish was too tempting to keep me from rattling on about it again… and again.  

Imaginative: To become Amelia Earhart, I threw stipulations out the window. The skill of flight was already perfected in my mind– what more was there? Looking the part was what I decided. For me, there was nothing more representative of the bold, conscientious, female trailblazer than the tights my mom slipped into on her way to work every day. She and Ms. Earhart could have been the same person. Seeing as the tights were two feet too long, I wore them as a scarf for “takeoff”.

I like to think that many characteristics of my six-year-old self are ones I can still use today. Since I am not Master of Books, I would rather say that I read well than that I am well-read. I look for variety: Eutropius’ War with Hannibal lacks the poetry that makes Pyramus and Thisbe so stirring, though it abounds with history (who knew Hannibal had a brother?). My literary adventures into Bruno Traven’s world of poverty cross the paths I have already taken to explore Gabriel García Márquez’s lessons on social corruption. The to-be-read pile in my mom’s bedroom grows with each trip into town: we return from an expedition for postage stamps sheepishly carrying another novel. Over chocolate, we compare, contrast, and begin a new written endeavor together. As a bibliophile, Latin enthusiast, and linguist-in-training, to read on my own terms is to read well.

Seeing more in what I have continues to prove fun just as much as advantageous. In my hands, a snapped branch in the snow becomes the paintbrush for a six-foot-by-five-foot smiley face in the driveway, or a cheerful “Hello!” that I leave for my mom to see when I start out for school. The bananagram letters that someone forgot to clean up turn into a riddle on the bedroom floor. My mom and I cut up rarely-worn t-shirts and dig out the old sewing kit to design patchwork pants for each other (although we might pass on wearing them outside the house… ). Instead of tossing them out, the two of us salvage our attempted reindeer cookies: they become “ugly sweaters” complete with sprinkles and sugar art. Creating is my treasure and my peace of mind, and all it requires is what I have.

While these self-descriptors have carried through to who I am now, I know that my six-year-old self was not their sole architect.

My eyes have been skimming words since before my brain registered that they had meaning, but it was my mom who made sure I had any books to look at.

My imagination has always wandered on the line between what’s firmly real and what’s colorfully, multidimensionally unproven, but it was my mom who encouraged my inventiveness.

I have her to thank for writing a customer review of the monster spray I designed for my sister’s bedroom (Five stars!). I have her to thank for helping me form the grip to hold a pencil, then a marker, then a paintbrush. She drove me to the public library when Harry Potter wasn’t at the bookstore. She gave the go-ahead for me to attempt black-bean brownies (I know: she actually did that).

It’s thanks to my mom that it is in my nature to let my passions lead me. She never yanked me out of dreamland or stamped on my impractical ideas. Because she has only ever championed the person I am, I feel no restrictions on who I can become.

Typical Library Talk

“Damn,” the teen murmured, taking an appreciative nibble at his cuticle. “You’re doing good.”

“Yeah, no shit.” His friend sighed and fluffed her bangs. She glanced over the bookshelf behind her, as though to ensure that their conversation, and her forthcoming comment, remain hush-hush to the rest of the library. “My brother showed me.”

“No kidding.” He leaned in. “So then… where does it go?”

Oooh where does it gooo,” came her sing-song tease.

“Seriously.”

“Please,” she smirked and stuck a strand of yellow-gold hair back behind her ear. “Couldn’t trust that with a pleb.”

“You said.” He leaned forward toward the computer on the table in front of them and tilted the screen towards his new adversary, encouraging her. His eyebrows stood at attention. His frown was beggarly. “When you figure it out, you said.”

“Sure.” She drummed her fingers on the table, prolonging their standoff.

“Oh! A rainbow!” A second girl giggled at their computer screen, having approached from the library entrance. She was a glasses-wearing mushroom, all in brown. The boy squirmed in his seat.

“Yeah, she’s not helping me out,” he sniveled. “I don’t know where the gold goes, or like, the arrow.” He scratched at his thumb. “I’m on level five,” he explained. “You play?”

“No,” she unbuttoned her dark coat, “not my thing.”

“What color is that?” The blonde reached out to the new arrival’s scarf. “Ew.”

“It’s like insults and unhelpfulness are the only things you know how to do,” the boy fired at her. “Besides being annoying.”

“Pathetic,” the bespectacled mushroom laughed at him. “And it’s red– no, maroon. It’s classy.

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” conceded the blonde, dropping the issue. “Here, I’ll show you the trick.” She pulled the screen toward the other girl. “It’s not even hard,” she simpered at the boy. He glowered from across the table.

“Nah,” the mushroom replied. She draped her scarf over the back of a chair. “Really– I’m not that interested.” She gave the boy across from her a pointed look: “Sorryyy.” He scowled back as though she really were a fungus.

“Whatever,” he attempted.

“Dude” the blonde scolded. “It’s just a video game.”

“No,” the other girl corrected, “it’s his life.” She shot finger guns at him from across the table.

A Thanksgiving Photo

“Don’t take it yet!” The tween readjusted her barrette. Her mouth went through a series of spasms, checking to make sure her jaw still functioned. It settled in a faint pout. “Ready.”

“Smile, everyone,” her father suggested to the table.

“Skip, stop making that noise,” quipped the old lady seated in the corner. Skip crunched on his dentures. “Lord,” she grumbled.

“Alright, everyone,” the father urged. Then, deliberating: “get the rolls off to the side. They aren’t browned.” He checked his apron: Yes! I’m the chef!

“You’ve got something on your side, Bean,” the old lady swished her finger.

“Just buttons. It’s called steampunk,” the tween twitched.

“What’s that?” asked the old lady.

“Victorian stuff, but with gears and cogs. And buttons.” Her grandmother’s nose wrinkled.

“We’re taking the picture now,” the father warned. “If you don’t smile, you don’t smile. Dad, keep your teeth in.” Skip obliged. The camera flashed.

“Beanie, did you help with dinner?” The old lady turned to her granddaughter. They were seated next to each other, inspecting the green beans floating in a soup of garlic and cream.

“Well… I mean, I made the centerpiece,” the tween offered. The flower bouquet in the middle of the table was made up of daisies and orange roses. Paper turkeys had been glued to the side of the vase, creeping up the side in a colorful procession of red, blue, and candy-striped birds.

“That one’s no good,” announced the dad. His inspection of the camera roll had proved useful after all. “Put your smiles back on.”

“Dad,” Bean grimaced.

“Sit down and don’t step on Mommom’s oxygen cord,” her dad instructed.

“That would make it a little difficult to eat,” joked her grandmother in a whisper, patting her on the back.

“I hate this.” The tween applied her most formidable glower for the camera.

“Well, you haven’t been on your feet all day preparing meat and pie and the stuffing that I remember you asking for,” her father remonstrated with her, propping the camera back up in the corner.

“You didn’t make anything chocolate.”

“Neither did you, Sabine,” he skirted back to the other side of the table to pose behind his parents. “I want to see lots of teeth, gang!” He checked that his apron would be in the shot. “And Bean, there’s a lava cake in the fridge. Picture in three! Two! One!”

Her face broke into a smile. The camera flashed.