reading or studying, tipping a buck every hour on whatever I ordered until the sun came up.
The insomnia started when my parents’ marriage began to fall apart three years earlier. I shouldn’t have been surprised: their union had been tumultuous for as long as I could remember, although they were usually arguing more about work than about each other.
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.