A few more words from David Kalish, a writer of short stories, plays, and the new novel, The Opposite of Everything.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Honey, I Changed the Locks
(Ruminator’s note: Part of an occasional series, this essay is a factual retelling of events depicted in my upcoming novel)
Of everything that’s happened to me in life, perhaps nothing upset my moral compass more than when I changed the locks on my first wife. Even now, thinking back to 1994, it’s tough to believe I did it. Or that it happened at all.
And yet the memory remains vivid, the scene clear as day. It’s late autumn. Evening. I pace the living room of our fourth-floor Brooklyn apartment, sweat dampening my shirt. My father sits on the sofa, watching me from beneath his head of gray hair. The shiny new lock I had installed earlier that day stares out from the front door like an all-seeing, guilt-invoking eye.
“Make the damn phone call already,” says my father, who I’ve asked over for psychological, and possibly physical support. “Just get it over with.”
I phone my wife at her mother’s, where she’s eating dinner. I tell her, in my best diplomatic voice, I’ve changed the locks on her. She could come by at a mutually convenient date to pick up her stuff.
“You changed the effing locks?” she says.
After she slams down the phone, my father asks how it went. I don’t answer, just stare out the window at the street four stories below. At the tiny cars streaking past.
It’s been a long year for me – getting diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the same time my marriage went south. As the wound from my neck surgery healed, a wound in our relationship opened up. “It’s like a part of me is dying,” she told me after learning my cancer was incurable. Instead of touching me in a good way, her declaration of empathy seemed to me a sign of weakness. I felt less patient with things that only half-worked. I didn’t have time for half-ass anymore; I didn’t have the luxury of breaking up years down the road. She spent more time at her mother’s; I’d taken to sleeping on the living room sofa. But she’d refused to separate.
Fifteen minutes after my wife slams down the phone, my father and I hear a car squeal up. Red lights flash across the window. We simultaneously gaze down through the glass panes at the street below. Two cops step out of a squad car. My wife and mother-in-law emerge from the back of the squad car. Thinking fast, I run over to the phone and call my lawyer, who lives nearby, and tell him to come over ASAP.
After all, it was his idea. Meeting him several weeks earlier, I told him the stress of living with my wife was compromising my immune system. She’d refused to consider separation. The lawyer laid out a method he’d honed with numerous clients. He drew up a letter giving her a month to vacate the apartment. Since I’d bought the place before the marriage, which presumably was of short duration, I legally owned it and could do with it as I wished. But that night she tore up the letter in front of me. So my lawyer went to Plan B.
At first I argued against it. Honestly, locking her out felt extreme. Wrong. Went against what I’d been taught about marriage. My first wife and I had
signed a Ketubah before witnesses, a Jewish document declaring I’d take care of her through thick and thin. Still, my heart needed immediate action, and I knew she could just stay at her mother’s. If I thought too much I might chicken out, and I couldn’t endure another day of living with a woman who felt as if part of her were dying. So I OK’d Plan B.
The downstairs doorbell sounds. I buzz the four of them in and there are the thumps of many shoes ascending four flights of stairs, loudening.
Twisting the new deadbolt, I open the door.
A pair of white cops stare back at me like disapproving bookends, on either side of a steaming mad mother-daughter team. My father stands shoulder-to-shoulder with me. For a long awkward moment the six of us linger in the doorway getting the feel of things. My heart hammers against my chest. If Hannibal could sneak forty elephants and 50,000 men across the Alps in three weeks flat to defeat the Romans, I strain to reassure myself, maybe I could do the Brooklyn version.
“Ahem!” the bigger cop says, gaze darting between my father and me. “Which one of you gents is Mr. Kalish?”
“We both are,” my father says, supportively.
“He’s the one,” my wife says.
“I see. Mr. Kalish, did you change the locks on your wife?”
“I guess so.”
“Did you or did you not?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Sir, you can’t lock your wife out of the marital abode. You got to give her what, forty days notice?”
“Thirty,” the shorter cop corrects.
Something hard and small sinks in me. My brain pulses with a nightmare vision of living with a seriously scorned woman, stress fueling my cancer.
But just then the door buzzer sounds, like the cavalry. I run down four flights of stairs and greet my lawyer at the downstairs door.
Now, let me tell you about my lawyer. Back then he’s in his seventies, overweight, with bad knees. He meditates on the four flights of stairs. “You got an elevator here?” he asks.
I shake my head; he grunts. Lifting one foot, he places it on the first step. He ascends like a gimpy sloth. The third step grows into the fourth. Fifth into sixth. Finally he reaches the top, gasping, and strides over to the cops in the hallway.
“I’m David’s lawyer,” he declares. “How can I help you?”
The cops reiterate I don’t have the right to lock my wife out of the apartment because “she’s still his wife.” But my lawyer cites legal code to the contrary, and hands them a document signed by a family court judge. I can’t help but admire my lawyer in that moment: the cops gaze longingly down the flights of stairs, as if dreading a Kathmandu-sized mountain of paperwork piling up on their desks into the wee hours.
“What’s going on here?” my mother-in-law demands.
The policemen scratch their hats; the taller clears his throat. “Ahem! Why don’t you grab what you need for now, Mrs. Kalish? Pillow, underwear, that sort of thing. Blender. You can arrange to pick up the rest of your stuff at a later date.”
“There’s nothing I even want,” my wife says in a shaky voice. Her mother reddens, facing me. “We’ll see you in court, you son of a bitch!”
“You don’t talk to my client,” my lawyer retorts. “You talk to me!”
“We’ll see about that!” The cops’ eyes dart between my lawyer and my mother-in-law. There’s nothing more to say. My soon-to-be ex and her mother stomp down the stairs, followed by the cops.
“Congratulations,” my lawyer tells me. “You have your place back. Your peace of mind.”
I shake hands with him and my father, thanking them both, dreading my lawyer’s bill. Sure, I have my place back. But when they leave me alone in my newly bachelor apartment, it feels eerily empty, as do I.
I’m alone, truly. When my heart finally stops racing, I feel guilty about the lockout. How could I do that to my wife? I reassure myself she’ll stay at her mother’s place until she finds her own. But a few weeks later, a judge rules that I pay my wife $10,000 to compensate for the loss of her home, wiping away my last traces of survivor’s guilt.
Memory is funny. Just when you think it fits into a nice pattern – defining who you are today — you come across a part that doesn’t fit. Who you are today doesn’t seem like the same person who did that thing.
It’s as if I’m writing about someone else. And in fact, I did. For my novel, I changed the names, and twisted reality, to distance myself from the hard truth. Because sometimes we look back and think,Wow, did I really do that? Must have been a twin brother.
Yes, I actually went through those things. But so did my twin brother.