The Squid & The Whale

Nearly twenty-four years to the day that my parents sat Chris and me down to announce their separation, I am still seeking catharsis.

It was an afternoon not unlike this. The air was cool. Daylight was scarce. We gathered in the living room — a space reserved solely for guests and holidays. Chris and mom sat on the brown plaid couch. I sat in my father’s lap on a narrow, high-backed orange chair. And they said it: divorce. My father pronounced the word like it was two separate ones: div oerss.

The days and months that followed were a radical departure from any that had come prior. There were foundation-rattling arguments, missed spelling assignments, and tears.

Daylight was scarce.

On Christmas day, 1980, my father drove us from Waterloo to Vinton where my Uncle Jack met us at a gas station. The shook hands sullenly, and made the switch. Chris and I loaded ourselves into Uncle Jacks car, and he drove wordlessly to Cedar Rapids where my mother was waiting with a brand-new Atari 2600.

My parents were the same age then as I am now.

When I saw the trailer for Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid & The Whale” last week, all those memories came flooding back. In it, Jeff Daniel and Laura Linney sit their two adolescent sons down in their Brooklyn living room and discuss the custody agreement.

“Your mother will get you Mondays, Tuesdays, Saturdays, and every other Thursday,” Daniels says.

“But what about the cat?” Owen Kline asks.

As the family divides in geography and allegiance, triangles form. The oldest gravitates towards his father, the youngest to his mother. Secrets are revealed. Ten-year-olds are faced with thirty-year-old’s subject matter: affairs, sex, and rage.

Divorce, like death (I imagine), leaves behind a terrible gaping wound. Barbara Streisand, in a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, called it a “void.” Bono calls it a “God-shaped hole.” It’s tempting to try and fill that space with drugs, or booze, or rock ‘n roll, or someone else. But it’s futile. It can’t be filled. It can only be lived with.

Walking back to The MTV from my first on camera interview with my cousin’s band, World Leader Pretend, in Rockefeller Center, I called my parents: dad in Indiana, mom in Pennsylvania. I was proud. I wanted to share the success. I left two messages, and kept walking.

In the film’s conclusion, Jesse Eisenberg steals away to the Natural History Museum — just across the street from my apartment — to stare into the face of his greatest childhood fear: a life-sized squid and whale locked in a permanent struggle to the death.

When the credits had rolled, I walked out of the screening onto the street, put my earphones on and pressed play. REM’s “Sweetness Follows” was in queue.

It’s these little things they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and thunder
Yeah, yeah we were altogether
Lost in our own lives
Oh, oh, Oh, oh, sweetness follows
Oh, oh, Oh, oh, sweetness follows

Sometimes iPod’s shuffle feature gets it just right.

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