When I was younger, I used to pity classmates with hyphenated names. Martin-Roth. Cuttler-Schwartz. Spielberg-Myers. Katz-Nelson. Goldberg-Schechter. Watching as teachers struggled to perform these abominable, untenable linguistic duets while calling roll, I grew thankful for my two-syllable, five-letter gift.
Older and wiser, I now see how foolish I once was. Now I’m insistent that one day, when I have children of my own, their surname will be hyphenated. An equal representation of my partner and me.
If divorce were a disease, doctors would be smart to quarantine my family. They’d transport us to Nebraska’s Sandhills and seal us off in a plastic bubble in the middle of no-man’s-land. They’d force us to wear hazmat suits if we dared a journey to the market or the mall or the movies. And they’d be right to. Isolated from the rest of the world, we’d no longer be able to infect others with the virulent strain of infidelity and domestic violence and verbal abuse and irreconcilable differences with which we are all too familiar. My family does divorce the way some families do Christmas caroling.
When I was 10, my parents sat my three siblings and me down at our kitchen table and announced they were splitting up. At the time, I was in shock—to this day, my mom insists she’s never seen a face so scared as mine when I heard the news. But I shouldn’t have been. I should’ve seen it coming. After all, divorce is something of a tradition in my family. I am the descendant of not only divorced parents but also divorced maternal grandparents: Arthur, a rabbi and high school principal, cheated on Masha endlessly, even sleeping with his secretary while my mom was a ninth-grade student at the school where they both worked. And I am the descendant of divorced paternal great-grandparents: Morris’s promiscuity caused him to leave Sophie, the woman from whom I got my middle name and my breasts (apparently), who then raised their two daughters on her own. Even my paternal Grandpa Stanley divorced once before marrying my Grandma Shirley.
And this heritage of broken vows extends beyond my direct ancestry: two sets of great-aunts and -uncles on my dad’s side divorced—my great-uncle Norman actually did it twice—as did four sets on my mom’s—and that doesn’t even include the many more distant relatives who have carried on our familial legacy. Like my mom’s cousin, who left his wife and kids for an opera singer. Or my dad’s half-brother, who is now married to his mid-life crisis, a Russian foot model 34 years his junior (and two years younger than his own youngest kid). I’m not sure how common divorce was in pre-Holocaust Jewry, but I’ll bet I’m related to anyone who was doing it.
At the age of 14, I cheated on my boyfriend. Granted, Sam asked me out just three days before we’d be spending the entire summer apart. And I was a newly teenaged girl nervous for the transition from intimate middle school lunchroom to indomitable high school cafeteria. And Mark, two years older and over a full foot taller and a star of our summer camp basketball team, pursued me and made me feel safe and confident and like my eyebrows weren’t too bushy for my face. And all we did was kiss—twice—before the guilt gnawed at me from the inside out and I ended things with both of them. And I got teased for it—friends say I paid for my crime in embarrassment and tears—by older girls who chanted in the mess hall in front of the entire camp, “Cheater! Cheater! Where’s your boyfriend? Where’s your boyfriend?” upon reading a letter from Sam that they “found open in the mailroom.”
I’m told that I was young and naïve, that it was an innocent mistake. Even Sam forgave and forgot and dated my best friend a few years later. But the infidelity hasn’t left me.
In the middle of ninth grade, my friend Elliot confessed that he had feelings for me. We were 15 and went on movie dates chauffeured by our parents and passed notes back and forth in math class just to say “hey.” He lived three and a half blocks away, and the neighborhood parents all smirked when they caught us walking hand in hand. He even watched the State of the Union with me that year and complimented President Obama, without my prompting.
On our four-month anniversary, he told me he loved me. So, naturally, I broke up with him.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure I loved Elliot, too. At least as much as a 15-year-old girl is capable of loving a green-eyed, freckle-faced, pubescent boy with a love for neon converse. But I’ve realized in the years since, because I haven’t really changed, that I’m afraid of love. I’m almost allergic. It’s in my blood, after all, pulsing through my veins and coursing through the chambers of my heart, a mutation in the alphabet of my DNA which makes its L, O, V, and E toxic. I’m a carrier for the genetic disease to which my family has all but succumbed. I was tested in the summer between middle and high school, and my results came back positive, whispering in my ear, “You’re just like Dad and Grandpa—you have it, too.”
Now a sophomore in college, I haven’t been in a relationship since. And I know there are a million possible explanations for why that is: because I never really got over a boy I never really dated from a rival high school, because I don’t put myself out there enough, because I’m still young, because of hookup culture. Still, I can’t help but feel like there’s something more. I can’t help but feel like my bloodline makes me damaged goods, incapable of romantic normalcy.
I think what I’m scared of is more than just divorce. It’s more than the letdown part, the cheating part, the abuse part. It’s more than being unable to reconcile differences. What I fear is the loss of control that will inevitably come from someone falling out of love with me as I stand there begging for my world to stop spinning and people to stop changing and hurt to stop hurting and love to stop stopping. What I fear is becoming like so many other Narin and Laifer and Sheinkopf and Frost and Richter women who came, and lost control, before me. So I always get there first. Whenever I get close to someone, just as I start convincing myself that this guy is different, I tense up. I run away. I shut down. I don’t cheat—I haven’t since Sam—but all these reactions are essentially the same. I refuse to relinquish control and let myself fall, because I fear what might happen if I can’t get back up.
A lifelong commitment “to love and to cherish till death do us part” is a foreign concept to me. I learned at a young age that it doesn’t exist the way some kids learn the truth about Santa Claus. So if one day I do decide to marry, I won’t be falling, and I won’t be swept off my feet. I’ll need someone who understands that, for me at least, love and family are the fruits of a tree planted firmly in the ground, tended to by those who see each other as equals.
I’ll need someone willing to hyphenate our kids’ last names.