The Year Of Kramer vs. Kramer
It was the year of revolution and malaise and gas lines. The year of swingers’ parties. The year our parents found their visions of life irreconcilable, old-school Episcopalian liberal and new age feminist. They split apart like ice floes, neither parent really knowing what to do with us. We were in our own hostage crisis.
That Christmas, my older sister Nancy and I saw Kramer vs. Kramer and everything became illuminated. I was fourteen, she was seventeen. She wanted to become an actress because she could inhabit so many worlds, drifting, as she put it. I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted. The world demanded things, teachers, parents, all with their own conceptions of adulthood. Our mother was a writer, our father worked in an ad agency. They both insisted that their way was the right one. Maybe that was part of the whole problem.
We got high before the movie, because of how dark it seemed and because we’d been getting high constantly as of late. We laughed hard seeing the characters so large and exaggerated on the screen, oversized heads. Nancy and I laughed when Dustin Hoffman was left to pick up the pieces, like our father. Mom announced she wanted a divorce out of the blue too. Only she announced it in an Episcopalian communion line, not a comfortable New York apartment, leaving us to nearly throw up the Eucharist, bread and wine churning in our bodies. And there was no dropped French toast like the movie, no father screaming in frustration so openly. Instead Dad dealt with it by concealing himself. He drank Harvey Wallbangers and Grasshoppers, the kitchen full of cocktail glasses, empty, implicating. He told dark jokes about divorce and loss. He even took us to the bar, and got his friend Fritz, the bartender to ply us with booze.
At the movie, we nodded, still laughed. We saw our mother’s need for something fulfilling and true in Meryl Streep, for a life of her own. We understood and we hurt at the same time. Our own drifted so far apart, couldn’t dispense love, tendrils of tenderness. She always told us to be emotionally independent, in so many words. The meek inherited the Earth, but the pugilistic got results, she said. She swore like a sailor, she traveled with ease, she seemed to comport herself in ways we hated and envied.
We laughed when Meryl Streep walked out, we laughed at the letter Meryl Streep sent her child saying she didn’t want him. In fact, we roared at that. It was dark, it was funny, it was true and blunt. Our own mother sought solace in writing and even darker stories, stories that seemed utterly depressing to us, but that made her happy. Stories also of dysfunctional family, of children who at the time seemed like monstrous ogres, but who may have well been accurate representations of us, of our needs, our needs to be cared for. Loved. I cannot say now, for I have never understood our mother’s innermost needs, nor has she thought to confess them with honesty, with fervency. I wish she could have trusted us then, but we wished so much then.
We heard Dustin Hoffman call his son a little shit and spank him, in our father’s own voice. In our case, though, it wasn’t eating forbidden ice cream that caused him to say it. And he didn’t spank us. The cause: It was the time Nancy and I played mailbox baseball and knocked over people’s trash cans, disrupted happy families and their secrets. We knocked cans over with intensity, with rage, with sadness which we concealed. We struck mailbox after mailbox with American flags, illusions of Rockwellian happiness sneering at us. We knocked over trash cans and laughed as irate owners chased us, middle-class families, even as we snatched secrets from their turned-over trash. Letters of heartbreak. Empty condom wrappers.
We got busted by the cops and our mother insisted that our father clean up the mess. She lectured us from London, berated us from Paris, judged us from San Francisco. And when she was home, she reminded us to be adults, as if we knew what that meant in those times.
It must have seemed so frustrating to our father, to watch us drifting from him, lashing out, to not have any sense of order and calm. But more than that it must have been frustrating to his vision of a world of achievement, power. We could not be controlled.
We wanted him to understand what it meant to be in the middle of things, with no anchor, with only ourselves for company. We wanted him to know we needed strength, stability, love, peace, but he retreated into the dark shibboleths of affairs, women riding our father like a sexual carousel in his bedroom nightly. Blondes, brunettes, women not much older than Nancy. They dreamed of marriage, insisted that we call them Mom, even though my father never intended to marry them.
We laughed a little less loudly when Meryl Streep came back for the kid, during the custody battles, the grandiose speeches, which seemed too noble. Too ideal. We still laughed though, still high enough to find this all funny, though the pot wasn’t quite as potent as we’d wanted.
We nodded at the lawyers who grandstanded, called Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman unfit, both mother and father, which we’d heard, men with dome-shaped heads and spruce mustaches. We smiled knowingly, sadly. Except instead of loved ones, we were commodities to be traded between parents, not valued children, it seemed. Our parents fought over us because it was a war, and we were trump cards and they couldn’t tell you what we wanted from life.
And we held each other and laughed, until we cried at the happy ending, the son finding happiness with his father, the mother giving of herself. Selflessness abounding on the screen, things our parents simply couldn’t possess, couldn’t find. We smelled of pot and sadness and shampoo and popcorn. We called each other childhood nicknames, for they were our own connections, immutable. We tried to find something to hold onto, some little happiness. No avail.
We wept there in the theater, in the dark, people leaving, satisfied, without any attempt to comfort us. They darted out of the theater and into the cold Christmas air, mythical Santa Claus on his way with gifts for others and a clear notice to us to go fuck ourselves.
We wept for the fact that our parents were searching, withdrawn, for the fact that they couldn’t resolve things so neatly like this movie. We wept because the little kid got what he wanted in the movie. It was false, we wept, voices rising. It seemed so false, so neatly packaged. It was a movie that left us to find our own answers alone. It was a movie that existed in fantasyland, even though it proclaimed itself a paragon of verisimilitude and reviewers praised it for that sense of truth.
It was so many things, but not the things we wanted and that Christmas, we knew we would never get those things, those simplest of things. Family. Empathy. Rescue. We could hope, we could weep, we could dream, but we stood in the middle of a storm, waiting, waiting, for something that might have no end.
header image: “Wellmont” by Nesster / flickr