As if divorce, breast cancer and chemo wasn’t enough, Hurricane Sandy blew me out of my cozy oceanfront Long Beach apartment and into my ex husband’s bachelor pad.
On the morning of Monday, October 28, 2012, my eight year old son and I had finished pasting three bats on our windows, trying to get into the Halloween mood. A storm brewing off of the East coast was headed for the Tri -State area. On the Friday before the weekend, they’d cancelled my son’s school preparing for the storm to hit land. By Sunday the camera crews from the networks that descended on the boardwalk seemed as bored with their assignments as the unflappable residents of Long Beach were.
At noon I heard a knock at the door.
“Me who?” I asked, knowing full well that “Me” was my soon to be ex-husband. He was not “Me” anymore. It seemed way too intimate of a reference from someone who’d just worked his way up to the “ I love my son more than I hate my ex” rung in my heart. Nor was he The enemy. Breast cancer had taken the title from him.
I let my ex into the apartment that I shared with our one and only child, our eight year old son. We exchanged smirks and I mumbled a weak “thanks for coming over.” There was a Superstorm coming. Of course DAD should be with us.
At that moment, he was probably the last person in the world I’d have invited in for coffee. We’d spent the last three years locked in legal battles in California’s family court and the only winners were the high paid lawyers. It was a toss up as to which one of us got screwed the most.
As a single mom, I moved back to my native Long Island to be close to my family. “Dad” soon followed, moving a mere half mile from us.
Four days earlier, I’d had reconstructive breast surgery. I felt vulnerable and raw. Bandages still supported my new breasts, the golden rings, my prize after going through a double mastectomy and four months of chemotherapy during one of New York’s hottest summers.
My blood boiled and my scalp itched. If you had to get cancer, don’t get it in the summertime. Unless you’re prepared to share your experience with the world, you’Il end up having to buy a disguise (a wig, hat, a bandana). Mine was a human hair wig, and it felt like I was walking through a rain forest wearing road kill.
“You look good,”, my ex said, “considering…”
“Yeah, great. Thanks. So do you, considering….”
I couldn’t help myself, it was a reflex that I had to match or one up his back- handed compliment, although part of me knew he was trying to be nice. I just couldn’t shake my need to make him feel as horrible as I felt. On some level I even blamed him for the cancer that squashed my feeble attempts at dating. Thinking of myself on a first date made me sick. I pictured looking like Michael Caine’s counter-personality as a deranged female killer in “Dressed to Kill,” wearing a wig and fishnet stockings.
“ Daddy!” my son squealed and ran into his Dad’s arms, as if Spiderman had just walked through the door. I smiled, cringing inside.
“Did you know mom was bald under there?” my son asked.
I felt comfortable wearing a bandana in front of my ex, and grateful that he let me handle my diagnosis the way I chose. To spare my son any more worry, I’d told him that I was going to have a breast reduction because I was too big on top, explaining that it was a procedure his grandma also had, which was true. I showed him the dents in my shoulders, made by my bra straps over the years, and I could slowly see the “ I can sort of get behind what you’re saying” register in his eyes. My son was the love of my life, and I’d already been walking the tightrope of too much information and over protection, dealing with situations I’d not even a clue existed during my own sheltered childhood. I drew the line at sharing my health crisis with him. I was determined to deal with the treatment, and sparing him the details was, if not in his best interest, in mine. I didn’t need the added stress of him worrying about me. He was eight going on eighteen, but I sometimes forgot he was still emotionally in the single digits. He chalked up half of what I told him to Mom being weird, but I’d rather him think me goofy than on the way out.
I’d finally ended a chunk of my daily discomfort by ditching the wig around the house. I’d made up a story to my son about a bet I’d made with my brother who’d challenged me to shave my hair because it was so hot. I tried to teach my son some lesson in it: be careful when you make a bet, because a real man pays up. He didn’t believe me, at first, till I twirled road kill around my head, then chucked it across the room. What a relief it was to wear bandanas instead. Mercifully, it was October, and the weather had cooled off, and my hair had begun to grow back. But less than a quarter of an inch of prickly spikes poked through my silk scarf, creating a new but also annoying scalp sensation.
The wind howled through the window trimming, adding sound effects to the loop of Breaking News reports of the Superstorm. I was already numb to the alerts, convinced the storm would be anything but a nonsensical panic state they spun to boost ratings.
Long Beach was barely touched the year before during the same amped up Hurricane Irene threats so we barely blinked while the fire department wailed up the streets, screeching through their megaphones, “ Mandatory evacuation for Long Beach. Leave now.”
Sure thing. We took a walk on the boardwalk and had fun, taking photos of us, bravely wrestling with the elements, posting them on Facebook when we got home, just before nightfall.The captions under our smiling faces, flexing our muscles still makes me feel like the jerks that we were. “What hurricane? We aint scared’a no Hurricane.”
By 6:30 p.m. in a matter of a half of an hour, as predicted, the “storm surge” moved the ocean and boardwalk into our front yard, and cars floated down the street already a four foot high river. The power went out. We watched the surreal situation by candle light from our second story window, then in our lobby with the rest of our unbelieving neighbors, realizing it was time for us to pray.
We were saved, transported, put up for weeks by the kindness of my ex’s best friends from childhood. People I’d considered my own dear friends, but ones that were deeded to my ex in our unspoken custody agreement. Broke, bandaged, and suddenly homeless, I had no choice but to move back in with my ex-husband. I felt like pulling every hair out of my newly hirsuit head.
Instead, I’d resurrected road kill, wrapping a bandana around the top, a la Little Stevie Van Zandt. I now looked road chic. I even met this really cool guy who thought I was some groovy hippie chic with an affectation rather than a chemo patient.
One evening, before I went out to meet a friend, my ex made dinner for the three of us. “Dig In,” he said, then passed my son and me a couple of napkins and plates, nodding for us to help ourselves to the bowl of pasta.
“Dad, can we watch TV?” my son asked.
My ex looked up from his food, meatsauce on his face. We were both trying to be perfect parents. While we were married, we’d gotten into the habit of watching TV during dinner. Dad didn’t like it, viewing dinner as family bonding time. I never thought it a problem. My son and I bonded many evenings over dinner and “Phineas and Ferb” after Dad left. It had been a bone of contention between us, one in a skeleton of differences responsible for the demise of our marriage. But we were in my ex’s home. A wave of guilt mixed with sadness washed over me. Right behind it, anger surged, blocking any recent feelings of gratitude I felt for my ex. Why did I have to deal with this petty stuff, A-gain? We hadn’t lived together for two years, but there we were, the three of us cramped into his one bedroom apartment for the unforeseeable future.
“No, honey, we can’t watch TV,” I sighed.
Then my ex surprised me and grabbed the remote. He clicked on “Austin and Ally,” my new favorite Disney show.
“ Why not?” he asked, smiling. We all chowed down on his delicious spaghetti. My ex was always a better cook than I was.
Hurricane Sandy gave us a second chance, washing away the hate, healing our hearts. We didn’t get back together, though I sure wished it were possible. We grew up for a fantastic reason: to be great parents to a great kid. My ex felt like a brother. He was still my family.
Hurricane Sandy blew me out of my home, and onto the doorstep of my ex – who kindly, sweetly, generously took me in.