Every couple of weeks, I meet a friend named Mike in the back corner of a Bojangle’s restaurant in Greenville, S.C. I don’t know his last name, but I recognized him the first time I met him. I knew him all too well.
He and I are on the same schedule. Like migrating birds on a biweekly season, we instinctively jump in our cars, drive up Interstate 85, take the curve on Exit 45 and pull into our adjacent concrete nests along Highway 25 and wait for our kids to dash in from the north.
We were both married a long time. Things went well. Then, suddenly, they didn’t. Our partners left to find new direction in life. That direction turned out to be north. North to new marriages, new houses and new challenges. Stunned, we agreed to what was left: a legal state of limbo called visitation.
As a defense technique, men talk on the surface. If we lock in on sports, weather, business or sex, we can kill a couple of hours without effort. Our mouths run on automatic pilot. Our minds can retreat to other places. But if a man is in pain and he sees another in the same circumstance, we can cut to the core immediately.
Mike’s first words to me were: “It’s hard, isn’t it?” He was sitting in his car with his three kids. I was there with my two. We were meeting our ex-wives halfway to exchange our precious cargo.
“I’ve tried dating,” Mike said. “I dated one woman for more than a year. Then one night she walked out. I haven’t seen her since. What is it with women?” he asked. “How do you make them happy? I don’t know anymore.”
He talked about his depression, attempts to cope, the lack of answers. We found we’re both confused about marriage. Neither wants to stare that pain of divorce in the face again. It can be deadly. We barely survived it once.
Yet others move on, marry again and again and don’t seem to look back. Mike and I aren’t so lucky. We try, but find ourselves returning to analyze what a friend called “the detritus of divorce.”
When my married friends talk of problems, I urge them to work through them. That’s the challenge. Quitting is too easy. And too difficult.
Mike and I stood there in the parking lot, watching as our kids drove off into the dark and windy Carolina night. Back to new stepfathers we don’t know, to blended families we’re not a part of, to schoolteachers we’ll never meet and soccer games we’ll never see.
We shook our heads, then shook hands. “Hang in there,” I said. “See you in two weeks,” he said. Somehow, just knowing there’s a buddy carrying the same burdens makes them a little lighter.
Then we got in our cars and drove south along the lonely highway home, tears in our eyes and holes in our hearts.