from the 2020 issue of NOON

I could have told my daughters Portia and Margaret the truth, which was that I was totally stressed-out by the idea that my wife, Amie, was back at the AirBnB getting angrier and angrier and angrier. But that would have implicated Amie, which (1) I really try not to do, because I don't want to hurt her relationship with the children, and (2) I didn't think I should do, because I don't think parents should point the finger at each other, especially not parents at stepparents, and (3) I don't like blaming other people for my feelings, since it was my feelings we were talking about, after all, and I have to take responsibility for those. (Reasons 1 and 2 especially are informed by the fact that I had a stepfather who was blamed for lots of things, and I didn't have a relationship with him for many years, and I still distrust him, even though he's been dead for ten years, and I think this is in no small part due to the things my father but also my mother said about him and blamed him for.) So I lied to the girls by telling them a little part of the truth, which was that I was stressed- out because of the slow line at Whataburger. Which was—now that I write it down—kind of a nasty thing to say to them, since they both knew they'd guilted me into going to the fast-food place, and they probably also knew or at least suspected part of the truth of why I was stressed-out. My daughters know me better than I tend to admit.
white They often tell me that I look sad when I'm worrying about some simmering fight with my wife. They probably have agendas of their own. But they are also my children, and I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
white Recently, I read an interview in The Paris Review with Simone de Beauvoir, who is not one of my favorite writers but is one of my favorite people to teach. I teach her in many of my classes, including Existentialism, Philosophy of Literature, and the newly developed How to Be Free and Happy. In the inter- view, de Beauvoir said, "Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it." I agree that to love someone or to be loved is a great privilege, and of course it enriches, complicates, and troubles your life. That's such a tautology that you wonder why the interviewer chose to include it. But she was speaking, so she was being casual, and it is the kind of thing one likes to hear de Beauvoir say. What troubled me was her pompous claim that real love is rare. "Real love": What does that mean? As opposed to fake love? Does she mean a grand passion? It seems to me that this statement could be made only by someone who has never had children. When I think of a statement like this about real love, I think of Beckett and Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil. I read that when they were married, they more than once ran a piece of tape all the way across their apartment in Paris, dividing it in two, and agreed that neither would come to the other person's side. (Neither could afford to leave the other—or, at least, that was what they told themselves. And divorce is financially difficult.) They supposedly had an incredibly violent relationship, and were together for around fifty years. Of course, Simone de Beauvoir was also in a strangling, merciless, but exalted lifetime relationship with the philanderer Jean-Paul Sartre, which may have been why she made her remark about the rarity and enriching power of love. She may have been telling herself all those years that what she and Sartre had was extraordinary. As for me, I'm like the narrator at the beginning of the great Christmas movie Love Actually: I think love is all over the place, banal and noble, always hard, always messy, always keeping things interesting and demanding.
white It makes me wonder: Would we be less distracted by life if we were less afraid of pain? Like, what if you could stop running away from suffering? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Would life become mundane?
white Lately, things have been complicated in my third marriage, because we have an eighteen-month-old son, and it is difficult for his sisters to have a new little brother, and it is probably also difficult to have a new sibling from their stepmom. My wife, Amie, is not new—we've been married seven years—but things change once the stepmom is also a real mom, a real mom to a brother of yours—and it must be difficult for her to be a new mom of a son who has three big sisters who were previously only your stepchildren and not the older siblings of your only child. I just showed this sentence to my wife, who is also a writer, and she was annoyed. We've been fighting a lot lately. She said, "I'm moving over here, but it's not because I'm mad." We are working together in a coffee shop called PT's in down- town Kansas City. In the afternoon, normally Amie's mom watches our son for a few hours and we either go climbing at a climbing gym or go to a coffee shop to write. (A moment ago Amie left the coffee shop entirely, explaining: "I'm going to go outside because I'm cold." It's summer in Kansas City and 109 degrees with the heat index. But now she's sitting out there with her back to me.) Before she moved outside, she said, about the sentence I showed her, the first sentence in this paragraph, "I don't think it's right." I wrinkled my eyebrows at her. "Why don't you just write about your own feelings rather than trying to write about other people's feelings and getting them wrong, just because you don't want to offend anybody?"
white She was right, of course.
white We were arguing the other day about stepfamily stuff after returning from a tough family vacation in Austin—and it was tough, if I'm honest with myself, though it started out surprisingly well—and I said, "But I don't even know what I'm feeling. It's like when I look at my feelings, they just kind of dis- appear," which is true. When I'm angry, I'm genuinely angry. But then as soon as I'm no longer angry, I don't feel as if the anger was real—unless I think about the things that made me angry, in order to get myself angry all over again.
white But last night, as I was thinking about anger and stepfamilies, I remembered that the few times I saw my stepfather, Blair, angry he was terrifyingly violent. I saw him drag my stepsister, Lisa, by her ponytail up the stairs of our two-story wooden rental house in Calgary when she was thirteen or fourteen years old (I was six or seven), with a toilet plunger in his other hand, with which he beat her when he got her to the privacy of her bedroom. We could hear his yells and her screams all through the house. I remember him bellowing at my stepbrothers in the basement and slamming doors. I remember how red his face was and the way his mouth sprayed. He lost his temper with me only once or twice, and he yelled at me and slammed a few doors, but that was when my mom was out of the house, at the hospital after a surgery. My mother almost never lost her temper, but, like me, when she did it was a frightening explosion, screaming and door-slamming. So perhaps it is to be expected that I would be afraid of anger, both of getting angry myself and of other people getting angry with me.
white Of course, I also get so tired of my wife and ex-wives treating their children or stepchildren as if they are adults. Why can't we just recognize that okay, these are children, and take their little tantrums as lightly as we did when they were babies?
white Also, to be honest, I'm angry at everyone except the baby right now. I'm angry that my wife can't be more loving with my daughters, more grown-up, more like a parent and less like a spoiled child who wants to make everything about her and her feelings. I'm angry that my twenty-four-year-old can't let go of not being the only child. I'm angry that my fourteen-year-old is so angry with me but is afraid to show it, and won't let me really be her dad. I'm angry that my twelve-year-old sulks all the time because she's not the baby anymore. I'm not angry at the baby, but I will be one day, of course. And I'm angry at myself because I don't have the courage and wherewithal to create a unified family out of all these competing interests. I'm also angry at myself because I am so afraid of the anger of my wife and my daughters: if I could just live with their anger rather than avoiding it or trying to fix it, I feel like my own life would be better and all of their lives would also be better.