I’ve been trying to get in touch with Caren, my ex-sister-in-law. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other for more than 25 years. I’ve Googled the hell out of her and sent emails through friends of friends — I’m not on Facebook (yes, I’m the one) and couldn’t think of any other way to track her down. And still, nothing.
Which led me to write this story. I’m hoping someone she knows reads and forwards it to her, and that our reunion will be like a scene out of some crappy Hollywood movie. (I see Bill Murray playing me.)
Most of all, I just want to say one thing to her: I’m sorry.
The last time I saw Caren was in my apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. She was heartbroken because Stephen, who was then her husband, had decided to end their marriage of three years. I was recently married to my own Caryn — Stephen’s younger sister — and the two of us tried to console Caren as best we could. What we said that afternoon is a little fuzzy in my memory. Caren cried uncontrollably, asking us why her husband no longer wanted to be with her, how could he not love her, was there somebody else, why was this happening, and I remember being unable to answer any of those questions.
At the same time, I realized that this situation was forcing us to choose sides — and that we had already chosen Caryn’s brother (although I have absolutely no recollection of ever making this decision.) Caren looked stricken, beautiful and delicate in a flowy white summer dress, and I remember thinking she would be swallowed up by our big red couch, Maurice Sendak-style, and never be heard from again.
And that’s pretty much what happened.
And that’s what I’m most sorry about.
Caren and I were good friends. Before we were all married, a bunch of us partied together every Friday night at the Manhattan apartment she shared with Stephen. Caren often had panic attacks (drugs and Perrier-Jouët were involved) and would barricade herself in the bedroom, not emerging for the rest of the night. She wouldn’t let anyone in. Except for me. I’d sit with her for hours, talking her down, cracking her up and making her feel safe, and we wound up having our own little party within the party. I loved her.
We also shared a beach house with the same group of partygoers for a few summers at the Jersey Shore before it became the Jersey Shore. And I remember one time we went for a long walk at dusk, talking about the hopeful things you talk about when you’re in your 20s, and as it was getting dark, the wind kicked up and we ran behind a large sand dune, huddled together with our eyes closed, holding each other close. Neither of us said a word.
Caren and I just clicked. We were both sarcastic (defensive) loners, who felt comfortable revealing our true selves only to each other. She used to teasingly call me “Lawwy” and repeat it three times fast like Betelgeuse, and as silly and annoying as that now sounds, I break out into a giant smile just thinking about it.
Now that I’m divorced from my Caryn, and it’s 25 years later, I can’t believe that I just gave up on someone I loved. What the hell was I thinking? Sure, I had been Stephen’s friend first and I was married to his little sister, but why did I accept not having Caren in my life? Why did I have to choose?
Over the years, I heard snippets (mainly through Stephen) about Caren’s life. I know she moved to Minneapolis and got remarried, to a jazz musician. I think they may have adopted a child. Or maybe I made that up. I know her second marriage didn’t work out and she moved back to New Jersey and lived with her mother for a while. Not long ago, Stephen mentioned to me that he’d seen a recent photo of her. He said she looked more beautiful than ever.
Just last week, I had dinner with my ex-brother-in-law. He’s still one of my best friends and really closer to a brother. We talked about his ex, and I started bitching about Caren not wanting to reconnect with me.
“You guys were such good friends,” he said.
“I know!” I said. “For the life of me, I can’t understand it.”
Stephen bit into a quesadilla. “She always had a lot of rules,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I couldn’t deal with her anymore.”
“I never knew she had any rules,” I said. “That was one of things that I loved about her most.”
Of course, people are complicated, and Stephen certainly knew her best. So Caren, if you’re out there — I’m sorry, and hope one day you’ll let me in again.
Larry Carlat is the managing editor of Next Avenue.