An actor and a legal clerk, the parents of one of our daughter's schoolmates, split up next. So did an editor and a publicist known for their nightmarishly relentless quarreling. Then a neighbor, a software programmer and passionate libertarian, left his wife; their son's misbehavior became compulsive and he was thrown out of school. The architect and the former advertising agent we had become friends with, the accountant and the school psychologist whose son pestered our daughter in the preschool they both attended, the police detective and the physical therapist in the squat limestone at the end of the block -- they all separated.
As time passed, the breakups became increasingly spectacular and baroque. The longer the marriage, the more deranged the couple seemed to have become. One man, afraid to confront his domineering wife, moved out with no prior warning and lived in his office for the next four years. Another man, whom I had met when we brought our wives to the same Lamaze class years ago, moved into the basement of his house when his wife refused to go off Prozac. It cost them one thousand dollars in legal fees just to decide what type of door would separate the basement from the main house.
I ran into a man on the subway whose daughter played on my daughter's baseball team. I had seen him at games, a slight fellow with sad watery eyes and a gray mustache yellowing at the corners of his mouth. He was divorced, he said. His wife had become a lesbian. She used to beat him, he said, but she had acquired sole custody of their daughter by falsely claiming he had beaten her. Although she had moved in with another woman, and although the only time he could see his daughter was at the baseball games, the courts required him to pay both child support and maintenance. I looked at him speechlessly. He shrugged and, as the train pulled into his station, touched me on the shoulder and said, ''See you at the game.''
These stories belied the notion that, as social conservatives and their liberal allies liked to maintain, divorce had become a casual, guilt-free enterprise pursued by the irresponsible with the encouragement of a licentious society. They frightened me. But the stories also aroused a voyeuristic excitement. It was not simply the display of psychic wounds, the blood and pain of lives in collision, that attracted me. I wanted to know how they all knew when they had reached an irretrievable breakdown. How did they know they had arrived? I sought the points of demarcation.