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FIRST PERSON

COMMITMENTS : A New Life at the Bottom of a Fishbowl

August 14, 1995|CEEBS BAILEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's an oxymoron, but I had an easy divorce, if there even is such a thing.

When he left a year and a half ago, we quite pleasantly agreed on who would get what: I gave him the guitar I rarely played; he gave me his old fax machine, and so on. It was a display of calm, unselfish adult behavior, the kind we rarely employed during our marital difficulties. He also left, inadvertently perhaps, the basketball-sized fishbowl of spare change that received daily deposits from rattling pockets, more often his than mine.

The year before I had left the lucrative corporate world to return to grad school--the female version of a midlife crisis, a lot slower and more expensive than a little red convertible and hair transplants. I had painstakingly budgeted for my short-term "retirement," saved enough money for my monthly contribution to our joint account, tallied up the tuition costs, gotten used to changing my own oil in the car.

But I hadn't planned for divorce. For the loss not just of a husband but of someone to share the cable bill, the rent, the food for three dogs (his, mine and the can-this-save-the-marriage puppy). In addition to the psychological gut punch, it's the day-to-day, pragmatic realities of divorce that conspire to finally send you reeling.

I canceled the lawn guys, the bottled water delivery, the extra newspaper, the cable, the silly notion of any disposable income whatsoever. Staying unemployed meant getting through school--and back into the job market--faster.

And one spring month when the bills were paid but there was nothing left for the next two weeks, not even for a roll of Life Savers for dinner, I spied it. That sparkling globe of filthy lucre under the night stand on what used to be his side of the bed. Its contents loose and cluttered, it screamed for order, for rolling up and cashing in and spending.

And now, on Friday mornings that bring with them the promise of a short break from studies and cheap weekend activities, I sit cross-legged and pajamaed on the bedroom floor and dip into the bowl, pulling up handfuls of quarters and dimes and nickels, lost buttons and hex-nuts. The battery-operated coin sorter I received at Christmas jams more often than MTV, and the job must now be completed manually.

The quarters are the easiest to find and, of course, the most highly prized. Stack up 40 of them and a cool 10 bucks stands before you, representing a movie matinee, a fast-food burger and fries, a current magazine.

The dimes take longer but feel better between your fingers. Although 50 of them symbolize a free and clear finsky, the dimes are saved for copy machines at the library. The egghead literary articles I'm required to read eat up at least $10 a week, even when copied on both sides. I am willing to be environmentally conscious, of course, especially when it stretches a hard-earned cylinder of Roosevelts that much further.

The nickels, thick and low-tech, demonstrate their power most when unified. While each roll of 40 adds up to only two smacks, the rolls seem to add up quickly. Five rolls of nickels and another $10 materializes for postage on bills, letters and handmade cards to old friends I can no longer afford to call long distance.

And the pennies? They are waiting, patiently, for their turn. "Remember Ben Franklin," they say, "we will add up, too, one day." But not yet. I don't have the heart. Their time will come all too soon, for the bowl is now two-thirds empty.

I've timed myself and on a good day I can rack up $50 dollars an hour. Not bad, of course, but the job's only one hour a week; even less when I can budget in high gear. While I'm stacking and counting and rolling, I think of my predicament. How the tellers at my bank have come to flinch so much when I stroll in with my heavy load that I've begun patronizing other branches. How the fact that my marriage didn't last means that I'm scrounging for change on the floor, sitting cross-legged for so long that it's hard to finally stand up. How I'm getting tired of Taco Bell, even with the menu additions.

But I'm not complaining, because I also feel lucky. Blessed, in fact, that I've had the chance to follow a dream; that at one time in my life I had the wherewithal to save up enough to finance it.

Almost.

My ex-husband called one day to catch up. He has traded in his red convertible for a black coupe. "Remember the big bowl of change we had?" he asks me. "I sure could use it now."

"Whatever for?" I say. "Is everything OK at work?"

"It's fine," he tells me. "But I need lots of quarters for the Laundromat now, stuff like that. The divorce has meant a little shift in lifestyle here and there."

"I think I know what you mean," I answer. "There's been a lot of change around here too."

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