Love, Loss, and Social Security

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said William Faulkner.  Life has a way of looping back on itself, things you thought long finished crop up like stubborn weeds, relationships tidily  — or not so tidily – shelved tumble down on your head like a box of letters inadvertently dislodged when you were just trying to retrieve your old baseball glove.

A friend or enemy from long ago inevitably comes knocking. The child you had during that brief marriage in your youth becomes the mother of children who look like your mother and, like their mom, have a hammerlock on your heart.  The woman with whom you had the child, the one who broke your heart and you wanted to forget becomes, unforgettably, your fellow parent and, therefore, your lifelong partner.  The past is never dead; it’s not even past.

The government treats you differently depending on the details of your personal history. When you pay your taxes it wants to know if you are married, or a gambler, or a student, or have dependents, or pay alimony.  Not too long ago I applied to be admitted to the bar in a new home state, which involved filling out a form that required me to provide not only proof of my admittance and past practice in New York and California, but also the recitation of every place I ever lived, every job I ever had, over forty years of adult life, most of it beyond memory, lost. It was like an extended psychotherapy session. I worried that I might make some mistake, that something in the application would be discovered to be wrong, that some indelible falsity would surface as damningly as a dead body.  I had to call my ex-wife – the mother of my daughter — to help fill in the blanks. She remembers everything, every address, the nuances of how we lived, neighbors and friends and co-workers of the time, furniture, street names, which restaurants we frequented, things I never paid attention to for one moment after they ceased to be part of daily life.  I never dreamed when we parted that we were so permanently joined.

More recently I reached the age when one is obliged by sheer self-interest to register for Social Security. Among the many things I learned in this process is that one should defer taking benefits as long as possible, and that a surprising number of people have a potential interest in those benefits, including spouses and children, even after you’re dead.  The Social Security Administration will provide a printout that shows your lifetime earnings, on which your benefits are based.  It’s basically an x-ray of your entire working life, reduced to numbers, year by year: all those paychecks, all those withholdings, the flush times and the lean years, the earnings waxing and eventually waning, all there, and behind the numbers the dim memory of what was happening in those years, the marriages and divorces and births and deaths, the wars and recessions, the new homes, new jobs, new loves.

My first marriage was short, but there was a second one that lasted longer, in a time when we were both working too hard and enjoying our lucky lives too little.  It was childless and tumultuous and probably doomed from the first, but it lasted, as many marriages do, longer than it had any right or reason to. Just over ten years, in fact. And when it ended, I paid my new ex — call her “X” — what she demanded, which was a chunk of the hard-earned money that is diagrammed in my Social Security statement, and shut her and as much of the memory of her as I could out of my life.

But the past is never dead.  It turns out that X and I are lasting partners in Social Security. You see, not only do spouses have a right to claim benefits based on their marital partners’ earnings, but divorced people do too – as long as they were married for at least 10 years and a day and are not currently married.  So potentially X and I each can claim spousal benefits based on the other’s earnings for as long as either of us lives, without reducing the benefits we can each claim based on our own earnings. In the great wisdom of the Social Security Administration, if she claims her spousal benefit, I’ll never know it, and she won’t know if I claim mine (unlikely, as I’m happily remarried).  And unlike all the other zero-sum games that the breakup of a marriage entails, her claiming spousal benefits won’t cost me a thing.

I was sure we were done, but here’s this odd echo of that decade or so spent in one another’s company, indelible as a tattoo.

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