“Well, I can see this afternoon’s going steadily downhill,” said my online date.
We were but twenty minutes in, and he happened to be right. I mean that, literally. What were the odds, but there I was in Riverside Park with a Jewish man from the Upper West Side, in publishing no less, and he turned out to be for Trump.
Our email exchange had been sparse. He just asked to meet. I didn’t ask questions. I just wanted to go. I used to kiss a lot of frogs. Then dating moved online. I now delete a lot of toads. Yet I felt all flushed when his face popped up on my screen. His profile, smart and to the point, matched the twinkle in his eye. He was a reader. Someone curious. Creative. He liked riding his bike and long summer drives. It would be a plus if he had a car, but I was just psyched to see he had hair. I wrote right away. He didn’t write back.
A week went by. I tried him again.
Hi! Are you playing hard to get? If so, I’ll play too… just tell me how! I can’t stop thinking about you. Okay, so maybe that’s not true but I do want to know you, and I would love to hear back. We’re both Upper West Siders, the river’s a favorite spot and the weather might actually be getting nice….
We made a plan to meet Sunday. He suggested one-thirty at the river. My class at the gym ended at one. I thought we could walk down together. Swing by Zabar’s café and get something to eat at the picnic table, on the new dock. He agreed. That morning, before heading out, I checked my email.
A slight change of plans… Instead of meeting at 1:30 on Broadway, I’ll meet you at the dock at 2.
All through the class I wondered what was up. On the one hand it seemed insignificant, but online dating was like a chess game. Every move meant something. Perhaps he planned to ride his bike, or maybe he knew wouldn’t be hungry. But I was, and made sure to eat before I arrived which (uncharacteristically) was precisely on time. At 1:59 I cut through the Boat Basin where, from the top of the patio, I saw him in the distance. He was leaning over the wood railings, looking out at the river, contemplating the cloudy Hudson. My heart and head connected as I thought, oh my, he’s cute.
That hardly ever happened, and I dropped my concerns rushing past all the people down to the dock. “Hi,” I waved. “It’s Laurie! Hello!”
“Hi!” He shook my hand. He smiled. “How was Pilates?”
We began chatting away as we checked out the boats and each other. It was always strange to come face to face with the live, 3-D person ordered up online. It was kind of like unwrapping a package from Amazon on an item whose size and color you gave an educated guess, and hoped would work in person.
“You want to walk?” he asked, pointing north on the promenade.
We were walking and talking. Getting-to-know-you talk. Trading questions with snapshots of answers. Conversation was easy, and he was easy on the eyes. I liked his black tee shirt and North Face pullover. He looked nice. He was warm. I’d go as far to say he was a mensch. Could I have met somebody?
“So where’s your office?” I was really happy to hear he still worked. Besides which, it was interesting to have met a man on the production side of magazines. “You know, there’s a Chinese place in a brownstone right across the street from you, seems very Mad Men-esque. White linen tablecloths. Art. I always wanted to go there. Maybe we could meet for a lunch special?”
Just so you know, for me that was a big deal. To signal, early on, I hoped to see him again. That I wanted to. He, meanwhile, was scrunching his face giving thought to the Chinese food. I recalled his profile saying he was a simple burger and jeans type guy.
“You should go if you want to try it,” he finally said, taking the lunch date off the table. But he continued to ask all about my work and he was attentive, so I resisted reading beyond the moment. Maybe he didn’t even take lunch, I thought, and bulleted through my years as professional actress, freelance publicist, and published author.
“So how do you get your health insurance?”
After saying I’d written three published novels you’d think the next question would be, “What are they?” But we were dating in the twenty-first century and, considering my chicklit titles, I actually figured this to be the safer question.
“Obamacare,” I said. “Fourth year. I was covered for twenty-three years through actors’ unions, and then through the Author’s Guild,” I explained, because it sounded substantial. “Then all the groups were disbanded so everyone’s on their own. It’s been good, but who knows what’s going to happen now. It’s all such a mess, right?”
I thought he’d jump right in. Only he did not even answer.
“It’s all like a mess, now. Don’t you think?” Gosh, people in steady jobs really had no clue what it took to freelance and find a plan every December. “Don’t you think it’s all like a big mess?”
He stopped walking to plant himself before he said, “I voted for Trump. I’m with him 100%. No resistance, no regrets. Behind him all the way.”
His face deadpan, he rattled off that speech like an actor in a play. He had to be pulling my leg.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes,” he said. Seriously.
“Anything’s better than eight years of Obama,” he said, while I neglected to point out that Hillary, not Obama was the one who’d been running.
“I’m just… shocked.”
“Why would you be shocked?”
“Did you ever hear him speak?” I asked. I could practically see the air letting out of my balloon. “I just don’t ever meet anybody that’s, uh… for him. Especially here,” I pointed to Riverside Park as proof positive of the Democratic society I knew to exist on the Upper West Side where like-minded folk commiserated in the gym, in stores, on the subway and the streets. What in the world possessed this guy?
He resumed walking, so I followed. But now I could not look him in the eye. Instead, I looked down at the pavement, processing how this was about to change everything. From that moment on it was just a countdown to the end, and I passive-aggressively decided to let him take us there.
“Obama single-handedly destroyed the entire medical industry for the five percent of people who didn’t have health insurance.”
Obama? Again? The five percent didn’t count? Was that number even accurate? I’m the worst when it came to having data at my fingertips. Sometimes I memorized one stat, just to have something to pull out in these situations. I knew that 88% of the Upper West Side voted for Hillary. How’d I wind up on a date with one of the12% that was acting like the one percent?
“The problem’s with the insurance companies,” I said. “The problem is the greed. And people can’t navigate it alone. We need the groups so it’s easy for everyone to buy. Then there’ll be more people participating and costs will go down.”
“The insurance companies want to do it but —”
“But what? The government won’t let them?”
Fiddle dee dee, I thought, and rolled my eyes, remembering the first time I saw Gone with the Wind. Scarlett only wanted to have fun at the barbeque, but all the men could discuss was war, war, war!
“Do you read?” he asked.
Do you? I wondered. But he thought I was reading fake news. And I knew that he was.
“Okay, healthcare aside,” I said, intent on staying calm, channeling my inner Erica Kane, the vixen from All My Children whose mere tone could sweeten the saltiest of statements. “What about guns? What about LGBT? What about the planet? What about women’s rights, immmigra—”
“Well I can see this afternoon’s going steadily downhill.”
No wonder he didn’t want to swing by Zabar’s. Why spend time and money on a lunch that would never get eaten once the political views had been unpacked? Who could he possibly date in this city? More importantly, whom was I going to date?
“I just don’t know how you can get behind someone so stupid?” I asked, the cracks in the pavement deepening as I kept my voice light, and deliberately dug in. “He’s ignorant, coarse, he doesn’t read, he doesn’t understand The Constitution, God, those tweets—”
Boy, I detested online dating. People shudder when I say that, and it frightens other women who feel compelled to meet that way. So let me modify. For me, online dating never works. No matter how promising it seemed there was always some insidious thing I’d have never imagined that appeared when we met in person. I could never love a man whose ideology, to me, so lacked compassion.
Maybe if we’d met during Obama… no! Maybe Bush? Maybe not. Perhaps pre 9-11? I think if we’d met at a happy hour during Clinton we could have had a good fling.
We walked in silence, little more than a few feet, when he saw an opening to the park at 90th Street.
“I’ll walk you out,” he said, but a moment later changed his mind. “Better yet, I’ll leave you right here.”
I did a pivot, quickly walking out and away.
“Nice to meet you,” I heard behind me.
Now, there’s an alternative fact.
LAURIE GRAFF is the author of the bestselling You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs,Looking for Mr. Goodfrog, and The Shiksa Syndrome. A contributor to columns and anthologies, the former actress is also a produced and published OOB playwright. Laurie lives and works in New York City. Her new novel, Licked, is up for sale. Visit her website and ‘Like’ her on Facebook.
Rachel and I told the kids that we were separating on a Saturday night—also known in our then-household as Family Movie Night. Family Movie Night was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: we each took turns picking a film, and then the four of us hunkered down with pizza and popcorn in the basement and watched it together.
Family Movie Night was about as democratic as it gets, which means that if I had to sit through Soccer Dog: European Cup and suffer the unrelenting vulgarity (and grudging hilarity) of Dumb and Dumber, then in turn my sons had to put up with my fondness for classics like Annie, School of Rock, and Beetlejuice, and with Rachel’s fascinating but maybe slightly off-base pick of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
We’d decided to separate a couple of months earlier, in an eerily calm conversation, one of us at either end of the living room couch, an afghan covering our feet in the middle. “Decided,” perhaps, isn’t entirely accurate; I, at least, had decided weeks earlier that I was done, that there would be no more couples counseling, no more trying to fix what was irreparably damaged. More precisely, then, we acknowledged that the marriage was over. If I’d had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled when Rachel excused herself from the conversation to use the bathroom. As she walked up the stairs, the thought that rose, gleeful and unbidden, in my head was, “Now I can renovate bathroom exactly how I want it.”
Since that day, we’d been white-knuckling it to get through the winter school break, through Christmas (and an accompanying, weeklong visit from my mother-in-law), through the regular school/music lessons/soccer/swimming/meals/homework routine.
It was a surreal, slightly desperate time, punctuated by the confusing beauty of occasionally lovely family dinners and moments of pure joy with the boys, moments when Rachel and I looked at each other across the dining room table and shook our heads in disbelief that we were undoing this, even as we both knew exactly why. Ending the marriage was the right decision, and the much more frequent moments where we seethed silently, argued in whispers, retreated to our various corners of the house—or left it altogether, shaking in anger and grief—confirmed that.
Before we told the kids, we had needed time to figure out some basic facts — who would move out (her), how we would divide our time with the kids (50/50), how much the house was worth (I called an appraiser), how we would create a separation agreement and what it might look like (we hired a mediator, engaged our lawyers), how we’d handle living arrangements until she found a new place (we’d alternate spending time in the house with the children and staying with friends).
In focusing on those details, we were also making space to let the enormity of our decision sink in, to shift from envisioning a future together to a future apart, its unknown possibilities both exciting (bathroom!) and terrifying (money, loneliness). In figuring out schedules and valuations, we began the process what it would mean to let go, to be able to stop trying to work things out as a couple. In my better moments, it occurred to me that at least the problems we were dealing with now with had solutions.
And now, we had to figure out how to tell the boys.
On this particular Saturday evening, our seven-year-old son got to choose what we’d be watching for Family Movie Night.
“He wants Titanic,” Rachel texted me that morning. “It’s a metaphor.”
“I’ll miss your gallows sense of humor,” I wrote back. It was true.
Is there any good way to tell your children that their parents are splitting up? We’d been putting off the conversation until we could give them some credible information about why and how and where and with whom they’d be living, at least in the shorter term. We’d rehearsed the basics of what we needed to say — that it wasn’t their fault, that we loved them both deeply, that we’d tried really hard for a long time, that no one hated each other, that we’d still see lots of each other even on the days we weren’t all together.
Still, I felt entirely unprepared for the conversation, my dread mounting as the day (soccer practice, diving lessons, Pokémon club, playdates) wore on. I will admit that I dropped by a friend’s house in the late afternoon and took her up on her offer to share some of her clonazepam stash. In the end, I didn’t take any of the tiny pink pills that she’d carefully cut in half, but their very presence, in a baggie in my jeans pocket, felt like a talisman, warding off the worst.
Plus, we had a three-hour, sinking ship of a movie to watch. Subject matter aside, the sheer length of Titanic meant that we had to get the conversation over with quickly if we had any hope of actually watching the movie and getting to bed at a reasonable hour, putting the day and its challenges behind us.
Looking back, my focus on the logistics of the evening seems misplaced, a minor technicality in the grand scheme of what we were about to unleash on our kids. But so much—perhaps most—of parenting is about seemingly minor technicalities, details around snacks and screen time and who sits where and the right socks. In the midst of chaos, these details took on, at least momentarily, as much weight as housing appraisals and custody schedules. Or maybe it was simply that I had some control over them, could use them as a roadmap for the conversation, for the evening that would follow it.
We called, as planned, a family meeting. What we didn’t plan was our younger son insisting on having a tickle fight with Rachel immediately beforehand. On, of all places, our bed, the bed that we both, often, still slept in together, if awkwardly and chastely. (We didn’t have a spare room; the couch was uncomfortable; many nights we were simply too exhausted to bother contemplating other arrangements.) Eventually our ten-year-old joined in, as did I—because things were already strange enough, because who knew how many more moments like this we’d ever have, this family, together?
So there we were, the four of us, wrestling and giggling, the two of us with a secret and the two of them with no idea that their mothers’ marriage had hit its own iceberg.
Finally, I looked at my watch, and then at my ex. “We have something we need to talk to you about,” Rachel said, cutting short the tragic, gleeful puppy pile.
“What?” asked our firstborn.
“About a decision that Susan and I have made about our partnership,” she said, carefully.
“What about it?” asked his younger brother, utterly jovially. “Are you gonna get a divorce?”
Rachel and I looked at each other, and then back at them. “Well,” she said, “yes.”
I watched the expressions on their faces change slowly, identically: from open, tired delight to cloudy confusion, to fear, and then shock, then disbelief. “Really?”
Both kids looked from each of our faces to the other’s, scanning our expressions for some sign that we were joking, that this was just some warped continuation of our previous frolicking.
We launched into our prepared talk. There were tears, and hugs, and, eventually—because my children are children—talk of new kittens at the new house, “and maybe an Xbox!”
And then we ate pizza and watched Titanic, the hockey game dialed up on the iPad as well.
For days afterward, our younger son would repeat, “That was weird, the way that you told us.”
“Yeah,” I would say back. “It really was.”
“I wish you could’ve told us slower,” he’d say. I didn’t know how to answer. How could I explain that I’d been carrying around the news for so long that the weight of it was almost unbearable? That the months of that secret felt like the longest, slowest ones of my life?
“I was having a really good day until you told us that,” our older boy kept saying. “I won my soccer game, I won at Pokémon, the Blackhawks beat the Canadiens the night before, and then you told us you were getting divorced.”
“Yeah,” I finally answered. “It wasn’t a very good way to end the day. But, what if you had a really terrible day, and this was just the icing on the cake? And then you’d be all like, First we lost at soccer, and then I lost Pokémon, and the Habs won, and to top it all off, my parents told me that they were separating.” I managed to get a smile out of him.
“Maybe one day,” I said to him, “maybe one day, the way we told you will be one more story that we can tell about our family. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to look back on this and laugh and say, Remember when Rachel and Susan told us in the middle of a tickle fight that they were getting separated, and then we all watched Titanic together? And it will be strange and a little bit sad, but it will also be funny, and it will still be our story. All of ours.”
As we watched Titanic on that final Family Movie Night, Rachel and I looked at each other, often, over the heads of our sons. Once, we touched hands, nodding to each other silently: We got through this. We’re going to get through this.
Our younger son loved the film. His older brother was indifferent.
And Rachel and I?
We agreed, wholeheartedly, that it was a disaster.
My three children slept on mattresses on the floor, in the office adjacent to the master bath, pretending not to hear their father sobbing and pounding on the shower walls. This had become a morning ritual. How long had it been going on—two weeks, three?—on the morning when one of our twins woke to find a beetle in her ear. She’d become so inured to this strange new life of ours that she, who had once wept theatrically upon any insect sighting, simply flicked it across the room and slept on, later to see it on her brother’s mattress.
Sometimes, after the weeping, there would be shouting behind the closed door of their father’s and my master bedroom. Sometime near the end of that period of weeping and shouting, my son would come to my husband and me and beg us to “stop crying, stop yelling, stop closing the door to have talks.” My heart flipped and cracked and shredded itself apart with guilt. Even though it was my husband emitting the noises, my body pulsed with I did this. I did this.
We were confined, all five of us, to the upstairs of our two-level home, one proper bed between us all, extra furniture heaped in piles around our emotional chaos. Downstairs, the first floor of our apartment was gutted, everything draped in plastic. We were in the early stages of an extensive home renovation project we had been planning for a year—the first in fifteen years for our hundred-plus-year-old house. The renovation was, as such things always do, going more slowly than intended.
In the sixth week, my husband finally packed his bags for a solo trip to Colorado and informed me, while this time I wept hysterically on the floor of his closet, that I was to have had all his things moved to an apartment we co-owned with friends by the time he returned, and that he would never spend another night with me in our house. He had to walk past the children on their mattresses, to get to the stairs that would lead him out. Our fourteen-year-old twin daughters pretended to sleep and ignored him, but our nine-year-old son leapt up and rushed to the closet where I was howling like an animal and took me in his arms saying, “It’s okay, Mommy.” I had never, to my recollection, cried in front of my children before, even mildly. My son kissed my face and I tried to calm myself down, to not be That Mother, whose children have to parent her, the way my own mother, depressed in a back bedroom, had often been. Now, however, I was a broken thing with no control of the noises coming out of my body. I had wanted to be so many other things, but instead I was this: a bad memory my children would never be able to get out of their heads.
Don’t feel sorry for me, hysterical on a closet floor, a woman left behind. It isn’t like that, some Elena Ferrante Days of Abandonment descent into rejected grief and madness. I am the Asshole in this story. What they never tell you is how much being the asshole hurts too.
Three days into a home renovation my husband of twenty-two years and I were planning for our duplexed apartment, where we lived with our three children—my elderly parents in a separate downstairs unit—I confessed that I had been having an affair on and off (but mostly on…say it clearly: mostly on) for nearly three and a half years.
My husband and our children and I were in the Wisconsin Dells when I told him, at a horrible water park resort, in exile of the most invasive stage of the renovations: things being demolished, air thick with dust. My husband and I had left our teen twins in charge of our son and gone to dinner at the swanky restaurant inside the hotel, where we had several cocktails each. Though I’d never been a big drinker, lately—by which I mean at least the past two and a half years—I had more or less required a couple of drinks in order to have what passed as a fun time with my husband, to whom even saying “hello” had become a guilty lie.
I was stewing in a toxic, complex brew of my own guilt and duplicity, combined with longstanding marital resentments, anxieties, and almost unbearable boredom. That night, however, was a good night. It was a night—the first in at least a year—in which I could see the glimmers of why I had once fallen intensely in love with my husband and how we had ended up married to begin with. I felt moved by the way his smile was higher and more creased at one end; I could remember how once upon a time he had made me laugh, had been the confidante with whom I casually shared inside jokes that meant nothing to anyone Not Us. Even though he had told me several months prior, at a friend’s wedding, that he knew I didn’t “love him anymore” and that he feared I was just waiting for the children to go to college and then we would become “a clichéd empty nester divorce,” I could see he was still trying—that he wanted to fix whatever it was that had been broken for years before my affair. He still believed in me, even if it seemed years since we had made each other happy. He trusted me, even though it had been years since I’d been worthy of trust.
Was it my ability to glimpse our former love, that night at dinner, that allowed me to finally see—really see—how grotesquely entitled I had been, thinking it was in any way acceptable for me to lie so blatantly? To confuse kindness and tact with cowardice and manipulation—to tell myself stories about how “the Europeans” don’t make a “big deal” about infidelity, as though all I was guilty of was some vague Francophilia?
During the long night of wandering the resort in search of private spaces, my husband and I sobbed and fought, bargained and despaired, in the wake of my announcement. He kept saying, “It’s him or me” and telling me I could never speak to my lover again if I wanted to stay in our marriage. I knew what the Right Answer to such a demand—when you have three children together and elderly parents in the unit downstairs and nearly a quarter century as a couple under your belt—was supposed to be, but I couldn’t give it. I couldn’t promise to cut out of my life the man I had fallen passionately in love with and “rededicate myself to the marriage,” and I realized all at once that if I had been able to do such a thing, which my husband had every right to demand, I would never have had an affair in the first place. I had walked away from other flirtations or borderline-emotional-affairs with a fair amount of ease over the years, knowing they were not worth the risk, knowing where I wanted to be at the end of my story, and not to mess that up for some momentary rush.
The second I actually started my affair, the decision had already been made.
I had withheld that decision—from both my husband and myself—for more than three years.
I had no Right Answers anymore.
This is not about whether I had a “right” to leave my marriage. Of course I had a right. The fact that my husband never cheated on me or that he was a good provider or that he didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol or didn’t beat me has nothing to do with whether or not I was obligated to stay. No one is obligated to stay. We live in a society in which women are no longer chattel, in which we are permitted to choose our relationships, in which divorce is painful but common and legal. My guilt isn’t for knowing that I was never going to love my husband the way I needed to again—the way I believe people should love each other if they are going to use up all the days of their fleeting lives on each other. I don’t feel guilty for the fact that I could already glimpse the picture on the other side of our full-throttle “parenting years”—our children busy with their own lives, heading off to college and out-of-state jobs, our retirement years alone together—and knew I could not stay stagnant inside that frame. This is not about whether or not my husband also made his share of mistakes in our marriage or what they may have been. My leaving my husband was not retribution for any fault of his, but rather—and I believe this in every core of my being—that we each have the right to choose what ships to go down with versus when to get into a lifeboat and save ourselves emotionally. Promises made at the age of twenty-five can feel like words uttered by someone else entirely by the time we are forty-six. There is no one who doesn’t have the right to leave a consensual relationship between adults: no marital atrocities required.
Rather, this is about living, quite literally, inside the toxicity of a lie that had the power to knock down walls. If I did not owe my husband an Until Death Do We Part I no longer believed in, I still owed him a common decency and truth that I did not deliver. Our demolished house became a too-obvious metaphor for the ways I had literally blown our house down. How had I even become a person who would commit to an extensive and costly home renovation, paid for by my husband’s salary, when I was desperately in love with another man? After I shocked myself by confessing, I still held fast that my husband and I could live together “as friends” in our home and raise our children together, each having our freedom—I believed this so completely that I nearly convinced him of it, as he rushed out on a dozen Match and eHarmony dates, then came home either sexually keyed up while I hid awkwardly in the bathroom, or tearful in his grief. This was the livable solution I was selling? How do we become so blind to ourselves? How do we come to believe we have the right to know more about the narrative of someone else’s life than they do, to manipulate that narrative behind the scenes for years, and then believe they actually owe us a friendship?
By “how do we,” I mean of course “how did I?”
“…people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes,” wrote Joan Didion. “If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties.” I was trying to force my husband to forgive me, to still think well of me somehow, to avoid having to look at myself. I no longer wanted to be married to him, but after twenty-five years together, I was selfishly unready to surrender using his eyes as a mirror for my own vanities.
To say he was furious about the timing of my confession would be an understatement. But likely it was my very guilt about the renovation—about all that money spent—that finally drove me, after years of Sphinx-like secrecy, to leave hints that night at dinner until my husband at last asked me point blank, “Have you had sex with him? Are you in love with him?” Ultimately, it was the astronomical renovation costs that shook me out of my three-year era of spectacular rationalizations and made me understand that the only thing I had left to give him anymore was the truth.
I still live in the building my husband and I once shared. Within six months of our separation, he had already come to find being in our home unbearable, even when he was alone with our children—he had moved in with another woman and her three children and had no desire, by the time of our finalized divorce, to ever set foot in our house again. He made moves in our divorce proceedings to try to sell the house, but with three children who have lived here their entire lives, and my elderly parents who were too sick to move anywhere else besides assisted living, selling the home would have punished all the wrong people. I was determined to keep our physical home intact, choosing it above the far more lucrative “permanent maintenance” to which every attorney and every friend told me I was entitled after twenty-three years of marriage, even though at the time of my divorce I had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer and had no reliable income. “Divorce law is not about atonement,” my fatherly attorney kept telling me anxiously, but in my mind, if somehow I could keep the kids and my parents safely in their longstanding home, I could contain, at least to some small degree, the wreckage I had wrought.
During the weeks of our marital cleaving, our shattered and tarp-strewn house was a painfully literal metaphor for so many things gone wrong. Now, the beautifully restored home in which I live with my children and my widowed mother, where the man I love writes at an orange desk in the spot where my children’s floor-mattresses were strewn during those terrible weeks, where our three cats curl up with us and we have dinner parties and Game of Thrones marathons with friends…now this place carries enormous contradictions. It is a less volatile, more fun, and more transparent place than it was. Yet this space is also a constant reminder of my worst regrets and shame. Though my once double life is now whole, the dark wood floors of my dining room and restored vintage door (thicker and more soundproof than the flimsy former one) on my bedroom still remind me daily of the casual cruelty of which I was capable and of the privileges—even with my tax return only a couple thousand above the poverty level the year of my divorce—my ex-husband provided in buying and paying off this home he expected to grow old in. Here in what should have been a safe and sacred space, but instead became a site of violation, I wake up every day trying to live authentically, with truth and ethics, trying to be better than I was.
This is about and not about regret. It is possible to both not be sorry that a marriage is over, yet to be grotesquely sorry for the ways in which I ended it. It is possible to be incredibly more myself now, and yet to understand that other people paid far too high a price for my pursuit of freedom and happiness. I love my house, and I do not feel deserving of my house, even though I am trying to be, in the way I parent, the way I daughter, the way I hold to honesty in my new relationship; in the ways I work to care for and manage this household, responsible myself now for its bills and upkeep. Someday, maybe I will sell this beautiful shell that contains so much history, both luminous and sad. Until then, it is a walk-in model of my heart, capable of ruin and beauty, of pain and reinvention. I don’t know if these walls would ever forgive me, but I am trying, every day, to forgive myself.
GINA FRANGELLO’s fourth book of fiction, Every Kind of Wanting, was released on Counterpoint in September 2016, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including in Chicago Magazine and The Chicago Review of Books. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, was also optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She has nearly twenty years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, Dame, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, Role Reboot, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and in many other magazines and anthologies. www.ginafrangello.org
In late January 2016, I walked through customs at John F. Kennedy International Airport after spending nearly a month in Barcelona, Spain. I’d spent my time there at JIWAR, an international artist residency, writing and drinking wine and looking out over Calle Asturies from my thin balcony.
In transit back to Utah, my phone, back on my U.S. cellular plan, dinged with local news notifications that had been blocked while in Spain. I scanned through them with a tiring thumb: car crashes, house fires, burglaries, and Mormon news.
A mug shot stopped my scrolling. My thumb hovered above the screen that showed a photo of someone I once knew well, someone I had once loved. It had been seventeen years since I’d seen her, even a photo of her, but I knew her, the way I know the lines to my favorite childhood movie though I haven’t watched it in decades, belting them out without thought. And I got dizzy. A warmth rushed upward to my head when the flush of adrenaline tapped into my bloodstream.
There was no mention of her name in the notification’s basic font that sat on my screen, only the mug shot and the headline, “Woman facing felony charges for fraudulently filling hundreds of prescriptions.” It was her face, but the bright eyes and smiling dimples and smooth skin that I remembered from our youth—from our early twenties—were gone. A grayness covered the photo, and a sturdiness in her gaze peered off the screen. She was no longer the young woman I loved romantically, but she also wasn’t the woman who I’d hoped had spent seventeen years laughing and smiling and being in love with her husband and not getting arrested on felony drug charges. I had found all these good things in life, and I had wished she had too.
I’d met her during my college years.
We did the same thing, took care of students with disabilities. I was a job coach for students my own age, eighteen- to twenty-two-years-old. She was a group home manager.
I spent my days piling students into a van, singing horrible nineties pop music on the way to our job sites, and working with them to dip chicken in batter or collect recycling for Sister Stephanie or straighten cereal boxes on supermarket shelves.
At the end of the day, I waited with them while their parents or group-home facilitators picked them up at the rim of the school’s roundabout. We waved goodbye like we’d never see each other again. Our hands flailed in the afternoon sun. The next morning, we’d all high five in the parking lot like team members running through a human tunnel. It was a fun ritual.
She would wait outside to take students to their home, to bathe them, and to make them feel a sense of family until they fell asleep at night.
They loved her. They rushed to her, threw their arms around her, many of the young men holding on a little too tight and a little too long. She’d roll her eyes and wiggle out of their grasp and give them a smile. They competed for her attention, as did I. She was pretty, but it was the way she laughed and shouted and lived life so unfiltered that drew me to her.
I’d asked her out a few times before she said yes, and when she finally did, we spent eight months together. For the most part, we laughed when we were together, the world—and the people in it—existed only for our entertainment.
She once told me about her uncle who, when he got hungry while sitting on his lazy boy and watching old episodes of seventies sitcoms, would ring a tiny bell and yell “chili” to his wife, who would then bring him some chili. It was horrible, and we both knew it, a domineering man and a subservient wife fulfilling his gross needs, so whenever we noticed a relationship in public like this, we would ring a fake little bell and yell “chili.” It was a way of saying, in public and right in front of men like this, “Are you seeing the way this asshole treats his wife.”
We laughed a lot.
But she had a sadness to her that hid behind the outwardly funny, boisterous, and giving personality that she wore everyday.
One night, after we had gotten close, after we had gone on a night hike on the trails of the Rocky Mountains, she pulled a photo out of a hiding place in her car. She held the photo close to her chest.
“I have kids, twins,” she said.
There were a few moments before she spoke again.
In those moments, I’d thought about how well she had hidden them from me, how well she had kept them a secret. I wondered where they were when I visited her at parents’ house where she lived. I wondered where they were when I just popped by one afternoon to say hello—had she seen me coming and stuffed them in a closet or a hamper or in the back with the dogs?
I understood keeping them from me, a young man who had sworn up and down that he never wanted to get married or have children.
But then she spoke again.
“They’re three now,” she said.
I remained quiet, still wondering where she had hidden them.
“I gave them up,” she said. “It was the only thing I could do. It was my first time having sex and their dad is not someone I would want to raise them. He didn’t fight the decision.”
She ran her fingers over the photo, letting the tip of her skin rest on the young children’s faces, a photo mailed to her from their adoptive mom.
“I miss them everyday,” she said.
The sadness hung on her for a few more moments before she shoved the photo back in its protective spot in her car.
I reached to give her hug, but she pulled away and made some crack about not being a cry baby or not being so needy or not being pathetic. Just as she put the photo away, she had somehow tucked the sadness away too.
In all my relationships before I got married, there was a moment when I knew that relationship would not survive much longer. With her, it came one Monday night when I visited her at her parent’s home. In Utah, with Mormons, Monday night is family home evening. It’s the night of the week when the family gathers together to pray, to eat dinner, and to invite elders over to lead discussions about their faith.
That night, right after dinner, her father asked us all to join him in the living room. He was a kind man. He asked us all to kneel down to pray. The very blond, pale portrait of Jesus that hangs in every Mormon household hung next to the just-as-common painting of the Mormon Temple. My immature self started to get angry.
At the time, when I had just barely broken the twenty-year mark, I felt offended that this man would ask me to kneel down to pray to the “Heavenly Father” of the LDS faith when he knew I was raised Catholic. Now, having just barely broken the forty-year mark with a family and a home of my own, my perspective has changed.
It was his home. It was Monday night. He had all of his children there. I would not have adjusted my family’s weekly ritual to suit the needs of a kid with a marijuana leaf necklace hanging around his neck and a five-inch long goatee dropping from his chin, the ratty thing crinkling in his fingers while he played with it nervously.
I knelt, doing my best to be respectful. Her dad reached out for his wife’s hand. They had all closed their eyes. Mine remained open to watch the wave of hand clasping approach me. My girlfriend reached out for mine, gave me a little smile, and grabbed it, rubbing her thumb across the backs of my fingers.
The prayer began, and I watched them, their devoutness in their prayer. All I wanted to do was to break the chain and walk away. The anger and resentment of my twenty years growing up in Mormon Utah as non-LDS growled in my gut, consuming me. And the rubbing of the thumb across the back of my fingers felt like acquiescence. They were kind people. I was immature.
I knew at that moment, however, that we would never last, and six months later, three months after I had tried to break up with her on the rocky Irish shores north of Dublin where she had met me at the end of my long backpacking trip across Europe to celebrate graduating college, and only two months after I had left Utah for Kansas to begin graduate school, we broke up over the phone. It was one of those relationships that took a departure to end it, but once the departure was made, both of us knew it was over.
“I just thought you would convert eventually,” she said to me. I think we both knew that I wouldn’t. It was the kindest break-up I had ever been through, and I believe when she hung up the phone, just like I did, she considered me a friend and wished the best for me.
We had never broken each other’s heart, not romantically. We had moved on, loving the person who gave us something in life, who, like my wife and I talk about over a couple of glasses wine, helped us find each other—to show us what we did and didn’t want in a lover. The heartbreak, for me, finally came when I saw her sadness in her gray and flat eyes in the mug shot on my phone.
Something had gone wrong somewhere along the way for her, and it hurt in the place in my heart reserved for long-ago lovers.
KASE JOHNSTUN lives and writes in Ogden, Utah. He is the author of rereleased Beyond the Grip Craniosynostosis (McFarland & Co). He is the co-editor/author of Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front (The History Press). His essay collection Tortillas for Honkies was named a finalist for the 2013 Autumn House press Nonfiction Awards. He is the literary chair for the Ogden City Arts Advisory Committee and hosts a literary podcast called LITerally where he interviews authors about all things publishing and writing.
I’d recently moved in with my soon-to-be-husband when—“Hello, he-loo-oh!”—the lady from across the street hustled over to introduce herself.
“You look just like your sister!” she gushed.
“Uh, I think you have me confused with someone else.”
“Oh, no. You look just like her. Your sister!”
Actually, I don’t. My little sister stands a good four inches over me and got all the dark genes, while I got the “Irish” ones.
But my new neighbor insisted. “You know, I saw her, when she lived here. And then you came!”
Oh, sweet god, not again. For it wasn’t my sister she was comparing me to. It was my husband’s first wife. His beloved first wife. The one who died.
I’ve known from the start that my husband had a type: blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin—what he calls “pasty.” But she was petite and I am tall. She was left-brained and I live in the right. “You’re funny,” my husband said when I asked how we were different, and I took that as a compliment. I believed him when he assured me he wasn’t marrying a memory.
In the early years of our relationship, friends asked me how it felt to be living with my own Rebecca, referring to the protagonist in Daphne De Maurier’s classic Gothic romance novel. In De Maurier’s sinister tale (and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film), a nameless narrator marries a widower, moves into Manderley, his family estate, and is haunted by the memory of the beautiful, charming, apparently perfect first Mrs. De Winter. The new wife lives with a jealousy that eats away her self-esteem, if not sanity, until she learns the true character of the original lady of the house: cruel, selfish, manipulative.
My Rebecca was nothing like this.
It’s too bad our paths hadn’t crossed earlier in life, because I believe we could have been good friends. From her sisters I’ve learned my Rebecca was a “whiz in the kitchen” who had a passion for making pies from scratch. We might have bonded over a common mad love for our nieces and nephews or our affinity for Broadway musicals. We appreciated the value of a good man—a great man. A man who loves and appreciates feisty, strong, passionate, compassionate, and pasty women.
Pasty women who, to outsiders, apparently all look alike.
Like any new bride—and a forty-something bride with a previously married groom—I was prepared to be evaluated at first-time introductions. But in my odd case, navigating reactions could be painful. On a handful of occasions, I found myself an undeserving source of grief when my accusers realized the woman they thought I was had died. Should I try to comfort them? Express my sympathy? Sneak away under the pretext of refilling my wine glass so they can cry in private? No one tutored me in the appropriate etiquette for these scenarios.
In other settings I encountered a law school classmate of Rebecca’s who was offended I didn’t remember her from torts class, and a distant relative who introduced me to old friends gathered for a funeral as “Brad’s wife, Rebecca.” I swallowed the insult when no one blinked at the mistake and said, “Nice to meet you.”
At a retirement party, a woman I’d yet to meet got within inches of my face and announced to the small group around me, “You’re right. She does look like her. You can especially see it around the eyes.” It was as if she was critiquing a painting or sculpture or butterfly pinned in a display case, oblivious to the human being inside.
But it was almost worse when people couldn’t accept the reality in front of them. Like the woman who was convinced she remembered me from someone’s long-ago wedding: “But I know I know you!” Not wanting to embarrass her by announcing the news of my doppelgänger’s demise in front of other strangers, I tried to ease her into a neutral topic of conversation. But as my frustration grew, I was tempted to ask, “Do read Playboy? Perhaps you recognize me from there?” Before I could exercise my questionable wit, her son-in-law pulled her aside on some excuse. They moved almost—but not completely—out of range so that I heard: “Ohmygawd, she died?! THAT’S the new wife?”
Yes. “That” is me. I am wife number two. Not the replacement, not second best. Just me. I am here! I wanted to shout, with a stomp of my feet. I am still here! Please see me! But, unlike some people, my parents raised me to be polite.
Shortly after my run-in with the across-the-street neighbor, Brad gave me the green light to make his Manderley my own. I began by combining our kitchens, tossing the expired spices that lurked in the pantry’s shadows, keeping the best blender and donating the other two to Goodwill. I then moved through the house, making space in the living room for the cabinet my great-grandfather built by hand and transforming the sunny guest room into my home office.
Finally I made my way to the basement. I turned a storage closet into a wine cellar and hammered nails into a wall to hang our combined collection of gardening tools side by side.
I felt like I was shedding my independent single girl shell as I watched my queen-size bed and three-piece entertainment center being carted out as a donation; they had been my first major “real” furniture purchases as an adult. No turning back now, I thought.
With renewed gusto, I tackled clearing out the bonus room of the basement, thinking it could be the site of a future man cave or guest suite. I sorted or purged chairs with damaged legs, battered bags of softball gear and retired golf clubs, forgotten office files and outdated cell phones; junk, mostly, stood between me and the orderly home I envisioned.
I had understood that Brad had gone through Rebecca’s more personal belongings after she’d passed, so I was unprepared when I stumbled upon a notebook filled with To Do lists scribbled in her handwriting. I held my breath as I scanned the yellowed pages for anything worth saving, then stopped cold when her college ID card slipped out. For half a second I resisted flipping it over to study the photo, then gave into the temptation to settle the debate. There was no gasp of shock, no tingling sensation of facing my long-lost twin. Had I placed my old ID next to hers, I would agree that we kinda looked similar at that age, but not so much that I would have freaked out if I bumped into her on the street. I placed the notebook in the recycling bin and the ID card in a box of items for her sisters to unpack when they felt ready to reminisce.
With an hour stolen here and there, I made progress. But my world, and my heart, stopped the day I found the box with Rebecca’s wedding dress. I didn’t need to open it to imagine the carefully preserved white satin and lace, and I sensed her longing to one day share it with a daughter or niece. I continued to unearth treasures, and among the dog-eared novels destined for the library, I discovered gardening inspiration for the backyard she never got to plant; kitchen remodeling ideas for making her new house into a home; and picture guidebooks of Italy, Germany, and France, destinations for future romantic getaways. I found, buried deep below the fun stuff, workbooks for moving through the adoption process. Diagnoses, treatments, suffering, and early death eclipsed it all. Surrounded by all the remnants of Rebecca’s hopes for creating a family and a home, for living a full and “normal” life, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of her losses. I sat in the corner of our basement and wept for all of her unrealized dreams.
And then I spent a few minutes weeping for myself. If only I’d met my husband when we were in our twenties, we might have naïvely bypassed our painful misfortunes. Among my own shattered dreams were dashed hopes of having children, and grandchildren, of creating a real family. I could have been Brad’s only bride, his only history. I cried over the possibility that when we all meet up in heaven, Rebecca will get first dibs. I wondered if he ever looked at me and wished I were her. And I hated myself for feeling jealous of a woman who had lost so much, and in the process, had given me everything.
Our husband will never fall out of love with Rebecca; he simply discovered that his heart was big enough to love again. And while I’m not The Love of his life, he is mine. Mine to build a future with, to fill the blank spaces on our walls with new photos of weddings, anniversaries, and vacations. I am sad for him, for the heartbreaking losses he has experienced, yet those same experiences also helped form the man I love. I am grateful for our second chances.
At times I still sense three souls in our marriage, but I believe it’s possible to embrace the “exes” and “formers”, I believe we can thrive when we choose to accept the past and live in the present. For today’s reality is Rebecca is gone, and I am here.
Meanwhile, I’ve grown to make peace with my role in our family dynamic, and I’ve learned to better anticipate the mistaken identity crises and respond in a way that feels appropriate to me.
“I don’t believe we’ve met before,” I say, “but I am pleased to meet you today. My name is Kathleen.”
KATHLEEN GUTHRIE WOODS performed a version of this essay live for San Francisco’s Lit Crawl. She is currently wrapping up work on The Mother of All Dilemmas, a memoir about finding her worth as a woman in today’s world—whether or not she has children. See more of her work at http://kathleen-ink.com/articles/.
Steve and I head to bed at the same time in the same room with our two dogs. We kiss each other goodnight, assure each other of our love, and close our eyes to attend to our thoughts and memories, our worries and eventually our dreams. Steve has worn a CPAP since I’ve known him because he suffers from sleep apnea, and if he didn’t wear the hose and nose pillow that pushes forced air into his system as he sleeps, he might stop breathing and die.
We haven’t always slept in the same room. Only in the last three years, since we moved into the new house, have we been able to manage it. In the old house, the sound of the CPAP combined with the white noise machine Steve required to sleep was too much for me. I slept in a different room, in what I thought of as my own bed. I tried not to notice that these arrangements were exactly like the arrangements my mother had with my stepfather. As an adult, I recalled the times my mother would go into Warren’s room at night for a spell and then come back out to the couch-turned-bed she slept in every night. It embarrasses me to remember those times, even now, thirty years later. What did they do with Warren’s wooden leg?
When Steve and I moved into the new house, we got rid of the clunky old white noise machine, which wasn’t actually a white noise machine but an air purifier, and replaced it with a small, more reasonable white noise machine. We got a bigger bed. We put a white noise machine next to my side of the bed. And somehow we made it work. We all four slept in the same room. And it felt right.
But in the last year or so, it has stopped working. Ever since Steve came home from the hospital after his gallbladder surgery, something about the CPAP machine has been off. The hissing sound it makes is unbearable. We’ll fall asleep at the same time, but inevitably, I’ll wake up around twelve-thirty or one to use the bathroom and when I return, the hissing sound makes it impossible for me to fall asleep. I say his name to wake him, scaring the shit out of him in the process. He tells me I’m going to give him a heart attack. I tell him he’s going to kill me with that goddamn hissing. “Just adjust the nose piece, please.” He adjusts it. I roll over in bed. Ten seconds later it’s hissing again.
I tell my friend Hillary that if I ever do end up murdering my husband, my entire defense will consist of me imitating the CPAP hissing sound in court while others are trying to speak. I will drive everybody so crazy that they’ll find me not guilty. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Take a breath. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Repeat until they set me free.
More than once Steve has told me this story: when he was a teenager on vacation at Myrtle Beach with his family, his mom vetoed his choice in a tee-shirt shop on the boardwalk. He wanted one that said, “The Ayatollah is a Assaholla.” (This was in June, 1980, at the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so Steve had good reason to believe in the Ayatollah’s Assaholla-ness.) Interestingly enough, his mom didn’t have a problem with his getting one that said, “Football players do it in the end zone.”
For years, until so recently that I’m embarrassed to tell you, I thought that tee-shirt was ridiculous because, really, what a stupid pun. Oooh, a play on the words do it. So immature. And then a week or so ago, we got back on the subject of that story and I said something along the lines of how silly this shirt was. “Remember, I was barely sixteen,” Steve reminds me.
“I know, but still. You mom thinks it’s perfectly okay to get you a t-shirt with a really juvenile reference to sex but not one about the Ayatollah, who really was an assaholla. And besides, what does it even mean: football players do it in the end zone? Do they run into the end zone and suddenly celebrate by doing it right then and there?”
“I think it’s more about doing it in the end zone, you know, like anal sex?”
“Oh my god. You mean that end zone?” And the uncontrollable laughter begins. I’m dying. I fall over on the couch. I can barely catch my breath, but when I am finally able to, I manage to spit out, “Your mother let you get a tee-shirt about anal sex but not about the Ayatollah?”
“I don’t think she realized it was about anal sex.”
“Not until a few years ago.”
My stomach hurts from laughing so hard, so I cannot reply. Minutes pass.
I never met Steve’s mother. She died years before I met Steve, but what I do know about her is that she was unhappy. She did not delight in being a mother, she did not delight in Steve, and she rarely demonstrated affection toward him. I do not think I would have enjoyed meeting her. His father, though, was one of my favorite people on this earth. Kind-hearted, warm, funny, empathetic, and unashamed to eat blueberry pie with each meal because otherwise I or Steve might get to it first.
Finally, I find my voice. “What made you realize it was about anal sex?”
“I don’t know. I think I was telling someone the story and it just dawned on me.”
I don’t know how to write laughter. I don’t know how to tell you that my stomach hurt so badly from my laughing so hard at the absurdity of it all. Maybe it wasn’t that the story was all that funny. Maybe it had been too long since I’d had that kind of full-body laugh. Maybe my body needed that kind of embodied emotional experience.
“You do realize, of course, that that tee-shirt could very well be interpreted as being about gay sex, right?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t the Ayatollah.”
When I crawl into the bed in the guest room, the one with the memory foam mattress, I always squint at the clock to check the time. It’s usually between one and two a.m., which means I have about five hours before I need to get up. These five hours, I think. These five hours have to get me through.
Lately I’ve been noticing when I adjust myself in this bed, rolling over onto my stomach, that my left hip hurts. When I get out of bed in the morning, I have to take an extra second or two because of the pain.
The few times I can remember an adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I can remember responding that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. I clearly had a thing for running into, not away from, danger.
I teach undergraduate courses in rhetorical theory and the personal essay regularly, and one of the things I find myself telling students outright again and again, even though I know on some level that it is something they must learn for themselves from experience, is that the louder a person declares their strength or their smarts, the weaker or the less intelligent they actually are. A person who is strong or intelligent doesn’t need to announce her strength or her intelligence, I tell them. Pay attention to the quiet ones. They’re the strong ones.
I do this because I want to give students the benefit of knowing what, for years, I did not understand. I believed that the people in my life who shouted the loudest, “I’m strong, I’m strong, I’m strong!” actually were strong, and that I, who could never declare such a thing about myself, was weak.
When I tell students this, I characterize it as one of Dr. Robillard’s life rules.
At first I attributed the hip pain to all the walking I do with our dogs, Wrigley and Essay. I’ve always walked a lot, even before I adopted my first dog in grad school, and the daily routine with the dogs now is two walks a day. A shorter one in the morning and a longer one in the late afternoon. I probably mentioned the pain to Steve once or twice, but even I will acknowledge that I’m a bit of the girl-who-cried-wolf when it comes to pointing out problems with my body. Having grown up in an abusive home, I have low expectations for this life and I’ve long been on the lookout for the thing that will kill me young. A particularly tenacious pimple becomes, in my telling, terminal cancer, and an upset stomach that lasts more than a couple hours is surely the first sign of stomach cancer. It is not, I am always reassuring Steve, that I want to die, but that I expect to die. It is hard for me to imagine a future for myself that stretches out very far. I understand now that people who have been abused know exactly what I’m talking about, and people who have not do not. People who have grown up in secure homes believe that I am a simply a pessimist or a hypochondriac because that is the easiest way of categorizing my beliefs.
But then one Saturday, the pain got significantly worse. It hurt to stand, it hurt to walk, it hurt to simply exist. I could feel my left lower abdominal area throbbing when I lay my hand on it. Eventually I began to limp. Steve walked the dogs on Sunday. I told him that if the pain persisted, I would see if I could get in to see the doctor on Monday. I began researching ovarian cancer symptoms.
When I was twenty-one, I had a very large ovarian cyst removed. We had discovered it in April, but my doctor had told me it would be okay to wait until I had graduated from college in late May and moved back home to do the surgery. By that time, though, the cyst I had named Henrietta had become impossible to remove by laser surgery, so they had to cut me open once she ruptured. I was in the hospital, miserable, for three days.
Now, at the age of forty-four, I had all the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Abdominal bloating or swelling. Check. Quickly feeling full when eating. Kind of. Discomfort in the pelvis area. Check. Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation. Not really. A frequent need to urinate. Always.
On Monday, the pain was worse. My primary care doctor listened as I told her that the pain had been there for at least a month, but I thought it was my hip. I could hear myself, could feel the narrative forming around my words as I spoke. You waited more than a month to see a doctor?
I pointed out where the pain was and she smiled. “That’s not your hip.”
“Yeah, I’ve figured that out by now.”
She ordered a pelvic ultrasound and told me that it could be another cyst. But she wanted to get this ultrasound done quickly, this week if possible.
“And then,” I’m telling Hillary on the phone, “she starts talking very quickly about how it could also be an abdominal muscle strain, but we both know she’s just talking to talk so that she doesn’t have to say the truth that we both know. This is ovarian cancer.”
There is a feeling I get that I’m not sure I can do justice to in words, when I or those close to me are on the cusp of something dreaded. Where others might wish to run away, I want to run in, for I am most comfortable, I think, in the midst of suffering and pain. I want to hear others’ stories of suffering and pain. I want to see how they deal with it, how they cope. I am eager to live through the drama, if only to emerge on the other side with more strength, even if it’s only vicarious strength. Surviving dreaded situations is the only way I know how to develop strength.
The results of the pelvic ultrasound were delayed. My doctor was supposed to get the results that same afternoon, a Tuesday. I didn’t hear back from her office until Wednesday morning. During that time, from about noon on Tuesday, after the ultrasound—when the head of ultrasound took what seemed like hundreds of pictures of my innards, sighed deeply, and wouldn’t look into my eyes—until Wednesday morning, I considered how I might react to a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
And I surprised myself. I was actually afraid. I could tell that Hillary, the friend who has known me the longest, the friend who understands best my attitude toward life and death, the friend who also expected to be dead by now—she, too, was afraid.
I was afraid but I was resolved. I would do what I had to do. Steve offered to take time off from work to come to the doctor with me if she called and said she needed to see me (she had told me that she would only call me in only if it were bad news). I told Steve that he should save his time off for later, when things got real.
When things got real.
I think it’s time to get real. Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, says that “liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
It feels dangerous to admit that I enjoy my life and I want to continue living. It feels like I am being unfaithful to my story to acknowledge that I can imagine a future for myself. I want so badly, I have for so long wanted so badly, to look straight at reality rather than squeezing my life into the narratives our culture offers us. Narratives of overcoming or narratives of triumph. Bullshit narratives. I cherish the personal essay because it insists that I run right in. Jonathan Franzen writes that the essayist “has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.” I can do that! I can look at the ugly, the shameful, the painful. I know I can!
But can I change the story? Can I acknowledge that I want to continue to live?
Steve’s mother didn’t want to buy him a t-shirt that simplified a complicated political situation, so she let him get one with a juvenile sex joke instead. Who knows what her intentions were? It’s easy enough to change that story.
I’m forty-four years old and I’m just now realizing that maybe I want to continue to live. I’ve been afraid of admitting this because I’m afraid it will be taken from me. So much safer to say that I’m not afraid of dying, that I’ve got nothing to lose.
I’m coming to see that all this time I’ve been saying that it’s okay if I die young, that I don’t want or expect to live a long time, that I am not afraid to die, I was voicing my actual fears of dying in ways that could be heard and responded to by others. Maybe what I’ve been saying all along about the people who proclaim the loudest that they are strong actually being weak has been true of me all along, too: my proclaiming for years that I am not afraid to die and that I don’t expect to live a long time is evidence, in fact, that I am afraid.
Somewhere along the way I began to expect things from this life. And I allowed myself to accept that I expect things.
That is risky.
Steve is easy to buy for. Lately I’ve taken to buying him tee-shirts with funny sayings on them. If it were up to him, he would wear shorts year-round, so I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “If I have to put on pants, then NO.” For Christmas one year, I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “Please don’t make me do stuff,” but he is dismayed that when he wears it, I still ask him to do things. And one of my recent favorites is the one that says, “I was told there would be cake.” I tell him he can wear that one whenever I make him go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. He can just point to his shirt and look around the room expectantly.
There’s a part of me, a part that is steadily atrophying, that believes that I deserve pain. Or rather, a part that believes that I don’t deserve good things. I’m beginning to understand that these beliefs are vestiges of an old story, one that began so very long ago in other people’s pain, but one that I now have control over. That control is not simple authorial control, the kind that allows me to open a file on a computer and delete a few words here, a couple paragraphs there and, voila, a new story emerges. Rather, the control comes in the willingness to reinterpret the stories that have been fossilized, the ones we think we know.
The pelvic ultrasound found uterine fibroids, but they aren’t causing the pain. They’re relatively small, but I didn’t know that right away. From Wednesday, when I learned about the fibroids, through Friday morning, when I learned that they weren’t the cause of the pain, I imagined a huge red slimy fibroid about to rupture on my left side. I could feel it throbbing. I was afraid to bend over to pick anything up for fear it would rupture. Once I learned that the biggest fibroid is only three centimeters and that the pain is probably coming from a pulled muscle, I could no longer feel the throbbing. I walked the dogs more carefully, holding both leashes with my right hand instead of my left.
The last time I ordered Steve a tee-shirt for his birthday, I ordered one for myself, too. “I just want to pet dogs and throw the sexists into the sun. Is that so much to ask,” it reads. It’s really not so much to ask.
I think I expect more.
AMY E. ROBILLARD teaches writing at Illinois State University and essays regularly for Full Grown People. She and her husband are the guardians of two special mutts, one named Wrigley Field and one named Essay.
My mother twice bought the pitch of a salesman at the door, and both were, in one way or another, a response to one or another of her failed marriages.
The first sell came in 1992 from David Vitter, chinless Republican candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives from the 81st district, running on the amorphous platform of family values. He was conducting, in his words, a traditional, old-school campaign, knocking on constituents’ doors and actually listening to their needs and concerns about the future. My mother invited him into our dustbusted living room. My father had been a radical Vietnam/Watergate leftist, lying across the busiest intersection of Robert E. Lee Boulevard in New Orleans to protest the draft, kicking a hole into the TV during Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” telecast. After a few of years of marriage, his behaviors lost whatever charm they once possessed. When Vitter arrived at our door, my parents had been divorced for eight years. For my father, politics was sacrosanct, and supporting a Republican was anathema to everything he believed to be good and true. It was perhaps on this ground alone Mom promised Vitter that he could count on her vote.
Soon afterward, another salesman introduced us to the exorbitant Tri-Star vacuum cleaner, a silver, futuristic-looking contraption with a long hose separating the motor from the power brush. The Tri-Star promised everything: healthier environment, enhanced home appearance, peace of mind. My mother was finalizing her second divorce—she required some sense of “here is something I will never have to think about again.” The Tri-Star, purchased around the time Vitter was sworn into the state legislature, has lived through more than a dozen political cycles, including the public admission by Vitter in 2007 that he’d habitually solicited DC prostitutes over the years. His wife Wendy joined him in solidarity at the press conference. Hands clasped at her front, she wore a form-fitting leopard print dress while her husband repeatedly asked her, his constituents, and God for their collective forgiveness. She said nothing. They remain married today.
My mother passed that Tri-Star vacuum cleaner on to me just after my wedding. Nearly ten years later I remain married to my husband, breaking my mother’s record for her first two marriages.
Dusting my writing desk I recall a foremost precept of cleaning: dust accumulates most quickly in unused spaces. Thus, I am not writing enough. If I wrote more, the dust might more readily fall upon the nightstand, on the oscillating fan next to it, on the sewing machine in the corner of my office which I never use because, as my mother has joked more than once, women shouldn’t learn to sew—they should divorce if it came to that.
Dusting is the minutiae of moving objects around. So is marriage and, sometimes, so is divorce.
I bump my silver philodendron too forcefully with my dust rag—its soil dumps neatly into the small cubic space between my writing desk and bookshelf. The Tri-Star’s hose attachment is broken, and I can’t sweep away the wet soil because it will grind into the carpet. If only an appliance existed, I consider, that will pick up just this dirt, in just this small space.
I have forgotten all about the Dustbuster. For children of the eighties, dustbusting was an invigorating verb. After dinner it was my job to dustbust the crumbs from the table and sometimes, gleefully, from my little sisters’ shirtfronts. Through easy tasks like dustbusting we learned the virtues of responsibility and cleanliness, in the Mc sort of way. My eighties were filled with Mc-food (frozen or fast), Mc-parents (stepfathers), and Mc-neighborhoods (subdivisions built up in a few weeks with the same three house plans multiplied endlessly down the block). Mcs were shoddy replacements for the real thing.
One summer afternoon I attempted a cleaning shortcut: rather than vacuuming the living room, as I’d been tasked, I resolved to dustbust every inch of its twist pile carpet in long, straight lines. But the Dustbuster clogged on my third row, and it died on the fourth. To clean it out, I detached the nozzle from the handle and spilled crumbs everywhere, for which I reluctantly lugged out the Tri-Star.
The Dustbuster was invented in 1979, the same year as the McDonald’s Happy Meal, and a year after that, both the Chicken McNugget and I were born. Carroll Gantz, Black & Decker’s Industrial Design manager, marketed the Dustbuster as a portable suction device for picking up light dirt and debris. But that was the thing: it didn’t do much else. It sucked the surface grime but couldn’t penetrate to the root. In the eighties I knew, McDonald’s Mc-fed and the Dustbuster Mc-cleaned.
The original Dustbuster was a cream-colored plastic duckbill with a single brown button to rev its tiny motor. To charge one meant matching it up to its opposite-shaped wall holder. It looked like two hands clasping together. Like a prayer.
Our Dustbuster hung next to my mother’s wood carving of the Serenity Prayer, which seemed the most permanent thing in our house by virtue of its basically being a letter to God—God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change—though I never heard Mom ask God to grant her a thing. It might have been during one of her fights with my stepfather when the prayer was knocked from the wall. Once rehung, the carving remained askew for a long time, a rearrangement I thought appropriate.
Were my mother’s remarriages what Samuel Johnson called “the triumph of hope over experience”? Or, ultimately, the failure of assignation? Promises weren’t just made at the end of a church aisle, I intuited. A couple’s foundation wasn’t so simple as “man and wife,” and the sickness and health and love and death weren’t even the half of it.
Often before those bigger tests play out, a couple lives together, slowly ages together, moves around in lockstep or with four left feet, depending on the day. And rather than acceding to the unequal dynamic of our earlier parent-child relationships, in which the parent figure dictates appropriate rules and chores for the child, a married couple makes up the rules together.
Both my stepfathers were natural tinkerers, so they’d be our home’s occasional handymen—cleaning gutters, repairing the toaster, performing tasks inconceivable for my idealist father who was versed in the oeuvre of Graham Greene and themes in Don Quixote but couldn’t hang a picture frame. And my mother, in her postfeminist sensibility that women could do anything and have it all (and much more secure in that ideal than most women I know today) reflexively took up the mantle of “You do the tinkering, and I’ll take care of everything else! I’ll dust and cook and clean and work full time and do pretty much all the kid stuff and still love you unconditionally, because I’m that strong and powerful!” In other words, rather than balancing their duties or at least having a conversation about them which might allow for future fluidity, it was: mother = everything, Mcfather = whatever he’s in the mood for.
At some point, probably when the burden of her constant doing began outweighing her husband’s facility with a screwdriver, or how hilarious he could be when drunk or stoned, my mother’s purview on their respective roles and personas sharpened considerably. Both my Mc-parents, for example, were—in the beginning—described by my mother as real men’s men: handy, diffident, fun. After a few years they were lazy, selfish drunks, that last word always like an uppercut—there was nothing more to say or think about who they were. That lovely marriage pronoun, the we, was gone. Each spoken I became a towering, dauntless god, while the you was a stub of the toe, a malignant growth, something grossly foreign and unrecognizable. Marriage became a war with clearly-defined sides, and as with most warring parties, both sides saw themselves within their struggle as the victims and heroes.
In my adolescence, when my mother was gradually falling out of sync in her second marriage, she became enamored with an epigram of unknown origin, pithy and reductive enough to sound to my young ears like a frightening admonition regarding my future: “Men may work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done.” The couplet became such a popular refrain for her that, in seeming solidarity, my second Mcfather occasionally parroted it as well, letting us all know he too was aware of its truth: men, in effect, have a singular job in a marriage, while women own all of them. To me the phrase sounded dirty coming from him, a prolix substitute to the beautiful brevity of “thank you,” or “I’m grateful.” But it was even more cringeworthy coming from her, equitable to the “it is what it is” shrug of the shoulders. Why did she accept a position within her own home that drove her crazy? Was it the married woman’s fate to passive-aggressively, ineffectually complain? Was every marriage doomed to stasis until at some point both partners tacitly agreed to stop working on it altogether?
Here’s how, in each of my mother’s marriages, the stopping started: more and more frequently after one of their fights in which words were no longer sufficient to communicate their disgust—his hands on her throat, her nails in his cheeks, each sound and scene a rolling pin across my insides—the most interminable sound became their protracted silence. Weeks without acknowledgement of each other, ghost parents floating around the house. The standard emotional cleanup following a fight—the I’m sorry, honeys and never agains—regressed to a spit-and-shine job at best, hardly even Dustbuster-worthy. Eventually, every ignored resentment piled up too high and deep for anyone to tackle. Betrayal and fear shoved into every closet, mutual antipathy ground down into every thread of our twist pile carpet. I wanted to dustbust the marriage detritus, dustbust her justifications, but I’d already learned: the Dustbuster can only hold so much.
In my marriage I’ve broken all the rules I made for my future self as a child: I’ll never yell, he’ll never drink too much, I’ll never swear or shove, we’ll love just enough to forever keep us in an orderly, perfect alignment. I didn’t know then that getting dirty isn’t a choice—it’s inevitable.
In my marriage, we fight. In our fights my past is often transmogrified. We get mad, we ruin dinner, I break a remote, then break another, he slams a door, punches the wall, I throw myself off the porch and scream into the grass. Yet the difference is the aftermath: that incontrovertible grime it leaves behind that we willfully, immediately recognize, and labor at once to scrub away. Rather than allowing our bitterness to slowly boil then hopefully evaporate with time, mirroring the paradigm of fights I grew up on, we call out the other’s mess when we see it. With every why and what for and pleasecan we not anymore and what did you mean, we wipe down the obvious films of dust and move on to where decay resides: those concealed psychic baseboards and window panes, the forgotten space behind the toilet. We take on this grit together to see clearly where it is we live, and with whom. It is not in a carving on the wall but in this work where we find our prayers, and help each other answer them.
Still, despite these ideals, in my marriage I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit parsing out whose mess is whose. Sure, I’m happy to dust my desk in my office, but when my husband announces our dining room table looks dusty, I ask “Does it?,” give him a look, and wait for him to clean it. The longer I’m married, though, the more I wonder who is delineating the his role and the hers. It’s difficult to unlearn what our childhoods have encoded, what we never believed but enacted for the families who would accept nothing else, because we were playing the parts they’d prescribed.
According to my mother, I should grow up to never take shit from men, let them clean up their own messes. According to my Mc-fathers, I should become the kind of woman who doesn’t give men so much shit. It’s through the continual polishing of my relationship that I’ve been able to gradually reject that either/or dichotomy. The more time we spend dusting ourselves off after a fight, or spot-cleaning our marriage when we’re not, the more the influence of Mc-everythings from the past starts to subside.
Because there is no precedent for the scene in which I often find myself: my husband in our kitchen, mixing sauces for Chicken Mario or a red pepper and tofu stir-fry, working purposefully toward each meal that feeds us fully. We never eat from the paper sacks of my youth. For an aesthetic sense of parallelism, and as a gesture of gratitude, I make sure we eat his lovely dinners on my shiny tables. No: our dinners, our tables.
When the Smithsonian acquired an original model of the Dustbuster in 1995, the year my mother began her third marriage, 100 million had been sold. McDonald’s, meanwhile, heavily marketed the Arch Deluxe sandwich in an effort to cultivate a more adult image. Only, no one bought it. It was a standard burger with all the regular fixings, but with the lagniappe of sweet Spanish onions and, as noted in one advertisement, “a secret sauce for grown-ups.” The problem, it seemed, was the tremendous effort and dollars spent in the narrow hope of catering solely to adults. Millions of sesame seeds atop their potato flour buns went uneaten, went unspilled upon the twist-pile carpeted floors of America, went un-dustbusted. McDonald’s experiment with maturity resulted in one of the most expensive flops in the history of branding.
Black and Decker now sells nine popular models of the personal vacuum that pivot easily to pick up larger debris, use lithium-ion technology powered by cyclonic action, offering a more hygienic cleanup with less clogging than ever before. The world apparently still needs the Dustbuster, but I don’t. When I spill plant soil on the carpet I vow to get the old Tri-Star repaired. I’ll accept no substitutes if we’re going to go all the way, because a real partnership calls for a real vacuum.
BROOKE CHAMPAGNE was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work appears in Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Louisiana Literature, and Bending Genre online, among other journals. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays.
There comes a time when you’ve seen the underside of the bus too many times. When you stand up, brush yourself off, and decide you will not be near the bus when it comes flying by. That you’ll be beside it or away from there, but not under.
Three days before our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband told me he was leaving the marriage. He had talked of being unhappy for some time. We had spent years—weekly—in the office of a marriage counselor. But this time he meant it: he planned to leave. When I asked about the timing, he said he couldn’t stand to go through with the anniversary. I cancelled the hotel, the babysitter. I couldn’t return the custom gift I’d had made for him, a drawing I commissioned by his artist cousin depicting a note that was important to us both from our first months together. If you are wondering why, of two people in the same marriage, one would be commissioning art for a gift while the other would be planning his moment of exit, then you have a good point. We were not, as they say, on the same page.
Before that, many good years.
Our two daughters and I would wait for him to come home at the end of the workday. Since I was a classroom teacher, I got home first. We would sit on the front steps of our house and watch the corner for his bike to come around it. Then there was a race and happy shouts, girls running toward their daddy, my husband: he would stop on the sidewalk and ruffle their hair, listening to their important stories about their days. Up the stairs together, all four, and into the house for dinner. Even as I write this, I can still feel how much his face, his smile, him, would melt me back then.
It’s palpable, the change. Slowly he started to withdraw his hand from mine. One day we finished an errand early and found ourselves without kids, near a favorite restaurant downtown where we had a gift certificate. I suggested we park and grab a meal, just the two of us with a stolen hour. He wanted to go back home and get our kids first. Not because the sitter had to go. Like the anniversary, he couldn’t face the meal alone with me. That’s what we did. We fetched the kids, let the sitter go, and ate as a family.
Say what you like. Maybe it was the brutal cancer treatment I did, coming on the heels of some difficult years as I recovered from childhood sexual abuse. But I’ve seen other couples with as much on their plate, strengthened by the challenges, bolstered by the hard work. I’ve seen it done—with nerve and with grace.
It was probably already too late when we started couples’ therapy.
The pattern became familiar.
Our hour with the clinician began.
My husband would point out my flaw: You don’t fight fair. Something.
I’d agree with him and hustle to change my pattern. (Who doesn’t have a flaw or three?) I’d work on it hard with my own therapist for a week or two until I could shift, show progress. I loved him and I really wanted my treasured marriage to work, so I did it.
The next week he’d agree I had addressed the original flaw and improved. But he had a new flaw for me to work on.
I shouldn’t take online quizzes. I take them sometimes, looking for an answer. What changed? When I see that he gets a 25-out-of-25 as I score him for “behavior your spouse might show if he’s having an affair,” I’m sad for us. It doesn’t ring true—I don’t believe he would cheat. He says no when I ask. In my mind, I retitle the quiz “behavior your spouse might show if he has removed himself emotionally from the marriage.”
Once we moved to Chicago, we would occasionally walk with our daughters by the looming stone building with gargoyles where we spent our wedding night almost twenty years before. I remember we’d had the penthouse suite that night and I’d stood by the leaded glass windows in the dark, watching the full moon over Lake Michigan. I’d felt full of magic and promise that night, like the luckiest girl in the world: sent off by my loving family into the arms of this perfect man.
Whenever we passed the building with the girls all those years later, in the thick of the crowd on the sidewalk, I would point my daughters up to that floor, to that night, where their parents’ official union began. He would shove his hands deeper into his pockets and walk on, ahead of us, silent. They knew not to ask me what was wrong with Dad. We followed in his wake.
There were so many signs, had I wished to read them.
We married in February, my attempt to add something—our love, our anniversary—to a month that, with its gray end-of-winter, wasn’t my favorite. If I disliked February before, I now loathe it. November, the month our divorce was final, bookends the grief. The specific days within those months: February 26 the delirious beginning, November 2 the sober end. Time will return the months to me. Soon I will say to myself, What day was it again? And in this way be healed.
He was livid that I sometimes took a sticker off a piece of fruit and, instead of throwing the sticker immediately away, affixed it to the side of the kitchen sink briefly until throwing it away later. Livid.
He was upset that he had to be the one to make coffee for my visiting, out-of-town friend when he thought I should have made it for her, should have gotten up a half hour earlier.
The bad years. The last ten.
Under the bus. I lived there. Thrown or situated there of my own will. Even in that ditch, I remembered my spunky self who had lost her voice.
Among the signs, according to the Internet:
One partner creates a more private life.
The hours he stayed up with his computer after I went to bed.
His refusal to introduce me to his new friends. “I’ll be back late.”
His weekly poker game to which I wasn’t invited.
His solo appearance to his work holiday party.
His refusal to give permission for our couples’ therapist to speak to his personal therapist.
Disclaimer: Yes, people do find they are in the wrong marriage. He did.
Disclaimer: People can also leave their marriage.
Disclaimer: I’m sure I have many annoying qualities.
Disclaimer: But I have great qualities too. Loving truly and never quitting are two.
Disclaimer: Yes, he can still leave. And he did.
Disclaimer: I don’t get to understand it from his point of view. But I know how I felt. I felt finished.
On the day our divorce was final, almost twenty-four years after our wedding day, I had lunch with my mother. I think I had tuna sashimi and barely touched it, took it home. I think I had wine at two p.m. I kept insisting I was fine, but some iceberg inside me was calving. Later that day, I got an email from my now ex-husband. It was about dividing bank accounts. He said that all in court had “gone smoothly.” (In Illinois, only the one who files must go to court. I stayed home.) It had been so long and, since there was no going back or changing his mind, I did want to be free, but I couldn’t help splintering a little more as I read that note from him. We had undone what we did that beautiful, snowy, hopeful February day so long ago. He did not say there were many things I loved about being married to you. He did not say thank you for the love. I didn’t say those things either. He said that the divorce went smoothly and here are the forms I should sign to divide the assets.
I stayed for my children and because I believed we were having a “rough patch.”
I am not religious, but I believed marriage was forever. At least I believed my marriage was.
I believed in our past. We had been happy. I believed that that husband would come back.
I stayed because I loved him.
February 23, 2014. We were both watching an early hockey game on TV. The weak, February sunlight filtered in through the bay windows of our rented apartment in Chicago. Our pre-teen daughters were asleep. I was on the side of the couch closest to the wall, and he was on the side closest to the doorway. He stood and turned the TV off to make the room silent. Then he told me quietly that it was over and he was leaving. He said he was leaving.
When he graduated from his Ph.D. program the year before that, a triumph even the girls had been involved in, he didn’t want us to fly and attend the ceremony with him.
Of course we would! I said. And I bought the plane tickets.
In his blue robe and cap, in all the photos, his disappointment is evident. He didn’t want to celebrate with us. Or maybe just with me. Like the anniversary, the meal out, birthdays. Like the night of Obama’s second election when I had two VIP tickets and I took a friend because he, a huge Obama fan, preferred to stay home on that same couch. My younger daughter saw me on TV that night. I was in the front row—with a friend.
Once, when I was sobbing at the mediator several months after that fateful February morning of the hockey game and my husband was joking with her, turning on the charm, I asked him why he had filed for divorce.
At first he didn’t hear me over the laughter, so I repeated my question.
He said—smiling, directing his comment to the mediator—“Oh, you weren’t meeting my needs.”
Then they smiled together about it.
I got a lawyer.
I’m embarrassed that I tried for as long as I did.
Two years after my cancer diagnosis, I wrote in a journal that he had said to me that day: “I’m having a midlife crisis and I don’t know how I feel about you.”
It’s a tired old line. This exact line is #14 in the Internet quiz of twenty-five items.
Which doesn’t mean he was having an affair. But it does mean he was removing himself emotionally.
I thought I wouldn’t survive it, his leaving.
The man I had planned to die next to, whom I had loved with all my cells, was gone—to his weekly poker game, his friends, maybe even to his sadness. He took the dining room table and one of the cars, and he was entitled to that. The kids and I were home after school and work, on weekends, and no one would be coming back from work by bicycle just before dinner.
I especially hated the weekends I spent alone when the kids went to his house. I wrote my way through them, pages I would make sure no one ever saw but that still got me to morning. I hardly noticed as it became less acute, as I didn’t need to call a friend or force myself to go to a movie, as I could sink into the evening and know that whatever it brought would be fine. I got to know myself again. I rediscovered my natural spunk, a ferocity that had been burnished during my married years.
The idea that we won’t survive something is a failure of imagination. Now I know: I might not have survived his staying. I’m sure I would have had all the trappings of being alive and fine—but my spirit. Being on my own gave me my spirit back.
He liked to say, especially in couples’ therapy sessions, that he thought I suffered from borderline personality disorder. The first time he said it, I was worried and suggestible. That was a big claim, an incendiary one. He was “diagnosing” me with a disorder that doesn’t respond well to treatment or medication. I went back to my own therapist, with her Ph.D. and thirty years of experience, and I asked her. I asked her, crying, shrinking into the comfy green chair where I spent a lot of time these days. She laughed kindly. She said, “You have PTSD. That’s it,” referring to the fall-out of the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from. Later I asked my psychiatrist as well, my glamorous runner psychiatrist who vacationed in farthest south Chile, who was also a mom: warm and compassionate, worthy of respect, who knew me well. She also swore that that was not my diagnosis.
I was reassured by their confidence. I had confidence in their confidence.
But he and I had to discuss it many times when he brought it to the couples’ therapist over and over.
A marriage starts to unravel. So many things are said, and most of them are best forgotten. But this piece, this particular grenade he lobbed and relobbed. This “claim” or “concern”: it is outside the way I believe people should be treated. It’s the thing I’ll remember, sadly, more than the father coming home by bike, more than our happy years when he still enjoyed dining out with me. I will remember this little piece of cruelty—repeated and sharp. I looked at him and wondered what in the world, who in the world? And although I didn’t know it yet, I was looking at the end. And the beginning of my spunky, messy life. Hard-won. It turned out that I could survive his leaving. I imagined it, and then I stepped toward that life, my life, the one that had been waiting for me.
CAMERON GEAREN is a poet and essayist living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Dame Magazine, Hippocampus, Ravishly, and elsewhere. She is the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. In 2016, her book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out from Shearsman Press. On Twitter she’s @camerongearen.
He revealed this fact to me on our second date, as I put a forkful of the insalata di frisee in my mouth at the Italian restaurant he’d recommended for dinner.
“I’m sorry?” I said, trying to swallow without appearing overwhelmed by the kidney that suddenly arrived at the table.
“Yeah, I don’t like to get into this conversation so soon after meeting someone. But I wanted you to know what’s been going on with me,” he explained.
Rick, or Rican Rick as he called himself on the dating app where we met, was forty-eight, one year older than me, Puerto Rican, balding, bearded, and four inches shorter than my usual preference in potential suitors. Scootercrunch, my online moniker, was newly single after a two-year relationship that soured, dissatisfied with his corporate communications job, and searching for “the real thing” by finally swapping out drunken hook-ups for serious dating.
I hadn’t expected “serious” to translate to a man who spent most of his adult life on dialysis, dealing with one failed kidney after another.
“What else you got?” I joked in an attempt to unpack all his baggage before the entrees arrived.
“Well, I haven’t really worked in seven years.”
And there it was. This attractive man, obviously thin and dealing with a disease, played his whole hand as my roasted chicken and his pasta nudged in between me, him, his kidney, and his unemployment.
The big revelations in gay dating usually consisted of HIV status, recent STDs, favorite sexual positions, and whether or not one of you suffered a serious porn addiction. On a recent date, a middle school English teacher sipped Merlot and plainly announced, “I like to come home after work, smoke a joint, and watch porn.” I immediately sensed I’d be third in line behind weed and over-the-top orgasms. Now that I was confronted with real life problems, I was unsure how to address my feelings about them.
“This is not the man for you,” said my friend James, when I told him about Rick.
“There are some serious red flags going on here,” said my sister during our weekly phone chats.
“Absolutely not! We’ve already had enough death and illness from cancer, let alone bad kidneys.” That was my brother, who begged me not to take on someone with health problems.
Cancer lurked in the shadows waiting to take the next member of the family—at least that was our fatalistic outlook. First our father from brain cancer almost twenty years ago and then more recently our mother after a brutally quick three-month battle with lymphoma.
Our working class parents weren’t the care-giving kind. The sympathy gene never made it to the next generation. You had a cold; you tried your best to go to school. God help you if you stayed home with the sniffles and spent time whiling away the hours watching television.
“If I come home and find you had that TV on, you’ll get the belt,” assured my father.
And he wasn’t kidding. He’d march upstairs to press his hand on the back of the TV to determine if any offenders had snuck into our parent’s bedroom and watched afternoon soap operas. The trick? Only keep it on until three p.m. so it had an hour to cool before his arrival home.
When our mother struggled with cancer, my siblings and I badgered doctors, questioned nursing home administrators and attempted to rally my mother out of her own feelings of doom. But we already loved her. She wasn’t someone new entering our lives.
I often teased my brother that when we got older I’d move in with him and spend our remaining days as brothers drinking and helping each other to the bathroom. “Look pal, it’s bad enough you’ll live here when you’re old, but I’m not taking in some guy with a bad kidney,” he concluded.
For Rick, an ongoing battle with renal failure combined with fear of romantic rejection seemed easily outmatched by my battery of questions and confessions of uncertainty on entering this relationship. In his former working life, he managed a career in the mental health field, so I was on the defensive from his comebacks to my questions.
“What would I do if you got sick again?” I inquired.
“Well, Scott, you could easily get sick anytime too.” Touché.
I told him to watch out as both my parents died of cancer, and I was surely the next one to be afflicted. He found my sense of humor troubling.
“What happens when I come home from a tough day at the office and I say you don’t understand because you don’t work?” I hoped being up front and honest would win me points.
“So it sounds to me like Scott would have feelings of resentment,” he suggested.
“What about a year from now when you’re still not working?”
“You’re assuming things will be a certain way a year from now, aren’t you?”
He made valid points as I learned how Medicare and a supplemental plan covered his medical bills and how he maintained a living. What I didn’t like was his therapeutic approach in response to my honest hesitations.
When he stumbled once in conversation, I joked, “You’re not stroking out on me are you?” A long pause filled the air.
“Don’t tell me you’ve had a stroke before?” I asked.
“Well, they’re not sure what it was,” he replied.
“Are you kidding me?”
During my last relationship with a guy six years my junior, we were dating only a few months when an evening of Mexican food resulted in him rushing to the restroom repeatedly with stomach cramps.
“You’ve got a sensitive stomach,” I proclaimed, chalking his boo-boo belly up to the spicy salsa we just ate.
“No, this is not salsa pain. It’s something more serious,” he said.
“You’re fine. Gosh, what are you going to do when you hit your forties like me?”
My poor attempt at a belly pain diagnosis backfired. The next day he summoned me from work as they wheeled him from the ER into the operating room to remove his swollen appendix. All the while he glared at me with an unspoken “I told you” from underneath the silly surgical hat crammed on to his head. Any ache or pain announced during the rest of our two-year courtship immediately ignited my fears, and I quickly encouraged him to see a doctor or head straight to urgent care.
Our love story already had begun taking shape when the appendix appeared right after that chips and salsa appetizer. And, that was not a chronic illness defined by stages and the possibility of failure. My former boyfriend’s appendix wasn’t making a comeback. Kidney failure, on the other hand, remained a possibility for Rick.
I started to question my goodness and whether I was a bad person for wanting to pass him over because of his maladies or lack of current career mobility. As a grown adult I confessed to ending brief affairs of the heart by ignoring calls or texts or coming up with transparent excuses. It was hard to hate yourself for following a dating blueprint adopted by millions of others. But meeting a truly genuine and honest person confronting real-life struggles and dismissing them outright seemed cruel.
I agreed to another date.
In between our meetings, Rick wondered aloud about sex and when we’d explore physical affection. I kept things strictly above the waist and insisted that somewhere between date three and date ten “something surely was bound to happen.”
But it didn’t.
Sunday brunch and casual shopping served as our third date’s agenda. He arrived fifteen minutes late, a pattern I noticed once the kidney and career conversations took a back seat. Before settling on a selection or deciding on a non-purchase, he subjected every waiter or retailer to a multitude of questions and follow-ups. He complimented my good skin repeatedly as if nothing else interesting about me stood out. My humor, Rick pointed out, wasn’t always necessary, and I needed to listen more and talk less.
I wasn’t a bad person, simply someone on a bad date … a third one of my own making. Forget the kidney, and possibly a stroke. No burning romance ignited inside my heart. There was a sense of emotional availability for sure; we certainly talked about his feelings and what he needed. What my brain forgot was why I started seriously dating again in the first place.
I yearned for a true meaningful connection with another man who complimented my late forties skin, yes, but also my wicked sense of humor and my ambitions. I didn’t need analysis—and while the thought of dialysis didn’t exactly excite me—I did need some stirring below the waist to know that sex wasn’t going to wait until date ten.
I agonized over how to tell Rick my heart just wasn’t in it. Friends told me to get over it and rip the band-aid off now, and early, before feelings took shape or sex slipped in to fill the expected next step I swerved to avoid.
We met a final time a week later, having already purchased theater tickets in advance. I waited between nervously devouring the guacamole and paying the bill to tell Rick that this felt more like a friendship than a budding romance. He listened, of course.
“How do you feel about it?” I prompted him.
He paused for a few minutes before replying. “You know. I think we have very different communication styles.”
It felt like the first real connection and mutual agreement we had since meeting.
After the show we chatted briefly on a cold, windy street corner and hugged goodbyes, promising to stay in touch. We haven’t. I watched him confidently walk down the street, moving on to the next adventure life held in store for him, and I did the same.
I was hung up on his physical ailments and lack of a job too quickly, which delayed my discovery of the real issue—our incompatibility. It wasn’t so much about health or career. Of course they mattered when taking in the whole of a potential mate. And yet, it really did come down to the fact that we simply had no chemistry. Rick wasn’t right for me or I for him. Someone needed to say it and save us both from grasping for companionship so blindly rather than patiently staying single.
Truthfully, the kidney mattered too. I wasn’t ready to love someone who brought renal failure as a possible third wheel in our relationship. But with Rick, I hope I did my best to take care of his heart while I practiced stretching mine.
SCOTT GERACE is a corporate writer by day and an essayist by night. He currently resides in New York City. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Purple Clover. Read his work at www.scottgerace.com.
My partner was brewing a pungent, murky brown concoction on the stove. The label on the box beside the stove listed burdock root, slippery elm bark, sheep sorrel, and turkey rhubarb root, but it gave me no clue as to the purpose of the ingredients.
“What’s it for?” I asked, sniffing the pot.
Ted mumbled something unintelligible.
“Is it a laxative?” I asked.
“For digestive problems?”
He paused. “Nope.”
Puzzled, I tried again. As a custom cabinet-maker, he had been working long hours and weekends but seemed energetic and healthy. “Is it for your anemia?” Several months before, he had been diagnosed with a severe iron deficiency, but he’d been taking a supplement.
I made a few more failed guesses. Finally, he said flatly and quietly, “It’s for cancer.”
I stared at him. “Why on earth do you think you have cancer?”
He kept stirring the pot. “I’ve been passing blood.”
When I urged him emphatically to see the doctor for more tests, he shrugged. He carefully poured the steaming brew through a sieve into a couple of large jars, not spilling a single drop. “I guess I should.”
Several weeks later, we sat with the gastroenterologist in a small examining room, looking at a color print-out of the images taken during an internal scan of Ted’s intestines. One image revealed subtle polyps that looked hardly more sinister than crimson crayon scrawls. Another image showed the slight bulge of a small polyp that resembled a small fleshy boil or pimple. But then there was the final image: it looked like a blob of gummy red gelatin encasing curled-up maggots. It filled a third of the intestinal tunnel and resembled a fetal mouse or fetal frog. I repressed an instinctive shudder.
“It’s cancer,” the doctor said without drama. “I took a biopsy, but I’m fairly certain.”
So this was what cancer looked like from the inside. Ted’s father had died over two decades earlier of complications following stomach cancer surgery. A decade earlier, Ted`s eldest sister had died of colorectal cancer at the age of fifty-seven. Years of gruelling chemotherapy, radiation and experimental therapies had failed to stop its spread. We were informed that people with a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of developing it. Being the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer after prostate cancer for men, it is the second leading cause of death from cancer overall, although if detected early, it is over ninety percent curable.
The doctor matter-of-factly went through the process that we’d be going through: staging to determine how far the cancer had spread, an ultrasound and CT scan, analysis of the biopsy results, a referral to a surgeon. He drew a diagram of the kind of bowel resection surgery that Ted could expect to undergo—it looked deceptively simple, a cross between plumbing repair and alterations at a tailor’s.
Strangely, neither Ted nor I was alarmed. Perhaps we’d used up our storehouse of apprehension during the weeks leading up to the colonoscopy From this moment on, he would go through the necessary tests and procedures with all the hoops and steps laid out for him. It was as if we were both buckled into the seat of a medical amusement park ride called “the oncological flow chart.” A positive result on one test might lead to a diversion down a more complex chain of procedures; a negative result might lead to a positive destination reached in a shorter time. None of the flow charts in the cancer brochures led to the word “death.” But it existed, unwritten, just over the edge.
We arrived for Ted’s surgery at Vancouver’s historic St. Paul’s hospital on the first day of August. As we dutifully followed the painted red line on the floor through the body of the older buildings into the newer sections, we passed commemorative plaques about the nuns who had fundraised on horseback at mining and logging camps to raise funds to found the hospital at a time when the current downtown site was located on the outskirts of wilderness.
Little did we know how familiar we would become with that brick edifice with its threading red line. Advised initially that he might expect a stay of five days, Ted would remain there for over four weeks. I would be taking the bus there daily, sometimes twice daily, for the remainder of the summer.
We’d prepared for weeks before the surgery, going in for Ted’s appointments with the surgeon and for scans, as well as to the pre-admission clinic to review hospital checklists, instructions, and test results which I gathered in a purple file folder on the kitchen counter near the phone. That file became both compass and hub through the summer and fall.
On the morning of the operation, we were the first to arrive at the day surgery department at what seemed like any typical waiting room—institutional chairs arranged against the pastel walls, a coffee table with outdated magazines. After he checked in at the reception desk, Ted changed into a hospital gown and we sat together until he was called. It didn’t seem to be a place of sufficient gravitas, of momentous, radical change, where your guts would be sliced open, dismantled, rearranged or removed—or where you could die.
Because the surgery was supposed to last three hours, I took the bus home while Ted got his abdomen shaved and epidural and intravenous lines inserted. Too restless, I returned downtown. There were booths and kiosks set up along Davie Street as part of a block party in advance of the Pride Parade the next day. At Bute and Davie I walked by the celebrated rainbow crosswalk, Canada’s first permanent rainbow-painted crosswalk added to the West End in 2013 to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the local Pride Parade. I went into a dollar store to buy a small rainbow flag to mark the festivities. Inspired by Judy Garland’s song, “Over the Rainbow,” the flag had been designed for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ movement, with special symbolic significance assigned to each colour.
Back at the hospital, I headed upstairs to Ward 10B to look for Ted. He was a bit groggy but conscious and smiling, and looked surprisingly normal except for the various tubes emerging from underneath his sheets that were connected to a catheter, an IV, and a patient-controlled hydromorphone dispensing machine known as a PCA that he could press whenever he was in pain. I pinned the rainbow flag next to the “Nothing by Mouth” sign that was turned face down on the bulletin board behind his hospital bed, wondering why each of the six beds in the room had bulletin boards with those signs and no artwork or photos.
As there didn’t seem to be any kind of bulging from his abdomen, I asked Ted if the surgeon had given him an ostomy. He wasn’t sure and hadn’t had a chance to ask. The whole idea of having your intestine protrude out from your body to expel feces into an external bag had made us both queasy and anxious, despite our having watched the obligatory DVD at the pre-admission clinic that showed gorgeous athletic men and women blithely unaffected by their ostomies.
With his permission, I gingerly lifted the sheets and then his hospital gown, bracing myself for the worst. We both peered down at his belly. There was a narrow tube leading from a dressing a few inches beneath his rib cage to a small disc-like Hemovac drain to remove the build-up of excess blood and fluids after surgery. On different parts of his belly were five neat sets of black staples along puckered, deep red incisions, with the longest row near the pubic area. Over the weeks ahead, the redness would soon fade to purple, and then eventually light brown, until the scars from the incisions were barely perceptible.
I put his gown and the sheets and blankets back in place. I felt like celebrating and considered heading out to watch the parade the next day to wave our little Pride flag. Ted had made it through surgery successfully. He was in good spirits. The cancerous tumor had been removed, with no need for an ostomy. Maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t so terrible after all?
Ted found it difficult to sleep on the ward. The blue PCA machine dispensing the hydromorphone and IV fluids ticked and clucked day and night without a break except when the IV or the medication needed to be refreshed. We pretended there were miniature robotic chickens trapped inside it, even tried to imitate the sounds. He had to take it with him to the bathroom, the IV pole draped with tubes and with electrical cords that had to be pulled out each time. But the PCA alleviated the discomfort, at least during those first few days. I fretted about the possibility of addiction, but he waved my concerns away and kept clicking the button to bliss.
When he’d been first diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I had wondered how I’d feel about the hospitalization, bed pans, diapers, catheters, the physical changes to his body, the possible ostomy. Although we had lived together and become more interdependent over the past four years, he knew that I still had some doubts about our relationship. He was concerned that his care would become a burden that I would resent.
“You don’t have to come every day,” he told me.
I looked at him in disbelief. “Of course I do!”
And I did. The day after the operation, I ventured out to drift among the crowds in the intense August heat to get a glimpse of the parade. The noise and hoopla were fun, but ultimately it felt jarring to be surrounded by the teeming exuberance and staged goodwill. I rushed back to the hospital where it was quiet and cool and where I really wanted to be—with Ted.
Most of the time, after arranging plants and flowers and cards on the sill and getting him fresh ice chips, I’d gaze out the window by his bed. I’d look down at the shifting rhythm of traffic on Burrard Street and out at the glass towers that reflected both each other and a faceted sky. After drawing the curtains between us and the other patients so we could at least have the illusion of privacy, I would sometimes sit facing him on the bed, my back against the footboard, my legs alongside his, so we could hold or rub each other’s feet, which felt more intimate than holding hands.
Sometimes after the visitors had gone and if my twelve-year-old son was staying at his father’s, I’d remain to watch dusk fall across the city. I didn’t have to be social or chase down Ted’s frustratingly elusive leprechaun-like surgeon and his wandering medical team. The fluorescent lights would be turned off and everything would slowly become bathed in blue. I’d watch a DVD with him on the old portable player I’d brought, the light from the screen flickering across his face.
Other days seemed very long. I wouldn’t realize it until I returned home. Saturated from the hospital, I would want to collapse in bed, but I’d face a backlog of texts, voicemail, and email messages. My work, household chores, and tasks accumulated, undone. I had just enough energy to deal with Ted at the hospital and my son at home and not much left for anything else. But it seemed impossible for it to be any other way. Whether I was examining Ted’s stitches and dressings, helping out the nurses by changing his hospital gown or diapers, giving him sponge baths, massaging his feet, taking him for walks, or just sitting with him, it was important for me to be there. Our lives were entwined. Until then, I hadn’t been aware of how much. What bound us together wasn’t a yoke, leash or chain—it was a root.
Very soon after his surgery, Ted started receiving clear fluids. The little four ounce chilled plastic juice containers started to pile up: mostly orange, but grape and apple too. The inevitable hospital jello came also— yellow, orange, and red, laden with sugar, artificial flavours and colours, and probably made from gelatin extracted from the bones of factory farmed animals. Dishwater-like broths of questionable origin arrived as well. He downed them all willingly.
As his incisions seemed to be healing well, the type and level of foods swiftly advanced from meal to meal as the dieticians tried to speed his progress and ready his digestive system for his possible discharge from hospital in a few days’ time. He started receiving cream soups—broccoli, carrot, mushroom. When he started getting little cups of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, Ted’s eyes lit up as he devoured each one. His abdomen became increasingly bloated, however. We started joking that he was growing twins. Then rice with green beans and fish arrived, followed by a chicken sandwich, puddings. The stack of unopened juices grew taller. His belly ballooned out, painfully distended. The traffic jam inside his digestive tract became untenable. Intense, continuous nausea overcame him. He stopped smiling, his gaze turned downward and inward. The food was left untouched.
Ted rejected the insertion of a nasogastric tube for two long days. But soon, it was impossible for him to think or sleep.
“Could I get more medication for the nausea?” he pleaded with the long-suffering nurse on the ward that day.
“You’re already on the highest dose,” she said shaking her head, disapprovingly. Her tone of voice shifted into persuasive mode. “Why not try the NG tube? You’ll feel better.”
Ted was fighting his body’s natural urge to reject the food. A scan showed that a gas pocket near his duodenum was causing the blockage. He finally agreed. It took five painstaking, arduous attempts by the nurses to feed the NG tubing down his nose into his stomach while he gagged and vomited on the floor. One attempt stopped him from being able to speak. He had to yank out the tube in order communicate to them that they’d threaded it in the wrong direction, toward his trachea instead of his esophagus.
When I returned later, he was sitting with his eyes downcast with concentration and discomfort. He seemed demoralized and exhausted. Green fluid was being suctioned out through his left nostril via a long tube attached to his nose that snaked into a large plastic canister attached to a wall unit. The canister was already half full. Canister after canister was filled and emptied that day. Ted’s nausea started to subside, but talking was kept to a minimum. I fended off friends from visiting.
“I’ll never look at a green smoothie the same way again,” I told him.
Over the course of the weeks ahead, it seemed almost everyone else in the gastrointestinal ward would be “producing” the exact same green fluid irrespective of what they were ingesting, as if the ward were some bizarre factory. The sound of vomiting was common. The cleaners were regularly called in to mop the floor of spilled bodily fluids of every type.
A number of patients came and went, part of the shifting social microcosm of the ward. We joked about pitching a reality TV show called Ward 10B. There was an elderly Danish man with dementia who was scheduled for a reverse ileostomy but kept pulling out his IV and trying to flee. Beside him was an outdoorsy young man who’d been airlifted to the hospital as a result of tearing his spleen after a dive gone wrong. After a few days, he was replaced by a wiry, grizzled fellow with keen, bright eyes, who swore and complained vociferously about the food. “What’s this shit?” The patient who had a bed next to Ted’s appeared to be a new immigrant. His chador-clad wife had her hands full trying to shush two young, precocious children. He was soon replaced by another patient whom we nicknamed “The Prince.” He conversed frequently and loudly on his cell phone in Farsi while his mother fussed over him. “More ice!” he commanded the nurses repeatedly.
The insertion of the NG tube did not end Ted’s problems. Just after his surgeon left for summer vacation, Ted’s temperature began to rise dangerously. His distended belly became tender and painful. The fluid in his Hemovac tube became pus-like and fetid, as if something were rotting inside him. A CT scan showed that there were air bubbles leaking from the re-sectioned area—infection had set in. He was put on an intensive course of antibiotics via IV and his vital signs were monitored every hour.
A peculiar foggy terror filled my throat and chest. My every movement seemed sluggish as if I were trudging through swampland, but certain thoughts flitted around in obsessive loops. I questioned the doctors, sent detailed emails and texts to his family members. I peppered the night nurses with questions when I’d get home late at night. Some would brush me off; a few would update me. If he deteriorated further, he would have to be admitted to the Acute Care ward for continual monitoring and more drastic medical interventions. A second operation could be risky, and if it occurred, even more of his colon might need to be removed with the likelihood of an ostomy, probably a permanent one. He might get another infection. Recovery would be longer, slower and more complicated.
Because his system had rejected most of the food and drink they’d given him, and because of the need for the re-sectioned bowel to heal properly, the doctor prescribed daily liquid nutrients, called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). A nurse told us that each bag cost $1000 to make fresh daily and had to be specially transported to St. Paul’s from another hospital laboratory. We named it the Crisco milkshake but it seemed more akin to breast milk. Chock-full of lipids, sugars, vitamins, trace minerals, and amino acids, it was a creamy white substance that was administered by an extremely narrow catheter threaded into a central vein in his chest. A nurse told me that the leftover TPN discarded at the end of each day supposedly worked well as plant fertilizer. (I took some home for the garden—our apple tree had a bumper crop the next year.) The TPN would sustain Ted for the next three weeks while he ingested nothing but ice chips. The orderlies with the food trays would stay away: the sign on the bulletin board was now turned face-up.
The lounge in the ward had a small bookshelf with a few outdated magazines, several hospital foundation publications, and a number of dog-eared paperbacks. I noticed the cover of a single National Geographic magazine in the stack. The pristine copy was dated 1968 and its feature article described the plans for the first lunar landing. During those weeks in hospital, I sometimes felt like we’d landed on an artificial planet, a desolate sterile landscape with little vegetation, shifting inhabitants, its own unique language, hierarchies, protocols, and undeviating routines.
The whole ward seemed utterly divorced from nature: its windows wouldn’t open; the sliding glass door to the balcony off the lounge was locked; the concrete balcony itself was dirty and uninviting; there was no fresh air and little greenery other than a few limp, discarded bouquets and dehydrated plants left behind by discharged patients. I placed a hydrangea plant in the corner of Ted’s room so that he would awaken to their large blue clustered heads and rich green leaves every morning. As soon as they entered his room, the nurses and visitors would see something alive and beautiful and thriving.
Ted was supposed to have regular, short walks to maintain his circulation, increase his strength, and speed his healing. At first, it took immense effort just to get to the bathroom. He’d prepare himself with a shot of hydromorphone from the PCA, put on his special rubber-soled hospital socks, put on another hospital robe to cover his back, disconnect the NG tube during the days it was in place, clip the Hemovac to his gown, unplug the two electrical cords from the wall, drape the cords on the pole, pull himself up, and then try to walk step by shaky step without losing his balance. Getting back to bed meant going through the whole routine in reverse.
Eventually, he was able to get past the doors of the ward to reach the service elevators, next to windows that looked out onto the expanse of English Bay. He would pause there for several minutes, gripping a railing for support, before enduring the arduous fifty meter journey back to his bed.
“I was in better shape before the cancer operation,” he noted.
Right up to the day before the operation, he had been working full-time. He’d been full of vigor, tanned from a recent trek around ancient Haida villages up north, and ready to hop on his Yamaha motorcycle at any opportunity. Now he couldn‘t walk across a room without effort.
I thought of all those expressions—“gutsy,” “gut instincts,” “gut reaction,” “gut-wrenching,” “gutted,” “it takes guts,” “spill one’s guts,” “bust a gut,” and “no guts”—based on the word “guts” derived from the Old English word guttas for bowels or entrails. The adjective “visceral” comes from the Latin word viscera for inner organs also. It suddenly all made sense: the guts are located in our core, the elemental source of instinct, courage, determination, stamina, will, and strong emotion. The operation had hit Ted literally “right in the gut,” the stronghold of his vitality.
But as the days passed, his stamina gradually increased. We could extend his usual walk from the service elevators and back to include the ward down the hall. Finally, he was ready to try to take one of the notoriously slow elevators down to the fourth floor cafeteria and patio. As we waited, I could see how taxing it was for him just to stand.
The elevator finally arrived. Ted winced at every bump and jolt as we descended. The long imposed fast had eroded his body’s insulation. We made our way toward the almost vacant cafeteria. He steadily exited the open glass doors and was outside for the first time since his admission over three weeks before. As the late afternoon sunlight touched his skin, tears sprung to his eyes.
“It must be the medication,” he said.
My sister pulled up a plastic chair and helped him sit down. The plants in the concrete planters around us clearly needed watering. There were food wrappers and a few empty cups lying around, and some of the tables needed a good wipe. But it didn’t matter. We sat quietly while he closed his eyes and drank in the sunshine and the fresh air with an intense wordless gratitude.
“This is amazing,” he said at last, opening his eyes and smiling.
We talked about his progress to date. Ted had lost most of his muscle mass: his already slim 5’11 frame had been whittled down to 145 pounds. He would soon start a very cautious clear fluid diet. We stayed outside for about twenty minutes before Ted asked to return. This was the longest walk he’d taken since his admission and it had sapped his diminished reserves.
We would visit the patio again only once or twice more before his discharge; it was easier for him to take short unaccompanied walks on his floor. During the end of his stay, the monitoring of his vital signs grew less frequent, tubes were removed one by one, fewer and different medications were administered. He was even able to take his first shower. He was being released in more ways than one.
Discharge day. Ted had filled out the necessary papers and questionnaires, been briefed on his diet and pain medication. He also was entirely tube-free at last. As he put on the jeans and shirt he’d arrived in thirty days before (much looser now), I removed my son’s school watercolours from the wall and the cards from the window sill and bulletin board, erased my daily list of questions for the doctors from the whiteboard, packed up the magazines, DVDs, and the rainbow flag. The room soon looked as blank and anonymous as it had been before our arrival.
“Good luck,” said the nurse who had dexterously changed Ted’s dressings, given him injections, and adjusted the IV over the course of the month, all with an artificial arm and hand.
We gave him the still healthy blue hydrangea for the staff room, and waved at the head nurse who was engrossed with paperwork. There was no one else to say goodbye to. Almost all the patients that we’d met in the beginning of Ted’s stay had been discharged earlier. Everyone was going about their business as if this were an unremarkable day.
As we walked toward the elevators, I wondered how many patients had stayed in that ward. How many had lived and how many had died as a result of their operations? Every bodily fluid imaginable had touched those floors. Every kind of person had lain in its beds, and every kind of emotion had been felt—boredom, irritation, anger, fear, despair, agony, exhaustion, relief, even joy—the full spectrum of human emotion and humanity.
The threat of a possible cancer recurrence would linger on the horizon for the foreseeable future, but it didn’t matter. Exactly one year and one week after his surgery, we would finally get married at a private family ceremony in our backyard. As my brother drove us out of the hospital parkade onto Burrard Street into the late summer sunlight, Ted teared up again. “It’s the medication,” he said. “Makes you emotional.”