The Ugly Familiar 8: Guilt Stricken Sobbing

There are no conclusions to draw here from the story of my divorce, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

I was in class on a sweltering June day in 1997 when Jacob’s preschool teacher noticed a blister on his chest and called to tell me that he had chicken pox. Abbie had her first blisters by evening.  Late June and early July are the hottest weeks of a New Mexico summer, and that day, the third Monday in June of the year when I was 26 years and not quite 3 months old, was a day to sit poolside, not a day for statistics lectures.

For all the heat and misery in that classroom, I was loathe to be called away. That spring, in our final effort to save our marriage (or to find our way out), Robert and I had started marriage counseling, and when the therapist looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”, the answer tumbled out of my mouth with no warning, no forethought, a total surprise. “I want to go back to college,” I said, and although I’d had no inkling that school was a thing I’d wanted even five minutes before I said it, I needed no time to consider. I registered Jacob and Abbie for daycare for the first time, filled out my financial aid forms, and picked up my education where I’d left it the year I fell pregnant with Jacob.

I remember the final weeks and months of my first marriage as if they happened in snapshots instead of real time. A bitter word here, a despairing moment there, and giving my scabbed, spotty children tepid oatmeal baths between stolen minutes of studying. I remember the last time Robert and I found each other’s hands under the covers, seeking comfort in what had been familiar. There were the moments when my fear for our kids made my heart thunder and my breath catch.

I hung on, even though I knew the thing was dead. If it had been broken and ugly from the beginning, it had, however briefly, been a marriage, but not anymore. By the fall of 1996, it hung, limp and breathless. By summer 1997, it had begun to smell, and we waited.

My motivations for waiting were complex and largely unconscious, but one reason I allowed it to linger as long as it did was for Abbie. She was very much my baby, and while she adored her dad, I feared that if he moved out while she was so young, she would never really bond with him.

I wanted out. In every moment, I wished for it to be over, but my fear for Jacob and Abbie knocked the breath out of me. While I knew the marriage was doomed, I couldn’t quite take that last step and ask Robert to leave. For a year, he waited for me to leave, and I waited for him to leave, and together, separately, we waited.

So it was that a marriage, long dead, ultimately ended on an impulse of anger on July 4, 1997.

I don’t remember before. I don’t remember waking, or making coffee, or changing Abbie’s diaper, or any of the first-of-the-morning activities. My memory begins in media res. I was wearing pink shorts. Jacob was naked. I was holding Abbie, my left arm wrapped around her, my left hand on her juicy thigh, and was I plugging in a fan to cool us all off? Perhaps, or maybe I was putting The Land Before Time tape into the VCR for Jacob. We had plans to go to my parents’ house in the afternoon to barbecue.

Robert (Had he been sleeping? Did I say something first?) screamed, “How can you expect to fix this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? How can you be married to me if you won’t have sex with me?”

“Why would I have sex with someone who hates me?” I screamed back.

“You know what? You’re right. I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I’m leaving. I don’t love you,” and he seemed to be testing the words and the sounds they made, and he picked up a pencil and a pad of paper, and he left.

That argument is Jacob’s sole memory of his parents marriage.

Robert came back an hour later and sat down on the couch. “Were you looking for an apartment?” I asked.

“Yes, as soon as I find a place, I’m out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, “but if you’re leaving, go now. Couch surf or something.”

He put a few things in his backpack and rode away on his motorcycle, and as soon as he was gone I took off my wedding ring and put it in my jewelry box. When our final decree of divorce was granted almost a year later, it was nothing but the punctuation. I got divorced on July 4, 1997, whatever the court records may say.

I had lost almost everything—dignity, integrity, hope, even my voice. What I had left, what I clung to as the ground under me rocked and shifted, was my love for Jacob and Abbie. I wanted nothing for myself (and oh, is that not the great mistake, that we can hope nothing for ourselves and everything for our children?) and all things for them. That they should feel secure, loved, and safe was the rock in front of me, and could I scale it? Could I climb that thing, with my fear and my shame weighing me down, holding me fast to the ground?

Sort of.

A little.

Not really.

Eventually, not at all.

If I am clear-eyed, if I look into the past, no matter how dark that glass may be, I see that I failed.

Which is not to say that I didn’t do the best I could. I did.

Oh, how I want to flagellate myself some more. I could stay awake for a week—a month—a year, even, and whip myself raw. I could bang my head against every wall, cut myself with every available sharp thing, starve myself until I am flesh stretched over angles of bone and eat until I am immobile, and no punishment, not even my death, would change the past.

I can stay awake as many nights as I want, hurt and punish myself in all possible ways, and I will still have married a man who hurt me, and I will have hurt him. I will still have had children with that man, and we will still have hurt those children. That happened.

I did that.

In some space of my heart, I will never lay down that burden. The weight of it belongs to me and I would be faithless, even treacherous, if I cast it aside.

There is a time for everything, as the saying is, and the two years after Robert and I broke up were a time for all things. I wept, and I laughed. I broke down, and I built up. I embraced some of the wrong men, but I eventually got around to refraining from such embraces.

Not quite two years after Robert moved out, my close friends had a baby, and watching them with their sweet, wonderful new daughter, I remembered the day we brought Jacob home from the hospital. I lay our baby in his Moses basket, swaddled tight, and Robert stood over him, rubbing his hands together. “I’m so proud, I just can’t stand it. Look at him! He’s too perfect. I’m so proud,” he said, over and over.

Someone told me once that in Italian, there is a word for a person you once loved but don’t anymore. I wish there was a word in English for such a person. My relationship with Robert was never, will never be, simple or clean or easy. We were wrong together.

But.

There was good. There was some happy. There are those two extraordinary people who would not be, had we not done our damage with each other. In that terrible, terrifying, impossible-to-reconcile juxtaposition of two realities, each true, but completely at odds with the other, I learned to live balanced atop a fence. I regret; I celebrate. I hate; I love.

For those two, for my children, those enchanting people who are flesh of my flesh, who are living their own lives and bearing their own witness to the ways their parents have succeeded and failed, for those two, I stay here, in reality. I will not hide in bitterness or fantasy. I will not blame their dad, nor will I blame myself. I claim my part; I release to Robert his, and if it lays on the ground unclaimed, so be it. I do this imperfectly, with almost no finesse or style (no points for such things, anyhow).

There are no conclusions to draw here, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Midmorning on the day after Robert moved out, I was kneeling in the hall, folding sheets and putting them away in the cabinet. The kids were there, playing and goofing, giggling at each other, and we were singing that little song about the hole in the lake, and the log in the hole, and the frog. All of a sudden, relief poured over me like water. He’s not coming back. I’m not married to him. We are not married anymore. I will sleep alone tonight.

For just one minute, maybe 2, surely no more, it was almost too wonderful to bear. I grabbed those two kids up and we three rolled together on the carpet and laughed.

 

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We’ve tried to wash our hands of all of this.
We never talk of our lacking relationships,
and how we’re guilt stricken sobbing with our
heads on the floor.

The Ugly Familiar 7: Choking on the Ashes

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
If you haven’t read parts 1-6, that’s OK. This one stands pretty well all by itself.

Peek with me into a house and observe the family therein.

There’s the dad, young and handsome, laughing at two tiny children who are splashing and playing in the bath.

There’s the mom, also young, and she would be pretty if she didn’t look so tired and puffy, getting small jammies out of dresser drawers.

The dad lifts the older of the two children out of the bath and towels him off. The boy runs across the hall and into the bedroom where the mom is waiting. He flings his tiny body onto his bed, howling, “To infinity…and beyond!”

“Silly boy!” the mom says, and she reaches for him, pajamas at the ready, and he grabs her arms, pulling her to the bed with him.

“Read Sam, Mommy! Can we read Sam?”

“Again? Jacob, we have tons of books! Let’s read a different book, OK?”

“No,” and the little boy shakes his head firmly. “Read Sam.”

“OK,” the mom sighs, “but jammies first.”

The little girl comes in then, all pink pudge and halo of ginger hair. She climbs onto her brothers bed, imitating his shouts with her own, “Ifity! To ifity!”

They are beautiful children—healthy and exuberant and sweet. The mom puts a diaper on the little girl and helps both children with their pajamas. She reads Green Eggs and Ham while the boy sucks on two of his fingers and the girl sucks on her binky.

The mom tucks the little boy into his bed while the dad tucks the little girl into hers. They pass each other in the hall, switching rooms so that she can kiss the little girl and he can kiss the little boy.

The dad goes to the couch in the living room and turns on the television. The mom moves past him, to a desk in the den where she turns on a computer. She connects to the internet and spends an hour on UseNet, reading and responding to messages on boards about depression, marriage, politics, and parenting.

At 8:00, her husband appears in the doorway. “Hey, you wanna get it on?” he asks, and she turns to him, fear and disgust plain on her face.

“I…” she begins, but he interrupts her.

“God, you make me sick. How do you think we’ll save this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? Why the fuck would I want to touch you, anyway? Look at yourself! Look at you!”

She does. She looks down at her stained shorts and sloppy t-shirt and her face is desperate and despondent for a moment. She slumps in her chair.

“Jesus, you don’t even try,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing the people in that goddamn computer can’t see you or they’d tell you to go fuck yourself.”

“Like you’re any better,” she says, standing and moving toward him. “What the hell is that? Wanna get it on? Is that… what? Romance? Love? You haven’t said two words to me since you came home from work!”

“Whatever. I’m sick of talking to you. Why don’t you just get the fuck out? If you won’t have sex with me there’s no point. Just go away.”

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll get the kids.”

“Like hell you will! You won’t take my kids out of this house!” he shouts, and one of the children cries out. He blocks the woman’s path so that she can’t go down the hall to the bedrooms.

“I’m taking the kids!” she screams at him. “Move!”

He laughs at her, shoves her backwards into a bookshelf. She looks stunned as books and photos thump to the floor. He is nearly nose to nose with her, shouting, “Those kids are mine. I’ll tell the judge you’ve been in the nut hatch and you’ll never see them again! You could just kill yourself right now and no one would give a shit. You’re crazy! Fat and crazy! You disgust me!”

There is another cry from one of the children. The woman makes another attempt to push her way past her husband and he shoves her again. This time she lands on the floor atop the books and photos.

She sees the phone amid the clutter and grabs it, running for the back door as she dials. “Dad?” she says into the phone, stepping onto the back patio. “I need you to come over right now.”

She waits on the back patio until she hears her dad’s truck in the driveway. Walking through the house she sees her husband, still standing sentry near the opening to the hallway. “My dad is here,” she says.

He shakes his head and smirks at her a little, then sits down on the couch and turns on the TV.

When her dad comes into the house, the mom picks up the children, one in each arm, and takes them to the car. She buckles them into their seats and drives the six blocks to her parents’ house. She sings the children back to sleep then lays, listening to her babies’ breath, until dawn. She does not cry.

At breakfast, her parents ask her, “What happened?”

“Just a fight,” she says.

“You should go home after we eat,” her mom says, “before it turns into a big deal.”

“Yeah,” says her dad, “the longer you wait the more uncomfortable it will be.”

And so she does.


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What else could I write?
I don’t have the right.
What else should I be?
All apologies.

The Ugly Familiar 6: Love Is Not a Victory March

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 6. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

During Jacob’s first year, I controlled every bite of food that I put into my body. I subsisted on vegetable soup, oatmeal, and dry salted potatoes, a diet so low in fat that eventually I became deficient in fat-soluble vitamins, and by consequence was covered in bruises. Every time I scratched an itch, bumped a table, or Jacob bit my shoulder, I would get a black-and-blue mark all out of proportion the to the injury. My doctor sent me to have something like 20 vials of blood drawn so he could test it for God-knows-what-all, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when those tests proved I didn’t have leukemia. The doctor seemed unconcerned that I was so thin I wasn’t menstruating and had to sleep 12 hours out of every 24 in order to maintain my brutal workout schedule. He prescribed a multi-vitamin and sent me home.

During that year, I also kept our house in pristine order. Everything was perfect. I washed my cloth diapers and hung them out to dry and they were so perfectly even and white out there on the line, they looked like movie star teeth. I swept the floors daily and mopped them twice a week. My dishes were clean and there were no sticky jam spills in my refrigerator. My jeans were size 4 and my breasts had all but disappeared.

Everything was perfect.

Eventually, not long after Jacob’s first birthday, I lost the thread that connected me to whatever force enabled me to do all of those things that were so unnatural for me. I ate some cookies or I watched TV instead of cleaning the bathroom, and soon it all unraveled and I was me again, laundry half done, dinner unmade, my nose in a book, and candy bar wrappers hidden at the bottom of the trash can. Robert told me I was “marshmallowing out” again and asked how a person who couldn’t cook anything more complicated than Jell-O could possibly manage to get fat.

When I lost hold of the thread, my period came back, and in April 1995, the rabbit done died again.

When I was four months pregnant, Robert got a new job and he asked me not to come visit him there, in spite of the fact that he would be working less than a mile from our house.

“Why? Don’t you think Jacob wants to see where you’re working?”

“You can come when you look more pregnant. I don’t want people thinking I have a fat wife.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how.

My weight had fluctuated widely since my late teens, but during my pregnancy with Abbie I became genuinely fat for the first time. Part of that was almost certainly due to the fact that I entered the pregnancy on the rebound from a year of near-starvation, but also, I was angry. With food to nourish my brain, I couldn’t ignore that anger, and since I couldn’t starve it away anymore, I ate it. I ate my anger with omelettes and toast, with roast beef and mashed potatoes, with ice cream and cookies. I ate and ate and ate until I had stretch marks in places I didn’t know people could get stretch marks and I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.

I was so ashamed, I almost never left the house. All my emotional and mental energy was consumed with food and weight, planning how I would find that thread and get back to being the perfect, tidy, slender person I had been a year earlier. I spent hours lost in a daze as I planned the diet I would pursue beginning the instant I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Awful as it was, it was better than feeling so violently, helplessly angry.

And then there was this:

Oh, the pink juicy wonder of my Abbie. She smelled so good, I thought I might accidentally suck her up my nose. She was round and rosy and sweet and always, unmistakably, her own person, sharp and opinionated and stubborn.

Two babies were a heavy load on a weak and shaky marriage. Soon after Abbie’s birth, the cracks in our relationship’s foundation began to grow. By the time she started to crawl, I could fit my hand in those cracks, and when she learned to walk I discovered that I could climb right into some of those cracks and take a nap.

Maybe there’s a God above
All I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Part 7

The Ugly Familiar 5: Down Comes the Night

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 5. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies.

January 2, 1994

When Robert and I married, we moved into a house with an adorable green-and-white tiled kitchen. I rented it, hell-and-gone though it was from the part of Albuquerque in which we had always lived, because it was not an apartment, a word Robert said as if it tasted like curdled milk. It wasn’t a house, either. Not precisely. I suppose it could have been called a row house if you stretched the definition.

For Robert, what we lived in was far more important than where we lived, and where we lived was damn scary. In the three years we lived in that neighborhood (first in the row house, then in an actual house a few blocks away), we were robbed 3 times, our house was set on fire, and someone threw a large rock through a bedroom window and into the baby crib just minutes after I had gotten Jacob out of it. Once, as I pushed the stroller into the house, I heard POP POP POP and the squeal of tires. The drive-by shooting killed one boy and seriously injured another. My babies had smiled and waved at those boys when we walked past them less than 90 seconds earlier.

But all of that was in the future on the second day of 1994. The world was a haze of milk and dampishness and overzealous hormones. I knew that having a baby would be an emotional experience; that I would be exhausted, weepy, and maybe even depressed. I knew that I would love my baby. What I could not have comprehended was how deeply I would feel all of those things. I could not have imagined that falling in love with Jacob would be my first real encounter with divinity.

Over everything, there was a veil. I was me, but not quite me. More instinctual; more animal. Some kind of hormonal magic made me feel as if I was one step removed from everything and everyone except Jacob. He and I were learning to dance together, moving to primal rhythms in our slow, warm bubble.

On that Sunday evening that was the second day of 1994, Jacob was asleep in his bassinet and I was drying off after a shower. The derelict water heater provided hot water for approximately 4 minutes, or tepid water for about 6, so in the winter I finished every shower shivering since I could never manage to get the conditioner entirely rinsed out of my hair before the water ran cold. I stepped out, towel wrapped around my head, intent on dashing to the bed and huddling there under the blankets until I was warm, but Robert was standing in the bathroom door.

“Jackie called,” he said. I recognized the name of his high school girlfriend. “She was calling to talk to me about my son. I have a seven year old son.”

“You told me Jackie had a miscarriage.” I wasn’t shivering anymore. I felt like a dead tree, rooted in place but lifeless.

“I guess she lied. Jackie’s crazy.”

“What’s his name?”

Robert looked around the bathroom as if someone may have written his son’s name there somewhere. “I don’t know.”

A few days later, an envelope full of pictures arrived in our mailbox. They left me with no doubt that the child in the pictures was Robert’s son.

His name is Anthony.

And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again
I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.

May 9, 2011

I was at Robert’s apartment, chatting with Abbie while we waited for Jacob to come home so the three of us could go shopping, when I saw a picture on the wall of a girl about Abbie’s age who l I didn’t know but who was, somehow, familiar.

“Who’s that?”

Abbie shrugged. “Casey. I guess she’s my sister.”

I recoiled and caught myself. Trying not to let anything but curiosity show on my face I said, “She looks about the same age as you. Have you met her?”

“Oh, that’s an old picture. She’s 20, I think. Or maybe 21. She doesn’t want to talk to us. Dad just found out about her last summer.”

“Do you want to meet her? Are you curious?”

“Nah. I don’t care, really.”

Robert and Jacob got home. “Abbie told me that’s your daughter.” I gestured toward the photo. “She’s Amy’s, right? You always said that wasn’t your baby.” I remembered Amy, a wisp of a girl with a blond baby on her hip, from the early years of my relationship with Robert. We ran in loosely-connected social circles but none of my friends was close with Amy.

“Yeah, whatever. Amy’s crazy. Neither of them will talk to me.”

“Have you talked to Anthony lately?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but hey, do you know his last name? Maybe I can find him on Facebook.”

Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence – damn the dark, damn the light.

Part 6

Follow That Rabbit

I wrote part five of The Transcendent Familiar (No idea what I’m talking about? Here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Really, I did. As it turns out, though, what I thought was part 5 is actually part 6 (I think, though who knows? Maybe it’s part 7, or 12, or 34.).

I think that, if I was writing a book, it would go just like this, with the back-and-forthing, the rearranging, the jumping-in-and-out of memories, the expanding-and-contracting timeline. The weird/wonderful thing about blogging is that the process is on display as much as the story and you get the story as I go along, instead of after everything has been all cleaned up and neatly arranged.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about writing books. I haven’t written a book since I was ten and my friend Sarah and I wrote the definitive sourcebook on endangered species.

In any case, I wrote a story about something that happened when Jacob was a year old, but then I realized I had to tell a story about something that happened when Jacob was a newborn first. I wrote it, and I’ll post it soon, but I’m treading deep into the land of Other People’s Stories, so it seems wise to go slow and let the words settle a bit before I release them into the world.

Also, I’m fascinated by memory and can’t stop turning it over and around, playing with it and following the rabbit into all his strange little holes. Over the weekend, while I was writing stories from 1993 and 1994, I was overwhelmed with a desire to listen to Fleetwood Mac, like a food craving. I dug through stacks and stacks of CDs (Almost all Brian’s; he is possessed by a need to own every sound ever recorded by The Grateful Dead or any portion thereof.) until I found a “best of” Fleetwood Mac album and loaded it onto my computer.

I haven’t listened to Fleetwood Mac beyond the occasional song that’s come on the car radio in over a decade, but in the early 1990s, they were a musical staple. The memories of that time rang a Fleetwood Mac chime in my brain and I was compelled to respond. Thankfully, Little Lies is as awesome as ever.

In other news, we’re moving! Not just moving, but moving into the The Ugliest House in Albuquerque.

I’ll forgive you for assuming that I’m speaking hyperbolically because I so often do, but this time? Not a chance. Now, I haven’t seen all the houses in Albuquerque, so I can’t be positive that ours is the absolutely, positively, for sure ugliest, but it’s easily the ugliest one I’ve ever seen so we’re going with The Ugliest House in Albuquerque as the title of the new estate.

Behold, the kitchen:

Did I tell you? Oh, and before you ask me WHY in the world we would want such an ugly house, it’s because the location and the floor plan are perfect. What are orange countertops compared to having all the walls in the right places?

Oh, my friends, we are going to have some fun. You know how Brian and I are somewhat directionally challenged? You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen us get our DIY on. The Ugliest House in Albuquerque has no idea what’s coming.

The Ugly Familiar 4: Give Yourself Away

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)

We all grow up with rules.

I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!

I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.

The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:

  • Thou shalt not be needy.
  • Thou shalt not seek attention.
  • Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
  • Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
  • Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
  • Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
  • Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
  • Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.

Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.

Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.

I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.

Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.

Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.

Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.

To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.

And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.

My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.

My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.

I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.

Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.

So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.

He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.

And then there was this:

I had finally done something right, after all.

Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.

Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.

For a little while.

Part 5

The Ugly Familiar 3.1: I Won’t Fade Away

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Some stories are like laundry. The longer you put off telling them, the bigger they grow.

This story, the one about my earliest adulthood and my relationship with Jacob and Abbie’s dad, has reached the ceiling, toppled over, and begun to spread across the hall and into the bathroom.

So now the whole family is going commando, the house is smelling a bit putrid, and I’ve written half-a-dozen versions of part four of this story, none of which feel, precisely, like the truth.

In any case, this story, the one about my relationship with Robert, is not the one I set out to tell. I was trying to find my way into the tale of Brian’s and my messy start as a blended family and how we screwed up everything that could possibly be screwed up and were just beginning to get our feet under us when Carter was born. Carter being Carter, his arrival tossed all the pieces back into the air and left us lost and gasping until last week.

Not really; we’re still lost and gasping, but not as much as we used to be, so I’m calling it progress. The level of stress/pain/anguish rises and falls, but overall things get more difficult as time goes by. Such is the nature of a mental illness like Carter’s, but we are less surprised by the shifts now, more aware of the beast who lives here with us, inside our little boy. Less surprised = better.

I wasn’t especially interested in the story of Robert and me because I thought the life had drained out of it by now. This Monday it will be 14 years since he moved out of the house we’d shared, so the wounds have healed by now, even if some of the scars are twisted, lumpy things. I don’t feel much when I think about those years now except a sort of wistful regret.

When I started to write the story, I ran into so much ugliness—not the top-level ugliness, but the underneath; the stuff that makes up the whys and wherefores of it all—that I got scared. It was like somebody turned off the word-faucet.

This is the power of writing and telling stories, and this is also the curse of the story teller. The telling is an act of peeling away, of revealing, but the problem is not that one finds oneself in front of a crowd, bare-assed and raw. Ultimately, the problem is finding oneself bare-assed and raw in front of a mirror.

Much of what I see in the mirror hurts, and not in a distant way. The pain is now, today, because what I did then, I do now. Who I was then is who I am now.

The sameness is not obvious, which has enabled me to tell myself that I am different now, at least until writing the story stripped me bare. Robert treated me badly (Even now I hear him, Jesus, what are you complaining about? It’s not like I beat you or anything!), in ways I would not tolerate today.

Except that I do tolerate that treatment today. What the hell are you complaining about? It’s not like you deserve better.

Not Brian. Never think it. Far fewer people now than in the past, and still.

I turned off the words and put my clothes back on not just to protect myself, but because Carter needs me. He has bugs in his hair (not really) and the dogs destroyed all of his toys (they never did). His teeth are growing in wrong (they’re fine) and there are gorillas hiding in the bushes in our backyard. He needs someone with him every minute of the day, and me with my face in the computer does not match his idea of with.

So my story stalled, and the words backed up, and last week I had a sloppy, obscene emotional breakdown. I wailed to Brian that Carter is eating me, consuming everything that I like about myself and my life, including my ability to use words to make sentences and sentences to build stories and stories to make some kind of peace with the chaos swirling inside me.

Telling stories heals me, but telling stories requires two things of which I have a critically short supply: time, and emotional energy. Sometimes (as you well know if you are not new to No Points for Style), I stall out altogether.

Eventually, No Points for Style starts to hang over my head like an obligation, as if I’m a high school junior and I should be studying for a math test but instead I’m watching TV. My God, how I hate that feeling, when something I love, something I created and that fulfills me and of which I am deeply proud, feels like a burden.

Eventually, Carter starts to hang over my head like an obligation, as if I’m an employee and he is the job I can barely tolerate. My God, how I hate that feeling, when someone I love, someone I created and who fulfills me and of whom I am deeply proud, feels like a burden.

Come what may
I won’t fade away
But I know I might change

Nothing comes easily
Fill this empty space
Nothing is like it was
Turn my grief to grace

Part 4

The Ugly Familiar 3: This One Goes Out to the One I Love[ed]

Part 1
Part 2

When Robert and I got married, the wedding preparations weren’t difficult because of the one we’d cancelled just a year before. We called the florist, the baker, and the tent rental place and re-ordered the things we’d already chosen. My penchant for procrastination paid off since I’d never gotten around to selling my wedding dress.

Caught up in round after round of frenetic activity, I never stopped to consider any of the choices I was making. Growing a baby (and the attendant vomit-o-rama), planning a wedding, and finding an apartment and moving, not to mention jobs and classes, made it easy for me to ignore the whispers at the back of my skull.

I think I felt happy. I certainly look happy in the pictures. It’s amazing what the intervening years and the experiences during those years have done to the memories. In trying to remember how I felt and what I was thinking, there are shadows laid over everything. How I felt about Robert then is changed not only by how I feel about him now, but also how I felt about him when our children were born, and when our marriage began to die in earnest, and when we divorced, and when, and when, and when…

The wedding rehearsal. My mom bought Robert that ridiculous hat.

In a stunning illustration of how little I knew about myself, we had a small but very traditional wedding. We all got dressed up in the customary wedding way, including a giant white dress.

My mom, Robert, me, my dad, and my sister Erin, the ultra-young versions.

Erin and I carried beautiful bouquets.

We had a fancy cake and did all the rituals that people do with wedding cakes.

I can hardly believe it myself (and I was there!), but there was a woodwind quintet.

Whose wedding was that?

I guess, though, if you are marrying the wrong person, you should do it with the wrong wedding.

At 11 am on May 29, 1993, I took my dad’s arm and we walked out of my parents’ house and into their backyard. Walking down the aisle we’d created with rented chairs, giant dress billowing around me, I looked ahead to where Robert was standing and suddenly, those tiny whispers at the back of my skull rallied.

Unintentional and absolutely unwelcome came the thought, “This is a stupid thing to do. Marrying Robert is a really bad idea.”

And yet…I didn’t consider turning around and walking away. I moved forward, passed my bouquet to Erin, and exchanged vows with Robert. My roiling, lurching stomach reminded me of the baby that was coming and I didn’t want to raise that baby by myself.

I thought I couldn’t raise that baby by myself.

I thought I was weak, that I needed Robert.

I thought that I was incapable of creating a satisfying life for myself without him.

I thought I needed to keep the first man who was willing to be with me because I would never find anyone else.

I believed I was unworthy of  anything better than adequate, and even that might be too good for me.

I didn’t understand that Robert and I were doing little more than using each other. How could I have known that? I was young, naive, and scared out of my damn mind. I didn’t know myself well enough to understand my own motives.

So I told myself everything would be OK and I rang the bell.

A marriage is a hard bell to un-ring.

Not-really-a-part 3.1
Part 4

The Ugly Familiar 2: Destiny Sold

Part 1

Devil and the deep blue sea behind me
Vanish in the air you’ll never find me
I will turn your face to alabaster
When you find your servant is your master

When I went to bed on April 1, 1993, I put the pregnancy test under my pillow. The smooth foil wrapper seemed like it might hold something as insignificant as coffee biscuits, a trifle to be enjoyed mid-afternoon, not something to be peed on first thing in the morning.

I woke when the light was barely nudging its way into the apartment. While Robert slept on, blankets pulled tight over his head, I reached under my pillow for the pregnancy test and tiptoed to the bathroom.

Standing next to the sink, my bare feet cold on the tile floor, I ripped and tore at the foil wrapper, first with my hands, then with my teeth, and finally with fingernail clippers. My hands were shaking so hard I had trouble pulling down my underwear. I feared I would drop the test in the toilet; I couldn’t afford another one so I clutched the plastic stick with both hands while I peed on it.

By the time I finished peeing on the test (and on my jitterbugging hands), there were two bright blue lines in the results window.

I washed my still-trembling hands, then brushed my teeth. I flossed. I washed my face and brushed my teeth again. I stared at myself in the mirror for a long time.

When I slipped back into bed next to Robert he asked, “What was it?”

“Positive. I’m pregnant.”

“I thought so,” he said before he turned over to face the wall and went immediately back to sleep.

My stomach rolled over and I felt a weird hungry nausea (or was it a nauseous hunger?) so I got up and made two pans of Rice Krispies treats.

A week later, I was in my parents’ kitchen, having just thrown away my breakfast, thereby skipping the intermediate steps of consuming and then vomiting said breakfast. I had planned to keep the pregnancy a secret until after the wedding so that people wouldn’t think we were getting married just because I was pregnant.

We were not, in fact, getting married just because I was pregnant. We were getting married because we were foolish and young and we didn’t know that the problems in our relationship were not the sort that would improve over time, and because we didn’t know who we were or what we wanted and marriage seemed as good a way to fill the time as any other.

Plus, of course, the hormones.

My mom was at the counter, wiping something, when I decided that I had to tell her because eventually, someone was going to hear me barf, and that someone would be my mom, and she is not a stupid person who would be unclear about what that barfing meant.

“Mom? I have to tell you something.”

She turned from the counter to look at me sitting at the table and she looked normal for a second, like I was going to tell her that my car insurance bill was late and I needed help paying it. Suddenly, before I said a word, her face changed. “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

My mom hollered, “Wendell!”, summoning my dad.

We three sat at the kitchen table in our usual family-conference positions, but what was there, really, to say?

Not much.

Part 3

The Ugly Familiar 1: There Is Water at the Bottom of the Ocean

I will probably never fully understand how I stayed with Robert as long as I did. We were only good at two things: making beautiful babies and bringing out the worst in each other.

Water dissolving…and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Carry the water at the bottom of the ocean
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean!

In the summer of 1990, I wanted to move into the having-sex-on-a-regular-basis phase of my life. I had had just enough sex to decide that I would like to have a good deal more of it.

Fortunately, I knew enough about myself to be aware that a series of brief, meaningless encounters would be hard on my heart. Unfortunately, I did not know that I would believe I was in love with the very first man who granted me predictable access to his penis. I couldn’t tell the difference between the hormones of sexual satisfaction from the feelings of love.

I also tried to vomit myself inside out during each of my three pregnancies, so it’s safe to say that I am more vulnerable than average to the effects of hormones.

Beyond the desire to achieve and maintain a hectic sex schedule, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was nineteen years old and floundering. I had a job teaching preschool; I took some college classes; I had some vague ideas about career and family. What I lacked was goals, even general ones that would propel me toward, say, the university. I went to work, hung out with my friends, drank coffee by the bucket-full, and smoked cigarettes as if I was involved in a secret government brain-dehydration project.

OK, so the coffee thing hasn’t changed.

I was on the cusp of adulthood and I was rudderless. If a cult had found me then, I guess I would have joined, but instead I met Robert.

Enter stage left: plentiful sex.

Within a few months, we broke up. I mourned the absence of sex and little else. We didn’t have much in common; for interesting conversations I looked to my girlfriends, not Robert. A few weeks later, we got back together. I’m unclear now on the order of events, but between the summer of 1990 and the spring of 1993, we sometimes lived together; I sometimes lived with my parents; he sometimes lived with his mom; for a time he slept on the couch at my parents’ house; he sometimes had an apartment of his own; he sometimes lived with roommates; we were often together; we occasionally broke up; we both had sex with other people when we broke up; we decided to get married three (or was it 4?) times; we planned a wedding and cancelled it just three weeks before the big day.

As chaotic as our relationship was, there was some magic click that would happen when we were together, some inexplicable comfort that drew us to each other time and again. We fit together like two misshapen puzzle pieces. My dysfunction fit his and his dysfunction fit mine.

Ultimately, no matter how wrong we were for each other, we had to ride the train until it stopped. No, not until it stopped; not even until it derailed. We were going to ride our personal relationship-hell train until it exploded like a bomb.

And then on April 2, 1993, the rabbit done died.

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
MY GOD!…WHAT HAVE I DONE?

Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads

Part 2