John liked to think of himself as a forgiving man. A patient man.
He had a first row seat to what bitterness and resentment can do to a person, and not just to their minds, but to their bodies as well.
His mother suffered through terrible migraines. They seared into her brain like an angry army of men, all brandishing swords and puncturing her temples with the relentless rage of stressful pain that would rise up and ravage then abate and return at the most inopportune moments.
As a child, John had learned how to anticipate the warning signs of an imminent attack.
(The heavy pauses in conversation. The lack of eye contact.)
Her gaze would go distant and she’d be back there (wherever there was), which he knew enough from the fractured memory flashes of his father to suspect the origins.
(The late night off-beat steps in the kitchen. The hissing whispers and unapologetic sighs.)
You can’t change people, and you can’t force them to respect you, his mother used to say whenever his dad would be brought up. It was the resigned summation she would give after her troubled marriage had ended with his father exiting their lives and moving to the opposite end of the country. Never to return.
Since the separation, his father became a permanent ghost in their lives. He never visited. He never asked to see them. But his influence was subtly felt.
From what John knew, his father remarried in California almost immediately after leaving them and started a new family. Then he divorced. Then remarried again.
And so on.
John wondered if his father exited those other marriages with the same exasperated sighs John recalled from childhood. Those sighs loaded with a connotative impatience. A stonewalling expression. An utter lack of remorse.
His sister said it was what the women deserved for not accepting their father for who he was. The fault was theirs for expecting more when the reality was never congruent with the ideals presented.
John never asked her during Junior year in high school if she felt that way still when he drove her that morning to the Planned Parenthood on 5th Street without their mother’s knowledge and without her boyfriend’s support.
He had taken off the condom, you know, during. She said. The internet called it stealthing. Her boyfriend called it a false accusation. The legal system called it an unprovable offense.
After it was over, his sister spent a week in her room, and she never brought up her boyfriend’s name again.
John swore to himself that he would do better than his father. He wanted to never be the kind of man who left his family behind. Who shot out promises like shrapnel into the lives of hopeful women then shouldered his knapsack and sauntered away once it was time to make good on his words.
John defined himself by his integrity and his honestly. He prided himself on his instincts. His ability to sense the needs of others and address them.
In truth, John was a rescuer.
People talk about red flags like they’re so easy to see. And perhaps they are in hindsight. Sometime, perhaps, after you’ve experienced enough disappointment and betrayal, you will then recognize their patterns and understand that your life isn’t as immune to them as it was once presumed. Then again, perhaps we never outgrow our own hubris or how we can so quickly and easily point out the glaring signs of impending doom in someone else’s life circumstances, but we remain utterly convinced that ours is indomitable. Different. Devoid of cliché.
Take John’s first encounter with Deirdre…..
The signs were all there. She was still involved with another man, for example– a terrible man, she had sobbed upon the second day of their meeting. He had seduced her while she was still an impressionable teenager. He was a college sophomore. A sophomore! And he had taken her virginity by force. Now, Deirdre proclaimed, she hated sex with men. It all felt so performative. Like she had to appeal to their lusts in order to be prized. She hadn’t even kissed before she met her boyfriend. He took advantage of her naivety, and now she’d never trust another man again.
It was with some guilt that John started seeing Deirdre in secret. To avoid her boyfriend’s jealousy, she explained. She couldn’t leave him just yet until she was absolutely sure he wouldn’t retaliate.
“He knows my boss,” she confessed. “What if he told him, in a fit of anger, what we did in the break room? I could lose my job. He wouldn’t be above it, you know.”
Deirdre had a way about her. She was both vulnerable and passionate. She could ramble away with a stream of thoughts for a seeming hour without breath, but she could similarly go silent for long stretches and look out the window of the car pensively.
Deirdre would also go through phases that John indulged. There would be a couple weeks where she would be obsessed with ice cream, for example, and be insistent they try the best parlors in the city or even drive two hours outside of the city just to sample something from a shop heard about in a Yelp review. But then by the next month her new obsession could be daisies or Troll Doll collectables.
A longer lasting one was, when they were out, she would insist that they visit every antique store they drove nearby to find a Derby hat. She was inspired to this idea after watching a scene in My Fair Lady, and even after two years of dating, she’d still point and ask for him to pullover.
As time went on, there was a series of hats purchased and abandoned in the top shelf of her closet. None were ever perfect. None were ever just right. Yet her hunt remained. The ideal had not been found.
Needless to say that after two years she was no longer seeing her boyfriend. They broke up three months into her secretly seeing John. It was done in a quiet way that John still had trouble recalling the real circumstances of events that surrounded it. There hadn’t been a blowout like she feared it would. Although the man still called her from time-to-time. “To catch up,” she’d rush to explain. “He’s one of my best friends!”
Friendship aside, her ex-boyfriend didn’t get an invite to their wedding. John remembered being curious, but he didn’t pry. After all, he knew her. She would have been upset. And John wanted to only see her smile.
Looking back, John wondered how much of that desire to see her smile was out of devotion and love and how much of it became out of an unhealthy attachment to fixing someone who defined herself by being broken. The challenge it took to make her smile became more arduous as time went on. Her real, true self was defaulted upon that of chaos and shadow. She knew only how to chase the callings of her moods, and while those moods were sometimes intoxicating and beautiful they were also dark and full of rage.
Intensity should never be mistaken for intimacy. This was a statement his mother had made once that now entered his mind more and more often, especially after he got his first migraine.
Deidre left him to handle the pain alone. An abandonment that he had grown used to. An abandonment that he didn’t consciously think he needed to fight her about. If he tried, he would be berated with a lengthy monologue of emotion-filled excused and indignities. A series of how could yous and if you only knews.
Over time, these encounters would become unavoidable no matter how careful he was with his words and deeds. Nothing seemed to curtail her discontentment which visited them everyday at random points in their interactions. The derby hats in her closet grew dusty, and her interest in activities with him faded. Her interests in wine and conversation after work, however, increased.
Despite his insistence that he would always be there to help her home or to get her a Lyft, the familiar clash of keys on the kitchen counter followed by the opening of the fridge because her nightly greeting for him.
Every time he would worry, and every time she would find his concerns annoying.
“When did you get so old?” she’d mock. “You talk like a grandpa. I didn’t ask you to stay up. I’m a big girl.”
It didn’t take a lot for him to figure out what was happening next. The truth became more apparent when they went to her company bar-be-que, and she didn’t want to go. She was furious about it, really, but he had insisted. After all, he had heard so much about her coworkers. He wanted to meet them and put the faces to her stories.
And what faces! They were each of disdain, judgment, and mistrust. They moved around him like nervous horses that had caught wind of a foreign scent no matter how generous he was with his smiles or how coxing he was in his mannerisms. Deirdre remained distant from him the whole time except for an awkward moment they posed for a group photograph.
Her shoulder stiffened under his touch.
Just another of her moods, he reasoned. Perhaps it was her boss making her feel so uncomfortable. After all, she talked extensively about him at home and how unreasonable he was of her time. How he reminded her of her father. He had the same constant demands. So insatiable!
John had spied her boss earlier with his wife and kids. He appeared friendly enough, but people can always be deceiving. You never know what they’re really like behind closed doors.
John can barely recall his memories with her now without feeling deeply ashamed of his own naivety. He chose to see things that simply did not exist, and he chose to ignore things that quite obviously did. Like when he came to see her one evening after work at her favorite watering hole. He saw where the man’s hand was resting when he entered. He saw how quickly they moved apart. He saw the awkward glances and scornful exchanges, but they fell away from him. He grinned like the fool he was. He kissed her like the doting idiot she always felt him to be.
Once the affairs began to pour out from her, one in a moment of drunk confession, the other only after her boss’ wife came forward, he no longer could hide anymore from what was happening.
Thus began a series of couples therapy sessions and pleas for amiable divorce. Then her threats of suicide started followed by her sincere desires to improve things. And, of course, the relentless accusations.
Then another affair occured. And another.
Her passions became wild, and she was breaking glasses and shattering ears with her wails of sorrowful confessions and angry blames. She’d launch into series of tearful excuses and resentments.
If he had only…..
if they had only…..
why couldn’t he have just….
When his favorite collection of records and their record player were smashed and sacrificed to her fits, he finally had enough. That night he lifted a chair and brought it down hard, denting the hardwood floor and sending it scrapping loudly towards the hall. The shock of rage lit through him like a blazing fire. His eyes made contact with hers, and he was ashamed to say he felt a strange triumph seeing fear there. Or was it respect? It was gone after a minute and so was she.
One year later, after John had gone into deep depression and isolation, he finally ran into one of his wife’s friends who had defected from her ranks. She told him what was being said about that night in Deidre’s circle. It was a tale of woeful victimhood that had no sibilance to the reality of their lives together. Additionally, the friend informed him, Deirdre’s new husband, that she had left him for after that night, had been seeing her during their marriage. John thought he had recovered from her betrayals, but these new pieces of information hit me hard in the gut all over again.
John knew what bitterness and resentment can do to a person by watching his mom. Its poison spreads not just into your mind but into your body as well.
After Deirdre discarded him, he spent several months thinking about all the ways he could expose her. How nice it would feel to turn the tables and show people what she was really about. After Deirdre discarded him, he took long showers and ignored life outside his home. The deep wounds of her betrayal ached inside of him. They mockingly laughed at his grief when he recalled the happiness they had shared together (Or that he had thought they had shared together.)
There was a fractured picture there, a shattering of illusion. He wanted so badly to feel hatred towards her, a permanent distrust of the alleged suffering of others and an ugly prejudice against women. But mostly he wanted to feel right again. He wanted to feel sure of himself– that his perceived loyalty was not just another failed attempt at believing goodness existed inside of him. He realized, over time, that he knew very little about how to take care of himself. Rather, he could do his laundry, pay his taxes, and feed himself, but he knew very little about how to comfort himself or to feel confident in what he wanted. Deirdre had taken over that focus. While taking care of her, he didn’t need to think too much about his own happiness. In truth, he hadn’t really considered what that even meant.
In his quest to make her happy, he never thought about how much he wanted that same happiness in return. Perhaps he felt he didn’t deserve it, but maybe it was more that he didn’t know how to express what he needed. Perhaps there was a reason he fell in love with someone who was incapable of that kind of reciprocation.
Maybe this heartbreak was exactly what was meant to happen because it gave him the sudden truth and strength to understand how important it was to know ones own feelings and express them. What she said about him or how she manipulated all those men, it really didn’t matter in the core of it all. It didn’t change anything about the truth regardless of how much she tried to distort it. If anything, it further condemned her. And if John wanted revenge, well…..
She had abandoned and thrown away love. She had betrayed him and the part of her that loved him. There was no recovering that. Even if she buried it, ran from it, or never acknowledge it. She had to maintain those defenses. She had to wake up everyday and create the lies she told herself to justify her actions. She had to live everyday in fear of discovery. In secret knowledge of the truth she hid from others. And as for him? Well, the longer he indulged his mind in these kinds of recollections the longer it would take for him to have new memories with new people. He had the gift now of a new future– one without the battery of heartache. But most importantly, he had the gift of self-reflection and the immense responsibility of taking what happened and learning from it.
I remember feeling so desperate and isolated after I finally signed the divorce papers. Time had no meaning after Deirdre for almost a year afterwards. Until one day it suddenly it did. I don’t know when the grief ended or when I finally let her go, but it was like the lid of a jar was lifted and all of that confusion and smoke was released and let out. I started to finally heal.
I learned that when you invite unconscious people into your life, the chaos that can potentially be created is vast. I don’t think I’ll ever meet a person more unconscious of herself than Deirdre. What made her so alluring to me was how desirous she was of things. She was insistent and vocal about the everything she wanted, and I took that as a strength. If I were to be honest, I coveted those impulses. So conditioned was I to remove myself from the things I wanted and needed for the sake of someone else, watching her take so shamelessly felt freeing and admirable. I wanted to learn at her feet. I wanted to live that lifestyle vicariously through her.
But It took me a long time to realize that Deidre’s impulses and betrayals had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her own unfixable issues. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me. It was that she didn’t have the focus or ability to really see me or anyone else around her. I was simply collateral damage to the pain of what she continues to endure day in and day out in her insatiable quests. I do not envy her. I pity her the fate she has– to be perpetually dissatisfied and forever hungry and chased.
Once I realized I no longer needed to continue forward feeling like a fool and angry, it was like a new world opened up to me. I felt suddenly free for the very first time. Free in a way I never felt I could be. It was like Deidre was the catalyst to get me to my actual true self.
And so, after a year of isolation in a town full of her memories, I finally gave in to what I knew in my heart I needed to do, and I sold my house. I moved to a new city far away from what I had always known. I even got a dog. Jax filled a lonely part of me I didn’t know I had. And we loved each other instantly.
And then, two years after leaving my home, Jax and I met Emily.
I never thought I’d have a relationship again. I had sort of decided without really saying it out loud that romantic relationships weren’t going to be a goal in my life anymore. I was in love with a new kind of person– myself, and I was loving getting to know him every day. I would wake up to him each morning, and I would listen to him with love. I would make sure he was fed, and I would encourage him to try his hardest. Getting to know myself was such a rushing empowerment it made me almost giddy with the happiness it afforded me. This man I had found was generous and kind. He was earnest and thoughtful. He was always striving to be better.
So needless to say when I met Emily at first I didn’t even register that I had found love again. We just spoke as friends with openness and honesty. We didn’t expect much from each other, and we were both on our own journeys at the time. It seemed simply natural when I saw a book in a used bookstore to bring it over to her to see if she’d like to read it. She told me it felt completely safe for her to have me over for dinner when her roommates were away.
Being with her didn’t feel like courtship. It felt like an easy friendship that suddenly turned one night into something a little different. Being with her felt totally different than being Deirdre. Emily took my needs into consideration in every activity we did. She didn’t take my passivity for granted. This isn’t to say that we were perfect for each other. No. We fought, and we got frustrated with each other. But it never felt like the end of the world when we did it. Afterwards it felt good. It felt like closure. It felt like when we disagreed, we were fighting more for each other than anything else. With Deirdre it had felt like it was a competition.
In fact, what I liked the most about being with Emily was that she didn’t really need to win. And neither did I! The winning-and-losing was for out there in the other world beyond our apartment. But inside, with us, we were a team, and the respect and trust that took was scary at first but grew to be easy. Emily made it easy because Emily was a good woman. And she found me, just like Jax, when I needed her most, even though I didn’t know that I needed her.
Deirdre still calls me on occasion during odd hours and sometimes from an unknown number. My stomach doesn’t sink like it used to when it happens. I merely hang up. I owe no more of my time or energy to her. This isn’t because I feel anger towards her. I simply do not have a desire to go back when there is so much beauty ahead of me.
While I would never wish the pain of what I went through onto anyone in this earth, I am thankful I went through it, anyway. I am thankful everyday now since Deirdre left, and I am thankful that the world was merciful enough to extend kindness when I needed it. Persons like my father and Deirdre will likely always be out there, waiting to steal from their next targets, but I know that each and every one of us has the ability to transcend them and fight through their cruelty. Each one of us has the capacity to grow into amazing people. And once you realize that these persons likely can’t and will never get that blessed privilege to truly see themselves changed and at peace, who out there cannot help but shed a tear for that? And I have. Twice over. Because not only did I cry for that sad reality, I cried also for their own isolation. Because no amount of love or goodness will keep my father or Deirdre from their own destructive chaos. Every single one of us must simply walk away. It is time we all learn the lessons of our own self value– that none of us deserve to be used or mistreated. We are all worthy and wonderful, but it is only by admitting there are those out there that cannot be helped, can we finally let go of them and be free to love each other.