“Just one more thing, I promise,” Henry said, patting my knee, “and then I’ll be done.”
My eyes followed the crack in the windshield, a circuitous etch, which I’d been bugging him for months to get fixed, and which had meandered even more since the last time I sat in the passenger seat. I pushed the button to roll the window down, my side only, just enough for a breeze to tickle the top of my head. Since he was talking about his non-responsive, ‘you-have-five-minutes-to-have-sex-with-me’ wife, it was clear he was not going to be done unraveling his despair, disappointment and being made the fool any time soon.
His litany of protests sparked erratically. As he yammered on, my memory crowded with my worst dates where the man talked loudly, incessantly about himself. I had told Henry about these, but I was mute to make him aware of his excess right now. “I’m sorry, Jane, I’m sorry.”
I was kind. “Everyone needs to vent,” I said.
We had been co-workers for many years, slow to become friends four years after meeting, and shortly after becoming friends, not so slow to admit our mutual attraction. But there was a problem. He was married and I was forlorn, wrecked from lost love.
Fifty-one weeks before, my long-time love and friend, Steve, cancelled our wedding in a conversation over the phone. Or, that was what I believed I had heard him say.
Steve and I had been in and out of each other’s lives many times in the span of 12 years. I had known him since before the ink was dry on my divorce papers. He was not the man I ran to when the marriage was dissolving, but he was the one I reached for while I waded through mudslides of guilt and indecision after I had separated from my husband. Steve had been recently divorced as well and our angst was our playground.
The series of morphing and remolding we had gone through as a result of many breakups and returns fertilized a belief in longevity. It was evident we cared about one another enough to continue to want to be in each other’s lives.
One month before this fateful phone call, Steve had a heart attack. The doctor put in eight stents to push back the blockages in the arteries surrounding his heart. He escaped death once again.
Steve had had several brushes with death both when he served in Vietnam as a Navy Medic Corpsman and as a paramedic in his 30-year career as a fire fighter. He escaped all of them unharmed physically but not emotionally. Several months after I met him, he was forced into retirement because of rotator cuff injuries onset by years of hauling a fire hose. Within a couple of years of his retirement, and because he was unable to find work without a college degree or any recognition by potential employers of his transferable skills, Steve’s counselor through Veterans Affairs recommended that he apply for full disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She had been treating him for years and believed him to be just the candidate for this type of dispensation. He was granted it but not without a shroud of unworthiness hanging over him. He was grateful but believed others deserved this benefit much more than he.
He battled demons of unworthiness in our relationship, too. He didn’t understand why I loved him, how I could love him. It was simple: he showed interest in me by listening to my stories, revelations, errors in judgment, and amusements. He genuinely wanted to open the windows of my being and he was gifted in the art of witnessing me blossom. It wasn’t easy as I wasn’t forthcoming. When we met, I felt ashamed and judged for my failed marriage and I wanted to wilt and retreat. He was patient. He waited while I found words. That was nectar. It was the serenity of sitting next to a creek in July. It was being wrapped in a heated blanket in February. I had dreamed of nothing more from anyone. To be heard was to be seen and valid. This sustained me and evaporated doubts provoked by his repeated retreats away from whatever plan we had made for visiting each other. I learned to let go of expectations and to surrender to whatever the moment presented.
PTSD was combustible, volatile, a furnace fueled by several invisible provocateurs. His rage at society for continuing to show its greed and cruelty made him want to isolate. His self-hatred for having killed and having been unable to prevent death and wounding of friends tormented him, engulfing the gentle, tender man he risked showing me when his demons were at bay. I learned to love the man whose monster rose bigger and fiercer than he was at times. I learned to speak up and defend my feelings and self-respect. He learned to see how PTSD impacted me; I learned how to keep showing up. We grew up together.
Marriage was the logical next step given what we had achieved and surpassed together. We felt emboldened and strong enough to cross a new threshold. The heart attack triggered PTSD to claim dominance and superiority, however. Fear convulsed and vomited a thick sludgy tar in him, impenetrable by me. I could not help but to take this assault personally. During that fateful phone call when he cancelled our wedding, Steve said he needed a break, that he didn’t want to talk for a couple of days. Historically, this meant anytime between several hours to over a week, and I was not to call him. Though, he qualified his request for a reprieve this time with a statement inviting me to call if I wanted to. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction or subject myself to whatever anguish continued to boil inside of him. I knew better. Projectiles of his self-loathing never wore well on me. The only way out of this was to wait until he came back around, when gentle, tender Steve resurfaced.
The day after he cancelled our wedding, I began a race away from failure, humiliation, and shame. They clawed after me, specters at my heels. I had to be in motion. Being still invited fear. To thwart it I reacted with a fury: I returned the wedding dress in the midst of a white-out snowstorm, mailed Steve the bill for wedding invitations, texted everyone the wedding was off, removed all of the self-help books about being a functional, happy couple, and piled all papers and anything that reminded me of us into my closet. I put my engagement ring into the bottom of my jewelry box. The gentle, tender Steve wounded easily and I restrained my impulse to throw out gifts or memorabilia. When his self-loathing quelled, he would be curious about those symbols of his affection and would expect me to still hold them in the regard in which they were originally given. I gave myself permission to buck against his rejection and get rid of his gifts in the past. It was satisfying. Pain is an unrelenting teacher, however. Eventually, he would want to be forgiven and so would I, and so my middle ground was to put his gifts out of sight.
I had to move forward. There were decisions to be made about the promise I had made to my son, Shane about moving so that he could attend a quality high school. The original plan was that Steve and I were going to house-hunt together with the intention of Shane and I living there at first and then Steve joining us six months later. A few days after Steve cancelled our wedding, I contacted a realtor about putting my condo on the market. I would keep my promise to Shane, one way or another. His shot at academic success would not hinge on a failure to marry or live with Steve. I made a list of all the businesses and people I should contact about an address change. I took an inventory of what I would need to do to sell my condo: replace patio fake grass; replace cracked bedroom window; fix linoleum where the washer had gouged the tile; paint bedroom doors and bathroom; replace fire alarms; purge stuff I didn’t want; find boxes; pack.
Panic set in and behind the heavy curtain of all of this busyness was the dull but palpitating reminder of not getting married, of not having Steve there to support me as he had promised. I hated him. I cursed PTSD and Steve’s inability to stare into his triggers and fears sufficiently to orchestrate a coping mechanism that did not include rejecting me and running away from us.
I put my condo on the market and had an offer within two days. I was not prepared. The couple was willing to take it as is but wanted less than I was asking for it. I rejected the offer, believing more would be coming in and soon.
After two and a half months, visits from 25 prospective buyers, and only one other low offer, I took the condo off the market and searched for property management companies that would secure a tenant.
I found a townhouse for Shane and me to move into a mile from the high school I wanted him to attend.
Finding a tenant for my condo was stymied, however.
Because of this delay, and feeling panicked about money to cover rent at the townhouse and the mortgage for the condo, I contracted to teach three English composition courses on top of my full-time job as the help desk and training coordinator in online learning at a community college. I duped myself into believing this was manageable.
Fretting about money also inflamed me to impulsively agree to contract with another online university to design an English composition course. Since I had re-designed a course for them previously, I believed it would not take that much time for me to disassemble and reconstruct this one. But I hadn’t considered the preponderance of details that accompanies moving, teaching, and staying on top of a property management company to find me a tenant.
Sandwiched in between these months compacted with ‘To Do’ lists that never shrank, I reached out to Steve to begin again, to repair and reconstruct, but my proposals were met with requests for more breaks. I stepped back and declared things to be over. I created an online profile for a singles site, feeling clear and certain about meeting someone new.
I met several men for a series of singular dates. I felt open and secure in what I spoke of wanting and needing. I was discerning and clear but not tolerant. One man wanted to change our meeting time at the last minute and I texted him that if he had met someone else to go ahead and pursue that, but that I could not change the time to meet. He contacted me a month later pleading with me to meet him. I did not respond and blocked his profile.
I met another man six times over the course of a month. He was pleasant and attentive enough. When he kept me waiting outside a restaurant for 20 minutes where we were to meet for breakfast, however, I loosened my tether on him. I went into the restaurant, resolved to eat by myself. He joined me and explained that he had been on the phone with his 20-year-old daughter. She lived with him as did her not quite year-old daughter. She had come in very late the night before claiming that her Friday night class had gone late and then her friend’s car wouldn’t start. He then unraveled that he had suspected her of stealing from him for two years. A variety of items had been missing and a secure lock-box with valuables had been broken into. She was also suspected of being involved with check fraud and if convicted, she would go to jail. After he laid out these woes, I could not wait to get out of there.
He texted me late into the following week to inquire how I was, and I sent him an email stating that he had too much drama going on in his life and I couldn’t see him anymore. Shortly thereafter, I closed out my profile. The project of finding someone prickled and turned into a hassle.
As the wall of demands crumbled and my search for someone new proved fruitless, I could not avert seeing and knowing sadness over failing to marry Steve. It loomed, threatening to drag me into its undertow. Naturally, he found his way back to remorseful, gentle, and tender Steve and began calling again. He edited his version of what had happened 51 weeks before to proposing that we postpone the wedding, not cancel it. He swore to have stated this as an alternative during that phone call. When I am clear and recall that conversation, I do hear him say “postpone and/or cancel.” I suppose that should matter, but rejection wounds irreparably. It leaves scars and inhibits the ability to love and believe. All I could hear during that phone call was the footfall of him running away. Again. And all I felt was the stinging reminder that my love was no match for his fear.
The months of camouflaging grief in my busyness separated me from the pursuit of believing we could be anything more than friends. With the passing months, and the completion of projects little by little, breaths relaxed into an even rhythm, not halved or swallowed. It finally felt okay to collapse and a desire to move slowly arose. I knew all I wanted to about hurrying, marshalling, performing, and panicking. I had proven I could make things happen when I wanted to. I could rise up and take care of myself.
Tiny sharp rays of sun pierced and retreated through the spurious lines in the windshield. In Henry’s car, I could slip lazily into the fantasy of wanting him without the burden of believing it would happen.
He began texting and calling me more frequently after his wife left for a six-month tour near Afghanistan with the Air Force.
One night, he texted to compliment me on a presentation I had done earlier in the day for the entire faculty. Four or five messages later, he told me how hot I was and that he fantasized about coming to my house to be with me.
“Have you ever cheated before?” he asked.
“No,” I lied. I decided to split hairs with myself because I hadn’t ever been solicited by a long-time friend to be his concubine. The experience I did have in this arena did not make me proud. It billowed up and surrounded me like a hot air balloon I could not climb out of. Some things you can’t undo. Some things have a larger purpose. Some things show you parts of yourself that you’d rather not believe: the capacity for cruelty born out of desperation.
I had gone off the map in my 12-year marriage and no matter how I sequence the events leading up to the decision to be with another man, the truth remains that I caused a lot of pain. I had done everything right up until that point. We had sought counseling many times. I had fought hard for us. I had expressed my needs. My husband couldn’t deliver; it was who he was, and I couldn’t accept it anymore. I couldn’t subterfuge myself any longer. I was starved for love, and when another man presented himself, I took hold. I did have my husband’s attention, then; he knew I was serious about our problems, but it was too late. I couldn’t go back. I was tired, too tired.
But Henry wasn’t depleted, yet. He was still barreling through, hoping against hope that he could turn his wife back into that woman he had married: exciting and adventuresome. That her complaints of the onset of menopause and low sex drive were temporary, and that she would want to address them medically, psychologically, or in some other way because of her love for him. But she hadn’t, and hadn’t expressed any interest in doing so, either. She simply wanted him to accept where she was. And he was still talking himself through the struggle of whether or not he could do that. I knew what not being willing or ready to let go was. I knew the explosive reach toward someone who was kind and interested. I knew what it was like to lose sight of what mattered for what was desired.
What I didn’t know – until all of the demands of what I had taken on in the last year were crammed together, crowding out any linear thoughts about what I needed – was feeling the freedom to stare out the window, taking in the world and taking in nothing all at once.
I wanted to tell Henry to stop spinning into believing he was inadequate and that he could control how his wife would feel toward him. I wanted to tell him to not be in such a hurry to have things all figured out. But his cacophony of expectations shielded him from hearing. He was too busy preparing for failure. He wanted love. He was reaching for me because he was afraid. But neither one of us had the courage to see what we could be together, to discover or to ruin what stood before us. I could love him. I could learn about him. I could soothe his angst. But he was panicked and afraid. He would need to surrender and to know that letting go is not failing. It would need to unfold gradually, a little at a time, slowly. And then maybe we might have a chance. Until then, we would be friends who flirted, nothing more.
But it’d be okay if it never happened. Perhaps a new man would walk by my window, one not in the throes of loss and grief. One who was ready to love, one who was not afraid. Or not. That’d be okay, too. After all, there was a heaven to be made just in looking out at nothing in particular.