Her obsession with her phone is out of control. Facebook, email, LinkedIn, Words with Friends, text. She makes the rounds, sliding between screens to check for updates several times an hour. It would be more efficient to put those apps next to each other on the screen, but she has yet to do it. That would be an admission of guilt.
From the outside looking in, she can see that an obsessive disorder diagnosis wouldn’t be far off the mark, that her behavior comes damn close to stalking, even though she has tried to shut all connections to him down. It’s not good to have a constant feed of anything, but especially not this. She doesn’t want to know what he’s doing.
The waters are confusing now. Is she sinking or swimming? What once felt like breaking the surface now feels less clear. She feels unable to draw a fresh breath.
This is the behavior of a crazy person. A person so freaked out by what is or isn’t happening in her life that she embraces distraction. The best thing she could do at this point would be to throw the phone into the Sound. She can imagine standing on the sidewalk above the shore, watching it sink into the green gray water, the light going out, a feeling of freedom, a lightness of being. She might look like a figure in a painting, leaning against the railing, long hair blowing back, dark but luminescent clouds on the horizon. It might feel very, very good to disconnect in such a dramatic way.
When she’s able to think clearly, she can see what needs to happen. She tells him, no more. She makes the effort to explain, to close it down, to give him a clear offramp, one that doesn’t require admitting or confessing anything. She feels the finality of it. She cries. But it gives her something to feel. He’s in the abyss, unchanged by her changes, and she knows she needs to be much stronger to live there with him. She goes a week without checking her phone. Facebook, email, LinkedIn, Words with Friends, text—she steers away from all of it.
And then it buzzes. Him. A message with just enough context to make her question herself, to make her wish she could be different; lighter, freer, less hung up on the specifics. And her heart aches again, because there’s not enough to make her buoyant, and not enough to sink her either. He holds her, like a kite, pulling on the string just enough that she remembers there is one.
It wasn’t until she lay crumpled on the floor of the bedroom, tears streaming down her face, looking into an abyss both terrifying and electric, that she felt the enormity of her Drew problem. She had underestimated Jake’s reaction. She’d known he’d be angry. But she had hoped his anger would quickly give way to a reckoning, a shared understanding of what was missing in their marriage. Foolishly, she had been optimistic about what this opening of Pandora’s box might mean.
What she hadn’t bargained for was his inability to process it in private, away from the kids. She didn’t realize the suggestion of separation might provoke an extended fight that would threaten to engulf their daughters. Jake never did have a poker face. He’d always been transparent, a lousy trait for a parent.
To be fair, Jake didn’t know what it was like to be a child of divorce, a kid with parents who hated each other. He didn’t know what it felt like to grow up shuffling between them, hearing their disparaging comments about each other, and wishing at least one of them would recognize how confusing and confidence eroding it all was.
Without that experience to guide him, he couldn’t be expected to know how his pain would affect the girls, how they would absorb his emotions yet not understand them. She realized he would turn to them for comfort, and it wouldn’t be until it was too late that he would see his mistake. She could not let that happen.
No, on the floor that night, as he stood over her, shaking, hands clenched, and speaking loudly enough to wake the kids, she realized her needs were secondary, and that this was going to be a gradual evolution, not an instant transformation. She let his heated words about counseling and a midlife crisis wash over her and sink in. Though the path was visible, she couldn’t get there without his support.
She needed to be the adult. This would have to be mutual, because the girls were her first priority, and this was a role she must accept. All others, real and longed for, must wait.
As she calmed the storm she’d created, forcing some of Pandora’s demons back into the box, she tried not to despair that this change she could see could not be reached.
It happened over Facebook. F*** Facebook. I’m sorry to swear. But that is the only way to say it. It used to be that old flames and near misses belonged to a past you couldn’t revisit, not without significant effort and risk. If someone was brave enough to find your phone number and actually dial the number, exposing whoever might be on the other end of the line, it took a special kind of courage fueled by either fate or foolishness. It took balls.
But not anymore. It’s now relatively easy to fire flaming arrows into the abyss and watch them flicker and fail from a safe distance. Or spark and heat up. And it’s possible now to approach as a replica of yourself, one with the personality and self confidence you believe you could exude, given the perfect circumstance. It’s all too easy to follow an impulse.
The reigning champ of keeping it to myself, the author of When to Bite First and Rejection: Strategies for Avoiding It, surprisingly, I started it. Heart beating loud enough to dull the sound of the computer keys going up and down under my fingers, I drew, aimed, and released the string. My arrow found a mark, the flame found material ready to ignite and in that moment, fair or ridiculous, I gave my ache a name: Drew.
I can’t say why. Why then, why him. My marriage was rutted and overgrown, and I was weary of weeding it. I had lost my sense of self in the guilt and despair of raising my babies. I wanted to start over, to crash the car in order to rise from the ashes. These are all real possibilities. This is surely just a midlife crisis, something of bloated importance and little meaning. Something I will outgrow if I shut it out long enough. It’s so incredibly wrong and such a terrible stereotype that it can’t be real.
Yet, he and I float, like small boats unanchored, unmoored, just calm. As if weighted by something deep below. As if waiting to see what the weather will do.
It’s easy to look back and see where your life veered off track. But shaking a should-have, could-have finger at your former self is a waste of time. You can’t go back. The much harder task is moving forward with all the longing and regret you’ve engendered. What you do with those lessons earns you an integrity rating. Doing the right thing = 5 stars. Simple concept really.
But here’s the rub: what if the right thing isn’t clear? What if you are standing at a place where the roads diverge and there are two equally meaningful directions? One leading to the bed you made, where you might spend a lifetime shooting down the question marks. Where you might feel safe and secure with your decision, or you might live with a grief so deep, you will never feel whole. And one leading to a frightening, exhilarating freedom. Where a chance to escape the lines society’s lilliputians have tossed over you means risking a wake so large that boats around you could capsize. You might as well be you, a friend says, because everyone else is taken. But who are you?
No one sets out to be self absorbed and foolish. And not everyone can ignore the very real consequences of hurting someone. At a certain point, you have to leave behind the romantic image of the girl in the movie, the one who braves the unknown or unthinkable to get her do-over. This is weighty stuff because the battle lost but the war won is a real scenario. And the clucking your elders do about the selfishness of your generation, which isn’t accustomed to settling for anything, might be deserved.
Paula planned a wedding when Eric got out of the hospital. With a show of solidarity and a crystal clear picture in her mind of who he still was, she knew she could move his life forward in a way no one else could. She could give him the one thing he needed most. Hope. She married Eric because she loved him, and because it had been part of the plan before the accident. She wanted to give him a fighting chance at the life he thought he’d lost. It was easier than retreating, and easier than picturing her life without him.
Like Drew, she wasn’t a person who could walk away easily. She was young enough to believe the worst was over. She believed the tender, strong, and fun-loving version of Eric would sustain her, and the beauty of her choice to stay with him would energize her. Paula did what we all did as brides—she looked up. She saw possibility, and she imagined a lifetime of loving and being loved. She envisioned time as a fresh sheet, snapped over a bed, falling smooth and wrinkle-free in front of her.
But she neglected to picture her daily life with him. She didn’t know the image of the old Eric would have to compete with a new one. A version hardened by the new indignities of daily life, transformed from a fiercely independent partner and playmate into a permanent patient with a voracious appetite for her care and attention. She didn’t know that over time, the weight of him would prove overwhelming, and gaps would form between them. The babies helped at first. They were another way she could keep Eric focused and moving forward, another gift within her power to give, one that would provide him with a permanent reason to live. For him, they were a coup d’etat, an in-your-face finger to the fates, and a source of endless fascination and pride. For her, they were a perfect embodiment of the best of both of them, blended together. They were also the ultimate distraction from a growing unease.
What she didn’t anticipate was the way the kids would accelerate time. How their unfurling days, months, and years would accentuate a ticking clock of her own. Not only were the girls her responsibility day and night—their safety when they were tiny, their education and social activities as they grew, and their discipline when they were older. As they grew, they became a reminder that there was only so much time left to explore the person she’d once wanted to be. She began to imagine the path not taken. And she came to that junction in life where doing the right thing for someone else and doing the right thing for yourself have equal merit.
Being the bread winner was also her duty, and she worked full-time. As she looked around, she saw many women doing this, but there was a marked difference. She had no one at home to help with dinner, take out the trash, or get up in the middle of the night with the child who just couldn’t sleep. Not only did she not have help, but she had the added task of caring for Eric in the evenings. There was no coming in the door, kicking off her shoes, and leaning against the counter with a glass of wine as her husband cooked or rubbed her shoulders. There was no slipping into a bath to relax after a particularly challenging day in the office. Instead, there was a urine bag to flush and a body to bathe and dress and turn. There were sheets to change and doctors to call and missing coats, homework, and lunch boxes to chase down. When everyone was accounted for, tucked in and quiet at last, she sank into bed and tried to still her own busy mind, wanting to be thankful. Trying not to despair.
That Drew was there with her, as integral to the big picture as Eric himself, made perfect sense. He was Eric’s brother, his family was her family, and she accepted his help gratefully, without reservation. She loved him like Eric loved him. And as she grew to depend on him, a new bond was forged, one far more personal and gratifying. An alliance of two, where there had always been three. Eric missed this cue, and that would be his downfall. He didn’t see that she had arrived at a place we all get to, at one time or another, over the course of a marriage. A place where we forget what it feels like to be beautiful, and valued as more than a wife and mother. We forget what it feels like to want, instead of always being wanted. And for Paula, that was a dangerous place.