By Janet Clare
The black hearse crossed in front of our car on the way to my first chemo appointment. “Think it’s a bad omen?” I asked my husband, “like a black cat?”
That was nineteen years ago so it wasn’t a portend of things to come. I was, and remain, one of the lucky ones. And, don’t worry this isn’t a cancer-survivor memoir. This isn’t even a memoir. I didn’t have a rotten enough childhood to write a memoir. Not perfect, mind you, but it wasn’t a locked-in-the-closet, raped-by-my-father, thrown-from-the car by a drug-addled-mother kind of upbringing. No alcoholism, no overtly deviant behavior. Misunderstood? Certainly. It was the ‘60’s. Everyone was misunderstood.
It was a time of long hair and dark clothes, of seriousness and hopefulness, unrest and social progress that we innocents thought would never end. The world was expanding and we thought it would go on forever, and ever better. A time when some of our dreams for a more civilized, humane and liberated country actually came true. We never imagined fifty years later it would all go to hell. It seemed impossible. But at some point our country put on the brakes to enlightenment and skid to a frightening stop. Then backed up and went the other way. But this isn’t a treatise on political angst, either.
This is simply a brief personal history where I try to tell the truth. So right off, I’m in trouble. Because truth is elusive and memory slippery. For instance, I wake in the night remembering him swimming in a pool in a tropical place. Languid, serene, I can almost feel the soft evening air as I think of it now. Paradisaical. Then I remember the fight we’d had. I’d nearly forgotten. Or tried to. Alcohol involved, of course. And, afraid he would drown, I sat by the pool. So I might jump in and save him? Or maybe wait for him to go under and watch his last breaths bubble to the surface.
“You better hope no one ever loves you like that again.” That’s what the therapist told me after she’d met my soon to be second ex. Her statement took me way off guard. Although in truth, I didn’t have much guard left. The breakup, or more appropriate, breakdown was slip-sliding to a crisis when I decided to see a therapist for the first time in my life. Not very L.A. of me, I know. I’d always thought of therapy as a grand indulgence I couldn’t afford. But when a friend asked how I was doing all this--meaning trying to save my marriage, my business, my sanity–by myself, it occurred to me she was right. I was alone. And, I needed help. I would use a crutch for a broken leg, I reasoned, so why not lean on someone with a double PhD who feigned interest in my life?
Background: ex number two was intelligent, clever, thoughtful and loving. Until he wasn’t. Then he was suffocating, abusive, unforgiving and unkind. Naturally, it was the suffocating-abusive part my therapist, (note my proprietary usage here), was referring to. The part where he placed himself in the center of the world, of our world. A narcissistic, natch, although it seemed too many women consider too many men narcissists. And, since reading it’s a condition that affects maybe one percent of the population, I’m not so sure. And, what did it matter? He was a complicated man. The best type, my type, I thought. I’d never been interested in easy. Easy was for wimps. Well, I found out tough, too tough, was for idiots.
We knew each other since we were stupid young. And right away I’d been drawn to him, seeing myself in who he was and wanted to be. Creative, with a world view, someone who wanted to travel and never stop learning. Heady stuff. Then and now. He cared about books as I did, with ideas and ideals unlike anyone else I knew and maybe never would. He was dark haired and too thin and walked with a slight shuffle, the result, he said, of having been born the scrawny twin who wasn’t supposed to survive. He enjoyed elaborating on the story of his birth, like he’d defied the odds. And, maybe he had. He was also completely unacceptable to my family, which made him ever more attractive to me. That’s exactly how young I was.
However, I broke up with him while still in college and made an attempt at conventionality by marrying my first husband and the more appropriate choice–who ultimately wasn’t the right choice–and with whom I had my one and only child. My son, my great joy. Just pure dumb luck there.
I was a young mother during the turmoil of the ‘70’s, so I kept my distance from the streets and rocked my sweet boy and eventually left his father because life loomed before me in all too expected ways. I gave up the pretty new house with pale blue walls we never moved into along with the man who would become glowingly successful. For a time anyway. I’ve since learned not to judge success by it’s shiny cover because all too often tragedy lurks within, as it did with him. Instead, now I measure success in how each day is lived and loved and with a determination to get on with it.
But back to my second ex. He became a writer. A good one, albeit with a short flame. To go along with his short fuse. In the intervening years after we parted, he published a small, non-fiction book to great acclaim. A circumstance that sent me rushing back to the same therapist who I’d stopped seeing years before. Upset at being upset, I went into a tailspin. For years during our marriage, I had worked tiresome jobs supporting us while he’d dallied at writing and now, now after cheating and lying to me, he’d finally done something!
“Don’t think he’s necessarily landed on his feet,” my therapist said, far more prescient than she knew. “Do you wish you were still at his side for his success?” She crossed her legs demurely and waited. An attractive woman, she was simply dressed, seeming to intentionally blend in with the stylish yet understated decor of her office.
Her question, easy enough, stopped me cold. Did I want to be with him, basking in the light of whatever fame he’d attained? I couldn’t answer right away. Finally.
“No,” I said. “I want it for myself.”
I need to stop here a minute and think about the word choice. That neither of my two former husbands had, in the long run, been the right choice wasn’t totally correct. Certainly at the time they had each been right for me. And, one assumes, I for them. Things change. We change. Women, I believe, usually more than men. That said, I made my choices based either on some idealized version of home and children, fear, (fear of what? Mountain lions? I think not), desire, and/or a craving for something, anything, unknown.
Backing up once again, I need to point out that my husband in the car on the way to chemo was, and continues to be, my third and final one. Three is enough of anything. Unless it’s scoops of ice cream or chocolate chip cookies. As it happened, our unplanned detour to chemo-land occurred just a couple of years after we were married and two scant months after his best friend had passed away from cancer. The word that was whispered when I was child, gets shouted now, and that’s not a bad thing. It wasn’t part of the plan for our future together and I thought more than once during that difficult time that his life had been fine without me; that sickness and health not withstanding, this wasn’t something he’d bargained for. And, yet, he was indeed, the right man for the job. Okay, enough. I survived.
And then I went to Africa. Not immediately. I waited for my hair to grow. And, I started to write. Because my prior career had faded and I needed a way to organize my life. I wrote everyday for a year. Notes mainly, a kind of journal, what today might be considered a blog. Then I decided it needed to be something. Fine, I’ll just write a novel. What could be harder? Nothing. Unless I wanted to be a heart surgeon or fly commercial jets. Both of which required far steadier hands than mine. But writing a novel? All I needed was a computer and a chair. A couple of ideas might help. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing–because who wasn’t writing a novel–and I quickly became a secret hoarder of words.
But first, Africa. Where I’d wanted to go ever since reading West With Night and Out of Africa in high school. I went alone. No husband, no friends, no tour. Just a well planned itinerary and a carry-on for three glorious weeks. Africa was my reward for living and I was fearless. Or at least cautiously adventuresome. Flying in a tiny toy plane, I looked over the glorious land below and briefly recalled the days of doctors and poison being pumped into my body. By comparison, this was a snap and nothing to be afraid of. Look at me, I thought. Look where I am!
One of the things I learned on that trip was that the past shows up in unexpected ways; returning in scents and sensations, a word, a song or story, it presents itself often catching us unaware and dragging us back whether or not we want to go. Fourteen thousand miles away from home in the vast Okavango my ex-husband’s book–that same book–appeared, casually displayed on a table at the safari camp deep in the Delta. Just how many miles did I have to go to escape? It became obvious that it wasn’t about distance, so perhaps time would release me from what I didn’t want to remember. Then again, maybe not.
Originally from New York, Janet Clare has had short fiction and essays published online, reprinted in Dime Stories, and anthologized in The Truth of Memoir and Spent. She is currently completing her third novel. She studied at UC Berkeley and the UCLA Writer’s Program and continues to learn from the community of writers in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and an overly indulged Bichon-Frise.