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divorce

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

When Lisa saw Dan her heart throbbed so fiercely she almost toppled over and out of her chair. She hadn’t seen her former husband for nearly forty years and certainly wouldn’t expect him to be waiting here, like her, for a plane’s arrival. He was standing before the large screen with its information about departures and arrivals. He shouldn’t have been in Portland. On the last envelope she had received—enclosed with a child support check—it had been postmarked in Houston. But that was back in 1983.

He’d be seventy-two in three months, May 9. She remembered the date: after all she made him a party nearly every year of their marriage—seven years altogether. No doubt he forgot the next day was her birthday. He probably forgot about her. He was tall and lanky, not quite as well built as in the past, and stooped slightly. His hair had been brown but was now white peppered with gray and swept back away from his forehead. He was clean-shaven but that didn’t surprise her. He had shaved off his mustache and beard soon after their marriage. He was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket over jeans. She wished he wasn’t still handsome.

He turned away from the screen and she feared he’d choose a seat near her and maybe recognize her. She ran her fingers through her silver hair, which she hadn’t dyed in nearly a decade. It had been a natural auburn until she was forty, when her first gray strands appeared. She also gained twenty pounds since he last saw her. He remained standing at a distance, and fortunately a large family, including a man in a wheelchair, blocked him from seeing her.

Over the years, she was committed to hating him but when she’d look at the one photo she kept of him she’d be stirred with longing—even at her age. At UC Santa Barbara, girls had always turned their heads to look at him. Even the child she tutored back then had said, “He’s what we call guapo.” No doubt he remarried.

***

Lisa met Dan Hennessey while they both volunteered in the Children’s Project, sponsored by the university’s graduate school of education. She had first seen a notice about it on a kiosk near the student union. The project called for volunteers to tutor children in the near-by town of Carpinteria. They had come with their families from Mexico a few years earlier. She was an English major and hoped someday to teach on the college level but she believed she could effectively tutor a young child in reading and writing. She was idealistic and wanted to do something valuable in the community. She removed a pad from her handbag and wrote down the phone number.

From the apartment she shared with three roommates, she called the number. A girl with a perky voice gave her instructions about attending an important meeting. She would join other prospective tutors in Parking Lot Ten on Friday at three p.m. where there would be a van to transport them. Sure enough on that day Lisa saw a VW bus, with a sign Children’s Project in one of its windows.

As they traveled south on Highway 101 she saw the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other, dusty brown hills dotted with sagebrush and chapparal. When they turned off the highway, they drove passed an orchard of avocado trees and a scattering of plain stucco houses in various colors and into the little downtown, the street lined with palm trees and Torrey pines. The van parked in front of a stucco building with a sign by the door, Carpinteria Community Center.

Parents crowded the room, all sitting on metal folding chairs that faced a podium. The front row of chairs was left vacant for the student volunteers. When everyone was seated the mayor, wearing a suit and tie, spoke about how much the community appreciated working with the university to help their children succeed in school. He then introduced Dr. Ed Franklin, a professor at the graduate school of education. He was a short, round man, wearing a too-tight striped jersey top over bell-bottom jeans. He looked like he should be swabbing a ship deck rather than discussing academics. He gave a quick speech about how happy he was that the university and the graduate school of education in particular could contribute to the community. Then he introduced the student coordinator for the volunteers.

That was the first time she saw Dan, who stepped up to the podium. He towered over the professor and the mayor and she noted he was stunningly handsome. The features of his face were perfectly proportioned and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache suited him. His brown hair was long, flipping slightly above the collar of his flannel shirt. His big dark eyes showed a seriousness of purpose. Lisa was riveted to his eyes.

The volunteer who sat next to her elbowed her and whispered by her ear, “He’s cute. I’ll do my best to bump into him.”

“He probably already has a girlfriend or maybe a wife,” Lisa said. “He seems so serious he might not even be interested in dating.” This possibility came to mind because she was reading Euripides’s Hippolytus at the time in her Seminar in Classical Literature. And Lisa felt like Phaedra—struck with instant love.

At the podium Dan explained that each volunteer would be assigned a child and would work with that child for the length of the college quarter. “This way you’ll get a chance to bond, which is essential for success.”

The following Friday afternoon the volunteers returned to the community center to get their assigned child. A graduate student, in a peasant blouse over a long sweeping skirt, was in charge and introduced Lisa to a small girl with long coffee-brown hair pulled back with barrettes and wearing a white blouse tucked into a skirt with ruffles, white ankle socks, and patten leather shoes. “Lisa, this is Clara Gutierrez, who’s eight and in the third grade,” the graduate student informed her.

Lisa showed Clara a wide grin and said, “I’ll remember your name because my sister’s name is Claire.”

Clara brought Lisa to her home, which was in walking distance from the community center. It was a simple stucco house, with bougainvillea creeping along a wall on one side. Rosebushes with withered roses lined a picket fence, and a drooping sunflower stood on the parched front lawn. When they stepped inside they entered a room with a massive oak dining room table surrounded by several oak chairs, which occupied most of the space. Many people probably lived in this small house.

Clara’s mother greeted them and offered Lisa iced tea. She accepted not just to be polite. It was a hot day and she was thirsty.

They then entered a living room with a sofa and several stuffed arm chairs. Lisa also saw a bookcase packed with books in Spanish. This gave her an idea. “Why don’t you read a favorite story in Spanish before we start a book in English?” she said.

Clara giggled. “You won’t understand it.”

“I might. I took five years of Spanish in school—mi escuela. I even read Don Quixote. And if there’s something I don’t know I’ll ask you.”

They sat together on the huge velvet sofa. Clara opened CenicientaCinderella. The illustrations were familiar: pretty stone houses, the relevant castle in the distance, and the usual depiction of Cinderella—or Cenicienta—with long blond hair.

Afterwards, Clara asked if she could show Lisa the beach just a few blocks away from her house. It was such a warm day Lisa agreed. After all, they would have many opportunities to read books in English and this would help them to bond.

Another way to bond was to allow Clara to be Lisa’s tutor as well. As they walked on a road without sidewalks Lisa said, “Please help me improve my Spanish. We’re going to la playa, right?”

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

She pointed to her blouse. “This is a camisa, right?”

Clara shook her head. “No, that means shirt. Blusa is the word for blouse.”

Lisa noticed Dan entering the road with a small boy. They were only a block behind her and Clara. She forced herself not to be distracted by seeing him. “Okay, let me try again.” She tugged at her pants. “These are pantalones.

This time Clara nodded. Then she pointed to Lisa’s big leather handbag. “Tell me what this is called.”

Lisa noted that Dan and the boy were catching up to them but she smiled at Clara and said, “I don’t know. Please tell me.”

Bolsa. It’s your bolsa.” She lifted her small pink vinyl handbag and said, “This is my bolsa.”

Suddenly Clara’s face brightened and she waved at the boy. The two were walking on the other side of the street, now parallel with them. “Luis, we read Cenicienta today,” Clara shouted to the boy.

He merely shrugged.

Dan and the boy approached them while Lisa did her best to subdue the fluttering of her heart.

He extended his hand to shake Lisa’s. “Hi, I’m Dan Hennessey, as you probably already know.”

When their hands touched his was pleasantly warm. “Lisa Turner.”

“Thanks for becoming a tutor, Lisa,” he said.

That same Friday just as she was about to step into the VW bus to return to the campus Dan rushed over to her and said, “Let me give you a ride back. I have my car.”

They dated every weekend since then and occasionally she slept with him at the apartment he shared with another roommate. She wondered why he chose her. Dan was often encircled with attractive grad students at UCSB who doted on him. Not only was he good-looking and charismatic he was the creator of the successful Children’s Project. Perhaps he was attracted to her—her roommates assured her she was pretty. She needed assurance.

One night while she lay in his arms after sex he said, “I’m excited about my chosen field, Lisa. I’ll make a difference to kids. I’ll help them achieve their goals in life.”

It was dark but she imagined that serious glow in his eyes as he spoke of his vision. She was in awe of him and said, “You’re amazing.”

Yet she wished he’d be more serious about her interests.

“Don’t expect me to read some boring as hell guy from the nineteenth century!” he had said to her when she suggested he read her favorite author, George Eliot. She didn’t bother to tell him George Eliot wasn’t a guy. Once she dared to read to him a poem she had written but afterwards he kissed her forehead and said, “No offense, but I’m not into metaphors. I only understand straight facts.” She never shared her poems with him again. Besides, her pursuits were frivolous compared to his.

On the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving, he called her at home in Glendale to invite her to dinner at his parents’ house in West Covina. “They want to meet you,” he said, “So they told me to ask you to come Saturday night around six. Please come, Lisa.”

“Sure, I’d love to,” she said but she dreaded going. They’d be accessing her, deciding if she was a fit girlfriend for their special son. She feared they’d be disappointed.

For the rest of that day, she was so jittery in anticipation of meeting his parents that she could hardly enjoy being with her relatives, including her cousin Judy, who arrived from Cornell, and meeting her sister’s new boyfriend, Brian. After she and Claire set the dining room table for the big meal, she grabbed her sister and brought her into her bedroom so they could speak alone. “Dan invited me to dinner at his parents’ house on Saturday,” she said. “I’m dreading it. They’ll expect me to be perfect—like Dan. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Lisa,” Claire said. “Dan’s lucky he met you: you’re adorable, you’re intelligent, you have a great sense of humor, and most of all you’re sweet and kind. What more can he want? Besides, I doubt he’s perfect. No one is perfect.”

“You mean not even you?” Lisa asked to be funny.

“Especially me. But I’m right about this. Stop putting him on a pedestal. You’re the one who should be on the pedestal.”

Nevertheless, Lisa had grandiose expectations about Dan’s family as she drove east on I-210 from her home in Glendale toward his in West Covina. She imagined a mansion on a slope with a view and a large backyard swimming pool. They’d be elegant and erudite people with an enormous library, packed with classics. Yet as soon as she drove through his parents’ neighborhood her notions altered: these were all modest tract homes. She pulled up in front of a plain ranch house, stucco with red brick trim. The lawn was mowed and in front of it were two squat palm trees.

As soon as she entered the house, his family didn’t dazzle her, which surprised her. His father was rod-thin, tall, and slightly bent. Like Dan, his sister had inherited his height and was a head taller than her rotund boyfriend. Dan resembled his mother yet her appearance was bland. Perhaps it was the clothes she wore: a beige jersey top over brown polyester pants and no jewelry. She showed only a slight grateful smile when she took Lisa’s gift, a box of See’s candy. His father gave Lisa a broader smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

For her benefit, the main dish was vegetarian lasagna. She appreciated that Dan had told his parents she didn’t eat meat. She had feared she’s be forced to eat turkey leftover from Thanksgiving or maybe roast beef or pork chops.

His sister, named Amy, giggled with her boyfriend at one end of the table and they seemed preoccupied with each other. Amy had blond hair with brown roots and wore makeup too thick on her eyes, which were an icy blue. Her boyfriend had thin blond hair and lambchop sideburns that looked silly across his full cheeks.

Lisa braced herself for their many questions but none were forthcoming. Dan’s father stared at her but said nothing. Then his mother began, “We’re so proud of Dan and his accomplishments. Aren’t you, Lisa?”

“Oh, yes,” she said and smiled at Dan.

“He’s going to be called doctor by this summer. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are all so happy. Isn’t that an enormous achievement?”

“Oh, yes, it is. And his project in Carpinteria has done so much for the kids who live there.”

His mother brought a forkful of lasagna to her mouth then dabbed away sauce with her napkin. “Really?” She turned to her son. “What kind of project, Dan? I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Lisa was surprised that he hadn’t told his parents before about the important project. When they were back at school she said to him, “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the Children’s Project?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. They only care that I’m a success—that I’ll be called doctor.”

That June a new world was open to them. They both graduated, Lisa with a B.A. degree in English, Dan with a Ph.D. in Education, specifically in Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. While they celebrated dinner at their favorite restaurant, Arnoldi’s Café, in Santa Barbara, Dan proposed to her and she accepted. Dan wanted the wedding to be small and Lisa agreed: they were poor, still without jobs, and couldn’t expect their families to splurge on their behalf—though Lisa’s mother wanted a big celebration and was willing to pay for it. They invited only immediate family and were wed in a small chapel in Pasadena. Dan’s community involvement strengthened his resumé so Lisa wasn’t surprised that he quickly acquired a position at Portland State University to teach at their education college, starting in the fall. She immediately applied to the university’s graduate program in English and was thrilled to be accepted.

They packed up their belongings and headed for the Northwest. Nearly two years later when she was finishing her Master’s degree, she discovered she was pregnant and they both were excited about having a baby. But in her third month she had a miscarriage. She was depressed for weeks but Dan was depressed for much longer. She had failed him.

***

Claire had to convince Lisa that she did take good care of herself while pregnant and she didn’t fail Dan. Claire had made the emphatic point that the opposite was true: he failed her. This thought renewed Lisa’s anger. She should pop up now and stomp over to him, shout for everyone around them to hear: he failed her—and their daughter. Yet at this late date she’d gain nothing by humiliating him—and herself.

A group of travelers were coming through the terminal doors. Claire’s plane wasn’t due for another twenty minutes. Lisa had checked about forty minutes earlier and discovered then that the flight would be delayed for an hour. But maybe it arrived sooner than expected. She dared not check the screen and have Dan see her. Yet now that she looked at the passengers, she noted that they were tan, several men wore bright shirts with blazing prints of palm trees and hibiscus flowers, and both men and women wore leis around their necks. These people obviously arrived from Hawaii. She hoped that whomever Dan was waiting for had been a passenger on that plane and then they’d be gone and he’d once again be out of her life.

But that wasn’t about to happen yet. As the group dispersed, she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the big screen. She could hardly breathe.

***

A year after her miscarriage Lisa was happy to discover she was once again pregnant. Dan was cautiously happy and kissed her. Then he said, “This time you might consider eating more protein. At least fish.”

He could never reconcile himself to her being a vegetarian. She had been a vegetarian since she was a high school senior. Her friend, Karen Ridley, became one first and had given Lisa a book about the horrors of the slaughterhouse. After only reading a few pages, she announced to her parents she’d no longer be eating anything that walked, flew, or swam. Her mother, a great cook who prepared a meat dish for dinner almost every night, wasn’t happy about this but said, “Then you’ll be cooking your own meals.”

Which Lisa readily did and learned from vegetarian cookbooks how to make tasteful dishes with tofu, various other bean sources, and nuts. Family members predicted this was a mere phase that would end, but they were wrong. During her first pregnancy Dan had made her ask her gynecologist if being a vegetarian was harmful to the fetus and the doctor had assured her it was fine as long as she ate nutritiously, balancing protein with vegetables and not eating too many fats and carbs. After the miscarriage she had called the doctor and asked, “Did it have anything to do with my vegetarian diet?”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe it had to do with your cervix. It’s what we call an incompetent cervix, which means it opens too early in the pregnancy. We’ll have to watch over it during a future pregnancy.”

Something about her had been incompetent but it hadn’t been her diet.

Lisa was nervous throughout her second pregnancy and times when she spotted blood sent her and Dan into a frenzy of worry. She was glad she had stopped teaching at Portland Community College. She spent much of the time off her feet either reading or watching television. Dan had even bought a stereo unit so she could listen to her favorite records.

Just as she began her seventh month of pregnancy she went into labor. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl, pruned faced and jaundiced but still beautiful. She was immediately placed in an incubator. Lisa hated leaving the hospital without her baby, whom she and Dan had named Jennifer Marie. That same night they returned and watched tiny Jennifer in the incubator and Dan moved close to Lisa and folded his hand over hers. She smiled at him gratefully.

When Jennifer was eighteen months old the pediatrician told them she had cerebral palsy. This didn’t surprise Lisa. The child couldn’t stand yet, dragged one foot when she crawled, toppled over when she sat, and thrust her arms out for no reason. She drooled and had trouble saying mama. She could not say dada.

Yet when the doctor had put the diagnosis into words this stunned Dan and he paled.

With tears in her eyes, Lisa said after the appointment, “I know how painful this is to hear, Dan, but Jenny is lucky to have you as her father. In your field, you know all about kids like her and how to help them.”

His dark brown eyes showed despair that troubled her and so did his silence.

When Lisa found placement for Jennifer, at aged three, in a special program for young handicapped children at Portland Child Growth and Development Center she called Dan at his office on campus. “The director is really enthusiastic and very supportive. She gave me a tour of the center. It’s an amazing place. They’re all special kids under the age of six. They’re being potty trained and learning to eat by themselves and how to do say words and do simple puzzles. They also have a staff physical therapist and speech therapist who will work with Jenny. You’ve got to see for yourself. Anyway, the exciting news is Jenny can start this Monday morning.”

His reply surprised her. “Don’t make me dinner. I’m working late tonight.”

After she had fed and bathed her daughter and put her to bed she sat on the living room sofa and sobbed. Her relationship with her husband was strained by this child coming into their lives. Maybe it was her fault—an incompetent cervix or her no meat diet. Yet she loved pretty little Jenny, who looked like her father, except that she had Lisa’s red hair. They could still be happy.

He gave her no eye contact when he arrived home that night. A somber look was on his face and he went straight to their bedroom. She remained on the sofa, a novel unread on the coffee table. She couldn’t follow him into the bedroom, as if a heavy weight pressed down on her. A sense of doom overwhelmed her and she felt chilled. She finally forced herself up and left for the kitchen to boil water for tea. She was pouring the water into her mug when she heard him say, “Lisa, please come in here.”

She returned to the living room and was shocked to see that he held a bulging suitcase. She trembled so badly she grasped hold of a side table to steady herself. “You’re leaving us?” she managed to say.

“I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll send papers for you to sign. And money. Please don’t contact me.” In a softer voice he added, “This is just too much for me.”

Through blurry eyes she looked up at him. “Don’t you love us at all?”

“I … I can’t deal with it.” He turned and left.

Stunned, mortified, and scared Lisa knew she needed to call her sister. Through sobs she managed to tell Claire what had happened.

That weekend Claire left her home in Canoga Park and her husband, Brian, and toddler son, Justin, to be with Lisa at her time of despair. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him!” she said that evening after Lisa put Jennifer in her bedroom to sleep. In a slightly calmer voice she added, “You’ll get the best divorce lawyer and make him pay up—the bastard!”

Lisa sank onto the sofa and sobbed in her hands. “He’s left us—me. And it’s my fault!”

Claire plopped down next to her and grabbed her chin. She lifted Lisa’s face and their eyes met. “This is not your fault. Never ever say that again!”

Claire was her savior over the years, even though they remained living at a distance. She visited when she could, especially during summers while they both weren’t teaching. Sometimes Brian and Justin came too. Brian would walk through the house looking to see what he could repair, rewire, or repaint and Justin would make some effort to entertain Jennifer.

Fortunately, Lisa received help with Jennifer from school and community programs so she was able to work fulltime, teaching at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College, not far from her home. The money was needed: Dan had stopped sending money after three years. As far as he was concerned, she and Jennifer no longer existed. Then Jennifer died of pneumonia when she was fifteen. Lisa’s parents and Claire and Brian came to her funeral. Lisa was crushed and only her sister and brother-in-law had saved her from driving her car off a cliff.

***

Claire was coming to help Lisa celebrate her sixty-eighth birthday. Regrettably, Brian wasn’t joining her. He had suffered a mild heart attack a few months earlier and explained apologetically on the phone that his fear of flying might trigger another.

It occurred to Lisa that if Claire spotted Dan she might rush up to him and slap his face—but she’d prefer to strangle him. Lisa would get some satisfaction.

Yet, so much time had passed since that day he left her and their daughter that there was no point in trying to punish him now. It had been a long time since she felt exhausted from caring for Jennifer and also teaching. Then for years she mourned the loss of her daughter and struggled with loneliness. She dated but never lasted in a relationship. She enjoyed her friendships and participated in a writing group and went to poetry readings. She continued to write poems and had managed to get a few published in literary journals. That was her life.

Her hands were sweaty and she felt so agitated she couldn’t remain in her seat. Besides, she no longer cared if she came face to face with Dan. She stood and headed toward the Starbucks next to the terminal doors. She could easily see passengers arriving.

She was standing on line to order when she heard, “Lisa?”

She recognized the voice. This triggered the heavy beating of her heart. She was about to turn to face him but then the barista said, “Ma’am, what can I get for you?”

“A twelve-ounce coffee, please,” she managed to say. Then she faced him. That serious glow in his eyes was gone and he managed a smile. Perhaps he mellowed over the years.

“How are you?” he had the nerve to ask.

With a trembling hand she gave the barista a five-dollar bill for a $1.85 coffee and told him to keep the rest. She forced her hand to hold her hot cup steadily. “Fine,” she answered, deciding this exchange was absurd.

He stepped out of line and followed her to the counter where she poured half and half into her cup then stirred it and stirred it again and again.

“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, not looking at him. “What are you doing in Portland?”

He let out a nervous chuckle. “I missed the wet weather so I came back. Actually, I live in Lake Oswego.”

That was an affluent suburb. He was doing well. “Which plane are you waiting for?”

“The United flight from LAX. My wife went to visit her mom in a nursing home in Long Beach. We’re going to have her move up here so we can keep a better eye on her.”

This information about his wife made Lisa’s stomach twist even though years had passed. No doubt he had a family, with healthy kids and grandkids, too. She didn’t want to know about them. “She’s on the same plane as my sister.”

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

These moments were unbearably toxic and she had to flee. She glanced toward the exit doors and saw some passengers coming through them. The plane had arrived. Claire would be here momentarily to save her— once again. She tossed the cup full of coffee into a trash bin. She glanced at him for the last time and said, “Your daughter died a number of years ago.” She rushed by him and toward the doors.

When she spotted Claire, pulling a carry-on suitcase, she ran to her and hugged her. “Dan’s here,” she said by her sister’s ear.

Claire hugged her tighter then released her and said, “It’s too late for murder so I have a better idea: let’s go to dinner and order an expensive bottle of wine. It’s your birthday so it’s my treat.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Hillary Tiefer has a PhD in English and has taught at various colleges. Her short stories have been published in Descant, Red Rock Review, Mission at Tenth, Blue Moon Literary Review, Gray Sparrow Journal, Poetica Magazine, Poydras Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Literary Nest, Smoky Blue Literature and Art Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Opiate. Her stories were finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, Homebound Publications, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October 2018 (Moonshine Cove Publishing). Her essays on the author Thomas Hardy have been published in scholarly journals.

Divorce, Guest Posts, memories

Blossom

March 6, 2022
blossom

The morning after my father announced he and Mom were getting divorced, he made everyone strawberry pancakes for breakfast because it was the sweetest apology he could muster. Afterward, my brother Brian and I went out back and hit golf balls into the woods. One swing and the balls lifted into the trees, gone. Over the summer, Brian and I caddied at a swank country club and scrounged up almost a bucket’s worth of balls. Working them down to a handful, I took a sloppy hack and my ball caromed off the chicken shack and into the mixed elms and birches. I frowned; even at 10-years-old, the metaphor of a jettisoned ball and my father’s imminent departure was not lost on me.

At that point in our lives, we didn’t have much to remedy our parents’ fracture: there was no extended family in the area, we didn’t belong to afterschool clubs or organizations, and we certainly didn’t attend church: one of the reasons we’d moved downstate, besides a job opportunity for my dad, was to escape our Pentecostal church. They were straight up Old Testament fanboys who believed in demonic possession and speaking in tongues. During service, the pastor would step over the bodies of those “overcome” by the spirit of the Lord. They’d be lying on the floor, eyes closed and blissed out, and he’d carry on with his sermon about how to be a good Christian in an ungrateful world. Then he’d flip his mike cord and high step over the pronounced girth of some lady snoozing it off near the podium. “Praise Jesus”, he’d say, and continue on with his motivational speech as if walking over the prone bodies of zonked adults was all perfectly normal.

But I digress.

It would be another month before my dad was fully moved out, but Brian and I found solace in the backyard, the small woods behind it. So did my younger brother, Josh. My little sister Liz was an afterthought, and she mostly stayed inside, not because she wanted to but because we three ignored her. Brothers are cruel like that. The backyard became our go-to, our refuge in a time of complete uncertainty. Out back, we were the ones in charge.

In the center of the yard was an overgrown grape vine. We ate some of the fruit but were grossed out by their abundance of seeds. So instead, we whipped them at each other in impromptu battles, splotching our shirts like blood.

Once, the two boys across the street that used to pummel Brian and me for sport came over and the four of us pretended to make wine, crushing the grapes and filling an empty soda bottle with the run-off. We drank it and acted like what we thought drunk people acted like, which was to giggle and walk in circles. We’d later learn at various neighborhood blowouts that drunk people mostly complained loudly about each other, air guitared to Iron Maiden, and threw up in the rhododendrons. But that was still a few years away. Sensibly, my mom decided to make jam with the grapes and that was probably the smartest thing anyone did with them.

Alone after school, we rummaged through the basement to find curious odds and ends, stuff both there when we moved in and items our father hadn’t taken with him: spooky chemicals in ancient brown bottles lined the shelves in one corner, along with crooked boxes filled with European history books, maps, old clothes, and sword and sorcery paperbacks. We also discovered our dad’s record collection. He used to be a disc jockey, and we admired the colorful copies of folk and rock artists none of us had heard of: The Who, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio. One box held these odd, extra thick albums with no covers at all. The artists were old blues and jazz musicians, and today, I’m sure these records would be worth the price of tuition at an elite college. We were duly unimpressed. And since they were made by a bunch of guys who were probably dead anyway, we figured the records would be perfect for a lively discus competition.

At first, we hucked the albums toward the trees, but they didn’t fly straight and kept smashing sideways into the ground. So we threw them straight up in the air and ran away as they hurtled back towards us. We agreed to add a marksman category, and after one of us tossed an album, another took aim with a pellet gun. Our aim wasn’t half bad. And we took safety very seriously, pointing the gun away from most windows and sometimes each other.

The dimensions of the backyard were just right for Wiffle ball and we declared it our own Fenway Park. Brian and I grew up watching the Red Sox on Channel 38 with our parents. I watched Carlton Fisk wave the ball fair in the ‘75 Series and suffered the humiliation of Bucky-Bleeping-Dent in ‘78. In the backyard, I was Yaz, and the chicken shack served as a kind of Green Monster. Even the grape vine was in play, like the outfield ivy at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Nothing was better than smacking the ball into the grapes as one of us frantically tried to dig it out, wild eyed and cursing. Many a single was stretched into a double courtesy of that vine.

We decided to best way to utilize the woods was by setting up animal snares we read about in one of the books we hauled out of the basement. We bent the necks of saplings down and used carrots as bait. We’d check the snares faithfully each day, but to our disappointment, no rabbits. Not even an unlucky squirrel.

On my birthday, my friend Jamie and I blew up a can of Renuzit air freshener in a makeshift campfire in the woods. We had hoped for fireworks and got it: the can rocketing up about 20 feet. Afterward, Jamie and I put the campfire out with sand and went over to his house to shoot hoops. I was excited as my dad was going to be home that night to help me celebrate turning 11.

Later, as I made my way back home, I kept hearing sirens and noticed a small cloud of smoke hovering over my road, and then over the woods. The closer I got, the more I became filled with an increasing sense of doom.

I stood around with my brothers and sister in the backyard as a couple of firemen zipped this way and that. They came in through the backside of the woods and quickly contained the blaze. My father came right up to Brian and me, and for the first time in my life he looked scared.

“Do you boys know anything about this?” A fireman clad in yellow stood behind my dad, waiting.

Brian and I looked at each other and did the right thing: we lied.

“What? No. No way. I was over Jamie’s house,” I said. Which was technically true.

Brian denied culpability as well, even though he knew what Jamie and I were up to.

“Well, this is certainly one hell of a set of birthday candles,” my dad said, and walked back to the fireman, arms raised.

I should have felt guilty for lying, but I didn’t. Why ruin a perfectly good birthday with the enormity of truth? Truth, I thought, only spoke of painful things: that our dad was gone, that I could daily see the struggle of being a single parent in my mother’s eyes, that our family had very little money and even less reasons to be happy. Birthdays were supposed to be a once-a-year moratorium on all of that. I couldn’t sacrifice my brief window to joy.

Somehow, we all got through that mess. And as fall stretched to winter, and winter to spring, it became increasingly apparent that dad was never coming back, that this really was permanent. But we all did something extraordinary: we persevered.

As we got older, the yard morphed into a different kind of haven; our mother slowly cultivated it into a dazzling flower garden. She tore out the grape vine and almost every corner of the yard now billows with (nonlethal) explosions of pink, purple, white, and red. There is a small koi pond. Japanese maples. The chicken shack has been removed in favor of French lilac. Butterflies are the new rulers of this domain.

In fact, when her grown-up sons and daughter now come to visit, she takes them on tours to show them what she has added, points out what is thriving or what still remains stubborn to rise. I wonder at it all. And am amazed. Because I remember a time, however misguided, when the yard was overrun by those seeking their own path to blossom.

Christopher Locke was born in New Hampshire and received his MFA from Goddard College. His essays can be found in The Sun, The Rumpus, JMWW, Parents, Slice, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. His memoir “Without Saints” (Black Lawrence Press) and poetry collection “Music For Ghosts” (NYQ Books) are both due in 2022. Chris lives and writes in the Adirondacks. Chris can be found online here.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

The Summer We All Got Married

July 31, 2021
wedding

by Larkin Warren

Eight of us were wed that summer of 1981. Each of the four engagements had come about during the previous bone-crackingly cold New Hampshire winter, although I’d like to believe that all the troth-pledging was more about love and joy than the need for warmth in icy weather.

We lived then in a university community, where marriage itself was subject to flinty-eyed skepticism—three of us eight to-be-marrieds were divorced, with kids in tow and wedding albums long lost in an attic or cellar. Nevertheless, as mud season passed and the lilacs appeared, we all prepared to take a plunge that seemed to grow ever more traditional as the days went by. Gathering on weekends, we ate pints of strawberries, pounds of brie, drank more Champagne than was customary on a teacher’s salary, agonized over venues and budgets, and complained, of course, about our parents—because what’s a march towards a wedding without that?

Coincidentally, another couple, first-timers both, planned a similar event. Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding would be larger, certainly, than all four of ours combined; her engagement ring big as a Volkswagon headlight, the invitation list and seating chart more complicated than the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly. We guessed that Diana’s and Charles’ whole coping-with-the-parents thing resembled rolling a large power mower over a hornets’ nest. We tried to envision the monogrammed thank-you notes, the writer’s cramp. “Ha!” somebody grumped. “Not likely she’s writing them herself!”

Whether Royalists, Fenians, or flat-out cynics, we refused to begrudge them the royal circus and the related hoopla. We were all determined not to be cynical that summer. They were in love, we were in love—and when you’re sufficiently love-addled, Frank Sinatra is forever crooning in the background, every sunset is peach perfection, and it’s an easy if somewhat wacky leap to emotional kinship with the future King and Queen of England.

By the day of the royal wedding, our own four weddings had been achieved. All our kids were in embarrassment recovery and all the wedding-cake tops (two organic from a local farm store, one eight-layered from a fancy caterer, one Mom-made) were stashed in fridge freezers, to be thawed and eaten at the first anniversaries. And so it was that on July 29, each new married couple, bleary-eyed and feeling more than a little sheepish, rose at dawn, fired up the coffee and joined teams of gushing TV network anchors and the billion other guests at the Spencer/Windsor wedding.

Feminism, pragmatism, and reality checks notwithstanding, it was difficult at first not to think in fairy tale terms as the veiled girl, swathed in an acre of virginal silk, arrived in the golden coach, glanced shyly up at her prince, and Bach rang throughout the cathedral; we were, after all, the first generation of Disney-movie kids, brought up on princes, princesses, and happily ever after, even if Ms magazine and Our Bodies Ourselves sat on the bookshelf next to a Virginia Woolf novel and somebody’s dissertation on the various psychoses in Grimms’ fairy tales.

It did occur to me, however, that if we dropped a nickel into the piggy bank every time a commentator actually used the words “fairy tale,” we might make a sizable dent in my son’s tuition savings account. “Why doesn’t he just grab her and kiss her?” asked said son with a medium measure of disgust, having witnessed many other silly grownups do precisely that for weeks.

A month or so later, my husband’s parents returned from a vacation trip to the UK with gold-trimmed souvenir royal wedding cups, one for my sister-in-law, one for me. I kept mine on the kitchen counter for a while, ceremoniously using it whenever I drank tea, silently begging forgiveness of my paternal grandmother, who’d secretly funneled her pension money to the Irish Republican Army. My sister-in-law used hers briefly as well, then stowed it away for safety after her two kids were born.

By the time little princes Wills and Harry were making shiny appearances in People magazine, our Summer of ‘81 group numbered three babies, two divorces, a few rounds of infertility treatments and a couple of complicated midlife career adjustments. At that point—pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-cell-phone cams in every hand around the world—we didn’t know about the mistress, the affairs, the drama worthy of Bizet’s Carmen. We didn’t know that Diana had flung herself down a flight of stairs in a bid for Charles’ attention, although one or two of us might’ve understood. I surveyed my own castle—eggy dishes in the sink, two dogs who ate shoes as if they were kibble, the husband who worked all hours, and the moody adolescent who painted Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover on his bedroom wall—the entire bedroom wall. “A lady in waiting would be nice,” I muttered.

Time kept passing. Parents aged and died. Kids grew up, friends moved away. Somebody’s son flunked out of college, another joined the Navy, a daughter eloped. Soon, we were all linked only by Christmas cards with ever-changing zip codes. Somewhere in there, the UK fairytale went all to hell.

On the last day of August 1997, the Princess of Wales and two others in her car died in an automobile crash whose grisliness was surpassed only by its agonizing stupidity: the drunk limo driver, the frenzied pack of paparazzi, the dying woman pinned like a butterfly in a shadow box.

A week later, I once again rose at dawn, heading for the television and feeling grim. For breakfast, I ate an entire box of Peek Frean lemon biscuits (with the “by Royal appointment” seal on the box), and drank Earl Grey in the gold-trimmed wedding cup. I don’t even like Earl Grey, and I had no doubt my IRA Granny spun in her grave. There again was the cathedral and the soaring music. Some of the faces were recognizable, all of them were older. “I thought I’d feel like an idiot watching this,” said my husband, who joined my vigil late and under protest. “But I don’t. I’m actually sad.” We both agreed that Sir Elton John could’ve used a couple of second thoughts.

That afternoon, my sister-in-law called, tired and teary. “I stumbled all over the place in the cellar this morning,” she said, “hunting for that damn teacup. Scraped my shins on every toy my kids have ever owned.”

I told her about her brother’s unexpected sadness, about my lemon-biscuit breakfast. We tried to figure out what it was that we were feeling, why someone and something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us seemed, suddenly, to have everything to do with us. For her, a mother of very young children, it was the unimaginable sorrow of two boys walking behind their mother’s coffin. For me, it seemed somehow about the sun-burnished wedding summer, the strawberries and champagne, the blind hope and optimism, and the friends whose lives and loves we had shared. We’d made promises. Mostly, we’d kept them “The odd thing is, I think I feel grateful,” I said.

“Me, too,” she said. “For the junk in the cellar. The dirty laundry. Even the old Barney videos.”

How often, in the frayed ribbon of a lifetime, do lovers and friends, husbands and wives, parents and kids, do wrong, disappoint, betray, yet somehow manage to start over? What’s the score now, as we pass another anniversary and roll however clumsily towards the next? My son, when he was little, had a term for the number of stars in the sky: “infinity many.”

“Most of all,” said my sister-in-law that long ago morning, in a very soft voice, “I’m just thankful for my completely ordinary life.”

Larkin Warren lives in northern NH. She has collaborated on six-and-a-half memoirs, is writing one of her own, and her poetry’s been published in Mississpipi Review, Ohio Review, Yankee magazine, Slow Motion Review (NYU), Quarterly West and others, She is currently owned by a mini Aussie shepherd rescued from a NYC kill shelter. Her poetry chapbook, Old Sheets, was published by Alice James books (Farmington, Maine) in the previous century. Her essays have appeared in New York Times magazine, NYTimes op-ed page, AARP magazine, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Salon,  and others.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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cancer, Guest Posts, Starting Over

27 Stitches

July 27, 2021
surgery

by Lauren Gobell

I got skin cancer for the first time when I was 28. Basal cell carcinoma, right temple, one freeze and burn surgery required. I’ll wear lots of sunscreen, and this won’t happen again. This is my health scare, and now it’s done, I reassured myself. But a year later, at twenty-nine, my white scar that I was painfully self-conscious of became suspiciously pink around the edges. My insides churned in that way that only happens when you know something bigger than you is brewing beneath the surface.

By then, I was four-and-a-half years into my marriage, and it’d been touch and go the entire time. After the diagnosis, I brought my then-husband to a consultation, so a doctor could explain that “basal” is not to be confused with “benign.” This was in fact, cancer, and therefore, it needed to be removed for medical reasons. After confirmation from a medical professional, my then-husband felt reassured that I was not just being dramatic about the whole skin cancer bit. By the time my surgery came in December, we’d separated, but I knew we were most likely headed for a divorce.

Prior to my surgery, I noticed another spot on my center forehead, near the hairline. I call this a, “For Fuck’s Sake” moment. As humans, we’re  all guaranteed 2-3 “For Fuck’s Sake” moments in our lifetime. These are the moments that bring us to our knees. They sometimes make us more resilient in the long run, but, let me abundantly clear, the interim period is extremely unpleasant, and if not handled properly, can really get the better of you.

Two weeks later, that biopsy from my For Fuck’s Sake moment came back positive as well. My one surgery in December would now be a “two for one” surgery. I spent hours bracing for impact before the operation. I scoured the internet for pictures of MOHs surgeries, telling myself it would make it easier post surgery to deal with my own recovery.

I was mistaken.

On December 15, 2016, I had an eight-hour surgery to remove both basal cells which left me with two facial scars. There were twenty-seven external stitches total, and I simply didn’t recognize myself every time I accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The pale, terrified, stitched-together girl that gazed warily back at me seemed like an imposter. How could this be my life? How did this happen? It was the first time I’ve ever truly felt unlovable, and that feeling lingered for longer than I care to admit.

I wish I could tell you that going through skin cancer quickly made me realize I was a badass. I wish I could tell you that when I caught people looking at my scars, I came back with some fabulous fictitious tale about a skiing excursion gone awry. I wish I could tell you that I left my toxic marriage right then and there.

But I didn’t feel like a badass; I felt broken. But I couldn’t make a clever joke; I was mortified by my own appearance. As women, we’re told by society both directly and indirectly to be hairless, poreless, blemishless. Most days, I was haunted by an inner voice that hissed,Who would ever want you now?”

Fortunately, as the months crept by, my scars went from bright red, to medium red, to an aggravated pink, and finally a subdued white.

And then, five months after my surgery, my husband did the smartest thing he could have possibly done.

He called me dumb.

He called me dumb one last time.

The specifics of that conversation don’t really matter. My hungover husband who had driven home blitzed the night before, who was so hung over we missed therapy with the Christian marriagie counselor he insisted on seeing, called me dumb because I refused to agree that the Hulu show we were watching at the time was “liberal propaganda.”

Dear reader, sometimes specifics do matter.

Because those lovely specifics converged at just the right moment and created a crescendo, a tidal wave of clarity if you will. And when that wave broke, it allowed me to have another “For Fuck’s Sake” moment when I needed it most.

Dear reader, my hungover, drove-home-drunk husband called me dumb, and suddenly everything within me realigned. All the nuts and bolts came together with a resounding internal click.

This was not, is not, could no longer be my life.

The beauty of a For Fuck’s Sake  moment is that it brings about clarity whiplash. Meaning, the truth comes at you so fast, you’re forced to examine it head-on. And since I’d just dealt with a FFS moments months earlier with my two-for-one basal cell diagnosis, I had a better inkling of how to handle a FFS this time around. That skin cancer FFS had been overwhelming, but this FFS ended up being the compelling kind.

The best way to handle an FFS moment is by taking action while doing everything possible to maintain your sense of humor. I had just handled double skin cancer surgery. Surely, I could handle divorce.

And so, I did it. I finally walked away from a dysfunctional nine-year relationship that frankly, never should have made it past a year. I found a mediator. I filed for divorce. And since I was a teacher at the time, my summer job became “Getting Divorced.”

It turns out, that if you have the luxury of making “Getting Divorced” your sole job, you can actually expedite the whole thing rather quickly. I made a “Getting Divorced” playlist. I did more cardio than most doctors would recommend in a fiscal quarter. I went through a brief, albeit dedicated, house music phase. Please be advised, A For Fuck’s Sake moment requires outside-the-box coping strategies. Green smoothies and an FFS don’t pair well.

Nine weeks after uttering the words, “I want a divorce,” I walked out of the courthouse with my marriage dissolved. Sometimes we have to leave.

I left a marriage having been brought up in a very strict, conservative household, having been told my whole life that nothing was more important, nothing was more sacred than marriage.

And yet, I was still able to rebuild my life. I was able to regain financial security and independence. I was able to make a career change. I was able to date and form healthyish, (just being honest, some things really take time) romantic relationships again. And so it turns out, there are things more important, more sacred than marriage. Self-worth being one of them.

27 stitches broke my soul, but they forced me to become whole.

Most days, I still wish skin cancer wasn’t part of my vocabulary, but in a strange way it saved me from myself. Because for fuck’s sake, it gave me my moment.

Please Note: In a bizarre twist of fate, I heard from my ex-husband a couple years after I walked out of that courthouse. He got skin cancer. Life is simultaneously strange and simple.

Lauren Gobell is a former middle school English teacher and now works for a digital media company. She is probably running, reading a thriller, or reapplying sunscreen.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Divorce, Guest Posts, pandemic

Covid-19 and My Ultra-Orthodox Children

April 14, 2021
children

by Beatrice Weber

I am a mother of ten Hasidic children, and I couldn’t protect many of them from the virus. The community they live in has flouted restrictions—and while I know my children are at risk, my hands are tied.

In mid-March 2020, my 7-year-old son, my youngest child, and one of three who lives with me told me he knows why this virus happened. “Oh?” I asked. I was in bed, sleep teasing me, hoping he’d get tired, too, and go to his room. “My teacher told me it is because we don’t say enough blessings. He said that if we say 100 blessings a day it will go away.”

My son is innocent. Like kids his age, he is impressionable. He was one and half years old when I left my abusive marriage, six years ago with four of my ten children. He attends a yeshiva and visits his father, a rabbi in Monsey, New York, every second weekend for Shabbos. I am fiercely protective of him, but when he is not with me, I cannot control what he is taught or what happens to him.

Sleep now a distant memory, I caressed his face and assured him that the virus is not his fault and cannot be undone with blessings. “We need to be careful, and we will be okay.”

But the next day, I was not so sure we would be okay. On my way to work, I see a message that had been making its rounds on WhatsApp groups. In pink letters, adorned with lilac flowers and green leaves, the virtual flyer, titled “Unique Protection,” stated that rabbis encourage women to upgrade their head covering from wigs to kerchiefs (more pious), and in this merit, we will be saved.

I closed my phone and continued walking. I spotted a Yiddish notice on a lamppost stating that the contagion is a punishment for schmoozing during prayers. We must be quiet, and this disease will go away. Quiet, I thought—the one thing I fail miserably at.

For many years, I had prayed daily, fervently. “God, please help me to become a ‘Kosher woman who does the will of her husband,’” I would plead, quoting the words of the Talmud. Please help me to do this. I want to be a good wife to my husband. I prayed and trusted that things would get better in my marriage. But it did not.

I was expected to be a meek, obedient wife. When I would try to voice an opinion, my husband would shut me down and get the children to mock me, until, finally, I broke.

It was seven years ago on Passover eve, before the first Seder when I left. My parents, older children, and the rabbis vehemently opposed me leaving. When my parents found out, they worked with the rabbis to try and take away my younger children. The six I left behind were lost and confused. They were angry at me for abandoning them. They couldn’t fathom the idea that I would leave. I was their mother who had always been there for them. And I left with a heavy heart, the most excruciating decisions I ever made.

I eventually received a Jewish Get from the rabbis and custody and a divorce in family court, but the feelings of betrayal never left me. Betrayal by my own family and my own God.

I felt lost and bereft, and I searched for another way to live.

Before Passover last year, a month into quarantine, my son pled with me to let him go to his father for the Seders. “I want to be there with my nephews,” he said. I assured my son that his nephews won’t be at his father’s Seder, since it is not safe to travel now. But I was not convinced of my own words. I had heard the rumors and seen the flouting of coronavirus restrictions. I knew that his father would risk infection—for himself and his children—to host a proper Seder with our grandchildren from New Jersey, against all guidelines. And I was not wrong – he did indeed invite our  children and grandchildren and

Quarantined in my house, I lead a Seder with three of my children, joyfully singing the traditional songs and searching for the hidden matzoh, the afikomen. The sirens outside wailed, reminding me of the predicament we were in. The deaths in my former community mounted, peaking over Passover.

My friend who runs a nonprofit supporting young orphans in the community told me of the huge increase in requests for services. Families lost grandparents and parents, and communities lost rabbis, leaders, and congregants.

This became very real to me. The virus had infiltrated the community. And while I was hopeful that my children’s father and their community would take it seriously because the sheer numbers of infected and the dead pointed to a danger that required action, I was also skeptical because I knew what I would have done a decade ago. Instead of following the guidelines, I would have encouraged my sons to gather and study and covered for the men’s prayer gatherings. My belief that God would save us was so strong, I may have been compelled to trade my wig for a kerchief.

My skepticism was well-founded. By September, the second wave had reached the Haredi Jewish community in Brooklyn. My son’s yeshiva opened its doors while ostensibly following the rules that had been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. One day I found myself in front of the dark grey building. My son’s teacher had called to ask me to pick him up. He had come down with a strep throat the week before, and he was still not feeling well.

I hesitated before entering the building. Though I am a mother of six boys, I have rarely ventured into the all-boys’ yeshiva building. It was considered immodest and unacceptable for a woman to walk the hallways—and besides, I never had a reason to.

There is another reason I hesitated: I no longer follow the strict dress code of my former community. On that day, I wore my curly bob and black slacks instead of the black mid-thigh skirt and beige tights expected of me. I had never gone near the yeshiva without my hair covered and a skirt over my knees, but I had no time to go home and change. My son wasn’t feeling well, and I was going to pick him up. He needed me.

I peered into the classroom over the teacher’s head and saw the children gathered, with no sign of any social distancing or facial covering.

I suspected that the guidelines were not being followed but seeing this blatant violation of the rules horrified me. What was I supposed to do now with my son? He was required to attend yeshiva, whether it felt safe to me or not. If I chose to keep him home, my ex-husband would use it as leverage and surely come after me for custody. I was torn between doing what was expected of me by my ex-husband and the community my son still belonged to or following my maternal instincts.

I chose the latter, filing complaints with the city and state health departments. I pulled my son from yeshiva, knowing I risked a potential battle with my ex who might take me to family court, a serendipitous reason why he should be granted custody of my son.

Weeks later, a judge in family court ordered my son to return to school, disregarding the flagrant violations.  I comply, worried for my son’s health but also fearful of losing custody.

But for now, for then, I am still in charge. I do what I can protect my younger children, but what about my older ones. Who will protect them?

I don’t hear much from them. Since I left the marriage six years ago, there has been limited communication and it has tragically stripped me of any real relationship with them. They are angry that I left. I ruined their lives, they say. They went from being the children of highly respected parents to the children of divorce, shamed in the community. No one will want to marry them. They are damaged goods.

I don’t blame them; my heart bleeds but I could no longer sacrifice myself and my sanity.

Should I have stayed?

I have seven grandchildren whom I haven’t seen in years. I yearn to see and hold them. My children, too. I ache to be part of their lives and know how they are faring in these challenging times. But I am scared to call.

Will my daughter hang up on me like she did when I last called?

Will my son yell at me? I am too fearful, too vulnerable— so I sit at home and worry.

I worry that my children and grandchildren may not be okay. I am angry at a system that encourages them to ignore public health guidelines and rules meant to protect them. But I also envy them. I envy their faith and the unshakable belief that God will protect them.

But who will protect the rest of us?

Beatrice Weber is an Interspirtual Minister, writer, speaker, and coach. She empowers people who have experienced religious, familial, or community trauma connect with their own inner voice and create empowered and joyful lives. She was born and raised in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community and was married off to a Rabbi when she was 18, never having graduated High School. After 22 years of marriage and 10 children, she left the marriage with her four youngest children, despite severe opposition from her family and the community.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello, A Review

April 8, 2021
gina

When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space is filled with the books I keep. I hope you like this feature, and I hope you like Gina’s book. -Angela

by Angela M Giles

The first time I met Gina Frangello in person, she was on the book tour for A Life in Men. The setting was the Brookline Booksmith, and I was captivated. How could I not be, the book is fantastic. I had known of Gina for some time, she was always popping up on one “writer to watch” list or another, and I followed her online work as well as her Sunday editor work at The Rumpus. But that evening in Coolidge Corner, hearing her talk about her process and actually meeting her (ack!) and then taking a photo with her (ack! ack!) was beyond magical.

I have been waiting for her most recent book for a long time, even before she knew she would write it. Gina is a fiction writer, a very good fiction writer and I have read her books, but I secretly hoped she would write a memoir because I wanted to see what a “Gina Frangello non-fiction book” would be like. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that that secret hope. This week that very book was published.

The title of Gina’s latest book is Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, and every time I see it, I am surprised by the impact of the word “treason.” Likewise, when I see the teeth-baring wolf on the pink cover, I feel a little shiver. This visual of the book makes no secret of the fact that what is tucked between the covers is likely unsettling, uncomfortable, painful even. And it is. But it ends well, as we know. Her pandemic zoom wedding, featured in Psychology Today, was a welcome respite mid-quarantine.

What Gina offers the reader is an unsanitized and unfiltered, look at a woman’s life in middle age. There are parts that are glorious and parts that are devastating. Parts that are messy and parts worth doing over and over again. There are the parts that are painful, that are the result of questionable choices. In this book everything is fair game, and no one receives harsher examination than the author herself.

Gina doesn’t flinch when she tells us of the affair that reawakened her sexually while sounding the death knell for two marriages, the regrets she has as a parent, as a daughter. She can describe physical abuse or fucking with the same intensity and she doesn’t give us much room to flinch either. The writing is lyrical and charged. The book opens with a list of words starting with the letter “a,” then proceeds through each section looping time back on itself, interjecting misunderstood words, switching points of view, and ending with fifty meditations. If nothing else the book is a masterclass on form.

But of course, it is something else. It is a book about female desire and female rage. It is a book about making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. It is a book about resilience and reckoning. It is a book about being in the midst of your life when your marriage, body, and parents fall apart. But most importantly, it is a book about what a life looks like when a woman tells her story.

The final sentences of the book are these:

“This much I know: that eventually, we all have to start screaming well before we hit the ground, so the women below us will understand when to scatter, when to take cover, when it is safe to come back outside and try again to change the world. So that future generations will know, from the echo of our voices, never to stop watching the sky.”

This conclusion to her memoir, this feminist directive, is why Gina’s book will continue to stay with me. In telling one story of a woman’s messy midlife, she paves the way and encourages the voices of others to do the same. She has cleared a path, now it’s our turn.

Gina Frangello is the author of Every Kind of WantingA Life in MenSlut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in PloughsharesThe Boston GlobeChicago TribuneHuffPostFenceFive ChaptersPrairie SchoonerChicago Reader, and many other publications. She lives with her family in the Chicago area.

Angela M Giles has been published at The Coachella ReviewThe Nervous BreakdownMedium: Human Parts, as well as other journals. She has been featured in print at The Healing Muse and is a contributor to Shades of Blue, An Anthology On Depression And Suicide from Seal Press. She is a curator and editor at The Manifest-Station. Angela lives in Massachusetts where she conquers the world, one day at a time.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Deus ex Machina

February 19, 2021
foggy road brenda

By Richard Weems

Steve and Brenda had come separately to the same conclusion: they both wanted out of their marriage, which they had honed over the last three years into a science of spending as little time alone together as possible. Steve had basketball at the Y, Brenda had spin classes. Never an argument when one stayed late at the office. Separate televisions. He kissed her on the temple when he climbed into bed. She squeezed his wrist. Movie nights always with friends. During sex, they focused only on their individual needs. No pets, not even fish. Nothing that couldn’t be easily designated as his or hers. When they planned poorly and were stuck having dinner together, she commented favorably on the bordeaux he’d researched and breathed properly; he hummed approval at every spoonful of her Grand Marnier souffle.

They had both decided to break the news during their annual drive north to her folks in South Greeley, the one place no one expected them to spend time together. She had her sisters and mother to giggle and drink mimosas with, her nephews and nieces to take out for ice cream. Steve discussed baseball with his father-in-law, who was a tiresome optimist about the Rockies, or volunteered for every errand so he could drive around Cheyenne and marvel at the ways it fell short of being a proper city.

But with a three and a half hour drive in front of them, each had to strategize the optimal approach to most effectively end their marriage. Brenda worried she’d back out once faced with Steve’s hushed anger, so she burned her boat, so to speak. As soon as they merged onto route 25, she asked Steve for the ETA. He pointed his chin at the GPS. “I’ll let them know,” she said, but instead she texted her sisters and mother, Big news, and refused to respond to their question marks and interrobangs, to force herself to blurt before they arrived: “Steve, I’ll stay in Greeley while you move out.” Maddy had long suggested, in less than subtle ways, that Brenda could do better (“So, Brenny, when you’re looking for your next man…”). Mom was a tougher read, but when Zabby, the oldest, once confided that she felt entrenched with Ken, her  know-it-all chiropractor who refused to go anywhere he couldn’t be the center of attention, Mom spoke into her glass:

“Not until Sid and Sylvia,” their twin teens, “start college, I hope.”

So Brenda wasn’t worried about her family’s reaction, but still, with every mile marker, she felt her resolve weaken, until she wondered what news she could drum up when Maddy reached through the car window and squeezed her wrist with expectation.

Steve played the audiobook of a spy thriller to pass the time, but they had barely passed Colorado Springs, a third of the way, when he could no longer stand the reader’s tiresome lilt during the so-called action sequences, where another smartmouthed operative with yet another weapon speciality showed up every twenty minutes on the dot. He had planned to start his speech when they’d reached the halfway mark (“Brenda, you know I love you and I’m glad we got married…”), to give them time to work through the emotional guff and have things arranged rationally when he dropped her off in front of her parents’ and headed back on his own. He hated when she cried. He always felt duty-bound to comfort her, and being the cause of her tears could be too much for him. Every minute of silence felt like they were back to dating–another moment of fear about taking the plunge and saying what he thought (five miles ago) he should have started saying by now. She was even on her phone, scrolling and grinning at someone else.

***

The first sign of trouble was the oncoming traffic with their headlights at full blast, their hoods and tops glistening, their wipers clearing bactrian humps on the windshields. The forecast had called for a forty percent chance of storms, but that was typical for July, especially in this humidity.

In the sun, the oncoming cars gleamed with relief.

“Something’s up ahead,” Steve muttered. Brenda looked up from her phone and squinted as though there was something to see beyond the next overpass.

And suddenly, there was.

It was the kind of storm that generated sudden exclamation points on the doppler–wind, hail, and was that a bump of rotation in the cloud?  That turned the sky green, pelted a path across the highway, and had timed its manifestation when there wasn’t another overpass in miles. Steve settled into a new kind of silence, that of survival, his focus their best hope against the wind that was already nudging their top-heavy jeep. A prefatory lightning bolt elicited a close-mouthed gasp from Brenda as she gripped the oh shit handle on the ceiling. Steve reverted to Driver’s Ed days and clasped the wheel at 10 and 2 as they plunged into the fierce weather.

At the smack of wind and fierce ice, Brenda expected to see a Brahma bull out her window. Their Wrangler leaned, but they will disagree to what extent by the time they get to South Greeley: one will say they were a hairsbreadth from permanent disfigurement, the other no worse than a Disney rollercoaster. They will hold hands as squish together in the living room chaise longue and tell her family their conflicting accounts. They will talk over each other, correct each other rudely, kiss and laugh while kissing. They will continue to argue the whole ride home with nary a silent gap and alternate who squeezes whose thigh.

When the cloud released them and the wall of hail ambled to the east, Steve watched it go, unable to unclench his fists, his fight/flight system dialed to eleven. Brenda released the ceiling handle so she could jackhammer her fist into the paltry padding above and scream,

“Again!”

Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue and From Now On, You’re Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, Aquifer, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Tatterhood Review. Richard lives and teaches in New Jersey.

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Divorce, Guest Posts

She Cannot Make It Out

September 22, 2020
water

By Stina French

He isn’t grieving but she imagines him grieving. Maybe he’s grieving. She dreams he is talking to others about her as if she is dead, though they are only divorcing. He says she loved the moon. She loved the moon so much she told our daughter her first word was moon. Though it maybe wasn’t. It made for a good story, and she loved a good story. A lot could be spared with one good story. He says she loved to swim. She loved to swim so much everyone said she was a mermaid. She loved the moon and she loved to swim so much that sometimes she would swim in the ocean at night. He says I was never so brave. He says she cried and cried. Sometimes she cried so much I thought the water she swam in was her tears. She knows he is no poet and would not speak this way.  But maybe in her dreams he is a poet. Maybe he would speak this way if she were dead.

In the dream, she is swimming in a vast sea cave. Other women swim with her. Some girls, some grown.  One watches her jealously or with desire. One doesn’t watch her at all, a small girl. Not her daughter but someone else’s daughter. Someone else’s mother, maybe one day. Surely, she will cry waters of her own making. Some breaststroke in straight lines, some backstroke in circles. This is what they know to do–to cut the water with their bodies. To make the water with their bodies.

She cuts the water with her body as if she could swim a story across and wide.  A story she could live inside. He is on the shore saying I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew how to help her stop crying. And she is shrinking now hearing these things. She would rather hear him talk about her love for the moon again. The way she is cutting the water with her body. He is holding their daughter. Their daughter she made herself with her body.

The daughter is laughing. He has given the daughter this, and she has given the daughter story. Story does not come without cost. Laughter is free and easy, as he is free and easy. She wonders why she wants him so badly to sink. And though he could not keep her afloat, he wants her there on the surface. He would not begrudge her a view of the moon, from any angle. He wants her alive and happy even if it means swimming alone without him under the moon at night. He does not understand the ocean under the moon at night because the things in the water at a certain depth scare him. He is on the shore saying more things about her as if she is dead, but it is so far now and she cannot make it out.

Now, there is only the story of water. It sloshes, dividing and rejoining. When she left him, maybe she was just parting the water. Maybe all these bodies in the water are parts of herself dividing and rejoining. Water fingers her hair, tugging tendrils into rays, a corona wet and waving. A crown for the Queen of the Unconstituted, Beloved Dissolved. Fluid surrender, shapes spells the moon could cipher if it were watching. Her pulse beats blood in ear canals, her red tide internal. She dreams she is not dead, only swimming. Only swimming beyond bereft, beyond the leaving of a life.

Stina French writes mystery, magic-realist memoir, flash fiction, and poetry. She has featured in many venues in Denver and Boulder, Co., and her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Punch Drunk Press, and on the podcast Witchcraftsy. She is scratching at the window of her body, writing poems like passwords to get back in. To get forgived. To get at something like the truth. To get it to go down easy, or at all. She wears welts from the Bible Belt, her mother’s eyes in the red fall. She’s gone, hypergraphic. Writes on mirrors, car windows, shower walls. Buy her a drink or an expo marker. She’s shopping her manuscript, Also Arc, Also Offering, a Southern-queerdo memoir in flash non-fiction and verse.

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Divorce, Guest Posts

From the Rock to the Pines

August 12, 2020
pines

By Destiny Irons

The frigid wind assaulted and fumbled me, rolling my shirt up over my pale stomach and pulling the crotch of my yoga pants down mid-thigh. I looked up at my chalked, bleeding fingertips digging into impossibly minute protrusions, and down at my toes crimping into barely perceptible fissures. My legs shivered and bounced from adrenaline. The sunny granite warmed my cheek as I flattened my torso and face against it. I took a deep breath in, letting it out slowly, repeating my mantra for the past year in my head: You’re okay. You’ve got this. Just keep moving. The bouncing slowed and stopped.

They say that divorce is like death, but from my experience, it’s really like a violent murder, with everyone trying to figure out whodunit. I’ve been playing a very old American murder ballad, “In the Pines,” over and over again, obsessing over its history, metaphor and haunting melody because the theme so strongly parallels my life over the past year.

In the song, depending on which artist covers it (pretty much everyone from Dolly Parton to Nirvana) the victim changes: the husband/father or the woman. In every version, the woman is always guilty and ashamed, even if she was the one murdered. It’s always her fault, somehow. She runs away to hide in the pines. Like the woman in the song, I had been metaphorically hiding for the past year in what can only be described as a dark, freezing pine forest. Being fully exposed on a sunlit, smooth rock, sixty feet in the air was essentially my coming out party.

In the song, the pines are interpreted in “The Haunting Power of ‘In The Pines’”  on Slate.com, as a “cold, dark wilderness” where “a person has left to be by themselves to face what they are and what they have done.” The chorus goes:

In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
I shiver when the cold winds blow

My journey through my divorce began in victimhood. A woman at a cocktail party, in a similar place, shared her story with me. She kept repeating the phrase “I had no choice,” like a chorus, and I kept murmuring back to her, “of course you didn’t,” like a refrain. Just like me, she “killed” her marriage. She felt compelled to confess to everyone who would listen, justifying herself in order to seek absolution in the court of public opinion. What I see now is that we were both ashamed, wanting to paint ourselves as victims, so we didn’t have to take responsibility for our choices. We didn’t want to kill our marriage, we told everyone who would listen. It was self-defense.

When I listen to Loretta Lynn’s “In the Pines,” it’s like an anthem of victimhood—the abused woman who still loves her man. In this song, the husband murders the wife and her spirit, betrayed and yearning, wanders the cold forest. She sings:

My love, my love
What have I done to make you treat me so? 

You’ve caused me to weep,
You’ve caused me to mourn
You caused me to lose my home.

Victims are just like ghosts—stuck between worlds. They can’t move on until they get some sort of closure. If I stayed that way, I would have eternally haunted those cold pines without resolution, never moving on or learning how to live my best life. I quickly got tired of hearing myself whine, at cocktail parties and everywhere else. It dawned on me that all along I had choices, because everyone does. I could’ve chosen to stay, but I chose to leave. It was my choice.

On the rock, I knew I had to keep going. I couldn’t hang suspended forever. I looked at my feet and calculated my next move. My right foot needed to get into a crevice 12-15 inches above my waist…I slipped, scraping my left elbow and leaving a trail of blood as I fought to hold on. Fuck! I screamed, irrationally angry at the rock. I wanted to destroy it before it destroyed me.

All of my anger at myself for playing the victim I turned right back onto my ex. I was angry and defensive. Whenever someone asked me to explain whodunit, (Gosh…What happened?!”) I would brazenly stare them down and say, “I chose to end it.” I made him the victim. A lot of people I loved turned against me, cutting me with their words, or worse, rejection. I took it. It wounded me deeply, but I didn’t show it. I bled internally. I was ashamed of myself for what I did to him. I completely isolated from anyone and everything. I didn’t need anyone.

This echoes The Louvin Brothers’ version of the song, where the husband-murder victim accuses the wife-murderer. In that one, they sing about how the husband gets hit by a train. They find his severed head in the engineer car, “behind the wheel,” but they never find his body. The wife, it’s implied, was the instrument of the husband’s gruesome death. She runs away to the pines in shame. He sings from the grave:

Little girl, little girl
What have I done that’s made you treat me so?

You caused me to weep
You caused me to mourn
You’ve caused me to leave my home

On the rock, as I slipped and started to panic, I remembered my belayer. I wasn’t alone. I had ninety pounds of fierceness below me, my tiny-yet-mighty-attorney-friend hanging onto my life by a very thin rope.

“You got this!” She yelled.

She caught me, taking up the slack and leaning back to brake. I swung over to a ledge and stood on it, looking up to where I had been, seeing the bloody marks left on the surface of the rock.

My friends and family called me out of the pines. They were my tether back to myself. I sought support from groups of people with similar experiences, therapy, yoga. Gradually, I began to arrive at an acceptance phase. The marriage had been long dead before my decision. I didn’t kill it, nor did he. All I did was call the time of death.

Like the woman in Nirvana’s cover of “In the Pines,” re-titled: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” I had been hiding in shame, but needed love and support to get out. This is my favorite version of this song, because the singer, Kurt Cobain, has so much kindness for the woman. He’s asking her where she’s been and what she’s going to do, and answers in her own voice, full of pain. The chorus:

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines,
where the sun don’t ever shine.
I would shiver the whole night through. 

My girl, my girl where will you go?

I’m going where the cold wind blows.
I would shiver the whole night through.

Cobain is having a conversation with the woman, whom he lovingly calls “my girl.” He gently coaxes her to “tell me” the truth about where she’s been and where she’s going. None of the verses focus on the murder, only her shame and getting her to talk about it. If you watch the YouTube unplugged performance, there’s a moment of pure empathy in the song when Cobain sharply inhales and looks up, eyes open, full of hurt. Then he screams out the last mournful note.

I needed the people I loved to empathize with me, listen to me, and help me. I knew next to nothing about climbing. Even after losing those five feet and the skin on my elbow, I wouldn’t give up.

“Beta!” I shouted down to my belayer. This is how climbers ask for advice. A good belayer will never tell the climber where to put their hands or feet unless the she asks. A climber has to learn from her mistakes, or she’ll never get stronger or more experienced. That being said, no climber climbs alone.

“Look at your left knee,” she shouted. “Put your left foot in the hold where your knee is and push. Then you can reach up to that crack with your right hand.”

“Where? I don’t see it!” I yelled.

“It’s because you’re too close. Trust me!” She answered.

I trusted her. It was like magic. Somehow, my left foot found a solution that I couldn’t even see. I pushed and reached out, wedging my fingers into the fissure. From then on, I didn’t need any more beta. This new route was so much clearer than what I had been trying to do on my own.

I quickly made it to the top, thrilled and out of breath. When I got there, I yanked my pants up and my shirt down, then turned around and enjoyed the view. My belayer cheered, her voice going hoarse from whooping. No pines, just wide-open expanses bathed in orange desert sunlight as far as I could see. Smiling widely, I posed for a picture.

Destiny Irons is a digital content editor for a kick-ass, female-owned company whose entire goal is to save people money, called The Krazy Coupon Lady. She is also attending graduate school at Chapman University for an MFA in Creative Writing. Destiny lives in Southern California, where she enjoys hiking, backpacking and climbing with an amazing, strong, funny group of women who are her tribe. She has two teenagers, Jude and Ruby, and a good dog named Blackjack. Destiny chooses to be happy and grateful every single day.

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Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”

“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.

“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”

“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”

“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”

My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.

But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.

“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.

“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.

“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”

“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.

“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”

***

The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without.  Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.

During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.

The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.

When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.

***

So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad?  We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.

I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.

I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.

***

So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.

And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad.  And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

***

One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.

Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”

I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”

“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.

“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.

And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”

And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.

***

Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.

“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.

“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?

“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”

I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.

But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”

He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”

I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.

***

Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.

Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.

 

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Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Grab Life by It’s Horns and Don’t Let Go

September 30, 2019
horns

By Erin Barrett

Life is a road with many twist, turns and forks. It is about how you perceive your obstacles in life that can make or break you.

Grab life by its horns and don’t let go is my philosophy and my way overcome the road blocks and keep moving on.

In any rodeo the cowboy faces the deadliest challenges of his life. He gets up on top of the bull that could injure, paralyze or even kill him. The cowboy still climbs on top of it, knowing that he could die and hangs on to dear life for as long as possible. With determination and perseverance he doesn’t let go, no matter how many times the bull bucks to throw him off.

You are the cowboy or cowgirl, the bull is your life. Although it can be intimidating and scary you have to be strong and take control.

When I was a child I had to transfer to a public school, after four years of feeling safe being with kids like me.  It was scary, I didn’t belong with the “normal” kids in my school. They made sure that I knew that I never belonged there.

In Junior High I was the outcast. The boys called me names like “ugly” and “retarded”. Making unwanted sexual advances at me. It got so bad that I hid  in the copy room until the next bell. Not a single soul came to help me, I was by myself. I tried my hardest to kick him and fight him off.

The sexual harassment continued through out high school. During my senior year I wanted to prove the boys wrong. I prepared a speech, one with meaning and practiced it every day until it was time. On the day of graduation, it was cloudy and it was my turn to speak. When I walked up on the podium, not one but two rainbows appeared above me. I made it in the newspaper and inspired moms giving them hope.

I could have given up but I didn’t. I survived 6 years of depression through poetry and hypnosis. I do believe through the obstacles we face, we get stronger. Through the pain and hurt there is light at the end of the tunnel, you can’t give up.

My freshman year in college, guys would call me and say things like “he wants to fuck me against the wall.” Got so bad that I had to file a complaint. I tried to fit in sororities but  I didn’t belong there, so I had a bunch of guy friends I hanged out with. We would watch vampire movies and  go karting.  One of them had a crush on me and proposed to me Even though I had a blast with them, I still felt like I didn’t belong there. I would take long walks around the campus,  I would even get the nerve to get hit by a car.

I was working on an autobiography about myself and as I was writing, I met a black man. He read my story and invited me to his place. That was the first time I kissed a black man. He asked me how old I wanted to be to get married. He also told me his dream was to defeat George Foreman. One day he was coming back from a boxing match and told me he had something for me. All I could think was “Oh no what if he wants to propose to me” “ what if it’s a ring?” Luckily it was just a t-shirt.

When I turned in my autobiography into the teacher. She wanted to share it with the class. As she read it, the entire class became dead silent.

Although there were awful times at the college, there were also some memorable ones. I met a guy who could take my breath away and move me like no other.  I had my first angelic experience which will always be a mystery.

My life got a little better for a while then I met my husband on an online dating website. Back then it was considered to be dangerous and unsafe. Out of desperation and worried about dying by myself, I married him. It wasn’t love at first site but I grew to love him. With him I’ve been through 2 miscarriages and 2 C-sections. We have 2 beautiful girls now ages 10 and 13.

Of course like most marriages we had financial troubles but it wasn’t until Labor Day weekend in 2017 my world came crashing down around me. The police searched our house, trashing it like a tornado came through the house. Children Services took my kids away and the house was condemned for 2 weeks. We spent 2 weeks at a hotel.

Through this experience it has empowered me. I could wallow in my self-pity or rise up to the challenge and take the bull by its horns. So instead of moping around all day every day after work I would go back to the house and clean. I turned on my motivational music and cleaned the house from top to bottom. When I was done cleaning, I painted the entire house. I wanted to show children services that I can do this and that I am not giving up.

I followed my gut instinct, I got a part time job and set up my own checking account. It is a good thing because on May 18 2018 my husband got arrested. I lost his income to help me with the bills, my part time job saved me from losing the house. Now I am in the beginning stages of divorcing him.

Since I am separated, I am freer and have a strong hold on my life. Better control of my finances and a clearer sense of myself. I did not let myself get bogged down with pity and depression. I used all the emotions running in my veins to empower me to keep moving.

I taught myself how to cook, how to cut the grass. All the tasks I relied on him to do. I kept my head up high and kept moving forward.

I am not angry with God or even with my ex. I looked uncertainty and doubt  in the eyes and said give me your best shot.

In order to move past the pain and hurt you need to visualize your future and find your strength. Get a new perspective in your life and stay positive.

If I let my bull get the better of me I will have never seen the bigger picture. I chose to move forward and take it head on, leaving my fear and doubt behind. I chose to see my life in a positive light.

There is good everywhere sometimes its difficult to find. I’m  a strong believer that things happen for a reason.

Whether you lost a love one or lost a job and life has you down. There is a cowboy inside us, you may need to dig deep within you to find him but he is there.

When things are at your lowest, find one thing that inspires you and motivates you. For me it was my kids that keep me going. Turn that sorrow and pain into your strength and grab your bull by its horns and take charge.

As a person once told me when one door closes another one opens. Be your own champion, find your strength, grab hold and don’t let go. It might be hard and it may hurt at times but you just need to keep moving forward never looking back.

I promise one day when you find your peace and happiness you will look back at all your pain and heart ache and know deep in your heart that you survived and got stronger from the experience.

You will soon realize who you really are. All the pieces to your journey in your life will fit like a gigantic puzzle. You will be able to see the big picture.

It is in our human nature to take the easy way out instead of taking the road less traveled. It takes one moment in our life to impact us for the rest of our lives. Life is too short to not rise above the obstacles and challenges that come across our path.

Don’t let that bull scare you. Don’t let it control you and turn you into someone that you are not. We all face pain, we all hold onto the hurt and scars but it’s those who persevere and rise to the challenge that become champions.

With each heartache you come across and downfall you have, it will make you a stronger person in the long run. You have to rise above the occasion and persevere. There is light at the end of the tunnel. In order to reach it you must keep going and never give up.

That cowboy inside you wants to conquer the bull and live in history for the longest ride. It might be scary and it might think he has the best of you but it doesn’t. Not if you don’t let it get to you. You have to believe you can do it. Nothing is impossible if you have courage to take charge.

Take charge of your life, find strength to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way. Grab life by its horns and don’t let go no matter what.

Erin Barrett is a poet and essayist who believes in the power of language. She lives in Cincinnati Ohio where she is the mother of 12 and 15 year old girls. Erin has a bachelors degree in management and currently work as a medical assistant with cancer patients full time. 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Divorce, Guest Posts

Answering the Call

August 14, 2019
oprah

By Audra Carmine

My current divorce coping strategy– I walk my dog, I cry and I listen to Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Conversations on headphones so that no one will talk to me. My husband and I are on our second separation, and we aren’t even actually divorced yet.  There’s still time for a few more break-ups, a few more punches to the heart, and honestly, there’s a chance I’d totally do it again, get back together, be reckless like that. Say the word, almost ex-husband, and I’d jump back in, heart on my sleeve, divorce papers burning in my wake. If anyone ever told you that divorce is clean cut and the best decision they ever made, well, I am not that person. And the world needs to hear from more than just the people whose divorces served as an instant reincarnation machine, a propeller toward success, a doorway to a life they never dreamed they could have lived. I kinda want to punch that person in the face. Because the truth is, I long for my marriage. I long for it in a way that feels like an addiction. I yearn. I crave. I have withdrawls. I sweat it out. I ache. I fantasize, I idealize. I want to recreate that first blissful hit of togetherness over and over again. My abandonment issues have never been louder, and no matter how many pictures I see of happy divorced women with surfboards and small dogs living in LA, I just don’t buy it. I’m not there yet. Continue Reading…

Divorce, Guest Posts, Self Image

A False Sense of Security

August 1, 2019
self-worth

By  Jamie Carmichael

It’s 6:50pm when I pull in to the condo complex in the minivan. My 12-year old daughter is next to me and her toddler sister is in the back.  The timing is deliberate.  I don’t want to be home too early and I don’t want to be back so late that we have to stress through the nighttime routine. The large white van is parked in front and I sigh. He’s home.  Not surprisingly since he usually gets home between 330 and 5 but still.  Once in a while he’ll work late and I’ll be giddy with the quiet space that will welcome us. I can unload the bags. The girls will shake off their coats and let out some energy. We’ll eat whatever we picked up from McDonald’s or the pizza place or I’ll make something and then put the dishes in the dishwasher, fold the laundry and just be in peace.

But those days are few and far between.

Usually what happens is that we’ll come back from the library or the grocery store and my husband will be upstairs in the bathroom where he spends an inordinate amount of time doing whatever it is that he does.  I’ll be in the kitchen or helping with homework with our older daughter and then at some point he’ll come down instantly ramping up the tension.

Will he acknowledge me or go straight to asking the girls how they are as if I’m not there?  Will I greet him in a measured way so I’m not being superficially upbeat but also not ignoring him? The thing is that I’m not ever entirely sure where we stand that day.

Partial disclosure:  We have been married for 16 years. We haven’t slept in the same bed for 12.

Full disclosure:  I had an affair 6 years ago and filed for divorce.  After confessing both to my husband said he eventually said he wanted to stay together.  I didn’t think it would work out but the fact that he wanted to stay together automatically made me want to too. Continue Reading…

Divorce, Guest Posts, moving on

My Ex-Husband is Getting Remarried

May 2, 2019

By Robin Rapaport

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, my 28 year old daughter told me during dinner that her dad intended to propose to his girlfriend of two years, after the holiday. My daughter asked if I was okay with the news, and I said “Yes, I am fine. I let go a long time ago”. I desperately tried to control the code red alarm sounding off inside me. I feigned joyous enthusiasm by displaying an inauthentic I’m- Happy For- Your- Father smile. My perceptive daughter didn’t further question me. After dinner, I was left with a mess bigger than dirty dishes to clean up.

The news leaned in with force and threw me off balance, sending my head spinning. I even woke up the next morning with my frenemy, Vertigo, who commands thoughts, actions and life to slow down to a near halt, when I can’t downshift on my own. By afternoon, reeling in a vertigo hangover, I tried to organize and clean up the reactive thoughts in my head – mental dirty dishes, piling up and ready for a good soaking and scrubbing. Please. Where can I get a brain washing?

Why did I care, 19 years later? I have little to do with him anymore. Except that he will forever be the father of my children, the grandfather of my grandchildren. That’s about it.  He is only the father of the most important people in my world, who I love with all my heart.

I am a single 62 year old divorcee of 19 years. I have been almost married 3 times since the breakup. Almost being the key word, which loosely translates as I was unable to love, unwilling to share, and unable to commit to men who saw me as their absolute life partner. I am more ready now to raise the almost bar, but that’s a different story. Continue Reading…