Category Archives: Relationships

Happiness Dress

I found my Happiness Dress on June 23, 2015 in a New York City thrift store for $10. It isn’t anything special, although the cut is “fit and flare” which is good for someone like me, whose body has been described as “compact, but with booty.” Something that pulls in at the waist and then flares out in a twirly skirt is particularly flattering on me. The print would be called “white leopard.” Is that an actual factual animal? A quick Google search tells me it is! A snow leopard is a wonderfully sleek and powerful looking creature who seems pretty damn fierce. Like a total bad ass. Maybe that’s why the dress stood out to me. I don’t usually go for animal prints, but I needed some fierceness and bad assery when I found it.

It is slightly nubbly with those little pills that form when you throw something in the washing machine when you were probably supposed to dry clean or hand wash it, but who has time for that shit? I have one of those clothing shaver things that takes most of the pilling off, but I don’t do it too carefully because you would only really notice it if you were standing very close and I seldom let anyone get that close.

I found the dress 90 days after I learned that my marriage was over and that it hadn’t ever really been a marriage, but more of a failed experiment. I’d been a blind participant in that experiment for ten years of my life. I never had all of the information I should have had until it was too late for me to do anything but watch it all fall apart around me. And I fell apart, too. I cried every day for 90 days, usually several times a day. Sometimes I didn’t even know I was crying, tears would just leak out and I’d think, “I should probably drink some water, because I’m going to get dehydrated.” I cried alone, I cried with my friends, I tried not to cry in front of my kids, because they deserved so much better than that. I cried while I finished my freelance job, I cried while I packed up the things I wanted to take with me and cast aside many of the relics of a pretend life that I would not have chosen, had I known better. Through it all, I understood that my soon to be ex-husband hadn’t done any of this with malice or specifically to hurt me. It was just that he had never really considered that I was my own person who deserved to have choices too. And the knowledge and choices should have come long before he realized that he could no longer pretend to be someone he wasn’t. Long before I spent years of my life thinking that I was all wrong, feeling like I deserved the blame that he pushed on me and living in a smog of secret resentment that I couldn’t understand. I hadn’t been happy in the marriage for years and now I knew why. But that knowledge didn’t give me much solace. Nobody wants to find that they are the collateral damage of someone else’s triumphant life story, even if you truly hope they will have a fulfilling life and get to become the person they were always meant to be. I doubt anyone actually enjoys being the selfless and endlessly sacrificing wind beneath someone else’s wings, even if Bette Midler will sing your praises. At least I don’t enjoy it. I need to fly on my own.

After three months of this brand of agony, I had to get away for a while. Luckily, I had a week and a half in June where I could. First to Massachusetts, the state of my birth, where I stayed with family and old friends. I still cried every day, but I started having longer moments in between where I didn’t feel like crying anymore. It was beautiful there and being with the people who knew me when I was young, before this marriage and my children, seemed to help. A night in New Hampshire around a fire pit, laughing with old friends did wonders for my spirit, as did a night of karaoke, scorpion bowls and an Elvis impersonator in a Chinese restaurant. I could feel myself coming back. I did cry behind sunglasses at the train station in Fitchburg, where a fellow named Sippy sat next to me after I gave him two bucks. He said, “Are you this sad over a man? No man is worth your tears.” I said I was sad about everything. He told me I was a strong, beautiful woman and that I was going to be ok. “But learn from Sippy and don’t get into any bad shit. That’ll fuck you up forever. You just gotta keep going and keep it together.” Good advice, Sippy. Thanks.

I went to New York to stay with my friend T and we planned a day of fun. We wandered the city, had a delicious lunch with another dear friend, spent hours at the Met and then popped into a random thrift store, where I found the dress on a sale rack. I put it on and looked in the mirror and even though it was a little nubbly, it didn’t look half bad. And I noticed something else. My eyes were less puffy. I realized I had not cried at all that day. It was the first time in 90 days that I hadn’t shed a tear. I might have even been happy. It had been so long, far longer than the 90 days I’d been crying, and I’d forgotten what happiness felt like. I bought the dress. Later T reminded me that my happiness wasn’t new or fleeting. It had always been in me and I was learning to find it again.

I thought about that day a lot when I had other days where I felt like it was entirely possible that nothing could ever be good again. I’d remember June 23rd and I’d know that I had been happy for a whole day. Moments of happiness were really possible and I could have them again. This reminder pulled me through some very dark times. This too shall pass. Everything does.

I’d almost forgotten about my Happiness Dress. The March days have been warm and I was recently looking in my closet for something to wear to work, when I spotted it. I think I need it right now. The latest slump I’ve been in is taking an embarrassingly long time to lift. I keep moving forward a little and stumbling back. I’m still doing the things I know to do when you’re in a slump: I’m running regularly, trying to eat healthily and get good sleep – although I’m writing this late at night/early in the morning in a bout of insomnia. But I’m making my insomnia productive instead of watching The Office on Netflix. I’m hugging my boys, I’m walking my dog, I’m seeing my friends, I’m working. I’m not into any bad shit. I keep on going and I’m keeping it together. But damn, I’m tired and low and there seems like a lot to dig through to get to my happiness. I think it’s still there, though. I think so. I will wear my Happiness Dress to remind me that I have all I need. It may seem silly that a dress can remind you of things you should probably already know, but that’s what I’m working with these days, so I’ll take it. Besides, I will look like a fierce and bad ass snow leopard and that feels pretty good.

Share Button

Tell a Smart Girl She’s Pretty; Tell a Pretty Girl She’s Smart (part 4 in a series)

August 2004

Pierce had really ripped my heart to shreds (twice, three times?), but everything else seemed to be working for me. Things were more or less back on track in my life: I moved back to Austin from Lubbock, bought a condo, started working at a new job with some great friends. I went into another one of my dating frenzies.

One August night, my friend Gigi and I were hanging out at a dive bar on South Congress called the G&S. It was a boy haven—cheap beer, liquor, video games, foosball and a deck out back for those who could brave the heat. Obviously, Gigi and I usually went there in search of boys. It never failed to disappoint.

We were sitting a rickety table with a pattern that strangely I remembered from the bathroom counters in my house growing up when Christopher approached us. His brown hair was cut in a floppy skater cut; his blue eyes were intense. I had a datable height scale at the time, written on the white board in my cube: 5’8” and below, not datable. Christopher seemed to be in the good range, just about 6 feet tall.

He had a nice smile.

Christopher sat down with his whiskey on the rocks and chatted with us for a while, lighting up a cigarette and explaining that he’d just gotten off work. Work was in walking distance, in fact, just through the alley.

A raised eyebrow from Gigi. “What do you guys do, sell things that fall off trucks?”

He laughed. He had a row of uneven teeth that were somehow charming. “No, we do campaigns. For the good guys.” He looked meaningfully at me.

Not wanting to come on too strong (I hoped), he finished his cigarette, told us he needed to chat with his work buddies, one of whom was watching from the bar with a grin. Waiting to see if Christopher scored or flopped.

Gigi and I wandered into the back room to talk to some other conquests from earlier in the night. We wound up missing Christopher’s departure. I was disappointed. Something about him had hooked me—that disarming smile? His obvious focus on me? He was definitely the stuff politicians are made of. I marched up to his work buddies, grabbed a white cocktail napkin from the bar and a purple felt tip pen from my purse. I scrawled my name and phone number on the napkin.

“This is for Christopher,” I boldly told his friend, a Latino guy wearing a ball cap and a smile. “I don’t just give this to just anyone, so he better use it.”

Christopher called the next day while I was at work. I squealed over the cube wall to my friend Monica, “I think it’s that cute guy from the bar!” before picking up the phone.

Unbeknownst to me, I had given my phone number on a cocktail napkin to his boss, who promptly called a staff meeting the following morning and presented the napkin to Christopher. Over the phone, Christopher laughed and said, “I know I’m supposed to wait three days, but I think those rules are for people with less confidence than you and I.”

I laughed with him. Confidence? I was broken. But he didn’t need to know that yet.

He came to pick me up that Sunday evening. He struck me as unfailingly polite simply because he opened the car door of his Isuzu Trooper for me. As we drove down the street, he mentioned again how he worked for the good guys.

“And those are…” I prompted, a wary eye on him. He has sideburns, I thought. Cute.

“The Democrats,” he said, giving me the same wary eye as we pulled up at a light. “You dig?”

“I dig,” I laughed.

“Whew,” he said, shifting into first as the light changed, “I’m glad we got that right or I would have had to take you back home before the date even started.”

It broke the ice immediately. We went to South Congress Café for dinner, followed by the Elephant Room. It was strange, returning to the scene of my first date with Pierce. And it was nearly as strange that I could open up immediately to Christopher. I found myself spilling everything to him. It struck me again that he had political aspirations and perhaps that was why. But the conversation flowed; we couldn’t stop talking. Much like my date with Pierce. And I wondered where this was going—already. Up till this point, I hadn’t found anyone who could compare to Pierce or put a salve on my wounded heart.

Christopher brought me home, and at the door, he took my hands in his. He looked at me, right into my eyes. “I definitely want to see you again,” he told me, and then he kissed both hands and smiled. I went inside, closed the door and smiled too.

A couple of days later, after several email exchanges, I got this one: “Hey pretty lady, what are you up to for lunch today?”

When I pulled up outside the sub shop, I saw him reading a paper.

“What’s up?” I asked. It occurred to me that I was nervous.

“Just reading about the bad guys,” he said, looping an arm casually around my shoulders. He was so idealistic and passionate; he wanted to change the world, removing one Republican “evildoer” at a time. I thought he was fascinating. I returned to work and stopped by Monica’s cube.

She turned from her monitor. She evaluated me, and then her eyes widened. “You like him!”

I was grinning ear to ear. “Oh my God, Monica. I think I do.”

That afternoon he wrote me another email, with the subject line: “Dealbreaker.” My heart caught in my throat—what did that mean? I was in a meeting with a director, and the email popped into my inbox as he was speaking into the phone for our conference call. I hurriedly read the email and hoped that there would be no questions for me from the other meeting attendee on the phone, because my focus had definitely shifted from work. “You either need to be less hot or less engaging,” Christopher wrote, “because I forget to eat when I’m with you, and I’m going to waste away to nothing.”

I smiled, and exhaled with relief.

The thing I loved about us in the beginning—the thing I would tell my mom—is that we were tender with each other’s hearts. I relayed my Pierce story, and he listened patiently. I told him I was messed up—“Christopher, I’ve got daddy issues, and my heart has been stomped on, and I’m not quite right—are you sure you want me?” I asked with tears in my eyes. He enveloped me in his arms. “Love love love love love,” he whispered.

He had been hurt too. His prior girlfriend had cheated on him, and he had trouble trusting that I wouldn’t be the one to stomp on his heart. It was such a bizarre reversal for me. He seemed so vulnerable and honest. He would stop me in the middle of a conversation and say, “I love you.” We went to a Longhorn football game together—it was my first date to a Longhorn football game ever—and I thought he was the most perfect man in the world.

He worked. A lot. We fought about that in the beginning, because he just didn’t have the time I wanted. It was hard for us to coordinate our schedules, especially because he wasn’t a planner. And if he wasn’t at work, he was hanging out with his friends. Christopher claimed he needed “alone time,” but he was never actually alone. He definitely needed time away from me, and never backed down on that one. If he was having happy hour with work people or watching football with the guys, that was it. No debate. No girlfriends allowed.

While I was toying with the idea of law school, it had been a certainty for him since high school. It seemed like our hopes and dreams and goals were dovetailing nicely, but law school would require a lot of scheduling and time.

“I believe in us,” I told him solemnly one night over drinks at an Irish pub downtown.

“Every time you say something like that, a little piece of me melts,” he breathed.

We were ridiculously in love.

I had already learned, though, that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all. He was right for me in all the ways that Pierce and Billy hadn’t been, but there were huge fault lines in the relationship. Marriage and kids were the glaring ones: simply put, I wanted to get married someday and he didn’t; he wanted to have kids and I didn’t.

“It always seems like we’re talking about the end, and we just started,” I would lament.

He would pull me close and tell me we’d figure it out.

I hoped he was right, but the other big issue, simply, came down to this: Christopher didn’t like me. I know that sounds bizarre on the heels of describing how much we loved each other, but it’s true. It was the reason we had separate lives: in social situations, he was embarrassed about my behavior. He claimed it was worse when I drank, and we drank plenty.

September 2006

It was a sticky, close ACL Festival night. We were under a canopy pop up tent with a group of his political friends to watch Willie Nelson. Dusk had fallen, and drinks had been consumed, making it hard to see and understand what happened. His friend Carissa was looking for someone’s purse in the pile we had made on the floor of the tent. I wanted to keep mine close because I always carried a wad of hard-earned, hard to come by cash for ACL—food and drink provisions made it necessary to do so—and she grabbed mine, holding it up to one of her friends: “Is this it?”

“Oh, hey, that one’s mine,” I volunteered, taking it from her outstretched hand and slinging it across my body. As I said, I thought it probably wasn’t smart I had let it languish in the pile of assorted belongings—purses, bags, flip flops. “Thanks,” I said, and continued to enjoy the concert, oblivious to Christopher’s rage at my apparently appalling attitude.

A week later, Friday night, I was sipping wine at my condo when Christopher blazed in from work, happy hour with his friends—whatever. He had made it clear that what he did or whom he did it with when we weren’t together wasn’t really my business. I had fallen into the sad and terrible habit of drinking wine and watching TV or writing in my journal on Friday nights, listening to music, really whatever could pass the time until Christopher deemed came over to see me. I just waited for him because he had set the rules on our relationship, and I was all too willing to oblige.

He unceremoniously dumped his junk on my dining room table. Another thing he had adopted was practically living in my house after we’d been dating for two years. This arrangement meant that he had stuff both in his home and mine—clothes, computers, work papers, magazines and books—and I cleaned up after him in my house. I even did his laundry. As a result, he didn’t have to clean up after himself in either place, and he had the added benefit of no commitment to living with me. Christopher needed an escape hatch, and that was his bachelor pad with his roommates. When I became too real, he could always leave. When he came back to my place, he had clean clothes and a girlfriend waiting on the couch.

“We’ve got tickets to the Longhorn game tomorrow,” he said, not looking at me, scrolling through something in his phone.

“Who got them for us?”

“Carissa,” he replied. Distracted, again, as he opened his computer, sat down and started working.

I didn’t recognize the name. “Who?” I asked, taking another sip of wine and also distracted, looked through the list of available shows on my TiVo.

“The girl who you got really mad at for touching your bag at ACL,” Christopher replied. His eyes were on his computer screen.

I set my wine glass down, carefully, because I could already feel my adrenaline pulsing. “Excuse me?” I said, levelly.

Still, not looking at me, working on his computer, he replied, “She grabbed your bag accidentally and you snatched it back and she said she was sorry about six times and you didn’t say anything to her.”

I was floored. His version of events was completely, undeniably, categorically wrong. At this point, we were two years in. Two years of his constant criticism of the way I acted around people in social situations, and especially with that group, as they were his political friends/colleagues. According to him, they were the people who were going to really take him somewhere, and if I didn’t behave, his career was going to be cut short before its prime. The way it always seemed to me was that the girls in the group thought their connection with him was more important than mine. Then instead of coming to my defense, Christopher would tell me I was the one acting out.

I had a couple of glasses of wine in me, though, and instead of saying that, I said, “Fuck off Christopher. That is not what happened.”

“I saw the whole thing, Christianne. I didn’t say anything at the time. I was too embarrassed.”

Embarrassed? I was fuming. I stopped talking and took another huge gulp of wine. I turned up the TV. He kept working at my dining room table, like it was okay to waltz in my house at any time of day, the only interaction with me to say that I had been a mean person, and then start working. Why was he even there?

I poured another glass of wine. We continued to ignore each other.

After a while, he went out on the front porch, presumably to smoke and continue working or surf the Internet on his laptop. A few minutes later, the door opened.

“Want to have your wine on the porch with me?” he asked.

I knew it was a peace offering, but I didn’t want to take it. “Do you really want to hang out with a bitch like me?” I snarled.

Christopher sighed. “I know what I saw. This is an unproductive conversation.”

“Unproductive?”

“I’m mad too, but I don’t show it like you do,” he replied. “You told me to fuck off.”

“You told me I was being a bitch! Seriously, Christopher, look at your version of events. If someone apologized to me six times, would I seriously ignore her? Is that the kind of person you think I am? And if you noticed she was talking to me and I ignored her, or maybe I didn’t hear her—we were at a fucking concert, maybe you could elbow me and let me know?”

We got into a screaming match. This had always been our big deal breaker, and both of us knew it. Supposedly, I was working on my demeanor at social events (the words from my diary are “refine myself and stop acting crazy”) and he was working on being too sensitive around this group.

“You have not gotten any better on this issue!” he yelled at me.

“What about you?!” I flung back.

“I told you this was an unproductive talk. I’m going home.” He started packing up his computer and his cigarettes.

The dad trigger inside of me flipped—I knew I was right and he was being unreasonable, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of fighting with this man, whom I loved despite the way he treated me—and I relented, the anger draining away. “Please don’t go.”

“I don’t want to go,” he whispered, his shoulders slumped.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered through tears.

“I’m sorry too.”

“I didn’t mean to be a bitch.”

“I thought it was out of character for you,” he said, hugging me and then holding me at arm’s length, looking in my eyes. I thought but could not say, Doesn’t that prove it was a misunderstanding?

“This group is just really hard to deal with, Christopher—”Why I was going down this road again is a mystery to me. I wasn’t going to convince him that most of the girls in this group treated me harshly, but apparently I had yet to figure out that appealing to him with logic and facts wasn’t going to work.

“You expect them to be bitchy,” he said, releasing me and going into the kitchen to pour himself a drink. “And then you get all quiet, and that’s weird too.”

“The guys like me,” I said quietly. This was clear to me—in a group dynamic, if the men have no complaints with a girl, but the girls don’t like her?—it’s not necessarily her fault. If the girls have a connection, and the new girl is an outsider, they close ranks.

He shrugged. “Whatever, Christianne. This is still something you have to get right.”

I remember how we went to bed later that night after “resolving” the fight. I couldn’t figure out why I felt uneasy. Now I know why. Christopher just didn’t like me, and our position was untenable.

But we had a long way to go before we could admit defeat.

It was about this time that Christopher changed his mind about kids. I was ecstatic. Because of that, I dropped the marriage thing. He said we’d be together and have a commitment ceremony. I convinced myself this would be just as good as actually getting married. And honestly I was so relieved he had dropped the kid thing I probably would have agreed to anything.

***

I had planned to start law school in the fall of 2006. My LSAT score was lower than I wanted, though, and Christopher hadn’t taken his LSAT yet. The thought of starting school and possible moving away was too much for me, so I decided to wait a year until the fall of 2007. Then maybe we’d go together.

He continued to work a lot and we rarely socialized together. He took his work frustrations out on me too, snapping at me more than once on the phone about how he’d had a hard day and was still “keyed up” so he couldn’t come home yet. (Home of course being my condo, where he still didn’t actually live or pay rent, but spent each night.) He expected me to have a wealth of sympathy for him, but failed to give me the same in return. I explained to him that late August and early September were difficult for me because it was the time of year my dad had died, and he shrugged.

“Seems like you’re not dealing with that too well. Maybe you should stop focusing on the negative part of that.”

Or he would dress me down for not handling my emotions well in public, which only resulted in me crying and embarrassing me further.

We were sitting in his favorite restaurant one afternoon, discussing my impending departure. (If I never eat at Plucker’s again, it will be too soon. What vegetarian should deal with chicken wings on a weekly basis?) I had been accepted to five of the six schools to which I applied—Texas was the only one that rejected me, after giving me a glimmer of wait-listed hope—so I knew I was headed away from Austin again. After looking at schools, I had decided on the University of Houston. It made me nervous and scared for so many reasons: that little girl inside of me was still terrified of taking big leaps. She was still scared of being lonely. She was definitely scared of losing this relationship.

August loomed close. I picked at my salad and felt tears prick my eyelids.

Christopher leaned over the table. “I love you.  You’re set in Houston and everything is cool, and I’m not worried about you.”

I was worried about me, though. I was worried about me and him, and I wanted him to go to school close to me.

“You’re pressuring me,” he sighed. “I need the freedom to get in wherever I’m accepted, and you and I will be fine. You need to visualize that.”

It was so bizarre. His words were the right ones, but I felt like he was yelling at me, telling me my emotions were stupid. I needed him to hold me and tell me he was going to be close to me, and he just couldn’t do that. The tears slipped over my lashes. Display of emotion like this in public enraged Christopher.

“Stop crying,” he muttered, looking decidedly uncomfortable and watching the game on the big screen, but not really seeing it. Or me.

I kept crying and had nothing else to say.

At my condo, he asked if I wanted a glass of wine.

“No,” I said in a small voice. “I’ll just cry some more.”

He looked at me. “I’m sorry about getting upset just now but when you cry, it freaks me out. I want to fix it, and I feel like the asshole that caused it.” What he meant was that he didn’t like for other people to see me crying and think it was his fault. His words were usually right, but they masked the real issue of his concern over public perception.

“I’m not mad at you,” I whispered. “I’m mad at the situation. I love you. I don’t want anything to screw us up because I waited a long time to find you.” Tears again.

“I love you. I’m with you. You’re stuck with me for better or worse.” He put his arms around me and I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to picture us sticking together. I just couldn’t cope with any other thought.

Summer 2007

That summer Christopher started studying for the LSAT. As usual, he refused my help or advice about my experience. It was as if my experience cheapened his in some way. That if he acknowledged that I had already been through the process of studying, taking the test and applying to schools, that his journey was unimpressive. I see so clearly now how he was in a constant war with himself, and in the process, had to diminish me.

One afternoon, I walked in with groceries—to my own home—and got snapped at because he was taking a practice test and this interrupted him. I didn’t ask for him to help with the groceries. I didn’t ask for him to study at my condo.

Another afternoon, we were getting out of his Isuzu after lunch, when he looked down at his phone and said, “Oh shit.”

I asked what was wrong.

“Nothing,” he muttered.

We walked up the stairs to my place and I unlocked the door. Unaware I was skating on thin ice, I asked again. “You can’t say ‘oh shit!’ and then say it’s nothing.”

“I missed a call, okay?” We walked into the condo and he grabbed his computer. “You’ve been asking pokingly dumb questions all damn day.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. Where was all this anger coming from? He went back outside, carrying his computer, presumably to surf the Internet, smoke cigarettes and ignore me for the rest of the afternoon.

I watched some TV, feeling restless and angry. Then I decided to go to the gym to work out some of my aggression. It was Father’s Day, and I was headed up north to see my parents—without Christopher, of course. We spent a lot of time with his family, but never mine.

On the porch, Christopher seemed surprised. “You’re going to the gym?”

“Yep.” I felt cold toward him, and I could see that he already felt bad about his outburst. He kept touching me, trying to make it up to me. His eyes looked puppy dog sad. What he had said hung there in the silence between us.

“I thought I had a point earlier,” he began. A typical Christopher apology—“I’m sorry that happened, but I was right.” He continued, “It seemed like you were trying to catch me doing something wrong.”

“You seem awfully defensive,” I said, “I wasn’t trying to catch you doing anything.”

I wonder now if there was a reason he was so defensive.

***

Christopher decided that I needed a conceal and carry handgun permit because I was moving to Houston. I thought this was a bit ridiculous. In his estimation, Houston was a big city, UH was in a bad part of said city, and he wouldn’t be there to protect me, so I needed to protect myself.

We were planning to go to the gun range and stopped at a pizza place for lunch. “Delilah” by the Plain White Tees played in the background.

“This song makes me think of us,” I told Christopher. “It’s about this guy and girl having a long distance relationship.” I explained the lyrics and smiled, “It’s so romantic and sweet.”

Christopher took a bite of pizza. He was unimpressed. “You’re really emotional about this.”

I felt my eyes fill with tears. “Sorry,” I muttered sarcastically and busied myself cutting a piece of crust with a knife, sawing at it savagely.

He sighed. “I just don’t want you to cry again in a restaurant.” His eyes darted around, taking inventory—who was looking at us? How many people were there? Did he know them?

“I’m not crying,” I said softly, still concentrating on the uneaten pizza on my plate. “This is really hard for me and I think I’m handling it pretty well. Apparently you don’t.”

“That’s not what I said. Just don’t cry.”

I guess he couldn’t see how scared I was, and that each time I needed reassurance, he just made me feel like I was an embarrassment.

The gun range Christopher had chosen was indoors. Inside, I trotted behind him dutifully as he went through the motions. I had never so much as held a gun before I met Christopher, and I was scared of them. It didn’t occur to me that an indoor range probably wasn’t the best place for me to begin my experience. I think it should have occurred to him.

He paid the fees and signed us up. He had brought one of his own handguns, and purchased some ammunition for it. From there, we put on earmuffs and went through the door from the front room to the range.

I was immediately terrified. This may sound ridiculous, but I had no idea guns were so loud. There were about 20 lanes, and five or six of them were full. Guns roared, shells clattered to the floor. I could hardly breathe. Christopher didn’t seem to notice. He yelled instructions, explaining what he was doing as he released the safety and started pouring bullets into a paper target. I watched with wide eyes as the gun kicked in his hands. If it kicked when he shot it, how would I be able to handle it?

Christopher calmly turned to me, handing over the gun. “Your turn!” he yelled over the deafening gunfire.

I refused to touch it. I shook my head, eyes filling with tears again. “I can’t do it!” I screamed.

He rolled his eyes. “Come on, you have to shoot!”

I backed up. I was on the verge of a panic attack. I couldn’t wait to get out of that room. “I can’t, Christopher! Please don’t make me!”

His eyes flinty with anger, he reengaged the safety and turned on his heel. I followed, grateful that we were leaving.

The ride home was silent; it would have been eerie enough but the contrast with the gun range was uncanny. I stared out the window of the car, angry that he was quite obviously angry with me. Why was I always in trouble?

The silence continued at home. After a few hours, he called a truce by folding me into his arms for a hug. Despite myself, I was relieved. “Are you mad at me?” I whispered into his shoulder.

“No,” he said. “It’s partially my fault for trying to push something on you that you weren’t comfortable with.”

Partially? I was thinking. But I nodded against his shoulder and squeezed tight.

Fall 2007

I flew out to meet Christopher and his family in Phoenix on a sunny weekend that fall. His uncle was going to be a judge in Maricopa County, and we gathered for the induction ceremony and then a reception at his aunt and uncle’s house. I remember putting on a green A-line dress with a belt at the waist, loving the way it swirled around my legs, beaming with pride when his aunt introduced me to a colleague as her niece.

I drank wine and socialized, excited and interested that I was at an event with so many lawyers when I was just a first semester law student. I talked about briefing cases with one of them, explaining my highlighting system. He had had a similar one in law school. In the kitchen, I caught up with a woman I had been chatting with outside—“If you were on my blog,” I told her, “I think your nickname would be Sweetness!” Christopher found us and I relayed my story, cheeks flushed with wine. I felt like I was in my element. Later that night, after most everyone had left or gone to bed, Christopher and I stayed up with his aunt and a couple of close friends, talking.

In the morning, as we lay in bed in the neighbor’s guest room, Christopher said that he was thinking he would move to Houston in December. He had been accepted at South Texas College of Law, and would start the next fall.

“Really?” I breathed.

“Yes, would it be okay if I moved in with you in December?”

“Of course!” I laughed.

Back in Houston that Sunday night, I drove home from the airport and turned up Blue October “Calling You” high—singing along at the top of my lungs.

“I will keep calling you to see

If you’re sleeping, are you dreaming

If you’re dreaming, are you dreaming of me

I can’t believe you actually picked me”

He was coming to be with me. We were going to be okay.

At the time, I had no idea what had really happened that weekend. Two years later, he confessed that he was so embarrassed by my behavior he decided he would never take me somewhere in public again.

January 2008

Christopher was slumped on the couch when I walked in. “Hey,” I said, “What’s up? You look…upset.”

“We need to talk,” he said. His eyes were downcast.

I dropped my backpack and my gym bag to the floor, sank uncertainly to perch on the coffee table. “Are you okay? Are you dying or something?”

He smiled slightly. “No.”

“Do…” I could hardly get the words out. “Do you want to break up with me?”

He smiled wider, laughed a bit. “No, it’s pretty much the opposite.”

The words didn’t make sense to me. If he didn’t want to break up, and it was the opposite, did that mean marriage? Christopher, who had railed against it and all it stood for? Positive that his buddies’ lives were over afterward?

“Do you want to get married?” I whispered. Strangely, my whispered words seemed very loud in the living room.

“I think so,” he responded. He reached out for my hands and I stood, moving from my perch to sit next to him on the couch. “I was having lunch with Grant and I told him about your ring and how it was on the way. He was like, ‘What are you doing, man? Are you in high school? Marry her!’ and I just realized, you know, he’s right.”

“My ring” was some silly idea we had hatched, that he would give me a ring but we wouldn’t be engaged or married. I would just wear it to symbolize our partnership. Even though I wanted to get engaged, I accepted this lesser deal. I suppose I was still happy about the kid part—both of us would sacrifice a little bit. We went to Kruger’s jewelers in Austin, and I designed what I thought was perfect: a white gold ring, delicate and thin, with three princess cut stones: an iolite in the middle, flanked by two white sapphires. It was gorgeous and unique.

My eyes filled with tears. “Really? You really want to do this?”

He nodded.

“But I don’t think I want to change my name!” I blurted.

He laughed and hugged me. “You don’t have to.”

“Oh my God, we’re getting married,” I said, the tears spilling over my lashes and down my cheeks.

Christopher didn’t want me to tell anyone what we had decided. He wanted to wait until the ring arrived, and then we would have a special dinner and he would actually propose to me. Not being able to say anything was absolutely killing me, but I went along with it because it was what he wanted. And the “proposal” on the couch was truly a bit lackluster.

Days later, he made a reservation at the Spindletop downtown. It makes me laugh now when I see it listed as a top romantic restaurant in Houston. I put on my favorite little black dress, curled my hair. We limped through our entrees. We ordered dessert and picked through some molten chocolate thing while the room spun lazily and we looked at the twinkling lights of the city. Truthfully, it was a little nauseating. I wished he had chosen something different.

Then Christopher stood up and came over to my side of the table. He actually got down on one knee and proposed. It was not a surprise, and I had designed the ring. He even had the right words. I suppose that meant the proposal was romantic. I accepted and posed for the photos. What everyone mistook for a thrilled grin was a slightly panicked look. In reality, I was engaged to a man who didn’t like me very much.

We both had to finish school. In fact, Christopher wanted to wait until he had finished school and the bar exam. Which meant we were shooting for sometime in late 2011, more likely 2012. In our case this four-year engagement seemed ludicrous, suspect, like we were playing our parts. I don’t think either of us really wanted to get married, but we also didn’t want to think too hard about it. What would we do without each other? We had already been dating for nearly five years.

Fall 2008

The fall semester of 2008 was full of challenges. It was Christopher’s first year in law school, and like other things, he didn’t want any of my advice or help. It was almost as if he didn’t want anything to do with me at all. He was busy joining every single club his campus offered, including groups like the Hispanic Law Students. When I asked why, he retorted that it was best to be involved with everything. He made friends quickly, amassing a group in record time, while I still only had a few good friends among my class. As usual, it seemed to be quality for me over quantity, while he regarded me with disdain for the way I conducted my social life.

In fact, he regarded most of my decisions with disdain. One Saturday in September I ventured to a new hairdresser because I was having a hard time finding one in Houston whom I liked as well as the one in Austin. Bored with my hair, I asked for some bangs. She obliged, and I left the salon with a new look. I came home excitedly, sweeping in wearing my Longhorn orange and ready to go watch the game at the official Longhorn bar.

“What did you do to your hair?” Christopher looked alarmed, nearly sick to his stomach.

“I cut bangs,” I answered, crestfallen. “You…don’t like them.”

Christopher had been studying on the couch. This seemed to be his favorite place to study despite my argument that the couch in the living room in front of the TV was not really the best place, considering we had a study. I also come from the school of thought (thanks Mom!) that the living room is a “common area” – therefore, not the place you should nap, or study, if you need quiet time. Those activities have their places.

However, the problem with the study was that Christopher’s desk was piled high with papers and junk, rendering it unusable. It was a tiny room, and I had two desks that I had brought with me from my condo in Austin set up in an L-shape in the corner. I was—am—hyper organized, and my side of the room was a cozy study space with everything neatly in order in addition to some bulletin boards with special pictures and mementos. This configuration led to a couple more ways for Christopher to be angry at me: it wasn’t fair that I had two desks, and he only had one and it wasn’t fair that I wanted to watch TV if he was studying.

And now I had committed the cardinal sin of changing my hair.

“We agreed you wouldn’t cut your hair,” he said, teeth fairly gritted.

I looked at him curiously. “I didn’t cut it – see how it’s still long?” I pulled my locks over one shoulder. “It’s just the front is different.”

“Whatever.”

We went to watch the game that afternoon, and it wasn’t until halftime that Christopher deigned to speak to me without anger in his voice.

More likely he was just drunk and forgot why he was mad.

Hurricane Ike interrupted that first semester quite early, arriving on the Galveston coast late the night of September 13. It seemed like Christopher and I were fighting about nearly everything, and Ike was no exception. I wanted to hightail it to Austin and the comfort of my parents’ house. Christopher quite literally forbade me to go. I know I was frustrated by this, but I don’t think I questioned how strange it was that he needed that type of control. Maybe he didn’t want to be around my parents. Christopher was positive nothing would happen with the hurricane; that we wouldn’t lose power and the storm wouldn’t cause any issues. I looked at him and wished I was already in my Prelude, speeding along I-10.

But I didn’t make a move.

My friend Kendra emailed me and we commiserated because she wanted to leave and her husband also refused. Was it something to do with being men and riding out the storm? She acquiesced to him as well, and invited us to a Hurricane Party at Cyclone Anaya’s.

“If we have to stay here, at least we can drink some margaritas!” she typed.

I asked Christopher if he wanted to go. He refused, and slammed the door on his way outside to tend to his dinner. He had bought a little hibachi grill and was in a phase of delightedly cooking nearly everything on it. Clearly he was angry with me and my suggestion we do something different than his plan.

Christopher decided the best place for us would be his friend Grant’s house. Grant was a fellow attorney from Austin who was married to an attorney named Kayla, and they had two sons. He was also the one who had suggested we actually get engaged earlier that year. I liked Grant and his family but I didn’t want to impose. It was an awkward weekend.

It was my turn to be livid when Ike turned out to be even worse than anticipated, and we lost power for an entire week. Christopher ignored my suggestions that we clean out the refrigerator early, before things spoiled. Just like he ignored my request to leave for Austin or to go to a Hurricane Party with my friends.

I didn’t really feel sorry for him when he almost threw up in the parking lot after cleaning ruined vegetables out of the refrigerator.

The semester dragged on. Friday nights in law school were nearly identical to those back in Austin when we’d both been working. He spent his nights with the guys and I stayed home to study, or drink wine in copious amounts. Sometimes I would go to an event alone. One night I went out for salsa dancing with my friends. Despite Christopher’s protests about my hair, I had gotten a touch up on the bangs, and they turned out horribly short. I spent three weeks pinning them back in what I hoped was an Audrey Hepburn-esque look. I still have a picture taken that night, the bangs pinned back, me desperately trying to dress up my cheap law student wardrobe with some kicky little Mary Janes, grinning uncertainly. What was the point of having a fiancé who didn’t like me very much or go anywhere with me?

One Friday evening I was invited along with his friends. I don’t know what convinced him I deserved to hang out this particular evening. His friend Beau’s girlfriend was in town from Florida, and she had brought along a friend who happened to live in Houston. Her name was Cheyenne and she was a riot. Her purse was practically a suitcase, and she propped the leather bag up on the bar at the Velvet Melvin and started digging through it to pay her tab. Christopher and the rest of the group were outside at a picnic table.

Cheyenne pulled out the biggest can of hairspray I’ve ever seen, along with three or four prescription pill bottles. “You have to be prepared!” she told me.

I was laughing and making fun of her. “You are clearly insane!”

She shrugged and cocked her blonde head to the side, saying “You are probably right”—before grabbing the hairspray and making sure her hair was big and stiff enough.

We returned to the table carrying drinks for the group. I was flushed with laughter and drink and plopped next to Christopher to relay the story. As I told it, he kept telling me to quiet down, and looked nervous. It was as if he didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Somewhat deflated, I turned to my drink and nursed it. The air was hot, humid. I watched the condensation form on my glass, drip to the table.

On our way out an hour later, Christopher grabbed my hand in death grip and jerked me along. “Let’s go.” His voice was low, controlled, barely masking his anger. “That’s enough from you tonight.”

I stopped walking along the deck and yanked back on his hand. “What?”

“You’ve been talking shit about Cheyenne the entire time, as if she can’t hear you. It’s mortifying,” he responded.

I simply stood there for a moment. “Christopher, I wasn’t talking shit. She and I were having a good time together. She likes me. I said all of that right to her face – and she agreed and we laughed.”

He shook his head, dropped my hand and stalked away. The laughter and conversation of the bar patrons on the patio drifted to me. I thought about turning around and going back to the table. Or going into the bar alone, shooting pool with some random strangers in a haze of cigarette smoke.

Instead I ran to catch up.

December 2008

Our final exam schedules were different, which meant that he was finished first, and I had two exams remaining. I finished an exam on an unseasonably cold December evening, and left the school, driving home through improbable snow flurries. At the apartment, Christopher was ecstatic about finishing up and raring to go meet all his friends and colleagues at Front Porch Pub in midtown. I was jealous of him being finished, of course, but I also understood how essential it was to blow off steam after an intense first semester of exams.  I offered to drop him off at the bar because I was worried he or someone else would drive drunk. I wore my fuzzy purple slippers in the car, feeling like an old lady.

“I really wish everyone could meet you tonight,” he said to me as I slowed for the corner where I would drop him off. A swift kiss and he got out of the car. I gave him a small wave.

No, you don’t,” I thought to myself and a moment later I wondered where the thought came from. A huge fat tear slid down my face. I cried all the way home.

Suddenly I admitted to myself that I was deeply unhappy.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I needed to, as I still had two more exams to take. I went to bed and tossed and turned, a million thoughts running through my mind. I was worried and stressed about my remaining exams. I was worried and stressed about me and Christopher. For the first time, I really allowed myself to picture us breaking up. What would it look like, living alone again? More than ever, we were living separate lives even under the same roof.

Somewhere around 2 a.m., I heard a car in the parking lot under our window, and voices. Because I was still awake, I peered through the blinds and saw Christopher getting out of the car, which seemed to be packed full of law students. Instead of driving away, it idled while I assumed he walked through the gate and up the stairs to the door. I climbed back under the covers and waited for him to come in.

He didn’t turn on any lights, nor did he speak to me. He went to the bathroom, and then I heard him grabbing something from the bookcase in the living room. Definitely not study materials—more likely a bottle of liquor to continue the party. And then he was gone, again. I heard squeals of delight as the car took off.

I had driven him to the bar so he could be safe and get a cab ride home. And now he was riding around with law school colleagues—most of whom I’d never met, owing to our separate lives—in the early morning and I assumed they were all drunk. Where were they headed? Obviously the bars were closed.

I felt like a fool.

He came home sometime around 4 or 5 a.m. Once he was there, I managed to catch a few hours of sleep. The next day I returned to studying, spending the day at the public library, slogging through notes. The library was cold, and smelled of linoleum. I gazed through the windows occasionally at the soccer field next door.

Christopher and I traded the occasional text, and since I had been gone all day and he was finished with studying, I was looking forward to spending time together that evening. I had mentioned it to him specifically after tossing and turning the night before while he partied till the wee hours.

I arrived home loaded down with my backpack, books and computer. I dumped my stuff with relief, opened the fridge, and peered in to see if there was anything appealing for dinner. I planned to take the rest of the night off and let my brain decompress. “What do you want to eat? Or should we go out?” I asked Christopher over my shoulder. Truthfully, I was feeling overwhelmed by the thought of actually making dinner.

“Oh, I’m meeting the guys at BW3 for football.”

I swung the refrigerator door closed and looked up at him in the harshness of the fluorescent kitchen lighting, incredulous. “We just talked about you hanging out with me for the night. You were gone all night, and then you had all day to hang out with your buddies.”

He shrugged. “I really need some guy time. Stop putting all this pressure on me. I just finished my first semester in law school. Please?”

January 2009

After Christmas, Christopher headed to Arizona to watch our beloved Longhorns play in the Fiesta Bowl. He wanted to take his father and grandfather to the game. It was some sort of symbol for him, I think, that could bestow gifts like tickets to a football game upon his family. I traveled to Breckenridge with my own family for a ski trip. It was yet another one that Christopher had no desire to join. I didn’t know if spending our time apart like this was normal, but I did know it didn’t feel right to me. I wanted a relationship, and a partner, but most of all I wanted a friend.

He didn’t really feel like my friend.

I woke up each morning of the ski trip and completed the somewhat arduous process of logging into the online system at school to check my grades from exams in the fall semester. As any law student will tell you, it is nerve-wracking to complete an entire semester of school without having any checkpoints as to how well you’re doing; then you complete that semester with one 3-hour long test. My friend Kimberly said, “I turned in that disk to the front desk and thought, ‘How can what’s on there be indicative of the blood, sweat and tears of the entire semester?’” Then it takes days, weeks to grade that test, plot your score upon the dreaded curve, and load those scores into the system. It can really ruin a winter break.

I don’t remember specifically what my grades were that semester, but I remember exchanging text messages with Christopher about them. In the middle of freaking out about his own grades, he would dress me down for my concern about my own. Perhaps this was because he was still in his first year, when grades supposedly mattered the most. He did very well his first semester, faring better than I had my first or second year. But that wasn’t good enough for him. And the way he made himself feel better was to continue competing with me. He kept informing me of the following: my school was ranked higher, so his classes were more difficult to weed out the poor students; he had more outside pressures on his time; he was working too hard at his job even though he wasn’t supposed to at all in his first year.

I returned to school in mid-January and ran into a friend named Randy who was my student mentor my first year. I was weighed down with the usual mess of bags and books, but Randy took one look at me and saw something more.

“That boyfriend of yours treating you all right?” he asked, concern in his brown eyes.

I smiled weakly at Randy. “Of course, things are good,” I told him.

Randy obviously didn’t believe me, but there wasn’t much more to say.

In March, Christopher moved into a house down the street from our apartment complex. We moved into a two-bedroom duplex with the thought we could share the bedroom again as a study, except this time we would have more room and things would be different. There was a covered patio out back and a carport that Christopher magnanimously said I could use and he would park on the street. Though his car was newer, I cared more about mine and perhaps that was why.

My mom came and helped us move, along with a gaggle of Christopher’s law school friends. Mom generously painted nearly the entire house for us. The living room started out with circus yellow walls, the old, cramped kitchen olive green. She painted everything a modern shade of beige that had become so popular but was probably called something like Mushroom Basket. We made countless trips to Target and Home Depot, making sure the lamps in our bedroom were feng shui. Each floor to ceiling window got long, filmy white drapes. The tile topped table fit nicely in the breakfast nook. The tiny bathroom was outfitted with new accessories like stainless steel toothbrush holders and a fresh shower curtain. Maybe it would refresh our relationship too.

I thanked Christopher’s friends with a message on each of their Facebook walls, making sure to write something unique on each one. “You are so awesome for carrying all those boxes up to the second floor – I owe you a couple of rounds at the Gingerman” or “I’m so fortunate to have you as a friend.” Christopher actually pointed out how cool that was. We were so far gone at this point I silently bristled with anger. His comments seemed as if he didn’t think I knew how to treat people and he was bestowing a gift upon me by telling me how he approved of my social graces. Just this once.

It was still March when I was studying for the MPRE, which was an ethics test that was actually part of the bar exam, but the usual practice was to take it early. It also unfortunately fell on a Saturday, so that meant I had to spend my Friday night studying.

I was in the study at my L-shaped desk when I heard Christopher and his friends arrive from happy hour. I could hear them on the back porch, the kitchen door and then the refrigerator door swinging open. I stopped, leaned back in my chair, ignoring the books and papers spread out in front of me. Their voices floated up to me from the kitchen as they grabbed beers and then disappeared as they went back to the porch to drink, smoke cigarettes, maybe a little weed.

It occurred to me, as I sat there twiddling my pencil, that nothing had really changed. I stayed home and waited for permission to hang out with Christopher. If he denied me that permission, or that possibility, I said nothing and went on my merry way. If Christopher needed to study, he did it in the living room, or the kitchen or our bedroom, or wherever he damn well pleased and chastised me for not understanding his needs or thinking the common space should be free for me to watch TV.

I wandered down to the kitchen, wincing as usual at his usual stack of books, papers and mail on the table in the breakfast nook, rendering it unusable. We had taken to eating  at the coffee table in front of the TV. Christopher came banging through the kitchen door.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m just grabbing one more beer before we go to the bar.”

“Mmm,” I responded, looking through the window of the back door. “Y’all just stopped by for a minute?”

“Yeah, wanted to smoke a bowl and grab some beers.” He was impatient, holding the beer and my gaze. “I know you’re studying and don’t want to be bothered.”

I saw a blonde girl on the porch, sitting at the table with the scattering of guys whom I had met, but not the girl. “Who’s she?”

The impatience turned to annoyance. He jerked his head in her direction, gave me a name that was lost on me immediately. “Like I said, figured you didn’t want to be bothered. Good luck with your studying.” He popped the tab on his beer and left, without offering to introduce her, without asking if he could call it a night early so I could get some rest, without giving me a kiss hello or goodbye or saying “I love you.”

I thought about going outside and saying brightly, “Hi! I’m Christianne! I’m Chris’s girlfriend and I live here!” while looking pointedly at the blonde and holding out my hand. Maybe my left hand, with the engagement ring on it.

Instead, I turned and climbed the stairs to the study and resumed studying for my early morning test. And I realized that one thing had changed—or maybe it had always been—that Christopher’s nights out with the guys included girls. And those girls weren’t me. And never would be.

***

Our fights became more frequent as the semester wore on toward May and finals. It was nothing new, but just how broken we were became increasingly obvious to me. Since December and the night I broke down crying in the car while he stayed out all night, we had grown further and further apart. He spent all his time at work, at school or with his friends. Saturday nights we would have wine on the porch. But when I wanted to go out, he was allegedly too tired, or wanted me all to himself. Occasionally we would go out with his law school friends or his colleagues. Never with my friends.

He didn’t clean up after himself, and our house was a wreck unless I cleaned. Because I had long ago started doing his laundry out of a misguided attempt to make him love me, he expected that to continue. So he let it pile up into a towering stack on his side of the bedroom.

“I’m not doing your laundry anymore,” I finally announced one evening. When I think back to the duplex, it feels hot and cramped and sad. I was so tired of trying to keep up with my own schoolwork and work life. Why did he think I had more time to do anything, including clean up and tackle his giant stack of dirty clothes? Perhaps I was supposed to do it on those nights I was alone while he was out with his friends.

“When did this policy change?” he asked with pursed lips.

“I don’t know,” I responded. I put my hands on my hips. “I didn’t think it was a policy. I thought it was something nice I did for you when I had the time. But you took advantage of me.” I suddenly flashed back to the days in my condo in Austin, when he would sit on the porch and surf the Internet as I went up and down the stairs carrying loads of laundry. Sometimes he’d smack my ass, but never did he offer to help. Then he moved to Houston and we repeated the same dance, though things had changed—he was now studying law textbooks and smoking a cigarette—and I, too, had two jobs—school and work—but for some reason I was still walking up and down the stairs while lugging loads of laundry.

I was suddenly really, really angry. I was angry about that and about a lot of things, and our relationship deteriorated even further. I started spending nearly every weekend in Austin to get away from him, while twirling my engagement ring around my finger and telling my brother and his friends while we sipped cocktails at bars that everything was okay, that he was just busier than me so it was easier for me to get away.

Christopher was angry too, because along with the laundry, there were things I didn’t want to do anymore, the most important thing to him being intimacy. We fought about it constantly and he didn’t seem to connect the dots—if the relationship was healthy, if he was nice to me, took me out, helped me around the house, listened to me, encouraged me, was my friend—then I would want to be with him. But as it was, I hated him. And I didn’t want him to touch me.

We barely tolerated each other. I watched the laundry pile grow and refused to do anything about it. We kept having fruitless talks about how to fix our relationship, something that’s difficult to do when one person refuses to acknowledge that it’s broken, and if it is, that they have anything to do with it. He tried to explain how embarrassed he was by me in social situations, and that’s why we didn’t go anywhere together.

There it was, our recurring theme. He said that I was cold and unfriendly at his law school happy hours, which is why he never invited me anymore. “And then, you’ll start talking to some guy and he flirts with you the entire time,” Christopher continued lamenting. He was lying on his back on our king-sized bed, one arm flung dramatically across his face, as if he could hardly bear discussing this; as if he could hardly bear how clueless I was to how much people detested me.

I was standing in front of the bed, arms folded. “So let me get this straight—I’m cold and unfriendly, but then suddenly I’m flirting with someone? I think you know me better than that; you know if someone flirts with me, I’m not flirting back. I’m just talking to the guy. You just said I don’t do enough of that!”

And then he dropped the bomb.

“Well, at some point, it looks as if you invite it. And that reflects poorly on me.”

“I can’t even talk to you anymore.” I turned on my heel and left the room.

***

Early in May, the air conditioner in our duplex broke. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as we were in the middle of exams. We hauled our mattress downstairs to sleep on the living room floor because it was too hot upstairs. Even the living room was hovering around 85 degrees. It was miserable.

One evening, we got into an inevitable fight. I insisted on counseling. He refused.

“It seems we’re at an impasse,” I said sadly, staring at the floor, the walls, anything but his face.

“Yup.” He agreed.

“I’ll make plans to find somewhere else to live,” I told him, feeling numb. Still not looking a t him. “Tomorrow.”

I slept on the mattress that night. He slept on the couch. Despite the heat in the room, I felt cold.

In the morning, I emailed my boss that I wouldn’t be coming to work that day, as I was looking for an apartment. I scrubbed my face free of makeup, because I couldn’t stop crying, and put on a purple sundress. After several stops and a recommendation from Kendra, I found a nice apartment I couldn’t really afford, but I thought that maybe I deserved it. I would figure out the money later.

That night, sitting in the office we shared, we changed our respective statuses on Facebook. I didn’t know how to hide it from my timeline, and I wanted to—I couldn’t imagine the horror of it showing up in everyone’s newsfeed and seeing the condolences and comments come across—but Christopher did. I can still see him sitting there in his desk chair, computer on his lap, making it “official” on a social network. It felt somehow even more final than signing a lease earlier that day had been.

We decided to work on ourselves for the summer, and unable to really call it quits, decided to talk again on August 1. We parted with tears.

***

 

My new one-bedroom apartment at the Cheval reminded me of my days in the condo, before I met Christopher. Everything was purple—my couch and chair in the living room, the duvet and throw pillows on my bed. I hung pictures, arranged my desks into yet another study haven for my final year of law school, spent too much money at places like Target. It felt like such an indulgence after the old pre-war duplex: It smelled of new carpeting and I had a washer/dryer in the kitchen. I put up a bulletin board above my desks and covered it with photos and cards and little scraps of paper with quotes I liked from my friends and family. One of them, from my friend Brent: “You are the coolest chick I know.” Pictures of me with Kendra and Monica and Minnie, grinning into the camera.

“I have a life apart from Christopher!” I wanted the bulletin board to scream.

I worked, went to the gym, bars, took summer school classes and tried to figure out what I was going to do in August. We didn’t speak. It was mildly excruciating and I wasn’t sure what to do in terms of dating. Was I single? Was I still with him? In my mind, of course, it felt like it.

The pictures from that summer are all of a girl desperately trying to escape from her relationship limbo. I alternated weekends fairly regularly between Austin and Houston—it was almost as if I lived in both places. Girls’ nights out in Houston. Dinner at Ibiza, all my friends partnered up; me the lone single girl. Wearing my favorite hand-me-down dress from Kendra: it was this awesome kaleidoscope of colors, shapes and lines, with a strappy neckline and knee length skirt. I wore it with some sky-high orange heels. Drinks at Pearl Bar with those same girls and a weird guy named DJ that no one liked but seemed to always randomly show up. Celebrating the Fourth of July in Austin with my brother and his motley crew. My brother and I sitting at the bar at Bull McCabe’s, which Gigi and I fondly dubbed “Jimmy’s Irish Lair.” I met some guys and did my fair share of flirting, texting and even going on dates.

But the days counting down until August 1 were few, and I had an exam coming up. Christopher’s birthday was on July 19. I thought about him all day. I wondered what he was doing. Did he miss me? Despite everything, I wanted to go forward with him. But I didn’t think the effort would be worth it without counseling, and I didn’t think he would ever agree to it. Distracted, nervous, I emailed him the next day and told him that I wanted to focus on my exam, and perhaps we should push off our talk until a week later.

His email back cut me to the core.

“Let’s just put off any talks for now. I’m not sensing much excitement or desire on your part to make a run at this. And I’m tired of the rejection. Good luck on your finals and beyond…”

I stared at the words on the screen, hardly believing what I was reading. What? I promptly forwarded the email to Monica and my mom, asking for their advice. What did this mean? In the end, I decided to let him know that’s not what I meant, that I missed him, still loved him and that I would meet him to discuss our relationship. Again, he floored me with a response about how he had been working on himself, reading about relationships and he was willing to try therapy.

“I think I have to try again,” I typed to Mom.

“If that’s what you feel is right, then you should,” she replied.

Fall 2009

In early September, we spoke desultorily about our respective summers and our plans moving forward. He was going to New Orleans for a weekend to visit some college friends. I wrangled an invite, even though I could tell he was unsure about it. We didn’t know how to navigate this new place we were in—were we friends? Boyfriend and girlfriend again? Just trying things on for size?

I didn’t wear my ring anymore. It lived in its original box, nestled in blue satin, hidden away in my dressing table. I lived in my cheerful, sunny apartment, and he had a roommate in the old duplex. Some law school colleague of his named Sean. It was strange—I sort of felt like he was living in my house.

Sean and Christopher picked me up for the road trip to New Orleans on a sunny early fall day. I squeezed into the back of Sean’s Jetta with luggage and dog fur, and they opened the sun roof and smoked weed. It made me nervous—what if we got in trouble? Our law careers would be over before they really started.

“If you have an issue, you shouldn’t have come,” Christopher told me. He was wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. But it seemed like they would have been narrowed in disgust.

I was quiet after that.

I can’t remember what we were ostensibly celebrating in NOLA. Maybe someone had passed the bar exam; maybe someone’s birthday? I had borrowed a dress from Kendra for the occasion. It was a black and white halter top with a flowered pattern. It made me feel pretty, though nothing could make up for the strange uncertainty that hung around me and Christopher; the inquisitive glances from his friends who thought we had parted ways for good.

We piled out of the car en route to Benjamin’s house to get a daiquiri just because we could—this was the world of debaucherous New Orleans!—and I giddily read the menu out loud, debating my choices. I asked the portly man behind the counter what was good.

“You’re not from around here,” he said with a Cajun twang.

“From Houston!” I answered, and decided upon something extraordinarily syrupy sweet, made from Everclear and rum. Because, again, New Orleans!

“Don’t ever tell people you’re from out of town,” Christopher schooled me upon once we returned to the Jetta. “They just take advantage of your naivety.”

“I’m naïve? What the fuck? You think the guy behind the counter is going to chase us down and rob us now?”

Our night was not off to an auspicious start. I once again got quiet, stared out the window and sipped on my daiquiri.

We arrived at the house for the party, which belonged to his friend Charles and his wife Janice. They met in college, got married and moved to New Orleans so that Charles could join the family law firm. Basically, Janice’s destiny had been laid out for her the moment Charles asked her to study with him freshman year.

“Christianne!” Janice greeted me with a smile and a hug, but the strangeness of my being there was as palpable as the New Orleans humidity. The house was enormous, and ancient. We were shown to a room upstairs along a narrow hallway. It was drafty and echoed with each footstep. I wondered if the place was haunted.

Drinks flowed. I was hyperaware of Christopher’s judgment of my drinking, and equally so about his friends and their feelings about me, and us. It led to a slow nursing of my drinks and seeking out quiet corners to observe instead of participate in the party. I hardly interacted with Christopher at all. If I had been too close to his side, he would have called me needy and annoying. And it was I who had invited myself along on this trip.

After midnight found a group of us on the back patio, some smoking cigarettes or weed. Janice was with us too, telling some story that involved curse words and probably sex. Janice was loud, smart, attractive and funny. She gesticulated wildly as she talked, and Christopher smoked and laughed. I stared at him. What would have happened had I told that story? He would have been mortified. Yet, here he was laughing along with her.

Shortly thereafter, the group remaining decided to go out. But between the social anxiety and the booze, I had no gas left in the tank. Again, not wanting to seem clingy or desperate, and unsure of how to navigate this new relationship in which we found ourselves, (could I even call it that?) I told Christopher to go ahead with his friends. I went to bed, blinking away tears into the darkness. What the hell were we playing at?

In the morning, Christopher was hungover. Suddenly he was the clingy one. He lay in bed moaning about how awful he felt, asking me to fetch him food and drink to help him feel better.

“Dote on me,” he said, adopting a pathetic pleading look.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I told him. “You were the one who went out for shots at 2 a.m.”

The request for “doting on him” also involved sex, and I turned him down. For about a billion reasons. But what I said was that I could hear everything going on up and down the hallway, and I really didn’t want his buddies in the room next to us to hear.

Obviously, this was not well received.

New Orleans was a bust.

***

One Saturday in October, Christopher and I had plans to watch football at his house. Perhaps a better way to put it was that Christopher was having a party, and he allowed me to come. I had a spread of snacks for my girlfriends the night before for book club, but I had saved my special queso dip for the party. People were making fajitas out of the brisket Christopher had smoked, drizzling queso over them. They were raving about the delicious queso, and Christopher was annoyed. “I spent all night smoking that meat and people are more excited about your Velveeta cheese.”

A little voice spoke up in my head: “This isn’t going to work, and you know it.” This voice spoke up more often than it used to.

One of the guys on the couch with us sharing my excruciating pain was a guy named JT – a wiry, tiny guy with black plastic framed glasses. He had brought himself and his little sister Devin, and they were LSU fans. Devin was only 20; not even of legal drinking age. She made me feel ancient, and Christopher made me feel dumb, beginning the day with his queso jealousy.

I smiled brightly at JT and Devin, “Wait, you didn’t get the memo about watching football here? You can’t come if you don’t root for the Horns!”

JT and Devin just smiled lamely. I couldn’t tell if my joke was just bad or if they were taking me really seriously.

Late in the fourth quarter, as the Longhorns pounded some crappy non-conference team, interest in the game waned because the scores kept piling up on one side of the board. JT and Devin, unaware that they were in my way, stood in front of the TV.

“You make a better door than a window!” I said to them. I again smiled to show I had no harsh intentions.

“I’m sorry – didn’t realize I was in your way,” Devin said to me, and scooted over.

Later that night, after the game was over and the crowd had dwindled, a smaller group of us took to the back porch so people could smoke. The talk turned to whether God cared about football, and I laughed and said that was ridiculous.

“Don’t you think God has better things to do than choose a football team?” I pointed out. “And how would he choose?”

Christopher’s friend Hank shrugged. “Christians are just better people.”

I cocked my head at him. “You think so? You’re a Christian?”

He said he was.

“So, what makes you better than me?”

He shrugged again.

“I really want to know,” I continued. I was honestly intellectually curious about how Hank felt he was a better person than I. “We’re both sitting here drinking booze tonight, but you’re going to church tomorrow morning and I’m not, so that makes you better? In what way?”

Hank had no answers for me. Christopher, predictably, was not happy with this discussion. He made this clear in our next counseling session.

We attended regular sessions at this point; it was a depressing weekly activity that seemed to point out that we weren’t meant for each other, rather than one that was patching our holes. I would pick Christopher up at his office and drive us to the U of H campus, where we sat side by side on a little green couch in Dr. Greg’s office. Afterwards we would have a sad lunch, both of us barely talking and picking at our food.

Dr. Greg was a sober individual who frowned constantly. It was a weird facial tic. And I could never figure out if he thought I was nuts, if Christopher was nuts, or if perhaps he just wondered what exactly we saw in each other.

“How was your week?” Dr. Greg asked on the afternoon after the Queso Incident, sitting across from us in a straight-backed chair with his notebook and a pen in his lap. I was dying to see what his notes said.

“It was great,” Christopher offered. My mom had been in town Sunday and we went to brunch. “It was great to see her,” he said, and even went so far as to say things seemed “normal.”

I had stifle laughter. If by normal, he meant he was mad at me again. He clearly wasn’t going to bring up the God and football incident, so I did.

Christopher rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, that. You were being adversarial and insulting.”

“Oh come on, Christopher, we’re all going to be attorneys soon. I was arguing, and asking for his side of the argument.”

“I’m sure Hank felt attacked. You can’t just assume that everyone is as smart as you are.”

While I nearly fell off the couch because he had just paid me a compliment, and about my intellect at that!—I was still incensed. “So I’m supposed to assume people are idiots and they can’t keep up with me? That’s not a very nice thing to do.”

Christopher was just as angry as I. “I always have to run interference for her,” he complained to Dr. Greg, while I looked up in surprise. He did? “She was being so mean to my friend JT and Devin at the party that JT came up to me at school and apologized to me.”

This time, I really did laugh out loud. “You have got to be kidding me, Christopher. I was joking with them about rooting for LSU and that they were standing in front of the TV while I was trying to watch! You think I have social issues? It sounds like JT is the one with issues. I have other social circles, and groups, and I have plenty of friends, and I have never had a problem.”

Christopher snorted derisively. “You don’t act the same way with your friends, just mine. And the reason your friends like you is that they know you well. Your first impressions aren’t great.”

I was trembling with rage, and angry tears started coursing their way down my cheeks. “It’s infuriating that you think I’m such an asshole. Why are you with me anyway?”

Dr. Greg, frowning, broke in. “Okay, Christopher, what I’m hearing is this – Christianne is her own person. She’s not going to change. This is who she is, and you’re going to have to decide whether to take her or leave her.”

At that moment, I realized Dr. Greg was on my side. I looked at him gratefully through my tears.

That session didn’t even end with a terrible lunch. I simply dropped Christopher at his office and he mumbled something about calling me later.

December 2009

By the time the end of the semester rolled around, I was encouraged that we were going to therapy, and at least we were talking about things we hadn’t before. But we were far from healing our wounds.

For my birthday, I decided to have two celebrations: one in each of Houston and Austin. Friday night would be in Houston at the Hotel Zaza with Christopher and assorted Houston friends; Saturday night at Bull McCabe’s (Jimmy’s Irish Lair) in Austin with my brother and my long-time Austin friends. Even though I had been gone two years, we were still close. All of my close friends in both cities knew what was going on with me and Christopher, but it was the group of Austin girls that knew the real five year history; the ugly, unvarnished truth of my feeble attempts to hold things together.

The Zaza had been chosen for its fun party atmosphere, which was sorely needed after the brutal semester of both law school and relationship navigation. A decent group attended: for the girl with no friends, I had a solid group, including my buddy Kendra. And of course Christopher.

The Monarch is the restaurant and bar inside the Zaza. It feels like it’s made of glass—everything sparkles. The drinks are fancy. The bartenders are attractive and attentive. I wore my hair curly and my favorite bustier from White House Black Market and black pants. I drank vodka and talked with my friends. In many cases it was the first time people had met Christopher, since we never socialized with my friends.

But in fact, he was missing much of the night, either smoking or smoking and talking politics with someone he considered either important enough to impress or stupid enough to convince they were wrong.

My friends were effusive in their praise, so happy to meet this guy who I had been hiding all this time.

It was strange. I wanted to scream at them, “But don’t you see, he’s kind of a jerk?” and then I would wonder where the thought came from. Why wouldn’t I want people to love him?

Saturday morning I drove up to Austin without Christopher. I met up with my girlfriends and we did a second birthday celebration. I found myself lamenting to them how the Houston group had loved him. Was this weird? I asked.

“Whatever,” KK said, rolling her eyes. “He performs well in front of the crowd. They don’t know the real Christopher.”

We poured another shot.

Sunday night Christopher came over and we went out to dinner. It had been a long, lazy weekend full of booze, food, and happiness: exams were over and I could relax for a couple of weeks until my final semester of law school. I was feeling optimistic about me and Christopher despite all the problems, despite my strange feeling on Friday night that he wasn’t worthy of my friends’ adulation, and in turn, mine. Perhaps in May we could figure out our next step, but I was perfectly happy at that point to stick with the tenuous hold we had on our relationship.

Christopher was not.

I poured a glass of wine from the bottle of white in my fridge, walked over to the purple couch and sat down with a leg folded underneath me. “Do you want any?” I asked.

“No, I want to talk about next semester,” Christopher said. He was sitting up in a nervous way, sort of jiggling his foot, which was crossed over his knee.

“What about it?” I slurped some wine.

“I’m not happy with where we are,” he said, his blue eyes looking into mine with a mixture of sadness and coldness. “I don’t like living apart. I don’t like that you’re not wearing your ring. I want us to move back in together, you know, get a cat. And be more intimate than we are now.”

I considered the stemless wine glass in my palm, thinking that I was going to need more. “That’s a lot to lay on me right now. I really like having my own space.” I looked around the living room, my eyes resting on the corkboard with my “life is fun even without him” reminders. “I’m not ready for all of that again. We’ve only been back together for a couple of months, and we still have work to do with the therapist.”

He shook his head, crossed his arms and stared at his lap. I focused miserably on the backward Longhorn cap on his head, thinking, “We’re back here again?” and picturing all the cleaning and laundry I was doing when we lived together; the strangers on my back patio; the lonely nights by myself. Why would I want to move back in with him and perform sexual favors?

“I love you,” I said softly, after another fortifying sip of wine, “But maybe we want different things right now. I’m just not ready yet.”

A tear slipped over his lower lashline. He furiously wiped at it, then stood up, shrugging into his fleece. “Okay, I gotta go. I can’t stay here tonight. I need to think.”

After a beat, I got up, put my arms around him and tried to hug him, but he wasn’t accepting it. “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

He nodded into the top of my head, and left.

I sank back to the couch with my wine, wondering if those had been the right words to say.

***

Though I didn’t have school over the holiday break, I still had work. Monday morning, that’s where I was when I got the email. He addressed me as “Christianne” which was something he hardly ever did. I knew instantly it wasn’t good.

He told me that he didn’t want to go to our regularly scheduled counseling session the next day; in fact, he didn’t want to go to counseling at all anymore because our talk the night before had clued him into where we stood. He said he was sad that I was drawing the line. He wasn’t giving up on us forever, the email went on, but he just needed a break for now.

The words blurred on the screen in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. This guy was breaking up with me via email? After five and a half years? It just didn’t seem right to me. I wasn’t ready to move back in, pick up where we had left off, and resume my role in his life, so he had decided it was over. It was all about Christopher. Always had been, always would be.

We didn’t speak for that week. It was a strange sort of limbo, but in many ways, I had grown used to it. Christopher and I had been rather star-crossed nearly from the beginning. Maybe both of us had been in love with the idea of the other one, the idea of us as a couple. I went back to Austin for Christmas, spent the weekend talking things over with my mom, trying to figure out where to go from there.

He sent me another email a week later, again on a cold December morning at work. He reiterated what he had already told me—he and I weren’t working out, loved each other, but it wasn’t the best thing right now. Again, he mentioned that he didn’t need counseling.

I went into my friend Michael’s office. “He sent another email. Can he really break up with me again?”

Michael looked shocked, and more than a little mad. “I thought he broke up with you last week via email. Another one?”

“Yeah, I think he was really trying to drive the point home,” I said thoughtfully, then promptly burst into tears.

January – April 2010

New Year’s 2010 was difficult. The breakup was fresh, and while it seemed like a good time to start over, I just didn’t know how. At the last minute, I took off for Austin: I could hang out with my brother and his friends, and try to pretend the last five years had never happened. Speeding down the highway, I played a mix CD at top volume, torturing myself with breakup songs, sobbing in my car. I kept wondering if he was thinking about me too.

I tried to move on. It was my last semester in law school, so I had plenty of things to keep me busy between school, work and preparing for the bar exam. Graduation, in a way, seemed like only the first step.

Even though I was busy, I spent many afternoons and evenings fighting tears in the school library. It was almost inexplicable—we hadn’t exactly been doing well for a year, maybe even more—so why was this so hard for me?

After a girls’ night out at one of those silly clubs with velvet ropes, expensive drinks and poor lighting, I stumbled out of a cab into the stairwell of my building. It was April, graduation just a month away. The night air was close and the stairwell smelled vaguely of smoke. I’d had far too many drinks to make good decisions, and a girls’ night spent with two friends in long –term relationships meant that I had been thinking about him too much. I texted him as I made my way up the stairs.

“I miss you” I typed, thinking somewhere in the very back of my mind that his was a stupid thing to do.

His reply was almost immediate. “I miss you too.”

“WRU?” I asked.

I reached my apartment, put the keys in the lock and sank to the tiled kitchen floor, phone in hand. He was just leaving his law school spring event—what we all used to refer to as law school prom.

He was at my apartment within a half hour, and we poured drinks, and hugged, and kissed and talked. We took our drinks to my balcony. He smoked. We drank. We talked about everything we had both missed over the past four months. We admitted to missing each other, trying to be strong, me admitting with a sad smile that I had clearly broken first.

“Yeah, but I’m here,” he whispered.

I woke up with him next to me in the morning and felt a strange mix of failure and relief. I had failed when I sent that text message. Yet it was so comfortable to have him by my side, curled around me. He still loved me. I was still so broken that I needed that assurance, or I didn’t feel whole. I was nothing if someone didn’t love me. Even if that someone didn’t really like me.

My mother was so disappointed.

“I was so proud of you,” she lamented via email. “On our spring break ski trip, you didn’t cry about him once.”

Her disapproval slayed me, but I felt helpless to stop this thing I had put in motion once again.

Christopher seemed to feel much the same way I did. He was almost angry with me for distracting him from school, and I felt the familiar resentment rear its head. As if I didn’t have school, commitments, responsibility? He wanted to get over me, he said, and then I had sent that text. I flashed back to that night, where I had admitted my fault. But he had responded to that text message; he had shown up of his own free will.

Yet in Christopher’s way, he had managed to make this mess mine and mine only.

On a Thursday afternoon about two weeks after my drunken text, he sent me an email. It was ostensibly a list of our relationship issues, so we could figure out what to do next and where to go from here. It was actually a list of my faults, and he laid the blame for our failure thus far squarely at my feet.

Each bullet point was like a swift punch to the gut. Number one: his friends didn’t like me because I had treated him so poorly throughout these past two years. I sputtered with indignation. His friends? I wasn’t nice to him? It takes two to tango, I wanted to pound out over the keyboard in response. As if he had treated me like a princess? What did he think my friends thought of his email breakups with me?

Number two: I was too jealous of the time he spent with other people, especially women. It was just his nature, he explained, and part of his career path. He didn’t seem to get that I wouldn’t be jealous if he respected me and our relationship; or if he actually invited me to these events. How was I supposed to feel confident in his feelings for me, if he didn’t want to take me anywhere with him because he was ashamed of me?

The third bullet point was a judgment about my drinking thinly veiled with concern for me. According to Christopher, I was outrunning some unspeakable, deep seated horror. Never mind that I was the one who had been in therapy for years, who had suggested couples therapy. Never mind that he drank just as much as I did, smoked pot and dabbled with harder drugs like cocaine. Obviously, I was the one with the issue.

The list went on. I didn’t attend to his sexual needs properly.

He worried I would never “give [him] a child.” It was the last bullet point, and as I sat at my desk in my sunny apartment reading those words, my jaw dropped. Somewhere along the way, Christopher had changed his mind again, and now he was vilifying me for it. He explained that he thought being a parent was one of the most wonderful experiences a person could have in our “human lives,” and he didn’t want to miss out on it. Most jarring perhaps was his suggestion that we look into surrogacy or adoption. I was stunned. After five and a half years together, he wrongly assumed that I didn’t want children solely because of the possible physical effect on my body. Had he ever listened to a single word I had said?

I paced the apartment. I talked to my mom for an hour on the phone. I emailed all my friends, forwarding them the list and asking for their opinions.

I had been with this person for nearly six years. I had slept with him, next to him, I had cried with him, comforted him, fought with him, laid bare my soul for him, talked with him into the wee hours of the night. I had stayed home waiting for him, I had apologized to people I didn’t think I had offended for him. I had tried to contort myself into some misshapen version of me, so that he would love me. And yet, after these six years of love, recriminations and tears—this is what he thought of me. This is what he thought of the person to whom he had proposed, the person with whom he had planned at one time to spend his entire life—this is what it boiled down to.

I was an anti-social drunken prude who was too vain to bear his precious offspring.

I wrote back to him and simply told him that this list was too much for me, that I loved him, but that it was time to go our separate ways.

I didn’t look back.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share Button

Love, Part 1

I met my first husband in line for the bathroom at a St. Patrick’s Day themed frat party twenty five years ago this month. With such an auspicious beginning, who would have guessed that it wouldn’t last? I nearly didn’t meet him at all, as I was about to leave the party because some drunk frat boy had just smacked me on the butt. I realized my cup was empty when I went to throw my green beer on him. I ended up shaking my cup at him and yelling, “Not nice!” while he laughed and shrugged like, “Whoops, my bad!” It was time to go. I didn’t want to ride the subway with a bladder full of green beer, so I got in the long bathroom line and the guy in front of me turned around, smiled and said hi. I was going to smile vacantly and look through him, but I noticed that he looked kind of like Lloyd Dobler from the movie Say Anything, which is a stupid reason to fall for someone, but I was 20 and it was a good time to fall. I opened my mouth and something super sexy came out, “I really have to pee, so don’t stink up the bathroom or use up all the toilet paper.” I was such a sweet talking devil. How could he resist? He laughed and was waiting for me when I came out, so we sat on a couch and started talking. I found out that he was not one of the frat boys, but was home on spring break from his college, which was four hours away. Frankly, this made him even more attractive to me, as I tended to be far more enthusiastic about romances that seemed like they would be excitingly short-lived. It soon became clear to the fratties that Lloyd (not his real name, but let’s just go with it) was not one of them, and they not-so subtly asked him to leave. He and I, along with my sweet roommate, who had been waiting while I chatted up Mr. Say Anything, got into a cab headed back to our dorm. My roommate went to bed and Lloyd asked me if I wanted to get coffee. I always say yes to coffee. It was a magical night, lightly snowing and cold with a big bright moon giving off a glow that gave the trees and sidewalks a sparkly luminescence. I am not made of stone. How was I not going to fall in love with him? We walked to Harvard Square together and sat at the counter of The Tasty and had coffee and talked more. Elton John’s Rocket Man came on the radio and he said his dad used to call him the Rocket Man and made him a t-shirt with the nickname emblazoned on it that he wore all the time when he was a little boy. After our coffee we went into the Store 24 and bought gummy worms and other candy that you can eat at 2 AM when you are 20, yet still avoid heartburn and belly fat. I saw a card that had a picture of a chubby guy sitting at a diner counter and inside it said, “missing you” and I told him he should buy it and send it to me and he bought it. Then we walked back to my dorm and sat in the lounge watching MTV and eating gummy worms and milk duds, and we talked on and on all night. When it was light out, we wrote our phone numbers on the back of a jello box (I seriously had eaten jello for dinner that night. How was I even alive with that kind of diet?) and then I walked him out. At the door he leaned in and kissed me and I remember it being this monumental thing, where I thought, “Whoa….something big is happening.” Maybe it was lack of sleep and too much sugar, but that was the first kiss I’d ever had where I saw fireworks.

We spent nearly every day and night of the next week together and then he had to go back to school. I was sad that he was leaving, but it didn’t seem sensible to try a long distance relationship. The morning he left, we said that maybe we’d get together next time he was in town and kissed goodbye. I was a little relieved that it was over, because the week with him had been way more intense than anything I’d ever experienced romance-wise and I felt like I needed to catch my breath. I was watching tv with my friends that night, when the phone rang and it was Lloyd, drinking at a bar near his school. He said, “I was wrong, I think we should give a long distance thing a try. I don’t want to wait and see.” I was surprised, but thrilled. I threw caution to the wind and said yes.

Everything about love was so new to me. I’d had a couple of boyfriends before, but it had never been like this. It all seemed like magic. He wrote me letters from school and would draw me funny cartoons and write silly poems. He took a train and a bus, traveling a ridiculous amount of hours just to come see me every couple of weeks. We were crazy about each other and never seemed to run out of things to talk about. We came up with silly ideas and stories and laughed like maniacs. We made each other mix-tapes. Plus, we were both young and adorable and having the type of sex that people with endless energy from a diet of 80% sugar, who are limber and need very little sleep have. Lots and varied. Ah youth. I found a way to stay in Boston for the summer while he was home from school (four part-time jobs) and we spent all of our non-work time together. We loved taking long ambling walks through Boston. Sometimes we’d ride the subway to a stop we’d never been to, then get out and walk around for hours. The first time he asked me to marry him, we were on a late night walk, just four months after we met. Our summer together was ending in a matter of weeks and we were both starting to get anxious. “We should get married!” he said and I just laughed. But he stopped and spun me around so he was looking in my eyes and said, “I’m totally serious. Let’s get married.” “But we can’t! We’re too young!” I said. I adored him more than I’d ever adored anyone in my life, but I had no interest in being a wife. I still had two more years of college. He said we could do it and still finish school. Maybe we could just secretly get married, and we wouldn’t even have to tell anyone? That idea actually appealed to me. I like secrets and I am prone to doing ridiculous things on a whim. We didn’t do it, though. Before he left to go back to school he bought me a gold ring with a little heart-shaped amethyst stone in the center. “Will you wear it on your left hand?” he asked. “I want everyone to know you are mine.” He was always saying crazy shit like that and I just ate it up.

We should have done it. We should have made that spectacular mistake early. Gotten it out of the way and been divorced before we could do any major damage to each other. Instead we had a long distance relationship while we were in college, then moved to Texas together so that he could go to graduate school. He asked me to marry him again when we’d been together six years. This time it wasn’t romantic. We’d been growing apart and fighting more and more. And then he had a health scare, something minor that seemed major, and when we got back from the doctor he said, “Maybe we should get married?” And I said, “Sure, why not?” And we tried to plan a wedding, but neither of us was really interested, so we flew to Vegas and got hitched in the Chapel of Love. Maybe it was an attempt to get back to the days when we were younger and frivolous and did wild things together. Eloping in Vegas is some wildly crazy fun. Sadly, I’d say it was the last time we ever had crazy fun together. Things quickly went to shit after that. The jealousy and possessiveness I’d mistaken for passionate love in him was starting to smother me. He seemed to disapprove of everyone in my life: friends, family, anyone that took my focus off of him. I somehow thought that marriage would make this better, that he would feel more secure and loosen up a bit, but it seemed to make it worse. Two months after we married, we had a huge fight where he was angry at me for talking on the phone with my sister when he wanted me to watch tv with him. He yelled at me and punched a wall, and I grabbed our car keys and took off. I drove around aimlessly thinking, “I’ve made a huge mistake and I am going to need to get out of this marriage.” But I stuck it out for two more years. I always loved him and I kept hoping that the stress of both of us being in graduate school was our biggest problem. We still seemed really compatible, as long as I didn’t spend too much time away from him. And working full-time while going to grad school didn’t give me much opportunity for a social life, so things just went along for a while. He was at the point in his academic career where he was teaching his own classes, while working on his dissertation. He seemed restless and unhappy. He began telling me salacious stories about a colleague who was having an affair with a student and I was fascinated and repelled. Somewhere in the back of my mind it began to dawn on me that he knew way too many details about this affair. One day I came home from class and he smelled like a fruity shampoo that we didn’t have. He left to go play basketball that evening and without thinking, I logged into his email. I’m not sure what drove me to do it. I’d never done anything like that before, but it was easy because his password was my name. I found a chain of his emails with a college friend of his, whom he was supposed to be meeting in New Orleans that weekend. It was all about keeping a secret from me. It said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell her I’m with you if she calls.” And it ended with “Fuck your brains out this weekend!” So then I knew.

I’m not saying I was perfect. I know I can be petty and mean. Conveniently, I can only remember two instances of my egregiously bad behavior towards him. One was in college when we’d had a fight and I hung up on him, then got all dressed up and went to a party. I met a guy and ended up making out with him in a bathroom stall, standing on a toilet. I thought it was hot at the time and now I can’t believe I didn’t get flesh eating bacteria. The other thing is shitty, but not nearly as gross. Once he was sitting on our bed, shirtless and I went over and poked him in the belly and made that “hee-hee” sound like he was the Pillsbury Dough Boy. This seems way meaner to me now that my stomach will never be flat again, due to having three babies. These days, I’d cut somebody who poked me and made the Doughboy sound. Then I would cry. But at the time I laughed maniacally at him while he stared at me in horror.

Also, that amethyst heart ring he bought me? I lost it. He had another one made for me a few years later and I lost that one too. I was appallingly careless back then. But it may have been symbolic. That ring and that relationship sometimes made me feel smothered and I would take it off for a while to breathe and be myself again. I think I knew it wouldn’t last, but I still hoped it would. Maybe he felt the same way.

When I found out he was cheating, I was devastated and furious. I kicked him out of our apartment and proceeded to cut all of the crotches out of his pants and underwear, then folded them up in a box for him to take with him. Surprise, asshole! I threw out all of the love letters he’d written me in college, including the “missing you” card from the night we met. I gave him back my wedding ring and told him it didn’t mean anything to me and I never wanted to see it again. I held on to being angry, because when I wasn’t angry I felt more lost and desolate than I ever had in my life. I divorced him, even though I still loved him, because I thought that he’d end up ruining me if I let him stay. I don’t think it was the wrong decision, but it was one of the hardest things I ever did.

I wish I hadn’t thrown out all of our love letters. I wish I hadn’t let my second husband convince me to throw out the three wedding pictures that I had from my time with Lloyd. I wish I hadn’t lost the heart rings. I have no physical evidence left of that relationship and sometimes it feels like it never really happened. I’m writing it down now, while I still have the memory to do so. It’s already flawed and missing pieces, but I can still remember that feeling of first real love, long before things got so sad and ugly between us. It was a pure and beautiful thing.

He and I aren’t in touch today. I once ran into him at the gym a few years after we split and we had a nice conversation. I haven’t seen him since then, 12 or 13 years ago. I’m not really interested in knowing him now and I don’t want him to know me. But I am glad that he was my first real love and also that he was my first real heartbreak. The love we shared opened me up to so many good things. When you’re in love, I think you learn to be generous, kind and vulnerable in ways that you never have before. Maybe that’s why we keep doing it, taking the leap even though it can turn on you. It makes all good things even better. But the heartbreak from that relationship taught me that I was strong, brave and resilient and that I was capable of picking myself up and moving forward on my own. It has been immensely helpful to know that in my life. I am grateful for all of it.

 

Share Button

The furry little love thief

My cat Buttercup, like so many pets, had many names. Most often we’d call her Cuppie, but Cuppilicious, Licious-Face, Smoocher and Ms. Cup, among others, were in the rotation.

Cuppie was already 12 years old when she came to live with me. My mother had two cats—Cuppie and her sister Anastasia—and they didn’t get along. They also drove her nuts with their eating habits. If my mother left food out, Cuppie would eat so much she might explode. If she only fed them once or twice a day, Anastasia would meow, scratch the door and generally annoy my mother until she fed her. Poor Cuppie ballooned to 22 pounds and lived under the guest bed. My theory: she was ashamed.

I think back now to how my mom tried to give her away on Craigslist and it breaks my heart a little. Mom was frustrated—“No one wants an old, fat cat.” I said, “I’ll take her.” I had just finished law school and the bar exam, I lived alone, and I hadn’t had a pet for nearly 10 years. Mom cried when she put the cat carrier in my car for the trip from Austin to Houston.

Cuppie hid from me for the first few days, but around day three, she turned over on her belly and flirted with me. My mother was ecstatic.

Thus began my love affair with an old, fat cat named Buttercup. I didn’t expect her to be around too much longer—after all, she was already 12, and had had weight problems. I didn’t expect to get attached.

She was affectionate, climbing in my lap during my dinners in front of the TV. Insistent that I pet her while eating. One night she was so insistent, in fact, she managed to turn over the TV tray, along with everything on it. Then she looked at me with eyes wide, frightened, as if to ask, “Why would you do that?”

I met my husband Sterling a few months later. Cuppie did not like men, and Sterling was no exception. But he met her level of doggedness for affection—I would often walk in my bedroom and find Sterling halfway in the closet, trying to coax her out of her hiding spot.

When Sterling and I moved in together, Cuppie came too. Along with Sterling, Cuppie got another roommate—a huge yellow Labrador retriever named Silver. Cuppie was nonplussed. Silver was thrilled. He thought she was a toy we’d brought home just for him. A few episodes of Cuppie smacking him on the nose conveyed to Silver that she was boss, she most certainly did not want to play, and she did not like having her rear end sniffed. Silver grudgingly accepted that he should give her a wide berth if he walked by.

Cuppie lived upstairs for a few months. Sterling didn’t give up on her. Sometimes we’d go up and visit her, and she would acquiesce to his affections. She came downstairs after we strategically moved her food to the ledge next to the master bathroom’s tub. That way she could eat, be away from the dog, and happily clean herself after breakfast.

Most recently, she regularly slept next to us in the bed. Nearly every night around 9 p.m., she would saunter in, hop up and climb on me, no matter what I was doing. Typing on the computer, trying to read a book, or snuggle up next to Sterling, Cuppie would insert herself and start purring. Sometimes she would just sit and stare at me.

“She loves you,” Sterling would chuckle.

Cuppie even snuggled Sterling. Those two came a long way.

She and I were together for four years. She was an old cat, but she had such a good checkup in July I believed I had more time with her. But the day before Thanksgiving, she fell and hurt herself, resulting in some neurological condition that meant her head and her legs weren’t communicating right. Her back legs wouldn’t cooperate, and Cuppie lurched around like a drunk.

The vet explained our limited options. We decided to try and shot of cortisone to see if it would help, and if not, we knew the next day we’d have to put her down. So we brought her home, put her in a little bed, and took her all over the house with us that night. We watched a movie, had drinks on the patio, took pictures with Silver, and fed her cat treats.

That night I had to put her in the bed with us, because she couldn’t jump up on her own. I curled my body around hers like a question mark.

The next morning, I put her next to her feeder for her last meal. I told her she was a furry little love thief.

I never expected to love her so much. I never expected her absence to be so palpable.I never expected my heart to be broken.

Cuppie collage

 

 

 

 

Share Button

High School Love, aka a Learning Experience. Also, a Trainwreck. (part 1 in a series)

A friend recently said to me: “I can’t talk to you about my problems with my boyfriend. Your relationship is so perfect.” I looked at her and laughed. “Oh honey, if you only knew what I’d been through.” I relayed this story to my mother later via email. She echoed my response, having been there every step of the way. What follows here is a memoir of those relationships, a boy-chapter at a time.

I was a junior in high school when I met Alex. The phrase “high school sweetheart” perhaps could have applied when we first met: Alex was a grade behind me, and so earnest, so dogged, in his attempts to become my boyfriend it was almost painful to watch. Ironically, my mother encouraged me to give him a chance, something I’m sure she regretted later as our relationship took a twisted turn and spiraled quickly downward. I don’t think I realized at the time how bad it truly was—wasn’t everyone’s relationship like this?

Junior year. Other than meeting Alex, the thing that stands out when I look back now is that I had finally made the cheerleading squad. Junior varsity, not varsity, but still, it was something I’d been working hard to achieve. In summary, my high school curriculum vitae went something like this: Not popular. Latch key kid with a single mom and an absentee alcoholic father. I certainly didn’t consider myself pretty and to my knowledge at the time no one else did except my mother. (I can see now how Alex dug his hooks in and got them in deep.) But cheerleading! It was a little glimpse, my own little slice—of popularity, of pretty, of rich.

I took newspaper class that year as well, which is where I met Alex. He was a gangly 15 year old, acne on his face and some funky crooked teeth. His best feature was probably his big blue-green eyes. It was the 90s, and he would show up for class in the baggy jeans and steel toe boots we all favored at the time, topped off with a cheap tee or a flannel shirt if it was cold. Alex took the class as a blow-off, and it showed. There were about six of us who actually did work—obviously, I was into the writing—and six others who didn’t do anything. Alex was one of those.

Alex spent most of his class time flirting with me, relentless in his pursuit. He would tell me later how hot I looked in those cheerleading skirts. No one had ever said those kinds of things to me before. Me, pretty? Me, with a nice ass and good legs? I still refused to go out with him. It wasn’t as if I had boys knocking down my door, but he just seemed like friend-zone material to me.

The thing that finally changed my mind, oddly enough, was the chicken pox. When I came down with it, I was out of school for weeks. Alex called me every day from newspaper class, telling me how much they (he) missed me, giving me the gossip from the day, telling me stories about our poor tortured teacher, who kept trying to make him do some work for a change. He begged to come see me, but I was too vain to let him. He was the one boy who actually thought I was pretty—I couldn’t chance ruining that. Even if he was firmly in the friend zone, honestly, I liked the attention.

When the worst of the spots had faded, I acquiesced. However, I didn’t let him come see me. I was dying to get out of the house, and I was a newly licensed driver. My mother let me take her Acura to see him.

I can’t recall now if I’d been to his house before. I can picture it perfectly now—a modest one story with three bedrooms, a two-car garage that had been converted into what I suppose we now call a “media room”—at the time, remember, the 90s—it was the movie room, or the den. I’m sure that Alex greeted me at the door before his parents or his brother could interfere.

This was a big deal for him.

We crossed the shabby living room to his bedroom, which was painted a garish blue and had the requisite boy posters tacked to the walls with actual push pins. Sports, girls, bands. I don’t recall what we did exactly, probably sat uncomfortably on his bed and talked about school and my recent illness and recovery. I do know that at some point he leaned in to kiss me, and I didn’t push him away or pull back like I had so many times before. You might say I had given in. Or given up.

*

Our high school relationship was just that—high school. It was homecoming dances and prom dates. It was football games and gathering in the school parking lot afterward to talk about where to go next. It was trying my first beer. It was sneaking more and more beers after that. It was my first time to have sex, thinking to myself, “That’s it? That’s what all the fuss was about?” It was growing apart from my best friend Lily, because she was into drugs and I was into my boyfriend and those things didn’t go together anymore. It was lunch off campus for seniors. It was driving our parents’ cars, it was working our first jobs, it was house parties until the cops came and broke them up.

I’m not sure when it all took a turn for the worse. I think it built slowly, Alex’s resentments and insecurities piling up, as the inevitability of what was going to happen to us became apparent. He kept trying to slow things down, to stop that inexorable march of time, to keep us—maybe me?—in this box where he had some measure of control.

I was only six months older than Alex, but I was a grade ahead because of an early start in kindergarten. I made excellent grades, and I knew I was on my way to the University of Texas by October of my senior year. I had made the varsity cheerleading squad. My mother’s boyfriend, a man who would eventually become my stepfather, had moved in with us, which meant I had a father figure for the first time in nearly 10 years. I was still a frightened, insecure teenager who didn’t know much about relationships or how men should treat me, but I was doing okay considering.

In contrast, Alex was struggling in school, nearly failing his junior year, certainly not even thinking about college. His family life left much to be desired. His parents yelled instead of spoke, his father usually in bed by 8 p.m. so he could do his job as a postal worker early in the morning. This meant we all had to tiptoe around the house lest we disturb him and get a good tongue-lashing. Alex’s mother was not much better—she was a substitute teacher and I think sometimes cared more about her kids at school than her own. I’ll never forget the day I won an award for some scholastic achievement—that woman cut the article out of the school newspaper and taped it to Alex’s bedroom door. She might as well have told him, “Your girlfriend is better than you.”

He probably wanted to murder me right then.

It was a powder keg, ready to explode. Alex and I both got jobs at the local grocery store. When I was promoted from bagger to cashier, Alex couldn’t handle it. He was so jealous and insecure that he wanted me to step back down to bagger. According to him, it was because he liked it when I was near him, bagging groceries at his register. I cringe when I think back to discussing the situation with Rodney, our boss. Rodney was a small, worried man, with narrowed eyes and a fluff of quickly disappearing blond hair combed over his head. He studied me as I stumbled through an explanation of why I wanted to move down positions.

He could see right through me. “Is this because of Alex, or is it something you want to do?” he asked.

“It’s not Alex, it’s me. I want to.” I blushed, stared at the floor.

“Sorry, Christianne, you’re a good cashier and I need you on the floor. Alex is just going to have to deal with his issues.”

He was right, but I had no idea how to handle my boyfriend.

His jealousy didn’t stop at the grocery store. It invaded every part of our life as he worked frantically to manage me. He hated it when I cheered at games as it took time away from his time with me. I loved cheerleading, and he was systematically destroying my enjoyment of it. He didn’t like it when I went to work, even though it was time for my shift. One afternoon, we were fighting, and he wanted to finish it. I was exasperated.

“Alex, I have to go. My shift at work starts in half an hour. I’m leaving.”

I stormed through the living room of his house, with Alex in hot pursuit, spitting words at me. It seemed that lately whenever we argued, it involved him telling me that I was a bitch, that no one would ever love me like he did, that I was essentially insufferable. The illogic of him loving me despite my extreme bitchiness didn’t occur to me.

The screen door banged behind me as I strode down the sidewalk, fishing my keys from my pocket. A neighbor across the street tended to his flower beds. Suddenly Alex had gripped me from behind, around the waist, physically dragging me back toward the house.

“We’re not finished talking!” he screamed at me in the relative safety of the front entry way.

Disturbing, again, how at the time, the fact that this was very real abuse hadn’t occurred to me. Disturbing that the neighbor across the street hadn’t noticed, that Alex’s parents hadn’t noticed. My mother knew things were bad, but perhaps not how bad. He was able to hide most of it from her. And she felt powerless to help. Try telling a 17-year-old girl what to do.

As school got worse for Alex, he started skipping. One spring morning, I went to pick him up and he refused to go to school. I sighed, idling in the car blocks from his house.

“Fine, Alex. What do you want to do? I’m going to school.”

“Take me to your house.”

Desperate to get rid of him, and because my parents weren’t home, I took him.

My morning at school was odd. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong. Had my mother come home and found him in our living room? Was I in huge trouble? Had Alex done something awful? Because it was my senior year, I had a half day and was able to come home at lunch. I found Alex in our wood-paneled living room, sitting on the couch with a look on his face I had come to know well—he was, to put it quite plainly—pissed off.

It turns out my boyfriend had spent his morning playing hooky from school and reading my diary. Of course he knew where I kept my diary, because Alex couldn’t stand that I would keep anything from him. My recollection now is hazy, but I’m sure he wheedled his way into that knowledge, much like he did everything else. And because Alex couldn’t stand that I keep anything from him, including my very thoughts, he had read the diary.

The diary was a big blue spiral-bound notebook, with three manila divider folders. He sat with the notebook open on his lap. With that look upon his face. I could see my perfect penmanship within the college-ruled lines, black ink stark on the paper. Now I understood my feeling—that very odd feeling that something was very wrong.

“What’s wrong now?” I asked wearily, dropping my backpack to the carpeted floor with a muted thud.

At this point, I must confess that I had a very high school crush on one of Alex’s friends. His name was Bo, and I saw a kindness and an understanding in his brown eyes that was missing from most of the high school students I knew. I sensed he could see the misery Alex was putting me through, that he thought I was worthy of more. He was with me and Alex one night when I was driving and got into a car accident. Thankfully we were all okay, but the car was nearly totaled, and I was in tears. As my parents dropped Bo off at his house, my mother watched him put his hand on my leg, briefly squeezing it in a gesture of solidarity or hope or friendship or…something, and I think in that moment I fell a little bit in love with him.

I had increasingly become aware I was in a cage and I had no idea how to get free.

This high school crush was more or less detailed in my diary. It was, after all, my diary, and I was, after all, a teenager. It was my safe place. The place where I could be honest. The place where I could think, because Alex was always in my head, banging around and screwing me up. Alex, had, of course, read every word. Alex had destroyed my only safe place.

I no longer recall the details of our fight. I imagine it went much like the others, with tears streaming down my face, while telling him I didn’t really like Bo, not like that, him telling me that I had broken his heart with, you know, feelings. Feelings that were completely justified for a teenaged girl who was in an awful relationship with a manipulative asshole. All I know was in the end, he forced me to burn the diary. I watched my words burn into ash in the fireplace, and I’m sure I wondered where it would all end.

*

Alex didn’t want me to live in the dorms. As spring turned to summer and graduation was behind us, we fought almost constantly about it. My life had become a tedious routine—fight with Alex, try to placate him, try to simply get away from him, and then wait for the calm before the storm of the next big blow up. There were plenty of times when he refused to get out of my car, or to stop calling me over and over again. Once I took my phone off the hook—I had my own line, as this was way before cell phones—and he called my parents’ line instead in the middle of the night. I was so angry, hurt and confused. The sweet boy who desperately wanted a date with the pretty junior girl in his newspaper class had utterly disappeared. In his place was a jealous, manipulative and desperately unhappy person who thought the entire world owed him something because he’d been dealt a shitty hand. And for some reason, instead of being let off the hook because I was his girlfriend, I was even more responsible because I didn’t cater to his every need, or do exactly as he told me. Like daring to go live in the dorms. I wasn’t even leaving town to go to school. I would be just a 30 minute drive away, but he was terrified of letting me go.

He knew I would most likely not come back.

Somehow I found the strength to move into the dorms, despite his vehement protests. I want to cry for that girl. I want to reach out and hug her, hold her tight, whisper in her ear that everything really is going to be all right. I was a wreck—instead of looking forward to leaving home and starting a new adventure as an adult, the next chapter of my life—I was terrified. I was already lonely. My parents helped me move in, a flurry of activity, and then they were gone, and my tears started. I had no idea how to move forward with my life.

One night my mother came to the dorm to eat with me. I hadn’t made any friends. I knew a couple of girls from high school, but they were rooming together in the other wing of the dorm and didn’t really have time or space for me to intrude in their twosome. I was so messed up from the lies and the manipulation of my high school sweetheart that I had no idea how to move forward with my life. I had no idea I had value as a woman or a person.

We limped along until my sophomore year. There were several break-ups, several we’re-back-togethers—when I could see the disappointment in everyone’s eyes—people like my mother or my brother Dean or my high school friends. I know I wasn’t blameless, but I struggle to figure out what my mistakes were besides being, quite frankly, an emotional mess. That alcoholic absentee father had affected me more than I thought, despite my mother’s excellent parenting. She gave me all the love she had and more. She sacrificed everything to make a cozy, loving, comfortable home for me. But I was completely broken. I craved love from a man, and I believed somewhere deep down in my gut that I didn’t deserve it. When Alex told me things like, “No one will love you like I do” and that he was the only person who thought I was beautiful, I believed him. He fed me those lies for three years. I was damaged—and I honestly didn’t know—and he just kept chipping away.

My mistake was being too weak to walk away and not look back.

I suppose it finally ended because Alex put a stop to it. That was the only way it could happen. Again, it was so long ago now that I can’t recall the details, but I do know he moved on to someone else. By that time, I had more or less moved on too. We were hanging on by a thread, doing that thing couples do when they know they should be done with each other, but try to be friends, or date each other while dating new people, or whatever bullshit story helps them put one foot in front of the other and get through the day. There’s something comfortable about being in a relationship with someone you know as well or better than your own self. The flip side of that is being terrified to put it all out there and meet a stranger.

I was visiting my friend Lily in Dallas. She had moved there with her boyfriend Jeremy after high school. Lily and Jeremy had a roommate, Travis. By Saturday night I was lying in his bed, making out with him, and he fingered the ring I wore on a chain around my neck.

“What’s this?” he asked quietly.

It was a promise ring from Alex, an awful yellow gold thing with diamond chips. I wore it for a while, then wore it on a chain because we were in that no-man’s land of dating, friendship, whatever. “Nothing,” I answered uncomfortably, and tried to distract him with a kiss.

Travis wasn’t having it, though. He pushed away and looked me in the eye—“Do you have a boyfriend in Austin?”

I rolled over onto my back and sighed. “Not exactly. He’s my ex from high school. We still talk, sometimes. You know how it is.”

Travis smiled. Honestly, Travis wasn’t much better than Alex in many departments—he didn’t have a car, he smoked too much—both cigarettes and pot—and he wasn’t in school. Much like Alex, he seemed to be drifting aimlessly through life. But Travis had a wonderful smile, and he smiled at me like I hung the moon, and right then? That was what I needed. “No, how is it?”

I laughed. “It’s a mess. I’m sorry. I should take it off,” I said, and reached for the necklace.

Travis put his arms around me, pulled me close. “You should. Because I want you to be my girl.”

Share Button

Playing with Adulthood: My Awkward College Experience (part 2 in a series)

A friend recently said to me: “I can’t talk to you about my problems with my boyfriend. Your relationship is so perfect.” I looked at her and laughed. “Oh honey, if you only knew what I’d been through.” I relayed this story to my mother later via email. She echoed my response, having been there every step of the way. What follows here is a memoir of those relationships, a boy-chapter at a time.

My college experience, as I’ve already more or less described, was weird. It wasn’t the time of my life, filled with frat parties, beer and freedom. It was a struggle for me. I studied very hard, and was obsessed with my grades. I made very few friends. In fact, I don’t have a single friend from college that I still keep in touch with, even with the advent of social media.

I can think of three boys I went on casual dates with, one a real relationship, I think—who also went to school with me. Otherwise, I dated people who didn’t go to college at my school or at all. It’s probably why I was so disconnected from the college experience. My senior year, my friend Mindy and I walked through west campus—I call her my friend at the time, but as I mentioned, we made no lasting connection—talking about our creative advertising class. I was having a difficult time coming up with my concepts each class session, frowning over my ideas late into the night at my desk in my bedroom.

“You need to come up to school and hang out with us,” Mindy told me. She was a tall, elegant girl with classic good looks—dark hair, perfect skin, almond-shaped eyes. She was always perfectly put together, always seemed to have a styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand. I half-wondered if she ever drank it, as her red lipstick was perfect and her teeth even and pearly white. “The reason you’re having trouble is that you don’t come to school and brainstorm with the rest of the class. You’re totally isolated with…Billy.” She said his name—always—with derision. Mindy didn’t think I should be tied down to one guy, I was in college, after all!—and Mindy was extremely concerned with looks, money and popularity. Billy had money, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him.

One of my mistakes, as I’ve mentioned, was not being strong enough. My other mistake, my big regret, is that I dated people who were friends with my brother. It was sort of a natural fit, because that was my crowd. I had one foot in each of two worlds, really—college being one, and I wasn’t really doing that one right—and his world being the other. My brother Dean didn’t go to college. He tried it, and it wasn’t for him. He had a job and an apartment and a corner store where he could buy beer without getting carded if he walked in wearing a suit from work. So his world seemed to me terribly adult, and it was fun to hang out there. He, of course, had friends who also didn’t go the college route, and they had jobs and money and seemed to already be doing this thing I was trying to figure out. And—bonus!—they thought I was cute.

That’s how Billy and I sort of…fell into a relationship. He and Dean worked together. I didn’t think much of Billy at first. A brutally honest and mean point here: Billy was ugly. It makes me cringe to say it, but it’s quite simply true. Billy was well over 6 feet tall and skinny as a rail. It didn’t help that he had a strange birth defect I’d never heard of before, nor since—his rib cage was backwards, so his chest was concave. He had deep set hazel eyes, a long skinny nose, and thin lips. But Billy was one of the nicest guys I had ever met. He was smart as a whip, and he could make me laugh.

He made up a road trip game (made up? I don’t know—like the birth defect, I had never heard of it before, and haven’t played it with anyone else since) called The Cow Game. The simple rules were as follows: each person counted the cows on their side of the car, if you passed a graveyard, you lost all your cows and had to start over, and the person with the most cows when you arrived at your destination won. Of course much of the game was estimating; it’s pretty tough to count cattle as you’re speeding past them at 70 miles an hour. Billy and I had returned home from a road trip to Dallas, and I got in a fight with Dean. I was feeling down, so I called Billy to talk.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked, lying on my daybed in the apartment I shared with a high school friend named Krissy.

“Oh, not much. Been driving circles around the Sirloin Stockade to try and win the cow game since you beat me.”

I laughed out loud.

And so it went. I fell in love with his kindness and his wit, and as I mentioned above, his seeming adulthood. It was my sophomore year in college, and I liked dating a guy a few years older than me who got paid handsomely for his work in computers. I’m not sure what he saw in me. The only thing he seemed to actually care about was computers. He was absolutely lost in that world, and it was that world that ultimately drove us apart. He was a child, not an adult, in that way. Sometimes he stayed up all night playing computer games. He would rather spend his Friday nights in front of a glowing screen, in an alternate universe, than hang out with me.

It was during my relationship with Billy that one of the most formative events of my life happened. In typical fashion, I had no idea it had such an impact on me. I brushed it off, moved on, didn’t think too hard about it—and it wasn’t until years later that I realized it was a big deal. I walked into my therapist’s office for my first appointment. I knew I had to talk to someone because I was unhappy in my latest relationship and I suppose I finally had this inkling that I was indeed broken, because I just couldn’t make these things work. I sat down in the plush purple armchair and looked at the therapist Kat and I announced, “My dad died when I was 19 but he was never around anyway, so I don’t think it’s a really big deal. My problem right now is my boyfriend.” Kat smiled kindly at me and said, “Let’s back up just a bit and talk about your dad, okay?”

Billy and I lived in the same apartment complex at the time. It was a botched situation, since he had asked me to move in with him and I had agreed. But then I panicked a little bit—I was only 19, was he really The One? Was I ready for such an Adult Move?—and I backed out. Billy was terribly disappointed and I had hurt his feelings. I think it was a little bit like turning down a marriage proposal, but one of our issues was that Billy just didn’t talk to me. My decision not to move in with him had, in his mind, meant I had made this huge statement about the State of Our Relationship, but he didn’t tell me. He just quietly withdrew.

Because I had agreed to live with him and then retracted my statement, he took his own apartment and so did I. I was again bridging the gap, a part of me in both worlds. It was a Saturday morning, I had spent the night with Billy, and the phone was ringing. Billy had a stupid Mickey Mouse alarm clock that was in its usual place: facedown on the floor.

After trying to wake Billy several times to pick up his phone (1997, landlines, no cell phones), he tossed himself off the bed and barely made it through the doorway to the living room. I laid back down, closed my eyes. Something was off, like the light was all wrong outside, and Billy didn’t get that many calls.

He entered the room, holding the cordless phone.  “It’s for you.”

I frowned.  “Your mom,” he said, and left abruptly, no doubt to have a cigarette.

I held the phone carefully, looking at it.  There were icy fingers of fear closing around my heart.  My mother could only be calling about something important, most likely bad.

“Hello?” I said cautiously.

“Did I wake you, sweetie?  I’m sorry,” she said hurriedly.

“Yeah, but it’s okay.  We should be up anyway,” I fumbled for words.  It was still a bit awkward for my mother to call me at my boyfriend’s apartment, but it didn’t seem to bother her.

“Honey, I got a call,” she began, and the icy fingers of fear grabbed hold with the strength of claws.  Never is “I got a call,” a good sign. I sat up in bed, letting the sheets fall from me with a sudden clear head. No more cobwebs of sleep.

“It appears that your father is in the hospital in Maryland.  I don’t know how serious it is or how they found us, but I thought you should know right away.  Your brother is making calls now.”

I was silent, unable to speak.  I had known in the back of my mind for so long that it would happen just this way. Automatically I started counting back…how many years since I had seen him? And at least a year since we had had an actual telephone conversation, if you could call our stilted one-way talks something like that.

“….So you should probably call Dean, as soon as you can…” she continued.

“Yeah, okay,” I managed, feeling hot wet tears welling behind my eyes.  “Thanks, Mom.”

I pressed the off button on the phone and sit looking at it for a moment. I wondered what Billy was thinking, probably sitting on the couch, as was customary in the morning, watching soft tendrils of smoke curl from his Camel. He was just as I had pictured him, patiently waiting. He knew, just as I had, that the call wasn’t good news. My mother could have waited for that.

I sank to the couch next to him. He took a long pull on the cigarette and looked at me, waiting. Always waiting.

I set the phone down, finally, carefully, as if it is a bomb that may explode at any moment.  “My dad….my dad is in the hospital, and I don’t know what’s wrong.  He’s…probably dying.”  I broke into bitter, heart-wrenching sobs then, as the full weight of what I was saying hit me, and Billy immediately stubbed out the cigarette and took me into his arms.  He didn’t say anything but “I’m sorry,” very softly, and stroked my hair and let me cry.

I talked with Dean later that morning. Our father was lying in a coma thousands of miles away, in the final stage of cirrhosis of the liver. He was jaundiced, unresponsive, and ready to die. Dean and I made immediate plans to fly out there, if for nothing else than to say goodbye.

An image kept coming to my mind, of an old, broken man—broken by life, by relationships—lying in a sterile white room, alone. No one at his bedside but an efficient nurse who is checking his machines, and tubes, and fluids, making sure he was comfortable and perhaps wondering briefly who was this man? Does he have children? A wife? Where are they? Surely, no one should have to die alone.

That’s what made me cry. I was sure that he had been alone for a long time now, not just in the hospital, but every day, until he no longer had the strength or the will to do it anymore.

“I love you,” Billy kept saying, because there is nothing else.  “I love you so much.  I’m sorry you’re sad, baby.”

How could I explain what really made me sad? I was a girl who missed some vague shadow in her life.  It was him I was sad for, him, who at age 57, had decided his life was over. He missed his ex-wife, he missed his children, he missed the life that he had before and now that life was gone. He replaced all of it with alcohol. He drank and he was lonely, and he waited. He simply waited for his pain to end.

It was not my pain that I shed tears for, but his.

*

Dean and I sat outside the airport in St. Louis, Dean smoking a cigarette thoughtfully.

“Are you sure you want to see him this way?” he asked, as if we could actually turn back at that point.

“Not really,” I replied, watching a man calm his enormous dog, thinking perhaps it was half Great Dane, half Dalmatian. “But I feel like we should be there.”  I don’t want him to die alone, I almost added, as if an hour at my father’s deathbed could make up for so many lost years.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Dean answered, stubbing out his cigarette and shaking a fresh one from the pack.

I looked down at my hands.  “I know he can’t talk or anything, but we can talk to him, can’t we?”

Dean took a long drag.  “Of course.”

*

Baltimore, when we arrived, was cool and humid. I headed to the baggage claim while Dean found a payphone to call our uncle. After I grabbed our bags, I joined him. He was hanging up the phone with a terse expression.

“His condition’s worse.  He could go at any time.” It was already midnight and I was exhausted, but there was such urgency in Dean’s voice that I knew we had to hurry. We grabbed a cab. It’s was a 30 minute drive, and all we could do was wait for the ride to be over. I wished again, for the thousandth time, that we had had more time.  Just a little more time.

At the doors to ICU, Dean and I looked at each other. It was a look that passed between us and was understood without words: This is It. No turning back. We had to face whatever was on the other side of that door. Dean took my hand, and I squeezed.

We walked into the entryway, where a few doctors and nurses were monitoring patients and working on menial tasks. A man approached us with a gentle smile. He seemed happy—maybe relieved—that we were there.  I wondered if this was one of the nursing staff I had imagined, one of whom was hoping this man wouldn’t have to die alone. The doctors had done all they could, and now we needed to take care of the rest.

“Your dad’s been waiting for you,” he said to us.

Behind the curtain, my dad was lying there, hooked up to monitors and tubes: breathing, heart rate, blood pressure. His forehead and ears were covered by a small towel, and the rest of him covered by a hospital blanket. I immediately started crying, and Dean put his arm around me. It shouldn’t be this way, I thought. It shouldn’t be this way after so many years.  More time, dammit.  We need some more time.

We approached his bedside, and I looked into the face I used to know so well; the long, dark lashes under bushy brows, a strong nose and wide lips. He was yellow, jaundiced, and as Dean reached for his hand under the blanket, I noticed that he was puffy. The fluid he was supposed to be getting rid of through his liver was collecting, poisoning him from the inside out.

“Hey, Dad,” Dean said softly, next to his ear, “We’re here. It’s me, Dad, Buster Brown…” My dad’s nickname for him. My heart went out to Dean to hear the way his voice broke as he finished the sentence.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said tentatively, wondering if he could hear us. “Hey, Daddy, your Precious is here.” Precious was my name. There was nothing. No response, no squeeze of the hand, no movement behind closed lids. Somehow I thought maybe we would know, that we would feel his acknowledgement that we were there. We just had to go on blind faith.

We sat at his side, examining every part of him, looking at his face. We pulled back the towel covering his head and touched his hair, as if we could make it more real by putting our hands on something tangible. He never moved; nothing ever changed but the blips and beeps on the monitor. His heart would speed up, slow down, sometimes beat at an amazing speed, and I kept thinking, He’s going to go, right now, right here, with me holding his hand. But he hung on. The breathing, slow and ragged, with the help of a machine, kept going. We talked to him, told him our names over and over. And that we loved him.

I can only hope he heard.

We sat in our vigil until four a.m., when we decided that our job was done. The doctors were  instructed to let him pass when the time came; there was no need to resuscitate him.

We peeled back the towel from his head; we each kissed him in turn and whispered, “Goodbye, I love you.”

He died twelve hours later.

*

I found an old diary entry from this point in my life. There were exactly two mentions of this event. I recall bombing a statistics assignment shortly after my trip to visit my father. I tentatively explained the situation to my professor after class one day—I had been out because of my father’s passing—could I get a redo on my homework assignment? I had been distracted. I actually felt guilty for my excuse.

I honestly and truly thought my situation didn’t warrant any special treatment, and life should go on as though nothing changed.

Billy’s reaction? He picked me up from the airport and there were red roses in a vase on the front seat of his 240SX. He didn’t talk to me about it, didn’t ask me how I felt, and when I asked him, he said he didn’t know what to say. In retrospect, in the relationship I have now, in which my husband is my best friend, my confidante, my entire world—it sounds completely insane to me. My father died and we hardly said a word about it. I didn’t spend nights curled up next to Billy, reminiscing about the good times with my dad, or voicing my worries that I or Dean would end up just like him, crying about how he ultimately died alone. Nothing. We had one brief discussion about it, during which Billy admitted how uncomfortable he was with, you know, feelings, and we moved on with our lives.

We had no idea what we were doing.

I eventually moved in with Billy, despite my earlier misgivings. We lived together for my junior and senior years of college. Billy pushed me to enter the Adult World on more than one occasion. Another time that my inability to be strong, to stand up for myself, to take care of me—was a huge problem. I wanted to study abroad for a semester, but Billy wouldn’t let me. I wanted to take a series of classes that meant I would graduate in the spring, on time, instead of early, in the fall—Billy didn’t like the idea. He wanted me to Grow Up and Get a Real Job.

I think Billy was similar to Alex in this way—Billy didn’t go to college, and had a chip on his shoulder about it. He, of course, wouldn’t say a word about it, but I knew it made up a big part of him. He felt like a failure because he dropped out, and it was hard for him to relate to me. He was a little bit jealous of me. I spent my days walking through campus and looking at the couples, feeling jealous of what they had. I wanted to sit on the lawn between the buildings we called The Six Pack and do nothing in the sunshine, like they did. Again, I was doing both things—college and Adult World—neither of them well.

I was alone during much of my relationship with Billy. Because he was always playing computer games, it was rare that we even went to bed at the same time. Sometimes I felt like we were nothing more than roommates. I had to ask him over and over for something that made me feel special—to take me out on a date, to buy me flowers—these things seemed so important to me at the time. I was looking constantly for signs that I was a good girlfriend, that I was loved. I wanted romance and fun and excitement, and he didn’t, or perhaps he thought we had all of those things. He was satisfied with life, and with our relationship, just as they were. He didn’t put a lot of work into anything—except the computer—and certainly not our relationship. We entered a never-ending cycle of me begging him to do something with me, take me out, go somewhere, hell, have a fucking conversation, and his response would be to get me a stuffed animal or a rose, with a note about how much he loved me and wanted to marry me. Two months later, repeat. At the time, I thought I was completely justified. Now I realize I was trying to change someone’s fundamental being. He just wasn’t that guy. I must have been driving him crazy asking all the time. I wonder why he stayed with me so long. I spent the entire relationship screaming, jumping up and down and waving my arms, “Look at me, Billy! No, really look at me!”

Sometimes while he was gone, working or pretending to work because he was really playing computer games at work, I would sit in our apartment with tears running down my face, splashing the keyboard, and I would type into my journal, “I am so lonely.”

It’s not surprising to me that I had an emotional affair. It’s also not surprising that it was with one of Billy’s friends. I’m not proud of it, but I can see now with clarity how it happened. Isn’t that the reason people cheat? They’re not getting something from their current relationship that the outside one provides. Billy’s friend Jay was definitely in Adult World—ten years older than me, with a failed marriage and a son. He lived in Dallas, and I met him on one of our trips there. I remember what I was wearing the day I met him—a pair of cutoff shorts and a striped midriff-baring top. He couldn’t take his eyes off of me.

We started chatting on the computer. It was 1998 and the underground chat program was called ICQ. It was a play on words, meaning “I Seek You.” It was a fitting theme for the relationship I started with Jay. He gave me everything I wanted from my relationship with Billy. He told me how beautiful and funny I was; he was also a writer. He wrote me poems. I was a hopeless romantic writer, who was afraid my life had passed me by. I felt like I was already married to a boring man who was addicted to computer games and would say that he loved me, but he didn’t really know why.

I was a goner from the first words Jay typed.

Jay came to visit us one weekend in the fall of my senior year. Strangely enough, I had told Billy that we were talking, and that sometimes Jay said things that were, to put it mildly, inappropriate or flirtatious. I’m sure that I told Billy for two reasons—one, I tried to be completely transparent and honest with him, always. It was something my mother instilled in me from an early age. She always said that she would forgive me anything but lies, so I should always tell her the truth, and we would work through whatever truth I had confessed. The second reason is one I’m not proud of, but it makes sense when I think about it now. I wanted him to care. I wanted Billy to be jealous. He had this maddening way of either being completely unfazed by other men—or completely flipping out. I had no way of knowing what would trigger his jealousy. And in my mind, jealousy meant he cared. Yet again, I was waving my arms at him, frantic for him to “get it.”

I don’t think we even left the house when Jay came to visit, except for a drive around the block at 5 a.m. after we’d stayed up all night. The three of us sat around drinking beer, watching football and talking.  We couldn’t stop talking. Well, Jay and I couldn’t. The three of us stayed up all night. Billy might even have been dozing at points during the evening, as the night stretched into morning, but Jay and I couldn’t get enough of each other. He had a brand new Mustang, and I wanted drive it, hence the 5 a.m. cruise. After his visit, it occurred to me that Billy and I had never stayed up all night together. Just…being together.

Our chats became more serious. One night, about a week after his visit, I asked him if I could tell him something and would he please not laugh at me or think that I’m stupid?

“Your mind is beautiful,” he typed to me. “Of course not.”

How could I hesitate after words like those? So I told him that I was having “Jay withdrawal.” He admitted he, too, had been a little bit depressed since the weekend ended. We were both trying to ignore it, given that I was in a relationship with his very good friend. But once we acknowledged it, a torrent of feelings was unleashed. Jay said we had a different connection than most people.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t love the person you’re with – it just means this other connection fills a void in your heart or mind,” Jay typed. We rationalized our relationship, trying to convince ourselves this connection we had wasn’t dangerous. We pretended that it wasn’t going to destroy my relationship with Billy.

We kept talking over ICQ, and after a couple of weeks I realized I had fallen in love with Jay. It sounds insane. Maybe it was. I loved Billy too—or, I thought I did—and it was only then I understood that you can love more than one person at the same time. My relationship with Jay starkly exposed the faults in my relationship with Billy. What I was describing to myself as a “different” connection was really just a connection. Billy and I were just bumbling along together; we just fell into each other as a couple. If someone had asked me why I was with him, I’m not sure I could have answered. I would probably have said, “He’s nice.” That also sounds insane, because I wanted to marry the guy. Because he was nice? Because he didn’t treat me like I was disposable or yell at me like Alex had? I was painfully young and I simply didn’t know any better.

That’s why Jay rocked my world. That’s why I fell so hard. It was practically inevitable.

Billy figured it out. He may not have had a plethora of endearing qualities, but the boy wasn’t stupid. I was acting way too cagey about my ICQ account, hurriedly closing the window on my computer if Billy happened to walk in the room at a bad time. Logging on to ICQ from school in the computer lab, just to get a dose of words from Jay. He was my drug, and I couldn’t quit. I was at a football game with my friends in late November when it happened. The game was amazing. That was the game Ricky Williams broke Earl Campbell’s rushing record, and we were chanting “Run Ricky Run!” at the top of our lungs, high-fiving, hugging each other, shaking the bleachers. It was one of those days that was a college day—a real college day. The sky was overcast and it was deliciously chilly, perfect football weather. As the stadium began emptying out, I called Billy for a ride.

From the moment I heard his voice, I knew what had happened.

The elation from the football game evaporated instantaneously. Billy was stoic, hardly looking at me as I got into his car. He had already called Jay, and Jay told him we’d fallen in love, that we didn’t mean for it to happen, that Jay felt like the biggest asshole on the planet. But it sounded like Jay was willing to fight for me, for us. Billy and I went home, fought, cried, hugged, talked, and cried some more. Billy was furious at me, furious at Jay, and furious with himself for being played a fool. He knew he should leave me, but quite plainly, he loved me and he didn’t want to. He laid down the law—if I wanted to save this relationship, I had to cut Jay out of my life. I told him I couldn’t. Jay had become too important to me. I wanted to see if what we had was real.

I went out that night with my friend Mindy. Before we left her apartment, I called Jay. We talked for nearly an hour. We both felt like heels, but we were giddy hearing each other’s voices. I promised him I would figure out what to do. I decided it was time to take a break from Billy, move out of the apartment we shared and give me and Jay a real try. We had only been in the same room together for a total of 24 hours, ever. Before we got off the phone, Jay said, “I really really love you Christianne,” and my heart melted. I was head over heels for this man, and I had to be with him. Billy was the “logical” choice, the comfortable choice, but he didn’t make my heart sing like Jay.

But by the time I woke up Saturday morning, extremely hungover, Jay had removed himself from the situation. He called the apartment, and the three of us had the most bizarre three way conversation. Jay told us he wanted us to “fall in love again” and that I couldn’t really examine my feelings for Billy with Jay in the way confusing things. I was heartbroken and angry at Jay. In turn, Billy was heartbroken and angry at me.

Saturday night Billy and I grabbed some beers and went to the top of the cliffs at the 360 bridge to talk. Again. It seems all we did that weekend was talk, and rehash, and talk, and talk some more. But we weren’t getting anywhere. Billy knew he should leave me, but he couldn’t. He wanted to fix our relationship, but I was exhausted and unhappy. I’d had a glimpse of something else, and I wanted that. I didn’t want the relationship I already had. Those exposed faults didn’t seem fixable to me. There was no real foundation for us, and even though I was young and bumbling around in the dark when it came to this stuff, I had figured that one out.

By December, we called it quits. I moved in with my parents temporarily. I knew it was the right thing, and I didn’t want my current relationship, but I was so used to Billy. He was a habit I had to break. We didn’t know how not to be with each other. Even thought we’d split up, we went to my office Christmas party. Went back to the apartment and talked about still hanging out even though we had broken up. It was ludicrous.

And so my last semester in college was exactly that—ludicrous. Billy and I tried again. We moved to a new apartment just off campus. He interviewed for a job in New York. Sometimes Jay and I chatted on ICQ, or sent long sappy emails, or sneaked conversations on the phone Sometimes we were silent, trying to stay away from each other. I promised Billy that I wouldn’t talk to him. There were times when I looked at Billy and knew I didn’t love him anymore. Then I would imagine my life without him and not be able to breathe. There were times when I wanted to get in my car and drive to Dallas and knock on Jay’s door. I should have, because I would have forced his hand. Jay was never going to make us happen. He always had an excuse. He slayed me with his gorgeous words. But he didn’t make the effort. And at the time, these two men were my whole world. I couldn’t fathom the idea that neither of them was right for me. They were all I could see.

In May, I graduated college and moved to New York to be with Billy. We were so battered and bruised it was pointless, but we just couldn’t let go of each other. It’s another time in my life that I feel badly for the earlier version of me. I was depressed. I felt directionless, boring, bland. I got a job at a little magazine, made some friends, tried to be an Adult.

It didn’t work. In December, Billy informed me he wasn’t happy and wanted out. New Year’s Day, 2000 – I woke up hungover, our apartment trashed from a party the night before. I switched on the TV to watch the Longhorns. They were losing to Arkansas. The vet called to inform me that my cat, who had been sick and in his care, had just died.

A rather inauspicious start to the new millennium.

I moved back to Austin on a brutally cold day in January. Billy helped with my suitcases, but he wasn’t wearing shoes so we wound up in the vestibule of our apartment building, and he put his hands on both sides of my face, and kissed me. I cried. “Tell me if you want me back,” I whispered. He didn’t seem to hear me.

Share Button

Unrequited Love: A Head Case (part 3 in a series)

A friend recently said to me: “I can’t talk to you about my problems with my boyfriend. Your relationship is so perfect.” I looked at her and laughed. “Oh honey, if you only knew what I’d been through.” I relayed this story to my mother later via email. She echoed my response, having been there every step of the way. What follows here is a memoir of those relationships, a boy-chapter at a time.

I met Pierce after I’d been back in Austin for a couple of months. He was one of Dean’s colleagues. I had been on a dating whirlwind and was lamenting the fact that I didn’t really have a connection with any of the guys. I had random, intermittent communications from both Billy and Jay. I think at the beginning Billy regretted breaking it off. And Jay ran hot and cold with me, as usual.

Dean and I went to the Bob Marley festival together in April, and he brought along some friends—one of whom was Pierce. He completely captivated me that afternoon. He was tall—nearly 6’5”—we must have looked ridiculous next to each other, as I’m just over 5 feet tall. He had a shock of curly light brown hair, hazel eyes, a goatee. I described him in my journal at the time: “cute, funny, educated, intelligent, he’s AMAZING.” The group of us lounged in the sunshine, drank beer, listened to music. Pierce had a date that night with some girl he met at a coffee shop. But I didn’t let that deter me. As we all walked back to our cars, I boldly told him we should go out next Saturday. Obviously I knew he was already booked that night. He said that his parents would be in town the following weekend because it was his birthday, but maybe after that?

“That’s too long,” I simpered.

“I’ll get your number from Dean.” He grinned at me. “Until then?” And he leaned down to give me a quick peck on the side of my mouth.

I was the one to ask him out, and then I was the one who got his email address from Dean and emailed him two days later. I thought I was just being proactive and going after what I wanted, but I probably should have listened to my mother when she told me that I shouldn’t chase boys. He emailed me back, to my delight, and we made plans for Saturday.

I spent that Saturday at the lake with my friends, anticipating seeing him again with a flutter of nervous excitement in my belly. I was living with my parents at the time, and we were far north of town, so I didn’t want him to come pick me up. Similarly, since he had recently moved to Austin, he was living with his brother and sister-in-law. So I met him there, and we got in his 4Runner. He had suggested a party being thrown by another colleague.

We stayed at the party for half a beer. We were too into our date to hang out longer: people were annoying us simply by distracting us from each other. I hadn’t eaten much that day—too nervous—and he took me out for pizza at his favorite neighborhood place. We couldn’t stop talking. From dinner, we went downtown to the Elephant Room and listened to jazz. I’m not sure I had ever been on a date like that. My dates up till that point had been things like keg parties and Taco Bell at 2 a.m. And Billy hardly took me out at all. Dinner and then listening to jazz seemed so sophisticated to me.

We left Elephant Room and strolled down Sixth Street, people watching talking and laughing. At some point he took my hand. Then he was beaming at me and saying, “Wow, you’re fun.” I felt as light as air. I thought he was the fun one—can you imagine the difference between him and Billy? And he liked me? We wound up outside the Driskill Hotel, gazing up at its imposing outer walls, and Pierce suggested a nightcap. I agreed enthusiastically, telling him how much I loved the hotel. I had never stayed there, but the sweeping grandeur of the architecture, the marble floors,  and the Texas-themed bar were all so classy and cool.

“Why don’t we get a room here?” he said then, and I might have swooned. We certainly couldn’t spend the night together at either of our respective homes, and neither of us wanted the night to end. In the hotel room, I was all nervous and fidgety again. I was bouncing around the room, acting silly, pulling books off the shelves, checking out the view while Pierce lay on the bed and smoked a cigarette.

“I’ve been dying to ask you this all night,” he said.

I paused, looked over at him warily. “What?”

“Can I kiss you?”

I was floored. No one had ever asked me that before, and something about it struck me as incredibly romantic.

And so the Pierce chapter began. In the beginning, our honeymoon stage, we were electric. We went on dates to restaurants, bars, parties, concerts. Again, it was something I had never known with Billy, who was absorbed in his world of computers. Pierce could dance, and would spin me around the floor, everyone watching. I think I fell in love with him after a week. I wanted to say it but I couldn’t—I knew that was crazy, and I didn’t want to be the first one. One weekend we drove to Shiner for a picnic. Inside the picnic basket, Pierce had three roses for me. That night he hesitantly asked if I would be his girlfriend. I was ecstatic. Of course I wanted to be his girlfriend. I couldn’t get the guy out of my head.

He also warned me he had issues. He didn’t tell me what they were, but he said that his heart wanted to be with me but his head was trying to deal with the unresolved things that happened in his past. I told him I would help him, even thought I had no idea what I was signing up for. I loved him so much that I was willing to do anything for the relationship. And I think he truly loved me, but true to his word—the issues in the end were just too much for him.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Something about his issues and his past—there was a weird religious cult thing that he would occasionally bring up, usually after many drinks, but I never really got the full story—made it hard for him to say those three little words, “I love you.” He said that he really didn’t know what love was. He slipped, though, and after we had been dating about a month, he said it while he was spinning me around the dance floor at the Continental Club on South Congress: “I love you girl!” I didn’t say anything. I pretended I didn’t hear him. I didn’t want to be mistaken. It was loud, crazy, the band was pumped and there were throngs of sweaty dancers. We were practically screaming to be heard. But then he pulled me close and said it again, in my ear—“I love you!” I was so relieved, because I was besotted with this man and beginning to fear I was in it all alone, afraid of what that meant and what would happen to us and to me.

But as Pierce said, he was weird about it, so after that night, he stopped telling me. It was like he jumped the gun, said it too early and wanted to take it back. I became obsessed with it. My friends and I called it “The Phrase.” No matter what he did or said that showed me how much he obviously loved me, I needed to hear those words. Nothing else would do. It took nearly eight months for him to say The Phrase again, and this time he kept telling me.

We were still far from perfect.

Pierce’s mother Pam came to visit when Pierce and I had been dating for about six months. I played the situation all wrong. I made jokes she didn’t like, a curse word or two likely slipped out, and I’m sure I was dressed inappropriately. It simply didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to act a different way in front of her than I would otherwise. We had an awkward dinner—Pierce, me, his mother, his brother and his wife—and then we went back to Pierce’s house so she could evaluate it. I didn’t realize at the time that Pam felt she should be involved in all aspects of her youngest son’s life, even though he was 24. She needed to determine what furnishings he needed—no matter what Pierce thought. At some point it dawned on me that I should go home, when on a normal evening I would spend the night with Pierce.

Pierce walked me to my car and we had a heated discussion. His mother had gone home a half hour ago, but he was actually afraid she would drive back by and see my car there. And then he would be in deep trouble with her. I couldn’t wrap my head around the situation. This man seemed so smart and in control, yet he was terrified of his parents. He was so terrified that he would alter his behavior to suit them. I took the situation harshly and personally, as always. Pierce wouldn’t have been able to spend the night with anyone—this was not about me, but about propriety—but I didn’t see that. I was laser-focused on what I saw as her rejection of me, and his inability to stand up for me and for us.

The weekend was awful. Because Pam was around, we couldn’t have a “normal” weekend—and he was at her beck and call. Our phone calls were short and clipped, and later Pierce would tell me how awkward he felt talking to me while Pam was standing there listening. We went out Saturday night and he allowed me to spend the night. (How did I manage that? He must have felt bad for me, or maybe I wore him down.) Sunday afternoon his mother called after her return from antique-hunting with his sister-in-law, demanding he come to their house immediately. I was pointedly not invited. The afternoon was bleak, spitting rain from low gray clouds. Pierce drove me back to my apartment and I remember staring out the window of the 4Runner, feeling like a tramp.

Though that first night was not about me, I had already made the terrible impression that would ultimately spell the end for us. His mother didn’t like me. She had not chosen him for me. It was as simple as that. A couple months later, we went to Lubbock for a concert. As we drew near, Pierce detailed all the things I should keep in mind: don’t talk about religion, don’t say curse words—in other words, don’t be yourself. I drew inward and stopped talking. In the silence of the car ride, he took my hand and asked me what was wrong. “I get it,” I spit at him. “I’m not a dumbass.” But I clearly was—because I had already screwed up so badly it could never be repaired.

We had been dating for about a year when Pierce broke my heart for the first time. I was so happy that night—we had just come home from a party and I was thinking that he was such a good boyfriend. I felt pretty too. My hair was curly and wild and Pierce kept telling me how much le loved it.

In his kitchen, we started discussing music and I drunkenly maintained that he needed to hear Rod Stewart’s cover of a particular song. He thought Everything But the Girl had done it better.

“I’ll download the Rod Stewart version,” I said to him, sure I could prove my point. In his office, I fired up his computer. His ICQ list flashed to life in the bottom right corner of the screen. I glanced at it—honestly, my intent was just to download the song, not invade his privacy like past boyfriends had done to me—and saw several names of girls whom I didn’t recognize. Frowning, I clicked on one of the conversations with a girl named Maple Sugar.

The screen swam before my eyes and I felt sick to my stomach. I thought, “This can’t really be happening.” He was having cybersex with her. Sometimes begging her to get him off quickly as he was on his lunch break. It was disgusting. I stalked into the kitchen, tears blurring my vision.

“Who the hell is Maple Sugar?” I was hollow.

Pierce looked trapped and confused, and tried to explain it away.

No,” I said, trembling. “No. Read the fucking conversation, Pierce. You’re fucking her.” I started sobbing, and sank to the floor in the hallway. I screamed at him that he had betrayed me and I couldn’t forgive him for hurting me like that. My heard was absolutely breaking.

He was looking at me like he didn’t know what the hell hit him.

We talked for a long time. He said he didn’t realize what he was doing and it was no big deal and he would never do it again. He insisted it was just another persona and not really him. I told him it was completely unacceptable and I didn’t know what to do. I sat in the hallway, leaning against the doorjamb of his bedroom. I felt deflated. I felt like I wanted to die.

He asked if I wanted him to take me home. I was living with Dean at the time, and I couldn’t face him. Dean didn’t like me dating his friends, and he didn’t like that I was dating Pierce. Going home and admitting that he was right—that Pierce and I were wrong for each other, and I was an idiot for jumping in wholeheartedly, with both feet—I just couldn’t do it.

Finally we went to bed. I lay fully dressed on my side of the bed, refusing to touch him. I tried to sleep, hoping when I woke up it would all be a dream. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Suddenly, manically, I was shaking him, waking him, saying “I want to read it.” Groggily, he stumbled out of bed and sat in his desk chair while I peered over his shoulder. We scrolled through every last conversation, every single word typed and exchanged. Two things stood out to me: he called her “lover” and he also said that I was an “on-again, off-again girlfriend.” He fairly sank into the chair as he kept reading further.

“Do you feel pretty awful now?” I whispered. “I hope so.” I went to bed.

He uninstalled ICQ and swore he would never use it again.

That morning, I woke up before he did and watched a movie, still unable to go home and face Dean. Pierce got up and sat across the room from me and made me some food. We hardly spoke. Coldplay was the soundtrack for that awful weekend—it was on repeat. To this day, when I hear a song from the Parachutes album, I remember sitting in the shadows at Pierce’s house, feeling broken, unable to walk away, yet again. Again. At some point, he sat next to me on the couch and asked how I was doing. We talked some more about what had happened and how deeply he had hurt me. I was tired—I had hardly slept the night before—and wanted to nap. He came with me to bed and held me. I let him.

He started crying then, and he said that he knew how badly he had messed up. When I saw those tears, I felt so hopeless and so convinced that he didn’t intentionally hurt me. I tried to believe that he hadn’t realized what he was doing to me and to us.

“I didn’t expect you to be lying next to me this morning. I don’t deserve for you to be here.” His voice broke.

The next day at work I wrote him a long letter. I was alone, again. I didn’t want to tell anyone what he had done. I was so confused about it. Was there something really wrong with him, or me? Was it okay that I considered it real cheating? My heart certainly couldn’t tell the difference. He said he would be lost without me and wanted to get past this somehow.

I should have left him, and that’s why I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. I was sure my friends, my mom, everyone would say that I should leave him. But I couldn’t. How could I leave this man, who made me Portobello mushrooms cut into hearts for Valentine’s Day? This man who wrote me sweet emails, who called me sexy, smart and amazing? This man who took me out, showed me off? He said that I was too good for him. He told me all the guys at work were jealous because I was so awesome. He loved me enough to do all the stupid things I wanted him to do, like call me each day at work, and make plans each weekend because I needed them, even though he wasn’t a planner. This man who told me he thought about me all day, from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep. He had broken my heart into smithereens, but I couldn’t leave. I didn’t know how to breathe without him.

So we stayed together. But it was never quite right. I kept trying to make him into someone he wasn’t. I made up rules to satisfy my own insecurity, and then I got angry and hurt when he broke them. He didn’t want to call me every day—I insisted. He didn’twant to spend every night together—I did. He felt backed into a corner constantly. Pierce didn’t want to be controlled. And as soon as he started to pull against my needs and desires, I would back down for fear of losing him. It dovetailed nicely.

I didn’t want to love him anymore. I knew he was going to hurt me again. But I couldn’t pull away from him.

In October, after we had been dating for two and a half years, we went to Lubbock for his dad’s birthday. Things had been tense with me and Pierce for a while. He kept chafing against committing to me in some way; I kept looking for ways to be more secure in the relationship. The weekend was awkward, weird. His family, as usual, didn’t talk to me very much. Saturday night Pierce retreated to his bedroom to watch TV. I lay on the bed next to him and tried to touch him but he shied away. He was being cold and indifferent. I chalked it up to being around his parents, which always freaked him out to some extent. I gave up and went to my own bedroom. Surprisingly, he followed.

“I got the job with Tom,” he said. He was sitting at the foot of the bed; I was leaning against the pillows. Pierce had quit his job earlier that year, and tried his own thing. Several of his “own things” actually—nothing was working out, he had moved back in with his brother, and things weren’t looking great for his career.

“But the job’s here in Lubbock,” I said dully. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. Thiswas why things had been so weird lately. Somewhere in my mind I knew he was preparing to end the relationship and I was panicked, reacting.

“And you don’t want to do long distance, so…” Pierce looked everywhere, all around the room, anywhere but at me.

It was Maple Sugar all over again. The world was swimming. This couldn’t be happening. Pierce was leaving me. The thing I had been worried about, fighting against—it was happening. My entire life I had worried how men would leave me, starting with my dad. And it was happening again.

We had another long talk. He kept clinging to the fact that I didn’t want to do a long-distance relationship and I had previously made that clear.

“I don’t prefer it,” I said slowly, “but I would be willing to work it out if you’re sure that’s what you want.” I paused, and looked at him. “You are sure about us, aren’t you?”

He hesitated, finally meeting my eyes. “I don’t know. I know what you want from this.”

“What is that?”

“You want to spend the rest of your life with me.”

“And you?” I waited, holding my breath.

“I just don’t know.” Pierce shook his head, staring at the coverlet. “I think maybe I don’t know what love is. I mean, I don’t think I ever really loved you.”

I’ll never forget those words. They fell between us with a thud. I don’t think I ever really loved you. How can you say that to someone? It had been two and a half years. We had our ups and downs, and I needed a lot of reassurance, but this? This was brutal. This was savage. I was absolutely stunned.

He left my room and I cried myself to sleep. In the morning, he asked if I wanted to come to breakfast with the family. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “Why would I want to come?”

“What should I tell them?” he asked. Since our talk, he had assumed a hangdog look that made me want to scream at him.

“Tell them whatever you want,” I snarled. “Tell them you just dumped me and it might be a bit awkward.”

While the family was gone, I called my mother and told her the story between sobs. She offered to fly me home—Lubbock was a six hour drive from Austin—but I declined. I wanted Pierce to feel as awful as I did for that long drive.

“You don’t want to be in this car with me, do you?” he said, somewhere around Sweetwater, Texas.

“No. You fucking broke my heart. What do you expect?”

As we drew closer to my apartment, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to give him the stuff he had left there because he was between places.

“Do you want any of it?” he asked.

“No, I don’t want anything that reminds me of you.”

He seemed surprised. He kept saying “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.” I was so confused. You tell your girlfriend you can’t picture a future with her, that you think you were lying about loving her and you don’t expect her to end that farce of a relationship?

“I hadn’t gotten that far,” he managed.

“How far have you gotten?” I asked.

“This conversation right now.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. He was clueless.

After we arrived at the apartment, I started throwing all of his stuff in bags. I slammed cabinet doors. I heard him sniffle and I realized he was crying. Let him cry, I thought.This is his mess.

He took all the bags to the car. The final item was, strangely enough, a vacuum cleaner. I set it down in front of him in the door way.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He just stood there, with that stupid look on his face and his hands in his pockets. And he cried.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I said quietly, breaking finally in the presence of his tears, his real emotion.

He said he was sorry. He hugged me and I didn’t hug him back. He kissed the top of my head and said that he wished me the best. I remember thinking how lame that was.That’s the way you’re going to end our relationship?

I closed the door and sank to the floor, head in my hands, sobbing once again over this man who had completely wrecked me.

The next few months were some of the hardest of my life: I dated. I drank. I cried. I thought about him constantly. I compared everyone I met to him. I was alternately sad and angry. I wrote emails and letters that I didn’t send. I was depressed. A not insignificant amount of men told me that man must have been crazy to leave me. It almost made things worse. It just didn’t make sense to me.

In February, I heard through the grapevine that he would be in town for a wedding. I broke down and called him that Friday night. He didn’t answer, and didn’t return my call. The following day, I was eating lunch at our old favorite restaurant with my mom when he walked in. It felt like my heart stopped.

He walked up to our table; I rose to meet him. He hugged me, and I drank him in. He was wearing my favorite sweater, this cable knit forest green v-neck. He was so tall. He had a fresh haircut He told me he had gotten my message and was planning to call me that afternoon, so he would talk to me soon. After he walked away to get a table outside, I promptly burst into tears.

“I’m still in love with him,” I said to my mother.

“Maybe you should tell him that,” she said gently.

I was so nervous that afternoon that he wouldn’t call. But he did call. We met at a bar down the street from my apartment. We sat at a picnic table drinking beers and grinning at each other. He played with the label on his bottle. He confessed that he missed me, that he loved me still, thought about me twenty times a day. Lubbock was making him miserable.

“I go to sleep hugging three pillows each night,” he said. “I always wish they were you.”

The wedding he was attending started at 5 p.m., so he walked me to my car and we stood next to it, fingers entwined. I wanted so badly for him to kiss me. Then he did, and I melted.

“Stay with me tonight,” I whispered.

Pierce didn’t think it was a good idea—he didn’t know where it would leave us—more confused than ever?

“Look, we’re both miserable and we still love each other. Why don’t we just try it for now?”

He promised to call around 10 after the wedding. I went out with my friend to an Irish bar, hoping to distract myself, but as soon as the clock struck 10 p.m., I was watching my Nokia like a hawk. He waited until the excruciating time of 11:30 to call me, but it was worth it—he was on his way to the bar. We fell into each other, kissing, hugging, breathing “I love you so much.”

He stayed the night with me.

“I made a mistake, letting you go. I won’t make it again,” he told me as he left for Lubbock. The night had convinced us we could make our lives together work.

We were going to try the long distance thing after all.

He seemed like a changed man over the next few months. We coordinated visits between Austin and Lubbock. When we were together, we were like drowning people who had found a life vest in the other person. When we weren’t together, we emailed or talked on the phone. The attentive boyfriend I had always wanted him to be—had tried to make him into, stupidly—finally existed.

“He looks so happy,” my mother told me after we visited her one weekend when he was in town. “You look happy too. I think he’s changed. He’s really grown up.”

When I got laid off in late February, somehow the idea surfaced that maybe I could look for jobs in Lubbock. Pierce latched on to the idea. He was unexpectedly excited about it. He emailed job listings to me, talked to his friends, was always brainstorming and supportive. Now I see how it was really a selfish thing for him to do. After all, he didn’t see himself leaving Lubbock for several years because he needed to rebuild his career. Why not bring me in to his carefully arranged world? I could be his plaything while Lubbock bored him.

Of course there was a huge roadblock still in our way despite our new-old love. His parents. I decided the only way we could move forward and make our relationship work was if they accepted me. And for them to accept me, Pierce had to stand up for me and tell them I was his girl, that he loved me and that he planned to be with me long-term.

I learned some painful truths during that time. Pierce confessed he may have been partially responsible for his parents’ attitudes toward me. He complained about what didn’t work in our relationship, and never told them how much he cared about me. Pam was convinced the woman for him would be chosen by God, and clearly I wasn’t that person. It was clear, she told him, because when he found God’s chosen one, everything would be easy. He would never have to work at the relationship.

I should have run fast. I had almost gotten away once.

But I was so crazy in love with him and he was finally the person I had wanted. It was as if the months apart had helped him see clarity. He couldn’t stop telling me how much he loved me. How beautiful and kind and smart I was. How he was a fool before. How we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. There was a ring, he promised, and a plan.

And so it was with that backdrop that we finally had The Talk with his parents. It was a spring evening in Lubbock, following a dinner with the usual stilted conversation—me, because it was always hard for me, and I knew what was coming—Pierce, because he knew what was coming as well and he had never backed down from something his parents wanted. The fact that he would do this for me solidified the idea in my head: this man loved me.

Pierce began the discussion bravely. I was so happy he was sitting close to me, with his hand on my knee. I thought at the time it was to help me be strong, but now I wonder if maybe he needed me so that he could be strong.

“I think we all need to get our issues out on the table,” Pierce said.

I was choked with tears from the beginning of the discussion, but I managed to tell his father how I felt invisible around him. Several times he had left a dinner or an evening without saying goodbye to me. Once I arrived at a dinner and everyone had already finished eating.  Pierce kept jumping in and claiming fault for parts of these interactions, but his mother didn’t want him to take any of the blame.

Suddenly she fixed me with her steely gaze. “You know what your problem is?”

“I’m sorry—what? My problem?” The conversation had been steering me toward weepy and sad, but her words had shot me through with adrenaline. I was pissed.

Pierce tried unsuccessfully to intervene. “Mom—“

She turned the gaze on him, her mouth pinched in anger. “You be quiet.” Back to me. “You have an inferiority complex. I don’t appreciate your attitude. You haven’t tried at all to fit in with the family.”

“That’s not true, I did try—“

“No, you didn’t. You aren’t good with uncomfortable situations. It’s up to you to make it better.”

At that point, I was flabbergasted in addition to angry. Why, I wanted to ask, were these “situations” so uncomfortable? Because she was correct, they indeed were uncomfortable. Excruciating might be a better word. Pierce, as he had attempted to point out, had actually created these situations by telling him about how his girlfriend was a real drag and a gold digger, and it seemed my role had simply been that I was a person his parents had never imagined for him.

Which was the point his mother drove home next, by asking me if I believed Jesus was our savior. Now, on top of my confusion, hurt and anger, she was going to tear apart my religious beliefs. Pierce gave my knee another reassuring squeeze. I explained that I didn’t believe in Jesus as the savior, but as a prophet. I haltingly told her that I believed in a number of aspects from different religions, including reincarnation. I thought her head was going to spin and pop right off her neck. Her eyes may even have bulged from their sockets. Unaware that I was damaging my life and love with Pierce beyond repair, I blundered on.

“We all have different beliefs about God,” I said, ignoring Pierce’s silence, “but it all boils down to one thing—you should love all people and all things. The specifics don’t really matter to me.”

His father, sitting across from me in a huge leather chair, looking nearly as stern as his wife, considered what I had said. He shook his head slowly, almost as if I were an idiot, which I’m sure he believed. “You and Pierce don’t have a foundation for your relationship because it’s not based on God. Everything else,” he went on, “shared interests, respect, attraction—they don’t matter without a foundation in God.”

How do you know what it’s based on? I wanted to yell. I wanted to yell at Pierce too—he was part of the problem here—talking trash to his family about me for the past two and a half years.

“You shouldn’t be sleeping together either,” his father continued, his fingers steepled together in an illustration of a foundation. It reminded me of the Saturday Night Live skit about George P. Bush–“1,000 points of light” and I wanted to laugh deliriously because this was going from bad to worse. Worse than I had even imagined, if that were even possible.

“Because marriage is a covenant, not a contract. And if you’re taking all the benefits of marriage, then you’re just trying it out, and that’s not right.”

The fight went out of me. I had underestimated my opponents. Resigned to listening, I heard his father tell us that a contract means that you can back out if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain; and a covenant is only broken by death. “And not only that. You’re not considering what God wants for you; you’re selfishly only thinking of yourselves.”

It was his mother who finally delivered the death blow. “I will not allow my son to marry a woman who believes in reincarnation,” she said, fixing us again with her stare. “It is an Islam belief and that is wrong.”

Then she told me if I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior that he would fix my inferiority complex.

Remember how I said I should have run?

Yeah. As fast as my legs would carry me.

The lecture completed, Pierce drove me to my hotel room. I was so emotionally wrecked I couldn’t really talk. We sat in the depressing glow of a table lamp and he said, “Do you love me?”

I nodded. I did love him, but at what cost?

“Good, because I love you,” he told me, wrapping me in his arms. “You’re the one for me.”

He couldn’t stay with me, of course, because of his parents. I couldn’t stop crying, even after he left. I dreamed he broke up with me, again, and it was so real that waking up felt like I was still trapped in a nightmare. Because I was.

We kept up our long distance relationship for the next two months. The relationship even marginally improved with his parents. We tolerated each other, much like my pets do now—the Labrador giving my old cat a wide berth, as she cautiously sniffs at him. It was better than out and out war, but the words they had hurled at me that night in March still haunted me. I suppose I knew they weren’t going to let us happen, but again, I underestimated them. I believed that our love would trump everything.

In late May, I got a job in Lubbock. I was ecstatic to finally join Pierce and put an end to our long distance relationship. But leaving Austin—again—was hard. We had an impromptu going-away party with friends and family. My friend Monica hugged me fiercely and told me not to put too much pressure on Pierce. He was going to be my only friend for a while. “But he’s not responsible for your happiness,” she reminded me. “Keep it in check.” I promised I would try.

She was right. Life in Lubbock was a roller coaster of emotion. Even though we were finally living in the same town, he was still living at his parents’ house. That meant we couldn’t spend the night together. There were so many nights that I just wanted him by my side, and I hated it when he’d pull away and say it was time for him to go home. I think there was a part of me that felt if he really loved me and wanted to start a life with me, he’d stand up to them on this. The big talk had been a huge step, but I needed more from him.

I always needed more.

My job also required that I travel quite a bit. Sometimes I was away for 10 day long trips, flying into airports in large cities and then driving to stores that were off the beaten path. I have never been particularly good at going somewhere on my own, forging a new path. I get lonely and scared and unsure of what to do. I function best when I have a routine, when I’m confident I’ve handled each thing that’s coming my way each day. So moving to a new city, starting a new job as a Sales Trainer—something completely new for me!—and trying to get on track with this man I was obsessively, crazily in love with—was difficult for me. So much change all at once will make anyone a little crazy, and I was already crazy.

It was especially hard for me to believe that Pierce was serious this time around, no matter what he said. The experience with Maple Sugar, the previous breakup and his harsh words wouldn’t leave me. In my lowest moments, I remembered them and they played through my head like a serious of sad movies. When I would tearfully confess my thoughts to Pierce, he would reassure me.

“I don’t just stop loving you,” he told me one night.

“But you did,” I said.

“I never stopped loving you.  I was confused and mixed up.”

It worried me. What if he got confused and mixed up again?

Those were the bad times. There were great ones—didn’t I say Lubbock was a roller coaster? Pierce would tell me all the time I was the prettiest girl in the room. He would always make sure we talked on the phone while I was gone. He was patient with me. We had fun: Willie Nelson concerts, restaurants, bars and art openings.  Sometimes he would join me on a work trip and we’d have a little vacation. July Fourth weekend we watched the neighborhood parade. Over cheese fries and drinks at Cricket’s, we talked about getting married in Belize. Afterward, we would have a reception in Lubbock and a reception in Austin. Pierce’s friend Ben was a jewelry designer and Pierce hinted, with a gleam in his eye and a grin on his face, that Ben was already working on something special.

I couldn’t wait to get that ring on my finger. I kept hoping it would fix what was broken with me—maybe I could look at the ring and the prior hurts would disappear. No more Maple Sugar, no more of his parents’ ire, no more wondering. Maybe that ring would spell confidence and security.

I know now how stupid that was.

I started to catch Pierce in little lies. I’d be out of town and he supposedly went to a party, but Ben would say, “What party? We went to that new club.” Or I’d return to the table at the bar and everyone would clam up because of the story Pierce had just told—“I swear to God that story was about my brother and a strip club in Mexico”—when it was nothing of the kind. He started hanging out with his beautiful blond colleague after work. When he’d tell me he was leaving work, he was really at her apartment doing drugs. I was helping him pay his bills because he was terrible at paying anything on time. I had access to his cell phone records online. I saw 900 numbers. And I saw repeated calls to a local number, always late at night, after he had left my apartment. Was he cheating—again—this time via phone? When I asked him about it, he claimed it was the blond colleague’s mother, and it had something to do with managing a band. At one a.m.? The conversation about the late night local phone calls happened in the backyard at his parents’ house, and Pierce was annoyed I would bring it up. He was defensive and nervously smoked a cigarette and kept glancing inside to see if they could tell we were fighting.

He delivered the second death knell, broke my heart again, in December. I had been in Lubbock for about six months, and my birthday was days away. We got into a stupid fight over the phone—Pierce wanted his space—and I pointed out that when you get married, you don’t have that kind of space.

“You know, presumably we’d live together and spend the night together every night,” I spit at him.

“I don’t know if that’s what I want,” Pierce said.

I felt sick.

He came over at my insistence so we could actually talk. I hate the phone, and especially for something like this. He sat heavily on my purple couch. “I just haven’t been happy lately,” he told me. He said t wasn’t just me. But as we delved into it, he accused me of resenting his family and said that I didn’t understand how he needed them in his life. In halting words, he went on to say I hadn’t tried hard enough to get back into their good graces. Then, in even an even more bizarre turn, he said that he couldn’t deal with our conflicting beliefs.

“We have an Eastern philosophy vs. a Western philosophy and that won’t work,” he said. I started at him. It was as if Pam were feeding him lines off stage.

I again made a last ditch effort to save our relationship. “We’re good, Pierce. We’re really good. People are trying to find what we have.”

He agreed. But then he said, “I think we both know deep-down that marriage won’t work for us.”

“Sounds like your mother told you what to say.”

He protested—“No, these are my feelings”—but I didn’t believe him. I still don’t. His parents told him to end it, and he did.

“I just need some time to get my head on straight and figure things out,” Pierce said, running his hands through his hair.

“I thought you had,” I whispered, my eyes pooling with tears.

He said he needed a couple of days.

“What am I supposed to do?  Just sit here alone in my apartment?” I retorted.

He shrugged, but he didn’t get up.

“Well, are you leaving?”

“Yeah,” he answered. But he still didn’t get up. After a few minutes, he finally stood. He looked down at me and said, “I love you” and tried to kiss me. He got a corner of my forehead. Then he grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go and tried to kiss me again—this time on the corner of my lips. He stood at my door and looked like he was going to cry again. It was like a carbon copy of the year before, standing at the doorway to my apartment. He was making this decision, it was killing him, and he somehow wanted meto fix it, when I had nothing to do with it.

“What do you want me to say?” I asked, still sitting on the couch.

He mumbled something about calling me when he could. I didn’t respond. I stared ahead at the television, which was muted, the actors on One Tree Hill playing out their fictional drama as my real one unfolded. My dinner sat untouched.

After six days of silence, he came over again, simply to confirm what I already knew. I can still see him standing in the kitchen, edging toward the garage door, while I sat in the same position on the couch as the week before. “I fully expect to walk into a Barnes and Noble someday and pick up your book and read about the asshole on page 36.”

Here you are, Pierce: your page 36.

Share Button