What If?

Maybe it’s a mid life crisis.

Maybe that’s what it is that is forcing me to be looking back into my past and find resolution, find peace.  I am, after all, in my early forties now, and searching all of the time for where I am going, what I am doing with my life.  Which is likely why I found myself last Sunday evening sitting in a bar next to another person whom I loved in the past.  For those of you keeping count, that’s twice in less than a month that I’ve reconnected with someone who figured large in the story of my life.

This time it was Dennis.  Dennis, whom I had drunk Googled a few months back, and then later, screwed up my courage and called on the phone.  The conversation was easy and flowed as if the years of silence had hardly existed.  We exchanged emails, and he told me that I should let him know when I’d next be in town.  When I made plans to travel out to see my family during my kids’ Spring Break this week, I let him know I’d be in the area.   We made plans to meet at a local bar and grill, as we’d done so many times in the past.

Five hours (!) later, when I drove home far later than I’d anticipated doing, I had a smile on my face.  It was just like old times.  We’d talked about the years we’d missed in each other’s lives, we talked about teaching and politics and all the things I’d loved talking about with him way back when.  And we talked about us, our relationship, and what had happened to end it.  “I’ve been loved,” I whispered, as I slowly navigated the dark streets of my past.

“You know there are all sorts of ways of loving a person.  There’s that instant attraction, love at first sight,” he’d said while sipping his beer, which had followed a martini.  I nodded and held my glass of cabernet, slowly turning it in endless circles.  “But it wasn’t like that with us.  You were fifteen when we met, of course.  With us, it was like a friendship that just grew and grew.  And by the end, you know, I was falling in love with you.”

I had known that, of course.  He’d told me that after I’d broken up with him.  But still, it was nice to hear it repeated, all of these years later.  It was still true.  He still thought fondly of me.  He still used the word “love” when he talked of those times.  It made my head spin, a bit.  I knew I’d still felt that way, that the emotions were never tainted by the ending of our relationship; it was nice to know he felt the same.

“If you recall,” I said slowly, looking into the dark red of my wine glass, “That’s of course why I broke up with you.  Because I was falling in love with you, and I knew that it would have to end.   You weren’t going to leave your wife, and you didn’t want more kids.  You were always very honest about that, and I was changing the rules.  It would have ended the same way eventually, no matter when I did it.  I was always going to want more than you were able to give.”

He took another swig, and looked at me squarely.  He’d always been able to do that, be utterly honest and direct, without pretense or shame.  “True.  I definitely did not want more children.   Sure, I might have ended up with you if we’d continued on, and left my wife.  But I still would have not wanted more kids.”

I nodded, hearing in my head the same story I’d told myself for the 19 years since our relationship happened.  Love, yes.  Wait…what?

I replayed the sentence in my head again, realizing it did not jibe, it didn’t match.  In my story, he had been clear that he would never have left his wife.  And I had even told myself since reconnecting with him that it had been true; after all, he was still married to her now.  But here he was, telling me that perhaps indeed there might have been a different future that could have existed if I hadn’t split with him all those years ago.  That part, I didn’t remember.  That part, I don’t think he ever admitted.

I pulled apart the half eaten quesadilla in front of me, a nervous action that I used in an attempt at covering up the emotions bubbling too close to the surface.  A whole different future, a whole different life.  What would that have been like?  I clamped my wandering thoughts down, trying to stay in the moment with him.

“Well,” I said finally, groping for words.  I had to be honest, to give him the gift of truth as he’d just given me.  “I have never regretted that we shared that time together, that we explored that part of who we were to each other.  In fact, I’ve always looked back and been very glad that we went down that road together.”  There was more, much more to say, of course.  I took a sip of the cabernet in the space in between what I was able to say freely and what I struggled to put into words.

“Good,” Dennis responded quickly into the pause I had created.  “Me too,”  he said simply, thus answering one of the most burning questions I’d wondered about in the time since we’d lost touch.  And then he smiled, so reassuringly that I couldn’t help but break into a smile myself.

“I guess the only regret I have now is that I couldn’t have just allowed myself to be happy with you a little while longer,” I responded.  It was as far as I could go with the topic aloud, in his presence.

But later, as I drove back to my sister’s house, the thoughts recurred.  I’ve been loved, I thought.  What a wonder that is, after all of this time.  To know that there was love, that a different path could have been there for me, had I chosen differently.  I was thankful that I had a twelve hour drive to endlessly mull the question before I reentered My Current Life back here at home.  You know which one I am talking about.

What if?

Dizzy

Back in my twenties, it seemed to make a sort of sense.  When I was searching for The One With Whom I Would Share My Life, I sort of got it.  You know, the idea that one person could just not possibly be enough for a person throughout their whole life.

At that point in my life I’d seen one too many movies in the ilk of “Sleepless In Seattle”, giving me that storybook fairytale belief that there was just one person in the world that would fit perfectly with me. But after years of dating people who weren’t even close, and after that one affair, I started to suspect that maybe it was true.  Maybe one person couldn’t be that all inclusive “Soul Mate” that Hollywood was trying to sell me on.  Instead of one person being everything, maybe all it was supposed to be was that one person was “enough”.

And enough has been good to me, don’t get me wrong.  Throughout my thirties, in my married haze of raising three children, enough was just right.  I was happy and glad to be settled, raising my family, with a strong man who cared deeply for me and provided well for our family.  I’m not trying to paint an idyllic picture here; there were years and years of hard times in my early marriage.  We still fight and argue, and he still drives me crazy.  I still envy the people I know who seem to have chosen better, found a better “fit”, more of the “enough”.  But overall, the fifteen years of my marriage has never caused me to revisit the concept again of More Than One.

But now that I am in my forties, I do sometimes wonder….is this it?  If this is it, is enough truly going to be enough for the rest of my life?  Because now that I’m in my forties, I’m well aware that there aren’t unlimited tomorrows ahead of me, ripe with possibility.  What I have now, this is all it is going to be.  And there are times when I wonder if enough really is enough anymore.

There are things that don’t exist in my marriage, that I wish were there.  We don’t hold hands.  We don’t sit together on the sofa.  We don’t go out to dinner, just the two of us.  We don’t have deep conversations about what I’m doing or his work, or anything really but the children.  He doesn’t massage my shoulders at the end of a day, or ask me what I’m reading next to him in bed, or any of the myriad intimacies I don’t even realize I’m missing most of the time.

This is where so many people my age stumble.  The men, they start to see some of those things they’re missing in the younger women they meet at work, the ones who are starry eyed (as I was) at the thought of a grown up person who has already figured it all out.  The women, they change their careers, they lose the baby weight, and they find maybe in their haste to be married and settled that they didn’t think through their choice as carefully as they should have.  And then one day, they rethink the whole thing.

I think back to what I was to that married man, now that I am his age.  And believe me, I am in no way considering having an affair, at all.  But I wonder sometimes, how amazing it would be to have someone so excited to be with me, to see me, to just spend an evening enjoying my company.  To have that awe and amazement.  That fire.

I kind of get it now.  I don’t want to leave my husband.  I love him.  I love our life.  I know all of these things with absolute certainty.  But to have a chance to fill some of the holes that have worn through the fabric of our marriage over the years?

It’s a dizzying thought.

Looking Through The Window

I don’t know what made me think of him last night.

R is out of town, as he often is, and I was having myself a little Grey’s Anatomy marathon on my computer.  Me, myself and a bottle of wine hunkered down after the children went to bed, and I fantasized about happy endings with my own personal McDreamy.  I know you’re reminding me I’m married and all that, and you’re right.  I have my own real life version of a happy ending with a good man.  That being said, I know that it’s TV and it’s not real, but sometimes it just is easier to imagine that had life taken this turn or that turn that I living a completely different life with an insanely handsome man who knows how to use hair product in addition to being sensitive to my dark and twisty needs.

When I opened up my computer screen this morning, my internet browser screen was still open.  And I realized that I had drunk Googled a few people in my wine induced haze late last night (I also woke up wearing my jeans and the turtleneck I’d worn all day yesterday; don’t judge me).  Thank goodness I hadn’t drunk Facebooked or worse, drunk emailed, or the grandaddy of them all, drunk dialed.  Although I’ve already done that with this person before.

I’d searched for Dennis.

I don’t know what made me think of looking for him last night.  Maybe it was because the episode I was watching (Season Finale of Season 4 in case you’re a fan) had to do with kids in high school.  Dennis defined my high school experience, my kind English teacher who gave me the attention I craved while nursing the wounds (both literal and figurative) that forced my family into lockdown during my teen years.  I harbored a not so secret crush as I lobbied to be his favorite student during my high school years and his over achieving mentee during my college ones.  As we transitioned from teacher student to colleagues, our relationship changed as well, eventually turning into an affair.  I swayed dangerously back and forth between guilt and full on life fulfilling love until I forced myself to stop seeing him.  We remained friends and kept in touch sporadically until I moved away from my hometown in 1999; I haven’t contacted him since.

I think about him though, sometimes.  And in these days of 21 century technology, that means I consult Dr. Google to see if I can find him.  A phone call after all of this time seems so intrusive, but I always think that a casual email would be a fine way to reconnect.  Or a Facebook message, as so many have done with me over the last few years. And each time I have consulted The Big G, I find bupkus.  Nada.  Nothing.  Not even a random comment on a message board.  Which seems odd to me, always, and then I go back to my life and don’t think about it again for weeks or months or longer.

But for some reason he popped into my head last night.  And when I opened up my computer this morning, I saw something different.  I saw his name listed on a cover band website.  The name, an unusual one, was right.  The location was right.  And sure enough, there were photos.

It was him.

He looks about what I’d expect him to look like 13 years after not having seen him; he was 22 years my senior, which puts him now in his sixties.  He plays guitar.  There are photos of him singing, playing, in a recording studio.  There he is, alive and well, and living life…just like me.  One of the photos is of him and his wife, sitting together after a gig.  Smiles, his arm around her.  Happy looking.

I’m glad he’s happy.  And frankly, I’m glad he’s still married.  I’m glad he is still that good but flawed human being.  At least I think he is.  I don’t know, of course.  And that’s the rub.  Because now I’ve seen him.  And now I want to know things.  Like if I was the only one or were there others after me.  Or if he ever told his wife about us.  Or if he now thinks what we had was a mistake.  Or if he randomly Googles me from time to time.

Which is all insane.  Because all of that, it’s all about me.  He’s gone on to live a good life; so have I.  I don’t need his validation and approval and attention anymore.  These days I know who I am and I am (mostly) secure in my self worth and place in the world.  Why do I need to hear that he remembers me?  And thinks well of me when he does?

I can see him now, through the window.  A one way glass, he doesn’t know I can see him.  But I can.  I can see where the last thirteen years have brought him to in his life.   So why I am I struggling with this?

I can’t decide if it’s enough to just look through the window.

Part of me wants to knock on the door and see what happens when he answers.

Why isn’t it enough just to look through the window?

Houseguests

“Of course you can come over,” I told Dawn on the phone.  “I’ll set up the Pack and Play in Zach’s room and put him in his old bedroom.   You and A can sleep together in the bed, it won’t be any problem.  I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

I glanced at the phone as I hung up the receiver; ten forty at night.  It was sheer luck that I was even awake at this point, but it was Saturday night and I had gotten into watching a movie on TV.  I dug myself out of the blanket I’d been wrapped in and started up the stairs to make Z’s room ready for Dawn and her children.

Dawn and Todd had married five years ago, not long after receiving the news that she was pregnant with their child.  They had been away at college, living together in an off campus apartment.  I’d always marveled at how they had seemingly made their situation work; they had slipped into marriage as easily as a warm winter coat.   After a year in student housing though, they had moved back home to be nearer to family and friends who could help with the baby while they both continued their educations.

Their basement apartment in his parents’ house had been an object of envy for me while I lived at home with my mother.  Its separation, its size, its privacy had always made it seem like such an ideal arrangement.   But as the years wore on, Todd dropped out of school and started working for his father, making the web of interconnectedness even tighter with Dawn’s in laws.  She started talking with exasperation about her mother in law, and by the time Dawn’s second child was born last November, Dawn’s patience had worn thin.  Todd refused to talk to his parents about Dawn’s complaints; instead, he’d simply taken on a second job to put money away for their eventual apartment.

It was at this second job, she told me, where he’d met Sandi.   He had started staying out for drinks after work with the group, and has he retold Dawn about his evenings, the name was a constant in every story.   Her resentment boiled white hot as she stayed at his parents’ house with her two small children while he stayed out later and later spending the money he was making at the bar.   It had all come to a head this evening, she’d told me on the phone earlier, when she accused him of an affair with this Sandi.  Todd, unfortunately, had not been at all effective in his denials.  By the time the smoke cleared, he had admitted to kissing the woman and seeing her alone outside of the group of colleagues.

I stopped in front of Zach’s old bedroom door, and turned to the right.  I’d nearly gone into his old room first, until I remembered that he now slept in what used to be my mother’s old bedroom.  I’d moved her double bed into my bedroom, being unable to actually move into her larger bedroom.   Zach now slept in the twin bed I’d always used as a teen, in my mother’s old room.  Tonight, I’d move him back to his old space and give over the room to Dawn and her two children.   I wasn’t sure how long they’d be here;  would she and her husband patch this all up in a few days, or was my home a mile marker on the road to a new destination?

As I tucked Z’s sleeping form into his old bed, I marveled at how quickly things could change.  A year ago I’d admired Dawn and her husband, always looking at them and wondering if I’d made the right choice all of those years ago when I told Joe no, I wouldn’t marry him just because I was pregnant.  They’d always given me a pang of regret when I saw how easy it was between them.  But now, as I looked at Zachary’s cherubian innocence in his sleep, I was grateful that he had been spared the angry words and harsh separations that lay ahead for Dawn’s two young children.

I closed the door and went to answer the knock I could already hear coming from my front door.

Wrongs, Rights, and The Stuff In the Middle

It was three days after I broken up with Dennis, and the phone was ringing.  He usually called me on Thursdays, to touch base on our Monday evenings in case one or both of us needed to beg off.   I knew it was him, and couldn’t decide whether or not to pick up the phone.

I’d actually kind of surprised myself by breaking up with him.  I had certainly known all along that it was going to be me that ended the relationship when my moral dilemma outweighed my loneliness.   Right from the start, when I’d stood in his living room looking at his family photos, imagining my face in all of the places where hers was, I knew that what I was doing wasn’t right.  But I had been able to talk myself into letting myself be selfish for a while.  It wasn’t often I got to be selfish with the way my life was set up, and for a while, I was able to push the quiet voice of reason aside.

But as I spent the holidays alone, without the man who was dominating more and more of my thoughts, I knew that our days were numbered.   I wanted more than Dennis was able or even willing to give; I was changing the rules.  And so after our usual Monday evening visit, as we lay in bed together,  I told him that I would need to stop seeing him.  That I respected his boundaries and wishes, but that my moral confusion had finally hit a critical level.  I couldn’t bear thinking about his wife and what we were doing to her each time we were together.   That I loved that he’d been there for me at a time when I most needed someone, but I couldn’t continue to be in this thing feeling all of what I was feeling.

Dennis had offered to maintain a friendship with me, whatever it was that I wanted or needed.   Which is likely why my phone was now on its fourth ring this Thursday night, because he wanted to check in and make sure I was OK.

I picked up.  “Hello?”

“I wasn’t sure you were going to answer.”

“I wasn’t sure I was either,” I told him.

“Why?”  His voice was so warm, so kind.

“I wasn’t completely honest with you the other night.”  I sat on the edge of my bed, looking at myself in the mirror.  God, I looked tired.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, here’s the thing,” I started, taking a deep breath.  “The stuff I said about being bothered by all of this, that’s all true.  It bothers me more each time.  But the reason why isn’t because I’m some saint.  It’s because each time I see you,  I’m this much closer to falling in love with you.  I’m so close to it, I might already be there.  And every minute I’m loving you, that makes this all so much worse.  It’s one thing for it to mean nothing, but it’s not nothing anymore.  It’s everything.”

“Oh.”  I knew that he was balking at the emotion I’d just expressed.  I knew the rules, here.  We were both clear on the fact that he was never going to leave his life, and this was supposed to be a fun escape for us both.

“I want to get married, have more children, build a family for Zachary.  And now that I’ve spent so much time with you…God, I want you to do those things with me.”

I could just see his chest rising and falling with the deep sigh that resonated into the receiver.

“I know you don’t want those things,” I continued.  I could see my face bright red in the mirror now.  “You’ve been very honest and fair about the fact that you don’t.  I knew that going in.  It’s not really fair of me to want those things from you when you’ve been so straightforward.  Which is why I have to do this.  I can’t keep wanting more from you and getting mad at you for not being able to give it to me, when that was never supposed to happen in the first place.”

“I understand,” he said sadly.  “I didn’t before, but now I do.”  He paused.  ” I have a confession to make, as well.  I am starting to love you, too.”

I nervously wrapped and unwrapped the phone cord around my fingers, watching it leave marks on them as I twisted it tighter, tighter.  “That’s nice to hear,” I finally said slowly.  “I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end, though.  Am I right?”

After an endless pause:  “You’re right.”

“I should probably go,” I said, releasing the phone cord and letting it bob back and forth from the release of the tension.

“I’ll miss you,” Dennis said huskily, his voice deep and sad.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said, hanging up the phone softly on its cradle.

This Is All I Have

“So how many of your students got the Thanksgiving basket?”  Dennis poured me another glass of wine as we sat together on my sofa.   It was Monday, our night to be together.  Which meant that he went to his regularly scheduled bowling league with teachers from school at seven, he bowled till 8:30 or so, and then told his wife he was going out for drinks after.  Which was not technically a lie, because he always swung by the liquor store and picked up a bottle of wine for us to share when he came over.   By the time he knocked on my door, Zach was in bed, my lesson plans were done, my papers were checked and the house was quiet.

“You couldn’t believe how many.  I don’t even know.  So many of them were talking about ‘what came in the basket’ during my story time yesterday that I finally had to ask them about it.  And Derrick, DeShante, Daniel, Ricardo, one after another they talked about it.   I mean, how many do you think would get a basket in your class this year?”

This was what I loved about my evenings with Dennis.  The intimacy of our conversations, how he refilled my glass as we talked, how he understood everything I was saying and responded with questions, clearly having valued and listened to what I had to say.

“Out of my five classes?  I’d say maybe two per class, so ten altogether, out of probably 150 or so.”  He was lazily touching my forearm, tracing patterns that gave me goosebumps as we spoke.

“See, and if I had to guess, I would wager it is likely two thirds of my thirty eight kids.  What would that be?  It’s a good thing I don’t have to teach anything above first grade math.   Then again, maybe it’s the wine that’s making it harder.”

Dennis leaned in and kissed my neck, nuzzling the curve of it.  “Roughly 27 or so,” he said, the words breathing his warm breath onto my skin.

“It just is so disparate,” I kept going on, pretending to ignore him and his attentions.  “And I mean, this is a school in the decent part of town.  What’s it like in the schools further south?”

“It’s bad,” he said, moving up to my hairline, towards my earlobes.  “Really bad.”

I knew I should be feeling worse about this, and in my more lucid moments, I did.  I knew I was feeling things about this relationship that I had no business feeling; Dennis was very honest about the fact that he had absolutely no intentions of ever leaving his wife.  That he loved her, and did not want to hurt her.  But all the while he felt certain in his belief that no one person could meet every need of a single other person, and that made what was happening between him and I make perfect sense.

I knew that I was enjoying too much our educated conversations on teaching and the disparity of public education, politics in the United States and the finer points of various wines.  I knew that none of this was going to end in the fairy tale ending  I knew I wanted for myself.  In these lost, lonely months where all of my energy went into being a single parent and an inner city school teacher, I knew I had nothing left for a relationship that demanded equality and nuturing to grow.   I didn’t have the time or energy to go hunting for a boy my age who then would need some sort of gold medal for wanting to date the orphaned single mother.  I didn’t have it in me to cook meals or to look sexy every day or engage in pillow talk on the phone every night.  I was willing to swallow the bit of bile that crept up every time Dennis got up from my bed at 11:30 to go home to his wife, because what he was willing to give me and what I needed at that moment intersected.  Even though I knew it wasn’t right, even though I knew that someone could be hurt, even though I felt empty after he left.

“Are you ready to go upstairs?” he whispered into my ear as his hands kneaded my shoulders.

I took his hand and silently led him towards my bed.

The Other Woman

I looked around me in the quiet darkness, feeling the blood throb in my temples.  Curled up around my body, warm under the sheets, was Dennis, his breathing regular and deep.

I’d taken Zachary to my sister’s for an overnight stay, not even willing to tell her what I was doing; she thought I was going out with my girlfriends for a late night at the local bar, and that I’d come over with doughnuts the next morning to pick up my four year old son.  Instead, I had driven to the house Dennis shared with his wife.

He’d explained to me that she was going out of town for the weekend for something that had to do with horses or maybe it was archery; something outdoorsy.  He had offered for me to come over for dinner and then to stay overnight.   Of course the unspoken agreement was that the overnight stay would mean that we’d sleep together.

I had decided to allow myself to “go for it”.  I was tired, I was lonely, I was a single mother with no prospects.  I hadn’t been touched by a man in over two years and I missed it.  Here was a man whom I’d worshipped for 8 years offering himself up to me.  I had reservations about it, but after endless phone conversations in which we talked philosophically about the irrationality of monogamy, the cold facts of young love vs. married affection and the ill matched sex drives of older men and their same age partners, I started to loosen up on my reticence.

So I’d driven my little car and parked it out of the way on the side of his house that Friday afternoon while he poured me wine and prepared fresh shrimp and pasta for me.  I looked around the home he shared with his wife and marveled at what it would be like to be married to him, to have it all already figured out.  I wished I could be her and push the fast forward button on all of the hard stuff that lay ahead of me:  building a career, a network of friends, a social circle.  I closed my eyes and imagined sitting at this table every night with him, talking about our work, sharing a glass of wine and a meal prepared together.  It seemed perfect.

It had all been the perfect little illusion for me, pretending to not notice the elephant in the room, until Dennis’ wife called home for her evening phone call.  Hearing his easy way of speaking to her as he lied about watching TV and reading books all night made my scalp itch with sweat.  I could feel my flight or fight response kick in; what to do?

My fight response consisted of downing two full glasses of wine while Dennis finished his phone conversation, and then attacking him as he hung up the phone.   I’d dragged him to the bed he normally shared with his wife, the edges of reality starting to blur as the wine kicked in, and had my way with him.

Laying here now, hours later, I could hardly remember any of it, except the awful feeling that I’d done something terribly wrong.  Not just in general, but to someone in particular.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could make out shapes in the room; I must be on her side of the bed because everything on this side of the room was laid out carefully and neatly.  The other side of the room had men’s clothes strewn about on top of the hamper; random pieces of paper were covering the dresser.  I couldn’t escape the fact, now that the effect of the wine had worn off, that I had just slept with another woman’s husband in her own bed.  How terrible a person did that make me?

I could feel Dennis’ breathing start to change, and watched him as he slowly lifted himself up from the depths of his unconsciousness.  His eyes slowly fluttered open and rested on me looking at him.  “What’s wrong?” he asked, tracing the worry line between my eyes.

“I just…I feel like I’m a terrible person.  I can’t stop thinking about your wife.  It just feels all wrong.”

“What part feels wrong?  The part that is between us or the part that is outside of us?”

I shifted my body so I was facing him.  It was a good question.  Was I feeling badly because the things that had happened between us weren’t good?  No.   I loved talking to him, loved spending time with him, loved the way he’d looked at me, loved that we were a part of each other’s lives.  Connecting with him sexually was the physical expression of all of that.  When I thought about just that, just what was between the two of us, I smiled; I couldn’t help myself.

“The outside.” I whispered back.

He shifted closer to me, leaning in.  “Let’s just focus on what just made you smile for now.   The rest of it will all still be there when the sun comes up, but the way this feels right now, between you and me…let’s make it last as long as we can.”

As he leaned in for a slow, soft kiss, I willed myself to do just that.

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