Mt Elbert

I carried you on my back all the way to top
And poured your gray sand upon the rocks
As the last grain tumbled from that unhallowed black box,
Thunder crashed, interrupting your sister’s protest cries.
We hurried from that high place under darkening skies
Pelted by stryofoam balls of rain,
My hiking poles buzzed like angry bees–
Warning, warning, warning!
My heart throbbed in shame, recrimination
It was too late to put it right;
You were already released.
A sacred moment ruined because I was afraid to say no.
You only get one chance to do it right.
And though I’ve been there three times since,
The chance to rightfully honor your memory is gone.
Forever.
Time cannot be rewound.

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Potential

Laying awake in bed,
Too feverish with thought to sleep
There’s a tension in the air
You can bite right through it

Time is ticking away…

Tick tick tick tick…

So many hours wasted, doing… what?
Need to move before my clock quits
Don’t know when that will be
But I’m not too sure of my longevity.

Want to write, want to publish
Want my efforts, my love, to be noticed
Want to leave something in the world
Want the words in my head unfurled

Been avoiding my destiny for too long…

Fear fear fear fear

I’ve allowed it to repress me,
Let others’ successes depress me.
I’m inspired by poets of song,
Languishing over their lucky state,
And the time money has bought them to create

Don’t want the fame, would take the fortune
Just want to do what I was born to do,
Correction: What I think I was born to do
(If I was born to do it, wouldn’t I have already done it?)

They say every day dreamers die
Leaving their hopes unfulfilled
Don’t want to be one of those dead dreamers
Who never said ever, watching as others destroyed their will.

42nd

Today you would have been 42.
10 years of life you should have lived
Children we should have had,
Trips we should have taken.
I’m plagued by thoughts of our lost adventures,
Saddened by all that stolen time.
I think of you every day,
I wonder what you would have thought
Of Bush, Palin, Obama;
Of 9/11, Katrina, the Gulf oil spill;
Tea parties, birthers, flat-earthers;
Reality television,
(Remember when Survivor was new?)
Of iPhones and Blackberries
(Which would you have preferred?)
Of Unitarian Universalism–my chosen faith;
Of people I’ve met, the men I’ve dated
(Which among them would have you liked?)
Of the places I’ve seen, miles I’ve cycled, mountains I’ve climbed.
You’re in the blood in my veins;
You’re in my heart, my soul, my every frustrated sigh.
You’re in my eyes through which I hope you can still view
The world you taught me to see.
Like the rings we wore to seal our promises,
Our love has “no clear beginning and definitely no end,”
The infinite loop that binds me to life
And fuels my boundless hope that I will find a love
As epic and meaningful as that  which I shared with you.
Happy Birthday, sweetie.

Prayer

When I was a little girl, I used to believe in God. I was raised Catholic so I never directly read the Bible, but I had an imagination and I loved the great stories I was told by my grandparents and CCD teachers. I think I probably loved the stories most. And the prospect of a magical world beyond what I could see and feel enchanted me, ignited my imagination.

My mom and I would go to church together–sometimes I even asked her to go. I really got into the ritual aspect of the religion, as I’ve seen myself get into the ritual aspect of everything else in my life: weddings, commencements, Girl Scout bridging ceremonies. My First Communion was a big deal to me, perhaps even moreso than it was to my brother just three years younger. I saw it for what it was: a rite of passage. I remember agonizing over how I should accept the Host from the priest–directly in my mouth or in my hands, which was the preference of all my classmates. I ultimately decided to go old school, the way my mom and grandmother had to before me in the days when it was believed that touching the Host somehow tainted its power. I took pride in the fact that I wasn’t squeamish like my classmates as I opened my mouth and accepted the Host as the priest set it on my tongue where it dissolved instantly (as the styrofoam quality of the Catholic wafer does).

Likewise, I really got into the mystical aspects of Star Wars. I, like many in my age group, earnestly believed that if I followed Master Yoda’s teachings–if I just concentrated hard and submitted my will to the Force–I could truly move objects with my mind. I wanted to be a Jedi Knight so badly it burned in my young veins. Even though Star Wars was fiction, it was as real to me as any story told in the Bible. I saw no separation in between the stories; they were both as equally possible to me.

My mom had told me once–or maybe it was my more religious grandmothers–that when people die they go to heaven with God. I understood that you could talk to God through prayer and I somehow reasoned from this that the same communication method could be used to access everyone who had ever died. In my prayers, I was never interested in talking to God. I didn’t know God personally after all and what did I really have of interest to say to the Almighty? God was for the priests, for adults with real problems who better understood the trinity of the Lord. Rather, I prayed, talked to the great grandparents on both sides of my lineage whom I’d never met (since no one I knew at that time had died). I didn’t know who these people were or what they were like, but I imagined them to care about what I was doing because we were kin. I told them all about myself, my family, my life and I waited for signs that they had heard me. Later in life, when I dabbled in paganism, I vaguely recalled my childhood prayers, realizing how distinctly pagan it was for me to invoke the spirits of my ancestors. I wondered if I had some innate sense of the timeless rituals of the ancient ones, if perhaps we as humans were drawn by the natural forces of our history, our desire to know ourselves better. It was always a beautiful part of the pagan rituals I attended when the participants invoked the imagery of a great pantheon of our own lineages. I imagined a gigantic hall–much too tall for mortal humans–with a huge bonfire blazing in the hearth, warming the immense room and all who entered. The door between worlds would open and my ancestors–by then, my dead grandparents who looked young again as I’d never seen them, and Mike too–would lead me into that hall by the hand. Throughout the ritual, I would envision my time in that great hall, learning my way on the path of life from the wisdom of my ancestors. And Mike, their newest member.

I guess in a lot of ways paganism suited me well for awhile. But as with any faith I’ve tried, I wake up from the dream in which I want to believe and I realize I really can’t buy it enough to truly believe it. Somewhere amidst growing up my belief in a god or afterlife diminished, probably about the same time that I came to accept that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy weren’t real. If the magic of those characters was just a contrived fiction, how could I believe in the magic of God?

I remained an atheist, for all intents and purposes, throughout most of my life, questioning it only upon my husband’s death–a time of crisis. I had a small awakening point at which I was receptive again to religion. I tried the paganism; I gave Protestant Christianity a whirl; I eventually, as you know, landed on Unitarian Universalism where it was safe to know or not know–a faith that could weather the waning and waxing phases of my most turbulent faith, the ups and downs of my codependent relationship with the Divine.

What I’ve noticed, though, since Mike’s death–which is what I inadequately tried to explain in my last entry–is that I have again found myself praying. Not to God. To Mike. In my saddest moments–when I’m shaken and tired, when I’m depressed, disappointed, scared, alone–I call out not to God but to Mike.

Misha, I’ll whisper. Then one or more of the following pleas:
Please give me a sign.
Please listen to me.
Please hold me.
Please help me.
Guide me.
Send me a love you would approve of.

Sometimes, I’ll ask:
Are you out there?
Are you ashamed of me?
Did I do you wrong?

Other times, I just lament:
I miss you.
I love you.
I’ll always love you.
I’m sorry.

It was in the middle of one of these quite verbal tirades that an ex-boyfriend once caught me and it changed the course of our relationship forever. Later, at the end of our relationship, he brought up that night and explained how he felt so inadequate at that moment. He misunderstood my prayer for longing.

Some would say I’m clearly not over my husband. I don’t think that’s really the case. I think I call on Mike because his love was the first magical thing for me that was ever real. And it was magic. It made an atheist believe in soul mates and admit to it quite often. Even Mike, who was himself not particularly religious, referred to our relationship to each other as soul mates. What we had was unique. And maybe the reason none of my matches since have stuck is not because I’m still pining for my husband but because I’ve not found a match quite like that. Perhaps I expect too much but when you’ve met your soul mate, it’s hard to settle for anything less than that. Maybe it’s hard for a guy to compete. But maybe a person can find more than one soul mate in his/her life. I want to believe I can find love like that again.

I pray to Mike because our love was the magic I sought so often in life. Because Mike was real, it’s easier for me to envision him as a supernatural being than it is to envision some almighty creator. From Mike, I received actual warmth, love, and acceptance. I can believe in the reality of a person once tangible. It’s easier for me to pray to someone I knew was once here. Unfortunately, though, like the mythical God Creator of All Things, I get no sign from Mike that he’s there listening either. I also haven’t received a sign from my grandma Herrmann who did promise me in life that she would come back to give me a sign in death just so that I could share her faith. And so I continue on my way, bereft of faith; the only thing I have to believe is the truth that we all will die and disappear forever from the grasp of mortals.

Still, in depths of my own sorrows and valleys of my sullen meanderings, I pray to Mike, to my grandparents, to ancestors I never met. I never give up on the hope that there is, somewhere out there, a magic I have yet to see. For now, all I have to believe in is the power of the one magical thing that does not die with the soul: love.

I believe

It’s weird.

But when I’m feeling really low…

I find that I pray to…

No, not God.

Don’t know if I believe in God.

Don’t know if I believe in much of anything.

When I’m down low, I pray to Mike.

Which is to say, I believe in LOVE.

I don’t believe in much, don’t put much stock in anything I can’t see or feel.

But I believe in Love.

Isn’t that the lines to a U2 song? “God Part II” — Bono’s response to John Lennon’s song denouncing God, the song for which Lennon was highly criticized (because one of the lyrics was “I don’t believe in the Beatles.” He may have said he didn’t believe in God but I don’t remember.)

I believe in that. I believe in Love.

I believe love conquers all.

I’m a helpless romantic.

Love.

It’s simple, right?

Sometimes it seems easier to hate than to love.

I find myself, in my most miserable moments, calling to Mike. People might think of this as worshiping false gods.

I don’t know. My love for Mike is the only thing I believe in. Our love was the only real spiritual thing I’ve ever felt.

The power of love carries me through the day.

Even when I have no one to love.

Even when I have nothing but generic love for fellow man.

I believe in Love.

Is that wrong?

Is that stupid?

I don’t know.

Other idealists (Bono) believe in it.

I can follow that.

Maybe God is love. Don’t know. The only real love I’ve ever felt–besides that of my parents–is the love I got from Mike.

But maybe that was just an illusion.

A convenience of time and place.

I still believe in it.

I do.

Words (Alternate Version)

This is the original version of the haiku I wrote yesterday–the one that came to my mind first before I tinkered around with the words (yes, ironically) to try to make it better. Now I’m thinking this one flows better. Oh, well.

Words are pretty things.
I bend them to my will; mold
my thoughts to substance.

Public v. Private Tragedies

I posted this on my blog’s FB page, but since I only have 17 friends on there, and I know more people must read my blog, I’m reposting with more details to the blog. I always struggle a little bit with the anniversary of 9-11 because it happened in the same year–just five months after–that my husband died. Having dealt with my own grieving issues throughout the years, and having been brushed off a number of times by would-be listeners, I can’t help but feel a little jealousy when I see “Never Forget” banners on people’s FB profile pictures, memorial statuses on FB, and I hear radio programs discussing various feelings about that day. It strikes me most because while people seem to think nine years is a long time for me to be missing Mike, they seem to have no problem with the length of nine years when discussing the grieving of a nation caught off guard by a terrorist attack. Now, I don’t mean to suggest in any way that losing my husband was as tragic as the loss of lives or the fact that America was attacked by terrorists; however, my loss was felt very strongly by me personally and, in a way, it hurt me more than 9-11 ever could.

I guess I just think that people need to consider some of the ways in which they deal with people in their own lives. If you’re still affected–as you should be–by what happened on 9-11-01, then why is it so strange to find me–a young widow–still affected by her own loss of 4-14-01? I bet you still remember every second of what happened to you on 9-11-01–where you were when you found out and what you thought, how you dealt with the rest of your day. I still remember every second of 4-14-01 as well. I remember waking up a few times throughout the early morning hours of 4-14-01, getting up to go to the bathroom, Mike waking up as I slipped back into bed. I remember around 7am, the last time I got up to use the bathroom, that Mike grumbled about the early morning sunlight–“Gets too damned bright too early,” he muttered  as the sunlight through the blinds fell into his half-opened eyes. I remember our moments of intimacy, our rings clinking together, our last words. I remember Mike crumbling down next to me, the color of blue that washed over his body making him look very alien, the frantic call to 911.

I remember the long drive in the ambulance to the hospital, the twenty questions the skeptical EMTs threw at me trying to suggest Mike took drugs, the mishap at the hospital intake where one of the nurses mistook me for the parent of a kid who’d come in, how she misinformed me that “he” was okay, only to find out that “he” was not my husband.

I remember the cold, austere room I was ushered into without explanation. It was decorated in bleak yellow tones–like the popular color of the 1970s–and the couches were worn and uncomfortable. I remember the social worker and the chaplain. I remember the doctor who came in and told me my husband was dead. I remember pain, confusion, a weird brightness that fell over my eyes and took over everything. I remember shouting angrily at Mike’s cold, dead body in the silent room into which they’d put him when they could do no more. I remember my heart breaking, the dimensions of my future shifting, my stomach convulsing every time I smelled food.

I remember attempted phone calls to Mike’s mom, but I had the wrong number so I kept getting some lady in an apartment his mom used to live in. I remember calling his father. My son is dead, cried Ed in my ear. A mournful noise a daughter-in-law should never have to hear from her spouse’s parent. It echoes in my nightmares still.

I remember the long drive home in the passenger seat of my dad’s car as I wordlessly tried to piece together what had just happened. He was just here, I kept thinking. And now he not. How does that happen? I remember wanting a “do-over” for the day. If I could do it over, I’d change one thing and that would fix everything. The butterfly effect.

I remember people sitting in my living room–Mom, Jonathon, Wendi, Dad.  I remember people trying to get me to eat the sandwiches they brought from Subway, but I dry-heaved as soon as the smell of the sandwiches filled up the living room. I remember Jonathon placing phone calls to all our friends, family, associates. I couldn’t do it. I hid upstairs.

I remember waking up the next morning and crying because it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Mike’s side of the bed was a cold, empty space where a tiny spot of blood from the IV the EMTs inserted lingered on the sheets. I remember Mike’s cat, Tanya, sitting in his place, looking lost, seeming to understand that her master was never coming back, mourning with the rest of us.

I remember 9-11-01 too because I relived the nightmare of Mike’s death in the eyes of imagined men and women who were now also, like me, experiencing crushing lost. I wondered where Mike might have been if he’d been alive. Would he have been on any of those planes, or merely trapped in another state over night because no more flights were leaving? I imagined what it must have been like to be on United 93. What if Mike had been on United 93? Would I have received some cryptic phone call from his cell phone before the plane went down?

I know I personalize 9-11 quite a bit and I do feel bad for it. It’s not really my day to remember my own pain, but one to reflect on the fragility of our existence in a world filled with potential dangers both foreign and domestic.  I don’t think I would have really empathized with the families of the victims of 9-11, though, had I not experienced my own loss prior. Because of my experience, I saw 9-11 in maybe a different way than other people did. Yes, it was an attack on our country and it represents a larger struggle with a small but fanatical group of people in another part of the world. However, to me, 9-11 is about unexpected loss. And that’s all I can see in it. Whenever I remember this day, I remember loneliness–absolute and frightening. I remember grief and my feeling of disconnect with the rest of the world–which I’d been feeling since Mike’s funeral–just got wider. That day to me, always, represents the lowest point in my widowhood. I was never more alone in my entire life as I was on that day. The one person’s arms who could have saved me in that moment was the one person who was the reason I felt so alone.

So when people get on their patriotic high horses for 9-11, I can’t help but feel a little miffed. What makes it okay to remember a public tragedy after nine years, but not a private one after the same amount of time? Why is my remembrance seen as dysfunctional while the remembrance of a public tragedy seen as patriotic? And why are public displays of the stages of grief (ie, the anger I see in so many of my fellow Americans) acceptable while my own occasional dealings with a stage of grief been viewed as inappropriate?

Personally, from what I’ve seen over the last few weeks, particularly with the ongoing debates over constructing a mosque at the WTC site and the Qur’an burning demonstration by that little aberrant Christian group, I’m starting to think that most Americans are still in the anger stage of grief. I experienced the anger phase in 2005. I picked up cycling heavy–even buying my first road bike–and have since left that stage behind. You may not have guessed it, but I’ve been in acceptance stage for over two years now. It’s from the acceptance stage that I’m finally able to start writing about my life with Mike as I’ve wanted to for years. I don’t think I could have done it any other stage… well, I could have, but I don’t think I would have done it any justice.

Do I still experience depression about the loss from time to time? Sure. Do I still miss him? Yes. Is it dysfunctional? I don’t think so. People we’ve loved and lost all become a part of our personal consciousness; we can’t erase all memory of these people nor should we be expected to pretend they never existed. That’s why I always bring up Mike when a thought about him occurs to me and I no longer care at all if it brings discomfort to those around me. A person’s discomfort when I bring up a memory is a reflection of that person’s dysfunctional response to death, not my supposed inability to let go of Mike. I let go of Mike a long time ago–I know he’s not coming back. But I did not–and will not–let go of his memory because I don’t have to. No one would expect me to let go of the wonderful memories of my grandparents.

I think that American society in general has not yet reached the acceptance stage of grief after all this time. We (yeah, maybe even me sometimes) are still looking to the heavens and bemoaning, “Why us?” We want to find the person who caused the pain and cause them double pain, even if we take out collateral damage and marginalize a whole group of people based on their association with the radical group that brought about 9-11-01. A spare few seem to not even realize that putting the blame squarely on one group of people is just as ridiculous as if I blamed all emergency room doctors for Mike’s death (since the doctors who he came to about his chest problems before he died never found the actual issue that would have saved his life).

Anger is a bad stage to live in. When I was in it, it ate me alive. I was smoking cigarettes regularly, drinking far too much alcohol, and pushing away all the people in my life who cared about me by telling them they didn’t understand me. I had this very teenager attitude of “it’s me against the world.” Or, even, it’s me against the Universe (or God, the Divine, etc). I see this same attitude in many of my fellow Americans and it’s sad. We need to collectively move beyond this anger stage and reach an acceptance of what happened. It’s only from the acceptance phase can any of us truly heal. We can work together to make a better world by using our love instead of our anger to lead us.

So even though the world doesn’t see it in my actions, I’m actually in a better place with my own grief than many Americans are in their own grief over 9-11. I guess I can feel comforted knowing that. I just wish there wasn’t such a huge gap in what is considered socially acceptable for expressing one’s feelings between a public versus a private tragedy. Maybe we can become better human beings by accepting the fact that death is a part of life and, like it or not, you have to deal with it. So when a young widow mentions her loved one when you’re having a good time at a party, remember that just like the events of 9-11, her loss is also never forgotten. And it’s okay for her to never forget.

Skanky Girl

I don’t like to pretend that it was always smooth sailing in my relationship with Mike from start to finish. Like every other relationship, there were a few bumps. One bump so big that it almost resulted in our permanent breakup. When I recall this particular incident–which involved a woman who Mike and I later dubbed “Skanky Girl”–I always feel inevitably embarrassed. Surely, all my girlfriends would think me a fool for letting Mike back into my life after this incident. I hold the same guilt towards it as I do to the morning Mike died before my eyes and I did not know CPR… I feel as though, when told, the world judges my reaction and finds me guilty of being completely stupid. So I write it down, at last, to absolve myself of the guilt in the same way that writing about the morning my husband died absolved me from the guilt of not being able to prevent his death.

October, 1998. My cousin held a second party that year–another, bigger “G-Bash”–to celebrate his birthday. Because his birthday is so close to Halloween, it was a costume party. Mike and I, feeling particularly theatrical, chose a theme from current events and went as Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I wore a blue dress that I strategically splattered with Elmer’s glue, a black-haired wig, and beret. Mike painted his hair white with one of those spray-on hair coloring cans that only come around during Halloween and wore a dress shirt with jacket, complete with an obnoxiously patriotic tie with an American eagle on it , the end of which he slipped through the open fly of his pants. We had worked out performance art piece where we’d disappear into a room and Mike as Bill would come out with more lipstick marks on his clothes. We were received with great enthusiasm at the party.

Mars Girl & Mike as Monica & Bill

As the party began, we were hanging out with others on the porch. We’d just started to get a little lit from drinking. Mike and I were giggling about how much attention our costume was getting. In mid-sentence from whatever it was he was originally saying, Mike said, “And, you, Mrs. Franchester…”

I did a double-take. Did I hear that correctly. “What?!”

Mike blanched. Then, he smiled dazedly and leaned in to give me a kiss. “Well, I mean,” he breathed, “the future Mrs. Franchester.”

This was the first time he’d ever mentioned anything about us getting married in the nearly five months we’d been together. I’d never mentioned anything, even though the thought had crossed my mind, because like I felt about our first I-love-you’s, I was convinced he needed to bring it up first.  “Do you mean that?” I asked, shocked/excited/elated.

“Yes,” he said, and then bounced away to follow one of my cousin’s friends into the house. I turned to my best friend, Melissa, who was standing several feet away from me laughing at something else going on. I told her what Mike had said.

She nudged me in the arm. “That’s a good sign!” she said. “Guys don’t say that unless they mean it.”

So my thoughts exploded with the possibilities that lay ahead. When would he propose? What would he say? Who would I ask to be in my wedding party? Of course, I knew he’d had a few drinks when he’d said it. Still. He’d said it. He’d smiled when he said it. It had to be the truth. I didn’t know if I was yet ready for that kind of commitment, but it felt right. I loved him; he loved me. Was anything going to change with more time? It didn’t matter that he hadn’t yet proposed. The possibility was out there and I was happy. I’d been so careful not to mention marriage at all in the past months. I was doing everything I could to prevent being the worst example of a girlfriend, from resisting the urge to say “I love you” until  he did to carefully avoiding the word “marriage” in any of our conversations. Perhaps it wasn’t completely honest, but I really didn’t want to mess things up with him. And now my patience had paid off.

***

One of the other demons I’d fought my whole life in relationships to beat is what I call the Big Ugly Green Jealousy Monster. I’d seen the Big Ugly Green Jealousy Monster cause the destruction of one or more of my friends’ various relationships and I just didn’t want to be the kind of girl who could not trust her boyfriend. Love at its core is about trust and I knew this, always.  Still, it’s not an easy feat to keep your baser emotions in check when you feel threatened by the presence of another woman. And I’d had other women move in on a boyfriend in the past, though those had been less serious relationships, such as my first boyfriend at age 16. Still, I knew that in most cases the person you were with was more likely to cheat on you the harder you pulled on the reins. Therefore, I always strived to suppress my initial, hormone-based reaction to women who flirted Mike. I knew he loved me; I didn’t need any other reassurance. So if I felt jealous, I knew that the problem was with me and not him. I strove to suppress the Big Ugly Green Jealousy Monster within me.

I immediately knew something was wrong–something out of the ordinary–when I kept catching Mike talking to Skanky Girl at G-Bash. But I thought it was the Big Ugly Green Jealousy Monster taking control of my brain. After his confession on the porch, I’d seen sparingly little of Mike. He’d disappeared into the crowd somewhere and began socializing with other people. I figured I was being an extremely cool girlfriend by not following after him and demanding constant attention, though I was irked that he didn’t want to spend his time with me. I hung out with my own friends, giggling, chatting, drinking. But at the corner of my mind, an alarm kept going off in my head. Where is Mike? Why isn’t he coming back here? I struggled to ignore the alarm. I took deep, cleansing breaths, tried to relax.

One such awkward moment happened when I opened the door to the basement, which was where my cousin was storing most of the beverages. Mike and Skanky Girl were standing on the landing, talking. As I looked down at them, I felt as though I were intruding on something. They both looked up, surprised, at the open door.  They had been talking animatedly to each other and they suddenly stopped. Mike looked up at me, his eyes shining, as he said, “Hey, sweetie!”

A rage burned in my veins that wanted to come out. My instinct was to grab Mike, pull him along with me somewhere. No, no, my inner voice tried to sooth my qualm. You’re just letting the Big Ugly Green Jealousy Monster out. Relax. I looked at Mike’s sincere eyes. He seemed happy to see me. It was all right. He’d called me “sweetie.” The problem was me, not him. Skanky Girl, however, gave me the primal look like a dog guarding a cherished bone. There was a look of satisfaction there. She knew I was uncomfortable and she was loving it.

I’ve never been too good when challenged by another female in any sort of dual. Not knowing what else to do without sounding like a completely horrible person, I backed down. I figured Mike could take care of himself. And he would because he loved me.

“I’m just going to grab some more drinks,” I said, closing the door on them. I didn’t want to stumble past them to the basement. I figured my possessiveness would be too obvious. Instead, I headed towards one of the other locations in the house where there was a cooler full of beer. I tried to drown my thoughts in alcohol and laughing with my friends. I kept hoping Mike would show up again at my side. He never quite did, except for a few short periods of time.

***

The party was winding down. People were leaving. Mike had been missing for what seemed like hours, but I wasn’t sure because I’d been drinking and time had slowed to a grinding halt filled with laughter, paranoid and jealous thoughts I tried to suppress, and kicks of energy. Our performance as Monica and Bill had gone to the wayside. I was looking for him again. It seemed like I was always looking for him that night.

I turned the corner into my cousin’s kitchen, a side entrance that led to a little private area between his cabinets and the entrance way into his dining room. Mike stood there with Skanky Girl, leaning in close. As I watched, in slow motion, their lips touched for a kiss. They didn’t see me. I stood there, too flabbergasted to speak. Betrayal: A sharp pain like a machete ripped through my heart, guts, loins.

“Come with me,” Skanky Girl cooed, yanking on his shirt sleeves.  She gestured towards a plump woman dressed as a bumblebee who hung on a tall, skinny man. “Come on. We’re going to another party.”

Mike gave her an earnest look. In his eyes, I could see a yearning to go with her mixed with conflict. He was interested and he wasn’t entirely resisting. “I came with someone,” he said. To me, it sounded regretful. “I can’t.”

“Come on,” she pushed. “Who cares?”

At that point, I just couldn’t take it. Bile welled up in the back of my throat, the room spinned. I made my presence known. “What the fuck?” I screamed, not caring who else was in that kitchen at the moment to hear me. “Mike, what the hell?”

Skanky Girl and Mike turned around. Mike looked shocked, embarrassed, ashamed; Skanky Girl, triumphant. I turned on my heel and spun out of the room. I ran upstairs into my cousin’s bathroom where I expected to–what? I didn’t know, but I just had to get away. I’d seen my boyfriend kiss another woman. It was over. There was no way I’d let a man I was dating using me like that.

Mike’s footsteps pounded on the stairs after me. He called my name, but I shut the bathroom door in his face. Tears pushed from my eyes with the urgency of a sudden summer thunderstorm. I hurt all over my body; pain like the atoms in the air burst around on every surface of my skin. I was bleeding on the outside. I sank to the floor.

“Heidi,” Mike called from beyond the door, his voice mournful. “Heidi, let me in.”

“NO!” I shouted. “Go AWAY.”

“Please let me in,” Mike begged.

I stood up and opened the door. I suddenly wanted him to hurt as much as I was hurting. It was time to scream.

“WHAT?” I shouted. I wanted to be unrelenting, cruel, unforgiving.

He looked at me, his eyes dull. “I’m sorry.”

“WHAT? That’s all you’ve got?”

He pushed past me into the room and headed straight for the toilet. He began to heave into it. I watched his shoulders convulse and I felt no pity.

“Why?” I demanded. “What the hell did you do that for? What have I done to make you want to kiss some other girl?”

Mike’s head bobbed, but he did not turn around. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” I raged. “How could you not know?!”

Mike slumped against the toilet seat, heaved again, and then responded, seething, “I. Don’t. Know.”

“Well, fine.” I replied. “But it’s over. I’m leaving.”

I didn’t really have any way to leave; we’d come in Mike’s car and all my over-night things were at his house. But I sure as hell wasn’t going back home with him. And I couldn’t stay here at my cousin’s, not after that scene in the kitchen. I was so ashamed and embarrassed. How many people had seen Mike–the man they all knew I was dating–kiss another girl? I am not even sure to this day who all witnessed it because no one ever speaks of it (thankfully) to me. We all share a conspiracy of silence.  The truth of the matter was, I was too embarrassed to even leave the bathroom.

“No,” Mike said, suddenly sounding regretful and childlike. “No, don’t go.”

I stood there, looking down at him as he dry-heaved a few more times into the toilet. Despite my anger, rage, unbearable sadness–all of which he was the cause–I felt sorry for him. Against my will, I felt my heart warm slightly at his obvious distress. I wasn’t sure if he was sick from repentance or drunkenness, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He had the crumbled hunch of defeated man. He truly understood that he’d colossally fucked up. I didn’t need to rub it in.

“Okay,” I relented. “I’ll drive you home. But I’m not staying the night.”

“Okay,” he agreed, struggling to push himself off the ground. I leaned over to help him up. He put his arm on my shoulder for support and we walked together out of the bathroom, down the steps, and to the back door. My cousin was standing there, jovially flirting with a skinny blond girl I knew he’d been crushing on. If he’d seen what had taken place earlier, he was not letting on; I couldn’t even read anything in his usually expressive eyes.

“We’re going,” I said, trying to sound casual and nonplussed. “Mike’s not feeling well.”

“Okay, Cuz.” Gary smiled, gave me a hug. “It was good having you here. Thanks for coming.”

It was probably the best acting role I’ve ever performed. Somehow, despite the hardness of dried salty tears on my cheek, I managed a smile, a hug, and a level of nonchalance that seemed convincing enough to me. I wasn’t about to let the world see how defeated I felt. Somehow, I could leave that house holding my head high, as if I never saw the oncoming train that had hit me. I wasn’t sure at that moment what was worse: being cuckolded or admitting to knowing I’d been cuckolded. I exited that party as if I were merely escorting a drunk boyfriend home. The half hour back to his place, however, was the longest drive of silence.

***

I found it in my heart to help Mike get changed and into bed. I couldn’t just leave him. He really did seem to be experiencing a horrible hangover or crippling regret. As mad as I was at him–and I was fuming–I couldn’t find it my heart to just leave him at his house and drive home. He was morose and silent. I could tell that he was perhaps sharing some of the physical pain I was feeling. That made me feel better, part out of vengeance and part out of empathy. He asked me to stay the night and I did. I even slept next to him his bed, though I was careful not to touch or brush up against him throughout that long night of nightmares and unrest. As I look back, I realize I was going through the grieving process; three years later, I’d have experience a similar sleepless, nightmare-filled night, alone. Both were equally as painful.

The next morning, Mike got up first and slumped downstairs into the kitchen. I gathered up my stuff and started packing it. I was totally prepared to leave the house, head back to the room I now rented in my best friend’s basement. When I got downstairs, Mike stopped me. He was fiddling with some CDs by his boom box on the floor.

“Wait,” he called. “Don’t go.”

He hit play on the boom box and I recognized the first few notes of Billy Joel’s “So it Goes.”

He put his arms out, gesturing for me to take his hands to begin a slow dance. Despite my better judgment, I put down my bag and slid stiffly into his open arms. I initially held myself at a distance, but he pulled me in as the lyrics started. A verse played before he spoke, “I’m sorry, sweetie. Really, I am.”

“But why?” I asked, hard. I didn’t want to give in so easily. I felt like crying again as I remembered the sight of he and Skanky Girl kissing. “Why did you do it?”

“I don’t know. I drank too much. Or I maybe buried myself in the Clinton role,” he said. It was a kind of dark joke we often used as short hand to describe to each other what happened that night. “But I’m sorry. I don’t want to lose you. I really don’t want to lose you.”

My resolve was melting. I hated myself for it. This was not how liberated women acted. I’d seen girl friends cheated on by their boyfriends before and I’d sworn I’d never take a guy back who did that to me. Yet, here I was, dancing in the arms of a man who was sweet-talking me back into his good graces. I had to be stronger than this. Yet, his body, his eyes begged me to forgive him. And, dammit, I loved him. Conflict brewed in my mind. I had to be stronger than this.

He began to sing with the music. He sounded so earnest.

***

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one comes along

I spoke to you in cautious tones
You answered me with no pretense
And still I feel I said too much
My silence is my self-defense

And every time I’ve held a rose
It seems I only felt the thorns
And so it goes, and so it goes
And so will you soon I suppose

But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break

And this is why my eyes are closed
It’s just as well for all I’ve seen
And so it goes, and so it goes
And you’re the only one who knows

So I would choose to be with you
That’s if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break

And so it goes, and so it goes
And you’re the only one who knows.

***

How can a girl resist a serenade? I sighed.

“Okay,” I said. “This is your one and only strike card. Your ‘get out of jail’ free. If you ever–and I mean ever–do something like that to me again, I will never come back to you. Never.”

Mike nodded solemnly. “I know. I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. It will never happen again,” he swore.

“I won’t be played,” I continued. “I won’t let myself be used. You only get one strike. It’s not baseball.”

Mike shook his head fervently. “I get it. I know. If I ever do that to you again, I deserve what I get.”

“Okay,” I said. I leaned into him and let him hold me as the last lines of the song faded into the music.

“I love you, Fritzy,” he said. “Really, I do.”

***

Several months later, when Mike and I were actually engaged, I talked to Mike’s best friend Jonathon about what had happened. We’d been to another party–the second annual Woodchuck we’d all attended–and Skanky Girl had been there, this time hitting on Jonathon. Mike had pulled Jonathon aside and quickly gave him a summary about Skanky Girl. What exactly he said, I don’t know but Jonathon backed off all initial interest he’d shown in her. Later, he and I had a heart-to-heart while Mike was in another room. I was still a little baffled about that night Mike had betrayed my trust. I told Jonathon that I couldn’t believe that the same night Mike had first mentioned he wanted to marry me, he cheated on me with some other trampy girl.

Jonathon just shook his head and gave me a knowing look. “It makes complete sense,” he said. “He had just realized that you were the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. That’s a big, scary step. He didn’t know how to handle it. He had to make sure he wanted to totally give up the freedom of being single.”

“That’s a pretty lousy way of sewing his wild oats,” I grumbled.

“I didn’t say it was smart. I just said that it made sense that he did it.”

Jonathon was the only other person with whom Mike and I had ever discussed the events of that particular G-Bash. It was a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders. The fact that he didn’t seem to think the entire incident was as big of a deal as I still saw it made me feel a little better. It was only a kiss, after all. Still, my heart was cautious for a long time. And even after Mike’s death, I wondered if he ever dallied from me again. Grief makes you imagine some pretty crazy scenarios. I even entertained the oddball thought that he’d faked his death to be with another wife he’d hidden somewhere across the country, that he was leading a dual life like one of those crazy news stories you hear about or those plots they make Lifetime Movie Network movies out of. It was possible; after all, he traveled a lot. Trust is a hard thing to earn and a much harder thing to earn back after lost. I prefer to believe Jonathon’s words. And they did bring me comfort at the time.

***

Once, a few years later when we were married, I brought this incident up again to Mike. He threw his hands up in frustration and exclaimed, “Are you ever going to forgive me for that?”

Every time I sat down to write this story, my hands were stopped at the memory of Mike chastising me. I can almost see him hovering about me in an ephemeral realm, rolling his eyes, muttering, “Dammit, you’re never gonna forgive me for this. Now the whole world knows.”

I merely record it to assure myself that I don’t only remember the beautiful parts of my relationship with Mike. There were ups and downs; more ups than down. Maybe sometimes I don’t forgive myself for being so easy to persuade back into his love. But love is complex. It’s easier to look on the outside of something and think you’ll know what you’d do. We went on to have some great times after and, despite my initial mistrust, I never really did think he would stray again. From that time on, whenever we were together at a social function, he hung at my side. I didn’t make him; he chose to. He said that the only way to remove temptation was to control the ability to be tempted. I initially thought that by staying at my side, I was confining him. Confinement seemed a sorry excuse for staying with me. I realized later, however, that he was choosing to stand next to me because that was really where he preferred to be. If he needed a constant reminder of what he had to lose, then so be it.  A relationship is a constant, conscious effort.

Despite my fearful musings in the wake of his death, I did forgive him. He never proved me wrong again; I had no reason to believe he had. What’s done is done and I’ve let go. It was just another drunken folly of youth. And it was, after all, only a kiss. We had the vow of a life together.

I love you… I think

July 4th weekend, 1998, Mike and I decided to take a trip to Put-in-Bay in attempt to make up for the trip we never took on our first date. Because we wanted to stay over night, and I was still battling with my mom over whether or not it was decent to go on over-nights with just my boyfriend, I asked my friends Diane and Bonnie (not Mike’s step-sister, but a friend of mine by the same name) to join us. We got a camp site on the main land in Port Clinton right by the lake. We planned to spend the day on Put-in-Bay, maybe catch the fireworks, and then return to our camp late in the evening. Mike and I had been dating for over a month now and, while my friends had met him at various social gatherings, they really didn’t know him quite well enough to consider him anything other than the guy I was dating. This weekend, I felt, would give them the opportunity to get to know him better and likewise he, them.

Bonnie, Mars Girl, and Diane at camp - July 4, 1998

The weekend started off pretty nicely. We arrived the evening before the fourth and set up camp with enough time to cook a meal. Then, looking for adventure, we hiked down a busy road to a restaurant that we hoped served drinks so that we could chill out and relax. The walk turned out to be much longer that we’d realized from camp. The proprietor of the restaurant seemed really miffed to have us there drinking and chatting–not eating–and he kept coming around leering at us as if just waiting for us to do something that would give him the excuse to kick us out. We weren’t being obnoxious or even loud, just enjoying quality time among friends. I suppose it was perhaps our age that made him suspicious of us.

We left the restaurant right before its early 12am closing. We left money on our table for the tab but we unintentionally underpaid. We were halfway down the street when the proprietor shouted after us, running to catch up. He’d finally figured out what we barely over 21 (with the exception of Mike) “juveniles” were up to–we were trying to dine (drink) and ditch! Mike jumped in to smooth things out–perhaps being the oldest amongst us he felt he was the best fit for that part–and paid the difference in the tab. The proprietor accepted the money with a grunt, and then turned back to the restaurant. We laughed about the incident the whole way back to camp (and sometimes years after), making fun of the proprietor–a grumpy old man–who’d hated us from the moment we walked into his restaurant. It seemed funny to us at the time because we were the complete opposite of “young trouble.” I think this was a shared memory that bound us together as a group–the moment when my two closest friends accepted Mike as a mutual friend as well.

The next morning, we hung around the picnic table at the camp, eating breakfast and chatting. Things continued to go great between my friends and Mike. And Mike was being incredibly affectionate towards me, sitting behind me, his arms around my waist and occasionally resting his chin on my shoulder. I was trying to control the public displays of affection around my friends for their benefit but his sweetness towards me was irresistible. Something was shifting between us, intensifying, and it was thrilling.

Affectionate Mike at camp, July 4, 1998.

When we finally decided that it was time to hit Put-in-Bay, I walked away from the camp to clean my breakfast plate at the water spicket. Mike followed me. I don’t remember quite what we were chatting about, but I turned to give him a quick kiss on the lips and as I did, he took both of my hands in his.

“Be careful,” he said, his eyes glowing with this new intensity. “I might fall in love with you.”

A warm feeling passed from my heart down to my knees. I’d been waiting for Mike to bring up love for several weeks now, since I’d first started having true feelings of love for him. However, having been burned in the past by too soon professions of love, I’d vowed to myself that I was not going to be the first one to say it in this relationship. No, I was going to let Mike arrive at the conclusion himself. I figured that when a guy said it first, he really meant it, instead of feeling obligated to say it merely because I’d said it first.

I was taken a little off guard, though, because I’d not expected him to say anything remotely close to admitting he loved me. Not on that weekend, the least romantic of all, when we were hanging out among friends. Still, it was a delight to hear and I lived from the high of his confession. Throughout the day, whenever we had a moment alone, he’d repeat his statement. Each time, it was a word of caution, this partial admittance, as if all I had to perform was one, temptation-filled act, and he’d lose all control of his emotions and become hopelessly no-holds-barred in love. As if he hadn’t already fallen in love with me. Each time he repeated the statement, I just smiled and kissed him. I wasn’t settling for a half-confession; no, I was determined to not admit anything until he stopped hiding behind hypotheticals and full-out admitted it.

It was becoming harder and harder for me to resist revealing my feelings for him. My stubborn resolve was starting to melt. But if I said something first, if I admitted to even agreeing with his statement, then he’d have the upper hand over me. My previous dating life, though relatively simple, had left me slightly jaded in regard to men and love. I was afraid that if I let him know how I felt first, then he would back off from his own statements in fear. It had to be him first.

That evening after we watched the fireworks, an abrupt wind storm swept through the Erie coast. We arrived back at camp to tents buckling in the wind, dangerously close to collapse. We decided to call our trip short and hurried to pack up the camp and leave.  Since my mom expected me to be gone all weekend, and she didn’t know about our evacuation from camp, I decided that I would spend the night at Mike’s house. He would be going out of town again for work the following week, so it was our last bit of private time together for a few days. I hoped this time alone would give us the opportunity to talk more candidly about the topic of love he’d so cavalierly brought up while we were hanging out with Diane and Bonnie.

Mike cooking a meal at camp. (I like this picture--he looks cute.)

He never so much as brought it up again, though. Not even the “threat” of possibly falling in love with me. I figured perhaps I’d missed my opportunity to respond. A little voice in my head began to nag me to bring it up. But how does someone bring something like that up if the subject never presents itself. Should I just slide in an “I love you” off-hand, hope it had the desired effect? No, I needed to wait for him to bring it up again. The rest of the evening and throughout the next morning, it never came up again.

The drive from his house to my parents’ house was about 45 minutes. Two voices in my head–one emotional, the other protective and logical–fought with each other over whether or not I should bring up the topic in those long moments on the road. I’m sure we talked of a lot of other things, but I can’t recall what, because my mind was focused on the memory of the words he’d spoken to me while we were at Put-in-Bay. I had to say something.

It wasn’t until we were five minutes away from my parents house when that “now or never” moment arrived. I still remember that we were on passing beneath the highway bridge on the route into my home town of Brunswick. I took a deep breath, and then blurted, “Um, Mike? You know that topic you brought up this weekend? You know… about… um. Possibly. Um. Loving me?”

His eyes on the road, Mike’s mouth twisted into that amused smirk I had grown to love so much. “Yes…” he said, cautiously.

I swallowed. Hard. “Well. I. Um. Think I might be falling in love with you too.”

There, it was said. For better or for worse, my cards were all out on the table. He could cast them away or pick them up as he saw fit. There was no turning back now.

Damn, I silently cursed myself. I still said it first.

Mike’s smirk stretched a little further and I could see him glancing sideways over at me. “I’m glad to hear it,” he replied, his voice faltering slightly to reveal his own unease at the revelation. I hoped I’d said the right thing. I hoped I hadn’t forced a confession out of him.

There was no time to expand further on the topic because we had arrived at my parents’ house. In the driveway, he turned off the car and we sat back in our seats, passing a few words of small talk between us. This was the hardest part of our weekends–taking leave of one another. Not only was I never able to spend the nights with him as I wanted under normal conditions, but even when we did have an entire weekend together, there was always an end to it. Because he worked out-of-town during the week, there were often long five-day stretches of not seeing each other. Such as the one that was following that weekend. Even though our time together as a couple had not been long (or maybe because of), we found it harder and harder to part at the end of our dates.

In those early days of our dating, and much later when things started to head down the path towards marriage, I remembered something my mom had once said: You get married because you never want to go [back to your own] home. I’d never wanted my dates with anyone to end–especially not in the early chapters of a relationship– but with Mike it just seemed an easy, natural thing to live with him. I wouldn’t move in with him, I knew, unless we were married. However, when I later started living in my own apartment, we both would end up spending very little time alone when he was in town–we’d either be at my place or his.

We didn’t kiss or anything at that moment–we couldn’t because my dad got angry about public displays of affection between me and a boyfriend in his driveway–so we just procrastinated our goodbye with idle chatter. Finally, I reluctantly opened the door. Mike also got out, helping me pull my gear from the trunk. We hugged and gave each other a quick kiss on the lips. Then, Mike slumped back into the driver’s seat, but did not swing his legs into the car. He confessed to not looking forward to the coming week.

I tried to provide a positive tone. “Well, at least you get to go somewhere else for a while. That’s always fun,” I tried.

Mike nodded and, with a sigh, said, “But it’s all by myself. That’s no fun.”

He reached out for my arm and pulled me back towards the car. He wrapped his arms around my stomach and, still sitting in the car while I stood, his head fell below my chest. I wound a finger through one of the curls of hair at the back of his head. Then he let go and we parted again.

“See you later,” I said, trying again to sound cheerful though my heart sank. I was going to miss him.

“Yes,” he replied. There was a pause and he looked boldly into my eyes. “I love you… I think.”

I felt the heat rise from the pit of my stomach to my cheeks. “I think I love you too.”

And then he swung his feet into the car, closed the door, started up the engine and, flashing a quick wave goodbye, he rolled out of my driveway and was gone. That was the last time the words “I think” were ever applied to our exchange of “I love yous.” When he called me the next evening after work, he ended our phone conversation with a casual, collected “I love you” as if we’d been saying it to each other for years. Despite the precarious start, “I love you” was suddenly the most natural words we said to each other. We vowed to always mean it when we said it. I know I always kept that vow.