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.
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.