fear, lessons, love, men, reflections, relationships

on the best of times and worst of times (apologies to dickens)

I don’t know what’s worse: having to swallow one’s pride to ask family members for help or being refused said help (albeit kindly and gently) using the reasoning that you’re resourceful enough to figure out the way out of your own tight spots. But from a young age, you’ve been careful not to bother anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s a lesson most any child learns when they come up in an unpredictable home filled with any kind of -holic (from rageaholics to alcoholics) or those with mental illnesses who have rules and expectations that shift hourly (if not by the minute). I’ve got don’t bother anyone unless the house is on fire or your brother’s arm’s been amputated or the Pope just got assassinated and we need to head to Church to pray burned into my consciousness. No one needs to tell me to figure things out by rubbing two dimes together, closing my eyes tight, and thinking until my brain hurts about how I’m going to get myself out of a jam in a way that won’t further injure the already-cracked eggshells I’m walking on.

The family members I go to for help are ones who taught me to be super-quiet unless it was a super-emergency (I always thought I’d be an adult when I learned how to cry without making noise, thereby having learned how to be in pain without having to share or reveal it to anyone). You’d think this would mean my popping up and saying “Hey there! I could use a little assistance over here!” would be the emotional equivalent of the flares responsible people (read: not me) pack in cars for road trips that, when used, indicate they could use a lift, or help changing a tire, or a place to stay for the night, or a hot meal, or whatever sorts of things flares are supposed to signal to people passing by. (I’m fairly sure they don’t mean “I could really use some help, but feel free to pass on by, because I’m resourceful and can probably figure out a way out of this situation, and I just put this flare out because I think it looks pretty.”)

But this is how it goes. I don’t know if it’s a test, or one big joke, or just how things go in my family. It just is.

***

I had coffee and went to a meeting this morning with a friend, and it was great. The meeting was more like a Baptist revival (meaning: lots of hootin’ and hollerin’), and it was fun. And talking to my friend (whom I hadn’t seen since we’d met on a camping trip not this summer but last summer, when she convinced me to swing off of a rope into the river and also jump off of a 20-foot cliff—yes, injuries were had, but more to my ego than my body, though that did take a beating as well) was nice, too. She was a little bit in awe of the rapid changes in my personal life, and I confessed that I was as well. How can things be so perfect in one area of my life and yet so frustratingly uncertain and even downright depressing in another?

It doesn’t seem fair. Will I always be on a see-saw in life, in which I have to either be happy in work or romance but not both? I met Jack, then a month later was laid off from what had been the job that made me the happiest. I thought things were stable with John, then his lies and deception came to light just as I found happiness in my first full-time publishing job. And I can find similar patterns going back decades: finding my first union newspaper job, which led to the end of a marriage; getting my first managerial position but separating from The Philosopher; and on and on and on.

Of course it isn’t that simple. And much of it is, indeed, coincidence. Some was the complications that came with being in relationships with men intimidated by not being the breadwinner in the family. I just can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I was both professional fulfilled and in a satisfying relationship at the same time. Actually, I don’t believe I ever have been.

***

I hate being back in the 2% space, back in the hole. Calling my credit card company to ask for an increase and being told I have to wait 2-3 days. Applying for a personal loan that will probably involve astronomical interest rates. Thinking about all the independently wealthy men I passed up or divorced or ignored because I didn’t love them, or didn’t love them anymore, or didn’t love them enough.

The handsome middle-aged financier who took me to the Lyric Opera Ball when I was 20 years old, buying me a gown and sending me to get my hair and makeup done, telling me I was so beautiful when I was convinced I was a ogre (I probably was stunning and couldn’t imagine myself so). He wanted me to be his mistress, a kept woman in a Gold Coast condo, and offered me an allowance so large that even by today’s standards (22 years later) I’d feel indulgent accepting it. It was an ugly arrangement, and I thought so little of myself then I’m surprised I didn’t accept. But I knew, even then, that I’d regret crossing that line.

The wealthy German boy with thick red hair in my class on social contract theory (where we’d have the most delicious discussions) who offered me $50,000 to marry him, just so he could stay in the country. Of course I knew he was gay, bisexual at best, and that marriage would entail as little sex and as much freedom as I wanted. It would have been easy, but despite having one failed marriage behind me already (at age 22) I still imagined marriage as something more than being a beard for a German with enough money to buy his way into an arrangement. Or at least I wanted something more than that for myself. I think he ended up marrying a Polish girl he met near Six Corners, whose parents had come to Chicago illegally, but since she’d been born there, she was a citizen. I’m sure she and her family needed the money more than I needed another dint in my conscience.

My second husband. It never should have happened, but it did. A child is the best that came out of it. We weren’t compatible from the beginning, but I let my cravings for stability lull me into believing he could be enough, that I could dampen my aspirations for a life in the country as a wife and mother (I could not, not for more than a few months). He had money, or at least his family did, and it helped for a while, him buying me things to get me to stay. But I’ve never been one for big gifts and grand gestures, or at least not ones with that sort of intention behind them. Give me a little thoughtful gift, the sort you pick up at a shop you’ve wandered into where, remembering I like miniature things, you find a tiny glass bunny who looks like he’s been through quite a bit, and you think we might get along, that bunny and me, so you pay the $2 asking price and get the clerk to wrap it up, a bit clumsily, and you might as well have bought me the moon. No one’s ever done that, but Jack once bought me two different vintage flour sifters at a thrift store next door to his apartment in Edison Park, not knowing which one I’d prefer, only that I needed one, and when he saw them on a shelf in the tiny back room there was no question that he’d be getting them both. What means more: two flour sifters worth no more than a few dollars or the 1968 Firebird convertible my second husband bought me for my 25th birthday to convince me not to leave him? I think you know. Or at least you know the answer I’d give. Other women might give a different one. But I’m not them.

There’s also the founder of a huge website, one you probably know the name of, since everyone does. Most everyone in the world, even people in developing countries. I broke up with him. He went on to do amazing things that changed the world. I’m not saying that if I hadn’t broken up with him (over an answering machine, no less, because I was that sheepish), I would have been the one to accompany him on his journey to the top. We probably would have continued to have fantastic sex for a while, and then he would have been off to do his thing. Or maybe not. It’s anyone’s guess. But I have a habit of breaking up with people under similar circumstances, so much so that more than one friend has joked that perhaps I should start a service for startup founders looking to launch their products to the next level, since so many men I’ve dated have found amazing success not long after I’ve broken up with them. (Or perhaps it’s the heartache that does it? I’ll never know why, only that I have no regrets. They weren’t the right people for me, and their success or size of their bank accounts wouldn’t change that.)

There are others, too. I’ve been proposed to at least a dozen times with rings that have blinded me. Men who have professed their undying love for a woman they barely knew, because I never let them get to know me, just a superficial version that they wanted me to be, while they took care of me superficially. I never loved them back, or at least not in a way that meant anything, a fact I hardly noticed until Jack came along. I thought everyone loved people in a transactional way until then.

***

It isn’t easy growing up in a dysfunctional family nor, later, to become an adult working through the aftermath of trauma and learning all of the aspects of normality that were absent from a life that in retrospect was actually as interesting and exciting and informative as it was terrifying and terribly lonesome.

I used to think my childhood was something horrible that was done to me, and then it was something I had survived. I suppose it still is both of those things in some ways (more the latter than the former, by far), but mostly it has become a series of interconnected experiences that served as the kiln by which I was fired into the strong woman I am today. There are cracks and imperfections and insecurities (oh, are there ever), but there is also a deep acceptance that I’m a flawed human being who is trying to do better, always, but in the meantime is doing the best that she can with the tools that she’s been given. Amid the things other people view as tragic moments of my younger years, there was laughter, too, and a great deal of education in the things that truly matter in life (which mostly involve using your own hands and ingenuity to create things, solve problems, and interact with people to form relationships and memories that endure).

Against this backdrop, I spend my days lately both terrified about my money situation  (especially since Family Help ain’t comin’) and—in the far recesses of my mind—98% certain that things will turn around somehow (I mean, they have to, right?) and that all this worrying is getting me nowhere. Every time I think the bottom is going to fall out, I discover that the bottom wasn’t where I thought it was. And that might not be true this time. I realize that. But there are worse things (I can’t think of them at the moment, but there are) than having to give up seeing my son for Christmas so that I can pay my rent this month instead. I can’t let life get me down, as much as I’d like to spent 18 hours a day in bed feeling overwhelmed and horribly distraught.

***

Besides, I have a new relationship to tend to, one that doesn’t deserve to be burdened by my worries and fretting all the time. We just returned from an absolutely amazing time in California (when a writer says there are no words to describe what happened, you just have to take her word for it, so I’m telling you: there are no words), and everything just keeps growing deeper and more intimate, to a level I hadn’t even realized was possible. And now, after all this writing, I’m just tired… and I have yet to make space in my room for a certain someone who’s staying with me until he closes on his condo in early January (yes, you read that correctly) and make dinner for when he gets home.

How does a life change so rapidly, in such a short time?

Sometimes it happens when you lose someone you love, and you’re told the one upside of having known that sort of love is that, if and when it comes around again, you’ll be able to recognize it immediately and know there isn’t time to waste. Sometimes it happens because it feels like it’s the right time, the right place, and the right person.

Sometimes, it just happens. Sometimes, it just is. Sometimes, there are no words to explain. You have the let the far recesses of your mind—the same place where worries go to be soothed and told things will work out just fine—sit back, relax, and let out a great big sigh of relief that tonight, when the lights go out, there will be someone there who loves you, and who you love back, drifting off to sleep right along with you.

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