The Forgiveness Chronicles - Part XIII: Vicious Cycles
The Forgiveness Chronicles, Continued
Part XIII: Vicious Cycles
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
Six months had passed from the Goddess Gathering. I had been dreaming about laying on my air mattress in the tipi tent, listening to the sound of rain patter against the ground just outside, burrowing deeply into my comforter. I awoke on the mattress on the floor in our new bedroom. We hadn’t put the bed together yet. It was a Sunday, and I savored our first weekend in the new house. Like a sudden thunderstorm, the controversies at work that had consumed my energy for the week had resolved as rapidly and as unexpectedly as they had arisen, and though relieved at their passing, I still felt drained. Sundays were hard days; the tension between enjoying the day off and yet the dread of returning to work on Monday siphoned the motivation to get out of bed. Our daughter uncharacteristically slept in that morning; the week had worn her out, too. Chet and I laid snuggled in a sleepy embrace, his hands gently squeezing and massaging my muscles, tense from work and moving. His fingers lingered on a spot on my right breast. His eyes met mine.
“A lump,” he said softly.
“What?” I chuckled. I rolled over and looked at him and saw that his brow was furrowed.
“It’s right here,” he said, pressing gently on the spot.
I rolled my eyes and sighed. What was it about being a woman that was just so inconvenient all the time? I had to coordinate everyone’s schedules. That alone was a job. The color-coded desk calendar demanded every color highlighter in stock at Office Max, and it hung on the side of the fridge, covering all the dents and scratches incurred during our recent move. The calendar didn’t seem to have enough space on it to write down all the shit that had to be done, but there was no bigger calendar. Every morning, that calendar was checked, and my brain went straight into planning mode. Empty dishwasher, put away dishes, make breakfast, make lunches, defrost meat for dinner, return calls and emails, shower, makeup, take the kid to preschool, make it to the office and try to get some work done amid the ringing phones and emails. To-do lists were scattered across my desk, pending items for each case with carefully noted deadlines. Bills to pay, deposits to make, and files to close or open, stacked in neat piles, patiently waiting their turn on my desk. I needed to remember to eat my lunch, drink water all day, and take regular bathroom breaks. Then I rushed out to pick up my kid, grab some groceries off a list, and make it home before rush hour traffic stole an extra forty minutes of my life. I would work out, make dinner, bathe the kid, and if I was lucky, there would be an hour left at the end of the day where I could enjoy some quiet time to myself. I needed another thing to worry about like I needed a sixth toe.
I looked over at my husband and sighed, my eyes bearing the message: I do NOT need this. He didn’t have to check anything on his body monthly. His hormones seemed even keel. There were no cramps and bloating or lumps to be found. He eased into his day, ate what I put in front of him, and went about his work without the distraction of cases, incessant phone calls, emails, or worrying about everyone’s schedule but his own. Must be nice.
I put a finger under his and pressed briefly. “Nope. I don’t feel anything,” I said, wanting to give up, roll over, and wake up the next morning without having one more thing to do, like schedule an appointment to get a lump checked out.
He gently walked his fingers right back to the spot. “Right here,” he said, pressing a little more firmly.
I pressed and searched. I wondered if this was easier for women with more breast tissue. Breastfeeding and weaning had robbed me of a full cup size, so when I probed around, all I felt at first were my ribs. But it was there. This little, round, dime-sized knot. I looked over at my husband.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
“You said before that your breasts were tender,” he reminded me.
“Probably just a pre-menopause thing,” I replied, brushing it off. “Hormones. My period. It could be anything.”
It’s probably just a blocked milk duct. Yeah, that’s what it is. Or, I am on my period…weird things happen when I’m on my period. F*$k. The female body is just a constant moving target.
“I’m going to wait a week, then if it’s still there, I’ll get it checked,” I decided, dismissively. Perhaps I had bought myself more time.
I waited a week, then a month. It was still there. He didn’t let me forget.
I told my mom, who was instantly concerned because her maternal grandmother had died of lymph cancer in her fifties. “You don’t let knots in lymph areas like that go unchecked,” she had warned me. “And your other great grandma had breast cancer.”
“She was 98 years old, Mom,” I said, rolling my eyes. “It’s a miracle she made it that long without a serious illness. I’d expect all manner of shit to go wrong after 80,” I said dismissively. “Nothing can really be expected to withstand the rigors of time once a woman reaches 80 years old – except for maybe Dolly Parton’s implants…all of them.”
“You joke, but this isn’t funny, Aubs. You need to get it checked out,” Mom insisted.
I had been warned about the unpleasantness of mammograms. I wasn’t entirely convinced I had enough breast tissue to even get a mammogram. I scheduled an appointment at a women’s clinic and asked the nurse practitioner. She had me open the paper gown and put a cold, gloved hand on my breast.
“Hm, yes, you are bony there, aren’t you?” the gloves snapped off and were quickly thrown into the trash. “Yeah, a mammogram isn’t a pleasant experience. I would assume you would find it particularly…difficult,” she said tactfully. I was barely an A-cup at this point.
I left the clinic, believing there had to be an alternative. Ultimately, I settled on a thermogram, something one of the doctors Oprah liked had recommended. Some claimed that it had the ability to catch the precursors to cancer 8-10 years before it manifested, though I wasn’t entirely sold on anything anyone claimed. Yet another appointment scheduled, and yet another chunk out of a day was lost to a lump everyone was more concerned about than I was. It didn’t feel worthy of acknowledgement. My experiences had taught me that pain was the messenger, not tiny lumps that had to be searched for.
I had seen the horrors of breast cancer recently. One of my mentors was being taken down by it. When I had first met Rachel, she had been a powerhouse. One of the most successful female trial attorneys in Missouri, she had been nationally recognized for her tenacity. I was one of a handful of women who had been fortunate enough to have been personally mentored by her. She went up against big corporations and had gotten verdicts and settlements for families who had their loved ones ripped away from them by a negligent profits-over-people mentality. She was a hero in the legal community. She had beat cancer a decade prior, only to have it return at the height of her career.
It had been a sunny, perfect afternoon when I last took her to lunch. We sat outside on the patio eating our salmon salads and watching birds flit from one tree to the next in a quaint neighborhood on the west side of town. She looked up at the sky and smiled at the fluffy clouds dotting the vast blue vault.
“I wish I had taken more time,” she told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She had paused and sipped from her glass of white wine. “My favorite place was the lake,” she began. I knew she meant her lake place in northern Arkansas. “I love to water ski. Do you water ski?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I’ve only been once before, but I did surf when I lived in Hawaii.”
She smiled. “I imagine it is similar! That was my favorite. Meeting my friends, taking my family, and spending time at the lake, out on the boat, water skiing and laughing with them.”
“Why didn’t you go more?” I asked.
She gave me a knowing look. “You know how it is.”
I smiled, but I didn’t say anything. I knew all too well.
“Things get busy. Trials, litigation. My schedule isn’t really my own. The time I had in between my cases wasn’t as much as I would have liked it to be, but I did what I could.”
“How did you manage it all? I mean, I just don’t understand how you found the time.”
A wry smile crossed her face. She sighed. “I didn’t get enough sleep. I was at work by seven or eight. I worked all day. After work, I often had meetings – you know, committees, boards, happy hours, things like that – and then I would go home for a while to be with my family. Once the kids were in bed, I would work some more, until too late at night. I would get up and do it all again the next day.”
“Why? What drive you to work so hard?” I asked.
“Passion. A determination to win, to see justice through for my clients,” she answered. “But I didn’t have enough balance. I know that now.”
“How would you do things differently? Would you have done it differently?” I asked, picking up my own wine glass.
She looked up at the tree next to us, then slowly her gaze met mine across the table. “I don’t know if I had it in me to work less, to do less, than I have done.” She shook her head. “I can say that I would have liked to have had a more balanced life, but I am not sure I could have actually done it.”
I had nodded, and I knew what she meant. Most exceptional lawyers didn’t know how to balance their life with their work. It is what made them exceptional. They couldn’t shut off their minds, they couldn’t shut down their drive, they couldn’t figure out how to unplug, care less, or be anything but obsessed with their mission. They kept going and digging and preparing until they were as sure as they could be that they had out-prepared their opponent. And even then, underneath all the confidence, a lingering anxiety was still tugging at them, saying, what if I missed something? I knew the feeling all too well, but that lunch with Rachel would haunt me for years to come. I would wonder if the lack of balance had manifested itself as illness, or if it was just part of “God’s plan” as Rachel referred to it. Perhaps I would never know.
The thermogram of the breasts came back fine, but imaging showed that the thyroid and entire lymph system was inflamed and blocked. I started on a regimen of apple cider vinegar, lymph stimulation exercises, nascent iodine supplements, super greens, probiotics, skin brushing, oil pulling, you name it. At the next gathering with my girlfriends, Janis asked if I was worried.
“Honestly? Not for me. If it were just me, I wouldn’t get it checked. I probably wouldn’t do anything. I’d allow nature and life to take its course.”
“Suicide is a dark imagining,” she replied. She was referring to the Desiderata, a poem we both read regularly.
“That isn’t suicide. Its death. Its natural. No one is supposed to live forever. We don’t get to say how young is too young; we don’t always get to decide,” I countered.
“So, I got it checked because my family and friends and people count on me. I did what was expected of me. There are people that rely on me, and I feel obligated to show up for them. But I will only go so far. If I had cancer, no chemo. No radiation. They want effort, I do it on my terms. I’ll meet them halfway. But I don’t want to go through a nasty battle with my own body. And if its terminal, I want euthanasia. I don’t want anyone wiping my ass or helping me breathe. That’s no life. And everyone around me would suffer. It wouldn’t be just. I am not afraid to die. I look around me and see a culture obsessed with youth and terrified of aging and death. Who benefits? Big Pharm. I’ve had my tango with Big Pharm and Big Pharm isn’t a dance partner I ever want again.”
Janis had a laundry list – her bucket list – of music festivals to go to and places to see.
“Lukas Nelson, oh my god…and Eddie Vedder. I want to see Pearl Jam! There’s too many things left to do and see! There’s a music festival in San Francisco in October!” she exclaimed. “We should all go! We HAVE to go to that,” she exclaimed.
But the three of us – Nora, Maria, and I – just nodded politely, knowing there was little chance we would ever allow ourselves such decadence as to leave our work, husbands, and kids behind in the middle of the fall semester to go party during the workweek at some music festival in California. We were firmly entrenched in the midlife practicality of mommy-martyrdom. The expense of such frivolity was beyond our comprehension. Spend money to fly to California for a concert and not take the family? Such vanity!
But Janis was a music connoisseur. She couldn’t endure silent moments. There was always music coming from her phone, her car, her radio. Blues, jazz, rock, classic rock….she devoured it all with a zeal for life that was unparalleled. She would dance all night, in high heels or galoshes, crash as dawn was breaking, and rise again in four hours for a Bloody Mary brunch and another day packed with more live music, dancing until her blisters bled. Janis was a rock star who never wound up living life on stage, but did live vicariously in the mosh pit. She’d throw up a peace sign and exclaim, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll!”
I couldn’t wrap my mind around how she juggled everything and still had time for all-night concerts and dance parties…in her forties. I was ten years younger, but I was exhausted just listening to it all. The divorce, the affair, the kids, the travel to distant music festivals on Thursday and back at work Monday, sometimes catching up on a Saturday or a Sunday, and then off to another location for another set list. I wondered if it was a balm of distraction, numbing her from the painful realities that lurked elsewhere in her life. What I saw in her scared me. I could never follow her down that path of traveling and music festivals. Despite the temporal distance, the call of my past always lingered, tickling at my spine, inviting me to escape.
My late teens and early twenties felt like a lifetime ago. It was a drug and booze fueled span of four years that were all mangled and mushed together in the back of my mind. My flame had burned white hot in those days, where every weekend saw a rock concert. I had been an expert at finding my way backstage. I spent time binge drinking Southern Comfort and chain-smoking cigarettes on tour busses parked behind the venue, on the right side of the chain link fences with peering eyes of adoring fans. I was never the easiest or prettiest groupie of the bunch, with my crooked humped nose and diminished self-esteem, so I often headed home or to an after party to round out my night when the bus rolled away and down the interstate. I was invited to join musicians on the road a couple times, but something always pulled me back. I would return home to my own bed, room spinning, legs and feet sore, heart thumping, and like Janis, I had gotten back up and to do it all again the next day. I started the morning with some Southern Comfort shots, orange juice, cigarettes, and bacon. No amount of booze, pills, or bacon could erase the dark memories that clung to my soul, haunting me with an excruciating relentlessness that felt like torture. Relief was only ever temporary, and soon I found myself locked in a vicious cycle of addiction.
When it came time to graduate from college, I nearly overdosed. It was then that I realized that at least among that crowd, if you were not part of the action – if you did not participate – you were irrelevant. If you didn’t have drugs to share, it you weren’t using, if you weren’t interacting, you were invisible. At that moment, if anyone had bothered to stop what they were doing to notice me, I would have been the buzz kill. Those people did not care about much outside themselves and their high. They could care less whether I made it through my college graduation, whether I wound up in a ditch, or would go on to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. It was about the moment, but not in a way that a yoga master would recognize or embrace “The Now.” There was only one common thread that bound us together: in that moment, the pain of the world ceased to exist. There were no recognizable burdens anymore because everything had dissolved into a manufactured, euphoric abyss; a soft and pliable bubble where harsh realities, traumatic memories, social norms, and crushing expectations faded and disappeared, if only for a night.
It had been ironic that the reality I was desperately trying to escape only served to further perpetuate my own horror. Like a tornado popping up unexpectedly from a late spring thunderstorm, the memories of the abuse had crashed into my mind’s eye in harsh flashes. The violence with which they ripped through my psyche made me question whether they were real. One moment, dark, dingy, mold scented spaces of the neighbor’s house raced behind my eyelids. Just snippets, like the old ripped sheets shrouding dust covered windows, a single light dangling from the ceiling off in some corner, burst forth in painful, broken reels.
I withered and tried to slam the door shut, desperate to stop the images thrashing up from the depths, but they just kept coming, too horrific to endure, leaving me to wallow in a puddle of my own shame. Everything broke in a moment, just as metal twists and impales in the violent churning of a cyclone’s wind, I felt the cold blade of despair rip though and pierce my soul.
The portal to all the darkest moments of my life yawned open all too often back then. I couldn’t bear any more ugliness. I could hear the preacher’s son and my neighborhood bully in the back of my mind, pointing at mud smeared across the bus window, “Look! Aubrey opened her legs!” or the moment in gym class, when I had finally gotten my period but hadn’t realized it, my bully had said, “Looks like someone doesn’t know how to use a tampon.” The tormenting had been relentless, and they had hurt before, but in the moment of overdose, they were intolerable, rattling around in my brain, flashes of malevolent lightening, threatening to set everything ablaze. It left a scar that only grew deeper.
When my high school boyfriend offered me my own Mad Dog 20/20, I drank the entire bottle and reveled in the numbness that followed. When I was offered an opium rolled cigarette, I took it willingly, without a second thought. My entire body felt like a hot air balloon and a lead blanket at the same time, the tether to reality unraveling and slipping blissfully away. I could only focus on the rhythm of the music slithering out of the stereo and into my ears as all thoughts evaporated. I had never before been without my thoughts and it was liberating. Everything slowed down to a crawl. I remembered thinking, finally, a reprieve from the constant hum of my mind, the constant plague of self-doubt, insecurity, and second guesses, and as Janis would later put it, dark imaginings.
In those hazy days of ditched responsibility and avoided obligations, I swam in shallow warm waters of self-absorption, even after I had stopped using drugs. I was homeless and wandering, thinking that if only I could find myself, a path where good things happened might find me. It would be a long time before I realized that we aren’t found, we are made. Fortune isn’t just something that happens. It is created. Being in the right place at the right time only happens if you know where to be and when. Figuring that out requires effort. I learned early in life nothing was going save me; not god, not government, not even my family. I was the only one who could save myself, and I had to want to save myself, and I had to fight for it. Careening through life on cruise control only worked if everything was just a straight shot. My life didn’t resemble a stretch of interstate across Kansas. It was a goddamned switchback mountain road in the dead of winter, snow-packed and icy, with steep hairpin climbs, fleeting views of vast vistas and plummeting descents. Cruise control was sure death. I need to start driving and I needed to decide where I wanted to go. I no longer lived my life at the mercy of the wind.
I had crammed a lifetime of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll into four or five years. As Nora would say, “I’m too burnt toast with not enough butter.”
Like Janis, I had thought just leaving and moving away from my abusers would be enough. But geographical distance was only part of the equation. I had to actually deal with myself on an emotional and psychological level after I made that space. Sitting alone in a studio apartment infested with cockroaches the size of my palm and a neverending army of ants, detoxing, alone, trying to hack a normal nine to five, adulting, was daunting. I didn’t know what I wanted. In the quiet, solitary moments, my thoughts would soon become a wicked whirlpool of resentment. I would fixate on everything that was wrong with my situation instead of forcing myself to think of everything that was going right. I was inadvertently making myself into a magnet for all kinds of misfortune. I had spent several years working on reprogramming myself and trying to cultivate a life I wanted to create. Talk of music festivals sent a ripple through my spine. It was a trigger. So was abuse. So was addiction.
When Janis mentioned that we should all go to San Francisco for a concert, I balked. “I am not going to a concert without Chet. I cannot stick a toe back into that world without my rock. I don’t trust myself to not go running around, not getting into trouble, sabotaging myself. Besides, it feels like a lot of this travel and running around is more of a distraction than anything else.”
Janis’ eyes took on almost a desperate look. She said nothing as she bit her lip.
“Self-control is hard,” I continued, still reminiscing on the past. “But you cannot feel guilty about what hasn’t happened yet, because what’s done is done, and it’s just another excuse to justify being stuck.“
She nodded slowly. “The resentment doesn’t lead anywhere good.”
“Exactly. And what’s your husband gonna do anyway?”
Janis scowled. “Not a damn thing! I even said to him the other day, ‘What are you gonna do? Move out? I can’t afford both of us,’” she said angrily.
“You’re going to be the one forced to do something,” I surmised. “He’s too lazy. You can’t wait for him. It won’t ever happen. If you want things to be different, you’re the one who is going to have to do something.”
“It’s in court. He hasn’t gotten an attorney yet,” she announced to everyone. “I stopped paying the mortgage. I stopped paying the bills. They’re just accumulating. He hasn’t gotten anything put in his name yet. I got rid of the dog,” she said, her voice cracking. “They weren’t going to take care of him. I went back over there last week, to pick up the boys and –“ her voice broke and she started crying, her nose running. “Looks like I brought the water, again.”
We waited. Same thing, different month, different year, I thought bitterly. Nothing was harder than watching someone you love drown when the life preserver was but a foot away, and yet, they were content to struggle rather than pull themselves to safety.
“Shit!” she said, sighing. “So, I went, and they weren’t there. They were off doing something, totally stood me up. Didn’t text. Didn’t call. Dog shit on the floor. The dog still hadn’t been neutered, walked, or potty trained. And the yard! F*#k…the yard! The grass was so high. The trash hadn’t been taken out. The place just looked like it was sliding into just…yuck! Decaying! The deck was rotting, everything was going to hell. It’s so f*$king sad. This is who he is. I married that. And the kids…” she trailed off, unable to finish, sobbing fat tears into her scarf.
It was an impossibly terrible thing to watch everything she had spent fifteen years building crumble and fall apart right before her eyes. It took an immense sense of entitlement and lack of gratitude for her family to allow this to happen, and yet, there it was, disintegrating and pissed away right before our eyes.
“Uh-uh, hell no,” Maria piped up. “More manipulation! He’s playing chicken,” she explained. “He’s using your kids to manipulate you. He thinks he doesn’t have to do anything, and eventually, it will get bad enough and he’ll play the victim. ‘Look how she’s forcing us to live!’ he will say! He’s trying to get you to cave and he thinks you’ll do it because you always have…for the kids.” Maria’s eyes were molten with fury. “Stop enabling them.”
I nodded emphatically. “That’s right. It’s really f*&ked up using the kids that way. If he was a man, a dad, he would step up like an adult and realize that this is between you and him, and he would leave the kids out of it. But he doesn’t want to be a dad. He wants to be their buddy. He doesn’t want to provide for them. He doesn’t want to do right by them. He wants to get stoned, watch YouTube, aimlessly strum around on a guitar, and ride the coattails of his kids. Its sick. You’re the one who has to do the hard things like setting boundaries and saying no,” I told her.
Nora took Janis’ hand. “I know it sucks,” she said. “You will get through this.” Nora was being Switzerland. I sensed that Nora was growing tired of this struggle and the fact that it monopolized our gatherings, but she remained passive.
Maria shook her head. “You have to put your foot down. What does your lawyer want to do?”
We looked at Janis expectantly. “She wants to go to the judge and have a hearing about it.”
“Then that’s what you do. You are paying her to do what you can’t, which is to negotiate this to your advantage. You are paying her for her advice and skill. You need to trust it,” I told her. “If you don’t do what she says, you’re gonna hurt your case and work against yourself.”
“I learned my lesson! Let the experts do it, and do it right the first time, otherwise it will cost you more in the long run in a lot of ways,” Maria said, referring to the custody battle she had with her ex.
Originally, she had tried to file the paperwork herself. The judge didn’t take the filings seriously. Nothing happened to her ex for keeping the boys in a different state despite the custody and support order. I had told her to hire a lawyer. Finally, she relented and got one, and before long, child support was increased and one of her sons was returned to her. The other one, by then, had graduated from high school.
“It was worth every penny,” she said adamantly. “Let that woman do her job. You need to stop worrying about him. He’s grown, but he’s no man. He needs to figure out how to be an adult now. You’re not his mama.”
“Nah, he’ll just let some other woman…maybe his mother or his sister…take care of him,” I opined.
Janis eyes flashed and she almost growled. “He had his sister fill out all the paperwork for the kids’ school stuff and they didn’t tell me! I was so furious! The school called me and asked me about it. He isn’t making the kids do their homework or go to school! His sister basically chastised me for not helping. If he wants custody, he’s gonna have to learn how to do some of this shit! I have done everything,” Janis wept.
“And that’s why you kicked his ass to the curb and are making him figure it out,” Maria said firmly. “They’re his kids, too.”
“I just don’t know where this entitlement comes from,” Janis said, wiping her eyes, sniffling.
I rolled my eyes. “You did everything for him. And when he did nothing, you didn’t do anything about it. There was no consequence. So, if there’s no consequence, why would he change? Why would he do anything if he didn’t have to? He’s been calling your bluff for years! Before you, there was that woman who wrote the list you said was titled, ‘Things I’ve Asked You to Do That You Never Did’ – that lady, whoever she was – got her dose. Before that, it was his sister. Before that, it was his mama. He’s never had to do anything for himself his whole life. He’s been coddled and taken care of and waited on by all these women. You aren’t the first and you probably won’t be the last. He’s gonna charm that next one just like he charmed you, and when he knows he has her, he’s gonna go back to being lazy, living on cruise control, doing the bare minimum, pretending he’s the Big Lebowsky except he won’t be half as cool as Jeff Bridges.”
“Exactly!” Maria said, pumping a hand in the air. “F*&king narcissist. They work real hard to lure you in, and then once you’re hooked, they don’t do shit but work against you. Counter-parenting!” She grabbed her black hair out of her face and wound it into a rope before tying it into a bun.
“It’s an addiction,” I added. “Whenever you start to threaten to leave, he just tells you what you want to hear and lures you back in til he’s sure he’s out of danger and then it goes right back to the way it was and you keep chasing that high,” I said. “Problem is, it takes more and more and more to get back to that first time, and you never can reach that high again because the second you do, you’re dead of an overdose.” I exhaled. I could spot that train barreling down the track from miles away and it made me more wary than I cared to admit.
Everyone got silent and looked at Janis. Nora bowed her head solemnly. The comment hit close to home.
“It’s true,” Maria said softly. “It is an addiction. You will go through withdrawals. It will be bad, honey, but someday, you’ll be free and it will be better.”
Nora just held Janis’ hand. I squirmed in my seat.
“Remember almost a year ago,” I began, taking Nora’s other hand in mine and grabbing Maria’s hand. They followed suit and we gripped each other’s hands. “You,” I said looking at Janis, “me, and Maria got to the cabin for our weekend and the doorknob fell off and we couldn’t get into the cabin?”
Janis threw back her head and laughed despite her tears. “Yes!”
“Well, we were sweating in the heat with that door, and you, me, and Maria were sitting there for maybe two hours, trying to get this impossible lock to open. Nora wasn’t there yet,” I said, looking over at her, remembering how work had kept her in the city through the afternoon. “I wanted to give up and call Chet and have him come fix it, remember?” I asked. Maria and Janis nodded. “But Janis, you’re the one who insisted we could do it, and told me not to call. And we prayed to Saint Justine,” I said. We always referred to Janis’ deceased mother as Saint Justine. “And we got the door open.”
“Bitches get shit done!” we all said in unison, laughing.
“So, the lesson is that you are capable. You can do this without him. You can do it without addiction. We all can. Life isn’t just about being able to do it alone, though,” I kept going. “It’s about finding someone to do it with. It’s the with part you’re missing because he isn’t doing anything with you.”
“I regret not doing the dumpster day last year,” Janis said.
“You’ve got plenty of time to think about it this year,” I said. “Just wait for the divorce to go through. You’ll have another chance at that dumpster.”
“So the lake next month,” Nora said, changing the subject.
“I got the pontoon rental squared away,” I said.
“A day on the water, I cannot wait!” Janis practically sang.
“It’s your birthday,” I told her. “We gotta spend it on the water.”
“The guys know they’ve gotta find some shit to do because Mama’s gonna work on her tan,” Maria said.
I rolled my eyes. “Rub it in, ambiguously brown,” I said sarcastically. Maria had flawless cinnamon skin that turned a rich brown every summer. I was jealous. I could tan, but I could never be Maria Tan.
“Guys, I can’t go,” Nora blurted.
“What?!? Why?” Janis’ head snapped and turned toward Nora. Everyone’s hands dropped.
Nora looked down at her long fingers, folded in her lap now, heavy from the rings she wore. “I’m having trouble finding someone to watch my kiddo. And I’m not sure I can get off work.”
“You’re counter manager now. Schedule yourself off,” Maria said.
Nora squirmed a bit. “I’m just letting you know I don’t think its gonna work out.”
“We’ve had this planned since February,” I said. “You picked the week. We didn’t do father’s day weekend because you said the entire family had plans, so…”
“Yeah well, this just came up last month,” she tried to explain.
Maria pursed her lips.
Janis, ever diplomatic, smoothed things over. “Well, you just try, okay, I want to have you there for the birthday celebration.”
The lump was long forgotten. There was no more talk of life and death. Anything I was grappling with was lost in a sea of ongoing turmoil over Janis’ marital struggles and Nora’s constant battle with her work schedule.
The following month, Nora didn’t make it. Janis, Maria, and I went to the lake without her, and spent the entire day out on the water, sunning ourselves off of the back of the boat, wondering if Nora would ever be able to have her own life.
“It’s hard getting the toothpaste back in the tube,” Janis commented. “Here I am, 46 years old, the kids are fifteen,” she started.
“Yeah, the two youngest ones…and the big one is what, fifty?” I snorted.
Janis fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh! Yeah. Don’t get me started. I just want Wells Fargo to take the motherf*&king house! Here! What do you need me to sign? You can have it!” she pantomimed signing papers and tossing them off the side of the boat. “Done.”
“Chet’s step dad was an insurance adjuster,” I began. “He once told Chet that the best way to burn down a house was a bag of chips by the furnace. It doesn’t leave a trace,” I said conspiratorially, smirking.
“A bag of chips!” Maria chuckled. “That probably would work.”
“I wish I could just torch the place and be done with it,” Janis admitted. “It’s disgusting. I went over there the other day, and – “ she stopped and grabbed her phone and pulled up the photos.
I nodded, looking, unsurprised. The grass was at least knee high. There was trash everywhere, there was laundry scattered all over the floor, the dishwasher was still broken and dishes were piled high in the sink overflowing onto the counters, undoubtedly all stuck together. Did she not realize that the house looked this way when I had picked her up two years ago? I wondered. It was to the point of monotony. I wanted to shake her and tell her to wake up.
“You would be better off torching it. You can’t sell it in that condition,” I commented. “I hope you forwarded these to the lawyer.”
Maria nodded emphatically. “You could probably call CPS for child abuse and neglect.”
Janis shook her head. “He’ll blame me.”
“How?” I asked, irritated. Maria and I looked at each other. We were tired of having the same conversation every time we got together.
She shrugged. “I’m not paying his bills anymore, and well, he’ll find a way.”
“Always the victim,” I spat. “He’s a sorry sack of shit. If you didn’t do that,” I said pointing at the photos on the phone, “then what do you have to worry about?”
Maria stood up. “He’s just like my ex,” she snarled. “Always trying to get more than he deserves.”
“How is that going?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.
She sneered. “Oh, you know, trying to get out of paying for college for the oldest one,” she said. “He’s an educator and yet he doesn’t value education enough to help his own son out with college?” She was incredulous. “And the younger one called me to tell me that the second he got to his father’s for the summer, his dad took him to the doctor and had him put back on Adderall, but turns out his Dad is the one taking the pills. He’s a goddamned meth addict!”
I gazed out over the water, smooth as glass on the breezeless June afternoon. The boat rocked only slightly. I gave a silent thanks for Chet. I could never imagine having these problems with him. We had promised one another that no matter what, we would be fair with each other. Above all else, it was the fairness that created harmony in our relationship.
“Love is not about passion or exhilarating nights in the back of trucks,” I said to Janis. “Unconditional love is peace. It is being at peace with the other person and it is finding a balance that creates peace, but both people have to work towards that goal together.”
“She’s right,” Maria said.
Out of all of us, Maria and Jon had a marriage that closely resembled mine and Chet’s. “I had to experience extreme narcissism and manipulation and emotional abuse before I could appreciate marriage with Jon,” she said. “I knew what a loving relationship wasn’t and Jon showed me love by working through those issues with me.”
Every time Maria emphasized a word, her body would twist up through the spine, growing taller, as she pinched her fingers in the air in front of her as though plucking a fly out of flight. She’d purse her lips and put her chin down, the small scar on her upper lip accentuated. Her cocoa eyes would get molten and grow wide. She spoke her truth quietly, but firmly; she didn’t have to shout. Her body did some of the talking for her.
“Learning in the negative is hard,” I agreed.
I had learned too many lessons that way. At that point in my life, it was probably best to watch and listen rather than to speak. How long it would take once I became silent for people to forget about me? Would it be a relief? Is there only so much a person can know, and so many secrets that could be kept? I wondered. Peering into the dark soul of humanity on a daily basis was beginning to wear me down. I looked cautiously at Janis.
“I’ve known you for how many years now? Seven? This has been going on for seven years. Same shit, different day. It’s time to end this. We can’t keep re-hashing the same things. I see it eating you alive from the inside out.”
I wondered if that is what cancer and other illnesses really were: unresolved issues that slowly ate away at us from the inside out. Emotional toxins, trauma, and wounds to the spirit that festered below the surface, spreading, and sucking the vitality from our cells until nothing was left. Every conversation with Janis was like watching a slow death of someone I loved. Her humor, her laughter, her energy had attracted me to her. Those were qualities that didn’t come readily to me on a consistent basis. I saw a diamond within her, and yet, the longer this went on, the more faint the shiny crystal inside of her became. I turned away, unable to look. It was too familiar to me. Preoccupied with the constant and ongoing trauma in Janis’s life, a storm was brewing within me that no one saw and that we never had time to discuss. The legal profession was eating away at my soul. I could feel it. Like a drug, it was an unhealthy addiction. My mind ruminated incessantly on cases, statutes, facts, just churning endlessly, driving me to exhaustion. I couldn’t let it go, I couldn’t rest. I was obsessed and paranoid with the prospect of missing that one crucial detail or that one piece of the law that could mean the difference between winning and losing, justice and injustice. But I could never share these things and it was eating me alive from the inside out. Its how I knew what was happening to Janis, and its why I was scared to get any closer.
Janis knew Maria and I were right, but she said nothing. Maria and I looked at one another, her eyes narrowing under the brim of a large sun hat. I knew we were both thinking the same thing: when would it be OVER for Janis?
But I knew, in addition, only I was wondering: when would this torture of trying to be everything to everyone be over FOR ME? Everyone always assumed I was okay. On the outside, I had my shit together. On the inside, I was slowly falling apart and I didn't know why. It reminded me of college: I graduated summa cum laude but no one knew that I was gripped with addiction and suffering from traumas so deep they were unspeakable. I felt too privileged to complain; so many women would do anything to have what I had, and yet, I was dying inside. Watching Janis spiral into a deep depression or inertia triggered me; this was a familiar cycle. Only this time, the familiar escape was not an option. I had a happy marriage and a beautiful child. I had created a beautiful life with my family. There was a path laid before me, but I was too impatient. It meandered when I wanted to just run across the finish line and be done. I didn't know how the finish line would look, and I didn't know when it would present itself, but I felt its looming mystery somewhere...shrouded in the mists of the future.