I shudder to think about that alternate road while Manda, my 12-year-old inquisitor, continues to draw in her journal awaiting an answer.
Indeed, where would my life have taken me had I stayed with her uncle Ted?
We were ships that passed in the night, by the end, caught in each others’ wake of misery in a sea of lies. He’d never really loved me, and told me as much when he returned home after completing his Masters degree. For five long years I worked to glue the relationship back together again. I was committed ~ or perhaps I should have been committed ~ because I was beating my head against the proverbial brick wall of his narcissism. He no longer had eyes for me. I served no useful purpose to him anymore. But how do I tell a 12-year-old about failed love without making her jaded?
“Well, sweetie, that’s a really good question,” I delay while sipping on soothing chamomile tea and looking across the table to peek at her drawing of a horse under a willow. Such a good little artist, my Manda. “And I’m not sure how to answer it, to be honest.”
Manda stops drawing and puts down her green pencil. Evidently the grass will have to wait. She reaches for a small bunch of grapes from the ceramic fruit bowl in the middle of the kitchen table and plucks one from its stem. Pops it in her mouth. She’s thinking. Oh, dear.
“Why?” she asks with the nonchalance of youth.
“Why?” I repeat with the desperation of age.
I never understood his side of the story, because he wouldn’t talk about it. Why does anybody fall out of love with someone they promised to spend eternity with, and why would anyone want to stay with a person who’d fallen out of love with them? We’d had nothing to keep us together either. No children because blessedly, as I was to find out later, I was unable to get pregnant. The longer I stayed with him the more I became lost in his narcissistic need for everything to be about him. It was always about what I could do to keep him happy; never about what I even needed to be happy. So much so, in fact, that by the time we parted I had no idea what made me happy anymore.
“Sweetie, as you get older you’ll realize that relationships are only as functional as the people who are in them. If I’d stayed with your uncle Ted you and I would not be sitting here having this conversation, for one thing. We’d still be a one-car family which I’d never have access to, and the only time we would see each other is if your mom or dad came to get me. Before your uncle Ted and I parted ways we lived in a tiny town isolated from friends and family. I was stuck at home and,” she may as well know this, “cried a lot.”
“You cried?” Manda’s eyes light up in surprise. I don’t know that she’s ever considered my feelings beyond what she knows of me now ~ the happy, smiling auntie who loves life. I did not love life so much back then.
“Well, Manda, when you’re unhappy that’s what you do, right?” I confirm. “Remember when those so-called friends of yours excluded you from their group and you ran away crying your eyes out?” She nods and absently pops another grape into her mouth. “Well, my experience with your uncle Ted is just a more complicated version of that. I was desperately unhappy. He’d cut me off; excluded me from his life. Everything I’d ever considered to be true about our relationship turned out to be completely false. I’d been living a lie with a man who’d lied about ever loving me.” I stop to register the effect of my words on this young mind. She seems okay, so I continue, “If I’d stayed with him … well, to be honest, it doesn’t even bear thinking about.”
I take another sip of tea and for a moment we become lost in our own thoughts. Oh, the journey I’ve taken since leaving that sad man. I recall the tipping point. We’d been out shopping in early January, spending Christmas gift certificates, I think. Went to lunch. I’d asked him what his plans were for the year, digging, I guess, and nothing in his answer included me. It was telling, but I didn’t say anything at the time. And then on the long drive home his seeming indifference began to eat away at me. I started asking those suppressed questions. His answers got defensive.
“So what do you want from this relationship?” I finally asked as we pulled into the driveway.
“A furnished house.”
His answer floored me. I was so flabbergasted by this strange response I had to ask him again. Certainly our new home had a few empty rooms in it, and my work as a writer, artist and riding teacher was not so lucrative, yet. But, could it be that all he wanted was for me to be a conduit of financial resources for his precious lifestyle at the expense of my own dreams?
“I want a furnished house,” he repeated without apology.
Nothing about love, or family, or shared dreams … just a house with furniture and his travel plans mentioned previously over lunch. I did not fit into his scheme at all.
“Auntie Sal,” Manda’s loving voice brings me back. I shudder away the memory and take another sip of tea.
“Yes, my lovely Manda?” I respond, glad of the present moment.
“Really, it doesn’t matter to me what your life would have been like if you’d stayed with uncle Ted. I love that you are happy now, and don’t want you to be unhappy thinking about all that other stuff.”
I reach for a grape from the bowl and throw it at her playfully. Her reflexes are good. She catches it as it hits her chest and puts it in her mouth.
“Well, all I can say is thank goodness for that. Now, let’s have a cookie.”
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