Real Life Fiction by Rebecca Cornwell
This is a work of fiction; at least that’s how I like to think of it…
I can never decide if I should tell this story from the beginning or the end. Would it help you to know there is a happy ending? Would you prefer a mystery? Or even a comedy? This is the problem I have. If I had been able to see the end, I would never have jumped into that whirlpool but I couldn’t help it. Once you get to be my age, you realize time is running out. Fading looks, increased baggage, the inability to make any space for anyone along with a heightened fear of growing old alone. Somewhere along the way I missed the memo that we’re supposed to pair off and board the ark.
I rattle around in my house eating pretzels for dinner and I’m kind of content. This is what I tell myself. Despite this, I blindly enter in to these ill-fated relationships again and again. I can’t breathe and I feel society and my upbringing in the back of my head screaming that without a partner (preferably a husband) there must be something wrong with me. Probably there is but that’s not this story, is it?
This story is about Stan and you never know when you might find yourself in this position. You should try to be prepared. I certainly wasn’t. To say he was charismatic wouldn’t be accurate, although it might have served as a decent explanation or even an excuse. I love charisma. Something that is confident and glittery and draws people in. Someone who can tolerate darkness and still remain intact. I married my husband because everyone liked him. He was easy going, which I was not. He didn’t rub people raw, the way I did. He made me look better just by proximity. Politely, he ignored my depression and my inability to go with the flow. He encouraged me to smile and pull myself up by my bootstraps. God, I would have loved to be able to do that, dust myself off and get on with the day. I was always swimming upstream, making everything harder than it needed to be. I liked to stir things up because I didn’t fit in. I justified it by pronouncing that I just had strong feelings about things. After a time, I think this will exhaust a person. Exhausted with me. That’s the way I remember the end of most of my relationships.
When I met Stan I felt he was like that, like my now ex-husband. Quiet and confident, laid back but not charismatic. He had a way of hanging back and blending in. I’d met him online, the bars of the technological age. In one of his photos, he had an impish grin that made me think of a little boy who had just eaten cookies that were off limits. The look wasn’t so much a guilty look, but a look of having gotten away with something. He was exceptionally pleased with himself.
On our first meeting, he turned the tables and did this thing that women learn to do from reading articles in women’s magazines titled things like, “How to Get and Keep the Guy.” They would give advice like; “Ask him questions about himself. People love to talk about themselves. Make him think he’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met.” It’s not real…mostly women aren’t that interested in what men have to say. Mostly, they just want to be liked. Stan left all the air in the room to me. I talked, he listened. I talked more. Rambling on about only the stories that make me look good. Nothing unflattering crossed my lips that night. Truth is- I like to leave that stuff out always. I’m never quite sure if even a humorous story about your drug addicted parent or the weeks you’ve spent in bed battling depression are ever very flattering and I knew at least enough not to share them on a first date. Anyway, he seemed utterly charmed by me. Truthfully, I am pretty charming or at least I can be. This is a little trick I learned from my father- the drug addicted one. You can be the biggest asshole on earth but if you have charm, you can disarm almost anyone. Never, ever, underestimate charm. My father was a charming troll of a man who went out for a loaf of bread when I was two years old and never came home again, at least that’s the version of the story my mother likes to tell. She’s probably kind of bitter though.
Psychologically speaking, having any man think I was the most interesting person on earth was the easiest way to fill the void that has lived at my core for as long I can remember. That’s a strange thing to admit at this point in my life and not at all flattering. Non-existent fathers can leave gaping holes in their daughters. We end up spending so much time trying to be good enough for anyone or everyone. Some of us become over achievers while others of us rebel. Some of us harm ourselves and live chaotic, risk taking lives while others of us become self centered and narcissistic. It’s complicated. So many self-help books and so little time.
But back to the story- the one I want to tell about Stan. Just like my father knew that charm was a great manipulator, Stan knew that filling voids in women got them right on the hook. I’m embarrassed to tell you how easily I took the bait. I didn’t even realize what had happened. I like to think of myself as so much savvier than that. In fact, I like to give advice to my friends about how they are making bad choices or have they thought about this, that or the other? I’m just a fountain of therapeutic advice and really I should be. I have been in and out of therapy for 26 years. I’ve made every mistake in the book. I’m a textbook case. In my defense though, this mistake was a new one for me, sort of.
The romance started slowly. He was methodic in luring me, steady, always listening, encouraging me to open up, without ever showing any of his own cards. Masterful. When I look back from the end of the story, this all makes sense. I always felt a little off kilter, never quite knowing where I was. We went through the motions of a relationship because by this time we should know how.
The funny thing is, in a lot of ways I couldn’t stand him. Stan was a critical and judgmental. He disapproved of me the way my mother did. “Is that what you’re wearing?” She would say when I showed myself first thing in the morning on my way out the door. I knew instinctively she didn’t like my style. Neither did Stan. Truth be told, I couldn’t really stand his either. He had this late 80’s early 90’s casual, albeit too casual, thing going on. Short-sleeved button up shirts with khakis. Only the shirts weren’t cool or nerdy, they were outdated. These were the clothes he’d liked 20 years ago and they were here to stay. He wore t-shirts that advertised, “life is good” or “ I’d rather be FISHING”. I adored listening to him tell me what a disaster his daughter was, raving about how she couldn’t turn on the windshield wipers in her new car, so she idiotically drove home, unable to see in the pouring rain. “Life is Good”. He wore flip-flops, which, by their very nature, confuse me. Why bother with shoes? Just go barefoot. Take a stand. Flip flops aren’t shoes. They aren’t anything and this isn’t the beach.
I wanted his approval regardless of his terrible sense of fashion and the lie of his t-shirt slogans. I worked so hard to get it. I chameleoned myself. I listened closely to the things he said. One day he told me, he liked women to dress down, wear a baseball cap and jeans, so I did. He was a recovering alcoholic. He didn’t drink, so I didn’t either. I did drink when he wasn’t around, though. In fact, I drank a lot, like my dad. Drinking helps me turn down the noise in the void. I couldn’t hear its echo quite so loudly and on top of that, drinking makes me more charming.
I’m a 50-year-old woman not a 16-year-old girl with a crush. Really, had I learned nothing in all this time? Like you, I’m wondering how and why. I’m strong. I’m a survivor. I’ve been through some shit. I’ve been hooked and thrown back enough times. Somewhere around 10, excluding high school, which isn’t real life anyway, but who’s counting? My memory isn’t that great. I used to be able to remember the visceral details of every experience. How things smelled, the leaf on every tree, the way the light in the room was both warm and made me think of my lonely childhood all at once.
When Stan suddenly disappeared, I felt both confused and relieved. Abandoned again. I’ve come to expect this kind of behavior. You never know when or how but sooner or later they go out for a loaf of bread. Sometimes I can’t wait to see how it will play out and other times I know it right from the start. This one was a new one for me. Stan left me for his ex-wife. He had two and this one happened to be the second.
In hindsight the second ex-wife makes perfect sense. I’m the kind of person that will ask a hundred million questions. Stan did not find this charming. In fact, it exasperated him. He would just say “you can’t ask anymore questions about this”, referring to whatever the subject of my current interrogation. Ex-wife number two was completely off limits as a topic but my curiosity has no manners. At the risk of more disapproval, I asked about her. He only said two real things about her, both of which unnerved me and both of which I remember clearly. “She was my prize and I took her,” he said one night while I was cooking dinner. Like cookies you aren’t allowed to eat. I didn’t question the statement. I peeled carrots, staring at the bright orange shavings against the dull worn white of the porcelain sink. So many things were going through my head. I wanted to ask at least a hundred questions and I didn’t want to think about the idea of being with someone who thought about women this way. My prize? Like a ribbon? Or a statue? Maybe a trophy, like an academy award? I imagined her perfect – gold plated, wrinkle-free and flawless, not at all like me. I imagined him worshiping her perfectness and parading her for all to admire. Her arm in his, her mere existence in his world made him feel better about himself. Just by proximity, she made him look good. He’d traded up and he couldn’t believe his luck. I did not get the sense that he felt that way about me. I knew that she ended up throwing him back. He was a bitter little Napoleon who had treated his first wife badly. He told me when his second wife, the golden prize, left him “he got his.” Those were the words he used. We were driving on the freeway and he was staring out the windshield at the cars ahead. He said it with such sadness, the only real sadness I had seen in him. I felt sorry for him. He said it was divine justice. He believed in God. He was in AA and he liked to spout AA dogma. My Higher Power. This kind of chatter always made me smirk inside. He controlled everything. There was no higher power. You can’t ask any more questions about that.
Ten years into my marriage, my husband had an affair. When you’re in the dark you develop other senses beyond sight. I felt the nervous energy come off of him. I felt the uneasy tension in every gesture. He looked sideways when he was shaving. He couldn’t sit still in front of the TV. He swallowed too hard when he drank his coffee. There’s a way in which men act when they are unfaithful. I think they can’t help it but they wear it like both a medal and a noose. That’s when I started to look for clues and evidence. It was everywhere, receipts, emails, phone calls, the smell of her lingering perfume mixed with the regular smell of his alcohol and cigarettes. He threw me back too, but not for her.
When Stan went back to the gold-plated prize, everything seemed to make perfect sense, at least to me. She was his desire and I was completely inadequate, as usual. This is the void that sits there. It mocks me, reminding me, nothing is enough. I am not enough. This is the bullshit girls learn to tell themselves. This is the shit the TV wants me to buy. This is the culture of scarcity. Honestly, I looked pretty good on paper. Kind of a catch even. Smart but not too smart, independent, easy enough on the eyes, and in case you forgot, charming. But once I’m caught, not enough. Not big enough, colorful enough, just not enough. Certainly not a prize! So, Stan threw me back. Of course. Who expected this to go any other way?
Surprisingly to me, I could breathe. Knowing you are going to get tossed back, makes it easier to tolerate when happens…sometimes. This time I was filled with gratitude and I wished him luck. I couldn’t believe my generosity. This was completely out of character for me. I’m a depressive. Change, powerlessness, rejection – this would be the perfect time to get under the covers and cry for weeks. By every account this was a betrayal. Who goes back to their ex-wife? The one who broke their little tiny cold heart? I mourned my loss…briefly. I had never been left for another woman and I think if I’m honest with myself now, that was the worst part. I don’t like to think of myself as competitive and here I stood, the loser of this round. This is when I unwittingly entered the vortex.
Less than a week later he circled back. He’s humbled. He pleads. He’s apologetic and I’m elevated. All of a sudden I have the upper hand. We’re chasing our own tails. Suddenly, I’m the trophy, mounted and put on the wall. I’m the winner. I’m gloating. I’m big enough. I get to ask all the questions I want now. I’m elated.
Really I don’t know what happened when he went back to her. I didn’t even bother to try to ask. It’s also possible that he told me and I forgot. Some memories wont stick no matter how hard I try to recall them. I can only guess that she threw him back, again. Probably then, he wanted to feel better about himself and I’m an easy catch. He knows that. He dangled the bait. I didn’t even question, I just opened the door. Come on in. Please someone. Fill the void. I promise I won’t ask any more questions.
The idea that he was a sociopath never occurred to me. So far this is just a typical tale of a breakup and get back together. Philosophically, I think people that get back together after a breakup are foolish. I’m foolish. I’m naïve and trusting. I’m a blinding optimist; at least I still was at this point in the story. I know this from my past already: when something is lost and then found, you hold onto it, tighter than ever. Don’t lose it again. Get control of things. Stop swimming upstream.
You think I’m delusional. Didn’t I just say I could breathe again a couple of paragraphs back? What am I thinking? This is what I think; I won, I’m good enough, I’m the prize. I know how to do it now. Dress casually, put on a ball cap and jeans and don’t ask questions.
Even as I write this I’m shaking my head. Maybe it would help if I explained the part about Stan being a sociopath? Sociopaths are cunning and manipulative. They don’t think rules apply to them and most importantly they lack empathy. I, like a lot of women, brushed aside the parts of Stan I didn’t like. I ignored the details that didn’t gel with my idea of love or whatever. This isn’t out of stupidity. It’s because I wanted to fill the void. Win, get control, have peace. You’re getting older. Time is running out. Everyone is screaming and I can’t breathe. Do what you’re supposed to do. Get on the ark.
Sociopaths do things to other people just to see if they can. The second breakup blindsided me in a way I had not been blindsided before. If you didn’t already know this story was true, you might not believe it. I wouldn’t, if I were you. Seven weeks after the first break up, I found myself having a romantic weekend in Belize. Stan and I arrived hand and hand. The water was the most perfect shade of blue, and the sand smelled of hot salt and decaying fish. I find myself getting comfortable. This is paradise. What can go wrong? This is the beginning of my happily ever after. I got the memo. You can stop screaming. The bungalow is beautiful. It looks as if it’s straight from the pages of a travel magazine. Picture perfect. Everything is perfect. The room, the beach, the crystal clear blue water. Perfect, really, trust me. Breathe. Relax. You don’t even need to ask questions.
On the second day, or the first, I can’t remember which. Stan made a big deal about taking a business call at 10a. I think I was 10a, maybe it was 2p but it doesn’t really matter. The point is, Stan never takes business calls, not even during business hours. Stan has no connection to his phone. In fact, he has deep disdain for it. Cell phones don’t fit with the carefree, easy-going, “Life is Good” persona he’s selling. Stan and I had numerous discussions about phones and phone etiquette. The fact that Stan hates his phone is relevant to the plot. We’re in a tropical paradise and he’s taking a business call. He also has his phone with him at all times. He’s emailing and texting someone with regularity. This is highly unusual for Stan. Only now does this obsession with the phone make sense. At the time I rationalized it. Maybe leaving kids at home? Maybe a big deal is brewing at work? I don’t know and know better than to ask. Stan doesn’t like questions. We know this. I suddenly I feel like I need to be on my best behavior. This is perfect paradise. I’ve been left in places by men, restaurants, and airports and once on a hiking trip through Thailand. He just left me with my backpack in a foreign land. I’m learning to keep all my questions under wraps. He’s a small man with a bit of a Napoleon complex. He needs to control things. I know better than to mention this as well.
I’d begun observing Stan after the break up. Up until the time of the trip, he seemed more connected to me, more open with his feelings. More tolerant of me and my idiosyncrasies. At the time, I thought he regretted breaking up with me. I think now, he wanted just to keep me on the hook. I’m an easy catch. I’m cynical now, in a way I wasn’t then.
At dinner one night, Stan described, in detail, the story about how things ended with his first wife. I wish now I had listened better because you and I both know people don’t change. The story he told made him look like a jerk that had driven her crazy. He seemed to take pleasure in the idea that he didn’t have remorse about doing what he had done to her. He was having an affair. He didn’t return her calls or communicate with her while she was devastated by his disappearance. They had a small child and she was not a strong woman. Run. That’s probably what you’re screaming inside your head. You weren’t there that night and clearly I’m swimming around in the dark here. I sank deeper.
The next day as 10:00 am or 2:00pm approached, Stan set me up with a task that would keep me from the bungalow for the call. I was to get snorkeling gear and a kayak so we could paddle out to the reef or was it bikes so we could ride into town? It doesn’t really matter. After completing the task, I waited. Patiently. Still. Quiet.
It’s terrifying for me to know that memories are not accurate record of our history, and that memory is malleable and that the mere act of remembering alters the memories. That afternoon the waves were hypnotic. I stared out into the sea, thinking of my history. I could hear Stan’s voice floating through the air from the open windows. He has a beautiful West Texas accent that makes me think of dusty wind. There was pleading and hushed words. Somewhere in the breeze it occurred to me this was anything but a business call. I heard him say sweetly “I promise. The second I get back, Julie. I promise”. I considered walking slowly and quietly into the sparkling blue of the water. It didn’t seem cold and dark but warm and inviting. Glittering and confident, just the way I like it. Clearly, I didn’t walk into the ocean. This is what I did: I walked into the bungalow. I picked up my purse and my passport and left Stan in a foreign land. At least that’s the way I remember it.