I don’t know you that well, it’s true. We’ve been colleagues for a few years, have chatted at department lunches about your past, which could be turned, with the right writing, into a memoir of passion and pain: teenage pregnancy, riding the railroad, abusive men, waitressing and God knows what else. Stories that document a time, a place, a certain way of being. I like that about you, your so-different past, the way you turn it to humor. I’ve never said, as the would-be-judgmental me might, “So what right have you to criticize my child-rearing when you abandoned your son for years?” I’m never pointed out that you’ve had three husbands, so what right do you have to scold me for my divorce?
And yet there you were, on Friday night, digging into a past I’ve been trying to forget: “You broke him,” you said. “He’s broken because of you.”
I didn’t break him any more than he broke me. Our marriage was cracked years before Nada showed up, though God knows I didn’t show it. “Don’t wash your dirty linen in public,” Mum said. (What am I doing now but that?) And I didn’t. No one would have believed me, anyway. I didn’t believe it myself. Surely I was responsible for his moods, his periods of silence, his muttered anger. That silence was so familiar it almost felt comfortable, like returning home. They do say one tends to marry one’s father. And here he was, older than I, “a rock,” Mum called him. “Count me as a member of his fan club.” Everywhere I went, people told me how lucky I was to have him as a husband. “Does he have any brothers?” they asked. Yes, two, but believe me you don’t want to know them. “If only more men were like him,” they said. “The world would be a better place.”
And it’s true. He’s a good man. A kind man. He’s a marvelous teacher, as his awards over the years prove, and as his students will testify. He was not a bad husband. But he had his demons, as we all do. What he presented to the world was not what he presented at home. I started attending the UU Church with my daughter so that every Sunday morning he could have time for himself, to garden or fish or potter about the house. A regular time that was guaranteed every week so he could center himself, be calm, escape the darkness that filled him. I hoped it would help give him space to reconnect so that he could love Zeke and me calmly in between his moods. For a while I thought it was working, but really it was only a Bandaid for much deeper problems.
When Zeke was two he went to Alaska with his best friend for five weeks. I begged him not to, because Zeke was a difficult two-old-old, volatile and always active, still not sleeping through the night. I said, “Please wait till she’s a little older. I don’t know if I can do this alone.” I was pregnant and sick and exhausted, and I wanted him to put me ahead of his best friend for once. Just once. But he went anyway. I had little support, no one to turn to. And the pregnancy turned out to be ectopic. He did come home a few days early when he heard the news of the loss, but I don’t know that he ever forgave me for asking him to.
There are so many things I could say, that might show the beginnings of cracks, that might show that what he presented to the world was not what I knew. But what’s the point? He was a good man who fought the demons instilled by a dreadful childhood. He drank to escape them. Sometimes he took his anger out on me, on Zeke. When he felt bad about it, or sometimes just because, he bought me flowers or a mocha at work, and what people saw was the flowers, the mochas. Not the moods, the anger, the long dark silences.
No, I am not perfect, as you pointed out so clearly on Friday. Yes, it’s true that I had an affair. But not till long after he’d been accusing me of one just because I happened to be in email contact with a former student. I hadn’t seen that student in months, had had no contact but the emails we sent back and forth. And he was accusing me of an affair, insisting in the face of my demurral that if I wasn’t having one, I would. What would you have done? Would you have allowed a man to dictate who you could email and who you couldn’t? Who you could see and who you couldn’t? You with your feminist anger and bitterness? Tell me you would have meekly told your student friend that you could not help him in his attempts to return to college. Would it have been so different for you?
And then I found out, almost a year later, that all that time, and even before then, he’d had a former student friend — the woman who is now his wife. The difference between my friend and his is that his friend was a secret from me. I always told him everything about my friend. But she, she was a secret from me, as was the fact that he had a key to her house, that he was looking after her cat and her plants when she was on vacation, that when I thought he was fishing or just “driving around to get centered” he was actually with her. Was he having an affair? I don’t know. Maybe not. But she was a secret from me, and that’s all I need to know.
I didn’t want to have to defend myself the way I did. I didn’t want to have to be mean about him. And yet I was. The hurt of having to acknowledge a broken marriage, and the anger of recognizing that even now, after three years, people still see him as the gentle man wronged by a flighty and unthinking and even cruel woman, these things coalesced in me, till all I wanted to do was tell you everything — and in the doing so hurt him beyond the pain he endured as a teenage boy, son to a violently abusive and alcoholic father.
I started to tell you. But in the end, it’s his word against mine. And if you’re so convinced if his nobility, then nothing I say will change it. Do you know I lost a sister over it, my sister Rachel who still barely speaks to me? Do you know I almost lost Leah? Do you know the darkness that flickered in my dad’s face when he learned that Greg was remarrying? “To whom?” he asked.
“A former student,” I said. “They’ve been friends for about nine years.”
My father is astute. He saw then, for the first time, the possibility that perhaps the breakup was not all my fault. But when I bit my tongue and turned away from you on Friday, after my first flare up, I knew nothing has been settled for you. Will you ever see that perhaps I’m not all to blame? Will I ever be able to walk into the department where we both work and know that I’m not being judged?
Summer said it, later that evening. “Maybe you should stay in Decker Hall. Maybe things will be less complicated that way.” I moved there two years ago because of my asthma, but in a month we’ll all be moving to a brand new building, and once again I will see him and his new wife every day. And I’ll see you too. And everyone else who has seen him only as he presents himself to the world. Once again the judgment. Once again the whispers. It frightens me, it’s true. These two years in Decker have been a haven, a place where I can work and feel safe. I’ve almost been able to convince myself that it’s all in the past, that people have forgotten and moved on.
Till Friday. Till you said it. “Broken. You broke him.”