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The Strength of Me

Inspiration (part of a Craigslist "housing wanted" ad): 

Recently divorced 30s female looking for apt or studio.

 

Short Story:

“Only three more flights to go,” Jennifer muttered to herself as she trudged up the stairs of the 7-story walk-up apartment she had hastily rented the day before. Her lungs burned. Her calves whimpered in pain. She wondered how in the hell she would do this every day for the rest of her life. Or at least for the foreseeable future. God, she hoped it wasn’t for the rest of her life. Thirty-four years old and already a washed-up spinster. Do people still use the term “spinster”? She wondered. Add it to the growing list of ancient words for which she knew the dictionary definition and etymology. Once in a while, this talent (if you can call it that) proved useful at work, where she prostrated herself as the keeper of words (aka copywriter) for a budding startup where the majority of the employees wrote—and horrifyingly enough, spoke—in text-message shorthand. She was certain that faced with a fourth-grade level spelling test, they would all fail miserably. And one time, at an anniversary party for a couple across the street, Casey had paraded this talent in front of the group, boasting about his wife’s way with words.

“Go ahead. Ask her the meaning of any word. Any word you can think of,” he posed to the other couples while they sipped Aperol spritzes and ate deep-fried ravioli bites (it was a Tuscan-themed party, in honor of the couple’s honeymoon destination ten years earlier. Amanda didn’t have the heart to tell them Aperol originated in northern Italy. And deep-fried ravioli bites? About as Italian as the Olive Garden.).

Amanda blushed a deep shade of crimson, something that happened every time all eyes turned to her. Casey called it her “Harvard hue,” alluding to her first two years of college life and where they had met freshman year. This was before she was forced to drop out of school and move back to Marin in Northern California to take care of her parents after they had both been stricken by cancer within months of each other and succumbed to their diseases: her mother just five months after her initial diagnosis, and her father a year after that. During that time, Casey made frequent trips from Boston to the Bay Area to lend Amanda a hand and act as her “emotional support animal,” as he lovingly called himself, for when it got so goddamn hard that she didn’t know how she could possibly go on.

Casey. Her supportive, loving, always-there-for-her, feminist of a husband. Except when he suddenly wasn’t there for her. And with that swift conjuring of his name, Amanda was reminded why she was carrying all of her belongings, winnowed down to a couple of suitcases and ten boxes of books she couldn’t part with, up seven flights of stairs into a cramped Chinatown studio that smelled perplexingly, given where she was,  like month-old garlic bread and minestrone soup.

Their first two years of marriage were blissful. They were a team. They were on the same page. They wanted the same life, which at the time, meant no kids. Just the two of them traveling the world together, living their dreams, and answering to no one but themselves. They had seen too many friends fade away behind the responsibility of children, finally disappearing into what they could only imagine were the perfectly trimmed box hedges of their 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom colonial style homes sitting on a cul-de-sac with other families exactly like theirs. And when well-meaning family, friends and even random strangers on the street started asking the inevitable, “So when are you two having kids?,” he defended her, always.  “We’ll do what’s right for us when the time is right,” he had said, giving her hand a meaningful squeeze or wrapping his arm around her waist, his unspoken words giving her comfort that he was with her, and that their decision to remain childless was mutual. But over the last few months, it was clear it wasn’t mutual. Somewhere along the way, Casey had jumped off the child-free train, commenting that they lived in a big empty house in the suburbs, drove a child-approved SUV, had the quintessential family dog (a Golden Retriever, of course), yet where was Baby? He tried to not-so-subtly hint that every woman should want to have babies. But Amanda knew she didn’t want that. After caring for her terminally ill parents at such a young age, she knew she never wanted to burden someone else with her mounting incapacity as she grew older. She never wanted someone else, especially her own offspring, to experience that kind of heartbreak and breath-constricting pain, followed by the unbridled guilt and shame for feeling so resentful towards their own parents for something completely out of their control.

At first, Casey let the conversations drop and seemed to forget about them for weeks, even months, at a time. But then his brother and sister-in-law announced in the grandest of fashions (the act involving baby chicks and bunnies…) at an Easter family brunch that they were expecting TWINS! Not one baby, but TWO! And how ecstatic everyone was, especially Amanda who had known how much they wanted a baby and that they had tried unsuccessfully for three years before undergoing IVF. Everyone was happy. Except for Casey. For the rest of the afternoon and the two hour car ride back home, he sat sullen and silent. Amanda, in an effort to joke him out of his gloom, quipped, “Can you imagine how many shitty diapers they’re going to have to change?” At which point Casey muttered under his breath, but still loud enough for Amanda to hear, “At least they have shitty diapers to change.” And Amanda knew right then and there that they were no longer a team. That their desires and needs in life were diverging into two very different paths.

That night in the kitchen, they both unleashed their fury on one another in the most epic of fights. Casey accused Amanda of being selfish. Amanda accused Casey of being bored with their lives together, screaming at one point, “Aren’t I enough for you?” The moment the words were out of her mouth, she knew she didn’t want him to reply. Because she already knew the answer. She wasn’t, in fact, enough. Casey needed something else to focus his attentions on, to make him feel loved in a new and exciting way. At one point, Amanda almost relented and agreed to give him children, if that’s what he really wanted. But she had already felt the tides shift in their relationship. There was no coming back from this. And she honestly felt that if she had broken down and borne his children, she would have been one of those news stories a couple years down the line, where the seemingly perfect suburban wife and mother abandons her husband and children, runs away to a Caribbean resort town, and is never heard from again.  

So they split up. They put the house on the market, which sold in mere days to—of course!—a perfect young couple with two perfect children, and went their separate ways. Amanda headed back to the city where she had lived during her pre-marriage days. And Casey, presumably, went into the world of online dating to find a mother for his unborn children.

Amanda expected to feel gutted after this. As though one of her limbs had been chopped off and she would have to learn how to live without it. But something surprising happened. As Amanda crested the stairs and reached out to open her new front door, she was washed anew with a sense of freedom, something she hadn’t felt since her Harvard days, when the world was her virtual oyster (there’s a phrase with an interesting etymology) and her life could go in any hundreds of directions. And instead of feeling resentful about her parents, and then the overpowering guilt for feeling resentful in the first place, she knew she could credit them with her strength and resilience when faced with a tragedy. Even in the aftermath of a soul-crushing loss like that, she still had a life to live. A life to live both for herself and for her parents, who wanted everything for their daughter. And with that thought, Amanda pushed the door open and walked confidently into her new life, knowing that she was enough.

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