Last night, an unexpectedly free evening, so we all meet up for dinner – coming from our various directions – and huddle around a table in the noisy, bright little restaurant that has become one of our favorites. There, we feast! Chopsticks fly. Banchan and bulgogi and tofu bibimbap. While we eat, the boy draws in a notebook I have brought for him. He creates elaborate scenes with expressive characters and narrates aloud as he draws. “You have to get this guy to the next level, but this goo is over here and if you fall into the goo it is poison and then this guy here is trying to steal your fruit.” It has been a while since we’ve all been together for a meal like this and we’re all rather cheerful.
After the boy is in bed, even though we are so tired, M. and I slip out. We go to the French restaurant nearby, sit at the bar. Decadence is a trio of tiny custards and cranberry crumble. The plates are so beautiful. Down at the other end of the bar, two men talk with the bartender about restaurant life. About the kitchens they’ve worked in, the people they know in common. The bartender pours them each a shot glass of something new and they all taste it, nodding their approval.
We make plans for the summer. We talk about little trips we can take. About seeing friends we have not seen in years.
We talk about his writing project, its frustrations. I ask about his parents, their health. He is talking, but he is so tired that he has grown pale. It’s been an evening of excesses and extravagance.
This morning, I head to the track a little earlier than usual. Just down the block, the men sit out on the front stairs, smoking their cigarettes – the last vice that they are allowed in this house they share, this place between the end of one life and the beginning of another. They wave to me as I pass. I wave back, but quicken my pace.
When I get to the track, one of the regulars greets me like we are family. He jogs up to the fence as I enter. “You’ve been away,” he says. “We’ve missed you,” he says. He keeps pace with me for a bit, so I slow down, allow him to move on ahead. The next lap around, I run fast to pass him. I throw an offhand wave in his direction when I leave the track. From the distance, I can’t tell whether he has seen it.
Years ago, my aunt asked: “Do you think you have trouble trusting people?” It was not a question I was expecting. “You know, because of the adoption. Maybe you feel a little insecure about that?”
And then later, B.’s mother, before we married: “You are still so young. Do you think you’re emotionally ready for marriage?”
I do not take challenges about my emotional self-awareness well, no matter how innocent or well-intentioned they might be. Decades of living in my own head – turning every conversation, every off-hand comment, every interaction, every decision over and over in my thoughts, worrying it all from every imaginable angle – have left me weary and resistant to the notion that I am not – at every moment – painfully aware of my own emotional capacities.
So I lash out, relying on the oldest, most tired weapons in my arsenal. I become shrill. I carry on at great length. I enumerate my grievances. Nothing I have said in moments like this reflects well on me, so I will offer only this: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
The gift of trust – of allowing yourself to be vulnerable – is true intimacy, the literature suggests. Vulnerable, I think? Am I anything if not vulnerable? Do I not walk around like a raw wound? How could I possibly be more vulnerable?
My aunt: “Well, in that last year or so when you were still married, it seemed like maybe you were already somewhere else? Like you already had one foot out the door?”
There was a time when I thought I knew what I was supposed to feel in a particular situation. As if there was a master flow chart of emotional responses to frequently lived experiences that one could consult when needed:
IF: spending time with husband; THEN: happy.
IF: mother dies; THEN: sad.
IF: breaking promise; THEN: shame.
How then, to explain the loneliness that creeps in, even in the company of people you love? How then, to explain the relief when finally, someone who has been struggling for so long, passes on from this world to the next? How then, to explain the release of leaving a life you no longer love behind?
As my marriage was ending, as the term “failed marriage” became my constant companion, I remember clinging to this thought: No one really knows how to live. We are all just stumbling around in the dark.
Our lives, our loves are dynamic. Unpredictable. Complicated. Baffling. We do our best, I think, given what we carry, what we know. But aren’t we all just stumbling toward some imagined graphic on an imagined flow chart of how it should all go?
On the phone last night, with J. She says: “If I take this job, my dream job, I’ll have to put off having a baby for another year. Am I giving up my dreams to have a baby? Will I ever be able to go back to what I love?”
I think about the years I spent in jobs that made me cry. And about the early days with my daughter, my son. How they were magical, yes, but also maddening. How there were days when I wanted only to be out of my house – anywhere, anywhere but home. How those feelings can’t be written down on any flow charts.
“You are not giving up your dreams,” I say. “You are prioritizing different things right now. You can’t know what is ahead. You make the best choices you can. Right now, for this one moment, and then when the next moment comes, you choose again.”
When we hang up, I am so tired. I try to read a little, but can’t focus.
IF: tired; THEN: sleep. Perhaps this at least, for this particular moment, is mercifully simple.