Chapter 8

I take the train to work. It’s where I’m headed right now, wary of the heavy grey scummering* aggressively across the blue, since I don’t have an umbrella with me and I’m only wearing a light jacket. Granny would cluck with disappointment at my lack of preparedness.

I’m joining two of the guys I regularly chat with, feigning interest in their football chatter. We discuss nights out and the levels of embarrassment we or others ought to be feeling this morning. (Mine: comparatively low. I got a bit drunk and danced like an idiot, but I didn’t say or do anything inappropriate.)

It’s funny – you know you’ve got it bad when you map out song lyrics to your mood. In a hilarious twist, most of the words that I’m thinking about are by country singers…how that would irritate her, my love. It makes me smile to think of her reacting to my teasing.

The loudness of her silence has been more difficult than I anticipated. Underneath it, I am at peace with it, because of this odd zen-like feeling I always have about her that we’re going to end up together. However in the moment, in the here and now, I miss her desperately. I miss her voice. I miss the way she says my name. I miss the way she meanders to the point. I miss the way she writes, the most exquisitely elegant prose I’ve ever read. I miss seeing her face. I miss just talking for hours about everything from the inane to the taboo. I miss bringing her with me on this journey.

More than anything, I miss being there for her. Her person.

The conflict of our situation has, I have noticed, manifested itself by dividing her in two. In my mind I have labelled them “weekend Ava” and “weekday Ava”. Ava is not her name but it will do for these pages.

Weekday Ava loves me desperately, finds it hard to breathe without me, spends hours talking to me about her hopes and dreams and things she loves and things she wants to do. She is caring and gentle and insecure and needs tenderness and comfort and gentleness. She talks quietly and tentatively and feels at home just hearing my voice, regardless of what I am saying. She is the person I see when the focus is on the bubble which only she and I exist in. This is the part of her that is mine and mine alone.

Weekend Ava doesn’t need any damn drama in her life, especially not someone whose life is a shitshow. She’s about living in the moment, having fun with her friends and enjoying life, and fuck anyone who gets in the way of that. She flirts and dates and will fuck if she wants to, and continually reminds me of that, because I have no right to any sort of claim on her. And she is right of course. She is the Ava that exists outside the bubble of her and I, trying to live a full and healthy life outside the insanity of having fallen in love with a married man via words and conversations.

I’m all too aware that it’s not possible to live two lives, one you present to the outside world and one inside your head. Something has to give. We haven’t evolved to feel comfortable living long term with that kind of duplicity going on – ultimately it destroys our mental well-being if we let it go on too long. So I think I understand where she is at the moment. I think I do. She can’t be both. And it isn’t fair to expect her to be.

Meanwhile I must navigate my reality. I’m stuck where I am as long as my financial situation remains as is. My wife hasn’t had a wage coming into the household since 2003. Recent discussions about her returning to work are being met with resistance. She’s looking for any alternative to a regular job, her focus at the moment being on building her small business. This will be the fifth or sixth small business she’s had. That’s a story for another day.

For now, I must occupy my mind with work.

 

 

*yeah I made that word up. I don’t know, it seemed like that’s what the clouds were doing.

 

Chapter 7

It hits me in small ways. The sense that things aren’t right. Like today, walking around looking at household furnishings, lamps, stuff that even on a good day I struggle to work up much interest in. Yet I caught myself several times thinking things like “that lamp would go well in my place”. My place meaning the house I live in – alone. I’ve mulled this place over in my head over several years; I know it well by now.

It has three bedrooms, this fictional house. Any more than that would probably be unaffordable for a man in my situation who still has a family to provide for. Any fewer, and I wouldn’t be able to make the kids comfortable when they stay. In this fantasy, the ugliness of custody arrangements has been bypassed and we have a 50/50 arrangement that works well for both of us. We are on amicable terms, both of us having acknowledged and accepted that though we want the best for one another, that doesn’t involve being together.

If you asked me where it began, it is of course impossible to know for sure. However I feel like it goes back to the earliest stages, when rather than be brave enough to say “is this right for me?” I instead chose to answer the easier question “is this what makes her happy?”. So yes, it’s my own fault I ended up here. I sold her a false bill of goods. I keep imagining how horrible that would be, to discover that your partner has for years concealed or tried to ignore their own needs simply to keep you happy*. How clearly it would explain the occasional explosive reaction when it all became too much.

Not that I haven’t tried to come clean before. To tell her that my needs aren’t being met. The response there, especially in the early years, was to tell me how selfish I was. I had no frame of reference for this so I just assumed she was correct. In turn I doubled down, tried harder to suppress the needs that weren’t being met. Needless to say, that approach failed.

Eventually though, I began to look further afield. To educate myself. I began to discover that much of what I craved in a relationship was not necessarily abnormal. That in fact, many women enjoyed sex just as much as their husbands. They didn’t view it as a chore, or something they had to “give” as a reward. They were as happy to be affectionate as they were to receive affection. Somewhere along the way I discovered that maybe my needs were not completely ridiculous, but actually were fairly fundamental to a relationship where reciprocity was not a dirty word.

There was – and continues to be – some serious ostriching going on from both of us. Over the years the biggest arguments – the ones over money, sex, religion and the associated education of our children – have never really been resolved.  They’ve been spoken about but when I push for resolution, some half-hearted compromise that satisfies neither of us is grudgingly agreed upon.

Back in 2015, when her father had fewer than three months to live, I had a conversation that we’d been avoiding for years. By that time, it had been 7 years since we’d shared a bed, and I was getting fed up of sleeping on the couch. That was just one issue. Our sex life had become dull and perfunctory. We barely talked except to make arrangements for the kids. She refused to acknowledge that we were haemorrhaging money because “we don’t spend anywhere near as much as *insert whatever friends or family we’re being compared to this week*”. The wife in her had all but disappeared, replaced by a mother – an excellent mother – who had no time in her day for me.

Naturally I got nailed for the timing of my message. Now, I chose to bring this up? Now, when her father was close to his deathbed? How selfish. I acknowledge that in many ways it was selfish, however my thoughts at the time were about dealing with the problem while we both cared enough to do so. Another two, three, six months without saying anything, and I’d have walked, the pent-up pain of being ignored except as a provider too much to take.

The things I brought up then – the lack of affection, the money concerns, the sleeping arrangements, the sex life on life support – they’re the same issues we’re dealing with today. That’s why a few months ago, struck with the realisation that it would soon be ten years since we shared a bed, I decided I had had enough. I did what I always do when my thoughts are a jumble and I need to get some clarity on them: I wrote. I wrote to her, telling her why I couldn’t take it any more. It was only latterly I realised that once again I was showing myself to be a coward for the manner in which I approached it – and I only realised that once it was pointed out to me.

No, I didn’t make the decision to end my marriage in isolation. Multiple factors converged to make it an inevitability. Internal factors such as almost no change having happened in our relationship in the two years since we’d last discussed needing to make some big changes. External factors such as realising that I’m not bad or wrong for having desires and needs that she doesn’t have any interest in fulfilling. The thing that made the answer crystal clear for me was realising that I felt happier about the thought of being alone than I did about being with her. And given the years this had gone on, conversation after conversation never really changing any behaviour (from either of us), I felt it was time to end it before it turned ugly.

She refused to accept me leaving. When I told her I don’t love her anymore, she told me she would make me fall in love with her again. When I told her that no matter what, I would ensure she and the kids were looked after and had everything they need, she told me if I really meant that then I wouldn’t be walking away from my family. Heavy blows, delivered with a gentle voice. I had no counter to them. The guilt – always, the guilt – of being the one responsible for my parents’ disastrous marriage; of my own lack of courage to speak up every time I should have; of the impact that my leaving would have on my children: it hit me like a wave and, as ever, I chose the path of least resistance. What makes her happy, as opposed to what I really want.

So here I am, months down the line, having agreed to give making it work another try, when all the while I’m thinking about decorating my imaginary three bedroom house, my kids coming to visit often, and both my wife and I in a better place, knowing my leaving was the right path for us to have taken. And I’m left asking the question, why did neither of us care enough until it got so bad? I’ve made promises to try, and so I try. I’ve been here before, using the conscious to overwhelm the unconscious. To make the exception become the norm. The unusual the usual.

However, hers is not the face I see in my dreams. She’s not the one I think of when I wake. Neither distance nor time without contact really matters in that respect. My heart belongs to another, and I can fool everyone else about that, but I can’t fool myself.

 

 

 

*The irony is not lost on me that this is exactly what is now happening with my lover. I must not let that happen.

Chapter 6

I’ve never had a relationship with someone who hasn’t had hang ups about sex. I’m not sure what that says about me. I don’t consciously choose such partners.

My first serious girlfriend, we were together two years and she found it so difficult to open up that I never really found out the full story. From the parts I could piece together, I understood that her sister suffered sexual abuse as a child, possibly inflicted by a family member. The effect of this on my girlfriend was to consider sex shameful and something that was not to be enjoyed. I took things slow and gentle with her – we were together 9 months before we did anything beyond kissing or gentle groping. Over time it became apparent that her issues were not something I was equipped to help with; I was a horny 18 year old who in my mind had been incredibly patient with this girl while my friends fucked themselves raw with eager, willing partners. It felt unfair to me.

Looking back, I regret my periodic bouts of impatience. Intense kissing in the living room darkness, her hand pumping my cock through my trousers as I played with her naked breasts and teased her through her jeans. Building towards a slow passionate crescendo, and right around that moment would usually come the words “I have to go” or “You’d better leave before someone wakes up”.

I recall countless nights of cycling home, hormones coursing through me, so pumped up I couldn’t think straight. My mind a conflict of sympathy at whatever it was that made it so hard for her to be with me – was it my fault? did I do something wrong? – and explosive horniness, so badly needing to achieve sexual satisfaction, and desperate to help her overcome whatever demons she was grappling with so that she could feel the same.

Over time the sympathy waned, and the sexual desire took centre stage, and desire became resentment. When I brought it up, when I asked how I could help to make things better, how I could give her what she needed, the answer was always “I don’t know” followed by a flurry of sorries. This in turn meant I felt bad for calling out that there was a problem, but even that eventually turned to anger – why just keep being sorry, why not try to work something out, if we supposedly love each other and want to do this?

We each agreed we wanted to be the other’s first. I was, I thought, in love with her, though with the benefit of hindsight it seems now more like a nurtured codependence. I can’t live with or without you, as the song goes. I wanted her, but I wanted to be single and free to have fun, not be trapped in this situation that required maturity far beyond mine to handle.

Eventually we did have sex. It was almost making love. I wanted to take our time, to turn her on, to make sure she was ready for me. She, on the other hand, just wanted it over. She refused my mouth, then my fingers, telling me to just “put it inside”. Of course that was painful for her and extremely tight for me, so much so that my orgasm came almost immediately and that seemed to suffice for her. I felt embarrassed and slightly short-changed. She just seemed relieved.

Sex never got a whole lot better. Conversation after conversation offering support, gently encouraging her to open up, were rebuffed with the response that it was nothing, there was nothing wrong, why did we need to discuss it when we could just do it. And so on. She refused to let me give oral sex or use my fingers on her. She claimed to have no interest in foreplay. Everything I thought I was supposed to do with a woman was rejected – she just wanted me to go inside her until I came. Her apparent disinterest, this by-the-numbers approach she seemed to favour, made it difficult for me to feel like she truly desired me, and my own performance suffered, the psychological impact manifesting physically. This too was frustrating, not because it was happening but because she seemed to have so little interest in making things better.

Against this backdrop, one night I was out in a club with my friends. Not an unusual event, given the majority of my student years were spent going out 3 or 4 nights a week. That night though, a very attractive girl came over to where I was sitting and told me I was in her chair. I was drunk and cocky, told her she’d have to find another one, and she gave as good as she got, telling me if I wouldn’t move, she’d just have to sit in my lap. And she did.

Roughly half a second later, our tongues were in one another’s mouths and she was moaning and her hands were running over my body with a sensual familiarity I had never before experienced. I was transfixed by the feeling of being desired by another person. This was the first time in my life it had happened and it was absolutely wonderful.

Moments later, my friend slapped the back of my head hard and launched into a tirade about what a prick I am because that girlfriend of mine is a lovely girl and I’m sitting there letting some slut eat the face off me. And so on. Well deserved of course, and I felt rightly chastised for my behaviour.

The following morning, I confessed to her what had happened. In the spirit of being truthful here, I must admit that my secret hope was that she would end the relationship there and then. Something I was too cowardly to do.

But no. She forgave me. She was as trapped as I was, happy neither together nor apart.

It took me leaving the country for the summer 6 months later before it ended. And even then, it didn’t really end. In fact it just got more complicated, as she and my best friend started to get together while I split my time between flirting with anything with a vagina and wooing my future wife.

Chapter 5

Tonight, I drank, and I danced. Danced in tranquil turmoil, immersed in a glorious muddle of don’tgiveafuckery, and for the first time in a long time, I lost myself in simple motion. It felt so. Fucking. Good. Me and the beat and the bassline and people near but far. The simple happiness of movement for the sake of movement, for no other reason than it felt good. I needed this.

I probably looked ridiculous, an old bastard swivelling spastically amidst a crowd of 20-somethings, but I didn’t care. For a short while, I felt sheer joy, and it made my future path so obvious it seems inevitable.

I miss her.

 

Chapter 4

You must write, she tells me. When the mere thought of her sucks the breath from me, I must write. Write about every demon that possesses me. Write every time I need to cleanse my mind of the toxicity that insists on invading my thoughts. Write to purge myself of my burdens. And so I do.

I think she thinks that by doing this, I will be able to write her out of my life. As conveniently as writing a cheque: amount, date, sign; transaction completed. That’s not possible. See, she is inside me. Fulfilling a void I was never really aware existed until we met. And I do the same for her. There is no ego or arrogance about it from either of us: it simply is. Together we feel whole. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, almost transcendental in its intensity. Beyond friendship, beyond sex; beyond even love, which is what I always assumed was the ultimate feeling of satisfaction with and devotion to another person. There is something that instils a calmness and serenity in me because she has seen the bad yet accepts me as I am – and I her. There is a bond forged from trauma and tribulation, from overcoming experiences that should have crushed us but didn’t. Things that don’t necessarily need to be said, but if they are, can be said without fear of reproach, of belittling, of being told what a terrible person that makes us. Where love and trust and security and safety are not just aspirations, but the bedrock of what it means to be together.

I think of her constantly: of what she’s doing, both in any given moment and as a whole, for me. She has given herself to me in every way except physically, and then, in an act of love I struggle to comprehend, has pushed me, encouraged me to make my marriage work, for the sake of my children. She can’t know this, but that only makes me love her more deeply. She’s so utterly unselfish, and I have repeatedly trampled on her heart as a result of my own internal conflicts. How many times can I be expected to pull her close and then when she’s at her rawest, her most vulnerable, I chuck another hand grenade into the mix and blow her to pieces?

In turn, my biggest worry about us is that for her, I’m not man enough. She craves strength and stability. I understand that a man must provide both, and I aspire to be those things, yet still – despite my flaws being pointed out and my own reasonable levels of self-awareness – I find myself slipping into old patterns learned and honed over a lifetime, oozing weakness and indecisiveness, anathema to her desire for me. To the man she needs.

Regularly, I start messages. Delete them. Strip away to the subtext and too often they’re about one thing: trying to alleviate pain, the pain of being without her. Selfish. I know some of the pain that she is enduring. I’m feeling it too. But on top of that pain, she has to endure the thought that I am supposed to make it work with someone else. I have no right to encroach on her with my torment when I’m sharing a life she wants with me with someone else.

In another life, she says. It’s enough in this life to have met and shared a moment. Our second in time. Me, I don’t believe in reincarnation, except on an atomic level. We are all made of stars. But as to this quintessence of dust, I think the essence of humanity lies in taking the opportunity, during this lightbulb flash we call existence: to eke out the most from our lives. Ultimately, the only tally that truly counts is opportunities taken and those we missed. It’s the latter which weigh heaviest on our minds.

So no. The notion that we may have an opportunity to be together in another life brings me no comfort. This is the only life I’ll ever know. I don’t mean that in a nihilistic way. In fact I think that recognising that we only have a short time in existence gives an appreciation for life in a way that those who rely on the promises of an afterlife for spiritual fulfilment don’t get.

Now, as ever, I wonder what she is doing. Is she once more building up her walls, retaining and reinforcing the remnants of self-preservation I’ve systematically decimated over the last few months? Is she cursing the moment we met, the ensuing emotional turbulence where for every glorious high there is almost always a painful low? Are we doomed to our “moment” or could there be a future?

Me, I have many regrets, but never this. Not once. It’s that transcendental feeling, you see. I consider myself privileged to have even experienced it.

Chapter 3

One of my main character flaws is my willingness to defer to what other people think. Not because I don’t hold opinions of my own. Rather, I’ve taught myself to react as though disagreement with me is congruent to dislike of me. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

Considering it rationally, it’s straightforward to acknowledge that differences of opinion are simply that, and not agenda laden, or shared with intent to hurt. However in the heat of the moment, when that cauldron of emotions bubbling beneath supersedes rationality, none of that matters. Not that my own emotions are what trouble me most. No. The risk of upsetting another person is what above all else must be avoided.

It’s something I’ve overcome in my professional life. In a professional setting, I can be forthright and challenging, and can accept directness and challenge coming my way. Consequently I know that this ridiculous hypersensitivity is something that I can overcome, given the right focus.

However, I struggle to manage that internal conflict in my personal life. I pretend to be easy-going to avoid conflict, as though I really don’t mind one way or the other about whatever particular thing is being discussed. The truth is that a lack of engagement due to disagreement is simply cowardice. This has shaped much of my life, has led me down many paths that in retrospect, had I had some courage in my convictions, I probably wouldn’t have taken.

That said, it’s hard for me to have many regrets about my choices. Thanks to the path I’ve taken, I have beautiful children. I have a good job. A beautiful wife who’s also a great mother. By any reasonable social metrics I am a success (for now, let’s gently place to one side the crippling debt and the woman I’ve fallen deeply in love with despite having never met her; topics for another day).

Despite acknowledging that things have turned out reasonably well for me, at least to a point, I do need to come clean about how I reached this point. To admit that the reason I have all this today is because I was not able to address how I really felt way back in the very beginning. To admit that much of why I am where I am in my life is not thanks to standing up for what I actually want, but instead pretending that I’m happy to go with the flow.

My wife, my partner of over 18 years, told me she loved me a little over 2 weeks after we first met. For me, that came completely out of the blue. At the time, we were both just out of long term relationships, both looking to have some easy going fun, at least as far as I was concerned. It caught her by surprise too, but she was honest about her feelings. She said she didn’t know she was going to say it until the words were out of her mouth.

To my chagrin, I freaked out when she said it. Not my finest moment. Bad enough for her to regret saying it, at least initially, which is a horrible memory to associate with the first time saying those words. I saw how badly I had upset her by my reaction, and I immediately went into “how do I fix this?” mode.

To me, there was only one way to fix it: to be in love with her too. I couldn’t entertain the notion of letting her down, so breaking up was off the table. My own desire to be young, free and single became redundant in the face of holding another human being’s happiness in my hands. Besides, my initial reaction felt very immature and inappropriate and this was BIG STUFF. We were in our 20s. No more teenage bullshit. Time to consider if this is THE ONE.

And anyway, wasn’t that what I’d always been looking for? What I’d always wanted? Somebody to love. Someone to love me. Here it was, presented to me on a platter. A beautiful, kind, thoughtful, sexy platter. How arrogant, how ungrateful it would be to look such a gift horse in the mouth. No, I should have been grateful that someone even thought of me in that way. That someone deemed me worthy of love when I’d spent my whole life telling myself that I was not. To run from that would be to regret it forever.

So, I asked her for a chance. A chance to fall in love with her. A chance to catch up to where she was. And she gave it to me.

And so I willed myself to fall in love. To embrace it wholeheartedly. Because that was what she deserved, someone who could love her and treat her well. And so fucking what if we differed over religion and politics and our ideas on marriage and children and our backgrounds (hers privileged, mine not so much) and she didn’t quite get my humour and she thought my hobbies were childish and she found me crude and immature and I found her quite reserved and sexually unadventurous beneath her feisty exterior? Those were just little things, right? Minor quibbles that were irrelevant in the face of true love.

I told myself that often in the early years. True love conquers all. Even when I discovered she was a walking disaster with money, it didn’t phase me. I could help. I could sort out her money problems. I would look after her, because that’s what she deserved.

When she moved countries to be with me, it was so grand and romantic that it could not be wrong. We were love’s young dream. Everywhere we went, a chorus of “aw”‘s followed in our wake, so poignant was our love story.

In our first year of living together, me just graduated and still working in a shitty retail job, she told me she wanted to marry me. That was the very first time I pushed back on anything in our relationship. The very thought horrified me. I was barely a year older than my dad when he got married, and that was a car crash that lasted 11 years before the victims eventually extricated themselves from the wreckage. No. No way. I had to be sure about that, and I didn’t feel sure.

Still, she persisted. Why not? If we love each other, why not? What was the big deal? The more pressured I felt, the more resistant I became to the idea. My only experience of marriage was its ugliness, its forcing together of people who didn’t necessarily want to be together but had to. Why would I want to willingly submit myself for such torture? I may have enjoyed mental masochism for much of my life but that didn’t mean I wanted to subject myself to external masochistic influences too. Did it?

I was so fraught by my own experiences that I was jeopardising my future. One night, in a restaurant, that thought slapped me in the face, cutting through everything else: what are you waiting for? She loves you. You haven’t been forced together to raise a child neither of you want. Live your fucking life.

So, there and then, I got down on one knee, and asked her the question she had been waiting for. There were tears. Applause. Free champagne. Love’s young dream. And so I was engaged.

I phoned her father a couple of days later to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Ideally I would have done that first but planning wasn’t really a factor in anything related to my proposal. He liked me well enough so I knew he’d say yes, which made it an easy conversation.

Then came emigration, and wedding plans, and buying first homes, and for the first time talk of careers as opposed to jobs. Grown up stuff. Scary and important. How good it felt to have responsibilities! How normal! Look at me, fellow humans, I wanted to say. See, I’m just like you. I have grown up problems and a person to share them with. That makes me good, right? That makes me worthy.

Then, a niggling voice. Some time, I’m not sure when. After marriage, anyway. It said: what about your needs? It said: why are you such a pushover? It said: when are you going to be okay with just being yourself?

And for what felt like the first time, I wondered if that would be okay, to put myself first. To have needs of my own.

Chapter 2

See the boy. Small for his age, made smaller still by the way he cowers. He stands on the porch, barefoot. A girl he likes passes by with her friend, moving quickly in the pouring rain. They titter to one another as they catch sight of him. His tears mingle with the rain, rage and humiliation burning his cheeks.

He wraps his skinny arms around his naked torso, trying to warm himself. His cotton y-fronts cling to his wet skin, his only concession to modesty. His bare legs cross over one another, contorting and folding him smaller still. He stares at at the porch tiles. Maybe if he folds himself small enough he can shelter in the cracked valleys of the grout lines. The rain pelts the ground. He sobs and wishes he was dead.

See the boy. Burning this experience into his memory. He will not forget. This is what he deserves. He is bad. A bold brat. Bold children don’t get to stay in this house. They belong outside.

Mammy shouted as she shoved him out the front door, get out and don’t come back, she’s sick of the sight of him. He wants to leave, to run and run and never look back – wouldn’t that be a triumph, for her to open the door to find him gone! –  but she’s gambled on him being too terrified to leave the porch, and it’s a gamble she’ll win.

He wonders if he would have the courage to run if it weren’t raining.

He tenses as he hears the bolt click in the door, and it opens slowly. She stands there. He wants to hug her. He wants to scream in her face. He does neither. She puts her hands on her hips.

“Are you going to behave yourself?”

He nods, miserable yet enthusiastic.

“You know if you weren’t so bold I wouldn’t have had to put you out here.”

He nods again. He knows these words. He embraces their malevolent familiarity, the awful comfort that they bring. He’s been bold and she’s had to do this for his own good. This is a dynamic he learned as a toddler, and now at eight he is utterly indoctrinated. This is his world. She is his Mammy and she looks after him.

“Get in would you. And don’t be dripping all over the floors. Get yourself a towel.”

The house has never experienced central heating, yet it is warm and welcoming and the boy feels an exhausted relief and an overwhelming sense of gratitude as he pulls on his pyjamas. He wonders how only a few minutes ago he was wishing he would die. He feels terribly ashamed of himself.

Fists balled and trying to control his breathing, the boy leaves his bedroom and walks downstairs. He finds his mother in the kitchen.

See the boy embrace his mother.

“Sorry mammy” he says, his voice quavering, eyes swimming.

His mammy holds him tight.

“Shhhh now. You’re a good boy.”