Over the years that follow, Binns falls in love with Steve, a man eighteen years her senior who has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since his return from military service in Vietnam forty years prior, and who has a talent for making her feel heard. Despite his inability to provide anything more than a spurious connection, run on a mercurial and erratic schedule, and despite his repeated rejections of her love, she continues to pursue him. During their off periods, she dates other men—but she inevitably compares each new suitor to Steve, and all of them fall short. Ultimately, it takes the loss of her father in the summer of 2014, followed by the death of her ex-husband five months later, for her to finally let go of Steve—and, in the process, fully unearth the self she’s been chasing all along.
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Here, Not There
One night in January 2001, when it was Matt's turn to come up with something for us to do to strengthen our intimacy, I sat on the couch and waited. I watched him iron his clothes for the next workday. Then I turned on the TV. I was calm, and everything seemed simple, clear. I knew I would leave. I didn't know when, but I was too limp to hold us together any longer.
Later that month, I attended Andre Watts's concert by myself. The next day, Matt told me that was the loneliest night of his life. I shrugged. What are you going to do about it? I wondered to myself. I waited for him to suggest something, but he said nothing.
The fifteen-minute commute to campus was not enough time to finish crying. In the middle of a fine detail about quotes and parentheses, my voice quivered. My heart thudded, and I wanted to evaporate into the whiteboard. I was going to cry. I took deep breaths, which helped. I saw my students shift in their seats, fidgeting with the seams of their shirts, their heads down and turned toward a side wall. Then a few of them enveloped me. Their faces waited, full of kindness, patience. I told them enough of the story; they cared. I felt embarrassed that I was overtaken with blubbering, and at the same time I wanted them to see me raw. I wanted a rescue. I wanted someone to know what to do, because I didn't.
Occasionally, when I was traipsing through a grammar lesson, one of my students, Allen, made sideways comments about an especially good sentence I had written. Little by little, these comments edged their way into flattery and then stretched into elongated conversations after class in the hallway. It was harmless, then. My intellect was tickled; flirting reminded me that perhaps I was attractive and worthy. Nothing needed to come of it. I felt safe so long as I was his teacher and we stood upright in the hallway. I would not reach beyond the confines of the semester; it would destabilize things.
As the end of the semester encroached, however, lines blurred. I didn't want to stop talking to him. When he leaned against the wall outside our classroom, I imagined pulling his shirt out of his pants and rubbing my hands across his back and down. I wondered if he would like to kiss me. I wondered if I would like it.
We were consenting adults and old enough to make sound decisions, at least according to the law. But the libido makes miscreants out of the most rational, especially if a heart is aching and lonely.
I invited Allen to be in a book club with me. I wasn't formally a part of any such club; it would simply be the two of us. Our first meeting was at a bar. He asked me how it would work.
"I don't know," I said. "Usually whoever's in it decides on what to read and then they talk about it after they're done." I smiled and hoped he wasn't really thinking we would read books together, though I was pleasantly surprised when he showed me the book he had brought. He smiled and, as if he'd heard my thoughts, said we didn't have to read it.
He was forty-two and lean. He wore glasses, was bald, and had a Texan drawl that made me smile helplessly. He had a self-doubting gentility that was endearing and suggested seduction. I was attracted to his desire and attention. It didn't matter what he said. He could have told me that he had been a drug dealer, a porn king, or a con man who'd bilked people out of millions and I would have nodded kindly, entranced by the song of his intonation.
Allen looked at me when I spoke. He agreed or dis- agreed, he intellectualized his thoughts and seemed alive to mine. I needed him to bring me back to who I remembered myself as, back in the time before it all felt vacuous.
Mindful of the time that first meeting, we only visited for an hour and a half, and all of it took place at the bar.
He walked me to my car. We stood in the parking lot with muted fluorescent orange lights streaming in all directions above us.
"I want to have an affair with you," he said.
You want me? You want to have sex with me and to listen to me, to laugh with me? I couldn't refuse him.
"I'm never going to leave my wife," he continued. "I love her. I'll always cheat on her, but I love her."
I whisked away the clunk of defeat in his declaration that he would never leave his wife. I would not be saved by him. I quickly changed my objective. This didn't need to be forever, and I didn't need to know what it would be, either. Jittery, excited, questioning this was superfluous.
Allen arrived late the first time we were supposed to meet. He didn't know how to get to our meeting spot, a library. I didn't have a cell phone. I sat in my car. I got out and waited on the sidewalk. I looked at my watch. I got back in my car and opened a book. I read the same line several times. I thought I should leave but I was too excited. I didn't want to miss my chance with him, or to be seen as unreliable or untrustworthy. I got out again and stood on the sidewalk.
I heard his truck at the same time I saw it. I smiled and waved, pretending this wasn't unusual. Friends met at the library all the time, just maybe not to park a car and break a vow.
We drove to a hotel. He paid for it and mumbled something about forty dollars not being too bad for ruining your conscience. He mused about how many wandering couples the desk clerks saw in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday.
I felt embarrassed at how loose his underwear was around his thighs. He was vulnerable and fragile. This moment was real. I kissed him to remember and forget why I was there.
I was surprised by the size and shape of his penis. I reasoned that of course it would be different, but I hadn't seen any penis besides Matt's in twelve years. I climbed on top and acted like I felt something when in fact I didn't feel much of him at all. That did not keep me from enjoying and exhausting myself thoroughly by late afternoon.
We picked up my car and drove to a side street a few blocks from my house. I got out and sat with him in his truck.
"I'll miss you. Thank you for spending the afternoon with me." Allen smiled.
I wanted to keep him talking — wanted to keep feeling that blurry intoxication at the sound of his Texan drawl — but I didn't know what to say. Thoughts of my twenty-month- old son's needs, and Matt having tended to them all day butted against the thinning bubble of what I had just done. "I'll miss you, too," I told him. I didn't want to leave. The evening loomed in front of me.
I drove home feeling triumphant. A line had been drawn. I was no longer drowning in feeling invisible and mute. I had reached toward another to save myself.
Shortly after I arrived, my friend Joan called and invited me to dinner with a few other friends. I asked Matt if that would be okay; I had been gone all day, after all, leaving him to take care of Shane on his own.
"Sure," he said, and he didn't even look tired or irritated. If he felt any misgivings about continuing to care for Shane by himself, it did not show.
My betrayal of that innocence strung a cobweb of guilt around me as I kissed him good-bye.
At the restaurant, I looked around the large table and wondered if any of my friends suspected I had had sex that afternoon with someone other than my husband.
I felt high and so grateful in those first few weeks. I had abandoned misery before it could destroy me. I felt desired. It was as though I had been dragging myself through the desert for years, and finally I could stretch and linger in an oasis. I felt refreshed, electric with possibilities for who I could be and how my life could be lived. Each of us being married made figuring out where and when to meet a challenge, but I was too excited to fret over any of it. The effervescence of freedom to feel buoyed me. I was ready to have it all.
I made up stories about what I was doing or where I was going. I would "feel the need to sketch or paint or write all day," when really I was meeting Allen at a Park 'N' Ride and then convening in a nearby field. I brought my sketchbook and journal along for cover. As our waywardness continued, I did in fact long to draw and write, but I lacked the patience to let myself be still.
The irregular drumbeat of our philandering grew more hurried and feverish with each visit. Inklings of impending disaster appeared; it was starting to get expensive. We did not live close to each other; he lived in a nearby mountain town, and I lived in Denver. The time away from our other lives, and the money we were spending to make it possible, was adding up.
I thought I could keep it from Matt until I figured out what to do, and I did — for a month.
I knew he knew when we lay in bed in a spoon position and he would not curl completely against my back. His arm lay like a log over me. I couldn't hear him breathe.
He admitted that he had read my journal. I had been keeping it upstairs in the attic, where I often went to write during Shane's afternoon naps, but I had gotten lazy or tired and left it next to my side of our bed. His story was that he was chasing after Shane, who ran into the bedroom and flipped open my journal to scribble in it. Matt took it away from him and started reading. I never quite believed this story, because Shane was too fat at nearly two years to run that fast, and he wasn't ever really a scribbler. Besides, there were never any scribble marks to be found in my journal.
But I felt too ashamed to be angry that he'd read my journal.
"Was it fiction?" Matt asked.
I could have lied. He gave me an obvious, legitimate out. I could have been working on a short story about a woman who has an affair. But I couldn't lie, and I didn't want to. I wanted to see what he would do.
"No," I said. I couldn't look at him directly, but I was watching him in my periphery.
"That explains why you've been gone so much." He looked down, away from me. His eyes retreated.
I could not undo this disappointment. I wanted him to yell at me or protest or ask why this happened. His silence was far worse; it forced me to look at the impact of my actions without the distraction of his anger.
Matt and I had seen six therapists individually and as a couple by this point. I had suggested, cajoled, or instigated all of those visits.
In August 2000, we brought Shane with us to counseling because we couldn't find a babysitter. He was sixteen months — old enough to stand but still wobbly when walking. He deftly flipped CDs off the bookshelf onto the floor. Matt quietly told him not to, but the counselor said not to worry about it. A whirlpool of dissonance, tinged by a quiescent hope, that we had spun round and round in for years hovered like an unwelcome specter. I didn't want to laugh at Matt's sarcastic commentary anymore. I silently expected him to show me that he cared enough this time to carry us. It was obvious to me that I had supported us through all of our ups and downs, into our previous engagements in therapy and back out into our relationship; it was his turn. Though I was tired at the thought of one more round of therapy, I showed up to do my part.
Our therapist had encouraged us to devote two nights of the week to our relationship and advised us to get a babysitter on a regular basis, so we could go out on our own. She suggested that we each design activities to facilitate a connection and intimacy.
We did this for a few months, though many times I had to remind Matt of our intention to follow through with this.
On a couple of our outings, I considered whether or not I even liked being around him anymore. I could no longer ignore that I was the one who asked most, if not all, of the questions that sustained a conversation. If he did ask me something, it was in regard to a topic that had come up days before, something I had long since forgotten about. This dynamic had gone on for years and had whittled me down; I was ravenous for validation and restive in its absence. I felt guilty for wanting to feel connected and seen. I felt guilty that he could not satisfy my desire. I felt lower than dirt when he yelled that everything was always all about me.
Allen never had any intention of letting his wife know of his wandering, but once the cat was out of the bag for me, I was less cautious or concerned. I didn't care what anything cost anymore. I had survived Matt finding out. Even more so, I had survived unveiling it to my mother. I had hurt someone she loved, someone she liked more than me. She loved me because I was hers, but she loved him just because. She questioned me, saying that relationships were hard work and sometimes boring. She questioned me five years later, too.
"Why did you leave? I didn't want to pry. I didn't think it was my business."
It wasn't, but I marched through the frustration at never feeling like I could tell her in the first place and explained, "I felt empty, Mom. I got so tired of feeling so lonely when he was sitting right next to me."
This she understood. I had grown up watching my mother talk while my father read the newspaper, rarely acknowledging a word she said.
* * *
In June, I moved out to an apartment a block and a half away from our house. Allen and I continued to see each other when we could. He went on vacation with his family in late July. I asked him to please call and wish me a happy birthday in August. He didn't. The only thing I received from him was a postcard with a tiny smiley face on it. I kept it in my dresser for a couple of days and took it out frequently to discern any cloaked meaning. A few days later, I ripped it to shreds in a tearful fit.
He didn't even say he was sorry. He had stepped back from me. He was going to stay with Diane but wanted to be friends with me. Sure, I agreed. But what was that? Did that mean we'd be intimate without strings attached? The ever-popular friends with benefits? Maybe that would work for him. He still had the safety of his marriage to return to. I didn't know what I had or if I dared define anything in terms of a possession any longer. It seemed the bottom was likely to fall out of anything at any moment. Nothing seemed like it would ever feel certain again.
After some weeks of that murky friend territory, I told him I couldn't do it, not right now, which of course meant I didn't know when I would be able to, if ever.
I got tired of seeing Allen around campus. I felt branded and scarred anew when I made out his saunter and bald head. Sometimes, when I got close enough, I would ask him when he was going to graduate. Surely, it would have to happen soon.
It did, and four years later he moved away — without Di- ane. Every now and again he sent me jokes or chain email; they were pokes to see if I would nibble. Most of the time, I deleted them. He would send me an authentic "How are you?" from time to time, too; to those, I would reply.
I heard from him in 2009. He was in a poor town in a southern state, teaching elementary school. He had always wanted to go where he was needed and to give back to the community. He had felt like he was wasting his life being a carpenter. A series of journal entries were attached in an email. The report was grim. He struggled with what he was doing there.
One entry, written on his birthday, began with: "Another trip around the sun, another year older, but hardly any wiser. Today I wrestle with many of the demons I have seen in the past — over-indulgence, lack of commitment to people, feel- ings of guilt and despair. I am a poster child for Prozac."
His writing meandered into his personal life and his re- flection about two women he had been seeing. One liked sex, whereas the other one was provocative and mysterious, and absent (too much). He mused that together they made the perfect woman.
He wove in and out of questioning the meaning of his work at the school. He wrote that a doctor had seen some- thing on a chest X-ray, but he never explained what the out- come was. He noted that he had returned to drinking after having been sober for several years.
One paragraph was only one sentence: "If you have something worth living for, you will have something worth dying for as well."
I put his journals in a folder and tried not to remember that I had once encouraged him with his writing. He had a wry wit and could cobble a sentence together decently. I tried not to remember that I had once been one of the two women he was caught between. I didn't want to see that so little had changed for him. I wanted to expunge his last words: "Like it or not, we'll always be connected." I didn't know what that meant to him. For me, it meant he was the bridge out of one phase of my life into the next.
Connected? Yes, we were. I couldn't change that. It was immutable. An uncomfortable mix of regret and relief disheveled me. I never told myself that it was okay to hurt Matt, but at the time, after having spent years dancing in a sticky web of hope and disappointment, I hadn't thought about what he might be feeling, and I'd naively believed that what I did wouldn't matter. There were days upon hours and months when other people's judgment of what happened factored largely into how I saw myself. I felt helpless to defend any of my actions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Broken Whole"
Copyright © 2018 Jane Binns.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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