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"Lessons in life will be repeated until they are learned."
— Frank Sonnenberg
AS IS OFTEN THE CASE WITH LOVE STORIES, OURS did not begin as love, or even friendship. It just seemed Jim was always there, hovering over and around my world. He was nondescript, non-disruptive, a quiet presence constantly at the ready. He was willing to offer anything to assist my daughters and me and to be a part of our lives. He, his wife, and his children seemed to be everywhere we were. Our children were in the same grades, had the same teachers, and participated in the same activities. His daughter routinely slept at my house and mine at his. He and his wife included my older daughter on their family trips to the beach. He included both of my girls on ski trips. If I were grading papers, preparing a grade book, or doing other work-related chores at a basketball or soccer game, he eagerly offered his assistance. He would turn up to help spread mulch, to fix a leak, or to avert a household calamity. Perhaps he was just taking pity on a woman alone. He and his wife were two of only a handful of people who knew that the girls and I were on our own. They lived nearby, so it was easy to stop in and help when help was needed. I gave it little thought. He was just there.
When my daughters and I were forced to move unexpectedly and dramatically downsized our home, his presence became more and more visible and increasingly routine. He would sometimes appear with his wife and children in tow. "We thought you could use some help arranging furniture." At times, he brought only his son and said, "The two of us can easily get that cabinet mounted in the girls' bathroom." Often he came alone, helping to ease a difficult transition. He restored sanity when the washer, dryer, and refrigerator did not fit into the kitchen. He was there when the TV needed to be lifted, when flooring needed to be laid in the attic, when shelves needed to be built in the garage and closets. He spent weeks planning and erecting a fence to keep an errant dog from getting loose and causing trouble in the neighborhood. He seemed always eager and willing whenever a need arose. He provided comforting words — "This isn't as overwhelming as it seems" — and a strong back. He volunteered in my classroom, arriving at school to read to my students or help them understand, through movement, balls, and a light, what it really meant for the planets to rotate around the sun, and they seemed to clearly understand his method of presentation. But, frankly, aside from when he was there to help or when I was faced with a problem I knew he could help solve, I rarely gave him a second thought.
They happened slowly, over time — tiny actions and behaviors imperceptible both to me and to those around me. Perhaps I was just unaware. Involvement with someone was certainly not on my radar. However, a friendship was developing, as we worked together so often. He began to share some of the frustrations he was experiencing at work. He lamented, "My career seems to be stagnating at a time when I'm preparing to retire." Issues he was facing at home came up as well. He told me, "My wife and I are growing increasingly distant as the kids near the end of high school and prepare to leave for college. I feel we are not working toward the same goals. Perhaps we never were."
OUR FRIENDSHIP TOOK on new meaning the evening Jim, and his wife, Marge, invited me out to dinner for my birthday at a newly opened Japanese steakhouse, insisting it would be their treat. He described his upcoming vacation with his son. "We're planning a week in Vermont over spring break, while Karen is in France for a semester abroad. The snow should be ideal, and the black-diamond slopes in Killington are a real challenge."
I was not a skier, yet I found myself awed by his enthusiasm and wondered what Vermont in the springtime would be like, as it was one place I had never visited.
Marge's voice broke through my momentary reverie as she said, "You and the girls really should join the guys on the trip."
"Are you sure that kind of arrangement is appropriate?" I asked.
She remained adamant: "It's a perfect opportunity for a getaway, and our teens will have a wonderful time together."
Far overdue for a diversion for myself and my girls, and confident that we would be traveling with a trusted friend at affordable prices, we began planning. There would be a play and sightseeing in New York City, as well as a quick visit to Montreal (my younger daughter had a goal of collecting thirteen countries' stamps in her passport before she completed high school). The itinerary was quickly finalized, all were excited, and the trip was soon under way.
Before the car was even fully loaded, Lemonhead candies that had been spilled had to be cleaned out, a forgotten ski jacket retrieved, and seating arrangements determined. Once we were on the road, all passengers settled in quite comfortably and easily assumed the atmosphere of a routine family outing, with companionable banter in the backseat and traffic observations and updates in the front.
The visit to New York proceeded flawlessly, as teens and adults grouped, paired, and regrouped for planned and spontaneous activities. A side trip to the world's largest kaleidoscope was a humorous diversion on the way to Vermont. Skiing was disappointing — the weather was unseasonably warm and the snow slushy — but I was undeterred, as I had brought a swimsuit and sunbathed contentedly by the pool. A quick trip to Montreal, and we were headed back and settled into the thirteen-hour return drive. The backseat was often quiet while our worn-out teens dozed. Glancing back at them, I commented, "It appears the trip was a complete success."
He nodded and gave me a rare smile. "Successful from our perspective as well, I hope."
The two of us settled in and cheerfully continued to engage in animated and inconsequential conversation during the remaining hours of the trip.
Still, I never really saw it coming. I was focused on assimilating myself and my daughters into a new community. He was still a married man, and I was thrilled with my unfolding new life. My daughters were well adjusted, nearly grown, and delightful young women. I was mastering my profession in a new environment. I had friends, a network, and a home I could afford. My income was inching up and providing me with a growing, albeit modest, investment portfolio. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to feel truly independent and at peace. I had no interest in or room for a relationship in my life.
However, I soon realized that his perception of our friendship was shifting amid noticeable changes in the dynamics between him and his wife as their relationship continued to disintegrate. He explained to me, "We met in a bar while I was in college. Marriage seemed to be the expected 'next step' for us. Two children quickly followed and were the only thing we shared."
Yes, even to a casual observer, they seemed to be mismatched. I would often hear the whispered comments of friends wondering, "What do you think he sees in her?" during the social situations and gatherings in which I found myself sharing time with them. He had a college education, and a solid and stable work history. He enjoyed reading, photography, skiing, and fishing, and dreamed of traveling and exploring new interests and ideas. He stayed current and interested in a variety of topics, from science and technology to pop culture. She had not attended college, had no consistent job experience or expertise, and, when pushed to work to assist in covering household expenses, chose to babysit at home during the school year. That choice afforded her responsibility-free holidays and summers, during which she could spend the days poolside with only her own two children to monitor. Of her husband, she invariably commented at every gathering, "While he possesses book sense, he is totally without common sense." She made it clear to all that she believed herself to be the partner with the latter.
The overall impression that onlookers gleaned from their public interactions was that he was weak and she was overbearing. Indeed, on occasions when dining out was the option, she even set the criteria for the selected restaurant. She would frequent only an establishment that accepted a discount coupon she had clipped from the newspaper or received in the mail, and would order no beverage that was not free of charge. Because she controlled the budget and gave him only a limited allowance, which provided him with very little cash, she always took care of their portion of the bill — making him appear impotent.
As these differences persisted and wore down their marriage, his behaviors toward me seemed to change. He would ask me to walk with him after completing a project and became increasingly open in voicing his frustrations and sharing his plans. He conveyed specifics of ongoing conversations they had shared. "We always intended to divorce once the kids were finished with high school. Now that it's time to leave, she's refusing to let me out. If I fight it, what damage will be done to my relationship with my children? Women always seem to receive the support through divorce, while men receive the blame."
I offered an occasional comment — "The process of divorce is never easy" — but mostly I just listened. He began to share more personal details of their relationship, about what transpired in their bedroom, which I found uncomfortable and disconcerting to hear and suggested he keep to himself.
Shortly after that, he was at my house one day, when he suddenly announced, "I will be leaving my wife and moving in here to live with you."
Unaware that he had concocted a scheme anything like what he had just stated, I stood frozen as I tried to breathe and formulate a reply. Finally, I carefully explained, "That is not going to happen." Making every effort to stop the development of a plan such as his, I made it clear to him that I wanted nothing more than friendship after a volatile and unpredictable first marriage and an equally hostile divorce. I had no interest in love or marriage and clearly pointed out the fact that we were very different people from very different worlds. I repeatedly played the alphabet game, listing A–Z reasons a relationship couldn't work for us: I was mobile, passionate, sarcastic, and openly communicative. He was quiet, Southern, and passive-aggressive, and, except for college, had never left the state where he had been born. I was physically active and confident and had a wide circle of friends. He skied only on occasion, was seemingly quite insecure, and had no friends whom he could identify, besides his children. Above all, he was still married.
Never could I have imagined, nor would I forget, his immediate and dramatic response, and the change it would ultimately make in my life: "I love you, and I have infinite patience." Unmoved and still unconvinced, I reminded him, "Where you want to go is not where I want to be. You're struggling to unravel yourself from a long-term relationship, and you're an emotional wreck as your marriage comes to an end. You've been reduced to inertia on the job and in your personal life. You need to have time to yourself. You need to sort through your life, your needs, and your goals before you even think about moving ahead with someone else. When you're ready, there will be women who will be looking for a relationship and will welcome you into their lives. I am not that woman."
Still, he maintained his love for me, as well as his endless patience.
And so time continued to pass and the attachment deepened. As a friend, I found it difficult to abandon him during such a trying period in his life. We spent increasing amounts of time together, mostly discussing the collapse of his relationship and the pain he was feeling as he struggled to end his twenty-year marriage. His concerns focused mainly on the impact the divorce would have on his children. He was especially concerned about his son, who already had a rocky relationship with his mother. When the separation became official and Jim moved into his own apartment, that bond was further strained. Marge was rarely home to provide much-needed stability in her son's disrupted routine. She was instead enjoying a newly established social life and an expanded dating scene. When her son asked her why she was out so often, she responded, "Do you think your father isn't doing the same thing?" Certainly not the type of conversation to ease a young adult through the transition of divorce. Jim talked endlessly of the guilt he internalized about ending the relationship — even though it had been a much-discussed, mutual decision.
Although I experienced additional concerns, these regarding awkward coincidences he shared with my first spouse — similar first names and birth dates — he was far more like my father, with his carefree optimism and happy whistling, and those concerns slowly began to fade. Ease of conversation, comfortable compatibility, and an ability to honestly and openly discuss any topic or concern continued to build between us. We shared an interest in movies, reading, and restaurants. We both enjoyed the beach — any beach — and we continued to allow our friendship to develop. Despite the drawbacks of timing, children, recovery, and doubts, I did enjoy his kindness and attention.
As the months turned into more than three years, I began to consider a romantic relationship with this man. He became an even more prevalent presence in my home and developed an increasingly closer bond with my daughters, and, as I watched their interactions, I began to believe that somehow, this just might work. However, while my daughters had grown accustomed to his presence in our lives over the years, a more comprehensive conversation seemed necessary as the relationship began to shift from one of friendship to one of romantic involvement.
At first when I asked, "What are you feeling about his place in our lives?" a noncommittal "I'm fine with it" came from both of my children.
Trying again, I reminded them, "Involvement with someone was never something I considered. However, given the respect, admiration, and support he displays for all of us, I would like to see where this might go. And I would like your support."
They shared a conspiratorial look, but I was certain I had them on my side as I excused them from the room. Each hugged me close and offered, "I love you, Mom," as she walked away.
When it came to meeting his extended family, I was nervous.
I was raised as a Catholic, held a liberal worldview, certainly enjoyed a nice wine, and was quite apprehensive about how my introduction into his conservative, Southern Baptist clan would be viewed. Although he introduced me as his "friend," the knowing looks we got clearly indicated that his relatives were confident he wouldn't have brought me home unless I were more. His mother and siblings bombarded me with questions about how we had met, how long we had known each other, and where I lived.
As I responded to all their inquiries, we moved into the kitchen to share a casual Sunday supper. I needn't have worried about their acceptance, as the barrage of questions was replaced by supportive comments expressing their gratitude and appreciation to me for the change they saw in his demeanor. His siblings observed, "He's cheerful again." Jim's mother commented, "Before now, he never seemed to feel deserving of anything in life but leftovers and always appeared tired, dejected, and timid." All shared that his wife had often publicly belittled him and expounded on the fact that they had never seen him happier. I smiled shyly as the conversation turned away from his previous relationship and returned to less emotional topics, such as the fruits of the season and the ending of yet another school year.
After that, I was included in all family events. We enjoyed holidays, crabbing, and collaborating on plans to build a third beach house. I began to seriously consider the possibility of a relationship with this man whom I perceived as kind, sensitive, attentive, consistent, and financially and emotionally stable — none of which I had ever experienced before. Starting to "bend and sparkle," as a friend commented about my new zest for every moment, I determined to let this story unfold and watch what might happen.
As he healed from his divorce, the kinks seemed to unravel. His boss had appointed him project manager on a new and demanding assignment, and she gave me the job of providing continued support to him as it moved ahead. When it ended and one project led to another, I continued to "have his back" as his career gained momentum and his reputation soared. I was delighted to help in any way I could and was confident he would do the same for me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Two Minus One"
Copyright © 2018 Kathryn Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Second Chances 5
Chapter 2 Why Are You Telling Me This Now? 24
Chapter 3 Time for New Pillows 42
Chapter 4 Just Because He Says It Doesn't Mean It's True 51
Chapter 5 The Night the Lights Went On in Carolina 59
Chapter 6 Rescued 65
Chapter 7 The Hits Just Keep On Coming 75
Chapter 8 "What Made You Think This Would End Any Other Way?" 97
Chapter 9 Who Are You, and What Are You Thinking? 104
Chapter 10 Moving On 114