by Kathryn Maria Smick
Early this Sunday morning spring is breaking out all over. When I come in from the garden there's a message on the phone recorder, "Please call me." It's Ted. His words sound formal, deliberate, unlike him. When I call, eagerly as always, he begins with, "How was your day in the mountains?"
I'm still in the clouds from yesterday's down-hill skiing in the Sierra. I go into rapturous detail about the perfect snow, the weather, and how now, in old age, I ski better than ever before. "And you?
"You'd better sit down." There's a long pause. "I'm pursuing another woman."
"Yes?" I manage.
"I didn't know how to break it to you. But I talked it over with my son last night, and we decided it was best this way."
It isn't until later that I wonder why a 58 year-old man needs the counsel of a teen-ager who hasn't yet dated to help him decide how to deal with me.
"This woman, she's a student in one of my classes. I'm in love with her. She's beautiful in an exotic, old-fashioned way. Sort of reminds me of you. She's twenty-nine, has two small kids, and she needs me."
"So we're not going to the dance festival this afternoon? That you asked me to get tickets for?"
"What dance . . . ? Oh, I forgot."
I try to sound calm. "When did this affair begin?"
"Yesterday. I'd have told you sooner, but . . "
Yesterday? I cannot believe what I am hearing. I collect myself and say to this man who's been my lover for almost two years, "Well, when you get tired of her, come back."
"Don't be so easy on me."
"I've hardly had time to absorb what you've just said, let alone figure out an appropriate reaction."
"With a woman that young you'll have to take care of yourself, to last for her. You never had to be concerned about that with me." I feel weak, disoriented. "Ted, I wish you well. I'll always be your friend."
"That's what I wanted to hear."
I sit by the phone, numb. What the hell has just happened? Dazed, I wander about the house. In the bedroom I contemplate his bed that I moved in and placed against mine when we first became lovers. I rip the covers off, drag the mattress across the hall, then struggle with the box springs, pushing and pulling a few feet at a time. With a hammer I dislodge the frame from the head and foot boards. I'm breathing hard; my heart throbs in my throat. After two more trips across the hall my room is mine again, as it had been for almost twenty years before I met Ted. And, oh, it looks so empty.
Exhausted, I sit on the edge of the bed. I press against the hurt in my stomach. Like the rest of me it feels exposed and raw. What to think? What to do? "Damn. Damn. Damn."
My affair with Ted, a college teacher who served on various committees with me, started precipitously when I gave a fund-raiser for a political candidate and he helped. The day ended with an embrace and his words, "I may never let you go." A day and a night of his verbal seduction on the telephone sent my dormant arousal hormones surging. This was scary; but I'd go for it.
For the next two weeks I worried about keeping him from finding out that I was much older than he. People have their stereotypes of age. I have my own: When I read in the newspaper about a 78 year old woman I do not picture a woman resembling me. I didn't want him to fit me into a mold before he knew me. He relieved my anxiety by admitting he'd known my age almost from the first, when he overheard me in a business conversation give birth date and social security number. "But twenty years is . . . ," I stammered, not believing it didn't matter. "Twenty and a half," he corrected. We laughed and sealed the vanished barrier with a kiss.
While I liked to think that my youthful body and his portly carriage blurred the age difference, I knew that I'd be really old long before he would. At that time I even unselfishly imagined that our relationship would eventually facilitate his transition to a younger woman. But not so soon, not now! This isn't what I had in mind. We talked of a fling that would last a few months. He'd say, "Live in the moment. Have fun. That's what life is all about." And I would blithely add, "I've lived without a man for years until you came along, and I can do it again." At first when either of us said "I love you", teasing, we'd add, "Now".
But my life was less about fun than was Ted's. I thought of my pleasures as deeper than fun: The interactions with my patients in the clinic. My youngest grandchildren. Aerobic and muscle-building exercise. Summer backpacking and winter skiing.
As the months passed we stopped talking of our affair as temporary. And I pushed the end of our relationship so far into the future that I no longer thought about it.
Now in this bedroom, my mind riveted on his phone call, I tell myself that time heals. But before time kicks in I need relief. I head for the medicine cabinet. An Equanil tablet lessens the pain and turmoil. Without Ted nothing is urgent; nothing matters. Eventually night comes, with the kind of sleep that follows the death of someone close; and I stir often as the unacceptable loss floats to consciousness.
With daylight on this Monday in early March I review yesterday's events and consider the day ahead. I had agreed to participate, along with Ted, in a press conference this evening to oppose a toxic incinerator in our area. I take commitments seriously, and I lie on the bed for hours as rain pelts the window panes before I concede that I cannot go to this meeting where my contact with Ted will be at best impersonal.
He calls Tuesday morning. "How are you?"
"Miserable." Then pride takes over. "No, I'm fine. Really fine."
"I thought you'd like to know about last night." He describes the evening without any reference to my absence and ends with, "Call me sometime."
Suddenly I see him as existing in a different world from mine. Is this the man I loved and trusted for the past two years? I feel very old, older than ever in my life. I think that I will die very soon.
Paramount in my mind is the fact that he's gone. His high energy, his innovative - even crazy - thinking, his unpredictable - often outrageous - behavior, are gone. He won't walk again into my kitchen, draw me to him and kiss me as my hand slides up his thigh and I am lost in him. I cannot go through the day like this, obsessed with the loss. I change tack. How can he do this to me? I should thank him for getting out of my life. I spend a few hours re-reading the last two years of my journal, and am amazed at the record of his slights and put-downs, of fights he instigated over trivia. He once stomped out of my house leaving dinner on the table because I didn't put the bread in the toaster the second he told me to. Interspersed among my notes was the repeated, "I don't care if I ever see him again."
Reality is an antidote. I close my diary and look out the window. White plum blossoms flutter in the wind before they fall like snowflakes to cover the ground. I pick up an Elder Hostel catalog with Alaska on the first page. The land of my girlhood dreams of romance and adventure. I'll visit Alaska. That trip will replace the summer vacation Ted and I had planned. On my desk is an editorial that angered me in last week's newspaper. I send off a Letter to the Editor. I write a letter of resignation to a committee that Ted and I both serve on. My productivity knows no bounds. I mail off a manuscript, and then top it all by making an appointment with a plastic surgeon.
This activity has held the tears in abeyance for another day.
On Wednesday I alternately sit and pace, desperately wanting to banish the confusion. I am not ready to stop loving Ted. He'd said it was "yesterday" that his pursuit of the young woman student began. But I can imagine a period of seduction going back at least to the day of the carnations.
From time to time Ted brought roses. One evening in January he gave me carnations and, as we arranged them in a vase, said, "Carnations are symbols of separation."
"And roses?" "Are symbols of love."
"What are you telling me?"
Our relationship was never without tension. On Valentine's day it was roses again.
But this is getting me nowhere. I will concentrate on the advantages of being without Ted: uninterrupted time to write; time to clean out closets and cupboards; time to take stock of my life. I block. What's ahead will be a far cry from the past when what mattered most was that Ted held, kissed, caressed and fucked me. Now he's with another woman. At last the betrayal is more than I can bear. I scream, "goddamn" and pound the wall. I cry; I sit, head on my hands, at the table and sob uncontrollably. I can't live without him.
At 7:30 Thursday morning I phone him. "You can't cut me out of your life so easily."
"I don't want to hurt you. I love you. But this woman. . . I didn't foresee . . . I couldn't have told you sooner."
"But you ended our relationship with a goddamn phone call, a cowardly phone call." It feels good to be saying it. "You don't even let me cry on your shoulder; I have to sit in this house alone and cry. For you our relationship must have been meaningless." By this time I'm half sobbing. "God, how I was deceived! I thought you understood how I felt. You understood only enough to manipulate me to meet your needs." I take a deep breath. "Ted, I hate you."
I feel better. That night when I awake at 4 A.M. I take Thomas Moore's Soul Mates off the book shelf. I had bought it when I thought of Ted and me as soul mates. I turn to the chapter on endings and read that "parting is an initiation to new awareness", that all endings are potential beginnings. Ah, perspectives I need. By the time it's light outside I'm ready to accept the loss and embrace a new beginning. I put a message on Ted's phone recorder, a bit prematurely it turns out, "I'm through crying; I'm through blaming. You've done the right thing. I couldn't have done it. And I thank you." I feel strong and clear.
He calls the following evening, one week from his first fateful call. His voice is flat and tired. "I feel pretty unbalanced," he said. "This woman's needs are overwhelming. She expects me to be lover, daddy, protector and supporter. I'm not up to that."
Knowing so well his own huge needs I can understand his predicament.
"Honey", he continues, "I value your friendship. I want to be able to talk to you, like I always have. I'd like to be able to come over again and cook dinner for us sometime."
When several times a week Ted cooked our dinner love-making always preceded it. Around five one of us would rouse and say, "I'm getting hungry." Or, "What's in the kitchen for dinner?" And going to the garden and to the refrigerator he somehow concocted a luscious original meal. As we savored it, we'd reach out and hold hands for a moment and look into each others eyes.
"Darling," I answer, "I couldn't possibly agree to dinner. Don't you realize I'm jealous? I can't bear to think that you're giving another woman the pleasure you gave me. You're addicted to excitement. Someday you'll tire of her, just as you tired of me. Meanwhile I wish you well."
He says, "It's important to me for you to say that."
I feel magnanimous. I feel good too that I was not sucked in to becoming his confidante and counselor.
After the next committee meeting where my letter of resignation was read, he phones. "You shouldn't have done it. You're important on that committee. Everyone was distressed couldn't believe that you'd resign. Why did you do it? Is this revenge?"
Revenge had not occurred to me, but at this moment I like the idea. I'm pleased with his protest. "Revenge? No, Ted, it's that I couldn't bear the pain of sitting in the same room with you, having no personal words with you, being unable to reach for your hand as we walked to our cars."
"I'm very much in love with this woman."
How could I so glibly have wished him well in our conversation only a few days earlier?
The truth hits me for the first time. This man has no idea how I feel now and no idea how I felt before. His persuasive personality and his verbal cleverness have blinded me. For him I existed as amusement and pleasure, not as a sentient partner.
Tonight, a week and a half since he took leave of me, I spend the evening staring into space. Kitty curls up warm and alive against my belly. Later in bed I'm uneasy about falling asleep; death seems so close, so easy.
Early on, Ted sat by my bed one evening when I was sick with a cold. Holding my hand, he said very seriously, "I want to be with you like this when you die."
Taken aback, I said, "Silly you. You'll have left me for a younger woman long before that event occurs."
Now, confronting the other end of the spectrum, he tells me, "There aren't enough caring fathers in the world. I want to be a father to her two little kids."
Three months after he has devoted himself to the other woman Ted phones again.
My heart quickens in spite of myself.
"School's out in a couple of days. I'll return your books and journals."
"Good. Bring them over any time."
He continues. "I've bought a house. I'm going to be married. I've quit playing the field; I'm settling down."
"Oh?" Hurt and anger silence me.
"I'll see you soon," he says.
The annual dinner party Ted and I have gone to twice in the past is next week-end. I will break my moratorium on attending functions where he may be. But I consider: if he's there he'll be with the woman he's going to marry. Am I up to this? I prepare myself both mentally and physically. I'll be haughty. I'll be beautiful - with a face recently lasered smooth. I'll wear a colorful skirt that draws attention to my legs, and dangling red earrings. That evening as I approach the dining hall I see Ted standing alone at a window. He waves. Inside I encounter his mother and greet her in a cheery voice. Near her is a sweet-faced girl whom I immediately characterize as vulnerable. His mother says to my questioning glance, "This is Naomi." Until now I had known her only as "this woman". I do not introduce myself until later when I notice her standing across the room by herself. "I'm Maria, the woman Ted betrayed and abandoned when he met you." "Ooh, I'm so sorry," she murmurs sounding sincere and looking lovely.
Emboldened, I continue. "You have to be a strong woman to be with Ted. He can destroy you."
She smiles uncertainly. "Yes, I know how he can be . . . ," and her voice trails off.
I stride about the room greeting friends with unnatural ebullience. I chat with the men in the band. When I finally sit down to dinner my heart is pounding, my throat is dry, my stomach recoils at the sight of food. I sip my soda and no one seems to notice.
That night I cannot sleep. Over and over I see Naomi's adoring eyes on Ted. It was one thing to know that Naomi existed; to see her with him is quite another. But, besides jealousy, I feel a kinship with Naomi. I recall myself at her age, with two small children, and no physical or emotional support. Ted had told me in our first conversation about her that "she reminds me of you." Later, "Like you, she's a Sagittarian and a Six on the Enneagram scale." He has found in Naomi a younger version of me. For all the imaginary conversations I've had with Ted, I've yet to share with him my accumulating thoughts and feelings. I reach for the notepad on the bedside table. "Dear Ted, Our relationship was an experience that has changed my life. Your ending it as if we had nothing to say to each other, nothing to conclude, was devastating. It made it possible for you to put me out of mind quickly, and it left me with a feeling of betrayal. When you told me last week that you had quit playing the field I saw our affair in a new light. I had never thought of myself as in a field. Were you just toying with me all along? "Since I'm writing this on your birthday, I will end with a wish for you: Not for happiness but for awareness and growth. Maria."
The letter, neatly typed, lies on my table for a couple of weeks. Then I phone him, "You were going to return my books. Could we get that over with?"
The next afternoon he arrives. He puts the books on the table and stands there, spiritless. He notices my letter in an envelope marked "TED". "Some of my thoughts." I feel awkward. "Would you like to sit down?" We pull out chairs at the kitchen table. I bring us each a Coke. Finally he asks, "Could I stay a little while? Could we go into the living room?"
He sits on the sofa where we've spent hours lying side by side. Still tense, I make conversation. "Tell me about your house." At the end of a lengthy description he says, "Naomi and her two kids have left."
Concealing my pleasure I say, "I'm sure she'll be back."
"I don't want her back. . . Honey, I think of you so often. We were happy together. Come here beside me. I feel desolate."
"Ted," I speak clearly and slowly, "what was between us has ended." Shocked by my words, I know their truth.
"It doesn't have to have ended." He reaches for me but I move aside.
At the door he says, "Perhaps we could talk sometimes. We used to have so much to talk about."
"That's in the past." He picks up the letter. "Will this make me feel better or worse?" he asks as he departs. Alone I wander about the garden - a garden strangely new to me. The blue hydrangeas and the white oleanders are in their summer bloom. The yellow red-tinged peace rose is lovelier than I have ever seen it. Soon they will all fade and fall. And bloom again next spring.
(c) Kathryn Maria Smick
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