“I don’t get it”, her mother finally said. “I really don’t get it. I questioned your choice five years ago but if truth be told, he’s my favorite son-in-law”.
I could see my best friend’s tear-stained face, her hands tightly clasped in her lap, a look of defeat in her face.
“I mean, you are happy with him, aren’t you? You went on a beautiful anniversary trip. He’s a great father. He just got you a lovely new car. What is it that you don’t have?” Her mother persisted.
She shifted uncomfortably. She looked confused. She looked more determined when she had started talking an hour ago about how she was so unhappy in her marriage but now she looked confused and may be a little scared too.
“I don’t know what I don’t have”, she finally said resignedly, “that’s the whole point, Mom. I’m missing something is all I know. I don’t know what it is”.
Her mother looked at me questioningly. I shrugged my shoulders and redirected my gaze to the floor.
But I understood her mother’s bewilderment at this. She was married to a great guy. We had both known him from our college days. He was not particularly good-looking but boy was he charismatic! He had a bespoke charm and a captivating personality. He was very knowledgeable and I never came off of a conversation with him without learning something new. He had an animal attraction for almost all the women around him. He was just so good in every way. The way he talked, walked, reasoned, debated, smiled and made jokes. He was a human magnet.
So it was surprising that he chose my friend. I mean, let’s be honest. Besides the fact that she could literally die for him there was nothing that set her apart from the other women around him. He had many women throwing themselves at him. He knew it. I knew it. My best friend knew it. A part of me even felt that a man who knew he could practice so much control on women could likely not be a faithful partner but my friend was smitten. And if I remember correctly, he was just as thrown by her.
They didn’t date for that long. They were engaged after four months and married before the year was up. Then they had their first child soon after. And then the second. And the third year she was pregnant again.
Back to back pregnancies and my own life caused my best friend and I to drift apart. We used to see each other every week and talked regularly for the first three years of her marriage. But then we lost contact for a full year when I decided to take a mission trip to a faraway land.
I missed her when I was away. But I didn’t initiate the contact when I was away. She did. Out of the blue. One fine morning. A strange number called me. It was her.
We talked and talked. I missed my morning chores and other volunteer work that I did everyday and she forgot to put the baby to nap. After promising that we won’t lose touch ever again we hung up.
I thought about the phone call later that night. Not many people have envied my life. I’ve never had the best of anything. My parents divorced when I was a toddler and my whole life was spent shuttling from one parent to another, who remained embroiled in an acrimonious custody battle for as long as my dad lived. After he passed on, my mom abandoned me. She was contentious towards my dad and didn’t own me much as a child. I reminded her of a life and a man that she hated with a passion. I got into the college of my choice but that was it. I quit early and did free lance work and then took this mission trip. There were no constants in my life except my best friend. Her marriage hit me hard. It reminded me of my own loneliness and the perfection that her life was. She lived the white picket fence story with doting parents and many siblings. My life was anything but.
But she envied my life openly on the phone call. She repeatedly said how she yearned to work again, make friends again and go out again. If I didn’t know how perfect her life was, I would’ve thought she was unhappy. But how could she be unhappy? She had everything.
She didn’t talk much about her kids or her husband. She did ask me if I’d like to come over and meet them when I was back.
So now I was back and I didn’t quite understand why she was so morose. She insisted that I accompany her to her parents’ place without any preamble and here she was bawling her eyes out. Didn’t she have everything? Could it be that people who get everything without ever truly working for it can become ungrateful? May be she needed to practice more gratitude? May be she needed to see my life and know what having a bad life is?
She finally stopped crying. Her mother looked relieved.
“I have to go now. The kids will be home anytime and he is coming back early also”. She finally said and left.
I hurried out after her. She hugged me and then said casually,
“I’m having an intimate dinner for some couples that we know this weekend. Would you like to come?”
“I won’t have a date”, I said ruefully.
“That’s fine. You’ll be the only lucky woman there then”.
I looked at her. Was she joking or making fun of me? My friend has never been sarcastic so I was a little shocked and didn’t know how to respond. But that was not the only thing that shocked me about her. She looked and acted different. She was distant, cautious and borderline verbally abrasive. It was so unlike her.
I am a punctual person so I got to her place at the right time. It was a big mistake.
“I didn’t know there were going to be twelve people, okay? I’ll get extra seats and add a table. There is space and there’s still time”, I heard her agitated voice.
“I don’t know why you can’t do anything right. I specifically told you that there are six couples. How could you forget that? Even a dog can remember that”, he wasn’t agitated. His voice was smooth and like every decibel was carefully measured before it was delivered.
“So are you calling me a dog now?” I heard her shriek belligerently.
“I don’t know why you’re getting so upset. I just said that you messed up even though I reminded you at least ten times. Honey! If you’re hoping for a compliment then that ain’t coming from me for this and a dog is a lovely animal. It’s not like I called you a cow. “, I heard his footsteps getting closer to where I was standing and quickly made a run for the gate.
I had to get out. This wasn’t the right time. They were in the middle of a domestic argument. They weren’t even ready for the party. I got out on the street, got in my car and sped away.
I re-entered their home two hours later. The porch was lit up with fairy lights. There was an elaborate wreath indicating the holiday season at the front door. I could hear men and women laughing and talking. I walked up to her magnificent garden and slowly came face to face with what she called “an arrangement for a casual dinner”.
There was the best china, servers carrying trays with hors’ d’oeuvres, smartly dressed men and women and no children. It was a very sophisticated party.
I saw him almost immediately. In a group of impeccably-dressed men he still stood out. He had a crisp white shirt and slacks on. Even though it looked like the causal attire of a host, it smelled of money and panache. He was always particular about his clothes. Marrying my friend probably only added to his already wonderful wardrobe. She was an excellent dresser herself.
I looked at him for a few minutes trying to piece everything together. I couldn’t think why a woman wouldn’t be happy with him. He had the same infectious laugh, easy smile and abundant charm. When he talked there was always a glimmer of a smile in his eyes, something that made me nervous and attracted to him at the same time. It was like he knew what I was thinking. Every woman who knew him said pretty much the same thing about him. He had a charisma that never left him. He never had any weak moments.
Someone cleared her throat next to me. It was her.
“Hey”, I said embarrassed at being caught eyeing her husband.
She hugged me and then nodded her head in his direction.
“Remember him?”, she asked casually.
Her voice was sardonic, a mixture of contempt, resentment and sarcasm. She never talked like that. She was the sweetest girl I knew and she endeared everyone she met. She could never be mean. I would’ve been a mean and bitter person had she not been a part of my life. Her smile lit up the room. Then what happened to her?
“Yes I remember him”, I nervously laughed and then said, “we didn’t get to talk much the other day. Can you meet me tomorrow to chat? Would you be able to do that? I know you have kids and you’re very busy”.
“I’d love to do that”, she said quietly.
We walked over to where he was. He recognized me immediately. He was so down-to-earth, it was almost impossible to launch any attacks against him. He always had a self-deprecating smile ready. He looked like the most modest, the most humble man who ever breathed. He was a true combination of wholesomeness and class. He was a rare human.
But…….even though he was modest, there was something unnerving about him. His humor had the hint of sarcasm. He made jokes that seemed like they were at his expense but actually had a certain darkness to them. He openly praised people, almost like praise is cheap and should be bestowed on anyone who crossed his path. He made fabulous eye contact, something that I noticed my friend couldn’t anymore. He talked like a friend. He was not judgmental about anything but the tiny glimmer in his eye made me feel like he was above me, better than me and almost like he was humoring me by listening to my stupid stories from the mission. I could see him for the patronizing husband that he could be. He was one with the group but there was a quality that separated him from us. It was almost like a demigod had stepped down from the heavens and chosen to have dinner with lesser mortals.
Dinner was delicious and lovely. She made small talk like most society wives do. He dominated the conversation. He made jokes at her expense that everyone laughed to, including her. He casually told everyone how he had asked her at least ten times to arrange for twelve people and she still forgot four and only made arrangements for eight. He then laughed at his own narration of this story and opened it to jokes from his friends about their wives and significant others. The women laughed louder than the men. I felt sick.
As was my habit, I was fifteen minutes early at the coffee house. I waited for another thirty minutes for her before I saw a magnificent car stopping outside. A woman got out. A man came around from the driver’s side and hugged her. Then they exchanged a passionate kiss. They couldn’t seem to let go of each other. Finally the woman broke off laughing while he stood there smiling broadly with the hint of that same self-assured, cocky grin on his face. I watched my friend blushing as she saw me watching them.
“Sorry”, she flopped down on the chair and started breathlessly, “we just had a lazy morning and I totally forgot you were waiting”.
She didn’t seem sorry at all.
“It’s okay,” I quickly said, “I already had breakfast so no worries! I was worried about you”.
She couldn’t see me in the eye for several seconds. Then she said lightly,
“Well, you just looked so upset last night. I also wanted to talk to you about the other day when you took me to your parents’ home to talk to your mom. I’ve been thinking about that”. I finished haltingly.
“Oh, that!” She laughed airily again. “Don’t worry about that. We had a little tiff. Everyone has that. It’s part of marriage. I’m so dramatic. I run to my mom for everything. Gosh! I know I need to get a grip on myself”.
I stared at her. She looked put together, carefully dressed, perfectly made face with an expensive perfume emanating from her body. Did I imagine her distress?
We talked about life in the last year. My mission trip. Her kids. My dating life. Her marriage. But there was this hollowness to our conversation. Like we were being disingenuous. I knew she was hiding something. Did she know she was hiding something?
Probably not. We left after two hours.
We talked infrequently. We usually texted and they were short sentences of the usual pleasantries. Some jokes that we forwarded to each other. Two months flew by.
It was my birthday and like every year, I was lonely and slightly forlorn. Most of my friends were either married or dating and of course this added to my feeling of not having someone to call my own. As I was trying to wade through another lonely evening, she called.
We talked and reminisced of the many birthdays that we had celebrated together. We laughed and laughed at some of the hilarity that surrounded our birthdays in previous years. She was a great party planner and had celebrated so many of my fabulous birthdays with me. Her mother always made a big deal of our birthdays also. Her family made up for a lot of vacuum in my life. I asked her how she celebrated her last. She was quiet first and then said in a flat voice,
“We don’t celebrate my birthdays. He thinks my birthday isn’t an occasion to celebrate. It’s another useless year that’s come to an end and marks the beginning of another useless one. What’s the celebration for?”
I didn’t expect that. Her voice was devoid of emotion. Sometimes the lack of emotion is scarier than in-your-face rage and passion. It indicates a death of one’s spirit. She wasn’t a cold person but I was discovering cold facets of her personality now. Could it be that she was just coming into her own? No. I knew her like a sister. We spent the better part of our lives together. We could sense each other’s thoughts. I knew she was living a nightmare in slow-motion. But did she know that?
“Tell you what? Let’s meet tomorrow. I can’t have you here and not get a bite with you on your birthday”. She said enthusiastically.
I gladly agreed. I really wanted to see her.
I watched her as she entered the restaurant. A tall woman who was a little stooped, with slumped shoulders, a face devoid of makeup, her clothes a complete disarray of mismatched items. She didn’t look like the woman I had seen just two months ago.
I didn’t say anything. We chatted like nothing had happened. Then she casually mentioned that they were going to host another dinner in a week and if I’d like to be there.
“Wow! You guys entertain a lot. How do you do that with three kids less than five? Do you have a lot of help?”
She laughed derisively. I felt embarrassed at asking a stupid question. Of course she had help. How would she be entertaining people so often at elaborate dinners if she didn’t have help?
“You wanna know the truth?”, she finally recovered from laughing and asked seriously, “I have no help. No help with the cleaning or cooking or menu-planning or doing the dishes or with the kids or for myself. I have no help. No help! All I have is a social register of activities. Showing up at the kids’ PTA and other activities, making dinner for my husband and his friends, taking a vacation every once in a while because how else would we be well-travelled, and making myself presentable for life. That’s all I have”.
I sat there, unable to string any words together to ask her more.
“But I’m married and that’s more than what matters. I’m married and I have kids. I have some place to call home. A man to call my own. Sort of. Kids who…..”
“What do you mean ‘sort of’?”, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. “He’s yours, there isn’t any question about that. Is there?”
She looked me deep in my eyes and then smiled sadly,
“I’m not enough for him. He is so good looking , so accomplished, so likable, so social, such a great conversationalist, knowledgeable, charismatic and totally spell-binding. Me? I’m just his frumpy old wife with a lost charm and remnants of once-there youth and beauty. He desires so much more. I can’t even meet him half way. If I said the truth, it is a huge favor to me that he’s still with me”.
I was shocked. Not because she had described her husband exactly as I had pegged him but because he had reduced her to nothing. She was finally the pathetic carcass that his narcissism could claim.
“But the last time we met, you guys looked so happy when he came to drop you off”.
“Oh there are happy times. Some really happy ones. Some amazing sex. Some attentive moments. Some truly blissful times. But there is some darkness too. I won’t lie to you. The darkness always comes after the light. I don’t know what happens. We are doing so good and then bam! I upset him. Then everything spirals down again”.
I willed for her to see the pattern but she had to leave. I promised to see her at the dinner and we parted.
I went to her place for dinner. She looked visibly happy and rested. There weren’t any dark circles under her eyes and she was dressed carefully. They both met me at the entrance.
He made me nervous. There was an eerie quality to him. Like he could look inside my mind. I avoided eye contact with him but his gaze locked me in. I stared at him. She finally broke the silence.
“Why’re you guys tongue-tied?” She laughed.
“I’m not tongue-tied. I’m just so overwhelmed by your friend’s personality”, the same self-deprecating humor with a hint of sarcasm and mockery.
“There’s nothing in me to overwhelm you”, I said quietly. “May be you’re picking up on your own vibe”.
“May be”, he said casually, then added, “She told me about how you guys have been reconnecting since you got back”.
Did she tell him about our conversation?
“Of course we reconnected. We were always inseparable”. I said fondly.
“Really? You two?”, he tilted his head to one side like contemplating the possibility, “weren’t you kind of a loner?”
“No”, I laughed despite myself, “I didn’t have many friends but I wasn’t a loner”.
He laughed too. She did as well. We all laughed an insincere, uncomfortable laugh and I followed them in.
Dinner was the same elaborate affair. How she did everything was beyond me. She had money. She could afford hiring help. Why didn’t she? Her kids came over and I met them for the first time. They were little children and really didn’t seem to have any idea who I was.
During dinner my friend confided in me that she had entrusted her husband with our conversation and he had really been introspective and making changes.
I was alarmed. I wasn’t as smitten by him as she was so I could see a little better through the facade. He didn’t seem to be the type of man who would openly admit his mistakes and faults and go about fixing them. I asked her what it was that he had actually said.
“Well you know, he agreed that he can get sarcastic and angry for no reason. But I’ll be honest. I’m no saint. He pointed it out and I agree! Since the third baby we haven’t really had a great sex life. Also, look at me! I’ve completely let myself go. There are days when I don’t even shower. He’s right on some counts. How would he feel happiness if I don’t look happy? I am always so haggard and poorly dressed. There’s a reason why we’ve been having more problems”.
Oh great! So when she complained to him he gaslighted her by making it about her? Classic! This woman has little kids, two still nursing at her breasts twenty four hours and he expects her to keep it all together without any help.
Meanwhile, she continued,
“I’ll be more cautious from now on. I lose my temper very quickly. The baby wakes up at least four times every night. He sleeps in a separate room for the last six months. He has to work, you see? He can’t sleep in like me”.
“Do you sleep in everyday?”
“No, but I’m home and that’s relaxing enough. I don’t have to go to work and deal with the pressures of employment and work and office politics and all that”.
I looked at her. A woman making excuses for her narcissistic husband. A woman finding faults with her own self to please a narcissist.
Finally I ventured,
“You don’t think that’s unfair that he expects you to be so put together and ready to please him when he expects you to do everything without any help? None of the people sitting outside at your dinner table are truly your friends and yet you cater to them like they are. Don’t you think you are being fooled into thinking that you’re not enough and you need to be better?”
“No! I don’t think that. He’s a good father and a good provider. I know what you’re saying. And it can easily look like that. But marriage isn’t something that you can comment on without experiencing it. I hope you have the chance someday to know what really having a life partner is. But I’ll be honest! It’s a lot of sacrifice and compromise. And women usually have to do more because we are more flexible also”.
As we were eating dessert I noticed him edging closer to me. I smiled at him. He smiled too. Somehow it appeared sincere and disarming.
“So you guys have probably covered more than what you missed while you were away?”
“Well we have always been very close. I can’t believe we lost touch so easily”.
“That’s because she’s married now. Her priorities and life have changed”.
I bit my lip. Most married people tried to tell me how their life was so different from mine.
“I know. But she’s still the same person”.
I saw the glint of cold fury in his eyes. But it was momentary. He was again his easy self.
“Some might argue that she’s not the same person. How can she be?”
“Why not?” I countered.
“For starters, she’s not a little girl anymore. She’s a woman with a family. She has responsibilities and a whole different accountability that she had in the life where you know her from”.
“A different accountability? But we are always accountable….”
He held up his hand and stopped me mid sentence.
“Let me explain”.
I stared at him. He rudely cut me off and was treating me like a child who needed an explanation. We were having a conversation that was slightly terse but not hostile by any means. Why did he stop me so rudely? I felt anger coming over me but he didn’t care.
“She has a different type of accountability in her life, you see”, he started in his smooth voice that had a sharp edge to it now, ” She owes some people things that she didn’t owe them before. Like she owes me faithfulness and integrity. Also honesty. And commitment. She can’t be running off to people discussing our marriage and coming back to me demanding answers when I’ve been nothing but kind and loving to her. She owes our children attention. She can’t neglect them. She can’t put her friends and her plans of having coffee with them before our children. That’s a diabolical thing to do. She’s a good woman but very impressionable and easily steered in other directions. She has suffered some consequences of her sloppiness, I won’t lie to you, regardless of what she might have or have not told you. More than anything she needs to check her temper if she wants us to be happy. I have a feeling that someone has been feeding her ideas that aren’t hers. Not even remotely. She has suddenly started to read books again, watch movies again and has been trying to convince me that she needs a gym membership. If I didn’t know her better I’d think she was having an affair. But I know her enough to know that she is acting on someone else’s ideas of independence, autonomy and equality”.
My head was spinning. Somehow I had lost track of where we started. He was eloquent and spoke seamlessly, leaving little room for questions or interruptions. But something that he said made me ask,
“Who do you think is feeding her new ideas?”
He looked at me and said in a dark voice,
“It could be anyone. There are many women who’d like to be in her place. Many women who would work out a way to break us apart so they can be with me. Many women who’d treat her nicely only to discard her later. A part of me feels that she deserves it because she’s so stupid. But I love her, whatever people might think about that. So I’ve decided to help her just like I’ve had to help her with most things in life”.
I had a rage coming on. He didn’t think I was trying to get him. He knew that I wasn’t. But this was his narrative to make her live a lie with him.
“You’re not being fair to her”, I finally said much more calmly than I felt, “She deserves to be happy. She’s not happy”.
“And why do you think she’s not?”, he asked with mock-politeness, “Has she told you that? Was it right after we had a fight? Don’t you think that would’ve colored her opinion of me temporarily? Does she look unhappy to you?”
I looked over at my friend. She was looking at us with some trepidation but overall looked happy.
“I told her my assessment of you and she agreed. She wanted me to tell you. You’re not to maintain contact with her anymore. She couldn’t tell you because you’re like a sister to her. She wanted me to do this delightful job for her that I’m more than happy to have accomplished. Never call her again”.
I was furious. I couldn’t believe it. Surely she didn’t ask him to talk to me. She invited me here as a friend and a sister. Nothing made sense.
“I’d like to talk to her before I leave”, I said stubbornly.
“Have at it”, he smiled and called out to her.
“Honey! Can you see your friend to the door?”
She came over with an apologetic smile. We started walking towards the gate. All the questions I had thought of asking her a minute ago evaporated and all I could think of was how I was losing my best friend for ever.
“I’m sorry”, She finally broke the silence, “I couldn’t say it to you. I love you but I love him too and he threatened to leave me if I didn’t leave you. He gets very jealous. He felt you and I were becoming closer than he and I are. He can’t take it. You know I’m the only person in his life that he has ever truly loved”.
I stared at her. I stared at the white picket fence that I was walking out of. I wondered if he was so good that he fooled most women. May be he couldn’t fool me because I wasn’t ever as taken with him as other women. He had, in a classic move, isolated her from her support system. This was how he wanted to rule her and make her his own. She was a trophy, a sounding board, a punching bag, someone who took his beating when life disappointed him. She was his scapegoat. He had put a great system in place. Financial dependence, one kid after the other, social isolation, her busy life devoid of help, her slowly fading beauty making her feel more inadequate, her constant reliance on his validation, her inability to see beyond the moment. Just the fact that her version of why we couldn’t be friends was so different from his proved that he manipulated her in a whole different way.
I exited her property. We lost all touch until we met ten years later at my magazine’s launch.
We saw each other across the cavernous room with the giant chandeliers. She looked at me for many minutes, a drink in her hand, something so different about her that words didn’t need me to appreciate it.
We walked towards each other and hugged. It was like the last many years had never come between us.
We had tears in our eyes and smiles on our faces.
We exchanged pleasantries and formal, hollow words.
I had worked day and night to launch my labor of love. My magazine wasn’t something that just happened for me. No one wants to invest in a newbie’s ideas. No one wants to catapult something that an amateur has come up with. Sigh! World! It had never been fair to me until this moment when I had my own thing. Something to call my own.
But I couldn’t concentrate on the launch as much as I would’ve had she not been there. She was one of life’s gifts to me. She made do for sister, mother, friend, ally and even sometimes a significant other. She and I dated and worked our first jobs together. We shared heartbreaks and successes. Her family adopted me informally. And then I was asked to leave. That moment hurt everyday because when you’re from a broken home you can feel rejected and disowned very easily. You can cry easily. You also pick up your pieces quicker too.
But when you’re from a broken home you’re also more perceptive. You understand the human mind and how relationships work. You don’t take everything at face value. You demand for truth at the expense of heartbreak. You demand for loyalty even if it means some other things might not be deliverable. Above all, you expect love because you give it so freely. You become empathic and commiserate with fellow humans over minor injuries and major wounds. You become less judgmental and more sincere. That happened to me through my parents’ divorce and my mother’s abandonment of me. I became someone who didn’t like insincerity and untruth. I didn’t like disingenuous relationships.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder and it was her.
“Do you think we can meet tomorrow?” She asked.
“Yes”, I readily agreed.
We met at the same low-key coffee house where her huge car looked so out of place many years ago. She walked in as I was sipping on some lemon water. She beamed at me. What was so different about her? She looked healthier, prettier, better dressed than the last time I saw her. May be he had changed, I mused.
“Have you been waiting for long?” She asked as soon as she sat down.
“Not at all. This place is so close to work. I came five minutes ago. You’ve certainly become punctual”. I remarked.
“I set an alarm for everything. Even for this meeting”, She laughed.
We laughed and made small talk. Then I casually asked her,
“How’s your husband?”
She froze. I could see her eyes darting in different directions.
“Do you mean him?” She pulled out a picture of an unknown man from her purse.
I looked at her nonplussed.
“It’s a long story. But the short version is that I cheated on him. Then he couldn’t have me anymore. Honestly, I don’t know if he would’ve ever let me go if I didn’t break free of him in some way”.
“But….” I still couldn’t wrap my head around this story.
“I know what you’re thinking”, she said quietly, “A good woman like me! How could I ever do it? Didn’t my mother teach me to be subservient and forever remain like a slave to my husband? Didn’t I learn to uphold my honor? What got into me, what was lacking in my marriage that I went so far as to cheat on my husband? The long answer is I had become tired of his fleeting love. I had become weary of his mood swings. I had started to see the effects of his manipulation on my children. The short answer is that I met a man who was so different from him that my husband did not remain the normal anymore”.
My heart was a mix of emotions. I was proud of her for making the change, scared of how much she might have changed herself in the process, sad at the dissolution of her marriage and worried that her kids had to live through it and may have been scarred forever.
“I could only take it for so long”, she continued, “The constant reminder that I wasn’t giving it my all, making me feel inadequate, calling my anger ill-placed, calling me crazy for calling him out, making me question my sanity, changing the way things happened, lying, taking away my freedom of even feeling an emotion without his permission, it was all a giant ball of marital mess. He then started hitting me. But he was always so contrite afterwards that I felt I pushed him to it. The cycle would’ve continued if I hadn’t found a way out in the form of another man. He didn’t know I was married. I was looking for a straw to save myself. But when I got my head above water I was in the middle of a torrid affair and I had engaged in a lot of emotional cheating. I asked my ex-husband to forgive me and I wanted to build our relationship back. And for a while we tried, went to counseling and even took a vacation together. But soon we were falling into old patterns. I knew I couldn’t do it anymore”.
I listened with baited breath.
“He divorced me but not before he shamed me endlessly for the affair. He didn’t see his toxicity. He embellished it as a physical affair. My parents left me too after hearing that. I was all alone. And when he had taken every human being that I could call my own, he divorced me. My kids were given custody with their father on grounds of me being a bad influence until they became a burden on him. He dropped them off at my place shortly before his wedding six months later. I have them now”.
I hesitated to ask but I had to.
“So you’re married to the man whom you had the affair with?”
She laughed. Sardonically and pitifully. Then she said,
“Men who prey on women in their weak moments aren’t looking for an emotional connection. They’re looking for a prey. And I was a perfect prey. I fell into his lap myself, I had crowned myself as the cheating wife and later the divorced wife. I didn’t have a single family member speaking to me. I was at his mercy. He told me wonderful stories of how he was waiting for this and that and the other to tie the knot with me until I found out that it wasn’t going to happen. I left him. When you’ve left one man, it’s easier to leave the next”.
“And are you happily married now?”
“No! But I know why I’m not happy and I’m trying to fix it. I’m in the process of a divorce. We are currently separated”.
I stared at her. My sweet, angelical friend. Who couldn’t harm a bug. Who couldn’t even watch horror movies had had to live through so many horrors of her own life.
She smiled a sad smile.
“You know how our mothers told us that we would be so much safer with a man. That’s not true! Sometimes there are horrors that happen in a marital relationship that we spend our entire lives protecting our kids from. My second husband couldn’t be with someone like me who had so much baggage from two past relationships. He became insecure. He became jealous. My infidelity in my first marriage chased me in my second. You might think like my mother and say it’s my comeuppance. But actually it’s my deliverance. I don’t want to waste my life with a narcissist first and then spend whatever is left of it trying to explain to another man how my life is a picture of its consequences. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with me. I want to make a good life for myself. My husband’s insecurity has made the decision so much easier for me”.
She looked calm and cool about it. She had a different aura and it was of being weather-beaten but it was also of strength.
“I don’t know if to congratulate you or sympathize with you”.
“Congratulate me,” she said immediately. “For finding a way out once again. For having nine lives. For being tenacious enough to continue to look for my pieces and my joy. For being in the game still. Marriage isn’t the only thing that merits congratulation. Sometimes the end of a marriage is more joyful and liberating. My divorce will be hard but only because it will bring about a dramatic change that I’ll have to get used to but overall it will be a happy day to celebrate”.
“Phew! You’ve changed so much. I don’t know if I like you or I’m scared of you”.
She laughed. The same tinkling laugh that she had when we were teenagers and looked at teenage boys and blushed. When we doodled our crush’s names on pieces of paper. When we’d talk about weddings and wedding dresses and music and slow dances. When we’d knowingly look at each other as a handsome guy walked by. When we used to stand with our mouths gaping at the animal magnetism of her first husband in our college days.
“Women should be likable. Very likable. Women are like a safe haven for everyone on earth. They provide protection, warmth and safety. They should be welcoming and accommodating. But they shouldn’t be taught to be weak or be easily manipulated. They shouldn’t be told to suck it up and deal with it in silence. They should have a side that people respect and revere. They shouldn’t bend over backwards to make room for everything. So if you feel scared of me, one of my dearest people in this whole world, then I have changed for the better”.