“I love you, honey”, she heard her new husband in the background. She smiled and turned. He took her in his arms.
“Why?” She said smiling still. “What do you need?” She teased him.
His gaze grew serious. She felt she had again done something wrong. They had been married for a week after dating for about two years and she felt that she couldn’t get it right. She always said the wrong thing at the wrong time. She wondered why she was finding it hard to trust her fortune. That she finally had a good man. A man who loved her.
He continued to look at her. His eyes bored into her gray-green eyes. He wondered sometimes how she had that color. It was a unique color to have. He could never tell if she was happy or sad looking in her eyes. Even though the light usually danced in her eyes, there was a dark abyss underneath that was scary and sad. He wanted to ask her if she had more secrets and then laughed at that thought. Of course she had secrets. She was so guarded, there had to be more than what he knew .
Veronica finally collected her thoughts and said,
“I’m sorry. I know sometimes I say the stupidest things”.
“It wasn’t stupid”, Eddie said quietly, “Just not something I expected to hear. Do you think that when someone says they love you they want something? It’s the most commonly used, the most spontaneous expression of love. Why don’t you ever say it first is a question I’ve had but why you doubt that it would usually be said without an ulterior motive is another question. You need counseling”. He laughed as he finished his sentence.
“May be I do”, Veronica said. “But I’m afraid counseling will bring the demons back to the surface. I am so happy. Sometimes I wish my past didn’t exist”.
“The past doesn’t go away just because we wish for it to go away”, he said gently . Then he quickly recovered and said,
“Aren’t your kids coming this weekend?”
The thought of her kids always made Veronica happy, he knew that much. She loved her kids and just because he loved her so much, he had started loving them too.
“Can’t find the socks again!” She heard his loud and irritated voice through the kids’ chatter. She tried to focus on the kids and then heard him scream her name.
She ran upstairs. In their marriage of ten years and four kids she had learned when to run to see what he needed.
As she entered the room she gasped. The closet that she had organized just five hours earlier had all the clothes thrown out carelessly, socks strewn all over the floor, shoes in disarray at the door to the closet and her husband wearing a most angry expression. She had spent three hours this morning and had missed her gym class to fix the closet and he had destroyed her work in mere minutes while looking for a sock.
She tried to control her temper but the anger came bubbling to the surface.
“What is it, Ryan? I spent the whole morning fixing the closet”. She angrily yelled.
“I can’t find a sock. You call this fixed? I can’t find it”. He yelled too.
“But you could have asked me. I could’ve come and helped you. This is insane. You destroyed my hard work. I spent all morning working to fix the closet. You were so happy to see it just an hour ago and this is what you did to it? All for a sock?”
In spite of the anger the tears came on. Strong and hot.
“Oh here it is”, he casually bent over and picked up something and left the room.
She wanted to punch him. She wanted to leave him. She wanted to run.
But where am I going to go? She thought sadly.
As Veronica exited her car in front of her daughter’s school she saw Ally’s dad running to her.
What was his name, she tried to recall. Eddie? Andy?
He came up to her panting. He had a Superman costume on and looked like he was ready for the kids’ Halloween party. She couldn’t help smiling. Halloween was her favorite time of the year and she loved shopping for herself and the kids. Today was the kids’ Halloween party at the school and as her tradition from all past years she had baked cookies and a huge pumpkin pie for the class.
“Hey”, he said, trying to catch his breath.
“Hi”, she said smiling.
“Need a hand?” He asked, eyeing the platters and box in her hands.
“That wouldn’t be too bad. Thanks”, she said gratefully.
They carried the food inside. Ally, Eddie’s daughter and Serena, Veronica’s daughter ran to them as they entered.
“Dad! You made it”, Ally’s eyes sparkled.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world”, Eddie said, swinging her off her feet and hugging her tightly.
Veronica felt emotional. She knew Ally’s mom had passed away a few years ago and her dad hadn’t married again. She watched as Ally and Eddie set up the table with the treats that Veronica had brought.
Serena was helping them. Again, Veronica noticed how Serena was so much more animated than she ever was at home.
“She’s my sensitive bug”, she thought lovingly, “I wish I could make it better for her”, somehow her love for the kids was always laced with pain and guilt.
For she knew that her kids were watching her live a bad relationship and were now old enough to not be able to compartmentalize it. The knowledge that their parents didn’t particularly love each other was hard for them to hide from friends and teachers. It was affecting their grades and their personalities. Veronica hated that she was choosing Ryan over the kids but she had no way out. She didn’t love Ryan as much anymore but she didn’t hate him either.
“Marriage is work, honey! A man who is such a great provider is a keeper”, she heard her mother’s words in her ears.
But is marriage necessary? She asked herself in quiet hours. Sure it’s nice to be married but is it necessary? Is it okay to get married because of a compulsive societal norm? Couldn’t she have made it on her own without being married to a man who provided for her?
“Look, Mom, we made some lanterns”, Serena took her hand and went up to the lanterns.
She looked at her eleven year old. She looked older than her years. She didn’t talk much but was exceptionally bright. She had started to write poetry last year and Veronica could sense a frisson of guilt at Serena expressing herself through poetry. Can she not talk to me, she wondered.
They had a lovely afternoon. Eddie couldn’t cook so he had gotten readymade treats and as a way to makeup for last year when he hadn’t been able to be with his kids during Halloween he had asked a popular tween band to perform at the school. Veronica didn’t know of the concert and was surprised to see Serena know so much about the singers.
As she was leaving she looked at Serena. She was quietly eating cake while a friend chatted her ear off. Something came over her. She could see herself so much in her daughter, it was scary. She feared that she was raising a girl who couldn’t trust the next minute. A girl who was scared of what her dad would say if she showed him a project or her poetry. A girl who couldn’t speak fearlessly and had defaulted to writing her thoughts.
She went over to Serena and kissed her on the forehead. She left for home.
Veronica’s quiet sobs echoed in the car. She knew that she had to go in to get the kids but she couldn’t get over herself. She was fast becoming dizzy and had a strong urge to just leave and go back home. She didn’t want to see her kids or their teachers or listen to their chatter.
Someone knocked on her door. It was another mom.
She finally got out.
” OH MY GOSH! Ronnie, what’s this?” Her friend and confidante, Susan, immediately saw the black eye.
Veronica cried bitterly. Susan hugged her. She knew Veronica wasn’t happy. But physical abuse wasn’t known to her.
She finally said,
“I’m not asking you what happened cuz I want to chat with you properly. Right now we have kids to pick up and homes to return to. Let’s meet tomorrow during school. I’ll pick you up”.
Veronica’s heart felt lighter. She also felt a little guilty. Did Susan suspect that she had been hit squarely across her face multiple times last night because she had accidentally ran the car over Ryan’s golf clubs? She felt like she was betraying Ryan. Like it was their marital secret. Like she owed Ryan secrecy and privacy. She felt conflicted and couldn’t make up her mind about confiding in Susan.
Ryan came home at his usual time in the evening . He took a look at her and said,
“Can I talk to you upstairs?”
Veronica followed him.
Inside the room he took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. Then he handed her a small jewelry box. Inside was a small ring.
“Read what it says”, he said with tears in his eyes.
“Veronica and Ryan forever”, she said, smiling through tears again.
“I’m sorry! There are no words. I’m really sorry”.
Veronica forgave him. She texted Susan that everything was fine and she had had a talk with Ryan and he seemed to be repentant. She didn’t know that she’d be texting her again in two weeks, imploring to meet her somewhere so she could talk or her heart would explode.
She didn’t know that Ryan had finally unlocked the next level of abuse. She didn’t know that it would just escalate from there .
Sometimes Veronica mourned her marriage and sometimes the time she lost while being married to Ryan. Regardless, she had a lot of trauma to heal from and a lot of sorrow. She wanted to see a therapist but somehow felt that would make her weaker than she already thought she was. She remembered the physical violence escalating in the last few months of her marriage to the point where neighbors had called the police and Ryan had had to spend a night with the police. He was allowed to make one phone call from the police station. Where most people call their attorneys, he had used up the call on calling her and asking her to leave his home.
He had finally been released the next morning. She hadn’t pressed charges.
Divorce was straightforward. Assets were divided according to state rules, he refused custody of the kids initially but after sensing her pleasure over this asked for full custody that finally settled at 50/50.
When she didn’t have the kids she felt the walls were closing in on her.
Susan had been an immense support. She visited Veronica regularly when the kids weren’t there. She opened Veronica’s eyes to the control that Ryan always practiced on her. She also tried to include Veronica in social activities around town. One thing that Susan did with a lot of enthusiasm and conviction was raise money for homeless teens. Soon Veronica had become just as active as Susan. Soon she was talking more and more to Eddie, who also was a part of the program.
She was mulling over the ring that he had given her. She realized she hadn’t really thought of getting married again. Ryan was a terrible past. They had not much love left towards the end of the marriage. Towards the end of the marriage? Her heart asked her. He never loved you, it reminded her.
What had started as causally dating another single parent had blossomed into a ring and a promise. She wondered how she couldn’t control her attraction to Eddie. She had vowed to be there for her kids always. Then how did she fall in love with Eddie?
She knew how she fell in love with him. He was kind and gentle. He was sensitive. He could sense her disapproval. He was cautious with his words. He was loving and gave before he took. The sex was good. But marriage wasn’t something she wanted. She also kinda knew that Eddie wanted marriage and a stable, long term, traditional household.
Stable, long term, traditional? She laughed at her own thoughts. She had all that with Ryan. Nothing was stable or lasting about that relationship. She was his perfunctory nod to societal expectations and a show of being capable of marriage. His narcissism, however, got in the way of his own lies. He just couldn’t give in a marriage.
And she was happy with him being the receiver and the king. She really didn’t consider herself his equal. She was from a well-to-do background where most women were rich because they had married rich men. The path was already determined for her. She followed the path that her mother had walked before her. Her divorce had made everyone embarrassed. She had deviated from the path.
As she looked at the ring, for some reason it shone brighter than the one Ryan had given her. She had a bigger, shinier ring with Ryan. But it was heavy. She had soon changed it for a smaller ring but the heaviness continued. Much like her life with Ryan. He gave her a big life with a heavy ring. It all became heavy towards the end.
This one was small and light. It had a way of catching the light, regardless of the angle. Much like its giver. She smiled slightly. Why did life take Ryan from her? Why couldn’t her ex-husband be the love of her life? Why could they not live happily ever after? Dating in her forties had been easier for her than some other women she knew but it was still painful to remove the scars of her previous marriage. This was like doing it all over again.
She didn’t know when sleep came over.
She looked at her therapist, an older woman with thick black glasses and the wisdom of eons in her face. She felt intimidated.
“So you didn’t seek counseling when you got divorced or started dating again. But you are here now when a man has proposed? What do you think the reason is?”
Veronica fidgeted with her clothes. Then her fingers. Then her phone.
Dr Stewart took the phone from her and looked her in the eye,
“Let’s be honest with each other. I know why you’re here. I’ve been doing this for a long time and have had women come to me many days after the initial trauma. But I can’t hand you your answers. You have to look for them yourself. My job is to share my expertise with you and try to give you the tools to live your trauma safely while you’re healing”.
Veronica smiled. Dr. Stewart smiled too.
“I don’t think I explained why I am here today clearly. I’m not traumatized”.
“No! Yes I’m divorced but I’m not dealing with any emotional trauma”.
“What about physical trauma?”
Veronica shuddered. Some scenes and emotions flashed through her mind. The hurting limbs. The swollen cheek. The bleeding mouth. The fear of being hit like an animal again. Hiding alcohol bottles because that always made him worse. His anger at the slightest change in routine. Her cowering in a corner as he advanced menacingly towards her. The calculated physical attacks to her body when he sensed that a part hurt more.
She replied smoothly,
“Yes it happened but it didn’t have any lasting effects on me. I’m certainly not suffering from that trauma anymore”.
“Okay”, Dr. Stewart conceded, “So what brings you here today?”
“I want to know”, Veronica hesitated, “if ever people can take a look at themselves critically through therapy and change the way they are. I have really thought about my marriage a lot and I have realized that I triggered a lot of Ryan’s abusive behavior. He wasn’t like that. With time he became angry and slightly more frustrated than usual…..”
“So he was usually frustrated when you initially met him?” Dr. Stewart asked abruptly.
“Well not any more than the normal person”, she laughed nervously, “He was particular about some things. If things weren’t done like he wanted, he sometimes got upset.”
“Hmm” , Dr. Stewart began thoughtfully, “I think you want me to fix you. Now whether I think you were the problem in that marriage is probably irrelevant because you think that you were the problem and you were living that marriage. Suppose we identify that the problem was you! What would you do with that information?”
“Well”, Veronica said, sounding silly to herself, “I’d like to make changes in my personality that are discordant to a marriage and would like to get back with Ryan”.
Dr. Stewart stared at her.
“Are you in contact with him?” She asked.
“No”, Veronica said truthfully.
“Is he dating?”
“Then how are you sure that he’d like you back?”
“The kids said that he still has my clothes in the closet that I left behind. He’s still making my recipes for meals . Our wedding pictures are still where I left them”.
“And you see them as signs of him wanting to get back with you?”
Veronica was waiting for Ryan. She felt an anticipation. It was like the initial days of dating. It was heady and a little sexual. She couldn’t get over how gorgeous she looked.
When she contacted Ryan she hadn’t expected much. Dr. Stewart had warned her against it and she didn’t get why. Surely there were other couples who had found their way back to each other? Yes they were divorced but she had stopped believing in pieces of paper. She didn’t really want to marry Ryan again but wanted to have her family back together. Her kids didn’t have to know the legal or illegal nature of her relationship.
￼He arrived on time. He looked so handsome that it took her breath away. In the final days of their marriage there was no physical attraction, no sex, no romance. There was just a hollowness from the bottom falling out.
He opened the door of the car for her. Smiling she got in. They drove to an expensive restaurant. He was charming and attentive. They both wanted to get back together. Halfway through dinner Ryan abruptly said,
“Can you come home with me tonight?”
He didn’t need asking twice.
“I told you it was a mistake but you wanted to do this experiment. What’s going on?”
Veronica was embarrassed at being constantly reminded by family, friends and now Dr. Stewart that she made a mistake.
“I don’t know what’s going on. He was so amazingly loving for the first two weeks. And then he changed”.
Dr. Stewart sighed. She liked Veronica but also knew that this was a woman with very limited experiences in life. She had lived a largely sheltered life. She went from her father’s home to her husband’s home. She had never tasted independence or formative experiences. She had been provided for and had probably lived with women who considered financial security irreplaceable. She was made to believe that a good husband earned and worked. If a few smacks, kicks and an affair or two were delivered along the way, she should take them and not complain. She lived toxic masculinity and made excuses for it.
“Veronica, I hate to break it to you but he didn’t change. He just remained who he actually was. He had a lot of control over you. So much that you couldn’t get out of his spell even when separated from him. Even when you were with a boyfriend. He changed to get you back. Narcissists have a habit of collecting trophies. It’s hard for them to be abandoned and when you initiated the divorce, you kind of initiated the process whereby he would be left behind. You see how he would perceive it? From what you’ve told me, he wouldn’t take it as a failure of his relationship. He would probably take it as a failure of his masculinity that a woman left him.
The physical violence that you describe was just a way to impress further the emotional violence. Let me ask you this! Did his unavailability never bother you? Did his lack of physical advances towards you never raise any questions? Did his niceness and compassion for others and the complete lack of those characteristics towards you never irked you?”
Veronica thought. There was a storm of emotional abuse that had started much before the physical violence had started. There was the subtle constant mention of how he’d like her to get breast augmentation. Then made fun of her new breasts. She went under the knife again. He still wasn’t happy.
The criticism of her parenting. He found out Serena was writing poetry and asked Veronica if Serena was a woman from the 1950’s that she wrote poetry. Then he said this to Serena. She stopped writing.
The way he found faults with her cooking and her clothes. Her brother became addicted to alcohol after years of fighting depression. Ryan took regular jabs at him and teased her also about it.
She had lived a terror with him. The most horrifying nightmare that any woman can. She had lived with a narcissist and had survived to tell the tale. But went back to him? Why?
“Because you thought that it would go away. That second time would be the charm. That you had perspective. That he had changed. That the problem was you. That you could fix it by fixing yourself. You can’t fix darkness by closing your eyes, Veronica! You can’t fix it by closing your eyes”.
“I’d like to see how many days you survive without me. You came begging to me two months ago and you’ll come begging to me again”.
“No, Ryan! I’m out of here forever. The kids are coming with me. I’ll get full custody. This time I am going to bring evidence with me”.
She had gone to court for full custody but Ryan had the best lawyer in town and won again.
“I can see have them for two full weeks every month “, she consoled her heart and broke down crying on the kitchen floor.
Eddie came back in her life. Like he had never left. She called him and asked to meet her. She wanted someone to listen to her and he was a good listener. Three dates later they were inseparable.
Surprisingly, she had his ring still. He never asked for it back. They’d been dating for six months and this time she found her having no doubts. She was still seeing Dr. Stewart.
“What is it that’s different about him, Veronica, besides the fact he takes pleasure in doing household chores?” She asked smilingly.
“I don’t know different but I feel safe with him. Like he cares for me and my heart. He never hurts me. He doesn’t use harsh words. He make small gestures of love. He is just so calm always. You know,” she hesitated before continuing, “pretty much everything Ryan wasn’t”.
“So are you going to say yes?”
“Yes. I think, yes”.
He looked at her as she entered the bedroom. The ring caught the light streaming through the window and it sparkled. She came over to him and looked in his eyes,
“I’m wearing your ring”.
“I see that.”
“I don’t want many people”.
“Whatever you want”.
Having the kids over was always so much fun. Eddie’s kids and her kids loved each other like siblings. There was banter and games and a lot of rambunctiousness. She loved every minute of having them all.
As she went back to her room at the end of the night she felt Eddie was a little distant.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes”, he smiled. “Just a little tired”.
“I did get therapy for months before saying yes to you”.
“That’s a good thing”.
“Is it? Don’t you think weak, powerless people go for therapy and have someone else guide them through it all?”
“Then why do I feel that I should’ve figured it all out by myself? Why did I go back a second time? Why could he charm me again? Why didn’t I see you for who you were the first time? Am I so pathetic that I can’t even live my own life?”
He took her in his arms.
“Can I say something?”
“People who ask for help are very strong people. They are the people who want to make it better. You wanted to make it better so you asked for help. Did it save you from getting sucked in a second time? No. But that’s not what therapy is for. Therapy is to have the tools to deal with our emotions and conflicts. It’s not to hand us a manual to life. Trust me, no one handed you the manual. You saved yourself.”
Something in his words reminded her of Dr. Stewart.
“Have you had therapy too?”
“Yes. After Emily died. For years.”
She kissed him. Like she had never kissed anyone before. It felt like kissing her own soul. She felt a healing that she hadn’t experienced so far. Can trauma bond people? She wondered. Can Eddie and I get each other because we both were broken and built ourselves back up again?
He tried to pull back but she persisted. She hung on to him and he gave in again. They kissed for several minutes.
Finally he pulled back to look in her eyes. Those grey-green eyes that had come to mean love, sadness, abandon and sacrifice to him. Their depth was unique as in it didn’t give the feeling of one getting lost in it. They were deep with a mix of playfulness like laughter would erupt from the corners of her eyes and take his breath away.
As he kept staring in her eyes he saw the gray lighten. It had once looked like an abyss, underneath her beautiful green eyes and sometimes showed the pain of her past. But somehow the gray had lightened and complimented the green now. It was a paler gray, more like the color of the sky after it has rained all night.
He saw the green taking over. The green in her eyes always reminded him of the real woman he had married. The real Veronica. Playful, excited about small occasions and selflessly loving. The green was ethereal and had a virginal quality to it. Like nothing could mar its innocence.
The gray lightened some more and all that was left was the light green in her eyes, sparkling through tears that she so often cried when she felt safe and vulnerable with him. He took her in his arms.
“I love you”.