Loved

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
"If a woman tells you a difficult story, she is likely only telling you half. She’s testing the waters to see if it’s safe to come all the way out." -Melissa Gopp

On a weekday at midnight, I found the emails that triggered the most tumultuous, humiliating years of my life. I didn’t see them coming. One day, I was a wife and parent with a toddler and nursing infant. The next morning, I was a single mom, petitioning to keep my part-time job as I drove four states south to my mother’s house.

Throughout the journey that transpired from that night, my writing has reflected my progress toward healing. It’s helped me see the bitter parts, where I have to let go, and when I need to speak up.

Sharing when it’s tough is what I do, and I’m continually inspired by what gets let loose in return by the people—often women—with whom I share. One of the strange side effects of pain, as articulated by author Elizabeth Gilbert, is that it allows you to connect with another human and walk them through what they think they cannot face.

My memoir is told from my point of view as a character in the real events I have experienced. It’s meant to bring healing closer for the people who are still hurting and desperate for love.

My story happened, and as much as I’ve considered tucking it away, releasing it into the world is the only way I know how to let go for good. These pages are the prelude to the life that follows what I had to go through to wake up and trust my own voice.

In the end, love saved me, but in a different way than I could have ever predicted.

Submitted: June 14, 2019

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Submitted: June 14, 2019

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Chapter 1: The End

Endings are the hardest part. In writing and in life, I rarely stick the landing.

Most of my endings were humiliating and messy. But one November afternoon, I found my power and my words as if they had been scripted for a righteously indignant, cinematic exit.

It happened the day after I spent the night in my mother’s bathroom, my baby sleeping beneath the clink of the ceiling fan in the adjacent room and my constipated three-year-old straddling the toilet. The boys and I were supposed to stay in Florida for four weeks max. But I knew we weren’t coming home.

I was biding my time, waiting for my husband’s next misstep to bolster my case for custody and cash. The longer I could keep from revealing what I already knew, the larger the potential payoff I’d earn.

The afternoon that I blew my cover, Mom wasn’t home to stop me. A week of parenting a toddler and infant solo left me teetering the edge of sanity with no reserve for pretense. Financial strategy or not, I had to move.

"How is Miss Jones today?" I tapped out the words on my phone in time with my pulse.

I didn’t know if anything was happening between my husband and Miss Jones, but based on his phone records and the private investigator’s findings, I was confident in my assumption.

My thumb dropped into a heavy touch down on send. Seconds later, chimes cued the mass in my throat. It was Mike, my husband, calling after seven days of no contact.

“What do you think you know?” he said, trailing into a high octave laugh. It was the same one he hurled at me back home when I made my first brazen accusation.

“I want to hear you say it.” I held my bluff, my tone devoid of the devastation I knew would follow.

“Okay, we work together and nothing happened until you left town."

I capped my rage with need for the upper hand. “You know we live in a fault state, right?"

“No, what’s that?"

“It means that if you’re unfaithful to your spouse, there are financial consequences."

Mike’s voice fell silent.

I continued. “I also know that to prove infidelity, most people have to hire a private investigator. I did."

More silence.

“You’re screwed. You better start watching what you spend now because it’s going to be expensive.” I paused once more for dramatic effect. “Does she know about your fantasy life?"

“No,” he said.

“I do."

He hung up.

Minutes later he called back with an apology. Whatever I need, just ask, he said. I dictated the upcoming sequence of affairs that would serve to untangle our lives. He promised compliance and claimed he’ll always love me.

To this day, I don’t know if he ever did.

***

My life eroded in a steady stream of endings, each carving a deeper void before Mike entered the scene. However twisted the plot became, I held fast to the idea that a yet-to-be-revealed, overarching plan for my life was at work. This was not necessarily comforting. I heard what happened to missionaries whose calling was to serve in Africa. Some converted entire villages to Christianity, but there were also the unlucky few who were martyred, religious code for murdered.

"Would I really do anything for Jesus?" I wrote my worries on the first lined page of my journal, opposite the inside cover where I listed the books of the Bible I read that year. I was 16 and just beginning to catch wind of existence beyond the one I was handed.

Mom says that as a two-year-old, I looked at Dad resolutely and declared “I hate you.” Most people don’t witness my secret capacity for anger. I inherited my fire from Dad, who acquired his own from a childhood spent in a family that gave up alcohol for Jesus. My parents were quick to censor me with a wooden spoon, and by age six, I learned to contain myself.

Aside from corporal punishment, Dad never laid a finger on me in rage. I was his little girl. But his temper was fierce. It once sent me sprinting to my room to lock myself in when he stomped a metal chair into a hard, flat fold. The carpet muffled the chair’s symbol-like clang as it hit the ground. He was arguing with Mom, who later recouped, tucked me in bed, and reminded me that we don’t believe in divorce. I was 12.

The Navy kept Dad away for six months at a time—longer during the war. But when he was home, his presence was felt. It would start with collectible gifts from overseas: decorative spoons for my brother D.J., thimbles from Europe and the Middle East for me, and rare spices and rugs for Mom. Then as the novelty of Dad’s homecoming wore off, our differences emerged. Whereas Mom allowed roller skating on the polished wood floors of our military housing, Dad ran his family like he ran his ship.

We went to church at least once on Sundays and again on Wednesdays. It didn’t matter what denomination we chose, as long as it followed The Bible. “Bus is leaving in five minutes!” Dad would bark, and we’d scramble to find our shoes.

Mom read her devotions at night and cared for D.J. and I during the day. She aced her way to her junior year as a math major, but quit when she realized that, aside from the financial piece, she was functioning as a single mom when Dad was out to sea.

D.J. and I played and bickered through Mom’s perpetual mounds of laundry and dishes. She worked as a teacher’s assistant during the school year, and in summers she fostered creativity and freeplay. There were powder paints, dolls, hue-changing Hot Wheels, blanket forts, puddle stomping, metal slides slick from wax paper rubdowns, banana-seat bikes, pools, tents, and stacks of books. She once wrote a poem about the meaning of colors and convinced herself and us that God’s favorite color must be green.

By the time I reached my teens, I was a master of the smile-and-nod maneuver to the point that my cheeks ached from lifting the corners of my pursed lips. In my silence, I overheard comments at my private Christian school that people assumed I missed—like the time in eighth grade when Oliver Jenkins told his friend there were no girls left worth asking to the school formal. He didn’t know I was walking behind him, dress and ticket already on standby. I went alone that year, tucked in a group of leftover girls and wearing a black velvet dress with a slit up one thigh. Each such episode chipped away at my self-esteem, leaving me passive, vacant, and unaware that I had any features a man might find desirable.

I had to keep my first bikini a secret from Grandpa. Jesus would most certainly not approve. But he wasn’t there the day I was chasing D.J. through the salted puddles at low tide. My bikini was black and white checkered, dotted with sunflowers, and a girls size 14. I was too consumed with the foreign sensation of sun on my midriff and the breeze at my back to notice the group of boys who paused their football game to watch me pass.

Dad noticed. His guffaw triggered us all to pivot and face the wind.

“Did you see the way those boys stopped to look at Missy?” Dad gestured toward Mom for confirmation of the event.

My reflexive bashfulness gave way to pride. Male attention rivaled both the sun and the wind.

***

Boys weren’t easy. Growing up, I usually had a female best friend. She was my safe zone, my companion for exploring life without the confusion of sexuality and romance. Eventually I dabbled in what I didn’t know to call crushes on boys who got close enough to be friends, but I rarely let them into my social sphere.

The one time that a boy asked me to a high school dance, I accepted and then spent the evening camouflaged in a circle of girls when I saw what was involved in slow dancing. I didn’t hold hands until I was 16. I learned from an illustration in my anatomy and physiology textbook that boys have pubic hair, too. Despite my lack of expression, I did experience sexuality. It was a private and taboo drive that wasn’t connected to any one person until I found my first boyfriend.

Josh and I went to the same school, attended the same church, and carpooled together since we were 13. On mornings that I secured the front seat, I’d steal glances of his reflection in the side view mirror. He claimed a resemblance to Tom Cruise, but I was more focused on the way his voice belted songs I’d never heard and the far-fetched fantasy of us becoming more than friends.

In my junior year of high school, Dad got orders to move to the Midwest, which was a death sentence to what meager social life I had formed on the East Coast. Josh was the one friend who wrote to me after the move.

Fueled by off-limits music and poorly written poetry, we questioned, doubted, and analyzed the religion that raised us. What started as a crush grew into an all-consuming romance. Josh and I conducted the first two years of our relationship via words on a computer screen, plus one timed, long-distance call each week. During our summer and holiday in-person rendezvous, his touch was a drug. Sex before marriage was a reprehensible sin, on par with adultery and homosexuality. So, we played with the boundary of what was permissible for a committed Christian couple too young for marriage.

Our ending was my fault. When we achieved our first goal as a couple—to go to the same college and live in the same city—it was surreal. We wandered campus holding hands by day and making out in alcoves of three-story buildings at night. Ten months later, Josh had to move home to work and save for out-of-state tuition. I hated it. I found every reason to protest. But summer came, and my boyfriend left.

On his way out of state, I trailed his parents’ pickup truck loaded with his possessions as they drove north. Then I veered south to Mom’s and Dad’s house in the white Toyota they gifted me on our move to Florida. As the wind coaxed strands of my long blonde hair out the window, I cranked my music and made up my mind. I was done waiting. I refused to isolate myself in electronic conversation with Josh. That summer, I decided to live.

I found a job at the college fitness center and enrolled in prerequisites toward a degree in nutrition. Life continued in the company of mostly female students. Then a boy asked me to be his lab partner in microbiology—the class where I learned that I had been deprived of basic information on mitochondria in high school because it hinted at evolution.

My lab partner, Dave, had cinnamon skin, raven-black hair, and a disarming way with humor. He was so diminutive and happily attached to a girl back home that I didn’t think to see him as a threat. His taste in music, choice of religion, and ethnic background sparked my curiosity, and before I knew it, an intense, abrupt attraction took root. What I loved most was how much he seemed to love me. Until Dave, I was content to know that one boy loved me. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of any other boy being interested.

“Are you sure you’re only 19 years old?” Dave asked me one Sunday afternoon. Our elbows were resting on science lecture notes as we swapped thoughts on religion in a deserted pocket of campus.

“Almost 20. Why?” I said, feigning disinterest in his growing scrutiny. He lingered on every detail of me, from the way blue complements my eyes to the volume of food I managed to pack into my petite frame.

“You should write a book,” he said. “You’re not like most girls. Maybe call it The Alternative Woman."

“I do want to write a book,” I said. “I just don’t know what it will be about yet. I’m too young to have anything to say."

I often feel the existence of things before they take shape, and I hadn’t yet admitted I was falling for my lab-turned-study partner. That night I carried on my weekly phone conversation with Josh and told him the proposed book title, to which he responded, “That’s great that you want to write a book, but the title sounds kinda gay."

Three months passed, and Josh returned swollen with masculinity from a summer of work with his dad. His rough edges were off-putting, and by close of the Fall semester, my resolve to stay with Josh and remain friends with Dave buckled. In one silent moment of eye contact, staring a second too long before passing a football over the space between us, Dave and I plowed through any ambiguity about the state of our feelings. It was my first time recognizing romantic attraction toward a person other than Josh, and the force of infatuation caught me before I knew to run.

After all was laid bare, I called Mom, who was separated from Dad by then. Telling Mom is what makes things real, no longer concealed as experimental thoughts in the private pages of my journal. My voice trembled as if someone had died the day I confessed my drama. Mom held my confidence with composure in the midst of her own saga.

“You have three options,” she said. Mind over emotion was her mantra at the time. “Either you and Josh will stay together, Dave will be your next partner, or you’ll move forward on your own."

Josh waited more than six months for me to make up my mind, two months longer than Dad waited for Mom. I loathed myself for considering breaking a commitment we both thought would end in marriage and tried to justify the inner tug to follow Mom’s lead to a fresh start.

“I feel like I’m supposed to do something with my life—something really big,” I said to Josh. We were in a bookstore, crouched at a wooden table between the Children and Self-Help sections.

“That’s great, Melissa. Just take me with you.” He couldn’t fathom a world where he didn’t belong.

Despite Josh’s persistence, I chose option three. Feeling valiant and righteous in my fragile independence, I stumbled forward alone, ripping Josh’s heart out as I went. Dave had no intention of being my next romantic partner, and I couldn’t walk the path that led forty years into a predictable future with Josh. I wanted to experience more of life, and I was ill-prepared to comprehend the weight of what that meant. I couldn’t have known that what I chose was akin to pulling gauze off a gaping chest wound and exposing raw flesh to the air for filling.


© Copyright 2019 Melissa Gopp. All rights reserved.

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