Hearing my mom say they were coming for Christmas brought on a slew of emotions, most of them patently contradictory. I was thrilled to see my parents, but I was scared they would somehow know everything wasn’t OK in the house. I loved them and wanted to spend the holiday with them, but my Ex was unpredictable and I wasn’t sure I could count on him to participate in the necessary charade with me to convince them everything was fine. I was deeply ashamed by my failures as a wife and as a child. I knew the first thing my dad would notice would be my weight gain, and I wasn’t emotionally prepared to go through that with him.
Thanksgiving and finals came and went. I got a new job at a runaway shelter doing their Medicaid Billing, which I liked. Plus, it allowed me to meet people who were at least marginally in the field I was hoping to go into after college, even though I worked in the front office. There was an older man that worked there, Joe, probably in his fifties, who had been a refugee from Cuba during The Mariel Boatlift. Monday through Thursday I had to leave work and go directly to school, but on Fridays I think he sensed my reluctance to go home. He found out I had grown up playing backgammon, and on Fridays he would bring cigars, cognac, and a hand-tooled backgammon board to work and we would play best two out of three before I headed home. He was great with the kids we had in the shelter, and he used the same techniques on me, gently prodding until before I knew it, I was crying and spilling my guts to him on a snowy Friday afternoon while he smoked a cigar and drank cognac from a big round crystal glass. After that day we still played backgammon, but we never talked about any of it again. When I got divorced he left a card on my desk, not a sympathy card, but a get-well card. Whenever I smell cigars I always think of Joe and our Friday afternoon backgammon games and how much it meant to me not to have to go straight home.
Ten days before my parents arrived I woke up sick and just kept getting sicker. Eventually I drove myself to the Emergency Room and found out I had walking pneumonia and severe bronchitis. Being sick did little to help my increasing anxiety about their visit, and I still had to clean the house and make everything perfect for the holiday. I had this idea that if the house was clean and looked decorated and the curtains matched the couch and everything was perfect that somehow people, especially my parents, wouldn't notice anything going on with the people INSIDE the house. Too much TV I think.
Because we had gotten married two days before Christmas the previous year, we had spent the holiday with my family before leaving Florida to drive my car back out West to the Ex’s duty station. Since it was our first "real" Christmas together, and our last as it turned out, I went out and bought decorations and lights, and even talked the Ex into getting a live tree because I thought it conveyed better the holiday spirit with which I was trying to infuse the house, and by extension, our relationship. I begged and pleaded with the Ex to put up the lights outside before my parents arrived because, when I drove them home from the airport, I wanted them to see that the house was decorated. It was vitally important to me that they not realize that without their visit we probably wouldn't be celebrating the holiday at all.
He cajoled one of his friends to come over and help put up the lights, and soon I heard the THUMP THUMP THUMP of Something Not Going According To Plan. When I went outside to check on them, I saw that he was putting the lights up with a huge staple gun. Directly onto the metal drainpipe. Not wanting a confrontation, but also not wanting to get ticketed by the base housing inspectors, I tried to gently point out that perhaps a staple gun into the drainpipe wasn’t the ideal Christmas light display method. He told me to shut up and go back in the house, after all, wasn’t he doing what I had asked him to do? His friend smirked and they both had a good laugh at my expense, so I went inside, determined to stay out of it. But, unfortunately for me, he wasn’t about to drop it. While the friend went to take a smoke break, the Ex came in and gave me the usual lecture. Why was I so controlling? Why did I have to criticize him all the time? Did I think because I was in college I was so much smarter than him and knew more about everything? He got closer and closer, jabbing his finger into my face with every accusation. I backed up until the backs of my thighs were against the couch, and then, he raised the hand with the staple gun and shot a staple at me. It didn’t go far or fast, but it was a big industrial size staple and it freaked me out. I said something like “Holy Shit! Why did you do that, you could have hurt me?!” He laughed, did it a couple more times just to make his point, and then went back outside and finished stapling the lights to the drainpipe.
Finally the day arrived for us to pick up my parents at the airport. They got off the plane and my mom looked beautiful as always while my dad looked stern but happy to see me, as always. I hadn’t seen them in a year, the longest I had ever gone without a visit, and with all that had been going on it felt like eternity. They both gave me and the Ex a hug and my mom asked “So, how do you guys like family life?” The Ex answered back “We’re not a family, it’s just me and her.” I saw my mom’s eyes dim a little bit and so I amped up the chatter about school and work, hoping to distract her. But I knew she’d heard. To this day, nearly ten years later, my mom cites that statement as the moment she knew there were serious problems and that it probably wasn't going to work out.
My parents were staying in the spare room, the same one I had recently found The Letters in. While making it up for them I had also found an extensive hidden collection of hard-core porn, which I had silently boxed up and placed in the back of the closet. I half-heartedly confronted the Ex about it and was given a half-hearted lie about “holding it for a friend” in return.
Because we were with my parents all day, the Ex would save up all his anger for after we went to bed, and I had a few complaints of my own. On the very first day I started it. After we had gone to bed, I asked him why he had stopped wearing his wedding ring (he actually had stopped wearing it about two weeks after the wedding). He claimed it was because of work, but since he had several days off work for the holiday, I wondered aloud why he couldn’t put it back on while my parents visited. This eventually escalated into a ridiculous whispered fight, trying not to allow my parents in the next room to hear us. I sobbed into my pillow and he turned his back, put his pillow over his ear, and went to sleep.
Every day they were there I would spend trying to fill with witty banter and forced cheerfulness. The Ex would sullenly skulk around the house, often taking his truck out to “run an errand” and then not come back for hours. My mom wasn’t feeling well by about the third day and I felt horrible because I knew that she was feeling the tension in the house and internalizing it. She’s very sensitive to interpersonal conflicts and is a nurturer at heart, she can’t deal with people hurting or being in conflict. The night before Christmas Eve, coincidentally our one-year anniversary, the Ex and I were lying in bed having a heated argument about his not buying me an anniversary present. I had done something elaborate for him, and he of course had his own bank account supposedly to "buy me presents" and yet, I had gotten nothing, not even a card. His excuse was that I was so controlling that he couldn't even spend the money HE made on buying me present without asking my permission, and so really it was all my own fault. He kept raising his voice and I would beg him to be quiet because I didn't want my parents to hear. I finally agreed to drop the subject because I knew we were being too loud, and I turned over and tried to cry as quietly as possible, which I had actually gotten pretty good at after many months of being told to "Shut the fuck up because some of us have to go to work in the morning," an admonishment I always thought was interesting since some of us had to go to work in the morning AND go to school at night AND THEN come home and make someone else's lunch for the next day. During pretty much the entire last half of the marriage, I spent so much time crying that my eyes were always cracked and chapped on the sides, they would sting and burn and I kept a bottle of lotion on me at all times to try to heal the skin.
Suddenly, in the midst of our little domestic disturbance, there was a knock on our door and my dad said “Honey, can I come in??”
I was horrified. I immediately thought he had heard us fighting all those nights and had finally reached his limit and was coming in to confront us. I had been crying for at least an hour and looked awful and the last thing I wanted was to let him in. I said “Umm, what is it?” and he answered back, through the door, “Your mom is really sick, we need to go to the ER.” I forgot all about the tears and red eyes and runny nose and jumped out of bed to throw open the door. My dad was already dressed to go. He took a cursory glance at my general state of upheaval and said “Get your clothes on, we need to go.” So, we all got dressed and took my mom to the hospital where she stayed overnight and got an IV because she was dehydrated. It was one of the scariest nights of my life, and I felt terribly guilty because I knew that her stress over my situation had caused it. She was released to come home on Christmas Eve morning and was pretty quiet through the next couple of days. My dad was clearly concerned and spent most of his time making sure she was OK and taken care of. I spent most of my time wondering what would happen if I got sick like that, would I be taken care of? I had just gotten over being ill and I’d had to drive myself to the ER.
They left the day after Christmas. Normally we are not an emotionally demonstrative family, but with the Ex at work, it was my job to take them to the airport. My dad hugged me and, for some reason, I felt like he almost had less respect for me. He asked if I needed anything and I said “No” in what I hoped was a way that didn’t make me appear to be some sort of martyr for self-sacrifice, which I knew he would respect even less. My mom clung to me, crying and hugging me for what felt like hours. She kept asking if I was OK and I kept saying I was, and honestly, I think I still believed that I could make it OK somehow. That the power of my need to have everything work out, and the depth of my commitment to the marriage, could literally physically steer us in the right direction, changing our path in an instant to where I knew it could be if we just worked hard enough.
Eventually they had to go into the airport and I sat in the car in the parking lot crying pretty hysterically for a long time. I felt like someone had come along and yanked my lifeboat away just when the storm was cresting. I knew I had done this all to myself, but I felt completely hopeless and I knew the only place I had to go was home, to the man who spent each and every day bitterly regretting his decision to intertwine his life with mine.
They called me when they got home and my dad said, with only the slightest hint of accusation, that he almost couldn’t get my mom on the plane. She was sobbing and saying over and over again “We can’t leave without her. You have to go get her and bring her back with us. We can’t leave without her.” I had never before, and have never since, seen my mother that upset.
A couple of days before New Years, the Ex called me at work. The deployment that had him searching for his shot records, which led to me finding The Letters, was happening. His unit was leaving on my birthday, January 11th. I remember saying “Oh no, you don’t have to go do you?” And I remember him saying “I don’t have to, but I volunteered, I think we need some time apart to think.”