Taken

When I was nineteen, life handed me my first hard lesson.

His name was Rob. He lived in the apartment below mine in an old house that had been divided into five apartments, and he was everything I wanted in a man. Tall, handsome, and funny, with an interest in all things sci-fi and fantasy. We could talk about comic books, Doctor Who, Monty Python, and this new British writer who was making a splash with something about hitchhiking across the galaxy. We listened to Joe Jackson, REM, and vintage Who; he loved the group Love & Rockets while I  fiercely defended the comic book by the same name.

He was perfect.

He was also taken.

He was one of those college boys with the girlfriend back home, and that meant he was strictly off-limits. No matter what.

I should admit here that I was pretty naive when it came to men. I had a lot of friends who were male, and I could tell a raunchy joke right up there with the best of them, but I’d only had a few boyfriends in high school. And I’d never gone farther than second base with any of them.

My self-confidence was non-existent. I had this mental picture of myself as someone who was too fat and ugly to be desirable, and so I decided that I was going to be okay with being the girl who was every guy’s buddy. The friend. One of the guys. In high school, I never thought I had to worry when I was alone with a group of males because none of them thought of me “that way.”

So that’s the type of relationship I fell into with Rob. We would hang out in his apartment or mine, drinking cheap wine and talking about everything from philosophy to which actor was the best Doctor (I still say Davison, although Rob was a big fan of Tom Baker). We’d read Elfquest and New Mutants together or compare notes on which parts of Restaurant at The End of The Universe were funnier. We even had deep, scientific discussions on the Theory of the Universal 7-11 and how it applied to life in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

It was a great semester. I sold my first article to a real magazine and started working on my first novel with Rob’s encouragement. It was a pretentious little bit of  literary fiction that wanted very badly to be an allegory based on Faustian legends, but it just ended up being very bad. Very very bad. Still, it was a great learning experience.

Even better, no one but Rob ever read it. Really, it was that bad.

We used to go for long walks through the woods and talk some more. He would tell me about his girlfriend, and I would tell him about whatever man I happened to be interested in that week. I never dated any of them, though; there just wasn’t time what with my class load, my writing, and all the time I was spending with Rob.

Who was taken.

Off-limits.

Safe.

“I want to show you the dams,” he told me one April night. It was cold and clear, with a full moon, and we filled the pockets of his battered Army jacket with bottles of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. We giggled and drank and talked as we made our way through the woods to a beautiful little spot where a fast-moving creek rushed over a series of stone dams. It was an isolated little cove, almost magical in the moonlight, and we sat on a ledge for hours, swinging our legs and talking about life.

When he kissed me the first time, I liked it. I admit it. We were a bit tipsy, and he was so cute. And we had become so close, after all. He was perfect, wasn’t he?

By the second kiss, however, I had sobered up enough to know it was wrong. He was taken. Off-limits. He belonged to another woman.

By the third kiss, I realized he wasn’t going to stop no matter how hard I fought.

He was very apologetic afterward and even sent me flowers the next day with a cute card that had a little frowny-face and the words “I’m sorry” pre-printed in puffy blue letters. He knocked on my door a few times over the next few weeks, but I pretended not to be home. Eventually, he stopped trying.

I don’t know where Rob is today, or if he ever married the girl he was with back then. I wonder sometimes if the rape was planned or if he just lost control after too many bottles of Bartles & Jaymes. I wonder if he took other girls to the dams before me or after me, and I wonder what would have happened if I had gone to the police.

I wonder if he realizes now what he did to me, or if he tells himself it was just sex. If he regrets it. I wonder if he even remembers me at all, and if he’s sorry.

I wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t thought I was safe when I was nineteen.

This post has been part of Finish the Sentence Friday, with the sentence starter “When I was nineteen. . . ” hosted by Kristi at Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Mimi at Mimi Time and Vidya at Coffee with Mi.

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Baggage Claim

My father’s best advice wasn’t anything he ever put into words.  It was something he taught us by example, through the way he lived.

That’s not to say he wasn’t fond of dishing out advice.  He was full of helpful hints and suggestions, most of which were somehow related to trusting our instincts and paying attention to the “vibes” of any situation.  He had many fantastic stories about times he had narrowly missed death or some other catastrophic event because he listened to his gut and walked away from situations.

No father would ever want his children to live the way my father lived.  To say he had a rough life would be an insult, because his life was so much worse than just rough.  He grew up in abject poverty, lost his father at the age of twelve, lost his brothers in a freak boating accident when he was twenty-one.  After that, he basically lost the rest of his family as well because his mother and four sisters never fully recovered from that tragedy.

He was married three times and divorced twice.  He moved to California when my sisters and I were very young, so he lost his children as well; even after he came back, we all three nursed a grudge toward him that even the strongest man would be hard-pressed to overcome.

He drank.  He drank a lot.  He narrowly avoided arrests for DUI on several occasions, but only because he was a silver-tongued devil who could talk his way out of almost any situation.

Through it all, he never stopped trying to form a relationship with his daughters.  He never stopped reaching out to his grandchildren.  He never stopped working; even on his worst drinking days, he was an exemplary employee who showed up at work to offer help on the days he wasn’t scheduled.  He was a meat cutter, a manager who managed his department even on his days off.

I guess you could say that life really kicked my Dad’s ass.

Through it all, he never stopped finding a reason to laugh.  He had a quick comeback for everything.  He told the raunchiest of raunchy jokes, the kind of jokes that take your breath away and make your toes curl up in your shoes.  The kind that make you gasp and go Oh, my God, did he really just say that?

He had the kind of self-deprecating sense of humor that showed the world he didn’t take himself too seriously, but he didn’t sink into self-mocking humor that was painful for the rest of us.  No, his goal was to make the people around him comfortable, even at his own expense.

I got to know him, adult to adult, in my late twenties.  He really liked my ex-husband, although Dad insisted on calling him “Ted.”

For the record, my ex-husband’s name is not Ted.

During one particularly rough patch in our adult relationship with our father, one of my sisters blasted into Dad about all of her feelings.  She talked about having “baggage” from all those years of growing up without a father, about the anger we all held toward him for his years of drinking and hard-living.

He listened to her.  He didn’t apologize because an apology at that point wouldn’t have changed anything.  He just took it.  He sat there and took it because he loved her and he knew that she needed to tell him those things.

He always tried to organize “family camp-outs” with all of his daughters and our families at a dreary little campground in Allegan, and that year’s attempt came shortly after her outburst.  It was a tense, uncomfortable affair.  I stayed away that year, but what happened next has gone on to become legend in my family.

Everyone was short-tempered and angry and really, really wishing  for an excuse to leave early, or at the very least a chance to use indoor plumbing.  As the group cleaned up after dinner, Dad turned to my other sister rather unexpectedly and asked her, “So, do you have any baggage?”

That was unfortunate, because apparently, she did.  She let him have it with both barrels.  She chewed him up one side and down the other and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she had baggage.  In fact, as the story has been relayed to me over the years, her exact words at the conclusion of her tirade were “So if you want to call that baggage, then YES, I have baggage!”

An uncomfortable silence fell across the group.  Finally, after a moment, my stepmother leaned over to pat my sister’s hand.  “Honey,” she said softly, “your father asked if you had any baggies.  You know, to put the leftovers away.”

“Oh.  In that case, no.  I don’t.”

Life went on.   Dad never responded or defended himself.  He forgave, although he never asked for forgiveness.  When he died a few short years later, our family gathered at the church to talk to his pastor about what we wanted for his funeral.  We discussed his favorite hymn and decided who would sing it, and then the pastor asked us, “Is there anything you want the world to know about your dad?”

The three of us looked at each other and smiled, and we all three spoke at the same time:  “He didn’t have any baggage.”

My father’s best advice was to let go.  Let go of anger, of grudges, of regrets.  Let go and move on.  Life, he seemed to say, is too short to dwell on pain.  I often tell people how grateful I am to have inherited his sense of humor, but I hope I also got even a small bit of his resilience, his strength.  His ability to let the bad things go, to bounce back and get on with his life.

Dad’s greatest accomplishment in life?  He died without baggage.

This post is part of Finish the Sentence Friday, in which writers and bloggers finish a sentence and “link up” their posts. This week’s sentence was “My father’s best advice was …”  

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Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

Have you ever done something so awful, so hurtful, so despicable that your stomach churns and your heart pounds with fresh horror every time the realization washes over you again?

I have.  It hit me today that I just may be a truly terrible person.

To tell the whole story, I have to go back twenty years to a point in my life when things were really not going well.  Things had just ended with my first love, and I was learning to deal with my first taste of heartache.  I was in a dead-end job with no foreseeable escape in the near future; I was lonely and desperately unhappy.

Then I met a Really Nice Guy.  Not traditionally handsome, but cute.  Big, soft eyes, an adorable smile, cute little dimples.  Absolutely delicious silky brown hair that I just couldn’t keep my hands out of.  He was tall and just pudgy enough to be a comfortable cuddler.  He worked two jobs – sometimes three—and took care of his mother while keeping a watchful eye on his younger brother.

He was perfect on paper.

And oh, his kisses!  With all due respect to Mr. First Love and to my ex-husband, I never knew anyone who could kiss like Mr. Nice.  We could make out for hours, until my lips ached and my body quivered, and I still couldn’t bear to stop.  I loved to stand and press myself against him while we kissed goodbye, because of the perfect way our bodies fit together.  Looking back, I’m pretty sure the poor fellow took a lot of cold showers while we were together.  To his credit, he never once pushed me for more, although I’m fairly sure it couldn’t have been easy for him to walk away after we got ourselves so worked up.

I wanted to fall in love with him.  I tried to fall in love with him.  I tried so hard.  I told myself over and over that I must be falling in love with him, or I wouldn’t enjoy kissing him so much.  He was a genuinely nice guy.  Perfect in every way.  Maybe I was still hurting from Mr. First Love.  Maybe I was just waiting for some elusive, magical “spark.”  Maybe I just wasn’t ready.

Whatever the reason, I . . . didn’t love him.  So I broke up with him after stringing him along for far too long.  I felt like a cruel and heartless bitch.

Probably because I was.

Over the years, I heard he got married, had kids.  He got a teaching job at my old high school and even had my niece and nephew in his class.

Still a really nice guy.

Over the years, I got married, had kids, moved to a small town.  Changed careers, lost a few loved ones, had some good times and some bad times.

Wrote a book.

I struggled to name my characters.  I had to use names that were not too weird, but not too boring.  Names that didn’t represent anyone currently in my life.  People thought they recognized themselves in early drafts and were offended or flattered.  The romantic hero’s name had to be changed because the ex-husband thought it was too close to Mr. First Love’s name (for the record, the similarity never crossed my mind).  The heroine was too close to a friend’s teenage daughter.  Everybody had something to say, an opinion to offer, and I paid too much attention to all of them.

I gave my heroine a real jerk of an ex-boyfriend.  Couldn’t be Ken.  Couldn’t be Mike.  Not Tim, Jeff, Mitch, David, Rob, Jim, Evan, Steven or Joey.  Not Brian, Carl, Kevin or Andrew.  In desperation, I grabbed a name out of mid-air:  Randy.  There was no one in my life at that time who was named Randy.  No one who could be offended.  No resemblance to anyone alive or dead, right?

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I ran into Mr. Nice on Facebook.  I spent a wonderful evening chatting with him, catching up on everything that had happened over the years.  I remembered so many things about him, asked about his mother and brother and kids.

I really enjoyed talking to him.  What a nice guy.  He even bought a copy of my book.

And promptly “unfriended” me on Facebook.

Why, I wondered.  What did I do wrong?  What happened?

I was standing in the shower this morning when it hit me from out of nowhere.

He read my book.  Randy read my book.

My ex-boyfriend Randy read my book with a horrible jerk of an ex-boyfriend named Randy.

I am a terrible person.

I can’t even begin to fathom how much that must have hurt him.  I can’t apologize to him; even if he hadn’t blocked me on Facebook, what would I say?  How would I explain it?  Why would he ever believe me?  He may be the nicest guy in the world, but nobody is that nice.  He’s got his limits, and I crossed them.

I have felt sick all day as I keep thinking back over what I did to him.  I am so, so sorry, but he will never know.  I blew it, folks.  I hurt the nicest guy in the world.  Not deliberately, which would have been bad enough.  I did it carelessly, thoughtlessly, which is even worse.

I don’t like myself very much right now.

I’m pretty sure Randy doesn’t like me very much either.