“I guess some mistakes we never stop paying for.”
“I believe we have two lives: the one we learn in and the one we live with afterward.”
Roger Towne, script for The Natural, 1984
It’s January 3, 2011, the anniversary of my first year in this apartment, in Bristol, PA. Like all other places in which I’ve lived, this is a haunted house because I have my ghosts with me. They won’t go away. They indeed represent the lives I’ve prepared for through the mistakes and strengths I’ve gathered over years before. That is hardly unique–we all carry around undigested bits of the past. If there is any interest in what I write, the comments are mundane and repetitive, bordering at times on self-pity. All the same, feeling sorry for myself is not on my mind today because the situations I was in earlier needed to be stared down..
I have had a lot of time to look backward at my life. I know: you can’t change the past. But you surely can learn from it and own responsibility.
Mistakes, then. I renounced my marriage in 1997, not so much because I found someone I liked better (I had) but because that marriage had become a convenience wrapped in mutual savagery and bitterness. It had become painful to both of us but I at the end of the day was the one who had to admit it: there really was a someone else and that even if there were not, the pain of living under the same roof with someone I did not love and who did not love me anymore would surely kill us both. I could no longer behave everything was okay because it wasn’t. I had become exactly what I never wanted to be, a serial womanizer, a repository of misery and guilt, the kind of man for whom I had no respect and less forgiveness when I encountered him in others. But he was now part of me. How do you withstand having metamorphosed into the person you cannot stand? How do you delude yourself into thinking that the sin against your marriage–for sin it was–is something only God can see, and that he really doesn’t care much of a damn one way or the other?
I was amazingly good and pulling the wool over my own eyes until February 17, 1997, when it all had to come out in the open. So I stepped from one arrangement into another.
My “arrangement” survived two divorces–the other woman’s and mine, both of them born from cruelty–and flowered until the blossoms fell off the plants.
Tnen, by late 2002, we went dead to one another. I could not believe I was being rewarded for my duplicity not with more duplicity–for I’d learned through effort and alimony the truth about faithfulness from my acts of faithlessness–but with a slow, staggering toward the open grave I’d dug for myself starting years before.
I fell into it for the first time in May 2007 and didn’t know enough to take it seriously until October 2009. Ironically, the death of our mutually beloved dog sealed the fate of the relationship. The dog at last was what was holding us together; and two months after he died, the entire arrangement became as dead as the dog himself. At that point I found the resolve that I had to locate another place to live. My companion even helped me look: it was not bitter, simply profoundly sad.
So I ended up in this garden apartment complex in Bristol, PA, not because I love Bristol–I don’t–but because it’s affordable. After New Jersey, very little costs a lot. The apartment sucks and there’s no garden, by the way.
I isolated in here. I saw few people and didn’t let them see me. It is generally contraindicated for people like me to hide out in silence, but even silence and exile will create if not cunning then the astuteness to take inventory, to look at the stock of my life and see where I blew myself up. I did a lot of praying, a non-intellectual activity that was and remains vital to my survival. I went into profound depression, and the antidepressant I went on caused my attention to wander and got me into a car accident back across the river in New Jersey. I managed to lose two teaching jobs in a row because my work was not supported by consistency or anything like rational behavior. I was, in short, a complete flake. I skirted poverty, which is to say I had to borrow $40 from one of my kids to eat on and even feed my cat. I was terrified and miserable.
I’ve learned to build an amicable but distant relationship with my former companion. She sends me links to music sites. My cat is a lot happier without her cat (they hated each other), and when her cat died I felt sad but not exactly grief-stricken.
Through it all I’ve had a chance to reexamine the mistakes that got me here: passivity, misplaced anger and aggression, downright duplicity. I don’t especially like that previous incarnation of myself but I have to own who he was and be on the lookout for him flaring up again–because he’s gone but not forgotten. I continue to pay for my mistakes because they are my mistakes. I created the life I have to live with now and made the mistakes I probably will never stop paying for. Which is more or less okay because I am a survivor and I’m a bit harder to kill than I used to imagine.