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The Price of Adultery: Part 1

My ex-wife Julie and I met one night at college as we each walked alone along separate paths.  I was lonely, and she told me later that she had been drawn out onto a lonely walk because of another guy.  She liked him, but her feelings had gone unrequited.  That night she walked to let go of the idea of him and reconcile herself to the fact that something she had hoped for would never be.

By that time of my life I have discovered that I was already in a lifelong battle with depression.  As I passed groves of mountain evergreens lining the walking paths that skirted the campus, I remember the faint emotional sirens singing insidiously to me the same song that seems to tug at people with depression.

I felt like I was not “good enough” to be a part of the company of other students I admired.  My life was always the life of the outsider standing in the cold night looking into a window spilling out warmth, light, and laughter of people within . . . groups of people, the voice within me chided, that I could never possibly belong to.

I always watched from the other side of that window, pretending to smile, hoping that the grin on my face showed those inside that I too was one of them, one of the blessed elect, and that except for my solitary errand, I would doubtless be elsewhere enjoying the same mirth and happiness they reveled in.

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But I knew inside that I was really one of H.G. Wells’ Morlocks, a collegiate J. Alfred Prufrock not fit to share a smile or a laugh with a pretty girl or a close friend.  I knew in truth that it was time for me to go, always time for me to go.  Only the ghost of me remained.  If all I left in others was the believable pretense of a smile and the veneer of acceptability, then I felt like I broke even.

That night we both secretly carried our own baggage of disappointments and letdowns.  We met and walked together, and at some point I held her hand.  Neither of us suspected how far things would go, or how far things would fall.  I sensed from the beginning that we weren’t the best fit, but two months later I discovered I had MS and Julie was the one person there for me.  6 months after that she was pregnant and 10 months after that we were married.

Julie was a wonderful girl.  Gentle.  Sweet.  Thoughtful.  Considerate.  Unsure of herself and full of her own self-doubts.  And why shouldn’t she have been?  When Ju was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, choking her.  The resulting brief reduction of blood flow to her brain left her with a number of learning disabilities.

Growing up, she attended a prestigious and expensive private Catholic school, and it was hell for her.  All of the kids came from families with money and they possessed the kind of self-confident arrogance that sometimes accompanies children born among the Eloi, or the elect.

Julie attended special ed. classes to help her learn to work with her learning disabilities.  But you can imagine what it looks like to snooty school kids when one of their classmates has to leave regular class in order to attend “special” classes taught by the same teachers who were also working with mentally retarded children.

Julie knew that almost everyone looked askance at her as far as perceived academics went.  The boys liked her because she was thin and cute and more jock than preppy diva.  Julie has always been extraordinarily modest.  Any nascent arrogance got beaten out of her by a father that walked out on her when she was young.  And then there were the cruel remarks children made behind her back because she obviously wasn’t like them.  More, Julie never knew how pretty she was when she was younger.  The girls did, though, and they had their ways of making her feel ostracized . . . like a Morlock.

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Our marriage was full of trouble from the beginning.  I was always impatient with Julie.  Despite her learning disabilities, Ju was bright and just as capable as any other girl.  She just took longer to process and sift through things she read and heard.  I was book smart and grasped literary and philosophical things easily—the kind of guy who never opened a book and hardly went to class but still pulled a B effortlessly.

Julie worked and fought for every academic accomplishment she earned.  I had little respect for her at times because I constantly had to stop in mid-conversation and explain things to her I found self-evident.  She frequently became passive-aggressive and defensive whenever issues arose.  On top of that she suffered from what was at times a severe social anxiety.

Despite all of this, Julie loved me wholeheartedly and with the kind of devotion many people would shave years off of their lives to experience from another.  For all her love and fidelity, I returned her affection with an affair that left her shattered and devastated.

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Julie spent most of her life unsure of herself and afraid to live, to step out and take a chance.  Most of the time she got by with just existing.  This took its toll on me over the years.  That’s about the only thing I can offer up as an explanation as to why I cheated on her.  For a long time I clung to it as a life raft, excusing me from the deep and damning waters of my betrayal.

One day I finally let go of the raft and allowed myself to sink into the depths of that pitiless and self-recriminating sea.  Not a day goes by now when I do not in some way or another pay for the emotional toll I exacted on her.  I know that we weren’t good for each other.  Intellectually we had very different needs.  But this knowledge doesn’t do a bit of good to buoy up so my head remains above water.  It’s all I can do to hold on and tread.  Guilt is such a thinner thing than water that when we let go of the defenses we cling to in order to keep it at bay, we sink.  And down below, where the water is deepest, the guilt exerts a pressure that is unbearable.

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Julie has the kind of tenacity and spirit that will allow her to remain afloat in even the worst storms.  I am not so strong or resilient.  But rarely are the souls of the damned made of such durable stuff.  She sails in better and safer waters.  I live at the bottom of a sea floor littered with the wrecks of torpedoed relationships, walking and stumbling blindly among other lost souls in the dark, hoping for a redemption that remains ever elusive and forbidden.

A Regret

I’ve been thinking about taking up fishing lately.  The last time I went fishing was with my grandfather.  I was never into it because I was a teenager and teenagers are rude.  A kid of the 80s, my biggest concerns were whether to get the Run DMC album or go for the latest Michael Jackson release.  It says a lot about my age that Michael Jackson was still cool when I was in middle and high school.

One of my biggest regrets is that I took my grandfather’s fishing trips as little more than necessary inconveniences.  While he fished I stayed in his car and listened to the radio.

Now my grandfather is dead and I miss him more than ever.

Since I’ve gotten older, my fishing trips have consisted of whatever is on sale at the Harris Teeter seafood section.  I ‘ve made way too many bad mistakes in my life, and I think fishing has become a way for me to dig back into the past and maybe find some of the innocence I possessed as a child . . . at least before I grew too old and too cool to be burdened by Papaw’s fishing-tales of life in the Appalachians when he was a boy.

And now here I am.  So far from grace and youth that everything I took for granted is dirt and dust.  I cannot bring my grandfather back, no matter how well I manage to cast my line into the water.  It just won’t reach that far.

Nothing this side of the grave ever will.

Living here in Wilmington, North Carolina, something in the salty ocean air has grabbed ahold of me.  I live four miles from the water’s edge.  And that salt . . . that clean, refreshing salt makes me feel pleasantly unsettled.  Salt has always been a key alchemical element, and there is alchemy and magic in the crash of the Atlantic’s waters on the nearby shore.  I can hear its mysterious voice beckoning—a sub-vocal beckoning to something paradoxically inchoate yet antediluvian.

A need to find some kind of communion linking me to a past that I once shrugged my shoulders to and now mourn because it is beyond my grasp.

I watched the sun rise over the sea this morning.  Its first touch on the horizon fired the low clouds on the horizon a brilliant bright red, where dawn gave birth to the earth that is newborn every morning.  Behind me the moon was at its full and setting as clouds passing in front of it broke and were haloed in its silvery sheen.  Both were at opposite poles, and rarely have I had a chance to see something so beautiful and poignant.

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I will look forward to getting out onto the pier, but I know it will be a lonely pilgrimage.  Maybe I will catch a bit of those moments I let slip through my fingers so long ago.  Yet time only allows us a finite amount of moments with those we love.  I grieve over the loss of mine.

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