People talk about their exes, their exes they still talk to, the exes they still love, the exes who are inexorably linked to their sense of self. I don’t have much in the way of romantic exes. My husband is someone who was briefly an ex, and I have ex friends, which in almost every case I’m still sort of confused as to why we’re not still friends. (I’m sure it’s me, but insight on what exactly was wrong with me would be helpful… maybe that’s what it was.)
But still I have that one ex, that one ex that looms large in my life, who comes back into my existence and throws my whole deal into chaos. My ex step mom. There’s alot of hyphens in that concept, so I just left them out. My ex step mom and my dad were married in January, 1981. I was a flower girl in a red, velvet skirt, that my Gramma Dag made for me. I had a smile that I couldn’t ditch all day. I remember being glad that there was a mom in my life, even if it wasn’t my original mom. I remember thinking how we wouldn’t be a single parent household anymore, and that all signs pointed to a better future for kids who came from two parent households.
My memories of the next ten years is spotty. For years I felt like I remembered everything, but now I question that. The questioning comes from having my own son now, and knowing that I can’t know all sides of what was going on. The reasons I ended up with those particular sneakers that I wasn’t crazy about no longer seems like a slight to me personally, but probably had something to do with the ones I liked best costing $20 more than the ones I liked less. Just the other day I talked my kid into a pair of cheaper sneakers, never thinking that one day he may look back and feel like he was slighted. Y’know, until now.
There are facts: my dad and ex step mom were married for a number of years, the number I remember is 10, but I don’t know when, in the mess of divorce and whatever, they actually stopped being married legally. Ten years seems a good round number, so I’m calling it fact. I tried to cut my wrists in our kitchen when I was fifteen. That’s a fact. We lived in a pretty house in Hanover, MA. That’s a fact, too. My brother N arrived right before Thanksgiving 1987. By summer 1991 I didn’t live with him anymore, and my step mom was rapidly becoming my ex.
We didn’t talk for years. I was scared to, I didn’t want to, I felt guilt and remorse and anger; I was sad about it all, and at my new home, with my new parents, and my new life, it felt like the other stuff had all been some twisted dream. Everything I wrote was about trying to construct my personal narrative. The narrative that was indicated by my new life clashed with the true narrative, and I ended up chucking batteries at mirrors to try to make the outside as fractured as the inside.
Anyway alot of time has gone by and now she’s my ex. I hadn’t talked to her in years and then a few years ago, maybe a few years before my son was born, my brother N gave me a call to let me know that she was in trouble. I didn’t realize until that moment that I’d been waiting for the call ever since that summer of 1991. Her life was a mess, and getting worse. N didn’t know how to deal with it, and moreover, he didn’t want to. The whole thing made him miserable, and guilty feeling, a little ashamed, also cold, I think, a big, freezing, necessary cold, just so his heart could generate enough heat for himself, and the other people he loved. He gave me her pre-paid cell phone number, and I gave her a ring.
By being available to her I was being helpful to N. In helping her sort out her problem, I was giving N a way to not have to deal with it at all, at least in a practical sense. He still had his own consciousness to contend with. She and I ended up chatting quite a bit. She came to stay with us a little in NYC. We drank wine, she and Dave smoked masses of cigarettes in our one bedroom apartment, and ate take out almost every night. When she left after a week or so, I didn’t know what kind of life she was going back to, but I knew it was a difficult one.
We’ll go months without talking, and when we do talk, it’s in text. She’s not mine, and I’m not hers, and our relationship is not what you’d call good. There’s barriers between us, things about the past that will remain unsaid, and things that, when referred to, reveal how different our perspectives on that time are. But there are also the shared memories, of the early parts of my childhood: crazy haircuts, vacations, moments of laughter we both remember, good memories of my father, funny things he said and did; and the time after N came, the excitement leading up to his arrival, the years long adoption process, how sweet and wonderful he was, his funny toddlerness. We leave it there. We don’t go into my teen years, or his, or the difficultly of the summer of 1991, or even her frought relationship with N.
I struggled with this for a bit, this new relationship with her that ignores all the brutal things. But it turns out I don’t need her to acknowledge anything. When I offer to help her, it is for me a way to help N. I don’t want him to feel alone in this watching someone you love have a really hard time, watching her get in her own way over and over, watching her stay the same while her circumstances don’t. Public assistance gives a person the ability to maintain an even place at the bottom of the economic food chain, but everything around her keeps shifting. Prices fluctuate but what she has to spend remains the same, which allows for only one direction of mobility.
Before my son was born I offered to let her live with us. She graciously refused. She said “you don’t want that.” I said “you don’t want that either, but it doesn’t matter, neither of us want the alternative, either.” She laughed, and said “you’re the same as you were, you haven’t changed, you’re the same dear little girl I raised.”
Or maybe she didn’t say that, and I wanted her to.