I still remember it like it was yesterday. The day my dad sat me on his lap and told me that he and mom were getting divorced. I was five, my brother was three, so he doesn’t remember, but I still feel the pain. I still don’t know why they divorced, but it still hurts and I would like to know why it happened.
Angelo blinked away the tears that welled in his eyes. He cleared his throat as he finished reading his daughter’s narrative. The assignment called for a personal expression, and for a parent to read it.
“Well done, baby girl,” Angelo handed her the laptop after he signed the form. “Your sentences are tight. Your message was conveyed effectively, and punctuation was perfect.”
He always reviewed her homework on visitation days, and monitored her grades through the school’s Home Access Center. It was a co-parenting effort he and his ex-wife had agreed to for the sake of the children. They maintained a unified front and worked as a team despite their differences.
As for the reasons behind the failed marriage, Angelo knew he would have to own up to his decision. He knew he would someday have to elaborate on the reasons he left. What he didn’t expect was for his decision to have impacted his little girl so profoundly.
I can’t believe she still remembers that day so clearly, he thought to himself. But she raised the issue and deserved a response. He wasn’t going to hide from his decision, and he wasn’t going to dismiss her feelings.
She re-entered the room after placing her school-issued laptop in her backpack.
“Come sit with me,” he patted the couch cushion next to his.
She plopped herself down and rested her head on his shoulders.
“I suppose it’s been long enough,” he wrapped an arm around her shoulder.
“Long enough?” She turned to him perplexed.
“It’s been seven years since that day you wrote about in your narrative. As you recall, I had originally told you that mommy and I needed some time apart.”
“That’s when you moved out,” she added. “You moved in with aunt Cecilia.
“Yes,” he nodded.
“And you never moved back in,” she muttered, the sadness evident in her eyes. “A few months later, mommy said you two got divorced, but that you would visit every week.”
“We’ve had some great times over the years, haven’t we?” Angelo reflected.
“Yes we have,” she smiled.
“Fishing and swimming in the summer, pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating on Halloween, Easter Egg hunts, movie nights, hide-and-seek,” Angelo added.
“Don’t forget the scavenger hunts on our birthdays,” she reminded him.
“Those are fun too, aren’t they?” Angelo thought of the riddles he wrote for them about the myriad of topics he taught them: mythology, history, and astronomy to name a few. The answer to each riddle contained a clue to the location of the next gift.
“I can’t wait for my birthday next year!” Her eyes lit up.
“I can,” Angelo teased.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She turned to him incredulously.
“Oh, Anjali, you’re my baby girl, and you’re growing up too fast!” Angelo pulled her in close. “I need you to slow down, so I can keep up.”
“Well, now that I’m all grown up, why don’t you tell me about why you got divorced?”
“I wouldn’t say you’re all grown up, but you’re old enough to hear what I’m about to tell you.” Angelo shifted in his seat, and she in hers, so they faced each other. “There are three things that make a marriage: friendship, trust, and love.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t say love first,” her head tilted.
“That’s because love isn’t the first aspect of what leads to marriage. First, you need friendship. When you become friends, best friends, you formulate a bond stronger and more important than all others. That’s because it’s a lifelong connection. Through that friendship you develop trust. Trust is key, because it’s the one thing you must have before love, and the one thing you need in the years after passion fades. Without it, however, you have nothing.”
“Why is that?” She wondered.
“Do you remember the legend of Cupid and Psyche?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she nodded.
“Do you recall the moral of that story?”
She stared absently at her feet, which she had crossed before her on the couch. Realization dawned on her face. “Isn’t that where Cupid told her that without trust there can be no love?”
“Indeed, it is,” Angelo smiled. She’s retaining the things I’m teaching her.
“Is that what happened between you and mommy?”
“Between your mother and me, we had friendship and we had trust, but the love she deserved, the kind of love every woman deserves: passionate, patient, faithful and unconditional is something I could not give her. So, I decided it was best to set your mother free to find happiness rather than to keep her in an unhappy marriage.”
“She wasn’t happy about that, at first,” Anjali muttered.
“I bet she wasn’t, and that’s because heartbreak hurts. It’s not just emotional pain. The pain is physical too. It shows in the sound of your voice and the look in your eyes.”
“Is that what you’re feeling now?” Her eyes met his and she stared at him intently.
He didn’t avert his gaze, but he did not answer at first. He hadn’t talked with anyone about his current dilemma. He didn’t have anyone to confide in, because his confidant had been his girlfriend, Jocelyn. They had parted ways several weeks ago, and though he hadn’t said anything to anyone, he hoped his pain wouldn’t show.
“An astute observation, baby girl. Clearly you’re a writer.”
“And you’re avoiding the question,” she crossed her arms.
Angelo sighed. I suppose I couldn’t avoid this conversation either, he rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Why hasn’t Jocelyn been here the past few weeks?” Anjali finally asked.
“Jocelyn and I have decided to go our separate ways.”
“Why? Don’t you love her?”
Angelo pursed his lips. “Well, baby girl, it comes down to matters of trust. When two people are building a life together, it’s imperative that they’re on the same page about the important things like: finances, home life, raising children, and they must be able to trust each other about these matters.”
“Because without trust…” she began to say, but her words trailed off.
“It runs deeper than that, too,” Angelo continued, “because you can have trust and love, which we did, but secrets and lies—regardless of how harmless we believe them to be—lead to arguments. Those arguments cause resentment and breaks the trust. Eventually, it chips away at the love, and distance grows between two people who were once inseparable. God, we were inseparable at one point, too.”
“Can you fix it? Do you want to fix it and become inseparable again?” Anjali removed her hair-tie and twirled it around her fingers.
“You can fix it, yes,” Angelo nodded. I’d want more than anything to do so again, but how often must we fight about the same thing? “Think of trust as a vase. If you break it repeatedly and glue it back together, can you ever trust it to hold water again?”
“Not likely,” she lowered her eyes.
“Perhaps it is possible to repair it one more time and like a broken bone it heals stronger than ever, but it takes work. Marriage requires equal effort on both sides to make it work. It’s never easy, but both parties have to be willing to be on the same page about the important things, and willing to do what is necessary to make it work. Without that commitment, what have you got?”
“Yeah, I understand what you mean,” Anjali nodded without lifting her gaze.
“I’m sorry about this, baby girl,” Angelo whispered.
She stood and went to her room. The door slammed shut upstairs with a clap like thunder.
Angelo sat in silence as he stared through the large living room windows. Damn it! In the early years of his relationship with Jocelyn, they refrained from public displays of affection, so that in the eyes of his children she was just a friend. He was unsure how they would adjust to the new paradigm, but first and foremost he wanted to protect them.
Perhaps divorce had made him cynical, but the potentiality of her leaving, and the children being affected by another break up is something he wanted to spare them. After their third year together, and everything they had endured as a couple, he gradually opened up to the idea of being affectionate in front of the kids.
She’d spoil them on their birthdays and Christmas, despite Angelo’s insistence that they didn’t need an abundance of gifts. She read them bedtime stories in his absence, took them to school so he could sleep in, and kissed their cuts and scrapes when childhood injuries were sustained.
Angelo’s ex-wife had even told him she appreciated Jocelyn’s presence in their lives. “She loves the kids and they love her. Besides, she’s the right girl for you,” she had once told him. “Her gentle nature is the perfect balance to your lion’s temperament.”
He agreed that Jocelyn completed him in ways he didn’t know were possible. The way she snuck the kids treats, or snatched away their vegetables when he wasn’t looking, but he saw it happen anyway provided them with a sense of security all children need.
But the discord between them had taken its toll. The constant secrecy behind where she was and who she was with, even if she was with her sister and mother at the movies, why lie about it? They’d discussed plans for marriage and buying a home together, but their efforts for saving to that end had been undermined when she hid money to pay bills for her parents and siblings, or lending them money that they never paid back.
Month after month, Angelo had to adjust their budget for the unexpected expenses. Be it for gifts for friends and family, or additional bank fee’s for over-drafting her personal account. Angelo managed to maneuver money to cover the costs, but their savings were eventually depleted.
“When are we going to get married?” Jocelyn would insist.
“With what money?” Angelo would counter. “Weddings cost money. A honeymoon will cost money. A princess cut diamond costs money. How can I afford that when you keep spending money we don’t have?”
She’d sigh, but wouldn’t respond other than to say that her parents would pay for their honeymoon.
“With what money? They never paid us back the thousands they borrowed for their house and vacation.”
“Well, I told them they didn’t have to pay us back.”
“Why the hell would you do that?” Angelo had shouted. “How are we going to be able to buy a house and make a home with all this debt? We need to pay off what we owe, and improve our credit to qualify for a house.”
In the years that followed, Angelo had noticed that Jocelyn mirrored her mother’s behavior. She’d spend in secret, because she didn’t want her husband to get upset. And when the banks came calling, she’d lean on Jocelyn to pay off her debt. Jocelyn kept it from Angelo to avoid upsetting him, but that philosophy did not sit well with him.
“If you’re lying to me about the little things, how will I be able to trust you about the big things?” Angelo had asked often. “Here’s the thing, let’s say you’re in the habit of hiding something as trivial as spending, because you’re concerned about how I’ll react. The secrecy escalates. Next thing you know, you’ll hide certain friendships or interactions from me, because you’ll be concerned about how I’ll react. What happens when those friendships and interactions become flirtatious? Will you hide them from me, because you’ll be concerned about how I’ll react? Call me paranoid, but flirtatious tend to escalate into affairs. Will you hide an affair from me, because you’ll be concerned about how I’ll react? That’s usually what happens when people engage in that pattern of behavior.”
Jocelyn promised she’d never hide anything of that nature from him. He believed her, until he didn’t, because in the heat of an argument she let it slip that she’d been in touch with an ex-lover, whom she had referred to as “love.”
Angelo’s heart dropped.
His jealousy got the best of him, and with a lump in his throat he stormed out of the house. I need some air, he blinked away tears in the still of a cold winter night. The tightness in his chest made it difficult to breathe. The lump in his throat nearly choked him as the swell of emotions surged like lava in a volcano. He clenched his jaw as he fought the urge to cry.
Why did she feel the need to have her ex in her life? The question circled in his thoughts. It was the same ex who had betrayed her on more than one occasion . The same ex who had left the state to be with someone else. The same ex whom she had chased after only to be left disappointed. There were times when Jocelyn’s flirtatious behavior made him feel as though his admiration was never enough. They’d fought about it often, but he still held on. This time she had gone too far.
The more he thought about it, the clearer things became. The emotional distance. The lack of affection, both physical and emotional. The daily jumping out of bed to take her sister to work, and the morning jog afterwards. Though she never returned before getting ready for work, because she claimed she simply went to her mom’s to shower and change. Suddenly, it all came together. Except he couldn’t understand why she had often said she wanted to get married to him, if she felt the need to have her ex in her life. Then to keep it from him only made things worse.
Trust, he thought to himself, without it, there can be no love.
“Dad!” Angelo heard his son call from the office to bring him back from his contemplation. “I’m finished with my homework.”
“Bring it here, so I can check it.”
Angelo reviewed the three pages of word-problems with diagrams. After having his son re-do two equations, and re-write a sentence to be more legible, he instructed him to grab a book from the shelf for reading time.
His ten year old son, Leo, returned minutes later with a book in hand and curled up beside his dad to read. “Where’s Anjali?” He glanced around the room.
“She’s in her bedroom,” Angelo replied.
“Oh, okay,” Leo shrugged and proceeded to read. The twenty minutes of reading time passed in the blink of an eye. After his son closed the book, and set it aside, he turned to Angelo and asked about Jocelyn.
Angelo rubbed his forehead and sighed. I can’t keep using the same excuses: she’s working overtime, or she’s visiting her mother. He’d already used those same reasons to deceive himself. He couldn’t go on continuing to live a lie.
“Well, champ, the thing is,” Angelo paused, “sometimes people have different philosophies about what makes a relationship work, and they decide to go their separate ways.”
“Oh,” was all that Leo said before he buried his face in Angelo’s chest and began to cry.
“I’m sorry, kiddo,” Angelo whispered.
“Can’t you work it out? Why can’t you work it out, daddy?” Leo continued to sob.
“Aw man, baby, I wish I had an answer for you,” Angelo shook his head as his throat tightened.
They sat together on the couch. Only Leo’s sobbing broke the silence.
“It’s okay to cry, buddy, it just means your emotions have overwhelmed your body and they escape in the form of tears.”
It took several long minutes before Leo calmed down. He wiped his tears with the back of his hand and sat upright. He turned to his father and asked, “What happens now?”
“Now, we take things one day at a time,” Angelo said.
“Can I go play?” Leo asked.
“Yes you may,” Angelo smiled at him and kissed him on the forehead.
He debated with himself whether or not to share the experience with Jocelyn, but figured it would be unfair to keep it from her. She deserved to know how much Leo loved her, since she often thought he didn’t adore her as much as Anjali did.
When he relayed the details of what had transpired via text, she merely replied: OMG. She said nothing more and nothing less. He didn’t seek to pressure her for anything else.
The evening passed with an air melancholy. The children showered while Angelo prepared dinner. They ate together and discussed school, moving, and the snow that was expected to fall the following week. The children occupied themselves while Angelo washed the dishes. Each coped with their sadness in silence.
When it was time for bed, they brushed their teeth and each child went into their separate rooms. Angelo prepared the night lights, turned on the fans, and tucked Anjali into her bed first. They exchanged a hug and a kiss before Angelo turned off the main light.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you too,” she said.
“Sweet dreams, baby girl.”
“Sweet dreams to you too.”
He pulled the door closed behind him and walked into Leo’s room. He found Leo playing with his toys on the floor.
“Hey, you, up in bed, chop-chop,” he clapped.
Leo climbed into bed, grabbed his stuffed animals and pulled them in close. Angelo spread the blankets across the bed and asked Leo if he wanted a bedtime story. Leo nodded. Angelo grabbed the book off the nightstand and sat on the bed beside his son.
“Scoot over, bud,” he adjusted a pillow.
Leo started crying again. Angelo placed the book back on the nightstand and turned to his son.
“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” he asked gently.
“I miss Jocelyn. I’m going to miss her forever.”
“Oh, baby boy,” Angelo leaned in.
“I’m probably going to cry for weeks. Can’t she come back? Tell her to come back.”
“Come here,” Angelo embraced his son.
“She makes half of being here fun, and you make the other half of being here fun. You can’t let her leave, daddy. Tell her to come back.”
I don’t think she wants to, Angelo reflected on the silence that echoed between him and Jocelyn in the days after the argument. They hadn’t said much to each other, but when they did they only argued about that one detail that changed their lives. He made the mistake of crying in front of her, and without saying a word she turned and left to never return.
“Nothing is ever going to be the same now, daddy,” Leo continued sobbing.
“I know baby, I know. It’s okay to cry. Just go ahead and let it all out.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“What?” Angelo cast his son a curious glance in the blue glow of the nightlight.
“Can I talk to her?”
“I don’t think she’s awake right now, buddy,” he lied. He didn’t want to burden her with their pain.
“Can we please try?” Leo begged.
Angelo sighed. “Okay,” he relented, and sent her a text that he was going to call her because Leo wanted to speak with her. Angelo dialed her number when she acknowledged his message. Her face appeared on the screen.
“Hey, sorry, but here he is,” Angelo said before he turned the screen and camera to face Leo. “Okay baby boy, go ahead and tell her what you wanted to say.”
“Please come back. Can you please come back?” His eyes flooded with tears.
Angelo broke down, dropped his phone on the bed and embraced his son. They cried together for several long minutes. The call disconnected. Angelo fished for the phone among the twist of blankets when it vibrated.
Jocelyn had replied with: You’re killing me. I wish I was holding him right now.
He needs that right now, Angelo replied before he set his phone down on the nightstand and embraced his son.
“Is she coming over?” Leo looked up with reddened eyes.
“I don’t think so, baby boy,” Angelo shook his head.
Leo continued to cry in his father’s arms. He wrapped his arms around Angelo’s neck and squeezed tight. Leo heard his father sob, and pulled away to look his father in the eyes. “We’re going to be okay, right daddy? We’re going to be okay?”
“Yes, baby boy, we’re going to be just fine,” Angelo reassured him.
Leo curled up against his father, pulled the blankets close with his stuffed animals and cried himself to sleep. He hadn’t cried himself to sleep in his father’s arms since he was an infant. Angelo lied there with him, listening to him breathe for close to an hour. A million thoughts ran across his mind. Her silence and unwillingness to apologize were nothing knew, but her unwillingness to do so in this instance sent a pretty clear message to him. Jocelyn had chosen to cut Angelo and his children out of her life in order to maintain her friendship with her ex, but would not cut her ex out of her life to have Angelo and his children as her family. Then it dawned on him that his son’s first heartbreak came as a result of his father’s last.