I laid in bed, eyes wide open, searching for words to convey how sorry I was for my sullenness of late, and how much I needed him – my boyfriend – to show that he cared, if our relationship was to work. Next to mine, his body shifted from left to right, signaling he too was unable to fall asleep. Without thinking, I moved closer and embraced him. He didn’t hug me back. Whatever, I thought, giving up, and moving as far away from him as I could without falling off the bed.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said moments later.
“Do what?” I asked.
My stomach tightened and my throat dried up. I felt paralyzed, but a voice in my head whispered calmly: It’s over. It was a Tuesday night, two days before Thanksgiving. We avoided each other on Wednesday, and I was off to my parents’ house where I spent the long weekend dissecting our entire relationship.
We had started dating two years earlier, shortly after meeting at a mutual friend’s party. His tattooed arms and leg caught my attention, but it was his unshakeable confidence, as I perceived it, that kept my interest all night. He sipped his drink, alone at the bar, until eventually people gravitated toward him – myself included. He was funny and insightful, yet I left that night knowing very little about him. When I happened upon his picture on a dating site weeks later, I got in touch right away. Through our mutual friend I learned he was separated from his wife and was the father of two children.
“I don’t think he’s right for you,” my friend had said.
“I don’t know. I know you and I kind of know him and I just don’t think he’s right for you.”
I disregarded my friend’s hunch, and accepted an invitation to dinner – and then a few more. Two months into the relationship I met his daughters (who were quick to shower me with love and attention), and a few months after that, we moved into a new apartment. As we shopped together for furniture, I was enamored with what I thought he represented – a good man; a dedicated business owner who somehow balanced work, a personal life, and fatherhood brilliantly. Someone from whom I could learn, and who preferred to stay in and cook a gourmet meal for two, instead of going out on Friday night. Nearing my 25th birthday, I was surrounded by women in long-term relationships who harped on incessantly about wedding plans. I’d never been one to do things exactly like everyone else, so moving in with a father of two seemed like something Juliana might do.
What was uncharacteristic of me, however, were the behavior and lifestyle I took on as months passed. I stopped returning friends’ phone calls, turned down invitations for the usual summer weekends in New York, and regularly showed up alone to the few gatherings I managed to attend – including my own 25th birthday bash. I had a great time that night with friends, but only after I’d had a few drinks. The Vodka Cranberries quickly helped me forget how I’d stood in the bedroom a few hours earlier, arms crossed, incredulous of my boyfriend’s words.
“I have a lot of work to do. My brother’s only visiting for a few days, that club is not his scene, and I don’t want to leave him alone,” he stated.
“You can’t not do work on a Saturday night? I’m sure your brother won’t mind one night alone, on my birthday,” I argued, pointlessly, as he sat with eyes fixed on the computer screen. “I can’t believe you! I’ve been planning this party for two months. My friends are looking forward to finally meeting you. It’s my 25th birthday!” I was running out of arguments and sounding more like one of his young daughters pleading for dessert before dinner.
The discussion went his way that night, and similar episodes would happen a few times; whenever plans involved things he didn’t feel like doing. The reasoning generally made perfect sense to him and absolutely none to me, and still he got his way. I began growing tired of defending him and his busy schedule to myself and my friends – sweet people who nodded politely, but whose eyes asked me, “What are you doing with this guy?”
What was I doing with this guy? I was preparing meals for the family, taking the girls to school three times a week, cleaning the apartment, and caring for two dogs: mine and his. What had started as ‘lending a hand’ to an overbooked boyfriend, quickly turned into my routine. When he spent Saturday afternoons in front of the computer, in the company of beer bottles, I stared from doorway – unsure of what was happening in his mind yet hesitant to ask – “Nothing. I’m fine,” delivered with a smile, seemed harsh words to hear. Yet it didn’t seem normal to me that a “fine” 28 year old, “very happy” in with his relationship should spend hours ignoring his girlfriend on one of two monthly Saturdays they got to spend alone. I knew of his independent, self-reliant tendencies, and I knew of the pressures he felt from running a business solo. He’s probably just stressed out, I thought, and I settled for gently encouraging him to stop at beer number three. I figured if I were not confrontational, I might gain his trust.
But there is a fine line between being non-confrontational and not speaking up at all. I was certainly treading on the side of the latter. I went about my routine – his routine – with a zipped mouth when I felt overwhelmed, and hoped everything would be fine once he found the right employee to hire, the right babysitter for the girls… The weeks wore on, and my resentment grew. I was irritated often, and not my usual light-hearted, warm self. My family took notice, as did my friends, but it was a specific episode with his younger daughter – just three years old – that highlighted to me how I was somehow turning into a brooding version of myself; an undesirable yin to my cheery yang.
It was a hot Saturday morning – normally occasion enough for waking up with a smile. et I went on mechanically, as I’d now come to do: set breakfast for the girls, shower and dress (I’d come to love the blissful, quiet minutes the shower brought me), round them up – two dogs and two children – to the park. Sometimes I managed to read a page or two of a book as I minded the fogs and the girls. He was at work. “I’d love to spend time with the girls on Saturday, don’t worry!” I’d told him. And so I did, every time they were at their dad’s house. On that particular summer Saturday, the older daughter was off to a play date and I figured I’d take the little one along to run some errands. I’d forgotten something important at home and was visibly irritated. Her imaginative, long, and oftentimes nonsensical stories were barely minded by me. Being the remarkably perceptive girl that she is, she stopped midsentence, sighed, and asked, “You feel angry today, right, Juliana?” Her voice was sweet and calm, and she was looking at my eyes through the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, I think I do. I have a lot of things on my mind,” I confessed to the three year old. “But you know what? I think we should go get a doughnut and forget about all this stuff right now. Do you want to?”
She smacked together hands, feet, and lips into a unified “YES!” I pulled over at Dunkin’ Donuts, and we sat inside for nearly an hour. I held back tears as I watched her, telling her creative little stories that made no sense whatsoever, with chocolate smeared over her lips. In the back of my mind were voices, telling me how unhappy I really was in my relationship. I felt tired, trapped, and yet in awe of this incredible little girl and her sister, both of whom I’d grown to love. I gave her a kiss on the forehead as she said, “I love you, Juliana.”
The four of us had become a unit; a family in the eyes of other restaurant-goers and Toys ‘R Us salespeople. I thought of us as a family too. I had dived head first into a situation I treated as some kind of fairy-tale; an instant-family love story. But the love story soon dried out, and I was a 25 year-old living someone else’s life. My spontaneity was gone, and my friends were turning into sporadic email buddies. Even when we did hang out, I’d often get a phone call a few hours later from my boyfriend, wondering when I’d be back. For some (stupid) reason, I would feel guilty about leaving him alone and would try to hurry back home. More often than not, within the hour after my return he would focus on work or go to bed, and I remained awake and alone on the couch.
I ignored advice from friends, and advice that I myself had countless times given to girlfriends who found themselves stuck and unhappy: “A relationship is a two-way street. Don’t let him make you feel guilty about voicing your needs.” Those had been my own words, yet here I was, allowing my life to fall into someone else’s schedule, and in the process, forgetting completely about who I was and what I wanted out of a relationship.
Only months later I would find myself on our bed, hearing him say those two words: “This. Us.” I didn’t want to believe he was breaking up with me, or that he had spent days planning how to tell me, without ever hinting at the fact he might be feeling this way. Yet over Thanksgiving break, as my parents and sister confessed they were happy about our break up, I finally stopped apologizing for him and myself; I acknowledged I’d been naive and complacent in a situation that undoubtedly was bad for me. The petty thoughts of “why didn’t I do it before he did?” crossed my mind, certainly. But most of all, I was relieved it was over, even if left without the elusive “closure” every woman seeks.
A year after our break up, I bumped into him at the supermarket. We talked for a few seconds and I excused myself soon after. That very night he wrote me an email, where he apologized for “being unfair” to me, and revealed that he thought about me often. As I stared at the screen, I said to myself, “I needn’t gloat about how insanely happy and free I feel, how I’ve been enjoying my time as I please, without sudden obligations I resent performing. I needn’t tell him how great it feels to leave that life in the past. Just be nice and move on.” And so I chose my words carefully and wished him and the girls my best – sincerely, politely, concisely. As a friend had put it soon after the break up – perhaps a bit dramatically – but certainly ringing true, “Dude, he did you a favor. You got a second chance at life.”