I check her out at some quasi-church’s quasi-auction of used goods. I don’t belong to said church nor do I hunger for said goods. In my mid-thirties, never married, no kids, no assets greater than the car parked out back that Kelly’s Blue Book tells me is worth less en masse than the new clutch I put into it six months past. It seems I’ll go pretty much anywhere as long as there might be one single woman there. I look at her face and she looks at mine and I think to myself, “Now here’s something interesting.” But then I glance down to take in the rest and see a tow-headed urchin hanging his little arms about her waist and everything falls apart before it can get built. I’ve got nothing against children, love a slew of them who call me “Uncle” though I’m no such thing to any of them, but a child with a woman usually means there’s a man with the woman as well, and it’s that that I’ve something against. “Fuck,” I think, “One more woman one more man beat me to the punch to,” and I turn away and fix my gaze on the worn cowboy boots up for sale.
Of course, there’s an equation I haven’t considered. While woman-plus-child almost always equals man, woman-plus-child only about half the time these days equals husband. Fifty/fifty chance, more or less, and today’s my lucky day. I hate the knuckle-to-toe thrill that comes over me when I overhear her say she’s filed for divorce, know it’s not right to feel glee when somebody’s else’s shit hits the fan, but it’s just that she’s got dark hair and dark skin and dark eyes and a great smile and even a greater laugh—and she is laughing: just filed for divorce and yet she still manages to have a sense of humor—and it’s been so long since any similar situation yielded me even the least of results, I just can’t help but feel good. Like the sun is shining. On me, for me. And that’s even before I turn my back on the boots and find her looking at me—at me.
So I make a few moves and she makes a few more and before long I’m officially “dating Mommy,” though it’s months until we go on anything even resembling a date. Instead, we wait all day and half the night for her child to go to sleep, ride the couch as hard as we can when he does, wear ourselves both down to the nub with our late nights and our early mornings and all the beautiful wanting in between. There’s soccer and swimming and play dates and the park; there’s her job and my job and her soon-to-be ex-husband’s job of making her life Hell. I get to be a kid with her kid and it’s great. In time, we find other times to be alone; we plan dates; we prioritize. We laugh more than we have any right to laugh. She’s got a second lease on life and she’s investing it and I’m the beneficiary. Finally a woman who knows what she doesn’t want. And I’m not on that list.
I learn more about being a man from a man who isn’t being one than I ever did from those who were. Her soon-to-be ex-husband’s got himself convinced that the trouble with their marriage, and thus the trouble now with their impending divorce, has everything to do with her and nothing to do with him. He’s a forty-year old recovering pothead, a skater punk who never grew up, unemployed and living with his mother, a born-again woman with little love for her former daughter-in-law and no eyes to see what her son has been and still is and maybe always will be. He’s also filled with a tempestuous rage no Jonas could ever calm, part medical, part mental, a sufferer of both bipolar disorder and “small-man’s disease,” the latter caused by being physically smaller than the pack and feeling the need to prove your toughness, your manliness. Unlike mellow potheads the world over, the dope riled his mood-swinging self up, and so, already pissed, he grew even more so and directed his rage toward his wife who was slowly killing herself in a constant attempt to make him well. He contacts her a dozen times a day, leaving voicemails and sending text messages, not to check up on his son, but to berate and belittle her.
Her son, at times, is a spitting image of his father. Just five years old, his favorite words are “idiot,” “freak,” “stupid,” and “hate.” Fond of light sabers and pirate swords, he wields them with impunity, and when he can’t get to them because his mother has placed all potential weapons on top of the fridge, he resorts to his fists and his feet, punching and kicking and tossing his favorite words like daggers into the air. “You’re an idiot,” he says. Punch. “You’re a freak,” he says. Kick. “You’re stupid,” he says. Punch. “I’ll hate you forever,” he says. And on it goes, the little guy working himself into such a rage he loses the ability to speak and simply screams instead. He thinks the whole world is out to get him and is as hard on himself as he is on his mother, calling himself “stupid” at the slightest mistake.
I don’t see much of this—really see it—at first, of course. She’s upfront with me about her soon-to-be ex-husband and his problems, but she hasn’t yet gained the proper perspective to see what’s going on with her child, and so when he occasionally says he hates me or attacks me with a sword all she can say is, “I’m sorry: he’s five,” as if that explains it. For now, for her, it does. And for the most part, it does for me as well. But as the months go by and I spend more and more time with her and her son, I bear witness to what is starting to become a never-ending barrage of verbal abuse (often but not always coupled with physical aggression). I measure his tantrums against those of my friends’ children, which I’ve seen many times, and the only similarity I find is the depth of the emotion behind the outburst.
He scares me, this raging little five-year-old, even more so because when he’s not talking trash and hitting out at whomever’s in reach, he’s a great kid, funny and loving and creative, innocent and sweet, and I can’t help but think of the man he will become if only his father would stop fucking him up. But what can I do? “It’s none of my business,” I tell myself, and I try not to think about it when I lie alone at night waiting for sleep and wishing she was there beside me, but I hardly ever succeed. When the phone calls start rolling in, she turns to me for comfort, and I hold her and listen to her talk and offer support but never say what’s really on my mind—that I see no reason to believe her husband’s behavior and actions towards her will change once their divorce is finalized; that the excuse that her son is five doesn’t hold any water; that if she doesn’t do something to alter his behavior now he will go from an angry toddler to an even angrier teenager hell-bent on hurting anyone in his path, including himself.
There’s nothing in this woman that deserves any of this shit. I see their future as a carbon copy of their past, forever tied to the anchor of a man too selfish, too bitter, too full of rage and frustration, to realize the consequences of his actions. And if this is their future, what then of my own? “Better men than me have walked away from far less,” I tell myself.
“If this is all too much for you, I understand,” she tells me. “If you don’t want to deal with this, just pull the band aid off quick.” But I don’t want to lose her. If, as Flannery O’Connor believed, a good man is hard to find, then the same is true about finding a good woman. And I’ve found one—a great one.
Six months after we first met and after a lot of foot-dragging and nasty phone calls and text messages and threats of refusing to sign the papers from her husband, her divorce is finalized, but the drama rolls on. During our Spring Break at the university where we both teach, we meet her husband at a halfway point in Virginia and hand over her son for a week. Afterward, on the six-hour drive home, she is subjected to numerous angry calls from her ex-husband, and when she finally refuses to answer the phone, to angry text messages, all of which turn her into a jumbled mess of tears and worry, fear and sadness.
To distract her from the mess she claims she’s made of her life, I tell her for the first time in detail about the mess I made of my own before we met, of how I fell for a Christian fundamentalist girl-woman and spent the next five years being dragged deeper and deeper into the muck of her family’s Christian Right Hell. A high school teacher by profession, this girl-woman belonged more in the rows of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in their small desks than she did behind the big desk at the front of the room; indeed, the last time I saw the inside of her bedroom door, it was still pasted over with magazine cut-outs of hunky movie stars and bare-chested jeans models she had hung there as a teenager even though she was two months away from her twenty-eighth birthday. A triune controlled her life, but it didn’t consist of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Instead, her family, the Bible (literally interpreted but only by piecemeal), and Fox News called her every shot, especially her family, especially her domineering mother and sister, who made sure she had no time to invest in our relationship. This triune dictated when she could move out (when she’d earned enough money for a down payment on a house of her own); when she could have sex (not until she was married); who she could vote for (Republicans only); whether or not she could take the medicine a doctor prescribed for her bronchitis (she could, but only after much debate); when she could spend time with me (only when her mother and sister were busy); what movies she couldn’t watch (nothing by Michael Moore); who she could have romantic relationships with (in theory, only fellow fundamentalists); and what wars she could support (all American ones, no matter the casualties, no matter the cause). And because this triune ruled her roost, I slowly allowed it to rule mine as well.
No, she never beat the shit out of me, but, by her refusal to be her own person and her insistence that I give up my personhood as well, she abused me all the same.
“For five years with this woman,” I tell her as we drive, “I never got to be a man. I never got to be a man because her family wouldn’t let her be a woman. All this shit you’re going through, all this shit I have to go through to be with you—it’s shit, yeah, but at least it’s adult shit. I can handle adult shit. And so can you.”
The next weekend, she goes alone to Virginia to retrieve her son, where her ex-husband screams at her and repeats his now standard litany of how she’s fucking up their son. Never mind the fact that as he rages and calls her a “fucking bitch” their son is witness to it all. Never mind the fact that for the first four and a half years of his life her son bore witness to hundreds of similar scenes of verbal abuse. Never mind the fact that she suspects he may be using again, that he might be high right now. In his mind, she is to blame for everything, always was, and always will be.
Her son, upon return, is a nightmare of rage and confusion. I can tell he’s worse than usual, but, more importantly, so can his mother. “Is he different since he got back?” she text-messages me a few nights after their return. “Or am I just finally seeing what’s always been there?”
“A bit of both,” I reply. The next night, a regular babysitter comments on his behavior and attitude, as does the woman who runs the daycare. That night, we talk long and hard about the most important thing in her life: her son. I tell her everything I’ve wanted to tell her but didn’t think it my place to. She calls a local non-profit organization that deals with abused women and children. She meets with her therapist, who specializes in children, and schedules a series of sessions for her son. She treats him as she always has, with nothing but love, but now with an added dose of preventive and corrective parenting. Her ex-husband keeps giving her Hell, but for the first time in ten years of dealing with the man, she doesn’t back down or give in. If she only sensed what was at stake when she decided to leave him, she now knows it with all her beautiful heart.
In the days ahead, there will be more bullshit and drama. There may be the legal battle she hoped to avoid when she settled for an 85/15 split of custody. There will be things that neither of us can anticipate. I don’t know what will happen to us, to her, to her son. All I know for sure is a man—a real man—doesn’t do this to a woman, any woman, and he certainly doesn’t do it to his child. Obviously, it takes a man to know this, and, right now, her child’s father is no such thing.
But what about the child himself? What does he know? What can he know at age five? It will be years before he will be old enough to understand that the words his father used to explain why his parents were getting divorced—“Mommy doesn’t love Daddy anymore”—weren’t an explanation at all, only another attempt to shift the blame to the child’s mother. At what age will he realize something every parent and teacher knows, that it’s usually the kid who’s quickest to point the finger at somebody else who actually performed the misdeed? And, when he does, will he be able to apply that knowledge to his own world, to his present, to his future, and, most importantly, to his past? Will he come to know his father’s failings and strive for something different for himself and for his family? Will he become the man his father might never be?
This man will do all he can to see that he does.
Jon Pershing is the pseudonym of a writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Inside Higher Ed, Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen, Artichoke Haircut, Ray’s Road Review, and Lunch Ticket.
Read our interview with Jon here.