Setting My Past on Fire 5:
I had driven the route hundreds of times. The roughly 110 miles of I-69 between Fort Wayne and Indy was like a well-worn path in my mind. Every mile. Every exit. Timed to the exact minute. Ninety minutes of corn, soybeans and the occasional hint of civilization, a painted water tower, the de facto calling card for small towns dotting northeast Indiana. It had been years since I’d been back here, and it was strangely familiar and yet uncomfortably foreign. Flatter. Smaller. More isolated from the rest of world than I had ever known it to be. My past. My new life. Like two strange worlds, never meant to simultaneously coexist, now colliding. For weeks, I had reminisced bittersweetly about the 20 years Jennair and I had spent here. And now, faced with the reality of it, it scared the hell out of me.
I had come here only to visit a few friends, before landing who knows where. But, as Jennair and I had done each time we had gone back to Indiana, a drive-by visit to the house we had left behind eight years before was just too hard to resist. As I made my way through the strangely familiar streets of Carmel, a random sight, the BMV, sparked an unexpected memory from 1997.
We sat there together in the rows of painfully uncomfortable plastic chairs, waiting to register Jennair’s dream car, a tricked-out Nissan Pathfinder, a luxury we couldn’t afford. Nor could she resist having. Nor could I tell her she couldn’t have. She wanted so much to believe, or at least appear wildly successful and blissfully happy. And so there we were, the SUV, and the debt that came with it, now ours. With the number we had drawn to mark our place in the cue, we knew it was going to be a while. Settling in, Jennair laid her head sweetly on my shoulder, prompting two bright smiles from the elderly couple sitting next to us. “You know what the secret to happiness is?” the man asked me.
“Tell me,” I replied, turning toward him and leaning in, so not to miss a word.
“Every morning I roll over and tell her, ‘I love you. You are beautiful. And you are the most important thing in the world to me.” His wife looked at me, nodding in confirmation.
“That’s sweet,” I said. Jennair lifted her head and stared lovingly at me without saying a word.
The next morning, the light peeking through the window, we both began to stir. I looked over at my wife and then covered my mouth with my hand to save her the shock of my morning breath. “I love you,” I said. “You are beautiful. And you are the most important thing in the world to me.” She beamed to life and kissed my cheek.
I repeated that phrase every morning for weeks. Maybe even months. And it worked. Until it didn’t. Soon Jennair once again returned to asking the same question, multiple times a day. “Do you still love me?”
“Of course I do,” I’d say.
“Are you sure?” she’d ask.
“Yes,” I’d reply, taking a deep breath. As mildly frustrating as it was, I had grown accustomed to her insecurities for years. I encouraged her to reach out to friends. “Go out. Have a good time. Call Missy,” an old high school friend who lived not too far from us in Indy.
“No. She needs to call me,” she’d say.
Frustrated by her stubbornness, I picked up the phone one day and, and as awkward as it felt, I called Missy and asked her to call Jennair. “Don’t tell her I asked, obviously,” I pleaded with her.
“Guess who I spoke to today,” Jennair asked, almost giddy, when I came home from work the next day. And then she gushed for 30 minutes about her conversation with her old friend. For days, that simple phone call made her a completely different person. Confident. Happy. Until it didn’t. For the next 20 years of our married life, the routine continued. Rarely did we ever see old friends, because Jennair didn’t want to, and making new friends was almost unthinkable. Friends, it seemed, were intrusions on our marriage. In Jennair’s mind, it should have been enough that we had each other. Despite wanting something different, I just accepted it. And it became our normal.
I know now that I enabled her and the life we shared in near isolation was not a healthy life, no matter how much I told myself I was happy. Deep down the resentment festered inside me. Until it didn’t.
Strange how driving past that BMV had brought back such a simple memory, but one that triggered a cascade of unsettling thoughts about my 24-year marriage to the woman who’d shattered my life with two bullets.
I spent the next two days in Indy, sharing drinks and stories with old friends and colleagues. And as much as I enjoyed it, a bittersweet feeling came over me as I drove out of town, vowing never to repeat the mistakes and shortcomings of my past. There’s something indescribably wonderful about promising someone to spend the rest of your lives together and basking in each other’s company. But there’s also something indescribably lonely about living only in that company, as if a solitary confinement that invites no other lives, no other joys.
That elderly couple at the BMV had seen us, had reached out to join us in that sterile setting, if only for a moment, sharing a sliver of their lives with us, brightening our day. It was a small act, but an act we weren’t allowed as we wrapped every bit of our hearts and lives around each other and shut out the world.
In the end, it wasn’t a life that I could afford to live any longer. And in the end, it was the only life my wife could imagine in order to feel loved.