How does a woman cope with not being number one?
“If you could have anyone in the world for a boyfriend who would it be?” One of the most crucial questions of every girl I knew. In notes passed between desks and magic eight ball wishes. It could be anyone. It had to be someone.
Who do you want to love you?
Most of us in grade school thought the boys in our class were gross. So our answers were always the most unreachable ones. Scott Baio. Ralph Macchio. The Other Guy from Wham! If you were cute and could be thumb-tacked to a wall, you would do.
As we grew older we replaced celebrities with real boys whose unreachableness depended only on age and/or popularity. Lance from the skating rink because he was old enough to have a full-time job. Jason with the Nova and the slutty girlfriend we all hated. Any foreign exchange student whose accent sounded like a kiss.
Young love requirements are simple. Is he taller than me? Does he have nice eyes? Does he like Metallica but knows all the words to “Hungry Like the Wolf”? No one ever sat around a truth-or-dare circle at a slumber party and asked who we didn’t want for a boyfriend.
I guess I was lucky because I always knew the answer to that question.
“I never want to fall in love with a married man.” I said this one night in Carly Houseman’s shed when a bunch of us girls had been summoned to a meeting to discuss her first make out session with Robbie Gomez. I was 12.
“Well, duh, Traci.”
“How stupid is that?”
“A married man would be totally nuts.”
They were all right of course—in a way, but what they didn’t know, what I couldn’t tell them, was the thing that had been familiar to me for most of my life: My mother was a mistress to a married man with a family.
I hate that word. Mistress. It brings up images of roadside motels, Glenn Close’s boiling rabbit, and all the things we didn’t dare write in our book reports on the Scarlett Letter.
…Maybe I’ll get an F for saying this, but Hester Prynne wasn’t a bad woman. She fell in love with someone else because her husband was totally high maintenance.
My mother hated the word too. “Girlfriend,” she would say. “Jesus, Traci. We aren’t living in medieval times.”
Unfortunately the stigmas attached to those sad and wicked impressions weren’t as far-fetched as she would have liked me to believe. The truth is, my mother was the woman certain family members talked about. Righteous friends had walked out of her life with their little grievances of no longer being able to trust her. The Other Woman. The Great Waiter of something that would never come.
Her affair with Frank began just before my parent’s divorced finalized. One of those we-haven’t-been-in-love-for-a-long-time divorces. My mother was a sexy, intelligent woman. A sort of Cher meets Natalie Wood type who, I certainly thought, could’ve had her pick of any man. Why she chose an unavailable co-worker who said he was staying in his marriage for his children, I will never be able to answer.
Does anyone really get to choose who they fall in love with? From watching my mother’s devotion to Frank, from my own failed marriages and the good men my insecurities pushed away—and the bad ones those same self-doubts told me I needed—the opportunity to find a solution to that tricky question would present itself to me in so many ways, it would take more than 20 years to decipher. But when you’re young, all the rights and wrongs about love and sex usually come from the women assigned to supply you with the necessary tools a girl needs to make good relationship decisions. If my mother loved a man who is married, it can’t be all that bad.
I hardly remember a time when Frank was not in our lives. First as my mom’s friend from work who sometimes gave her rides home or stopped by our house to drop off invoices and office stuff. Later when my parents divorced, and it became more and more apparent to me and my siblings that friends from work don’t usually go on weekend trips to the beach, Frank became a frequent and welcomed guest in our home. I don’t recall how my older sister, brother, and I found out Frank was married, but we all knew.
I was 9, full of Judy Blume and General Hospital when I asked my mother if she and Frank were sleeping together.
“We are,” she said. Nothing in her voice or expression told me it was wrong.
When I asked her if Frank was also sleeping with his wife she told me there are things in this life better left unknown. This confused me. This also meant probably, but asking if it was wrong for married people to have sex with people they weren’t married to never occurred to me. My books and soap operas said it was—my mother’s indifference said it wasn’t.
Case somewhat closed.
No one wants to think of their mother as a homewrecker. To me Frank’s wife was a woman who lived in another town. Possibly another world. We never saw her, never even knew her name. From my persistent questions about this far-away ghost woman, I found out she was, “Super Catholic,” but that’s where that ended. If you can’t see the home that’s being wrecked, it simply isn’t.
For my 11th birthday, Frank came to my party and handed me a Wonder Woman card with a hundred dollar bill inside. When my parents separated we struggled hard with money so of course that birthday gift was an instant green light to demand that my mother marry Frank as soon as possible.
“I don’t ever want to hear you say ‘marry’ again,” she told me. “And for Christ’s sake don’t you dare say that in front of Frank.”
I asked her why she and Frank didn’t want to be married, but her reply would require me having to be in love and out of love many times before I could make sense of it. “You can’t always control who you fall in love with,” she said. “If Frank and I were married it would ruin everything. We love each other too much.”
As a teenager and young woman, rarely did I find it difficult to separate sex from love. You could sleep with boys you liked, though maybe it was better with someone who liked you back. If you love a boy, you slept with only him, and if you loved him long enough—if you happen to get pregnant like I did—you convinced yourself he’s the only one for you, and then you get married.
But how was it possible for two people to love each other too much?
Sometimes I wondered if this whole business of not wanting marriage to ruin Frank and my mother’s too much love was her way of convincing herself she didn’t really want what she knew she could never have. I don’t remember ever coming right out and asking my mother if she was lonely—she didn’t seem to be, but when I was old enough to know the pain of loving someone who can’t be in your life, I felt hopelessly sorry for her. How does a woman cope with not being number one?
Observing my mother’s life with Frank—though mostly the parts without him—showed me many important lessons I would need to truly understand what I wanted from a love affair. I often admired my mom, sometimes to the point of envy. I couldn’t imagine the difficulties of maintaining the kind of patience and apathy required to hold onto a love that isn’t one hundred percent. Also, if my mother and Frank could do it for over 16 years, maybe it was true what she said, that we can’t control who we love. Maybe some of us are meant to be happy only in our navigations of how we love.
Frank and my mother did seem genuinely happy together. He had been a steady presence in my life since I was 4. We never saw them fight or claim their roles in the emotional distance that was an absolute in my parents’ marriage. Then again, my mother was never given the chance to be absolutely anything other than the woman Frank couldn’t—or wouldn’t—marry.
Complete love must have its boundaries. At least that’s what I saw. That’s what I was told. A strange yet altruistic concept that would take years of me blurring those boundaries to grasp.
I was 17 when my mother died from a sudden illness. Frank was one of the people I was in charge of calling to give directions to the funeral home. With all the sincerity of a father who had lost the mother of his children, a man who had lost his best friend, Frank told me over and over again how sorry he was. He said he felt as if his own life had also ended. “But your mother and I made a promise to each other that we would never attend one another’s funeral,” he told me.
That seemed ridiculous to me. Frank had been with my mother through some of the most significant moments of her life. The depression that had cost her friends and jobs. Planning and even helping to pay for her oldest daughter’s wedding. He took me out to dinner “just to check in” when the biggest things in my teenage life were Edgar Allan Poe and therapy. He held my mother on the porch swing the night she cried when her son left for the Army, and when her mother almost died of a heart attack. I could not imagine Frank not being there to say his last goodbyes.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Frank continued. “I really thought your mom had told you about all this.” He went on to say both he and my mother agreed attending one another’s memorial services wouldn’t have been right. “We promised not to see each other in death,” he said. “I don’t know if you can understand this, sweetheart, but we just loved each other too much.”
There it was again. That cloudy paradox of emotion versus responsibility. Yet only five years later I would be smack dab in the middle of those gray areas, and I would have to get the hell over my opinions on right and wrong.
When I divorced my first husband I jumped right into a six month affair with a man who was separated but still living with the woman he had been married to for seven years. Nick and his wife didn’t have children. They didn’t own a home or a business. They didn’t even have a pet—all those marriage things that could hold reason for an unhappy man to stay. Nick was a first-year English teacher at an inner city high school. An intelligent and gentle man who was constantly struggling to gain the respect of his students and fit in with his coworkers. Emotionally, I could understand why it would be difficult for him to add the strains of divorce to his already fragile sense of self. Our stolen moments together were composed of so much more than just passionate sex. We both loved books, museums, and film studies. We also shared the scares of relationships that had fallen into the ruins of silence and contempt.
When we hit our half-year mark, my roommate moved out, and I felt there was no better time for Nick and I to start a life together. But there was always something in the way. A death in his wife’s family. A cousin who moved in with him to start over after a house fire. Nick wasn’t happy with his teaching job, then he developed an ulcer that needed surgery. Yet at every unstable turn, there we were, trying to find our version of stability, in love and crumbled hotel sheets. Me supporting his need for someone to be there. Him unknowingly supporting my decision to grow the fuck up. For the first time in my life, I decided to end a relationship I had so desperately wanted.
Nick knew the story of Frank and my mother. I told him how much it hurt me to watch her go to bed alone every night, to see my father move on in a new marriage while my mother continued her peripheral place in the life of a man she loved too much.
On our last night together he asked me if this was the thing I was afraid of. “Being loved too much?”
At the time I told him no, but something about his astute observation bothered me for many years after Nick was gone. It would take two more marriages, two more chances for me to accept all of the good and terrible parts of who I am when I’m in a relationship. I could, without a doubt, choose who I fall in love with. I could do it by leaving. Whether or not my mother and Frank’s agreement to never be married was simply her accepting something she couldn’t have, loving a married man takes a certain kind of confidence and selflessness I knew I could never possess. It wasn’t the too much part that scared me, but the not being enough when I knew what it felt like to be only halfway in a man’s life.
Maybe admitting I’d rather be alone than settle for second place, that realizing I do not have enough of the qualities my mother had to feel complete in a love affair that, to me, seemed incomplete, is a kind of strength in itself. I don’t know, but if my mother were alive today, I would like to think she would tell me it is.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD(Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. Her second memoir Love and Xanax will be released by Summertime Publications (Summer 2016) Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.