It’s August in Northern Virginia, hot and humid. I still haven’t showered from my morning trail run. I’m wearing my stay-at-home mom uniform — over-sized Marine Corps sweats, tshirt, Crocs flip flops, ponytail. I feel safe in this uniform. It doesn’t hug any part of my body, allowing me to hide my physical failures.
In this uniform I can pretend I’m acceptable, tolerable. It says I did something today, I tried. This look combined with toilets I scrubbed until they shine sends the message “I’m not a lazy pig, I’m valuable. Please keep me.” This uniform is enough to make up for my lack of lipstick and style. It walks the line between disgusting and acceptable.
So far, it’s been enough that my husband is still willing to initiate sex with me once a month. The kind of sex you have because you need to feel worthy. The kind that lets him know you need him. Unfulfilling but purposeful.
It’s dinner time, so I’m busy in the kitchen slicing tomatoes and onions on the cutting board that I was instructed was to be used exclusively with the very expensive Shun knives I received as a Christmas present.
He comes in from the deck with a plate of hot burgers.
My gut said something was off. I pursued because I’m the pursuer. I went to him, hugged him, stepped back, my hands still on his shoulders, looked in his eyes and said “Is everything okay? Are we okay?”
I know the answer. I always know the answer. I just didn’t know what it would be this time. Is this one forgivable? Can I patch it up again? It’s like a tire with a slow leak. You fill it with air and when it lasts longer than you expect, you just keep driving on it. But eventually the tire goes flat and you’re no longer able to get the car to the repair shop. This — us — cannot get to a place of fixing.
“I told myself I’d tell you if you asked.”
No. No. Please, no.
“There’s this woman from my past… We reconnected during our family trip to San Diego… I thought she’d brush me off again… We started talking… She makes me feel alive.”
I could feel the panic consume my body. I hate this place. It feels so shameful. I know I’ll do anything. I always do anything.
“Is it serious? Please don’t do this. We can fix it. We can make it work. What can I do? How can I make it better? Please let me make it better.”
I beg. I have no pride. I know this about me. He also knows this about me. This is who I am at my core — a desperate woman. A burden. I’m ashamed. Scared. Embarrassed. Angry that I let this happen. This is my doing. I created this. I could be better, but I’m not. I’m a loser, posing as a winner.
Our marriage was built on fear, and then thrived on it for 20 years. When he proposed, he knew this would guarantee his dying mother’s last wish — to experience being a grandmother in her lifetime. He could avoid his fear of disappointing the woman he’d christened a saint — flawless.
And when I accepted his proposal, our binding contract assured me that I would not give away another baby as I’d done six years earlier — this one would become mine. I’d create the family I’d dreamed about for nearly fifteen years, when my dad left me, my mom, our family without a word. Marrying a Marine would bring an exciting, nomadic life wrapped in a tightly confined package of government-backed security.
Now, nearly two decades later, I’ve worn my marriage and family as a medal around my neck — hefty and shiny. I tuck it in my shirt, because it’s not nice to flaunt your wins, but whenever the opportunity presents, I quickly, often self-righteously, pull out that medal and let it shine. But I know the truth about my medal. Every time I pull it out, the shirt rubs a little more of the gold plating off and my neck is green from the cheap metal underneath. My whole marriage is made of cheap metal.
I continue to beg. He continues to be angry and disgusted.
I obsess about the plate of burgers sitting on the counter getting cold.
This was not the plan. We were going to eat burgers — the burgers that needed the buns I asked him to grab on his way home from work. The buns he bought with deep resentment because he shouldn’t have to do this. The buns he put on the counter filled with anger because, for fuck’s sake, he earns all the money, now he has to do everything at home?
Until now, I pretended the anger and resentment wasn’t there. I was happy to swallow my burger with a helping of self-hatred.
The plate is still sitting there. Can’t we just eat the goddamn burgers and get back to the business of posing?
We will not eat the burgers.
The winning has stopped.
My shirt was off and everyone — friends, family, the kids — saw my worn medal and green, stained neck.
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