I trembled at the altar in front of my future husband, Max, who wore a smart black tuxedo. His gentle, brown skinned, West Indian face was full of an authoritative joy. His kind, wide dark eyes were partly masked by thick framed glasses. He was broad shouldered and full bellied. My own skin was pale against my black eyes and hair, which was pulled up in an elegant French twist. At twenty-six I looked like a china doll in my long off-white wedding gown.
We were getting married in an evening ceremony, in a stunning, brightly lit Unitarian church in my hometown in Northern Florida. The Unitarian church was the only venue we could find to marry us because Max was Catholic and I was Southern Baptist.
Night fell heavy over the sprawling southern church yard. My attention was torn between the hopeful faces of guests at our backs and the broad, uncurtained, floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a bundle of low dipping oak trees before us. The limbs of the oaks whipped up frantically, slapping at the glass in a pending storm. I was afraid that night. Not of marriage, but of my own long standing psychological hurdles that I didn’t fully understand or know how to shake at such a young age. These hurdles took the form of my feeling the night was calling me personally into darkness, that I didn’t belong in the world of light that surrounded me, and ultimately that some invisible, ominous thing, was coming for me. Instead of feeling elation in joining my life with Max, I was dropping my eyes to my clear polished nails in an attempt to emotionally ground myself in the room.
I couldn’t look too directly at Max. I’d avoided his eyes most of the week before the wedding too. He was the only person who could look into my eyes and sense when I was slipping into some separate, paranoid, frantic place. I didn’t want the odd things about me to ruin such an important night for him. I knew he needed to feel like he wasn’t making a mistake in marrying me. This understanding came from many discussions about how I was supposed to act, and how I was supposed to feel in different life situations. He’d desperately needed me to get my shit together. There was also the added problem of my not being able to blend well into Max’s sophisticated world after having been raised in serious poverty in a low part of town.
Raised in Brooklyn, with parents from the Islands, Max was worldly and accomplished. By his early thirties he’d already held a powerful position in a prominent law firm. He was moving toward a future in politics, while I struggled with introductory classes at the Community College.
In our courting years, Max took my hand, pulling me to him with tenderness, brushing my hair back from my face, kissing my forehead without needing a reason. He’d call me over to his couch and ask if I’d like to sit next to him while he read or watched TV. When I was too shy to dance, he put Bob Marley’s, three little birds, on the stereo, standing me on his feet, holding me to him while he danced for the both of us until we fell apart laughing. He took me to poetry bars, laid blank paper and pens between us, having us write back and forth to each other in those smoky, darkened spaces. I wanted to be a writer. He nurtured that in me.
The real problem for us was that none of what Max did built a solid foundation between us, or helped me to build a foundation within myself where I could be a worthwhile partner in our mutual lives. I’d grown up with a fist-swinging mother who slurred profanities in my direction, and was subjected to a revolving door of random men. She bartended nights for years of my early childhood, leaving them as sitters creeping into my bed, covering my mouth, shushing me. I was too young when it all started to know how to stop it. And, by the time I was old enough to understand that what was happening to me didn’t happen to everyone, it was too late to figure out how to form the word, no.
That life was swift as a river rushing out ahead of me, closing me in. A person had to become an Olympian swimmer or drown. I became an Olympian by hiding from sexual encounters, by propping chairs against my bedroom door, and by nine years old, taking on complex conversations when cornered where I’d explain to a guy that I didn’t want to help him cheat on my mother; a woman who said she’d never be able to keep a man in her life as long as I was around.
I suffered from severe depression, dissociation and post-traumatic-stress for years before I met Max. I didn’t know about getting help, or the possibility of healing from severe sexual trauma. I spent most of my early adult life after I’d finally run away from my mother at seventeen, cautious and afraid I was just a step away from one more dangerous encounter with a man.
With my biology forever altered by my past, when Max kissed my forehead, I couldn’t feel it. When he asked me to sit with him on the couch while he read or watched TV, I wasn’t comfortable with the closeness. When he danced with me to, Three Little Birds, and we’d let go laughing, I’d leave the room as soon as I could get away from him because intimacy confused me. And when Max wrote back and forth with me in smoky darkened spaces, I wasn’t honest about how unwell I was. I didn’t know how to be, and I, just like Max did, hoped I would someday be better.
Before our wedding, Max decided we should write our own vows. I reluctantly agreed, because in the three years we’d been together I’d come to learn that birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and anniversaries were the times when Max would become more acutely aware of how disconnected I was as a partner. He’d become despondent, and depressed after some hurtful, thoughtless blow, like my forgetting a special occasion, or, if I happened to remember an occasion, I wouldn’t know how to make it special enough. He on the other hand made a spectacular to do of all possible occasions to celebrate me and our lives together. There were fine dinners, and beautiful, specially chosen gifts. This was love to Max, he was good at it, while the overt attention made me uncomfortable. So, when the prospect of writing our vows came up, my first thought was that Max loved me more than I loved him, because Max actually knew what love was, and this truth wouldn’t go unnoticed in front of a room full of people. I knew he would see me far more clearly than he would’ve wanted to, on the worst possible of occasions.
I felt crowded at the altar. The pastor had forgotten to ask the guests to sit when the ceremony began. With a jittery stomach I recited my simple speech first. Max smiled indulgently as I mentioned all the appropriate things you might think to say to someone you’re about to spend the rest of your life with. When it was his turn, Max took a step back, waved one arm out toward the standing room, tears formed in his eyes as he began to speak about me in a way that I surely did not deserve. I don’t know how long he spoke. I don’t remember what he said. But people came up to me for weeks and years after telling me how lucky I was to have him for my husband.
It hurt profoundly as I grew older and began to fully comprehend how Max suffered having me for a wife. His patience eventually frayed when I didn’t adapt to even the smallest things he expected of a mate. He needed a certain kind of wife for his career and social aspirations. I had no ability to even pretend to be that person. I’d get into our car at the end of an evening spent with Max and other prominent lawyers, learning to dread the things he’d tell me never to do or say again in public, and, he was right. Cloth napkins lay over your lap in fancy restaurants. Not wadded up next to your plate. And, when asked personal questions about myself, no one really needed to know that my early life was difficult or painful.
When Max had me meet his everyday friends for dinner parties, I stayed silent, uncomfortable, wishing to be home, and we’d end up having to talk about that.
Eventually, I felt I was being tortured by the overstimulation of what Max called living, and I could see how he was becoming worried, sad, and leery in my presence.
In our home I kept my personal belongings in one side of our walk-in closet. Any special memento, figurine, or meaningful book I could have brought out to assimilate my existence, I didn’t. Our home looked like Max’s home. His books were above the fire place. The garage became his office. His medieval sword hung on the wall in the hall.
He’d ask in a hesitant, awkward way, with his deep voice getting a little higher with each word, “Why is it that you don’t become part of the whole house? We’ve been living here for over a year.”
I’d tried convincing him he was imagining things, but he’d have me follow him to my side of the walk-in closet and point out my neatly stacked private boxes. Then came the talks where he’d openly express how frightened he was by my behaviors. I’d nod, only pretending by that time that I seriously believed I’d get better, when what I wanted to say was that I was afraid of how big our house was after growing up in the dark of my mother’s double wide trailer. That our house’s luxurious echoes reminded me that I had nowhere to hide. That its beautiful light stretching in through fancy French doors was exactly the kind of exposure I’d always shielded myself from. That his need for normalcy was no longer just disturbing me, I came to believe it was killing me.
I became deeply depressed for some time, missing the small apartment we’d had before we built the house. Like a helpless kid, I desperately wanted to go back to the place I knew, but there was no way to step back through time. The injustice of it was profound for me, even if my feelings were unreasonable. And, I’d learned to hate myself, believing I would never be well enough, or complete enough, or something enough, to fit whatever it was I was supposed to be that would make Max feel like he had a real partner and wife.
As we stood in front of the pastor and Max slipped the gold band on my finger, I couldn’t see the future. That we’d eventually have a child. That we’d be divorced before my mid-thirties. That he would never forgive me for being a failure at everything that meant something to him. That all the days of my life I’d miss the approval from him I so desperately needed, that I never got.
But the biggest thing I couldn’t have foreseen was that our daughter, Riley, at fifteen, years after Max and my divorce, long after I’d become a college professor, would sit across from me in a coffee shop and ask if her father, Max, had ever cheated on me in the decade we were married.
I set my cup down on its saucer, becoming acutely aware of the low volume classical music filling the elegant room we occupied. I looked at the girl sitting across from me with olive skin and lovely brown spring curls falling down around her face and shoulders. She had her father’s stunning, wide, West Indian eyes, his intense skepticism, his need for things to be just and right.
“I have no way of knowing if your father ever cheated on me, Riley, but I have no reason to believe he did.”
Riley looked relieved, but not surprised. A smile pulled at the corners of her full mouth. She hesitated before asking, “And you, did you cheat on dad?” She pulled back in her seat abruptly, waving her small olive hand in my face, “No, never-mind, I don’t want to know.”
In that same moment a waiter came over to see if we needed anything, freezing us both uncomfortably in his presence. And there was an ache forming in me because I knew my daughter never fully trusted me, because her father never had.
As the waiter walked away, I blurted out, “I could have cheated on him, but I didn’t!”
“No mom. Don’t!”
“No, you asked, and I just want to say this one thing. That I was the kind of person who could have. It just didn’t happen that way.”
“Why would you say that then? Why isn’t no enough?”
“Because I don’t want you to believe life is black or white! I don’t want you judging people when you can’t know what goes on inside another person. There’s no excuse for cheating, certainly. But back then, something being right or wrong had no meaning for me. When I was married to your father, I was a lonely, confused, shell of a person. I was. I didn’t have boundaries. I didn’t know what boundaries were. No one ever had boundaries with me!”
She moved her hands over her ears.
“I just want you to know me! Your mother. The truth. That I could have!” I tried, reaching over, pulling one of her hands down.
“If you cheated on my father I will hate you, and I will never want to see you again!” She wadded up her paper napkin, tossing it next to her plate.
Technically, I wasn’t unfaithful to Max. I lived in a series of emotional affairs with men who were a couple of decades older than I was. It was their steadiness that got me, their gentle way of speaking to me, the way they felt I was courageous and smart to have survived my early life like I did. And these men had so much of life behind them that they didn’t need anything from me. The comfort they offered with their acceptance was an addiction I couldn’t have retreated from if I’d wanted to. Every craving I’d ever had to be thought well of, to be loved, without my having to give sex or intimacy in return was fulfilled.
I’d be seen with different men in restaurants and parks. Word would get back to Max. “An innocent walk,” I’d say,” or, “It was just lunch.” As years went by I cared less and less about how I hurt Max. I hated double standards. He lunched with both men and women, but he couldn’t allow the same for me. Once I asked flat-out, “How is it that you can be close to people, but I can’t be allowed to have close relationships with anyone?” He jabbed his heaving chest repeatedly, “Because, I’m me! That’s why! Because I’d never cheat on you!” And there it was, and he was right, even though the double standard was wrong. He knew what my daughter would never be able to hear. That I was capable of it.
Eventually I got too close to a married man. We were seen together too often. Max confronted me. Standing in our living room he swore that I was in love with the other man. I denied it until Max broke in front of me in a way that I still wish to this day that I’d not had to see. His face lost all its hope. All its innocence. Tears pooled in his eyes. The air in the room grew heavy with his grief. I couldn’t stop myself from admitting my feelings for the other person. But when I assured Max that I did not have, and did not want to have, a sexual relationship with this other guy, he turned on me as he was about to exit the room. He raised his hands to his head, holding tight, and said, “I would have much rather you fucked him! At least I could’ve forgiven you then!”
With the wedding reception ended and all the rice thrown, Max and I stopped at Lake Luca on the way to our hotel. It was a beautiful lake in the center of town bordered by a winding concrete path. We walked, clutching hands, smiling nervously, staring straight ahead into the moonless night. I was happy as I held my dress with my free hand, keeping it from dragging. There was a cool dampness in the air from the earlier passing storm. Streetlamps were dim, dying. Ducks were gracefully sleeping. A vagrant lay passed out on a wooden bench in the distance. I didn’t know at twenty-six that this choice to marry would ruin a huge part of another young person’s life. And after years and years of hating myself for what I did to Max, it took me an equal number of years to learn to forgive myself for not being well enough to be someone’s wife.
We were all just living our lives, I thought. Max, me, the ducks and the vagrant.
Melissa Lewis-Ackerman is a bi-coastal English Professor, dividing time between LA and New York. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. Publications/Awards:
‘Savasana’ (Compose, A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Fall 2017)
‘The Jew Who Loved Me’ (‘Buried’ issue of Claudius Speaks, 2017)
‘Letter To New York’ (Crab Fat Magazine, 2017)
‘White Light’ (Flights, 2015)
“White Light” (Second Place- Sinclair Community College contest for Creative Nonfiction, 2015)
“Seventy” (DUENDE, 2015)
“Clock Towers” (BOOMTOWN, Explosive Writing From Ten Years Of The Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program.)