I haven’t been smiling much lately. There are moments, like with my niece Katarina’s loud facial expressions tonight, where I can’t help but laugh out loud. Or when I finally caught the elusive Lapras in Pokémon Go this weekend at Gloucester Point and I giggled with glee. Or when three of my students fell asleep on stage after their semester exam, and I gave in to letting their classmates snap silly pictures.
There are moments when joy is genuine. It’s been that way with Katarina Joy and her twin Theresa since I held them in my arms when they were just a week old. They were wrapped in the afghans I had crocheted for them. I don’t think I just imagined that Kat resembled me as a baby, and I was drawn to her in an uncanny way. Knowing how I longed to be a mother, my sister-in-law was generous. She let me “co-mother”, as she coined it, including me as a vested stakeholder with the girls.
I relished the chance to learn how to be a mother of an infant first-hand from someone I have come to respect as one of the strongest and most resilient women I know. Gabrielle is fervent in faith, friends, and family. She truly loves and passionately serves her elementary students at school. For the first year and a half in Hampton, it was three nights a week, like clockwork. I’d come help with dinner, cleanup, and bedtime routines, then scoot off to prepare for school or writing or my ex-boyfriend’s visits from out of town.
We used to see each other only every other weekend when he’d drive down from New York. I’d picked him up in what I’m sure we both intended to be a rebound relationship after my divorce during my pit stop to Syracuse while I figured out my next step. When the twins were in utero, that next step became Hampton. I started over with one foot firmly planted approximately 540 miles behind me.
I thought that straddling two worlds was easy with him. We’d planned to give it six months or so, and if he didn’t make the move, we’d part ways. It wasn’t easy for him. He’d have to give up his friends, figure out custody arrangements for his daughter, find a new career. It was easy for me. This was my new life, and someday, he would either join me in it or I would carry on without him. I lived my life accordingly, fully, without regret. I made friends, had Thursday night dates with Angel, and developed relationships with people here during the week and on the weekends.
I teach my students to find the “or” in an argumentative writing prompt. It’s a signal that there are two sides. Two possible claims. Two columns. For example, is a curfew a good idea or a bad idea? Find the “or”. Head one column with “Good idea” and another with “Bad idea”. List the support you have for each, and choose the side with the stronger argument. When they ask if they can argue for a compromise between the two sides (for example: there should be a curfew, but it should only be enforced on weeknights), I caution them strongly against it. Why?
Because the idea may seem easy, but straddling two sides is risky. You have to avoid paradoxes and contradictions to develop a sound argument that doesn’t seem wishy-washy. You have to find the commonalities in the two sides of the argument, and begin with the common ground. While I advise my kids to pick a side, looking back, I realize the overwhelming amount of subconscious planning that must have been involved in balancing that long-term relationship straddling act.
He would either move to Hampton or I would carry on without him. It would be him or me. In either column, my location was the same. For what turned into nine months, I lived, quite fulfilled and contentedly, in a state of uncertainty. I couldn’t count on him resolving his affairs and making the move for me, so I racked up support for my column as long as it didn’t contradict support for his. Finding a church home, making friends, connecting at work, and spending lots of time with my brother’s family fit quite naturally into the flow of our every other weekend relationship.
He didn’t move to Hampton, and I had a wonderful life here to cushion me. Angel got me out of the house with friends on countless occasions, such that I remember the heartbreak as dim in light of a summer of beach days and rollercoasters and water parks and live bands and red wine.
Why should this matter now, a year and a half later? I didn’t want to live a paradox, so I balanced my argument carefully back then. It was one that favored me. It was hard to execute but easy to maintain. I wasn’t certain about him, but I was certain about everything else. There was only one variable, so I lived the compromise I so adamantly oppose to my students.
This matters because, as I realize that I must have done it then, I have to realize that I am, also, doing it now. Again. With Charming. Only this time, if we work out, I will be the one to pack up and start over.
If we work out. What are the two sides? It was clear with my ex-boyfriend. He moved or he didn’t move. The uncertainty of my current existence is made manifold by countless variables, all contingent upon a decision that is not mine to make. If Charming decides that I am meant to be his, then I will have to leave Hampton. If he decides I am not, then I will stay.
I have no power to affect that decision, and yet, I jointly realize that something has to change. Because I have structured my life around the column that I believed most benefited me: the column where he chooses me, and I give up this life for one we’ll share together in a different place with a different job and different people that I don’t really know yet.
Looking back at the last few months, I see more character development in TV shows than I do in my own life. Gradually, I’ve withdrawn, and maybe I’m only just now becoming aware of the damage my current straddling act has been doing. It’s futile, wondering what divine intervention might sway Charming toward forever and always with me. But my children are in that forever and always. My family.
In two weeks’ time I’ll be thirty-four. Call it a situational depression that’s kept me home at nights, unwilling or unable to commit to social engagements. Charming comes here one weekend. We work during the week. I go there the next weekend. Rinse and repeat for nearly seventeen months. That’s two different sets of routines, places, family, friends, and churches.
And in one column, the one where Charming chooses me, I’ll transition smoothly into his world. I’m not afraid of starting over again, especially with him. What I fear is what’s in the second column, the one where he doesn’t choose me. I get it. I see it in the way I’ve pulled away from colleagues and friends and the fact that I just can’t pick a church home. The more invested I am here, the more painful it will be to leave. I know. I’ve done it twice in four years. It wears on you.
And I see it when I hold Katarina Joy. And even when I decline a chance to see her and her siblings because on that particular day, the heartbreaking, aching, empty longing to have a family is too vast. That seeing her and holding her would land me surely in a pit of self pity comforted only by Netflix and a frozen pizza.
So, I see two things tonight. I see in the unbalanced columns that something has to change, and since I can’t count on an impending marriage proposal in the near future, that change will have to start with me. I don’t have a plan yet. This occurred to me only in the last hour, after all. It’s enough for now that I see the need to build some support for the column where he doesn’t choose me.
And the second thing I realized is that I can still smile. She’s not my daughter, but Katarina Joy is certainly my baby. There’s something reflected back in her expression that’s like a promise I can’t explain. It gives me hope, and it makes me smile in spite of everything else.