Sex, Love, and the Middle-aged Mother

My son has a girlfriend. His first serious girlfriend.  They celebrated their one month anniversary this weekend, and I thought of the 372 months I have spent with his father.

372 months.

I fell in love for the first time when I was his age. And it was love–not a crush, not a fantasy, not some facsimile experience. So I don’t tease him or pretend the relationship doesn’t really matter. I know it does.

When I was his age, my boyfriend’s mother treated me with so much respect. She was warm and funny and listened when I talked. She treated me like a member of the family. She cultivated a relationship with me that outlasted my relationship with her son.  As I navigate this new parenting terrain, I think of her and how she handled things. I invite my son’s girlfriend to join us for dinner every weekend. I take them places when they need a ride. I try to be gracious.

But this new relationship stirs feelings I didn’t really anticipate. Until this point all the discussions I’d have with my kids about sex and responsibility and intimacy were theoretical. But now my son is IN a sexual relationship of one degree or another with a young woman and is opening his heart to her.  It’s normal, it’s healthy, it’s inevitable, but it also makes me squirm a bit. This is adult territory he’s venturing into with serious consequences, emotional and physical. And this relationship is just another reminder that my time as Most Important Person in his life is ending. Once again that’s normal, healthy, inevitable, but maybe something that I didn’t expect to face this soon.

Seeing him fall in love reminds me of falling in love. It is beautiful, and for me, sad. I have a loving relationship with my husband, I love him and he loves me, but it has been years since we have been “in love.”  I don’t want to discount the industry of our support for each other, the devotion it expresses, the comfort of our comfort with one another. And yet, it has been a long time since I’ve truly felt loved. Cherished. Irreplaceable.

Remembering what it was like when it was all brand new makes me feel old, used up. I am not a shiny new love. I am well-worn with a patina. Once again, there is value in that, but it makes me sad that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have someone look at me and really see me. LONG to see me. WANT to be with me. LOVE to talk to me. WANT to hear my laughter more than anything else in the world.

At this point in my life, I often feel like a generic, dependable car. I want to be a sports car. 

A friend who is a photographer often posts photos of the weddings she shoots. Sometimes I click through her portfolio and long to be the object of someone’s desire and affection and not just the person who shares the bed and the kitchen and the parenting duties.

A long ramble, not quite fully expressed, about how it feels to see your life winding down as your child’s gears up….

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Remembering M

The phone call came at dinner time. My husband answered the phone. “It’s for you,” he said.

As soon as I heard the voice on the other end, I knew who it was:  P, a former neighbor. She was calling to tell me her husband, M, had died.

The news made me feel sad and guilty.

P and M lived next door to me many years ago. They were old enough to be my parents. P worked in an office and M was retired. I met them when, in a fit of community-minded friendliness, I decided to have a block party at my house and invite everyone on the street even though they were strangers to me.

It was summer and in the late afternoon, storm clouds gathered. It never rained, but there were some distant rumblings. P came to the party by herself, explaining that her husband M was terrified of lightning and loud noises. He’d served in Korea, she told me, and he couldn’t handle storms.  She’d brought ribs to the party, made by M, who was, she told me, a fabulous cook.

P, it turned out, was interesting too. While she looked like a typical overweight American woman in her 60s, I learned that she’d been a belly dancer well into her 50s.  Who would have guessed? M, a retired utility worker, had worked as a jazz club singer on the weekends in his younger years.

I later learned that M, a tall heavy black man, was not African-American as I assumed. He was, in fact, half Italian. His father was an Italian man who married a black woman–a pretty unusual combination. All the children of that union were light-skinned and could “pass” for white, but M was quite dark with African-American hair. He was, he said, the black sheep in his family. I used to joke with him that despite appearances (I’m white), we might be related, as I’m Italian too.

I was friendly with P and M, but I would not say we were close. We didn’t have much in common and didn’t spend a lot of time together or socialize. We’d just occasionally chat when we were outside. I do remember M baking me a birthday cake one year–a Southern pound cake–when he learned it was my birthday. And it seems one time he and P invited me and my son, who was then a toddler, over for lunch when they saw us out in the yard. M wanted us to taste his legendary potato salad.

When M and P moved away, I didn’t expect to have a lot of contact with them. I was surprised when that turned out not to be the case. P wrote me letters, which I dutifully answered. Once in a while she’d call. It seemed they made more of an effort to stay in touch when they moved than when they lived next door. It was nice, but it also struck me as a bit odd.

Eventually,  P and M became computer users and would occasionally read a blog I had at the time. That’s when M started communicating with me on his own. He’d send forwards or short notes. Sometimes the forwarded jokes were off-color. I wasn’t offended by them, but I wasn’t exactly comfortable with them either.

One day I received an e-mail from M about a blog post I’d written, and in the e-mail he confided to me that he found me very sexy and attractive and couldn’t stop thinking about me.

Shit.

How to respond?

I tried using humor in my reply and send a message that would close the door on him taking that conversation any further.

My attempt to derail his confession with silliness wasn’t fully effective. Ugh.

Now I was in a real quandary. I’d already felt that P and M had latched onto me a bit more tightly than seemed warranted. Now I had to deal with the revelation that M was fantasizing about me.

So I tried to put space in the relationship. I wanted to fade out of the picture for them. I responded slowly, if at all, to e-mails. I didn’t initiate any contact. I kept what correspondence that did exist on a superficial level, short in length and short on details.

P was concerned about the change. She’d send letters/e-mails: “What’s going on? We haven’t heard from you? Did you change your e-mail address? Are you still blogging?”

I felt awful. She was lonely. What could I say? “Your husband is hitting on me, and I think we really don’t have anything to say to each other anyway.”

P faithfully kept in touch, despite my efforts to kill the relationship over the years. She even tracked me down when I moved and didn’t immediately give her my new address and phone number. She told me that M had developed some health problems. I expressed sympathy but never followed up to see how he was doing. I tried to limit contact to an annual holiday card, and I felt guilty for rebuffing P’s efforts to be my friend.

And then she called with her sad news. She was devastated by M’s death, which was a shock to her despite his failing health. I stayed on the phone with her for a long time.

And I thought about M, old enough to be my father but not immune to dreaming of being my lover and daring to tell me so. It’s easy to focus on how distasteful that is, how uncomfortable and upset it made me on so many levels, not the least of which was the betrayal of P.

And yet M’s confession overturned the notion I have long harbored: that I am not particularly attractive and have been de-sexualized by motherhood and middle age. His words, even if  they made me squirm, were heartfelt and evidence that I am not invisible after all, that sex appeal is far more complicated an issue than popular culture would have us believe. His words reminded me not to dismiss myself as a woman. I will try to see them as the compliment he intended them to be and maybe at some point, M will rest more easily in my memory.

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Marriage, kids, and the empty nest

When I was a young teen, many girls dreamed of the perfect prom and their wedding day, but I dreamed about having a family of my own. By the time I graduated from high school, I was entertaining other ideas too. I wanted to be a writer or an environmental scientist. I wanted to live in a cabin in the woods. I wanted to learn to ski and rock climb and ride horses. I wanted to be strong and fit and independent.

I married young, and almost immediately after becoming a wife, my dreams of becoming a mother began to fade. Once I had a husband, having children lost its appeal. I earned my degree, became a writer and lost interest in skiing, horseback riding, and rock climbing but worked hard at being strong, fit, and independent. Life felt complete and I began to think that maybe I didn’t want children after all. I was very happily married. Why mess with a good thing?

We celebrated our tenth anniversary with a second honeymoon, but the year delivered some devastating losses and I began to think that maybe our life wasn’t complete. Maybe there should be more than weeks spent at the office and weekends spent together, more than movies, restaurant meals, hiking, shopping, and holidays in New York City. Maybe I was ready to dive off a cliff into unknown waters and surface into a new life. Maybe I was finally ready to take a big risk, open my heart, and make the ultimate commitment.

And so the two of us dared to do what so many others do unthinkingly or accidentally. We became parents. First a son, then a daughter. As expected, it changed everything, including our marriage. In those early years, we were perpetually exhausted, emotionally and physically, and it took a toll. We lost so much in terms of intimacy, and yet we gained an even more profound connection as we worked as a team. The kids were a source of joy but a source of stress too. They made our world bigger and smaller in equal measure. We stayed home more and traveled less and yet life felt rich in entirely new ways. We taught them about life and they taught us too. We became better people in the process. When I look at all the choices I’ve made in life, the decision to be a parent is the best one I ever made.

Now my husband and I are a few years away from an empty nest, and I wonder how that will feel for me personally and how it will affect our marriage. We have been a four person family unit for so long that I honestly can’t imagine having empty seats at the table.  And while I think we have perfected family life, I’m afraid my husband and I have forgotten how to be a couple, how to focus on each other, how to live together as husband and wife and not as “Mom and Dad.”

I know we will never be the way we were before; I just wonder how we’ll be together. The parenting years have divided and united us, highlighting our differences as well as all we have in common. I know he loves me but does he want to be with me? Am I still someone he’s interested in? When conversation is no longer about our kids and logistics and extracurriculars and school schedules and the calendar, what will we say to each other? Will we find a way back to true intimacy and rediscover the romance that was at the heart of our relationship for 15 years?

I’m not sure. We’ve been operating as partners, not lovers, for a long time. I think the empty nest will either bring us back together or send us farther down separate paths. The empty nest might involve much more than realigning priorities and schedules and accepting my children’s independence. It may mean the end of my marriage–or a new chapter in a mostly happy life together.

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The blob

I was sitting watching a sports event with some over-40 moms when the discussion turned to running. These women get up before 5 a.m. every morning so they have time to run before their day starts. One of them, a mother of four, told me she has to take ibuprofen every day to deal with joint pain and sometimes ices her feet, but still she runs. The other talked about how the women in her running group wanted to go beyond the three miles they customarily do, and she wasn’t sure she was up for the challenge.

A neighbor of mine, in her 60s, spends more than an hour at a fitness center every morning, taking a spinning class. Then she comes home and walks four miles through hilly terrain before taking a shower. Her regimen is not unlike that of my friend E’s mother, who does an hour of weights and floor exercises and an hour on the elliptical every day. She’s in her late 60s.

Another neighbor, recently divorced, dropped at least 30 pounds, joined a gym and started lifting weights, and now looks half her age as she jogs through the neighborhood in a sports bra and shorts.  An online friend who was extremely overweight has lost almost 100 pounds. She exercises THREE hours a day.  My sister-in-law, over 50, lost 60 pounds last year through Weight Watchers. An artist friend lost the 15 she put on when her husband tore his rotator cuff, had surgery, and was unemployed for eight months. A writer friend dropped 30 pounds doing two hours of yoga and Pilates a day and up to an hour on a treadmill. A pretty blonde friend of mine who looks fine, is on the South Beach Diet, trying to look even finer.

And then there’s me, a former competitive distance runner, hiker, and gym rat. I have gained 30 pounds in the last two years and my body is unrecognizable to me. My waist is gone, I have a roll of fat over my waist band and bulges above my back bra strap. The angles of my face have disappeared and my neck and my head are morphing into one big rectangle on top of my blocky torso.

The girl who was once incredibly self-conscious about how skinny she was is now the grown woman who is embarrassed by her weight and literally pained when she catches a glimpse of her reflection in a store window or mirror.

I could make some good excuses for this sad state of affairs, blame it on health issues, medication, and the stress that engulfed my family when we were hit by a storm of personal crises in 2008. All those things have factored into my weight gain.

I could talk about the challenges of living with teens that eat constantly and a daughter who bakes cakes and cookies several times a week and many of you would nod your heads knowingly.

But all my circumstances and grievances and limitations are ones other women have overcome. So, why is it that I don’t do what I need to do to lose weight?

I need to confront and end the bad habits that contribute to the weight gain–snacking in front of the computer, eating when I’m not hungry, making poor choices even when good choices are available. Most of my issue is not eating mindfully, taking cues from what others are eating or doing and not listening to my own body or my own mind when it comes to how and when I eat.

And part of it is resisting the level of exercise it takes to be fit at my age. I’m not inactive. I walk 3-4 miles a day, but that’s not enough to make a difference in how I look. I need to weight train, I need to do yoga again, I need to ratchet up the intensity of my walking. In short, like the women I described above, if I want to look good and lose weight at my age, I need to exercise 2-3 hours a day. An hour a day, which is enough to benefit my overall health, isn’t enough to benefit my appearance or overcome my midlife metabolism.

And I find that ridiculous, annoying, and irritating. It offends me! I hate it! It seems so unfair! But I know it’s the truth, and the part of me that desperately wants to recover the look and level of fitness I had before wrestles with the rebel who rejects the discipline and sacrifice it will take to get there.

So I sit on the bank of a sports field while my incredibly fit and strong brownie-devouring daughter plays hardball. I hide my fat under a hippie tunic and pretend to be engrossed in the game as the other moms discuss their runs and their gyms and their Pilates classes and their Weight Watchers points. My eyes smart behind my sunglasses. I sit very still, wanting to disappear. 

I feel huge. I feel like a blob. But I also feel small, shriveled, a shadow of my former self, a smart woman who nevertheless feels all her accomplishments are hidden in the shadow of her muffin top.

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She has a point…

I was on the phone with a friend, E, who is in the midst of a disintegrating marriage. We must have talked for two hours. The week before I spent about the same amount of time talking to another girlfriend about her marriage. And I have a male friend who is also trying to decide on an exit strategy.

I try to be open-minded, supportive, but also ask hard questions. Mostly I listen. Whether to stay or whether to leave is no small decision. Things are always complicated because relationships and people’s needs are too. When there are children involved, there’s even more at stake.

The conversations provide food for thought and maybe a measure of clarity. E is in love with a married man. When she was telling me about the married man’s gripes with his wife, I gently said, “What he’s saying about her are the same things your husband says about you.” Which is true.  I want E to think about that because I don’t want her to end up in a relationship that results in her hearing the exact same bullshit she hears from her husband from another guy. She doesn’t need that.

Sometimes I think every suburban marriage is the same. Why pretend that leaving your husband for another man is going to change your life? You’ll still end up cleaning a house (just a different one), doing laundry, going grocery shopping, attending school events, hauling kids to extracurriculars (only now you’ll be dealing with his kids and your kids), and organizing (more complicated) family holidays. You’ll just be crawling into bed with a different person at the end of the day. Maybe that changes everything. I don’t know. Seems that if change is what you want, you need to change from the inside, not the outside.

But back to my friend, E. She said something really interesting to me about my marriage. I’ve been married for a really long time and in many ways, it’s been deeply satisfying, but, no surprise here, it’s also been hard. Like so many other couples my age, I’ve slid into my 40s feeling a bit unloved and unappreciated and wondering about the choices I’ve made in my life. There is a current of longing and discontent that runs beneath my happiness and surfaces from time to time.

My husband and I emerged from a really dark period in our lives together. I had thought maybe we’d come to the end of our relationship, but slowly, over time, there was healing. Things didn’t go back to the way they’d been during our glory days, but we found a comfortable way to be together, live together, raise our children together. Friendly. No more tension, no more avoidance, no more resentment, no more secret tears.

I mentioned this to E, telling her that my husband and I are friends again. She said, “How is he your friend? He doesn’t laugh at your jokes, he doesn’t care about your writing, he often thinks the things you say are inappropriate. NONE of your friends think that way about you. He doesn’t seem like he’s your friend to me.”

Wow. Just wow. What can I say? She has a good point. 

But one thing I know from my experience and all the relationship discussions I’ve participated in over the years is this: communicating disappointment with our spouses or significant others is easy, but capturing what we love about them, why we feel connected to them or to the relationship is much harder.

So I will take E’s words to heart and consider them. And then I’ll consider why she sees things the way she does–is she more objective? Why do I love the guy who comes through the door at the end of the day, even if he doesn’t laugh at my jokes and can be so uptight?  Plenty to think about when I’m lying awake at night.

More on this to come…

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Monday morning

I dreamed was walking through a house, my home, giving a tour to some friends who had never seen it before. It was a big house with enormous rooms. I kept wondering what I was going to do with all that space and opening doors and being surprised by what was behind them.

“Oh, I’d completely forgotten about this,” I’d say to my guests. Most of the rooms were not fully furnished or “finished” in terms of decorating, as if I’d just moved in recently and only roughly set things up.

There were doors that opened to stairwells, illuminated by colored spotlights. The house had at least three floors. There was a storage room with Christmas decorations scattered across the floor. Most of the rooms appeared to be part of a well kept, modern house, but others seemed they were part of an old, abandoned one. There was one room where a plaster wall bulged ominously and faded wallpaper clung to the walls.

The alarm woke me up, and I was drenched in sweat, as if I were having a nightmare.

Reflecting on the dream, I realize I am the House.

Unfinished and in a state of transition.

Bigger than I think I am.

Not fully explored or developed.

Old and falling apart in places.

My dark places illuminated by colored lights.

My doors open to friends.

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Facebook is not my friend

This story is  a cliché, but I’m going to tell it anyway. Love gained. Love lost. Love that endures.

I still remember the moment my heart flew out of my chest and landed on L’s shoulder.  I was 15,  we were at a dance and had been talking all night. That year my attention had been diverted by the more showy and extroverted boys in my circle, and I had overlooked this perfect one, hidden in plain sight.

Toward the end of the night, the DJ was winding things down, and played a slow song, a schmaltzy ballad. I stepped into L’s arms for the first time, felt the heat of his body through the thin cotton of his shirt, and in a moment that foreshadowed many to come, I lay my head on his shoulder and inhaled the clean, soapy scent of him.

I never wanted to let go.

I never wanted to forget that moment.

I never have.

It would be months before we actually went out. I was only 15 and he was heading to college. My parents were wary, thinking I was too young to date.

I was desperate and worked on persuading my parents. My older brother was friends with L and put in a good word for him. My parents hesitated and then opened the door and let me fly out

Years later, when I was sharing the story of my Big Moment at the school dance with L, he shared an even better story about when he’d first seen me.  He had pulled into our driveway with his best friend and was looking for my brother. I was only 12, and came bursting out of the house. L said he loved my long hair, my big smile and infectious laugh, the sparkle in my eye. He knew I was WAY too young then, and so vowed to bide his time. I am still touched that he saw something in me when I was so young and gawky.

L proved to be more than a school crush. We connected spiritually, intellectually and on a cellular level. Yes, I know how insipid that sounds, but I’m standing by those words.

I loved his mind. He was smart, brilliant really, rational and observant like a scientist with the sensibilities of a poet. Reserved, quiet, and clean cut, he had the appearance of an All American Boy, but he was very much an independent thinker, a non-conformist, someone who dared to ask life’s hard questions and live life on his own terms.

I still remember the June day I stepped out my parents’ house and into his world. The way my heart came to nest in his chest, and how his stories and secrets and family became my own. I loved him deeply, freely, and without fear. Every time he had to return to college and I was holding back tears in his embrace, I dreamed of a moment when I would not have to say goodbye. We imagined a life together, and oh, it’s almost embarrassing to say this now, but I wanted to have his babies. Really, truly I did.

We dated for two years. That’s a long time for adults. That’s almost a lifetime for teens, especially since he was away at college.

Then at the end of a spring marked by distance and long silences on his part, he broke up with me. It was Friday the 13th. And while I can conjure so many moments of our years together and remember every contour of his body, every place we went together, I can’t remember That Moment. What he said. The WHY of it. All I remember was that he was gentle and I was heartbroken. Oh, the tears.

Decades later, he’d tell me he was insecure and didn’t think he was my equal and so felt compelled to set me free to meet someone better. Oh God. The things we do.

When we broke up, I wrote in my journal that even though L and I were no longer a couple, our story would never end.

And it hasn’t.

For years afterwards, we kept in touch, writing long letters to one another. We didn’t see each other but we kept each other company on paper as we navigated all the angst and adventures that came in our late teens and 20s. I heard about his classes, his uncertainty, his girlfriends, his dreams, his travels. He heard about my boyfriend, my experiences in college, a sad drama unfolding within my family, and my plans for the future.

At one point, he wanted to get back together, declaring his undying love for me. By then I was with someone else, and L’s offer tore me in two. I struggled, I cried, I tried to think things through. I was divided, absolutely divided, between L and the man I was seeing.

In the end, I chose the other man and eventually married him. L made me a wedding gift. He continued to send letters. One year he sent me a Valentine: “To my best friend.” 

Among my husband’s great qualities is his ability to understand that L and I share a bond that can’t be broken. He has always accepted it and has never felt threatened by our correspondence. L has been part of my life all the years my husband has known me.

Eventually, the correspondence with L tapered off, and when I tried to revive it, L didn’t answer my letters. I heard he was married. Another woman was having his babies, and I wondered what parenthood meant to him. His mother always sent me a card at Christmas and included a note updating me on L and the rest of his family. I kept up with him from afar until his mother developed Alzheimer’s and all contact ended.

For a long time, I was hurt by L’s silence, but I respected it too. It took me years to make peace with what seemed to be our final separation.

Then one day, L’s name appeared in my inbox. I was stunned, equal parts elated and cautious, afraid to open that message, and even more afraid to open myself up again. I told my husband I’d heard from L, I took some time to think about a response to his message, and then I wrote it and hit send.

Thus our correspondence was rekindled. In the beginning, we were trying to find our footing and there were long gaps between receipt and reply, but soon we found a new rhythm and were sharing family stories, news links, and music and discussing current events and science and all the things we’d discussed before.

When L learned I’d be traveling through his area of the country, he invited me and my family to stay with his family for a day. I was touched by his offer, but we declined, in part because of scheduling issues, but also because while part of me thought it would be easy to spend time with L, part of me feared seeing him face-to-face. What if we were attracted to one another?

We’d shared photos of our kids but not photos of each other. For me, it was an unwritten rule. Written words only. No instant messaging. No phone calls. No photos. No visits.

Then one day, an e-mail appeared in my inbox from L’s second wife. It was short. She said L had just told her of our correspondence, had shared my messages with her, and she was “devastated” and thought her marriage was over.

WHAT?!!!

I’d assumed Wife #2 knew of our correspondence. L said he’d told her when he’d found me online and asked if she minded if he wrote to me. She’d said, “Do whatever you want.” So he had, but when he mentioned he was writing to me later, she was shocked and felt she’d been deceived.

I didn’t know her and really couldn’t understand why she would be “devastated” by our correspondence and so sure her marriage was over. Especially since she’d read the messages in his inbox, and he shared them with her willingly. There was nothing in any of them that I felt was inappropriate, nothing to hide.

Still, as a woman, I was sympathetic with her fears and tried to assuage them, but a part of me struggled to comprehend just what was going on. At first I was crushed that I had inadvertently hurt her, but then I realized Wife #2 had a flair for drama and ultimatums, born, I think, from deep-seated insecurities. I wasn’t sure if she really truly thought I was trying to steal her husband or whether I was a pawn in some invisible battle unfolding behind the scenes at L’s house. Clearly, there was a lot going on there, and it wasn’t good.

I admit I resented her insistence that L and I should not correspond at all, and L wrestled with it too.  There was a lot of anguish and sadness and attempts at compromise and understanding, but in the end there was only Silence.

L and I stopped corresponding, and I learned to swallow the words I could not share with him, a pile of broken glass nestled in my gut.

Yesterday, I was on Facebook, and up popped a friend suggestion.  L had launched a Facebook page. I should have gotten offline that very moment, but I didn’t. Instead I did that most stupid and human of all things, I clicked over to his page. I scrolled through his short list of friends, which include his first wife and an ex-girlfriend, as well as his sons and his current wife. I wondered how that ex-girlfriend, the one he had traveled around the U.S. with, had made the cut. Why had she passed through the jealous wife’s filters and I had not? I don’t know.

There were no status updates or notes that I could see, and because L is famously cautious and paranoid about Internet privacy, I didn’t expect there to be any photos. But when I hit the photo tab, I was surprised I had access to an album he had just uploaded: photos of a camping trip he’d taken with his wife and his youngest son.

I clicked through the pics, delighting at this glimpse into his life. His son had grown so much since I’d last seen photos of him and resembled L more than ever. His wife seemed happy and full of joy, and I hoped it was deep-seated and real. The geography was familiar, mountains and rivers just like the ones we’d explored together years ago.

And then there was L.  He looked like his best self, just like the man I remembered from all those years ago. How had he frozen his face and body in time? Looking at those photos, I knew exactly how his hair would feel in my hands and  the way his neck would smell if I could lay my head on his shoulder again. I saw myself on this camping trip, imagined what our family album might have looked like.  The fact that I was thinking about it upset me, as I have long exercised the discipline of Not Going There. I felt a familiar pain, the cut of all my unspoken words, the burn of a well of tears, the punishment of my choice. 

I knew I would not be sending a friend request. I knew that I would not receive one. As Facebook would say, “It’s complicated.” We will remain connected and unconnected as always, two people in parallel universes, wishing for something we can’t name and living with all we can’t forget.

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