Recently, I let a friend read some pages of my memoir-in-progress, and when we got together to talk that progression, they said, “Right now much of this is Things Happening to You, but so much of you isn’t here. In particular, what’s missing is your sweetness.” I’ve been turning this over and over, and arrived at thinking: those pages have no sweetness because every scene, there’s something got me bucking, somehow trapped.
It’s easy to be sweet in the dim lamp light, isn’t it? Easy to be sweet after long talks and intimacy, when it’s known that there’s no need for promises or shared drudgeries.
Not so long ago, after years of playing single, which followed years in two failed marriages, I tried my hand at being someone’s girlfriend again. We tried for nearly a year. It helped that we stayed mostly states away, with me entrenched in parenting and doctoral studies, and him back home sharing space with roommates and friends. I don’t think I made a very good girlfriend. As a friend, I can let people be. As a friend, I can keep a soothing ear for the people I love, and only require that they be whoever the fuck they need to be, honestly.
Tether me to future, though, and the anxiety sets in. All the old haunts and past betrayals creep around my ears. Keep me as a friend, and I will respect your privacy. I will recognize your space and believe what you need me to believe. Try to keep me as your one-and-only, and I might read all the letters in your bedside drawer, might go through your text messages while you shower, might scour you for any hint that you may not be who you’ve posited yourself to be. I hate myself in those moments, but I’m that terrified of winding up trapped in other people’s lies.
When I was a wife, I stayed up with my anxiety, listening to my children breathe, submerged in memories: creaking hallways, my stepfather’s hulking steps, all my mother’s unknown variables. As a wife, I was terrified at every turn, and over and over again encountered the reality that I plain couldn’t let myself fully go in love.
As a wife, too, I had plenty of reason not to trust, but for the sake of love and hope I stretched myself–trying, trying anything I could manage to prevent more trauma, to stave off any other heartbreaks.
When my most recent partner called last month to tell me we were done, I feigned nonchalance on the phone. Then I hung up and sobbed more or less for a week, less out of loss (we still have friendship and care) and more out of the sense that I’m wholly incapable of serious partnership. Then the grief broke, and I texted him in thanks for setting me free.
Truth is, I never want to be a wife again. I never want to have my livelihood entwined with another adult’s. My life is not lacking in love. It doesn’t bother me anymore that I might not be fit to share the daily grinds–bills, shared space, bartering over finances, time, and chores, and all the myriad regularities that come with a marriage. I’m more and more okay with knowing that what I need at the end of my days is not anyone else’s waiting arms, but my own bed and my own mess and my own cup of tea. I like knowing that my children are safe, and there’s no one in our home I’ll ever need to protect them from. I like settling into solitude after they’ve gone to bed.
Years ago, one of my partners said to me, “Damn. You don’t need anyone, do you?” I think it was considered a deficiency, my lack of need, but I don’t see it so anymore. No, I don’t need anyone. But everyone I have, I cherish on our own particular terms. And then, as time suggests, we keep our love but let each other free.
I can be sweet when my relationships don’t need serious compromise. I can be sweet when I’m free to give without needing to self-efface. I always thought Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater was the most horrific nursery rhyme. Let me be, and I’ll be sweet, but I can’t be sweetly kept.