Mates In Difficult Love: When Your Childhood Maps Who and How You Love
I grew up with food stamps, latchkeys, Lee jeans from an outlet, Campbell’s soup, three deadbeat dads, and a mother who wrote letters to a TV evangelist praying for a husband.
The first time my partner told me he loved me was just after I found out he had been sleeping with his neighbor. An hour before, the other woman had confronted me outside his apartment building, the same building where I, too, had once lived. She was smoking and called out to me when she saw me approach. “Hey,” she said, “is he safe with you? Because he wasn’t safe with me.” I stood there silent, mouth gaping. She smiled.
I rushed past the doorman and took the elevator to his apartment on the top floor. He had dinner out on the table: folded napkins, wine glasses, a bowl of broccoli rabe with garlic, and leftover pasta. I took my jacket off and threw it on the floor, like I was getting ready for a schoolyard fight. “You slept with her! ” He crumpled.
In the past, I had responded to other betrayals from other partners with little more than a shrug; there was always some sense of inevitability. Everything I knew about men I had learned from my mother or grandmother. Mom: four kids, three fathers, two husbands, two divorces. My grandmother had survived her first marriage the way soldiers survive war: in silent terror, with trauma wired into the nervous system. When it came to men, my grandmother said, “You can’t trust nobody. ” Men hurt, men left, and they were unreliable at best.
If anyone I dated got too close I became feral, just as scared that I might feel something as I was of being hurt. In the early days of our relationship, whenever Salvo saw that wildness welling, he would say, “You can trust me, I’m not like the others.” Now he couldn’t even look at me, and it was hard to know if I was angrier at him for lying, or at myself for believing him.
I grew up with food stamps, latchkeys, Lee jeans from an outlet of factory seconds, TV, Campbell’s soup, three deadbeat dads, and a mother who wrote letters to a TV evangelist praying for a husband. We were all waiting for a good man, though, if he arrived, we wouldn’t know him. In the South of my youth, a marriage was said to be good as long as “he don’t cheat or beat.” Women endured stoically, but men were compelled by their passions, said the stories, the culture, and the judges who presided over the lives — and deaths — of women I knew.
While I had an almost psychic intuition about the men who cycled in and out of my mother’s life, my self-same desire to be seen, if not saved, blinded me to the true motives of men who promised to help me. The maintenance man for our apartment building, a school janitor, administrators, the guy at the bar who said he’d get me home safely, professors, coworkers, boyfriends, and friends: From them I learned that help came at a cost, my body as tender. Whether or not I had asked for help and whether or not I had consented, men sometimes took from me what they thought they were owed. I learned to be wary of kindness.
“Girls like you learn to appreciate anything,” a boyfriend once said after helping me move out of an apartment. He regretted saying it, but I had already heard it echoed from others. Somehow the facts of my life — an irreconcilable past of trauma and abuse, poverty, and dysfunction — meant that I wasn’t entitled to the love story.
Even though I had bohemian designs for my life and wanted nothing more than to avoid my mother’s fate, I left home while still in high school and moved in with an older boyfriend. At seventeen, I was working two jobs, bagging groceries and pouring coffee to pay my rent and sometimes my mother’s. Any dreams I had of becoming a writer or going to school were often eclipsed by the need to survive. There was no pathway to an artist’s life for a poor kid in Alabama; there was no college fund waiting, no family precedent, and no other options. I was a teenager when I signed a thirty-year mortgage and I thought that having a job, husband, and house made me more successful than my mother.
By my early thirties, I had been married and divorced and had been through over a dozen ill-fated relationships. After one protracted breakup of a bicoastal relationship, a friend said to me, “You realize you have a pattern.” I was painfully aware that the pattern replicated my childhood, yet I questioned whether it was that simple. Was I really so damaged, or had I just not found the right relationship?
Three years earlier, I had flown to Paris for my third date with Mr. Bicoastal. I was between jobs; he paid for the hotel room. That first night in a dark room in the city of love he mumbled something about “having waited long enough” as he jammed himself inside me before I — or my body — was ready. I brought back a keychain and a picture of us standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, which I kept near my bedside for those three years. I didn’t want to believe in love stories, but I still wanted redemption.
I had been single for over a year when Salvo materialized outside my apartment building one late July afternoon. He was wearing khaki cargo shorts, holding a phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His silver hair glowed, incandescent in the summer sun.
“I like your shoes,” he said. I smiled. Nobody liked these shoes, which were unapologetically garish.
In an apartment building where people scurried to the elevator to avoid contact with their neighbors, Salvo sat out front day or night in lounge pants or shorts, saying “hello” to every person who walked by. He had an unusual-for-New-York openness that prompted my own. We spent the next hour sitting on the bench outside giving the short version of our lives. He was freshly separated after thirty-six years of marriage. He had grown up in Brooklyn, the middle child in a large Italian family where the men worked with their hands, women tended to the men, and Mother Mary saw all. In a family of laborers, he was an oddity, a long-haired Ph.D. student studying the new field of computer science. It was the early ’70s and Greenwich Village was full of ideas, orgies, and hashish; he sampled all.
But the pull of his family culture overpowered his desire for a less conventional life. He married a good girl from Brooklyn who asked for special dispensation if she missed mass while traveling. He thought about leaving, but it took thirty-six years and a brain tumor. Now he was free and ready to pick up where he’d left off in the ’70s.
“I didn’t leave my marriage for one woman,” he said. “I left for all the women.”
I knew he was the classic Unavailable Man. He wasn’t just a walking red flag, he was waving a banner. Three dinners later, a thought entered my brain unbidden: I want to love this man. But Salvo was two decades older, not yet legally divorced, with a near-hedonistic drive to enjoy every day he had been granted. He smoked too much, drank to excess, and flirted with everyone. He radiated the manic exuberance of someone who has thwarted fate. He was equal parts brash and kind with an insatiable curiosity about people. I wasn’t sure what I wanted in life or with him, but I knew I couldn’t ask him for a commitment.
We slept together less than a month later, on my birthday. “It was inevitable,” he said with some resignation days later, echoing the double bind we both felt. We traversed New York like two people on their last day on Earth, where there is no future or consequences, just dessert at every meal, entire days in bed making love, and staying up all night talking like teenagers.
Despite our wildly divergent goals, I kept saying ”yes.” I said ”yes“ to starting a company together. I said “yes” to keeping our relationship secret during his years-long contentious divorce. I also said “yes,” tacitly, to the silences and disappearances. He had spent most of his life as a son, father, and husband, but not as a single man. I wanted a relationship of radical honesty and trust and where we didn’t sleep with other people. Our conversations circled the same point for years, but neither of us left. Still, all the good of our relationship couldn’t overcome how bad I felt not knowing the truth of his “other life.”
“Have there been others?” I asked one night in bed, a question it took me years to ask.
“Yes,” he replied quietly. “I never expected this to happen.”
By this he meant us. And even though I had known at some level, I wailed with such force my body convulsed. He held me tighter until it stopped, asking several times if I needed to go to the hospital, such was the depth of my grief reaching backwards in time.
With men, I had long since learned to endure, to not expect too much, to never ask for what I needed, but I had hoped he would be different. That I wouldn’t need to ask; that he would know. That our connection would be the talisman against such hurt.
On his way out the door that night, he said, “Why did I have to meet my soulmate at this age?”
It wasn’t love with the other woman, he insisted. It was ego, sex. A means of distancing himself from me. After that, he maintained his fidelity, but it was hard for me to accept the loss of our love story, one in which we were hero and heroine who’d fought our way through life to each other. How could these dueling narratives, love and betrayal, coexist? Was I stuck in a myth of my own making, repeating the same mistakes in a lifelong self-flagellation? The fairy tale that I had believed, handed down from the pulpit, the floors my grandmother scrubbed, the bruises my mother bore and my own broken body, was that all this suffering was supposed to mean something. That there would be reward one day in the future for those of us who endured.
Finally, I could feel the borders of my body; could feel a self that had unapologetic needs. I could hear the whispers of the women before me, each saying, Enough, enough, enough.
I raged. I rampaged. I screamed and destroyed. Found every love letter I had ever written Salvo and lined them up on the bed, asking him how he could do that to the woman who wrote those words. I sent emails and texts in all caps. I ruined dinners, car rides, shouted in the streets, down the hall of my fourth-floor walk-up, slammed doors near off their hinges, cried until I couldn’t breathe, Xanax-ed, upped doses of antidepressants, cut myself, punched walls, told my friends, and yelled at a cab driver so long and so deep that he said he’d never had a customer like me in the twenty years he’d been driving a cab in New York City.
“I am not every man who has ever hurt you,” Salvo said more than once.
“I am tired of being in the business of forgiving,” I said more than once. I felt as if I’d been possessed by another woman speaking across generations, across lives, asserting her power and right to be loved.
And yet we had Christmases, birthdays, health crises, surgeries, financial crises, and the same tender moments of love and connection we’d always known. “I think you were protecting each other,” my therapist said of our mutual fiction, “because you both recognized there was something special.” We were a strange pair, with palpable love for each other. For all of our differences both superficial and real, we had both believed ourselves to be fundamentally unlovable, and our relationship became a set of Herculean tasks to prove otherwise. A difficult love, but necessarily difficult if either of us was to believe it. We had been drawn together by our wounds. Wasn’t it possible this relationship could be our chance to heal?
We can never untangle the impact of our childhood history from our present lives, but what if our understanding of who we are is constrained by the stories we know? My mother knew my father’s name, but I only ever knew him as “not available” or “not applicable,” as I’d write on school forms and official documents asking for his identity. I had been shamed into believing the only way to find love or be whole was within a nuclear family. When I failed again and again at making that kind of life, I assumed it was because of my own brokenness.
But I wasn’t damaged; I wanted something for which I had no model. Who were these people making up the myths that keep us from being loved and loving in return? “You’d be a hypocrite to walk down the aisle in a white dress,” my grandmother’s preacher had snarled at me. I was nineteen, living in sin, and he had refused to marry us; couldn’t in good conscience, he said.
“But wouldn’t marriage fix it?” I asked.
I was an illegitimate daughter. I was a young woman of desires beyond the flesh. I knew how to get married, but I didn’t know how to love. I didn’t know how to be loved.
I spent another two decades trying to learn, until I found someone who wanted to learn with me. I fell in love with a man who wasn’t ready, and then he was. He fell in love with a woman who wasn’t available, and then she was. We made up our own story. I spent most of my life doubting myself and my desires when I should have questioned the stories themselves. I never ignored the red flags. I charged through them.