By Tania Rochelle
This month would have been my 20th wedding anniversary. The day would have come and gone unnoticed, except that I have a smart-ass nineteen-year-old who just had to wish me a happy anniversary. She who refers to her father by his first name never misses an opportunity to jab thorns. She does love me, I remind myself often. At least she’s saved me in her phone as “Giver of Birth” and not Tania. I have her saved in my own phone the way each of my girls is saved, as a dragon.
Twenty years ago, I married a man who I believed shared my values, a sweet, artistic, patient man. Because my three children had been virtually abandoned by their father, I dated Greg for three years before we married. I wanted to be sure that any man I brought to live in their home would be a stable, loving presence. What I got instead, or so I thought, was a playful, funny man, who took them camping and coached their sports teams. Stable? Sure, let’s go with that. Loving? Absolutely. Every day, when he got home from work, he ran into the house, calling out his daughter’s name, as though he’d counted all the minutes before he could see her again. She was a red-headed cherub with corkscrew curls, and we all vied for her attention.
He went to every school event, every teacher conference, every ball game—rain or shine. Because of my delicate constitution, if the temperature was colder than 65 degrees, I sometimes watched the lacrosse games from my car.. He, on the other hand, could always be found standing by the fence, coaching our goalie daughter from the sidelines. He’s the one who helped build the catapults for science class and the pinewood derby car for scouts. He also planned the awesome family vacations: Costa Rica, Disney World, Santa Rosa Beach.
He and I tag-team parented. On the days I taught, he started his workday at 7:00 am and skipped lunch. I would meet him at the school at 2:00, where he would pick our daughter up and take her home. That went on until she started kindergarten and he could be home in time to see her off the bus. At some point, though, he began working late, putting her in the after-school program. I was angry about that, because it wasn’t what we’d agreed to. I believed that a ten-hour day for a five-year-old was like youth prison camp, but he claimed the huge construction project he was managing required his working longer.
He was also under a great deal of stress, he claimed, and needed my support, not the grief I was giving him. His project, The District at Howell Mill, was a giant strip mall, with a Walmart, TJ Maxx, Ross, and various smaller retail and restaurant chains. The people who inhabited the neighborhood around the project fought it, and then, losing that, negotiated everything from boxwoods to bike racks to make sure the Big Box was integrated into its boujee environment. Woe was He. Him?
Years later, I learned that what actually required most of his attention was lunchtime quickies with his secretary and late afternoons spent surfing porn and the Craigslist personal ads. Stress, ya know. Then there were the business trips…
I thought it was the work pressure that caused him to withdraw, to spend less time and energy on the family, to be quieter and sulkier. He was young, in his mid-thirties, and he was rising pretty quickly in his career. I tried to be more supportive. Meanwhile, I published my first book of poetry, an accomplishment that seemed lost on him. I told him I needed an author photo. He suggested I get my middle daughter to snap one in the yard. Then he got professional headshots done for his industry profile. I didn’t know it, but I was a frog, simmering in a pot. I can look back now, and see clearly the progression from Representative to Monster in a Man Suit. But at the time, I was busy loving him, raising four kids, working, and carving out some semblance of a creative life. I was a writer, teaching creative writing, but he referred to poetry as my “hobby.” Poetry doesn’t pay.
So I guess its ironic that my D-Day came when I arrived home from a poetry reading at Georgia Tech one evening. I can’t even remember now who the poets were I heard that night, because the filthy words and images I discovered on his phone that evening as he lay passed out drunk in bed after the SEC Championship game crowded out all the good and beautiful that had filled my head before. And that became the metaphor for my subsequent life with him and his fake recovery.
Everything pure and whole and lovely was stained by the ugliness that was him and his secret life, but the cognitive dissonance was stubborn. I couldn’t see the Truth. I tried to shine it up. I waxed and polished it. I put fancy hats on it. I kneeled before it and it shoved my face into the ground. I danced and fell and danced again, he and his therapists spinning me dizzy. The darkness, the hideousness, the perversion persisted. It polluted my head and heart, and then my soul. I’ll say it: it almost killed me. It took six years and every bit of strength I had to get away.
It was a simple ceremony, with a barbecue after. My daughters, ten and eleven, stood to my left, with my best friend Kathy. My son, six, rustled my skirt, beaming up at us as we said our vows. He adored Greg. It was nice to have a father. We were all so happy.