Dear Mama Shellie #4
The continuation of the story of my divorce
Honestly, part of me wants to write to you about Kelli, and my confusion about her situation because I definitely have some questions. But honestly my denial won’t let me do that at the moment. I probably won’t be able to do that until we know the exact course of things with her cancer, and what the journey ahead will contain.
That’s good because I have been meaning to tell you more about the story of 2017, and my trip to Jacksonville, and the way things happened. there. To tell this story, I am going to send you a letter I wrote to a dear friend of mine, Holly Welker, who has given me permission to share my end of our correspondence.
I was writing Holly at at crisis point—at the point where Lolly and I had decided on our divorce, but we hadn’t really spoken to many people about it, and so there was this haunting possibility of maybe deciding “hey, are we crazy, and all the spiritual and universal signs saying we should do this wrong? Have we made a terrible, terrible cosmic mistake?”
Those were weird times, and we both did question what was happening many times. But every time we seriously checked in (and we did often) the cosmos responded with incredibly clear signaling that this was the path we were to go down.
This email to Holly occurred neared the end of that process (but I have drafts of an email I never sent to Holly that I might share that occurred at the beginning of the process too). By the time I wrote her this version, I was seeking basic clarity, more on a systemic level than anything else, of whether this decision I was making was in the best interest of myself, Lolly and the kids. The reason I approached Holly was because of her particularly uncanny ability to see social and interpersonal issues—especially pertaining to inequity and injustice—very clearly. She wrote some of the very first essays on issues of social justice and inequity I was ever exposed to, and I remember reading her words from my sheltered, Mormon vantage point and barely being able to understand what she was saying—things about gender and patriarchy and systems and privilege. I read her words over and over, straining to understand the truths I could tell were conveyed in her compact, wonderful prose.
She was also the first (and one of the only) writers I ever saw writing about the wives of gay men in mixed-orientation marriages, and how the set-up was yet another form of patriarchal oppression, which was a thought so new to me back when I first encountered it that it blew my mind. She is a no-nonsense writer (and person), and I knew I could trust her to tell me very incisively if there was something I was missing—if there was some way in which Lolly’s and my choice to divorce was benefiting me, as the man in the situation, at the expense of her and the girls on a more systemic level.
And honestly, mommy, I get the feeling that it was you who led me to to write her—and I know, too, that it wasn’t the only time you would lead me to do so when nobody else on earth seemed able to understand a deeply complex, deeply upsetting set of circumstances in my life. I’m very grateful to Holly and her friendship for this reason.
I was in a dark, scared place as I wrote this letter, and as you’ll see I only got partway through before I had to stop. But after writing it and sending it to Holly (who is a professional writer and editor), she said it was very compelling from a writing standpoint and could be turned into a good essay. Instead of that, it has sat on my hard-drive for half-a-decade, so I’ve decided that I am going to send it to you, Mom, as part of my telling of this story.
So, after an initial query asking Holly if she would be comfortable with me asking her advice about a sensitive topic (and then a delay in response—typical, ha), I sent this quite a while later, on December 5th, 2017 (duplicated here with minor edits):
I have actually started this a bunch of times and then I just can't bring myself to fully articulate things.
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Bare bones, then I send:
Lolly and I have decided to end our marriage.
On the fall Equinox, literally that very day, a shell of denial that was allowing me to function in my marriage was shattered. I now see that I have been living in a state of denial that was thick and all-encompassing, and it turns out many around me could see it and I was blind to it (as tends to be the case with denial, I guess). I wouldn't be surprised if you could see or perhaps sense parts of it as we have talked over the years.
It's really hard to explain how it happened. It just. . . happened.
There was no huge catalytic event. I was in Jacksonville, Florida. Two lesbian friends (Zina, who has now made her divorce pretty public) and then someone I hadn't met before that day) and I went to the beach to celebrate the Fall Equinox. We brought champagne and a lighter and paper plates, and we wrote down our hopes and our fears for the coming season of our life on the paper plates, and then burned them in a hole we dug in the sand as the wind blew each fire we started out after a minute or so: earth, fire, water, wind. My hopes and fears were about my book--needing it to be done, needing my insecurities to melt, needing to know how to finish it and get it out into the world.
We walked back home, and the two of them, as we all expected, started falling in love. I knew they would going into this trip; this wasn't a surprise to me. But, yeah, we were having so much fun together, and then they went to get dressed after having swum and never came back, leaving me by myself (again: expected. I wanted them to connect. I didn't want to intrude on what was happening for them. I knew they weren't coming back.)
But when they didn't come back, and I got a text hours later from Zina apologizing, something broke inside of me. Something I never knew could break. Something I still am only barely beginning to understand.
The thing that was jarring was that it felt so familiar. I was alone, as always, watching human beings do this thing I'd never experienced--watching them follow primal longing, explore, infatuate, etc. It was just like junior high and high school, when I was always the wingman, always the helper, always the matchmaker, always the observer and note-taker, fascinated as I watched humans do this "love" thing--never even considering what it might feel like to experience it myself because, duh, I'm gay and I don't get to; to do so would be evil, obviously; ABOMINATION; not invited; hellfire; bounds the Lord has set etc. etc. etc. I grew up solidly believing I could and should and would never have those types of experiences--and so I became largely sexually anorexic, I realize now--and that my salvation depended on this.
But this time, it wasn't straight people. It was gay people, like me. And I knew now that their love wasn't wrong. After years of struggling with my internalized homophobia, I knew that what they were doing was good. Yet, somehow, I was alone again, watching. Facilitating even, just like I did in high school (earlier, I had been walking towards the beach with the new friend, arm in arm, and called out to Zina because she was being all shy and skittish and standoffish and awkward and adorable and I was like "hey, come over here! Don't you want in on this? . . ." knowing she was aching to approach this gorgeous new friend, and she went to the her other side and linked arms with her for the first time).
Somehow, after all these years, I was alone in a room by myself, abandoned, although we all had been having fun—having a really great time together, actually, or so I thought. But, just like all those years ago, I didn't have the thing that my friends all saw in each other. Something beyond "having fun." They always left me behind because they found something in each other that I couldn't give. And I realized, plainly, that I had always been alone. And it just . . . I felt the nothingness of that void, that dearth, that paucity of experiences. I was rocked by the realization that I had never, not once, been chosen, been the one exploring chemistry. This thing I'd seen all my life--this thing celebrated throughout history, about which so much of art is devoted. This thing my daughter who is 11 is starting to explore. I had never had it, explored it, felt it with another person--never even touched it in the slightest, most minor way. At first, when that realization hit--that I had never had any kind of romantic- or chemistry-based connection with another person, ever-- I thought it couldn't possibly be true. I racked my brain. There was seriously nothing. Not one moment. Not one time. The only thing approximating it was one experience when I'd been married two years and I had fallen in love-ish accidentally with a gay guy whom I'd spoken with online for a few weeks. Didn't meet. And the disturbing thing was that I was so infantile and inexperienced I actually had no frame of reference for what was happening--I thought it was a friendship. Then Lolly pulled me aside and said "you are falling in love with him" and I was astonished, truly, and cut the whole thing off, and went into a massive depression.
Shit, this is going to be long no matter what. Sorry.
The story Lolly and I told ourselves was that he was a good-for-nothing interloper and a piece-of-trash-human and I'd been duped by infatuation--that drug, that farce!--into thinking I'd actually liked him over her, my wife, with whom I shared so much history. But there in Jacksonville, in the wake of this realization, I understood clearly that it was the only experience I’d ever had that even approximated human romance and chemistry. I pulled up the old email address I'd written to him from then (his name was Michael) and I reread our correspondence and I realized: I actually really liked him. My feelings were real. And so were his. They were inchoate, yes. But they were real. And there alone in that bedroom by the beach, hearing the sound of the Atlantic crashing in the distance, I realized that, if I was being honest with myself, I still liked him. And that he wasn't good-for-nothing. He was a victim of institutional trauma--served a mission, came home, tried to Mormon himself out of being gay as a pre-med zoology major (brilliant man, articulate as fuck) and then, his senior year, had sex with a guy and just . . he just stopped living. He gave up on life, realizing that he was "broken." Dropped out of school. Dropped out of life. It's so fucking tragic, what the church does to gay people. I'd met him several years after this and our connection had given him a modicum of hope. But then I'd cut it off, brutally. Cruelly, even. And then, when I couldn't keep my own commitment not to converse with him (my real self SO DESPERATE to self actualize!) he mercifully disappeared. For me. Because he loved me and knew it's what I wanted.
I've never heard from him since. He could be dead for all I know. [This was true when I wrote this in October, but he and I have since reconnected, actually.]
The next night, alone in my room, I had a text conversation with Ben (the guy who is writing an essay for you, who is straight and a really supportive, loving friend to me). But first, sidenote: several years ago Ben was the first person to tell me that he thought my homosexuality was beautiful; it was so shocking to me I couldn't even take it in; he had to repeat it and explain it for weeks before I would believe that a straight man could find my sexual orientation beautiful. But he did. Which was revolutionary for me.
Anyway, text conversation. I said really, really scary things in that conversation with Ben. It was late at night and I was alone in that bedroom, hearing the waves of the Atlantic crash again outside my room--there where the denial had worn thin and I was feeling the dearth clearly, like an exposed nerve. And at one point in the conversation I said "I have thought of putting a gun in my mouth more times than I can count." I said other really hard things in that conversation too.
And then, the next morning, I forgot it all. I went right back into denial I forgot the content of that conversation and my acknowledgment of suicidal ideation. Like, really truly, totally forgot. I remembered that I'd had a conversation; I didn't remember any of its details at all. And what's crazy is I went into denial so hard that I wrote a sonnet that morning about denial even as I was going into denial. Oh, how the brain can be crafty! I didn't even notice it was happening. I shit you not. Here's the poem (about my Grandma Weed, who I think bought this statue because she was a single mother raising my father alone in the 1950’s):
Madonna is Madonna I think of that white statue of the Christ as babe in the Madonna's wiry arms that sat in your small parlor, near the nice crystal, flat-wear, and bells in your armoire. "It isn't Mary!" you insist when I, a child, observe the Holy Mother and her babe, and call them by their names. "Ha! Why, it's just a mom with her baby in her hands!" Oh, how we love deceit; to trick ourselves; to dream what is, is not; to sit, content in our delusions, while our walls, our shelves, our careful-plotted tales reveal their ends! For Mary holding Christ is Mary still though we esteem her rube or whore or shill.
I can't tell you how creepy it is to read that poem--which I wrote in a sonnet writing race, feeling like it was riffing on the the first random image that came to mind--knowing now what my subconscious was doing. It's like my mind was stating its own intentions to me as it did what it has been doing for 15 years. Or maybe it was a cry for help? Like, don't do this? All I know is when I pieced this all together a week or so later--Equinox, the sonnet, the things I said in those texts--I was stunned by many things.
The denial didn't last. I was going in and out, due in large part to Zina and M. They could see something had broken in me. They could sense it. And they did the worst, most denial-annihilating thing possible: they made no commentary, did not judge in the least, and just loved me tenderly, with profound caring. It was excruciating. I could just smell it on them. I couldn't hide what had broken inside me, even though I couldn't even articulate it, for one second, and they scooped me up tenderly and didn't let me out of their sight--including me in everything despite their infatuation, loving me richly, loving the shit out of me. The bullshit. When we watched movies, whoever was sitting by me would cuddle with me--full on, reckless abandon, while cuddling the other too--with such sweetness and love. It just broke my damn heart to have them treat me so sweetly. Their tender care refused to let me go back inside myself. I could see that they could see, and it just kept me in the place of hurt. If they'd pushed me at all, if they'd reacted when I said denial-based things (which I did a few times) instead of nodding along quietly, letting me have my delusions, it would have given me something to push against, but they didn't. They just held me, literally and figuratively--even when all they really wanted to do was be alone!--and it took the rupture I'd experienced and kept tearing it wider and wider in ways I had no way of understanding.
I had another conversation with Ben several nights later. This one (I can tell you now, but of course then I'd immediately returned to denial afterwards) was even more brutal. At one point, as I mused on how to heal from this weird thing that was happening to me, I asked him, honestly, if he could live the live I was living. I was like "could you do this--live a life without love, ever. Could you do it if God asked you to?" His answer was honest. At first he said something like, "No way. I don't think so. I don't think I could live through that . . ." and then he kinda started reconsidering, probably realizing what that must sound like to me. "Well, I mean maybe I guess. It's possible. But I'd have to have TONS of support through all the years of my life, and I'd basically have to be on constant suicide watch."
Constant suicide watch.
That was my life. That is how someone would feel as they imagined living my actual fucking life.
That response. . . wow. Fucking sobering.
But, again, woke up the next day, went on my run in the morning, and lived like everything was peachy keen! No joke, I didn't even think of that conversation again until I read it a week later, as if for the first time, as if it had been written by someone else.
The day before I left was Jacksonville Pride. I had put my laundry in the wash for my flight the next day, but someone put a load in the dryer before I could and so by the time we were leaving, my garments were all wet. I felt God in this somehow, though it seemed really odd. I was like "what? am I going to go to my very first pride commando?" and they were like YES YOU ARE COME GET IN THE CAR NOW WE ARE LEAVING.
So, I went commando to pride and I... felt like a sexual being? For the first time in my life? I felt like a gay man. Nothing groundbreaking happened. Well, a guy checked me out and Monica pointed it out with a playful nudge to the shoulder, and that had never happened to me before. Getting checked out in a way that made me notice. I was kind of vibing for the first time, I guess. I was expressing sexual energy for the first time in my life--exuding it or whatever. At one point I used a bathroom, and when I saw myself in the mirror I was really stunned to realize that I was decently attractive, and one of the better looking guys I'd seen that day, and that I might actually be desirable to another guy. This sounds so incredibly basic, but you have to understand, this was actually the first time I'd ever had any thoughts like this, ever. Really truly, ever. Most people have them in junior high. I am 37, and for the first time in my life I was acknowledging that I might be deemed fuckable by someone I might also want to fuck.
I felt more like myself than I'd ever felt.
The next day, I flew home, and on the plane I wrote in a leather journal for hours. I burned my thoughts into that book, telling myself that I needed those thoughts for my records as I transitioned back into my life back home--but I realize now I have done this for years as part of my denial, writing lengthy treatises that duly encapsulate my feelings and situation only to never ever look at them again and forget they existed. (I've found some recently and they blow my mind.) But yes, I wrote and wrote. I wrote until my hand cramped. There was so much anger in what I was writing. I wrote until my pen ran out of ink, and then I stopped.
When I got home, something in me knew I needed to tell Lolly about Jacksonville and all that had happened--we share everything with each other--but I didn't really know how. I had a sense, somehow, that something needed to change, but I didn't know what, or how to explain it.
She picked me up. We went home and put the girls in bed. And then I resorted to sitting down with her, opening up that leather journal at our kitchen table, and reading her what I wrote aloud. And then I went to bed, my subconscious thinking somehow that the matter was closed, settled, over.
I woke up the next day and I, I shit you not, went directly back into denial. All the way. 100%. It was as if Jacksonville had never happened. I got up. I went to work. I saw a day-full of clients. I got home from work that night, and we had Family Home Evening, and Lolly was suuuuper weirded out--kind of like "how can you be acting like this after all those things you read last night?" She didn't say this, but it was her stance. And I was just like "what? Whatever do you mean? Problem? What problem? Our life is amazing! LALALALALALALA."
The denial lasted the next day, Tuesday. Again, at night Lolly was bemused and weirded out by my lack of emotion.
By Wednesday, she was officially creeped out. That night, she was trying to provoke an emotion out of me. "I talked to Ashlee and Leslie about what you wrote on Sunday and they both mentioned that maybe we should separate. That's how concerned they were. And yet, you seem to be so flat in your affect."
My response was to scoff. “Yeah, like I want to hear the opinions of yet another straight person about things they'll never understand--what the fuck else is new—straight opinions are exactly what created this mess…” this was my brain's basic reaction. And my feeling was: overall, we're fine. We’re totally fine! Why can’t you see, Lolly, that we are FIIIIINE? (Though I couldn't explain why I had no emotions, suddenly.)
Then, the argument took a turn and Lolly said she couldn't talk to me while I was so lifeless. And I was upset because I honestly didn't know what was happening to me or how to be anything else. At the height of the tension, she said "well, maybe we need to just get a divorce!" and locked herself in our room, refusing to talk to me.
And I sat there on my sofa, dazed, feeling no feelings, remembering nothing at all from Jacksonville, staring blankly at the carpet--totally numb. And then the next thing I thought was that it might be a good idea to go to the garage and get in the van and start the engine with the garage door still shut. I was too inert to actually do so at that moment--it didn't feel desperate. It felt like an option. An unreasonable option, even.
(Sidenote: in 2002 my uncle Dave, a poet, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge to his death. In fact, his father, my grandfather, is unique in that his grandfather, uncle and son all killed themselves. Suicidal ideation has been a feature of my past--though I'm not depressive, so the threat sometimes has fewer teeth than it probably should for me, which actually makes the possibility, along with low impulse control because of ADHD, more risky for me in particular.)
Instead, I walked upstairs, knocked on the door of the bedroom, and Lolly let me in. And I immediately forgot I had had that severe suicidal impulse. (I remembered, with horror, the following day.)
Lolly and I started talking--I told her I was doing my best, and that I hoped we could push forward in this conversation even though my lack of conveyed feeling [which I now recognize as a feature of my autism] made her feel unsafe/uncomfortable. We got the conversation going, and at one point I mentioned having been at Pride, and Lolly got a disgusted look on her face. I asked "are you disgusted by me? Are you disgusted that I was at pride?" She answered, "No!" and it was obvious by the shocked look her face that she really had been thinking about something else entirely. And it was then that it dawned on me: I was disgusted with myself. I was disgusted with myself for being at Pride. I was disgusted with my gayness.
I said this out loud and finally the dam broke and I started bawling, and Lolly came and hugged me.
And it was then that the veneer cracked entirely. I sat with Lolly and talked and wept and wept.
I was broken for days as my internal constructs began to dissolve. I would wake up in the morning saying “no, no, no, no…!” even before I was awake, so loathe was I to see the infrastructure of my castle of denial—this false world I had so painstakingly constructed, and that I had loved so dearly—crumbling around me.
I was not okay. I grieved like I grieved your death, mommy, the year before. I spent a lot of time in bed.
I just realized that the letter to Holly has ended, and I am accidentally adding new stuff. The letter ended at the line “I was broken for days.” And really, I should follow the compositional cue here and end today’s letter, as I’m about to go out with Carlos for the five year anniversary of our first date! (Oddly, it occurs to me that that day occurred not very long after these events. But we have ground to cover before I tell you about that!)
I love you more than the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky, sweet mommy.
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