You’re raking leaves in your yard, like it’s any old Sunday. Like you’re living any old storyline, one that omits the chapter where you abandon your family, and along with it, mine.
The funny thing is, I was going to do this next week. After ten years, I finally asked Roarke where you lived. I knew he knew. But in our world it’s almost as if you never existed, in which case I guess you got what you wanted, huh? So, in ten years I haven’t asked. Imagine how floored I was to learn you live just an hour away. A lifetime together, a decade apart, one hour away. And you never once looked back.
“What are you going to do, Sheila?” Roarke had asked me, but I only shrugged. He didn’t push it. He knows me better than that. I don’t like to talk about you any more than he does. It would be like picking off a scab every day, for ten years. If we don’t talk about you, the wound will solidify and eventually fade. The scar remaining will be lacy pink, but it won’t hurt quite so much.
Next week: ten years since you walked out of my life, out of everyone’s. I had planned to show up at your house. I was going to take in the look of shock on your face, take in the smells and the pieces of your home, a home you have separate from us. I was going to look for your boyfriend’s shoes by the door. I was going to look for something that would tie me to the person I used to know—maybe a whiff of your shampoo or classic rock playing in the background or the smell of burnt coffee from a pot that’s been left on all day.
Something propelled me to come today instead. Maybe just circumstance—I was heading to your town because there’s a great mall and I wanted to do some early Christmas shopping. But I think it was something else. Later, I’ll tell Roarke it was the universe pushing me, knowing you would be outside. Knowing you would see me, and I would see you, and you wouldn’t be able to just…not answer the door. That was a real fear of mine…that I would come all this way and you wouldn’t acknowledge that I ever existed. That we existed, separate of Roarke, separate of the kids. You’re good at that. The ultimate silent treatment. Ten years of it.
You are looking right at me. I suddenly realize it, I feel you. I raise my gaze and for a split second contemplate flooring it and pretending like this never happened. Leave you wondering for a change. But I don’t. Instead, I turn off the car and walk across the street. You’re standing with the rake, looking impossibly cool, like your world hasn’t just tilted the wrong way because your past is marching towards you after ten years.
Ten years, Amy. Ten years and you never bothered.
“Hey,” I say to you, as if this was our old life and I stopped by quick to drop off your kids after watching them for a day. You nod at me like you’ve been expecting me, but you don’t open the gate to the yard. You don’t lower your sunglasses (still aviators like you’ve worn since high school, I guess some things don’t change) and you don’t step forward.
“Do you know it’s been ten years?” I blurt out. You nod again, after a moment. Jesus, have you forgot how long it’s been? Must be nice to be living in this adorable little brick house on this adorable tree lined street with no kids and no responsibilities to the people who loved you. Do you even know that Gavin is a mess of anxiety? That Roarke and I struggle daily with how to help him? Do you know that Owen is super smart but he’s a terrible student? Do you ever think about them? Should I remind you that they’re sixteen and fourteen now in case you’ve forgotten that too?
Still, you say nothing. I wonder if you’re looking at me or doing that stare-off-into-the-distance thing that you did a lot, right before you left. I guess I was supposed to have delved deeper into your silence, into your invisible heartbreak, but do you remember my children? Do you remember that Cassie was colicky, and Ben was at the fabulous age of four where he threw a tantrum every time he didn’t get his own way? Do you remember that unlike you, I had no husband, no man to take screaming babies out of my arms and tell me to take a day to myself?
“The kids are good,” I say to you, even though it’s a half-lie and even though I swore I wasn’t going to tell you anything about them. You don’t deserve to know, not the good things. How the four of them all get along and really stick up for each other. How Gavin and Owen understand loyalty even though you, their mother, do not. Gavin is clearly doing some sort of illegal substance and Owen is failing school, but you don’t deserve to know how impossibly handsome they’ve grown to be. How strong they are.
“I know,” you say to me. “Roarke sends me updates now and then.”
This surprises me. Roarke hasn’t told me this, but like I said, we don’t talk about you. Ever. We did for years, and he would cry—cry! A grown man sobbing in my kitchen, like what was I to do about it?—and when things changed between us we made a pact. You had blown up both our worlds and nothing good was going to come of this melancholy rehashing of where we went wrong. So, we stopped.
I walk closer, daring you to open the gate, to ask if I want to come in for coffee. I remember a time when I’d open the latch myself, walk over your threshold like it was mine, start a pot of coffee myself if you didn’t have one made. Do you remember that? How we were so close it was like we were the same person? How you joked that you loved me more than Roarke?
Guess what, you didn’t love either of us. Not the right way.
You don’t open the gate, and you don’t move. I wonder if the rake is the only thing holding you up, but you still exude the stance of coolness, like the arrival of your estranged best friend (ten years after you left her) is no big thing. It’s any old day here. I wish you’d take those mirrored sunglasses off. I wish you’d drop the rake and fling open the gate and tell me, I am so sorry.
You don’t, so I keep talking.
“What I really want to know is, why?” I ask you, and I swear there is the tiniest of flinches in your cheek, a slight quiver of the rake. I can see that your hair is still long and a darker shade of the bottle blonde you sported for years. Roarke received no explanation, so I didn’t feel as if I had the right to ask for one either. If you left your husband and your children without a glance in the rearview mirror, where did I rank on the list of people waiting in the dust?
You shrug. “I don’t have an answer for that. I wasn’t happy, you knew I wasn’t happy.”
I knew that. I knew you’d never been happy. I’d watched you cycle, up and down, your whole life. You, right now, having to point out that I was aware of your unhappiness: that’s a haughty slap in the face. As if somehow, I was aware but not enough so. Did you forget I was amid my own divorce? Left with a crying baby who never slept, a combative toddler who never stopped fighting?
Did you even consider that perhaps, just this one time, my unhappiness trumped yours?
Yours was the privileged kind. Your parents sprung for the therapy. Paid for the stint in the “center”, which is what we called the looney bin, when you tried to kill yourself because your very existence was too much to bear. They went with you to appointments and worked to find the right medication to balance out your unhappiness. Millions of people in the world, lying on the edge of the black hole of depression with no one to pull them back, and you had an army. And still, it wasn’t enough.
You had Roarke. Yes, I know you weren’t happy. I know you didn’t love him that way. I know it just ate you up inside, as if nothing existed outside of the realm of your not-real-love for him, how it made you stop your meds, just to feel something, anything other than apathy. I know that motherhood didn’t spark joy in you, that Gavin and Owen didn’t fix everything like you thought they would.
You think that just because, for one portion of our life together, I wasn’t completely focused on you and your depression, that I deserved to be dumped? Obliterated, as if we’d never played Barbies for hours upon hours of our childhoods? As if we’d never grown into women, shared a dorm in college, or become mothers together? As if I wasn’t the one to sit with you for hours while you struggled to get Owen to nurse? When everyone else told you to give up, that you were borderline obsessive; I stayed.
As if I wasn’t the one Roarke called when you went so low he couldn’t see you, couldn’t reach you?
Did you really think that even though my life was falling apart faster than a collapsing tower, that I wouldn’t have held out my hand for you?
I want to say this all to you. But suddenly…I don’t think you deserve to know it. Maybe five years after. Maybe eight years after.
But not ten years after you broke my heart.
Not ten years after you left me with a wrecked husband and two inconsolable little boys. Not a decade after I had a choice: take care of them or grieve you. There wasn’t enough of me to do both.
“You could have stayed friends with me,” I say now. “People do that, you know. Get divorced and still remain friends.” Even though you and Roarke are not divorced, and thus, I will never be his wife. Because Roarke is the kind of guy who, even if he hates you on some level, will not let the mother of his children suffer. Staying married is easier for him to support you financially, and judging by the neighborhood you live in, with your boyfriend no less, it seems that it’s all working out for you.
“They needed you more than I did,” you say now, removing your sunglasses finally. For the first time in ten years, I see your eyes. You say this as if, by cutting yourself out of my life, you’ve made some kind of holy sacrifice.
“And look how it turned out,” you add, your eyes holding mine for the first time in forever, a hint of playfulness in them. “You and Roarke, you know? You love him more than I ever did, don’t you?”
Even though right now I feel the most like us I’ve felt in ten years, with your pretty brown eyes locked on me, as if we’re in high school and gossiping about boys—despite this, rage simmers. Rage that’s buried, long since taken over by the this is my life mindset. Overturned by Roarke and how much I love him and how utterly, fiercely, and powerfully I love our kids…all of them, including the two that you abandoned.
You didn’t give us all some gift. Did you think that I’d make them hot chocolates and say sorry guys Mommy’s gone. Oh well! And that they’d be okay? Did you think six and four were good developmental ages to abandon your children, to leave them motherless? Do you have any idea how much therapy they’ve needed? Do you even care? Do you know they’ll never recover from you leaving? Your absence a seared brand in their flesh: our mother left. That scar will never fully heal.
Do you know Roarke will spend the rest of his life blaming himself, even if he now says otherwise?
“Where did I go wrong,” he’d bemoaned, for months, trying to analyze what more he could have done. “I knew she was struggling. I knew she was off her meds.”
And you justify that by leaving them to me? Yeah, that was great. Like I needed one more problem. Ten years ago—I should remind you of this—my husband was gone. I was getting a divorce. I was about to go back to work and put my non-sleeping three-month old in daycare. Ben was a terror. And guess what Amy? You didn’t have the monopoly on depression. I had a raging case of post-partum going on. On top of that, I was worried about you, because you weren’t getting out of bed and barely taking care of your kids. I was worried about poor Amy, stuck under her down comforter with her perfect husband handling her life. I was trying to put out fires left and right. Including yours.
Then, you left me Roarke and the boys. Thanks for that. (Obviously, I’m beyond grateful now…but not at the cost. Not at the cost of how you damaged them all.)
Meanwhile, you were off somewhere, with a man twenty years your senior who would eventually become your live-in lover in the house that Roarke pays for. While I was sitting in your kitchen. Trying to pick up the pieces of my broken family and now yours as well. And you were the one who made a sacrifice? Get real, Amy.
I think about telling you all that, right now, over the fence, but instead I break the gaze of your brown eyes. I don’t even believe you really want to know. When Roarke asks me about this visit, when he ponders if perhaps, he should do the same, I will tell him not to bother. If you were going to invite me in, serve me coffee, apologize, listen to me, anything—you would have done it by now.
If you wanted to know about Gavin and Owen—really know, like the way Gavin slept in bed with us until he was ten and how Owen is the kind of kid who always sticks up for the underdog—you would be taking steps towards that conversation. You would not be standing here like a stone, holding onto that rake like it’s all that anchors you to your present.
“You were my best friend,” I say, and hate that my voice gets lodged in my throat. “How could you leave me?”
Our gaze broken, you stare far off into the distance, as if it’s a struggle to remember who you were ten years ago. Maybe it is—I don’t know the depths of your mental illness, only what I experienced secondhand. Only what I know of my brief stint with post-partum depression, when chemicals changed how I perceived everything. I don’t know what it’s like to live that way forever. Even if, I must admit, you don’t appear very depressed anymore. There is a lightness to you, a bright cheery “Welcome Fall” sign on your porch, a boyfriend that you must love more than Roarke, or me, or any of the kids. I wonder if that guy knows about your problems. I wonder if he knows the real story. If he even knows my name.
Your far-off stare concludes, and you look at me again. You take in a deep breath. The whole world seems to balance on your lips, as if anything might come out. But when you exhale, it’s nothing at all.
“I know,” you say. You shrug. It’s clear to me that you moved past all of it a long time ago. And that its just me who keeps the home fires burning, who thinks about you every time one of your boys looks at me with the same deep brown eyes. It’s just me who pulls out the photo albums from our childhood, from the good periods when you were properly medicated. Its only me who looks at us, each with our whole future still unwritten.
You’re long past that. You have a whole new life now.
“I’ll let you get back to your work,” I say. I’ve moved out of the circle where truth could have spilled; I’m backing away from the gate. I’m talking again as if we’re just neighbors, or best friends ten years ago. “It’s getting dark so early these days.”
“Yes,” you agree.
I turn and head to my car. Suddenly, more than anything in the world, I want to be home. With Roarke and my children—my children, every one of them mine—in a place where people don’t leave you. Where people don’t cast you aside.
“Sheila,” I hear you say, but I don’t turn. I get into my car and close the door and cut off your next words. I start it and drive off, without looking back—just like you once did.
Maybe you followed my name with I'm sorry. But as I drive home, the shopping trip abandoned, I think maybe I don’t want to know that. I don’t want to know that you might be sorry. It’s hard enough to unearth this rage tinged with nostalgia and bitterness, hard to leave that scab alone. There is simply no room for empathy. No room to take in an apology. Not anymore.
You had ten years, Amy. Ten years.