In the spring of 2020 I completed the manuscript of a novel – Through the Valley of the Shadow of Life – exploring a man’s decades-long quest to free himself from the negative effects of sexual abuse experienced in the family environment of his childhood; his search for meaning and contentment in his life, including in his intimate relationships; and his efforts to make amends for past misconduct.
I submitted the manuscript to about 50 literary agents I had carefully researched and selected for their potential compatibility – based on works they had represented in the the past and which they expressed an interest, in their online profiles, in representing currently – with the novel’s subject matter. Although I did not receive any offers of representation, I did receive several personal replies in which the replying agent, based on the opening pages and story synopsis I had submitted, complimented Valley for its storyline and/or writing (with one or another agent calling the story “compelling,” saying there was “much to admire” in my submission, saying they had read my submission “with interest,” that “your writing is strong,” and so on). These compliments have provided me encouragement in my decision to self-publish the manuscript, which I plan to do sometime during the first half of 2022.
Described by a beta reader as a coming of age novel in late middle age, Through the Valley of the Shadow of Life takes the reader on a journey of enlightenment in a struggle against darkness and taboo.
Below is an excerpt from the novel’s middle section (of three sections total). If you would like to receive advance notification of Valley‘s publication, follow johnbrookswriting.com by clicking on/tapping the Follow button or entering your email address and clicking on/tapping “Follow” at the bottom of any of this site’s pages.
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THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF LIFE
Warning: Adult Content
. . .
The man writes in his journal, feels the woman’s waiting. She sits across the table with her magazine. The man is still young – in his thirties. He’s in love with the woman – he knows this now; knows it more than ever. But knowing doesn’t help.
He feels the woman waiting for him to say something – he’s felt it all day.
He’s felt it in the way – as she reads articles, checks photos from the magazine’s current and previous issues, drawn from a stack against the wall just by her chair – she squeezes the corners of the glossy pages between her thumb and forefinger so tightly, loudly, as to suggest she were attempting an extrusion of their contents; their suspension – lambent, holographic – in the air above the table.
He’s felt it in the pages’ snap, sharper than before, as she’s flipped with, it’s seemed to the man, a steadily rising frequency from one article to another, here and there and back again, as though in urgent search for something. As though, the man imagines, the woman hopes, almost, to come upon a feature, complete with a photo spread, on her and the man themselves – a fait accompli she can point to and say, “See, chéri! It’s us! You don’t need to decide! It’s already done!”
And he’s felt it in the way – with the day’s progression from morning into afternoon and now the approach of evening – he’s found himself increasingly distracted from his writing by the woman’s presence alone. By how her stillness and silence – between her peregrinations among the pages and her sips (louder, more drawn out, the man feels sure, than usual) from her mug of tea – have seemed more and more to rival those of a figure in a wax museum, save for the dart of her eyes across print and picture, the dilation and contraction of her nostrils, almost too faint to detect.
The man has found himself, even, unable to discard the notion that the woman is holding the magazine intentionally at the optimal angle for its cover not to escape his notice, however much he attempts to keep his focus on his journal, from the corner of his eye – a cover showing a woman in full wedding regalia; the model perfectly posed, her face radiant against the halo of a drawn-back veil, and, above her, the magazine’s bold, italics, ALL CAPS title (the base of whose “I“ the veil caresses):
B R I D E
But, despite all of this; despite the woman’s waiting, the man hasn’t yielded to her wishes – to codependency. If anything, the woman’s behavior has redoubled his determination to keep his attention where, he again reminds himself, it needs to be – on his healing. Which for the man has meant keeping himself hunched down over his journal, writing, staring at the page as he ponders, sometimes for minutes, then writing some more, in dialogue with himself. As for dialogue with the woman, there’s nothing more – of any importance at least – that he’s ready to say.
The summer sun comes in low and flat through the windows facing west towards the center of the foreign metropolis on whose outskirts their apartment is situated. Soon, the man hopes, the woman will put down her magazine, get up without a word, and start preparing dinner. While she cooks, he’ll set the table. Then they’ll eat. Maybe they’ll chat a little – a few words, small talk. Whatever he says won’t be what she’s waiting to hear. If he’s lucky, she won’t complain. Then he’ll clear the table and start washing the dishes while she goes back to her magazines and – once he’s dried the last dish, placed it in the cupboard, and returned to his journal – to her waiting.
He writes that he came to this foreign capital to escape his life in the United States, his home country. How now it seems most of his life was waiting here to meet him. How the woman had brought the rest.
Decades later the man would reflect that he could have attempted his escape to any foreign capital of any foreign land and they would probably have served his purpose equally well – that is, to an absolute degree of ineffectiveness. He would reflect, as well, that it had only been an entirely a random confluence of factors – this particular nation’s rising global economic prowess and the challenges this had posed to US global preeminence, which had motivated this nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create an additional local staff position, for a speechwriter and assistant for political affairs, at its Consulate General in Atlanta, for which position the man, dissatisfied with his nascent legal career, had applied and been hired, resulting in his eventually receiving a grant from this nation’s Ministry of Education for post-graduate study at its most esteemed institution of higher learning – that had allowed him to come here to live.
But for now the young man doesn’t entertain such speculation, so engrossed is he in the immediacy – in what he feels to be the absolute urgency – of his circumstances.
As he writes, he suppresses an impulse to look up at the woman, forces his eyes to stay on the page. Looking up at woman, even for a moment, breaks his concentration, and he needs concentration – complete, uninterrupted concentration – to focus on their situation together. To understand how to solve things; how to resolve things. To figure out even more precisely than he already has why the woman fits the title of the book on the table next to his journal: When Women Love Too Much. Fits it to a T.
He’d bought the book when, after just three months in the foreign land, he’d returned to the US for his winter holidays – to Atlanta, where the woman was still living in the apartment they’d shared; that she’d had when he’d moved in with her several years before. He’d proposed to her the night of his arrival as they’d sat holding hands on her living room sofa. She’d accepted on the spot and that was that – they’d finally gotten engaged. The next day at Lenox Square he’d gotten her the ring. When he’d slipped it on her finger, she’d looked at the mounted pearl, smiled her biggest smile, and said, “Oh chéri, I’m so happy!”
The day after, returning to the mall alone to buy the woman gifts for Christmas, the man, as he’d made his way from store to store among the holiday throngs, had found himself suddenly full of a free-floating fear at the merest thought of his and the woman’s union – a fear he’d found himself unable, by slowing his breathing, people watching, widow shopping, or, finally, retreating to the solitude of a restroom stall, to tether.
Then, as he’d walked by a Borders bookstore, where the book had been featured in a storefront display, the words of the title had tugged at his eyes. For a moment they were all he’d seen, as though glowing in darkness with the purity of complete and utter truth. He’d sensed the book was about her, and by the time he’d entered the store, opened a copy, and read several pages into the first chapter, he’d felt absolutely certain – that she was a Woman Who Loves Too Much.
He’d chosen the paperback edition for portability, then, avoiding cognitive dissonance, kept it sequestered in a zipped inner compartment of his carry-on bag for the remainder of his stay, as he and the woman had made their rounds, in Atlanta and elsewhere, visiting friends and the smattering of relatives they were close to; the woman beaming at each new chance to show the ring, present themselves as bride- and groom-to-be; handling questions about a wedding date – while glancing, pro forma, towards the man’s silence and tepid smile – with a shrug, a laugh, and the answer the man had given her: “We’ll decide . . . when we decide.”
This uncertainty notwithstanding, the woman had informed her employer, a local accounting firm, of her engagement, and that she would be leaving for the foreign land on a tourist visa sometime in the near future to join and soon thereafter marry her fiancé. The firm had offered its congratulations and promised a big farewell party provided the woman could give sufficient advance notice of her last day of work.
It was only after their final hugs and kisses at Hartsfield International; after the woman had looked the man in the eye and said, “Promise me again, chéri – before the sakura bloom,” and the man had nodded yes and assured the woman once more that he would find an apartment suitable for her to come to the foreign land to live with him before the blossoms of the sakura – the cherry tree – for which the land was famous, would, in early spring, experience the fleeting days of their brief existence; it was only after their last waves goodbye as the man, looking with a smile over his shoulder as he proceeded down the boarding ramp, had watched the woman disappear from view; only when he was finally ensconced in a rear corner seat of the 747 that the man had taken the book out of his carry-on to read and re-read – highlighting key passages, adding margin notes on tie-ins to his and the woman’s life together – the whole flight back.
In the weeks and months that followed, the man, as he’d pondered, then started journaling about their relationship on a daily basis – his first serious writing of a personal nature since he’d abandoned his dreams of becoming a writer and film director to go to law school eight years before – had come increasingly to recognize the roles he’d been playing as the woman’s partner, and not just in ways the book addressed. To grasp that, while he’d certainly nearly always been, in their relationship, a Man Loved by a Woman Who Loves Too Much, the first description he’d coined for himself (for hadn’t the woman been, nearly always, more the pursuer and he more the pursued?), he’d also become – or, the more he pondered things, realized he’d nearly always been as well – a Man Who Needs a Woman Who Loves Too Much . . . Too Much (for hadn’t he, from almost the start, felt a desire never to actually end up losing her – her love and her need for his?), this second moniker combining with the first to suggest a person capable, as he so evidently was, of existing in a quantum state – of being in two diametrically opposite affective-behavioral locations at once: on the one hand, in his fear and sometimes even terror (which the merest thought of the woman’s face, touch, or voice could arouse) of the woman’s intimacy, at the furthest extreme of interpersonal distancing; on the other, in his equal fear and terror (which the merest notion of the possibility of the woman’s permanent absence could engender) of the woman’s abandonment, at the opposite extreme of codependent enmeshment.
Interpersonal distancing. Codependent enmeshment. With the book, the man has learned to think and write the language of Recovery Speak. Of recovery from relational dysfunction.
Decades later the man would search online for “Recovery,” “Recovery Movement,” “Recovery, concept,” and related words and phrases to refresh his understanding of the process in which he had, during this earlier phase of his life, so completely immersed himself. But for now he just knows “Recovery” – which he’s noticed is increasingly a topic, for the most part favorably treated, of magazine and newspaper articles – feels like something that can work for him; knows this and therefore believes that he can recover; that, by achieving insight and understanding, he can play the central role – as he must, for ultimately, as the book has made clear, no one else, the woman included, can do it for him – in the transformation of his life into something far better; in its metamorphosis through his Journey of Healing.
As the man stares at, without processing, yet another of the book’s numerous absolutely critical passages – one concluding, like several others, with a stern admonition on the perils of yielding to the illusion of romantic love – he allows his thought-stream to continue: . . . the woman the pursuer; he the pursued . . . yes, true, from almost the start, for at the beginning, the very beginning, hadn’t he pursued the woman? Starting with the crisp October day, now more than five years previous, shortly after he’d commenced his employment at the Consulate General, when he’d attended a picnic for single professionals at Stone Mountain State Park and there spotted her, in cut-offs jeans and T-shirt, in the crowd, following which, under a clear blue sky as big as his loneliness, he’d approached her, finding, soon after, that her shy smiles and winsome glances were spurring his feelings of attraction as they’d partaken of the general conviviality and a smorgasbord of small talk along with the fried chicken, potato salad, and deviled eggs; the coleslaw, barbecued pork, and homemade biscuits.
She’d come with a friend so he’d offered her a ride home, and it was there, in the privacy of his Toyota, that the depths their bond had begun to form, with the woman disclosing, in tones of neediness and lingering grief, that her husband had died in a motorcycle accident the year before; that ever since she’d been feeling so lonely; that her recent move to a new apartment complex in Buckhead as part of her effort to let go hadn’t seemed to help; that she still, from time to time, felt a need to visit her husband’s grave – revelations that had aroused the man’s sympathies and protective instincts even as they’d suffused her allure with a powerful undertow.
The following night, over dinner at the man’s favorite Midtown restaurant, their bond had strengthened further as they’d shared similarities in their backgrounds, including abusive, rage-prone, alcoholic fathers, though for the man the element of his father’s abuse it had occurred to him to mention had been of a purely verbal nature – ”‘You jerk!’ ‘You jackass!’ and ‘You stupid fool!’ were among his favorites when it came to affirming our essential worth,” the man had put it over their New York sirloins – while the woman, returning her coffee with a gingerly care to its saucer, had stared at her cheesecake and whispered under her breath, “He hit me,” which had heightened the man’s sympathies, and his desire, as well, to have sex with her.
Outside her apartment he’d placed his hands on her upper arms, given a gentle squeeze, and brushed her lips with his. She’d invited him in, and it was there, as they’d sat, knees touching, on her sofa, that she’d told him what a kind and gentle man he was while, looking at his hand holding hers, his thumb kneading her palm, adding a playful doubt: “Warm hand, cold heart?” He’d leaned in to kiss her full on the lips, adding tongue, then started moving down her neck, and that was when she’d first called him “chéri,” with a falling sigh – as in, “Oh chéri!” – repeating the words with an utter passion as he’d begun ministering to her breasts, and no more so than when, exploring the underfold of one, he’d discovered and then, as gently as he could, caressed a three-inch scar of braided skin the woman would soon confide her father, employing a serrated knife, had left her with at twelve. Minutes later he’d led her to her bedroom where their naked bodies had twined, mingled sweat, found a rhythm in their sex.
But in subsequent days their pursuer-pursued dynamic had rapidly reversed, starting with the woman’s nightly phone calls, then her suggestion, less than two weeks in, that the man move in with her, and with his decision to do so, though he’d made this choice filled with a sense of remorse – a sense his desire for the woman’s certain affection overcame – at allowing, he’d suspected, too much of his privacy to dissolve too quickly; his remorse heightened, after several months of guestroom living at a relative’s Northside home, by the loss of a lease he’d recently signed on an apartment whose polished hardwood flooring (unlike the woman’s dwelling, whose wall-to-wall carpeting exuded a coziness that would come to feel oppressive) had given off a spacious gleam in the sunlight from its large, unobstructed windows.
Within a month of his move-in, the woman was thumbing through jewelry catalogues for engagement rings, a development whose patent obviousness – for she conducted her searches sitting beside him on the sofa while he read a book or watched TV – he’d pretended not to notice until she’d brought her ring quest explicitly to his attention, at which point, while reassuring her that someday – he had no idea of when – he might be ready to consider getting married, he’d tried to make it as clear as he could, without upsetting her too much, that he was in no hurry at all to do so.
So the woman had set all images of rings aside – in the man’s presence at least – and by the time they’d entered their first spring together, as the dogwoods, whose blossoms the woman so loved, were coming into bloom, they’d settled at least somewhat comfortably into a tacitly agreed-upon compromise: he wouldn’t move out if she wouldn’t press an engagement, much less marriage.
The man pauses his writing without looking up as the woman stands, takes her mug into the kitchen, refills it from a heated electric dispenser containing barley tea, returns to her seat, chooses another issue of the magazine from the stack, sips from her mug, and starts flipping back and forth in rapid succession. When she’s settled, wax-figure-like, on a location, the man returns his focus to his journal, noting and detailing in a rather cursory fashion something he would come to value more and more in the coming years and decades: that in the long interlude between their settling into their compromise and his flight (“as in ‘escape’ as well as plane flight,” he notes parenthetically) to this foreign land – which had, ironically, the man now realizes, led to their engagement – their relationship had enjoyed, and especially during the initial period of their compromise, a not insubstantial number of moments of carefree spontaneity – of an untroubled lightness of being – which had served to bring out the healthier aspects of their attraction. Moments ranging from the quotidian to the exceptional, though each, he sensed, possessed an equal value. As the woman, squeezing the corner of a page, seems to attempt another extrusion, he begins jotting down his memories, together with his imaginative reconstruction of various details, of the handful of moments that come to mind:
– Lying side-by-side on the grass in the park near the woman’s apartment, simultaneously saying what they see in the shapes of passing clouds – ” . . . one, two, three: dragon! / jack-in-the-box! . . . one, two, three: artist’s palette! / pancake! . . . one, two, three: Lincoln! / ogre! . . .” – amused at how different their imaginations could be, until they get to “. . . one, two, three: heart! / heart!”; construing, only half-jokingly, their consensus on this particular cloud as a sign of their mutual affection, and, the man notes in his journal, it’s nice to think that it was.
– Doing housekeeping together on a Saturday afternoon. From the bedroom, where he’s putting fresh sheets on the mattress, he hears her humming a tune, goes to where she’s folding towels in the laundry nook, slips his arms around her waist from behind, starts humming along with her – one of their favorite golden oldies: “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” As she presses the folded towels to her chest, he breathes in their fragrance mixed with hers, brushes his lips against the nape of her neck.
– On a holiday weekend – a midnight stroll through a Savannah graveyard, pausing here and there among the tombstones, live oaks, and Spanish moss to make out, whisper the words:
“Love you too.”
– On an autumn vacation; a drive, in the convertible they’d rented, down a New Hampshire country road; the woman’s hand on his resting on the stick shift, her neck relaxed on her seatback as, looking up, she mulls the swathe of blue between the canopy of trees afire with New England fall.
“I’ve finally let go of him.”
The man stays silent, happy in the moment, at the sound in her voice of complete release.
“Haven’t visited his grave in weeks.” She looks at him, smiles, gives his hand a squeeze. “Now I have you.”
– A break in the midst of some Saturday morning sex; he naked and smiling, jumping on their bed as though it were a trampoline, feeling weightless, almost, at each jump’s apex; sunlight streaming in through the window, shining on his erection as, bouncing up and down, it trails, in its rhythm, the movement of the rest of his body; the woman near tears with laughter as she points at his bouncing member, gleeful at the frolic of its unchained motion.
Of course, the man now reflects, then writes, whatever moments of carefree spontaneity he and the woman had shared during their tacit compromise may have been thanks in large part to their avoidance – also tacitly agreed upon – of the reality that their arrangement couldn’t last, not forever.
And, in fact, the man writes, the frequency of such moments had dwindled, at first so gradually as to be scarcely perceptible, then with a growing obviousness as their arrangement had lingered on, from months to a year, then to a second, then another. Dwindled and been replaced by a mutual unease; a strained tedium that could come out in words as direct as:
“How long will I have to wait!”
“For what? I haven’t promised a thing!”
Or in actions as telling as, after the briefest of bedtime embraces, a turning away – immediate, simultaneous, as if choreographed – to opposite sides of the mattress; each in their solitude, awaiting sleep, though here the man notes in his journal that, even as their relationship had deteriorated, at least he’d continued, with few exceptions, to fall asleep quickly and sleep though the night – a welcome departure, enjoyed since he’d moved in with the woman, from his frequent insomnia since childhood.
Previously, in their better times, the woman had confided that when her husband had died in his motorcycle accident she had been pursuing him by car – a car her husband had fashioned, using a mail order kit, from a Volkswagen Beetle, transforming the Bug with a long hood in the style of an old-fashioned race car, a souped-up engine, and a fire-engine-red paint job. The woman had been following her husband because she’d discovered he was having an affair and suspected he was going to visit his lover. Although it was twilight and, as the police report suggested, the transition from day to night may have been a factor, the woman suspected it had been her husband’s awareness of her pursuit and, in his effort to lose her, consequent increase in speed that had been the main factor causing him to lose control as he went around a curve. First at the scene, she’d gone into hysterics at the sight of his crumpled, lifeless body.
Following her husband’s death, the woman had used her Honda Civic for all her driving needs, keeping the kit car in the padlocked darkness of a single vehicle garage unit at her apartment complex, but one weekend, in their better times, she and the man had opened the garage, brushed away cobwebs from the side mirrors, wheel wells, and fenders, and taken the car for a spin – an activity that had soon become habitual.
Gradually, even as these outings had dwindled with their relationship’s increasing tension and the man’s growing sense of just how tight a bind he was in – how unable he remained to commit to marriage; how equally unable to let the woman go – the man had begun using the car for himself, to commute between Buckhead and the Consulate General’s Midtown office. When he went in early or returned home late, before or after the morning and evening rush hours, the car’s responsiveness and pickup allowed him to weave in and out among the relatively lighter traffic on the freeway, zipping by car after car – an activity that became a game he liked to play, providing release, but only, it seemed, at ever-increasing speeds that first approached, then exceeded one hundred miles per hour until sometimes the cars around him seemed to be standing still. He realized, of course, the possibilities of being caught for speeding, or, far worse, injuring or killing himself and others, but though, when he’d started topping one hundred, he’d managed to substantially curtail the frequency of his indulgence, he hadn’t been able to completely abstain from playing.
Then one evening in summer, close to the solstice, with light still lingering in the sky, as he was rounding a turn in the outside lane, foot on the gas, on the verge of passing another car, he’d felt a sudden lightness in the outside wheels, their weight on the concrete lessen; as he’d taken his foot from the pedal, had felt the wheels lift for an instant, completely off the road.
The following day he’d started filling out the forms to apply for the study grant, and, receiving it, taken a career break, attempting his escape to the foreign land while insisting to the woman, when she suggested she accompany him, that he needed to live by himself for awhile to consider matters, their relationship.
But of course – as had become so clear – his escape hadn’t worked, or, at least, produced the feelings of freedom and confidence in his choices that he’d hoped for.
For, once he was living in the foreign land, the man had felt it – the prospect of the woman no longer being a part of his life. Had felt it despite the woman’s promises, before he’d left the US, to wait for him to decide whether he still wanted her or not. Had felt it in the woman’s words, written on international airmail letter-envelope paper translucent as the thinnest layer of ice – paper crammed edge-to-edge with her worry over when, or even if, she would ever see him again; over how, now that he was gone, she didn’t actually know how much longer she could take the waiting. Had felt it in the simple fact of the woman’s absence, his growing attraction to other women, and the dates he’d started having despite his feelings of committing a betrayal (though, he notes in his journal, due largely to these scruples, none of the dates had yielded so much as a single kiss). It had felt, the man writes, as though a terrifying gulf of far more than physical distance were opening between them; a gulf that might at any time become uncrossable. And so, the man concludes, he’d panicked, pure and simple, at this prospect of irrevocable loss of the woman’s affections; had returned to the States for the holidays and they’d gotten engaged.
So now here they were, together again, in an apartment on the outskirts of this foreign capital, only the balance in their relationship had once again shifted, for no matter what had happened or not happened, been said or not been said since their engagement, the press of the woman’s urgency for marriage had revived from the moment he’d proposed, gained a validity whose insistence, even when unspoken, her forbearance from wearing the ring since coming here to live with him had done little to lessen, so that when his mind would wander from his journal, the man would often remember the press of his foot on the gas as he’d rounded the turn of the freeway.
Of course, the man realizes, any fear and misgivings he may still harbor about marrying the woman are no longer valid in terms of the societal expectation that marriage will follow an engagement, but, as he’s explained to the woman, he has to honor his feelings since, whatever their reason, they’re certainly authentic, and the woman has agreed. “I would never want you to marry me unless you really wanted to, chéri,” she’s told him more than once, all the while making it clear how much she wants him to really want to.
And so with it all up to him to handle, decide things properly, only the most pellucid understanding, the man has become convinced, offers any chance of providing an effective antidote to what would otherwise, he’d grown increasingly to realize since sliding the ring on her finger, be a union rife, at least under the circumstances of their relationship as it currently stands, with core dysfunction.
Which is why he reads, ponders, journals, then reads, ponders, and journals some more, repeating this virtuous cycle as much as possible without ceasing – the only approach, he’s convinced, that can save them – for time, the man senses, is of the essence.
Not that the man had welcomed shouldering by himself the burden of finding a solution. Soon after the woman’s arrival, more certain than ever the book was the key to their relationship and wanting the woman to see things as clearly as, by the book’s amazing grace, he had begun to see, the man had bought a sturdily-bound hardback copy at an international bookstore near the city center – the same store where the woman had just bought the latest issue of B R I D E.
That night over dinner, when the timing felt right, he’d slid it in a gingerly fashion out of the store’s bag, and, nudging it across the table, said in as nonchalant a voice as he could manage that he thought she might find it helpful. The next day, eating breakfast, as he’d disposed of a banana peel, he’d discovered it splayed open in the garbage, splattered with the dregs of her morning coffee.
Since the woman has made it so vividly clear she has no desire to understand the dysfunction that resides, has resided all along, at the very core of their relationship, the man knows more than ever it’s all up to him. That he has to do the understanding for the both of them. To realize why she’s that kind of woman – a Woman Who Loves Too Much. Why he’s, simultaneously, those two kinds of men. For without complete understanding, the man is convinced, soon it will be too late. Too late to tag with words – and thereby comprehend and subdue – all the vibes, the invisible energies that fly like lost souls, their howls inaudible except to his inner knowing, through the silence between them. Too late to not only face and comprehend, but, the man hopes, to heal their dysfunction as well – or, at least, for him to heal his, even if the woman refuses to deal with hers. Still, as he ponders, writes, and re-reads, again and again, he reminds himself he’s doing it not just for himself but for both their sakes, whether or not they marry; whether or not they stay together.
And what’s more, he tries to remember to remind himself, for affirmative pick-me-ups are so very important, his efforts are paying off, from the present to the past and back again as the man has started to see – so clearly! – how the seeds of relational dysfunction were planted long before – so deeply! – in the soil of his family of origin as he grew up in Nashville, Tennessee in a middle-class, then – after his father, a Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University, one of the South’s most prestigious, nationally-recognized institutions of higher learning, received his tenure – upper-middle-class family.
A “looking good family” in which the father had reserved his rage and verbal abuse for his wife and three children – the man, a brother two years older, and sister five years younger – and thereby managed to sequester these socially unattractive behaviors within the confines of his home while his alcoholism was of the high-functioning variety, causing no apparent detriment to his drive for tenure and possibly even a benefit as it served, together with his joke-telling skills, to help make him the life of faculty parties; his alcoholism further camouflaged by his high-status position, his wife’s beauty and educated refinement, the nice homes they’d owned and lived in, and the family’s membership in one of the city’s oldest – and, with governors, US senators, and some of the city’s wealthiest citizens among its deacons and elders, most prestigious – Presbyterian churches.
A family in which the man’s mother had been a financially dependent, generally passive housewife so desperate for affection – which she’d received in grossly inadequate portions from her husband, and those meager portions voided by her husband’s abuse – that, with her older son away, from his early teens, at boarding school, she’d come to seek it from her younger, confiding in him more than once, as she cried, literally, on his shoulder, about the state of her marriage; seeking her younger son’s affection so much that by the time he’d left for college at Stanford – as far from home, among the schools he’d applied to, as he could get – the man had come to feel he was less his mother’s child than her hybrid parent-lover.
Yes, the man thinks, then jots in his journal, it’s all so very clear! How, growing up in such a family environment, a man could become so keenly afraid of the degree of commitment to a woman – and not just this woman but any woman – marriage generally called for. How fraught with possibilities for dysfunctional entanglement a relationship with a woman of any significant duration and degree of intimacy could be. How exceedingly difficult it could be for a man such as himself to maintain the sort of healthy boundaries that helped ensure, in Recovery Speak, overall relational health.
But the problem, of course, wasn’t just with himself, for the man could see how the seeds of dysfunction had been planted in the soil of the woman’s family of origin as well, what with her own alcoholic, rage-filled father, a master carpenter whose initial success turned to progressive decline, dispensing frequent beatings upon her mother; with her mother also turning to alcohol when her husband expanded his beatings to include their four daughters while adding threats made with various weapons – assorted firearms, a switchblade, the serrated knife he’d used on the second oldest, the woman, leaving her at twelve with a scar under one of her burgeoning breasts, this event being the trigger for the mother’s decisive action – a midnight escape from the family home, expertly built, thanks to the father’s skills, located though it was in an impoverished patch of northern Mississippi; the front door opening, closing smoothly, near silently, in its well-plumbed, well-crafted frame so there was no chance of its waking its maker, who lay passed out drunk on the bathroom floor; the four females fleeing across fallow, moonlit fields of winter, then hiking ten miles down the shoulder of the nearest highway to a roadside Greyhound stop for a 4am bus to Memphis and the refuge of the home of the mother’s older, unmarried sister; the mother, her divorce finalized, moving, three months later, with her new husband, a factory worker she’d met in AA, to Los Angeles, where he’d started a new job; taking only her eldest daughter with her as one child was all she and her new spouse could afford with any confidence, in their circumstances, to finish raising; the mother, her new husband, and the aunt agreeing it best that the three younger daughters continue living with their auntie, and yes, the aunt had done a good job of raising her three nieces the rest of their way to adulthood, and yes, the woman had graduated from an honors program in public high school, Summa Cum Laude from college, then started a successful career, but even so the man, thanks to the book’s astounding beneficence of insight, could see them with the vividness of serrated slash marks; perceive in the woman’s utterly desperate neediness, which had given her love a degree of possessiveness far in excess of his tolerance level, the childhood wounds still festering beneath the surface of her psyche, at its deepest levels; wounds that had contributed, day-by-day, to her and the man’s reciprocal dysfunction.
But why, the man now wonders and writes in his journal, hadn’t the woman, with her experience of her father’s physical abuse – to the point of having been left with a permanent scar – felt the same fear of marital intimacy as he, with his experience of his mother’s emotional enmeshment?
Pondering, the man jots that perhaps this is because whereas the woman, by her seemingly non-stop desire for closeness and never-renounced – even during the interlude provided by their compromise – hope for marriage, had triggered his fears of an enmeshment mirroring his experience with his mother, the woman, by contrast, had always perceived him as the complete opposite of her father, often repeating, and with a smile or a tender caress – during and after their sex, their walks in the park, or at any given moment of their time together – what she’d told him their first night together: “You are a gentle man. Such a gentle man.”
(And he had, in fact, been a gentle man, the man notes parenthetically in his journal. Hadn’t once been physically violent towards the woman; and while he had sometimes, from early on in their relationship, expressed anger, controlled in tone and choice of words, and particularly when he felt the woman was badgering him concerning matters of long-term commitment (“I’m sorry, but you’re asking for more than I can promise at this time,” stated with a well-calibrated firmness and what he’d roughly estimated to be only twenty percent above his normal volume, was one of his favorites; “For what? I haven’t promised a thing!” – in response to, “How long will I have to wait!” – was the closest he felt he’d ever come to losing it, and even then, he’d estimated, he hadn’t gone above fifty percent), he viewed such expressions of anger as a healthy communication of his authentic feelings – a behavioral accomplishment (and he did consider it quite an accomplishment given his childhood experience of his father’s treatment of his mother) of which he felt proud.)
As, during the interlude provided by their compromise, the man and women had continued sharing pieces of their pasts – which could sometimes seem, magically, to be forming a single jigsaw puzzle that illustrated with unambiguous exactitude why they would have come together – they’d felt their bond grow deeper even as they’d come no closer on the issue of marriage.
But they hadn’t, the man writes, been able to grasp the insights with which he had been blessed by the book – insights concerning the seemingly bottomless chasms of mutual neediness (for certainly, in its own fashion, his neediness equaled hers) their childhood experiences would carve into their psyches, to which for him had been added (thanks, as best he could understand things, to his relationship with his mother) the unbounded fear of intimacy he would experience when, with their engagement, the prospect of marriage had begun to loom as more than a hypothetical phantom.
Insights such as these, the man has become convinced, set forth the truths forming the bedrock of his and the woman’s current quandary. He feels equally confident that when such insights reached a critical mass, they would provide the answer, or at least a path to the answer. And so the man continues to write, seeking ever-greater clarity, for with sufficient clarity, he’s certain, everything can be solved; can finally and fully be resolved.
“I’m going to the supermarket – wanna come?” The man looks up to see the woman, arms crossed, looking down at him. In the intensity of his concentration, he hadn’t noticed she’d set down her mug, splayed her magazine facedown on the table, stood and approached him.
“Thanks but I need to stay with this.” With his pen-holding hand he gestures to his journal.
The woman shifts her gaze to the journal, stares at it for a long moment, and shrugs. “Suit yourself.” She goes into the kitchen, takes her wallet and keys from the counter, and exits the apartment. After listening for several seconds to the silence that follows, the man returns his attention to his journal and the crucial question of the woman’s remaining capacity for enduring their current status quo.
During her first few days in the foreign country, the man, reflecting, notes, the woman had seemed to believe what he’d sincerely told her – that journaling about his past and how it connected to his present (not mentioning he was writing about her past-to-present connections as well) might save their relationship. But soon she was saying she wasn’t so sure, and soon after had started complaining that his journaling was like a fulltime job with incessant demands for his attention, or, even more, like a mistress – some new lover he cared for more than her.
Alarmed by the woman’s allegations and afraid of how she might react if she read what he was writing, the man has started taking his journal’s current volume and the book with him whenever he leaves the table – to use the bathroom, go for a walk, or for any other purpose. During mealtimes and from the point of his nightly shower until he wakes in the morning, he secures them in a small safe he bought for this purpose – in which the previous volumes, plain bound notebooks of a hundred pages each, reside in a neat stack – then bolted to the closet floor of the adjoining bedroom, a move that’s strengthened the woman’s insistence his journal’s his new chéri.
Recently, the man writes, he’s even begun to worry about the woman’s mug of tea – that she might at any time, with seeming inadvertence or obvious intent, knock it over so its contents, flowing swiftly across the table, soak the current volume’s pages, smearing the ink of the words he’s written to a point of illegibility, which wouldn’t be a complete tragedy, for, after all, the previous volumes would remain sequestered and unblemished in the safe, but still, the man senses, all of what he’s writing is precious, and none more so than his most recent output, positioned, as it is, on the leading edge of his ever-widening, ever-deepening awareness, and thereby very possibly contributing, as it may, to a final, decisive clarity into how he can best proceed, for his and the woman’s sakes both, going forward.
Contemplating this tea-as-weapon contingency, the man once again – how many times has it been by now? – imagines himself yanking the journal away at the sound of ceramic impacting the wood of the table at any volume noticeably greater than when the woman sets her mug down normally, or at his first discernment, from the corner of his eye, of advancing liquid. But so far, the man reflects, the woman has given no indication by her handling of her mug and its contents, which she treats with a protective care, that she would ever take any such action, and the man tries again to shrug off the increasingly distracting notion that she might by reminding himself of the woman’s general fastidiousness when it comes to housekeeping (she sweeps and vacuums daily, gives the table a wipe down every evening, forbids food or drink save water in the bedroom), which should dissuade her from doing so.
He glances at his watch to check the date, counts the weeks since the woman’s arrival in the foreign land – over nine months after his own, seven since their engagement, and three since the last of the sakura blossoms had fallen. Since the day in mid-July when he’d stood in front of his supervising professor’s desk at the foreign land’s most prestigious university, bowing from the waist and saying, in the country’s language, taihen moshiwake gozaimasen – ”I have no excuse whatsoever.”
No excuse, for his complete lack of progress on writing the thesis he’d outlined in his grant proposal. No excuse, for his failure to have even begun the background research. No excuse that he felt comfortable providing, that is, as, in fact, his one and only excuse was what, during nearly his every waking moment, had amounted to a complete fixation on his and the woman’s relationship, or, at least, on his innermost feelings about their relationship – feelings that seemed to emanate from some black hole at his very center.
The supervising professor, leaning forward in his ancient wooden swivel chair, elbows resting nearly at shoulder level on the chair’s high arms, had looked down at the man’s file resting on his desk blotter and half-muttered, “Our Consul General in Atlanta spoke so highly of you; said you’d done such excellent work. Your letters of recommendation from your university and law school professors – they were all so glowing. And now, with all of the opportunities between our nations, the grant you received from our Ministry of Education, your placement at our university – all providing you with such a great opportunity.” Folding his hands, the professor had shaken his head. “I’m so sorry things haven’t been working out. Such a pity. Most regrettable.”
That’s when the man had bowed a full ninety degrees, said taihen moshiwake gozaimasen once more, then, after holding the bow for several seconds, explained he wouldn’t be able to attend the professor’s seminar that afternoon – its last meeting before the summer break. He was terribly sorry, but he had a special, an extraordinarily important personal commitment that required his immediate attention.
He’d bowed again – hurriedly, sloppily – then turned and left the professor’s office, walking quickly, then trotting down the hallway, running out of the building, across the campus towards the university’s famous Red Gate, under its sloping, tiled roof and down the sidewalk to the nearest subway. Two transfers later he was on an express that got him to the airport just in time – in time to be standing in the Arrivals lobby when the woman, pulling a single suitcase, had come out of Customs looking way too thin, her arms and legs like sticks – a drastic drop from her normal weight – but she hadn’t seemed to care how his eyes had widened at the sight of her; how he hadn’t been able to wipe the worry from his face. She’d finally come to be with him. After all her months of waiting. All their calls.
The calls at the beginning, when he was telling her that, what with his study grant’s various commitments (which in fact consisted of a single obligation to attend his supervising professor’s weekly seminar) and his resulting scarcity of time, it was taking him longer than he’d thought it would to find a place suitable for them to share – an explanation that had inevitably led to the woman’s nervous questions, in response to which the man would attempt to reassure her that, yes, he really did still want her to come to live with him so they could marry.
Then the calls when, dismissing any attempt by the man at explanation, the woman would cut in right away and ask, “Are you sure, chéri?” and he would feel the ache rising up through his chest, but still he would try to make his voice sound calm and say, “Yes, I’m sure,” and then he would hear the same brightness in her voice as when he’d slipped the ring on her finger – a brightness like a clear bell, full of flat out joy and wonder as she repeated the words, “Oh chéri, I’m so happy!” Like she was the luckiest woman in the world. Like she couldn’t in her wildest dreams imagine being luckier.
Then the call when he’d burst into tears, had finally gotten up the guts to say he still really wasn’t sure – wasn’t sure at all that he wanted to marry. When she’d screamed through her sobs, “Then why did you ask me! Why did you give me the ring!” When, still sobbing, she’d said, “Chéri, you broke my heart. This is the last time I’m ever going to speak to you.” And hung up.
Then all the calls that had come after. The days when he’d phone her in the morning, sitting at his desk in the room he was then occupying in a dormitory housing the most well cared for of the metropolis’s international students – all on government scholarships like the man’s; elbows on his desk, gripping the receiver as he waited for her to pick up so he could tell her either that he did or didn’t want her to come – the opposite of whatever he’d told her the previous call. When at the sound of her voice, even as he told her his latest decision, he would begin to feel it again – his fear’s oscillation, back and forth, again and again, between these diametrical choices even as he felt the choices moving away from each other at ever-increasing speeds, separating at ever-greater spatial immensities within his mind’s universe but all the while maintaining an absolute sync, like the spins of tangled electrons in quantum steel embrace: the one choice – that she not come – enveloped in a complete and utter terror of intimacy; the other – that she come – in a complete and utter terror of abandonment. The oscillation growing more insistent, frenzied, as he’d sit on his bed after each call, trying just to breathe, calm himself, not feel the panic rising up within him, moving all through him. As he’d eat in the dorm cafeteria – alone because since the other students had realized that the crisis in his relationship with his fiancé, with its twin fears and the oscillation between them, was the only thing he was capable of talking about, they’d started to avoid him. As he’d walk neighborhood streets lined with sakura – in March’s lingering winter, with their branches still bare; in April’s first flush of spring, under their canopies of white and pink (remembering the woman’s words: “Oh how nice it will be chéri! To walk with you under the cherry blossoms!”); in May’s summering warmth, as, their flowers fallen, the green of their leaves had begun to darken.
There were no outward signs of distress – no nervous twitches or uncontrollable sweating. He never uttered a sound of anguish, at least in front of others, or talked to himself out loud. The only indication that anything could be wrong – that, in fact, he feared he could well be going mad – might have been detected in his expression, of an intense preoccupation. A look that almost never left him as all the while, day by day, the immensity of the distances between the polarities kept increasing until it seemed that in order to contemplate both and their enveloping terrors – of intimacy and abandonment – simultaneously, his consciousness would have to stretch to span the Universe.
So that he began to feel sometimes that he was about to scream, wherever he happened to be. To, yes, suddenly scream – not just in his mind, as he sometimes heard himself doing, but out loud, at the top of his lungs, in the cafeteria or walking down a street; riding the train to the university for his supervising professor’s seminar, or as he sat silently in the seminar itself until the terror, blessedly, would begin to subside beneath the mellifluous flow of the professor’s commentary, but even then he wouldn’t be able to focus, could only watch the movement of the professor’s lips as the words they were saying failed to convey any meaning.
Until finally he realized that the only way he could settle the panic, get the oscillation, the daily-increasing terror to dissipate was to be completely honest, make it absolutely, unmistakably clear to the woman that if she did decide to come to the foreign land to be with him, he couldn’t make any promises, any commitment whatsoever.
And so had come the call when the woman had said, “OK, chéri, I’ll come. Just tell me that you love me. That’s all I want to hear.” And he’d told her, said the three simple words – “I love you” – and meant them, but all the while, as he went through his days, finding and moving into the apartment they would share; as the woman, as soon as he’d assured her he had the key and had spent his first night there, had given her accounting firm a week’s notice, executed a prearranged plan with her apartment’s management company to handle storage, the kit car included, of her belongings – what she hadn’t already sold, discarded, given away, or left for safekeeping with friends, to whom she entrusted the gifts from her hastily arranged farewell party (save for a set of embroidered pillowcases she and the man could lay their heads on, side by side, at night when they were once again together – these she packed, along with some clothes, shoes, toiletries, and the issues of
B R I D E she’d been buying since January, in a single suitcase the same day she paid for her flight); all the while the man would feel it sometimes, the ache rising up, then moving all through him like a million tiny hands, twisting his heart first one way, then the other; would sense the twin terrors still there inside him; managed, contained for a while by his honesty, the breathing room it had given him, but always waiting, ready to bloom again.