Not long before Kenny left, we took our last Saturday drive together. As usual, we stopped at the 7-11 near the house, but instead of the usual extra-large coffee and two apple fritters or donuts, he only got coffee. I got a plain donut and an extra-large coffee, so that he could finish it later. I was clinging to old habits, but he wasn’t.
We drove in silence a couple of hours south to Montpelier, Virginia, to see James Madison’s house (aptly named Montpelier). Unlike our early-romance silences that were comfortable and interrupted with the occasional conversation, revelatory or observational, this was a two-people-in-their-own-world’s kind of hard silence. Even when I drove down a country lane leading to a farm’s fruit and vegetable stand, there wasn’t any banter about what we would find—it felt like we were going to the supermarket.
When we finally ended up at Madison’s estate, we discovered that the entry tickets were $18 each. Since neither of us felt like spending so much money to wander around what had once been a plantation that we were only going to use as a backdrop to whatever conversation had been percolating within each of us during the drive, I turned the car around and continued driving. We got lost some more looking for a place to eat, until we found a country store selling barbeque. The barbeque wasn’t ready yet, so I ordered a Virginia ham sandwich and potato salad. Kenny didn’t want anything.
When I finally got my sandwich and finished talking to the proprietor (something I never did before Kenny came to town), we sat at the picnic table in front of the store. Sure, there was a tractor parked there making a lot of noise, and we were facing a two-lane road, but there were farms all around and the tractor added the appropriate background white (really black) noise to the scene, so we sat down.
I ate and he cried.
It is odd to think that you are an emotional and sensitive person, only to discover that the man in your life is more emotional and sensitive than you are. It makes you feel like a Beast, inside and out, while he gets to be the Beauty.
He told me, as I took a bite into my thick ham and cheese sandwich, that he saw no reason to live if he wasn’t able to make me love him. Looking out, past the tractor and the road to the sunlight trees lining the fields beyond, and then to the dirt under the bench, he said that he was contemplating committing suicide.
I was shocked, and then I was scared, hurt, and angry. I’m just a woman, I thought, as I tried to figure out what to say, why is he giving me more power than I have, and why is he making me feel guilty because of the way I feel. His statement was so supremely selfish that I was tempted to walk away, except he was obviously in so much pain.
When he moved here twenty months earlier he had said that his intention was to make my life easier because he had always loved me (we had been friends 28 years earlier) and because he was devastated by what I had told him and what he had read (on my blog and other writings that I gave to him) about my relationship with my ex-husband. Much of that was about how my ex-husband had tormented me emotionally, and how I perceived the origin of the abuse as his need to control me and my inability to move my STOP IT! thoughts out of my head and into words and actions that would have stopped him before there was nothing between us except the gulf between the moment we met and the moment he said he would spit on my grave.
When Kenny told me a few weeks earlier that he would be leaving, he said that it was too expensive for him where I lived and that he felt it would be better for us (or did he say for me?) if he moved. I had thought that things were good between us, but as soon as he said that, I knew it was right—that living with him was not right for me as a woman or as a mother. It was as if I had been at the optometrist’s office for endless hours of “Which is clearer: A or B,” but nothing was ever clear, until that moment of absolute clarity. Since then I had only seen clearer why I needed him to leave.
It had been too hard for me to make that realization since he had moved so far to be with me (from Belfast to Northern Virginia) and completely changed his life-plans in that move (graduate school in England to a great unknown). It was also hard for me to formulate my thoughts because he kept telling me that he loved me with all his heart and that I was all that mattered to him. After a while, hearing that didn’t make me feel loved, it made me feel imposed upon. Maintaining and protecting his love took precedence over whatever I might feel toward him. His love was not for me, but for himself—it became an unspoken demand for me not to do anything that would hurt him, that would open the open wound of his love for me because, after all, all that mattered was me.
If my divorce had taught me anything, it had taught me to be clear about my feelings and thoughts and to not suppress them, but knowing that and acting on that turned out to beyond my ability. Not only because Kenny was so sensitive, but because I still put other people’s emotions above my own.
The first time that I told my ex-husband that I wanted a divorce, he said that he would commit suicide.
Between these two declarations of suicide there was all manner of working on relationships, and readings, and writings (a lot of those) focusing on faults (theirs and mine), with the occasional nod to strengths.
At the moment of Kenny’s despair, I reached for the compassion that he wanted, but I didn’t have any. My supply of you-first was gone, as was my sense that he was a sensible man. At that moment he was the desperate child that he kept telling me was hiding within him, ruined by a brutal childhood that he was never able to overcome. In arguments I had been instructed how he must be handled. I had tried to fit my needs into his, but at that moment I couldn’t—I felt manipulated, not consciously and maybe I only think that because I failed him and I am trying to take care of myself, but I had reached the point when all I could do was hand Kenny back to Kenny, and me back to me.
Things only went downhill from there until he left. I withdrew and he tried to take back his leaving. For me there was no going back: I needed him to leave.