Late weeknight phone calls throw me into a panic — fearing news of car accidents, mangled kids, suddenly dead parents. I staggered across my bedroom to the dresser and fumbled to unplug my ringing phone. “Hello?”
“Jenny?” The voice of Nancy, my ex-mother-in-law, one of the few people who called me by the childish name I no longer used. Nancy called me frequently – sometimes too frequently – and always started her phone calls with my name as a question, as if she weren’t sure who would answer at the number she seemed to have on speed dial.
“Yeah,” I responded, relieved but annoyed, assuming I was awoken for something inconsequential.
“Joe’s dead,” she said. Just like that – two and a half syllables forming a sentence akin to being stabbed with a paring knife. She continued speaking calmly, as if she were giving me directions to her house instead of telling me that her son – my ex-husband and the father of my teenage sons – was dead at forty. I couldn’t hear her words any longer, just the murmur of her voice. My mind drifted to the last time Joe and I had spoken. He sounded happy. I should’ve known something was wrong.
* * *
I met Joe in the summer of 1993. I was homeless by choice, living in a Dodge Shadow with three other small-town misfits: Julie, Wes, and Brian. We traveled, scavenging the Midwest by breaking into small-town bars and lake houses for liquor, food, and money. We were America’s unwashed and wasted youth, all of us avoiding someone back home in North Dakota. Wes was avoiding the police. Julie and Brian were avoiding overbearing mothers. I was avoiding my abusive boyfriend of five years who had just returned, dejected in his unattained rock star aspirations, from Arizona.
On a hot July morning, our delinquent posse stopped by the dilapidated, cat-piss-and-gym-socks-smelling trailer of Brian’s friend, Scott. We needed weed and a shower. While Brian and Scott talked business, I sat in a recliner which shown too many questionable stains and attempted to play a note or two on a guitar I found leaning up against the wall.
The horrible twanging I produced seemed to summon an apparition. A tall, thin, but muscular man in his early twenties with a hawk-like nose and a shiny cap of strawberry-blonde hair appeared at the edge of the room. His stare was both predatory and sorrowful. His eyes were yellowish-green, a color I had only seen in the eyes of animals, which made me stop mid-twang. An about-to-burst duffle bag was flung over one shoulder and a Bad Religion Suffer t-shirt stretched across his broad chest.
“This is my roommate, Joe,” Scott said gesturing to the man briefly with a head nod before continuing to pull seeds and stems from the buds on the dinner plate in his lap. “That’s his guitar you’re playing.”
“Oh! I’m sorry,” I said, holding the guitar out for Joe to take as he crossed the room toward me. “I wasn’t so much playing it as hindering its potential to play.”
Unfazed by my attempts to be cute and self-abasing, or by the weight of the heavy bag and now guitar, Joe mumbled, “Thanks,” and walked out the front door without another word.
“It’s cool,” Scott said, picking up on my embarrassment and confusion. “That’s just how he is. He doesn’t talk much. He’s actually moving out today, to a motel on Gateway Drive, which is awesome because he made the place smell like dirty socks.”
I looked around the filthy trailer and at the matted hair of its disheveled owner and concluded it was not the mysterious ginger giant who made the place reek of locker room. Besides, I had smelled the clean scent of soap and deodorant overlaying something pleasantly primordial wafting toward me when Joe had moved in to take his guitar. I wanted to bury my face in the front of his t-shirt, feel the hair on his chest rustle like a lion in the brush, and inhale. But I didn’t say any of that aloud. I just smiled my best dimply smile and accepted the pipe being passed my way. After a quick and cold shower, in a bathroom so nasty I almost felt dirtier afterwards, we were back on the road. I didn’t see Joe for awhile after that, but I found myself thinking of him frequently — his smell, his broad chest, but mostly those sad yellow-green eyes.
* * *
In the days following Joe’s death, I did my best to comfort our children. Isaac, our older son with an even older soul, was quiet and withdrawn. An anxious child, he seemed to have been preparing for Joe’s death for most of his seventeen years. William, our younger son, a six-foot-two inch giant by the age of fifteen, howled with grief upon hearing the news — a sound which still echoes in my prefrontal cortex. Will believed his father to have nine lives, and not without reason. Joe had survived car accidents, drinking binges, over-doses, deadly falls, and suicide attempts. William couldn’t comprehend how something as dull as a seizure, something he himself had dealt with since infancy, could be the neurological bullet that took down his aberrant hero.
Nancy took care of all of the arrangements for the funeral, and I numbly agreed to anything she suggested: the headstone, the cremation, the pictures, and the obituary. The boys and I picked the music (Social Distortion) for the DVD of old pictures that would play on the screen in the funeral parlor and were confident Joe would have appreciated the nihilistic lyrics of “Story of My Life”. To this day I can’t hear that song without immediately seeing the pictures from our life together fading in and out on a perpetual loop. But it was more fitting for remembering Joe than “Amazing Grace” or some other hymn would have been. A self-proclaimed atheist, Joe wasn’t one for religious dogma or tradition. I recalled him telling me after one of his many suicide attempts, “When I do finally get to die, Jenny, I want you to throw this mangled piece of shit body in a dumpster. I’ll be dead. I won’t give a shit.” Obviously, we couldn’t honor his wishes. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in a secluded country cemetery under a marble headstone imprinted with his sons’ names and a shadowy resemblance of himself wearing his Hunter S. Thompson hat and flying a remote control airplane.
Joe and I had been divorced for almost a decade by the time he died, but Nancy listed our marriage in his obituary. My maiden name and the date we were married was placed, as if it were one of his achievements, alongside “avid model airplane builder and gunsmith”. Our divorce date was not mentioned. I was compressed by guilt and resignation simultaneously. Guilt that I was included at all, but resigned to the sense it made to freeze time that way. Signing the divorce papers never did free us from one another. Regardless of legalities, other romantic relationships, and living in different residences, Joe and I were chemically bonded like atoms that lost stability by joining together instead of gaining it. Until death did we part.
* * *
In late September of 1993, my merry band of homeless criminals and I had grown weary of our summer of freedom on the road. We had started to bicker and the chilly North Dakota autumn was sucking all of the fun out of bathing in creeks and sleeping under the stars. But I continued hovering, waiting to see what came next, and afraid to return home.
Our stash of stolen liquor provided us with the dues required to hang out at Joe’s motel room. We supplied the booze, and he provided the warm room and music. One night Julie, Brian, and I showed up at the motel with a few bottles of Bacardi. Joe opened the door and let us in without a word, sat down on one of the two beds in the room, and started strumming his guitar. He was fresh from the shower and his red hair hung wet and limp on his forehead. I could smell the steam and soap and grew envious.
“Can I use your shower?” I asked him quietly.
He looked up at me as if he were memorizing every freckle on my face, ran his eyes down my wrinkled flannel shirt and ripped stolen-from-step-dad-jeans and said, “Sure. There are some clean clothes in that bag by the door. Some crazy bitch left them here. She won’t be back.”
“Some crazy bitch” was a girl we had given a ride to earlier in the evening — a friend of Brian’s. She was missing part of her jaw from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I felt sorry for this girl, who Joe proceeded to rip on in gruesome detail, but I was in desperate need of new clothes, and her body was just the right size. I grabbed a pair of jeans and a too-tight black tank top. Joe was right. The girl never came back for her bag of discarded clothes. I know because I never strayed from Joe’s side after that night.
Clean, rum-buzzed, and feeling pretty in my new/used clothes, I rejoined the party with enthusiasm. They were discussing the new Aerosmith music video in which Alicia Silverstone gets her belly button pierced and jumps off a bridge. I didn’t care for Aerosmith, but I loved the wild girl in the video, which prompted me to ask Joe to pierce my belly button. I fetched a needle and ring from my bag. (I don’t recall why I carried such equipment. I must’ve stolen it from somewhere.)
There was no ice, so Joe went to the mini-fridge in search of something cold. He emerged with a small jar of Smucker’s strawberry jelly. He held it up and turned to me with a playful look that seemed uncharacteristic. It was as if the bottle of Bacardi we passed between us contained Tristan and Iseult’s love potion. The room vanished and nothing existed to me but this man. In reality, the alcohol had shut down our frontal lobes and we were functioning at a reptilian level — fight, fuck, eat — but at the time it felt magical.
I lay back and exposed my stomach as seductively as possible, sucking it in a little as insecure girls tend to do. The jar sat cocked on my stomach and moved like a buoy at sea when I breathed. I watched Joe’s eyes scan up and down my body, wild and as animalistic as their color implied. His pupils dilated. He smiled as he removed the jar from my stomach and, instead of reaching for the needle, unscrewed the lid. Pushing his long and slender fingers into the jar, he pulled out the jelly, pulled my shirt and bra up to my chin, and rubbed it all over my exposed torso. Julie and Brian, whose presence I had completely forgotten, decided to leave when Joe started licking the jelly off my breasts.
We never spoke more than a few words to each other before that night. Our wants and needs were communicated in a silent language concocted of animal attraction, youth, and alcohol. We were married two months later in a North Dakota blizzard. I was nineteen. He was twenty-one.
In the decade we were married, whenever the inevitable question that plagues couples was asked, “So, how did you two meet?” Joe responded, “She came over one night and then wouldn’t leave.” I found his answer insulting, but not completely inaccurate.
* * *
After the funeral and memorial, my sons and I set out to heal. We took some solace in knowing Joe didn’t die by his own hand, not in the technical sense. Years of heavy drinking, drug abuse, and head injuries had led to seizures. It was one of those seizures that killed him.
Joe was living with his parents. Between the seizures and the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome — which caused lapses in conversation, memory-loss, dementia, and hallucinations — Joe couldn’t hold a job or even his volunteer position at the Humane Society. He certainly couldn’t live on his own. He was alone the night he died. His parents had gone to a reunion in Missouri. Joe was sitting at his computer when the seizure started. He was thrust back in his chair and landed with his throat against the cushion of the couch directly behind him. He suffocated. It was another whole day before his body was discovered. The coroner said he would not have known what was happening. The misfiring neurons in his brain would have prevented any conscious thought. I hope that is true. To be completely honest, I visualize Joe’s spirit leaving his body, looking down on the scarred and chemical-worn shell of it, giving it a swift kick, a ceremonious spit, and the middle finger before floating off into the afterlife. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
Six months before Joe died, he had attempted suicide. It was his fifth attempt in the seven years since I had left him. He took thirty Sudafed tablets and passed out in his parents’ basement. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital after his father had found him unresponsive. Nancy called me at work the next day to tell me Joe was in a coma and they weren’t sure if he would come out of it.
When Joe came out of his coma a few days later, he was sent to a psychiatric facility. We had done this dance before, and I didn’t expect this time would be any different. The staff would try to medicate him. He would be belligerent. They would send him home after 72 hours. And so it would go, until the next time. I went to visit him. He looked aged in his green hospital gown. I wanted so badly to hug him, touch him, but I couldn’t. Physical proximity seemed to cause an immediate reaction between us, regardless of the environment or circumstances. I sat next to him, feeling the buzz in the air between our arms, and tried to help him remember why he needed to stay alive.
“Our boys need you, Joe. You’re their father and they love you. Can you try to hold on, for them? Please?”
“That’s what you don’t get, Jenny,” the volume of his voice rising with each word. “They’d be better off. My sole fucking parenting skill is to show them what not to do! I can provide nothing else! I fucking hate my life. I fucking hate people. I can’t fucking drink so I’m stuck in this repetitive and lonely fucking hell that I can’t escape from and you could never understand!” He entwined his long fingers together and held them in his lap as if he were trying to hold back hitting something. They reminded me of the hands of our children.
We talked for about an hour, only breaking for Joe to yell at another patient for trying to say hello to me. “Fuck off and find your own visitor, you Git!” His silverback gorilla-like tendency to protect what was his had not faded with his neurological decline. As I was leaving, I again fought the urge to hug him. I now wished I had. He needed to be comforted. But I didn’t do it. I couldn’t. And I hate myself for it.
* * *
Joe and I were married during a blizzard in December of 1993. I found out I was pregnant with Isaac in January. I honestly didn’t think I would ever have children. I was not particularly careful to avoid it either. Much like delinquent nineteen-year-old girls think they are immortal, promiscuous nineteen-year-old girls think they are infertile.
All Joe and I did in those early months of our relationship was drink and fuck. In fact, a shared bottle of tequila prompted me to get down on one knee and propose to him after only a week of living together. He said, “Ask me again in two months,” and I handled the postponement like a champ, crawling to the bathroom where I threw up and passed out with my forehead on the cold base of the toilet. I awoke in the morning with a pillow under my head and knew he loved me. We depended on chemicals as well as sex to escape our neurological and psychological predators. And we escaped every night. We scavenged for food to be thrown away at a local Taco Bell and ate toasted white bread with catsup from packets for dinner, but we were never without booze. And the sex, well, that was free.
When I started feeling nauseated from the smell of the fresh baked bread wafting from the Subway next door, I bought a pregnancy test. It was positive, so I bought three more to be sure. I was frightened but not disappointed to find out I was pregnant. At least I was married first. Take that, high school rumor mill! Joe, however, was not pleased. He asked me to abort, which I couldn’t do. He accused me of trying to trap him, which struck me as a pointless tactic since I had already legally trapped him in matrimony.
I understood his apprehension and waited for him to digest the information in his own time. He viewed the pregnancy as my fault, though he did nothing to prevent it either. In a weak and clinging moment, when the progesterone levels in my body had reached critical mass, I asked him why he married me. I asked him what he loved about me. He shrugged and responded, “I loved your big tits and round ass, but your eyes and smile grew on me.” How ironic that his adoration stemmed from my physical attributes for breeding.
We moved out of the motel and into an apartment three months before Isaac was born. I experienced a difficult pregnancy — mating with a six-foot, two-inch giant when you’re only five-foot- one proved to be problematic — and Isaac was taken via cesarean section a week prior to his due date. On Isaac’s actual due date of October 5th, I was admitted to the hospital with a severe kidney infection after passing out with a temperature of 104 in Isaac’s pediatrician’s office. I called Joe to come pick up Isaac, who could not stay in the room with me despite my tearful pleas to the nursing staff. Joe told me he was stressed out and needed to get away for awhile. He packed up our Ford Escort and drove to Wisconsin that afternoon to go fishing (binge-drinking) with a friend. Isaac was taken by the hospital’s social worker and almost processed for temporary foster care before a kind friend of my mother’s showed up to take him home with her until I was released.
I thought I could forgive Joe for leaving, for almost having my baby thrust into the foster care system, but I never did. The tumor of that one act of selfishness grew in my brain until it pressed on every nerve and neuron. But I stayed, I tried, and I loved him.
Becoming pregnant with and giving birth to Isaac changed something fundamental in me. I was no longer that nihilistic and impulsive girl who married a man who should have been, by all logic, a one-night-stand. I was a mother and I took my role as protector very seriously. I no longer drank, except for rare weekends when my mother or sister would take Isaac for the night. On those baby-free weekends, Joe and I would temporarily return to the early days of our relationship, doing shots chased with Kool-Aid and fucking on every surface of our little apartment, but most times, I just caught up on much-needed sleep.
We had also taken to smoking a lot of weed around that time. I suffered from debilitating post-partum depression after Isaac was born. I called doctors and psychiatrists for help but was turned away for my lack of insurance and money. Joe handled my newly acquired mental illness as best he knew how and prescribed me a joint. For the next eight years, I smoked my demons away while he drank his away. The difference was I could function on my demon repellent and Joe’s got him arrested and fired from jobs. But because I knew that Joe was an alcoholic when I married him, I couldn’t be mad at him for it. Instead, I just made him another male dependent. And years later, whether from my own need to feel wanted or as a passive-aggressive stab at his lack of affection and intimacy, I cheated on him —a lot. I never got what I was looking for from those men either.
* * *
In the spring of 2012, Joe never missed a single one of Isaac’s baseball games. The team struggled, never won a game, but Joe sat through every one. I would see him, always perched in the top right corner of the bleachers, shifting uncomfortably to relieve the pressure of a back injury he incurred a few years earlier from flying through the windshield of the car he had stolen from his parents. He spent three months in the ICU in Milwaukee and was escorted directly to prison to serve three years for his fifth OWI.
Despite his obvious physical discomfort — and resigned irritation from listening to Nancy scream like a Russian gymnastics coach from the other end of the bleachers — Joe made that baseball season his unwavering effort to be a father to his first-born son. Looking back, it was as if he were saying good-bye, leaving Isaac on good terms.
Isaac loved Joe deeply, but from a safe distance. He always seemed to fear him and idolize him simultaneously. Joe was clever, funny, and rebellious. He was everything a teenage boy wants in a friend. He would tell Isaac stories of his misspent youth with pride. How he had been kicked out of public school and sent to Catholic school by Nancy, in hopes he could graduate, knowing it was his last chance at an education. But when Joe was caught smoking by the Virgin Mary statue and told by the principal he had to clean her as punishment, he pissed on the statue instead — smoking and smiling at the mortified principal the whole time his stream was defiling Jesus’ precious mother. That act led to Joe’s final expulsion. Isaac laughed and listened raptly to Joe’s stories, seeming to envy his father’s lack of anxiety or fear of consequence.
* * *
When I became pregnant with Will, I recognized the symptoms immediately. I woke up puking, my olfactory senses assaulted by the three drunk men (Joe included) passed out on my living room floor. We were living in Wisconsin, in Joe’s hometown, and Nancy had taken Isaac overnight. I high-stepped over the snoring and gaseous bodies on the floor and left to buy pregnancy tests.
My fears were confirmed. Isaac was only a little over a year old, and I was pregnant again. This time I had taken precautions. I was on the pill. I didn’t know what had happened. I was convinced that Joe’s sperm could plow through the Great Wall of China and give Genghis Khan’s legacy a ginger-haired battle for supremacy. I stayed in the bathroom for a long while before I tried to wake up Joe to tell him. When I shook him awake, made sure he made eye-contact, and said, “Joe. I’m pregnant.” He rolled his eyes and responded, “No you’re not.” and fell back into unconsciousness. I left him there — snoring like only a drunken man can — to go meet Nancy at Hardee’s, where Isaac would be playing in the wet diaper smelling ball pit. I tearfully shared the news with her over a half eaten breakfast sandwich. She was elated to have another grandchild on the way, “Oh! I hope this one is a girl.”
Will was born in December of 1996, six days before our three-year wedding anniversary. He looked exactly like me, but with Joe’s hooked nose. To Will, Joe was a god. However, due to Will’s Asperger’s Syndrome, he seldom spoke to Joe directly. When we all still lived together, Will seemed terrified of his father, and cowered behind my skirted legs whenever Joe would raise his voice. After the divorce, Will was angry with me and incredibly protective of Joe. As they got older, the boys would go out to Nancy’s to visit Joe, who would call me after they left complaining of Will’s apparent lack of interest in developing a relationship.
“Will doesn’t fucking talk to me, Jenny! Never says shit; just sits there. I don’t get it. Isn’t it a bit fucked up that we have these two kids, one looks like me and acts like you and the other looks like you and acts like me? You’re so fucked, Ms. Kitty.” Apparently the function of genetics eluded him as much as his parental responsibilities did. Not me. I knew I was fucked. I crossed my fingers and toes that nurture would override nature.
Joe never grasped that despite Will’s silence, he idolized his father. Joe would greet Will with a, “Hello, you mute fucker!” and Will would only smile. Will may not have said a word while he was there, but when he came home, he was a whirl-wind of Joe-isms and long, flailing arms — every movement making him an exact replica of his father. He would relay to me every vulgar and inappropriate thing Joe said with pride. But Joe never saw that. He lived in a box made of mirrors. He couldn’t empathize with his children’s perceptions of him. Only how they made him feel.
* * *
Our marriage lasted almost ten years. Not a bad run for two kids who barely knew each other, had nothing in common, and lived in a fog of chemical alterations. The biological attraction that initially drew us together had died out early in the marriage, though we fought and fucked with the same intensity right up to the end. Those ten years were beautiful, strange, amusing, and terrible. We had two children together, tackled baby seizures, poverty, accidents, illnesses, DUI’s (on his part), and infidelity (on my part).
As I look back, I know we tried. Joe tried; he just wasn’t emotionally capable of thinking anyone but himself and alcohol — his one true love – the only love who could numb his constant unhappiness. I tried, but my insatiable need to feel loved, if even for a fleeting moment through sexual contact, overrode my capacity to remain faithful.
Joe set fire to himself and our backyard, with a little help from Captain Morgan and a can of gasoline. I let his friend go down on me on the back porch steps while Joe was passed out in the living room. Joe walked out into the front yard with an assault rifle, drunk on gin and mistaking the neighbor kid’s laser pointer light aimed at his chest as an immediate threat. I went to North Dakota and indulged in a one-night stand with an old classmate. Joe drove my car up a curb and was arrested for his third DUI. I enrolled in college and, having found a way to feel more confident and complete through academia, was lost to him within the first year.
Our love was a Newton’s Cradle — swinging between chaos and stagnation — and I put my hand in to stop it. I told Joe I was leaving on Mother’s Day 2002.
I tried talking to Joe about my discontent — my reservations about his drinking, my concerns for our children, and our lack of intimacy many times over the years. He would pat me on the head and say in his exaggerated baby-talk voice, “Oh, Crazy Wif. You’re too cute to be sad.” Sweet, but not helpful. On that Mother’s Day when I told him I wanted a divorce — words I had never uttered even in anger, as I was not one for empty threats and ultimatums — he knew it was over. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry. Until I saw the tears actually fall over his lower lid, I hadn’t believed he could cry. That was the moments when my guilt gland burst, spread into my chest, and flooded every organ. It was not just that I had finally found the self-confidence to leave or that I had decided my children would be better off, though those things were factors in my decision. I had fallen in love with a friend. I took the coward’s way out. But, because I had loved Joe for so long, and still did in an intense but almost maternal way, I could physically feel the pain I was causing him and it was excruciating. The attraction was gone, but the obligation to protect him as if he were one of my children seemed to linger.
* * *
The beginning of July 2012, Joe and I sat together watching Isaac’s baseball game. I blathered on with my usual nervous banter, awkwardly twisting my new wedding ring, as he threw in a short response here and there. Something was different about him, I could sense it, but I wasn’t sure what it was. He seemed almost peaceful. I sat there looking at him. At that familiar mole that served as a reminder as to which ear he was deaf in, the thinning strawberry blond hair that he rebelliously kept long despite its out datedness, the deep scar that ran the length of his forearm (another result of that car accident), but I could not see his eyes, as he had taken to wearing sunglasses all of the time claiming the sun gave him terrible headaches, a side effect of the medications and seizures. I remember wanting him to hold me. I wanted to feel his long arms around me. It felt like we were married again — me craving his affection, and him withholding it. The inclination was so strange and strong that I feared I would actually grab him.
When the game ended, we climbed down from the bleachers to congratulate Isaac on a game well played, despite the loss. As Isaac gathered up his equipment and loaded his bat and mitt into his bag, Joe and I stood by the dug-out looking at each other, unsure of what to do or say next. He kicked at the sand with his foot, like a shy suitor in an old movie or a bull, and looked over to his parents who had just said their good-byes to Isaac and were heading for their van, arms full of bleacher cushions and bottled water.
“Looks like we’re leaving,” he said, motioning to the shrinking silhouettes of his parents. “Good-bye, Jenny.” His words felt calm and strange. I still experienced visceral reactions to my name in his mouth.
“Bye, Joe.” I responded as I watched him walk way.
I talked to him on the phone once more after that, but I never saw him again. That last night when he called, he wanted to let Isaac know that he would not need a ride to his new volunteer position at the library the next day. He was taking the day off. He sounded almost chipper on the phone, a tone that was definitely unusual for him. He told Isaac that he loved him, something he was not prone to do sober. I feared for a fleeting moment that he may have picked up drinking again (he had been sober for almost a year when he died), but quickly dismissed it after recalling his last relapse. The slurred phone call and resulting seizure scare. He had called me because he had experienced a seizure the night before and he was scared and alone. I talked to him for almost an hour, just to hang up and have him call back apologizing that he had lied, he had been drinking before it happened.
I told him it was fine and that he needs to know that he is doing well, one slip up doesn’t constitute failure. It was his last slip up as far as I know.
That last phone call, however, ended more abruptly. Joe usually kept me on the line for at least an hour.
“All righty then,” he said in that unfamiliar, happy tone. “You have a good night, Jenny.”
“Ah…? Thanks, Joe. You too.” I hung up and proceeded to finish up my nightly rituals of making coffee for the morning and confirming that everyone’s alarms were set. Lost in my routine, I didn’t give the call another thought until days later.
The coroner estimated Joe’s time of death to be shortly after midnight that same night.
* * *
A little over a month after I left Joe and moved into my own apartment with the boys, he was found by his father lying in a pool of blood in our bed. The kitchen, dining room, and living room of our old house looked like a horror movie. His father had seen the carnage and broke in through a window. I was questioned by a detective who told me that it looked like Joe had tried to shoot himself in the head but was too drunk and just took off a chunk of his own scalp instead. Another detective asked me if I had a boyfriend who may have wanted Joe dead and possibly beat him with a crowbar. It turned out he had just gotten drunk, hit his head on the counter and passed out a few times throughout the house, losing deadly amounts of blood, on his way to the bedroom where he had at last managed to wrap a t-shirt around his head before he had passed out again. But I didn’t know the real story until years later.
I rushed to the hospital to see him, guilt ridden and horrified. He lay in the hospital bed, his head wrapped up in gauze like a battle survivor, crying and begging me to come back to him.
“Please, Jenny!” he sobbed. “I’m so fucking lonely. I can’t live without you.”
“Joe, I’m so sorry, but if I came back I would be miserable. I’d end up bitter toward you. I love you. I just don’t love you the way I should.” I tried to remain unyielding, but culpability was thrashing at me with his every tearful word.
“I don’t care. I’ll make you love me that way again,” he pleaded. “I will treat you the way I should have all along. Please, Jenny! Fuck! I’m fucking miserable! Please?!”
The Joe I knew didn’t cry and beg, he yelled and flailed. I had wrecked him.
“O.K., Joe,” I resigned, seeing no alternative. “I’ll come home.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt the weight of that resignation pressing down on me. He grew more relaxed. His desperation and despair transferred to me in crushing pulses as he kissed each of my fingers, planting an especially long one on the deep scar where my wedding ring had only recently been removed. I sobbed then. I was dying a martyr’s death.
I took care of him at my apartment for a week after he was released from the hospital. I changed his bandages, kept an eye on his stitches, and fed him comfort foods. But I reneged on my promise to return home and despised myself for it. I had never felt more selfish, more malevolent, than I did when I dropped him off at our old house and watched him make the slow climb up the stairs and back into his solitude.
We “made love” for the first and last time in that gutted and blood-stained living room a year later after we left the courthouse having signed off on our final divorce papers. The living room where we had watched cartoons with our children, where we opened Christmas presents, where I stripped for him when we were drunk on rum, where we fought over his drinking and my “babying” our boys. Our farewell kisses delved deep and contained more passion and grief than either of us could have communicated with our words and voices. I guess we had always communicated better that way.
Jen Escher is an adjunct English professor and a writer of memoir, poetry, and thinly-veiled memoir touted as fiction. She lives in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin (in a quickly emptying nest) where she cheerfully writes about the dark, dense, and complicated human magic that is love, sex, and self-destruction.