A Short Story
Possibly the most frustrating thing about being an older sister is the difficulty you encounter in imparting your wisdom to your younger siblings. Particularly sisters. Particularly MY sister, in this case.
Maybe it’s because she’s so much younger than me, and my half-sister. That is, like so many people these days, we are the offspring of our father’s two marriages. (Since then, I heard that Chad has moved on to a third ‘relationship’– this time with his plastic surgery-addicted former personal trainer, but I digress. I wish them every happiness. I really do.)
Ah, where was I? Oh yes, my baby sister.
Melissa was born when I was ten, to Chad and the woman he left my mother for. As per the divorce agreement, I was to spend every other weekend with my dad Chad’s new Happy Family, which almost never happened. That is to say, I had no interest in leaving our drab townhouse near mom’s job to barge in on my dad’s new love affair with his trophy executive wife in their spanking new Mc Mansion.
While my bedroom was a claustrophobic box overlooking a grimy parking lot, Melissa’s designer nursery featured the latest in imported Swedish baby clothing and gadgets to aid in Melissa’s ‘cognitive development’. And over the ensuing years, it became the domain, in succession, of a veritable parade of winsome au pairs, the last of which turned out to be the cause of the collapse of said Happy Family when Melissa was seven.
When the smoke had cleared after the great Discovery of Chad and Sabina en flagrante delecto Melissa’s mother — Ms. Software Executive – was hopping mad. Sabina jetted back off to Hamburg, and Ms. Executive discovered that when he wasn’t improving his German, Chad had been whiling away his days haunting their ‘home office’ waiting for his next million to come in.
The deal somehow never got done. Or maybe it was porn. I forget the details.
Anyway, by this time I wasn’t paying too close attention to their domestic drama because I was 17, and on my way to college. On a partial scholarship, mind you, because of my superior SAT results.
I was the brainy type, you see. That, plus having a mom who was a hard-working nurse with an unfortunate penchant for losers — Chad was by no means her last social work project– gave me a view on life which was approximately opposite that of a Disney princess.
Melissa’s mom felt strongly that her daughter had been cheated of the life she deserved because of Chad’s fecklessness. This meant that, while her mom climbed the corporate ladder, Melissa had every moment in her childhood scheduled with ‘improving’ activities. A breathless round of birthday parties and extracurricular classes was closely followed by weekends dedicated to Melissa’s budding sports career, and every millisecond was supervised by Executive Mom or her appointed minion, normally some hapless illegal dragooned to serve as Melissa’s chauffeur.
After Divorce Number Two, Melissa and I saw each other intermittently, but our worlds were very different, as you can see. Neither of our mothers saw much point in our forging a sisterly relationship; there was no advantage to be had, from their point of view.
Chad had naturally reneged on all promises to pay child support, so our moms were our sole providers. Plus, we lived on opposite sides of the city. It was a long drive, and completely unreasonable to expect harried working mothers to inconvenience themselves.
So Melissa grew up in her Upper Middle Class world, and I grew up in the Briarview Manor townhomes near the hospital, with a bunch of transient hospital workers and their fragmented families for neighbors. After getting my BA in psychology at a ridiculously expensive Midwestern college, I moved back to Briarview Manor to work in the hospital billing department and pay off my student debt.
Soon, however, my life and mom’s began to conflict, which I felt was unseemly. To be honest, I was beyond fed up with mom’s bad choices in men. Now over 50, her personal life was a shambles, as clearly my time away at college had simply freed her up to pursue relationships with men who were, quite frankly, Boomer leeches. (Their term of art for women like my mom is ‘nurse with the purse’.)
I now share an apartment in an even more unfashionable part of town with another girl who is similarly positioned in life. That is, poor but ambitious, with no parents to fall back on. I am 29. I have a job that pays reasonably well, and my debt is paid off. My life is under control.
Do I sound bitter?
I try not to be. I try to stay focused. I try not to think too far ahead because as most ‘hipsters’ in my world will tell you, life is full of irony. Trying too hard just sets you up for failure.
Although, I would add that living in a dream world makes you a target.
This is just the simple truth. And lots of women my age don’t seem to get it. In search of their ‘soul mate’, my girlfriends dive deep, and disappear from sight for weeks at a time – sometimes months – when they think they’ve found ‘the one’. Only to re-surface, gasping, when they learn the truth about their latest amour. He’s drug-addicted. Or a cheater. Or allergic to adulthood.
Where are all the good ‘soul mates’, they all want to know?
What about me, you ask? Well, there was Sam, after college. He was going to be a doctor, and after he graduated from medical school discovered that there were myriads of girls far prettier and more pliable than yours truly — who were just dying to become Mrs. Sam. So after a longish recovery period after getting dumped, I had er, ‘dates’ with guys who were too boring, or too old. Most recently – in fact until just last weekend — there was Nick, the Serious Catholic.
Yes, that’s how I think of him. Tall, good-looking and out of his mind. Living on another planet. ‘Planet Vatican’, I call it. Goes to the Latin Mass.
If you can believe this, after three months, the guy would not sleep with me.
I am not kidding, either.
Of course, I thought he was gay. And I told him this, too. Why had he led me on like this, I wanted to know. Was he into some power thing, where you get the girl all hot and then you get your thrills from her throwing herself at you?
And do you know what he said to me?
“I’m not into the quid pro quo,” he said. He was sitting on my Ikea couch, looking hot and miserable all at the same time. My roommate was out. My elegantly-planned pass had failed.
“What the hell does that mean?” I was furious.
Then came this crazy explanation about how modern relationships were just too ‘thin’ and that there were all these hidden expectations that couldn’t be fulfilled and that unless there was a ‘sacrament’ it wasn’t valid anyway and he respected me more than that and he thought this might be different. Ad nauseum.
I mean, I’m ‘Catholic’ and all. Which is to say I made my First Communion, back in the days when Chad had a job and he and my mom were married. But of course all that evaporated.
Anyway, I threw him out. I mean, I’m not sure about the gay thing but what the hell kind of religion keeps people from doing what’s natural when they’re in love? Seems like classic denial to me.
For sure, there’s all kinds out there. Which is part of why I began to think it’s important that I share my hard-earned knowledge and perspective with my one sibling on this earth. So that’s why I called her. Melissa turned eighteen last month, and it has been about a year since we saw each other, so I asked her to dinner for Saturday night.
She drove up in her birthday gift, a lipstick-red Mustang convertible. (I drive a five year old Japanese sedan with low mileage – ‘new to me’, as they say.) She stepped out, clicked the lock with her flawless French manicure, and tossed her long mane of pale blond hair behind her back.
I kid you not; her dress had no back. And when I looked down when we air-kissed, I could see her thong. Needless to say, every male head turned as she walked by.
I mean, I’m okay-looking, I guess. Normal height. Normal weight. Thick auburn hair, like my mom’s. Sam used to say he liked my green eyes. But I never turned every male head in a swank restaurant in my entire life.
“So!” I said with false heartiness, when we had settled into our booth. Melissa seemed unfazed by all the attention. “You’re all grown up, now!”
Melissa glanced at me with an expression I instantly recognized: the ‘I’m here to humor you because you’re an adult relative and there might be something in it for me” look.
She didn’t look like she would be amenable to me asking any questions about her new ‘look’, either. Last time I saw her, she was running around in sweats, prepping for a triathalon. What had happened?
So, I was cautious. I asked all the usual questions, which she answered, apparently to humor me.
Everything was fine. Yes, her mom bought her the car. Yes, it was awesome. School was fine, too, at the community college. She was taking courses while she decided what she wanted to do next.
I thought this was strange. Melissa’s mom was definitely not likely to be happy about her settling for the community college. And red Mustangs were not her speed, either.
Anyway, it went like that. Small talk. Lots of checking her smartphone, flashing her manicure at me. By the end of dinner, I could see that Melissa was thoroughly bored.
Undaunted, I pressed on.
“Heard from Chad?” I asked casually.
Her aqua blue contacts under her extensions skidded away from my gaze.
“You haven’t heard?” her voice was full of irony. “He’s in Hawaii.”
“Hawaii?” I repeated, in wonder.
“Yep, home of all truly deadbeat dads,” she said, deadpan.
“And the personal trainer?”
“Gone with the wind,” she shrugged.
“How did you hear?” I wanted to know.
“Facebook,” she shrugged. “Friend of a friend.”
The interview looked to be at an end, but I was desperate to make some contact.
“Melissa, are you dating?” It sounded so stupid, I couldn’t believe I said it.
To my surprise, she was forthright.
“Oh yeah,” she said, looking pleased with herself.
“Anyone special?” Again I could not believe how awful I sounded.
At that, she laughed, outright.
“They’re as special as they want to be,” she smiled unctuously.
This confused me.
“I’m playing the field right now,” she told me in a practiced tone. “I’m too young to settle down. What about you?”
I wasn’t expecting that.
“Well, uh,” I started, wrong-footed. How do you tell an 18 year old that your Catholic boyfriend won’t sleep with you?
“It’s tough out there, right?” she looked sympathetic. “Hard to find a soulmate.”
That did it.
“Soulmate? You think you’ll find a soulmate?” I repeated, suddenly back on the right track. I was nodding wisely, getting ready for my spiel, when her phone chirped. She glanced down, and stood up, too quickly. Her expensive handbag upended, and the contents scattered under the booth.
Melissa dove under the table, murmuring that she had it all under control — completely oblivious to the fact that her thong was on display for all the world to see. Embarrassed, I jumped up and stood behind her, blocking the world’s view of her posterior.
When she jumped up again, she smiled at me, rolled her eyes in mock mortification and said, “Sorry, where’s the bathroom?” A second later she was gone, all eyes on her as she made her exit.
A few minutes later my own phone beeped.
“Sorry, so sorry,” the text read. “Just realized I’m terribly late for a date I thought was tomorrow! But thanks so much for dinner and let’s get together soon!”
Wow, so as I stood up to leave, my eye caught a gleam under the table. It was an old-fashioned brass money clip, the kind men used to carry. In the gloom, it took me a few minutes to make out the engraved initials, but in a second I knew it was Chad’s.
I drove home slowly that night, turning the evening over in my mind. I was so confused, in fact, that I stopped at Mom’s. She was settling in to bed to watch a movie, comforter tucked around her.
“Melissa’s mom bought her a red Mustang?” My mother was instantly suspicious. “That doesn’t sound like her. And she’s not going away to college? Very odd.”
“You know, her mother’s the planning type,” she advised me. “She schemes about every move she’s going to make. And Melissa’s her pride and joy. This doesn’t sound to me like something she would have in mind for her.”
I shrugged again, sardonically. “If she’s so smart, what the hell did she ever see in Dad?”
It was out before I thought about it.
An emotional chasm opened up before me, and I, unmoored, fell in. In an instant, the years fell away and Mommy and I were alone again, abandoned in the world because my Daddy had gone away. The tears rushed to my eyes, unbidden.
My mother sighed heavily and sat back against her pillows. I heard the clock ticking on the wall.
“Sweetheart,” she began.
I nodded, unable to speak.
“You’re like me, honey. You’re someone who hopes and dreams, and plugs away at life. You and me, we’re worker bees,” she said with a sigh. “We’re the kind of women who attract two kinds of men.”
“Your father is a good example of the first kind of man,” she went on. “He thinks he can do more than he is capable of actually doing. He’s not as brilliant as he thinks he is. And he can’t keep his shoulder to the grindstone. Why? Because he’s not motivated by the things that motivate honorable men. He is incapable of love. Because it’s all, ultimately about him. And there’s a lot of men like this in the world.”
I nodded again, this time bitterly. Was I doomed to a lifetime like my mother’s, taking in one narcissistic loser after another?
She read my thoughts and sighed again.
“You think I’ve never learned my lesson, right?”
I didn’t reply.
“Well, you’ve been out of the house for a couple of years now, and do you notice any guys around here?” She was actually smiling.
“Um, well,” I said uncomfortably.
“Well, the answer is no,” she grinned at me.
I paused doubtfully. If this was true, it would be the longest she’d ever gone without a ‘boyfriend’ that I knew of.
“You want to know what I think?” she asked.
“About her, and other things,” she leaned back on her pillows. “First, I think that girl was raised to think that material things are what brings happiness. And she has had no father. So she’s looking for a father who will bring her material things. And from what you tell me, she’s got one.”
“B-But she said she’s playing the field.”
“Maybe,” my mother said practically. “Maybe she’s got more than one.”
I sat down as the reality hit me. Of course that was it.
“Melissa is-is selling herself to older guys?”
This time, my mother shrugged.
“There is something going on there,” she said sadly. “I read someplace that quasi-prostitution is now a thing. But that’s not all I have to say.”
I looked at her. She sighed again.
“You’re not so different from her as you think.”
This was too much. I opened my mouth to protest but she held up her hand.
“Oh I know you haven’t had life handed to you on a silver platter. And you pay your own way. That’s not what I mean.”
At this, I cautiously relented.
“But like Melissa, your Daddy betrayed you when you were little. And like Melissa, that left you with a big hole in your life, and a deep suspicion about men. For this, nobody could blame either of you,” she finished.
I nodded reluctantly. It was the plain truth.
“So Melissa’s solution is to only deal with men on a transactional basis, as we see,” she said, and then looked straight at me. “What’s your solution?”
Eyes widened, I leaned back, stunned. She had never addressed me so bluntly on this topic before. In fact, up until I moved out two years ago, we’d always had a tacit agreement to avoid this topic. She had boyfriends. I was polite to them but non-committal. When she inevitably broke up with them, I was there to quietly hold her hand. In return for this, she never inquired about my private life.
I shook my head silently, too overwhelmed to reply.
“I think your solution is to only accept men on your terms,” she went on, ignoring my shock. “You don’t think you believe in soulmates, and silly movies, like the rest of your generation, but actually you do. This is because like the rest of your generation you really, really want a happily ever after, but you want it on your own, manageable terms. Terms where you call the shots. Anything else is too scary.”
By now, I was shaking my head vigorously.
“You’ve got this all wrong,” I said fiercely. “For one, you have no idea about how hard it is to find a good man these days.”
Her expression made me stop. Uncannily, she was smiling broadly at me.
“Sweetheart,” she began again. “You’re preaching to the choir.”
Realizing how true this was, I tried another tack. “Right, okay. But the world has gone insane, Mom! People have all kinds of weird ideas. Just last weekend I had to break off this, this thing, because the guy is probably gay!”
Then it all came out, the whole crazy story which I was ashamed to even tell her. She would think I was hanging around with religious nuts, that I had sunk that low in the social scene. But I told her anyway, finishing with my dramatic dismissal of Nick from my life.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed, when I was finished.
“Huh?” I responded, confused.
“Well,” she said, eyebrows raised, “If I had thrown myself at him like you did and he turned me down, that would have stung. Ouch! A bit of a kick in the old ego, no?”
Feeling sheepish, I had to admit she was right.
“And so based on this, you think he’s gay.” It was not a question.
“That makes no sense,” she said, unimpressed. “He wouldn’t have pursued you. But you do say he’s a practicing Catholic. I wonder where he found a Latin Mass?”
“I dunno,” I said tiredly. “He asked me to go with him a few times, but I said no.”
“Because it’s weird, Mom,” I answered her with irritation.
“Is anything else about him weird?”
I thought about it. He had a good job. A little nerdy, but not too much. He dressed well, but conservatively. He drank, but not excessively. He was kind, and thoughtful, too.
“He reads a lot of books,” I volunteered doubtfully.
“Oh my God, how weird is that?” she responded, looking at me keenly.
I had to admit, my excuses sounded stupid.
“So basically what you are telling me is that you tried to trap him by having sex with you, and he turned you down. Then, you got mad and threw him out.”
“What?” I cried, incensed. “Whaddyou mean ‘trap him’?”
“When a woman has sex with a man after dating for three months, she is saying she wants a commitment. Men know this, and dishonorable men act like it doesn’t matter. This guy was honorable enough to say ‘no’ to what he probably wanted very much, because he has a higher kind of commitment in mind.”
“That’s nuts,” I said, flatly.
“And you – because you probably suspected that he had this higher commitment in mind – got scared. It was easier to offer him sex than what he really wanted.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“Marriage,” she said simply.
This was all so crazy I needed a minute, but before I could answer, she was at it again.
“You know, sweetheart,” she said softly, “I regret a lot of things in my life but I think what I regret most was not passing the Faith down to you, like I learned it. But I was young and scared and after your father left the first thing I thought I needed was another man. I ran into the arms of men repeatedly, when I should have run into the arms of the Church.”
Again, I was too stunned to reply.
“And yes, I know that I have a lot to answer for,” she sighed, her voice filled with regret. “Instead of showing you the right way to live, I showed you the wrong way. It’s a miracle that you turned out as good as you have.”
With this, we both sat, in silence. I was struggling to keep my emotions under control.
“I am so, so sorry for what I put you through,” she said then, in a barely audible voice.
“Here you had no father, and a mother who was chasing men. You must have felt as if nobody really loved you.”
This was too much. Though I fought them furiously, the hot tears nevertheless welled up in my eyes and spilled down my face. I accepted the Kleenex she offered me, and blew my nose. But that didn’t stop the tears. I began weeping, silently, my face contorted with grief, waves of deep wracking sobs over-taking me every time I thought the storm was over. All the while, my mother held me and patted my back.
Finally, my sobbing subsided. I accepted the glass of water she offered. I took a few sips. I began to breathe normally, but I still didn’t trust myself to speak.
“But God is good, honey,” she said tentatively, taking hold of my hand. “I think you may have found the other kind of guy who is attracted to women like us.”
“Y-Yeah?” It came out in a whisper.
She nodded, a small smile playing on her lips.
“That’s the kind of guy who’s a worker bee, too. He’s looking for someone to shoulder life’s challenges with. He’s got his feet on the ground, and he’s got a plan, too. He just needs the kind of woman who will work with him, not against him. Someone who will accept him on his own terms, not hers.”
“That,” I whispered, finally finding my voice, “is exactly the problem.”
“What’s the problem? The terms?”
“Yeah,” I said despondently. “These days, in relationships, it’s like everything has to always be negotiated as you go along. It’s like you never know where you stand, until you ‘get married’ and then you’re trapped forever in something that can just blow up in your face, and blow your life away!”
“Yep, but that’s not how it used to be, honey,” she sighed. “Used to be that there were rules for dating. Rules for engagements. Rules for marriages. But people in my generation decided we had enough of rules. Rules were bad. So we chucked them out, made fun of them, told everyone that they had the right to make things up as they went along. And that’s what you’re telling me you’re sick of, now?”
I nodded, miserably.
“So, you want rules?”
“Yes. No.” I shook my head in confusion. “All I know is that I want to know where I stand.”
“Ah,” she said. “And when Nick told you he wasn’t into that ‘quid pro quo’ thing, what do you think he meant?”
I shook my head again.
“Well, you were offering him sex, expecting something in return. And he rejected the offer – because he didn’t like the bargain.”
“You were offering him something he could get from any woman – sex for commitment, the ‘hidden expectations’ he talked about. Then he talked about how modern relationships were ‘thin’ and he wanted something more. What did he want?”
“Oh Jeez, I don’t know. Something about ‘sacramental’.”
“Right. The sacrament of marriage.”
I sighed impatiently. “Mom, marriage is a contract that says you agree to have sex and live together and maybe have kids.”
She shook her head.
“No. That is not the Catholic understanding of marriage. For Catholics, it is a sacrament, like baptism. Once it is conferred, it cannot go away, any more than you can get un-baptized.”
I looked at her in astonishment.
“B-But you can’t believe that? You and Dad were married in a Catholic Church, right? You got divorced!”
“Yes,” she nodded, sadly. “I got a civil divorce, but I never got an annulment, until recently.”
“Yes,” she confirmed, nodding. “And I have to say I wish I had done this years and years ago. My life might have turned out differently. Yours, too.”
“Getting an annulment was the best thing I ever did for myself. It helped me understand that your dad was never capable of entering into a Catholic marriage, as he has since proven to anyone who’s ever known him.”
“So, you got an annulment on the grounds that he was incapable of marriage?”
“And now you’re free to marry again?”
“Yes, but now that I really, really know what a marriage is supposed to be, it’s changed my whole way of thinking. As you notice, there’s no man in my life these days.”
“R-right,” I said uncertainly.
“How could I date a man now who had no idea of what a marriage was? There would be no point to it.”
I had to admit she was right.
“But you are dating a man who knows what a Catholic marriage is.”
I nodded, bleakly.
“I was, anyway. Up until last weekend.”
She sighed. “Listen, what I am advising you to do is scary. I am telling you to give up your security blanket of sex. It’s a false security blanket. It won’t hold Nick, or any man. The only thing that will hold you two together is grace. But you have a lot to learn, sweetheart. Mostly because I neglected to teach you, for which I am eternally s-sorry.”
I looked up at her. Her eyes had filled with tears. “Oh Mom, don’t,” I said, feeling guilty. “You did the best you could. You always put food on the table. You gave me a home.”
“Y-yes, but because I was so far away from the Faith, I gave you nothing to guide you.”
I considered this for a moment.
“Mom, I know people who went through fancy Catholic schools and they have done some stupid things.”
She nodded, dabbing at her eyes with a Kleenex.
“Y-yes, there’s been a terrible watering-down of the Faith,” she said, looking downcast. “And despite being showered with stuff, your generation has been the victim of so much. No traditions handed down to you. Only money. Or bitterness. Or both.”
Once again, she was right. There wasn’t much I could say. I reached into my handbag to check the time; instead, I pulled out the money clip.
“Do you recognize this?” I said, not daring to breathe.
She looked at me with a knitted brow, and held her palm out. I dropped the money clip in it, and explained.
“Ah,” she said, exhaling. “I haven’t seen this in 20 years.”
“It’s Dad’s, right?”
She nodded. “It was my wedding gift to him. I thought it was a kind of a rakish thing, a masculine thing, to have.”
“Wow,” I said, shaking my head. “The one thing that poor Melissa has of Dad’s wasn’t even something he bought himself. It was something a woman gave him – and not even her own mom.”
She thought about that for a moment.
“You know, honey,” she said. “I think there’s a whole lot going on here about money. Melissa is chasing love, which she confuses with money. Your dad made it abundantly clear that he was not going to be depended on for money. It’s pretty ironic that all she has from him is an empty money clip.”
I nodded then, thoughtfully.
“Poor Melissa,” she continued, shaking her head. “She thinks she’s got it all figured out. But she’s playing a vicious game.”
“Yes. She thinks that trading money or stuff for sex puts her in control. What she’s really doing is putting her life in the hands of the Devil.”
“What?” I was incredulous. My mother had never spoken like this before.
“Yep,” she said forthrightly, undaunted by my reaction. “The Devil wants us to have a puffed-up ego – to be thinking we’ve got it all under control when we obviously don’t — because we’re much easier to shoot down that way. And it normally doesn’t take too long, either. You said she practically ran out of there at the end because she got a text?”
“Um, yeah, she said it was a date she forgot about.”
“Maybe,” my mother said grimly. “Or maybe it was her pimp. They can usually get their girls to move pretty quick.”
“W-What?” My eyes bulged. “What makes you say that?”
“Honey, when you were little I worked the ER nights, because that was the best paying job,” she looked me square in the face. “That’s where I saw what pimps do to their girls.”
I shook my head. This was all too much for me. Melissa was brought up in the best part of town; girls like her didn’t end up as prostitutes. I regarded my mother with disbelief.
“Y-You don’t know that any of this is true,” I said, half-accusingly.
“No, I don’t,” she admitted. “And I hope for her sake, and for her mother’s sake, that I’m wrong. But it sounds like she’s lying pretty smoothly, and she’s dressing the part, plus she’s obviously on her own with someone paying her luxury bills because her mom would never pay for any of the stuff you saw.”
I had to admit she had a point.
“W-What should we do?” I whispered.
“Well,” she sighed. “I’m going to give her mother a call. She may not want to hear from me, but if this is true, she may need a shoulder to cry on.”
“W-Wait,” I said, not believing my ears. “You are going to help the woman that-that stole your husband? The woman who put us through that terrible time?” I stared at her in sheer disbelief.
My mother sighed again.
“Honey, I’m going to do this for two reasons. First, Jesus said to turn the other cheek. As a Catholic who is once again trying to practice my Faith, that is what I intend to do. And the second reason is for you.”
“F-for me?! What do I have to do with this?”
“Someday, when I am gone, Melissa will be the closest relative that you have.”
I shrugged. “So? It didn’t seem like that was such a big deal when we were young. It’s not like you guys made a big effort to get us together or anything.”
My mother hung her head. “What can I say? I wish that I had done things differently then. No doubt her mom feels the same way. Nevertheless, Melissa is your sister, and I want her to be a functioning human being for your future.”
I shook my head, confused again.
“Honey,” she asked me tenderly. “Don’t you want your kids to have cousins?”
I thought about that. This was far more long-range thinking than I was used to.
“Okay, fair,” I conceded, and then, “but what if her mom denies it? Or gets mad? Or tells you to mind your own business?”
“I won’t tell her my suspicions. I’ll just tell her that you saw Melissa for her birthday,” she replied. “And if she doesn’t want to confide in me, that’s her right. I will tell her my door is always open,” she shrugged. “And I will pray for her and for Melissa.”
I thought about this for a few minutes.
“So if money is the wrong measure of love,” I said slowly, after a while. “What’s the right measure?”
My mother looked at me.
“A person who loves someone will sacrifice for their beloved. They will work hard, or go without. They will rather endure anything than hurt their beloved – even if their beloved doesn’t understand or appreciate it.”
I looked at her. She was smiling broadly through her tears.
“B-Beloved?” I could barely choke the word out.
“Yes, honey,” she whispered. “From the minute I knew I was pregnant, you have always been my beloved. And now I think that you, believe it or not, are also Nick’s beloved.”
I turned this over in my mind. I had actually never thought about what her life must have been like when I was little, working the night shift because Chad couldn’t hold down a job.
“He’s in Hawaii, Melissa told me.”
My mother nodded, expressionless.
“What do guys like him think?” I couldn’t help it. I was thinking out loud. “I mean, when they destroy marriages and abandon their kids, what do they think is going to happen?”
“They think they have found their ‘soulmate,’ she answered with another shrug. “And in the beginning they convince themselves that their kids will get over their betrayal.”
This was too much.
“’Soulmate?’” I snorted. “Fat chance. More like someone who will run up his credit cards. Plus, everyone I know with a dad like this wants nothing to do with him.”
“Yes,” she sighed, “but by the time this dawns on these guys, it’s too late.”
“But, that’s so ridiculous!” I protested. ”Don’t they see what asses they are making of themselves?”
“Not often,” she said sadly. “They are too puffed up to see this. They also deny the agony they cause.”
I sighed. It was too sad for words.
“And what becomes of them?”
My mother looked resigned.
“Many move from woman to woman. And sooner than they can imagine, they’re used up,” she said simply. “They can’t sustain friendships, or jobs. No money. Their looks are gone. Their health goes, too. Then, they’re just bitter old men, alone in the world.”
“What a sad, terrible way to live your life,” I whispered.
“It’s a life lived in the Devil’s clutches,” she nodded. “And of course the saddest thing is that they choose this life.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Why would someone choose that kind of life?”
My mother sighed heavily. “They think they’re choosing ‘freedom’ or they’re ‘getting their needs met’. Or they don’t think at all, which is what I did. I just ‘went with the feeling’, until…”
“…until what?” I just had to know. What had turned her to religion?
“Well, honey,” she said sheepishly, and hung her head again. “I got sick, just about the time Jack left me.”
Jack was a hospital worker she’d been dating when I’d moved out two years ago. The guy was divorced, and never had any money. Last I remembered, he was hinting around that he wanted to move in, which of course was the impetus for me to move out.
“Yeah, it started as a cold and went to pretty bad pneumonia,” she held up her palm to forestall my protest. “No, no, I wasn’t going to involve you in this. You were pretty mad, and you had a right to be when you moved out. When I got sick, I actually thought Jack would help me.”
“And he didn’t?” I asked, even more incredulous.
“No,” she responded ruefully. “Oh he ‘visited’ me a couple of times. But when I was too sick to cook, there weren’t any free meals anymore. And of course, I wasn’t any fun, sleeping 75% of the time.”
“Oh my God, what a jerk,” I fumed. “How did you manage?”
“Well, my neighbors shopped for me. And a girlfriend stayed with me when I was really bad. But Jack, well, Jack sulked because he wasn’t getting any ‘benefits’ from the relationship, you see,” she sighed. “And I was too wiped out from the pneumonia to argue with him. But I can tell you, it gave me plenty of time to think.”
“So then you went to church?”
“Not right away,” she laughed. “You don’t get over 20 years of staying away, just like that.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well I watched a lot of TV, mostly EWTN, in those long weeks in bed. And when I finally got up enough nerve to ask Jack if he would take me to church, he laughed at me.”
“A true jerk,” I repeated.
“He said that the Catholic Church was the worst of all the churches because of the pedophile priests who were freeloading off the stupid, gullible Catholics.”
I nodded. This line of argument was pretty familiar to me from my hipster friends.
“Well this made me think about how Jack must see the world. In his eyes, there were the smart freeloaders with a sexual agenda, and the stupid, gullible people who allowed this.”
“Right,” I said, not understanding where this was going.
“So,” she smiled broadly at me. “Which was I?”
“Honey, when I suddenly understood that this was the way Jack saw the world, it hit me like a ton of bricks!” she said wonderingly. “Here for years I had been ‘saving’ guys like your father and Jack. Why? Because I didn’t see the world the way they did. I was raised, as a Catholic, to help my fellow man. Hell, that’s why I became a nurse!”
The thing was, she was in deadly earnest. I didn’t know what else to say, so I just listened.
“I didn’t think the world was a jungle. I didn’t think men were beasts!” she said. “I thought I was helping them!”
This was too much. I couldn’t believe my own mother had been that naïve.
“But,” I interrupted her, in exasperation. “But they are. Why wouldn’t you get that?”
“Because,” she explained. “I was raised in a Catholic ghetto, where those rules I was telling you about limited the ability of men – and women — to act like beasts. Therefore I, and most people in my generation, bought into the whole idea that everyone is essentially good, and that all it took was the just the right combination of circumstances and people to bring out the best in someone. All it took was a, a …”
“…soulmate,” I finished her sentence for her.
“Yep!” she said, and clapped her hands together. “That’s exactly right, honey.”
I took a deep breath. This was pretty wild. I actually agreed with her.
“A-and I kept chasing that dream until my own daughter moved out, and I had to get deathly ill in order to have my eyes opened to the truth: my ‘soulmate’ was using me, just like every man had used me.”
Then she teared up again, so I handed her the Kleenex box. Clearly, nothing was going to stop her. She blew her nose, took a deep breath, and went on.
“Why did I allow this? Because I was living outside the Catholic world I was brought up in, but still thinking in that Catholic way,” she explained. “What I didn’t get was that I was unprotected by the Catholic rules. The same rules I laughed at and threw out the window when I was young.”
“So, so you went back to church to find the rules again?” I was trying to make sense of all this.
“Well,” she answered. “First I went back to church to find my soul again. And my sanity.”
“Did that work?”
“Yes, although I had to hunt around to find a priest who offered Confession.”
“Why? What did you have to confess?”
At this, she smiled. “Twenty years of living outside the church,” she told me, still smiling. “And all the sins of living so far away from God. But the worst was the sin of pride.”
“Why was that the worst?” I asked, even further mystified.
“Because my pride kept me from seeing how bad off I was. How I kept going back and doing the same thing to myself – and to you – over and over.”
Well, that made sense. I began to nod, cautiously.
“It was this stubborn pride of thinking I could make it on my own, without God. Without all those Catholic rules I had thrown away so many years ago.”
“Wait,” I said slowly. “So you think if you had played by the rules, you wouldn’t have had all those, er, bad relationships?”
“Yes,” she said simply. “If I had gotten an annulment when you were little, I would have understood what a Catholic marriage was. And how mature both people have to be. And how the grace from the sacraments was necessary for a marriage.”
“So, you would have not had boyfriends?”
At that, she broke into a huge grin. “Not the kind you sleep with!” she chuckled.
She laughed at the embarrassed look on my face,
“Honey, do you think that Jack, or any of those guys, would have hung around for very long if I told them I was a Catholic girl, and wouldn’t sleep with them?”
“Er, no,” I squirmed uncomfortably, until I thought it over. Once I did, I had to admit she was right. “I mean, of course not.”
“So, problem solved,” she smiled.
“But – how would you have ever found anyone?” I floundered.
“I never did find someone, did I?”
“I mean, so you would have lived alone all those years?”
“Yes, or until I found a Catholic man to marry. An honest, decent man. Who might have shown you what a good Catholic man looked like.”
It was a lot to digest. To be honest, the whole evening’s discussion left me with so much to think about, my head hurt. But my mom gave me ibuprofen and Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream, and after a while I felt a lot better. I actually wound up spending the night with her, the two of us with our comforters watching old movies together.
Honestly, they were so schmaltzy that I broke down. So when my phone trilled, I took the call.
It was Nick.
I was so glad to hear his voice that I promised to go to the Latin Mass with him the next morning.
My mother says I have a lot to learn about being Catholic.
I’m thinking that both she and Nick can teach me.
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