This time, I did it differently. I let him come over one night when my kids were home. Ben is younger than me by a few years, and he doesn’t have kids of his own, so I was utterly floored when he was at ease, helpful, and sweet. My 6-year-old son took an interest in him right away. My tween daughter mostly stayed in her room.
I watched Ben play with my son and laugh at his jokes. In passing, I mentioned some old construction items that were sitting on my porch and had been for months. They were too heavy for me to move. Without missing a beat, Ben recruited my son to help him carry them out into the garage. He’d always been helpful around my house. In fact, the first time I realized I liked him at all was when I left him in my backyard and ran upstairs to go to the bathroom. When I peaked out the window at him, he was trying to fix a slack line I’d bought for the kids but was struggling to hang correctly.
Watching him with my kid drew me closer to him. All in one night, I started to envision this person in my life. Not only did I have fun with him and feel lighter than I had in years when he was around, he seemed committed to me and to the realities of my life. “I want you and everything that comes with you,” he had told me the week earlier. I really believed that.
He was laughing at something my son was saying when his mother called to tell him that his father was actively dying and that he needed to come. I called him an Uber, and he left my house sobbing.
I knew our relationship would change after that, and I thought I was prepared. I’d been holding his hand and wiping his snot for months. I didn’t know just how much grief would change him. When he got quiet, I tried to be patient. I trusted that he was spending time with his family. There was no doubt in my mind that we would get back to where we were or find somewhere new to move forward from in the wake of his father’s death.
He called me when he was driving down to the beach to meet his family. It was the longest we’d talked since his father had died, and it felt good to reconnect. I told him I loved him. He usually said it first. This time, he sort of mumbled it back.
When days passed without him answering a text, I got worried — that sick-to-your-stomach kind of intuition that saves you from ruining your life every so often. I knew his ex had been reaching out to him since his father had died. Like a modern, suspicious dating woman with a boyfriend-gone-quiet does, I paid his ex’s Instagram a visit.
She was with him at the beach … on a boat. Parasailing.
I wanted to laugh and cry and vomit all at once. I rage-texted him to never talk to me again. He wrote back some uncaring apology: “I never meant to hurt you.” But I was so full of anger I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was at home, making his mother a casserole. He had only just met my kids. And he was on a boat in Ocean City, Maryland, with his ex.
In my whole life, I’d never been cheated on before. I had been so unsuspecting. I had trusted someone I barely knew, really. But I’ve been told not to beat myself up for that. This is what women do, though, don’t we? We blame ourselves when men treat us badly. Of course, I trusted him. He hadn’t given me a reason not to. His horrible choices are not mine to carry.
Here is what is mine to carry: I took him back.
A few weeks went by and he started texting me. I knew it would happen — he’d left the relationship so quickly. He couldn’t have had closure. He couldn’t have forgotten me so fast. We’d gone from a full-blown relationship that was some kind of bliss to nothing at all. And as hard as it had been for me to not reach out, the fact that I knew he was with someone else is what prevented me from doing it.
When he said all the right things, things I’d been dying to hear, I felt relieved. Like everything I had believed about him hadn’t been wrong. Maybe he was just hurting so badly that it drove him to make this one mistake. Maybe I could learn to trust him again.
After a week of pressing me, telling me how much he missed me — missed talking to me and kissing me — I let him come over. At first, I sat angrily with my arms crossed. I wouldn’t let him come near me. Then he told me how much he’d been thinking about me. He said I was all he could think about. Before I knew it, we were laughing, playing. And I forgot that he had left me and how he had done it. I forgot there was another person involved at all.
A few times during the night, I cried. We’d be lost in some intimate moment, and then I’d remember. He’d hug me and reassure me. At one point, he looked at me and said, “You know I’m still so in love with you.” She wasn’t a thought in his head. She was a mistake made out of grief and the need for something familiar. He and I were what was real.
There were real questions, though. Mine and his. Mine had to do with whether I’d ever be able to trust him. He was worried about whether he was truly ready for my two kids. Even more challenging, he wanted a baby of his own.
They were huge, pressing issues — issues I couldn’t run away from. I didn’t want any more kids. I’m 35 and my two are more than plenty. I felt bitter that, again, this might be the thing that scares someone away. It doesn’t matter if they are the wrong man. It still hurts when someone you love uses your kids as a reason not to be with you, even if they don’t say it out loud.
It sounds ridiculous, but when he told me he was staying with her, I was more shocked than before. I think I imagined that no one would come back just to hurt you again. This time, it was worse because it was partially my fault. I’d opened myself up to him again. I’d chosen to be trusting. I saw so much good in him and in us. And I believed that his grief had a hold on him and the choices he was making.
In the end, it doesn’t matter why he did it, or why he chose someone younger, with no kids, whom he doesn’t have to grow up for. Maybe he was in a place of wanting to step up when we met. After his father died, he didn’t want to be his best self anymore. He wanted to cling to the past in any way that he could. But that’s not my story to write.
My story is about moving forward, and moving on, again, even though I wasn’t ready to. I have done it so many times since my separation three years ago. It is harder than I’d have expected, and it does not get easier. Being tossed aside feels just as gutting now as it did when I was 16. Only now, I don’t have time to fall apart. I cry when my kids aren’t home, and then I put on my happy face. Sometimes the distraction is good. But we all need time to grieve the people we lose.
The silver lining is that after so many broken hearts, now I know I will always come back to myself. I know I’ll breathe easy again, and I know I’ll fall in love. I’m not running out of hope for that. I just hope that the next time I fall, it’s with someone who really does want me and everything that comes with me.
It sure sounds nice to hear. But it’s so much better when it’s true.