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We sat in wooden Adirondack chairs on my front porch as the light from my twinkling Christmas tree blinked through the window behind us. Across the street, the sun was setting, halfway hidden by the trees, placing a gold tint on everything around us.
Jason sat next to me, a bottle of beer in his hand, three empties on the brick floor beside the chair. His buddies had dropped him off from a tarpon fishing trip earlier, and he looked sunburned and tired. It was Sunday night, and he hadn’t shaved since Friday morning.
“I’ve applied in Atlanta and Charlotte. I’ll never get anything here. There’s no sense in waiting around. Why haven’t you given your notice at the pub?”
“You don’t even have anything yet and you want me to give up my livelihood?”
“You need to put me first, and I’m going nowhere.” Jason scowled.
“We keep having this argument, you know,” I shot back, feeling myself blush as my pulse rang in my ears.
“I thought we’d already resolved it. I make more money,” Jason began, getting louder with every word, “so therefore, we’ll live where I work. End of story. You’d have to be an idiot to think otherwise.” He took a final swig and threw his beer bottle into the bushes.
I jumped up to go get the bottle, then stopped myself. I could deal with the yard mess later. Now I needed to deal with the man mess.
“Where do you get off being so disrespectful?” I said, crossing my arms and turning to confront him. “Disrespectful to me. Disrespectful to my house. I have an established business here, and I can’t move it with me. That doesn’t make me an idiot.”
I was part-owner of a pub that my family had run for over fifty years, and since my parents had retired, I was basically in charge of it. Did he really want to bet it all on a corporate career that had so far allowed him to get stuck in middle management? He worked in finance; we were surrounded by that industry in Tampa. He could find another job nearby, when he needed to.
“You’re an idiot if you keep giving me grief about this, Holly,” he said, leaning forward in his chair and frowning.
There was that word again. Darling and Honey were on the endangered species list as far as Jason’s vocabulary was concerned. At this point, my other names were Idiot and Dammit.
“Tell you what, Jason. I’ll tell you exactly what kind of idiot I am!”
He paused and looked ashamed for a second. “You shouldn’t talk that way about yourself,” he whispered. “We’ve talked about this. You need to—we both need to—uh, interact better.”
Maybe the beer is wearing off, I thought. But then, my anger rebounded. He just called me an idiot, and more than once!
“What would you do if you heard someone call me the names you just called me?” I asked.
He flinched. “I’m working on it, dammit, I said I’d change,” he said, standing up to come closer. “Can’t you see that I get this way because I care about you? Can you just stop being so emotional? God, you’re so touchy. I said I’d change, Holly, and I mean it!”
We were both red in the face, standing close to each other, our shoulders squared.
He was going to change, huh? When had I heard that before?
“You’re gonna change?” I yelled. “You’re gonna change now, when we’re supposed to get married in two weeks? You’re finally going to do it? Really?”
A flash of anger crossed his face and he reached out for me, then held back, pinning his arms to his sides and huffing like a bull in the ring. Meanwhile, I’d reached my boiling point.
I stomped inside, locked the door behind me, and grabbed a new garbage bag from underneath the kitchen sink. He began to yell and thump on the door, but I tuned him out and tended to my frenzy.
Gone were the days of discovering fun quirks about each other and enjoying our time alone. At least when other people were around, he was on his best behavior, but we didn’t do so well alone together. Not anymore.
Walking from room to room frenetically, I stuffed everything that belonged to Jason into the trash bag: magazines, T-shirts, pajamas, his awful orange University of Florida coffee mug. I grabbed the red box that my engagement ring came in. My chest felt heavy as I started to feel a long-surpressed dread at him moving into my house after the wedding.
His shadow paced back and forth outside. I flipped on the porch light, turned the lock on the doorknob, and pushed the bag in front of me outside, leaving the door ajar.
“Here’s what I think of how you treat me like I’m stupid, how you try to tell me what to do, how you put on airs that you’re such a saint when you’re really a bastard!” I said in an angry hiss. “If this isn’t all of your stuff, too bad.”
“Oh, here we go! It’s your crazy Irish temper,” he said in his oh-poor-baby voice, crossing his arms over his chest. He scratched his dark stubble and pulled a mock-serious face. “It’ll blow over like it always does. You’ll come to your senses.” He widened his eyes and fluttered his lashes.
Really? Is that what I’m going to do? I can’t help but act this way because I’m Irish and fiery? It has nothing to do with you, Jason?
I pulled myself onto my tip-toes to look him straight in the eye. “Guess what, jerk? I’ve had enough. And when I say I’ve had enough, that doesn’t mean let’s talk, that doesn’t mean I’m bluffing and want you to make promises that you never keep. It means I’ve had enough.”
His hands were balled into fists. This was another reason I hated confronting Jason. His mouth told me I was safe with him, while his body language told me to watch out.
“You can’t be serious,” he said as I straightened my arm, thrusting the engagement ring box toward him. He took a step away from me and forced a contemptuous laugh. “Do you know what this would look like?”
“What would it look like?” I asked. “It would look like I don’t want a husband who treats me like you do. If you’re not happy about that, you should have treated me better.”
“Ha! That’s your fault, not mine. You should have said something before. How can I be responsible for not reading your mind? You can’t read mine. You have no idea how angry you make me. You don’t know how good I treat you, how good you have it!” he yelled.
Wait. Was I supposed to ask him to not be an asshole all the time? How was that my responsibility? I curled my fingers around the red box, searching my brain for a response. “I did ask, more than once…” I began, and my voice betrayed me. I sounded weak.
My fingers unclenched when I realized I was still wearing the engagement ring. In my anger, I’d waved the box at him without the ring inside it, an empty threat if there ever was one. I worked the ring down my finger and said, “Whatever, Jason. Maybe I don’t know how good I have it. Maybe I just need to learn. Maybe it’s better to be with someone who’s condescending instead of being alone. But guess what—I am more than ready to find out!”
I shoved the ring into the box. His jaw dropped for a moment, and then he recovered, bunching his face into a nasty scowl.
“I won’t take that back,” he said, crossing his arms again and planting his feet among the empty beer bottles.
“Well, I’m not keeping it,” I said, so quiet that I could barely hear myself. I placed the box onto the arm of the nearest Adirondack chair.
Still, the action of taking off that ring had broken the spell I was under. Though I’d put off this breakup, all the while hoping for a miracle, it was the only reasonable action I could take. I couldn’t trade societal and family acceptance for a lifetime with this miserable man.
“There’s a reason why you’re thirty-six and still single,” he growled.
I recoiled. My stomach seemed to drop to my knees as I reconsidered. Part of me wanted to placate him, to show him and the world that I wasn’t some impossible-to-live-with middle-aged shrew who didn’t deserve a man.
This is what he does. He shames me so that he can get his way and look like the hero who’s always right. And the way he talks to me always shuts me down. Whenever I should act, I tell myself to step away, think about it, deal with it later. Always later.
He saw me falter; I could see it in his expression. Maybe he thought he was going to win.
If I back down, this will be my reality. There are a lot more reasons he’s thirty-six and still single. This is the experience I always have. And until it changes, it’s the only way I can be: alone and single and safe from someone antagonizing me in my own home!
The trash bag lay on the porch, while he held the box with the ring in one hand. The other hand was still a fist.
“Right back at you,” I hissed as I walked inside, pulling the door closed behind me. I bolted the door and paced around the living room for a moment, wondering what to do next. Then I tore through the house. I grabbed my wedding gown, went into the guest bedroom, and shoved it into the closet. I could deal with that later. Energy pulsed through me like I was hooked up to an electrical outlet.
Should I stop and do aerobics?
I laughed out loud. Then, I strode into the kitchen, picked up the phone, and dialed my best friend, Marisol.
“Hey, Holly,” she said.
“YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT I JUST DID!” I blurted.
“Told him off?”
“Told him off for good.” I emphasized every word.
She sighed and then lowered her voice. “Where is the ring? Are you still wearing it?”
She sighed again. “Holly, I never thought I’d say this about a broken engagement, but . . . I’m happy for you!”
“You know that this mood may not last, right? You might be upset soon.”
I sat down on the tile floor and started to feel deflated. While it had been exhilarating to tell Jason off, there were so many people who were looking forward to my wedding. They would have to be told. Plans would have to be unpicked, services cancelled.
“Try to get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning. That is, if you can sleep.”
We said goodbye, and a few moments later, I showered and changed into pajamas. I lay down on my bed for at least an hour but couldn’t fall asleep. My head was a washing machine, and my thoughts were in spin cycle.
How could I have gone so long dating him? How could I have stayed engaged if I wasn’t willing to spend my life with him? Sure, he was nice when we got together, but after that he’d gotten comfortable, and then he became difficult and miserable. Had everyone been fooled by his outward behavior? Or did people know how he treated me when we were alone or when he drank?
Married couples who love each other treasure their time together, don’t they? Wasn’t that what my goal should be? Wasn’t that the goal of marriage? Why couldn’t my relationships with men be as rewarding as those I had with my friends? Could I trust my own judgment when it came to men? How had a guy like Jason ended up as my almost-husband?
My head hurt. As I trudged to the kitchen in search of a pill or two, the glow of the porch light caught my eye. I unlocked and opened the door to make sure Jason had taken his things, and he had, for the most part. Only the box with the engagement ring remained. I picked it up, placed it on the kitchen counter, and opened a bottle of wine.
He wasn’t always this way, I thought as I poured myself a glass and sat down in my dark living room. We used to have fun, go to parties, whatever. We used to laugh. I’d given up chasing the mythical spark, the sort of thing people wrote songs about and moved Heaven and Earth to find. That was something for teenagers maybe; I hadn’t felt it since I was seventeen.
The rounds of layoffs at the company where he worked hadn’t helped. He was up for a promotion for a while, and then the company decided not to fill the position. Naturally, Jason got frustrated. I couldn’t blame him.
His anger and his drinking eroded our day-to-day relationship. Drunken, acerbic comments that I once found hilarious now sounded bitter and mean, and I didn’t like his snarky sentiments. It wasn’t right. To defend myself, I had sunk to lower levels of communication and criticism, and that made me angry with myself but more angry with him for (as I saw it) “starting it.”
We weren’t a team. We lost respect for each other. That was the poison.
Bern’s Steakhouse came to mind. Officemates had regarded me with envy when word got around that he was taking me there for my birthday. Such a famous restaurant—it put Tampa on the map in all those in-flight magazines! But our date hadn’t lived up to the hype; I’d spent the afternoon driving him to pick up his car from the repair shop, and when his credit card was declined (since he was close to the limit already), guess who bought the new transmission for his car? Instead of showing me gratitude, he yelled into his cell phone, tearing apart some poor financial services representative on the receiving end of his rant.
He’d put his smile back on when he came to pick me up that night, showered and shaved. Everyone who followed him on Facebook saw a glamorous couple on some swanky, romantic date night, and that was the image he was careful to project. Meanwhile, I started to fantasize about having a good man instead. Or maybe no man at all.