I’ve spent hours searching for the obituary of someone I’ve never met.
When I heard the news that the woman who became my ex-boyfriend’s first wife had passed away, I felt an almost instant sense of reversal. My brain went back days, weeks, months and years to a time that I have programmed myself to very rarely think about. It’s my “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” time of life. While there was no hypnosis or medical procedure involved, there were gallons of tears collected by friends, thousands of dollars spent with therapists to de-program, as well as remaining in constant motion and never letting myself sit with anything long enough in order to erase the damage done.
I hated her. I can say that now being so far removed from that time, but at the same time, I feel bad saying that knowing she is no longer here to defend herself. To me, she will forever be “Eliza.” The girl whose name appeared on my ex-boyfriend’s flip phone back on a hot August night in 2005. To be fair, I was not in any way disillusioned by where my relationship with him stood when this occurred. We had been living together for eight months in a place that neither one of us could really call home. Prior to the move, our relationship had been a year of long distance and as those stories usually go, especially for two twenty-somethings, it was hot and heavy and intense, but definitely not deep. From the time we met as partners in my good friend’s wedding, I was done for. He was beautiful, smart and successful. And I was at a place in my life where I felt as if I needed someone to guide me. I needed someone whose presence would improve my life and increase its value, because I lacked seeing any of that in myself. So when the opportunity came to join him in Florida after his move there from Pennsylvania, I jumped at the chance. I was ready to leave behind the job I had held for eight years, not to mention my entire family and close circle of friends. I felt that if I didn’t take the chance now, I would regret it later.
I did regret it, but not in the “I should have taken a chance!” kind of way. Almost immediately after moving down south, Jekyll became Hyde and our relationship became uncomfortable. He wanted control over my finances, where I went and what I wore. He was happy to have me work in the banking industry like him making almost nothing because it was more dignified than working as a bartender. I did supplement the banking job with waitressing and remember coming home and having him count out my tips and separating them into envelopes… rent… utilities… groceries… and giving me a couple of dollars for spending money. A couple months after moving, we stopped sleeping together as he explained to me that it was now (all of a sudden) important to him that we remain abstinent until we were married (which was not happening anytime soon as he also explained to me that I would have to be debt-free before he would propose). I should have realized at that time that something else was going on, but I was naive and still believing that he knew best. The next few months were a mix of sadness and misery as I became more and more depressed. Looking back, I believe he was trying to get me to pull the plug so he wouldn’t have to be the bad guy. But I was too headstrong and stubborn and felt that if we had made such a big commitment to being together, that we would be okay. In early August, I went home to Ohio for a glorious week of visiting family and friends and didn’t want to go back… and when I did return, he broke up with me that same day. I can still picture that moment looking from the outside in… lying on our king sized bed in my bra and underwear, looking into his eyes and hearing the words I still can hear so clearly today… “I can’t give you what you want.” I left our room and retreated to one of the guest rooms for a night without sleep.
For reasons unknown, I went downstairs at one point and looked at his phone. I knew I was going to find something and this was all before texting was that big of a thing and even before Facebook existed. And there she was… Eliza. Her name accompanied by sentiments of a fond weekend together exploring real estate in another Florida town. I went back upstairs and confronted him and the next hours were a blur… I was a terrible person for looking at his phone… the stress of the day made him forget a friend’s birthday… so many things thrown around, but never an apology.
I had big decisions to make after that night. Was I going to move back to Ohio? If not, where would I live? What was I going to tell my parents and friends? He convinced me to stay in the house another week because his parents and cousins were coming to visit and his mother wanted to spend time with me. Like the people pleaser I tend to be, I obliged. And during that week, was offered a room in the home of one of the girls I worked with. After his family departed, he made it clear I needed to depart as well and with the help of friends, I gathered my limited belongings, procured a new bed and made my way to Vero Beach for where would be my home for the next eleven months.
For ten years, I never spoke to him and never really tried to. Other than him dropping off my mail at the restaurant where I worked, anonymously leaving it at the hostess stand (on Valentine’s Day of all days), I never heard from him either. Today, I still have his cell phone number and email address burned into my brain, but other than an email I sent ten years ago expressing sympathy for the loss of his best friend in Afghanistan, I have had no communication with him. I’ve heard bits and pieces about him from our mutual friend. That he was engaged to Eliza within three months of breaking up with me and married less than a year after that… that they had bought a laundromat and moved to another part of Florida (Jesus, thank you for never allowing me to be a laundrywoman)… and that they had eventually divorced because they ended up wanting different things. He remarried a few years later.
Sitting on the beach Sunday, I asked my friend the question I usually do… “does he have kids yet?” I’m not sure why THAT is the question, but it is. She responded that he didn’t… and I said something along the lines of, “well, at least he didn’t have kids with his first wife…” and she interjected, “she died.” No details or information as to how or when… which is why I’ve feverishly tried to find her obituary. To find out when, why or how. And in the midst of that searching, I asked myself… why this is so important to me? Is it closure? Does it force me to review that time and what came of it?
The truth that I’ve found after thinking about this over and over again these last few days is that I’ve spent so much time blaming my adolescence for the difficulties I’ve experienced in my romantic relationships and for the constant work I must do to keep my self-esteem intact. I don’t doubt what happened in those developing and ultra-sensitive years was the catalyst, but spending two years with someone whose sole goal was to change me into anyone else but me and then being unceremoniously replaced by someone who was “so much more than me” and then avoiding any and all reflection of that time in order to remain self-preserved explains more than I was expecting to find when learning she was gone.
I no longer hate her and her death isn’t why. I can imagine she shared similar experiences with him and can empathize with what that was like. Maybe not to the degree I did because she was likely better suited for him from the get-go, but my guess is that people who are happily married do not get divorced. I have been regularly told that I should be grateful to her because if not for her, I may have been that laundrywoman, but I don’t kid myself with that… had it not been her, it would have been someone else. My gratitude lies with him, of all people, for setting me free and giving me a chance to have a better life.
We can take truths and do several things with them. We can bury them. We can carry them. Or we can open them up and force ourselves to look into them and peel them back until we can get to a place where we can see them for what they are and what they have to offer us, no matter how ugly or painful. And then we can take them and turn them into something beautiful.