Saturday, January 28, 2012

Repercussions of Deception

We sit around a cafĂ© table at the Mall.  Chairs are scattered at odd angles on the white tile floor.  It’s a table for two, but five of us are gathered here.  Grandpa sips his coffee and glances at the newspaper.  Little One proudly displays her boyshort underwear, which she proclaims are not underwear, but shorts.  My Handsome Man declares that she can prance around wearing them as shorts all she wants at home but, whatever she calls them, they will not be making a solo appearance on her in public.
Dear One, with us on our traditional Thanksgiving trip during her break from college, is studying the plastic advertising display standing on the table next to the Orange Julius cup filled with water.  She notes the holiday season special – turn in your receipts totaling a certain expenditure at the Mall for a given day, and get a cash card reward so you can do more shopping.
“We did this,” she asserts with a smile.  “At the Mall on Monday with Mom.”  She and the Divine M had gone shopping with their mother.  “We didn’t spend enough but Mom just bought something to get to the amount and returned it, so we got the credit.”
“Was that honest?”  My Handsome Man poses the question, almost rhetorically, his voice calm and his eyes without judgment.
“Well, yeah.  I mean it worked and we did spend the money.  We just bought stuff we knew we were going to take it back.  I mean, we still spent that much, you know, after we got the card.”  Dear One spits out this response rapid fire.
Silence.
Grandpa is lost in his paper and may have turned down his hearing aids.  I stare at the crumbled chocolate chip cookie that Little One abandoned – left resting on its rumpled brown paper sleeve when she ran off to catch up with her cousin and Grandma.  MHM takes a sip from the Orange Julius cup.
Dear One keeps fumbling with the plastic stand holding the gift card offer.  She reaches over and grabs a chunk of the cookie.  “Is this anyone’s?  Is anyone eating this?”
“No, I think you can probably have it,” I reply.
“It was the girls’.  They’re done with it,” MHM follows.  He reaches over to shake a paper coffee cup with a cheerful holiday design and smudged white lid.  “There’s hot cocoa, too,” he begins.  Then stops, “Oh, I guess they drank it.”
“There’s a Maurice’s in the Mall, you know.  I have a 25% off coupon.  I think I might go look.  Do you want to go look?”  Dear One says this to no one in particular.  Her gaze, which had been lowered toward the table, is now dancing around the room, even skipping off the ceiling.
“Sure, let’s go look.”  I get up, knowing she means me.  “We’ll be back,” I say to MHM as we walk away.
. . .
Dear One is a straight arrow.  She is a law-abiding rule-following upstanding citizen who hates lies.  But, in this moment, she is lying.  Lying about what honesty is and pretending that acts of omission do not count.  Telling lies to justify and cover their tracks.  Lie upon lie to cover the not-lie.
A few days earlier, Dear One had been telling, texting, me that I should become friends with her mother because her mother was more than willing to become friends with me and it would make things easier for everyone.  I had the bad taste to suggest that this proffered friendship was false and superficial given her mother’s disregard for my husband and our marriage.  She has encouraged the children to believe that she and their father would be together if it weren’t for me, even though she divorced him for another man long before I met him; repeatedly texted him of her willingness to take him back while engaged to that man or, later after the engagement broke-off, with another boyfriend.  She also has a nicely subtle, but weirdly twisted, way of getting the kids to believe their dad isn’t doing right by them, or her as if she has some remaining spousal claim over him. This in the face of stark and regular evidence to the contrary of how well he provides for and treats them. Dear One countered that her mom’s superficial sweetness was preferable to my open rudeness and I couldn’t help but agree – both for my own peace of mind and for the sake of the kids and my husband.
However, when Dear One tells this happy story of how she, the Divine M, and their mom, thick as thieves, with Little One tagging along, banded together to game the system for an extra $25, the bile rises in my throat.  I do well in the moment.  I suppress it, say nothing, smile and go off with Dear One, chattering about nothing.  But later, I sink, in anger and sadness.  Anger at Dear One for taking the bait, anger at their mother for not growing up, anger that they are having so much fun shopping and getting what they want that they don’t even realize it is taking them away from who they want to be.  And sadness that the way of truth isn’t more appealing and rewarding.
It is true; I do not want to be friendly toward this woman who tricks her daughters into learning the art of deception.  I do not like that she teaches them to believe what they were doing was not lying because it was not untrue.  That it was no big deal.  They really did spend the right amount of money.  They might have kept it.  It was there on the receipt.  The numbers all added up on the calculator.
And so I watch, mute but disapproving, as these beautiful young girls learn to deceive.  Apprehensive of their future hardship, I choke on my fear.  Fear that they will become cheaters and adulterers who justify their behavior and destroy their marriages, their families, and their children.  Like their mother did to them, and her mother did to her.  While I disrupt our relationship by anticipating their inheritance, inadvertently bestowing on them my own legacy of resentment.  Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.  Yet, how I try to wield it!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Expectant Mother

I want to talk about the ex-wife. Off the record and certainly not for attribution. I’m supposed to like her. Well, maybe no one really expects me to like her, but I’m not supposed to be threatened by her. Threatened? Is that even the right word? Not quite – I’m not supposed to hate her. Hate, that is the right word. I’m not supposed to, but I do.
I never wanted an ex-wife. I never wanted an irresponsible, fun-loving, flighty, self-centered person who just adores her children, but simultaneously treats them as items of convenience - consumable goods put on this earth to feed her emotional needs.
I hate her because she’s fun. I’m not fun. I’m way too serious, too intense, too uptight. I keep being told she’s harmless, she’s not malicious. She’s fun. As if her blindness to the effect of her actions, her unwillingness to take responsibility for her life and the effect she has on others is somehow an excuse. I feel a boiling rage that really is too strong for the circumstance (remember, I am too intense). Letting your emotional preteen who has a hard time sleeping drink two cans of super-caffeinated pop at eight o’clock at night is apparently fun. Sending him home to our house, where he can’t fall asleep until four o’clock in the morning and rises fatigued, agitated and mighty surly when I wake him the next day is not fun. For me. It’s also really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it infuriates me. My anger is disproportionate to the crime. There must be a cumulative effect. But even that doesn’t quite make sense. I don’t want to believe that I’m crazy, that my reaction is way out of line, so I won’t. At least for now, I am going to continue with the belief that I am right and she is wrong. Because I am writing this and it makes me feel better.
Parking her car every day in the reserved “Expectant Mother” space a few feet from the main entrance of the Mall when she worked at the kiosk. Not pregnant, youngest baby is seven. Argh! Seriously, can you hear me yell? I laugh, kind of piteously – aghast at first.  Who would do that?  I would not – I’m far too proper. The kids notice and ask her about it.  She laughs it off and says it’s ok because she’s been pregnant and has children. I know, I know. What does it have to do with me? Why do I even care? But time and time again we drop the kids off to meet her and there her little white beat-up NOT PREGNANT car is . . . and has been all day long. Not in the back of the parking lot with other employees or on the far side to get in a walk, right in the "ladies first" front and center spot. And each time, I am appalled. This is not the kind of injustice that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised crowds to their feet over, but it is injustice! Isn’t it? I hear the pregnant, swollen-footed, aching-back shoppers cry out for me to be angry with her on their behalf. 
Her daring parking must be part of what makes her fun. But why does it even matter to me? Why have I constructed this paradigm of comparison in my mind? And more importantly, why do I waste anytime residing there?
Before I answer that question, have a seat on the couch here with me and let me ask another one. How did her conscience allow her to keep getting food stamps, while she was in jail, for children of whom she no longer has custody? Perhaps it is the same principle as for late night caffeine and parking – worldly laws do not apply. I want to call and report her, oh how I do.  But how does my conscience allow me to think vengeful thoughts toward the mother of children that I love? How does my conscience allow me to fight with my husband over things that an ex, who really is not my ex, does? She was out of his picture before I came along, but through the magic of my mind I keep photoshopping her right back in. My conscience is confused and it is not having fun.
My guiding aim through life has always been self-improvement. Learn and grow and be a better person. I’m a rotten person when it comes to her. A whiny, selfish bitter little brat. It’s ridiculous and would be almost comical if it weren’t so damaging. This is off-the-record and not for attribution and yet how satisfying to put down on paper the bad things she’s done. I can sink my teeth into these juicy morsels. Scintillating, powerful – isn’t she dreadful?! I think she ought to be, and yet the world seems to think she’s wonderful.
I’m all full of envy and jealously because I’ve tried so hard to live life right; to follow the rules, be responsible and think of others. Yet it turns out I’m caught short by this unexpected entity, a virus in my system. I do not look very pretty in the dark heart of my soul when I think on her. I persist because it’s delicious and powerful to be this angry, to be this resentful of someone who messed up the kind of life that I should have had. A wonderful husband and beautiful kids, a right proper family, and she bungled it.  Threw it all away for a fling. Don't get me wrong - I don't want her life the way it is now, don't even want to be who she is in terms of personality, but it's tough to navigate through a life filled with the collateral damage of someone who doesn't seem at all concerned with minimizing the primary explosions, who seems to rather enjoy and thrive on them instead.  And yet, when I turn my attention to the wonderful husband I have and the beautiful children of his that I get to share, I realize that she's kind of like a satellite to me and I can reclaim peace on my earth.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Ex

She walks into the gymnasium – hair done up, nails freshly polished, make-up carefully, if a bit thickly, applied. There are only two weeks left in the four-month season and this is just the second of her son’s basketball games that she’s attended.  He is playing right now and she is the focus. Her blond is a bit too brassy, her perfume overwhelmingly sweet and strong, but the most striking thing is her complete lack of shame. No awkwardness, no guilt, no apology. Thirty days she’s been in court-mandated lockdown rehab for a DUI and this, her first day out, is her comeback appearance. It is accompanied by the surprising announcement that she got the kids a dog. A Miniature Schnauzer.  Almost, it turns out – a bearded mutt from the pound. While she was away the power was shut-off at her home for nonpayment. Upon her release, the first thing she does is go to the salon and get a dog.
It’s midway into the second quarter when she makes her entrance. Effusively friendly and chatty, like she’s encountering long lost friends in me and my then fiancĂ©, her ex-husband, with no reference to the fact that she’s been gone for a month or why – just the buoyant energy of someone who won a spa retreat reporting the exciting news that the kids now have a dog.
Ten weeks later she’s arrested again. This time she spends one night in jail and gets fired from the job she’d started two days earlier. My husband and I are out of town. Way out of town – in Maui, on our honeymoon. So, the kids are left to fend for themselves with the help of grandma and grandpa and distraught calls to dad far away with his new wife.
She went to great lengths, but somehow she did manage to intrude, to insert her crisis into my life through the kids. Her drama, her need for rescue, has become the status quo. Two and a half years later, there is relative order, which makes me expect that chaos is about to explode. I’m supposed to want to believe that she can get better. I’m supposed to believe this for the sake of the kids. But can someone who doesn’t think they’ve done anything wrong - even after two wrecked cars, three more DUI’s, and 10 months in jail, really get better?  Someone who believes they are “too nice” to be incarcerated, and that nobody really got hurt, and that one of the citations shouldn’t count because she was really just texting? How much chance, really, is there?
It’s not supposed to affect me, but it does. I’m not supposed to care that she uses a “work” release from her electronic ankle bracelet house arrest to go shopping at the same time her son is playing a soccer game, when she doesn’t have a job, bother me. But it does.  And what is it that bothers me? Is it their undying devotion to her? Their complete ecstasy when she makes time for them. The son doesn’t know that while he was playing in the rain she was out buying things, telling him that she’s not allowed to go to soccer games and that there is no money. But even when he does know, it’s ok. He understands that Mom has had a hard time and that she does her best. So I’m jealous because no one cares whether I’ve had a hard time or not, no one cares whether I’m trying my best, no one craves my attention or begs me to spend time with them. That’s the self-pitying route, but it feels so appallingly unjust in the midst of it. The more troubled and inaccessible she is, the more they desire and defend her. The harder I try, the more uptight I become, and the more they ought to disdain me.
She is a woman of lies and convenience; a woman who walked away from her husband for an affair with her daughter’s teacher. Except that she didn’t. She kicked the father of her children out of the house that he built for his family instead. She claimed that the teacher, who moved into that house, was just a friend helping her through such a difficult time. A time of her own making. She had her kids call that teacher step-dad, though he was “just a friend,” and he claimed them as his tax return dependents. So many lies, so many twists. Mind-bending and exhausting to even try to recall or recount. The story manages to change so that the kids now sometimes wonder if it weren’t for me, who came along a couple of years after the teacher, mom and dad would still be together. And the weird thing is I don’t even know how to write the story she tells, because that idea gets transmitted but those actual words are never spoken. She’s far too nice, far too sweet to ever say a bad word against me. It’s just that I watch the timeline and all remnants of cause and effect get suspended and altered and I have no way to respond that doesn’t make me look a bit crazy and mighty bitter.
She lies. Sincerely enough and habitually enough that it is normal. If you took one sentence she spoke and diagramed it, you might find five different lies. So many that the brain just kind of short circuits and surrenders. There are always real things said, so you cling to those rocks and abandon all hope of making sense out of the rest of it. If you were standing in a pink room, she would tell you it’s a purple room and you’d leave knowing it was a room and assuming that, somehow, you must have been mistaken, the light must have been off and it was, after all, really purple. Later, you would lie awake at night and KNOW those walls were pink, but you are alone – everyone else has moved on. It’s too much fun and much too easy to agree with her. She gets what she wants when she crafts her world and, maybe you, too, will get what you want if you just go along and pretend.