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Saying Goodbye, Again
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The first time I left my husband, I chickened out and came back home after two and a half months. At first, my brand new single life had been exciting and scary, and for a couple of months, the exciting part won out. I spent my time teaching and writing, fielding Match.com dates, and trying to feel how this new life thing might work. But almost three months into it, it didn’t feel good. My life seemed just like the end of fall, cold and gray with storms on the horizon. So I called my husband one late afternoon in November, while I was driving home from a very bad date in San Francisco.

The man I’d arranged to meet that day said he’d bring a Scrabble game to the café. The game was his forte, something I’d never beat him at.

“I am an English teacher,” I said. “I do know words.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ll kick your ass.”

Why I drove over after that conversation, I don’t know.

Just a few years back, I hated driving anywhere in San Francisco, and on this afternoon, I got lost, heading way toward Daly City when I needed to be near Golden Gate Park. When I called my date to alert him that I would be late, maybe even leaving him sitting at the coffee house table with his game for a few minutes, he was startled, half-asleep, hung-over from the night before. It was 1 pm.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Jessica. Right. Okay. I’ll be there.”

Why I didn’t drive home after that conversation, I don’t know.

He beat me in Scrabble, and he didn’t like me at all. He was my age, but confided that he really wanted a woman in her twenties, and one who would beat him in Scrabble. I had lost, resoundingly. Walking up from the café to my car, he looked into a drugstore and said, “Oh, I have to go in here. Bye.”

And he was gone. Finally, I was able to drive home. But by then it was commute time, and I was stuck in a parking lot of traffic somewhere on the Bay Bridge, feeling the most alone I’d ever felt in my life. I was almost hyperventilating, unsure if I could go on another date ever again. How many more dates would I have to endure before I found anyone worth having date two with? Maybe this was it, the thing I’d left my husband for. Bad date life.

I felt ugly and overweight and old. I wasn’t twenty and I didn’t weigh 120 pounds. My hair was short when it should be long, my clothes weren’t as stylish as they should be, and I sure didn’t have that arty vibe everyone in the Haight Street café did. I couldn’t win at Scrabble. Not even an ugly, hung-over, unemployed artist liked me. Why was I doing this to myself? I thought. Why would I spend three hours of my day on that guy when I have a wonderful man at home who loves me?

Horns honked. Diesel filled the air. The sky turned an even uglier shade of gray. I picked up my cell phone and called my husband, telling him I wanted to see him. That night. And that night lasted for almost another year.

Like I said, I chickened out, hurting him and my sons and myself all over again because I wasn’t brave enough to drive home and sit by myself in front of the television and let the bad date slide off me like water. I wasn’t able to make my goodbye last. I didn’t go the distance being separated because the distance was too damn long. On that cold November day, I could only see the journey, the harsh salty desert and the lack of water. I saw all the nights of being alone, the heat, the cold, the shivering and sweating. There was no oasis on this desert. No lovely little coffee shop. No rest stop. It was stark and white and clean as a forgotten road in Utah, and I turned back toward the water, even though I had no life vest or boat or hope of floating.

Most people—including myself--have a wish that life could be recursive; that we could manifest the opportunities to go back to a particular time and place in our lives and start over. And if that time doesn’t work, try again and again. Or we want to go back home to Mom or go back to our spouse or partner. Or we want to go back to our smaller, quieter hometown and begin again, the small life being the life for us. The known—despite the problems in it—is clear. We want to go back to the time when our children were young and do that child rearing thing right, changing the course of our children's experience here on the planet. If only, if only, if only.

When I decided to go back home to my marriage, I had the hope that if I moved home to where it was clear and safe and known--to the place where my child felt most comfortable--I would go back myself to a time when I was not distressed and unhappy. This wasn’t the clearest of thoughts as I was distressed and had been distressed for some time. Where the distress would go wasn’t actually in my plan. What I hoped was that all my issues would go away somehow, and for a few months, that is what I pretended had happened. My husband pretended, too. I pushed things away and back and tried to forget about why I left in the first place, none of which had to do with being mistreated in any way.

We tried, as we had been trying before I left. We made plans to do more things together. We read the same books. We had date night. We went to plays, movies, and lectures. We bought tickets to see David Sedaris, and when we reached the Marin Community Center, I realized that the tickets were for a full year from this date. As the parking lot filled with mostly Asian folk headed for some kind of celebration, we laughed. We made travel plans, but within the first week, I burst out in eczema and canker sores and panic attacks. I knew from the first night home that I had made a mistake.

When it came time for David Sedaris the next year, I brought another man.

Leaving was what I needed to do in the first place, but leaving was very hard and staying gone was even harder. Despite the pain and suffering I brought on both of us leaving the first time, I ended up having to do it again, the second time worse than the first.

Having to say, “I was wrong about coming home,” and hearing him say, “I knew it,” was just about one of the worst times in my life. It made that desert of aloneness look like Graceland.

The next September, I moved out again, saying goodbye all over again. This time, for good.

What had I been thinking? How could I have done that to us all? There was no way to go back to something that hadn't really existed for a while, anyway, no matter how I wanted it to be there. Going to movies and plays does not fix a marriage-worth of problems. There was no back home, back home.

So out in the world again, I had to face the hard parts that I hadn't wanted to face by myself the first time. The being alone. The being sad. The being very, very confused. The being without a consistent partner. I never was suicidal or wanted to hurt myself, but I had clear moments of saying to myself, “You know, this living stuff isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. If it stopped right now, I’d be okay with that.”

I cried a lot. I probably felt sorry for myself, too. I made other people around me unhappy with my confusion and upset. I lost two friends, one because she had finished her part of this same journey earlier than I did and didn’t want the memories of the struggle, and another who thought the journey was ridiculous. Maybe it was. It was selfish, that I know. All this trying to stay gone seemed self indulgent and was entirely my fault, so who could I blame but myself? Yet the second time around, I knew that going home wouldn’t make anyone happier. I’d tried that. The only way in was through, and I kept on traveling.

Finally, after about a year, I started to feel better. I started to treat dates like interviews. There the man would sit across from me, and I never thought of him as anything but a man sitting across from me. I did not invest. I did not take his calls or his not calling personally. I said yes, I kept moving forward, and if I had a night of sadness, I didn’t imagine that all nights would be sadness.

After about a year and a half, I almost felt normal, like a woman who was home already. Now, I have moments of sadness for the life I didn't have and my inability to go back to it, but I am happy now, happier than I could have imagined being those first few months away from my home. Though the adjustment was difficult, my children are all right. My ex-husband is all right, too.

A few months ago, my youngest son wrote me an email, saying he wanted to come back home because the weather was dark, stormy, rainy, claustrophobic in the Northwest. He was doing a self-study that quarter, a history class he created with a teacher about the Korean War, and had been trapped at home and in the library for weeks. He wanted to come back home because he needed sun.

I understand this need, as I’ve needed to feel the sun every day my entire life. But how will he ever grow accustomed to Olympia (the city in the US that has the most rainy days in the country) if he doesn't stay and feel the wetness of his new spring? How will home become home if he feels he needs to go “home” to feel better? He can't come home because his home is actually in Olympia, Washington. He has a 12-month lease with three friends, and he is home.

Going back home is about not moving onward. Going back is about the past, that place that we can color rosy hued when we want to. But when we try to find it, it isn’t our salvation, as salvation is a place inside us that we haven’t found yet.

Thomas Wolfe was right. We can't go home again because home is in us, and usually we aren't literally in the same place we once were. We have to find a way to furnish ourselves with the things we need where we are. We can't expect a place or person to save us. While the sunlight is lovely in the Bay Area, there still will be rain in Olympia. The true news is--and we all know this--is that we have to save ourselves over and over again.

I am lousy at this task because I’ve often wanted to others to save me. It's taken me years to grab onto this notion and even more years to be able to implement it. Rather than doing the heavy lifting, I always want a place and/or a person to make me feel better. Only when I realized that happiness wasn't a place or a person but me who would be able to fulfill that for myself did I manage to change. A little. I'm still trying. I am still trying to stay here. I often find myself suddenly back in the past, worrying about my marriage failures, going over a child rearing moment gone wrong or a fight with my sister who died or an argument with my mother. There I am, in a place that doesn't exist, worrying about it still. But I can catch myself now. I can gently pull myself back to the daylight, to the room I'm in, the run I'm on, the sentence I'm writing, the weight I'm lifting, the paper I'm reading.

"Here,” I say. “You are right here. Home. And it’s okay.”

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I so admire your courage! I have stayed in a situation that is wrong for me for 43 years(read my "no time to say goodbye").
I was too afraid to do what you did,not only afraid about financial security but also because I was a child of divorce,onoe that was traumatic and vey ugly.Me and all of my sibs have hung in there with their marriages,some of them not very happy.
I worried about the mess it would make,the hurt to my kids and the roots of mt family,which I wanted(still do) to be the close family I never had.
REading your post shows me a woman of great courage,even if you had to try it twice,the second one took.Good for you!

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Thank you, Heather. I think

Thank you, Heather. I think it shows courage, too, to stay in something--and I don't know, exactly, what the right answer is as there are so many variables. All I can tell you was that it was the right choice for me, even though it was terrifying and potentially stupid beyond belief. There was collateral damage, but without delusion (I think) we are all better off now.

Good luck to you and your siblings. And thank you for your response.



Jessica Barksdale Inclan