CHAPTER 3: Absconding

At seventeen, I was helping my father do maintenance on my mother's car, and I made a mistake that caused the car some damage. Enraged, my father stormed off into the house; I slumped down on the driveway and imagined myself being anywhere but there. After a half-hour or so, my father reappeared. Fumbling for words, he awkwardly asked if I'd prefer to live with him or my mother. I thought for a moment, and decided to answer honestly. "Neither one, really." Clearly he was not expecting that answer, and he disappeared into the house for another half-hour.

It became clear that they were discussing divorce. I was actually disappointed that they nixed the idea, because it would have been an opportunity for change. Granted, it might have been change for the worse—there was no knowing this—but having to pick the family apart would have been strangely welcome. It's the last thing most kids would want. Obviously I wasn't "most kids."

Anyway, for years I'd thought—indeed, dreamt—of running away from home, but my father's family was all in Iowa, and my mother's family was all dead. Where would I go? It might thus seem ironic that I remained at home until I was approaching thirty. Mostly this was due to finances: the modest rent I paid my father was infinitely more affordable than even the cheapest apartment, and my income was unstable.

Things at home settled down somewhat once I entered college. My parents were dumbfounded: how was it I nearly flunked out of high school, yet I was pulling a 3.8 grade average in my freshman year of college? The answer was simple: no one at college knew me. With no tormenters, I was free to study and learn, and I loved it. The only time there was friction at home was when I was dating someone, since my mother still resented it.

The perplexing thing about my mother was that, when she wasn't screaming at me, beating me, or giving me the silent treatment (she was a true master at this: with the three of us together for dinner, she would tell my father, "Please ask you son to clear the table"), she was smothering me with love. It took quite a long time for me to develop a hypothesis explaining this dichotomy. Why would she haul me with her to the school where she taught? Why did she drag me up to the cabin every summer religiously, where my father only spent a couple of weeks each year? Why was she increasingly resentful when I'd dive into my hobbies and totally ignore her? And why was she so goddamn jealous of my girlfriends?

I was her surrogate husband. She'd emotionally divorced my father long ago, and she was profoundly lonely. There was nothing sexual about it; she just needed a companion. The further away from her I drifted, the more sullen she became. Conversation, what little we'd have, began dripping with sarcasm so thick it was pathetic. Sometimes she'd demand I join them for dinner or something, and often it was easier to just go along than endure the bullshit had I refused. I had to cancel many a date. Frankly, I was surprised my dates were so tolerant of this crap.

Eventually I got serious with myself: I still knew I'd never want kids, so I arranged to have a vasectomy. I was almost refused the procedure: 24 was considered too young for such a radical life-change. I practically had to beg my doctor. But he did it, on a day I took off from work. Ever hopeful for grandchildren (with none forthcoming from my brothers), my mother was relying on me, so I never told her about my snip-snip. Yet it had an unexpected side-effect on me: I was overcome by guilt that I'd had it done just so I could enjoy "guilt-free sex" (thanks again, mom). So I spent the next couple of years celibate.

During this time, I hung out with a college buddy who was also having a dry spell. One night after seeing a movie, Jim and I were walking down the street chatting, and he fell silent for a moment. Then he made a remarkable observation: he said, "Too bad one of isn't female." Jim didn't have to reassure me that he wasn't making a sexual overture; we were both straight as an arrow (my therapist once remarked that "it is possible to be too heterosexual"), and I totally got what he meant. Nevertheless, just by virtue of the fact that we appeared to be "dating," tongues began wagging. It felt as though some ugly parts of my childhood were being recycled just to torment me further.

After bouncing from one awkward relationship to another, I finally met Coleen, a temp at the office where I worked. Tall, elegant, stunningly beautiful, intelligent, witty... and single. I worked my butt off trying to win her over, and while we did become friends, she advised it could go no further for practical reasons: she was planning on moving to New York City to be a model. As a "consolation prize" of sorts, she introduced me to her girlfriend. Debbie was petite, cute as a button, and utterly hysterical. Why was she still single? She was a rape victim, and didn't trust men.

Coleen fixed that. She'd come to know me well enough that she could sell me to Debbie as the real deal, a perfect gentleman. Indeed, I maintained (and still do) a strict rule about sexuality: I never, ever pursue sex unless I see a thousand green flags go up and the woman is practically tearing my clothes off. Part of that was due to being terribly self-conscious. I'm a grower, not a shower, and I also suffer from premature ejaculation. Thirty seconds is about my limit, so I've had to learn ways to compensate—I like to claim my tongue will last all night.

Anyway, Debbie and I hit it off quite well; in fact, the three of us were an item for some time. There were a few occasions when, had I played my cards right, I could have participated in a three-way—hell, I was taking photographs of them posing together naked from the waist up!—but I was too chicken-shit to pursue that. Regardless, as Debbie and I got more serious, we began talking about getting an apartment together. She had a nice solid job and I was still employed, so we went apartment-hunting. Very soon we found one we could afford, and I started making plans. My folks would be going away on a cruise together (yeah, go figure), and I decided I'd move out while they were away. It would avoid a great deal of drama.

Meanwhile, I'd met Debbie's parents. Oh, what a remarkably loving couple! They still held hands, kissed, cuddled, even giggled. I was dumbfounded, and finally asked Debbie if they were putting on an act—after all, it was only couples in movies that behaved that way. That's how badly programmed I was by my parents! Debbie assured me that they genuinely loved one another, and why on Earth would I think it was an act? I assured her she'd know when she met my parents.

And meet them she did. When I made my getaway, I left a note explaining what I'd done and, when they were ready, to call me and we'd all get together somewhere for dinner—some nice neutral territory. What happened next was so outside my expectations that to this day it still blows my mind: my parents instantly took to Debbie as though she was a long lost daughter. At first I was convinced it had to be an act... only to learn it wasn't. So much for Debbie seeing my "real" parents...

Meanwhile, Debbie's parents had quickly adopted me as the son they never had. Her mom had had breast cancer, and lost one to a radical. One day she greeted me at their house in a bath robe without her prosthesis. Later, Debbie remarked to me that her mom never allowed anyone see her without it, so I had to be seriously special to her. Most assuredly, they both became seriously special to me: they were well and truly the parents I'd wanted my whole life.

Things got even stranger when our respective parents met: the four of them became almost inseparable, and the six of us would have a grand time going out to dinner, taking day trips to parks, and so on. We had weekly dinners at my parents house, after which we all played cards. It was without doubt the most oddly wonderful experience I'd ever had with my family. I kept thinking, who are these people, and what did they do with my real parents? Eventually Debbie and I married, and the six of us went on our honeymoon together, staying in a great big bed and breakfast at the shore.

But you know the old saying, "All good things..." Debbie and I bought a house and settled into an "old married couple" routine which, I confess, had a lot less sex than before. She got a new job at a university and was elbow-deep in hunky young college dudes. Eventually she succumbed to temptation, hooked up with a guy eight or ten years her junior, moved out, and filed for divorce. Within weeks, her mother had a relapse of breast cancer, became gravely ill, and went into the hospital. One night I went to see her: she was alone in her room, unconscious, breathing strangely. Soon her breathing became irregular, choppy, strained, and I knew that I was witnessing her death. And here it seemed I'd only just found my mother...

The next morning Debbie called to tell me her mother had died. For some reason I just couldn't bring myself to tell her I knew, and that I was there when it happened. I wanted so much to ask her where she was, but I was far too devastated to get into any drama. I attended the memorial, and Debbie's dad and I embraced and had a good long mutual sob. He told me he'd planned on retiring early and moving out of state. And so it was that I lost both of my new parents in the space of weeks.

I sold the house Debbie and I shared, bought a condo, and moved on with my life. Debbie's new best friend, Janice, had the hots for me and tried to pursue me after I'd moved, but I'd have none of that. While flattered, I couldn't look at Janice without thinking of Debbie. I'd often wonder if I could have patched things up with Debbie. Or what life with Janice might have been like. I wonder a thousand different things, then scream at myself to stop: perpetual what-iffing is a form of madness. One thing was certain, though: I'd miss Debbie's parents for the rest of my life.

Somehow I knew that was the best my life was ever going to get, and it was back to the shitter for me.

Chapter 2 < TOC > Chapter 4

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