It was my daughter’s very first time at the beach. It should have been a beautiful day.
Looking in from the outside, it was: sunshine and ocean and junk food and boardwalk rides.
But my daughter cried every time her fat little toddler toes touched the sand and she would creep back to the center of the blanket and onto my lap. I kept coaxing her to the sand with toys. I would walk her to the water’s edge and try to get her to put her feet in the water.
She clung to me for hours. Unhappy. Unsure.
My eyes stung. I hadn’t slept for at least 72 hours.
My chest felt like I was wearing three of those lead aprons that the dentist puts on you for x-rays.
My whole body ached. Every muscle and joint hurt – almost as bad as my soul was aching that day.
I silently worried she was absorbing my own emotions and clinging to me for my sake.
We were there to meet up with two long-time friends of x and their children. They lived far away and were in the area for a short family vacation and we made the hour-plus weekend drive to Santa Cruz to hang out with them. I had never met either of them in person.
There are a lot of stories I came to believe about myself while with x that I have since realized didn’t exist in my mind quite as harshly before him and are slowly all fading away now that I’m as away from him as I can be.
One is that I don’t do well at meeting new people.
It is true that small talk is not my forte, but outside of how I was with x, I can actually hold my own by way of witty banter and loving to hear other people’s stories (the writer in me always loves a good story).
He had built up an anxiety in me that was almost completely of his making and every time we were going to meet new people, he would remind me that he was there to help me so that he could covertly remind me of what he said I wasn’t good at in case I might forget how bad I was at something and how much I needed him.
I sat in the car as we wound down highway 17 feeling very apprehensive about meeting these friends. Even more apprehensive than normal.
There was a twist in my body that felt like it was curling every muscle in on itself.
I wasn’t at all myself that day.
I had, only two days before, after months and months of uncovering lie after lie, found the motherlode of proof that x had actually cheated on me for our entire relationship (we were nearing year five at that point). I was wrecked. Completely wrecked.
On top of the financial lies. On top of the texts and messages I’d seen of him bitching about me to people like ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife. On top of knowing he’d been storing other women’s photos he’d download from their social media posts. On top of feeling like no lie was too small for him to tell.
Now this. Real proof of real-life infidelity.
Proof that there was also no lie too big for him to tell over and over and over.
He had cheated. In real life. The whole time.
Not just when he would say I was unreasonable or nitpicky or impossible to please but also when he would say I was amazing and unbelievably beautiful and the best love he had ever ever had.
Even when he proposed. Even from the birthing room.
I still had months of lies to uncover – I literally found stuff from February of that year all the way through September, which is when I stopped actively looking just to save my own sanity in any way I could – but that revelation, of his main affair, from before but also while I was pregnant and while I was nursing a newborn and all the specific images and words and the (still) unforgettable ways that woman and his messages and videos to her wove deep into my experience of becoming a mother and my love for my child and our new family – all of that had wrecked me somewhere deep, deep inside my whole being. In a place I couldn’t even find words for at the time.
The hole that had just been ripped open was still so fresh and ragged and unreal.
I’m not even sure how I pulled myself together to get in that car that day with all four of our bodies locked into such a small space.
x did nothing to make me feel less anxious about our beach day.
Of course he didn’t, I understand now.
I understand now how this kind of situation was fun for him – was fuel for his ego, was another thing to poke and prod while also giving him even more ammunition when we got home to tell me how dramatic and negative I was, how much I had ruined everything, what an embarrassment I was to him and to the children.
On the drive down to meet his friends, he said things like please stop pouting, this is supposed to be fun.
Like Jesus, I said I was sorry and it won’t happen anymore. Get the fuck over it.
Like I swear if you ruin this day it’s all on you. You don’t see me acting like a victim about all you’ve done to me.
As I sat there silent and staring out the window.
Remembering these things he said to me still hurts a little.
But nowhere near the level of the pain of looking back at this and knowing I stayed with him for nearly three years after he said those things to me.
Almost. Three. YEARS.
Writing what x said down, hearing the sentences in my own head that’s now fog-free and, well, just free – those things sound unbelievable. That he would say them.
But, also: unbelievable that I would still love someone who said those things to me after what I had just discovered.
Reliving these details makes me cry. Again. Anew.
I hear what you’re thinking even if you know better than to say it. I still sometimes say it to myself.
Yes. I stayed. A long, long time after.
I gave and gave and gave. To someone who said those things on just that one short drive.
There’s so much more. So much worse he has said to me.
I stayed. That day and beyond it by so many days. Hundreds and hundreds of days.
I sat in that car and when we got to the beach I hefted a child through the crowd of the iconic Boardwalk and out onto the sand and helped set up blankets and a beach tent and an ice chest and slathered sunscreen all over my daughter’s fat-rolled thighs and used just my finger to carefully spread sunscreen on her gigantic cheeks and I sat there next to a woman and a man I had never met and I tried my very best to seem like a normal person. I used everything left in me to try to be friendly.
To seem like someone who felt whole.
Like someone who didn’t feel like she was suddenly and completely breathing through the literal rubble of her life piled on top of her.
Like someone who didn’t have to remind herself to breathe or she might evaporate and never be seen again.
I remember they were both very nice (& were nice to me every time I saw them after while x and I were still together – the handful of times our paths crossed before I completely cut myself free from him and his crowd).
I remember their kids were kind and polite and had fun in the water and sand.
I remember we walked up to the boardwalk and x’s son went into a haunted house with the friends and their kids and he came out shocked and crying and scared.
I remember I hugged him to me and told him it was ok that it scared him because I could see that none of the others were as affected and he was a preteen boy and might think he shouldn’t be crying and while I would always tell any child it’s ok to cry, I remember thinking that all I wanted to do nonstop that day was wail in pain and if I couldn’t then he damn well better feel ok having whatever emotions he was having without anyone, especially x, making him feel bad about it.
I remember one of the friend’s children gave my daughter a pink hedgehog plushie they won on the Boardwalk. I remember she hugged it tightly to her body in the stroller and wouldn’t let it go to get buckled into the car and I had to work around it to get her settled.
I don’t remember packing up and leaving, but I do remember that by the time the day ended, my daughter loved the sand even if she wasn’t so sure about the water. I remember shoveling sand with her and building castles and shaking sand out of her diaper before we drove home.
I don’t remember the drive home, specifically, because there were so many drives like it over the next year or so. Hundreds. Mostly silent. Me consciously keeping myself from crying. Me silently counting my breaths to keep from sobbing. Tapping the corners of my eyes as they dampened to keep the kids from seeing drops of water roll down my cheeks.
Him sighing loudly and looking at me sideways and muttering Jesus in that way that made it clear I was behaving in a way that was unacceptable.
That day at the beach always feels like a movie I made up about my life that summer. I wasn’t there, was I? Was I even in that car and on that beach and then in that car again? Was that me sitting on that blanket trying desperately to figure out how to make it a whole day, a whole week, a whole year into the future knowing what I had just come to know?
Who was I? Where was I? What will I say to these people who only see our happy new family? How will I make my daughter feel safe in this new-to-her place when all I feel is panicked and empty and untethered?
x’s friend is not the only woman who met me that day.
I met myself that day – as a woman who was in a play she didn’t realize she had auditioned for, who never meant to take the role, who wished there was a curtain call that would reset the world to what she had thought it was a year ago.
I met who I really was at that moment instead of who I thought I was.
I didn’t like meeting her. I wanted to tell her to fuck off.
I wanted to tell her all the things she should be doing differently – all the things she could be better at in order to not be who she was right there in that moment.
I spent years trying to not look directly at the two versions of me that collided that day.
Now, though, I see me. I see both of me and the way they stared each other down for a brief spell and then fought behind the scenes for years.
I was so mad at that real me that day and for so many days after. Hundreds and hundreds of days.
Now, here, I want to say to her, to myself: you did ok.
I want to say: you were holding your atoms together and it was hard and you did it. For a long time, against all the pressures from all the sides.
You did ok.
Realizing how I feel about that then me, from this vantage point, makes me cry. Anew.
I wish I could say I was not that woman I discovered myself to be that day.
I want to say to all of us (all the versions of me and that friend I met that day and all of you reading this) that I am not the woman who lets a man talk to her that way in the car, who lets him sigh at her so cruelly on the way home, who lets him mock her later that week for being such a Debbie Downer on that beach day. Who lets him say all of that and still professes her love for him, still gives him endless amounts of love. For years after.
Who let him do that and so he knew he could do and say so much worse.
But I am.
Or I was. Which is, ultimately, the same thing.
I used to think I wasn’t that woman. And so I became one.
I left a trap door open because I didn’t think that trap door existed.
When we change, we like to say that we aren’t the same person anymore.
But that woman is not a snake skin I outgrew. She’s in every cell of my body still. She is food for my muscles and my mind and my strong-ass heart that won’t stop believing in love even after giving myself to lies all those years, who fights the right fights now to keep herself and her child whole.
If I decide I am not that woman anymore, then I feel like I’m opening up a zipper on my side and asking someone else like x to crawl in and tear me apart from the inside again.
I am that woman. Always.
But I am a version of her that won’t be in that car ever again. Who won’t see what I saw and then help pack up beach toys and towels and sunscreen and spend one of the very worst days of my life trying to make nice because that’s what is expected of me and I can’t even fathom there’s another option that day than to stay home and prove him right or go and be miserable and still prove him right.
I have thought of that particular female friend of his on and off over the last two years. I’ve wondered what she thinks of all he’s said about me since. If seeing me for that first time in such a wrecked state of total pretend helps her believe his now version of me: crazy, negative, impossible to please.
I think of her, too, because she was kind. And normal and down to earth. She reminded me of my own friends. Smart and snarky and prone to cussing and also caring and generous.
I’ve wondered what I would say to her now if we were face to face.
The reality is: probably nothing. If we were face to face, I would stay quiet and not want to waste breath defending myself or trying at all to counter x’s lies and deceptions about me.
Maybe I should want to say that I am not whoever he’s told you I am but I am beyond that now. That’s not at all what I am most interested in now as I remember these times of distress and momentary reprieve. These moments in which my life was split in two and I went on living both lives simultaneously.
Went on living two very disparate lives that were mud wrestling behind the curtain to see who would win in the end.
By living both, I allowed my brain to be turned almost inside out until my body, literally, started to give out. Until I almost made myself unable to parent my child in a way she absolutely deserves.
Until I got dangerously close to becoming the woman he told people I was: unstable and sick and lost.
I think of his friend, now, not as someone who thinks anything in particular about me. I think of her as a brief foothold in that sinkhole moment of my life.
A small straw filled with air. A temporary anchor on a day when I needed one so badly.
You can’t explain that to someone else in person. Not briefly anyway. You can’t convey that in small talk and in between kid interruptions on a beach or in a short conversation on a sidewalk or sidled up next to each other at a bar.
If I could say something to her, here and now, it would simply be this: Thank you.
For sitting next to me and not making it worse that day.
Thank you for helping the conversations along. For being kind to me all the times after that we talked even though the day you first saw me was one of my very worst days ever.
For not calling attention to the wreck I was. For not making me try too hard.
For allowing me the space to breathe a little easier than I might have if x and I had been alone at the beach with the kids.
For reminding me that I existed. That I was an actual body on an actual beach in a life that involved more than the small secret world that was closing in on me.
So I could gather myself for the drive home and the night at home and the days that followed.
Thank you for meeting me exactly where I was at and not acting like it was anywhere but where I was supposed to be.
For giving me that buffer and that smallest of reprieves – as a woman, as a new mother, as a body falling apart at the seams.