March 10th, 2012 - Stephanie LaRose
Ten years ago today: I was forty-four when my husband Bill left me for a twenty-nine-year-old. Our only child Ben was eleven.
For as long as Ben remembered, we lived in a house on a hill from whose deck oak and birch fanned out to a pond. Every weekend, we trekked that hill, righting ourselves with walking sticks, the black lab streaking ahead. We skated that pond in the winter and netted its bull-frogs in the spring.
A fox, fur the copper-penny of Ben’s hair, studied our little family from between hydrangeas in the brick-raised flower bed that swept up the side. The lab dug for chipmunk in the front as they darted through the rock garden.
Ben worried over the chipmunk.
“Chipper’s too silly to catch one,” I laughed until one winter she clutched a handful of white-streaked brown fur in her maw, shaking its life out, bright red spraying the snow.
I was over-confident.
My mother was my age when my father abandoned us for his twenty-something-year-old mistress, leaving my mother, sister, and me without so much as a phone number. My husband knows this.
When Bill gets passed over for a promotion in the prosecutor’s office, and a forty-four-year-old woman becomes his boss, and when his “fine, I’ll get a better job” interview with the United States Attorney elicits no offer, he becomes crazed with resentment. He sets his scope on my secret soft spot. Tucked far beneath the business suit lives an abandoned child who believes she is unworthy.
Through the winter of 2012, he criticizes me for not cooking him breakfast before he goes to work in the morning even though I’m a full-time law professor. He complains that I don’t respect Christians even though he’s never suggested being one. He asks me for advice about a case he’s trying, and when I reflect back that the victim’s story isn’t going to make sense to the jury, he bellows, “Fine! I know you’re smarter than me!” When we have dinner in a restaurant, he stares off into space, wanders from the table, and returns thirty minutes later without explanation. He comes home late from work to take over parent-duties, so it’s impossible to get to the YMCA in time to teach my evening kickboxing and Yoga classes.
I watch all this without comment.
But it’s taking its toll. I can barely propel the cart through the grocery store by the end of the week. I think, “what’s wrong with me,” and Bill thinks, “what’s wrong with her?”
It turns out, I’m being compared to the new assistant prosecutor Bill supervises.
She is the Testimonial Woman, root word “testes.” While the wife “recalls his faults, failures, [and] fears,” the Testimonial Woman “offers a testimony for what he has become.” She is subordinate. By trying to become more like him, she proves him worth emulating. A year later, she announces his virility with a baby.
Bill’s leaving is a shot of adrenaline.
By the end of the Summer of 2012, Ben and I have moved out of the house on the hill into a new one close to his school and my work where just the two of us plus a Basset hound live for six years until Ben leaves for college.
I start dating and discover I’m a lot smarter at forty-four than I was at twenty. I connect with a therapist to unpack the unworthiness. I tend better to my long-term friendships and make new ones. I go to writing camp and for once don’t throw away what I’ve written.
The same August Ben leaves for college in 2018, I marry Alan and move into his house, a mile from a liberal arts college in a sleepy town run through with a river. The Bassett hound basks under the apple tree in the corner of the yard closest to the sound of water rushing reeds. Occasionally, she turns her head to chomp on fallen fruit. She scratches her back on the bright green grass and suns her speckled belly. She sits alongside the pool, snout upturned, sniffing with her whole diaphragm.
The next three-and-a-half years will not be without challenge, but they will include Ben fighting his way through a Jazz Studies program where he didn’t start out the most talented and me forging a bond with Alan’s seemingly-unreachable teenage son and, finally, a year ago, applying to an MFA program to honor the child I was who knew she’d grow up to be a writer, before all the damage was done.
Today, Ben gets accepted into graduate school to study jazz guitar with his dream-mentor Bobby Broom, and I choose a date for Ben’s college graduation party while still mourning not seeing him every day, motifs wafting through the air-vent while I fry chicken cutlets, teenage boys strewn across couches, empty cereal boxes toppled in the pantry.
Twenty-one years ago, I spat in the dirt and molded a family. I thought it was the creative act that would define my life.
But ten years ago, Bill shoved me out of the bunker that both safeguarded and imprisoned my heart. We will not, as I imagined, celebrate Ben together, but Bill did not abandon Ben. Unlike my father, Bill will celebrate and participate. And I will gift my son the knowledge that, at over half-a-century old, I am still becoming.
Today, Bobby selects Ben as his student and vows to help develop his singular voice. When Ben calls to share the news, we talk on the phone for an hour. We both feel nostalgic for that copper-penny-haired boy. “Joy and sorrow feel just about the same to me,” we say. “Surely there is not one without the other.” We talk about the jazz musicians in their fifties and sixties like Bobby who continue to create and evolve, and we agree, we choose this path, despite its requirement to expose our speckled bellies for the piercing.
Stephanie LaRose is a legal writing professor at Michigan State University College of law where she trains soon-to-be lawyers in the art of written and oral advocacy. Previously, Stephanie practiced in civil litigation, handling high-profile cases such as a civil rights lawsuit against a police department and officer for shooting a teenager and a class action on behalf of early retirees from the State of Michigan; criminal defense, including the defense of a notorious serial killer which is the subject of a 48 Hours special; and prosecution; as well as served as a family court referee presiding over child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and child custody and support cases. She currently is an MFA in Writing student at Vermont College of Fine Arts.