A man with a difficult childhood marries a woman out of fear of abandonment.
Special note: This story is a response to my call for anonymous submissions. The man who told it has been my acquaintance for about five years. He didn’t feel comfortable writing it himself. I’m retelling it on his behalf.
My name is Sam. I just finished my associates in Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning even though I’m almost 45. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past.
If I think back all the way to childhood, I can remember wanting a simple thing. I wanted to grow up and marry someone different from my mom, and I wanted to be nothing like my dad. My mom would protect my dad. And my dad got to do whatever he wanted. To me or anybody else.
I met a beautiful girl named Penny. Our first date was to go to a baseball game. Even though she noticed my deformed wrist when I was drinking a Coke—I can always tell when people notice it—Penny waited until our second date to ask about it. My hand looks weird. It’s like there’s an egg growing under the skin, and there’s a strange angle to it at all times. I only have partial movement. This is because I never had my broken wrist treated, and the bones didn’t grow together the right way. My mom didn’t take me to the doctor. She told the whole family it was an accident, and the whole family went along with the story. It happened in the village where my dad was born, a very small place far away from everywhere. We’d spend time there each summer when I was a kid.
When Penny asked, I told her it was an accident. I told her about the beautiful village. Lots of accidents happened to me out there.
Penny and I were twenty-five and twenty-three. I was totally in love with her. She was nothing like my mom. Penny told stories and laughed. She also said “Yes” most of the time. Do you want to go to the movies? How about we get Chinese? Do you want to ride our bikes along the lake? Can I take one of your smokes? Maybe we should go to a hockey game instead?
She was also romantic. She would make me park the car a half mile from her place so that I could walk her home. I loved this, to walk through the neighborhood with her. And I loved that she laughed any time I told a joke. Even if my jokes sucked, she would just hold her chin and say, “Oh my God, Sam. That’s so dumb!” and she would laugh till her face turned pink.
I was really proud to have Penny, to show up places with her. But I was also scared. The whole time I was just waiting for her to leave me. Every time she called, I would think Here it is. She’s gonna break it off. Before Penny, the longest I ever had a girlfriend was barely six months, and I never dumped any of them. But now one year went by, Penny was still with me and I was twenty-six. Time kept going by but she was still there.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a good job and I was trying hard in school, taking college classes, but I was flunking. I just didn’t have the discipline or the belief. For Penny, everything came easy, or that’s how it seemed. I panicked. I thought I had to make sure she would never disappear. She was all I had going. So I bought her a ring, the most expensive thing I ever bought in my life.
Our wedding was small—Penny didn’t have much family. Her parents were quiet people who owned a diner that did pretty well. We ate there a lot and the place was always packed for Sunday breakfast. They also bought Penny lots of gifts. For her wedding, she got a yellow convertible and a yellow sofa. My mom and dad gave me $300. My dad only said one thing about Penny: “She’s got big thighs.” I overheard him say it to one of the guys from the village. My mom said Penny’s a happy girl, but she warned me to be careful. This was my mom’s other refrain. The two things she said over and over were “No” and “You have to be careful.”
I was being careful. I married Penny so that she wouldn’t disappear.
In the first year of marriage, I flunked my classes (again), lost my financial aid, and we got our rent raised so we had to move. Penny said she would help pay for school and rent, but she could never hold a job for more than a few months. She would just get bored at any job, tired of it, and she would stop going, then she would just sit around or go out with friends. I thought she was good in school, but that was mostly talk. She said she was going to study nursing at the community college. I would bring her the registration forms but each semester she would miss the deadline. She also spent money on things like forks and plates, decorations, curtains, new jeans. “Don’t you like them? Don’t you think these jeans look great?” Sure. But you already have four pairs of jeans. And we don’t have money for rent. Your license plates need renewal. And we’re late on insurance payments. It was endless…
I thought it was on me to get us back up. I learned it from my dad. Sure, he caused accidents, and he got to do whatever he wanted, but he also worked hard and always paid for everything. I ate well in my youth, got fat. He worked in construction so we had a good home. Everything was fixed. Neighborhood women were jealous of mom because my dad was always fixing something outside, improving it, and our house looked nice.
But I learned another thing from him. I shouldn’t try to help with any of those things. I wasn’t good at it. I was a weak boy. After I broke my hand, it got worse. Your hand’s weak. You can’t work. Now, my hand wasn’t weak. I can grip anything, any tool. But that didn’t matter. I had my dad’s voice in my head all the time, even when I was waiting for a bus or brushing my teeth.
Things with Penny got bad. She complained about everything. I mean everything. I would pay almost all the bills myself and she would say that I worked too long. This sucked. It’s like, we need more money and you’re working too much. Or she would ask a question. “How long will you be at the mechanic’s?” I always knew every answer I could give her would be wrong. And I would try to think of the answer that would be okay. Penny, I’m just gonna drop the car off and come home. She would sigh out, “Huh? You’re going to leave the car over there? How long’s it going to take them to fix it?” Probably one day. “That’s insane!” Then she’d walk away and not talk to me.
Everything in the apartment had to be her way. The sofa and curtains and rugs. It didn’t matter if we had no money for something. She would just go in a store and take out one of their credit cards, get a bunch of stuff. And she would ask me, “What do you mean we can’t afford this?” It was like I made up my own math or something.
My biggest dream was for her to stop complaining. I wished one day I could come home and see how she made me dinner and wanted to talk. But if I came home from work, she would either be sleeping or watching TV and not talking to me. Or if she talked to me, she would tell me about some stuff I needed to do, things that were wrong, things that were bad. I would go shopping for food and only think about what I could get that would make her happy again like she used to be. I would spend $100 on groceries, come home, and she would look through the bags and ask, “Did you get some plums? I want plums.” This is crazy! How should I know she wanted plums? But she’d look at the bags, wave her hand and go sit on the sofa.
I only had one hobby the whole time. I liked to go fishing. It was cheap and I could do it in the park. Even if I didn’t catch any fish, it was relaxing to sit by the water on a lawn chair, and I always went by myself. But I would watch the other guys to see if they were catching anything.
One day I thought I would use some live bait. I was standing at this sport shop, looking at a bait fridge, the kind with a glass door. I was wondering if I should get nightcrawlers. Then I thought, “No, don’t get any live bait. There won’t be any place to keep it if you don’t use it all up.” The guys in the village would keep their bait in the fridge, but Penny would never let me do that. And that’s when it hit me. She’s always in my head. She’s always making my choices for me. I don’t have any space at all, not even in the fridge.
The end was really bad. But it’s over and my life is different now. I’m proud to finish my associates, finally, after all this time, to figure out what I want to do. I already know where I’m going to work.
My marriage was a mistake. We both played a role. It’s a very bad idea to marry somebody just because you’re scared they’ll leave. And when you can’t tell someone the truth about yourself, about how you got your accidents, you shouldn’t marry them. You don’t have to tell the world, but you should be able to tell your wife. I didn’t know how to communicate. I would go to the store and wonder what would make Penny happy. But I never asked her before going.
The thing I wonder about even now, when I haven’t seen Penny for a few years, was why she married me. What did she think I could give her? Didn’t she know I couldn’t be like her dad?
Photo by Augaphel