I first meet Peter at The Bookshop, a coffeehouse near my apartment. My dad has just died, suddenly. Peter sits across from me at the big library table, working on his laptop; I’m grading Shakespeare papers. He says hello, asks if I’m a professor, says he is too, and buys me a refill on my coffee. He’s attractive: tall, well-dressed in a casual way, older than I. He laughs at my jokes, asks for my phone number, and calls that night to invite me for a walk on the beach the next evening.
A whirlwind romance erupts. We walk a lot: on the beach, to the movies, to Starbucks near the shore. We talk: he was an English major too, then worked for IBM out of college, breaking the mold of East Coast business geeks by riding his motorcycle to work. He started his own business in Alabama, where he was a successful headhunter in the medical industry. He got an MBA, and is now in the marketing department at State, where I’m in the English department.
One evening as we walk back to his apartment, Peter clears his throat and says, “I need to tell you something.”
“Okay,” I say, moving closer as he takes my hand.
“I’ve been married before,” he says.
“I know,” I say. He’d told me about a too-early marriage to a high school sweetheart who got pregnant. Their daughter became a famous fashion model. He pauses, and I look up at him. His face is taut, and slightly flushed.
“There’s more,” he says. I wait. “I was married more times.” Plural?
“Oh?” I say, wanting to be cool, sophisticated, grown up like him. I’m 32 and he’s 56.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ve been married four times.” I don’t even pause: we walk on as though nothing has happened. “And I have six children.”
We’re moving in cadence; I don’t misstep. “Well,” I say. “Wow.” Peter acts like he’s just told me that the weather forecast is for sun and 75, as it is every day in our beach town.
Eventually I inquire a bit more: who, when, why. He names and describes the women and the daughters, and says, “I’ve been looking for the right woman.” Pause. “I’ve been looking for you, Elizabeth.” My heart flutters and my brain shuts down.
Another time we’re on the way home from the movies. It’s been a lovely day: a long walk to the theater to see Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool, dinner at the cheap Mexican restaurant. Peter says, “I have to tell you something serious.” For a moment I think he’s going to tell me he wants to marry me, and I’m excited. I want to marry him. I want to be the woman who makes him happy. I want to have this smart, sophisticated, self-contained man who never gets upset about anything, who manages things and will look after me always.
“Okay,” I say, smiling up at him.
“When we get inside,” he says, and his tone makes it clear this isn’t going to be a marriage proposal.
Side by side on the couch, Peter takes my hand. “This is hard,” he says. I can feel tears rising in me: the man I love is rattled. Is he going to break up with me? Or tell me he has cancer? As I look steadily at him, he says, “I killed someone.”
As Peter tells the story, I float above the couch, watching myself. I instruct myself to remain calm. You can deal with this. You have to make it okay for him. After all, Peter’s story makes a certain sense. Eventually, I’ll learn it’s not quite the whole story: it’s a polished rendition he’s told many times, including in court. He tells me that he was temporarily disabled by a hip replacement, that he acted in self-defense, that he happened to have a loaded gun, that the man was going to kill him. The whole thing happened years before; he was convicted of second-degree manslaughter; the judge commuted his sentence. His probation ends this year, and then it will all be behind him. When he falls silent, my inner voice continues to urge me to step up to this challenge. I meet his beautiful eyes and nod. “I see. Thank you for telling me.”
“I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he says. “I’ve been so afraid I’d lose you when I told you.” Those eyes are suddenly full of tears, the first and only time I see Peter cry. What could I possibly say? I’m back in my body again, and the words are automatic: “You won’t lose me, Peter. I’m here.” A few weeks later, he asks me to marry him, and I do.
When we’ve been married a few months, Peter says, “I need to tell you something.” My heart sinks. I brace myself and take a deep breath. “Sure, Pete. What’s up?”
He says, “I owe some child support, and now that we’re married, Cynthia is taking me to court to get it.” I’ve met Peter’s youngest daughters, Leslie and Susan, when we all visited his mother last summer. I love them.
“How much is it?” I ask, voice neutral.
“She’s going for about $5,000,” he says, glancing at me. He’d declared bankruptcy when he couldn’t pay the attorney who defended him against the murder charge. He’s had a rocky time.
“I’ll pay the arrears,” I say. “It’s something we ought to do. It’s hard on Cynthia to not have the money.”
“I don’t care about Cynthia,” he says, and I quickly add, “It’s not fair to the girls. We want them to have everything they need.” He doesn’t reply to that. Instead, he says, “I wouldn’t have to pay a couple of months of child support if we had them stay with us this summer.”
I end up paying the arrears, and we arrange for Leslie and Susan to spend the summer with us in southern California. I envision myself as a stepmother, offering wise guidance through the perils of adolescence. I picture Peter and me as Mike and Carol Brady, but with only two kids, not a bunch. We’ll have little adventures, and it’ll be fun.
Leslie is 14, and Susan 12. They’re athletic, beautiful, funny, smart girls. They have gentle Southern accents, and excellent manners. They read books, write poetry, and draw. They’re also interested in boys, clothes, shopping, and makeup. They’re excited when Peter tells them that we’re going camping at the beach south of us, and then out to Mono Lake near Yosemite. “Cool!” Les exclaims. Susan squeals, “We can live in our bikinis!”
Camping at the beach, Peter lets the girls do whatever they like, hardly even checking in with them, but they thrive. They body surf, and join volleyball games with other kids. Leslie reads Jane Eyre, and Sue takes photos of sunsets. I begin to relax, and one morning when Peter swims way out, I decide to follow him. I’m a strong swimmer in a pool, and I figure I can always turn over and float if I get tired. When I’m about halfway out to him, however, I get caught in a riptide. I struggle, fighting the powerful pull. I panic, and begin to flail. Peter! I think. Help me! I’m drowning. I choke on a mouthful of saltwater, and see a lifeguard running into the water toward me.
The lifeguard has Peter’s build: all muscle, long legs, broad chest. He has dark hair, like Peter. He’s wearing Ray Bans, and once he has me in his arms with my head out of the water, he carries me until we can walk the rest of the way in. “Thank you,” I say, “oh, thank you.” When Peter comes into shore a few minutes later, he says, “Was that you the guard came after?” I nod and reach for his arm, but he’s busy brushing sand off his feet, then falls asleep on his towel a few minutes later.
As Peter cooks burgers on the grill that night, I tell the girls about being rescued from a riptide by the handsome lifeguard. Les asks quietly, “Are you okay?” and when my eyes fill with tears, she holds my gaze. “Dad should’ve helped you,” she says. And I remember our honeymoon, when Peter took the better seat on the whale watch boat, and I ended up not seeing many of the dolphins or the whale because he blocked the view. Back then, I had a sinking feeling; now I stifle that feeling again to protect the girls.
We move on to Mono Lake, where the stark and eerie tufa formations underscore my sense of being in an alien world with Peter. After we take in the information at the visitor center, the girls are ready to broaden their horizons. They persuade Peter to take us to nearby Yosemite. We get a campsite, set up the tents, and go for a hike.
We climb a trail for an hour. We encounter no people. We’re quiet, everyone in their own thoughts. Peter decides to take a break, so we all perch on rocks and look out over the horizon of peaks and valleys. I suddenly realize that I can’t think clearly. I feel in my pockets for my requisite sugar tablets: I’ve had diabetes since I was 10, and usually carry some in case my blood sugar drops. “Shoot,” I say. Leslie and Susan look up. “I’ve got low blood sugar, and I don’t have anything to eat.”
Sue smiles. “I have some Life Savers,” she says, pulling a pack out of her pocket. I feel a wave of relief, until I see that she only has two candies, not nearly enough to get my rapidly dropping blood sugar back to normal. I pop them in my mouth.
“Thanks, Sue,” I say. “Anybody else got anything? I may need more than that.” Leslie shakes her head, her eyes, big and serious, fixed on my face.
“I don’t have anything,” Peter says.
I can feel my cognitive function decreasing. “I’m not going to be able to walk down without something more,” I say, my voice tremulous. I turn and face Peter. “I think you may need to go down and bring me some food.”
“I can’t,” he says flatly. “My hip.”
My brain is wonky, but it manages to wonder, From surgery so long ago?
There’s a long moment of silence. Leslie is staring at him. “Dad,” Leslie says, “we have to get help for Elizabeth.”
“I can’t, Les. I don’t want to hurt my hip.”
Leslie assesses the situation. “I’m going down to camp,” she announces. “I’ll get food and come back up as soon as I can. Susie, you stay here, and keep an eye on Elizabeth, okay? I’ll be quick.”
Sue moves to sit on a rock near me. She takes my hand in hers, feels how cold and sweaty it is, and wraps it in both of hers. We sit connected. When I start to cry, she squeezes my hand and says urgently, “You’re going to be all right.”
Leslie is back in a remarkably short time. “I ran,” she says, as she opens the backpack and hands me a juice box, a candy bar, and a packet of peanut butter crackers. The girls watch me eat, and smile as I get some color back and begin to talk. About 20 minutes later, I stand up and say, “Come on, let’s go,” and we head down the trail to camp, Peter bringing up the rear.
Summer passes. The girls take sailing lessons and make friends. I notice that when they’re off on their own, I miss them. So I go watch them sail. I invite their new friends over to a cookout. I take them shopping, get them haircuts, listen to their joys and woes. For a time, Leslie and Susan offset my dismay about my marriage. When I wonder if I’m selfish, too needy, I realize that the girls are having the same struggle: like me, they want Peter to attend to them, but he rarely does.
In mid-August, I fly home for my mother’s 70th birthday, just before the girls head back to Tuscaloosa. Before I leave, Leslie and Susan give me a handmade farewell card. “Have a good trip! We love you, Elizabeth!” they’ve written in magic marker, with a drawing of a road through rolling hills. As we hug, I whisper in Susan’s ear, “You’ve become such a grown-up girl.” And in Leslie’s, “Thank you for looking after me.” They smile at me, but Leslie, always serious, looks sad.
After Mom’s birthday party, I tell my sister about the premarital discussions with Peter that began with “I have something to tell you.” Those secrets just seem to pour out of me: the marriages, manslaughter conviction, bankruptcy. She stares at me, tears in her eyes, and I feel like a six-year-old who’s done something terribly dangerous as I try to explain: I thought he was reliable and caring, like Dad. I needed family close by. I felt sorry for him. I believed I could love him enough to save him, but it was never enough. “I married the wrong man,” I finally confess. “But Leslie and Sue—” I pause.
My sister stays silent a moment, then says, “Lizzy, they have their mother. They’ll be okay.” The relief I feel reminds me of the lifeguard carrying me in, and of Leslie handing me the juice box. And I realize that this time I must save myself and leave Peter. It’ll be hard, messy, sad, but I can do it, and I must.
The next semester, after my divorce, I read a poem from our textbook aloud in class. It’s one I always teach, about the end of a marriage. Halfway through, my voice breaks unexpectedly. Mortified, I turn away from the students and collect myself. The students keep their faces neutral, waiting to see what I do. I start again, and read the poem through, grief present but controlled. We have a lively discussion about it, more intimate than usual.
One young woman, usually silent but attentive, lingers after class. She says, “Your reading really showed how poetry matters.” She hesitates, then adds, “And how loss hurts.”
Our eyes meet, and I nod. “I’m all right,” I tell her.
She smiles. “Yes. We could all see that you are.”
Elizabeth Young, PhD, MSW, is a writer and therapist. She writes a blog, “Adaptions: Tales of Transformation,” for Psychology Today and is currently writing a book called Growth in Grief: Stories of Transformation in Loss.