- Nick, the kids, and I were invited to a birthday party for the father of my daughter’s friend. They lived far out in the country on a ranch, in an old stone house. We wanted to go because they are nice people, but Nick was out of town so I had to drive. This was a problem, but could be overcome, if we planned carefully (I don’t drive on the highway because I have double vision, a result of a brain surgery I had in my early twenties).
After breakfast, Nick and I peered at our phones, looking at the different routes. There were several, both of which followed roads I’d never heard of.
- One evening, I was at a fundraiser in my neighborhood for the state book festival, and read a short essay I’d written on having double vision. Unusually, I was nervous, shaking in my legs, and my face was hot. Maybe it was because I knew most of the people in the audience, but I could barely look up from my paper. Afterwards, as I tried to leave the crowded room, people pressing into each other to try a bit of cheeseball or a lava cake, a man cornered me. He lived down the street from me, and I could never remember how to say his last name.
“I was at a dinner party and met your cousin,” he said. He was much taller than me, and a close talker. “She told the whole table your story, and said that you had had a handsome French boyfriend. Boy, she sure likes to talk.”
- Together, a few days before the birthday party, Nick and I drove two of the routes that Siri gave us, one of which was extra-confusing because it involved a windy, unmarked road, and Ys that were tricky to remember which way to take.
- By “my story,” the neighbor man meant my brain surgeries and heartbreak. I had just moved out to Southern California from Kansas to be with the French boyfriend — we had bought a mattress and a couch, and weeks later the symptoms started. The next thing I knew I was wearing an eye patch so I could see straight. After the surgeries I moved in with my parents in Michigan and had to learn to walk again, the whole shebang, without him. He had said in a letter that he wanted me to come back to California when I was better and we would pick up where we had left off, but it was becoming clear that there was not going to be a return to normal. Physically, I was changed, with facial paralysis, a balance deficiency, and permanent double vision. It was too much for him to kiss me during our last visit.
A couple of days after the fundraiser, I dragged a dining room chair over to our high bookshelves. The old photo album was up there with photos of my French boyfriend and me, some of them only days before my symptoms began: headaches and tingling limbs, the trip to the E.R. In one photo, we are at a wax museum in Las Vegas, shaking our fingers at George W. Bush. I wore a tiny white t-shirt and denim mini-skirt. I was 22. Blonde. Pretty. In another, he gazes out at the beach we lived by in Santa Barbara.
My kids are outside and Nick is working, so I let myself cry. I can’t stop, and in intervals, the crying goes on for days, mostly when I am driving or on walks. I start to worry.
- On the day of the birthday party, the kids and I left our house an hour early for a thirty-minute journey. I drove like a cautious snail. We had a case of grape soda in our trunk, which was what I told the mom we would bring. It was a sunny day, and rural Kansas looked like a study in contrast, the fields burned black like ranchers do at that time of year to allow new growth. The pure sky. The kids and I looked for, and found, the landmarks that told us where to turn or when to keep straight on the particular route I had chosen. Signs that only we would know: that gravel road, the “Disney House” as my daughter christened it, the log cabin. Finally, we found our friends’ house. But there was no one home. “Hi! We are here. Are we early?” I texted the mom. No reply.
- I looked at my French boyfriend’s Facebook account. He had sent me a friend request me a few years back, and I’d accepted, but we had never communicated. I hadn’t even looked at his profile until now. I hadn’t wanted to see. Now, clicking, I saw that he was back living in Paris, had a son, and surmised he had split from his model-esque Turkish wife by the drop-off of photos of her after 2016, but I had no proof. Still, I was happy about the prospect of him being divorced. She was too beautiful, as I looked at her page, seeing photo after photo of her looking how I would never look in dresses and heels. It made me nauseated. For the first time ever, I thought about emailing him. What I would say, what I would ask (“I am not the same person I was back then.” “How do you spend your time?”), but I couldn’t tell if I really wanted to know information or was just curious to see what would happen.
- Outside the empty stone house, I thought to check my calendar on my phone. The party was tomorrow. I wrangled the kids back in the car. The trip home was a mess. I got turned around, and couldn’t find that gravel road. We ended up on a fast and busy two-lane where a truck laid on his horn at my slow speed. Everyone cried.
Later, I relayed the story to Nick, who was in New Orleans covering the Final Four college basketball tournament. I tried to ham up certain parts, but he saw through it.
“Just don’t go back tomorrow, it’s not worth it. Take the kids to a movie,” he said. “The drive is too much, it’s O.K.”
His being gone reminded me of what life was like before I met him. It was like being in a pitch-black room, looking for a light switch with your hands straight out in front of your face. I needed him a little too much, and I don’t like that about myself. But when you meet someone who is O.K. with you needing them, it’s like drinking sweet, cold water. Impossible to stop.
- Things I had tried to reassure myself with to stop crying:
a. You just want your youth back
b. You are in a better place now
c. Think of how wonderful your family is
- The next day, despite Nick’s advice, we did the drive all over again, and found their house without a hitch. The party had BBQ, horseshoes, and a fishing pond, but we hadn’t known so hadn’t brought rods (not that we owned any). So we watched other people cast and reel. The rest of the guests seemed like family members, and there were no other kids. My daughter’s friend seemed more interested in lugging her baby cousin around than playing with her, so the kids and I played corn hole.
- On the phone, I told my mom about the neighbor man’s comment at the fundraiser. “Oh honey, I’m sorry. People can say such insensitive things.” We started going down the road of how my cousin and neighbor were gossiping fools, but that’s not what really bothered me. What I couldn’t articulate to her at the time was a question: “When will I stop getting sad when I think about that time in my life?”
- I emailed the French boyfriend. It was short, friendly, and honest but not inappropriate (“I just wanted to reach out and say hello…thinking about our time together is painful for me…”) and I sent it after proofreading it once.
- On the drive home, we stopped and got grocery store Starbucks. The kids got fruity drinks and I got a coffee at 4 p.m., guaranteed to hurt my sleeping chances. I didn’t care, I was just glad to be back to where the speed limit was 40. None of us reflected on the birthday party at all. It’s like it never happened.
- The French boyfriend wrote back, formal and benign. (“What a surprise to hear from you…Thanks for reaching out. Your email put a smile on my face….”) After reading it, I felt deflated. What did I think would happen? What was I wanting?
a. An apology
b. Congratulations for moving on
c. A request for forgiveness.
I got none of those, of course. Instead, I looked up memes about closure. I took a walk in bright sunlight without sunglasses, hoping the sun would help me like an article I read said it would (oxytocin? endorphins?). I downloaded a cognitive behavioral therapy app. I listened to music constantly. I started therapy again and increased my Zoloft.
- A few months after the email, the French boyfriend liked a post of mine. That had never happened before, and it made me happy, because my post had been about an upcoming facial surgery. In my mind, that “like” said he was happy for me. Since the “meh” email, I had reconciled myself to the fact that his life was probably better than mine, he was happily married after all, and I was just a little unhinged. “Thanks for the like,” I messaged him before thinking too much. “It brings me peace to know that you and I made it through that impossible time. I’m glad we both made it to the other side.” A message popped up a few moments later. “That’s sweet of you to say, although a ‘like’ feels insufficient considering the nightmare you lived through. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you more at the time. That you are at peace brings me peace as well.”
- I didn’t show this message to Nick right away, but I didn’t feel guilty, either. For once, I didn’t think of what to do next. I simply existed. Every now and then, I opened that last message from the French boyfriend, like a pinch to reassure myself that it was real. I had finally received that apology I had always wanted. Now what?
- One night a few days later, Nick and I laid on our bed and I told him about the emails. I told him about the crying and the memories, Facebook, and my old photo albums, the like and the apology. The word “peace.” I was nervous, because pain from the past is one thing, but emailing is another. Bringing exes into the present is something we have never done, not at all. I was pretty sure that Nick knew why I had done what I did, but there’s always that tiny bit of doubt that maybe he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t understand me.
Nick stayed silent, and then he said, “It’s O.K., I trust you,” and I knew that was true. Then he said, “Do what you have to do,” and I did. I let things be.
About the Author
Louise Krug is an associate professor of English at Washburn University. She is the author of two memoirs about brain surgeries that she had in her twenties, Louise: Amended (one of Publishers Weekly's Best 20 books of 2012) and Tilted: The Post Brain-Surgery Journals, recipient of the Hefner-Heinz Kansas Book Award in 2018. She has published essays in The Huffington Post, River Teeth, Juked, various anthologies, and elsewhere. She lives in Topeka, Kansas with her family.