Author’s Note: “For years now, I’ve been drawn to storied resurrections, narratives that allow us to bring back what’s been lost and sit a spell in visitation. These storied resurrections help revitalize conversations that continue after death, metaphorical or real. Ultimately, these tales are not about rumination, but rather liberation. Through storied resurrections we speak the unspoken, release the unreleased, and forgive the unforgiven.”
Custodian of Our Story
WHEN HE LEFT, I BECAME THE CUSTODIAN of our story, and I can’t even remember the first line. Shouldn’t the custodian remember the first line of a love story? But the last line, that one I know. Because I wrote it.
As I age, some details get sketchy. Others remain blindingly radiant, like light beams dancing across my eyes. He and I met right before I left my Appalachian hometown for a six-month stay in India. As if testing my resolve to leave, friends introduced me to him, a bear of a man, tall, dark hair, and quiet, but from poetic musings or judgmental ruminations, I couldn’t tell—not then, not later. I packed up thoughts of him, and I lugged them with me across India, filling pages of my travel journals with romantic and sexual fantasies of him.
The first line of our love story is lost to me, but the first exclamation point remains with me to this day. It popped into my head, a plump reddish-hued punctuation mark, when he’d cupped the back of my neck with his large hand, gently but insistently.
That had come the day after my return from India. At a hometown pool hall, I’d gathered with friends, stealing glances at him all the while, analyzing his every movement, desperate to ascertain if he had any interest in me. Then, that touch, his palm and fingers across my nape, warmth spreading through me along with certainty. Under his skin, I lost track of everything except him. The chaos of the pool hall receded, including the clatter of balls breaking—or maybe that was the sound of rules being broken. He and I did that. We broke all sorts of rules. And that touch was no exception. To me, it became the nonverbal equivalent of an out-of-place exclamation point, one that emphasized our irreverence when it came to us following the rules of courtship.
Because of that touch, I followed him into the restroom. That was hours later. After we left the pool hall in favor of a dark restaurant where we plowed through baskets of chips, bowls of salsa, and way too many drinks. He got up to use the bathroom, and I followed, waiting outside the stall. When he emerged, the metal door croaked like a bullfrog’s mating song, and his eyes landed on me. I smiled, my grin whispering, “Yes, please.” Towering over me, he had to bend low to reach my lips, no matter how much I lifted my face to his, no matter how much I rose toward him on the tips of my toes.
From that night on, we coauthored our love story with a passion that neither of us had previously displayed.
Having little money and few job prospects, we lived in our parents’ houses, him in the rolling countryside, me in a suburban neighborhood, miles apart. We found pathways to one another, though. On trails through ancient forests, we explored one another’s southern wilds. On the side of nighttime roads, we parked our cars, our inhalations and exhalations mixing with the rumbling of human travels. On top of a mountain, we gathered dandelions and blew their seeds, watching our feathery dreams float over the edge, the place where clouds dipped, planting wet kisses on the swollen land. Those dandelion seeds are like the moments that make up our story, some withering, others flowering and spreading beyond our imagination.
After two years of dating, we wrote vows and, on an October afternoon, we exchanged them, along with custom-made rings, circles of gold forged with scrap jewelry. Nearly fifteen years later, he would leave his ring before walking out the door. Of course, back then, I knew none of what would come. Back then, I didn’t know that I alone would write the last line of our story.
On an autumn day, he and I stood before rows of witnesses. We clasped hands and stared at one another, almost shyly, as if we hadn’t already spent hundreds of nights weaving together our bodies. I wore a poofy white dress—a cliché that satisfied my mother. He wore a red bowtie, too tight, and he hated it, but I loved it.
At our beginning, we anchored ourselves to one another to prevent us from drifting apart. We enjoyed sunny days, long spells of optimism and warmth. There were beach trips and beach walks. There were candlelight dinners and baby talk. Then came the darkness, and over time, it settled in and stayed, an unwanted visitor who became an unwanted member of the family.
“I HAVE SOMETHING TO TELL YOU,” he said. This is one of those memories that are blinding in detail. I see myself sitting on the ratty couch beside him in our townhouse in Georgia, my stomach seizing as I prepare for the gut-punch that I sense is coming. He continued, his eyes darting away from mine. “I haven’t been going to class.”
Months earlier, he had been admitted into a prestigious graduate program, and we had relocated to a college town, deeper south, away from our beloved Appalachian Mountains but closer to a brighter future, so we’d convinced ourselves. At first the move had been good, a time for him to live out his dreams, but then, increasingly, he had disappeared inside himself, our conversations stopping, our lovemaking too.
“How long?” I whispered, terrified of the answer he would give to my question. By then, I had learned to bite back my emotions, or he might storm out, or throw things, or sink into brooding silences that lasted hours, days, weeks, sometimes more.
“A month. I drop you at work, then I come home.”
Tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and my husband had secretly stopped working on his master’s degree. Then and there, I found myself in a story I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand the plot or the plot twists. I didn’t understand the main characters, myself included. Still, I reassured myself, we would persevere. We would make this experience a footnote in our love story, nothing more. He flunked out of the graduate program, but with each move, each new job, each new undertaking, his darkness dissipated, or seemed to. I completed a PhD program and got a position at a Georgia university. He became a technical writer in Atlanta, and everything made sense again, especially when, a few years later, we relocated back to Appalachia, allowing me to teach in the mountains of the South again.
I ended that chapter of our life with promises that those times of secrecy and shame were behind us, that this part of our love story would be dazzling and full of joy.
“YOU BOUNCED CHECKS AGAIN,” I’d said. We stood in the stairwell, the artery that connected the heart of our home, the upstairs living area, to the bowels, the dark, unfinished basement. He had always had difficulties managing money. This time, though, he had hundreds of dollars in fees from bounced checks. Plus, there were his debts from his credit card and student loans, not to mention his new car that he’d surprised me with.
“I’m trying not to hurt myself,” he’d shot back. “I’ve been down here,” in the basement, “thinking up ways to hurt myself.”
I nearly collapsed on the steps. Instead, I drove him to the emergency room, and that began his first of many inpatient psychiatric stays.
No matter what we did, no matter the diagnoses or treatments, the darkness continued spreading through him; it grew until it engulfed us both. Eventually, we dwelled inside a gloomy world—no matter where we moved or however many jobs he got or lost. The gloominess became a perpetual fog that I stopped noticing. Consciously and unconsciously, I adapted to the swirling grayness, muffled love, and muted laughter.
HE LEFT LONG BEFORE HE LEFT FOR GOOD. He left in protracted silences. He left me upstairs in the sunlit living room while he haunted the dank, unfinished basement. He left our reality for virtual reality, finding pleasure in being an avatar instead of a spouse, partner, and parent. He left for extended stays in inpatient psychiatric facilities, each offering him an oasis, quenching his needs, but only temporarily.
Even as I write this, I understand that I’m oversimplifying him. That is a weight I carry as the custodian of our story. Do I write about the time he taught himself the ukulele and played it while I danced around the living room? Do I write about his attempt at woodworking and how he handcrafted for me a lamppost and a letterbox? Do I write about the poetry he penned, often gifts to me, those precious sheets of paper framed and hung on the walls of the home we shared?
Truthfully, I want to write about the beautiful gestures of love, but if I do, I must also thread into our story that his offerings were often made after missteps, mishaps, and misrepresentations. His offerings were often revisions of a story routinely fractured by his secrecy and shame, mainly about his past and his illnesses.
Darkness consumed him, drawing him deep within until he became little more than a ghost in our home. Then, one day, his darkness commanded that he leave our southeastern home and drive westward on a mission known only to him. He’d kissed me goodbye that morning, and I had waited until late evening before calling his boss and family in search of him, all the while lying to our young son to explain away his disappearance. Finally, standing in my kitchen and facing the police officer, I started the process of filing a missing-persons report. I wanted to explain to the officer that my husband had been missing for years, that this time, his body was gone, too.
Eventually, he returned, and I learned that he’d skipped work and had driven hundreds of miles to Oklahoma because a voice had told him to. In a note he’d written to me upon his return, he scrawled in blue ink on white college-ruled paper, “It’s not my fault.” He wrote other words, but those four were the ones that caused my hope to wilt; as I saw it, he had finally abdicated his co-authorship of our love story.
Even as I write this, I wonder exactly when the spine of our story got broken, when the first page spilled out. After a time, so many spilled out that I couldn’t put them back in order. Or maybe I stopped trying.
At last, I came to accept that I had to author another tale, and I began the work of separating my plotline from his.
In a letter I dropped at his latest inpatient facility, I told him he could not return to our home. In that memory, sometimes I see my emergence as a villain, a coldly calculating wife who severs her connection to her husband at his most vulnerable. Other times, I witness a desperate woman’s fatigue over having become a minor character in her own life.
AUTHORING MY STANDALONE STORY was painful in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Grief and longing bent me over, literally, and I spilled him out of me in streams of tears and snot. Also, with the passing of time, I spilled out of me his origin tale, the one I’d been clinging to, reciting like a holy mantra, especially during our gloomiest of days.
His birth father had brutally carved him into creation. His mother had molded him out of love, heartbreak, and trauma. But he had conceived his own survival.
In my solitude, I came to accept that his origin story had captivated me to the point that my own story had been held captive.
Reluctantly, I closed the first part of our book, saying goodbye to those intimacies in the wilderness, those roadside fumblings in our cars, and those blown dandelion seeds on a mountaintop. I consoled myself with promises that the second part of our story would be fulfilling in its own way. It would be about us parenting our son together while living apart. That didn’t happen.
He left without a final goodbye. He left me to write the final line.
I will never know what, when, or why. I have fragments that I’m tempted to assemble, but I know that I would be dragged into a lifetime of piecing, sorting, and reconfiguring. Instead, I’ve reconciled myself to being custodian of a narrative about perpetual doubt.
Over 550 days after our separation and around seven months after our divorce, he left for good. Setting his wedding ring on the kitchen counter in his apartment where he lived alone, he disappeared through a door. He descended into a basement. Should I be grateful that he exited through another basement, and not the one that he used to haunt in our home? And, like the bowtie he had slipped on for our marriage ceremony, he slipped a noose around his neck, and he left his story in my hands.
The rope I’m holding is attached to a narrative that I don’t understand and never will. But in some ways that rope connects us as we were never connected before.
HE LEFT WITHOUT A FINAL GOODBYE, a final poem, so I’m offering one, his anniversary gift to me:
Let This Be Our Measure
We are a clock without a face.
Our time is measured in heartbeats
“This is the day we married.”
“This is the day you were born.”
“This is the day you crossed the world
to be with me.”
But these sweet measures are just words.
They are not us.
We are, because we remember what we were.
We are, because we imagine what we will be.
No sweeping minute hand
can tell us how long we have been
or how long we will remain.
The sun has risen and set on us
thousands of times.
And we have shared a bed
at almost every day’s end.
Let that be our measure.
—MTB (October 1, 2006)
I am the custodian of our story. I am the keeper of his words. I am the memory well beyond his leaving.
This is our love story, and this is the last line.
Kelly A. Dorgan’s personal essay is from the 13th edition of the Delmarva Review. She writes about taboo topics, including sex, race, and illness. A writer, speaker, scholar, and college communications professor, she has published nearly 40 nonfiction stories, essays, and research articles. Her writings appear in online magazines, research journals including Women & Health, and scholarly books including Performing Motherhood. Dr. Kelly is a professor at East Tennessee State University. Website: www.kellydorgan.com.
Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal publishing evocative new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions annually. Partial financial support comes from individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The review is available worldwide from major online booksellers and specialty regional bookstores. For more information, please see the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.