Allie tells “Hoping to Be Gentle” that she can try to be as gentle as she likes, but the underlying message is going to hurt her mother. But that hurt is necessary in love, because “if your family won’t tell you the truth, who will? Be the daughter your mother needs. Be the daughter who does ugly stuff for the right reasons. That’s where the deep, beautiful, mystifying love of family truly kicks in.”
She’s not talking to me or about me or with me or for me, and yet everything she says resonates. Allie is good. Allie is real good.
Mila comes into the office in the morning with a latte for me.
“To what do I owe this gift?” I say, happily taking it. I didn’t get much sleep last night.
“They gave me the wrong one by mistake, so I took a sip, realized it was the wrong one, and they had to let me keep both,” she says.
“Well, thank you,” I say. “I needed this.” The coffee is still hot in the cup, so hot that it’s burned my tongue. I’m now going to have that annoying numbness for the rest of the morning.
“Up late?” Mila asks, her voice implying something salacious.
“Are you asking me if I was up late having sex with David?”
Mila laughs. “Wow, you really don’t understand subtlety.”
“I’d argue you don’t understand it as much as you think you do,” I say.
She hits me with the back of her hand. “So you were, then?” she asks.
“No, actually,” I tell her. “I stayed up reading the backlog of posts from this advice columnist.”
Mila’s shoulders slump. “I’m bored now. I was interested when I thought you were getting laid.”
I laugh. “You know, you never cared about my sex life when I was with Ryan. Now, with David, suddenly, you’re fascinated.”
“I’m not fascinated,” she says. “I don’t wanna know, like, what you guys do and stuff. I just like living vicariously through you. New love. The fun of sleeping with someone you’re just getting to know. It’s fun, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I say, nodding my head. “It is. It is fun.”
“I don’t have that anymore,” she says wistfully. “And that’s fine. I’m not complaining. I love Christina more than anything. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world to have her.”
“But things slow down after a while,” I say. “I get it.”
“I mean, we haven’t been together all that long. Five years is long, I guess. But not that long. It’s the kids. Things slow down with kids. It’s like she’s not just this beautiful woman for me to explore and discover. She’s my kids’ mom. She’s my partner raising them. It’s . . .”
“Yeah. And boring is great. I love boring. It’s just . . .”
Mila smiles at me. “Right.” She takes a sip of her coffee. “Hence why I need to get my thrills from your sex life, even if it is with a man. I can overlook that.”
“You know,” I say to her, my voice escalating to a wild idea, “you could write to Ask Allie.”
“The advice columnist I’ve been reading. She’s great. Oh, God, I was reading one last night, about this woman who can’t get over the trauma of being mugged at gunpoint years ago, and Allie said the most beautiful thing—”
Mila puts her hand up. “I’m going to stop you right there.”
I look at her.
“You sound like a loony.”
I start laughing. I think it’s because she said “loony.” “I do not sound like a loony!” I say.
“Oh, yes, you do. You sound exactly like a loony.” Now she’s laughing, too.
“Maybe you’re the loony,” I ask her.
Mila shakes her head. “That’s exactly what a loony would say.”
“Stop saying the word loony, please.”
Mila smiles and starts walking back toward her desk. “Enjoy your coffee,” she says. “Loony.”
Admittedly, I floated the idea to Mila in part because I’m considering doing it myself. I wasn’t hoping to be called a loony, but maybe I don’t care if it makes me a loony. Maybe.
I’m considering writing to one of those advice columnists about us. That’s how confused I still am.
When we started this, I thought that I just needed some time away from you. I just needed time to breathe. I needed a chance to live on my own and appreciate you again by missing you.
Those first few months were torture. I felt so lonely. I felt exactly what I wanted myself to feel, which was that I couldn’t live without you. I felt it all day. I felt it when I slept in an empty bed. I felt it when I came home to an empty house. But somehow, one day, it just sort of became OK. I don’t know when that happened.
I thought at one point that maybe if I learned who you truly are, then I could love you again. Then I thought maybe if I learn who I really am, what I really want, then I could love you again. I have been grasping at things for months, trying to learn a lesson big enough, important enough, all-encompassing enough that it would bring us back together. But mostly, I’m just learning lessons about how to live my life. I’m learning how to be a better sister. I’m learning just how strong my mother has always been. That I should take my grandmother’s advice more often. That sex can be healing. That Charlie isn’t such a little kid anymore.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve started focusing on other things. I don’t feel all that desperate to figure us out and fix this. I feel sort of OK that it’s not fixed.
That’s not the direction this is supposed to go, is it?
• • •
I read the letter over and over. I change a word here and there. I add commas and spaces. On some level, I think maybe I’m delaying the moment when I hit save, trying to make sure I want my words taking up space somewhere out there in the ether of the Internet. But I’m not willing to delete them. So eventually, I stop preening, and I hit the button. Save.
I get up and decide to go for a run. I put on my shorts. My sports bra. My T-shirt. My running shoes. I say good-bye to Thumper. I hide my keys under the doormat. I take off.
As my heels round the pavement, as my heart starts to pump faster, as my body wants to slow down and I push it forward, all I can do is think about what I wrote. Is it true? Do I not feel any closer to knowing how to fix my marriage? Am I not sure I want to?
I go home and take a shower. And I think about my letter. I make myself dinner, and I think about my letter.
If I mean what I wrote, then doesn’t that mean that I have to face the idea of the end? Could this be the beginning of the end of us?
What would I do with my life?
I’m not sure what possesses me. It’s almost an instinct rather than an action. I grab my computer and log into Ryan’s e-mail. I don’t know what I’m expecting to find. I guess I’m expecting to find that he has forgotten me. That he has moved on. That he doesn’t think about me. But I look at the number next to his drafts folder. There are three more letters.
I open the folder. They are all to me. All from within the past three weeks. Ryan has started writing to me again.
• • •
I had to get away from you. I had to stop writing to you. I had to stop telling you everything that was going on. I noticed how I was talking to you throughout the day, in my head, even when I was mad at you, even when I wanted nothing to do with you. I had to stop doing that. I had to stop seeing you as someone to talk to.
So I stopped writing.
And writing to no one, talking to no one, felt lonely. So I had to stop being lonely.
At first, there was Noelle. Noelle is a perfectly nice woman, and she was very sweet to me and very patient with my reservations about everything, but I just wasn’t that into her.
And then there was Brianna, and that was fine.
And then I met Emily. And Emily is somehow different enough from you that she doesn’t remind me of you but not so different that I feel like I’m dating the opposite of you on purpose. And because of that, I think I was able to stop thinking about you so much. I just started thinking about Emily. I don’t mean to hurt you when I say this, but I looked forward to seeing Emily as much as possible, and I forgot about you. As much as a person can forget about his wife, I guess. I really felt like I was able to be present and engaged with her. We’ve even gone away together a few times, and each time, I’ve felt like Emily’s boyfriend, as opposed to your husband.