This year, I decided to participate in national novel writing month. To be honest, I haven’t been diligent about writing of any kind the last 2 years. I’ve made a return to sports writing. However, the digital white space that were once precious properties have all but been deserted.
A few years ago, a client discussed his infertility issues with me. I listened and offered support in what would become an all-too-technical but fruitful journey with his partner. (They had a daughter in 2019). The conversation around miscarriages and fertility complications, specifically how men deal with it, became more visible for me when I came across this article. A relationship last year was the start of sharing the medical experience of weighing out my contribution in fertility and how it affected my mental health. Recently, some of these thoughts lead to re-visiting a short story I wrote in 2017.
There, I attacked this heavy topic from a very surface level. The time to flesh it out was unplanned. But one positive thing about the pandemic is is it forced me to fall in love with these spaces of expression again.
Maybe some day I’ll finish the 50,000 words.
“Hey. I’m in the driveway,” I texted. My eyes were feeling the weight of sleep deprivation. The fog of the weekend was sending delayed signals to the brain. The longer I sat there, the more I argued with myself.
“Be down in a minute.”
“Ok. Mind if I use the bathroom? Hope this key still works lol.”
Hesitating, my ego screamed to put the car in reverse and speed off, heading north. Or I could have just as easily ran around to the back of the house like a dimwit. Anything but walk up those stairs. But the delirium had set in. Guzzling down the rest of a 32 ounce Fiji before texting her had caused my bladder to swell. In another 15 minutes, my leg would be bouncing uncontrollably. While I could probably hold it until we got to the church, a bigger part of me knew it was critical to see her before we saw everyone else.
I hadn’t been inside the house in over a year. Frankly, it was more hers than mine. From the marble flooring to the double ovens she frequently used to create holiday dessert spreads, the house had been customized to fit her vision. Naturally, Nicole had an emotional attachment to it. Over time, I grew to appreciate the indelible marks of her. To me, though, it didn’t mean much. I could design another house. But for Nicole, the house symbolized hopes and dreams actualized. It became the only real piece of evidence of our life together. In the end, we agreed to take it off the market and Nicole moved back in permanently.
Entering the foyer and noticing the vacant space a custom frame once occupied, a sharp pain hit my heart. As a post-wedding surprise, I had arranged for an artist to create a digital rendering from one of the photos from our ceremony. I thought we would hang it in the home office we sometimes shared or she’d have it for whenever she decided to open her own design studio. After moving the last of our boxes from the apartment in, I presented Nicole with the 24 x 36 crystal frame. Rather than wait for the original photo, Nicole decided to put the digital photo in the frame.
For nearly a decade, its place was up on the wall across from the formal dining room. Our giddy smiles welcomed every guest as they waited in the foyer for us to take their coats. I remembered Nicole holding the ladder steady as I gingerly affixed the frame. She directed me from below to make sure the inscription was centered on the wall. Along the bottom, the inscription bore Julian and Nicole, September 4, 2004, with a cross bookending it. Looking at the outline left by the frame now was a reminder of how quickly the house had changed.
What used to be our formal living room was now filled with toys, unfolded laundry, and a way-too-small-for-the-room television. There was also a sea of photos. Nicole was the person in our friend group that always reached for her phone to capture the moment. It didn’t matter if it was something as mundane as Sunday brunch on the deck or something important like the day I held my mother’s hand for the last time. My eyes surveyed the shelves, looking at all photos I didn’t even remember taking. And some of the photos that had previously been a living timeline of us had been replaced by photos of people who I didn’t know. In this room, the home suddenly felt foreign.
Up until this very moment, the only contact Nicole and I had been through lawyers and friends trying to be supportive. The questions I had about her life after us were barely answered through social media. The efforts to stay adjacent to her changing social circle were fruitless. Her final request was for us to dissolve any overlap that remained in our lives, other than Marcus and Shanelle. I had honored that for the most part. However, studying a few of these photos sparked a response that months of therapy hadn’t prepared me for.
In one photo, the face staring back at me was bronze and chubby with hair cascading into long, tightly coiled curls. The eyes had a cinnamon glow with the same almond shape that ran strong in Nicole’s family tree. Years ago, I would steal glimpses of the flecks in her eyes when the sun was at its peak. Marcus had told me stories about the new baby’s first steps and her budding gregarious personality. Just weeks ago, he and Shanelle had visited for Morgan’s birthday. Although, this was the first time I’d seen the little girl up close.
“The bathroom is in the same place.”
Nicole’s voice interrupted the studying I had been doing of Morgan’s features. I was so engrossed in how much Morgan looked like her mother that I didn’t hear heels tapping against the wood floors.
“I was um…,” gesturing toward the photo frame in my hand, “she looks so much like you.”
“Thank God for that, huh?”, Nicole joked.
She strutted over to me, taking the frame, rubbing her finger across her daughter’s sweet face, and put it back on the shelf. Silence hung thick in the air. Then I remembered why I had come in the house.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Nicole was on the phone with someone. Her voice carried, a trait that had occasionally annoyed me throughout our relationship. There was enough in her tone to tell she was not happy with the person on the other end. Morgan’s name came up at least three times since I’d come out of the bathroom. Sitting there on those stairs brought back yet another painful memory. As much as I tried to force it back down my throat, the temperature around my collar was rising. A hot neck often led to a burning sensation in the corner of my eyes, always the left one first.
Nicole had wanted to make me happy and I wanted her to make me happy. Without openly acknowledging it, we became dependent on each other. There was a turning point inside me where I began to need Nicole to make me happy. Honest conversations turned into yelling. Somewhere in year 7 of our marriage, we both had accepted that happiness doesn’t come neatly for everyone. But the night of that one specific argument, irreparable damage was done.
My words had cut Nicole in a way that was unforgivable. Seeing me was a reminder of how uncomfortable she was with her own emotions, let alone expressing them in my presence. Eventually, she stopped talking about it because I wasn’t listening. She carried the weight of my disappointment, perhaps before I or anyone else noticed. It took a year and a serious conversation with Marcus to get over the hurt and embrace the reality that Nicole had found her happiness, in spite of me.
As the click-clacking of her heels grew closer and I massaged the back of my neck and awkwardly fumbled with my tie.
“Are you okay?”, she asked. The sharp edge from the telephone call was now gone. She was genuinely concerned. “I know this is really hard on you. I heard you were there that morning. I am so sorry, Jules.”
I looked up and for the first time since the divorce, I saw the woman I used to adore. Nicole’s skin, a deep peanut butter brown, glowed under the chandelier in the foyer. Morgan was just turning 2 so most of the weight Nicole had gained was gone. She had always been slender but curvy. In the simple black Kate Spade tweed dress, post-motherhood had her body looking sumptuously soft. Her collarbones and strong bone structure embellished her natural beauty. For the occasion, her makeup was neutral. In this moment of vulnerability, I missed indulging in these moments of Nicole’s beauty. For as much as I was relishing this, my heart continued to ache.
“It’s not that,” I mumbled. “The house is…to see it look so different.” I couldn’t find my words as the wave of grief swallowed me whole. “And your daughter. She’s…she’s…perfect.”
Nicole joined me on the stairs. In the beginning stage of our divorce, emotions vacillated between utter rage and intense sadness. Friends tried to buffer as much as they could. But by the time we readied our pens to sign, we no longer saw the people we had married. I couldn’t look at her because the knowledge of it all hurt too much. Nicole couldn’t look at me because I had broken a promise. It didn’t matter how or why I left. The bottom line is I’d left her. And by the time I realized how selfish and short-sighted I was being, she was already gone.
She hesitated before taking my hand into hers. As our fingers interlocked, her thumb slowly followed the deep scar on my palm. My pulse had been racing ever since I’d come out of the bathroom. But there on those stairs, her touch brought a strange calm to my body.
“Today is about Marcus. He’s family and this is hard on everyone. You have to be dig deeper. This isn’t about me or you or us. Think about him. Shanelle and Caleb need you,” Nicole’s voice cracked. I wrapped my arms around her and she slid closer next to me, next to the place that was a perfect fit.
My phone rang twice. Nicole’s phone notifications were faintly heard from the kitchen. There was a narrow window of about 30 minutes for us to make it to New Rochelle before viewing hours were set to end. Planning the route out mentally, I knew we’d make it in time for the family procession. So Nicole and I lingered on the stairs for a few more precious minutes.
Nicole’s life had moved forward swimmingly. Sitting on those stairs, no longer enemies but not quite close as I’d hoped for in therapy sessions, was a fleeting moment. Seeing how much the house, and by extension Nicole, had changed, I was starting to realize that perhaps I’d been relegated to a blip. Yet it was the death of our best friend that awakened a different type of awareness that had to be confronted.