Dad and I were driving back from our weekend warrior basketball game, our Saturday morning Brooklyn ritual that usually ended with lunch and a nice talk between father and son. Dad would usually come by my house on Staten Island afterwards to say hello to my wife and my dog before heading home to Pennsylvania. This time, he pulled the car in front of my house to drop me off instead. He wasn't coming inside.
"Big Ron, you either want to stay on the merry-go-round or you want to step off."
Those were my father's parting words to me as I grabbed my gym bag and stepped out of his car. "I want to step off," I said without much hesitation. I was about to walk inside and end my marriage once and for all. I had been preparing for this for six months, but now I was finally ready. I should have left sooner. Maybe I would have never bought the house, maybe I would have never set up my life, my business, and my future on Staten Island. Maybe Sandy and I would have never met.
But I didn't.
I was still hanging on for all the wrong reasons - for all the reasons we hold on to things that aren't really good for us. Because I was afraid. I was afraid to hurt someone, a woman who, at one point in her life, believed that I was The One. Because even though I realized she wasn't The One, I was still afraid to make a break for it, to usurp my life and start again. I had failed before. I had let people down. I was afraid of change. Even though change was exactly what I needed. I was afraid of making another mistake. Even though my gut knew I had already made one by even putting myself in this position. Most of my people were telling me to keep trying, people who weren't living my life. People who could only advise, but not experience. Others were more direct, more honest. They told me to get the fuck out of Dodge long before I had even asked their advice.
We never go into our relationships expecting to be labeled Failures. Often, the greater failure comes from choosing to sticking around. Time is precious, fleeting. So too can happiness be.
When I walked inside, she was sitting at her computer desk. She was reminiscing, looking at poems she wrote about me once upon a time - back when I was The Man instead of a man - cute e-mails and letters we exchanged, photos from our wedding and when we got our dog. Happier times. She wanted me to take a ride back into The Past. "When Things Were Better." When there was less pressure to make things right. There is always less pressure at first. Less of a commitment means less chance to screw it all up. But the deeper you dig, the more rocks you'll uncover.
As the five years of my life with my ex deteriorated, so too did the affection, the cuteness, the passion. The photos became scarcer, the exchanges became us just going through the motions. What's for dinner? How's the weather? What's on TV tonight?
You find yourself trying to get through a week, a day, without fighting. You don't reminisce over the shitty moments, those are never captured in a frame or put in a scrapbook or a shoebox. But they're there too - in your head, in your heart. At a certain point, Maintaining becomes the acceptable norm rather than Growing. There were enough TV shows, there was enough wine and weed to get us through the week without strangling each other, or even worse, ignoring each other. At least strangling keeps you engaged. There were also nights I slept alone in the bed with my loyal dog at my feet and one eye open, a little afraid of the woman in the other room. Sometimes I even locked the bedroom door.
"Let's just look through these things together," she pleaded one last time, clinging to that last thin straw that was about to snap from holding all the weight of our troubles beneath it. I declined her offer. I had been on the other end of this Final Moment before. Too many times. We have all been there, on one side of the moment or the other. Too many unfinished Diner breakfasts, the unavoidably awkward goodbyes. There is no good side to be on. Breaking up is hard to do. But it was time. We never plan it out, that moment when we're finally willing to step over the line. It just happens.
Staying static is always the easier way, the more convenient way to keep your apple cart from overturning. A lot of us accept mediocrity - or worse - because keeping all those happiness apples in place is much less daunting than Trying to Make It Work. But when you're with someone for the long haul, the work should be fairly effortless, and whatever effort is necessary to bridge the understandably human gaps in a partnership should come without pulling teeth, without pushing each other too hard. It should come without heated debate and name calling and finger pointing and apathy. It should come without stress and without sadness. Otherwise, your apples get rotten. And if they do, then it's time to get off the ride. There are other rides to enjoy.
There's a whole fucking world out there.
It's not like I walked into that house and decided not to love her anymore. I just decided to love myself more. I had already reached my breaking point. Couples therapy, medication, exercise, and lots of passionate speeches couldn't unbreak it. Only my own fear was keeping me around. There was money at stake, a house, a dog, my DVD collection. And so I had to say goodbye and mean it this time. Because I had said goodbye before. Many times - through tears, peeling out of the driveway, storming out of the house. Slamming doors, making threats, sleeping on couches. I lost 20 pounds just by being married. I was wasting away. This was not who I was nor who I ever expected to be.
You don't spend five years with someone without your share of good times, moments, memories. But you can't live in the past. What about the present? Are you having a great time now or are you just Maintaining? What about the future? Do you really expect it to get any better? Do you see yourself Growing?
I stepped off the merry go-round two years ago and I have no regrets. I cared about her. I loved her. We cried in each others arms during those last painful days where we were sharing separate floors of a house that is now a Sandy-devastated disaster area. "Why are you doing this to us?," she asked through the tears.
Why? isn't just one thing. It never is. If you're cheating, if you lay your hands on your partner, if you're lying, if you're an alcoholic or a coke head or a gambler or rotten in bed, that's never the only Why? The worst offenses are just manifestations of unhappiness, plain and simple. In my marriage, this was Why?
One of my musical projects, Return To Earth, had gotten signed by Metal Blade Records. It was a proud moment in my life. In the music industry, you don't get signed for the first time when you're 35, you get dropped. It wouldn't change my life, but it would be a nice thing for a long-toiling musician to hang on the mantle.
We had released our second album the previous summer and now we were playing a local show with some friends in support. One of those friends put the above flyer together to promote the show online. Band Promo 101. I had nothing to do with the flyer's creation besides providing the artist with the necessary text and info, then giving it the thumbs-up and posting it online. It had to be done quickly and not look like garbage, that was my list of demands.
Two weeks before I stepped off the merry go-round, my wife called me at the house. We were already having a lot of problems and she was in Florida visiting relatives. Cooling off. She was the one away and I felt like the one on vacation. Dad was over, we were having lunch when the phone rang.
"What's with the Tit Flyer?," she asked nastily. No 'Hello', no 'I miss you', just
"What's with the Tit Flyer?"
I could spend a few paragraphs defending the flyer's content just as I spent a full hour trying to talk my ex off the ledge about it, screaming at her over the phone with my father and my dog well within earshot of all of my compounded problems - the jealousy issues, the insecurity, the immaturity. My lack of any patience or temperance for this sort of bullshit. I was a beast when we argued. I had become one. Because I'd had this argument countless times before. There was only one Tit Flyer, but there were a thousand Tit Flyer arguments. I had these arguments before I got on one knee, before I walked down the aisle, before I spent my life savings on a future in Staten Island. It wears you down. It wears you out. It changes you.
The show flyer was an "insult to our marriage," she protested. But it wasn't the flyer that most insulted our marriage. It was the person on the other end of the phone. The woman I had some really good times with, the woman I chose to marry in spite of her problems, in spite of our problems. The woman I wanted to rescue had turned the knife on me and I was tired of getting stabbed.
So I stepped off the merry-go-round. And two years later, I am finally me again. I am A Better Me. The merry-go-round just goes 'round and 'round. It never changes, never leaves its axis. There are no surprises, it can get boring quickly. My father isn't a particularly profound guy and he probably didn't realize it then, but that may have been the wisest thing he ever said to me.
So the woman left and I stayed in the house, stayed with the dog. I kept the things that were rightfully mine, and then they all became major problems after Sandy, major headaches. Part of my penance. And I continue to grow in spite of them, they continue to be lessons as much as they can be labeled Hardships. They seem to be all part of the plan. Life is supposed to be hard sometimes. And I have continued to heal, continued to grow. And it's not because I was alone, because I freed myself from the shackles of a sometimes sub-par and damaged relationship. I just wasn't in the right one. I wasn't in the one that made me better. I decided I was finally ready to grow. To grow up.
For the past two years, I have not officially been In A Relationship. But I am very far from alone right now. And I am pretty damn happy. And none of it would ever have happened if I didn't shed myself of all that weight. Stepping off the merry-go-round didn't mean I would have to be alone forever, it just meant that this particular bumpy ride was over. It meant that I could get on other rides and see where they take me.
I don't have to go round and round anymore, I can go up. I still believe that's where I'm headed. That step off the merry-go-round was just the first of many, the most important one. There are still more steps to take, more journeys to make. The future looks brighter than ever. Let's go for a ride.