For the first Christmas after the separation, my son gave me a candle simulating the flickering sounds of a fireplace. For all of my married life I had wanted a real hearth, chimney, fires burning year round, even in summer.
The candle smelled of fake vanilla bean and when lit, emanated a sweet, cloying fragrance throughout my living room. The candle broke my heart.
I have since bought a “Mandarin Tea” fake fireplace candle for my bedroom. It sits on my black bedside table, part of a bedset that is as uncharacteristic of my taste as my “urban chic” apartment.
The sounds of my Mandarin Tea candle accompanies my worries about bills I can barely pay, a health insurance policy with an expiration date.
When the toilet flooded downstairs, the floor painted to resemble a Mexican cantina turned a greyish white, like regular concrete. I’m going to have to find someone to help me make it look fake again. I don’t want to get kicked out after my first inspection. I don’t want them to raise my rental fees.
One day on my way to get my meds I saw in the parking lot a woman, about my age, hobbling into the pharmacy. I projected some calamitous outcome for myself on her. She became a vehicle for my self-concern. I thought, worst case scenario, this is me without insurance, having been hit by a car, developing M.S., enduring the side effects of chemo – all things that have happened to my girlfriends. Was she covered? I wondered. Would I be?
The months are counting down while the candle flickers and the minutes go by while I write this. The fireplace wick in the vanilla bean candle disappeared into the wax weeks ago. Yet I burn “Mandarin Tea” with abandon.
I go out on a date with a divorced man who has lost almost all access to his daughter. Prisoners get more time with their children he says. We sit across from each other at a table in a chain restuarant. After dinner, he suggests we go to his apartment and I buy a case of Yuengling. He says he has no money and I believe him. He cannot pay his student loans this month. He could be sponging off me but I don’t think so. Besides, it is only a case. But I don’t know if it can last like this. He says he doesn’t know how many more dinners he can buy me even though he still wants to go out. I tell him we don’t have to eat.
At his apartment, I sit on the bed while he stands at the threshold to his backdoor and smokes. He knows I am a Christian and he says he knows more about Christianity than a lot of Christians. He says he’s actually read the Bible and a lot of Christians have not. You know what hell really is, he says. He’s forgetting I went to seminary and know something about these things. Almost all men try to tell me things I already know.
I cut him off and tell him yes, that it was called gehenna and was an area located outside the walls of Jerusalem where the city dumped their trash and burned the bodies of criminals and animals. I want to transliterate gehenna from the Greek on a piece of paper, but I hope my ready response with a derivative of the original term is enough to catch him off guard.
He persists. He says yes but now that place in Jerusalem has been made beautiful. I say I’ve been to the city of Jerusalem.
I am glad I chose the Yuengling. He let me choose since I was buying. His tailless cat bounces on the bed and off like a monkey. I ask him for his expensive pill with the Benadryl. The cat makes me sneeze.
We didn’t last long after that. His room was trashed the second time I stayed there. Not that I’m neat. I knew he was. I miss him. But he knew how to hurt me with what he said or didn’t say, with what he did or didn’t do. I even wonder if I should cry over it. But since I’m wondering if I should cry I guess I can’t. I only worry about my abilities as a human when I hear my mother’s voice in my head: You’ll be alone some day. I can’t worry about the future any more I tell myself. Fuck it.
Another man texts me to the effect of the following: Why are you letting your son control your life? How am I going to see you only when you’re not caring for him? Why don’t you get a babysitter for your son? When he is around, it seems like you are very concerned about him. Maybe you are one of those helicopter moms.
When my son brought the candle over he was with his father. It was only a short visit. He was so proud of the purchase and the reason for his pride was based on his keen memory of what I liked and had no more: a fireplace, a hearth, a roaring fire for Christmas. His father had those things now but he wanted me to still enjoy something of it in my drafty urban chic loft-style 2 bedroom which I won’t be able to afford much longer.
As the man is pressuring me, I am literally counting down the weeks my son will be with me and has been with me since he turned thirteen, close to the time I left his father. The weeks that count are the ones he won’t have a car and a means to leave at will and how much will he want to be with me in an apartment without a yard in a neighborhood where his friends don’t live. As it is, he plays video games on-line with his friends most of the time, talking to them through a tiny microphone. But I love the sound of his voice and his laughter, and if that’s all I have left of him, I will not give it to a babysitter for some man I do not know and who is already proving worthless as a potential stepfather, if that’s really this man’s goal which, given the odds, is highly unlikely. He can prove me wrong. I would welcome the surprise. But he will not take me from listening to my son while I write this. He will not take me from the privilege of picking my son up every afternoon or hosting a friend over to spend the night or sitting in the gymnasium stands, watching him play basketball.
I could worry over this man, that he doesn’t like me, but I don’t. I turn the ringer off for my texts.
Here’s the gist of my combat:
(man) 2:13 p.m. “I think u should work on ur flexibility. I know u want to have a more personal life.”
(me) 2:16 p.m. “Yes.”
(man) 2:17 p.m. “I know u don’t like saying that u have a kid and can’t go out. I know other women with 11 year olds who can go out w.o. a babysitter.”
(me) 2:18 p.m. “I’ve been pretty active. During the week I have my son I schedule stuff during the week he’ll be at his dad’s.”
(man) 2:19 p.m. “I like spontaneity.”
(me) 2:21 p.m. “What can I say. During the week I have him I can see you only once. It’s ok if I’m not what you need. I can handle it.”
(man) 2:23 p.m. “Quitter.”
(man) 2:23 p.m. “Quitters don’t win and winners…”
(me) 2:24 p.m. “I win all the time.”
(man) 2:26 p.m. “Ah but bailing on me the minute I challenge u.”
(me) 2:27 p.m. “I love my son and show it. I don’t bail.”
In my ringerless text world when the man is no doubt on the hunt for something that can satisfy his desire for spontaneity, I write this and ignore for a moment that I am unemployed and will soon have no insurance.
Fuck the future I say. And fuck whoever tries to rob me of my present. And fuck this country for not taking care of its own. And fuck broken vows, including the ones I broke, fuck me, and fuck a lack of forgiveness and hard hearts and the wall that separates.
But God bless the children bringing their small gifts to heal the world. The flame they carry inside is so tiny Lord, and their hope is as small. Carry them through a dark night. Amen.