Journey To Trust
By Danny Boice
The Man with the Knife
I’m trying to keep pace with Jen on a narrow Georgetown sidewalk, shoulders tucked by my ears. I pass a yoga studio. “Namaste,” the window whispers loudly as we walk by. Fucking cliché.
I should be home, away from all this bullshit. Someone should lock me up behind an iron door and ignore my banging from the inside. But Jen insisted we get lunch. She seemed agitated. “Danny, we need to talk.”
I almost don’t catch the movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head slightly, I see the little fucker, ratty and scrawny, Adam’s apple sticking out of a long neck like a knuckle. He’s wearing black. As if I’d fall for that. Skinny cheap jeans, converse sneakers in the snow, black beanie pulled down like a fucking tool. I snarl like a dog.
Cut of light and I see a knife held by a hand filthy with motor oil. It’s an ESEE-5, the kind with a 5.25" blade. Olive drab textured handle. My eyes track the skull on the heel as he moves.
Fucker’s quick. He’s beside me and Jen in an instant, but I’ve still got him. My heart is pounding out of my chest and I can’t gulp air down fast enough. Dick-shriveling January cold burns with every inhale. I notice the feel of my pulse against my coat sleeve. Nearby, a boutique with hand-knit cashmere scarves in the window turns a blind eye.
This fucker is covert. He’s going to slash Jen’s throat, make her bleed out in the snow, make me watch, kill my baby’s mom. When I try to look at him head-on, he dissolves. That’s some ninja shit. Only way to see him is out of the corner of my eye. He’s not looking at Jen’s purse. He’s not the type to cook up something on a spoon or shoot something into a vein. Too much of a pussy. No, this guy is ice, pure winter. He wants the rush of cutting her. Wants to warm himself. Around us, suited government types double-fisting smartphones step over dripping slush and hurry past the Ralph Lauren boutique too preoccupied to see him.
Well, fuck that. I spin to look him in the eye—and he’s gone.
I stop moving. Scan up the hill and back down. Jen keeps walking, oblivious. Nothing. Vanished. I’m forced to move along like all the other zombies on the sidewalk. I don’t want to call attention to him, to me. I hiss in air between my teeth, lengthening my steps to catch up, trying to slow my breathing without Jen noticing. I don’t want her to see how badly I’m shivering.
My navy shirt is sticking to me in wet slabs as iron puffs of breath consume the space in in front of me. Jen is walking, a foot between us. Not looking at me.
Maybe she doesn’t get it. Can’t get it. It’s getting worse. I look around for an anchor. Jen is an anchor. Her coat is red, fresh as a robin, harbinger of spring. Spring, ring ring. The rest of the street is Gotham City grey, greyer than I remember Georgetown ever being.
My hands are in my jacket pockets, and I’m rubbing the slick lining between my thumbs and fingers, trying to start fires. I don’t want anything to touch me. There’s a layer of grime on this neighborhood and I don’t think anyone can see it. It’s too tidy, federalist buildings pointing at the sky, but they’re too sharp. The sunlight is all wrong. Should be hot yellow but it’s black as slush, fuzzy at the edges. Everything looks monotone. Wrong lens, wrong focus.
Don’t turn around. Do not turn around. Fucking be cool.
I look at Jen as I twist my neck and shrug my shoulder to unstick my shirt. I see her skin, pale as frost against the white snow. The amethyst circles under her eyes are accusing as any bruise. I did that. My words did that. The bastards reach out, throbbing, bruising tentacles, and they glom on. They bleed her out.
It’s getting worse.
Cars are bright colors flashing by me, speedy as stars shooting through tar.
Car. Car. Light.
Slowdown. Traffic. Chaos. Noise. Stop. Stop. STOP.
Caarr. C a a a rr. carcarcarcar carcarcarcarcarcar.
The cars remind of Jen’s black Audi and the sound of its crunch as it moves in reverse on driveway gravel. That sound sends me scurrying in the house to pour the first drink of the night, anytime she goes to run an errand. The drinks I savor alone, in secret, at home. Our home.
The wine bar. We’re here.
This wine bar that’s not for drunks but for people with money who want to spend it. These fools can’t see the grime on everything, the filth over every brick and pane of glass. The streaks of black on the leather sign in front of the bar, touting their selection of red and white, sweet and dry.
I push the teak door and barrel past the chime to the oak and brick walls inside. A waiter with a douchey hipster beard and blonde man-bun appears at Jen’s side and steers us towards a round table. Thick crystal decanter with lit candle. White linen tablecloth down to the floor. Leather and wood seats that have been pressed down by thousands of asses.
I slither into my seat. My inked knuckles itch. Tiny bugs are writhing underneath my skin, pricking every pore with poison tongues. No. Do Not Scratch. Don’t look weird. The waiter pours two glasses of water, and his black vest and skinny jeans scanter away, but I see him look back. He thinks he knows. He sees my broken shards of glass and the scraggly skin I’ve stretched thin to stem the tide of hurt and madness. I hide this skin-bag of brokenness behind an intellect sharp as a belt buckle, behind a fast smile. No one can see me. No one.
Jen has not spoken and the void is filled with the fighting, shouting, and slamming doors whooshing in—the sounds of us. I think of the tentacle words that have lashed out of my mouth, whip-fast, just this week:
WHAT THE FUCK IS THE MAIL DOING HERE?
How the fuck am I supposed to work like this?
Why the fuck is this soda shaken up? Do you know how much of a mess it could fucking make?
I crack my knuckles and look around. I don’t like the look of the man at the table beside ours. Suited prick with a dusting of dandruff on his shoulder and a loud voice that slithers its way to the end of words: “And I told her no callsss on Wednesdaysss…” The woman across from him is some older hag, flesh pulled taut in the surprised look of too much shitty Botox. Needles in her face.
I see the blooms of dark mold in the corners. One of the bulbs in an overhead lamp blinks pink and grey, pink and grey. Inoutinoutinoutinout. Morse code, SOS. The woman on our left is so thin that I can see the outline of her ulna. Look it up. A white line runs across her wrist. Another skin-bag of pain. She opens her orange-caked lips and brays out a laugh, the screech of pigs in cop cars and slaughterhouses.
I think back to last Tuesday when Jen had retreated from me and silently shut the bathroom door, turning on the water to run a bath. “Feel free to take a bath. Sure, I don’t care,” I had called out, sarcastically. And then I had walked into my home office and poured a secret drink, letting the bourbon burn my throat until I heard a warning shot—the slosh of Jen stepping out of the tub and the gargle of water moving through our drains.
My eyes return from last week, and Jen is watching me at the table. The wine bar has Edison vintage light bulbs in bare sockets hanging from copper wires, but it’s dark as an asshole in here.
I look at her face; clear and smooth. None of the grime fucking dare touch her. Stripes on her sweater march horizontally around her body as she turns her eyes away from me to arrange her fork and knife. I watch the thin curve of her wrists and the familiar slope of her neck. They break my heart. It sounds so simple and plain, but I love her. And I’m killing her.
I avert my eyes and look at the drink menu. Bourbon, whisky, single malt. All of it just a few words away.
Act casual, call the waiter over, and you can have it. Do it, a broken, I-don’t-give-a-fuck voice says. It’ll dull the edges, fix you, smooth away the sickness in your gut and head. It’ll calm you the fuck down. You deserve it. You don’t deserve it. You fucking asshole.
I want to order all of it, just to spite Jen and throw down the gauntlet. Retribution for the times in the past month she has said “Let’s just stick to one glass of wine tonight, okay?” My tongue wants to uncurl like a red carpet all the way to the front of the bar, royal passage to Macallans, Bulleit, and Tennessee. My secret’s razor-sharp edge sits under my tattooed skin, slicing into me.
I take a sip of water and my stomach lurches. Bring me a motherfucking bourbon. Sweat has crept from my back to my collar and I’m choking on it. I must fucking stink.
“This can’t go on,” Jen is saying, words coming from her mouth round and fuzzy. They’re getting jumbled by the time they make their way from her mouth to my ears. I lean closer, try to grab that final “on” so I can use it to swing my way to the meaning, but I’m slipping. The words are furry creatures, taking shape. “…been trying…not working.” Working. Working. Am I working?
“Danny?.....Danny? …. listening?” I can hold onto that one. This is something I can grasp. I am Danny. DannyDanDan.
I stay silent. It’s the safest thing to do. I am about to veer off into space and this table is a sinking island. I focus on Jen, looking through a long lens. Words are taking shape in her mouth again: “… week after Daniel… born … client meeting…Boston…didn’t…check in….”
She is looking at me. She has seen the bourbon. Seen through the thin layer of my armor. There is nothing there but Tangle. Scars. Nothingness. I hid it well, but she fucking sees through me. Surprisingly, I look into the backs of her black pupils and see love laced with concern.
My breath shakes through my body. I am brittle. I am unsure.
I feel the wine bar’s walls and patrons pulsing in and out of focus. The world is narrowing down to our table, already gone dark at the corners. Beside me, I smell his heavy, sweet breath. The bear. Every exhale blows a puff of hot air against my neck, and my skin bristles. Against a backdrop of blurred colors and fuzzy action, my mind remembers the time he visited me last Thursday.
I had been up at two in the morning, Thursday morning, cranking out emails and going over reports while I drank from my hidden stash. The bourbon helped me focus, a pole on a long tightrope across a laughing canyon. I swallowed my bourbon in gulps like pills. The right dose and I’d fall asleep. The wrong dose and who fucking knew what would happen.
That night my eyes were wide open when I saw the bear shuffle in from the wall on its hind legs. It lurched forward, like a trick animal at the circus, brown fur clotted with sludge. The ribs were visible beneath its waxy shag, and its head overloaded its emaciated body. I slammed back in my chair. Not real. Not real. I took another gulp of bourbon, but there was no way to stop the adrenaline spike. My legs cramped. My intestines melted to hot liquid.
The bear’s massive snout swung my way and its mouth opened wide, yellow teeth on display, a tongue dripping wet with thick saliva. It was close enough that I could feel its heat and the stench of ass it gave off, an old man’s unwashed sour-body in my home office.
He pitched for the door. For Jen. For the kids. For our baby, Daniel. I fought the paralysis in my legs, trying to move between the bear and the door. Just as it reached for the doorknob, it disappeared as quickly as it came. I poured another glass, hoping to stop my shaking legs and stuttering breath, but instead, I triggered panic. I sat there, that Thursday morning, my chair rattling as I trembled and sweated on the good leather, fighting to take a cubic centimeter of air into my lungs. The room swirled as my veins closed and my office turned the color of the backs of my eyelids.
In a minute, it had ended. I tried to convince myself of that as I sat that night with my face mashed into the palms of my shivering hands. I wiped my sweaty palms on my chest and I took another shot of bourbon. I cleaned up my tears and the sharp stink of fear the best I could, and crawled into bed beside Jen. I was at work by eight on Thursday morning, dressed and ready to roll up my sleeves and handle business. No one, not even Jen, could tell by looking at me that I had fallen apart earlier that morning. Thursday morning, Thursday morning, Thurrrrsday morning. Fuck.
“Danny,” Jen says in the wine bar, and I’m ripped back to the present. My green eyes meet her brown ones. My jaw tightens. I need to tell her everything. I need her to see. What falls out of my mouth isn’t even fucking close. “There was no one else, Jen. That day in Boston—it wasn’t that.”
I can’t explain to her that I had simply woken up in Boston like I had in so many other hotel rooms. White sheets and chrome fixtures in place. Curtains drawn tightly shut. Nightstand littered with twenty-four hours of bottles, and me gagging on an acidic hangover. I can’t explain to her that I had woken up, alone, feeling like shit because I hadn’t called. I want and need her to know that I wanted her beside me.
Fucking words why won’t you come?
“I know,” she says, as static colonizes my ears and my eyes see no more than an inch in front of me. “I…wasn’t thinking that…so scared…One thing you’re always good for is checking in: ‘Hey babe, I’m safe. I’m good.’”
I hear that. She’s sending me a message. Here are words I can grab hold of, dissect down to the periosteum. I have caught her and I pounce, ready to test.
“The only thing I’m good for?”
The waiter circles around, sleek as a black cat. We ignore him. Jen’s still talking and I’m boiling over. Fucker, go away. I want to prod into her words. What am I good for? Am I good? Does she think I’m good?
“Daniel was just five days old…It’s not like you to be so careless with your family.”
I remember that day coming home from Boston. I remember stepping out of the car from the airport and staring up at the white expanse of our house. House still intact, hangover gone. I had ambled in through the door, keys in hand. Shit together. Successful entrepreneur. Providing for my family.
“Danny,” she had whispered after I had been home for an hour and thought I was in the clear. “What happened? I was so worried.” Her words landed on my chest with a thud. She was standing with the baby, a picture of our family behind her on the grey wall. Daniel was sleeping, pink mouth open, a white baby cap on his head. Over Jen’s shoulder, I saw her parents sitting by the forest green sofa in the living room. Her mother was straightening a cushion that was already centered. Her dad had his hands tucked into his pants’ pockets, looking out the window and taking measure of the weather. Neither looked at me.
Where the tide of my Boston hangover had ebbed, the annoyance rushed in hot. And with it the voice I constantly silenced with bourbon. You’re bad. You’re rotten. My hands clenched the glass of water in my hand, and I managed to squash down the “fuck you” that almost reeled its way into the open air between us.
“You’re a smothering person,” I had hissed at her. Her body had turned Daniel away, as though shielding him, and her eyes, had scanned my face as they filled with redness and tears. Her chin pulled back and I could practically see her ribs knit together. She bit down, took a breath.
Now, in the wine bar, I try to hold onto that memory, where everything was shitty but at least clear. There’s no clarity here at all. The room is spinning.
“I believe… schizophrenia… can’t do this… asking you… Danny…for the love… God, please get… I need you… you get help… right now...”
I push the drink menu away. Our waiter hasn’t been back. Fuck that hippie. Fuck the world. Familiar red bile rises up and with it the words, the sounds, the whip-strong wit I can crack in every direction to make fuckers scatter.
A psychiatrist can’t help you, that voice inside me whispers. They’ll just take away the drinks. Some distant rational part of me knows that if it is schizophrenia, I’m done for. I can picture my ex-wife, Joanne, taking my kids away, screaming at me as she puts them into her blue BMW. Forever gone.
The waiter is back and when I look at him, I see fangs under his top lip. Not real, the voice inside me says.
“Well, what the fuck,” I say to her. Spin, spin, spin.
I’m willing to fucking do anything for Jen. I know some part of me is fucked up.
“I’ll make the call,” she says, and she pulls out her phone. I hear every word. Sharp. Clear.
We’re going to see Dr. Fischer. Me. Jen. The man in black. The bear.
I’m eight, and I could be on the football team.
“You have to cut weight,” coach tells me and he’s grown up, tall.
My dad looks tall, too, as he says, “Carrots and water. Chunky kid like you. That’s what you need to eat to cut the weight. Get on that team.”
He pushes the plate and glass at me. I don’t want to do this. I don’t even want football. But I’ve been given my marching orders. I chew orange and wet pulp, swallow, swallow as its mass grows. His plate: potatoes, meat. I smell beef and chicken as I chew orange. I smell the acid amber of his glass. My insides must be orange. But I’m eight and it’s week two of carrots and I keep chewing, hoping to make it to football, to Dad-love. Dad doesn’t look at me when he eats, and I follow the path the pie makes in his throat when he swallows it down. Mom is scraping her spaghetti and half a meatball into the trash and I swallow my-his football dreams, carrot orange, carrot orange, carrot orange.
Mom mysteriously disappears when Dad is running after me. I’m ten years old now, and despite my good grades, I’ve done something wrong. I’m always doing something wrong. I haven’t made the bed. I haven’t cleaned up. I haven’t spoken respectfully. The list of things I’ve fucked up is legion and now the belt is jumping through the air again, curling towards my skin. I’m leaping up the stairs two at a time, trying to get away from the hot ache of it connecting. Third step from the top, creeaak. Familiar sound, the metronome of every descent and ascent in this house.
The stairs to another kingdom. My eyes focus on my goal: my room, second room to the right. I pass the first room to the left, my parent’s room, door open to the white bedspread. I consider the bathroom, it’s between the right side and left side of the hall, closer than my room, the toilet gaping open like a maw. A hole for my anxious stomach. Between my room and the bathroom, my little brother’s room, door always locked. Alone. My room it is.
I leap into safety, scrambling away from the sense memory of leather kissing skin. My face is wet. Fuck. I’m a boy and I’ve heard it: “Be a man. Grow up.” I don’t fucking get it, even at ten. Eyes doing their own thing, no way to control them, no way to be a man. Can’t stop, won’t stop. It pours out of me, even though I’ve made it. Even though my dad’s reeling gait and slurred words are behind the door.
Creeeak of the third step from the top, doorknob turning. I don’t look up. Door thuds open as I watch the motes of dust light in the air. I’m looking up now, face hot and flooded and body heavy and slow. I heave my torso to the left, towards the door, my eyes still leaking.
I’ve seen the TV shows, read the books, know how this goes. Mom comes into the room, pats me on the head, smells like perfume, sturdily aproned, tells me “there, there, everything will be alright.” Keeps me from the belt, lifts the fucking car to free me. Mother bear.
Here’s how it works with Meg-mom: She’s silhouetted in the doorway and I can see the 1988 taupe carpet behind her when I look up. My low-grade particle board door is behind her and her head is in front of two of my best Nolan Ryan pictures. The scotch tape on the edges catches the light
She isn’t even looking at me. She’s pursing her lips at the sun coming in through the curtains. “You got exactly what you deserved from your father. If I come up here and catch you sleeping, it’s going to happen again.”
Silence between us, vast as sunlight. Dust falls like snow and I can see it around her head. Ice Queen. Meg-mom.
She’s gone, shutting the door behind her. Nolan Ryan winks at me from his Sports Illustrated page. Hot red creeps up my face, pokes my brain. Shame. Shame. Shame.
Every day, Meg-mom goes to church and every Sunday we pile into the car and head to the church to take communion. Meg-mom and Dad sit at the pro-life table they set up, under the sad watchful eyes of Jesus. The Jesus in their poster is covered in blood, disappointed at the people who killed their babies.
The church is filled with hush and the smell of wax candles. I am an altar boy, carrying the tray handed to me by the priest and ringing the small brass bell when the Eucharist is raised. I sit with the other altar boys, a sick, rolling feeling in my stomach as I watch the priest run his hands over the white leather bible on the altar, as I watch the priest’s fleshy lips kiss the words.
As long as I stick with the other altar boys, it is okay. We head behind the altar, slip into the long white robes all the way to the floor, push and shove our way towards the door. It is only when the heavy oak door closes behind me and only me, the priest’s hand heavy is on my shoulder that I evacuate my body and watch it sink helplessly into quicksand. I pack those scared, frantic moments into my mental duffle bag and only pull them out twenty years later, after the fabric of my mind can no longer hold.
I look to Mom for help, but each time there is a blankness, like a field of snow.
The Queen’s ice is her gift, the only one she gives to others. I never see Meg confront the events of the warm life in front of her. Never see her go on a double date, dine out with anyone other than family. Never see her sitting and talking to a friend, hands wrapped around the phone cord.
Walking through the sepia tones of Centreville, I take in the cars in the background. Slamming doors and dads arriving from their work at the FBI, Department of Defense, and State Department. Green lawns and fields, left over from farmers run out to make room for houses for government employees who wear shiny suits and shoes that peel away from feet with blisters.
My parents bought their house in 1986. A little over $100,000. Enough of a sum that family finances stretch until they squeak and threaten to snap. As interest rates climb towards 11% that year, my parents use new debt to pay for existing debt; one comma away from the hillbilly whites that make Meg’s upper lip curl.
Some dads come home in officer uniforms from the Army, Navy, Air Force. No Marines. Riding around the neighborhood on bikes, we watch with the hierarchy in our heads. Army is tops, Navy a close second. Air Force is barely military. Even those kids I rode with who had dads in the forces can’t tell us what they did, exactly. Just adds to the mystery. Pull up in a wide car, step out, uniform on. “Hi boys.”
Walking late at evening, on weekends, the neighborhood dads run by with their obligatory PT short-shorts and grey t-shirts printed with military branches. Army dad. Air Force Dad. Navy Dad. My dad is out there with them, his Timex Ironman showing four minute mile after four minute mile, the highest on PT among dads his age. His throat closes around Natural Ice, the beer of choice for the Army then. Blue cans stack up at home, each one bringing me closer to that belt.
The Dads are holding a Ranger picnic. A bunch of tough-tough ArmyNavyAirForce dads. Cut off almost-Daisy Duke shorts and no shirts. One armed, holding Budweisers, they man the grills, burgers, and hot dogs absorbing flames over charcoal. Then the wars, military-style tug-o-wars, each dad pulls and pulls with the mud pit in the middle, lips peeling back at the chance to pull another guy, another branch, into the mud.
Twenty years later, I thought I’d gotten past Meg-Mom, beyond Centreville, away from Dad and his stacks of blue cans. I married right, I thought. Joanne, with her brown hair and Mary Poppins accent was all mom. She even worked as a nanny. She didn’t have a dad, had come all the way to the USA on her own dreams to move past the little town she had grown up in. Like a movie character, all gumption and animal instinct. No fancy degree, no stash of cash. She liked to drink and I liked to drink and soon we liked to drink together. She got me, knew what it was like to fall into that haziness where the edges blurred. With the beer and bourbon kisses she tasted sweet and her brown hair would tumble around her round face as she smirked at me, winked, and led the way to the bedroom. I imagined she was like me, trying to get out of that house with the squeaky step, starting clean. Surely, she was like me, not like the typical suburbanites. Always ready to laugh, to feel good. I felt free. Until I didn’t.
A few years in, that dream has started to crack. I wanted children, dreamed of being a dad. I’ll show you, Dad. I’ll raise them right. But the world was out to get me. Or maybe it was me out to get me all along.
At first, it was small things. Our dishes piled high in the sink when I got home from work, the smell of grease in the air and Joanne stretched out on the couch, the steady flip, flip, flip of a glossy magazine. Me brushing dust on a dustpan while Joanne disappeared with all the panache of Meg-Mom. Then, the first stinging whisper about her in my ear: “…I heard Joanne was kissing her boss at the bar?...” The first time I noticed a pair of perky tits after the wedding. The first time my eyes noticed and held, then drifted lower. The time after that when my eyes became my hands became my body.
I kept making resolutions. Ignore the rumors. Get clean. Put down the wine glass, don’t look at her. Zip up your fucking pants. Be a good husband, be a good dad, be a good man, no matter what happens.
“Fuck you, Danny.” Slam of the door. Ignore that. Smile at your wife. Try to make it work. Love hurts. Sometimes.
No longer eight and still trying to figure out what the fuck “being a man” means. Was I supposed to swallow back betrayal, pretend her words didn’t crunch under my skin, nestling there like jagged pebbles.
When the blue line showed up on that test, my chest burned and I couldn’t stop staring at Joanne’s stomach. The pain and frustration of trying to make it work fell away, petals off a daisy. Here is was, pure and simple: life at its core. My mind dreamed strollers, picnics, a happy baby with wide smiles.
Joanne’s eyes were wet with tears when she told me, but the frown between her eyes registered shock.
“Why are you crying?” I reached out towards her stomach, hesitated, let my arm drop as she turned away from me.
October 5, 2007, two in the bleary-eyed morning. Red-eye, witching hour. In the white hospital room, RNs and MDs are working their magic, hands gloved white and thin plastic tubes pumping chemicals and blood.
I expect screaming. I had seen shows, movies. I was thinking sweating, swearing, contractions, how far apart, Lamaze, the doctor saying “push.” I thought that was reality. One human emerging one out of another, a rag doll turned inside out, innards becoming outers. My bowels turn to liquid when I skated too close to the idea of it. A baby inside Joanne’s womb is a miracle, a white light. Baby showers, powder blue, we have all the accoutrements. Me, breadwinner. You Jane. Or Joanne. But the image of dark clots of blood and the fucking screaming. A miraculous horror.
That’s not what happens. I’m ready for the blood. I’m not ready for the twilight haze of an emergency C-section, Joanne drugged out, eyes at half-mast and face slack. There are no words, just a church murmur, and the smell of antiseptic. It’s still a fucking miracle, a sacrament, but it’s not the one I showed up for.
I watch the tensing of the doctor’s green scrub-clad shoulders, can practically hear my fear oozing out of the cracks in the hospital walls like black sludge. I’m sober; no amber lullaby to pacify me. I am tethered by her hand. I want to be closer, want to climb inside and fix, but in here I am superfluous. I may as well be on the other side of the room, might as well be in the hall, over a copy of the Washington Post with a cigar.
Then, translucent white gloves are lifting out something and I don’t look. Fucking coward. I should be able to look, but the thought of blood hisses like ether under my nose, makes my body wobble. Don’t look down, don’t look down. I imagine they are taking her apart piece by piece, but there’s a screen between the doctors and us. I can see her belly, white and billowed out like a sail. I don’t hear a contraction, I don’t see blood. This birth is clean as a scalpel. I look around, blink, surprised by the white shine of it.
A minute later, the room shifts. Nurses and doctors once bustling around move in closer and murmur. They are tightening in together, at the ready of a race.
“You are going to feel a lot of pressure now.” The people at the foot of the bed are nothing but eyes with masks for foreheads and mouths. The surgeon stands closest.
I can’t see. I can’t fucking look. There is the surgical cap of a nurse with black glasses. Move, move. There is a tangled mess of scrubbed-clean and covered arms, reaching for the right side of Joanne’s body.
A nurse with red hair and sweat stains on her collar. She has a moustache glistening in too-bright light and is holding out a bundle of wriggling red skin. She is radiant as she glances at me. “Here he is, dad.” Dad. Dad. Dad. She christened me with one word.
This is it. Nowhere to go. No return to sender. The baby doesn’t live there anymore. Dad. Dad. Dad.
I expect a new note in the room. Scream, gasp, scream. Red life breathing into white sterility. Instead I hear a dropped note, a marine gurgle, something from the ocean, and my heart stops. Does a baby sound like that?
The whole OR team moves forward, everyone at their stations, precise and measured choreography amid chaos. I stand perfectly still, not wanting to disturb what is happening. No one is paying attention to us in the first moments of our parenthood and that scares me more than any blood. Joanne doesn’t look at me and I don’t look at her. My every cell is attuned for the next cry and the next, but instead the doors bang open and he’s gone.
The sting in my eyes surprise me because I’m pretty sure at this point I have no gooey soft center. I’m big with tattoos, the sort of fucker you hire to stand outside your bar in a black t-shirt and tell people to stuff their fucking asses in the taxi. But Nolan cuts through to the heart of me the second I catch even the barest sight of him as he’s rushed away from me. His eight pounds punch through. I haven’t cried at anyfuckingthing in ten years but I’m standing in the middle of an operating room, my wife is being stitched together with medical staples, and my eyes are pouring salt water. In my center, I am ocean.
I hear the words spoken by nurses and doctors over the next few hours, drifting in through the static.
“…to the NICU… around the neck.”
“…your wife…losing fluid …days.”
“…baby….took in too much…supervised…antibiotics.”
All the things the doctors had missed, now coming at us in a flood and what I’m thinking is: I never got to hold him.
Two shitty days later and I still haven’t held my son. A nurse with a bun of shiny blonde hair comes to talk to us, clipboard in hand.
“Unfortunately, your insurance only covers two day post-op, so your discharge would normally be today. Are you in pain? If you’re in pain, you might be covered for an extra stay.” Sly smile, small nod.
She’s filled to the brim with knowing kindness as she bends over the clipboard, over the keyboard, tries calling Kaiser Permanente. We’re broke and this crap insurance is all we can afford. Their “no” comes back at us, final. Sucks not having fistfuls of cash to shove at the hospital billing department, at the slavering chops of the insurance machine. Instead, I’m sweating the $1500 deductible and forced to leave without my son.
As they do their paperwork, their discharge of parents who can’t pay, I sit by Nolan’s incubator, stretched out on the chair that reclines not nearly enough. Nolan’s a giant among a sea of preemies, his hands grasping at nothing. No milk for you, little man. Not yet. To get into the NICU, I have to sign in, talk to the nurse, put on the gown. Protocol every fucking time and I can’t even hold him.
When we walk to our car, parents, no kid, my eyes are shining with tears just as Joanne’s are. We’re both being strong, not quite letting the anger and fear slip free. In the car, she reaches across the console and puts her hand on mine. We’ve made a baby but there’s an empty car seat. At home, while Joanne sleeps I stare at the crib, the decals on the wall, the nursery too quiet. Not a dad yet for even two days and already I’m facing the silence that’s every parent’s worst nightmare. I want to move close to Joanne, hold her. Instead, I drift to my office.
Log into the computer. Hum of motherboard. Two clicks and I’m in.
“On October 5th, 2007 at 2:14 AM Joanne gave birth via c-section to our 8lb 4oz baby boy! Both mom and baby are happy and healthy.”
Doesn’t capture the moment. Not what I wanted to say. I want to grab someone, yell, but nothing in this motherfucking language captures what I feel. If I open my mouth what will come out is one silent scream. Noise that’s not noise. The only thing that captures the wonder, the terror, all the raw emotion in between my ears right now. Nolan. His name drops vibrations from my brain to my heart. My lifeline. Drip. Drip. Drip.
The words on my blog march tidily across the screen and they bring back equally neat congratulations. The words are meant to force conformity. Look here. Not there. They don’t show Joanne bent over a white line years ago, nostrils poised for take-off. They don’t show me screaming “fuck off” at her when she’s slamming the door in my face. They don’t show how perfect Nolan is, angry in his incubator.
Shitty simple language captures what I wish was true. There are no holes in these hearts. That this life is the perfect one. But hidden behind tidy digital black and white are cracking souls. Fractionated parts that belong to no whole.
I haunt the NICU, an unquiet and angry ghost. Hours by that fucking incubator, I hate that first wall between us.
Days later, finally we’re out and I’m carrying his car seat, him nestled in, rapid strides for the car. He feels too tiny for this. The wind, the cars, anything can take him away so I hold on as tight as I can. In the car, the engine makes me sweat. How can parents drive these deathtraps? I drive a hair-raising 40 mph on a 65 mph highway, alert for the tiniest swerve of traffic. It would only take one drunk driver, one sleepy trucker, and I won’t fucking let anything get him.
Some bastard going 60 rides up along me and I hear the blare of horn, the “fuck you” already snatched by the wind. I risk taking my left hand off the wheel for a fraction of a second to give him the one-fingered salute. Enough of that. I ignore the next maniac honking and focus on the road. We get there, one shaky mile at a time.
Two weeks later. Joanne reading a book. Son nursing on daddy’s heart. Meg slips her way into my home. “I can help with Nolan.” There are other reasons she’s moving in, but that’s the one that slips through her mouth.
Meg-mom walks up the paved driveway and helps herself to the keys of our $1.5 million dollar white Boylestown house. I come home from work, still thinking about the Jaxara sale, wondering if I have it in me to invent another business, find another Pantheon to sell it to.
Cold snap of the fridge and nothing but glass inside, sticky rings of juice. Nolan crying in the crib. Grabbing the keys off the table, running for the car, for the squeaky wheels of grocery carts. The comforting sponge of bread, the solid heft of apples. Food to grow on.
Meg has a fucking PhD in child development, but holding Nolan, her eyes move from him, hunt out the next thing. She puts him down, cold-pat cold-pat on the head, moves off to make herself a snack. Joanne and I go out on Friday, date night. The chrome of one bar, the thick white tablecloth of the good new restaurant in town, and the whole time I’m thinking NolanNolan. Through the door, I rush past mom in front of the TV and up to the nursery. He hasn’t moved. I change him.
There’s not a table wiped down, not a gallon of milk I haven’t put in the fridge myself. The hole in the organ that pumps my blood seethes. Dark purple where there should be bright red. Hopes slashing into shame. How the fuck did I get here again? Meg-mom is more Meg than mom. No comforting touch, dinner cooked to soothe the day. With Meg here it’s like being a kid again. Hopes and needs bubble to the surface and boil only to be snuffed out, ignored by a tight-fitting lid.
I remember those days. No fucking way is Nolan going to grow up that way, with a Meg-mom and a drunk dad. But Joanne and I already fucked up, didn’t we? Joanne was no Mary Poppins and I was no spoonful of sugar. Wasn’t that a kick in the balls? I climbed out of the hole that was Centreville and dug myself into this one.
Sitting in our big white house after Nolan is born, world expanding out and doubling. Joanne and Meg-mom colluding-hating each other, sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, taking each other’s measure. Looking at all the crap my money has bought us. The stage props are there, but where is the pith of the thing? I’m scooped out. I’ve given up other women’s pussy. Straightjacket’s on and already I feel it rip at the seams. How long can a pussy/love hound go without pussy/love? Clock is ticking. All those beds and warm limbs. Always looking for the puzzle piece to fall right in, complete the picture. Always looking for the gentle hand on my back, the smile, the collision. But in the end the bed is empty, the hotel door is clicking behind me. My fingers grip tight around the glass of wine. Is this how I’m supposed to feel?
A week later, I’m coming home from work, fridge empty again. “What the fuck, Joanne? You and Meg are home all day. Can’t you take care of this shit?”
Meg coos Nolan, making her mental escape. Joanne looks up from a glossy magazine.
I scoop up Nolan. He’s the only thing that smells clean and I rub my face against the fuzzy sleeves of his onesie. Hope in one pink little creature, hurtling through space. He looks in my eyes, his own still bleary. I fall all over again. I will never fucking tire of being a dad.
I try again, because I’m a fucking masochist. “I’ll grab something at the store.” Nothing. Deep breath. One more try.
“You’ll never believe what happened at work…”
The glossy pages turn. I’ve been dismissed, me and Nolan both. Towards the kitchen then, son.
Later, me in the office, working on a report. Frantic scribbling in the margins, mind tilting and spinning on its axis, neck bent at 90 degrees. Neurons are crackling electro-chemicals, leaking out my ears. My synapses must be burning, fire pours out of me, onto the page. All the love I feel, stopped up and diverted from Joanne and the family, streams like Niagara Falls to Nolan, to work. They get my best, always. The lights of the office don’t turn off until three. When they do, sitting in the dark, the inside of my skull glows blue.
Joanne is heading out the next evening and I hold Nolan by the door, trailing pale blue blanket. “Where the fuck? What about Nolan?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Danny. He has you and your mum. He’ll be fine. Mommy needs some alone time.”
She comes home at two and the smell of gin creeps in after her, a pale shadow.
The family picture cracks a little more. Now there’s two mommies for Nolan—the one in the pictures, smiling, and the one who hands him to me. “He stinks. I need a break. You change him.” The one who goes out and comes back when the lights are fading in the street, makes me imagine men in bars, leering. No point in smelling out the cologne. The straightjacket loosens, seems more like a regular jacket.
Bringing home the bacon, making grocery runs, changing diapers. There’s a lifelong nanny and a child development PhD in the house and Meg looks at me when Nolan fusses. “The baby is crying. Can’t you hold him?”
Years pass by without changing shape. Aren’t you supposed to be helping? Pounding headache pulse from hours at the College Board, bunched over reports and SAT ideas and then it’s me and son Nolan and new daughter Jordie. Where is mommy? Where is grannie? Who the fuck knows?
It’s easy to give the fuck up, let the moths eat holes through the straightjacket. A business trip outside the city and another body on the hotel sheets beside me. The jacket comes off. Bodily fluids, warm and with a hug. Bottles of wine propped up on the nightstand, not a drop left. Not love, but it’s the closest thing I’ve got. The movement of it is there.
At 6pm, I’m home, climbing up the steps to the big-white-house. Hello, hello. Kiss the wife on the cheek. Bring home the cash. Fill the fucking fridge. Flip the fucking burgers. And after dark, it’s glasses of wine or naked bodies in hotel rooms. It’s frantic inventing in the cave of my office. Drunk as a fucker and passed out on white sheets.
One night, I walk in through our solid oak door. Nolan looks up at me with wide eyes. He’s three fucking years old. Shouldn’t he be talking? Something? Fuck if I know. Shouldn’t the au pair and the childhood development expert know? Did I mess him up already? I swallow down hangover and pick him up. “Hey, buddy, did you miss me when I was gone?” I’ve showered off the pussy; I’m a squeaky clean dad. Jekyll and Hyde and I do all my hiding away. Only the kindly dad at home. With Nolan and Jordie, my world narrows down and fractions become whole.
Before Jordie came I learned how to perfect the role, how to be Ward Fucking Cleaver. Happy dad, nice shirt. Gaping hole of deep fucked-up-ness strictly in check. Practice, practice, practice. I found my training field when Nolan was three months old and Joanne and I joined a Gymboree class. The room was like an LSD trip, Rorschach blot of orange, red, green, blue, pink. All couples, smiling at each other and crouching over kids. “Hoooo,” adults whooping like teenagers as babies bobbled drunkenly where they were propped up on foam pads and moms and dads blew bubbles or danced. Lollapalooza without the drugs or alcohol. First thought: “Is this how it’s supposed to be?”
“Hi, I’m Jen and this is Eli.” Slow introductions. I looked for cracks in their stories, but hit solid granite. Are they like us? Is theirs just an image too? Jen with her brown hair and open smile looked at Nolan and held out her hand. Nothing in her eyes but chocolate brown. Guileless. Eli matched her, brown hair and big smile.
Falling into friendship was like falling into a clear lake. Babies falling over each other in a puppy pile and us laughing. Laughing. Hmmm.
“So, how are you guys surviving parenthood?” Jen asks with a bright smile.
I lean forward, she listens. From the start, we were trading ideas back and forth like baseball cards. The weeks pass and I want to collect all of them.
“You’ll never believe what happened at work. There’s this project where…” And Jen, holding 3-month old Caroline in her lap, turns around, listens, asks questions, draws out the full thread of the project disaster. A magician with the endless scarf. I can never get enough. Eli nodding beside her, listening too, his brown hair rumpled. Joanne relaxing in the corner, talking to a mom with red hair.
It was the end of the first month of Gymboree. The soap bubbles had been burst and diapers changed. The room smelled of baby powder.
“Let’s take a picture.” Jen motioned the doting parents in front of the blue giraffe against the purple background, setting up a Robert Wiene shot. She crouched down to get the squirming line of babies into the frame of the phone. I looked over. Pale strip of white skin below her white shirt. Fuck, she’s not wearing panties.
Smile for the cameras, smile smile for Gymboree. Every week. Every week. We all met for brunch in a bistro, all chrome. Danny drinks. Casually. Healthily. Normal dad, normal guy. Chrome was shiny and I was bright as a coin. A group of us met up for coffee. I was the TV dad stuffed in jeans. I was-am the dad of sitcoms.
I had-have to fucking live up to those-these perfect dads and moms, with their sleek hair and wide smiles. I had-have to fucking hide the kid from Centreville, creeping up the stairs to avoid the belt. Couldn’t-can’t let them see the hollow inside.
Was-is my smile too stiff? Was-am I making the cut? Everyone else was young, successful, breathing the conservative styles of metro DC with every perfect haircut, every stylish suit and dark pair of jeans showing a long pedigree of suburban houses and letterman jackets. Did-do I pass? Carrot-eating, belt-dodging Danny of eight, ten wouldn’t believe Gymboree Danny. How did I get this normal? They all wore striped shirts, I noticed, this rarefied herd of zebras. And I was-am the scruffy leopard. How long before they notice?
On the way home in the car, Nolan in the back seat and Joanne staring out the window, I loosened my collar. Fucking tight.
“Too weird to live, too rare to die.”
Joanne looked over. “What?”
“Nothing.” I executed another right turn, pulled up at the next red light.
Is it supposed to be this fucking hard to be normal? To smile until my plaster face cracks while inside I am broken and crumpled already? In the bubble of my life, my fractions battle against each other. Is Fraction A good enough? I don’t know. I carry sleeping Nolan and cooing Jordie up the steps and the vast polish of our house opens to us. I tuck his $70 blanket around him and my arms tighter around her, keep them safe. I fucking hope it’s enough. But I have my doubts.
The first time I heard God’s voice, it rolled down my spine, into my ears as softly as dandelion fluff blows, and altered the course of my life. I was standing in the pew holding my songbook with both hands; swaying, focused, joyful as I sang along to Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord. I remember the moment like it was yesterday—the way the afternoon sun streamed through the windows and lit up dust in the air, the way my stomach suddenly dropped like I had fallen off a roller coaster. “You’re not going,” came the words, quiet but as clear as though spoken by someone standing directly behind me. I straightened my spine and froze as butterflies fluttered in my stomach, a sudden and distinct wave of excitement and intensity overcoming me from head to toe. “You’re not going to China,” I heard again, and in an instant I understood the magnitude of what was happening. The rest of the world fell away. I sat down and wept.
I was halfway through my time at Bucknell, where I had come specifically for their reputation in the Mandarin program. I knew that I could pair it with a degree in international relations and travel to China for a semester to work directly with orphans who were victims of China’s harrowing one-child policy—something that had long been a dream of mine.
But when you have a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, it changes you. And suddenly, irrevocably—I was new. The coat of insecurity and uncertainty I had worn growing up now gave way to a distinct sense of strength, of fortitude.
In hindsight, I should have seen the fallout at home coming from miles away, but I was caught up in the sheer power of the experience I had just had. I grew up in a community where the proper greeting upon meeting someone new wasn’t, “where are you from,” but rather, “what parish do you belong to?” I don’t think we even knew anyone who wasn’t Catholic while I was in grade school. So when I gushed that “God spoke to me” to my old-school south Jersey Catholic parents, it went about as well as you’d expect.
“That’s insane!” they told me. “You’ve lost your mind!” they said. Catholics have spent thousands of years building a tradition around the belief that one does not have a direct relationship with God. And here I was, the oldest child and only daughter, filling their ears with blasphemous ideas. Not to mention that I was citing my direct connection to God with my reason for not going to China.
“You literally went to college to study China and to go to China. You’ve been dreaming about this since you were a little girl.” My mom said this with her lips turned down and her eyes ashamed. I don’t blame them for thinking I was ruining my future, but for the first time in my life, I knew beyond a doubt that there were larger forces at work in my life.
Despite my confidence, I had lived my twenty years without making my parents this upset and now they were hurt, disappointed, and angry, and I hated to cause them pain. I was a gold-star Good Girl, dedicated to pleasing others. But the experience of the Holy Spirit had anchored itself in my bones, and I suddenly had a spine of steel. “I’m telling you right now: I’m not going to China.” My position was strong. Clear. God told me to not go, and I knew to listen. His message was plain and simple, I told my mom.
“You don’t hear from God,” my mom said again in exasperation. In my parents’ minds, I was off my rocker and deferring my dreams, a recipe for disaster. I used to call them almost every day, but for months afterwards we barely spoke, and it was one of the most painful times in my life. Even in my newfound strength, I craved my parents’ love and approval. But anyone who has found true faith knows it always gets harder first before it gets easier. Letting go of old ways of thinking and acting may be right, but it’s not easy. Our human minds and hearts depend on safety, security, predictability. And mine—at least that which I had known since I was little—was slowly slipping away.
My faith and I settled into a new routine that semester as I watched my schoolmates head off on their postings abroad. Everyone expected me to be sad and to regret not going. I didn’t know how to explain my peace with myself beyond acknowledging that the seed of faith had taken root in my heart, and that I was living in accordance with God’s plan, even if I didn’t fully understand it.
When the SARS epidemic broke out three months later and everyone in the program got quarantined or sent home, I was crystal clear why I had been guided to stay. Friends of mine were suddenly in precarious situations, and many lost tens of thousands of dollars as the program collapsed. The emotional, financial, physical, and academic toll was high. It was one of those times in my life when I reflected upon my choice and thought, “Wow. I heard God.” It became crystal clear that God wasn’t taking me away from the path I had always been on—but rather, guiding me to follow it more carefully, more intentionally, more deeply.
I knew each ensuing time that I heard God’s voice that I was on an unpredictable path. But I also had the reassurance and confidence that derives from living amidst the protection of a divine plan. And I’ll tell you, once we have heard the voice of God, we will seek it all the time, and that makes us very brave. Seeking and accepting the word of God means we’re willing to live with the mysteries of why things fall apart and how things will come together. For me, it meant—amongst other things—that when my engagement to my college sweetheart, Pat, fell apart and with it my dreams for a white picket fence and a simple Christian life, that I could keep it together, sad but not immobilized, in pain, but not resigned.
And let me be clear about one thing: whatever you think about God, that moment of singing in church and really, truly hearing God changed my faith, and it changed my parent’s faith. The reverberations of the tears I shed that day as the Holy Spirit washed over me continue to affect everything I do from the moment I wake up to the moment my head hits the pillow. If at any point you wonder why I choose to do the things I do, or if you ever wonder if I’m in danger or weak or maybe even a little stupid in my relationship with Danny, trust me on this: I have felt myself wrapped in the certainty of the Holy Spirit, and it has altered my spiritual DNA. I trust God’s guidance and my experiences of it fully. Since that first time I heard Him, I’ve walked this path of love and relationship with Him by my side. I have defined the words “love” and “relationship” for myself and my family, beyond what prim and polite company thinks the words mean. I have taken the words apart, stripped them down to their core, and reknitted them for myself. And now I own them, even when I struggle to remember their meaning, even when others think I ought not to. Love and relationship, for me, mean I’m walking hand and hand with God.
So, as you’re reading my story—my and Danny’s story—know that whatever your reaction to my ideas of faith and God, love and relationship, you’re likely not thinking anything I haven’t thought myself, and I can hold your reactions with loving hands. You may be gung-ho about the idea of faith or you may be rolling your eyes at me (much like Danny did when we first met). But, if you’re going to walk this story with me, you have to get ready: Your ideas about what you thought you knew—about me, about faith, about love, about relationships—might soften. It happens. It happened to Danny and he ended up marrying me.
Five years after the SARS outbreak I landed my dream job and was the youngest Executive Director at the Joint Council on International Children's Services in Washington D.C. The Joint Council is a non-profit that partners with groups around the world to end suffering for vulnerable children who don’t have permanent homes.
I had been at Joint Council for over three years and conversation at work one day started with seven words: “We need you to fly to Uganda.”
I often had to hop on flights to other countries for meetings. I would come home from my journeys to my husband, Eli, late at night after full days of giving my heart and soul to children’s advocacy work. My position at the Joint Council often required me to do the impossible—help change policy on a shoestring budget, help an adoption agency fly a child to the U.S. on a moment’s notice, work until two in the morning on a tenth draft of a legislation proposal. It was all part of the mission.
But on that day with the seven-word request, Eli and I had just had our first daughter. My milk was coming in and all I wanted to do was bury my face in Caroline’s onesie and make sure she was healthy and thriving. And here Joint Council was, asking me to fly to Uganda. Resistance boomed from the belly of a new mother and rested on a conversation we had had during my pregnancy about telecommuting.
“No,” I told them. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I had to fight through fear and tears to stand my ground. “I can’t leave my newborn baby.”
“If you’re not going to travel for us, we’ll need you here in the office, running operations,” my colleagues told me.
More fear. More tears. “But I thought we had agreed I could telecommute for the first few months after maternity leave and until I could find reliable childcare for my baby…” My voice had trailed off as I saw the frowns on their faces.
Caroline had allergic colitis and I was in and out of doctor’s appointments. Eli had just passed the bar exam and was never home. It’s clear to me now that I was suffering from postpartum depression and was trying to hold myself together. In retrospect, I should have fought for a more robust maternity leave while I got used to motherhood. I was twenty-five years old, unsure what to do, and, despite my strong personality, good at doing what I was told. The people pleaser in me had not asked for a contract, a certainty that our agreement would be honored.
I’m going to have to quit, I realized in that moment. I’m going to have to tell Eli I’m quitting. I’m a mama now, and I’m going to have to give up my career dreams for my baby
I slunk home to Eli that day, feeling heavier than I had just a few months earlier, when I had waddled the eight blocks home with my still-protruding belly. I walked down the steps of the stone sidewalk, away from the building that served as the Joint Council’s headquarters in Alexandria. Black iron lantern streetlights and low branches of towering maple and chestnut trees hung in front of the historic buildings on St. Asaph street. For the first time since I had started working for the Joint Council, I didn’t—couldn’t—breathe in gratitude for the beauty and opportunity around me.
I had given birth, and I was about to let one of my oldest dreams die.
My dream was one that started when I was 13 years old and my mom handed me one of the Reader’s Digest magazines lying around the house. She was on her way to the hospital for her shift as a labor and delivery nurse, and I was home sick. I couldn’t watch MTV, couldn’t wear black in our strict Catholic household; but I could thumb through Reader’s Digest, the family-values-approved fare that had the patina of learning about it. It was a small magazine with a quarter-inch spine, like a paperback novel. I sat on the blue couch in our tidy family room in my pajamas, surrounded by boxes of Kleenex, and mindlessly flipped through the worn pages until I saw The Picture: A tiny baby with a mouth opened into a black wail and a face scrunched into an angry red splotch. I read the words marching across the page, pulling me in, one after another. Orphan crisis. China. Babies abandoned. One-child policy.
“This is insane. We have to do something about this.”
I looked around our family home in South Jersey, where we lived outside of Philly. I felt a shadow of anger and near-despair pass nearby, brushing me with prickly fingertips. Here I was, my belly full of food and my family about to arrive home from work and school, while helpless baby girls in China were tossed away like trash. The fact that families did this because they could only have one child and wanted a male heir stirred something in me. Rage and anger passed through my good-Catholic-girl compass and knitted itself back together as determination and intent.
Riiiiip. I tore the pages free of the spine. The article and that picture, The Picture, lived the rest of my teenage years on my bedroom mirror, the edges curling and yellowing as day after day I brushed my hair, put on my earrings, and got ready for school or church. I knew I would do everything in my power to help kids who had no one else. No babies would get thrown out on my watch. And I hadn’t even heard the voice of God at that point. At least not in a way I had recognized.
The giant bromeliad Puya raimondii, the Queen of the Andes, grows in mountains in Bolivia and Peru. The spiky flower takes years to bloom, to come to full life. For years, I was like this, too, thinking of abandoned children around the world, gathering their stories so that in some way they would not be forgotten. I was preparing.
I was preparing all through high school, with each grade earned and each college application I sent. I was preparing when I focused my college studies on East Asia and religion. And I was preparing when I supplemented my degree with fast-track executive management courses. And while I was busy preparing, my preparation led me to a flyer in the library announcing that Bucknell alumni Kerry Marks Hasenbalg, Founder of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), was speaking on campus. CCAI was and is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping facilitate adoptions, especially from overseas. I knew from reading the bio that she had done the things I had dreamed of: helping foster children in the U.S., working with child soldiers in Uganda, helping sick kids in China. She was my in, my way of fulfilling the dreams that had blossomed from the pages of Reader’s Digest.
The night of the talk, Kerry walked into the auditorium briskly, wearing a navy suit, dark blonde hair falling down her back. She didn’t look left or right. She was clear. Focused. I sat in the front row and couldn’t take my eyes off her. As she described meeting a former child soldier who now had a regular job and a family, I felt a quiet peace settle over me. There was a way to save these kids, and here was the path laid out before me. I knew I had to be part of CCAI when I graduated in a few months.
I was the first one to rush to the podium when the talk ended.
“I have to work for you,” I told Kerry, managing to sound only slightly out of breath.
Kerry was putting away her notes into a big black tote bag, but she looked up. “I don't have a job for you. Sorry. We’re just not hiring. And our budget is quite small right now…”
She thanked me for my interest and politely told me to look elsewhere. I was determined to find another way in. I started following the organization online, checking everything I could. The CCAI logo was taped to my dorm-room door, and I found myself drifting to articles about its work constantly. And then, a month after Kerry’s talk, I saw the ad: the CCAI was hiring for an admin role.
I polished my resume and mailed it with an application letter before an hour had passed, and I wasn’t surprised to get a call for an interview. I was surprised, however, when this organization that I was meant to be a part of told me this over the phone: “You're overqualified for this. This is not...look, listen. There's a job at the adoption agency above us. You should go interview for that.” I hung up the phone in stunned disbelief.
I applied for the adoption agency job. I can still help kids, and I’ll be close to the CCAI, I thought when my answering machine blinks red with a request for an interview. Months had passed since I had been told by God not to go to China, and I was still searching for the next step on my path. Maybe this was it.
In my best black suit, sitting across from an oak desk piled high with papers, I watched as a grey-haired man from the agency thumbed through my resume and frowned. He looked at me over the smallest of four stacks of canary-colored files. “Really, you should be working downstairs with CCAI.”
I was spending hours navigating the ramps and highways between DC and Lewisburg for these interviews. I was getting familiar with the street of white buildings and brick walk-ups. I was meant to be there, and this was getting ridiculous. I reached out to Kerry again: “The agency told me I need to work for you. I just want to be part of what you’re doing and I know I’ll be a good fit. It doesn’t have to be an impressive job. I'll sweep floors for you. Please. I know I’m meant to do this. I know I’m meant to help these kids.”
Kerry always was a badass and she wasn’t going to give me the runaround. “Fine―come down and talk to us.”
I had worn her down. At the end of the interview, after I had laid it all bare―all I had studied and my passion for helping children―Kerry just nodded. Just nodded. Can you imagine? So I took a big risk: I told her I felt guided by God to serve children. That lit her up. She was a believer. She took a long look at me, and I felt the hand of God at work. “I'm going to create this internship for you,” Kerry said. “You have six months, $12,000 a year and we'll see if we like you.”
The day I graduated from college, I moved to Washington, DC to begin my new job. It was a perfect fit: the whole team was dedicated to helping children by reducing the barriers to adoption.
Working at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute was a dream. I would work until two in the morning, eyes burning and throat sore from too many cups of coffee, but I was doing work that mattered. When my internship was over, Kerry made me her international program director. I was meeting with congressmen, explaining the plight of children looking for adoptive families in the US. We were drafting legislation with foreign governments on their child welfare policies. I met with foster families and read reams of files about what was keeping US families from adopting abroad. And every night when my head hit soft pillow, I dreamt of children around the world who were getting homes, who were getting adopted because of the work I was doing. One less baby on the refuse heap. One less rib poking through skin. One less story to stimulate my thirteen-year-old, Reader’s Digest-induced rage. When my hours and hours at work allowed, I slept deeply and peacefully.
Already though, my dream was developing a few cracks. My commute to Washington was only ten miles, but I clocked an hour and forty-five minutes each day, bumper to bumper, my blouse sticking to the seat as I used the extra time in total standstills to go over my notes for the next meeting. I used bottled water in the console to chase away the feel of exhaust in the back of my throat, hand on the wheel, eyes scanning for any break in the endless array of Detroit-built metal and plastic. One day, the traffic was mercifully clear and I raced by blurred greenery and grey on- and off-ramps to get home. I happened to glance down at my wrist, where my shirt had ridden up, and I noticed red bumps amongst a web of red lace.
In the driveway, I lifted my arm to the car light and looked closely at my angry skin. Hives, as though the stress was clawing its way out of me. Inside my house I saw that they had spread along the back of my neck and along my hips. There was nothing to be done except fill my bathroom cabinet with neatly-stacked blue tubes of ointment so I could continue the crazy pace. I was built to do this—guided to do it—no matter what warning flares my body sent high.
Cracks quickly turned into fissures as violet circles under my eyes turned dark blue. For various reasons, Kerry walked away from CCAI and the rest of our team drifted too. The office looked the same but felt entirely different. New culture, new faces. I was the last woman standing and I stubbornly dug myself into my files and kept going.
When 2005 rolled around, it was time to fulfill another dream: the Joint Council on International Children's Services started recruiting me. Joint Council offered the chance to reach legislators, policy makers, and lobbyists to make real, systemic changes for potentially millions of vulnerable children. Now I went to bed dreaming of the young faces we could save from impermanence, imagined them having birthday parties, swimming lessons, prom. It was too good to turn down.
I was sure I would be doing this job for the rest of my life. For my first board meeting at work, I dressed carefully in a skirt suit. I walked up the brick walkway, which looked like it belonged on a quaint San Francisco street full of tall narrow homes. The conference room was long, with grey felt chairs and a long cherry-stained table. I sat by the window overlooking the tree-lined street. I was ready to make things happen.
“How old are you?” a man standing by the door asked, his eyes looking at my face.
I set my purse on the floor and ignored his surprised eyes. “Twenty-four.” I knew I made a difference every day and I didn’t think about my age much. I felt proud. I had worked my butt off, and now that work was showing up for me in spades.
Although I had been brought on at JCICS as a membership manager, I was almost immediately promoted to become the youngest Executive Director of Joint Council. Then the blue line showed up on the pregnancy test. Eli and I had just gotten married seven months prior, and I was on the pill, for heaven’s sake. I checked again, sure it must be a mistake. I loved babies, but I was not ready to have one. At the same time, well, I loved babies, and this too was a gift from God. So much joy and terror in one little urine-soaked stick of plastic. Eli and I had a mortgage on our new house, and Eli was still in law school. I was equal parts absolutely petrified and terribly excited.
The spring following the blue line, I traveled to San Antonio for the annual medical institute conference. I was halfway through my pregnancy, and I sat in the audience on rickety chairs while doctors talked about trauma in childhood and reactive attachment disorders. I thought I might adopt someday and wondered if I would need to know this. (The one thing I never imagined as I sat there, pregnant and married to Eli, is that I would one day marry a man would who would benefit from my knowledge of addressing childhood trauma).
Then, during a break, one of the Joint Council board members looked at my belly pointedly. “This is our second Executive Director to get pregnant. We’re never going to hire another female Executive Director.” (Yes! Seriously!) My jaw dropped, but nothing came out. That was young Jen, without the benefit and wisdom of years as a female leader. The co-CEO must have seen my face because he took my elbow and steered me aside. “Deep breaths. Just let it go.”
“Let it go!? This is illegal. She can’t make those comments, not in today’s day and age. That’s discrimination!” But I did let it go.
And I let it go when I found out the following month that my co-CEO made twice the amount that I did, doing virtually the same job as me but having fewer qualifications. Welcome to the working world, Jen. I was taking crash-course after crash-course in the challenges that even women in positions of power face.
Months later, when I started having contractions and Eli drove me to the hospital, I was sure I would return to work quickly. I was sure that everything would go as planned, that this part of the process would neatly follow my intentions. Then, as I sat in a hospital room with Eli, listening to beeps and the squeak of nurse’s shoes on the sterile-smelling floors, I sat under the papery sheets as the doctor told me I had preeclampsia.
“We’ll have to induce you,” he told me, peering over my chart, not pausing once to look at me directly.
“No, that can’t be right.” My stomach was round in front of me and I wanted the doctor to look me in the eye, to pause his scanning, to listen. “I haven’t been diagnosed with that. I want a non-medicated birth. Please, that’s important to me and I’ve already talked about this with my midwife.”
He didn’t listen to me. He didn’t double-check my charts when I asked. The nurses who came into my room didn’t listen either; and didn’t look me in the eye as they put Pitocin in my IV. “Please,” I said, again. “I don’t want Pitocin unless you can prove my blood pressure is bad.” I watched their white uniforms swish by my bed, hour after hour, their actions more functional than friendly. Eli napped on the plastic mustard colored chair beside my bed. And I felt the world tighten around me.
I wanted to throttle my husband, my partner, awake. I wanted to take my big belly and drive myself home. I wanted to take control of my situation, and I felt stuck. I was signed-in and had the plastic armband on my wrist. I was a patient—a prisoner. The Good Girl who didn’t want to make a fuss and kept asking politely for the non-medicated birth she was promised annoyed the shit out of me. I was used to the Jen who was willing to go toe-to-toe with congress members to protect kids. But here in this hospital, I had no one else to fight for but myself, so I let them have their way. Can you believe that? Here, the Jen who was willing to travel halfway around the world to fulfill a shatter-proof intention to save an orphanage simply didn’t matter.
Resigned, I prayed that my baby would be safe.
On the day of Caroline’s birth, the doctor waited until Eli and my mom went for breakfast and then he broke my water, even when I asked him not to. I felt helpless, not wanting to make waves. I felt too young to firmly stand my ground. By the time Eli and my mother came back, sated with pancakes and coffee, my tears had dried and I was holding Caroline. Welcoming my oldest daughter into the world was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, but the way it went down ticked me off for years afterwards.
In the weeks after giving birth, I bonded with her, changed her, napped with her, but I kept dreaming about my global babies too. The truth was that without my work, I had a hard time getting up. The world seemed to grey a bit, even when I held my beautiful daughter, things didn’t glow as brightly as they used to. There was nothing dramatic, just a subtle shift to a slower gear. Suddenly, my life didn’t seem to fit just right. My path felt altered—messed with. I’m adjusting to being a mom, I told myself. Give it time.
Caroline cried a lot, right from the start. It was a sound that made me come running, and I panicked when she didn’t want to eat. I made sure to eat a balanced diet, to keep us both healthy. Yet, Caroline continued to lose weight.
“It happens to some babies,” friends and doctors told me. But my mama senses told me something wasn’t right. I tried soothing music, rocking, all the things that bring babies comfort and ease. I dove into books, articles, and research. It took a couple of agonizing months to arrive at my own diagnosis: allergic colitis. Even then, the information I found on the subject was hardly helpful: “It’s temporary. And rare.” Bite me.
If my time at Joint Council taught me anything, it was to be scrappy, and I worked to get my baby girl healthy. I followed a strict elimination diet and read as much as I could about the condition and potential solutions. By the time I visited the office with Caroline in my arms, she was a healthy pink and was gaining weight. My team members cooed over her, and I eagerly took in the sounds of the office. “I know we talked about telecommuting and I am really excited to get that going at full steam,” I told my team. Even as the words came out of my mouth, something didn’t feel right.
It didn’t take long for the truth to come out: they were going to back track on our agreement. Joint Council needed me to travel, and if I couldn’t, they needed me in the office. No exceptions.
I was holding Caroline when I gritted my teeth and made the decision to leave Joint Council. I couldn’t leave my baby for a week at a time. Please, God, let this be the right decision, I prayed. Please take care of those kids. I need to be a mama to this girl and take care of her. As Caroline gurgled and reached for my hair, I couldn’t yet picture a world where I could fight to be a mama and keep my job.
And with that, the final door closed and I left the organization. My career in international advocacy for vulnerable kids was over.
For a long time, I felt Joint Council had betrayed me. I feared that the horrible board member from San Antonio would gloat. I felt I had let women everywhere down by giving up so easily. So I did the one thing I always did when my guilt punched my guts: I picked up my precious baby. I smelled Caroline’s sweet smell. I thanked God for this beautiful gift of life, of love. This is what it’s about. This is what I’m doing this for. This is more important than my career.
But despite my love for being a mama, in the dead of night, with Eli sleeping beside me, my mind would light up with ideas for businesses and projects. My soul wanted more. My heart wanted to return to that frenetic everyday pace where the Filofax flipped and global change hummed in the air.
Then one day, Eli took in my pale face, unwashed hair, and lines around my mouth and said, “We need to do something different.” And with that, within the same month that I left Joint Council, Eli and I attended our first baby-and-me class at a local Gymboree. The class was held in a big room with brightly colored blobs and pictures of animals prancing on every wall. Tiny babies and parents with bubble makers laid on mats, and I instinctively knew I would find my tribe. I held Caroline closer and nuzzled her sweet skin, taking in the primary colors and smells of Caroline’s childhood.
My baby girl’s wispy hair tickled my nose as a woman came bouncing up to us, her brown hair pulled back from her face. Her mouth opened and a British accent tumbled out.
“Hi! I’m Joanne. This is my husband, Danny.”
Danny number one; Danny number two
Joanne slams the door when we get home from Gymboree and I want to hop in the car, rev the engine and tear away, throwing pieces of my life out the window as I go. The polo shirt, the smile, the howdoyoudos, this sense of loathing. All the detritus of Danny along the highway, like strips of black rubber from a careening semi. I feel like a truck spinning out, heavy and clumsy and half an inch from the oblivion of the rail.
Instead, she heads upstairs and I walk down, to my study, where notes are piled high and my bourbon can burn through doubts. I have piles of articles. Been testing ideas to revamp the way business people do conferences calls. I picture thousands of exchanges, money trading hands, ideas buzzing over lines. Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell, you fucker. And me having the chance to make an impact, to change how lines are connected. If I can get this company off the ground, I’ll be touching every business exchange, enabling every break through. Then, maybe, this spooned-out mess of innards won’t leave me so empty, so hollow. There are two times I feel alive at this point: when my mind clicks together puzzle pieces of business and when I’m holding Nolan and Jordie. They make me feel clean, solid, pure.
Planes take me away from here, bullets in the sky. Frequent flier takes me to Vegas, to San Francisco, to waiting arms, open legs. Self-loathing in every port with every sticky kiss and then back home, through the white door.
And then the suitcase of the marriage spills, messy and I’m packing my own bags, moving out.
All the simple words that break it up. “I can’t do this anymore, Joanne,” I tell her, clothes in the air, landing in my bags. “This isn’t working. We’ve tried counseling. We’ve given it a second chance, a third chance. I’m sorry, I just don’t want this.”
And her mouth in a thin line, shoulder against the door, watching me. It’s already her room, my room is down the hall. We’re under the same roof but any togetherness is long past and she doesn’t cross the floor to touch me now.
“Fine,” she says. “Do what you want.”
At the time, I think it’s cold but now I think maybe it’s the way we all react to rejection. Curl up, protect the soft innards. Maybe this is what Joanne was doing then, though I was too worked up in the froth of my own pain to see it.
I had married Joanne because she was a friend who could match me drink for drink. I liked the tough-girl, party-girl attitude and she liked kids. She had left her small town in England, traveled around the world to the US to be an au pair to strangers. I thought she would make a good mom and we would be friends. I thought that’s what marriage was.
Turns out I was really fucking wrong and now everything was going to hell. I had gradually started to notice all the stuff that bothered me about Joanne and I was an arrogant enough asshole not to wonder what bothered Joanne about me. All I knew is that after I became a dad I wanted to do right, I wanted to be responsible and good. So when I saw Joanne not buying milk, wanting to go out, it drove me crazy. I still had the safety-valve of business trips, where I could drink as much as I wanted. I didn’t occur to me she needed a release valve too. In the end, we were not enough in love with each other and between us we have an army of demons—too many shadows to make it work. She’s the same person I married but I was expecting someone else. Mary Poppins, maybe. Maybe whoever it is I’m looking for when I stare at women. Maybe Joanne and I are too much alike, ready to lash out and at the time I move out I’m still not facing up to the drinking, to the anger I feel all the time. But I’m not thinking of Joanne or trying to be sympathetic. I’m too messed up for empathy.
I’m in the car and it feels wrongwrongwrong to leave the babies behind, to pull away in the driveway without them. Halfway down and still in reverse, I’m already doing the math of when I can see them again.
In me, there is a new crack, a new fissure, and the split is NolanandJordie, the point of divide. On one side stands the dad and man I want to be for them: loving, whole. And across the chasm is the person I fear I am, split and warped. I look in the mirror some mornings and see my face melted like cheap vinyl, a stray eye by my mouth, tattoo ink running like tears. I blink again and my face is unmelted, smooth again, the hallucination skittering away. I don’t know how to reach across, how to get from this jumbled mess to the dad they deserve. I only know the basics. I love my kids. I am a good dad. I may be a shitty person. I don’t know what the fuck is true. And what do you do with that?
Nolan and Jordie is my battle cry and deep ache each minute I’m away from the house. Where Joanne used to be is the cool wash of relief, but where they used to be is a bleeding hole, and in it the remains of a rotten splitting stump. A tooth or an essential organ, ripped out in fragments, trailing blood vessels. It hurts to talk to them. It hurts not to talk to them. Each night seems to last forty years and in the dark I see bear-men, crawling from the radiators, slavering over the wood floors. I lie on my 400-count sheets, wrapped in navy blue, and sweat like a son of a bitch, feel my heartbeat in my skull, sure this is it. I’m going to fucking die and it will be my own fucking fault. In the sick daylight, I drink bourbon and look up symptoms. Am I losing my fucking mind?
What’s going on between my two ears is nothing compared to the rhythm of my kids. I’m scared Meg and Joanne aren’t taking good care of them. Who’s buying the milk and groceries, talking to and interacting with them, seeing them?
“Daddy?” Two syllables over circuits and motherboards, through the plastic and chips of my phone. Flesh made soundwaves and I can’t answer back. I think I will fly apart, become dust if I make any noise.
“How’s it going, Nolan?” I manage around my sober dry mouth one morning, and I listen to his toddler babble across lines and signals. It’s wrongwrongwrong to hear him digitally, no ability to lean in and hug him, hold him, watch his face light up.
In the end I go back, of course I go back. NolanandJordie beats with my heart and when their voices fade over the phone lines and click, disappear, I have to go back.
And we’re moving backwards in time. When I spend an afternoon with them, I scoop up every minute, huff it in like fairy dust. Even in the bright glow of time together, dad-and-son time, dad-and-daughter time, I see they’re moving backward. Nolan loses the words he had gained, grows quieter. Jordie sucks her thumb pink.
And somewhere the thought lodges, taps, something’s wrong. Vigilant, vigilant I watch them, sure I must be wrong. Children are sponges, every book on parenting says. Prime learning years. Toddlers can’t help but pick up more and more words, any more than they can help picking up every cold in existence. But Nolan’s dropping words. Saying “cookie” one week and just pointing at oatmeal cookies the next, eyes bright but words silent. I read articles, bookmark sites. What the fuck is happening?
Joanne plays it off.
“You know Nolan isn’t chatty,” she tells me, voice brittle.
I’m not a fucking mind reader or child psychologist, but it doesn’t take ESP to know. I was there, with Joanne, saw the baby crying and diaper wet, smelled the perfume as mom went out for the night. I could look back further to my childhood, write volumes about what Megmom was like 20 years ago― her absences hollowing me out. Looking at Joanne now, the chill of my childhood comes back―the empty bank account where my college fund was supposed to be, the empty arms where there should have been a hug. The empty words when dad fell into a beer bottle and came out, belt raised high and swinging wide. And now the kids, my kids, teetering at the edge of that chasm. I won’t ever hit them, I know that, but will the missing mom, me working long hours and going on business trips leave some invisible welt? I have chosen to marry a woman and have children and somehow I’ve screwed it all up.
I suck it up. I’m a fucking adult. I step back into the void, go back to the routine of bringing home the groceries, working all day, working on ideas at night. I slip back into the polo shirts of GymboreeDanny, go back to brunches. I think I’m a good dad, but I’m a checked-out husband, I am back to looking, searching, my eyes catching and holding here and there. I’m back to waking up in blank sheets of hotel rooms, bodies next to mine still in sleep. At least the bear-men don’t get me here, in the anonymity of bodily fluids and touch.
And each morning after hotel sheets and anonymous mouths and touches, I’m washing it all off. No one can get a whiff of it on me. Not friends, not Megmom, not Eli and Jen at Gymboree. I squeak with the smell of good shampoo and the strain of being pulled apart, quartered. Is family supposed to hurt this much? I smile at the couples, at Eli, at Jen. It’s easier when there’s an audience. Easier to smile, to pretend to be whole, to stick to one glass of wine. Many of them think I’m not much of a drinker and Inner Me chortles. If only they knew.
It's nice to have friends, friendly faces for Outer Danny, GymboreeDan. I like that they look at me and don’t see all the fucked-up mess inside my cranium. I like that Eli claps my back when we meet and laughs at my jokes. I like that Jen smiles and talks to me about business. I store up those crumbs of normal for the long nights when the dark matter in my brain is flying apart.
Gymboree DannyDad oozes over into the house with Joanne and Meg.
“We need to try,” is what Joanne tells me, waving the number and name of a couples’ counselor above her head. We’re going to try to be normal parents. Normal at home, normal at Gymboree.
Out at brunch, there’s at least the possibility of talking, of words not hurled but spoken. Eli talks about law. Jen tells me about Aqua Pure Technologies.
“What about investors?” I ask her. I ask more questions, about marketing, the website. She’s involved in all of it, lights up. I recognize in her the same feeling of right when a piece of the business puzzle falls into place. We trade war stories.
“What about Speek?” Eli asks me. My own fucking wife doesn’t ask and I eat up the chance to talk, grab it with both hands. I tell Eli and Jen all of it, more than they probably want to know. The difficulty of finding the right team, the investors. The testing phase and myriad ways code can take you for a ride, fuck with you. Jen leans in, interested in how entrepreneurship can bite your ass and keep you coming back. She nods. She gets it. Maybe she has smelled it too: that whiff of high that comes from knowing you’re doing something hard that makes a difference. The rush when there is nothing and then there is something—something that you created, something that people get to use and hold in their hands and turn to. Creativity. From an empty maw of dark nights to something real.
Sometimes, though, I can’t help but poke. I see the small gold cross low on her shirt and hear her and Eli talk about their church. I can’t help but pry, like pushing on an aching tooth. “So, you’re saying you believe? God exists?”
There’s no way in fuck I believe in a big man in the sky, handing out blessings to the good little girls and boys who pray to him. It’s never that simple. Where the fuck was he when I was ten and alone with the priest? Where the fuck was he when Nolan stopped talking? Where the fuck is he now, when I watch bar lights flash out messages for me in Morse code and vines crawl up the legs of my chair while I teeter in front of the mouth of madness? But Jen and Eli believe.
When I’m not Daddy Danny or GymboreeDan, I’m giving 110% to Speek, a co-creation, the big, beautiful puzzle of investors, tech problems, solutions. I’m working on how to simplify conference calling and connectedness so there are no PINs, no dial-ins. Today everyone already takes it for granted—just put the invite in an email and instant tech magic. But behind the magic are sleepless twos in the morning. I learn everything that can go wrong. All the ways a program, a string of code, can fail, can hang up the fucking line. I push. Raising money. Hiring a rep. Winning the patent. I fucking ride. The big wins, the anger when the code doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, the three-in-the-morning realization about what we need to shift and juggle. Sleepless nights and more bourbon, but at least Speek keeps me busy. Keeps me insane. Keeps me sane. I can’t fucking tell anymore.
Vegas emits bright lights and drinks and the steady rhythm of darkness. Who am I kidding? It’s tits, ass, the crackling smell of money, and numbness that lets me breathe again. I fly out seven times when Joanne and I are separatedbutnotreally, and I lean woozily on the sticky bar of some casino I can’t remember the name of. My eyes land and catch on the words on the bottle in front of me: Drink responsibly.
Yes, Danny, drink responsibly. Resssponsibly. I roll the word in my mouth as it shutters in and out.
“That’s a good name,” I tell the man next to me at the bar. Prick’s on his phone, black hair in place. He looks put together and Vegas is not a place for those with something to lose. I want to tell him that. I want to warn him.
“I’ll drink responsibly when they make a bourbon named Responsibly,” I tell him, but he’s already walking away. It doesn’t matter.
I have tickets to Pretty Lights and a backstage pass. I stumble there already drunk, take in half-clad women and zone in on the one with the lowest top.
Strobe lights strobe lights strobe lights bassbassbass LOUD
There’s molly and fumbling and the sound of lights and the flash of music. Rhythm, dancing Danny. Oops. How did my hand get there? I fall again, pick myself up by the chorus. It’s all funny now, molly and pharmaceuticals racing down every vein. I feel great. These people are amazing, and though I can barely see, I know their eyes and their mouths are opening on galaxies of stars and black holes. I can’t hear anything but the rush of space. I hold onto someone’s sweaty back and the slip of gold synthetic skirt beneath my fingertips. Ariadne's thread is the gold thread on the showgirl costume under my fingers, leading to the Minotaur, leading to me.
I crash-land on consciousness in a suite in Vegas some interminable amount of time later. I crack open one crusted eyelid and through a squint attempt to survey my status and surroundings. I’m not worried; this is Part C of a streamlined routine.
My nose stopped physically moving air days ago. That likely explains the cocaine residue in and around my ears. There is Molly all over the nightstand. There is also a glass of water. My powers of detection tell me that I must have started dissolving it in water once we drank all of the champagne. The two dozen empty bottles of champagne and vodka confirm my hypothesis.
I notice three naked girls. That's a good sign. But there is also a short, fat, Indian man on the floor. I have no idea.
The existence of the girls is promising. It means I had been happy and hadn't freaked out and tried to punch an Uber driver this time. I am living the fucking dream. One of the girls is covered in gold glitter. There's blood on the floor. I don't think it's mine. I'm sore all over. But I suspect that it's from fucking not falling. That is, assuming I could get hard this time. I’ve tried to fuck so many times with a limp whiskey or coke dick that I had taken to giving it pithy nicknames. Weenis. BASE jumping. Pushing rope. Down dog. I get out of bed and start re-introducing myself. This is my life.
The calendar pages in my mind are a ticker tape Times Square parade confetti of letters and numbers. Ooops. Not drinking Responsibly, there. Drinking champagne, the taste of a whole region of France straight from the bottle. Russian vodka. A little international tableau of fucked up. All empty, no friendly drop.
Moving hurts and my bladder is a shrieking banshee. I slink to the bathroom, wincing with each step, stepping around crumbled green leaves and white baggies. Peeing takes hours and I hold onto the counter as the first wave of nausea hits. The first splatters of bile hit the sink but by the third wave of queasy I’m bent over the toilet, all the filth pouring through my lips.
Memory is a rusty wheel, creaking into another gear. I remember a lot of sex, bloody Kleenex held up to my burning nose, white powder gritty on my nostrils. I have a vague memory, a whisper of a hallway, a laughing through the solid door. There are wide, black gaps in the reel.
I was King of Vegas Strip last night, but every ruler must check his messages. I find the pair of pants which are mine by the door, wrinkled grey. I pull my phone out and wince my way through the blindness of dozens of emails. My ear howls at me as voicemail after voicemail insists on top volume as I sit on the toilet, slumped over.
Bad news. Joanne is pissed and her messages show it.
Where are you?
Where the fuck are you? Danny, answer me.
I’ve called the police and filed a missing person’s report. Just thought you should know.
That last one is bullshit. Joanne is sandbagging, getting the dirt to throw at me. In case it all heads south and we fail to eject from the epic downward spiral towards divorce. She wants the tidy signed reports she can point to. See, he was a bastard all along. Is she right about that? I honestly can’t tell. She’s sharpening the knives and waiting for the court to make the first incision.
I bet she didn’t even call the police. It hadn’t even been forty-eight hours. Maybe she’s just fucking with me.
As far as Joanne and the rest of my family are aware, I'm away on business, hustling. Which I kind of am. While also trying not to die. No one knows that I'm a raging blackout drunk, angry atheist, infidel, fat, tattooed, son of a bitch, addicted to drugs and pussy. But this is happiness. The American dream. Strippers, drugs, bottles, crazy ass startup founder rockstar shit. Movement.
In the suite, I see the sun is up. It’s trying to kill me. Sunrises punch me in the gut and squeeze my throat. At least the windows are locked up tight in this room. I hate the sound of morning birds. Too many of these nights, not knowing how I got home, checking to see if there’s an Uber receipt or if the Olympic Gardens limo took me home.
Joanne and I go to the counselor and parse out our whole sorry tale. The other women. Her drinking. My drinking. The kids struggling. Her anger at me. My anger at the entire fucking galaxy, trumping her rage. The counselor is a thin man with a serious academic beard and an honest-to-fuck sweater vest. I memorize the knit pattern while Joanne talks and wordswordswords. The pain, all there in a tidy pile on his $150-an-hour rug. He picks up with stealth fingers one bone fragment we’ve thrown down.
“Just a minute,” he says after we have stopped the flow of words. “You’re saying your mother lives with you? You can’t have her there. This is a big part of the problem.”
We thank him and get out of there, passing the next couple heading in. And it’s back to the big white house, where Megmom is. A mom would understand we need to live just by ourselves and with the kids, work on the relationship. But this is the Ice Queen and the kitchen I’ve cleaned that day gleams white in all directions around her. The chrome of the fridge winks at me. It knows what’s going down.
My voice doesn’t shake as I repeat the counselor’s suggestions. Two of us, the kids, working on our relationship. She waits until my words slow down, brake sharp.
“What do you think I’m going to do? What am I supposed to do?” The lens of Meg’s eyes turn inward and I realize she’s never seen us or Nolan or Jordie at all. She can’t see past the Meg in her eyes.
“What about me? Did you think about that?” Her voice rises and Joanne steps away from me. A little island of me, surrounded by Arctic, by Ice.
There’s nothing to do and I feel the pressure build. I half expect the bear creature to make an appearance, expect to see something not there. Instead, I watch as specks of frost form blue over her hands, over her mouth. She’s still yelling but I’m disconnected, the final thread broken and my little rowboat out to sea. I shake my head. I think I laugh.
“It is what it is.” There are no words to say to her. Nothing with sense. Megmom crumbles. I’ve never seen her defeated. I’ve never seen her small. Yet I have the power to get rid of her, with one string of words. Maybe I’ve had that power all along. The fridge starts to hum when she storms from the room. Joanne drifts out behind her as I stand there, staring at the sturdy oak kitchen table. There are crumbs on it and I should wash it again before the kids eat there. But for now, I just take in the quiet.
Meg walks away from our house, finally banished. It only feels like half a victory. I’m still adrift and I know it as I hold Nolan and Jordie, listen to the car reverse onto the street. And what I crave is a drink.
Two Faced Goody Two Shoes
“I don’t want to be married anymore,” Eli told me.
His words hit like a physical blow. They crystalized somewhere around my solar plexus, words solid as a left-hook and then a starburst of pain through ligaments, bone, and flesh. A comic-book knockout punch. My whole body froze around the meaning of the statement and my mind shut off and drifted, curling itself away from what that one sentence would do to me, to us, to our family.
“You can’t mean that Eli. Are you feeling well?”
Standing in our comfortable living room that day in 2013, our daughters Leah Claire and Caroline upstairs, I, Jen Peterson, recalled no clues at all. Not in the big bay window overlooking our quiet suburban street, not in the framed pictures of our wedding day on the walls, not in the green designer sofa where we had talked and laughed so many nights. There had been no fights here, no hard words at all. I had been married to this man for seven years. We were on a Godly path. There was love in our home. I had checked off all the boxes. I was a good person. I was a good mom. Eli turning on his heels and walking out the door wasn’t supposed to happen. Why is this happening, God? The thought showed up in the darkness where I was grasping around, looking for a response. And into that darkness rushed the anger. This shit wasn’t supposed to happen to me!
Here I was, sure of my gift of discernment, and I hadn’t seen this coming. How could I still be in love with someone who didn’t want me? It made me feel tiny and crumpled and that made me angry. How could he do this to me? How could he hurt our family? What was I going to do?
I had been a good girl all my life. Where others found catharsis in tearing down walls, going for the red flesh of others, and throwing everything around them until their lives were torn to ribbons, I had long been taught to think of others, to speak softly, to be kind and nice.
I was getting a divorce against my will and I couldn’t even work up the fury to say, “fuck you.”
That came later. Screw you, world, I thought two days after Eli’s announcement as I executed another right turn in Washington traffic, narrowly avoiding an Audi with diplomatic plates. Divorces happened to other people, to couples who fell out of love or who cheated or who had never been in love enough to hold it all together in the first place. That wasn’t us. Eli still loved me and there was no one else. I had asked.
In 1994, the Vatican finally allowed girls to be altar servers and take part in mass. I had read about it in the newspaper over breakfast. At that stage in my life, I had been a daily communicant, had seen the boys in my class in their long white robes carrying the chalice of wine for the priest, ringing the brass bells as sleepy people in the pews shuffled from kneeling to standing to sitting.
The day I read that article, I’d called my church and left a message about becoming an altar server. It wasn’t even a question. I didn’t ask. I just told them the Vatican allowed it now and I was putting my name forward.
I thought it was going to be a simple thing, but as it turned out, Farther Carmel, who had come to our parish a few years before from Malta, refused to have altar girls serve with him.
I couldn’t believe it. At first, I was angry. How dare he discriminate? Then, I was genuinely confused. If the Vatican says it’s okay, how can a local priest say it isn’t? It was just one of the things about Catholicism that made no sense, the first tickle that would eventually lead me down my own spiritual path. Back then, whenever I asked a question no one could answer, I was told it was a “mystery” and I consigned Father Carmel and his reluctance to one of the mysteries of my faith.
But that doesn’t mean I gave up. I kept calling the church. “Hello, this is Jennifer Mellon. I wanted to follow up…”
Father Carmel never did let me serve with him. But when another priest filled in, I got my chance. I got to go behind the altar and past the wooden door. I was handed a robe that was as scratchy as my mom’s nurse’s uniform. I stood at the double-doors of the church with Kevin and George from my math class and with Father Wilson leading, I made my way down the aisle. The first female altar server in our parish, one of the first in the country.
At the altar I pushed Kevin with my hip to sit on the bench with the other servers. None of them looked at me. From that angle, slightly elevated, the congregation looked vast, all eyes on us. I could see the balcony above the church doors and the red-lined lobby where my parents and I entered for mass. That first day, I watched from my new perch as people came in late. They dipped the tips of their fingers into the font of holy water by the door, genuflected towards the altar, and made the sign of the cross before slipping into the last row.
That girl, there, on the bench by the altar, she made waves. Made history. She was the same person as this one, in heavy DC traffic. How could that same person be screwed over, cast aside? I had done everything right.
I can’t be getting a divorce, I thought in the quiet of our house as I got ready for Gymboree. The thought of being the only divorced person there filled me with dread. How would I get through the day? The thought of coming home and not seeing Eli, not being able to talk to him about my day felt like a hollow ache already, and he was still here. Eli had been my best friend since we were in college. What would happen with our group of friends? With the Gymboree crowd? How would we all fit together when I was the only one not coupled up?
Ever since Eli and I joined Gymboree, my phone had been lighting up with names. I’d come to rely on the group for adult conversations, lazy lunches, dates out with the kids. These people felt like my tribe. They got what it was like to hold a baby who wouldn’t stop crying for hours, what it was like to function on three hours of sleep a day. These people spoke my language. Rhonda, Kris, Megan, Becky, Joanne.
We called ourselves the Gymboreemamas and we set up meetings for those of us “in the trenches of motherhood,” as Kris put it. A mama’s weekend at a spa, brunch with the husbands on the weekend. We met for drinks without the kids.
“Whoooo, I needed this. Cheers!” Joanne was radiant as she hefted up a cocktail with a curl of lemon dangling over the side. We all laughed as she took a big gulp. We’d all been there after a hard week and she sang along to a song, called for another drink. Her husband Danny nodded and smiled, slowly sipping at his one glass of wine.
Joanne was the one the rest of us turned to like flowers towards the sun. She was the most fun out of our group, reminding us of “me” time when we fell too far down the rabbit hole of motherhood. She and Danny came to all the events and I admired her fun, carefree, slightly bad-girl vibe. She took shit from exactly no one and she was tough and scrappy, coming to this country with nothing to create a new life for herself. And I loved her British accent—every wisecrack seemed doubly funny when it came from her.
One day Joanne, Becky, Megan, and I were sitting outside in Rock Creek Park, enjoying the last faint bits of sunshine while the husbands unpacked plates of food and containers of drinks out of coolers. Becky’s son fussed on the ground beside us and we watched the water of the creek burble by.
“I wish it could always be like this.” Joanne stretched out like a content cat, and my ear caught the wistfulness in her voice. There was an edge of sadness. The drawn-out way she said “this” as though she could hold onto that moment with all her might.
“What do you mean?”
The lunch was ready and the conversation broke off as we headed over to help, but those words lingered. They were a small itch, somewhere in the back of my mind. That feeling grew when I noticed something else. The way Becky leaned into her husband when they played with their son juxtaposed with the way Joanne hopped out of the car and Danny trailed after her, Nolan in his arms.
When Joanne had her back surgery, the Gymboree moms were on it, texting back and forth. We needed to bring her some food, something easy for her to prepare when she got home. Does she have a babysitter lined up for when she’s recovering?
I was in charge of stopping by her house with the frozen meals we’d all pulled together and a copy of our schedules.
“We can help with Nolan whenever you need us to,” I told her, showing her the colored schedule where everyone had checked off their availability. I helped her load pans of lasagna and frozen cheese bread into the freezer, making sure each sticker was attached with tape.
The Gymboree crowd were all together at the hospital when Jordie, Danny and Joanne’s daughter was born. The moms crowded around Joanne, who was smiling and sipping on a glass of champagne. She was propped up on the bed, her hair brushed back and her smile in place. Even the green of the hospital gown couldn’t hide the healthy flush on her face, her fun personality was unfazed by her body having given birth.
It didn’t hurt that the room was beautiful. We stepped on polished wood floors and had plenty of room to spread out. I saw one of the brochures for the hospital on the bedside table and my eyes caught on the words “your baby stays with you as much as possible.” Becky eased back onto one of the modern leather sofas, running her hands over the ecru leather.
“Where’s Danny?” she asked.
“NICU, with Jordie,” Joanne told us, swirling the pale liquid in her flute. “They brought me lobster today—can you believe it?”
When Kris asked about the baby, Joanne waved her hand. “I’ll get to see the baby. Every day for eighteen years, at least!”
The nurse bustled in as we stood there talking. “Hello, hello. It’s time to pump!” The nurse was no-nonsense, checking the plastic white watch around her wrist.
“I can't believe this!” Joanne fumed after the nurse left. “Freaking Nazis these nurses. It’s just colostrum, barely anything is coming out. My milk hasn’t even come in yet, and they’re already pushing me.”
When I thought of the Gymboreemamas now, I cringed when I imagined what they might say to me, say my failure to stay married. I winced when imagining their well-meaning sympathy and pans of lasagna. I was not about to face them with my pending divorce. Not yet. I knew how they would react. When Joanne and Danny separated for six months out of the blue, everyone was full of sympathy and love and support. But I couldn’t stand to see the pity in their eyes. Not for me. I didn’t want their pity, and I didn’t deserve a divorce.
I knew, intellectually, that no one gets separated because they deserve it, but I had been so good, had tried so freaking hard. I’d been a good mom, a good wife, a good friend. My mind circled around and around: How can someone who is good and responsible just be dropped like that, out of the blue? It didn’t add up in my mind. And I knew that it had nothing to do with being good, yet I felt I had made some mistake or had screwed up somehow. Perfect marriages didn’t end, so where was the first thread of discontent Eli had felt? What had I done wrong? At night, I went over dinners cooked and dates out, looking for clues. I came up empty.
I still had to go out to lunch with the Gymboreemamas, so I zipped up my thick suit of denial, put on my best face, and soldiered on. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I hoped that the others would—that my make-up and favorite striped dress would fool them into believing I was still my former self.
“I think divorce is healthy,” Joanne told us apropos of nothing when we were seated in one of those cozy restaurants in old town Alexandria with wood benches and brick walls. That word—divorce—I spilled my coffee, a black stain on the white tablecloth.
“Sorry, Sorry,” I soaked up the spill with napkins, face glowing red. I couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes, sure the truth was all over my face. Please, Jesus, don’t let them find out.
“Danny and I are separating,” Joanne said, and it’s déjà vu. She had told us this before, had been separated from Danny before, and he had come back. I felt the weight of Eli’s words. Joanne was echoing them and my stomach lurched. I kept my face as neutral as I could but I was thinking I wanted to tear that word, separation, from the very fabric of the English language. I hid my shaking hands in my lap. And I listened, as though looking for clues in Joanne’s words.
As she shared about Danny dumping her over text, there was another shadow at the table. My secret would be so easy to blurt it out—“me too”—but the truth remained inside of me. Instead, I said, “That’s awful. How could he do that?” I found myself able to express all the support I actually needed but didn’t know how to accept for myself.
The next weeks were torture. Every day, I woke up in our queen-sized bed alone and listened for the sounds of Eli in the house. I pictured him sleeping in the guest room on the ground floor. I rose from bed, prayed for strength, and then focused on Caroline and Leah Claire. By the time I slunk downstairs, Eli was long-gone, his coffee cup in the sink. I put on my mask, one swipe of mascara and lip liner at a time, and sallied forth to work, then out to Gymboreemamas.
“He was hoping to come today, but there’s a big case…” Smile, smile, smile—toothy smiles and lies.
I listened, murmuring with compassion as Joanne talked about Danny, the dog. She complained about his selfishness, his callousness. I didn’t recognize the kind man I had gotten to know. The words piled up and with them all the chances I had to say, “I’m separated, too.” But I didn’t. I sat there with the secret inside me so big and tangible it felt like the whole world could see it flowing out from behind my eyes, could smell it leaking out from my pores.
At night, I lay awake, prayed, and dissected everything. Forensic divorce. I went in circles, the same feelings, the same questions. I felt my bed shift and shimmy as the vertigo returned and I closed my eyes and focused my attention on not throwing up.
Secrets are a funny thing. In those months that I didn’t tell anyone, my secret grew and grew. Seven little words from Eli mushroomed into something that consumed everything I felt and did. There was no succor. With Eli and I still living in the same house, it was easy enough to keep up appearances during the day. And as my migraines grew worse and the circles darkened under my eyes, well, I was a young mom and there was always concealer.
“It’s just…I’m thirty and I feel like I missed out on being in my twenties,” he said. “I think it was a mistake to get married.”
Eli was my confidante, so without anyone to talk to, I threw myself deeper into the business I had started with my father a few years earlier when I left Joint Council—Aqua Pure Technologies. My dad was a serial entrepreneur with a brilliant eye for timely ideas, and together we had worked to develop a business that replaced all those huge, wasteful plastic water jugs with compact filtration systems. At its inception, when Caroline was a baby, I had spent hours with her on my lap, creating letters, logos, marketing plans. Aqua Pure Technologies had been my safety net then and it was my safety net now, when I needed something to distract me from my bleak thoughts and muddled mind.
I had also started a children’s clothing business called Oh My Darling Designs with a friend. We commissioned and imported children’s clothes that were hand-made by women in developing nations. I was the business partner and my friend took care of designs. I felt a sense of purpose, helping women from disadvantaged communities set up businesses and helping moms get cute baby clothes.
When I wasn’t mothering or working, I found I had other blank spaces to fill. On long dinners out with friends, bottles of wine grew increasingly tempting. I wanted to blur the lines, to push away what I was feeling. I wanted to be numb. My wedding band and engagement ring were now a heavy lie, but there was no way I was going to take them off.
It was almost a relief to hear Joanne talk about the end of her marriage, to listen to her say all the things I couldn’t.
“What a bastard,” she told us. “He doesn’t care about me. He told me he’s moving out for good now. I’m having back surgery and he knows I’m having health problems and he’s out. He’s actually been away for months, didn’t even bother to come home to tell me.” We’d all nod our heads and agree with her—“Yes, Danny’s a jerk,” and “Yes, unbelievably awful,” and I’d look for myself in her story, trying to explain what had happened to me, to us, to my marriage, and what would happen in the future. I found that our similarities in how we related to our separations quickly diverged.
“But this is for the best, I’m actually happy about it. I know Danny’s going to take care of me forever,” she told us when we asked about her career plans. When Rhonda pointed out that she needed a plan B, Joanne mentioned all her years as an au pair. Being a nanny seemed like a possibility for her, but one she held onto lightly. She was confident that she wouldn’t have to work.
Busy, busy, busy. Every errand I ran was one extra minute away from the pressure of my own marriage. Why don’t I end this? Why don’t I tell everyone what’s happening and simply move on? Despite my best efforts to keep my life energized and moving, my life felt more and more like a punishment.
“Are you okay,” my friend Leah asked as I ordered a second glass of wine over dinner.
“Oh, yes, everything’s great!” Smile firmly in place, I didn’t let the corners slip, but the anger and sorrow kept eating its way in. Maybe if I buried my head deep enough, worked hard enough, looked normal enough to everyone else, this tempest wouldn’t break.
Eli had been living downstairs for nine months, and I was still in denial; no one knew. Not even my mother, who helped deliver our babies.
No one could know I'd failed.
I’m sitting with Jordie and Nolan in our living room, peaceful for once. My two-year-old is snuggled up to me, toddler babbling. Nolan is running his toy car up and down my legs. His eyes are on me, intent and watching every move. Observant, that kid. The possibility of a loving family of some type is in my grasp, the imaginary camera of my mind focusing in on the three of us. If someone walked by the open window, they would see pater familias, the perfect Americana family. We could be a fucking Norman Rockwell, if Normal Rockwell had a few pints in him.
Then I hear Joanne walking down the stairs, heavy clomp of pissed off British woman.
When I saw her yesterday she’d snarled, “Danny I need five hundred bucks,” as she was heading out for the night, wrangling her purse, getting shoes on.
“I just gave you five hundred bucks two days ago…?”
Wrong answer. I gave her the money, and she slammed the door and left.
It’s the first time I’ve seen her today. We’re separated but living in different rooms of the same house. Her eyes narrow as she takes in the picture of us.
She takes the last two stairs, zeroes in on us and fires:
“Nolan, you should know that Dad is leaving us. Abandoning our family. Mom and Dad are getting divorced."
In an instant, her words shift the way Nolan looks at me, at us, at our little world. Beside me on the couch, he starts to shake. He’s six now and knows those words—divorce, leaving; must know them the way a deer knows the smell of gunpowder.
“What? What are you—?” I stammer, tongue hijacked. “No! That’s not true—”
“Isn’t it?” She snaps.
Some instinctual part of Nolan gets the threat—that his world is flying apart, the picture shattering. He’s crying and looking at me and asking if it’s true and I’m pulling his frozen limbs towards me.
Daddy’s not going anywhere, I will always be here for you. Even if me and your mom break up, I will never, ever ever leave you. I promise Nolan. Do you hear me? I promise. I will always be here for you and your sister.
I hope he doesn’t know enough to be permanently scarred by this, forever damaged. I would do anything to spare him, would jump in front of the fucking bullet. I had been thinking how to tell him about the final chapter of his parent’s fuck-up, but now it is out in the open, the book slamming shut. My face is red. Jordie is the only one of us who is calm, still babbling. The bullet sails clear over her head, though I worry we’ll find a hidden wound when she gets older.
I’m overcome with rage and grief. I gather Jordie and Nolan into my arms and hold them close, as though I can shield them with my body. As though I can soak up every atom of love and send them the same.
“Joanne, we can talk about this later.” Veins pulsing. Reeling. Seething. Her, sneering at me.
Nolan is still trembling, but less now, like a fever breaking. I don’t believe in any fucker in the sky, but if I did, I would pray we’d get through this. I’d pray my children will still look at me with love, despite the ways I’ve messed up.
We argued over money and other stupid shit, but I think what Joanne really wanted was someone who would pay attention to her. In my more generous moments I’d say that like me, she wanted to be seen. She wanted someone to look at her with love and she wanted the shortcut to get there. Maybe she thought the right designer label and envious looks from strangers would pull her together again, I dunno. We all have weird ways of making ourselves matter. I understood that feeling—being left out and invisible, small enough to be stepped on.
But her whiplash tongue turned my empathy to dust.
She knew I didn’t look at her, or see her, anymore. Danny had officially checked out, left her stranded. I was moving out, turning the last page on a book no one should read. Whatever she and I were had evaporated, so she grabbed what she could still hold in her fist: my money, what little of it I had left. As it turned out, she also used my money to whip my heart, slap my face with hot pain.
“Daddy, can I have a bike?” Words from five-year-old Nolan. Then, before I can respond, “Mommy told me you’re a liar, daddy. You’re hiding money from her and that’s why we don’t have anything.”
What? But we have so much. What the fuck, Joanne?
“Daddy, I want a bike!” Innocent, unaware. And I don’t know whether to cry or to rage, tear apart everything with my hands or weep.
Because here’s the thing: I’m willing to walk on broken glass for my kids. I have a color-coded activities calendar so I can get them to after-school programs. I researched schools, went to open houses, found them the teachers they love. My office is filled with articles about child development, delayed development. Even when I crawl out of bed, rusty-headed from a bender, I pull it together, smooth away all wrinkles to talk to teachers, make sure everything’s good. I look at my kids and I see them. And then: “Daddy is a liar.” Jesus fucking Christ.
The picture of my perfect family of three plus one isn’t the only thing splintering.
I am neck-deep in running my second company, Speek. Something isn’t right—my partner is off, way off, but I’m not ready to fold. Not yet. I need to see if I can do it, can pull it off. Even when Speek’s technology clicks into place and money fills our coffers, I feel small, depleted. Speek is a definite step up from my first business, but it didn’t let me breathe. I feel choked, strangled, restricted. I notice the looks of employees, long side-eyes as I walk to my office after a bender and it was like being back in high school. The gossip and the whispers. All I need is the slam of lockers and the smell of gym socks.
Maybe in some twisted way I’ve come full circle, back to being surrounded by childish shits. After all, my first attempt at sticking my toe in the waters of entrepreneurship had been back in school in Centreville, Virginia. In ninth grade I started selling high-grade weed, mostly because the guys I admired did, too. It was an easy way to be the guy everyone wanted to talk to and invite to their parties. When I had baggies in my jacket or when I was the direct link to a jay, I wasn’t the dumb schmuck starving on carrots because Daddy told him to, and I wasn’t the weak sucker black and blue from a belt. Well, I was, under the jeans and shirts, but no one could see that. Not even me.
Shiny faced and eager, at parties and with girls laughing at my jokes, visible, not hidden—those were the first sweet hits of what business could do. Then there was the money, the freedom. It’s the basics, no matter what the sell is: establish a product, customers get to know what you sell, respond to demand, get paid. I was hooked. Forget about the product; it was the business side that got me every time.
I sold weed and smoked up, filling up my pink lungs even as I played sports. Loved baseball, was out there on the field. When I was thirteen, I pitched a no-hitter, standing on a small mound of dirt in a sea of green grass, cheers streaming in from the bleachers. The steady thwack, thwack of the ball not hitting metal or wood.
After the game, I was still in the post-adrenaline high, trailing grass stains and the smell of teenage sweat, when the coach came up to me, face shining like the stadium lights.
“Son, I’d like you to meet the Varsity Coach at DeMatha Catholic High School.”
Well, shit. Nice polo and khakis on this fucking dude. DeMatha was #1 or #2 every year for its sports program. I shook hands, taking in the guy who was looking me over the way someone looks at a racing horse.
I was in Washington, DC playing baseball before I knew it. Full ride to DeMatha—how many jocks dream of that? DeMatha was the smell of buses carrying us up and down the East Coast to play big, rich teams. These were teams with money and experts behind them. This was serious play, the best in the world. And I was, somehow, along for the ride. We won the Conference Championship that first year I played with the team. We won it every fucking year I played on that team.
It wasn’t easy. Up at 5:00 am every day for the 40 mile commute from Centreville, VA to Hyattsville, MD. Manassas train to Union Station and then through the stiles on the Metro to PG Plaza. A mile walk after that on cold mornings, hot-ass mornings, grey mornings to classes. The school took care of me in some ways. Tough-as-nails coaching legend Charlie Sullivan watching my every move from the field, my classes customized so I could be on the field by two each day, working, working, working. And a few months into that crazy ass commute a local family offered to take me in and that was that—I spent the weeks with a rich faux-foster family and got away from the shitstorm at my parents’ house.
Behind the scenes, I had brought over some of my entrepreneurial spirit from Centreville. By the time I was in my senior year of grey pants and blazers, like the cover of some fancy-ass boarding school pamphlet, I was selling weed and coke, too. Customers demanded. I responded.
Most businesses have a sell-by date, an optimal exit strategy. For drug dealers that deadline often arrives with a bodybag. One kid I grew up with ended up shot to death in the middle of the street. Everyone said it was the cartel. Another one killed somebody over a debt and he got life in jail. One turned informer and almost got me busted in a raid. Couldn’t believe it: school saved my ass. I had an exam the next day, so I left the party early and the next day, there it was in newsprint—a big drug raid with cops and dogs and yelling.
There came a time someone owed me money long enough that I knew I’d have to break his knees to stay in business, reputation fucking matters and all.
But I couldn’t do it. Wasn’t a part of any business I wanted to build.
I stopped selling. I enrolled in college and studied computer science. Only problem is that it takes a lot of cash to go to college. It’s not just the tuition that’ll fuck you over, but also the food, room, books, everything. I studied, tried to survive on one meal a day, but in the end I couldn’t make it work. The money I had was pouring out through my fingers and soon there’d be nothing left. I dropped out and started working as a coder for Network Solutions and MusicMaker.com. And in the back of my mind, among all those characters flashing behind my lids, was the dream of my own company. I still had some cash from the drugs and I was ready to invest. I wanted to be the real fucking thing. I wanted people to see what I could see in myself on the good days: a man with pretty good ideas and the cash and guts to make it happen.
There’s only one thing about cash in business: it comes and goes even faster than it does in real life. I had a business idea that led me all the way to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Stepping off the plane as a dumb white 20-year-old I could feel the heat on my skin like a lick and all around me were faces not like mine, refugees hanging off the fences at the airport, a crush of people everywhere the eye could see. Welcome to the land of fucking opportunity.
Jaxara, my first business, mostly set in Dhaka, was simple. I did product development for a company in the US, setting up my own development centers overseas, training engineers in Bangladesh and other countries to do the work.
Only one thing: setting up centers overseas, even in places where the US greenback trades high, takes a lot of cash, and the well dried up. But what I did have was a kidney, safe and bloody in the bank, and hopefully not too fucked up from my recreational activities. I decided to sell it on eBay, easy supply in a world of demand. Should have read the fine print.
“Mr. Boice? We’d like to talk to you about your online auction listing.” Police got involved. Can’t sell organs on eBay, no matter how honestly you come by them. I didn’t even get a chance to make a fucking sale. What I did get was an email from eBay: “Unfortunately, due to. . .” I was kicked off the site and it’s not like I could hawk my spare parts on corners of the street. Joke’s on me, though. I found out years later that I only have one kidney.
There are plenty of people who are willing to meet you in back alleys when you are desperate and crazy and need money fast. I got in touch with an old contact who got me in touch with guys offering “loans.” I heard the accents, saw the tattoos and thought “cartel.” Still, money’s money. I only came to my senses when they shoved papers in my face.
“Life insurance,” the short guy with the bum knee told me, smelling of gin at nine in the morning and scratching at a scarred patch of pale pink skin above his collar. “You. Sign. We’ll tell you who’s da beneficiary.”
Having to sign off life insurance to get a loan was pretty clearly a set up, even to a jackass like me. I stumbled away from the deal, prayed I didn’t hear any more weird accents on my phone. I don’t believe in any creatures in the sky, but something up there maybe likes me because they stopped calling.
I did get Jaxara started with some hustle and some sleepless nights worrying about my empty bank account. And yet. Flying back and forth, the plane kissing tarmac, each time I thought I should be doing something, dreaming bigger when it came to companies.
Jaxara sold by the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, and there was a lot of excitement in the air. It was a gold rush in tech, with companies erupting on the scene and getting washed out just as fast. Within a few years I was onto the next adventure and me and a cofounder started Speek in 2012. I was the idea guy, spending hours coming up with ways for companies to make conference calls without fucking around with PINs. I solved the technical problems, figured out what guys in suits wanted when they made calls. I sorted out bugs, found the bugs behind the bugs and fixed them. I swam in code, lines of it peeling away from my computer and lighting up my face at two in the morning.
Part of me—the black and blue part, the guy who ate carrots because his dad made him—wasn’t sure I could make it all the way to the top. But I thought my partner in the business—hot shot who told me about Silicon Valley and some big company he founded—looked like an asshole in the know.
Things were good at first. I thought we were complementary in our skill sets. But soon enough. I’d hear the same fucking tone of my entire youth in our meetings.
“So nice of you to join us, Danny.”
“Some of us have meetings, Danny.”
We were a communications company but somehow I was locked out of all the conversations in our organization. I wasn’t being told about meetings. Decisions were made without me. I stopped being able to recognize half the stuffed suits at board meetings and couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t make the most basic fucking decisions.
Truth is we were running a business but we barely knew each other. It was like that then, in the gold rush of those tech frenzy days; shotgun weddings where partners would set up shop, hoping to make it work. There was cash to be made and a world to change, and who cared if you got along with this guy in a suit along for the ride? Danny from Centreville wanted to look down the highway and figure out the tricky stuff and bulldoze the hard shit. But that’s not what my business partner was focused on. And that past Danny was blind. Blind to the shitty investors brought in, blind to the way he was shuffled off to become “president” by title only. Blind Danny was so focused on tackling something on the run that he didn’t see his inner circle giving away the company piece by piece. Somehow I was suddenly no longer the CTO but the guy in charge of selling. What the fuck?
So many things are coming to an end. Now Joanne has told the kids the marriage is over, and now Speek has been in business two years and I know it’s coming time to get out there too. But I can’t yet see a way forward. I see I’m losing my voice and that no one’s looking at me in meetings. I’m the great invisible man at Speek. At the same time, I feel everyone is fucking looking at me. And everyone who is looking at me sees everything that’s not me.
I’ve never claimed to be an angel, so I do what I do best until I know what to do: I give them all the middle finger, figuratively and literally. I get my own any way I can. When my partner leaves me in front of a crowd during the TechCocktail Pitch Jam, everyone’s looking at me and there’s no reins on this baby. I point to the Speek monkey logo on my green t-shirt and look out past the bright lights.
“My partner left me here so he could have dinner with the mayor. But before he left, he made a promise. He promised that if we win this pitch contest, he’s going to get this monkey tattooed on his ass tomorrow in Austin. So let’s make this happen.”
It’s a glorious moment when a picture of his pink ass cheek, complete with monkey, runs in the Wall Street Journal. He’s pissed, but what can he say? We won the contest and on the surface I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing: I’m marketing.
But as the company continues to grind on, I’m not just giving the finger to him and his board members. I’m looking at myself in the mirror and giving that one-finger salute to me. There’s tequila in Austin, bourbon on the plane, Molly in hotel rooms I can’t remember. Strippers and women and orgies, and waking up in sweat-covered sheets, crawling sideways to the bathroom to barf my green guts out. In every bathroom on every morning, there are shadowy figures on the tiles and I lose the tether of what’s there and what’s not. Is the man with the knife in my memory from last night or something I dream up on a mix of pills? My partner has a monkey on his ass, but I’m the ape in the monkey suit. Fractured and falling apart. Good old Danny, you can’t change the image in the picture.
One bright spot: Gymboree is still there for me and my kids. Jen has worked some magic and they don’t all hate me somehow. Something about two sides to every story. When I show up, clean and pressed Danny, showered, the crew looks like they’re happy to see me. They don’t see the Molly or the blow or the messes like minefields everywhere. They’re not looking close.
“Danny, have a seat,” Jen tells me when all of us meet for lunch. It’s a relief to talk about normal stuff. Kids and preschool and life and work. Jen is working on her own companies, knows the grind. She talks, I listen. I talk, she listens. It’s that simple, and I’m heard. I’m held, somehow.
It’s nice to have some normal friends. We’re at another restaurant, late night this time, no kids. Everyone’s been drinking. We’re talking shop, talking Gymboree and I’m heading back to our table from the bathroom, walking in between the wooden tables covered in beer steins and wine glasses. I round the corner, and see Jen walking towards me, wearing a navy blue dress. The soft lighting makes her look radiant as she smiles at me.
She slows down as she gets closer, pauses. I stop walking. I have no idea what’s happening. She looks at me and I feel split open, visible down to my sternum. I think she must see my heart beating because she looks at me like no one else does. It makes me stop dead in my tracks and she gets closer and closer, her face moving towards mine. I can smell her perfume and shampoo and the clean of her skin. She walks up and presses her hands on my chest and lifts on her tiptoes and her lips are on mine for only a second, a soft press of humanness and connection, something I have been looking for my whole life and will spend the rest of my life chasing.
She looks back at me, and walks on by.
Letting the Good Girl Go
Believe me: I had never done anything so crazy in my life. Jen-the-Good-Girl would have never in a million years considered this, but here I was in my bedroom, putting on a little black dress, good earrings, a dab of cold perfume behind each ear. I ran my hands over my hair and walked down the stairs slowly.
“You look great,” Eli told me from his perch in the living room, where we was reading some briefings. “I’m glad this is happening.”
I nodded my thanks, my knees slightly locking on the last step of our staircase from a mixture of nerves and excitement. Then, out into the cool night, waving at our neighbor’s car as it roared past and into the cocoon of my own sedan. I put my hands on the wheel.
“You can do this.”
I, Jen Mellon, was leaving the man I was technically still married to, to go meet Danny in a hotel room. Like some sketchy girl. And the crazy thing is that I had my husband’s blessing to go. I hadn’t had sex with Eli until our wedding night and now…well…
I almost turned around a half-dozen times. There were two Jens in the car, and there was one too many at the steering wheel. One was the good girl in a straitjacket and she was hopping mad: How could you do this? He’s still married, too. You have been an absolute mess. What would your friends think if they saw you now, heading to a hotel to meet him? What kind of person would drive to go hook up with a man you don’t even know if you’re in a relationship with, or if he’s even available for a relationship? You have the gift of discernment. God spoke to YOU and this is what you’re doing with the word of God?
That reedy judgmental voice had been in my head my whole life. The other Jen in the car was scarier in some ways, because she was new to me, but also more alive. She burned with hunger. You know Danny. He’s not like that and you’re not like that. He and Joanne haven’t lived together for months—she told Danny she didn’t care who he dated, even if it was you. You and Eli have been separated for a year, the divorce is almost finalized. You can’t live your whole life like a nun. God is Love. He understands this. You’re not doing anything wrong by caring for someone, by caring for yourself.
I remembered something in the dark behind my steering wheel, too: the kiss with Danny in the restaurant. That was where this other Jen was born. I hadn’t planned on touching him at all. One minute I was walking by him and noticed the slump in his shoulders, like gravity was paying him more attention that day. That had seemed wrong—Danny was always so alive. I wanted to tell him that everything would be all right, that whatever was troubling him would find resolution. And somehow in that instant our lips met for a fraction of a second, a blink of time. And then I walked on, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
The next morning brought all the recriminations. My God, I had too much to drink last night. I was an idiot. On the one hand, the kiss made no sense. Danny was separated from Joanne and dating Kaitlyn. In fact, he and Kaitlyn were flying out to Vegas. I was living in separate bedrooms with Eli, but no one in our circle knew. I took that kiss and how natural it felt, packed it in a box, placed it high on a shelf in the closet, locked the closet door, filled the room with concrete, slammed the door behind me and bolted it shut. I was not that kind of person, I reassured myself firmly.
But now I was consumed with feelings and questions I hadn’t felt since before college, since before hearing God’s voice. I knew God loved me, no matter what. My new faith made me sure of that. Yet my old faith was still a part of me, too, and it carried with it a seed of doubt. Would I still be a follower if I let myself be with Danny? Should I work to convince Eli, somehow, that we had to make it work to make things right with God? Did God want me to sacrifice my desire for Danny? To shut down an essential part of myself to keep a promise I made before His eternal being?
The thing is, I knew better. I knew God was full of goodness and wanted all of us to be genuinely happy. I knew he did not judge me as harshly as I judged myself. And still there was that picture of what a godly person was—righteous, making no missteps, perfect. I would have to put down the burden of that image to move forward, not just with Danny, but with my divorce. All these years after starting on my path to God, I had to recommit to my faith and fully embrace that God loved me just as I was.
I also needed God’s help in reconciling my dedication to sisterhood and my dedication to truth and fairness.
“What kind of man breaks up via text?” Joanne had asked the Gymboree crew on one of our girls’ outings, long before Danny and I had any romantic connection. She brought along a friend, Jess, to brunch and together they laughed about Danny. His quirks and failings. Stuff only a wife would know. It made me squirm, and I watched the rest of the crew all exchanging glances. Becky caught my eye. Help, she mouthed. At least we were all uncomfortable together.
“More drinks?” I broke into the tirade, hoping to redirect the conversation.
Joanne held up her drink and she and Jess kept laughing.
“How are the kids?” I tried again.
We had run the gamut of supporting Joanne through her first and now final separation from Danny. During the first, we had closed him out, refused to betray her.
“How’s your back these days, anyway?” I was casting around for any way to dismember this conversation. There were things I didn’t want to hear about Danny, or anyone for that matter, and Joanne’s words, even if they came from a place of hurt, felt cruel. I felt as though I were listening in on a private conversation.
We’d heard it all several times over the period of their multiple separations: “Danny is a dog. He partied all night in Vegas with women, didn’t call to check in on the kids, and charged tens of thousands to the Speek credit card.” In the next minute she’d tell us “Oh, he has never even been with anyone through our separation.” None of us knew what to say, what words to pull up. We had all seen pictures on Danny’s social media—we knew he was dating and had been. We thought we had known them both so well, but now something felt weird, and Danny had completely disappeared from our group. All we heard now were Joanne’s words, Joanne’s accusations.
She told us that Danny left her with nothing when he first moved out; he even took his name off the utilities. “He only left me with $500,” she told us. She could barely afford the electricity bill.
Then he was calling her, drunk, telling her she should buy different, better, clothes for the kids.
“He wants me to always be at their beck and call, too,” she told us. “He said, ‘that’s what mothers do.’ He acts like I can’t be spending time on me.”
He sounded like a dog, alright. Worse: he sounded nothing like the kind, happy Danny we had always known. Since when did Danny even care about fashion for kids? And why would he leave his kids to suffer without electricity? I could imagine the hurt Joanne was going through, especially with the heartache with Eli so fresh, and yet…
“So you’re saying he didn’t help you at all when you had your back surgery?” I asked Joanne. “That does sound terrible.”
On Joanne’s social media feed, I noticed the digs. It was impossible not to see the comments she and others made about absentee, drunk dads and cruel husbands. And so there were two Dannys in my mind: the laughing man who scooped up Nolan or helped my Leah Claire up when she started to topple, and the man Joanne was describing, who was some dark shadow stranger to the man I knew. I couldn’t believe that all the times I had talked to him about business, our kids, our hopes for the future I had seen no part of this dog she referred to.
Those competing images of Danny stayed in my head for months, until I went to a housewarming party. I dropped off a box in silver wrapping paper on the table and went off in search of refreshments, saying hello to people I knew, and suddenly I spotted a familiar tattooed arm.
“Hi!” Same Danny, same smile, all warmth.
“Hello. How are you?” I tried to match his warm tone, and then stopped. What would I say? I thought back to the picture of Joanne and her friend, laughing over how they stalked Danny’s past girlfriends online.
“How is Caroline? Eli? Leah Claire?” He drifted a little closer, ready to listen, and the specter of shady Danny fell away. The two Danny’s had met and in an instant, he felt safe to me.
“Great! Caroline’s getting so big and….”
Like always, the conversation flowed, the usual banter. Around us, the house was warmed by groups of people drifting in and out, but on our island, we caught up on work and kids. It was lovely like always—he asked about my businesses with the sweet curiosity I had come to know, and was witty and dry when talking about the rough patch he was going through with Speek. He was so present with me, I loved our time together.
Later that night, I saw a notification for another social media post from Joanne, but I flipped my phone over and ignored it. Joanne silently slipped away, never appearing at our Gymboree group again, and together with the others I exhaled a collective breath, admitting to myself for the first time how awkward it was to hear one of our friends constantly berating another. My heart broke for her pain and the pain I knew of divorce, but I was also grateful for an end to the constant airing of dirty laundry.
We were free to spend time with Danny again, to have brunch with him, to feel the vibration from his big laugh. He rarely mentioned Joanne, always showed us pics of the kids on his phone, and seemed to be living his life as best he could. We contacted him, invited him out.
He continued to challenge me. “Jen, you still believe in that big guy in the sky? Well, how do you explain…”
He continued telling his business stories. “And then in the office, there was this sudden hush, so I stood up and…”
Laughter and happiness again with our group of friends and our usual repartee over religion, God, business, life.
Then Danny asked me over to dinner once, casually, weeks after he and Kaitlyn had broken up.
“Hey, drop by, I’ll cook,” he said. An affable dinner between friends. I didn’t think anything of it. I went over, he cooked. We talked. I had a glass of wine, he drank water. Nothing happened. I was home in bed by 10:30pm. But we kept texting and talking and two months later we were messaging flirty notes. Thinking of you. XXO. I was a teenager all over again, the fun girl, giddy and happy to have a new friend.
Would this lead anywhere? I wasn’t sure. Part of me was ready to dip a toe into dating again, but a big part of me imagined our connection as a blossoming friendship. What was Danny thinking about this, about us? I had no idea. We were both too busy adjusting to part-time single parenting and work to see each other. It was a thoroughly modern text-heavy romance. I noticed I had two new Danny versions living in my heart: my good, familiar friend and a man I found sexy and fun and was attracted to. Not that I was quite ready to admit to that.
“Want to go out for dinner again?” Danny texted me one night. I agreed and in a series of one-line messages we arranged to meet at a restaurant in a hotel that was halfway between where we both lived .
“Do you want to…?’
“Why don’t we…?
Laughter and “you first, you first” and then I took a deep breath as I held my phone close. I had never done anything remotely like this before, but I had already asked Eli about it, and I had made up my mind—almost. I texted, “Do you want to maybe grab some wine, a bottle or two, and get a room at the Westin?”
A break in what had been a rapid cadence of texting. And then he said, “Um…Are you kidding or serious? Is this a trick question?”
Danny and I hadn’t touched or had a romantic moment together since I had laid that quick peck on him at the restaurant almost five months before.
“I’m actually pretty serious,” I responded.
And then I was in the car, two wine bottles riding shotgun, and pulling into the rounded drive of the Westin. Danny was already there, eyes scanning everywhere like some undercover guy. His shoulders unrolled when he saw me, and he walked up, bouncing on his toes.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
“I know. Is this crazy? It is, isn’t it?”
We stood there and looked at each other for a few beats and suddenly knew we’d skip the restaurant. Right up to the room we went, with its open floors and a big window looking out over parks and people. All my fears about Good Girls and Sketchy Girls flew out that window the minute Danny and I started laughing and talking about how out of character this all was. The night unspooled in fun and laughs, nods, smiles, and eye contact.
What else did I remember of that night? The night sky in the window, sparkling with lights and my shirt thrown over the upholstered chair. I remember the look in Danny’s eyes—the hungry and captivated look I had not seen in a man in so long. I remember the warm smell of him and how surprisingly soft his skin was under the ink of his tattoos. There was the sweetness of wine on my tongue and the comforting taste of kisses. I had gone from being the woman Eli didn’t want to someone Danny desired. I wanted to drink in his view of me. I wanted to wrap myself up in the way he saw me.
“You’re so good,” Danny told me.
“Well, I’m here with you, in a hotel room. So not that good.”
He wasn’t having any of it. “No, I mean that literally. I haven’t met anyone so caring and sweet. I keep thinking I’m on candid camera. You’re always looking out for everyone else.”
And for once, I was willing to put my Good Girl aside, along with any lingering doubts about what everyone at church might think, and allow someone who wasn’t my husband to care for me.
We made love with an intensity that was brand new and a million years old all at once. His eyes met mine. My fingers, his. For me, it was a warm touch on my hurting heart and a calming hand on a mind that had been spinning out of control for months. I could breathe with this man.
I drove home on air, not in a sedan. All was right with the world.
Danny and I continued to text, continued to meet in hotel rooms. Eli was still living with me, Danny had a roommate in his apartment, and there was no other good place to meet.
“You know that first night, I thought I was being set up?” Danny told me. “I thought you were there to lure me into a trap, that you were somehow working with Joanne to use this against me in the divorce proceedings.”
It was crazy to me that despite how connected we were, he still felt I might betray him. I couldn’t imagine the broken place he had to have come from, if he doubted this. I missed the signs—the titanic struggle in Danny that was lurking just under the surface.
My phone rang one day as I was putting Caroline down for a nap. “Why don’t you come to South by Southwest with me,” he said. “I am speaking there.”
Aaaand the Good Girl was back. How could you even consider going away with this man? What are you thinking?
Her voice was so insistent this time, I talked to my parents. “Go to South by Southwest with him! Why not? It sounds great! Danny is so good for you. We’ll take care of the kids. We love you—send pictures!” My parents were so happy to see me taking steps towards letting Eli go after over a year of separation.
This time, instead of driving and sitting in a seat of worry and excitement, I was headed towards the tarmac of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on a spring day, two Jens in my head and my fingertips drumming on the armrest. What exactly am I doing? I’ve set up two businesses, and now Joint Council on International Children’s Services has asked me back—am I still a good fit? Can I see that forensic accounting effort through? The organization needs me—should I switch careers again? What about Danny? We’re just dating. Is there anything here? Life seemed full of possibilities and contradictions. I could set down my previous identity and create something completely new, completely whole, while that unstructured blank slate also unnerved me.
“I can hear you thinking from over here. You’re not scared of flying, are you?” Danny put his hand over mine and I stilled.
“Nope, it takes more than this to scare me.”
His grin turned up a level. “Duly noted. Challenge accepted.”
Austin in the spring at South by Southwest smelled of food trucks, brisket sticky on fingers, college kids walking by with wacky t-shirts. Danny and I stood side by side outside, crushed by the crowd as we took in music, the whole field moving to the bass.
The weekend was romantic and fun and the fast pace of events didn’t take away from the quiet conversations Danny and I had in our room or the gentle way he took my hand. When I was checking texts or worrying about business, he smiled and pulled me away. I followed, and somehow I was able to let go. By the second day, my cell was neglected in my bag as I breathed deep and looked people in the eye again. Danny helped me slow down.
I watched Danny walk back to our spot with drinks in his hands. I could see his event bracelet and the way he stepped around people so he didn’t bump into anyone. I love him, I realized. I captured the word love and held it in my hand. My love for him was not the lighting strike, God speaking in a room of guitar music, but it felt like a familiar journey, right and whole, like something that had grown up thriving and strong.
Somewhere above the Texas sky, Good Girl Jen and Fun Jen silenced their voices. I was on God’s path and I didn’t need the push and pull anymore. I, Jen Mellon, was in love with Danny, and we were together. No explanations, recriminations, or hesitations needed. I was home.
Kicking and Screaming to Grace
I’m sweating all over the phone’s receiver as I run through the checklist: “Do you have any little people strippers? What about gingers? Do you have a little person who’s a ginger and trans? Who can strip? Do you know any agency that does?”
My chair sticking to my back in patches. I smell like bourbon and I’m flipping through scrawled notes on my home office desk. Paper everywhere, corpses of trees, numbersnumbers.
The 2014 calendar on my desktop has next Friday circled in red. My last day to cast a proxy vote at Speek and I need a stripper by then to cast that vote for me. It’s the closest I can come to giving them a “fuck you” and shitting on their desk. The question is: can I get a stripper out there who’s wild enough to make the whole board piss their pants?
The bigger question (and the one I really should be asking): What the fuck am I doing? My cell phone is beside my elbow and the latest text exchange with Jen is on it. I look at the smiling face she sent last and despite the cynical fucker attitude, this tattooed jackass sweating his ass off at work is royally screwed. I’m pretty sure I’m in love.
Love. Love. The stuff of gooey romance novels and melted cheap chocolates. I’m not ready for this shit, but I want Jen more than anything I have ever remembered wanting. Good, clean Jen with her smiles and her kind touch. Will I dirty her up? Drag her down?
My thoughts are of the hotel room that night. Laughter and the connection I had been searching for for years. She looked at me and saw me and I looked at her and saw her. Is this what love is? Is this what I have been fucking missing? I didn’t drink that night, didn’t want my senses to miss a single scent or feeling. How didn’t I drink that night??? Since then, my phone only buzzes Jen, Jen, Jen. Everyone else I’ve dated or slept with fades into background characters, extras in the movie of my life, and my thoughts focus on one smile.
Stay away, stay away. Come back. What the hell does she see in me?
My phone is dialing in for little people strippers, tranny strippers. Need to make my proxy vote. Got to send the strippers, show all the fuckers at Speek what I think of them. The ultimate middle finger in one little person package. My glass is empty again. Whoops.
It’s Andy who saves me. Andy Powers, who runs companies and speaks reason to me. “I know you’re pissed, Danny. I get it. But strippers? You’re close to selling, to getting out of there.”
He’s asking me to be the bigger man. I feel small small but I respect Andy. I don’t want to blow everything up. Not now that I’ve found Jen. The list of agencies offering strippers is on my desk, the bottom torn from where I scribbled too hard. There’s a coffee stain on the corner. I hang up the phone, crumple up the list.
Speek is lined up to sell by the end of 2014 and the board I loathe never sees the stripper. They don’t see much of me, either. I sit in my home office seething with rage. Everything that Speek is exists because I worked on the code, came up with idea to make business calls easier. And here I am, face pressed against the glass, looking in. Shoved aside to marketing.
It’s a relief when it’s over and the company’s gone. I never have to deal with these guys again. I breathe.
The end of Speek and the flirty texts with Jen, not to mention our conversations in hotel rooms all over Washington, DC don’t prepare me for the shitstorm brewing. 2014 is a banner fucking year. I get a sense of the breeze before the hurricane when I’m sitting at my laptop in my home office, bourbon in hand. I’m scrolling, scrolling through Facebook. Endless pictures of lives, like looking in on lit-up windows peeking into people’s houses. I don’t want to see this shit. I hear about what Joanne has been posting. I get the awkward instant messages: “Did you know about this?”
Before the court of social media and memes I stand accused by my wife of being a shitty husband, of cheating, of not giving my wife enough cash, of ignoring her, of being a bad dad. The bottle crashes to the floor when I sweep it off my desk. It weeps bourbon tears all over hardwood. I admit, your honors, to being a shit husband and a fucked-up human being at times. I also admit to having twisted myself to be a good dad, to get my kids into good schools, to stock the fridge, to fill their closets with clothes that fit them, to love them. I have dragged my worn-down carcass home after a long day at work to make supper, pick up groceries, read to them.
The next day’s morning sky is red with hangover recrimination. I stumble from the lonely guest bedroom at my friend’s apartment and answer Jen’s latest text: “Thinking of you. Another morning above ground. XX”
I head over to Joanne’s house, my old house, to get the kids to take them to school. Joanne is downstairs getting coffee and the kids are not up yet. I jump on the moment, tell her I know about the shitty things she’s been posting. “Hey, look. I get it. We probably should have never gotten married. But could you knock it the fuck off?”
Death stares from her.
“We’ve been separated for months now, can you sign the divorce paperwork already? We need to make it official.”
This marriage started with a big ring and a romantic gesture. Words, words, I do. And it is ending the same way. Words, words, I don’t.
Joanne has stilled, hands above the black coffee mug on the counter. She nods. “Fine with me.”
Civil. Calm. Adults.
Two months later, I’m sitting in a coffee shop. Jen is with me, and so are Nolan and Jordie. We’re sitting by the window and Jen is asking them about swimming.
“Do you like swimming? How fast can you go?”
They’re laughing, sipping at their juice, turning towards Jen’s smiles like dandelions growing from a crack in the pavement, wrenching their way towards the sun. I know the feeling.
“I found some more information about that school,” Jen tells me. She takes a big sip of her coffee, tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear and slides a brochure over. “I talked to the administrator and I think they may have a spot, if you act fast.”
I show the brochure to Jordie. Green grass. Smiling kids. The school is top rated. Jen found it and it’s got a great track record for helping kids with developmental delays get personal attention and support. While Jordie plays with the brochure and Jen asks her whether she’s excited for preschool, I type a note to myself to call that day.
By the time I get the kids home, war has been declared. Joanne greets me, Jordie, and Nolan at the door but she hones right in on me.
“Where have you been?” He voice is low and dangerous. I usher Jordie and Nolan inside, set them up playing, put a door between them, us.
“What do you mean? I picked them up from swimming and then went to get coffee.”
“With Jen? On a date?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. “You know I’ve been out with Jen. I told you.”
“I knew it! I knew you were cheating on me!” Joanne crosses her arms and stares at me with pure hatred.
“Wha— What the fuck are you talking about? We’re getting a divorce. We’ve been separated for months. I’ve been dating. You’ve been dating, for fuck’s sake.”
“Everyone’s going to know what a shit you are.”
I walk away to the sound of her ranting. It doesn’t matter. The door is solid enough that Nolan and Jordie can’t hear and that’s all I care about.
“Don’t you dare fuck with me Danny,” she yells after me. “I am going to take the kids and move back to England and you will never see them again.” She lowers her voice. “You know I fucking will.”
The blood freezes in my veins. I turn around and make an offer for alimony and child support. I’m clear: “I want time with my kids. I want a say in where they go to school. I want them to have the best, no matter what mistakes their parents made.”
Now I’m telling the story to Jen, who agrees with me, places her hand over mine.
“I’m sure Joanne will be reasonable. That’s far more money than the state would mandate.”
I drop a kiss on top of her head. My breath is minty-fresh, the bourbon bottle in my drawer long dry. I don’t want Jen to see the way my hands shake without it. I don’t want her to smell it on me, the loss like a sour stench. I want her to keep looking at me like this for the rest of our lives.
I get the letter from Joanne’s attorney two weeks later. I take a look at the zeroes after the numbers. “Fuck.”
I don’t have the cash for lawyers, but I call one up. Already the money I am offering and the legal fees feel like ransom. I’ll pay anything, do anything to see my kids, to make sure they’re all right. My mind casts back to the moments after our first separation, when Jordie stopped talking and Nolan regressed, talking in words rather than sentences. I pour another drink.
“She’s out for blood,” my attorney told me. $200 an hour voice, wood paneled office, the wet dream of law school grads everywhere. “She wants more money. Full custody. Legal and fiscal. Kids to remain in Loudoun County. Monetary compensation.”
My attorney rereads the letter, idly running a pencil along the top of the page as he thinks. “The ridiculous thing is that you offered her way too much on the first go. Way more than you legally needed to.”
“Just make sure I get to see the kids, and make sure she doesn’t get away with these lies about me supposedly hiding money from her.”
I keep taking calls from the attorney, handing over the paperwork he wants. Then he calls me with more news. “Joanne has retained the services of a new attorney. They’re actively pursuing.”
Jen is sitting with me in a café and she puts down her latte, looks at the phone where my lawyer has sent the details.
“That’s an expensive lawyer,” she says quietly. “One of the best.” Neither one of us ask the obvious question: Where is Joanne getting this kind of money?
Around this time, I reached out to my mom. I had never been a mama’s boy, but I figured the kids needed any support they could get. So texts, emails, phone calls.
“We haven’t had the best relationship, but I’d really love to.” I swallowed all those memories of the Ice Queen, Megmom. Her grandkids needed her.
She didn’t say yes, but she answered my emails. It was the first time we had spoken since I had asked her to leave during my separation from Joanne. Was I expecting warmth, for her to suddenly become the loving mom I had been looking for all my life? I might as well have looked for the answer to life’s problems in a line of blow.
There were no tears of joy, hugs, declarations of love, but we did have talks. “I hope it will be the start of a reconciliation,” I told Jen.
I asked my mother for her opinion about schools for Jordie and Nolan. Talked about how exciting it was to find the right schools.
Then the email. Jen was there in my house and she saw the email come in from my mom. I opened it up, expecting a comment about the special programs at the latest school I had been considering. Instead, I saw a screen capture from her phone.
She writes, “What do you think? Do you think he wrote this? Do you think Jen wrote this?”
It was clear it wasn’t intended for me. It’s clear she is forwarding my emails to Joanne, and that the two of them are working against me. My own mother.
I dropped into the big chair in the living room. Jen noticed. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
Wordlessly, I handed her the phone. Her brows moved together as she scrolled. “Who has she been sending—? You don’t think—??”
Both of us were thinking it, but neither of us said it. Instead, I called my mother.
Megmom answered. She didn’t flinch when I asked her outright if she had been talking to Joanne. “Yes, I think the way you’re handling this is terrible. She needs support, Danny.”
Dante is wrong. Divorce is hell, not some rings under the ground. I would take on all nine circles and the devil frozen in the center to avoid having to live that year. In Virginia, divorces take a long time and at a time when I couldn’t afford it, I spent $100,000 in legal fees after Joanne sued me for full custody. There was a lot of driving in there. Driving back and forth to lawyers, courts, to see the kids from my house in Arlington to the rented house Joanne had in Loudoun County.
The new guy Joanne was dating was around all the time. He’d nod when I dropped the kids off or picked them up. Grey t-shirt, beard, beer always in hand.
“Is he nice, Jordie?” I asked. I didn’t want the details, but he was around the kids all the time. I wasn’t reassured by Jordie’s shrug. So I looked him up. Google had images, articles. Arrests. Mug shots.
Then, I heard from a friend. “I shouldn’t say anything, but did you know Joanne has been picking up the kids after going to a bar?”
There are thousands of laws against drunk driving, dozens of campaigns. MADD. And my kids were being driven around by someone under the influence and I couldn’t do anything.
“What do you mean I can’t fucking do anything?” I yelled at my lawyer.
I drove by the house, checking to see if they were home. I drove by the bar where I knew she went to drink and meet guys. Virginia is smaller than you think and it didn’t take much to find out what parties she went to.
“You have to stop it,” my attorney told me. “She’s accusing you of stalking.”
I saw red. “I’m trying to keep my kids safe. What am I supposed to do? Is this how the law works?!” I felt Jen’s hand on my arm as I ranted.
My attorney was never ruffled during these calls when I raged. Fucker had gravel in his heart. “You need proof she is driving while intoxicated.”
Then he mentioned a private investigator.
I ignored the growing migraine and the vein popping in my temple. “As in you’re going to hire one?”
“No, but you can. Go in the yellow pages or Google to find someone. But make sure he talks to me. I want to make sure I tell him what to do.”
Jen helped me look up the yellow pages online, helped me research. I wasn’t going to do this half-assed. I found out what it takes to hire the best. Found some guy who used to be a cop.
“Someone who was a police officer would know how to catch a drunk driver,” I told Jen when I showed her what I’d found. “He probably did this all the time as an officer. He’ll know what to do and he gets great reviews.”
Jen insisted on being there when I called the PI.
“The retainer is $5000,” is what he kept repeating on the phone. He didn’t ask about the kids or the problems. He asked about the money.
I was sweating over the $5000. I didn’t have the cash from the Speek sale yet. These things take time. $5000 meant groceries, bills, swim lessons.
I paid up. And waited. Then I waited some more.
“These things maybe take time,” Jen and I reassured each other. Every few days, I called the investigator with information about where Joanne would be. Dates, names, addresses. “She’ll be at this party. She’s at this bar right now and she’ll be with the kids after.”
“Sure thing boss,” the former cop told me.
“Haven’t found anything yet,” he’d tell me when I called for an update.
“What about the addresses and times I gave you? Did you check them out?”
It took me a month to admit to myself and Jen that I’d been conned. The fucker didn’t submit an invoice, a rendering of hours, nothing.
It made me wonder, a tiny seed of an idea in the back of my head: did others have this problem with PIs, too? Was it hard to find a good investigator? How often did this happen? I imagined divorce cases, missing child cases, trafficking cases and the investigators on them. Is there a better way to do this? My entrepreneurial brain wondered. Part of me wanted to haul out that private investigator and kick his ass. Fuck you for putting my kids at risk. Part of me wanted to run out there and right the injustice.
Joanne settled, eventually. As soon as it was done and our marriage was over, custody settled, she turned around and sued me for custody again. Motherfucker, you thought you were done? In Virginia, you can sue for custody again and again. Fucking whenever.
SXSW came and went with Jen. We were strong, solid, a new experience. I got my own place and Jen often stayed with me. Got to see her almost every day. I, Danny Boice, had gotten the girl. I was going to keep her, too, even though that was proving hard. I had learned to carry breath mints, to stick to one glass of wine with dinner, to hide the bourbon deep in my office. There were still two Dannys: the love-struck guy who had this amazing woman and the loser in his office at night, shaking and seeing shit and fucked up as ever. The bear monster whispered from the shadows, If she sees this, she’ll leave you,
And the bear monster came out in full force, the closer I got to her, the more she posed an existential threat to him with all her good girl goodness.
The shadows in my life waited for an opportunity to get their talons in. In May, around the time I contacted the first PI, we went to the Gold Cup. The smell of horse flesh and hay. Starter guns and the hooves in the race. Me in a polo shirt, moving around women in dresses and big hats. And the sun, hot sun, melting into my head.
I wanted a drink. I thirsted. Everyone there with a beer or wine. I let the reins loose a little. I drank one drink. Two. Several. By the time Jen guided me home, I was slurring and stumbling. I was scared out of my mind and I hurt, wanted to lash out. Here was the fuckup Danny, broken and cutting with the shards of himself. She’d never seen this before.
I didn’t even know where the words came from. Don’t remember what I said or what set me off. Probably something stupid. I lashed out at the nearest person—her, my love.
“You fucking stupid bitch—”
The memory of her eyes, round with hurt. She looked like I had hit her. And of course, I had. Not with my fists, but with something just as wounding. The coward’s way to wound.
“You think you’re so fucking good and special don’t you?” My darkness growled as it consumed me, consumed us. Wouldn’t let go, wouldn’t let up.
My Jen. My beautiful, loving Jen didn’t stoop down into the dirt with me. Her head was high and her voice only wobbled when she picked up her purse: “Danny what are you saying? Why are you doing this? Where is this coming from?”
“Shut the fuck up. You think you’re so much fucking better than everyone, don’t you?”
She was shocked. She had never been spoken to like this. The way Joanne and I used to speak to each other all the time. She grabbed a duffel bag from the closet and started throwing the few things she kept there into the bag, tears streaming down her face.
“I have no idea what I did to deserve this. I have no idea why you’re doing this Danny.”
“Fuck off,” was all I could muster as I stumbled around the apartment, bourbon splashing on my hand, on the floor as I poured more.
“I guess it’s over then—I’m leaving. I can’t believe you’re breaking up with me like this. I love you Danny. This is so shitty. How can you say this, how can you do this? Who are you?”
Ten long minutes and she had packed her bag and when she opened the door, the reality hit me. She was leaving. I was losing her. The only good adult relationship in my entire, fucked life.
I don’t know what came over me but some last shred of decency and survival instinct took over. I had nothing left to lose. “You really wanna fucking know? You really wanna know what’s wrong? You want all of this? You sure you’re fucking ready? You wanna know about being beaten, about all the abuse, about the drinking, about my mom, about the priest? You think you can fucking handle it?”
Jen didn’t answer with words. She turned around and put her bag down and sat on the couch. And then she listened as I vomited the whole sordid, messed-up tale. I had nothing left to hide because the worst fucking thing had already happened. I had lost her.
My hands were shaky from too many late nights, late talks, late sortings through this and that. We talked and talked. I didn’t get that drunk again. Jen stayed. She saved my life that night. If she had walked out on me in that moment I’m sure I would be a homeless beggar living on the street right now. Instead I’m here and homed, and writing this book for you, dear reader, all because she stayed. I got to wake up with her and see her. On a Sunday that July, I watched her get ready for church, the way she did every Sunday. She never asked me to come, she just went. I never commented.
“You know what? I wanna go. I wanna come with you.”
To her credit, she didn’t say anything. Didn’t laugh. Watched me get the keys and sat quietly as we pulled up to what looked like a warehouse. Metro Church was not like the Catholic churches of my childhood. This church would have made Megmom sneer or run into the night. Or both. And I kind of loved it for that.
When we walked in, I noticed the pastor had a sleeve of tattoos like mine, and he was translating a passage from Greek and Aramaic, on the fly. Holy shit, this guy can read those ancient languages, I thought as he discussed the nuances of a single word. I stood and listened as he went over the passages homophobes turned to in order to defend their bigotry, and he explained why their interpretation was wrong. Leviticus 18 and 20. Romans 1:18-32. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Timothy 1:8-10. He explained the word “homosexuality” in each passage and the original words, each of which had several meanings. He explained how our English word “homosexuality” started to take on its current meaning in the nineteenth century. Slippery words, used by assholes to be bigots. Washed clean here, taken back. Saved from ugly judgment. I listened to the rock band play live. I felt totally at home, accepted. I held Jen’s hand, watched as people smiled at us.
Pastor Stein asked all of us to stand and close our eyes. I dropped my head forward and did as he asked. Instead of the usual church smell of incense and lemon wood polish—a smell that made my stomach lurch with memories of altar boy robes and hands—I smelled Jen’s green perfume and the concrete of the floor.
Pastor Stein’s voice reached me before the memories of my old church did: “I invite all of those who are willing to commit their life to following the path of Jesus Christ to raise their hands above their heads.”
Before I knew what I was doing, I raised my hands, some part of me pulling at my strings. I don’t know why, but in the moment there was a sense of rightness. I was ready to commit. I felt something calling me, right from my solar plexus.
“I raised my hands,” I told Jen in the car. She looked at me without saying a word. “I can’t explain it to you, but I felt called to do that. It felt right.”
“Your name is in there, you know,” Jen told me. She was speaking softly, looking right at me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The crosses at the front are where you can write someone’s name and have the whole community pray for them. I wrote your name there a year ago, to pray for you.”
My whole heart was warm. Held by this woman. I loved her so much in that moment.
“You’re already part of this,” she said. “You’re home.”
And I was.
Proving them Wrong
“You really wanna fucking know? You really wanna know what’s wrong? You want all of this? You sure you’re fucking ready?” Danny had screamed at me during our first awful fight, when I had been on my way out the door, sick of the shouting and name-calling and shocked to the core by the man in front of me.
At that moment, I had thought the answer was “yes.” I thought I could handle it, could help him. God had my back.
I had been so stupid. Here I was in a therapist’s office, watching the red leaves of autumn outside the office window. I was looking down at my belly—just starting to swell, and trying not to cry.
“You have to leave this man,” the therapist told me after I was done describing Danny’s latest temper tantrum. “You can’t be around this. You can’t bring a baby into a relationship like this.”
This was the second therapist I had paid and the second one to tell me to cut my losses and run. Walking to the car, knowing I’d have to switch to maternity clothes much sooner than either of my other two pregnancies, I looked around at what I knew could be a bright, beautiful world. I had been seeing it in gray for so long. Maybe she’s right, I thought. Maybe I can’t do this anymore.
In 1957, Mother Teresa wrote: “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” Her words resonated now at a level I’d never imagined they would. My dark night of the soul was stretching far beyond one night. What made it even more painful was that I would see bursts of light amid the pain and imagine the suffering was over, only to have the dark shadowy wings fall over my life again. After Eli left, the sun seemed to come out when Danny and I shifted from friendship to romance. After I left Joint Council, the brightness seemed to return when I found new work and new meaning.
And then in May 2014, the darkness rushed in again. Danny had a new apartment and I stayed with him often. We were in love and thinking about building our lives together. We drove to the Virginia Gold Cup to watch the horse races. Sunshine and stepping on grass in my high heels, trying to keep my elaborate navy hat from blowing away. I had never seen Danny drunk, and at first it was funny. Four Drink Danny was smiling and happy, talking and gesturing. Six Drink Danny was laughing and pulling me close, flirty.
Ten Drink Danny pushed me away, scowled at the sun as though it had insulted him. This was the Danny I drove back home.
Through the door of his apartment, where surfaces gleamed. Just that morning, we had kissed in the hallway before putting on our hats. Now, in the same spot, Danny pulled away, muttering, stomped angrily to the living room, leaving me empty-handed.
“What’s wrong?” I mentally went over the day at Gold Cup. Had something happened? What did I miss?
“Little Miss Perfect. Just leave me alone. You fucccking…” Danny looked at the wall, slurring his words.
What the hell was going on? I felt as though I had walked in half-way through some artsy play I wasn’t even meant to understand. Where did MY Danny go?
“I don’t understand. I—"
“Fuck you. You’re always fucking nagging. You don’t know anything.” He looked at me, then, his eyes narrowed as though they couldn’t contain all the hate he felt for me. He pitched his voice into a falsetto. “What’s wrong. Danny? Danny?”
He looked away again. “You know what? Fuck you.”
I reached for every bit of strength I had. You should be used to disappointment by now, an evil, raspy voice inside me whispered. Eli left you, why wouldn’t Danny? I was back again in the living room of my old house, could picture Eli telling me he wanted a divorce. I had lived through this once. I could do it again, no matter what it broke in me.
“I guess it’s over then—I’m leaving. I can’t believe you’re breaking up with me like this. This is so shitty.”
Danny didn’t bother to reply and I crashed into the bedroom, moving fast to stay ahead of the crest of soul-ache heading my way. I wanted to get this over with as fast as possible. Rip the band-aid off, leave before he saw me cry. Leave, leave, leave were the only thoughts running through my mind. It was all I could handle.
I slung the strap so fast on my shoulder that the bag bumped off my hip hard enough to make me wince. When I walked by the living room again, Danny was still sitting on our grey couch, staring at a wall. Now, he was sipping a glass of bourbon. Where did that come from?
My hand on the door handle, I turned back when I knew my face was composed and my voice would be steady. “See you.”
Danny stood up in a single motion and walked towards me. I looked into his face, red with rage, still not knowing what had set him off.
“You really wanna fucking know?” He shouted. “You really wanna know what’s wrong? You want all of this? You sure you fucking ready?”
I didn’t hesitate. I nodded, put my blue weekend bag down right there on the edge of the doorway and walked back to sit down on our sofa. “Yeah, I want to know.”
Danny drifted into the living room and poured himself into the sofa, looking as though all his bones had melted. He looked me in the eyes. I give him credit for that. He opened his mouth and for an hour the darkness spilled out of him. He started by telling me about his father chasing him with the belt. By the time he got to the priest, he was crying. I moved from sitting on the edge of the sofa to curling up with him in my arms.
“No one knows about this. I don’t want anyone to know,” he told me between gasps and eyes squeezed shut against the tears. The muscles under his t-shirt shuddered their way through his telling of that story, as though it were being heaved out of him by force. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
It all came out, the orgies in Vegas, the drugs, the bad marriage decisions, his mom not standing up for him. There were so many points where I wanted to leap in. It’s not your fault. How could she do that? And many times he caught me by surprise. Drugs? Hardcore drugs? Constant cheating and Joanne knew about it? I will never be ok with you cheating on me. Not for one second. I didn’t say a thing. The string of words from Danny was unending. He didn’t need my input or even my sympathy. He needed someone to listen, to draw the poison out at the wound. It hurt to listen to those words, but I wrapped myself around him like a shield and hung on. This was one thing I could do for him.
I only stopped him when he got to the drinking. “But I’ve never seen you drink much before today. You always just have one glass at dinner.”
Danny looked into my eyes and pulled out a bourbon bottle from its hiding place. There was an inch of liquid left in the thick glass bottle. I glanced around the living room. How had I missed this?
After the storm of that fight, within a few hours, my heart had stopped racing and the heaviness that threatened to crush me lifted. We still had a long way to go. We fell asleep that night holding onto each other, as though we had narrowly missed a disaster, and over coffee the next morning, I started talking.
“I was thinking how we can address this. What if we both quit drinking completely for a while? Me too. And then we’ll reintroduce wine again very slowly until we can have a glass of wine with dinner. What do you think?”
Danny pressed a kiss to my forehead and nodded. He disappeared from the kitchen and came back with two bottles he handed over to me. He left without a word and before he could see me pour them down the drain.
Things did get better after that. Danny and I were in love and because he wasn’t hiding anything. I looked into his face and thought I saw the whole man. Even Eli was now willing to let go fully, willing to sell our house. I was ready to move on with Danny. After everything, my life was suddenly good. Danny was Entrepreneur-In-Residence as part of a business innovation program at the White House and he came home with stories about work. His project was working on ways to stop elderly Americans from being defrauded. Over our wineless meals, he would tell me about the latest.
“We need a way to address this, a real solution. I was talking today to someone whose mother was defrauded when trying to set up Meals for Wheels. They’re targeting Meals for Wheels! Who the fuck does shit like that?”
The fall leaves of northern Virginia arrived, and most of the time it was clear sailing, but there were storms, too. I now knew he had been through a lot but every once in a while, his anger would still hit me like a truck out of nowhere.
“Are you fucking kidding me? You couldn’t pick up bread?”
“What the fuck is all this shit on the kitchen table? Is it too much to ask to not live in a pigsty?”
“Stop nagging me. For fuck’s sake, just stop.”
Shouting, slammed doors. Then love and kisses. He never laid a hand on me, but being called a bitch in an argument by someone you love means living with a ghost of yourself. There was the Jen who would have told any friend in this situation to get the hell out. And there was the Jen who was full of love for Danny. Who looked at him and saw the anguish and wanted to help him the way she had wanted to help others. I was torn between being love and wanting to protect myself, caught between two versions of me.
Our experiment to drink less had failed, too. I was still having a glass of wine with supper, having worked my way up. But Danny was drinking openly. Sometimes, he smelled of alcohol in the afternoon.
“Are you OK?”
“Can we stick with one glass of wine tonight at dinner?”
I somehow couldn’t find the words to confront him head-on about his shit again, and he was furious when I would try. “Fuck you.”
It was in this context that I began to feel queasy in September, like I had come down with the flu. I had been on the pill, but when I missed my first period, I knew. I had gotten pregnant easily with Leah Claire and Caroline, too. I drove home with a pregnancy test and waited by the bathroom sink, willing it to be a mistake.
I cried when the blue plus sign appeared on the stick I cried in the bathroom by myself, both in happiness and in fear. What was I going to do?
I had been a strong pro-life Christian all my life, loved babies, loved this baby. Yet before Danny even got home that day, I had made a terrifying internet search about the steps I would need to take to terminate this pregnancy. I can’t do this, not now, I told myself, as I scrolled through the search results on my phone. I never in a billion years thought that I would be thinking about this. Never in my whole life.
I shut down the screen and wiped the search history. God, I need help. I prayed and paced the house, but I couldn’t hear God. For the first time in a long time, I felt all alone in the cosmos, a tiny speck set adrift. Where are you?
But God was silent that day.
I thought of the times I had held Caroline and Leah Claire in the first hours of their lives and no matter what internet search I ran, I knew I would keep this baby. Maybe it’s not God who’s absent, I thought. Maybe it’s my crisis of faith that’s the problem.
Danny wasn’t ambivalent. His eyes filled up when I told him, simply, over dinner after work.
“You’re—?" He put down his fork and stared, wide-eyed at me, looking down at my stomach even though nothing would show for many weeks.
He stood up and grabbed me around the waist, holding me, burying his face in my hair. Breathing all of us in. “Oh, my God. That’s amazing!” He said he was absolutely going to stop drinking now—that this was just what he needed to kick the addiction for good.
Turns out that while I had been fretting about the baby and where we were headed, Danny was looking at rings and thinking forever. My divorce with Eli had been finalized, and while Joanne and Danny were still in a custody dispute, their marriage had long been officially over. He proposed in October, just a few weeks later. I said yes. I could do this. I loved him. There was never any doubt about that.
But no one had warned me about loving someone who had a past this dark. One evening I came home and found three empty bourbon flasks in the garbage.
“There are days I don’t want to live,” he admitted to me as tears rolled down his cheeks and I tried to help him find the words to express why this was still a problem. We had a baby on the way. We were getting married. We had to figure this out.
In between the moments of pain and anger we still had conversations that lit up both of us, left me buzzing like the best coffee. We’d sit in the living room, side by side, and talk business.
“The three most important things you’d want in your business. Off the top of your head. Go.”
“What about a business teaching? We could combine your coding experience with my knowledge of kids to create an online business for kids.”
“How would that business work? How would we structure the business?”
We sat over our laptops, testing different ideas. How did people respond to online teaching tools? What did they think of an online communication product?
At our best, we had powerful, intoxicating dreams of the future together, and they felt more real than anything else in my life at times. I quieted the voices in my head as much as I could.
We were married January 31st, 2015 in a meringue yellow room surrounded by white flowers and the love of our families and friends. That morning, I watched Leah Claire, Jordie, and Caroline flit around me in their white dresses and tiny lace gloves. In my blue shirt and with my hair up, I sat in the dressing room, a still presence as the day shaped up around me. The photographer was snapping pictures, Leah Claire was pointing out her gloves to doting adults, and my mother was walking around keeping everyone in line. I could hear Danny downstairs, his booming laugh and I pictured him with his head thrown back and his barrel chest pushed out as he greeted his guests. I guessed he’d gotten my letter by now—the one I had snuck in to leave by his pillow.
“My dear Danny,” I had written the night before. “7 years ago you became my friend. . .” The words had flowed easily as I shared my hopes and dreams with the person I was about to marry.
It started to feel even more real when I stepped into the dress—a long white strapless gown with one shoulder wrapped in gauze and a train in the back. My mother fastened the fabric-covered buttons running down the back as I held my dress up. I stuck out my elbows and covered the chest part of my dress, hamming it up for the photographer.
“Careful or this is not going to be PG!”
“I don’t think Danny would mind,” someone shouted out.
When I was dressed and ready, Caroline touched my stomach with her gloved hands, right where the swell of the baby filled out the lace.
“Pretty,” she said.
And it was down the aisle to stand in front of Danny by the big white fireplace. All our guests sat in front of us in a semi-circle and Nolan with his gap tooth stood proudly in the front, holding the pillow with the ring on it.
“Let us begin,” the pastor said when everyone, even the little ones, hushed down.
The ceremony was laughter and tears and then we all put on our serious faces for photos on the staircase.
“Screw this!” Danny said after one too many photos, swooping me back into a dip and planting a wet kiss on my face. The photo from the moment catches me shrieking and laughing, head tilted back as I swat at him with my bouquet of roses.
Turks and Caicos was a contrast in blues and whites. I loved walking under the rustle of the palm trees in the sun, letting the sun warm my belly and listening to the crash of water on sand. It was the perfect spot for a honeymoon and in between kisses and slow lunches under blue skies, we came back to the topic that had been consuming more and more of our thoughts: opening a new business.
“The idea of on-demand investigations tested really well,” Danny told me on the islands. We looked at the metrics together. “Private investigation could be a great opportunity. There’s no one big company in this sector. Look at the IBIS reports.”
I glanced over the numbers. “Isn’t this industry a little. . . sketchy?”
Danny thought about it. “I don’t know. People need help with this part of their lives. We could make a real difference.”
I read over the IBISWorld reports with one hand on my belly, while Danny napped. The more I read, the more excited I was about the possibilities I was seeing. People who needed investigators were a vulnerable population. They were often divorcing or worried about missing kids. By helping them find investigators we could be helping missing kids and kids who were in trouble. All the work I had done on behalf of adoption and I realized this was another page in the same book. Another way to serve.
When Danny rolled over and blinked sleepily at me, I smiled at him. “I’m in. Let’s do this.”
We were pregnant and on our honeymoon when the idea of Trustify was born but we still needed to go through the actual process of giving our company life. When we got back home, we put our heads down and started work. We needed investors, the paperwork, domains. We incorporated in March, hunted for offices. The excitement sizzled under our skin, and in my belly, the baby kicked and grew as day after day our other baby—our company—started to take off.
Daniel was born in May, at home. I had steeled myself for the pain and even more so for the possibility of Danny freaking out and taking off.
“I’m not great when people are sick,” he’d admitted.
But he surprised me. Maybe he surprised himself. He sat with me throughout the whole birth, held my hand, looked into my eyes. Stripped of the anger and the pain, I could see who he was without the static of all that had happened to him. And I could see that I loved him. I had made the right choice, I realized as contraction after contraction tore up my body.
The day after Daniel was born, I was still in pain from the birth, but there was no rest to be had. Danny had to go to court to defend himself. Joanne was seeking full custody. The hearing took most of the day, and Danny’s mom had been paying for Joanne’s legal counsel. All the emails Danny had sent to his mother were produced for the court.
“What is your relationship to your mother like?”
“How much time do you spend at work?”
“Who is the children’s primary caretaker?”
Every question seemed accusatory. Joanne’s attorney claimed she didn’t have enough money for utilities, that her power was in danger of being shut off.
When he came back home, Danny had bags under his eyes. He didn’t mention his mother or the fact she chose to stand by his ex-wife or the seven hours on the stand. Instead, he made a beeline for Daniel. “We won.”
$100,000 in legal fees we couldn’t afford and we got the right to place Nolan and Jordie in the schools that would help them succeed with their special needs. All those sleepless nights so Danny would have the right to see his son and daughter. All the heartache of his mother’s betrayal and the judge had been merciful. It was over—for now.
With the custody case out of the way, we could turn again to the process of making Trustify work. Raising a company is a lot like raising a baby; there are growing pains and miracles of the everyday. We looked for investors, paid for everything ourselves. The first hires didn’t always work out as we intended. And isn’t that the irony? We were in the PI business but initially we were reluctant to investigate our own people. One of the first hires we made was a young woman who had never had a job before. We were thrilled to give her a chance. . .until three months later one of the investigators in our network came up to Danny with a piece of paper.
“Have you seen this? There’s some irregularities.”
That’s how Danny found out the woman had been stealing data from the company. She was one of the first people we had to let go. A few weeks later, Danny crashed into the house, red-faced.
“Can you believe this shit?” He slammed a piece of paper on the kitchen table and I picked it up. Scanning it, I saw the young woman’s last name and some reference to a union.
“Her mother is suing us, alleging her daughter was illegally fired. Not for stealing data. Oh, no. For trying to unionize.”
I was confused. “Did she ever say anything about a union?”
Then there was one of the men we’d hired early on. He was homeless and we saw an opportunity to give him a fresh start. He asked for four weeks of paid time off to deal with an illness and we granted that. Danny came home with another letter a week after the man quit.
“He’s suing us for ‘human rights violations.’ What the fuck does that even mean? We hired him when he had nothing. We gave him four weeks paid to do whatever and this is what happens?!”
Through a few painful mistakes, we learned the importance of investigating potential hires. But the stress was clearly getting to Danny. Payroll always was fraught with worries and tensions that came through in swearing, slammed doors, thrown drinks, and shouting.
“Fuck!” Danny would rampage through the house. I knew he was worried, but I recoiled from the anger. I knew he would never hit me or the children, but with a baby at home this was not exactly the oasis of calm I wanted. And I was exhausted from taking care of Daniel and waking up for feedings. What could I do to make this bearable?
I had been going to a therapist for years, trying to sort out everything I had been feeling. When I wasn’t at work or with the baby, I sat at home, feeling almost catatonic. My therapist told me bluntly now to get out. “You need to leave this man,” she said. “This is a poisonous environment for a baby.”
I had heard this advice before but now I couldn’t ignore it. I had been fighting for the relationship for so long. I had been fighting for the business. I was tired of struggling. Was it wrong to want things to flow smoothly?
I walked to the car from the therapy appointment and strapped Daniel in. Who was I to question a professional who had seen hundreds or even thousands of couples? The words rankled. I was sure God did not want me to leave. I didn’t want to leave.
At home, I checked my messages. ABC News. “We’d like to interview Danny for our morning segment.” And below that a text from Danny. “Look at this!” I opened the link to a glowing review of Trustify. I looked at the heart emojis Danny had sent and I looked around our home, at the pile of laundry left to do and the fresh daisies in the kitchen in their glass vase. I looked at the easy chair where Danny fell asleep after a rough day and the sofa where we fought and made up and talked. I didn’t want to give this up. I didn’t know how, but I would make this work. I would prove everyone wrong.
Business as Unusual
We’re jammed into the office again, and that’s when the news hits. Fifteen of us around a plastic conference table, Jen on the phone from where she’s home with the baby. Developers, employees, all of us are watching the news and we can’t believe what we’re seeing.
“It’s a hack job.” The voice that whispers is female, but I’m not sure who it is. I’m too focused on the headlines to tell. One week ago, mainstream press had been praising our new company, Trustify, for making sense of the Ashley Madison hack. Today, the headlines are very different: “Private Investigator Startup Exploits Ashley Madison Hack,” “Exposed Ashley Madison members targeted by scammers and extortionists,” “Is Trustify’s Ashley Madison app exploitative?”
It’s summer 2015 and I’m watching all the dreams of my honeymoon get fucking eviscerated. And the bitch of it all is that I had been trying to do the right thing, to walk the road less traveled. Turns out, there’s a reason it’s less fucking traveled; shit’s filled with sinkholes and poison ivy.
The worst part of it is that at home, Jen’s taking care of the baby and I know she’s getting the same news. I can picture the ooze of social media leaking from her phone, all over the white floorboards of the kitchen, making her worry.
This is our baby. Not the soft smiles and baby-powder smell of Daniel, but the baby of both our minds, sprung from us like Athena, bright with a bow and arrow. Our own warfare against the betrayal of the world. And now it’s in danger and I don’t know how to defend it.
The spark of creation on our honeymoon, Turks and Caicos, greenbluegreen hot sand
palms. And now it’s attacked on all sides by journalists with hungry pens, who can smell the fresh blood. Scandal, headlines. The deadly churn of news cycles and Trustify is being crushed underneath the grind of some dick’s deadline. Get the story, get the lead.
I’m shaking with fury when I leave the meeting, rage vibrating into the thrum of my phone as I scroll through the headlines, follow the stench of rumor to Reddit, where some anonymous pimply-faced kids are having a field day picking over what they think is the corpse. “Trustify sucks.” The poetry of fucks who keep dirty socks under the bed and slouch into class, coasting by.
Their words follow me like mosquitos and I don’t think they’ll ever die.
Danny, still facing the hot whip of the belt and I don’t know how the fuck I got here.
No, that’s not right. I know. It’s the Danny curse, right there from the moment we dipped our feet in the sand and baptized this company in tropical waters and drinks out of a coconut. I had wanted this to happen for her, for us. Had loved the way her eyes lit up when she talked about running a conscious company, one that didn’t just make money but made a difference.
“Companies that do good are not just tacking on some charity work. They’re building from the ground up to make money while they’re making a difference.” Jen’s eyes lit up and her voice lilting as her brain, rabbit-quick, outpaced how fast she was able to get the words out.
And we’d fucking done it. I’d flown all over the fucking country, burning down the red lines of the map to get to investors. Had worked on that fucking elevator pitch until I could get all the way to the top of the Empire State Building and keep investors white-knuckling for a chance to drop cash into Trustify.
I’d flown to Boston when Daniel was five days old, my head jittery from the cries of a baby and the soul-punch of facing Joanne in the courtroom for eight hours. Happy birthday, Daniel. I walked through fire the day after you were born to make sure you got to grow up with your sisters. Meg-mom had handed over my texts to the judge, and the humiliating questions about cheating, sex, our relationship, all of it washed up with the tide in the courtroom.
Well, fuck that. On the plane to Boston five days after Daniel was born, I’d turned off my phone, turned to the tiny bottles they serve that can’t quench any man’s thirst at 30,000 feet. By the time the jet bridge stretched before me and I was nodding along—“Thank you for flying with us.” “Have a good day in Boston, sir”—the ground had the gentle sway of ocean. It felt good, this gentle rocking.
I never turned my phone back on, just got down to the serious business of schmoozing, boozing. I talked and laughed, should have had the Speek shirt on. Dance, monkey, dance. Two step with a drink, make them laugh, get the loot. And every night fall face-first into the puff of hotel bed in air-conditioned air.
Twenty-four hours I didn’t call home. Nothing like past Vegas trips. With Jen, the idea of searching for another body was out of the question. All those silky and sticky fumblings were over. I didn’t need them anymore because I had love. One line on the checklist crossed off. I was still searching, though, and I didn’t know what he fuck I was looking for.
I swam through a day of fuzzy-tongue hangover and lids pried open with the power of acetylsalicylic acid and a bastard’s stubborn will. I flew back with the investors in pocket, but when I walked in and saw Jen holding Daniel, faced the surge of disappointment in her eyes and the. . .what was it? Anger? That I hadn’t called, hadn’t texted? Fear? Stepped out of me and tried to see her as clearly as she saw me. Could picture her worried. That I was dead? That some disaster had twisted my guts, left me broken by the side of the road? Better than a cold shower, than a week in rehab. I had run her over with the plane, had battered her with the force of not calling and the bruises were under her eyes, the fear in the tension of her hand on the baby’s head.
How the hell do you make up for something like that? I put my head down and worked harder, more determined. I would be the custodian for trust, I would help as many people as I could. I would protect this fragile new shape of a company and make it grow.
And here I had fucked it up again. It had started as an opportunity. I started getting a little whiff of something on the wind. A tiny wisp, like the first stirrings of a dragon. That summer of 2015, when Washington shimmered with concerts and tourists in shorts, there were whispers on chat rooms and forums about an Ashley Madison hack.
In 2015, Ashley Madison was big business. Owned by Avid Life Media in Canada, the company and its then-CEO, Noel Biderman, promised to pair sad-sack cheaters with each other. Running obnoxious ads on subways and TV, telling mid-life crisis men “Life’s short. Have an affair,” Ashley Madison promised an endless supply of attractive women looking for hookups. It brought out commentary from the types you’d expect—douchebags who saw cheating as their right and loved being able to have a confidential platform to hide it and prim-faced news anchors who tutted over what the world was coming to. I knew I wasn’t one to judge but I was judging.
Only now that little stack of cards was falling down. My IT guy, freshly hired, had seen the same reports I had. “What do you think?”
“I think we have some hiring to do.”
I hired two dev guys to create an app for me. This was my first big mistake. I hired without thinking how delicate this would be, without running the fucking checks. All this time, all these decades and I still hadn’t learned. And I see the irony in it all as I plow forward: How could I, some sad-ass who’d had orgies in Vegas, talk about the douchebags using AM? I get the itch under the skin, the deep ache to connect with another human when the lights go out in a relationship and a person’s too chickenshit to get the fuck out of there. I’d been on both sides of that fucked-up fence. I’d been the married fucker seeking a stranger’s warm body and I’d been a loser listening to whispers his wife was hooking up with someone else. There’s no exit sign in a relationship where everyone is out to hurt. For once, I wanted to be on the right side—to be in a position to help. And my blood was still pumping like an entrepreneur. I could smell opportunity and knew this could put us on the map: New Company Helps Spouses Find the Truth.
A group calling themselves The Impact Team announced the attack on 15 July 2015. It boiled down to a simple request from them: Either shut down Ashley Madison, or we’ll take all the customer data we have, including names, emails, and fantasy details and make them public. Ashley Madison wasn’t about to back down and announced they had secured everything. The media were baying for blood. All those cheaters were about to get their just fucking desserts. Here’s a spoon, motherfucker. I’d eaten the crow, too, picked the black feathers from my teeth.
Those days were tense, walking a tightrope. Falling through the filthy layers of the deep web, keeping ear to the ground. Has anyone heard anything? Has it been dropped? Somewhere out there, streams of numbers and names, just out of reach and in kitchens across the world people holding their breaths, divorce attorneys dreaming.
“Hackers?” Jen asks me over dinner one night. “It sounds like an inside job to me.”
I agree with her. I think it must be someone from inside the company, getting ready to leak all the details. But does that mean they’ll be shut down before this thing can take off? We have no way of knowing.
This is where I made my second fatal mistake. I had my engineers and team type up the email to go with the app—the email which would be sent to everyone to tell them how to contact Trustify. I would have my ass dragged for that one and I deserved it. Don’t leave writing to engineers and to team members who just want people to click.
Two in the morning on August 11, I’m up late. I’m on Tor, in the bowels of the dark web, trying not to see too much. Things in here are like hell, dark corners and cries of pain. My eyes are dry and rough, gritty with numbers and just propped up with cold coffee. Halfway across the city, my team is doing the same, searching, looking.
Then, a single text. “Look.”
Someone’s dropped a 9.7 gig file using an Onion address. Punch of adrenaline to the gut and I’m coming up for fucking air. This is it. My phone lights up, Fourth of July and Christmas in Japanese technology. We have the fuckers.
“Is it 32 million users? 32 million?” I’m typing and whisper-yelling, trying not to wake the kids. It’s all here, emails, names, logins. My teeth vibrate with the vastness of it, the potential. We’re the first ones to see it. Take that, fuckers.
It’s time for the app to go live.
“Is it real? Is it fucking real?” my team members are texting, everyone awake now.
Tense minutes as we wait for the techs to do their job.
“VERIFIED” comes the text and I drop the phone. I scrounge on the floor to get it. No Molly ever felt like this, like clear silver and pure light from within. I’ve swallowed a comet. This is it. This will make Trustify, help us make an impact, help us make money. I have just solidified my bona fides in growth hacking my company.
I start typing, all thumbs. “Scrape the data!”
By three, we’re set up for business. An app that lets users check to see if they have been affected by the hack and an email letting them know they can hire a PI to get the details. I know what it’s like to have that yawning blackness of wondering in your gut. Did she kiss her boss in the bar or did she not?
“Some people might not like that we’re doing this,” a few people on my team had pointed out. “This may not be popular.”
Fuck popular. People have a right to know and this information is getting out there, one way or another. It may as well be verified and set up so people can get help. And if it leads investors to us and helps us make a go of it, so much the better.
We send one fucking tweet about the app. One fucking tweet at three in the morning, when only college kids and insomniacs are anywhere near their phones.
The news story blows up. By the time I fight back to consciousness, CNN and Fox are on the line and I don’t even have a PR agent and I’m trying to figure out what I should wear on live TV. Everyone is answering phones and passing me notes, it’s fucking chaos. “These media outlets have called and want you to run these names. We can book you on CNN at nine and then you’ll have to hustle to make it to NBC for their taping. . .” We are pulling people off the street in front of our office and asking if they need a job—we bring them right upstairs and put them in front of a laptop and a phone and say go. Hiring at its best.
Zero to one hundred and fifty in the seconds it takes a tweet to sound its way to a phone.
At that speed, the wheels start to fall off shit. First, came the exhilaration of the ride.
“We made $400,000, motherfucker,” our finance guy went screaming this through the halls like a fire engine. “$400,000 in three days.”
I read over emails. I printed one, on paper and fucking everything, to bring to Jen like a love letter. “I think you saved my marriage,” it began, before outlining how someone’s email was put on Ashley Madison but our PIs were able to prove it did not come from a spouse’s email address.
I went on interview after interview, explaining how the hack and Trustify worked.
Then the wheels started to buckle. I didn’t bring home those emails to Jen. “Fuck you,” they started. Poets, obviously. Then, the landlord. “Mr. Boice, this office is a fire hazard. You cannot have this many people in the office.”
All of us packed in like fucking sardines, smelling each other’s mouthwash and deodorant, animal heat packed into a room, everyone furiously typing to keep up with requests. Frantic nights with caffeine and the buzz of a rocket take off, leaking fuel all the way home to collapse, sleeping half-propped against the desk before putting out the next emergency. Shouting, swearing, yelling, all of us stewing in the big shit.
And then the phone calls from the media started to turn. The PR agent I hired two days ago wouldn’t quite meet my eyes when she told me the first time. “This reporter wants a comment on reports Trustify is taking advantage of the Ashley Madison hack for personal gain. Another newspaper is calling Trustify ‘ambulance chasers.’ Here’s a draft of a statement we can make.”
What the fuck? I thought maybe I’d be called out, thrown under the bus of my cheating past, but where did this U-turn come from? The bitch of it is that I stayed up until two, pouring over message boards and media stories, drinking their words, getting drunk on their accusations.
And fuck it, they were kind of right. The app idea was simple: check your spouse’s name and get an email letting you know how to get a PI to check out the truth. That part I fucking stand by. Any app can tell you if your partner’s email is on the list, but it doesn’t tell you the truth: did they actually cheat? Who with? When? Was it a case of stolen identity? Weird shit happens and the only way to know for sure is to get a PI to check out what bodily fluids (if any) might have been exchanged.
But I cringe when I read the email we sent—that someone in my company created. Heartless. Cold. Spammy. I don’t deny any of it. It should have never been fucking sent. I would have wanted a letter full of words that reached out, were reassuring, explained what a name on the app would mean. I wanted to build trust, explain why a PI was needed. Instead, I dropped the ball so fucking hard. Didn’t even read and sign off on the email. Rookie mistake. Now it looked like we were trying to make a fucking buck off of someone else’s pain and it pissed me off so bad. Questions can eat away at your mind, can chew right through the fibers and the core right at the center. I didn’t want anyone else feeling that way.
But it was too late. Those emails had been sent.
The halls of our company emptied and some fucking quit. At the time, I thought, in my messed-up state: ship . . . sinking. . . rats. Now I don’t blame them. It fucking sucks to hear your company described as spammers on the six o’clock news. I was pissed off. Once again I had tried and here I was, again. I admit it: I felt betrayed. I had asked my team to create an app and email to reassure people. I had been clear that what we wanted was to give people reassurance, that we wanted to help.
I was trying to make a difference and it still bit me in the ass. In the end, it was my fault for not double-checking, but the click-bait of that email still makes me rage.
Matt knocked on my door shortly after PR left. “Uh, Danny, I think you need to see this.”
“Oh, fuck, please no more bad news.”
Matt showed me the tablet, open to Reddit. There were pictures of Jordie, Nolan, Caroline, and Leah Claire, along with our address and their school addresses. Internet vigilantism. Pro-privacy, anti-publicizing. And below that: “Hit them where it hurts. Show Trustify and this cuck they can’t go after people’s lives and families.”
My fucking heart squeezing blood at double-time and my vision narrowing. Inout. Breathe, Danny. I couldn’t even push the question out, couldn’t ask.
Thank God for Matt. “I’m already on it. I sent someone to stick with the kids and Jen, got in touch with the school and coordinated with their security. I talked to Jen. She’s shaken but wanted to let you know she’s fine. She and the kids have a doctor’s appointment and one of our PIs with bodyguard experience is going with them.”
Matt scrolled through a few screens and stuck the fucking tablet out again. “We’re also getting death threats. Should we. . .”
It takes me thirty minutes to get Matt out of there and then I’m grabbing my jacket, white-knuckling it to the car and crawling my way home. I see guns everywhere, picture all the fuckers packing guns. Why did we ever move anywhere in Washington, with so many people armed? Any one of those tiny cylinders could pierce a heart, could end it all. Pull over, pull over, wait for the shakes to stop. Breathe. Breathe.
I make it home and the sedan is already there. I fall into the house, melt into Jen. Pet her hips and hair. Real, real. She’s safe. Fucking heart, calm the fuck down. Lips, eyes, mouth all of it Picasso Jen, like the pieces don’t quite add up. My head’s fucked up but we’re all here.
The phone is ringing, pulsing in my ears and I throw the fucker against the wall. Jen jumps, but she pulls me close. “God hasn’t taken us this far to fail. We’re alright.”
God. I want to believe in God, part of me knows he’s out there, but right now he feels a million miles away, on Mars or hiding in some black hole. Where the fuck is he? Can’t see past Jen, the eyes that see me.
“What did the doctor say?” My voice seems normal. Am I twitching or is that my soul? Over Jen’s shoulder, I see a shape in shadows in the corner. I push Jen behind me, black spreading all over the ceiling and into the furniture. Won’t hurt my family.
“Danny? Are. . .alright? The doctor confirmed dyslexia.. . Specialist. . .Next week.?”
The shadows are spreading and there’s a pounding in my head. Act normal. Normal. I shake my head. Focusdanny. Two kids with special needs and you need to help then. Need to get your son and daughter the help they need.
You’re not real, I think, angry, towards the shadows in the corner. When they bubble and leak between the floorboards, viscous oozing like oil, I turn my back on them. I follow the thread of Jen’s words to her face.
We need to get good schools for the kids. We need to protect our family, Trustify, answer the fucks online and in the media. The phone ringsringsrings and we put everything on silent, move through the tomb of our house, trying to be brave for each other.
Then the media find their new shiny ball, their new scandals. Shooting in Paris, a basketball player found unconscious in a Vegas hotel room, another actor has HIV. And we’re left to the detritus of our lives. If we’re fucking looking over our shoulder and I’m calling Jen and the kids five times a day to make sure they’re OK, what does it matter in the face of headlines to be made?
Washington and Virginia leaves turn golden and red and then snow comes, everything covered. Turkeys and the tinkle of Christmas carols in every store. No Noise No Noise. Jordie wants a bike and Nolan is explaining the complicated video game he’s interested in. Caroline and Leah Claire are thrilled by the lights and Jen is looking over the wrapping paper. Carols with sharp points of holly are trying to get in my ears, hurt my brain. The man in the corner is watching us. Winking. He knows.
Jen looks, too. “What is it? Danny?”
I shake my head.
Her lips turn down and she puts a hand on Nolan’s shoulder, steers him to the toys. He’s still talking, hasn’t noticed the man in the corner. The man is wearing red but he sure as hell isn’t Santa. I need to get away. My eyes hurt. Someone’s going to kill me. I spin around. No one there.
The line-up for the register is interminable. People humming, crinkling bags. Pressure builds behind my eyelids. Keep a lookout for that man. I want to push everyone aside, their bovine placidity in the face of so much danger. Don’t they fucking see? All that could go wrong in a single moment. All the ways to crumple to the floor and die. Some fucker with a gun, a random heart attack, a vessel in the blood giving as easy as a bow on a present. We’re all heading for death and they’re standing here. I swallow screams.
At home, Jen puts away the bags and bright bows in the hall closet, pushing aside the heavy boots and long coats. Long coats, like long pigs, shadows in the closet, each hanging from their hook like dead things. I shudder when she closes the door.
“Danny, do you want to help me decorate the tree? Do you want to talk about whatever’s wrong?”
I shake my head. The kids are stampeding for the kitchen and snacks. I’m slipping out the door. She’ll be safe. The black shadow follows me, so if she stays away, she’ll stay pure and clean. We’re all abandoning her, leaves pulling away from the tree, and she looks after us, an island in a sea of boxes, ornaments like waves around her. My Aphrodite in the tides.
When I round the corner to the second floor, I see her working, back bent over a froth of tinsel. She’s turned away from me. I wanted to save her, save the kids, save the company, but I’m abandoning the field of battle, chasing my demons down empty hallways. Somewhere there’s a desk drawer and in its cozy cave is a tumbler of bourbon, ready for its burning route down my esophagus.
Brokenness is a crawling feeling of shame when I mess up once again, run my mouth, my dark thoughts reeling out from my vocal cords in a helpless torrent. It is the dry-eye blinking at two a.m. What the fuck have I done? Why the hell did I do that? My words, sharp as an F-S fighting knife, reverberating around the room, death kneeling, and eyes unable to meet mine.
I live with it every day.
Turns out gluing pieces back together takes time, mistakes, more time.
I was living with it months after talking to Jen in a Georgetown wine bar, where I’d agreed to meet with a psychologist. We’d made it through the worst of our first year of growing pains with the company, and now we were going to find out what the fuck was going on with the visions and voices. I was terrified. One look under the hood, doc, and you’ll find hooded-eyed, winking demons. Foetus in fetu of all the bad things I’ve done and thought, with teeth and hair and eyes, staring up at you. Or maybe, doc, you’ll find nothing at all. Maybe that’s what I’m most afraid of. Cavernous emptiness.
I’m shit-scared but had told Jen I would try anything to be better for her and it wasn’t just words. I would fling my entire body in front of a moving car for her, would eviscerate anyone trying to hurt her. Which is why it destroys me that it’s me who has hurt her, who has led her to cry, who has authored the stressed darkness that circles under her eyes, the small tears she has chewed into the edge of her fingers.
So there I was, seated on a made-for-waiting chair in a tasteful reception room for Dr. Fischer. My left knee is bounce bouncing in place, staccato heartbeat. A douchebag in a blue suit that pulls at the knees is staring, too. Fuck you, asshole. You’re an inmate here, just like me.
“I can do this,” I had told Jen that morning when she offered to go with me. Shouldn’t have said that, Danny Boy. You can’t do this. What’s that in the corner?
The familiar shadow falling over the fanned-out magazines low on the glass table in front of me. Oozing flat and ominous towards the douchebag’s shoes. I move my feet out of the way, but blue-suit fucker doesn’t flinch. He’s going to be covered in it, this dark, tarry flow of my mind. The clock ticktickticks its way by, listening in. Is there a camera in the clock? Is there a camera in the chairs? How much of this is being caught on film? My eyes scan around, looking for blinking lights.
“Mr. Boice?” The admin is calling me, her navy dress pulling at her shoulders as she peers over the cherrywood reception desk. “You can go in now.”
She must know, sending me in, unsuspecting. She knows I’m a fucked up shattered mess, hopeless, no cure. She’s sending me in to the lions. The doctor’s door is the tasteful polished oak of a good Virginia address. I expect to find the shadow bear when I open the door, but there is just a man, eyes on me, hands ready. Thirty minutes Dr. Fischer listens to me, asks questions. No lying down on the couch for you, Danny Boy. No judgment.
“I believe you have PTSD, OCD, Bipolar 2, and I think a touch of ADD but we will see.” Rip of a paper from a prescription pad, letters on the page. Broken, broken, fix me. “We’ll start you with these. It will take some time and you will have to come see me weekly, but we will figure out what is right, what works for you. We are going to get you well, bud.”
I come home to Jen, trailing diagnoses and words. Trintellix, Lamictal, Bupropion, Lithium, Vyvanse. I would jump in front of a bullet for her, but there’s no magic bullet here. There’s glasses and pills of all colors, days and hours in the waiting room, the receptionist with the thin, mousy hair and the green-eyed stare. Down to the salt mines with you, start the real work of uncovering your shit and facing the demons you’ve got grinding knuckles in your head. The man with the knife who’s not real, the clocks and lights beating out messages, tap, tap, tap, tap; the ooze of dark shadows that follow you, the bear monster you fight like some New Testament zealot in the grapple of dark forces. All in your head, Danny Boy. Never existed, not one.
But maybe we can get it the fuck out of there, or at least put them in a box we can close and place high on a shelf. Managed. Sounds like the pussyfooted talk of someone with a shiny cheap suit and rolled up sleeves, the brown-nosed eager beaver. But days blink by and I try it, shove the pills down the gullet, answer the questions. Anything. The pills swim in my gut, chemicals making me queasy green. I stumble to the bathroom, cling to the porcelain, throw up bile and lunch. I fucking hate this, but I fucking love Jen. I keep at it. Sweaty quiver after throat hot with vomit. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In between the visits where my ass sits in the shadow of all the other asses in Virginia who have come this way to tackle bipolar, schizophrenia, and all the other chemical pile-ups in our gray matter, there is our marriage. Our marriage is a strobe light. Blink and we’re laughing, kiss. Blink and there’s damp skin on damp skin, light turned low. Blink and I’m screaming at her again, booze humming in my veins and her eyes disappointed. Blinkblinkblink.
Blink again and it’s May 2017, Jen’s radiant with smiles, on her way out the door. It’s the night of the Alexandria 40 under 40 awards and Jen’s obviously going to be the most beautiful and accomplished award recipient there. I’m so in love with her my tongue must be lolling out of my head. I want to be—plan to be—the husband standing proudly by her as she shines under the stars, as the camera flashes pop in showers of digital press.
In my brain a switch flips. I don’t recognize this whiny and ungrateful asshole who shows up with Jen to this gala, but I hate his fucking guts. More so because I recognize my shadow twin. Jen gestures to the man beside her, smiling.
“Senator, I’d like to introduce my husband, Danny.”
Love should push its way through my lips but instead it’s “I need water.”
“Oh, can you grab me a glass of wine,” Jen asks. The room is getting more turbulent, smells of perfume and the hot press of bodies, swirls of color. Lurching off to the bar. Clink of glass and craning my neck, can still hear Jen in the crowd. I don’t even have the daymares and hallucinations this time. Voices don’t fade out and there’s no weird shapes emerging on the surface of the bar. Yet everything is twisted and wrong, like watching someone else in my skin say the words I say to Jen that night:
“I walked around four times looking for you to give you your glass of wine.”
I sigh deep by the bar. “This was a waste of time. We have to be better about our time and this was a waste of time. I didn’t need to be here.”
I watch Jen still smiling, smiling for everyone, and like the shit I am in that moment I push the dagger in further: “I wish I stayed home with the kids, I miss the kids, I should have stayed home with them. I get very little time with my children and I should have stayed home with them.”
Maybe I’m not getting the attention I need, but this douchebag I don’t recognize goes for the jugular: “This self-promotion has gotten to your head. . .You’re just thinking about yourself.”
Who is the asshole saying this shit? I have no fucking excuse: it’s me being the ass. Again. Jen does not pick up the thread, does not fire back.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but it means a lot to me you’re here.”
The dark bubble of our car ride home that May night was filled with words, hers soothing and mine sharp and crackling. I wanted to grab that guy and shake him. Where the fuck did those words come from? And yet I was on the tracks of this conversation, couldn’t slow down, couldn’t tell her I loved her and was proud of her, couldn’t give her what she wanted.
The traffic lights in the dark. Green yell loo ww. Redred. I pull over on the side of a busy road and get out. Slam of the car door and the hot humid skin of the night on me. Pavement firm under my feet, something solid to crash into.
“Danny? Danny, are you OK? Where are you going? Get back in the car.”
Jen’s worried pale circle of a face in the fogged-over car window and I’m turning away. Can’t fucking do this, can’t fucking explain it. Despite the drugs dulling the hallucinations, in spite of the talks with the shrink, there is something in me that’s broken and it cannot, will not knit back together.
The next day there will be flowers, kind words. Tonight there is miles of pavement and bubbling anger. I'm the tiger with blank yellow eyes not understanding what hurt me and why I'm reacting but eager for the red blood of a heartbeat. Instinct, fast as coiled muscle. God is supposed to help me, right? God does. I know. I felt it that day at Metro church, and I’ve felt it since. But in my case, He got a little boost from pharmaceuticals, Angels flying on the wings of chemicals and biology. But still, I hurt, I lash out. I want to be free, really free.
The shitty thing about going to a psychologist is that eventually you have to face your shit. There’s no hiding behind the soft wave of Pfizer, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline forever. My life wasn’t going to be measured by doses. The chemicals gave me a start, but Dr. Fischer made it clear this was just the jumping off point. Sitting at the edge of the Grand Fucking Canyon, the good doctor demanded I work and that meant turning over all the rocks I didn’t want to look under.
“Tell me about drinking.”
Well, fuck. What is there to say? I loved it, the smell and taste of whiskey on the rocks, bourbon. Loved the loose-limbed Danny who could smile and smile, no matter what he felt. I especially loved the way alcohol could help me sleep. It was a nightlight that blinked out the bear creatures, and for that I was grateful.
I hated alcohol, too, especially now that I was with Jen. She looked at me and saw the man who didn’t drink, didn’t get mean with three glasses. I wanted to be that man for her and now I wanted to be that man for me.
I wanted to quit drinking, peel away the onion layers of me that never quite fit, but I came from a family of alcoholics. I had been drinking deep and long and hard, but I would try, would fail, would pick up the bottle again. That sly, winking amber bastard would always get me back with shakes, headaches.
How was I going to do this?
There’s the other, problem, too. Drinking was the crutch under the reeling, broken guy and each time I quit it was like getting the feet kicked out from under me and trying to work my way across the deck of a pitching ship. With the drink, I had an excuse to be fucked up. It was the drink. What the hell was my excuse without those glasses? Who the hell was I without it?
When I started seeing Dr. Fischer, I went through months of the dance: I would stop drinking and into the void would come all the symptoms. Shakiness. Dry-eyed blinking at 2 am. Sweating, panting, can't breathe. And a thirst that wasn’t so much physical as it was emotional. Every bit of grey matter screaming at me for a drop. I would relieve it by taking a small sip, still in control. I would parse out my days with small sips, until I would look up wearily one day to find I was drinking just as much as before.
Back to the doc, to tell him I couldn’t stop. Dr. Fischer prescribed Naltrexone. A few months of Xs crossed out on the calendar, where I was swallowing swallowing doses and not drinking. Could have taken 12 steps, sat in dusty basements. “Hello, my name is Danny.” I didn’t think I could fit in, could make it work in a group. I had Naltrexone, neat in doses, I had Jen. I had my faith. Day by day, settling molecules, peace, clear mind.
I was better off as someone who didn’t drink and I wanted to be that someone. I had all of these gifts from God that had materialized or clarified over the last few years with Jen. Becoming a Believer and Follower and Partner to Jen made that clear and important, relevant. Being a believer and witnessing life’s gifts made it possible to quit drinking forever. Jen brought me to Belief, and God used Jen to show me what gifts He had given me and that those gifts—my gifts, our gifts—could be used for such big things as part of His plan. Finally, after a lifetime of fucking up I was meeting life face to face and found I didn’t need the drink after all.
And while I didn’t need it, I sure as fuck wanted it. It was seductive, the clink of ice in a glass, the heft of a bottle in my hand. Naltrexone handled the physical symptoms so I could function, but it did nothing against the real enemy: my brain. I white-knuckled it through the first few months of sobriety, wanting and not taking that first drink. Every day I was aware of every wine glass I passed and every drink I saw. The douchebags at the restaurant having red and leaving it on the table, as though it didn’t matter. The bottle left on the table of an employee. Someone had sent it as a gift, complete with red bow. Fuck. All the ads on TV suddenly for beer. The world screaming at me to take the drink takethe drink.
And I didn’t. It was hell and I hated everyone who casually drank what I wanted, left behind half a glass. Roll your tongue back up, Danny. There were long hours when I thought I would finally break into pieces, shatter on the point of wantcan’t desiredon’t. Don’t take the fucking drink, Danny.
And there was a day when I went a few minutes without that siren song, when the three-ring Whiskey Circus and its motley crew of performers in my head shut the fuck up. And the week when I wasn’t white-knuckling so hard. The night I walked by a bachelorette party and didn’t read the label on the wines they were carrying. I noticed the tiny things. My mind snapped awake easier in the morning, no fuzz on the brain. Things made more sense up there wherever thoughts are created. It was easier to get to bed without staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t believe it: was I taking a step closer to normal?
Completely sober, I was on a roll and I decided to do something else—to reach out to my dad. I had sent an email to my mom and she didn’t seem interested in reconnecting, but what about dad? Who was he beyond the hot whip of the belt? I hadn’t seen him in ten years, but his name came up in couples’ counseling Jen and I went to. Another doc to help us work through my illnesses. Dad came up a lot. The carrots, the belt. The room at the top of the stairs in Centreville.
“What do you think about going further than you have?” our therapist asked one day. Olive branch, green and new. Yet what to write? Hey dad? Typed out neat as a tax form, scrawled long-hand?
I sent a piece of art as a gift and a hello I sweated over. I wanted him to feel seen. I see you. I’ve been thinking about you these past years. I see genetics at play, those chromosomes and the endless DNA helices like something out of a medical textbook. The letter in the mail, the post box clanging shut on it. No expectations, leave those behind with the stamp and the paper.
But every day I check the mailbox, ask the admins at the office for the mail. Bills, flyers.
Then one day I’m getting ready to speak to 27 Attorney Generals in California and I’m back from lunch, red letter meeting in an hour. And my assistant pings me to tell me there’s an envelope.
“I can set it aside,” she says.
No. No. “Please, can you open it and send me a scan of it?” Slit it open like a vein, send me the innards. I need the words more than I have ever needed a drink or a bump.
I wait, fingers tapping. Jen runs her hands over my shaking shoulders, kisses the top of my head. Then, the beep and I start reading.
I have been on a journey, too, Danny. I have unconditional love for you, of course. I have been talking to a therapist and a priest and they say don’t chase your boy. I just came back from this amazing retreat. . .
The sentiments leak salt from eyes. I shake and it’s Jen’s hands that hold me up enough to allow me to hear my father’s voice in my head, transcribed from the words he has written to me. Blood has been linking us, and a history bitter as wormwood and now it’s black letters, the slope of his Cs and Ss. Linked. It is more than expected, an outpouring of love and warmth. All the warmth I missed in Centreville, here in these scanned pages. My father loves me. He has maybe always loved me. The love nestles in deep and some old wounds start to cauterize.
I learn more about my father. Letters, texts, the hesitant communiques of the newly-dating or the long-estranged. He was born in 1949, lived through dusty years of too little food and too little hope in Montana, served in Korea, was a green beret. How did I not know all this about him? We have both had delirium tremens, both have been men trying to overcome an addiction printed in some indelible karmic ink on our blood. Both shaking with the need to drink. Alcohol withdrawal is the withdrawal most likely to kill, and we both survived, tough asses.
I could hammer it home, ask about the belt and the carrots and all the times he yelled and drank, but we’re skating on the thinnest surface of the present and I never ask him for an apology, never bring up the ugliness. He is broken too. We can be broken together. Maybe in accepting who he was and how he hurt me I can accept my own brokenness.
Old dog, still learning new tricks. I expect a vein of bitterness in my dad, rough words at Meg-mom, but the only words he has for her are petal-gentle. Kindness, generosity. I want some of that, his ability to look long in the mirror, drink in the image and admit he screwed up, step fully into what he was. I want to look back at the mother of my children and embrace her with that same warmth, build those same bridges.
Maybe I’m mellowing as I grow older, maybe it’s the small bit of stability I have with Trustify. We raise $15 million in funding and Trustify goes from not existing to being independently valued at $50m in 2 years by summer 2017. By 2018, the number is closer to $100million, of which we own 75-80%. Maybe it’s being a follower. Maybe I’ve learned to take a few knocks, but I seem to have some resilience in me yet. With Jen in the wings and God’s footsteps in front of me, the anger has left me. The desire to cut deep has slowed to a trickle.
And I learn to find balance. To enjoy, not destroy. More than a year after stopping drinking, I take a vacation with Jen to Napa Valley. Long bars of oak and the smell of sour wine in the air, heated by California sun. Put on the whites, play tennis, drive your car fast. You’re West, the edge of the continent. I expect to be tempted, to look longingly at the clink of fine crystal. But then I look closer.
All the fancy people at the high-end wineries sip the wine, swish it around, and spit it out. I watch as their lips purse around Christian Louboutin lipstick, above cravats, faces concentrated. All the fancy wineries have big barrels just for spitting.
“A good blend of zins, 2014 was an exceptional year for our spicier blends. Lodi, old vine.” Swoosh and spit.
“Petite Sirah. Chocolate and pepper. Note the hints of blueberry.” Swoosh and spit.
I don’t have to be sitting there, with my face pressed against the glass, hoping for a taste. I can develop a palate for wine, taste it for hours, love it and never drink a drop. I swirl red in my mouth and inhale tobacco, earth, peaches, notes, and aftertastes. Synapses fire and I get the same enjoyment. Something in me softens. It’s not all or nothing, fixed or broken, It’s all moment to moment, face to face with whatever’s present.
Sometimes it’s rough. Catholics embrace the “mea culpa,” the mortification of flesh, and part of me was steeped in that, using it like my dad used his belt. You’ve fucked up, Danny, that voice tells me. How can anyone love someone as messed up as you are? Some mean-spirited fuck without the education or the goods, someone who has hurt others? And then a new day dawns and I put one foot in front of the other, just as we all do. Jen tells me “God didn’t get us this far for us to fail.” I believe her. I believe in her, my North Star.
Through life’s grace, here’s what I’ve learned: I’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole I felt I was in fucking hell itself. I’ve screwed up big time and screwed up the screw ups. I’ve been an asshole, a selfish bastard, a piece of shit, and more. Yet, I’ve got good in me. And all that groundwork and shit was good fertilizer for the truth and for trust, both of which I dig for now. I know what lies on the other side of the doorway of truth and trust and it’s why I work so fucking hard to help others who have been broken, too.
In the early 2000s, I started training MMA and Muay Thai with Vivek Nakarmi. Muay Thai is as brutal as life. Massive amounts of carnage with kicks, elbows, knees, fists. Besides the bumps and bruises, I would wake up every day with strange scratches and cuts on my shins. How did they get there? Vivek explained that I had just started building my muscle fibers; tendons and bone on the front of my shins were still very weak. As I started training every day they developed all these micro tears and bone splinters, but eventually I would start to heal and as I healed the front of my shins bones would resemble carbon fiber and would be far stronger than before.
My body is scars—the tendons and muscles broken down, the bruises that have healed and that I will never forget. There are the scars I have given myself. The little green dragon tattoo I got at sixteen because I thought I was a badass little shit. A face of Ben Franklin with “Born Hustlin,” a jet with a hundred dollar bill for wings and "SELF MADE" across my knuckles, some ancient invocations to succeed, no matter what. Strums of Merle Haggard across my hands: “Mama Tried.” My “Recipe for success: 1 part pain and suffering, 2 parts brains and hustling." "Classy as fuck" with a big diamond when Jen started paying attention to me. On my neck “J-Mells" in a huge heart with a halo, to the angel who saved my life. Inked before we were engaged and it still didn’t scare her off. Daniel the bull on my chest, and all my children’s names. These are my timeline, indelible, the scars I have chosen myself. Rebuilding my body one needle, one drop of ink at a time.
I’ve learned on my journey to give grace to people, regardless of what they've done. To do that, I had to start by giving grace to myself and finding trust in God and in the greater plan that we cannot see. It wasn’t an easy road. Bumper sticker philosophers tell you “everything happens for a reason” and “God makes no mistakes” but when things go so sideways you’re screaming off the rails it’s hard to believe. Or at least it was for me. To believe I had to accept that grace is a state from where you can be rejected by others. It takes trust and you have to wield it with its corollary—faith―to keep extending it over and over again. I think of it this way: I have to go first, trusting myself and others, putting my ass on the line, so others can trust in me, in themselves and in the world.
I’ve put my life in God’s hands and the path is a little less dark for that. Yet I have seen shadows—and still witness them some days—and I know that has made me able to reach—to understand, see, sense—those who are lost. If you don’t feel you can trust anyone or anything, if you feel alone, know that I have gone through shit and have arrived on the other side with a life I could never have dreamed of, would never have thought I deserved. If a fuck like me can do it, you, whoever you are holding these pages and reading these words, can do the same. I’m holding open the doorway to grace and trust, wedging in with my shoulders so you can slip through, too.
Life gives all of us a beating at times, and it does make us stronger, cliché or not. The goal isn’t to avoid getting hit; it’s to get stronger so we can take it. The hits are coming and I’ve had them land on me. Today, I use those experiences and the strength they’ve gifted me to help shield others. The mom whose husband is stalking her, the woman who was trafficked and needs help getting away. Trustify helps all of them and I’m so fucking proud of that.
But the thing I’m most proud of is my family. For all my flaws they love me and see me. God brought me my family and the second he did, he started a cascade of dominoes. As each piece hit the next, everything in life and how I was truly meant to live fell into place and made sense for the first time ever. The great and foundational truths of life are the ones that are the simplest—this is the hand of God.
No More Good Girl
It was a big revelation: after years of being the good girl in our marriage, I had permission to be bad.
“I get to be the regular wife, moody and nagging,” I told our friend casually and with a laugh over dinner one night. And it blew my mind, because I realized as the words left my mouth that I was right.
There were lots of reasons I had been a good girl in our marriage and in life: it’s what was expected of me; I wanted my parents to be proud of me, I wanted my life to be smooth sailing and I thought being good would keep me safe, secure, in control. I thought God wanted me to be a good girl—scratch that: expected or even commanded that I be a good girl. And I had been raised on those fairytale images of what being loveable as a woman meant and looked like. Have you ever heard of or seen a girl starring in a children’s story or movie or TV show who wasn’t pretty and good?
In many ways, Danny was the Bad Boy Rebel-with-a-Cause to my Good Girl. I think some people expected I would cut loose and get in touch with my shadow side in some new and scary way, dating this man with a dark past. But in truth what happened is that I became more of who I truly am and inched closer to what I’ve always wanted to be: deeply compassionate and not at the whim of my emotions and automatic reactions. With him, I had to be the strong one; I couldn’t fly off the handle or take the low road, no matter what happened. With so little stability under my feet in my relationship with Danny and in life overall, my strength and connection to my faith expanded and deepened in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The difficulties in our relationship revealed the beautiful depth of what I now realize I had only scratched the surface of before.
Danny had gotten help, and we had gotten help; our baby Daniel and our baby Trustify were now both three years old and thriving; we had settled into a wonderful friendship with my ex-husband, which made co-parenting with him easy and even joyful. Things were better than ever before, and as I spoke with our friend in the dining room, lingering over wine, while Danny put away dishes in the next room, I told her this: “We are doing so well now I can be bitchy if I’ve had a bad day and it’s fine!” As strange as it sounds, the words tickled me as I spoke them.
Just a year before, I had always walked on eggshells and longed for that elusive “normal” relationship where I could be upset sometimes and not constantly at my best. I wanted to be able to have a bad day, or even a bad moment, without initiating World War III. But to protect Danny, and to support him through his healing, I had been the energized caretaker, the grounded mom, the gentle step-mom negotiating with Joanne, and the confident co-founder. I had to constantly be strong and now that Danny was garnering control of his mental health, he could hold space for me and support me, too. It felt damn good, that’s for sure.
It’s a lesson I have learned well and feel grateful to have grasped at my core: to have compassion for those who seem to have it all together—to be aware that a smile can hide immense tension. A year or two ago, when Danny would suddenly snap at me, slam the door, call me a bitch, and walk out, I would take a deep breath and say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” No provoking, no slamming back. No expectation that he hide his anger and his fear just to protect me.
I think a lot of people who hear my story wonder why I didn’t leave, why I didn’t hit back with words. We admire women who say screw it and slam their way out the door, Gloria Gaynor soundtrack blaring. I will survive. But what I have learned is that there are different ways to survive, and there are countless ways to love.
Part of my decision to stay and to handle the situation the way I did was my deep compassion for someone who was ill. I saw in Danny glimmers and glimpses of his deeply compassionate heart, his immensely loving being. I saw him for who he was at his core and that was the man I loved, the man God led me to. And with that came his many layers—his illnesses, all undiagnosed at the time we fell in love, and his past. We wouldn’t blame a cancer patient for being sick, yet we as a society routinely expect people who are mentally ill to be left behind, especially if they lash out. There’s plenty of compassion to be had for someone who is struggling in a way we understand. Someone who doesn’t hurt anyone else and who has a type of illness we can name and comprehend. But someone who is struggling with mental illness and therefore angry, hurt, and scared? Forget it. I love Danny and for me that means being there for him as he identifies and treats his illness. It means helping him carve away what stems from his illness and distinguish what stems from his core.
And, I didn’t just stay for Danny. I handled our relationship and his struggles my way because I am a Believer and a Follower and I’m going to live by my lights. That means fighting for what I know is right for my path, and it means not being angry or disrespectful just because someone else is. It is not who I am and I am not going to be that person.
Walking this path hasn’t been easy, of course. There were all the moments you’ve read about in this book (and others I haven’t included) when Danny shouted or name-called or otherwise erupted.
There have also been the moments of challenge and growth inevitable in a professional life joined with a personal one. In 2018, Trustify had a new executive level hire, and the whole leadership team sat with him in a meeting to discuss how we could change Trustify’s organizational structure to deal with its fast growth.
The executive handed everyone a copy of the proposed new org chart and when I looked at it, my stomach sank. As I followed the boxes and stylized arrows I saw that all the departments which had been reporting to me would now be reporting to the new executive. I was an island on the chart, off to the side with my assistant. I looked around and saw everyone nodding and smiling. Was everyone okay with this? Even Danny was attentive as the executive talked. I stayed quiet for most of the meeting, hoping my role would be made clear. Maybe I would be given a chance to make my own choices? When the executive didn’t mention my name, I spoke up. “Excuse me, I have some questions about your proposals for my role, as defined in this new chart.”
Danny, sitting beside me looked over at my paper, picking it up from where it sat in front of me. I picked up his chart and felt my stomach drop again. Danny’s copy of the org chart was completely different—in his version, all the departments were still reporting to me. In the moment, we weren’t sure what everyone else was looking at and which version was correct.
“We need to talk about this. It can’t be like this,” Danny said to the executive, flint in his voice. To the executive’s credit, he looked abashed at having been called out for having made such a big mistake—that version had been draft in progress, not meant for my eyes.
When the meeting ended and everyone filed out, it was just Danny and me in the conference room. There’s always something special about the time Danny and I spend alone at Trustify, even if we’re just sitting alone in a room while the business teams and froths around us like an ocean. It’s as if we’re returned to our core, to those moments at the start of the whole venture, when Trustify was just a passion. We both looked out at the skylines of Arlington and Washington, DC, spanning out eight floors below us from the conference room.
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Danny’s voice was soft as he placed his hands on my shoulders. “How horrible for you to have sat through that meeting thinking we would even consider a reorg that would sideline you.”
I had kept it together during the meeting but hearing his words made me realize just how deeply it had hurt—not just what the new executive had done, but my fear that everyone had been okay with me sitting on the sidelines. I loved my team and was devoted to being in the woods with them.
Danny must have seen the hurt on my face, because he took me in his arms and brought me close. Danny hugs are the best—full of warmth and deep breathing and enveloping love. Danny hugs with his whole body and intention, so you can’t help but feel the comfort of it right down to your toes. We stayed that way for a long time, not saying anything, just holding onto each other. Those moments have made the trials worth it and over the past year there have been more of those moments than the trials.
That specific moment also shows how important truth is to building trust. When we speak up and tell the truth—about the chart, about our feelings, about who we are—we’re setting down the fundamental building block of trust, and trust is an essential ingredient to a life filled with faith, joy, and well-being. Here’s the thing about that reorg meeting: it took courage for me to speak up and tell the truth—“hey, my chart shows me on the sidelines and I’m not OK with it”—but when I shone the light on that fact, we communicated and my faith in my team and their care for me was restored. We realized that the whole thing stemmed from a miscommunication. That new executive is still part of the Trustify family, and we work well together; it is a close relationship that started with a single moment of truth.
Truth-telling provides an access point to grace by allowing us to express ourselves and share the sensitive wounds beneath our skin. When we feel betrayed or lied to—or when we betray or lie to others—it impacts our soul. Just as a bruise forms when veins and capillaries break under the skin and cause red blood cells to leak out, an emotional or spiritual impact can leave us seeping under the shiny surface we project to the world. When we leave the wound, it can fester and spread but when we tell the truth, no matter how painful, we start to rebuild the trust and start healing. We stop the hidden flow of hurt. Our journey through truth to trust redeems us—we cross this threshold and can then accept unconditional and limitless love, grace, and forgiveness that is ours should we choose to receive it. It is already there, but without truth and trust we are simply too hurt and too disconnected to see these gifts in our lives.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that that moment of trust and truth took place in Trustify’s offices. Not only has Trustify become a home-away-from-home, but it has given Danny and myself a framework for working through challenges in our relationship. If that sounds strange—working through a personal relationship by using a professional framework—it shouldn’t. After all, early on Trustify sparked some deep discussions between Danny and me about what Trustify would stand for. Since it was all about truth and trust, we asked and answered some big questions and had deep discussions on our honeymoon and afterwards about what these words meant not only for our business, but for us, for our relationship, for our family.
“When people come to us, they’re going to be in a place where they are betrayed and cynical, and probably in one of the lowest moments of their lives. What can we do to truly help them? What is the first step to trust?”
“Does truth always lead to greater trust? What if the truth is ugly or painful?”
“Once broken, does trust become stronger or is it always more vulnerable?”
These were not just rhetorical questions; they were the real soul work of what we would build together. Trustify was not like any other business we had ever started before. This was not about just solving a problem or building a better solution. It was about changing, fundamentally, how people navigate their way in the world after experiencing a broken heart.
Since that’s the case, it should come as no surprise that we faced more challenges with this business than we had ever faced as entrepreneurs before. We were disruptors in a field which had been used to doing things its own way since 1850, when Allan Pinkerton established the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the first PI agency in the US. We were also trying to change the way people approached betrayal, cynicism, and pain.
Early on, we ran into resistance in the marketplace. Many private investigators welcomed the idea of a network which would bring clients to them, offer them steady work, and help clients feel more comfortable and trusting from the jump. But we were also shining a light on the industry, and that meant no more big retainers for no work done. It meant no more missing timesheets and invoices. Anyone who was unethical in their business practices could not be part of the Trustify network, so they were losing work.
At first, the PI industry shrugged. They thought we were a flash in the pan and wouldn’t be able to compete with established private investigators. Some investigators also thought we were working with unlicensed PIs and wouldn’t be able to hack it. But people who needed PIs loved us. They loved knowing they could call and not have to pay a huge retainer. They appreciated knowing where the investigation time went. Even insurance companies and lawyers, who used to look for PIs through the Yellow Pages and Craigslist, just like everybody else, were finding us.
That’s when some investigators took notice. Before Trustify, the PI industry in the US was quite small and in each state the investigators typically knew and worked with PI licensing boards and regulators. When we first established Trustify, those in the industry who were threatened by Trustify claimed to not like what it stood for and trolled us online for not being a licensed agency, a requirement we didn’t have to fulfill because of the structure of our business. When Trustify took off, they went to their friends on PI licensing boards and we ended up in court, having to explain again and again that we were not an agency and that we were operating legally. Reams of notes, calls with attorneys, late nights before court, talking about what would happen the next day: all occupied every inch of our lives, besides those we’d carved out for our family.
To get through that, to win in the end, we had to believe in more than a company. We had to be completely dedicated to bringing trust to the world. Knowing the importance of our calling helped us navigate those legal battles with grace and strength and allowed us to appear before judge after judge, armed with the truth.
We created Trustify as a way for us to bring truth, trust, and safety to every person, every household, and every business on earth. That’s a tall order, which is why Trustify asked each of us to bring our 110%. For Danny, that meant and continues to mean holding a space for the healing that acknowledging distrust, broken-heartedness, and insecurity can initiate. As he came to grips with the importance of our mission, he saw the ways that his own broken past and betrayals could help him connect to those who were showing up at Trustify needing the same understanding from him that I once provided to him.
And me? I held the space for faith, hope, and light. I believed in us when no one else could and together Danny and I were a balance of shadow and light, known and unknown, challenge and peace. While he could understand brokenness and the journey back to trust, I could understand the faith that awaited at the end.
This soulful work together provided the framework for getting past the difficult times in our relationship. How could it not? Each day, we worked with the concepts of truth, trust, and healing and saw lives broken apart take the journey toward healing. We saw the worst in people and the resilience of the human spirit. In the face of what God showed us, how could we not embrace the professional journey to trust and apply it to our personal journey together?
Our global community largely shares its lives via filtered pictures and touched up “truths.” Hate speech is on the rise, as are hate crimes. Our nation is divided politically and ideologically in many important ways, and yet with globalization and connective technology, we depend on each other more than ever before. In a world where all people are growing increasingly more interdependent, how can we reverse the tide of rising distrust?
It comes back to truth-telling. People are afraid of sharing their true selves, and it leads to disconnection, which leads to violence and abuse and us turning our heads the other way. By “going first” and being as authentic as we can be, we can strive to do our part in healing the rift that a lack of vulnerability, authenticity, and trust have wrought.
Thousands of people have trusted Trustify to help them resolve some of the most painful and sticky situations in their life. Lost children. Broken relationships. Online stalking. There are two ways we can start taking the first steps to trust in these situations, where the people who comes to us often feel trust is forever lost: we can extend trust and be trustworthy. These two equally important aspects are critical. We need to ensure people know they can trust us, even when they feel they can’t trust anyone, and we need to create a place of trust for them so they can hold onto that until they can start to trust on their own again. These two things
must be developed—both at Trustify and our greater community—if we are truly to be in service to one another.
My journey has taken me many places, from college to Joint Council, to turns of faith and moments of crying and anguish. It has taken me on an entrepreneurial ride which has allowed me to help others in a way I once only dreamed about. On the surface, it’s a quiet story compared to Danny’s, but it’s all mine and it has yielded lessons. I have seen and felt trust eroded. I have questioned and doubted, felt betrayed and hurt. In the dark moments of my faith, I wondered what path God was leading me on.
What I have learned is that trust means having a rockbed foundation, a core that does not waver in a storm. I know my life is in God’s hands and from that one trust—a trust which can feel like a big leap on hard days—I can trust in all the little steps. I’m not sure where they will all lead, but as a Follower, I trust in the person ahead of me. I know God is listening and I know he loves me, and he loves you too.
Postscript: A Soulful First Aid Kit For Your Journey
A note from Danny and Jen:
Perhaps we have never met and we don’t know what prompted you to pick up this book and to read to journey’s end. What we do know is that the end of any story offers a decision point. You have slipped into our skins for a while, have seen the world through our eyes for the duration of these pages. And now you have come to a fork in the road. We don’t know what awaits you on your path here. As fellow travelers, though, we know the road is rocky and there are moments where we all travel in shadow, and even though we never travel alone it can feel that way.
A few years ago, Danny came up with an idea to help fellow travelers. Every day on his way to work he passed by homeless people who were ill or unable to find work and homes. We had donated to our church and charitable organizations, but Danny was called to do more. He spoke with many people who were living on the streets,
“Excuse me,” he’d say. “Can I ask you something? Can I ask what types of things you might need? What makes the biggest impact?”
Using our garage and lists from his conversations, Danny started assembling packs in insulated kits. He put in what homeless individuals in his area told him would make the biggest impact on their lives. Our garage is filled with the makings of these kits and our cars are all filled with kits, which Danny gives away to anyone he sees who needs one.
Everyone needs a kit, a pack of things to take with them. Over the years, we have put together our own soulful first aid kit, filled with the resources we use when we are lost, brokenhearted, and seeking. We’re leaving a version of it here, so you, whoever you are holding this book, have somewhere to turn.
The first item in our kit are questions we ask ourselves:
Where does that tiny voice in the darkness come from?
Where can hope and grace be found in those moments when I begin to doubt their existence?
What am I afraid of?
What can I look forward to or feel gratitude for?
What truth can I tell today (to myself or someone else) that can start me on my journey?
What truth do I need to find out?
What truth am I afraid of?
The second item in our emergency kit is discussion. Is there someone you can turn to with whom you can discuss your fears and worries? Is there someone who can hold a place of trust and wholeness for you during those moments when this feels like too much of a task for you? If there is no one in your life, consider a professional, an organization offering counseling, or consider speaking to God or a higher power. Speaking your truth helps you make sense of your story and lets you connect while you explore possible steps forward.
The third item in our kit is faith. We are Followers, but we’re also aware that in our world many of us carry wounds where religion and spirituality are concerned. If you are not comfortable seeking faith in a church or a God, seek it in yourself or the world. Seek faith that everything will turn out, that there is a way forward.
The fourth item is action. As you get clarity and take the steps toward truth, consider what actions you can take with faith and trust. Can you use your experience to connect with others? Can you make a difference in yourself or in the lives of others? Are there things you can do which are positive and healing? These do not have to be grand gestures. In fact, they can be very small.
We want to leave you with one last item: an invitation. We invite you to leave cynicism and perfectionism aside. When you look at the world, with all its painful news headlines and suffering, we invite you to accept the beauty in its brokenness and yet we want you to be able to see the ways it can be made better. Just for today or for this moment, look around you, whether you are in a park or a room and accept what is, with its beauty and flaws in equal measure.
We want you to know that all those who feel broken, alone, and lost can find peace and redemption. Accruing scars and wounds makes it harder for us to access the sublime elements of trust and faith that are truly available to us all, but trust and faith are an inside job and these gifts are always there, just waiting for us to reclaim them. We have both wanted to extend a hand to those who no one is helping and to reach those who feel they can’t trust anyone or are being taken advantage of. We have worked incredibly hard to peel back the layers, and reveal the soft, vulnerable truth written on our hearts. We hope reading our
story has given you a glimpse of the possibility of trust and grace in your life. Our wish is that this story lets you see it’s never too late and that you can always take risks, address the past, and engage fully with truth, trust, and safety.