Why I Say I Love You

It was May of 1987. I was 18, and my brother Tony had just turned 21. We were hanging out with a few friends at my apartment. In my white stretch jeans and loose hanging sweatshirt, I stood in front of the small group telling them stories about my and Tony’s childhood in our father’s shoe repair shop. After 16 years, our father was preparing to retire and Tony was going to take over the family business. He said I could work at the shop with him.

 

inchwormDuring my make-shift stand-up routine, I talked about the time Tony and I got lost in the woods on a day-camp hike. We were both bawling and eventually found our way back because I remembered the InchWorm toy smiling in front of a run-off valve. I talked about the massive Easter egg hunts with our 12 cousins at our grandparents’ house. And, how we took scraps of leather, wet them under the tap, and stamped our names in the hide with brass tools.

I started to walk toward the kitchen to get another beer. In this particular apartment, you had to walk through the bedroom to get to the kitchen. Imagine! I hadn’t noticed my brother followed me. Tony had silky brown hair, bright green eyes, and freckles. He was wearing a brown leather jacket. “Hey,” he said, “you made me cry when you told those stories.”

I smiled. That made me so happy. Usually my main goal was to make him laugh, but if I moved him that much. Wow!

“You’re the most important woman in my life,” he said. “I love you.”

Gulp. I looked at my white leather elf boots. I felt so embarrassed. My brother had called me ugly the first nine years of my life. We used to fist fight in earnest during middle school. And, since he had been in the army for two years, we hadn’t been around each other that much. I barely eked out an “I love you too.”

“We are going to have so much fun working together in the shop,” he said. “We’ll be party buddies for the rest of our lives.”

* * *

Two days later, Tony and I had brunch at Friendly’s restaurant. We hung out for most of the day at his place, and then he drove me back to my apartment on his motorcycle. We had a couple beers and listened to Run DMC’s Raisin’ Hell. At around 8 p.m., Tony left on his motorcycle to go to the store. I fell asleep on the couch. Three hours later, I was awakened by the phone, and the soft voice of my uncle Joe saying, “Tony was killed on his motorcycle tonight.”

As you might imagine, my life was forever changed throught that experience. I went from being a carefree 18-year-old party girl to a full-on grieving woman. A woman who cried every time someone said the name Tony. A woman who threw up when she ate. A woman who jumped at the slightest noise. A woman who was certain the ghost of her dead brother would visit to tie up loose ends.

Why had I been so afraid to tell Tony I love you? He was my brother. My rock. My shield. The first boy I ever loved. And, he had invited me to work with him at our father’s shop!

So, today, if I love you, I tell you. Tony’s death was a precious lesson. He was 21. He would never grow old. That taught me how short life is. In 1987, I started to tell my family, my friends, and even acquaintances “I love you!” And you don’t even have to say it back.

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Let’s Talk About Sex

When I was 15, my father gave me the sex talk: “If you come home pregnant, I’m kicking you out of the house.” My stepmother’s version was a bit different: “Let me know if you get into trouble, I have money set aside.” Looking back, I wish my parents would have talked openly to me about love, birth control, and infidelity.

“Eddie,” the first boy I fell in love with, and whom I chose to have sex with, turned out to be a consummate cheat who cut my heart into many pieces. We used a condom maybe three out of 30 times, and it’s only through the blessings of the universe I never became pregnant.

I had been crushing on Eddie since freshman year. He had amber eyes and freckles, and I thought he was so cute! Of course, many, many other girls also thought Eddie was cute. He took full advantage. Eddie didn’t give me the time of day until we were seniors, and by that time I had a boyfriend.

[The included photo shows me at 17, attending the senior prom with my good friend Rob Carro, who has since passed away.]

After Eddie and I kissed for the first time, I broke up with my boyfriend. It just didn’t seem right to stay with him when I was so ga-ga over Eddie. And I was naive enough to believe Eddie liked me as a person and wanted me as a girlfriend. And while I hadn’t ever had sex with my former boyfriend, Eddie and I did right away–in my living room, my bedroom, in the back of a truck, on a hillside, you name the place and we had sex there.

I loved Eddie as much as a 17-year-old girl could. Not only did I think he was gorgeous, I paid for his lunch at least once a week during football season. I had sex with him any time he asked. Once, I even wrote an essay for him, dumbing down my A paper to a C, so the teacher would believe Eddie actually read and analyzed “The Glass Menagerie.”

After I heard Eddie had been kissing and sleeping with other girls, I cried in private and was afraid to confront him. I figured that would be a quick way to get dumped, even though we had no real relationship. Eddie liked to spread himself around. When we were alone, he told me he was “not a commitment type of guy.”

Imagine my surprise when I showed up to school one morning and learned Eddie was in a serious relationship with a girl who happened to be the daughter of a doctor. I was the daughter of a shoe-repair man. Looking back, I see how she could raise his status higher than I could. But, was she in love with him?

How I cried. And cried. I asked Eddie to meet me in the gym so we could talk. I cried all through the conversation, but I told him I wanted him to leave me alone. No more sex. No more free lunches. No more serving as his patsy. Eddie cracked my heart in two. Wrung me out. I had nothing more to give.

Part of me hates Eddie, because my first time in love was defined by lies and cheating, and I dumped a sweet guy for an oversexed jerk. And while you might think I would have learned my lesson from that experience, I have fallen for the forked tongue of a narcissist more than once. Sometimes, it’s easier to believe the lies of a smooth talker than the truth from someone who loves you.

Obviously, being in love and loving someone are very different. I was in love with Eddie, but I hardly believe I loved him. Especially because he did not love me back. Luckily, I am not a grudge holder. I still believe in love. Plus, I heard that Eddie has daughters, so perhaps, as a father, he has been able to see the other side of heartbreak.

My father once asked me how I would handle questions from my kids about my sex life back in the day. Perhaps he thought I might be ashamed or embarrassed. Being open with my children about the past is important to me. Maybe they can side-step a few romantic landmines by learning from my mistakes. Let’s hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rules of Idealization

From the moment I could speak and make sense of what the adults in my family told me, and showed me, I learned these rules: 1. Being Italian was the best ethnicity in the world; 2. Anyone older than me was an authority figure and, hence, deserved blind loyalty; 3. Blood relatives were to be revered, and superseded non-blood relatives; and 4. Rules could change without notice depending on the authority figure who changed them.

These rules sank in early, and decades later, I find myself still obeying them even though I know they should be challenged. My 20-year entanglement with a loved one, for example, is solid evidence. But we’ll get to that in a few.

Thirty two years ago, my older brother Tony was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 21, and I was 18. Before him, I’d lost no other family members. Grief slammed into me like a torrent of New York rain. Tony was my best friend, my confidant, my witness to a chaotic childhood filled with neglect, abuse, an unstable step-parent, and secrets.

At the time, I was 18, and my life consisted of little more than a job at McDonald’s, bottles of vodka, grams of weed, sheets of acid, and care-free living. Tony’s death kicked me in the stomach. I had anxiety. Puked after I ate. And I kept imagining his ghost would appear at my apartment asking about the night in 1976 when our 16-year-old step uncle convinced us to take hits off a bowl, pulls off a bottle of Carlo Rossi Chablis, and disrobe in Tony’s bedroom.

Tony was 10, and I was 8, and to this day, I question whether either of us knew what we were doing. After exploring each other’s bodies, our step uncle told us to get dressed, and we all rinsed our mouths out with Scope. Our step uncle looked like Howdy Doody, red haired, freckled, but with doofy glasses. He said, “Don’t tell your parents. They’ll think you’re nasty.”

For decades, I blocked this event from my memory. Then, two days before Tony was killed, it all came back. I had to talk to him! I wanted to tell him I forgave him. That we were just kids. It wasn’t our idea.

Tony and I spent May 1, 1987, his 21st birthday, together at my apartment. We listened to the Rolling Stones. Jody Watley. Run DMC. We reminisced about all of the good memories from our childhood–our dad’s shoe repair shop, summer camp, family dinners–omitted our stepmother and her perverted brother.

May 3, 1987, at approximately 8:15 p.m., while riding his motorcycle to the store to buy another six pack of Beck’s Beer, Tony was hit head on by a red Dodge Demon. He died instantly. My uncle Joe called to tell me Tony was dead. For the next three weeks, I floated above myself through the wake, the funeral, and a two-week vacation.

Once the shock wore off, and I started to grieve, I lugged the shame of our “sinful evening” around with me, unable to talk it over with Tony, or anyone else. In the 32 years since his death, I’ve been unable to write about him objectively. He wears a golden halo.  Is it because I feel compelled to follow the family rules? Is it survivor guilt? Is it denial?

Oddly enough, I have experienced this same phenomenon with my failed relationship with my ex-husband Eric. I guess when you love someone for more than two decades, and your memories are relatively positive, it’s difficult to see the person as a flawed human being instead of a baby-faced sweetie pie you thought you’d grow old with.

I’ve spent the better part of my life in therapy, trying to make sense of my childhood abuse, the poor decisions I’ve made in romantic relationships, how to stop the cycle of abuse, and how to become a trusted faithful partner. My current therapist suggested I might have an idealism issue–that is, instead of viewing Tony and Eric as the flawed human beings they are, in order to protect myself from the pain they have caused me, I idealize them.

Both of them have hurt me deeply, whether purposefully or not, and it’s more comfortable to see them as perfect than to look inside me and analyze all of that ugly pain. I’ve been unable to write about Tony in an objective way. And, I’ve been unable to see Eric in an objective way. Obviously, love cannot be turned off like a faucet or light switch.

I still love Tony. (I have to follow the rules! He’s blood. He’s older. And he’s Italian.) Eric and I have no blood relation, and he’s 10 years younger than me. But we were family for 12 years. And we share kids. After our divorce, when I asked if we were still family, he said, No.

Somewhere inside, I feel I’ve been abadoned by Tony and Eric–the two men in my life I have loved more than anyone else. (Now I have Vinny!) So, my goal in therapy is to try to view these two men objectively, and heal some of my hurts, which goes against everything I know. I’m willing to give it a shot. You can teach this old dog a new trick.

Emotions Just Are

When I was in second grade, I was using a stapler and pushed a staple into my index finger. As soon as I saw the pearls of blood, I started to cry. My teacher, Mrs. Blabac,  walked over to help me. A few classmates circled and called me Cry Baby. I cried harder. At the end of that year, in my report card, Mrs. Blabac wrote: “You’re sensitive. Never lose that trait.”

As far as I can remember, no one has ever praised me for being sensitive besides Mrs. Blabac. At home, my father preferred the smiling, happy Cindy. My brother Tony was stoic and level, and I was an open book whether I was happy, sad, angry, or excited. If my father caught me crying, he sent me to my bedroom.

All through elementary school and even into middle school, the name Cry Baby stuck. No one showed me how to manage my emotions, or explained that emotions just are. It’s taken me decades of therapy to figure that out. And, I am still learning how to manage the slew of emotions that stir inside me. One therapist said, “You have a lot of emotions.” Do I?

One thing I have realized is that the more a person is uncomfortable with their own emotions, the more he or she detests the expression of someone else’s. I have been called “dramatic” “psycho” “bi-polar” and more. Although I am not someone who can pretend that everything is okay, I am a person who wishes to be open and honest. Sometimes that means “emotional,” and that upsets some people.

By the time I got to high school, I learned only to show the smiling, happy Cindy. People preferred that girl. I even earned the notable Class Smile. Looking back, I know I was a relatively happy kid, and at the same time, I was hiding the fact I was part of an insanely dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, abusive stepmother, and two brothers who acted out in the most outrageous ways. Tony got into fist fights, and Jack got kicked out of every elementary school in our district. And me? I was a girl “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

My current therapist told me “emotions are not bad or good–they just are.” I love that. Many people view anger and sadness as bad, and happiness and joy as good. But are they? When I’m sad, I make bad decisions. When I’m happy, I make bad decisions. Noted EQ guru Travis Bradberry advises us not to make any decisions when we are really happy or really sad. Emotions are temporary.

All of that said, I recommend we follow our hearts.

 

 

Do as I Say and Not as I Do

Years ago, I promised myself that when I became a parent, I would never use the phrase “Do as I say and not as I do.” It’s hard to believe I actually heard this phrase from my stepmother all the time when I was a kid. My parents smoked cigarettes and pot, and got drunk as all get out, then told my brother and me not to smoke or drink. My stepmother used the word “fuck” as a convenient adjective, but my brothers and I were scolded for saying “freaking” or “sucks.”

While I never used the phrase with my kids, I know I’ve implied it. Nothing turns a person into a hyprocrite faster than being the parent of a tween. “Mom? We learned about drugs in school. Have you ever done drugs?” “Mom? Is Dad the only man you’ve had sex with?” “Mom? How old were you when you first drank alcohol?” You see my point. Unless you plan to divulge every naughty thing you’ve ever done in your entire life to your maleable child, you will be forced into being a hyprocrite. At least my heart is in the right place.

When I reflect on the barrage of mistakes I’ve made throughout my life, things like spreading gossip to falling for a guy who said he loved me and didn’t to dumping a guy who really did love me, telling and/or believing lies, and getting married when I should have run for the exit, I hope to protect my kids and loved ones from making the same mistakes, suffering the same hurts, and enduring the same humiliations. Of course, that’s not how it works. Everyone needs to learn for themselves.

For instance, my first serious boyfriend, “Randy,” and I started dating three weeks before my older brother Tony was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was 18, a grieving mess in need of love, and fresh prey for the malignant narcissist that Randy was. He charmed his way right into my life: I moved him into my apartment, never charged him rent, and never had a job (except the occasional drug deal). Randy cheated on me incessantly, stole money from me, and somehow I believed I loved him.

After a year of catching Randy in lies, being evicted from numerous apartments because of fights, and seeing him come home with hickies from other women, I finally dumped him. He started bawling and slapped me across the face. “This is why I’m leaving,” I said. And while I thought I was free, over the next several months before I left my hometown for the U.S. Navy, Randy slithered in and out of my life. Today, friends say he’s an incurable heroin addict still living in our hometown.

What surprises me is that during that 18 months, my father never said a negative word about Randy to me. How difficult it must have been for him to see his only daughter crying hysterically when Randy stood me up, the crappy apartment I shared with Randy, and the long-haired bum in tattered jeans and concert T-shirts holding his daughter’s hand at family functions. Although my father knew this relationship was a disaster that would blow up in my face, he never said a word.

If you’ve never had a Randy in your life, consider yourself lucky and unlucky. Lucky because you haven’t suffered the hell of loving a malignant narcissist. Unlucky because you’re still innocent enough not to recognize a malignant narcissist when one oozes into your life. You may fall head over heels in love with him or her and be blindsided when their house of cards drops on your head.

My friends and family members who have been burned by a malignant narcissist and I have so much to talk about when we get together: the endless love letters at the beginning of the relationship, the speedy pleas for commitment, the soul-mate and “us against the world” bullshit, and of course, the frequent hot sex. (Distraction!) If you’re at a vulnerable point in your life, it’s very easy to get seduced by a Cheshire Cat–they are charming, good looking, and unbelievably skilled at lying. The worst part is NO ONE can convince you this person is a lying, cheating, despicable waste of your time.

Once the narc has earned your trust and loyalty, just like a cat with a dead mouse, they toss you aside. But you have already fallen in love. So, now you’re sunk. They start criticizing you, are probably already cheating, find excuses to see you less, and when you share your feelings, they call you needy, weak, and crazy.

All I can say is trust your gut! If something smells fishy, gives you a stirring in the belly, or just feels wrong, get out. Better to miss out on a lying, cheating, asshole who may be fun to hang with than be dumped by a lying, cheating, asshole who will never leave you alone. And the narcs favorite line is … refer to the title.

Red Flags Schmed Flags

When I was 32, I attended graduate school in Bellingham, Washington, at Western Washington University. Go Vikings! Part of my graduate program included working as an English Composition Instructor. It was one of the best jobs I have ever had, and I truly enjoyed interacting with first year college students. Part of my responsibilities included meeting with students one-on-one to talk about their assignments, college, and the writing process.

By this time in my life, I’d been married, divorced and widowed, and had two daughters. I still believed in love and everything, however, sometimes I had to check myself when I met with students who were 18 and had unbridled hope regarding the world that awaited them. One young woman I’ll never forget was talking to me about her plans after college. “I’m going to marry my boyfriend, and we’re going to live happily ever after.” My gut told me to say, “Gimme a break! Whatever!” but luckily, my best self butted in and warned me to, “Shut up and smile.”

The benefit of youth is having ignorance of what could go wrong. The benefit of experience is having insight into what could go wrong. They are both liabilities as well. However, whether we are young and naive or old and weathered, we still fall for people who will hurt us no matter how many red flags wave in our faces. With as many episodes of Forensic Files, true crime documentaries, and murder mysteries I watch, I feel adept at sniffing out scary people. But in real life, I’m just as hopeful and romantic as my former college student.

Since it is not my goal to out any specific people from my past that turned out to be a dud, I’m simply going to provide a list red flags I ignored (at first) because I believed in the hope of a budding relationship. I hope you find these humorous and relatable. Also, try to remember that I’m in a good place now and share these because I have learned, and gained distance, from them. Enjoy!

  1. While dining at a local restaurant, my boyfriend kept staring at the door and repeatedly hiding his face behind his menu.
  2. My boyfriend told a mutual friend, “Cindy’s not very pretty, but I’m going out with her anyway.”
  3. While riding in the passenger side of my boyfriend’s car while he drove us through Seattle, he was unable to find the tattoo parlor where he planned to get a belly button wring (yes, I know) and threw a frightening temper tantrum.
  4. My “sober for two decades” boyfriend said he only smoked two hits of weed at night to sleep. He FaceTimed me every night and proceeded to toke numerous hits while we chatted.
  5. My live-in boyfriend “had” to stay at his mother’s house every time he got sick.
  6. Although I was married, this person called me and said that “we were soul mates,” “we were destined to be together,” “I was too good for my husband,” “that I deserved better,” and that “he was my true love.” Barf.
  7. My boyfriend’s sister pulled me aside a few weeks into our relationship and said, “I don’t know what kind of show he’s putting on. He’s not a nice person.”
  8. My boyfriend claimed residency in one state but lived with his father in another so he wouldn’t have to pay taxes.
  9. My boyfriend said my son was weird.
  10. Last but not least, my boyfriend freaked out when I asked why he was on Tinder.

I hope you laughed at these as much I as did while writing them. No doubt there is a guy somewhere talking about the red flags he saw with me and ignored them. Best wishes to all.

 

 

Ain’t Too Proud to Apologize

In the tear-jerker Kramer vs. Kramer, there is a scene where Dustin Hoffman (the father) and Justin Henry (the son) have a conflict. Dustin’s character apologizes to Justin’s character, but the boy ignores him. While they are making French toast, Dustin’s character says something like, “When someone apologizes to you, it’s good manners to accept.” It has stuck with me for decades. If you’ve never seen the movie, I highly recommend it, however, prepare to bawl.0_cfq6p1hw_bfbexp7

I grew up in a house without apologies. As a kid, I have no memory of any one in my immediately family saying “I’m sorry” to anyone unless it was sarcastic. My father was a proud Italian-American who would rather burn garlic than apologize to one of us kids. And although it may sound like I’m complaining, I’m not. It’s just the way it was. If you grew up in the 70s as I did, you probably remember that many families practiced the adage “Children should be seen and not heard.”

As I went out into the world, I don’t remember being someone who apologized when I hurt someone’s feelings. The older I get, however, the more willing I am to try to make amends. When I reflect on my behavior in my 20s, and even into my early 30s, I see a prideful young woman afraid of being wounded so she kept her guard up. Having kids humbled me enormously. How prideful can you be when you are half awake, crawling beneath a crib to look for a lost binkie at midnight?

I’ve only been in a love a few times in my life, and my longest relationship was 12 years. I loved a man who was reluctant to apologize and reluctant to accept apologies. It was very strange, even though I hadn’t been accustomed to anything different. Eight years has passed since our divorce, and I’m starting to realize my years of apologizing for a stupid and brief affair have floated into the atmosphere. Since about 2014, I’ve been seeing a behavioral therapist because I want to make a real and lasting change in my behavior.

One of the questions I had for my therapist was why my exhusband could neither give nor accept apologies. I simply thought he was immature, like Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer. My therapist said that perhaps because he was a “moving away introvert,” he needed more time to process the infraction before he could accept or give an apology. Like me, he was raised in a home without apologies. Unlike me, he prefers peace at any price, while I like to put everything on the table, hash it out, and move on.

I remember vividly, several years after our divorce, when my ex and I had a “difference of opinion” regarding our son’s behavior before a basketball game. I was unable to get our son to don his basketball sneakers after several requests. His father showed up, and went into the boys’ locker room to talk to him. When my ex came back, he was angry and snapped at me when I voiced my opinion. We spent the entire game in silence, tears streaming down my face. When I left, I turned to him and said, “Thanks for a great fucking time.” By the next morning, however, I was over it. That evening, in the parking lot of our gym, he waved me down. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. I was stunned and delighted.

Having kids, and simply being harassed by life here and there has softened me. Thank goodness. I would dislike being a bitter woman who can neither apologize nor forgive. One, because I want to keep my treasured friendships, and two, I want to maintain good relationship with my kids and extended family. And you probably already know, if a person can’t accept an apology, that’s about them. Here’s to trying to do what’s right, and to continue examining the self.