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Kelly Sundberg

Updated: May 19, 2020

I have a prism in the window of my living room that refracts sunlight into rainbows that then filter across the room, and while I’m social distancing, I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the rainbows. The prism was made by a man who lives in my hometown. I saw him at a solstice party in December when I was visiting for Christmas. The party was hosted by some older hippies—a little younger than my parents—and I was the guest of my former boss, Karen, who owned a wonderful, witchy bookstore that I worked at when I was in high school. Karen and her group of friends all ended up in my little hometown in Idaho in the 70s or 80s where they partied, rafted rivers, grew gardens, agitated for environmental change, and raised children just behind me in school. The solstice party was lovely. I saw how the decisions they had made—to settle in this beautiful, rural place and make a community—had created a life full of magic and wonder. I felt privileged to be a part of that community for the evening and the many other times I had been welcomed into it. Glowing lanterns were lit next to a bonfire and let off into the sky. The host who I had known pretty well when I was younger asked me how long it had been since I’d been there. I thought he meant since I had been to his house. “I’ve never been here,” I said.

A woman next to him laughed, “Good answer,” she said.

I hadn’t been kidding, had been earnest in my reply, but understood then what they had heard. I had left home and changed so entirely that it was almost as if I’d never been there in my hometown at all.

This pandemic has forced me to question my decisions as I shelter in place alone with my child in a little, brick, urban townhouse where I don’t even know the names of my nearest neighbors. The culmination of my life is a series of decisions. To marry a man who was cruel to me. To follow that man across the country. To leave that man. To raise my child alone. To not return to my hometown. To pursue a career in academia instead.

I guess that, if you ask me right now how I am, I can only say, “I don’t know if I made the right choices.”

I’m an Enneagram Four. Fours have a difficult time letting go of the past, and I’m no different. There is so much allure and comfort in nostalgia—the brief comfort of relaxing into a beautiful memory—but then the inevitable pain of realizing that memories will only ever be in the past.

I’ve been sinking into nostalgia and memories a lot lately. I went through a break-up shortly before this, and it was sudden, shocking, and painful. I keep reliving it, still not really understanding. He was the first man I’d loved since my divorce (for perspective, I’ve been divorced for almost eight years). He couldn’t love me back, and it wasn’t personal. He doesn’t know how to love anyone (I think he’d agree with me on that). He’s someone who lives with a lot of fear, and it keeps him trapped. Still, I saw so much potential in him. He’s kind, funny, and very, very smart. Those are my favorite qualities in a person, so I invested in the potential, but potential is not reality, and though, he may overcome his fear and find that he’s able to fully love someone someday, I think I can safely say that I won’t be that someone.

I wanted to be that someone.

So I’m living in nostalgia—the dreams of a life that passed me by. The other night, I drank three glasses of wine, texted a different ex who I haven’t talked to in years, and ordered myself a $60 electronic plastic shoulder massager that literally fits like a vest of armor over my head (it hasn’t arrived yet, so preliminary reviews are yet to be released). That was probably my “peak pandemic” moment.

That ex and I are friendly, so there was a brief, kindhearted catch-up with some light flirting. I’m pretty sure that he’s in a serious relationship right now, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little disappointed when I found that out because he was kind of my go-to when I was visiting my hometown (I never thought I’d be a 42 year old woman with a “go-to” but I also never thought I’d be divorced). I met him at a bar in my twenties, and we ended up in my high school English teacher’s hot tub (long story, and the teacher was out of town). At one point, I used the bathroom and discovered my teacher’s toilet reading: a manual for how to write a romance novel. I sat there on his toilet and read it. My high school teacher was a fifty-something year old man. I remember thinking that, if middle-aged men were the ones writing romance novels, then maybe that was why, in romance novels, women characters always climaxed while having sex for the first time in their lives.

There is an entire formula for writing a cis-het romance novel. The protagonist man should be more powerful and rich than the woman. He should be sad and broken in some way, i.e., “widower.” The protagonist woman, in contrast is opinionated and fiery but ultimately subservient, i.e., “protective nanny.” An antagonist love interest(s) who is attractive but milquetoast must also be present. But the biggest key to a great romantic narrative is that there must be a conflict, either external or internal, for the lovers to overcome. In most of the romance novels that I encountered while I was still reading them, the conflict—internal—was the man’s fear of vulnerability and trusting the woman. In those novels, the man always came to his senses at the end, broke down, and was revealed in this tender state to be loving and open.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a card in the mail from the man who broke my heart so recently. It was a beautiful card—thick paper stock--with a photo of flowers glued on the cover. On the back, it read “[His sister]’s Handmade Cards.” She is, according to him, the kindest sister out of many. I thought that maybe this was finally it—maybe he was acknowledging that he’d made a mistake. Even as I thought that, I knew it wasn’t possible. I opened the card, and in his tight, immaculate cursive, he wrote that he’d been reflecting. He wrote that he wondered if it was possible to reflect too much? In my head, I heard an emphatic “yes.” He wrote more—mostly musings about how he doesn’t know what he wants. He said that he doesn’t know if he wants to be a carefree nomad, or settle down and have a family, or “…?”

In case it’s not obvious, he’s younger than me.

I told my therapist last week that I don’t want to be someone’s “…?”

I meant it, so I called the younger guy out. Told him the card was cruel. He replied that he knew it was true, that he regretted it the minute he sent it, that the pandemic was doing weird things to him, that he got trapped in his head. I knew he didn’t mean to hurt me. He doesn’t have it in him to try and deliberately hurt me. That’s why I love him, so for my own protection, I told him that I’m not angry, but we can’t talk again. I don’t even know if I meant it. I deeply want to talk again. I also told him that he’s confusing reflection with indecisiveness (as though I’m not guilty of the same thing).

I know that I have a tendency to reflect too much.

Days later, when I late-night texted the hot tub guy, I wondered why I could talk to him but not to the younger one. And of course, the answer is that I didn’t love the hot tub guy like I loved the younger guy. Love expands life in the moment, but it builds walls when it’s taken away.

My therapist told me that I need to hold space and care for the part of me that still wants to be with the younger guy rather than trying to shame that part into nonexistence. “There is nothing wrong with that part of you,” she said. “It only is.” I know it would be easier if I could go out and see people—if I could distract myself from my ruminations—but my friends are stretched across the country, and I am here alone. Even the younger guy lives in the small town where I completed my PhD. We had been long-distance for months before we broke up. Because of my choices, I have almost exclusively been in long-distance relationships.

When I was at that solstice party talking to the man who makes prisms, I asked him how I could buy one, and he invited me to his house and studio, said he would show me his orchards, told me he’d give me a glass of cherry wine. He told me how to get there—drive down the highway, turn left at the mile marker, round the bend, and find the house down below the trees. I thought that I would need more directions. His friend said, “Don’t worry. You’ll find it.” She was right. I never needed a map when I was home. But here? I’m lost no matter where I go.

How are you, Judy Bolton-Fasman?

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