6:00 A.M., on a drive up Highway 1, just South of Santa Barbara; the world rested in a peaceful calm. I had the driver’s side window down and my elbow resting on the frame. The cool sea breeze washed into the white Impala, filling the car with the smells of the ocean and the taste of salty, crisp air. The sun had yet to crest over the peaks of the mountains to my right, which colored the Pacific and the sky in a blue hue, like blue-dish-soap. The oilrigs emerging out of the water glowed with lights indistinguishable from the stars still visible in the dawn sky, giving the horizon a modern romanticism. I fell into that moment of serenity and regarded an empty seat where my ex-wife – my best friend – once sat. I wished she could enjoy that view with me. I envisaged her curling both of her legs on the seat as only women can do. She rested her head in her hand, supported by her elbow against the open window. I saw her hair being gathered by the wind and tossed about in large strands that had been gummed together by the previous day of salt-water and sun. And in an instant of serendipitous fortune, as if in a semi-lucid dream where consciousness and fantasies converged, a song* streamed out of the speakers and pulled me further, deeper into my imagination. The rhythm of the song and the world harmonized perfectly: the waves – the wind – the cars speeding by, strummed in tune with the vocals. I knew – I knew! – she would love that song, that moment. Her body swayed to the beat and then paused when she caught me watching her, mesmerized. She closed her eyes and a peaceful smile dimpled her cheek. She recognized what I saw and what I felt. The infinitesimal smile creasing her lips transformed into something that only a deep love gleams. A smile that said, “pull the car over and kiss me – now. No, wait, screw it – kiss me now!”
I blinked to behold the seat still vacant. A metaphor no less, of my heart, and one typified by the tears slipping down my cheeks.
The moment stilled time. It caused a painful self-reflection that I needed but did not want. I just kept repeating the same question: “Where did I screw it all up?”
I had what every man envied, a wife that made life meaningful. Beautiful. Caring. Funny. Since the day she first caught my eye, I thought of her constantly – I still do. I could laugh with her over anything. Her smile could crush me and heal me in the same instant. We made fun of each other and told one another things no transitory couple would (or could). She did anything for me without even a question. She was – she is – a rockstar.
The memories are the worst. I once bought her the “ridged for her pleasure” condoms so that she could have as much fun as I planned to have on our first time together. I found out years later that it felt like crocodile skin. We had a good laugh about it, but what stood out was she said nothing about her discomfort. She wanted to make me feel like a gladiator, her gladiator. I still cringe and pound the ceiling of my car when I think of how stupid I must have looked. Once while I was in New York, on another business trip, she also called me screaming in pain, reeling from the miscarriage her body had induced. I had never felt so helpless before. All night I waited on my knees, holding my heart, wishing I had said no to work and yes to her. I wanted – I needed to stand by her side – to tell the nurse checking us in, “I’m her husband” – and to hold her hand while they worked on her. Instead, she went alone. I label that memory: “the final straw.”
Veterans, especially the combat types, live in a world of success and failure that only a small percentage of civilians will ever understand. Failure on anything crushes us. So to prevent failure we push ourselves at a level that often produces great success. Many times though, we fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. All excuses aside, I believe this explains much of my failed marriage. Since the beginning of my career, just before I slipped on the ring, I traded important and needed time with my girl for office tasks. And once hitched, I barely changed, chocking the pain of separation to early marriage issues and business requirements. The early days were tough. Our first bed had to be blown up and our first TV stand resembled something close to a blue milk crate. We were poorer than bluestocking British writers. But looking back, it was a wonderful time, and the difficulty brought us closer together.
Most veterans reading this know what I’m saying. They identify with the urge, the need to please “the self” through personal success. It’s about getting the t-shirt and attaining the achievement that will qualify your position in the world. But as I write this, I recall how numb my fingers were as I scratched my signature on the divorce papers. With each stroke of the pen, I cursed myself. If only I had said no to work more and yes to dinner at the dinner table – to that date night – to that talk – to that kiss before leaving on another trip. For me, that internal drive that earned me Sergeant in four years and a hand made paddle, replaced her needs and her wants. I only understood the drive within me. This, in my opinion, is an unseen, and often unrecognized, cost of years in the military.
Veterans can have a difficult time being loving and emotional. When you know what a 155 mm shell does to a vehicle and a human body, it can be hard to relate to someone who has never witnessed such a thing. Feelings are hard to translate when you still remember the face of your fallen friend staring at you with his tongue resting on the dust; only the dead do that. How would she understand? So at times, it’s even harder to remember the one person in your life that forgave so much of you and did everything in her power to be there and take care of you during your hardest days.
I tend to think, “if only I was a better husband and a poorer worker, then maybe she would have continued to see me as she did when we first met.” But that is all water under the bridge. It was a mutual break.
Now life moves a little slower.
When you’re single, everything is unhinged and the unknown is exciting. I find myself doing things that I never thought I would after saying, “I do.” Now, I lock eyes with women wherever I go. I randomly talk to them in a fleeting hope of something more. I even found myself ambitiously clicking “confirm purchase” on a bulk size box of condoms in shameful anticipation of things to come.
At first, the possibilities seemed endless. To be unshackled and not held down by someone for whom I cared deeply, felt liberating. For a guy that travels internationally, being solo is a freedom you can’t imagine. But that’s a young man’s mentality that reflects the pettiness that tends to be personified by provisional conquests, not by real choices. As young men, we are identified not by the decisions we make, but by the poor ones made by optimistic women. I don’t want to live like that.
I, having been both married and unmarried, now know that the grass is always greener on the other side. To every married man, the single life appears wonderful. I can feel their stares as they watch me. They resemble prepubescent boys picking their way through a tattered porn magazine. They ask questions like I was the first one in class to touch a girl’s boob. Because let’s face it, guys miss the sex and the lack of variety. But if those same married men were honest with themselves, they would not give up their best friend for a fleeting interest. Would you give up a friend to get laid? I doubt it.
The Marines imbued me with many skills during my time there. It directed my mind to accomplish the mission and to never quit. To the contrary though, the Marines also numbed my mind to some important emotional facets of life. The same way I stepped over my friend so I could continue to clear the room, so too, I took for granted my former wife, I just kept moving and focused on the next objective. That drive, that created so much success, also blinded me to my most important entity, her.
Work, money, and success are very important, but they are worthless if you are not willing to live poor with your highest value, whatever that may be. And it may be work. Who knows? But to have one without the other counts as a loss, and that loss will continue to be a hole in your life, as I have found it to be in mine. I guarantee you one thing, even if you slow down just a little bit, you will still be much farther ahead of your colleagues. But you will be happier. It’s worth it. I promise.
After I finished that drive up the coast, I arrived at work and my mind was awash with regret. I regretted missing all of those birthdays, Christmases, and “sick days.” I can’t get those choices back, and I probably will never be able to fix what I have done. That is the hardest part I think. Because my job won’t be there for me when I’m sick, when my parents pass away, and it won’t hold me in bed – scratching my shoulder so she knows, that I know, she is still there.
So choose her, guys. Choose what you have waiting for YOU at home over that extra hour in the office. Lose the smartphone for while and focus on her. The job can wait. Life is too short to spend it slaving away all the time. Do you not remember how quickly it can be snuffed out? Never forget that! Her wellbeing and happiness is worth that extra moment of letting your guard down – that extra sweep of your fingers through her hair – that extra kiss that says, “you first, but now I must go to work.”