“You don’t look like the type of woman to drive a man to drink,” the old guy at the Al-Anon picnic said. I was wearing a pair of white shorts and a black T shirt, sandals and a silver bracelet. That morning, I ran eight miles and would have kept going except for the girls. I was thinner than I’d been in years.
The old guy came over to the table where I was fussing with my contribution—a macaroni casserole, the only thing the girls would eat since their dad moved out.“My first wife, she was the alcoholic. S’why I’m here.”
He shrugged. “She wreaked some havoc—blew through one of my accounts, totaled a car.” The old guy’s name was Nelson, and like everyone else here, he knew my story because in the meetings, I’d spared nothing.
“I stuck with her for a long time, years and years. There was something about her.” He gazed out at the park in wonderment. “I should never have married her, but some women,”—he grinned—“some women you can’t resist.”
Mercifully, Shelley pulled me away. When we were out of earshot, she mimicked him in a sickly voice. “‘You don’t look like the type of woman to drive a man to drink.’ That creep. You should’ve kicked him in the shins.”
“It was pretty gross.”
“Remember the three C’s: didn’t Cause it, can’t Control it, can’t Cure it.”
What I liked about Al-Anon was that no one gave me advice. Instead there were sayings and acronyms: F.E.A.R.—Future Events Aren’t Real, or my favorite: L.O.V.E.—Let Others Voluntarily Evolve. I’d recently bought two stones engraved with the sayings Keep It Simple and An Attitude of Gratitude. I kept these stones in my pockets, one over each hip, where I could feel their gentle pressure. No one said, “What you need is…” A lawyer. A vacation. “Find a therapist,” my mother urged. “Change the locks,” my best girlfriend said. “What if that bastard shows up with his new girlfriend?”
What I hadn’t told my best girlfriend, was that he did show up with his new girlfriend. I found them in the living room one afternoon after work. The girlfriend—I didn’t realize that’s who she was at the time, that’s how stupid I was—complimented the house! “Thank you,” I said and watched as she put her face up close to our family pictures—Halloweens and Christmases, the girls playing with a train set, their dad on the couch behind them, a bottle of wine open on the coffee table. That ubiquitous bottle of wine. It got to the point, towards the end, when I wanted to hit him over the head with it. Now I was trying to keep my heart open because anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Or So the Al Anon people told me.
“But listen. I have the most wonderful news,” Shelley said. “My son showed up on Friday. He brought salmon for dinner and he cooked it himself!” She described the sauce, the capers, the lemon wedges sliced so thin they could have been window panes in a church.
“That is wonderful.” I scoured the playground until I found my girls on the teeter totter. Up, down, up down they went, carefree the way they should be—something to be grateful for.
“I didn’t say one word about his drinking. I just enjoyed his company. If I keep my expectations low, I stay happy.”
I didn’t ask what was wrong with having high expectations because I already knew the Al-Anon response—an expectation is a premeditated resentment.
I thought about this as I drove back to the house I wouldn’t be able to afford much longer. I mean were you not supposed to expect anything from the father of your children?
At night, the girls and I huddled in bed despite my mother’s warning not to let them sleep with me. One day another man might come along and then I’d have to put them in their own beds and they’d feel betrayed.
I pulled my girls closer and tried to dream about this future man. What if there was no future man? What if Nelson was my last chance?
He’d appeared at my side as I was packing up the macaroni salad. “You wouldn’t consider dating an old guy, would you?”
I laughed. “Oh, Nelson.”
“I’ve got life in me yet. We could have a nice time together.”
“We could go out for salmon.”
“Anything. Hell, we could have caviar.”
I tried to laugh again, but surprised us both by crying.
“Ahh! I’m sorry! I was being too forward.” He pulled a real cloth napkin from his pocket and handed it to me. “Listen, I know we’re not supposed to give advice so don’t tell that old bat, but take this from someone who knows—you oughta take that ring off.” He took my hand and gave the ring a playful twist and tug. “Don’t wait too long.”
This was the strange part—the years dropped away and I was back in a bar in Santa Monica with my husband when he was just my boyfriend. We’d wandered in to get out of the rain. I don’t remember our conversation, just that as we sat there sipping our drinks, he kept twisting my little class ring until it came off. Wordlessly, and with his eyes on mine, he slipped it onto the ring finger of my left hand. And my heart! It went a little crazy because that’s when I knew that this was him, the man I was going to marry, that one of life’s mysteries had just been solved, and there was no need any more for fantasies or dreams.
Nicole Simonsen’s stories and essays have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, The Raleigh Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, etc. She has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis and works as an English teacher at a public high school in Sacramento, CA.