The Tenth Time

Laurie, I have to tell you something. I should have done this a long time ago. But I didn’t, and I don’t have any excuses. I hope you will forgive me.

I hope I can forgive myself.

*    *    *

Your mother was seventeen when she got her first boyfriend. Danny Spence. He was eighteen, also a senior, and he had a habit of answering every question in class correctly, albeit under his breath. Kate — your mother — had known of Danny for years, through mutual courses and friends, but mostly they’d stayed on the periphery of one another’s lives, faint blips in the outer ring of radar that weren’t really worth worrying about.

Then one day he showed up dead center.

Kate had been having a terrible week, and I wasn’t making it any better. She’d been waiting over an hour for me to pick her up in the old station wagon we shared, and Danny caught her sulking on the curb of the high school’s turnaround, restlessly flicking loose pebbles across the pavement.

“Do you need a ride?”

“No, my sister’s coming,” she answered hastily. She didn’t even bother to look at him.

He shrugged. “Hey, I just thought maybe you’d like to get away from here. But if you’d rather stay in the sun and pout, be my guest.”

Kate watched him walk away, strutting towards his zippy blue sports car. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Meanwhile she was up to here with college applications. The word freedom flashed through her mind.

“Wait!” she called out. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed her backpack off the hot cement. “Wait, please.”

*    *    *

That was all it took. One afternoon, one genuine conversation in a nearby coffee shop, one spark to ignite the reservoir of feeling inside of her.

Kate came home wearing a certain soft smile, one I’d seen in the mirror on my own freckled face many times before. She and Danny had shared a connection over iced mocha lattes and a sticky table for two. They traded personal information like baseball cards, laughing at the ones they had in common. His knees knocked against hers once when he was stretching, and her heart began to pound in an unfamiliar rhythm.

She shared these details with me in an urgent whisper, sitting Indian-style on my bed with a twinkle in her eyes. I smiled at her excitement, but secretly I worried, too. As much as I wanted to share the optimism in my sister’s voice, I knew that these things don’t always work out like we hope.

*    *    *

Whenever we talked about boys, Kate said that she wanted to be swept off her feet. She imagined candlelit dinners, late night walks in the park, and flowers at her locker just to make her smile. But Danny wasn’t into any of those clichés, so she told herself they were childish dreams, fantasies fueled by fairytales and Disney films and that new genre of fiction, “chick-lit.”

Things like that don’t happen in real life, she told me as if she were an experienced woman. She thought that this was realistic love — real love — and she didn’t understand that the two are not necessarily the same.

*    *    *

Maybe we’ll get married, she said to me.

They’ll be lucky to last to Prom, I said to myself.

*    *    *

At some point, they started to fight. Kate always ended up in tears and Danny always walked away. Or hung up, or drove off, or left her in some other way. Sometimes he would still be sitting right next to her, but she could tell he was gone. And what is a relationship if one person can’t touch — literally or figuratively — the other?

Then Kate would slip into melancholy, unable to eat because she was already full on the threat of a break-up, unable to sleep because she felt sure that the end of her first love would be the end of everything. So many times the world had been on the brink of self-destruction, only to be saved at the last minute by a reluctant phone call, his grudging apology. And if Kate couldn’t coax one out of Danny, she would cave in herself, taking the blame regardless of whether or not she deserved it.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s something, some dangerous mix of human weaknesses that makes you desperate to preserve your first relationship. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s fear of failure. Whatever it is, there is a natural tendency to hold on, when you shouldn’t. To give in, when you shouldn’t. To stay, when you shouldn’t.

*    *    *

Nine times out of ten, nothing changed. Nine times out of ten, she would run gratefully back into Danny’s arms. Their relationship became frustrating and predictable. Like a pendulum, they were always swinging high in one direction, and then high in the other. They couldn’t seem to reach a happy equilibrium. I guess Kate didn’t realize that’s what she needed. I think Danny just stopped caring.

*    *    *

Once, Kate managed to convince me that it was the tenth time. Danny had finally crossed that uncrossable line, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. Yes, Kate said, this was that ten out of ten.

Maybe she’d write him a nasty letter. Maybe she’d even call him and scream. Or maybe she’d just throw all his shit into a box and dump it on his lawn.

Whatever she did, it would make a statement, and Kate wanted to think about it carefully before she “said” anything to him.

*    *    *

In truth, whatever Kate planned to do was irrelevant, because this was not the tenth time and the relationship was not over.

Nine out of ten times, she said he’d crossed the line. And he had. But she always drew him a new one.

*    *    *

It was everything we always said we’d never do. We saw other girls being treated like dirt, being taken advantage of, and we said, Not us. Never us.

I tried to remind her. Every now and then, I told her what I thought of him, but she accused me of being jealous. I said she was a fool. We screamed at each other until our throats went raw — or until our parents got home. Eventually I gave up, because instead of opening her eyes it just made her angry. And when she was mad at me, she clung to him even more.

But once when she was getting ready for dinner with Danny, I couldn’t help myself. I stood in the doorway of her bedroom, watching her carefully apply eye shadow, making herself beautiful for him. I sighed. Two nights earlier they’d fought, and as usual he’d tried to end the relationship. And as usual, the mention of a break-up caused Kate to do a complete one-eighty.

I pleaded with her to look at what was happening, to look at what kind of girl she’d become. He’d made her weak. He was taking advantage of her. She was so dependent it was disgusting. Couldn’t she see that she deserved better?

But she wasn’t listening to me.

She was fixing her hair.

*    *    *

Your mother wasn’t stupid, but even the smartest women can do a lot of stupid things. Love has that effect, sadly.

Love isn’t blind. It’s blinding.

*    *    *

In the end, Danny was the one to break things off for good. She couldn’t even say she’d had the strength to walk away, because she hadn’t.

For three days, she held off the grief. When our father asked how Danny was, remarking offhandedly that he hadn’t come to visit in a while, she said only that she believed he was perfectly fine. Her composure was impressive.

On the fourth night, she crumbled.

*    *    *

How could he do this to her?

She was furious. She stormed like a hurricane while I sat quietly on her bed and watched. She was raging, laughing, shaking, pacing. The mess of emotions whirled inside, and I didn’t know what to expect. But one thing never changed: she was hurt.

“You know what?” she said, her green eyes narrowed with mean, brimmed with pain.

“What?” I asked gently.

She was just glad she hadn’t given it up to him. You know, IT.

*    *    *

The next day she was calm again, as if the night before had never happened.

I wanted to talk to her, to make sure she was okay, but I didn’t know how to bring it up.

“I’m proud of you,” I finally said after breakfast. We were walking to the station wagon so I could drive her to school again, now that Danny would not.

“For what?”

“For being strong. For getting through this.” I put the key in the ignition and waited for her to settle into the passenger seat. “And,” I continued, “For holding out. Not having sex.”

She closed the door and buckled her seatbelt. “Maybe I should have,” she muttered.

*    *    *

She would spend the next few nights trying not to cry herself to sleep. She would spend the next few days trying to figure out where things had gone sour, what she’d done wrong, what she could do to fix things and get him back. She’d spend the next several weeks trying to prove she was fine when she wasn’t, trying not to let people worry. Her bedroom door had never been closed so often.

But I knew anyway. All this thinking and trying and almost crying, I knew about it. Not because I saw it, but because I’d done it too.

*    *    *

Your mother’s story is my story, and it’s your story too. This is the story of every woman, every girl overcome by love. For the first time, for the tenth, for the hundredth. This is our story, our pain, and though the names, the dates, the time and the place may change, still the story stays the same.

I should have told you sooner. We women are storytellers by nature, but I kept my mouth shut, and now you are here in this hospital bed with a black eye and a cracked hip and your chest hooked up to a machine.

Luke, that bastard. He broke your heart in more ways than one.

*    *    *

Just before Kate died, she asked me to look after you. Such a little thing to ask of a sister, really. But you were already fifteen then, nearly full-grown, or so you thought, and your daddy was a good man. He didn’t need me watching over his shoulder.

So I forgot — I let myself forget — that you needed me.

I should have told you all this long ago. Before you married Luke. Before you even met Luke. Or at least after he hit you the first time. Maybe I should even have told you before your first date, before sixteen-year-old James Goodwin came to the door with that bouquet of pink roses and a winning smile on his face.

But I’m not your mother and I thought it wasn’t my place. I forgot, as most women do, that it is always our place. Mother, friend, sister, stranger. Aunt. We all have a responsibility to each other, to share the lessons we have learned through our hurt and tears and smiles and lies.

Because if we don’t help each other, who will?

*    *    *

I don’t know how to tell you that I feel your pain. Seeing you lying here like this, small and helpless, battered and weak… It’s as if my old wounds have been reopened, and I’m bleeding all over again.

Laurie, if you wake up, we’ll go home, I’ll make you tea, and I’ll tell you all the stories, your mother’s and mine, which I should have told you long ago.

And if you don’t wake up… Oh God, if you don’t wake up, tell your mother I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, Kate.

No! Don’t tell her anything.

Tell her your story.