Had She Stayed – II

Unfortunately things weren’t that simple.  Janine never left my mind. Even the summer that Andrew was born, I made my way back to Greeley to meet with her, to play that emotional roller coaster over again, and to try to understand the depth that existed there. Hastily we vowed that was it, and we wouldn’t meet again. Another year past and a chance encounter with her aunt led my back to those emotional breadcrumbs. There was a trail, and a trial it seems, where evidence and witnesses were still gathering. I was able to get a phone number, a few stolen conversations were passed, and I loosely made a plan to head down to the valley. An off-hand excuse to camp one last time, to explore some sights I’d missed out on earlier. 

East River Dawn – ISO 100 • F/4 • 1/400 sec. FE 24-105G – 70mm

It would be a brief visit – a couple of nights only. But an honest one. Our paths had diverged, regardless of any feelings that were held between us. It was time to go on those separate paths. 

From that point on Janine became a fading allusion – something that could have been but never was.  While I traveled into the valley many, many times over the next two decades, my understanding of who and where she was became dimmer and dimmer. Summer camping and fishing expeditions. Hiking 14’ers, skiing in the winter’s snow, soaking in the hot springs; all those memories would belong to Andrew and Tanner, and that is something that I would never, ever wish away.  Those experiences have made my life the rich experience that it is.  

Then it broke. The marriage that had such a weak and uncertain foundation finally collapsed on itself. While we shared a house and children, and certain spaces, we really didn’t share a life. When we reached the most challenging circumstances in our lives, instead of turning towards each other, we turned in to ourselves. I’m certain she had confidants, and confederates, I know I did. And that was the greatest failing for us.  When the chaos subsided and we were relocated in our new, separate camps, it was with a naive curiosity that I began to search through social media that I found her, again.  This time it was Maui – a honeymoon, she was married, and happy. I let it go. 

A few months later I found a “forever” home. I finally moved to the mountains that I’d missed for so, so long!  In a fit of relocating a house found me when I needed it the most, and I moved to the little community of Bailey.  This was not the perfect spot, but it would be at very least my spot. I would be a place where Anderw and Tanner and I could gather, out of the way, and without distractions and the process of rebuilding a life could start. Over the course of that summer, between remodeling projects, and a trip to Northern Michigan, there was a valley to further explore. It was now 23 years since I’d first seen the Arkansas Valley, and in that time I’d most ignored the high-mountains that I’d yearned to climb that 21st summer.  I’d summited a few in the interceding years, but my desire to stand on top of them again was burning bright. And the valley had the closest, most accessible sets. First Shavano and Tabeguache, then Princeton and Antero. Yale, Harvard and Columbia. Huron, the infamous three-in-one of Oxford, Belford and Missouri, then La Plata. It was an exciting and deeply rewarding pace. A sense of accomplishment ran so deep with each step up and down. I was beginning to feel myself again; in a way that I hadn’t experienced in a long, long time. The pace of projects and accomplishments were less an antidote and more a mask.  While I thought I was rising, inside I was actually falling. 

As August rolled around I was deep in thought and reflection.  I was really wondering why I was where I was. What were all of the pieces that put 45 Matt in the place he was? As the miles of driving poured on that summer, a realization came crashing down; Bailey, the town I’d bought my house in, was the town Janine grew up in. This was her town, a place I’d dreamed about living in all those years ago, I was finally living there.  How this irony snuck up on me is still shocking.  I knew she lived here, I’d spent time here, I’d driven her to and from here, yet I’d forgotten she was here.  Maybe it was my own sense of security that drove me to bury this fact – I wanted so badly to have my own space, to stop the rollercoaster of emotions that I’d been burying in the sea of home improvement projects and self-congratulatory accomplishments that I could suspend reality.  This memory, this recognition of retracing my footsteps unleashed a pattern of questioning and self-doubt that ran me back to a burning desire to find her. I knew she was no longer in Bailey, I knew she was in the valley.  I knew that’s where life had rooted and continued to flourish. Instinctively I went back to social media, I found her name in an art show, I saw that the art show was happening in a few days. In my mind, I’d reconstructed the path, and I’d come to the simplest of conclusions – it was an apology that was missing.  I had not apologized to Janine all those years ago.  As much as I strained to understand her pain, her grief, the whole tragedy of the circumstance, I’d never apologized to her for my part in it.  I now thought that if I could just apologize to her, that I might be free from the cycle of torment that had consumed me for over 20 years. If I could just apologize, all of this mess would be behind the two of us, and we could both just walk away. 

The day came, a Saturday at the end of summer. A beautiful day, so warm and sunny, the weather a perfect forecast.  I rode my much loved motorcycle down to Salida, so assured that this was the very right thing to do. The town was crowded, as any mountain town in summer should be, and more so because of the art show that was on display.  Finding a place to park, I stood up from the motorcycle with an unusual unsteadiness. I had a rough idea as to where her work would be and I headed into the park with bouts of fear and euphoria fighting to control each step I was making. Within a few seconds of entering the space, I saw her. 20 years vanished in an instance. In my presence was that ethereal vision I witnessed once before. I stood back, to give her time to talk to the people who approached her – parents and students, community members who held her in esteem, and showed up to support her, and her commitment to their community. When the space finally opened, I walked in. As I got closer, as if by an imaginary signal, she turned to face me – and in that moment she recognized me and in the most unguarded way uttered words that were a complete shock;  “I’m so sorry,” she simply said.

This was absolutely the last thing I’d expected. “That was my line,” I stumbled over as we awkwardly reached for each other’s hands and struggled with an embrace that shouldn’t have happened between a married woman and a divorced man. But this was a real moment – a moment I’d never envisioned in my wildest dreams. A moment of forgiveness, and redemption, a moment to lay to rest a past and finally free the young adults tangled in grief and aching for absolution. The giddiness that danced in those few moments of reunion was so completely pure, it was absolute elation. We drowned in each other’s apologies and opened a torrent of stories covering the last 20 years. It all ended so fast, this sudden encounter. A flurry of promises an exchange of numbers and a commitment to speak again.  I walked away thinking I would never see her again, and being completely okay with that thought, when a few days later a message arrived. This was literally the message from beyond the grave, except it was real, a real person, someone named Janine who I was equal parts in awe of and indebted to.  Our conversation picked up exactly as it had 23 years before, each of us finishing sentences and offering responses to questions the other hadn’t yet formed.  But the circumstances were now so completely different – I was no longer constrained to share what I’d felt and what I was experiencing. I never once intimated that there might be a path forward for us, but was simply reveling in the freedom to create a space to say to her that I cared, I understood the gulf between us, and that it was okay.  I’d survived and thrived, and grown into who I’d wanted to be, and that it was okay for her to do exactly the same.  She was afterall married, settled, in the midst of a fulfilling career, and she was now trying to become a mother, once and for all. 

Now this wasn’t an overlooked fact for me, it wasn’t I intentionally ignored, I merely absorbed it as the new reality and in fact it was this that helped me stay so neutral – I so completely and truly wanted this for her. She deserved it. Her choice 23 years ago shouldn’t dictate the next set of choices she wanted to make. She too should be offered this absolution, and becoming a mother seemed the path to this. It was perfectly appropriate, fitting and right. It would be the thing that made all of the suffering, all of the angst, the 10,000 other griefs alright. But life doesn’t always bend the way we want it.

There’d been complications. There’d been false hopes. There’d been tests, and medications, and therapies, but there wasn’t a baby.  From the time that we’d reconnected in August to a weekend in mid September, she and her husband had found one more clinic and taken one more set of tests. They were anxiously awaiting the results. She was again devastated when the results were returned. There was no hope for the two of them to have a child. I’m sure some will call her intentions selfish, and question, “why not adopt?!” But having a child to her was fulfilment, it was a purpose. 

This final piece of news left her reeling. The veneer of a happy, adjusted relationship began to splinter and the discontent poured out. For good or bad I was there to absorb the discontent. As she hurled her pain in episodic heaves, it became increasingly clear that her mind was fixed on a new goal, and I would end up playing the part of an excuse, but not the reason.

We saw each other one more time that fall.  A truly illicit rendezvous. There wasn’t any malice in it, she just wanted one question answered. And, she got an answer.  I have to assume that it was the answer she was looking for. From that weekend on the communication became more fleeting, and more disjointed.  A few suggested plans to meet that were quickly scuttled or forgotten. I was only there for support, it was not my place to be the provocateur.  I was the backstop, a void she could scream into, a vessel where wishes and dreams and curses would go to disappear or die. Then it all stopped.

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