Tonia was unwell. She thought Mike was having an affair and she said it was because she couldn’t stop being sad about Faith. I didn’t know when Mike would have had time for a girlfriend, between his restaurant, his racing, and his family, but once the thought took root in Tonia’s brain, she couldn’t get rid of it. She called me to come pick her up from a holiday party because the woman she believed was Mike’s girlfriend–Cindy– kept flirting with him and Tonia couldn’t watch it happen. I asked her if she’d told Mike Cindy’s flirting was bothering her; she hadn’t. She said everyone at the party hated her anyway.
When we got inside her house, I asked her why she thought everyone there hated her. It was because no one would speak to her. I remembered how I’d felt in Germany when none of the other wives had ever seemed to want to talk to me and Donna had tried to explain why. I told Tonia that she and I both had Resting Bitch Face and it got bitchier when we were nervous or uncertain. The face was interpreted by those around us who didn’t know us as anger or conceit. And the more we were avoided because of our mean-looking faces, the more nervous and aloof we became. It was almost like a shield we put up to protect ourselves that worked far too well, alienating us when we wanted to make friends.
I told Tonia that when I was feeling nervous or scared, I tried to remind myself to smooth out my face and try to smile. And if she really wanted to be part of the group, she might have to swallow that fear, step up and make the first move. She accepted what I said, we even looked in the mirror at our ‘scared’ faces and tried to practice smoothing them. Tonia said she’d try to keep my advice in mind. But she was NOT going to extend a hand to That Woman, Cindy. I told her that was fine. She didn’t have to be friendly to anybody she didn’t want to be friendly to. But maybe she should talk to Mike about how she felt he was being too friendly with Cindy.
Tonia still hadn’t seen anybody about losing Faith. She tried to talk to me, and I listened, but I know I was no help. I was dealing with the loss of my ability to have future children and the failure of my second marriage. I was dealing with my first year at the university and feeling as nervous and scared as Tonia was. I don’t know if Tonia and Mike talked about the loss of their child. I don’t know if or when they planned to try again.
I know Tonia talked to Joyce about Faith, but Joyce was focused on the funeral. Joyce was deeply irritated that Larry and Nita had shown up. It was a given that Larry was an asshole, but aside form the anti-abortion talk, he’d behaved rather well. He hadn’t brought Lynne or any of the replacement children. Joyce had actually made me leave him alone, which was the right thing to do because Tonia couldn’t handle any more stress. But Joyce decided that Nita had somehow wronged Tonia by attending. Tonia and Joyce would get together and bitch about how Nita had stood too close to Tonia during the funeral, deciding Tonia had had to support Nita, who was ‘fake grieving.’
What I had seen was Nita with her arm around Tonia, holding her up when Tonia would’ve collapsed. And when Tonia began keening and wailing I saw Nita put her face down on Tonia’s shoulder, as if to hide her own grief. Joyce and Tonia convinced themselves that Nita had been grandstanding and trying to get all the attention for herself. It didn’t make any sense-no one is going to feel pity for a misbehaving stranger at a funeral. Anyway, I never saw Nita doing the things they said she had. When only the family was over at Joyce’s before Nita left, Nita told us about the birth of her stillborn son. I don’t even know if Tonia was present for that conversation.
So Tonia wasn’t getting any real help with her grief from her family. I know it’s very hard to feel the depth of someone else’s pain and it’s just so much easier to ignore it. I’m sure I tried to forget it all; it seems to be standard operating procedure for me to lock away things I don’t want to deal with. But ignoring Faith’s death didn’t make it easier to deal with. Tonia couldn’t love Faith into being well. Tonia’s family couldn’t ignore Faith into never having existed.
The only anger Tonia was allowed to express was anger at Larry for showing up and anger at Nita for her supposed misbehavior. She couldn’t be angry at God for allowing Faith to be so broken. She couldn’t be angry at the doctors for not saving her little girl. She wasn’t allowed to be angry at herself or Mike for making a sick baby. I’m not saying any of these things are rational things to be angry about. I’m saying grief isn’t rational and anger is part of the grieving process that you have to work through. Tonia was never allowed to be safely angry.
I wonder if she ever took the time to scream, to throw things, to rage at the unfairness of it all.
Tonia went back to work. I started college. Sean got clean and got a better job. Joyce continued to insist that AJ stay with her as often as possible. Sunday dinners continued. Joyce bitched because the people a few houses down put windows in their attic and you could see right through them to the house on the other side. Life continued as if Faith had never existed.
When I started college, I was terrified. I was almost a decade older than most freshmen. I knew absolutely nobody. My family–me, Nick, and Monica–relied almost entirely on money from financial aid to survive. The fear that I could fail out and lose that income combined with my need to be ‘good’ enough to avoid notice, creating an unrealistic desire for perfection. I have always been a good student, through all the upheaval in my life; there was no reason I could expect to screw up now. But there was so much riding on it, at least in my mind, that I was a tiny bundle of shrieking nerves.
Joyce noticed my car was riding on bald tires and told me I should save 10% of my income for things like that. Irritated, I explained the math: how much I received in financial aid, minus 4 months mortgage, minus school supplies and clothes for me and the kids, minus car insurance, minus all the other expenses of keeping a house with two kids. Ten percent of what was left was, let me see, hmm, carry the 1… oh yeah: nothing. Ten percent of zero is zero.
Joyce started talking about the cost of all the things she’d been buying for AJ, since Tonia was still distracted over Faith, which didn’t make any sense. Then Joyce started talking about her latest strays, the young women who shared the house across the street. I didn’t care about either of these subjects. I went home.
One of my generals classes was a night class. I arrived early, as I always do, and sat in the front row, as I always do. As I was sitting there, trying my best to become invisible, a woman with a head full of gorgeous auburn hair entered the classroom. She spotted me, smiled like she knew me, and sat down beside me. That’s how Ruth entered my life. She introduced herself, asked for my name, and basically decided we were going to be friends.
And we were. We still are.
Ruth had been married and had a daughter Monica’s age. Ruth told me the loneliest she has ever felt was while she was married to her daughter’s father. She divorced him and started college the same time I did. We were the same age. We began hanging out at each other’s houses, babysitting for each other, sharing babysitters when we both went out. I introduced her to Tonia and they hit it off, too. Ruth had an optimism that countered our cynicism. She was smart, sassy, sexy. Ruth had a quick wit to match Tonia’s and she loved to dance, like me. The three of us started going out all the time.
One night a guy came over to our table, introduced himself as Hunter, and politely asked if he could join us. He felt safe and there were three of us, so we let him sit. He’d come over to talk to me. He was handsome, a university student from Canada, and a Trekkie. Right up my alley. We really hit it off and at the end of the evening he asked me for my number. I told him I wasn’t comfortable giving it to him yet, but we could meet here again next week and see what happened.
A day or so later I got a call from an excited Ruth: Hunter lived in her building! She’d just seen him down in the laundry room and had grilled him to find out if he was good enough for me. I asked what she’d found out. She began, “Well, he’s black and white, he–”
I asked, “Striped?”
“What? No!” Ruth laughed. “His mother is black and his father is white.”
Hunter remained the ‘Striped Guy’ for the rest of the time we knew him. He was in fact NOT striped. He had beautiful single-colored skin and he was a fantastic kisser and a giant science fiction nerd. He was a business major and we dated until the semester ended. When he went back to Canada for the summer we lost touch and I never saw him again. He was a very gorgeous and sweet Striped Guy.
It felt like my life was actually getting on track. It seemed like Tonia’s sadness was lifting and she stopped telling me that Mike was having an affair. The schools were all letting out for the summer and that meant the racing season was starting up again. Tonia started traveling with Mike to meets in other towns. Rocky had the kids for what would turn out to be the last time, so if Joyce didn’t keep AJ and Kelsie while Tonia and Mike traveled to out of town races, I did. This was going to be the first time in my life I ever lived alone.