Then a Man of Low Degree Stood By Her Side

Time gets all mixed up in my head when I try to remember the months after Mike’s accident, after AJ and Kelsie went back home with their parents. I know I was becoming involved with the theatre department at MSU, and Tonia was working and taking care of her family, but we were still going out with Ruth and I don’t even know what year it was any more. It’s all just a blur of uncertainty and sadness. 

Tonia came over to my house one day while I was hanging towel bars in the kids’ rooms in an attempt to keep them from dropping their wet bath towels on the floor.  Tonia was shocked that I could do this on my own. I said, “Tonia, it’s just a screwdriver. Anyone can use a screwdriver. YOU can use a screwdriver.”

She said she didn’t think she could and that’s when I realized that Tonia believed herself to be helpless and useless. Joyce had told us all of our lives that I was the smart one and Tonia was the pretty one. You couldn’t be both. Tonia thought she was merely ornamental. I told her that was bullshit. She was just as smart as I was. We had different interests and skill sets; that didn’t make one of us smarter than the other.  I showed her how to use the screwdriver and made her hang the other towel bar. I told her she was taking care of Mike and that proved how capable she was. I told her she could do anything she wanted.

When I visited Tonia’s house about a week later, she’d stripped all the wallpaper that she hated off the kitchen walls and was preparing to paint the walls peach. I told her I’d make her curtains to match–or I could tutor her on making them herself. She said Kelsie’s room was next.

Joyce told me it was ridiculous for Tonia to start remodeling her house now, since Tonia and Mike were going to lose everything. What? Joyce said Mike hadn’t had any insurance before the accident and they couldn’t pay the medical bills so they were going to lose everything. I said that couldn’t be true; I knew from when Dan was racing that you had to have insurance or they wouldn’t let you race. Joyce said yeah, but Mike had needed special insurance for the sprints and he’d forged Tonia’s signature on the insurance papers. The insurance company had found out about the forgery; they’d refused to pay out.

The whole thing sounded fishy to me and I said so. Joyce asked if I could believe Mike’s girlfriend Cindy had dared to show up at the hospital and tried to help Tonia. I said I was glad Cindy had been there or else Tonia would’ve been all alone for all those hours before we arrived. Joyce sniffed that she wouldn’t be one bit surprised if Cindy showed up at their house to see Mike. I said I would actually love to see Mike and Cindy try to sneak around with Mike in a wheelchair.

Joyce asked if I could believe Sean was dating his new girlfriend, Beth. She was so fat and plain! Sean could get a prettier girl. I said maybe she was a lot of fun and Sean was dating her for more than her looks. Joyce started gossiping about how one of her friends’ teenage daughter was pregnant and unmarried. I said I felt there was some saying about glass houses right on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t remember it, and then I went home. 

Tonia and I had been talking about Joyce’s hypochondria as well as her strays. I said I was exhausted by all the stories Joyce told that weren’t true and how she was constantly nagging Jerome and I hoped I didn’t sound like that–if I did, no wonder Dan had left. I told Tonia that Joyce was so negative about everything that I found myself feeling angry and sad when I left her house. I stopped going to Joyce’s so often. 

But Tonia and Joyce live about a block apart. It made it easy for Tonia to send AJ and Kelsie down to Joyce’s when she needed them out of the way to care for Mike or clean the house or if they were getting on her nerves. So Tonia was spending more time at Joyce’s while I was spending less. I knew they were gossiping and I knew Tonia was also angry and depressed after leaving, but she had every reason to need her mom right now. So I tried not to worry about what Joyce might be saying to Tonia.

And that is how things stood when Tonia and I went out two-stepping one night. Tonia was still (Or again?) positive that Mike and Cindy had had an affair and it still outraged her that Cindy had shown up at the hospital when Mike was hurt. She said Cindy hadn’t shown up to learn to take care of Mike and that Cindy wasn’t hanging around helping and she thought it was just bad karma all around and now she, Tonia, was supporting Mike and caring for him all alone. I asked her if she needed help, or if she wanted me to take AJ and Kelsie back to my house for a while. Tonia admitted that Mike’s parents (who lived about a block away on the other side of Tonia and Mike) were helping and the kids were good for Mike. 

I wonder what kind of crap Joyce was filling Tonia’s head with. Tonia had no defense against Joyce. I could get irritated and stay away for months at a time, but Tonia had never really been separated from Joyce since we’d escaped from Florida. Tonia was still the favorite child and she had AJ, who was the favorite grandchild. If I tried to tell Tonia her relationship with Joyce was maybe a little unhealthy, she’d erupt at me and spend a week or two not speaking to me. I didn’t want to be estranged from Tonia–I thought she needed me right then. So I learned to keep my mouth shut. 

Tonia met this guy I’m gonna call Roger because I seem to have blocked his name. She’d been dancing with a friend and when she came off the dance floor, she practically fell into Roger’s arms. They started dancing and before the end of the night they were BFFs. Soon, he was meeting us every time we went out. I joked with Tonia that she was slumming, but somehow Roger convinced Tonia he was the answer to all of her problems, all of her worries and fears. 

After a while Tonia started talking about divorcing Mike. She said she’d been thinking about it before the accident, because of Mike’s supposed affair. When I said she didn’t KNOW that Mike had been having an affair, she said that Cindy had proved it when she showed up at the hospital in hysterics. Tonia had been thinking about leaving Mike, but then the accident happened and she couldn’t. And now she was taking care of a man who she thought been unfaithful to her. 

Tonia had NEVER spoken to me about leaving Mike before the accident. If she’d been thinking about leaving, why had she traveled with Mike all that season? I knew Tonia was exhausted. I suggested she get at-home care for Mike and take away some of the burden and she said they couldn’t afford it. All they had was her income. As time went on I began hearing more and more about Roger and more and more about how Mike didn’t deserve Tonia’s care and she didn’t love him. She finally decided she wanted to divorce Mike.

I told her only she could decide what to do about her unhappiness with Mike. I suggested counseling, but Tonia had decided she didn’t believe in any of that. I told her whatever she decided to do I would stand beside her. She asked if I would accept Roger and his kids as part of her life. I said I would stand beside her no matter what. Roger and his kids actually stayed with me for a while when his ex-wife was supposedly acting up. 

But I didn’t like him. I’d joked that Tonia was slumming with him. In the past I’d told Tonia that she was a snob. But now I was the snob: I thought this man was beneath Tonia. I told her that. I told her if she truly didn’t love Mike, and she was truly, deeply unhappy taking care of him, she had to do whatever it took to be happy. But she shouldn’t leave Mike for this guy who was promising to solve all her problems. He was beneath her. He was full of empty promises and no money. Tonia got upset and I told her no matter what, I would stand beside her and I would be good to whoever was in her life. 

Tonia divorced Mike.

Mike moved in with his parents and Roger moved in with Tonia. It didn’t last very long. He was a liar, a user, and a loser. I think he thought Tonia had more money than she did and he was going to mooch off her. Tonia kicked him to the curb.

What I really think is that Tonia was deeply stressed, deeply unhappy. I think she had Joyce telling her all these nasty things about Mike. I think Joyce believed if Tonia left Mike then Tonia, AJ, and Kelsie would move back in with Joyce and Jerome, and Joyce would be happy because she would then have Tonia and AJ back with her. I think Tonia was so burdened by her whole life that she was unable to think clearly.

There is a psychological theory that says all human behavior arises from stress and the need to relieve it. A person is hungry; that is stress. To relieve that stress, you eat. You don’t like your job and that causes you stress. How do you relieve that stress? A healthy organism will start thinking of ways to relieve that stress: I can quit my job; I can ask for a transfer; I can speak to HR, I can meet with my boss, etc. An unhealthy organism will seize on the first solution that comes to mind. 

I believe that Tonia didn’t divorce Mike because she didn’t love him any more. I believe that Tonia loved Mike very much and always did. But he was no longer her protector; she was his. She couldn’t tell him that she was afraid, or that she was angry about the accident, or resented the position she was in. She identified Mike as the source of her stress, when it could’ve been Joyce, or all of that grief, or maybe she just needed a damn break. But she decided Mike was the stressor and got rid of the stressor. It was one more act of avoidance in a lifetime full of things she couldn’t bear to look at. 

All the adults in Tonia’s life had failed her. Again.

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