A Soul Divided: Chapter One

One

December 29, 2011

“Can you tell me about Marc, Cynthia? Have you noticed any changes from him, toward your marriage?”

Cynthia glanced at her husband in mute anger, disgust written in her eyes. The calmness he exuded allowed her to see him for the heartless cad she had been blind to all along; this brilliant, conniving actor she was only now beginning to understand. In that moment, the sheer effort of sitting next to him made her skin crawl with suppressed emotion. Marriage counseling is not working, she thought. Deep within, something cracked. A feeling bubbled forth, filling the crevice, steeling her resolve. The feeling, pulsing with fury, allowed hot tears to well in her eyes. She felt an uncomfortable fullness, felt it push against her heart, pound in her head, and leak onto her eyelashes. It was a deep, resonating disgust that filled her, following the innocuous question.

There are no changes in Marc, she answered with silent accusation, because Marc can’t change. Running an absentminded hand down her arm to push against the turmoil, she wondered why she had subjected herself to such a futile cause. What had she been thinking, suggesting marriage counseling in the first place? She knew her husband; she knew he wasn’t one to put in the time, or effort, it took to save a marriage.

Especially theirs.

Cynthia struggled to suck in a breath, overcome with the onslaught of emotion. She glanced around the small, dimly lit room, biting back the urge to either scream in frustration, or cry out in madness. There was a need to tell the counselor that nothing had changed. There was the desire to turn to her husband, and shake him until he understood how much he’d wronged her in their marriage. It didn’t matter, though. Those needs, her desires, wouldn’t create a happy home. Not when her marriage was a relationship of one.

What is the point? Why am I trying to change Marc? Why do I keep forcing him to love me? The grip on her arm tightened, her nails talons in her skin. Each question brought more anger, more frustration, and more outrage than the last. Her eyes brimmed with resentment, the tears threatening to spill onto her cheeks. She realized her greatest need was to latch onto something, anything, in which she could connect to life, to peace, to God.

The only movement in the room, the only tangible breath of life, was found in the flicker of a candle in the far corner. She fixated on that gentle sway, that tiny beating pulse. For a moment, it answered her prayers, bringing a touch of calm to her soul. The tempest within began to ebb, pulling away, moving back into the fissure within her heart. If nothing else, watching the oscillation of the flame gave her the ability to pretend, for a moment, that she could retain her purpose in this meeting.

“Cynthia?”

After minutes of trying to connect with the light, to find God within the flames, she turned away. Perhaps, Cynthia realized, ignoring the pointed question, nothing would change her tumultuous feelings. No form of pretense could manipulate her husband into being a strong, supportive man for her family. Still, her eyes continued to flit back, seeking solace in that sole source of light. The small beacon brought with it an uncomfortable juxtaposition. An awareness of all-intrusive darkness battled against the meager gleam of hope. It pressed from every corner of the room, suffocating in its invasive force. Whether the counselor meant to add a subtle hint of ambience with the unnerving lack of light, or sought to hide his considerable girth, she wasn’t sure. The dimness left her with a vague, unsettling sense of intimacy, and oblivion.

Beside her, the couch let out an audible squeal. Its other occupant shifted his weight, waiting in the deafening silence. He sat beside her, encroaching upon her personal space on the small, threadbare couch. He was the uncomfortable intimacy she wished to deny. He was also her death.

Breathing slowly through her nose, Cynthia ignored her husband, and turned her attention toward the various aspects of the room, needing to dispel her ominous thoughts. Distraction, she hoped, would quiet the growing tempest.

Her eyes traveled around the room. Although she had sat in this space before, she had never noticed it. A not-so-subtle Navajo theme ran throughout. Pictures of arrow spears, Native American women, and handmade pottery adorned the walls. Behind the counselor’s head hung an extravagant Navajo quilt, threaded in browns, reds, and golds.

She turned her attention to the man himself, and tried to find a defining characteristic on the man’s face, whether in high cheekbones, or skin coloring, to explain the bold theme. There was nothing. Not one Native American quality resided in the pasty white man, with bulbous nose, looking over his wiry spectacles at her.

A red flush stole across her cheeks. Judging his chalky complexion did nothing toward fixing her marital problems. He was only trying to help; that was his job. Annoying questions, along with a hefty bill, came with each session. Still, she wanted help. It was the reason she had hired the counselor. Despite his efforts, despite his questions, and despite her silence, her husband remained true to his form.

Marc was a lying snake beneath a carefree, honest demeanor.

“Cynthia, tell me what you’re thinking,” the counselor beseeched, trying to draw her into the conversation. She knew he watched the myriad of emotions stream across her face. His patience with her was resilient. Every once in a while he would give a slight, disconcerting nod, as if reading her every thought. He was agreeing with her, she thought, or silently letting her husband know how he felt about the psychotic nut job of a wife sitting next to him.

Sighing, she looked down at the pale, tightly clenched fingers on her lap. What is wrong with me? Why am I ignoring the question? Is my attitude the biggest problem in this room? With belligerent resolution, Cynthia decided to grow up, and join the conversation. Raising her eyes, it dawned on her that she couldn’t remember the counselor’s name. She just kept thinking of him as, “the counselor.” He was an overweight entity, doling out unhelpful marriage advice. It was hard to imagine that this man and his wife—who had the office space next door—shared a life, shared common dreams, and shared a bed.

The tears dried as she blinked away irreverent thoughts. She wasn’t in the position to judge a marriage, not with her own in shambles. It was obvious that she was projecting her misery onto this happy, protuberant man. With that in mind, she began to speak.

“When I first met Marc,” she said, her mind slipping back in time as the words tumbled from her mouth, “he wasn’t the man I envisioned for my life. He was the manager of a local Mexican restaurant. That’s how I met him. The school I work for was having its year end party. We were celebrating the end of a wonderful school year, bidding farewell to each other, and saying hello to the official start of summer vacation.

“I remember I was sipping on a margarita, chatting with my friend, Tony, about his love life, when Marc appeared at my elbow. He asked if I needed anything. … It was weird, because Tony was standing right there, but Marc didn’t notice. It was as almost as if he didn’t care.” She paused, remembering the encounter. Her best friend was handsome. Dark, exotic, and polished. Women flocked to him in embarrassing array, and he was quick to reciprocate all flirtations.

In contrast, Marc had sandy brown hair, a stocky build, and a carefree demeanor. He wasn’t the tall, muscular, financially responsible man she pictured in her dreams. That, she mused, hadn’t stopped her from dating him, loving him, or marrying him. He wasn’t the type of man she would have given a second glance, if second glances could be given, but there was something about him. Something that made her initial impression fade in the wake of his heartwarming smile, easy attitude, and guileless ways.

She’d forgotten that over the years. It seemed funny for her to remember that, now. “He didn’t go away,” she said, remembering. “He just stood there, smiling at me, oblivious to his job, oblivious to anyone else’s needs. It was as if I was the only woman in the restaurant; the only person he noticed. And then, … ” she said, her words drifting away. The candle flickered, an encouragement to breathe. She filled her lungs with breath in that moment, a deep, strong, fortifying inhalation of air.

The counselor reached out, waving his hand in a circular motion. “And then?” he queried, lifting his bushy brows. He seemed unwilling to allow his most stubborn client to stop speaking. It had taken almost fifteen minutes of silence for her to begin.

She closed her eyes, shook her head, and remembered the past. Much like the darkness of the room, the memories sprang forth, dancing in the flicker of the flame. Her eyes opened, a hint of steel in their depths. “And then I stopped being important. Marc stopped thinking I was the most important person in the room, and started viewing me as an afterthought. I was an object to be forgotten, to be lied to. I was the filler when his cronies bailed,” she stated, without emotion.

Their dating life had been rocky. Nothing major stood out as a problem, but it was the little things he did to her—like fabricate stories to his coworkers, or keep her waiting without so much as a phone call on his end. She never could shake the feeling that something felt wrong between them—beyond simple male forgetfulness and ego—but she couldn’t place her finger on the problem.

Before the counselor could speak, she shook herself. “As a couple, life became difficult. I always believed dating was the fun part of the relationship. Dating Marc should have been joyous. It should have been easy. But, with him, it took work. It took effort. It felt as if he sucked me dry. And so, I would tell him. I would tell him we weren’t working anymore.

“But, every time I mentioned breaking up, or taking a break, he would say, ‘Cyn, I know in your heart that you believe I am the person you were meant to marry, whether you think it or not. And, I know you are in love with me. I can, and will, do everything to make you happy. You just need to give me the chance.’” She blinked, staring across the room. Her eyes were directed at the counselor, but she didn’t see him. It was the past that held her gaze. In her eyes, there was a storm of mixed emotions, warring against each other, needing to be remembered. She spoke again. “His words never changed. Thinking about it now, they seem almost mechanical in nature, as if he knew what to say to change my mind. To make me cave. The funny thing is, every time he told me, ‘I know in your heart that you love me,’ I balked. I didn’t know that I loved him. I didn’t know that I should give him another chance. What’s more, I didn’t think I could believe him.

“He told me how I was supposed to feel, how I was supposed to think, and what I was supposed to believe. It felt as if there was a muddled confusion, a dying war, within me. So, I caved. I never disagreed with him. I let him convince me that we were okay.” Somehow, she realized, she learned to believe Marc. She ignored her heart, and took what he said as truth. She did, eventually, fall in love with him, though the sense of unease lingered, waiting to spring forward at the base of her doubt. She learned to believe in their love, and in their love of each other. In spite of the problems their relationship faced, she started to think their love could conquer mountains. She wanted to believe him, believe in him, and believe in their forever.

“I can’t believe I kept caving,” she whispered in self-deprecation, more to herself than the counselor. “I mean, even our engagement was a sham. Instead of bolting from that insanity, I went along with it. Why did I go along with it?” Her head dropped to her chin, spilling auburn hair onto her forearms. She wanted to go dark again, to focus on the light, to forget the man beside her. His shoulder hovered near hers, and, if she tapped in, she could remember the spark, the energy, that used to move between them.

Voice growing more firm, she announced, “We got married a year after we met, but the day after our marriage, I knew I’d made a mistake.” The words kept flowing, a volcanic eruption. Today, four years later, they were months away from five years of “blissful” marriage, without a whole lot of the bliss part. “I knew I’d made a mistake with the engagement. I knew I made a mistake with the marriage. But, when I got pregnant with Gavin, I thought the baby might change Marc. … I know, I know. It’s a stupid wish from an ignorant, doe-eyed girl. That much is clear, now.

“Still, I thought parental instinct would take over, and he would learn to love again. Aren’t parents supposed to feel bonded to their children? I mean, isn’t that how it works? How can someone not feel that instinctual love?” Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. She bored those unanswered question into the counselor.

In response, he shifted his eyes toward her unspeaking husband. It was a slight, uncomfortable glance between men. Marc wasn’t forthcoming, but he wouldn’t speak his defense, not now. The counselor had asked him to remain silent, allowing Cynthia to have freedom to talk, in order to give her words credence. “Cynthia, can you explain? How was your engagement a sham? Why did you feel your marriage was a mistake? What type of love do you need from your husband? Would you care to explain?” the counselor asked, questions tumbling out. He leaned forward, pushing his bulbous, pitted nose into the meager light.

Beside her, Marc shifted. The feeling of pressing memories, pressing darkness, and her husband’s overwhelming presence created an eerie experience. She seemed to float above her body, watching the conversation, the body language, and the upheaval of her words.

The feeling of death came, once more.

God, bring me peace, bring me life. Allow me to air my grievances, without retribution. Her hand shook with repressed emotion. Revealing her life, opening up the facade that was their marriage, drained her. She pushed a hand through her hair, letting her fingers comb through the straight, ginger hair. It shimmered in the candlelight, shifting with the movement of her fingers.

Across the room, the candle beckoned. There was a sense of calm, a sense of peace, within the flame. Mouth opened, she felt steady enough to respond, and then her husband coughed. It was a deep, sinister bark, carrying with it a wealth of meaning. She was to be quiet about this; he’d had enough.

“Forget it; it’s just another example of our marriage,” she mumbled, flapping a hand in a dismissive gesture, casting away the memory. Her stories wouldn’t change the man sitting beside her. A recounted tale to a obese, third party couldn’t make her life any easier. This marriage counseling, this pretense of change, wouldn’t change her life. It wouldn’t change the man sitting beside her.

Why am I here? One cough, and I shut up? Am I that docile? she wondered. There was a need to continue, a need to see this session through. Something in Marc had to change. Counseling was the recourse available to her, and she needed to utilize it; she needed to make him understand.

She couldn’t count the number of lies Marc had been caught in over the course of their marriage. The dinners he’d skipped, in order to hit the vodka faster, had become his standard evening respite. Saturdays were spent on the couch, sleeping, or yelling for her to leave him alone. Her husband’s interests were simple: watch television, get drunk, snap at his wife, and ignore his child.

Then again, she remembered, since marriage counseling began, her husband occasionally pitched in to lighten her load. She could recall the day he changed a diaper without her asking. There was a weekend when he played with their son, and took him on a short stroll. She cherished those memories; she lived for those moments. Because, in those moments, life felt completely normal. Those were the times she wanted; that was the life in which she dreamed.

Forever—in a normal, functioning reality.

And then I blink, and life returns, she thought with a bleak heart. The happy, normal moments faded, and her husband morphed back into the lying slug she was so accustomed to knowing. Her hands tightened, nails biting into the flesh of her palm. The maddening stray of her thoughts, so quick to jump between love and hate, left her dizzy. She needed to get a grip on her emotions, before she threw away five years in one, hasty decision.

Before the death in the room engulfed her marriage.

Shooting a sideways glance at her husband, she wondered, Lord, is it just me? Am I exaggerating my problems? Am I the one person in this relationship with a problem? Is marriage supposed to be this hard?

Cynthia turned her attention back to the counselor. Biting back her disgust, her frustration, and every bit of anger she had toward her husband, she willed herself to speak. No words were forthcoming. Her brown eyes flushed with moisture. She sought comfort in her clenched, white hands. Letting out a shaky breath, though her mind screamed every thought, she tried to force the words to come out of her mouth, once more. Seconds ago, before that cough, she was speaking her mind. Having been trapped in the angst of her own thoughts for so long, the release had been refreshing—an odd rarity of empowerment. With the cough, that small act of domination, she had lost her nerve. There was annoyance at her betraying body, but she found she couldn’t go against his wishes. Mouth tight, she remained mute with suppressed anger.

“Marc,” the counselor began, shifting his gaze to her husband after a weighted pause, “what do you believe Cynthia is thinking, right now?”

Oh, please! Cynthia scoffed. Did you miss his, ‘Shut the hell up, Cyn,’ cough? He doesn’t want me speaking; he does’t care about my thoughts. Marc rolled his shoulders, creating a concerned face toward his wife. It was his moment to shine, she knew, and pretend to be the one uniting their relationship.

“Cynthia wants me to listen to her needs. She needs me to be the man of the family. I know since we began these counseling sessions I have been proving to her, every day, how much I am trying to be in this relationship. I know I have been showing her through my actions how much I care for her, and for our child. At the end of these sessions, I have no doubt that our marriage will be strengthened, forever. I am working hard at being the man she needs me to be; the rock she can lean on every day.”

Her mind screamed in denial. She sat there, shaking her head. Pressure built inside, filling her with riotous energy, spilling from the crack in her heart. Her foot tapped, a tempestuous staccato, before the words bubbled forth. “Really?” she spat at him. “Working hard? What about the cards, Marc? You do remember the cards, right?”

At then end of their initial marriage counseling meeting, the counselor handed them a stack of cards. Typed on the front of each index card was a question focusing on how well each person knew their partner. They were asked to talk through three cards a night, until their meeting the following week. The objective was to reconnect emotionally to each other, by remembering the past, and how well they knew each other as friends, partners, and lovers.

“Cynthia, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marc fumbled. His eyes clouded, belying his words. A storm brewed, deep within, at the audacity of her question. Lips pursed, he dared his wife to betray the secrets of their household encounters.

The counselor drew Cynthia’s gaze away from the fury in Marc’s face, saying, “Ah, yes! The cards. Lovely. How did you two fair? Did you learn more about each other, connecting through what made you fall in love, in the first place?”

Cynthia snorted. “Marc turned it into a game; a competition. Guess who was the expected winner? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t me.”

“A competition? Marc? Did you turn it into a competitive game?” The confusion in the counselor’s face spoke volumes.

The heat of Marc’s gaze against her cheek made her flush with cold sweat. She was embarrassing him, blaspheming his character. She was enraging his skewed perception of justice, by creating a blatant mockery of his worth.

“Cynthia is not making any sense,” he responded, voice slow with deliberate enunciation. The words were meant to make her stop, heed his command, keep her in her place. “You asked us to do the cards. We did the cards. I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

Cynthia’s heart sank. He wasn’t seeing reason, he wasn’t admitting his faults. Gripping her hands, she turned to him, her eyes beseeching honesty. “Did I get any of the questions right? The question about the biggest stressor you’re facing? I said it was your father’s recent bypass surgery. You told me I was ‘wrong.’ You looked at me in derision, and said, ‘Wow, you don’t know me at all, do you?’ And then you proceeded to tell me about a work-related event, involving mixed up salsa orders.”

“It was a meat order,” Marc corrected.

“So, the story’s changed again. ‘Wrong again, Cyn,’” she said, voice laden with sarcasm.

“I guess,” he remarked, eyes narrowing at his wife’s statements, “you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”

“See?” Cynthia said, twisting toward the counselor. “Who says that to his wife?” In the span of two minutes, she had been reduced to feeling two inches tall. This counseling session had been doomed from the moment she stepped into the building, and died when she sat down, next to her husband.

Marc spoke in his defense. “I got every question right, because I love you. I know everything about you. If you got the questions wrong, I guess it’s because you can’t bother learning about me.” A smug, grin stretched across his lips. By playing a round of victimization, he believed he was achieving a mark in his favor. Always a veiled competition, a never-ending battle of secession.

This was her life.

Cynthia’s eyes frosted deeper than Georgia’s first winter freeze. “What did you get right, Marc? The question about my favorite present last year? Because I can tell you this: it wasn’t what you got me for my birthday. You didn’t even remember I had a birthday, until Tracy announced her desire to throw me a party.”

Her thirty-second birthday had passed without incident in their household. She hadn’t received a card from Marc, let alone a heartfelt, “Happy Birthday.” Tracy, Cynthia’s sister, decided to throw a huge birthday bash to celebrate not only another passing year, but Cynthia’s beautiful baby boy. Cynthia jumped on the chance to visit her sister. Marc, realizing the need to save face, rushed out on a shopping spree the moment they arrived at Tracy’s. It was as if he felt the need to prove himself to be the ever-devoted husband, in order to make up for his huge blunder. What Cynthia unwrapped from her husband was ostentatious, expensive, tasteless crap.

Mark visibly bristled at her recounting. He leaned toward her, begging her to agree with him, needing her to acquiesce her claim. “You loved that necklace, Cyn. I know you did. I know you know how much it meant for me to buy such a beautiful piece of jewelry for you.”

“I, … what? That necklace is an ugly monstrosity.” Bringing the counselor up to speed, she turned, animating her description with her hands. “Marc bought me this gaudy, rhinestone heart necklace. In the center of the heart, there is a huge, unpolished turquoise rock. Miniature charmed angels, complete with bows and arrows, dangle from the bottom of the heart. I mean, seriously? Who buys that for a full-grown woman?” The memory left a foul taste in her mouth.

She was disgusted, and not in the mood to agree with her husband, especially in light of him declaring that necklace a thing of beauty. Who was this man sitting next to her? This vacant, confused, easy-going man who said all the right things in counseling, depicted himself as the unloved husband to an ungrateful wife, and turned into a selfish, lying boor at home?

Marc’s eyes flashed in response to her comments. It happened so fast the expression would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Cynthia had seen it, though. She knew that look, the one he had so quickly tempered. Within the same heartbeat, he regained his calm facade.

“Maybe I’ll get it right next year. I’m sorry I bought you a necklace I’m finally realizing you hate. When I picked it out, I thought it looked like something you would love; something you would cherish. I thought I’d finally gotten it right. I guess I was wrong.” The sullen, beaten expression on his face irked Cynthia. His eyes were downcast, that of a whipped animal, his proverbial tail tucked in fear. This man, whoever this was, was not the man she knew at home.

“What I don’t understand,” she said carefully, measuring the speed of her words, “is how Marc can be one person in here, and an entirely different person at home.”

The counselor nodded first at Cynthia, then drew his eyes to Marc, speaking directly to her, “How do you mean?”

Flinging her hands out, fingers splayed wide, she lost all restraint. “I feel like an idiot,” she stated, responding to the anger she had witnessed in Marc’s eyes. “I try my hardest to be honest in here. That’s what these sessions are for, right? Yet, we will reach a stalemate, everyone will shake hands, and we’ll go home. The second I step inside the house, Marc will turn back into the man I married, and speak about in here. He’s not this man,” she said, gesturing at the victimized waif on the couch beside her. “The man I know doesn’t want to be bothered by me, by his son, or by household responsibilities. In here, I can say those things. At home, if I dare mention that he is lax in his relationship with his son, or with me, he becomes angry, and yells.”

She stopped, sighed, and allowed her posture to crumple with the weight of emotion boiling inside. Desolation came, and a gauntness stole over her features. “This is useless,” she said. “Marriage counseling isn’t working. I don’t know why I bother talking, in the first place. Tonight, when I get home, I’ll regret my honesty. I’ll face his anger at being defamed, and his resentment at being embarrassed.” She felt her hands begin to shake with adrenaline. Out of the corner of her eye, the candlelight beckoned her with its warmth, but she ignored it. Hostility engulfed her now, and she was bent on releasing it toward her husband. “Just last week, Marc told me what I could, and could not say, in therapy. In case there was any question, speaking my mind is not allowed. I am not allowed to share, or voice, my opinion if it paints him in a negative light. He went as far as to tell me not to embarrass him. My main flaw, as a wife, is that I don’t listen to my husband’s demands, or cower when he yells.”

Drawing in a breath, she felt compelled to reiterate a final, biting remark, “This whole idea of counseling isn’t going anywhere. I don’t see the point anymore. Marc is one person in therapy, and a completely different person at home. To be frank, I don’t want to be involved with either one of them.” Defeat filled her as she slumped back, against the sofa. Things would not bode well at home after tonight. After five weeks of therapy, counseling “homework” that never got accomplished, and her husband’s inability to grasp that a family functioned together, she was done pretending. Therapy wasn’t working.

No ground was being made.

“Marc, what would you like to say to your wife in response?” The counselor’s eyes focused on Marc, ever the diligent source of nonpartisanship.

“I guess … ,” he looked up, focused his face into that of a martyr, and sighed. “I don’t know what else I can do to show my love. I have made sure to ask Cynthia what she needs, how she feels, and when she wants help with our son. What else is there? What else can I do to prove that I am changing?” From previous sessions, Marc knew what the look directed from the counselor toward Cynthia meant. He turned his striking blue eyes on her, beseeching, “What else can I do?”

Change! Her mind screamed. Closing her eyes against her bitterness, she begged, God, give me strength.

She faced Marc, trying to force her feelings into him. If they used to have chemistry, if it used to be a tangible shock, then perhaps they still had some form of connection. She wanted to be kind, she wanted to find humility, she wanted to speak to her husband with a semblance of respect. As she looked at him, imploring him to find understanding in his heart, she realized his eyes held a vacant, glassy stare. Instead of seeing her, he was staring past her.

The frustration at his lack of commitment flared. She found herself lashing out, casting off the light, and embracing the darkness. She embraced the death of their relationship. “Marc, if that is the way you see it, there is nothing left to do. There is no reason for us to seek therapy, because you will always lie in here, and remain your ‘regular’ self at home. I’m sorry; I don’t know how else to say it. I cannot keep living with a man who yells at me whenever I disagree with him, nor be with someone who never puts family first.

“All I have ever wanted is for you to see Gavin and myself as important. We need to feel like you consider us in your decisions. We need to be important to you. We have to be important to your world.” Cynthia leaned against the worn couch cushion, exhausted from the mental battle, and her husband’s callous disregard.

Marc’s eyes never focused on her, never noticed her. When he spoke, it felt memorized, rote. “Cynthia, what you’re saying makes no sense. You know I am always considerate. How could you say otherwise? Unless, … unless you don’t love me anymore.”

She closed her eyes, the bubble of anger welling. Marc had the capacity to infuriate her with one statement. Gritting her teeth, praying for sanity, she remarked, “Don’t pull that trick on me tonight.”

Chiming in, the counselor shifted his considerable weight forward, pouncing at his opening. “What do you perceive as a trick, Cynthia?”

“Marc believes that love is forever. That once you fall in love, no matter what, you are in love. Otherwise, you were never truly in love in the first place. He has accused me in the past few weeks that I could have never been in love with him, because ‘people don’t fall out of love so easily.’” She sighed, utterly defeated. “What Marc doesn’t realize is that he has put me through so many years of hell, it would be hard for anyone to love him. People need to feel that they are loved, to be able to love. Family isn’t an afterthought. We have to be factored in, we have to be put first, and Marc refuses to do that.”

“I see. I can understand where you are coming from, Cynthia. But, I do have one question that should be answered,” the counselor, with the name she never remembered, stated. His eyes pooled with sympathy as he gazed through her, deep inside her tormented soul. “Do you love your husband?”

Do I love Marc? She hesitated. The darkness pressed again, demanding clarification of thought. The answer to the counselor’s question was obvious. Every time she got into the car, every time she considered driving off with Gavin, of never looking back, she knew the answer to that question.

“I … .” She breathed in, clutching her hands against her stomach. Fear of retribution held her back, but she pushed against it, announcing, “After what Marc has put me through? No. That’s not to say in the future it can’t be regained. It’s possible I could learn to love him again, should he actually make strides toward treating me with the love, and respect, I deserve.

“All I have ever wanted is for him to stop lying to me, to stop putting his own desires before the needs of his family, and to spend quality time getting to know his own child. But, in this instant, right now? … No. I cannot say I love Marc.”

The counselor nodded, shifting his gaze. He placed his hands out in an open, supine position, playing either a terrific diplomat, or the Devil’s advocate. “Marc, is there anything you would like to say, to Cynthia, in response?”

His face was composed, unreadable. His shoulders were slumped, bent forward in submission. Her victim in not-so-shining armor. Adopting a modicum of concern, he announced, looking between the counselor, and his wife, “Cynthia, hopefully I can show you through my actions that I am the man you fell in love with. With all of my heart I will try to do just that.”

Looking at his watch, the counselor nodded with regret. He cleared his throat, and said, “Ah, so sad to wind to a close when I feel like we are beginning to make some real progress. It seems as if our time is over for the night. What time are you free next week?”

“I believe the same time next week works for both of us,” Marc said, looking toward Cynthia in confirmation.

She shrugged an agreement, still harboring resentment over the platitudes her husband doled her way.

“Thank you, Tom, for helping us,” Marc responded, making up for his wife’s lack of communication skills. He stood, reached in his back pocket, and withdrew his wallet to pay the counselor. “Have a Happy New Year. We’ll see you next week.”

That was one good quality about her husband; he always remembered a name.

“Happy New Year to you, too. Do you two have any plans?” Tom asked, walking to his computer. He typed in the amount owed on his screen, and proceeded to set up their appointment.

“Oh, I think we’ll do it the old fashioned way. Watch a ball drop, toast with champagne, and fall asleep,” her husband joked.

Cynthia stood up. She ran a hand through her hair, and then smoothed the wrinkles from her pants. In halfhearted attempt, she listened to the conversation. Bending down, she lifted her purse off the floor, unwilling to join in the revelries. Without meaning to be completely rude, she pulled on her wool jacket, and headed toward the door. She headed away from the light, into the dark, stagnant hallway. All she could do was to mull over her actions tonight, left alone with a heavy heart. She was also left with the conclusion that within an hour, she would stand face-to-face with her decision, and ultimately, Marc’s anger.

He caught up with her before she stepped out of the building. Together, they stepped out into the winter air, and walked across the parking lot. It was a stilted gait of bitterness, lost love, and dying hope echoing between their bodies. The emotions were fresh, heavy loads separated in chasm.

“Hey, Cyn?” Marc asked, breaking the silence. His breath puffed in small, cloudy bursts from his lips, punctuating his question in the late, afternoon sun.

She didn’t glance at him. Her intent was to focus on driving to her parents’ house, gathering up her son, and driving home, to face whatever ramifications the meeting would bring. She answered, almost absentminded, “Yeah?”

Marc tucked his hands inside his coat pockets, brought his shoulders up to shield his ears from the cold, and asked, “What did you mean, saying our engagement was a sham?”

The click of heels against pavement ceased. Cynthia stood there, mouth agape, staring at her husband. His question was so unbelievable, so obtuse, that she couldn’t muster words. Glancing down at her left hand, where her engagement ring sat, she took a moment to marvel at its beauty. The stones shimmered against her finger, mesmerizing in their splendor. A square cut, two-carat diamond lay nestled in a halo of smaller diamonds. It was a majestic centerpiece. The band itself was lined by four diamonds on either side of the center stones. It came alive as it sparkled, throwing light in all directions. A shadow crossed over the ring. Her husband, awaiting a response. Reality intruded, bringing with it the events surrounding her engagement. Bile filled her throat. “We were both there, Marc. Together. It wasn’t an engagement. You, of all people, should know that.”

“I don’t understand,” he said. “We got engaged at a Christmas party, with all of my friends. It was a beautiful event. I got down on one knee, and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ How was that not a proper engagement?” The confusion on his face was clear. As was the fact that he believed his own claim. The vacant expression, the muddled blue eyes, and the slack jaw brought a swift, violent rage in Cynthia.

“You don’t understand? Are you kidding me? What is this, revisionist history?” she responded, outraged at his blatant lie. It was as if his first recourse was to deny the truth, to the point of believing a concocted tale. Either that, or this was him, being honest. This was his attempt at being truthful, by fabricating a story to suit his needs.

His honest recollection of the worst day of her life made her forget the cold evening air. Underneath her coat, her heart pounded out a distinct staccato, filling her body with bright, furious heat. There was a sharp pressure in her temple, above her left eye, but she forced herself to recall the entire event. She needed to remember this; she needed to remember his actions, along with her own role in their history. His utter disregard for her feelings played a key role in the way she felt now, along with her willingness to go along with whatever he demanded. Her doormat attitude allowed Marc to trample completely over her without care, time and time again.

As if she pushed play, she watched the memory surface. With her eye in the past, she spoke, announcing the real version to her husband. “We stopped on the way to that Christmas party, which was a terrible party, by the way, because you wanted to pick up the ring. The jeweler had called, telling you the ring was ready for pick up. I didn’t know we had any other plans, so the sudden stop made me wary. I told you I didn’t want to go inside. I told you I didn’t want to see the ring. I told you I wanted the ring, and your proposal, to be a surprise. You ignored me, claiming, ‘I have to make sure the ring is the right size, don’t I?’”

“It was the right size,” he recalled.

“Yes,” she amended, perturbed by his intrusion, “the ring was the right size.”

“Not to mention, it’s a beautiful ring, Cyn,” he said. Reaching out, he lifted her hand, and touched the diamonds along the band.

The softness in his tone, and the mixed emotions within the depths of his eyes, made her pull back, and drop her hand. A hard edge found its way into her story, fortifying her irritation. “I wanted to be proposed to, because I’d never had a proposal. You told me you knew I wanted a nice proposal, and knew my parents would want to be there.” Anger mixed with bittersweet emotion, and she choked on her words. The feelings were still fresh, even years later. “I trusted you,” she ground out, taking a step back, placing a greater divide between them.

She looked at the ring again, remembering. In the light of the street lamps, the stones danced, twinkling in stunning array. Cynthia was hypnotized. She remembered the salesman packaging the ring after she tried it on. She remembered stepping out of the jewelry store, watching the late afternoon sun dim the sky. Fluorescent lights, much like tonight, glowed in the parking lot as she stepped toward the curb. “We walked outside the store, together,” she recounted. “I turned to you, I don’t remember why, and you thrust the bag containing the ring under my nose, and said, ‘Here, I guess you’ll want this now.’ No proposal. No emotion. No love. Just, ‘Here. I guess you’ll want this now.’” A sigh of frustration escaped. What had she been thinking, accepting that as a proposal? She should have handed Marc the bag, called someone to come pick her up, and kicked the idiot to the curb. She looked up, fixed her dark, brown eyes on his, clear and blue. “I was mortified. How could I tell that story to anyone, let alone my parents? How? Then you devised the story about an engagement at the Christmas party, and I went along with it. Man, I was a stupid idiot. An embarrassed, brokenhearted idiot.”

“Wow. I didn’t know,” Marc said. He pulled a hand out of his pocket, rubbed his chin, and dropped his eyes to the ground.

She waited a solid three minutes, willing her husband to cave, to apologize, to say anything more than what he said in response to their pretense of an engagement. He didn’t. “I’m going to pick up Gavin,” she announced, annoyed. Nothing would change in her husband, not even when he was told a story that broke her inside, and made her die with the effort of recollecting the memory. At least she had Gavin to look forward to, tonight. Her one year old son was Cynthia’s reason for living, and, in her eyes, the most beautiful creation on the planet. Though this had been their worst session as a couple, to date, her son was the shining beacon that she looked forward to holding. He was her light. She had plans to clutch her baby close, breathe in his smell, and let his presence ease the pain in her heart.

“I’ll see you at home, then,” Marc said, the forced softness in his voice betraying true emotion. “We can decide on dinner then.”

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