Refugee

By Julia Abelsohn -

No matter how many times I poured over the details of our fifteen-year marriage I couldn’t detect the first signs of decay. It had been a gradual fraying away at the edges of a tapestry that we had stitched together, piece by piece, child by child, mortgage by mortgage. Now, it’s those very same pieces that are being dismantled, categorized and evaluated. How to put a value on family? Eventually, it’s all about money and power – who gets the Mercedes and who decides whether or not the kids are going to go to French immersion?

There is nothing quite as vacuous as the space that remains after love disappears. Even the emptiness in the big old Victorian house – the one with the leaded windows and the bevelled ceilings, where I changed the paint in the nursery from blue to pink and back again, the one with the kitchen door scratched and dented by strollers and skateboards and numerous pets, the one we called home for so many years – was not as vast as the space left inside me after Andrew left.

The alarm rings and I awake into a tangle of sheets and perspiration. It’s that bloody dream again. I hop out of bed and into the shower hoping to wash away the visions that still cling to me. I close my eyes and let the steamy water loosen the tightness in my neck and shoulders. But the second I close my eyes the visions return.

It’s dark and there are many people around but they are talking in very low voices. The children are there too but they are sleeping in their beds. No, they are not in their feather beds at home, they are packed like sardines on a pile of straw loosely covered by an old bedspread. They are in a barn of some sort and the voices are quiet but filled with fear. I hear a man’s voice: “We have to go now, it’s time to wake the children.”



The panic attacks seem to be more frequent now. I don’t go anywhere without the little bottle of pills tucked safely into my purse, just in case. Those pills give me one piece of control in a life which has quickly been unravelling since the spring. It’s the end of October now, a time of year that has always been a little melancholy for me with the shortening of the days and dying leaves. Now, the coming of winter packs an additional chill. Life as I know it is coming to an end.

The hardest part was telling the kids. They had always sympathized with other kids whose parents were splitting up and had repeatedly made us promise that this would never happen to them.

“But you broke your promise,” Jenna my eight-year-old whined. “Remember you always said that a promise is a promise.”

“That’s brutal,” Ben added in his almost thirteen-year-old eloquence.

“Does this mean we’re going to get a puppy?” six-year-old Aaron said. “David Cray’s dad moved out and then his mom got them one.”

I dreaded telling my mother. She had never really liked Andrew and if his not being Jewish hadn’t been bad enough, his ritual of rubbing it in with a lavish display of Yuletide festivities hadn’t helped to make him more endearing.

“No more tinsel,” she consoled upon hearing the news. “But tell me, dear, are you alright? How are the kids taking it all?"

Telling our friends was also challenging. We had seemed like the perfect couple; everyone had said so. We had been the ones that everyone else had come to for advice. We always had all the answers, except to our problems it seemed.

“Helen you’ve got to look on this as a growth experience,” my friend Lyn said when she heard the news. “It’s just the first year or so that’s tough and then it gets easier. Once the papers are through and you know exactly how much you’re getting out of the bastard, I promise you’ll start to feel better.”

I guess Lyn should know. After all, she’s been through it, twice. But still, it feels like a heavy weight closing in on me, weighing me down. Oh no, not my heart again.

I wasn’t looking forward to telling my therapist. Hadn’t I spent the last three years of my life learning to express anger in constructive ways? How could I show up for a session and express this urge to run over to Andrew’s office with my swiss army knife firmly grasped in my hand? I imagined the sound of the air gushing out of the tires after I slashed them, one after the other with a final vitriolic sweep of the blade along the sleek metallic body of the car. He would find it crumpled and dejected, looking oddly out of place in the executive parking lot. Other even more childish fantasies plagued my daytime hours, much as the dreams plagued my nights. There seemed to be no refuge.

The young child is being carried in her father’s arms. She opens her eyes and the forest is a dark and foreboding place. The sky is moonless and not a star twinkles there so far above her head. She rides on her father’s shoulders as they walk and walk through the dark forest into the night. They are with the others, carrying small bundles, loaves of bread, a change of clothes and a trinket or two; they are small reminders of the life they are leaving behind. Mostly they are silent and the silence grows and grows until it echoes throughout the forest.

I wobble through the days that follow, sometimes feeling like I am teetering near the brink of some abyss that I can’t quite define; its depth is unfathomable. The kids watch me for signs of recovery, of normalcy. I try my best to put on a happy face and do whatever I can to reassure them that everything will be fine. Unfortunately, I have always been a lousy actor.



“Where did you get these jeans?” I ask Jenna one laundry day while wading through the mountain of dirty sweatshirts, socks and underwear.”

“Oh, Cindy bought them for me. She figured that I could use a few extra clothes since I had to divide up my wardrobe between here and daddy’s.”

“Yea, she took us all shopping on Queen Street Mom,” Ben adds enthusiastically. “She’s pretty cool.”

“Cindy says that we might be able to get a kitten,” Aaron says.

Visions of the tire slasher visit me anew. This time, I’m stalking the little crayon-red Miata that I know shares the space in the driveway beside my husband’s, or rather my ex-husband's car. The other woman. The only woman now. And to top it all off she is developing a relationship with my kids. They actually like her. Maybe they even like her more than me. She is younger and more fun and she can afford to lavish them with trendy gifts. Surely that would sway even the most loyal child. And what can I offer them? Another delicious meal of frozen pizzas and promises that, “Mommy will be back to normal again real soon.” I begin to lose weight and continue to sleep fitfully when at all.

They walk on and on for hours, silent with the heaviness of their load. Some carry it on their backs and some carry it in their hearts. The young child shivers. She is being carried high up on her father’s shoulders. In the forest, she can see dark movements. Shadows changing shape. Once she thinks she can feel something, like a breath upon her neck. She feels frightened even though she doesn’t know the name of the danger that follows them. She shivers as they walk deeper and deeper into the night.



“You’ve got to get on with your life Helen,” my sister Joni urges. She fixes me up with a guy called Ted from her office. “He’s a nice guy, not bad looking and he’s not married. You guys have a lot in common.”

I stand at the mirror dabbing a little something on my cheeks that promises me a natural bloom and a healthy glow while trying to decide between “Bruised Cherry” or “Morocco” lipstick. I’m wishing I could dispense with this charade – who am I kidding, I’ll never look glamorous. I imagine my date appearing at the door with his seeing-eye dog indicating that this is a “blind date” in the literal sense. Nothing would please me more than not having to make eye contact with this guy. I Imagine an evening of having to smile and look interested when he talks about the exciting world of registered retirement savings plans. Well, what the hell. Even if this doesn’t turn into a wild romance, I could always use a good financial advisor.



People are uncomfortable being around me. I may be just a little more sensitive than usual but I notice this. My married friends treat me as if I have a contagious disease. They skirt around the topic of relationships and if Andrew’s name comes up in conversation they sputter and look guilty as they are somehow to blame. My single friends look on with sympathy but they too are wary. Here comes more competition they think, in a market that is already pretty bleak as it is.

I go to the movies by myself and see couples everywhere. “No, that seat isn’t taken,” I admit, gathering up my coat and scarf from the empty place beside me. I buy an enormous box of popcorn with extra butter and eat it all. The dreams continue to haunt me.


“I have to go to the bathroom,” the child says meekly to her father. He is panting now, his neck sticky with sweat and the child can feel the clamminess on her palms as she grips him.

Silence.

“I have to go pee, Apa,” she says a little louder now, to the forest, to the trees, to the dark sky.

“Shhhh. Be quiet,” the father says in a voice so heavy that the little girl trembles with the force of it, even though it’s only a whisper. “The wolves will get you,” he says, a little softer now. “The wolves are in the forest. We can’t stop now.”

“But I have to…”

“Go in your pants if you have to!”

Silence.

They walk on and on, his feet making little squelching sounds in the thick dark mud, now and then kicking up pieces of dirt and stones. She is chilled by the cold and by the heaviness, hearing only the sounds of his breathing and her heart beating. The darkness of the woods and those wolves that are all around them. She feels very helpless and small and she tries to be very, very quiet and still. She thinks maybe she has fallen asleep because she suddenly hears the sounds of jubilant shouting and it jostles her back into consciousness. “We made it,” the voices say. “We’re safe. We’ve crossed the border into Austria!”



I wake up with that familiar terror. It catches in my throat and I bury my head into the pillow. I see that little girl being carried away, far, far from home through the darkness, through the woods, into the night. She is being taken away from everything she knows and understands into a strange land. She will learn a new language. She will eat new foods and wear different clothes. She will learn new customs and soon the familiar sounds and smells of home will just be a distant memory.

I bury my head into the pillow and let the tears begin to flow. I let myself fall deep into a place that has been dark for too long. I cry for that little girl and the forces that led her on her terrifying journey from her homeland to a new beginning. From the dangers of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe to the safety of Canada. The upheaval, the panic all come flooding back through great wrenching sobs. Here I am, so many years later, cast again into unfamiliar terrain. Here I am again uprooted, this time from the country of marriage to this unknown new land of divorce.

I know that I am that little girl and I am again a refugee. Once again, I have to learn a new language, adapt to new customs and my familiar world will become a distant memory. But out of those dark shadows and memories comes greater clarity; I know that I will make it. I breathe deeply and realize that the fluttering of wings inside my chest has stopped. Although it doesn’t happen overnight, I begin to feel my agency and my capacity to embrace change. My heart, although still bruised, no longer feels like a herd of wild palominos stampeding through the forest.

The days pass and step by step I’m starting to feel like there is more solid ground beneath my feet. Some days I feel like I’m navigating a cruise ship through the Inside Passage, circumventing icebergs. The Titanic looms in the distance but somehow, we manage to sail through the Christmas concert at school, even though Andrew suggests that it might be a good idea if Cindy comes along as well. I manage to be civil and keep my opinions to myself. The darker fantasies get quieter and although I can’t imagine that we will ever be one big happy blended family, I am learning to adapt.



The alarm rings and I fumble beneath the tangled sheets, the pile of magazines and a box of Kleenex to locate the snooze button. I drift back again to sweet gentle sleep as a long muscular arm reaches over and enfolds me into a tight embrace. We roll over again, playfully frolicking in the sunshine. Wet kisses. The amorous romp is interrupted as the alarm rings again. My left arm swings over to swat at it and this time manages to knock the clock off the bedside table where it falls with a crash.

I realize I have been dreaming again. This time my heart flutters pleasantly as I savour the last morsel of that delicious fantasy. I sit up momentarily to gain my bearings and then settle back as the realization sinks in. Relief washes over me like a gentle lullaby and I yawn feeling lazy and dreamy once again. I roll over and pull the covers over my head, ignoring the vacuum cleaner that’s lurking just outside the door, the pile of paperwork overflowing from my briefcase and the empty refrigerator and drift off back to sleep. It’s Andrew’s weekend with the kids.



Julia Abelsohn has spent over 25 years as a journalist, editor and corporate writer and is now enjoying creative writing pursuits. She has been published in The Raven’s Perch, The Mindful Word, Reedsy and received honourable mention in The Fiddle Head and Women on Writing competitions.


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