Because I’ll take any excuse to whip up some pancakes and sausages, I invited two of my friends over for brunch. I know, that’s pretty said, but then again, you can’t beat pumpkin pancakes with link breakfast sausage on a chilly October morning. That, and I hadn’t seen Chelsea and Connie in ages.
Well before COVID, these two have had their unfair share of horrible luck. The death of a sibling, job loss, owing everyone took its toll, and when the pandemic shut everything down, things went from worse to abysmal. Facing an uncertain future, each did what they had to do to make ends meet, which meant going deep into debt.
After pancakes, we sat in my living room and stared at the gas fire cheerfully glow amid the ceramic logs. Then Connie spoke. “Damn,” she said, dropping her spent coffee cup onto the low table. “I suck at success.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Can’t seem to get ahead in my job. Ended my relationship, but then again, how long can one put up with an alcoholic? And those fucking student loans.” She leaned back in the wing chair, casting her eyes at the ceiling. “Never heard the end of that. What a piss poor money manager I am.”
Chelsea shook her head. “Everyone has student loans that never die. My friend Pat’s a psychologist. Graduated twenty years ago. Still paying them off.”
I thought about. that for a moment. Thanks to choosing relatively inexpensive colleges back in the day, my father paid for my education. Back then, pretty much anyone could afford to go if they wanted to. After a few grants and scholarships, what my Dad owed was minimal I had a friend who was dirt poor. She had plenty of resources available to her. Whatever happened to those?
God, I miss the second half of the 20th century sometimes.
“You know, what pisses me off is my ex,” I said. “He immigrated here and yeah, I helped him out until he got settled in a job that turned out to be his career here. He’s senior level management now. Only the company’s president is above him. I’m the first to admit he worked hard to get there. But I invested so much in our marriage, only for him to leave me. Now, he’s living large on the twenty-something floor of a luxury skyscraper building with a killer view, his gorgeous girlfriend moved with him, drives an expensive care and has it all. He’s really, really happy.”
“It’s not the first time shit like this happened,” said Chelsea.
“I know our marriage wasn’t perfect,” I said. “Whose is? But he was anything but perfect. I put up with his ex and the battles we fought to see their kids. Even went to court. And when he was sick, which happened a lot, I took care of him. And now all I can think of is how he must be laughing at me, telling his girlfriend what a loser I am. How I live in this tiny house and have a nonprofit job, how I get uglier by the day and how lucky he was to get rid of me. Boy, how he wallows in success, while I struggle.”
I’ve been harboring this dim view of myself for quite some time. Most days I’ve been able to sweep it under the rug, even chide myself for considering it. Rejection is a killer, though. It’s an acid that tears at your soul, mercilessly. The trick is, you have to rise above it. Beat it back. Dismiss it. Sometimes I’m too low and too weak, though. It’s the unfairness of it all that eats at me. And the hamster wheel of considering what I did to allow our marriage creeps in during those low moments.
Chelsea straightened her slouch on the couch. “Is that how you define success? By having all that money, a great apartment and beautiful girlfriend?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Who wouldn’t?”
“Maybe it’s time to look at what success really is,” she said. “I mean, it isn’t always about stuff.”
I shook my head. “It helps, especially the money part.”
“No, look,” said Chelsea. “You’re doing what you want. You have no mortgage, and you live in this really adorable cottage.”
Connie nodded. “I agree…and I always love coming here. It is a cute house.”
“See?” said Chelsea. “And look at the friends you have and are making. Your life was so different when you moved here. You had that stupid job at Phipps. This house was empty,” she said, waving her hand towards the furniture. “Bit by bit you turned this into a home. You kept at your writing, no matter if your ex said you chose that over him…and we know that’s not true, but still. You pay your bills on time and you have a decent car. Every bit of that is because of you. I’d call that being quite successful.”
She had a point.
Maybe I still have that nasty habit of defining myself by my ex’s standards. It wasn’t always that way. When I met him, he was a kind person. He carried the weight of a very bad marriage with a vindictive spouse. She did everything in her power to ruin his very good relationship he had with his children. When the ex moved here, it was to start over. Together, we forged as one, buying a small house together and then a larger one, took fun vacations and saw the humor in everything. As time wore on, and we raised our own family, things went south. My parents became ill. His father died. We had severe problems with kids. I didn’t get him the present he wanted for his birthday. I didn’t supervise the bathroom redo as well as I should’ve. I looked like a sickly old dowdy lady. And so on.
Until he said, “You always get to do what you want to do, so now I’m going to do what I want to do.” And left.
Maybe the fact that I survived all that and reconnected with my former self, the one who was out there before I met Ex, is success in itself. Maybe success isn’t about money, or having a fantastic apartment or a beautiful, adoring girlfriend who loves your accent. Maybe success is learning to let go of all the toxicity that crept into your life so, so slowly that you didn’t see it coming when it smacked you in the jaw.
Divorce isn’t just about ending a marriage. It’s also separating yourself from all that dragged you down and held you back. It’s learning to live with new prospects and difficult challenges. Redefining yourself not as a married person, but one who’s independent. Scary, yes. Impossible? Certainly not.
How you rise above all that and forge ahead is what success really is.