Tina’s dad, Tom was going out of town and had asked Tina to house sit and take care of the family dog. We had just gotten back to Tom’s place on the lake from a farther “up north” ice fishing and snowmobiling trip. We were sitting in the living room, watching TV. Jasper, Tina’s neurotic German shorthair pointer was sleeping between us, his head on my lap. Tina was crocheting a blanket that I didn’t yet know she she was making as a gift for me.
It was a cozy night. It felt “domestic.” I felt like we were a family. There were other things weighing on my mind, though. Tina and I had been dating for eight months and I was completely devoted. I wasn’t sure about Tina’s level of commitment, however. I’d observed and implied some disturbing behavior on her part over the past couple months. Besides the photo of her thighs all marked up with what looked like bite marks she’d sent from Scott’s, I was ignoring other signs that she’d attempted, with varying degrees of success to seduce friends and acquaintances of mine. Where she’d find success, she’d also create a co-conspirator who was obligated to assist in gaslighting me. Tina’s gaslighting campaign was fairly successful at managing my perception of reality and keeping me confused. With Tina, the past and future were nebulous and pliable. Her reality existed only in the moment. She kept my focus there. In hind sight, My drinking habits made it all the easier for her to massage my recollections, too.
I didn’t at all understand the ways my perception and emotions were being manipulated at the time, but I had these moments, when my anxiety would rise. My body was telling me something was wrong and I’d try putting pieces together. The missing pieces were often things only Tina could provide, so I’d have to rely on her to fill in those blanks. When I’d ask her about what happened some night when something had raised my suspicions, she’d often respond that “nothing really happened” and “the night was all one continuous note.” Whatever that meant.
By that point, Tina had pretty successfully positioned herself as the arbiter of reality. She wasn’t a good liar, but she was unflinching. Between her veracity and my natural desire to believe her, she could turn my mind around pretty easily. My gut wasn’t always convinced, but I trusted my brain more than any kind of intuition.
So, I was enjoying our time together and feeling familial. I think that was the first time I really contemplated the future with Tina. I imagined us living together, getting married, buying a house – maybe even having kids. Anything seemed possible. I wondered if Tina was as willing to commit to me as I was to her. I had these dark thoughts and suspicions intruding into my otherwise warm, loving feelings. I was wrestling with all of that sitting on the couch with Tina’s dog on my lap and Tina eventually noticed my distance and snapped me out of my contemplation.
“Dan, is something wrong?”
“Are you OK? You look disturbed,” she said.
“No. I’m fine. I was just thinking about the weekend. There are some holes in my memory,” I said. “I think I drank a bit too much.”
“Nothing really happened in those holes,” she said. “Everything was fine. I had a good time. It was all like one continuous note.”
She’d said that before.
“Is that all? You look really deep in thought,” she said. “It’s making me worry something’s wrong.”
“Worry? Why worry?” I asked.
“What else are you thinking about?”
From there, everything happened at the speed of light. My thoughts formed in rapid succession and turned to action before any internal checks or audits could begin.
In one swift, fluid motion, I slipped out from under Jasper, took Tina’s hand and swung myself around to face her on one knee.
I’ve forgotten what Tina’s voice sounds like and what she smelled like, but I will never forget the look on her face that night. It’s burned permanently into my memory. She instantly recognized what I was doing and watched it unfold in startled astonishment.”
“Tina Mary Szydlowski,” I intoned solemnly, “will you marry me?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes!”
“Then you’ve made me the happiest man in the world,” I said. Jasper was perturbed by the sudden flurry of activity and slinked off the couch with a huff as I sidled up to Tina and kissed her. My eyes welled up a little.
As impulsive as my action seemed, it really did feel right. I also foolishly believed that engagement would somehow solidify Tina’s commitment to a faithful relationship. Engagement would make me feel safe. All my concerns vanished.
After my divorce, I was never more sure of anything than vows I’d made to myself that I would never marry again. I surprised myself almost as much as Tina with the sudden proposal.
The barrelling train of thought to action took less than a split-second, but went something like this:
Tina asked me a question. What am I thinking about?
Well, I’m thinking about a lot of things. I’m thinking about whether I can trust her – Can’t say that. I’m thinking about where our relationship is going. I’m thinking that I could imagine a time in the future when I could see myself proposing to her. I can’t say that, either. Too wishy-washy.
I agreed to a policy of total honesty, even if it’s bad. I’m obligated to answer her honestly. I’d rather keep it positive. It would be bad form to say I might ask you to marry me one day. It’d be more proper to just go ahead and ask her to marry me on the spot. That’s crazy! You can’t do that! That would be an honest reflection of your thoughts and maybe resolve the deeper question of whether she’s really committed to me or not, or at least spur a conversation about it. She’s waiting for an answer… Take the shot. Here goes…
That succession of thoughts happened in the blink of an eye.
The night had begun calmly, quietly, comfortably but now, we were abuzz with fresh excitement. We talked enthusiastically about our future for hours and had planned our wedding in some detail before the night was through.
“Are you about ready? Ready to pick our date?” She asked excitedly.
We’d already determined that we’d get married on the lake, so we were looking at a summer wedding. I had opened the calendar on my phone, navigating around any other significant dates and was zeroing in on what I thought might be a suitable Saturday in July.
Before I suggested the date, Tina said, “Can we make it this summer?”
“Uh… 5 months? I mean, I guess that could be possible. It’s not a lot of time to get everything together. I was thinking we need some time to find our own place to live together and…”
“I’m just afraid if we don’t do it right away, it won’t happen,” she said.
I thought that was a very strange sentiment. “Why wouldn’t it? If we can’t last a year, year and a half engaged, I don’t see how we’ll stay married, anyhow, right?”
She couldn’t fault my reasoning. We settled on a year and a half long engagement. July 22nd, 2017 was the date.
“OK, so, now that we’re engaged, that means you can’t have sex with my mom,” Tina proclaimed from some dimension beyond left field.
“I hadn’t been planning on it,” I said, expecting that she was joking around.
“Or my Dad or my brother, for that matter,” she went on.
“Um. OK. Yeah. I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from sex with members of my family, too,” I said.
This began a back and forth of who was off limits for sexual activity. I was just playing along, but got bored with the exercise and tried to wrap it up by saying, “how about we just make it simple and say we don’t cheat on each other with anyone at all?”
Without missing a beat, Tina came back with “Would you consider prostitution cheating?”
“Uh…” I was a little slow to come around to the new conversational tack and she was talking over me somewhat as I began answering as if she’d asked a philosophical question. “Uh… That depends…”
“On whether you’re the pimp?” She continued to talk over me. There was an excited kind of enthusiasm to her tone.
She started talking faster, adding. “A little extra money to help out with the household… Of course, we’d double-bag that thing – wrap it up tight. Don’t want to bring anything home.”
I wasn’t keeping up with her. I assumed we were dealing in the hypothetical, but I wasn’t entirely confident of that and it was a little concerning. Ultimately I concluded that she couldn’t be seriously suggesting contributing to our household finances by fucking other guys. Still, I hedged with my answer while keeping it in the realm of libertarian philosophy instead of answering like it was a real proposal. “No. That would depend on whether it was known about and agreed upon ahead of time.”
Like a hyperactive child, Tina flashed through a number of other subjects, leaving the moral philosophizing about post-marital prostitution well in the dust. It was soon forgotten behind the flurry of other matters.
Tina got a notebook and was writing all kinds of details for a wedding plan. We were even starting a play list for the DJ. I Melt with You by Bad English topped the list for our first dance.
We drank, and caroused and dreamt up a future together.
I attempted to entice her into the bedroom. It seemed a perfect time to make love. I was rather astonished when Tina put a stop to my advances. We’d been having constant sex for eight months by then, but she chose that moment to insist that we begin using condoms, which, since we’d never used one before, I did not have handy. The nearest store was about a half-hour drive and would have been closed before I could get there.
I was mightily confused (and frustrated) by Tina’s newfound interest in safe sex.
The following morning, I was up early. I fed Jasper breakfast and let him out to relieve himself, after which, he went right back to bed with Tina. While they slept, I went outside to smoke a cigarette. It was a warm morning, for February. I wandered the property. I lit another cigarette, looking back at my tracks in the snow. An idea struck.
While I smoked, I tromped through the snow in the front yard. I made several passes, doing my best, without proper perspective, to create a giant heart shape. It was oriented to the living room picture window. Just a little surprise for Tina to see when she finally woke up.
Tina spotted the heart right away after she got up. It earned me a kiss. She was still excited and took delight in the novelty of calling me her fiance. She was bursting to tell her mom the news, but thought it should be in person, so she texted Maura to ask her to come up to the house to join us. She enticed her by intimating at big news without telling her exactly what it was. I’d bet Maura thought she was going to be a grandmother.
Tom would probably not have been thrilled about his ex-wife being in his house while he was away, but it was a special circumstance. At any rate, that was their family business I didn’t feel any place in.
It would be several hours before Maura could join us. Tina wanted to make love and I said I would drive to the store. “What should I get, like two 24-packs? How do they even come? What’s the biggest box?”
“What are you talking about?” She asked.
“Condoms,” I said. I haven’t really bought them, but I think we’re going to need a lot of them. Like, three or four 48-packs, for starters,” I joked.
“Oh. I don’t care about that,” she said and taking my hands, guided me back to the messy bed.
My longevity wasn’t what we were accustomed to – maybe I was too excited after having been rebuffed the night before and it had already been a while.
“Sorry that was kind of brief,” I said, looking down into her eyes when I’d recaptured my wind. “Let me get a drink and I’ll be ready to go again.”
“You should never apologize for having a good time,” Tina shot back.
Something about the way she said that, in that moment struck me oddly. It felt like a rehearsed line. It definitely didn’t feel genuine. I felt a rush of anxiety and suddenly didn’t feel like that second round anymore.
We found a light breakfast in Tom’s kitchen and ended up having a discussion about condoms and babies. Tina said she was thinking that she’d like to have a year married before having a kid, but was also worried that she might not be able to get pregnant without some medical intervention. She said she previously had conflicted feelings about having a child. She had a desire to become a mother, but she worried about passing on her “problems” to any offspring.
“But, you change everything,” she said. “With you for a partner, I feel like we could handle any challenges. You’re everything I never wanted.”
Ultimately, we decided that we’d “roll the dice” on the low-odds of a natural pregnancy, which would be welcome, even if “early,” precisely because it was unlikely. Then, if a year of marriage still didn’t produce a pregnancy, we’d look into medical options. We were both of the mindset that we’d be happy together with or without having any children, though.
Condoms were never discussed again, but Tina did occasionally express concern about how her child might turn out. “I’m afraid my baby will end up like me,” she’d say.
I knew Tina took a plethora of medications, some for depression and anxiety, but when she said things like that, I always assumed she was referring to her physical ailments: Her digestive problems, the mystery illnesses she suffered as a child that led to organ extraction and numerous, repeated, seemingly fruitless medical tortures.
“It’s possible that our child could inherit some of your problems, or maybe not. My genes play a role, too and if there are problems like you’ve suffered, you’d be uniquely qualified to guide doctors to the right cause, since you’ve already been there.”
Tina mentioned that her seemingly abandoned interest in medicine had leaned towards pediatrics for that very reason – to be able to help prevent children suffering like she had.
Long after we’d broken up, I heard from other people that Tina had told them she never wanted kids. She said she was afraid they’d turn out like her, but their take was different than mine. They assumed she was talking about her disordered personality.
I was so wrapped up in being Tina’s everything (primary narcissistic supply) that such a thing never (consciously) occurred to me. I was telling Tina that I thought she’d be an excellent mother, based on how I’d seen her interact with my niece and nephews and what I’d heard from her about helping out with Scott’s preteen daughters. I thought she was a loving, caring woman. Maybe she was – when it suited her, but I learned she could never be that consistently.
When I was married to Jessica, we’d suffered the loss of two pregnancies due to miscarriage and that was all she would tolerate. She decided children weren’t going to be in our future. I was ambivalent about it, but resigned to that reality. I enjoyed the freedom and reduced responsibility that came with being childless, but sometimes wondered how much I’d be missing out on. With Tina, everything became possible again. No doors were closed. Our world was clay to be molded into any future we desired for ourselves.
The first chilly afternoon of our betrothal progressed and we were running low on crucial cigarettes, so we decided to make Jasper the happiest dog and take him for a ride into town after I took a quick shower.
I didn’t see any sign of Tina or the dog when I emerged from the steamy bathroom. I guessed they were outside. I dressed, tugged on my hat and shoes and stepped out. They were out there on the snowy driveway, but I was surprised to see someone else, too. Tina was Hunched over by the window of a pickup truck I didn’t recognize, talking to the driver, a balding man with a long gray beard who I didn’t recognize. He didn’t linger long and Tina didn’t offer any introductions before the truck set off to ascend the steep driveway.
“That was Ben,” Tina explained. “He’s a friend of My Dad’s. He comes by to check on things when my Dad’s away.”
“You ready to go?”
I checked my coat pocket and produced my keys.
“OK!” Tina tromped over to my van and slid open the back door, calling her dog. “Jaspo! Car Ride!”
It wasn’t his name that turned the ranging dog’s head. It was the promise of a ride. His long legs bore him galloping towards my open vehicle.
Maura arrived a while after we returned to the house and was excited and happy for us when Tina broke the news of our engagement. She didn’t seem especially surprised, but maybe she was let down that we weren’t announcing a pregnancy. Looking out towards the lake, she saw my snow-tramped message to her daughter. “Oh my God, is that a heart?” she exclaimed.
Tina beamed. “That’s my Dan,” she said.
For a time Tina and I were swept up in the fresh excitement of our deeper commitment, a new future to imagine together and a fun wedding to plan. She showed me a book she’d bought. It was a really thick wedding planning manual with questionnaires and tips and tricks and lots of worksheets for. We agreed that 80% of it was bullshit that wasn’t going to apply to our less conventional wedding, but it became the repository of every detail of the wedding plan. Only a little over a week passed before trouble reappeared in paradise, though.