by Susan Bonetto
I have had the great fortune of having four BFFs who have watched over and applauded my alternative life choices: Marrying a good-crazy, foreign born man eighteen years my senior, leaping off a professional career ladder in my early thirties to move to a Fijian island the size of a shopping mall, having our child when that staggering man, Oscar, was in his fifties and we lived simply in the ‘islands’, and moving internationally five times when Oscar’s whim or compass bearing changed course every few years.
These women followed more customary paths. Beth married young and never left our old northeast Milwaukee suburbs. She and Steve have had a solid caring relationship. Stacy moved to Chicago and then on to California for her husband, Jack’s, medical studies. Later, they settled in Madison. Heather, my best college friend, recently celebrated thirty-five sweet years married to Mark, moving up and down the West Coast, as his Finance jobs require. And finally there’s Anna who, like me, married a man many years older, but, unlike me, lives the American dream with Ben and their two young children in New York.
No matter where I went or what I did these past many years these four faithful souls and I kept in close touch via letters, e-mails, calls, and visits. Best friends provide love and support throughout a lifetime but never did I realize the depths of their backing until Oscar was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a big, bewildering word for terminal cancer. Each buttressed me in distinct ways during the three-and-a-half-years that he was ill—more frequent calls, surprise visits, cards, unnecessary offers of money, and guidance for me when I pretended to be a single parent to a developing teenage boy while his father’s presence faded.
When Oscar died they each threw out longer lifelines. Beth and her family met Alejandro and me at the Milwaukee airport when we travelled ‘home’ for a visit one-month post-death. They took us bowling and filled us with comfort foods and ice cream. During that same visit Stacy took time off from work to sit with me and let me cry while Jack whisked Alejandro off to the University of Wisconsin basketball finals. Some months later Heather accompanied me to Fiji so that I could have grieving time in the place where our son was born and magnificent memories live. Anna took us in for two months when life dealt another blow and my lovely son needed brain surgery.
A year of intense pain passed. I moved with and through it. I existed with no plans and a limited life. I focused on my son’s rehabilitation, bits of work and walks to my favorite café in the company of my Boxer pup. Within the open wound, strangers, as well as men whom Oscar and I counted as friends, sometimes threw salt, asking me out without reading the signs that I was completely uninterested. But, a new dawn crept up and, after months of aloneness, one or two days appeared when I inadvertently found myself checking out a passing guy or returning a glance. My body pushed my mind towards something I’d had with my husband and always enjoyed—connections with men. And, so I gradually came to interact lightly with those delightful creatures again.
As this transition ensued I, of course, shared, my novel and odd thoughts and events with my friends. They knew everything—initially, how continually pissed off I was with most men who tried to engage me in conversations. Much later, long before I admitted or accepted it, they registered the days when seedlings sprouted under the snow, and my mind opened up to the warmth of an approaching new season. I related when I had a lengthy chat with someone at my sports club, shared a coffee, the time when I visited with the kind spirit seated next to me on a plane who then invited me to the VIP lounge during our joint layover, and the first evening when I went out for dinner with ‘just a friend’. They questioned me about how I felt before, during, and after, what I wore, what we discussed, if there was any glimmer of romance, and, most of all, if I was all right. For several months I kept them apprised of my feelings, sometimes wailing for what Oscar’s disappearance had caused, once pissed off at having wasted an evening with a jerk, occasionally hopeful of seeing someone again who appeared warm and thoughtful.
Though I felt tinges of enjoyment in my brief outings, my girlfriends oftentimes acted more eager for fuller experiences than I desired.
“How’s it going? Is he a keeper?” Stacy texted, in the midst of my second coffee with Mike. To me, it was just a coffee visit with a pleasant guy.
Anna called as I left for a dinner out with the ‘just a friend’ and teasingly asked, ‘Do you have on your pretty, matching Victoria Secret bra and panties? Be sure to call me on your way home, regardless of the time!” I assured her it was ‘just dinner’ and I didn’t seek anything more.
Whenever I expressed doubt, confusion, or more anger at my new, undesired status, each friend encouraged me onward. Heather offered the adage “Live in the moment and just try to have fun.”
Beth listened to my fury one day and turned the conversation on its heels. “Listen to me, Susie! Oscar would want you to continue living life to its fullest.”
Anna continually encouraged “Just focus on some sexual adventures. You’ve said you would like some sex but nothing else. Go for it!”
At times I regretted allowing them access to the tiny advances my heart was taking as they were running faster than me. I felt like the teenage girl who matures more slowly than her best friend and the friend keeps encouraging her to go to second or third base with boys before she is prepared.
My friends apparently now wish they were me. They’ve moved beyond vicarious titillations. They discuss their lives and relationships monochromatically but then, when we move on to my life they light up, like it’s Christmas morning. I’m the starring role in their favorite romantic movie. Their eyes sparkle; their lips let out small explosive breaths as I speak about the man I am now seeing, Jose, and our beginning moments.
Beth asked with a coy smile, “Do you feel like you’re cheating on Oscar? You are so lucky in a way that you can have these experiences.”
Stacy shyly murmured, “How I wish for some ‘first-times’ again! First glance, first touch, first date. It must be mind-blowing!”
Anna wanted as many sexual details as I was willing to proffer: “Did you really stay up all night? And, was the first time great or were you nervous? Were the second and third times better?” Ben, who later heard the details from Anna, uttered “Wow! We need a night like that again. Or two!”
I adore these women. They are goddesses to me. But their notions leave me troubled and empty. Their spouses and partners are alive and healthy yet they mourn an existence they can still possess. My forever love suffered terribly for years and left our teenage son and me flailing. Have they forgotten that Oscar and I were still handholding devotees when he died? Don’t they remember how he adored me? That he was it for me? What’s happening at their hearths? Why aren’t they buoyantly living with their one and onlys? Why aren’t they celebrating the gift of extra time? They chose these men and have elected to stay in these partnerships. Are they letting things slide? Why aren’t they gushing with appreciation, if not rapture? I want them to understand that new romances and relationships do not replace a solid foundation laid twenty or more years back.
I do continue on. That’s what one does when there is no alternative. But, I live with a hollowness inside that no one will fill and I will mourn for Oscar for the remainder of my days. He died more than two years ago and, yet, my tears run as I write this story. Grief doesn’t end; it only changes into an ebb and flow. In one of those ebb tides happiness recently rediscovered me. It caught me unawares in my habitual cafe. Jose is another regular who, like me, is never without a book. Like all coffee shop regulars, we’d nodded our hellos for years. Recently he passed by and softly said that he bought my coffee that morning. And, I let him sit down. Anna, Heather, Stacy or Beth can tell you the rest. In great detail. Along with oohs and aahs.
I get that it makes them feel better to think of me coming round, maybe finding new love. They can worry less about their best friend now. But, they shouldn’t want to be me. To feel that I am fortunate? Wishing for widowhood? Thinking how special it would be to have my prospect at second chances?
Widowhood was not a choice and is not an opportunity. I don’t, but I want to advise them, “Be careful what you wannabe.”
Susan Bonetto grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to California where she met and married an extraordinary man, Oscar, who encouraged her to live abroad (with him) and travel as far and wide as possible. While living in Fiji, their now twenty-two-year old, son, Alejandro, was born. Susan has been fortunate to have lived in the U.S., Fiji, The Philippines, and Argentina and travelled to more than thirty countries. Now widowed, she continues to work as a global Human Resources Consultant. One of her Fiji stories, “Before We Lived Barefoot” won second place in TransitionsAbroad.com’s 2014 Narrative Travel Writing Essay Contest, another was published here in 2014 and this year she was a finalist in the 40th New Millennium Writings Non-Fiction Literary contest.