The Starter Wife

2wedding.SKMBT_C36413092514530Thirty years ago today I married my third husband. I was his first wife. He wanted the whole wedding, with a big party and the church and a tuxedo. I agreed, but only because it was his first go-round. Frankly I was a little embarrassed inviting people to yet another celebration of forever love. I knew damn well love, at least for me, didn’t seem to last forever. And there were already red flags flying, long before the wedding day dawned.

We’d broken up when he decided we should postpone the wedding after we set the date and everyone had been invited. Then we got back together, but only because I made him choose, all or nothing. Marriage or break up for good. I was a single mom, in the middle of a custody war with no end in sight. I had to be tough. He chose me, but sometimes he’d say “everyone has a starter wife, right?” I wasn’t sure he was joking.

On our wedding day, someone set a video camera up by the keg of beer on the patio. This would become our wedding video. When we got back from our honeymoon (not all hearts and flowers) and watched the video from our wedding day, I heard Al’s friends making bets on how long the marriage would last. Not long, was the general consensus. Less than a year.

Things were rocky as a landslide those first months, that first year. We had completely different ideas about how marriage worked and neither one of us was very good at compromise. There were lots of tears and hurt feelings. He flung the word divorce around so liberally I once went into the boys’ bedroom to find them filling their little gym bags, the ones they used when they switched houses to their dads’ place.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“We’re packing. Al says we’re getting a divorce.”

I told them Al didn’t mean it, we were not getting a divorce, grown ups sometimes said things they didn’t mean when they were upset. The boys calmed down and unpacked their toys and pajamas. But they looked sad. Which broke my heart. Maybe I should get a divorce. Maybe Al really didn’t want to be married to me and maybe I had been a fool to think I could fall in love again and finally make it work. So many more red flags had popped up since we’d said “I do.”

There was the way he never told me when he made plans with his guy friends, just went out. On Friday night. To the bar. And plenty of other nights, too. No discussion, just “see ya.” Or the times I’d try to do something nice for him, like throwing him a birthday party or buying him a little gift, and he’d always say “how much is this going to cost me?” Then there was the way he flung around the D word. The way he’d been so mean on our honeymoon, falling asleep on the road to Hana so I had to drive down that mountain myself, terrified the whole time. Not my idea of a romantic hero. Not at all.

Even on our wedding day, he spent more time drinking with his friends than by my side. He’d walked in on me smoking a cigarette and yelled at me in front of a bunch of wedding guests. Remembering all these raging red flags, I began to worry big time. Not so much about what this would do to my ongoing custody case, but what it would do to my own heart, and the hearts of those two little boys I loved so much. I’d been through a no-big-deal divorce at 18, from my high school sweetheart, and then I’d been through the wrecking ball with my second husband, the father of my sons. I wasn’t sure how we’d survive another divorce. I wasn’t sure I had a choice.

But I was strong back then, so much stronger than I am now. The years have made me soft, but back then I had time on my side. I believed that many good things were in my family’s future. What I didn’t know is if that family would hold three or four people. My mother seemed to think divorce was in the cards for Al and me. I had told her a little bit about our problems and she said “I never thought it would work.” I’m not sure there was anybody who believed we could make it work. Not my ex, not my kids, not my family, not our friends, and apparently not even Al.

I waited until the kids were with their dad and then I sat down on the sofa in the living room and had the talk with Al. I told him that I was done fighting for our love. It was pretty clear to me that he didn’t really love me and that this marriage had been a big mistake. I told him about the little scene in the boys’ bedroom. I don’t think I even had any tears left. Our relationship had started out so beautifully, as so many love stories do, but it had turned uglier and uglier and I truly believed it was past saving. Al agreed. We would divorce, less than a year after we married.

I got up off the sofa. I had no place to go, but I knew how to find an apartment. I’d done it plenty of times. Now it was my turn to pack. I guessed I really had been the starter wife he said I was after all. And good luck to the next one. I was heading down the hallway, ready to pack my own bags, when Al called me back into the living room. By this point, I wasn’t angry; neither one of us had even raised our voices during the entire discussion. All the tears and arguments were over.

I turned around to look at him sitting there, feeling so sad, because I still loved him, even though our marriage was impossible to fix. I was a born loser in love. Three times married, three times failed. He sat there on the sofa looking at me. “What?” I said, simply defeated. Nothing else he said could make me feel lower than I already did in that moment.

“I still love you,” he said.

That was thirty years ago. Somehow the starter wife became the only wife, with hard work, determination, abiding love, and many highs and lows in a very long, mostly happy marriage.

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Mixed Signals

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In the novel I’m working on, tentative title Luke’s #1 Rule, people misunderstand each other’s motives all the time. Chloe’s mom, Ursula, thinks her daughter and grandkids are leaving the state to get back at her for moving a few hours away, and for not continuing to provide Chloe with free housing, home cooked meals, and babysitting.

In Chloe’s mind, nothing could be further from the truth. She knows it’s time to stand on her own feet and raise her boys by herself. Her mom’s decision just urged her to do what she knew all along had to be done. Staying with your mom when you’re thirty-something is not Chloe’s idea of success. But her mom made it easy, her sons were happy, and she knew they were being well cared for as she re-entered the working world.

Now Chloe has the opportunity of a lifetime and she’s taking it even though it will move her far away. Chloe needs to provide for her children, and this job has great health care, benefits, and a salary twice the size of her current position. Her ex-husband is a loser without a job. He’s also got a drug and drink habit fit for a rock star. Chloe wants to get as far away from him as she can. She doesn’t want her boys exposed to her ex’s dysfunctional and destructive lifestyle.

The chess pieces are on the table and the players have no idea what move the other will make. Ursula pulls a bold move with the help of a friend, setting Chloe up with her pal’s handsome son. There are too many mixed signals between Chloe and Luke to count.

Luke is a bit of a mystery man. What’s his motive? Chloe isn’t sure. He keeps her off balance, because his emotions are in turmoil, too. Nobody quite knows what anyone else is up to. Even her ex has a strategy to thwart Chloe’s ambitions.

And isn’t life like that? Some people may not even be conscious of the reasons behind their behavior. Like today, when I wrote about my novel-in-progress instead of the novel that’s just been published. Mixed message. Honest mistake.

My current release, Blue Heaven, also has a couple, Eva and Daniel, who send each other mixed messages on their path to true love. One character deliberately sets out to manipulate Eva. She can’t be sure who has betrayed her, she just hopes it’s not Daniel. Blue Heaven is on sale exclusively at Kindle for three months and, best of all, will be free the first five days of October.

Runnin’ Down a Dream

Yes, I am a die-hard Tom Petty fan. His lyrics often reflect how he deals with creative juice. That and Love capital L are his two stand-out themes for me. There is a kind of love brewing in me now. It wants to spill into the novel I’m writing, or maybe take me off-track altogether. I just don’t know yet, because I haven’t let out the words.

As a writer who has published five books, I know how to put my nose to the grindstone. It’s never easy for me to write the sad stuff, the bad stuff. The last time I left off, I’d just had my character hit bottom. Now he’s heading for a confrontation with his ex-wife over custody of their children. And all I want to do is write about Love.

The ex-wife is in love, she’s got it bad, but she’s totally torn. She doesn’t see a way to have a future with this man who has her heart. So, I’m thinking, let the new lovers have a little interlude of dizzy pleasure before everything goes to hell. What’s the harm? Readers, especially romance readers, love the romantic parts of novels. That new love feeling is difficult for me, since next month I’ll have been (mostly happily!) married to Al for 28 years. Or it was until I met someone from my past who made me remember what it feels like to be in love.

So, since in real life I’m not going anywhere,  I can sublimate my recently ruffled feelings by putting them on paper. Just like Tom Petty, I’m going to listen to my heart. It’s gonna tell me what to do as I run down this dream the only way I know how. By making it happen in a book.

A Writer & Her Secrets

Long time ago a writing teacher told me the best way to unlock a character is to ask three questions: What’s your secret? What’s your real secret? What’s your real secret? With each answer you go a little deeper. This is the way into the heart of your characters, the way to make them show up breathing on the page.

Another thing, just discovered today, ask yourself, your writer self, Where are you reluctant to go with this story? What do you plan to gloss over as you write this? What secrets are you keeping from your characters? I have been asking myself these questions for weeks. This book of my heart is going to break my heart. And it should. I want it to. So, I’m going there. I’m putting things on the page that I never planned to bring to light. Important things. Shameful, hurtful, awful things.

And that’s good. Today was the break-through in terms of finding a way to develop a character and enhance the theme of my WIP.

Maybe some of you know that I was once a divorced mom of two little boys. Most of my good friends are not writers, and they don’t read my blog (just guessing here, I know a few of you do!) but what my good friends will tell you is that I carried so much guilt for so long after my divorce. For years, I spoke of almost nothing else when I got together with them. And while the frequency tapered off, I was never fully able to forgive myself for splitting up my family.

When I did it, I was a stupid 26 year old who had no idea she was breaking her little boys’ hearts. I told myself it would be fine, we’d have joint custody, we were modern, blended, cool. Ha. That was not my experience. Not cool. Not blended. Not healed. We went through all the motions: sightings at recitals, graduations, weddings. We were polite. But we did not heal; I did not heal.

I wanted to write about the struggles of blending families and how nobody should ever kid themselves that divorce is “for the best” or “fine in this day and age.” I’ve been married to Al, my current husband, for 28 years. I was married to my children’s father for 7. One reason I stayed married to Al was because I was not going to put my children through another divorce. I wanted to walk away so many times in those early days. But I didn’t. And now I’m so glad I stayed. Mature love is a sweet gift.

I’ve wondered, and gone through it aloud with friends, since I stayed with Al, should I have stayed with my children’s dad? Were we just having a rough patch? We saw three counselors and waited two years to finally split. I tried. He did too. It just wasn’t right. Not for us. But this idea that I should have rode out the tough times continued to haunt me and my friends continued to listen to me beat myself up about the divorce until this year, when I finally got it. It’s like being in an airplane when the masks fall down. You put your own air mask on before your child’s. I was saving myself and since then have been trying to save the boys.  Who turned out pretty great, btw.

So how to write about this without exploiting anyone? Obviously, the ex had to be completely different from my real ex. The kids needed to be different, too. As well as the hero and heroine. Where I was stuck was with the ex. Everybody else came to the table ready to tell this story. But the ex was recalcitrant. He was stubborn. He refused to move on the page. He wasn’t true. And I don’t mean true in the sense of “really happened” but true for this story.

I knew I was blocked because I respect my ex-husband so very much. I didn’t want to make him a bad guy, which would be your obvious choice in a romance. I just thought that road was too easy and a little bit mean. Today, the ex finally spoke to me, in his own words, telling his own story. This is the day I have been waiting for without really knowing what the search was about. I’d been keeping secrets about my character, even from myself. Glad he finally got me to pick up the pen so he could have a go at giving me all his angels and demons.

Sometimes, it’s not about the characters and their secrets. Sometimes it’s about the writer and her secrets.