“So … am I a replacement, or an addition?” Only Christie had the courage to ask a question like that and not think about the consequences. She delivered it with the same deftness and precision as a gladiator finishing off an opponent. Her size, as she put it—“I’m five-foot-nothing. I’m fun size”— belies her ability to go in for the kill. One of her most endearing qualities, at least to me, is that she is fearless.
Christie was starting her senior year at Juniata College, which is located in the heart of
central Pennsylvania. She asked that question without any warning halfway through our three-hour trip.
It was a fair question and one I’m not surprised she asked, given my correspondence with
her earlier that year. In reality, I would have preferred she hadn’t asked it. I thought about copping out and saying “both,” but that would not have been the truth. Besides, I knew Christie wouldn’t tolerate that answer. With her you’re either in or out; yes or no; black or white—there is no middle ground.
Christie is the granddaughter of a woman I have dated on and off—mostly off—for the better
part of six years. Her grandmother, Samantha, raised Christie from infancy after Christie’s
mother died at twenty-five and her father abandoned her. Samantha’s decision to raise Christie was a seminal one; she had done this before when her first husband passed away at a young age, leaving her to raise their three girls alone—one of them Christie’s mother.
Her surviving daughters weren’t, and aren’t, any help. One daughter has been
institutionalized most of her life for mental illness, and has been and in and out of drug rehabs. The other is dangerous, even when she is on her meds. One look in her eyes, and I knew she would gut me like a fish with a butter knife, just to inflict maximum pain, the first time I pissed her off. I made sure that first meeting was the last.
Samantha dated, but none of the men stayed around long enough, nor showed enough interest, to really get to know Christie, and vice versa. That is, until I entered the fray. It was perhaps the third or fourth date I had with Samantha, when she finally felt safe enough to allow me to pick her up at her home. It was then she introduced me to Christie, who was just starting her junior year in high school.
She was in her room when Samantha called her to come down. Apparently Samantha told
Christie I was stopping over, because she came bounding down the stairs with a sense of urgency and excitement like someone rushing to meet a long-lost friend. Christie’s fair complexion blended seamlessly into her almost shoulder-length, naturally dirty-blonde hair, which appeared a bit unkempt. On her it looked charming. There was calm in Christie’s almond-shaped, brown eyes, which I was surprised to find given the turmoil in her young life.
Before Samantha got out the introduction, Christie said in a perky voice, “Hi Ian, I’m
Christie.” She had a perfect smile, which highlighted perfectly straight teeth. I was about to say hello, and shake her hand, when she wrapped her arms around my waist and gave me the most intense, warmest hug. It was as if she was trying to crawl inside of me. The hug lasted at least three Mississippis.
I glanced over Christie’s right shoulder at Samantha, who stood there with her mouth
open. She looked like a fish in a tank that was about to be fed.
I gave Christie a polite hug and slowly pushed her away. She looked up, smiled, and said, “Great to finally meet you, Ian. Grandmum has told me so much about you.” I was somewhat taken aback. I mean, how much could Samantha have told her about me, considering I had only been out with her three or four times?
“All good, I hope?” I mumbled.
“Absolutely. She said you were a gentleman, funny, and handsome. I don’t know about
the funny part but it appears she was right about the other two. Hopefully, I’ll get to see the funny part of you as well.”
Fearless. That’s when I first realized Christie had no fear saying what was on her mind.
This was a girl who had a commanding presence in spite, or perhaps because, of all she had been through. I was both impressed and amazed, as I had imagined she would have been somewhat standoff-ish given her history with the men in her life.
Again I mumbled, “Pleasure to meet you as well, Christie. Your grandmother speaks
highly of you. In fact, you are the center of her online profile.”
There was no response, other than, “Well, I have school work to do, and you two better
get going or you’ll be late for the movie.” She said it with the authority of a mother ushering off her daughter after meeting her date for the first time.
“Yeah, it was great to finally meet you, Christie. Hopefully we’ll meet again.” I didn’t
know what else to say. Truth be told, I felt stupid and awkward, like a teenage boy who had just had his first kiss. Then, without another word, Christie gave Samantha a quick hug and kiss and bounded back upstairs with the same energy with which she came down.
“I suppose we better get going or we’ll be late,” I said to Samantha. “Mother has
spoken.” I smiled.
Once in the car Samantha looked straight ahead and never once glanced at me. It was like
she was in a trance, as she didn’t say a word the entire ride to the movie theater. I wasn’t sure what was on her mind but hoped she wasn’t pissed at me. Although I was pretty sure I hadn’t done or said anything wrong, I wasn’t entirely confident. With women, you just never know. In the parking lot, I shut off the engine and sat there for a moment choosing my words. Finally, I found the courage to ask Samantha what was on her mind.
“Why do you ask?” answered Samantha.
“Because you haven’t said a word or looked at me the entire way, which isn’t like you. You’ve been sitting there like a zombie. Look, I don’t claim to know you all that well, Samantha, but we seemed to have a connection. We both felt it from the first time we met.” And I paused, waiting for an answer that didn’t come. So I asked, “Didn’t we?”
“Then what’s wrong? And don’t say ‘Nothing.’”
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Ian.”
“I didn’t ask if I did anything wrong. I asked what’s wrong. You’ve been in a trancelike
state since we left the house.”
Samantha started to cry. Shit. It’s only been what, three or four dates, and I already have her crying? That’s a new record, even for me. She turned towards me. Here it comes. “You’re a great guy, Ian, but…”
“It’s the way she hugged you.”
I wasn’t relieved by the answer. In fact I was terrified. Did she think I was some dirty old man—some kind of pervert? I blurted out in rapid fire with a terrified expression on my face, “Yeah, I didn’t expect that, Samantha, really. I’m sorry if I did anything wrong. I really didn’t hug her back. Did I do something wrong?”
Samantha touched my hand. “There’s nothing wrong. You did nothing wrong.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“Because she’s never hugged any man that way. She rarely hugs me that way.”
I have always believed I was an intelligent, perceptive guy. But now I was completely
confused, which, I must admit, still comes naturally for me when it comes to women. “I’m not sure what you mean, Samantha.”
Samantha went on to explain that she believed Christie was an empath, and that she saw
and felt things others didn’t. “She sees something in you, Ian. I believe she saw an aura around you and she was attracted to it.” Samantha has always been into the cosmic realm.
I knew nothing about empaths, except for the one on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Not wanting to show my complete ignorance, as I figured that would come to light soon enough if we stayed together, I asked, “You mean, like a smell?”
“No, silly, a light around you.”
I was relieved. “Do you see that light?”
“No, but I feel comfortable with you like we met before. Like in another lifetime. But
Christie seems to instinctively know who is a good person and who is not. She obviously saw
that in you…a good person that is.”
I wanted to say: ‘Dogs do, too,’ but thought better of it. So I came out with a clever
statement: “We should go or we’ll miss the movie.” Brilliant; just brilliant.
I don’t remember much of the movie or the dinner afterwards, because all I thought about
was Christie’s hug. I didn’t even get those types of hugs anymore from my children. What did she see in or around me?
I excused myself from Samantha’s invitation to come into the house after I took her
home, saying I was tired. Actually I was afraid—yes, afraid—I might see Christie again and I didn’t want to repeat the hug experience. After I gave Samantha a quick kiss and a hug, I walked back to the car and drove off as fast as I could. For the next few days that hug preoccupied me, and crowded out most other thoughts, like an overweight person who sits next to you in a plane and takes up every square inch of the arm rest. I avoided any conversation with Samantha outside of a few texts. I still wanted to see her, but not until I sorted out this hug thing.
I came to the conclusion that I, too, felt a connection with Christie, but it wasn’t because I saw any light around her. Perhaps it was because of my estranged relationship with my daughters that occurred after my divorce, especially my youngest who was only a few years older than Christie. Perhaps I was missing the same hugs she used to give me when I came home from work when she was a child. But my gut told me that wasn’t the answer. For many years after my separation and divorce, I had no idea of who I was or had become. So it should have come as no surprise to me that I wasn’t sure what I was feeling, let alone why.
Eventually I came to understand what I was feeling. It was a sense of not belonging, and I
have always suspected Christie felt she didn’t belong to anyone either, other than her
grandmother—and maybe even felt abandoned. I knew something about abandonment.
I was the sole survivor of an ambush on my riverboat in Vietnam. For many years I
believed I abandoned my crew, because I didn’t join them in death.
I came to the belief that Christie might also have shared the same feelings because when
she was three—her mother tucked her into bed, read her a story and kissed her on the forehead after saying “Goodnight,” closed the door, walked to the garage, grabbed the loaded handgun she had hidden, cocked the hammer, inserted the gun into her mouth and pulled the trigger. A single shot. Christie never heard it, but has felt the effects from it ever since.
Christie was told that her mother just stopped breathing—and that is what she believed,
until she found out the truth years later from the next-door neighbor’s child, who blurted it out in an angry tirade. Samantha confirmed it. Now it was Christie’s truth to deal with. It must have felt—and perhaps still does—that both parents abandoned her, with one going so far as deciding death was the preferable choice. I can’t imagine how that must screw with a child’s mind. Christie had to start over like I did, and find out where and to whom she belonged.
Belonging, or more accurately not belonging, was perhaps our connection. No auras, no
cosmic intervention—just raw emotion.
“What do you mean?” I asked glancing at Christie, and quickly turned my head back to the road ahead of me. In that briefest of moments, our eyes met. Her look said it all. I was playing stupid, but she wasn’t having any of it. She then sat cross-legged, folded her arms across her chest, leaned back into the seat, and stared out her window into the forest that lined her side of the highway.
Over the years I have gained some insight into Christie, but it’s been by accident. Just little things she has written in e-mails or said over lunches when she was on break from college. The one glaring insight was Christie’s appetite for life. She attacked and devoured it like a cheetah that runs down its prey on an African savanna, and then savors its kill leaving only scraps. Christie left only the scraps of her life for others to find and interpret, and they had to be satisfied with them. She always had to be on the move. Staying static was never an option. Sharks exhibit the same behavior.
She could also be very pragmatic and judgmental and didn’t feel she had much, if anything, in common with other kids she knew, especially the girls. Christie felt they were mostly immature and naïve because of “the risky behavior” they took with boys. She only had a few friends and even fewer she could rely on—other than her grandmother and me. Christie would learn in time that this reality also applied to her then-boyfriend.
There is one thing that makes Christie go ballistic: she doesn’t take well to broken
promises—not that many of us do—but she has a visceral reaction to them. I believe she views a broken promise as another form of abandonment. Her now ex-boyfriend, whom she had dated since her junior year in high school up until this past summer, had broken a number of promises. One of them was when they were supposed to meet in Italy, where he was studying for a semester, while she was studying in England. She had saved her money to see him by scrimping when she could have had the extra money to enjoy herself. When he blew off the visit, I was told she was furious. Knowing Christie, a small nuclear detonation might have been a better description. Had he been in her presence, he surely would have been laid waste by the force of that explosion.
That was the beginning of the end of the relationship. It was shortly thereafter she told
him they were through; simple as that. No tears. No drama. She got over the breakup faster than he did. I believe she was over it before she even told him. To Christie, he was just another person—with the exception of Samantha and me—whom she felt didn’t care enough to get to know her. I’m convinced Christie doesn’t want many others to really know her. That would leave her too vulnerable.
But it was over lunch one day when she was home from college, that all of my theories
about her insecurities seemed to coalesce. She said she hoped to marry, but didn’t want children. I asked her why. She squared her face, looked straight at me with eyes that could have shot a laser and said, “Because I don’t, that’s why.” I have never heard anyone answer any question with such definitiveness and defiance. It was her way of saying: ‘I’m done with that question and you better be as well, because that’s the only answer you’re getting…ever.’ I will never ask that question again.
A letter I wrote to Christie about eight months ago may have been the genesis of her now
infamous question. Apparently Christie believed I kept a relationship with her to stay connected to her grandmother, and mentioned this to Samantha. Nothing could have been further from the truth; I hadn’t dated Samantha in almost a year. This was another one of Christie’s insecurities. She always had to make sure who was for real. It reminded me of my dog, who would sleep with his back against my leg just to make sure I was still there.
So I wrote, not giving away what her grandmother had told me. I felt ashamed as it
should have occurred to me that she might think that. I didn’t, because I took her affection and her for granted. If I have learned nothing else over the years, it’s that you don’t take the affections of others for granted. I directly stated in that letter, “My relationship with you, Christie, has nothing to do with your grandmother. Our relationship stands on its own. I will continue to treat you, and love you, as if you were my daughter.” But the “as if” was the rub. I could treat and love her as a daughter, but she would never be my daughter. Worse, I had no idea if that was what she even wanted because I never asked.
I didn’t have the balls to say any of that to her in the letter, but what I did write was the truth and I hoped she would accept it. She did, or at least pretended to, because she sent back a thank you note of sorts. For the moment, I thought I had dodged the bullet and she wouldn’t press the issue. She didn’t, until that ride back to college.
“You know what I mean, Ian,” Christie said, speaking to the window. “Don’t play stupid with
me. I deserve better.” There was a tinge of anger in her voice, mixed with the hint of a child’s pout.
For almost eight months that question must have rattled around inside of her head just waiting for the right moment, the perfect time to pounce, and she found it in the car. Christie could not have planned it better as I had no place to hide—physically or emotionally. I could not hide behind a letter where every word and phrase was carefully crafted to convey a thought, yet still not expose my vulnerability. It’s not that what I wrote wasn’t true; it was. But it didn’t address the real reason as to why I felt such a connection to her. It was an act of omission, and I believe Christie instinctively knew that.
It was that hug. And although there were many hugs over the years, that first one was the
most satisfying, and yet the most tormenting and terrifying, because it exposed my
emptiness—my sense of not belonging. Unwittingly or not, she made me face it. I came to the
conclusion that I was a coward, and she was the fearless one. She had faced, battled, and dealt with her demons. Christie was like a gladiator who went into the ring and believed she would always win.
“You’re neither, Christie,” I said as I looked straight ahead at the road in front of me. “Although I will always treat and love you as a daughter, you’re not my daughter. We have no connection through blood or DNA, no history other than a chance meeting with your grandmother. You can’t replace my daughters, and I wouldn’t want to replace them. As much as my relationship with them pains and tortures me, they are still my daughters.
“Nor can you be an addition to my family, as I can’t adopt you, and that’s assuming you
would even want that. Your grandmother has chosen to be your legal guardian and not adopt
you, so you could retain your mother’s name, be your own person, and carry on your mother’s
legacy. Yet you are an addition to my life, Christie—a wonderful and pleasing addition. I
suppose we both have to settle for that.”
I paused, for what seemed like an eternity. Then I said what really needed to be
said—what I didn’t say in that letter. “You’re my second chance—my chance to get it right.
Perhaps I am yours. Perhaps that is our connection, Christie—a second chance to belong.”
Sometimes you just have to say what needs to be said, and let the chips fall where they
may. That always sounded good on paper.
The silence that followed was absolutely deafening. Like being in the vacuum of space,
where you can’t hear yourself screaming, or crying.
The balance of the ride to Juniata was reminiscent of my ride to the theater with Samantha
almost six years earlier. Christie sat bolt upright in her seat, mouth clenched shut, looked straight ahead, and said not a word.
We arrived at the college and unloaded her belongings. It wasn’t until we were finished
and I was ready to leave, that she finally spoke: “Grandmum gave me some money to take you
out for lunch. Are you hungry? ‘cause I am.” I thought twice about it. I was hungry, but more importantly, I knew if I said “no,” that would have just been one more disappointment to add to the day.
Lunch was small talk and meaningless. For the most part we ate in silence. I always hated
when I ate in silence. My mother would do that to me when I misbehaved, which was often.
I took her back to her dorm and walked her to her room. I said my goodbyes, and asked
her to write or call if she needed anything. I outwardly cringed and mentally kicked myself after saying that, because I felt what Christie really needed, I didn’t give her—an answer that would have made her feel as if she belonged. I expected the worst.
I walked out of her room and out of the dorm, and despaired that I might be walking out
of her life. I didn’t sense she wanted a hug, although I sure as hell wanted to give her one, and wanted one in return. So much for a second chance. I’ve lost her, too, I thought.
I started the minivan and stared out the windshield at nothing, and knew it was going to
be a long ride home. Music was not on the agenda. That’s when I was brought back to reality by the banging on my driver’s side window. Christie’s face was streaked with tears. I had never seen her cry. Christ, I’ve now made two women in that family cry.
I turned off the engine and got out of the car. Before I could mumble anything, she
wrapped her arms around my waist with the same intensity and warmth as she did at our first
meeting. This time, however, I didn’t push her away. This time, I drew her closer and allowed her tears to soak my shirt as I stroked her hair—the same way I did when one of my daughters needed to be comforted.
No words were needed. We had both found our second chance.