Updated: Dec 17, 2021
After toiling over what to call what we have, I’ve fallen upon recycled. Not because it is reused or old in the traditional sense, but rather reinvented over time in only the way beautiful art can reclaim itself once it has lived a long life.
Charlie and I met when I was 21 in 1998. Thrust together in a small therapy group inside of a larger therapeutic retreat of sorts. Both of us grew up, children of addicts and were seeking refuge from the damage that sows. Additionally, I was fresh out of a broken engagement to the man I spent five years of my young adult life with. A small eternity that would have grown into a massive mistake had I not chosen to walk away when I did.
When that relationship found itself on life support and me and my newly ex-fiance were walking through Fortunoffs returning engagement gifts, I was struck by how many bad relationships I had for such a young person. Although in therapy for the majority of my life, I still seemed to make poor partner choices and was coming to the conclusion that I was the common denominator in all of it. What was I doing wrong? Why did I keep picking the same kind of guy with a different name? I felt ready to start doing the work and to commit to making a change.
While at the Caron Foundation, which is where the retreat was, Charlie and I were quickly drawn to each other, both physically (a fact that got us into trouble while we were there) and emotionally. In between long and heavily emotional therapy sessions, we took solace in each other’s company rolling down hills which served to both lighten the mood and put us in close physical proximity in a way that wouldn’t promote an overtly sexual experience.
That doesn’t mean the tension wasn’t there, however. During that week-long experience of self-growth and awareness, we took to sneaking into stairwells to make out, perhaps understanding that it would be frowned upon, but did it anyway. To stave off other challenging demons with whom I was doing battle that week, I had taken to obsessively brushing my teeth because there wasn’t another outlet and diving more deeply into whatever Charlie and I were experiencing seemed antithetical to why we were both there.
Unfortunately, before the week was over we were caught during one of our stairway Rendez-vous’s and were duly berated for our behavior. Despite being adults, the shaming session that followed did a number on me and I was forced to really dig deep into my choices. Charlie got a slap on the wrist and I’m sure didn’t understand my standoffish behavior as the week was drawing to a close. After all, I had come to Caron to deal with my relationship issues, so it seemed like a bad idea to squander the opportunity by allowing distractions to get the better of me.
We vowed to stay in touch, but we went our separate ways, his to Cape Cod and mine back to New York. What we didn’t realize at that time was that the seeds of a very deep and real connection were planted that week, as cliche as that sounds. Charlie now knew everything there was to know about me… I mean EVERYTHING, the good, the bad and the ugly. The kind of stuff you vow to take to your grave with you because of the shame that would bubble up to even utter the words to a stranger and yet even with his knowledge of these dark insights about me, he was still interested.
And that’s how our friendship began.
Over the years, we would stay in touch. He would get married once and divorced quickly. I would get engaged one more time and call another engagement off before I actually decided to marry my first husband. Charlie would meet his second wife, while I was still married. He was now living in Florida, I was still in New York. Unhappy in my marriage, but working hard at building my career, a satisfying distraction from the unease I experienced at home.
And in the way, positive things happen when you put your full energy into them, my career started to happen. At the time, I was a New York City High School English teacher, but I also fancied myself a writer. With the inspiration of some friends at work, I submitted proposals to speak at conferences and had the opportunity to travel a bit to share my passion for teaching writing and journalism as time passed.
Growing deeply restless in my despair inside of my marriage, I tried to get away, only to find out I was pregnant. I was thrilled and terrified at the same time. Being a married mother was not my fantasy growing up as it is for so many young women. I knew that my path was different. My aspirations to change the world had been laid out for me in high school, I even alluded to it in my yearbook quote, hoping for a Nobel prize one day. It wasn’t until I found education, that I realized my passion to change the world would come in the shape of teaching.
Being pregnant, I recommitted myself to our marriage. I owed it to my unborn son to be really in it and give it a real chance even though I had my doubts with his father. But I pushed on.
A few years passed, Charlie and I were not in touch regularly, but were always a lifeline for each other when needed. When he struggled in his relationship or career, he’d reach out and effortlessly we’d pick up where we left off, no judgment or false sympathy to be found. There was no reason for pretense since we both knew all of the old family secrets and sometimes it is very freeing to just say what you think without worrying someone won’t get it.
When my marriage began to crumble as it seemed fated to, in the beginning, Charlie was a confidant I could rely on. Having moved into our guest bedroom, I could count on him to be available to talk from a distance while I started to piece back together the life that had unraveled.
Chalie married his second wife, quickly thereafter and I moved on to my “transition relationship” that lasted about six years longer than its expiration date. After my first marriage ended so badly, I had a hard time moving on from things and I worried about my son and his reaction to everything. Although I always feared not being a good mom, I was an awesome educator and took refuge in my work.
In all of this time, I started writing books and even a blog on Education Week Teacher. With the growing popularity of my writing and the transparency I shared, my readers thought they knew me. My professional life was at a 10, it was truly satisfying, but my personal life struggled to come close to that.
On Thanksgiving of 2015, my transition relationship ended with an unceremonious slamming of the door. Not so ironically, Charlie threw his wife out on the same day. Both of us clawing our way back to the surface, we found each other again. This time, our friendship the anchor. He’d call me for advice, or just to vent and I’d do the same sometimes before school as I’d sit in my car waiting for the building to open.
That following summer, Charlie was going up to Kripalu to take a class and decided he’d ride his motorcycle from Florida to Massachusetts, stopping in New York to visit with me on the way. We hadn’t seen each other in years, despite having stayed in touch, so neither of us knew what to expect. The day finally came when he was expected on Long Island, and I paced back and forth nervously waiting for his knock upon my door. I couldn’t wait to see my friend, but also couldn’t explain my unease before his arrival.
My unrest was really about the fact that I was seeing an old boyfriend at the time. It wasn’t super serious yet, and he didn’t live close by, so I hadn’t seen the harm in having an old friend stay the night in the guest room on his way through town. But when Charlie stood in my doorway, I realized everything was more complicated then it seemed. We easily slid back into conversation, making eye contact and filling each other in about our most recent experiences. And when it came time to go to sleep, I went to my room and him to his and I felt okay that I was sufficiently clear that nothing could happen, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
Needless to say, he left earlier than intended and off he went on his adventure and me back to mine. He’d tell me later that he respected me for shooting his advances down and told me that it was one of the reasons he knew he could trust me.
By January of 2017, we were both officially single. We had been talking a lot and at the end of one of our conversations, he just said it. “So are we going to give this a try?” It had been 19 years since we first met and a combination of three unsuccessful marriages between us and a few other relationships as well.
“I’m not doing another long-distance relationship,” I barked.
“It wouldn’t have to be. Let’s make a plan to spend a weekend together and see what happens. If it all works out, I will move to New York.” Despite us never being a couple or even living in the same place, he seemed confident in a way that was very appealing to me.
“Okay. Let’s try.”
Quickly thereafter, a flight was booked from Tampa to La Guardia and our recycled romance began. Tentatively, I put my toe in the water and he patiently waited for me to warm up. By the end of that first weekend, we knew we had something special. My eyes started to tear up as he got out of my car that first weekend, but I took a breath and put my faith in him and our friendship. It would work out.
For the next few months, we took turns traveling to see each other. Whether it was a weekend down in Florida for a long weekend in New York. Things seemed to be progressing nicely. I was happy, like really happy. The kind of happy that you can only imagine or see in a painting. This is what felt like to have a real partner who got you. I felt so lucky.
As our romance started to grow, other challenges emerged. My son was not thrilled about my new relationship. He was having struggles of his own and as a mom, I was deeply concerned about the impact of my choices on my son. He was about to start middle school and I feared losing him to his father.
It was an impossible situation to be in. Choose my own happiness at the perceived peril of my son? Or let the potential love of my life slip away because my son didn’t want to deal with it. Not a savory spot to be in, I assure you.
But I was in love in a way I didn’t think possible and I wasn’t going to give that up, even if it meant a little turmoil at home. I rationalized it to myself by saying that my son needed to see a happy, functional relationship and even though he didn’t like it now, he would understand later.
So I hoped.
As a matter of fact, when Charlie proposed to me in Leadville, Colorado that summer on the side of a mountain, I didn’t tell my son right away. We were out west for Charlie’s mountain bike race and I wasn’t eager to share the good news. Giving his dad the head’s up before I told him, I was deeply concerned with how my son would react and my fears were confirmed not very long after that.
Let’s just say, the conversation did NOT go well. After all, if I really loved him most, I would do what he wanted and that meant, I wouldn’t get remarried.
I felt trapped between the love I felt for my son and the love I felt for my flourishing relationship. There didn’t seem to be a good solution without someone getting hurt. In order to ease the transition, we pushed the timeline back, so Charlie wouldn’t come to New York in July like originally planned. Instead, he would come closer to October.
The delay didn’t ease the change as much as I had hoped and when Charlie moved up in the fall of 2017, my son decided to stay with his dad almost full time. It was one of my biggest fears, but I knew I had to let him go. Diligently, I worked with my therapist, to give my son the space he needed to come to terms with my new love. Instead of guilting him for his anger or shaming him for it, I allowed him to feel it and tried to shower love on him every chance I got. Reminding him always that our home was his home and he was always welcomed here.
That December, Charlie and I got married. My son was the only guest aside from my best friend who conducted our perfect seven-minute ceremony at her house. He seemed happy. We all did, but the road wasn’t easily paved from there.
It has been almost two years since we’ve been married and 21 years since we first met. Our relationship is one of mutual respect and commitment, both filled with joy and laughter. We are each other’s biggest cheerleaders and most comfortable challengers. I never thought I’d get married again after how my first marriage ended, but I would have missed out on so much if Charlie hadn’t insisted on us giving this a try.
We have come full-circle and our family is starting to emerge stronger. My son, now in high school is spending more time with us regularly. He knows that if ever needs help with his bicycle that Charlie is willing and able to help him. He knows that if he ever needs me, he will always be my priority.
Finding deep love in your later life that is truly rooted in friendship first, sets the foundation for future love and deepening commitment. My life wouldn’t be the same without Charlie. We wake up laughing from our first snuzzle in the morning until our last kiss at night. Sometimes when no one is looking, we still steal a moment away in a stairwell for old time's sake. But neither of us take for granted how truly lucky we are and intend to continue to work on our friendship and relationship so it continues to grow.
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