From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II

Love and Belonging

Walking down the steps of the psychology building, I spot my buddy Walter and his girlfriend, Anna. Walt and I have known each other almost all our lives. We grew up next door to each other, and fought and played our way through elementary school, adolescence, junior high and high school. Our parents had been best friends, and life even as recently as a year ago seemed so simple, so secure.

But now, while I’m struggling with my parents’ divorce, Walter’s world is intact—his parents are still together and living in the same house where he grew up. My mom is alone now in our house, while Dad is living the life of a newlywed with his second wife, in an apartment across town. I feel my stomach churn as I think of that, and mild irritation as Walter puts his arm around Anna.

“Hey, Jesse,” he says as he sees me. I notice a sudden, self-conscious grin wash over his face. “How was the exam?”

“Oh, okay, I guess.” I wish Anna would disappear. Walter’s apparent happiness irritates me, and I suddenly feel very tired. “What are you up to?” I don’t care if I seem rude in ignoring Anna.

“Well,” Walter begins, and his grip around Anna’s shoulder tightens, “we’re on our way to check out some CDs at that new sound shop down the street. Want to come along?”

“Nah, I think I’ll take a nap before my next class.”

Anna speaks up. “How are you doing these days, Jesse?” I can see the sympathy in her eyes, and I hate her.

“I’m fine—just great. Life couldn’t be better.”

“Well . . .” she struggles with what to say next. I find myself enjoying her obvious discomfort. “Sorry you can’t go with us.” But I hear relief in her voice even as she says it. Walter takes Anna’s hand, and together they cross the street.

Why should they seem so happy and look so secure? They don’t have a clue as to what’s going on in the real world.

I turn and walk down the sidewalk and across the Commons. Maybe it’s true, what my Coach Carter said, that I have my antennae out these days. It seems as if every couple reminds me of the failure in my family.

“How can this have happened to my family, Carter? Why didn’t I realize what was happening? Maybe I could have done something!”

Just then Carter picked up a crystal paperweight from his desk and tossed it to me. I caught it purely from reflex.

“Why did you do that?” I asked, half mad–half serious.

Looking around the room, he said, “You knew you had to be careful with that paperweight, didn’t you, Jesse?”

“Sure. It might break.” I put it back on his desk.

“People take care of things that seem obviously fragile. Think about it. When you buy a house, you don’t expect it to maintain itself. Or a car; you make sure you do things like change the oil every few thousand miles and buy tires when they are worn.

“With so many things in life, Jesse, you expect to have to care for them, keep a close eye on them, nurture them. We’re more careful with an insignificant paperweight than we are with our closest relationships.”

“You’re telling me that my mom and dad were careless with their marriage?” I heard my voice rise unnaturally, my fingers clenched in my palms.

“Not necessarily careless, Jesse. Perhaps they just expected it to flourish on its own. But marriage, like anything else, won’t flourish in an environment of neglect. No one should take a good relationship for granted.”

“But what do I do? You’re telling me to accept all this— Mom and Dad splitting up; Dad marrying someone I don’t even know. She can’t take Mom’s place. No way!”

“I’m suggesting that you try to accept it,” Carter said gently, “because for you, that’s all you can do. You can’t change your parents, and you can’t change what happened. You don’t have to love your stepmother as you do your mother, and probably no one expects you to. But to get beyond this and to be able to handle your parents’ new, more complex relationships—and your future relationships with women—then you do need to learn to accept what has happened.”

“Well, I just don’t see how you can ask me to do that. I can’t stand seeing them apart!”

As I stood up to leave his study he said, “I know you’re feeling pretty alone right now. But believe me, you’d be surprised at how many young people have sat in this office and asked me why divorce had to happen in their family. Maybe it will help if you remember that there are a lot of people who are hurting just like you. And remember—this divorce is not your fault. Don’t ever forget that.”

Walking down the street, I see a city bus slow down and then stop at the corner. On impulse, I get on.

I pay the driver and begin to look for a seat.

An elderly couple is seated at the back of the bus. I sit beside them.

We ride in silence toward town. I glance over at the couple and notice that they are holding hands. The wedding ring on the old woman’s finger is a dull gold, and there is a tiny diamond in the center of the band.

I watch as the old man rests his left hand on top of hers, and I see that his wedding ring matches hers. His, too, is scratched and dull with age.

As they sit in companionable silence, I notice the resemblance of their features. Both wear glasses, and both have short, pure white, wiry hair. They even wear the same style of shirt—simple white cotton, short-sleeved.

Occasionally the woman points at something as we pass by, and the man nods in agreement. I am mystified, and yet I feel a sense of peace sitting next to them.

Before too long we reach their stop. A row of neat, white frame houses lines the quiet side street.

The old man gets up slowly and pulls his walking stick from the seat next to him. He waits patiently for his wife to get up before he starts to walk to the front of the bus. The woman rises just as slowly and pulls a blue cardigan over her thin arms. He takes her hand, and as they turn to walk to the front of the bus, I catch his eye. I can’t let them leave without asking, “How long have you two been married?”

He looks inquisitively at her. She smiles and gently shrugs her shoulders. It doesn’t matter. It hasn’t mattered for some time.

Finally he says in a raspy voice, “I don’t know exactly— many years.” Then he adds, “Most of our lives.”

They walk down the aisle of the bus and are gone.

I lean back in my seat. It takes me a few moments to realize that the cold, hard knot in my stomach doesn’t seem so tight now. And the face reflected back at me from the glass of the bus window looks a little less tense.

Watching the colors of the trees slide by, my mind wanders back to the old couple and finally comes to rest on my parents. The realization quietly dawns on me that I have been looking for answers when maybe I don’t have to know at all. I don’t have to hurt for them and me, too. I don’t have to have all the answers about love and life and why things work out the way they do sometimes. Maybe no one has the answers.

“Hey, buddy,” the bus driver says to me. I look up and realize I’m alone on the bus. We’re downtown at the square. “This is the end of the line. You can get off here or go back.”

I think for a minute. “Do you go by that new sound shop close to campus?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Well, drop me off there,” I say. “There’s someone there. A friend. And I need to talk to him.”

T. J. Lacey

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