illustration courtesy of
Jane’s Story, as told to staff writer/editor Krista Scarlett. Names changed to protect identities.
As I was putting towels away in the bathroom, I found a stack of magazines hiding between the cloths in the cupboard. And not just any magazines, but gay men’s porn. As I flipped through the pages of man-on-man action, I wondered who put them there.
They weren’t mine, and I didn’t have a son. My daughter, Jean, was just a grade-schooler at the time. And to my knowledge, there were no gay men living with me, hiding their skin mags in the nooks and crevices of my house. In fact, the only man living there was my husband, Bill. Confused, I asked him about what I found later that day.
“Oh, I found them somewhere,” he answered. “I was going to throw them away, but I thought I’d hide them from Jean until garbage day. I didn’t want her to get a hold of them.”
“Oh, OK,” I said. Not thinking further, I let it go like I do most things. Foolish me.
Rise and Fall
Bill and I met in 1970, during our freshman year of high school in a small town in Maryland. His dark hair, beard, and love for cars and motorcycles attracted me immediately. We dated throughout high school, bickering and breaking up, then getting back together, like most teenage love affairs. We hung out with the rest of the “motor heads” at school, riding around town in search of something to do. Then in 1975, the year after graduation, we married. The reception was small, but traditional.
The following years, I worked at a restaurant, and Bill worked at the local macaroni factory to pay for our apartment. In our spare time, we hung out with friends. But in 1979, when Jean was born, things changed. Bill’s temper moved in. Nothing I did satisfied him. If Jean wasn’t hungry at dinner, he’d blamed me. He’d start an argument, throw the closest thing to him, storm out of the house, and go to his buddy’s place. No matter what I put on the table, he’d throw it in the trash and leave, returning only when he thought I fell asleep.
Sex left my marriage, just as Bill did most nights. It went from once a month to once a year to not at all. Bill’s disinterest in intimacy made me regard those former actions as if they were dirty, unnatural things. Bill never held my hand while walking down the street. We never snuggled in bed late at night. And we always sat at least a room apart, like miserable roommates.
In the summer of 1992, I took Jean to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina for a week with my sister’s family. When I returned home, Bill was gone. This time for good. He left no explanation, just a short letter saying something like, “It’s not you. It’s me.” To this day, more than fifteen years later, he never told me where he went. But he was gone, and I was alone.
Road to Recovery
I spent most nights crying alone in the dark, empty house. My mother, the person I always spoke to about my troubled relationship, had passed away the year before, leaving me with no one to talk to. Instead, I wrote all my feelings in a notebook. Page after page I outlined my plans to finish college, earn my degree, and land a better job. I worked evenings at a nursing home and attended school during the day for physical therapy. I wanted a better life for Jean, who was just 13 at the time. In that notebook, I released every horrible, hopeful, and painful emotion. Then I ripped up the pages so that no one would know.
About a month after he took off, Bill explained what made him treat me so badly for years. “I’m gay,” he said, matter-of-factly, “And I just can’t do this anymore.”
During our marriage, Bill wrestled with his identity. For as long as he could remember, he had homosexual thoughts. The year before he left he saw a therapist. She advised him to admit that he was gay, and move on. And that’s what he did.
This revelation shocked a lot of outsiders. Bill was always the epitome of a man’s man. Husky in build, with tattoos all over his upper body, he looked more like a tough biker dude than somebody into dudes. As we rode our Harley around town, his awful rattail hung out the back of his helmet. No one would’ve known, but I should’ve. Though his magazines didn’t tip me off, other things upped my suspicion. The pool table in our basement, for example, served as the hangout for Bill and his buddies. Downstairs, the boys were loud, talking and carrying on like they were at a frat party. When I walked down to see what they were doing, everybody got quiet. I walked back upstairs, and they started talking again. I wondered what the heck was going on, but I didn’t say anything.
Pushing my marital woes aside, I focused on finishing my degree. I had enough on my plate, with schoolwork and raising a teenager. Bill and I were separated, but I put the divorce on hold. We still spoke, and Bill came by the house regularly because of Jean. I told him I wasn’t talking about it until after I graduated, and I didn’t.
About a year before the divorce, he had to move back into the basement of our former home since he couldn’t afford to live somewhere else. It wasn’t the best situation, but I rarely saw him. He blocked off a section, creating his own apartment. He came and went through the side door. At least he was there when I couldn’t stay with Jean.
In 1995, we finally divorced. It was a week shy of what would’ve been our 20th anniversary. I moved into a smaller house, and life was quiet. No more fights, no more insults. Life improved, but it took a lot to put myself together again. Because I left my parents’ home a year after high school to build a life with Bill, his insults and criticism were all that I knew. Being with him eroded my self-confidence. Unless it had to do with work, I couldn’t make a decision. I couldn’t decide what to eat. I couldn’t decide whether to sleep in or get up early. If somebody asked me a question, my response was: “I don’t know. What do you think?” When everything I knew was wrong for so long, I didn’t trust myself to do anything right. But I was trying.
My biggest regret: I should’ve stood up for myself and left sooner. I was a doormat. It was (and still is, to an extent) written across my forehead. You can’t hide in a shell and write letters to yourself about what you’re going to do, yet never open your mouth. It’s been a struggle, but I’m learning to trust others and myself. Ten years after Bill left, I happily married a man who happened to be the new pastor of my church. He has no rattail, he never hides his reading material, and he loves my cooking.