I am not a liar by nature, though since I arrived in Guatemala two years ago, I have been living a profound untruth. As a general rule, I might be a secret-keeper, a truth-stretcher and a story-embellisher, but I’m normally not a fabulist. Yet, somehow, I’ve managed to pull this off and I want to come clean. The particular prevarication I’m referencing all began as a quest for reinvention. When Michelle (whom many of you know very well) and I opted to abandon our well-paying careers in the U.S., sell our home and our cars, store our possessions in a Dallas garage, bid farewell to family and friends up North and relocate to Central America in June of 2013, we viewed it as a rare opportunity to alter the fundamental canvas of our lives – to make a fresh start where no one would know who we were.
But how? There are so many ways to press the reset button.
I could have lied about my age, I suppose. I don’t think I look 46, and I definitely don’t act it. I might have joined the Hair Club for Men, rubbed on the Rogaine or popped some Propecia and arrived in town a hirsute beast. We were coming from Texas, so maybe I should have just started wearing cowboy hats, boots and big ol’ belt buckles. The options were open for new tattoos, learning to play the guitar, passing myself off as a poet. I could have changed my name to Caitlyn.
And then it hit me. An idea that was much simpler and yet much more personal than the others. Taking a break from packing boxes, performing the ancient art of Ikea furniture deconstruction and loading the U-Haul, I opened my nightstand drawer and removed the small wooden container where I had stashed a few valuables and keepsakes. I found what I was looking for and slipped it onto the fourth finger of my left hand. My transformation was completed in the blink of an eye. I put my wedding ring back on for the first time in years. For the first time since Michelle left me. For the first time since our divorce.
I’m guessing that little truth bomba just triggered a few WTFs from folks around town. People, I’m sure, thought they knew us. The Editor-in-Chief of this magazine thought he knew us (Editor’s note: I most certainly did – and the WTF moment actually involved a spit-take). Every time he pressed me to write a story for La Cuadra, I told him, “Well, I think I have an interesting tale to tell,” and I’ve finally gotten around to sharing it. But before I do, both Michelle and I sincerely wish to apologize to anyone who feels deceived or disillusioned or even disgusted by our bald-faced lie, our little white lie, our lie of omission . . . or whatever it is.
“Even a half-truth is a whole lie,” says an old Yiddish proverb, and we both know that in the end that aphorism applies to us. I hope you’ll continue reading – and perhaps understand the reasons behind our marital masquerade, but if not, we respect the choice. This incredible community warmly welcomed us into its eclectic family with brazos abiertos, and we would be devastated if this damages any of our treasured relationships. This is something we wanted to do for ourselves, never realizing we would develop, and ultimately jeopardize, some of the deepest friendships of our lives. The Buddha says, “Three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth,” and the big guy is right. Two years is long enough. It’s a little scary, but it’s time to stop keeping up this ruse.
Twenty-four years ago, I moved from my home in Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend graduate school at Temple University. I was pursuing a Master’s degree in Sports Management and had a part-time job in the athletic department. That didn’t pay the bills, so I also waited tables at a Bennigan’s up the street from the room I rented in a Northeast Philly row house. At the restaurant, I met a cute, skinny waitress named Michelle Barbour, a young woman lapsed in both her Catholicism and her college attendance. It wasn’t love at first sight. Not for either of us. She was dating a Bennigan’s bartender who happened to be my best friend in the city at the time. I was hooking up with another waitress. But we both did love drinking and quickly became bar buddies, sneaking shots at work and boozing away all of our tip money at the dive bar across the street after we shut down the Bennigan’s, even though Michelle was only 19.
Everything changed on Valentine’s Day in 1992. Michelle and I both had the night off, but our significant others weren’t so lucky. Valentines by default, we called ourselves, as we rode the train downtown for our non-date. We drank our way up and down South Street, laughing late into the evening, and ultimately decided to share a hotel room by the Ben Franklin Bridge. I truly thought it was a platonic decision . . . right up until the moment a freshly showered Michelle exited the bathroom wearing nothing but a tiny towel and a sexy smile.
As I said, I’m not a dishonest person by nature. I had been cheated on more than once and I knew the sting of betrayal. Even though it would have felt so damn good, it didn’t feel right. I turned her down and went to pretend-sleep. As I tossed and turned beside her that night, feeling embarrassed with a red face and blue balls, I realized there was another reason I had said no: I wanted a lot more than a hush-hush, drunken one-night stand.
We started hanging out pretty much all the time. Gradually we discovered more in common than just our fondness for Yuengling lagers and chili-cheese fries. One day we went downtown and toured the Franklin Institute, caught a movie and grabbed dinner. Not ready to call it a night, we drove the 60 miles to Atlantic City, went for a stroll on the Boardwalk and played video poker until dawn. Even when I’m old enough to pay my student loans with my Social Security checks, I’ll remember that day with clarity.
By the summer of 1992, our other relationships had soured. I invited Michelle to my mother’s house for the long Memorial Day weekend in Winchester, Virginia, where we would be celebrating my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. We still weren’t dating and my mom is more old-fashioned than a rotary phone, so I slept in my old bedroom and Michelle got the guest room. The first night we were there, we stayed up late, talking in my room. At first we were sitting on separate twin beds, until I finally delivered the only great pickup line of my life: “What are you doing all the way over there?”
We were a couple after that. On Valentine’s Day of 1995, I proposed and we were engaged. Our wedding took place a few years later, in August of 1998. By then, Michelle had returned to school and graduated from Temple. Job opportunities coming out of school took us from Philly to Texas, where we bought a home. Neither of us wanted children, so we raised two dogs and four cats. More career changes over the next decade shifted us from Arlington, Texas, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then back to Texas, back to the Jersey Shore and finally back to Dallas.
Maybe it’s because we never put down roots or maybe we worked too much, but over that decade our relationship slowly soured. There were always money problems. Somewhere along the way I stopped calling her “Princess.” Stopped treating her like one, too. We got lazy, took each other for granted, lost our passion, stopped making memories. Wedded bliss became wedded blah. A few months after my 40th birthday, Michelle pulled the plug. That was six years ago, in early 2009.
Thus began what I like to call our gap year. Gap years are supposed to be a time of self-exploration and soul-searching, a chance to be independent, to figure out what you want to do with your life. Sure, our gap year happened about 20 years later than the typical backpacking gringo, but the term still fits.
Once I got over the initial shock and shame of the split, we stayed in touch. She gave me open visitation rights with Roper, our rascally rescue dog who moved down to Antigua with us two years ago. Sometimes when I came over we’d order pizza. We talked – really talked – for the first time in years. We remembered that we actually really liked one another. We loved one another. Over time, we reconnected and reconciled. We were recharged and decided to give us another chance.
Tragically, at the time we were living in the Republic of Texas, where obtaining a quickie “no-fault” divorce is stunningly simple. On a Lone Star State degree-of-difficulty scale where one (easiest) is getting a handgun and ten (toughest) is getting an abortion, divorce is about a three. By the time we officially got back together in January 2010, we had been officially divorced for two months. Had our geographical revolving door stopped in a state with a longer waiting period than 60 days, we would still be “married filing jointly” in the eyes of the law.
Here in Antigua, deception has made me a master of deflection. When asked how long Michelle and I have been married, I usually respond that we’ve been together since 1992. That often elicits the reaction: “Wow, 23 years? How do you do it? What’s your secret?”
My standard response is, “Well, they weren’t all good years.”
Every time it happens, I’m reminded of the classic Stephen Wright bit where he finds a closed 7-Eleven and yells to the clerk, “Hey, the sign says you’re open 24 hours.”
“Yeah,” the clerk replies. “But not in a row.”
But our truth is stranger than our fiction, and in reality, Michelle and I are happier now than we ever were when we were married. Living down here reminds me a lot of that night on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, drinking beers, playing poker and not worrying if we stagger home as the sun is coming up. We may not be married, but, happily, we’re together.
Maybe there’s a hint here for other folks around town, but maintaining separate finances since the split has helped. There’s no more fighting over expensive salon haircuts (hers . . . obviously), sports packages on DirecTV (mine) or massive, crippling bar tabs (both). Money and possessions just aren’t that important anymore, even though we probably earn less now than we did waiting tables in the early 1990s.
With the petty stuff out of the way, we definitely appreciate each other more. The ’80s metal band Cinderella once so wisely proclaimed, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” Preach, my long-haired brothers! Preach! While apart, I realized how much I admire Michelle’s intelligence, decisiveness and spontaneity; she admires my . . . well, I must be good at something. Humility, maybe? Let’s just say we make a great team, witnessed by the fact that I definitely wouldn’t have had the courage to uproot everything and move to Guatemala without her.
I love Michelle. I love her more than Tigo loves sending text messages and more than her parents love sending Facebook game requests. Michelle loves me. She loves me more than Guatemalan couples love taking up the entire sidewalk and walking at negative-four miles-per-hour. Seriously. You can squeeze a family of five onto a scooter, or an entire community onto a camioneta, but you can’t scoot a little to the left?
We love one another enough that perhaps we’ll even get remarried one day. I can picture it now: Mike Tallon performing the service, John Rexer hosting a mezcal-fueled reception at Café No Sé, and my BFF, Pablo Paniagua, holding the rings.
Those old rings.
Michelle started wearing her diamond again after we reunited in 2010, but my plain, 14-karat gold band remained buried in the nightstand for the next three-and-a-half years. I used to see it as a symbol of my failure as a husband, but also as a reminder to be a better partner if I ever got another chance. This was it. Slipping it on as I prepared to move into an unknowable future with my Princess seemed, somehow, like the most honorable — and honest — thing I could do.