My Love is Lost in San Francisco
My Disordered Husband Hijacked My Identity, Dignity, and Dreams
The first time I ever danced with my husband was at his mother’s wedding nearly twenty years ago. I think it was number six out of eight, and that in itself should have been a red flag except that her faith and optimism made it almost admirable. I was so terribly blind that I could only see him and feel the magnetic pull of gravity that lingered between us. Little did I know that the gravitational pull was the same as that of the Death Star in all of the Star Wars movies. . . the large space station command center for the forces of evil and destruction that locks on its targets and pulls them to their death.
And then I heard it. The song that I knew would be our song. I took his hand, and we entered the dance floor. All eyes were on us, whispers circulating about our age gap and the tight linen halter top I wore with the plunging back. Tony Bennett’s voice was like butter as the heat increased, and the world melted away. I remember the feel of his broad palm in my hand as I pressed against him and lost myself completely. I closed my eyes with my head on his shoulder as if walking on water. I Left My Heart in San Francisco transported us to another place, and by the time the song was over, it was too late. Neither one of us knew what was happening, only that it was inevitable and had to be. Some things, you just can't fight. You have no choice but to surrender to it.
It took 16 more years to discover the truth. He was a covert somatic mid-range narcissist.That was a cautionary diagnosis, but I actually have come to believe they low-balled that assessment. Narcissists and sociopaths and psychopaths are all in the same cadre of Cluster B personality disorders and exist on a spectrum. I will go a step further and suggest that he is more likely a sociopath or worse. Many times, there are comorbidities and overlapping pathologies.
For the majority of my adult life, the romance of the West Coast spoke to me and called my name. Year after year I traveled to California with my children. We went to the beaches, to Disneyland, and as the years passed, we pursued golf and cruises to Catalina and other activities. There was a kind of magic that happened every summer when we went there, standing beside my children on the pier as they relished their tiny ice cream cones from Ruby’s, I promised that when they got older, we would move there. I created stories for my daughter about how we were mermaids, and we would sit on the beach someday with our sparkly painted toes in the sand, drinking probiotic shakes and soaking up the rays as the surf crashed in the distance. We would flick our mermaid tails and watch the sun melt into the infinite indigo horizon.
It was a dream. It was a promise. California was always waiting for us, calling for us. It represented freedom from the things that bound us to our lives of obligation and responsibility back in Texas and symbolized a place of new beginnings and joy and serendipity. As a single mother and public servant, sometimes I worked two and three jobs just to save enough money to get to California every summer. It was a ritual. It was the place we recharged our batteries. It was our happy place that we looked forward to all year.
One of the most iconic memories I have of my children growing up was a trip to San Francisco when my son was in high school and my daughter was in middle school. We spent the day riding trolley cars, going to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. We enjoyed time exploring Chinatown and wandering around different neighborhoods around the Mission District and Haight Ashbury. We were staying with friends in the area, and we all piled into the car, rolled the windows down, and turned up Smashing Pumpkins, a soundtrack for life in the Bay area — Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness. But the magic moment, the frozen moment that remains the cherished snapshot in my mind forever, was the memory of driving back to our friend's house and everyone singing Mr. Jones by the Counting Crows. Adam Duritz’s plaintive voice was evocative as it invited us to sing along. Everything at that moment was perfect. Everything was right with the world. We were together, happy, joyous, free. The cool San Francisco air blew across our faces and through our hair as our voices floated out of the windows and into the night sky.
Years later, my husband and I traveled there, and I led him to all of the magical places, discovered some new places of our own, and created our own magic moments although none of them paralleled the ones with my children from years before. We seemed happy, as happy as any married couple can ever be. There was a comfortable synchronicity between us. Everything seemed right with the world when he was beside me, and I never got tired of holding his hand. Now that he’s gone, it’s a feeling I can always summon in my mind and actually recreate with painful detail. We talked about my infatuation with California and how we should live there one day, find a place by the water, walk to the pier, and become beach bums. I was a writer; he was an artist; both of us teachers. Two creatives churning out magnificent content while living the dream. It was a delicious future that was within our grasp, just waiting for us to seize it and make it a reality.
More years passed and the devaluation began; then things ended the way they always end with a narcissist. Within a couple of months after he suddenly abandoned me, he went to San Francisco with some girl he had met and probably took her to all of our favorite places. They most likely did all the things he had promised to do with me. He gave our future away to some temporary fling and source of fresh fuel for his massive ego.
A few months later, he left all of his life behind in Austin and moved to Beverly Hills to reinvent himself. After about six months in LA, he made his way to San Francisco. It’s funny how I always thought we would be there together in the end. It had always been my dream destination, not his. It’s funny how he ended up going without me, stealing my dream, living the life I had worked so hard to achieve.
My daughter, a refugee from the trauma he brought upon us all, met the man of her dreams in San Francisco one balmy May afternoon. She, like her mother before her, was intoxicated by the splendor of the city by the bay and with a partner who no doubt knew how to hold her hand. Soon they fled the country and with 5000 miles between us, she managed to escape across the ocean to build a life with peace and healing. San Francisco provided the opportunity and just enough fairy dust to give her wings.
It’s been 15 months now since the life that I knew and loved was pulled out from beneath my feet. I haven’t managed to quite get up off the ground yet, although I have summoned the strength to begin to imagine a life without him, a life without anybody. So many older, discarded wives from my support groups proclaim their joy with the freedom they have obtained and swear they don’t need a man. They vow to live out the last years of their lives in solitude with only memories to keep them company. But somewhere between the Ambien they pop like Pez and the desperate prayers and the guided meditational programs, I think they are perpetually lonely and dream of the warmth of their husbands who cast them aside so easily. We all reach for them in the night, only to grasp at thin air. We can still smell them and hear their voices and feel their touch. Covenants like those should not be broken. They were our husbands and companions and forever partners until they each decided we were aging too ungracefully and no longer of value having fulfilled our duty and function all those long years.
I met someone recently who confessed that he was still madly in love with a woman that he had spent the past 26 years with. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about her although it has been over two years since they lived together. Strangely enough, those 26 years were spent in. . . you guessed it, San Francisco. I confessed that I too was still in love with my ex and that both of us needed to try to figure out how to let them go. It’s uncanny how both of us have exes who live in San Francisco. Perhaps we should take a road trip and go visit them. Get some closure. Let them go.
I started building a California playlist 20 or 30 years ago. Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and countless others all singing about the wonders of the Golden State. Every year when we traveled there, I put on that playlist. And through the years certain songs were connected to certain places. It became the soundtrack of our lives. Ventura Highway as we were cruising down PCH-1, Under the Bridge as we drive through the streets of LA, San Franciscan Nights by Eric Burton and the Animals as we traversed the hills of the City by the Bay. So many years and so many memories.
I should be there now. Not him.
I can’t blame him completely for what he did to me, for what he took from me, for what he did to my family that can never be repaired. I am responsible too because I stayed. I stayed when I knew I should leave. I stayed when his transgressions were too horrible to forgive. I stayed even after our therapist said he had a personality disorder and to plan an exit strategy. I couldn’t. I stayed long after any normal person would have stayed. And that’s because of my dependency issues, childhood wounding, and trauma bonding. Emotional abuse may not leave visible injuries, but it is lethal nonetheless.
I think maybe I should load up my car, see if my broken-hearted friend would care to accompany me, pack up the cat, and head West. Many of the things I lost because I loved a man with a narcissistic personality disorder, addictions, and most likely other undiagnosed conditions can never be replaced. They’re gone forever, beyond repair, completely destroyed. And even though he’s stolen my dream by going to the Bay area to live out my fantasy with new people instead of me, that doesn’t mean I can’t still chase my joy.
California may be burning. It is on fire and enveloped by smoke, but it doesn’t matter. There have always been earthquakes, Santa Anna winds, mudslides, and countless other reasons to give up on it. It’s expensive, crowded, traffic-jammed, and sinking into the sea. But I don’t care. He took too many things from me that I can never get back. So maybe this is one thing that he doesn’t get to keep. I cannot escape the reality of the situation the way he does with a twisted mind that allows him to believe his own magical fantasy version of the world around him.
I have a history with this place. We have a relationship. She has been a constant presence in my life for decades. Maybe it’s time to go there and be with her. Even though she’s not perfect, neither am I. Maybe I did leave my heart in San Francisco, and maybe it’s time to go get it.