I was in the supermarket the other day when I saw someone wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a woman slapping her forehead and the words "Oh my god, I forgot to have children!" written on it. At first I chuckled, but it made me think about my own two kids and whether or not I should have had them. I remember the first time a woman said that to me: If I had to do it over again, she said, I'd do things differently. By that I knew she meant she wouldn't have children.
It's amazing to me that we usually decide to have children for the flimsiest of reasons. Why is it we can spend weeks deciding what color to paint a room, or whether to buy a new coffeemaker, but we make the really big decisions in a heartbeat?
Then there are those of us who don't actually make decisions. We just sort of let nature take its course.
The thing is, the first time I saw Neil, I didn't think it would change everything. I thought it would just be fun, break up the monotony a bit. I didn't realize how much he meant to me. I guess I have to go back a ways to understand it all.
I married Stan when I was nineteen; we were crazy about each other. Stan wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to be his wife. Stop me if you've heard this one. After I put him through medical school and Stan was finally making some money, I gave up my job as bookkeeper for House & Home Hardware to spend more time with the kids.
So call me blind for not noticing that things were changing. I thought we were happy. We were happy. I'd say we were happy for five years after I quit my job. I had everything I wanted: my husband was a doctor; my kids were doing great. I went to night school and learned to speak Spanish. I taught myself how to refinish furniture and make a soufflé. I shopped. If I didn't see my husband all that much, it was because he was a doctor and a doctor's wife learns to put up with such things.
Around the time my kids were twelve and fourteen, I started to get this hollow feeling. I'd be looking in the refrigerator, trying to decide what to make for dinner, and I'd find myself still there ten minutes later, staring at the ketchup and mayonnaise and my mind would be blank. I'd feel totally empty. I didn't think of it as hunger at the time. It was more like an absence of any sensation, like a void. Pretty soon I was having five or six of these episodes a day. My husband suggested a vacation. We hadn't been away for a while, except to a medical convention in Calgary, and maybe I just needed a change of scene. I agreed that maybe a trip would perk me up and spending some time together would be good for both of us. I suggested Italy and he wanted Barbados. We compromised and went to Las Vegas.
Not much of a compromise, you might say. But at least there would be something to do there, besides lie on a beach and think about the big hole in the center of my life. Besides, we'd heard about the big hotel rooms with king-size beds and heart-shaped bathtubs and champagne breakfasts. Maybe it would turn out to be sexy and romantic, like a second honeymoon.
What I didn't count on was the non-stop adrenalin high and how you can get hooked on it. Maybe it's because the lights are on twenty-four hours a day that I got switched on to a part of myself that I never knew existed. Right from that first drive down the Strip, I knew I was in a special place. The hotels seduced me with their luxury and the casinos beckoned to me like lovers. Once the mania took hold, there was no stopping me. I loved it all: the slots, the blackjack, keno, the floorshows every night.
At first Stan thought it was pretty exciting too. Like being with another woman, although he never said that. It was almost as if the last twenty years hadn't happened; as if we were discovering each other all over again. He wasn't the science nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses and I wasn't the quiet, mousy girl who got straight A's but couldn't get a date. Suddenly he was a successful doctor who wore fashionable wire frames and I was a woman in her prime whose hair was highlighted with blonde streaks. We were poised on the edge of a whole new life.
I've asked myself many times if I had any notion of what we were getting ourselves into. Didn't I even have an inkling of what was to come? The answer is no. I knew that everything that had happened in my life was just preparation for this moment.
And then I met Neil and suddenly it all made sense. We had been to see his show at the MGM Grand and I insisted on going back the next night. I couldn't get him out of my mind. I knew he was singing those songs to me; it was like his eyes never left my face. And when he asked for volunteers from the audience to come up on stage and join him, I was there like a shot, singing my heart out. It was magic.
After the second show, I gave the maitre d' a hundred dollars to let me go backstage and get his autograph. That's when I knew for sure.
"Neil Diamond?" my husband said. "You're in love with Neil Diamond?"
Why would I make it up, I asked him. Why would I risk everything by telling him?
"Don't be ridiculous, Jenny," he said. "It's just some kind of middle-age crush."
"No it's not," I said. "This was meant to be."
So far we've spent an hour together. It's not easy for Neil to have a private life when he's performing. Those shows really take it out of him. When I went to his dressing room, he had just showered and changed his clothes. He looked like a tired little boy with his wet hair slicked back and dripping onto his collar. I just wanted to hug him and let him go to sleep with his head in my lap. He offered me a glass of champagne that had been chilling in a silver bucket, compliments of the management he told me, with a smile that melted my heart.
The champagne was very good, the best I'd ever had, and he told me it helped him unwind after his performance. I told him how much I'd enjoyed the show and that I'd seen it twice already. He was flattered and told me he'd be nothing without fans like me. He asked me about my favorite songs and how I was liking Las Vegas and whether I had seen any other shows. He really seemed interested in my answers, so I just chatted away until the champagne was finished and he looked like he was ready to fall asleep.
"Well, I'd better be going," I said, finally. "I enjoyed meeting you so much, Neil. You have no idea how much it means to me. And you can bet I'll be in the audience every night this week. With bells on," I assured him, laughing nervously at my own silliness. He thanked me ever so politely and then took my hand and kissed the back of it. The heat from that kiss went from the base of my spine all the way up to the top of my head. I'll never forget it.
"What are you basing all this on?" Stan asked me when I told him about my feelings for Neil. "Do you honestly think he feels the same way?"
"You didn't see the look in his eyes, Stan. He was reaching out to me."
"Yeah, right," said Stan. "Sounds like the words to one of his sappy songs."
I knew then and there Stan would never be able to understand the emotional realm I had entered.
"You just don't get it," I told him.
"Oh I get it, all right," he said. "You've got some crazy notion that you're in love with Neil Diamond and he's in love with you. The fact is, you've taken a look at your life and decided it isn't enough for you and you want more. Well Neil Diamond isn't going to give it to you because Neil Diamond doesn't need you and your problems."
"Are you finished?" I asked. My head was pounding with outrage and my breathing began to feel like sobs.
"Yes," he said quietly, realizing how much he had hurt me. "I'm sorry."
I didn't know at the time that he was saying he was sorry for a lot of things. Sorry that things hadn't worked out between us. That I wasn't happy and I didn't love him anymore. But it didn't seem to matter to me what he was feeling. It was like we had used each other up.
I went to Neil's show every night and laughed and cried and waved to him whenever he looked over at me. I sang along to all the songs and went on stage to be near him, just like the first night, when he asked the women to join him. A couple of times I stood right next to him. I sent little notes to his dressing room, to let him know I was thinking of him. Once I got a reply. He sent me a copy of his tour itinerary for the next three months. I knew that meant he wanted me to follow him.
Stan didn't come to any more of Neil's shows. I think he went and played blackjack a couple of times, but mostly he stayed in the bar after dinner and had a few drinks before going to bed. He was always asleep when I came back to the room. In the morning he'd be up and gone before I woke up, but once he came back and asked if I'd like to go to the Liberace Museum with him. I thought that might be fun, so I went.
It was a long drive out there and not much to see on the way, but it was sure worth the trip. When we got there I thought we were in some kind of shopping mall, the place was so nondescript, but inside was a different story. Every costume Liberace ever wore was there, each in its own glass case like a priceless work of art. All those cars he used to drive on stage were there, too, all decked out like Cleopatra's barge. Stan spent a lot of time looking at those cars, but I couldn't pull myself away from the outfits. Tuxedos embroidered in gold and silver, capes trimmed in every fur you could think of, feathers and jewels, diamond rings, platinum watches - it was the kind of luxury most people never get to experience. I had to drag myself away when Stan said it was time to go.
On the drive back to the hotel I told Stan I would be leaving him. I didn't tell him why because he already knew.
"When?" he asked.
I told him I wouldn't be flying back with him. I needed to stay with Neil for the rest of his tour and at the end of three months I would have a better idea of where things stood.
"What about the kids?" he asked. "Aren't you even going to explain things to them?" I didn't know what to do about the kids. I seemed to get stalled every time I thought about them. I knew there was no way not to hurt them. I knew they would not understand why I was doing what I was doing. I knew it wasn't fair to them and that I would never be able to make it up to them. All I could hope was that someday they would forgive me. But I'd read enough magazines to know that they probably would never forgive me. I even wondered if it had been wrong to bring them into this world.
The night before Stan's plane left I agreed to have dinner with him at Caesar's Palace. I didn't think Neil would mind if I missed one show.
"You know you can come back any time," Stan told me over the shrimp cocktail. "After all, you're the mother of my children and we've been married twenty years. I can't just throw all that away, even though you seem to be able to."
How could I tell him it was exactly the wrong thing to say without starting a big argument? He was doing his best, but I realized it just wasn't good enough. Suddenly he was the science nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses again, but I wasn't the mousy girl who couldn't get a date. My life had a purpose now and I had to see it through. How could I be a doctor's wife or a mother to my children? It would only be playacting from now on, going through the motions of an empty existence. Who would be happy with that? Not him, I told myself. Not the kids. And certainly not me.
"They'll never get over it," he said when we were halfway through our roast beef. "How will they ever get over it?"
"They'll understand someday," I told him, wishing I believed it. "I can't be a good mother to them anymore, just like I can't be a good wife to you. It's over. That life is over for me. They don't need me anymore, anyway."
"Is that what this is all about?" he demanded. "You think we don't need you anymore?"
"No, no," I said quickly. "I just meant they'll be all right without me. Maybe even better off. If I'm unhappy and unfulfilled, they'll know it and they'll feel responsible. This way, everybody's better off in the long run, even if it doesn't seem like that at first. That's all I meant."
He didn't finish his meal, which is unusual for Stan. He's always been a good eater, I'll say that for him. He seemed very fidgety and kept taking off his glasses and cleaning them with that special little cloth they give you. I no longer knew how to comfort him. It was like he was beyond my reach.
"Don't be upset," I said, lamely. "You'll find someone else. You're a doctor, after all."
That was nearly three months ago. Neil's tour is almost finished and his manager tells me Neil's planning a long rest at his home in Malibu. I've been managing on the money Stan sends me and so far I haven't missed a show. I have to spend a lot of time by myself, of course, so I'm writing a song for Neil. Dave, his manager, promised to show it to him. It's called "Reaching Out To Me."
I asked Dave if there are any trailer parks in Malibu where I could maybe rent a trailer to be near Neil. He said he didn't think so. I don't think I can afford to stay in motels much longer. Maybe I'll ask Dave if there's a House & Home Hardware in Malibu. I'm sure I could get a bookkeeping job to tide me over until Neil records my song.