In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you have. – Robert James Waller
In the summer of 1995, the darkened theater provided a cool oasis in contrast to the summer heat outside. For the next few hours, I welcomed a distraction from my overwhelming responsibilities of being a wife and mother. Just as the lights dimmed, Terri and I found our way down a middle aisle to the perfect seats as we juggled our buttery popcorn and drinks. It had been a while since my friend and I had seen a good chick flick, and the trailers for this film looked promising. Starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the movie promised to be a different love story, one where the characters were close to our age, not the young twenty-somethings usually portrayed in love stories.
Without a doubt, the movie—The Bridges of Madison County—and the novel by Robert James Waller, were blockbuster hits. From the beginning, the movie captured my heart, and I identified with the character portrayed by Meryl Streep. Francesca, a plain and modest farm wife, fatefully met a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid. They had a brief affair while Francesca’s husband and children were away. When Robert’s work assignment ended, Robert asked Francesca to leave behind all she had ever known to be with him in love and life. On screen, Francesca’s struggle was recognizable, and I could sense the struggle in Francesca’s head and heart. Should she remain the dutiful farm wife, or leave the safe cocoon of her life for the chance of love and adventure? Near the end of the movie, as Robert is leaving town, and regrettably Francesca as well, their paths cross one last time.
Francesca accompanies her husband into town to pick up supplies. She remains behind in the truck when she spots Robert standing across the road in the pouring rain. Their eyes meet, and without touching, they hold on to each other, but Robert stands still. He doesn’t walk toward the truck. Without speaking one word, his eyes plead for her to come with him. Tears well up in Francesca’s eyes and her struggle is palpable, yet she makes no move to leave the truck. They share a smile; it’s their last, and they both understand. As Robert walks away and gets into his truck to depart, Francesca’s eyes continue to follow him.
With tears streaming down my face, I understood Francesca’s emotions as she agonized over choosing between a chance at a once in a lifetime love, or remaining in the safety and security of the only life she has ever known. When Francesca’s husband returns to the truck and they pull behind Robert’s truck, Francesca has one last opportunity to change her mind. She glances down at the truck’s door handle. Unnoticed by her husband seated next to her, she puts her hand on the handle and lifts it. Francesca is one movement away from changing her life, from opening a door to a different life. There’s no doubt about what Francesca wants to do, but a paralyzing undercurrent of indecision and doubt shackle her from making any move towards a new beginning. I wanted her to jump out of the truck and run into the open arms of Robert.
“Francesca, it’s your chance at true love. This chance won’t come around again. Go ahead, Francesca, get out of the truck,” I pleaded identifying with her struggle. “Get out of the truck! Run, Francesca, Run!!”
Francesca didn’t, but I did. Many years later, when I struggled like Francesca with making a life-changing move, I got out of the truck and ran into the arms of my soul mate. When I left my marriage, I—like Francesca—was not a young woman, but in the autumn of my life. I had all the trappings of the good life, with a satisfying career and a loving family. I had lived by all the conventional rules: to plan, work hard, and be the loving wife and devoted mother. I was at a point in my life when much of the hard work was behind me. My husband and I remained secure and settled in our careers with retirement just ahead on the horizon. I imagined that all the hard work would pay off with traveling, enjoying grandchildren, and other options of choice for the good life. But, in an instant, my life would change, and I would travel down a path I could have never imagined. I willingly walked through an open door, but in doing so took my family with me and in the process would shock and hurt them deeply, possibly even irrevocably.
For most of my adult life, she was there, often present in my mind and in my memories. Not in the forefront of my daily life and thoughts, but she would intrude in moments when something triggered memories of her and our undeniable connection. The trigger could be a song, a UPS truck, or the historic city of Savannah; all reminders of strong feelings and a striking attraction. My attraction existed for a real woman, not a fantasy created in my mind. I rarely allowed myself to dwell on the “what if’s” because I imagined the possibility of a different life—a life with her—unattainable. When our lives would randomly intersect, I believed the attraction was not reciprocal. For over 20 years, I never tried to seek her out. Terrified of rejection, I lacked the self-confidence to pursue her in a way that might reveal my padlocked affections, and our age difference only heightened my feelings of insecurity.
When private thoughts of yearning for her would tramp into my fenced-in heterosexual world, I would chide myself for being silly and entertaining foolish thoughts.
“Be logical, Jenna,” I would think. “Get real. You are a married woman.”
Up to this point, I had lived my life in a single narrow lane as a heterosexual woman. When I took my vows, I did so with full intent of being married for the rest of my life. As a young bride, I didn’t have the slightest suspicion that when I fell in love and said “I do,” that one day I would be a breaker of vows and purposely wade into the waters of adultery. If only I had known myself better. If only I had known I would experience such an inconceivable longing for another, I could have navigated away from a marriage destined to suffer heartbreak at the end. Many years after I spoke my vows, a door opened by a woman would change everything.