Literary Orphans

You Can’t Decide Which
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz


You’re walking out of the post office, digging in your purse for keys, when you bump into someone. You lift your head to offer the perfunctory apology and see that it’s him.

From the look on his face, he’s just as surprised.

You stand there, the two of you wondering what to say, before he takes your elbow, leads you aside.

How’ve you been? he asks.

It takes a moment for you to respond. Fine, you say.


You shake your head.

Me neither. Eileen?

The reason he dumped you.

She’s in college now.

He nods, looks away.
You had not mentioned your daughter until you and he had dated for four months.

“Don’t mention your children unless the relationship looks like it might get serious,” that magazine article on dating and single parents had advised you. “Don’t bring men into your children’s lives unless the man proves himself worthy. Let a man know you as a woman – being a mother isn’t your only role.”

It hadn’t been easy, not inviting him inside your home and you can’t even remember the excuse you gave him why he couldn’t come for dinner, sleep over, drop by, but you did it to protect your daughter. So you waited until he started talking about being exclusive. You exploded then; opened the life that you’d been holding back.

You will love Eileen, you assured him.

Pet dog?

You laughed. Daughter. Eleven years old.

Looking at him now, you can still remember how his nostrils had flared, how his cheeks flashed red, how his eyes narrowed, thin as knives. I don’t do children, he declared.

He wouldn’t allow you another word as he took you straight home. In the months following,he would miss you as much as you missed him, and once, in desperation, you introduced him to Eileen. It didn’t change anything.

The solution he finally offered you: ask Eileen’s father to take her.

You were too in love or stupid (you couldn’t decide which) so you considered it.

You had divorced when your daughter was two; you could make a case for the years you’d already spent, for the sacrifices made.

Your daughter. Your new love. You couldn’t decide which.

Now, he takes a breath and turns to you. Confession time, he says, with a nervous chuckle. This probably isn’t the place but I . . . I wanted to tell you.

He takes another breath. Says I was abused . . . when I was a kid. . . this man. . . He turns away again.

That, you had already figured; you had always picked men who mirrored your troubled childhood. But it was more than that.

He laughed at others’ dirty jokes, and sometimes slipped sexual innuendo in the most innocent of conversations but in the bedroom (his–you would stay over when Eileen was away), he was tentative, almost afraid.
The abused sometimes become the abuser, he says, face still turned. He shook his head. I didn’t want to know if I’m that kind of monster.

He adds, and Eileen was so pretty.

Your head swims. You step back. Mind clear, you wonder what to do.

Knee him in the balls? Be grateful?

Decide which.
–Story by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz
–Photography by Manuel Estheim