'The Wrong Man' shares my interpretation of hilarious stories my mother has told me over the years about her first husband. She learnt lessons about love and how to prioritise yourself in a relationship, and that even if it takes one embarrassing marriage to learn those lessons, you will end up exactly where you need to be.
It’s hard to meet a good man who won’t break your heart, and finding the right one who will challenge you can be near impossible. I have just entered the world of dating, so who better to ask for advice than the woman who has been navigating this jungle long before I ever existed; my mother, Linda. I asked her to tell me about her time with a man named Glen. I’d heard bits and pieces of this story growing up, but having just made the mistake of falling for the wrong guy myself, I needed to know the full story. I wanted to know how you can find the right man, but more importantly, what do you do when you’ve ended up with the wrong one?
Glen and Linda grew up together during the ‘70s and ‘80s in Canberra; an era of individualism, driving without seat belts, and binge drinking. They were neighbours for most of their childhoods, and their parents were best friends. How they got together is a mystery to this day. They were both in their early twenties and part of a large circle of friends who partied together on the weekends. Maybe my mum didn’t wish to share the whole story with me – she was very red in the face at this point, either from embarrassment or three bacardi and cokes – but all she said was “It just sort of happened.” That seems to be her attitude towards the rest of their relationship, too. Including how they got engaged.
It was October, and they were in Batemans Bay. On their first night, they went out to a fancy restaurant. Glen had been acting very weird the entire evening; he was unusually nervous. They’d had a few drinks, but he hadn’t been able to unwind. Mum tried to coax him out of his little funk, “What’s your problem? Why are you so quiet?” but nothing worked. By way of explanation for his mood, he asked her to marry him. Mum doesn’t remember exactly what he said, but he didn’t have a ring and didn’t get down on one knee. “It was uncomfortable and awkward. I should have known it wasn’t right. It took me completely by surprise.” She didn’t answer right away and they left quickly, which killed the mood. The tension was palpable. Mum didn’t want to marry him, but they “got on well.” They had been friends for so long. Both were a little lost. Marriages had been built on less. After Glen prompted her with an anxious, “Well?” she responded hesitantly. “Yes, um… Yes!” And so, mum jokes, her fate was sealed.
In learning about this chapter of my mum’s life, I think the biggest red flag was when they came home to tell the family. It isn’t a fun story. Glen’s mum, Sue, had tried to commit suicide while they were away. Upon their return, she was recovering on my grandma’s couch. It wasn’t the time to announce the engagement, so mum waited to pull grandma aside and tell her. Grandma never explicitly told mum not to marry Glen, but she certainly wasn’t happy about it. Mum mentions the time, after the divorce, when Glen showed up at the house and grandma kicked him out. There may have been a screaming match involved, which she won. Obviously. It wasn’t the reaction my mum had hoped for, but it certainly mirrored her own feelings. Even mum's ex boyfriend, Chris – who was the first of three men to propose to her – called her from Canada to ask what she was doing. “He’s like your brother!” were his exact words. When I interviewed my grandpa about the divorce, he called it an “incestuous” relationship.
Mum had planned to go backpacking across Europe before she and Glen had even got together. When they got engaged, that didn’t change. Travelling alone was something my mum had always wanted to do more of, but – very last minute – Glen had organised to come too. It upset my mum, but there wasn’t much she could do. At least she would get to soak up the sun in Greece. The problem back then was, it was highly inappropriate for two unmarried individuals to go travelling together. Although here in Australia this wasn’t such an issue, their conservative families in Europe still believed in traditional family values.
So, the wedding was fast tracked. Glen and my mum bought a ring together, and she says that “even that felt flat.” The lead singer of a band they had intended to hire turned out to be one of her ex boyfriends. All the veils she tried on were too big for her little head, so she ended up with an – in my humble opinion – tacky adjustable one. Lucky for her, that didn’t matter when she was dancing the night away with her brother Kelvin. The veil had ended up left on a chair somewhere long before then.
Once the party was over, they went to Europe. Apart from checking in late at the airport, flooding the first floor of her aunty’s house in England, and having a light bulb moment on Corfu Island when she realised her mistake in marrying Glen, mum had fun. Of course, more red flags awaited her return to Canberra. She said to me “I’ve never been happier to see Telstra tower than when we drove home from Sydney.”
That relief turned to grim acceptance. Once married, life dragged on. They went out partying with friends a lot, but according to mum “he never organised anything. I did everything, absolutely everything.” It left her questioning if what she really felt for Glen was love. Was it love for a friend? For a brother? Was there any spark between them at all? It wasn’t long before the marriage ended. The best way to articulate what their relationship was is the system by which her best friends ranked her serious partners. If mum was dancing on a table, her first boyfriend Peter would have immediately told her to get down. My dad would shake his head, and cheer from the sidelines. Glen, however would be up there with her, having some childish fun with his childhood friend.
After everything was said and done – divorce papers filed, home addresses changed – my uncle, Kelvin, took mum out for a drink. He had kept hush throughout the ordeal until this point. He said, “You must feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders,” to which mum freely replied, “You know what? Yes. Yes it does.” It may be the only acknowledgement of divorce and regrets that passed between brother and sister, but I think it is the most important.
How do you know whether the man you are with is the right one? I still don’t know. My mother’s story has certainly taught me to look out for red flags, but I’ve also learnt that those red flags can’t be pointed out to you. You have to discover the good and bad parts of your relationship for yourself. You also need chemistry. No one is perfect, but there will be someone who is just right; like my mum and dad. One day, he walked into their house, called up a marriage celebrant, and booked a date. No awkward silences or veils that didn’t fit. It was just the two of them. Well, three. A little baby girl had entered the picture, too.
I am a university student from Australia who hopes of pursuing a career in creative writing in the future.