I was 18 years old when I started dating Mike. I was hesitant at first; he was already caught up in a tough situation. His ex-girlfriend was pregnant, and she was unsure of the father of her baby. Mike was one of the two options. We pursued a relationship anyway, being equal parts naive and hopeful. After the baby was born in February 2011, we held our breath and waited for the results of the paternity test.
Mike was not the father. The topic that had consumed us for the last four months disappeared, and we celebrated the wide open future.
Near the end of March, Mike sent me a series of cryptic text messages essentially saying we needed to talk about something and that he would be over that night. I agreed and didn’t think much of it. After what we had just been through, nothing could surprise me.
When he came over that night and told me his news, my first reaction was to laugh. It’s been my defense mechanism my whole life. But there was nothing funny about his confession.
“I have a one-year-old son named Benjamin.”
Once the shock-induced laughter stopped, I felt numb. I couldn’t comprehend what that meant. Didn’t we just go through this? Didn’t we just celebrate? Fifty questions were swirling in my mind at once, along with Maury’s face saying “Michael, you ARE the father.”
Without my knowledge, Mike had received a letter in the mail summoning him to pay child support or appear in court. His high school girlfriend had moved out of the province a year and a half before upon finding out she was pregnant, and when Mike found out about it, she insisted “This isn’t your problem.”
But as the positive paternity test he took stated, it actually was. And now it was mine as well.
Yes, two different ex-girlfriends had accused Mike of being the father of their baby within the same year and I was along for the ride both times. Except this time it was legitimate, and the child was already a year old. Could this seriously be happening?
It could, and it was. So I did the only thing that kept me sane -- I ignored it. I carried on with our relationship as if this baby-shaped, diaper-wearing elephant in the room didn’t exist. I refused to meet him and cried when Mike mentioned him.
I carried on that way for two months. I kept the situation a secret from everyone including my family. Eventually I decided I should see a counselor to get an unbiased opinion.
I met with a short-haired woman in a cold office in the city. The tissues in her office were out of reach so I let my tears stream down my face and all over my jeans while I explained what I was doing there. I expected her to console me with warm words and grace me with a solution.
“The way I see it you have two choices,” she spoke slowly. “Deal with it, or don’t.”
That stopped my tears real quick, and skeptical anger set in. Deal with it or don’t? DEAL WITH IT OR DON’T? I drove all the way down here and cried on my jeans for you to tell me to DEAL WITH IT OR DON’T?
I was spending the drive home grumbling away about what a waste of time it was and who does she think she is and what kind of advice is that when it hit me. Her solution actually kind of made sense. Deal with it…or don’t.
So I chose to deal. I told Mike I was ready to meet Ben.
When I walked into the house, I could see Ben hiding behind a box. He had obviously been told someone was coming to meet him and he was playing it up. He was wearing brown corduroy overalls with a little tractor on them. He had his mother's huge brown eyes. I was too scared to touch him much during the evening, but eventually at the end of the night I sat him on my lap and put a pair of giant headphones on his head. He smiled.
After that, I saw him twice a week on the Tuesdays and Thursdays that Mike got him. We would take walks, splash in the tub and watch the same YouTube videos over and over again. He named me “Toto” because Dakota was beyond his toothless little mouth's capability.
At 18, I was helping to raise a child who I had totally fallen in love with. I couldn’t believe how quickly my priorities shifted. My dreams of the future now all included him.
The longer my relationship with Mike went on, the closer I became to Ben. Mike had a tendency to nap or spend the evening on his cell phone, so Ben and I spent a lot of time alone together, which suited us just fine.
One morning, a year later, as Mike was in the shower, I was on his laptop looking at pictures from back when we first met Ben and how small he was. I went through album after album until I came across something that made my stomach turn and my heart beat so hard I could hear it in my ears. Hidden pictures of another girl, naked.
Our relationship was on thin ice after that. “In any other situation,” I tell people now, “I would have left him immediately.”
But leaving Mike meant leaving Ben.
So I fought with him, questioned him, fought with him and questioned him some more. Eventually I felt I was beating a dead horse and tried to move on. It was clear he had done something very wrong, but without a confession, I felt stuck. I couldn’t quite justify losing Ben over a few naked pictures. He was the little light of my life, even if his father had completely betrayed my trust.
In an effort to help the relationship, Mike and I took a few trips. Nothing erased the memories of the girl in the red thong posing in front of her mirror, but we were rebuilding and getting back on track. We were happy. And most importantly, I had Ben visits to look forward to every week.
On Halloween, Ben dressed up as a yellow dinosaur and we took him trick or treating alongside his mother. As we went to cross the street she reached for his hand which he rejected and announced “I want Toto’s hand.”
Our attachment to each other was evident, and with a tiny giggle over it, I lead him across the street to safety. He had been in my life for just a year and a half but had made every day so much better.
15 days later, Mike and I celebrated our two year anniversary. Three days after that, everything fell apart.
On a gray Sunday morning in November I received a message from a girl I didn’t know on Facebook. It read, and I quote: “Hey. I just wanted to let you know that your boyfriend has been texting me and we've also had sex 3 times..”
I was in shock (and to this day wonder why she prioritized the events that way?!). Once confronted, Mike confessed. He’d been cheating for several months, physically and emotionally. I ended my relationship immediately. I was blindsided and incredibly hurt, but it was inarguably clear that if this was who he was, he was not a loss to me.
You know who was, though? The two-and-a-half year old known best for giggling until he couldn’t breathe, running full speed around the house roaring, faking a pee on the potty to get candy, making a beard out of bubbles in the tub, jamming his hands in his pockets while riding around in his stroller and telling me “I love you forever, Toto.”
I saw Ben one last time to say goodbye, not that he had any idea why I was crying as his little fingers touched the tears. I squeezed him, told him I loved him, and left, knowing he would grow up having no idea who I was or who I was to him.
Despite my countless requests, Mike would not leave me alone in the months to follow. He would text me lines like “If you ever really loved Ben, you would give us another try.” All that did was confirm the decision to cut him from my life.
Unfortunately, letting go of the past meant letting go of the good parts, too.