Why I Was Engaged To A Guy On Parole
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Chiara Ghigliazza
Chiara Ghigliazza
Relationships

Why I Was Engaged To A Guy On Parole

I romanticized this was meant to be … that we’d ride off into the sunset.

I was 50 and Neal was wealthy and spontaneous. He bought me expensive lingerie on the first date. He suggested I try on a $17,000 sapphire and platinum ring on our third date. By Thanksgiving, he threw a dinner party for both families, prepared the meal and, kneeling on one knee, proposed what was to be a made-up life, the sapphire ring fitting perfectly on my finger. I was a single mom living with my sister in San Diego. After passionate lovemaking, Neal wrote me romantic poetry; it wasn’t bad, either. He worked on his family’s property portfolio, but didn’t seem very busy while I toiled away at my university job and freelanced. 

He charmed my parents and sisters. In Italian restaurants, he stood up and sang. I was embarrassed by what my sister called his narcissistic ways. But I had quirky, well-to-do friends and former boyfriends. He bragged he knew Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame. Raised in a Long Island town with a neighbor’s farm behind our house, I woke to a rooster crowing and sheep grazing behind a fence. I attended college and worked in New York City, but I wasn’t used to this Southern California obsession with celebrity. I wasn’t used to con men, either. After cutting the onions, Neal bragged, “Yeah, I met him in prison.” He added, “Look, I’m on probation for some financial mix-up.”

I acted cool and reapplied lipstick. I was engaged to a criminal. Granted, when I was a teenager, I dated a cute camp counselor who attempted to shoplift jeans. So naive, I didn’t notice until security stopped him. I also flirted with my dad’s long-haired client while filling in as the secretary in Dad’s tiny law office in Greenlawn, which had two stoplights. He did look like Eric Clapton, after all.

Dad sighed in disgust: “That one? He was arrested for burglary.”  

Eventually, I married a Brooks Brothers-loving guy from the Upper West Side, a WASP and architect. After our divorce, mature and struggling, I was a single mom with a son and little child support. I wasn’t attracted to bad boys; I sought someone stable and secure to look out for me and my good boy. “It was a misunderstanding. I was going to pay it back,” Neal said, relaxed about his criminality, tending to the stir-fry. He loved to cook (and I guess cook the books, too).

He had been arrested for fraud, a white-collar crime. I had to Google it. After my son earned As on his high school report card, Neal slapped down a $100 bill. My son refused to take it and said privately, “Neal can’t buy me, Mom.” I was embarrassed. Neal apparently could buy me.

To Neal’s credit, he attended every one of my son’s basketball games. He even brought popcorn for the parents. In between, he met with his parole officer. I rationalized to myself that everyone has a past and I could forgive him. Neal was dedicated to me and would make a life for my son. Then I learned his oldest daughter was a stripper and his youngest daughter, by a different wife, lived in Florida and didn’t speak to him.

My options seemed limited: I earned little at the university and my ex paid only $144 a month in child support. In San Diego, there wasn’t enough work for writers. Maybe Neal could help us be a family.

I honestly loved Neal and he loved me. I was obsessed with true love stories. Like an idiot, I thought this was mine. Then Neal surprised me. In the building he owned facing La Jolla Cove, he showed me a vacant apartment above the one that would be ours.

He flung open the door onto a spectacular view of the blue Pacific. This would be my son’s place. “Like a bachelor pad,” Neal said gleefully. I said, “He’s only 16. Are you kidding me? My son’s going to live with us!”  

Things unraveled quickly after that. I had minor surgery; Neal said he needed space. I was humiliated with myself. He wanted his poetry back (he was now a writer). He let me keep the engagement ring. It became my nest egg. Years later I had to sell it for survival and received less than $1,500 — a disheartening sum that didn’t help me survive.

I had to help myself survive. I saw him again years later and met him for lunch and dinner. How could I? After recuperating from the coronavirus, I took stock of my life and my mistakes with men. Fred Luskin, director of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Projects, says one way to forgive is to change the story we tell ourselves. My new story is the truth. I focused on creating a good future for my son, overlooking Neal’s screwed-up state. I am a feminist and had worked since I was 16, so it seemed nice to get some help for once. And that’s OK. 

The second time around? I romanticized this was meant to be … that we’d ride off into the sunset, partners in a happy ending. I’m still trying to reconcile it all, but at least I’m on the path to self-forgiveness.

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