it’s not just the pounds, it’s the baggage. the years of emotional trauma that have been heaped upon your soul and weighed you down in ways you were never aware. how your shoulders used to lean forward to protect your heart, how you dressed to be ignored rather than noticed.
it began before the separation. you stopped drinking coffee over a year and a half ago and never looked back. you became a vegetarin for two weeks in the spring of 2016 and never stopped (although you consider yourself pescetarian now). it laid the foundation, the groundwork, for the bigger health choices to come. it made starting a fitness routine easier, having given your body a break from stimulants and heavy protein.
the past six months have been challenging, but you have stared them down. you channeled energy into building muscle, releasing old wounds and tension, into reshaping yourself into the goddess you always knew lie dormant. it was a gradual process, like the taking the stairs at work, and arriving at the top floor so winded you had stop and take a moment to catch your breath. then you began to exercise, for real, cashing in some personal training sessions you won at an auction, and which have been your salvation and accountability. now you run up those stairs, hands full, and just keep going.
the scale says you’re down 55 pounds, but you’ve gained strength, and muscle, and you’re 6 sizes smaller than when you began. as quickly as you buy new clothes, they seem to swim on you, all the anger and frustration melting away the harder you train. you don’t miss a day of working out, and you feel the difference if you do. it keeps you balanced and whole, and allows you to burn off all the fury from the other aspects of your life that are less than ideal.
you’ve formed a love affair with kale, and eat more whole foods than ever before. you stopped eating sugar 6 months ago, and that alone has lent you more focus, stamina, stability. your skin looks radiant from all the water you inhale, and you feel younger than you probably did at 25. more confident, more self-assured, a woman who knows what she wants, and more importantly, can communicate it.
you would like to think this might have eventually been your path if you had been able to salvage your marriage, but in your heart of hearts you recognize that dishonesty. the marriage, its dysfunction, left you no room to truly feel good. the weight was the protective suit you weaved to buffer the chaos, and sometimes abuse, that you weathered over and over. the marriage was nothing more than the rock that the tethers the balloon that wants to fly.
sometimes you need to lose it all to gain even more, allowing yourself the courage and space to let the aspects of your life that are no longer serving you to dismantle and break. you need to watch things crumble and burn, feeling the heat of the blaze as the inferno wipes away all the things you thought were important but that were superficial. a house. a car. a status. an extra ‘r’ between the ‘m’ and ‘s’ before your name. these are all replaceable, but you are not.
in the wake of such destruction, you know that there is beauty, life and grace. you know that you are still fortunate to wake every morning and sleep every night. you know that your heart still beats with passion, and the drumbeat of your soul now has an audience that will listen because the previous confusion has been wiped clean. you know that you are strong, not just in your body, but in your conviction and soul. you know that amidst the ash that has been scattered, you are the phoenix, rising with majesty, ready to soar.
Today we would have been celebrating your life, if cancer hadn’t weaved itself through your body, and ended your time on this earth prematurely. Our friendship would have spanned 21 years, no small feat. I don’t know that I will ever stop feeling your absence as an empty hole inside my heart. Not a day passes that you don’t drift into my thoughts, and I often feel it is your spirit’s way of communicating, so I listen for your twangy words echoing around me. Ever so gently and yet with fervor, you constantly whisper: don’t hold back.
Don’t hold back:
Pursuing what you want, creating your own happiness, and recognizing when to put yourself first.
Dreaming fantastic, outrageous aspirations that put you at the center of everything you feel you deserve.
Hugging and telling those closest to you every day how much you love and care for them.
Satisfying your needs, be they material, physical, spiritual, intellectual or emotional.
Telling people when they have hurt you and need to do better.
Taking care of the delicate, amazing body you have been given to inhabit.
Buying that handbag or dress that makes you feel oh so good.
Falling in lust or love, or anything in between.
Loving every single second of the precious, precarious life you have been granted, and taking everything it brings with open arms.
Celebrating for no reason.
Making difficult decisions that have your best interests at heart.
Becoming instant friends with total strangers.
Saying ‘yes’ to all the things that terrify you, or seem too risky to initiate.
Taking as many selfies and photos as you can to document your joy.
To please, comfort, or conform to others.
Sharing your stories, your journey, your wild and wonderful life.
Giving less than all you are in everything you do or touch.
I love you to pieces, still…always.
it’s been a year. 365 days. and it feels miraculous that i am still standing.
we started that morning in terse silence, a continuation of our avoidance of each other for the past few days. another argument where my son had been at the center, where i was forced to choose, and that choice had become clearer and clearer as time marched on. he was only 15, and sowing his independence by pushing back, and it irked you to your core. i had to step in, and i was so tired of that dance. exhausted from the desire for forgiveness, side stepping the habitual pattern of anger that continually surfaced over and over.
you locked the bedroom door, and we began a vehement discourse that devolved into shouting, our younger children knocking on the door as they cried in fear. you wanted, again, my exoneration for your lost temper, and i was incapable of offering that grace. in a fit of more anger and frustration, you threw out what was to become our destiny: after the holidays, we were DONE.
i emerged from the bedroom to see my children’s eyes pooled with tears, reflecting my own. we had planned an outing to a local immersive arts venue, Meow Wolf, and i had zero desire to participate, let alone as a family. But my children pleaded, and i capitulated, throwing on my coat, and avoiding your glances from the passenger seat as i drove, the car ride rife with tension.
when we arrived, it was as if nothing had transpired. the kids traipsed off, you trailed them, putting on the face you wear well that hides the inner turmoil and rage beneath the surface. i am not so fortunate: my countenance betrays everything i am thinking or feeling at any given time, so i got lost. wandered away from our ‘group’, a fractured entity that found solace hiding in nooks and crannies where I could reflect and breathe. i missed watching my children play, but the thought of standing by them, pretending that i was okay as the life around me i had known was slowly crumbling, felt unbearably inauthentic. it was a vision of my solitary future, but it was the first semblance of peace i had for days.
after we reunited, you announced that you had additional shopping to do, but you would try to meet us later. inside, i heaved a sigh of relief. i would get a reprieve from having to feign a united front, so i dropped you off at home, and then the kids and I headed downtown to Canyon Road for the annual farolito art walk. it was warmer than usual, but as the sun began to disappear across the horizon, the weather dipped into its usual desert chill. we trudged down the hill to meet some of my older kids’ friends, the younger children impatient. finally, with our adopted brood, we wandered back up the hill, stopping for the annual hot chocolate, to warm our hands by small fires, and to listen to carolers belting out our favorite tunes.
we ooed and aahed at the lights, and the mood was jovial, feather light. it was perfect. i forgot about you, forgot about the strife, forgot about what the days ahead would bring with the revelation that ‘we’ were no more. you never did make it, the traffic too heavy, as you explained when we finally arrived home a few hours later. as soon as we walked back into the house, i felt cloaked in a hood weaved from repressive sadness. we ate dinner, sat in silence with the children, dragged out the gifts after everyone fell asleep, then rolled to our separate edges of our bed, and fitfully, i finally fell into slumber. it was simultaneously one of worst and best Christmas Eve’s of my life.
this year, i awoke with a sense of dread. i knew for weeks that this day was going to be hard, and emotional, and i wasn’t sure how i would manage. we had an open house the day before, and i immersed myself in cooking and feeding people, something that always brings me joy. the twins were downstairs when i woke in the morning, with a friend who had spent the night. they were watching a crazy show about a guy who travels the world subconsciously trying to get himself killed by handling snakes and catfish. they were so full of life and laughter, and it was contagious.
we jovially cleaned up the house, and the younger children arrived. i exercised as they ate lunch, then showered, dressed, and prepared to work a parking lot fundraiser at the twins’ school, down the street from Canyon Road. that took an hour, and my older daughter refused to walk with us, complaining of having to stand in the ‘cold’ 47-degree weather for such a long time. the younger kids begrudgingly went, my older son tapping into my emotional sensitivity and throwing encouragement about how much fun we would have.
my reached the entrance to the art walk, and a sea of people enveloped us, and the complaining began from my younger son. he was relentless, not more than a minute passing by without a comment being thrown out about how slow everyone was, or how he was annoyed by something. we walked half way up the hill before my younger daughter broke down, crying that she wanted to go home. i had envisioned us gleefully walking, soaking in every moment, relishing our first Christmas Eve on our own, as freeing as the year before. instead, we were fractured, and miserable, and as soon as the tears began to well in her eyes, they pooled in my own and began to fall. the inevitable damn of emotion that i had felt collecting in my subconscious broke, and poured out all the sadness of remembering. we rushed back to the car, and drove home in silence.
i prepared dinner, then retreated to my room to finish wrapping gifts, where i could openly cry and allow myself the space to grieve. except i wasn’t sure what I was mourning, because the one thing apparent to me was how little I’ve missed you. i have been so happy. my life with my children more relaxed, and fun, without the shadow of worry that i would have to defend someone and constantly put myself in the position as the peacemaker who had to sacrifice so much of her own comfort to protect those she loved. but maybe that was the crux: maybe it was the guilt of having a life richer than anything i had dreamed when we were together. a sense of remorse that we couldn’t build this in our marriage, but something i have been able to construct in solitude, brick by brick, without your absence hindering my own growth and forward motion.
and then as suddenly as it began, the water in my eyes dried, and the ghost of Christmas Eve past seemed to vanish. i wandered downstairs and prepared hot chocolate for the kids, extra marshmallows, and sat at the dining room table, sipping zinfandel and soaking the image of my home: the kids curled up together on the couch, the tree setting the room ablaze in a soft glow, everything toasty and warm. after their movie ended, i carried my younger daughter up to bed. tucked in my younger son, asking endless questions about where Santa was headed. gave them both extra kisses, so grateful that i could spend this day with them, that i wasn’t feeling their absence in a way that i expected to feel yours but didn’t.
truthfully, my heart feels full, so expanded, that most days it seems it might burst. i’m filled not just with an enormous amount of love for my children, but an ungodly amount of love for myself, something i had neglected for over ten years. in my desire to be a good partner, i ignored so much of me, overlooking all the areas of my heart that needed tending. it wore me down emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually. and when i would give one of those areas attention, i could always feel your hesitation, a fear emanating that perhaps i would outgrow what you had to offer. and i did.
i expected this day would hang over my head like a gloomy cloud, reminding me of what i had lost. instead, i realized how much I have gained. how many new opportunities i will have to enjoy this holiday on my own terms, without you. and that i feel no palpable regret for that recognition. it is my hope that you find the same. that you are happier apart than we were together. that this holiday marks not just the end of something significant, but the beginning of a life that is better lived, and better loved.
so, I offer you my forgiveness, because there is nothing else i can give you that wasn’t already collected. not just for a year ago, for its jarring and unsettling division, but for everything in between. for all that you have put me through, and all that i have had to endure. because i have cultivated so much tenderness that malice has no place in who i have become.
my gift to you is absolution.
my gift to myself is serenity.
may we both get everything we desire, and so much more.
I’m just going to say exactly what this piece is about: fuck the ‘good' guy.
I’ve resolved not to use these words to describe men anymore, because language imparts power. It was a phrase often used to reference my ex-husband, mostly by people who never saw what I saw behind closed doors, and who only knew the public persona that many find engaging and charming. It seemed to happen with even greater frequency toward the end of our relationship, when I was plagued with confusion about whether I should continue to stay in a toxic situation and make a ‘go’ of it for the sake of our children, or cut the losses of the years and the time we had invested in each other. Generally, it went like this: we would be out socially, and inevitably someone, usually a woman, would make sure to announce to me, “Wow, he’s such a good guy. You’re so lucky.”, whereupon I would politely smile outwardly and cringe on the inside. Then, cue my mind retreating into its cocoon of self-doubt where I would begin a self-inquisition about why I was even considering leaving him. The way people addressed me, the way they put him on a pedestal, made me question everything I was feeling, succeeding in plaguing me with sadness, and greater determination to make a relationship work that was bringing an enormous amount of misery to my life. Where was that good guy? And why wasn’t he showing up for me?
Every time I heard the phrase, I wanted to reply with my own questions, running through my mind like a waterfall: “You seem so surprised at his goodness. Are there a limited number of ‘good’ men? Have we discovered them dwindling like an almost extinct, wild caterpillar in a rain forest? Is there a shortage? Are we running out of ‘good’ men like we run out of supplies during a hurricane? Are there only three left on the shelf with a stampede of women running to claim them as fast as they can?” Not exactly a polite, social hour inquiry.
Was my ex a ‘bad guy’? At times he’d straddled that line, but not to his core. There were moments of redemption, kindness, and love. Yet, thanks to the magic of #metoo, and some very brave and savvy women, I happen to believe society is beginning to recognize that most men aren’t always as straightforward and simple as we would like to believe. But therein lies the dilemma many of us face: what do we do with the men who have what I have termed, a ‘shadow self’, but who appear to be ‘good’? A ‘shadow self’ indicates those who may have the best of intentions but for whatever reason, aren’t able to fully commit to being their best person. In the case of my ex-husband, his ‘shadow self’ was a persistent anger that would rear its ugly head and often lead to poor communication and decision making where interpersonal interaction was concerned. For someone like myself, who grew up surrounded by people yelling at each other through the veils of alcoholism, or because it was what their parents did to them, raised voices and fury don’t work well for me. I shut down, and I retreat, because self-preservation kicks in hard. And when I’ve told you this doesn’t work, why I withdraw, and the behavior persists, well then, it becomes a darkness that overshadows the rest.
I’ve discovered other male acquaintances and friends whom I might have termed as ‘good guys’ who have a variety of shadow selves, which mostly, when boiled down, seems to be a pattern of saying one thing and doing another. Insisting that “I respect women” while watching pornography at home, for example, (and usually shitty porn at that). Or telling female friends how much you understand and empathize with women, while inwardly seething that they are not rushing to fuck you, and treating them like garbage when things don’t go your way. Overall, they aren’t ‘bad’, but they are not doing much to elevate the male race to a better consciousness, either. They are stuck in their own quagmire, claiming that they get it, when they only continually sink themselves with their own behavior.
By now, I’m sure a guy reading this has already defensively scoffed at this entire piece, “but women aren’t always good women”. And he’s right. Some are not. It just so happens that when men usually talk about women as being bitches, whores, or cunts, other people actually tend to believe them, whereas with women, we could be shouting our truth until our voices whither from fatigue and someone will still be stating, “yeah, but __________ (fill in the blank with whatever you, as a woman, didn’t do that you should have been responsible for, even though the responsibility should be falling on the man who is flawed in the first place).” To be fair, we all have some form of a shadow self, but the spectrum is large and varied. I believe that women are culturally raised to scrutinize and hate their shadow selves, whereas men often seem to treat them as an appendage that must be tolerated by those who love them, without apology.
The expectations have never been equal, not even close.
For me, I think that rather than a constant determination to find a ‘good guy’, we should become more concerned with recognizing ‘shade’, the guys who really are fleshy bags of shit that no woman should have to endure, and who are often cunning enough to know how to position themselves as the ‘good guys’. It’s why we compartmentalize the behaviors of some men, because they often seem to have such redeeming qualities that how could that one bad thing they’ve done speak for the entirety of who they are? And maybe, sometimes, it doesn’t. But when men defy accepting responsibility for those bad things and instead seek to defend their poor actions by waving a list of all the ways they are ‘good’ (or allowing others to wave it for them-which is, frankly, even worse), they have rightfully earned such a reputation that should be considered, ‘dastardly’. And yes, we should do what we can to make sure everyone else knows it, too. Because those shadows do their best damage when cloaked in secrecy and darkness.
In culling the worst of men, the true ‘good’ guys will naturally rise to the top, like a rich cream. We will know them by how their own actions speak for them, and how others speak of their actions. It’s simple, really: actively listen to women. Treat other people like human beings and not objects. Apologize when you act like an ass, or you do something that brings harm or hurt to others, especially when they let you know you have harmed them. If you continually do the same things over and over, seek the help you need to overcome that negative pattern. Don’t make petty excuses for shitty behavior. Don’t allow others to defend you, or defend others, when poor behavior is being questioned. If you’re not sure you should say it, stop. If you’re not sure someone wants your advances, stop. If you’re unsure someone wants to be touched, stop. If you unsure about any interaction, it’s safe to mentally say to yourself: stop.
But, until men have worked these things out for themselves, and figure out they contain the power to overcome those ‘shadow selves’ that keep them mired, you’ll be hard pressed to find me calling any of them ‘good’ (as far as I am concerned, ‘’good men’ are an endangered species at the moment, right up there with the Sumatran rhino). Women suffer from enough heaped on insecurity and self-doubt without adding to that pile, and as a woman, I want other women to clearly decipher what it is they want without my opinion muddying their mental waters, and more importantly, for us to recognize what it is we all deserve.
This story is an answer to a recent fiction piece published in The New Yorker, Cat Person (read the original here). My issue with the story falls on many levels: the craft felt incredibly sloppy for a piece published to such a large readership, yet it gained praise for its 'relatability'. The loose, unimaginative phrasing felt like a diary journal in the vein of creative nonfiction, and that vexed me.
Second, while I, too, found myself emotionally mirrored in Margot's insufferable sex experience, I, as a woman, feel we should be claiming more for our female characters. Had this been nonfiction, I think it would have been more compatible to have such ruminations on a personal experience. But all I could think was how I didn't want my daughters to ever read this and feel that this is how they could expect their own sexual experiences to turn out. Yes, many of us have fucked out of rote. We have been conditioned to do so, to roll over, to meet the needs of others before our own. I'm glad we've sparked a conversation around bad sex, and the roles women are expected to play in those moments. But if you want to change the paradigm, then it has to be rewritten, literally, and fiction is the vein to do so. I felt that opportunity was lost in the original.
So, my project in the last 24 hours was to rewrite the story as I would have wanted to read it, with the literary craft and ending I feel female characters deserve, and now demand. How our stories are told has become increasingly important, and I couldn't just read the original and just 'take it'.
Winter’s grasp was around the corner, the end of her first sophomore semester looming, when Sheila met Mark. It was the middle of the week, a time usually reserved for quietude before the activity of the weekend began to creep in with enthusiasm. The theater’s energy was diminished, and as he approached her counter, Sheila traced his features, cataloguing in her mind the contours, determining how attractive he was to her. Endearing, perhaps, but not so attractive that she would have asked him out in a social setting. More like that teenage boy sitting toward the front of the classroom, the one with the hair just slightly disheveled, pudgy, leaning over his desk trying to diminish his size, eyes cloudy, although she was certain he was well through a third of his life, if not more, and should have outgrown such insecurity.
As a previous coffee steward, she’d learned that coquetry would augment her dented, scratched steel tip jar, and now it was an automated response to interaction, even though cinema counter workers didn’t profit from the same reward system. She heard him mumble his selection, and with rote sarcasm, uttered, “Good & Plenty…better than Bad & Insufficient.” He barely glanced up at her, thanking her quietly, forcing her to stretch to return his change, her arm lingering in his space, yet acting as though her presence was empty wind. She was puzzled by how invisible he made her feel.
Surprisingly, he returned a week later, ordering the same candy, but throwing her a snarky compliment, “Well, you didn’t belittle my candy choice. That’s a start.”
“What can I say? I plan to go far here,” Sheila replied, acquiring a small whisper of confidence from his gaining his meager attention. As she prepared to close for the evening, he unexpectedly strode to her, and demanded her phone number. His boldness threw her off balance, and she found herself uttering the digits, even though he didn’t even bother to ask her name, referring to her as the ‘Cinema Candy Girl.”
Weeks passed as Sheila and Mark built rapport via text, swapping humor, his wit always one step ahead than her own, forcing her to engage in a way that felt like work. There was an ebb and flow to the timing of his responses directly proportional to own: he would respond promptly after her initiation, but if she delayed, he was curt, and she would have to begin the conversation again. Occasionally, she tired of this childishness, but her loneliness would overcome her, and she would once more send a GIF, or a joke, and the cycle was reborn. Although the exchanges were shallow and impersonal, her ego was stroked when they would have a good ‘streak’, and things seemed to flow in their communication.
One evening, she whined about the lack sustenance she had on hand, and out of the blue, he told her to meet him at the local Wa-Wa so he could buy her a box of Good and Plenty. She thought he was joking, until he said, “Knock it off. I’ll meet you there in fifteen.” Obligingly, she donned her parka over her onesie and set off into the stark air.
Confusingly, he acted as though this was a daily occurrence between them, barely saying hello. He took her in to purchase a snack, but she exited weighed down by some necessities and a couple of useless trinkets: chips, a slushie, a novelty lighter, a rock shaped like a heart.
“I appreciate you taking care of me,” Sheila whispered as they stood under a fluorescent bulb scattering intermittent, pulsing light. He stood in the flicker, his winter coat fluffy and round, a plaid, Sherlock type hat situated on his head. He almost seemed alluring in the soft glow.
“No problem, Cinema Candy Girl,” he mumbled, then his hand reached to lightly cup her elbow, and he bowed his lips to a small patch directly above her right eyebrow, planting a kiss so delicate she felt like a ceramic doll. “Do good on your exams, we’ll get together when you finish,” he whispered before leaving. Her belly flip flopped recalling that tender moment over and over as she walked home.
During winter break, Sheila lived and died by the ‘ding’ of her phone, constantly announcing her nonstop conversation with Mark to everyone in earshot. First thing in the morning, they would exchange pleasantries, as if they had spent the night and woke together. At night, it was repeated. They developed an intricate, fictional love triangle involving his two dogs, Cal and Mel, and her childhood puppy, Rico, where Mel was constantly jealous of Rico’s outward affection toward Cal.
They communicated so much that Sheila’s father asked if she had become involved with someone. Sheila smiled coyly, before stating, “Mark. He loves the cinema.”
Her father’s eyebrows scrunched and folded, and he replied, “There are some things we’d like to know about him.”
Sheila giddily shared this exchange with Mark, and was rewarded with heart emojis, setting her own heart ablaze with affection.
As soon as she returned to school, Sheila anticipated seeing Mark as soon as possible, yet he became elusive. He was always, “tied up at work” sending her promises that they “would get together soon”, which irritated Sheila. She began to feel powerless, and insecure, so when he invited her to a movie, she jumped at the invitation.
He wanted to see a movie that they could have viewed at Sheila’s cinema, but she demurred and asked to go to Cineplex at the edge of the city, where there wouldn’t be many students. He arrived to get her in a black, dusty Accord, with garbage falling out of its various nooks and crannies. As they coasted down the highway, silence sat between them, and he barely turned to look at her. For the first time, Sheila recognized how little she knew about the man next to her, and wondered if he had lured her, unsuspectingly, into a trap to rape or dispose of her.
As if reading her thoughts, he blurted, “I’m not Ted Bundy.” She laughed nervously, but then felt a pang of guilt, blaming herself for the awkward quiet, for being the girl who worried that every man she dated might be the ‘good’ guy who finally did her in. Of course, wasn’t every girl THAT girl?
“Well, if you needed a victim, I’ll be yours,” she threw out in response, and he guffawed, sliding his fingers to her thigh, quickly touching and then reverting to his quiet self, leaving her to awkwardly try to engage him without luck. He finally seemed to lighten up at the theater, trying to poke fun at his Good and Plenty order with the girl at the counter, only succeeding in embarrassing himself, and primarily, Sheila.
They sat stiffly in their seats for the entire film, and as they left, Sheila felt confused and horribly unsure of herself. Perhaps it was her casual dress, the yoga pants and a hoodie, she thought, as she systematically tore herself apart in search of an answer for his seemingly lack of interest. Picking her up, he had quipped something about how he didn’t expect to her get so dressed up, but now she worried that he felt she had underestimated his investment in the date, as she glanced at his chinos and blue oxford shirt.
“Want to go to a bar?” he questioned, but as though he were doing it to be kind, and not because he wanted her company. Sheila felt he wanted her to decline, and that might end their relationship. The hope she felt after their weeks of communication crumbled on the floor between them, and the thought of such rejection found her passively replying, “Sure, if you’d like.”
“Do you want to go?” he asked. She turned her head away, feeling like an insurmountable wall had sprung up between them, fighting her eyes as they formed jewel like droplets in the corners.
He poked her. “Why are you pouting?”
“I’m not pouting.”
He sighed. “Should I take you…?”
She interrupted and demanded, “No, I want a drink. That film was heavy.” They had watched an artsy World War II drama, which she had initially thought he was jokingly suggesting when he named the title. He then scoffed, and snapped how his judgement regarding her taste in films must have been an error, and perhaps she would prefer the latest rom-com, which made her fold.
Yet, he looked embarrassed when she commented, and it dawned on her that maybe he had wanted to make a good impression, but misunderstood that just because she worked at an art house cinema, it didn’t mean she wanted to watch the same kind of films, especially on a first date. Perhaps he felt slighted from her initial joke, explaining the silence and discomfort they shared. She melted a bit with these imaginings, and felt warmth toward him for the first time that evening.
He asked her where they should grab a drink, and she offered her usual watering hole, but he twisted his mouth and told her he knew someplace with more class. It was an off the grid spot, unmarked, and as they stood in line, she chewed her lip knowing he was going to be disappointed when he discovered that she wasn’t yet old enough to gain entrance. Mark went ahead of her, and when the doorman glanced at her ID and refused her entry, he continued inside without glancing back. “Mark,” she called out weakly, trying not to draw more attention than necessary. He kept walking until another girl grabbed his arm and spun him around so he could see Sheila standing alone outside.
“You’re not 21?” he asked, incredulous.
“I’m sorry…I’m only twenty.”
“But you said,” he began.
“I said I was in my second year. I figured you knew.” She felt like he was glaring at her, as the crowd in line watched.
“Didn’t you take a year off though?” He was seemingly insistent on proving she was a different age than the one on her license.
“I’m twenty.” As soon as the words tumbled, so did hot tears, overtaking her eyes, and she felt like there was no way they could recover, and suddenly the act of being with him felt like a burden.
But the tears seemed to be a sort of witchcraft, her vulnerability a catalyst for Mark to encase her in his arms, whispering, “There, there. It’s fine, darling.” Like at the Wa-Wa, she felt like a fragile creature in his arms that demanded his tenderness. He brushed the top of her hair with his lips and her body melted into his, the pangs of their struggle slowly evaporating.
“You must think I’m crazy, getting this emotional over a bar rejection,” Sheila said to him. His eyes said the opposite. In his glassy irises fixated on her with warmth, she saw herself, a split-second image of perfection, her hair ablaze in the incandescent wash of the lamppost, snowflakes tumbling around her, her mouth aglow with joy.
In this perfect moment of anticipation, he leaned closer, then dove downward, his mouth covering her own, and she felt the shock of his tongue as it invaded her mouth, nearly touching her uvula. Despite how wretched he felt inside her mouth, a feeling of superiority washed over her, knowing that she understood how to kiss better than this thirty-something man, and it boosted her ego momentarily.
When they finished, he led her by the hand to a different bar, more of a gaming hall, dust kicking up from its wood, slat flooring, the bouncer chair empty at the door.
“Want a martini?” he asked, and she wasn’t sure if he was serious or poking fun. She was unsure of what to ask for; typically, she went to places where her friends could order rounds at the bar, bringing pitchers of cheap beer back to the table where they would clandestinely share. Fearing his disdain for the few labels she could name, she requested a beer, nonspecific.
As they sat and talked, Mark finally began to resemble the man she recognized from her IPhone. He quipped about the movie he chose, and Sheila recognized that she had been astute: his stillness must have been nerves. She noticed how closely he seemed to monitor her replies, how badly he seemed to want to impress her.
Sheila chuckled at his attempts to pigeon hole the other woman he seemed to think she was: the art house cinema snob who had film experience because she took one semester of video production. But it still rubbed her with an uneasiness, that perhaps he had worried she was embarrassed to be seen with him, and that perhaps he had felt wounded. His discomfort opened the door for her empathy, and his susceptibility to her opinion inflated her self-importance, making her feel dominant. She began to joke about her job at the cinema, her co-workers, the films they showed, anything that she felt would lend itself to comforting him, and would help boost his esteem. It was a way to manipulate and control. She could see in his responses how his nervousness melted away.
After a few drinks, stoked by the power she felt, she began to consider going to bed with him. He must be eager, she imagined, to have her, and perhaps he would work hard to impress her. She felt something stir, and a tiny fire lit in her pelvis.
When he finished his drink, she announced, “Shall we go?” For a moment he appeared crestfallen, as though the evening had slammed a door shut in his face, until she tenderly grabbed his hand into her own and pulled him toward her to leave. His face was awash in the knowledge that she desired him, and his visible desire for her turned her on.
She turned to him outside and leaned in to meet his lips, but he merely grazed her cheek with his own. “You’re intoxicated.”
Lying, she replied, “That’s not true.” She pressed her breasts and belly into his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist, and she felt him quiver and exhale. It made her feel sexy, feeling him shake beneath her touch, the fire inside her gaining strength.
He detached himself and whispered, “Let’s get you back to your dorm,” then guided her by the arm to the car. Once seated, she leaned over and into him again, and he finally capitulated to kiss her. If she leaned back as his mouth covered hers, the kiss became bearable, almost sweet. As they intensified, she swung her leg over his body and found herself sitting across his lap, and she felt his body straining against his zipper to be free against her thrusts. He stifled moans as she rocked back and forth, and then he swung her back to her seat.
“I would have thought you were too old to be fooling around in the front seat. You are twenty,” he jokingly chastised.
Sheila blew him a raspberry. “Well, where to?”
“What about your dorm?”
“If you’re into voyeurism… I have a roommate.” Sheila dryly replied.
“No, not really.” He laughed.
“Your place?” She countered.
“Is that okay?”
His house was a happy bungalow, close to campus, surrounded by forest, where blinking Christmas lights surrounded the entrance arch. As they turned to exit the car, he became serious, “Don’t forget, I have dogs.”
“I remember…our messages?” She reminded him, and they stumbled out into the chill.
He floundered with his keys in his fingers, cursing when he couldn’t get the right fit in the lock for what felt like hours. To calm him, she took her fingers and drew figure eights across the wide yolk of his shoulders, but it only succeeding in him bumbling more, so her hand arrested and waited.
Finally, he swung the door open and sheepishly announced, “This is it.”
Stepping into the dark, her eyes had to adjust to the shapes presented to them, eventually discerning shelves of books, rectangular games, plastic encased albums, and mounted pictures.
“This is nice,” Sheila commented to herself, believing it as the words fell out of her mouth. She sighed with relief, realizing that she had never been to man’s home to have sex. It had always been a clandestine act, avoiding roommates and interruptions. She liked that she enjoyed the same things he scattered in his living area, and it relaxed the dawning that she was completely on his territory.
She glanced out of the corner of her eye and caught him observing her reaction to his space. It triggered a tiny alarm that perhaps she had misjudged him, and that he was merely waiting to get her into his kill space, skillfully set up in another room. During her reverie, Mark crossed the distance and suddenly his mouth was on hers, tossing her jacket and purse onto the couch, then pulling her into his bedroom, his hand clumsily rubbing against her breast as the other squeezed her left ass cheek, almost pinching.
The room was sparse: a wooden crate sat next to a lumpy box spring and mattress, a bottle of Jameson teetering on top when he sat down, until he grabbed its neck and poured some down his throat. He shoved the bottle into Sheila’s hands, while he grabbed his Macbook and fumbled. For a second she thought he was checking his email, until a rock melody began to waft in the background.
As he undressed, Sheila watched from her perch on the mattress. He yanked off his shirt and his pants crumpled to the floor, and as he bent to remove his dress shoes, she stared at his flabby, waving belly, swathed in dark, swirling hairs, and she suddenly felt the fire extinguish. But she wasn’t sure she could tell him no. She had initiated, and persisted, and now they were here. It wasn’t that she felt he would take something she didn’t want to give, but that she felt disappointment in herself for attempting to make this entire situation into something that it might desperately never be. In her own longing to be wanted, she had forgotten she needed to desire him too.
She sat in her guilt as he finally shook off his trousers, raising the bottle of whiskey to burn her lips and throat, and clobber her inner hostility for what was coming next. He ripped the bottle from her hands, then his body fell against her own like dead weight, his mouth insistent and wet, his fingers probing with lifeless rhythm, roaming from her breasts to her crotch, killing any desire as she lie there, motionless.
She attempted to rekindle something by wiggling from underneath and then rolling him to his back, taking control by sitting astride him, and shutting her eyes to recall his sweet softness of his kiss at Wa-Wa. A tiny flicker. Sheila ran with it, removing her hoodie, and she felt Mark’s hand cup her breast under her bra, pinching her nipple painfully. To compensate, she moved his hand to the back of her bra, but he fumbled worse than he did with his keys, and ordered her to remove it, and with a swipe from one hand, she peeled it off her body. His face was a mixture of hunger and contentment, like the other men she had bedded, and again, his hunger for her sparked eagerness in herself.
Leaning down, she kissed him, imagining the thoughts that must be circling his mind. “She’s perfect, nineteen, and if I don’t get her, I may perish.” As she continued to play this script in her head, she felt her body grow warm, kindling her own libido. She moved against him, slowly grinding, then slid her hand into his boxers and stroked him, encircling his entire member with her small hand. He moaned, an awkward, feminine yelp, but she wanted him to stop. He took his fingers and moved them into her panties, slipping his fingers into the moist pool between her thighs, the tension in his body melting away. His index finger gently rubbed her clitoris, and she bucked as she became further aroused. Then, as his middle finger scratched the inside of her, she recoiled, and he pulled his hand away like it was burnt, his face looking up at her apologetically. Again, the blaze building inside her extinguished.
As if suddenly dawning on him, he asked, “Hey, are you a virgin?”
Fueled by the drinks and discomfort, Sheila began to laugh. It began as a giggle and then racked her entire body, her arms and legs quaking until she rolled herself into a fetal position, attempting to gather her breath.
“What the hell is so funny?” Mark icily replied.
“I just…” Sheila sighed, still chuckling. “It’s just…” She stopped when she saw his countenance. “No, I’m not.”
Mark’s faced flashed with a wave of anger, and resentment. He thought he was the center of her humor. In fact, she had recalled her first time, carefully planned, in a fancy hotel that her mother had reserved, after Sheila and her boyfriend of over a year had finally determined they wanted to sanctify their relationship sexually. That was ten lovers ago. The mere thought that this date would be anything close to what she would accept for her first time was laughable.
She felt a stab of guilt for his discomfort. “I didn’t mean…I’m sorry. I wasn’t poking fun at you. It was kind of you to ask.”
“Well, we can take our time,” he whispered, as he rolled his body on top of her. His hands began to grope for any loose flesh, and then he took three fingers, pushing them inside of her, scraping her from the inside out. To ignore the pain, she floated outside her body, picturing her almost naked self, thighs leaning outward as Mark lay between them, his soppy mouth leaving behind indelible traces of him across her skin, and his hand disappearing inside her over and over, saw-like, abrasive.
He pulled his hand out and leaned to the side, slightly crushing her left leg, as he pulled a condom from a hidden space by his bed, and began to roll the latex over his disappointingly short but chubby penis. Again, he seemed incapable of dexterity, and as he plodded through this task, she envisioned the positions he might like: mounting her from behind, plopping her on top, and then pinning her beneath him. Those images created a wave of revulsion so strong she felt her stomach churn. Why was she doing this if this was the last place she wanted to be? What obligation was there to see this nightmare through? She suddenly had no desire to be his sex toy for the evening.
“Listen, I’m not sure we should be doing this.” Sheila remarked candidly, preparing for the hurt that flickered in his eyes after the words hung in the air between them. He had finally rolled the condom on properly.
“Why? I thought…” His voiced betrayed confusion, irritation, and defensiveness.
“I just don’t think we’re…compatible.”
What she didn’t utter hung in the air between them, frozen.
“How can you tell that? I haven’t even fucked you yet.” He rolled onto his side and pouted, rubbing his hand through his hair, an effort to self soothe. His erection began to slowly diminish, the condom becoming a deflated sac.
Sheila didn’t know how to reply, how to say that sometimes you can’t grow into wanting, the spark had to be there, she didn’t want to have sex for the sake of having sex. At least not sex that she could very well predict by this point was going to be bad, awful. Sex where he would merely toss her around like a rag doll, mentally referencing all the pornography he had ever seen and wanted to try, and she would be expected to lie there and take it. Sex where she would have to pretend that she was enjoying him inside her, rubbing her heart raw with every thrust. Sex where she would have to fake orgasm, acting like she enjoyed his clumsy movements, when after she would feel like a tiny piece of her soul had to be sacrificed for his pleasure, because his value as a man carried more worth than hers in society, at least for this moment.
She couldn’t find the words to describe how lonely she would feel in the aftermath of his coitus, knowing that she relinquished her own pleasure in exchange for emptiness. How a previous experience had left her shaken and hollow for months, and she had no desire to serve his interests above her own, permitting him to prey on her nurturing underbelly and feminine tenderness, as she had been conditioned to allow since birth. And how disgusted she felt with herself that she had even questioned her own judgement in the first place to boost her own confidence and insecurity.
Instead, in silence, Sheila found her bra on his musty carpet, and began to dress as he turned his head slightly to watch, bitterness splashed across his features. After her hoodie was placed back over her head, she merely stood and said quietly, “I’ll call an Uber.”
She wandered out to the living room by herself, gathered her parka and bag, and then slipped out into the freezing winter air. It was only then that she realized she hadn’t seen a single dog, and wondered if he had lied about them, knowing she loved them, to make himself more attractive to her.
The next morning, her roommate Denise asked about her ‘date’. Sheila poured out the details, but when she reached the part where she decided to stop, her roommate sucked in her breath. Sheila looked at her with curiosity, “What?” Denise began to weep. Sheila hugged her hard as Denise cried and shared a recent, parallel experience. Denise wiped her eyes. “It never occurred to me that I could just leave.”
A week later she and Denise sat in their room, drinking wine and joking, when Sheila got a random string of texts, her phone lighting up in the dim space with desperate determination:
“I shouldn’t be doing this, but I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Can you tell me what I did? Why did you leave?”
“Have you screwed that many guys? Is that why you laughed when I wanted to know if I was your first?”
“Is there someone else?”
“Who is he?”
“Are you fucking him now?”
Sheila paused, then decidedly turned the phone off.
My Creative Nonfiction piece, To All the Daughters, was published as an Amuse Bouche: A La Carte selection of Antioch's Lunch Ticket today! It's a love letter to my daughter about sex, pleasure, and sexuality.
Check it out here: lunchticket.org/to-all-the-daughters/
I’ve found myself engaging in political discourse the past couple of days regarding the movement of #MeToo, and how it is not allowing for a spectrum of repercussion. Of course, this is has been blown up by the resignation of Al Franken, accused of what might be best described as ‘sexual misconduct’, as his actions feel more ambiguous than other more straightforward cases that have been made public recently. As many of the opinions I’ve read state, it doesn’t seem that in this case, ‘the punishment fits the crime’, or why should he be ‘ruined’ for exercising poor judgement that might have stemmed from misunderstandings. I have seen one opinion go so far as to accuse other women of not ‘dealing’ with this kind of behavior by standing up to it on their own, and then devolving into disparaging women for dressing a particular way then not wanting to accept the ‘consequences’ of such choices.
Whew. Wow. There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with the gray.
Right now, the pendulum has swung. We went from a culture that allowed for the systemic, secretive exploitation and abusive of women, that often went undisclosed, to men being outed in very public arenas, practically overnight. We went from permissive, excessive abuse perpetuated by men who adopted it as a cultural norm, to what is now in the space of what I call, ‘zero tolerance policy’. There are women who were supporters of Franken who are not okay with this, and I can understand that frustration. They don’t feel that a little ass or waist grabbing should be enough to sink his ship. I contend that it’s exactly what is deserved in these times.
The question I want to pose to women who are outraged about these seemingly ‘innocuous’ infractions (usually the comparison is made to Weinstein) is WHY ARE WE STILL DEFENDING THE BEHAVIOR OF MEN THAT PROMOTES THEIR ABILITY TO ‘TAKE’ WHEN IT REINFORCES THE NEGATIVE CULTURE THEY HAVE CREATED, AND THAT WE, AS WOMEN, HAVE HAD TO ENDURE AND SUFFER IN? Yes, I’m shouting.
It doesn’t matter if a signal was misinterpreted, or a man felt an advance might have been warranted, but instead was rebuked. We are missing a huge, crucial part of this equation: men need to ASK before they touch women. They need to seek CONSENT before they go in for the kiss or grab a woman on her body. I don’t care what signals men might be misconstruing: if you didn’t ask, she’s harassed. Period. And if a man is worried that if he asks she’ll say no, well, that’s her RIGHT. Period. And he probably shouldn’t be trying to do what he’s doing in the first place.
Now, that said, I believe in redemption, and I believe in forgiveness, but that also comes with owning what you did and not playing if off as a version of an event that you ‘remember differently’. We all have our interpretations. But I will not continue to excuse men of poor choices and behavior simply because they do not see fault in their actions, because it has been our cultural NORM to allow such permissiveness, and they have owned all the power in that domain. Men have been getting away with such incidents for so long that I am not sure that they truly realize which of these actions is wrong. It’s time to learn, and sometimes, you learn the very hard, and public way, as Franken just has. If your action made someone feel threatened or unsafe, no matter what your memory tells you, then it shouldn’t have happened.
Another aspect I want to address is the continuation of questioning women’s motives, and how I have observed women commenting on women as a whole. So many women have raised questions about why these allegations against Franken have sprung up, and again, we’re falling backward into the trap of not believing our own. I’ve also seen a common thread of women stating ‘I have dealt with this, and it’s up to women to just walk away, or suck it up when it happens’, again reinforcing the cultural NORM we have all been force fed by the dominant white, male contingency for centuries: it should just be part of what we deal with. When I read one post where it discussed how if women wanted to continue to dress in braless shirts and short skirts they should learn to navigate the unwanted attention they will likely receive, I wanted to bang my head against a wall.
FUCK THAT NOISE.
Often, women are their own best oppressors. Why do women seem to constantly strive to devour their own? Judging other women gets them nowhere but landing back into the same cultural mess that we are trying gradually extricate ourselves from, one man at a time. We shouldn’t be bothered by what other women wear, because it really doesn’t matter. If it’s not your body, it’s not your place to judge, or assume her intention, which I am almost 100% sure never includes, “Well, I think I’d like to be assaulted tonight, I think the short, red skirt in my closet will do”. We have to stop tearing each other down in an effort to allow men to save themselves. Because the more we don’t believe each other, the more we call each other whores and sluts, the more we scathingly critique each other’s motives, then the more we give away any of the power dynamic shifting back towards us that might help equalize, and give breathing room for us to not have to endure such systemic acts of repetitive violence.
Cultural and systemic oppression are challenging narratives to overcome. Men have had the upper hand for so long when it comes to using sex as a method to yield power over others that it can actually make us feel uncomfortable when we see men who we hold in high esteem, those we thought we good allies, fall before us. It makes us want to search for ways to excuse behaviors, and we want to find the gray, so that we can feel okay about those people we championed who let us down. I want to say this again in a different way to let it sink in: he made some distinct choices at different points that demonstrate behavior that should not be accepted. Forgiven, possibly. But not acquitted without repudiation for what has transpired.
We need to believe women. We really, really do. Will there be times when that belief is questioned? Yes. But instead of trying to find ways to discredit the stories of women because we want to find ways to excuse the men we thought were upstanding, we need to listen. Part of why this sexual behavior has been tolerated for so long was that women didn’t feel they could have a voice without facing steep repercussions. Women, when they did speak out, lost careers and reputations for facing those who violated them. Some courageous women have finally made it possible for women to be heard, and believed, without losing everything in the process. For myself, I refuse to toss that powerful progress to the wind so that a man who chose to be photographed inappropriately groping a woman’s breasts can receive leniency.
So, maybe you feel sorry for Al, but I don’t. He’s not an innocent casualty in all of this. His actions may appear to fall in the gray when it should be clear to all of us. Ask before you assume or touch. Don’t use language that makes people uncomfortable. CONSENT, CONSENT, CONSENT, CONSENT, CONSENT. Give people the choice to say no. Give women the right to have autonomy over their bodies, and how others perceive they can treat them. And if you do wrong someone: say it, apologize, and mean it. We finally have a window of opportunity to create a paradigm shift that could initiate change that is concrete and long lasting. But if women eat each other alive first (or defend men doing the same), if women continue to tear women down because we still want to perpetuate the notion that the poor choices of men deserve our advocacy, we’ll see that window shut before we can fully air our society. Then we revert to choking on the oppression we’ve been breathing, the dark and sinister actions that have been silently violating women’s rights for so long that we didn’t realize how far the cancer had spread, how sick it has made us all, the irreversible damage it has done to so many.
“I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself…Many times in romance I have been a victim of my optimism.”
This is the essay I dread writing, because the things I must say, the words I need to plant on paper to honor my grief and tribulations won’t come easy. They’ve been floating in my heart, longing for a home to share their story. But despite their desire for a place to land, they are allusive and cunning in face of my pursuit.
I don’t know how to write about emotional and verbal abuse. I can expound on the horrors I have faced from physical, sexual trauma in my childhood and young adulthood. Those stories flow through and out me without pause, surrendering to the necessity of being told. I can share how those instances and experiences have shaped me physically, mentally and emotionally: the pain that I endured and stuffed inside my body until I grew so large from self-hate I almost burst. But how do you describe the kind of abuse that happens under the table, sly and hidden? How do I write about how the abstraction of words, shuffled concoctions of letters, can do such invisible damage that it makes me long for the assault of the physical?
I hoped after my first marriage I would know and do better. That the battle scars left from my first husband’s more blatant attempts to control and cajole through language would be a constant reminder to never take that shit again. I was smarter than that, and despite his efforts to tear me down, I refused to melt into the nothingness he might have preferred, even though the discomfort lingered and begged for attention.
I can still hear Carlos’s voice wafting into my ear, one of the more memorable moments occurring during his family’s visit to see us in Puerto Vallarta shortly after I had given birth to our preterm twins. His family had a hotel suite, and we lounged in the living area, catching up, his grandfather frying a potent fish that I knew I had no intention of eating. My body still felt like a deflated sac, and I was plagued by anemia, exhausted from the lack of iron circulating through my veins and maintaining my new role as a full-time mother to two tiny babies.
Carlos pulled me away from the small gathering asking if we could talk for a moment, and gently ushered me into the connecting bedroom. He sat me down on the bed, and for a second, I considered eyes I once mistook for soulful, and assumed that what would tumble from his lips would be a declaration of love, something sweet to bolster my confidence as a new mother during this precious moment of privacy. The corners of his eyes crinkled in a slightly critical manner, his glance filled with gravity. He leaned in and said to me, “Amor, I am concerned that you haven’t lost any baby weight yet, and that you seem okay to be heavy. Do you want to be fat?”
My heart dropped to the floor and flat lined, a wave of potent bitterness rising to the back of my throat. I was barely two weeks postpartum. Carrying twins, I had gained roughly 50 pounds, a great deal of which exited my body when the children were ushered into this world. I felt sickly and was barely eating enough to maintain my own needs, let alone the breast milk I was providing for my children. I burst into a wave of tears and sadness, allowing the torment of the pause following his statement wash over us in embarrassed waves. Carlos immediately became defensive, as he usually did, and feebly attempted to justify his questioning. I merely darted my eyes in fury and proceeded to hotel hallway, where I sat alone, bawling, my back leaned against the room door until I felt my spine tingling from the pressure, allowing the physical pain to take the edge of the psychic heartache that kept crashing over me.
And so, it went for the remainder of our relationship: he would often make a callous or offhanded comment, sometimes we would argue, but most times I would crawl into the invisible shell of emotional withdrawal I had created for myself as a protection against his thoughts. I shut down, the metal security walls tumbling around my heart, refusing to budge an inch, often ignoring him until I sensed some form of safety when I could speak. I hate myself for my silence. I hated him even more for the poison of his sentences.
Despite this, I desperately hoped he might become a better man, the man I could see deep down under his insecurities. I also felt that perhaps distance had given him perspective: he had missed a year of his children’s lives when I returned to the United States when they were five months old because I just couldn’t live without the support of my family. It appeared that he had mellowed, and seemed more willing to focus on our relationship moving forward rather than backward once he arrived in the US. But shortly after, the ‘honeymoon’ of our reunion ended, the ugly head of words masked as violence reared once more, and I found myself flung right back into a well of self-doubt, feeling like I was damaged goods, as if I deserved the hatred spewed in fits of anger in frustration. Yet, due to his fiancé Visa status, I found myself standing before the Justice of the Peace, my heart full of gritty reservation, hearing the words ‘I do’ tumble from my lips, like a Hail Mary prayer for my children. It was evident on our wedding night, when he curled in bed with his back ignoring my fingers, leaving me cold and untouched, that he harbored a deep-seated resentment that I was unsure I could ever overcome to make our relationship stable.
He didn’t physically harm me, but his words flew around rooms in clouds of fury and angst. I learned that cowering was the best way to ride out the storms. Often, I would lock myself in our bedroom, him pounding on the door, eventually softening to a quiet knock, willing me to let down my reserve. During these times, I felt torn that my children were in another room. What if they woke? What if they saw their father in a rage?
Eventually, holding all my fear and inaction inside caught up to me, and my gallbladder began failing. I ended up having to go to the emergency room for intense pain, waving across my body as it had for the previous year, coming and going in spurts but without ever pinpointing a cause. It was only functioning at 18%, and I had to have surgery to remove it, giving me a slight reprieve of a five-day hospital stay. But it was nerve wracking, leaving my children in his care, because he could barely take care of himself, his expectations always bearing down on my shoulders to provide meals, housekeeping, childcare, and work a full-time job. Yet, I took that time in the hospital to reflect, peering inside my heart to listen to what it felt I should do next. Without question, it said ‘divorce.’
I had wanted so badly to maintain our relationship for at least a year, at which point Carlos would be eligible to apply for a Visa on his own. If our marriage ended before the designated time, then he might not be eligible to stay in country. But I had run out of adrenaline to sustain me, and I could no longer pretend that this was something that I wanted, or that was healthy. I couldn’t take the yelling, the apologies, the flowers brought the morning after he broke a side table in a fit of rage as I listened in our bedroom to the wood splintering and cracking, thankful it was not my body.
I broached the subject of divorce, and he balked. He became angry and suspicious. He thought I was having an affair. I told him I wanted him to be happy. He told me I was fat and ugly, and that no one else would have me. His verbal diatribes became more threatening, and I finally broke down and went to a consultation with a lawyer on the sly, retaining his services. When Carlos was served with papers, he was so angry I thought we had reached the moment where his fists might finally stroke my face. He kept breaking things around the house, then begging me to stay.
Two weeks after the papers were served, I moved out of our home on a Saturday morning when he was working, rising early to throw as much as I could into boxes for the movers. I didn’t tell him I was leaving. I collected as much as I could, and the movers worked swiftly to empty the house of furniture and its contents, which were driven to storage. I went to my mother’s house, a few blocks away, and waited for the storm I knew would burst when he arrived home and realized I left with our children.
Sure enough, he called that evening, spouting obscenities, detailing how he planned to exact his fury. He told me I was the devil. Then he started driving past my mother’s house, over and over, parking outside and waiting in case I wandered outside. I still felt unsafe, so I transitioned with our children to temporarily live with my grandmother who had a quiet, more rural home twenty minutes away. Amid his increasing threats, I filed for a protection order, and was granted the piece of paper meant to be an invisible shield from his wrath, even though I knew that it contained no real power, and that often those orders left women with even less protection than intended. Hanging over my head, constantly, was a fear that he would take our children and attempt to travel back to his native Mexico, where child custody was not reciprocal. I watched my babies like a hawk every minute of every day, vigilant to exhaustion.
We began to move forward with legal proceedings. I was forced by the court to attend a mediation class with him, which wholly uncomfortable and frightening. He kept his composure in public, as he always did, but I could hear it his voice, the distinct lilt of the bitter tone that he reserved for me when he wanted to scream but was forced to play nice. It was a nauseating experience, and I hated the system for thrusting me into a space that felt so unsafe.
He hired a lawyer, and we met with our counsels to sit and create a custody order and plan. We had no assets, and I wanted nothing from him. But he did want a favor for me. He had missed a window of opportunity to apply for a Visa on his own under special circumstances, so that he could remain in the country. Now, he needed me to vouch for him for the paperwork to be processed. I felt my heart tug in two separate directions: one for my children, and the opportunity to have their father present and in their lives. The other, a glimpse into my future, always worrying if he might attempt to go back with the kids. Having to wonder if he was stalking me, or following me, lying in wait for a moment of vulnerability where he could hurt me physically. The life I could probably never have, the people I could never date, because his shadow would be everywhere, and I would be constantly afraid that choices I might make for my happiness might incite his ire. Despite the sadness I felt from the weight of the decision, and having it rest upon my shoulders, I firmly told him no. He would have to find his path or way that was not dependent on my support.
I received physical custody of our children, and we were both granted legal custody. Carlos was to have supervised visitation, and we arranged to meet on the following Saturday. It was a blistery, January morning, and I bundled the kids against the harsh wind to travel across town on the bus to the center where the supervised meeting was to occur. We arrived early, and were placed in a colorful visitation room, the second hand of the clock emitting a visible click as it circled away time. Jacob and Kudra made their way to the corner, where they investigated the various toys that were placed to captivate and occupy. Five minutes rolled by. Each second seemed to languish. Ten minutes late. The kids became bored, tugging at my jacket and beginning to whine to go home. At the twenty-minute mark, the kids were finished waiting and approached mutiny. As we had stayed for the required time, the woman in charge of overseeing the supervision said we could leave, as it appeared that he would not be attending.
The kids were confused about the visit. I was confused, and frightened as to why Carlos had not appeared. We made our way back to my parents’ house, where they momentarily forgot their father and dug into their piles of games and toys upon our return. I couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that he had decided to retreat, and had left our children behind. Two weeks of non-communication followed, my attempts to call him met with vain silence, which was unnerving. It was uneasy, maneuvering day after day without a response or contact with him. I began to be concerned for his well-being, even though my gut instinct told me that he had decided to leave the country. Finally, after two weeks, I got a crackling call from him, informing me had gone home to Puerto Vallarta. He wished to maintain his relationship with the kids via phone. After the conversation, I hung up, and I wept for what felt like hours, all the pent-up fear and frustration finally bursting and releasing in wave after wave. I cried for my children, for the inexplicable hard decision I had to make that I knew would affect them, and I shed tears for all the moments when he had made me feel scared, ugly, and downtrodden. Then, when my eyes could give no more, I inhaled the largest breath I could, exhaling loud and with force. It was as though I was a newborn babe learning to breathe again for the very first time.
During this time, I began service with AmeriCorps, where I met my future husband. On the surface, from what I observed, he was intelligent, comfortable with himself, and a great dancer. When we met, he was involved in a long-term relationship, and I was just creeping out from under the rock of my detrimental marriage. We circled around each other for a few years, seeing each other at poetry readings and clubs, sharing the same social scene. Three years after we initially met, at an anniversary party for the lounge I co-owned, he popped up, single and alone. We reconnected, and there was a very intense attraction from the beginning. Our first date, later that week, was a smashing success, and we found we could talk on the phone for hours. He told me he loved me two weeks after we first met, and I felt the same with every fiber of my being.
But our relationship had some rockiness from the start. He suffered from anxiety, especially in large groups of people. He had been jumped the year before at a club when he defended his sister against members of a college football team, and it had a huge impact on his ability to feel comfortable around in a crowd. He took medication to help ease his symptoms, but he would sometimes get cagey if we were in places where people would multiply, or if he felt someone was looking at him in an off way. In addition, the twins were now five, and could give Mary Poppins a hard run for her money. He struggled with this role in our relationship, and his place in the life of my children. A bit naïve, I truly believed that it part of my responsibility to find someone who could be a father figure, to make up for the loss they had sustained three years prior. It never occurred to me that it was more essential that I found someone who was as good for me as I thought he could be for them.
After six months, he and I hit a major road bump and he broke up with me, saying he just couldn’t do the relationship anymore. Five years younger than me, he was still partying with his friends, and I had voiced my displeasure with his behavior on several occasions. I remember lying in bed, feeling such intense loss that I thought my soul was being torn to shreds. I was crazy in love and the thought of suffering through such heartbreak was unbearable. He stopped by my house to return some music, bringing me a letter. My emotions got the best of me, and I broke down in front of him, and he began pouring out all the reasons why he was scared it wasn’t going to work. Then he broke down, and we sat together and cried. After that, our relationship seemed to gain strength, and four months later, I discovered we would be expecting our first child.
I had hoped that my pregnancy would soften him, and make him want to create change for himself, especially considering his own family dynamic, where his father was a recovered philanderer and drug addict who had two children outside of his marriage. We moved in together, and I hoped for the best for myself and the kids, because he had so many wonderful qualities that I kept hoping they would grow in intensity and outshine the rest. But his behavior gradually began to slide. He yelled at the kids a lot, his anxiety beginning to trickle into his relationship with them, and he would go out with his friends occasionally on the weekend, returning piss ass drunk, sometimes vomiting wherever he lay, leaving me to clean up his mess. It was like having another child I never asked for.
After our son was born, it seemed that maybe that shift had finally taken hold, and that he might be leaning in the direction of wanting to scale back. Although fatherhood still poked at his anxiety, he seemed to manage it with greater control and aplomb. His relationship with the twins seemed to improve as well, his heart opening a bit wider to let them in.
A year later, we moved across the country, losing the community and family support we had leaned on, staking out our possibilities in Denver. He got a position working for the regional transportation company driving a bus, something he had become extremely interested in after we had taken a babymoon trip to Colorado in my 8th month of pregnancy. At first, it seemed like a good fit: an active job that wasn’t social services, and with the potential to advance. But slowly, I began to see him wither away: the odd shifts and long hours took their toll, his mood swings became more frequent, he was more irritable, he lost weight, he wasn’t sleeping enough, and we didn’t see him much. Around this time, he also decided, carte blanche, that he would stop taking his medication for anxiety and depression, because he feel he needed to go without chemicals in his system.
Almost six months in, he unexpectedly quit his job, bowing under pressure and believing he would end up fired, and things went from bad to precarious. He found temporary jobs here and there filling in at apartment complexes for their residential leasing agents. A few months later, I broke my ankle in a severe fall, and was wheelchair bound for two months. We were barely surviving, and it wore us down quickly.
He eventually found a position in social services again, and we slowly began to right our ship, but Denver became more expensive, and it became harder for us to maintain. We were treading water, but barely. We took a road trip to visit a close, college friend of mine who lived in Santa Fe, and I instantly fell in love with the land, people and the culture. I quickly secured a teaching fellowship at a local middle school, and he agreed to move after he got a position as a program manager with a homeless youth organization. I thought that maybe we had finally found the place where we could heal and become the family I longed for.
So, we uprooted once again, and finally had enough income to be able to rent a house, not an apartment, and began building our lives in the City Different. Except the same patterns began to emerge. His hyper reactions to the kids and other situations began to intensify. He was drinking more, getting so intoxicated at one of my work functions that he vomited in the car, and I left him in his clothes on the floor of our family room, I was so disgusted. And then he quit his job, out of the blue, and we were thrown right back into the huge financial stresses we thought we left behind. A few weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant, and that only piled on more.
Three months later, my grandmother died suddenly, and my family opened the door for us to come back to Pittsburgh by offering us her home to live in. I had doubts about returning someplace that I left with great intention, but my husband was sold and determined to be closer to his parents. Reluctantly, I agreed, and in my sixth month of pregnancy, we moved cross country following the route we had traveled to leave. Despite being in my grandmother’s home, which I cherished as a happier part of my childhood, I hated Pennsylvania. The long, drab days with endless gray, and being stuck in a rural home as we only had one car wore down my spirit. There was an undertone of racism that felt nefarious and insufferable, and I didn’t want my children to grow up in a place where they would not be considered for their whole person. My husband bounced from job to job, finally landing something more concrete and stable, but the financial toll was enormous. I had given up my career pursuit to stay home, and after our daughter was born, despite my deep joy of motherhood, I missed working and adult socialization, feeling stuck in isolation.
Then, less than a year after our return, my husband and my uncle had a huge argument, partially incited by his kneejerk style of speaking before thinking, and before I knew it, I was no longer speaking with my family. My mother and I attempted to discuss the issue, created from an incident between my uncle and younger son, and she gave me an ultimatum to leave my husband and stay in the house, or to be on the streets. It was a horrendous choice, and as a new, unemployed mother with no resources who still felt she saw glimpses of what could be in the eyes of a man she loved, I chose him.
We became homeless and were forced to move in with his parents, where his younger sister and her two young children already resided. While I had what I thought was a good a relationship with his parents, I wasn’t interested nor prepared to see them daily in a more intimate light. His father, like him, was hot headed and often spouted off without thinking, and yelled way too much. His mother, the ever-vigilant care taker, was extremely passive aggressive, and did everything that was required for maintaining the house and caring for his sister’s children, but with buried resentment.
I slept in his mother’s bedroom with all four children, and my husband slept on the couch. I worked tirelessly to arrange for the twins to attend the same school to ease the transition, prepared them in the morning, and was present every afternoon. During the day, I made endless phone calls, working on selling my share of my business so that we could have the financial means to move back west, even though it pained me to cash in what I hoped would be my children’s college fund. I did the shopping, and the cooking, breastfed my daughter, played with my four-year-old son and tried not to spend day after day crying in a stupor.
Yet, that apparently was not enough, and one night, as I sat in the living room, I overheard him and his mother in the kitchen, where she relayed that I wasn’t living up to her expectations as his wife, especially because he shouldn’t have to work a full-time job and come home and do the laundry. As I sat, I waited to hear him respond, to tell his mother all the ways I contributed that weren’t obvious: giving him the encouragement to finish his bachelor’s degree, never criticizing him for quitting jobs that weren’t a good fit despite the terror I felt, or just being his confidant and rock who had chosen him when my family gave me no alternative. My ears were greeted with deafening silence as he sat in silent agreement, but I heard the crack in my heart from his betrayal.
Stuck, and again still hopeful that maybe returning to New Mexico would help us regain something we desperately needed, we packed up and moved cross country once more. I regained my previous position but with a part time schedule, and he became a stay at home dad for our youngest. It didn’t sustain him the way it did me, and he began looking for part time work since we could split our days. I relished my work, and looked forward to shifting into a full-time role at the beginning of the next school year.
As part of my job, I was required to travel for a training for a week, and I left for Boston in the middle of a hot New England summer. During that trip, I became close with one of my co-workers, developing a crush that I knew I wouldn’t act on, but that breathed new life in me. My marriage was stagnant, the intimacy slowly falling by the wayside from the trials, tribulations, and physical separation we had sustained, until it felt like a distant memory. Being friends with Will brought me back in touch with a woman I vaguely remembered myself to be, and I liked her.
My husband became incessantly jealous about Will sharing my same social circle, although I encouraged friendship between them. One night, after they went out with another close friend of mine, my husband came home horribly intoxicated, and I was angry. I asked him to sleep on the couch, and he began to refuse with aggression, and kept asking to hold our now one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I locked myself in the bathroom with her as he pounded the door while I sat bellowing in fear. My older son, now 10, attempted to intervene, and was shoved to the ground, expletives shouted in his direction. The kids were all screaming, and I kept debating if I should call the police because the fear that he might hurt me was palpable. It finally ended with him passing out in our bed, where I crawled into bed and slept on the edge, my daughter’s soft body entwined with my own as a protective shell around her.
That night almost ended our marriage. I consulted friends and debated what to do. In the end, though, the thought of parenting alone and giving up on someone in whom I had invested so much was too overwhelming without enough support, and I reluctantly, still with hope, stayed.
Over the next few years, we gradually slid into a deeper pit of miscommunication and avoidance. We moved into a larger space, and he would spend his evenings talking to friends on the telephone, while I sat in our room alone and lonely, hoping he might take interest. When we did engage sexually, it premature and brief, and I finally summoned the courage to ask him to see a physician. He balked, naming an endless array of excuses as to why he couldn’t maintain an erection. Eventually, I became so bored and averse to his touch that our intimacy seemed to stroke and die altogether. I began to fantasize about women, and other men, and the former sense of life I once relished when our sex was syncopated and exciting. I felt sexually dead inside. At the same time, I was struggling with my weight, having endured so much stress that my pregnancy pounds from my daughter wouldn’t budge. I felt shame about my body and who I had become, when I once knew clearly exactly who I wanted to be.
My work at the middle school program ended when the company decided to leave the state, and I returned to school, deciding to pursue a long-standing dream to become a lactation consultant, and immersed myself in science and math. WIC hired me as a peer counselor, and I began rounding on patients in the hospital. My confidence began to grow, and then I made a life changing decision to take a writing class, something I had loved but put to the wayside when my children emerged. At the same time, my husband lost another job, and we were back in the same situation of temporary work and solutions. A year later, he finally found stability again, but the stress felt like a constant cloud of grief. Everything felt like too much and not enough at once.
I grew up in a household where women made endless sacrifices to maintain relationships, because it’s what you would ‘do’. My grandmother suffered through adultery, alcoholism, and depression. My mother divorced my alcoholic, cheating father and remarried someone safe, whom she became platonic roommates with over time. And here I was, in my second marriage, headed down the same path, because I was engulfed with so many fears about what would happen if I were alone, that it overshadowed the possibilities of who I could, and wanted, to be.
The fighting and arguing between us became more heated and intense. But what crushed my heart was watching my husband systematically break down his relationship with my son as he grew into his teenage years, flexing his muscles of defiance. I would watch him lean in physically, yelling in his face, inches away from a situation that could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. I watched my son stare back at him, unafraid and uncompromising, because he was a child crying out for a role model who could show him a better way. At the end of day, my husband couldn’t bring himself to be that man.
We tried couples counseling, but during our first session, the counselor asked what relaxed me, and then played Beethoven’s Fifth, the three of us sitting in awkward silence as the music unleashed its fury upon our ears. Another attempt with a different therapist yielded what I had grown to expect in our family therapy sessions: he would dominate the conversation and it would be hard for me to get a word in edgewise. And I could feel the disconnect immediately when she asked us on a scale of 1 to 10 how committed we were to stay together. He was a solid 8. I was a low hanging 4.
When I began graduate school, the scale tipped. I was originally planning to go to an overseas semester in Italy, until my husband told me he didn’t want me to go because he didn’t think he could manage on his own. I had spent so many years cheerleading his hopes and dreams that I felt devastated. Still, I agreed to postpone, and during my first residency in Kentucky last fall, I was super excited to share something from my day when he called me, except after I spoke to the kids, he abruptly told me he didn’t want to talk and would call me the next day. I sat in my hotel room and wept so much I soaked my pillow. The next day, in his usual method, he called and left a message, apologizing that he wasn’t in a good space to talk. But something had permanently broken, and I knew with a sinking feeling we were heading to the end.
It was always his way to react and then try to pick up the shattered pieces of someone’s heart after. His way of saying sorry would be to come to me and ask for a hug. I couldn’t give them anymore. Everything climaxed on Christmas Eve, when we had not spoken for several days after a blowout argument about his treatment of my son. We stood in our bedroom screaming as our children sat outside the door, crying and frightened. He told me he was done, and that after the holidays we needed to separate. I was shell shocked but not surprised. We were always on the path to exactly this place.
We lived together for three more months, but apart. At first it seemed we could end things amicably, until he was spotted on a date with my daughter’s school therapist, whom she had seen professionally. When confronted, he blew up and so did any tacit trust between us. After we finally moved out into our individual spaces, I once again, as I did with Carlos, had a lightening sensation where I felt in my chest I could finally breathe without fear of suffocation. For the first time in a decade, I could sit in my home and didn’t have to worry about walking on eggshells, or if something I, or our children, said would trigger the yelling and aggression we had become accustomed to receiving.
Now two divorces down, I don’t feel any smarter about love, but I have learned an enormous amount about expectation. A close friend who watched our mutual destruction told me recently that I merely outgrew what he could offer to give. I have ambition, desires, passion and drive, and he was not the partner to meet me in those efforts.
But the most challenging part has been facing, with a good therapist, the acts of abuse that I never recognized as such. The tiny, invisible ways that I was treated like so much less than I deserved. All the moments where my heart was taken for granted, smashed and splintered over and over until it became so disfigured that I didn’t recognize myself anymore. The side comments, the gaslighting, all the instances where I was told that what I was feeling was an overreaction, or not an appropriate response. Or where another’s anger was unleashed on me and I was left to stand and brave the gales of his fury, and accept peace offerings that came without the changes to the repetitious behavior that prompted them in the first place. For me, it is a slow rebuild, tearing down all the worn and weathered sections of my soul, so that I can weave new, stronger, intrepid pieces that will protect me from taking anything less than what I deserve. It is a gradual awakening that I am worthy of so much more than just the optimism of my heart.
keeps setting my body ablaze
the fatter it grows
i just want more of everything
that’s yours to give
your mouth, your tongue, your lips
scraping and exploring
your hands skimming,
grazing the contour of
this butter-soft skin
your arms entwined
across my back as i
fold into the space of your
chest like a child who belongs there
every inch of you
permeating the emptiness
of my body i
can’t fill on my own
it may not
i want it all
even the parts you
didn’t know existed
the moon has that much power
you have that much pull
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...