Category Archives: Memoir

Now You See Me

You are the faintest image on a backdrop of a million people. The man in the corner of the train car with headphones and a green hoodie (I used to wear your green hoodie so often just to breathe your cologne that you hid it from me); the man at the stoplight with spiky hair (you spent more time in the mirror perfecting yours than I ever did mine); the man on the bench in the station playing guitar (you loved that guitar more than you ever loved me). You are everywhere in every piece of everything. And some days I ignore it. But some days I don’t.

You are an ever present tape that plays on repeat inside my head, and I think you always will be. And I’m sad. And I’m sorry. About a lot of things. But not sorry about what you did to me, because that was all you. Rather than sorry, I find that I’m actually angry–and I’m strangely okay with that. I’m angry that you still have this power to put me in a funk, no matter how far or how long apart we are. I’m angry that I let you. I’m angry that I allow you to control me, still, after all this time, from wherever you sleep tonight when I don’t, from whoever you’re with now. I’m angry that you can’t take it back; I’m angry that you don’t want to. I’m angry that I still think about you sometimes, that I can’t forget you. I’m angry. With you.

Marriage doesn’t equal ownership, and all rights of any kind were dissolved when you forgot our vows to begin with. You had no right of any kind. I never said this to you, but I should have had to–silence is not consent. You had to know this. Your payment? It’s small, too small. Don’t tell me that you’re sorry, do not ever tell me that you’re sorry. Don’t say that you love me. You couldn’t possibly.

Yes, maybe you stripped me of something, but you also gave me something. I am strong, powerful. Connected. Brave. And this, this is what you are up against when you fight inside my head. And it’s time for you to lose.

So get out.

Get out of my head. Get out of the backdrop of my life. Stop talking to me. Stop saying that you love me. Take a second and actually see me. See what you’ve done. And then walk away.

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The Dog

We were a couple built on routine. We would go out to dinner and a movie, but always so punctual that we had a gap between the two. So we’d go to the mall. We’d go to Starbucks. That day, we went to Petland. I’d worked there, once upon a time (before I knew how awful they were about where they got dogs), so I knew that we could always go in and play with puppies. We met one, a husky. He was maybe 12 weeks old or so, a traditional black and white. I offered it a red plastic squeaky toy and it was like YES and exploded with puppy joy from corner to corner of the meeting room.

The ex got down on the floor and the puppy climbed on top of him, mouth open and grabbing anything it could. The ex laughed. I could see he loved the puppy. “We could get him?” I offered. I liked dogs.

“We can’t afford a puppy,” he replied.

The dog peed on the floor in response. I mean, it was true, in retrospect. We had barely been married a year. We were living largely off my salary. He was trying to start an audio business. But I wanted that dog, so much. I wanted someone to pay attention to me, to actual me.

I didn’t know then all that would come in the years after, how we would fight, almost break up, not break up, have sex in front of the living room tv with HGTV on so I could watch as he moved up on top of me, get pregnant. Get NOT pregnant 37 weeks later.

I was afraid to call him and tell him the baby was dead. I thought back through everything the past 37 weeks–the times I forgot my prenatal vitamins, the times I worked maybe a little too long, the times I ate the wrong thing or laid the wrong way in bed. The times we fought. I remembered cleaning out my car, remembered setting up the crib, remembered carrying all of the baby shower gifts up our flight of stairs to the condo by myself. Remembered falling at work. Remembered failing my glucose test. Twice. Everything flooded me, every single decision, good and bad. It had to have been on me, somehow, the terrible thing that happened. It was my body that hadn’t done its job. I know differently, now. I know so little about what happened, but I know I couldn’t have done anything.

Tell me, I wanted to say. Tell me that I am a failure. That I’m not a good Christian, that I’m a terrible wife, that my baggage and my damaged bruised body did this. Tell me that you’re leaving, tell me that you’re not, tell me that we’ll try again, that you’ll be gentler. Tell me that you forgive me. No, don’t tell me. Tell me that it’s my fault. No, don’t tell me. I already know. I know all of these things.

I was in labor, maybe hour nine or ten? It’s Me or the Dog was on tv. It was my favorite back then. I wanted to be a dog trainer even before I knew I did. And I watched the tiny hospital tv, and he watched, and he said “we should have gotten a dog. Even you could take care of a dog.”

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Today You’re You, and That’s Enough

Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day, and here’s why, because today, today at least you’re you, and that’s enough.

I don’t remember a time I didn’t construct my identity around something (or someone) else. When I was in high school, I decided food was an optional life choice. I met this teacher, Mrs. L, somehow. We shouldn’t have ever crossed paths; she taught in the special ed wing, and I was on the honors accelerated path. But we met, and I reminded her of her daughter, Amelia.

Fuck, Amelia was pretty. I went with Mrs. L to her house one time during lunch. She’d forgotten a book, a paper, a something that’s inconsequential now. But I stood in her hallway and I looked at her beautiful daughter in photographs, so skinny, her collarbone clearly visible. My collarbone was not THAT visible. She reminded me of that character in Girl, Interrupted, the one who hid the chickens under her bed and screamed that 88 pounds was the perfect weight. I remember thinking, “well, this is what pretty is. I want to be this.” I didn’t realize I’d said it out loud.

Mrs. L cried and told me she didn’t want me to be Amelia. Ever. And after that, she dedicated a lot of time to making sure I wasn’t. She was instrumental in getting me into residential treatment. She even visited me there.

The difference between Amelia and I was that I wanted the help. I don’t think Amelia ever did.

I met my ex when I was 19. He was the first man to ever tell me I was pretty, pretty as I was, without my collarbone bluntly protruding from my skin. I believed him, because I needed to. When the girls around me in high school dated, I sat on the sidelines, watched, never joined in. (Except one notable exception, a blind date doubling with another friend, a dude who owned a parrot that attacked my head). I watched these girls get boyfriends, many of them, dress up, wear makeup, and I didn’t go along. I wanted a guy to notice me. As everyone paired off I thought back to my ideal of pretty, that stick-thin girl, and I just wanted to be noticed not as a little girl grown men on a power trip could literally fuck with, but as a me who had every right to take her own power back and be normal and try dating and maybe make something of herself. I never did, until my ex.

He took me to the baseball diamond, in his car, and he stuck his hand down my pants, on date two. And I knew then–no one else was going to want me; I was too damaged; I was too much of a bruised peach. He was it. He was all I’d ever find.

I was 19 and I gave up trying to find anyone else. I married him. And he told me that I needed him, that I would be nothing without him. I believed him.

I stood in my bathroom at maybe 22, a curling iron in one hand and a makeup wand in the other. He leaned against the doorframe, watching me get ready.

“I kind of want to wear my hair straight today.” I put the curling iron down and went to unplug it.

His hand closed on mine, and not in a friendly loving way. “I like it curly. I like you pretty.” It wasn’t a request. And so I curled my hair while he supervised, so I slapped makeup on my face, so I went to church and I stood behind him and I smiled and I nodded and I played at being his pretty little toy because there was nothing else.

Only there was. I just didn’t see it. It was too hard.

Maybe a year or so after we divorced, I was standing in my new bathroom with my curling iron and a makeup wand and I looked in the mirror and I had the funniest thought–“I don’t think I like curling my hair.” Did I have to curl my hair? Who made it a law? He made it a law, and I followed along. For years, I let myself follow him because it was too hard to figure out who I was on my own. Who I was was complicated. I’d never known her because then I’d have had to admit how I felt towards her. How I hated her.

I’ve been divorced and on my own seven years this September. And I still get things wrong a lot. I’m not always sure how to do the friend thing, how to invite people over, how to present myself, how to interact. I don’t know a lot about going out; I struggle to discuss anything that doesn’t involve a dog. I’ve wasted so much time trying to force my square peg into round holes instead of fitting myself where I go naturally. I’ve tried to be normal, but there is no normal. So I’m out there now. And I screw it up regularly. I try too hard to do the “right” thing, but I’m working on it. I am trying. I am me. And that’s enough.

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The Bite

I can still feel the dog’s teeth hooked into my calf, can still hear the sound of huffed breathing through his snout intermingled with the weirdest most inhuman growling I’d ever been privy too, can still smell blood. It doesn’t smell like you’d think. When I close my eyes, I remember what it felt like, that moment when I realized that he wasn’t letting go, when I realized that this job I had only just realized was so truly important to me could actually kill me.

I remember the sound his head made when I hit it with the fridge door, the clunk of skull against metal as he reset and grabbed my boot. I remember the blood that trickled down, that still stains my right boot two months later, remember the rip up the jeans leg of the pants I had just purchased two days before.

I remember going back in, after, to see the dog’s tail wagging, but the instant I moved, his eyes regressed back into whatever aggressive mode had overtaken him. He’d forgotten me. I slammed the door on him; I tried to forget him.

I can’t.

He has left me afraid.

I remember thinking why me, back then. I think it now. Why did I move across the country, why did I come all this way into this job that I loved only to be scared of it? And I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, for lack of a more creative expression, but people don’t get what it’s like to default to a state of fear. To see a dog running at me with its teeth out and automatically assume it’s going to eat my face. I would have been different, before. I would have turned my back, dropped into a neutral position, taken that possible nip on my fingers when I offered my hand. But everything is different now. I am different now. Now? I freeze. And dogs sense that. They seize on it. I’ve had more bites in the last two months than I have had in nearly four years.

I can clearly label them, the squares that make up the quilt that is my fear, and I use them to hide behind so I don’t have to make myself be better.

I see a knife against my throat in the backseat of a car, feel a seatbelt in my back, smell the scent of garlic, feel the winter cold on my naked lower half as this man I hate presses hard against me; this is every time a man gets too close on the sidewalk, on the train, every time a man even looks at me strangely. I feel less than for being afraid.

I see my dead son, any time I try to get close to someone, because I know that eventually everything ends. Everyone dies, and we go in a fridge, and that is the end of that. I fear relationships, so I treasure the ones I do have.

And I see this dog, this damn stupid dog, at a time in my life when I thought I conquered all the things. When I thought I was not afraid.

I’ve been challenged to publicly demolish my fears, to tell myself that one bad event doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, doesn’t mean I deserved all the events, doesn’t mean I should be afraid. I think I owe this dog a thank you, honestly, that I need to look at what happened as a reminder that I can actually handle a lot of bullshit. Because name a major traumatic event, and I’ve probably survived it. And I can survive more. I can survive divorce and child death and abuse and rape and I can survive being mauled by a dog because I am absolutely more than all of these things.

So the next time a dog runs at me, or a man sits weirdly close to me and leers creepily, or someone I know has a baby, I will make a choice–a choice to not be afraid, a choice to remember that my personal quilt actually makes me better, stronger. I know I won’t always be successful at this. But I will try. And that’s enough.

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The Stain

My students were a rowdy bunch, a consequence of teaching drama–and not a bad one, just one that tried the patience sometimes. Especially when I had to drive them places. The youngest was eating pomegranate seeds that Thursday night that resembled reddish purple unpopped popcorn kernels. It became a fun game to squeeze them between his second finger and his thumb so that the juice would drip out into his mouth, sometimes missing and gracing his chin, his coat, my car seats. Pomegranate juice seemed small in comparison to the rotting pumpkin I’d once kept in my car trunk for over a year, but it bothered me for some reason–which is how I found myself in the garbage the next day, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the backseat of my car with Lysol wipes and hoping the dumb stain would come out, but knowing it was already set.

It’s funny, really, how quickly stains work sometimes. They hit the fabric and it’s sink or swim; either in or out. And if it’s in, god pity that fabric. The fabric didn’t ask to be stained. It didn’t ask for that pomegranate juice to spread slowly and mingle in with the gray threads. And yet there it was, a stain I hadn’t gotten to fast enough because I’d been driving that had now permeated and completely altered the makeup of my backseat. I thought about replacing the fabric, or buying covers for the seats. I never did.

I asked him, once. What I’d done to make him hate me so much. He told me I was a stain, that I had brought my blackness in and ruined everything. When he bled me there, when he ripped me apart in that backseat, the pomegranate stain was the least of my concerns. There it was, this bigger, darker stain, and I stared at the pomegranate blotch and it stared back at me and I felt the change within me, the volta, as I ripped apart and came together. His stain bled into the fabric that made me me, and I came out different as it permeated and completely altered my being.

There was a bigger stain now, darker, one I had no hope of ever erasing. The game then became living with, managing, the stain. I had to live with the stain, as you do, because there would be no replacing, no covering, no changing. You can’t reverse when it’s your true self that’s stained. But you can grow. Grow, and change, and own the stain and make it a part of you. Find others with the stain, stand together, make a union and be strong until it’s not a stain at all, but just a thing that is carried.

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He Let Me Go

I believe that eyes are the mirrors into a dog’s soul. It sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s true—if I can look into the eyes of a dog and have them look back into mine, it’s a sign of trust and true connection. A sign of respect. When a dog knows that you respect it, that dog in turn respects you. I form relationships with my dogs; it’s what makes me so good at working with them. If I can get inside their heads, I can better help them.

My life hasn’t been easy. In my thirty plus years, the greatest lesson that I’ve clung to is to focus on doing the things I love. I don’t know how much time I have here in this world; no one does. Doing what I love makes it easier to get by, and I love working with dogs. I love the moment when a dog “gets” it, whether that be something basic like  sit, or something harder, like don’t lunge and bark at that passing dog. I’ve been doing this long enough now that I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Last week, I had a terrifying experience. I entered a client’s home and was attacked, unprovoked, by the dog––a dog that had shown no aggression of any type prior to the moment he latched onto me and refused to let go. I know that this happens, that sometimes dogs just snap. I’ve worked with human clients that have been attacked. But I never thought it would be me. I thought I knew what to do to prevent it, but I was powerless.

“What would you do if it was a man who attacked a woman?” a different client asked me when I told her what happened, when I asked her if she thought the dog should be put down.

“Well that’s a loaded question for me,” I laughed, as I do with anything serious, “but I’d kill him. I’d kill him, if that was a choice.”

I’ve been made to feel powerless before, and I never want to feel this way again. Not by a man, and certainly not by a dog. I didn’t expect this. I never thought I’d be the person who said a dog should die, because dogs are different than men. Dogs are inherently good; they just want to please us, and because of that, dogs are what we make them. Men? They choose to be bad.

I am gifted in that I have a brain that holds on to the smallest of details, sights, smells, feels. I can remember absolutely everything and transcribe it on paper like it’s happening right now. This is the best gift any writer could ask for, but it is also a curse. It is the worst curse, because I see things when I close my eyes. I see this dog. I see myself, perched on top of the couch like a cat on a phone wire, my limbs shaking, terrified of what will happen if I fall. I see myself the last time I was that terrified, on a cold night in March so many years ago. I see this dog when I try to sleep, his teeth bared; I hear his snarl, an eerie rumble of absolute rage like nothing I have ever heard. I see all of it clearly.

It was lunchtime. I entered the apartment the same as I always did, and saw the dog lying on the couch—that wasn’t expected. The dog had been in the home for almost a month, and in that month had become gradually more destructive. Gentle destruction—a little pee here, a moved pillow there, a tipped over coatrack there—but the owner had had enough. I recommended reintroducing the dog to the crate, because that’s what I would recommend to anyone in that situation. We talked about how to bring the crate back properly, and the owner had no issues getting the dog inside that first morning. But then I came in to the dog on the couch.

I took in the scene from the door of the apartment. The crate seemed to have all the doors shut, but a closer glance noted that the door in the corner, against the wall and the couch, had been broken away—leaving about four inches of space for this large dog to squeeze out. I squatted down to see what had happened, and when I reached for the crate, the dog was on me from behind and pinned me into the metal, spitting, snarling. He had my bag completely embedded in his teeth, and I turned towards him slowly, gently tried to slip out of the bag without scaring him. But he grabbed onto my calf with his teeth, and he held on.

In that moment, every ounce of training I had went out the window. I had deterrent spray, in the bag on my back, where I couldn’t reach it. I didn’t want to kick the dog, because I loved him, because he had always been good to me in the four weeks I’d known him, because he had never been aggressive before to people OR dogs. But then he grabbed for my butt, for my back, my side. He kept coming, and I did kick him then, not hard, just enough to scramble up the couch and perch on top. He pinned me there, his lips pulled back, and this dog had no eyes—just black holes. The dog I knew wasn’t there, not anymore. Whatever was going on inside his head had erased the part of him that knew me. That’s when dogs become scary, I think. When they no longer comprehend that their human respects them. I am good at what I do because I respect them.

I tried to step down off the couch and he grabbed my boot and sank his teeth into the  thick leather. Unable to extricate myself fully, I grabbed his tennis ball off the couch below me. I bounced it up and down in my hand, hoping it might spark something inside him of the dog I’d known. It didn’t. My heart slammed into my ribs as it dawned on me that I might not leave the apartment, that I might not be powerful enough to stop this dog. Yet I was. Powerful. And I knew enough; I knew what to do. Somehow, I moved the eight feet or so to the fridge while he tried to pull me in the other direction. I got the door open, and I found the sandwich meat, cheese. I started throwing food items in the opposite direction––any item, every item. I found his chicken jerky bag and upended it, scattering the nasty smelling sticks everywhere. Finally, he let go.

In the end, the dog let me go. He didn’t have to let me go, but he did. I think that counts for something.

I have so many questions, so many feelings. What happened to this dog in the past to make him lash out this way? What hurt him so badly that he couldn’t get better, even in a happy home? I’ve tried to analyze this case the way I would have had it happened to someone else, but it’s harder being in it than looking from the outside.

I don’t think this dog deserves to die. I can’t connect him to my past, beyond the level of terror that both inspired, beyond the level of power that both stole from me. So while I’d have no trouble saying kill the man, I could never say kill the dog. I hear the saying often that we get what we deserve, but I did not deserve this, any of this, and this dog does not deserve to die. What we deserve is never black and white; it’s never easy. Yes, it was scary, and yes, it sucked. It took me a week to figure out how to approach the subject at all. But really, maybe, I’m stronger for this, like I am stronger for every experience I’ve had. Maybe this happened to show me that I do indeed know my shit.

The dog bit me, yeah. But sometime, before that, he did love me.

And, he let me go.

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Dear Sara Friend

Dear Sara Friend,

You’re my best friend. I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. But don’t tell your other dogs. It would make them sad. Honestly, we all know I’m the best. But it’s okay to love other dogs too. Just none more than me. I was your first pittie love, after all. Okay, I mean, there was that OTHER pittie. But I am your first REAL pittie friend.

You always know how to make me smile. I think that we’re a great fit, you and I, because we’re the same really. Really fun, super caring. Massively socially awkward with others of our kind. I couldn’t ask for a better walker.

I might not like dogs, but I live to make my humans happy. In fact, nothing makes me happier than to see you all smile. All I want is to sit in your lap and give you hugs and get hugs back. You give the best hugs, after my mom and dad, of course.

I love it when you come way before my walk and spend all your extra hours with me. I love when you teach me new things, even though I sometimes forget them by the next week. (Sorry about that–I try really hard!) I love helping you answer emails and make all your work phone calls. I love when you read me books, especially when you read out loud and I love how you understand that I understand what you’re telling me even when other people just think you’re a dork. I would never call you a dork. I love that you spent hours and hours making me a sweater with big paw holes because I’ve always been a big jerk about having my paws touched. (Sorry again. Kinda.) I love that you taught me about aliens and zombies and everything scary, and I love that you didn’t laugh at me the first time we watched The Walking Dead together and I hid my face in my paws.

You’re my best friend.

You’re my best friend because you see when I am sad, and you always figure out how to make me less sad. If there’s a scary noise outside, you turn on the tv for me–you get that I’d do this for myself if I just had opposable thumbs. When my mom and dad go away, you make sure our slumber parties are epic and fun so that I forget how sad I am that they’re gone. You give me hugs and long walks with my tennis ball. You bring me fun stuffed toys to merrily slaughter. You keep my attention outside when there are other dogs. If I have a problem, you want to fix it.

You are one of the people who helped me to trust people again. When we walked by that greyhound today, I didn’t bark at it because I was looking at you. You helped to build my confidence. You always remind me I am a good dog, even when I forget and bark or go crazy and then feel bad. No matter what, I am a good dog. And you are too, Sara Friend. Well, not a dog. Obviously. But you know.

I never gave up hope that I had a place out there. When I found my real, forever mom and dad, or rather, when they found me, I was the happiest I’d ever been. And then you started coming to walk me, and everything was perfect. You all taught me how to fit. And because I fit, you fit too.

And so, dear Sara Friend, you must finish writing your book. I’ve taught you a lot, just like you’ve taught me a lot, and you should use that. Be brave, and find your own place in the world like you helped me to find mine. I will be here every step of the book writing AND editing process, including when there are cheese snacks. Especially when there are cheese snacks. Because what is writing without your favorite pittie to drool on your leg at every page?

Love, Tubs

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Rationalization

When I was a kid, I was attacked by a dog. Nothing terrible or bad or newsworthy. I mean, he bit me in the ass, so that was a thing. Adult-me would have been horribly embarrassed; child-me just screamed really loud. I was nine, maybe ten? I was a good screamer then. I can’t remember the dog’s name, but I remember it started with an L, and I remember he was a retired police dog, the faithful friend of my childhood friend’s next door neighbor. I did nothing to the dog; I had never even interacted with the dog. I was standing in my friend’s yard, doing whatever it is nine or ten year old kids did in yards–playing ball, picking clovers, catching bugs??–small town shenanigans. The dog crossed my friend’s driveway and plowed into my ass, teeth first. My friend’s dad kicked it, and it went back to its own yard, I think. That part’s foggy. I didn’t bleed that much–a simple jumbo bandaid covered the incident.

I remember the lame pink fannypack I was wearing more than anything else about that day. It had three pockets. The front one held my strawberry Lip Smacker, the middle held 63 cents–which was what it cost back then to get a Hershey bar from the store across the street (milk chocolate only, no dark, no nuts)–and the big back pocket held nothing because I had nothing to hide there. It had a black strap that I had to tighten all the way down because the pack was made for an adult, so a long strip of inch-wide black fabric dangled all the way down my backside past my knees.

The dog was a german shepherd, a beautiful long-haired black and tan boy who had apparently never committed such an atrocity in his existence as to bite the left butt cheek of a nine or ten year old. The man said the dog thought I was a cat; that the long black tail hanging down my butt was too much temptation and he wasn’t going for me, but rather, that damn tail.

I do not recall ever wearing that fannypack to my friends house again. Child-me accepted that the dog didn’t like the fannypack and could be provoked just by the mere presence of a simulated tail. Adult-me is much more educated and realizes that if the dog jumped me, teeth first, unprovoked, it had not only done it before, but probably did it again to someone else after me, and that it wasn’t because I was wearing a fannypack, but rather because of something instinctual that the owner had honed within that dog. It wasn’t the fault of the dog, because the dog never learned to behave any better.

I forgave that dog, and I love dogs more now, twenty plus years later, than I ever have before. I can rationalize it, yet, I cannot rationalize my ex and his behavior. What makes abuse of any kind okay? Is it a behavior that’s honed from birth? Is it instinct? Is it learned? Was it not his fault because he never learned to behave any better? Child-me says it’s my fault. Adult-me knows that’s absolutely not the case. And if it’s not my fault, and it’s not his fault, then where exactly DOES that fault lie?

Give me the choice, and I would take dogs any day. Dogs I can rationalize. Dogs I can understand. People, I never will.

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Sex and Power

My first real kiss happened when I was sixteen years old, in a dark basement coffee house by the flickering light of an ancient Coke machine. He was tall, blonde, a bit sleazy so far as high schoolers go, and he had a bit of a reputation for “getting around,” as people call it.

I did not kiss him because I liked him; no, I kissed him because I wanted to know I was capable of feeling something when I kissed a boy. But I wasn’t. I felt nothing. It wasn’t anything he did, wasn’t the atmosphere of red and white blinking lights; it was me. There was something wrong with me because I did not like that boy.

High school told me lots of conflicting things about sex:

  1. Don’t have sex. You’re too young. You need to wait until you’re married.
  2. Have sex with everyone. You only live once.
  3. Have sex when you’re ready, when YOU want to.

I opted for a cross between one and three. I did not have sex, but it wasn’t because I was too young, or not married. It was because I wasn’t ready, because I just didn’t want to. Sex was never about love for me, you see. It was a power thing, a thing that other people took from me. And once it was mine to give away, I found I wanted to keep it, just for a little while. Just to hold onto some of that power when I still felt so small.

Even once I was married, I had zero interest in giving it up. For our honeymoon, B and I made plans to go to Niagara Falls. We made a pitstop on the drive there at the Knight’s Inn in the next town over—it would take too long to drive to Canada and he wanted the sex asap after “I do.” We took their biggest, fanciest room with a giant jacuzzi tub. We absolutely could not wait to get our clothes off—him for the whole “finally gonna consummate our relationship!” Me, for the fancy tub. Sex won; I said yes because I was supposed to—not out of desire, out of obligation.

I guess that was the start of it, then, my compulsive need to keep B happy. For a beginning, it’s super cloudy when I try to remember it. My first actual, consensual sex, and I remember so little. Nothing of the actual act, not really, but many of the surrounding details:

I remember my dress was white; his mother bought it the week before when we were together at the mall. It had a zipper that ran from my neck past my butt, and she joked it would be easy for him to get me out of; I cringed.

I remember his shirt was blue and his jeans were the fancy not-denim kind. He made me unbutton them and slide them down his legs. He made me take everything off. I did what he said because I thought I was supposed to.

I remember the sheets were scratchy, cheap hotel sheets, no pattern, but my underwear had brightly colored flowers. I hadn’t cared enough about my wedding day, about this moment, to wear “sexy” underwear.

I remember I moved wrong, so he told me to just lay there. I found out two years later that he’d learned via porn. I’d learned via childhood. So in retrospect, our arrangement made sense.

I remember that the jacuzzi was amazing. It was shiny white and big enough for two people. There were two faucets and eight jets, four on each person’s side. An army of different soaps and bath salts and bubbles lined the wall in a coordinating rainbow of pastel colors. I chose the bubble one that smelled like strawberries without asking his permission, and I tipped the bottle over under the running tap. The tub filled quickly; the bubbles covered my naked body. I had to encourage him to get in; he seemed afraid of the water. When I teased him, his cheeks turned rose pink and he slipped into the tub all in a huff. I bent down to the bubbles to discovered they smelled like the hard strawberry candies I used to steal off the counter when I was a kid. I slipped down within their grasp until I was buried up to my mouth. I knew the instant we came out, he would want more sex, and I did not want to come out. He told me that I smelled like a fruity pebble and tried to nuzzle me up and out of the tub. The faucets made me picture Niagara Falls.

It didn’t even occur to me that the things I was feeling weren’t normal. I thought that if I kept doing the things I was supposed to I would eventually feel the things I was supposed to, and I didn’t realize that I didn’t have to love the man if I didn’t want to. I thought he was my only shot, and I wanted to make him happy, so I let him take my power–and I let him keep it. I didn’t understand then where it came from. I didn’t understand then that it was my choice to make.

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Less Than

He was not allowed in my apartment. Yet, the night he proposed, he baked a chicken there. And potatoes. The little ones, red, chopped up and coated in some sort of butter and garlic. His need to do the thing he wanted overrode what I wanted, and I had no way to stop him. I wasn’t even home; I’d been traveling that weekend, leading a youth retreat with his mother to the Thunderdome for some religious concert whose frontliner no longer seems important. His mother let it slip on our way back that he was there, because I mentioned wanting to take a nap after spending the weekend with so many young kids; when I expressed my discontent over his presence in my apartment, she called me ungrateful for the meal he’d provided.

“A better girlfriend would appreciate all of the effort he’s put in. Would say thank you.” Her precise words still resonate. A better girlfriend. I had tried to be that. I had. But nothing I did was enough.

The first time he threatened me has stuck with me in strange technicolor detail that floods me at such random times–when I see a flower, when I hear a song, when someone gives me a card. We were sitting on the couch in the apartment I shared with his sister, a red and yellow plaid deathtrap that I covered with a gray blanket, watching a movie. He pulled the blanket over us to have what he jokingly referred to as “happy movie time;” I said no. It was the first time I said no. It was the first for a lot of things. It somehow escalated from there, yelling and screaming and me wanting to cuss but not because I was still a good woman of God then, or so I thought. I remember the precise moment it occurred to me: You are unhappy here. Go.

So I did.

My keys were in the always empty crystal fruit bowl on the two-seater kitchen table, and I stood up and scooped them up without fanfare. I said nothing to him. He may have asked where I was going; he definitely paused the movie we had started. We hadn’t gotten to the pants-off stage of things, so all I needed was my coat and I was gliding out the door before he even knew what was happening, on an elated high because how had I never realized before that it was as simple as walking away?

I mean. It was never that simple.

He had me by the elbow before I was at the door to the parking lot, said some words about how I couldn’t go, how we would fix it, how I could change. Me. Me change. I didn’t want to change then. I opened the door and he dug in with his fingers as I stepped through, sinking through the coat like a falcon on prey.

“You can change, I promise you can.” He was so certain, so, so certain that it was me that needed to change.

God, his fingers hurt. Asshole.

We were suddenly at the car, a tornado of emotions and rage and something called love that wasn’t actually what it was named for. He threw me to the ground like I was nothing because I was nothing, so I screamed fire because it seemed like the thing to get people to come. He backed off; I got in the car and drove away as he banged the back hood and then threw himself down like a toddler in a fit. It was dark, but I still saw his shadow in the rear view. My elbow stabbed; I cried.

Fast forward a few weeks. I told myself that I loved his sister too much to leave. I didn’t know, then, what that love was. I thought I could go back to the apartment she and I shared and not be involved with him, just with her. We made a rule that he was not allowed inside, but I came home the week before Valentine’s Day and there he was, on the tattered couch, ready and waiting with the blanket and a very clearly planned agenda. I locked myself in my room. He came every night that week with gifts I had no need for–a teddy bear, roses, chocolate–and then the Phantom of the Opera tickets. It was a limited run engagement of the movie starring Emmy Rossum as Christine, and it was playing at one moviehouse in Wisconsin. Like the Phantom himself, he had banked on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to resist the music. He guessed correctly.

There were red rose petals on the seat of his Chevy when I opened the door; the car smelled of sickly sweet flowers layered over the normal blend of Axe and All Spice. He took me to dinner at Outback when we normally only went as expensive as Chili’s, and he told me over an onion blossom and then filet mignon that he was sorry for his part in things but he knew I could change. “You can be better. Then we can be better.”

It’s my fault you’re not better?

I didn’t say anything.

He paid, for everything, when before we had always split. Was he actually changing? Was this how it was supposed to be between us, a quiet storm held back by steak and movie candy? We got in the car to go home after, me quietly humming after Emmy’s haunting vocals and him clutching the wheel at ten and two. His hand slipped down to my thigh.

“So we’re together again, then?”

It was a choice, a simple yes or no in a car going nearly 70 miles per hours down the freeway, and I said yes because it seemed easier. I had to be with someone to be whole, and if not him, then who? I let his hand stay on my thigh. I let it drift. I forgot how my elbow had hurt and resolved that yes, yes I would change, because it was better this way.

I always went back, and that is how he knew he could push the envelope, he could bend the rules that I had set for our relationship. He could make an entire meal in my kitchen where he wasn’t supposed to be, and I wouldn’t like it, but I would say nothing. He knew that I would go home and let myself in and sit at the cheap Target kitchen table that he’d disguised with a fancy fringed red tablecloth topped with silver candlesticks and eat baked chicken and my favorite potatoes off of what I could only presume was his parents china set, because I owned nothing more expensive than a Goodwill plate I’d gotten for a dollar.

I wasn’t surprised when he got down on one knee the instant my too-fancy knife and fork touched down in their after-meal positions. A week and a half prior to my trip, we were sitting in his parents kitchen when he presented me with a ziplock bag filled with rings.

“Do you like any of these?” He opened the bag and unceremoniously dumped the collection onto the table. There were a plethora of choices—a simple gold band, a silver ring made of an ivy pattern, some random sparkly pieces that looked like costume jewelry. The one that stuck out to me was made of leather, a peace sign about  half an inch high that spoke to me and slid onto my finger as if it had been created for me.

“Will you marry me?” he half laughed, half joked.

“I mean, I guess?” I twirled the ring around, admiring the fit. “But you’re joking right?”

“Yeah I’d definitely get you a real ring,” he quipped.

The peace sign ring was his mother’s. To no one’s surprise, he used the size to order an engagement ring and wedding band duo, which he presented me the night he cooked me dinner.

“Am I supposed to make a speech here?” he knelt beside me at my dining table, the real ring box open and extending in my direction. He’d done a good job picking it out, the diamonds were small and just my style. I carefully took the ring from the box and slid it on; I don’t think I ever actually said yes. It seemed like taking the ring was more than enough.

B and I sat together on my ugly plaid couch and snuggled; I clutched the remote and he clutched my vagina. He had preloaded the remake of Amityville Horror into the DVD player before I arrived, and it played and I sat and I thought about my life, and I made a choice to be less than.

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