Tag Archives: abuse

The Chair

I threw the chair first.

I’m not proud of that fact. But it is. A fact.

I remember precisely how the fight started. I was 200 miles away from home doing a store changeover, I didn’t mind the traveling. My hotel room was great. I got a king size bed all to myself, and there was even a jacuzzi. When I got the phone call, I was standing in the battery section fixing a merchandise diagram to the empty gondola with masking tape.

“S wants me to travel with him,” he told me before I could even say hi. No ‘I love you/I miss you/hi.’ Just ‘S wants me to travel with him.’

I fingered a torn package of Energizer AAs. “Where to?”

“On their tour! It sounds exciting, right?”

“That’s one word for it.” It didn’t occur to me as I replied that maybe he needed to leave home for a while just as badly as I did. That maybe he too sometimes pretended he was single.

“We’d be gone for a year. Maybe two. All over the country. I’ve never travelled. I’ve never seen anything.” His words were rushed, almost frantic in their excitement.

“What would I do?”

He was quiet. I knew then he hadn’t thought of me at all. After a minute he said, “You don’t want me to go.” It wasn’t a question.

I hung up on him. I didn’t know what to say without being angry.

I finished the merchandising job I was on a few days later and headed back home. It was a Friday night; where else would he be but his parents house? The family was watching a movie in the basement when I came in, sat on the stairs. No one said anything to me at all. I knew what that meant. If I couldn’t be happy for him, couldn’t celebrate his success, I didn’t matter.

After the movie was over, he walked up the stairs and into the kitchen, gestured for me to follow. And I did, because he was what I had.

“I told S I couldn’t go.” He sat down in one of the dining chairs and looked up with the expectation I’d do the same. But I didn’t. Couldn’t.

“You want to leave me that badly?”

“It isn’t–”

“Stop!” I interrupted with a double slap down on the table. “Just stop! Neither one of us is happy and you know it.”

“You aren’t happy?” He stood up, leaned towards me as he pressed both palms flat against the table in a match to my posture. “How long have you not been happy?”

I just shook my head. “You…You didn’t even think of me.”

He grabbed my arm then, his fingers sinking into the tender flesh, pulled me towards him until we were eye to eye. “I’m not happy either.”

I looked down to the basement. They weren’t coming. The “family.”

“You’re hurting me!” I tried to pull my arm back, but his grip only latched on tighter.

“You hurt me when you wouldn’t let me follow my dream.”

His dream? He had never once told me he wanted to travel with a band, not in the entire time I knew him.

“You stole mine,” I whispered before I realized what I was saying.

I had had dreams. I’d dreamed of owning a house with a white picket fence, of having a little boy and little girl, of owning a golden retriever, of not having to work so hard any longer in a job that I hated. I’d dreamed of being loved, of loving back. I’d dreamed of a happy marriage, a storybook marriage. I had had dreams. But I settled. I settled on him, and I gave those dreams away.

When he gave up his grip on my arm and slapped me, I stomped on his foot, in tears. And then I threw the chair, hard, right at his chest, and I wished that he would die.

I threw the chair first. Not him. And this memory, this time, is the one I always forget–because it was my fault. Because I went first. And because, I believe, it led me to believe I deserved everything that followed.

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The Next Woman

Dear A,

You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I’ve looked you up online, of course. Who wouldn’t in my position? I wondered what it was about you. Were you prettier? Smarter? Better in some way I couldn’t see? Or was it that you were available? I’m not. Not anymore.

I wonder if you’ve looked me up too. I would, in your position. I’d want to know the crazy I came after if I was you. But note, I’m not crazy. He just likes to think I am.

You’re not either.

I watched an episode of a tv show last week where a woman had to deal with the fact that her rapist raped another woman after she didn’t report him. Silence is more comfortable, sure, but it comes with its own set of ramifications and that is one. You don’t know who will come after you. You don’t know who else will get hurt.

I didn’t think about the possibility of you at all. Not until I saw you that day in Subway so many years ago, holding his hand, waiting in line to get a sandwich like it was any other day. I realized then what I had done. I’d spent my entire life thinking about others before myself, but I never thought about you. And I’m sorry.

I considered emailing you. It would have been easy, what with your contact info on the website, to send you a message and tell you to drop his hand. To run. Now. I never did. It’s a few years later now and I saw this tv show and watched this character cry for the thing she did that was both her fault and not at all her fault in the same breath. And I wanted to cry for you. But I didn’t, because secretly I’m glad it’s not me. And I’m sorry for that too.

See, I have power now. I didn’t want to give that up. I didn’t then, and I don’t now. I hope you understand. I didn’t set out to hurt you. I honestly just never considered you.

Stay safe. Watch for the ticks. When he pushes his glasses up his nose and turns away for a beat before suddenly turning back. When he sits back in his desk chair and crosses his arms over his chest by spinning around. When he leans against the doorframe/wall/counter just a hair too close to you so that you feel his breath on your neck. When he takes one too many beats to stare out the window. When you ask him a question and he closes his eyes before answering. Watch for these things. Watch for more things, because I’ve begun the process of forgetting and I know there are more.

If he ever brings you flowers, writes you a sappy love note in the most ridiculously cheesy romantic card ever, think twice about why.

And remember that this is him. Always him, and never you.

Never apologize.

And please tell him I’m still writing, and I’m coming for him.

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The Quiet Game

I started playing the quiet game when I was really young. I remember this one way I used to play where I would ride my bike up and down the sidewalk in front of my grandma’s apartment building and pretend the bike was a horse. The handlebars were the reins; the seat was the saddle. I’d had my first taste of riding real horses that summer I think, and I was greatly disappointed I couldn’t ride them every single day. So I made it work with what I had.

The point of the quiet game was, obviously, to be quiet. It was a silent purple and pink horse, probably a unicorn based off my knowledge of my obsessions at that age. I was a silent rider.

There were other variations of the quiet game. Sometimes I made up imaginary friends as I lay on my bed with hands on my chest and my eyes closed in the posture of a corpse, characters with awful lives that I would then write stories about. Sometimes I played the organ with headphones in and mouthed the words to songs. Most of the time I just read books.

I taught myself to talk when necessary, and it was hard because I wanted to talk all the time back then. But it wasn’t always right. That was a painful lesson to learn. There were some things not meant to be spoken out loud. I had to swallow them. I had to be quiet.

The quiet game proved useful in adulthood. Our marriage counselor told us to “never let the sun set” on our anger, so every night my then-husband would spend his traditional twenty minutes in the bathroom doing skincare and teeth cleaning before getting into bed and waiting, quietly. He too played the quiet game, only he played it differently. He played with expectations. I played for protection.

“I’m sorry,” I told him automatically, every single night. I knew what he wanted. I knew what would happen if I didn’t say it.

“Good,” he would smile, nodding his approval as we clasped hands resting on the mattress between us. The same routine every night before bed.

I never knew though what I was saying sorry for. I just knew that I was. Sorry. Or rather, that I was supposed to be.

I went to that other place in my head, to that little girl riding the bike-pony, that little girl playing organ and mouthing the words while everyone slept, that little girl who dreamed up fictional characters just to solve someone’s problems, even if those problems were only on the page and not in real life. I became that woman who would do anything to be quiet and I stayed her, because I had so damn much to say and none of it could ever be said.

There was so much I never said to him, so much that wasn’t appropriate to speak out loud, not then. Why was I always the one to say sorry? Why did he never apologize? What exactly was it that I was so sorry for, every night? Why was I automatically less than he was? Why did he claim so hard to follow The Bible in public but yet he never prayed a single time in private the entire duration of our marriage? How could he claim to be ruling me, controlling me, biblically when he never, ever prayed? What kind of person was he?

What kind of person was I for staying quiet, for playing the game, for never saying a word?

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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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On Hand Holding and Being a Proper Adult

He told me once that he wanted to leave me.

I don’t remember the conversation with him itself, but I remember the aftermath, the driving down the highway doing sixty and talking on the phone to the one person I trusted to dole out Christian-ly relationship advice.

“He wants to go on tour with this guy, this singer. Run sound for him and his band. He’d be gone for at least a year, and he’s not sure he would come back.”

And I’m not sure I want him back, I thought, but did not say.

She told me to be strong for him, to be supportive, that things would work themselves out because we had a good marriage. I was afraid; who was I as a Christian wife if I did not have my Christian husband? Would that even make me a Christian at all? Or would it make me a nobody? Didn’t I need him in order to be somebody, in order to be a proper Christian and fulfill all the duties that had been placed upon me? Wasn’t I failing if he left?

She was sort of right; things didn’t suck then, but they were not great either. They were a state of neutral that had taken a lifetime to perfect, an average of the high of the marriage ceremony itself and the day he told me I could only have a dollar a day to eat on, of getting to control the remote control each night with the inference that I was a stupid idiot who would never be a good Christian adult.

I didn’t get it then. How was I supposed to be supportive when he clearly wanted to go, wanted to leave me behind in our dreary small town and live out his own dreams and desires while I wallowed as a retail manager? Why were his wants more important than mine, and why was I supposed to promote them OVER mine? We had barely been married a year at that point, and he was already giving up.

I look back on our debacle of a marriage and I want to remember the good things, because a book that is written of all the bad things will never sell. Because I beat up my readers and I give them nothing back. But I don’t remember many good things. Well, honestly, any. It is easier to remember bad things than good.

It took stepping back from Christianity, leaving organized religion completely behind, for me to realize that my wants and needs are important too. Not necessarily more important than anyone else’s. But equal. I don’t miss him. I don’t miss him telling me what to do, and I don’t miss having to DO those things. But I do miss the sense that I was a “proper” adult, a feeling I blame solely on the base Christianity sewed within me. That I’m not right if I’m not married, if I’m not serving, if I’m not under someone else. “Proper” adults are married and have kids and do not live paycheck to paycheck while they struggle to actually finish the things they have started. Quite honestly, I no longer want to be that kind of “proper,” but I have to CONSTANTLY remind myself that I am good the way I am, because the opposite is just so ingrained within me. And that scares me most of all, the fact that I actually know I can do anything. I can BE anything. I don’t need anyone else to tell me how or to hold my hand. I will hold my own hand, and I’m okay with that—and pity the person who doesn’t understand this.

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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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We All Make Mistakes

I can still remember when Corey and Topanga broke up. I’m guessing many from my generation can. Boy Meets World; TGIF; quality thank goodness it’s Friday television programming. Topanga was crying; her family was moving to Pittsburgh, away from her childhood sweetheart, and what was the point in continuing a relationship when they couldn’t be together?
I had middle school play practice the next morning. Eighth grade, so it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So and so had kissed so and so. So and so had gone to the movie with a bunch of so and sos, all of whom shall remain nameless I remember so vividly though because it was the start of something for me–my friends were talking about real boys, and I was talking about Corey and Topanga breaking up as if they were real people, because, in a way, they were. 
I’ve written stories in my head for as long as I can remember, intending to inscribe them for the masses but never being motivated enough to publicize my fiction. Samantha and Rebeckah were (are; let’s be real, I still write them in my head as I fall asleep) my favorites. Both had terrible lives marked by notable happy endings, followed by more terrible, followed by more happy. Every bad is met with its match in good. And in my stories, they always met a boy, and that boy was what saved them. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that meeting a boy would save me too. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step one: Evaluate all possible choices. 

Step two: Evaluate all possible outcomes. 
*
It was hot in the church on the afternoon of June 2nd, a few years after I graduated high school. I sat in a pew, my annoyance marked with my traditional silent eyeroll that I hid from B with my then-long bangs. Just a few more things, they kept telling us. Just a few more, then we could go. It turned out wedding rehearsals were harder than they looked. It was a bunch of go here, do this thing, do that thing, go there, sit. Move. Wait. 
We were poor, so our after-rehearsal dinner consisted of a bunch of meat thrown on the grill on the backyard deck by B’s dad, who had left the rehearsal early to commence the cooking festivities. So far as we knew, everything was fine. Until the phone call: “So everything is fine.” Nothing is fine that starts with that phrase. “There’s just been a small fire on the deck.”
It was another event in a string of events that shaped a loud and clear broadcast stating it was wrong to marry B. We lost our church, our free catering, our pastor, our wedding counselor, all in the weeks before the wedding. But we kept plunging ahead. Or rather, I kept plunging ahead, because I wanted the happy ending I knew existed. I thought. I knew it was a mistake. I made it anyway. This one mistake set in motion many other events, many other mistakes, much more unhappiness. I kept thinking that I had done the thing I was supposed to–I had gotten married–and that this would be the thing to save me because it was always the boy that would save the girl.
That night, after the dinner, I sat on my bed, my last time without B in my apartment, and I painted my toenails with sparkly silver nail polish while my good friend sat across from me and told me not to do it. Not to go through with it. Not to marry B. But I did it anyway because I thought I was supposed to. Girl meets boy; girl marries boy; girl produces many children and stays home to take care of the family for all eternity. I wanted to do the right thing. 
But I made a mistake; my life was none of these things. When everything disintegrated, despite looking for someone else to save me, I had to be the one to save myself. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step three: Choose what you think is the expected outcome, the one that everyone else wants. 
*
I know this great dog who shall remain nameless, since that’s how the rescue game is played. She came to the rescue with her mother and two sisters from a backyard breeder in New Jersey that saw what was amazing inside the mommy dog and used it to make himself money (it’s no wonder I wanted to adopt the mommy dog then…). This puppy was my first real placement of a dog I loved. I drove her to the house, I dropped her there. I celebrated when she stayed, and I lived for the picture and video updates and the times I got to visit in an era of my life when I wasn’t seeing many rescues doing well. When so many dogs would act out or bite or never leave and sit Saturday after Saturday not finding a home, it was nice to be reminded that good homes did exist, that all dogs have good inside somewhere, and that they all have a place, like we all have a place. But then this dog made one mistake, and she came back to the rescue. Her return was the right thing for everyone, but right or not didn’t make it suck any less for any of us. The mistake was too colossal, too all-encompassing, to come back from, a permanent black mark on an otherwise impeccable record, and a black mark of the biggest sort. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step four: Do that thing that everyone else wants. 

Step five: Watch the results and know that you’re screwed. 
*
I think it was pack instinct that drove this dog to do the thing she did. “I must protect the pack, because the pack protects me/because the pack loves me/because the pack has brought me my happy and I must return the favor.” It’s impossible to know for sure though. But what I do know, both from my own life and the lives of those around me, is that we make the biggest mistakes trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We make the biggest mistakes when we’re genuinely trying to be the best we can be. It doesn’t make us bad; it doesn’t make us unworthy; it just means that we have not found our place yet because we haven’t learned to define ourselves outside of other people’s expectations. 
Doesn’t this make us all just like dogs? We want to please so badly sometimes without a thought to the consequences that we plunge headlong into situations we can’t come back from. If you stick to the norms, follow the expected commands to their given outcomes, and don’t step out of line, everything will be fine. Right?
*
How to make a mistake:
Step six: Do not repeat; learn from the thing you’ve done. 
*
Queue the after-hiatus Boy Meets World Cory-without-Topanga episode that ended with Topanga outside the door in the rain, her hand pressed to the glass and her long brown hair slicked against her skin as she declared she was moving back to live with her aunt and would be together with Corey forever. I wish all decisions ended so happily. I am too old, have wasted too much time, to make the wrong ones. Writing stories, living with and in characters, does nothing when they always have a happy ending, because those endings do not exist through others–and it’s a mistake to believe they do. We write our own stories. We make mistakes we can’t take back. We live. We learn. 

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Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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Happy Valentine’s Day

The first time has stuck with me in strange technicolor detail that enters 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.” 
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 he was there, 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 the car 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. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

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