Tag Archives: marriage

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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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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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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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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The Difficult Miracle of Being Human

She knew she was pregnant before the stick said she was pregnant. It wasn’t fetal movement or anything like that, because no baby moves that early. It was more of a feeling, a sense of being together with someone, finally, in a way she had never been together with the husband.

She did not tell the husband. Not right away. She waited until it was “safe,” until there was “less chance to lose it,” and then she peed on a stick to confirm the beautiful thing she already knew so that she could take that stick and tap it against the doorframe of his office while waiting for him to notice her. He turned around, removed his all-encompassing soundman headphones, and flashed her a quick eye roll that he completely intended her to see. “What is it?” 

The husband did not like to be disturbed, but clearly he hadn’t seen the stick. She waved it a little closer, a little closer. Still nothing. The husband moved to turn his chair around. “I’m pregnant,” she blurted, just to get him to stop, pay attention. It wasn’t how she’d planned to tell him.

“Are we ready for that? A baby?” His words were fast, sharp. To the point. He wanted to get back to work. 

“Who’s ever ready for a baby?” The stick hung limply in her hand, unseen. Wasn’t he supposed to want to see it, to celebrate? At least, that’s what she had thought, hoped would happen. She shoved the stick into her pajama pants pocket, because what else was she supposed to do with it? 

“It won’t fix things. With you. Us.”

It was always her that had to change, never him. But she wouldn’t dare say that out loud. “Don’t call the baby an It; the baby can hear you.” 

The husband didn’t respond.

When the husband turned around to go back to work, she went back into the bathroom and cried. She didn’t need him. She had a baby now. Or she would, in several months.

She did what she thought she was supposed to in the months following. She went to the doctor, let him confirm what the stick had already confirmed. She took vitamins. She read websites: What size was the baby today? What was developing? Growing? Changing? Did they have fingernails yet? Or rather, would she feel them if they did? She thought about what weird things; she pictured the baby clawing her insides as they waited impatiently to come out and meet her. 

She wanted to start registering for baby things. She convinced the husband to let her find out the sex so that she could pick better items. It was a boy! She thought the husband would be more excited to have a boy, but the husband didn’t respond. She took the 3D ultrasound picture, with it’s grainy whites and browns, snapped a picture with her own phone, and sent it to everyone she had ever known. She showed the registries to the husband that night while they watched tv, the show on display was meaningless in comparison to the excitement of picking her child’s future. Bottles, pajamas, toys, diapers, a crib, a stroller, she registered for anything and everything that any site told her a baby would need while the husband sat next to her, supposedly helping but really somewhere else. “Winnie the Pooh,” he scoffed at one point, “isn’t that a little young?” 

She had always loved that cuddly yellow bear, and the husband certainly hadn’t helped her pick things out. “What would you rather ask for?”

The husband didn’t respond.

She worked hard, saving money for when the baby came and she would need to take off. The husband stayed home, or worked at the church, or did whatever sound career thing it was he did with his day. She came home after ten, twelve hour days and made him dinner, cleaned. He told her she didn’t do enough, so she threw a potholder at him and called him an asshole.

The husband didn’t respond. 

She pictured life after the birth of their son, and how she wished and hoped it would change, when she really knew that nothing would change at all. That she would work a 50-plus hour work week and then have to take care of a baby at the end of the day. She said nothing to the husband. It would do no good. She kept plugging along; she kept getting ready. She cleaned the backseat of her car to get ready for the carseat. 

It came time for the baby shower, a mixture of cakes and presents and balloons—cute green and blue-for-boy balloons that she loved but couldn’t bring home in case the cats decided to eat them and then died from choking on string. She asked the husband to help bring home gifts; they lived up a steep flight of stairs and she didn’t want to carry everything. 

The husband didn’t respond. 

So she did it herself. She carried each and every thing up the stairs, and then she took a nap with the cats on the couch while a Lifetime movie played on the tv. A few weeks, just a few weeks, she would meet him. And everything would change then, when her son was born.

And just a short time later, at 37 weeks, when she called the husband to tell him the baby’s heart was no longer beating, well, he didn’t respond then either. 

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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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The Rainbow

The most popular girl in our seventh grade class was Lissa. She wasn’t all that
pretty, at least I didn’t think so. But I wasn’t one to talk. The special thing about her was that she was just incredibly engaging. Everyone wanted to be around
her, to have her sit at their table during lunch. 

Lissa’s birthday party was the talk of the cafeteria on this particular day. I heard that the invitations were selective, not like the normal “everyone in the class gets one” invites that we had grown up with. I heard she was handing them out herself. I also heard that they were on glittery Lisa Frank stationary, with cute, brightly colored animals all over them. God, I wanted that invitation. I viewed it as a ticket to…something. I wasn’t sure what exactly. Fitting in? Knowing that I really had friends? I was always trying to figure out what I was missing and how to make up for it rather than trying to fit where I actually fit as I was. 

I stared at my red segmented lunch tray as Lissa passed the invitations out at our table. She gave one to everyone—everyone that is except for me. I stared at my gloppy middle school cafeteria slop and tried to figure out what I’d done to not be the recipient of the rainbow colored door to the rest of my life. 
I rarely ate lunch in the cafeteria after that day; I hid in the bathrooms or in a teacher’s classroom whenever I could get away with it. Alone. That day with Lissa was the day where I stopped really trying to connect with my friends on a genuine level. Where I let myself drift away from the herd because I realized I’d never be like them; where I stopped being seen. 

The thing about B is that he saw me. I think that’s what drew me to him really. He had this power in the beginning to make me the center of his everything, and his gaze was that rainbow I had been missing. At least I thought that he saw me. His rainbow held all the things I thought I had to be. Girlfriend, wife. Mother. Perfect. Beautiful. 

One of the last times I saw him before he went away, in a crowded aisle in the local Target a month or two after we filed for divorce, I found myself remembering my first kiss. Not with him. It was a boy named Adam, in the local teen coffeehouse in front of the Coke machine. Adam was running down the steps wearing a green puffer jacket that smelled like pot, intent on getting to the sofas where his friends were. I don’t know why I did it, but I reached out and grabbed him by the collar and laid one on him. “Wow,” was all he said. I felt nothing, but Adam told me later he felt everything. 

I realized in Target that I couldn’t remember a single kiss with B in any clarity, while my three second Coke machine relationship has a lasting mark. My first memory on that vein of myself with B is his hand down my pants on the local baseball diamond. There was only me and him, a possession, an ownership. He saw me as a thing. I desperately wanted to see him as that rainbow. 

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Death

Our marriage began with a death.

Sunday night, a lot of years ago. October, maybe? I was on my way back to Wisconsin from Indiana, where I had been helping chaperone a herd of teenagers at a Christian youth event in the Thunderdome, when his mother told me he had a surprise waiting at my apartment. My apartment where he was not allowed to be.

“Did you give him my key?” I couldn’t keep the scorn out of my voice. “I don’t want him in my house.” There was a lot I didn’t say. Were there blankets on the couch. I’m pretty sure I left blankets on the couch. You know he’s going to want to do things, right? That he won’t want to hear no? You know there’s a reason I took his key away? I blinked without continuing out loud.

Her reply seemed strange at the time. “You seem ungrateful. You should be grateful. You will be.”

I arrived home to baked chicken, handmade potatoes, and cheese covered broccoli, one of the only veggies I actually enjoyed eating. He had cooked me all of my favorite things, covered my cheap gray card table in a fancy red table cloth adorned with two silver candle holders with pine green candles. We watched Amityville Horror on the couch, under the blanket of course even though the apartment was easily in the 70s, and then he proposed to me with very little fanfare. I said yes with equally little fanfare. The proposal was nothing like the movies. After he left, I went to feed my betta fish, Bob, and found him belly up in his tank. Dead.

Five years later, I was in my OBs office for my 37 week pregnancy appointment, without him, making small talk with a nervous handed nurse with hints of lemon on her breath about a mission trip I’d been on at seventeen to build houses in Jamaica. Her hands shook because of the things they wouldn’t show me on the backward facing monitors, the test results that told them my son was dead, the results that, once confirmed, I could trace back to near precisely the minute it had happened–me sitting at my desk on my last day of work as a merchandising manager, eating cheese poppers from Pizza Hut and entering theft numbers into the computer while giving zero fucks about accuracy because I knew I would never return.

Our marriage ended with a death. But had it ever been living?

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The Beginning

 

We met when I was nineteen or so. His fingers stretched over the strings of his guitar like no musician I had ever seen; his tongue glanced across his lips as he concentrated on the beat. I didn’t notice him, not at first. A bit of a diva, I was more interested in holding a microphone and singing with the church band than I was in looking for a relationship. He gave the appearance of caring more about his music than the people around him, just like his mother who played piano beside him. I’m not sure he ever looked my way. I only looked his way because his mother was our leader.

Actually, it was his sister who noticed me first. She was desperate for a best friend, and I was just lonely because I never really hung out with people. One night after rehearsal I went over to her house for dinner with her and her family. He was there, of course, with his mother and father and brother. His mother suggested that we rent a movie, and he drove us to the video store on the corner between the Shell gas station and the liquor store. I wandered the aisles as he laughed and horsed around with his siblings. They wanted me to pick something to watch, but my only real knowledge of them was that they were deeply religious. We rented something silly, something from the line of Beethoven movies with the giant St. Bernard.

It was more fun to hang out at his house than mine; I was renting a small room from a coworker at that point with a closet and a computer desk and a murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day. It was so much fun, in fact, that when his sister invited me to move in with them while we saved to get our own apartment together, I said yes. I don’t remember how it happened, whether it was before or after I moved in, but he asked his sister for permission to take me out on a date. It was very important, he told me later, to ask for her permission, because she had claimed me first. I remember thinking that was an odd choice of phrase–“Claimed me”–but it made sense. She and I were friends before he even knew me, and if things didn’t work out between us, she would lose a friend. I remember that she was like me. Different. A little off the beaten path. A little lacking in friends. But at the time when he asked me to dinner just the two of us, she didn’t matter. I said yes. I wanted more than anything to be a part of their idyllic Christian family.

Our after dinner first date activity was going to see “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” He didn’t tell me then, but he had never read the books or seen the previous movies and picked it for our date because he knew I would like it. I, who had never had a real dating relationship or any kind, automatically assumed that meant he loved me. One more dinner and a movie, and I agreed to go steady. At nineteen, I’m not sure I knew what that meant, the level of commitment I was making. I was certain no other boy would ever love me, and I knew that I was supposed to get married, so I made a commitment for the first boy who asked.

No normal boy my age had ever looked at me. The only date I ever went on was during high school, to the junior prom, and it was the worst night I’d ever had in school. When he looked at me at dinner that night, long strands of spaghetti twirling around his fork and a smudge of marinara sauce on his right cheek, it was like I was being seen, really, seen, for the first time. His gaze was flooded with the possibility of a future that as a young child I had never imagined I would have–a boyfriend, marriage, babies, true love. It is hard now to remember the good times, much easier to remember the bad; the bad is what sticks the most, what hurts the most. I think I thought that because he paid attention to me and wanted to spend time with me that he loved me. I must have believed he was the only one who would ever want to be with me; I must have stayed because I was certain there was no other man who would love me.

His sister got engaged and married shortly after, so it was natural for us to get married too. It all seemed so ordinary, a natural progression of events. At J.C. Penney’s, where we had our wedding registry, there were scanner guns for couples to tour the store and capture the barcodes of merchandise for their lists. He wanted expensive things–the best couch, the biggest television, the softest bed. I was more interested in the smaller things–a matching set of dishes, a blender, towels for the bathroom. Big, loud, and perfect, versus small, quiet, and necessary were our personalities in a nutshell. We were nothing alike.

He was not quite six feet tall, the perfect height for my five and a half foot self to rest my head on his shoulder. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his lanky body was capped off with a spiky head of hair two shades lighter than mine in its natural state. He was always a pretty boy; he spent more time in the bathroom each day getting ready than I spent in front of the mirror all week and was always encouraging me to do more for my looks–curl my hair, put on makeup. I did what he wanted because I wanted him to love me back as much as I thought I loved him.

The thing is, I never knew what love was.

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