Chapter 4 Cigarette-Ember Campfire
May, 1993. The following morning.
In the morning, daylight wakes me. Seven o’clock. I slept ten hours. l feel great. What happened last night? A part of me I didn’t recognize didn’t want me to nurture myself. Who was it? I have no idea.
I feel strong. Refreshed. It doesn’t matter if I get my mail from Arnold, or if he brings it to a meeting, because I’m not worried anymore. And I don’t want to wear those little black heels to work anymore, either. I’ve worked as their law librarian five years. What, they’re going to fire me for wearing flats? Who would have thought one battered women’s meeting and a cup of hot chocolate would work so well?
I drive to work feeling so good I feel high. I’m buying a rubber duck at Woolworth’s on my lunch today. Cecilia said hot baths with a rubber duck nurtures our inner child. I’m so lucky she’s my sister. She’s always helping me. I know something about an inner child. I just forgot to nurture her. I need to tell my inner child I won’t abandon her, she’s not bad, she makes mistakes.
I wonder where my little pink affirmations-for-the-inner child book is. Cecilia gave me it four years ago when I was bitter in my marriage to Isaac, starved for connection. I read one affirmation, thought, this is sick, slammed the book shut, buried it on a shelf. Inner fucking child, I thought.
But two years later, it struck me how often I thought of ways to kill myself. And a year after that, Isaac and I split up. When I packed to leave Isaac, I found Cecilia’s pink affirmations book. I read a random affirmation. I thought, God, I need this so bad! I packed the book around with me, read eight entries a day, for months.
I laugh. I could use that book now. I don’t know where it is.
Lunch time comes. I pick up my sack lunch. The secretaries and paralegals have already left, except Marsha, who’s agonizingly shy. “Bye Marsha!” I say with a smile and a wave, like she’s somebody. Nobody talks to her.
She smiles down at her desk, waves, says, “Bye.”
I don’t think she knows what to make of my being friendly. I used to be that shy. I sure would like to know her story. I bet I could help her. She might need a copy of my inner child affirmations book. It helped me a lot.
I bound down eight flights of stairs, exhilarated, open the street door. I feel high, like the best drug I ever had. “Leash me to the planet!” I exclaim. I walk to Woolworth’s, sort through rubber ducks, test their squeaks, choose two.
At five o’clock, I drive home from work, ducks in my purse. I still feel great. Must be all this self-nurture. Taking myself to that battered women’s group. The girls there were so nice to me. And then I was nice to myself, making the hot chocolate, nurturing myself. Taking care of myself matters.
I climb the stairs to my studio. I’m not afraid of Arnold anymore. I’ll get a bite and drive to Arnold’s, get my mail from him. It’s a good plan, because I don’t feel neurotically attached. Then I’ll come home, take a nice bath, add dish soap for bubbles, and add my ducks! Think about the weekend.
I’m not anxious at all. Is this how people normally feel?
Call him first, make sure he’s there.
He picks up the phone on the third ring. I hear is smooth baritone voice say, “Hello.”
I feel the pull. Damn it! I’m not fixed! “Hey, it’s me,” I say.
I’m fine. “Just thought I’d get my mail if you’re home.”
His warm chuckle is electric. “Don’t know where else I’d be.”
That tells me he’s not with someone else. It’d be easier if he were. Why am I so hooked on him? Oh, yeah. No connection with Dad.
Neurotic attachments are strong. But I’ll be all right. Use an aloof voice. “Okay. I’ll be over in ten minutes.”
“Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”
He’s got all night for me. Shoot.
I could go over, watch a movie the way we used to when we decided to be sibling roommates, which worked, oddly, until the night he had phone sex in the next room with someone in Florida. I felt awful, lying in my little bed in Arnold’s living room, trying to hear everything he was saying. God, it was awful. Good thing I remembered the first therapist told me I needed to honor my feelings. My stomach churned a long time time as I lay there listening to him on the phone. Then it struck me—my stomach’s talking! It was telling me my feelings! “Get out!” it was saying. I left in the night. God, it was an awful night. I’ll never do that again, live with an ex I’m in love with. I know better.
No. No movie. I’ll say hello, get my mail, come home, take a bath with my rubber ducks. I feel tired. I need to get this done, forget him, and get on with my life.
My life. The scan of my life shows me on my own, Mom and Dad waiting for me to visit. Not much more. No future. No past that I care about. Except childhood. I need to go see Mom and Dad. It’s been more than two months. They’re over an hour away, now. At least Mom didn’t let Dad uproot them all the way to Seattle, the way he wanted to after the intervention. She told him she wouldn’t go farther north than Santa Maria. Good for you, Mom. Some of the family thought she should leave him. It’ll never happen. She’s in love with him.
A few weeks after the intervention, she came to my house. I heard her light steps on the old wooden porch. I opened the door. I’ll never forget the terrified look in her bright blue eyes, her white hair back-lit by the sun. She was afraid he’d leave her.
I’ll go see them this weekend. Two months is too long.
I drive to Arnold’s. A solid adult feeling fills me up. I’m the Lana Turner character I saw in my vision when Dad’s hands woke me when I was twelve. I’m not in a smokey bar. I don’t drink or smoke any more. Still, I’m calm and mature like Lana Turner, not the impulsive child-like woman I’ve been, getting myself into one emotional scrape after another, for years. I’m quiet, composed. I’ve been hurt a lot. Time to end getting hurt.
I knock on the screen door. I can see through it. Arnold sits lengthwise on the couch in his PJ’s. I can’t believe how in charge of myself I feel. He’s not the lion I needed to tame. The lion’s within me. I met her when I made my hot chocolate. Warm tears come up remembering how I stood up to that inner rage and calmed it. Don’t let tears out in front of Arnold.
“Come on in. It’s open,” he calls warmly.
I’m walking into a lion’s den, don’t deny it. “Hey. How are you?” I say, composed.
“Good! Have a seat. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
Why not? “Sure.” I’m Lana Turner, smooth, self-assured. Is it an act? No. It’s my real self.
We gossip. He’s fun. Feels like an hour’s gone by. It’s great. We’re old friends laughing at opposite ends of the couch. Except we’ve only known each other seven months. He’s irreverent. Honest. It feels good to laugh with him. We might as well at least get along. We see each other at meetings.
“Feels good to have a friend,” he says, looking me in the eye from under his long lashes.
“Yeah,” I say, “one who won’t drop me again!” I grin.
“Wait a minute!” He laughs, a deep doubtful laugh. “As I recall you dropped me!”
“You were having phone sex in the bedroom!”
“Oh, yeah, that.” He smiles at his feet. “Sorry.”
“You should be!” My toes push his foot.
Shouldn’t have done that.
But why not? I’m myself, an adult, not a needy neurotically attached lost little girl empty inside. How could I be? I’m too calm. Other people have casual sex. Why can’t I? I’m not Catholic anymore. Sorry God. I don’t believe everything Catholics believe.
His toe pushes back.
Oh dear. Do I want to do this?
Yes. I’m mature, at last. It’s just sex, between friends. What could go wrong?
The more we look at each other, the more I calmly want him.
“You sure you want to do this?” he asks tenderly.
I don’t need him. I want him. Pure sex. Nothing more.
“We can’t be a couple,” he says.
“That’s for sure!” I say.
I’m invincible, grown up. “We’re adults. We can do this if we want.”
As we get up from the couch, a quiet commentator mentions that this is the same bravado I used to get when I wanted to get drunk. I’m too distracted by his hand taking mine to pay attention to the notice.
I don’t care.
The next morning, in his dim yellow kitchen we sit in facing chairs, knees inches apart, cigarette in his hand, the glowing orange ember our campfire. We warm our hands on coffee mugs, speechless. The campfire glows bright as he takes a puff. What was I thinking? I’d have fun, waltz away with a feeling of accomplishment for being an adult?
The connection in the night, so magical and pure, is gone. There’s nothing between us and that fact is so painful it’s hard to breathe, hard to make sense of anything. I was myself last night, it seemed. Now I’m gone, and I can hardly bear the pain. I think about Dixie’s group. I’m not going back there. I’d be too embarrassed to say I went back to Arnold.
For five days, when I think about how I slept with Arnold, I shake my head in painful disbelief. That much pain doesn’t make sense. I hardly know him.
Ironing my work blouse one day, a realization chills my soul. The only way to ensure I never again feel the pain I felt, when I watched his cigarette ember glow in the kitchen, is to kill myself.
No, I’m not going to kill myself over someone I barely know. I better not even think about that.
Do other people feel this way when they slip with an ex?
I can’t trust myself to stay away. What if I do kill myself the next time I go back to him? Could this insanity be connected to Dad molesting me? It doesn’t feel like it. And making hot chocolate didn’t feel like nurture. What else could it be? I could be a sex addict. I need to talk to Cecilia. Arnold’s not the first guy I’ve been with since I left Isaac. He’d better be the last until I get my head screwed on straight.
At work, I shelve books in the law library. An odd feeling that I don’t exist comes over me. I haven’t felt this for years. I hope no one comes in. I don’t think I can act normal. Don’t say anything to Cecilia about it. I worry her enough. Tap the reading shelf. It’s real. Count. That’ll help. Feel the heft of the books.
Thankfully, twenty minutes later, the spell has passed. No one saw me. I’d hate for the attorneys to notice me tapping and counting. They already think I’m strange—who goes around announcing to each one of them and the rest of the staff I’m in a sobriety fellowship now, the way I did a few years ago? Thankfully they only smiled politely and congratulated me. What was I thinking? I don’t think sometimes.
I meet Cecilia for lunch at our little garden area. A cold wind picks up, helps me feel alive, though I wish I were dressed for the cold. “It’s freezing,” I say. “I won’t take long. Don’t worry, it’s not about Arnold.” I turn the collar of my light jacket up.
She smiles. “Good.”
“You took me to a meeting a couple of years ago where people talked about incest.”
“Yes. A survivor’s group,” she says brightly.
How is she so relaxed about it? “I couldn’t believe people said out loud what others did to them.”
“Right. If memory serves me, you didn’t think what Dad did was bad enough to talk about.”
“Something like that.”
It’s hard to talk about what he did, even to her, and she’s my sister.
“Is this what’s coming up for you?” She asks like it’s easy to talk about.
I nod. “Maybe.”
“It’s a big one, Dad’s hands grazing our breasts, for years and years, like it’s nothing. Believe me, Marie, it’s not nothing. I’ll tell you something, you can do with it what you like. This kind of invasion, by a father, who’s supposed to be a protector, can cause a person to lose their whole sense of self and not even know it. To become someone else, in a sense.”
“Yeah, but.” I lost myself, but …
“I know. He didn’t rape us.”
“Right. It was awful what he did, but was it? Really? My mind keeps asking.”
“Look at it another way. This is from my therapist. Suppose you come home, find your windows broken, your door’s open, your things are missing.” She leans in close. “You know a burglar’s been there. You didn’t see the burglar. But you know a burglar’s been there.”
I think about the wreckage of my life. I nod. “I know a burglar’s been here … and took away things I need.”
She watches me figure it out.
I can’t speak. I see slow-motion emotional explosions, one after another: cutting my hands and running headlong into a wall as a teenager, obsessing on one guy after another: David, Adam, Joe, Randy, Isaac, the French guy, now Arnold. My life, never finding connection. Blackouts, black eyes. Thrown against a car by a guy I should have known not to approach. Where was my sense of self? Surrounded by three guys after skinny-dipping alone at midnight. A miracle saved me. Carving my first husband’s name in my stomach with a razor. Where was my sense of self?
“How’s Arnold?” she asks.
Tears well up. I shake my head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I slept with him again. It felt magical at night. In the morning, I wanted to die. I need the incest survivors’ group again. And another therapy session.”
“You didn’t go back to the therapist?”
“Not yet. I wanted to figure it out on my own.”
We exchange smiles. She knows I don’t like to ask for help.
“In the morning, after casual sex, I was shattered feeling disconnected.”
She nods. “I’ll call you, give you an address for an incest survivors’ meeting.”
On the way back to work, the cold wind on my face exhilarates me while my guts churn away. I’ll check out the incest survivors’ group. It feels like I’ll be jumping off a cliff, telling strangers what I never wanted to talk about at all. Why can’t I think my way out of this problem by myself?
Chapter 3 Baby Steps
May, 1993. Two weeks later.
At four o’clock in the morning, I hop on my kitchen stool to write on my computer, as usual. Writing’s the only thing that connects me to myself. Well, painting, does it too. But my place is too small to set up oil paints. I love the wee hours, writing on my computer, white print on a green screen. Still in pajamas, cozy green jacket, cold air around me, hot cup of coffee beside me. You can’t buy this.
Arnold hasn’t been at the morning meetings. Someone said he goes to the five o’clock ones now. He still has my mail. I drink some coffee. Look down, to the left, wonder if I should go pick up my mail. Outside the window, on the gently sloping roof, sits the big blue roaster pan. The stuck-on remains of four chicken quarters I baked for my lunches last night soak in it. The roaster pulls me to it for some deep meaning.
When I was a child, a dirty roaster was a monster you never wanted to have in your life. What do you do with a dirty roaster? Soak it. For weeks if necessary. As children, we filled it to the brim. Soaked it until no one knew what lurked beneath the hard white grease layer. No one recalled whose job it was to clean it. I did as I was told, sank my skinny arms into the greasy pond and scrubbed, sloshed water onto the counter and the floor. It never occurred to anyone to soak the roaster in only an inch of water, as I did last night.
I pull my jacket collar up. My childhood—cold, deep, greasy water. I need a lesson, some deeper truth about life that can save me from my current murky dilemma: get my mail; or have Arnold bring it to a meeting. I write some more:
Being little was hard. Not only the dirty roaster. Never knowing when Dad would roar like a lion, or when he’d ever come home from his months’ long trips. Never knowing when Mom would cringe with a half-smile to appease him because he’d belittled her with some cutting complaint, or whether they’d kiss and be happy making everything seem good. What answers lie there in those nervous years?
I feel a certain sweetness. I didn’t know any better as a child. I did my best despite deep, gray, cold, scary water. I didn’t know I needed help. I didn’t know how to skim off the grease, wasn’t strong enough to pour out the water, never thought to make hot sudsy water. Or to soak the roaster in only an inch of water to begin with. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know any better.
I needed help.
I laugh, drink my coffee. That’s my answer, my deep meaning from the roaster: I needed help then and I need help now dealing with Arnold.
Damn. Can dealing with Arnold be that bad?
I see him raging at me with the hammer between us, recall his warm tender voice. I run my hands through my long hair, untangle some strands. I hate asking for help. My eldest sister Sarah said when I was little Mom never had time for me, pushed me away. The big kids got angry when I told them Mom said to ask them for help. No wonder I’d rather die than ask for help.
That was childhood, Marie.
I’ll figure it out.
No. It’s been two weeks. I haven’t figured it out. Fine. I’ll ask someone. The therapist came up with a good insight about neurotic attachments, but I told him I was afraid of going back to Arnold and he didn’t say anything about it. He can’t help. My sister Jean’s as tired of hearing about Arnold as Cecilia is. My sobriety sponsor, Jill? Maybe she can help.
It’s getting light. That’s poetic. I’ll go to my sobriety meeting. Then I’ll come back and call my sponsor. Then I’ll bring the roaster in, climb out the window with a pillow and a blanket, and lie on the roof in the warm sun. It’ll be like sitting on a lawn in the sun to get sane.
After I get back from my meeting, I dial the phone. Everything feels in slow motion, with me far away from here. Why’s my heart pounding so hard? What can go wrong? She won’t care? I’ll look like a fool? I can hardly bear the anxiety of asking for help.
“Hello,” Jill, says.
She’s a good sponsor, never judges me. I’ll be all right. “Hi Jill.” Don’t waste her time. “I have a question.”
“I’m scared of Arnold. He got mad and pushed me so hard I fell on the bed. Maybe I’m sensitive. He rages at me when he drives. With a hammer between us. I’ve seen too many movies. I’m scared I’ll go back to him. He’s got my mail.” There. It’s out.
“Yeah. I remember you told me about the guy on the ranch who beat you up.”
What made her think of that? “I guess. It was just black eyes…and an egg on my forehead.”
“But that was twenty years ago,” I say, watching a breeze rustle leaves in the trees outside my window.
“Everyone likes Arnold,” I say.
“I notice that.”
Why doesn’t she say what she’s thinking? “I don’t want to go back to him. I’m scared I will. He’s got mail at his house for me. My mind’s at work, showing me the good times. He’s really kind and funny. I can feel the pull.”
“There’s a group you should go to,” she says.
“Dixie, the woman who runs it, is wonderful. You need to go. It’s for battered women.”
I stare at clouds beyond the trees and feel far, far away from here. “I’m not battered.”
“It doesn’t matter. You were beat up before. Arnold pushed you.” Jill sounds so far away.
“Big deal,” I say. I know she’s right, because I’m scared I’ll die if I don’t go to this group.
“Do what you want. But I think you should go.”
I’d rather die than ask for help. We’re quiet. My move.
“How do I find it?” I finally ask.
“It’s at the community services office. Seven p.m. Tuesdays. You know, this is a sacred step, Marie. If it were I, I’d take my God with me.”
“Okay,” I say. My eyes warm with tears. She was beaten and molested as a child, believes God never left her alone. I want that connection. But my God’s always mad at me. “How do you pray?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says. Her mood brightens. “I tell my God my problems, and then I have my God say, ‘My precious, precious child, I love you more than words can say. There’s nothing you can do to lose my love.’ Then, my God says something like, ‘Now, I notice you’ve been worrying a lot lately. Don’t worry so much.’ Or something like that.”
Don’t worry so much. I want that so bad. Tears make it hard to talk. I ask her to say the prayer again so I can write it down. The calm I want floods in as I write. Maybe I can learn to trust God too. Not to save me. To love me.
“All right. Thanks. I’ll go,” I say. “Why do you suppose I always have to have a man in my life? Without a man I feel as though I don’t matter.”
“Oh. That’s easy. Somebody lied to you when you were little,” Jill says.
“Did they treat you like you matter?”
“Not really. Dad left to his library when he was upset. Mom was too busy to talk to or notice me. She still is.”
“They lied to you. You did matter. They told you by their actions that you didn’t. We have to find our own worth,” she says. “Getting a man seems like a short-cut.”
“No. The good news is since you’ve been traumatized, your spirit’s been carved out deep, which means more love can flow through you when you clean out all the gunk inside. But you have to go down into the yuk.”
“Why? I’m tired of doing that. It seems never-ending.”
Jill laughs. “It seems like it. It’s not. You’re going to go down into the yuk until you feel rock bottom. Then, on that solid foundation, you build your sense of self no one can ever take away.”
“All right. That makes sense. You’re wise. I’ll do that.”
We say good-bye.
Through the window, the tree tops shimmer in the breeze. I put the roaster on the stove. Get a pillow and blanket, climb out the window and lie down on the roof, watch the cotton clouds change. Feels good lying here. Someone lied to me when I was little. What a relief. There’s a reason I’m messed up. I’m going down through the yuk. Telling Jill already helped a lot.
I probably don’t need that group.
Tuesday evening, I clean out my fridge. I’m not going to the battered women’s group. I can figure it out.
Except, I said I’d go.
When it’s time, I rinse out my rag without emotion.
As I walk to the car, my legs go weak.
Why’re good things so hard to do? I think of Jill’s prayer. I like the part about there’s nothing I can do to lose God’s love. I’ve been saying it every night.
At the community services office, the lobby is a bare-bones tiny space. Nothing like the spacious therapist’s lobby with its expensive decor.
A young woman with fluffy dark hair, black darts of eyeliner and pale lips smiles. “Can I help you?”
I don’t know the name of the group. Are you supposed to say the word battered woman here? Shoot. Say it. “I’m here for the battered women’s group?”
She smiles, nods, hands me a questionnaire.
I’m forty-three, too old to be here. I want to go home.
“Thanks,” I say, and take a seat. A quiet, hidden engine, one that I’m not used to, pushes me forward. I’m used to fun excitement to make myself do things. Stop complaining. Fill out the form.
When I’m done, the young woman takes me into a small windowless room where I take a seat with four other women on folding chairs. One chair’s empty. How come no one talks? The other women are young with lots of makeup and cute clothes. Their hair’s done up. They’ve probably been stalked and strangled. I don’t belong here. Well, the questionnaire said, “Have you ever been hit, pushed,” etc. So. Okay. I qualify. Barely.
Here comes someone. She’s old, cute with long white strands falling from her pinned up hair. She wears lots of makeup, a pink T shirt and baby blue coveralls.
“I’m Dixie. I’m the facilitator,” she says with a southern accent as she takes the last chair in our little huddle.
I want to look just like her.
“How about everybody say your first name,” Dixie says.
“Marie, you’re new, would you like to tell us about yourself?” Dixie asks.
Her tone’s not as gentle as she looks. Can’t she see I’m emotionally fragile? I don’t want to talk if she’s going to bark at me. Well, she didn’t bark. I thought she’d be more sympathetic, though. They’re all looking at me. Wow. I’m mad at Dixie. I feel lost. Humiliated. They can see I don’t belong here. I squeezed in. A wannabe. Shit. I’m not a battered woman. Tears well up. I don’t know what to do. No one can help. If I go back to Arnold and die, it’s meant to be. We all die.
I can leave here.
Calmness settles in. Words come out on their own. “I don’t know why I’m crying. Nothing’s happened,” I say.
“Your questionnaire said you’re scared,” Dixie says, nicer now.
I nod. Here I go. Just because someone’s nice, tears flood out. It always happens. I look down, cover my face. So embarrassed. I breathe all the way out, look Dixie in the eye. “I don’t know why I’m so scared.”
I tell them everything as fast as I can, so the people who really need help can talk. I tell them how a long time ago Randy beat me up once, but we were drunk so it doesn’t count. And how recently Arnold pushed me down on the bed. He raged at me in his truck with a hammer between us. Now he has my mail.
“He pushed you. That’s just the start,” says Rose.
I love her eyeliner, it’s black swords.
“You know it’s true,” she goes on, “because you’ve been beat up. The one who beat you up, did he push you first?”
I think about that. “He did. He cracked my head on the ground, in a little park, come to think of it.” I forgot all about that. How could I forget?
“See? It don’t matter it was a long time ago,” Rose says.
She doesn’t even know me but she talks like she does.
Rose nods. “You’re in denial. You need to look at the truth.”
Dang, she’s good. Rose tells the truth, but I look to Dixie for authority. Dixie raises her eyebrows at me. Shoot. I nod, not mad, confused. They’re right. I had thought there’d be some complicated psychological explanation to help me. But I only have to be honest?
They’re quiet, looking at me. “I have to be honest. That’s all?” I ask.
“This one’s dangerous,” Rose goes on, “and that’s the truth.”
That’s the truth. Hold on to that. I nod.
“I don’t have to worry, mine’s in prison,” says Donna, a smooth-skinned girl with fine shiny brown hair. She looks so young, not more than eighteen.
“But he’s getting out in nine months,” says the small girl with big black hair who called herself Tiny.
“And I’ll be long gone,” says Donna.
“She’s moving home to Texas,” says Rose.
Everyone applauds. Their friendliness lifts a weight off of me. I join in. I worry about Donna being around her dad at home, though. “Is your dad safe?” I ask. “Mine isn’t.” I can’t believe I said that.
“Oh yeah. He’s the best.”
“Oh, good.” I feel ashamed for suggesting her dad might not be safe, and saying that my dad’s not safe. I wish I hadn’t said anything. This is crazy. I’m so used to Dad, I thought I was immune to being embarrassed about him. It makes me sad for him, his own daughter’s embarrassed.
The others take turns reporting positive things they’re doing to nurture themselves. Rose got a manicure and took all the time she wanted to pick the color. How great. Jennifer got a library card and brought home a stack of books. I don’t even know her. I still feel proud of her. Donna did the dishes and cleaned the whole kitchen.
“Doing dishes doesn’t count for self-nurture, even though it’s good to do them,” Dixie says. “Think of something else for this week, Donna.”
“Alright,” Donna says.
We brainstorm what Donna could do.
“I’ll make a cup of tea and read a magazine,” Donna says.
“And I’ll do that inner child handwriting exercise.”
“Explain it to Marie, Donna.”
“Sure. It’s where you write with your dominant hand and ask your inner child how she’s doing. Then, with your non-dominant hand, you write what your inner child has to say. It’s just yourself when you were four or five. You picture where you would be standing or sitting, what you’d be wearing. You go back and forth with the pen, having a conversation. It’s a good way to connect with your true self.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll try it someday.” First, I need to deal with Arnold.
The hour’s up.
“This was a good group. Any questions?” Dixie asks, as chipper as when she came in.
“What should I do?” I ask, confident of their helpful friendship now. Nobody told me what to do about my problem.
“Take care of yourself,” says Dixie. “Most of us have to work at that. By treating ourselves with love and kindness, we grow a stronger sense of self so we’re able to make healthier choices. What’s some small thing you can do tonight to nurture yourself?”
That’s not what I meant. “I mean should I call him and explain anything? Or should I just go get my mail?”
“That’s up to you,” Dixie says.
That’s no help.
“What works for us, Marie, is taking self-nurturing baby steps. What’s something you’d like to do for yourself?” Dixie asks.
Baby steps. Dixie looks like candy, but she’s tough.
“Make hot chocolate?” That’ll be easy. Maybe next week they’ll help me figure it out, if I get this assignment right.
“Is that what you’re willing to do?” Dixie asks.
“Yes,” I say. Everyone applauds. Up come my tears, again. These people are so nice.
We say good-bye.
I get in my car, drive away, swell with pride. I did it. Went to a battered women’s group. I’ll go home and make hot chocolate for myself. I feel like a new person. I guess they did help. The hard part of the night is over. Making hot chocolate will be a breeze. And then I’ll know how to make healthy choices.
I bound up the stairs, into my studio, lock the door, go straight to the dim kitchen, which feels moody as night falls. It’s just right. I have cocoa powder from the frosting I made for Dad’s birthday cake last October, which I had the brilliant idea to bake in my roaster, since I don’t have a cake pan. I had to use two cake mixes. I love that roaster. People looked at the cake concerned. But, because it was still hot when I frosted it, the frosting melted and was the most delicious frosting anyone had ever tasted. I am resourceful. If I can make the most beautiful cake in a roaster, I can figure out how to stay away from Arnold.
I have milk. Sugar. I’m going to nurture myself. Dixie will be proud of me.
I put my sauce pan on the stove.
Something feels wrong.
I look around, scared.
Nothing’s wrong. My mind’s playing a trick.
I get the cocoa powder from the shelf, scoop a tablespoonful into the pan.
Something doesn’t feel right. Nobody’s here but me, but I’ll look under the bed to calm down. Just boxes. There’s only one small room, plus the kitchen area. No closet. It’s not an intruder feeling, anyway. It’s a sick, disgusted feeling that I’m doing something really wrong. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m making hot chocolate, nurturing myself.
I pour white sugar into the pan, stir it into the cocoa powder in slow motion, as I slowly fill up with dread I don’t understand. I’m nurturing myself, but I’m getting warnings, forebodings, as if I’m loading a gun to point at my head.
I think brightly I’m going to get a pink T-shirt like Dixie’s, to cheer myself up. Pin my hair up like the other girls do.
Gloom sets back in. I can hardly move. I’m fighting to walk to the refrigerator for the milk. A big chunk of me feels frozen.
A vicious wave of self-recrimination wells up, pure venom. Hot fucking chocolate? Of all the fucking stupid ideas! What do you think you’re doing?
What? It’s a cold, merciless voice I don’t recognize.
Wow. I can barely move my arm as I reach for the refrigerator handle. This has never happened before. I’m only nurturing myself. This is supposed to be fun. I was excited. Now this?
Hot chocolate doesn’t help anything! Don’t do it! the angry part of me yells.
I’m stunned. Something’s wrong with me. I can’t do this.
Seriously? I can’t make hot chocolate? Can’t nurture myself?
I’m ready to fight, to nurture myself, but a painful emptiness blows in on a sad wind.
You’re nothing! You don’t exist!
It’s excruciating. This can’t be happening.
The over-powering urge to give up making hot chocolate drains me to exhaustion. Why try?
I fight to open the refrigerator. “Leave me alone,” I say, quietly. “I’m not nothing.” It’s a fight to even murmur the words. I fight to lift the milk carton from the shelf.
The gale of anger blows normal thoughts away. It won’t fucking help! You’re stupid to try! Stop!
The milk carton weighs a ton with the frozen feeling in my arms, but I lift it, carry it. “I’m…making …hot …chocolate,” I mutter under my breath.
I pour milk into the pan.
Stop! Don’t do it! It’s insane! comes the rage.
I tuck my head down over the pan. “I’m doing it. I won’t stop,” I growl softly.
I turn the burner on, stare into the blue flames, at the cocoa, sugar and milk. I stir. Nothing can stop me.
Stunned by the wave of rage, I quietly stir the mixture.
The chocolate gets hot. The storm subsides.
So, this is why Dixie said baby steps.
I pour the hot chocolate into a mug, set it on the floor beside my bed. I collapse onto the little oval rug by my bed, drink my hot chocolate, exhausted. I need sleep so bad. I sip. It tastes like ordinary hot chocolate. It’s not. I sip some more.
I set my empty cup aside, get on my knees. “You know my troubles,” I say. “Your turn, God, if you’re there.”
“My precious, precious child, I love you more than words can say. There’s nothing you can do to lose my love. Now, I notice you had a hard time tonight. Crawl in bed and get some sleep. I’m proud of you.”
Everything’s so quiet. I crawl under the covers, lie mute like a baby, watch billowy moonlit clouds outside my bedside window. Warm tears cool my ears, make me smile. I feel safe, solid, held, nurtured. The silence is full of love. This must be God.
Nothing can go wrong now.
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