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?
by Cheryl Armstrong
My friend Don Crain said,
“How can I help you, Cheryl,
what do you want from me?”
(He sits in his chair facing me,
smiling, patient, waiting.)
What I want from you, I said in my mind,
is a prescription.
Rx: A day of San Francisco
wind and mist, a ferry crossing
complete with fog and wool hats
pulled low to cover ears and eyebrows,
beneath which my Zhivago eyes
will see stunning sunsets, silver-white sails
and never, never, orange paint instead of golden.
I take classes and read and
my mind safe between my raised arms,
What I said to Don Crain was,
“I’m not sure what I want from you.”
I sit in a turquoise chair,
sweaty palms clutching the arms and
I return his smile.
In my mind I said,
How can I tell this man
I am searching for my Zhivago eyes?
Out the window I watch
silver dollar eucalyptus leaves
play with slender brown branches.
Their dancing shadows fall on my sunlit feet
and the red carpet. I lean forward
watching them expectantly.
I paint rooms and hang wallpaper
and carve pumpkins,
my mind safe within their
luminous orange skins.
LION TAMER Book One:
How It All Turned Out
Chapter 1 So Far Away Inside
It’s too bad it’s sunny. Therapy day with a new therapist should be dark and moody. I’m forty-three years old—why do I need help? Hopefully a thick fogbank will roll into the Santa Barbara coast later, make it feel like Seattle drizzle in September. I’d go shopping for brown leather round-toe shoes if it did, Oxfords, to tether the six-year-old within me the way, when dark fell at four o’clock in the Pacific Northwest, she was tethered by a crisp white blouse, navy blue uniform and especially brown leather round-toe shoes as she walked in noisy rain toward the yellow lights in the windows at home. I haven’t lived in Seattle since I was eleven, yet I’m always there.
It’s not four o’clock, but dark’s falling in my life.
My current uniform—cute jeans, big T-shirt, light blue flannel shirt, new white high-top sneakers—will have to do. I step out of my rusting white Corolla into sunlight so blinding I can hardly see the steps of a dazzling cream-colored building. Climbing the steps is a struggle.
I shake my head at my unruly hair reflected in the big glass door I push open. I did brush it. Thankfully, the cold, sterile metallic lobby is empty. I can’t bear to be seen. I’d be fine if no one ever looked at me. Unless I’m trying to catch a man.
I hate therapy. Someone looking at me wondering what’s wrong. Why did I tell my sister Cecilia I’d try therapy again? I told her I would because though I’m responsible (forty-three years old, passed the Bar Exam, work as a law librarian) I can’t stay away from Arnold.
I took the day off. I’ll walk on the breakwater after therapy if I don’t shop for brown round-toe shoes. Why don’t they at least make their lobby warm? Don’t they know they have scared clients who already feel bad?
Oh, God, look at the grin. He’s handsome. Young. He said on the phone he was an intern. He may not know much. Why do therapists wear shiny pants? I don’t like shiny pants on men.
No, I’m Isadora Duncan. “Yes.”
“Michael Andersen. Would you like to come with me?”
Not really. “Okay.”
At least he doesn’t have a worried look like my first therapist had seven years ago. Well, that one did finally help me leave Isaac, my second husband, after being together fourteen years. He said I needed to honor my feelings. That’s not working with Arnold. It seems no one can help me now. What am I thinking coming here?
“Come on in. Have a seat.”
The walls are gray. No windows. Good. I like everything gray, like Seattle. I wish we’d never moved. I didn’t have a say. I was eleven. That little lamp should be on. Which chair is he sitting in? I can’t stand it when nice people get close. They always want to touch you. I take the corner chair. Why is it so cold? They should turn the light on, make it cozy, and make it feel like it’s raining outside.
“Are you cold?”
“Habit.” Well, he’s not blind.
Ah, shit. He pulled up a chair in front of me.
“What can I do for you?”
You can back up. “I don’t know. I probably shouldn’t have come. I need to figure things out, that’s all.”
He can’t stop smiling.
“It’s nothing, really.”
“Tell me about nothing.”
He won’t give up. “Okay.” Why not? “So, I’m having trouble … guy trouble … the usual, and…”
“What’s the usual?”
“You know, can’t live with him, can’t live without him.” I should have worn a parka.
“What’s that about?”
I have to spell everything out for him. “Okay. So, he flutters his eyes, I fall in love, we’re happy, he drops me, I want to die, he wants me back, he drops me, I want to die. That’s the usual.” I look away like I have somewhere else to be, press my brow for dramatic effect.
Why would someone hang giant abstract prints of pale pink and turquoise on the walls to the left and right? They’re placed behind his field of vision. I’ll drown in pink and turquoise if I don’t look at him.
“That’s not usual,” he says. He’s not smiling now.
It’s not? I need to think about that. “For some people it is. Look, I don’t really need help with that.”
“You need help with relationships.”
“No, I don’t. I’m never having another relationship.” I look away. My poor brain gets seared again by the pink and turquoise. The prints have no feeling in them, they could swallow me whole. They’re sweet like my mother and her friends who care about everything with sweet pink caring. Everything except the truth.
“You already have relationships.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You and I are in a relationship,” he says.
Men always think they’re the center of my world. “No, we’re not.”
“Actually, we are,” he says.
He’s not grinning now.
“Not an intimate relationship,” he says. “We’re in a therapist-client relationship. It’s still a relationship. People can’t live without relationships.”
“What makes you want to?”
“They don’t work. You only get hurt. It’s easier not to bother.”
“All right. Why are you here?”
“My sister said I should come.”
“I keep going back to Arnold, after we’re done.”
“Arnold’s the guy who drops you.”
“Yeah. I’ve only known him for seven months.” What’s with that amused smile? He’s not very sympathetic. “He’s a good guy, Arnold. Really kind and polite. Short, not especially good-looking, but he has a deep voice that mesmerizes me. We’re both sober.”
“Sober? That’s great. How long have you been sober?”
“Two years. I would have four, but I took a pill for fun after one year, then again after another year. To be sober, I don’t take anything that affects me neck up, unless it’s prescribed. So, only two years for me. Yeah, I’m glad I’m sober. My brother Martin asked me one day outside my old waitress job, when I was still drinking, ‘How are you doing?’ I told him, ‘Fine. I just feel like I’m losing my mind.’ I’ll never forget his sunlit smile as he handed me a book and suggested some meetings.” I nod. “I’d be a wreck if I were still drinking. So, this guy I was with, Arnold, he has three years sober. But.” I don’t know if I should say it.
“But what?” He’s kind now.
Here come tears. Nothing’s wrong. Why do I cry whenever someone’s kind to me? I hate it. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
I frown to cover up trying not to cry. He’s being nice, but I have to not matter. “Not really. I don’t want to matter. Remember man, thou art dust. I like that.” Funny. I’m calm and quiet inside now.
“All right. For now. We can come back to this. You said, he’s got three years sober, but. What were you going to say?”
Tell him. “Sometimes he’s mean.”
“Tell me about that.”
“He gets mad all of a sudden and I don’t even know what I did.”
“You think you cause his anger?”
He leans forward, his arms on his knees. “Does he hit you?”
“No,” I shake my head, “nothing like that. Once he pushed me down on the bed.” That doesn’t count. “He never hit me. No, he yells. Rages at me, especially when he drives. He talks crazy, yelling stuff like … let’s see. Like, You don’t like how things are? Maybe I can fix that – huh? Huh? Would you like me to fix that? Let’s fix that for good! He’ll rage, you know? With a green-handled hammer on the seat. I don’t know why he keeps a hammer on the seat. I’m scared to look at it, like looking at it will give him the idea to use it on me. I can see the green handle out of the corner of my eye. It’s just a hammer, I tell myself. He’s not saying he’s going to kill me. I think, what’s the hammer for? It’s insane, but … I’m scared he’ll kill me. He wouldn’t, of course, but I lock up inside. I want to die. Then, I leave him … then, he’s sweet … I go back, thinking I can tame him.”
“Hm,” he says, looking down. He nods, and looks at me. “I wonder, did you ever lock up inside and want to die before?”
That’s a good question. Did I? Yes, come to think of it. This guy’s good. Wow. I never connected it. “My Dad—”
No, I can’t tell him that. It’s too embarrassing. He won’t understand why it’s such a big deal. I don’t even understand, nothing happened. But I want to die when I remember what Dad did. Tell the therapist something different.
“My dad’s a handful, but now that I think of it, when I was little, these third-grade boys threw rocks at me. I was terrified. I was only in first grade. I froze. Locked up. Then suddenly, Eddie appeared out of nowhere. I was really surprised to see him. He was a nice fifth grader. Most kids were mean to him because he was mixed-race, so he hadn’t been around much. He got between me and the third-grade boys throwing rocks and told me, ‘Don’t you worry. You go on home now. I won’t let them bother you.’ He was so kind.” I choke up. Therapy’s good. “Anyway, this guy with the hammer, who keeps dropping me, scares me like those boys with rocks did. But everybody at our sobriety meetings loves Arnold. Why are you grinning?” I can’t believe he’s grinning at me. “What’s funny?”
“You almost got that one by me.”
He’s good, and tough. It’s good he’s tough. “What one?” I know what one.
He’s not laughing now. “The one you started to tell me about your father.”
“Yeah. Well, that’s a long story. You should turn the lamp on so it doesn’t feel cold in here. Lamps make things cozy. I strung Christmas lights in Isaac’s and my studio apartment one July, so when I hung blankets on the windows I could have it cozy like winter and Christmas in Seattle inside.”
“My second husband. He’s Jewish. My dad said he’d never marry me, but he did. Isaac’s kind. He didn’t complain about Christmas lights in July. It was hard to leave him.”
“How did you and Isaac meet?”
“Well, he was the tall, lean, librarian with a shock of dark hair over one eye who I saw one day at the library in the music room. I had to win him when I saw him burst into laughter with a very old man. I had headphones on so I didn’t hear them laugh, but I saw Isaac’s sweet smile. After being with him for fourteen years I didn’t want to leave him. I had to. I should have left after the first year when he said he didn’t like to talk about life. I didn’t understand. How could anyone not like talking about life? So, I’d bring up questions. One night, walking home from dinner, I said that I thought people must exist for some reason. You know, life must mean something. I asked what he thought. He got angry, and yelled he didn’t like to talk about life.
“Fourteen years of not talking, I felt lonely, wanted to die. And he didn’t want children, which was the deal breaker. Just after our first year, I got pregnant. I was so happy. But he said he’d leave if I had the baby. I didn’t want to be abandoned with a baby. I’d seen how hard it was for my sister Jean, a year younger than I am, being a single mom. So, I had an abortion.” Tears come. “I can’t think about it without crying. I gave up even wanting kids. Helped with other peoples’ children. But the last couple of years, wanting kids came back strong.”
“Why did you stay with Isaac?”
“I kept thinking of how I’d already left my first husband after three years when he wouldn’t quit heroin. I thought, you can’t leave two husbands. It didn’t seem right. I thought I was supposed to live with my choices.”
“So, what happened?”
“One day, fourteen years in, when Isaac couldn’t be at marriage counseling for some reason, the counselor told me I needed to honor my feelings. I said, ‘Some feelings can’t be honored.’ He said, ‘You say that a lot—I can’t.’”
I take a deep breath, let it out, look the new therapist in the eye. There, I’ve told you something big.
“That was it.” I smile with pride. “It took six more months of trying to make the fourteen-year marriage work. The day came when I took a walk, hit the crest of the Garden Street hill, dreamed of living in a small community of celibate women. Suddenly I felt it, knew it—I had given the marriage my all. I was free to go. I never needed a man again. Well, I guess that part wasn’t true. Anyway, I honored my feelings and left.”
“You’re shivering again,” he says. “I’m sorry you’re so cold. I don’t have a blanket or anything for you.”
Maybe I’m shivering from emotions. He didn’t listen. That was a good story. I’m glad he doesn’t have a blanket. He’d find a way to come on to me. Men always do. “It’s dark in here.”
“You can turn the light on.” His tone says I should have known that already.
I short out feeling ashamed being told I should know I can turn the light on. Fuck him. I go away within, where it’s peaceful and quiet, out of his reach.
You know what, Michael Andersen? I do know that already. I don’t need you to tell me I can turn the light on. I don’t need you at all. I will turn the light on. I’m in charge. Watch.
I reach over, turn the light switch, let the cozy glow bathe my face before I turn back to face him, not shivering anymore. He’ll never see me shiver again.
“Where did you go?” he asks.
“Some place quiet.”
“Do you want to tell me about when you locked up with your dad now?”
He looks at me with his dewy brown eyes that can flash and make him handsome. Right now, they’re indifferent enough for me to tell him about my dad. Anyway, he can’t hurt me where I’ve gone. Nobody can.
“Okay. About seven years ago, my parents went to the Holy Land for a few weeks, their dream trip of a lifetime. While they were gone, my two brothers, six of my seven sisters and I had a meeting at their house.” It’s like someone hypnotized me. I’m not afraid now. “One brother and a sister had each been in therapy. They told us their therapists had said when our dad had fondled us it was molestation. I realized for the first time that Dad’s touching … you know, my …” I hate to say the word out loud, “breasts … was molesting. He’d done it since I was twelve. He’s quick when he does it. I’ve never gotten used to it.”
I just disappear down into my own deep Crater Lake whenever he does it. “But I never thought it was molesting.”
I don’t believe my ears. I’m saying out loud what happened.
“Once, when I was twelve, I woke in the night to my dad’s hands pressing on my … breasts. My dad saw me open my eyes and close them.”
I’m so far away. It feels like a quiet drizzling day in the woods of Schmidt’s Park in Seattle, where everything’s dark green except for bright green moss everywhere.
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t move. I just lay there. Waited for him to go away. I saw an older woman near me, in a smokey bar, wearing lipstick and a forties evening dress, the way Lana Turner did in old movies. She told me in a deep voice, ‘You just endure, dear.’ Then I felt and saw a large, shiny steel cylinder grow inside me, around my core. It sealed in my heart.”
“Did you say anything?”
Is he crazy? “No. I was terrified. My Dad roars like a lion if you contradict him. God knows what he would have done if I had told him to go away. I couldn’t bear his hands resting on me. After a long time, maybe two minutes, or three, I rolled away from him. I’ll never forget his warm hands sliding off me as I turned. He never did that again.”
Wow. I actually told him.
“He only grazes our breasts with his hands, my sisters and me, when he hugs us, or sits by us on the couch. My brother’s and sister’s therapists both said it was molesting, and because there were grandchildren, our dad needed to be confronted. I thought, fuck, I’d rather die. I’m scared of him. He’s roared like a lion since we were toddlers. I’m sure that’s why I startle at ordinary sounds.” I chuckle. “My co-workers are always telling me not to be so jumpy. I can’t help it. It’s imprinted in my DNA from growing up with him.
“He’s roared my whole life. He’ll be going along fine, then, suddenly, he’s angry. He still scares me. But the therapists said he could get help. He needs help. I wish I could help him, because I don’t think he wants to be the way he is, and he’s not a bad guy when he’s in a good mood. He’s hysterically funny when he’s joking about his customers, or talking about chocolate cake for dessert.” I’m telling him everything. Why not?
“The therapists said there should be an intervention. I thought, bad idea. I went along since I didn’t have a better idea. We all agreed to confront Dad at a therapist’s office. We weren’t going to tell Dad what the meeting with the therapist was really for.”
I’ve been going on and on. “Is this story too long?”
“Okay. Well, I thought we should tell Dad the truth about the purpose of the meeting. Not telling Dad the truth would be too big of a shock for him. I was out-voted. Others thought he wouldn’t show up if he knew the purpose was to confront him. We made up a story. Told Dad the session was to support our brother, Martin, who was newly sober at the time. I wasn’t sober yet.
“I’m going on too long.”
“Not at all.”
Shoot. I have to tell him. I can hardly bear to think about it let alone say it out loud. “All right. About a week after our secret meeting at their house, Mom and Dad flew in from the Holy Land. My brother Martin and I picked them up at the airport. No one else wanted to welcome them back. I thought Mom and Dad would be in a great mood, coming back from their dream trip, but they were quiet. It felt as though they knew our plan, somehow, though I thought no one could have told them.
“What we didn’t know was Dad’s business associate, who lives with them, might have overheard our meeting and warned Dad, because Dad could have called home from the Holy Land to check on things at the house.”
I don’t know why we can’t let sleeping dogs lie. Andersen won’t understand what happened. He’s staring at me, waiting.
“It wasn’t even anything bad. But I needed to die.”
I look down, go far away beyond the floor between us. “It was January, cold outside. Martin carried the luggage inside, said goodnight and left. I love my parents. I felt bad because this was their big trip of a lifetime and nobody had welcomed them home except Martin and I. Everyone else was mad at Dad. I think we were all unnerved by the plan to confront him. But I didn’t want to run off right after we’d brought them home from the airport.
“Mom and Dad and I stood there by the dining room table. I tried to visit for a bit. Mom and Dad still seemed uneasy. I thought maybe they’d had a fight. I finally said, ‘I’d better get home to Isaac,’ and hugged and kissed my mom. My dad thanked me for picking them up. He gave me a big hug with my mom standing nearby.”
I catch my breath, choke back a sob. Dang. “But then…”
I can’t hold back. Hard quiet sobs come for a whole minute. Take a deep breath. It’s nothing. Just say it. “He wouldn’t let me go.”
I’m far, far away. It’s silent. I don’t talk for a minute, maybe two minutes.
“Come back,” Michael says quietly.
I’m not ready.
“Okay.” I hear myself obediently say. I’m here. But I’m not. He can hear me. No one can touch me. “I pushed,” I say, “like you do, when you’re done hugging. He wouldn’t let me go.” Tears, hot tiny bowling balls roll down. “I told him, nicely, so I wouldn’t make him mad, ‘I need to go.’ He held on tighter. I pushed again.”
Funny, tears are spilling down but I’m not crying. I’m calm. “He still wouldn’t let me go.”
So, this is therapy. All right. It’s not killing me.
“Is that when you needed to die?”
“No. I pushed harder to get away. That only made him hold tighter.”
The old wave of shame that the memory of that moment always brings fills me. A feeling of being disgusting, being worthless. “I understood then he wouldn’t let me go until I gave up. I didn’t want to. I had to. I quit pushing, let him be locked onto me, felt his body against mine.” I take a deep breath. “That was the feeling that made me need to die—subjugation.” I push the tears back towards my hair. I want to die now.
“You know, I love my dad. It couldn’t happen, him forcing my body against his. I needed to die so it would stop.”
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I’m no trouble. I’m back. “I’m fine. It was just a hug. I don’t get what the big deal was. Maybe I’m too sensitive. I don’t know how long he held me. I think five minutes. But maybe only three.”
“Your mom didn’t say anything?”
I shake my head. “Mom probably thought he’d kill her if she stood up to him. I mentioned it a few years later to see if she’d noticed. She remembered. I was glad. She said she’d thought it was strange. She couldn’t say more. What could she have done? I have to go now.”
“We have time. When your boyfriend has the hammer on the car seat and you need to die, do you feel trapped?”
“Yes. It’s the same feeling. Dying’s the only way out. That makes sense now. But why do I keep going back to Arnold?”
“Well, it’s just a thought, there could be an unconscious connection. A neurotic attachment to your boyfriend.”
“A pathological connection.”
The words splash cool water onto the fever in my nerves. The room, the light, the shiny crease of the therapist’s trousers, all suddenly appear crystal clear.
He understands. “Can you say those words again?” I ask.
“A neurotic attachment. A pathological connection involving your dad. Could be why you have a hard time breaking away from Arnold.”
It’s true. It’s neurotic, pathological, connected to Dad, I can tell. I just don’t know exactly how it’s connected. For the first time I feel hope.
“Can you write those words down?”
“Sure. Neurotic attachment, pathological connection,” he says, writing on a new steno pad page.
“What do they mean?”
“Well, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure I could explain it without,” he says, tearing off the note and handing it to me, “looking them up.”
He doesn’t know?
Don’t forget, he’s an intern.
Never mind. I’ll figure it out. “I’ve always had that, starting in third grade, staring across the playground at a sixth grader for three years. Neurotic attachment.” I have to go so I can look it up. “Even Isaac. I fell for his smile when an old man made him laugh in the library music room. That’s a neurotic attachment. And Randy when I was twenty-two. Seeing his face glow that night when he lit a cigarette with a match in the cup of his hands. Adam before him. Adam had a sparkling, steely look in his eyes. Wow. It’s not a relationship, it’s a neurotic attachment I have with my hammer guy.” I take a deep breath and give a big sigh.
“You could see it that way.”
How else would I see it? Michael Andersen’s not as bright as I hoped, but he’s still pretty good. He gave me the words I need.
“How are things with you and your dad now?”
“Oh, not bad, not good. After the intervention, he called us sluts and whores for even thinking he would be inappropriate. He doesn’t try to hug us anymore, since the intervention. Though if you’re not careful, he’ll still get you, if you get close enough. He shakes hands with us. Sometimes, I want to hug him—he’s my dad—but I don’t.” I shrug, harden within. “It’s no big deal.”
“How did the intervention go?”
“Badly. The therapist had asked everyone to write a page about what Dad had done, how it affected us. Jean couldn’t be there. She was in Oregon. Our brothers were hugely supportive, wrote how Dad’s behavior affected them because they care about their sisters. I forget who went first. Dad interrupted. The therapist asked Dad to wait until we had all shared. He was quiet then. Mom sat beside him looking so sad with big watery eyes I was heart-broken. It was awful. Finally, after everyone had read their message, Dad pointed to us, one at a time, angry. He said, ‘You’re a liar! You’re a liar! You’re a liar!’ all the way around the room.
“After that, the therapist broke the silence. Said something like, ‘This was a great start, let’s end with the Serenity Prayer.’ I thought, is she crazy? This isn’t a good plan. She’s not going to talk to Dad? I had forgotten a therapy session with two other therapists who were a couple had been scheduled as a follow-up.
“After the prayer, people seemed relieved and happy. I didn’t know why. I was nervous about what Dad might do. Get one of his rifles he keeps in his office at home and kill us? Kill himself? I watched him edge toward the door and slip out, unnoticed. ‘He’s gone, you guys.’ No one else seemed worried.
“He didn’t kill anyone. That afternoon we called Child Protective Services to report him. God, that was hard. Except when the clerk asked how old are the children, we lost it laughing so hard it was hard to talk after we said most of us are in our thirties and forties. Yeah. That was in January, seven years ago. A few weeks later he told our niece we were all sluts and whores. Easter time, he called people and said there’d been a miracle and that he had good news. I didn’t think he’d apologize, but who knows, I thought. With a miracle, maybe he would. It turned out the good news he had was he had decided to forgive us all.” I smile. Shrug.
Michael Andersen smiles. He understands that part.
“He’s not allowed to see his grandchildren,” I say. “That’s a heavy hit. He’s not invited to most family gatherings. Mom comes without him, sometimes. She’s always sad about it. I’m careful around him. He gets me with his hand now and then when he reaches in front of me to open a door, something like that. He’s quick.
“I never want to confront him again. He felt so betrayed, it killed me to hurt him.
“It’s not rational, but now I feel he’ll kill me if I confront him. Roar for sure. Maybe shoot me with one of his rifles. I don’t know where I got that idea. Bad guys on TV when I was little, probably, roaring like Dad, shooting people who made them mad. Visits are hard. Mom wants us to all get along. She’s pretty sad. She wants apricot-picking day.”
“What’s apricot-picking day?”
“The mythical day we all get along, pick apricots at their house. They’re getting older. Mom’ll be eighty soon. I feel for her.” That’s an understatement.
“All right. Our time’s up. Next week?” he asks, like it’s a fun date.
Why? “I think I got the answer to my problem. I can figure the rest out. I don’t have to go back to my boyfriend again. It’s not a real relationship, just a…neurotic attachment. Yes. And the other word.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Well, you might want to follow up with another session.”
I don’t know about that. “Okay, sure. It’s just ten dollars.”
“Yeah. Can’t hurt,” he says with a wry smile.
He means the work. But it does hurt to be seen. He doesn’t understand my shame.
We stand up. His arms go out to hug me. He’s insane to think I want to hug him. I shake my head no. Everybody likes to hug these days. I don’t like to be touched. Unless it’s sex … with Arnold.
I pay Michael Andersen and leave. I feel lighter walking out of the cream-colored building. He said I matter. What could go wrong if I let myself matter? I’m going to try to matter to myself. I’m so worn-down feeling crazy with Arnold, with my life in general, I need to learn to matter to myself.
For starters, stay away from Arnold.
A quiet fear murmurs something inaudible.
I dismiss it. I can’t pay attention to every little sparkler of nerves.
Definitely never get another neurotic attachment. Only a real relationship for me. I don’t know how to get a real relationship, but I’ll figure it out.
I don’t get how my neurotic attachments, like the one with Arnold, are connected to Dad, though. I’m not neurotic with Dad. I’m in reality. My anxiety makes sense: he’s my dad, who’s not safe.
I get in the car and sit. I watch big clouds slowly move in from the ocean. I long to be covered by clouds, the way clouds covered our house in Seattle, when Dad carried me up to bed with the other little kids, held me safe and warm. In those days, even though he scared me, I had a real connection with Dad.
And when he molested me, it probably got severed. Of course. Now, I have an empty place inside where a safe connection with Dad should be. That’s why I neurotically attach to guys like Arnold, Isaac, Randy, Adam. I’m trying to make a connection. I watch the clouds above and sink deep down inside to feel for the truth: I want connection. The adrenaline of my neurotic attachments is so strong, it feels like connection. It’s not.
I drive toward the harbor. I thought Dad and I had a strong connection, but it’s more of a nervous cat-and-mouse relationship with a childlike longing for him to change. It’s not a real connection.
As I drive, I sense a wave of sadness build inside. My connection with Dad isn’t real, it’s adrenaline. Now I understand. When a guy smiles, I’m hooked by the adrenaline, because I’m driven by my angst for connection. Even when we have sex, there’s only the fantasy of connection.
I’ve never had a real relationship, the kind where you talk, make plans, do things, then, after weeks, or months, after a real connection grows, have sex. No. I never have. Now I know why.
I park at the harbor, get out of the car. Cold wind gusts against me. Crazy. It was warm in town. Hopefully, the ocean waves will crash over the breakwater and help me feel the truth more deeply, that I matter, that I can’t fill my emptiness with adrenaline. I watch huge dark clouds push in from the sea toward the sunny mountains. I feel alive and scared.
I need to get things right. Stop having neurotic attachments. Tears well up. Even if I do, I can probably never have a real relationship with Dad. I zip my jacket all the way up, let the tears flow. I miss having a relationship with him. It never occurred to me I missed having one. That’s what this is all about. He and I can never go deeper than joking about dessert. I’m scared of Dad, repulsed by him. Now I know I miss a connection with him.
If he changed, we could connect. I’ve wanted him to change, so he can see his grandchildren. But he could also have a relationship with me. Him changing isn’t likely.
I pass fishing shops, tall masts of small docked boats in the harbor. It all feels placid here. It doesn’t match the storm brewing within as the realization comes: I can no longer have what it seems I’ll die without—the neurotic attachments that have always seemed to give me connection. They made me feel alive. But feeling alive was only nervous excitement and fear.
I’m going to miss the electricity those guys gave me.
Not the devastation. I have broken emotional bones everywhere from those relationships. Some broken emotional bones healed all crooked. They make me off balance. I’ve stumbled through life the best I can, one blunder following another. No wonder I can’t get anything right. No wonder things are so painful. Now, my emotional bones are getting broken again, but this time I’ll make sure they heal straight.
I look to the ocean. High tide. Foamy water rushes up the brown sand near the Yacht Club. Farther out, waves crash on the giant boulders holding the breakwater’s concrete walk. I moodily walk on out, collar up in the stiff wet wind, hands stuffed in my pockets, in agony thinking of really letting go of Arnold, in awe of how painful it is to see myself, to understand I need to matter to myself. I know the truth. That’s what hurts. Facing the truth. I’ve never had a real relationship.
Who would ever really want me?
I walk with a dismal feeling of being nothing.
A loud crack sound startles me out of my misery. The sound came from a big wave I didn’t see hit the breakwater. It shoots skyward, falls straight down on me. Icy water cascades down my back. I shriek, gasp, catch my breath. I howl with laughter and turn back.
So much for a moody walk. I chuckle. I didn’t see that wave coming. I wasn’t paying attention. That’s a lesson I need to remember. The next time some guy flutters his eyes at me, I’ll pay attention, turn and walk the other way.
I can’t wait to bundle up at home in warm dry clothes, like I matter. I’ve had enough therapy for one day.
On the other side of the wall, smaller waves crash and slosh against the rocks. I dare them as I pass to get me. I feel good. No more neurotic attachments for me. And maybe I can connect with Dad, somehow. What if I can help him? I’m sure he doesn’t want to be the way he is. So, what if a revulsion rises? I can handle that. There must be a way to help him fix things so he’ll be safe to be close to.
Therapy. It helped me in one session. It might help him. I feel light-headed with excitement thinking about that as I hurry toward the car in my wet clothes in the cold wind. I’ve wanted to be a therapist since I was nineteen. I flunked out of college. I never had confidence anyone would hire me as a therapist and for sure I wouldn’t know what clothes to wear. But now, I’m forty-three. I can become a therapist, or a counselor if that doesn’t take as long, so I’ll know how to help Dad. Probably no one else could.
Not that it’s ethical to counsel a family member. But how else will it get done? Dad needs to be ready to change. I’ll help him get ready. I’ll talk to him, ask about his childhood, let him know he matters. It’ll be great, because, if he changes, he’ll see me for who I am. And I’ll see him for who he is. If he lets down his guard, he’ll see himself.
I don’t know. It seems he’s so far away inside himself, he may not know he’s in there. His problem has to be in his childhood. Mine is. I just need to get up the courage to talk to him.
NEXT CHAPTER >>>>>>
LION TAMER Chapter 2
You’ve Got Mail
April, 1993. The next morning.
At 6 a.m., I sit at my sobriety meeting in a large chilly hall with wooden plank floors. The several lights of large windows let in the blue dawn. It’s a large hall, but it feels cozy with the wood and the windows and lamps hanging from the ceiling. About fifteen of us sit in folding chairs around two long folding tables. I like the topic—acceptance. Just thinking about accepting that I’m letting go of my neurotic attachment to Arnold makes me feel alive and happy. He’s not here yet. Sometimes he’s late. Who cares if he shows up or not? I try on the new feeling of freedom from Arnold. I’ll never end up in his truck with the green-handled hammer again. Thank goodness I’m dealing with all this sober.
Here he comes, with his shiny brown hair, looking sharp in a pressed long-sleeve plaid button-down collar shirt, blue jeans with a crease, black shoes. He doesn’t see me. He sits at the other end of the tables, on the opposite side from me. I don’t feel anything, except exhilarated with my new freedom from the neurotic attachment. It’s a miracle.
Through the entire one-hour meeting I’m not even nervous or excited to know Arnold’s in the room. I’m free. At last.
The meeting wraps up with a prayer. I get up to leave. There’s no reason to say hello to him. We’re done. I walk toward the door.
“Marie,” Arnold says behind me, in that deep, warm, genuine voice of his.
Damn. With Adam, it was his eyes. With Arnold, it’s his voice. There goes my feeling of freedom.
“You’ve got mail,” he says warmly.
A jolt of fear hits my head.
I’m fine. It doesn’t mean anything. I turn towards him.
I hate this fear.
But here’s something new—sadness, which flows underneath the fear. Sadness for feeling so helpless. I matter to myself. I can feel it. “You have my mail here with you?” I finally say.
“Well, I don’t have it with me. Did you want to pick it up? Or, I could bring it here.”
My mind goes blank. “Sure. No,” I say. Trembling begins in my arms.
I didn’t make sense. See this trembling, Marie? It means run.
Running would look stupid.
He laughs softly at my blunder.
Which makes me mad, so now I can think better. “I’ll come by when I’m in the neighborhood,” I say, smile, wave, and walk away so rattled it’s a wonder my legs work.
As I go, I watch my new white high-top sneakers. They tether me to myself all the way to the car. I’m so glad I bought these white high-top shoes, before I had to cut up my credit cards. I didn’t know why I obsessed on them, though now I do. They make me feel safe, in a speechless way. Obviously, they’re white baby shoes. They soothe me as an infant with invisible parents who are ready to scoop her up if danger comes.
At home, in my small second-story studio, I’m no calmer. I hurry into the miniature alcove kitchen with its handy sunny roof outside one of the kitchen’s three windows. Whenever I want, I step right out onto the roof and relax there a while, if I’m already relaxed. If I’m not, sitting still makes me anxious. I take a head of romaine from the miniature upright fridge, tear off four large dark-green leaves, rinse and roll them up and eat them like a hotdog. It’s normal to panic when you have a neurotic attachment that you’re afraid of going back to. Someone once said romaine has B vitamins and calms you down. Four leaves usually work. I look around as I chew. I love this little doll house kitchen. It even has a tiny four-burner stove with an oven just big enough to hold my roaster. Child-size. The way I feel.
I chew the greens and gaze at the small colorful striped lamp shade on my pole lamp. I loved the shade when I bought it, but right now I can’t stand its stripes. Quit looking at it.
Chew. I wish I could sit down in a lawn chair with a blanket on my lap today. When I was small, I wished I could have TB so I could go to a sanitarium. I thought it was a place to get sane, which I thought meant to get calm. It looked so inviting in movies to be sitting peacefully on a large sloping lawn with a blanket on your lap. And you would be there for months, maybe a year, or two. I knew what insanity was from old movies I saw on TV when I was seven, eight, nine. “Spellbound,” “Picture of Dorian Gray”, “Lust for Life.” I related to the anxiety in the characters’ faces.
I bite off more of my big roll of romaine. I’d put dressing on it, but it might dilute its calming effect. I sit on my little bed to chew, curl my fingers into Grandma’s maroon wool blanket to soothe myself. The blanket’s been with me since Mom took it, and another one, down from her closet shelf one night when I was drunk and about to head east into winter with Randy in a three-hundred-dollar Ford Galaxie convertible when I was twenty-three. Mom’s eyes danced as she handed me the blankets. “You’ll need these,” she said with unbridled happiness. Anyone could see my plan was bad, even I could. I wondered about her lack of concern—what are you thinking, Mom? Then I understood: she wished she were going. I appreciated that.
I look at the black phone. I don’t want to go back to Arnold.
I’m afraid I will.
I need more than romaine to calm me down.
Arnold has a good side and a lot of friends. I treated him badly this morning. No hello, how are you, from me.
Man, I panicked. “You have my mail here with you?” I asked politely like a volt of terror hadn’t just smashed the inside of my skull.
It is terror. Something’s wrong with me to feel that scared of talking to Arnold.
It isn’t talking to him, it’s fear of going back to him. I finish the romaine.
I sit, stare at the glossy black telephone like it’s a magic wand. I could call Arnold right now, apologize for being stand-offish this morning, and feel … electric.
“You’re insane,” I say aloud, trembling all over again. Even if he won’t kill you, he’ll always drop you, out of the blue. Get a clue.
It would be good to pray.
I don’t want to, now.
Running up and down the stairs a few times will calm me down.
I skip down the two flights of stairs, pretending to imaginary onlookers I need something from my car. You have to be rich to sit under a blanket on a lawn and be cared for by nurses. I’m not rich. I’m paying off my nine-thousand-dollar law-school debt plus a few thousand dollars of twenty-five-dollar little purchases. I didn’t know the credit card balance gets up so high that the interest is more than your extra income. So, no sloping lawn to calm me down. No. It’s running up and down stairs for me.
Outside, I skip down the porch steps into the bright sunlight, go up the street, touch my car, pretend I forgot something upstairs, trot back toward the house.
I have an appointment in a week at an agency where I cut the credit cards up, which stops the interest, and they tell me how much I have to pay each month. So that part of my life is fixed.
I start back up the stairs. No, there’s no sloping lawn on my horizon. Still, there are other good things. I passed the Bar Exam on the first try. That makes me feel good. Though, if men can do it, anyone can do it.
I reach the kitchen, touch the stove and turn around to go back out.
I still have a resentment towards men, don’t I? I need to let it go, if I’m going to stay sober, because resentments really are poison. Just because a lot of men have talked over me, dismissed me, hurt me, doesn’t mean it’s good to keep that resentment towards all of them. Recovery says people who hurt me are sick people. I need to see some men that way. And it’s not for me to judge others.
Down the stairs I go. Stairs make good exercise. I jog over, touch my car, turn around.
That attorney at the rent control gathering a few years ago was the last straw when he started talking over me like I wasn’t even there having a conversation. You know what? I thought, if an idiot like you can become an attorney, anyone can, you arrogant jerk. That’s how I passed the Bar Exam. A resentment. Am I hard on Arnold, because I have a problem with men?
I hurry back up the stairs, into my studio, touch the stove, turn around, go back down. No. I’m wary of Arnold for good reason.
I leap down the porch stairs into the sunshine.
Still, when my poor body needed a break after twenty-five years of labor jobs and I wanted an office job without being some man’s secretary, it was good I got through law school on a resentment.
I tap the car, turn around.
Because now I’m a law librarian where I get vacation and holiday pay and I don’t need permission to use the restroom the way I did at minimum wage jobs with those bosses always hovering over me.
I run up the stairs.
I handled a few cases as an attorney. Hoped my phone wouldn’t ring. That was the biggest clue. Practicing law wasn’t for me. Yep, anyone can pass the Bar. You need average intelligence, hard work and a calm disposition. I am calm with school work.
Not with men.
Back in my room, I pause to catch my breath, stare at the shiny black phone. Will it to ring. If Arnold calls, I can at least apologize for being abrupt this morning. I’m calmer. The stairs are working. I won’t call him, though he doesn’t scare me now.
I go in the kitchen, touch the stove, turn around, go back down.
When the sunlight hits my face, suddenly the memory of Mom and Dad coming to my swearing-in as an attorney, lodges, like a splinter, in my mind. Darn it. I was just feeling good, now my most painful memory ever almost has to walk in without knocking. It was six months ago. Why did it come now?
They were pleasant, with pained faces. They drove seventy miles from Santa Maria! Not my fault Dad moved them there, he was so angry after the intervention. Mom said she was proud of me, but not surprised, she knew I could do it. You’re right, it’s no big deal, Mom, I thought, irritated, knowing that’s not what she meant, and even though I brag it’s not a big deal. I wanted her to say with awe, how did you do it? So, how’s the weather up there, I asked. I didn’t give her a chance. I was angry. Miserable in my cap and gown for needing them there after I had planned not to invite them. Someone had said of course I should invite them. I felt guilty for showing off, putting them to shame, somehow. Why was it so painful? I couldn’t ask them what was wrong. They appeared so uncomfortable. I was trying to be normal, asking them to come, but I couldn’t be normal with them. Were they awkward because they didn’t go to college? Because my siblings and I confronted Dad seven years ago? They needed me to show them how to find a seat in the small court room, and I was embarrassed, because they were like children. I had put them there, by asking them to come. I had to ask them. I love them. It hurts so much remembering that day. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.
I touch my car, my breathing slow but loud now, and turn to go back up, walking slowly.
I think I wanted a nice connection. They weren’t glad to see me. I felt like a fraud.
I didn’t want anyone at the swearing-in, except Arnold. When he didn’t show up, I was frantic, worrying it was over with him, again. As I stood waiting my turn to shake hands with the judge, I was finally a little relieved, because my panic from Arnold not being there, had changed to anger. And I thought: Arnold, you’d better be in the hospital.
I smile, slowly walking back upstairs. Arnold was in the hospital. He had fallen off a ladder that morning and shattered a leg. Poor guy, he was so nice to me, with his leg in a sling after the surgery, sorry to have missed the swearing-in. That’s the real him, who everyone loves. That’s why it’s so hard to know what to do. Go get my mail from him? I said I would, but something tells me it’s not a good idea. I drink some water in the kitchen.
Okay. Run down the stairs one more time. The air’s warming up. I catch my breath at my car. It’s not hard to know what to do. Because it’s not about Arnold! It’s about needing a connection with Dad. It’s so painful to touch Dad’s hand to shake. Why can’t Dad see what he does, and change? His hands are so quick, and his temper’s so quick too, to object when he gets me would make a scene. I couldn’t bear being publicly roared at. He would sever the connection we do have. Barbed as it is, it’s something.
Is that pathetic?
Is it better to stop trying with Dad? To cut ties?
I touch the Corolla, shake my head no. The thought of cutting ties with Dad rips me up inside. He’s my dad. Our relationship is twisted wreckage. Still, I won’t cut ties, because I know there’s a reason for the wreck, and I love him.
I trot back up to my studio, short of breath, calm, coming to a new understanding. My sense of self is a twisted wreck, partly because reality doesn’t match who I grew up believing I was. I was brought up the opposite of men. I was taught to believe men know better than I do, are better than I am, and will protect me. I was brought up seeing Dad belittle and dismiss Mom, as though she didn’t matter. But none of it’s true. I never saw it all so clearly before now. Though I’ve experienced over and over again on the job, in jokes I hear, in my relationships, the message that I’m disposable and men matter, the truth is, men aren’t better than I am, smarter than I am, and they don’t protect me. Not so far. Except the ex-cons at the car wash, where I washed the inside back windows. When I told them how the boss had pushed me into the closet-office and forced a wet kiss on me, they took my side. “Prick. Asshole,” they said. They made me feel I matter.
In my kitchen, panting from the stairs, I feel glad for the clarity. As Martin Luther King said, the truth will set you free. And the truth is: I’m just as good and smart as men. It’s crazy how ingrained that childhood conditioning to believe otherwise is. I’ll fight it. Tear it out of me.
I feel good. Romaine, a few trips up and down stairs, a reality check. Magic. I look out the window to hazy clouds beyond the sunny roof, look down to my white high-top shoes which give me bliss of mythic proportions. Why do they do that? Maybe I was wearing white baby shoes the last time I felt safe in my life! I laugh. That explanation’s too easy.
I see the phone and nervousness returns.
I’m glad I don’t drink, because this would be the time. Well, every day was the time. But with Arnold glad to see me this morning, I would take charge of my feelings with a bottle right now, if I weren’t sober.
The thing is, my body feels better, but a dark cloud gathers in my soul. Deep inside, I feel worse, not better. Something laughs at me—I can run, eat romaine, go to meetings, but I can’t hide from the laughing thing. I’m not scared, I’m terrified. Hypnotized. Arnold has power over me. I’ll walk back to him, suddenly, impulsively. I’ll call him, drop by, unable to hear myself screaming, don’t go back!
It’s the same as those times that come, where I want Mom and I feel paralyzed, terrified, and softly wail in pain of missing her. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the day or at night. I get the feeling she’s a block away, in the night, and she can’t hear me yelling to her, so she doesn’t come, no matter how long I scream. Of course, I’m not really screaming, it just feels like I am. Until it passes. But the fear of returning to Arnold doesn’t pass. And I can’t help getting angry at that colorful lamp shade. It’s the stripes—vertical stripes of color that looked pretty, like candy colors when I bought the lamp shade. Now I can’t bear the feeling the stripes give me. It doesn’t make sense but I can’t stand the stripes. I look away but I feel them, like a brand on my forehead.
Stripes have always been a problem. I usually snap myself out of the fear of stripes by telling myself I’m just a wannabe neurotic like Gregory Peck in Spellbound. I didn’t impale my sibling on a wrought iron fence, the way Gregory Peck did, pushing his little brother in fun so he could slide down the snowy porch banister. He was scared of stripes. But I don’t want that lamp shade. I can’t have it anymore.
I’ll put the shade on the side walk in case someone wants it. No, it could still be there when I leave. Well, I don’t have to look at it. No, but I’ll just—here—I pull it off the bulb, set it on the floor. It’s okay, it was only seven dollars. I made a mistake buying it. I don’t have to keep it.
I step on it. It crushes easily.
Good. I feel better. I pick up the flattened shade and take it in the kitchen. I can breathe better now. It’s okay. There it goes, into the garbage bag. Good thing it’s small. I stuff it down the side of the bag, cover it up with trash. Yep.
Whew. I didn’t like it.
Arnold isn’t like that lamp shade. He’s warm and kind. When he sneezes, he sounds just like Dad, it’s uncanny. When Arnold’s arms squeeze me, a warm buzzing runs through my spine into the back of my head and I feel nothing could ever go wrong. I feel I’ll die without that feeling. Why can’t I have that? Why?
Because he rages with a hammer between us. And he drops me!
That’s right. I forget that. How do I get him to not do that? I’ll talk to my sister Cecilia. She’ll have a suggestion.
The next day at lunchtime I wait for Cecilia in a little public garden spot about halfway between the two law firms where we work, she as a paralegal, I as a law librarian. The dappled shade soothes me while I sit on a cement bench planning how to explain my dilemma with Arnold. Cecilia always listens to me. She’s smart. She goes to therapy. She knows how hard it is to love him because he has trouble with commitment. I know I’m good for him, and I think he does love me or I wouldn’t feel this way about him.
Here she comes. “Hey. Thanks for meeting me!” I wish my hair were long and silky like hers. She didn’t bring her lunch.
She gives me a big hug. I’m still not used to her hugs. Hugs are a new thing these days, it seems mostly with people in therapy. Still, I don’t mind. She’s so nice to me. Only three years older, but like a mom.
“How are you?” she says with a concerned smile.
“I’m fine, really.” I don’t want her to worry about me, only to listen about Arnold as usual and give me some good advice to calm him down so he won’t rage anymore when I go back. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m all right. It’s the usual at the office. The attorneys are swamped so I’m swamped. You didn’t say what you needed to talk about.”
“You didn’t bring your lunch.”
“No, I’ll need to get back to the office and eat at my desk.”
“Oh. Okay.” I hoped we would have a whole hour to figure out my problem. “Well, here’s my problem. Arnold and I broke up, you know.”
“That’s right. I remember. Two weeks ago?”
“Yes. For the fourth time,” I say.
“Right.” She checks her watch.
Darn it. I begin eating my sandwich. I’d better get to it. “I had moved in. And I gave Arnold’s address to a few places, my bank, my doctor. So, I’ve been doing good, not going back to Arnold, not calling him, but this feeling that we’re supposed to be together keeps coming up. Okay. So, fine. I know better than to go back. But I keep thinking maybe I can calm him, somehow. It’s risky, but life’s risky, right? If we don’t take risks, what’s the use of being alive? I’d rather die, frankly, than not risk going back. Not really … but sort of.”
“I don’t have much time today, Marie.”
“Okay, I’ll get to the point. Yesterday, Arnold was at the morning meeting. I was about to leave, when he said he has mail for me. I froze, not knowing what to do. I told you he pushed me down on the bed once.” Don’t tell her about him raging with the hammer between us. “I was scared I’d go back to him. He said I could drop by when I’m in the neighborhood, or he could bring the mail to a meeting. He was really nice. What do you think I should do? I mean …”
She raises her hand to stop me. “Marie, don’t take this wrong …”
Shit. She’s never said that before.
“… but I have to say …”
No. She’s never said anything like this before.
She looks into my eyes and says, “… the answers are within you.”
The words punch me in the gut. She doesn’t want to hear about Arnold anymore. I’ve used her up.
Now what? “Okay.”
The answers are within me. It’s so dark inside me, I can’t see answers. Still, if she’s right, then there’s hope, an answer to my problem. I need to find it. “Did you want to talk about something yourself?”
“No, I’ve got to go, sweetie. Except,” she brightens with a cheerful smile, “you might want to buy a rubber duck, or two, or three. In my inner-child group, we all agreed to buy rubber ducks, to take bubble baths and nurture our inner child. That might help you.”
She’s crazy. “Okay. Sounds good.” She doesn’t understand I need to solve my problem first.
We say good-bye. I walk slowly back to work, still shaken by having been shut down, and intrigued. What if the answers are within me? It rings true. I’m going to act as if it’s true.
I rack my brain for hours. The urge to see Arnold grows. After work, at home, it occurs to me I could call and ask Mom what she thinks I should do about getting my mail from Arnold. The problem is, it hurts when Mom’s too busy to talk, which is all the time. And even if she has a minute, if I tell her I’m scared I’ll go back to Arnold, she’ll say how smart I am, and that I’ll figure it out, which is usually true, but this time I don’t think I can figure it out.
I’m being pulled back to Arnold, and no one can hear me call out. What can I do?
<<<<<< THE BEGINNING | NEXT CHAPTER >>>>>>
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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