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.