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?