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?