[CN: emotional abuse]
I tried talking about you again last night.
At one point, I referred to you as “that fucking asshole,” then promptly apologized: “Sorry, I’m working through a lot of anger this week.”
Charles shrugged, a half-smile dancing across his face. “You don’t have to defend your ex-husband to me!”
But it’s not about defending you, this discomfort I have with the seductive comfort of anger. It’s not about defending myself either, not anymore. Not like in the early months (or early years, if I’m honest), when I did not know how to hold you accountable without also unleashing a torrent of rage against myself: for my own failures, my own weakness, my compliance. I am more understanding towards myself now, even if I have not yet come to full forgiveness.
My mind was carrying unexploded landmines when I met you, and I had learned over decades to tread around them with exaggerated caution. I think they have all detonated now. While I still bear the wreckage, there is at last nothing left to diffuse.
Perhaps I should thank you for that.
I think I probably won’t.
I was not a rape survivor until after I met you, even though my assaults had occurred fifteen years prior and I had last spoken to my rapist when I was still a teenager. When you and I met, I had a past issue still seeking resolution. I did not have post-traumatic hyper-vigilance or suicidal ideations.
I was not yet the kind of survivor who refuses hugs even from her friends and who cannot touch her own flesh for pleasure without risking flashbacks and terror.
Not until after you had loved me.
After we separated and I had a whole bed again to myself, it took a full year before I relearned how not to sleep just on my right side. My body arranged its curves to fit against your remembered shape, and I kept my left elbow pulled awkwardly (and painfully) behind my back. Do you remember how you trained me to sleep like this? How you would ask me to spoon against you, always the same accusing tone to your request — “why don’t you ever hold me? why don’t you ever want me to feel loved?” — yet when my arm lightly touched your body, or I rested my hand at your waist, you snarled me away with angry petulance — “I can’t breathe! You’re crushing me!”
It is a hard task, to hold someone without using any of your limbs. It is an even harder task to convey love, under duress, to a body devoid of trust. Under your rigid stage-direction, I suspect the best I managed to provide you with was warmth. And obedience, of course.
Still, I preferred this arrangement to our other common sleeping position: your leg wrapped around both of mine, your encircling arm holding both my own in a cross tight against my chest. Your body weight would pin me against the mattress as you rolled almost full on top of me, your front against my back.
“I can’t sleep like that,” I tried to explain over breakfast. “I need to have some ability to move.”
You explained back, each time less patiently, how I was not, in fact, feeling trapped. That this was how loving people slept. This was how loving people expressed their feelings.
Night after night, it remained the same combat.
“Stop struggling,” you hissed into my ear each time I tried to jockey enough space to let my ribs expand, and I would freeze at the angry tension in your voice.
Over time, I learned to will myself into sleep, to ignore the shallow breathing that was all my squashed lungs could accommodate and to suppress the claustrophobic panic that threatened to climb up and out my throat. Each morning, we woke to find the fitted sheet corner by my head pulled completely off the mattress, as if desperate hands had sought to claw their way out.
“What do you do at night?” you’d laugh, as together we remade the bed yet again.
Did you really not notice, before your own slumber, how far I tried to pull away from you? How I sometimes stretched a hand out to the floor, to brace myself against tumbling out of the bed altogether?
I have been working to remember the good times between us, or even just times that I thought were good when they were happening:
~ The way you claimed an early-evening bat had startled you, the first time you held my hand, and I knew the bat was both an excuse to grab for me — and something you found genuinely unnerving.
~ How you held me as I sobbed, the Sunday morning my cat died suddenly, and I knew you’d stay with me as long as I needed, even though we were standing in the aisle of the church where you worked, and you had gospel singers waiting.
~ The first time you played for me your favorite recording of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
After our first date — which started as a 2 pm meet-up for coffee and didn’t end before 11, when the restaurant we had moved on to ended its dinner service — I emailed a friend to say, “My expectations have forever been raised!” You had listened to me so intently, asked such interested and interesting questions about my research, I could not imagine ever again settling for the standard first encounter, with its tepid chitchat of ‘where’d you grow up?’ and ‘what do you do for a living?’
I used to include that date, no question, on my list of remembered good times. Until I shared the story with a woman who had herself spent years in therapy to recover from an abusive relationship. “Mm-hmm,” she nodded at me knowingly. “Of course he listened carefully. He was studying you. For weaknesses.”
And so our first date moved to the same list as our last, evidence to reference any time I plague myself with doubts.
Not that I need more than one item on that list. I have only to remember the New Year’s Eve beating, picture the glee on your face at both my physical pain and my public humiliation, to be quite sure: things were rotten between us from the start. No one who had ever loved me could have treated me like that. No one who saw me as fully human would have even imagined it.
No memory is good enough to outweigh that ending.
There were no good times.
Often, when I talk about our years together, I find myself tangled in a surfeit of tiny details. The precision you insisted I adopt in my own habits: from an exact schedule to follow for washing my hands, to the correct way to fold a cereal bag so that it doesn’t unroll again inside the box. The way you monitored everything: how long I washed vegetables before I chopped them, how often I used your shampoo in the shower, how infrequently I sanitized the drawer handles in the kitchen.
I recite a litany of these minute indignities, as if I can — through enough detail — make anyone other than us understand what living together felt like.
Or maybe I am still trying to win our own past arguments.
Or maybe I am hoping my listeners will be your judges, and I the prosecution. “Case closed!” they will shout. “Verdict! He was undeniably at fault! We hereby grant you better treatment from your next lover!”
As if anyone but myself can make that ruling.
As if anyone but myself can give me permission to know what I know, or want what I want.
When the truth is: I did not act as the steward for myself, and for my heart, that I needed. Or that I deserved. This still does not excuse you.
I failed myself. You failed us both.
Another difficult truth? We may have both been trying — the best we were able — to live full lives, despite the long-dealt damage we each still bore. It was just that yours was the kind that left you unsafe for anyone who stood too close.
Your damage made you dangerous.
I keep coming back to an image from a story you once told me: how you mowed lawns the summer your parents got divorced.
You would not have been very big, just out of first grade. Even a push mower must have been unwieldy, as you dragged it back-and-forth, back-and-forth, across the grass and weeds that never stopped growing. I imagine you persevering, fueled by your outrage and confusion, and the need to feel productive even though you could never produce the one result you wanted. You still almost shook, when you told me your childhood perspective. How your mother selfishly abandoned a man who only wanted to love his family, and you had hated her for it. How your father gave up his rights to everything — house, money, children — in a failed effort to get his wife back, and you had despised him for it.
The years that followed must have hurt as well. Your mother’s boyfriends, from your description, were a revolving door of dysfunction and abuse, who often took it upon themselves to help her delicate, musical son “be a man.” I shudder to think of the tall stranger, reeking of liquor, who bent down to place a gun in your small hands and ordered you to pull the trigger at a target. No wonder you practiced at the keyboard so many hours a day. The piano was predictable, and you were good at it.
I have deep compassion for 7-year-old you, filled with impotent rage and indignation.
But when that 7-year-old heart still beat in your 35-year-old chest, you were no longer helpless. You were merely frightening.
I know, without an iota of doubt, that I was not the first surrogate mother-figure you loved into brokenness, then ground my pieces to dust beneath your well-polished boots once I proved yet another disappointment. I strongly suspect your new wife will herself not be the last.
I can hear you protesting: “But what about all YOUR family crap?!”
You’re not wrong; I was trying to heal my own childhood injuries through our relationship fully as much as you. I think I will decline to discuss that today, though. I’ve spent enough time already listening to you detail every last fault of my relatives, and I prefer not giving you further ammunition. I will concede the point that you were, in absolute fact, not my father — and it was unfair of me to respond to you as if you were.
Let me remind you, however, lest you have forgotten: every time you capitalized on my fear of your disproportionate anger? You were beneficiary of lessons learned at my father’s knee.
I don’t agree one achieves any special nobility through the willingness to cut off all ties with a family member. When you urged me to do this, either to my parents or my only sibling, you were merely extending the pressure you had already used to separate me from most friends and to disrupt my closest social ties.
When you bragged about how you had abandoned your own brother in Florida years before — how you had driven away in the middle of the night, leaving behind a half-apartment’s worth of stuff and a co-signed lease — nobody but you heard a story about healthy boundaries. I am quite sure your parents heard exactly what you wanted them to: a barely-veiled threat that they could be next.
You were always very good at threats.
The last time we spoke in person was less than five months after I moved out. We signed our divorce papers together at the notary’s, then went around the corner to a Starbuck’s, where we sat and talked for over three hours. It was nice to see in you, again, something of the man I had once loved.
When we got back to the loft apartment that doubled as your office, I noticed your business partner standing outside the building, smoking a cigarette. I thought the young woman looked unexpectedly tense, though I dismissed as paranoia any thought that she might be unhappy at our long disappearance. I had not yet realized, you see, what the relationship between you two had long since become — nor how the dissolution of our own marriage had provided the backdrop for you to court your second wife.
When I learned all this several months later, I realized: during our last, long conversation, you had lingered not to make a final connection, nor to wish me well. You were keeping your new lover nervous.
I realized, too, why I had recognized the discomfort in her expression. I had seen the same look, many times, in my own mirror.
Speaking of realizations, I do hope you know that in this letter today, I am not talking to you.
I am conversing with the voices in my own head that still want to speak for you, that still feel compelled to take your side as I try to make sense of how I got so lost, for so long, with so little awareness. It is not you — only a version of myself — that I am now addressing.
Because you? No longer matter in my life.
And I still do.
“Our Last Conversation” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Previous installments can be found here.