Friday, March 21, 2008

And now I have to write this

because it is looming in a big bad way all of a sudden.

Last night I went out for drinks after class with D. I had one-and-a-half beers. That is not a lot of alcohol, even for lightweight me. I waited a bit before driving home, went to bed, slept a lot of hours, and then woke up with a mind-blowing hangover.

This is puzzling, because I am not really the hangover type, and when I have had hangovers (maybe 4 or 5 times in my entire life) it's usually after drinking loads of something really strong--martinis, Jam Guy's delicious French 75s, or, memorably, a fifth of dirt-cheap tequila in college. Why do I have a hangover today?

I think it's because of one of the things D and I were talking about last night. We were talking about how women and men relate to one another, and the element of control in relationships. We talked about how some men control their girlfriends or wives with physical violence or emotional abuse; D pointed out that often these two things are not all that separate. He said that some men just exude a sense of volatile physicality that states wordlessly that they might lose it and hurt you if you don't go their way. It doesn't matter, he said, whether they've ever gotten physical with you or not--it works to control you at the very basic level of fear for your own safety. Potentially, you end up bartering everything you might ever want for an unreliable promise that you might remain intact.

No one had ever pointed out that particular dynamic to me before--the threat of physical violence being as real as the violence itself. I am sure D thought we were talking from a totally objective, third-party perspective. I stared into my beer and watched the bubbles become untethered from the sides of the glass.

D doesn't know a whole lot about my relationship with the guy I lived with for four years in New York. Most people don't, other than that he was controlling and jealous. This particular ex and I met when I was recording an album for a so-so band in a studio in midtown Manhattan. The ex was directing production on the album. We started dating and everything moved really fast--sped up by the fact that he'd gotten a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis, which turned out to be false, but I was already in fullblown caretaker mode and head-over-heels. Six months later I found a fantastic deal on a semi-illegal sublet in the East Village; he moved in with me.

During those six months there were warning signs all over the place. I think am a pretty damn smart woman, but all of us are stupid in love. He was mad when I got a ride home from a gig with an ex-boyfriend in the band. He was suspicious and jealous when I came back from a trip with girlfriends to Atlantic City--he was certain I had cheated on him. He picked on the provocative clothes I liked wearing so much at the time. I didn't tell my friends this; I wanted so much for things to work. Something about the way he suspected me of having poor character and thought it was wrong for me to have the kinds of fun I did resonated with me--he sounded like my parents getting ready to ground me. It's kind of sick now that I look back at it, but I guess as a little girl a part of me had learned to interpret control and guilt as the way love is supposed to be. I felt a little bit of fear of him; I felt a little bit of nausea when when he put me down; I thought maybe that was how falling in love was supposed to feel: giving up control, helpless.

I feel like I need to explain how I fell for this guy to myself, because what came later seems so obvious now, in retrospect. It's hard for me to understand now how I ended up in this category of women that have been in the situation I was in. I am not weak, but I turned over all my strength without a fight. I liked looking pretty, working all of my sex appeal, and I handed him the keys to that particular racecar. I had been fighting so hard for a real sense of self, one that was just in its infancy at 24 because it was the first time in my life I'd felt able to be more than somebody's daughter or girlfriend or student, and I let him take that infant self and squish her into his idea of what she ought to be. It was a bad fit, but I sucked in and just tried to resign myself to never exhaling again.

It was bad and I only stayed in it because I was in love. I know how cliched and dumb that sounds. I want to say I am not that woman, but maybe we are all that woman, given the wrong circumstances. I am not going to try to justify it, but I am embarrassed now by it.

I didn't tell anyone how bad it was because I didn't tell myself how bad it was. This is how bad it was: If an attractive man came on the television and I was watching it, he would be angry at me all night and sometimes into the next day. Eventually the definition of "attractive man" extended to anyone male that was old enough to have entered puberty and young enough to not need live-in care. If I passed a man on the street and looked at him--even just enough of a look to not run into him on the busy streets of downtown Manhattan--the boyfriend would be angry at me all night, again, and again possibly into the next day. If I breathed or shifted the wrong way when we were sitting together on the couch, he would accuse me of not being attracted to him, which led to accusations of being attracted to other men. If I wore anything besides the plainest and baggiest of clothes he wanted to know what man I was trying to attract.

If I burned the coffee, if I made him an egg sandwich that was too runny or too dry, if I spilled water, if I forgot what day the car needed to be re-parked, if I wanted to cut my hair, if I didn't kiss him goodbye the right way, if I complained about anything: all reasons for a litany of complaints about my character. If I asked him when he was going to have an income again because I was exhausted from working nearly full-time to support myself and another adult while going to school full-time, he simply stopped speaking to me, or meanly suggested I cheat on him if I was so unhappy with him. If I sneezed too often, it was interpreted as a cloying and underhanded way of seeking attention and sympathy.

I grew up in an often-unhappy house; I understand why people take out their sadness on others. Being that other was not a new position for me. I knew everything was wrong, but I also knew that this ex was a man who volunteered in his community, made me dinners sometimes when I was really tired, was very sweet with our pets, held me while I cried for hours when my fish died--so I felt sympathy for him; I thought how awful it must be to not believe that you could be loved as much as I loved him then. And I coped in ways that I can't believe now: when we went out together, or even when I was alone but on our block, in case he was watching from the fire escape, I looked down at the sidewalk. I just walked very carefully and quit looking up. I saw a lot of shoes, cracks in the sidewalk, tiny sick city plants, litter, rat feces. I told myself I'd never noticed how interesting these things were before. I told myself I could live without the sky and the faces of new people. I swallowed his exasperated beratements about how clumsy I was when, inevitably, I bumped into things. I took up knitting to have something to look at while we sat on the couch and he watched television, so that I wouldn't have to justify looking down every time a male came on the set; I finally just quit looking at it at all while it was on, which is surprisingly hard to do in a tiny studio apartment. When he was out of the apartment--which was not often--I didn't turn it on at all, because if I did, he would come back and inevitably ask what I'd been watching, and there was no way to have a correct answer: if it was a program that didn't have a single male in it--like a cartoon, which is about all that was safe--he wouldn't believe me. When he was out for longer periods, he would text me all the time to say he was coming back, just around the corner, might be in any minute, so that I wouldn't leave or feel like I could watch television or do anything other than sit in the apartment in my baggy clothes clutching my knitting needles like a crafty asylum patient. I watched my breathing, making sure it never sped up or slowed in any way that could be interpreted as interest in someone else or a lack of interest in him. I rehearsed even small movements in my head before doing them to make sure that they didn't seem like I was pulling away from him. I tried to say only things that were necessary, that would charm him, or that showed my love for him.

Just once we played a gig together, and when he saw what I wanted to wear--flowing black pants, a batwing-sleeved blouse--he refused, an hour before we were supposed to be on stage, to do the gig. Only after I'd changed into a military surplus jacket and old jeans, removed all my makeup, and begged, did he relent. I was so uncomfortable during the gig. I remembered, like a dream, that once I had loved performing, but in that moment I didn't know who I was being.

When he was angry I was scared of him. He got angry in a quiet way. He got quieter and quieter and would sometimes use a weird sing-songy voice, the way you scold a child for doing something like eating a cookie before dinner, except that with him it wouldn't end there. He would go on to tell me how I clearly wasn't trustworthy, how I was addicted to the attention of other men, how I would never find a relationship worth staying in because no man could ever respect someone so wanton, superficial, scatterbrained. How he saw thought he'd seen a good person within the floozy I was, but now he wasn't sure anymore, but it was too late for him to back out because, in spite of all his better judgment, he did love me and had invested so much time now into our relationship. But maybe love wasn't enough, he said, and maybe he should have known better; although maybe since he'd been so deceived by my devoted, nice-girl act, the only thing left for him to do now was make the best of the mess he'd gotten himself into, the mess of me, and hope that I could eventually mature into someone he could love as an equal.

I am not exaggerating when I say I didn't know it was possible to cry that much or that often. I didn't know what to believe. The part of myself that knew better than to swallow his opinions about me got littler and littler. I went to school with my face puffy and red and blamed allergies. I was afraid of him physically, and he never ever hit me, but he was strong and a trained fighter and the physicality was always just there under the surface. Sometimes it came out, though never at me: he would throw things, punch walls, break stuff. He hit our ceiling with a dumbbell once and left a huge dent; the dog and I sat in the bathroom, the cat under the couch, until it felt safe for all of us to come out.

The dog and I also sat in the bathroom when pizza delivery guys came over, and I said it was because the dog would growl at the pizza guy and scare him, but really it was that I was trying to avoid him confronting me about trying to seduce the pizza guy.

Song lyrics I wrote in those days reflect a loss of self and a fierce attempt at resignation that I only recognize fully now:

There was a girl without a face
She lived alone inside a cloud
And every day there in the sky
She dreamed of being recognized


I don't know who you think you've got your arms around
She's already died of fear of letting you down


helpless as the tide before the moon
might be the wrong thing to do
but i follow you


sunrise!: but you don't dare lift your eyes
it's nothing you ain't seen before anyways

The things that made it possible for me to leave:

One day, he was looking at my email and clicked through messages from a male friend. I reached to stop him from reading my email--he was starting with the sing-song voice, and even though there was nothing inappropriate in the emails, I knew the simple fact that I had a male friend was enough to send him over the edge--and he grabbed one of my wrists, then both, easily in one of his hands while clicking through my inbox with the other. I couldn't pull my hands clear, and when I tried he just gripped tighter, with no change of expression. It hurt, but worse than the hurt was the sense of helplessness, and the clear message that the gesture sent: "If you and I want different things, what it comes down to is that I am stronger than you, and I will use that advantage."

One day, shortly after that, I suggested we get counseling, and he broke the railing of our loft bed. In an act of unprecedented rebellion, I left the apartment, but before I got out of the building I got yelled at by our crazy landlord for something. I came back in tears--the landlord was always yelling at someone and it was usually sort of funny, but it was just more than I was ready to take that one day--and against all logic the ex-boyfriend went out to ostensibly beat up the landlord for making me cry. I tried to explain that it wasn't the landlord that had made me cry, but he was already out the door. (Fortunately, he didn't find the landlord.)

That same day I tentatively brought up counseling again, and again there was an explosion, which culminated in his calling me (I can't forget this) a "fucking freak" and I literally ran out the door this time. It was, of course, in the middle of a thunderstorm. In movies this looks cool and dramatic and super-emo. In real life it sucks and makes you hope you don't run into anyone you know, especially if you're wearing flip flops and a tank top because that's what you were wearing in the house and you ran away without giving weather conditions any thought.

The following week my sister and her wife came to town, and the ex left the apartment and went to stay with a friend. We went to the Brooklyn Pride festival and watched a salsa group dancing on stage. There was a young woman in a red dress who did a little featured dance solo. I watched her and felt a glimpse of recognition--her hips were swaying, her head was tilted up, she was so in love with her own physicality and sexuality. I remembered that feeling and suddenly connected with how much I'd missed it. I love dancing, but there had been so much angst connected with trying to justify a dance outing since living with the ex--the clothes, the men that would inevitably be at the club--that I just sort of gave it up, like looking at the sky, and tried to tell myself it didn't matter. What I realized that day was that it did matter, that there was a kernel of a self in me that was hollering itself hoarse to avoid being accidentally buried alive. I cried there in the festival amid all the happy people out of grief for the years I'd kept myself apart from the girl who loves dancing.

When I left him it was in a hurry and with one suitcase and scared out of my mind for my safety and my sanity. It was maybe harder than anything I'd had to do before. I had my wonderful sister and my wonderful friends--and, thank heavens, a good therapist--helping me through it, an amazing support network of people that saved my life. But I had wanted it to work so much. I was giving up not only on the good parts of our relationship but on my desire to see the goodness I knew existed in him manifest in a real and consistent way. I know now it wasn't going to happen, at least not in any way I could be around for. I know now that the four years I spent with him were meant to teach me some kind of long, grueling lesson. I know that I might not be with my amazing Jam Guy now if it hadn't been for the time spent with the ex. And I am grateful for the experience and for the opportunity it gives me to empathize with other women in the same situation. I know now, firsthand, why you don't leave a relationship even when you know you should, and I know now how little "should" has to do with anything when you're caught up in the thrall of someone who's systematically destroying who you are.

But the reason this is coming up for me today is because of my talk with D last night, because i have a headache and that makes me feel vulnerable, because I am in love with a wonderful Jam Guy and in a safe enough place now where I can start to process my feelings, and mostly because I'm going dancing tonight. I'm going dancing with some wonderful girlfriends from my school, and I'm trying to figure out what to wear, and I'm realizing that anticipating going dancing is not the pure, simply fun thing that it was before I was with the ex. There is a voice in my head that vetoes the things I consider wearing because they're too slutty or head-turning. That same voice tells me I should feel ashamed to want to dance, to make any sort of exhibition of myself, that I can expect men to hit on me if I'm out at a club because that's what men do at clubs, and I should feel guilty because I am willing to go out knowing that this will happen.

I know all these reactions ought to be things I ignore--I should just wear what I want and do what I want and have fun--but they are there, in my head, and I resent their presence there. I want to look forward to this in as uncomplicated a way as I used to. I want to enjoy being a pretty woman in high heels. I want to feel like there is nothing wrong with that. Jam Guy reassures me all the time that these feelings are ok--he is the most wonderful man in the world, if I haven't mentioned that--and I am really trying my best to believe him.

I am going to keep trying my best to know that I am ok.


Mayumi said...


thank you for letting us be part of the process as you sort out your feelings and lessons learned. this was some powerful writing here, sister. you broke my heart with this entry. i only met your ex a few times, thought what you must have when you first met him, that he was an average tempered man.

the one time i got a glimpse into the world you were really living in was when you showed up at my birthday party at a bar in the village, wearing not-tight jeans, two high-necked tank tops layered, your hair down, your face almost bare of makeup. (of course you were absolutely stunning, still, because you could wear a brown sack and make it look good, but that is neither here nor there.) i was drunk and so glad to see you, but you were a little withdrawn and eventually ventured to ask if you looked like a slut. you looked like the furthest thing from it in the whole bar. even my roommate and i who were sexing it up for our bdays were not "slutty," per se, but surely showing way more skin. and i was too drunk to really process it at the time, so I sort of laughed it off, "of course not!!" but it made me so sad to wonder why you'd even get to the place where you'd worry about such a thing. you told me later it was because the ex had give you a hard time when you left the house. i couldn't believe this.

your ex was many things, but threatened/vulnerable about losing you was clearly one of them. you are so obviously a beautiful woman, but that's not all you have going on. and how stupid is it that instead of trusting you (you who are one of the most trustworthy persons i know) and trusting himself (that he could be fallen in love with by such a woman) he had to fear with every moment the loss of you.

if i weren't so fucking PISSED OFF at your ex, i would feel sad for him.

but i don't care about him, i care about you, and i care about the wonderful fact that you are grieving and processing and healing, and that you have found someone who can trust, appreciate, and see you for the person you are.

just promise me and those who care about you *one* thing: please keep your own preservation at heart. let that be the lesson learned. I hope that you would never again sacrifice yourself so much for the sake of making something work.

I love you and am sure I don't have to tell you any of this, but because I love you I will tell you anyway.

May in the Bay

sidewalk monkey said...

thank you, love. i am so glad to have wonderful people in my life like you who are allowing me to process my process.

i do remember that night at your birthday party. it's weird thinking back to it now. i am back to being all about miniskirts, but i don't think i can ever take them for granted in the same way. which is not a bad thing--i have a whole new appreciation for my sense of self and my freedom of choice, and that's one of the good things to have come out of this lesson. that, and definitely the importance of self-preservation--you hit that one right on the head. i am all protective now about my self of self, which is again this little new and fledgling thing. but it is good to hear other people reminding me about how important it is, because sometimes i start fretting that i'm being selfish or paranoid or overly prickly about stuff. i appreciate your love and support, and i appreciate your perspective on all this, and i really appreciate your being ok with me sharing this, because i know it's kind of a downer.

i love you!