Unlovable

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kimberly Dark

If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.

I was walking up the steps toward the bank. The sun was hitting the glass door so that I couldn’t see inside. I guess the woman coming out didn’t see me either and—bam—the big glass and wood door clocked me in the face. I stumbled back a bit, head throbbing. We both said, oh shit, and she apologized and I shook it off, got on with the day. My nose wasn’t broken, but I had a black eye for a week.

When I saw my sweetie the following day, she assessed the damage gently in public and then later in bed, she cozied up next to me. “Goddamn, you’re even hotter when you’ve been roughed up a bit.” She kissed me and pushed her head against mine, making me wince in pain. “Mmm,” she grunted.

“You’re one sick fucker.” We both laughed.

“Yeah, at least I’m not the one who hit you. Count your blessings I’m mostly over that shit.” We shook our heads and laughed again.

Look, no part of me wants pain. I understand how pain can be cathartic, and it’s not my thing. I always talked myself out of a beating, smelled the metal of my own blood through the skin before it broke, and got myself out of there. I don’t attract the ones who hit, but I sure attract the ones who could. And I learn how not to push. Being careful not to get hit, apparently that’s my gig. And I’m good at it.

In my youth, I had a flair for the flamboyant outburst. I mean, I was never one of those jealous glass throwers; I never upset a table in a restaurant. I’m not violent at all, just a little loud. Even still today, I’ll yell and put on the Medusa face but I do it in the privacy of my home.

This was my last big scene and how it finally clicked that I was done with that nonsense.

We’d been upstairs at my place, having sex and then arguing about some damn thing. I couldn’t begin to say what. She was visiting for the weekend and decided, no, fuck it, she was leaving. I was wearing a pale green and cream lace silky negligee with a little pearly business along the bodice. That I remember clearly. She threw all of her stuff in the duffle bag and heaved it onto her shoulder and down the stairs. I followed, giving her a piece of my mind every step of the way. Fire was shooting from my eyeballs as I watched her step off the porch and head down my steep front yard into the dark night. I shouted one last thing, loud enough for her to hear as she got into her truck: “YOU ARE ONE FUCKED UP INDIVIDUAL!”

And suddenly, that thing happened. A zoom out. An awareness. Suddenly a small, but terribly clear, voice inside my head said, “Actually, you are standing on your front porch at two a.m., yelling for your neighbors to hear, wearing nothing but a skimpy negligee. You have just become the dictionary-illustration for ‘one fucked up individual.’ Why don’t you close your mouth and go in the house?”

And I went in the house.

She sat in the car for ten minutes and then I heard her mumbling angrily, hauling her bag up the stairs, bump by bump, then telling me, as she took off her clothes and got in bed, “Goddammit, if I leave now, I can’t fuck you again in the morning.”

At which I rose up briefly like a cobra to say, “Oh, so you think we’re having sex in the morning!?”

And she said, “Shut up. Just shut up. Go to sleep.” There wasn’t much fight left in me, so I did.

Yeah, we had sex in the morning.

She never hit me, but after a few disturbing episodes of almost, she went back to anger management classes and I joined a domestic violence abuse survivors support group. Things weren’t always good between us but that relationship lasted a decade because we both had fix-it tenacity. We tried to better ourselves this way and that. And now years later, as friends, we love each other still.

Maybe that’s all I will ever have in the relationship department. Love.

Not comfort. But love. What a strange consolation prize.

I sure know how to pick ’em. And they pick me just as surely. Okay, sometimes the others try to pick me but I just don’t get the hots for too many people and I send them straight to the friend-zone. With some, there’s a fast hard click, like a metal lock. That kind of connection rarely slips out of place until we’ve moved through some serious business together. How do we know even before we know? Is it scent or aura or the hand of God that shoves us together on the sofa?

I was talking to a recent unsuitable suitor on the front porch. We were drinking wine and smoking cigars, and I said, “Hey, look, don’t you even get it going for me! I mean, you don’t want the likes of me. I am damaged and downright difficult. I mean, fuck sake, you were raised by nice people in middle class suburbia and you’ve worked at the same job for thirty years. What the fuck? Stay away from me.”

As I told a friend (okay, she’s an ex) about the unsuitable suitor, I assured her I’d given her a good talking to. I’d really laid it out. And my friend said, eyes fluttering back in her head, “Oh, I’ll bet she loved that. You don’t know how bad people want a talking to from someone like you. You’re tough and pretty and almost always right.”

I stared, with the edges of my mouth curling up, eyes bulging. I thought I’d been super-clear. She added, “You’re a Bon Jovi song waiting to happen!” And then she finished our conversation singing, “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame! You give love a bad name…”

I specifically try not to be a heart breaker. I say “no” more often than I say “yes.” The body has to choose; my head can’t be in charge. It’s a little fucked up in there where mating’s involved. The circuits didn’t get laid quite right in the beginning maybe. Though I give advice to others like a champ, keep my head cool in most situations, I rarely know what to tell myself.

Though it’s not like I’m pre-interviewing lovers—the fact is, I rarely get a lady-boner for people who haven’t had the crap beat out of them a few times when they were kids. It was probably someone who loved them doing the beating.

One could say, well, that’s just common. And it’d be true. But there are similarities among most of my lovers that are downright eerie. Probably it’s comfortable for me.

Probably it’s familiar to me. Probably it fits somehow with something I learned when I was a kid. Isn’t what the therapists would say?

I pick people who are too damaged to trust anyone fully by the time they get to me. Maybe the part of me that thinks I’m not lovable says that seems right. But it makes me mad. And they’re so certain they can’t be loved that my anger seems deserved. But it also justifies the lack of trust.

That’s it. Those are the ones I’m hot for.

Or maybe it looks like this: I’m so calm and accepting, I seem like a miracle at first. Truly, I am calm and accepting and a motherfuckingmiracle as well, but you’ve got to know that some anxious lovelessness caused me to pursue all that calm, and as soon as you upturn the table, you’re gonna see how it was made. I can’t get to the sex without showing someone how I’m made. Well, at least not more than once or twice, and I’m a more than once or twice kind of gal.

My lovers usually can’t let down their guard. They can’t be honest with themselves about how they keep creating their own misery despite trying really hard to get clear, meditate, breathe, get back to nature, journal, join a tantra group, talk to a shrink, and get freaky, at least for a while, with me. I have some kind of mojo going on that keeps them wanting it, that’s for sure.

It’s a shame one can’t put a nozzle on ones own mojo, point it in the right direction, build it up, and let it fight the fire of a painful past. My lovers are fighters with mojo to spare, but it’s not clear whether we’re ever fighting in the right direction. I like ’em either super-scrappy or super-smart; both is best. What if we could point ourselves toward those painful pasts together, rather than looking right at each other when we’re mad?

After years of on again and off again, my lover with the anger issues and I went to couples counseling. After some time talking about our problems with sex—that is, talking about how she loves fucking me but doesn’t totally let me do her, she said this to the therapist: “I just know that if I really soften up with her, it’ll be the best thing ever. Then I’ll need it. Then she can hurt me.”

I wept quietly because, yeah, I knew that. I also knew she was already in pain without me doing the hurting. A pain I couldn’t touch. I guess she figured it was easier not to heal, to keep the low-grade fever of anger and hunger. Better to blame me for not trying hard enough. Better to choose a pain that already fit into her schedule rather than a yawning, aching need that brings terror. Who could relax then?

Pain is easier to carry than fear. Both will shorten your life. Whatever. We’re resilient as fuck, my lovers and I. That much is clear.

I have to hope for something better. It could be worse and it’s not. I pick someone with a few skills. I don’t pick the ones who are strung out on drugs. I don’t pick the ones who hit. I just pick the ones who need love and won’t accept it from me. Maybe a little they do. Small morsels. But I don’t do a good job pretending it’s enough. There’s a lot of fighting to be loved here on my side of the table. A lot of trying and failing. A lot of tear-it-down-and-try-again hope. A lot of joy despite the pain. Real eye-of-the-storm peace. A lot of tenacity and tenderness because there doesn’t seem to be another way.

If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.

There are a lot of you out there. Just like how I learned to stop making a screaming-scene on my own front porch, maybe I can learn to draw someone with a softer jaw, an unclenched fist. That’s possible. And here’s what’s likely: No matter who sits by me, I’ll keep pouring up love by the cupful. Sweet love. No matter what else happens, that’s not nothing. Love is never going to be nothing.

•••

KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kimberly Dark.

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RePair

tinyhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gina Cooke

My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.

His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.

I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.

There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.

And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.

•••

It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.

•••

The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”

I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.

“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”

I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.

•••

My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”

•••

Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.

I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.

Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.

I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.

•••

I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.

I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.

This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.

•••

My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.

•••

GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.

Counseling

yarn
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Seema Reza

We go to see a counselor. Karim will not accept that he should see someone for his anger, but he agrees to couple’s therapy. I’ll take what I can get. Based on the bio on the office’s website, it appears that the primary focus of this therapist’s career has been on issues of gender identity and homosexuality. But she is available on the day we need, and I don’t want Karim’s compliance to dissipate. Lainey has short hair, thick wire-rimmed glasses, black socks, and orthopedic shoes.

Karim tells the story of spanking Sam with a shoe in our hotel room on our vacation. Of telling me, when I stood between them, I have another shoe for you. In his retelling, Sam pushed his brother and sent him flying headfirst into the wall. He could have seriously hurt him. It was unacceptable.

I see, Lainey says. So you wanted to make a strong statement.

Yes. And then Seema challenged my authority in front of the kids. I got mad. I shouldn’t have said that to her.

It seems so simple, so reasonable explained this way. I wonder if I’ve been overreacting all along. Maybe we’re not so badly off. Maybe we just have a few little issues.

She asks Karim, Why do you want to stay married?

Because of the kids. And she can’t afford to be on her own.

She turns to me. Seema, what do you think about that?

My teeth are white, my hair is thick. I know this man, know that he loves me. I laugh. That’s bullshit. I’m an excellent cook and the sex is fantastic.

•••

For the rest of the summer and into the fall, we see Lainey nearly every Monday evening. Lainey prods us to say kind things about one another and encourages us to implement date nights.

In October, after the push that changed my perspective, that shook me from my slumbering pretense, we go back to see Lainey. I’ve decided that I’ve outgrown the fight. Now, he begs me to visit the therapist one last time. I agree, taking along a ball of wool and knitting needles. We sit in the now familiar office, meeting at our regular time, but days are shorter and the room is darker than usual. He begins to talk, and I begin to knit. He catalogues my crimes: making him jealous at seventeen, rekindling a friendship with an old boyfriend at twenty, disliking his mother from the start, dancing with another man at a nightclub one night. He tells it chronologically, has clearly been rehearsing this narrative—collecting the evidence.

Several times anger rises up from my core, forces my mouth to fall open, but I knit more furiously, shut my mouth. I am determined to give him this opportunity. After thirty minutes, Lainey interrupts him. The clock is ticking; he needs to wrap up. He moves to my most recent crimes: not believing him when he said he didn’t make romantic advances toward my friend, forcing him to have to push her because he felt backed into a corner, because he thought we were ganging up against him. Forty of our fifty minutes are up.

Lainey looks at me. Seema?

I look up from my knitting. I let it fall to my lap, push my glasses up. I take a deep breath. I’m done. For a moment, I consider responding to the accusations he has made, defending myself, reminding him that he has left out his responsibility in all of it. But the feeling evaporates with my exhale. I don’t want to do this anymore.

Okay, she says. Let’s talk about divorce counseling.

•••

Afterward, Karim is livid. How could she have given up on us like that? What kind of counselor is she? It’s your fault. Why were we seeing a social worker anyway? He goes to see a therapist on his own, and he tells me that therapist said we shouldn’t get divorced. That therapist thinks that Lainey was wrong to have told us what to do.

She didn’t tell us what to do. I told her I was done.

You told her you were done after she told us to get divorce counseling.

The order of things is always uncertain with us. He remembers it one way; I remember it another.

•••

SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, D.C., where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the  arts as a tool for narration, self-care, and socialization among a military population  struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. When the World Breaks Open, her first collection of essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.

Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers

sunflowersBy Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jane Eaton Hamilton

She’d left so many bruises that I needed long sleeves in August, and I finally told her, quietly, firmly, that I couldn’t stand covering up through the heat wave any longer.

“But the windows open now,” she said, annoyed since I’d just hired people to reconstruct the living room sash and pulls.

I’d learned how to phrase things so that I wasn’t talking about what I was really talking about. “Which is really only helpful…” I said, pushing slick strands from my forehead in the thick-aired room, “if there’s a breeze. What I really need is to be able to wear summer clothes.”

•••

She never felt remorse after the intimidation, after the bruises.

Only once, after she scared me seriously with back-to-back rages, a raised fist, and trying to yank me out of my escape car, did she apologize, but even that regret vaporized in twelve hours.

•••

One time she screamed in the middle of a rage, “Tell me who I am!” and her voice went wobbly at the word “am” while she grabbed her hair and shook it.

I don’t know, I wanted to say. Nobody I’d like to meet in a dark alley.

•••

Within three weeks of our knowing each other, she had her first meltdown. That’s the name she already had for these things, her meltdowns.

Her meltdowns.

My wife as a nuclear power plant. My wife as reactor #1 with complete core deliquescence. My wife as a fuel rod with explosive concentration limits.

Red-faced rage is what it was.

I’d risen from bed an hour after she started snoring because I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stand my insomnia one minute longer. I watched TV in the living room until I nodded off.

I woke to her screaming inches away from my face, spittle rain. “Why are you out of bed you know I can’t sleep if you’re gone you know I need you in bed beside me you’re so fucking selfish you know I can’t be alone!”

I was—I don’t remember what I was. Shocked. Dazed with sleep. Confused. Certainly scared.

“I have to get up unlike some of us I have an important job do you want me to kill someone when I’m overtired because you kept me up?”

If I didn’t sleep beside her, properly, someone could die.

•••

When she was good

She was very very good

And when she was bad

She was horrid

•••

Rinse and repeat. Add suicide threat and shake well.

•••

There at the beginning, she was regularly grumpy and snarky and mean like a child decompensating after a school day.

Eggshells. Crunch, crunch, under mine and the kids’ bare feet, sharp shards of white across our lives like carpet.

But then she got diagnosed and put on a “mood regulator.” It worked like flipping a switch—now we got the other side of her, the woman I had fallen so madly in love with. Her good side was a drug to me; I did anything I could think of to court it.

She was funny and quick, and she thought I was hilarious. I lived for her peals of ready laughter. She was dependable, sweet, and attentive. We read fiction together. We could discuss politics, social justice, feminism. She was plot doctor for my novels. I counted on her intelligence. We made a family together. We bought a house. We adopted a cause, and together with other folks, we sued the government and changed our country’s constitution. We grew a garden. We went to Africa, to Greece, to Paris, to Fiji, to Thailand, to Cuba. To art museums, to dinners, to dance and symphony. We slid down sand dunes in Oregon and Fiji and Namibia; renewed vows on elephant back, at the top of the Empire state building, in a hot air balloon, in a Thai tuk-tuk. When she was happy to see me—which was always until she met someone who’d had a vituperative divorce and she became, herself, imitatively scurrilous—she’d turn around and wave her butt as if it was a thumping tail.

•••

But this was how we still talked about her violence after nearly two decades: politely, with obfuscation. We did not need to refer to where I got the bruises, since both of us knew that, or what she had done to cause them—the two or three times a week, she held me by force and I would repeat, my voice half dead from weariness and repetition, Stop. Let me go. You’re hurting me. Trying to wrench away, I knew, would make things worse. As the bruises bloomed like black roses, five to each stem, she pretended that I had a blood disorder, and once, once, when there were so many, she directed me to have the test to prove this. I did that, and it came back negative.

“You were trying to drag me out of the car that day,” I said.

“That was just one occasion.”

“We fought again and you grabbed me,” I said.

“The things you do. The things you do provoke me. I’m not putting the blame on you. I’m just saying be careful of what you do, be careful of what you do and how you do it.”

•••

I didn’t blame her, so forgiveness wasn’t needed. She was an important woman saddled with employment burdens, and for her, different rules, I thought, applied.  She thought so, too; whatever rule applied to the rest of us was not applicable to her because she was smarter, more educated, held aloft by the reverence her job provided her.

I gave her every benefit of doubt: She didn’t mean to hurt me. It wasn’t the real her who did those things. The real her was the good her.

•••

This is what I did with her violence when I was alone: I added it up—made charts—to see how much of it there was, relative to homework and cooking and sleeping and doing laundry and watching TV and celebrating occasions and ferrying kids and gardening and dancing—and stuff, you know—and it was less than one percent. 90% of the time, we were glowing: engaged, productive, tickled with each other; 9% of the time, we were like any long-term couple, a little inert, unexcited with each other; and only one percent of the time did things go topsy.

I shredded the charts afterwards so she wouldn’t find them.

After she made me leave her, my therapist said, “Would you tell me a car with bad brakes was basically a good car?”

I looked at her.

“If you were on the top of a hill, those bad brakes would be a pretty important flaw, wouldn’t they?”

“We could have moved to Kansas,” I said. “It’s flat in Kansas.”

She cocked her head. “I hate to let you in on this, Dorothy, but nobody lives in your Kansas. Toto doesn’t live in your Kansas. Your Kansas doesn’t even exist.”

•••

Her father went after me, after us, about six months after his wife died, after I started calling him Dad, even though all the other wives called him Dad.

There was no welcoming nomenclature for me, the lesbian. When I tried out my wavery “Dad,” he soon said I (and by extension, his daughter) had killed his wife with my “gay stuff.” I had disrespected his wife. I exploited his daughter. My house stunk and I smelled, too. “Gaijins know they stink,” he said.

This is the problem with never learning even rudimentary communication skills. Things percolate to the surface in destructive tsunamis. After his blow-up, the man refused to see us, his daughter and daughter-in-law, his two granddaughters, his great-granddaughter, for seven years, unless I would stay home.

From father to daughter, the inheritance of bullying.

•••

My relationship was continually under threat from my wife’s disrespectful peregrinations towards break-up, and since she never talked about these, I just sensed them, or wrangled with each lie on its own terms, and did whatever I could, anything I could, to protect us as a couple—silly things like putting white light around her, and her car, around our whole house of cards.

•••

Define domestic violence. Big dudes spring to mind, furious and fisted, their abuse flagrant, flamboyant, fervid. But butch though my wife was, she was not hefty, nor quintessentially angry of spirit, and if I asked you to pick out the likelier batterer in our relationship, ten out of ten people who didn’t know better, I’m guessing, would pick me, because I am raunchy of mouth, untactful, and larger, and just, you know, not “nicey,” whereas she is small, polite, warm, and obsequious.

They’re quite lovely, most batterers.

Lovely at home, too.

Until they’re not.

Size, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with being battered. And neither does gender.

All that you really need for battering is one person willing to batter.

The thing about batterers is that you can see what they’re not doing to you just as much as what’s transpiring. Yes, they are pinning you, but you can also see their gaze sliding sideways and fixing on the knife rack, considering. Yes, they are pulverizing the sofa, but you know by what they’re saying that they wish it was your face. Or they throw a bunch of stuff and then come rushing at you, fist raised, even though at the very last minute, they drop it.

I never hit you is technically correct.

But they have their ways of letting you know where their violence could go—if they want it to.

And this is always clear: You don’t get to decide.

They get to decide.

•••

At first we had a potted garden, but when we moved into our house, she went at the hard clay with a pickaxe, double digging, and we dumped bales of moss and vermiculite and compost into the soil four feet down. Together, over years, we made a perennial garden with different rooms and arbors and sunken pits and water features and pergolas.

Wisteria, roses, clematis, poppies, lilies, hydrangeas, palm trees.

•••

It didn’t fit with her self-image to be an enraged beast—it shamed her, so she “disappeared” it. After flagrant episodes, she’d threaten to kill herself.

Or else threatening to kill herself just ended the fight without dealing with the matters at hand.

•••

After I left her, she admitted that she had no sense of self, and said she had a personality disorder (she declined to say which). She said that she had never—ever, not once—told the truth to anyone. “I just tell them what I think they want to hear,” she said, “and nobody has a clue.”

“What?” I said, “what?”  I had lived with her for almost two decades.  Wouldn’t I have known this?

“Even you,” she said. “I lied to you from the day I met you. Every word out of my mouth? Lies. Every word.”

•••

I was disabled, and she became my legs; over the years, as I grew sicker, I became more and more dependent on her care-giving and support.

She always ran ahead of our lives to see whether I could handle the terrain—and I believed that she didn’t mind. I thought she was in it for me, and I was in it for her, and we were in it for our family.

But after she broke us, she told me that living with a cripple had been like living a quarter life.

“Not even a half life?” I said, blubbering.

“A quarter life,” she repeated.

•••

We made up new words or we mangled the pronunciation of extant words. Our convos looped and spiraled until we were linguistically charmed.

•••

In 1997, she adopted the kids when our laws changed to allow it. They needed independent counsel to understand what rights they were waiving and what rights they were gaining; someone to make certain we weren’t coercing them. In those early years together, we couldn’t, as a lesbian couple, get married, but the adoption made us family and confirmed that we would always be linked, and confirmed who would inherit if she died.

•••

She had breast cancer, in situ; lumpectomy and radiation recommended. She opted for chemo, and the less-generous-me wondered if it was so other people would see her suffer.

After she healed, she held her illness over me like a sword.

“I’m having trouble swallowing,” she said when wouldn’t eat her dinner and didn’t want me to know that she’d already had dinner with her lover.

•••

She twisted my wrist when she held my hand—not once, not a dozen times, but hundreds of times. I talked to her about it often, saying how much it upset me, and also how it wrecked my hands, wrist, and elbow, gave me carpal tunnel and tendonitis etc., and for a few minutes after I said something, she’d stop squeezing, stop twisting, and we’d be just sweethearts, walking, like all the other queer sweethearts strolling around Trout Lake, madly in love, until she started again, bearing down hard, wrenching it left.

My interior monologue ran like this:

She’s happy she loves me she wouldn’t hurt me not on purpose it can’t be voluntary it must be because she’s learning to lead in dance and she’s working on developing a “frame.”

As if sense enters into battering. As if logic has the slightest role to play.

•••

In our long-time house, we had a hot tub, my wife and I. We had it installed right outside our back door, half roof-covered, half exposed, so that it was possible to be protected from the elements or not. We used it every day, pretty well, and that was where we decompressed from the stresses of our days—where we met in chit chat and bubbles.

Where I first saw her naked with the other woman.

•••

There was something hinky in how I loved her after her cancer, how besottedly I cared. I took the car in, dealt with laundry, made dental appointments, hemmed her pants, cleaned the windows, bought the paint, changed the sheets, scrubbed the fridge, ferried the kids, ground the coffee, bought the birthday gifts, sent the thank you notes, booked the ferries, hotels and air, picked up the bulbs, arranged delivery of the compost, paid the bills, renewed the mortgage, and she pretty much worked, came home, and did the heavy lifting I was too ill to manage. She looked at me often, sometimes with derision, and said, “Oh my god, you are just so kind.”

But I was absolutely terrified to lose her. My favorite thing was being with her. Doing anything.

•••

Every year, or every two years, she’d decide she didn’t need her meds anymore, giving us a two-day slide into the bad old behavior.

And I’d ask myself: Which of her is real? Happy or harridan? I wanted to believe in the former, because she glowed with health and satisfaction, but a niggling part of me believed that, actually, it was the latter.

If both were, she was deeply bifurcated.

When off her pills, she’d pick fights. She’d pick pick pick pick at my Achilles’ heels. Bland, I’d remind myself, be bland bland bland, but about day four or five, I’d say something a teeny bit snarky back.

Then I became the reason she was mad. Me being a fuckhead became her explanation for everything.

•••

When she told me that she was leaving, she said that she’d wanted to go since thirteen years before, when she’d had cancer. But that wasn’t what she’d acted like at the time: during that hell, she’d stood on the rocks on a Pacific Ocean beach and asked me to marry her, then we’d become litigants in the same-sex marriage case and fought hard, against the government’s fifty lawyers, for three years—to marry each other. When we’d wed, she was as transported as I was. I’d swear it.

•••

We never stopped having sex, not all through the good times or the bad times, not even through the break-up.

•••

“I’m sorry that I scream,” she said. “Mine just comes out as rage and meltdowns. Yours comes out as hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt. Hurt, hurt. It’s not just me. I will take—I know I’m being fucking insane right now. Please. Please.”

•••

It wasn’t until after I left her and was blemish free that I understood that I wouldn’t have bruised at all—with ease or difficulty—if her fingers hadn’t been pressed into my flesh. It wasn’t until after I left her and I no longer had carpal tunnel, tendonitis, ulnar nerve trouble, and bursitis in my arms that I realized that it hadn’t been computer work causing the pain as she’d said.

•••

That last year, I had a bad reaction to my October flu shot, so the top of my arm was three times swollen, red, and griddle hot. No sleeve was large enough, so I was half-shirtless, my top jerry-rigged, part of the neck under my armpit. My wife pulled back her arm as if winding up to throw a baseball, then slammed her palm onto my wound, shaking her hand vigorously.

While smiling. Not a serial-killer-smile like on TV, but a loving smile.

A smile that ultimately told me whatever was going on inside her was in a code that I was never going to break.

•••

When I got more direct, challenging her on the uptick in violence as our marriage had gone to hell, she told me I had abused her, too. I asked how and she said by rolling my eyes, by smirking. And then she said, “By making me dance.”

In the years when I was well enough: jive, night club two-step, west coast swing, waltz, cha-cha, mambo, samba, meringue, rumba, salsa.

•••

That mid-August week in 2011, we negotiated ways to beat the summer heat so she could go on hurting me in her preferred manner. She set up a fan in front of one of the new windows to push the air around, and even though I lived there, in that room, largely, all day long, because I ran my photography studio from it, and I knew that it wouldn’t work, I appreciated it.

I appreciated it.

I was glad I had a considerate wife.

This is true.

By the next Wednesday, the bruises on my forearms had faded into yellow smears, and my new bouquets bloomed only my upper arms.

She looked at my arms and said, “Well, never say I didn’t bring you flowers.”

I laughed and snorted. Then I sobered. “Hon? Short sleeves I want to wear are, um, a lot shorter. Um. You know. Not, you know, down as far as my elbows.”

Blank stare.

I pulled my shirt back on. “I mean…” I lightly karate chopped my mid-upper left arm. “They end about here, right?”

The next week a new set of marks, dark, circular, insistent, appeared, but just on my shoulders.

•••

Her wedding vows:

“I feel so lucky. We have had ten wonderful years together. I already know that you will love, honor, and cherish, that you will comfort me in illness. I know that we can laugh so hard we end up crying. I now that you will wipe away my tears. I know that we can be angry without hate, that we can confront without fear, that we can resolve without resentment. There are no doubts, no questions. There is only this love. The synergistic miracle that turns one plus one into a billion shining stars. You and I together can do anything. I feel so lucky.”

2003, when she’d already wanted to leave me for five years.

•••

We spent years play-wrestling, giggling our way across our bed. But then I started getting injured, a whack to the head, an elbow pushed into my back, a neck pin. “Can we just go back to how we wrestled when you didn’t hurt me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

•••

She leaned forward to confide in our couples’ counselor. Exasperated, long-suffering, she said, “I’ve been waiting—and waiting—and waiting for Jane to die.”

The counselor didn’t know what to do. Long, stilted, uncomfortable silence while I waited, sobbing, holding my hands over my face, and then the counselor changed the subject.

My wife hung two voodoo dolls, one white, one brown on her work bulletin board. She shoved pins, lots of pins, through the white doll’s chest.  Brown doll, white doll.  Asian wife, white wife.

•••

I remember all the energy I expended to keep her alive—all my care and concern and sacrifice and worry, how hard I worked to pick up income so we wouldn’t be saddled with financial worries—and when it hits me how she met that hope and drive and protectiveness doing exactly the opposite, wanting me dead, I have to breathe very deeply and slowly not to weep even now, even after four years.

•••

She started going all-the-time hooey when she turned fifty—broody and paranoid in slow increments. It was creepy and weird; she’d curve herself above me in my office chair so that I couldn’t get up, intimidating me, her voice thin and threatening. She’d lay waste to anniversaries and holidays. I took to counting her pills to see if she was medicated because I couldn’t always tell.

And then she didn’t want to garden. She didn’t want to work around the house. She wouldn’t clean the hot tub. She became a vegetarian. She lost sixty pounds. She became a gym fanatic and had to practice multiple musical instruments every evening, plus find time to meditate. During this mania, I knitted and watched TV, waiting for her to snap out of it. She seemed breakably happy. It never occurred to me that the woman she hung out with was her lover, not then, because I thought nothing could threaten us. But my wife no longer really slept. She showed signs of major anxiety—trichotillomania, twitchiness, flicking her thumb hard across her chin. She started referring to our kids as my kids instead of our kids. She started referring to her extended family as her family not our family. She stopped calling me by my nickname.

Her lies grew florid and silly.

She sat me down and told me gravely that she was sure her cancer had come back. Her cancer had been gone for thirteen years, yet everyone—not just me, but all her friends—treated her like it was active, as if she deserved special attention. Okay, I thought, cancer. Cancer again. We can do this. Even if, as I imagined likely, the metastasis was in her brain.

This particular lie, meant to throw me off the scent of her love affair, led me to push her hard towards a series of wholly unnecessary medical tests as serious as endoscopy and colonoscopy.

•••

Love and violence,

love and violence,

go together like

secrets and silence.

•••

Stockholm Syndrome.

•••

She blurted out that she was not a lesbian anymore and was going back to men. When I tried to sit her down to discuss it, and what it would mean to us, she refused to admit she’d said it.

She said I was nuts. You’re crazy. This is what you do. You make up stories.

Did she know she’d said it? Or not? I just could not tell.

In therapy, I brought it up again. I need to talk about some of these things she’s been telling me, I said. She repeated that she had not said it.

You only think that’s what she said, said the therapist. That’s what you heard.

No, I said, what she said was, I’m not a lesbian anymore. What I heard was that my marriage is in grave trouble.

A week later, at check-in, my wife said, Remember what Jane said I told her? Well, I did say that. Beat. Long beat while the therapist and I sat baffled. But I only meant that I had a hard time coming out eighteen years ago.

I said, How does ‘I’m not a lesbian anymore’ equate to ‘I had trouble coming out?’

Jane, said the therapist.  If that’s what she says she meant, I’m sure that’s what she meant. 

A later therapist said that my ex had just denied the things she’d said to mess with my head, a bully’s tactical maneuver.

To mess with my head.

The whole idea that anyone did anything just to mess with someone’s head was foreign to me, like a humanity-abruption, something shearing off, alien and grotesque, from the human womb.

•••

She believed my tears were exactly equivalent to her rages.

•••

I told her I was leaving with two weeks notice. I paid our common bills and took my half of our line of credit to live on until we could settle matters. It was finally clear to me after six months of trying, after therapy and one more chance after one more chance, after her telling me she was moving out and then not moving, after couples’ counseling that made everything worse, after her endless gaslighting and mendacity and threatening and pernicious lacks of basic good, after being scared out of my mind that she was actually going to kill me, finally, during those last months when I came to believe she wanted me dead in order not to split assets or pay support, that I had to get safe. But still I was, as I always had been, out of my mind with love for her. Unconditional love. I’d never imagined being apart. I was committed to her. We’d said forever. We’d challenged a government to prove it.

So I shaped leaving as a temporary separation just until she could get through anger management classes.

How do you leave someone you’re still smitten with?

But how do you not?

I was disabled and getting sicker faster and fifty-seven. I would have no income since I was too ill to work and, also, was leaving my studio behind in the house; I was leaping into a very deep well.

I did not believe that I could survive separation, and indeed, according to a cardiologist, I was only ten minutes from the truth. Losing my marriage pushed my disease into months of unstable angina and finally a massive heart attack, leading to more permanent cardiac damage, open heart surgery, and a chancy recovery beset with heart failure.

•••

The kids were packing boxes in the basement when my wife hip-checked me from the dishwasher. She emptied the dishes that I had stacked while I leaned on the kitchen counter behind her. She was more verbally pleasant to me than she’d been for weeks, because the kids were home. She restacked the dishes.

She sent me over a sweet, small smile.

I smiled back, tilted my head in puzzlement. She hadn’t smiled at me in months. Many times, I had asked for hugs. Many times, I had stood in front of her and nakedly said that I admired her, appreciated her, loved her while she stood with dead eyes just staring at me.

Now she came waltzing across the black and white tile and wrapped me in a bear hug. I didn’t know how to react. I started to cry right away from my sheer dumb human need for a little kindness, and from this woman who had been treating me like dog poop for months, and I wrapped my arms around her, too. She was being nice to me? Loving? So sweet, so long overdue.

But then I felt her thumb drilling into my left shoulder. At first it was like deep tissue massage that pinpointed pressure, until I registered pain. Pain? I thought of the children downstairs, embarrassed, and then I just succumbed to it the way I had to a heart attack. My arms fell.

Anyway, I knew our rules: This was (as always) a game of chicken.

I was (as always) half angry and half annihilated. Both together.

The annihilated one said, I am hurt. I believed in you. I trusted you. I gave my whole future to you. How could you do this to us, to me? To yourself?

The angry one said, Go ahead, take it further, you pig, I dare you. Do it. Do it, asshole. Do it harder. Want me to flinch? Well, fuck you fuck you fuck you. I will not flinch.

Who would stop first? Her, hurting me, or me, getting hurt? It wasn’t going to be me, goddammit. It was some point of obscene honor. I wasn’t going to give her my capitulation. I wasn’t going to hand her shrieks of weakness. I was leaving her to get safe when all I wanted was to stay—wasn’t that enough, losing my wife, my best friend, my business, my animals, my home, my garden, my income? Yes, that was all she could take. She didn’t get to see me on my knees, too.

If the kids had come upstairs, all they’d have seen was a hug.

Sure, she had rages. Sure, she threw things. Sure, she came at me with her fist raised. Sure, she screamed. Sure, she threatened suicide.  But a lot of her violence was this kind of violence, stealth violence that was hard to put into words (I think she counted on that).

It wasn’t spontaneous, this attack; it couldn’t have been. She’d had to conjure it up the way she conjured up sticking pins in a voodoo doll’s chest, the way she had to pre-think wrist twists. She probably had to research anatomy, unless it was something she’d learned in training. What I knew when she finished, I knew clear as a bell—she’d been planning this assault, strategically biding her time, studying up for its precision (even choosing my non-dominant arm). I knew that much, and maybe it was the first time in hundreds of incidents that I saw her for what she really was.

With everything else stripped away: a batterer.

At last she lifted her thumb. She broke the hug and fled.

I stared down at my arm, fascinated. It didn’t hurt. Instead it was—gone. My hand and arm were paralyzed. I hadn’t been expecting that; I’d assumed she was just hurting me like normal.

I went slowly upstairs. I didn’t know how to loop a sling without help, and it was clumsy, but I got fabric and used my right arm, my mouth, to rig it, my teeth to help tie the knot. I went back downstairs. She sat in the living room with a packing box and looked up, black-eyed.

“I have to go to Emerg,” I said. “I’m paralyzed.”

“What’s Emerg going to do?” she said. “Think that through. They’ll put you in a sling. You’re already in a sling.”

I thought, Yeah, she’s right, I guess. She’s the medical expert.

“Let me fix the sling,” she said.

So she did.

The kids came up from the basement. “What happened to your arm?” my daughter asked.

“I hurt my shoulder,” I said. Not, your mother paralyzed me. Not, I just got attacked.

The paralysis lasted three days in my arm, and five days in my hand, and damaged my hand permanently.

•••

After the house was sold, the roses were ripped out or died, Dortmund, New Dawn, Compassion, Charles Aznavour. The water feature was unplugged, the birdbath emptied, the mason bee house shaken until the bee-plugs fell. The chairs and table and heater were taken away. The delphiniums bent double on their stalks. New owners trashed the Chinese wisteria with the white raecemes two feet long. Someone threw renovation debris atop the garden beds that we’d carved out of clay, earth, and rocks, junked the sunken garden that my ex had built from glass beads during chemotherapy.

•••

Once, she and I had danced in the Milky Way under the Perseid meteor shower while bats skimmed our heads, out on the yard, me in bare feet, the grass cool and damp and impossibly green in strong moonlight, slugs munching the hostas, snails in their soft, translucent protoconchs slithering out for calcium.

Now I dreamed I walked through Allium giganteums alone, and they were high overhead, big balls, purple and bristling. I dreamed I walked under Magnolia grandiflora, and white blossoms floated down to cover me like tissues. There was a blue sky, but I couldn’t see it for the waxy leaves. Morning glory, tough, with white insistent roots, twined around my ankles and began to climb me, up over my calf and around my knee, binding me, a series of green hearts, then moved higher, higher, until it touched me where she had once put the tip of her tongue, and it stopped there, twitching.

And I stopped there, stopped.

When I woke again, it was moving day.

•••

JANE EATON HAMILTON is the Canadian author of eight books, including the just-released poetry volume Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes (available only in Canada). This piece first appeared in shorter form at Letter of Apology. She is the two-time winner of the CBC Literary Awards (2003/2014). Her winning story “Smiley” can be found online at CBC. She (sort of) blogs at janeeatonhamilton.wordpress.com; twitter: @eatonhamilton.

Friendship and a Bottle of Mirto

bikes
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Powell Berger

“I’ll take the big room in the back,” Marie announced after our host family waved good-bye, dust trailing their little red Fiat. “That way, you get the room by the front door,” she said to me, “so you can protect us.”

Marie and I hadn’t traveled together for years, and back when we did, it was usually in triple-sheeted luxury hotel rooms at resort destinations where booze and business mixed, and our corporate expense accounts picked up the tab. She’d been that go-to friend for over twenty-five years, even though time and distance and life meant that we sometimes went months—even years, a few times—without talking much. She was the anchor during my divorce over two decades ago, and I can still hear her laughing when I’d call, irate over my estranged husband’s latest transgression. “The only thing funny about it is that you’re so shocked and angry,” she’d say. “Let it go!” She was right, of course, and I’d been reminded of her sage counsel more than once in recent months. My second marriage was crumbling under the weight of deceit and abuse.

Here we were, together again, this time in Solanas, Sardinia—a tiny beach village along the island’s southern coast—in a home exchange arranged months earlier. It had been advertised as a “charming, rustic beachhouse”; it bore little resemblance to the luxury hotels of our traveling past, and, as far as we could tell, had no proximity to anything resembling a beach.

Marie had been my go-to source when Sardinia beckoned, not because she’d ever been there or had any special insight, but because her grandparents emigrated from Sicily over a hundred years ago and their Italian roots held firm, even if her passport proclaimed her an American. What is normally considered spaghetti bolognese, she calls macaroni with gravy, and her pasta lexicon is numeric, vaguely explaining those mysterious numbers on pasta boxes. She’s the diva of her Italian-loving Manhattan meet-up group, and I’m convinced that should someone cut off her hands, her tongue would fall out as well. For all things Italian, she’s my source.

And for that matter, maybe all things too hard to navigate alone.

•••

We’d met back in our DC days, me a young lobbyist for the plastic bag industry, and her, the savvy insider, keeping safe the distilled spirits industry of America. She peddled Boodles gin, Moet champagne, Absolut vodka, and single malt scotch while I tried to convince the nation of plastic’s benefits. She drew the crowd, and I rode her coattails.

It was her DC apartment—its tiny galley kitchen, ten-foot ceilings, and Victorian molding—that was my respite during the drama of my first divorce. My then two-year-old, Owen, knew her as “Aunt Marie,” our wacky friend with the elegant apartment where we had pajama and movie parties, mostly when Mom seemed sad and needed a friend. It was a regular enough occurrence that Aunt Marie’s apartment came to be stocked with Owen’s own melamine bowl and plate and cup, and a can of Chef Boyardee, to be opened only in the event of dire emergency. It should be noted that the can was never opened, Marie horrified by its mere presence in her cupboard. She finally tossed it, declaring that no kid she loved would ever eat that junk.

Sometime after my first marriage and two new kids into my second one, she was my pick to stay with my babies when my new husband and I secretly jetted off to Honolulu in search of schools, housing, and jobs, the next step in my plot to move my family from beltway politics to the beaches of Hawaii. She routinely questioned my logic, first on the new husband—whom she called Church Man because she never remembered his name and because we met at church—then on both my moving strategy and my common sense in choosing her to watch my kids. Unmarried, with no kids of her own and no tolerance for the suburbs, she looked bewildered as I handed her my house keys and a map to the preschool and waved goodbye.

She swears I never called to check on them, a point I contest, but maybe it’s true. But when I returned two weeks later, she’d become the Peter Pan in my children’s magical world. Five-year-old Austin introduced her to Thomas the Tank Engine, and she sat with him, transfixed, convinced that the show’s narrator, George Carlin, would surely revert to his stand-up calling of smut, that this children’s movie phase was purely hallucinogenic.

Like the actress glumly owning her box-office failures, she reported that two-year-old Emmi couldn’t be swayed by Coco Chanel’s timeless fashion wisdom about elegance and simplicity, insisting instead on prints plus stripes plus plaid—and the tiara—on a daily basis. “That’s okay, I guess,” Marie told me. “I did what I could. She’s young. There’s still time. And thank god the women at the preschool knew she wasn’t mine.”

•••

Teenagers now, Austin and Emmi had not spent much time with her in the years since—just short visits whenever we passed through New York City, her home since retiring from her high-flying lobbying days—but time and distance hadn’t dulled her mystique. To them, Aunt Marie was a living, breathing, designer bottle of pixie dust. Me? I believed that bottle to be filled with truth serum and honesty. Exactly the potions I needed about now.

For our Sardinian adventure, we rendezvoused at the airport in Calgieri and giggled like schoolkids as we engineered the inclusion of my family’s meager carry-ons and backpacks in the rental car after stuffing it full with Marie’s steamer trunk, designer carry-on, and expensive leather satchel. There was none of the usual whining as Austin and Emmi crammed in on top of their bags, their feet settling for the cracks between the suitcases on the floorboard. Marie drove, while I navigated the nonsensical maze of narrow, twisting, scare-you-breathless roads between the capital city and our Solanas summerhouse.

While our hosts—Italian grandparents straight out of central casting—escorted us through the history and rustic nuances of their family home, I exchanged nervous glances with Austin and Emmi. Their eyes registered our common thought: the queen of luxury—with her designer bags, Chanel sunglasses, and perfectly manicured nails—is actually going to stay here?

The small, dated kitchen with the lean-to roof jutted off the covered porch, separated from the rest of the house as though an after-thought, behind the bougainvillea vines threatening to overtake the eaves. A wobbly table and chairs—circa 1950 with the formica top and metal frames—anchored the room. Rickety cupboards flanked the fireplace where a picture of the Virgin Mary leaned against the mantle, food splatters suggesting she’d enjoyed more than a few meals here.

Across the small porch, past the simple square table and two wooden straight chairs, Grandma guided us through three sparse bedrooms flanking a space that might have once been the entryway, before TVs demanded a room. Grandma pointed to the mismatched, folded sheets on each bed, miming that we could make our own beds as we wanted. She showed us where she’d cleared the closets so we had room for our belongings and shook her head forcefully when pointing to the closed bureau in the small master bedroom. Off limits. We got the translation. Ignoring our nervous glances, Marie smiled and tested her rusty Italian, chatting and miming with Grandma, conveying our understanding and appreciation.

Outside, Grandpa scurried around the property, showing us the fresh herbs in the garden. The basil and rosemary we recognized immediately, but the thick green leaf vines brought us to a bi-lingual, miming quandary. Crowns, the couple mimed, weaving the vines together and placing them on their heads. Plucking the leaves individually, they held them to their nose then pretended to drop them into a pot, their eyes pleading that we figure it out.

“Bay leaves!” Marie suddenly declared much to our collective relief, our American city-dwelling ignorance in full bloom. Our meager herb gardens never included bay leaves, and we reveled in the just-discovered truth that they weren’t brought forth as those dry, sad leaves in the McCormick jar.

Pulling a small, distressed plank of wood from his pocket, two old fashioned keys bound to it with baling wire, Grandpa tugged me, leading us to the rusty double-wide chain-link entry gate—the one at the end of the dirt path, off the dirt road that intersected the main road that led back to the house—then handed me the key and motioned that I demonstrate my ability to successfully lock and unlock our fortress. I struggled at first, then again. He demonstrated a second time. Marie giggled quietly over my shoulder; I knew better than to catch her eye. With Grandpa’s calloused hand guiding mine, I eventually maneuvered the key into the intricate lock, forced it open, then locked us back in the safety of the compound. Grandpa nodded with satisfaction.

In the kitchen, he pulled the bottle of Mirto from the refrigerator and pointed to the small glasses reserved for the occasion. More miming—berry picking, grinding with a pestle, cooking, stirring, tasting. A Sardinian specialty made from honey and myrtle berries, Mirto liqueur warms from the inside out and sucks the breath away with the first sip. His bottle was hand-labeled “Rosalba Mirto 2012.” He’d made it himself, and named it in honor of his wife, Rosalba. We nodded appreciatively and walked them to their car.

As instructed, I took the room by the door to the porch, the door that didn’t quite close completely, the door for which the only lock was a padlock. On the outside.

No cell service, no Internet, and definitely no three-sheeted luxury beds. A rusty old gate with an antique key that I’d successfully mastered once in my four attempts. A crossroads village with one restaurant, a couple of markets, and one gas station. A winding, indecipherable maze of switch-back, harrowing roads leading in all directions but with no maps or GPS to explain them. And absolutely no idea what we’d do for the next two weeks. We reached for the Mirto.

•••

For the next fourteen days, over early morning coffee at the simple square table on that front porch, kids still sleeping, a catharsis unfolded. Always the first one up, I cut up some melon, made toast, brewed coffee, and retreated to my writing while the birds awoke and chattered in the surrounding trees. Marie joined me an hour or so later. In our faded pajamas, hair pulled back, no signs of make-up or any trappings of luxury, we sipped our coffee in silence until our brain waves fired with the first jolts of caffeine. Then the stories poured out. Each morning, a ceremonial ritual commenced, an exhalation, a release of the long-held weights that I’d not even acknowledged I’d been carrying.

“I never, ever expected to be twice divorced at fifty.”

She nodded and shrugged.

“I loved him, you know.”

She pursed her lips, shook her head ever so slightly, and locked her eyes onto mine. I knew the look all too well. It was the same one she gave me whenever I doubted my ability to get a job done. Or when I wore something she didn’t approve of, which happened so often that I took to planning my wardrobe around my plans to see her. A look of impatience, hoping I’ll eventually catch up and realize the error of my ways.

“I’ve supported myself and my kids all these years, but can I really do it again? Can I start over? Re-build a career?” Her eyebrows arched, the pshaw audible. “I’m a tired, fifty-year-old, overweight woman with rebuilt boobs cross-stitched by a freeway system of scars and no nipples because I never went back to have that done after the mastectomy. And I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m going to do next.”

Marie guffawed, the kind of belly laugh that she’d release whenever I complained about my first ex-husband.

“Really?” she said. “We’re here, facing all this, and we’re talking about your boobs?”

Once again, she was right. I laughed. “At least they’re all perky again. I don’t have to wear a bra, you know. They stand up all on their own.”

Over those mornings, on that porch in the wobbly chairs beneath the bougainvillea vines, along with the smell of fresh toast and a dwindling supply of coffee, I exhaled, letting go the months—years, maybe—of fear and destruction and failures that defined my marriage. That Marie never quite liked Church Man in the first place made it all the more poignant. She never reminded me she hadn’t liked him. She just listened.

I held back the lurid details: the slamming me against the walls, the forced sex after my chemo treatments—rape, I’d eventually come to understand—the monies stolen, hidden, and squandered. But in those mornings, those facts didn’t matter. I wasn’t quite ready to speak those truths out loud, preferring instead to write about them first.

With Marie, it wasn’t about the details of what had happened, but rather, what was happening with me. Now. Time and distance would sort out the past, I knew; my challenge now was the journey forward, what happens next, and she was my most trusted guide.

“How could I let my kids down like this? Will Emmi ever know what a healthy relationship looks like? Will Austin?”

“Yes,” she reassured me. “They will. Because you will teach them.”

“How could I have been so stupid? How did I rationalize it, ignore the obvious, let it keep happening? Am I really one of those women, the he-loves-me-no-matter-how-he-treats-me types?”

“You loved him,” she reminded me. “You believed what you wanted to believe.” Then she reminded me of her friend, the one whose husband was fired from his seven-figure post, and only after his failed suicide attempt did she know of his years of deceit and embezzlement—and that they were completely broke. “It happens,” she reminded me. “And we pick up the pieces and move on.”

I talked about my anger—the type that boils up from within and sticks to the tips of my fingers and the back of my tongue, tainting everything that passes through my hands or from my mouth. I talked, and she listened.

“Life never turns out like we think it will,” she said. “Who’d have thought I’d end up single, facing retirement in a 600-squarefoot mid-town apartment and loving it?” She told stories of her childhood, living in a walk-up apartment on East 5th, between Second and Bowery, raised by doting parents whose factory on Canal Street in Chinatown made Christmas stockings and aprons and hats, and doll dresses in the off season. “I remember we were the only ones of all my friends to have a shower and a sink in our bathroom,” she recalled, smiling. The teenager who always wore her best dress to visit the neighbors, apparently a fashionista even in the ’hood. The young lady who got a secretarial job and climbed the corporate ladder to eventually be the legislative voice of a multi-million dollar company. She’d defied tradition, expectation. And none of it had come easy.

“Remember your treks out to Staten Island?” I reminded her, giggling. Every weekend—even into her fifties—she’d retrieve her car from the garage to visit her dozens of cousins and ailing aunts, all of whom sent her home with fresh tomatoes and basil and pastas, because “you just can’t get good food in the city.”

“You and the kids really have to come to New York at Christmas,” she insisted. “Come to my party. Matt and Jake put up the ten-foot tree and do all the cooking,” she explained, “and I only invite people I really, really like.”  Her family—friends from a rich career and special people collected along the way—all gathered around for the holidays, and Marie holding court. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the season.

I listened to her stories of dinner and theatre dates with girlfriends she’s known for decades, and stories of the men she dates occasionally—nothing serious, just company, she assured me. I admired her strength—the same strength and charisma that drew me to her so many, many years ago.  “You’re a great mom,” she said, abruptly changing the subject. “You’re going to be fine.” Her sudden turn shocked me. In that moment, somewhat surprised, I realized that she admired me, too.

Without the clutter of technology, under the birds’ chirping and flapping, in the company of that old friend rediscovered again, I found the acceptance to own my past. And the realization, as she put it, to rebuild and move on.

Eventually our mornings turned to afternoons, and breakfast gave way to a drive into Villisimius, the resort town seven kilometers away, where the waiters at La Lanterna held our favorite table and knew our favorite dishes. We wandered in and out of every tourist shop, jewelry store, and occasional boutique and made a point to try every gelato joint in town.

We managed to conquer the switchback roads, and even went exploring beyond Villisimius a few times, always getting lost, and always managing to eventually wind back to the summer house, our only landmark the blooming cactus that hung so low over the dirt road that I ducked every time we drove under it. I handed off my gate duties to Austin, who turned out to be far more talented at ancient key mastery than me.

Sunset always brought us home again, to those wobbly chairs and creaky table, where re-matches of “Name that Tune” would commence. The kids had thought it lame when Marie suggested it that first night after dinner, in those hours when TV and the web might otherwise fill the void. But when she cranked up her iPhone to sounds from Flo Rida and Emeli Sande in her first few challenges, they were hooked. It became their obsession, and over the two weeks, and countless challenges, Marie never missed a beat.

I wandered through the summerhouse garden, hanging our laundry on the clothesline strung between the trees, just past the rope swing where Emmi and Austin wiled away the early evenings. I marveled at the bay leaves, their strong vines weaving a maze amidst their small plot. They aren’t dried and wrinkly at all. Sometimes discovery is gradual. Sometimes, it comes all at once. No, my marriage couldn’t be saved, I realized. And what’s more, it shouldn’t be.

Our two weeks coming to a close, we reluctantly packed our things and headed to bed on our last night there. I drafted an email to Marie, to be sent once we finally had internet again, attaching a copy of the essay I’d been writing—the long, rambling, lurid story of my marriage, its collapse, and the truths too painful to share on that porch. “Here’s the entire story, including the stuff I couldn’t say on that porch,” I wrote. “Thanks for listening.”

Just then, Austin whispered, “Holy shit!” loudly in my direction as he looked out the window into our courtyard, just beyond the table where we sat every morning. “Come look at this, Mom!”

Emmi and I rushed to his side, adjusting our eyes to the dark garden, lit only by a glimmer of moonlight through the olive trees. Slinking along the wall of the shed, silently gliding towards the porch, it was unmistakable. The moonlight cast an eerie reflection off its beady eyes—a rat, far bigger and fatter than any housecat we knew, and it was headed straight for the house.

“Don’t tell Aunt Marie!” Austin and Emmi whispered in unison.

“No shit,” I said in return.

I slammed shut the door next to my room—the front door, the one onto the porch, the one without a lock—and slid a chair in front of it for extra measure. She’d put me in that room for protection. It was the least I could do.

•••

POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two kittens, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She is currently plotting to split her time between Honolulu and her other favorite city, Paris, where she spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop. Besides Full Grown People, for which this is her second essay, her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including Travelati, Hawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. She hasn’t made it yet, but she still plans to eventually show up at Marie’s annual Christmas party. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.