DREAMLIFE: A collection of women’s dreams, recorded and then translated here as part of the Female Background metabolism. A way in, a way out.
I didn’t remember the owl until he brought me the book about owls that he’d never shown interest in before.
I remembered that we discovered him by ripping up the old wood. It was rotted, but then we went too far, we ripped up the good wood, too. I didn’t rip it up, but I did stand by, not preventing it, and I watched the impulsive and hasty thrashing. I realized the baby owl was living inside, “Wait! Stop!” I implored. Perhaps the ripping-up was part of his birth. He flailed around panicked at the new freedom and in his haste to escape the careless freneticism. He behaved as if just learning to use his wings. He’d been trapped and now needed to exercise his strength. Frightened, he flew to a nearby tree and looked back at those who ripped up his home, eyes wide. I was next to them, but not with them. I, too, stood apart and looked back at them, eyes wide with fear. The owl’s feathers were brown and white, almost stripes, a most beautiful and unusual configuration.
I was having dinner at a restaurant I used to frequent. I thought you never went there any more out of a distaste born of shame. You decided to hate the place instead of yourself. Truly you hated both now. I was surprised to see you there, eating with some friends. (Including some old friends of mine. I don’t speak to them anymore, although I continued speaking with them too long after I discovered they were feral.) You were wearing an old baggy sweater, navy blue with some holes in it, and baggy jeans. Perhaps a hat. All slightly too large and dirty, but intentional none-the-less. You left the table to smoke a cigarette, which surprised me because you were never really a smoker before and now you had a baby. I figured if you smoked, he probably hadn’t quit. I had no feelings upon seeing you beyond my surprise at your presence and at your smoking. Perhaps satisfaction that you’d returned to the kind of filth in which you indulged before you’d ever met me. I was relieved to see you return to something truer, albeit less flattering.
I went outside into the snow and behind me the restaurant was the old house where my dead husband’s parents live. My friends left without me so I used my cell phone to call my father for a ride home although it was late and I worried about his driving in the snow and also wondered if he’d perhaps had one more glass of wine than prudent for driving dark, snowy roads. As I talked with him I saw one of your friends sledding down a hill and she hit a fence and screamed with pain. I saw her crash but didn’t imagine it too be so bad. She continued to writhe and scream, seemingly unable to get up. I ran over to her body in the snow, dropping my telephone with my father on the line. Dropping my way of getting home. She lay face down, a wound swelling and bleeding on the back of her skull. Other injuries to her abdomen; she tried to get up but could not. I told her not to move and went for a phone to dial an ambulance. I worried that she lay in the cold snow, but worried more about moving her. I thought to bring a blanket. I found a cell phone in the snow to call for help, but it wasn’t mine and I couldn’t unlock it. I found my phone. I felt tired and interpreted it as my reluctance to help anymore. Her friends were nowhere in sight.
You were going to travel to Greece and I saw the large, ancient stone walls rise at the coast, a dam holding back the sea. I pointed to the dark and churning waters lapping the top of the wall, hundreds of feet tall, and told you that this was the highest the sea had ever risen in history. The sky darkened grey and navy blue and the stone wall was dark and brown. People still populated the beach, they were too close to the wall to understand or see the threat. You would travel to Meteora.
I lived in a house on the coast. I was there with two men who used to come into the restaurant, someone my friend used to affectionately call “the mayor” because of his gregarious nature and his relationships with so many townspeople. The other was a real estate agent. We all stood on the second floor of the house and looking out of the window I saw the sea rise darkly, pushing against the paneless window. There were traces of clear silicone caulk sealing this fixed panel of glass into the wall; it was never meant to open, perhaps in prescience, but the sea had never risen this high before. The storm had not even begun and the water was already threatening the integrity of the house, testing the caulk.
“You live on the coast, too, just further up. Is the water rising around your windows?” I asked the so-called mayor. “No,” he responded, seemingly unfazed.
“I’ve been having dreams about floods,” I told you. You were in Los Angeles and I was on the East Coast, with dogs recovering from surgery. Preparing for a fireworks display that would terrify the animals, send them running for cover that they would never adequately find, shaking and panting. Years ago the fireworks were viewed as a celebration, but now, there was significant dissent among the population, who, like the dogs, found the bombast terrifying and corrupt. “I don’t think these floods are about me,” I continued. “It is a warning. A message for everyone.”
We continued our conversation, but your manner changed. You were alerted and concerned because your dog was pacing. He needed something, although the answer to his interrogative was unclear, it was not quite his usual behavior. You decided to take him outside and returned my call after a few moments.
As we talked your room began to move. It continued. The floor shook, the clothes swayed in your closet. You needed to sit down.
These earthquakes continued for the next days, opening a massive fissure in the earth. The large crack extended from an area that apparently held water before. The erosion patterns on the desert sand indicate that some of that water was sucked out. The giant crack isn’t the only evidence that the region’s topography has permanently changed.
You tried to hang yourself again. He had to take the belts and scarves rigged around the apartment. You screamed violence at him and he left shaking. Everyone wanted to call an ambulance, but we prevented that from happening. I don’t know if your physical safety is of most importance, but I continue behaving as if it were. Once people came to get you, to look after you, you remained often angry and secretive. This happened before. Six months ago, but before that too, and it would happen again. It is your shame. You’ve decided to hate things and to hate yourself, repeating the story over and over in prayer. It pulls you into the fissure that’s opened in the earth. I wish you were guilty instead. Alchemizing the sickening yellow of loathing into a charcoal lump of regret. After all, charcoal is useful.
I spoke to you yesterday and you said the same things you’ve always said, writhing in the snow, head bleeding. All the while insisting you’re fine.
The dog pulled out his stitches. Again. Reopening the wound that never healed.
He sat next to me on the lawn chairs positioned on the gentle, grassy rise above the lake. The colors took on their richer, darker aspects because of the dusk. They seemed at once more grounded and more magical. I thanked him for having been president. I was surprised by the welling up in my throat, clotting the words. The simple meaning I anticipated defied by bodily experience. His eyes welled up, too. He had not intended that he become so indispensable. He was not moved because his ego was touched by my show of emotion, instead, he felt a kind of compassion for me, as representative of those whom he had let down. In a flash of expression, a slight down turn of his mouth and dilation of his pupils, I understood his kind of leadership. Success could only mean that once he was finished, the edifice would remain standing, impervious to the absence of his hand, insensible to it’s withdrawal.
He sat slightly above me, slightly behind me, on the hillside. He held my hand as we looked out onto the still water. People played in the waning light. They too, taking on a deeper glow.
As if from nowhere, I did not see them coming and could not tell you from which direction, a group of men ridiculed the former president for holding my hand. They insinuated something untoward. Not because they noticed it, but because they were clustered together and of one mind, and it was a practiced mind. Practiced at attack and slander and vulgarity. Practiced at the en masse conversion of those impulses into reality. Manifestation.
I felt deeply uncomfortable. The manifestation had been a success, for I felt ashamed. The president, however, he continued to hold my hand, his gaze over the calm, dark, lake water unwavering. I felt my shame run down my arm and pulse through my hand, tempted to pull it from his and abandon the peace. This is how infection spreads, but it stopped there in his palm. He did not tighten his grasp or loosen it. He did not continue in reaction. He just continued. The itching small spasms in my hand, slowly dissipating, perhaps through sweat from my palm. The tightening in my arm that would bend my elbow and pull away, it too relaxed again.
I stopped looking back at him, but instead adopted his gaze toward the water.
When you ask for my help I will let you sit in the garden.
I will invite you to sit in my garden, the one that I built, but only after you invite yourself. This insinuation on your part lets me know you are weak and avaricious and I will plan to care for you like I have cared for that garden. I will have you sit on the ground and I will cut your hair, watching it fall amongst the blades of grass. I do not like touching you, but I continue, marveling at how the thick, greasy masses are so unlike my fine, discrete strands. You may have cried, because you were lonely and also failed, but it doesn’t so much matter if you did. My hair is short then and I cut your hair to appear like mine, only slightly damaging it with a knife. This was to let you begin again, saying at the same time ‘Kappiyam bhante’ or ‘I am making this allowable’. I invite you to move into my home, although you also invite yourself because the movement is beginning. I invite you into my home, the one that I built so you can learn how to be me.
I know that I am leaving. I packed for the inn over a period of months. I drove through the mountains and lakes and drove back and forth past the front of the white building. Waiting to see if it would be my home and it did not answer, not with a flock of black birds, not with anything, but I was already packed. I collected all of the memories I could find and arranged them neatly and beautifully into small wooden boxes. I made sure these memories were the elaborately specific ones, the ones that could never be replaced or recreated. I left the more obvious ones out, the generalities, so that no one would really notice that the unusual ones had disappeared. (Being unusual, they were harder to see anyway, so it is never so difficult to make them disappear. Their absence rarely raises suspicion.) I wrapped the small boxes in strips of white paper and glue so that they could not be opened again. Looking at the small mummified boxes was a reminder of necessary omissions, but not of those things themselves, those would be lost forever. You hid things, too, with craft, using a small knitted pillow to conceal spent casings from bullets used to shoot law books, which were lined up for execution in the back woods. A facile and darkened mimicry.
A tree grows around a rope.
I considered taking you with me, but I was sacrificing you instead. An offering to make peace in my absence, to heal over the wound. I could not take you with me. When offering such things, a layperson can either remove the seeds or make the fruit allowable slightly damaging it with a knife. This is done by piercing the fruit; it is a form of seduction meant to reveal what is inside the skin. And I could count on you to be weak and not of your word. I saw that in you from the beginning. And your insinuation, your striving. If not for these things the replacement could not have happened. Now it would simply be a process of “making allowable”. Just the body sitting in for another body, learning to speak the language.
Would you be poisoned forever by your own treachery? Never whole? Never integral? Word always loose and false. There are twenty more years to diverge now. But those years are already past, not the future.
Stories are written as if they are the past but I am foretelling this story not telling it. I know what will happen. I see the world coalesce around my pain and my birth. You tried to burn a silk scarf with an iron and we were surprised at the length of time it took to create the dark impression on the peach silk.
Monks will refrain from carrying on correspondence with women, other than for matters pertaining to the monastery, travel arrangements, and providing basic information. When teaching, even in a letter, it is easy for inspiration and compassion to turn into attachment
The earth will move with me as collateral from these violent observations. Nations will change too, because language will change. When female background is born the world will lose its words. All scrambling to put like with like instead. Consumed with fear and compulsion. It will be foretold with the undifferentiated, incessant voices of women escalating to a violence. Against one another because they cannot learn, they’ve become small, trivial.
Part 2: Chatter
I will practice replacing girls with other girls. With moving them into the background. All of them, so there is nothing to be distinguished between a landscape and a swath of hair. The hills around my house and the back of an animal. I will have a puppet theater in the bathtub: two twins moving back and forth between personalities with a simple incantation “you be me.” And then to switch, “ok, now you be me.” Mimicking each others speech and manner. Telling one another’s story. Becoming one another like jumping rope double dutch style.
I will cast spells of objects and actions over time. I will take the puppets into the woods, as snowy trees move back and forth and I’ll have them whisper in alternation: “you be me, ok, now you be me.” I will change my body and my dress. I will wear glasses, pretending not to see, and then dye my hair. My costume will make us indistinguishable to the untrained eye so that when I am ready to leave, you will not notice me gone, will not feel the absence.
Women’s voices will be indistinguishable from one another; as the sound and number escalate, like a flock of migrating birds marking the time to go, the effect is dissonant, raucous, desperate, and volatile. It portends a violence. The are no distinctions, pure background.
Part 3: Fertilization
Once a single sperm has penetrated, the cell membrane of the egg changes its electrical characteristics. This electrical signal causes small cortical granules just beneath the membrane to empty their contents into the space surrounding the egg. The contents swell, pushing the other sperm far away from the egg in a process called cortical reaction. The cortical reaction ensures that only one sperm fertilizes the egg. The other sperm die within forty-eight hours.
I move away from the plot of land in the midst of trees demarking, but only barely, parts of the rural hillsides. I move up through celestial spheres, I watch these earthbound parts getting smaller. You try to follow, grasping skyward. I see the perspectival distortion of your form as I look backwards, your head striving large and body trailing small behind you. Passing the boundary from one sphere to the next, it is time to let go. The sphere’s membrane closes, forever. Your rapid mutual descent to earth tempered by snow falling quietly and gently. Nestled together back into the hillside, the bucolic sphere rests on a small wooden stand, which rests on a small wooden, bedside table. This makes it all easier, more stable.
“I didn’t really fall in love with you until you fell in love with someone else,” my husband said. The light of this insight would soon be blotted out by the darkness of his affair with my friend, a young woman whose age nearly matched the length of our twenty-two year relationship.
I’d met someone over a decade before at Haystack, an artist residency on the coast. I saw him as soon as I stepped from the gravel parking lot onto the wooden deck upon arriving. My palpable response to his presence had more to do with a sense of movement than with appearance. Something tangible, yet invisible. We grasp at forces like magnetism and electricity to explain the kind of tugging and sharpness.
When I found that he and I were assigned to the same studio, I was deeply relieved. I felt inexplicabley safe. His proximity allayed the familiar, but long latent, social anxiety that blindsided me with it’s resurgence upon my arrival to this place.
I experienced my feelings more like the memory of feelings. I felt like a person I’d been long ago. This alienation was provocative, like a traveler’s estrangement, revealing intimate things that never seem to change, though sometimes they’re forgotten. This reverie made me miss my husband and I began, almost immediately, writing him letters. I reflected on how we’d been ten years ago, when we’d met at a tiny liberal arts college on the East Coast. Our connection then forged by some shared version of what I was feeling again in that present moment. An inquisitive and observational drive meandering back and forth over the line between excitement and anxiety. I bummed a cigarette from another artist and smoked alone on the deck, enacting another memory, a regression.
That first evening of the residency, all of the artists gathered for a communal dinner of homemade pizza in the lodge. After eating with my new studio mates, I suddenly felt acute pain in my abdomen. A doubled-over, face-flushed, leave-me-alone, but someone-please-help-me kind of pain. Without missing a beat, my new friend, confirming my most immediate intuitions, took charge. He made contact with the staff after hours, procured medicine, tea, and sat next to me until I was well.
The two of us spent the next weeks working side by side in the studio. We learned how to make nets by tying different kinds of strategic knots. We used crochet for sculpture. We tied silk and cotton yardage around small and various objects and dipped it into steaming, noxious vats of dye. He made me a silk scarf with his newly acquired skills, but added a well-placed iron burn, a contradistinctive gesture in this place where everyone seemed to put the world aside for utopic immersion. For us, the shine seemed suspicious, calling to question what it obscured.
In addition to these sanctioned pursuits, we made creatures from spent pistachio shells. The exquisite corpses emerged from bits of string, bobby pins, and ink throughout the days.
We paused in pleasant surprise to discover our mutual Wu Tang love, further demarking us an incongruous demographic.
We laughed at the messages left in the guest book and added our own under each other’s names. We marveled at the behaviors of people away from their daily lives: I interrupted my roommate getting an awkward massage from a man named Ed. Ed had written in the guest book, too: “Life is short. Haystack is long.”
The day our studio group was tasked with presenting histories of our work to one another; I nervously fumbled with my slides. He loaded the projector for me.
Not only was vulnerability OK; this man helped me. The effect was so foreign I could not then name the experience. Even as a child my well-intended parents would push me, hoping that through immersion or coercion I would unlearn my pronounced and innate reticence. I learned instead that even the smallest bits of life were painful and no one was there to help. It was my moral obligation to overcome, my fear a kind of failure. Through these new kinds of interactions it was as if something inside me dislodged, like a bit of ice melting in a glass of cubes, and soon everything falls just a bit, into a new place, and slowly becomes less rigid, more fluid.
I was flirting, but I indulged it, not because I didn’t assess that risk, but I determined there was none. First, my new friend was surely gay. He even referred to his current partner with gender neutral pronouns, not a usual habit for straight people. Second, he was six years younger than I, which seemed like a lot at the time, especially since those particular years marked different stages of life. Finally, this residency was only two weeks and he would soon return to school 2,000 miles away.
For this moment, I needed the profound sense of safety and belonging that I felt in our small exchanges and quiet work. That sense of security on one front, allowed an opening for growth on another; I glimpsed a new horizon for my work. One day in a group discussion, he said, “I just want to live my quiet little life.” The contrast between the humble content and his enthusiastic confidence was startling. It resonated with me so thoroughly as if we just made our life’s plans together.
The last day of the residency came. I walked alone on a wooded path towards my cabin, a lump forming in my throat. I sat on the ground to quell the vertiginous welling, instead, I began to cry, overcome with grief. Unnerved and mystified, I interrogated the feeling as it consumed me. What was my problem? I was in love and I would never see him again.
I returned to my daily routine, changed. My husband and I continued our work renovating an old one-room schoolhouse, transforming it into our home. I tended to my tasks absently. I was listless, tearful. My stomach ached.
One day, weeks later, I received a letter in the mail. He missed me, too. The partner he’d so vaguely referred to? He was breaking up with her.
“These are the challenges marriage is made of”, I told myself. “Events unfold over long arcs of time. The nature of feelings is transience, the nature of marriage, commitment,” I tried reasoning with myself, inspiration to just wait this out.
“If you feel the same way in five years”, I told myself, “then might be time for action”. The problem was, I had already taken action, albeit involuntarily. I was not present in my life anymore. I had to fix it.
“But, you can’t love two people at once,” he said softly, staring at the steering wheel.
“I guess you can,” I said, heartbroken. In some ways, I’ve been heartbroken ever since. I can say this still, over thirteen years later.
My friend and I continued to write letters and talk on the telephone. “I love you,” I told him, “but nothing is going to change. You should find someone else.”
I dragged my sister to visit him with me almost five months after we first met; she and I drove over thirteen hours and checked into a hotel in the city where he lived. Our next visit would be another eight months after that. Our relationship slowly became a part of reality for me and my husband.
“You have to make a philosophical decision”, a friend warned.
“But, we already have”, I thought to myself. We chose the only path that was not arbitrary, and although I recognize that as a matter of some indifference when it comes to meaning, it was everything when it came to wisdom.
I felt guilt, but not in a way I could have expected. I felt guilty for being with my husband. Was my internal compass broken, or did my instincts reveal a truth I couldn’t understand?
Despite that, I brought everything to my marriage first. My marriage was the largest circle in a set of Venn diagrams, everything that happened was within that circle. At our wedding we read aloud from Wendell Berry: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort… It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” My universe functioned only under the rules of that marriage, but not blind to the realities it faced. Marriage was my shelter, a wellspring of courage. It made meaning by virtue of it’s very structure, calling me to face and solve the problems it created, by revealing my reflection in another.
Our so-called pains and perils were hard to parse. Our marriage now included this third person. More so than conventional marriages, it was political as well as personal. This felt especially true in the rural town where we lived. My husband worked for his parents, conservative Christians who stayed in the small town where their family had lived and run businesses for generations. Despite his daily lunch and video games with his mother, he didn’t share much about his personal life. The decision to reveal our relationship to his family was left to his discretion. I didn’t want to violate his privacy. I had renewed empathy for other unconventional relationships in hostile times and in hostile places.
I had a very close relationship with my mother-in-law and it pained me to feel as though I were keeping something from her. “You’ll find someone someday”, she told my partner at dinner one night as the three of us stared at our plates, finding it suddenly difficult to swallow any food. The secrecy produced feelings of guilt and alienation, weighing heavily on me for over a decade and finding destructive expression in anxiety, obsessive work habits, and excessive drinking.
We were effectively in the closet for over twelve years.
This secrecy was counterbalanced with unwelcome scrutiny. The three of us were increasingly committed to our relationship, even moving in together. My unmarried partner and my husband became close friends – more so even, they were as family, planning a future. Eventually, my partner and I told our geographically-scattered families. His were concerned but supportive. Mine, I suspect, were ashamed, and mostly expressed anger and disapproval. (We spent some time not speaking.) Slowly, as they spent more time with the three of us, they accepted the relationship, albeit begrudgingly. We enjoyed holidays together. We traveled. We behaved much as any other family. Despite some level of acceptance, I felt uncomfortably overexposed – a private aspect of my life, one which ‘normal’ heterosexual couples could expect to be left private, was now open to the salacious, speculative, and critical fantasies of others.
On the other side, there were great joys and illuminations for having given over to this relationship. A pride in attempting to face something so inexorable and culturally pervasive with thoughtfulness and compassion. The three of us took great pleasure in considering and discussing it over the years, how it highlighted dimensions of relationships generally (“in order not to be alone, you need to be two, but in order to be a couple, you need to be three”). Nothing could be taken for granted, imparting a beauty and generosity often lacking once love’s urgency wanes and gives way, even if slightly, to the mundane. Honesty became king among values, a new prerequisite for engagement.
I once heard a sermon at a wedding comparing marriage to a triangle whose sides A and B represented the husband and wife. Alone, their union was unstable. The addition of the third side, C, for Christ, stabilized the marriage, a triangle being the most stable shape. Our trio did, in fact, last longer than most romantic relationships of any kind.
A year before, this friend was going through a breakup. “Can I come over? Will you cut my hair?” she asked tearfully. We sat in my backyard and I cut the thick, greasy mass of blonde hair to a short bob, like mine, as she requested. I offered that she stay with us until she was back on her feet and she admitted to having wanted that, to being on the precipice of asking if she could move in. That was the beginning of a transformative dialectic where through some unwitting, but fateful collaboration I slowly disappeared, leaving her in my place.
Despite the outcome, she initially set her sights on my friend. “Maybe he and I will fall in love,” she calculated. Once she moved in, I had to tell her about our relationship, about the polyamory (a term I employ here, but rarely used and to this day do not relate to). I see only now that she was hunting; she was hungry and looking for signs of weakness.
The affair started once she’d moved out, with frequent text messages and emails. A party they attended together while I was out of town. Like so many years ago at Haystack, I assessed the risk. Sure my calculations were faulty the last time, but this time, the risk was visible from outer space. They followed a tried and true formula for falling in love in a series of various inappropriate interactions. She described and collected her dreams, mostly sexual in nature, for him. In some transparent pedagogical fetishism, my middle-aged husband would analyze them for this twenty-something friend. I protested, pleaded even, but my husband was volatile. She was a fourth side to the geometry of the relationship, irrevocably weakening the figure.
I knew if I pushed too hard, he’d rebel. He angrily assured me there was no risk. He would guard over his cell phone with a bodily paranoia, always angling a shoulder or an elbow against the world, folding inward and turning sharp corners outward. I, knowing better, felt my only strategy was a loose grasp. Sometimes this meant leaving the room to cry out of view. Any display of feelings produced contempt in my husband, coldness. Any resentment he’d buried over the years, he concentrated in this one willful act.
“Did your husband tell you about that racy dream he had last night?” her question landed like a blow to the stomach. “No,” I answered as breezily as possible, trying to control the expression on my face. I knew she was no longer my friend despite her pretense, but I had no commitment to her. She was insignificant to our problem.
Months before, the four of us had gone to a table tipping at a spiritualist summer camp nestled into a steep hillside overlooking the ocean. The medium called us at random to the table in small groups. She relayed messages from those who had passed. My grandfather thanked my partner for caring for me, startling not just because of the medium’s adamance, or its resonance with reality, but because we were in a group of strangers. The medium had no knowledge that we knew each other at all. “This is strange”, she began, “for some reason her grandfather wants to speak to you. Do you know each other?” she directed the question at my partner.
She advised my young friend to move across the country.
Hazel, my husband’s grandmother, warned him to move away from his parents and the family business. To take charge of his own life, outside of that small town. My husband laughed it off, “The dead are just like the living, only more benighted.”
“You’ve decided everything. I’ve never made any choices”, he rationalized his leaving me. It was true, I gave direction to our lives. Our house, our four dogs, our finances, our social life, the state we lived in, these were all my choices. The decision to get married; I’d even gotten my own engagement ring.
“You are trying to fix something within yourself, with something outside of yourself,” diagnosed the shaman we saw when trying, if only very briefly, to salvage our marriage. Suddenly, the feelings of sexual urgency that accompany new love were a bright light beaming into his life, which now appeared like a prison cell of inertia. Love was now cause and means of moving away from our marriage. He used it as retaliation, suddenly discovering a repressed anger he’d always vehemently disavowed. “We can’t help you yet, because you haven’t done enough work on yourself for it to take”, concluded the shaman.
At Haystack all those years ago, I’d remembered an older version of myself. My husband was now, too, finding himself through renewed desire. He needed to go back to the place where he’d lost the thread of his own identity. Like a little girl learning double dutch, rocking back and forth until she spots the moment where she understands the rhythm, where she knows it in her body. It’s a version of belonging that calls her to jump in. “She is my truth,” he repeated. The lens of a twenty-something woman became a powerful occasion for self-revelation. This was a middle aged man using this affair as a form of self-discovery, on a quest for a new (or lost) identity. “I need to grow up. I can’t do that with you”, he said. It was a beautiful equation, by choosing someone whose age matched the duration of our relationship and approximated the age that we met, he could go back and undo it all. He could start again in his twenties and erase the history of our pain.
He referred to the feeling of ease he felt in her presence, as an immersion in “fuck-it time.” It was shorthand for a kind of nonchalant, pot-smoking, job-hopping, ethos of indolence, both physical and intellectual, that let him escape his otherwise hyper-critical existence.
There’s only so much self-betrayal one can take before the body rebels and compulsions take over. Heartened by her cavalier and relativistic attitude, he adopted it. Only in him, it mutated into a righteous nihilism. Intellectually, it gave him permission. With a simple, “Fuck it.” Poof! Our marriage disappeared. “I have new ideas about responsibility now,” he defended. “She’s right, it just doesn’t matter”, he argued for her defacto exposé: a marriage ceremony should be just a party, without the added trouble and insignificance of a “piece of paper” or legal sanction.
I experienced his affair, just like anyone would, as trauma. It was in our home, with my friend, and there were so many lies. I lost the home that I worked so hard to renovate and tend: That season alone I’d planted two-hundred ostrich ferns, five peonies, and four rose bushes that I would never watch grow. They even dated at the restaurant in the small town where I worked, culminating in the loss of my job. My privacy destroyed.
My husband told his parents about our twelve years of polyamory in the same breath as admitting his betrayal. The manipulative effect of the timing adding significantly to insult and injury. My in-laws have not spoken to me since.
My husband refused all conversation.
“We fell in love,” my one-time friend explained to people.
“She had someone else and now he does; it’s only fair,” people gossiped. To me, they’d nod, “You got what was coming to you”.
Their relationship was attributed to my selfishness over the years, (who was I to believe I could be in a relationship with two men?) Even my friends pitied him, saying he finally felt his anger and jealousy. It was my job to have emotional oversight, to read between the lines, to act as guardian. He’d let me have my relationship for all of these years, where was the quid pro quo?
Facing this devastation in light of the previous decade did not feel like a lesser betrayal as the community expected it should, but instead a far greater one. I was forced to move out of the state, closer to my family, my life wiped out on every front. I considered my life with my husband one of building: our home, our relationship, but most importantly a very hard-earned story of love, identity, and purpose. It seems he was right that I did those things alone. His one act of will, or work, towards our life was to destroy it, burning its bridges and salting its earth. In this he came alive.
I have chosen to call this strategy the interior intersubjectivity, which I would, in turn, designate as the locus at which self-interrogation takes place. It is not an arrival but a departure, not a goal but a process, and it conduces to neither an answer nor a “cure,” because it is not engendered in formulae and prescriptions. More precisely, its operations are torque-like to the extent that they throw certainty and dogma (the static, passive, monumental aim) into doubt. This process situates a content to work on as a discipline as an askesis, and I would specify it on the interior because it is found in economy but is not exhausted by it. Persistently motivated in inwardness, in-flux, it is the “mine” of social production that arises, in part, from interacting with others, yet it bears the imprint of particularity. In the rotations of certainty, this “mine” gets away with very little, scot-free, and that, I believe rebounds back upon the ethical wish that commences this writing.*
My husband had an affair with my friend, a woman whose young age nearly matched the duration of our twenty-two-year relationship. “So you’ve heard?” she announced to our mutual acquaintances in the local food co-op the morning after my husband confessed. They hadn’t heard.
My husband, a middle-aged man struggling with his identity, on a quest for the “unexplored self”, divorced me and married my friend less than a year later. The real pain, however, isn’t the destabilizing contrast between the banality of these facts and the specificity of personal devastation, but the retroactively revelatory #MeToo Klieg lights which would come to illuminate cultural consciousness just a few short months later.
“We had a sleepover,” my friend told my suspicious co-workers to raised eyebrows during a breakfast date with my husband at the restaurant where I worked. I was out of town for the weekend.
A few weeks prior on an otherwise-pleasant, June night, my grandmother sat, scared, in rehabilitation facility hundreds of miles away. “I know what to do,” was her familiar battle cry and defense. So that evening on the telephone, her plaintive, “tell me what to do,” unnerved me. My friend came over to comfort me. Early in the evening, exhausted, I headed to bed. Upon waking in the morning, I startled to find her still there having slept in my husband’s study; she sheepishly ducked out before coffee. The sudden sense of her expression struck me only weeks later, once I learned of their affair.
My husband confessed they’d slept in my bed that weekend I was out of town; he slouched on the shower floor and wept under the weight of shame (a word he kept using, explicitly disavowing guilt). This only after I punched him, closed-fist, in the mouth. Not because of the affair, but because, in the climax of his smug confession, he laughed at me. His practiced absence intensified at any sign of emotion, making me feel as though I might disappear. My connection to reality felt tenuous and distorted. What he mirrored to me in those moments was something of funhouse nightmares, foreign and destabilizing. His laughter was aggressive, retaliatory even. I punched him because he wasn’t even there. His lip bled over his teeth and he returned to his body; the smugness dissipated. He expressed desire to stay in our marriage. Despite the disgust and shame with which I recall this encounter, a neutrality or resignation has emerged as I contemplate that fundamental absence and presence that pervaded our relationship for so long. To say that being in our heads was a disease of our marriage, while undoubtedly and ironically a feature of the attraction, would be a gross understatement. So while I could not have prescribed or recommended the violence, it feels now like throwing a sort of life-raft to the body, imploring, like a slap to wake up, cold water splashed. As if one body implored another body, albeit way too late and beyond the metabolic scope, to let this sink in. These words, sink in, an invocation of the physicality of consciousness, of wisdom.
In the movie Klute, Bree Daniels, played by Jane Fonda, discovers an intruder’s semen in her bed. It’s understood as an unambiguous horror. Was it because women don’t leave semen that my bed was no crime scene? Does a tearful admission of bad conscience absolve culpability, playing into the notion that women are too weak to perpetrate? I imagine her tone of voice delivering the classic lines: “we shouldn’t do this” or “you have to tell her”. The verbal equivalent of rolling-onto-one’s-back, walking a fetishistic line between helplessness and exhibitionism. Sometimes it’s just called seduction. An ethically cloaked posture undermined with every false protestation and surreptitious declaration of love. My husband was her accomplice, washing evidence from our sheets.
When I returned home after their tryst, he came onto me in that bed. If some drug induced my oblivion, my inability to rightfully consent, instead of a weekend out-of-state, surely the violation would be apparent. What kind of omission constitutes fraudulence when it comes to sex?
The real betrayal, however, were the lies yet to come. He told me he didn’t think about her much, that he wasn’t seeing her, despite her plaintive text messages claiming she knew better than to write, but was ‘weak’. Urged by these disclosures, I unwittingly spearheaded the farcical efforts to repair the damage. Every exchange under the aegis of these false intentions I recall in lightning flashes of renewed pain: He carried my grandmother’s coffin at her funeral. We rearranged our furniture, visited a Shaman, wrote poems, contemplated moving. He suggested we have a baby.
After years of keeping his hair cut short, he left it longer on top. I gave him a small, carved comb made of bone. Perhaps I wanted to nurture change. Perhaps I wanted a gesture that broached the topic of his body without subjecting my own to that work. A promissory note of sorts: I would wade slowly back into intimacy.
I was uncannily drawn to the elements.
Earth: I sat in my bathrobe at the edge of the woods, my face turned away from the house so that I could see only trees. The one-room schoolhouse we’d renovated together, now only the site of so many acts of betrayal. It was tainted with such thoroughness it’s tempting to call it calculation, even malice. Having lost my job in the restaurant because of their public activity, I went to work instead on the farm that supplied the business. My perspicacious and benevolent boss, seeing that I was ‘not in my body’ made the suggestion.
Fire: In a ceremonial attempt at purification, my husband sacrificed the necklace she’d left in his study.
Water: I planned a weekend on the coast so that we could swim. My husband suggested we take the New York Times quiz that makes you fall in love. We did not perform the final act of prolonged gazing into one-another’s eyes. Perhaps I no longer wanted to love him. Sex was easier, less intimate, than looking at him.
Air: We started running together.
No amount of elemental immersion, however, could bring me back into a body that did not want to feel. Under threat of losing my marriage, my home, and my life as I knew it, I felt compelled to have sex with my husband, despite reeling from trauma and shock. Our sexual encounters were dark, now just a final defense against unmitigated annihilation. “I feel like you’re treating me like an experiment,” I told him. “Using me to explore some private question.”
If the soil for abuse is an established power differential, marriage might be the Fertile Crescent. Subject for so long, perhaps women, like children and animals, are not capable of giving consent at all.
I knew something was wrong; I would dream the graphic details of their sexual encounters: He put our wedding ring up her ass. I was too deeply shaken to trust my intuitions. Confronting him again, he admitted to continuing the affair during our time of reconciliation. He walked into our home after work, handed me a bottle of wine, hoping I would anesthetize myself, saving him the trouble of undue interaction. He announced our divorce. He’d been seeing her all along: the weekend he ‘went to his friend’s beach house’. Those nights he ‘went to the movies’, when I awoke late and alone in our bed and called him, worried he’d not yet returned home. I ignored everything my body was telling me in the hopes of saving my marriage, while he sat comforting her at the edge of the lake, pitying her other-woman distress.
He prided himself on his capacity for what he’d long ago coined “emotional amputations”. There would be no discussion, “I refuse to deal with your ego,” he declared preemptively with no small measure of contempt.
Ego probably was the right word. This kind of violation threatens one’s sense of self. In many of the #MeToo stories, the violated question whether any violation even occurred. They seek some kind of authority or community for sanction of their feelings. Their identity has been fundamentally damaged. My husband repeatedly claimed that this other woman was the occasion for his desire, his ‘fantasy’. He made the distinction, explicitly and verbally, between his desire and an ego, and he chose his own desire. It’s this culture of permission (think “locker room talk”) that collectively refuses the ego of women in favor of objects of desire.
“Is this a story about you and me? You and her? Or just a story about you?” I asked with genuine curiosity. He scoffed, “Of course it’s all about me”, as if that were the only answer deserving dignity.
My one-time friend told people, in antagonism to agency, that she and my husband had simply and passively “fallen in love.” This palliative sufficiently eased the conscience of friends and family.
It has been a rare sleep, since my husband’s confession that hasn’t been adulterated by nightmares. I’m now quite familiar with not being in my body, especially when it comes to sex. Graphic images from the time I believed we were “trying” overcome me, unexpectedly, producing bodily sickness and psychic retreat. Perhaps those ways of feeling violated or compelled are too subtle, too ubiquitous, or just simple, sans hashtag me toos. Perhaps their transgressions only rise to the level of poor taste.
We suffer injustice because we’ve been sold a mythology of love and an aesthetic of empowerment. My one-time friend is a self-professed feminist, purporting the ‘Future is Female’, t-shirt, bumper sticker, and social-media-style. She aspired to being a midwife, idolizing Ina-May Gaskin. I flushed anger when I, in preparing to give birth to my son, came across this passage in Gaskin’s book Spiritual Midwifery: “A midwife must have a deep love for other women … The true sisterhood of all women is not an abstract idea to her”.
People remarked, at the time of my divorce,“there are two sides to every story”, something I don’t believe. There is only ever one story or many. I am now, as a woman, wife, and mother, deeply wary of self-betrayal in my most intimate relationships. I’m wary of becoming simply a fantasy. In other words, what others desire, my identity derived from the needs of others, even because of love. Perhaps because of fear, or of losing the way another can anchor us to our family, or community. Perhaps even because our lives depend on it.
If the light of #MeToo consciousness has unwittingly penetrated so deeply into my marriage and friendships, then let its proliferation of elaborately specific stories deliver us from ‘abstractions of sisterhood’. Let it change our understanding of who we are to reveal a path forward. Let the attitudes and tendencies of the world follow. That is the future of female.
*from Hortense J. Spillers’ “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”: Psychoanalysis and Race,” in Black and White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 376-427. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 383.
There is a movement, as in circles of a purgatory, from the detective to the monk. It is both a natural progression, but also a spiritual progression involving certain practices using a series of ropes and strings. The movement, which might be understood as a progression, or even an ascension, requires the proper movement of these ropes and strings involving the dexterity and coordination of an athlete combined with the precision and vision of a craftsman. The detective learns to identify clues and to collect them. He begins organizing them, using the ropes, tying one to another in an appropriate sequence to create a tool, like a net that may slowly hold all of the clues. It will account for them, that is why the order and sense must be present, leaving no space too large for things to fall through or too small for things to become pinched.
When I fell in love it was by the ocean, but not in a warm place. There were trees and moss and grey weathered decking. I was doing simple tasks with my hands like crocheting and making nets. In order to make nets one must tie a serious of knots and connect them. Like a wall with images and names, bits of button or cloth pinned up in clear plastic sleeves or bags, old hairnets and cigar boxes, an ashtray from a rest stop in Alabama – all clues that a detective collects and then connects with marker or pieces of red string, connecting until something comes together that can be used to catch other things. To hold other things. Maybe fish. A shape of time.
The future, it is like pure spirit, no encumbrances like body, pressing down and deforming the truth. The good detective, the one on the ascending path, has learned that eye witness testimony is either unreliable or exactly as true as anything else in the past, meaning not nearly as true as the future. It is this realization, among others, that incites the detective to ascend towards the monk. Moving from a series of clues that reveal a story to no clues, pure story. There is no language in the future, language has always been the currency of falsehood.
The detective moves towards the monk. The ropes once used for tying nets are now just turned and turned, no knots. He begins to learn his witnesses cannot be trusted, perhaps through malice, but more often by nature. As with making nets by the ocean, double dutch moves ropes in a rhythm, but unlike the detective, who ties the series of knots, who closes the loop to contain things, the double dutch ropes keep moving. They are never tied off; they never stop. This is why the detective introduces (again) double dutch to New York City. I will go there.
When you sense what is invisible, or what is different than you sensed before, a different kind of substance, it may be considered an illness. Like deafness or blindness, a diminution of certain senses that allows others, now enhanced, to come to the forefront. This substance that I sense is between the other stuff. Between the people and the words and the chairs. It is what lets the double dutch jumpers know the moment to jump into the swinging ropes, it is not only where the ropes are but where they aren’t and this is never static, so what is it they are waiting for? What are they accustoming themselves to as they rock back and forth judging the moment. Sensing the moment. Falling in love. Sensing the movement of space and substance and accommodating oneself to that rhythm, first inside feeling that particular fullness and lacking that is that other person. It is a rhythm that you must match before you can jump in. It feels good to be home in that way, to find a movement that is yours, even if it looks different than you thought it might.
I started seeing things differently. Only the word seeing no longer seemed like the correct word. I have heard people talk about the spaces in between things. The illusory spaces and the idea that even in what we think of as discrete bodies there is more space than substance. In this way people can imagine the physicality of interconnectedness, as well of course as disconnectedness. I’m afraid once I invoke the language of the space-in-between, it concedes too much to the concept that there is in-between, somehow as primary, or in-fact. As if the point were made by banging a hand on a wooden table, only further confusing the issue by emphasizing the wrong senses, materiality, violence, the concrete.
I watch the girls playing double dutch. Two swing the ropes, connected not through ropes but through rhythm. And the one girl readying to jump in. She rocks back and forth, one might say waiting for her moment. She is not waiting. She is preparing. She is becoming part of the rhythm, taking on some part of the motion and adding her own.
I am seeing the rhythms that are entered into. The ones that match our own, so we can most easily move with and through them. It is seeing what isn’t there. It is learning to see what is not visible, like background. Like female.