“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.
“Can he even get it up for you if you don’t bend over?” a friend speculated on my partner’s sexuality as a way of insinuating a generally lurid and corrupting vein of suspicion into what she considered a reckless and degraded situation.
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.
Despite having written much over the past couple of years about a devastating turn in my life, I have not shared that writing. My body has decided on this opportunity to demonstrate a marked indifference to the compulsive clamoring of the mind’s narrative. The body insists upon trauma and it’s own temporal mandates: I am not healed.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the head knows what the heart still refuses to metabolize. The disjunction between the knowledge that true sanction lies within, and the invincible and contraindicated desire to share, causes me shame. I’ve failed to reconcile these internal mechanics, limping around like a simulated human from some dystopian future, not yet able to integrate different parts, to achieve credible likeness through human fluidity.
As I attempt to parse this conflict, shame emerges, thematic. The more I consider my reluctance to share, the memories of shameful experiences proliferate. Feelings of shame have been, for me, less terrifying than an alternative where those closest to me could not be counted on for comfort or connection. I have learned not to trust my own emotions, and have been unable to use them as a compass for living. I preferred the thought that I was the cause of my own distress,that my abnormality, my wrong-ness was to blame for feeling so alone.
After my divorce, there were people who never spoke to me again. One, a man I’d known for almost 15 years, someone I’d invited into my home after his own divorce when he needed a place to rebuild. The same man who delivered a reading from Wendell Berry at my wedding: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me… . It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” A particularized problem so complex and inextricable from our selves, so inexorable as to produce countless impasses for the imagination (the human tool possessed most fully of infinitude) that to evade that rhizomatic nest is simply to bury that self along with epigenetic hopes for future peace.
I thought back to one of the final exchanges I had with this man. He spent the night at the house I shared with my then-husband. He, firmly middle-aged, had recently started seeing a woman considerably younger than himself, a pattern that unfolded in the typical manner: he grew older, the women stayed the same age. This particular woman had apparently been through a series of sexual traumas, a topic he broached with us, his close friends, in a serious and avuncular tone. He, in his consummate sensitivity and gentleness would save her from this history. His manner approached fetishistic – he the guide to this young woman, a savior from the damage of sexual predators past. (Attempting to disavow any connection to a gendered power dynamic, he self-described as lesbian.) He elaborated tales of this young woman’s trauma, which, although undoubtedly trauma, he characterized as assault: In high school, she had given a blow job she did not want to give to a young man because he was “popular”, “black”, and “on the football team.”
Admittedly, I was rather blunt in my attack of this disclosure. Insensitive.
Lest the description of my dismay topple into the well-worn grooves the media and cultural discussion have handed us in order to properly analyze and divide over this kind of story, I’ve searched for the impasse. I’ll proffer a suggestion at bypass: There is the culture, or community, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. #MeToo has taken highly personal stories and reflected them into a cultural narrative. We have not recognized that the equation, from one to many, is unidirectional. While appropriate to generalize from a pool of specifics, not so to reflect the general back onto an individual. We expand culture by adding elaborately specific stories, not by taking the average of those stories and waging it on the imagination of those who’ve yet to create their own.
In the case of #MeToo, the culture has given us two possible reactions to individual stories. On the one hand, you can blame the individual (she was drunk, she wore the wrong clothing, was too subtle, too unsubtle) and on the other, you can validate the victim (it was not her fault). Ostensibly different, there is common ground: Women are always victimized. If not by some outside force, then by the narrative that invokes her personal, often ethical, failure.
There is actually a third, and most powerful option: Just keep telling stories. True stories are like the body, like the heart, they demonstrate, in aggregate, that same indifference to the compulsions of analysis, in favor of something a lot more resistant to digestion. True stories quite literally don’t make sense in the way we like to think of it, unless we omit the nagging suspicions and fleeting glances that would never hold up in court. Making these omissions too shameful to report. They destroy our coherence, and women, most especially, are rendered powerless through an image of incoherence.
I suggested to my friend that a woman whose history was scarred by repeated incidents of unwanted sexual encounters hinging upon murky wagers of sexuality bore some self-examination. Perhaps the more accurate language would have been: “Your story about these events scares me in it’s implications about my own ability to consent, and therefore, the possibility of any personal integrity or cultural agency.”
I am not blind or unfeeling to the traumatic effect of such encounters, nor to the deep rooted structural inequity eroding the foundation on which all sexual encounters are predicated, however, I shudder to recast all regretful sexual encounters as assault. I do not know where the self resides in that narrative. The self that is the consciousness of thoughts and feelings, not their subject. I shudder at the implicit bias: the explicit designation of the perpetrator as “black” in the retelling of this story.
Should we outlaw sex between men and women? After all, we are so far from social equality, the existing power differential does not admit consent in any case.
My now ex-husband used to joke, “all heterosexual sex is rape.” Just one in a series of memories provoking waves of shame as I flinchingly contemplate my complicity.
I should give a bit of context: the nature of conversations with this friend tended to the personal, but always through an intellectual lens, often making use of books or various theories to consider the topic at hand. Our conversations were explicit, probing, critical, contemplative, speculative, abstract, analytical. They weren’t shy. It’s likely I would not have suggested my qualms at the accounting had it been told by the woman herself, and I’m sure the first-hand account would’ve differed from the retelling. I did not know her, nor would I want to hurt her, blame her, or denigrate her experience. My observations reside now, as then, at the level of using these personal stories to contemplate my own integrity, my own consciousness, my own ability to consent. Hearing her stories (admittedly secondhand and through the mouthpiece of a new, male lover), my stomach immediately turned at the implications. Myself being the figure standing in for all of those implicated by the cultural exigencies created in these private mythologies. After all, we tend to tell stories that sound like the ones we already know. We can’t see things that we’ve never seen before. In these tales, we find palliatives for difficult feelings and we’re taught that our feelings are our truth. They’re not. They are metabolic flotsam to be witnessed for transience. We’re not comfortable living with mystery, and quite often agency treads too closely to responsibility to inspire our full enthusiasm.
This friend took a liberty in telling his girlfriend’s story. He was appalled at my reaction and vowed to protect his girlfriend from me. He would never bring her around me. I was dangerous in my cruelty. He would fix her with his compassion and would tailor his love-making strategy to her recovery.
I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
This man stopped speaking to me after my divorce. He preferred the friendship of my ex-husband. This makes a bit more sense in light of the details. Suffice it to say, my middle-aged husband also found a young woman to analyze, encouraging her to share her erotic dreams so that he could examine them. Let’s not forget, too, I am cruel. And insensitive.
During this same time period, my young friend who would become my husband’s second wife, was engaged. She was quite aimless at the time, floating from barista job to bartender job, fantasizing about being a midwife, but mostly creating drama in her romantic relationships to avoid facing the deadening ennui. She would break up, get back together, muse on the boredom once things had settled into a routine, shake things back up again with suggestions of moving in together, or moving out, or drunkenly kissing other men at bars. Generally, provoking feelings to mask the malaise and avoiding the work that would create meaning. In one such fit of impulsivity, she convinced her boyfriend to marry her. He was complacent, too, and agreed on one condition. They would not be married “for real.” They would not file paperwork. They argued: “It’s only a piece of paper.”
Her engagement announcement was met by a small group of friends with some measure of surprise. As the conversation tended towards diffusing the awkward reaction, she managed to back peddle away from anything that looked like an engagement or subsequent marriage. As it turned out the promise would culminate in a potluck dance party in her own honor, affording the opportunity to dress up and be center of attention under fraudulent pretenses while not actually committing to anything.
I suggested she take a closer look at what she meant by marriage, that perhaps there was more at stake in the piece of paper than she thought, in invoking the sanction and support of a community. After all, I told her, gay people are fighting too hard to get married so you can have your sham wedding.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m more in the “ban marriage for everyone” camp, than a subscriber to the “marriage equality” oxymoron, but what can I say, I find words meaningful, alchemical even. It’s another case of the complex boundaries between individual cases and the larger culture. Ultimately, a case of connectivity, perhaps of meaning at all.
I’m an asshole, it’s a theme. She cried, of course she did. She pouted and insisted, indignantly and self-righteously that her perspective was well-considered. I was being elitist with my ideas about what a wedding should be. Not everyone must be so rigid in relation to ideas. She sobbed.
Here’s the refrain: I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
Please indulge my addition of the final chapter to that engagement: It fell apart when she, after months of sending her sex dreams to my husband, staying up with him late at night, decided to put his penis in her mouth while I was out of town.
Remember when I apologized to her for second guessing the triviality with which she faced her engagement? I suppose she proved her case. She instantiated a reality simultaneously selfish and nihilistic.
I’d made a fundamental mistake in these cases. I took these conversations to be about ideas, to be the general case. I wasn’t sensitive to the reality that most people don’t want to test their personal stories against some Kantian imperative. Everything tends to get a little too not-in-my-backyard feeling when we have to consider a reality where we live with others, truly connected to others. After all what is the American self if not exceptional?
Let me tell you about one more friend. She and her husband are still in touch with my ex-husband, although admittedly they’re not so fond of him. Or rather, they describe him as self-serving, duplicitous, and deeply narcissistic. However, they know that according to popular culture you shouldn’t have to take sides in a divorce. In fact, it is much more deserving of dignity to be able to remain a kind of neutral party. This husband, he’s never thought much of me. He once wrote a short story depicting me (thinly veiled of course, only animals don’t invoke plausible deniability) as a cruel woman, albeit in a position of power, who would “spit” at her assistants and who demeaned her husband with her “roving eye.” He once gave me a book titled something like, Decor for Dictators. It made him “think of me”. I don’t behave as he thinks a woman should. I saw my friend, this man’s wife, recently and I told her I’d be interested in her thoughts on some articles I was reading about #MeToo and #TimesUp. She characteristically wrinkled her nose, “I don’t know what I’ll think about that. I’m pretty regressive when it comes to these issues”, she warned. When I shared my writing with her about the dissolution of my marriage, she was conspicuously quiet. I felt ashamed.
When people show you who they are, believe them.
Self-publishing my stories feels like another form of shame. As if the stories represent something abhorrent about me, something defective. It feels as though these kind of stories need authoritative sanction, an aegis.
It had been years since I’d seen you and we pretended not to know one another, which I suppose was not truly pretense. I looked over my shoulder as we passed one another and saw the high heel of your pale blue shoe and the shine of your pant cuff. You joined your family at the table where we used to eat. I continued my work purposefully after this sad interruption only now wondering at the deflective sheen of your uncannily foppish attire.
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.
We were cleaning up our property which was like a crossroads where you see strangers in a campgrounds. My former neighbor was walking her dog near the perimeter and I wanted to say hello, but I also wanted to not be seen, to just watch her. She was older but still had the same walk and the same hairstyle, the same glasses and smile, walking her dog as she had ten years ago. Once she passes out of my eyesight I get back to the task of cleaning. The yard has not only been untended, it’s has been an active dumpsite of domestic waste. Drugs and kitchen utensils are the first targets and we are making progress, but there is so much to get rid of and I am sweating now, but I’m not tired of doing it. I’m still not sure what I’m looking for in this mess. There is an auditorium stage that appears to my far right opposite to where I was watching my neighbor walk her dog. It’s light oak and I’m drawn to it, so I walk towards it. I get closer and I see discarded odds and ends that look like I might save something. There’s a kids’ sand shovel without its bucket. My two year old might use it even though I don’t think it’s hers and when I get closer I grab that shovel, but its covered in dust and something sticky so I immediately put it back down. All of my friends and family are helping me clean up at this stage and it’s going more quickly than I can approve or disapprove of discarding, one by one, the items. So I’m a little worried that they’re just getting rid of things that I want to keep. I reach for and look at a stack of papers on the stage because they have foreign stamps and it looks like I have kept them for a long time. At first I, when I open envelopes, I see they contain letters and they’re letters my ex-husband and I wrote to one another other when I was his college student, but then I look closer. They seem to change. They’re the divorce papers and I wonder if it is all over and if this is actually my MeToo moment and I wonder what’s left for my daughter.
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 had some things to do before I could let it overcome me, stop me with its indifferent, tidal forces, rhythms of carnival activity, parades and acrobatics. I had so much to carry and I noticed others were in groups and sometimes had carts or sleds to help with their loads, but I struggled, making multiple trips, and also hiding. They would kill me, the war was advanced enough for that.
I found an old cart, I thought I might use this cart, like the others did, to escape the city more expeditiously. It was neglected, rusty, and one wheel looked askew. I had seen a woman using a sled, under her own power, and wanted this cart to be similar, but it was intended for oxen. I imagined that I could pull or push it just the same, even if it was not ideal. The large warehouse required some disguise if I were to enter. It was heavily attended by soldiers, a maze of rooms and floors, leaking. I abandoned that approach. I found a road out, out through a manicured lawn where people lounged as if collegiate. A woman I knew from years ago came smiling towards the lawn, her once-distinctively long hair, now short. She wore a colored leotard. She was an acrobat in the circus. This was a powerful position. Perhaps that’s why she headed in so freely. More people were coming in as I was leaving, so many people. A brigade of women holding signs, signs having to do with women – white with black hand-written letters. They were wearing orange leotards, orange hair, and with silver batons. They were in formation, quite choreographed. Leading the array were old acquaintances; they had maintained their friendships through these years, the same two that shared the ocean front condominium and swam in the rip tide, and now they were en pointe with colorful ribbons and high-kicks, moving quickly, smiling, towards war. I hurried past, disguised, recognizing old friends among the faces in the eager crowd.
I continued down the long dirt road. It was lined with grand marble government buildings each with tall columns and surrounded by green lawn. Gradually, this population of advancing people and the white buildings gave way to open fields and finally, to a still lake surrounded by trees. I began to feel relief. I saw the flocks of birds at the far end of the lake and they flew, in formation, in escalating manifestations. They began softly black, fluttering flocks in the distance, but then began to take on silvery and mechanized attributes, like sharply folded paper airplanes. Until they turned and with increasing aggression flew like arrows towards my place on the shore; I dropped to the ground and lay flat. I tried to run between the onslaughts, but that time shortened to nothing and I would have to crawl away.