Salt

You are ocean water in my hands –
slipping through my fingers, always
leaving some part of you behind:
salt, the smell of brine.

A Brief Humiliation

My first impression of Nick was that he was too thin. Even as he closed the distance between us, a casual gait carrying him forward at high speed, his frame remained the width of a rail, his legs more narrow than my wrists. (I expected him to be thin based on his pictures, but I had to admit that the reality was somewhat unsettling.) Already, I could tell that he was one of those men that didn’t realize the importance of clothes, particularly the way they fit on a slender frame. The boyish voice of Scott popped into in my head, reminding me that slim guys need a slim cut. Otherwise we look like skeletons, I recalled my ex telling me on our first date. While I still hadn’t come to terms with the pain Scott caused me, I couldn’t help but smile at the tangential thought of his obsession with fashion. Maybe this was the right beginning – this Nick guy clearly wasn’t fixated on the fit of the oversized polo shirt he wore. Of course, Scott was right: my date looked like he belonged in an anatomy class, suspended in the corner by a pole.

My date waved from afar, strolling past mothers who were emptying their cars of children and lawn chairs and food. From what I could tell, the park I selected was hosting a softball tournament for preteen girls. Aluminum bats, leather gloves, kids with their hair pulled into high ponytails served as the park’s backdrop.

“Amber?” he asked, now close enough that I could hear him.

“Yup,” I said. I hope I look enough like my pictures. This was the same thought I always had when I met anyone from a dating app, moderately terrified I would be told that I’m bigger or uglier than my profile suggested.

“Nice to meet you, Nick,” I continued, reaching out to shake his hand. Dates were like an interview, after all. And just like I would with any hiring manager, I made sure to hold his hand firmly. I’m assertive!

“Nice to meet you,” he said, pulling his hand away slowly. The only word I could find to describe his voice was “blunted.” There was hardly any inflection. I’m in for a treat, I thought, expecting to be bored by the lanky stranger I had agreed to meet.

“I think the trail starts there,” I said, pointing towards the paved ground ahead. This wasn’t the hiking trail I had been hoping for, but he was yet another guy that forced me to figure out the details of meeting up for the first time. I was tired of getting drinks — alcohol made you fat, like so many other things — so I opted for a physical activity and a location halfway between the two of us. I didn’t put a lot of effort into these things.

Given our lackluster greeting and the questionable impression Nick made, I didn’t expect our first date to clock in at over thirty hours.

**

I’m not the first person to recognize that they’re in love with being in love. Of course, I believe that the concept of being in love with being in love is simply a generous way of reframing, “Hi, I have an addictive personality.” Maybe I’m just being cynical. I do know that I’m projecting, independent of my prior insight’s validity. Personally, I see love as another dirty habit I engage in. Losing myself in a new romance or a friend is as numbing as alcoholism, and it kills time better than my usual vice of choice. (B-U-L-I-M-I-A. I think it’s a funny word, but it’s still hard to say aloud.)

Still, this isn’t the impression I typically make, or want to make at all, which is why I try so hard to be cold and distant at first. Actual love (including the self-directed variety) is too vulnerable. My desire to lose myself in someone else is too dangerous. Given my history, I’m reasonably certain the latter event is inevitable, despite the Ice Queen disposition I’ve tried to adopt. Genuine love, whether it’s for myself or another person, will be sacrificed along with what little personality I’ve scraped together thus far. Because when I open up, the only thing I reveal is that I’m desperate to please – even when that means giving up the bits and pieces that allow me to feel like a person with interests, dreams.

This was the exact lesson I learned from my brief relationship with Nick, wasn’t it? A guy who needs me can save me from my addictions – until reality replaces infatuation, and the cycles I’ve known all my life repeat, tied together in an infinity knot. The threads are limited, representing only sacrifice and survival. Bleak, I know, but the paths I’ve taken in my life can’t be undone, unpaved, unwound. I can almost predict my future based on how and where these lines have traveled, and I’m more terrified to experience something new than I care to admit.

With Nick, I ignored the red flags, telling myself that mine were worse.

Sometimes, I feel like I survived only so that I could relive and replicate the trauma that’s chased me throughout my life. On better days, I consider all the potential I contain, my ability to change this narrative of abuse, both self-directed and externally inflicted by others. I’m not dead yet because I desperately want to find happiness. I’ve made that decision more than once – and acted on the will to seek better for myself, even when it meant facing the unknown. Always, the difficult part is keeping that momentum going. Eventually I fall into filling myself on my addictions; I’m too afraid I’ll collapse otherwise.

I thought Nick was a different path. I was in love with being in love with the change he represented. Finally, someone nice. He was not Scott in all the ways that mattered most. If I lost myself in him, as I had with Scott, I’d be safe.

Wrong. I was a fool to be so surprised when he left. There was a different insight I wish I had made at the time, when I first left Scott and ventured into the realm of dating again. I need to learn how to be in love with myself first.

**

“I know you’re not alright,” my therapist said.

My jaw throbbed. I always wondered if he knew when I was acting on my symptoms. He specialized in treating people like me, after all.

“I have something to tell you about your boyfriend,” he said. “Nothing bad, but I want to hear what happened first.”

He knew about Nick?

“He left,” I said. I was smiling. I did that whenever I felt like I was on the verge of crying -grin like a lunatic, an inappropriate context almost always accompanying the expression. A subconscious part of me equated baring my teeth with protection. “He took everything. He left. When I got home yesterday, all of his shit was out of the apartment. Everything.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’m sure you have some thoughts,” he said.

“Well… I don’t know, we were fighting, sort of. About a lot of things,” I began. “He knew we were moving in together, but he made some choices that put me in this position – I paid for a lot of our furniture, and used a lot of my savings, and it was just hard to think it was fair… and I don’t know, there’s just so much that came up. I wanted him to be neat, and I think I nagged him too much. I was worried -”

“He’s a hoarder.”

“His parents are hoarders,” I said. “And he definitely has the same impulse to hold on to things. I don’t know if it’s hoarding or more like… that’s just what he knows, after living with them his whole life. But I didn’t want that for us.”

Remember when he told you he cleaned out his bathroom? Nick was practically waving his red flags that day. “I did my best,” he told me as I walked into the room, his affect strange and difficult to describe because it seemed so unlike him. He was sitting on the floor, his long legs folded over each other, head hanging down. I’ve never seen him like this, I thought.

The only progress he made was clearing out one of the recessed shelves by the shower, but even then, he had simply found new homes for the random of collection of items that once lived there. I knew to be gentle in my response – so I told him it was okay, but that we could definitely do better.

“I’ll help you,” I said, stroking Nick’s head, now pressed against my hip, my fingers occasionally caught by tangles in his coarse blond hair. Instead of recognizing that my new boyfriend had a serious problem, I used his dysfunction to satisfy a part of me that enjoyed being needed. I spent what remained of my night encouraging him to throw away excess bottles of suntan lotion, women’s makeup (I was both relieved and disturbed when I discovered that these items were leftover from his half-sister, who had moved out almost a decade ago), and useless As Seen on TV items like towels woven around reusable freezer packs. I remembered feeling so satisfied by the end result. In retrospect, I knew that a selfish, co-dependent part of me found joy knowing that he’d required my help, that this event proved I could prevent him from becoming like his parents.

“Was there more?” my therapist asked.

Yes, more than I realized, I thought. “Food, too,” I answered. “That was an issue. He wasn’t really helping with meal prep, and the food I made… I cook a lot of quinoa and beans, I guess, and he was like, ‘This is really carb heavy.’ This was a couple days ago, but he’s always made comments like that. And it’s probably shitty of me to be mad. I was, though. I didn’t drop it. I don’t want to control how someone else eats, or how they feel about food, but at the same time… I mean, come the fuck on. He knows I have an eating disorder.”

“How long were you two fighting?”

“Just since we made the move,” I said. “I didn’t think he’d leave. I thought this was all given. It’s stressful.”

“Yeah, I don’t disagree with you. Actually, first… let me tell you about what happened, why I know you’re not alright. Your boyfriend called me yesterday. He kept saying, ‘I know Amber’s your patient. I can’t be enough for her. I can’t do it.’ Repeated it non-stop. He sounded panicked – and a little crazy, honestly.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach felt like it was being strangled by my embarrassment. I had never expected Nick to behave this way, to inconvenience a stranger with this drama he brought into my life. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no. Don’t be sorry. I’m glad this happened. To be forthright, I don’t know if I’d believe you – that he just suddenly left for no reason – if he hadn’t made it so clear that there’s something off with him. It sounded like he snapped when I spoke to him. He was worried that he wouldn’t live up to what you needed. It was strange.”

“I guess this means it’s over,” I said, the fatuous smile of an idiot still plastered across my face. “This is funnier to me than it should be, but he said that he couldn’t make that decision while in whatever state of mind he’s in, to end things. He left a check for me on the table where the memo read ‘for therapy,’ though. Felt fucking crushed when I saw that.”

I waited for my therapist to say something, but he just looked at me. I hate this, I thought, trying to fill the silence.

“My self-esteem isn’t so low that I’d say ‘yeah, I’ll put the bullshit you just put me through behind us’ if he decided to come back.”

That was dishonest of me to say, I realized later. When I arrived home to my empty apartment, several pieces of artwork leaning against the living room walls, still unhung, I thought, I want you back.

If he had been waiting for me on the couch, I would’ve sat by his feet like a dog.

Moonlight

we took shots beneath the moonlight.
all quiet breathing, hushed voices
tugging on the stems of candles
and spreading wax – hot, melted –
across the tips of our fingers
until it was thin and hard.

he said i like the pain;
i said i like the expression
on your face – all strained.
he said you’re always stoic;
tell me, how does it feel?
and i said i feel nothing.

– unless you count apathy;
no, to be honest, it’s shame.
i can never get it smooth
and it always cracks.

Homecoming

“We’ll have to get you an air mattress,” my mother had told me on the phone. “There’s no bed for you. We set up the TV and furniture in your old room.” Why? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t need to question her when I already knew her answer. You don’t live here anymore. You’re not eighteen anymore. Fend for yourself. Instead, I should have turned my thoughts to the truth: my mother and step-father Mike had let the house become such a mess that the first floor was virtually unusable.

We had a shit room – it was literally filled with dog shit – and the hardwood floors were soaked in urine. In the afternoon, the sun would hit the the entrance to our deck, warming the surface and releasing the smell of dog piss. There were less heinous and more common problems, such as the filthy kitchen, but they had essentially lost the first level of the house to animal neglect.

There’s still time to turn back, I told myself, looking down towards the train tracks. Empty cups and cigarettes occasionally appeared between the rails, carelessly thrown by passengers who didn’t bother to walk to one of the several trash cans on the platform. What exactly did I expect from this trip? Part of me wanted to see my family before I left for India with my boyfriend, as I’d be gone for several months. At the same time, I had such a poor relationship with my two younger sisters that we said nothing more than “hello” when I was home. (Unless, of course, we started to fight about something completely absurd.) I was also becoming increasingly aware that both my mother and Mike had very little interest in my life. Philadelphia wasn’t extremely far from Rhode Island, but in all my years at Temple University, my parents visited me twice: they moved me into my dorm room my first year of college, and they came to my graduation ceremony.

“I’m getting an award,” I recalled telling my mother months before. “The ceremony’s the day before graduation. Maybe you guys can stay in one of the hotels nearby—”

“I don’t want to stay overnight.” My mother was both brief and honest. She offered no congratulations or explanation.

 

Many of the soon-to-be passengers on the platform were clearly college students, or at least young women and men who appeared to be traveling home for a visit with their loved ones. There were many families as well, children and parents alike with backpacks and luggage, huddled together. I wondered what kinds of situations they were destined for. Did the college girls return to doting parents who asked about their studies? Who were proud to have daughters who won awards, or made the Dean’s List? Did the mothers and fathers feel a sense of joy in showing their children Philadelphia (or, alternatively, New York)?

I wondered how it felt to have a mother that cared about you, or a reliable father who didn’t so easily become enraged that he was terrifying to be around. College, in a way, had been a double-edged sword. I was able to get away from the neglect and abuse, but there was a separate and extremely sharp pain in realizing how abnormal my upbringing had been. Often, I found myself extremely jealous of others, their parents coming from the far end of Pennsylvania to visit them in the city. I also experienced amazement in the number of people who had college educated mothers and fathers. How foreign a concept that was, when my parents didn’t even graduate high school.

Don’t go was an intrusive thought; it followed me into the train and accompanied me on the trip to Rhode Island.

 

This was the second day I spent on a beige couch that smelled faintly of urine, watching my mom view episodes of Maury and Jerry Springer. (Attempts at conversations were met with, “Jesus, you always interrupt me at the end of my shows.”) I briefly turned my attention to the repetitive narratives of cheating and paternity tests, and wondered what compelled people to seek something outside of their self-described committed relationships. Why bother? Sex is sex, right? Mom focused intently on the television screen, her cigarette dangling in her right hand, absorbed by the drama.

The day I arrived, my mother took me to Benny’s to purchase the air mattress. She knew I was coming, but claimed I hadn’t given her enough notice. There were no air mattresses to buy, so she resigned herself to letting me share her bed. Mike’s sleeping in your old room, she said, he can’t sleep on his back after his gastric bypass, and he needs the recliner.

This was the homecoming I expected, but not the one I wanted. Neglect didn’t harden me – it made me even more desperate for love and acceptance.

The Girl, A Fish

i dreamed his smile, lips curled –
teeth edged like the coastline,
the rotted driftwood stain.

i know now what the beast looks for.
we broken girls, with homes that
gut us like fish.

Recovery?

I’m in recovery. What a nebulous sentence. I’m not even sure what it means when I admit to people that I’m bulimic, but am “in recovery.” Am I working on the behaviors? Am I successful when I don’t purge, or when I can sit uncomfortably after compulsively over stuffing myself? Am I still symptomatic if I’m binging? And what about these thoughts I have, related to my body and food and self-worth? When I can say, I’m recovered, does that mean I can’t feel guilty about missing the gym because I’m worn down?

The closer I come to having a life that allows me to live, the more I focus on the details, the semantics.

I realized yesterday that I don’t want to be bulimic anymore. I don’t want this disorder to be such a large part of my identity. But even as I trace its origins, even as I begin to understand how this happened, I’m not any nearer to defining what life without bulimia is like. Worst of all, this disease is like an invasive species; it doesn’t belong here.

I’m surprised that it happened so recently. Scott’s mom was candid about her feelings, perhaps because I was being open about my own. Not that I had much choice. Scott had told his family – without my consent – that I was bulimic. She was dismayed to hear that the disorder began in the midst of living with her. The answer she wanted was different – maybe some story about how I spent my time bent over a toilet in college and recently relapsed. She didn’t want to consider that the disorder began as part of my relationship with her son and his family.

In fact, when I told her I was going to residential treatment at Renfrew, she repeatedly stated, “I hope they don’t tell you we’re not good for you.” I was about to uproot my life the day after finishing my fall semester of nursing school to spend an indefinite amount of time at a residential facility in Philadelphia, and her main concern was that the therapist(s) would tell me to get the hell out of Dodge.

My therapist, of course, did question my ability to be successful with a partner like Scott. I never told her about Scott’s sexual abuse. I didn’t mention that his mother was an alcoholic, and that I spent almost a year being told by him and his twin brother that I was just imagining it or being dramatic. She didn’t know the details of Scott’s cheating, or the way he’d compare compulsive acts of sexual abuse to my bulimia. I never told my therapist that Scott explicitly said he didn’t forgive me for being emotionally unstable when my bulimia was at its worst (“you were still you then,” he told me more than once when I came back from Renfrew, even as he continued to cause me emotional and physical harm in bed), and considered the behavior of a genuinely ill person comparable to his cheating, his lying, his abuse.

I think my therapist simply saw what I see now: I’m a resilient person, but resilience is a finite resource. And I was wasting that resource on Scott, on his family, on people who never asked me what I wanted or if I was happy. I wasted my resilience on trying to live with people who slept with their secrets. Who didn’t, or couldn’t, communicate honestly, but acted passive-aggressively, displayed random bouts of anger, manipulated one another. I purchased their story of this being normal, and judged myself instead of identifying their problems sooner.

I wouldn’t have developed bulimia if I had never met Scott. I’m so certain of this that I want to laugh hysterically until I cry; I want to embrace the absurdity of my situation. These thoughts also make me want a life without bulimia more than ever. I want to be able to know what it’s like to not fear a bathroom after a large meal. To not miss the gym because I spent the day before, or even morning of, purging. My life is worth more than the DSM diagnosis they brought into it.

I don’t know what being “in recovery” actually means. I never will. But I am in a state of regaining my resilience. I can recognize that I’m not a bad person for wanting a life defined by my desires and needs. For accepting that it’s not healthy to keep secrets, or to let anxieties create a momentum that’s chaotic and harsh.

I’m happy to wake up. I haven’t been able to say that in years.