Bowflex

He texts me, Update: I’m trying to figure out how to do sled pulls on the Bowflex. There’s so much wrong packed into this statement that I don’t know what to say to him, so I decide on silence instead.

Nothing obliterates my interest more quickly than men trying to relate to me through a common interest in the gym – mostly because it’s powerlifting that I’m actually focused on, versus being able to claim that I “hit the gym” however many times a week. I actively avoid the strange, ineffective bodybuilding routines that I see men performing; bad programming is just something I don’t tolerate or respect. To that end, I absolutely would not be caught dead on a Bowflex. (Although up until his text, I forgot those were even a thing. For the rest of the year, and perhaps for the rest of my life, I’m going to be perplexed by the fact that someone tried to woo me via their experience with equipment advertised on TV at 3am, following demonstrations of OxyClean and Nad’s.)

Also, no one can do sled drags on a Bowflex. That’s just a solid case of what the fuck.

He texts me a day later, Change of heart?

I say, I’m just really busy. I can’t really do a lot of back and forth texting. I’m sorry.

I block his number. I guess I’m one of those girls.

 

“I think I love you,” he says, rubbing his bristly, balding head against my arm.

For the past several hours, I’ve spent the night hearing about his job and his friends. When I mentioned that I like video games and played World of Warcraft in high school, he added very one sided conversations about his experiences as a gamer to the long list of topics he went on about. Things haven’t improved, and instead of engaging with anything I say in response, so far he’s just smiled dreamily at me before rolling into whatever subject next came to his mind.

The “I think I love you” statement catches me by surprise, though. We’re a few drinks deep into a long night, and if he’s already drunk, I’m embarrassed for him. We’re not exactly connecting and yet he seems to think there’s a vibe; I briefly wonder if I’ve been in his current position without realizing it on first dates. Before I can tell myself the thought isn’t worth my energy, he kisses my hand several times, sloppy and with sound, bringing my mind to a decision tree where the first fork is a choice between pulling away and letting him do his thing. I’m not here to make him feel bad, so I just deal with this overt public display of affection from a man I do not know all that well before interjecting with, “It’s getting late. The trains aren’t running as frequently past midnight. I should make a move.”

“I’ll walk you back to the PATH,” he says.

Oh, goodie.

We leave the small West Village bar and walk in a silence that is more uncomfortable for me than it is for him. I’m already thinking about how I’ll tell him tomorrow that I just wasn’t feeling it, or that it’s too much trouble for me to go into the city with my current routine. He, on the other hand, is humming, rubbing his thumb against the palm of my hand. He’s happy. Because of me, or because he thinks this is a very successful date.

When we reach the PATH, he leans in to kiss me. I reciprocate because it’s the easiest thing I can do at this stage. I don’t want to deal with his disappointment. I want to avoid a confrontation.

He’s attractive enough. Still, his self-importance leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

 

Alone on a Sunday, I find my thoughts drawn to the men I did love. I’m not unhappy to be relaxing by myself at home. I don’t miss them. Relationships, I’m coming to realize, are probably the worst thing to happen to me. It’s in this area that my self-esteem is worn thin, damaged by long history of abuse, and still recovering. (I wonder if my usual detachment to dating is only interrupted by the men who will break my heart because that’s my conditioning. Love is pain, sacrifice without gain.) I’m afraid that most people are too good for me. Give me a man without a car, who doesn’t know where he’s going in life, and I’m in love.

Perhaps I find silly reasons to write off successful people. Maybe I should give the man trying to impress me with the Bowflex a chance or see if Mr. Self Important is better at having a conversation after a couple more dates. On the other hand, maybe it’s time for me to be alone, to not use dating as a crutch. In some ways, I feel like all I’m doing is conducting a search for the next fuck that will make me miserable, but who I will nonetheless be devoted to as part of my pathological inability to form, or even want, healthy relationships.

Climb

Maybe she’s just prettier. Perhaps he was just an easy choice, more malleable than the men I’ve chased, more emotionally available. I don’t know the answer, but I bring my imagination to their relationship regardless. He just looks so happy to be here with her that I can’t help but wonder what they discussed on the car ride over, if they went out for brunch first at one of Hoboken’s nearby bars. The man’s smile, fixed across his bearded face, probably made her feel warm when she walked with him side by side, even in the chilly outdoors.

When it occurs to me that no one has looked at me that way in a long time, I feel a sense of sadness that’s difficult to put into words. I’m often the object of people’s lust, but I have felt little in the way of being loved.

I come back to the thought that I’m lacking. I always do. She looks more like a woman compared to me, at least from what I can see at a distance. Her climbing skills are certainly better than mine: she’s ascending the white and blue rock wall at a steady clip, pushing off footholds with her long legs. Whereas she’s graceful and lithe, I’m brute strength in an incongruously small and childlike package. It’s likely not just about the looks, either. I’ve had a hard life. I have baggage.

If jealousy and envy are not the same, then it’s the latter I feel when her companion shouts “to the left.” I’ve asked Sean, who is not my boyfriend, to become belay certified, but that’s too much of a commitment for the man I regularly drive to the rock gym.

I watch him now, his black work shirt rolling up his back as he makes his way on one of the bouldering walls. He finds the routes easier to solve than I do, especially since we started climbing together regularly, and completes a V5 that I can’t even start. For such a tall and not particularly graceful man, he looks athletic as he reaches for the next hold. When he climbs down and turns to smile at me, I feel my stomach tighten: my body knows what my mind denies, that I’m hoping for something to happen that never will.

Eventually he will become one half of the couples I desire to be, but I won’t be the woman to close the circle. Friend, fuck buddy, lover – but not his girlfriend, and not his partner.

It will never be you, he’ll eventually tell me. But I know this now. The problem is that I hold onto the lessons of my childhood: the people you love are supposed to cause you pain; the more pain you bear, the more true your feelings. He doesn’t love me, and he may not even care about me. But I accept that, because it’s not the worst way someone’s responded to my love for them.

In a year, I’ll excavate the part of me that considers what I deserve in relation to how I’m treated, but that will be a sad day too, because what I will realize is that I don’t know how to give love to men that are able to love me in return. If I don’t suffer, it’s just not real. What a joke, I’ll think, to come so far in my life and still be so broken.

For now, however, it’s my turn to climb. I push my hands, one after the other, through the opening of my chalk bag, a white plume following each motion. “You were awesome,” I say to Sean. And I walk past him, placing my fingers on the start of a problem I can solve.

Happy Birthday

Because I’ve blocked my father’s number and his social media accounts, he now leaves me comments on a blog I use to host my half-finished prose and unrefined poetry. His latest offering is in keeping with his descent into schizophrenia:

Seeing one’s self as weak provokes the mind into its own (being planted by an embraced past; what one doesn’t let go of only creates one that knows its role) victim mentality… Don’t allow another’s weak guilt to imprison you.
Stand up, because you’re more intimidating than the weak $$$ that imprisons you. LET NO ONE’S NARRATIVES WRITE YOUR FUTURE!
~see your delusional daddy

I delete his response to a poem I wrote about my struggle with bulimia, about my fear of dying over a toilet or losing my teeth. (Writing can never fully explore the fears I face, or the nightmares I live with. I dream of my incisors falling out; I wonder when I’ll bite into an apple and find that my front tooth has finally become dislodged, the slow erosion of my gums eventuating in the inevitable.) I’m not sure what he means, yet the incoherence still disturbs me.

Victim mentality? I think. I am imprisoned, but not by guilt. And I am a victim. I’m tired of pretending I’m too strong to not be.

***

Home movies. Remember those? I sit in the basement of my step father’s house, the TV flickering to life as soon as I push the VHS into the tape player. I’ve picked the one labeled May 23rd – Amber’s Birthday. I’m turning thirteen in a few days. The choice feels appropriate.

My father stalks my mother with the video camera. This is how his home movie opens. He narrates using that voice, the one that’s more sinister and frightening than outright anger. Controlled contempt, I would later call it. A lash worse than all the times he slapped me. In the movie, he directs this verbal violence towards my mother. The image he portrays of her – fat and unkempt, her arms as wide as pillows, eating chocolate – is not enough to sate the part of him that feeds off pain.

“Look at the hippopotamus,” he says loudly enough that my mother’s head spins, “look as she grazes.” She brings her hand up towards the lens, her fingers and palm and sagging skin obscuring the view of our tiny kitchen.

Sharp cut. Now there’s me, a small child, my face red and wet. I’m wailing on the top bunk. I look like some soon to be victim, as if I were one of the dumb girls in the horror films my mother and I watched together. My father is Freddy Krueger, among the few – or perhaps the only – horror villains that emotionally tormented their prey before slaughtering them.

“Oh, why is the birthday girl crying?” He uses the same tone as before, when he deemed the woman that gave birth to me and his two other children a hippo.

When I think back to my birthday, I don’t remember why I was in tears. After all, I was only five years old.

Abuse and Selfishness

Mid-March, freelance writer Richard Greenhill contacted me to discuss a Reddit post I made about my then boyfriend, as he was interested in writing about cuckolding and hotwife fetishes.

If you’ve read my blog, you already know from some of my earlier pieces that my ex of three and a half years was obsessed with sexual fantasies involving me and other men. (You can read Your Bulimic Girlfriend, Wedding Bells, and/or The Bulimic and the Sex Addict if you want more insight.) While having particular kinks is not bad by any means, my ex took things to an entirely new level, where our sexual activities included (almost from day one) demands for me to change my body (get implants, plastic surgery, dye my hair, get my nails done, do my makeup so it’s “sluttier,” and all sorts of things), as well as his articulation of strange and dangerous scenarios at gas stations, glory holes, and more. I didn’t enjoy this; we fought often about his inability to talk about any other subject. Sometimes I had the nerve to bring up how sexually unsatisfied I was, my needs and wants elided by his all-consuming fetish, only to suffer through the same one-sided sex talk later that day. To make matters worse, he never respected my boundaries, or when I told him “no.” He would continuously beg me to help him get off, whining and needling me, and not allow me to go to sleep until he got his way. Whenever I dug my heels in (which wasn’t often), he’d become increasingly manipulative. He would tell me that rejecting him made him feel unloved, especially because I was so terrible at showing my affection in any arena outside of sex.

Looking back at my Reddit post, where I asked for relationship advice and reassurance that his behavior was not OK, I cringe. Writing the above, and knowing that I endured his sex addiction despite the pain it caused me, makes me feel like a fool. My post to Reddit wasn’t even completely honest: I wrote that our relationship was fine aside from our sex life. Well, it wasn’t, even aside from the relentless sexual coercion I faced. I developed Bulimia during the course of dating him. I was financially dependent on him, having gone back to school at his urging, and was reminded every day that I should feel lucky and grateful to have his (or his family’s) roof over my head. Prior to leaving for residential treatment at Renfrew for my eating disorder, he had cheated on me. He was still talking to the girl when I came back, hiding that he had a live-in girlfriend.

Even during my time at Renfrew, when I was supposed to be healing and focusing on myself, he’d ask anytime I called him if I told my therapist about “how we are sexually.” I didn’t even tell my truth when in the best setting to do so, as I subconsciously knew that my treatment team would likely intervene. (My therapist was already concerned I wouldn’t do well in recovery, given that he was such poor support, and that was without her knowing the more gruesome details of our relationship.) Worst of all, when I left for residential treatment, we had promised we’d both work on our compulsive behaviors – and while I took the steps I needed, he spent my two weeks in a psychiatric unit for damaged girls and women watching cuckold porn and talking to the chick he cheated on me with.

These are not details I discussed with Richard. His Vice article, published earlier this month, focuses on when the cuckold and hotwife fetish puts strain on a relationship, and uses my story as one example (among a few others). After writing about my experience at Richard’s request, the part of our conversation he featured in his article is the conclusion I came to as I tried to answer some of his questions. Cuckold/hotwife fantasies differ from other fetishes because they involve the objectification of both your partner and the relationship between you. (Striped socks have nothing on this kink.) In understanding this, I also understand how many red flags I ignored as I fell deeper and deeper into a shared life with a sex addict. I could rattle off the list, but they all suggest the same thing: he didn’t see me as a person, and he was selfish.

While the men featured in Richard’s article were able to identify wrongness in their obsession (even if they couldn’t overcome it), experiencing – much like my ex – an inability to be intimate with their significant other, my boyfriend of three and a half years was unable to acknowledge the damage he inflicted. Not just on me, but also on himself. As part of his unwillingness to handle his sex addiction, he lied and cheated and manipulated. When we ultimately broke up, the story he told didn’t include three and a half years of sexual harassment. He didn’t tell people how he made me feel insecure by constantly demanding that I change my body, how I dress, and even how I do my makeup. No, the story he told was that I was a crazy girl with an eating disorder. Because disclosing my medical history (even the “crazy” part) to everyone we knew mutually (and those he met afterward) was more OK, and more socially acceptable, than acknowledging his role in destroying my sense of self.

Don’t mistake writing about my ex as dwelling on a situation I’ve left behind. While it’s only been a little over a year, I normally don’t think of him outside of trying to create a poem or some prose based on a period of my life that was emotionally rich. There are triggers, of course: I’m angered whenever I feel like someone is controlling what I can say or do, since my relationship also involved trying to control how I dressed and behaved outside of sex. There are also areas in which I’ve grown as part of my experience, as much as I hate to admit it. I’m not quiet when I feel wronged, and I’m learning how to express myself. I stand by my opinions. And I am likable this way, even if my ex made me fear that I’d have even less of a life simply by being myself, that I needed to be quiet and demure to be both loved and liked.

As much as I attempt to move on, however, I’m in recovery. It means that even if I’ve put the past behind me, I’m still dealing with how a sexually abusive relationship affected this present version of myself. Due to my abusive father, I went into my adulthood with an inability to distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy ones. And then I stumbled into my ex after a relatively OK marriage (where the man I was involved with made me feel lovable and worthy of love for the first time in my life, even if things ultimately ended between us). My ex undid a lot of the progress I made, and he undid it gradually. So when I decided to leave him, I was somewhat lost.

Although I’ve attempted to rebuild my life instead of allowing it to fall apart, I’ve made mistakes. I thought being upfront about my past would protect me to some degree. I wanted to know what it was like to have fun, to live. I also didn’t want to get hurt. So I was fun, and I tried to weigh the risk of being vulnerable and being hurt against the reward of finding love. In the trysts I fell into since, I learned that being hurt and finding that you’re still capable of being vulnerable enough to offer your heart to another are not mutually exclusive. But it’s also scary, sometimes, to see how little progress I’ve made in identifying my own boundaries. I only see evidence that they looked at the partial picture and intentionally avoided the strokes that didn’t fit their fantasy after the fact. I’ve let the reasons they used to justify their bouts of selfishness be the seeds of doubt. I’m not good enough.

At this point, nearly fourteen months after leaving a relationship I thought would culminate in marriage, I want my core belief to be that these people were not good enough for me, leave alone worth the time I invested in them. This is the benchmark of recovery, the thought that will let me say, I’m an abuse survivor, and not an active victim.

A Weekend in January

I thought about the story my father told me, of when I was a toddler playing with a “shape sorter,” surrounded by plastic figures, a small box with matching holes in front of me. I said my first string of words as I tried to shove a square block against a round opening: “Jesus Christ!” Whether my father’s story was true or not, I had no idea — given his lifelong hobby of humiliating my mother, I was apt to believe the tale was meant to shame her for cursing around his children. Our daughter’s first phrase, a blasphemy! But fact or fiction, trying to fit into spaces that would only reject me was a common thread in my life. I viewed the story as part of my own personal mythology, as it explained something that was otherwise difficult for me to comprehend. Instead of putting effort towards aligning myself with something or someone that fit, I began my new chapters by knowing they’d end in failure — and that frustration would define the space in between the beginning and end.

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.