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.

Cope

March begins with a broken heart. For a moment, I fear that this year will be the same as the last: my capacity for love will become a fire that turns my world to ash. But I’ve since learned that life is not grief or pain.

Life is how you cope with loss. To live, you let go.

Oh Baby, or: The First Half of 2018

I’m not sorry that I remember in words. Whether or not our past takes shape through language, these are facts –

One: I was raped in my apartment by a man with more hair on his back than on his balding head, who wore the Star of David around his neck. He reminded me of an Italian wise guy, the kind you see in movies that get fat on wine and veal. Two: For a long time, the only person I told about my night with a rapist was my fuck buddy, a pretentious and confusing shit I understood to be a legitimate friend, especially after he encouraged me to move in with one of his pals from film school. I wouldn’t say he left me since he was never really quite there to begin with, but I was still devastated to find him drawing away from me emotionally, less than a month after the rape. When it became clear that his actions were part of launching into a relationship (”I’m just not ready,” he told me, but he supposedly had feelings for me too) with a mutual friend six years our junior, instead of being irritated or angry, I was pathetic and desperate for us to still remain friends. I got no credit for remaining friendly with her, although I never understood being anything less than civil with another woman just because a man fucked you and then fucked you over. Three: I had a medical abortion that became an incomplete abortion that became vacuum aspiration and while I was reasonably certain my resilient little fetus was not the result of being raped, the alternative explanation was worse. I was alone by choice because I didn’t want to be alone by necessity, terrified he’d deny his role in fertilizing the parasite growing inside my stomach. Four: At the point I lost my job, I had already fast tracked myself to earn the title “alcoholic” and quite frankly didn’t care. I was dirty, desperate, dumb. Pregnant, because this was before the abortion, and somehow I found myself depressed that I lost any choice to keep a baby I didn’t want anyway due to my excessive drinking. This thing will come out looking like a fucking elf, I told myself at one point. I was probably drunk.

Bullies

My once friend passes her eyes along the bruised length of my neck, the discoloration left by his teeth extending under my jaw. Sarah Jane’s judgment brings a cold light to the typically unreadable expression she wears. At this point, my co-worker is finding any reason to be unhappy with me (she reminds me uncannily of my father, with her simmering rage over the most mundane things), but I’ve finally given her ammunition.

SJ will be fired in a few weeks, but I don’t yet know that. (I won’t, up until the hour she’s escorted from the office.) I have less to worry about than I realize, but the panic weighs on my stomach like a boulder. Limitless is the word I’d use to describe my embarrassment, but I didn’t ask for a man to bite me in so many visible places. I wish I could say that, explain how while I had consented to sex, I had not consented to wearing imprints of his teeth around my neck and across my shoulders for the days to come.

“I bet you were sick yesterday,” she says. Her words, more like a hiss than human speech, react to the cold November air: clouds form in front of her painted orange lips and drift off into nothingness. (And while the air so quickly forgets the shape of her words, I will remember for weeks, perhaps maybe months.) “Good thing you’re back.”

“I was just run down,” I say, meek as a mouse.

“It makes me uncomfortable to stand so close to you,” she says, apropos of nothing. She’s looking down on me – literally, as she’s got almost a foot on my own small stature – her fire engine red hair hanging past her face like two long drapes. There’s something that approaches malice in her eyes. Maybe I’m just reading into it; perhaps she’s not a bully, and I in fact deserve her quiet rage.

“It’s like I’m some giant,” she mumbles, turning heel before slithering back towards our office.

 

Such a private man, this distraction that’s wound tight as a garrote around my heart. He will tell stories to his friends in front of me, where I am not a character despite the memory belonging to us both. He will not take a picture with me, or create an association between us that is anything more than convenience for himself. But he will leave his mark in all the public places that I occupy alone. (I feel acute embarrassment, a humiliation that is severe but not as disastrously consuming as what will come later.) And still I throw myself at him, desperate for someone to love, accepting he may never care for me because I’m closer to thirty than I want to be but still incredibly and sadly so fucking unfamiliar with the concept of self-respect.

My whole life, survival has meant keeping others happy. If I bury my own wants and needs, I will not be kicked or abandoned. When I tell him I took the day off work because I couldn’t figure out how to cover up the marks he left behind, he just laughs – and I find myself where I often have in the past, afraid of my own anger, more terrified he’ll leave if I express my unhappiness than I am over his callous disregard.

I told you to stop. I told you not there. I told you and you continued anyway. But I swallow air instead.

Modern Sex

“You’re making me feel like I’m forcing myself on you,” he says, pulling the waistband of my leggings down around my hips. After tugging my clothes in the other direction, having already turned away from him in bed, I finally grab his hand and push his clammy fingers away from my body. This doesn’t deter him – but in my experience, that’s never been enough.

“Women who say ‘no hookups’ are almost always willing to fuck on the first date,” my friend with benefits told me. Despite this and his many other absurd observations, he was the fuck boy that ultimately broke my heart – and hardened what remained, to the point someone would later describe me to his friends as “hilarious, but covered in blood splattered armor.”

When I met him, I was ready to love and desperate to be loved. Over time, he made me realize the truth about dating: women do not win this game.

Later in the same year, a guy I was dating who didn’t allow me to leave his home for work before having unprotected sex with me more than once, echoed the same belief. “They put in the app that they don’t want a hookup, but they’re always down to come back home with me,” he had said, during a conversation comparing me to the lesser members of my sex. His criteria for a woman worthy of a relationship was vague and did not factor in his own shortcomings. Lucky me, I thought.

With both men, I was an idea, shaped to fit the category that best suited their own lives. And with both, at various points, I wondered if they realized I was a person, a woman who struggled every day for her autonomy and independence and happiness, rather than a gaping hole where they could stuff their emotions and their dicks.  

Because I don’t know how he’ll respond to the truth (so, you turned out to be pretty fucking weird and offensive, but I’m here and I’m tired), particularly after listening to his drunken rants about eating disorders and how his sister never loved him (how did I get here again?), I lie and tell him I don’t like to have sex when both parties are inebriated.

“I’m not drunk,” he protests. (They always do that, don’t they? That, or it’s some variation of “I don’t have a problem.” Grown, financially independent men who choose alcohol over therapy – gotta love ‘em.)

Am I just a walking sheath? Dump yourself into me, is that what my expression reads? Your baggage, your cum. I can’t imagine anything better than the burden of a broken man who is not aware that their brokenness is not special, unique, that I too suffer and desire and need and that I am not a sieve, I do not catch the shit and the debris so they can leave with the best parts of themselves.

“You ladies say no when you really mean yes,” another man told me, back when I was dating around, aimless and half-heartedly seeking a distraction from Mr. Fuck Boy. The context of his proclamation was troubling, to say the least: he had just rolled off of me after using me like a pump and dump and was sweating profusely onto my sheets. I did not want to have sex, but our night concluded with him finishing on my stomach despite my protests.

Of course, I had experience allowing my mind to slip away from my body, so it wasn’t all that bad, him fucking me even as I said no. For three and a half years, the span of my last serious relationship, I thought it was normal for men to harass you until you gave in, that it was up to you to say no even after you already did, to stop something with words that already failed you. So when this man violated me, I channeled apathy because the alternative was to blame myself.

In the past, I’ve given myself over to the wheedling of men. But I’m exhausted in a new way, unable to bear the thought of yet another disappointment, another trip home feeling disgusted because it was safer to say yes.

Maybe it’s because I’m tipsy, but I think to myself that I’d rather die than let another man take off my clothes when I just wanted to sleep. If trying to connect with another person culminates in exchanging my bodily autonomy for safety, I can’t do this anymore anyway. If the choice is between being alone and playing some kind of rapist Russian roulette with men, then let one of them just fucking kill me already so I can be done with this game.

You could’ve just said no. You could’ve been firmer with me. You’re responsible for your own safety. Why didn’t you just leave? It’s your fault. Slut.

“I’m going to leave,” I say. I don’t wait for a response before I abandon his bed, because after a decade, I can act on what I know. Whether casual lover or girlfriend or something in between, men choose – no, control – when you are a person and when you are a thing.