Summer Boys

We made it a summer habit to walk along slick stone, to fumble across (often) or gracefully traverse (seldom) the cliffs that reached over the ocean’s edge. Some nights, I felt brave: I didn’t know how to swim and was afraid of heights. If I looked out and down towards the horizon, I would feel the nauseating tension that accompanied being near an identified risk, my nervous system calculating all undesirable outcomes with every near slip. So I did not look, or at least not often enough that I’d falter. And even then, my sight would only rest on where the sky and the ocean met so that I could see that my life, however meaningless, existed within a world as beautiful as it was dangerous.

I never knew if you could swim, and I guess I’ll never find out now. I didn’t know if you, like I, were afraid of heights. And looking back at that time, it’s almost certain I didn’t care about more than your presence beside me.  Mine, mine, mine. Young love is selfish, isn’t it?

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.

Snapshot of a Feminist Male

“Don’t you remember? I said I don’t like documentaries.”

Before I can say, well, I do, and I’m sorry I asked if you had any interest in seeing that new Netflix one on the ivory game, he interrupts my thoughts.

“Remember?” He repeats. “They all have too much bias.”

Diplomatic is not the right word choice here; diplomacy occurs among equals, not in arrangements where one party is expected, even if not explicitly, to submit to the other. No, I am learning how to be demure. While I think, yes, a film on elephant poaching is biased towards conservation and the prevention of this mammal’s extinction, bias is not inherently a bad thing, I say instead, “okay.” As much as I want to say, Men think that their self-assessed ability to identify bias makes them enlightened geniuses, I turn my attention to my cuticles and add, “We don’t have to watch it.”

It’s alright to not be enough of myself when I’m with him. I decided that when I decided I was too lonely to spend the final third of the year by myself. There are things I can save for when I’m alone, like my opinions and self-respect.

Dating

“I lead with it,” I said to Brian, my latest therapist. He was older than me, but I still thought of him as young: he only had a few inches on me, sometimes wore a bow tie, and met his wife on JDate. “When we get together the first time, I tell them I’m in recovery from Bulimia Nervosa. I’ll mention that I go to therapy or that I’m on medication for clinical depression.”

I had come to know Brian well enough to discover some of his tells. Whenever I said something that he found troubling, he’d purse his lips, creating what I came to call the “puffy duck face.” Usually I distracted myself from the difficulty of discussing my eating disorder frankly by focusing on his expression. This time, however, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him respond this way to my outlook on dating.

“You have to open up over time,” Brian said. “When you unload like that, you know what the guy is thinking? He’s wondering what else is waiting for him, should you continue to spend time together. I would recommend taking it slow…”

“I don’t care,” I interrupted. “Well, I don’t know. It’s not that, exactly. I just figure that this gives anyone who may get close to me a heads up. Like, they get the choice immediately to deal with my shit, or they can decide it’s a lot and leave. I don’t want to get rejected down the line for being honest.”

“They may leave you anyway,” Brian said.

“I know.” As much as I didn’t want to admit it, most of the people I dated – casually or with more serious interest – would be happy to obtain the perks of a mutually beneficial arrangement, but also categorize me as unfit for a genuine relationship.

I was the fun girl. And I’d be kept at a distance, at least until they found someone more suitable, so that I could remain just that. Any closer, and they would have to see that I was imperfect too – just in less socially acceptable ways than them.

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.