phoenix

April 24 was the day I left my marriage. April 22 was the day I told my husband I would leave him, but I stayed to pack a bag and attend one final counseling session to hash out the nuts and bolts of a separation. That’s what I called it a separation. Not because I thought I might ever come back, but to soften the blow a little, to ease him into it. As an intended kindness, I suppose, though maybe it would have been better to let the wave hit all at once.

April 24 was the last day of the most painful period of my life thus far, and the first day of my scrabble back to myself. It’s the day I remembered what it felt like to be my own person, and nearly the day I started to forget again. Within a few months of leaving, I tried to tangle myself up inside another person, began changing my plans to give them what they need, making the same concessions that had caused me so much grief in my marriage. I decided to give myself a year to be single before I entered into another relationship; a year on my own. And so I marked a year in my calendar. On April 24, 2013, I’d be ready to be with someone again: Game on.

It was arbitrary, sure, and it didn’t exactly work out that way. To be honest, the anniversary might have passed me by as nothing more than a bad patch, if not for the note in my calendar. I might have thought that the bouts of anxiety, mysterious tears, and sadness had to do with the changing seasons, or the travel I’d been doing, or were just a part of me. I might have forgotten about this final milestone, forgotten that I was — am — marking the anniversary of my “before” life going up in flames.

But I’d left myself a reminder, and it’s clear that the symptoms will linger beyond a day. Because it wasn’t just the walking out on April 24; I’d been on fire for a solid month before I admitted that I couldn’t stand any longer and pretend everything was fine. I watched everything turn to ash around me, watched the person I thought I was go white hot around the edges and lose her features.

My body stores memories just as much as my psyche; I feel the tension I carried in my shoulders and across my back. I feel the pressing on my chest, recognize the shallow breathing. I need more sleep, I crave more food, my hands and feet refuse to stay warm. I brace myself to fight at the slightest whisper of confrontation. My muscles remember the motions required to keep my spirit alive.

My body remembers the fire.

Advertisements

The only boy who could ever reach me (and all the rest of them)

He always was the kind of boy that Dusty Springfield ought to sing about; the son of a preacher man, gentle and sweet with a hint of wicked. I loved him in that aching, desperate way teenage girls do. I wrote poems, lived to hear him play guitar, clung to his image with wanton abandon. I kissed him in the backseat as our friends drove, held his hand as we ran through dirty festival grounds and tangled up together in stacks of straw. I fawned, and pined, and waited for him to fall in love with me.

He didn’t.

Somehow he never knew. Maybe that’s why we remained friends. Tangentially: the love that filled the room when we got together could suffocate you, but we didn’t get together that often, keeping up with each other through word of mouth, pictures on the internet, that special metaphysical gravity that you develop with the people you love when you’re young. Miles, states, coasts apart, we continued to orbit each other and the sun of a shared history. Then, something shifted. We aligned again.

Summertime, he came through my town for seven hours: ready, set, go. Lord, I’d missed him. Stealing kisses from me on the slide.

Winter found me on a bus headed toward Baltimore and familiar arms. Taking time to make time. Twirl me, I said before I came. Show me your city.

Teach me again is what I meant.

Teach me again how to dive into love like I did back then. Teach me how to offer the back of my hand for a kiss, how to rest my hand on your chest before we kiss. Take my face into your hands and send lessons firing like sparks up and down my spine. Climb up on the roof and give me the sunset, flirt with the people selling food on the street. Dance with me while we wait for dessert, because they played your song and because we can. Decide this will be our anniversary, and remind me every year. Be wild and tender and romantic, then hold on to me tight, I’m leaving in the morning. Remind me how it can be. I’m leaving in the morning.

He did.

He plays bass now, mostly; upright, an instrument you embrace and coax notes from. His hands are still graceful and wise. He writes in verse, even if we don’t call it poetry anymore. And he will forever, ever, ever reach me.

*****

When I was younger I fell in love hard, and frequently. I suppose I still do, to a certain extent. I love making eyes, flirting, first kisses and the moment right before when the world swims through closing eyes.

Now that those pleasures are available to me again, I’ve been taking advantage where I can. I wouldn’t have guessed, but the best new connections I’ve made have been old ones. I’m being taken apart and put back together by a small army of familiar small-town boys.

Most of them are new to me in one way or another, but the difference between old-new boys and the new-new ones is that I don’t have to be anything for the old ones. There are no expectations; they already know me as someone, so I don’t feel like I have to change to please them (which is something I do with new people). And surprise surprise, they want to be with me anyway.

And each one of them who remembers me who I was before I knew to hide her, and loves me anyway? Each one of them chips off a little bit of the plaster I used to cover over myself. Each one peels another onion layer, leaves me a little more vulnerable and a little more safe in that vulnerability. Each one heals me a little more.

He’d kiss & tell me everything is all right…

Back to the beginning

no risk no rewardPaul Madonna has got my number.

My divorce is final; I’m officially alone. (The statement is a touch more dramatic than the feeling.) Just before it went through, I opened myself  again, and in doing so discovered I wasn’t the right person for someone I really liked. Which is fair, but hurt, and does not inspire me to risk losing again. Risk fucking up. But you have to, if you want to live the way I want to live.

For a few days I steeped in sadness and self-pity. Then guilt, for feeling so sorry for myself about trivial things while there are children being slaughtered at their schools. Then I  started to come back around.

Tomorrow morning I get on a train. New Mexico will treat my wounds with her snow, hot springs, stars, and quiet. New York will stoke the fire in my belly, help me crave life again, and a quick trip to Baltimore to see a dear old friend will twirl me around. (One of my life’s great treasures is the collection of sweet reunions I’ve gathered over the years.) I am taking a notebook, and a Polaroid camera, and a heart to fill with hope. And also some wool longjohns to guard my weak California sensibilities.

(I disabled comments for now; it’s not that I don’t like the interaction – I do – but when I know who is reading and how they’re reading, I begin to write for my audience, and that’s was not my intention for this space.)

what it was, and what it wasn’t

Every now & again you have an opportunity to rewrite your history. Here and in real life, I’ve been rewriting the last several years of my life, coloring it in rose and amber. It’s time to knock that off.

Since we split, I’ve made a point to defend my ex (maybe it’s not too harsh a term after all) as a great guy who wasn’t right for me. In some ways he is a great guy, but when it came to me he often wasn’t. Yes, there were happy moments. Still, I’m astounded at how many cruel phrases I tolerated and internalized. Ashamed, really. I never thought I’d let anyone get away with treating me like that. I thought was stronger and smarter than that.

With our wedding anniversary looming, memories have been coming back in little flashes, shocks. Things he said when he was angry, hot and cruel enough that I once insisted he see someone who would help him stop speaking to me that way. (He did, shortly before his father died. At that point the sessions changed course, understandably. In his memory his father is the reason he went in the first place; he doesn’t recall the need to stop being wicked to me.) His refusal to interact with me unless it was on his terms, which got worse as the years went on. The way he didn’t seem to like my company unless he was intoxicated. The times he said he didn’t like my company unless he was intoxicated.

As soon as I was free, I went back to the safe space I’d carved out before we met: I started sleeping with old friends. (It’s a small-town thing. Ahem.) It was easy, but any sign of tenderness made me want to run. One friend called out my name; another wanted enough light to see my face. I balked. Every time.

Then I tried to date (which yes, past tense). New people were kind to me, wanted to spend time with me, tried to impress me, even. Someone told me I was beautiful, sincerely, and I realized I hadn’t heard that in a long, long time; my ex had cried and said how pretty I was when I set the first foot out the door, but that isn’t the same. The attention threw me, all of it, it was so positive and genuine. I hid inside that Woody Allen cliché, not wanting part of any club that will have me as a member.

Now here comes the rest of it, the longest-standing issue: my inability to form stable meaningful attachments. It’s probably the doozy of my life. I usually gloss over it as fear of commitment, but it runs far deeper than that. And that’s probably enough for now. More self-absorption on the subject soon. Up next: childhood development, as lived by me.

Yay?

Four forward, one back

Just when I thought I was safe! Ha.

Next Thursday would be my fourth wedding anniversary, if I still had those. The big milestones are hard for me. Hello, what might have been, did you miss me? Hey there, how a life can change over the course of a year, it’s been a while. How you been?

It could be worse; it could be much worse. Even so, it hurts. All the things I worked for, all the parts of myself and my soul that I poured out into this thing, this strange being of a relationship, gone. Hopes and dreams, time and passion, faith and confidence. I only learn how much I put in as I get each piece back; it’s a lot. I wonder how much of me is left in there, how much I will get back.

I will be fine – it’s four steps forward, one step back – but every now and again it reaches down and whomps me hard on the head, in the heart.

Whomp.

wearing it well

I have never been a pretty girl. Or if I have I never knew it.

My whole life, I have defined myself by being something other than pretty. I have always had stunningly beautiful friends, and I considered it my role to bring something else to the table, to work with what I had rather than try to become something I was not. I would call myself the the funny friend or the charming one, mostly. I considered myself something of a mascot; everybody loves the mascot, but nobody takes them home. I still wanted to be considered beautiful, but I made peace with myself and got to a point where I felt pretty happy with charming. I didn’t think I had it in me to be a heartbreaker anyway.

Since I’ve been single and gained a shred of confidence, I’ve been treated like a pretty girl. A funny, charming, pretty girl. This is the first time, at least that I’ve been aware of, and it’s a very strange experience. My mother insists it was always this way, but my memory is very different. I’ve always maintained romantic connections, but they were friends. I was rarely with someone, and I always saw myself as the rebuffed pursuer, not an object of anybody’s affection.

That’s changed; I don’t know when or how.  A lot has changed. So much of what I thought was true of myself just plain isn’t. I’m still figuring out what to do with it all.

the ball is rolling again

Until it came down, I didn’t realize just how far up my guard has been. Spoiler alert: very.

My childhood home is one of the few places I think it could have come down, and that’s where I went over the weekend. To stand in the river until my feet ached with cold, to ask my mother to sit with me until I fell asleep. (She stayed all night.) To admit that I was tired of proving that I’m okay, that I’m holding strong, and to decide to knock that shit off. I’m strong enough for myself, thanks. Believe me or don’t.

Unexpectedly had the chance to be a good friend, and managed it. I’ve taken so very much since October; it felt amazing to give a little back, to know that I finally have something to give back for the first time in almost a year.

rites of passage

I try to maintain the illusion of grace. It doesn’t always (often?) work, but I do try. This weekend I didn’t succeed quite as well as I’d have liked.

Saturday was the first wedding I’ve attended as a single adult. Ever. I confided in another single girl on the shuttle to the ceremony. She had never attended a wedding with anyone else and had some good tips for those awkward moments I didn’t know to expect: how to bow out when a fast song changes to a slow song, how to decline when someone else’s husband offers you a pity dance. I listened, but truthfully I was so excited about the wedding, so happy for my friends who are in love and certain of what they’re doing (which I was not), that I didn’t really consider the ways I ought to modify my typical, coupled behavior.

                     Getting my own wedding party started. (Photo by Gloria Nunez.)

I drank too much. I mean, who doesn’t drink too much at weddings? (I always drink too much at weddings.) But, I am used to having someone there who will make sure I get home safe and don’t make a spectacle. Not this time.

During the reception I began catching up with other old friends who I hadn’t seen recently, certainly not since all the changes of the last year. That’s where I got a little out of hand.

Most people are genuinely shocked about the breakup, and sad. We seemed like a loving, stable couple; for a long time, we were. Telling someone makes me feel a lot of things. Guilt, disappointment, and defiance, for starters. Why defiance? Because I feel compelled to prove that I’m okay, that I did right by myself. The little chip on my shoulder burns, and I have. To. Show. Them.

I didn’t realize I was doing it until I woke up in my hotel room at five in the morning, wearing my party dress, with a dead phone and no idea how I’d gotten home. The last thing I remembered was being fully present and lucid on the dance floor. I dragged out of bed, put on my coat, and did the walk of shame to my truck to juice my phone back up (I always, always forget a wall charger).

I laid down across the bench seat, closed my eyes, and hoped I hadn’t done anything to ruin such a sweet evening. No messages, no missed calls on the ticker; good signs. I sent a text to a friend asking if I owed her thanks for getting me to bed, knowing I’d have to suffer through a few hours of uncertainty for her to wake up. I went back up to my room to rest as well as I could, and hope I didn’t remember anything because there was nothing to remember.

Thankfully, there wasn’t. At nine my friend let me know that I’d danced hard but appropriately all evening and headed straight for my room when the shuttle dropped us at the hotel. Aside from a few suggestive comments to my girlfriends, I at least looked like I kept it together; a three on a 1-10 scale of shame.

Not so graceful, but I suppose I managed.

 

 

 

tenses and terms

I’ve been working on a story for a different site. It takes place while I was married. As with most events during my relationship, my now-ex husband plays a role, and I would be remiss to leave him out of the story. At the same time, it doesn’t feel right to refer to him as my husband (since he isn’t anymore), nor my ex (since he wasn’t then).

Oh, semantics, I love you. Really, I do. Every word matters.

For the stories I want to tell about our shared past, I’ve decided to adopt the term “then-husband.” It doesn’t define our relationship as it was then by the way it is now; it doesn’t compromise either side of our relationship. He was my husband at the time, and in the story I want to tell, he was doing a particularly good job at it, though the story isn’t really about that.

[Something about dead horses…I have other things to write about, but I try to share those in more public venues. This is my little corner for the stuff I still don’t know how to navigate in full public view.]

I’d like to have a less contentious term than ex for the present tense. (Former husband might work for those.) (Not that the subject comes up very often.) But for those stories I want to honor from the present, separate perspective, I think then-husband is fair from both sides.

meet the artist

For a long time I wasn’t myself, but I was happy. And that was fine, that worked. Then a series of problems with my heart – the irony of having a broken heart is not lost on me – created a need for instant and overarching change in my life. I had to stop riding my bike, which up to that point had taken up a good fifteen hours of my time each week and had been the primary activity I shared with my then-husband.

I was devastated, depressed, and angry. Before I was forced to quit, I had been at the top of my fitness, and I could almost touch the fruit of all my dedication and ambition. Then, it was done. Just like that. I had no idea what to do with myself except stew in my disappointment. Then I remembered things I used to enjoy before I found bicycles. I made art, I explored, I wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. So I started doing those things again. In two months I finished two journals. I wrote stories for the first time, and I liked what I wrote. My voice sounded familiar again.

As I felt more and more like I was becoming the person I am at my core, I tried to share this new life with my then-husband. I wanted to bring him into my fold the way I’d been brought into his for the past ten years. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen, and after a while I couldn’t do it anymore.

I knew my marriage was finished; my own therapy wasn’t helping, couple’s counseling wasn’t improving anything except our ability to find things that weren’t working. I’d been trying for months. I needed to leave so I didn’t destroy myself, and I wanted to stay so I didn’t destroy anything else. Happiness and obligation are not good bedfellows, so I was doing everything I could to make my own needs irrelevant.

Then one morning, I opened my RSS feeder and found this comic:

All Over Coffee #582 by Paul Madonna

The image pinged around inside me, settled. I felt calm and clear about the direction my life was taking: I did know exactly what I had to do. With that little bit of cosmic reassurance, I believed I could really do it.

And I did.

After I moved out on my own and signed the papers that would someday make the divorce official (you can walk into a California courthouse and walk out married five minutes later, but if you want to reverse the process you have to wait at least six months for the state to catch up), I had a friend over to my apartment. I’d bought a print of the comic – the first art I’d purchased for myself – and hung it near the door so that I see it before I go out and as I come home.

She noticed the image. I told her the story, how I’d been struggling to stand up for myself and do what I knew was best for me, and this picture showed up at the very moment I needed a shove out of the nest. How it felt like a perfect little gift from the universe.

“Who’s the artist?” she asked.

“Paul Madonna.” I answered.

Her expression changed; surprise, disbelief, surrender. She knew him. In fact, he would be at a dinner party she was taking me to next week. I’d meet him, and I could tell him the story of how he made something that impacted my life in a pretty big way.

It’s rare that you get an opportunity to tell an artist that they reached down deep inside you and pulled out part of you. But in the same way that the comic arrived so perfectly, so did the opportunity to tell my story in return. Cosmic. We had a great exchange about art and connection and creative process and ways of seeing. The experience was almost profound; to have a stranger touch your life from afar and then be able to come in close and touch them right back. It was so profound because there wasn’t any doubt about what I had to do, the sequence laid itself out:

  1. see art
  2. move forward
  3. meet artist
  4. tell story
  5. pay attention.