A couple of years ago, I sat on a deck in the Idaho sunlight with a man. I had been divorced for exactly one year (separated for six months before that), and this was the first man I had met who I had thought that I could have feelings for. We lived on different ends of the country, and we were discussing whether or not to have a long-distance relationship.
He said, “Don’t you want someone to come home to every night?”
If I had answered, my answer would have been, “No.”
But how was I to say that? How was I to tell this man, who I was hoping to be involved with, that I didn’t want someone to come home to every night? That I only wanted someone to occasionally come home to? That I wanted to hear this man’s voice on the phone, but not in my home? That I mostly wanted to have someone to think about? That I only wanted to see him every month or two? That I wanted to spend some nights with him wrapped around me, but that, on most nights, I wanted to sleep alone? That sleeping alone had brought me the first peace I’d felt in a long time, and that I was not ready to let that peace go?
How was I to tell him that my son complicates things? That I am not looking for a father for my son.? That I am not looking for a man to step into that role until we are all ready? That maybe I will never be ready?
Maybe I could have told him about Caleb, about how Caleb moved so quickly, about how I lived in a tiny apartment, and Caleb would leave things behind as though it was his apartment too, and soon, I gave him a chair to leave those things on, then a drawer, and then, Caleb was just there.
And once he was there, I no longer was.
I fit myself into the space that Caleb left for me, but it wasn’t enough.
Maybe I could have told this man that, for most of my life, I felt as though I had been fitting myself into the shape of other people.
I didn’t tell this man any of that, though–not on that day, at least. A year later, we had the same discussion. This time I was honest. I told him that a long-distance relationship felt safe to me. I told him of how I had collapsed myself into Caleb. I told him that I had only recently found myself again, and that I didn’t want to be lost anymore.
I started to cry, and this man said, “Oh, Kelly,” and drew my head to his chest, held my hair tenderly. This was the first time I had let him see me cry in that way. I think he thought that I was crying over him, but my tears were not for him. My tears were for the version of myself that had been lost, for the version of myself that he would never know.
Later that night, he asked me, “Kelly, are you sad?”
“No,” I said. “I’m annoyed with you.”
He was silent, then, not angry, but he hadn’t expected that answer. Neither of us had expected that answer. I had broken my pattern of helplessness, you see? The discussion itself had been a rupture of my usual patterns.
And in all truth, if I see that man again this summer, I’m likely to slide right back into his embrace. I care about him, I enjoy spending time with him, and he makes me feel safe. During the academic year, I spend my nights alone. It is nice to get a reprieve during the summer, to hear someone else breathing in the darkness. Still, I no longer want a long distance relationship with this man. The time for that has passed.
One thing I have learned about patterns is that I can only change my own.
Last week, I went to the same writer’s conference that I attend every year. It was in Los Angeles this year. The sunshine was so golden, the people so friendly. I think I could move there and be happy.
I ran into a poetry professor from Boise State (where I met Caleb while he was in his MFA). She asked me where I am at with my course work and if I’m going on the job market next year. I told her that I thought I would only apply to dream jobs next year and, instead, focus my energy on finishing my book and taking my comprehensive exams. She said “We’re going to need a nonfiction person at Boise State, but you probably don’t want to come back to Boise.”
And I thought of that because, of course, I want to go back to Boise. I want to be closer to my family, to my friends, and I want to be back in the West. I would love to be in Boise, but how could I return to the place of Caleb’s MFA? How could I do that?
She then told me a story of how two of Caleb’s friends had found out about my book. They were first shocked that my contract is with Harper Collins, then questioned what Caleb must think? I realized that I cannot go back to a community where the default reaction is not how happy they are for me. Instead, the default reaction is to think about Caleb’s feelings.
I’ll never forget how one of Caleb’s friends, a somewhat prominent writer in Boise, said to me, I shared your essay and helped you, as though I needed his help, as though I didn’t earn the success that has come to me, as though that was the kind of help I wanted from him.
Let me be clear: the kind of help I want from the men in Caleb’s life is for them to cut off contact with Caleb. That man could have helped me by taking a stand, but he did not do that.
I’ll never forget how another one of Caleb’s friends in Boise asked me to try to figure out my triggers, as though the abuse had been my fault, as though I had done something wrong.
I’ll never forget how, the first summer that Caleb and I were apart, he flew with Reed to Boise. The day before they arrived, I drove the streets of Boise. I drove by the homes we had lived in. I sobbed in the car. Later that night, in the hotel, I called Caleb. He answered. I told him that I missed him, that I didn’t want him back, but I missed him.
He said, “I know. I miss you too.” We were quiet for a long time. We still loved each other. Then, he said, “I’m going to go now,” and I said, “I know.”
The next day I picked up Reed at the airport. We went swimming by ourselves in a huge hotel pool. It was cold.
I was so lonely.
That writer–the one who shared my essay and helped me–along with the woman who questioned my triggers–threw a party for Caleb. I was grieving alone in a hotel with the child I was raising on my own, and Caleb was having a party thrown for him.
So the poet was right, I do not want to go back to Boise.
The next day of the conference in L.A., I was invited to a VIP party with important New York industry people. I am shy and do not like to do things alone, particularly things where everyone seems very good-looking, educated, and New York. In the past, I would have avoided the gathering altogether, or tried to pretend like I was having a good time, then left early. But I tried something different–I broke my pattern. I simply said, “I would love to come, but I am really shy.”
The publisher who had invited me took me under her wing. She introduced me to people. She made me feel comfortable, and I had a genuinely great time.
I had already made plans for that night with a friend who I had met while living in Boise (but who now lives in L.A.), so I took that friend with me to the party. This friend is also experiencing a lot of success, and her agent was there. Her agent asked how we had become friends, and my friend said, “Well, we met in Boise. Kelly was married to her abusive ex, and we weren’t really friends at that time, but then, her ex-husband’s friend raped me, and we bonded over having survived those dudes.”
And then, we both laughed.
I know. It’s inappropriate, right? But still, we laughed, and it was funny. Maybe only other abuse survivors can understand the humor in that, but there is something liberating in being able to laugh at exactly how fucked up that kind of connection is.
And then, as my friend and I drank expensive Los Angeles drinks for free while talking to New York publishers and agents, we discussed how neither my abuser, nor her rapist, would ever have the experience that we were having.
There we were, my friend and I–two survivors and feminists–and, in that moment, our lives were fucking awesome. And both of those men–those hateful, violent men–are (and will continue to be) nobodies.
And we cheered to that.
I don’t know her patterns, but mine have been broken.
Neither of us is living in the shape of anyone else.
Tonight was different. My real life. I wasn’t at a VIP party in Los Angeles. I was in a Western Sizzling parking lot in West Virginia. The sky gray, chemical factories sizzling by the side of the highway. I picked up Reed who had spent the weekend with his father.
Reed sat in the backseat and told me how his cousin had gotten into trouble. Reed sometimes has a hard time opening up to me, but this time, he couldn’t stop talking. He told me that his uncle had yelled at his cousin, that he was yelling so loudly that Reed was shivering. Reed wanted to end the argument. He stood with his hand over the light switch. He wondered if he should turn off the lights, so that his uncle would stop yelling. He told me of how his hand shook over that light switch.
He said, “Mom, I was shivering.”
And I know that shiver. It comes from the inside. It comes from the bones. It comes from the little boy who hid in his bed while the dogs climbed in beside him and his father beat his mother in the next room over. It comes from that little boy who will always be a part of Reed, who will always be the source of that shiver.
And Reed said that his uncle finally noticed him, and his uncle said, “Reed, maybe you should go into the other room,” so Reed did.
And I want to scream at his uncle the words that I will never be able to scream at him, which are “Don’t you see how traumatized my little boy has been? How can you scare him like that?”
But this is not a story about my little boy being traumatized. It is a story about another little boy (who my own little boy loves) being traumatized.
Reed then told me that his uncle yelled at his cousin that he was a “brat,” that his uncle used the “sh” word to describe him, and that, his uncle pinched his cousin, and when his cousin cried, his uncle called the cousin (also a 10-year-old) a “wimp.”
Reed told me that he didn’t know what happened when he was in the other room, but when he returned to his cousin’s room, his cousin was hiding under the covers and crying.
Reed told me that he thought his uncle had been too hard on his cousin. But then he said, “I mean, I know that [my uncle] is just preparing [my cousin] to be an adult.”
And so I pulled over. Reed and I went into a diner, and I bought him a cheeseburger. I told him that children do not need that kind of preparation. I told him that I had left his father for exactly that reason. I told him that anger and violence is not okay, and that, I left Reed’s father so that he wouldn’t grow up with that. I told him about a time when I was still married, when Reed’s cousin had gotten in trouble for something which seemed like normal toddler behavior to me. I told him how Reed’s uncle had us all go and play in the backyard, but he left the cousin, who was only four at that time, crying on the couch, for an entire hour. I told Reed how I pretended like I had to go to the bathroom, but went in and sat with my then-nephew. I hugged him and told him what a good boy he was and how much I loved him. He quieted then, and I held him for a long time.
I don’t know if I should have told this story to Reed, but I did.
I told Reed, “The best thing you can do for your cousin is to continue to be a good friend to him.”
Reed then said to me, “I get most of that from you. I don’t get that from my dad.”
And he was right. What else there is to say?
Reed said, “Can I tell [my cousin] that story about you sneaking in to hug him?”
And I said, “Oh, honey. He’s probably forgotten, and I think it might just hurt him more to be reminded of it.”
Then, Reed said, “I just thought he might like to know that he was loved. I don’t think he thinks anyone loves him.”
My heart broke because I no longer get to love my former nephew. I no longer get to advocate for him in the small ways that I could before.
Then, Reed said, “At least [my cousin] will know not to treat his own kids that way because his dad was like that, right?”
I told him, “Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works. People learn how to behave from their parents. Sometimes they treat their children the same way that they were treated, but your cousin has a kind heart, and I’m sure he’s going to be okay.”
And Reed looked at me and said, “I’m glad that you’re the one raising me. When I have kids I’m going to treat them the way that you treat me. I’m going to be patient and love them. I’m not going to be like [my uncle] or my dad.”
And I knew then that I’m doing the best I can. I can’t save my former nephew. I can’t save Caleb’s childhood self. I can’t save my own childhood self. I can’t save your child. I can’t save any other child, but I can try to save my own.
I broke the pattern, you see? I got out. I treat my sweet boy with loving kindness, while also understanding that there will always be a traumatized little boy inside of him who still shivers when he hears yelling.
Reed asked me, “Do you think I can help [my cousin]?”
And I said, “All that you can do is love him just the way he is.”
Reed is going to break the pattern, you see?