One of the first blog posts that I wrote was titled On Powerlessness. Today, I barely remember those feelings. I barely remember that tiny apartment on the third floor where the college student below us left us nasty notes on our door because Reed was a second-grader who liked to dance whenever he was excited.
I barely remember having Reed on free lunch at school, or how the kid next door had braces that were made out of fishing wire, or how there was no grass for a little boy to play on, or how when I walked the dog outside to go to potty in the winter, his paws would crust in ice so quickly that I’d have to carry him up the stairs, or how, while I was walking the dog, I would lock the door to the apartment and tell Reed that I would knock three times so that he would know it was me and let me back in, but still, sometimes, he would be afraid, and he would stand on the other side of the door and cry out, “How do I know that you’re my mom? How do I know that you’re my mom?”
I barely remember Caleb calling me and telling me, “I know that you’re the reason I’m not going to jail, and I appreciate that, and the judge told me that I have to write you a letter of apology, and I’m going to take the time to do it right.”
I barely remember Caleb’s sincerity in that moment. He was not all monster. He knew that what he had done was wrong, and that, by that point, he would never get me back, so he had no reason to lie. But the truth is that, although Caleb is not all monster, he is still, mostly, monster. When his lawyer warned him that anything in that letter could later be used against him, he ceded the letter writing authority to the lawyer who wrote me The Letter.
I barely remember never getting that apology that Caleb had promised.
I barely remember that feeling of powerlessness. At this point, I have written about it all so much that it has become narrative. I’m not even sure that my own memories feel real anymore.
What is real is the power that I felt last night when I ran for miles. I realize this isn’t much, but when I left Caleb, I started running as a way of escaping the pain that was inside of me. I wanted the physical pain to obliterate the emotional pain, but I hated working out. My friend Megan advised me to put aside my music snobbery. “I know that you like good music,” she said, “But, to work out, you need to listen to pop music.” She was right. I added a bunch of pop music to my playlist. I ran, and it hurt so much. I could barely make it a mile. Before my marriage, I had been very active, but I lost that completely while I was with Caleb. He preferred to have me inactive.
In the wake of leaving Caleb, I ran, and I listened to pop music, and that pop music was what inspired “It Will Look Like A Sunset” It was the Kelly Clarkson song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.” I ran, and I cried, and all that I could think was, “I am not stronger. I am not stronger. I am not stronger.”
Before revising that essay, the last line was, “I am not dead, but I am also not stronger.”
But here I am–three years later–and I am stronger. I can also run a lot farther than a mile.
Reed had two friends–twins–stay over last night. It was his first sleepover, but both boys are sweethearts, so the evening was really easy for me. Those boys are part of a wealthy family and live in a humongous house with an in-ground pool and horse stables, but still, one of the twins said to me, “Your house is the perfect size. Not too small, and not too big.” They are so polite. Their parents have raised them well.
The boys were a little freaked out by the bugs in our house, and one of the boys had a bad dream that a man in a black suit with a white face was walking back and forth outside. I’m not going to lie, okay? The house that Reed and I live in is a little creepy. It’s falling apart. The bathroom door doesn’t fully close. There is a whole section of door trim that has fallen off (with exposed nails) resting against the drier. The place is covered in bugs, and the house is in the holler where everything is darker, and louder and also, somehow quieter than everywhere else. But still, this morning, one of the twins said to me, “I wish we didn’t have to go so soon.”
And when their parents picked them up, the mother and I chatted for a bit. Before the boys, she had one of “those marriages,” meaning a marriage like mine, and she gets it. Maybe that’s why she’s had Reed over to her house, and why she lets her kids come to mine, because the truth is that most of the other parents are standoffish to me. It is not easy to be a single mother in this town. I am always the one reaching out. I can’t think of anyone who has reached out to me.
But this mom gets it. She doesn’t judge me, and although she is now in a good marriage, and they are rich (by my standards), she empathizes with Reed and me. The boys were leaving, and Reed asked them if they’d taken their “European money” because I had given them all some leftover Euros that I had. The mom and I then talked about Belgium. We had both been there recently. Telling her that I’d been in Europe for almost a month made me feel powerful. I then told her about my book, and you know what? That made me feel powerful too.
But it didn’t make me feel as powerful as when that little boy said, “I wish we didn’t have to go so soon.” That made me feel powerful because I knew that I was doing everything that I could to create a home where kids would feel welcome and cared for.
For a long time, I put off leaving Caleb because I didn’t think that I could take care of Reed on my own. Caleb had deliberately cultivated a sense of powerlessness in me.
Now, it’s just Reed and me. Reed has never not been on the Honor Roll. He’s run for student council twice and lost twice, but both times, he’s accepted that loss with good humor. He plays soccer, and he just joined cross-country, and well, he’s just a really good kid.
And that makes me feel powerful–that, despite all of the terrible stuff that Caleb has brought into our lives, Reed is still doing fine, and Caleb cannot take any of the credit for that.
Here are some other things that make me feel powerful:
No longer finding it necessary to tell Caleb how much he has damaged Reed and me.
No longer finding it necessary to tell Caleb’s friends and family how much Caleb damaged Reed and me.
No longer worrying about whether it was my fault.
No longer having night terrors every night.
No longer worrying about how I’m going to talk to Caleb about our inability to pay the bills (which always threatened his masculinity when we were married).
My ability to pay the bills on my own without stress.
Being able to watch whatever I want to watch on television.
Knowing that my house is clean because I cleaned it myself, and that, I don’t owe some abusive asshole sex, or penance, or whatever it was that he wanted, because he, maybe, did the dishes.
This. Right now. This moment.
Climbing a mountain with my father and my brother–both good men. I smoked them. Honestly, I hurt my body with that hike. I pushed too hard and didn’t feel it. Abuse taught me how to not feel pain. I could tell that my dad and brother were kind of shocked. My body was only a vessel, but I felt powerful. My knee later told me that I was not as powerful as I had thought, but I still own that moment of power.
When I was grumpy and yelled at Reed, and he later said, “I knew that you were going to apologize. My dad never apologizes, but I know that you’re different.”
When I know that I am, unequivocally, the better parent.
When I realize that I could finish my PhD within the year.
When I stand in a river with my skirt held up around my waist and laugh to a man who will love me in that moment, but not forever.
When I travel by myself in Europe.
When I spend two weeks in San Francisco in my favorite author’s house, and I have a bit of a breakdown, but also write some of the most important stuff for my book.
When I come back to my real life, and am told by the man by the river that he does not want to be a stepparent.
When the man by the river says, “I feel like you could find someone better than me,” and I respond with, “I already knew that.”
When I realize, that for the first time in my life, I know what I want, and I’m willing to wait for it, and in the meantime, I’m okay with being alone.
When I fall asleep with my head on a different man’s shoulder, but I know that I will wake up safe because he is a friend.
When something that has not happened yet.
When the future is not so frightening.
When I open my heart to other men.