On Memories

This photo was taken exactly a year ago.


That baby was only hours old. She had been born to two of my very best friends, and though they live in Montana, I was en route from Idaho to Ohio and able to take them lunch and steal some time with them.

I had never held any baby that young but my own.

About a month ago, Reed asked me, “Do you think that my dad gets so angry with me because I look just like you?”

Reed is always quantifying how much he is of us. He will say, “I am 70% you and 30% my dad.” His ratios change from time to time, but he is always mostly me.

I recently had this realization that Reed reminds me a lot of my dad, and because we (Reed and I) both adore my dad, Reed latched on to that. He said, “I am most like Grandpa!”

Being like Grandpa probably feels like neutral territory.

The truth is that Reed is 100% himself.

At Christmas Eve dinner this year, Reed told a story about Caleb and his new wife. It was a cute story, but I did what I always do during those stories. I smiled and disassociated. Then, I saw my mother looking at me with pity, and I felt very present. I felt sad.

Later, while I was getting Reed ready for Christmas Eve service, he brought the story up again, and for the first time, I said, “I need you to not tell me stories about your dad and his wife right now. I’m sorry.”

I have never done that before. I have always wanted to protect him from my sadness, but we had come to an impasse. I was going to be upfront with him, or I was going to cry.

He was quiet, then looked at me compassionately and said simply, “That’s understandable.”

I skipped Christmas Eve service. I did this instead.


I told that story  about Reed to a friend today at lunch. We were sitting in a brewpub, and there was a handsome man sitting at the bar alone near us. I told her that story, and many more.

When the man finished his beer, he put on his hat and got up to leave. He stopped and made direct eye contact with me. He smiled a kind smile. His smile told me that he had been listening.

Shortly before, my friend had said about another friend who is in her sixties, “She has just never met someone to keep her company.”

I had said back to my friend, “I think that is going to be me,” and I am finally hitting the point where my friends no longer protest when I say that.

 And then, there was that man standing there smiling at me, and I know that smile. I have seen that smile before. It was an “I would take you home right now” kind of smile. It was also a tender smile.

There is a certain kind of man who can handle the vulnerability of a battered woman. There is a different kind of man who can handle the power of a woman who is successful. I have yet to find the combination of these men.

Maybe that stranger was the man, but I will never know.

He probably wasn’t.

I was visibly grumpy around Christmas. I finally apologized to my mother. I said, “Christmas is just really hard for me. It is hard for me to know that Caleb is married and expecting a new baby, but I am still alone.” I choked up, then grew embarrassed because I am not as strong as my mother. My mother never chokes up at anything.

My mother said, “You just need to choose what to focus on.”

I said, “You need to do more research on abuse and PTSD. You need to learn that it is not a choice.”

She apologized, but I left the room. She followed me then and said, “He may be remarried, but you have done the right thing. You have placed yourself first, and that is important.” She said, “I know you could have had someone. I know you have had options.”

The truth, though, is that a thirty-something woman will never have as many options as a thirty-something man.

While going through an old photo album of my mother’s, I found this photo that was taken at my best friend’s wedding.


Caleb wasn’t a handsome man. Not even close. He knew that. He used to brag about how men didn’t need to be handsome; they only needed to be funny.

I look at that photo and think of how young I was. I wonder how much time I wasted.

We all know that women can’t get away with only being funny. Women need to be young. Women need to be pretty.

Last year, when that photo with my friend’s newborn was taken, I was sleep-deprived because I had spent the night before with someone younger than me. Not indecently younger than me, but young enough to be exciting.

And it had been fun. Carefree in the way that being with a younger man should be.

At one point, he said, “Kelly, I like you.” At another point, he said, “I like your body. You have a nice body.” I wondered if he had read this because I knew that he had read my blog. I appreciated his words because my body is always still a little bit broken.

I remembered the man I had been with before him. That man had told me that he could never read my writing because he didn’t want to feel sad. This past summer, that same man told me, “I feel like an asshole because I don’t read your writing.”

I thought, You are an asshole. I thought, You claim to care about me, but you don’t want to know me. 

I said, “I like it that you don’t read my writing,” but I was lying to myself as well as to him.

After that night with the younger man, I felt energized and appreciated. I patted myself on the back for being able to have casual flings. This was also the time when my book deal was in the works, and then, I got to hold my friend’s newborn baby. It was all too joyful. I felt a lightness that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

2016 was going to be my year.

2016 has been my year, but it has also been a year of undefined grief.

I had my heart broken by the man who couldn’t read my writing, the man who wasn’t a casual fling. I realized that I want something real, and that casual flings aren’t satisfying to me in the way that commitment is. I realized that something real was not within my grasp. I realized that I need to grow comfortable with being alone.

And now, it is possible that I have grown too comfortable with being alone.

I have written a book, and I hope that it is something beautiful, but it has ravaged me.

All of this is a very long way of building up to this: I am a Christmas baby, born during the most “wonderful time of year,” but the first time that Caleb beat me was on Christmas Eve.

To me, Christmas illuminates all that I have lost.

Still, at my lunch today, when I said to my friend that I thought that I was going to be the person who would be alone, I didn’t speak with sadness. I didn’t speak with regret. Choices are hard, and I have made some wrong ones that I now have to live with, but being alone has been the right choice.

Tonight, Reed said to me, “Do you think that being a single parent makes someone a better parent?” Reed assumes that single parents are better than married parents because his lived experience supports this. And I’ve got his back. Sometimes, I miss the memories of us with his dad as a family so much, but I don’t miss the memories enough to try and duplicate that with someone else.

The Salmon river is frozen right now. The other day, I walked over the big bridge in town, and I saw ice stretched out on to the water. I remembered when Caleb and I walked our dog near that river. Our dog ran out on to that ice and slid into the river. I screamed. Caleb stretched out on that thin ice. He grabbed our dog’s paws and pulled him out.

Reed was five weeks old.

As Caleb stretched on to that ice, I thought, “I am going to be raising my child alone.” I thought, “What have I done?”

But though the ice shook and heaved, it didn’t break. The black water ran beneath it–hard, and fast, and cold.

On Success

In the summer before the final year of my MFA program, I hid in my parents’ basement while Caleb, Reed, and I were visiting, and, in a frenzy, I wrote the first draft of an essay titled “Like Mourners’ Bread.” It was a numbered essay about my sexual history, but it was about so much more than that. Ultimately, it was an essay about forgiveness.

I wrote:
The man I married slept with other women when we were dating.  He didn’t call me for weeks at a time.  He showed up at my apartment drunk after the bar closed, acting as though he wanted to see me, but really just wanting a place to sleep.  He lied to me many times.  About many things. 

I didn’t hurt then, because I didn’t want to know what was happening.  His friends tried to warn me.  My friends tried to warn me.  Strangers tried to warn me.  But I was stubborn.  The night before my wedding, my mother held me as I cried.  You don’t have to do this, she said. 

I answered the only way I knew how.  Yes, I do.

It turns out the ex was right.  Being hurt was the thing I loved.

Later in the essay, I wrote:

Seven years later, I’m still with my husband.  He stayed, and I stayed, and it was hard.  So many times, I asked, why, and his answer was always the same.  Because I was ashamed of myself, and I knew you’d leave anyway, so I thought I should just make it happen.  And in some way, I understood.

You see, we were both broken.  Everyone is broken.  Lorelei, the wolf biologist, the anthropologist, the long-haired fellow.  Me, most of all. 

You see, I thought that I was the broken one.

In that essay, I had also written about how, in the Tarot, I was the Queen of Swords. I had one hand extended, but the other hand held a sword. I wrote that I had put down my sword for Caleb.

I had given him both hands.

Caleb suggested the alternate title of “Queen of Swords” because Caleb was always my best reader.

I was in a nonfiction workshop, but I didn’t workshop that essay. I didn’t want to sit during a critique of that essay. I sent it to my thesis advisor though. When we met, he told me that he thought it was my finest work yet.

Once, in my thesis advisor’s workshop, he said about an essay of mine (that I never published), “Why does the husband always come off like a jerk in these kinds of essays?” It wasn’t a criticism. He was just curious, and I hadn’t even meant for Caleb to come off like a jerk.

But you see, Caleb was a jerk.

Caleb was the first reader for “Like Mourners’ Bread.” He read it and said, “It’s beautiful. It hurts to read, but I know that it’s true. I know that I didn’t treat you right, and you have every reason to tell this story.”

And I felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.

I thought, How many women have a husband who supports their career so fully that they can write painful truths about him, and he is okay with that?

Once, after Caleb and I had been in a fight, my mother cornered me in the kitchen, and she said, “You and Caleb have something special. You have so much in common. That is not easy to find. Don’t give up on that.”

When I won a prestigious award in my graduate program, my mother said to me, “Your father is always so surprised by how easily you can write things!”

We were all in the living room together–my mother, father, Caleb, and me. The fireplace was burning, and the Christmas tree glowed in the corner. Caleb jumped in, and he said, “It isn’t easy for her. She works really hard. Kelly has achieved what she has because of her hard work.”

And I felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.

You see, Caleb was my best ally.

When we were out in social situations, Caleb would say proudly, “If anyone in this family makes money off of their writing, it’s going to be Kelly, and I’m okay with that.”

When we were with his family, they would never ask me about my writing. They would ask Caleb about his writing. He had one story published in a decent journal, and his mother kept that journal displayed in the living room.

Privately, she told me, “That story was so dark. I didn’t raise him like that.”

I thought, You don’t get him.

I felt pain for him, for the pressure that they put on him to succeed. When he was getting Anger Management therapy (which is not recommended for abusers), he brought home a list of the types of angry men. One of them was The Hero.

The Hero had been valued so much by his family that he couldn’t possibly live up to what they expected of him. The Hero was angry because he had been told that he would have one life, and his life had become another. The Hero was angry because he lived in constant fear of disappointing his loved ones.

The Hero can be nothing but inadequate because no one is a real hero.

You see, we are all just humans.

Around the time that I wrote “Like Mourners’ Bread,” I saw an advertisement for a writer’s conference. It was a conference held by Slice Magazine, and they claimed that they wanted to help emerging writers. They were an amazing journal, the conference wasn’t very expensive, and it had a contest. Only people attending the conference could enter the contest, and they would publish the winner (and pay them a small amount). By then, I had learned that submitting via slush piles was wholly disheartening. I had received too many rejections to count, and I wanted that opportunity.

I had recently received an award from my department that would pay for my travel to a conference, and I proposed that Caleb and I go together. He got travel funding from his department, and we did it. We both entered the contest.

Spoiler alert: I won.

“Like Mourners’ Bread” was published in Slice. It was later listed as a Notable in Best American Essays 2013. When Robert Atwan wrote me to tell me of “It Will Look Like a Sunset’s” acceptance for Best American Essays 2015, he told me that he remembered “Like Mourners’ Bread” and how strong it was.

“Like Mourners’ Bread” was my first real publication.

After getting the news, an agent gave me his card. Caleb took me out for tacos. We drank Margaritas. I saw a pair of really cute boots in a boutique shop in Brooklyn, and he said, “Why don’t you use your winnings to buy those?”

He posted on Facebook about how proud he was of me. Lots of people commented, and I believed all of them, but I am no longer friends with most of those people.

I believed them (and Caleb because, you see, if Caleb had won that prize, I would have felt nothing but happiness for him).

When we returned to our home, I was on a high, but Caleb grew depressed. He lamented how he would never succeed with a short story collection. He lamented his own lack of publication. I tried to console him. Nothing worked.

Then, I received another acceptance. Then, another.

Soon, it was a landslide.

Soon, Caleb was very angry. Too angry.

Soon, he was hitting me.

Soon, he was hitting me all of the time.

He would post on Facebook about how proud he was of me, and there would usually be a delay of a day or two, but then, he would find a reason to beat me.

In the final year of our marriage, I hardly submitted anything for publication at all.

Once, when we were married and after Caleb had gone to bed, and I was still awake with insomnia (which I am prone to), I had a breakdown. I needed to get my anger out. I started weeping, and I punched the couch. While punching the couch, I screamed (internally) because Caleb and Reed were sleeping, “I would give it all up. I would give up every publication if Caleb could just have one.”

You see, I meant it.

But it didn’t work that way. Instead, I left him. Not because of my success, which wasn’t much at the time, but because it was time for me to leave him. I got into the PhD program that he had dreamed of attending (though I couldn’t have predicted that). It was the only program I was accepted to, but I was excited. I called him and told him, and he said, “I’m happy for you.” But then, as was his pattern, he sent me an angry email a day later saying that he thought he should have custody of Reed. Up to that point, he had been outwardly supportive of me leaving the state to get my PhD.

You see, there was always a 24 hour delay between my success and his abuse.

In family court, where I was represented by a free attorney for West Virginia Legal Aid–an attorney who only represents domestic violence victims–I had dropped my request for spousal support. The judge said that he was going to award it (it was a minuscule amount, maybe $100). The judge asked me why I was dropping the request. I said that I was dropping the request because I wanted an agreement. The judge then asked Caleb, “Why don’t you think that you should do this for your wife?”

Caleb replied, “She is going to get her PhD. She will make more money than me someday.”

The judge grew visibly angry. He threw down his pencil. He said, “You should want her to succeed!” He said, “What’s best for her is what’s best for your child!”

The judge was right.

I have no doubt that judge has seen his share of selfish parents (on both sides). I could see the judge’s frustration, and maybe I should have fought Caleb, but I didn’t. And I don’t regret opting out of that fight.

Financially, Caleb came out the winner in our divorce, but I left. I was gone, and that was all that I wanted.

I started submitting my work again after I left Caleb, and everything I submitted was accepted. When “Like Mourners’ Bread” was listed as a Notable for Best American Essays, the first person I wanted to share the news with was Caleb.

It was so soon after our divorce, and I still loved him because I had left a person I loved. Do you know how hard it is to leave someone you love?

I called him from my tiny, overly warm apartment, and he told me in the tone that he had always used, which was a measured balanced tone–“Congratulations, Kelly.”

I didn’t have to worry that he was going to beat me in 24 hours.

When I received my acceptance for “It Will Look Like a Sunset” in Best American Essays 2015, I called him too. Not out of spite, but because I wanted him to hear it from me. I knew that the essay had been legally vetted by then, so I could tell him.

That time, he screamed a guttural scream and ended the call.

Women should not have to fist-fight with the couch while bargaining for our partner’s success. We should not have to fear that our partner will be threatened by our success and punish us.

Women should not have to be small.

I will no longer make self-sacrificing bargains with the universe because I can’t help my partner succeed.

You see, I will no longer be small.

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On Renewal

I took Reed out to lunch today. Last night, my friend, also a single mother, mentioned to me how people always think it’s so sad to see a mother and child dining alone. I agreed. I remembered when I first became a single mom–how hard it was to go out to eat, and how tenderly everyone would treat us. The grandparents would all smile at Reed, and at me. The servers would slip us free desserts. The other families, the coupled families, were blind to us though. When someone is coupled, it rarely occurs to them that they might one day be that single parent at the restaurant.

Once, out of meanness, I called Caleb, to his face, a “Ruby Tuesday’s dad.”

When I first left Caleb, he would pick Reed up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and take him to Ruby Tuesday’s for dinner. They would do Reed’s homework together at the table. The servers must have grown to recognize them–my then-husband and son. Caleb would return Reed to me at seven, and then, I would tuck our son into bed by eight. His bed was a mattress on the floor in the guest room of my friend, Rebecca’s home. That month with her was one of the loveliest periods of my life. How do I describe the kind of intimacy that comes from such pain? And her kindness? And the way that she loved Reed as though he was her own? And the ways in which we rallied together to give Reed the love that he deserved?

There is a special kind of softness to the love that springs from suffering.

Once, Caleb had to meet me on campus with Reed. We met in the student union building, and, when I arrived, Reed ran down the long hallway towards me.

Caleb stood at the end of that hall looking at me, and I wanted to cry out to him, to say something, but the distance between us just grew.

When people ask me now how I have been able to recover, my answer is always the same: I left.

Not Caleb. Not my marriage. Not my job. Not any of that.

I left the state. I burned it all down. I didn’t leave any bridges. I didn’t leave him any way to breach that distance between us.

Reed spent last weekend sanding the floors of the nursery for the new baby alongside his father. When Caleb and I moved into that house, that room was cooler than our bedroom, so we would sit in the now-nursery and watch Friday Night Lights on my desktop computer while the crickets buzzed outside and the windows steamed from the hot, West Virginia air.

I wrote most of my MFA thesis in that now-nursery.

After I left Caleb, I ran on the treadmill in that now-nursery, and listened to shitty pop music, and while Kelly Clarkson or Kanye West would sing “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” I would want to scream, “I am not stronger.”

That house was supposed to be mine, but I let Caleb keep it when I left the state. Sometimes, I wonder if Caleb ever sees my ghost.

I hope that I haunt him. I hope that he is haunted. But we all know that I am the only one who is haunted.

Reed tells me that Caleb still uses the monitor from my old, desktop computer. The screen on Caleb’s laptop is broken because he once slammed the entire thing down on to me while I curled into a ball on the floor.

I am sorry if what I am describing now hurts you. I am sometimes blind to the impact that these stories have on others. They no longer have the same kind of impact on me.

In my literary writing, I am softer with the details. I have discovered there is a balance–reveal too much and the reader will shut down.

There is only so much that any one person can take.

Today, I talked on the phone to a woman who is in the early stages of grappling with her abuse.

Here is what I told her: I told her that I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never again be the person I was when I met Caleb. I told her that I had to grieve and let that young woman go.

I also told her that I am happy with who I have become. I have more of an edge. I am more skeptical. I live daily with the effects of trauma. But I like myself. I know that I am still kind. I know that I am still trusting. I know that I am still honest.

I told her that I am stronger, not because of the abuse, not because of what he did to me, but because of what I have made of myself in the wake of his abuse.

I know that I am damaged, but resilient.

A therapist once told me that resilience couldn’t be taught.

One of my friends, someone who loves me dearly, keeps telling me that I shouldn’t want to change my experience, because Reed came out of my life with Caleb, and because of who I’ve become.

I don’t argue with her because how do I argue with something like that?

But maybe Reed could have come to me in a different way? Maybe Reed could have come to me from a man who loved and respected and didn’t hurt me?

But then, he wouldn’t have been Reed. I get that. I get that Reed is 50% Caleb. Is there a way that I can be grateful for Reed without being grateful for Caleb too?

Is there a way that I can be grateful for who I have become without somehow giving Caleb partial credit for my growth?

I will never know.

Reed was conceived on Valentine’s Day. I was living in an adorable studio apartment with French Doors and a tiny, closet-sized kitchen. It was the happiest period of my life, a period when I felt very independent and fulfilled.

I had made Caleb the most decadent meal. I made a pineapple upside down cake that was from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, and I cut fresh pineapple, then made a caramel, and pieced the pineapple into a mosaic. I then put the cake on the fridge, and when I opened the fridge door, the cake fell down. I laughed. What else could I do? And I scooped up what I could of the cake. I took it to my neighbor’s house and showed him, and we both laughed. My neighbor was an older man. He was very kind. He had a crush on me, and I knew this, but I pretended as though I didn’t. He laughed at my cake, and he told me, “Caleb is very lucky to have you. I hope he realizes that. I hope that you realize that.”

Caleb and I ate what we could of the cake. He kissed me, then said in his West Virginia drawl, “Kelly, I want to marry you.”

He had once told me that he wanted to have four kids, and I immediately responded with, “Okay, but I am not having four kids. I don’t know if I want any kids at all.”

“How about two?” He asked.

Then, we had sex, and the sex was so amazing, and, though I was on birth control, I remember holding my hands on my stomach afterwards and thinking that we had just made a baby.

Reed was born on November, 14.

I was so young. I wasn’t ready, but I made myself ready.

One of the ways that Caleb would apologize after his abuse was by cooking decadent meals for me. He made spaghetti carbonara, and beef pho, and boef bourguignon, and shrimp spring rolls. I ate, and I grew, and I didn’t understand what was happening, why my clothes no longer fit, why I didn’t recognize myself any longer.

When the abuse was at its worst, he tracked down the recipe for that pineapple-upside down cake and  made it for me almost weekly. I thought that the gesture was romantic.

I didn’t realize that I was Hansel in a cage; I was Gretel with her head in the oven.

For a long time I didn’t leave Caleb because I didn’t think that I had the resilience to survive without him. That I was weak and hopeless was something he had convinced me of, but I now know that I am strong.

Maybe it’s because I don’t miss Caleb anymore. Maybe it’s because my body is almost back to the shape that I recognize. Maybe it’s because I know now that what my neighbor said was true, that Caleb was lucky to have me and not the other way around. Maybe it’s because Caleb might have four kids, but he won’t have them with me. Maybe it’s because one child is the perfect number for me. Maybe it’s because Caleb still has that broken laptop, but I have a shiny, new one. Maybe it’s because justice wasn’t served in my case, but I am making my own justice. Maybe it’s because a woman calls me in a panic, and I can tell her with assurance that it gets better. Maybe it’s because I am no longer that panicked woman.

Maybe it’s because the world sparkles most in the wake of great suffering, when that suffering is finally, almost, gone.

Maybe it’s because I am no longer Hansel in the cage. I am no longer Gretel with her head in the oven.

Maybe it’s because I finally shoved the witch in the oven.

Maybe it’s because I closed the door and never looked back.