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.
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.