[From an email that I sent on 1/26/2014 to the prosecutor in my ex-husband’s domestic battery case.]
[From an email that I sent on 1/26/2014 to the prosecutor in my ex-husband’s domestic battery case.]
The other day, my twelve-year-old son, Reed, burst into my bedroom. “Mom, look what I found” he said. It was his stuffed Curious George animal—tattered and loved. “George the monkey” had been my son’s favorite doll when he was a toddler. I remember carrying Reed up the stairs to bed, his head on my shoulder, his thumb in his cheek, George the monkey hanging from one hand.
In my bedroom that day, I took the stuffed Curious George from Reed. He hesitated as he handed it to me—some part of him wasn’t ready to let go—but I told him that I’d keep George safe for him. I took George to my office where I propped him up on a bookshelf next to another stuffed monkey, a colorful monkey I had purchased at a shop in Hanoi. As I looked at the two monkeys next to each other, they told very different stories. One monkey told the story of my son’s childhood. The other monkey told the story of my decision to leave my son’s father, as well as the story of why I have a difficult time trusting men.
I had gone to Vietnam for my best friend’s wedding, and as I stood at the front of the ceremony next to a wide, blue expanse of water and read a bell hooks quote about love being a verb, it struck me that my own marriage was not going to last, that, in my marriage, love was used as a weapon.
Love was used to control.
My love for my husband was used to hurt me because my then-husband was emotionally and physically abusive, and I was only beginning to realize that I would never be safe while he was in my life. It was another year or two before I left. My then-husband was arrested for domestic battery, and I let him come home for two days of terror before I realized that I needed to leave. I rushed around the home gathering as many things as I could for my escape. That night, Reed and I slept on the floor of a friend’s house, and I wrapped my arms around Reed while he wrapped his arms around George. For the first time, we were a family of two.
After I left my husband, I struggled with so many feelings of caution. I had grown up with a father and brother who were never anything but kind to me, but it had only taken the one man to teach me how to fear. When I turned on my television and tried to watch Game of Thrones, I shuddered at the depictions of rape. I think that I’m the only one of my friends who turned off the show and never returned to it (I chose to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls instead). My skin crawled if a man sat next to me on a bench. I shook when a man slammed his palm down on a table for emphasis. I stopped locking my doors because my ex-husband, too often, had blocked me from leaving when he was abusing me. I knew rationally that it wasn’t safe for me to leave my doors unlocked, but in my bones, I had grown to believe that the menace was everywhere—both inside and outside of my home.
My ex-husband had never been abusive towards our son, and my therapist theorized that that my ex-husband only hated women. My ex-husband still had partial custody, and every other weekend, I would drive my son to a 7-11 in rural Richie County, West Virginia that was halfway between the town my ex-husband lived in and the town in Ohio where I had moved to get my PhD. This 7-11 was busy on Friday evenings when the men from the oil fields were getting off work. I would take my son to his father’s car, where we would not make eye contact, then I’d go into the 7-11 to use the restroom. Every other Friday, as I walked by the workers milling around, I felt their eyes on me. I imagined, probably inaccurately, what they were thinking.
Once, a man with a to-go cup and two travel-sized bottles of White Zinfandel asked me if I “went there often” in the way that someone would try to pick up a date at the bar. I was unnerved, but I responded to him politely. Like all good women, I had been taught to be polite. He told me how much money he was making working for the fracking companies. He seemed to assume that I would be impressed. I made a mental note that he was going to be driving drunk on the same highway as me. I was aware of how he seemed to assume that he was entitled to my attention. When he paid for his wine and left, he turned to me and said, “Burn baby burn!” and as I made the drive back to Ohio, gas tankers drove by me in streams, their lights twinkling in the darkness, while I wept at the way my life had turned out.
I was, it seemed, surrounded by men, and I was distrustful and afraid of them.
But I loved my tender-hearted, creative, and witty son. I loved him with a ferocity that only a single mother can understand. He and I were a team, and I would have done anything for him. What I needed to do for him, I knew, was to create a world where he was safe to be himself. I knew that my son was not destined to become his father, and I didn’t want his father’s abuse of me to become his legacy. I wanted my love for him to be his legacy.
In time I realized that, if I was going to love the man that my boy would become, I had to learn how to trust men again. I wasn’t ready to date yet, but for the first time in my life, I made friends who were men. They didn’t want anything from me but my friendship, and I saw that kindness was not solely a feminine virtue. I developed a close mentorship with my male dissertation advisor who has always been supportive and kind to me, and I worked to be closer with my father who I had grown apart from after my divorce. I needed my son to see that I could be close to men, so that he would know that, when the time comes for him to be a man, I will be capable of loving and accepting him, just the way he is.
In the first year that my son and I lived away from his father, we often went for walks in a nearby nature preserve. Once, in the spring sunlight, I captured a photo of him dancing in the mist. His entire body was joyful. And then, we took a picture of the two of us together. When I look at that picture, I see nothing but tenderness in both of our eyes. There is no anger, no resentment. There is none of what I experienced from his father because my son is his own person.
So, when my now-twelve-year old (who has just started to shave) handed me his Curious George doll with hesitance, I understood why. He didn’t want to let go of that child-like part of himself, and that’s why I told him that I would keep George safe for him. I will always nurture my son’s most tender parts because if he is going to be safe, and I am going to be safe, then our safety has to be in a world that we have created together.
I struggle with boundaries. Most abuse survivors do.
Which is why it might not be surprising that I haven’t spoken to my best friend in three months.
We had a conflict that could have been a normal conflict, but I am not good at conflict so I first lashed out, then retreated, thus making it worse. But as I was stewing on this conflict, I remembered the past conflicts that we’ve had. I remembered how I never felt that any of those conflicts were fully resolved, or that she had taken any responsibility for anything, though many, many times during the course of our very long friendship, she had not been a good friend to me.
And then, it occurred to me suddenly that, as I was seeing our friendship in a new light, I didn’t know that I could ever again see it in the old light.
My boundaries had changed.
My other best friend, Megan, who is a therapist said, “When you change the rules of a friendship, it’s painful. She will have to decide if she is okay with the new rules.”
My actual therapist said, “I like Megan. Megan is right.”
All I know is that I don’t want to lose my best friend who has been as close to me as any sister could have been, but I am not a stubborn person.
Quite the opposite.
So if I have not spoken to her or made overtures for that to happen in three months, then something very fundamental in me has shifted.
I am not the same person I was twenty years ago when this woman and I became friends.
The rules have changed.
A friend came to visit me this weekend. She is young, and her husband died less than a year ago. We were talking about dating, and being vulnerable, and I told her that I feel like I’ve put myself out there, that I’ve been vulnerable, but as I was articulating that, I realized that I haven’t.
I have put myself out there, but I don’t know that I have been vulnerable. Vulnerability would have involved putting myself out there for men who might have been actual dating material.
With the exception of River Guide, I have only put myself out there for men who I knew were never going to be what I wanted long-term.
I also told my friend today that I’m inherently monogamous, and I loved being married, but I cannot conceive of ever again being happy with the thought of only having sex with one person.
What it comes down to is that I cannot conceive of ever again trusting someone enough to pledge my entire life to them.
Maybe I have consigned myself to a lifetime of being alone.
I put myself out there for a few guys in the past year. None of them took the bait. Meanwhile, there were other guys putting themselves out there for me, but I was not taking their bait.
All of us were just shooting fireworks off into the darkness.
Recently, I let a friendship cross into territory that I shouldn’t have. This guy and I have a very slight history together, and his crush on me was obvious. I have had a few guys in my lifetime who have had hopeless crushes on me, but, outside of trying to be kind, I have never encouraged them. I do not need the attention of men and am actually usually made uncomfortable by it.
But this guy was different. He and I had hooked up before becoming friends, so I already knew that we were compatible. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have dated him because of life circumstances, but I enjoyed his flirtation.
But here’s the catch: he is in a long-term relationship.
I have never cheated on or with someone. I have pretty black and white ethics about that stuff. I don’t think that monogamy is a foregone conclusion, but if that’s where a relationship is at, then I respect that.
But we ended up crossing some boundaries (nothing in person). He told me that he was going to break up with his girlfriend, but he didn’t, so I ended our friendship.
And then, he assumed that I had wanted a relationship with him (that’s not what I had said, but in my efforts to be kind, it might have appeared that way).
And I was like, “Hell, naw.”
Why would I want to be in a relationship with a dude who treated the relationship that he was already in with such disregard?
But then I questioned myself. I felt I was being too harsh. After all, I wasn’t speaking to my best friend either.
Maybe the problem was with me?
I texted the dude I had been flirting with and asked him if we could be friends but without the flirting. He didn’t respond.
I guess that friends without flirting was not what he wanted.
I have made this new friend at the gym. He’s 63 and very kind. I feel a kinship with him. He’s a faculty member in another department, and he’s not a creep (like so many male faculty members are). He read my essay a while ago, and then, the other day, we ran into each other at the bakery where we both tend to work. We ended up having a really long conversation about my writing, and abuse, and #metoo, and the job market. He expressed that he could understand how disorienting abuse must be, that there must be so many voices in a survivor’s head, and I said that it took me two years after the marriage’s end to fully come to reality.
I said, “I still loved him.”
And my new friend said, “I know. That was obvious from the essay.” He said it with such kindness and sadness that my eyes started to water because the compassion of other people is almost always the thing that brings my suffering into the most acute focus.
You see, I still don’t trust myself enough to believe that my suffering is ever warranted.
I spent too many years with people who told me that I was overreacting, that I had it so good, or, at its worst, that I was the problem.
Is it any surprise now that I have a difficult time recognizing my own worth?
Is it any surprise now that I have a difficult time establishing boundaries?
I was interviewed for a magazine yesterday, and she brought up how I’d written about how much Caleb and I had connected sexually. I told her, quite honestly, that I don’t think I’ll ever repeat that kind of connection.
I told her of how, when Caleb and I were at the end of our relationship, I was telling him that I thought I needed to leave, and he said so sadly, “You’ll find someone else.”
I responded with complete honesty and utter heartbreak, “I’ll never love anyone but you, but I still think that I’m better off on my own.”
I was right about one thing. I’m better off on my own.
I hope that I was wrong about the rest, but in my experience, hope is too often like shooting fireworks off into the darkness.
Gaslighting isn’t a single incident. It’s a pattern of tiny, often barely perceptible instances of erasure, minimizing, confusion, deflection. Nails, beams, boards, tiles, wire—piece by piece, a house is built. The door is closed, and you’re inside, and you hear the construction around you, but somehow, no one sees.
You try to tell him. You point to the ceiling, the walls, the furniture. “Why are you so upset?” he asks. “That’s just a chair.” You try to show him, how the pieces fit together, how they make a house. “So it’s about the beams?” he says. No, it’s not about the beams. You try again. “Oh, so is this really about the tiles? What’s wrong with the tiles? Explain.” Another nail goes in; your ears are sensitive now, from the months of construction around you, and you wince in pain at the noise. You ask him to stop hammering in nails. “I don’t understand,” he says. “It’s just a nail. It’s not even that loud. I think this is just your anxiety.” You wonder if the house is real.
The house grows. He invites people in, hands them tubes of caulk and paintbrushes. You try to explain, you don’t want this, they’re hurting you, but they’re confused. Why are you upset about a paintbrush? You try to describe the walls, but you open your mouth and incoherent noises come out. You can see the house, feel it, but when you try to describe it, there’s a hole in your brain. Static. I’m crazy, you think. Maybe they’re right.
He’s a Good Man. He’s trying. He listens. He looks where you point, tries to follow. Words tumble out of your mouth, but he can’t see. He doesn’t know how. Sometimes you think you see a glimmer of recognition, and you think, we’re getting there. And then another nail goes in–it’s what he knows, after all–and you slip.
The Good Man is a teacher. He gives a talk. People like to hear a Good Man speak. He’s a Good Man, and he’s learned that nails hurt, and he wants to own that, to help others. So he describes a nail, talks about what he’s learned about nails. At the end of his speech, he passes out hammers and nails. You ask him why; you’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re afraid. “They wouldn’t understand about the house,” he says. “It’s too hard to explain.” “You didn’t have to give them hammers,” you say. “You don’t need to be so sensitive about nails,” he says. He doesn’t understand. You want to scream. “Why are you so angry?” he asks.
It’s the women who save you. The women who have lived in houses like this. They know the shape of the walls, the corridors, the rooms, the beds, the closets, the basement. They talk with you, help you draw a blueprint. Help you see the outlines. Walk the hallways with you. Locate the doors (did you know there were doors?). Turn on the lights. You see together. “It’s real,” they say. “Yes it’s real. We see it.” They take your hands, place them on the walls so you can feel them. The house is real. You knew the house was real.
It was never about the nail.
I was chatting with my friend Megan O. via Messenger, and she’s a therapist. (I have a lot of friends who are therapists, which might say something about me.)
We were chatting about how good things are for me now, and I wrote to her that I feel so wonderful, but also like there must be some terrible, disappointment impending.
And she wrote back, “Uh, don’t forget what happened prior, my friend.”
And I laughed, then wrote, “I know that you understand that it’s hard to believe that anything can ever just be good.”
And she wrote to me that she believes that we build our own paths by our intentions and what we pour our actions into.
She wrote, “You built success and community from wretched abuse. Probably not that long ago, it was a seed you nurtured and focused on, and it grew.”
And I remembered—not so long ago—when I was talking to my therapist Liz for the first time. We were in the basement office of Caleb’s therapist, X. It was the same office where Caleb and I had sat on the couch and talked to X. Where I had cried “He’s just so mean to me!” during our final session with X.
Where X had asked Caleb, “Is that true?”
Where Caleb had slowly nodded, and X had said, “We are out of time, but we are going to have to talk about this next time.”
But there was no next time.
The next time that I was in X’s basement office, I sat on the same couch alone.
Liz sat across from me in X’s chair; X was Liz’s mentor.
I pulled up my sleeves shyly, held out my arms.
This was the first time I had exposed myself in that way. I showed her the bruises.
She moved quickly, sat next to me, took my arms and turned them gently, traced her fingers along the outlines of the bruises. I started to weep, and she hugged me—this stranger—while I wept on her shoulder.
When I finished sobbing, she said, “You needed that, didn’t you?”
I talked to Liz last week. She’s not actively treating clients at this time because she’s in her dissertation year, but she continues to speak with me via Facetime while her toddler crawls around patiently in the background.
She hasn’t charged me any money since I was still with Caleb.
The last time I spoke with her, I held up my book and showed it to her through the screen, and she cried. We both cry pretty regularly now during our sessions, but not because we’re sad. We cry because we’re both so grateful.
She saved my life.
There is no way to understate that.
Liz was the person who got me to leave Caleb. She was the person who helped me not return to him. And she’s the person who helps me keep from recreating that relationship.
She gets me better than I get myself.
When she was crying, she said, “Every counselor has a few clients during their lifetime who change everything, and you’re one of those for me.”
I don’t need Liz very often anymore. I can usually figure things out myself these days, but I had a low point last fall. I reached out to Liz, and she wasn’t available, so I reached out to a friend who Skyped with me in my office and talked to me while I cried.
At the time, I said to him, “I could have cried alone, but I really wanted someone to be with me when I cried.” And he was there, so it was okay.
But later, as I relayed this to Liz, she grew horrified. She said, “I had no idea it was so serious.” And the last time that we talked, she said, “When you text me, I want you to let me know if it’s an emergency.” But even then, it hadn’t been an emergency, and I had reached out to someone else who had comforted me. I guess that’s the role of therapy—to teach us how to self-soothe.
I know that Liz will always be there for me during an emergency, but there simply haven’t been that many emergencies since I really got away from Caleb.
Life has been pretty good.
I left Caleb in the fall. We stayed married for a while. We had initially planned to stay married indefinitely so that I could stay on his health insurance. He didn’t really want our marriage to end, and maybe I didn’t either.
When I was accepted to OU’s PhD program and realized I’d have health insurance, I first called my lawyer and asked her to change our separation papers to divorce papers, then called Caleb and told him that we could just go ahead and get divorced.
He freaked out. Yelled at me. Claimed that he should have custody of Reed.
He didn’t want to divorce. I realize now that he was probably biding his time until he got me back.
At that time, I went to see Liz in X’s office. I was distraught. She drew a picture of a flower with petals on a pad. She asked me what fulfills me. I said, “Reed.” She wrote the word Reed in one of the petals. I said, “my family.” She wrote that in one of the petals. Then, I said, “my friends, my career, artistic fulfillment.”
She filled the petals in.
There was one petal left empty. She looked at me expectantly. I knew that I was supposed to say Caleb, but I couldn’t.
She then drew another flower. She added petals. She said, “What fulfilled you when you were with Caleb?”
I answered honestly, “Caleb.”
She said, “Look at all of those empty petals.”
She drew a seed.
She said, “When you were with Caleb, you were a seed. That’s all you could be.”
She said, “Now you can bloom.”
And reader, I did it.
I divorced that guy.
What is the distinction between “hardest” and “worst”?
Hard often equals some kind of progress that will follow.
Worst equals bottom.
My bottom in my life was Christmas Eve 2009.
Still, even the word bottom implies that an ascent must follow.
We either move in a straight line, we move downward, or we move upward.
These are the only options available to us.
For a long time, I was moving down, down, down.
I was living this song.
“If I could just make it stop, I could tell the whole world to get out of the way.”
I keep thinking of Roxane Gay’s review of my book. She wrote, “Sundberg’s honesty is astonishing, how she laid so much of herself bare, how she did not demonize a man who deserves to be demonized. Instead, she offers a portrait of a broken man and a broken marriage and an abiding love, what it took to set herself free from it all. In shimmering, open hearted prose, she shows that it took everything.”
I keep thinking of the way she described me as “open hearted.”
My heart is still open.
One of the things that people tell me the most is how stunned they are that I am still so open hearted.
I want to say to them, “Why shouldn’t I be?”
My heart was at its hardest during the most painful parts of my marriage. There is an entire chapter of my book titled “A Hard Heart.” The hardness didn’t save me. It only made me immune to the pain that I would have otherwise fled.
A hard heart stays.
An open heart feels enough pain to know when to leave.
If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop.
My dissertation advisor took me out for a drink to celebrate the arrival of my book ARCs.
I told him that during the worst of the book, I could only write at night because I couldn’t bear to articulate the words in daylight. I was constantly fatigued from lack of sleep. He seemed to understand, and I realized how comfortable I am telling him about my life. He has been a stable and consistent male mentor in my life.
If my heart is going to be open to men, I have to be able to trust some of them, and I’m grateful for the friendships with men that I have cultivated in the past few years.
I have had to grapple with a lot of anger in the past year. Anger at our country. Anger at Caleb. Anger at abuse enablers. Anger at myself.
Writing my book was hard. I had to sit in my own anger and try to turn it into beauty.
I was living in darkness.
At night, while Reed slept peacefully downstairs, I wrote, and sobbed, and wrote, then crawled into bed exhausted. I woke up in the mornings-—a shell—drove Reed to school and taught my classes, then came home and fell into deep naps in the afternoons.
In Vermont when I was at my writer’s residency, I wrote in my studio with the Gihon River flowing outside my window in darkness.
I walked back to my room in the dim early, morning light. The silence was such that my heart cracked open at the beauty of it.
I stopped crying so much. I started sleeping again.
And then the book was finished.
I spent some time this past summer outside of Seattle with a friend of mine who is a therapist. She does exposure therapy, and she said, “In a way, you’re doing exposure therapy to yourself with your book.”
Reliving trauma is not the same as living through trauma, but it’s pretty damn close.
If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop.
And then I did.
I made it stop.
I hit “send” on the final document, and I cried again, but for a different reason this time.
And my heart cracked open.
I am no longer so angry.
I know that joy, like suffering, is transient, and in some ways, joy is bittersweet because of its inevitable loss.
But for now, I’m just going to sit in this joy. I don’t even have to try and transform it into beauty because it already is.
My heart is open to all of it.
I’m updating my website in bits and pieces, and I’m planning on writing a more thoughtful post about turning 40 (my birthday was yesterday) while my book publication is on the horizon.
Unfortunately, I spent my 40th birthday sick with food poisoning, but as a friend pointed out, it can only go up from here, right?
And shortly before my 40th birthday, my book received this review from Roxane Gay. I can’t imagine a better way to turn 40 than with receiving an endorsement like this for a project I’ve thrown my entire being into.
Some other early praise:
“In her stunning memoir, Kelly Sundberg examines the heart-breaking bonds of love, detailing her near decade-long marriage’s slide into horrific abuse. Sundberg shares her own confusions, fears and empathy for her violent husband, even as she comes to realize he will never change. This is an immensely courageous story that will break your heart, leave you in tears, and, finally, offer hope and redemption. Brava, Kelly Sundberg.”—Rene Denfeld, author of The Child Finder
“A fierce, frightening, soulful reckoning—Goodbye, Sweet Girl is an expertly rendered memoir that investigates why we stay in relationships that hurt us, and how we survive when we leave them. Kelly Sundberg is a force. She has written the rare book that has the power to change lives.”—Christa Parravani, author of Her: A Memoir
As a reminder, the book will be released on June 5, 2018, and is available for pre-order here.
Here is my publisher’s book description copy:
In this brave and beautiful memoir, written with the raw honesty and devastating openness of The Glass Castle and The Liar’s Club, a woman chronicles how her marriage devolved from a love story into a shocking tale of abuse—examining the tenderness and violence entwined in the relationship, why she endured years of physical and emotional pain, and how she eventually broke free.
“You made me hit you in the face,” he said mournfully. “Now everyone is going to know.” “I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Kelly Sundberg’s husband, Caleb, was a funny, warm, supportive man and a wonderful father to their little boy Reed. He was also vengeful and violent. But Sundberg did not know that when she fell in love, and for years told herself he would get better. It took a decade for her to ultimately accept that the partnership she desired could not work with such a broken man. In her remarkable book, she offers an intimate record of the joys and terrors that accompanied her long, difficult awakening, and presents a haunting, heartbreaking glimpse into why women remain too long in dangerous relationships.
To understand herself and her violent marriage, Sundberg looks to her childhood in Salmon, a small, isolated mountain community known as the most redneck town in Idaho. Like her marriage, Salmon is a place of deep contradictions, where Mormon ranchers and hippie back-to-landers live side-by-side; a place of magical beauty riven by secret brutality; a place that takes pride in its individualism and rugged self-sufficiency, yet is beholden to church and communal standards at all costs.
Mesmerizing and poetic, Goodbye, Sweet Girl is a harrowing, cautionary, and ultimately redemptive tale that brilliantly illuminates one woman’s transformation as she gradually rejects the painful reality of her violent life at the hands of the man who is supposed to cherish her, begins to accept responsibility for herself, and learns to believe that she deserves better.
And finally, though I didn’t get to spend my birthday drinking cocktails with umbrellas in them, I was able to suck down a Sprite today, and now, I’m feeling mostly recovered.
I think 40 looks pretty good on me.
39 was the year that I hunkered down and really wrote this book; it was a shadow year.
A period of gestation.
I’m ready to bloom now.
Please join me.
“The future loomed before me like a buffet full of hungry, lonely people.”
I wrote those words over four years ago in “It Will Look Like a Sunset.” I sat up in my bed while Reed slept in the next room, and I wrote and wept. I was not yet divorced when I wrote the initial version of that essay. I wasn’t even entirely sure that I was going to get divorced.
My future was still unknown.
All of my biggest fears are fed from their unknowability.
I am someone who spends a lot of time analyzing the actions/feelings/reactions of myself and others. Some might say that I have made a career out of this.
Still, there is so much that I can never know.
The other night at a bar, a man asked if he could read the astrological charts of my friend and me. He said, “Astrology is a science. I have researched it. Some people are good at it, but not because they understand the science. Those people are just a little bit psychic.”
I thought of one of my party tricks, which is that I’m remarkably good at guessing peoples’ signs. The other night, I accurately guessed the sign of almost everyone at a table I was sitting at. Most of these people were strangers. Some might say that I am a “little bit psychic.”
I was only stumped by one woman. I was completely wrong about her. She was smug. She said, “I’m a Capricorn.”
I, too, am a Capricorn.
Maybe I couldn’t guess her sign because it was also my own.
I’m certainly not a “little bit psychic” in regards to myself.
We all see others more accurately than we see ourselves, don’t we?
Thanksgiving is a painful day for me. One of my most painful memories happened on a Thanksgiving Day. I stuffed everything I could fit into laundry baskets, piled those into the backseat of my car, and officially left Caleb.
I ate at a Chinese Buffet with my friend, and the future loomed before me like a buffet full of hungry, lonely people.
The future is here.
I made a friend at the gym recently, and he asked me to send him my sunset essay. When I sent it, I wrote that I always feel compelled to tell people–particularly when they only know me from one context–that I am okay.
I am okay.
But I am still lonely, and I am still hungry.
Some days, I’m not even sure what I hunger for.
When I got my book cover, I texted a picture of it to River Guide. We are not generally in touch. I had to pull away when he started seeing someone else because it was too painful for me, but I still think of him fondly.
He sent back congratulations. He told me that he was walking a former student–a young woman with a traumatic past–down the aisle at her wedding that weekend.
I thought, “I will never date another man as kind as you.”
I remembered when he told me about that student. I was dog sitting for a friend, and he was staying with me. We had taken the dog for a walk into the hills. It was a hot night, the road so very dry. There were no trees or shade. We stopped at a ravine and looked down into it, and it was full of bones.
Mounds and mounds of animal bones. We were at an animal graveyard.
The chalky white bones were stacked upon each other, and they formed a kind of art, but it wasn’t beautiful. It wasn’t redeeming.
We turned around, and he told me about his student, showed me pictures of her on Facebook. I felt irrationally jealous; I knew that she would have him in her life for longer than I would.
That night, we had the best sex we’d ever had. It wasn’t the last time that we had sex (I’m not even sure that there has been a last time yet), but it had that kind of urgency, of finality.
The dog whined to be let out, and River Guide got up, padded to the door naked, and let her out.
He was that kind of person. The oldest of nine children. I never had to do a thing when I was with him. He took care of me so well.
Sometimes I wonder how well he takes care of someone he loves. Sometimes I think that it must be amazing to be loved by him.
I have a friend who loves very freely. Since I’ve known her, I’ve heard her say that she has loved multiple people. I’ve realized that we all love very differently. I am reserved with my love. I have only loved three men in my lifetime.
I have to be reserved with my love because, for me, once love is born, I am unable to kill it.
River Guide kissed me for the first time while we laid in the grass under a dry lightning storm at night.
The lightning flashed above us, bright streaks in the darkness.
I realized after reading his text about walking his student down the aisle that I might have been a little bit in love with River Guide.
How tough can I make myself? How resistant to love? How immune can I make myself to the pleasures of intimacy?
I talked to Reed today, and he told me that they’re having Thanksgiving with his stepmom’s parents rather than Caleb’s parents this year. He loves his stepmom’s parents. They sound very kind. They call him their “first grandchild.” Still, he was grumpy that he didn’t get to go to his dad’s parents’ house (likely because he didn’t get to see his cousins). He said, “We never had to do this when you and dad were married.”
I pulled out my mom card–reminded him that I only had one grandparent, and he was lucky to have so many.
My mother was orphaned. I never knew her parents, and really, neither did she.
My father’s father died when I was very young.
I have two very, early memories.
The first: My family was living in Forest Service Housing at Hughes Creek Guard Station in the middle of the Idaho woods. My father was shoveling the walk, and I was watching from the doorway in my snowsuit. He motioned for me to come out, and I ran out excitedly, then was terrified.
The snow towered above me.
The second: My mother received a phone call in the kitchen. She crumpled to the floor.
I ran to her. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Your grandfather died,” she said.
I didn’t know yet what it meant to die, but as I watched my mother curled up on that floor in the morning sunlight–my mother who I had never seen cry before–I knew that the snow would always tower above me, and the sunlight could not protect me.
It’s Thanksgiving, and I’d love to write something optimistic, but holidays are hard for so many of us. Today has been hard for me. The sunlight so oppressive.
A friend said on another person’s post that Thanksgiving has another name, and it’s Thursday.
Still, as I talked to Reed, and he told me about the family Thanksgiving that they were having, I felt no envy. That Thanksgiving didn’t appeal to me at all.
I told my mother today that–abuse aside—I was isolated when I was married to Caleb, and I would take friendships over a romantic relationship any day.
I spent my evening eating really good food with a bunch of kind, progressive folks with PhDs, and I don’t have a lot to complain about.
It may not be perfect, but I would take the life I have now over the life I had then.
The future is here, and though it’s hard, it’s better.
It’s so much better.
So Much to Say (or, On Reporting My Sexual Assaults to the Dean of Students at the University of [redacted])
By: Daniel Garcia
I see a snapshot of a young man—a boy, really—on the floor of a music practice room. He is, in fact, myself, but in this picture that I have of myself, I feel like someone else. I can’t see myself clearly; the room is so dark. My crotch is scribbled out. My mouth is a smeared X; Run, I want to tell that boy-me. Don’t let him touch you. There is a man’s chest pressed against my back, and then we are on the floor, and my traitorous thighs are holding the man and he is whispering to the me, Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you, and his hands are everywhere. The walls are lined with fuzzy gray pads to soundproof the room. The scent of wine fills the air. I die. I die. I die. I die.
Four months later, I met up with a stranger outside of my dorm. I asked if I could kiss him. He got skittish. He started to leave, but I reassured him that I wouldn’t push him do anything he didn’t want to. He asked if I would suck his dick. I said sure.
In my dorm, we fooled around on the couch, doing nothing more than oral and groping. I told him to let me know when he was close. He pulled his shirt up, the muscles on his belly crunching as I took him into my mouth. A few minutes later, he grunted, put his hand on the back of my head, and shoved down, flooding my mouth before I could pull off.
It wasn’t a hookup anymore.
I was fourteen the first time I heard that happiness was a choice. After school that day, I relayed the idea to my mother, who liked the idea, too. “Happiness is a choice,” she said slowly, trying the words out loud, letting them sink in.
If happiness is a choice, then I wonder if the opposite is true, if unhappiness is a choice. If that’s the case, then I must’ve chosen to be unhappy sometime after my first assault. I must’ve asked to be an unhappy person. Being sad must be irresistible.
Can’t say no to being sad, can’t say no to being raped.
I am bisexual. If I’m being honest, however, I’m probably biromantic and homosexual. For me, I find it hard to separate sex and romance from one another, often using sex as a method of acquiring emotional intimacy with another person. I don’t think love would save me, but I think it would be a source of happiness.
One day, I would like to fall in love with someone with a nice smile, good shoulders, and strong but gentle hands. In most of my fantasies, this someone is a man, though I keep my options open for any opportunities that come my way.
I can’t remember if I was fifteen, or if it was after a pep rally or the last day of my freshman year, but once, my friend Jake came up behind me, pressed his chest against my back, reached around and started playing with my nipples in a crowd of freshmen.
Once, I fell in love with a friend who raped me. He was handsome when he was sober, when he smiled and got enough sleep. He had good shoulders, but his hands weren’t very gentle. I used to touch myself and say his name, imagining his hard body above me, making love to me, my nails scratching down his chest, his back.
I was also fourteen when I learned about “goobering,” and “gobbling.” Goobering was when one made one’s hand into the silent duck position, followed by the prompt jabbing of said hand into an (usually) unsuspecting friend’s crotch. Gobbling, on the other hand, was the same thing, except the fingers are stuffed up the person’s buttcheeks, usually followed by a series of laughs from the both parties. Everyone in high school did it to one another.
Sometimes, I walk past the survivor advocate’s office on campus and I feel sad.
When I told my mother about my first assault, she asked, “Why didn’t you report?”
I said, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know it was assault.” Because it didn’t fit into what an assault was supposed to look like. Because I didn’t want to have to go through it again. Because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Because I didn’t think you would believe me.
I’ll probably never tell her about the other assaults. If I did, I imagine she’d probably ask me what I’m doing to make this happen to me so much.
One day, I would like to come without remembering what it was like to be raped.
Earlier this week, I brushed my teeth too hard, and the gum covering the tooth next to my right big tooth split. I spent the next five minutes dabbing at the gum with toilet paper. The blood wouldn’t stop flooding my mouth.
There’s a story in my family that my mother once passed down to me: A scorned mistress of my grandfather’s cursed his lineage with brujeria; all of the men in his line after him would always remain dissatisfied emotionally and physically. If they found love, it would end tragically or would fade quickly. Sex would never be any sort of fulfillment. Always emotionally vacant, these men. Always unhappy. Always vacant.
Apparently, the only way to remove the curse is to burn the effigy she made in my grandfather’s name. It is, according to my mother, buried somewhere under a tree in the country of Panama.
The third man who assaulted me never kissed me, which I’m ultimately glad for. Once we were in my bed, he pulled my shorts down. He said in his thick accent, “Okay, time to fuck you now,” and I said no for once, and then I said it twice, and then three times, and then four times, and he wouldn’t stop touching me, and he wouldn’t stop trying to put it in me, until I wiggled out from underneath him and took his short cock into my mouth.
It was the only way I knew how to fight back.
He didn’t come. I stared out at the light coming from the bathroom after he left, wondering if I was assaulted again. I figured it was another bad hookup.
It’s what I figured every assault was.
Two months before that, Jake messaged me on Facebook, telling me how impressed with my strength he was. He said, in reference to my openness about being assaulted, “I know you have been through a lot.” Even now, I’m hesitant to call what Jake did assault, not because he was a friend, but because, in high school, the experience of having my nipples tweaked without permission was just…normal.
Two years after high school ended, the man I loved came up behind me, pressed his chest against my back, made his hand into a silent duck, then gobbled me in his apartment. I wasn’t laughing.
I wonder if he thought that was normal.
what am I doing to make this happen to me so much what am I doing to make this happen to me so much what am I doing to make this happen to me so much what am I doing to make this happen to me so much what am I doing to make this happen to me so much what am I doing to make this happen to me so much what am I doing to make this happen to me so much
Sometimes, when I have sex, I feel very vacant, and sometimes, sex feels like a great way to pass the time. I like to think that, despite the things that have happened to my body, there are still some things that men can’t fully take from me.
Sometimes, faking an orgasm is the only way I know I haven’t been raped.
Sometimes, I imagine the convenience of a bloody mouth. A man catcalls and I flash him a red grin. A man tries to steal my body and a scarlet ocean spills onto his flesh. No amount of scrubbing would get the stains out of his skin.
I can’t remember what his come tasted like. I just remember being angry. Then empty. I remember getting up and walking to the sink in the dorm room, spitting into my hand, then walking back over to the couch.
I’ll never fully understand why I did it. The best I can come up with is that, in the face of the assault, the first rape, the second rape, the fourth assault, my brain did what it could to protect me from it: Convincing myself each time that I must have consented. See? You must’ve secretly liked it. Just look between your legs. There’s no way he could’ve forced you. You did that. Slut.
Fingers slick, I gripped myself and a few minutes later, I came.
He watched the whole time.
What I fully understand is that none of this would ever hold up in court. None of it.
August 30, 2017
I freeze on the way to my first class, looking at the man who has just walked out of the library, walking in my direction. For the rest of my life, I will always remember that body, that frizzy hair, that face. I will always remember his penis in my mouth.
After class, I go to the university’s student union. A few minutes later, the survivor advocate comes out and smiles at me. “Come on back, [redacted],” she said. In her office, we make small talk for all of thirty seconds before I say, “I want to report.”
I am still trying to scrub the stains out of my mouth.
At the end of it, she gives me a few pamphlets. She reminds me that I don’t have to do anything when the Dean emails me if I don’t want to. I can choose to have an investigation launched, or not. I have options.
In the emails, there is a brief message that contains a link to a secure website that contains an official notice from the Dean. At the bottom of the email, it says: If you fail to open, read, and respond to this notice in a timely fashion it may impair your ability to persist as a [university name redacted] student.
September 1, 2017
[full name redacted]
Sent electronically to [email redacted]
PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL
As referenced in my last
six emails correspondence to you, I work in the Dean of Students Office and I am contacting you because my office received information alleging that you may have been but probably weren’t subjected to a violation of the [university name redacted] Code of Student Conduct relating to sexual assault.
I would appreciate the opportunity to
interrogate meet with you to provide you more proof of your victimhood information about our process of disenfranchising survivors and make sure that you are aware that no one will believe you of your lies options, including the resources unavailable to men you. Please contact me at [phone number redacted] or [email redacted]. If you continue to waste my time I do not hear from you by September 5, 2017 I may have to take limited action on this false report and I would prefer to have you be a good victim and go through everything that happened to you again provide the dirty details further input into the process before an investigation is launched that happens.
Senior Associate Dean of Students
In 2015, a student reports being sexually assaulted by a man employed by the university. The man’s attorney says: “It is becoming popular right now for people to sue universities claiming that they have been victims of sexual assault and blame the university. Many times there are real victims in these kinds of cases. This case, in my opinion, is not a case with an actual victim.”
September 8, 2017, 2:09pm
I will meet with the Dean of Students in less than an hour. I will put on the new jeans, the new hoodie, and the new sneakers my mother bought for me on Labor Day. I will wear the anchor necklace with the rose charm superglued on it. I will wear this because it reminds me that I’m a survivor.
Name: [redacted] / Sex: Male / Current Age: 22 / Hair: Brown / Eyes: Brown / Race or Ethnicity: Hispanic-Latino / Height: 5’6 / Weight: [redacted]
Name: Brent Tyson / Sex: Male / Age at time of assault: 22 / Hair: Brown / Eyes: Brown / Race or Ethnicity: White / Height: 5’9 – 5’10 / Weight: unsure, perhaps 140lbs – 160lbs, lean build, very toned / Crime: Non-Penetrative Sexual Assault (1 count of) / Educational Status: Student
I will walk across campus to the student union. I will walk the stairs to the fourth floor, and I will walk past the survivor advocate’s office.
Name: Andy Trapis / Sex: Male / Age at time of assault: unsure, perhaps 20 / Hair: Black / Eyes: Brown / Race or Ethnicity: Half-black, half-white / Height: 5’7 – 5’8 / Weight: unsure, perhaps 150lbs, lean build / Crime: Rape (1 count of) / Educational Status: Student
I will not walk into her office this time. I will walk into the room next to hers and tell the student receptionist that I have a meeting with Dean [redacted] at 3:00pm.
Name: Brendan Tyson / Sex: Male / Age at time of assault: 23, perhaps 24 / Hair: Brown / Eyes: Brown / Race or Ethnicity: White / Height: 5’9 – 5’10 / Weight: unsure, perhaps 140lbs – 160lbs, lean build, very toned / Crime: Rape (1 count of) / Educational Status: Student
The Dean will come out and invite me back to his office. I will hesitate for a second, standing in the doorway. I do not know what will happen after this.
Name: Ali Al-Hashim, gave name of Alex to victim / Sex: Male / Age at time of assault: between 24 and 27 / Hair: Black / Eyes: Brown / Race or Ethnicity: unsure, most likely Arab or Middle Eastern / Height 5’8 – 5’11 / Weight: unsure, perhaps 180lbs, muscular build, somewhat toned / Crime: Sexual Assault, possibly Rape (1 count of) / Educational Status: Student
Timeline of Events:
Autumn, September 2014; victim age 19, assaulted in music annex on campus by B. Tyson / Winter, January 2015; victim age 19, raped in victim’s dorm room by A. Trapis / Summer, July 2015; victim age 20, raped in B. Tyson’s apartment / Spring, May 2016; victim age 21, assaulted, possibly raped, in victim’s apartment by A. Al-Hashim, same apartment complex as July 2015 rape
Of course, these aren’t their actual names.
But you knew that already.
Still, I will walk inside his office, ready.
September 12, 2017
This notice serves to inform you that I am closing this complaint without further investigation because at this time I do not have a sufficient amount of information to conduct an investigation, specifically, no respondent has been named.
I sit in a man’s lap, and my thighs straddle either side of his waist. I do not know his name, he is a stranger in my bed, his mouth is on mine, our tongues greet one another, and I press my hands to the muscles on his chest, leaning into him. He reaches around and grabs a handful of my ass. I do not tell him that I am sad.
Author’s Bio: Daniel Garcia is a poet and writer based out in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He is currently pursuing his degree in creative writing and goes to church frequently–and by church he means poetry slams. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Write About Now Poetry, SlamFind, SUGAR Magazine, Rathalla Review, Apology Not Accepted, Hawaii Pacific Review, and more. When he isn’t writing or slamming, Daniel can be found giving as many hugs as possible, living by the words “You are all that you have,” and falling off the edge of the Earth. He is the 2017 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) Head to Head Haiku Slam Champion.