On Darkness

The holler is dark at night. The only light is the glow from other people’s homes, but there is only one home near me. I am up the latest. Once, my neighbor said, “Do you work at night? I can see the light glowing in your loft.” I told her that my loft is where my office is, and yes, I work at night. My habits changed a bit when Reed was young, but I have settled back into my routine. I am writing this now while the night sky is black from clouds, and the crickets and frogs moan their nocturnal hum.

Reed woke up and told me that he had heard something banging around outside. I told him that it was probably just a critter.

I locked the doors.

I don’t like locks. I have discussed this previously.

I have been tired for the past couple of days. Drained. Last night, I almost nodded off on the couch. I went to bed at ten, which is rare for me. I had a dream. The arms of a skinny stranger were wrapping around me tightly where I lay. I felt his beard against my cheek. He looked exactly like Caleb, but in my dream, I wasn’t aware that he was Caleb. He wore a plaid shirt. He wrapped me in those skinny arms–an embrace–but the embrace got tighter and tighter. I grabbed his arms and wrestled against them. I pushed as hard as I could. We went back and forth, and then I won.

I dragged him to the door, and I pushed him out of it. I said to him, “Don’t ever come here again.” I locked the door.

Then I woke. My heart raced. My arms were sore.

I had woken myself by crying out.

A friend wrote to me a couple of weeks ago. She, too, had been mistreated by a former lover. We had bonded over that, but in this message, she told me that she thought I was too angry, that my anger was hurting the cause.

I thought about writing back to her, What is your silence doing to help the cause?

I thought about how I could refute all of her points.

I spoke with friends who said to me, This woman does not have your best interests at heart.

When it came down to it, I no longer cared about her enough to respond.

I am getting better at caring less about certain people.

I recently reread a journal entry that I had written during my backpacking trip in August. In it, I had written: “River Guide taught me something important. River Guide taught me how not to fall in love with someone.”

Last night, at Reed’s soccer game, one of the dads asked me if I wanted a little orange. “I’ve already started it,” he said. He handed it to me, and he had peeled off the first chunk, so that I had a place to get a fingerfull in.

My father used to do that for me sometimes, but usually, my father would peel the entire orange for me. He ate an orange every night, and he always asked if I wanted one, and I always said no, but then the smell of the peel would hit me. “Maybe just a bite,” I would say. (Caleb affectionately nicknamed me, “Little Bite,” because I always wanted a little bite of everything.)

Here, take this one,” my father would say, as he handed me his orange. Then, he would peel himself a new one.

I like the sweet juice of an orange, but I don’t like the bitter peel. I don’t like having to work through bitter to get to sweetness.

Little oranges are easier to peel, and that soccer dad had already given me a good start. The juice of the orange was so sweet.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Do you want another one?” he asked.

“Actually, I would!” I said, then I laughed, embarrassed. I am usually polite, but I was greedy for more, so he handed me another one.

“You can’t eat just one orange,” he said.

Then, he said, again, “I started it for you.”

I noticed that his hands were empty. He had given his own orange to me.

I ate it anyway.

A couple of years ago, my best friend, Kelly M. roomed with me at a writer’s conference in Minneapolis. I met her at her train station. I reached over and grabbed the handle of her suitcase, started pulling it behind me. “What are you doing?” She asked.

Kelly M. and I had been roommates. She had been the oldest in her family, and I had been the youngest in mine, and we fit our roles. She was happy to do things for me, and I was happy to have her do them for me. She always would have peeled the entire orange for me. Still, there I was pulling her suitcase because nothing upends old patterns like being a single mother.

I peel every orange now. I pull every suitcase.

Caleb used to drive me to work every day and pick me up. I thought it was a kindness. It felt like a kindness.

I grew fearful of being away from him for too long. When he was angry, I feared that he wouldn’t pick me up. I grew fearful of driving on my own. Soon, he was driving me to the store. To doctor’s appointments. To everywhere.

He was always the one in the driver’s seat.

Reed said to me, “My dad has only treated his new wife like he treated you once or twice, and she told him that she doesn’t like it when he gets angry like that.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because I was in bed, and I heard him yelling at her, and I heard her say, ‘I don’t like it when you get angry like that,’ and then, I went in and asked them to be quiet, and they both asked how much I had heard.”

“How much did you hear?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes, “Oh, I heard everything,” he said.

“How do you know that your dad has only treated his new wife like that once or twice?” I asked.

“Because he told me so,” Reed said.

“When did he tell you that?” I asked.

“In the car, the next morning, after we had dropped her off at work,” Reed said.

“Why did you drop her off at work?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s just something they do,” Reed said. “Dad just drives her to work and picks her up.”

I called Kelly M. after Reed went to bed. I told her what Reed had told me, and then, I started to cry. I wasn’t crying because of my sadness that it was happening again. I wasn’t crying because of my fear for the new wife. I wasn’t even crying because of my fear for Reed (although that was a huge element).

I was crying because I felt guilty.

I was crying because, in the moment that Reed acknowledged to me that his father had treated his new wife in the same way that he had treated me, I felt relief.

Oh god, I am so sorry, but I felt relieved.

Not for her. Never for her.

But for that part of me that has continued to wonder if it really was my fault? It’s the same part that was triggered when Caleb’s friend wrote to me and asked me to identify my triggers that had caused the abuse. The same part that was triggered when another of Caleb’s friends said that he had heard that we beat up on each other. The same part that was triggered when I recently saw that someone who had claimed to support me had congratulated Caleb on his new wedding.

<Aside> You cannot support me and also support Caleb’s new marriage. In trying to do both, you are maintaining that the issue was mine, and not his. You are maintaining that he will be different for a different woman, as though he wasn’t always in control of how he treated me–as though I had brought it upon myself. <End Aside>

I felt relief, and then, a deep loosening of all of that pent-up anger. It was as though the anger just broke into pieces. It didn’t dissolve, but it became more easily compartmentalized.

And then, my concern for Reed took over. We are clearly hitting a point where he is not going to want to keep visiting his father. When that time happens, I will have his back. For now, I am letting him be his own guide. (Reed did tell me that, to his knowledge, Caleb hasn’t hit the new wife.)

Reed also said to me, “I thought that things would be different for [the new wife] until I heard the things that my dad was saying to her, and they were just like what he used to say to you.”

I have reached out to the new wife in the past (early on, before she was the wife). She wrote back to me, “You are sick.” I’ve sent her my phone number and private email address. She knows how to reach me, but at this point, she can’t be my concern. She has to be the concern of her own friends and family.

I have a beautiful and sensitive ten-year-old who is my concern.

I gave a reading for my department this past weekend. I was a little stressed about it. I spent the past year feeling alienated from my entire department because one person didn’t like me, and I know that’s irrational, but it’s also difficult to describe how insidious the effects of abuse are–how they begin to underly every communication, so that when one person inexplicably, and with no explanation, decides that they don’t like you and don’t want to have anything to do with you, it feels as though no one wants to have anything to do with you again, ever.

But my good friend, Shane, came to visit me this weekend, so I knew that I had my person at the reading, and then, my other people began to show up, and I realized that, during that period of alienation, when I was feeling so sad; instead of falling into despair, I had built a home from the wreckage.

My friend, Kirk, gave me an introduction that was so lovely that it made me tear up. In it, he described me as one of the “sunniest” people you will ever meet in Ellis Hall (our building on campus). I remembered how, in one of my darkest moments, my friend Brad had given me a bracelet that he had engraved with the word, “sunshine,” because he calls me “Kelly Sunshine.”

I thought of how I don’t really have to try to be sunny; it’s just my nature.

But I am darkness too.

I said all of that to Shane, who said, “If I were going to play the game ‘Match the Essayist to the Real Person,’ I would never guess you.”

That means I’ve succeeded. I don’t want to be the sad, dark person. But I get to write sad, dark essays.

All of it is true. The sadness, the sunniness, and the darkness.

In the mornings, while Shane was here, I would wake up, and he would say, “I think there’s still some coffee left.” There was always almost half of a pot.

I can’t remember the last time that someone made coffee for me.

One night, we sat in my Adirondack chairs. We looked at the full moon. We talked about our futures. We talked about our exes. We talked about the ways in which we’ve been hurt, and the ways in which we’ve been healed.

About the new wife, I told Shane, “The words ‘I don’t like it when you get angry like that ‘ indicate a pattern. That’s not a ‘once or twice’ kind of thing.” I paused, then, “She can’t call her mother and vent. She can’t call her best friend and vent. They have all, undoubtedly, heard about Caleb already. What would they think if she admitted that to them?”

She is even more isolated than I was.

And Shane was there to listen, then to make coffee in the morning. The coffee was bitter at first, then sweet. I thought about Kirk and Brad calling me “sunny.” I thought about my other friend saying that I was too angry.

I am both; I am the bitter peel and the sweet juice.

You will not find the sweetness in me unless you’re willing to get through the peel.

Here, I started it for you.