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.