On Shame

A couple of years ago, I was going to watch a horror movie, but I didn’t want to watch it alone, so I called a friend of mine, a man, and he came over to watch it with me. It was a hot and humid night, so I opened the front door. My friend and I sat in my dark living room and watched that scary movie. Rain started to drizzle outside the open door, and I inched closer to my friend, then leaned into him. He lifted his arm (almost without thinking), and I laid my head on his chest.

Rain poured outside in the dark night in the hollow.

Last night, I told a friend, a different man, about how that other man and I used to cuddle sometimes.

My friend said, “Kelly, I hate to break it to you, but he just wanted to fuck you.”

I want to continue to believe that there can be a physical connection between a man and a woman that doesn’t involve either of them wanting to fuck the other, but maybe I am naive.

I took Caleb home with me on the same night that I met him. I liked him, so I was determined not to have sex with him. I knew that there were rules, that, if he was going to see me as dateable, I was going to have to portray myself as a good girl. Still, I let him into my bed. I told him that I did not want to have sex, but I put on this Calvin Klein nightshirt that was short and had spaghetti straps. I curled up next to him. He kept asking me to take my shirt off, but I wouldn’t.

Later, he wrote to me about the song “Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight?” by Willie Nelson.  He wrote, I never told you this, but the first night we stayed together I had this song in my mind. I remember asking you to take your shirt off. You said no. But, you didn’t know I just wanted to feel your skin against mine.

We stayed in bed until the next afternoon, and then, I finally took my shirt off. I made a joke that we had made it to our third date by then, and then, I fucked him. I didn’t think of it as fucking though.

I thought of it as something different entirely.

The first time I really interacted with Caleb’s friends was on Thanksgiving Day. Caleb had invited me out to the “compound” that he lived on in Idaho City, a tiny town in the mountains outside of Boise. The compound was a collection of cabins that Caleb and two other guys had built themselves. Caleb lived in his cabin alone. One of the other guys lived with his girlfriend, and the owner lived with his wife and toddler.

 A bunch of people from Caleb’s MFA program had gathered for this Thanksgiving dinner. The experience was intimidating for me. One of the female MFA students consistently referred to me as the “undergraduate.” My current poetry instructor was there. The girlfriend of one of the cabin builders made fun of the wine that I had brought.

But, as the evening went on, they seemed to warm up to me. Caleb was solicitous, and one of the men commented to me that he had never seen Caleb act that way with a woman before.

I started to feel comfortable. Worthy.

Wine was being poured, and the writer who lived with his girlfriend pulled out a joint. He passed it around, then he made a joke to me.

He said, “So, Caleb said you two had sex four times. He called you ‘fourgasm.'”

I was quick. I said, “Only one of us had four orgasms.”

The next morning, the married owner of the main house showed up. He looked me up and down, then said, “Does the carpet match the drapes?”

I was quick again. I said, “You’ll never know.”

I said, “It’s not like I haven’t heard that one before.”

Then, I drove home. I wound my car through the narrow mountain roads until I came out above a large reservoir, and the landscape opened up before me.

It was as though my chest cracked open when I emerged from those mountains.

It was as though I could breathe again.

Caleb also wrote to me, Remember when you used to come and stay with me in my shack in the woods? I’d watch for you for hours making sure you didn’t miss the turn off of Highway 21. I remember holding you while we slept on that couch and I never felt crowded. You always fit perfectly beside me.

He didn’t write, I called you “fourgasm” to my friends. 

He didn’t write, My married friend asked you about the color of your pubic hair.

At an MFA graduation party at the compound, I was pregnant. Caleb walked me out on to a ridge line behind the compound. He kneeled in front of me and asked me to marry him. We were already engaged, but the engagement had been so hasty, a result of the pregnancy. I had joked that he had proposed to me in the parking lot of a Mervyns because we had my ring sized there.

Caleb was embarrassed. He wanted to do it right.

I looked at him on his knees on that ridge line. It was raining. I remember thinking, I am pregnant, and we are standing in the rain. I remember thinking, What am I doing?

The beauty of the forest was lost on me. Rain poured into the trees around us.

We went back to the Compound. The guy who lived with his girlfriend had walked in on the married man making out with a rich, married woman from down the highway. Apparently, all three men had thought that she looked hot in her Daisy Dukes.

Everything always falls apart.

The married man took me aside and tried to charm me. He told me that I should move into the upper cabin with Caleb and our baby. He said that was what Caleb wanted. When Caleb and I got back to town, I said No, we are never moving to the compound. 

On the day that Caleb and I moved into our first apartment, the married man showed up drunk. He ate some of our food. He threw his fork at my feet, then a crumpled up beer can.

I was quick. I said, “Is that where that goes?”

He was quick too. He said, “That’s your job, isn’t it?”

Caleb then went to the bar with him. He said that he had said to the married man, “Don’t you ever throw a fork at my wife again.”

I remember thinking, But why did you leave me? I remember thinking, What am I doing?

I spent the first night in our new home alone.

It didn’t rain. Rain can’t be a metaphor for everything.

At our wedding, the married man’s toddler was our ring bearer. His wife looked sad. The Daisy Duke lady had come with them. The wife took the toddler back to their hotel room while the married man and Daisy Duke lady went out to the bar.

I know this because so many people later told me how obvious it was that the married man and Daisy Duke lady were having an affair.

Daisy Duke lady gave Caleb and me a card that had two one-hundred dollar bills in it.

One of them said, HERS. The other said, HIS.

I wanted to burn that money, but we were poor.

The shame. The shame of everything I can’t express. The shame that led me to believe that I didn’t deserve better .

The shame of him. and him. and him. and him.

I don’t know where it began.

Maybe it was because of that district spelling bee where I was the youngest, and my best friend waved at me from the crowd, and I waved back, then my mother summoned me over to tell me not to act like I was so special.

I was supposed to win that year, but I lost.

I never forgot that I wasn’t special.

Maybe it was because of that fourth-grade teacher who gave our entire class a week long lecture about popularity. She explained in detail what it meant to be popular (as well as how popular she herself had been), then later, on a field trip, she only held the hands of the popular girls while I trailed behind, alone in all of my unpopularity.

Maybe it was because of the boys who snapped my bra in the fifth grade because they could tell I was already wearing one, though most of the other girls weren’t.

Maybe it was because of the eighth grade Algebra teacher who took every student but me out into the hall to tell them whether or not they were going on to ninth grade geometry.

Then, he said, “Did I forget anyone?”

And when I responded, “You didn’t take me into the hallway,” he said, in front of the entire class, “Don’t you already know the answer to that?”

Maybe it was because I had to join the ninth-grade geometry class a month late because my then-algebra teacher had finally figured out that I already knew all of the algebra he was teaching.

Maybe it was because the geometry teacher told me, “You should go into math. You’re good at math. Not a lot of girls are.” (And I knew that he was trying to make me feel better.)

Maybe it was because I got my pre-ACT results back in that same teacher’s class, and one of the boys looked at my score and said, “Why did you get a better score than me?

Maybe it was because of my parents’ single friend who flirted with me when I was in high school, and I could tell what was happening, but they could not, so I was polite.

Like a good girl.

Maybe it was because my first kiss was with a stranger in a club in Amsterdam.

Maybe it was because of the boy who made out with me in a car, then told everyone that he had sex with me, and I only heard that he had said that we had sex, because supposedly, he had AIDS, and everyone thought that I should be worried but I knew that I had never had sex with him, and in fact, was practically a virgin.

Maybe it was because of the first man who ever held me down when I didn’t want to be held down.

Maybe it was because sometimes I want to be held down.

Maybe it was because I visited a friend in Chicago once, and, when I was alone with her boyfriend, he kept trying to talk me into having a threesome with them–though I was not interested in that and was fairly certain that my friend was also not interested in that.

Maybe it was because my friend was in my wedding, and she brought her boyfriend, and he went out for beer with the men and said, “I have heard that Kelly is wild in bed” to Caleb (right in front of my future father-in-law).

Maybe it was because of the way Caleb told me that story, as though I should have been ashamed of what this man, who was essentially a stranger, had said about me.

Maybe it was because I knew that I was perfectly average in bed, but still couldn’t parse what I was supposed to be.

Was I supposed to be average? Or wild?

Both options had shame attached to them.

What I know is this:

After the Assistant Prosecutor, Cindy Scott, dismissed Caleb’s domestic battery charges on the condition that he write a letter of apology, I had a conference call with Marcia Ashdown (the then-Prosecuting Attorney) and Cindy.

Cindy tried to explain why she hadn’t taken Caleb to trial. It quickly became apparent that she hadn’t actually read his file when the judge told her to make the decision, so she had been left with no basis with which to make her decision.

She said to me, “He wrote that you had waved your bare butt in his face. How was I supposed to convict him against a jury when you had waved your bare butt in his face?”

I said, “Are you saying this is my fault?” and Ashdown jumped in hastily to say, “No, of course not.”

Still, I felt this deep kernel of shame.

What had I been doing out there antagonizing him without any underwear on? What had I been thinking?

Maybe it was because I deserved it.

In the police report, Caleb wrote that he had thrown the bowl at me because I had “waved my butt” at him.

When Caleb and I had fought that morning, I had just woken up. I had a t-shirt on, but had taken my underwear off during the night because it had kept crawling (I sometimes like to think of this as Wedgiegate).

I woke up angry, and I went out to confront Caleb and tell him that I had talked to my friend, Kelly Morse, and she had helped me realize that I needed to leave him. He screamed some things at me, and I turned to walk away.

At that point, he shouted “Don’t turn your butt to me,” and I did a little flip of my bare butt at him.

Then, he threw the bowl at me. It didn’t hit my butt (or worse, my lower back), but it shattered on on my foot, and I fell to the ground. I knew that I was hurt badly.

I got up and hobbled to the bedroom. I grabbed my phone. I dialed 91, then left the last number empty. I had threatened to call 911 before, but Caleb had always grabbed my phone and broken it. He had probably broken 3-4 phones of mine a year.

 He came into the room, and I told him, “I am going to call 911 if you don’t leave me alone.”

He shouted, “Call them, and tell them what a fucking bitch you are.”

And then, I did it. I called.

And, from that point on, everything changed.

Shame begins with that which cannot be expressed, so I’m expressing it now. I didn’t deserve what he did to me.

I cannot change what he did to me.

I have responded to what he did to me by being cautious. I am going on four years now, and I have not seriously dated someone else. Meanwhile, Caleb is remarried with a baby on the way.

I would rather be cautious.

The thing about abuse is that, often, the abused person is the only one who suffers, while the abuser gets to live his life in peace.

My caution might come from fear, but it does not come from shame. I have not felt shame since leaving Caleb. I have had sex with other men. I have cuddled with friends. I have developed emotional, nurturing connections with men. But I have not done anything that illuminates that kernel of shame that has been in me for so many years.

Maybe it’s because I keep cuddling with my friends–male and female. Maybe it’s because I crave physical connection, and I know that it would be easy to find sex, but that is not what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s because I just want someone to cuddle up with me and watch a horror movie while the rain pours outside.

Maybe it’s because I want to lay my head on a hard, safe chest.

Maybe it’s because shame is the condition of being a woman.

But I say no to the shame.

I say no more to the shame.

At this moment, it is not even close to raining.