“Everything around me is evaporating. My whole life, my memories, my imagination and its contents, my personality— it’s all evaporating. I continuously feel that I was someone else, that I felt something else, that I thought something else.
―Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Sometimes the world is on fire. Sometimes the world is
under water. Sometimes you appear just to push me
deeper. Sometimes you appear to pull me to the surface
just as I am about to relinquish breath. Sometimes my skin
blisters, my hair singes away. Sometimes I gasp and
awaken. Sometimes I know I am dreaming and beg to wake
up but you laugh, laugh, laugh, and say, You asked for this.
You know you did.
You linger deep in my subconscious and when I finally try
to rest my mind at night, you come out to play, to taunt, to
beckon from the fringes of a broken place within me. In my
dreams, you appear as a single father with three young
children in your car, pound on my door, and insist I give you
a place to sleep for the night, even though this cabin is
a rental and nobody is allowed to sleep here but me. You
pound until the glass breaks, and I wander around the
cabin unplugging every electronic from every outlet
because I can’t get the volume under control, and it is so
loud, so loud.
In another dream, you manifest as the man I trust the most
who says he’s moving back to Michigan and into a large
house with low ceilings that would require crawling about a
bedroom that I would make my own, but do I want to sell
my home and move in anyway? Yes, I will respond. Yes,
yes, of course, as the you who isn’t you asserts, I love you.
I’ve always loved you.
You show up in the form of my dog who is a golden
retriever in my dreams instead of a husky but I recognize
him anyway. He lies down at me feet, takes a deep breath,
and dies. What do I do with your body? I ask before I wake
up thirty minutes before my alarm wondering who is crying
and how to quiet the noise until I realize it is me, it is me.
In the after, everything is ephemeral.
Tell me you love me, you said. I lied. I lied and said what
you wanted to hear. Lying is so easy when I whisper into
the darkness. I make promises that I don’t intend to keep.
Give me a year, you insisted, even though the vodka tonic
you paid for only lasted that night. Why a year? I asked. It
was such a long time. Too many days, too many seasons.
Because that’s what I need. I should have known then your
needs were too demanding, rigid, unrelenting, selective, precise.
When you slapped my dog on the nose, the look in his eyes
as he winced and backed away broke my heart. He had
never been slapped before. He had never been anything but
Please don’t hit my dog. Tell him no, and he will leave you
I told him no! Are you fucking deaf? Not everyone is going
to love your dog.
The thing is though, everyone does.
Strangers at the campground, kids, neighbors, people
driving by while we’re out for a walk, all telling me he’s
beautiful or they ask questions or they stop to pet him and
comment on his gentle demeanor and all-around good
Not everyone is going to love your dog, you said again.
I nodded, knowing it wasn’t true but tired of arguing. I
wanted to say, You mean not everyone is going to love you.
I believe in a place where men do not hit or yell because in
that place, men do not exist. I have yet to find it.
I died the day you killed me. I die every day knowing you
have gone on living the life you want to live. The change is
imprinted on my DNA, a somatic mutation of the self that
cannot be passed on to another. The gene pool stops here.
I could tolerate that you held my glassware to the light and
complained of dust and fingerprints, even when it was still
warm from the dishwasher. I could tolerate that you
wouldn’t accept water from the tap or ice from my freezer
because you didn’t trust that it was safe, that you didn’t
trust municipalities that have lied to their residents before
about the lead content of their water. I could tolerate that
you had a wife you loved and would not leave, no steady job
to speak of, a past full of secrets and ambiguous timelines. I
could tolerate that you changed your name to denounce
your father, became the noun—the label—of what you
desired to be. It was a portrayal of a self that everyone else
in your life seemed to recognize and accept. That was who
you were, and so it was.
I could tolerate your assertiveness and passionate
exhalations that appeared very much like aggression
because they made my large self feel small, and I longed to
be an object of affection, a tiny woman, a petit moi.
I could tolerate it all because when you smiled it seemed
genuine and when you fucked me you whispered, I need you.
To you, I was a vessel, a portal to another unimaginable
dimension. Too bad I talked too much. Too bad I asked too
many questions. Too bad I insisted on veracity. Too bad,
Get on your knees.
Please don’t humiliate me.
Get, you said as you shoved me downward, on your knees.
My body fell to the floor like crumpled paper, waifish and
defeated. You unzipped your jeans, grabbed my head, and
with both hands, forced my voice from my throat.
Someone once told me that there are fewer crimes
committed on dead end streets because criminals don’t
want to limit themselves to one exit. Safety in one’s home
increases as opportunities to escape decrease.
There is one way in, one way out, unless you know about
the unpaved semi-secluded alley rampant with potholes
large enough to swallow boulders. Theoretically, you can
exit that way, but only if you didn’t pop a tire or break an
axle or bottom out, scraping the undercarriage as the
shocks and struts grow weaker with each rise and fall while
speeding through the alley, kicking up mud and debris,
tires spinning and sliding, grip tight on the steering wheel.
The home is a sanctuary. All you have to do is follow basic
safety rules. That was the before, however. The after is
I wanted a home place that was of my own making,
followed my own rules, and met my own needs for safety. I
thought I had found it.
You have everything a man could want, you said. You
have everything a man could want, but you need to be
I am insufficient, an object of a taken man’s insatiable
I could feel your eyes on me as I read from an essay about
volunteering in Haiti. It was hard to ignore you, the only
black man in a room of white faces like mine while I
extolled on the social and economic implications of skin
tone in a country where villages are at the mercy of
unmerciful storms and a corrupt government. I became
acutely aware of my privilege to give voice to something I
perhaps could never understand, stammering at each
mention of race, each description of poverty.
When you invited me out for a drink afterward, I hesitated,
though I didn’t flinch. I felt a tug at the base of my skull to
decline, but I shrugged an acceptance anyway. You were
disarming and it unnerved me.
That is the moment I wish I could return to, the moment
where everything I had come to understand about my
Regret, they tell me, is simply a replacement for blame.
You don’t need a man to tell you the things that are self-
apparent, you said. You’re better than that.
At the bar, I had a nearly full drink in front of me and was
in the middle of telling a story when you spoke over me. I’m
fifty-one, you said. I’m married. Your admittance was
straightforward and unemotional, the lights reflecting off
your glasses. You leaned on the bar with your elbow and
angled your body toward me, annoyed that other patrons
kept bumping the back of your chair. Do you want to go
for a walk? you asked.
When I tried to participate in the conversation, you
guffawed at the sound of my voice and said you forgave me
for interrupting you, even though I hadn’t apologized.
I wanted to leave. I should have left then, but I didn’t.
Instead, I let you kiss me on the street, your hands gripping
the back of my head.
You recognized in me all the love I had to give, the
swallowing nature of my heart, the generosity of self from
guilt. I want being in love to feel like wind in my hair, free-
falling from the sky, yet knowing I won’t crash to the
ground, trusting there is always a parachute and a safety
net. There is always someone to catch me when I don’t even
know I’m falling. That, though, was before.
There was no love between us. There were your pedantic
expectations, rather than authenticity. Everything was
about what it appeared to be. It was as though I were some
kind of investment, a seed project, and you a budding
entrepreneur that was sure this time, with me, was worth
I hadn’t loved you when I died. I didn’t even really like you
that much anymore. The truth is, I don’t know anyone who
You said you liked the way I wore my hair, so I cut it. You
said you’ve always had a thing for redheads, so I dyed it
dark purple, almost black. You said you liked the shape of
my body, so I hid it beneath baggy clothes as the weight
that gave me curves fell away.
You told the detective you wouldn’t speak to him without a
lawyer, so he closed the case without having all of the
To deny is to excuse. We are all cowards in our own way. I
remain hidden behind drawn curtains. You remain
protected by bureaucracy. That is the after.
I shudder when the phone rings because it might be you
calling. I live with the curtains drawn, the lights off,
stiffening each time a car drives down the street playing
loud music for fear it might be you about to pull into the driveway.
You told me to be wary of my neighbor who sits on his
front porch smoking cigarettes as he watches you come and
go. He’s harmless, I said.
Are you fucking him?
Of course not. I don’t even know his name.
The real monster is you, the man sitting on the edge of my
bed while I cower under the covers and bleed you onto my sheets.
I dreamt of you last night. Even in the dream, I was
surprised it was you.
The rain scratching at the windows filled me with the same
dread as if it were an animal clawing its way through to
pounce, to attack.
The thunder pulled me from my dream. I was startled and
woke with shaky nerves, and the unsettled mind that can
only occur when being ripped from one state of
consciousness into another.
There is grief in the aftermath. The logistics of day-to-day
life require attention, even when our minds and bodies
are not able to keep moving.
I have spent more time mourning you than I ever spent
knowing you. How do I allow myself to breathe? How do I
allow myself the space to just be?
Nothing in your life has changed. Everything has changed
Sometimes when women say stop, they don’t mean it, you
said. It was just a misunderstanding.
For two hours, I cried. For four hours I slept fitfully in the
same bed, on the same sheets, my body still naked, bruises
forming on my hips, broken.
For two days, I stayed home from work because I couldn’t
sit in a chair. I ignored your phone calls, your text
messages, willing away your existence.
I grieved the loss of myself. No, it’s in present tense.
I grieve, perpetually.
You pin the back of my legs down with your knees, my hips
with your hands, and I can’t move, can’t get away and run.
The pain shoots up my spine in screams that fill the
enclosing space around my head. I don’t recognize myself
in those screams, not even when my own voice begs, Stop
it! Stop it! Stop it! in shrieking bursts. I try to army crawl
away until I’m pinned face-down between my headboard
and the weight of your body. Shhhhh, you say between
My world stops. The music stops. Eventually my screaming
stops, and I succumb to the end of my life. Sirens ring in
my head. I might faint. I might throw up.
You collapse briefly against me, and my skin catches fire
underneath you. I turn my head and meet your gaze, your
face bearing an expression that burns into my memory.
You run your hand down the length of my back, pat my
thigh twice and say, You needed to be raped.
I want to die, and so I do. It’s two kinds of la petite mort,
but I am the one who cannot be revived. That is the after.
When did you break up?
I stammered through a summation of the preceding three
The judge’s clerk looked bored with me. But when did you
I didn’t have a definitive answer because there had not
been a relationship. I pressed charges against him. Isn’t
that a clear enough message?
No, he said. No, said the judge when she scrawled,
“Insufficient allegations” on the bottom of the form next to
the checkbox that read, “The petition for an ex parte
personal protection order is dismissed without notice of
the right to request a hearing because the petitioner’s
claims are sufficiently without merit.”
This is Detective P—. The prosecutor’s office denied issuing
a warrant for arrest at this time.
In my living room, you sat on my couch and strummed
your guitar, coaxing me to drink more. That was the before,
though. That was before.
I wake up and expel the contents of my stomach into the
toilet. The text message from you reads, That was . . . great.
There is denial in the after. I’ve been falsely accused of
sexual assault, you said into a microphone, blinking and
smirking at the camera on your computer. It didn’t happen.
And that had to go to the police department and that had
to go to discussion and it was humiliating. It was to me
personally humiliating, and it isn’t something I would
wish upon anyone. What do you do for that person who is
I seethed as I watched you declare your innocence and
broadcast it on the Internet.
I have pictures and video of consensual—
You looked away from the microphone and chuckled. You
couldn’t even bring yourself to say what it was. I have
pictures and video.
In the before, I didn’t know I was being photographed
and filmed. In the after, your digital recordings of
corroboration only assure me of one fact: it was not only
intentional; it was premeditated.
You may assert the other side of a two-sided story, but I am
the warden of truth. You are forever the shadow in my
periphery, the stain on my carpet, the bruise on my back.
There is only the after, and in the after, there is nothing for
you to claim. This is my narrative now, and I tell it as I
lived it: in fragments and nonlinear, but always the truth
and no longer with shame.
Melissa Grunow is the author of I DON’T BELONG HERE: ESSAYS (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018) and REALIZING RIVER CITY: A MEMOIR (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays 2016 notables. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.