but you’ve always been
you’ve just been giving
the best parts of you
to the wrong people
As a child I woke on Sunday mornings hungry for comics. I had my favorites, which I neurotically ordered in a particular sequence to save the best for last. The only page I skipped was the Magic Eye. I had tried for so long to see the picture within, followed the instructions exactly. Pressed my nose to the saturated ink and slowly pulled away just to see the same aimless swirl of colors. I had—and still have—perfect vision. I blamed the ink. I blamed the image. Eventually, I gave up.
I was a precocious only child who pulled a globe into her lap every night to study for the geography bee. I prided myself on never getting anything below a “B” in college and even as an adult, I still intensely research each company before an interview. There aren’t many things in this world that I give up on. You should know this about me in order to understand the rest of my story.
The year after I graduate with my bachelor’s degree, a picture comes into focus. A male outline, my age, a yellow attempt at a beard like fuzzy duck down, a love of athletics that fights a losing battle against genetics. But he is kind, all concerts and ice cream and hands in my hair. For an entire summer we disappear together, or more accurately, I into him. My parents have just filed for divorce. It makes me happy to disappear into someone who holds possibility against a backdrop of endings.
And then one day he isn’t kind. One day he takes out his penis and starts to masturbate. Slowly at first, barely noticeable, and then after a few more times he wants me to notice. We’re always in his basement watching TV, maybe playing a video game. Doing something decidedly not sexual. I ask a mutual friend about it, whose response is that “He really likes you. He likes you and he doesn’t know how to show you.” Another assures me that he’s just “being silly; he’s just being a guy.” But these two friends are guys, and they don’t do this.
I think that a stronger, cooler girl would shrug it off, so I become her. In a small town this means acting like one of the boys while aggressively letting them know you’re still a girl, watching rifles go off at bonfires and breaking into the quarry after midnight to swim. It entails forcing laughter when someone makes a rape joke or is thrown out of a bar for shoving his hand between a girl’s legs. Everything is a game. So I play. I laugh, I jump off of things. I flirt unabashedly because it feels good, but unfortunately driving tension between friends and between brothers does not. A few years later, I will be ashamed of myself for demanding so much attention at the expense of others’ feelings. I will think that I deserved the abuse chronicled here, and that I—cliché of clichés—was asking for it.
The masturbation continues. It’s something I have to steel myself against whenever we’re alone. One night he pulls me into his lap and shows me the kind of porn he likes, where women are humiliated. I shift against his thighs and suddenly wonder if there is any difference between my role and that of the women on his screen. “Take off your clothes,” he says. I refuse and head home, clamping down on the inside of my cheek until the hot rush of copper comes.
Eroding my boundaries is like Tetris, continuing long after it ceases to be fun, a frenzy against a quickening loop of music. I make space for the blocks that keep falling but I can’t catch up. I think that maybe if I give him one thing, one small concession, the pressure will lessen. The person I used to know will return and see me as someone substantive, whole, beyond his ridicule and objectification. This is why I comply with his next demand. Even though this isn’t what I want. Even though I feel the color draining from my face. My blouse falls around my shoulders and he starts to work away on himself. I close my eyes and do math problems in my head. Times tables, multiples of nine. Beating back the urge to taste metal in my mouth again.
If I comply with his sexual demands, he wants more. If I refuse, he freezes me out or otherwise punishes me with insults and threats. “You’ll never make any money teaching English,” he sneers. “All of your work is for nothing. Your career means nothing.” I’m in a master’s program and entertaining a doctorate, but after he mocks the school I apply to (“Who would want to go there?”) I’m not so sure.
His threats involve public humiliation. There are things he’s seen in porn, things I can’t even visualize, that he wants me to do for his viewing pleasure. I sometimes resist for hours and it shows in the collection he has amassed, of this vulnerable, nauseous girl beginning to split from her own body. “Do you want me to show you off to our friends? Do you? I’m sure they’d love to see,” he berates. For him, I’m sure that this too is a kind of porn.
I never hurt myself, but I think about it often. How it would feel to control my own body again.
I figure out that I can lie about the duration of my period to get him to leave me alone for a week at a time. Like all my strategies, it lasts temporarily. He demands to see the tampon string as proof of my withholding. One night he obsessively, greedily asks me for details about what I did or didn’t do with previous sexual partners. He suggests we have a threesome with his best friend. “I’ll check in right now,” he says, looking up the number. I sit on the bed and sob. I beg him not to send the message, tell him I’m not a toy. The pain of my body being offered to someone else while I say “No,” and “don’t,” and “stop” is too much to bear. And all of a sudden I have cried enough. I have broken through the permafrost. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m so messed up. I don’t know why I always do this to you.”
I stay for a tangle of reasons. One of them is the promise of occasional breakthroughs and apologies. They happen just often enough to keep me in hot pursuit of Before, when there was my hand in his. When the kisses were tentative and tender. Another is the girl before me who lies cold in the ground too soon. She surfaces when he’s too drunk to speak, which is more and more often these days. I believe that I can love him out of his grief. And that while my family falls apart, we can heal each other. Later, I will learn that this is called traumatic bonding.
A third is my oscillation between crippling self-doubt and the furious determination I dig out of his scorn. “Better” is a moving goalpost that only drives me to work harder.
I told you I don’t give up easily.
When I was an undergrad student we read The Things They Carried, a story about Vietnam War soldiers and the litany of things they carried on their backs and in their heads. The guns, hatchets, comic books, morphine. The pictures of Martha and the idea of what her love could feel like. As I trudge up the campus hills to class, my head fills with intrusive, violent scenes of my death. I try to shake them off but they keep coming, stacking up. This is why I drink.
They name a Berentzen cocktail after me at the bar. It takes exactly four of them to forget. Later, I will learn that soldiers aren’t the only people who live with PTSD.
I pinch at my eyebrows and pull bundles of them out. I yank my hair out by the roots. The hair on my head is thick enough that no one notices, I have to pencil most of my eyebrows in to this day. A daily reminder that when you disappear into someone else, there is less of you left.
At the end of my master’s program I’m punished by being dropped off at my cousin’s apartment in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter. I sneak upstairs and crawl under the afghan on the couch so that I won’t wake her and won’t have to talk about what happened. I need a few hours alone first, to tell myself the story of how he really didn’t mean it.
The shame cradles me. I watch the sun come up. “This isn’t your fault,” my cousin says. “Why do you think that it is?” Eventually I get dressed and peruse the shops on Walnut Street. I order gelato and watch the rain from the dry side of the window in a dissociative haze. This isn’t where I imagined I’d be during the three hour drive to meet him. All the wasted time. His spite once I ceased to function properly. I marinate on the word appliance.
“I’m ready but I don’t want to be hurt anymore.” The cloud of vodka and its subsequent fantasy had lifted. I didn’t want to have sex like that; not as repository. His weight shifted and suddenly he was headed toward the living room, his face tight with anger. He turned on the TV and began surfing.
“Can’t you just hold me?” I had asked, still warm in his bedsheets.
“What good would that do?”
I drive back home and rent a movie whose trailer has commanded my attention for weeks: Shame by Steve McQueen. My insides twist until I’m short of breath. I’m getting closer to solving the mystery. Nancy Drew and the Fear and the Dread and the Persistent Self-Loathing. A guy I’ve gotten to know from my favorite bar asks me out on a date, and I say yes. I want to try. God, I want to try.
We see The Artist. I don’t remember if he holds my hand because I’m too busy feeling marginally like a person again. I’m thrilled to be asked how I liked the movie, to be walked to my car under the flickering streetlamps. He’s nervous. He asks could we do this again?
I get in my car and turn my phone back on, which flashes like the streetlamps as the messages roll in one after another. Where are you? What are you doing? I’m waiting. I wish you would have just had sex with me the other night. Would have been a lot more fun. Okay, seriously, now I’m pissed. Where the fuck are you? I am instantly enraged but at the wrong person. I’m angry at my date for being so kind. The hunger to be degraded returns; I need it now like oxygen. And then I remember the movie Shame and my cousin’s sad eyes, and my anger turns on its heel toward the right person for rewiring my brain so fucking backwards that I can’t figure out how to defuse it. Fuck you, I think. Where am I? What am I doing?
The next afternoon, I wait outside for the professors on my thesis committee to make their decision. Pass. Pass. Pass. Hold this, I say to myself. This is yours. This is you. My thesis occupies physical space in this world. It has boundaries and definitions. I know what I have to do.
The opportunity comes after I go on another date and he watches us from across the room. I wrestle my divided attention to the ground.
“What did that guy get from you last night?” he wants to know.
Every relationship, a transaction.
I shake my head. “You didn’t used to be like this. There’s still good in you somewhere.”
“So you think,” he says.
The picture forms. I remember how good no can feel. The no is predictably met with anger but I keep at it. When I’m finished, he is gone but I’m still here.
I wish I could tell you that I rode the empowerment I felt that day into the sunset and never saw him again. But progress isn’t like that. In the good moments I join an online forum for emotional and sexual abuse support. I finally tell my cousin the truth. I tell our only mutual female friend who rocks back on her hands and says, “I need to sit with this a minute. I need to take it in. But I believe you.”
In the bad moments, I go back. I move to a new city, crave familiarity in the loneliness. I do the things he asks but at great cost. The night terrors come even while I’m awake, and I pray for an end. I lose sight of the picture many times. Fortunately, my friends and family do not.
Every time I return to him I gather the data that will eventually get me out of that mess. For the first time, I walk through double doors under a sign that reads, “Behavioral Health.” The suicidal ideation that has plagued me for years evaporates. I compile tools to manage triggers, to lift the fog of disassociation when it threatens to ruin my day. I discover that some parts of me will grow back even if I have to water them constantly.
One of our last exchanges goes like this:
“Why did you do those things?”
“Why did you let me?”
Like the rest of our relationship, the dialogue is lopsided, incomplete.
I have to answer my own question.
Last summer, I ran into the man who took me to see The Artist. He squeezed my hand and turned to my fiancé.
“You’ve got a really good one here,” he said.
It’s one thing to see a picture clearly. It’s another to finally believe it.
Chelsea Cristene works in non-profit communications in Washington, DC. She holds an M.A. in Humanities and is currently completing an M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition. In her spare time, she loves teaching community college courses, working on local elections, and roller skating. She lives with her fiancé in Annapolis, Maryland. Find her on Twitter at @ChelseaCristene.