Originally posted on my friend’s writing website. The link is no longer active but I wanted to share this anyway.
It has always been oddly disconcerting to see my entire life squared away in cardboard boxes and dull black garbage bags. I’ve moved thirty times in twenty years and the sight of a bare apartment wall, coated in discount eggshell paint and devoid of all personality, still makes me uncomfortable. I slap the last piece of packing tape across the flaps of a box pilfered from one of a thousand jobs I’ve held down over the last year and survey the damage of my life in this basement. I haven’t bothered to wash the floors in months and smoke stains outline the places formerly covered in posters and yellowed photos in dollar store frames. I’m thankful I won’t be around when the landlord discovers I’ve been sneaking clandestine cigarettes at night, blowing furtive smoke rings out the open door.
In my rush to escape you, I didn’t bother with packing when I moved out of your house. Books, journals, mementos of a childhood best left forgotten became nothing more than fodder for the voracious appetite of the dumpster behind your building. You didn’t stop me then, because you hadn’t known I’d been smuggling clothing out of our apartment and dropping them off at my sister’s place for weeks. You hadn’t known that all my “I love you”s were empty words filling the chasm that had grown between us. That summer, I learned how to play pretend for real and you learned how to burn every bridge you’d ever built.
STEP ONE: KINDLING.
You told me you loved me by accident, and the truth is, you probably did. In those days, I was hopeful, naive, and eager to please. My hair hung in thick ropes down over my shoulders and I imagined it made me seem prettier, more mysterious. I fancied myself an artist though I never could draw. I showed you my art and you indulged me, only slightly embellishing your approval of my talent. You were not the first I had loved, but the first to reciprocate and that’s what made you so dangerous. The first time we met, I made tea and mulled cranberry drinks. You refused them and I drank both, resulting in butterflies in my stomach and a pressing need to urinate. I was so nervous the first time we held each other underneath the ugly orange comforter I inherited from a step-uncle. Before you can burn a bridge, you must build one.
You told me I was pretty and too smart for you. You brought me books to read and bought me trinkets. We watched silly TV shows and laughed at the same jokes. When you said, “I love you,” your embarrassment was adorable, and I fell.
I had no idea then just how far I would fall.
I have forgotten the cause of our first fight. A joke, maybe, or a comment I’d made. Whatever the reason, I found myself the target of a barrage of emotional outpourings. You asked me why I couldn’t be Rachael or Michelle, or any number of women you had loved and lost. You told me of their greatness and their willingness to help you, prop you up and become human crutches. I could never measure up to such incredible women, who had witnessed you at your weakest and helped you to stand. I crumbled under the weight of them. They became ghosts of Amazons, haunting me and to whom I could never measure up. You grew larger and I grew smaller as you chipped away at the person I had been before. You broke up with me over and over again, always coming back when I threatened to kill myself. You managed to convince me I couldn’t face life without you, and you did me a favor by agreeing to return.
I didn’t know it yet, but you were the white whale and I was in the process of being swallowed.
STEP TWO: ACCELERANT.
Red flags are useless when your glasses are rose-colored. Love is pain, love is anger, love is addictive. My own father would say the same things to my mother as you said to me. “Leave me, I’m no good for you.” “I’ll only hurt you.” “You’d be better off without me.” A martyr isn’t a martyr without someone to save, so I held on to you and told myself you reminded me of my daddy. He was wonderful and terrible, a perfect example of the kind of man I thought I wanted. You would cry in the middle of the night and wake me up to tell me you’d made a mistake in choosing me, and I would hold you and apologize for my many imperfections. I would thank you for being able to look past my flaws and embrace the creature I truly was. I cut myself down time and again so I could find some way to lift you up. Eventually I stopped cutting myself figuratively and would show you just how much I was willing to be punished.
In those days, you barely let me sleep.
The first time we took mushrooms together was also the first time you choked me. I was high and confused by the sensation. You tightened your grip and whispered, “I could kill you right now, and no one would find you.” I let my body go limp until you finally let go and I tried not to show you how frightened I was. You apologized and sobbed in my arms, vowing never to touch mushrooms again. It was everyone’s fault but yours. I cried and forgave you, though I can’t remember why.
STEP THREE: IGNITION.
I remember the first time I got angry with you. You had been cheating on me with Liz, and had invited her over while I was still at your house. You begged me to stay and meet her, and in my self-hating fog I finally agreed. She was pretty, but boring, her brown hair pulled into childish pigtails. I stood silently as she flirted with you, ruffled your hair and did all the things people do when they’re trying to signal their admiration and lust. We ate pizza and watched TV together, crammed onto your couch with you between us. She was thinner than me and I took this as a sign that if I didn’t lose weight, you would leave me.
We argued after she left. You admitted you’d had fantasies of two women at once and somehow you thought it would happen if you just introduced us to each other. How juvenile. Weeks later you would tell me she had given you head in the same bed we slept in and refused to tell me if it was before or after I had met her. I didn’t pursue my line of questioning, instead I folded within myself like a flower when the sun goes out. I wouldn’t allow myself to stay angry with you so I turn all my indignant rage inward and began joining you in tearing myself down. I stopped eating until I could see my ribs. I wanted to be perfect so you would love me.
To this day I wonder why I cared so much.
The issue with perfection is that other people start to notice the changes. Your paranoia escalated and I had to tell you where I was at all times. In spite of every protestation, you remained convinced that I was sleeping with other people. I worked fifty hours a week and lived with you, spending three hours in transit each way, and gave every effort to convince you I simply didn’t have time to pursue other men and your suspicions were unfounded. It did me little good, and you began to drink your doubt away with your dealer at a bar no sane woman would ever enter. Shortly after, you hit me for the first time.
STEP FOUR: FLAME.
Our life together had been shambles from the moment we met, two misguided people exhibiting different signs of self-hate. You turned your rage outward and I held mine in, making us the perfect recipe for disaster. I refused to give up on you because the media I consumed told me never to give up on difficult men, that they’re somehow special and worth waiting for. I thought it made me a better person to remain by your side, even as the people I loved walked away from me because of who I became when I was with you.
The attack came from nowhere. One minute, I was sitting on the couch and you were lying on the bed and the next, you were yelling at me, pinning me down and punching the glasses off my face. It was the only time in my life I ever fought back, and I lost. Inside the chaos and pain, there was such calm that for a moment I accepted my fate. I sent mental goodbyes to my family and looked forward to seeing my father’s face on the other side. The bridge was burning all around me and there was nothing to do but wait for the flames to die down. With nowhere to run, I curled in a ball and waited for you to finish. My spirit broke but didn’t shatter and I did what was necessary to survive.
I still went to work the next day, the only evidence of your outburst a small bruise along my cheek. When I went back to my apartment, I spent a half hour staring at the wilted wallflower I had become and felt myself snap back to reality. I watched my own face crumble and I cried for the person I had been, so full of life and hope. As the tears subsided, I saw the fire that had once burned deep inside me reignite and I was finally ready to do what had to be done.
My phone rang fifty times the night I left you. I had over a hundred emails too. “Please come back,” they said. “I messed up and am unworthy of you.” I stood outside a downtown Toronto Starbucks in the freezing air explaining that I no longer loved you, I couldn’t live with you and I wouldn’t be back. My throat hurt from crying, from feeling sorry for you and my sister stood by my side to help me refuse you. She had watched the person she’d grown up with change into someone she didn’t recognize and that night we talked for hours. The emotional abuse had twisted me into someone completely different, someone sad and needy, and I didn’t want to be that anymore.
Rebuilding yourself after years of that takes more work than is advertised. I would sit in my sister’s apartment, unsure of what to do when no one needed me to be everything at once. I didn’t know how to move when there were no eggshells that needed walking on. I would look at the walls of the home she had built for herself and thank her guardian angels for leading her out of the woods and toward a safe place. Dark bridges are everywhere and it’s easy to find yourself standing in the middle of one, but they must be burned. Some of us are lost in the fire, but more of us are forged. We burn like metal, red-hot and molten, and once we’re out of the flame we can be made into swords that will last centuries and cut down anyone who threatens our independence.
When the dust settled, I would wake up each morning in the comfort of my sister’s living room and step out onto the balcony to breathe in the winter air. The sting of cold against my skin was never uncomfortable, instead it reminded me that I was alive and had survived. She would come outside with a cigarette and a cup of coffee for me and we’d stand out there together in silence until we stared to shiver. One day, as fat snowflakes drifted down to cover our hair in white, she turned to me, exhaled an impressive puff of smoke, and said, “Jenny… I’m proud of you.”
It took every ounce of willpower not to cry as I replied, “So am I.”