I remember my body as it was then, warm and soft and long with a too-round middle that I’m always staring at in the mirror with a critical eye.
I feel my body tense sharply at the sound of a man’s voice telling me in the darkness of his bedroom and in the tangle of his dark blue sheets while his hand drapes casually across my too round middle that even though he really likes me and thinks I’m so sweet, monogamy isn’t really his thing and he’s actually seeing someone else in the dark when I’m not around.
I’ll feel my eyes squeeze closed, and I’ll try to reclaim the memory of how sexy and whole and wanted I felt just moments before he spoke those words, when we were lying together post coital and I believed that I was special. If I can just get him to remember that too, I reasoned then, maybe he won’t leave.
8 months later I find myself standing naked in his bathroom with my arms wrapped around my ribcage just above my too round middle after we had already said I love you and made it Facebook official and took silly photo booth pictures and after he had promised he’d magically become the monogamous man I needed him to be.
I’m crying so hard my sobs become those silent hiccup spasms, and soon the only sound I hear is my soul gasping for air inside my body.
He knocks softly at the door.
“Jackie. Please. I’m sorry,” he begs on the other side. “Please, let me in.”
I did let you in, I think. I let you in and you saw my insides and you left anyway.
The space between my hurt and what caused it closes as he opens the door and steps toward me. I let him hold me and I don’t remove my arms from my body so that we are both hugging me, and even locked in an embrace with two sets of arms I still feel alone.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m so sorry,” he says. It occurs to me that this is the same thing the woman he’d been planning to go on a date with behind my back had said when I’d called her and told her who I was after discovering their flirty texting conversation on his phone a few hours before.
It also occurs to me that out of everyone in that tiny bathroom, no one is more sorry than me.
It is then that I remember my body as a child, also warm and soft and long.
I never gave my middle a second glance back then. I recall my child body when it was hot with fever, or itchy with a rash, or stuffy with a cold, or just exhausted from a long day of playing at the beach or another one of my screaming temper tantrums.
“Get in the shower,” my mother would insist at any of these times. “You’ll feel better, I promise.”
In this tiny bathroom in New York City, being held against this unfaithful man’s hairy chest, I am 2500 miles away from my mother when I need her the most.
I am, however, standing one foot away from a shower, and even though I cannot conjure up a memory of the shower cure ever working, suddenly the only thing I want to do to remedy my pain is follow her advice.
I find my voice between sobs and tell him to let me go.
“Baby, I don’t want to let you go,” he replies sweetly.
“I mean LET ME GO NOW I need to get in the shower RIGHT NOW.”
My tone is not sweet. I am released immediately.
I step into the water and it hits my chest and I am torn wide open. I cry and cry and stick my head under the stream so that my tears mix with the shower water and good, now I won’t have to feel them streaming down my face. And it is water and tears and my chest wide open and my unrelenting sobs that bring me back.
And my body reminds me that this is a recognizable anguish, that we have been here before.
There was the bathroom in California two years earlier, in the house I shared with the woman I was engaged to. The same bathroom where I fell to the floor on the day she finally moved out and I came home to find her side of the closet completely empty. As I landed on the grey memory foam bathmat in the most cliché fetal position ever featured in any break up movie scene ever made, I felt my arms wrap around my body then, too, so I wouldn’t crumble to pieces right there next to the toilet and that weird ass water stain shaped like the state of Kentucky on the bottom of the shower door that we used to joke about.
I had done it, I had made her leave me and the reality of being left felt worse than the anxiety I’d had about it happening during our entire 3 year relationship.
We wouldn’t laugh about the Kentucky stain anymore, I wasn’t going to be a wife anymore, or a mother to our children or any of it now, and the pain of this abandonment made my heart explode and I wrapped my arms tighter and tighter so I wouldn’t disappear along with these things.
Before that there was the long walk through my foggy beach town when I was 18, after the man who had just raped me refused to give me a ride home when he was done.
“I’m tired now,” he flippantly responded when I asked him to drive me home. He tossed 2 crumpled five-dollar bills in my direction.
“Here’s ten bucks. Take a cab.”
I had initially been terrified as he violently sodomized me over the back of his couch in his dingy apartment, but immediately afterwards I remember a part of me hoping he still liked me and thought I was as pretty as he had said I was to get me in his house.
It was his dismissal of me that was the reason for my tears as I walked step by painfully slow step back to the room in my mother’s house, the room I never should have snuck out of to go see someone like him in the first place.
I sobbed hard that night too, sitting on the shower floor, holding myself together under the scalding hot water. I cried not only for the atrocious act he had committed, but also because I realized he hadn’t really wanted me at all. I couldn’t tell at the time which one hurt the most, but I knew which one felt most familiar.
My mother has told me the story of how my father left her for another woman so many times, I feel like I was actually present for it. I was there, but initially I was still inside of her, with another month or so of growing to do in her womb before I met the world.
I’ve heard her tell the tale of how she gave him a second chance and let him come back home, because he said he loved her even after she discovered he had fallen in love with someone else. And I can perfectly recite the part of the story where my father came in the kitchen while my mother held me on the outside of her body 4 months later, and told her he was sorry, so sorry, but he just didn’t love her anymore and he had to leave.
She’s never told me what happened right after that. Did she cry? Hold herself? Fall to the floor? Did my mother get in the shower and break wide open with grief and try to water down her tears?
I never asked. I only committed the story to memory until it was as familiar to me as being alive. Maybe the unknown ending of my mother’s tale has caused me to fill in the blanks with my own version of the truth:
NOW FEAR THIS!
People who say they love you will leave you.
For years I have been carefully selecting relationships or situations that fit this description. The emotionally unavailable woman, or the known danger, or the man who drinks too much and is so sweet and fun who replaces me with another woman and I chase him and love him anyway, right up until the moment when my heart breaks.
Back in the New York City shower, I realize that story may not have ever been mine, and that it may not even be the truth.
Time and time again I have chosen the story I knew would end in loss, and tried to change that ending. To prove it wrong so I could give my mother the happy ending she never had. Or maybe I did this so at the end, I could experience the burden of pain for her in a way I never saw her do.
I’ve been falling to the floor and sobbing for her, and holding us together in my arms.
My body allows me to begin assessing the damage as I stop crying and start washing my hair because fuck it, when everything hurts, wash your hair.
Am I breathing? Yes. Am I still warm and soft and strength and beauty? Yes. Can I still give love? Yes.
I let the water rinse me clean and step out to grab a towel.
I feel like there might be a different story. A better, truer story, one in which I am not afraid, not insecure, not abandoned. A story with an ending I don’t have to try to change.
I just have to choose it for myself.