Three and a half years after the first night I invited him in, telling myself I would sleep with him only once, just for fun, I am well versed in my compulsion. I’ve managed to stay away for months this time. I feel healthier, more stable. I have a routine, I am reading books about mythology and it’s transformative powers on the psyche, pulling daily tarot cards and journaling about their possible meanings, living my life by the cycles of the moon, exercising and wearing jewelry made out of healing crystals. I am bowing my head before candles in glass jars labeled with affirmations like STRENGTH and REBIRTH every morning and filling my apartment with the scent of frankincense to combat depression. My mantra: Whatever it takes. I have been seeing a therapist in Beverly Hills twice a month who looks at me like she remembers what this felt like. I have been reading all of the articles online about toxic people, narcissists, and emotional vampires. I have dubbed myself an empath, a caretaker, a nurturer and feeler of feelings, even though deep down I know I’m just a regular person battling a powerful addiction to someone else’s body. I remember everything about it in excruciating detail. I feel the muscles in his legs in my hands like phantoms. I recreate the bones in his face with my finger tips. When I touch myself he materializes out of the shadowy archives and I spend ten minutes weeping after every orgasm. My whole body is a trigger and there’s no way I can attend to it without conjuring him but I keep trying, hoping that each effort is a step towards clearing the smoke of him out. I have vowed to turn my attentions inward and develop a routine of ferocious self care. Somehow none of this gives me the fortitude to resist him, though. He sets his sights on me after months of submission, plies me with the usual passionate pleas, and I unlock the front door and kneel naked in my bed like a sacrifice. What’s one more time? Being wanted suddenly becomes the only thing I can remember needing, more than water, more than air. I hold my breath and wait. He comes for me like a tidal wave and all of the fragile groundwork I’ve been carefully assembling washes right out to sea. Oh well.
He leaves just as quickly, everything deliciously askew in his wake. I’m familiar with the feeling. First I am glowing, sanguine in my tumbled nest of bed sheets, breathing in the hanging remnants of his presence. I know the crash is coming and I savor the last wisps of the rush. This time is different, though. I’m pretending it isn’t but this time I know we’ve been unforgivably careless. After a few hours I sit down on the couch and face off with a little cardboard box containing two circular pills sealed behind protective squares of foil. Plan B, presumably for when plan A fails or, as in our case, is abandoned. I think back to the moment. Did he do it on purpose? Did I let him? Why now, after we have completely given up the fight for togetherness, when we are on the edge of each other’s horizons, further away from each other than we’ve ever been and better for it would we risk such a permanent attachment? I can come up with no answer but primal instinct. The fuzzy world of fantasy and endorphins starts to fade and I realize I am sweating in the afternoon sun. It shines directly through the window into the living room, an accusatory finger spotlighting me on the red velvet couch. My cat blinks dispassionately from the rug. I run my finger over the smooth foil, break it with my fingernail and set the pill in the middle of the coffee table, a tiny alter of No. I am not breathing anymore. The center of my body turns into a stone tower and I weigh one thousand pounds. Inside the tower is a stone spiral staircase and a voice made of 10,000 year old silk and ancient wind swirls from the bottom all the way to the top where it whispers in my ear with powerful, silent truth, “You don’t want to take that.”
John was never for me and I should have known it sooner. He was boyish and self centered from the start, gifted with a talent for criticism that kept me trying to prove something to him. The first time he kissed me he caught me off guard as I was waiting for him to unlock the door to his house, his friends moments away from walking up the path behind us. I stiffened, surprised and I suppose disappointed, having hoped this moment would be different. He pulled away from me with a look of bemused judgement and said, as if discovering something interesting, “You’re timid.” My eyes flashed defensive and I leaned back in to prove him wrong. The first time I invited him into my apartment I already knew he wasn't what I was looking for. He drank too much, got by on evasive charm, only leveled me with his gaze when I was just out of reach. He seemed confused, a rambunctious boy masquerading as a man with a mischievous glint in his eye and a chest full of bravado. I felt automatically fond of him, softened by his underlying sweetness, amused by his antics. I wanted someone to dance with, to stay up all night with laughing, to sleep in and make afternoon eggs with. I invited him in, thinking I would just as easily show him out when my deeper needs became important. What happened instead was some kind of chemical bonding that years later I still don’t understand and have not been able to undo. I felt transformed with him. I felt fluid. Our bodies matched together so perfectly that communication wasn’t necessary. No thought, no compromise, no negotiating. It was equal parts challenge and surrender. We were both effortlessly generous. No resistance existed anywhere in my body, every cell and nerve ending agreed with him. After it was over I wanted to do it again right away. I wanted him always, from that moment until the one I am sitting in now. I looked at him then and thought, “I don’t need anyone else ever again.” I knew I would do anything in my power to build a relationship with him and soak in that chemistry forever and I was thrilled to feel so charged. He didn’t feel the same call to action. Instead of a beautiful union forming between us it became a game of manipulation. We kept things casual for a while. I pretended I could handle that and he pushed me to my limits. He flirted with other women in my presence, left group social gatherings to go out on other dates, stood to the side when other men pursued me and watched me squirm and then texted me at 2am to see if I wanted to come over. Most of the time, I did. I would swear off him and try to focus on someone else, anything else. He would sneak back in with a new approach. Let me take you to dinner. I appreciate you. You’re wonderful. Then he would back away. Then lean back in. Then back away. At one point when we were technically exclusive but he was deeply unsure of his willingness to commit, I slept with someone else. Someone who I knew I couldn’t love but who looked deep into my eyes, held my face in his hands and told me how important I was. I collapsed with need into the arms of this man and then rushed, weeping, back to John, begging him to please forgive me and please love me that way. I still didn’t want anyone else and was bewildered by how much it hurt to even try. Our relationship forged itself in that moment with dark, painful iron. Fueled by the righteousness of his wounded ego, he held my transgression over my head like a guillotine and used it as a new excuse to remain emotionally distant, subjecting me to fits of rage and humiliation. At first I was ashamed enough to think I deserved it and committed myself to earning his trust and forgiveness. When the punishing behavior went on too long and got worse over time, I started to think he was disordered, that he was taking out a deeper pain on me and that he needed my love and support to get better. I hung in there against all rational judgement, hoping there was happiness waiting on the other side of this treacherous passage. After two years it became clear that there was no other side, it was all just a big circle. There were days when we giggled through afternoon naps while iced coffees melted down on our bedside tables and days when his eyes were frightened and obsidian and his voice upended me like a sheath of black ice, unexpected and deadly. There was nothing I could do to control any of it but I clung desperately to my hope. Eventually it became clear that he was not willing to take on the task of healing himself, he was an endless resource of abuse followed by excuses and bitter justifications. Whatever patient care I had to bathe him in when we began had been thoroughly drained out of me and I was anxious and exhausted. It took over a year and a volume of excruciating dramas but I finally got out. So now, after all of the work I’ve done to give up on him and save myself I have gone and given in to that stubborn feeling one more time. The temporary fix. The weightlessness of the love we never had that I can only feel when our bodies are merged together, when my mouth is open and drinking in all of the sweetness he spared me.
I am in a predicament. The pill sits on the table, a dot of compacted powder ambivalent to my struggle. I feel myself split in two in a very precise and impressive way. There is a goddess in the stone tower. She inhabits the entire space, she is formless, immovable, wry and bellowing. She demands to be realized. I love her. The other half is the part of me I know. She is panicked as she gathers years of recorded evidence proving that this is a terrible idea. She is not a goddess but rather a neurotic accountant. “There is not enough!” she says breathlessly, dropping her papers, her brow furrowed and her pulse quickening. She’s right. I’m alone in a one bedroom apartment full of unopened envelopes that might be bills and the unwashed coffee mug of a man who turns endlessly away from me. I don’t work for anyone. I don’t belong anywhere. There is not enough of anything. But there is something so wonderfully intoxicating about the goddess and I find myself listening to her with great interest. She is terrifyingly sure. Her voice comes now like a whispery hiss of smoke under the doors. “Yes. You can.” It springs tears into my eyes to believe in myself this much.
There are two pills, to be taken 12 hours apart. The expiration date on the package is from three years ago. Get thee to a CVS, I tell myself repeatedly, but I am leaden with doubt, paralyzed, unable to pull the trigger on my fate. I decide to take my chances with vintage contraception. I take the first one only, then let an entire day go by before taking the second. No one is happy. My accountant looks at me like I have just bet my inheritance on an old horse and the goddess glares, her gaze as deadly still as the past, her robes a desert sandstorm around her. I try to go about my usual activities but I am just a vessel of silent alarms. The stone tower tiles itself around my neck and I find I can’t breathe freely. The air can only pass through the cracks between the stones. I am allowed exactly as much oxygen as I need and no more. The goddess has shackled me while we all await our collective judgement.
I do all the things I shouldn’t do. I look at his instagram. I watch a video of him cutting the hair of a female friend, a whimsical, hippie, go go dancer/artist he has recently slept with. His dog runs by in the background. People laugh. I make myself nauseous imagining them together. I feel lonely enough to turn into dust but the universe is not that merciful. There is not enough melatonin in the world to make me sleep. My jaw clenches so tight that I worry I will pulverize my teeth. I daydream about xanax even though I have never taken one. I use all the nervous energy in my frail little body to move all of the furniture in my bedroom and then sit, stricken, in my newly oriented, empty bed recalling all of the excruciating abandonments and humiliations I have suffered at the hands of this particular man. The night he left me crumpled and crying on a dirty Herald Square sidewalk to go back to his drink. The night I locked myself out of my apartment after we had an embarrassing public fight and I walked the two miles to his house, curled up in the front seat of his unlocked car and waited for him to answer my stream of text messages begging him to please give me my spare key. The night before I had surgery when he spent a fidgety twenty minutes with me in the hospital before leaving to go to a party. I spare myself no details. I grieve them all again. Still the goddess won’t back down. She doesn’t care about him, instead her steadfast loyalty is to the cluster of cells considering themselves inside of me. She stands over me with a powerful hand shielding the unborn from the chaos I am creating with my mind. I am forced to reckon with the mother in me.
In Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book, Goddesses in Everywoman, she gives detailed analysis of the seven major goddesses in Greek mythology and describes the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of the women she has encountered in her Jungian psychology practice who embody these goddesses as archetypes. The book is split into three sections. First are the virgin goddesses, Athena, Artemis and Hestia, who are impenetrable both literally and metaphorically. They are the women who are driven toward success, achievement or inner self knowledge and are unmoved by sexual or emotional desire. They are not raped, victimized or seduced by men. They are entirely self sustaining and can be cold, unforgiving and competitive. The next section details the vulnerable goddesses, Hera, Demeter and Persephone; the wife, the mother and the daughter. All are victims of rape, betrayal or abandonment. They are deeply emotional and value their relationships with men very highly, although they are often dragged through unspeakable traumas by those men they love. Aphrodite is the final chapter. She maintains a category all her own since she is both self sustaining and an open vessel of love, desire and creativity. She is fully in her body, penetrable and affected by all things pleasurable but doesn’t martyr herself to such relationships. Everything she does feels good to her and she does only as she pleases. She is the epitome of femininity and strength and she knows it. Most women embody several of these goddesses and can actively cultivate the others when motivated to do so. They are all aspects of the female psyche, which explains why they were created and crafted into the spiritual lives of the greeks in the first place. They allow us to use character and story, things we all inherently understand and use as a communication device, to guide us through difficulties, transformations and decision making in our lives.
Demeter was mother to an only daughter, Persephone, who was one day stolen from a meadow and swept down into the underworld to be the child bride of Hades. Her grief was one for the ages. She appealed endlessly to Zeus, the father of Persephone, to order her return. It took Zeus eons to get around to answering her bellowing call. He was busy with other things and he had been the one to casually award his daughter to the god of the underworld in the first place. During this time Demeter holed herself up in one of her temples among the mortals and slipped into a depression that threatened to end mankind. Being the goddess of the harvest, her grief laid bare the fields, leaving nothing to reap, nothing to sow, nothing to eat, nothing to grow. It wasn’t until the famine threatened to wipe out the population of Earth that Zeus finally turned toward Demeter and heeded her wishes, ordering Hades to return his bride to her mother. The slick jerk offered the young goddess a few pomegranate seeds for the road, and in an impulsive moment of rebellion Persephone ate them, binding her to the underworld for part of every year for the rest of eternity. She eventually evolved into a strong and empathetic queen while her mother mourned her year after year, striking barren winter unto the fields for the season of her absence.
I wonder if the goddess breathing steel into my spine is my inner Demeter, demanding to be allowed to fulfill her maternal role. Because she so obviously lives in me, maybe I will never be quite fulfilled as long as my arms are empty and this aspect of my psyche sits idle. It’s a depressing thought to have at the end of a very difficult and draining relationship, at the beginning of my thirties, feeling broken and confused and bereft. My arms have never felt as empty as they do now. I have spent years wrapping them around a vapor. To end up pregnant by that vapor calls to mind more Greek mythology. Zeus would turn himself into anything to gain intimate access to a woman he found desirable. Trees, bulls, rain or rivers. Then he would turn right back into himself, horrifying his conquest and leaving her swollen with his immortal offspring. John has done just that to me, pried me open with seductive illusion and left me stranded with my dilemma and it’s accompanying wild dread. I think in circles about fate and how I am so tired of being penetrable. How might the path of my life divert from here? In one version I am derailed. I give up my creative pursuits, put aside any impractical dreams for my future, am robbed of my freedom and self discovery in favor of a joyless survival driven life. In another version a romantic fantasy comes true. John makes an unexpected and valiant transformation, stands by my side, we come together as the team I once earnestly believed we could be. In a third version I am my own hero. My child gives me the strength and fortitude to do anything I want. I cut ties with this unworthy man for good, step into all of my hidden power, and become the calm, discerning, steadfast woman I dream of being. I start to fall in love with this idea. I start to think that maybe having a baby is they only thing that will push me to expand into my potential. I only believe that in 15 second increments before terror reclaims me. The lanterns are burning bright in the tower of the goddess. The rest of me trembles.
I am exhausted from lack of sleep and unprecedented anxiety. For days my thoughts are spinning around and around, playing out one nightmare scenario after another and simultaneously willing them into existence. I push it all down and masquerade as “fine” in front of my friends. I can’t tell them what I’ve done, it’s too breathtakingly stupid. Instead of confiding in anyone I decide to recklessly redecorate my bedroom. I am up late, violently running a paint roller over the robin’s egg blue that used to make me feel like I was waking up at the bottom of a swimming pool and occasionally sitting down on the drop cloth to cry bitter tears. I make everything blindingly white. I erase the past. White flecks dot my swollen face and hair and I think of the ending of The Giver, when the young boy shares a memory of sledding down a hill, snow swirling around them, to calm the child he is carrying to freedom. I push a shopping cart through Ikea, my knuckles white, my eyes darting wildly around, looking for solutions in light fixtures and throw pillows. My feelings are extreme and contradictory. I burn with shame and hope in equal measure. I touch my flat stomach with protectiveness, my chest compressing in a painful effort to stop my heart from growing with willful pride. I am heartsick for the future I cannot allow myself.
My body becomes a source of fear and wonder during this time. I spend hours marveling over it, studying it, exploring it’s shape and function. The sudden prospect that it could no longer belong to me alone inspires me to clarify the thing I may be losing. I spend hours after I get out of the shower swaying naked through the rooms of the apartment. My identity beyond my bare body in these small rooms is impossible to decipher so I hover there leaning on the window sills, examining myself in the mirror, resting my hands on all the places that may be on the precipice of transformation. How am I still so unfamiliar with exactly who I am? If there is another person to come out of me, what will I tell her about myself? It suddenly feels like I have wasted my entire life procrastinating, thinking I had time to figure out the meaning of myself, this particular collection of skin and bone, memories and fears. Suddenly the clock has run out and I am devoid of the sturdy self mastery all children imagine their parents to have. I look into my own eyes for answers with the desperation of a student cramming the night before a test. The thought occurs to me that my identity may be about to be born. The stone tower that has risen is my new backbone, the swift confidence of the goddess my new mind.
An invitation comes from friends to spend a night in Palm Springs. The effort and the drive and the burden of socializing seems daunting but I accept anyways, hoping that perhaps a change of scenery and the unspoken supportive energy of my friends might offer some relief. These friends are a couple, who spend half their time in Norway for work and the other half holed up in a rented condo in the desert in order to work on a screenplay free of the distractions of the city. On the weekends they are restless and insist on being visited there, always wanting to be the hosts, acting as a sort of center of gravity for their social circle even while in chosen seclusion. I enjoy visiting with them, enjoy my individual relationships with each of them and the easy warmth of being welcomed into the protective bubble of their relationship. It’s something like visiting my parents but without the weight of history and secret resentment. I can be myself, relax, tell the truth and be listened to with thoughtful attention. Even though I know I will be supported I am still too ashamed to divulge the crisis I am suffering and instead explain my cagey energy by saying that I am feeling some vague existential anxiety. We talk casually about me relocating to Scandinavia with them over irish coffees and then go out to drink and sing karaoke. I clock the habits of their intimacy throughout the night with a wince of recognition. The shared looks and stolen kisses, the reassuring gesture of a guiding hand on the back, the softened look when one is watching the other, the gentle pride in their voices when they describe each other’s qualities. It’s one of those moments when the truth of my situation rings out, sudden and achingly clear like a chill air across the flat desert night: He Doesn’t Love You, says the wind, wrapping it’s icy fingers around my shoulder. He Never Did. The starkness of that unchangeable certainty makes me small and foolish. The inner fortitude of mystical motherhood is eclipsed by mournful longing and I feel the full shadow side of my hope.
Standing in a Palm Springs karaoke bar, watching my friends quietly adore each other, I have to admit that the moment it happened, the moment John made the “mistake” of finishing inside me, I felt a pure ecstasy. Not just because if felt good to fulfill the purpose of our bodies, to allow the cycle of pleasure and mutual creation play out uninterrupted, but actually the true searing joy came from the feeling of being chosen. Never, since the day we met, had I ever felt chosen by him. I was always temporary, always some version of a conquest, some attainable, unearned prize. He kept my devotion on a shelf to remind him of his own power, to sooth his deeply felt inadequacies, but he never intended to offer me anything comparable in return. But then, in a moment of heightened passion, he did this thing that was clear, irreversible, territorial. He chose me. It was irresponsible and careless, but I didn’t try to stop him, no. I reveled in the momentary illusion of true intimacy. I felt like crying with relief, with gratitude, with simple bliss. I felt claimed. I am suddenly so ashamed of myself and my obvious desperation but I ache to feel it again too. What a wonderful, humiliating glimpse it was into what it would feel like to be loved.
A week later I am having an afternoon cocktail at a hotel in Ojai with my parents and I get my period. We’re sitting at table outside, on the edge of a lush golf course and barely talking to each other. It’s the end of a five day visit and we are weary. My mother is mildly dissatisfied with her surroundings and my father is practicing his expert skill of ignoring such details and admiring the golfers. There is a family nearby with a beautiful baby, head full of blonde ringlets and a face like cherubic moonbeam. She toddles and giggles and nuzzles into the neck of her father. She is pure joy and sweetness. I feel a catastrophic loneliness and inexplicably that I have let down my parents, unbeknownst to them. I am on my own again after all and somehow I am no longer enough. I text John to let him know he is characteristically free of consequence. He doesn’t say much but we both express a delicate disappointment. There is no way we can choose a happy life together but we both felt a dim hope that we could be forced into one by circumstance. Deep down I know better. I know that I would have been alone in this, subjected to his awe inspiring power to destroy me on top of the heavy responsibility of single motherhood. This situation has been a lesson from a goddess of a different persuasion, Aphrodite herself firing a flesh wounding warning shot urging me to change my relationship to love, to stop walking into the fires of my destruction hoping for a warm embrace. I try to take this all in stride, to let this sharp slap on the wrist guide me back onto my path of personal growth and healing, but truthfully I am struck with the heavy and specific sorrow of abandonment. The maternal goddess had been so powerful and undeniable, she tempted me with such beautiful purpose, but somewhere during our journey together she deemed me unworthy and left me behind.
Another week later I am in a decaying historical hotel in Milwaukee. I am working long days on the set of a low budget feature film, a romantic comedy about an adult man who is afraid of vulnerability and commitment and the relationship he sabotages with charming efficiency only to make a grand gesture in the nick of time, absolving him of responsibility for the pain he has caused his lover. I find myself looking at the writer/director with disdain for perpetuating the acceptability of this particular brand of masculinity. We develop an awkward working relationship that consists of my sharp objections and him constantly avoiding my gaze. My hotel is outdated, mysterious and grim, and I am having a contest with the ghosts over who can wail over the ironclad past more shrilly. As far as I know I am winning. On the second day of my stay someone at the oft empty front desk calls my room and asks, “Who are you?” Someone has simply mismanaged the records but I am both startled and pleased that perhaps I have found a place where I don’t exist. My dingy suite has become a container for the beast of my destructive desire. The sheer distance and isolation in this unfamiliar city has made it the perfect rehab facility for me to purge myself of my addiction to this weak and slippery love. I have been through this before and I know the courses. My body bucks with fierce wanting, my mind reels with aching sadness and indignation but I am determined to survive this period of withdrawal and shake him from my hungry cells. My blood itself turns to coursing red fury. The anger is a forest fire and I am my own arsonist but I place blame elsewhere for relief. I indulge in hating the hippie artist girl and her whimsical hair cut. I write her a letter I will never send, tears burning my cheeks and heart beating fast, telling her how her documentation of the carefree friendship she has with John seems to boast, cheerful as a child, “Watch how he doesn’t run from me!” and cuts me deep in the tenderest of places. I realize there are a lot of people I need to unfollow on Instagram and sever all the virtual ties I need to. Most nights I come home, pour myself a glass of wine and try to soak myself calm in a bath of lavender before a night of dreams where John abandons me again and again and I wake up blanketed in sweat and a seething, bewildered rage. In one dream I am in his bedroom, wondering if a necklace on his dresser is something I left behind until I realize that the hippie artist girl is sleeping in his bed, her clothes are tangled up with his in piles on the floor and he stands defensively beside her, waiting for me to leave them to each other. I wake myself up crying in the middle of the night. I reread all of his cavalier responses to my suffering and drain four new pens describing the ache of these injustices. The awareness of my empty vessel of a body still gives me a feeling of hollowed out loss. I open my arms to all these feelings hoping that, like John, if I surrender to these tyrants, they will lose interest in me and leave.
One night I receive a call from my friends, the couple I spent the weekend with in the desert. I am surprised to learn that they are pregnant. The message is delivered with grounded nonchalance, which is not to say they are unaffected by their situation. They have simply had a rational discussion and agreed that a child would not fit into the limitations of their ever changing living arrangements and therefore must be put off into the indefinite future. How good to know that we are able, is the general feeling they are having. The abortion is scheduled for the weekend, right before they depart from the desert for a trip back to Europe. The openness and ease with which they share this information shows me what relationships are built on, trust and a connection through shared experiences. My own secretiveness feels suddenly naive and dramatic. What unnecessary power I gave to my panic by keeping it all to myself. My automatic desire to be there for my friends shows me what I could have had in return in a moment of such precarious need. The coincidence of these events is not lost on me and I think back to the weekend I spent in Palm Springs, holding my breath and praying to opposite gods. Is that when the goddess left me?
Inexplicably, I am sure the reason no magic took shape inside me has everything to do with some mystical judgement call and nothing to do with the contraceptives I ingested. I can’t forget the sublime sturdiness the goddess added to my bones or shake the feeling that I have been denied an honor. Either the goddess herself switched allegiances or perhaps the spirit of the child. Wiser than us all in its current form, perhaps it surveyed the available vehicles and made a leap, understandably predicting a better life with two loving people than with me and my criminally negligent counterpart. The irony is that we were all left empty handed. Tragic as it feels, I know this is a turning point. I must painfully admit that my own emotional health and safety has not been important enough to me. I have sacrificed it for momentary pleasure again and again. I've perpetually put my full recovery off until later. It has been somehow acceptable to me to maintain an attachment to an abuser. It wasn't until the possibility of this child dropped into my body that I finally felt like I was someone worth protecting. It wasn't until I had a clear look at what father I was giving to my child that my throat finally went dry with true horror. Of course my baby jumped from the deck of me. A storm tossed ship is no cradle. In truth, the goddess hasn't left me, but rather buried herself in her lonely quarters to grieve. I vow to give her what she wants. I vow to evict this disqualifying man so thoroughly that his name becomes nothing but a faded banner in the crypt of me. I'm solemn and immutable in a way I've not been capable of in these last few years of chaos.
Even so, I find myself whispering into the drab duvet at the haunted hotel, “I would have kept you.”
Even so, I find myself whispering into the drab duvet at the haunted hotel, “I would have kept you.”
|All photos are self portraits|
The full series is posted on Instagram @missevesavage