The axe forgets; the tree remembers

No one wants to be a victim. It’s embarrassing. So, when the person you live with screams that you’re a whore; when she breaks into your e-mail or follows you in her car or destroys your things, you tell yourself: She doesn’t mean it; she’s just really stressed out right now and I deserve this and Once she gets her meds adjusted, these things won’t happen anymore.

There’s been an inexorable pattern to her moods since you moved in together: Restless anxiety boils into irritability, which fuels a blowup. She can custom-hurt you, like a drapery rod made to spec, because she knows your insecurities and fears.  I don’t really mean those things, she explained once. But I get hurt or mad, and it’s like I want to inject poison into your mind.

stupid selfabsorbed fuckingmusclesandyoucantliftanything myfriendshateyou nobodywillstaywithyou nowonderyougetleft liar slut youknowyoureonlypretendingtobeanenglishteacher youllfailataverythingyoutry loser you shouldkillyourself ifyoueverhaveachildtheyllkillthemselves

And it works. She speaks everything you fear is true about yourself. You can’t stop listening; can’t leave the room, because if it’s true you deserve to have it poured into your ears like ink.

One night, she gets very drunk and starts to cycle through the pattern. You want to de-escalate, and you’ve read something enlightening recently, so you calmly say that it’s bedtime and you can talk about things tomorrow. This tactic is effective on the kind of inward-directed, ice-cold alcoholism you grew up with, but in the next few minutes, you’re going to learn about a different kind.

You go to your bedroom and lock the door. She sends you text messages: Please kill yourself. You know you want to. Are you dead yet? 🙂

You don’t answer. You think: She’s drunk; she doesn’t mean what she’s saying. She paces in and out of the kitchen; the living room; the back yard, doors opening and closing a little bit harder each time. Leonard Cohen blasts from her office in the garage.

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

More texts. You turn your phone off and think: She won’t remember this tomorrow; like last week when she got into her car so drunk that the next day she couldn’t say which liquor store she’d driven to. You hope she’ll just leave. You go into the bathroom and turn on the water.

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

As you’re washing your face, she comes in through the locked back door, smashing things and screaming that you are a whore; that you shoud die fucking die why aren’t you dead yet.

She hurls things into your bedroom window, trying to shatter it.

You run into the closet with your phone, but realize you cannot lock the door. She can get in if she wants to. She can get in and maybe she will be holding a hammer; a knife. You cuddle your old tabby cat as he pants with fear; confused by her crashing and your weeping, and you think, I have no control over what happens next.

You don’t want to call the police. You’re embarassed; plus you’re both public school teachers who can’t afford trouble, so you try and snap her out of it by saying (through the door) that if she doesn’t stop, you’re calling 911.

She stands outside the closet door and taunts you: Awwwww, are you scared, you fucking baby? Are you calling your mommy and daddy? Are you gonna put it on your pseudo-feminist-intellectual blog, whore? Too bad you’re a shitty writer.

(One of the things you loved about her was that she could call up phrases like “pseudo-intellectual-feminist” while drunk out of her mind. Alcohol made her sharp, cold, clear. And you think, Yes, she’s right. Sometimes I am a shitty writer, and I didn’t get into any Women’s Studies programs).

You tell her that the cops are on their way, so she needs to leave. That’s all you want — for her to leave before she breaks anything else or hurts one of you by accident.

She’s taking off down the street when the cops pull up.

Where’s he going? they ask, shining their flashlights on her. Come back here, sir.

Ma’am, you say.

They sit you down on the curb and interview you. At first, she refuses to give them her ID but they make it clear she doesn’t have a choice.

I didn’t hit her, she tells them.

No, you say, but you can’t break my stuff. You can’t. It’s against the law. It’s a THING.

Later, the police report will declare that the two of you are in a “Homosexual Relationship” and you will simultaneously love the retro-ness of the phrasing and want to correct them — you broke up awhile ago, but you both liked the house and it’s expensive to move so you thought you’d be roommates for awhile.

You tell the officers that you don’t want her arrested; that she isn’t usually like this except when she’s been drinking and she’s been drinking a lot because you broke her heart and also her mother died over the summer. You ask them to please just make her stop breaking things and sleep elsewhere for the night.

They look at you pityingly. On a domestic violence call, ma’am, we need to make an arrest, they say. We need to make sure you’re safe.

Please, no, you say. She’s just having such a hard time right now. This is just as much my fault.

But it’s out of your hands. Before they take her downtown, you ask if you can pack her “a little overnight bag and a pillow.” The other cop; the one who stayed with you, looks at you as though you are an expensive piece of jewelry he has just dropped in the ocean. No, he says. But she’ll be OK. And also? Maybe the two of you…just can’t be friends right now.

You always want to be friends. Because that’s what makes the lesbian community special, right? “An army of ex-lovers cannot fail.” She’ll forgive you, and you’ll forgive her. Someday, when you’re old, you’ll laugh about this: Remember the Dykes Behaving Badly Buddhist Epic Fail? Hahahahaha. Women in Prison!

You clean up the mess — the broken glass; the overturned cat litter; the reeking puddle of perfume — and cry. You call your stepmother, who comes over right away. The two of you take pictures of the wreckage. In the morning, county lockup calls to tell you that “the arrestee” has been released from jail. They mispronounce her name. It feels like she’s someone else; someone you never heard of.

She comes home hysterical. I have a MUG SHOT, she wails.  It was COLD there and they put me in a ROOM by MYSELF.”

I was in a room by myself, too, you think but do not say.

I met women there who were in for much worse stuff than breaking shit, she says. Kelly and Amber said you way overreacted.

You’re about to say, Well, I’m glad you made some new girlfriends in the pokey when she hits the floor on all fours; sobbing, vomiting. Her spine curves like a C. It breaks your heart. You get on the tile floor and hold her. Dry your tears, you say. This is all a mistake. I can fix it. Then you make dinner and try to get her to eat.

You spend the next month ignoring your family, co-workers, and friends when they beg you to get a restraining order. You say, She won’t do it again. She’s sorry. She’s got nowhere else to go. I don’t want her career ruined. She promises she’ll get help. People send you links to the Cycle Of Violence. Your friend, who works for an anti-violence/sexual assault organization, says, One of these days, she is going to hurt you. She’ll be very sorry afterwards, of course.

Your father says, Next time, it’s going to be a knife. After that, a gun. 

You say, No, she’s not like that. She’d never hurt me. She just says stuff and breaks things.

You know everyone thinks you’re a fool.  And it’s been such a long time since you’ve seen some of your friends, you don’t know what to tell them anymore.

Your ex loses her state fingerprint card, which means she’s suspended from work. You are sick with guilt.

–If only I hadn’t called the cops, none of this would be happening.

     –Well, you were scared. You thought she was going to hurt you — or herself.

–I could have just left; let her cool down on her own.

     –And let her destroy more of your things? Break walls? Windows?  You’re responsible for the rental house, too, you know.

-But I made her mad. I broke her heart. 

     –We’re all responsible for our own behavior.

–Maybe it would never have happened again. 

     –Yes, it would have, you fucking moron. This wasn’t the first time. You’re as stupid as she says you are.

You call, e-mail, fax, and send a pigeon to everyone you can think of in the court system. You have some connections, so the right people return your calls. You show up at court for her pre-trial hearing with a copy of your notarized statement in your hand: I do not wish to press charges; uncharacteristic conduct; grief over recent loss; criminal record will cause severe personal and financial hardship; etc. You are the only person in line for the metal detectors without a neck tattoo. You look very nice. You are wearing your best shoes. You’ve flattened down your hair so you won’t seem like such a dyke.

At 9 a.m., before court begins, you talk to the prosecutor in the hallway. You look into his eyes and ask him to dismiss the charges. He glances over your shoulder at the crowd of neck tattoos and sighs.

We don’t usually do this, he says, but since you’re so adamant and she’s never been in trouble before… not even a traffic ticket…all right.

She thanks you on the way home from court. But you sense something wrong. You sense resentment.

You ignore the feeling, because all’s well that ends well. You both start to pack your things, preparing for your separate moves. Things between you are comfortable enough — you share a passionate commitment to premium cable shows, so you watch them while you pack. You share rolls of tape. You think that someday, after having been through all this together, you and she will be lifelong friends.  You become responsible forever for what you have tamed, she said to you in the beginning, with her big open smile and enormous blue eyes. She has always seemed fragile to you, with her dis-assemblable  furniture and the way her face shadows out when she thinks she’s alone in a room. And you love her intelligence; her wit; her intense focus on the things that matter to her. When she’s on, she’s really fucking on, just like the Rilo Kiley song.

It’s a hard world, you thought. Wouldn’t it be great to have each others’ backs? A platonic companion who’d run out for Nyquil if you got sick; someone who’d drop you off at the mechanic’s? Neither of us have much in the way of family, so couldn’t we cobble one together here with glue sticks and chicken wire?

Because her case has been dismissed, the great, all-seeing state of Arizona returns her fingerprint card. She doesn’t tell you. You have to ask: Hey, any news on the card?

Yeah, she says, not looking at you. Got it back yesterday.

Oh, I’m so relieved, you say. Why didn’t you say something?

She shrugs. And you sense it again: Resentment.

The next day, she goes back to work for the first time in two weeks. How was it? you ask that evening.

She looks at you, coldly, over her shoulder on her way out the door. Don’t pretend you care, she says.

You follow her. You don’t understand. What, exactly, is the fuck? You’re hurt. Why is she acting like this after you worked so hard to help her? You volunteered to be captain in the Saving Her Ass Regional Semifinals; how can she say you don’t care?

You and I are not friends, she says. I want you out of my life. You are the worst kind of person. You could have just left that night, you know? You were never in any danger. I’ve spent the last month tied up in knots because of you.

You stagger a little. No; you did this to yourself, you say, and understand for the first time that it’s true.

She looks you up and down. Maybe I’m feeling threatened right now, she says insinuatingly. Maybe I’ve come to some REALIZATIONS.

You don’t know what realizations she means, but you’re having some of your own: She’s goading you. She isn’t sorry, and she isn’t your friend. You never tamed her. She was immune to your love the way some people are immune to malaria.

You see the rage in her eyes; you see that she truly believes what happened is your fault — and there’s no going back. It is, you think, a worse betrayal than your loving someone else; someone you couldn’t let go of; not really, not ever.

You step back and tell her that you’re going out now; that when you get back, she needs to be gone.

I have nowhere else to go, she says. And I’m two weeks behind at work!

That’s your problem, you reply, gently and without guilt. It isn’t a taunt. It’s a statement of fact. You can’t help her; you can’t fix her. None of this was ever about you. You hand it all back to her in that moment: Here, this is yours. I’ll keep what’s mine. I’ll remember, this time. I won’t forget the way every moment holds in its arms all its antecedent moments. My heart is a slow learner, so it’ll just have to study harder and follow its IEP plan.  I’ll make a list of all the metaphors and circle all the subjects; I’ll annotate the motif wherever it appears. I’ll yank threads out of this pattern ’til it unravels. I will stop being a host organism. I can’t avoid getting hurt, but I do have some say about who hurts me.

And, for the first time since the day you met her, you don’t second-guess your choices. The week after, when she stiffs you $13.50 on the last month’s bills, you’ll wonder what she charged you for. You’ll figure that, whatever it is, it’s probably fair.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

8 thoughts on “The axe forgets; the tree remembers

  1. As always, your writing has me in awe. No one deserves the treatment you endured and I’m very glad you have extricated yourself from this toxic situation.

  2. I hope you’re OK and coming back home to yourself. I’ll echo what everyone else has said, that you are a *very* talented writer. And that song as backdrop, however it was “chosen,” was inspired.

  3. This has been my life. Not as extreme but I wondr if someday it will be. I also think or want to believe she will get mellow as she ages or as she starts to learn to trust or or or.

    This seems like the unspoken event in this lesbian radical feminist whateverist world. Men are horrible, women are great. That some dykes hurt others on this level on an “I’m scared for my physical being” level is not talked about. It gives them a free pass. I feel isolated. I’m glad you wrote about this. Just so that I know it isn’t just me.

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