Monday, May 18, 2015

Mother Burning

Because lawsuit threats have been made... 

Disclaimer: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. 

 This blog was written based solely on memories. Some of those memories were made when the author was young and/or heavily intoxicated. Therefore, there’s risk that some details are not 100% factual.

On May 28th, I’m turn 30. I haven’t spotted my first grey hair. I still get carded at bars, regularly pass as a fresh college graduate, look, and feel significantly healthier than I did a decade ago. But I always saw it as the year of legitimate adulthood where my days of being told “you’re so young” are numbered and it’s no longer socially acceptable to fuck up my life. Not only are my peers getting pregnant on purpose, but I’m finding myself mingling with the first wave of divorcees in my dating pool. I used to wake up on random couches, hung-over with crusted mascara speared on my cheeks, dirt on my legs, and peeling some guy’s arm off my waist. Now I juice broccoli and drink herbal tea. A fun night is vegan tacos, Netflix, and 9 hours of sleep. I really don’t do one-night stands anymore- not because I think they’re immoral, but because I’ve overplayed my wild cards and find genuine connection to be a greater adventure than banging a random in a shed at a music festival.

As an author, my brain is inherently structured like a book. Reflecting on my life is compartmentalizing chunks of time into eras. And nothing provokes reflection like being told by an asshole at a bar that I only have about 15 years left of being pretty. 

I’m beginning a new era. I just moved to Seattle. Although it’s one of many moves, this is the first one that had nothing to do with a job, military enlistment, school, relative, or man. I came here for myself and only myself. I published my first book, Just Another Number. Although my thirties hold a lot of optimism and hope, it makes me sad to think that my mom won’t be a part of them. 

I’ve seen countless self-help books on coping with the death of a mother, but none on how to carry on when, after a 25-year-tug-of-war, you finally lose her to her husband.

When I think of my first era, a series of images surface: lush woods wrapping around our tall, wooden house, the knock of squirrels throwing nuts on the roof, the crackling of the gravel driveway when somebody was arriving, crawling through thorns protecting a stream with beauty reserved for only explorers who earned it, wandering through my grandmother’s garden at sunrise to search for the white, dew-soaked morning glories that smelled like marsh-mellows, and my bathtub rails lined with freshly shampooed My Little Ponies. I hear the girlish shrills of my cousins bustling about the house on the weekends, fighting over who’s obligated to be Ken and who earns custody of the prettiest Barbie with the pink, glittery dress. I see my grandmother in a floppy, straw sunhat, knee deep in her tomato plants and my granddaddy, feet propped up on his recliner, tossing almonds into his mouth while watching television. Then there’s my mother holding me in the darkness of my bedroom, rocking me to sleep after a nightmare.

I’ve loved a lot of people in my life, but my feelings for my mom are beyond that. Her presence had a way of blurring everyone else.  To outsiders, memories with Mom from my early life seem like simplistic events: walking through a mall, nighttime rides on a Ferris wheel in some quaint country town I can’t recall, or having her pick up a dead cat on the side of the road so we could give it a proper burial. But to me, every moment with her felt like an adventure that belonged to us. My life was simple, sheltered, but whole. The first 6 years of my life are the only time I’ve ever known true comfort, safety, and love. I didn’t notice superficial vices like my crossed eyes or thick glasses. I didn’t long for a father. Perhaps my mother felt hollow- stifled under her parents’ roof, limited with her 1984 Volvo and the small-town dog-grooming shop she owned, or lonely without romance. But those years were my happiest.

I was haunted by a sense of doom when Carl came in the picture. My 6-year-old mind couldn’t understand my intuition. Adults interpreted my fears and tantrum at the news of their engagement as a charming jealousy that would fade in time with presents and a pink flower-girl dress. To them, I was a child who saw my mom as a toy she didn’t want to share. My nightmare of Carl taking Mom away from me was absurd.

Carl was a stranger. We knew nothing of his background beyond what he told us. My mother met and married him in 4 months, only to be welcomed back from their honeymoon with a mail fraud case against him. A year later, we uprooted to Tennessee, 4 hours away from the only comfort zone I would ever have.

I remember the car accelerating, Carl driving, Mom in the front seat, Carl relieved from the release of his controlling in-laws, Mom finally liberated from her parent’s grasp, and me in the backseat flipped around to watch my cousins at the end of my grandmother’s gravel driveway waving goodbye. I felt like I’d swallowed a bucket of grief when their images shrunk and faded over the horizon. We would return to the house for holidays, but that world was something I couldn’t reach again. Feuds and resentment would sprout. Granddaddy would die, taking the magic of that place with him. Over the years, that house morphed from a comforting haven to an obligatory pit stop for faking family unity. The house went dusty and unkempt. The garden grew unruly except for the few times Grandmother threw money at a neighbor or relative to tend to it. But even then, that garden unraveled from a labor of love to a chore.  

 I would change almost immediately. The joyous glow that encompassed me as a happy, bubbly little girl faded. I became bitter, rebellious, angry, and self-destructive. I developed the tongue of a serpent. I would arm my heart with aggression and master the art of using my words like daggers of self-defense. As my mother put it, I became, “incredibly hard to love.” My family would grow to hate me. Twenty years later, I would find myself in my grandparents’ old bed, curled up in a fetal position having my first panic attack at the reality of my past. My family would throw me away like trash.  Returning to that world went from slightly different to unrecognizable to forbidden. I would evolve from a beloved child to a hiss of gossip at the family gatherings I was shunned from.  

I could list a lengthy, detailed timeline of incidents that could illustrate Carl’s character. I could divulge the volatile way he handled his marriage prior to my mother. I can detail his drinking habits, multiple incidents where he nearly got my little brother and me killed, his lack of remorse for his actions and my mother’s blind loyalty. I can repeat word for word his inappropriate critiques of my body and his degrading remarks about my mother. I can continuously cycle through the times his buddies hit on me and the times he partook in my own teenage debauchery with my friends. I can analyze the perverted red flags of him taking my friend and I to a remote lake island for a weekend that ended up with him drinking a alone while watching two ten-year-old skinny dip or that time he tried to sway my friend and I make out at sixteen years old. As Carl said the last time we spoke a year ago, “This family is terrified of you because you have the most vivid memory of anyone I’ve ever known. You remember things you’re not supposed to remember.” My mind harbors pages upon pages of chilling threats, bullying, borderline perversions, and psychological games. My memories are loaded with vitamin force feedings, threats of beatings, and countless incidents of reducing me to nothing. But verbalizing experiences can’t convey what Carl’s hold is truly like. Carl’s abuse isn’t obvious. It’s not something one can even notice while it’s happening. 

Carl doesn’t do you the favor of punching you in the face and sending you to school with a black eye so that you have a fighting chance of being rescued. Carl doesn’t hit, scream, or molest, allowing you to know you’re being mistreated.

Carl is too brilliant of a tormentor for obvious outbursts. He seeks control. He digs into your psyche and jabs at open wounds in a form disguised as innocence. He prods at your heart in a manner that makes your self-defense appear like the attack. He convinces you that you are deranged and delusional. Seven years after leaving his first wife and breaking her heart, he sends her an invitation to his wedding. He “invites” me to leave home at 17, making it appear that I have options. Rather than offering me the guest bedroom or providing words of encouragement, he emails me articles about the failures of my self-absorbed, social media infatuated generation in the midst of my unemployment poverty. He reads every scrap of my writing. He spends years digging into my brain, analyzing my vulnerabilities, and memorizing them the way the best warriors would memorize their enemies. Carl is passive aggression at its cruelest.  Carl abuses in a way that you can’t even see yourself when you’re in it. It’s something that makes you cave inward- that strips you of your confidence as if you can’t survive in the world or amount to anything if he proclaims it. Carl carries himself in a way that, to a sensible, grounded outsider, seems like pompous arrogance.  But when you’re his- something more fragile, vulnerable, or innocent like my mother and I were, his word is the gospel, his praise makes your heart soar and his disapproval makes you crumble. Carl can flip emotion off and on like a light switch. He can unleash snarls that freeze your blood and soft-eyed cries that will thaw it right back. He will annihilate your trust in love.

The most heartbreaking aspect of Carl is that not every moment is hell with him. In fact, there were more good times than bad. Abusive relationships exist because they provide enough rations of warmth, laughter, and affection to clutch onto like a security blanket in the heap of degradation. The good times are the initial euphoria that keeps addicts draining their wallets for toxic substances to inject into their veins. Scraps of love are food for an abusive relationship.  

         Even I was seduced by the fa├žade of our improved quality of life. Being far too swift and charismatic to pay for his actions, Carl dodged those mail fraud charges. He made tons of money. He spent even more. They had a new baby. He bought a large house in the suburbs and filled it with puppies, big screen TV’s, and ten-thousand-dollar entertainment systems. He’d blast Money for Nothing for every new guest so they could feel the ground shake, walls tremble, and eardrums explode. He’d host morale parties for his employees stocked with open bars, bacon wrapped hors d'oeuvres, and filet minion.

         There was something tragic about Carl. He knew how to go shake hands, make eye contact, carry conversation, say, “please” and “thank you,” and go through all the basic motions of socialization. But he lacked warmth. His eyes only showed life when he was mocking, ridiculing, or drunkenly performing as the life of a party. I’ve never heard of him speak with of anyone with love, admiration, or respect. He harbors some source of trauma and pain that makes him empty inside. He decorated his life with the most lavish material possessions he could obtain- all charms on his bracelet to jingle and dazzle distractions from the mystery his truth still is to me.  I think that Mom was initially hypnotized by his promises of security. The large house, the boats, the new cars, the ever-expanding home additions, consecutive surprise diamond rings and gold accessories were his go-to ammunition against any accusations of his negligent spending, sexist remarks, or drunken debauchery.  They painted a perfect picture of my privileged, white, suburban childhood.
         “Aren’t you glad I married Carl?” Mom once said while we were sunbathing at the helm of Carl’s yacht. “If I’d married your biological father, we’d probably be in a trailer somewhere.”

         Mom often boasted about the fruits of her matrimony, but she always seemed to be speaking more to herself than me. That was her personal “I didn’t fuck up my life” pep talk. I just nodded, afraid of the consequences of disagreeing.

My second era conveyed the image of a comfortable childhood. I lived in the suburbs. I spent summers romping through the neighborhood with my friends on roller blades and bikes, sneaking out in the middle of the night to play Truth or Dare, and weekends on the lake, clinging on the coattails of Carl’s wealth. 

Mom performed happiness. Her eyes were bright, smile wide, and voice constantly an octave higher than its natural state. It was as if we were living in a beautiful house stocked with fluffy beds, pretty furniture, and delicious food, but were growing ill- not ill enough for an ambulance. We just adapted to an existence of fatigue and nausea, oblivious to the low dose of poison in our water.  Shortly after the move, Mom was diagnosed with depression. Carl wrote a check. Psychiatrists wrote prescriptions. She reached a point where one day without her meds made her feel like the world was ending. She was and still is hooked. She constantly played, sang, and frolicked like the hyperactive puppy Carl adored. I grew up missing my mom while she was right in front of me. I grew up feeling alone in crowded rooms.   

My illness was more visible. The signs of disturbance evolved with age. Insomnia came in the second grade, Anorexia at 11, and Bulimia at 14. I became mean, rebellious, and embittered. As a teenager, I indulged in every self-destructive pastime I could stumble upon from routine shoplifting to smoking meth from fuming tinfoil. I hated myself, but had no comprehension why. I resented my mother without reason. But with Carl, I constantly teetered on the fence between loathing and worship.

I went through phases of deeply loving Carl. Ironically, most of his abusive tactics were intertwined with bonding. He was my father, loose and warm with Jack Daniels, rambling on about his sex life with my mother, complaints of her prudence, the development of my body, and various perspectives of an intoxicated misogynist. 
Carl, an overweight heavy drinker, quit smoking for 4 years. I was 12 when he started again. I was devastated with concern. As an attempt to get him to get back on track, I took a vow of silence, refusing to speak to him until he ditched the cigarettes. A few days later, Mom asked me to take our pug, Jingles outside. It was a January night around 30 degrees. My parents knew that when I did this, despite the cold, I would remain barefoot with nothing but the large nightshirt I slept in. I would put the dog on the leash, run out, let her pee, and run back in. With the dog not liking the cold either, the process took about 20 seconds. But that time, they locked the door behind me. They called Jingles through the doggie door attached to the garage. In the height of my anorexia, I was a thin, 75 pounds and could squeeze my tiny body through the door.

“IF YOU EVEN TRY TO GO THROUGH THAT DOG DOOR, I’LL BEAT YOUR ASS,” Carl boomed from the inside of the garage.
 “We will not let you in until you show Carl some respect, speak to him, and apologize,” Mom chimed.

Bowing down would have granted me access to warmth, but I was too stubborn. I stayed outside for over an hour, eventually curling up into a ball inside Carl’s unlocked truck. I wanted to escape. I strategized the possibility in my head. I could have fled to a neighbor’s house, showing up disheveled, with tears streaming down my face, bare feet red and numb. I could have called my grandparents and begged them to take me in. I could have run away. I wanted it.  I fantasized about it every day.  The sight of that frail child, disoriented with fear and heartbreak would have flashed some red flags, enticed concern, and maybe even suspicion. 

But Carl did not do me favor of punching me in the face and sending me to school with a black eye so that I had a fighting chance of being rescued. Carl didn’t hit, scream, or molest, allowing me to know I was being mistreated. 

All routes would dead-end with my parents and whatever disciplinary action they chose.
 I can’t remember the words she spoke when they finally opened the garage door and yanked me inside, but I was petrified. It wasn’t sound of Mom’s screams or the jolt of her grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me like a rag doll that plagues my memory, but the look of her eyes- wide, wild, and unrecognizable.
I learned early on that love was treacherous, leaving my heart like an open wound for others to infect.  

 I never allowed myself to acknowledge the relief I felt when Carl was gone. For some reason, I couldn’t understand my brother’s joy when Carl returned from a long day of work. I envied kids with single-parent households and fathers who spent long periods of time away on business. I breathed more fluently, slept peacefully, and basked in some sort of relaxed liberation. From the beginning of his place in my life, any business trip or weekend boating excursion felt like a treat that allowed me to be with my mom at ease. Over the years of her marriage, my relationship with my mother began to develop the feel of a forbidden affair. We’d have occasional girls days of manicures, dinner, and movies. We’d bike by the Tennessee River. We’d escape to my grandmother’s house for a 4-hour drive through the mountains. It always felt like a quick visit to our old happy days.  She was different away from Carl. She spoke more freely and loved me more openly. She was more of the woman hiding behind the happy pills. Our interaction was harmonious. Although we’ve had countless arguments, in my entire life, Mom and I have never had a conflict unrelated to Carl. 

In high school, our relationship became turbulent. Carl would trash talk my mother to me and trash talk me to her, turning us against each other. She caught onto it once I moved out. I was 17-year-old high school senior living 45 minutes away with my boyfriend. Being underage, I couldn’t find work that to support my bills. I was bulimic. I was doing the hardest drugs of my life. I was pulled over for a speeding ticket and broke down from the 60-dollar fine. Mom had caught onto Carl’s double agent tactics. She would sneak out to meet me for secret lunches, slip me 20-dollar bills that Carl wouldn’t notice, and give me rings he’d given her years before so I could pawn them. We began rebuilding a relationship in Carl’s blind spots. I would sneak home after school. She would get home from work around 3 and Carl wouldn’t return until the evening.

She wanted me to move back home. Every time I considered it, fate would leave Carl and I alone. I would end up running out of the house crying. My boyfriend would console me. I’d vow to never return.

I am not the daughter Mom wants.

She wants the daughter that went straight from high school to a college 2 hours away. She wants a marketing major and who met her lifelong friends in Alpha Phi and spent her weekends streaking orange paint on her cheeks for football tailgating. She wants the daughter who made it home for holidays, who is uncontroversial, who she could bring to church without fear of her saying the wrong things. She wants a daughter who became a bank teller, married a real estate agent, and indulges in Tuesday yoga, Wednesday game nights, and Saturday paddle boarding. She wants a daughter who channels her art into watercolor and darkness into journals safely tucked away from the world.

I became much more than that. I conquered my eating disorders. I ditched the drugs. I served in the military. I went to Berkeley. I traveled the world alone. I wrote a book. I became bold, fearless, vocal, articulate, and brutally honest. I am pretty. I am charming. I am funny. I am charismatic. I am adventurous. I am brave. I am cold-hearted.  I am alone. 

I have decorated my life with the greatest accomplishments I could obtain- all charms on my bracelet to jingle and dazzle distractions from my truth.

The truth is that I left home because I didn’t have one. I’m vocal because I’ve never had a voice. I’m nomadic because I have to search every corner of the world for happiness and still haven’t found it. I’m fearless because I have nothing to lose. I’m articulate because I have something to prove. I’m pretty because I’m obsessed with my looks. I’m charismatic because I’m only lovable on a superficial level. My work ethic is an excuse to avoid relationships. My accomplishments are no different than Carl’s wealth and current facade of a good Christian man- I use them as weapons, spitting out my life’s resume in the faces of those who refuse to love me.   

My truth is that every one of my redeeming qualities come for a source of pain. My truth is that being unique was the result of preventing Carl from swallowing me whole. My best-kept secret is that I didn’t reject normality. Normality rejected me.

Mom says that Carl is her soul mate. She says that her marriage is happier than ever. 

Mom boasts about the fruits of her matrimony, but she always seems to be speaking more to herself than me. That is her personal “I didn’t fuck up my life” pep talk. I disagreed. She now mourns me like I’m dead.

I am a feminist. I am an author. I will devote my life to exposing corruption. My voice is stripped of poetic sugar coating. My work is raw. My determination is fierce, ambitions lofty, and persistence relentless. Carl was once the life force behind my career.  I wrote with vengeance. I wrote to expose men like him and to rescue women like my mother. I swore I would ruin him. I swore I would humiliate him. I swore I would win. I can sell a billion books, liberate a billion women, save a billion lives, cover every inch of the world, rule the world, and send Carl cowering into the corner he tried to shove me into and it still won’t redeem what he took from me. The truth is I would trade everything for that vanilla life with my mother. From the beginning, she was all I ever needed.

Carl will always win.

The world is not a Disney movie where villains are obvious and one-dimensional.

Sinners and saints are born with the same innocence. Every villain has a story, an excuse, a reason, charm, pain, trauma, hope, and fear. It’s their vulnerability that’s their deadliest weapon.

I understand why Mom loves Carl.

Over the years, I would find myself falling in love with one villain after another. It didn’t matter whether or not I liked or respected him. Every time he dared to let his guard down and reveal some of his ugliest, grittiest faces, I wholeheartedly believed I was the only person on earth being let in on a secret. It was a mirage of a connection. Despite his faults and my prior resistance, I felt an obligation to uphold that bond. No matter what kind of person he was or how toxic he could have been, I saw beauty in that fleeting defenselessness as if he were an infant, innocent and untainted by the evils of the world. I always fell in love with that face in every man. I clutched that memory tightly, despite the fact that its weight wore my arms and drug my pace. I was so focused on remembering their moment of weakness that I was blind to who they were.

I used to hate Carl. I used to view him as a monster that destroyed my life and kidnapped my mother. I used to curse Mom’s name. I resented her for abandoning me. I called her a traitor. I called her a failure. I spit fire until my belly was ashen and empty.

I held onto my rage, let it sear my heart, and leave a scar for me to remember before letting it go. I now see Carl as a tragedy, like cancer or a horrible accident. I used to see him as a burning building my mother refused to leave. I wrote hundreds of pages, plead dozens of cases, spouted a thousand arguments, and cried a million tears. And in my attempts to drag her out of that burning building with begs and hysterical cries, my lungs were filling with smoke and body bruised and bloody from falling debris. But no, Carl isn’t the burning building. He is planted in the center of that building and will not leave. And Mom covers him, holds him, and will die right there with him, baffled by my refusal to burn with them as a family.

I will love them. I will miss them. I will cry for them. I will mourn them. I will wear scars on my body and in my heart that will fade, but won’t go away. I will occasionally awake in the night with tears in my eyes from nightmares of them.

But I am done looking for love where it doesn’t exist. I am done coughing up dust in attempts to drink from dry wells.  

I will drink water. I will breathe fresh air. I will be free. And I will be happy.