Month: July 2016

Essay: the Yellow Dress

In 1997 grunge still ruled the day. In Indiana, that really meant that nothing changed between 1983 and then. Farmers wore the plaid shirts, their kids probably did listen to Nirvana and have vigil/keggers in the cornfields for Kurt Cobain and Shannon Heun, and the metalheads of the previous decade passed down the T-shirts of their favorite bands to their younger siblings.  I did not participate in either trend – I never so much as curled a bang upward. Most of the time, I couldn’t afford clothing that fit me and I considered it a small miracle at all when something stayed on without ripping.

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In 1997 I had just completed my first year of study at Mankato State (to become Minnesota State, Mankato before I graduated.)  I had no car, about four different jobs, and the majority of my clothing came from Salvation Army or what I could grab from Target that did not immediately disintegrate in the wash. All my money went to what I could scrape together for tuition, room, board, and the occasional $2 roll of nickels for nickel night at the Albatross.

There was no asking my parents for help, based on profound dysfunctional reasons, well beyond my control. When my grandfather died, I could either afford to attend the funeral or look appropriate at it. My parents were not going to hand me $40 to buy a black dress.

There was also a factor unknown to most: when I was 18 and my grandfather was still neurologically functional, had asked me not to wear mourning weeds to his funeral. He was explicit – he didn’t want me wearing black or looking somber. He had actually wanted me to wear a red velvet dress he once saw me in, one that was far more inappropriate than the sole light yellow dress I did own at the time of his death.

Besides, a roommate had stolen that dress years before. So I went, wearing the yellow dress and the Land’s End sandals, because it was what I could afford. Several hundred dollars in gas money both ways and 16 hours altogether to Portland, Indiana later I faced a roomful of relatives I only ever heard from when making demands, asking questions about when I planned to finish college, giving my dress the whole judgmental “up and down” look, and in two cases actually following me across the room to attack me for some slight that, under normal circumstances, would require interaction to actually happen.

No one was talking about my grandfather except my grandmother. No one was even looking at or acknowledging her.

Rather than responding in the conciliatory way expected, I responded in the way any sane person would: I walked away. In the case of one cousin I did this while she was mid-sentence.

My relatives responded to my behavior as though I’ve pulled up my yellow skirts and pissed on the corpse. Recognizing that no matter what I did I was going to be attacked, and that I was swimming in an unwarranted pool of rage from people who had never sent me so much as a birthday card but clearly had made some plan for me I had not followed, I decided to do whatever the hell I wanted to – which was what my grandfather had quietly encouraged me to do every time he saw my cousins ostracizing me or treating me like a servant.

The fun part was telling my then boyfriend my uncle was Satan. I hear he’s calmed down but back then? He made Don Draper look like a class act even with the bottle behind the curtain. (If you think Don Draper is classy you have NOT been paying attention.)

I left tired, confused, angered by the people that were much too busy asking me demanding and shitty questions instead of, say, telling me some things I didn’t know about the life of my grandfather. According to my mother, most were angered because I wore a yellow dress.

Crap will happen to you, too.The reality is that I tried to respond to all but two of the conversations politely. In every case, my anger and rudeness was provoked. My uncle had removed the picture of my mother and their sister from the stand displaying my grandfather’s children, so that only he and his children were depicted. His sister had died of multiple bone cancers three years prior; my grandfather had explicitly asked that pictures of ALL his children be displayed at his funeral. So it was more than just his usual narcissistic insult to my family; it was also an insult to the dead…twice. Three times if you count the long talk he gave about what a hero he was for dealing with having a sick dad in lieu of giving a proper euology. I tried to correct that with some real memories about my grandfather, but I started crying, and it’s a cardinal rule I broke: you don’t cry at a funeral attended mainly by narcissistic WASPs. You especially don’t do it when you’re only *half* WASP. Actually, try not to be half WASP. They hate that shit.

I am still disgusted at both my parents for not handling him as he deserved. His daughter had accosted me two years before at our aunts’ funeral, mostly to talk about her car for some reason. It was clear to me that it was all predicated on a subtext of “I have and you don’t,” that failed to account for the way gas-run cars have always offended me. ((I now drive a status vehicle, an EV, in an ironic twist.)) It had been prompted by her father, and to this day I don’t understand what he thought he was going to accomplish with that. It’s not like I ever asked them for anything, and if I wanted to talk to a vapid, self-centeredninny, my own sister served the purpose fine.

I genuinely tried to be polite but I was met with emotional assault everywhere I went at my grandfather’s funeral.

I was beyond relieved to get out of there, back to my life in Minnesota. For months after, my mother and sister would “report” to me that they were “handling” the “trouble” I’d caused. Of course, since no property was damaged, no money lost, and no relationships damaged it’s not like I had one with any of those people – it was just meaningless drama. It gave them something to do, something more to badmouth about me, something more to try to hurt and control me with since they stopped getting their attention feed after I broke up with the black guy.

When my mother phoned eight months later and my grandmother went on the phone, ready to scream at me for making my uncle’s daughter feel rejected – something she had apparently never before experienced, despite dishing out quite a bit – she was perplexed when I answered, sincerely, “good for [Dumbass Cousin],” to my grandmother’s aggressive bragging and explained I was out of breath as I’d just gotten back from my shift at the Battered Women’s shelter.

My mother, in all the badmouthing, had no interest in mentioning that I spent a significant chunk of my waking hours helping women run for their lives.  Not one cousin, aunt, or uncle ever tried to have a talk with me about my behavior. Their instinct was to demand I be controlled by other people. None seemed aware that having such an instinct about any adult is inherently fucked up and abuse behavior. It certainly didn’t occur to a single person to talk to me directly about the incidents.

What they cared about was that I wore a yellow dress to my grandfather’s funeral.

When my own father died in 2009, it was again a long drive, this time from eastern Minnesota to Northwest Indiana.  He had gone to hospice and wanted to spend a few of his last days with me, and after he reassured me his wife was too drugged on Xanax to be her usually safety-threatening nightmare, I took my fiancee and went. He died while I was there, and so the plan to come back for the funeral with the appropriately somber dress hanging in my closet was dashed. I found a black and floral print sweater set dress at Fashion Bug, dowdy enough to satisfy my mother and her best friend.

In an attempt to make small talk while standing in the funeral line with my mother’s old college roommate, whom had greeted me with a guilt trip for “not visiting enough” (her kids were total assholes to me for as long as I can remember, so the idea of seeing them had no appeal), I mentioned that I wished I had the dress I’d intended to wear. I mean,  this lady talked about her grandkids, her daughter in-law, and her effing shoes. She gave me that up-down look that all fat women know and sniffed. “At least this is appropriate,” she said.

Fucking bitch.

All this because, in a moment of poverty, I wore a yellow dress to my grandfather’s funeral.

I strongly suspect the snapping back at people wouldn’t have been remembered if I’d worn something I couldn’t afford in 1997. But then they’d have tantrums because I didn’t go – a convenient Catch 22, usually reserved for woman.

My dad had wanted me to give his eulogy alongside my sister. I refused. He watched all this abuse play out, but because it was his wife’s family and not his, he did nothing. So when he passed, I said nothing. I gave her family no more excuses and leverage for their constant abuse. I gave them nothing.

It was the right choice.

Resentments

My aunt died of cancer at the beginning of my senior year. It had been a second or third time with it, and the treatment had run long, with my mother constantly using buzz phrases like “the miracle factor” and how “positivity allows greater room for healing.” When she wasn’t carrying on about my aunt, my mother was obsessed with my sister’s at-best dubious lifestyle choices. This left her approximately no room in her consciousness for me.

Sophomore and junior year of high school I became the ignored family member, as my mother’s entanglement with her sister and her preferred daughter grew. Sophomore year was difficult – I’d had a big, complicated breakup, a suspension related to that breakup, and different friends of mine noticed my depression and attempted to flag my mother. Yet, while that year was rough, I did heal, unimpeded by my mother’s attention. By junior year I thrived in my mother’s neglect, easily sidestepping her micromanagement and control thanks to her own distraction. I had my first serious boyfriend. I brought grades up without tutors. I had friends, all nerdy creative outcasts. I understood what was happening with my aunt was very, very bad but I understood constantly dwelling on it did nothing.

My aunt having cancer I understood as serious and dangerous, but it was not an upsetting part of my life. Part of it came from being a teenager living in hellish situation: I could only focus on so much at a time, especially during those hellish moments when mother and sister turned attention back to me. There were a few times, with stress and sabotage having nowhere to go, they would corner me – even though it was far less than typical years for them.  My aunt lived far away, almost four hundred miles; she wasn’t a big part of my life. That was part of why her cancer never became a Big Deal to me until the memorial service (she didn’t have a funeral) itself.

The other part was that I simply disliked my aunt. She was mean to me, at any given opportunity. When I was seven, she made a it a point to sit down next to me at a holiday dinner and monitor every bite I ate, editing all my food and making a celebration for everyone else a long-running humiliation for me. This activity was repeated by her nearly ever year, as though fat shaming me and encouraging others to treat me as less than a person might, in a single holiday session of elbows in my ribs until I had to run to the sole bathroom in my grandparents house and vomit, make me thin. She would bring presents for my sister, and then some yard sale crap for me, saying something about how she “didn’t want me to get jealous.” On my own birthday, the yard sale crap would continue – if she bothered at all. Since I’d never demonstrated jealous behavior about my sister, it was clearly a projection. My aunt had a very low opinion of fat girls, in part because like my grandmother, she used to be one.

When I was 12, she was having gall bladder surgery and had been transferred to teaching the sixth grade. She smirked down at me and said, “I’ll especially hate twelve year olds this year.” I knew she wasn’t kidding, and I knew my family including her would insist that I just needed to learn to take a joke – even if I was 12, even if she was especially a bully to me.

I was named after this aunt, forced to share an unsuitable middle name, but my sister was her obvious favorite. This aunt had two children of her own, older than us by 15-20 years. Over time my sister came to manipulate both her kids with the expertise of a South American dictator. One of these cousin’s wife persists in behaving as though she is connected to me even though she is not – another fat girl defying familiar expectations, and while her kindness has always been appreciated, she brought with it expectations that made me feel pressured for all the wrong reasons.

This aunt’s husband, however, was kind to me. I never fully understood why; maybe he just saw dozens of kids like me in his job as a high school band director or maybe he just liked to root for the underdog. We would take our clarinets to family gatherings, sneak off and he would tutor me in my technique. He and I both knew I never wanted to be a professional musician – but it didn’t negate his kids’ resentment of me, especially his daughter’s, since I suspect he gave me positive attention denied her.

This was, of course, compounded by my sister’s remarkable adroitness with manipulating negative feelings towards me, lying with just enough truth to qualify her for a job with Fox News.

I didn’t care about the attention from the uncle, though I liked him – I just wanted to get away from the room full of people that openly hated me, and get a break from being treated like wait stuff by his children, my uncle’s children, and my own family. In my teen naivete, I considered that my cousins might resent their father’s kindness to me, and dismissed it as too petty for adult children who were equal enough to speak honestly to parents. His daughter was near 30, beautiful, and successful – resenting a fat 14 year old girl made absolutely no sense. At the time I had no idea that almost no one in my family, or in adult life really, actually deals with feelings honestly, especially not when it comes to their parents.

There was one thing that my aunt did for me that was good. I don’t think she intended it to be a positive thing; in fact, I think it was the summation of her complaints about me, her unworthy namesake who reminded her too much of herself. “You can’t compare [my sister] and [me.] You can only contrast them.” It served as a reminder that my sister and I were indeed separate people and my sister’s choices would never be repeated in my life.

When my aunt died, this seeming awareness that I never imitated my sister’s choices died with her. When my sister got pregnant at 22 while still living with our parents, I had to awkwardly sidestep a lecture from my grandmother about how my trapping a man that way wouldn’t work for me and might not even be possible because of my size. Since I had not even been on a date in six months when she said this to me, it was especially bizarre. When I went away to college, there was shock and anger instead of the congratulations. Extended family didn’t really acknowledge my graduation at all – apparently doing it for my sister was enough, and since to their minds I was a mere shadow of her it didn’t matter. Even my father seemed to forget the years of pressure to go to college cultivated by my mother, trying to convince me to just go to massage school or become a paralegal instead of using the money I had earned, saved, and inherited over the first 18 years of my life to get higher education and real independence. Both he and my mother expressed an assumption I would flunk out, since my sister performed very poorly at both the private school and the state school she attended.

When my first semesters of college proved these assumptions dead wrong – no pregnancies, all dean’s lists – my mother acted like the straight As I got didn’t exist, and behaved as though I might be cheating on my coursework. In any phone call with her that wasn’t a monologue about every trivial detail of her life, or every trivial detail of my niece, she alternated between slut-shaming me and nagging me to hurry up and find a husband for grandchildren that I instinctively knew she would abuse.

All the sins of my sister were projected onto me, the way my grandmother would take beatings when her sister misbehaved. My mother assumed I was sleeping around and, on a surprise visit filled with aggression and need for control, said so to two of my male dorm mates. My dorm mates knew me. At that time I didn’t say a word against my mother, so their conclusions were their own. They were not \sympathetic to her constant derogatory manipulations like my cousins were, and made it pretty clear I was none of the things she was calling me. I don’t know what they said, but my mother told me she found them “disrespectful,” suggesting they called her out on the way she talked about her daughter.

My actual behavior didn’t matter. She imagined me a certain way, and despite a void of evidence in my behavior or results,she was determined that I was malicious, manipulative, and promiscuous.

I can only imagine how it would be if my mother’s sister had lived to see me get through college. I don’t think I’d have bit my tongue around her as I got older. As a kindness to my mother in her grief, I had my full name printed on my graduation announcements, even though it cost me more and I always hated my middle name. But my aunt, who was a community pillar, was not that for me.

I don’t want to bear the brunt of her name. I’m a good person who left behind the life of abuse my aunt contributed to. She doesn’t deserve to have me carry her legacy. Let someone else take the name, someone who has reason to celebrate her – she made a positive difference to a great number of people, even as she made a deeply negative impact on my own life.

13528360813632What she hated and feared in herself she took out on me.

My first name, Diana, is a sort of accident: my mother had ruled out Rosemary or Rose Marie after meeting my father’s cousins of those names. It’s just as well, with a wife named Marie. Diana is an expansive Goddess: in one aspect an independent hunter, in another a mother, in another an arbiter of wisdom, and ultimately one who frees the abused from slavery. Diana is an honor I bear with joy, and not just because she takes pleasure in it being a cosmic fuck you to someone she views as undeserving of the child in me she was given.

My last name is the name of people who had their lives taken away, and reclaimed them with blood, tears, and toil. My surname is the name of people escaping Krakau, it is the third name read off the list in the movie Schindler’s list, it is the name of the freedom fighters that somehow survived the uprising of the Polish Underground. Whatever the failures of my father’s parents – and they were considerable – these damaged ancestors are part of my power, and have given me the gift of just not caring that I might fail, because the fight alone is what matters.

This leaves me the middle as my missing piece. I have an idea, one that honors my relationship with plants, my love of herbs, my love of the rooted mystic. I will be making a legal name change soon – to disavow those who did not love me as a child should be loved, but also to honor the love I was given, from the land itself.

 

Conversational Chemistry

spells out beauty
according to my G+, I took this photo in 2013

Off and on I’ve started to write single essays about this person. But no single essay could capture on paper what played out in front of bemused witnesses: all our conversations had something in them worth reading, worth writing about. Even when trading barbs in anger, with one another we had wit, depth, and an intuitive understanding of each other I have never experienced before or since. When we started arguing, bemused witnesses, professors included, usually just stopped and watched us. We were entertainment. Television writers are only now coming close to our matched scathing wits. Heaving bosoms and bare chests were nothing compared to our intellectual chemistry.

But perhaps that’s perception – the view from twenty years ago, as a 18 year old. 18 year olds always think their own world is deeply involved and clever.

For awhile I thought we were enemies, and I viewed his appearances in my life with resignation and a degree of exhaustion. Usually when I spoke back the way I spoke back to someone like him, some sort of punishing behavior followed. Instead, as we walked away from class, he said “I really enjoy talking to you.” This was after one of our more vituperative exchanges during a discussion based class. At the time I didn’t believe him. Every boy I’d met prior found me sharp-tongued, tiresome, someone to punish. His persistent friendliness I saw as the slow, sure buildup to eventual abuse.

At the end of our freshman year,  he informed all of his friends that he had a girlfriend and had fallen in love/found God at the same time. That worried me. Many of our conversations involved his atheism and my deism. No, I wasn’t happy about the girlfriend – the pressure on my inner emotional footlocker wasn’t that tight, even if I was also sincerely happy to see him so happy – but I worried more that this changed friend might change our conversation quality.

To my relief, it didn’t. His habits were just as bad, his sense of humor just as quick, and the only real change I noticed when he expressed embarrassment/apologies when I overheard him making love to his girlfriend one weekend as I walked past his dorm room. The year before he bragged to me about every conquest he had, so the change startled me but not so much I initiated a conversation about that. (There was a later, hilarious incident where he forgot that I knew about his girly magazines and was mortified that his friends dug them up when I asked for them in his absence.)

5190922097_41a83b9884_oThis was the year I went through as “one of the guys.” For me this made a frustrating yet beneficial label, as it meant I enjoyed safety around young men my age that other girls on campus did not. It did, however, not so much create as force to the surface issues I had regarding my attractiveness, and whether I had to sacrifice all sexual enjoyment to experience a relationship of equals with men. Despite our verbal acuity, neither my conversation partner nor I had fully developed language centers yet, and so in this one area of intellectual meeting we failed each other.

I tried to express my mixed feelings. “So basically I’m not ever going to be a girl to them,” I said one day, as, over beer some of his buddies went “let’s get some girls in here!” At this I had glanced down at my breasts, then shrugged.

“When they get older they’ll get it,” he said. “When it counts, men want a woman they can really talk to.”

I already knew that all men did not exist at all, the same as all women did not. There is no what men want. There is no what women want. Trending tastes are one part miracle to two parts brainwashing. I decided not to take the bait on his unusually weak semantics because right then, with what he said, I really just wanted another beer and a chance to stop thinking about a life beside some guy who could “really talk to me” while I floated out, alone, intellectually dissatisfied and sexually ignoerd. By that time, I’d become the unwilling repository for everyone’s secrets. Everyone could really talk to me, but I wasn’t getting anything I needed in return for that. When it came to men, he was the only one I’d met that I could really talk to – the rest of his friends just weren’t smart enough to have conversations I found genuinely satisfying.

His tacit implication I was on some backburner also displeased me to a greater degree than I let myself feel.

By the second semester of sophomore year, a drift, conscious and unconscious, inevitable and sad, occurred. I started spending more time with other friends in our circle – still men, but men that saw me more as a “girl” even if they weren’t romantically interested. I began the process of transferring schools. It had leaked to my conscious mind over that winter break that I was actually rather desperately in love with him, my actual romantic prospects, illusory as they were, had more promise for me, and continuing as I had was just making me sadder and more withdrawn.

When I mentioned moving, my conversation partner became cantankerous about it, and implied he thought I was bluffing, so I stopped telling him what was going on with me and just went about the difficult process of restarting my life where my degree might serve a purpose.  It wasn’t conscious, but at some point I just sort of stopped talking to him about anything real, or intellectual, or unreal. I stopped even bothering to correct him on subjects I had actually changed my mind about, like the value of Greek life,  or my now dropped “six month” rule before sex. If the phone rang in his room, I simply withdrew, twice as fast if it was his girlfriend. I had begun the process of rolling up in myself what I had given of myself to him, which was everything except my emotional self. There was one moment, where he was on his bunk bed above me and I sat in a chair below, where he drunkenly demanded I promise to return for our junior year. I had just received my acceptance letter to Mankato State that morning. I had just converted to Wicca, during a time where promise keeping and personal honor was an enormous part of the practice. “I won’t make you a promise I can’t keep,” I told him. He pressed, and pressed, but I did not relent. He fell silent, jaw set, dissatisfied. I forgot about this. I continued hanging out with other people, often with him nearby, included but no longer close. I didn’t think whether he noticed the change between us.

Apparently he did notice, and it hurt him – it didn’t even occur to me that my quiet withdrawal, mostly as unconscious as it was, could hurt him, let along be noticed by him. There was one warm spring day where I laid out next to a pond by our dormitory, napping in the warmth of early spring. He happened to come by on his bicycle and asked me to walk with him. I got up right away, happy for a little company. He asked me my life philosophy. Such questions were old, argument-starting fodder with us: I thought being asked for such a thing when still this young was obscene and absurd, as he insisted that everyone has a philosophy, and that he had totally expected me to answer as I had. I hadn’t been so engaged in a conversation of such good quality in months – since the last time we’d have a conversation like it.

Out of the blue, he said, “I’ve really missed talking to you.”

I pretended I hadn’t thought about it. “Yeah, I guess we don’t as much since we have different classes this semester.”

I think we both know I was full of it. I’d been avoiding him, shutting him out of my experience. I needed to leave and leaving him was the hardest part. The less engaged and connected I felt, the more easily that could happen – and he was the only thing that made me feel engaged and connected.

I suggested we talk more, maybe make it a point to go for walks, especially since my lack of exercise at times visibly disturbed him. I stopped by to ask him to go for a walk once after that, and he was busy. I immediately quit trying – I was tired of putting in effort without getting reciprocity. My conversations with most people covered that.

It was our tiny college’s idiotic and persistent politics that brought to the fore exactly how hurt he really was by my intellectual desertion. He was in a fraternity; the previous year I had loud and frequent objections to the Greek system because I disagreed with any system that separated people by gender. (The co-ed fraternities were professional associations only, to my chagrin.) I don’t even remember all the details of it, but his fraternity somehow ended up in hot water over an alcohol violation committed the year before that somehow did not become a problem until almost a year later. At the time, I worked for the campus newspaper. When the story rolled around, we had just experienced a huge staff walkout and I was the remaining “hard” news reporter. My attempts to beg conflict of interest were over-ruled and I was told to pursue the story about my friend’s fraternity. I remember constructing the question over and over in my head- I wanted…needed my friend to say no to my interview request. I foolishly assumed he would know I was on his side, and not the side of the Greek system, and not the side of the newspaper, and sure as hell not in the side of the idiotic school administration but his.

The words used, exactly, escaped me. “They’re making me ask…” from there, I wanted it clear this wasn’t something I wanted to do at all. I tried to structure room for him to say “no comment,” as fully as possible, or to refuse to talk to me on the record about that or something that would let us walk away from the subject.

His response, however, held far more hurt and confusion than I expected. At first, I thought he was joking. “So what, you’re just friends with us so you can get a stupid story?”

I said something flippant, and he glared. Then I looked in his eyes and I could see none of the smile in them that he had always had for me. “Oh my God, you’re serious.”

I can’t remember what he said. All I remember is holding on to his door frame as every piece of every fear I had ever had about losing him, about him hating me, about him, came loose from that deep-down footlocker I buried my emotions in. I managed to keep from crying in front of him, which was good since he never handled the sight of me crying with sympathy. Once his onslaught stopped, I told him “No,” in answer to his accusations. With all the control I could muster, I said, “OK, that’s fine. You don’t have to do it. Thanks for letting me know.”

I remember thinking I can’t lose him before I have to leave. He means too much to me.

Just having that thought terrified me.

I then went upstairs, and my roommate saw the look on my face, and just as she asked me what was wrong the tears exploded.

My beloved conversation partner had actually made me cry – and I was not one of those girls that cried. I remember stopping my roommate from marching down the stairs and kicking my friend’s ass.

The course of events right after that are something of a blur. There was a phone call and a meeting set up. It was all very cryptic.We need to talk, he said. On some level I registered that he used none of the language used when you talk to a reporter. I figured we would talk about our friendship, the time we had left. I thought of this, but didn’t know what to say. I was so tired of the politics that he pursued. It was after class, and still light out – it was around 6, maybe 7 at night. It was our first time alone together since sometime Freshman year.

I remember him pulling whiskey out of the fridge, chilled the way he knew I liked it (and that he insisted, was whiskey that was mine/that I had purchased); for some incongruous reason he had wine glasses. I remember telling him how horrified I was by that fight, that it seemed like he’d forgotten who I was, and that I had changed my mind about a lot of things since knowing him; we talked about the trouble the fraternity was in and I masked my disappointment that this was all about politics yet again.  Then the president of his fraternity happened to knock on the door- there was NO WAY his appearance was coincidental. The president looking down at the glasses between us and asked if he was “interrupting something” and I got the sense he wanted to know if he was interrupting our date. When my friend said nothing, giving me no leads on how he wanted to handle this or what he wanted kept secret about our politicized conversation, I spoke up and  assured the guy that no, there was nothing “interrupted” with us, that it wasn’t like that.

From there, my friend fessed up the news story angle. The pres then pulled up a chair and filled me in on everything, while I felt deep irritation that my friend needed to establish such a manipulative scene instead of being honest with me, something he had always done in the past. So, despite my best efforts not to get it, I got the goddamned story anyway – a story I would have traded for my friend in a heartbeat, since it was an especially banal and stupid story involving college politics and fraternal rivalries.

I’m not sure why, but from there I was invited to go to the frat president’s apartment and play cards. I could tell there was something still up with my friend – we were playing Asshole, and I lost, and he offered to drink the punitive pitcher of beer for me. This was not a type of chivalry he had ever displayed towards me before. I insisted on taking the penalty – I was one of the guys, right? But when I lost the next round, the pres took the penalty after I explained I’d lost weight and couldn’t hold my liquor anymore.  At that point, I needed to go back to my dorm room as the emotional roller coaster plus the alcohol really wore me out.

My conversation partner insisted on walking me home. That winter alone he had witnessed me drink that much before a party, drink at the party, and I always stumbled home alone (and unmolested.) The distance between our dorm and his frat suite was at least half a mile. The distance between the apartment buildings and our dorm was that of a small parking lot. Still, he insisted on walking me home despite my protests. I assumed it was about covering up another potential alcohol violation. I wanted that time alone. I needed some time to process, and to set aside the frustration of all the things I had hoped to say that there just wasn’t room to say. I was happy to be numb, even if it did take an entire pitcher of beer.

I got to my door and tried to send him away. He refused. I started to kick off a shoe and tried to send him away. He still refused. He would not leave until he had removed both my shoes and gotten me to crawl underneath the quilt on my bed. This was all done in silence, and I could see his jaw working, see that something was happening with me that had him upset in a new way. Alcohol plus all that fresh fear in my blood kept me silent. He kissed my forehead, he left, and I fell asleep. I knew he’d done this for another female friend of his, but she had been far more fucked up than I was. I assumed he was just overcompensating after our fight.

The arguably dangerous part is when I woke up. What my conversation partner had missed, ignored, or just didn’t see is that, in my time away from him, a sexual relationship with another of his frat brothers had developed. Neither one of us was serious about it (though I think that my fuckbuddy assumed me far more serious than I was) and it had gone on long enough that sex while inebriated was part of our language of consent. I did try to reach my conversation partner first – although for what is unclear. He wasn’t in any haunt where I could reach him, so I went across the hall and knocked on my fuck buddy’s door, to whom I announced, “I’m drunk!”

I remember that night well, even now. It’s one of the curses/blessings of my neurology – I remember everything I do and say while I’m drunk. This knowledge is what kept me so quiet as I was tucked away in my bed. On the wake up round, with alcohol now coursing through my system unchecked, however, I was able to use my numbed skin to tolerate things we both enjoyed that were pretty transgressive and kinky for not having any toys available.

My only regret for this incident is that I did not own foundation or cover up – and I had bruises going down most of my body the next day. I had to wear a turtleneck in eighty three degree weather. I even asked my conversation partner if his girlfriend or one of his roommates’ sleepover friends left any makeup in the room. They did not. When he saw the bruises, the terror in his eyes was almost gratifying. “I didn’t –“

“I know it wasn’t you.”

“You were alone when I left you – “

“I remember everything when I’m drunk, you know that. We were both culpable for this.”

He looked down at the floor. “What does that mean?”

Shit, he still thinks I’m talking about him. “The guy I did this with. It was consenting.” I was too hung over to quite get the world consensual together.

I didn’t want to tell him who it was, but something about the way he looked out the window, something about the expression on his face, I needed to reassure him. “I know you’d never hurt me on purpose,” I told him.

Something about my saying that didn’t process well, either.

I cursed myself for the indiscretion but I told him who it was. This started a new round of processing. He finished with, “Interesting.”

I didn’t ask why.

If we had another real conversation after that, I don’t remember. He told me he hated that I was leaving as I hugged him goodbye. I did try calling a few times, after I transferred schools. The call stopped after I told him I was getting married. I never saw him again. We never had a real conversation again.

I don’t think I have ever had a conversation as good as the conversations I’ve had with him since.

I’ve wondered – if I turned a corner in Atlanta, or maybe around here in San Francisco, if I’d run into him. If, upon seeing each other and going through the ritual of trading baby pictures and wedding photos and overly-informational health updates, if we’d move into a coffee shop and then continue a conversation from twenty years ago, or better yet, have an updated one now. Can there be spirituality without a religion? What IS my life philosophy, now that I’m not young? Explain all this Kirrkegard bullshit, motherfucker. Now that there are women’s professional sports, now what?

Most recently I enjoyed a poetry group filled with people brilliant and unpretentious. We shared experiences with a depth that I hadn’t felt since those first two years of college. There was a Catholic, a mythopoetic male, a young woman working as a stringer journalist for a local micro newspaper, a former teacher. I was the only witch. I loved them. They fed my soul, collectively, the way my old conversation partner did single handedly.

Conversations that good, that deep, that satisfying are very hard to find. I hope they find me again. I hope he finds me again. Even now, I feel like we have worlds more to say to each other, even though I know our lives have no parallels whatsoever.

She didn’t believe she could be loved

7664799948_eae27d055f_bStumbled on old pictures recently. I have few if any hard copies left: most have been scanned, shredded, incinerated long since. There is one of myself at 18, sitting in front of my first laptop. My hair is chopped in a pixie cut. My neck looks impossibly long, my lips ridiculously full, my face is a cut, distinct oval that is perfect and yet prevents me from being truly pretty. I can see the fear in her eyes, how she appears playful but is always watching, watching because the photographer can turn on her at any minute making the playful moment one of pain, recrimination and punishment.

It makes me think about my hair, about how my mother bullied me to keep it short. Growing it long wasn’t an act of rebellion. It was worse. I didn’t think about my mother as I grew it out – I simply didn’t have the money to get a proper haircut. Now I keep it long and feminine,  and the students at Aveda comment on how pretty my natural brown hair is.  Not one dares even suggest I cover the silver lines starting to streak down my widows peak. This would surprise her, that I do maintenance on myself like that. It would offend her that I don’t need or want to do the maintenance of dyeing my hair. I did it in my twenties. That was enough work.

I try to keep the memorabilia to a minimum. Memories hurt more than they help me and I’d rather just not have them. I don’t feel anything missing by the absence of photos; I don’t feel left out of Flashback Fridays or Throwback Thursdays. I really don’t miss seeing my younger self – it’s like having a responsibility and being wholly unable to do anything about it.

I don’t relish understanding her even though I liked her, even though I admire and pity her. While my tough streak is authentic, a thick skin paradoxically developed through learning how to be gentle with myself and others, hers is still an imitation. Younger Diana… her vulnerability screams from her every pore and she tries to hide it behind a certain no-nonsense/see-through-it bluntness, through politics, through seeing most day to day activities as shallow.

What she really wants is someone to love her anyway – and she really doesn’t have that. But she tries to convince herself she does, and when that fails tries to convince herself she doesn’t need to be loved. That’s what’s scary, how she lied to herself about what went on around her. The people that said they loved her but didn’t. Whatever it was, it wasn’t love – and that absence showed in their actions. There was no one to intervene back then, the only person to recognize the signs being a family therapist that booted my family out of his practice as hopeless. He had, after running into me at the local McDonald’s, told me I was welcome to come by on my own. I thanked him – but ignored his offer.

I can’t save her any more than that guy  and I’m pretty sure she would have a defensive fit and refuse to be saved if I tried to make her aware of the problem…tried to make her aware that she wasn’t the problem and that she was being conned into thinking she was.

It is weird to me to realize I really am one of those damaged people. I’ve read the tumblrs and self-help confessionals. It seemed weird and shallow, an understatement of that person’s loss because it was too simply spoken. I thought I couldn’t be treated well. I thought I deserved the abuse… by now most of us have seen the confessionals that provide fodder for Lifetime movies.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately – how the damage I carried with me hurt people, thwarted relationships and led me to destructive ones. I had no means for recognizing my own wounds; I just assumed I was somehow defective.  I was overlooked because it was my genetic fate, because I wasn’t as good as any of the other people around me, because I had some streak of ugliness that everyone saw but a few generous people forgave.

I honestly thought I could not be loved.

Believing that fucked me over in more ways than I will ever fully comprehend.

An old friendship/crush has been on my mind lately, one still full of unanswered questions. It is, after all, the unanswered questions that get me to hang on for decades where otherwise I’d forget it and move on.  I just hate not knowing the whole story. There’s probably some idealizing baggage there, too:

Somehow I expected him to be part of my life even now. That hasn’t happened. No one has stayed in my life that long, although there are others who I met after college in strange and adventurous ways that have breezed right through that first decade in a way absolutely none of my high school or college classmates did. Once, I would have beat myself up for such a failure – everyone has a friend that lasts forever, right? Well, no. Most people don’t – but nearly all people are trained to be embarrassed about that if they aren’t among the lucky few.

I was told several times he wanted more than friendship, but my disbelief was stronger than simple proof. None of these people could know how I’d been lied to about the feelings of others as a child – and how that made me refuse to believe anything from anyone after that.

But because of my absolute, ground-level – unacknowledged – belief that I couldn’t be loved, I couldn’t break this spell by simply telling someone what had happened to me. I was completely convinced he was setting me up for bullying. It took me too long to realize he was not like any of those people. I had to put serious effort into isolating him from the concepts strung in my brain. The trauma – and the persuasion that no one would just want to get to know me without having bad intentions – ran really deep.

He did win me over. There’s at least once when he complained about the effort that took: it was more than what he did just to get a normal, less damaged girl to sleep with him. Normally girls especially flocked to him.

When awareness of feelings for him finally surfaced, they were shoved aside immediately. No one could love me. Especially not someone I wanted to love me.

I like to think that I’m not haunted by belief that I am unlovable now… but I’d be lying to myself. I give love more easily than I receive it, in friendship and in romantic liaison. My current partner is a giving, generous, especially with me – and at times it chafes. The support feels like a loss of safety; some part of me is looking for escape, waiting for her to turn on me like all the people I trusted eventually did. When not feeling endangered, I have to deal with the overwhelming guilt of feeling undeserving. This is  none too helpful either.

The call to run, to block, to isolate, to insult into leaving isn’t as loud as it was at 19. It’s just there. I recognize the language in my head. I can talk it down. I can now have conversations with strangers without my guard going up…most of the time. I can now smile at the life guard on duty at my gym and make him blush without a voice telling me his blush is a rejection.

I still have trouble approaching people, though. It can be hard to tell: my social anxiety/shyness is subtle, the type you might not notice. Because if you don’t look hard enough you may see someone who is very outgoing. I smile. I make eye contact. I remember things about people and use those tiny details for small talk – especially as a small subset of my friends are now having grandchildren and that’s an easy way to get someone else talking.

The truth is, I still struggle. I don’t know how to start a conversation. I might say “hi” and then draw a total blank. Even with friends I’ve known for years sometimes I draw that blank, in part because I assume that they just don’t want to know about what’s going on in my life. It isn’t intentional withholding – I realize it is withholding in practice though – I just have trouble believing anyone cares that much about me. When I do go on about my life for any reason I often apologize or make a joke about boring the other person before shifting focus.

As awkward as all that is, it’s a big improvement. There are few people I’ve met where talking comes easily. My partner is one of those people. That old crush, who worked on me so hard and whose motives I so unfairly suspected, was another. I guess if I could I’d tell my 18 year old self that she is loved… she’d roll her eyes, push me away, ask me if I had any kids or pets and failing that do her damnedest to get me talking about my job, my college experience, my shoes. I wouldn’t even know her name if she was at her best.

But at least I’d have said something, anything before the standoffish behavior began.

A Dog Really Ate My Homework

For some reason that an astrology chart could likely explain, the last weekend of October in 1995 proved especially momentous for me. It was homecoming at the tiny Midwestern college I attended. My return to the school after summer off had been less than welcoming – I’d been ousted from an editorial gig on the student paper that had comprised my entire social life the year before, the boyfriend that had taken a coward’s breakup with me had spread quite a few rumors about the nature of our breakup angled to make him look blame free when I refused to do things that had high odds of getting me pregnant, and the semester before a friend leveraged my crush on him to drag me into a political situation that cost me dearly – a legacy that was playing out while he remained oblivious, completely unable to process that consequences for a female non-athlete were significantly more dire than those for a male athlete on any college campus. It was also parents’ weekend, and my parents were NOT interested in spending time with me, opting for some bus trip to West Virginia instead when it became clear I wasn’t going to drop out of school because they said so.

Yep, that's Norman Rockwell
Yep, that’s Norman Rockwell

The result was that, on that October weekend, what friends I had were off with their parents or entangled in festivities. I had no car and no means of escape, so I decided to work on a fairly complex project for a mass communications class, one where the professor had insisted on assigning us partners, I suspect out of some patriarchal urge to keep the women in the class from working with the men in the class, all of whom had piercings that made him suspicious. My partner, a very sweet Japanese woman, offered zero ideas on the project; it left me feeling like I had to carry the burden of the work myself. In retrospect, this was most likely an intercultural failing on my part – but ultimately I still prefer to blame the professor’s patronizing micromanagement. Plus, I wanted to work with the guy with the neck piercing. He was hot.

Meanwhile, the friend that had persuaded me to enter political hot water with him the previous semester had a football game that day. Per his family’s tradition, all the ones that could came to cheer him on – including his dog, Tiberius. I’d met Tiberius, a sweet, golden dog that always ran to greet me, tail thumping –  along with anyone else with a recognizable weakness for canines. On game days he had the run of the dorm, and he generally stayed on the first floor, while his family hung out with my friend in the room directly below mine.

The day was unseasonably warm for October, and I had just made a complicated storyboard that involved large amounts of glue. I propped open my door  and window, unusual moves for me thanks to an unexpressed but nonetheless abject fear of most social connection, especially since my immediate neighbors across and next to me were especially toxic. I turned my back for a second to look at my class syllabus and I heard paper tearing behind me. I turned around to see Tiberius, wagging his tail and chowing down on my mass communications project.

That was $15 of art supplies and ten hours of work blown all to hell.

It also forced me to give up on working for the weekend, and with my main focus completely ripped out of my grip, I decided to go hang out at the student pub, watch a comedy act, and when I ran into my friend’s family, I told them about the incident with their dog. Yes, I was mad, but I didn’t blame Tiberius. They stopped bringing the dog around after that, which made me sad. I liked Tiberius. Dogs were safer than people. Fortunately my professor actually believed me when I told him my friend’s dog ate my homework because I was and still am the Person that Those Things Really Happen To and he had already witnessed and heard hearsay of enough ridiculous shit attached to me that he didn’t question me when I asked for an extension.

This also put me in a position to talk to people. It put me in a position to answer my phone, and accept an invite to a Weird Al concert. It put me in a position to ask my yearbook editor (yes, this college had a yearbook, sadly enough) to let me off the hook for photographing a homecoming dance type thing that night. Having nothing else I could do, I got a tarot reading. The tarot reading, given by a friend’s mom, revealed exactly how spiritual my life was about to become, along with all the suppressed love and talent I was haunting myself with. It told me I’d meet a man who was wrong for me that weekend – which I did. The reader also told me that the friend with the dog was “very much in love with me,” (I hadn’t mentioned him, the dog, or the ill-conceived political dabbling to her) and I had her set that one aside since there was no way, especially not at that time.

I never got a chance to do a follow up reading with her, even though she very much wanted to see what was going to happen next with me. Even so – a friend’s dog ate my homework, which got me to leave my dorm room, which got me to have a tarot reading, which got me to open up to new people, which got me to a heartbreaking relationship that changed me for the better and got me out of that tiny school, which got me to start my witchcraft practice in earnest.

My only two regrets are the dog, and leaving his owner behind. They both meant more to me than they know, certainly more than I had the capacity to express at that time.