(Essay 8 of the #52essays2017)
Riding in a gray Honda up a dark road, I felt someone looking at me.
It was the light of the moon.
Bright and full in all her splendor, in awe at feeling her warmth, I heard her speak.
“What are you going to do next?”
Lost, so lost, and for so long, I whisper, “I keep looking for the signs.”
I had been looking up and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. “I have no map. I need guidance”
She kept reaching for my face, asking me to look up into her eyes as she told me it was ok to come alive.
“You need to learn to live here, now. This life.”
I hear the words echo, come out of other women’s lips, wondering what that is supposed to look like as she traces lines along my body.
The moon reminds me of my mother.
All of them.
I reach through the window and touch her, feeling like a child, the fragility of the moment, the fear of letting go.
Her light warms my face and I know that she is reaching around me, holding me close, so I cry into the night sky and whisper goodnight.
Upon waking up, and waking up, and waking up again, I see she lights up the earth the way she lights up the map of my body.
When I was a kid, starting at the age of 9, I spent a couple of summers with my family at The Rodney Motel and Apartments on 94th street and Collins Avenue. My parents loved it because it was economical (we had a full kitchen so we could make breakfast and lunch) and it was on the beach. The motel had two pools; a large clean one and a smaller, usually dirty one. White round tables surrounded the area and at night, I’d stare at the darkness of the night sky. I could feel my heart beating in my ears; I was afraid of the dark, and yet, I would force myself to look up at it, into it. “It’s not going to swallow you,” I’d think, reminding myself of the impossibility of such a thing. But it felt like it was going to swallow me whole along with the ocean. It felt as if I could jump into its darkness, its void, the ocean and sky changing places. When the moon was out, fear and romance did a funny dance in my belly.
We stayed at The Rodney the summer I was 14. There, I thought I was so in love with a little Cuban boy name “Joseito”. I didn’t yet realize I was in love with a place, a mood, a tone. The motion of water, with the smell of salt and smooth sand beneath my feet was an enchantment that exuded a kind of sex and joy I wouldn’t know for years. But my body knew. There is something about learning to surrender to that darkness, and to sex, and to life, that could only come with age and experience. Still, it made me wonder what wonderful and terrible things hid in the dark.
I am uncomfortable with the in between spaces. I don’t mind the beginning and end of things, with birth and death. But that part in the middle where life happens? Where the sickness and worry and joy all takes place…that makes me uncomfortable if I’m not sure of the outcome. And that is literally life.
When I first moved to the suburbs almost four years ago, I wanted to light up my driveway like a NYC sidewalk. It’s what I was used to. The streets have been well lit wherever I lived. And I never lived in a house. I’m not used to living in darkness, aside from the one I carry inside.
I used to stand by the kitchen window terrified of what I couldn’t see. I used to look out that window, squinting, wondering how far into the darkness I could see and wonder, if something was there,would I be able to see it before it got me? At the time, my husband worked and went to school in the city so he wouldn’t arrive until well past 10pm. We live across the street from the Metro North station. I live in a quiet neighborhood, I can hear the train pull in. You’d think I would get used to the sound of a door opening, of metal hitting metal, of footsteps arriving around the same time on any given weekday. I’d still jump though, still feel my heart race and my stomach turn. This feeling never really went away. It just dissipated, slowly, through the years. Like a receding tide.
Back then, it was easy for me to live in a perpetual state of longing. Change does that to me. Or did that to me. I don’t know yet if it’s past tense or not. Not quite regret, but not quite at peace with the past, in those early days I wasn’t writing, yet. Just reliving nightmares in my head. Reliving mistakes made, wondering why I was still so lost and unhappy when I had gained so much.
This wasn’t supposed to be about trauma. This wasn’t supposed to be about my ex-husband. I hate that most things I write, circle back to him. But this is about letting go. Stripping away the things that have held me back, living in another time.
The last time I stayed at The Rodney Motel, I was 21. I was already married. We (my husband, my parents, brother, my sister-in-law, and sister) went on a big family vacation. I didn’t yet know that he would sabotage every special occasion, every event. That he would cast a shadow on all the memories that were supposed to be light. Finally, a trip to Miami when I’m legal and can enjoy time with my family! I thought. My college graduation. Vacations. My birthdays. The birth of our son. All tainted.
Most of the abuse was about proving my love to him.
We’ve had a black dog for over two years and a cat for almost as long as we’ve lived here. When we first adopted Luna, my sweet black cat, everyone including the vet recommended we keep her indoors. “You have all sorts of wild animals out there that can hurt her,” the vet said. No reason to risk it. She’s been an indoor cat that purrs on my head at night, cuddles with my son when he’s feeling sick, and snuggles up on my husband’s shoulder when she misses his attention. But still, I sometimes feel bad watching her stare out the window as she tries to catch bugs on the other side or leaves as they fall in autumn. I remind myself that it’s not selfish to want her to live as long as possible. She’s an animal though, and I hope I’m not hurting her in some way. I have become terrified of the idea of her escaping, of being out there at night and me not being able to find her. I’m very protective of Luna while I hope she enjoys life.
Our black lab is a big goofy dog that barks at you because he wants to lick you to death, wants you to rub his belly. I used to joke that he couldn’t defend me from an attacker because he would be too excited. After two and half years, I trust his instincts a little more. And mine.
I don’t take him on the long walks I should. Walking from the house to the driveway, you have to walk up a path through the yard, and I do this often when it’s too late and I’m tired. There’s a shed in the driveway. I put a solar light with a sensor on it. I have always made sure to keep my phone with me just in case the shed light didn’t work, I could use my flashlight. One night this summer, I forgot my phone and my glasses. The shed light didn’t work. As I walked around, waiting for him to do his business, it occurred to me that I wasn’t in a hurry. It occurred to me that I was in the dark. It occurred to me that I didn’t fear what would pop out from behind a tree, that the sky wasn’t going to swallow me. As I walked back to the house, I felt an odd sense of pride. And when my shadow scared me, and I pictured it a monster with claws ready to grab me, when I felt that something was behind me and might grab me, I took a deep breath and told it to leave me alone.
It was around this time that I started opening the window in my bedroom. It took almost 4 years for me to feel safe in my house, which isn’t bad.
It took me around 11 to feel safe from my ex-husband.
I hate that feeling. That feeling that someone is watching you, following you, is about to reach out and grab your arm. I don’t understand how the mind works. But I’ve adapted in order to manage the fear, and not run away.
Maybe I didn’t look out of the kitchen window so much in fear but in amazement. This is mine. I did this. And I was afraid someone would come take it all away.
For a while recently, I had been pushing my husband away. I was living another timeline. I was suddenly afraid of being taken advantage of in unreasonable ways. I wouldn’t laugh, I could barely smile. I had to unlearn and unload the abuses I learned a decade earlier.
I wanted him to prove his love for me.
I had to learn to walk into the dark without retraumatizing myself.
We’ve gone camping every year since July 2011; my son was 5. This is entirely my husband’s domain: the wilderness. This is where as a general rule, I follow directions on how to do things (we are not like this at home at all). It has become a time for me to have a mental vacation. No internet, no phone, complete disconnect. Our survival is almost entirely my husband’s responsibility. He worries about food, and cooking, and keeping us dry from the rain, and picking a campsite that’s close to the bathrooms. He’s in charge of making sure the garbage and food are all properly stored (you have to put it in your car when you go to sleep so you don’t attract bears). I love camping. I love being outside and I love being close to nature. But, every year, I would go to bed when he went to bed because I was afraid to stay outside alone. I was afraid of the tricks the light of the fire plays on your eyes. Of not recognizing the sounds of an animal were it to approach. If I had to walk over to the bathroom alone, I’d pray the whole way there, imagining all sorts of ridiculous horror movie scenarios.
Except this year.
This year, I realized I adapted to the dark.
This year, I learned I was both my own darkness and light.
This year, I didn’t want to go to bed. I stayed up with the fire, I stayed up with my pen. I loaded up the car when he forgot. We camped by a pond, and I looked out into the water, into the abyss of the sky and darkness, with the waning moon shining down upon me.
And I knew I was living. Here. Now. With and without the monstrosity of my shadows.