A Kind of Poem, in a way. I am writing this without thinking. Forgive me. Today has been a hard day.
I refuse to give up.
The first man to try to ruin my curiosity and my determination for a gifted love and remarkable friendship in romance was the leader in a string of disappointments. The others suited up, narrowed their eyes toward me, walking one foot in front of another in a quiet line with barely the time in between them for me to regain consciousness enough to process. Each man of the few I am thinking of, he would begin by marveling at my vitality and, by the end, would try to stand on top of my throat.
I like to think of grace coming to them all like one of those birds that seems as though it talks, like the one in my old yard, repeating a steady phrase; or an evening owl. Steady and assured.
Or else a familiar trail, that takes you on the highest ridge with the oldest trees. In the Smokies, maybe.
I like to imagine forgiveness watching them through each day, waiting for them to sleep, and then slipping inside their parted mouths to fill them up in their dream state, letting them know they are released from the hurt and harm they were addicted to, poor things, when they knew nothing of what it means to be loved and to love in return.
The first man was a romantic in Big Manhanny, the Big City that was angry to me and still gorgeous and gentle, my big mistake, the worst and best place, where I fell in love with growing up and also frightened of it at the same time. My small fear of big things (but thirst for seeming like I’d try) brought me to a laughing man with a gap-tooth grin and a wool coat. He used to kiss my chin in the morning while softly calling into my eyes, his “orbs of obsidian”, he’d say, “Wake up, Poof, I’m waiting for you to wake up with me”.
He lived inside of a novel, with a Persian rug and books everywhere, prints of Winslow Homer framed on walls capped with crown moulding, he was a paradox of sensitivity and callous pretension. I made spaghetti upstairs and he would come inside and kiss my neck and call me his Gelsemina and we’d slow dance, His drenching love, his taste in music and art, his daunting vocabulary, the gentle and tender surface of his demeanor, romanced me and allowed for his other habits of ignoring my needs, talking over me, pushing my words into his hands and then shaking them off in a drain somewhere. My pursuits and delights were ignored in favor of showing me films I’d already heard of and teaching me books I’d already read.
But his arrogance was a viper that followed my ankle into every room and cherished it with a longing that kept him at bay until the perfect moment. He performed his intelligence so fiercely and his triumphs so fiercely I had to beg for moments where I could be heard. He would ask for my forgiveness by drawing my hand to his chest, but kept talking, and I was still. After, we would listen to records and smoke on the fire escape and he would whisper his love for me in my ear, before spending the evening telling me about art I already loved. Dinner parties were simply me on a lily pad floating away while he made the others laugh, holding onto my foot and squeezing hard. For two years, in that Harlem apartment, I heard about the gardens and forests of his childhood, observed every one of his talents and ideas quietly, obediently, and to this day know the lines in his mother’s face. Though I can’t be sure he ever learned the name of my brother. Certainly, for all the love letters I received in those years, slipped into my hands in the morning or while in the bath, he never knew the young woman I was at all, for it’s possible I never uttered one full sentence.
And I was very young. He was my first love and set the pattern in motion of assuming I wasn’t to be heard.
There was another afterwards, some years later, who also wrote letters explaining to me who he thought I was before ever asking; there were breadcrumbs laid out for me to follow: picnics in cemeteries and small totems given as gifts to represent our twin souls entangled in a forever I hadn’t agreed to. On our first week together he confided that he loved me, and when I protested he persisted that my ignorance to what love was would torture us, should I decide to leave him alone in his wilderness. Flagrant gestures of romantic devotion were coupled with broken promises that I hadn’t even asked for. My stories were ignored and left unresponded to. Again I was interrupted. Rudeness or inconsideration on his part were waved off when I protested, and I was squashed again. Somehow, when he reported that we were suddenly polyamorous, and that he was finding himself by finding the bodies of other women, and that I was stifled if unwilling to participate, I remained with him and even ended up the brokenhearted one, in the end.
Another man thought I was the most fascinating, most beautiful creature on earth, until he had me convinced I could open up to him, after much resistance on my part. Another letter-writer. Mountains of them. Notes. Friendly notes. Loving notes. Sweet little nothing notes. Our intimacy was sacred until I got some hard news and I became difficult to navigate. Crying, looking for comfort, confiding in him as I thought lovers were supposed to do, I was left on a dirt path unsure of where he had gone. For I was a human now, suddenly too complex for him, and therefore not the dream girl he’d lusted for. And so then, he had gone. Once the girl cries, she is too much a human.
I have had men try to tell me how everything in the world works, including my own heart and my own mind. I’ve had men cherish me while pressing me down.
There were the worse ones, which I won’t describe.
You see the pattern. I’d become attracted only to men who gaslit me into distortion; I eventually became bewildered at my own needs, began to accept the idea that when a man I loved would ask me about my day (if they should ask me about my day, which, honestly, wasn’t usually the case), I had thirty seconds or less to round it out before they lost interest or interrupted. I began to long for follow-up questions that never came. I started drifting into a sort of sleep when in their company. Advocating for my right to be desired on a deeper level fogged away; I was a lost little thing. This went on for centuries, each one worse than the last. The Harlem boy with the gap teeth, now fifteen years away from me, seems gentle and sweet. He was just married last week, I saw.
In many ways I was an animal made of glass, broken apart several times, always pieced back together, by some distracted hands, but poorly, and with weak bonds.
The last time my heart was torn it was by a laughing mouth and the kindest heart I ever knew, and I thought I was safe, and it turns out I was not. It showed me how careless I’d become. I threw myself into it with abandon, not concerned with how I might come out at the end of it, which, of course, it came, and I lay broken apart at the edge of some trees, half naked, and angry, and terrified of men.
For anyone with similar patterns, there will never be words strong enough to describe what it feels to only fill your life with people who do not know how to give.
Change can be the most difficult thing. I’ve learned a lot in these months about hurting and adaptation, and growth through change, and growth through suffering, and growth through being simply a woman, one who knows her feelings and how to articulate them.
I’ve begun to sew into my pockets a fortitude I’d started losing all those years before, piecing together walls and understanding the ways that I can speak up for myself, insist that I have valuable insights and valid emotions and intoxicating qualities that make me a desirable friend and desirable lover and a desirable woman standing by herself.
Blurting out my own advocacy, in sloppy words, slipping out without warning, god save whoever they tumble toward, I am trying to learn how to do it. I am trying to remember that I should be sought after; I do not need to listen to stories over and over without mine being asked for.
I have an insistence that I be heard even if it doesn’t work, even if my words fail, which they often do. I am clumsy with words, but they come out now, even if it is a shame that I need to feel brave to force them out.
But then here is a danger:
What happens when you fall inside of a person who is challenging to us, simply challenging — and you, who have been whiplashed into submission and forced into so many narrow spaces of isolation, inside of what were supposed to be partnerships — what happens when things look and feel similar, but are actually quite different?
What happens when someone who is just a bit complicated resembles someone who is quite toxic, and all the same triggers get pulled, and the tiny bird that is you, the one with the broken wing, cannot help but spiral in a panic and rush the side of her cage, or whatever, and break the wing more, and fall to the bottom, and feel sure that she is repeating history?
What happens when you realize you actually don’t know how to let yourself be as open as you’re desiring?
What happens when you learn, as I have, that romance cannot replace heart, and love letters don’t mean a thing, nor love songs, nor any flagrant gestures of devotion, when your voice is crushed out of your body; what happens when you then become attracted to the opposite of affection, the absence of touch, the absence of words at all that give you value or tell you that you’re worthy of being loved?
What happens when you are just so confused about what you deserve and what you’re getting and what you want and where you want it and how? What happens when you’re not sure where to put all of this big heart that you have?
What happens when you want so badly to get back what you give, and some people just don’t know how to? It is not that they refuse to. They just do not know how to. What then?
What happens when you’re out of practice, not knowing how to ask?
What happens when you understand patterns and also do not know how to undo them all of the time?
Nothing happens, all is well.
Some time ago, I lay on my back on my bed and called toward the ceiling for the strength to be stubborn again, and difficult, and yet still willing to trust and love. I do not want to close myself. I do not want to become hardened and incapable of climbing inside another person and burrowing deep. And so I have crafted an encasement around my heart that lets it be brave, and have filled it with heat and given it space to grow and work itself out.
And yet, and still, and even so: People seem to pull away from the clarity of a strong heart; for I’ve been called a burden for simply having feelings at all. Complicated for wanting to talk it out.
I remember early on, before Harlem, when I was this way even more than I am now – stronger, articulate, still forging forward — and how easily it was snuffed out.
Standing on top of my throat.
But so this heart, which has fallen in love too many times with people who wish to abandon it, I have trained it to love harder still and to forgive, and to insist that it is just fine to have needs; and it is okay to walk away from people who want to suck you dead and leave you with nothing given back.
I’ve been giving graceful love and forgiveness toward every man who has helped to make me the doormat I’d become.
I will not be that doormat anymore but I will probably fall in love with difficulty and not know how to glide through it without falling a little quiet sometimes, and forgetting to stick up for myself, and doing it at the wrong times, and feeling terrible about it later, and getting very confused.
It has been a hard day. It’s allowed. I’m allowed to have hard days.
The other morning, I prayed (yes, I pray) on a walk to remember that words are as important as our own experiences, given to us by whatever, whomever, wherever the universe was made (if it was made) to live inside of us. Loving and forgiving a person who has hurt you without the intent to and who do so with guilt, or shame for having done so, that is one thing; running through the familiar woods with the real and deepening love — in all of its undefinable manners — for the things you cannot predict or control, and insisting on having control at other times, is the bigger point, in my soft opinion.
Post script: There have also been many, many wonderful men in my life (I hope they know who they are) romantically and otherwise, who have never done anything but be patient and loving and kind toward me, and my patterns were simply louder than their gestures of healthy love. To them I am forever sorry I didn’t respect the kindness I was given. And to them I also say, you are so wonderful and the people who encounter you are as lucky as I am.
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