With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I learned to tell when he was working up to one of his fits of rage. He would smoke faster, pressing his lips tightly around the cigarette, one side of his mouth turned down. Then he’d start pacing, as if his body couldn’t contain his gathering fury. Then came the taunts, the questions that no answers would satisfy, the wrathful abuse: “I’m sick of your games! Fuck you, you whore bitch! Why don’t you die? You’re crazy — you know that? You’ll quietly commit suicide one day. You’re nothing without me!” He never hit me, although he once put a gun to my head. His rages would last the better part of an hour. Then he would storm out of the house, or go to sleep, exhausted. Sometimes he’d want to make love afterward.
The next day, he’d usually act as if nothing had happened, but other times he’d sit at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, as though trying to hold himself together. “I didn’t mean any of that,” he’d say. “You’re a good girl.” He never looked at me when he said it. It was the closest he ever came to an apology.
A few days later, he would go out and buy me something inappropriate, like a rabbit-fur coat. (The temperature rarely dropped below fifty where we lived.) Then he would take me out for an expensive dinner. He’d be full of plans for our future, and would say strange things like “You’re so goddamn cute, I get turned on when I hear you in the bathroom peeing.” I’d laugh to hide my fear.
It took me ten years to realize he was the crazy one.
Squeak . . . squeak . . . squeak. My father was carefully, methodically screwing a leg onto the long blue picnic bench. A light morning breeze rustled the corn in the back garden, a tiny hummingbird whizzed among the mulberry leaves, and the radio played softly in the background. Dad leaned back, took a drag on his cigarette, then bent forward again over his work. Squeak . . . squeak . . . squeak. It was a deeply healing sound.
I was at my parents’ house to recover from a bout of complete mental and physical exhaustion. About all I could manage to do was crawl from the bed to the porch lounger, where I now lay, watching Dad’s gnarled hands turn the wrenches.
I have early memories of my young father and our big, shaggy dog romping alongside my sled, laughing and shouting. But while I was in grade school, a near-fatal automobile accident left him guarded and bitter. He still worked hard to support us, but erected an impenetrable barrier of right-wing rhetoric and alcohol to conceal his pain and disappointment.
I left home at a young age and for years lived thousands of miles from my folks. During that time, my encounters with my dad consisted solely of dodging his conservative diatribes. But now, on the back porch, without a word, my father and I reached a sort of reconciliation. I saw the care he was putting into that long blue bench for his grandchildren, and felt that care being passed on to me.
The last time I saw Bob was through the window of a restaurant where I was having a business lunch. His hair was dirty and too long, and he looked as if he’d started drinking again, but to my eyes he was as handsome and lovable as ever.
When we’d separated, we’d promised to remain friends, but he’d gone downhill fast, disappearing for days at a time. The Monday we met in divorce court, he was late and looked terrible; he told me his mother had been found dead in her apartment that weekend, and that no one knew quite what had happened. I tried to find out when the funeral would be, but no one returned my calls.
A friend once asked me why I married Bob in the first place, and I said I figured I’d never meet anyone I liked better than I did him. And in spite of everything, I still feel the same way.
Periodically, I go through the belongings Bob left behind. I’ve disposed of his wedding suit, but there are some items I just can’t bring myself to give or throw away — pictures of his dead parents, his childhood toy box, his ice skates, his paintbrushes. Every few months, I call to ask when he’ll come pick up these possessions, and he promises to come the following week. But deep down, I want his things to stay here in this house, so that when we make up he won’t have to rent a truck to bring them home.
Bloomfield, New Jersey
With all the shrill force she can muster, my seven-year-old daughter screams at me, “I hate you! You never listen to me!” Then she stomps upstairs and slams the door to her room. I know from experience that she’s thrown herself on her bed to cry.
I take a minute to indulge the part of me that is angry and that hates her right back: for all her rebuffs and rejections; for making me feel inadequate as a parent; for never regarding me as omnipotent, even when she was a toddler. When I’ve finished my silent rant, I climb the stairs to her room and knock on her door.
“No one can come in!” she yells.
“It’s only me,” I say. “Can’t I come in?”
I hear her unlock the door and then fling herself back on her bed before I can enter. I go in quietly and sit on the edge of her bed. Though her face is angry, I can see the hurt underneath. I pat my thigh, and she slides onto my lap. I place my arms around her and tell her, “I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m so sorry. I’m ready to listen now.”
We had been butting heads all day long, and by the time we squeezed into the back seat of our friend’s car for a night of drinking and dancing, my boyfriend and I weren’t speaking to each other.
When we arrived at the crowded club, we went off in opposite directions. It was a full hour before we worked our way back into the same vicinity. He approached me and asked, “Do you come here often?”
“I don’t really get out that much,” I answered.
We made pretend small talk for a few minutes, and then he kissed my neck, so I kissed him back, pressing myself against his body.
“Are you always this friendly with men you don’t know?” he asked.
When we got home that night, he was anxious to go to bed with me, but I was put off by his haste. “Why don’t we start over?” I said.
He went out on the front porch and knocked on the door. “Who is it?” I said. He identified himself as my eager lover. “I can’t come to the door right now,” I said. “I’m naked.”
“That’s OK,” he said. “So am I.”
New York, New York
In the back of my closet is a hand-embroidered silk Chinese robe, midnight blue and as soft as a flower petal, with a pattern of medallions, birds, and golden chrysanthemums. I still remember the early-autumn day in 1947 when my husband gave the robe to me; it is the only time I remember Vernon ever saying, “I’m sorry.”
I have long forgotten the cause of the argument, but I remember it was morning and Vernon went to work afterward, leaving me in tears. As with all of our quarrels, I was convinced it was the end of our marriage.
I cried easily in those days. I had two young daughters, was six months pregnant, and was working hard to remodel our old house. Vernon, at twenty-seven, was trying to support our growing family and begin a new career while learning to deal with his painful war injuries. He had an artificial leg, and his other ankle was held together with screws and wires. Yet through it all he never complained.
The day of our argument, Vernon returned home in the evening with a large white box, which he placed on the dining-room table. Lifting the beautiful robe from its tissue paper and placing it around my shoulders, he said, “You deserve to have something pretty to wear when we go to a party.” This was more than just an apology.
Recently I took the robe out of my closet and addressed my late husband: “Well, Vernon, you were always generous with lovely gifts, but you only admitted to being wrong once. That’s OK — this robe is pretty enough to cover several apologies.”
The robe’s deep blue silk has faded over the years, but the golden chrysanthemums are still bright. Someday I’ll pass it on to one of my grown daughters when I need to say, “I’m sorry.”
Anne Beckwith Johnson
Santa Barbara, California
While working as director of a shelter for battered women, I became suspicious of the whole idea of making up. I heard many women’s stories there, and although the details varied, the themes were alarmingly similar. After the vicious beatings, the broken bones, the psychological scars, came the making up:
“He brought flowers and was so sweet.”
“He doesn’t want to hit me; he’s really not that way.”
“He brought me roses and told me he would get some counseling for his anger.”
“He bought the kids bikes and took me out to dinner.”
“He came home with cruise tickets to Bermuda.”
Many of the women in the shelter had learned the story of “Beauty and the Beast” too well. They were raised to believe that if only they were beautiful enough, kind enough, good enough, loving enough, and forgiving enough, they could tame their partners’ rages. But the men rarely asked forgiveness. Convinced they had done no wrong, they apologized only so the relationship could continue as it had.
There was one woman, though, who after hearing enough such stories announced that she was ready to make up, but not with the man who’d battered her. She had decided to direct the love she so desperately wanted to lavish on another to herself instead.
My mother had been diagnosed with cancer two years before, but it had gone into remission. Now it was back, and the doctors were not optimistic. For the first time in nine years, I was returning to my hometown in the Midwest.
The twenty-two-hour drive between Tucson and Kansas City, through mountains and plains and hills and skies, allowed ample time for contemplation. I had been angry at my mother for so long, for being tragic and sad and immobile. But somewhere around Oklahoma City, as I drew closer to my past, she became more human to me. She was neither the saint I’d seen her as in my childhood nor the demon I’d later perceived her to be. Now I saw a sixty-one-year-old woman whose life had been marked by tragic events: divorces, the loss of a four-year-old son, a hunger for money and freedom that she’d never even come close to satisfying.
Once in Kansas City, as I looked through boxes of old photographs, I allowed myself to remember the days when she was young and beautiful, and I had worshiped her. I remembered her patience, her love of reading, and her passion for issues. That was before the Valium and depression and fear disabled her. In later years, every time I saw her or spoke to her, I was reminded of all the things she was no longer capable of being or doing; and I wouldn’t let her forget, either. Therapy and twelve-step programs made me even more self-righteous.
Now, with the end in sight, we found resolution. “I may not have done great things with my life,” she said. “I didn’t win a Pulitzer or an Emmy or a Nobel prize. But one great thing I did do was give you to the world.”
Hearing this, I could no longer say I had turned out to be a fine person in spite of her. I am one because of her.
Phyllis E. Brodsky
We’ve been divorced seven years, but when you’ve had two kids together it’s hard to stay out of each other’s life. Last summer, I went to the airport with him to pick up our son. While we waited, I apologized for a very mean remark I’d made just before filing for divorce. I told him that it wasn’t true. He said he didn’t remember it, and doubted it had been as bad as I thought. “Besides,” he said, “you were never mean.” I hadn’t expected that.
Several months later, we flew to San Francisco to visit our son, and talked on the way. He said he was sorry he hadn’t treated me better. I told him I had been afraid to be myself. We agreed that getting divorced had helped us both to grow up.
We were communicating sensitively, and I felt understood the way I had longed to be through twenty years of marriage. If he had been that way ten years before, I would never have let him go.
Los Angeles, California
Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a framed photograph of my husband at age four. In it, he is wearing a red-and-white polka-dot clown suit, complete with pointed hat and ruffled collar, and sitting before a huge bowl of candy; it must be Halloween. On his face is a pout, the reason for which is unclear: Does his belly ache from too much candy? Has he been admonished not to eat any more? Or is he just tired?
My husband still wears the same pout on the rare occasions when we argue. After one quarrel, he was soaking in the bathtub with the door closed, making it clear that I wasn’t welcome. Anxious for forgiveness, I retrieved the photo from our dresser, knelt with it outside the bathroom door, and knocked.
“What?” he demanded.
“Can I come in?” I asked in a child’s voice.
“Yes,” he answered grudgingly.
Pushing the door slightly ajar, I inched the pouting clown picture through the opening, tapping it along the floor as a child animates a toy horse. There was silence; then a gruff, embarrassed laugh. I was forgiven.
Gretchen H. Sommers
Castro Valley, California
“Call me a cab, Corrine,” Great-aunt Mable would slur drunkenly to her older sister (my grandmother) after one of their terrible fights. When the cab arrived, Corrine would send it away and insist that Mable stay the night. Eventually, the cab companies caught on and stopped sending out cars to our address.
These brawls happened frequently at Grandma Corrine’s, with hugs and tears interspersed between rounds. Tables and chairs would fly until, exhausted, both parties would break for a beer and a smoke. Gradually, voices would rise again until the argument was rejoined at full force. Neighbors, hungry for cheap entertainment and gossip, sat on their porches during these fights (some even brought their ironing with them). My sisters and I had no choice but to witness our relatives’ abuse, which seemed a sick form of affection.
Mable and Grandma weren’t the only ones. Once, Mable’s daughter, Shirley, took a kitchen knife and slashed the tires on her husband’s car. Over the years, no one ever tired of these violent rituals, nor did any permanent rifts develop between family members. Grandma’s explanation for this is simple: “They’re my kin.”
Kansas City, Missouri
My brother molested me when we were children, but I never really thought about it until I left home for college, where it all came back to me. I was consumed with rage. For years, I screamed at every provocation. Once, the silhouette of a baby tree reminded me of his profile, so I kicked it down. (I will always feel guilty about that.)
But there came a day when I realized I wasn’t mad anymore. I still thought I should be mad, but I wasn’t. I don’t know why, really — maybe age, or boredom, or exhaustion; it takes so much energy to be angry all the time. I don’t understand this process of forgiveness.
I’m going to call him and ask if we can meet so I can tell him that I don’t hate him, that I even love him, and am sad for what happened. Yes, I’ll call him — but not today.
Shortly after I got married, my mother and grandmother had an argument. I never did get the full story, but the disagreement was bitter enough that they refused to speak to or see each other for nearly a decade. (Longer, incidentally, than my marriage lasted.)
A few years ago, during one of my infrequent visits to Louisiana, my family sat around a table heaped high with freshly boiled crabs and shrimp, and the subject of the feud came up. To our amazement, my mother flatly denied that it had ever occurred. If not for the presence of other witnesses, I might have doubted my own recollection.
My grandmother is now in a nursing home. She no longer recognizes members of her family. For a while, my mother tried to care for her at home. She describes with disgust the process of cleaning and bathing her helpless mother. Listening to my mother talk about this, I realize how deeply she still hates her mother, whose emotional abuse she suffered as a child. I hear no forgiveness in my mother’s words, only a perverse sense of martyrdom. She and my grandmother obviously failed to reach anything more than a grudging truce. Now my grandmother’s condition allows my mother to maintain her image as a good daughter, and also provides her with never-ending reasons to complain.
Observing the two of them has taught me that I, too, have a very superficial relationship with my mother. I don’t like her as a person, and I would be hard pressed to say that I love her as a child should love a parent. I’ve tried for years to reach even a middle ground with her, but every time I think I’ve made progress, she manages to make just the right spiteful comment to undermine my efforts.
Now, at forty-one, I no longer believe that my mother does this purely out of malice. I know that the emotional damage she suffered at the hands of her mother makes it impossible for her to behave differently. Yet even with this understanding, arrived at with the aid of therapy, I can’t continue reaching out to her. I’ve already been slapped down too many times. And I will never allow myself to become my mother’s caretaker. I have no intention of substituting martyrdom for making up.
Uh,oh. He’s here again, rifling through the refrigerator, wearing his most garish rock-and-roll T-shirt, a hint of a mustache on his upper lip. He clenches his teeth and plays air guitar in a way that makes Joe Cocker look graceful. He starts to growl, then screams at me, “I hate you!”
He hates the world. He hates his sister. He hates his life. He’s my twelve-year-old son.
To maintain my sanity, I pull out the photographs of him at birth, at ages one, two, and three. I remember loving him so much I would step in front of a speeding bus to protect him. I try to conjure up that feeling again, then feel guilty when, in my mind, I step slightly to one side as the bus approaches — but only for a moment.
My therapist says that when my son yells at me I should simply tell him that he can’t do that anymore, and walk out of the room. Sounds easy. I try it, and wince when I hear his room being destroyed, CDs and books being thrown everywhere.
My son’s father, just moved cross-country. I try to tell my son that I wasn’t the one who moved away. “I’m glad he moved!” my son shouts, and I catch a glimpse of the little boy I hugged before he ran off to his first day of preschool. I see the same fear in his eyes as I did then: the fear that he will be left alone; the fear that he will have to grow up.
My son needs to know that I am in control. He needs to know that he is being taken care of even when his actions and words say, “I don’t need you.” He does need me. He needs me to be loving and nonjudgmental, and to know the words to the Smashing Pumpkins’ latest hit.
It was 2 A.M. and I had just driven a hundred miles from New York City to the arts camp in the mountains where my boyfriend and I taught acting and directing. I was doing a show in the city and usually spent Sunday night there, driving up to camp early Monday morning. This Sunday night, however, I was dreaming of sleeping with my guy in our cabin on the lake, breathing the fresh air and listening to the sound of bullfrogs mating.
I walked along the pitch-dark path up the hill to our little cabin, guided only by memory. As I got close, I saw through the screen that the stereo was on, and I thought, Poor Brian; he must have been so tired that he fell asleep listening to music. I entered quietly so as not to wake him, and found about a dozen lit candles on the floor. Then I heard gasping and moaning sounds from the bedroom. I felt nauseated and weak, as if I was about to faint.
I must have made a noise, because Brian stumbled out of the bedroom, babbling apologies. Then she came out, the junior counselor, and began weeping. They were so pathetic that I found myself taking care of them. I sent her home, set up a makeshift bed for myself on the far side of the cabin, and tried to get some sleep so I could deal with Brian in the morning.
Amazingly enough, I did sleep that night, though I woke feeling hung over. Brian looked as if he’d been up all night. After we’d dressed, I led him outside. Gripping his hand, I started to run through the woods, over stones, under branches, and into brush. Sometimes branches would snap back in his face, sometimes he would stumble, sometimes he would be out of breath, but he let himself be dragged along without a word on this mad plunge through the forest. He had hurt me, and now I was hurting him back. His willingness to endure this strange punishment was a sign that he knew he had done wrong, and was willing to try to make it up to me. It took some time to build my trust back up, but that mad journey through the woods was surely the beginning.
New York, New York
Twenty years after my father’s death, I decided to try to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong between us. My parents divorced when I was a baby, and I saw my father only sporadically while growing up. We were never close enough to fight, and consequently never had the chance to make up.
During my search for reconciliation, I came across a meditation exercise for healing unresolved issues. In a comfortable place, the exercise instructed, relax and visualize a sacred space; then ask your “higher self” to join you there, along with the person who has caused you the most pain, and his or her higher self.
I went out to the edge of a cornfield on a beautiful autumn day. The sun was warm on my back, crows and geese called overhead, and the dried stalks seemed to whisper to me in the breeze. I settled into a comfortable position and closed my eyes.
Immediately, as if he had been waiting for me, my father appeared. There were no preliminaries. I asked the question I’d wanted to ask him all my life: “Why didn’t you love me?”
The answer he gave was the one answer I’d never thought of, and, ironically, the one that made the most sense.
“I didn’t know how,” he said.