Category Archives: Memoir Pieces / Essays

The Slap

By the time I looked down the barrel of a gun for the third time in thirty seconds, I started questioning the wisdom of living with an ex-con.

I’d hung in there for four years, but watching my boyfriend, Brad, play with the handgun his buddy Mark just bought, I realized the only way Brad would be upset if I were shot is how much trouble he’d get into with the cops.

Like the time he grabbed a knife from me when I was opening a box. If I’d succeeded in the way I was doing it, considering the resistance of the tape, there’s a good chance I would have stabbed myself in the chest. He clutched the knife, closed his eyes, and whispered, “Oh, my God.” I thought he was relieved that I wasn’t hurt.

Brad was five-foot-five to my five-foot-ten, with a large purple nose and ruddy complexion from too much alcohol by thirty-six, but that didn’t matter to me. He seemed charming and intelligent, with a lot of Bad Boy in him. I was enthralled after being married to an Air Force officer for seven years, and I was ready for someone with a rule-breaking attitude.

But two months after Brad moved in, I became depressed.

A friend asked, “Don’t you think he might be bad for you?”

I said, “Oh, not at all,” and something about how he lets me be myself and isn’t it great I can relax around him enough to feel my depression?

Two years into our cohabitation, I swallowed a couple handfuls of sleeping pills. I spent a week in the psych ward at the University of Washington after the stomach pump. When depression hits me, it’s always in the spring, and it was beautiful during my stay. The skies were clear, buds were sprouting on the trees, and the temperature was cool with a hint of summer ahead. It felt like life was full of possibilities—for everyone but me.

Brad didn’t visit or call during that week. I choked down the pain and thought, “He assumes I’m okay. That’s a good thing, right?” I called him every day, though, just to let him know I was fine, and I tried not to hear the impatience and irritability in his voice as we talked.

When I was discharged, he told me he was busy, so why don’t I just take a cab home? I told myself, “That just means he believes I can take care of myself, which is great.” I tried to silence the whimpering voice in my mind that asked, “Doesn’t he care?”

Life returned to its routine loneliness for a while, and then Brad got into an argument with our landlords, the Borbas. I can’t recall what the disagreement was about, but we received an eviction notice over it.

I told Brad I just wanted to move. I didn’t want an eviction on my record.

He gave me a pamphlet distributed by the City of Seattle regarding tenant/landlord disputes and assured me that they couldn’t evict us because “We have rights. Look, they’re in the pamphlet.” I felt nauseous because I’d always liked the Borbas, but I thought Brad would be impressed with me if I stood by him. So we fought the eviction.

I took a second job on the weekends as a stripper in order to keep up with the attorney fees. Brad continued just working the one job, but he said he was hard at work, researching our rights in his spare time.

I thought we were a great team, and he seemed to find me attractive at last. When I was just an administrative assistant, he would tell me, “Sometimes you’re pretty” in a tone that conveyed I should feel flattered. But now that I was taking my clothes off for strangers, he found me sexy. I was relieved and felt as though I were worth something to him.

In addition to our full-color pamphlet about tenants’ rights, Brad brought our white phone receiver to court in a plastic baggie. It had a black smudge on it, and he told the judge it was proof that Mr. Borba had entered our apartment without our permission, did some unauthorized work, and then used the phone.

As we waited for the court reporter to stop drooling on his machine because he was laughing so hard—which was fine because the judge was guffawing and unable to speak—I started to wonder about where this was going. Minutes later, we lost the case.

After we moved out and I caught up on the attorney fees, I stopped the stripping job. Brad didn’t mind, though, because by now he had developed an addiction to going to strip clubs.

I felt useless again, but then one day he mentioned a casino robbery he and a former cellmate were planning. He described the plan in detail, telling me that it would be foolproof because “Indian casinos have terrible security.”

I heard myself offering to help, and I held my breath as I waited for him to think about this. The nausea I’d gotten with the eviction was back, but it was much worse. I tried to ignore it, but that just led to profuse sweating.

Brad was silent, and I chattered about how people who know me would be blown away to hear I’d participated in something like that. He listened and frowned, then told me two weeks later he’d changed his mind. I was hurt, but I could breathe again. I suspected he didn’t think I was discreet or smart enough to help. I felt ashamed because I was willing to commit a crime—and I was ashamed because I wasn’t good enough to commit it—but I was grateful for the reprieve. I thought, “I was willing to risk prison for him. He’s gotta love me now.”

I spent two more years with him, feeling lonely, waiting for him to come home at three in the morning after visiting bars, gambling joints, and strip clubs. Anything to avoid being with me.

I’d kept my body in good shape and always been supportive of him, even as he sat in the shed out back every evening, smoking, drinking, and looking at porn because “I need to warm up.” But my anger was building without my realizing it.

One day as Brad knelt next to the cage where our pet rats, Thelma and Louise, lived, he made a remark about my needing to keep the cage cleaner. I was their sole caretaker, and I was meticulous about cleaning their cage and keeping fresh food and water in there. The girls even got to run around the house for long periods of time twice a day.

His criticism caused something in my brain to click. Without hesitation, I strode to him and slapped him up the side of his head. I apologized and blamed my parents’ violent marriage for my actions. Then there was another click in my mind, and I heard the echoes of that excuse from a thousand times before. I didn’t want to hear myself say it ever again.

It was as though I’d slapped myself. I woke up and began to see Brad and me, as individuals, with clarity. He’d never cared, he never would, and I started to get okay with that.

Two weeks later I came home from work to find Brad and Mark examining the new handgun as though they were forensic experts. They passed it back and forth in reverence, caressing the silver barrel and cooing to the gun as though they wanted to make love to it. I watched Brad display more affection for a weapon than he’d ever displayed for me, and the truth of this made me flinch every time the barrel flashed at me.

His statements over the years came flying back to me, but now they didn’t sound like almost-compliments, and my mind began to scream in response. I could hear a new voice, and there was no whimpering.

Flash—“Sometimes you’re pretty.”

What the hell are you doing?

Flash—“I need to warm up.”

You asshole.

Flash—“Can’t you take a cab home?”

This time my rage was out loud: “Get the fuck outta here with that thing!”

Brad looked at Mark with regret and embarrassment. He handed the gun back and apologized for my behavior. As Mark and his gun left, Brad strode out of the room in a huff, out to his shed to be with his booze and his smokes and his delusions of being desired by air-brushed women.

But I knew the shed wasn’t far enough, and one more evening’s separation was too short. I needed him to leave forever, go wherever, and soon.

He left without protest or sadness. Just a shrug and a suggestion on how we might divide the VHS movies. Of course I could keep Thelma and Louise because caring for anyone simply wasn’t in his nature.

*****

Twenty-one years later, I decided to Google Brad, as a bored person with exes might do. I didn’t expect any solid hits because his last name is common, and when I Google him, there’s usually a famous sports figure who pops up.

But this time the search brought forth a news article about him. Early one morning that year, Brad stepped in front of a train that was going forty miles an hour.

If he’d done it right after I’d kicked him out, his death might have pleased me. But the decades had changed me, brought a sense of empathy I didn’t know I had until I read about his suicide.

It was difficult to process my feelings.

How could I feel sad for someone who had been so cold and mean?

Was he capable of feeling the kind of despair I’d felt when I took all those pills and irritated him with the inconvenience of my depression, or was his death merely a choice of expedience because he’d lost the ability to charm, manipulate, and abuse a vulnerable person?

My newfound empathy surprised and disconcerted me, and I began to wonder where this might lead regarding my fractious familial relationships. Could I begin to forgive? Could I ask for forgiveness?

Slouching Toward Memoir

As I work on my first essay in memoir-writing class, I’m beginning to feel vulnerable. I prefer wearing a veneer of titanium, but I’m willing to remove it—momentarily—to see what happens.

I used to see vulnerable people as weaklings. I’m not talking about children, the elderly, people with mental disabilities who could be abused with ease. I’m talking about people who have the ability to reveal their love, pain, and hopes while trusting those around them to be kind.

I view these open people as among the most courageous because betrayal of trust is a possibility, always, with humans. Yet those who trust keep doing so anyway. I believe their courage comes from a strength, the knowledge that mean-spiritedness can be overcome, and trusting is worth its inherent risks. It is a belief in one’s self more than in others.

Despite recognizing this, the last thing I want to do is drop my guard and let others see my ugliness, fears, and soft squishy underbelly that is so easy to wound. Yet here I am, pouring my experience onto paper and sharing it with my classmates.

I’ve always been an over sharer. Just ask my peers in previous playwriting classes. Every new draft of a scene brought the same response: “Cindy, you need to fictionalize this.” The drive to write memoir is visceral, and if I fight it, I think something in me will waste away.

One aspect of my character I’m not eager to share is my judgment of others. It is often merciless, even as I acknowledge my lack of moral authority. Until now, I never questioned the sources of this tendency, but I have the beginning of a clue to one.

I just learned of a dirty little family secret. It was scandalous at the time, but as our society has evolved, the telling of this kind of thing now is routine, even dull, except perhaps to the most rigid of religious fanatics.

The family member involved was a pseudo-parent to me for many years. As a child, I heard her tell me what she saw in me, my future, my parents. The surface of her words had a gloss of kindness, encouragement, and approval. My desperation for love and acceptance was so craven that I clung to her as a life raft while my parents screamed at and beat each other.

As the decades rolled on, the intent of her words became clearer. The nuances of phrase and tone had always left me feeling less than, ashamed, a disappointment to her. That feeling has become an essential part of who I am.

I haven’t spoken to her in decades, just as I have avoided my parents. To be connected is to want to die. I have tried to separate her from this equation, but I’ve been unsuccessful. So I accept that she was one of my mold makers.

This secret revelation, however, has turned my mind, and I see something different. I see a woman who made a most human mistake, and for that, she paid with a lifetime of judgment from her parents. As she was vilified, her twin brother was glorified as the golden child, one who could do no wrong, this despite his being one of the most cruel and perverted people to inhabit this planet. That monster was my father, and my dysfunctional mentor was his twin sister, my aunt, an unwanted surprise on the day of their birth so many decades ago.

My aunt spent years working as a single mother, dedicated to giving her child the best life possible in an era where that kind of thing was only spoken of in whispers. My father devoted his time and energy to fighting with my mother and erasing most of my childhood memories through trauma.

It is understatement to call this unfair. It is also easy to understand why she might look at me, child of the golden child, and yield to the temptation to knock me down, make me doubt, encourage my fears. Judging comes easiest to those who have suffered judgment. I judge because it’s what I know. But now, writing memoir, I want more. I want to understand, and I want to forgive.

There’s a portion of my heart that has opened, for the first time, to this woman. Where I once only saw bitterness and felt recrimination, I now see a human who made a mistake, who tried to make it right, who couldn’t escape the pain of her life’s choices.

I suppose I’m ready to write memoir now. Just two years ago I was writing harsh scenes in playwriting class about this same woman. Now my anger and pain are making room for something greater.

But just for a little while this morning, I’m going to slip back into my titanium bathrobe. Baby steps.