Friday, April 09, 2010

Hitting and how it feels

I have been reading McSweeney's Internet Tendency regularly for the last month or so. (In my top 10 favorite apps, for sure.) There are regular columns mixed in with random occurrances. One of the regulars is called Bitchslap: a column about women and fighting. The author, Susan Schorn, teaches martial arts in Austin, TX (wish I'd known about her when I lived there).

Her latest column talks about pacifism and violence and in it, she talks about the intoxication that comes from getting what you want using violence. Almost at the end, she says
"If you want something to be afraid of, forget about anthrax, snipers, and people with bombs in their underwear. Hit somebody when you're mad at them, and see how you feel. That'll keep you up nights."
I did once, and it did.

I graduated college in May of 1995. I was 22 and had been living with my boyfriend for about 6 months. We bickered constantly. He was a cook and would stay after hours at the restaurant and drive home drunk--I would yell about his irresponsibility. During those last few years at school I started what would become a lifelong habit of crying for no comprehensible reason, sometimes for a day or two at a time--and this infuriated him, he would storm out and I would cry all the harder. Since things were going so well, we decided to get married two months later.

Things are always more clear in the rearview. What you called "worrisome" in the moment becomes "practically hilarious in its obvious portentiousness of DOOM" fifteen years later. This is the curse of maturity, that everything fun you did as a kid becomes a dumb thing you are lucky didn't kill you.

It is easy to say now, how dumb it was, but at the time, we were madly in love. We clung to each other as though clinging might save us (apologies to Galway Kinnell). We had plans--romantic visions of travel and adventure. We decided to move to New Orleans, where I would learn to bellydance and sell my paintings on the sidewalk until a gallery snatched me up and he would pick up fencing and work for one of the best chefs in the country. How could such a perfect plan possibly fail?

My first job was at a Tower Records. I made $4.85 an hour, which meant some weeks, having to spend my silver dollar collection in the bus fare-box. But sifting up through the misery of being beyond broke was New Orleans! We ate po'boys and fended off roaches of legendary size and cunning. We learned about the amazing thing that happens in the middle of summer, in a hot crowded club, when the brass band marches in and up on the stage. Me, the oh-so-white girl from practically the SUBURBS of what must be in the top ten whitest towns in the US, learned how to shake it til I almost broke it.

And yet, in New Orleans, it is OK to be a drunk. And my husband, though still a novice, was well on his way to levelling up. The first time he stayed out all night, I woke up at 7:30 am in a panic. I immediately burst into tears after a search of the house and yard failed to produce his body. (He had passed out on the porch once, and once on the kitchen floor, so a thourough search was always needed.) I paced. Smoked. Then called my mom. I asked her what I was supposed to do. Call the hospital? The 3rd floor at Mercy (where the city often stashed destitute nutcases)? Wait more?

He finally called around 9 am, having passed out on a coworker's living room floor after forgetting to get off the (last) streetcar at his stop.

The second time he never came home, I didn't call my mom or anyone else. I was so humiliated that my marriage was in such shambles. There were nights where if someone had called looking for him, I'd have no idea what to tell them.

We were young. Lots of kids drink all the time. When we met, I drank all the time, too--except, not with the same passion and commitment that he brought to the venture. There are many embarrassing stories from those years in New Orleans. He would laugh recounting the various places that he had passed out. And I would get angrier and angrier through my complicit grin.

The thing is, he always said he was coming straight home. Every night, he would call around 10 and say something along the lines of, 'I'll be off in 30, I am going to have one beer and then head home.' Then, once I learned to sleep through his lack of appearance, I would be awakened sometime between 2 and 5 am by his stumbling mumbling figure ricocheting off of the living room furniture in the front room. Every night, I would plead that he really come home this time. Really. Please. And every time he didn't I would be more and more pissed.

Oh that damned rearview. But I didn't know how else to stop it, but to plead and reason and cajole and then punish when he didn't change. Maybe I pretended that I could feel the wall I was hitting my head against cracking. Once, during a particularly long fight about how his drinking sucked and my being mad all the time sucked, he said, "Well, maybe if there was something worth coming home to, I would."

I will never forget how that made me feel. People have said many hurtful things to me over the years, and I have said things in the hopes that they cut to the core in the worst way. But when your only friend for thousands of miles tells you that your company isn't worth sharing... It kills something in a permanent sort of way. And it wasn't too long after that that I hit him.

He had come home late, as was the routine, and I was screaming about his inconsiderate and apathetic spousal behavior. He rolled his eyes, threw himself along the length of the couch, arm over his eyes and said, "Look, why don't you just tell me when you're done so I can get some rest?" I raced to the couch, my intention to move his arm so that he would have to look me in the eye if he wanted to be so dismissive. But once I crossed the room, he moved his arm and eyes wide, flinched hard. In half a second I thought something along the lines of 'did you think I would hit you? because you know you deserve to get your ass kicked for being such a jerk? god I wish someone would kick your ass, you jerk.' And I pulled my fist back and punched him in the arm.

I was never beaten by my parents or by bullies. I have never been in a fist fight. I have no muscle memory for how to give or take a beating. My punch failed to really make its target, my fist sort of slid off of him, into the cushion. There was no bruise, but we both knew I had wanted there to be one. We both knew that I wanted to punch him into a pulp. I wanted him to cower and be afraid of me. I wanted to have enough power to make him do what I wanted. I wanted him to want to come home (to me). I backed away, arms up. Terrified at how badly I wanted to keep hitting him. I began to blubber tearful apologies.

Even drunk, he knew the upper hand when it punched him in the arm. He didn't accept my apology. He told me I should calm the hell down and just go to bed. I was so freaked out that I hung my head and slunk off to bed, like the violent abuser I had suddenly become deserved.

It made me sick and, in my sickness, afraid to confront to his selfishness and irresponsibility. He would occassionally bring it up, because he knew I would have a retort for exactly anything else but that. He knew I would be scared out of whatever argument we were in. And it worked. I started objecting less to his drunk driving, his late nights with no call. I started caring less too, and within a couple of years I cared so little that one night, I told him I was done bothering with him at all. That night, I just walked out of the house, didn't say where I was going and didn't come back til the next day. He wanted to ask, but didn't dare. We split up with little fanfare a week later and I mailed him divorce papers from Texas a few months after that.

I would like to think that I acquired a fear of how hitting feels that night: through all the jerks of varying levels I have dated, not a one has ever even raised a hand, and neither have I. But, I've stayed unmarried too, just in case.

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