From the very early days of knowing Ray, he’s insisted I’m good for him. I haven’t quite figured out why, but I’m getting there.
It was a cold, winter Saturday in January of this year. I had been in the new house, in my new room, for about a week and a half. I’d been eating food again, after months of anxiety and stress over my work prospects and living situation. I was feeling a lot more human than I had in months. On my phone was the app I’d been relying on for making social and sexual connections with men around me. That Saturday, with boxes in my closet still unpacked, I started texting with Ray, who lived not that far away. Tall, goofy, a bit of a nerd, with a little sparkle in his eye and in the way he spoke, he had caught my attention. When told me of his adventurous streak and his excitement over travel, something caught my breath. Something in him, about him, resonated with me.
We bonded over dating experiences, past boyfriends, and broken families. Suddenly, I realized I was facing the guy that fit all of my physical desires – that silly checklist on my online profile – but with an unknown factor that seemed to call to me, drawing me in. I remember smiling, feeling satisfied by the sex he and I shared, but also with the stimulation from the conversation that came in between. He left a good taste on my lips and had tickled a side of me that had been dormant.
He texted me a couple of days later, wondering what I was doing for lunch. Sitting along the banks of the Willamette, we talked some more over Thai food. It was clear that he was interested in getting to know me more. I told him that I had been seeking a partner in crime, someone to go on adventures with who would be actually engaged in what we were doing. He talked further of his plans to go to Europe near the end of the year, and how anxious he was to travel again without the burden of a horrible boyfriend at home to contend with. I nodded in understanding, but I had no idea what “horrible” meant for Ray. Over time, I gathered a lot more of the details he was glossing over.
I told him about my past. I have had experiences with men who used me to get what they needed. I have been cheated on, physically assaulted, verbally and mental abused, left feeling trapped, scared, and at times completely out of control over my own life. I had spent a great deal of time running away from these old matters, and instead did all I could do to either drown out the memories with alcohol, or disappear into someone else’s life while shoving my own needs to the side. It was so much easier for me to procrastinate and distract myself from looking at myself in a mirror with intent, than to face the kinds of pain that had taken something away from me that I would never, ever get back.
It became clearer to me that Ray had a darker, more shrouded past, than I had initially picked up on. Maybe it was my willingness to share my own past that inspired him to talk. Whatever the reason, his palpable shyness and reserve melted for a bit as he recounted for me some of his own history. His last boyfriend wasn’t just a bad choice. He had been a monster. They had only recently split, around the same time that the rest of his life up here in Portland was falling away into dust around him. Upside down, he was drifting, unsure of his next step. Like me, he had resorted to sexual promiscuity, with a powerful disregard for his own mental and physical health. He dove straight into his work. He did all that he could to remain distracted and distanced from the deep darkness he felt inside him. Sitting beside me, it was clear that he was nervous. He was feeling vulnerable, weak, and raw. Looking back, I think he was waiting for me to walk away. It’s a similar reaction I’d gotten from others to whom I’ve told my story. I knew that look on his face.
Verbal and emotional abuse slashes and burns just as deeply and as badly as if a baseball bat had been swung at the body. The wounds run deep, with roots and tendrils that wrap and encase so many fragile neurons, calcifying ganglia into a grotesque, inhuman form. Those channels of energy, tendrils of light that ignite our very being, become knotted, burled, and the body does what it always does to inflicted damage. It forms a deep and protective barrier, recognizing a point of weakness that it seeks to make impervious in the future. Thick, unmoving, calloused, these patches along the streams of memory, thought, and action become points of contact, triggering a necessary shift in ways of thinking and how the body moves forward though the motions of life. The amount of effort to trust, to speak honestly, to treat the body with respect and dignity, is often more than is customary, more than the person holding all of this scar tissue can manage.
Ray and I have both faced humiliation, defeat, heart-wrenching pain, guilt, and all of the rest that comes with being betrayed and defiled this way. We both carry the weight of this trauma with us; interrupted streams of feeling and thinking caused by an external invasion and incursion of pain. We both have dealt with the aftermath of these moments in our lives in similar ways – disappearing into darkness, escaping through sex and sexual promiscuity, keeping ourselves utterly distracted and focused on everything and everyone else in order not to deal with the rattle of skeletal remains in our respective closets. We learn quickly just how easy it is to say yes, meeting the demands of those around us in an effort to keep the peace, than to say no when we require personal space and time. We also have used escapism in the form of travel to break free of the intensity of our memories and thoughts. We both understand the humbling experience that comes from a wide-open sea, a sheer cliff face, or a night sky filled with a million galaxies of possibility.
The difference between us, as far as I can tell, is the amount of time that has passed since the traumatic events happened in our lives. I’ve had years to come to terms with my past, though it was only last fall, late in 2013, that I actively engaged with my ghosts, and took advantage of a period in my life where I wasn’t working to relearn how to respect myself and my body, and to put a clear line of demarcation around myself, built of lines I would not let anyone force me to cross. I had five months of solitude, with every damned day spent living in my skin, sitting with the things that I had been running from for years because I simply had nowhere to hide, and no money to distract myself with. In that time, I healed some, had my moments to scream to the east and into the wind, and into my past, telling these old ghosts they were no longer welcome in my life. He hasn’t had this time, and I recognize that, perhaps, it’s something deeply intrinsic to his wellbeing that I can give him. While I didn’t have a whole lot of support during my recovery period, I can do better for him.
In the meantime, these battle wounds, these gnarls and burls, have become moments of negotiation between us. Each time we find ourselves entering a space of vulnerability, one or the other has an instinctive defensive reaction. In his case, he shuts down, shuts off, and retreats. In my case, I become anxious, nervous, and nuclear reactive. We respond to new sensations by engaging those old, broken pathways in our nervous tissue, and more often than not, we come up against an old reflex that does not suit the current situation. He is skittish about making plans too far into the future. I am anxious about the time we spend apart. Both of these physical responses are based on a past break in trust that does not apply to the present-tense moment that we find ourselves in.
Recognizing when we are reacting to the past, rather than the present, will be a challenge for us both that may never diminish. Time, patience, and honest communication seem to be the three doses of medicine, however, that have the greatest therapeutic effect. A quiet shush when I’m being belligerent, a gentle hug when he’s trapped himself away, something that un-trips the wires that were sprung in an act of trust, or a moment of intensity, is all either of us require. For us, this re-learning is at the heart of what we have and what we’ve begun to build.