A few weeks ago, on an ordinary Wednesday night, I finished drying the dinner dishes in the husband-out-of-town-kids-in-bed blissful quiet, and poured myself a glass of pinot grigio. As I leaned back against a counter and took a sip, for no discernable reason I thought of Nick — an unexpected emotional freight train barreling down a long-deserted track.
I crawled into my bed, fully clothed, next to my sleeping boys, ages five and nine, and pulled my laptop off the nightstand. Closing my eyes for a moment, I listened to the comforting, sweet sound of the their breath. Even on their best days, my boys are an extreme iteration of what my mother’s generation would have called wild. What the parenting books call challenging, or high needs. What the school district calls special needs. What I call, simply, my family. What my friends seem to often call “boys.” As in, boys will be boys.
I had spent the whole day refereeing fights between them. Lately, my younger son’s violent and unpredictable outbursts have had us scrambling from teachers to therapists to allergists to behaviorists, and back again. I worry about what this hair-trigger fury will look like when he is no longer an adorable five-year-old, when I am no longer able to hold him down.
Their anger is hard for me to understand. I’ve never been rageful. Depressed and anxious at times, certainly, and a master grudge-holder, but never much of a fighter or a yeller. Scrappy descendants of Russian and Polish immigrants, my family fought as fiercely as they loved, which is why I vowed early in my marriage to build a very different world from the stormy one in which I grew up.
In spite of my best efforts, though, my living room has lately become a UFC octagon. My boys scare the dogs into hiding, upend furniture, hurl baseballs at framed artwork. I am constantly picking miniscule shards of shattered dishware out of my feet. I should probably rent them out to people looking to declutter. I wonder what all this violence means, where it will lead. My husband and I sometimes jokingly refer to their college funds as their rehab funds.
I opened my eyes. It was 9:30pm, and already I was so bleary-eyed that fuzzy haloes of light surrounded all the objects in the room. Everything bled into everything else. I focused on the screen in front of me, the blank box of the search engine, the cursor blinking in anticipation. It had been years since I’d allowed myself more than a passing thought of Nick. I don’t know what was different about the night I chose to type in his name, and hit return. Return.
An endless string of headlines unfolded in front of me, like a melodramatic plot twist in a telenovela:
‘Jealous’ Police Officer Shot Wife Dead Before Killing Himself
Clearer Picture Emerges of Officer and Wife in Dallas Murder Suicide
Police Identify Officer, Wife, Found Dead in Dallas
And, perhaps most poetically:
Hidden Cause, Visible Effects
I stared at the photos, enlarged them. The cop in the picture was someone with the same name, but surely not the young man I once knew. This cop was too broad in the chest and muscle bound, his neck thick and veiny. Even after I recognized the distinctive aquiline nose, the pale blue eyes, the uneven smile that undid me, once-upon-a-time — even then, I was sure it was someone else.
I clicked the links, one after another. Here are some of the things I learned about that someone else:
He was a police officer in Texas, a “popular, jovial” guy with “lots of energy,” a father of three staggeringly lovely daughters. He divorced the mother of his children and married a young, genial girl-next-door, with a waterfall of blonde hair and warm brown eyes.
I also learned he was a gun enthusiast.
Over and over again, I watched a video in which he demonstrated the use of a shotgun. In it, his body pulses with adrenaline, his eyes wild with conviction. His hands remain steady.
“I purchased this as a self-defense weapon for my household,” he says. “Essentially, it’s for my wife. This is a basic self-defense shotgun.”
He wears a fitted navy blue t-shirt, uniform pants, a bulletproof vest, wraparound sunglasses. There are handcuffs and a pistol affixed to the vest. He stands holding the shotgun in a large, open field, a row of targets stretching behind him to the tree line. The branches are bare, the grass patchy and brown. It must be a warm winter day.
“She’s just five-foot-four,’” he says. “About a buck-20. So the recoil on this, she’s not happy with it… But she understands she’s only going to be taking one or two shots in rapid succession. She can suffer the pain for her health and welfare.”
I’m just five-foot-four. About a buck-20. He was the archery instructor at my summer camp. He taught me how to shoot an arrow. I can still hit a target from 30 yards.
I remember him a different species from this gun nut in the video. I remember him as arty, charming, popular, vain. I was 12 and he was 20 the summer we met. I’ve pushed and pulled against that relationship ever since.
I scrolled through photo after photo of his doe-eyed, athletic wife, with her sweet and sincere smile. About an hour later, I left my children snoring softly in the warm bed, yanked a pair of clogs out of my closet and walked out to the garage.
I usually avoid my disastrously messy garage at all costs. I imagine it to be not just a repository of life’s inevitable detritus, but a metaphor for the most ugly and chaotic corners of my soul. Never mind the basically tidy home I keep, in which I feed and clothe and love two children, throw birthday parties, write books, have woken every morning next to the same good man for the last fifteen years. In spite of all this, I fear one day the truth will out, and this life I’ve built will dissolve completely until I’m living alone in a hovel surrounded by my own brokenness. Until I’m living in my garage.
I threw aside a stack of empty suitcases, a pile of discarded Halloween costumes, and a pyramid of petrified wrapping paper before I found what I was looking for. I cleared a spot on the cold concrete, sat down, and opened the maroon padded photo album edged with a thin gold stripe.
I turned the pages until I found the photos of us from that summer. I hadn’t gotten my period yet. I’d never had a proper boyfriend. My only real prospect had taken me out twice in a rowboat, and then dumped me after a dry kiss on the lips, because apparently I was a “prude.” When I went back to my bunk and found out what that meant, I was deeply ashamed. I would soon learn there are worse names to be called.
The details of my sexual encounters with Nick aren’t particularly gory. We never got much beyond heavy petting. But the forbidden nature of the relationship coupled with the charged power dynamic profoundly impacted me, as did the consequences.
When we were caught, the camp director fired him. I, in turn, was publically humiliated by a makeshift tribunal of senior staff members, who chastised and blamed me. Word got around, as word does. I became the target of my peers’ unkind whispers. My life was forever changed. I never saw him again.
I studied the group photos the camp took every year, each bunk of campers in their gold and green camp t-shirts, until I found him. I breathed out for the first time in what seemed like days, somehow relieved to find he looked how I remembered: shock of bleached hair falling over one eye, mischief playing about the corners of his smile. I didn’t revise history so drastically that I invented him as someone else entirely.
In my photo from that same day, I am all freckles and feathered hair. I wear baggy, flower-patterned shorts. My budding breasts barely nudge the front of my t-shirt. I smile, displaying a mouthful of fever-spotted but straight teeth, recently freed of their merciless years of braces. To my adult eyes, my friends and I are clearly still children in these photos. Children on the brink of tumbling into our lives as sexual beings, but children nonetheless. A line from one of the articles I read earlier kept nudging at my brain.
“He volunteered at the local high school.”
Perhaps our relationship wasn’t an anomaly. Maybe I was just the first very young girl for him. Maybe I wasn’t even the first. I took the album inside with me. I didn’t sleep much that night. I woke over and over, covered in sweat, reaching out and putting my hand on my children’s backs, to make sure they were still breathing.
In my preferred story of what happened between us, the age difference was a fluke. In my story, we fell in love and it was doomed and dangerous and he should have put a stop to it because he was the adult, comparatively, but he didn’t. In my mind it was unfortunate and inappropriate but not sick, not criminal. Grey area, I like to say.
Technically, of course, it was criminal. Many years later, a friend said to me, “You understand this was a crime and you were the victim, right? You didn’t deserve it. You didn’t provoke it. It was a crime.” At the time, I didn’t see her point, at all.
That night, I couldn’t help but think, as I tossed and turned, what if just one of the myriad of adults involved — adults professionally responsible for the welfare of hundreds of kids — had acknowledged Nick’s criminal behavior as such? Would the trajectory of the story have veered in any way from the tragedy that ultimately transpired?
It’s never fruitful to engage in a game of what ifs.
Certainly I was preyed upon and certainly that was and is an acceptable thing in our culture, particularly when it comes to girls like me. I was curious. I was reckless. I broke rules. I put myself in harm’s way. If I had been a boy, I would have been described as adventurous, mischievous, bold. A little wild. Exactly what people say about my boys. And boys, after all, will be boys.
Girls, however, are expected to adhere to a different standard of behavior. There is a different set of punishments for transgressing.
When my fellow campers found out about what had happened, I went instantly from being a rejected, awkward, freckle-faced prude to being a slut, a whore. What a short, fast, complete fall it was. In the aftermath, I learned what it meant to be humiliated and still hold your head up. It has proved a useful life skill. It was not my last experience with humiliation, nor with metabolizing sexual abuse and moving on.
I woke the following morning convinced I’d quickly shake it off. I am, above all, a survivor.
But I was wrong. In the days after I found out about his monstrous final act on this earth, memories of him poisoned my blood like an infection. I loved him once. Every other part of my story has come into question, but that part is not debatable. And this person I once loved may have been preying on high school girls. This man looked into the eyes of the woman with whom he shared a life and shot her in the face at close range with a shotgun- the same shotgun I watched him fire in his video. Multiple times.
Thoughts of him, of her, of the murder, of the aftermath, caught me off guard and knocked me sideways all day long. The mechanics of the event morbidly obsessed me. I could not stop imagining how it went down, in horrific detail. Was she sitting? Standing? Kneeling? Was there an inciting incident or did he plan it? Had it been building for months? Years? Was he a sadistic beast? Had he been that way always? Were there signs? Clues? If so, what were they? Would I recognize any such clues in the people in my life?
Each morning, I pulled the car over on a side street after school drop off and sobbed until I could drive again. I snapped and screamed at my kids one night, throwing a cast iron pan into the sink so forcefully that it made a permanent dent in the concrete backsplash. Later that week, we came home from a particularly difficult family dinner and I collapsed in a weeping ball on the front yard. When my boys ran over to help me, I told them to go fuck themselves.
“I don’t understand this. This isn’t you. Why are you so angry?” my husband asked.
“I’m not angry!” I screamed hoarsely at him.
I had never been so angry.
I was carrying around a bowling ball of dread and rage wedged somewhere between my pelvic bone and my diaphragm. It compressed my lungs. I could barely eat because there was no room for food, only for this long forgotten fury.
I wasn’t exactly sure why, exactly, I was furious, or at whom. The obvious answer would be that this horrific event, in which this man irrevocably took something precious from someone he loved, brought up long-denied feelings of anger about the innocence he took from me all those years ago. Except, I had willingly surrendered that innocence. It had never felt like much of a treasure anyway. My anger was at something harder to pin down. I suspected it had something to do with the fact that I had, all these years, taken to heart the collective judgment that the fault lay with me. I simmered with indignation at the larger cultural assumptions underpinning such a judgment.
On a more personal level, I was deeply confused. When I had looked into the future murderer’s eyes, my brain swam with all the delicious endorphins of infatuation. I had experienced the surprise and delight of seeing yourself through the eyes of someone who miraculously finds you beautiful. I had known, with all the certainty of a true first-timer, that we were a great love story in the making, that I had met the one twin soul to my own.
I looked around at the people I loved and wondered about the limits of my own darkness, of theirs. Are we ever truly aware of the harm of which we’re capable? I broke a glass in the sink and had to walk away to keep myself from grabbing a jagged shard and taking it to my own skin. Perhaps the worst in me was not sloppiness, hoarding crap in my garage, a late-night glass of wine. Perhaps my children’s anger wasn’t as worrisome as my own.
I remembered his hands that spanned the expanse of my whole back as he held me on the porch in the pale pre-dawn, while everyone else still slept. I had overlooked the majestic silhouette of the Catskill Mountains while he whispered in my ear that I was special, that I was made for great things, that we were the same. He told me if we were separated he would always come back for me.
It was the all those things young girls dream of hearing: the dialogue to my own personal fairytale. Except in my fairytale, the beast remained the beast.
One fitful night, I dreamed he finally did what he promised all those years ago. He came back for me. He coughed up a shadow. It buzzed like a cloud of flies. It surrounded me and I breathed it into my own body, powerless to stop it, infusing my very cells with its monstrous essence.
A concerned friend suggested I go see her “energy worker,” in an attempt to exorcise the ghost that had come back to haunt me. I agreed, willing to try almost anything to stop the perpetual loop of gruesome thoughts and disturbing dreams.
The tan carpeting in the energy worker’s office was strewn with various soft blob shapes that approximated furniture — a couch, a chair, a couple of curious cubes. I sat on the couch blob. She perched cross-legged across from me, on a pouf of some kind. It smelled like sage and lavender and rosemary. A massage table stood in the corner.
“Can I can just spend my hour taking a nap?” I asked.
“Do you feel tired?” She responded.
The urge to kick her in the shin nearly overpowered me. I wasn’t tired. I was exhausted. And enraged.
“I’m so angry I can barely breathe,” I said.
“Who was so angry?” she asked. “Where did it start?”
We talked about my family.
“My family has been pissed since the pogroms,” I told her. “But I put an end to all that. I’ve never been an angry person. Or that was what I thought before I told a crying five-year-old to go fuck himself.”
She told me that anger in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. It protects us in times of danger. It’s a legitimate response to injustice. But anger unacknowledged can get twisted up inside us. Anger stuffed down enough can start to leak out the sides.
After we talked for a while, she invited me to stand up. She guided me to one of the big foam cubes, handed me a pair of fingerless workout gloves, and grabbed a squash racket from the corner. She demonstrated holding the racket over her head and slamming it down on the cube. She suggested I say “no” every time the racket came down.
“I feel like an idiot,” I said. “What am I saying “no” to?”
“You’re saying to your family you will not take their anger and hand it to your children. You’re saying to your abuser his pain is not yours to hold. Tell him his anger leaves with him.”
I shrugged. I figured I had paid my $175, and surely the walls were soundproofed.
“No,” I shouted as I brought the racket down. A heat swirled in my belly. My face prickled and flushed. It reminded me of an acute allergic reaction I had once to a tuna burger, during which my whole face blew up into a fat, hot tomato.
I shouted and brought the racquet down again and again, with a violence that I found both unrecognizable and thrilling. I thought of my boys, and their feral scrabbling. I stopped my tirade only when I was weeping too hard to continue.
“You’re the writer,” she said. “Talk to him. Tell him whatever you want.”
I sank to the floor.
“I always thought I’d see you again,” I said. “How can I have thought we were the same? What if we are?”
“You are not,” she said. “He was a destroyer of other humans. You’re not perfect, but you’re not that. There’s a difference.”
I went several more times to the yell-and-hit-things therapist. It wasn’t a miracle pill, but I did find some succor there. I stopped the blind, frightening rages. The dreams mostly subsided.
When I did dream about Nick again, it wasn’t a nightmare. In my dream we walked through some crappy mid-western mall holding hands. It felt almost like a first date I imagine you would have in high school. The one I never had. In my dream, I held the hand of this person who had ruined life after life- who knows how many, really. And in my dream I was allowed to love him anyway.
I’m sorry he was in so much pain. I’m sorrier he caused unbearable pain to others. I am relieved to be free of him. I am sad he’s gone.
Recently, an unremarkable news story surfaced, addressing a powerful movie producer’s serial sexual harassment of young women. My husband read it aloud to me one morning over coffee.
“Can you believe this shit?” he asked.
I almost laughed.
“You want a news story I find hard to believe?” I asked. “Tell me about some rich, powerful, entitled, white schmuck, who pays women equally, employs them fairly, and treats them with respect.”
But in recent days, the news has managed to surprise me, as we witness woman after woman standing up and telling their long-buried stories of abuse, demanding justice, advocating for change. I watch it transpire and experience the movement as a cultural mirror held up to a personal rage I assumed would be mine alone to carry.
While I tend to be skeptical of armchair Facebook activism, I am heartened by this chorus of voices, issuing a collective “no.” Not behind closed doors, into a pillow at a therapist’s office, but into the broader cultural dialogue. It gives me hope that my boys may one day see a word where boys being boys means something different. As does men being men. A world that is moving closer to holding equally the wildness and wonder of all of us.