Breaking Away

It took me two years.

Healing from abuse, finding the confidence to believe that you are capable of leaving—it takes a long time.

It also takes seeing the other life that is possible.

*             *             *

The spring I was 30, I began to make friends with a coworker of mine at the college. We both appreciated Toni Morrison and J. R. R. Tolkien, and we had shared fragments of our respective struggles for health and well-being. The learning center was often quiet that quarter, so we spent our shifts discussing literature and writing. He had primarily written and published short stories, while I had focused most of my efforts on poetry and novels. Eventually, we agreed to swap writing and offer feedback.

I sent Ross the opening pages of my novel, and his feedback was devastating. The technique is all there. The descriptions, the details, the theme—it’s all really strong. But there isn’t any emotion, he said. I don’t feel anything.

It was only devastating because he was right.

I went for a long walk at the Olympic Sculpture Park. I was profoundly jealous of Ross. We were only a few years apart in age, and I felt our skill was comparable. But he regularly published in journals and read at open mics. He was finishing up an MFA at the prestigious Vermont College of Fine Arts. He had a long-time wife who backed his writing: helping pay the bills, reading his work, attending his readings, and doing everything I could never imagine a man ever doing for me. He even occasionally taught at Hugo House.

And his writing evoked emotion. Maybe he could be too earnest. Maybe his moral views were simplistic at times. But no one could say he couldn’t write damn well and make you want to read more. He was a large, hulking man who loved fishing and the outdoors, but on the page, he was willing to risk vulnerability and work out his shit.

I wasn’t.

It was, from my vantage point, the primary difference between us. Vulnerability had led to his success, and the lack of it had made it impossible for me to progress, even alone with my writing in an empty room.

For two years, I had known that I needed to leave Top. But until Ross, I hadn’t realized what it had cost me to stay.

I saw, in Ross’s life and in his writing, everything that might be possible for me. If only I could just open the door and step out into the unknown, if only I would dare to go on feeling things the way I had in New York, maybe one day I could have what he had.

Given the rubble that passed for my life, it was the only option I had left.

*             *             *

So I told Top I was leaving him. I had signed a lease on an attic room north of the city. It was at the top of a short flight of stairs, and there was no door. A single window looked out on the roof of the rambler next door. Signs for auto repair and plumbing shops and tacos glowed along the highway a block away. The ceiling was so low that unless I stood exactly in the center of the room, I had to stoop. But I had instantly fallen in love with it. It looked like an artist’s studio from one of my dreams, and I couldn’t think of that room, the walls painted butter-yellow like my grandmother’s kitchen, without smiling.

I would pack my things, and I would be out in less than two weeks.

Top told me I didn’t have to go. I could stay here. We could just be friends. Roommates.

I can’t do that, I said.

Why not? It will save you money. It’s the smart thing to do. And I recognized the same old paternalism that had attracted me to him in the first place. The I-know-best and I-will-take-care-of-you nonsense had only been his need for control and dominance. To a naive 20-year-old, it had looked like the rescue she’d hoped for.

It had taken me ten years to learn that no one would ever save me but myself. I smiled sadly.

He didn’t like the smile. And why are you so happy anyway?

You know we’ve both been unhappy for a long time. I’m happy that I can have the chance to be happy finally.

Always before, I never let you go. This time I will let you go.

I laughed. That’s nice, I said. Really. But it’s not necessary. I’m going, and that’s that.

*             *             *

I slept in a separate room and wouldn’t let Top touch me. This time, he didn’t force himself on me. Still, some afternoons, I slept in the car pulled into a parking lot because I felt safest there. And because it allowed me to stay up all night packing. When I wasn’t packing or working, I spent my free afternoons and evenings out among people I did not know, my leather jacket thrown behind me on the grass, as I sat on the shoreline at Magnuson Park or Carkeek, my legs swinging from the dock at Log Boom Park, listening to children playing nearby. I selected a stone from the beach at Magnuson and slipped it into the pocket of my coat, and I kept it there for years, folding my fingers around its smooth, cold surface whenever I felt afraid. Which was often.

I boxed up all my belongings in less than ten days. I tossed things I shouldn’t have. Yearbooks and trophies and journals ended up in the dumpster behind the restaurant, slimed with rotting vegetables and orange rinds and eggs. I packed things I shouldn’t have packed. Childhood photos and journals that would only leave me bereft.

I didn’t know it yet, but as I flipped on the clippers over the bathroom sink and shaved off my hair, I was about to enter a grieving process the likes of which I had never seen. I hadn’t had the opportunity to fully grieve the loss of my Mormon community, the estrangement with my abusive parents, the growing distance with my brother, or even the deaths of my grandparents. I only knew in that moment that I was feeling things again. And feeling anything at all, after so many years without emotion, felt like joy.

It was as if I had existed as part of a glacier. And now I was breaking off and drifting away, and in the drifting, I began to melt. The sight of an April leaf unfurling on a cherry tree made me weep. A colleague’s hug, when she learned what I was going through, brought me to tears. Bone to bone. Dust to dust.

We live and then we die.

That’s how it’s supposed to go.

But I had been doing things in the wrong order.

So I decided then.

I would live.

Not just survive.

But really and fully live.

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