Time and its contradictions. Wasted time. Its dreaded passing. How can I use or save it more efficiently? Time preservationist. The soft rotted time of forest floors. Photographs and boxes of mementos. Everything is time-sensitive. I am time sensitive.
One night during the first few weeks of my current relationship our watches sat side by side on my dresser, the straps almost identical shades of leather but of different thicknesses. I was amused by this evocation of some quaint his-and-hers advertisement but also deeply, shockingly endeared. I would later learn he’d snuck a picture too. I would later learn my current partner experienced a similar timeline of abuse to mine, just a year removed, in a different city. Only a few acquaintances apart.
When time hinges I can count on feeling melancholy—the early turn towards autumn, start of summer, New Year’s Eve. These are more or less certain, red tacks on a map marking murky space between finish and begin. Despite my end of year sadness I always love hanging a new calendar. For most of my adolescent years they were Harry Potter upgrades around Christmas. The last Harry Potter calendar I owned was shaped like the golden Snitch, complete with plastic moveable wings. My ex won it in a game of White Elephant my first semester of college. He probably didn’t choose it with the intent of passing it along to me but I was very obvious about wanting it so he cut his losses and made a generous gesture of romantic affection. I was grateful as was so often the case—as if he’d planned it this way, all along. The pieces of a relationship arranged in logical, welcoming shapes.
Every year I buy one calendar for my room back home and one for my current residence. When my ex and I lived together I would leave whichever calendar I favored most in the bedroom at home, to enjoy on the weekends, and chose the one I knew he would like best for our shared space. And I liked them too, the Hubble photographs of galaxies and planets, the stylized illustrations of scenes from Adventure Time, retro pin-up girls. Back at my mom’s house I had a True Blood calendar, another with photos of Irish castles and scenery, and twice the same collection of vintage maps. Neat squares of myself nailed into a wall.
On one of those squares, maybe a Tuesday or a Wednesday in March 2012, I wrote “It didn’t hurt!” to mark the first time I experienced sex without pain. Indentions from the pen were still faintly visible in April. I didn’t lose my virginity like you’re supposed to, in a single event. It was unsexy, grueling labor, like much of my experience with non-platonic love.
Love is compared to falling, though in my case I think it’s more appropriate to talk instead of dust gathering until, finally, every surface is covered with a fine layer of dead skin. The first time we showered together my dorm bathroom’s florescent light was clinical and unflattering, and I crossed goosebumpy arms over breasts that he would swear, later on, had grown in the time we were together; one of many strange equivalencies drawn between my life and his effect on it.
As would become custom he washed himself first, and attentively, under the stream of water. He was very preoccupied with personal cleanliness (until he wasn’t). When he finished he lathered up my loofa and washed my body in circles while I held myself very still. When he crouched down to carefully lift each foot in turn I was struck by the tenderness, and how beautiful his shoulder blades were with the water streaming between them. I felt worshipped in this quiet bud of worshipping.
We would often take showers together, usually just for company or efficiency or maybe compulsion. Occasionally if he wanted to join me and I declined he would be affronted; other times he didn’t ask but would simply climb in and press his cold flesh like sandwich meat against my reddening back. I took such hot showers over those years, scald and scour. He would nudge himself into the steam of water and lower the heat. Much later, I would invite him to join me in the shower simply so that he’d be clean before bed.
Part of the instinct that kept me inside of a very damaging relationship was the same one that compels me to slice my pen through columns of tasks. I wanted to see this thing I had put so much time into come to its completion. This would be the proper and correct trajectory. If I made it to that proverbial finish line, then I had not failed. It would have all been worth it. I would have ultimately controlled the situation.
If I can’t blame myself or, at the very least, claim some responsibility for what I experienced, then my victimhood is passive rather than dynamic. These days, with the help of a kind therapist who often removes her shoes during our sessions, I am working toward answering this question of choice—how much of what happened did I allow, and how much was out of my control? It is difficult and taxing to trudge through the mud of my emotionally abusive relationship, especially when my current one is such a profoundly significant contrast. Almost every good thing reminds me of its darker mirror image like some instructive children’s book about the dilemmas of right and wrong.
“My Emotionally Abusive Relationship”—it also sounds very picture book, doesn’t it? And red flags, we say, as if the signposts of abuse wave gallantly in the breeze. As if there is an instruction manual to this sort of harm in the same way airplane brochures illustrate passengers properly affixing their oxygen masks over serene, passive faces.
Once my ex bought me anti-frizz serum as a gift and, reflected behind me in the mirror, explained the ways I could take better care of my hair. Smoothed oil into damp curls. He would use his electric clippers to shape my pubic hair, kneel in front of my humid crotch to trim more off the sides then the middle. This seemed the pinnacle of intimacy. He’d trim and buff my nails with a seven-sided file; the friction often burned and my toes would bleed a little after he’d carved out an ingrown nail. He would also paint my nails in purple and green and artful combinations of black polish and starry blue glitter.
Tended to, like something inanimate culled from ceramic or formaldehyde.
During this relationship events existed in a series of firsts. I would exalt in experiences we shared that were firsts for him because he had already done so much. My own experiences were limited, so there were many opportunities for firsts. Like on our third day knowing each other when we were kissing on my dorm bed and he left my mouth to slip unprompted between my legs, hoisted my hips and removed my shorts. This first real orgasm was a consequence of immobilizing shock. I was left with little ability to move or speak—when my ex did this it was usually one step beyond something my body wanted to handle. I didn’t even recognize my reactions for what they were that first time; didn’t even know how to learn to navigate my body’s crop circles, the bent grass blades and singed edges. I apologized. He found this hilarious and endearing. He liked being able to teach me things, to fill what had been empty.
I appreciate certainty and sometimes suspect this makes me boring. Crave schedules. I fastidiously handwrite all of my tasks so that I can physically cross them out upon completion. I like the feeling of control this affords me—if I am organized my life is organized, if my future is planned I am purposeful and moored. I dislike leaving things to chance and am anxious when faced with change. Appreciate what is comfortable and familiar and feels like mine.
I planned to wait on penetration until I started birth control, and I stuck to this schedule. He thought that maybe his size was to blame for the difficulty, and of course my nerves. I needed to relax. It would become a common thing, for my body to clench up hard against him, even when I assumed this was what I wanted. I needed to relax. He would remind me to relax while my body tried, in a small rebellion, to practice agency where my heart could not. My body trying to communicate where my brain could not. And him telling me to relax as he felt the walls of my body tighten against his entry.
The feeling was new but comparable to cold toes lowering into hot water, even when he went slow. So we would stop, pretending patience. Eventually he had the idea to ease himself half-flacid inside of me and grow there. Even then this method felt undignified—my body stuffed with flesh—and disappointing, embarrassing—not how this is meant to be done. He cried one night, after I cried from both pain and a sense of personal deficiency that felt unconquerable. This was long before he showed me how adept he was at making himself cry. He said he felt terribly guilty, that he hated causing me pain. I hated to cause him pain, to any degree, so I adopted the kind of quiet that takes years to unspool. When he implored I opened. I just needed to relax. In a silence interrupted only by the sounds of singular pleasure and a shifting twin mattress I hid the contortions of my face against his damp neck or in a pillow, and felt grateful that such hurt at least existed in a context of love—something I had chosen, surely, nothing like a stranger immobilizing me in the dark. I stared over his shoulder at the calendar on the wall, the orderly blocks cut through by my own hand. I just needed to relax.
Time is slow in this process of stretching enough for someone else to take up residence inside. It also takes no time at all.
The duplex I lived in during my last two years of college had a grey-tiled shower with a sliding glass door. In the morning the bathroom would be generously lit by natural light, sunshine delicately jeweling the water stream. I stared transfixed at this ridiculously magical looking water and watched the silver lines collide with my breasts, a fine mist ricocheting off the nipples he described as perfect despite the small size of the breasts themselves. I took an artful picture once of this, the rainbow crystal shower water engulfing a single mound of flesh. Such moments were beginnings or unpeelings or sutures.
My pubic hair has more or less reverted to its natural shape and distribution. I’ve finally learned to paint my own nails, although the process is messy and imprecise as recovery. I had hoped that my therapist would present me with a list of items that I could neatly cross off, a schedule that could lead me to perfect peace and forgiveness. None of these words, especially not something as plastic as recovery, really feel like they belong to me. This should all be like in yoga class, when the instructor asks you to rise back up slowly, one vertebrae at a time, but it feels more like the cliché adventure movie scene where one character struggles to hoist another up by a rope, knots slipping roughly through sweaty palms, the cliffside dramatically crumbling, and so the characters stretch against gravity, one trying to lift and the other to not fall. It feels like I’ve been clutching both ends of the rope.
The swiftness of the block button, the text that told him to stop texting moving instantly through space. “One day,” my friend Erik told me, holding my hand the night I finally removed my ex from Facebook, “you’ll realize more time has passed then the time you actually spent in the relationship, and it will all feel like a very long time ago.” I am still waiting for these days to gather at my feet but it already feels like more than a long time; it feels like a different person was borrowing me for just a few years while I hibernated, waiting to wake up and deal with the detritus. It’s hard to own any of it, all of it outside of my control. And then sometimes an echo slips through and presses me, and I shake until enough time passes for me to stop.
Elizabeth Theriot grew up in Louisiana and earned her undergraduate degree from University of New Orleans. She currently lives in Tuscaloosa, where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama and Nonfiction Editor at Black Warrior Review. She has work forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Ghost Proposal, and Storyscape. Her poems can be found in Jet Fuel Review, Rogue Agent, Barrelhouse online, Crab Fat Magazine, Tinderbox, The Mississippi Review, and others. Visit her website and find her on Twitter and Instagram.