When she was four years old, she cried her very first shrieking cry of defiance. “No!” she bellowed, stubbornly folding her arms, stomping her foot, and looking him dead in the eye. “Now!” he yelled, bolting up from the couch. He towered above her like a giant, his sheer daddy power loomed large and dark. “No!” she wailed, again, holding her ground.
Her daddy had enough. He swiftly yanked her arm and slung her body over his knee as he sat down again, forcefully wrenching her underwear to her thighs. He proceeded to spank her hard three times.
Smack! Smack! Smack!
He lifted his hand for the fourth smack, but abruptly stopped himself, placing her small body back upright in front of him, pushing her away. Away from danger. Three bare-bottomed smacks were indeed enough for one stubborn, sassy, little girl.
“You can’t say no to me, just listen the first time!” he hissed, exhaling finally, deflating himself back into the tired couch daddy he always was. He wanted her toys cleaned up before she went to the store with her mother. He slept better when they were out of the house, so on Saturday mornings, her mother always timed her errands to coincide with visits to grandma’s house for breakfast.
After the spanking, she sobbed and sniffled for hours. She cried until she was too tired to keep crying. A raging river of tears that wouldn’t quit. She cried tears of pain, and fear, and shame, and submission. And then she fell asleep in the car, which annoyed her mother because she had lots of busy Saturday things to do.
That specific memory, the one where her daddy yanked and spanked her, is when her cognizant life began.
Their good boy could tell something was up. Like an intuitive child, he toggled between them, giving them equal time, love, and eye contact in an effort to close the gap. “We’re okay, buddy,” she says. But okay is not how it seems. A dog knows these things. He knows there is sticky residue, a bit of something lingering inside their quiet moments as they push and pull around each other. A muted cautiousness, a dissolving despondency.
Since the incident, the one where things crashed and burned, where corrupt words and innocence and heartfelt regret collided, they are quieter with one another. He still brings her coffee, and they walk the dog together, but his steps are tight, while hers drag a bit, sans their usual, defining bounce.
They had talked it out and there were apologies. He felt terrible for blurting a stupid, demeaning, chauvinistic thing, and she admitted that she could have been more direct about her feelings prior to letting them escalate. Their talk, the one where they behaved like mature adults, held each others hands, and tried to find closure, was both tender and sincere. But, just as it is with an earthquake, when air molecules and energy actually change, they too have changed a little. Sorry is never enough when a history of hurt hides under the surface. Blessed time must work its magic. The moment lives inside their heads. It wiggles around inside their bones as they move about their business. Shock waves remain after pivotal, damaging human explosions occur, and it takes a bit of space for the ripples to subside completely, for life to feel normal again, for the new beginning they both want to actually begin.
And today seems to match this mood. An overcast morning bathes them in gray, foggy melancholy as they huddle and cuddle. His achy leg forecasts a 60% chance of rain. He pulls her in tight, under their bed sheet, to shield her from the cool breeze coming through the window. She does not protest and it is a gift. He wraps his arms around her trunk and breathes into her back, listening to her heartbeat, absorbing her warmth, rubbing her soft belly skin. He lets his hand wander down, over her hips. His touch slips between her legs, and she giggles but kicks him gently.
He can feel her coming back, inch by precious inch, and now is not the time for false moves. We are not perfect, he tells himself, nursing the little lump in his stomach that won’t seem to go away.
“Time for us to get up,” he sighs, but she flips around like an acrobat and buries her head inside his chest. She closes her eyes again and he relaxes against her body which melts them both further into the mattress, like butter spreading in a warm pan.
She buys semi-sweet chocolate morsels to keep in the cabinet. Contrary to what it says on the front of the yellow bag, they are not for baking. She pours out a measured 1/4 cup into a small, porcelain ramekin and sits on the couch, enjoying one chip at a time while she reads her book. She lets each one soften, pushing the pointy tip up into the roof of her mouth, working it with her tongue, taking her time, dissolving it down the back of her throat. Chocolate this way is almost as delicious as her creamy cup of coffee. Her jaw moves as her hair falls from behind her ears, and he pauses in passing to look at her, because he simply can’t help it. She remains focused with her head down. He is not the center of her universe and it feels like a pinch.
Her mother is coming over. She lives just an hour and a half away, but it may as well be a cross country trip. They methodically schedule their visits, and they always feel formal. After her daddy died, when she was a freshman in high school, she grew apart from her mother, a woman she still struggles to understand.
Her daddy was a hard working factory man who was never home, often covering the vacant shifts of others. “The Sicks and The No-Shows,” he called them. He was known down at the plant as “The Most Reliable Employee,” but his work ethic, confirmed in his cadence and the dirt under his fingernails, did nothing to help him scale the company ladder. But, it sent her to college, which was just as good.
When he was around, however, he was her world. He took her fishing (his happiest leisure), and he taught her how to ride a bike fast and fearless. He pointed out birds, and scat, and what to eat in the woods “if ever she was lost.” He listened to jazz on Sundays, sitting in his porch chair, smoking cigarettes and drinking Scotch on the rocks. She can still hear the ice rattling around inside the glass whenever he gave it a swirl before taking a sip. What she remembers most, though, is how he looked when he was asleep. When she thinks of her daddy, he is on his back, in a wrinkled, white t-shirt with his arms crossed over his rising and falling chest. His hands are tucked inside his armpits, making his sinewy biceps appear more prominent.
When she blinks, this image jumps directly from the couch straight into a casket.
They change the sheets on the bed in the guest room, and run the better towels through the wash just in case her mother decides to spend the night. It’s not likely, but they will be ready. He puts the pillow cases on, and they lock eyes for a second. They share a soft, telepathic moment about banding together during her mother’s visit so that it all goes smoothly and remains pleasant. It is a moment of shared solidarity, a silent, knowing agreement that feels like beams of relationship sunshine.
When her father died, her mother changed. Instead of the sadness that comes from missing someone, her mother came back to life. She gallivanted off and out and away from her daughter, with her new friends and her new activities. It was as if she suddenly felt free for the very first time. And with her new freedom came more than her fair share of “justified selfishness.” She wrapped herself up in herself to make up for lost time with herself. She traded her loneliness, and lack of true happiness for the adventure of a new life. Like an unhooked fish thrown from the dock back into the water, her mother was given a second chance, and swam away. This behavior, though never actually defined, analyzed or fully discussed by mother or daughter, seems to be the source of an underlying contention and resentment that continues to passively linger.
They pat and stroke their good boy before heading out to a yoga class since they have the morning free. Inside the sacred space, as the singing bowl moans, and Buddha looks down, and the pretty candles burn, they breathe and stretch their way into the day.
After class, she dons a low-cut, floating, Bohemian style tunic dress to meet her mother for a late lunch. It drapes across her and she is Roman. She is Athena. Her height has always been her thing, so the word statuesque comes to mind. Her legs are tan, and her sandals show peeps of freshly polished toes. She wears beaded bracelets and earrings, and her hair is in a soft crowning pile atop her head. “Damn,” he thinks, and his heart beats faster next to her. Her scent today is a mixture of whipped-up ocean air, beach roses, and cedar shingles and he is happy just to stand next to her and inhale. He wants to dip below the surface, frolic inside her waves, and channel her surf. The tingling of something that won’t be contained begins, as it always does, the moment she enters a room, but that will have to wait.
The “visit” is painless, benign, and uneventful. This is how all their visits seem to go these days. They walk through the motions of lunch, and coffee back at the house, and though her mother “would love to stay” she “has things to do in the morning,” and begs off around 8:30 to get back home.
He is in his office, preparing to leave. He gathers his books and his folder with papers, and his glasses go back into the case. “I need tampons,” she texts him, and then his phone vibrates again. “The multi-pack,” she adds. She includes the red balloon emoji, which makes him raise his eyebrows and shake his head.
When she was in 8th grade she kissed a boy for the first time. His lips were fat and entirely too wet and they came down on her mouth, covering it completely. He sucked her face right into his throat like a vacuum. The kissing was loud and forceful and fervent and went on and on. The kissing went on for days.
Smack! Smack! Smack!
This first kiss was also her weirdest kiss and even now, it makes her nose crinkle. For some reason she fleetingly thinks of this kiss every time she is tenderly, expertly kissed by her man, all these years later. Some memories are just branded upon the brain with a smoldering iron. Things may grow all around the spot, but the spot remains, in much the same way that a divot can hide in plain sight on a well-manicured football field.
They are suddenly back on bicycles under a cornflower blue sky, and the conversation is lively and real. He refuses to wear the “costume” of cyclists, mainly because the thicker spandex “feels funny on his junk.” Plus, he says, “I’m not a real cyclist.” He says that dressing up to go for a bike ride makes him feel like a “tool.” She loves him right then, in his moment of slightly off-base candor and masculine insecurity, for not being a poser. But even so, she can’t help but think that a simple pair of padded shorts on this long rail trail ride would have been a good idea.
“How’s your junk holding up?” she yells, blowing past him, fast and fearless. Her hearty, chortling laugh hits him like a pumpkin pie to the face, releasing his tired, pained expression. It’s back. Her beautiful laugh. It is free-flowing, unbridled, and it does not sound at all like a gobbling turkey. Instead, it sounds just like poetry to him. It sounds exactly like music to his ears.
And as for her, she knows one pure and ever-growing truth: should this man and his perfectly imperfect love suddenly leave the earth, it would not make her feel free. He is human, like her, and he will make his fair share of human mistakes. But he is also someone who owns his every word, and bothers to humble himself. He is someone who loves with the courage required for love.
He does not play pretend.