On bike, top of hill, foot down. Red light. It was green as I was climbing but turned yellow before I could get through. It’s a quiet Saturday, holiday weekend. A few cars cross in front of me, no one behind me. The rotation complete, my turn next, I step on the pedals and inch out. The light stays red, though. It is red as oncoming traffic starts to enter and turn left. Because no drivers had joined me on my side of the intersection, the signal never kicked to green. I could wait here all day at a red light that stays red. Instead, I press through. The oncoming drivers pause for two extra beats to wait for me before turning left across the empty lane.
A man jams his body halfway out of his driver’s side window. His head, arm, torso look like they’re about to climb out after me. He screams across the road, “Why don’t you obey the law, you fucking idiot!”
I catch my breath and keep riding.
Through my head race all the answers I would say if his were a real question. Louder than my imagined response is the clang clang clang of his fury: “You fucking idiot, you fucking idiot, you. . .” For the next mile at least, I tense at every approaching engine, sure he’s whipped around to come after me. Will my helmet work when he clips me and I flip onto the side of the road? It’s a quiet, leafy neighborhood. People are out. Surely someone will see it and call 911.
You fucking idiot, you fucking. . .
At the turnoff to the W&OD trail, the cicadas and early evening sky drown out his rage. Even so, as the wheels spin on over blacktop, his words join the chorus of others. Their anger is the score of this B film, this biopic of one woman’s blundering journey into middle age.
The first one called me a “patronizing idiot” after pressing me to say what I was really thinking, and I finally told him that his drinking concerned me. It should have been no surprise when his drunken fury later found its way to my body. He pinned my arms behind my back and forced me face-down on the bed. And later still, when I’d had enough and worked up the courage to leave, he demanded that I see him. In his cool and steady voice, he threatened to show up when I asked him to stay away, and suggested he might tell my ex-husband things that could wreck our custody arrangements.
The second one begged me to stay. He was stuck in a job he hated and spent most evenings alone playing fantasy football in his living room. Instead of taking a risk or make a change, he drank and complained and obsessed about me. When I’d had enough, he said we could keep dating. Even when it was over – so over that I told him I was going to start dating others and he was a smog of jealousy and sullenness – he said he could love me. It should have been no surprise when his bitterness found its way to my reputation. When I finally closed the door, he created a fake online profile and smeared me on social media. He tracked down my ex-husband and showed up in his social groups. He sent emails to the people I cared about.
“Her powers of deception and manipulation are beyond her control, and they will most likely cause turmoil for those that she engages with.”
Then the third one, who responds like the others.
But he is not actually the third, he is the fourth, or maybe the eighth or tenth.
It’s important to go back. Back to one who predated the first, the one who let an entire marriage, family, career, and future disintegrate instead of having the courage to do something different. On offer were all my tools, all my support. I placed before him 150% of me, willing even to do his work for him as he puzzled his way through the maze of imagined obstacles.
After three moves in five years because of his inability to work through organizational challenges at his jobs, another move loomed. I begged him take charge of his own professional and personal growth. He chose to believe instead in a stunted self-concept. As his world fell apart, he blamed me for not loving him. I was selfish and broken. I was the problem because I would not stick by him through the “worse” that his efforts – repeated and futile – created in our lives.
The one now, whatever number he is in this story, throws into the garbage every lovingly crafted object I’ve ever made for him. Pillowcases I sewed by hand. A cigar box collaged with stamps steamed off letters my grandfather sent home to my grandmother when he was stationed overseas. He calls it rubbish, calls it broken promises.
And I wonder, what promise? The first promises have to be to my son and myself. A stable and secure future for Bug and me was and remains the organizing principle of this chapter. I promised my family a home, and I will do everything in my power to keep us from being uprooted again. This means staying organized, staying well, staying on track with a plan, even in the face of uncertainty. I asked for that from him. He bites back against such requests. Like the others, he uses this word “love” as if it is some pure measure. As if it can exist absent a context of (in)action.
This man who is sleep deprived and claims to live under a financial and professional sword of Damocles, he hates me for asking for more than his version of love. One week sure he’s going to get fired and begins preparing his house for sale, then the next he’s shopping for new furniture and digging post-holes for the fence he’s claims he’ll build for the dog he just adopted. In place of a plan is an endless and every-changing array of options. In place of a plan is chaos. In this place, promises pile up, fall free, shatter.
Again, I press through the intersection against the red light. This is not what’s done. Why don’t you obey the law, you fucking. . .
When a man LOVES a woman, when he is reliable and honorable in his commitment to her, she should be grateful and satisfied with that love. That’s the law. When he shows up for her and speaks sweetly, when he welcomes her kiddo as his potential step-child, when he learns the landscape of her skin and makes the tumblers fall open and frees her howls, when he LOVES her, she is supposed to love him back.
She must only ask for what he is already willing to give.
Never mind his commitment to himself. Pay no attention to his lack of reliability when it comes to his own life, work, and growth.
She must wait at the red light. Wait in passive hope for a change in circumstance over which she has no control. If a driver comes into the intersection, she will be free to go. Until then, the law is that she waits. She is blessed, having come this far. She should need no more than this place here, at this intersection, governed by forces that did not and still do not consult her. She should trust that eventually, maybe, something will open the way.
She could, of course, wobble across traffic to the sidewalk and press the button and wait there. Wait for the red hand to turn to a faceless white humanoid, cross in anticipation of someone else hollering that sidewalks are for pedestrians, you fucking idiot. Even so, maybe it’s safer over there. Leave the main roads for the ones who write the rules.
Why don’t you obey the law.
Here’s why: Because the law was not written for the kind of vehicle she’s driving. The law has no avenue on which she can ride safely beyond the small, familiar network of dead-end roads.
This woman wants her partner to tap into that well of courage and resourcefulness (Yes, it is deep. Yes, it seems dry. But it is not. Keep digging). She wants him to break free of his inertia and fulfill his potential – not all of it, none of us ever will – but enough to haul himself up and out of his places of turmoil, of dissatisfaction. She wants her partner to quit talking about making a change and actually make one. Not another niggling shortcut, but the kind of change that rewires the circuitry of his route.
He may be willing to wait at the light but she’s not.
And she’s also not going to let his clanging fury drown out the sound of her momentum. She does not need to hold on any longer for his green light. She has to make her way on down the road, even if it upsets him to see her crossing in front of and away from him. Even if he has to shout at her receding back.
It’s time for her – me – to do what I’ve been asking of my partners. To have courage, to ride out onto the leading edge of my own story. To make things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. My pattern is to love creative, stuck, and slightly bitter men. My pattern is to believe so fully in them that they hate me for what I see in them. My pattern is to kowtow to their needy and constricted version of devotion.
My pattern is to consign my hopes to their whims.
Now I break that pattern.
I cross against the light. I let their screeches bang against the curb, the utility pole, the blacktop spooling out behind me.
I make my way to a place I recall, a spot tucked behind the brambles where the half-dug well lies abandoned. It’s just up ahead somewhere, I remember scooping up earth, the feel of it abrading my skin. Tearing me open. It’s already deep enough to feel the surge there just below the surface. It pulses for me in time to the revolution of these wheels. It sings with the cry of the cicadas as the sky bleeds orange and lights the way.
Image: Oleg Tchoubakov