On Mistaking A Man's Constant Criticism For Something Like Love

When you rip yourself apart, you know it’s supposed to be bad. But a man rips you to pieces and he’s Mr. Darcy.
Publish date:
November 26, 2014
unrequited love, crushed

Inviting someone into your bed -- into your life -- it doesn’t go the way you think it will. It is easier, in its way, to invite someone inside your mind and secret heart. Or, at least, less is at stake.

“Make yourself comfortable,” you say, as you usher ghosts inside. That’s always how it’s been for me. In their way, the people I’ve loved with my dreams alone are the grand romances I preferred. They have never disappointed. How could they? They aren’t real.

The ghosts in my head and heart are easy company to keep. They had their impact once, but the shattered windows have been boarded up, and the specters inside each room now rest, still and quiet, under dusty sheets. Arms wrapped around your middle, surprising soft skin slicked with sweat, eyes too struck-dumb with wonder to risk blinking: There are no sheets wide enough. There is not enough clapboard in the world to patch the holes where the proud daylight of memory insists on beaming in.

After graduating from college in a daze, I moved back to Rhode Island to live with my parents. I don’t remember the drive back, which is telling. In all the photographs I am scowling, chewing my lip, looking off at some disaster on the horizon. If these pictures were black and white and in a silent movie you’d believe the text-card indicating that I was thinking, “What will become of me?” I shyly hugged my college mentor as we paraded out of the church, his perpetually smiling eyes and shocked side-tufts of whitening hair a quick tide-pool of calm.

I looked for another teacher. The sexy playwrighting fellow I’d studied with that year. He was nowhere to be seen. This is for the best. Having failed to get into any writing or acting programs I do not think I could have stood to stare at his perfect, Irish beauty. For the next year, when I ran screaming into the steel wall of the future only to crack my skull and sit up, shaky and bloodied, it was his face I’d see.

If my mentor represented the calm, confidence that I would find my way and myself, the sexy playwrighting fellow represented everything I wanted, and everything that seemed woefully out of reach: A dark, brooding, overly-critical partner (because as women we very often mistake constant criticism with love), and an amazing career.

The ceiling in the spare room of my parents’ apartment was crumbling down. I ignored the plaster and the fetid water that dripped down onto my sleeping neck. I painted one wall human-organ purple and bought generic pre-framed art in coordinating shades. “VISIT ITALY”, the faux-vintage poster demanded in a manner befitting a country known for its history of fascism.

The room was like a heart; purple, veins creeping up around the ceiling, the soothing clamor of the radiator, the rush of water from the apartment below where my grandparents lived moving through the long pipe in the corner. It had valves, two doors on opposite sides of the room. One led to the den, the other to the back staircase. They opened and closed constantly, an arrhythmic annoyance. When the ceiling finally collapsed, my bed was wheeled out into the dining room. “I feel like a refugee,” I whined. “Things White Girls Say” wasn’t a thing yet, but it should have been.

At night, I’d lay and stare out the big windows and imagine I’d been roasted over a spit and was being carved up and served in sections to the literary elite. The sexy playwriting fellow was there, with his stubble and his curls. “I don’t eat meat,” he’d say. I’d feel guilty and want to apologize.

There were moments I missed the simple, easy crushes of bygone days. But I took a perverse sort of pleasure in imagining being ripped apart (literally and figuratively) by a man I admired. In a way, this was more acceptable than me doing it to myself. When you rip yourself apart, you know it’s supposed to be bad. But a man rips you to pieces and he’s Mr. Darcy.

I moved back from the dining room to the heart-room once the ceiling was patched. It was miserable. Try masturbating in a room with two doors and no locks knowing that at any second a family member can come parading through. Try it. I’d wait until the small hours of the morning, blast the TV while frantically going to work by hand like a dog who can’t quite reach his itchy ear. Invariably the TV was playing a "Law & Order" rerun. I’ve accidentally programmed myself to come to the sound of Sam Waterston’s voice. This is only half a joke.

In the afterglow, I’d switch the TV over to "The Nanny" and dream about a different sort of life, one with Maxwell Sheffield or the sexy, equally dark-haired playwriting fellow, one where I slept in a room with just one door and someone to assist me: Someone with a body who sounded nothing like Sam Waterston.

During the day, I went to my job at the Rhode Island Department of Health. I sat in a cubicle and stuffed envelopes. I ate my lunch in the basement. I waited for my life to start. I chronicled, as I fell asleep, the apparitions pacing in their respective quarters in my mind. Things were changing. My crushes had always provided a sweet sort of respite, but at 21 they were tinged with an acrid bite, like slurping down a cup of orange juice after brushing your teeth. You know how you want it to taste: But you can’t make it be.

When I left Tennessee and moved back to Rhode Island, I left the idea of ever falling in love again (real or imagined) behind the gates on the mountain. My crushes offered no respite. Now they were taunts, reminders of the life I wanted. When you’re in a position such as I was (stuck, trapped, and frantic) it’s like all of your desires fuse into one massive multi-headed hydra of want. In the past, I could make every man I’d crushed on anything I wanted them to be -- I did not run the risk of actually ever getting to know them. Now I’d taken it a step further, the sexy playwriting fellow, Maxwell Sheffield, Sam Waterston, they were all ciphers. They railed at me about the way I looked, my inability to move forward, my perversion, my badness.

My crushes weren’t harmless ghosts: They were the kind that reach through mirrors and throttle you and for a year, I let them.