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In Reference to a Poem About Optimism
By Paul Douglas McNeill II
“No,” I said. “We have to stop.”
I jumped up. I backed away. My cock was still hard, but it was slowly deflating.
I backed away. I stood in the corner. But I didn’t touch the wall. Whenever I was in your apartment, I floated as much as possible. I looked at a beam of streetlamp light on your carpet. Something to focus on. Looking down and to the side makes one look traumatized. Scarred. Afraid. Conflicted. Ripped to pieces. According to Dr. Merle R. Carson, an esteemed clinical psychologist, victims of trauma “often exhibit a distrust of others, cannot make eye contact, being forced to look toward the ground, and experience a decrease in sexual desire.” So, I looked down at your new, white carpet. I did not look at you.
You sprawled on your stomach on your air mattress. An expensive air mattress but still an air mattress. You later told me that you felt like a loser for sleeping on an air mattress at 29 years old. Our bed—a Sealy Posturepedic Memory Foam California King—sat in my apartment in Winston-Salem. It was our last major purchase. Seven-hundred-and-twenty-nine dollars on a Mattress Firm credit card. We could both sleep on it, fully spread out, and never touch. When you rolled around at night, I never felt it. When I jerked off around daybreak, I never woke you up. Our movements never traversed to the other side. It even made sex more difficult. It had no give. It had no bounce. It offered no assistance. We just kind of sank into the bed with every thrust. My ass memorized by the foam. I once wrote a cliché-riddled poem about our bed, full of metaphors and irony. It symbolized us, I wrote. I threw my poem away; I kept our Sealy. It was a behemoth. The movers shot me evil looks when they carried it down the stairs. They even folded it in half when I told them not to. “And I’m on a fucking blow-up bed,” you said.
You just stared at me. I crossed my arms. Hugged myself. People experiencing emotional trauma demonstrate the need for security through their body language. They close up. Create shields. Build walls. Become guarded. Experts call it “defensive body language.” Sherry Allen, an authority on psychology whose profile photograph suggests kindness and understanding, says, “Crossed arms might indicate that a person is feeling defensive, self-protective, or closed-off.” So, I crossed my arms tightly around my ribs until my fingers almost reached my spine.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
I could have. I just wanted to punish you.
“Why?” you asked. “Please, Paulie. Please don’t go away.”
I could tell you were going to cry.
My god. Your body. Even then. Your shoulders. Your mouth. Your back. Your tiny, flat ass.
“It happened right there,” I said. “You and him. It was right there.”
I pointed at your bed. Your bed. Not my bed. Not our bed. I pointed at your bed. But I looked at your floor. Victims rarely face the cause of their emotional trauma. Experts call it a “trigger” or a “triggering device.” Luerena D. Cannon, a trauma therapist with an impressive publishing record, says that trauma victims often avoid “feelings, people, places, and circumstances that may trigger horrific remembrance.” James H. Bernstein, Ph.D. and a man so respected a memorial scholarship was started in his honor, adds, “Victims usually develop avoidance behavior to stimuli that are associated with the trauma for fear of re-experiencing the event.” So, I didn’t look at you. I didn’t look at your bed. But I pointed. I just pointed.
Then came your tears. Finally. You slammed your face into your palms.
My god. Your body. Even then. Your hands. Your hair. Your forearms. Your long, veiny neck.
I turned away and walked into your living room. But not out your front door. Myrna F. Katz, Ph.D., Associate Director of The Smith Rehabilitation Research Institute, and Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at James Madison University, says victims often don’t escape because they are “paralyzed with fear, feel isolated from the outside world, feel trapped, or still love their partner, among many other reasons.” So, I didn’t walk out your front door. I just walked into your living room.
Your apartment was so crisp and clean, it was almost startling. As if even your panties dangling just over the rim of your hamper was a deliberate choice. White stainless steel, white iron, soft shades of blue and grey. So subtly pristine.
Our apartment was always a battle between methodical chaos and meticulous order. A cold war between our personalities, played out room to room through decorative decisions. A constant attempt to blend unmixable elements. A standoff between old, dark-wood furniture and sleek, stainless steel appliances. Your Restoration Hardware white leather chair. My uncle’s fuzzy, green, hand-me-down loveseat. Your white fabric IKEA NOCKEBY sofa with the chrome legs that I was never allowed to sit on while writing. “Where’s the cap for that pen?” you always nagged. My Salvation Army Hepplewhite desk that you refused to put our Mac on. “It just doesn’t match,” you said. Your mail and literature organizers I kept forgetting to use. My drawings of 19th-century tortured Dutch prisoners that you could never understand. Your greeting card tree that I said was unnecessary. My brass candelabras I swore would come in handy. Your cactus plants that you insisted on calling “succulents.” My ferns that the birds kept fucking and shitting in. It took us two days to hang my picture of Dickens’ cottage.
“The wall’s mostly empty now,” you said. “What if it doesn’t fit with the paintings we buy in the future?”
“It’s a wall,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking that far ahead about our wall.”
You claimed that the “opposition of our styles creates an eclectic vibe.” But then, juxtaposition turned to slow, steady separation. Your bathroom, my bathroom. Your drawers, my drawers. Your desk, my desk. Your shelves, my shelves. Your closet, my closet. Your debt, my debt. Your vacation to Venice Beach with your sister. Your musician. My vacation to Asheville with my brother. My Army widow. Your signature, my signature.
“Please don’t walk away,” you said as you sucked up snot. “Please don’t leave me alone.”
I didn’t have to walk away. I just wanted to punish you.
You followed. “Why can’t we get past this?” you asked.
I stammered through shallow, short, labored breaths. I clinched my muscles. I almost placed my hand on your wall for support, but I pulled back before making contact. I put my other hand on my chest. According to Belinda Kramer, M.A., and Senior Editor of the reliable website Healthguide.org, “Anxiety attacks usually occur suddenly and without warning. Sometimes there’s an obvious trigger, such as reliving a traumatic experience. Symptoms include: pounding heart, heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, muscle tension, feeling like you’re going to pass out, and dizziness.” So, I kneeled down on your floor and formed a ball, hugging my knees to my chest.
“I just—we just can’t,” I mumbled.
I could have—we could have. I just wanted to punish you.
“I’m so sorry,” you cried. “Oh no. Please, no. Please, please.”
You put your hands on your forehead. You slowly slid down your fridge, just like in a cheesy movie or a bad play. You cried until you coughed and gagged and could barely breathe. You even began to panic as you tried to catch your breath. Even in the dark, I could see your face turning blue. The kind of blue it used to turn only when I made you cum too hard, but then you would catch your breath and cry while I just stared at your face slowly turning from blue to red and back to pale white.
My god. Your body. Even then. Your elbows. Your armpits. Your tits. Your red and blue swollen face.
I just watched your stomach tighten and bulge. You climbed on all fours to try and catch your breath. You even whimpered like a dog. I did not react.
Some experts call it “lower empathic resonance.” Dr. Alex Rory, Ph.D., and Director of Evaluation of The Trauma Treatment Center at The Justice Resource Foundation, says that victims of trauma might have “difficulty perceiving and responding to other's emotional states, and exhibit a lack of empathy." So, I just watched you and stared at your hood piercing. It shimmered in the streetlamp light, and I briefly thought of an idea for another poem. And then I wished I still had my tongue ring. The clicking sound was the only real way I ever knew I was on target. But I didn’t react to your tears.
“I’m sleeping on your couch,” I said. “Until I’m sober enough to drive.”
Experts call it “drinking to cope.” Kate Evans and Andrew Maher, prolific writers and co-authors of the best-selling book, Healing Addicted Survivors, say, “Up to three quarters of victims of trauma report drinking problems. They may drink because using alcohol can distract them from their problems for a short time. However, using too much alcohol makes it harder to cope with stress and trauma memories. Alcohol use and intoxication (getting drunk) can increase symptoms. Examples of symptoms that can get worse are numbing of feelings, being cut off from others, anger and irritability, depression, and the feeling of being on guard.” So, I just stumbled over to your couch, sat down, and waited.
I could have crawled over to provide comfort. But I just wanted to punish you.
You didn’t say anything. You just sobbed and blubbered and sniffled in decreasing volume and decreasing intensity. You wiped snot and tears and spit from your nose and mouth and rubbed the cocktail on your legs. You brushed your sticky and matted hair off your cheek. “I’m so gross,” you said. You slowly stood up. You walked, head down, defeated, back into your bedroom.
My god. Your body. Even then. Your calves. Your visible vertebrae. Your heels. Your crater-covered thighs.
I sat naked on your couch. I chewed on my fingers until they bled, and I wiped my blood on the cushions of your white couch. Father-son psychosomatic dermatologists Doug Toomey Jr. and Doug Toomey III call the condition dermatophagia—the impulse to bite and ingest your own skin. A neurotic habit or compulsion to self-mutilate your own skin or its appendages with your teeth. Experts say it’s a way to relieve stress. The skin of my fingers thickened over time, but my fingertips were always rough and half-bleeding, with mini-open wounds always ready to bust. I ruined so many shirts just trying to button them up. I ruined so many pants just trying to pull up the zipper. I once ruined the back of your favorite dress when you asked me to zip you up, and then you said, “That’s it. You can’t touch my pussy again until you stop chewing your hands. I don’t want those nasty fingers in my pussy.”
I noticed a long, red hair on your coffee table. His hair. I picked it up, twisted it around my fingers, and stretched it until it snapped. I thought of nothing else but slow, subtle torture. I thought of you crying alone in your bed. Hyperventilating, I prayed. I slowly looked around your living room. Your mail and literature organizers were all filled with your design projects and knitting patterns. Your greeting card tree was decked out with old postcards of places you planned to visit. Your succulents were littered here and there, all perfectly complementing their corner of your apartment. Your copies of every book featuring Sarma Melngailis, all completely taking up the M section of your bookcase. The last time we spoke, you called me your Strangis, and I said your obsession with Sarma made perfect sense.
I looked out at Greensboro—your city—and scanned the empty railroad tracks and watched the buses lumber in and out of the depot. I noticed your new, red PT Cruiser sitting in your parking space, and then I thought of your old 1990 brown Subaru Legacy. DeeDee. She lasted 18 years before she died after a long drive through the mountains. We took pictures with her like old Victorian families used to take pictures with their recently deceased babies. And when the tow truck took her away, you cried like we just put the family dog down after an unexpected illness. You cried everyday after work for a week, and you couldn’t mention her for months without your voice cracking and your eyes welling up. She was the last thing you owned from the days before we met. After your CDs were scratched and sold to eliminate clutter, the piles of your journals were thrown away because they were childish, your teenager clothes were donated because they weren’t professional, and all of your old dishes were broken or lost, DeeDee was all that was left. And then, your DeeDee was sold for parts, and everything left was ours. For a while. And then Your and My began their war.
I walked back into your bedroom. I nestled behind you. I hesitated putting my arm around your waist, as if holding you took effort. As if your skin burned. After all, I was fighting past extreme emotional pain. I was traumatized. After four seconds, I placed my arm around your waist.
Sigmund Freud, widely known as the father of psychoanalysis, calls it “the repetition compulsion.” He argues that a victim of trauma often “repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again.” Later, Erik Erikson, a man so brilliant he served as a professor at prominent institutions such as Harvard and Yale without holding even a bachelor’s degree, would call it “the destiny neurosis.” He argues, “Victims often make the same mistakes over and over because the individual unconsciously arranges for variations of an original theme which he has not learned either to overcome or to live with.” So, I returned to your bed, and I held you.
You sighed as my arms encased you. We said nothing. You turned and looked at me.
I could see your big, wide, deer eyes—one green, one blue—stare at me. You once told me that it was called heterochromia. It has something to do with your ancestry, your Sicilian side or your Swiss side; I don’t remember which. It explained your freckles. And your almost translucent skin. Your veins were always on display. It didn’t explain your pectus excavatum. That was different. The first time we made out, you hid your tits with your hair.
“Don’t do that,” I said, and I brushed your dry, straw hair off your chest.
“I hate my tits,” you said, and you placed my fingers into the top of your ribcage. “I have a dent,” you said. “It makes my tits all pointy. When I was a kid, I was a pale, white girl with rabbit teeth, freckles, and a dent, living in the black part of Boston. It fucking sucked.”
Since birth, your body was always at war with your beauty. Always attempting to keep you humble. Just odd enough to be interesting, just flawed enough to kill your modeling dreams. A short bridge between ugly and attractive.
“I was born with a hemangioma,” I said. “I had lumps on my head until I was 10. I had them removed. But there is still blue on my temple and all over my neck. When I was a kid, people thought my parents beat me. Now, people always think I have a huge hickey.”
“I thought you tried to hang yourself,” you said. “Don’t worry; I thought it was kind of hot.”
And then you kissed my hemangioma. And I kissed your dent. And we fucked with your rough, battered nipples between my teeth the whole time.
But now, you just closed your eyes. You kept them closed. “I’m so sorry, Polliwog,” you said. “I feel so dirty. I hate myself. I feel so disgusting. I’m so ugly.” I rubbed your cheek. I kissed your forehead.
“Babydoll,” I said. “You are the most perfect thing I have ever seen.”
You climbed on top of me. You slid me inside. I thought of you. I thought of you with him. I thought of you with him in your bed in my spot. Once his spot. For a night that lasts and lasts, once a spot you gave to him. My punishment. And I could hear the sand and the waves collide.
My god. Your body. Even then. Your shallow belly button. Your meaty labia. Your freckles. All of your freckles. Your soft, squishy hips.
We finished. We cried. We rested. And my tantrum was over.
According to Peter K. Wiesel, a successful professor and author specializing in the areas of interpersonal effectiveness, “Most manipulative individuals have four common characteristics: They know how to detect your weaknesses. Once found, they use your weaknesses against you. Through their shrewd machinations, they convince you to give up something of yourself in order to serve their self-centered interests. Once a manipulator succeeds in taking advantage of you, he or she will likely repeat the violation until you put a stop to your exploitation.”
My tantrum was over. My tantrum had just begun.