How to Disappear Completely.
On August 27, 2007, I got married...sort of. Butch was sweet, funny and incredibly shy. He was sensitive, thoughtful and unique. He had excellent penmanship and was an amazing portraiture artist. He was also an ex-con. I leave that detail last because judgment is quick, cheap and deadly. It sits next to self-righteousness and cackles like a clown. We met through my best friend. She had recently married Butch’s BFF, G and she’d started writing and visiting Butch. She asked if I’d be down to be his pen pal. I’ve always wanted a pen pal. I wrote to a soldier during Desert Storm and a girl in Guatemala as a kid. Neither of them wrote me back. I told myself it wasn’t me. I couldn’t think of a reasonable objection. It’s not like she’d asked me to marry him.
When I got his first letter, I was immediately caught off guard. The PENMANSHIP. I know I mentioned it before…but it was truly a thing of beauty. It was sharp, yet curvy: neat, but not rigid. I’m embarrassed to say that I was also surprised by his intelligence and eloquence. That first letter gave all my assumptions the hair flip. I prided myself on open-mindedness and I was just as judgmental and jaded as anyone else.
That first letter was long. He shared some of his favorite scriptures, books and quotes. He thanked me for agreeing to write and he asked me for a picture. It seemed logical to want a visual of the person you’re writing to. I would later find out that G had provided a list of her friends for him and I was being vetted. Men are obsessed with ‘choosing’ when the truth is, it’s NEVER up to them. In any case, we wrote back and forth this way for months. We talked about God, children, art and childhood. We sent each other writing samples. We were fast friends. I remember the first time his letter took on a flirtatious tone. He’d sent me a beautiful portrait he’d done of the photo I’d sent. I was floored. To this day I’ve never seen anything that captured my likeness in exactly the same way. Not a photo. Not a video. Nothing. I’d like to say I still own that portrait. But it’s one of the many things I lost in the fire.
When he sent the portrait he included an ode to my eyes. He detailed all the things he could see in the picture and while this sounds trite it wasn’t at all. A black girl very rarely feels seen. But I still had my reservations. I wasn’t quite ready to embrace Butch in that way. So I thanked him for the portrait and extended the tape on the friend zone.
By this point I’d moved to Houston. Actually, Spring. Spring, Texas. I had been living in New York since college and it had become home. I’d lived in New York longer than I’d lived anywhere else. But I was broke and burnt out. G was a music producer and had heard a little GarageBand demo I’d put together. He told me he thought I was talented and he wanted to produce an album with me. The catch was that I had to move in two weeks to record. I’d never been given that kind of opportunity so I leapt. I packed up everything I had and bid my city and my friends a hurried farewell. The idea of blue skies and easy living had me open. I pictured hot days and iced tea and I longed for a porch and a drawl.
When I arrived it wasn’t quite what I expected. These things never are. There was another singer living in the house and the focus seemed to be largely on her and her work. She was a friend from New York. She was beautiful, leggy and incredibly talented. She was also hilarious and spontaneous. I loved having her there. But, each week there seemed to be more and more beautiful, thin, light-skinned girls being paraded into the studio. I had become invisible. I had become their songwriter. I had yet to record anything. I was also living with no income and no transportation, public or otherwise. It was pinioning. It was lonely. Suddenly, Butch’s letters had a new gravitas. Suddenly, they were a respite. I started flirting back. I needed some of my power back. I needed to feel like a woman.
It quickly became very clear in that house that physical beauty trumped all and that the valued form of physical beauty was not anything that I possessed. At one point, I was hired to train a girl to ‘be like me, but look like her.’ Colorism is real and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge this time as the most spiritually and psychologically damaging of my life at that point.
Back to Butch...
Our flirtation escalated. I still had no idea what this man looked like. In my mind he wore a white and red 50’s letterman sweater and large glasses. He was tall, thin and deliciously nerdy. He’d been described as bald, built and looking like an attractive alien. Which turned out to be an extremely accurate description.
The day he was released I was a ball of nerves. We drove the 20 minutes to pick him up from prison. Because…Texas. I searched for a “I hope he likes me but I hope I don’t like him” outfit. I decided on my best jeans. He was about 5’10. Cocoa Brown, bald, built and VERY alien. Outer Limits not Predator. I did like him. I also hadn’t had sex in over a year so it was hard to keep the rabbit in the hat. We took him shopping. We got him his first cell and I spent most of the evening teaching him to text. It was all very sweet and 80’s.
We sent him on a bus to Dallas to see his mother and we made plans to see each other two weeks later. We shared several of those wonderful 3-6 hour phone calls at night. Still very 80’s... more For Keeps than Pretty in Pink.
Two weeks later all bets and clothes were off. It was 9 ½ weeks. Fast and primal. We locked into each other’s emptiness and were terrified to let go.
There were flags. There are always flags. He lied to me about being a smoker. He cried at the drop of a hat. Primal had left the show and fast had become a series regular. But, he made me laugh and he appreciated my oddity. Plus, he didn’t require me to make myself smaller for him. He did require an endless amount of coddling. I was starting to feel smothered.
I took a contract job in the city that would require me to be away for three weeks. It seemed the perfect opportunity for space and reflection. I arrived in New York bloated and swollen. I assumed it was from the cabin pressure so I ignored it. It got worse each day. I would awake more and more swollen and breathing & walking became difficult. I went to the emergency room where I was awarded a five hour wait, a chair stuffed with bloody tissues and a prescription for Benadryl.
When the swelling got so bad I couldn’t make it a block without stopping, I tried a different hospital. Less bloody tissues, more Benadryl. I was miserable and terrified. Butch sent me care packages. We talked every day and he was a comfort. One day a huge package arrived at the office. I opened it to find a giant stuffed dog wearing a spray painted t-shirt circa 1991. ‘Will you Marry Me?’ emblazoned in purple and black. The dog held a ring box with an ostentatious heart-shaped ring. This entire proposal was a red flag. There was nothing reflective of me. It was dated and immature. It was overly emotional and cloying. It was all wrong. I said yes.
Eventually, I was admitted to the hospital. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which affects my kidneys. They could work on getting the swelling down but I would always struggle with weight and the disease and children were ill advised.
I was talking to him in the hospital one night about how horrible it felt to carry so much water weight and how scary it was to watch my body change in ways I couldn’t control. That’s when he said it. ‘Yeah, I don’t think I could handle seeing you like that. That’s not for me. I like you like you were.’
My heart sank. It had happened. I had opened myself up and poured myself out and the person I chose had stood and watched as I ran down the drain. My mouth went dry. My eyes welled. I told him if he couldn’t handle it, it was best that we both knew now. I told him I’d send him back his ring. I hung up and I steeled my nerves. I took the phone off the hook and I hid my heart in a cavern of ice. Three days later I took his call. He had harassed everyone I knew and I felt like a telemarketer at Shiva. He served a sad/sorry combo with a side of ‘baby please’. I was sick and afraid. I thought I would be alone forever. So, I turned fear into forgiveness and a few days later, I flew home.
I set about making a home. I created a budget and a cooking schedule. I cleaned and decorated. I worked. On the weekends there were barbecues and pool parties. For a while, it seemed like it might all work out. That’s when I found out I was pregnant. My breasts were swollen and painful and I knew that something felt off. I took a couple of over the counter tests and my suspicion was confirmed. Butch was over the moon and I thought , “Well, that’s that. This is your life now”. The doctors informed me that my disease would most likely be passed down to my child. I was told it would be painful and that a child might not live past his second birthday.
I love children. I’ve always loved children but I’ve never pictured myself as a mother. That would shock most people who know me. I’ve been told I’m nurturing. Besides, a black woman with a body this curvy, a voice this silky and such a gentle demeanor is prime for childrearing. But, it’s not really my thing. Still, the idea of motherhood was appealing. The amazing idea of giving life and creating a cool little specimen was rad.
I named him Jaxon. I thought about whether he might be president, an architect or an artist. I wondered if he’d have my nose. I wondered if he’d have my disease. I wondered if he’d suffer. Butch and my mother thought giving birth was too risky. I grew up on Steel Magnolias and I saw what happened to Shelby. But I figured at this point, I’d already let too many decisions be informed by fear.
I was starting to swell again. My breathing was labored. It was hard to get around. My wedding day arrived and I barely recognized myself. I wore a dress I loved that I knew could stretch. The shoes wouldn’t strap around my ankles so I rigged them as best I could. I did my makeup and my hair and put on a smile. I felt like I was drowning from the inside. I marched down the aisle and each step felt like wading through quicksand. He mispronounced my name as he slid the ring on my finger. In his defense, he was repeating after the officiant. But he mispronounced my fucking name as he slid the ring on my finger. We had cake and took pictures. Afterward, we went to Target. I sat in the car while he picked up a backup system for his truck. We drove home and I cried on the couch as Friends played in the background.
Butch was already starting to fade away. He was spending more time in his ‘studio’ (our spare bedroom). He told me I’d ‘outgrown my voluptuousness’. There were unexplained absences and strange behavior. He was starting to drink heavily and wear sunglasses indoors. The Sunday after we got married we went to church. They congratulated us on our marriage and made us stand. The pastor delivered a sermon about truth and regret. He said that there was someone out there who knew they’d made a huge mistake and who was praying for deliverance. IT WAS I! I reeked. But, I was too wounded to stand in truth and humiliation less than a week after my ceremony.
A few weeks later I was on my way to the bathroom and I experienced a blinding pain. I collapsed. It felt like my intestines were being dipped in acid. Butch called the ambulance and I was once again admitted into the hospital. I was alone when they gave me the news. The technician did an ultrasound and told me the doctor would be along to give me the results. She didn’t meet my eyes. When the doctor arrived I asked her how the baby was. “There is no baby”, she replied. She was stone faced. I looked into her eyes and I too became stone. The pregnancy was ectopic. There would be no Jaxon. Butch showed up just in time to hear the options. Shot or Scrape. I was advised that if I wanted children in the future, the shot was the safer option. I was told it was less invasive. Even though I hadn’t wanted to be a mother, I had dreamed a life for Jaxon. I had considered his outfits and games and outings. I had wondered if he’d like my cooking. I had known he’d be kind. I had pictured his voice. I had felt his little fingers around mine. I took the shot.
I woke up in the middle of the night screaming and vomiting. No one ever tells you about the pain. It was the most indescribable agony I’ve ever experienced. The pretty blond nurse did her best to calm me down. But she was all of 24 and she smelled like privilege and Garnier Fructis. She told me to breathe through it and gave me more morphine. I thought the worst was over. The next day I was released. Because, America.
This next part of the story is a bit cloudy and fragmented. It feels like frosted glass. I woke up in the middle of the night screaming. Butch was lying next to me in a drunken stupor. He smelled of MD 40/40. It was thick and saccharin. I couldn’t tell what was happening to me but I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t stand and I couldn’t wake him. I rolled out of bed and I crawled to the bathroom. I pulled myself up on the toilet and I screamed, cried and pushed until I birthed a tiny little embryo. No one had mentioned this. I stared in disbelief. I cried in pain. I bled. I prayed. I flushed.
The next morning Butch found me lying in the tub. I couldn’t make it back to bed and the cool porcelain felt good on my sweaty, overheated skin. We called the doctor to tell him what had happened but he said that he’d be unable to see me because he couldn’t verify my Medicaid number. He advised going to the emergency room. "Thanks Doc! This was so much less invasive!" I couldn’t afford another ambulance ride. I couldn’t make it down the stairs on my own. I sent Butch out for crackers and a thermometer. He was gone for hours. I lie in that tub and communed with God and myself. I promised God that if he got me through this, that I’d never again give myself over so easily. I promised that I would do whatever it took to start living again. I fought like hell and I came out on the other side.
A few weeks later Butch got up to watch TV in the middle of the night. When I went to check on him he was gone. He never came home that night. I packed up some clothes, I took our cat and I went to my friend’s house. I don’t know why it always goes that way. Why does the person not being the asshole always end up uprooted? I took off work the next day because I needed my rest. I’d sat up on that couch waiting for hours. A few hours later I received a call from my boss that Butch had shown up at his house demanding to come in. He was frantic and acting erratically, so my boss was worried. Now this dick was risking my job. I’d already had to take two weeks off to save my own life.
I called him and told him to chill the fuck out and I told him I’d meet him at home to hear him out. When I arrived outside the door my hackles went up. I opened the door to find broken glass and tossed furniture. I looked into Butch’s eyes and he was not there. I recognized a familiar ghost. I could smell it on his clothes. This was a crack addict. I had repeated the entire pattern. I had married a crackhead.
I wasn’t sure I’d be safe, so I didn’t step inside right away. I took a few deep breaths and considered leaving but he grabbed my arm. He pulled me inside and he hugged me hard. My survival instincts told me to play it cool. Crackheads can be unpredictable. I asked him where he’d been and told him to save the bullshit. He came clean. He told me that he’d had trouble adjusting to how strange the outside world is. He hadn’t expected to have so much trouble finding a good paying job with his skills. He hadn’t anticipated my illness and pregnancy. He wasn’t prepared.
Apparently, he’d run into an old friend on his way home from work a couple months prior and his ‘friend’ and reintroduced him to the drug. He had been too ashamed to admit that he’d fallen off the wagon so he had started drinking to try to curb the craving. The cravings always win. He’d thought he was hiding it well, however that night when he’d gone out to score while I slept (apparently a common occurrence), he’d scored from a new person who made him take it in front of him to prove he wasn’t a cop. He’d gotten too fucked up to make it home and that’s where he’d been. Sleeping on the bathroom floor of a dirty, crack ridden motel room.
I couldn’t believe it. I had actually become my mother. My mother whom I’d judged as a fool and a sucker. My mother, whom I’d watched replace reason with hard will. I’d spent most of my life watching her fight the battle for my father’s life. I’d seen what losing was. I strapped on my gloves. Maybe this time. It was my dad all over again. It started with the little things. My class ring. My father’s class ring. I learned to sleep with things that were dear to me.
It escalated quickly. I came home one day and he’d returned the curtains and the groceries for cash. I had to be readmitted to the hospital and he visited just once, to steal the rent money. It went on that way until the day he and my laptop disappeared and I never saw him again. Scratch that. I visited him in prison a year later to ask him to stop giving random people my phone number. I had so many random people’s mothers calling me to tell me how sorry he was and how I should forgive and how I was his wife and it was my duty. But, as it turns out I wasn’t his wife.
He’d gone to wash his car for the millionth time. He had the nerve to be anal and vain. He was supposed to take back the marriage certificate. They give you a temporary and once the officiant and witnesses sign, you’re supposed to return it to the clerk’s office within three days. Somehow in his mad dash for shiny rims and pine-scented seats, he’d thrown it out. He went back once he realized but he couldn’t find it. Because he was a coward and a child he was too afraid to tell me.
They say God protects babies and fools and I had been the ultimate fool. I’d thought that I could cheat. I thought that I could check the boxes on the form. Wife ✓ Mother ✓ Suburbanite✓. I’d thought those boxes would make me happy or at the very least, content. At the end of it all I was left with both hands empty. But there was a silver lining. I picked up the phone and I called my mother. For the first time in my life, I could see her. Really see her. She wasn’t simply my mother, she was also just a girl. I’d sacrificed all these things for someone I was settling for yet, I’d judged her for sacrificing to save the love of her life. In my childish understanding, I’d thought she was afraid to be alone when really she was fighting for my father’s life and hers. She’d lost her battle and I’d lost mine and even though we’ll carry these scars forever we will never be invisible again.