by Lynn Marie Houston
“Our wine may be bitter, but it’s our wine.”—Jose Martí
I will tell you the first part of this story backwards, because that’s how I remember it. Starting with the fight. The chocolate is always an after-thought.
He was standing in front of the apartment door when I got home with groceries. My fiancé, Francis, was not yet home from work. The door to our apartment in Switzerland was at the end of a narrow hallway. Two could barely pass. Francis had said not to let his brother in when he wasn’t there. Francis had left the number to call the institution to come get him. His brother wasn’t supposed to get out, but every couple weeks he did. Francis had said his brother had killed their mother, but then he took it back. It was probably really the cancer. He repeated, probably. He’d left his brother alone with their mother and he’d pushed her, breaking her ribs. She never left the hospital. Francis’ brother was standing at the end of the very narrow hallway when I got home.
It’s difficult to remember exactly what happened. I tried to get into the apartment, he blocked my way, said he wanted to be let inside. I explained I couldn’t let him in. But the next part gets fuzzy. I’m not sure what—if anything—triggered the first blow.
I fought back. I’d never really been in a fight before, never taken or delivered a punch to the face before. After a few minutes, we were both breathing heavily from the exertion and apples from the grocery bag were rolling down the hall. I thought that he was more winded than I was. I thought I had gained on him the few seconds I needed to get the key in the lock and get inside. But just as I turned the handle, my back to him, he brought a backpack full of books down on my head. I stumbled across the threshold as he tried to push his way in. I pushed back, punched him one more time, and managed to shut and lock the door. He kicked the rest of the groceries down the hall, the raw meat unwrapping from its packaging, leaving a trail of blood.
Francis took me to the hospital. Un coup du lapin, they said. A rabbit punch. I had to wear a cervical collar until my spinal cord was no longer swollen.
A few weeks before the beating, his brother had also escaped from the institution where he was put after probably killing his mother. That visit had been more amicable. Francis called the institution and they said they would be there in thirty minutes. While waiting, I made his brother a hot chocolate, because it was cold outside and because it was his favorite drink. We didn’t have any premixed packets, so I heated milk and added cocoa powder, but I forgot to put in sugar. His brother took the first sip and made a face.
“Oh, let me add some sugar,” I said.
“No, no,” he protested, “this is chocolat de la maison.” House specialty. By which he meant it was my unique way of making it. As if hot chocolate were a jazz standard and this was my rendition. What an easy-going guy, I had thought. He drank the whole bitter cup.
I’m not suggesting that the beating he gave me a few weeks afterwards was revenge for forgetting sugar in his hot chocolate. When I made him the hot chocolate, Francis’ brother went with it, relinquishing control over the outcome. When I denied him entry into the apartment, he tried physically to change the situation to get what he wanted. What was the difference between those two scenarios? Years later, I’m still trying to understand. Not for Francis—my engagement to him ended long ago—but to know what’s right. To know when to accept with gratitude something that falls short of my expectations, and when to fight or walk away because it’s not what I want.
Justin was supposed to call me. He’d given me three available times and I’d picked one. But no call came at the agreed upon time. I tried calling him. No luck. A half an hour later he posted a picture to Facebook—he was out at a bar playing pool. The next morning I got an apology email. He was sorry. It just slipped his mind. There was so much going on. He’d forgotten to tell me this, but his friend Jeremy was moving in while he renovated the house he’d bought after leaving his wife. Justin was busy preparing to move him in.
The next week I got a package in the mail from Justin. Some items he’d canned—chili, tomatillo salsa. I wrote an email thanking him, but I suggested in a pretty snarky fashion that it might have been better if he just hadn’t been so absent-minded about calling when he said he would; then he wouldn’t have had to send a gift in the guise of apology. At the time, I just assumed that the canned goods had been sent to me because he had to make pantry space for Jeremy.
Justin and I would continue to be best friends for another two years and he would never give me another meaningful homemade gift again. When our friendship was falling apart, I told him that I regretted I hadn’t been more grateful about the canned goods he’d sent as clearly that was some threshold for us in terms of being kind.
“Oh Lynn,” he said, “I forgave you for that long ago. I just learned not to expect you to be grateful for anything I did.”
Rabbit punch—a blow I had not seen coming. A totally unfair judgment, but the kind that is invented by a person who doesn’t call when he says he will and doesn’t like being told when he’s been remiss. Justin had a history of this: he would lead women on with promises he couldn’t keep, and when they expected him to follow through, he would find reasons to label them crazy.
For four years I fought to try to mold that relationship into something that wasn’t painful to me. For four years I kept asking him for something sweeter. But I finally reached my limit when I realized that this was his pattern, and it had little to do with me. Justin wasn’t capable of being anything other than a toxic presence in my life, like he was inevitably in the lives of so many other women. Including his wife, who’d had to turn to someone outside their marriage in order to feel loved. I cut all ties with Justin, but the four years I held on caused serious damage to my self-esteem.
I’ve often wondered how things would have been different if I’d just been grateful for the non-friendship he gave me, just accepted his “house specialty” friendship. If I’d just stayed silent about how far he fell below my expectations of respectful behavior, how far he fell below even his own stated intentions.
Okla had been trying to date me since we first met in person at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in April. Because I’d experienced such peace in my life after ending things with Justin, I was on high alert for red flags, unwilling to get involved in anything that brought any drama back into my life.
Okla finally convinced me to spend the weekend with him after hours of passionate email conversation about literature and writing. There was some talk of sex, too.
“I’m very good at oral sex,” Okla wrote to me. “Like, incredibly good at it.”
“Words, words, words,” I wrote back.
“I will show you,” he promised.
It was like he wanted me to pat him on the back for having performed oral sex on other women in the past, ones who had seemed to enjoy it. Not all women liked the same things sexually. To assume they did was to erase any individual differences that made them people. And Okla wasn’t asking me what I wanted in terms of oral sex. He wasn’t asking me what I liked or didn’t like. This wasn’t about me at all. He was asking that I fawn over his ego. Proud of his “house specialty” oral sex, he was suggesting that I would have to accept it whether or not it was what I wanted.
I was prepared not to accept it. I went to visit him that weekend fully prepared to voice what I wanted. To the left, Okla. More gently. We never even got there, despite his promise to “show me” with more than words how skilled he was.
The first night I was exhausted from the drive and we fell asleep after talking. The second night, we were making out and he asked me for oral sex. I obliged, thinking it was my turn next. But after I was done, he rolled over and went to sleep.
Rabbit punch—an unexpected blow. So to speak.
I lay there in the dark listening to his snoring for a long time, wondering what it all meant. Then I got up and took my computer to his living room, where I began this essay.
When I got home, there was an email from him saying he’d had a great time and that he knew he owed me an orgasm. I never spoke to him again.
My birthday is in a few weeks. And I’d like to think I’m making some kind of progress, not just ex-ing out days on the calendar.
The therapist I’m seeing talks about expectations as if they were a yard stick. When she does, she always gestures with her hand.
“Here were your expectations of Justin and Okla,” she says, reaching her hand high up into the air of her office, “and here was what they were capable of.” She drops her hand as close to the tapestried floor as she can. “That’s a big difference.”
I nod silently from the couch.
“You have to meet people where they are,” she concludes for me.
“I’d like to know how to do that,” I say.
Just this past week, I went on two first dates in the span of three days. The first guy brought me flowers. We had a very pleasant chat over dinner. But he texted me seven times on my drive home, while he was also driving. The next morning, I woke to a barrage of long, flowery text messages about the “pools of my eyes” and the “cinnamon waterfall of my hair.” He tried calling me later that day. When I didn’t answer, he left a long voicemail. Then he texted immediately afterward to ask when he could talk to me on the phone. The next morning I let him know that there wouldn’t be a second date. I could see my therapist’s arm with her hand extended—this time, my expectations had been low on the yard stick, and his behavior had been over the top. I’d only needed a few hours to see the disconnect.
I met William later that afternoon. There were no flowers, but there was lots of laughter. Text messages afterward were sparse but meaningful. We chatted off and on, going for a couple of days with no contact, and then we met for a second date, where we spent three hours telling our life stories over tapas and a bottle of wine. William says he wants to see me again, but he seems in no hurry to schedule anything. For now, I’m granting him this distance, accepting what he has to offer. That could change if the relationship develops. The yardstick my therapist talked about is actually a moving target. But I feel like I’m figuring out something important about how to tell when a man means me emotional or psychic harm and when he is simply doing his best, even if that falls a little below the expectations I initially brought to the relationship.
Lynn Marie Houston holds a PhD in English from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Squalorly, Full Grown People, Bluestem, and other journals, as well as in her collection of poetry, The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press), which won 1st place in the 2015 Connecticut State Press’ literary awards. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Southern Connecticut State University and runs Five Oaks Press.