Beta Readers: Victory Is My Name, Book 2
Dear beta readers, Thank you for your creative contribution to this work.
Chapter 1: All My Men
Sweet summer night, warm darkness wraps itself softly around my body and a whisp of a breeze skims over my naked skin. I can hear his breathing beside me and the soft sounds of evening, the faraway droning of a passing plane and the murmur of the dying traffic of the twilight world going home.
The fragrance of honeysuckle drifts through the open window and settles onto the bed where we lie, and we are both drunk with it. We turn together, and all of me is pressed against all of him, skin to skin...
The loving is slow and delicious. It surges through my body like a long slow shock of pleasure, I am consumed in it. I have lost myself with him; we are both lost from the world in another place together.
When the wave of it has passed, all of my strength and all of my tension are released into it. I am completely spent, at peace. My body is afloat on the heavy warm air as if on water. There is nothing to do now, nothing in the world, but to drown in the luxury of sleep. Submerged in the softness of the dark, I am fading, fading into nothingness. I will sleep, deep and long, and in the morning when the light returns, I will wake and find him here next to me, and know it was not a dream.
I don’t remember all the names of the boys or men in my life I thought I was in love with, or wished I was, or who were in love with me or pretended they were. In high school I had no serious dates, just football games, but no real boyfriend. My first crush was Paul. We both worked on the yearbook staff, and at the end of the school year he took me to the staff dinner-dance. It was at the coaxing of Mrs. Harrison, the teacher who was the yearbook sponsor. I knew it, but I was ecstatic.
He was brilliantly smart. He was a senior and he drove a red Corvette. It wasn’t new and the paint was faded, but it was a Corvette! He was studying Aerospace Engineering. Between classes he walked around with a slide rule jauntily sticking out of his back pocket, and he had built a small rocket in his parents’ garage. I thought he was absolutely wonderful.
The dates I didn't have in high school, I made up for in college. My freshman yeat at the University of Texas, the boy-girl ratio was four to one. A girl could collect boyfriends like ribbons at the County Fair: Best This, Best That, Smartest, Cutest, Most Athletic, Most Fun.
I also had guy-friends who were simply friends. I loved going out to the lake with a bunch of them, water-skiing all day. Sometimes their girlfriends came too, but not often, because they didn’t want to mess up their hair. My hair was short and nearly indestructible. When it got wet, I shook it out like a water-spaniel and it was fine. I was no good at water skiing, so I just rode in the speedboat and enjoyed the sun and the water and all those cute guys. At the end of the day we crossed the lake to a dockside cafe for cold beer and deep-fried catfish and hush-puppies. When they brought me back to the dorm I was tired, sunburned, well-fed and happy. That was my perfect day.
Then in my junior year I fell in love with an art student like myself, and everything changed.
He went off to grad school on the East Coast, and it’s true what they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” or something like that. Neither of us had been ready for anything like marriage, but we were young and we needed to be together. We didn’t think it through. We got married, as most of our contemporaries did, and a few years later we got divorced, as most of our contemporaries did.
My life was a shipwreck after that, because I had invested all of my self in the marriage. I’d left college one semester short of my bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, given up the pursuit of my own art career to support my husband in his. He never thanked me. He never even noticed. My three years in the dismal one-chilling cold of New Haven Connecticut and two more years in the brutal winters of Minneapolis had been lonely and hard. Through them all, he had been emtionally unavailable and sexually abusive, but I won’t talk abou that, except to say, I knew I deserved better.
But that became my life, so when it ended, I didn’t have a life. I had surrendered my identity as a person too, so I didn't have a self either. When I left, I had nothing at all. I went numb except for crying jags which I didn’t understand, and smoking a lot. I didn’t drink. I wasn’t ready to die yet.
I stumbled through clinical depression for several more months, and then some merciful cosmic reprieve brought me to Keego Harbor Michigan, an almost-empty resort town where I would spend a Thoreau-like winter and spring. I found refuge, silence, and sacred solitude, and I got better. When destiny, or chance, or simply the lack of any other practical options returned me to Minneapolis again, I came back different.
After divorce, some of us rush blindly into the next open arms, seeking any shelter we can find. That was not me. Others come crawling back into life damaged like butterflies with torn wings. I was one of those.
Marriage was my first grand failure. I accepted the unhappiness as my own mistake, and never consciously blamed Jim. But the feelings I denied and hid from myself for his sake would someday rise to the surface, like blood seeping through the bandages of an unhealing wound. The poet Rumi said, “When the knife reaches bone, that life must change.”
And so it did. I knew it must, but I hadn’t made a plan. I wasn’t ready. But the time inevitably came when I realized that I had not only a right, but a deep responsibility to own my life, and live it. Not give it away. Once I realized this, I couldn’t pretend anymore. I decided that this gave me the right and a reason to reclaim my Life and my Self. In that moment, my prison door swung open, and that was the end of my marriage.
I left. Without warning, the fragments of my soul that still remained alive, exploded out of me like shrapnel into empty air, and then into free-fall in the dark.
I was some kind of not-alive-thing for about a year. There was the psychiatrist, then the journey of solitude in Keego Harbor where the spirit of me began to heal and awake again. When I came back to Minneapolis there were no old friends to greet me. Most of our friends had been Jim’s friends, or wives of Jim’s friends. I lost them in the divorce. The one who came for me at the Greyhound station was Robin, the young man I’d met at a poetry reading just before I had left. Through him I fell into the thtriving Cedar-Riverside hippie society of poets, artists and musicians, and I set out looking for a different kind of life. one where nobody owned me.
I knew nothing else for sure except that I wanted a better life. Whatever I’d had before was not love, and I wanted to find out what love was, or could be. The first thing I had to do was unlearn most of the untruths about love that I had carried with me all my life until now. They were worthless lies, but the old rules had burned themselves so deep into my brain that they had become The Law. I was going to have to write myself a new set of rules and laws. Number one was: I will tell the truth. Number two: I have the right to be who I am.
For me now, it would be all about experiment and discovery. I took the leap. I wasn't ready to take a chance on love again, but on the Westbank there were other sincere options. In college, when I had met and married Jim, he was the first physical relationship I’d ever had. Now as I took my life back, I was beginning again with a nearly blank page. I wanted to see what I had missed by marrying so young and as a virgin, and there were plenty of men willing to show me. Some were young and uncomplicated, some were other broken beings like myself with histories and wounds, a few were predators. My first encounter, newly divorced and pre-Keego Harbor, was a predator, Jack. It felt empty and sad and dirty and just plain wrong. I knew it, and I got out. After that I went back into hiding.
On the Westbank, relationships were open and forthright. It was the era of love-ins, free love and the pill, and in the beginning I was swept along willingly enough on the wave. I began to have brand-new adventures in life and in love. Sometimes I stumbled and sometimes I danced, but always I was learning.
At first I think I tallied boyfriends like a scorecard, maybe not consciously, but on some inner level, to prove to myself that I was wanted. And I was– wanted, but I never felt loved. A few of them tried to love me I think, but I wouldn't let them. When anyone got too close to my feelings, I quickly fled, and went back into hiding inside myself.
Maybe we all fall in love blindly the first time, believing in magic and miracles. But after divorce, we’re less young, less innocent and more realistic. We've been hurt, and now we know the price. In my marriage I had felt owned but not wanted, not a person, but a thing. I was ignored, carelessly assaulted, held hostage and yet emotionally abandoned by what I thought was love. Now I promised myself, That will never happen again. Instead I dabbled in little loves, exiting them when either of us started to care too much. Love was not what I was after. Love cost too much.
On the Westbank, everybody lived by a common philosophy that was casual, honest, and uninhibited. Life was simple. There was great live music every day of the week, right in the neighborhood, and good weed was plentiful and cheap. Most of us were young with plenty of time, and sex could be friendly and carefree. But I was still carrying around the old-fashioned notion that you had to be in love in order for sex to be okay. So I went around falling in love, but always guardedly and without much joy. That part of me was going to take a lot more time to heal.
The Minnesota winters were mercilessly long and lethally cold. I confess there were times when I settled for a more-than-lust but less-than-love affair, if only to feel the warmth of another heartbeat in the dark. If sometimes I settled for physical warmth instead of love, it was because it took some of the ache out of the night. In the long dark bitter midwest winters, there was too much time to think, and too much time to ache.
There is a short-story by Jack London: a man is slowly freezing to death in the Yukon. It is 70° below zero. There is one starving half-wolf sled dog with him. They circle each other in the snow. He tries to catch the animal. He knows that if he can kill it and cut it open and thrust his hands into its warm body and blood, his hands might thaw enough to be able to make a fire, and he might still survive. But the dog is wary.
We are all wary.
In my five years on the West Bank, I would fall in and out of love many times. There were men I thought I might love who didn’t love me, and ones who wanted to love me but I didn’t love them. There were some loves that lasted a few months, and one that lasted a year. I blundered through them all with a foolish vulnerable heart, pretending to be sophisticated and mature about it, which of course I was not at all.
Every time I tried to fall in love, I thought I meant it. But I never had the courage or the foolhardiness to put my whole heart into it. And with love, like all living things, what doesn’t grow must die. Then the only right thing to do was exit. Sometimes they did, and sometimes I did. After a few years, I began to realize that sex without love was not what I needed, and it was a poor substitute. In some ways it was lonelier than being alone.
Love knows love when it comes, but romance, physical passion, infatuation, all those other things– they’re like the shiny sequins on a circus costume. Nothing about them is really as beautiful and glittery as it seems in the first brief flash of the spotlight.
When Mama was young
she used to sing Gypsy songs
with the radio,
about Gypsy-girl dancers
and wild Gypsy lovers
with dark smoldering eyes
and beautiful names.
But she married a man,
and my brother and I were born
and she spent the best of her life trying
to play the role of mother,
I too would marry
and play the part too well
and too long,
until the greenest years of my life
When I broke away
it was not without pain,
but I just couldn’t stand
And so I have wandered
all these years
and known many lovers,
each lonelier than the last,
and even the best of them
had little to give me.
I am the Gypsy
Mama always wanted to be,
and never was.
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