Tumescent Zombies, by Kelly Grieve [Catechize #7]

In 1998, nearly 20 years ago now, I was in my second year of my first real long term relationship. I lived in Pittsburgh and I knew the city by bus stops, bathrooms and where the best bagels were. I would ride my bike up a steep incline in the bitter winter and no matter how hardbodied or resilient I was, nobody could have seen it under the thick layer of cortisol induced weight gain. It was a good thing that I wasn’t beautiful then, that I wasn’t regarded to be socially sexy at the time because it kept me safe on the street at night.

The alternative seductress years were already behind me. At 21, I’d become a struggling, blue collar workhorse, scraping up ten bucks to make a few days grocery run. I would eat on a single calzone a day, granted it was a massive calzone. Six bucks bought a loaded spinach cheese calzone. I would eat the first third of it in the morning before class at CCAC North Side, the middle of it after I got home and finish it off the remainder after work at the now defunct Shadyside Natural Foods.This is how I survived that year. My dad would tell me after the first semester that he could not afford to help me pay for another year. My major was psych, the full year of school cost upwards of $3600 for tuition. I lived in a 3rd floor apt. in Pt. Breeze. It was a steal for the neighborhood, a 2 bedroom for $450 a month. But money was very tight.

My boyfriend worked night shift stocking at a Giant Eagle. I slept alone. I didn’t drink, rarely went out. Didn’t party. Had few friends who weren’t slaving like dogs to get through school themselves. I was depressed and blown up like a balloon. My future looked bleak. The pressure was on. One day, discussing finances, my boyfriend was becoming very agitated. I was used to conflict in my family. Heated discussions became lengthy grueling debates and that day I realized that not everyone was born and bred to exchange such fervent opinions. In a tense moment, mid-discussion, my boyfriend took both sides of my skull and threw it with all his might. I reeled. I was clueless about what had just gone down. He didn’t even seem that mad. What was happening? The talk abruptly ended. I took myself into the hallway and viced my body into the cold crook of the drywall, I wanted to sink right into it. I cried, I spaced out. I kept asking myself if it qualified as abuse, I mean, he didn’t punch me. This was some sort of gray area here, not a slap or a kick, but a throw. He wrenched my body. Clearly I was impacted by this emotionally. I don’t even remember if he apologized initially. All I knew was at the moment we would inevitably be broken up. It would take three more years for it to happen, but at that instant I knew it was going to end for certain, someday.

His regret and apologies must have roused me out of my stupor and off of the floor. It’s funny how most of our lives are innocuous moments of autopilot and when you acknowledge that this is the case you realize how people go on beyond significant traumatic events. There’s just a conveyor belt of life running, sometimes there’s something on it, sometimes there’s not. This moment still feels like the entire operation had shut down. My future was fucked. No money. I wouldn’t be finishing school. My parents acted like my living on campus would have made any real difference in cost. The tuition would still be the same and instead of me paying for my own place, they would be. I didn’t see the discount there. They acted like there was something I could do about it when there wasn’t. I would never have a better job without finishing school and I would not have been able to handle more work on top of my studies so that was that, I would have to quit school to work full time. But then this! This bullshit assault out of no where, I kept shaking my rattled head. What gave him the right. The inside of me was furious, I would not be abused my whole life! As a child I watched our timid, fist-shy neighbor cower from life. Her gaunt, sunken cheeks drained from the two strapping boys and a fat pile of a husband she cared for. But I knew why she couldn’t leave. They were poor, nobody would take her. You could see the bones of her skeleton protrude, her eyes were like glass, as if her life light were sucked out of them. That would NOT be me!

I came up with a plan that night. I would wait out the week to tell him so that he didn’t think it was related to the incident. But it was clear to me that he felt he had the right to damage me. That he was so inclined to hurt me in the first place was unthinkable to me. I would not allow my life in the city to be taken away from me by some brutal fuckface. This would end here for me in my heart. I told him I wanted to have an open relationship. I thought he might delight in the prospect. The plan was to get him to sleep with someone else, then I could validate breaking up with him. I loved him but I needed more proof that he didn’t love me to leave so I tried to set the trap.

I was a coward. I was a kid. I didn’t have the means to leave on my own and going back home to my parents was just failure in my eyes. I stayed, but this way, I had an out. If he found a girl and left, my hand would be forced and my friends might take me in. Which I hoped would be the result. I had also kinda wished in my heart that if I found a kind man, he would want to take care of me, see me flourish and shine. I was not with a man of great initiative. He was a self loathing diabetic, wistful of a life in the virgin forests living off the land. He was a 6’4″, the spitting image of a viking. Long and gangly, but pale as a ghost. Hauntingly beautiful in the nude with bright orange flames of hair contrasting his powder blue dusted eyelids. The artist in me was smitten by his character. The lover in me was betrayed by his aggression.

As a lover he was generous, so did that balance things out? I wondered. The lavish length of all his appendages was a splendor. He would tower over me and my hands could grasp wildly in any direction and there would be a steadfast column of corporeal foundation to hold strong to. That was my dilemma. If only the mind could match the body. I always had the unintentional ability to select a man whose drive was disconnected from his vehicle as if he were push starting his car with the engine removed and in tow behind it. Gifted, brilliant minds disembodied and trailing behind them. A toddler toy brain on wheels, pulled by a string wound round the waist of a mighty Thor. These were the men who arrived along my path.

Before him was a bellowing ox, an eccentric booming diva doorbell. Obnoxious and simultaneously intoxicating. My first love inhabited his awkward machine of a body. In the whirlwind of our intimate moments, he would become human. His gears would melt into joints. His eyes would stop darting and his face would stop ticking in the faint light of our shared breath. I constantly wanted to get him alone just to watch him change. The fascinating transformation of mechanical to practically metaphysical in the course of minutes. Like watching Pinocchio become a real boy in front of my very eyes. Spellbound and in my peurile naievity, it was beyond my perception for a good long while that this man was a quack. A mad scientist concocting dastardly potions to alter feminine chemistry. In his dream theater annex he kept a biochemical laboratory. He documented his applications and charted his findings. He was a meticulous man, not like the others I had chosen subsequently. It was the only thing that set him apart from the pattern. His calculations were correct. He had patented a formula primed for the purpose of stupefying vulnerable young things. He had eyes on all the dials, like a fly seeking shit from infinite angles. He was brilliant and sick and I may never recover from the time I once spent locked down in his lair. Stockholm syndrome shocked as his willing captive, out on the gravel roads, hidden under the blanket of the nights, I swallowed in copious lust, faith filled gallons of viscous trust. A glutton for his favor. In furious denial of his disguise to be his prize, I’d compromise my safety, my sanity, my self-esteem. It was all on the table. I was betting to win. I was betting my soul on a hand of the devil’s game.

I rose and descended. Like a flag on his pole. Proudly hailed, shamefully folded or grieved at half mast. Was I perfect or was I a stone to be cast out into the endless deep? Value plummeted to shallow then exalted, idolized to steep. I was a stock, to be invested in and then despised. A market minx that could have shot up or crashed before his very eyes. One night, I was diamonds; the next, junk bonds. He assessed my value. I gave him license to. The ideal candidate for human trafficking, was I. He judged night after night if I was worthy of consumption. Like a grape on the vine, he’d pluck me and sink in his teeth, gauging the resistance level to which my fruit might burst in his mouth. Never letting the jaw clamp so far that my juice could pop from its flesh. Never setting the wine free of the vine. Reserving the swollen jewels of my frustration for some reprehensible fermention. To be bottled and shelved like a tumescent zombie, unindulged and in anguished desire, separated from its cultivator, corked in oblivion and frozen in time from the warm embrace upon the palate of it’s native tongue. Never to be savored by its maker. Precious vintage unrequited from the tender throat by which it was invited.

That was how it felt to be the worm on the hook of this sadistic fisherman for nearly four of the most formative years of my life – my late teens. So when it came time to cut myself free and run away from those cursed forests into the city. My friends endeavored to emerge there into adulthood. I couldn’t remain restrained and in stasis waiting for this forgotten rapture. I had to concede that the bonds were only mine and going off with my peers was the only way to cut them. I was despondent but doggedly determined to go. Drained and choking back tears of departure, my escape was a quest incited by desperation. I went nearly empty handed and was not fully supported by my parents to do so. The dumb stuff happened: roommate drama, names on the food in the fridge. For 3 months I lived in a basement that ran rampant with millipedes, the one insect I loathed. This was not what I imagined. I’m betting that it rarely is for young adults ready to break free.

The sadist was part of our circle, so there was no way to totally avoid him. But the city was a welcome distraction to the pain I felt in pulling myself completely away from him. The first few nights I slept on a leather couch. A band of boys I still call my brothers came to see me. They teased me, harassed me. even pissed me off to the point that I stopped speaking for a couple hours. I loved them dearly and they knew their world was being divided by so many friends heading off to the city. I wished so much that I could have stayed there with them, but they were the cousins of the “quack” and as long as his presence darkened the dirt roads of my hometown, there was no escape from his pain. To make matters worse, I was doubly heartbroken. The year before I left I had become very close with one of my “brothers”. I had initially been in love with him and in my pursuit of him ended up in the company of the sadist cousin instead. I would follow him and he would run off with some other more shallow magazine ad of a girl. I always held onto hope but I was not his ideal. Knowing this, when his cousin reached out with eyes full of reverence and worship, how could I not succumb. Still raw from the sting of my “brother’s” rejection I was famished for this sort of adoration, the physical engagement was sharp, intense and included most everything short of genital entanglement. So much squirming, heaving, touching, it literally drove me mad to be stopped short and ever so subtly shamed for my desire every time. No fires were ever extinguished, just a slow burn to total widespread devastation. This trauma would plague me like the bowels of Centralia for the next two decades, at least.

So many nights I stared into my “brother’s” eyes. My lovely man and he stared back in a dormant confusion. He still looks at me that way to this day. I was supposed to stay there and be his starving friend forever. But it wasn’t possible after that one night. A night both he and I were between the possibilities. He had broken up with his girlfriend and I hadn’t seen the sadist in a long time. He picked me up. I was still in high school. He drove me out into the farmlands, between the trees into a circular clearing. Blasting Alice In Chains the whole way there, it was warm and the top was off his jeep. I tossed my shirt off to enjoy the tepid heat in my bra alone. I was unafraid of his advances. If he did nothing, so be it. I was unleashed. His face turned dead serious when I did this and he started driving faster. Inside the sheltered canopy, I waited to see what he would do. He took his shirt off too. I began to touch him, his shoulders and arms bare. Here was a side of him I would never see again. Once he returned the caresses, I dove wildly into the nape of his neck. I can’t recall how but we scrambled to the back where no console could come between us. I stood on the seats,  threw my arms in the air and just felt the breeze on my skin, breathed the bark and the leaves into my heart and I felt source. The sparks of destiny went off inside of me. The wild stage was mine and natures spotlight was awash over my primal opulence. I was a force with which to be reckoned. The euphoria was magic and in that second, I was untouchable. He knew I had seized the moment and yanked off what remained over my legs. I threw off the bra. I was cleansed. His hands ravaged me within. I braced myself on high propped upon the bar like an aerial acrobat. Lunging over, vocal with every hoist, naturally inebriated and exquisitely battered. I welcomed the fury he delivered. The sober deliberate present blinded me in the next instant. The passion was true and the lines of reality all stark and clear.

The illusion was shattered. This was happening. I got closer, I was in the shadow of his slender torso. I prepared to surrender, then his eyes stopped me. He looked terrified. My courage sank. What was it about me that was so intimately frightening. I was struck down. I put my head to his chest. My soul became petrified. I wanted to go on but his face looked wracked with guilt. My heart turned cold, like a stone. I knew in that second that he felt too wrong and that I felt too much. I asked him quickly if he was thinking about his girlfriend. He admitted he was. “Damn it” I didn’t speak it though my cranium shook like thunder. My diaphragm felt like it might explode from the pressure. “Fuck!!!” I was dying to scream it but kept it inside. I wanted to run out into the field and die. The son of a bitch wouldn’t ever feel it back. Expressing the gravity of my love for him was futile.

My “brother’s” eyes always looked at me with a sort of distant longing after that. But I knew he couldn’t give me what I was seeking. The physical act would have been a regret for me. I would have lost his friendship, his respect, and was too much for me handle losing at that time. After the hell I’d endured with his mad cousin. It just felt like one violent strike after another to my self worth. I was too young and unsure at the time for my psyche to be fed through the ringer like this. I maintained closeness to him. He didn’t attempt further physical connections with me. We still hung out frequently. The normal everyday world with him became faded as the seasons went by. He would never say more. As more incidents with his cousin would come and go, our friendship would endure. But we would never cross the threshold into that territory again.

That night on the couch in the city. My brothers layed on the carpet and soothed my worried mind with ridiculous cuts to one another about how disgusting each other’s hair was. What they couldn’t hear during their floor version of stand-up through my laughter were the tears falling from my eyes. I was leaving my family, my soul mates and my heart was breaking.

When they left, one man remained. A lonely midwestern,  non-judgemental, warm soul who took me for who I was, played a twelve string and brooded over the life he knew he could never have. Just like I did. So we took comfort in each others arms and endured the suffering together. Until the day he struck me, I believed he cared for me as best he could. I’ll always wonder if he hit me because he caught, if just for a moment, the true longing in my heart. The lie I could not hide were it asked me direct. I had no ability then to explain the emptiness I felt. Regardless if I deserved it or not, I could not stay with a man who meant me harm. Three years went by and the anger turned to choking and objects being thrown. Eventually, I decided to be the bad guy. I played the open relationship card to give my viking an ultimatum: therapy for his anger or I would stray. As I sat in the car awaiting his decision, he chose to let me go. He dropped me off on the doorstep of my affair, so I walked in and did the deed. He had boasted how we were open minded and that our relationship was open so many times up to that point to others but the next morning when he picked me up for breakfast, after I had been with another, his heart crumbled and he became a shell. Within two weeks he would be gone.

Love is the most insurmountable feeling there is. Lust is the clumsy conduit through which we travel intending to arrive at the destination of our heart’s calling. Does lust drive love or is it the other way around? For many years, I have been daunted by this question wondering if I have truly found my “one” or my “place” as I still stare out the windows and across the skies wanting that balmy sweet day back in the clearing all over again, but this time with the epic ending instead. But would it truly end that way? As I muse here pinned to my screen for hours and lonely or lost hearts prompt me in messages or texts throughout my day, questioning the courses of their own lives that they have traversed up until this moment. Even my beloved brother, who has also suffered love and loss since, will throw me a line some times. Of course I throw them out to him as well and definitely more often than I should given the scars I carry in my heart with his name on them. But life is abound with gain and loss, or as I told my dear friend earlier,  the ebb and flow, like the tides of the ocean. Whatever happens, happens. That is the pure truth and to paraphrase a favorite spiritual guide of mine, where we are now is exactly where we are supposed to be. I believe all we can really do…is be.

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