Nick Page CC
Submit to the Water
The ink is still wet on my divorce when we meet, except not really. Back then, we only have commitment ceremonies, and my separation is sane enough to not require mediation, except to say it rips me in half, sanity from soul, and I am ill-equipped to deal with it. My self-prescribed therapy? Fuck as many willing women as possible. For me, this means, exactly one.
I meet her at a pool party during the first official weekend of summer. I wave goodbye to my ex-wife forever and my high school students for the season, and waggle my fingers hello to the 107-degree heat, the bleached Phoenix sky, and the twenty-five or so women cavorting poolside. They are easily ten to twenty years older than me, and happily accepting of my hypomanic enthusiasm for all things queer and funny and candid. This party is a bright, happy coconut slathering of sunblock over the burnt crisp edges of heartbreak—and no shit, at one point, they serenade me with a spontaneous acapella outburst of Delta Dawn.
Cathleen is powerful—her bearing, her poise, her affect. Not by any heteronormative standard of physicality or aesthetic beauty, but viscerally, she is fierce in a way that people ebb and flow from her center of gravity, simply because she knows she can command it. My attraction is instant. I squeeze my ample body up through my sunshine yellow innertube, and feistily feet-kick my way to her. I insert myself into her conversation like an awkward prattling parenthetical, fumbling my way into her sentence (silly, self-deprecating, comedic). Slowly, she steers us away from the group, pulling my tube into lazy circles around her.
Our first date is the very next night, a coffee shop tête-à-tête. Her feet intertwine under the table with mine, even as she says: We simply cannot date. I’m just here for friendship. I can hear the words she is not saying: You’re so much BIGGER than me. Size has been a third wheel in nearly every assignation, every relationship. Always with women. Certainly, with my ex-wife. This moment is no different—I never dreamed it would be, but this moment isn’t about me. She is trapped in her too small body, a cage too tight.
She invites me back to her place. If for no other reason than to see her pool, surrounded by a tall privacy fence and no homes with second stories (perfect for late night skinny dipping, she flirts). I say yes to a thousand mixed messages. I am always a sucker for a good pool; the weightlessness of water holds magical allure for me.
After an hour there, I learn she likes:
Company for a smoke break on the patio,
partnership in making caffeine choices (yes, seriously),
constant attention to her every utterance, and
succinct responses to questions.
After several nights, I learn she does not like:
Hesitation to follow her lead (even for a moment),
challenge or disagreement with her perspective,
too many questions,
my fatigue (when she isn’t tired), and
most solid food.
The first time I invite her back to my place, my home just down a softly sloping hill with an open backyard fence, she points to where she could park up the street and watch me through the glass doorwall if things should end badly. Oh, how it would be so easy to enter through the garage or to watch from behind the bushes and peek in through the kitchen, she says.
I should have trusted the chill that traced hills over my flesh.
Weeks into summer, I come to realize there are two of her, really: Cathy and Cathleen.
Cathy is mostly for public spaces: parties, concerts, game night gatherings and coffee chats—friendly, awkward, and a pinch funny. Her expectation is for me to speak for both of us, to charm the crowd, to build connections, to shine.
Cathleen is hard and sharp edges, frayed, sometimes frantic, and sometimes fragile. Always reminding me of my place. Your physicality makes us impossible—surely you see that you’re just too fat and too tall and your bones are too big. She does not say she is too small. I would never choose to be with you as an actual partner—but for right now, this is great. Why do you need to sleep every night? Can’t you just drink more coffee? Here, try these pills. Why aren’t you coming with me? I need to go for a smoke right now! You don’t need to be doing that, do you? Can’t you spend more time with me? Come. Please? Come over, come over, come over, come over, come over. Just stay. Please. Stay. Don’t leave. Can’t you just buy new clothes? Do you really need to run home? Let’s go shopping, I have money.
Everything is okay between us if I follow her RULES. And they escalate:
drive, drink, dine, charm,
yield. Yield. YIELD.
And because I can read people, I understand she needs to dominate the same way beings need to breathe, like I need to crawl into the deepest part of myself and avoid my own divorced truth: I am a rundown hotel with one fluttering neon sign blinking Vacancy: No.
The sun wanes on my summer and my sanity. I escape her marathon of war movies as often as possible to float in the backyard pool with and without clothes and stare up into the sky, my ‘Death Mix’ playlist on a repeating loop, less and less sure of anything. Did she take her pills? Did she not? Impossible to know for sure, and I only make the mistake of asking once.
She brings me to a sex club—a public performance of dominance, her attempt to finally push past my last layer of resistance, to let everyone see me giving in to her demands, to force me to see it. Bathing in the fullness of warehouse district dungeon scents, she ties knots around my wrists, my arms, my breasts. There are toys and instruments and figures and masks, and I don’t know what happens next. I float backwards through water of my own mind’s making, diving into the lake of my childhood to do handstands, legs straight over my head. I flip into as many somersaults as my lungs will hold on for, as fast as I can, legs kicking, core tight. I swim hard and wild. I grow fins and tail and no longer need the air at all, soul in freefall.
In the night, when she is sure I am sleeping, she whispers, you’ll never leave me.
The darkness brings no sleep.
When she is snoring beside me, I sneak from between the cool blue sheets and return to my moonlit sanctuary. If I just slip over the edge, I will escape. I must stay at the bottom long enough for the air to fully leave me. I bring Cathleen’s free weights to the pool’s edge and drop them in. I swim to the bottom and sit. Exhale. I pile the weights over my crisscrossed legs and force air up from my lungs, but the effort is exhausted, stupid and clumsy. My bulbous body, so much sweet buoyant fat, refuses to drown.
The water will not save me.
Humans have one hundred square yards of lungs and I feel all of them burning. I climb from the pool—wretch, shake, sob until the water is propelled free of my nose and air refills my lungs. Finally, my long-silenced intuition speaks: Go home.
I sleep and cry and eat and sleep and grieve for three days. Cathleen, yes. My divorce, certainly. Six years of marriage and the slow suffocation of my most sacred self, mostly. This lost summer of errant choices. The niggling uncertainty of what Cathleen might be thinking. Texts I don’t answer pour into my phone, and with them, there is latent temper rising.
When I finally return to the living, my neighbor tells me he caught a woman peering in through my window the night before and ran her off. She might be dangerous, thank you. He is a firefighter, and his brother is a cop—between them, there is ample advice to rescue me. Do I need rescuing? I listen.
I choose a roommate over a dog because I never could stand the barking. The first time she breaks into my house is before he moves in, when I am out grocery shopping. She doesn’t leave a note, but her favorite artwork of mine is missing from my walls, and I simply… know.
She arrives at my house again when I am at work, but my roommate opens the garage door as she approaches. He is both muscular and male—two things she is not, two things that will enrage her, two things she has longed for her life over, two things her tiny, female body will not give her. Her messages turn threatening. She will: Break in. Watch me sleep. Show up at my work. Keep coming back until I talk to her, until I return to her. She will bring her gun, she says. I cannot escape her. She is always watching. I notice parked cars that look like hers where they shouldn’t be. I hang heavy curtains over every window, install better locks on the doors, inform my principal about a ‘potential problem’ without including any sort of detail. He has a security guard escort me to and from my car.
I go nowhere after dark.
I look over my shoulder. Everywhere I go, I look over my shoulder,
look over my shoulder.
look over my shoulder.
I discover a program installed on my computer that spies on each keystroke I type. It emails her a report. I cannot escape her. Before I open my door each morning, I listen for strange noises, peer through blinds, call out to my roommate who tells me everything is fine. For now. But he sleeps on the living room couch with a loaded H&K .45 tucked under his pillow at night.
I am held breath, muscles squeezed tight and waiting for an errant footfall. There are no tears in my body left to cry. There is no space in my palms left uncarved by fingernail crescents from my clenched fists. When I lie down not to sleep each night, I know: This is how I will die.
I file a personal protection order.
And the judge says, “If she so much as sends smoke signals in your general direction, we will arrest her.” Somehow, although this order is just words on a page in my hands, it gives me comfort. She will be formally served the following week, and from that moment forward, we are not allowed to contact each other for one year. She can keep her pool, her wealth and my burgeoning new friends, and I will take with me, my life.
I leave the desert to visit the ocean. It is always water that beckons and restores my soul; it will always be the water, in every form, that is home. The ocean is infinite to my human moment, a giver and taker of life. There is wet sand between my toes, salty air exfoliating the summer from my skin, waves rolling up and licking my ankles to say hello. The ebb and flow of the moon’s pull is known here, drawing earth’s breath with each tidal inhale.
My phone chirps with one final voicemail she sends as she is served, before she lets me go. It is a vehement, hateful goodbye, but it is final. It is goodbye. And somehow… I believe it.
Exhale. And I, too, let go.
Years later, the desert is a biome left behind and Cathleen is a story mostly sequestered from my sane and balanced life. I spend time in and out of therapists’ offices through the years, wondering at times, if I over-reacted, if my fear was ever really warranted. I discover how to survive the pitch and yaw of my own mental illness, and I wonder what part of my then undiagnosed struggle might have contributed to the madness that made me want to take my own life. I slap labels onto the cardboard memory box like gift tags before I shove it back in a dark corner of my mind: depression, sleep deprivation, humiliation, desperation, shame, hopelessness. It does not serve me to dwell in the darkness.
Still, her story finds me.
Cathleen finds another teacher to love. She dates her for more than a year before she breaks into her home. There are exchanged protection orders that do nothing to restrain disorder this time: incidents escalate. Cathleen attempts to cause a car accident by jerking the steering wheel while her partner is driving, she breaks in and steals artwork, sends threatening messages, shows up at her work, prints personal messages from her computer, and on and on read the accusations.
Finally, Cathleen enters her home, pulls out the same gun she once showed me, and pulls the trigger—twice. A murder-suicide.
It does not serve me to dwell in the darkness. There is no part of me that wanted her to die, but I cannot deny that I allowed a gun in my house. Wouldn’t I have allowed her death if it meant I would survive? And still, years have passed since her story found me. When I look back, I can see that she filed the first protection order that was challenged in court by her partner, but I am certain it is end-to-end lies. Her partner was a celebrated teacher and community advocate, a loved neighbor by all reports, and a genuinely nice person. Cathleen, on the other hand, has no character witnesses that will speak for her—none, not a neighbor, nor her mother, who was consummately afraid of her.
I wonder if my attempt to protect myself provided her with a model of how to slander the woman she later felled. I fear, in some small way, my self-preservation may have paved the way to this woman’s death.
I will not own it.
Life is a complicated dance of flourish and missteps, a gravitational ebb and flow of bodies moving, that provides us the mere illusion that we love with our own volition, mostly. Is it any wonder that I am incapable of following a dance partner? My husband teased me the first time we danced, when I wouldn’t led him lead. I still can’t. I’ll always be a terrible dancer. Unless we’re in the water. When we’re in the water, with so much less gravity to resist, I can let go… and submit.
Dawn Kelley Slifer is an Ojibwe (Crane Clan) writer by calling and principal by vocation. She lives with her husband and daughter in Sylvania, Ohio where she rides the bipolar roller coaster, plays board games, and paints watercolors—mostly birds.
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