He started going out to bars at midnight once I began insisting on my sleep. Midnight became my cutoff. I could see my life devolving. He wanted me volatile. Called me an operative, an automaton, a shell or a construct: not much of anything at all.
He told me his bar stories, trying to catalyze a reaction.
Everyone I knew seemed to be reading Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. Tolle’s rehash of mystical presence and mindfulness spoke to everyone but me. I’d had it with the present, so I wrote out jokes to myself about a parody– The Power of Then. I was so tired.
He called my evenness passive-aggression. And the truth was that I was ready to learn some reactivity. In my submissive blur any discernment seemed threatening.
On the subway platform, I paced. The habit of listening to music didn’t come naturally. He was a musician and preferred the music in his head to the music through the stereo, and our tastes were different anyway. At this point we’d been married 13 years. I had an iPod that I had gotten for free with a computer but I didn’t listen to it because it offended him. His loneliness was my job and it was full-time.
It was therapy that taught me to listen to music. I started with the things I had listened to in high school– a curious mixture of Pink Floyd, Sondheim show tunes, Bach and Brahms. During the marriage a few CDs had made it in–Brian Eno’s ambient series and contemporary chamber groups like the string quartet Ethel and the choir Ars Nova Copenhagen. I listened to those too and I downloaded a Fleet Foxes song that I’d heard at a yoga class. The lyric “how could the body die” gave me comfort. Somewhere along the line I’d heard Joanna Newsom and I swallowed her whole–the timber of her voice reminded me of the Beijing Opera I’d fallen in love with after the 1994 movie Farewell My Concubine. I had been so moved by the insistent squeal of the Chinese two-stringed erhu that I bought one for him when he wasn’t yet my husband. It was my gift to him on the occasion of our first Christmas.
It was through Joanna Newsom that music became a feature of the house. The first few plucks that open The Milk-Eyed Mender anchored me. I could feel my shoulders loosen. By this point I was too perpetually distressed to read books.
He said I didn’t understand what a man was. He slept in late every morning but I wanted to get up early. The bed was something to escape from. Trying to climb over him without waking him didn’t work if I waited too long.
When he woke and I said, “Hello,” he said he’d hit the end of his fuse. He began: “This morning was a reminder of all the thousands of mornings where we did it this way.” He said his love was unrequited. He said he’d been dragging and pulling and dragging me along in the marriage.
He wanted me to understand the biology of a man. He said I was going to have to try and find a way to reverse the fear I’d instilled in him. He said, “Be careful not to pressure, be careful, be careful, I don’t know how to be any more careful.” He said there shouldn’t be any rage on my end. He said that what I should have is compassion. He said he was dying. That our love was dying. His passion for me was dying.
During the year of all that saying, one of the compromises he made was to try and find some good in the music I liked. When I became frozen, an immovable and empty body curled in the upper left hand corner of the bed, he took to putting my Joanna Newsom CD on for me. He said he’d come to realize that her compositions were skilled.
But now that I listened to my iPod on the train I wanted to listen to even more music at home. One CD wasn’t enough for me. And his objections to me listening my iPod in his presence never gave way.
A woman I considered a friend but didn’t know well included me in the email dispersion of a file sharing “mixed tape” and that went right onto my iPod too. One song above all the others drew me, seeming to tell just the story I needed to hear.
That’s how Frida Hyvönen came into my life. And I knew from the start that she represented danger of the best, most delicious, life changing variety. For the first month I managed to keep “Pony” a secret.
But he’d figured out how to hook my iPod up to the stereo so I could listen without excluding him from the songs I was experiencing. I stayed on my toes when I heard it coming and quickly skipped it but eventually he heard:
The stable is where you learn to be in charge
and not take shit
dressed to the occasion
leather boots and swift black whip
He was hearing my fantasy of power and he was revolted. He said something about fucked up feminists but the song went on:
I don’t even have to use it
I just hold it like this
pony knows when she sees it
that does she not behave
she’ll get to taste it
He always seemed to be talking. He said that what I called pressure was my unknowing who he was. He said I was hostile to knowing how he felt. That I was asking him to negate himself and that if he did voice how he felt I called that pressure. He said I wouldn’t register his frustration as a natural reaction. He said I was hiding something from him and he wanted me to reach out toward him but I barely left his sight. I had no private world, up against walls, I had no space to reach through. He said I wasn’t honest.
On my way to therapy, walking the long Time Square corridor between the E and the 1, “Leather boots and swift black whip.” It was still unusual for me to be out walking on my own. It was only to go to therapy that I left his side, so with all the thrill of a teenager in the city, on an adventure, “I don’t even have to use it… pony knows when she sees it…she’ll get to taste it.” And putting my feet down on the title floor, standing up straight. Through osmosis I absorbed some strong.
I often didn’t bother with the second half of the song,
tickle the palm of my hand
with great eager lips
I give you sugar, pony
if you give me obedience
which started to loose me. Really I was just dying to be left alone, let free. Anything other than feeling some control was beside the point.
My mother was always bothered by the flicking of stations on the radio but at some point it dawned on me I can skip songs I don’t like, and I can listen again and again to particular sections of songs I love.
I loved the image of the whip.
The second time the song came on over the home stereo was during a rare moment of closeness and I confessed that I found the music empowering. I teased that he was the pony and he began prancing around the apartment and singing, to the tune of Hi-Ho-the-Dairy-Oh, “The pony gets the whip, the pony gets the whip,” his right arm reaching over his left shoulder pretending to whip himself and when he whipped he pranced even higher.
For months it went on like that. I was living in the version of love where I’m consumed by the needs of others, and I was feeling hurt and mocked, and we were both drowning in our separate anguish as he pranced, “The pony gets the whip, the pony gets the whip.”
He told me that his therapist said I just don’t like him. He told me that his therapist said I play games.
I couldn’t say, “stop.” Or, “I have nothing more to give.”
He said that his therapist told him he was enabling me by sitting and waiting and letting me hold my anger against him. At midnight he left to go drinking and at 4 a.m. came home, desperate for affection. I was holding his hand when he said, “What if you were my prostitute and I could just pay you.”
Then I found myself walking once again through the long corridor at Times Square, listening to “Pony,” my journal tucked under my right arm. That time I took it into both hands to do the klutzy dance of writing while walking and wrote, “Is divorce the light at the end of the tunnel of marriage?”
Now he’s been gone for 9 months and I hardly notice “Pony” when it comes up in rotation. Instead, I’m listening to Frida’s album as a whole. I’m hearing, “The love of my life/ when I was a kid.” And I’m hearing, “you do the dirty/ and I do the dancing.” I’m hearing her playfulness with language and willingness to tell real stories.
I hear, “the relief in the grief.”
You count on the birds
you count on the birds
you count on them
to represent your longing
And I am grateful for my own longing. And grateful to be in the city. And grateful for the music I take along with me on my way.