According to my well-thumbed copy of A Writer’s Reference, which I’ve consulted since the twelfth grade, there are a handful of verb tenses: present, past, and future, with simple, perfect, and progressive forms of each. “Simple” describes an action completed in the past. For instance: I lost myself, you lost yourself, we lost ourselves. “Perfect” refers to something that has been or will be completed at the time of another action: I have lost myself, you have lost yourself, we have lost ourselves. Or in the “future perfect,” I will have lost myself, you will have lost yourself, and we will have lost ourselves.
And so it goes.
You have lost.
We all will have lost something in the forgetting.
I sit in the sun-drenched spot of a Pittsburgh café that used to be called something else. It was once owned by a couple who’ve since split and sold their shop to new owners who’ve kept the space almost entirely the same. Only the faces behind the counter and brand of espresso differ.
I sat in this café years ago, I have sat in this café over the years, and I sit here now, waiting for a friend who suggested it, knowing nothing of those past times I wish I could forget.
A decade ago, I would wait here for a man who didn’t deserve my waiting. I struggle to call this man my “abuser” because that word conjures weight that discomforts me, even if it is true. An “abuser” is a monstrous facade, pure hyperbole in the minds of most who hear it. This man, though, was flesh and blood and calculating charisma that feels too wild to condense into one word—”abuser”—and my position in relation to that abuse—”victim”? “survivor”? “human” like any other?—too confining to embrace as my identity then or now.
I would wait for my abuser then, and I briefly consider that I am waiting still, but for something other than him though I do not know what. Closure, perhaps, which sounds quaint, like a rotary phone or courting a conquest through poetry. But I have accepted that closure is likely impossible, as it is predicated, I’ve been told, on forgiveness, and I also doubt the likelihood of that.
Some things are unforgivable. Some things can never be in the past.
Sometimes, the man I waited for would appear at the café, all broad shoulders and bold glasses, a recently divorced computer engineer. He liked that I was a writer and told me more than once, early on, that he liked my words and I how used them. Though now I think he liked the access their publication granted, rather than the words themselves. I remember him walking through the café’s front door, holding it open for those behind him a little too loudly. No, after you. He always did perform decency so well. I remember us leaving through that same door together on at least five occasions over the year or two we were together from beginning to end. I remember shallow breath, a cauliflower soup, French cinema and Brazilian baile funk, a long strip of cuticle torn by tooth from my nail, and my therapist laughing at me: “You still believe his bullshit.”
I forget so much.
It was easier for us to meet at the café than at my parents’ house, where I was living out of boxes. My parents let their disapproval be known. They told me they just wanted me to be happy and could see that I was not. I was convinced I could be happy, if only I could be more of what this man wanted and less of who I had become. If only I could be the past me rather than the present me. Then he would love me the way he’d loved me at the start, when he’d slowly kissed my lifeline, sunk his lips, face, future into the palm of my hand.
The longer we were together, the less I was that me. The more I questioned him, the more he questioned my grasp of reality. Eventually, I questioned it, too.
Was he really divorced? The answer—months after I’d left Philadelphia and my writing job to be with him—morphed into no. Was his wife crazy, or was I? Was I the only other woman who thought she was the only woman, or were there others? Were those other women, who thought I was the other woman, wrong?
Had his hands found their way around my neck, or were those mine?
My life had no more past simples. Everything was a conditional tense, hypothetical and unlikely, a progressive verb, persistent and ongoing in its uncertainty.
Maybe it still is.
Nearly a decade since I’d last sat in this Pittsburgh café, I’ve returned, invited by a friend who does not know about the past times I’d sat here. I haven’t told her, and in advance, I tell myself, “It will be fine.” Places are not people and going back there does not mean going back to this particular past.
Because my friend is a writer and I once was, too, before I met the man and lost the certainty of my storytelling, she and I talk of writing. Then time. Then narrative structure. Then both together.
“Aren’t they the same?” my friend asks, and I nod yes, definitely, though I’m not certain and still don’t know for sure if a story is anything but lassoed time, or whether narrative can be unchained from chronology.
I try to recall the last time I sat at this corner table with him, the man who asked me to meet him here, even when we were no longer “together.” Especially when we were not “together.”
I remember this café being neutral ground. I remember his iced Americanos. I remember my spiraling anxiety as I tried to piece together a coherent past, present, and future for both myself and the “us” I had imagined and at least partially lived. I remember handwriting that wasn’t his in journals tucked into corners of his home office. I don’t remember his response when I asked whose they were. I only remember green egg yolks. I remember how I stopped eating, writing, and returning calls from friends who had too many questions about why I wasn’t eating, writing, or returning their calls. I remember his hand finding its way down my pants in the parking lot behind the building in the car in which he’d almost driven us off a bridge, and him taking offense at my tepid “no,” his wedding band hidden in his pocket, his body not stopping, my body separate from myself, once again, again, again.
I tell the friend sitting across from me that I think I want to explore how the past, present, and future collapse into one writable moment—what Sven Birkerts, in his book I’d recently read, Then, Again: The Art of Time in Memoir, calls “emblem moments”—psychologically rich scenes that offer closure and reassure readers that all events and thoughts both leading up to and following these moments are deliberate and in service of the inward and outward growth a character.
“Does that make sense?” I question my friend, asking for permission I know I shouldn’t need but ache for in the way of those who’ve survived abuse: Tell me I’m an okay person, with every breath. Not good. Not bad. Okay will do. “That everything I write seems to suffer from that folding-into-itself, whether or not there is catharsis? An involuntary avalanche of Proustian madeleines?”
“Surely that’s something to write about,” she says. “Time, and how to write it.”
“Or medicate,” I say.
“Or both.” We laugh.
I can’t medicate the ongoingness of time out of me—certainly, my therapist and I have tried—but perhaps I can write it out.
I didn’t write for nearly a decade. I was no longer sure how.
I am writing it out now.
One weekday night not long after drinking coffee in the café where I used to meet the man I now casually, reluctantly call “my abuser”—it took me ten years to say that; my abuser—I am cooking pasta in pajamas. Am cooking, present tense. This particular night happened in the past, but like so many days and nights and in-betweens since, it plays out in the unshakeable spiral of now. I am in black leggings and a black hoodie, oversized; I always feel the need to explain what I am wearing when a man enters the scene, and here, the man: A neighbor knocks on my door with a sack full of sweets. He was cat-sitting (past progressive) for friends from Central Pennsylvania, and to thank him they gave him chocolates from their small town. He doesn’t care much for chocolate, he says (present tense; happening now), and asks if I’ll do him a favor and take the sweets off his hands. He has been hitting on me for many months (present perfect progressive; a former and persistent ongoing event)—long divorced, at least twenty years older than me—and I’m not interested, but I do like sweets and am uncomfortable turning down kindness, even if it has selfish intent.
The neighbor unearths (present) a box of peanut butter meltaways, a package of mint fudge, and a clear cellophane bag of chocolate drops the size of silver dollars. They are, I will learn, called Wilbur Buds.
“Do you like Hershey’s Kisses?” asks the neighbor in a tone usually associated with strangers in vans or men in trench coats with only socked feet underneath.
I tell the man sitting at my dining room table—the round, heavy table from my great grandfather’s bar (present, now thinking of the past)—that yes, I do. I like Hershey’s Kisses.
I think: Go away.
I say: “All chocolate is good chocolate.”
I think: Why did I let you in?
In its section on “effective sentences,” A Writer’s Reference reminds me that “[c]onsistent verb tenses clearly establish the time of the actions being described. When a passage begins in one tense and then shifts without warning and for no reason to another, readers are distracted and confused,” an all-too-familiar sensation for survivors of trauma.
My abuser distracted me, and I was confused, and that confusion has not altogether ceased.
Did I move from Philadelphia, where I lived and wrote, to Pittsburgh, where I’d grown up and we’d first met, because he’d asked me to? Or did I misinterpret the question?
Did I think we were going to move in together because he told me so, or did I simply want it to be so?
Did I believe we were planning on marriage because he said he was saving for a ring, or did I imagine that, too, like how he’d convinced me I’d imagined him saying he was divorced, and then that he had filed for divorce, and then that his wife was refusing to sign the divorce papers?
In the end, there were no papers to be signed.
The only way to build trust with a reader, according to A Writer’s Reference, is to shift tense sparingly, intentionally, and with unambiguous warning. Unintentional tense shifts—the byproduct of losing touch with time, for me; in other words, the byproduct of trauma—are venom to a writer’s coherence and credibility.
I recognize that credibility, which derives its power from coherence, is something I may never achieve. I am a survivor, or victim, or human. We are expected to remember and report everything. But trauma is never straightforward or wholly remembered or reported.
I did wait, I have waited, and I would wait for coherence for years before realizing it irrelevant to my story after all.
The neighbor in my dining room is a man like any other. He has not threatened me, not yet. But like so many men since my abuser, his very presence forebodes upheaval.
What distractions is he capable of?
What confusion could he incite in me?
The neighbor says these chocolates he is giving me, shaped like Kisses but not quite, milk and semi-sweet mixed into the same bag, are so good they’ll make me never again want to eat a Kiss. They’re Kisses, he says, but better.
What’s better than a kiss but a bud of one?
“Are these… Wilbur Buds?” I ask (present tense). The man says yes.
“Are they made somewhere… old? A factory that does tours?”
“Yes, in Lititz, Pennsylvania,” he explains.
“I think I’ve been there, when I was young, to the place where these are made,” I tell him.
The past is becoming present.
The threat is becoming real.
A Writer’s Reference explains, “Tenses indicate the time of an action in relation to the speaking or writing of that action.” Time is simply a matter of temporal orientation.
But time is not so simple for me and the 7.7 million Americans who deal with PTSD each year. The “inability to recall key features of the trauma” is a hallmark of this psychiatric classification, which means that in addition to experiencing flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and feelings of irritability and isolation, those who struggle with PTSD may have trouble identifying the very details of the events that are keeping us up at night: a black pearl necklace on a broken chain, a red vinyl booth sticking to the backs of my thighs, which together were the width of his one. Burnt patatas bravas. An open window.
I struggle not just to arrange my memories in chronological order, but to recall them at all.
For me, a combination of traumas rattles my ability to master time and tense. The abusive relationship in my twenties with the married man in the café who I didn’t know was married. And before that, a college sexual assault I still find myself unable, or maybe just unwilling, to fully unearth.
Time is splintered, fractured. It is not linear. Memories do not flow in an expected order. I remember and forget everything.
Implicit, procedural memories pose less of a problem for me than facts, concepts, names, and dates. Those automatic how-tos live in my fingertips and tongue. They are unconscious. How to type the word “love.” How to trace the curve of his jaw with the thumb of my right hand. How to close my eyes and open them to the light of a new day that I think, somehow, will be different than the one before.
But the explicit memories, those I work to recall and at which I recoil, are harder to master. That Paris is a city in France. Whether it was 2008 or 2009 we first met. The names of the other women. The bile in my throat. The one, two, three visible ribs.
If he ever struck me (he didn’t, did he?).
If I ever struck him (I didn’t, did I?).
If violation is just penetration, and trauma is just violence, and if there is only one “him,” rather than the two I could name here—my abuser, my rapist—rather than the many.
Memories are never past.
They are here now, a past verb playing out in the present and into the future.
Before a kiss is a kiss, it is a bud of a kiss, the idea of lips on lips. There is nothing better than the beginning of something, when it is just kisses and both more and less than the what it will become.
I will never kiss the neighbor sitting at my dining room table (simple future). I know that for sure, just as I know full well that the man whose hand found its way into my pants behind the café where I spoke with my friend (past, past, deeper past) was someone I’d never be able to make fully mine, or make gentle or kind, no matter how much I gave up for him—sleep, weight, my voice, writing, mind. I’d never contort myself into enough silence, just as I couldn’t make myself silent enough for the man in college with the open window, who I now see was just a boy preferring to hear my cries of “no” as proclamations of “yes.” At least, I think I said no. I definitely cried. I bit back. I know that for sure, though he might say otherwise, and both you and I might believe him.
The neighbor at my dining room table asks if I want to go for a drive. He asks if I want ice cream.
Present tense. I am reliving a deeper past, a deeper trauma, through this present unfolding one.
I will say no (future) to the neighbor’s appeals that night, and in the following weeks he will leave fresh-cut flowers on my front stoop and several handwritten notes. And rather than saying no, I start to ignore him because no does not seem to work. Eventually he will send an email to a group of neighbors accusing me of leaving bags of dog shit in front of his house. I did not and am not (present) but once he sends the message, I consider it, and consider it still.
He is so insistent upon my guilt that I begin to wonder if I did in fact gather my dog’s feces and drop them, delicately, by the light of a goading moon, onto his front stoop while he slept.
Perhaps I forgot? Or is it: had forgotten?
I’ve forgotten worse.
Did I not say “no” more than once to this neighbor? Did he not hear my no?
Did I not toss my dog’s shit in the dumpster at the end of the block, rather than by his door?
Did I not invite him in that first night? That night he brought me Wilbur Buds, did I not say, “Come on in”? Or did he invite himself in, and I was too polite or weak or exhausted from all the unheard refusals of the day—or the decade—to refuse his presence and stave off the threat that manifested itself as real?
The neighbor will call me repeatedly, five or ten times, maybe more, over two days, then more in the coming weeks. He will leave voicemails that end abruptly with commands to call him back, though not as many as the man with the hidden ring behind the café who showed up at my parents’ house with a black pearl necklace on a thin, breakable chain once left. Once I broke free of him, somehow, and not soon enough, that man called hundreds of times and hung up. He left a scrawled, barely legible note on my car windshield. Something about blood, I remember, though I do not remember what.
He never made me bleed. There’s that. Only cry in a cracked vinyl booth the color of a menstrual clot.
The neighbor is making me cry. I am crying because his windows overlook mine and my drawn shades offer little protection.
Every moment is a risk. Every past can become present, and even more terrifying, the past can become present without my consent, without the intention, closure, or reassurance of a so-called emblem moment.
The neighbor with the Wilbur Buds will knock on the front door I made the mistake of opening to him when all I wanted to do was eat pasta alone in my pajamas. I will wish I had never let him in (present perfect tense; oh, what perfection it would be to be able to change the past).
I do not want to go for a drive.
I do not want ice cream.
I do not want him. I do not want any of them: the neighbor, the rapist, the married man who took away my certainty so that I still don’t know how to begin or end our story—my story—though I am learning. I am trying.
I just want peace. I just want now, the perfection of the present, of writing, filling white space with words that are all mine. Not a past or future these men had written and would try to write for me, but a future I will write for myself.
I remember the inside. How it felt to be trapped in my body, like I had no choices or options, no solid ground on which to stand. I remember the emotions but not the facts. The feeling of powerlessness and confusion. Loss. Embarrassment. Longing. Silence. Smallness. Then and now, my heart races, chest tightens, hands go numb, eyes blur, stomach drops, and there is nowhere to turn, no one who will understand, no one who can be trusted—especially not me and definitely not him, though he is the only one who can provide solace or answers or ground that purports to be solid.
He is gone.
The ground is still moving.
The neighbor leaves at last, a bag of chocolates sitting on my dining room table, and fresh semolina pasta cold and congealed in the colander in my sink. I call my mother (present).
“I have a random question,” I say when she picks up on the first ring.
“That was not the question I was expecting,” she tells me when I ask her if I’ve ever before had a Wilbur Bud.
She says that yes, we went to the Wilbur factory the same day we took a train ride and visited a nineteenth-century pretzel bakery where my big sister cried because the pretzel she made was ugly (past). She was six. I was three. I’d forgotten. Now (present) I remembered (past). Now I am remembering (present progressive). Now I am writing.
Writing is a process of remembering and sense-making, living in the awkward spaces between nostalgia (living in the past) and anxiety (the “inability to accept life as ongoing,” as put by Sarah Manguso in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary).
For some writers I admire, like Jo Ann Beard in her essay “Cousins,” time becomes circular. That story ends where it begins, on a rippling lake where a fish swims in and out of darkness. For other writers, like Manguso in Ongoingness, there is no beginning, middle, or end to time. Manguso’s book presents time as a fluid thing, a constantly negotiated state of existence in which the author tries to locate and preserve herself, and time itself, through daily journaling. She comes to realize that “linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.” For Sarah Gerard, in her essay “BFF” from her collection Sunshine State, time collapses completely in her reflection on a past friend who will forever haunt and shape her future. She writes about their shared teen years as “the before time,” noting that this “before” time was “before the real hurt came,” and in writing, “I open up this time so I can feel all the other time around it.”
Like so many writers before and after me, I write to revisit time, and to create it anew.
Past trauma does not live only in the past, and writing about it means creating new ways of telling that are not dependent upon chronology, or fact, or A Writer’s Reference’s rules for credibility, but on ways of telling that gain footing based on the ongoing and uncertain messiness of simultaneously remembering and forgetting everything, from his broad shoulders and bold glasses, to how and when we first met, to the open window, the breakable chain, the blood that may or may not have come.
I could neatly recreate my abuse for you—boy meets girl who already questioned her story; girl loses herself and ability to tell her story at all—detailing what I remember with calculatingly appropriate verb choices, starting at the beginning and working my way to this end. To a reclamation of my writing.
But why bother? Trauma does not make linear sense and neither does writing about it.
I am not trying to make this hard for you.
I just know no other way.
After I say goodbye to my mother, I open the bag of Wilbur Buds, take one milk and one semi-sweet, and eat them both in one bite. The neighbor was right, if only about this: They are better than Kisses.
Here, I ask: Am I doing what Sven Birkerts described in Then, Again? Am I dramatizing the process of realization, creating an “emblem moment” of the past, present, and future that collide in my daily existence? Does my Proustian Wilbur Bud serve the story well?
Am I “twining” together circumstance and reflection?
That is Birkerts’s word: twining. Yet every time I read it (present) in the pages of his book, I say it in my head, “twinning.”
Circumstance and reflection are twins, two parts—milk and semi-sweet—of the same (present) whole.
I am unsure what these circumstances and reflections reveal, other than the fact that I’d rather forget—that man, these men, those men, myself—and time will not change that, no matter how studiously I master it.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.