The night the boyfriend accidentally left me at a party with my car keys in his pocket, I felt more trapped than I should have because the party was actually an art show full of my art, art made with spray paint and paint pens, large plywood panels covered with tape deck monsters – cartoon cat-like creatures with twirly tape deck eyes and tiny cat ears – who usually engaged in some kind of conflict like making each other walk the plank or having sword fights or water balloon fights or food fights across those big plywood panels, most of which I gave away to the musicians who played for the show or really anyone who asked because art and money never felt like they fit together and also because most of the people who came to the show were my friends or I guess I should say our friends and the house show itself was at my boyfriend’s house, the house where he was renting a sofa to sleep on, a sofa where two people were already passed out drunk the moment I realized that he had accidentally taken my keys and wasn’t answering the phone even though I called and called, even after everyone left and the house was dark, even after one of his roommates came out to find me and said please don’t sleep on the porch this is bad enough for you, but I did sleep on the porch and waited and called and waited and called until I wanted to break my flip phone in half and the roommate came back out and told me, The thing is, I saw him leave with Taylor, and I still waited and kind of slept on the porch until the sun came out or until I decided I needed to move my body, and it felt like a good idea to just fucking walk to Taylor’s to pick up my keys, but luckily the boyfriend called me before I got there, said he’d meet me down the street from her house to give me the keys, said nothing happened with a weird smile on his face, said I had a weird look on my face that he didn’t really like, and I almost threw my skateboard at him but didn’t, so I took the keys, and when Taylor spread a rumor like some kind of flu through the whole community in midtown Atlanta, a rumor that the boyfriend had attacked her that night, I thought of all the times she had tried to get him to go home with her in front of me, all the times she talked about how he deserved better, how she could give him what he really wanted, and now she was talking about how she hadn’t wanted to give him anything after all but he took it from her anyway. I didn’t believe her.
It was February in Atlanta and less than 20 degrees outside, a pitch-dark night. For over an hour, I glided across the ice on my skateboard from midtown to a run down, industrial area. New apartment buildings popped up here and there, looming over blocks filled with boarded buildings and rusty shops. I skated and breathed and skated and breathed, the spray paint cans clanking in my backpack. I looked for a long, clear wall— didn’t find one. I made it to my favorite place, a broken overpass that looked like it had been chopped in half by a giant butcher knife. I could never bring myself to sit on the edge, but I got close, sitting cross-legged with my skateboard upside down beside me. Two stories below the overpass, I couldn’t see the massive, abandoned lot filled with trash, but I knew it was there. In the spring, kudzu grew, covering all that trash, making it look like it was just innocent rolling hills or maybe some kind of ancient monster covered in plants and sleeping its life away. On the overpass, in spring, weeds and flowers sprouted up through the cracked pavement. I always wondered how that happened, the utter chaos of little spores landing in just the right amount of sand collected into these cracks and blooming up into new life. In February, though, the weeds and flowers had all curled up and died. I fiddled with the crack in the pavement. I painted a blue tape deck monster with hot pink eyes on top of at least seventeen layers of messy tags on the pavement beside me and left just as fog began to sink down from the yellow-black sky. I skated toward my home. Out of nowhere, soft music cut through the fog. That song about making plans for Nigel but all jazzed up. The sound seemed to float toward me, so I skated toward it. It came from speakers on the outside of one of those new apartment buildings. A lit doorway. A small, brown dog sleeping on the welcome mat. At first, I thought it was a statue. It lifted its head. I sat down beside it. Its ribs popped out through its shivering body. It wagged its tail a bit. Hello, dog. It wagged a bit more. It sniffed the air around me, hungry. No collar. Definitely a stray. At the time, Atlanta was full of them. I picked him up. He was a teenager, maybe twenty pounds. He burrowed into me. By the time I got home, my shoulders ached and my arms were numb. I wrapped him in blankets and fed him and took him to the vet the next day. He walked around awkwardly, like a totally loveable skeleton with fur, sniffing and showing his belly to my own rescue dog. I called him Nigel, of course.
It took me six months to get him healthy and ready, and when a traveling kid from Indy stayed on my couch for a while, they bonded. He slept at her feet every night, followed her commands, kissed her first when we walked in the door. She told me about her family and her life in the Midwest and her dogs back home. I love him, she told me. I believed her.
After I worked four doubles in a row at the restaurant, I walked into the house I shared with three roommates. The kitchen was filled with people and empty red plastic cups. I walked past my roommates, into my dark room, shut the door and locked it. I didn’t say hello or even look at who was there. I untied my apron full of cash and receipts and dropped it on the floor. I pulled my bra off through one of the arm holes of my shirt. I fell asleep on top of the covers in my work outfit: a black polo and a short khaki skirt. I woke up intermittently to weird, screeching laughter, music turned up or down, people goofing off outside my window, the knob of my door turning, people saying Oh shit someone’s already crashing in there and Wait is Asha home? And I think I have a key. I didn’t wake up all the way, though, too tired, back to sleep.
When I woke up again, it was to the voice of the ex boyfriend, excited and loving. I know this is your favorite, he said, and a couple months before that, he would’ve been right.
Back then, I loved it when he fucked me to wake me up. The surprise made me feel wanted, lit up my body in a way that was hard to access when I was fully awake. Back then, this kind of moment was one of the few ways I could feel relaxed around another body, not scared, always, that that body would disappear.
And half awake, that night after the party at my house, that same part of me lit up. When he said, Do you like it, I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t say no, not at first. I can’t be sure, but I think it took about five minutes to wake up all the way, and when I did, I tensed up and said What the fuck and stop, and he pretended to think I was being playful or feisty and he fucked me harder and pinned my arms behind my back harder and it felt like there was nothing to be done but wait, to try to find some kind of pleasure in it because there was no way to escape.
The next day and every day after that for almost twenty years, I didn’t think much of it, but when I did, it was easier to believe that it wasn’t a big deal, and what’s the difference really? I had made the best of it, in the moment. If he had done that maybe nine weeks earlier, it would’ve been welcome. The only variable that was different was time, right? Feeling victimized, was a choice. That’s what I believed.
The morning Nigel left with his new human, she named him Brown Dog. He had been following her around the city without a leash for weeks. She left with a group of people driving to Louisville, to another couch, another home to stay until her hosts grew tired of her and Brown Dog, until their welcome had been zapped. Then she would leave again, call herself homeless, a traveler, one of the traveling kids. The country was full of them. Some were runaways. Some were not kids at all but adults of all ages, some with young children who traveled too. They chose to travel rather than reside for political reasons or personal reasons or because it was really the only way to feel like they had a sense of agency in the chaos of their lives. We invited the travelers to stay with us. We fed them. We made art with them. Sometimes, we left our homes and traveled alongside them, too.
Mostly, we welcomed them. We trusted them.
By the morning Nigel left with his new human, I had been working with a local dog rescue, fostering and caring for stray or dumped dogs for about three months. I didn’t see Nigel until her next visit, about a year later. He had tripled in size. They left one week later for a quick two-week trip, but they were coming back to stay in Atlanta for a while. When Nigel’s human returned, Nigel was missing.
I lost him in a train yard, she said. The train was leaving and we had to go.
Where? What city? What train yard?
I don’t know. I can’t remember.
I’m sure he’ll be okay, she said.
But of course he wasn’t. If Nigel had gotten lost, because his human was a traveler, he didn’t have a home to come back to. Just a person. A person who left him behind.
I don’t know if Nigel’s real truth is better or worse. I do know that after Nigel’s human left, one of our mutual friends sat with me in my own backyard, watching our dogs wrestle. He had been traveling with Nigel and his human, and he was at the mysterious train yard. I asked him, Why didn’t you wait for him? Why did you leave?
Wait for Brown Dog? he said. There was nothing to wait for. He’s dead.
I made him promise to never tell me details, but I knew in that moment why the rescue I worked with had rules for adoption, why they did home visits, why that word, home, was so important for the animals that we saved. I believe that many traveling kids, many unhoused folks are wonderful dog owners. Back then, though, I believed that words like love and home meant the same thing to everyone else that they did to me. I didn’t know yet that love – and home – is often temporary, sometimes hostile, and, almost always, when people say I love you, they don’t mean I will do everything I can to protect you.
The morning I found Gaspard and Vincent, I had just visited the punk house where the ex boyfriend had been staying. He had some things of mine that I couldn’t let him keep: expensive art supplies, my favorite shirt, a memory box from my childhood that contained a lot of half ruined photos and a film canister wrapped in in masking tape that contained the remainder of my dad’s ashes. It had been almost a year since we broke up, and he finally admitted that he had my stuff, told some friends to tell me to come pick it up.
The house where he lived was called the Hot Pocket. Five girls lived there, plus my ex. When the girls moved in, they painted the walls dark pink and painted uteruses and pussies all over the walls. It was hot in there, too, no air flow, no fans, no a/c, deep south late summer heat. That morning the house was dark, blinds drawn, no furniture, empty Olde English bottles and cigarette butts and clothes that smelled like piss and BO strewn around bodies wrapped in sleeping bags. I stepped around them. I found the ex alone in his new girlfriend’s room, sitting on the bed. He handed me the pile of my things. Thanks, I said. None of this shit fits Jasmine anyway, he said. He tilted his head to the side and checked me out. Ew, I said. He laughed. He told me that the other night was cool but it couldn’t happen again. He told me he was monogamous. Right, I said. I left. At my car, I checked the memory box for Dad’s ashes. I shook the little canister. I breathed, closed the trunk.
Excuse me, a rough voice asked.
Behind me, an older man with a rounded back held a beautiful wicker Easter basket. Inside, two, black infant kittens curled on top of a hot pink blanket. Can you help them? The man asked.
I don’t know, I said. I haven’t had kittens in a long time.
The kittens looked birdlike, moving slowly.
I think they’re going to die real soon, the man said. I don’t know what to do with them.
Where’s the mom? I asked.
I don’t know. Gone.
Will you take them? I don’t know what to do with them.
Okay, I said.
He handed me the basket.
On the way home, I called the folks from the dog rescue. They didn’t know anything about cats. They gave me the information for a walk-in vet where another older man with a rounded back handed me tiny bottles that looked like they belonged to plastic babydolls and cat formula and a schedule for baby kitten feedings. I kept to that schedule, sleeping in tiny bursts, feeding and not sleeping and feeding and not sleeping and feeding, but it didn’t matter that I lost sleep those weeks. I hadn’t been sleeping anyway. I hadn’t been sleeping because a few days before the man handed me a basket of dying kittens, the ex boyfriend showed up at my house while I was at work. He told my roommate, Jasmine kicked me out.
He asked her, Can I just crash for the night I’ll be quiet.
And because I never told my roommate about the night my ex snuck into my room and fucked me in my sleep without asking, and because neither of us believed that he had assaulted Taylor the night he cheated on me, and probably a little bit because I usually pretended I could handle just about anything, my roommate said, Yes, sure stay. But leave Asha alone.
As I walked up the hill to my house after working a double at the restaurant, I saw the light on in my room. I found him pretending to sleep on my bed. I said all the right things like What the fuck are you doing here? and Dude we’ve been broken up for like a year I don’t care if your girlfriend is mad or if my roommate said you could stay just go home. He negotiated and tried to flirt and finally agreed to sleep on the couch. I closed my door as much as I could on its broken hinge and turned off my lights and put a blanket on top of my bed. I laid on top of it, slept.
When I woke up an hour or two later, he stood, naked in my doorway, soaking wet. I need a towel, he said. Fuck off, I said.
I’m cold, he said. Brrr. Brrr.
I got a towel out of a drawer and threw it at him, told him to leave. He dried off in front of me. Everything he said after that sounds simple and transparent and all I can think is how stupid I must be to have even engaged. Like when he said, Man you’re so judgmental, You’re so cold, Why can’t we be friends? I miss my friend. I miss you. I don’t have anyone to spot me when I’m out painting. Don’t you miss our midnight painting sessions or like that mural we painted together, the one that said YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL in pastel rainbow letters across that overpass or that mural we did with all the little E.T. monsters with hearts in their eyes falling in love and saying OLIVE JUICE, which looks like I LOVE YOU, but you’re not saying I love you, not at all.
He said, Can I please just stay on your extra mattress in here? I can see it under the bed there. It’s so much warmer in your room, I’m going to freeze to death out there, please I just want to sleep and be warm.
I can’t remember what I thought or why I folded. I probably felt protective of him. I probably looked at him and all I could see was a body that I used to hold onto, a body that used to make me feel held. I probably told myself that there was no good reason to make that body of his uncomfortable.
So he laid on his mattress on the floor and I laid on my mattress on the bed. He didn’t sleep. He kept talking. I turned away from him. I ignored him. I don’t know at all what he said until he said Asha. Just look. Look. Asha. Look.
You have a girlfriend, I said.
Not right now, he said.
I am not into it, I said.
He stroked himself and stood up and stood over me and I sat up and scooted back and put up my hand to be like, hell no, but he took it like hell yes and he wrapped his hand around my hand. He held on tight.
Somehow, things didn’t go much further than that, but somehow, it felt worse than the way he woke me up months before. Somehow, that night, he got off quickly and went to the couch and went to sleep, but I didn’t sleep, I waited, awake, until he left and I told my roommate in the morning and she blamed herself and couldn’t look at me until I brought the kittens home days later and kept them alive long enough for them to grow and leave their basket and stretch and bounce and curl around each other and fall asleep in a shape that looked like they were two halves of a perfect heart right in the middle of the rug on my floor or right in the middle of my bed, these little living, purring hearts popped up randomly around our house, and I thought, this is togetherness and this is love, and it is here, somehow it is here, and I don’t know exactly what that means but it at least helped me admit to myself that the weird forced handjob thing wasn’t cool, wasn’t punk, wasn’t feminist, and maybe I should have believed that he attacked Taylor even if she had acted like an asshole around me, and maybe I should tell other women, and so I did.
When I told the girls and women at the Hot Pocket, the people who had drawings of big scissors cutting off dicks on their bedroom walls, the people in our community who said that women’s stories mattered, they didn’t believe me. Maybe it was because the ex boyfriend was a darling with a hard body and big eyes, eyes that held a near constant expression of sincerity. He was the kind of guy who’d stand over you in bed with a disposable camera taking pictures of the parts of your body you didn’t want anyone to notice. He’d point to the spot where your belly fat folds saying things like, “This bend, it’s incredible.” He used words to describe his friends like that, “You are incredible.” “You are thrilling.” Even though the folks at the Hot Pocket and all the staunch feminists in our community had very likely seen the other sides of him, just like I had when we were together, just like I had when I heard what he did to Taylor, they didn’t believe me.
I told them through email. I edited it over and over. I told myself: Stick to the facts. Tell the truth. Deal with your own embarrassment or even shame all by yourself. This is not about expressing your emotions. This is about transparency and prevention. It didn’t matter, and I figured, since it’s all of them and not just a few, all of these truly smart, creative women who don’t believe me, well, probably I shouldn’t believe myself. So I didn’t.
Two years before I sent that email, before I met the ex, before I moved to Atlanta, on the morning I turned eighteen, I sat on my front porch in downtown Pensacola, Florida, drinking a mocha made with Hershey’s syrup and old coffee. I watched a flock of dark birds land on a thin, empty tree, their feathers and beaks like chirping, fluttering leaves. Out of nowhere, the entire flock lifted from the tree all at once, like boom.
I jumped. They expanded around the dying tree like a cloud. My chest tightened. Even though it had been three years and three months since the night my dad died, and even though on the night he died, I bent down to speak into his dead ear as he laid on the hospital bed and told him I love you and I’m sorry I broke curfew and also I love you, and even though I watched his heartbeat disappear on the monitor, and even though I sat on a dock pouring most of his ashes into the Gulf waters while listening to Free Bird on an old boom box, and even though I could shake the film canister that contained the rest of his ashes anytime I wanted, something about the birds blooming up from that bare tree made my body buzz, made my throat thicken, made it absolutely clear for the first time that my dad was dead and that meant gone. Goodbye, I thought, watching the birds condense above the tree and fly away in flowy, geometric patterns, their furious roar disappearing into the grey sky.
That night, my friends and I drove three hours to Tallahassee to a house party some guys we knew were throwing to celebrate their eviction from the apartment they had nearly destroyed with their skateboards and beer spills. The ex boyfriend was one of those guys, a friend of a friend. We met that night for the first time. We drank and flirted and danced. Close to dawn, we walked to an empty, abandoned pool. The ex helped me stand on a skateboard for the first time. I skated in circles at the bottom of the pool, and when I fell off, the rough, spray-painted cement tore lines of blood into my arm. I stared at the wound. I am alive.
I did not see the ex boyfriend again until his eviction went through, when he moved back to Pensacola, when kiss by kiss we decided to paint together and skate together and eventually move in together to a faded brick apartment building that was shaped like a prison with the quarters wrapped around a sad interior yard. One afternoon, I sat on the floor of the apartment painting tape deck monsters on flattened cardboard boxes. I heard a woman screeching in the courtyard and looked out the window where a hairless, skull faced dog playfully chased my neighbor across the dead lawn, trying to tear a hole in the bottom of her paper grocery bag. The woman carried the bag with both arms, hollering at the dog to leave her be. I ran downstairs to catch up with them.
Is he yours? I asked the neighbor.
No no no no no, she said, as she hurried into her apartment.
I pointed at the dog. Don’t leave, I said. He sat down. I ran upstairs to our apartment, grabbing bread and Kraft singles to lure him. Once we were inside, I realized how sick he looked, bright eyed but sick. He’d lost his fur. His tail was a kinked zig zag from rickets. I could see the shape of his skeleton through his loose skin. I named him Nollie, or nose ollie, the only slightly advanced trick I ever learned on the skateboard. I fed him and treated his mange and his rickets and his heartworms. By the time the ex and I had to flee Pensacola to avoid the category four hurricane that would wreck my hometown and turn our apartment into a pile of bricks, Nollie’s fur had grown back, a thick brindle coat, and we moved healthy and together to Atlanta. He was my first rescue.
Even though Nollie was mine in all measurable ways, he treasured the ex, turning into a puppy when the ex walked in the door and curling up at his feet when we slept together. When I broke up with the ex, he often asked to visit Nollie, to take him to the dog park or walks when the weather was good. He called himself “daddy” when he talked to Nollie. He said we were “coparenting” him. For weeks after the breakup, I did not argue. Nollie liked the attention, liked the extra walks on the days I worked a double, liked the ex. But, the morning after the ex snuck into my bed and fucked me while I slept, I took full custody of Nollie. I told myself the surprise fucking wasn’t a big deal. I told myself it must be that something I did or said lead to a misunderstanding of my boundaries. I needed to make a cleaner break. I moved into a different house with just one roommate who didn’t have loud house parties or host traveling kids, who would only rescue tiny newborn kittens because we could hide them from our landlord, who only let the ex in without asking once, just that once.
When I told the women in our community about what happened that night, the night of the weird handjob, when the women didn’t believe me and I didn’t believe myself, when they told people across the country not to host me if I traveled, when I found out that my ex tried to report me for stealing Nollie even though Nollie was registered to me, I left the community. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed about my email. If they were right, if I was this overdramatic monster, I didn’t want to be around them. I left Atlanta. I needed to become someone else. I went back to college and graduated and had babies and got better jobs and cars and houses and became someone else.
Six years later, after my second child was born, when Nollie limped all day long and couldn’t get up on the couch because of his bad hips and his worn out heart, when the vet said he needed to either be put to sleep or be in a more gentle environment because my first child was a toddler who rolled over Nollie’s bad hips, when Nollie snarled and snipped at the toddler and snarled and snipped at the baby if she got too close, when I sat on the floor with Nollie holding his face in my hands unable to find the courage to put him to sleep even though he was in so much pain, when I was unable to be the good guy, the good parent, unable to be the one who let him die, I realized I’d have to find a gentler place for him to live.
Because I mostly believed that the ex had probably done nothing wrong and I probably had overreacted, I thought: maybe this thing with Nollie was an opportunity to fix my mistakes. I believed I had the courage, at least, to face my embarrassment. I found the ex on social media and sent him a message. I told him the situation and Nollie and you were so into each other, so if you have a more gentle environment for him, if you want him, let me know. Otherwise, he will probably stay with my mom until the kids are a little older. Somehow, I believed that Nollie would live until the kids were a little older. Somehow, I believed that I was doing the right thing, the least harm, the best choice. Somehow, I believed that by feeding dogs and giving them medicine and finding them new mommies and daddies, I was rescuing them, like it was really about them, like it had nothing to do with desperately trying to control life and death and everything in between, to control something, to feel like I had control.
The ex didn’t respond for weeks.
He wrote, I hope your children die in your arms.
He wrote, If I ever see you, I’ll make sure they do.
I read it over and over, and all my doubt lifted up and disappeared from my body, like boom.
An ache moved into replace it. He really did those things. That happened.
Doubt, it turned out, had protected me. Abandoning myself had felt safer than facing the fact that someone I once kind of loved made the choice to harm me – and therefore Taylor – and who else?
Of course, I kept Nollie as long as I could and let him live with my mom when I had to. Of course, I eventually figured out the right kind of rescue for the moment Nollie was in: the kind that released him from life but also pain. When he passed, I regretted keeping him alive as long as I did. I realized that I had done some harm by holding onto him.
I wish I could learn faster, do better, without fucking up first. I like to believe there is a space inside myself and maybe everyone— a small, true point where facts, ethics, and memories meet our feelings and sensations, where we can notice and reflect and make decisions that do the absolute least harm to ourselves and others. Maybe that small true point is our most connected space. Maybe we are all born with that small true point, or maybe, it is a space we have to build, a space that houses the unique clarity that grief or remorse can give us, the kind of learning that a lot of fucking up can give us.
I try to remember that I am an animal, too, that it’s normal to be stuck in my own body, trapped in sensation, unable to access the past or the future or the repercussions or possible results. I try to remember that everyone – or at least the people who care to – probably spend most of their time trying to find that small true point. I’ll spend my life trying to rescue it, losing it over and over. I’ll spend my life learning to trust that I will find it again.
Rumpus original art by author