Love Me Like a Rock

LAST YEAR, my gentle giant rescue dog, Dempsey, fell in love with a rock. I discovered it while tide pooling near the surf shack me and my then-boyfriend moved into months before. Wading in ankle-deep water, I gathered up the iridescent shells of mussels and crabs who had abandoned their homes as the moon pulled the ocean away. Long-haired grass revealed loose pink stones, their weight challenging the strength of my pockets. Designed for lighter things.

At home, Dempsey nudged one of the rocks with his nose, prompting me to throw it in the air for him to chase after as I do with his toys or treats. Instead, I gently rolled it over the carpet like a mini bowling ball as he looked at me as if to say, Why so heavy? It broke my heart that the rock couldn’t be a feather, so I placed it on a high shelf out of his sight line. It couldn’t be what he wanted it to be, and he’d never understand that rocks cause damage even when projected without great force.

A few weeks later, I dumped my tide-pool treasures into a shoebox, padded it with socks and underwear, and placed it into a larger cardboard one marked “Miscellaneous.” From the hallway, I saw my ex sitting on the edge of our guest-room bed, his head hung inside the hood of his sweatshirt. Moments before, he had begged me to stay. Hours ago, he cried into his cell phone saying he had made a big mistake. He loved and needed me. He would do better next time. But I had already decided there couldn’t be a next time. Like a rock, his potential energy was imminent.

In between tears and apologies, he dared me to call the police and show them how he had hurt me. I wore no bruises, as he had never hit me. He wasn’t a screamer, still I lived in constant fear of his rage. A storm doesn’t always sound like thunder, but a flicker of lightning can strike you dead. It was only after I left him that I realized I braced for that quiet storm every time he walked through the door.

The way sound travels from our ears and is received and translated by our brains is a complicated but miraculous process. Audible waves pass through our ear canal, sending vibrations to three tiny mallet-like bones that amplify the vibrations traveling to the cochlea in the inner ear. Fluid inside the canal ripples, causing hair cells to ride the wave. The hair bends, opening channels where chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal. The auditory nerve passes this signal to the brain, which interprets it as sounds we recognize.

One Thanksgiving, my ex and I had road tripped to the Mojave Desert. As one dirt road dived into another and our phones lost their signals, my palms began to sweat. I was used to normalizing his behavior, but without a lifeline I felt danger. The banging on the steering wheel because the directions were misleading. Watching him kick over the wooden coffee table and threatening to burn it because the kindle left by the host didn’t yield a blazing fire. Stomping around the cabin when the hot tub only reached a tipid temperature. I hid the knife block in the kitchen and mapped out an escape plan should things get worse, as if the potential consequences of saying the wrong thing wasn’t enough. I desperately wanted to go home, but when home became a place we shared together, the doors and windows broke off their hinges. My hands felt for the walls but all I could feel was the emptiness of air. Air doesn’t break your fall. Without a stable foundation, I was free falling.

As a writer, I make a living considering the alchemy of words, how we make sense of their meaning, tone, intention. It is the same language that was used as a weapon to hold me down without a fist or a knife or a gun. The frequency and repetition of words and phrases are most effective at bending a mind in such a way that you begin to believe you are someone else. That you played a role in the abuse. That you asked for it.

I think about the velocity of words, how an arrangement of consonants and vowels becomes violent. We use them to communicate, communicate, educate, soothe, heal, love, hurt, or bully. In a broken alphabet, Rs are for razors and Fs are for fists. I think about the way words travel through our ears into our bodies. When words are used to disable someone, there is no such thing as in one ear and out the other. The sound hits our eardrums with the force of a thrown rock, not gently but with exact aim and impressive speed.

What is verbal abuse? How is it to be quantified? Is there such a thing as “proof” when our truth hinges on the elusive task of producing visible evidence of sound? We are expected to document and sound map its frequencies. Without proof, it is easy to dismiss one person’s terror and another’s rage as a lover’s quarrel: a they-said/the-other-said dilemma. It’s an intimate affair, no one else’s business, creates no space for outside conversations. We are in the business of not getting involved. Audible attacks do not leave visible marks. Words know how to skirt the law. Their chances of being caught are slim.

Like sound, words can be bent in ways bruises cannot. Sounds evaporate into the atmosphere at 332 meters per second, while physical abuse often leaves marks that can be shared, photographed, and measured. As evidence, words disappear, but they can stop or quicken a heart. They can cause PTSD and compromise four quadrants of the brain. Their effect damages our insides, and our ability to produce language and sound begins to disintegrate. Using words to protect ourselves can pose an even greater threat; We are fighting back with a dictionary, thin pages of pulp and a spine that’s meant to be broken. And so, we often say nothing.

A few weeks after our signatures dried on our rental agreement, a young woman was sexually assaulted eight blocks south of our home. My ex never locked the door even though I had been raped at knifepoint years ago. I wanted my life to feel as easy and safe as our beach community appeared to be, so I agreed to leave our front door wide open during the day into the evenings. I didn’t want to seem difficult or to be told I was paranoid or to stop living in the past. What are you worried about? I’ll protect youhe told me.

I left him a voicemail about the attack. When he returned home, he stood in the bathroom while I was showering. That never happens here, he said. I had checked the city crime map and it did happen. Frequently. It happens everywhere.

We can install cameras and get a second dog. Whatever you need to feel safehe said. Can’t we just lock the door? I asked. I knew he had been drinking and was attuned to him making grand gestures of love and affection before the dam burst, sometimes within the same sentence. I held onto the handicap shower bar and prayed for him to leave the room. As I stepped out and stood naked in front of him, the words that followed struck me down like a tidal wave. There was no connective tissue between anything you need and I don’t even think you ever loved me. He always knew exactly how and when to overcome me.

I stood like a statue as pools of water ran off my body onto the tiled floor. My brain began to swell, as if it were expanding and pressing against my skull. I searched for places to fit soft words in between the shattered glass of our relationship, to remind him that I did love him. In hindsight, I see how the external danger made him feel out of control. The truth was he couldn’t always protect me. Maybe it was easier to direct his anger at me than to believe I could be taken from him.

At night, I listened to the waves crash onto the shore, a reminder that the ocean can lull me to sleep or pull me into its undertow. Living with the fear of sound, my words became inaudible bubbles. Under the sea, no one can hear either me or him. Am I more prey to other dangers because predators can smell my trepidation?

When I fall under, I dream. In a conversation with Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises, the interviewer notes that, in the book, Snyder says many abusive men are highly dependent on their partners. “A researcher said it really beautifully to me. He said women inhabit the world of emotions that these men cannot access. The women are their conduit.”

I asked my ex what the future looked like for him. Where would you like to be? Since we lived together, it was reasonable to wonder if he thought about marriage or kids or some alternate version of us growing old together. I imagined a long stretch of surfing with emerald green water, him carrying a little blonde girl with his gray eyes on his shoulders. He stiffened and changed the subject. At night, he woke up and smoked marijuana. I am allergic to the plant he was addicted to. Too scared to say the smell wakes me up, I asked why.

So I don’t dream.

Do you have nightmares?

No, he tells me.

I realized I was sharing a life with a person who literally had no dreams.

I moved into a new place in central Hollywood. After dragging my suitcase from one friend’s house to another, I settled into a home again. I was looking for a quaint guest house and ended up in a noisy loft a block away from the Walk of Fame and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, where parties, house music, sex, and calls on speaker phone travel through the courtyard. The volume can be irksome, but I prefer it to the quiet echoes of blame and words that frayed my nerves and threatened my safety. Words that said I didn’t do enough, I didn’t love enough, that having a chronic illness was in my mind — a choice. Other words inaudible, slurred together with alcohol. Amid all this audible chaos, there was peace.

As I unpacked my boxes, I was reunited with the miscellaneous box holding my tide-pool discoveries. I picked up the rock Dempsey had fallen in love with and laid it on his bed. He sniffed it a few times then walked away. I cupped it in my hands and inhaled; Its ocean scent was still strong.

Perplexed, I tried on familiar words that typically send him into a frenzy: beach, ocean, my ex’s name. No response. My dog ​​doesn’t forget things; he is human smart. But unlike me, he had already moved on, finding bright spots to sun himself in our new place. The words held no charge, so I followed his lead and reclaimed the alphabet. I set the rock on my desk as a paperweight to hold a stack of my sentences and let all of his go.

¤

Marnie Goodfriend is a writer, sexual assault advocate, and social practice artist. Her essays, articles, and other writing appear in Time, Washington Post, The Rumpus, She Knows, Healthand other, and her memoirs, Birth Marks and The Time it Takes to Leave My Bodyare forthcoming.

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