this post is a departure from the usual content of this blog. below is a paper i wrote for a Psychology of Women course as part of my undergraduate work. it’s highly personal, and deals with everything – sex, love, family, abuse, relationships. it’s about women, strength, and empowerment. i’m posting it because…. well, because i can. because it’s part of my growth. because i’m not ashamed of my life. both my parents are dead now, so i don’t think they’ll mind. if you’re uncomfortable with reality, be prepared. this is what you could call a “Big Share.”
in honor of my mother, Catherine. happy mother’s day. and thanks.
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure
I lost my virginity when I was 19 years old. I didn’t love him. I don’t know if he loved me, and I didn’t really care. I didn’t do it for him or even because of him – I did it for me. I was tired of waiting. Sex was so built up, and I didn’t want to wait anymore for that man of my dreams that would never come. It wasn’t special or mind-blowing when it finally did happen. There were no rockets or fireworks. I think we went out for Chinese that night, then went back to his dormitory. I was lying on his bed with my hands behind my head, looking at the posters haphazardly tacked up on the walls.
It was our first week back from winter break, and I thought about the stories my friends back home had been telling me about their sex lives. I thought about the way they devalued the whole thing, and the surprise they showed when I told them I was still a virgin.
“You are?” Halle said in disbelief, her big brown eyes growing wider. “Well, sex is totally not a big deal,” she said as she set her coffee down on the endtable.
“What? You mean you’re not?” Now it was my turn to be shocked.
Then rose in her cheeks that uncontrollable blush that had betrayed her in high school when she would try to hide from us her latest crush.
“Oh, I thought you knew.”
Ah, Halle. I remember having smiled to myself repeatedly during that conversation at our favorite coffee shop.
At 5’11”, 125 lbs., with long naturally blond hair and an almost perfect 4.0GPA, she was the standard all of our moms compared us to. She had been the last one of us to kiss a guy for the first time, try a cigarette, or swear. She had been the one to say how she would wait until she was married to have sex. And here she was now, talking to me about how comfortable she is walking around naked in front of her boyfriend.
She looked sideways at the girl slumped back next to her on the couch. “I bet Lauren would be happy to share some sex tips with you.”
Lauren, the other dimension of our trio of best friends, had been having sex since she was 15. She didn’t sleep around; she had just started early.
She looked up from the fashion magazine she was reading and gave one of her classic eye-rolls. “Oh, shut up.” She tossed the magazine on the coffee table and pulled one leg under her. “It’s just sex,” she said with a hint of boredom.
Lauren had never had any long-term relationships. She would keep a guy around until the novelty wore off, and then move on. She never really gushed about any guy she was dating, but was always a pro at manipulating them to take her out to fancy dinners and buy her whatever she wanted. I guess she was a good actress.
I realized how similar she was to myself when it came to relationships. Her nonchalance about men and sex was just a way to disguise her fear to let her defenses down and experience real love. And I also found out that despite Halle’s intelligence, she had a knack for choosing a boyfriend that treated her like shit. She was so insecure to be alone; she would stay with them and endure their put-downs and orders. She would pay for dinners, and be the only one to remember birthdays or anniversaries. Inside she wanted to be strong and independent, but would stay with ambitionless men who told her she should aspire to be a housewife.
I spent the next few hours listening to their stories about boyfriends, sexual escapades, and the frivolity and hopelessness of trying to maintain a healthy relationship.
And here I was now, staring blankly at the ceiling, knowing that I was finally going to do it, and it meant nothing to me. I felt the resignation take over my body and I swallowed hard.
“I think I want to have sex,” I said bluntly as I turned toward him.
He raised his eyebrows and looked at me uneasily. “You sure?”
I nodded, and that was the extent of the conversation we had about it. We had never discussed it before, and I doubt he thought those words would have ever come out of my mouth. There was never any pressure, or even a tactful allusion to it on his part. It was one of those cliche ‘It just happened’ moments.
So my first time was on a tiny bed in a dorm room, by the soft glow of Christmas lights strung along the walls. When it was over, I turned on my side with my back facing him. I didn’t want him to see the tears burning my eyes as I squeezed them shut. I waited to hear his breath become shallow and measured with sleep, and then I silently wept. I cried for the loss of innocence, the shattered illusion, and the disappointment. I cried because all I could think was “Is this all there is?”
I had sex with him three or four more times, thinking that maybe I had missed something the first time. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and broke up with him, turning in the opposite direction every time I saw someone who so much as resembled him on campus.
For a long time, just the thought of sex repulsed me and made my skin crawl. The summer of that year I got into a relationship that eventually led to sex. It made me remember why I had stopped doing it in the first place. An arrogant male dripping sweat onto you, propped up on his knees and pumping away, treating you like a hole in the ground, never asking what would feel good to you. Or maybe flipping you on your stomach so he can grunt and fuck you like a dog. I’m not saying they necessarily meant for it to feel that way, and for some women, that is the way they like it. But I didn’t.
Where was the intimacy and passion that the movies and trashy romance novels told you about? I wanted the fireworks, Goddammit. I wanted to hear them say they love me, and say it so I believed them. I wanted it, but I didn’t trust them. Any of them. They hurt you if you let them, they always do. But I realized I had never taken the risk to say “I love you” either.
Two or three things I know for sure, one is that sometimes it’s easy to do things for the wrong reasons, especially when it keeps you from having to feel.
I called the two pillars of my support, and we got together for another coffee session. I told them everything – from my decision to do it, to my frustration and anger, and finally to the disappointment and hopelessness. I fidgeted with my mug while I spoke, eyes out of focus, seeing it all painfully unfold again in my mind’s eye. They had listened silently the whole time, like true friends do – no comments or criticisms, no judgments. Just nods and warm touches. I finally looked up and met their eyes, hoping not to see anything in their faces that showed they thought I was nuts, or someone they felt like they didn’t know. But all I saw was concern and compassion, and I was still me.
“It’s not worth it,” I said, slamming my mug down in disgust, cold coffee spilling over the sides to form a puddle on the table.
I exhaled noisily and hung my head, feeling my shoulders slump as the indignation wore off. I looked again from one girl’s face to the other, and my heart started to clench.
“It’s just not worth it,” I said again, my voice this time hollow and quiet.
I started to cry, and my Sisters both instinctively held me and stroked my hair. I felt that they knew what I was going through, knew firsthand. Perhaps they had gone through this very same thing before, with each other. Or maybe they were alone in bed at night, their thoughts overwhelming them as they clutched their pillow, crying themselves to sleep.
Two or three things I know for sure, one is that men can come and go, but true Sisterhood is forever.
“How would you feel if I dated a black guy?” I once asked my father.
His face hardened and he looked at me with malice, his jaw twitching under the rough skin of his face. “If you ever bring a nigger into this house, I’ll kill him and you both, then bury you in the backyard.”
I looked at him unfazed. “That’s what I thought.”
I stood up and walked away, wondering at the miracle of how I was able to grow up in the same house as this man and not adopt all his negative sentiments.
My father is an immigrant. His father died when he was a baby, and he was raised by strong women in the village where he was born. Deep inside, there is an emotional and sensitive man, but he rarely surfaces. I’ve only seen my father cry once. He is a hard and weathered man, who worked hard to earn what he has. He came to this ‘land of opportunity’ at age 16, and he thinks he’s fulfilled the American Dream. He has the material wealth, but he is critical and bitter.
His drive for work made him neglect his family. He hasn’t been a good father or a good husband. Maybe he doesn’t know how to be one since he lost his own father. He identifies with the macho men, the dominant, aggressive, self-reliant stereotype. Men who don’t show their emotions, men who don’t cry, men who don’t need anyone and only depend on themselves. I am sorry for my mother. I’m sorry for the man she chose and the man he’s become. He supports us financially, but he’s not there for us. I’m sorry for my brother, who is warm-hearted and kind. He’s supposed to have a father he can look up to, someone who will be a role model. I don’t want him to turn into my father, and I don’t think he wants to either.
Two or three things I know for sure, one is that it’s sad to see someone waste the influence they could have on someone else’s life.
My only clear memories I have of spending time with my father are when I could catch him outside of work. Being self-employed, he was always gone – running the shop, going on business calls, and meeting clients. After work, he would go to the bars to have a few martinis and ‘unwind.’ I was almost always already asleep when he would come home, and I didn’t go to bed until around midnight. I don’t know when he came home. My only chance to see him was before he left for work in the morning. He was an early riser, usually up before sunrise. I would set my alarm and drag myself out of bed just to be with him. I remember stumbling down the steps groggy-eyed and seeing my father with a cigarette in one hand and espresso in the other, pouring over the morning paper. I don’t think he ever realized how much those morning chats meant to me. I loved to spend time with him, try to get him interested in my life and who I was. As time went by, I was the one waiting for him in the mornings, coffee and cigarette in hand.
“You know, the day will come when you finally open your eyes and want to be with your kids. But we’ll be long gone, and you’ll be an old man, looking around yourself wondering what happened.”
He leaned back in his seat and smirked. “Don’t you get it? You need me more than I’ll ever need you.”
I drew deeply on my cigarette as I looked at him out of the corner of my eye.
“Gimme a break. Why don’t you just be a man and admit to having feelings. You do need us, and you’re only denying yourself by pushing us away. I can’t stand the way you are, always thinking you’re above everyone, as if you have all life’s answers.”
“I hope you change that attitude soon, because if you don’t, the man you marry is gonna kick the shit out of you.”
That is the way my father responded to women who had a voice. I wasn’t allowed to have opinions or thoughts of my own, especially not if they differed from his.
“I’m not planning on marrying a guy who turns to violence when he doesn’t like what he hears.”
My father laughed. “Well, that’s how men are.”
Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that fear and ignorance will prevent you from ever living life to its fullest extent.
My mother was a woman with a lot of love to give. I don’t think she ever learned how to really express it. But she was the one who gave me everything. She denied herself so I would have more. She was the one who drove me back and forth to piano and violin lessons, attended my concerts, started me on swim team, and introduced me to alternative health and spirituality. She paid for me to do all those things from her personal savings. She let me in on the fact that she had single-handedly put me through college, on her inheritance. My father had never paid a dime. She gave me more in life than she had ever done for my brother. I was her pride and joy. Looking back, I think she made sure I had all the opportunities she never did, so I could stand up and say and do all the things she never had the strength to.
I remember her trying to break loose only once in my life. I had heard my parents arguing downstairs loudly, and I ran down to find them right in each other’s faces. My mother was trying to stand her ground, and say what she wanted.
She was rewarded with a hard slap across the face with the back of my father’s hand.
“Fuck you!” she spat at him.
He hit her again and she fell to the ground.
“Go ahead, why don’t you just kill me?! Fuck you! I hate you!”
My father looked ready to lunge at her again, but he stopped himself and just looked at her crumpled on the ground.
“You crazy bitch,” he muttered, and just turned and walked out the front door.
I had run upstairs; afraid he might come at me next. My mother came to my room, her face still red, piercing green eyes wet with tears.
“Choose who you want to live with. Your father or me. I can’t live like this anymore.”
I felt the heat rush through my body, and tears of frustration and anger started to stream down my face.
“Mom, don’t do this. How can you make me have to choose? I love you both. Please, we can work this out.”
She looked at me and shook her head, her curls brushing back and forth against her cheek. She started to cry.
“No, I can’t live here. I’ll pack my car and just leave in the middle of the night if I have to. Your father can keep everything. I don’t care anymore.”
I looked at this woman, trembling in front of me, knowing even then that she couldn’t do it. She wanted so bad to be free, without anyone hovering over her. She had never had that before. She’d never gone wild and lived without inhibitions or rules. She had never lived on her own, never tried drugs, never had sex outside of marriage. She was straightedge. She had gone from her father’s rule directly to my father’s rule. She was too afraid to go now and see what it meant to have no one to answer to. She was hurt, oppressed, bitter – and ultimately powerless. I could see these things in her face as I leaned over and held her.
She never left.
Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that until you can stand up and face the things that oppress you, they’ll never go away.
Things never changed. My mother started drowning her sorrows in alcohol, often drinking an entire bottle of wine in one sitting. She wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or join any organization without my father getting jealous, relentlessly insisting she was having an affair. He always had to know her whereabouts, and what exactly she was doing. He acted like an overprotective father to his beloved daughter, except that was his wife. She she escaped reality the only way she could.
She would become flirty and embarrassing when she drank. She wouldn’t even try to hide it when company came over. We had some friends of the family over on one occassion, and she just got out of control.
“You’re such a good friend, Joe. You’re so smart and nice,” she said as she draped her arms around his neck. His wife and the rest of our family just stared mutely. She looked over at my father, who was trying hard to prevent himself from ripping her arms off.
“Isn’t he a kind man, honey?”
“Yeah, he’s great.”
Joe shifted uneasily in his seat and said playfully “Oh, stop,” while casually prying himself loose from her grip. I stood up and went into the kitchen and started to wash some dishes while thinking of how I could help the situation. My brother walked into the kitchen and covered his face with his hand.
“I wish she wouldn’t do this when we have people over.”
“Well, tell her to go upstairs or something,” I suggested.
“No, you can’t tell her anything right now. She’ll get mad and then it’ll just be worse. She doesn’t even realize how she’s acting.” He peeked his head back into the other room and called out “Hey mom, can you come here and help me with something?”
She came noisily into the kitchen, her hip smacking into the edge of the table. She looked down at the table, then up at me, and just grinned stupidly. I grabbed her shoulders to straighten her.
“Mom, you are embarrassing me.”
The smile left her face. She didn’t like being told how it was. With an alcoholic sister and father, she had those same weak genes in her blood and didn’t know when to stop. No matter how drunk she got, she would deny it and then get pissed that anyone would even suggest such a thing.
“What the hell are you talking about. I was just having some fun,” she slurred.
My father came into the kitchen behind her and grabbed her arm and spun her around.
“I want you to go to bed right now. You’ve had enough. You’re making an ass out of yourself.”
My mother ripped her arm away and nearly lost her balance.
“I am fine. Why don’t you just leave me alone!”
“Go to bed now,” he ordered, as he roughly grabbed her arm again.
“I hate you,” she hissed, and then turned and sat down on the couch, crossing her arms against her chest.
My father looked at me and shook his head. I just shrugged. He went back to talk to the company, and I finished the dishes. When I turned toward my mom again, she was passed out on the couch, one leg hanging limply onto the floor.
I shook her awake and my brother and I took her up to bed.
Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that you can’t settle on escaping your reality, you have to change it.
I always wondered when my parents were happy together. I’ve seen pictures of them when they were still dating. They looked happy then, carefree. I guess life got to them and they grew apart. Children, bills, responsibilities. I think the only time they get along or have sex is when they’re drunk. Maybe life slips away for a while, and they can forget about how everything turned out.
I ask myself where I fit into all this, how everything has affected me. My life is dynamic, and I can feel myself growing and changing more and more every year. I’ve been influenced by the people around me; they challenge the way I think about things and the decisions I make. I don’t think my life has been very normal, not like other people. I’ve been given a lot in my life, had opportunities most will never dream about. But I can put all those things at an opposite pole with a dysfunctional family and a fear of love. It’s amazing how easily the good things fade, leaving you with the things that are fucked up about your life: a bitter, oppressed mother, an emotionless alcoholic workhorse of a father, and a complete lack of a support system or harmony among the family. I can’t remember a single day of my life that there wasn’t some argument in the house. It didn’t matter if it was someone’s birthday, Christmas, or a funeral. No event was sacred.
I’ve tried talking to my parents about helping the family. I recommended marriage counseling, a psychiatrist, and tips to improve the relationship between them and my brother and me. They don’t want to hear it. They keep denying there’s anything wrong. They tell me I’m spoiled and ungrateful for always bitching – as if I’ve had it so bad. But they don’t understand that I would give up all the things I’ve gotten in my life in an instant, if it meant I could come home to a place that was filled with warmth and love.
Maybe in a way I’m blessed. I’ve been able to analyze my life and family, step back and critique it as an outsider looking in. I see what’s wrong with it, and maybe that’s the first step to change. I know what kind of man I could never marry, and I won’t repeat the mistakes I’ve seen happen around me. I’ve seen the way men can control women, and ruin them as a result. I’ve seen my mother and my girlfriends cry out of frustration with their men, and the way they’re told what they can and cannot do. But I won’t let that happen to me. I’m stronger than that. I would rather be alone than to feel owned by anyone. So I must be blessed to have parents like I do. The things I’ve been surrounded by in my life have had a great impact on the way I think and the person I am. I can’t help but love my father, even though I don’t necessarily like him, or approve of the way he is. My mother succeeded with me, I think. She taught me to be strong, independent, and to believe in my talents and abilities. She’s made me believe I can do anything in this life, and I believe that. I only hope that one day she can take some of that strength she has given me and turn it around on herself. I hope she will have the courage to spread her wings, and see how sweet freedom can be.
The silver lining on this cloud is that I can see the problem, and perhaps the solution. The only thing I’ve lacked in my life, from my parents and relationships, is love. I mean, I know it has been there in some repressed form, but I see that love is the answer. Without it, there isn’t much else. I’ve made mistakes and bad decisions so far, but I believe they can be forgiven. I’ve been hurt many times by the people around me, but the wounds can heal. For the first time in my life, I can say I am in love. I found someone who always makes me proud to be who I am, who respects me and supports me. I finally learned how to love myself, and let someone into my life completely. When he tells me he loves me, I can see in his eyes that he’s genuine. And now when I look at all the things that have bothered me, the anger and frustration are gone. I only feel sadness for the pain it has caused, and hope that it will get better. I don’t blame my parents anymore for the way things are; I think they are as much products of their environments as I am. I believe they raised us the best they knew how, even if sometimes that wasn’t good enough. And ultimately, beneath the disguises and facades we all put up to protect ourselves, there is a tender and caring person, just wanting to give and receive a little love.
Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that despite all the people and events shaping your life, happiness can only start within yourself.