Tuesday, May 08, 2007

De-Icing the Cryonic Woman:
The Journey from Abuse to Love

cryonics \kri- ä- nīks\ n. plural but usually singular in construction - the practice of freezing a dead diseased human in hopes of bringing her back to life at some future time when a cure for her disease has been developed.

I took a much needed break from composing my wedding vows to write this article.

How does a woman who hasn’t been on a date in two years leap from abstinence to the altar? I’m still working on that transition, hence the vows but no groom in sight. There is nothing wrong with being single, but the desire to be in a relationship, to be in love, has been strong as of late, as persistent as the sun piercing the smoggy Los Angeles skyline.

Why aren’t you dating?

I’ve been fielding that question for years, and lately, have been asking it of myself. Why aren’t I dating? I’m not a lipstick lesbian, and I’m not that picky, in spite of what some friends insist. I don’t buy into the “good man shortage,” and believe that yes, black women can find love in the City of Angels, despite statistics to the contrary. I don’t think I’m unattractive or undateable. The deli technician at Whole Foods calls me gorgeous each morning as he prepares my quarter pound of sesame kale. Every other day, unsolicited e-mails arrive in my inbox from strangers (complete with resumés, head shots and six-packs on display) wanting to do coffee or dinner. Random Negroes and non-Negroes alike stop me in parking lots, at supermarket checkout lines, in the stairwells of office buildings, at traffic lights, on studio lots and in department stores to get my number. There is no scarcity of potential suitors.

So why aren’t I dating?

I don’t believe all men are dogs, deadbeats, thugs, or abusive on some level. And yet, when it comes to intimacy with the opposite sex, I struggle to contain my inner ice queen. She emerges to sabotage relationships, deliberately pushing folks away and testing the limits of their loyalty, or more insidiously through cynical comments and aloof gestures. Although I can be loving and I want to be in love, my reality belies that desire. When I look around, I notice that I don’t have close relationships with my father, brother, uncle or male cousins, and my guy friends are few and far between. It’s as if the queen of ice has frozen me into indifference, and my heart has yet to thaw.

I don’t hate men, but I have been conditioned not to trust them. At 17, I lost my virginity to a man I both detested and feared. Jeff was one of the neighborhood drug dealers, an underling to his cousin, the kingpin. He used to cruise the streets of our small town in his mud-colored Pontiac, a giant beetle in search of other invertebrates. I knew he was trouble the minute he lowered his tinted window, and in another world, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance. Instead, I gave him my phone number.

My descent into apathy didn’t begin at 17 between the fists of a minor hustler. Years before, I had learned to be uncomfortable around men, so I made myself invisible in their presence. At 10, someone I loved, revered and was related to told me I had “a nice ass,” and fondled me between my legs. Fast forward four years, and I’m sitting on the staircase of my rowhouse wearing a Hershey Park tee shirt and jeans. Alone. An older male friend of the family drops by to chat about homework and grades, while glibly extolling the wonders of prostitution, or being a “skeezer” as it was called back then. I had recently developed breasts, and was conscious of how tightly the tee hugged my bosom during his “recruitment” speech. Those experiences, among others, taught me that men were both nice and nefarious, and I had to insulate myself against any emotional intrusion. I learned that I wasn’t worthy of love or respect, so at 17, by the time Jeff spun into my life in a brown haze, I was waiting for him.

I “dated” Jeff for one year, and God only knows what would have happened had I not escaped to college. Only a few friends were aware that I was being abused because I was too ashamed to ask for help. I was too frightened to dump a guy who slapped me publicly, attempted to smother me, yanked my hair, tried to break my arm, and who tortured me in his bedroom for three hours one winter night until I fled down three flights of stairs, out the front door, and down the street with no coat or shoes on.

Jeff never left black-and-blue marks on my skin, but not all scars are on the surface. Many women walk around wounded, like cosmopolitan Hester Prynnes, scarlet letters of Abuse embroidered into their Coach bags, Prada blouses and Victoria’s Secret bras. The summer of my junior year at Hampton, I hung out with three such sisters from my hometown, girls I had not associated with in high school. Our coming together seemed strange since we didn’t have the same interests or friends. I later learned the one thing we all had in common was abuse. We shared tales of mistreatment over dinner at Dennys, or while giggling nervously into drinks at the club. Stephanie’s* man beat her while she was pregnant, and she later lost the baby. China’s boyfriend used to perch on the roof of the building across the street from her rowhouse, like some thugged out, Kangol-wearing Spiderman, and watch her every move. Natalia, as short and cute as she was, used to get slammed against the wall by her lover at house parties. In some warped way, we were relishing our pain. For us, abuse was so normalized that we traded dating horror stories with all the gusto of old vets crowing over their Purple Hearts.

My first boyfriend was the only man who physically abused me, but after I left him, I kept attracting others who were violent on some level – emotionally, verbally, and psychically. I’m not a victim. I’m just trying to deconstruct the attitudes that enslaved me to dysfunctional relationships, and prevented me from believing I was worthy to give or receive love. Despite my past, abuse is not my identity. I have forgiven Jeff. I am told the man who choked me until I nearly passed out is now a police officer in a suburb of our small town. I have forgiven him, which is an ongoing process, and I have extended that same pardon to all the men whose names are tattooed on my inner thighs.

After years of hating men, fearing men, not trusting men, blaming men, it’s as if my heart is slowly defrosting, an ice floe sliced from a larger berg by a shaft of sunlight. I want to be in love! I want to do all the clichéd couple things: taking romantic walks on Venice Beach; chatting on the phone for hours; visiting museums; pretending to be all absorbed as I listen to jazz in Leimert Park and going restaurant hopping, Zagat guide tucked firmly into my purse. I contributed my share of toxins to relationships -- the oppressed rising up to become the oppressor – but I’m working hard not to contaminate future friendships. Despite my wounds (and those I have caused), there is no lack of love in my life, no lack of intimacy. Armed with this knowledge, I have begun reaching out to the men in my circle in an attempt at recovery. Real healing takes place in knowing that I may have nicks and bruises, but I’m not damaged goods, not damaged for good.

So pardon me as I resume my wedding vows. I hope to recite them one day soon … and not just to my own face in the mirror. I can’t divulge all the silliness I’ve penned so far, but this quote from Mari Evans’ poem “Celebration” sums up my covenant: “I will bring you a whole person/and you will bring me a whole person/and we will have us twice as much/of love and everything …”

* names changed to protect privacy


jnetsworld said...

Very moving and honest, Princess. I am moved and so is my inner ice queen. I felt a part of me melt. You write powerfully to love yourself and heal others in their path. Let the melting continue.

4coloredgyrl said...

Well, you know I can relate. I live everyday trying to figure out what came first -- the defenses or the hurt.

I too yearn for love and I too love dysfunctionaly. I am working to make receptive to love and all that comes with it.

It's spring and love blooms soon for both of us.