In high school, I wore my father’s old suits. I tied the waists with rope or tights, and wore a tube top underneath jackets that fell to my knees. I wore hats decorated with feathers and antique brooches. Around my neck I looped several massive metal crosses from the thrift store that felt heavy at the end of the day; it was a relief to take them off. In this outfit, my skinny body and my wooden leg were entirely cocooned; I was a hanger for cheap fabric in shades of gray and blue and black. I perfected my walk, my gait, and the only time you could really see the difference was when I was sitting down, the knee like a doorknob that I turned only when necessary—when the leg was strapped on, and when it was strapped off—as if it were a door to some room I refused to enter out of fear and disgust. I couldn’t tell. You’d never know. Oh, I loved these comments because I heard: You’re just like us. There is space in the world for you.
I was in my late twenties, living with my mom in her apartment on the beach. She was the person I loved most and she had been diagnosed with a breast cancer that would eventually kill her. I was, after a couple years of graduate school and being alone, ravenous; I wanted a body to touch my body. A few times a week, I’d leave my mom’s apartment and sit on a bar stool at the Reno Room with my saddest friend. We’d drink too much, beer after beer, vodka and more vodka, splash after splash of cranberry juice. The squeezed lime wedges piled up and were swept away by a pretty bartender who’d confided that she used to drink like we did, but not anymore. Sometimes I’d black out. I had mastered being blackout drunk and was strangely careful. It was reported by sober friends that I didn’t stumble or slur in such a state—that I seemed, to them, more sober than I was. The inebriation, the obliteration of self and memory was deliberate, as was the anonymity of the sex itself. And in the dark with a stranger, I maneuvered my body in bed so that my leg was unseen. Around his back, good leg first, then bad leg over good leg, so that my plastic brace didn’t touch his flesh. The next morning, I had no memory of our conversation, if there was any, no memory of his gestures or face. But throughout the day, tiny clips of one stubborn image would appear: me with my legs wrapped around his back. I stir-fried chicken and vegetables for my mom and the image appeared. We watched the news together and the image appeared. We played Scrabble and there it was, too: my legs wrapped, careful pretzel-girl, sneaky woman, how I’d spared him my most secret damage and full name.
Listen to me, Emily, the youth pastor said. We were alone in his hotel room, and he had just given our group of teenagers a lecture about sex. Essentially: Don’t have it until you’re married, and then be sure to leave a chair for Jesus. To illustrate his point, he took the chair from the desk and put it in the center of the room. I sat in it now, in the space for Jesus, nervous and embarrassed for being held back while the rest of the kids on our ski trip tumbled into someone’s hotel room and sang along to bad Christian rock music, full of lust and unrequited longings. You’re a pretty girl, he said—I waited for the but, but first there was an and—and you are smart. I said nothing; his sermons were the stupidest things I’d ever heard in my life, and I’d been going to church every Sunday for all of my fourteen years. It’s very unlikely, he said, that intimacy will be an issue for you. People are afraid of difference. I immediately thought of the “special kids” who were marched to a small room at the end of the hallway in my elementary school. The retard room, people called it, and once I punched someone in the face for saying it, and had to visit the principal and then write an apology letter to the boy that my father made me hand-deliver to his house. My whole body began to boil. I knew he was telling me that nobody would desire me or have sex with me (with Jesus as a witness to my deflowering or otherwise), but I knew he was wrong. I nodded, indicating that I understood, looked at his puffy face and thought, I’ll show you. And I did. So many men, known and unknown; sometimes, when I was sneaking out of an apartment or a tent or a duplex in the predawn chill, my underwear balled up in one hand, I’d think about the line of the special kids walking down that dimly lit hallway, preparing to be shut away. I would never be cloistered, never like that.
There wasn’t a room for me in that little house on Rose Street, so my mom turned the dining area into my bedroom. I was a girl—ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen—in that tiny space without a closet. It was a room off the living room, not a proper bedroom at all and I still couldn’t walk on my own—was in a cast again or a brace again or swinging my body from a pair of crutches again. My best friend’s mom was an interior designer, or so she claimed, and my mom listened to her questionable judgment. I remember a houndstooth corner sofa in the living room that doubled as a bed and, in my room that wasn’t quite a room, bright orange and yellow plaid wallpaper on my walls.
My stepfather was my favorite man before he became my least favorite man. Early on, he taught me what it was to be assertive and a feminist—things I’d need later to protect myself from him. My mom married him just after my accident, just after the car hit me. I had mostly recovered except for my leg, which would continue to puzzle the doctors for nearly a decade. My stepdad was compassionate before he was terrible. He was a college student at the time, studying psychology at the university where I’m now a professor. I was seven when he invited me to his speech class and interviewed me about the accident, asked me to describe my feelings. What was it like to be different now, he wanted to know.
I understood, even then, that the beating was about having rejected him. I’d come to their bedroom just days earlier and asked him for a ride to school. I was starting ninth grade. My mom was already at work, teaching kids in Compton about the three branches of government. I knocked and he told me to come in. I stood in the door with just my face in view. “I need a ride,” I said. “What I want to do is make love to you,” he said. I swung away from him on my crutches, moving down the hall and out the front door and struggling to school. I remember the long streets and the heavy high school books strategically placed between the crook of my arm and the crutch itself.
I told my mom, but he denied it. “I told Lisa that what I wanted to do was make love to you,” he insisted. She tried to believe him.
One evening, just days later, they returned from a basketball game that was televised. I was sitting on that houndstooth sofa, watching my favorite show, a drama called James at Fifteen, and it was a particularly dramatic moment. My stepdad rushed in and changed the channel, wanting to see if he’d made it on TV when the camera scanned the crowd. I protested but he ignored me, so I grabbed my crutches and stormed away. I believe it was the slamming of my bedroom door that brought him to me—an angry man flying down the hall.
I was on my bed when he slapped me first, and then again, and again. I hate you, I said calmly, holding my face high in defiance. When my mom rushed in to protect me, he turned and pushed her away. She fell to her knees. I remember her small body huddled against the wall, in the exact spot where a closet might have been.
When I left my first husband in Texas, still in my twenties, I used to turn on my phone after poetry workshop and listen to his messages, which were variations on a similar theme, with the words life and fuck and kill rearranged like furniture in a smelly apartment, which is what I was now living in. I gave up my whole life for you, and I’m going to fucking kill you. I had escaped him, was sleeping on a mattress on the floor that belonged to a guy called Bill, who had a subscription to The New Yorker and one lonely suit hanging in an otherwise empty closet. My mom sent candles in the mail and said, Light these, it’s going to be fine! My dog, an eight-year-old Saint Bernard/Lab mix, slept against the inside of the front door and growled at the kids who ran past. Their mothers shouted behind them as they lugged huge baskets to the always crowded communal laundry room where telenovelas played on constant repeat from a small television. A man leaves a woman, a woman leaves a man, they fight, they make up, someone dies. The plots were not encouraging.
What my young husband had given up, I didn’t know: he wanted to be a minister, had trained to be one, but smoked weed before youth group and drank six-packs of Shiner Bock in the back room of our rental house along the river. I was terribly lonely. A friend asked if I would watch a stray dog, Bandit, who had been found at a house in Houston, shivering in the rain against a fence. He’s an older dog, she warned, and I thought good because youth had done me few favors. When Bandit arrived, a black and white smelly beast of a boy, he had a blind and leaking eye, worms, an infection in his mouth, incontinence that meant he needed to wear a diaper. Later, an x-ray revealed a gunshot wound to his chest, a tiny anomaly—a dark spot—on the screen. I thought of my surgeon slapping a sheet on the bright board, year after year, revealing the asymmetry of my bones, the strange curvatures of my spine, the missing parts that registered as blackness in the body lit from within. I’ve got you, old guy, I said, and I called my friend and said I would keep him, and he didn’t leave my side for the last five years of his life.
The day I told my husband to move out, he lifted a stuffed dresser on his back and, straining under the weight, barreled out the back door and through the garage. He drove away in his truck, weeping loudly, but when I returned to the room he had just cleaned out, I stretched out on the floor and fell immediately to sleep. No more waking up with him on top of me, yelling at me, inside of me; he would never again rage at me, or slap me, or demean me in front of other people. Despite the threats, I felt strong on the floor, alone, listening to bugs pulse in the live oaks outside the window. Years later, after the end of another wrong turn down the aisle, I would be the one to lift an empty dresser on my back, move it three flights down, and out the door. But when I drove away, I didn’t cry.
During the last year of Bandit’s life, I lived on Cape Cod, in the winter, when the waves were frozen into solid sculptures like a freeze-time photo of the apocalypse. The writer’s colony where I stayed was shrouded in white, and we moved between the computer lab and our small cabins through tunnels of snow. When the weather cleared and it was spring, I took Bandit for a walk on Herring Cove beach, a wide swoop of sandy white, seaweed-covered glory with sunsets of blue and yellow and green and gold, melting into the rim of the world. Next stop, Ireland, we used to say.
I knew it would be a struggle for Bandit to make it back up the ladder that led us down to the prettiest part of the beach, but we were on a doggie date with a friend, and I didn’t want him to be left out. On the way back, I followed my friend and his young, spry dog, then stood at the top of the ladder to see my dog, bereft, below. He barked. I said, You can do it! He whined and looked around with his one good eye, as if for another passage, but there was only this one single way. Bandit began his slow, arthritic, terrified ascent. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for him to get to me, and when he stopped halfway up the ladder, I started to cry. He weighed 80 pounds, and I wasn’t sure I could lift him from this vantage point. The ladder was rickety and his paws trembled. I could see his heart lifting and lowering his chest. He whined, barked, and then he bounded up the ladder into my lap, heaving with the effort of return. With the help of my friend, I picked him up and carried him on my back all the way to the car, It was not a long distance, but long enough, and his breath never slowed but stayed quick and labored in my ear, part panic, part relief.