The Shaman

I recently came across an open letter to a man I once thought I knew. His name is Colin Garland, the owner of Raven Adventures/The Global Classroom.

The letter, written by a woman only two years my senior, details the multiple encounters she had with Colin, all of which were manipulative and abusive, and many of which involved rape.

It was a challenging read. However, the difficulty did not lay in struggling to believe the author’s account of her experience with Colin. Instead, I was forced to sit with the pain that came with remembering my time with this man and how all of his actions fit so neatly into the pattern of abuse described by the author. There was no relief in the realization that my gut instinct over our last few interactions had been correct.

I met Colin through my highschool ecology teacher Will Kiendzior. We dedicated a class to showcase the myriad adventures Colin had been on in Costa Rica and Mexico. We were invited to embark on his annual trip with students from my highschool to Central America to explore and learn about his conservation efforts.

Yesterday, before his website was taken down, I scrolled through all the pictures of former students, all about 16 years old. Some I knew personally. I wondered how many have had similarly alarming and abusive experiences with him. I felt sick to my stomach.

Admittedly, it was not my time spent with Colin in Mexico that makes me uneasy. Though tainted now, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Still, I have a distinct memory of affection and praise with which he showered my best friend. He marveled at the symbols she drew in the sand, saying they were rich with meaning and that she was clearly in tune to something greater. After we got home, she spent weeks corresponding with Colin through email. I was envious of the attention she received. I was frustrated that he didn’t see that I too felt I had something deep, primal, and attuned to something beyond myself.

Six years later I was in Israel when I received a message from Colin, telling me that I had been on his radar. He told me that he had been thinking of me for a long time but had hesitated to reach out. We made plans to see each other the next time he was back in Massachusetts.

In the time before he made his return I began to confide in him about my history of depression and the difficult childhood that had led me there. In fact, I later posted a short series on this blog entitled “Letters to Colin” that I copied from those letters that unreservedly and unapologetically detailed my disjointed upbringing and early introduction to mental illness. It was clear that I sought to heal in some way and Colin appointed himself the one who could do it.

It wasn’t long after that that he told me I was a woman coming into my power. He told me tales of my psychic ability. He urged me to travel with him, to allow him to teach me the ways of a healer. He spoke of Native American customs, of the medicine wheel, of shapeshifting. He told me that I simply hadn’t made love until both me and my partner had shifted into the form of a dolphin. He of course, was the one to teach me.

I remember that he was hesitant that I wanted to bring my boyfriend the night I agreed to come to his house for a healing session. I remember that up to that point, and for some time after our messages on Facebook somehow made me uncomfortable. In nearly every message he told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was. I pushed my misgivings aside. After all, Colin was a Healer and wanted to help me. I was certain that the issue lay within myself; I wasn’t used to being loved so purely. I wasn’t being open. I needed him to heal me. I thought of the time I had heard that Colin had slept with a former classmate of mine, nearly 30 years his junior. I pushed the thought out of my head, convincing myself I did not understand the experience or the depth of Colin’s love and shamanic powers.

Now, when I reread our messages and see how I exposed my vulnerability to him I am uneasy. I realize now that this was not a safe place; his intentions were more sinister than I initially knew. While I thought I was seeking solace in a wizened old friend, I was playing squarely into the grooming tactics of a well-rehearsed predator.

I believe that as humans, we all have a deep-seated desire to be seen. We feel that there is something more we can offer the world, if only we had the means to let that part of us out. And I imagine this is particularly true of women, as we frequently have to prove ourselves as worthy and capable in ways that men do not. Colin Garland, pseudo spiritual leader, has found the perfect way to prey on young women and girls via this innate human condition. He fancies himself a shaman and uses his influence to create a harem of women to exercise his manipulation, abuse, and assault.

There are countless women who have had similar experiences with this wannabe cult leader. I am fortunate that my own did not escalate past this degree. Please consider the ties you have to this man and others who exhibit this behavior within your community.

 

A page has been set up as a platform for other victims and their supporters. Please share widely.

UPDATE: Another woman has written of her abuse at the hands of Colin Garland. TW – sexual assault

 

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Note to self.

When he posts those kind of pictures –yes those ones— the kind you asked him not to, he is the person you were afraid he could be.

When he tells you to forget him and find someone new, only to punish you for weeks and weeks and months and months when you try to follow his advice, to relieve yourself of the heartache and ashes and rubble he has left behind, he is the person you hoped he was not.

When you are suffering and cannot leave your bed, researching lethal dosages of household medication, and he will not come — when you put down your best friend’s dog and are choking on your tears and you beg for him, but he refuses, he is not the person you loved.

When you plead for him to call you for some reason – any reason- except to feel your lips wrapped around his dick, and he resents you, gaslights you, he is poison.

He is not who you believe he might be.

He is not who you’re sure he could be.

There is nothing to read between the lines of,  “Are we ever going to get another guy?” and days of silence.

He is not your fantasy.

He is only what he does.

 

 

It Never Stops

Two things happened this month.

Two things happened  that reminded me that as much as I speak out, as much as I push back, as much as I try to stand my ground, my body does not belong to me. Indeed, my desires are often irrelevant and my pleasure decided for me. It seems I was created for consumption.

Unsurprisingly, one of these things happened at my job. The restaurant industry continues to be very successful in reminding women that we are mere objects to lust after and harass while breeding men to perpetuate this construct. The restaurant at which I work currently is one of the safest places I’ve been employed. Still, it has its flaws, and it is no exception to the standard Kitchen Culture, despite the owners’ best efforts.

I was confronted by one of the cooks in April. He glared at me out of the corner of his eye as he hunched his gaunt frame over itself to tie his shoe.

“So you’d really never go out with me?” he spat impatiently, as though this was a discussion we’d been having for hours.

What?” I asked, taken aback.

Chris continued his rant bitterly, explaining that he had asked around regarding the state of my romantic life and found displeasure in the results. I stood by and mumbled an apology to his rhetoric.

This interaction marred our relationship, which had previously been friendly, if a bit superficial. As his vitriol refused to wane, so did my discomfort. I was frustrated, not only by being the recipient of such unwarranted venom simply for having a life and relationships outside of my workplace, but by Chris’s manner of ascertaining the details of my life. Never did he speak to me about my feelings or ideas or aspirations or experiences. To him, I was not a sentient being, but a plaything that belonged to someone else.

Over the course of the next few weeks his anger did not subside; it reared its head when I checked my phone for texts or mentioned Matthew near him. But as Chris’s resentment refused to wane, so too did his unwelcome advances. For every scowl there was a plea: “I’ll be good to you. Come on. I’ll treat you right.” The irony was lost on him.

Soon his words and glances no longer satisfied him. One day he came up behind me and begged in earnest for me to allow him to grab my hips. His hands pinched the air as I quickly moved away and gave him a sharp, impatient, “No!” Not long after this incident I found myself trapped by the ice machine as he rubbed his ass on my waitressing apron to the beat of the song playing in the cafe. My threats were immediate and fierce. Still, as he ran to the other side of the kitchen, I was left alone by that ice machine, overtaken by my sense of powerlessness to these situations.

 

*

 

Last week I woke up next to my boyfriend. In the dim morning light our still-sleepy hands found each other’s bodies as we kissed the night from our lips. Slowly, but not without certainty, Matthew worked his way from my mouth, to my neck, to my breasts, and continued downward.

“No, babe. Not now,” I whispered.

“Why?”

Annoyed: “I don’t need to give you a reason.”

He looked hurt. Still, it was too early to have an in depth discussion about consent. I relented:

“Because I haven’t showered, I need to shave, and I don’t feel sexy right now.”

“That’s the reason?” He was skeptical. But after a pause, “I just wanted you to communicate with me, Marie.”

“I don’t need to communicate that to you! I don’t have to fucking explain why I’m saying no!”

Matthew rolled over, taken aback by my sudden fury. I sat for a moment, aware that his questioning stemmed from a place of naivete and not one of dominance or ill will.  I knew his eagerness and commitment to my pleasure and that this situation, poorly handled as it may have been, was a result of that. I sighed, softening a bit, as my hand traced the the curve of his back.

“Babe, listen. Here is my typical day:

I go to work, where I get harassed. I am leered at all day by my some of my coworkers. Then, I walk down the street and get catcalled and harassed in Central Square in Cambridge. Isn’t this supposed to be some sort of fucking liberal bastion?

Next, I go home, and my own boyfriend doesn’t want to take no for an answer. Tell me: when do I get to have autonomy over my own body? When?!

He turned to me, his brown eyes wide and intense, “You do!”

“Do I? Then why should your desires override my consent to my body?”

Pause.

Regret filled his eyes and his apologies were the heartfelt words of someone who has gained new understanding. He laced his fingers through mine as he voiced his last concern, “But babe, that stuff about work? I thought that had stopped.”

It wasn’t often that I spoke to him of the harassment I encountered at work and on the street. The days I came to him, sputtering stories of encounters I had, were the days that I had reached the end of my patience and could no longer ignore it.

“No, Matthew, it never stops.”

 

 

Apparently I’m writing a series on sexual harassment. Bummer.

Related:

Fea

Tales from the Diner

Kitchen Culture: Why I won’t Stop Talking about the Route 9 Diner

 

 

 

Letters to Colin (2)

There wasn’t really a lot else that happened during my middle childhood. My mom eventually got off the smack. I asked her about it once when I was older and she explained that my grandparents always assumed that once they took me away my mom would realize that she was destroying her life and get clean so she could have me back. Apparently it did the opposite; once she lost me she lost everything and there was no point to getting back on track. She told me that we used to high five or cross our little fingers together or something because we were a team. I don’t remember that, but I believe it and it makes me sad.

When I was in second grade I noticed that my family wasn’t normal. We were young and basically everyone had a standard nuclear family at that point. Plenty of divorces and hardships came later, but when we were only 8 I felt like I was the odd one out. Although I hadn’t seen my father in years, I was in touch with my grandparents on his side of the family and they gave me his number. I’m not sure what they expected to have happen…they were also only barely in touch with him. I called him up one night while I was still living at my grandmother’s house. He answered and as I didn’t recognize his voice, I asked for him by name. I told him who it was and he asked me, “Marie who?” “Your daughter,” I told him. He mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and hung up. Wailing, I tried to call him back. My grandmother stood nearby and furiously got on the phone. His roommate answered and told her that my father wasn’t there. She shouted at him and I don’t remember the rest. That was my first heartbreak, I think. And the first time I can distinctly remember feeling unwanted, although I don’t think I could have put words to it at the time. And that became a pretty rampant theme in my life.

I didn’t really know it until about a year ago, but I think I was a pretty unhappy child. I remember crying a lot. Too much, I think. I wrote a song in fifth grade about my fire burning out or something, which is sort of standard adolescent angst, but it got to me sort of young. I “ran away” when I was little too. Basically that meant that I would pack a bag of cookies and a box of bandaids and go sulk under the tree across the street. Otherwise, when I was feeling heavy, and I have felt that way ever since I was quite young, I would climb a tree or sit on a big rock and just feel the sun and the wind. I liked to imagine I was Pocahontas. One time I heard someone describe someone else as being a “free spirit” and I wanted so badly for someone to see that in me too.

My mother was around, eventually. She visited me and took me along on her trips to the methadone clinic. Sometimes she lived with my uncle in Colrain. Sometimes he lived with me and my grandparents and cleaned the house for money. She might have had friends. She worked a night job and eventually got her own place in Shelburne Center. I visited on weekends. I remember that I told her once I only wanted to visit every other week. I’m not sure why I decided that. It must have broken her heart.

She had a dumb boyfriend at the time. His name was Bill and he was a straight up cliche redneck. He was dumb as rocks and drank too much beer. He knocked my mom up too, which was a surprise to everyone because he had declared himself sterile. Turns out he just thought that because he wore really tight jeans. The two of them broke up before my little sister was born and I was sad to not be able to go to his brother’s farm anymore. After Michelle was born my grandparents relented and let my mother have me indefinitely. I don’t think the custody was officially changed for another year, so I still had to have my grandparents sign all my permission slips for school, and I think my mother is still bitter about that.

I think it was only about 5 months later that we moved into the house in Buckland. I remember that it was on one of the very first days I was in fourth grade that we moved and I couldn’t find the right bus and I cried. We moved into a ranch house off of Elm St. It was a tiny dead end street called Harmony Lane. It was like some kind of terribly ironic foreshadowing. You can’t make this shit up.

Letters to Colin

Have I ever really told you my story? Grab a coffee; it’s a long one.

My very oldest memory is from when I was two years old. I’ve since figured out that it was probably in December of 1991. My parents were getting divorced. We lived in a condo in Turners Falls and I still remember where we had the kitchen table, the bookshelf, the couch. The kitchen, the second bathroom. This night I was playing next to the bookshelf that stood against the wall between the dining room and the living room. My parents were at the kitchen table across from each other and the light was dim. My mother stood up, I think she was crying. My father stayed seated. She walked towards me and I remember that I must have been very small, because as she came to me I remember only seeing to her thigh. In my memories she was wearing shorts, which doesn’t make sense if this was happening in December. Maybe it was just an earlier fight. They are dysfunctional people. Likely, they were fighting all the time.

I don’t have really any memories of my dad after that. I’ve tried and tried for years to come up with something. Sometimes I think I remember playing with him in the big raked-up pile of leaves in the fall, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that that memory is fabricated from a certain set of photographs I’ve gotten my hands on. The pictures didn’t wake anything up; they just put an idea in my head. I can remember one other time I saw him as a small child and it was after he moved out. He came by to visit me and read me a bedtime story. I was being difficult, as kids always are at bedtime, and I remember him scolding me with my full name: “June Marie Billiel!” This has stuck with me all my life and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first time I understood that that was my full name, which is sort of strangely profound in itself, or if it is the first time the tone in which my name was being said was harsh enough to stick with me. Maybe both.

I’m pretty sure that my mom used to tell me that my dad never ever came to visit me after he moved out. She’s close to right, if my memory is to be trusted. But I remember this one time pretty clearly. But who knows, maybe he was just there to pick something up or to fight with my mom or to sign a divorce paper. I guess I always just assumed he was there to visit me, even though I don’t have any real reason for thinking that.

Next I remember going to the courthouse in Greenfield. I think that was the official end to the marriage.

Somewhere along the line my mom met this guy named Eric. My grandmother told me that I used to call him Dad. We drove down to Florida with him and a cooler full of sandwiches and lived there for almost a year, I think. I have no idea what he did for work or how my mother met him or anything like that. I remember very little about him, really. I vaguely remember his face and I remember that he used to take me fishing out in back of the condo we lived in. Sometimes we had to run back inside the house because there was an alligator that would come by and hang out on the beach from time to time. I’m pretty sure we never caught anything. One time I was holding a cracker in my hand and a duck came over and bit my finger. Another time we walked along the beach and I found a coconut and took it home and painted it. I kept that damn thing for years, even after we had moved back to Mass and even after I moved to my grandparent’s house. Now that I have to be careful about acquiring too many things it seems insane to me that my family let me keep packing it and bringing it everywhere.

We were in Florida for hurricane season too. Eric and my mom duct taped up the windows and the sliding glass door but somehow my mom still thought that she should bring me to preschool the next day. Of course my school was closed, and I still have the image of her running up to the building while I sat in the car so that she could read the sign on the door. Seems stupid to me now, and dangerous too. Who knows what she was thinking.

Anyway, things were fine with Eric as far as I knew as a four year old, which is admittedly not very far. One day he and my mom got in a fight. He threw her through the screen door and I was standing right in the room. She got back up and came inside and told me to call the police. As she got back up Eric shoved her into this little desk my grandfather had built for me. I asked my mom what the number to the police was because I didn’t know about 911 yet and Eric came over and ripped the phone straight out of the wall. Next I remember my mom checking out the huge gash she had up her legs from being thrown into my desk, but it was days later. Did the neighbors call the cops? Was Eric arrested? Why else would we have still been in that house? I don’t know. I don’t even remember sound from that time. I remember only that I was supposed to call the police and I imagine that my mom yelled it at me. But I’m sure there should have been screams and that Eric would have been shouting too but I can’t recall a damn thing. Was I afraid? I don’t even know what I felt, although I’m sure it’s in my head somewhere.

We left after that, although I don’t know how quickly it happened. When we got back it was winter. My grandparents owned the place we had lived in Turners and apparently it was just the same as we had left it. I don’t remember having to move any furniture back, although that could just be a flaw in my memory. I do remember that as soon as we got back we had to shovel all the snow off of the deck and I had this little red shovel that in retrospect was probably useless, but I helped my mom all the same.

Eric showed up again around my 4th birthday. I was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner or cake or something and my mom had gone upstairs when he peered through the window and waved at me. I ran over to let him in and then I have no idea what happened. I never saw him again though, as far as I can remember.

Next my mom became a junkie.

There was this guy named Russ. I don’t know where he came from, but my mom always pegged him as the one who introduced her to heroin. I’m not sure when or where or how it started, but I learned later that my mom has always had a thing for painkillers, although I don’t actually think she’s entirely aware that she abuses them. Anyway, she used to tell me that even the first time she shot up she had a high tolerance, and I suspect her previous opiate misuse was to blame.

Our lives quickly descended into madness. I can’t even really piece together everything that happened in a real timeline, but I know that for a couple of years our lives consisted of driving to Holyoke late at night and sometimes crashing on random people’s floors. We bought groceries with bad checks I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone anymore because there were always bill collectors and maybe even cops calling. I don’t know if the police part is true, but as a little girl that’s what I thought was happening.

There were always people in our house and sometimes I’d come downstairs in the morning and my mom and a bunch of people would just be passed out on the living room floor. One morning I came down and the news was playing while Russ and my mother dozed in front of the tv. I woke my mother up and asked her if I could change the channel. After she said yes I changed the channel to cartoons and Russ abruptly woke up. He snapped that he had been watching the tv and smacked me across the face. Hard. Truthfully, I don’t remember his hand connecting to my cheek, but I can say with complete certainty that that’s what happened. I have a memory that immediately proceeded this: my mother running with me up the stairs trying to get away from him. There was yelling and when we got to the top of the stairs and Russ was still behind us so my mom turned around and pushed him down the stairs. My mother is a small woman, especially on an opiate binge, and Russ was not a small guy. I think this was the kind of adrenaline-fueled Mama strength you hear about. Mom locked us in the bathroom and although I don’t know how we got out or we got Russ away, I can remember her sitting on the toilet, just peeing and crying.

The next time I saw Russ his arm was in a sling and he told me he was sorry for what happened. But just because Russ was gone doesn’t mean the smack was.

Everything else is a bit foggy. I have mostly glimpses: my mom shutting her bedroom door in my face with a syringe in her hand; driving hours and hours back and forth from New Hampshire to buy cartons of cigarettes and back down to Holyoke to sell them for enough profit to get a fix. We had something like 100 tag sales to help with this new found expense too. A few lovely pieces handmade by my grandfather were lost this way.

I had some shitty kids to play with nearby. There were two kids whose dad sometimes went to jail who lived next door to me. The girl was a little too old to really care about me, but the son, Matt would often play power rangers with me in the woods behind our houses. There was a little frog pond across the street too. There was this super old tiny graveyard and then down behind it was the pond. Sometimes I would catch frogs and then bring them home and put them in my kiddie pool. One time I came home and couldn’t find the frog that had been happily swimming around when I left. I asked Matt if he had seen my frog and he led me to two cinder blocks. He lifted the top one up and showed me the remains of my frog that he had crushed. To this day, this makes me feel sick to talk about. I’m still not sure if this was just classic destructive boy behavior or if this kid was a little sick, but if I listen to my gut I have to say it’s the latter. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded now, but when I look back i just think the whole cul de sac was poisoned.

I also made friends with an elderly lady at the end of the row named Margarite. After I lived with my grandparents sometimes we would go to the condo and do work on the house. I went to visit her each time and then one day someone told me she didn’t live there anymore. I don’t think anybody explained to me that she, or really that anyone, died. But somehow I am sure I knew. Maybe I could smell it. Maybe it was just the air. Too still.

There was also a lady right next door who I befriended. Her name was Gina and my mother hated her. I learned later that she was a social worker. Go figure. She was a good one though.

One weekend I went to my grandparents’ house while my mom went off to party. I’m told that she asked when she should come pick me up and they told her that I was going to be living with them from then on. I don’t know how I felt about this. I have a vague idea that I asked my grandmother a few times when mom was coming back and she kept telling me I would be with them, “a few more days.” Then I was meeting the principal at BSE and he gave me a stuffed panda bear to hold overnight before my first day in kindergarten at my new school.

I don’t believe the whole transition could have been as painless as I remember it, but who knows. During dinner one of the first nights there I confessed to my grandparents about some of the goings-on with my mother in the previous week. I guess they must have been quizzing me, but I only really remember talking to my mom on the corded kitchen phone after dinner and telling her, “I told Gram and Gramp about Wednesday,” and apologizing. She told me it was okay. I guess she must have known it was a lost cause at that point.

That’s enough for tonight.

Forgiveness (1)

I’ve said it before: my life has often felt like nothing but a series of people leaving me. I’ve sought counsel in a number of places, all with limited success. Somehow I always find that my connections with these people are temporary and I am often left sitting with a good deal of disappointment. In my adult life I have learned to be self-reliant and to lean on these relationships less than I felt I needed to in my adolescence. I am aware, however, that this is not entirely a result of my own growth, so much as it is the result of many difficult lessons that have trained me well. I have become very accustomed to the people I relied on slipping away and leaving me to fend for myself. To be clear, this has never been a demonstration of tough love. Over and over I was left simply because it was easier for these people to do so. One of the most devastating losses I experienced was that of my uncle.

Although he had been a somewhat regular part of my life as a child, he did not become so critically important to me until the few months following my fourteenth birthday. I truly don’t think there was any specific reason for my sudden connection to him. I imagine he enjoyed–or was at least amused by–my love of combat boots and band t-shirts, and for some reason that struck a chord that resonated deeply: Uncle Adam gets me. Uncle Adam is not my mother. Uncle Adam will save me.

For a while this was true. I tried hard to use him as my friend and mentor. I called him when my mother was pushing my limits–which was often. From time to time he would even drive to our house and take me to his for the weekend where I would relax with him and his girlfriend, Emily. These escapes were monumental to me. I found that we liked similar music. He let me have a beer. He showed me the marijuana plant in his closet. One night he cooked the most amazing steak I had ever tasted–still rare and bloody–and he and his girlfriend shared it with me while we stayed up late and laughed. I sipped his scotch and was blissfully certain that they understood me. We retired to the deck to smoke a joint. I was in heaven. I was sure Uncle Adam would save me.

Months passed and his girlfriend introduced me to her close friend Alena. I began regularly babysitting her children and we quickly bonded. She thought I was bright and I felt that I had made a new connection, guiding me safely through the instability that was living with my mother. I had no idea how correct I would be.

Away from the knowledge of my family and even of me, Alena and Emily discussed my living situation at length. They lamented my having to endure my borderline, unfit mother, calling my life a “Cinderella story.” Quietly, they planned to take me under their wing and fix what seemed to be an inevitably disastrous adolescence. Both were aware that I desperately needed a way out of my mother’s unfathomably unhealthy home, and they were also wise to the intense rift this would cause in my close-knit, skeleton-hoarding family. Alena, recently divorced and with new-found space in her house, offered to temporarily take in the girl of whom she had become so fond, and thereby absorb the blows of a family who detested anyone who rocked the boat. Ultimately, I was to live with my uncle, his girlfriend, and their respective children. This, of course, never came to be.

The July of my fifteenth birthday, I could no longer bear living with and being subjected to the volatile and mentally unstable whims of my mother. After having considered her offer for a solid eight months, I asked Alena if it was still on the table. After getting her confirmation, I wrote my mother a letter and found myself in my new home a mere ten days later.

As it happened, the day I moved was my beloved Uncle Adam’s birthday. After an extensive process involving my mother and our therapists, Alena and I made a late-afternoon trip up to his house to update Emily on our circumstances. My uncle was at work, but I made sure to leave him the gift I had bought with the money I had managed to save from babysitting. He had once told me of a certain CD he had always loved but was disappointed to have lost years before. I had been ecstatic when I found it at our local record shop, and I waited anxiously for the enthusiastic thank you that never came.

Nothing came, actually. I had no idea at the time, but my move had begun to pull apart the threads of my family’s years-long tradition to endure and suffer its discordance silently, always letting the blind eye rule. In doing so, I had set myself on a fast-paced course to what became my own shunning. In hindsight, the immediate distance my uncle took from me should have been a clear sign. But I was a child, and witlessly I continued to call, despite my messages never being returned. Soon after, Emily withdrew from Alena, citing a sudden previously-nonexistent empathy for my mother.

This is not to say that I never saw them again. For the first year after my move there were still a number of family dinners to attend, each more uncomfortable than the last. In my hurt, I tried hard to ignore my uncle’s presence. Truthfully, I have never been one who is able to maintain a steely gaze and pursed lips in an awkward situation, and this was no different. As my uncle knelt by my grandfather’s blue recliner, where I had attempted to take refuge, I was horrified to find myself smirk. His words, feigning victimization, were biting. The jeer in his tone was not lost on me. I shrank into the chair as he needled me, wishing he would leave.

Over dinner, I made sure to find seats away from my mother and uncle. Emily’s voice, high-pitched in its phoniness, dominated the conversation. Her eyebrows arched high above her wide eyes as she announced, “Adam likes a lot of things!” My family murmured in superficial interest. I stayed silent.

It was only a few months after this dinner that my family stopped speaking to me altogether. I was heartbroken to lose contact with my grandparents, but the worth of my relationship with Adam and Emily had withered months before. The loss still pained me, but I had long grown accustomed to their absence.

One bright summer day I found myself walking a few blocks from my home when I heard a familiar voice calling my name. The voice was singsong; mocking. I looked up to see my uncle and his girlfriend sitting on a nearby roof. He had recently begun a slate roofing company and it shouldn’t have caught me by surprise that he was in my neighborhood.

“Marieeeeee!” he sang again, waiting for my response.

I felt goosebumps cover my limbs, and without considering the possibility of passerby I inhaled sharply and shouted: “Fuck off!” I waited for no reaction and continued home, where I collapsed on the couch and sobbed, devastated.

Years went by and our relationship was never repaired. I tolerated him and Emily, but even after things began to heal with my mother, my warmth for my uncle remained missing. We did not reach out to each other and they refused to let me partake in any of the preparation for holiday meals, despite my enthusiasm to do so. Whether or not they were oblivious, the strain between us never lifted.

Three years ago my grandmother died, and with her so did the reign of her generation in my family. My mother, now bereft of both her parents, quickly began to spiral downward, her grief flecked with symptoms of her mental illness. My great uncle died soon after, and in an unfortunate course of events, his funeral was held on what would have been my grandmother’s 76th birthday.

My mother stood in the basement of the church weeping silently. She moved slowly, as though her body was that of an elderly woman: twisted and painful. Her eyes glazed over as she whimpered and stared unseeingly at everyone in the room. Furious, I watched as my aunt, now grieving the deaths of both her husband and sister, went to my mother’s side, comforting with her strong arms and voice.

My uncle caught my eye and looked at me knowingly, Emily smiled gently and suggested that the three of us have a movie night sometime. I smiled as minimally as was acceptable and gave a noncommittal, “sure.” I scowled as I walked away, angry at their sudden interest in helping to buffer the difficulties that my mother’s illness presented. There had been a time that I, as a child, had desperately needed them to fill this role. As a young adult, I felt that what they were offering me was both too little and too late. This deflection of their negligible efforts was the first step in severing contact with them altogether.

So, your ex boyfriend’s a stripper.

“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

The question was strange to me. Was I going to tell anyone? Of course I was. This was rich. Juicy. How could I commit to keeping information this amazing to myself? I couldn’t. And I don’t believe I should have to do so.

My relationship with this boy was rocky at best. I spent five years chasing after him, despite his boredom after two. The second half of our relationship was violent: dotted with hateful messages, disgusted words of rage shouted in tearful faces, negligence, suspicion, and bruised egos. We slammed doors and always went for the jugular. I feel as though I spent months crumpled on the floor, nursing a broken heart. I was no saint. But I was naive and hopeful; I made myself solely available to him and I was unrelentingly patient. He did not hesitate to exploit that. Again and again I forgave and attempted to fix our damaged dynamic. Again and again my efforts were punished.

And now I have learned that he’s a stripper at a nearby gay club that encourages full-frontal nudity. I still can’t fully wrap my head around it. My ex boyfriend, the one with the permanent scowl is a stripper? He refused to so much as say hello to my friends, but he gives men he just met private attention in a back room? For years he criticized people who made money off of their bodies: strippers, prostitutes, those in the pornography industry, and even models, all received the same response.  This is some kind of spectacular about face. I am bewildered. I am delighted. I have not laughed so hard in weeks.

Naturally, I did what any better-off ex-girlfriend would do: I took a few of my friends to his club for drinks. Contrary to the list of performers for the night, he was not there. In hindsight, I am glad. Not only am I entirely disinterested in seeing my ex nude, which is something I had previously neglected to consider, but my streak of vindictiveness was fleeting.  At the time, I was intoxicated by the idea of handing him a dollar bill, my smirk saying everything my words could not. The next morning, however, I was embarrassed by my attempt to make him uncomfortable. I have made it abundantly clear that I do not want him to come to my job, whether or not I am working. I have apologized for my hypocrisy. But to keep his secret? That’s another beast altogether.

“Marie, don’t go spreading this around.”

Our mutual friend has been pleading with me. But the facts are these: I have already told a good many people within my circle, and what they do with the information is beyond me.  Additionally, I simply don’t feel as though I owe my ex anything at all. He was tirelessly awful to me for years, and it would be shockingly presumptuous for him to expect me to hold my tongue solely to benefit him. I cannot tolerate someone demanding my respect after deliberately showing me none. Having to lie in the bed you made is never an easy lesson, but in this case I have no sympathy. If I refrain from telling more people about my ex’s secret identity, it will not be out of respect for him. I recognize that I hold a lot of power in this situation, and I hope my ex is nothing short of grateful that I am not abusing it. Truly, though, I am disinterested in the power I have.  My choices in this matter are only a reflection of who I am as a person, and nothing else. I have no desire to spitefully tell his father or anyone else that he is keeping this from. But it is not related to him; it’s because I have never been intent on making things more difficult for people.  I can think of thousands of things I would rather be doing than trying to ruin someone’s life. Especially someone of whom I am so happy to be rid.

On another note, I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with being a stripper. I know that my ex isn’t doing it for any financial reasons; he is well-educated and well-paid. I am uncertain why it is then, that he is ashamed of this weekend job. I tend to be pretty sex-positive and more than anything, I’m confused by his out-of-character, seemingly-shameful double life.

The lesson here, I think, is that you shouldn’t do things that you feel worried about and ashamed of doing. If this weren’t the case, then my actions would weigh absolutely nothing.  The other lesson, of course, is that you should maybe not be horrible to your girlfriend. Luckily for this one, I’m pretty put-together and I don’t act maliciously. But really, don’t ever try to demand my respect.