I was running an errand in Saxonville when my phone rang. It was J. “You just drove by me!” he said, excitedly. Annoyed, I answered, “Yes, I’m in your neighborhood.” Ever since J told me he was seeing someone, I had distanced myself to give him space to explore his new relationship. I wanted to move on, but it was hard to do when people from the group sent me updates or when errands took me back to Framingham. My friends offered to help.
“I can help you with your car if it means you don’t have to go to him for help with it”, said my friend. “I’ll take you up on that favor! I answered, thinking, “I want my freedom.”
When J told me he was seeing someone, it coincided with the closing of my dance studio, the end of my car lease, and a big move from both my studio and my apartment. These were things he had been a major part of, for better or worse, over the course of four years. He’d offered to help, and I told him how much I appreciated that.
“If you can just help me with the move and the car lease, I’d appreciate it, after that, you’ll be free to….” I trailed, shrugging it off.
“That’s not necessary, we can still be friends.” He replied.
But could we? There was no doubt that J made a much better friend than a boyfriend. You get the best of him if you deal with him on a superficial level – when things got real, when things got intimate, another side of J emerged. The time soon came when I needed his help.
“Thank you for coming, J. Your friend will be here picking up some mirrors for his home, he might be able to help you take the bars down.”
And I let him work with his friend to take down the mirrors that he and I had put up together during a snowstorm when I was much stronger and we were in love. I watched them as I talked with a girlfriend who had come to pick up some mirrors herself.
“So are you and J. back together?”
“No. He’s got a new girlfriend.”
As I watched them struggle with the mirror I got nervous and ran over to help, situating myself between J and his friend. Standing next to him I could smell that part of him that was left behind on the sheets on those rare occasions when we actually shared a bed. And he had finally made progress on his workouts, so his biceps flexed massive under his shirt as he lifted the heavy mirror. I had to remove myself and go back to sit with my girlfriend. Friends? I certainly don’t have that reaction with any of my other friends.
From the safety of the group, and the distance of space, I could talk to them about the move, my plans, the good work the contractor had done installing the equipment that was so hard to remove.
“I’m going to have to do something nice for him. He’s done so much for me.” I saw an opportunity, “Y’know, J. He really loves that picture of me in the back bend.” Now that J had a girlfriend, maybe he would be willing to let go of it.
“Well, I’m sure he’s happy just doing you the favor, Paulina.”
“That’s odd,” I thought, “why wouldn’t he want to let that print go.”
Our first Valentine’s day together was fast approaching and I was madly in love with J. After work I would meet him at the house he shared and we would spend hours in his bed fantasizing about the house we would build together.
“A big California King bed with a dumbwaiter so we wouldn’t have to get out of bed unless we wanted to. We could be like John and Yoko”
He laughed, “Yeah. And a pole!”
“Yeah!”, I said, “We could make it so there were no stairs, we’d have to climb the pole to get to bed and slide down to leave.” The Parkour fanatic in him loved that idea. “And nobody would be able to come up to our bedroom to bother us – total privacy! And we could put your picture right over the bed.”
Our house would be decorated in black and white. It would be modern and jacked. The print J loved would go perfectly in it.
It was a photo from a professional shoot I had modeled for to promote a Boston studio. The photographer had a keen eye for me, and high-quality equipment. He’d taken some spectacular candid shots during a trip to Miami. Of course, I was always aware of his camera and made it a point to give him a pose, so, Moses and I had a good photographer/subject relationship.
The shot was taken in my early days as a pole dance instructor and it captures a time in my life that has come to define me so well. Like the sport itself, the pose requires strength, flexibility, and persistence under pressure. I was sore for days after taking that shot. I had to hold the backbend for some time as Moses got the lighting and exposure just right. If you look closely at my face, partially hidden behind an arm, you can see the tension in my eyes. I worried I wouldn’t be able to hold the pose long enough. But hardly anyone notices the expression in my eyes beyond the fact that I am looking directly at you – confronting my audience from a contorted position. The effect, in its entirety, is too distracting. My hips are high and the detail of my pubic bone pushing towards the light is clear, as are the pores on my skin and the tiny blonde hairs on my stomach. To get the pose right, my legs needed to push my heart center as open as possible. I am exposed, yet in control, I am subjugating myself - waiting to see what the sadist will do. I was wearing sharp, black stilettos against a warm, white light. There was enough silhouette to keep the mystery and plenty of light to draw you in. The pose is one of direct surrender and openness – an unapologetic suggestion of unbridled desire.
J loved that shot. He downloaded it from my social media page and made it the screen saver on his tablet. “I want a life-sized one to put right there!”, he said pointing to the wall next to his bed. “That way I can always have you near me.”
And, so, for Valentine’s Day, I resolved to give myself to him. I contacted Moses who, after a series of exchanges, finally sent me a 4’ tube with a life-sized print of me and instructions for where and how to have it mounted. Inside was a smaller print of the same shot. It arrived just in time for Valentine’s Day. J looked like a kid at Christmas when I showed up with the big, fat tube. “Is this it?”, he asked excitedly. I smiled back at him. We opened it together and he took out the smaller print. “I love it!”, he exclaimed. “Don’t you want to see the life-sized one? “ I asked. “No, I don’t want to take it out until it’s time to have it mounted. I don’t want anything to happen to it. I’m glad he included this smaller one.”
And there it remained, the life-sized portrait of the woman who gave herself to him, rolled up and stuffed in a tube. When we moved into an apartment together, he put me up in the attic. Just like Bertha Mason, he kept me bound and hidden and as far away from his bed as possible. And that’s where I remained as he invited his new girlfriend to share his bed. She leapt in, no doubt like Jane, unaware of the secrets he kept stored away in his attic, in his closet, under the bed she leapt into.
“So, J., when are you getting married?” I asked as I drove out of Saxonville trying to finish my errands.
“Married?! No, we’re not getting married”, he answered.
“Well, why not? Your friends have you in a pretty permanent relationship.”, I said.
“Well, whatever happened to taking it one day at a time.”, he asked.
“Well, if you’re that permanently involved, why not get married? Oh….I suppose you have to wait for her divorce to finalize.”, I said, remembering how long my own uncontested divorce took with no house or children between us. There was a house and two children in her divorce – there would be no pressure to get married from a woman who is still married herself.
“Well, yes…” and he changed the subject until I got to my final destination and he realized he was late for the gym. “Keep in touch!”, he said enthusiastically.
“Sure thing.” I said sarcastically. That was bullshit. Did he really think I would hang around in case things didn’t work out with her?
The next day I thought, “let me test it. Let me see how seriously invested he is in this girl.” I texted him and asked again for the life-sized poster of me. There was no reason to hold on to that anymore now that he had a girlfriend. There’s no way she would ever let him put it up in her traditional Sudbury home. There’s no way he would ever put it up next to the bed they shared in his apartment, either. I got no response. I texted him again, and again got no response. I sent him another text to see if he was OK. I asked him to at least acknowledge my text. No response. He went right back to the tactic that had marked our relationship from the very beginning. It is what kept me from writing throughout the time I knew him.
“Three days, Paulina?” my friend asked when she read the blog about using spelt flour in oatmeal cookies, “he didn’t talk to you for three days for that?”
What I didn’t tell her is that I was dependent on J back then. To keep my mother from worrying about what time I came in, I told my her that I had moved in with J. In truth, he had offered me his guest room to stay in. I didn’t have a key to his house, so, when he gave me any of his frequent silent treatments, I slept alone in the studio, dumbfounded, wondering what I had done and how he could be so cold to someone who had given in to him so trustingly. The red flags were there from the very beginning. My friends saw them, but I refused to.
Not this time. I was not going to ignore the signs this time. I had been holding on to the blog about Inauguration day since the women’s march. I was still holding out for a different ending to our story and he was still holding on to me. The day after this most recent silent treatment, I sent him a final chance to keep me from choosing the ending to our story. “Hi, J, this is my last text to you, so read it carefully…” and, after thanking him for his kindness, I let him know why we could not be friends. “A true friend would not withhold…” and I listed the most recent of these, but there was so much more he had withheld from me from the very beginning.
So long as I cared about what he kept from me, he had control. No doubt, I had become a person I was not proud of in the face of his withholding. For me to take back control, I had to stop caring. It was a very hard thing to do because, afterall, I love him, or believe I do. I know how much J values his “privacy” - his secrets - so I know there will be repercussions for sharing our story. And, while this story is really about my own secrets, he is my biggest secret. Until I purge it, until I come clean about my own role in this toxic relationship, it will control me. If he wasn’t going to work through it with me, my only option was to work through it alone.
“Why did you wait for J to reply before publishing your blog?” my friend asked. “It’s like a boss who’s taken you for granted.” I answered, “If you get a better offer, you go to that boss and give them a chance to meet the offer, if they don’t, then you are free to go with a clear conscience.”
I wanted J to step up to the plate and deal with the way he had treated me. I wanted him to do the right thing. I waited six months for it, and, after my last text, I waited until midnight. When I didn’t hear back from him, I went to my blog page and hit “publish”. There was no turning back now. It was done. “There you go, girl.” I thought, “he’s all yours now!”
On the third day, J finally replied. “to honor my relationship, our friendship, myself, I have decided to set my ego aside and give you back the poster…” I was shocked. It was the right thing to do only a day too late. And his recognition of his ego….that really surprised me. I had tried so hard to get him to take a course in Buddhism. Had he finally ventured into it? Whatever motivated him to do the right thing, though, took too long. I had already published the blog. I had to get that print as soon as possible before he saw my post. He would never be so magnanimous once he saw I’d writren about us.
I went directly to the stairs of his apartment where he left it for me to pick up while he was at the gym and retrieved the tube with the life-sized portrait of my uninhibited self. Arriving at my friend’s house I called her over, “want to see it?” “Yeah!” she answered. And I pulled myself out of the tube and unrolled myself onto her carpet.
“Wow!” we said, pulling the pieces of wax paper away from the image, “look at that!” She called her husband over to see it. “I’m finally free!”, I said gleefully, and we high-fived each other, not noticing that the smaller print was not in the tube.
The next day, on the same day that the narcissist in office signed an executive order banning entry to the US of any passport holders from seven Muslim countries, J and his girlfriend closed their own borders on social media and blocked me, now partners in his game of punishment. As V-Day approaches, it makes no difference to me anymore. Starting with that very first silent treatment only six months into our relationship, J. had played a game of cat and mouse with me, refusing to acknowledge my existence if I displeased him, locking me in emotional darkness the way he had been locked up as a child, until the day I finally refused to be locked in darkness anymore.