This Is How You Break a Woman
Once I brought home a coyote and told my lover we had a new pet. Until it ate our chickens. — “Hunger” by Kelli Russell Agodon
Let’s get down to the bone of you, the meat. I must admit, all the electrocutions have made you downright unrecognizable. First, there was the shock of your mother shoving food in your mouth. Eat, she said. On good days, the difference between nipple and spoon were periodic elements. Mostly you recall the tines of a fork scraping across your clenched teeth and your mother’s silent pleas, which reminded you of the many church sermons you’d slept through. Her entreaties were urgent and constant: Don’t make him mad. Don’t make a scene. Eat the food he bought for you. Goddammit, eat! You turned away, violently, and the fork slashed your cheek and you felt aflame, but that was fine, just fine, because you were tired of swallowing the gifts he gave you. Only a curtain of glass beads separated you from him, and you knew, on the days when your mother worked late wiping down tables and refilling ketchup bottles, that fear was a hand parting the beads to one side. Fear was candy in a smiling man’s lap. Believe me when I say the man who lived in your house was a knife in a light socket.
You were five.
Then there was the shock of you shoving food in your mouth. Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookies, bagels soaked in margarine, fried chicken cutlets, and macaroni and cheese out of a box and a pouch. Pizza Hut pizza supreme, McDonald’s two cheeseburger meal with a biggie fry, Wendy’s baked potato with cheese and bacon bits, Little Debbie snack cakes, KFC mashed potatoes, Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, Roy Rogers chicken nuggets — until you felt chest pains. A doctor told you that your sodium levels were low and, in response, you shoved handfuls of table salt into your mouth. So there! A guidance counselor folded and unfolded her hands when she told your mother: Your daughter is writing stories about girls hanging themselves from trees. The counselor turned to you and asked whether you thought this was normal — girls hanging from trees, setting their hair on fire, plunging off roofs, etc.— and you said, with earnest, Define normal. That morning, your mother thanked the Academy for her performance as the sole victim in the tragedy that was your life. After, you sat in the backseat of your father’s red Caddy and asked if they could stop at Taco Bell on the way home. The sun lit up your hair like it was on fire. Your mother smoked her cigarette down to the filter, and your father played James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” A child may not know how to feed itself, or how to find the right instruments to transport food from plate to mouth, but it knows hunger.
It’s only when you’re older and glutinous to the nines that you’re able to comprehend the possibility of never being full is real. You are parts incomplete.
Then there was the shock of your lover shoving someone else’s wedding cake in your mouth. Your lover was the sort of fellow who thought oven jokes were adorable icebreakers. He’d say: I’m Jewish, and I tell the best camp jokes! He had a thing for Danish modern furniture and fried sausages and everything in your home was one degree away from flesh-colored. But back to the cake. There was a brief period of time when you and your lover would talk about marriage and your faces would rearrange accordingly. You loved each other, of course, of course — the problem was that you didn’t necessarily like each other. Occupying the same air in the same room had become something of an assault, and before the cake-shoveling-in-mouth incident he told you that he wasn’t entirely sure he loved you as much as he did the day before and you said, What the fuck does that even mean? You both drank from the same flask and made dirty love on the sink because there was no cell service and the bar was dry and the father had been singing arias to the bride for the past two hours and who knew if you’d ever make it home. After he shoved the cake in your mouth, you realized that even though you were a walking brush fire, he was a man who told oven jokes.
Your love had become a division that wasn’t purely mathematical.
I’m concerned about your hair, how it’s singed at the roots. It’s all the shocks, you say. It’ll pass. On the outside you are parchment, but your insides are charred and black. You watched a movie where a coroner performs an autopsy, and when he cuts the girl open he sees sadness scrawled all over the inside of her skin.
Cue the social media empathy chorus: We’re so very concerned.
After a while, the chorus fell quiet because your sadness bears a best-by date; no one wants your present-tense pain. No one wants the awkward silences and the: she’s sad, again? Haven’t the pills made her better? The peanut-crunching crowd wants a comeback story they can “like” and “love,” not wince away from. Give me happy, the children cry out with their sticky fingers and gaped-open mouths.
Then there was the shock from all the stories you had been force-fed — a narrative that would have made anyone burst in the retelling had they opened their mouths. If you could just be positive… If you work hard, stick to the plan, and don’t veer off the guardrails… All the pithy platitudes, listicles, and stories of triumph made you thankful for mouthguards and mute buttons. You were promised betterment, and you ended up with a mountain of loss. Why is it always that you ended up with less than with what you had started? Even after all the work and relationships mourned in passing? Someone told you once that they were worried that they’ll always be perceived as second-rate. You laughed and said, welcome home. We have candy in our laps.
Cue the social media empathy chorus: Be positive!
Maybe you should’ve been a lesser person.
Finally, there was the shock of the unpalatable, regurgitated hurts. The friend who will never take another trip with you in fear of you coming undone again. The other friend, who held out her hand and asked for your heart, to then break it in four places and toss it back, barely beating. You started to think that people wanted you returned to the manufacturer’s settings because the mess of you is perhaps too much for anyone to bear. They say your family is your kingdom, but what if you have no family? What if your friends want you forever masked and medicated? Then what?
You learn how to break in places you never perceived could be broken.