Originally published by Words Apart, a magazine run by Emerson College in Boston, in Nov. 2015
I was helping an acquaintance—a slim, delicately built dancer—transport props between the theater where she had performed the previous evening and her home. The dancer named Joanne said, “My husband doesn’t like it when my props clutter our apartment—I guess we’d better put the stuff in our basement storage.” As we drove through Berlin, she added apologetically, “My husband doesn’t think much of my dance performances.”
“But wait,” I said, not loudly but no doubt assertively, “I thought you always had rehearsals and performances going on...that must have been true when you met him as well, right? Haven’t you always been a performer?”
“Well,” Joanne said, even more softly, “maybe not with this intensity.” She wasn’t exactly conversing with me; it was more like she was thinking out loud. “I’ve been quite selfish recently, taking time for my own creative projects. My son is four now. And he’s really quite wonderful—maybe I should be spending more time with him?” She sighed. “Yeah, quite selfish...”
We were not holding a conversation. As a matter of fact, Joanne wasn’t even thinking out loud. She was repeating phrases her husband had said to her: scolding, impatient phrases he had deployed so that her behavior would conform to his wish for a smoothly functioning home. In his absence—on that particular weekend he was visiting his parents with their son—she was slipping into his role of “educating” her.
I know this because I’ve been in the same situation.
I recently found scraps of paper I’d written on twenty-five years ago. My boyfriend and I were constantly arguing. His reproach was that I wasn’t taking his needs seriously, wasn’t really listening and modifying my behavior patterns in accordance with what had displeased him. So, in order to imprint his complaints in my head, I wrote them down as a gesture of respect towards him:
- In the first person: “June 6, 1988: I didn’t immediately want to make scrambled eggs.”
- His voice transcribed in the form of a dictation: “July 18, 1988: I don’t like your constant, unending flow of incompetence in everything you do . . . you cover everything with excuses and apologies. You prepare for everything you do in a half-assed way.”
- And then my feelings, followed by a plea to him: “Jan. 30, 1989: I’ve been saying to myself: I’m moving out. But I don’t want that. And then I say to myself, I want to spend forty-eight hours somewhere alone in a room. With just a notebook and a book. And peace and quiet. And time. I’m going back to bed. If you don’t allow me to sleep in your arms, it’s over.”
Two of those three reminders to myself were not in English, my mother tongue. They were in German, Harald’s native language, the language we spoke together on the “island” of West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany before the fall of the wall. Whenever I wrote a business letter or an essay for university, Harald corrected my written German. I was getting quite good. I was tickled when I “passed,” when people “couldn’t tell” I was American; they sometimes guessed Danish or Dutch.
I moved in with Harald just months after we met. Initially this was merely a stopgap measure when a neighbor violently objected to my practicing piano many hours a day; we ended up spending six years in his refurbished one-room apartment, set up for a fastidious law student to pursue his studies and hobbies. One and a half years previous, I’d shipped just six boxes to Berlin. At Harald’s place, I did squeeze my rented grand piano in, blocking the balcony door. He conceded a couple drawers in the commode to me; we bought a second wardrobe, which filled the hallway. My book collection landed in the basement. I told myself that Americans were downright spoiled—big cars, huge refrigerators, obese people—and that much of the world got by with much less.
I made myself smaller and smaller to fit into the box he seemed to want to confine me in. Take, for instance, our sex life: I revealed that I’d had a number of sexual partners before him. Though he initially wanted me to tell him more, he soon changed his tack. “You’ve had your fun,” he started saying—though some of my experiences had been confusing, even overwhelming. Early on, he asked me not to let the rough bottoms of my feet touch his legs during sex because “it turns me off.” So I tried to remain aware of where my feet were during sex—hardly a recipe for ecstasy.
Outwardly I was a go-getter, an enterprising American abroad, educated as a classical musician, with a fair command of the German language. But because of the unacknowledged emotional chaos within me, I was susceptible to Harald. My beloved father had died of cancer five years before. When my mother remarried and sold the house I grew up in, I felt like an orphan, abandoned and on my own at the age of 19. And then there was my music; despite having practiced my way into and then out of two top music conservatories, I had no idea what to do with myself now. In addition, I feared that my promiscuity in the past truly meant I was a bad woman, and that I had in fact hurt some men along the way. Maybe I had had my fun at others’ expense.
I never thought of leaving.
Over the years, I wasn’t able to hear it when my mother and sisters, my best friend from high school, and new friends in Berlin said to me: “He’s not good for you. You change when you’re around him. He’s unpleasant to you, and it’s not right how he corrects you in public.”
Although a trained musician, I was completely deaf.
Eight years into the relationship, two encounters helped me realize what I was missing out on. I’d long since ceased teaching piano when I went out to dinner with a former student of mine. I confessed that I’d always found him attractive. To my surprise, we spontaneously spent hours together in a hotel bed. Harald, by then my husband, “owned” my sexual excitement, I’d thought, and I had been monogamous all those years. But after that night, desire and physical confidence started returning to me. Then I astounded a fellow participant at a company seminar by not being able to express anger in an exercise. Through the night I cried on that sympathetic man’s shoulder, finally admitting to myself that my marriage had left me utterly depleted.
After nine years, when I finally left Harald, I was tiny and couldn’t think a clear thought.
Only step by step was I able to rebuild the confident, even sassy person that I used to be.
Joanne’s ruminations from the passenger seat resonated tremendously. I didn’t dare to speak to her about it—perhaps I was misunderstanding her situation, perhaps I was reading too much into it. I hardly knew her, after all.
I do hope Joanne the dancer is not squeezing herself into a box. It’s a pretty dangerous place for one’s soul.