Captive Listener

After leaving an abusive marriage, my mother updated family members on my recovery in this way, “Lucy no longer looks around the room for permission to laugh.” I wasn’t even aware I’d been doing this until it was pointed out to me. For this reason, I chose to write this poem in third person.

Captive Listener
By Lucy Furr

When others laugh…

She sits quietly

Dousing joy

Unsmiling

Until laughter is approved

Her ears prick outward
straining to hear his crackle of euphoria blend with others in happy, symphonic unison.

Musicians tell her she has “no ear”

“Just mouth the words, don’t sing,” they say.

But they are wrong
Her hearing is fine-tuned
She hears subtleties
She hears his silence amidst thunderous cachinnation and, on cue, mimics ill-at-ease

Or, plucks his laughter from raucous seas and yokes her laugh to his.

On these rare moments…
her heart sings.

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Squaw Make Silent Tears Thirty-Two Years

Disclaimer: This is based on a true story. Certain names and details have been changed.

July 23, 2012 – Ten days prior to Aaron’s suicide attempt, I wrote the following text to my friend J_:

Me: I may be a widow before I ever become a divorcee. Kids say they are bracing themselves for the phone call. Aaron sent a message this morning telling me he hasn’t wanted to live ever since I left. His demeanor is mirroring his brother’s demeanor just before he took his own life four years ago. I get texts from Aaron that vacillate from one extreme emotion to another. I don’t need to write a book. Aaron is writing one for me, text by text. I can start the book with his older brother’s suicide, move on to Aaron’s self-harm during our courtship, then his aunt’s suicide, then my nephew’s suicide, then our daughters suicide attempts, then his younger brother’s suicide, and then conclude it with Aaron’s suicide. There might be enough material for a trilogy. But in truth, J_, though I jest, Aaron’s demise is so painful to witness, the kids and I can hardly bare it. The nightmare continues in the outer fringes of my pretended happiness.

July 23, 2012

J_: Poor Aaron.  Earth life has been so difficult for him. You took good care of him for so many years but he was beyond repair. You can always feel good about your sacrifices.

July 24, 2012

Me: Aaron’s in good form today. Here is the message he cc’d to me:

“Use to be White Eyes (me) had Squaw…just needed TeePee…now Whites Eyes in Heap Big trouble and Big Fork in the Road…now White Eyes need new Squaw…and TeePee…what White Eyes to do?

Maybe White Eyes need to ride horse better…not get thrown off by squaw while napping!

Just a little levity

Dad”

I no longer respond to Aaron’s texts unless absolutely necessary. But I would’ve liked to have written this in return: Maybe if Whites Eyes do not nap so much he could have bought BIG teepee for 10 cow squaw wife. Now Whites Eyes, squaw and papoose’s all have red eyes from cry too much.

July 24, 2012

J_: I love your response. You have so much self control in not sending it to him.

July 24, 2012

Me: I learned about a month ago that one cannot fight the devil and expect to win no matter how witty one thinks one is. I gain nothing from responding.

July 25, 2012

Me: Squaw make many new friend at LDS Singles. Meet big chief Craig Terry of Craig’s List and now on special email list for much sand volleyball, raindance and parties. No more 10 cow squaw wife. Price gone up since squaw still have nice ass, silk skin, much brain, white teeths, happy smile and papooses grown and not in teepee. Squaw not have to hunt food, make big cook fires, clean, be like white slave girl while White Eyes sit on lazy ass in teepee, keep warm by fire, nap much, shop much much much. (Oops. Not all tomahawks buried yet.) Squaw work hard still. Squaw build better life. Squaw free prison now White Eyes gone.

July 25, 2012

J_: Man oh man I wish you could send that to White Eyes.

July 25, 2012

Me: White Eyes have evil orange eyes. No can send. Squaw laugh silent laugh just like silent tears thirty-two years.

Nightmares and Wet Dreams

Disclaimer: This is based on a true story. Certain names and details have been changed.

I wake up in sobbing tears from nightmares. Memories that were pushed to the far reaches of my mind are being exhumed as I begin to write the experiences from the early years of my marriage. These were the years I lived isolated from family and friends, communal-style, in a filthy, windowless, concrete bunker with my fucked-up in-laws. They called their five acres of raw land, The Ranch, but it wasn’t a ranch. Well…not in the precise sense of the word, but, it could be considered a ranch if corralling broken down vehicles is taken into consideration.

Thirty paces from the bunker, sat a dilapidated twenty-five foot camping trailer. Unimaginably, this was my husband’s childhood home. I wasn’t allowed to go inside the trailer but, when I complained about our current living arrangements, Aaron shared stories from his past that made me feel fortunate to stretch my legs out in a full-length twin bed. Strewn across their land were several broken-down vehicles in various stages of decay. While other children played on swing sets and slippery slides, my children climbed atop an old army jeep and pretended to fight a war, jumped inside a Corvette and donned the role of race-car driver, or climbed aboard a rusty tractor and imaged they were farmers plowing the north forty.

The family called the bunker, The Shop, because living there was only supposed to be a short term solution to financial difficulties. Half of the rectangular cinderblock structure was used to sell silver, turquoise and supplies to the Indians; the other half was where we set up camp. It wasn’t a literal bunker to protect us from bombs or gun fire, but rather a small windowless bunker designed to protect us from theft. It had been built by the family without proper building plans or licenses. It didn’t have an occupancy certificate, but, somehow, we lived there unnoticed by inspectors. Had representatives from child services seen how we were living, they would’ve taken our children away. I didn’t know anything about building codes, child services, mental illnesses or personality disorders. I knew that my living conditions weren’t normal, but living isolated with just the family, kept me in a state of unquestioning compliance. We didn’t have access to television because we lived too far from town. Making long distance phone calls to family and friends was too expensive. My sole source of information and entertainment was an occasional good book, a weekly trip to a three-hour block of church, and conversations with Aaron and his family.

On the last Sunday of every month the relief society president pulled me aside and asked me how I was doing.

“Fine. Thanks for asking.”

“That’s great.” She said with her I-Really-Don’t-Give-A-Shit-About-You smile. “Do you have a few minutes to sit down and listen to a message from the Lord?”

“Sure.”

She gave me the lesson from the Ensign magazine. This is the same lesson that all devout Mormon women are required to read for themselves each month so I’m uber disappointed in Mr. Christ’s redundant lesson on, The Privilege of Ministering.

And then we’d drive home.

Once a year, I met with the bishop and stake president to renew my temple recommend. After answering their prying questions of worthiness, I’d tell them how unhappy I was living isolated so far from town.

“Can your husband make a living elsewhere?” my stake president asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then I suggest you learn to make the most of it.”

So that was that. An authority figure representing Mr. Christ had spoken. I wasn’t allowed to question my situation. I labeled my feelings as unimportant, threw them in a box, and placed them in the far corners of my naive brain.

Once a year, I’d pull out this box, reexamine its contents, add in additional concerns, discuss them with my bishop and stake president, and then be told the same thing: Be supportive. Serve with the full love of Christ. Obey the counsel of my husband. Forgive.

As a faithful church member, my husband, a priesthood holder and head of our household, had authority over me. But in reality, his mother—and to some extent, his sister—controlled me because they controlled Aaron. My father in-law—a kind, quiet man—obediently sucked hind tit. I quickly learned to never openly question our living conditions, or the fact that my status was lower than all other members of the group, including my nieces and nephews. I was completely unaware that I had fallen prey to living in a cult within a cult.

Before I became a member of my cult family, Aaron’s deceased brother, Randy, had a vision about the land. The Ranch wasn’t just any parcel of land. It was sacred.

“One day,” they said, “each family will have their own home. We’ll grow our own fruits and vegetables, and raise our own livestock. We’ll be completely self-sufficient…totally prepared for the Second Coming.”

Randy was Aaron’s oldest brother whom I’d never met because he committed suicide a year before I met my husband. Even though he was dead, he played a critical role in my life. I just didn’t know it at the time. Mind-control is super confusing when you’re in the middle of it. I willingly ate their bullshit because that’s what they fed me. But I digress. Let’s get back to the fucktards, how they think, and why my existence with them causes me nightmares twenty-five years later.

Maintaining a good image is vital to fucktards. They never could accept the truth about Randy. Instead of him being sent home from his Mormon mission with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, they claimed he was favored by God and had a special purpose here on earth. Randy wasn’t talking to the voices in his head, he was fighting off the evil spirits that were sent to destroy him. Satan knew Randy was important to the ushering in of Mr. Christ and that’s why he was constantly under attack.  Randy was so fucking special that when the family was informed of his early dismissal from his mission, essentially, a major disgrace to the family—worse than being a black lesbian—they demanded to meet with one of the high-ranking general authorities of the LDS church.

“Brother Scott didn’t hear a word we’d said.” Aaron complained. “He could’ve used his priesthood power to cast out the devil and his angels. But, instead, he turned his back on us. Randy wouldn’t be dead, if it wasn’t for the hardness of his heart.”

Now, to you and me, this fucktarded view of mentally illness doesn’t fare well when trying to portray a positive image to society; but to fucktards, it was a perfectly logical explanation to Randy’s death. Telling extended family and ward members that the devil picked up a shotgun and shot him in the chest was, somehow, better than admitting he was mentally ill. (Proof of this belief would become evident as additional family members took their lives in subsequent years—stories for another time.)

Aaron shared sacred experiences with me privately, and in a voice that resembled the same tone all faithful members of the church use to bear their heartfelt testimonies—a soft, loving tone that evokes powerful emotions. The tone he used was as familiar to my ear as when my parents, leaders, and peers testified of so-called truths while in my youth. So, even though my cult family’s stories were bizarre, little by little, I accepted them as true.

As I bought into their dreams, I found myself sacrificing personal comforts for the greater cause.  But, as I watched other family members march into the shop and pull cash out of the store register whenever they needed it, I grew unsure about my future. They didn’t just take tens and twenties from the till, they took handfuls of hundred dollar bills whenever they needed or wanted them. This always irritated Aaron, but he, too, kept the code of silence as required by his obese, domineering mother. I was the only in-law and wasn’t allowed to take any money without express permission. Aaron gave me just enough cash to buy a day’s worth of groceries and gas for my trip to town and back. Upon return, I was required to hand over the receipts and all the change, leaving me with no money of my own.

I was embarrassed and ashamed of how I was living and never told my parents how bad things really were. They lived hundreds of miles away and didn’t know that when the sun melted the snow or when it rained, my days and nights were spent mopping up the rain water that poured in through our leaky roof. Buckets and large bowls caught the steady flowing areas but we couldn’t catch every leak. Currents of water rushed down from the slopped driveway, through the back door, and wound its way through stacks of dusty boxes like a slow moving creek. Black mold crawled up the sides of the walls. Spiders dropped down from exposed insulation in a partially finished ceiling. Mice nested in the dark corners of the room by day but we all heard their scratchy tiny feet scurry in the night.

The kitchen was a remnant of a failed burger joint. Over-sized metal refrigerators and grills were too inconvenient for daily meal preparations but were ideal for storing old magazines, store receipts, and junk.  We cooked meals for the eleven of us on an old 1940’s three-burner stove. Cupboards were never installed and dishes were loaded onto planks of wood and covered by towels to keep them free from mice droppings. The oversized kitchen sink doubled as a place to wash dishes and a tub for small children. Eventually, a shower kit was purchased and installed on 2×4’s so the adults could bathe.

My parents didn’t know that when my children got sick, I feared my crying child would wake a bunker full of sleeping people. I took my child from the room and went into the area that was set up as a store. This room wasn’t insulated and had no heat source except an old pot-belly stove that turned cold in the night. Of course, there wasn’t a rocking chair for me to rock my child back to sleep. No chair at all to ease my tired feet. I donned a coat and moon boots for warmth, wrapped my child in heavy blankets and paced the concrete floor throughout the night.

These are just a few of the memories that ignite my nightmares. In each dream, my husband holds me hostage by threatening to keep the children with him in this environment. I always stay for the children and wake up sobbing as though I’m once again living at The Ranch.

I’m often asked how Aaron and I had sex in a crowded room—with my mother and father in-law’s bunk bed only three feet from mine. I tell them, “Quietly.” In the pitch-black cover of night, I listened for the slow, heavy breathing of children and the loud, annoying snoring of adults before sneaking over to the couch where my husband slept. As I begin to write those stories, maybe I’ll wake up screaming from wet dreams instead of sobbing tears.

The Obedient Mormon Wife – Chapter One

Aaron, my husband, pulls into Smith’s parking lot and I take in a deep breath, preparing myself for what I’m about to do. He parks our silver Pacifica and I turn to place my purse in the back seat, taking my time covering it with a jacket, making this an obvious gesture so he’ll realize I’m not the one paying for groceries; this shopping trip is on his nickel. A pang of anxiety hits me as we enter the store but I push the feeling aside. I can do this, I reassure myself. Aaron begins placing items into the cart and I contemplate how I should begin adding things without receiving one of his stern looks. I wait for an opportunity to present itself, and finally one comes when he picks up a package of chocolate-frosted cupcakes. My voice is barely audible as I point to a loaf of Grandma Sycamore bread and remind him that we only have a few slices of bread left at home. This is a safe item to begin with because we both enjoy toast for breakfast and it only costs $1.89.

Making our way past fresh fruits and vegetables, I notice watermelons have arrived from the farms and yearn to have one. Aaron doesn’t like watermelon so I keep my desire hidden. He doesn’t mind if I eat watermelon, if that’s what I like, but he certainly wouldn’t be willing to purchase one. In the meat department, boneless, skinless, chicken breasts are on sale. If I were shopping with my own money this evening I’d load up with several pounds of chicken to freeze for lfor foater. But tonight is different. Tonight, I’m beginning a quiet, furtive, effort to reduce Aaron’s hoarding by increasing his purchases of household necessities. I don’t know how much money he has in his wallet, so I look for his approval as I place a package of chicken in the cart. Since there’s no furrowing of his brow I’m relieved, and let out a slow, soundless, sigh.

I dawdle through the laundry detergent aisle and breathe in the irresistible fragrances of lavender, fresh rain and spring bouquet. Aaron reaches for a medium-sized bottle of Arm & Hammer detergent and I don’t mention that, per ounce, the larger bottle is a better price or that the store brand is cheaper. I’m just happy he’s buying it, one less item for me to pay for later. Seizing the moment, I suggest we buy liquid fabric softener.

“I don’t use liquid fabric softener,” Aaron says, “I prefer dryer sheets.”

“I like liquid softener,” I say, hoping the trembling in my voice isn’t noticeable, “but I can use dryer sheets.” Unwanted tears glisten in my eyes so I turn and pretend to examine the assorted stain sprays opposite us. I shouldn’t be doing this. If he figures out what I’m up to, he’ll be angry. How can I possibly explain my actions away? I push these unwanted thoughts aside, garnering enough courage to drop a few more low-priced items into the cart, each time glancing in my husband’s direction for signs of displeasure. I keep these glances quick and casual. Lingering, questioning glances might arouse his suspicion.

After making our final selections we head to the checkout stand. I feel awkward and vulnerable standing in line without my credit card in hand. My heart pounds hard as items are loaded onto the conveyor belt. Staccato beeps scream at me as groceries pass over the scanner. I can’t muster the courage to search Aaron’s eyes to discern his thoughts. When he doesn’t reach for his wallet, my pulse quickens as though my heart is competing with my racing mind. Oh, no! What if he senses my apprehension? Is the trembling in my body noticeable? To ease the stress I move toward the exit and stare at posters on the wall, looking but not seeing, my whole being paralyzed with fear as I listen for his footsteps. Aaron pays the cashier and joins me at the exit.

Silence stabs at me on our walk to the car. Shuddering, I slow my pace, allowing Aaron to move ahead. The silence heightens my fear and I can’t bear it any longer. I pop in one of his favorite CD’s. The relaxing sound of Musetta’s Waltz wraps its soft melody around us and fills the awkward space of unspoken thoughts. I wonder whether to thank him for the groceries; if I do, I might draw too much attention to the situation. Deciding to say nothing I focus on controlling my panicked breathing.

On our drive home, I contemplate giving up this silly game of human chess. Maybe I should just let him win. Life is pleasant, even enjoyable, when I do what I am supposed to do: take care of Aaron.

I know he is a broken man. I knew that from the start. When we were dating I tried to end the relationship but then he went up into the mountains, found a broken beer bottle and lost control of himself. Afterwards he arrived on my doorstep with his face and hands cut and bleeding. I opened my door to him and treated his wounds.

“I don’t know what happened,” he cried softly. “I went to my favorite spot by the river to pray, to find comfort. Evil spirits took over my body. I don’t know how I managed to get away. I feel safe now. I feel safe when I’m with you.”

Maternal instincts are strong emotions, strong enough to eliminate the red flags that were waving in front of me, strong enough to sacrifice my happiness for his. As a youth, I witnessed my mother’s kindness as she took foster children, refugees and foreign exchanges students into our home. Her example taught me the importance of being a true Christian. God wanted me to care for this lost and lonely soul, or so I believed. My love for Aaron grew that day as I cradled him in my arms and rocked him as a mother rocks a weeping child. I knew from church teachings, and discussions with Aaron, that evil spirits are real‒as real as Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Back then I believed Aaron when he shared stories from his past, about how his brother really died. Randy hadn’t committed suicide. When Aaron heard the shot ring out from the basement, he ran downstairs. He was the first one to the scene. The gun lay too far from Randy’s body to have been a suicide. The investigator had it wrong‒an evil spirit shot his brother. All my life I’ve been taught that Satan couldn’t physically harm us, but Aaron bore such strong testimony, his story had to be true. When I embraced Aaron, gazed into his pleading, tear-filled eyes, I silently vowed to protect him from the evil spirits. I chose to care for this broken child of God. But I was only nineteen at the time. I was naïve. How could I have understood the enormity of that promise?

I was popular in college, dated more than studied. I was attractive, outgoing, and friendly. My thin brown hair had been, and still is, my nemesis‒curly in all the wrong places, exposing my high forehead. But my figure, which my mom referred to as a ballerina figure, made up for those imperfections. Aaron knew he’d have to fight off other suitors and so he wooed me. No. He wowed me by showering me with gifts, clothes, dozens of roses, diamond earrings, meals at posh restaurants, and romantic dates to the ballet, theater and opera; all the while rising above the ranks of mundane college men—boys really—who thought dating to be an ideal time to test a woman’s cooking skill and tolerance for televised football. The red flags slowly moved into the background, barely visible.

But that was a long time ago. We pass a church, festooned with yellow and white garlands leading to its doors, as we return home from Smith’s. I figure a wedding must be underway and think back to my own special day. It was on a warm June day in 1982, gowned in flowing white, that I accepted the covenants of marriage for time and all eternity in the Salt Lake temple. My childhood dreams had come to fruition. Across from me, the man I thought I loved—who I believed to be a worthy priesthood holder—smiled and ducked his head. Aaron wasn’t at all comfortable as the focal point; but he’d covenanted to be my husband and I was as happy as any bride could be‒thrilled to be Mrs. Aaron Stallard!

But my joy was short lived. After consummating our marriage on our wedding night, I stepped into the elegant dressing room of our honeymoon suite to change into my new silk nightgown. When I returned a few minutes later, Aaron was sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed in his shirt and slacks, his head buried between his hands, crying.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake.” He said, shaking his head side to side.

“What is it darling?” I knelt beside him on the bed, my mind racing as I wrapped my arms around his muscular shoulders, “What’s upsetting you?”

“We need to annul our marriage.” He finally answered.

            What is he saying? We had a rocky courtship but I thought that was all behind us once we got engaged. Why did he marry me if he was just going to have it annulled? How could this be happening? Tears, blackened with mascara, streamed down my cheeks and onto my cream-colored nightgown as I tried to make sense of the situation.

“I can’t support us.” He continued, his body shaking uncontrollably. “I don’t know why I went through with the marriage when I had the prompting not to. Oh, what have I done, what have I done! I should’ve listened to the spirit. I’m so sorry, Elli, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry…”

The idea of an annulment was ridiculous. He can’t be serious. He’s just scared, that’s all, as most men must be when they take on the heavy responsibility of being providers, protectors and leaders in their homes. I kissed his hands, then his cheek, and finally his lips. ‘It’s going to be fine,” I promised him. “We’ll get through this. You’re just anxious. We’ll be fine. You’re not alone, we’re in this together.”

Aaron claims he doesn’t like to play games. He’s right in the sense that he doesn’t play board games or even sports. But he plays games all right. He plays human poker and human chess. He’s been playing me for thirty years. Sometimes he plays the hand of victim like he did when we were dating. Sometimes he’s the romantic when he takes me out on a date. Sometimes he plays a comedian and I giggle at his outlandish remarks. But at other times he plays his Ace of Spades, intimidating me with his towering, bodyguard physique and icy cold stare.

It isn’t Aaron’s six foot tall height, two hundred pounds of muscle, barrel chest or bald head that people find threatening; it’s the way he sets his jaw when he’s provoked, his nervous energy, his quick temper, his social awkwardness that keeps them at a distance. Somehow I saw past his menacing aura when we’d first met and now I’ve learned to live with it, reading his every gesture, every glare, like a deaf person reads sign language. But when Aaron wants something he’s as cunning as the devil, and I often misinterpret his premeditated schemes. Only once or twice have I chanced to see him smirking while playing out his hand. He shrewdly keeps his cards close to the vest‒gives away nothing. He generates the unwritten rules of his games and, up until recently, I’ve not tried to fight against them. I’ve never dared to delve into his deep, dark secrets, never looked inside his wallet or inspected his separate bank account statements. I’m not privy to the mail being delivered to his personal post office box. I know nothing of the websites he views so early in the morning.

I don’t much care for Aaron’s games, his unwritten rules. They’ve forced me into servitude as provider, protector and caretaker of our home and family. Barring minor donations, Aaron doesn’t contribute to rent, food, clothing, utilities, or any other expenses the children and I have. Those expenditures are mine; they’ve been my burden for the last twenty-two years of our thirty-year marriage. Aaron pays for his own needs and nothing more. And Aaron needs stuff‒lots and lots of stuff.

And so, five months ago, I began my own version of human chess when I started opening my eyes to the bizarre life we live. It’s a dangerous game I play. Though Aaron has never physically assaulted me, I can’t say with certainty he won’t harm me in the future; something about him scares me. He’s a hoarder and hoarders guard their loot; even the mere suggestion an item from his spoils ought to be discarded is met with fury. Since I dare not outright threaten the sanctity of his belongings, I play my hand the naughty way: surreptitiously. When Aaron leaves for work, I peek inside crammed drawers, behind closed doors, in the shed, within storage units. I’m naughty because I’m documenting my findings. I’m naughty because I covertly toss old magazines and sneak beloved kitchen gadgets, even though they chop, slice and dice onto eBay. As I remove trinkets and treasures from within the bowels of our home, terror mingled with glee haunts and excites me. I’m naughty to have such feelings. I’m naughty because I’m crossing well-established boundaries, cautiously putting Aaron’s rules to the test, tweaking them without permission.

I’m not sure how angry Aaron will become if he finds things missing. I don’t know what will happen if I’m caught. My own game frightens me. Tonight was just one small ploy, one small nudge in getting Aaron to provide for our family. Now I wait for Aaron’s reaction‒for his counterattack. Our ride home is quiet, peaceful, but I don’t know his thoughts. Maybe he didn’t notice my stealthy feat; but then again, maybe he’s just biding his time, examining the battlefront, preparing to advance his position.

At home we put groceries away without our usual playful bantering of unimportant events from the day. This signals me that something is amiss. In my mind I replay the shopping ruse, hunting for mistakes in my performance. Does Aaron know what I’m up to? Is he on to my tactical maneuver already? It’s hard to tell this soon into the opening of this match. He might just be tired. Since the end of the day is upon us we stray from our usual bedtime routine and skip cuddling up to watch a Netflix movie. Instead we climb into bed and turn out the lights.

Aaron falls into a deep sleep and snores beside me. Sleep eludes me as I lay awake churning the details of today’s experiment around and around in my head. I feel both elated and hurt: elated because Aaron spent $28 dollars on me and hurt because this is a big deal. It makes me wonder how many pawns I’ll need to sacrifice to save the queen.