The Monstrosity of My Shadow
by Michelle Guerrero Henry
At the age of 9, I spent a few summers with my family at The Rodney Motel and Apartments on 94th street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. My parents loved it because it was economical (we had a full kitchen so we could make breakfast and lunch) and it was on the beach. The motel had two pools: a large clean one and a smaller, usually dirty, one. White round tables surrounded the area and at night I would sometimes sit there, staring at the darkness of the night sky.
I could feel my heart beating in my ears; I was afraid of the dark, and, yet, I would force myself to look up at it, into it. It’s not going to swallow you, I’d think, reminding myself of the impossibility of such a thing. But it felt as if the darkness was going to swallow me whole. It felt as if I could jump into its darkness, its void, the ocean and sky changing places. When the moon was out, fear and romance did a funny dance in my belly.
We stayed at The Rodney the summer I was fourteen. There, I thought I was in love with a Cuban boy named Joseito. I didn’t yet realize I was in love with a place, a mood, a tone. The motion of water, with the smell of salt and smooth sand beneath my feet, exuded a kind of sex and joy I wouldn’t know for years. But my body knew. There is something about learning to surrender to that darkness, and to sex, and to life, that could only come with time. Still, it made me wonder what wonderful and terrible things hid in the dark.
When I first moved to the suburbs of Westchester almost five years ago, I wanted to light up my driveway like a NYC sidewalk. It’s what I was used to. The streets had always been well lit wherever I lived. And I’d never lived in a house before. I’m not used to living in darkness.
I used to stand by the kitchen window terrified of what I couldn’t see. I would look out, squinting, wondering if something were there, would I be able to see it before it got me? At the time, my husband worked and went to school in the city; he wouldn’t arrive until well past 10pm. We lived across the street from the Metro North station so many people use to go straight into Grand Central. I lived in a quiet neighborhood; I could hear the train pull in. You’d think I would’ve gotten used to the sound of the sunroom door opening, of metal hitting metal, of footsteps arriving around the same time every night. I’d still jump though, still feel my heart race and my stomach turn. This feeling slowly went away. Dissipating through the years, like a receding tide.
The first couple of years in this house had me living in a perpetual state of longing. Change does that to me. Or did that to me. I don’t know yet if it’s past tense or not. Not quite regret, but not quite at peace with the past. In those early days I wasn’t writing as much, just reliving nightmares in my head. Reliving mistakes made, wondering why I was still so lost and unhappy when I had gained so much.
This wasn’t supposed to be about trauma. This wasn’t supposed to be about my first husband. I hate that most things I write circle back to him. But I’m trying to strip away the things that have held me back.
The last time I stayed at The Rodney Motel, I was twenty-one, and had been married for six months. We—my husband, parents, brother, sister-in-law, and sister—went on a big family vacation. I didn’t yet know that he would sabotage every special occasion, every event. That he would cast a shadow on all the memories that were supposed to be light. Finally, a trip to Miami when I’m legal and can go out with them, I thought. But he spent most of his time hungover, berating me in private.
My college graduation. Vacations. Birthdays. The birth of our son. All tainted.
Most of the abuse was about proving my love to him.
A few months after moving into our house in 2013, we adopted our sweet black cat, Luna. Everyone, including the vet, recommended we keep her indoors. “You have all sorts of wild animals out there that can hurt her,” the vet said. “No reason to risk it.”
She’s been an indoor cat that purrs on my head at night, cuddles with my son when he’s feeling sick, and snuggles up on my husband’s shoulder when she misses his attention. But still, I sometimes feel bad watching her stare out the window as she tries to catch bugs on the other side, or leaves as they fall in autumn. I remind myself that it’s not selfish to want her to live as long as possible. I have become terrified of the idea of her escaping, of being out there at night, and me not being able to find her.
Our eighty-pound black lab is a big goofy dog that barks at you because he wants to play, wants you to rub his belly. I used to joke that he couldn’t defend me from an attacker because he would be too excited. This past winter, two men arrived to inspect our boiler while the dog was outside. He normally hops around for strangers to pet him, or throws a stick at their feet, but this time he barked and growled at these guys in their blue jumpsuits. They laughed, but after three years I trust his instincts a little more.
I don’t take him on the long walks he needs. When walking from the house to the driveway, you have to walk up a path through the yard, and I do this often when it’s too late and I’m tired. There’s a shed in the driveway. I put a solar light with a sensor on it. I have always made sure to keep my phone with me just in case the shed light didn’t work, I could then use my flashlight. One night last summer, I forgot my phone and my glasses. The shed light didn’t work. As I walked around, waiting for him to do his business, it occurred to me that I wasn’t in a hurry. It occurred to me that I was in the dark. It occurred to me that I didn’t fear what would pop out from behind a tree, that the sky wasn’t going to swallow me.
As I walked back to the house, I felt an odd sense of pride. And when my shadow scared me, and I pictured it a monster with claws, when I felt that something was behind me and might grab me, I took a deep breath and told it to leave me alone.
It was around this time that I started opening the window in my bedroom. It took almost four years for me to feel safe in my house.
It took me around eleven to feel safe from my ex-husband.
Maybe I didn’t look out of the kitchen window so much in fear but in amazement. This is mine. I did this. And I was afraid someone would come take it all away.
There was only one time my ex-husband hit my face hard. It was summertime in New York City, 2006, and we had both been out drinking. I don’t remember why I was already in bed and he was still out, but when he walked in, he was in a rage. He made up a story about being robbed, I think he said he crashed the car. When I told him that we would deal with it in the morning, he yelled at me and called me stupid. When he got on top of me, I thought, Finally. Proof. His hands must have been open or maybe he just didn’t punch hard enough. He tried to put his dick in my mouth; I squeezed my eyes shut the way I squeezed my mouth. And without a word, he climbed off, went to sleep.
In the morning, after only a couple of hours of sleep, I went to look at myself in the bathroom mirror. My face hurt, especially around my eyes, and I expected to see bruises. There were none. It was like a curse: a continuous physical and emotional pain no one could ever see. When he woke up, he smiled, asked me, “What’s wrong?” When I described the events, he told me I was wrong, it was impossible, I was exaggerating. This had become a hypnotic phrase, repeated consistently for a few years—I was wrong, it was impossible, I was exaggerating—until I believed it. This would be the worst of any physical abuse; it was the emotional manipulation, the verbal abuse, the questioning of my own experiences and sanity that broke me.
I asked for a divorce that August.
Sharing a son with him made me feel as if I were living in purgatory. For years, even the simplest contact, the shared birthday celebrations, the alternating weekends, made my stomach turn; sometimes, my legs and arms would go numb.
I didn’t remarry to be saved; I married a man that showed me all the ways I had saved myself. Still, through the years, I have shut him out. Paralyzed by memories, I would sometimes stop speaking. Sometimes, I would be mean. My therapist has worked at reminding me, “W is not S. You can trust your instinct. You can trust him.” My husband waited patiently, actively listened, never judged. Still, I sometimes waited to point out all the ways he didn’t love me.
I had to unlearn the abuse I learned.
We’ve been going camping in the Catskills every year since 2011; my son was five the first time we went. This is entirely my husband’s domain: the wilderness. This is where, as a general rule, I follow directions on how to do things (we are not like this at home at all). It has become a time for me to have a mental vacation. No internet, no phone, complete disconnect. Our survival is almost entirely my husband’s responsibility. He worries about food, cooking, keeping us dry from the rain, and picking a campsite that’s close to the bathrooms. He’s in charge of making sure the garbage and food are all properly stored (you should put it in your car when you go to sleep so you don’t attract bears).
I love camping. I love being outside and I love being close to nature. But, every year, I would go to bed when he went to bed because I was afraid to stay outside alone. I was afraid of the tricks the light of the fire plays on your eyes. Of not recognizing the sounds of an animal were it to approach. If I had to walk over to the bathroom alone, I’d pray the whole way there, imagining all sorts of ridiculous horror movie scenarios.
Except last summer.
Last summer, I realized I adapted to the dark.
Last summer, I learned I was both my own darkness and light.
Last summer, I didn’t want to go to bed. I stayed up with the fire, I stayed up with my notebook and pen. I loaded up the car when he forgot. We camped by a pond and I looked out into the water, into the abyss of the sky and darkness, with the waning moon shining down.
And I knew I was living. Here. Now. With and without the monstrosity of my shadows.