The Bridge

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Bridges have so much poetic potential, and yet they terrify me. I do not fear falling; I fear jumping. This impulse is common enough that it has a name, “The Call of the Void,” which sounds real and literary but also a bit like a high school metal band. My fear extends a little past the usual uneasiness, however, because the times in my life when I have been suicidal, it was the height and accessibility of bridges that romanced me. When I felt that pull, it was such a relief to realize that I could simply avoid them.

At present, though, I live in a city that requires me to cross a bridge frequently. It bothers me not a whit and, in fact, I am very good at navigating the complex merge that devastates the flow of traffic. For now, anyway, bridges have ceased being an imminent threat and are usually just a means of conveyance.

I am here, I want to be there. The bridge allows me to make the journey.

Bridges connect. Musically, the bridge allows us to return from the chorus for another verse. In paintings and photographs, bridges provide focal points and perspective. And they make great metaphors. Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer for writing about a bridge, in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love that book, and that bridge, so much that I quoted its last lines, in a nod to my mother’s dementia, during my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary toast:

Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Fundamentally, a bridge of any kind spans a divide. We build them, we connect. We burn them, we sever ties that cannot be resurrected.

All my life, I have tried to build bridges, to connect, to make friends and find love. And yet here I sit, on my little island, sullen and resentful as I toil in my lonely job and return home to an empty house each night. And, truth be told, I am pissed off that I didn’t stand up for myself when I should have, that I allowed other people to dictate my terms, that I appeased when I should have fought, that I lingered when I should have walked away. I was so conditioned in childhood to “choose my battles wisely,” so concerned about “dying on the wrong hill,” that I gave up the fight long ago or directed my enmity at the wrong people altogether.

Now, I have arrived at midlife, tired and foolish and well stocked with matches.

In the last ten days, and for what reason I’m not sure, bridges have been crossed, terms set, matches struck. I threatened to walk off a project–and away from a much needed paycheck–because the editor was pressuring me too hard about a deadline. I threatened to cut ties with my FWB for creating a dynamic that no longer works for me. I put my father and sister on notice that my participation at family gatherings is optional and dependent on respectful treatment. And just today, I told J* off for insulting me.

How did it all work out? Mixed results!

The editor caved and offered reassurances that I am indispensable to the project. My FWB called me for the first time ever (we only text or meet in person) to apologize for his behavior. Time will tell if anything is truly going to change with him. My sister wrote me to apologize for her mistake, but there’s been no word from my dad, who has always quoted John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” on the subject of apologies: “Never apologize. It is a sign of weakness.” And my sister’s apology doesn’t change the fact that I feel the need to disentangle myself from my family as a whole in order to preserve a shred of self-esteem. I can already tell, the holidays are going to suck extra hard this year.

And what about J*? I did a fantastic job of calling him out, except that he didn’t actually insult me; I insulted him. I manufactured a conflict and lobbed some grenades because I was angry and hurt at something he told me about another woman, in a conversation the night before. They dated, and it didn’t work out, but they are still friends, and he is going to visit her later this summer. She’s 18 years younger than me, with doe eyes, creamy skin, and a tender heart that makes him want to protect her.

“I have to remember that I hurt her,” he said gallantly. “So I need to be sensitive about her feelings.”

He could fuck this girl into the next century, and all her hot young friends too, on a bedspread emblazoned with my ugly mug at its ugliest, and it wouldn’t bother me as much as that statement. Because he also hurt me, repeatedly, and yet he exercises no similar sensitivity about my feelings. In fact, he shamed me brutally for wanting to cut ties after he rejected me, talking me out of my own efforts to spare further injury to my broken heart. This girl is beautiful and desirable, vulnerable and valuable, and no one wants her feelings hurt–including me. And I guess I am some swamp rat garbage callus held together with barbed wire and toenail clippings, like the glob you leave at the bottom of the trashcan for the sun to burn off, or an object of strange familiarity you slow down to ogle and then blow past on the highway. Nothing that warrants special handling, that’s for sure.

I was not exactly thrilled with this realization, so I picked a fight about something else the next time we spoke on the phone. I was driving across a bridge at the time, doing my best to navigate the merge. I hit him where it hurt, touching off our usual cycle of vitriol, self-recrimination, ultimatum, and apology.

There was nothing but flames in the rearview mirror by the time I was finished. And I felt nothing but sadness as I approached the far side of the bridge, more alone than ever.

The Knockout

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I think I might need anger management.

A good way to tell whether someone knows me–really knows me–is to ask them how I am under stress. A year or so ago, when my department was discussing future leadership, one of my colleagues offered privately that I might make a good chair. Part of his argument was that I am “calm.” When I conveyed this to a friend of mine, he started laughing. Hysterically.

When I was on Tinder, a guy asked me via text, “Are you pretty laid back?” I considered his question over the course of several days, I discussed the merits of various responses with friends on Facebook, I did some research on the subject, and I replied in a lengthy message about conviction, assertiveness, and gendered assumptions about women. I never heard from him again. I should have saved us both some time and replied, “No.”

One of my ex-boyfriends told me I was “high strung.” He paused dramatically, then clarified, “Like an Irish setter.” Sure, he was a one-legged convicted felon who lied to me about his identity for several weeks when we first met, and he was high pretty much 24/7. But he was a good judge of character.

I try to remain calm, and most days I succeed. When I am well-fed, rested, and stress free–or, successfully ignoring the creeping demands on my time–I am pretty chill. The summer is better, because the email tide at work stops rolling in, and I can catch my breath. But if I am honest with myself, I contain my anger because it is in my vested interest to do so. Blood sugar, tiredness, and stress are contributing factors, sure, but the most important variable in whether or not I lose my shit seems to be whether or not I can get away it.

My friends know me to be an intense person, but few of them have actually seen me mad. They have seen me assertive, they have seen me bitchy, but they have never witnessed the fulsome power of my rage. If they had, they would not be my friends anymore, because I have a knack for identifying lines that people never knew they had and crossing them with the cold determination of a Panzer division. I have great capacity for empathy, and I pride myself on being able to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s part of what has made me a successful teacher and scholar, and it affords me some measure of redemption. But in moments of anger, my emotional sensitivity allows me to zero in on what will hurt the other person most. If I know them at all, I can level them. I see it in their passive, broken faces as they endure the onslaught of my words. In that moment, the only thing they hate more than me is themselves. There is no going back from that.

I have had two meltdowns in the last two days. In both cases, I was absolutely justified in feeling anger, if not in how I expressed it. In the first instance, an unleashed, 50-pound dog attacked my 12-pound little sweetheart (who was leashed), grazing her leg with teeth marks that hinted at how close we both came to catastrophe. (I am pretty alone in this world; if there is no dog, there is no me.) The owner, a neighbor with whom I have had some issues–namely, that he hits on me when his wife isn’t around–stopped the attack but then proceeded to slam his own dog to the ground and bash her head into the dirt with both hands. Both the attack on my dog and the man’s attack on his dog were terrifying. I literally ran away. In the second instance, a driver hit my parked car with some force during an aborted attempt to parallel park. Rather than assess the damage and leave a note, she left and parked elsewhere, thinking no one had witnessed the accident.

In both cases, a little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t do this.”

“Don’t open the door to your neighbor’s wife, who is undoubtedly here to apologize and inquire about your dog’s wellbeing.”

“Don’t get out of the car. Don’t follow the other driver.”

I didn’t listen.

Compelled by my rage, I invited both confrontations. My neighbor was so flustered by my obvious hostility when I opened the door that she refused to come into my house. I hectored her on the porch and watched her collapse inside herself as I issued an indictment of her dog, her husband, her marriage, her childrearing, and what I termed her “simpering apology.” I was probably right on every count: Her dog is a menace, because they failed to socialize it properly as a puppy and because her husband is abusive to it. Her husband is a menace, because he gets handsy with female neighbors when she’s not around, and he beat their dog like a savage. Her marriage–well, it seems like she puts up with a lot, and the way she bowed to my rage makes me suspect it’s not the first time someone has cut her off at the knees. And her childrearing–I’m sure she’s a good mother in many important respects. But her behavior during the attack on my dog and her husband’s attack on their dog makes me wonder. The last words I said to her were, “If you think that kind of violence is normal, I fear for your child and I fear for you.” Then I slammed the door in her face.

The young driver who hit my car didn’t know what hit her. She claimed she was going to return to my car, but I am skeptical. Still, Rational Me would like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But this morning, overtired and stressed about being unprepared for an exam just minutes away, I hit her with both barrels when I found her. Irresponsible, incompetent, immature–I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my spontaneous alliteration was positively Sorken-esque. If I were on the receiving end of one of my tirades, I might think, “Wow, I didn’t know people could talk like that in real life.” And then I would burst into tears. She stammered an apology that was profoundly inconvenient to my assessment of her as a person without remorse. I wasn’t having it, and she left in tears.

In both cases, I was shaking and shaken. Then, once the adrenaline dump subsided, I was overcome with shame and regret. When I picture what I must have looked like from the outside–course and loud and raving–I am mortified. That is not the person I want to be. That cannot be the person I am.

But it is.

I accomplished nothing with these confrontations. My neighbor–a woman who might very well be living in an unsafe home–will never again regard me as a decent person, let alone a friend. They will change nothing in how they correct their dog, because I have zero credibility as a person of restraint. If other neighbors hear about my outburst, they will be shocked and appalled. (Just today, an elderly neighbor brought me cookies with a note thanking me for being “the perfect neighbor.” When I think about her witnessing my outburst, it makes me want to die.) In the case of the young woman, I taught her nothing about maturity or accountability, squandering my spot on the moral high ground for a chance to roll around in the mud.

I think there is something wrong with me that I can hurt people this way, yet I manage to hide this terrible skill from most of the people in my life. I would never behave this way to someone who might physically overpower me, or someone who could get me fired, or someone whose love was not assured, or someone who could return my volley with anything approaching equal force. I only do this when I know I can get away with it. And that is a very grim assessment of my worth as a human being.

This doesn’t happen often, especially if I can avoid talking to customer service reps on the phone. It has been years since I really let go on someone in real life. That’s why these back-to-back confrontations have me so rattled. I thought I was doing better, but perhaps I was just stringing mines this whole time, and now I am tangled in the trip wires. I feel ruined, completely defeated, as if recovering from my own devastating knockout blow. I hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better about myself than I do tonight. What’s done is done, and there is no going back. All I can do is work harder in the future to keep it together, to see the other side. Be kind. Be still. Heed that little voice that whispers, “Don’t do this.”

And maybe ask for help.