Tag Archives: Women

Treachery

2 Dec

Posted in the Categories Infidelity and Adultery.  Some details have been omitted from these stories and some have been changed, for privacy reasons.

 

Storm Cloud. Georgia O'Keeffe

 

For months she has been waking every morning into fear. It takes some moments of confusion, rapid heartbeat and cold sweat before she’s orientated and can place herself in her own bed, white covers strewn with colourful cushions, next to the window through which she can see spilling dark pink bougainvillea and the kookaburra who lately has taken to sitting on a post staring at her for long periods at intervals throughout the day. The kookaburra’s stare is curious and indifferent, if the bird is a spirit guide, as one of her imaginative friends has suggested, it isn’t offering much advice. Nevertheless, she welcomes it.

She remembers the dream she’s just woken from in which she was, along with another woman unknown to her, held against her will by two men and required to sexually gratify them. The dream took place at the beginning of their captivity and the men were implacable but not yet physically violent. She knows this thing will escalate from the relatively simple to the incomprehensible, and she can see no way of escaping.

She thinks of the man who used to be her lover. Her fear increases. She takes the fear apart bit by bit. It is largely retrospective. She’s aghast that she let him into her life, a man capable of the emotional destruction of two women who loved him without understanding or caring to understand what he was doing. Realising both the extent of her lack of judgement and the total failure of her instinct for self-preservation makes her fear for her well-being. For months now she’s been trembling inside. The strong core of her is a fading memory.

She hasn’t known anyone in her adult life who so self-interestedly co-opted love as a means to an end. On an emotional, mental and spiritual level, it’s frightening and she wants a cleansing ritual that will rid her of the aftermath of his ambiguous presence in her mind, heart and body.

 

 We are perfectly matched, he writes, sexually, sensually, intellectually, and as she reads this she wonders if his wife was in the house when he was writing it, maybe even in the room, and what that means. Who is he that he can comprehensively deny the woman he’s shared his life with, had children with, been supported by in all his ventures, and she decides again that she will not join her future with his when he is capable of such violation of trust. How can she care about him, love him even, what is wrong with her that she is in thrall to a man she knows to be deeply treacherous?

She also knows she is complicit in his treachery. She’s said as much several times and he’s said, no, no this is my problem, my choice, my guilt not yours love, but she knows it isn’t that simple. She feels her allegiance shift from him to the unknown woman whose life he’s in the process of comprehensively wrecking. You should not be deceiving your wife like this, she tells him, you must tell her. No, he says, it will destroy her. Your wife has the right to know her life with you is drastically changing, she tells him. Don’t you think she’s noticed?

I can’t hurt her, he says. You are hurting her, she tells him, and hiding the truth from her is hurt on top of hurt, she has a right to know these things, she has a right to make informed choices about what she wants to do, now you are moving away from her. Don’t you realise the implications of what you’ve said and done?

He doesn’t answer.

You’ve no right to deny her the truth, she persists. You’re treating her like a child, as if she isn’t capable of knowing the truth of her life with you. You aren’t lying entirely for her sake. You’re lying for yours as well.

It will destroy my whole family if she knows, he insists, I’ll lose everything. You don’t want me to lose everything do you? You said you didn’t.

Still she stays with him, party to his betrayal and appalling self-interest, the deceived wife pushed once again into the background. Nothing good can come of this, she thinks. Nothing.

In the hotel they stand naked together and he turns her in the direction of the full-length mirror. Look, he says, there’s Us. They stand holding hands, staring at the couple in the mirror. As they watch, he moves his free hand across them to fondle her nipple. He is much taller than her. He has to lean down to kiss her mouth. She has to stand on tip-toes, he has to bend his knees so their genitals can meet. Look, he says, my cock is kissing her.

I hope you never use your love for me to justify your betrayal of your wife, she tells him later. I wouldn’t do it for anyone but you, he replies again. She wonders how that makes it any better. Is he using flattery to blame her, the irresistible woman meme again? The alleged irresistibility of women is always found to be punishable by some men and their consorts. The fault lies not with the hapless man who falls under its spell, but with the woman who should have subdued herself and so not tempted him. Even if tempting him was never her intention, she should have known there is always the possibility and subdued herself anyway. The magical powers attributed to women are the inverse to the power they actually wield in the world. This is no coincidence, she thinks.

She remembers with a bark of grim mirth that her name, a derivative of Guinevere, means “White Enchantress.”

Women are responsible for what men do about their desires. Women are responsible for arousing those desires in the first place. If I were that powerful, she tells him, if I was that irresistible, you would be here with me now and there would be no more lies.

If only you weren’t so perfect in every way, he groans. I’m not, she says, alarmed. Yes you are, for me, he says.

 

He has, he tells her, complacently she thinks, always been wrapped in cotton wool. As he’s been raised by women and then coupled young, it’s evident that it is women who have always wrapped him in cotton wool. Once he said to her, this argument that it’s bad for a male child to be raised by two women is nonsense. It didn’t do me any harm. She doesn’t point out the flaw in his argument: that it depends on the nature and relationship of the two women just as it depends on the nature and relationship of the heterosexual couple. It isn’t a question of gender. I would never wrap you in cotton wool, she warns him, I only do that for babies and little children, not grown ups.

It is not in her to expect that an adult will wrap her in cotton wool or vice versa. There is a dark side to coddling, a lack of autonomy, of privacy, of independence and he complains of all of these, yet doesn’t seem to see any correlation between the cotton wool and his sense of personal deprivation. He has to ask his wife for money, he tells her one day when he’s taking her to lunch. She thinks of the implications of a man asking his wife for money to take his mistress to lunch. His wife gives him fifty dollars and says this will be enough won’t it? As he goes to pay the bill he takes the money out of his wallet and flourishes it at her, grinning. It’s his wife he’s mocking, an adolescent defiance. He’s trying to make an allegiance with her against his wife, as if there aren’t already enough.

She thinks that if she’d heard the same descriptions of domestic life from a woman she’d think of abuse, controlling behaviours, intrusion.

Once when she’s been annoyed with him and questioned his intentions and actions he tells her she has damaged his self-worth, and she’s astonished at this reaction. He can’t be asked to account for himself without his self-worth suffering? No one in my life has ever spoken to me like that, he tells her and unrepentant she retorts, well they probably should have.

 

The first emotion she ever felt for him was compassion. He was suffering, he was stoic in his ordeal, and she greatly admired that in him. It stirred in her a strong wish to offer him friendly comfort.

Before that she liked him. She liked the way he thought. She liked the way he wrote. She liked the easy friendship they had. She thought him patronising in a way she’d encountered before in men who acknowledged her as an intelligent woman, but never quite as intelligent as them. She thought the need of such men to presume superiority showed the limits of their intelligence and imagination. She knows she’s been spoiled. Her husband, from whom she learned how to best use her gifts, proudly conceded that she’d excelled him. This does not happen so often between women and men, she’s observed. She doesn’t expect it. A woman learns to choose her battles.

She met him in person because of the compassion. Without that, they would never have met. They would have remained friends who wrote to each other and nothing else. She was open to him in a way she wasn’t usually open to strangers, but she didn’t desire him. She wasn’t looking for love or sex. She didn’t flirt with him. She was deeply tired.

It was a difficult time in her life. For months she had been at her dying husband’s bedside. Because of his need she lived those months in a compassionate state, and it was stronger in her than anything else. It’s an extraordinary state in which to live. She doesn’t know how she found her way into it. It’s a somatic as well as a feeling state. She felt it throughout her body every time she thought of her husband, as a warm intensity concentrated in the energy channels through which her life force moved. It flooded her as she sat with him. She couldn’t heal him, of course she couldn’t. But she could give him this profound attention with her mind and her heart and her body, and sometimes calm him. She did this every day for hours, for months. She did it when she fed him like an infant, and wiped his mouth, and washed his hands and told him stories about their life, when she said that she loved him and stroked his forehead, when she sat silent by his bed as he slept. Strangely, it didn’t exhaust her. Other things in the situation exhausted her, but the compassion never did. It was an altered state, and she was still in it when she met her lover.

Looking back, she wonders if it was this careful intensity of attention she gave to her husband that her lover found so attractive. He knew what she was doing, even though they hadn’t yet met. When they did meet he told her what she’d done was above and beyond the call of duty, a comment she found strange and out-of-place. He didn’t know her or the situation well enough to come to such a conclusion, and she shrugged her shoulders and said, I love him. We do that for people we love. Don’t we? Then he held out his hand for hers with such assurance, as if he knew without doubt that she would give him what he wanted. And she did.

 

 She learned from her grandmother to worry first about men then about herself. Women took on that responsibility. While you put men first, you also spoke disparagingly of them when they weren’t around. Even though they could hurt you they were useless and weak, and you had to do everything for them. That’s what women are supposed to do, she learned from the time she began to understand things. It took an entire two decades of feminism to set her straight. However, early lessons are not so easily unlearned.

Two women raised him, and now he has two women loving and nurturing him again. She is again putting a man’s needs before her own in a situation that can only deeply damage her, and calling it love. She is familiar with Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion, although she imagines it as one part of their situation, not the whole. There are so many lenses through which to view their situation, and each at times seems to be the one, though the desire for an overarching explanation is nothing more than a childish need for shallow reassurance, while drowning in the depths of oceanic complexity.

You have to stop this with me and sort out what’s wrong with your marriage, she tells him. There’s nothing wrong with my marriage, he protests. She laughs. OK. That’s why you’re telling me how perfectly matched we are and constructing this daily life with me, because your marriage satisfies you. That’s why you can’t think of anyone but me, and won’t engage in your family life anymore, because your marriage is so satisfactory. That’s why you’re lying to your wife on this massive scale, because there’s nothing wrong with your marriage. Really? she says. Really?

Later she understands that he has constructed a fantasy about his marriage that rivals even the fantasy he has constructed about her. Both women have allowed him these fantasies. Both women worry about the realities and leave him wrapped in cotton wool. He tells her that when he is anxious only her voice can soothe him, or her written loving words. She doesn’t always give them and then his anxiety escalates into panic. She sees these psychic attacks as reality smashing its way through the fortress of his fantasies, while he struggles desperately to prevent its emergence.

I love you, he tells her. I will love you until I die.

 

Life as a woman 3: Norrie

26 Nov

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Norrie began life as a male, had surgery to remove his penis and hormone treatment, then tried living life as a woman.

But she found she wasn’t accepted as female by men or women. She became increasingly uncertain of her gender identity. She stopped the hormone treatments. When hooligans jeered at her for being a trannie, she responded “Well spotted!”

Norrie began investigating alternatives and concluded that she didn’t want an assigned gender, she wanted to escape the male-female binary and have a non-specific gender designation. She then launched legal action to have this option included on basic documents such as passports and birth certificates, as well as the usual male and female categories.

After years of struggle and disappointment, in May last year the High Court decided that a non-specific gender designation on passports and other basic documents is legal, and Norrie’s battle was won.

The ramifications of this decision are enormous, not only for people in Norrie’s situation as adults, but for babies born with a non specific gender. The conventional response to these children is for parents and doctors to decide as quickly as possible if they are to be designated male or female, then to surgical and chemically embed them in the chosen gender. Now such children can be legally registered with a non specific  gender designation, giving parents time to consider the best option for their child.

Norrie has smashed the constricting male-female binary, and brought legal acknowledgement of difference for gender diverse and intersex people. Norrie rejected life as a man and life as a woman, and chose life without orthodox binary gender performance.

People will stare

Life as a woman

24 Nov

Time-Magazine-Transgender-Tipping-Point-Laverne-Cox

I have a close relative whose long-term partner decided in his fifties that he wanted to live as a woman. The manner in which he went about orchestrating this change caused immense shock and distress, mostly because he upped and went to Thailand and had the surgery without telling anyone, then rang his partner from that country to tell her what he’d done.

Of course she knew his desires, and was struggling to adapt herself to having chosen to live with a man who now wanted to change his sex to female. She didn’t, she said, want to be with a woman, she’d been there, done that and for her, choosing to spend her life with a man was an enormous change. And now look.

I, unhelpfully I see in retrospect, recalled her time as a radical feminist separatist who told me as I continued to give birth to boy babies that all men should be castrated. So when I heard what had happened I said, well. Be careful what you ask for.

When her partner came back from Thailand she ran away and came to stay with me and my husband for a while. None of us had ever before encountered such a situation, but we all knew about deceit, and dissembling, and secrets, and lies, so we could help her with that part.

For mine, I have no difficulties with what people decide to do with their bodies and if someone feels deeply wrong in the skin they’re in of course they have the right to do whatever they need to do about that. I’m talking here about gender reassignment, not women having the human right to breast implants and labiaplasty to make them look like air brushed porn stars as an exercise of feminist autonomy over their bodies. Separate issues. I do wonder, though, how someone who has been born male and lived male for over fifty years in our society, can suddenly know what life is like as a woman.

In this instance, and I’m not going to extrapolate our experience to anyone else, Felicity looks like a man who has had gender reassignment, and so is often treated even worse in this heterosexually dominant culture than are many “natural”-born women.

Now I have an ear worm of Carole King singing you make me feel like a natural woman, whatever the hell that meant, it was an anthem to some bloke though, and I suppose a validation of hetero sex because I haven’t heard any woman singing that to a female lover though it would be a delightful subversion if someone did, but I still wouldn’t know what the “natural” bit meant.

Felicity and I have had some ripper brawls over this life as a woman thing. I’ve told her straight up, you aren’t living life as a woman, you’re living life as a man who’s had gender reassignment surgery. The difficulties you’re  encountering since your surgery aren’t to do with the kind of gender prejudice I’ve had to deal with my entire life, they’re to do with people being unable to cope with gender reassignment. She’s called me a fucking cunt more times than I could ever count. It took me a long time to realise I was angry with her for trying to claim my experience of living on this earth as a woman for herself, when she hasn’t done the hard yards. She is doing hard yards, but they are of a different kind and I want her to own her difficulties, which are significant, and not pinch mine. Whenever we see one another we visibly bristle, and it’s on. And yet I think so much of her for what she’s done, the subversion, the courage, the determination to live as she wants to live.

I should add here that I agree with Judith Butler, gender is a performance of the roles assigned to us at birth, according to our genitals. A performance that is profoundly ingrained.

No matter how much Julie Bishop might want to protest otherwise, life as a woman in this culture still brings with it enormous inherent challenges, for no reason other than our habitation of a female body. It does the same for indigenous people, for no reason other than skin colour.  It does the same for gays and lesbians and polyamorists. This is still the universe of the white heterosexual alpha male, and the males who aspire to that status, and the rest of us are still knocking on its doors begging to be allowed in and equally paid, and not murdered because we have vaginas, and the rest. And, if possible, to be let in on some of our own terms without having to entirely capitulate to the orthodoxy, as I would strongly argue Julie Bishop has. In my life as a woman I don’t want to play the alpha bloke’s games. Which is why I’m a blogger in my nightgown and not Janet Albrechtsen. Ha!

Male violence against women. Call it what it is.

20 Nov

This piece in Daily Life yesterday by Jane Gilmore raises some important questions about how we talk about male violence against women.

One of the most startling revelations is the difficulty and the expense of discovering, in Victoria at least, the gender of the majority of perpetrators of violence. While information about the victims of such violence is publicly released, information about the offenders is not, and Gilmore had to pay $700 and wait nine weeks to obtain this information. What Gilmore eventually discovered about the Victorian statistics is this:

In 2013/14

* 87% of homicides were committed by men.
* 98% of sexual assaults were committed by men.
* 83% of non-sexual assaults were committed by men.
* 90% of robberies were committed by men.
* 92% of abductions were committed by men.

I strongly recommend you read the article for a more comprehensive view of these figures.

I don’t want to start a gender war. But these statistics are irrefutable. I can understand that many men, especially those who are not violent towards women and don’t engage in criminal acts, might feel unfairly attacked and defensive when women raise our voices in protest against male violence. However, I would urge you not to waste your energy feeling unfairly attacked (you aren’t nearly as unfairly attacked as we are) and defensive. Most women don’t think all men are violent. But there’s no escaping the reality that most of the violence in our society that comes to the attention of the authorities is perpetrated by men.

If you can get outraged by the king hit and rush in laws overnight to increase penalties for the very few instances of that particular type of male violence, how do you explain the ongoing refusal to be equally and more outraged by the fact that sixty-eight women have been killed in Australia this year, by men? (from Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women project.)

We have a Minister for Women, though you’d never know it. He’s about as useful as the non-existent Science Minister. His name is Tony Abbott. Tell him you want to hear what he intends to do about all the women dead this year and those yet to die, at the hands of violent men.

DV1

Dear You

1 Nov

Georgia O'Keefe

I don’t know if you still visit here.  There are times I hope that you do, because of the extraordinary phone call we had the day you rang me in such fury and distress about your husband’s affair with me and its aftermath. When we stopped shouting we talked about so many intimate things and I find it remarkable, given our circumstances, that we found any trust at all in one another.

That trust fluctuates on my part. I don’t know you. I know you are protecting your husband from my fury and I don’t like that. He should deal with the mess. That’s what I told my husband. Deal with the mess you’ve made, I’m not saving you from its consequences. If she wants to scream at you it’s the least you can let her do, I told him. If I was her I’d poke your fucking eyes out, I said. Maybe I will anyway, I said.

I’ve no time for men who hide behind women like little kids clinging to their mother’s skirts. Raising boys can do that to a woman. When you’ve got them to adulthood you really don’t want to be taking on another man-child.

Anyway.

I think about you every day, and wonder how you are, and if you have anyone you talk to about these events. I wonder if you want us to talk again, and if that would help us or not. You sound brave. You sound strong. I imagine you always putting up a good front. I imagine how shocked and hurt you must be about what he and I have done to all our lives. I still can’t grasp how he has caused so much devastation to two women who love him, and whom he says he loves. It makes me wonder just what he thinks love means. Not that I’d know, love’s manifestations are apparently  infinite, and who hasn’t been beguiled by them at one time or another.

There are times I hope you aren’t visiting here. What you’d read could only make you feel worse. Perhaps you think I shouldn’t write about these things, but I’m a writer and writers are cannibals, we devour our own kind, digest them, and expel them out on the page.

I’ve kept back details that might give clues to his identity, which means there’s much I haven’t written about the genesis of the affair. It hasn’t done me any good to be reticent about this, and I’ve only done it for you. I don’t actually care if the entire world finds out who he is and the shitty things he’s done to both of us, but you don’t deserve that much exposure.

I only ever dreamt about him once or twice, but I dreamt about you a lot, or the woman my unconscious imagined you to be. I’d be at your house and we’d be talking, and walking round the garden. He’d be a shadowy presence in the background, sometimes asleep, a figure I’d see as I walked past his bedroom door, huddled under his blankets, nothing of him visible, a shape in a bed. All the energy was between you and me, and it was amicable and warm. I’d wake up thinking, what is this about, it’s bloody unnerving to be dreaming like this about my lover’s wife, there’s something going wrong with my head. Then after we talked I thought, she sounds exactly like I dreamed her.

He once asked me if I dreamed about him and I said not much, but I dream about your wife a lot.

I don’t know what he made of that.

 

He felt guilty all the time, he said. Guilty about me, guilty about you, guilty about the family he was putting at risk. Guilt is such a useless emotion, I told him. It rarely stops people doing what they want to do. It doesn’t do anything to help the people they hurt. It just exists inside the guilty party’s head and they think it means that deep down they’re good, just because they feel guilty.

Guilt didn’t stop him telling me to “remember my hips between your thighs” while you sat in another room crying because he was talking to me on the phone and you knew he was.

 ∫

 I was a complete failure at being a mistress. The demeaning limitations of that role almost destroyed me. I can’t imagine anyone who could be worse at it than me.  I would say to myself, I love him, I can do this, and cripple my nature for another day. His need of me overwhelmed me. I learned very early in life to respond to the needs of men before my own. You don’t have any choice in the matter when you’re a child and then the pattern is set, you don’t even recognise it and when you do, breaking out of it is the work of a lifetime. If there’s anything good for me in this sorry situation, it’s that I’m coming to understand how what I think of as love is distorted by the obligations imposed on me as a child. I thought I had all this sorted. Obviously I didn’t. Because honestly, no matter how attracted I’d been to him, I’d have done nothing if he hadn’t been in a state of desperate need, and begged me for me.

I’m not a feminist who believes in a sisterhood because we all have vaginas. I am a feminist who can see the politics of the miserable configuration in which we find ourselves.

If it’s any consolation to you, I am still a fucking mess and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. At the same time, I realise that your pain must be excruciating, and what’s more, you have to see him every day and find some way of living with him. He said to me after you’d found out, You are crying on the phone, my wife is crying in the next room, this is impossible. Did you think we’d fucking get over it in five minutes, I shouted. Don’t you realise the impact of this on us?

I don’t think he had a clue, really.

I am here if you want. I understand if you don’t. I won’t stop thinking about you and wondering how you are. I never imagined I would be part of bringing so much hurt into another woman’s life.

Oh, I found my music. It is yellowed, and there are silverfish.  I think it is too late for me to think of a piano. But I often imagine you playing yours.

Jennifer.

Quint Buccholz Two

The cupboard under the stairs

29 Oct

A combination of illness and heart carnage has resulted in weight loss that has seen me holding myself together for the last few months with safety pins, and belts with new holes gouged in them by Mrs Chook’s screwdrivers. I knew that somewhere I had a store of thin clothes but I’ve lacked the energy and interest to look for them. I always hurl everything I don’t immediately need into a vast cupboard under the stairs that has no adequate lighting so a torch is required, or one of those reading lights that fit around the head. Having light doesn’t stop me forgetting that at some point I can no longer stand up in the cupboard, and I always crack my head on a beam. Nothing is stored in any kind of order so I have to trawl through all kinds of stuff to find the one thing I need. The whole process drives me mad, but seeing as I couldn’t stand safety pins for another day, I had to do it. I found my thin clothes, which are probably vintage by now but that’s all right, vintage is good, it’s like having a new wardrobe, and the pleasure of wearing something that actually fits me is great.

In the cupboard I found my husband and me a long time ago on Bondi Beach

Arnie and me

Arnie was a very unobservant Jew, except for Passover feasts which he loved, but I never acquired a taste for gefilte fish and matzah ball soup and fortunately, he delighted in cooking them. He loved as well getting into vigorous arguments with the man from Jews for Jesus up at Bondi Junction, and if he could, he’d bale up the Hasidic Jews who lived round the corner from us and have a robust exchange with them about the Talmud. Very occasionally he would go to the synagogue, and in his seventies he started Hebrew classes. I used to say he was conflicted about his tribe, to which he invariably responded “Ah, conflicted, schmicted,” with a rabbinical shrug. When I first met my mother-in-law in Hartford, Connecticut, she said, “For a shiksa, you’re a doll.” He always said that when we die we become energy in the universe. I don’t know in which part of the universe he has become energy, but I hope I can find him.

I discovered all kinds of things in my rummaging, including Mexican kitsch I’d forgotten all about. While living there a few years ago I became fond of the Virgin of Guadalupe, not least because she is also known as the Woman of the Apocalypse, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” I found her on a handbag in a market

Virgin bag

I found her in another market on earrings made from beer bottle tops

virgin earrings two

I found her on a postcard that I’ve put in a frame beside my bed

virgin photo

I found her on matchboxes and scarves, and in beaten tin that I’ve hung on the sitting room wall where she can watch over me while I sleep on the couch. She comforts me, and there are times in life when we must take our comfort wherever we can find it.

virgin guadalupe

Then I found my hair, cut off when I was twelve

Hair aged 12

And then I found this

In labour

The child I gave birth to that April day is now the father of these two

farm boys

And after being in that cupboard I like to fancy that we are all women of the apocalypse, clothed with the sun, and the moon under our feet, and upon our heads a crown of twelve stars, and if I can remember that when I go into the universe perhaps my husband will find me, and I won’t even have to look for him.

What a woman wants, what a woman needs…

28 Feb

Yesterday I visited a place on the NSW south coast that once served as a sanctuary, a place to which I fled after an almost terminal encounter with cancer left my whole being drastically weakened, terrified to live and equally terrified to die. Daily life had become impossible, I no longer knew how to fulfil its expectations. I needed solitude, away from city life, I needed to escape the claims and demands of human interaction, even with those I loved and who loved me, and I needed this so desperately I think I might have physically attacked anyone who tried to hold me in place. Fortunately, nobody did, I was reluctantly let go when I promised to allow visits, as long as nobody stayed too long, and how long was ‘too long’ was to be determined by me.

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It was also fortunate that we owned a caravan behind the sand dunes on a largely deserted beach. You can’t live in a caravan, they said. You can’t live there all by yourself, you’ve been so sick, look at you, you have no hair and all your bones are showing. Fuck off, of course I can, I told them, unkindly. Any attempt at what I perceived as thwarting me made me frantically distressed, as if I was being pinned down by a body stronger and more powerful than mine that I had to fight off, or suffocate.

The caravan was in one of those old-fashioned parks where families spent their holidays year after year for as long as anyone could remember. When I arrived, exhausted from the four-hour drive and the emotion of goodbyes, the place was largely empty, being out of holiday season and in the middle of autumn. It was cold. The south coast climate is at best fickle, I have known us wrapped in sweaters and blankets on Christmas Day. The caravan, unoccupied for months during my illness and initial recovery, was musty and damp, a habitat for spiders and insects. The day was overcast, adding to the gloom, and while our spot beside the creek in a grove of melaleucas was idyllic, it allowed for little light under such a low grey sky. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stay in the spider-infested gloom. I couldn’t go back to our light-filled Bondi Beach home where I suffered anxiety attacks every time I went out the front door into the neighbourhood I had, prior to my illness, loved to inhabit, with its cafes where I met my friends, ate weekend breakfasts with my husband and whoever else happened by, where we swam or walked the winter beach hand in hand talking as we always did with such energy and delight, even at the times we disagreed with practically everything the other said.

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After the cancer, I couldn’t talk about anything anymore. The ongoing blows inflicted by the illness, so unexpected, so unpredictable, they seemed unending in their variety and persistence. After cancer is a time largely underestimated in its power to disrupt. Generally, people think you ought to be relieved, happy you got away with it this time, determined to embark on a recovery regime that will get you back in the swim of things just like you were before. In reality, at least for me, it’s when the horror of the experience actually hits home, something that is impossible when you’re going through the treatments and your world has become medicalised to the extent that it overwhelms all other realities. Post cancer, every little twinge in your body is noted with alarm: is it coming back? For months I woke in the night drenched in sweat, from nightmares the details of which I could never remember, and a debilitating weariness dogged my days. There was nothing that did not leave me exhausted, and tearful. I couldn’t manage all this, and human beings as well.

I walked along this same beach yesterday, under a similar low, soft grey sky, the familiar smell of kelp, the haunting cries of seagulls, the gritty south coast sand between my toes. At the end of my beach there’s a broken wooden jetty where I used to lie on my stomach, peering intently at the stingrays gliding through the clear water beneath me. The rhythm of those days and weeks and months of solitude came back to me. In the mornings waking up sweat-soaked and panicked, climbing out of my single bunk bed to make tea on the gas stove, cold, even if the day was warm, because what I remember from those months is how I could never warm myself, even under piles of blankets, even in the hottest sun, it was as if I had a frigid core that nothing could reach, it was as if I had entirely lost my previously automatic ability to regulate even my body temperature. The trembling of my body, most especially my thighs, and the cold sweat drying on my skin. The fear of moving. The terror of putting one foot in front of the other. The utter loss of everything ordinary.

My husband and my adolescent children would visit and though I loved to see them, the relief I felt at their departure, at the resumption of my solitude, made me ashamed. I remembered yesterday the feeling of my starved gulping, my greedy devouring of nourishment not from my loved ones whom I invariably felt I had to reassure, but from the solitude of the natural world in which I was immersed. That was my healing. My guilt at abandoning them was great. But my need to be alone in this wild landscape overwhelmed it. I wanted nothing except what I needed to stay alive, some books, some music. The hurt I caused them did not become fully apparent till some years later when my eldest son, beside himself with unexpressed distress from that whole period of our lives, shouted at me, You didn’t need any of us! You just left us! You didn’t let us help you, you are such a fucking loner, Mum, you don’t fucking need anybody!

Which left me speechless. And reaching out for him and he came into my arms, grown up, so much bigger than me, and sobbed.

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I don’t know how it is for others, but I’ve always had a dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them. Sometimes I think I will die if I don’t have time absolutely alone. Sometimes I cannot bear to engage in one more conversation about, essentially, nothing, the kind of conversations that make up so much of our daily discourse, the words that serve to weave the binding threads between people, and that is their purpose. Sometimes I think if I am not able to sit in silence in the natural world for as long as I need to, I will start breaking things. It’s as if the healing never really finishes, needs to be topped up from time to time with a return to the inner self who increasingly becomes more solid, more real, than any outer persona and whose needs are so far from anything found in the everyday world with its constructed conventions, and its claims that largely require almost incessant, low-intensity interactions for their fulfilment.

For a woman to do what I did, leaving home, husband and family who cared for me through the desperate and dangerous phase of my illness, insisting on solitude rather than accepting their love was seen largely as selfish, and it was, there’s no denying that. It had a price, for all of us, but yesterday I understood that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or frightening about paying a price for something deeply desired, these are deals we strike every day, choices made, choices rejected, and almost every one of them has some effect on someone to a greater or lesser degree. I still don’t know, after all this time in this life, how much I am allowed to take for myself, how much selfishness I am allowed, how many choices I may make that cause another hurt or discomfort, how responsible I must be for protecting another from disruption in the pursuit of my own desires and needs. With every situation this must be weighed up anew, and I have made some horrible errors. It seems that the important thing is that I continue to bother to attempt these fraught calculations, even though my sums may be dreadfully wrong. I hope that is the case, though I don’t expect I shall ever know.

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

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