Jan/Feb 2020 Nonfiction

Bad Bells

by Margaret Donovan Bauer

Borrowed image

A few years into my first relationship after ending my marriage, I am sitting in a Chinese restaurant with my boyfriend, who is in a seething, inexplicable rage. Baffled, I replay for myself the events of the previous few minutes, between the car ride to the restaurant and being seated, trying to figure out what has upset him.

I have thought about this evening many times over the subsequent quarter century. I see the rusty red color of the walls of the room, the white tablecloth on the table before me, and the opening to the restaurant lobby and exit several feet behind him. I can hear people behind me filling their plates from the buffet, oblivious to the tension at our table. I know, without having to stretch my memory, that my significant other was wearing a button-down, long-sleeve Oxford shirt, solid or stripe, jeans, and sneakers. His wardrobe did not vary much. If this were a weekday, he would have had a '90s-era thin knit tie on earlier but had likely taken it off when he got home from work.

I remember his hands, strong veins showing on the outside, his blue-collar father's working man's hands, but with soft palms because his are the hands of a poet. Literally. He was a poet. I don't remember if he inherited his father's ability to work with his hands, don't remember him particularly handy around his or my apartment, or a craftsman of any kind, though as I recall, he appreciated good woodwork, fine art, and he had nice penmanship. He wore no rings, only a watch on his thin wrist, which often showed beneath his folded back sleeves.

I'm grateful now that I don't remember what his expression actually looked like when he was angry or disgusted with me, which was often in those days. It is a blessing to have erased the memory of his cruel, cold countenance when he disapproved of my actions. At the local Blockbuster, for example, he had started criticizing my "provincial" movie choices. But if I suggested that he choose the film, assuring him it really didn't matter to me what we watched since I usually end up liking most movies, he would then disdainfully interpret such indifference as evidence I lacked critical acumen.

On the night of his inexplicable outrage at the Chinese restaurant, I lean across the table and ask quietly, "Okay, what's wrong? You're obviously angry. You weren't upset in the car. And we just sat down. What could I have done between parking the car and now?" Or maybe I just ask the first question—"What's wrong?"—and think the rest of it. Notice I assume blame for whatever has upset him. I do not look around to see if he's seen someone he doesn't like (as he is quite the misanthrope, there are several possibilities on his list of grudges). I know I am the source of his anger even if I have no idea what mistake I have made. I do look around to see if we know anyone in the restaurant, if anyone is witnessing the disdainful look directed at me by this man whom our friends and acquaintances believe is completely enamored with me. I am grateful for the restaurant's dim lighting in case I see someone we know, but I don't recognize anyone among our fellow diners, which is a relief. I don't want people to know how he treats me when we are alone, afraid, perhaps, they will reach the same conclusion I have: that I deserve it.

He speaks softly in response to my question, not one to make a scene: "You are the most self-centered person I have ever known. You simply never think about anyone else's feelings as you go through your daily life."

Whaaaaaat? I am still baffled. I wince at the character stab, blink back the welling tears to keep them from falling on the table.

He is all the more outraged that I have not figured out for myself the nature of my offense. After a moment of seething silence to allow me to collect myself so I don't embarrass him by crying in public, he snarls, "You know I hate to sit with my back to the door."

I recall his mantra: "Paranoid people have enemies, too, you know." He typically pronounces this assertion as if he is in jest, but I have come to realize his paranoia is no joke to him. It is true he had indicated at some time or another that he liked to sit where he could keep his eye on the door, but I never considered this a serious seating preference. I am just beginning to comprehend that his idiosyncrasies reflect grave and problematic insecurities. My own insecurities get in the way of recognizing his.

I take a breath, swallow my hurt over his insult about my self-centeredness, and say simply, with feigned cheerfulness I hope will lighten the mood and suggest nonjudgmental acceptance of his preference, "Let's just change seats then."

"It's too late," he hisses. "I'm just so disappointed in you, your inability to consider other people's feelings."

You're also so condescending, I think, but do not say.

I also do not say, Don't worry. I have your back. At this point in our relationship, I am learning that wit and levity are not going to soothe his anger. He is no longer enthralled by "how clever [I am] for one so young" (15 years his junior). His condescension isn't new, just easier to recognize since it is no longer disguised as flattery. I apologize for my thoughtlessness.

And I apologize and apologize and apologize for a few years of this relationship, even as I am beginning to recognize I have once again entrapped myself into a destructive partnership by weaving our relationship into my identity here. I am no braver about breaking up with this man than I'd been about ending my marriage. I had to leave to leave my husband. I moved several states away to go to graduate school and thus avoided the post-separation social discomfort of running into people who would ask, Where's — ? Or the heartbreak of learning some friends are only friends because they like him. Or the criticism: What is wrong with you that you cannot keep a man?

Whenever the question comes up, What would you change about your past if given the chance for a do-over? I flash on that scene at the Chinese restaurant and wonder, what if, in response to his complaint about my self-centered seating choice, I had just stood up and said, "Not a problem. You can have this seat. I won't need it after all," and walked out of the restaurant?

That is the moment in my life I would go back and change if given a chance. And I would do just that: walk out on a man hiding his own insecurities behind an unfair character assassination of me and save myself from the next few years of his emotional abuse. Perhaps then I would have walked out sooner on subsequent men who used my poor self-image against me to manipulate me for their twisted ego issues.

With a little more self-respect, I might have rejected outright the poet's assertion of my self-involvement just because I was not in tune with his every need. Instead, I internalized it, worried that others found me self-centered too. I continued to question my real worth and felt like a fraud: outwardly an outspoken, accomplished woman, inwardly a cowardly bundle of anxiety about my likability.

I have been male-identified since long before (and long after) I understood or had ever even heard the term—essentially, since childhood. I was raised in a small Southern town where I witnessed women's identities absorbed into their husbands' (and children's). Perhaps, too, being male-identified is one of the consequences of having a larger-than-life father in Who's Your Daddy Land and being a daddy's girl, which I would not change in my do-over. I would just remind myself sooner than now, these decades later looking back, that my father did not belittle or demean me. He valued me and had high expectations for me, with no doubt I would fulfill them. It seems that from the moment he named me for his mother, a woman who became a lawyer in the 1920s, he expected me to follow in her footsteps; and when I chose to pursue a PhD instead of a law degree and become a professor rather than an attorney, he could not have been prouder. "Doctor Bauer," he would say loudly whenever I called him at work, so all within hearing knew he was speaking to his daughter, "The Professor." (Hear that in a Southern accent.) No, I definitely did not get my poor self-image from daddy issues. My daddy would have been shocked by the very idea I had a low opinion of myself.

And my mother doesn't just love me, she likes me, which is something I eventually learned to look for in a man's reaction to me, thanks to the courageous woman who taught me, by example, to get the hell out if I find myself not happy with someone; to ask, does he like me for who I am, or is he suggesting ways I should try to change? "Look at your friends," my mother told me when I recounted to her another man's complaints about my character shortcomings. "You have always had such amazing women friends. And they're smart. Could you fool them? Consider the possibility that he's the one who is coming up short here," she advised. Upon reflection, he was.

My self-doubt about my lovability, my likability, most definitely did not come from my parents. Rather, at least some of my insecurity comes from being different from other girls I grew up with in Deep South Louisiana. My mother told me when I went to college, "Your friends are going to college to find husbands. You are going to get an education." She also never asked me when I was going to give her grandchildren. I assumed I would marry and have children. I had very few examples of women doing otherwise. But I would have a career, too, like my grandmother. The closer I got to defining that career, the odder I became to people back home. Teaching was certainly considered a respectable job for a woman, but when I ended up pursuing that desire via graduate school, aspiring toward a career as a college professor, I distinguished myself (which is not a positive for women back home), confirming my "otherness" in a community that resists the unfamiliar.

In my effort to prove I was "normal" in spite of my "abnormal" ambition, I married a man from my hometown, ignoring the red flags about my intended's fecklessness and our incompatibility that could not be missed by anyone who knew us, including me. "I never met an English teacher I liked," my fiancé actually told my mother once. She heard him loud and clear and couldn't decide which was worse: that he said it, or that he didn't hear what he was saying. I was an English major at the time, intending to teach. Mom remembers sitting in the church during my wedding, concentrating on not screaming, "Stop! Just stop! Don't do this!" I knew all along my marriage to him wouldn't last, but I headed down the aisle and said those vows anyway. It's what you did after college in Louisiana (if not after high school). Thankfully, I did not compound that error by having children with him, and just a few years into the marriage, since my ambition was taking me out of state to pursue a doctorate, I used that move as an opportunity for escape.

The poet, my first relationship after this marriage, seemed to be, as my stepfather characterized him, "a pendulum swing" from my ex-husband. I'd found someone who shared my passion for literature, not to mention a man with a steady career. Alas, this opposite extreme ultimately became just as unsupportive of my aspirations as the ex-husband who could not relate to them. During the time period of the restaurant and video store disagreements, I was finishing up my PhD program and preparing to launch what would ultimately be a successful career. The closer I got to completing my dissertation, the angrier the poet became. His career was there, and he did not like change. I was certainly not encouraging him to inquire about available positions as I applied for academic jobs in my field, wherever they might be, across the country. His emotional abuse was making the inevitable end to this relationship when I left for a tenure-track job all the easier for me. I was ready to escape him just as I had escaped my husband: by leaving.

Most baffling to me at this point was why he wasn't looking forward to my departure. If I was as self-involved, as unconcerned about his needs, and as flawed as his constant complaints suggested, wouldn't he be better off without me? The one time I thought one of his diatribes about what a horrible person I was had ended with our breaking up, he called a few hours later to ask why I had not shown up at his apartment for dinner as previously planned. He had not interpreted the ending to the afternoon's disagreement as I had. He just thought that now I understood what I was doing wrong (whatever it was that time), I would stop doing it. And maybe he had overreacted a bit. Of course, I was a good person. He should not have indicated otherwise. I was just young, and the young tend toward self-involvement. I would change as I matured.

I am embarrassed by the young woman I was, who listened passively to such drivel. She knew better, but she was too cowardly to challenge him. Alone in my apartment after that particular argument, thinking we had just broken up (before his phone call), I recall being torn between relief the relationship was over and the familiar concern about my identity outside of the couple I had been a part of for almost as long as the people there had known me. Would people see me as someone who was not loveable if I were not in a romantic relationship? I was approaching 30 by this time, and still single. Would people wonder (as I was clearly wondering) what was wrong with me that I could not maintain a relationship? So when he explained to me on the phone that his remarks earlier that day about how perhaps we were not so good together after all were not meant as an argument for ending the relationship but rather to suggest we (I, that is) needed to strive to be better, I went along with his interpretation of where we'd left things after that fight, in order to remain part of a couple, proof to the rest of the world I was worthy of love and respect. Except I did not get much evidence of love or respect from him—which other people had no way of knowing since his emotional abuse always occurred in private. In public, he was the supportive partner, seemingly proud of my promising progress through my PhD program.

Few who knew him socially or professionally would have guessed he despised socializing. To punish me for enjoying social gatherings, he inevitably picked a fight before most parties we attended, putting me on edge with my secret knowledge that he did not want to be wherever we were, while he brought up the anecdote he had prepared for the evening's small talk.

He was the first to read about Lorena Bobbitt, a minor story he found towards the back of the morning's newspaper, on the day of one party. This was the early '90s, before posting and sharing on the Internet. Something going viral was not a metaphor, just one of his many paranoid concerns, which was another reason he hated parties—germs from people double-dipping their chip or not washing their hands before they cooked the food or shook his hand. The story of a woman cutting off her husband's penis while he slept and throwing it out the window of her car seemed, in the early 1990s, preposterous, made up for a supermarket tabloid; certainly not news—it couldn't be true. Knowing no one would believe such a story, he'd clipped the maybe two-inch newsprint, with only a half-inch-type headline, and tucked it into his billfold to pull out and show the unbelieving listener. (It would be another day or so before the story became fodder for late night comedians.) Our fellow revelers found him and his story entertaining, while I wondered how he could transform so quickly from the man who had been icily silent during the ride to the party, his way of expressing his disapproval of my insistence upon, even excitement about, attending. And now, here he was, the center of much hilarity.

But back in the car, on the way home, his hands grip the steering wheel too tightly, and I know that in spite of his festive demeanor for the preceding few hours, he would have preferred we'd stayed home. What he really hated was sharing my attention, which should be focused on him alone in the evenings. And though I likely had several enjoyable conversations with friends at the party, in the back of my mind all evening was knowing he did not want to be there, which nagged me with worry about the cold ride home, when I would hear about how I had neglected him, how it hurt that he was not enough for me, and his interpretation of my need for friendships as a testimony of my inability to fully commit to our relationship.

He was right about that. I was not fully committed. I was looking for a way out. But I was a coward who could not express any of my complaints about his behavior or break up with him. I felt important as the girlfriend of this award-winning poet. And I was afraid of being single again. Having met my future husband during my first year of college, and the poet within a month of leaving that husband, I had forgotten how to be alone.

The first warning sign about this man had come in our first year together, when I made plans to have dinner with a fellow graduate student. I was excited about the prospect of a new friend. We were about the same age, and she'd come from Texas, Louisiana's neighbor state, so I was certain we had a lot in common. This was some time during my second semester of graduate school and the first such invitation I'd felt comfortable about extending. I was taken aback when my poet boyfriend expressed his hurt feelings over my making plans with someone else. As a graduate student, I was of course busy most nights with reading, studying, research, writing. He was disappointed, he said, that I chose to spend one of the precious weekend evenings with someone other than him. But he and I lived in the same apartment complex and ate dinner together most nights. His complaint was unwarranted. He had plenty of my time. Even so, instead of challenging him, asserting my right to relationships with others besides him, I began to internalize his characterization of my thoughtlessness. And although I did make a new friend that night (still one of my dearest friends 30 years later), worry nagged the back of my mind while we were out together. I am certain I called him as soon as I got home to make sure we were still alright.

He sulked more and more regularly as I developed friendships with more of my classmates, which resulted in invitations (for both of us) to social gatherings. In hindsight, I realize how his reaction to my wanting to spend an evening with a girlfriend was very telling—about him and about our incompatibility. I tried to explain to him how much friendship has always meant to me and how much I was enjoying making friends with people who shared my passion for literature, who understood the stress of graduate school and the subsequent job search. I wish I had spoken out about his failure to accept and respect my needs beyond him. I wish I had suggested that what was actually self-centered was his inability to be happy that I was making friends. But I was not there yet.

I got there, though, and by the time I graduated, unbeknownst to him, I was looking forward to my escape from his emotional abuse. Preparing for graduation included going on the job market, and then I would end this relationship the same way I'd ended my marriage: by leaving town, probably the state, to begin the next chapter of my life, my career. I would once again avoid the awkward public element of a breakup, which I knew from my parents' divorce could be painful, particularly for the woman. I'd witnessed my mother ostracized and harshly criticized by their shared friends after she ended their marriage for her own selfish purpose: to find fulfillment in herself, not just her husband and children, to be happy.

The poet was planning a future for us quite different from my vision of us each moving on with our lives, separately. Whether consciously or not, he had figured out a way he might stop the inevitable separation that would follow my completing the doctoral program and leaving for a tenure-track job somewhere away from him. With his more and more frequent attacks upon my character, he began to undermine my belief in myself. His goal was for me to settle in there with him rather than pursue my career beyond earning the degree that would have enabled it. He even ultimately suggested we could marry and have children, having determined from my enjoyment of the new babies my fellow graduate students were having that I must want a baby, too.

"You don't even like children," I said when he finally asserted outright I should stay and start a family with him, rather than take the first job that was offered. This suggestion revealed how desperate he was to keep me there since he would pout after parties at which I held someone's baby or sat on the floor to play with a toddler. "You bring those germs back with you, and you know I'm susceptible to colds," he would complain on our way home. More evidence of my failure to consider his well-being.

As I relate such ridiculous paranoia, I can hear my reader wondering (as anyone who knows me does when I tell stories about this relationship), you stayed with this jerk? Yes, I did, even after I took a visiting position and moved to Texas for two years. The job offer was not tenure-track, but it was a clean exit opportunity—or so I thought. He could not understand why I was risking our relationship by leaving, without any job security behind this move. I countered with the value of the experience, even if it meant moving. I was also thinking that Texas was definitely too far away for a long-distance relationship. A man who complained about being abandoned on the rare occasion my friends and I scheduled a girls' night (we were graduate students, after all; such evenings were not frequent) would certainly not tolerate a long-distance relationship for long.

For 18 months, however, I flew back to see him every holiday, break, and many weekends. It had not been so easy to end our relationship after all. I was lonely in Texas, missing my friends who were still finishing their degree programs. Having taken up so quickly with the poet after my marriage ended, I had not learned how to attend events alone comfortably. I was beginning to worry, too, that I was never going to find my special mate. It seemed all my friends back home and from graduate school, even all the new people I met at my new job, were married and starting families. So, inevitably, I was asking myself again, What is wrong with me? and telling myself, Maybe he is right about me.

I had thought women were supposed to be able to have it all by the end of the 20th century, but it appeared that by prioritizing my career, I had doomed myself to living alone. I say that, and yet I did not remain single for long after finally ending this relationship—or the next, or the next. I became a serial monogamist, though to my credit, my relationships gradually became shorter before I managed to extricate myself from each poor choice. Albeit slowly, I was learning to get out as soon as possible after hearing "bad bells."

"Ewww, bad bells," I'd said to the poet one evening, very early on. I don't even remember what inspired the remark.

"Bad bells? What does that mean?" he asked.

"You know the saying, 'that rings a bell'? Well, that just rang a bad bell." I don't remember what he said to summon the memory of a negative experience. I do remember that, a poet, he liked my turn of phrase, and he was impressed I had called him on his misstep, whatever it was. But that was early on. I could do so lightly. We weren't serious yet. He was still enamored with my being so strong for one so young, so brave to leave my home state all by myself to pursue my PhD. Only a few months later, I would not heed the bad bells ringing when he objected to my going out with a friend on a Saturday.

It took me many years to learn to leave when I heard those warning bells.

I should have listened to the bad bells in that first relationship with the poet after my ridiculous marriage. As I say, I should have walked out of that Chinese restaurant, called it quits earlier than that, as soon as he started reminding me of my ex-husband. Or rather, as soon as I started reminding me of me with my ex-husband.

My subsequent relationships were more and less painful. More difficult lessons came out of hurting a kind, loving man whom I did care very much for, might have had children with, and getting involved with someone I couldn't so easily escape because by then I was nearly tenured, really liked my job, and didn't want to move. "Don't shit where you eat," a colleague told me when she returned from a sabbatical out of the country and found out whom I'd gotten involved with in her absence. Lesson learned.

More gratifying lessons followed. "You can't break up with me on New Year's Eve!" one man said to me as I showed him the door upon our return from a disastrous Christmas road trip. Actually, yes, I could. I was done with his insecurities, which led him to try to plan my every non-work-hour moment, refusing to recognize that my career was simply not a nine-to-five job. Almost two months later, this same guy showed up on my doorstep on my 39th birthday, figuring if I was still single, I'd appreciate the gesture. I was still single, and as a matter of fact, had just had a private pity party minutes before his arrival, had just gotten up from sitting on my kitchen floor, sobbing like a teenager over the probability I would be single forever. But when I saw him at my door, I knew, I'd rather be single than with the wrong person. "No, thank you," I told him, when he asked if he could take me to dinner, and I closed the door—to him and to any man who would try to use my insecurities against me again.


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