Foreign Study

by Sara Quinn Rivara

The house in Parchment was the nicest on the street, nicest in the whole neighborhood. White siding, blue shutters, green roof. When we looked at the house, which had been recently rehabbed for a flip, there were toads everywhere in the lawn. There were new fiberboard cabinets, almond ceramic tile, cheap Berber carpet.

It was a billion times better than the house that had no toilet, just a hole in the floor on Howard Street. Or the house made of cinderblocks across the street from the house made of tarpaper and plywood. Or the house in Cooper Township next to the shuttered Congregational Church that had termites crawling over the kitchen floor.

It had a bullet hole in the kitchen window. The neighbors across the street had duct-taped a trailer to the side of their house, cut a hole. An addition.

We paid Cooper taxes, though our address said Parchment. A mile up the hill, gracious homes flanked Kindleberger Park. Even those cost less than 200K. Even those looked down upon the hulking shell of the shuttered paper mill where dozens—maybe hundreds—of turkey buzzards roosted. Where an osprey had made its nest near the river, over the humpback of the toxic landfill. PCBs and sludge. The Kalamazoo River swung slowly past, dammed to an extreme, flat and wide and smelling sour and foaming at the mouth. Cedar waxwings darned the sky above the slow-moving brown water.

We’d been married for two years. I’d been cervical cancer free for a few months. I’d just gotten a tenure-track job at the community college where I’d been teaching for pennies, part time, since I’d quit my job as an assistant librarian at a small town library where everyone had Jesus in their heart. Where women went to college to be kindergarten teachers or to drop out to get married at 20.

I’d gotten married at 24. I’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer at 21.

I called myself a feminist, or had—had grown up in Chicago and had such ambitions! And now I was here. Married, 26, happy to be making 40K a year— tens of thousands less than my male colleagues, I’d learn years later, the college not recognizing my MFA because, Jesus, I’d been so happy to not be making 10K a year and didn’t know to negotiate, didn’t know it was my right.

*

I’d gone to an exclusive private liberal arts college in the Midwest. I’d spent my junior year abroad, I’d lived in the Women’s Resource Center and been a member of the Women’s Equity Coalition, co-founded a feminist theater collective. Taken mostly women’s literature classes, creative writing. I spelled women womyn.

My husband had dropped out of high school. Had told me, when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer—which, if you didn’t know, is only the result of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease which I only could have gotten from him, having lost my virginity on Devil’s Night my senior year—didn’t want me to tell anyone. He was ashamed. I should be ashamed: an STD? I was raised a Catholic. I had done everything right: had him tested for HIV, herpes, the lot. And still. Punished. Or whatever.

I had grown up in Chicagoland, gone to school in Michigan, and expected to move, post-graduation, to the Southwest for a gap year with my best friend, before pursuing my MFA in vocal performance or my PhD in literature. I was an honors student in college, second in my graduating class of English majors. I knew I was smart.

And then I was in Kalamazoo, still. My then-husband telling me that my shirt was unbuttoned too much, telling me he liked my body despite my mind. He said it was a joke. Why can’t you take a fucking joke? I knew my body to be a shameful thing.  I was fucked but I learned to leave my body. I began to think I must be a lesbian—please, God, let me be a lesbian—because I couldn’t scare up anything that was attracted to my husband. I wrote poems. I went to graduate school, got my MFA in poetry. I began to publish my poetry in journals. The woman who drove home from work every day transformed herself into something else. She wore only black, blue, brown.

I taught women’s literature. I told my students that I was a feminist.  As if that was something that would save me.

*

At 20, sitting on the banks of the River Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland, I figured my life would be prescribed by travel. A man in every port. I was going to see the fucking world.

At 26, I was pregnant. Married. I hadn’t traveled since I’d graduated from grad school.  The horizons were so small.

No one wants to hear your poems about breastfeeding or bread rising on the counter, a poet (male, prominent, editor of a major literary magazine) had said in a workshop in grad school.

At 27, I was in a hospital room, 26 hours into labor, my then-husband telling me I was overreacting. I pushed my sweet boy into the world, and goddamn, it’s a cliché. But that night, my husband gone home to ‘let out the dogs’ and because he had to work the next day, I held that small boy in my arms and felt something: what was it? I was terrified. I’d never felt it before, and it was overwhelming and I realized holy shit, this is what it is to be in love. And I thought if this boy had my life, would I be okay with that?

And I’ll be honest: if I’m religious it’s an academic pursuit. But there was a voice that rose up in me and it said NO.

*

And there was my life. Blue light flickering beneath the door as the nurses walked past my hospital room, my Bird nursing and my nipples raw and I was crying and I knew:  I have to get out.

It took me almost two years. In those two years, my husband began to sleep on the couch because a crying baby all night made it hard for him to go to his shitty job, my son slept in my bed. I went back to my full load of classes when Jonah was three months old, teaching five courses on 2 hours of sleep a night. My ex called my midwife to tell her I was crazy and needed drugs because I didn’t want sex. Because I thought—he told me—I was frigid. My episiotomy had healed the wrong way. I couldn’t sit or walk comfortably for months. We took a vacation to Munising, Michigan, on Lake Superior. All I wanted was to slip into the crowd with my son, disappear. But I was terrified: if I told my husband I wanted a divorce, that I didn’t love him, never had, that I had stayed out of fear, he would kill me. He would take my son. He would kill himself. And what about the house? The dogs?

And then I got tenure. And then I read every poem I’d written and realized: I’d known all along. I was miserable and couldn’t raise my son to think that was okay.

I told my husband I wanted a divorce. He hacked into my email, accused me of having an affair with a student because I exchanged a list of books. He told me I was a whore. He got his GED, got a Breathalyzer on his car to get his license— which he’d never had—back. He threatened to kill me, chop me into tiny bits. He took every cent we had, and no one would front me the money for a lawyer. He got exactly equal custody because I was terrified he’d take my son from me forever.

At thirty, I was divorced. Tenured. I’d bought and sold a shitty house. I lived alone for the first time in my life. I got a tattoo. I published poems.

But I stayed in Kalamazoo. I desperately love my son. I started to attend writers’ conferences, found my tribe again. Became department chair, union agitator. Published my first collection of poems at 36. Filed with the courts to move across the country with my son. And even all these years later, I am terrified. My son has been with his father for two days; his father won’t allow any contact.  I am still terrified that he can bully me, that crazy always wins. That I am the crazy one, because I’m a woman. And emotional. And admit that I don’t know everything. And am small and female and he could kill me, he could.

How can I be a feminist?  A student asked years ago in my Women’s lit class. It’s easy for you, she said. Assuming, of course, that because I was standing in front of her as a professor that I must have had a different life than hers. I just want my boyfriend to love me.

Don’t write about domestic things, that poet said. Write about what’s important.

Okay.  I will.

Advertisements
Foreign Study