Living In the Desert: Hell Lite

We had been together for three years when we moved out of state. My significant other left his job bartending and the management track he was on at that restaurant. We moved so that I could finish school and be closer to my family. The next five years were chaos, which was slowly funneled into a benign sort of hell. Hell Lite.

This is the story of those years.

 

We moved into a rented house my (white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed) mother found for us. Neither he nor I had experience keeping a house and all that entailed, to say nothing of living in an old house situated in such a place that the summers reached to and maintained scorching temperatures, and winters were equally snowy and blustery. My partner and I quickly came to suspect that the owner, who was so nice to my mom, did not favor us. The longer we lived there, the more demands she heaped upon us, until we were bartering for work around the house to be done. She would only fix the ceiling fan if we gardened (which my mother was assured was not part of the lease, but was snuck in to one of the lease revisions once we showed up), and so on. It was unfair, but I tried to stay away when I knew she would be around because she hovered, poked about, and always found things we should be doing. She made uncomfortable comments, and by this time things between my partner and I had been on very shaky ground.

Without his job to give meaning, without a routine he’d carefully established, my partner began to fall apart. There were things I had forgotten or hadn’t known about this part of his life. I went off for school, and he searched endlessly for a job. For two months, he looked for a job everyday. In his previous life, it had served him well to ask for a manager when turning in an application, and this is what he did now. Considering the volume of applications he turned in, he received almost no callbacks. Those he did get were all instances in which he applied unseen to whomever did the hiring. When he got interviews, he was told that, as a bartender, he was “overqualified” to be a server or work in retail. A manager at a café told him that she didn’t hire people from out of state. A restaurant manager asked him how he liked growing up “on the rez.” And, my brown-skinned, black-haired significant other, who, months ago was making a living from his work ethic and charm began to fold under the weight of the confusion of what was happening to him. He could not find a job.

My partner applied for unemployment, but could not get it. He lost heart. It was then that a fine dining restaurant so tiny that it could have been a coffee shop finally hired him. This turned out to be devastating. There are factors too sensitive for me to write about, and so I won’t. But I cannot impress enough the harms done here. He had already lost faith in himself. His early life hadn’t been easy, but it taught him the skills he had needed to become popular and liked, and I must stop here to say that in his own way, he had gotten used to being handsome. Strangers stopped him in department stores to ask if he modeled. People he knew years ago would see us on the street and slowly turn their backs on me during extended conversations about the good old days. His looks were striking and exotic here. In the place we moved to, his looks were a liability that allied him with those thought to be indigent and trouble making—in other words, not white.

And, so he took this job gratefully and folded even further under the forbidding and temperamental owner because he thought that this was what he deserved.

 

During this time, I was filling my head with new ideas and trying to figure out how I felt as a young Korean-U.S. American woman, as a feminist, as a transracial adoptee. I was also trying to move past the series of damaging relationships I’d had before I had met my partner. I am certain that these relationships were not any worse than a typical woman’s, but doesn’t that speak volumes? And so, I was burdened by the transformation of my partner, which came at the exact moment when I began to finally feel alive. I studied and read and painted my nails and microwaved dinners for one, and when my partner and I were home at the same time, we sat in silence, numbed by the television, or, we fought. His deep depression had not gone unnoticed. It was the beginning of a deep rift, which he studiously attempted to ignore, and which I inflamed. He wanted to be left alone. I think that he thought that this request meant he wanted nothing, but in reality, it meant that he wanted everything, but done for him invisibly. I was to become invisible—dishes done, bathroom cleaned, refrigerator stocked, without any hint of doing these things. I rebelled for two or three years, but two or three years is a long time, especially when trying to run a household for the first time while eager professors asked what I thought about the latest news item.

When I started at the university from which I received my bachelor’s degree, the economy hadn’t fully tanked. There was still hope. My professors weren’t so tired. I felt that at least one of them legitimately cared for me—for all of us. After she was gone, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the professors I had admired the most. After she was gone, there was no office I sought out, no validation that my experiences of other students’ racial hostility was real. After she was gone, I realized how little the university cared about what I had dedicated myself to doing, and I would come home to a moody silence I later learned to skittishly fear.

 

When our lease was up we moved into university housing, which was cheaper and showed a diversity of renters that was less visible in a walk around campus (although this doesn’t say much). I thought that leaving the house and its ugly implications might do us both good, and it did for a while. However, when the renters of the university apartment complex changed, I began to feel unsafe—various strangers were constantly hanging around, smoking and playing loud music. They rarely met my eye, and were almost exclusively young, white men exerting a bravado I had long ago learned to be wary of.

Further, I had major doubts about a future with my partner, but began to suspect that his behavior was a kind of penance. If I could just stick it out, he would return to his former self eventually. Besides, the restaurant he had been working at closed, and after a short period in retail, he began working in the same office I worked at on campus. Soon things would right themselves.

Some amount of time passed like this, until I proposed to him. We got our marriage license and were both surprised to hear that the court that would marry us was closed until several hours later. So, we were married in a drive-through-style chapel. I sat on a sunken velour sofa, feeling a faded blue carpet under my too-tight shoes, and stared at glass cases filled with dusty dolls of brides and grooms while a refrigerated case holding flowers that one could purchase hummed in a corner. I swallowed the urge to run. Still, I was happy after we were married. My hands shook. In pictures of that day, I look plump, and his hair is too long. My parents were there, and afterward we went out to lunch where we ordered and were served Bloody Marys that were too gimmicky to be any good.

 

Eventually, things got much worse. I write this now, still feeling as if at any minute we will both regress, and I will once again feel as if I have given up my life for nothing.

As time went on, he seemed to sink deeper into depression. By now, he was going to school as well, and could function immaculately so long as he was being praised and did not have to participate in the boring minutia of daily life. He excelled in the classroom, and quickly distinguished himself. Meanwhile, I had begun withering. I cooked, cleaned minimally, ran all errands, planned all of our days, and then studied, read, wrote, and avidly kept up on current events. I began to fall apart, and I believe that it was this falling apart that made me susceptible to the biases that surrounded me. I had teachers unduly question me, while leaving white, male students to check Facebook. When I would bring up racial issues in class that diverged from the hegemonic groupthink of many of my peers (often some combination of “they [non-whites] should be more like us [whites],” “I don’t think slavery/pre-Civil Rights/etc. was that bad,” “Well, the Irish pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” “I’ve never experienced discrimination,” and so on), I was often ignored. At times when I used personal examples of what I felt was unjust treatment based on my perceived race, the most common response from fellow students was that I did not understand my experience. I got the distinct feeling that my point of view wasn’t welcome amongst liberal arts students who felt like they were doing their duty by showing up. And so, I fought at home, I fought at school, and at work the lines between my boss and I began to blur until I felt like I was being paid to listen to her woes under increasing demands. If there was any acknowledgement for the work I was doing, I cannot recall it. Having grown up in lush humidity, I found myself living in the desert. I was to blame.

 

My partner quit his job to concentrate on school, and I quit my job some months after. The already troubling work atmosphere became acutely difficult as staff members began to undercut each other to the extent that I, a peon, could no longer do my job. I thought that quitting would make things better between us. I thought that I was causing all of this trouble myself because I was unhappy with my job. I had forgotten (and, truthfully, never knew the full extent) that my partner’s unhappiness was caused by other things. I believed that the blame was mine.

Our relationship continued to worsen, and the worse it got the harder I tried. I was nearly completely responsible for both of us, and began shaving more time off of what I did for myself. After I quit my job, I took easier classes. Finally, I dropped my enrollment to half-time, but the more time I made, the faster it was eaten up by new responsibilities. I began to go insane. When I tried to talk to my partner, fights materialized from nowhere, until eventually I stopped talking. I literally tiptoed around him. I took on more household responsibilities, and then he began to blame me for his unhappiness. This, I took on, too, but not without many fights. After months of this, I believed it. I reoriented myself until I was incapable of anything, but was still responsible for the running of our daily lives. My life was full of running, and it seemed as if a dull, gray film stretched over everything. I began to pray throughout the day God would take mercy and strike me dead. This praying went on for three months. I was so tired. I felt as if I was to blame—that everything bad had originated within me, that I was making this person I had loved miserable with my existence, and it was compounded by the fact that he sometimes said so but would not let me go. I alone was to blame if our relationship didn’t last. It was all on me.

 

Now that we’ve moved back to the place we started, my partner has revived, but I can’t strike the knowledge that I know this is in him. Moreover, I feel sick knowing that this has been in me, because I look at myself and see a doormat. I see the kind of person I never wanted to be. I feel a hollowness in me from a year of practicing blankness in the hopes that I will no longer be accused of ruining valuable things. This void fills with whatever awfulness visits me during the day—disgust, insecurity, the weight of what I imagine is my all-encompassing ignorance and incapability. It used to be something else. I think that it used to be the space that was filled with curiosity that nurtured creativity. All I see in myself now is a face full of questions: What am I worth? Am I enough?

I hope that writing this will be a salve. I hope that these words, that my rekindling love will help work the poison of these last few years out so that I can say that I have grown stronger. I think about this relationship, and it is so much better, but it’s too soon to feel permanent. Meanwhile, I can still feel the acute pain of succumbing to traditional femininity—the Herculean efforts required for the Sisyphean task of propping up a whole other person who has determined to give up.

 

And now what will this story be? And now…? And now…?

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