A novel by EJ Spode.
Chapter 10: Letters and Dreams
Yielding to triggers can wreak havoc on a relationship when it involves one person being triggered, but Penny had her issues and triggers too. She had been raped once, and she too had terrible abandonment issues. As I said, her father had peaced out on her, and to some extent so had her mom. There she was, a child angel with depressive tendencies, stranded in the middle of the South Dakota prairie with a plan to build a community around her. This was why she fought so hard for the Sioux Falls art scene, and this is why she drew me in so close. But our damage and our triggers worked against each other. All this came to a head the previous summer (summer 2015), when we travelled to Southern Italy.
This happened after my mother’s death and her estate had settled. To my surprise, I guess, she had quite a bit of farmland in her name – about a million dollars worth – and it was all left to me. Taxes took quite a bit of that, but I was still flush with cash and Penny and I were able to live like rock stars.
We started in early June in Rome, and then went to the Adriatic Coast of Italy, travelling up the beach towns, sunning ourselves, drinking white wine and eating copious amounts of seafood. And the thing with Penny, the thing I loved so much about her, was that wherever she was I always felt I was at the absolute center of the Universe – that the only place worth being was right there. Even in fucking Sioux Falls South Dakota, when I was with her I felt there was no cooler place on Earth.
This feeling was amplified as we travelled north along the coast of Italy. Penny had this mad vision that could find beauty everywhere, and she drew it to my attention and framed things with her words – words that tumbled out of her mouth like little invisible sculptures, and her laugh, her laugh that was just the most infectious laugh ever – her laugh that just melted my heart.
As the trip progressed she became more social, and we made great friends along the way, and we went to the beach with them, ate and drank late into the night with them, and Penny held them all in her gentle grasp like she was the greatest hostess the world had ever known. It was her world, her party, her Universe.
We moved up the coast to Venice and spent a week there, and Penny thrilled to absolutely everything – from the Piazza San Marco to the divey osterias tucked away in the hidden back alleys (called calles, with the L pronounced). These were dimly lit restaurants only known to the sketchiest of locals, places where it was “fuck standard Italian, we speak Veneto here,” places where you could eat fat whole grain spaghetti with anchovy and onion sauce (bigoli in salsa, but pronounced “bigowee in sauwsa”) or you could leave.
From Venice we took a diesel-exhaust-and-mustard perfumed bus to Riejka, and from there we island hopped down the coast on rusty vessels from the Tito era. There was Rab, Pag, and Vis – places so magical that you would have thought they could only exist in Miyazaki’s animated movies – so unlikely you felt you might actually meet his human/pig anti-hero, Porco Rosso. But everything fell apart on the island of Hvar.
Hvar is a viridian, jade, and juniper colored island sitting in a sea of shifting hues of blue glass and foam. The island has an organic shape that seems to be morphing and moving and forming pseudopodia during the course of the day. I was convinced the island itself was a living thing. The island also has a badass jet set yacht set party scene. We met a new couple on the ferry from Split, and spent the night with them. They were up and out early – probably 6 AM – because they had another ferry to catch. I got up around 9 AM and made myself some coffee and sat on the balcony watching the morning light reflect off of the Adriatic. When I came back in the room the light was playing off of Penny’s face as she slept – a sleeping Botticelli angel, it seemed, so I took out a sketch pad and sat down and started to capture the scene with my limited drawing skills. And then Penny woke up.
“Are you drawing me?”
“Stop it, give me that!”
Penny jumped out of bed and grabbed my sketchpad. She tore up the drawing and then walked into the bathroom and took a shower. She had been triggered.
For the next two hours Penny would not speak to me. I went out and about and she stayed in the room. Then it was my turn to trigger. Her anger made me withdraw. I took another room and told her I needed space. A day passed and she was now triggering from my withdrawal; she gelt I was abandoning her and pulled away herself. And then that set off my abandonment trigger. We had set off a chain reaction of triggers. I felt my body go on autopilot. I watched myself pack, I watched myself walk to the ferry.
I wondered when my flight would end. Would I turn around and come back? No, I took the ferry to Dubrovnik. And I did not turn back. After a day in Dubrovnik I took another ferry to Corfu, and then more Greek Islands, and the whole time I was on autopilot I was miserable and the islands struck me as grey and dead and pointless. In my miserable state of perpetual autopilot I flew home from Athens. I had left Penny in Croatia.
I’ve thought about that episode of peacing-out almost every day since then. Could it have been avoided? Was it justified? Why am I so fucked up and how do I get past my fuckedupedness? How can I stop leaning on the excuse that I’m being triggered?
There were also more elements to the story. In some ways, the money changed everything. Penny loved the elements of liberation it brought – the ability to travel, the resources to buy supplies for her events – but on the other hand she also hated the power imbalance that it brought. Up until then we had been economic equals, but the minute I was sitting on over a half million dollars from my mother’s estate things were different. She suddenly felt purchased. The money was another fucking Trojan Horse – it promised us liberation, but it upended the power dynamics of our relationship.
Meanwhile, even though our relationship was now monogamous I felt that her affection and lust for me had paid the price. She was feeling trapped. And that night she was clearly more into that couple than she was into me. I felt like a spectator, and that was not ok with me.
So even before the triggers went off there was something wrong under the surface. There was a lot wrong.
When I came home to Sodak, Athena was not happy with me. Penny had found her way back and had told Athena her version of the story: I had abandoned her, pure and simple. No justification, in Penny’s view. That was pretty much Athena’s take as well. She met me at an old school truck stop to discuss it over coffee.
We sat across from each other at a yellow Formica table, drinking overheated but strong coffee. Athena looked really sad… like she was just about to give up on me. While she slowly stirred her coffee to cool it down, I held mine up to my nose and tried to get my caffeine fix by inhaling the steam coming off of the liquid.
In the harsh incandescent lighting of the truck stop I noticed that my cup had a few dozen hairline fractures in its outer glaze and it was stained brownish yellow from decades of splashed coffee and unenthusiastic dishwashers. Even the rim had a slight reddish hue, a trace of decades of lipstick in fifty thousand shades of red.
I put my cup down on the table and noticed that the table itself had not actually been yellow in the beginning. I realized it began its career as a white Formica table, but through the years it had acquired its new hue — an unappealing nicotine-stain yellow.
Finally, after a sigh, Athena spoke.
“EJ, Penny needs your protection; you did not take care of her.”
I explained that it was sort of hard to protect her when she wasn’t talking to me. Athena brushed aside my excuse with a wave of her hand. In her view my only recourse was to write Penny a letter apologizing and then leave it to the Universe to sort everything out. It was all out of my hands.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what people say when they find themselves here, I don’t know the kinds of things they might say. Is there anyone who would know what to say? Anyone alive? Anyone dead? Is there anyone dead or alive that I could call on who could tell me how to write what needs to be said – what I want to say but don’t know how, what I wish I could say but don’t know where to begin? And the funny thing is, I only have two things to say.
Here is one of the two things I want to say – the easy to say part. I abandoned you. I failed to make you feel safe. I failed to make you feel loved. I failed to protect you. I did not protect you. I failed to honor my promise to you – I failed to honor my promise to never walk away. I broke my promise. And I did not protect you. And I made you feel unsafe. And I just fucking failed. And it wasn’t like failing at work or school – I failed at the one thing that mattered; the thing that mattered most in the world to you and me. I failed the girl angel that the Universe told me to protect at all costs. And yeah probably the Universe will never forgive me because the Universe loves you even more than I do. I broke my fucking vow to the Universe. And to you. I failed.
Now the hard part. The way forward. If I reassert my vow will it mean anything? If I pinky swear to never do that again will it mean anything? Probably not. I broke my vow to you and the Universe and probably neither of you has any reason to trust me ever again. But you know what? I am still here. And even if you cannot trust me, I will keep trying to protect you and make you safe. Maybe from afar. But I’m going to keep trying. And maybe that isn’t even for you or for the Universe but for me because honestly, I have exactly one thing that I care about, and that is the girl angel that I swore to the Universe that I would always take care of and protect.
Taking care of you and protecting you is not a chore it is not an obligation it is not something I do because it is right. It is something I love to do. It is the thing in this world that I love the most – taking care of you. It is the thing that makes me happy and it is the thing that gives my life meaning. There is nothing else I care about. Nothing.
But if it is such a joy to protect you and take care of you why do I fail? Because inside of me there is this very real dark force that rises up like bile and temporarily blinds me to what matters and tells me to run away. It tells me to protect myself from some fictional monster. And maybe that dark force will never die, but through the years I have felt its strength weakening and while it still blinds me and tells me to run it’s power does not hold. It used to have a grip on me for months, and then days, now sometimes it is only hours. I am no longer afraid of it.
In the end, this is not a promise because a promise from me right now is worth nothing. I am straight up telling you what is going to happen. I am going to keep taking care of you. I am going to keep protecting you.
I don’t need to be your husband, or your partner, or your boyfriend or fiancé. I don’t need to be your roommate, I don’t even need to be your friend. But I do need to be your protector – I desperately need to be that. It is not just what the Universe called me to do, it is what I am. This is not to say I will never fail you again. Probably, I have more failure left in me. I am just telling you what I am at my core, and that I am going to keep being that protector until the day I die, and, who knows, maybe even longer.
The letter went unanswered and I was feeling lost. I just could not process not having Penny near me. I had lost my eyes. I had lost my senses. The world had gone gray without her. So I tried again – I tried to articulate that sense of loss to Penny in another letter.
This letter is not an apology or explanation; it is just about my love for you. I don’t know if it will make you feel safer, or more secure in my commitment to you, or even if it will be welcome. It is just something I need to express.
The day I met you I fell in love. Not just with you, but with the world. To me, you were like a lamp that lit up the world around you and I could see this part of the world for the first time. The wine tasted better. The food tasted better. Everything around you was more beautiful. And in that minute I fell in love with the world, and with life, because I saw what it could be.
This is what you do. You see something beautiful in everything. I would go further and say that you share that vision. Not just in what you say, but in how you carry yourself and how you live in this world.
I don’t want to live in this world without you as my partner. When we are at odds – when we disconnect – the world becomes grey and pointless to me. I don’t even have a creative way to describe it. I just keep coming back to grey. Even as a writer I have no better way to describe it. Grey.
But when I am with you the color comes back into the world and it is so vibrant, so real, and so nourishing. And yeah, sure we have our fights and our issues and our triggers and our defense mechanisms that trigger each other some more, but the lights are on and the color is back in the world, and it is healing me. And then I love life so much. I love everything about it. I love the trees and the food and the little bird that is still trying to break through my front window. I love the world of friends and food and parties and plans and projects and more plans and houses and homes that we are embarked on. And I love the beaches and I love the plane flights with you in which we travel like pros and we are clicking together and there is not a bad feeling or vibe within a thousand miles, even as we stand in line to clear customs so that you can have a cigarette. I love that. I love interacting with people with you at my side. I love listening to you interact with people. I love your voice. I love your laugh. I love your smile.
When I fear that I have lost your love my real fear is that I am being tossed in to a meaningless grey world. At that moment something takes over in me. I feel my body moving me somewhere. I feel my brain humming but I don’t know what it is thinking. Is it taking me to safety? Is it taking me to oblivion? I don’t know but it is taking me away.
I can’t leave you. I just can’t. The dark force can pull me away to what it thinks is safety or oblivion or whatever but its grip is not absolute, it is temporary, and it is weakening. I need to develop my muscle to resist it at the beginning, when it takes control of my body, and tells it to flee.
Penny, I am so sorry that I hurt you and that I abandoned you, I really am. Words cannot describe the sorrow and the sense of failure that I feel as I type these words. I put everything at risk – this beautiful wonderful life we were building together. I wish the last few days could all go away, like a nightmare we could wake up from, but I know that can’t happen.
All I can do is hope that we find our way though this and rebuild our life together and learn and grow from this and maybe build an even more beautiful and happy world together, having grown from this experience.
Penny, I know that you know that we are both damaged people in our own ways. I have seen you grow from the fights with the demons inside you. You have grown so much as a person and I hope that in some small way I have provided some comfort to you in your battles. I’m still fighting my own demon – the one that makes me flee. I am trying so hard to kill it because I know it is a threat to our relationship and everything I love and care about. I am trying so hard.
This letter too went unanswered.
After dwelling on these matters in my jail cell my ass was starting to hurt less – or at least it was starting to numb out – and as night came I started to float between different levels of consciousness. A concrete jail cell with a sweater for a pillow does not lend itself to sound sleep, so I was mostly in REM sleep through the night. I had lots of crazy dreams but forgot most of them. There is one dream that I remember though.
Like a lot of my dreams this one began with a plane crash. And yeah I have plane crash dreams all the time. They get more and more real every time. In the beginning I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming. Then, after several dream crashes, I began to suspect, as I experienced the crash, that it was not real. But then the dreams became more real – harder to identify as dreams. And the thing is that there was rarely an actual crash with grinding metal and smoke and screaming passengers – it was more like we ended up in the water, grabbing life vests or seat cushions or whatever.
This dream was a bit different from the usual fare. The plane lost power coming over the Swiss alps and although we cleared the peak of a mountain the belly of the plane put down on the downward slope of the back side of the mountain and the plane began tobogganing down the mountainside. But wait, was the pilot Leonardo DiCaprio? It didn’t seem absurd at the time, but really? Leo?
The nightmare part of the dream came later, after the plane’s fuselage came to rest, and we began constructing shelter and seeking out food – Lost style. First I kept trying to call my mother to tell her I was all right. But dialing the pay phone was just an impossible task; I simply couldn’t enter the numbers correctly or fast enough, or I would lose my coin or some such thing. It was fucked. What was more fucked was that Penny was on the plane for some reason. I feel like she was a flight attendant? Whatever, I stumbled upon her and Leo doing it in a yurt that they had made out of airline seat upholstery. There they were in a pile of airline pillows, their flight crew uniforms scattered around like animal skins in the yurt.
I woke up really depressed from that one. I don’t believe in omens and I don’t believe in dreams but sometimes a dream is just too much to ignore. I needed to rethink this Penny business. I think my dream was telling me she was hooking up in a serious way with someone. Some slimly little Leo DiCaprio shitball. Some doctor or dentist or airline pilot or maybe an actor. Fuck it was probably an actor. One of those shitty summer stock actors that wish they could afford to live in a yurt.
When I clawed my way back to consciousness from that nightmare I could see the sunrise through the skinny ass jail window. The dream had left me with kind of a negative attitude towards Penny. I mean, I know she wasn’t sleeping in a yurt with Leo DiCaprio, but the negative feelings that came with the dream began to trigger some negative memories about Penny. And the series of memories began with her arch nemesis/frenemy Helena.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Image: Jana Astanov.
Chapter 1: Giants in the Earth:
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn:
Chapter 3: Dimebag Bob’s:
Chapter 4: The Trojan Horse:
Chapter 5: The Turtle Diaries:
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
Chapter 7: Penny
Chapter 8: San Pedro
Chapter 9: Triggered
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 2nd, 2017.