Monday, January 1, 2018

Concession Stand Girl

This post is a fictional story in response to "Cat Person" by Kristen Roupenian, appearing in the New Yorker on December 11, 2017. It is my attempt to portray the thinking pattern of the man she detailed in her work, and where those thoughts might illustrate entitlement and disconnect that are common in abusive, violent, and controlling men. If you have not done so, please read her work first before reading this response.

Warning: This story contains sexual content, mature themes, and swearing.

Robert had been in a slump over the past few months. Nothing that won't get better, he told himself constantly, it's just life. Ups and downs. I'll be better, something good will happen, it always does. 

He had lost his job two months ago, but he could admit that things had been bad before then. His boss was a dick, and the job wasn't great either so its loss was inconsequential.  He was on unemployment currently, and his mother always sent him gifts and even money if she felt particularly sorry for him, so his income hadn't changed even if the amount of time he had for himself had increased. 

Idle thoughts of going back to school nagged at him, but he wasn't sure he wanted to study or do homework again. After all, he had done two years, slogging through each class to the point he was always just barely passing. He had never had a specific inspiration to focus on anything. He was good with his hands, and school just never spoke to him. Too much thinking, not enough doing, he told himself. 

If he was honest with himself, mostly he was just bored a lot of the time. When he was laid off, it started like a vacation - video games and movies, take out or delivery dinners, and only leaving the house when he had to. Ordering whatever he needed online kept that to a minimum, and he even assuaged his conscience of not working by setting up a job alert on a few employment websites and reading them once or twice per week.

That vacation mindset lasted a month or so, but over time he began to feel restless. He had some friends from high school closer to home, but he had moved out of state years before as a point of rebellion and hadn't been good at maintaining friendships. He had a couple of guys he had enjoyed hanging out with at work but within a shipping and receiving company, where everyone worked different shifts, he hadn't done much with them outside of work. Now that he was no longer going to that job, those friendships had shriveled up.

His cats had been his companions for years. Mu and Yan were perfectly happy with doing nothing, with hanging out, not going anywhere. They would cuddle in shifts, Mu on the bed, Yan on the couch - purring and curling into balls on his lap were sweet comfort, and their conversations were whatever he wanted them to be. A meow here, a feline grunt there, and he had learned to interpret their needs, their quirks, and deal with them as needed.

But this restlessness was getting to him. The times he would venture out of the house for supplies he couldn't add to an online shopping cart, he saw people together laughing, talking, and seeming to have fun together and he felt a twinge of jealousy. It was more profound when he witnessed couples casually touching each other, showing public displays of affection and just being comfortable around each other.

Robert had been as successful in relationships as he had in friendships, which is to say fleeting at best. Women were a mystery to him, and always seemed to want things he couldn't or didn't really want to give. He'd heard his male coworkers talk about their relationships with degrees of care or annoyance, sometimes telling stories of love and others of hate and he would always wonder why women would stay with the creeps. 

These coworkers were still okay in his book, casual friends he could laugh with and do work tasks with, but when they described anger over her doing this or that, he'd shake his head. He'd wonder why the guy put up with that shit, but he'd also wonder why she did as well. Just keep to yourself, he'd think, and be a gentleman. That's what really counted, after all.

A need to go out of the house drove him to the arthouse movie theater. The one class in college that had vibed with him was a critique of cinema, and independent movies usually interested him more as a result. It was also one of the few things that could be more difficult to access online.

He perused the concessions and idly purchased popcorn and a box of Red Vines. Red Vines were a treat from his childhood and he hadn't eaten them in years, so he figured why not have some? The response of the girl behind the counter caught him off-guard. "That's an . . . unusual choice," she said. "I don't think I've ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before."

Looking down on her, he noticed she was young. Probably just out of high school, young. This was a college town, so she most likely was just another student bringing in some spending money. He stepped back slightly as a reflex, getting a better look. It confirmed his initial thought, but he also noticed she was cute. Not the kind of beauty that would grace the cover of a magazine, but more of a young co-ed fresh and naive cute. Her comment was confusing. Was she deliberately trying to insult him?

Robert had experiences of girls making fun of him in high school, and more of women ignoring him since then. As with many interactions with others, Robert was dumbstruck. "Well," he said. "O.K., then." He took his change and went into his movie.


The movie was distracting. He spent most of the time running through his head, considering better responses to that interaction. The popcorn trickled down in the box, and the Red Vines which might have been a nostalgic experience just stuck to his teeth as he chewed on them and thought of her face, and her body.

He could have explained his childhood love for the candy, maybe say the salt and sweet were an excellent combo. He could have asked her why she cared, but no, that would have been too aggressive. Was she flirting with him? He told himself he was the sort of older guy young college chicks might fancy, and his beard spoke to experience most men her age couldn't come close to.

The blur of the movie did not match the length of time he spent thinking of alternatives to the conversation. When it ended, he walked out and looked to the concession stand, hoping to see her again, see how she responded to him a second time. But the lights were off, and her shift must have ended.

The next day, he realized he should just go back to the theater. He hadn't really absorbed the movie, anyway, and what if she was there again? Maybe they'd hit it off on a second play through. Some acne-covered guy was in her place this time, though. He took his popcorn, skipped the Red Vines, and sulked into the movie. 

He watched the movie and was able to keep track of what was happening better, but his disappointment seeped into the experience and he left feeling negatively toward the show itself. That evening, he surfed online pornography trying to find women who looked like the Concession Stand Girl but didn't find anyone close enough to her looks, and eventually he gave up, unsatisfied.

Following days were spent wandering around coffee shops, restaurants, and bars around campus. He told himself that it was good to get out and wander the city, better than being cooped up at home, and that maybe he'd meet someone. He knew he was really looking to "accidentally" run into her, but he also knew his assumption that she was a college girl was just an assumption so he did so without many expectations, but with many high hopes.

Theater times were similar enough the following week that he picked a movie with the same showtime as when he met her, even though he wasn't particularly interested in the movie itself. As he walked inside, he glanced over at the concession stand trying not to be too obvious. Play it cool, he said to himself, noticing she was working again.

Walking up to the counter, he made sure she was the one who would be helping him, and when she noticed him he was bolstered by the small smile she gave him. He kept his composure and ordered the same as before - popcorn and Red Vines. She didn't say anything this time, but simply rang up his order. "You're getting better at your job," Robert told her. "You managed not to insult me this time."

She shrugged, and he noticed her eyes lighting up a little as she did so. "I'm up for a promotion, so," she said and handed him his change. Not wanting to say anything stupid, he took his change smiled in return and went to the movie.

When reviewing his responses this time, he felt confident he had walked the line between simple, nice, and suave. She obviously took his joke well, remembered him from last time, and maybe even had thought about him over the past week. As the movie started, he smiled to himself and relaxed. If she was still at work after the movie, he'd ask for her out. 

Frowning, he wondered if that was too forward. If she said no, then it'd probably be over and he didn't want that. Maybe he could just ask for her phone number? If he kept the connection going, he was sure he'd be able to show her what a good guy he was, and she'd want to spend more time with him. He convinced himself that he was better at the long game, and settled on that choice.

Movie watching was much more enjoyable this time. Since he had made up his mind, he partially couldn't wait for the movie to finish so he could go out to find her. But he knew this movie was shorter than the last and there was more of a chance she'd still be at work. That was one of the nice things about independent movies, they were often shorter which made for an easier time critiquing them. Sometimes even bad movies were enjoyable because it wasn't a lot of time to spend, but plenty of material to criticize.

The moment the credits started rolling, Robert got up, disposed of his trash and walked out of the theater. She was still there! He felt a roll in his stomach, his pulse rising. Now was the time. He approached her as she was refilling something on the back counter. When she turned around and saw him, she initially seemed confused then smiled slightly.

"Concession Stand Girl, give me your phone number," he said, and surprisingly she looked at him for a moment, then took a napkin and wrote a number down. He hoped it was correct. He knew some girls gave out fake numbers to throw men off, but that seemed less likely since he knew how to find her again.

Robert thought about what to text to her the entire drive home. Something quick and witty, and it had to reference Red Vines. If it was a fake number, he'd play it cool when he saw her next time and he also thought of lines he could give her then. He favored one where he joked about it being hard to write on napkins. 

"Good thing I bought enough Red Vines that you had to stay late tonight to stock them," he texted anxiously.

"That's why I gave you my number, I needed to complain about the overtime I had to work thanks to you," she texted back, and he laughed out loud.


For the next several weeks, they texted back and forth, building their joking and playing in ways that made Robert feel fun and interesting. She was a good sparring partner, for the most part, except when she didn't respond to him. He knew he needed to play it cool, but at the same time it was frustrating when he wanted to hold a conversation, or have a line of jokes and it took her a few hours to add to it. By the time she would text to add to the thread, he had bored of it and would usually just send a simple response. 

But she kept texting. She sent internet memes, pictures, silly things mostly. He ate it all up. His playing it cool was working well, even with a few times where he thought maybe she didn't like him anymore - or maybe had found someone else. Those times where she didn't text for a couple days were a test of patience. He wanted to respond to her, to call her out for not texting, but he also knew that might seem needy - and he wasn't needy. He was perfectly fine by himself, doing his own thing, even if those days were often boring. The texts with Margot were almost like a fuel that kept him going, gave him energy the moment he heard his phone chime with an incoming text.

Suddenly, he realized it might have been long enough with their text dancing to meet her in person again. He waited for an opportunity, not wanting to be direct about it in fears of scaring her off. His phone beeped - a text! "Ugh. My roommate took all the snacks out of my care package, that bitch!"

"Why don't you go to the dining hall and grab something lacking nutrition of any kind?"

"They're all closed this time of night, so now I guess I will die starving here in my dorm room."

"If it's a matter of life and death, I'm happy to save you from such a pathetic end - I'll buy you some Red Vines and all will be well in the world!"

"Sadly, I am already resigned to starvation as my destiny. Say something nice at my funeral?"

"No, I'm serious, stop fooling around and come now," he texted immediately followed by, "7-Eleven, the one on campus, twenty minutes. Be there, your life depends on it!"

He rushed out of the house, grabbing the hat and jacket closest to the door and going slightly over the speed limit to get to the store. He didn't want to keep her waiting, after all, and the dorms were about a block away from the store. 

He didn't notice the wintry cold as he stood outside, his heart racing in anticipation of seeing her again. When she walked around the corner, he was surprised that she simply wore pajamas and a jacket as if it were a walk down to the refrigerator in the kitchen. He wasn't sure if it made her extra cute or just made her look younger. He realized he might be staring, and stopped to focus on holding the door for her, slightly inclining his head to emphasize the polite gesture.

"I'm glad I got to you in time, let's go find the red sticks of life!" they went to the candy section and he was slightly sad they didn't have Red Vines, but she seemed pleased with Cool Ranch Doritos. Not wanting the joke to fade, he insisted she get a cherry Slurpee because it was the closest thing to Red Vines. She negotiated a Cherry Coke Slurpee, and as they went to the counter he furtively worked to find a small, cheap gift he could get her so she would remember this night. The cashier was so quick, he had just enough time to grab a novelty lighter shaped like a frog with a cigarette in its mouth. Just silly and unique enough she'd have to think of him whenever she saw it.

"Thank you for my presents," she said, as they went back out into the cold. 

"You're welcome, Concession Stand Girl," he said, thinking it was the perfect term of endearment in the moment. She let me buy her gifts, we've been having a great time texting, now let's see how she takes a little bit of affection. He took her gently by the arm, and she didn't recoil or back away. Robert was about a foot taller than her, so it was a quick thing to kiss her on the forehead. When he stood back from the kiss, she looked at him with her eyes slightly narrowed as if puzzling over him. "Study hard, sweetheart," he said. "I will see you soon."

Robert turned, walked to his car, and drove home. Only looking back once he had pulled away from the store. He saw her walking back to the dorms and smiled to himself. That went well.


Margot went on winter break soon afterward, and Robert and she texted nearly non-stop. They would joke back and forth, update on daily activities, and even started saying good morning and good night. Robert was concerned about her going home for break. Who would she hang out with? She's just recently out of high school, within a year or two, so what if she sees an old boyfriend? Robert's texts were playful, but constant, and in part he kept the dialog going because if they were texting then she obviously was thinking about him. 

Robert decided to let a little more about his life into his texts. He had been keeping most of their dialog to joking and life in the present, but hadn't asked her a lot of questions nor had he given much up about himself. One evening, as he sat in his living room petting Yan as she contentedly purred on his lap. "It's good thing my cats are keeping me company while you're away," he texted, scratching Yan between the ears.

"You have cats?"

"I do. Two, Mu and Yan."

"I have a cat too - Pita," she texted back with a emoji of a grey kitty cat. 

"Yan texts Pita a warm greeting."

"Pita purrs back along with a flirtatious Meow."

"I won't tell Mu so he won't get jealous, you know those male cats!"

"Pita meows more quietly, then!"

Before Robert could think of how to respond, she texted again. "My parents are asking about u," she texted, and Robert immediately sent her an emoji with hearts for eyes.


After winter break, Robert was a bit nervous to see Margot again. What if she rekindled a love with an old boyfriend, like he had constantly imagined? It was clear they were good with texting, and were quite friendly, but he didn't just want a friendship and if it turned out that was all he was to her, he wasn't sure what he would do. 

"Back in town, want to hang out? I like the rush at the end of the term when I fall behind on all my studying!"

"Sorry, busy week at work," he replied. "I promise I will c u soon."

Truthfully, he'd gotten a small part-time job at a bank near his house. It wasn't many hours, but his unemployment had run out and he needed to do something other than live off his parent's financial assistance. The house was not very expensive. His aunt had owned it, and when she died it had gone to his mother. She was going to sell it, but Robert managed to convince her that he could live in it. Since his aunt had owned it free and clear, all he had to pay for was utilities. A sweet deal.

His work hours weren't enough to keep him from making time for Margot, but he thought that a bit of holding back would make her want to be with him more, so he lied about his schedule waiting for two weeks before finding a suitable artsy movie to take her to. It was playing at her theater, which seemed nice. When he asked about seeing the movie, she responded with, "lol r u serious," and he instantly replied, "I'm sorry I misjudged your obvious taste for fluffy romantic comedies that bring in all the ladies." 

She was probably joking around, which was their pattern. The movie had Oscar buzz, and was supposed to be an amazing portrayal of refugees from Nazi Germany, and their battle for survival. Of course she wanted to see it, it would be great! Her text back was simply "lol okay let's go to your drama fest, but let's go to the Quality 16," and he felt happy that he had waited to ask her out on a date. He wasn't sure why she wanted to go to the other theater, was it because she didn't want her co-workers seeing her on a date with him?

He gave her the details, and said he'd pick her up. She said she'd be ready, and Robert started thinking about how to set up the date. He'd have to wait for her to talk. If she was going to tell him the bad news, he was sure it would come up sooner than later. The talk about "I just want to be friends," usually didn't happen in the middle of a date, after all. If she had that talk, he'd be cordial, he was a gentleman, after all, but he'd just watch the movie and take her home. 

Arriving at her dorm, he got out and opened her car door for her. They exchanged the pleasantries of "hey" back and forth and he drove off. She didn't say anything, and neither did he as he waited for her to disappoint him. He glanced over at her when he noticed her looking out the window. She looked tense, and he sighed. If it was going to be a let down, he might as well make it easier on her. "Don't worry, I'm not going to murder you," and when she looked over she seemed to relax a bit.

"It's O.K. - you can murder me if you want," she said. Robert laughed at that, appreciating her response to his joke, and patted her knee. She continued, "So before you murder me, I thought I'd tell you about my classes this term. Maybe I could bore you into having pity for me?"

He laughed shortly and kept driving. She told him the details of her classes. She was right, it was boring, as he never had much interest in classes even when he was in school. He nodded along, and made listening sort of noises at appropriate times, but didn't get into the conversation at all. 

Once they got to the theater, they went up to the concessions stand. The employee asked what they wanted, and Robert winked at Margot before saying, "I'll take a large popcorn and a large weirdly matched box of Red Vines please, like all the cool kids are doing nowadays!"

The cashier looked at Robert blankly, grabbed a Red Vines from under the counter, and went to get popcorn. Robert looked over at Margot but she was looking away at that moment. He shrugged. It was funny in his mind. Maybe she didn't hear him. It was pretty loud with the popcorn popping and a monitor blaring a preview for an upcoming blockbuster movie.

He kept waiting for her to tell him about her boyfriend, about wanting to be friends. If she tried to touch him during the movie, maybe that would mean she actually liked him as more than friends? During the movie he kept one eye on the screen and another on her, watching for her to reach for the popcorn at the same time, or for her to touch his leg or arm or something. He sat with his arm on the divider, thinking maybe she would lay her arm next to his. But nothing.

After the movie was over, they went back to the car and he tried to think of a way to lighten the mood. As she was getting in the car, he said "Glad to see you dressed up for me," and smiled. He liked her casual leggings and a sweatshirt, but he figured for a first date she might wear something more dressy. He had worn his business casual attire from work, thinking it would be just the right amount of classy for a date. He closed her door and walked over to his side and got in. 

"So, do you want to go get a drink?" He was still waiting for the "just friends" response, and thought if it was coming, now would be it. "We could go get a drink, I guess?" she said tentatively.

"If you want," he said back.

She sat staring out of the window, saying nothing. Robert poked her in the leg. "What are you sulking about?"

She looked at him. "I'm not sulking, I'm just a little tired."

"I can take you home."

"No, I could use a drink, after that movie," she drolly observed, and he laughed and started up the car.

"Where do you want to go?"

"How about Chester's?"

"Chester's? That student ghetto? Let's go someplace classy. If we're going to wash that movie out of our memories, let's do it with style! Can you believe it has Oscar buzz?"

Margot started to speak, but Robert spoke over her. "We're going to 1920 Tavern, it's a Speakeasy."

When they arrived, there was a line, which was not uncommon for the bar. Robert chatted idly with Margot, and she responded directly but quietly. He didn't notice anything out of the ordinary as he spoke about his experiences there. "I remember the first time I came here," he exclaimed, as he handed the bouncer his I.D. and walked in. 

He was telling his story, walking on to the front door, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and noticed Margot standing out of the line on the sidewalk, crouching to sit on the curb. He went under the queue and joined her while she looked at her feet. "Sorry!" she said. "This is so embarrassing."

"How old are you?" he demanded.

"I'm twenty," she said.

"Oh," he said. "I thought you said you were older."

"I told you I was a sophomore!" she said, her voice slightly raised. 

"But you did that - what do you call it? That gap year," he objected, trying to sort out if she had lied to him in some way.

"I don't know what to tell you," she said helplessly standing up, her fists balled up and started to cry. "I'm twenty."

He felt bad for her, now. He stood and simply enveloped her in an embrace. "Oh, sweetheart," he said. "Oh, honey, it's O.K., it's all right. Please don't feel bad." He gently kissed the top of her head, and she pulled back while wiping the tears away.

"I can't believe I'm crying because I didn't get into a bar," she said. "You must think I'm such an idiot." They both stood as a few flakes of snow fell, highlighted by the soft light of the street lamps. He measured her beauty. Her tears enhanced that measure somehow. He decided it was time to kiss her.

He leaned in. Since she stood on the curb and he was in the street, their height difference was minimized somewhat. As his lips locked on hers, he felt a rush throughout his body, an emboldening and a comfort. When she moved her lips ever so slightly, he took the opportunity to take the kiss a bit further and put his tongue in her mouth, while doing so knocked his teeth against hers. He enjoyed her warmth and the intimacy. It had been some time since he had kissed a woman, and he realized how much he had missed it.

Eventually, he took her by the arms and looked into her eyes. "Let's try Pluto's," and led her down the street, pulling her by the hand until they were walking side by side. This bar didn't have a bouncer, and didn't really I.D. anyone. He'd gone here himself when he was underage, so he was pretty sure they would be fine. 

As they settled into a booth, Robert stood and said, "Should I get you a vodka soda?" He was pretty sure that was the sort of drink girls had when he was that age.

"I'll just have a beer."

He settled back in with drinks, bringing two thick and dark porters. "I guess I should have listened to your highbrow taste and gone for that new Melissa McCarthy travesty."

"I like Melissa McCarthy - she was hilarious in Bridesmaids!"

He sipped on his beer. "You must have loved that movie when you were ten years old."

"Ha. Ha. Well, it was better than the movies you saw at ten. Charlie Chaplin films lacked any colorful dialog."

"Cute. With all those film classes you took last year, I'm surprised you would see a movie that wasn't in black and white, or at least sepia or someshit."

She laughed and he continued. "At work, you guys must loathe the multiplex what with their lack of quality wines and making up for art by blasting things in surround sound!"

"It's not that we mock the lack of quality wines, it's just that drinking Boone's Farm in one big swallow before going in to the film is going to make you have to pee an awful lot!"

Robert laughed back at her, and she took a large swallow from the beer. 

They began to talk about movies more in depth, and Robert discussed some of his favorites. They each got another beer as he enjoyed talking about his top five, and discussed a bit about his own film classes and what he had learned in critiquing films. She responded by discussing how her older co-workers intimidated her, particularly when they seemed to understand some of the movies she thought were boring or incomprehensible.

"Look," Robert said, peering deeply into her eyes. "Some guys are just assholes about movies. I took those classes, and you know what I really learned?"

"That Red Vines are superior to Twizzlers?"

"No, that you should just fucking enjoy movies you enjoy!"

She nodded. "Sometimes, I just feel like I'm not smart enough with these guys. Like I have to have a degree in movies to have an opinion on anything."

He rose his glass to hers and they knocked them together and drank, about an hour in and their third beer together. Robert appreciated that she was constantly smiling as they talked, and she began to slur her words a little. He thought it was cute. As they finished their beers, he was surprised to hear her say, boldly, "Should we get out of here, then?"

The surprise stuck with him. Was she suggesting something? It sure seemed like it. They had just been discussing the unintentional humor of sex scenes in movies where people always kept the covers over themselves, and made sure to have underwear on at all times.

She took his hand and pulled him up, and he suddenly felt hungry. Not a need for food, hungry, but rather a current just below his belly button that radiated out to the rest of his body. She held his hand and walked out, him trailing behind her noticing how nice her butt looked in her leggings.

As they got outside, she turned to him and angled her head up for a kiss, closing her eyes. He thought for a moment about the situation. She was twenty, he was quite a bit older, and maybe this wasn't a great idea. He leaned down and kissed her briefly on the lips. "You're drunk," he said plainly.

"No, I'm not," she said, petulantly. She grabbed him in a tight hug, holding on in a way that almost seemed desperate. Robert took a deep breath and let it out, shuddering slightly as he sighed.

"I'm taking you home, lightweight," he said, disentangling himself and putting his arm around her shoulders, shepherding her to the car. He had parked two blocks away to be closer to 1920 Tavern, and the walk back was comforting. His arm around her, feeling protective, she stumbled twice and he held on tighter each time to keep her from falling again. Each stumble was greeted with laughter from them both.

When they got into the car, Robert put the keys in the ignition but before he could start it up, Margot grabbed his hand, guided it quickly around her shoulder and started kissing him. He was excited by her aggression, and roughly put his tongue down her throat, thinking that might be what she wanted. The continued to make out, and she pulled back slightly and started to kiss him more gently.

After a number of gentle kisses, and his hand roaming forward to her breasts, she maneuvered herself over the center console and straddled him. He was already hard, and had been since she put herself out there for a kiss when they left the bar. The way she was moving around on him was almost too much. He moaned involuntarily a few times when they came up for air, and when he realized he was about ready to reach climax without having done anything, he pushed her off - a little more harshly than he meant to - and started the car.

"Making out in the front seat like a teen-ager," he said, in mock disgust. Then he added, "I'd have thought you'd be too old for that, now that you're twenty."

She stuck her tongue out at him, and it both made her seem younger and turned him on at the same time. "Where do you want to go, then?"

"Your place?" He thought going to her place would be better, give her more space but also he was really curious about her room, how she lived.

"Um, that won't really work. Because of my roommate?"

"Oh, right. You live in the dorms," he said, a bit disappointed as a bit of the twinge of worry was still there that she didn't want anyone to know she was with him.

"Where do you live?" she asked.

"I live in a house," he said, matter of factly.

"Can I . . . come over?"

"You can."


As they arrived at his house, Robert got nervous. He hadn't had anyone over to his house in some time, and while he wasn't overly messy, he wasn't overly clean either. He tried to remember if he had put his laundry away.

Before he got out of the car, he turned to her and hoping to curtail some of the responsibility for the state of his house, he said, "Just so you know, I have cats."

"I know, she said. "We texted about them, remember?"

"Pita is going to be so jealous," he said with a half smile and got out of the car.

As he went up the walkway, he fumbled for his keys trying to find his house key. All of the keys he had for his new-ish bank job always confused him, so he swore under his breath as he searched. Margot put her hands on his back and started rubbing, which distracted him from his concentration and as he tensed up, she stopped.

He eventually found the right key, and muttered, "Well. This is my house," and pushed open the door.

Robert tried to think about how she might see his home, with its collection of board games collecting dust with the old vinyl collection, both leftover from his aunt's possessions. He hadn't changed the decorations much since moving in. His aunt had put up a few art prints in frames, and he enjoyed them well enough.

"I like it," she said, and he thought that maybe she was being truthful about that. Then again, compared to a dorm room this must be a castle.

As she gazed over the room, seeming to be cataloging every detail, he took her around the waist and drew her to himself, and kissed her deeply. He removed her purse from around her arm, then her coat and his, all while still kissing and touching her.

He ushered her into the bedroom, bowing his head slightly and waving her in as if he were a concierge. The dresser by the door had his bottle of whiskey, and he took a swig to push back any leftover jitters. Thinking about the ambiance, he decided to turn on some music and handed her the bottle as he keeled down to his laptop. He had been listening to the campus radio station earlier, trying to get himself into the groove of college kid culture. It seemed like good background music.

Margot sat on the bed, and after he was done with the computer he realized that maybe he was more intoxicated than he had thought. He was feeling slightly light-headed, and waved it off as excitement as he unbuttoned his shirt and unbuckled his pants. He felt foolish when he couldn't take the pants off because he had forgotten to take off his shoes.

He stumbled slightly as he bent over to untie and remove them, and as he did so he noticed his belly and wondered if the college guys she saw were the crazy athletic sorts, the ones who hadn't yet lost their metabolism for beer; or if they were the more nerdy types like him with normal bodies. As he finished removing his shoes and pants, he noticed that Margot decided to take a swig of the whiskey as well and he grinned.

Robert crawled on top of her, his penis hard and ill contained by the boxer shorts he still wore. As she fell back on the bed, he kissed her mouth, tasting her with his tongue, and started to help her remove her clothing. He grasped her breast and pulled off her sweatshirt, then reached down to her crotch and tried to gently caress, but realized too late that he grabbed a bit too hard.

She wiggled out from under him and straddled him like she had in the car. She seemed to be breathing heavily, and he got more excited by thinking she was really into him. As she moved herself over the log of his dick, she closed her eyes and pulled her undershirt over her head. He instantly grasped her breast, moving the bra below it and began to rub her nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

As he did this, Margot pushed herself toward him, and he maneuvered one hand to her side, and the other around her back to undo her bra. He fumbled with it, coming close but not quite able to undo the clasp. Jesus, he thought to himself, why don't they make padlocks out of these things? "Take that thing off," he grunted, barely able to talk.

When the bra was off he marveled at her naked torso. Her skin was so smooth and perfectly unblemished. He'd only had sex with one other woman, and it had been back in college. They had dated for a few months, had sex a few times, but it was long enough ago it was more a vague memory of an old movie. He thought of it often, particularly when he masturbated, but he knew that the porn he watched insinuated into the memory. He took a few seconds to look at her, trying to capture the image and moment in his mind.

He started kissing her again, running his hands up and down her back, through her hair. She held him with one hand entangled in his hair. As they rocked back and forth, kissing, she reached down and put her hands into his underwear, grasping his penis. He groaned in pleasure, and put his own hand into her leggings, under her panties, feeling her moisture.

He slipped his finger tentatively inside her vagina, and as he did so she bit the corner of her lip and moaned. Emboldened by her sound of pleasure, he pushed further in. The angle was poor, and he scraped his fingernail against her causing her to flinch. In the instant, he felt worried that he'd hurt her and she wouldn't want to continue and he reflexively said, "Sorry!"

He looked at her face, her lips slightly parted and eyes widened and suddenly felt self-conscious. "Wait. Have you ever done this before?"

In a millisecond, a wave of doubt flooded his mind. Her comparing him to any other guy she had ever had sex with, and he lost some of his erection. When she stared at him, then started laughing, he lost more of it.

"I'm sorry," he said, thinking that perhaps it was over. "I didn't know."

She immediately stopped laughing and looked at him seriously. "No, it was . . . nice of you to check," she said. "I've had sex before, though. I'm sorry I laughed."

"You don't need to apologize," he whispered, his penis becoming flaccid beneath the weight of her sitting on his lap.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "I guess I'm just nervous, or something?"

He shook his head slightly, recognizing that he was being ridiculous. Here she was, almost completely naked in front of him, willing to fuck him, and he was thinking that she didn't want him. Of course she did, or she wouldn't be here!

"You don't have to be nervous," he said. "We'll take it slow."

She made a sidelong smirk and he picked her up and threw her on the bed. He was glad he didn't have a bed frame or headboard, as it might have knocked against her head when he tossed her a bit too far. He pulled off her leggings and panties in one quick movement, and stepped out of his boxers, back to being fully aroused.

He took a step to a bedside table and opened a drawer. He took out a condom and removed it from its wrapper, slipping it on. He was thankful it went on smoothly, as he often had a hard time putting them on. He had practiced with an entire box at one point to try and make sure he was prepared, and fortunately still had a couple left.

He joined her on the bed, sidled up to her, and slipped his finger back into her pussy going fast and straight. She was still wet, and that turned him on even more as he rolled on to her and started to fuck her. He grew tired of missionary almost immediately, and rolled her back on top of him. As she moved against him he slapped her thigh, saying, "Yeah, yeah, you like that," just like he had seen in countless videos.

He turned her over to get at her from behind, and as he thrust deep into her he reached down and grabbed her breasts and whispered in her ear, "I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits."

When he flipped her over again, he went back to missionary and started to feel a bit tired. He didn't want to stop, though, so he growled, "You make my dick so hard," over, and over as he fucked her. Each time he uttered the phrase made him that much more excited until he finally felt the moment of release, shuddered and came. He laid all his weight on her, panting and kissed her ear.

The moment could have lasted forever, or at least Robert wished it could, but after a short while he slipped his penis out of her and made his way to the bathroom, clutching the condom to keep sperm from getting everywhere. He cleaned himself up and walked back and leaned on the doorway, still a bit winded.

"What do you want to do now?" he asked.

She had pulled the covers over her naked body, and Robert flashed back to their conversation about sex in movies. She shrugged, and still caught up in that thought he said, "We could watch a movie," and he walked over to his laptop, went into his movies folder and clicked on a random flick. He got under the covers with her and set the laptop between them. He put his arm around her and started stoking her hair, and gave tiny kisses to her arm and shoulder.

He realized he had started "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and quickly realized he wasn't going to pay enough attention to read the subtitles. He felt content, and happy that the night had turned out so amazingly.

"You know, I dunno how to really say this, but these past few weeks have been amazing for me," he started. "I've loved our conversations, all the joking, everything."

She laid still, saying nothing, and he continued. "It was hard for me over your break from school," he laughed, almost a short bark. "I was worried you'd go back home and connect with some old high school boyfriend or something. I know, crazy, huh?"

"I was so worried you might, like, make a bad decision and things would be different between us when you got back," he said. "But I should have trusted you."

He idly watched the movie as the characters jumped between treetops. "Are you still awake?" he asked, and when she quickly said yes, he said, "Is everything O.K.?"

"How old are you, exactly?" she asked him, looking straight at the laptop.

"I'm thirty-four," he said worriedly. "Is that a problem?"

In a moment all his fears returned and he held his breath.

"No," she said. "It's fine."

"Good," he said. "It was something I wanted to bring up with you, but I didn't know how you'd take it." He rolled over and kissed her forehead. She smelled like jasmine, and he went back to his side of the bed with the scent lingering in his nose.

She turned and looked at the clock on the bedside table. "I should go home, probably," she said.

"Really?" he said almost at a squeak. He had this entire image in his head of sleeping together, waking up in the morning. "But I thought you'd stay over. I make great scrambled eggs!"

"Thanks," she said, as she got out of bed. He appreciated her butt in the glow of the laptop light as she walked to the foot of the bed and slid into her leggings. "But I can't. My roommate would be worried. So."

She continued to collect her clothing, covering up her body piece by piece, Robert trying to remember each image.

"Gotta get back to the dorm room," he said, sarcastically. His imagined morning glory was shattered, and he was instantly sad.

"Yep," she said. "Since that's where I live."

The drive was endless. The snow had turned to rain. They didn't talk. Eventually, Robert switched the radio to late-night NPR. Robert recalled how, when she hadn't gotten into the speakeasy she had cried out of frustration and he smiled with the memory. It was a sad smile, and the memory itself was bittersweet.

As they arrived at her dorm, she unbuckled her seat belt, and he did the same. "I had a really nice time tonight," he said.

"Me, too."

"I'm so glad we finally got to go on a date," he said.

"You're welcome," she said, and reached for the door handle. "Thanks for the movie and stuff."

As she started to open the door, he panicked a little. "Wait," he said as he grabbed her arm. "Come here." and he pulled her to him, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her passionately again.

A few seconds later, she pulled away and said, "Good night," and got out of the car and walked to her dorm.

Before he drove off, he sent a quick text to her with emojis. He chose some hearts, a smile with hearts for eyes, and a dolphin laughing to himself at his reference to sex, the dolphin jumping in and out of the water. She'll appreciate that, he laughed as he drove back home.


That next day, he felt great! He finally had a girlfriend again, and he had so many thoughts about what they could do next. He knew she was busy at school all day, and he didn't want to bother her - particularly because he had kept her up until almost 4 A.M..

Later in the evening, after he had a dinner of cold leftover pizza, he sent her a text to resume their witty banter, "I hope you enjoyed my Red Vine last night!" She didn't respond immediately and he frowned to himself.

The days that followed were a mix of anxiety and excitement. Now that they were together, he shouldn't worry, right? They had sex, so she obviously wants to be with me. Maybe she overlooked the text. Maybe the sex joke was too soon? That was stupid of me. She should have figured it out, though. We've joked about Red Vines in so many ways, it's part of the fun coming up with new references! Why doesn't she text me back? Did she lose her phone? Maybe she really does have another boyfriend. Hopefully we can do this again next week! Is she ignoring me? Why would she do that? She was really quiet after we had sex. Did I do something wrong? She did compare me to another guy didn't she? She didn't have to be so cold about it, though. Maybe that's not it. Maybe she was just tired. She had a bunch of beer and some whiskey. She obviously can't handle her liquor. Oh wait - I put on a movie with subtitles! That was stupid. I should have put something funny on - she said as much after that Holocaust movie. Damn it.

Three days after having sex, he couldn't take it anymore. "Hey, so it seems like you're really busy, huh?" he texted.

"Haha sorry yeah," followed by, "I'll text you soon."

His low level anxiety didn't improve with that text, but he felt better anyway finally having heard back from her.

He puttered around the house, tidying up a few things. A chime from his phone and he dropped what he was working on and rushed to check the text, excited.

"Hi im not interested in you stop textng me."

He read the text several times, each time feeling like his stomach was falling out of his gut, each time feeling a bit more upset.

He fell back onto the couch and stared at his phone screen until it turned off. Both of his cats appeared, and each took up either side of him on the couch, Mu tentatively meowing, Yan purring slightly.


He felt like crying. He didn't cry. He felt like burying himself in the couch cushions and never coming out. The cats were now upset too, but he didn't pay them much attention.

After some time, he didn't know how long, he got off the couch to go pee. When he got back, he picked up his phone again and re-read the text. This time he just felt nauseated.

"O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you. You are a sweet girl and I really enjoyed the time we spent together. Please let me know if you change your mind."

He watched the text go through to her, then threw the phone across the room with a shout. The cats ran for their respective hiding places.

Then he cried.


He missed work for two days. He just didn't feel like going. The first day he just didn't bother, the second day he called to say he was sick. The third day he called to say he quit.

He spent the next week trying to get out of his funk. He cleaned his house, played video games, ate delivery pizza. He called his mom, which he rarely did. He didn't tell her what happened, but she said she was worried anyway and said they would come down to visit.

His parents stayed for a week. His mother noticed he had lost weight and said something about it every day. His father talked to him about his potential, and what sorts of jobs he should look for. His mom bought him a new jacket and winter hat like he was twelve.

He was a bit numb through it all. He put on an act for them, laughing when he thought it was appropriate, holding a conversation here and there, but he just wasn't into it, and hoped they would go back to their home soon.

He couldn't stop thinking about Margot, no matter how hard he tried. How had he fucked it up? What did he do? If only they could have sat down to talk, he was sure he could have convinced her to stay. He remembered his break-up with his college girlfriend, Amy. It had just kind of ended, really. She spent less and less time with him, always busy with school or other events, and eventually she just told him she was moving on. He was hurt at the time, but not like this.

At least she could have given him the courtesy of telling him to his face. Why hadn't she responded to the joke about the Red Vines? Was that what pissed her off? You know, I hope she gets treated like shit by one of those fucking idiotic jocks. I know she will. It's the sort of bullshit girls like her end up in relationships with. Here I am, treating her nice, showing her kindness and humor - a bit of intellect - and it was too much for her. Maybe I should have treated her like shit, right? Maybe I should have been cold, played hard to get a bit more. Maybe I should have negged her. I always thought that was stupid, but you know, maybe they have a point? You know, I deserve something from her. She should just fucking tell me what her problem is with me.


The parents went home. The moment they left, he put on his new coat and went to the campus dive bar Margot had initially suggested they go to that night. He sat there all evening, nursing a beer. She didn't arrive, and he eventually went home.

That became a regular pattern. He would spend the day doing this and that, browsing Facebook trying to find her, looking at other social media to see if she had any other accounts. When he had the idea to do that, he realized he didn't know her last name at all. He tried searching phone records, but didn't have any luck. He paid for a background check on the phone number and finally found her last name.

Eventually, he found her Facebook. He looked through her photos, trying to see if she had a new boyfriend, but there weren't many public photos, and when he looked at her wall (she really should have better security on her page, he thought) she didn't post very frequently and mostly just cute memes with cats.

He found her campus email address and drafted two or three emails to her, but saved them all to drafts and never sent them. It didn't seem satisfying. He wanted an in-person dialog over this.

He continued to go to the bar, at first two times per week, but after two weeks he was there every night. Until he saw her.

He was sitting at his normal table, watching the door as anyone walked in, each time hoping it would be her with a thrill of energy, then each time a let down when it wasn't. But when he saw her, at first he thought it wasn't her. He stared slack-jawed for a few seconds, then regained his composure and stared down at his beer, trying to make it seem like he was just there drinking.

He heard the group she was with go up to the bar, and heard some shuffling and small high pitched laughter that you often hear from young college girls. He stole a glance and saw some guy standing close to her, shielding her from view. Fuck. She did end up with some jock asshole. He just sat there. He didn't really know what he expected. If she had come in alone, he would have gone up to her, of course. He had been waiting for that. This group of people with her, though? No way. He knew she had probably told them all whatever lies about him that she told, and if he tried to have a rational discussion with her it would go nowhere. Pointless. Fuck.

He waited at his table, stony, until they left. After they were gone, he went up to the bar and ordered a whiskey, neat, and slammed it down. He ordered a second, and did the same. He ordered a third and left it sitting there.

He pulled out his phone and read her last text over and over. He sipped on his drink until it was gone and ordered one more. "Hi Margot, I saw you out at the bar tonight. I know you said not to text you but I just wanted to say you looked really pretty. I hope you're doing well!"

He stared at his text but hesitated sending it. If he sent it, she could respond, and maybe she'd want to go back to their same ritual. Then what? She could just ignore it, and then what? He stopped thinking and pressed send. He kept staring at the screen, hoping she'd text back.

Two minutes later, when nothing had arrived, he typed again, "I know I shouldnt say this but I really miss you"

Nothing. He waited five more minutes, then another five, just staring at the screen.

He felt fuzzy around the edges. His jaw felt like he had been gritting his teeth for hours. Maybe he had. He started typing again, and had a hard time getting the words right, but also didn't really care.

"Hey maybe I don't have the right to ask but I just with youd tell me what it is I did wrog"

Reflexively, he corrected himself, "*wrong"

He waited some more. He sipped at his drink. He ordered another.

"I felt like we had a real connection did you not feel that way or . . ."

More minutes passed. He felt nauseated.

"Maybe i was too old for u or maybe you liked someone else"

He felt a burning in his stomach, and not from the alcohol. It built up. He felt resentful, he felt jealous, he felt enraged.

"Maybe I was too old for u or maybe you liked someone else"

He teared up, and wasn't sure if he was sad, or just pissed. He typed through the blur.

"Is that guy you were with tonight your boyfriend"

He decided to wait a bit on that one. Surely, that'll get an answer! Surely she'll want to respond to that. If he's her boyfriend, she had to say so. If not, then she'll defend herself, right?

No response. It had been two minutes.


Fuck. Still nothing. This was ridiculous. "FUCKING ANSWER ME, BITCH!"  he mumbled under his breath, beyond noticing how drunk he was.

Robert resumes texting. "Or is he just some guy you are fucking"

He pressed send and instantly regretted it.


Fuck. That was too much. Wait the fuck a second here. She blew me off. Fuck her. This is bullshit.

"When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys"

He pressed send and immediately started typing again.

"Are you fucking that guy right now"

"Are you"

"Are you"

"Are you"

He texted his next response and as he pressed send he yelled it into the bar itself.

"Answer me"

Everyone left in the bar looked at him. He drank the last bit of his whiskey and stumbled out of his chair. He slapped down some money, probably much more than he owed but he didn't want to leave without tipping and didn't want to stay around to pay by card.

He stormed out of the bar, slamming the door shut and made his way to his car. He got inside, and hoped she would have texted back by the time he was there.

He pulled out his phone. Nothing. He typed another response, having a hard time getting the spelling right, and retyping several times till he got it right. Finally it was correct. He pressed send.


And immediately vomited over himself.

*Thanks to Linda Lattanzio for bringing "Cat Person" to my attention, and in encouraging me to write this response.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Holidays and the Red-Herring of Happiness

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy Saturnalia! So many holidays, so many traditions, so many orders to be happy and have a great few weeks at the end of the year. We give greetings, we expect them in return. We feel slighted if others don't follow suit, give us a greeting we don't like, or rebuff our tidings of great joy.

It is a very powerful testament to how needy we are for happiness. We seek happiness at all costs, think something is wrong if we feel unhappy, try various things to feel it, think it, do it. Culture and society pressure us to be happy in our media, from our friends and family, even within faith communities. We have entire cliches we stick to here: do what makes you happy! If you're not happy, then do something different! Pick a job you will be happy with! I just want my kids to grow up happy!

If someone is unhappy, it's easy to avoid talking to that person. As if unhappiness is a disease and we're afraid to catch it. We don't want to talk about or address topics, particularly complicated ones, if they make us feel unhappy. Sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty, racism, homophobia and heterosexism - the list goes on with topics that are given platitudes, and sometimes even claims that the problems are over, or have changed, or are pointless to do anything about because they won't change.

Here's the thing. Humans don't really want to be happy, even if we focus on it all the time. There are plenty of articles (here, here, here, here, and beyond) that address this concept of the "cult of happiness" we are pushed to become a part of. In battering intervention classes, the concept of happiness is sometimes used as an intervention, "are you making her happy?" "Is your abusive behavior making you happy?" "Are the kids happy when you do that?"

What human beings want, what we strive for - is comfort.

We want comfort so much, we can easily hurt others in our quest to achieve it. Maintaining the status quo is all about feeling comfortable. Abuse, control, and violence is all about desiring comfort, and trying to force it on others. Entitlement is based in comfort that you are better than others, others are less than you, or that you deserve something.

As human beings, we often fall into the trap of putting our sense of comfort onto others. Often our sense of safety is a part of that comfort. Victims of domestic violence hear all the time "why don't you just leave?" This is an excellent example of how the person suggesting leaving, who probably feels comfortable and safe in their own relationship, extrapolates that if *I* were in that situation, I'd just leave. This is an imposition of comfort, and it is at the very least flawed but more often is just directly hurtful and controlling to think and say to someone who is definitely NOT safe OR comfortable in their relationship.

Externalized comfort is about control. I want to make people do things to make me feel comfortable. I want to keep people from doing things that make me uncomfortable. Again, as human beings we all do this. Think about the holidays and how many people get upset if others do not mirror their chosen greeting, or think things like "there is a WAR on Christmas," because not everyone likes hearing "Merry Christmas!" Think about how when we hear someone has lost a loved one, our "you have my condolences" is not about giving comfort to that person, but rather to ourselves. If we wanted to give comfort to others we would check in to see how they feel, what they need, right? Think of this exchange:

"My father died last week."

"Oh, I am so sorry for your loss!"

"I'm not, I wish he had died years ago!"

This response is often followed by awkward silence, shock, confusion. If the intent was to provide comfort, then the person saying sorry for your loss is probably not helping. The person saying that is thinking about how upset they would be if their father died, or maybe is even reaching to empathy thinking about how they felt when their father or loved one died and want to offer condolences because that's what they wanted and needed. It is self-serving to do that. Think of the alternative:

"My father died last week."

"How are you doing with that?"

"Fine. I wish he would have died years ago."

In this example, the checking in provides the person who experienced the death of a family member to dictate what they need, and how they feel. It's not about their own comfort, but the comfort of the person who may not experience death as a loss at all. Knowing that is true, then comfort can be provided in different ways, tailored to the person who might need it.

People who choose abusive behavior are often externalizing their comfort. This fits into thinking that others are responsible for personal comfort. Abusers, when asked about their hurtful, controlling, and violent behavior will often speak to all the things others have done to them, will disclose abuse they experienced at the hands of their partner, physical and emotional violence, a detailed telling of how others have treated them poorly. Abusers will often have a difficult time describing their own behavior separately from others. Again, this is about comfort - it's the idea that "I can see all the problems, and if only people would listen or do what I say, everything would be better!"

When others fail to follow through with orders (control), then it justifies forcing others to do things, or directly prevent them from doing things.

Victims and survivors, meanwhile, often internalize comfort. Again, this is a human trait and we all do it in certain circumstances. In situations with little personal control or ability, it makes us feel more comfortable to find anything, even a small thing, where we have choice and expand upon it. Think, for example, a worker with a boss who is very controlling and critical about how work is completed. That worker might experience the criticism and then internalize the need to adapt to keep that boss from criticizing. Along with that, the worker might find small things within the job to control that often have to do with personal style.

If someone is being dominated, and there is a pattern of that person being coercively controlled, there is less agency within that relationship. That victim/survivor might think of how to keep that harm, that control, from happening by trying to read that abuser's mind. The victim/survivor might blame themselves for getting hurt, because after all if only a few different choices had been made, the abuse wouldn't have happened (in their mind). This is internalized comfort - this victim/survivor feels more comfortable talking about personal choice, and how the abuse might have been prevented, than in talking about the experienced abuse, which the victim/survivor has no control over.

In considering holidays, let's think about tradition. Tradition makes up one of several layers of trust. We all develop traditions through our experiences as children, and some of them we love and look forward to, others we dislike but tolerate due to family patterns or knowledge that someone we love enjoys that tradition. Sometimes we even look forward to the traditions we dislike because despite not liking them, they provide comfort. We trust that traditions happen at certain times, and it can be anything from birthday celebrations, how we celebrate certain holidays, to individual behavior of family members. The challenge is that each individual human being experiences tradition differently, even within family groups.

In battering intervention groups, it can be important to discuss how often abusers discuss tradition with their partners. How often do such traditions involve elements of compromise, negotiation, and blending of practices? How often do abusers make assumptions about what traditions will be observed? How often does the lack of a tradition, or someone trying to practice their own tradition lead to justification for abuse, control, and violence?

If an abuser does not feel a sense of comfort, it is a simple thing to attack those who are not providing it. Holidays, being filled with tradition, can be great sources of negative self-talk, entitlement, and disconnect. Abuser will place their sense of safety on their victims - if they feel safe, and in their own minds think they are "right" and therefore justified in pushing or ignoring boundaries, shouldn't their partner instinctively know what their intentions are?

Happiness is indeed a red herring within domestic violence work (and with humanity as a whole). If we can understand how we seek and pursue comfort, we have more viable options to discuss how someone can develop thinking and behavior designed to cause pain and fear, yet justify and minimize impact on others.

If you are interested in having these conversations in your battering intervention classes, I suggest asking your group what holidays they celebrate. Ask what traditions they have, and traditions their partner has which are different. Ask about how different traditions are negotiated, particularly around visiting both sides of the family. Ask what happens when a tradition you enjoy doesn't happen, and when a tradition you dislike doesn't happen. Discuss the difference between happiness and seeking comfort, and how hurtful behavior might hinge on the desire for external comfort. Speak to how to navigate expectations during the holidays, and keep neutral self talk while noticing your own boundaries and the boundaries of partners and family. Ask how this discussion fits throughout the year, and how each participant in the class externalizes their comfort onto their partner, and what they do when their partner does something that leads them to feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of options, but during BIP classes, simply having the conversation and humanizing the stress, expectations, and authentic responses of the holidays is an important one to have.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Summary of Battering Intervention Services Coalition of Michigan Conference 2017 "Miles to Go"

Each year, the Battering Intervention Services Coalition of Michigan (BISC-MI) offers presentations, workshops, and discussions from people around the nation (and from other parts of the world) to consider methods of intervening with domestic violence offenses. Since its inception, BISC-MI has been an excellent source of critical thinking about this work, and this year they changed their name to better match an approach that works to address behavior as opposed to labeling people and "othering" individuals (prior name was "batterer intervention" opposed to the new "batterering intervention"). This humanizing approach was a key theme behind this year's "Miles to Go" conference which focused on various ways of addressing trauma issues in those who choose to harm their partners and families. It was abundantly clear that these approaches were not to excuse behavior, but rather to name that self-care and personal healing are as much of the process of accountability as ending violence and abuse toward others.

Some of the conference also involved experiential aspects and an opportunity for self-reflection and healing for those of us doing this work. These aspects are ones which are impossible to capture in a summary article, but I will make attempts to address some of the information involved during these sessions. For most of the conference, I posted links, observations, and brief summaries on my Twitter feed, and on the Domestic Violence Intervention and Education group on Facebook. I will link to these posts throughout this article.

To start the conference, Juan Carlos Arean opened up the framework for the conference and the discussion of trauma. In general, the history of work with men who choose battering behavior has not been one that has humanized men enough to address issues beyond their violence and abuse. While efforts have been made over time, in different ways by different models, in a large way trauma informed approaches are a major adaptation to this field. Arean brought forward techniques that have had great success in other human service fields: trust and support, use of peers, collaboration and mutuality, horizontality, empowerment by giving people a voice and increasing their agency, and overall humanization. One tool being used by some is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) which gathers information on how an adult may have traumatic experiences in their history. It helps to identify that issues are there, but the challenge is how to address them?

Arean suggested that it is similar to medical illness - if you are sick, and are given medical advice to follow but ignore that advice, you will continue to be sick. Battering Intervention has the opportunity to both give feedback and opportunity for change, where that health is not just about ending violence, but truly addressing long-term issues that provide justification and a foundation for abusive and violent behavior. Arean discussed work being done by Full Frame Initiative which works on 1) social connectedness, 2) stability, 3) safety, 4) mastery, 5) meaningful access to relevant resources. Balance of these factors is key, and there is relevance to both victims/survivors and perpetrators.

Restorative justice options have been a challenge in part due to the colonialist attitudes behind them - where indigenous tribes have been practicing community healing for centuries, but are told how they should follow "best practices." Arean pointed out the need to understand and address cultural issues by addressing individual cultures. People of color experience pain at being excluded and not being welcomed into the work they have been doing - so we need to think critically about whom we have been leaving out, and why. How do we give lip service to cultural work in general and specific places? Why is it that mostly white men lead the work in battering intervention, and how has work for community health, showing love and appreciation, and healing work within this field been excluded or looked down upon when practiced by people of color?

Jerry Tello followed by discussing methods of working beyond trauma work to healing centered work. He used personal stories to illustrate the process of change, and the struggles of being human - where those fit into stopping domestic violence. He talked about it being easy to see anger and frustration as negative, rather than recognizing that these can be a result of being invisible and ignored. Certain communities are in a perpetual state of facing traumatic situations - making people in these communities inherently trauma informed. The impetus of mainstream society is to break down and conquer people who do not fit into the so-called mainstream. This includes non-white people, poor people, LGBTQ+, those people who lack privilege and power in certain ways. We, as a society, label people to create fear and see frameworks of culture as a deficiency. We have rules for how people need to adopt certain ways of interacting within communities, furthering oppressive thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. If a society, like ours, is founded on the premise of conquering others then the focus is always on treatment and stopping behavior - NOT on healing. Even when we realize treating the violence is not enough.

Indigenous cultures tend to recognize the sacredness of relationships, yet manifestations of violence and disconnect reverberate out from a society that encourages and sometimes forces that disconnect. Individuals often question, "am I wanted?" and if someone does not feel a sense of importance, a sense of value from others early in life - they will search for it (or force it) throughout their lives. When you see someone as a relative to you, someone connected to you, you treat them differently. When someone is a number, or even a "client," you can easily see and treat them as less than you. Tello discussed how he treats participants in his program as his family. He said that when you categorize men as perpetrators and not recognize their wounds, how can you possibly support yet check their behavior at the same time?

Tello described how what happens to our ancestors and is never healed is passed on to us individually. Generational trauma is often missed in a society that wants to treat behavior because it only values what can be seen. How do you measure spirit in an individual? Healing of ourselves is critical in this work - Tello emphasized that the most humbling thing men can do is to heal themselves. He said, "we had incorporated colonialist ways into our lives. We needed to reclaim our sacredness to heal." Healing centered work focuses on us - how to live with our teachings, not just give them to others. He described taking a "do you see me" concept of work with men, that if you do not make a connection, you do not have a conduit to help, guide, or connect. Men in groups need to feel seen and heard, need a chance to attach to healing by understanding the most significant factor can often be how do you love yourself, and how do you show love despite someone else's woundedness. It becomes simple to "otherize" people who choose battering behavior, and disconnect from individuals as a result. Tello pointed out "WE ARE THEM." We need to move out of rhetoric of labels and boxes and bring back humanity. We can still be about accountability when we are healing generations of wounds.

Next we heard from Floyd Rowell, who told his personal stories of violence he experienced within his community. When he found a refuge to the violence, and was violated within that refuge, he said he shifted his thinking to a mentality of "before you get to me, I'm going to get to you." The limitation led to what he described as creating a shield that, "wrapped [his] horrors in barbed wire," and a philosophy of "before you get to my heart, you're going to go through some pain first." His experiences ultimately led him to prison, and experiences where he was seen as an offender and not as a human being were foundational in enforcing these beliefs.

Terri Strodoff, director of Alma Center (where Rowell learned how to change his life after prison), discussed how approaching men who use battering behavior with discussion of attitudes, behavior, socialization as men, the power and control wheel, or other cognitive behavioral approaches may not be considering how men like Rowell may not be able to relate to such information because we know nothing about their humanity, or how the context of their lives matters in discussing their hurtful behavior. She said that it is important to change the question from what is wrong with you to what happened to you. Such a shift changes how we show up for people, and it can be important to consider how we hold space for people to tell stories. Summarizing the importance of looking at trauma in men's lives, she explained, "any pain not transformed is transferred. The only way out of trauma is healing, and we need to ask how we support healing and change in men who batter." As a general philosophy, I tend to agree with her ideas, but I would have liked to hear more concrete information about their approaches in groups and why/how they think they work.

The rest of the first day involved honoring Barbara Hart for her work by awarding her the "Ed Gondolf Compass Award," and some experiential meetings. I attended a session facilitated by Alma Center staff that involved participants sharing their stories, talking about things in their lives. The personal stories varied and some shared deeper information while others kept to work related situations. The experience was personally interesting, but it seemed many participants were unclear of boundaries or unsure of how to participate. Since the information was merely shared and not discussed it also created an open, non-judgmental environment without processing or further discussion of topics that were sometimes rather profound. Another workshop I was unable to attend considered how to "Honor One's Sacred Circle," and was facilitated by Tello and Arean.

That first evening, we had an informal and unofficial meeting of AQUILA members, and the 15 or so who attended discussed methods of addressing sexual harms in BIP, which often seems to be a major gap in services where the reality of sexual harms in victims/survivors lives create major damages. As societal shifts appear to be occurring on this front, it behooves us to be more direct and authentic in our approaches here.

On the second day, Merkeb Yohannes of Michigan Coalition to End Domestic Violence took time to share her humanity by talking about all the components behind her victimization and survival as an undocumented immigrant. She started by discussing how people feeling sorry for her made it impossible to see her for anything beyond being a survivor, and while her stories made her vulnerable, they at the same time made others impressionable. Her identity as an immigrant and undocumented survivor flattened her experience, rather than considering that her stories are that which form her and her humanity. When she told her personal experiences, she discussed the dynamics of living in parallel worlds, the impact of changing her name to adapt to a new culture, and the ways her experiences of abuse twisted her vulnerabilities against her. While I am cautious about telling specific details in this space, she made the point that single stories create stereotypes that create an incomplete picture and can easily rob people of dignity. I believe reflecting on these truths can be critical to work with both victims/survivors and perpetrators.

Lisa Young Larance did an overview of research and practice in women's use of force, partially addressing the problems with the commonly used Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) which provides no context for behavior, misses sexual harms, misses discussion of an incident, and the impact on someone. While the CTS had a revision, the revised edition had initial validation, but the researchers changed questions and that initial validation was lost as a result. Yet, this scale is used in research and used by media to justify ideas that women are as violent as men and miss the context of victims/survivors reporting more responsibility for harms, and perpetrators reporting more victimization and little talk of their own hurtful behavior. [Note: I left this presentation early, but I heard from others there was backlash against Larance's presentation where some audience members derailed to discussions about men as victims. Since her focus was on looking at research and practice on women's violence and the contextual difference, such derailments are not productive as they shift focus to men, which is a different conversation that has importance, but it does not need to and should not override a discussion of women's hurtful behavior.]

Aldo Seoane talked about cultural healing and showed a recent documentary highlighting Wica Agli's program with men who have been abusive. He began by inviting an invocation of prayer into the room from an elder, and introduced the concept of container wrapping - creating a space of safety to hold the energy of processing. The need to confront colonialism within work on domestic violence issues (including patriarchy and how our systems invest in these kinds of power) involve the ability and willingness to reflect on how this fits within ourselves. We need to ask permission from others in guiding them toward reflection. He discussed how there is a need to start in a place of gratitude and understanding. The chevron symbols of Wica Agli begin with representation of a black chevron, indicating the first direction, but the other colors are out of order - reminding us that while we know what is right, we have lost our direction. We are tied to our history, and we can always reclaim it, or "dig it up" as a mentor of his will exclaim.

Seoane talked of his painful and traumatic experiences and how they informed him in his life and his culture, and how overall culture in the United States is one that houses systems that are about hate and fear - systems which are afraid of love and feeling. To decolonize and do antioppression work, we need to create safe spots in our spirit to grow love for others. He reflected on his advocacy during Standing Rock, and where men do not ask for consent when harming women, and corporations do not ask for consent when building infrastructure. This relates directly to transgenerational trauma - where we revictimize people all the time through our practices and through our silence. In many ways, the federal government can be the biggest batterer - use of intimidation and isolation, judging others for the sake of judgment. In addressing trauma, we need to have discernment and understand how can we show ourselves the same level of compassion we want to show others.

In describing his work in groups, Seoane talked about how we learn from each other, and how we can separate from our work at times to simply connect as human beings. He gave the example of occasionally asking "are you okay?" to class participants. He said their classes are three hours long, and involve storytelling - working to change the culture within the community to where it should be, and how we guide thoughts and minds to balance, health, and respect. In western society, we tend to work to compartmentalize everyone, and Seoane was clear that we can use our stories as a path to healing. In a smaller break out session, he spoke to using stories to ground discussions, to create space for healing. Exercises can be felt, and can be experienced without always needing to be cognitive, and he provided several examples of how that might work within group settings.

I joined Jeffrie Cape, Pam Wiseman, and Chris Huffine to present information from the "Truth Squad," a committee of people working to increase discussion and understanding of battering intervention as a part of AQUILA. Cape opened the presentation to talk briefly about AQUILA and its name and foundation. In my short presentation, I stressed the advantage of people using the new AQUILA discussion forum. Our work is improved by the ability to both have discussions over this philosophical material, but also by having ongoing and easily accessible information. The listserv has advantages of broadcasting to many people at once, but has a major disadvantage of making discussion difficult, unfocused, and challenging to find information at a later date. In short - if you are reading this, please join us on this forum.

Pam Wiseman discussed the political ramifications of PEW research, the Council of State Governments, and others working to privatize systems (like probation and jails) who are working to control battering intervention work (particularly with pushing the ACT-V model). Chris Huffine talked about the challenges of a system which glorifies the virtues of "evidence based programming" without fully understanding how they work, the research used to grant that status, or a base understanding of the systems they intend to replace. Often these groups talk poorly of the Duluth Model, and have no understanding of the difference between the "model" and the "curriculum" which are two entirely different things. The Duluth Curriculum is the use of the power and control wheels, control logs, and vignettes to do group sessions for men with battering behavior. If using the most recent 2011 update, you will be working to focus 75% of your time in classes on respectful and healthy behavior. Most places which claim use of the "Duluth Model" are actually only using the curriculum, and even then may not have read the first 100 pages of the manual which explicitly states the classes should never be a script, and instead a start of a conversation - and also mention the need to use the entire model, not just the curriculum. The Duluth MODEL is the community coordinated response involving very specific and direct work within community to change perspectives, attitudes, and practices on domestic violence on all agencies who have a role. This is often very challenging, requires extra funding for staff, and makes the BIP sessions a very small part of overall work to change the community. Unfortunately, research has rarely spoken to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program (Duluth) directly, and often analyze community based programs who have very low fidelity to their model and program as a whole.

Huffine also emphasized that many of us in this work take direction from probation departments, which often have pressure to use evidence based practice and miss the importance of research based practice. The goal in our work should not be to replace programming, but to rather enhance and improve it. As a part of this improvement, we need to be aware of risk factors and do more to address risk issues. This becomes challenging as there is often greater emphasis on recidivism and not on risks of ongoing domestic violence (much of which may be non-arrestable).

The rest of the second day becomes more difficult to report on, due to some experiential sessions. I attended a workshop with Aldo Seoane, who followed up his conversation from before by adding some legendary stories and spoke to how such stories can be important to reflect on. Mary Case, from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, spoke to identifying primary aggressor in LGBT domestic violence cases. I am more used to language focused on predominant aggressor as opposed to primary aggressor, which initially I thought was not that significant a difference - then recognized that the reason for the shift in wording has a lot to do with how law enforcement sees domestic violence, and assaults in general. PRIMARY aggressor often indicates there is a secondary aggressor. This tends to eliminate an analysis of power and pattern of coercive control as a part of the determination. PREDOMINANT has more to do with an analysis of who controls or dominates the other person. This gave me more of a critical viewpoint to Case's presentation, particularly in the challenges that already come with law enforcement responses to LGBTQ+ domestic violence. That said, the LA LGBT Center does screening as a part of their couples counseling program to rule out domestic violence from that service, and when she discussed some differences between victims/survivors and perpetrators, she directly spoke to there being a significant difference in how perpetrators avoid identifying their own behavior and focus on how they perceive themselves to be victimized, whereas victims/survivors tend to be focused on their own behavior - similar to information discussed by Larance above.

That evening, I facilitated a simulation based on "Dog Eat Dog," a role playing game that explores the impact of colonialism on Pacific Island peoples. We began by discussing colonialism as a concept, and how it could fit into domestic violence systems. Three groups went through the experiences within the child protective services, probation, and mental health / substance abuse counseling systems. The simulation is set up to create rewards for following the rules of the system, and penalties in expressing individuality, which is also very common within DV systems as a whole. Anyone who would like to look more fully at the simulation to consider using it within their community can click here to learn more or click here for an in depth review. I will probably write more in depth on this topic in the future, and have already had articles that have explored this overlap before, so feel free to go through other articles if this interests you.

The final day involved a number of discussions from Family Peace Initiative, and some experiential drumming workshops run by Rahul Sharma and Dummunity. I only participated on the periphery of the drumming workshops, so do not have anything to include here outside of those links (which give a sample of the drumming involved).

Steve Halley and Dorothy Stuckey Halley started off the day by discussing "Cracking the Code: Understanding those who batter and the connection to risk and lethality," which began by reviewing work by Bandara in 1973 that summarized abuser's aggression is done in order to 1) appropriate resources, 2) win approval and status, 3) bolster self-esteem and manliness, 4) see the expression of suffering in others. Their claim was that these traits are important to consider in looking at battering behavior. They broke down categories of abusers to the following groups:

Entitlement based: this category is based in privilege, and a belief in personal righteousness to punish others. Steve and Dorothy described this group as calculated, not being "out of control," and in many cases use anger as a tool by faking it or investing in "righteous anger" to justify abusive behavior. They detailed a subcategory of materially motivated abusers who are primarily wanting money and resources. These abusers are exploitative, see women as interchangeable and disposable, do not have jealousy toward their victims, expect services without needing to reciprocate (such as with chores, sex, etc), have contempt for their victims, view women as restricting their liberty, lack empathy, and some are criminally minded (trafficking behavior, drug sales and use, rarely having police calls from their victims).

Survival based: these abusers must have their partner to survive, and to keep their image of themselves intact. Their reaction to potential loss of a relationship is not fear, but terror. Their response to a sense of betrayal is not anger, but rage. These individuals have a strong cycle of abuse, have an abusive personality structure, and inhibit total desperation behind their motives. These abuser have borderline traits, even if they do not have borderline personality disorder. They have rage at imperfection, are aloof and narcissistic, and terrified of both separation and closeness. They often create self fulfilling prophecies, and have great perceptions of scarcity. They have an attitude of not ever going back to nothing, no matter what they have to do. During the presentation, Mel Gibson was used to illustrate this point by listening to a violent rant against his ex-partner. Protective orders may heighten danger in some cases, and as a general rule victims/survivors should be given the opportunity to get a protective order but never required to obtain one. When analyzing ACE results, the top three factors discovered with survival based abusers were experiences of emotional abuse, having a substance addicted caretaker, and having parental separation. The most dangerous types of survival based batterers were dependency types during separation, and antisocial types during relationships.

Sadistic based: These abusers derive pleasure by causing pain. They are very intelligent, and often have power within their career. Their abusive behavior often begins long after marriage, and they often hide abuse and think of it as a game. Victims are often noticed when they first enter into psychiatric units and are often seen as "compliant."

Personally, I am not big on categorization of types of abusers. I have experienced over time in my work that individuals follow unique patterns, and thinking about general categories can easily lead to dehumanizing or believing only certain approaches might work with an individual. That said, I am not entirely clear how Family Peace Initiative uses these categories in their work. If I am looking at overlapping patterns of behavior in men in my groups, I speak about certain categories from within those patterns as opposed to generalizing people into groups. For example, I have seen many men with abusive patterns of behavior who enter into relationships solely for sexual intercourse, but don't really want to develop an intimate relationship. These patterns can lead to unplanned pregnancy, unplanned (and undesired) marriage, a serial pattern of cheating - and these patterns can be discussed as a whole, and where those patterns might have impacts. I use those patterns to humanize the disrespectful and destructive choices and speak to methods of working toward respect and health that fit into individual cases. The milieu of presenting within a small time frame, and inability to discuss these methods also may contribute to my not understanding the context of FPI's categorizations.

Next, I went to both Steve and Dorothy's presentations on "The River of Cruelty" to see their differing perceptions and understanding of a core component of their curriculum. Overall, I appreciated their different takes, and Trish Taylor's presentation with Dorothy. Their way of explaining cruelty is in reflecting on behavior that intentionally causes pain and fear, or behavior that is willfully and blatantly neglectful of others. In these smaller workshops, participants had a chance to brainstorm examples in each of the categories. It was not directly stated, but I got the impression that FPI does the discussion similarly in their group sessions. Steve discussed how they encourage facilitators to lead by example and discuss their own patterns, which enters into a needed discussion about self-disclosure and its dynamics even if it was not the time for it during the presentation.

Cruelty: FPI provided a handout on the "River of Cruelty Map" to help discuss the ways cruelty impacts people's lives. It starts with discussions of cruelty children experience, and we as a group listed several examples - some personal, some just based in knowledge of the violence and abuse children face from parents and others. I think this discussion grounded the topic, and when participants asked challenging questions about how to respond to a BIP participant who either refused to participate, or participated inappropriately, FPI staff provided compassionate yet accountability minded responses. It was an ongoing point that understanding experiences of trauma does not excuse someone from their own violent and abusive choices, but it expands accountability to the need to work toward personal healing and self-care.

Adverse Feelings: I noticed during this part of the discussion that the initial discussion seems to be to brainstorm so-called negative emotions. I found it important to name other adverse feelings as a result of cruelty, such as happiness. Sometimes when people have experienced cruelty, if they believe they are responsible for that cruelty that was done to them, they may feel guilt associated with happiness, or may avoid feeling happy because they do not think they deserve it. Understanding some of these broader applications is important, in my assessment. However, this exercise gives a venue to discuss emotions and sensations without using them to justify.

Defense Systems: These examples can provide opportunity to reflect on abusive behavior as a defense, or even to discuss resistive violence. The category can also be used to look at responses people take based in gender role training that can easily become toxic.

Unintended Consequences: In one of my groups last night, I decided to have a conversation over the "River of Cruelty" and had some interesting participation from the men in the group. They, when talking about people inflicting cruelty, seemed to want to focus on a need for revenge, particularly against people who might hurt their children. This branched into a discussion of the unintentional consequences on self and others by making such a choice - by using such a defense system. Intended outcomes are often so much different than unintended consequences and this is a good thing to discuss and reflect on in BIP classes.

Beliefs-Attitudes: When facing unintended consequences, it is a natural response to develop beliefs or attitudes about the entire experience of cruelty, the results of trauma. Seeing how entitled and disconnected beliefs and attitudes become amplified after experiencing patterns of cruelty might be an excellent avenue to explore development of empathy and repairs.

Overall, the conference provided excellent dialog over complicated topics, allowed me to engage with peers and colleagues, share my experience with newcomers to the work, and increased my understanding that working with intentional connectedness to others, even those I don't agree with on 100% of our practices, is CRITICAL to learning and growing personally - and in working toward progress on building health and respect, as well as ending violence and abuse.