The mistake I made, over and over, is taking him at his word. Because how can you be in a long-term relationship if you cannot take your partner at their word? When he would say harsh words, I would say, “Ouch, that hurt.” And he would reply, “No, don’t pay attention to those words, I didn’t mean those words. Pay attention to these kind words instead.” And I would fall for it, every time. I thought that one of the fundamental rules for the game was that I was supposed to take people at their word.
That is where the betrayal cuts the deepest. Because I keep clinging to this image of myself as being the kind of person who can take people at their word. I’m still struggling to take him at his word, but this is the mistake. I struggle to take him at his word when, ultimately, his word is worthless.
In the autumn, have you ever watched leaves fall off a tree? It’s capricious. The wind blows, and the leaves fall where the wind carries them. His words are like the fallen leaves. When the wind blows one way, his words drift with the breeze, and when the wind blows another way, his words are tossed around like fallen leaves floating in the air. There’s nothing behind the words, nothing purposeful or systematic coordinating them. It’s just the wind.
Being a person who wants to take people at their word, when the wind would blow the words one way I would scurry around to follow them. He would ask me to do x, and I would do x. Then the wind would change direction and the words would blow another way. Now he would be upset that I was doing x. He claimed that never said x, he actually always wanted y. And I would scramble to chase those words as if there were some kind of truth behind them. But there was no truth behind them. It was only the wind.
There’s no truth behind them. What if there never was any truth behind them?
We would argue about the basic facts of reality. I could look out the window and I would say, “Hey, it’s raining outside.” And he would say, “No it’s not.” And I would look outside in bewilderment, seeing splotches of rain darkening the pavement, wondering what would cause someone to deny this seemingly incontrovertible fact of reality. Wet vs. Dry. We lived in an arid mountain community where wetness is not relative the way it can be in more humid climates. It’s not exactly a vague distinction.
Really he was trying to use his words to control the situation. For whatever reason- maybe he didn’t want it to be raining- he tried to use his words create a world where it was not raining. He thought he could make wet into dry by denying it was raining. He thought he could make Late into On Time just by using certain words. He thought that if he said “I’m sorry” enough times, he could make thoughtlessness into love. He was using words to define reality. We all do that. The difference was that there was nothing behind his words. He’d insist that it wasn’t raining, when I was standing outside getting wet.
Just like you can’t negotiate with a terrorist, you can’t live for long in a world where the words are meaningless. Go try to live in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language. You could try to muddle your way through by miming. Take a left? Go right? Miming will only get you so far. Eventually you will be sitting in a restaurant having ordered food, but you will have no idea what’s on the plate when the food comes.
Let’s say that you are hungry, and you call up the local pizza shack and order a pizza. You make the call, order the pizza, and in 20-30 minutes a guy shows up with a pizza box in his hands. In the regular world, when you open the box there’s the pizza you ordered inside the box. But here’s how it works in a world where the words are meaningless. You call up and order the pizza, and 45 minutes later this guy shows up. He’s wearing a pizza uniform and he’s holding a pizza box. You pay and take the box inside. But when you open it up, there’s no pizza inside. What you are holding is a pizza box full of screwdrivers. You run outside and call the pizza guy back to your porch and say, “Hey, dude! I ordered pizza. This is just a bunch of screwdrivers.” And he says, “But what you really need are screwdrivers.” You’ve been taught to state your needs calmly and clearly, so you state you need for pizza again. But when you live in this place where the pizza man decides what he thinks you really meant to order, it doesn’t matter how calmly or slowly or clearly you state your needs. Maybe he doesn’t even have any pizza in his shop at all. Maybe he’s just scrambling around his shop and throwing the first thing he can find into the box, in a desperate attempt to deliver something, anything. Anything is better than nothing, right? But it doesn’t stop there. He starts to justify himself, saying “Well, let me show you how screwdrivers are better than pizza anyhow.” And he pulls some boards out of the trunk of his car and starts to screw together a bird house, right there on your porch. All the while you are standing there, watching the pizza guy give a master class on bird house building with your new screwdrivers, but you are starving. All you wanted was pizza. How many more times are you actually going to try to order pizza from this guy?
His words are worthless. Taking him at his word is sentencing yourself to endless chasing of fallen leaves in the wind. You might catch one or two, but they will crumble in your hand. There’s nothing behind them.
Gimme a lawn bag. I have to clear all these leaves out of my yard.
Take your pizza box and your screwdrivers and your bird house, and get the hell off of my porch. And be careful on your drive home, it’s raining.
Note: The bit about the pizza box was inspired by Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum. The bit about the screwdrivers and the bird house is mine.