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Stay Here Or Stay Nowhere: When Poverty Calls The Shots In Your Relationship

By Jonna Ivin

Content warning: Descriptions of abuse

You have nothing to complain about. I don’t beat you.

He’s drunk.

Some nights are bearable. Others need to be waited out.

Hours earlier, he groped at my tits and tried to shove his hands down my pants. Now he’s pissed off. He’s up. He’s down. Six beers this. Ten beers that. Angry. Horny. Silly. Hungry. Tired. Oh, how I crave the nights he is tired. After he passes out, the house will be quiet. At the bottom of every 18-pack, there is always silence.

If you don’t want to be here, then get the fuck out.

I refuse to give him the reaction I think he wants. What will we become if I match his intensity?

Bad boys bad boys
whatcha gonna do
whatcha gonna do
when they come for you

The house isn’t large enough to hold our resentment and rage. He can’t contain his, but I can contain mine. I am a warrior of passive defiance. What he sees as weakness is my weapon of choice. A wall of silence. I keep my head down, pretending to read a library book. Sometimes this works. He will grow bored — go outside, talk to the dogs, drink his beer sitting on the tailgate of our old pickup truck.

But not tonight. Tonight he yanks the book out of my hands and rips it in half. I look up. We don’t have the money to pay for the things he does.

I am afraid of him, although it’s true he doesn’t beat me. Adrenaline and anxiety take an emotional toll, but my skin remains unmarked. Wet N Wild doesn’t make a foundation to cover fear. I’m not going to flee to a shelter or call the police. He knows it. I know it.

I want to retreat to the bedroom, but I don’t. It’s better to stack my bricks and let him scream it out. I stay on the couch and poke my finger through a hole in the old sheet we use as a slipcover. If I circle my finger around, I can find the tear in the cushion the sheet is meant to hide. If I dig down, I can pick at the fluffy white stuffing.

You think you’re so high and mighty with your snotty fucking attitude. Let’s see how high and mighty you are when you’re living on the streets.

He throws the torn book across the room. It hits the crooked mini-blinds and a puff of dirt floats through the air. It isn’t dust. It’s dirt. Dust is too fancy for us. The summer is the hottest in years and the swamp cooler deposits a thick layer of filth in every nook and cranny. For a while, I attempted to stay on top of it by washing walls and mopping floors, but I learned that when the low-down dirty wants to force its way in, it’s best to just step aside.

This house and my body fill with things I can’t keep clean. I can’t scrub away the self-loathing or the rage. I can’t wash away the years, go back to a time when he saw me as someone special and I believed he was my winding road, rambling toward contentment.

I fell in love with him as we drove west. The old truck parked out front brought us this far, and I can still feel the warm breeze blowing on my face as I blew cigarette smoke out a rolled-down window. He sang along with Dwight, Waylon, and Merle while I fantasized about little white farmhouses, vegetable gardens, and Sunday dinners. He did all the driving, but I was an excellent co-pilot, reaching in the cooler, opening drinks, and folding down wrappers of fast-food burgers. It was his job to move us from our shady past to a better future; it was mine to take care of us along the way.

We both failed.

I don’t want to sit on this ratty couch like a lump of nothing. I want to jump up, run out the door, and never return. I want to light a match and burn this shit-hole to the ground. I want to stand in our dirt yard screaming until he realizes I’m insane. I want to shock him to the core and see panic in his eyes. I want to give him one hell of a story to tell his buddies at the bar. When he’s finished speaking, I want an old drunk to mutter into his whiskey, Sounds like one crazy bitch, son. Count yourself lucky she’s gone.

I pull out a piece of fluffy, clean fuzz, roll it between my fingers, and flick it away. I’m not going anywhere. I imagine the neighbors turning up the volume on their television and thinking, Those people are at it again. He and I became we, and we became those people.

I’ve got two choices: stay here or stay nowhere. Poverty calls the shots. He doesn’t beat me, and for that I am grateful. I stay.

I know what I need to do. I need to work more, work harder, save every dime. I need to apply for loans, go back to school, get a degree, get a better job, be self-sufficient. I need to start at the bottom and work my way up. I need to climb the corporate ladder. Scrape those bloody knuckles to new heights. I need to become everything I’m not and prove to the juries of social worth that I love myself enough to leave.

She used to say, Mama didn’t raise no fools. Oh, but you did, dear departed one. Do you look down and roll your eyes? Say That can’t be a daughter of mine? Do you think I don’t know you’d be long gone by now? Six times you left. Six vows. Six rings. Six tries. Pack your things. We’re moving. A bad man is a chain to be broken. Drive far. Drive fast. Drive until you hear the snap.

But what if he’s not bad? What if he’s simply a drunk? Like you. Just like you. Nothing more. Nothing less. Don’t you get it? The breaking of chains and the breaking of spirits sounds the same.

When I was 19, I worked at a diner with my best friend. She was an actress and I had no idea who I was. One day, we decided to see a psychic to answer the pressing question of youth. What will become of me? I sat at a foldout card table across from a woman with puffy cheeks and hair a shade of yellow that only comes from a box off a Rite-Aid shelf. There was no doubt in my mind she was poor, just like me. In front of her was a large pad of art paper. A blue crayon rested in her hand. She said she channeled messages from the Universe and would draw images as they came through.

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. She moved the crayon across the page, then shook her head and took another breath. Her hand continued moving. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always in motion. The anticipation of seeing my waxy blue future was almost too much to take. Would I see the Eiffel Tower? The Amazon River? An apartment in New York stacked floor to ceiling with books? A Texas farmhouse?

Finally, she opened her eyes and sighed. I’m not getting anything for you. She lowered the art pad, showing me nothing but blue scribbles. Big, scribbled circles, beginning and ending nowhere. Do you want to just ask me questions?

Will I have a great career?

Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Shrug. Nothing is coming through.

Will I be wealthy?

You’ll be okay. This time she didn’t bother to move the crayon.

I knew what “okay” meant; I was already living it. You won’t starve to death, but you should keep those expectations low. I stopped asking questions and paid her the $20.

I think about that blue crayon as I watch him pace in front of me. I wonder if this filthy house and broken man are my inevitability. If so, why fight it? Was it the magic crayon that put the thoughts in my head, thoughts of a non-future? Did the careless scribbles tell me I was nothing, so I became nothing? Or was it my destiny to be nothing, and the crayon only scrawled the truth?

In high school, I would sit in English class fixated on a poster taped next to the chalkboard. It was fall leaves, yellows, oranges, and browns, covering a wooded path. In swirly cursive writing it read:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
–Robert Frost

Every day I read those words. That’s a lie. I only read the words on the days I bothered to go to school — maybe three days a week — but on those days, the words meant something to me. I might be a 17-year-old nothing now, but just you wait. I’ll take the other road and I’ll show you all that I matter. Fuckers. Watch me soar!

When you are young, hope doesn’t have a price tag. It would be years before I figured out that Frost’s poem isn’t about blazing new trails. It isn’t about being a badass who takes the difficult, less-traveled road to greatness. The poem is about lying to ourselves and pretending it matters which road we take. Drive far. Drive fast. The poem tells us we end up where we end up. The crayon knew what the crayon knew. I was just too stubborn to listen.

I’m listening now.

You better get it together and start acting right. Put a fucking smile on your face once in a while.

These are his parting words before stumbling off to bed. He’s grown bored of me. Fighting with someone who won’t fight back doesn’t hold his interest. Only when I hear his breathing become a soft snore do I exhale, grateful another day has come to an end. Is this it, my life’s purpose? Get to the end of the day and be grateful it is over?

In the morning, we don’t discuss the events of the night before. We sit on the couch and drink coffee. Maybe he is embarrassed, or maybe he doesn’t remember. I don’t ask. I’m simply too tired. Tired of all of the poor life choices that have led me on the path to poverty and silence.

He’s tired too. I see it in the curve of his long back, a back that causes him unrelenting pain. It has carried too many heavy burdens for too many years. Collapsing economies land on the fragile spines of those treading to stay afloat. He has zig-zagged over majestic purple mountains and fruited plains chasing down work which long ago sailed away to distant lands. Standing on the shores, like millions of nameless, faceless others, he waved goodbye to hope and prosperity.

His muscles, knotted and angry, won’t give up their hurt no matter how hard I rub them. I feel it in his neck, permanently red from hours of physical labor beneath a scorching sun. He hasn’t been kind to his body and it refuses to forgive him. Joints, knuckles, and knees hold a grudge. They will not let him forget his poor life choices. He ran the streets, shredded hearts, slugged it out, and served his time. He tells me, Even if you win the fight, it still hurts.

I left the torn remains of the library book on the coffee table as a visible shaming for his behavior. He spits his words at me in a fit of rage, but I leave mine laid open in the ripped pages of a borrowed story. If he gets my message, he doesn’t say. I am as unforgiving as his body. Even now, I use your eyes and judgment to punish him with the words you’re reading.

I should hate him, but I don’t.

That’s another lie. I do. Often. But not on the mornings when we sit and drink coffee. I don’t hate him when I’m making his breakfast and he steals a piece of bacon, kisses my shoulder, and whispers, You’re a little bit of all right.

It’s in the mornings when he reminds me of that famous country singer. Maybe it’s the blue eyes, the dimples, or the good ol’ boy country-ness. Maybe it’s his walk, his unapologetic way of being a man. His dick enters the room first. Always. His testosterone will never be tamed. I want to bottle it and bury it in rows of cornfields like Prohibition hooch, only taking sips when I itch to break the law. I want to tame it. Own it. Control it.

He’s smart to resist me. The moment he becomes tame is the moment I will no longer want him. He knows it. I know it.

It’s in the mornings when I remember what I love about him. I love watching him organize and reorganize his fishing tackle with the same enthusiasm I have for my books. I love that he would rather hang out with the elderly than people his age. I love that he wears his hardness for all to see, but knows the words to every Barry Manilow hit. I love that he is happiest on a John Deere mower. I love that when I talk about microaggressions and sexism he laughs and says, You got me confused with some other motherfucker.

If I say I wish him dead, does that make me a horrible person? I don’t wish that. I don’t. Not always. The part of my brain that understands lying, stealing, and hurting people is wrong really doesn’t wish for his death. But the martyr fantasizes. Loving the dead is easy. It’s easy to forgive them and pretend they forgive you. I would listen to sad songs and weep openly over the loss of the man who was just too complicated to understand. People would sympathize and say I was lucky to have felt his love. They would say anyone could see in his eyes how much he adored me.

He watches me as if he knows I daydream of stabbing him in his sleep. Often he says, One day I think you might kill me. My answer is the same every time: Not today. It’s our joke. It’s not funny, but it gives us a false sense of balance. We pretend I hold all power in this relationship. One more lie.

I won’t stab him. I won’t light a match and burn this fucker to the ground. I won’t walk out, get in the truck, and drive away while Dolly Parton sings “Hard Candy Christmas.”

I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down…

I have $5.11 in my checking account. I’m not going anywhere.

I stand, asking if he wants more coffee. He says, Thanks, Mama. I don’t know why he calls me “Mama” and I don’t know why I like it so much. Reaching out, he places a hand on my hip, giving it a rub and a pat. I tell myself it is his apology. In a flicker of eye contact, I remember all the things we dreamed we’d be.

It seems right to bend and kiss him, but I hesitate, and the moment passes. He withdraws his hand. Before leaving the room, I adjust the sheet covering the hole in the fabric of the couch. It’s early. Still a few hours before he will crack open the first beer.

Until then, I will love him again. For a little while. I will make him an egg sandwich if we have any bread. It might be a poor choice, but it is mine to make. There will come a time when, as in Frost’s poem, our roads will diverge. Not today, but soon. He will go his way and I will go mine. Will it make all the difference?