Alison Kinney | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4,156 words)
In the foreground of the early Netherlandish painting stands a couple, holding hands, amidst the comforts of their cherry-upholstered, brass chandelier-lit bedroom. The husband, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, raises one hand in greeting, but neither to his unnamed wife, who clasps one hand over her belly, nor to the lapdog at their feet: behind the couple, a small, wall-mounted convex mirror reflects two other men, facing the Arnolfinis in their room yet visible only in the glass. One of these men may be the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.
Like many other paintings where looking glasses, polished suits of armor, jugs, and carafes expand or shift the perspectives, The Arnolfini Portrait shows us how many people are really in the picture. Painted mirrors reflect their creators, or at least their easels, in Vermeer’s Music Lesson; in the Jabach family portrait, where Charles Le Brun paints his mirror image right into the group; and in Andrea Solario’s Head of St. John the Baptist, where the reflection of the artist’s own head gleams from the foot of the platter. Mirrors reveal the whole clientele and an acrobat’s feet in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère; the two observers of a couple’s ring purchase in Petrus Christus’s Goldsmith in his Shop; and, regal in miniature, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria in Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Sometimes mirrors invite us to regard the artist’s reflection as our own; as John Ashbery wrote of Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist, who, in The Arnolfini Portrait, paints his signature over the mirror, like a graffito on the wall: “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434.” Jan was here.
I put on a turtleneck to hide the bruises around my neck, then traveled downtown to teach my summer class. Some oblivious weeks before, I had assigned an essay about taking narrative control over abuse; for an hour the students and I discussed it. After class, I returned to the apartment I was borrowing. I laid my head on the desk. I tried to slow my rapid, shallow mouth-breathing.
Most days I spent alone, head down on other people’s desks, unable to shower, dress, or answer messages. Months of personal upheaval had unmoored me, leaving me marginally employed and roving between apartment- and dog-sitting gigs. Before my first teaching paycheck rolled in, I ran out of cash for groceries, but my stomach was too full of antibiotics, antivirals, anxiety, and air to feel empty.
My family and friends I held at arm’s length, because my defenses, like Magic Shell over ice cream, couldn’t have withstood their warmth. Or their questions.
A man asked me, “Why did you go to his apartment? Why did he do this to you?”
Maybe because I didn’t know he was violent. Maybe because I couldn’t resist telling him, “There are a couple ground rules you haven’t learned about consent.” He grabbed my jaw, wrenching it out of alignment. Then, as though I were corn on the cob and his hands were corn holders, he skewered his fingers into me, at mouth and crotch, and slammed me against the wall. It got worse. The analogy ends there, because you can’t make corn bleed.
Another man said, “This happened to you, because you went out looking for men.”
Shame, starve, sleep. Repeat. My hair fell out in clumps. I lived on cups of bouillon and tea, on silence and distance.
I was afraid of ever being touched by a man again.
I was more afraid of never being touched by a man again.
So I summoned all my energy to try life again. To choose rawness. Vulnerability. A different stranger.
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep, but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror. After we both spit, J. said, “That could be an ad for Tinder.”
With no common background, borough, friends, or interests, only the miraculous algorithms could have brought us together. He was a full-time mental health professional, grad student, and therapist-in-training. He’d been searching for something casual, to slot between homework and patients. He got me, who’d been searching for possibility.
The ways J. surprised me into feeling:
By holding my hand all through La bohème, for which I’d tried to prep him with a clip from Moonstruck. He’d fixated on Nicholas Cage. “What is he — his voice — what the fuck is that accent he’s doing?” White Outer-borough Native — like yours, I thought. “Is that supposed to be a New York accent? Or is he British?”
Like many other paintings where looking glasses, polished suits of armor, jugs, and carafes expand or shift the perspectives, The Arnolfini Portrait shows us how many people are really in the picture.
By cooking and serving soft meals at his kitchen bar, for me, who had always cooked for men. Mushroom risotto, because my jaws still couldn’t handle chewing. Progressing to perfectly round fried eggs — he got a little upset when the edges bulged — and avocados on everything.
By writing to me every day from his fellowship abroad, sending me a travelogue, study journal, and litany of care. Because when I’d confided in him about the rape, he’d taken the news, he said, like a punch to the gut, then told himself: “It’s not about your feelings. It’s about hers.” Unlike most other people, J. didn’t tell me what to do or feel. He didn’t vent his feelings onto me or share fantasies about punishing or maiming the rapist. All that mattered, he said, was that I got care and support. He offered to be whatever I needed him to be: friend, lover, listening ear, or, if I preferred, a respecter of my solitude.
When I was frantically marshalling resources to workshop student stories about rape, J. took me to dinner and asked, “Will you be alright? What are you doing to protect yourself? How will you care for your own needs, on top of your students’? Is your own support system ready to help you?” Without his intervention, I couldn’t have led that workshop with any semblance of calm; I couldn’t have assessed my students’ safety or provided support afterwards. After class, I shut myself in a bathroom stall, leaned my head against the door, waited 15 minutes for the trembling to subside — and carried on.
Another time, he brewed tea and settled us on either end of his couch, tucking my feet into his lap to massage them. He asked, “Do you want to talk about it?” “It” was the text the rapist had just sent me.
J. listened, without saying a word, just nodding and holding fast, while I told him about the men who’d sexually harassed, groped, or shamed me over the past months. About how the Truvada’s side effects depleted and sickened me. How every twinge and ooze from the infection the rapist had caused made me feel foul, broken, and subjugated. It was proof that my body was not under my control. Neither was sex, which terrified me, even while I craved intimacy. And finally, this invasion, this text.
Pressure built inside my head. I clapped my hands over eyes and mouth to contain the pressure, rigid with the effort of not sobbing, not making a sound, not letting myself go any further.
J. kept still, holding on to me.
The pressure subsided. I had not blown into pieces. It was safe, then, to go limp, damp-eyed and gasping.
He relaxed his hold on my feet. Then lifted them, first one, then the other, to bestow two kisses on the soles, with a tenderness that asked for exactly nothing in return.
The first time I stripped off his shirt, I had to smother an inappropriate laugh, because the “Toreador Song” from Carmen, the most cocksure, testosterone-pumped aria in all of opera, was blazing in my head. His grace moved me like the flourish of a cape, an attack of violins, a sword to the heart of me, bovine, adoring. If I didn’t laugh at myself, I might faint later, when he came, then seized my hand to feel the thudding in his chest.
In Carmen, a woman who loves freedom is murdered by a violent, possessive man. The toreador, Escamillo, is not that man. Escamillo’s greatest, sexiest characteristic is his respect for a woman’s saying “No.” Because he honors consent, he earns that most ineffable, irreparable thing, trust. That’s why Carmen falls for him.
J. didn’t regard me as damaged. He believed in my survival. But he said that my feelings about myself were private and wholly mine to feel. “However,” he added, “the sex we have — that is ours.” It wouldn’t exist without both our bodies and the emotions, sensations, and responses we shared. We could adapt it, take risks, or slow things down, together. It was ours, and it was only ours.
I have always been secretive and reticent about sex. Searching now for metaphors, I hide in handiwork terminology: knotting, twining, meshing, braiding, lacing together. (I stop short at calling anything we did a tapestry.) These words also suggest healing analogies: mending injuries, reknitting fractures, reassembling tissues. He refitted me, seam by seam; he gathered me. He ruffled me, sometimes. Because sex after rape was not, for me, always about gentleness, softness, slowness. Sometimes I wanted to be fucked so hard it hobbled my gait the next morning. But only, ever, by this man attuned to every frisson of eyelid, toe, and thigh muscle, who knew to ask, “Are we okay?” before we started, and again, and again — until I felt certain that putting myself in his hands would make me better than okay.
That the sex was ours thrilled, scared, and comforted me. It was about trust. A dance, negotiation, or struggle between autonomy, control, reciprocity, and concession. Like the sex, the trust was ours, and only ours.
One night near the end of November, months into the relationship and hours and orgasms after we’d retired to bed, we lay still clutched inside, outside, and around each other. I didn’t run off to pee and avert a UTI, because I never wanted to let him go. That night, I knew that I wanted him forever. He squared his forearms on the pillow, around my head, and kissed me. Not a goodnight peck, not a post-coital cuddle, but a kiss like foreplay, like my tongue was something delicious he’d never tasted before. We drew closer and closer into each other, kissing inexhaustibly, although it was the middle of the night and we were exhausted, as though we had all the time in the world to kiss with no beginning and no end.
I put on a turtleneck to hide the bruises around my neck, then traveled downtown to teach my summer class. Some oblivious weeks before, I had assigned an essay about taking narrative control over abuse.
Time was what we didn’t have. He said that he could never have prepared for the amazement of knowing me. He also hadn’t prepared to balance our serious, committed, monogamous relationship with school, job, patients, and family. He had no time to rest and recalibrate alone. I coveted more time than he could spare me.
We argued, split up, reconciled, argued.
Lack of time fomented doubts. When he was fearful of my impatience, I apologized, tried to stop pressuring him, and offered to be more constant or more casual, although I didn’t want anybody else: I only wanted him to feel free and relaxed. When he felt threatened by my older, stronger emotional ties to other men, or by the prospect of my leaving him for new ones — more available, more cultured, more talented — I severed those relationships and never looked back. I loved him.
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To buy him more time, make his life easier, and assuage his doubts about my commitment, I washed the dinner dishes, scrubbed the stove and fridge, and polished the countertops after he’d left for work or school. Cleaned the shower, did his laundry. Swept floors, then bagged the leaves on his stoop. I didn’t want him to regret the morning when, while I’d slept, he’d showered, dressed, and come back to kiss me goodbye, but instead climbed back into bed to fold me in his arms. For half an hour he’d watched me float in and out of sleep — “you were groggy, but beautiful beyond words” — then torn himself away to leave, late, for work.
For his birthday I planted a cactus garden in a bowl: This is me. I am dry, sharp, and fierce. My root system is shallow, and I am more fragile than I look, but you need tend me only twice a month.
One morning when I was home alone, violent abdominal cramps knocked me off-balance and down onto one knee, then onto the floor, clasping my belly. Only after a gushing flow of pinkish, bloody gobs, and more, and more, did I connect my recent nausea, weight gain, acne, and insomnia to the absence of my last period.
The pain — shocking, exhausting — was like the drawing of entrails. But I could handle it. I was grateful for it. Everything had changed: my body, his, and the way they worked together. He was already a father; he was the one man I’d ever imagined trusting to father my own children. In this loss that I’d never anticipated, there was a glimpse of possibility: something else that, together, we could make, that would also be ours.
Or, for the time being, mine. I didn’t want to upset him or risk derailing his end-of-semester projects: his degree, career, and future needed my protection. Later, when we had time, we’d talk again about the children it might not be too late to have.
We broke up on my 43rd birthday, after he’d canceled our dinner. He said he couldn’t make me or anybody else happy. He needed to be alone, without responsibility for other people’s emotions. Perhaps we could find a better way to be together, in January, after I’d returned, alone, from the desert vacation he was supposed to join me for.
He wrote, “I trust your resilience and know that your feelings of distress will pass before you know it.” I thanked him for everything he had done for me. I apologized for troubling him. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Thank you. I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop apologizing. He accepted all my apologies.
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. We’d had only four hours of sleep, but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.
And I grieved, curled into a ball, until muscle spasms prevented my turning over in bed, sitting up straight, walking upright, or laughing, not that I was tempted. I grieved and was grateful, because no man had ever cared for me the way J. had. Because I’d never fully acknowledged the toll that caring took on him, nor reciprocated his generosity. Because healing someone, loving someone, and wanting what she wanted were not the same things. Because I respected his desire — right — need to exit our relationship. Because I had to let him go, and, wishing that I had done so as a gift to him, out of love and gratitude, knew that it was only because I’d had no choice, because he had already let me go.
Later that week, on Christmas Eve, a comment on his band’s Instagram account led to an unknown woman’s page, full of photographs of home-cooked meals, all of which J. had clicked Like on. They felt uncanny. Then I recognized the white dishes and silverware I had eaten from and washed. I recognized the speckled white countertop I had scrubbed, and pressed my cheek into that time we’d fucked in the kitchen and I’d never minded all the bruises afterwards.
On my birthday weekend, there was a photo of pancakes. On my birthday itself, soup topped with sliced flank steak, and a chocolate cookie heated till it was melty, the way J. liked it. Chickpeas, rice, vegetables, weeks and weeks of meals spanning the nights he’d canceled on me, the weekends he’d complained of being too busy to buy groceries. All recipes he’d had me vet — because I was the superior cook — and said he’d prepare for me once he had the time.
My skin prickled with little tugs, like stitches being ripped out. Like basting threads, placed to last only so long as the maker needed them fast, ready to tear out.
Two photos, of eggplant parmesan and eggplant again, bracketed the last, boundless, lovely night J. and I had spent together. But it was another photo — omelet with avocado and salmon, served to this complete stranger, during the fraught, hopeful, profoundly solitary days while I was recovering from bleeding out my secret onto the floor — that made me start weeping and throwing up.
J. answered my messages begging him to tell me the truth, so that I could have some peace of mind, so I could move on. He wrote that social media made you see things that weren’t really there. He had been Instagramming with nobody, spending time with nobody, certainly cooking for and eating cookies with nobody. He had been alone all those nights and weekends, and had no intention of seeing or dating anyone. Nothing I thought I had seen was true.
Aghast, ashamed, I apologized even more for distrusting him and acting deranged. I needed to believe in his goodness, which had restored my belief that I deserved more from men than violence and objectification. I couldn’t allow myself to believe that he had altered the terms of our relationship without my consent. That he’d denied me my right to say yes or no, to stop loving him, to stop having non-barrier-protected sex with him, to stop cleaning his house for another woman’s comfort.
So I convinced myself that everybody owns IKEA dishes. That Lowe’s selection is not so extensive that we don’t all have identical countertops. I reopened Instagram to refute my wild, unfair, accusatory imaginings.
I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.
J. fuit hic.
Every portrait of a relationship yields more truth than what appears at first glance; each spoon or mirror reflects secrets, distortions, and additional characters unsuspected by the viewer. There is nothing incidental about these coexisting temporal and spatial realities. They’re all part of the story: the Arnolfinis holding hands, the dog, the men reflected in the glass, who serve as witnesses, interlocutors to that little wave, or chroniclers. These others, inside or outside the frame, are always there, whether the viewer notices or not, subverting the ostensible subject’s pose of solitude, and legitimizing or delegitimizing the relationships. By this visual expansion, the artist unleashes multiple meanings, stories, and lives.
What the viewer sees, and how she understands it, are something else. In the Portrait of Hans Burgkmair and his Wife, Anna, Lukas Furtenagel painted the couple’s image in the mirror as two skulls. That was a fun one.
The spoon in her Instagram photo reflects affection, companionship, time, and everything I wasn’t supposed to know.
The spoon reflects lies, manipulation, contempt, indifference, and the exploitation of trust.
We broke up on my 43rd birthday, after he’d canceled our dinner. He said he couldn’t make me or anybody else happy. He needed to be alone, without responsibility for other people’s emotions.
The spoon has nothing and everything to do with me. But like the title figure’s plummet in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, my experience is of paramount importance to me, and wholly peripheral to the main actors in the frame. “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters….”
Or maybe not so peripheral. On Christmas day J. responded for the last time, to insist that the woman wasn’t anybody. Just an old classmate, a “friend-friend” who dropped by. He had zero interest in pursuing her, or anybody at all.
The one thing I know about her for sure is that she is a woman, like me. And neither of us is a nobody. Neither of us is not “really there,” no matter how he denies or denigrates us. And neither of us is to blame for any of this.
All these things are true.
A man tells me, “So what that he lied? It’s a matter of scale. He saved your life. You owe him a thank-you card.”
Women tell me not to waste the stationery.
Although we don’t always get flatware, suits of armor, and the shiny bowls of gaslights to flash variant realities at us, we live with them, all the same. We love, knowing that people are full of glory and depravity. Their romantic and moral impulses frequently violate our ideals of fairness, goodness, responsibility, and forgivability, yet still, sometimes, they and we succeed. People are complicated. But for the survivor of abuse or assault who still seeks love, navigating this commonplace fact makes for brutal experience.
After discovering their food porn, I couldn’t eat for days. Weeks. I wanted to be shed of my rejected, raped, bloody, uselessly fertile body. Instead, I forced myself out on a date: a distraction, a consolation. The man kissed me badly. Aggressively. When I told him to slow down, he insisted that he wasn’t the kind of guy who rammed his tongue down women’s throats. I said, “Back off, back off, back —” and he grabbed my hair at my nape, hurting me, and rammed his tongue in until I retched. He called me repressed.
I cried all that night, because J. would never have done that to me. And I cried because J. had hurt me worse than this man or even the rapist had. Skewed jaws, choke bruises, and torn flesh healed faster than trust. “Smile, Alison,” he’d written the day after serving my birthday dinner to someone else, “it has been empirically proven to make us feel a little better.”
All people are complex, but there’s the complexity that rapes and batters. My rapist is handsome, erudite, and a gifted artist, and he might be a great guy, too, if you just cut off his penis and hands.
Later that week, on Christmas Eve, a comment on his band’s Instagram account led to an unknown woman’s page, full of photographs of home-cooked meals, all of which J. had clicked Like on.
Then there’s the complexity of the therapist-in-training who lies, persuading a woman that reality — his own face in the mirror — is only a figment of her imagination. The complexity that never acknowledges, much less apologizes for the evidence of the spoon, except, indirectly, through later Instagram photos: he’s switched to flatware of hammered, dark, non-reflective metal. There’s the complexity so invested in the belief that he’s A Good Man that he manipulates and deceives in order to preserve the illusion.
I don’t know, anymore, where to draw the lines between more-or-less good men, more-or-less bad men, more-or-less #NotAllMen. If complicated people deserve the benefit of the doubt, mercy, and forgiveness, who benefits the most? Rapists? Emotional abusers? Gaslighters? Liars? I don’t see my tolerance for moral complexity making the world of survivors any safer, fairer, or easier. J. was the same person before and after he cared for me, before and after he disposed of me. When I was in despair, he salvaged me, with profound compassion. He also felt entitled to exploit my trust in him. His lies violated my right to determine my own bodily and emotional limits, the right to say no to his menage. My gratitude hurts almost as much as the betrayal does. All these things are true.
I’m afraid of ever being touched by a man again.
I’m afraid of never being touched by a man again.
I’m afraid of ever, ever trusting a man again.
To reconcile those fears will be a struggle. Trust that isn’t absolute isn’t trust at all. Yet trust needs to embrace frailty and failure. It has to allow for uncertainty, conflicted motives, and needs that defy reconciliation. Trust is the hardest thing to cultivate, because its existence is bound up with the continual threat of its own violation.
J. told the truth about one thing: I am, increasingly, resilient. Resilient enough to bear all these truths at once, and, armed and flayed by that knowledge, to keep daring vulnerability, pain, pleasure, and intimacy. And, finally, to relinquish my interest in J.’s story — to tell my own story and sign my name to it, “Alison was here” — and, reassembled, to begin again.
Alison Kinney is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She’s the author of Hood (Bloomsbury 2016) and a correspondent for the Paris Review Daily. She has published work online at The New Yorker, Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, and other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton