A Minute to Myself (44)

Get Your Words Off Me: Excerpt Seventeen

The Opposite of Space is Lack of Space


When I went to graduate school my husband would bristle at the sight of my books spread out on the dining room table. I was to put them away; I was not to leave evidence of my studies on the table or around the house. They were simply to be gone when he came home. He said they made the house look messy and the dining room table was not the place for them. Did he care that I was comfortable studying there, that I have always had an affinity to using a dining table as a study space? Where was I supposed to study, and who was to decide where I was to study? As usual, he made a proclamation and I was expected to—and did—comply, not sure of what the “punishment” would be, but not wanting to arouse his ire. Knowing that your husband makes threatening noises and postures, and tells you what must be done or not done is enough for someone like me, always trying to please and not rocking the boat, to do as she is told.


I don’t think that housekeeping was the issue, it most likely was that he did not approve of what I was studying, and he certainly did not approve of my studying what I wanted in spite of his negative opinion. When I told him that I was going to get a master’s degree in conflict studies, his response was that he would not bother me about working during my studies if I were to go to law school. Did someone say something about law school? Did I ever express any interest in studying law? No. It was his idea, his idea of what would be good for me—or, for him. I think about this now, and wonder if he had either planned the dissolution of our marriage or his retreat from the work world. I wonder if he wanted me to study law so that I would make a good salary and support him as he exited the law himself and pursued his heart’s desire.


We did not discuss what I was going to study because it was my decision to make and I did not want him to try, once again, to get me to study what he wanted me to study. A few years before he had convinced me that I should get an MBA, I even took the GMAT and began taking classes. It was a fiasco. I did not have the experience, outlook or capabilities for a career in business. I don’t know why he just didn’t go for the degree himself, it was what he wanted to do. By now, finally, I knew that I needed to just go ahead without his approval. To him this was a rebellion; to me it was standing up for myself. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.


His sustained campaign to change me was going awry. And I was getting to where I needed to be, in spite of him. His inability to acknowledge my interests as distinct from his was a problem that could not be erased by getting me to adopt his interests or expectations (and to drop my own). While I am glad that I finally did what I needed to do, it did not give me great satisfaction that there were no discussions about the studies themselves, or my reasons for pursuing that course. After years of marriage we were still not able to talk and plan, there was always an element of confrontation—never of compromise (or rather, only my compromises and never his) or discussion. It was my explaining and his deciding. As if we were father and child. So, I had learned to avoid discussing things with him, and he had never learned to trust me.


Every day I would set out my books on the dining room table after he left in the morning, and then put them away, out of sight, at the end of the day. This was an absolute invalidation of who I am, of my very existence. This was not about neatness; it was about my finally, blatantly, disregarding his opinion, of being decisive in what I want to do and not succumbing to his wishes. This was not about a notebook being left out, but about my betrayal of how he wants me to act and of who he wants me to be.


Why did I listen to his complaints and put my things away? Maybe I wasn’t ready to escalate the situation, or maybe I thought that this would be enough to align the relationship onto a level of parity. What for him was a transgression, a slap in the face, was for me self-expression, the beginning of being proud of my capabilities, interests and accomplishments, and not ashamed as he had made me feel. 


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