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Personal Histories

Luis Molina-Pantin, Scenery III (Women's Jail), 1997. Courtesy the artist and Henrique Faria, New York. Via Artsy.

The Low Road

Not everyone who breaks your heart is a monster. And not everyone who wounds you deserves to be wounded in return.

By rough calculation, I have been mistreated, disrespected, or generally screwed-over or wronged three hundred and fifty-nine times in my life. That’s only a guesstimate, of course. I have not been keeping track.

To arrive at the number I reviewed the year just past and recalled five or six such incidents. Most were petty and some grievous and some were in-between. Multiply five by my age, subtract some for the toddler years (because toddlerhood is mostly about dishing out disrespect), double-down for adolescence and toss in some extra for the years I spent laboring in the newsroom of the New York Times. Voila: three hundred and fifty-nine instances of physical, emotional, or psychological wounding. Yet only twice have I sought revenge.

Honestly, I think that’s pretty good.

 

My daughter’s school is located in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, a few blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This is one of the wealthiest parts of Boston, tree-lined and stately, blocks from the Public Garden and those endlessly circling swans.

The fact that my daughter, a surprising, suburban child has become so at ease negotiating the city is a huge part of the school’s appeal. She likes hanging out in the Back Bay. It was her plan to hang out there on the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Teenagers being what they are, however, the plans fell apart and she stayed home, grumpy at her fickle friends. It was she who came to the door to tell me, as I worked outside in the garden in the April sun, that something had happened at the marathon. Something bad, maybe. Some kind of bomb.

I was raking dead leaves from the garden, eager for spring. “Oh God,” I said. “Oh God.”

Those were surreal days that followed. The 24-hour news monster ginning up fear. Schools canceled, downtown Boston a ghost town. At some point I defied the order to shelter in place and took the dog for a walk. She was going crazy and so was I, trapped not only in the house but in other people’s craziness: people texting and Facebooking, my mother telephoning from California, terrified.

“We’re fine,” I reassured her. “The place they’re looking for the guys is miles away.”

I did not know any of the victims personally, but Boston is very, very small. Some of the students at the college where I teach were injured, though thankfully not grievously. Martin Richard, the youngest of those killed in the blast, attended the same preschool as my children, though years apart. One of my neighbors works at the elementary school where Martin and his sister were enrolled. On the day of Martin’s funeral I stood at my window and watched my neighbor leave, dressed in black and face stricken. Martin’s mother, who suffered a terrible brain injury, knows dozens of people I also know.

It’s hard to find anyone willing to say a good, public word about revenge.

My daughter’s school was closed for days. When it reopened I drove her to and from the building each morning and afternoon for more than a week, until the inconvenience of that effort outweighed my fear. She returned to navigating the subways and streets on her own, coming home each day to report on the closed-off crime scene, the mawkish gawkers, the patrolling cops, the runners who still wandered the city, ostentatious in their yellow jackets, too traumatized or too connected or too excited to go home.

I knew none of the killed or injured personally, and with Boston itself I have, at best, an ambivalent relationship, but like most people here in those hours and days immediately after the bombing I felt wounded and protective and angry—for myself, my city, for all the lives so senselessly blown apart. When the police surrounded that boat in the backyard of a house in Watertown I was in a restaurant in Jamaica Plain, having ventured out with a friend. The restaurant had reopened, understaffed, serving only pizza and beer, and it felt as if the small crowd of us there were together in some kind of defiant communal gathering. The televisions were turned to the news stations. When word came of the capture everyone cheered.

As I write this the trial for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev begins in Boston. The judge refused defense attorney motions to move the trial, saying an impartial jury of locals could be found. From an initial pool of 1200 they hope to find 16. I listen to the radio—not seething right-wing radio but low-voiced NPR—and I hear callers, calm, rational, callers calmly and rationally say, “I don’t believe in the death penalty but it is the law. Were I put on the jury I could follow the law, because this city needs closure.”

I hear all this and I think: bullshit. This city does not want closure. This city wants revenge.

 

The first boy to break my heart was the first one to whom I gave it. This is pretty standard; if your teen romance ended not in tears and mournful mixtapes, you probably did it wrong.

His name was Geoff and he was tall and lanky and white, after a fashion. I was tall and shapely and black, after a fashion. We met at boarding school in New Hampshire, a strange and chilly place, surreal for both of us. He took me for pizza, made me mixtapes, introduced me to the Sugar Hill Gang, gave me a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day. I took it all, wary and ecstatic. No male human being save my brother had ever really loved me before, but Geoff’s affection meant such loving was possible. Part of me prayed it would last forever. Part of me knew it would not.

I don’t remember the precise reason it fell apart. Maybe because I wouldn’t sleep with him or maybe he got bored or maybe I was a confused and contradictory mess. Maybe he was young and confused himself, finding his way in a bifurcated world: white skin, black stepfather, child of Harlem and fancy boarding school. I don’t even remember how he told me, what words he used, whether we stood together in the snow outside my dorm or the pain sliced over the phone. All I remember is that it hurt deeply for awhile and then less so, and that he moved on to someone else before getting into trouble and being expelled from school.

What lessons we take from life depend so much on the classroom to which we’ve been assigned. By the time I landed in boarding school I was pretty sure I was too much to be loved: too tall, too fat, too black. There are reasons for this—absent father, mother herself unloved and overwhelmed, an omnipresent cultural representation of blackness as ugliness—but in general people did the best they could with the tools they had at the time and so this is not about assigning blame. The point is simply that I entered the world of romantic love not believing myself worthy, and so what I took from that first heartbreak was confirmation. Geoff was the first boy to break my heart but it never occurred to me to seek revenge against him. This was the right impulse but the reason behind it, strangely, was wrong.

Not everyone who breaks your heart is a monster. Not everyone who wounds you deserves to be wounded in return. Geoff was not and did not but those are not the reasons I failed to consider revenge. I sought no revenge against Geoff because his wounding of me seemed not only expected but justifiable: the sure and natural course of things. Geoff hurt me but I was never angry at his hurting, not even a little. It was my own damn fault for losing his love.

 

It’s hard to find anyone willing to say a good, public word about revenge. Our greatest writers almost universally advocate forgiveness. In Paradise Lost, Milton warned, “Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.” Francis Bacon called revenge a “a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.” Shakespeare gave us Shylock and Iago, neither one meant as appealing. Melville made Ahab a foaming nut.

Not the world’s major religions, which either caution against revenge or outright forbid it. Sorta. “Don’t take vengeance and don’t bear a grudge against the members of your nation; love your neighbor as yourself,” reads Leviticus 19:18. Yet, the Old Testament also clearly advocates the lex talionis—the law of retaliation—a Babylonian principle taken up by the Romans which advocates that the punishment should fit the crime, precisely. That means an eye for an eye, and only an eye for an eye. You don’t have to forgive and forget, but you don’t get to blind the guy.

In some books of the Bible, God makes clear that fixing people good is His job: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” But at other times God gives man permission to take revenge: after the Midianites behaved badly God gave Moses the green light. Moses not only sent his army to wipe out the male Midianites, but when the soldiers returned with captives he scolded them. “Have you allowed all the women to live? They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful... kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

Whoa.

Gregory Peck as Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956). Credit: Cinetext/Allstar

In the New Testament, Jesus moves his followers beyond this idea of metered justice, urging them toward a more radical love. Do not resist an evil person, Jesus says. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you. Paul reiterates the teachings of Jesus, but Paul, being Paul, cannot help but do so with a sting: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Islam does not require followers to turn the other cheek but the Holy Qur’an makes it clear that forgiveness is the higher path. Buddhism concurs. “We should not seek revenge on those who have committed crimes against us, or reply to their crimes with other crimes,” writes the Dalai Lama. “We should reflect that by the law of karma, they are in danger of lowly and miserable lives to come, and that our duty to them, as to every being, is to help them to rise towards Nirvana, rather than let them sink to lower levels of rebirth.”

All of which is to say that most of what religion has to say is this: leave it to God. Leave it for Allah, for Jehovah, to karma to settle accounts. Leave it to God because God, unlike man, can be counted upon not to act from impure motives. Also, God will make whatever you’ve got planned look like a garden party. Ask Pharaoh. He knows.

Philosophers and social scientists and legal experts are more conflicted on the subject, as philosophers and social scientists and legal experts will tend to be. The desire for revenge is natural but immoral; the desire for revenge is human and empowering. Some have tried to clear the waters by parsing the difference between punishment and revenge. The German philosopher Eugen Dühring argued that the very concept of injustice stems from the natural feeling of resentment we have against those who have wronged us, and thus even the most impersonal punishment is a form of revenge. Nietzsche, who considered the matter deeply (and, it must be said, misogynistically) suggested that people who insisted that all revenge stemmed from one single idea or motivation were, essentially, idiots: “As if all words were not pockets, into which this or that or several things have been stuffed at once! So revenge is now one thing, now another, and sometimes more composite.”

Revenge, wrote Nietzsche, can be either self-preservation (striking out at a person to prevent further hurt) or readjustment (a usually futile attempt to settle scores.) Futile because revenge will not return whatever was destroyed by the action of the offender—unless that thing was honor. Limbs and loved ones and burned houses cannot be reclaimed if taken, but honor can. An intentional attack proves the attacker is not afraid of us. Revenge proves we are not afraid of him. Thus balance is restored.

In such case, writes Nietzsche, a person will forgo revenge for only three reasons:

  • He loves the offender.
  • He finds the offender beneath his contempt and bother.
  • He kinda despises himself. “Depending on whether he projects himself strongly or weakly into the soul of his opponent and the spectators, his revenge will be more embittered or tamer; if he lacks this type of imagination entirely, he will not think of revenge at all, for in that case the feeling for ‘honor’ is not present in him and hence cannot be injured.”

In other words, revenge will never occur to the one who lacks the self-esteem to be offended, who views the cruel and casual slogging of her heart as painful but expected, life’s little par for the course. Revenge will not occur to the one who suspects she deserves such mistreatment, who believes life deigns for her only the attentions of such blatant, unrelenting jerks. “A small revenge is more human than no revenge at all,” Nietzsche said.

 

Between Geoff and the first rising of my revenge lay some 30-odd years of relationships, the bulk of which I spent with one very good and decent man. S. and I met when I was 19 and he was 20. I was a sophomore in college, plowing my way forward to a more secure life. He had dropped out and was working in a restaurant and hanging out with friends, trying to figure out how to restart his life. Turned out I could help with that.

During our time together I graduated and got a job as a reporter and he went back to school and I got another job and he got his degree and I got another job and we moved to Philadelphia and he went to grad school and we got married and I got another job and he finished his Ph.D. and we moved to New York and got a dog and had a child and I wrote a novel and quit my job and had another child and he got a job and we moved to Boston and the marriage came slowly apart. My fault, or so I reasoned. If S. was a good and well-intentioned man, which he was, and if he loved me, which he did or tried to, as best he could, and if the marriage was still unsustainable then it must be because there was something deep and broken inside of myself. Almost none of the women in my family had sustained a marriage beyond a decade but we all believed this to be the result of choosing untenable men. If somehow I had managed to chose a decent guy and still couldn’t make it work, what did that mean?

Coming apart was terrible anger and pain and woundedness. The worst thing he said, during our divorce mediation, was that he feared I would take the children and move to California to be near my family. I was astonished that a man who had known me for twenty years would think I would take my children from their father, given how much my father’s absence from my life had wounded me. But then I understood: he didn’t really think I would do such a thing to be near family. He thought I might do it out of anger. Even after twenty years of knowing me, he still thought me capable of wounding my children out of spite.

Which is strange because there are no spiteful women in my family. Grudge-holders, yes; there are women in my family who can hold a grievance like Pavarotti could hold high C. But grudge-holding, of course, serves only to wound the grudge-holder; the object of unforgiveness goes skipping on with his life. Still, these seemed to be the options: wounded acceptance or self-destructive unforgiveness.

Turns out there is another way.

 

Lawyer Man and I met online, not long after my divorce. He was tall and dark and handsome, a successful attorney with two red-flag marriages under his belt, which of course I ignored. On our first date Lawyer Man drove forty minutes to meet me, bought me dinner and kissed me in the rain. By date three he was declaring his love. By date five he’d decided my skeptical and disbelieving response was caused by fear and that his job was to knock down my wall of resistance and distrust. It was true I was afraid, true that something I could not name held me back from him. I asked my friend Hannah: Am I afraid of being loved?

These are some of the things he said to me during that time. I wrote them down, as writers will:

I’ll take care of you, if you let me.

Don’t let your brain get in the way.

You’re my girl. You know you are.

Open your heart to me. Okay you don’t have to open it, just don’t close it. Don’t throw me overboard.

In other words: a romantic. I didn’t realize at the time because I didn’t know men could be romantics, not outside of novels or absurd movies from Hollywood. Now I know better; the older I get the more I believe that men are the true romantics, the ones clinging hardest and longest to the fantasy of life-changing, unwavering lust/attraction/love. At the time, though, I thought Lawyer Man said all those things because of me. He stood before me, gushing desire and affection and I believed the wellspring of all that effluence to be myself. But really the source was his love of the idea of love. I was just there getting wet.

For ten months he urged me into the deep end of connection, until finally, after a picture-perfect weekend in Montreal, I was immersed. In over my head and loving it and for another week or two we swam together, happy and satisfied. Then, suddenly and without warning, he got out.

In retrospect there were signs. One night at dinner with his friends he mocked something I said, nastily juvenile. I laughed it off. Or tried. Another night I climbed into bed and curled against him, but instead of wrapping his long arms around me he patted my back like a dog. The next morning he barely kissed me goodbye.

A few days later I opened my email to a lethal little bomb: it’s not working, I need space, it’s too hard, some other shit I don’t recall. After the first few lines I stopped reading, halted by adrenalin and a very real feeling of terror, as though someone had reached through the screen and jabbed me in the gut. In a panic I forwarded the email to a friend then deleted it. I called her, sobbing. “Read it, please. Read it and tell me what it means.”

The high road is potholed and lonely and nobody really knows where it leads; the low road gets you there fast.

This reaction may seem extreme to you, dear reader. It seemed extreme to my friend, a stable, competent, matter-of-fact woman whose standard reaction to my repeated cases of heartbreak is, “Well, that just means he’s not worthy of you. Sucks all around. Move on.” It took me a long time to understand why I could not share such bloodless common sense about heartbreak. It took me a long, long time to understand why I couldn’t, as everyone kept so helpfully advising, just shake that shit off.

It’s this: There’s a reason babies scream when you put them down. There’s a reason toddlers, waking to find themselves alone in a car or an unknown room, convulse with terror. When you are a young child and love is taken from you it feels as if you might die because you really might. Without love a child is vulnerable; without care and protection a child cannot survive the brutal world. When you have not been sufficiently loved as a child losing love will always be difficult. Losing love will always feel, at least in the moment, as if you are about to die.

My friend told me what Lawyer Man had really said but all I heard was, Love is gone. Love is gone because you are unlovable. Still panicking, I dialed his phone number. He didn’t answer. I left a message, asking for a call. Ten minutes later I dialed again, begging now. No response. I dialed and dialed and dialed. He turned off his ringer.

Listen, shit happens: I get that. People fall out of love, people change their minds and change their hearts. Okay. People decide, after a few short weeks, that you are the love of their life and spend months trying to convince you, only to revoke that declaration the minute you give in. Fair enough.

But dumping a person by email? Refusing to pick up the phone and speak to the desperate person on the other end of the line?

I considered getting into my car and driving to Lawyer Man’s house to demand an accounting, but my children and the forty-five minute drive cooled that idea. God watches out for children and fools. Sometimes anyway.

Instead I did what women do when men cruelly and unceremoniously dump them: I cried. I cried, hiding it from the kids as best as possible, gritting my way through otherwise. I lost my appetite, couldn’t sleep. I dismissed my friends when they said, “It’s his loss,” since it was my loss I was worried about. I ricocheted back and forth between anger and abject self-loathing. What was wrong with me? Was I not pretty enough, or smart enough or too smart? Had I caused this with my caution? Was this my fault for not believing soon enough in his love?

For weeks I suffered. Then one morning, as I was reading the newspaper, an idea arrived. I’d just browsed some story about new treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases and the idea just sprung. I opened an email to him, wrote “health issue” in the subject line and left the email blank. Then I hit send.

Ten minutes later he telephoned. I let it go to voicemail.

“Hi. It’s me. Um, your email came through but it was blank.”

He had ghosted me pretty efficiently. But I found the Ouija board.

“Is there something I should know? Give me a call.”

I laughed. I mean I laughed: loud and hard and long. I laughed as I had not laughed in weeks and it was wonderful—a revelation, an unburdening. Which was what I needed, because that’s what assholes do: they burden you not with their unlove but with their selfish and callous and casual dismissal of your humanity. There’s a difference between someone who breaks your heart and a heartbreaker; someone can break a heart with tenderness and consciousness and regret. But a heartbreaker has no regard for the vital human organ upon which he tramples. And a bastard—a monster, a villain, a brute—is even worse. A bastard does not even believe that’s a heart beneath his feet. He thinks it is so much mulch, put down to smooth his walk.

For several days he phoned, increasingly worried. Eventually I must have let him off the hook, but the truth is, I can’t recall. I don’t remember exactly what happened after that because after that email I was done. The spell was broken, my sense of self restored. No longer the victim, I could forget (if not precisely forgive) and move on.

And that’s the point.

 

Uma Thurman as The Bride in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004).

It’s a dangerous confession for a woman, admitting to anger. Angry women are either Medea or Madea, either ruthless or ridiculous, laughable or indiscriminate, dripping in blood. Angry women don’t play in Peoria.

Angry men… well, that’s different. I used to know a guy, his favorite movie was Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s meditation on violence and the myth of the old west. He saw it twice in the theaters, then bought the video and watched it probably a dozen more times at home. One time I watched it with him, and even though Clint Eastwood generally sets my teeth on edge and it dismayed me to see Morgan Freeman in his usual pseudo-dignified shuck-and-jive I found myself appreciating the film. Beautifully-shot, sharply-acted violence one might both condemn and cheer. Two hours of moral ambiguity and satisfying bloodlust. Quite the accomplishment.

My friend waited excitedly for his favorite line of dialogue, which comes near the end of the film. Morgan Freeman’s character is dead. Another character, the Kid, who had been so eager to earn his manhood by murder, has sickened on the actual violence and departed. Gene Hackman, the villain, lies on the floor, Eastwood’s gun at his neck. “I don’t deserve to die,” he barks, unrepentant.

“Deserving’s got nothing to do with it,” Eastwood growls, then shoots him in the head. My friend cheered.

Eastwood pockets his cake and eats it too in Unforgiven, condemning raging, ego-driven, macho-fueled violence (Eastwood’s character was a crazed and brutal gunslinger before being civilized by the love of his saintly wife) while suggesting that sometimes targeted mayhem is the only real way of both protecting the innocent and setting things right.

In this way the movie sits neatly aside less arty male revenge fantasies, from Cape Fear to Gladiator, from Get Carter to Taken, from Mad Max to that mother-of-all revenge films Death Wish (one, two, and three.) Not to mention The Godfather. Pacino, Hoffman, DiCaprio, Gibson, Crowe, Neeson, Washington, Willis—it’s hard to name a major male Hollywood star over the last four decades who has not taken up arms in revenge. The plots are yawningly similar: our hero is minding his business when some jerk comes along and screws with him, usually by kidnapping/raping/murdering some woman in his life: his wife, his daughter, even his mother (Four Brothers.) It doesn’t really matter since the woman exists pretty much only to give our hero an excuse to unleash his inner warrior. Off he goes to wreak vengeance. He’s not irrational or deranged or frightening. He is dangerous, of course, but it’s a good kind of danger, a sexy kind of menace. He’s just doing what a man must.

Female revenge seekers, on the other hand, are usually are either laughable (First Wives Club, The Other Woman, 9 to 5), troubled and unstable (Columbiana, Brave One), flat-out crazy (Fatal Attraction), or downright monstrous (Carrie). (Kill Bill is an exception, a cartoony-violent Tarantino thing onto itself.) What they seek is not so much vengeance (larger) but revenge (petty and small).

Women are seen to be seeking only revenge because violence done to their hearts and bodies is of minor significance. Men’s bodies are sacrosanct, their feelings tantamount and their property, which includes the bodies of wife and child, is not to be violated. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the male.

My favorite line in Unforgiven comes midway through the film when the Kid, shaken after committing his first homicide, tries to muster his bravado. “Yeah. Well, I guess they had it coming,” he squeaks.

Eastwood, squinting, replies, “We all have it coming, kid.”

A wise and thoughtful sentiment. Except that in the movie only the bad guys—along with the black guy, of course, always the black guy—take the hit. Eastwood wreaks his vengeance and goes quietly back to his pig farm. The Kid, who killed to prove himself a man, rides off into the sunset, redeemed and reclaimed.

 

Time two: the Teacher. We met in a restaurant. He was boyishly good-looking, wryly funny, openly masculine in a way I’d begun to fear I’d never find in the effete, wimpish world of Boston manhood. He taught public school in a poor black neighborhood of Boston, which was like dipping him in nougat as far as I was concerned. Also, he pretty much reeked sex.

That immediate and powerful physical attraction should have been my first clue that trouble lay ahead; who actually gets to fall in love with someone they desire? Not in the world in which I live.

For five or six months we bounced off and on, me getting attached and him not. In fairness, I must note that he never promised to get anywhere near the depths; in fact, he was explicit about not wanting a committed relationship. Fine, I’d say, and break it off. Then a few days or a week later I’d hear from him, asking me to a drink as though nothing had happened, and I would leap like a frog straight back into the boiling pot. I knew better; I can’t say I didn’t. But when you are a child and you don’t feel loved and then you grow up…

Angry women are either Medea or Madea, either ruthless or ridiculous, laughable or indiscriminate, dripping in blood. Angry women don’t play in Peoria.

The breaking point came on Good Friday. For weeks I’d been trying to wrench myself from the situation, knowing it was headed no place good. But here it was Friday and I was tired and depleted from an arduous week and so lonely I could chew off an arm. All of my friends were busy. So when he texted to see if I was free for a drink, I said yes.

We met, we talked, we flirted. He pulled my chair closer to his, stroked my back, touched my hair, generally mimicked the actions of a caring, attached human being. When a blousy red-haired chick stopped to say hello to him he chatted for a second, wished her well and turned back to me. We talked some more and flirted and he told me how much he liked talking to me. I was happy. I should have known.

One of the friends I’d called earlier called back to see if I could meet her somewhere. She had no transportation to where I was and needed someone to talk to. I invited the Sociopath to come along. He declined, saying my friend didn’t like him. Which was true enough.

“What are you doing later?” he asked. “I’ll be home in an hour or so.”

“I’ll come by,” I said.

“Okay. But if you text me and I don’t respond because I’m sleeping or something, don’t get upset.”

“Okay,” I said, not really taking this in.

An hour or so later I texted to say that I’m finishing up with my girlfriend and will stop by. No response.

At this point I must confess that this kind of thing had happened before, a few months prior. The same pattern: a texted invitation to meet. Me, responding that I was at work at the moment but suggesting we meet later. A vague agreement on his part, followed by silence when I later reach out to him. A sinking feeling and a drive, despite knowing better, to his house. Another woman in the living room.

Yes, it had happened before and I was ashamed to admit it then and I am ashamed to admit it now. How many times does someone have to kick you in the heart before you run?

Which explains why this time I am not so much shocked as wounded and furious. Furious at him and furious, furious at myself.

I drive to his house. The lights are on and the music going. He opens the door to my ring, tells me to go home, shuts it in my face. I lean on the doorbell for a few minutes, meaning to drag him out, wanting only to make him look into my face and see the pain he has caused. It feels critical that he be forced to see the pain.

When he doesn’t open the door I walk toward the back of the house, toward the kitchen. I can see through the slats in the kitchen door blinds that they are standing there. I knock. The woman urges him to open the door, then does it herself. She is red-haired and blousy and utterly smashed, and I recognize her from the restaurant where we were earlier. The woman who’d stopped to say hello to him.

She stations herself dizzily in the doorway, wants to talk earnestly to me, sister to sister. “Listen, listen, listen,” she slurs. “It’s not sexual. I just broke up with this guy and we’re talking, is all.”

“You poor thing,” I say, because she is not only wasted but an idiot. But my beef is not with her; I step around. He leans against the kitchen sink, wine glass in hand.

“What is wrong with you?” I ask, and I’m not so much angry anymore as desperate, desperate to understand. Even now, at what is clearly the end I feel an urgent need for an explanation. More than anything I want to understand how people can be so brutally selfish, so casually and astonishingly unkind.

“Are you some kind of sociopath?” I ask. The word arrives out of nowhere, a handle to grasp. “Is that why you’re like this? Do you not think that other people have feelings? Are you crazy? Are you sick?”

All he does is smirk.

Behind me the woman is fumbling for a cigarette. “I’m going to need a ride home in about ten minutes,” she slurs. He and I both know this is ridiculous.

I drive home feeling despondent and debased, pretty sure I’ll end up sobbing on the kitchen floor the way I have so many nights, not necessarily over this guy but over the aching wound of loneliness, over what feels—rightly or wrongly—like the chronic and overwhelming absence of love in my life. “What difference do it make if what scared you is real or not?” wrote Toni Morrison. At home I turn on the kitchen light and get a glass of water, tears sloshing down my face. Then I see the scissors.

They are long and sharp and pointed and what is strange is that I have stumbled across them in a drawer just that morning, after months of not knowing where they were. I took them out to cut paper for a package I was mailing.

I could say I’d had a glass of wine. I could say I moved in a blind fury, a waking dream. I could say I was too dazed with pain and fear, the fear of a four-year-old girl from whom love is being removed, to fully realize what I was doing. Some of that would be true but none of it would be completely true so maybe none of it is relevant. I know what I am doing. I know, though if I stop to think I probably will not proceed.

I make sure not to stop to think.

The whole thing takes maybe ten minutes. I drive back to his house, park not on his street but in the supermarket parking lot a block away. Walk casually to the front of his house, slowing to let a woman walking on the opposite side clear the area. At his car I kneel, stab, remove. The hiss of air from his back tire is like the breaking of a fever, the shaking awake from a very bad dream. I consider doing more than one but the urge toward revenge is gone now, snickering its way around the corner. I pocket my scissors and rise.

 

As I write this essay the Supreme Court rules against three death row inmates who sought to ban the use of a drug that played a role in three botched and apparently excruciating executions last year. When Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that our state-sponsored torture and killing of inmates is problematic because it is arbitrarily imposed, corrupted by racial discrimination, and naturally flawed (innocent people have been executed), Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas scoffed.

In my heart I know there is really no way to make a case for revenge. In my heart I know that revenge draws a circle of hate and damage, real and imagined, emotional and physical. You hurt me (or I think you did) so I hurt you, so you hurt me again and again until one of us is dead or we’re both so broken we wish we were.

The truth is I am not ashamed of my two targeted, nonviolent, singular and specific acts of revenge. The victims were inconvenienced but not injured (I eventually gave the Teacher money for a new tire). I’m not ashamed of my acts of petty revenge because without them I would have gone on as in the past, feeling helpless and victimized, a hapless insect under some asshole’s dirty boot. I’m not ashamed of my acts of petty revenge because the painful truth is goodness does not always win in the end and karma is not nearly the bitch we might want her to be. The high road is potholed and lonely and nobody really knows where it leads; the low road gets there fast. People get away with being selfish and mean-spirited. If they didn’t, there’d be a lot fewer jerks running around.

I’m not ashamed of my petty acts of revenge, but I’m ashamed of not being ashamed. I really am.

I know how dangerous this is, encouraging even small, nonviolent, singular, and specific acts of revenge. I know where it leads for many people, where it leads for the world, where it could lead for me. An eye for eye leaves the whole world blind, said Ghandi, and we are already lost and stumbling. My small, singular, nonviolent, and specific acts of revenge actually helped me grow into a stronger person more capable of forgiveness, but that’s an irony we cannot really afford broad-scale. This is the world I leave behind for my children, a world sufficiently riven by anger and hatred and fear and revenge. Do I really want to add to that, even at the gain of my own broken self?

The morning after my fit of vandalism I woke puffy-eyed and heavy-hearted, sweaty with remorse. Also, afraid: of what he might do, how he might react. Afraid that people I knew and respected might find out. Afraid of what it meant if this, even this, was not enough to finally slap me awake.

I reached out to several women friends, all of whom said, more or less, Yeah, okay, probably not the best decision you’ve ever made and let’s not do it again, shall we? But, you know what? Shit happens, and especially to assholes who trample other people’s hearts. Put it, and him, behind you and move on.

It was Holy Saturday, a time of waiting and reflection, the time of weeping that lasts for the night. I cried a little, beat myself up a little, dodged his phone calls and considered, briefly, dropping an envelope with $150 cash inside his door (Absolutely not! said my friends. No!). I fed the kids and locked the door and went to bed early, exhausted and spent, expecting to toss and turn. I slept like a rock.

Easter dawned cool but clear-skied, the air like a looking glass. I took the kids to church, put $150 in the offering, went to the altar and asked for forgiveness, as much for the anger as for the act. Also I asked for liberation, not from the man but from the great fear of not being loved. Then I got up and sang with the choir and clapped my hands and reveled in the celebration and I felt, I swear I did, a lifting of the weight, breaking of the spell.

I didn’t know if it would last beyond the exhilaration of the moment; I’d been out before and tumbled back in and I knew anything was possible. The addict counts only one day at a time, never getting ahead of herself.

Still something felt different. Walking to our car my daughter said, “That was actually fun. Everybody was so...”

“Happy,” I offered. “Exuberant.” But what I really wanted to say was: “Liberated.” On that beautiful Easter morning everybody was free.