I followed my mother around the mall, transforming hanging lights into spaceships and marble tiles into the surfaces of planets. Shiny reflections were laser beams to be avoided and hurdled. Zoom zoom, the mannequin Martians will be defeated!
JOSEPH ALLEN TANNER!!!!! A fiberglass arm dangled from a teetering woman modeling a polyester dress. In an instant, the statue shattered, head rolling on the marble squares and torso twisted under polka dots.
My mom’s face turned red, and she yanked me by my ear back to the station wagon parked outside Woolworths. I am so stupid, always messing up, always getting in trouble.
I will try to be better.
I dreamed about winning the science fair and standing in front of a crowd of admiring kids. “Joseph Tanner is sooo dreamy,” Betty Jenkins swooned in my reverie. My dad would pat me on my back and announce to the crowd, “This is my son. I’m so proud of him.” There would be a tear in his eye.
But my science experiment was boring and messy. I forgot to write the “research” section altogether, and put too much baking soda in the volcano. “Joseph,” Mrs. Hannigan sighed, “When will you learn to follow directions?” My father didn’t speak or look past his newspaper for the rest of the evening.
What’s the point of trying? I can’t do it anyway.
My mother and father yelled at each other until the walls shook. “You crazy old bag; Maybe if you laid off of the constant nagging…” The front door slammed and it was quiet except for my mother’s cries.
If I wanna be a man in the ring, defensiveness is my left hook, and avoiding empathy is slipping the punch of disappointment. I have no other moves that actually garner approval. Not intelligence, not success, not self control, not capability. None.
Wendy was a lifeguard at the city pool the summer I turned 18. I would practice my moves; I would earn the championship belt.
Wendy Simpson became Wendy Tanner one year later. Married life reminded me often of my secret: That I only had two moves in the ring, that if I didn’t use them, I would be a loser and my “never good enough” would be revealed. Wendy suggested I get a different job, and I feared she saw the truth. I didn’t tell her that, though- I didn’t even tell myself. I simply destroyed my opponent with a few right hooks. I was a man. I had learned. I had practiced.
Wendy mentioned dirty dishes, a garage that needed cleaning, a driveway that needed shoveling. All were reminders of my secret- That none would not be satisfied even if I tried, that it was all too much because I was not good enough.
I watched TV with the volume at 45 and watched porn with the door locked and watched myself try all my moves of detachment and protection of my secret. I rolled my eyes when my sister mentioned therapy. I was a man, detached from the confusion and defeat of obligation and empathy.
Wendy came dangerously close to knowing my secret, and she was so angry all the time. Her eye rolls and screaming brought me back to six years old and being dragged by my ear; They proved that my secret was true.
A girl at work didn’t know- She smiled at me and hung on my words, and the ref lifted my gloved arm and walked me around the ring in victory. Joanne didn’t mention socks on the floor or ask if I would get a raise. If she didn’t know my secret, she didn’t remind me of it, and I didn’t need to detach. She fell in love with my listening to her and my grand gestures that would hide who I really was. If there were enough roses and necklaces, she would be sufficiently distracted from the man underneath. We giggled about “Joe and Joanne” and sent emails that were to be immediately deleted….
Wendy, long placed in box labeled “ignore” and “pain,” rattled on with a distorted megaphone. I heard the bass, but her words went right through me. She went right through me. She was only a memory, even when she was sitting next to me on the couch. That way, nothing destroyed Joey’s dream of finally winning…
That’s all for now, says the therapist who wanted to highlight the process of protective detachment, that may or may not have started with ADHD but often includes depression, and also give an example of a common partner of this woman who lacks boundaries and finds a “cause” to fix…..
P.S. Couples therapy can help this dynamic.
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