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Now I Remember What It’s Like to Have a Body

When you’re recovering from abuse, touch is always complicated

Maggie Haukka
Mar 27 · 5 min read
A double exposure photo of a woman sitting up and lying down in bed.
A double exposure photo of a woman sitting up and lying down in bed.
Photo: Jekaterina Nikitina/Getty Images

There’s a protocol, a progression, to beginning a new adult relationship — a relationship already saddled with boatloads of baggage, with two separate sets of children. There is coffee, and then drinks, and then dinners, and then the meeting of friends and family. There are questions about relationships with exes, lifestyle preferences, there is “Have you been tested?”

But not now. There are no coffee shops, bars, or restaurants anymore. Meeting friends and family can literally kill. Nobody cares about getting tested for anything except the one test that actually matters and you can’t get that anyway.

So you do things differently. You stay home. You cook dinner for each other. You don’t get your hair blown out or buy new outfits because salons are closed and all you do is stay home anyway. He thinks you’re beautiful in old T-shirts and no makeup. In many ways it’s much realer than normal reality. There are no material distractions to confuse anyone — if you can fall in love under these conditions, it’s probably real. Everything is accelerated, intensified. It’s not simply the geography of your dates, it’s that the planet is spinning beneath you in a frenzy of terror and chaos that transforms standing still with another human into something that feels supernatural or divine.

You sleep together sooner than you would have otherwise, maybe sooner than you should have.

I never thought I’d sleep with anyone other than my ex-husband for the rest of my life, and I never wanted to. He was abusive, but he was great in bed. I don’t mean technique… I mean that he was kind, that he could read me like a text he’d written. When I remember him now, it’s like remembering two different men — one gentle and intuitive and whose body felt to me like coming home from the first time we were together, and the other who had become increasingly manipulative, threatening, and twisted. But not when we were in bed. In bed he was always the man I loved. In the end it wasn’t enough; I was too afraid of him during the day, and I left.

I followed the advice telling me to wait a full year before beginning to date again, and then I waited another six months just for good measure.

During that year and a half, I shut down my physical self. I’d all but forgotten I have a body. My body had been his, and without him I simply didn’t attend to it. I focused on my mind, my writing, my work, my friendships. When I thought of my husband, I did so with gratitude for being free from the monster half who’d assumed control by the time I left. I haven’t missed him.

Until last night. Last night when I went to bed with M., this man who is all the things my husband was not. He is honest, and responsible, and forthcoming. He doesn’t play games. He’s got no game, and I love that. I’m drawn to him in a way I was certain I would never feel again. He’s made me laugh and feel safe in a world suddenly precarious and threatening. We have the same dark sense of humor. I trust him completely, which alternately strikes me as miraculous and stupid, given the brief time we’ve known each other and what I already know can happen.

We went to bed together last night, and it was like a spark in one side of my brain shot out and reconnected with a circuit on the other side of my brain and then everything got tangled up inside my head and all I could think about was my husband. Coming back into my body in that way brought back every memory, every vision, every gentle word and touch and image of the man my husband had been in bed, and I could not escape those feelings. Even now, hours after the night has faded into another day of social distancing and hurried trips to the grocery and trying to flatten the swelling curve, when M. is back at the hospital caring for others and trying to keep himself safe at ground zero of an impending disaster, I am locked inside the memories of being with a man whom I know is only half real. I can’t stop crying. I wonder where my husband is now, now in this seeming apocalypse. I wonder if he is safe.

Last night the sex was difficult. It was painful, actually. It had been so long, and I was so sad, and I couldn’t relax. M. was wonderful. He was patient and gentle and he moved slowly. He tried to lighten the mood with jokes I could not appreciate. He has no idea how much it hurt. I don’t really know what to do now. I don’t know what to do with this body in a time where all bodies have become targets and victims.

In a way, I’m grateful for this plague, which I realize is sick. But I couldn’t do this in sunny-day mode. I need the darkness and fear in which we’re all cloaked to serve as a temporary backdrop until I can surface again into the light. I could not do this on a stage of swanky restaurants or teeming concert halls or picnics. The clash would be too jarring.

I want to be with M. I do know this. Sometimes external chaos offers tiny glimpses of clarity, little snippets of truth that are palpable, and I’ve felt them. I’ve seen who M. is in the midst of a storm. My husband was a man of internal storms — of reverberating trauma that was legitimate and earned, of demons that could not be tempered. I don’t even think any of it was his fault. But he couldn’t weather his chaos alone. He needed to foist it upon me, to drag me down and down into his vortex of pain.

Now the whole world looks like my husband’s interior, and my pain is just another voice in a chorus of pain. It helps, in a way, it puts things in perspective. The Universe is strange in that way, how its very universal-ness reconnects us to the isolated parts of ourselves.

I am grateful to be alive and healthy, and I’m off-kilter, and I’m so, so sad. I’m scared. I am only feeling what we all are feeling. The planet itself must be feeling the same.