The Ghost in My Suitcase
When I was growing up, learning for the first time about what was and wasn’t all right between men and women, in youth group, I remember an idea that has stayed with me all of these years. It is simply this: that every person you have sex with comes with you into your marriage bed.
Perhaps you remember this idea as well? I can still conjure up the picture I had of bodies piled under one large duvet, looking awkwardly at each other. Of course, that was before I had any idea what desire felt like. At sixteen, I couldn’t get the drummer with the spiky hair to look at me, let alone do anything else. I was not fighting off the attention of lustful young men, as my youth leaders seemed to fear. In fact, in the face of all of that talk, I began to wonder if something was wrong with me. Where were all the boys looking to get me into an extra-marital bed?
But while I pondered these inconsistencies, the bulk of the message sunk into me, settling in for the long haul, including that mental image of a very full bed. While there is truth to that statement (or so I hear), there was, for me, an unintentional consequence. I came to believe that without having sex, I couldn’t have any baggage.
It’s sort of funny to think about now, as I remember those cups of water we passed around and spat into. But I can’t really laugh, because I want to put my hands on my sixteen-year-old shoulders and tell myself that the two pieces of paper connected by glue and then ripped apart are not a perfect description of extra-marital sex, but can happen other ways as well. Perhaps that would have saved me from feeling like that torn piece of construction paper. But then again, perhaps not.
I’m not just talking about everything between a flirty conversation and intercourse (although we never talked about foreplay in youth group). As I got older, it became clear (although sometimes the hard way) that all sorts of physical contact had the potential for lingering in my mind, however innocent it seemed. Most of it was innocent, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t pack it into my suitcase, with the rest of my baggage.
I wish someone had told me that I bring every relationship I’ve ever had with me into each new one. My friendships and family relationships come, along with each romantic relationship I’ve experienced, however brief. If I make a new friend, I’m relating to them using the framework of everyone else I’ve ever related to, each movie I’ve seen, and all the books I’ve read. It’s all part of me, and I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work over the years.
The problem is that I’ve learned from specific people and circumstances. My relationship with my college boyfriend isn’t the map I need to follow for how to walk in all of my relationships (thank goodness).
But I can be with someone else entirely, enjoying an evening, maybe dinner. We can be laughing, exchanging pleasant conversation, when suddenly, he will say something that takes me back in time. All at once, it’s as if my long-ago boyfriend is in front of me, the one who asked me to lose weight, and all of the feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, and despair come flooding back.
In earlier days, I have regressed, slipping back into those patterns of behavior, thinking that this is how this goes. It has only been recently that I have fought back, telling that person, and myself, what those words meant to me, explaining a bit more of my backstory, unpacking another piece of my baggage for them to see.
I’ve found that it’s true that those boyfriends (and classmates, girlfriends and teachers) follow me into my shiny new relationships. I find my steps grow heavier at certain times of the year, or on particular days. Try as I might, I can’t change the fact that those people and experiences meant something to me.
Honestly, I don’t want to be a person disconnected from the past, from memory, even if it were possible. I have to remember the nightmares, but I also get to hold onto the sweet dreams. There are people that I no longer know, frozen in time in a walk along a country road, a carefully prepared salad, or a tweed vest. I take those experiences with me as well.
I will likely never forget the first time a man asked me to spend the night with him. I was photographing a wedding, he was a groomsman, he asked me to dance after the pictures were done, and we hit it off. His friends fell away, likely by design, leaving him hopelessly drunk and in need of a ride home. I dropped him at his parents’ home, hoping that he would be able to make it to the door in one piece. “I was hoping that I could convince you to stay here tonight,” he slurred. I refused, politely, but firmly, and watched to make sure he made it inside. For just a moment, I stopped, thinking about the import of this moment, my first attempted seduction. I will take that night, that moment, into all of my future relationships, too, along with all of the first kisses and arguments, sporting events, and glasses of wine (or light beer, depending on the relationship). This is unavoidable. This is part of what it means to be human.
My hope is this: that I will have the courage to unpack my bags, so that I know what I’m carrying with me. That I will be able to speak the names of my demons aloud (if only to myself). That I will be patient with those I choose to partner with, as they unpack in tandem with me.