The first time I read Cheryl Strayed I was sitting at a plastic table for four in a studio in Geneva. It was August. I had left my husband in July. Living alone for the first time in my life, I found a lot of time on my hands. I would spend mornings before work reading the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, a thick book I kept on the plastic table, which stood before a sliding door, which stood before a balcony wide enough for one small, dead potted plant.
I found Strayed on page 500. She begins, “The Love of My Life” by describing the intensity of her attraction to a dangerous man in a coffee shop. She could tell that he would destroy her the way she wanted to be destroyed, the way the intensity of her grief over her mother’s death was destroying her. I recognized this desire. Not because my mother had died, but because she was barely there. She’d divorced my dad when I was ten; she had been largely absent before, almost entirely absent after. I hated needing her. It made me feel powerless and small. So in my teens and early twenties I learned how to toy with people, or let them toy with me. I wanted to be a doll in their arms because it was safer to be a doll than a person. Sometimes I wanted to destroy them, sometimes I wanted them to destroy me, to break off my porcelain nose.
Strayed writes, “I sucked. I fucked. Not my husband, but people I hardly knew, and in that I found a glimmer of relief.” I had no idea women could write about sex, that women could tread over the crux of demolition with their heads held high. When I’d shared the first sex scenes I ever wrote, my teacher, a man, said, “This is really hard to read.” I was mortified. Because I’m a nonfictioner, I was in the scene, as was an ex boyfriend. It wasn’t rendered with beauty or grace. We’d been fucking on the floor of his dorm, so I’m not sure how beauty or grace would enter into that equation. I thought maybe I should shut the fuck up. Maybe I can’t write this. And so I stopped trying until Strayed showed me I could, and maybe that I had to.
Five months later I did. I had a fling in LA, which didn’t feel like real life but a movie about real life, so I wrote it as such, with previews, backstory and credits. My raciest line was banal, “going through one condom then two then forget the condoms,” but knowing friends would read it, knowing that nonfiction was life, I was worried I would get branded a slut. I worried that I was one. I may live my life as a modern woman, but my internal judge is a 1950s housewife.
In Strayed’s essay she says the kiss with the dangerous man—not a kiss but a bite—changed everything:
It was only a kiss, and barely that, but it was, anyway, a crossing. When I was a child I witnessed a leaf unfurl in a single motion. One second it was a fist, the next an open hand. I never forgot it, seeing so much happen so fast. And this was like that — the end of one thing, the beginning of another: my life as a slut.
Strayed wears her letter S as a badge, not necessarily a badge of honor but also not one of dishonor. When I share this essay with my students they get angry. “How are we supposed to feel bad for her when she’s fucking all these guys?” they ask, not wanting an answer. I ask if she’s bragging, if she’s proud. If they say yes, I ask for evidence. So far they haven’t found any.
I know that unfurling. I had been in Ecuador for four months, and if I didn’t truly understand the catapult of desire before living in Latin America, my time there gave it shape, definition. Desire was the engine driving men towards every woman in the city, propelling the catcalls, the constant hissing. Men I didn’t know would sit next to me on busses, follow me home, ask me to marry them. I felt besieged. So as I drove past a bus full of Ecuadorian men in army fatigues on the edge of the Amazon, I blew them a kiss. They squealed and screamed as if I were a pop star. This was exactly the sort of power I was after. But it was the power of the high. The addictive lure to lure. It never led me anywhere good. I never wanted those men to follow me home. I was scared. I wanted it to stop, but I didn’t know how.
To parallel the dissolution of my marriage with Strayed’s essay is to risk the assumption that I sucked and fucked my way out of mine. I didn’t. But I’d cheated on him when we were dating, when we were twenty-two and –three and –four. When we had no idea we would promise to spend the rest of our lives together. And despite my eventual admission, despite all the couples therapy, it destroyed us. I would always feel guilty. He would always feel scared.
The unfurled leaf was not just the land mine of desire, but also the arched back of Strayed’s words. I told her as much when I met her seven months after I left my husband, six months after I read “The Love of My Life.” I said she had opened a door into the hallway where life meets imagination. Or that’s what I wanted to say. Every time one of my essays gets published I replay a happy version of The More You Know commercial: You, all right? I learned it by watching you. There is no better gift.
Recommended reading: “The Love of My Life” by Cheryl Strayed
Other mothers: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Erika Anderson is an editorial assistant at Guernica Magazine and teaches for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Interview Magazine, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, where she co-hosts the Renegade Reading Series for emerging writers.