I met Gregory for the first time on October 4, 2003. Our first date—arranged via Match.com as an early-afternoon coffee at a downtown cafe—ended 9½ hours later, when waitstaff at the nearby Thai restaurant we had relocated to, The Happy Smile, finally shooed us out the door.
Although he and I did not get married until the following December, we decided to use Oct 4, 2003 as the date engraved inside our wedding rings. This was our “true anniversary,” we agreed.
I sold that ring yesterday.
* * *
The second year after my separation and divorce felt much harder than the first. The early months filled with the logistics of hiring lawyers and dividing property, and most days I had been grateful simply for what was missing. No more shifting whims or unpredictable mood swings to adjust to. No litany of grievances to apologize for. No ego to soothe, nor impossible demands to navigate. But eventually, absences stopped being enough. I wanted to feel present again, to be…if only I could remember how.
In social settings, I felt like an alien, as I struggled to disguise what I did not yet understand myself. How had my husband’s controlling and manipulative behavior reduced me to someone so small and so clumsy? Even idle chitchat left me blundering into my own raw pain.
At one holiday party, I found myself casually asked, “So, he hit you?” by a woman I had met an hour earlier over cocktails, in response to something I suddenly couldn’t remember saying.
“Or…” She glanced at my frozen face, and her voice trailed off into awkward silence. After a moment, she added apologetically, “Of course, not all abuse is physical.”
I shrugged numbly, bit into a carrot, and decided to avoid public gatherings in the future.
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* * *
Recovery from emotional abuse can start with knowing one small thing about yourself that is true. A favorite color. A favorite song. Recognizing that a particular chill to the air feels just right on your skin. I had memorized every one of my spouse’s preferences: from how often he expected me to wash my hands each day to the precise way he wanted cereal bags rolled down inside the box. Trying to identify my own likes and dislikes left me panicked and hollow.
Never having tasted this green before, I knew it only by its description in recipes. Food bloggers I followed seemed unanimous in their opinion that arugula’s sharp, peppery flavor was best used sparingly: mixed with other greens as the base of a salad, or scattered across a thin-crust pizza just pulled from the oven. I purchased a small bunch at my local market, expecting to find the flavor overwhelming.
It wasn’t. I loved it.
“I like arugula,” became the first thing about myself I had been absolutely sure of in years.
Primed by arugula’s peppered bite, I sought out other strong flavors: mustards and vinegars, raw lemon and undersweetened cranberry. I began to cook obsessively. I took up baking and relearned the pleasure of subtler tastes as well. My daily journaling became little more than lists: recipes I want to test, ingredients I want to try, techniques I want to master, questions I want to ask a cheesemonger or a baker or a butcher…
… I want … I want … I want …
The words rolled around my mouth like the stone of a fruit my tongue could not forget. The refrain of a survivor who did not die when her abusive marriage died, even though sometimes it felt like I had. How to feel alive again? In the absence of certainty, I had want.
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Wanting proved enough. Through food, I made my way back—first to myself, then to others. I started visiting friends again, always arriving with a new dessert experiment in hand. Instead of PTSD or the terrors that still woke me every night, I could talk about cake-baking, melting points of chocolate, and my ongoing quest to make an Italian buttercream that didn’t break. The act of feeding oneself is the most elemental level of nourishing there is. Feeding others, I learned, satisfies both body and soul.
Today I no longer need to carry a tray of sweets before me like a shield. Or maybe I carried it as an apology for my own human frailty, or as tribute to the idea that life can go on, will go on, is—even now—going on…
We cannot deny that which we love forever, even if others minimize or despise our true flavors. Whether savory or sweet, cake suits me better than that wedding ring ever did.
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[Feature Image: A person stands outdoors with their back facing the camera as the sun sets. They are wearing a red shirt with arms wrapped around themselves as held titled as they watch the sun. Pexels.com]