I wonder now how often you think of us. If the bruises have faded enough that touching the memory of our time together brings you something sweeter than the end – something like the applause you got in a restaurant at two am when you proposed a toast to me to the entire dining room on what may, or may not have been our six month anniversary. I am two sentences into this letter, and already in tears. For years, people have known of you only by vague reference. My first fiancee (now the first of two failed engagements), or by quick anecdotes, referenced and put away before they can ask me: do you still love him?
I crushed your every hope of our life together – the life where your mother made my wedding dress and you invited the people from your company that I would see later on dinner cruises, perched on your arm like a hawk. Bird of prey, hooded, with leather wrapped round my ankles, trained to return to your call. I was not ready to be put on display – and not in the way you may have thought. In a world where so much of your first impression was me on your arm, me hosting dinner parties for your co-workers, me as your wife…I knew I would fail and fall short.
You thought it would be so simple as a quick act, put on these clothes, speak this way, just until they’re gone. Put forth the image the cage door is locked and step outside when no one is looking. Pretend that your wildness is the kind that can be hooded and put to hunt…let show them how watching you catch rabbits is a gentleman’s game. But that wasn’t the kind of wildness that sunk its teeth into me and curled around my heart.
Robbed of stripes, I would still be a tiger. Without the bold orange markings I could look sophisticated, domesticated in basic black – black velvet cocktail dress, black strappy high heels that I could push into the edge of elegant, manicured nails on hands trained to mix a perfect martini. I would have to put them on to hide the claws, put on a mask to hide the eyes, and put on a show of compliance.
Until they found out. Until they saw me prowl through the embittered short-cropped lawn of the corporate office with trees forced into alien shapes too stubby to provide cover. Until the congregation of your church found out I sank to my knees before an altar not dedicated to their god and offered my blood up with incense and prayers. And your mother…no amount of camouflage could cover my pale skin, no matter how long I spent lying in the sun, no one would ever mistake me for a child of Africa. And that, as she made clear, was a thing irreconcilable with what she wanted for you. Your grandmother asked me once if I had refused to have sex yet with you because you were black. Here I am, trying to summon up the courage to lose my virginity after a sexually abusive relationship and there was your family throwing that into it.
To say nothing of how I held my tongue while your mother criticized my family. The harsh judgement she waited for, the jokes, the hatred, the resentment…if she could accept other people for who they were and not the color of their skin, maybe she could have understood that other people in the world have been past it for years, children raised never taught to judge her like she judged them. It made for a tense conversation to say the least, about what kind of bridal lace I liked most my wondering if she would ever think of me as family while she wondered when I would betray you.
It wasn’t your mother. Oh, I hated watching her watch me, and I hated knowing what she thought of me, but you were worth the awkward family dinners. It was everything together, all of the thousand expectations of perfection. It was knowing that I couldn’t pretend forever without a slip somewhere – betraying that the wild had crept into me with the water of the creek I played in as a child; that with tolerance came the mother who told me stories about protests and civil disobedience and taught me to speak for what I believed in, loudly and without shame; that with compassion came the need to protect whatever I could of the world; that the molten gold in my eyes could not be untangled from poetry that could not be read at board meetings.
I would have ruined you. And somewhere you knew that. You didn’t care. You fell in love with a tiger for a reason. You were drawn to the wildness, the poems, the way I saw the world – and you thought nothing was worth giving that up. You would have watched the castle crumble around us and then your soul snag and unravel against the sharp edges on my teeth and claws, and you would have still meant it when you told me that our love was worth anything.
I left you you because I was not worth your soul, because love should not devour dreams, because our love should protect us both. I let it protect you when I told you it was over. I lied when I told you I didn’t love you. I died when you condemned me for it. I left you because I loved you more than I loved myself, because I cherished your dreams with the same violent ferocity I cherished my own. I left because there was no right answer to the question of which of us had to break to fit. I left because no matter who gave, the jagged edges left behind would shred the other. I left because love is absolute even when the sacrifices it demands are brutal. I left because it was the one thing you couldn’t do. I left you because you reminded me I was a tiger, and tigers are strong enough to do anything.