Ladybug Morning
Penny Dearmin


His dead aunt visited me in the night. I was lying in Sam’s bed, between him and his yellow dog, asleep. I had met Sam’s aunt at his momma’s funeral, the dent of skin and missing bone worn on her forehead. She told me without being asked that she had tried to kill herself and was just now getting back to her life. Her son had also tried to kill himself but lived, if you could call it that. He was completely cognizant in the assisted living facility, but unable to move or do anything for himself. He was angry, but accepting of his self-induced fate. The flesh above her right eye was sunken in by the weight of life and the bullet that missed her brain; the light of the world darkened. But her eyes were so luminescent and otherworldly, even then. I did my best to encourage her with my words. She and I seemed to be kindred spirits, both having been darkened by near death.  She did not know my story, and I did not share it with her. She could feel that lingering permanence that floats between two souls with shared history. When we hugged goodbye at the funeral, I told her, “I’ll see you next time.”

She questioned me with those bright eyes, “You will? That’d be great. You are truly beautiful, inside and out.” I got the feeling she had hugged Sam’s women before, at least the ones she liked, but had never seen them again.

His dead aunt stood in the doorway to the guest bedroom and willed me awake a few weeks after she died. “You said we would see each other again!”

I sat up in Sam’s bed and said, “I did.”

She motioned for me to join her. “So I came to see you.”

I smiled, happy to see her at peace. “I’m glad you got to go home,” I said. I felt a warm rush of confirmation that her suffering had ended. I was right that we would see each other again, but I had no idea it would happen after her death. I climbed out of bed and stood by her side, her presence as fully manifested as when we first met.

“Come help me,” she said, as she reached into Sam’s closet and took out one long-sleeved t-shirt at a time. She handed the hangers to me. I made piles in both my hands and under my arms. I stacked shirts on the spare wrought-iron bed covered in his dead momma’s memories—photographs and letters waiting to go up on a wall or in a chest. She said, “We have to put all this laundry out in the open, to let the truth out.” And so we did.

I couldn’t go back to sleep after that, with no idea what I was doing here in this man’s bed, a man who said he loved me while having sex with other women. Sam had always been honest and up-front about that, so I took the blame for whatever hurt I accumulated. I was supposed to be a blessing to him, not the other way around. As I was told, two fractured people can only ever make one whole. I just wanted to find a way back to my own whole again, or as close as possible with so many pieces of myself missing.

Almost three years passed after my husband and I separated before I felt ready to be with another man, and only then because Sam’s kindness brought me close to him. I was a forty-year-old single mother of three children embroiled in a perpetual conflict over their custody. Sam showed such care for my children that the rawness of my suffering was soothed for the first time in decades. For more than six months I had been staying at his house at least two nights a week, knowing he was with other women too. I convinced myself this was all that I could handle, that it was all that I deserved; I could take this hurt.

Ladybugs were crawling on the ceiling and around the kitchen sink the morning after his dead aunt visited me. I washed his dishes, including the cup the latest girl had left behind. I searched it for lipstick to match the color or smell on his sheets where we slept together, always naked, sometimes intimately. The ladybugs’ bloated and speckled bodies were out of sorts in the thirty-degree January morning, and we looked at each other as though we had no idea how we had gotten there. But the ladybugs and I stayed where it was warm and comfortable. The smell of Sam’s chili rose from the stovetop while drinks clinked in our glasses. There was a feeling of home, with someone who understood me like no other. I loved Sam, even if he didn’t love me in the same way.

Months passed until I was able to understand the truth of why the ladybugs and I were there. Since the summer, we had been cooped up in his house, on his porch, always thinking of Sam; hiding from the harsh world. On the hill, I didn’t have to think about the terrible things my ex-husband did to my children, or if anyone would ever want to share that pain with me because he already did. Sam took my pain, and I absorbed his until we parted ways for a few days and then sucked back into one another like strong magnets. We both pulled and repelled each other in an endless loop. Long ago, Sam tried to tell me he wasn’t attracted to me, that I would always just be a friend to him. He had sex with me anyway. It was too late then, my love sealed in a part of my heart that I thought was closed off from the world forever. I imagine he was the only one who could have taken my brokenness and poured a hope into it that trickled life where there was none: a discarded battery fully charged in the back of the junk drawer.

I eventually came to a place where I was willing to sleep with someone else besides Sam, once the unbecoming of us blew in like the sand from the beach where we stayed. We both brought our prior marriages with us: his ex was a woman who ignored him, and mine was a psychopath. Every few weeks, Sam and I took our accumulated hurt out on each other and exploded into bitter arguments. We fought that spring break about how I wanted more out of this relationship than he did. He didn’t want to be physically intimate anymore, but kept sleeping with me anyway. We also fought about how my children were a constant reminder of the way women had used their children to get into relationships with him. Any time I tried to involve my children in his life he saw that as manipulative, like I was using my children to bring him closer to me. If I kept my children from him, it just reminded him how he didn’t have any of his own, or of the baby kept from him by another lover, for all the wrong done by men to her. I never saw him or what I did in any of these ways, but his past had left him wary. It made me unsure of how my life could ever fit right into another’s.

But Sam and I also had a lot of fun together. We sat on his back deck and listened to music and built bonfires. We would sometimes get drunk and dance under the stars on the lawn in our bare feet. I would kiss him on my tiptoes as he held the small of my back with his strong hands. We shared the pain of our past, the exes who made us expect hurt and not love from other people, and this bonded us in ways no one will ever understand. He asked about my children and sent my son knives as gifts. He worried about my daughters dating. He told me over and over again how blessed I was to have parents who were alive and gave up their entire world to move with me to watch my kids while I was in school and working. He called me “spoiled,” with a grin on his face. I loved sleeping next to his warm chest or snuggling up to his back. Before I met Sam, I thought I would never sleep with another man again, for sex or snuggling.

I felt the women in his past and present were of a class and beauty that I could not meet or match. There was no chance for me, so why did I keep coming to stay in his house, with his dog and cat whom I also loved, with ladybugs as my coffee klatch? I suppose I wasn’t ready to be fully vulnerable, liking someone who felt the same way I did, someone who wanted a true relationship. I didn’t think I was worthy of anyone’s love or affection. I could get the punishment I deserved from failing everyone in my life. I told my therapist that I could never date because no one could handle the pain that spills out of me. She told me that I wasn’t responsible for deciding that for someone else, that I didn’t get to decide that for someone else.

I was being irresponsible by staying at Sam’s that night his dead aunt visited me. The next morning, I woke him up and made sure he got himself off to work, rather than being home with my kids. They were with my parents, who always took great care of them when I chose to be with Sam. I didn’t feel regret; it was empowering to do what felt good to just me after so many years of raising children. I wanted to open myself up to someone who could take on my burdens, someone who could be attracted to me both physically and emotionally. The truth that needed to be let out was my denial that I was a sexual being who deserved to be wanted by someone I wanted. Even if that meant taking the chance of being hurt by someone I trusted. Because I did trust my ex-husband at one time, and he wanted me dead. My self-worth was intimately tied to my ex-husband’s belief in me because of his control and domination. As he grew to hate me, I unconsciously internalized that hatred. A cycle of inadequacy ensued to the point that I felt unworthy to ever love or be loved again. Death was the only way for him to fully get rid of me and stop me from having primary physical custody of our children.

So, this wasn’t about my lover, who wasn’t. It was about me letting the truth out, and admitting the part I played. I needed to stop hiding or denying my needs and desires and worthiness for all of me to be seen, heard, and touched. I would keep being too loud until that happened, keep pushing people away who didn’t understand the weight of pain and the brokenness that had stolen bone and flesh from his aunt’s forehead and forced her to want to die.

I know it means the ladybugs and I need to leave this house, this bed where I write next to his dog while he is at work. I hope it means I can reach a peace that leaves me as free as the ladybugs to fly.

~

Once I admitted the truth of wanting to date other men besides Sam, I considered how I would meet someone in the very small college town in the middle of the South where I lived. I doubted Sam and I would ever want the same thing out of a relationship. We definitely weren’t in the same place when I sat at happy hour and filled out my OkCupid profile with my friend Julia. She nagged me for a year to try online dating, first Tinder and now OkCupid. I had downloaded the app a week earlier and waited for her to help me fill it out; or at least not to chicken out from doing so.

Every time I clicked on my phone, I saw the blue okc letters bubbled in white and surrounded by pink like the fleshy skin of a heart. I became paralyzed by the very first task: picking a profile name. I didn’t want it aligned with any other names on social media. A potential date might find me on Instagram and see details of my life I would rather not reveal, maybe ever. I was at Sam’s house at least twice a week but I knew I wanted more than he was able to offer.

Online dating forced me to consider many existential questions that I wasn’t ready to face, but had to anyway. What kind of relationship was I looking for? Did I want casual sex? Short or long-term dating? Friends? Julia and I checked them all just to leave the options open. It opened up too many options. I didn’t have time for any more friends. I definitely didn’t want a long-term relationship, and it turns out my definition of “friends with benefits” was very, very different than others’. When OkCupid suggested a user name, Julia and I took it. My naiveté concerning the male mind will never be made more obvious than in the upcoming weeks as funnypenny_taco. I just thought tacos were delicious.

I answered all the profile questions, decided not to reveal that I had kids, and searched for a profile picture. I chose a picture of me standing next to my daughter at her ballet recital. I kept the great lighting but cropped her out of the shot.

My very first match was DrBangNasty. I immediately ordered another $2 glass of wine before happy hour ended. I clicked on profile after profile, and played Quickmatch like a slot machine being fed quarters with no bells. I swiped right on nursemonkey one town over from me. I was attracted to his coy profile picture, which showed one side of his bearded face. He started flirting with me and told me he admired my superpower, listed as “manifestation” on my profile. He mentioned Descartes and joked about tacos. He wrote, “You know what? Tacos ARE delicious. Let’s get some tacos sometime. In other words, can I buy you dinner?”

I replied back, “That sounds good.”

Nursemonkey was apparently an online dating anomaly. Most men sent messages but never took the next step to meet up. More often than I’d liked, men sent naked pictures of themselves and bragged about their dick size and sexual prowess. I wished the men knew not to take their picture in the mirror of a public restroom with a diaper deck behind them. All of the grammatical errors were distracting. The most common was, “Youre hot.” I was assaulted with descriptions and requests like, “Into trading pics? I’m 8.5 and thick, no joke.” I took screen shots of the bare-chested men and texted them to friends. At first I thought it was funny, but I soon grew to feel like it was an unwanted invasion of intimacy I neither asked for or invited.

As I discovered in my interactions with Sam, I wasn’t as capable of remaining as emotionally detached as I would have liked. Our friends-with-benefits situation was failing because I had developed strong feelings for him that I couldn’t control. As more matches came online, the over-forty dating pool appeared a gulf away from physical or emotional intimacy. I wanted to try something purely physical again to shield myself from the disappointment and hurt of Sam’s potential rejection.

Nursemonkey, whose name turned out to be Brian like my ex-husband’s, arranged to meet me at a restaurant. I phoned a friend to help me decide whether or not I should tell Brian I had kids and was divorced. She told me not to under any circumstances, and I felt ethically retarded in my ability to tell the truth without telling the truth. Luckily, the question never came up because it seems that no one really wants to reveal their entire story, and certainly not on a first date.

I arrived early and sat in the parking lot, applying lipstick and feeling younger than I should have. Twenty years ago was the last first date I’d been on and I felt nervous. Brian texted that he would be late because he was waiting for the cable guy. He has cable? I thought to myself. I asked to be seated and wondered if he would be a no-show. Online dating wasn’t great so far. I ignored the advice not to drink on first dates and ordered a margarita.

When Brian showed up, he sat across from me in the booth. He smiled but tried to hide his mouth with his hands. The tops of nearly all of his teeth were black and rotted. Was he a meth addict? Too poor to get his teeth fixed? Judgmental thoughts pierced through our pleasant conversation. Brian was nice, but I knew I would never see him again. This made me feel terrible about myself. As we walked across the parking lot to the movie theater, I tried to pretend that his teeth weren’t black and that I wasn’t shallow. As we left the movie, I lamented beside the other couples that I might not ever be part of a real couple again. I wasn’t sure why this made me sad because I knew I didn’t want to get married a second time. Maybe I wasn’t clear on what I wanted? I only knew I didn’t want to date a guy with black teeth.    

~

Every morning as I poured my coffee, I watched the mannequin scarecrow in Sam’s garden show her face and legs a little more. Last year, when I started sleeping at his house, the vines engulfed her until I could no longer see her almond skin or painted lips. Her face was turned coyly away, one leg raised on her toe. She was beautiful to me. A hard freeze that came in January had blanched the vines to near-white. I knew the vines would rot off about the time Sam left town for a new job. I tried not to feel anything. The nights lengthened as we grew closer and spent more time together. When I wasn’t there we would text all night or talk on the phone for hours. I was conflicted about my online dating, my love for him. I tried not to judge myself, or him. As far as I knew, he was still dating other women.

I checked my okCupid app at Sam’s house. I continued messaging and having phone conversations with a few guys. A very persuasive cougar hunter messaged me every day to convince me to meet up with him in his town an hour and a half away. It was flattering to have men tell me they thought I was beautiful and desirable every day. Yet, a message from a man who claimed he was in an open marriage requesting a threesome provoked doubt that I was as open-minded sexually as I thought. I wanted nothing to do with breaking up a marriage, even when I didn’t believe in the sanctity of marriage any more. I learned right away that when a guy asked, “What exactly are you looking for?” he meant, do you want to just hook up and have sex? I soon realized that online dating might only bring more despair to my self-worth.

The art of conversation and using real names seemed lost until Victor from Savannah messaged me. He was a student at SCAD, and introduced himself right away. He told me, “To be honest, I have no idea why the heck you’re single? What’s your deep dark secret? Are you a sadist? Dom? Serial Killer? Cannibal?” I told him I was just getting back into dating and was single by choice. But were those really the only options for being a forty-year-old single woman on okCupid?

Victor wanted to know what I was looking for in a man. I told him, “Honestly, I just like someone who has their own thing since I have a lot going on in my life. I like to be fully present when I’m with someone and not have the other person feel obligated when we’re both doing our own thing.” I realized I was describing what I already had with Sam.

Victor asked for my number and texted, “How do you take your coffee? What do you like to eat for breakfast? Foot massage or full body massage? Could you survive a zombie apocalypse?” He wrote often, “Good morning gorgeous,” and I no longer felt like a woman with no options. I knew that I would be in Savannah in two weeks and was excited to meet him in person.

I texted Victor to remind him that I would be in town. I hadn’t heard from him in over a week. I waited until the last minute because I wasn’t sure if he had lost interest, or I’d lost my nerve. He ghosted but I didn’t feel bad about it. I knew there would be more matches in a town like Savannah. The way that Sam regaled me with comments like, “God, you are beautiful. What I love about you the most is that you are a real woman,” increased my confidence that others might see me as beautiful too.

My friends and I went to eat South African food on a patio with Christmas lights crisscrossing over our heads. Dani, Georgia, her boyfriend Ross, and I all dissected my okCupid matches like the real estate section of the newspaper. We drank on the streets and had fun reading profiles, but no matches or dates were made. Sam texted me the whole time and all I could think about was being in bed with him. He was flirting with me like never before, and it felt more satisfying than being texted, Good Morning Gorgeous. The feeling was tangible, his skin touchable and his lips kissable. He finally wanted all of me.

         I cannot explain why the next night I zipped up the gold zipper on my little black dress, clicked off okCupid, and met my friends at a rooftop bar on River Street. I felt confident that I would attract someone who wanted all of me, and I wasn’t going to stop until I found him. I didn’t think of Sam and how much I wanted to be with him, or whether he truly wanted to be with me. I knew that Sam and I would never be together in a way that would be satisfying to both of us.

The rooftop bar was decorated for Valentine’s Day Eve; roses and red dresses crowded against shelves and on barstools. There was no place to sit or stand. My friend and I cloistered on a bar opening as soon as two girls left with their glasses of wine.

“Dirty Gin Martini, please,” I placed my order and said loudly, “There isn’t a place to sit, let alone hang up my coat.”

It was cold in Savannah that night, and I had a long overcoat over my very short black dress.

A scrubby blond stood up from his barstool and offered, “I couldn’t help but overhear that you needed a seat, I’m happy to let you have mine.” He talked with a very thick accent but all I could look at was his broad chest and muscled arms.

I smiled at him, “Thank you! I’m ok for right now, but I’d love to hang my coat on the back of your barstool.” I lingered a little at the back of his chair and my fingers rubbed up against him as he sat down again.

We flirted. He told me that he and his buddies were airline pilots for a wealthy family. They flew all over the world and stayed in cool places for a while before moving on to the next one. He said they’d been there for about two weeks.

I asked, “Where did you last stop?”

“Aspen,” he said, and I knew that he was working for someone with significant money. My friend Georgia joined us and they discussed what it’s like to travel the world and live in different countries. He tried to get her to guess his accent and she thought South African. I guessed Australian. I was right. Either way, he was exactly what I was looking for and unable to find online. It turned out that I was just an in-person dater, and there was no way of knowing if someone was a match without seeing their eyes. I just needed to get to a large-enough city to find it on my own.

My other friends wanted to check out a dance club and I tried to persuade him to come. He said, “I’ll be here. You should come back by later.” I was on my third martini and ready for more street drinking. I knew there might be other hot guys, real ones you could touch. I texted a picture of me dancing on the street with my back to the camera, looking over my shoulder, provocatively, zipper exposed, to Sam. I wanted him to see me as sexy, desirable even. I knew he thought that about me. I just wanted him to show it. A part of me wanted to make him jealous and wish that he were there with me, watching me dancing on the streets just for him like I was in the picture.

After three bars, we made our way back to the first rooftop stop. I scanned the dim room and the Australian boy was gone. The bar was shutting down so we took the elevator downstairs and ordered an Uber back to our hotel. As we stood outside, shivering, the Australian strode right up to me and said, “I was hoping that I would find you here,” as he grabbed me in a tight hug.

I looked over at my girlfriends and said to him, “I’m glad to see you. Should we go back to your room?” He nodded and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. I told my friends, “Have a great night and I’ll see you tomorrow.” I was pretty drunk at this point, but still aware that he was leading me into the labyrinth of his hotel hallways and into a glass elevator.

We got to his room and he slid in the key card. The hotel room was posh in charcoal tones, with a king-sized bed overlooking the river. He had plans for cockpits of airplanes taped to his wall, which comforted me that he wasn’t lying about his career. I have no idea why that mattered when all I was looking for was great sex. He grabbed the back of my neck to draw me into him and he kissed me forcefully. I pushed him down on the bed and slid down his jeans. He was wearing bright green and yellow patterned bikini underwear that looked like a pair of Sam’s soccer socks. It was a little shocking, but not enough to slow me down. His thighs were well defined and his abs were sculpted into a six pack.

He unzipped my dress very slowly and raised it over my head. His tongue was strong in my mouth. I was in a black bra with a matching thong, as naked as I’d been in front of another man besides Sam since I was married. I was not embarrassed or ashamed of my forty-year-old body. I kissed my way down his chest. His dick was thick and stiff, for any aged man let alone one in his 40s. I used my skill set that I’m sure no twenty-year-old has and he offered several ways he could fuck me. I told him, “I want to fuck all the ways, but you get to choose first.” We finally passed out at dawn. When I woke up I looked for my dress for a while before finding it, made a cup of coffee, and scheduled my Uber.

He woke up and asked in his Australian accent, “Is it weird to say Happy Valentine’s Day to someone you’ve just met?”

I laughed and told him, “It would be weirder if you didn’t. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

He told me, “Happy Valentine’s Day” as he kissed me and said goodbye. We didn’t scribble names or numbers on scrap paper we were never going to use. It was like I was twenty again, but wasn’t.

~

A week before I came to Savannah, Sam had booked an appointment for my first tattoo. After a boozy brunch, my friends got in their cars and drove back to Milledgeville while I went to the Black Orchid Tattoo Shop. Sam had changed so many things about me; the tattoo on the left side of my rib cage was the most outward expression of my transformation since meeting him. I was never open to permanency on my body until I was able to embrace the ideology that even without forever there can still be peace with what gets left behind when a relationship ends.

On the way home from Savannah that Valentine’s Day, something shifted. I don’t know if it was because Sam saw me as wanted by others, or realized when I was gone that he had deeper feelings for me than he knew. He texted, I love you, baby. Get here as quick as you can. I sped up on the dark highway as my phone rang.

I answered it and Sam said, “What I do when I get my tattoo is one hour after it’s done I take the bandage off, OK?”

I countered, “The instructions say an hour and a half.”

“Just an hour,” he rebutted, “And then take your shirt off so that it can breathe and put some Aquaphor on it.”

I pulled over about twenty minutes later at a gas station to get out my Aquaphor and rubbed it on. I took off down the road.

Sam called back and asked me anxiously, “Where are you?”

I snapped at him, “It’s a truck not a time machine. I’m wearing a black lace bra with no shirt going 80 miles an hour.”

“Fuck,” he said, “I just wanted to know how much farther away you were.”

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly. I had no idea why I had such strong reactions to everything he said to me. I tried to explain, “I thought you were expecting me to be there already. I’m driving as fast as I can.” He texted me the rest of the way to his house. I kept my shirt off the entire time.

When I got to his house, he met me at the truck and kissed me. He led me inside so he could look at my tattoo. He looked at me with longing I’d never seen before, or since. He loved my tattoo. It changed how he saw me. We were never the same again after that night. He took care of the tattoo he bought me for Valentine’s Day and made love to me. I wanted to be with him all the time, and he expected me to be with him too. When he said he loved me, I believed him this time. I stopped checking my okCupid profile because I wanted to prove to him that he could be loved and not hurt by me. Even if the opposite was all we both had in our experience. A month later, I was practically living at his house. I always knew I would run away from home; I just didn’t know it would be when I was forty years old.

We were cloistered in Sam’s bed when I told him he couldn’t keep me in purgatory; were we going to love each other or fuck each other? I couldn’t be in between, even though choosing one of those options would still leave me there. He decided to fuck me and it made me feel loved, wanted, like I mattered. I told him he was the only one I was sleeping with now.

He repeated back to me, “Now.” I tried to stay silent, because I didn’t want to stop the humming feeling in my nerves that seemed to spark my skin. I was almost numb.

“It’s just that I don’t trust anybody,” he said as a way of explanation.

“I know, baby. I know,” was all I could manage to say. The truth was no one could fuck me or love me how I wanted them to. Then he did both.

~

I was surprised when Sam and I went out to hang lights around the garden perimeter and pull the dead vines off the mannequin’s legs and torso two months later. We tore off her mildewed clothes and contemplated replacement outfits and wigs. She was being rebuilt by us, when I thought I would need to be rebuilt myself. I was baffled that I was somehow here with him a year after we started seeing each other and wasn’t dating online at all. I might peek at my messages when we got in a fight, but I didn’t date anyone else. I told him he could date other girls, but I knew he stopped seeing the ones he used to date. I knew he wasn’t dating anyone new because we said the one thing we wouldn’t do was lie to each other. We loved each other in our own broken ways, and I don’t think I would have been open to that, or him, if I hadn’t tried okCupid.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the email okCupid sent me that said, “We just detected that you’re now among the most attractive people on okCupid.” I had almost 200 messages and over 550 people had liked me. All I really wanted was for the man I loved and wanted to fuck to want the same thing, and that’s what I really got out of okCupid. I had a tattoo and an understanding that I didn’t just want casual sex. Even if I still wasn’t sure that I’d ever be in a long term relationship again, at least knew I wasn’t dead inside. The ladybugs and I were right to stay until we could be in the garden again. His dead aunt never came for another visitation. I think we both knew not keep the truth in the dark or it would be the end of us.

 

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