The Ex-husband and the Birthday Cake
I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not to write this, but I keep thinking about a show I watched around this time last year and the effect that it had on me. You can read more of my thoughts about the show, Maid, here. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge publicly what I was going through yet, but that show crawled inside my head and wriggled under my skin. I watched the entire series twice in a row. It sounds silly to say this about a Netflix show, but it helped me to start to unravel a lot of what I had been through over the previous several years, which up to that point I had processed as “definitely bad” but wasn’t yet capable of dissecting further.
The show set off a frenetic series of fireworks in my head, setting into motion a domino effect of realizations. Inside my own life, I was crouched in the eye of the storm. I was surrounded by constant chaos and just trying to keep as clear of it as possible — just trying to survive. But the show offered me enough objective distance to start processing things.
That’s why I think talking about these things is important. It’s more than just trauma dumping in public. It can help other people process what they’re going through, or what they have been through, when they don’t yet have the language or understanding to do so on their own.
A couple of weeks back, Busan threw the birthday cake I made for him in the trash, and I realized how much I’ve healed.
Why are you still making this man birthday cakes, you might ask. Good question. There have been times I’ve asked myself the same thing. Even when we were living apart and not even in a situation that he could legitimately confuse with being together, I still baked him a cake every year and called him to come over and get it. Even when I’ve made up my mind to definitely not make him a cake, I’ve still ended up giving in and pulling something together at the last minute. Because I fucking can’t not. Because that’s who I am, regardless of who he chooses to be.
I am the only person who acknowledges Busan’s birthday. He doesn’t get any phone calls from family or friends. If he had anyone else there to make or buy a cake for him, I might not feel so compelled to do it myself. But he doesn’t. And I wouldn’t sit back and watch that happen to a complete stranger, let alone someone who I once loved as much as I loved him.
Maybe that’s toxic. Maybe it’s evidence that I haven’t healed or grown as much as I think I have. I don’t fucking know. But it’s the choice I’ve made. When someone hurts someone that I love, I can be ruthless. When someone I don’t care about or respect comes at me sideways, I have no problem standing up for myself. But when it’s someone I love who is hurting me, those two aspects of my personality clash in a way that I’m still learning to untangle.
A few months back, Busan and I were still sleeping in the same bed. This was not my choice. When we moved into this new place, I made sure we would have two separate rooms to try to maintain some boundaries, however meager.
But Busan never moved fully into the other room. And I don’t know what to do when a grown man who has the legal right to be in my home follows me around the house refusing not to sleep beside me. Just like I don’t know what to do when I’m trying to pack a bag to leave and a grown man is walking behind me unpacking everything as I stuff it into the suitcase. I don’t know how to get out of a situation like that without using physical force. And the strategy I’ve been using to get through until I can get home is to escalate as little as possible. Play dead. Don’t engage. So I’ve had to pick my battles.
Over the course of the spring and early summer, however, it started to feel more like a battle worth picking. I’m a baker. I have to get up very early, and not to go sit at a desk — to be on my feet, moving and getting things done. I need to sleep. But every few nights, I was being woken up by Busan suddenly clinging onto me in his sleep. I would push him off, at first gently, and then less and less carefully as each night passed with me being woken up this way. Finally, I reached a breaking point and woke him up in the middle of the night to tell him that he needed to go sleep somewhere else because he kept grabbing onto me and waking me up. He sat up and blinked, silent for a few moments, before he finally said, “I’m sorry. I had a nightmare that you were leaving without me.”
My heart sank. A tenderness I hadn’t felt for years washed over me. I didn’t object when he laid back down to go back to sleep there in the bed. I didn’t insist that he move. In the morning, he came out of the bedroom while I was making coffee. “I’m sorry about last night. Those dreams just get to me,” he said.
“Dreams? More than one?” I asked.
“Yeah. It wasn’t the first time.”
I left for work at the shop without saying anything more about it, but it sat heavy in my chest all day. When I got home in the evening, I set my bag down and walked over to where he was standing and did something I hadn’t done for years — I gave him a hug. “I’m sorry you’re having bad dreams,” I said.
In that moment, he looked like a little boy. Like the little boy that he might have been before he was taught by an abusive father how to be a man. Like a little boy who still felt allowed to feel and express emotions other than anger without feeling weak. He looked like the person I fell in love with.
This is why I say it would be easier to just say that he’s a monster. That he’s evil and that I hate him. Clean. Simple. But even after everything, I don’t know how to hurt him. Or to properly hate him. I don’t know how to stop seeing who he could have been if he hadn’t been so damaged by the world around him.
He looked down at me, and his eyes flickered with hope. “Then I can come to America? With you?”
I felt sick. And exhausted. “No, you can’t. You know that you can’t. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not sorry that you’re upset about it.” I paused and thought about it for a minute. “Well… sometimes I’m sorry. Sometimes I’m really not.”
A few weeks later, the shared bed issue came to a head. I had been dealing with a heavy schedule at the shop with all of my off days packed full of driving lessons and exams. It was the night before one of the exams. I had been getting to bed early diligently all week, despite the fact that it meant that I had almost no time to myself throughout the day, but he had been staying up late. Every night that week, he had “accidentally” woken me up at or past midnight.
I’m not Busan’s shrink. I’m not interested in figuring out why he does what he does anymore. But I know that this has always been a thing with him, to the extent that I now blame myself if I ask him to be a little more considerate during a period of time because I’m dealing with something stressful. I blame myself because I should have learned by now that it will be almost impossible for him to resist doing the exact opposite.
He woke me up that night at midnight, and then again at 2am. I was over playing dead. I was over the deescalation strategy. I was over him stealing my oxygen and the brain cells it took to deal with him. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation progressed or what all he said, or what all I said, because it was 2am and I had just been woken up for the second time that night. I know it wasn’t sweet. I know that I told him to stop fucking with me. I know that he told me that it wasn’t his problem that I needed to go to bed early. I know that none of what I said rose to the level of what came out of his mouth at the end: “Look at you. You’re a fucking pig. Oink oink!”
A comment like that would have devastated me a couple of years ago. Not because of what he said but because it was him who said it. It would have been KO — down for the count. I would have cried. He would be satisfied that he had made it clear that, just as his father has taught him, women don’t expect things from their husbands. They don’t ask for things, and they certainly don’t demand them. Even if what they’re demanding is just basic respect and human decency.
He would have proven that he’s the strong one, the winner, the one in charge — the man — and then started his little song and dance about how he just lost his temper and said things he didn’t mean and he’s sorry. It’s okay to apologize after your opponent cries mercy. It’s the sporting thing to do, once you’ve made your point. Once you’ve brought them to their knees.
It didn’t go that way this time. I flashed back to him standing there that day I had hugged him a couple of months earlier. I remembered him standing there looking small and scared, and how much it had hurt me to see him hurt, how tender I had felt. And I suddenly found it all so fucking funny. I looked him in the eye and smiled, and then I threw my head back and let out a loud, throaty laugh. I laughed so hard and long that I saw his face shift through several emotions, from furious to confused to nervous. Near the end, he even tried to join in, cautiously letting out a few anxious chuckles.
When I finished laughing, I stood up and walked back into the bedroom, stopping in the doorway to say one more thing: “I don’t care where you sleep, but you don’t sleep in this bed anymore. This is my bed. This is my room. You don’t sleep here.”
On his birthday, we had a rare day at home together. I’ve deliberately arranged my schedule so that I work on his days off and am home on his days at work, so that we only ever see each other for a few hours a day in the mornings and evenings. That day, though, everything had gone surprisingly well and it had been a decent day. I thought it might be nice to order a pizza and watch a movie together — something we rarely do — since it was his birthday.
When I suggested this, however, it didn’t go over well. He was upset that I had suggested ordering in instead of me cooking. It got worse when I couldn’t get the app to work on my phone and asked him if I could use his, and he assumed he would have to pay for the pizza. Mind you, even when we were together, there were several birthdays of mine when he did nothing — not a cake, not a meal, not a present. Nothing. But now, even though we are not together, even though he doesn’t really deserve anything from me at all, and even though I had already made him a cake that was sitting on the counter waiting to be cut after dinner, he was irritated that I wasn’t going to also cook him a meal. I didn’t even get a chance to offer to use my card before he kicked off.
And when he did, I did what I’ve been doing for over a year when he starts up. I got up and left the room. When I came back out about an hour later, I noticed that the cake was gone from the counter.
“Where’s the cake?” I asked him.
“I threw it away.”
“You threw it away?”
I felt an all-too-familiar lump start to rise in my throat, as my stomach formed itself into a ball of lead. And then I stopped. I just stopped. A voice in my head said, this has absolutely not one fucking thing to do with you. I had given him the cake. It was his. I wasn’t out a cake. He was. If he wanted to throw away the last birthday cake I would ever make him — possibly the last birthday cake anyone will ever give him — that was his choice.
I took a deep breath and opened another food delivery app on my phone. I ordered a pizza from a different restaurant. I found a movie on Netflix. I took my pizza and settled onto the couch with my dog and ate my pizza and watched my movie. He sat in his room in front of his computer stewing, alone.
In the end, this isn’t about him. It’s about me. Who I am. I am a person who, if you call her a fucking pig, will throw back her head and cackle so long and loud that you will start to wonder if maybe you should fear for you life. I am also a person who, no matter how many times and how badly you’ve wronged me, will not let you pass a birthday without a cake once I’ve loved you. If you want to turn around and put that cake in the trash, that’s on you. You’re the one without a cake. You’re the one sleeping alone. You’re the one who, soon, will be living your nightmares, with no one to blame but yourself. In the end, I don’t have to learn how to hurt you or hate you. In the end, you’ll do enough of that for both of us.
I can be all of these things. I can have compassion for the way the world can twist a person up, make them hurt so badly that they turn around and hurt others, and I can still draw a line so that they can’t hurt me. I’ve worried so much over the past several years about how this whole experience might make me a more defensive, less kind person. That I would be afraid to be vulnerable or generous afterward. That I would let it change me for the worse. I’m sure there will still be issues with that down the road. Overcorrections and reactions based in fear. But for now, I’m not afraid. I know who I am.