Do the Deer
Learning from an abusive relationship
This morning as I drove my son to school, there was a deer dead on the side of the road. Its neck was arched back in a manner both graceful and mangled, like a ballet dancer who has been killed by her own impossible extension. I was grateful that my son was too young to notice her or understand what had happened, and I was careful not to make a sound or draw any attention to her. Poor deer, I thought, and then the voice of an old lover came into my head: “Do the deer, don’t let the deer do you.”
We had dated during a particularly dark period in my life, and he was a kind of criminal MacGyver who prided himself on being able to survive equally well in the prison system of California and the wilderness of western Montana. He could build almost anything, repair any machine, haggle with the slickest of salesman, and out-talk the brashest of gangsters. He had an uncanny ability to do math in his head. He was excessively authoritarian with animals and also with me. He disliked violence and avoided getting into fights, though he was huge and muscular and threw a hell of a haymaker. He had been to jail multiple times, and done one longer stint in prison.
He found me frankly ridiculous. The way I drove a car, sliced an onion, cast a fishing line, shaved my pussy: All were wrong.
I would have to be taught from scratch. I was his own reverse Pygmalion, for in many ways it was my education and upper-middle-class background that he found most in need of eradication. “I’ve never met a smart girl who was so dumb,” he would say. Being his girlfriend was like walking though a stiff wind of constant criticism and advice. He went through a period of critiquing my hand-eye coordination and would spontaneously throw objects at me in an attempt to sharpen my reflexes. He sorted through my clothes, making a pile for Goodwill. “What, is every day Halloween for you? You need to wear jeans, just jeans, and shirts with one color on them. Anything besides that is ridiculous.”
While much of his instruction was deeply insane and paranoid, an alarming percentage of it proved to be useful. He taught me how to ride a bike, drive a stick shift, install a toilet and plumb a sink, lay hardwood floors, install cabinets, do drugs, bait fish and fly fish, navigate in a blizzard, ask to speak to the manager, haggle, and relax during anal sex. The way he taught me to slice an onion was an undeniable improvement. There really was no going back once you saw the better way to do it. And hashbrowns? Forget about it — he was the king of hashbrowns.
One of his pieces of advice, one of those phrases that floats to this day through my daily life, was that line: “Do the deer, don’t let the deer do you.”
What he meant, simply, was that people die from swerving to avoid deer and then running into a tree. It’s scary to hit the deer, and it’s sad, sure, but a deer is going to mess up your car a lot less than a tree, and in the end it is your own survival you must be concerned with. In the worst case scenario, you live and the deer died, and you just eat the deer. (Another of his lessons: how to skin and butcher an animal. This was a period in my life in which all of my photographs have dead animals hanging in the background. I was a vegetarian for several years after our relationship ended.)
One of the most confusing aspects of life is the way that the good comes mixed with the bad. It goes almost without saying that this relationship was very bad for me. He was abusive and controlling. He humiliated me verbally and physically. There were times when I thought it would be easier to kill myself than to find a way to make the relationship end. And yet, I had learned so much from him. He would say that to me towards the end: “I taught you everything you know.”
It wasn’t true. He hadn’t taught me Shakespeare or Ovid, calculus or physics. In fact, my world was a great deal larger than his world, which was part of why we had such a hard time communicating about what reality was. He could barely spell and had trouble reading anything longer than a webpage. But he was also the only man I have ever been with who was willing to rub circles onto my back when I was throwing up.
Ironically, or perhaps not, perhaps “fittingly,” it was that advice, “Do the deer, don’t let the deer do you,” that allowed me to finally leave him. It was terrifying to leave him.
“I will hunt you for the rest of your life,” he said, whispering fiercely into the phone. “I will kill any man you ever love. I will murder your children. You won’t ever know when I will come back, but one day I will come back for you and show you that you are mine.”
I did not really believe he would kill me, though I would leave such phone conversations physically shaking. He was ultimately too sybaritic a creature to pursue such Tarantino-esque revenge fantasies. He was a drug addict. If he had extra money, he would use it to get high, not to buy a plane ticket and then a gun and come to murder me across state lines. He simply wasn’t that organized. Still, it was not out of the question that he would murder me if the opportunity arose. He had poor impulse control, and I was hurting him. By hurting him, I was taking the power, and one way to get the power back would have been to kill me. Though I don’t think he would have used a gun. I think he would have just used his hands.
Still, all of that was speculation. There was nothing to do but close my eyes and keep on my stated course. To swerve would have been to lose everything, to swerve would have meant certain death. “Do the deer, don’t let the deer do you,” I thought, every time he sent another desperate email or letter. It would have been easier if he had not been so pathetic, but that is the trick of the deer: its beauty and vulnerability. That is why people swerve, how they let the deer do them. I could still remember the night at the beginning of our relationship, a few weeks after he got out of prison, when he broke down crying while looking at old photographs of his mother.
He kept rubbing her face through the cellophane of the photo album with his fat fingers as though she were a tiny animal he was caressing. “Why didn’t she love me?” he kept asking me. “Why?”
His dark brown eyes so openly alarmed, as though all of his childhood were only just happening to him, right now, with me, in that strange room. But I couldn’t think about it. “Do the deer, don’t let the deer do you.”
He called me up at work and told me he was going to kill himself unless I agreed to give him another chance. I was no longer taking his phone calls on my cell phone or at home, but the number of the bar where I worked was public information, and not everybody who worked there was clued in to avoid his phone calls or hang up on him. Some poor busboy would bring me the cordless handset: “Phone for you.”
He had the gun pressed to his temple, he said. He would do it right then. “No,” I said.
“One more chance,” he said.
“No,” I repeated. Then there was a deafening blast and the line went dead. I went on waiting tables, my hands shaking. Should I tell anyone what had just happened? Should I call the police? I didn’t know. I just kept working, taking orders, running drinks. He called me a few hours later to confess he had just been trying to scare me.
He paid some guys he knew in my town to follow me around whenever I took my car out at night. They trailed me dutifully as I went to the grocery store or to a friend’s house. I waved at them, a raised middle finger delivered in what I hoped was a frisky but defiant way, though I was terrified. There was no way through but through.
I didn’t care if it killed him. I didn’t care if it killed me. All I knew was that I had to get out.
So you close your eyes and you put your foot on the accelerator and you do the deer. You don’t let the deer do you. It is a lesson in mercilessness, and it is one that you cannot unlearn. I am grateful that my current life does not require such actions from me, although I cannot ever truly forget that I am capable of them. I will never have to harm my husband the way I had to harm my old lover. I will never have to look at him and think, “If it’s going to be me or you, I choose me.” This is one of the luxuries afforded by having chosen a profoundly good and sane man as your partner. It is one of the rewards of clean living.
Still, I am never able to entirely believe my hands are clean. I kiss my dear, brilliant, funny, moral husband. I tickle my beautiful, perfect, handsome little boy. I drive my well-maintained, reliable car to the organic market where I buy healthful food on a credit card that will not be declined because my houses, both financial and physical, are in order. But as I drive my son to school, I still think things like, “Do the deer, don’t let the deer do you.” I still take left turns a particular way, still load down the trunk of my car with sand bags in winter, still slice an onion the way he taught me.
Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was long-listed for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.