“Il Ragazzo Imbronciato,” oil on canvas, by Antonio Mancini, c. 1875.

by Jason Prokowiew

I’m sitting by the edge of a lake, waiting for my husband to come and tell me we’re over, that I’ve bamboozled him into our marriage, and he can’t stay in a relationship with a fraud.

He’s about ten feet away, inside our little lake house, lying on the floor where he’s been for two hours, a row of double-paned windows separating us. These windows let us look out on the waves churned up by pontoon boats and jet skis or look in to spot things we’ve forgotten, like marshmallows for s’mores.

Lying on the floor is most comfortable for his back, eases the two herniated discs that announce themselves to him almost daily. He’s been reading my book, and by now, he’s read the passages that worry me.

He knows now, that when I was six or seven, I hid in my childhood bedroom, petrified of what I heard outside my brown wooden door, afraid it would come to my side. I feared my father, on a tear against my mother, calling her “stupid”, and a “waste” of our financial resources, attacking her—I believe—only verbally. I believe.

He arrived home that day, like many other days, from his job as a project engineer at Raytheon, a leading American weapons manufacturer, and started pouring himself lowballs of Jack Daniels. One glass and we might get through the night with him just quiet and withdrawn, a disoriented bear in an armchair. Any more than a glass, which is his amount most nights, and he’ll turn, show his teeth, and make himself large. I’ll hide away, hoping it all stays on her, which is what she wants. If she’s not going to remove herself and me from this situation, at least she’ll take his swipes. Not every night, but most.

On this evening, which I write about in the early chapters of my memoir, I’ve made a mistake. So stupid, my self-admonishment echoes for years. I should have known better. I knew when he got home at five, I had 30 minutes to gather my He-man figures scattered around the rooms of the house. I’d embroiled them in another battle for the soul of Eternia, the fictional land of He-man and the Masters of the Universe, and I knew I had limited time to regroup them all with me in my bedroom. By 5:30, He-man, Skeletor, all the warriors, and I needed to be in this one safest room, because until 10 pm when he passed out, all the other rooms were the bear’s.

This night though, the one my husband has now learned of some ten years into our relationship and four years into our marriage, I forgot to use the bathroom before 5:30. Perhaps I had a particularly good scene playing out in Eternia and forgot about the real-life danger in my home.

I scrambled to my room, and only then did I feel how badly I had to pee; I might have imagined enough urine to fill the whole of my body pushing against my bladder, insisting, “I need to go somewhere.” If I went to the bathroom down the hall, I’d pass their bedroom where they’re acting out their scene, and I may have become a player in it. If he’d spotted me, he might have come at me as he’d done before, calling me stupid or ugly or fat or a drain to his bank account. It was too big a risk: I felt my father’s words like gashes to my skin.

Amidst the frightening noises outside my door, I panicked, my head swiveling back and forth looking for an answer. I reached for a full tissue box and lowered my Transformer pajama bottoms and peed onto the stack of white, clean material.

I miscalculated—the fresh box no match for what was in my bladder. As I peed, my distended belly relaxed. I might have sighed as the tissue box wilted in my hands, crumpled as I fell to my knees. I lurched over the box, holding myself in a push-up pose and pissed until the box wept, my urine seeping onto the hardwood floors, into the spaces between, and Eternia faced the threat of a yellow flood.

When I was empty, I picked myself up from the floor. I used dirty clothes from my hamper to wipe myself off and dry the hardwood. At 10 p.m., my father snoring in bed, my mother found me. She scooped up the piss-stained clothes, sponge cleaned the wood with soap and water. She guided me by my shoulders to the bathroom, where I scrubbed my skin with a washcloth. We didn’t speak of this—then, or the next day, or ever—just cleaned what we could.

This is the story I fear, in which I admit that as a child, I was neglected and abused. Words that I’ll only begin to use about my childhood in my forties, when my therapist will say, “So that’s child abuse,” to me, as I describe my experiences with the bear.

My husband knew only this before he began reading: my father came of age in World War II; after his family was murdered by Nazis invading Belarus, he was on his own from ten years old. He knows that when I was 21, I wanted to know why my father drank. At 21, shaking, sweating, and paralyzing panic attacks were routine for me, and I wondered, “Why? Is it connected to my time spent alone, on the other side of the door, fearing the bear?”

I have not told my husband about the box of tissues, about the times my father cornered me. He only knows I wondered at 21, “Why did he drink ‘til unconscious?” Knows I sat down then, across from a father long sober but always gruff and prone to snaps of rage, with a tape recorder between us, and insisted he tell me his stories.

My father didn’t want to tell me at first, just growled at me, poured himself cups of coffee to avoid the questions. I just waited, the tapes catching the clink of his teaspoon against the sides of a cup, his sighs as he saw that I hadn’t moved.

Eventually, he spoke. Eventually, he couldn’t stop speaking: about hunger so deep he slept through days rather than feel his empty belly’s ache; bombs ripping apart his friends; bodies hanged from street lamps; Nazis beating him until his own blood soaked his shirt; old discarded newspapers he shoved into his clothes to stay warm at night on the streets. He couldn’t stop talking—just as I couldn’t stop my urine from flowing and seeping onto the floor, into the spaces between.

Perhaps we’re all like this, full of something we don’t want to hold. Is that life? Is that why I write, at least in part? Is that why he couldn’t stop talking? Is that why he swung at my brothers—bruised them—because what’s inside of us needs somewhere to go?

By the time I’m 35 and falling in love with my kind husband, I’ll have done my best to freeze childhood memories inside, letting them hurt me from there. They are heavy. I strain to carry them. There is less room for life inside of me; these blocks of frozen moments consume space I could fill with better. I’ll share them only in therapists’ offices, not sure they’re worth mentioning, though I always mention them in such rooms.

Mostly I turned the painful memories, like the points of icicles, back on myself in my twenties and into my thirties. You fat, stupid, worthless nothing. I believed still in what the bear growled.

The pain also passed from inside me out into the world—transformed into a frost in my voice—or a raging storm that I directed towards friends or strangers. After seeing a friend or a niece or nephew draw back from me, afraid, I brought myself to therapy, trying hard not to be scary like the man who raised me.

This trajectory is now in the book in my husband’s hands, in the words I used to thaw some of the packed-in ice. When we were falling in love, I glossed over the trauma. I thought, as I kept the stories to myself and showed him my humor, my intelligence, my kindness, these other truths are irrelevant. It was so long ago. They don’t matter to who I am now. He can know me without knowing these stories. They’re for therapy. They don’t define me. I won’t let them define me.

Now as he reads them, I’m sure they’ll be fodder for a divorce. He’ll know, as the bear knew, that I don’t deserve better. I don’t deserve him or our love or love at all. “You tricked me,” he’ll say. “You are the nothing your father knew you were. You were a fat, stupid, ugly nothing and you still are. This is not what I signed up for. This is not who I married.” He won’t even be able to look at me.

I sweat in my seat outside. I check my phone. I read the day’s news.

When he meets me at the edge of the lake, it’s after noon. He’s read of the crumpled tissue box, of his husband covered in his own piss, alone and insignificant to his father. He’s surely read the other stories of my neglect or abuse at home or at school.

Dave laces his soft fingers with mine. “I knew it was bad,” he says, “but not that bad.” I sense he wishes me a re-do, wishes I’d gotten to use the bathroom, wishes me different memories. In these past few hours, separated from each other because he’s reading what I’ve feared telling him out loud, waiting for him to react to these stories, believing the worst, I’ve forgotten who he is, and who we are together, and who I found I could be with him—safe, important, touchable, cared for. I’ve forgotten ten years together, how he’ll drop everything if I cut my hand making dinner, apply antibiotic ointment and a bandage to the wound. I’ve forgotten how he never leaves me feeling unimportant.

That night we barbecue chicken breasts, broccoli and sweet potato fries. We swim in the lake. Underwater, I wrap my legs around his waist. My skin feels permeable, my head heavy when I lean it on his.

Three years later, when this memory still feels like an ice block I lug around inside myself, I share the same stories with a new therapist, who’ll challenge the words I use about myself in this memory—“nothing,” “pitiful,” “sad”—and suggest that that six-year-old is clever, resourceful. In my mind’s eye, I look at this little boy, and he is those things, too. He calculated how to safely pee, and how creative to have thought of a tissue box. In my memory, his spine straightens.

That same year, I’ll share these pages with a remote writing class made of nine strangers. When it’s my turn to have my selection about the boy who peed into a tissue box critiqued, I sweat in my seat at home, quiet as the strangers/writers discuss my work. I think If any of them wanted my opinions of their writing before, they won’t now. Who would want the opinions of this nothing whose family cared so little about him they left him to piss himself alone in his bedroom? His family knew the truth, that this person is worthless.

I dab away the drops trickling from my forehead, as they note the artful rendering of a horrendous moment, as they suggest ways to improve the showing. It doesn’t seem to occur to any of them that I’m a fraud. No one clicks their tongue in disgust or signs off. They teach me, in greater numbers than one therapist and one husband, that what I’m ashamed of doesn’t make me less. They provide more space to voice what happened, and to make sense of it, and to further convince me that that little boy deserved better, and that nothing was his fault.

They further complicate what I took as truth for decades. I’m 44 when they read my pages, when they encounter the shame I’ve carried. What I’ve carried inside for thirty years, I let out again with them.

Something, like a full balloon stuck inside me, unknots, and then, the steady release of what’s inside.

“The Demulcent of Shame” originally appeared in Roxane Gay’s Emerging Writer Series, “The Audacity.”

Jason Prokowiew earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. He has written for Salon, Roxane Gay’s Emerging Writer Series “The Audacity,” WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Brevity, and WORLD Channel’s “Stories from the Stage.” He is the winner of the 2023 PEN America/Jean Stein Grant and the Contributor Award in Nonfiction for the 2022 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He runs his own law office dedicated to disability advocacy and lives on a lake in Massachusetts with his husband.