Victoria Heartwood is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose short stories and poetry have been published (under the name Victoria Forester) by Washington Square Review, Spectrum, Belletrist, Funicular Magazine, The Worcester Review, 580 Split, Moonchild Magazine, and more, and will be forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine this summer. She holds a master’s degree in fiction and a doctorate of higher education with a focus on embodied learning. Stay in touch with Victoria on Twitter @DoveVictoria and Instagram @victoria.heartwood.
The first time I saw my future husband in 2002 he was gesticulating wildly with his hands as he talked to someone around a fire pit. I felt throughout my body we were going to be together for a long time and I thought, “That is going to drive me crazy.”
It did, and it does, and it probably always will.
Our relationship isn’t perfect, but it is good. What makes it so is consciously coming back to a focus on what connects us when our minds and our hearts go astray. Right after we first met, Matt left to work in Australia for the following six weeks. This physical separation gave us an opportunity to really get to know each other deeply through email. When he returned, we met again on the winter solstice and shared our first kiss. A month later, I became pregnant. What people remember about a major life event like that says a lot about them. I remember giving Matt the freedom to choose if he wanted to raise a child with me or not. He recalls that I asked him to come live with me so we could become a family together. Regardless, I knew that Matt, a dedicated skier, truly loved me when he moved from Lake Tahoe to live with me in the two-bedroom house I had just bought in the thickly-settled suburbs at the edge of the blighted city of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
I knew I loved Matt when he showed me how he liked to bury his face in a cat’s stomach and inhale the scent. I closed my eyes, pressed my face into my cat Willow’s fur, and breathed. “It’s like a handful of freshly toasted grain,” I said, full of wonder.
If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would never have married anyone. My heart was already committed to Matt, but my mind had just spent the last two years in graduate school teasing apart the oppression of women and other marginalized people in a patriarchal system, and I had no interest in consciously choosing to participate in the female protectorate known as marriage. Ultimately, I caved to the lure of pre-packaged parental and medical rights and the tax laws that benefit traditional families even though this is not everyone’s birthright. I tenuously embraced our legally sanctioned union after the justice of the peace prodded me with a series of emails and phone calls to finally submit the damn contract in order to receive our marriage certificate before it became null and void.
One tradition I could not have gone through with if I were to stay true to my heart was adopting my husband’s last name for myself and our child. The revulsion I felt by it is perfectly summed up by a legal document written in 1632, titled An Exposition of the Laws Relating to the Women of England Showing their Rights, Remedies, and Responsibilities in Every Position of Life by The Laws Resolution of Women’s Rights, which states, “When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber, or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth her name… A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert... that is ‘veiled’; as it were, clouded and overshadowed; she hath lost her streame. I may more truly, farre away, say to a married woman, Her new self is her superior; her companion, her master.”
I did not want to lose my stream.
After much discussion, Matt suggested we come up with a new word altogether to tack onto our original surnames, thereby avoiding a double or hyphenated family name. I leaned toward Love, he suggested Clearview. Ultimately, we chose Courtland because it is a nine in numerology and, therefore, does not change our life path numbers. It also comes from the root word coeur, French for heart, and means dweller on the farmstead, which was just one of many visions we shared for our life in the future. I felt incredibly supported by Matt’s willingness to change his name and to do countless other thoughtful things like take a book that had helped me, Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth, with him on a business trip despite the taunts of his colleagues. Matt has happily listened to all the stories I’ve written over the years, an indispensable witness to the evolution of my subject matter from being about women fighting to defend themselves to an exploration of the unification of opposites.
For all the good our revolutionary intention to choose a new name did for us, it caused far more damage to our family. I received letters addressed to Mrs. Matthew Courtland anyway, enfolding my insignificant stream into my husband’s more important river, and the farm never became a reality for us in the end. Perhaps more importantly, our name change was deeply hurtful to my new in-laws and we may not have ever fully healed the rift. Finally, I learned a painful lesson about the resonance of names. An aptronym is a name that corresponds to one’s predilection and talent, for instance, writers William Wordsworth and Francine Prose. There’s also the sprinter Usain Bolt, Marilyn vos Savant with her freakishly high IQ, and the Lovings who fought the barrier to mixed race marriages. As a writer and a meditator, all of this makes perfect sense to me now. Letters and words carry energy because they are signposts to greater meaning. Courtland had a way of drawing me closer to the law, eventually testing my strength as a vulnerable witness in the courtroom.
There is tremendous power in naming as it brings a something or a someone into consciousness. Naming makes the world real.
Lots of people give nicknames to their unborn children and ours was “Cupid,” the mythological figure who slings arrows tainted with desire. Without him or her, we would not have been walking this path to matrimony. Our wedding date was set for the summer solstice, just six months after our first kiss. We were so excited about my pregnancy that we didn’t hesitate to let family and close friends know about it, despite the fact that it was common to wait until the first trimester had passed before making an announcement. As we prepared our home for a family, we were both certain that Willow would become a mama cat around our baby with the way she curiously approached the children of our friends when they visited. Life had suddenly become intensely busy as we came home from work to renovate the house, often with my parents’ help, ripping out old wall-to-wall carpet to reveal the hardwood floors beneath, painting walls and cabinets, and planning a garden.
Around the seventh week of my pregnancy, I had taken a sledgehammer to a non-load bearing wall in the basement when a rusty nail punctured through my work glove. My finger swelled and reddened, and I had to go to the doctor for a tetanus booster. A month later, Matt accompanied me for my first ultrasound to see our baby’s heartbeat. We held hands in the darkened exam room and watched the screen in anticipation. The technician silently took measurements along the delicate curve of the fetal spine, the head bowing toward the belly as if in prayer. Sensing a shift in the energy of the room, I asked her if everything was okay. She said she couldn’t discuss anything with us but called for the obstetrician who gently explained that our baby appeared to have died around the seventh week of gestation. There was no heartbeat. As I listened to the science of what I was witnessing on screen, I bit back an ocean of tears. The baby was no longer, but my body had not let it go. We waited a couple more weeks for the miscarriage that never came. Ultimately, a procedure was scheduled to have our baby removed, which sent my uterus into empty, grasping spasms that brought nearly twenty minutes of excruciating pain. It was heartbreaking to lose the pregnancy, but given the origins of our relationship, Matt and I were now faced with the need to make a decision about how to proceed without a baby sealing our fate.
To take the pressure off, we told each other we’d go on with the marriage and just “see what happens.” After our wedding, Matt got a job as a training specialist for a software company that required his traveling away from home every week. It was a lonely arrangement for us both and we made the most of our weekends together. In the fall, I became pregnant again but, this time, we waited to announce our good fortune until the first trimester had safely passed.
A few weeks into my pregnancy, Matt was on the road when I climbed into bed early one night. I was trying to fall asleep when I kept lapsing into an urgent nightmare in which the house was being broken into. The vision of myself silently slipping through the hatch door in the closet that led into the attic and hiding behind a dresser motionless, holding my breath, was unrelenting. Unaware that this was part of my increasing connection to divine guidance, I tried to shift my attention, but the scene kept looping over and over beneath my eyelids like a horror movie. Suddenly, I heard a crashing noise coming from deep within the house and assumed the cats had overturned something in the basement. And then I heard something else.
Annoyed, I rose from the bed and pulled on a bathrobe to go down and investigate. As I plodded through the living room, I could see that I had left a light on in the kitchen. Rounding the corner, I was shocked to stone. There was a young man in a knit cap, bent at the waist, rifling through the contents of the refrigerator. A primordial scream rose from the depths of my body, erupted up my throat, and exploded out my mouth. The man shot upright as if struck by lightning and whipped out the nearby back door, vaulting over the deck railing to soar a dozen feet to the uneven ground below. I fled in the opposite direction to the front door, opened it and screamed wordlessly into the night. Within seconds my neighbors Jon and his son Max valiantly ran across their yard with hockey sticks over their heads like Maasai warriors whirling spears. Wendy followed them with her phone pressed to her ear, calling the police. When she passed over my threshold, she stood with her hands on her hips and scanned the living room, eyes wide.
“Shit, that guy really ransacked this place,” she said, running a hand through her hair in disbelief.
“Actually, I think he only got to the fridge before I scared him off,” I said, well aware I had let things get too messy again. I shadowed her as she strode past me into the kitchen.
Wendy opened the refrigerator and laughed. “The poor guy probably just wanted to make himself a baloney sandwich… maybe pop open a can of beer… and all he could find here was your homemade cat food and… what the hell is this?” she said, shaking a jar of water that came alive with milky flakes like those in a snow globe.
“Kefir crystals,” I whispered, my eyes filling with tears.
“Oh, honey,” she said and grabbed me into a hug.
In dream interpretation, the house represents the self—body, mind, and spirit. All the way from the attic as the connection to one’s higher self down to the basement as the repository of the unconscious mind or intuition, every part of oneself can be found dispersed from room-to-room, creating the whole. The kitchen is known to be a place of nourishment and, ultimately, transformation. The fact that my earlier nightmare of a breach to the house, the self, the body, had been foisted upon me was really a gift. It was an urgent call to action in the archetypal language of the spirit world that I have come to deeply honor with gratitude. Guides or angels were there with me that night of the break-in, organizing my protection, as they have been with me many times since even if it has taken years of awareness and discernment to hear and heed their messages of trespass and protection.
Matt would be gone for a few more days. I couldn’t sleep at home without him there and stayed at my parents’ house with the cats. I was so shaken, I took the next day off from work to purchase dead bolts, flood lights, and Beware of Dog signs to put in all the basement windows. I couldn’t understand why my father was annoyed, dragging his feet about helping me install the new purchases. Then I realized it was Monday night. Football. He didn’t want to skip this religious service he had dedicated himself to for years. I wanted him to step up, to protect me, but the truth was that he had always been a provider not a protector. Maybe he saw me as I wanted the world to see me: The tough kid, a tomboy, a scraped-up girl who could take care of herself. The one who grew into a bride that refused to let her father walk her down the aisle and give her away. A woman who thought she might keep the world at bay with some extra padding of flesh on her bones.
But I was still a product of my culture, and I was still looking for a man to protect me.