By C.K. Dawson
I wish I could call Kristin up and have a little heart to heart. It wouldn’t be the first or even hundredth time I’ve heard a similar story from friend, about a man love-bombing her from the get-go, detailing a series of intense highs when they talk or meet, and then the confusion and drama that ensues. Erlend feels inexpressively modern to me: asserting his love for Kristin, but in the same breath endangering her livelihood by the standards of the day, seeking her as possession rather than seeking her good. His promises and reassurances sound eerily similar to the wishful thinking of the myriad of boys I dated in the decade before my marriage: saying a lot of lovely things that they themselves wanted to believe, but to which they already suspected they could not live up. Erlend pulls Kristin into the mess of his affairs, puts her on a pedestal, calling her his “only joy” while expressing disgust and annoyance for his previous mistress and the mother of his children. Any girl on a dating app in the modern age could enumerate to Kristin the myriad of red flags Erlend waves at her from the beginning.
One such claim he makes to her is that mutual vows make a couple sacramentally married in the eyes of the Church, a claim all the more insidious because it’s true, actually. It’s one of my favorite things about my own Catholic marriage, that this sacrament was not performed by the priest, but by myself and my husband. The priest was merely a witness. Even a witnessing priest is unnecessary depending on extenuating circumstances. Marriage is a covenant a couple makes before God– no more, no less. Yet Brother Edvin is correct when he tells Kristin that Erlend has misled her on this point, not because the theology is not correct, but because Erlend and Kristin herself are not free to make such vows. Erlend’s prior life has bonded him to a host of constraints, expectations, and conditions that preclude him from being able to enter into sacramental marriage, and Kristin is betrothed to someone else.
Worse still, when their attraction is initially consummated, the interlude lacks the sensuality of a passionate affair and rings more of assault: Erlend simply takes what he wants. Kristin’s passivity is considered consent by Erlend, but her ensuing emptiness, depression, and pain are not the hallmarks of a woman owning her sexuality and desire in a repressive era.
Most of the men I dated before marriage, (interestingly it didn’t matter whether they were secular or protestant or Catholic themselves) felt vindicated in insisting on more physical intimacy than with which I was comfortable. My desire was consent enough; my principles just something that needed to be argued away. They failed to see that compromises on that front, reluctantly given, were not victories for my freedom or womanhood, but defeats of my ownership of my body and choices. There is a striking difference between those sexual experiences and those I chose freely and eagerly, even when they did contradict my ideals. Guilt for a sin freely chosen is easily remedied; guilt for a sin you were bullied into can become a tangle that takes ages to unravel. Worse still is when that kind of twisted encounter is with someone who claims to care for you, as Erlend does for Kristin.
Erlend pursues Kristin with a disregard not only for her best interest, but for her own agency. Kristin feels connected to Erlend, she loves him, but her feelings, observations, and decisions in the affair are marked by helplessness. This is not a woman choosing her own pleasure and delight over the expectations and demands of the day, but a woman agonizing over an attraction that holds her captive, and the beliefs she holds dear, beliefs that are arguably central to her identity and peace.
C.K. Dawson is a writer for Verily Magazine with her MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Breakwater Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine’s Review, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in the hills just outside Los Angeles.