Love Hurts

Do young people have social dances any more? I don’t have kids, so I honestly don’t know. But before cell phones, texting, social media – all the things that make it easy to plan for yourselves and/or socialize without leaving home, the dance floor was THE place to be. My church hosted one every few months, and in between, there were school dances, Teen Nights at grown-up clubs, dance parties at the Episcopal church…we were dancing nearly every weekend. We definitely could not relate to the anti-dance histrionics of “Footloose,” because our parents knew that if we were all thrown together in one room, a chaperone in every corner, a few stationed along the walls, and one weaving through the crowd to move errant hands, then a dance was the safest place in town.

As I have mentioned before, my social group was largely unchanged from kindergarten on up. I made other friends at school through the years who I loved just as much, but as far as Saturday nights went, I was with the same ten kids, give or take a few for disciplinary groundings, etc. So that’s who became our dance partners.

Our parents: “Tired of seeing this kid? Too bad, you’re dancing with him. No, there are no other options. This one’s a known entity. You can dance with him or you can sit down over there.” More or less.

Anyway, the pickings were slim. There was a group of nerds who clustered together and did the “California Raisin” dance to every song, and there was my mortal enemy who spent ages 6 to 35 trying to take me out, Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner style.

So that left “Eric.” He was taller than me, which was a plus. Good-looking, but I didn’t “like” – him – like -him, so there wasn’t any hormonal weirdness to contend with. He wasn’t caught up in the raisin dance and he wasn’t trying to throw dynamite at me. A catch! And an easy, low stakes dance partner.

But off the dance floor, things were harder for Eric and me. He was a part of the cool group, and I was in a… different group. I had it bad for his best friend, who thought I was an irritant at best and treated me accordingly. So, Eric was my friend away from school, and in school, he was something else. Meaner. Sharper.

But for some reason, at the time, that was okay. I didn’t know any better, and accepted it as the way things were. After all, if “Wile E. Coyote” could destroy my belongings, hurt me and be invited back over to do it some more, then what Eric did was nothing.

Anyway, I loved him. I still do.


After the drama of high school, we settled in to an easier, more friendly rapport.

But as some of us went on with our lives, learned about the larger world, made other friends and got a better sense of how relationships worked, Eric stayed the same. The last time Courtney and I saw him together, he took us to see where his trailer had burned down. He’d lost everything in an electrical fire, and was living in a half-finished shed behind his parents’ house. He did okay for a while. Proximity to his family was a good thing.

I saw Eric once more after that, in the late 90s. He was the last person I dropped off after a night out, and invited me to stay and catch up a little longer.

We sat in his parents’ garage into the wee hours, talking, smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio. Sometime just before sunrise, “Love Hurts” by Nazareth came on. Eric stood up and extended his hand to me. My old dance partner and I shared one last song, slow and even then, bittersweet.

In 2013 a friendly acquaintance and the object of many a schoolgirl crush was arrested on live TV, tackled to the ground in his driveway, charged and convicted with trafficking exploitative images of minors. We couldn’t believe it! Him? He was so nice! His family was great! You think you know someone.

Within a year, in a separate case Eric would be arrested, charged and convicted for a similar crime. Unless something changes, we will be in our sixties when he’s released.

When he was sentenced, I went down an internet rabbit hole and found five other familiar names in his prison system, for the same type of thing.

Maybe we don’t really know anyone.

It was hard to absorb. Even with all of his challenges and volatility, we always felt safe with Eric, at all hours of the night and in all situations. He had never laid a non-consensual hand on us in violence or otherwise. Maybe other young women had different experiences. I don’t know. I believe victims.

I won’t speculate on guilt or innocence because Eric was tried and convicted by a jury whose job was to do that. I’m not going to describe what he did or ascribe motive, because it’s not my story to tell. To say more would be disrespectful to his victim and the families involved.

But I can tell you what it did to me.


When you’re fourteen and someone says “this is your friend. This is your dance partner.” You don’t question it. “This is my friend,” you think. Once before a duet at church, Eric shared that his bestie had called me a “butt ugly b*tch.” (I was no such thing, not that it matters.) I bounced a peppermint candy off of his face, then we went on stage and sang our song. Beautifully. “This is your friend,” I had been told, my whole life. The implication was “Forgive him. Love him.” So that’s what I did.

I assumed that was just how it was, with certain types of friends.


My in-laws live in Houston, and when we drive there from Dallas, we pass the state penitentiary. I “wave” to Eric every time. Maybe that seems flip, but I don’t mean it to be. My husband doesn’t get it. How could he?

Every now and then, I think of sending a letter. Eric’s brother died by suicide when we were in junior high, the first domino to fall in many ways, for both of us. For years, Eric and I would leave notes on “Charlie’s” grave for the other to find. I’m not sure why, or how it started, or even if it was appropriate. But Eric and I had always found a way to communicate. It’s too hard now. I know my husband wouldn’t like it, and what would I even say? Even in offering love and friendship, I can’t absolve, which is different than forgiving. I certainly can’t forget and I know I can’t be part of Eric’s life anymore in any real way. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of it.

Looking back on the situation, I try to connect the dots to see if the way he treated me had anything to do with his choices as an adult. I’m sure there is some commonality, in terms of respect for women, respect for boundaries and the lack of consequences in our fairly insular culture, but I know that it’s more complicated than that, too because not every bully grows up to break the law.


All this to say: Love hurts? It’s not supposed to, not really. If someone’s not your friend in all situations then they’re not your friend. If someone punches your boyfriend, it’s like they’re punching you, and they know that. I know that now, too. Love them anyway and forgive them, but only if you feel like it. Set better boundaries. Put the best of your love somewhere else. Life is long and bigger than your dance floor. YOU choose your partners. There’s plenty of people out there happy to break your heart, in ways you can’t even imagine. You don’t have to break your own.


*I struggled a lot with whether or not to write this. I still am in touch with Eric’s family who are wonderful people and have been dealt an unfair hand. And as I mentioned, I still love Eric. But at the end of the day, he chose to do these things and it’s public record. I’m not speculating, editorializing or really adding anything new to the story. It helped me to write about it, and maybe it will help others who are in complicated situations, to know they’re not alone. Names have been changed, details lightly fictionalized.

Living in Oblivion

“Living in Oblivion” By Stephanie Khattak. Custom watercolor, gouache, acrylic gouache and metallic ink on paper.

I turned 43 this week, and that milestone paired with a head-spinning run of funerals and news of ill friends has me thinking about my purpose, specifically how it relates to my art and what I want to express through it, and how it can outlast me and hopefully help others.

I’ve been an “artist” consistently since I left my last corporate job in 2016, starting as something to occupy my mind between obstacle-course technical interviews and spur-of-the-moment airplane trips. So, in the beginning, I just drew what I liked, and mostly still do. But I’ve struggled with my “why” and “how much to share.” Many of my friends and connections are people from my hometown, or people who know one side of me – the good side.

But the more I think about it, the stories that I really want to tell – my stories and the stories of my peers – aren’t all good. But they’re so powerful and interesting.

There’s a trend lately in TV and movies about 90s nerds, but I don’t see my experience there. Don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely a 90s nerd. But not the funny, madcap type who solves everything by senior prom. I made horrible choices. I hurt people and prioritized people who hurt me, and honestly, at 43, I greatly miss the former and hardly even consider the latter. It wasn’t all roses, and it wasn’t an experience that can easily translate into “cringe humor.” And by that, I mean, sometimes young people died. I was flying without a net. There weren’t always happy endings, and there was no playbook for what my peers and I wrestled with, and in the era of the anti-helicopter parent, we were left to figure it out for ourselves, mostly. At sleepovers, our parents would throw pizza into our rooms then leave us alone to do whatever until sunrise, as long as no bones were broken. Like a “purge” scenario but make it alt-rock and landline based.

I have wanted to tell these stories, but haven’t known exactly how to do it. When I was in high school, I drew comics which have long been lost or tossed in my parents’ house. I think I had more nuance and bravery in my writing between 18 and 25 than I do now, for sure, and I hope I can get there again.

I am compelled to tell these stories now and it’s vitally important that no one gets hurt in the process. To address that, and to avoid the “you/she/I didn’t look like that” comments about the art, lets just say all this is “inspired by.” Names will be changed, along with major identifying characteristics. And, I promise, no one will come across worse than me in the telling.


So, the opening painting is “someone like me” in 1992 in a Babydoll dress that “an Auntie” made, knee socks and a cigarette. Yes, I’m putting a pearl-clutcher out there early. I smoked. And I loved cigarettes. My favorite were cloves, which tasted like Christmas as they shredded my lungs. Also, I was a truant.

My junior year of high school, I was on the newspaper staff and yearbook staff, both of which allowed us to leave campus for “ad sales” and honestly, half the time I’d just stay gone. Where I spent my time varied, but sometimes, in my infinite teenage wisdom, when my Dad was working the day shift, I’d go home and just hang out, forgetting that my house was surrounded by retired family members with a direct view of our garage. I’d smoke in my car and skip school and not think twice about anything beyond how cool I must look.

A few years later, my grandfather was coming out of surgery anesthesia and asked my mom if I still smoked. “Smoke? What are you talking about?” She thought it was funny that he would get that idea. I agreed. “Yeah, Poppa sure was out of it. Me, smoke? Hah. The rantings of an old man, for sure.” (For context, he was probably in his 60s at the time. And of course, his rantings were correct.)

And that’s the kind of stories I want to tell. Stories of being given just enough leeway to make my own decisions, and some of those decisions being stupid, and then clawing back from them successfully or less so. The stories of getting caught up in things you’re too young for and figuring it out on your own, and of outcomes good and bad. The thrill of discovering life, real life, for the first time. The joy of sleepovers and church dances and how it feels when the 90s hometown heartthrob who looks like a young Julian Sands meets you again in your twenties and how that goes for everyone when it’s real life and not a rom com. What it’s like as an adult to know that the person who called you names and tried to punch your high school boyfriend in order to hurt you is incarcerated for acts way worse than anything he ever did to you. What it’s like to look back in your 40s and realize that your frenemy, your biggest nemesis to date, is – plot twist – also the person responsible for many good parts of the life and perspective that you enjoy now.


I titled this post “Living in Oblivion” because of the 1990 Anything Box song. It was the first non-Top 40 music I had ever heard and in many ways, learning that there was music beyond what I heard on the radio opened the gate to everything that came after, in music and in life.

To sum up a very long post, these are the types of stories I’ll be telling in my art and words for a while. Motivational quotes are good and so are dress drawings and I’m sure I’ll be back to those soon enough. But this is who I am and why I am, and however complicated, this is what I am bringing to the table.

So, if you’re still with me, and I hope you are, please pull up a chair.

Mary, Untier of Knots

Our drive southwest was supposed to happen last year.

We reserved weekends twice, and hotels twice over the course of a few months. Each time, we were derailed by my father-in-law’s illness, which started out stressful but manageable, but steadily declined until he passed in July 2017. That seemed to kick off eight months of chaos, and when we finally planned our third attempt for travel, we did so holding our breath, afraid that this trip was just cursed, forever derailed by something confusing and awful that we could not control.

On the morning we left, our anxiety lessened as we drove further away from Dallas. By the time we arrived in Santa Fe, we had fully relaxed.

For the most part.

Not only did we lose my father-in-law last year, we also lost my husband’s bestie – the Pinky to his Brain, the mastermind to his sidekick or vice-versa depending on the day and the task at hand. Combine those devastating losses with the fact that I left my last full-time job in 2016 and just recently made the decision to start my own business after a year spent on airplanes going to stress-filled interviews for jobs I only kind of wanted, and you can see how vacation mode was still a bit out of our reach.

But we were happy. Our hotel room was amazing, quiet and private. We could walk to most places. We were in the tea house and chocolate shop  district (apparently). Everyone was nice. I mean, REALLY nice. It was good.

Friday afternoon, we walked down to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, an 1800s-era cathedral on the Santa Fe plaza.

It was just after Easter when we visited the basilica, and the sanctuary was filled with flowers and beautiful colors: symbols of rebirth common across many religious calendars at this time of year.

As I made my way through the sanctuary, I noticed in a statue in the corner that was festooned with purple ribbon. This was something I hadn’t seen before, so I stepped in for a closer look.

It was Mary Untier of Knots (aka Mary, Undoer of Knots), and each of her ribbons was attached to a prayer. There were so many! The words on the cards were private, so I didn’t look at them in any detail. But on one, the words “please don’t let him die” were visible in plain sight.

“Please don’t let him die.”

It was impossible to tell if the writer was male, female, young, old, or where they were from. It was just their prayer, their “knot.” This time last year, it could have been written by me. This time next year, or next month, or next week, it could be written by any of us. In researching Mary, Untier of Knots, I learned that she is invoked when we can’t solve things for ourselves, when the knots are too tight. When we ourselves do not see any solution.

Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we can agree that there is something powerful about letting go of an impossible burden. That was the beauty – and the clarity – of my personal experience in the basilica.

We hope someone will get better, but can’t guarantee they will. We hope our professional lives will stabilize, but who knows really. We hope our family and friends will be happy, but there’s no magic wand for that.  That’s reality. But there’s a solace in the act of tying those hopes to a statue and walking away from it, even for a moment. Thank you, Mary.