One called-off engagement, three attempted breakups, five different cities, a six-year age difference, and seven years of him-shaped destruction.
It was one of those crazy romance-novel things; tumultuous, intense, codependent. The kind that looks a lot like this epic love story until it veers into afterschool special territory. You know that girl who can’t bring herself to file charges, that girl who marries him anyway, that girl who refuses to leave?
It’s so easy to feel disdain for that girl until you are that girl.
The first time he touched me I managed to wait until he left the party before bursting into tears. It was, not coincidentally, the first time I had ever been drunk--- he arranged the supplies for the mostly-underage gathering. I spent the rest of the night hugging the toilet, fairly certain I was dying and not entirely sure I was opposed.
He didn’t try again until I was 15. Until he’d plied my stomach with the Bailey’s Irish Cream that seemed to make sick sense of his sweaty hands exploring my body. It went down so easy, that hazy relief of relinquishing control. The double intoxication of the forbidden and the obscene, the false power trip of a teenage girl in love with her own effect on men. I was so ready to believe that I was special that I rewrote the whole thing in my head. Mature for my age, irresistible, star-crossed.
So it wasn’t the end.
There was thunder and lightning the night he first said he loved me. It had already begun to pour when he picked me up and twirled me around and yelled it at the top of his lungs: “I love you I love you I love you I love you.” We were soaked through, laughing like crazy people. I was 16 and I thought my heart would explode in my chest.It’s like that when you’re 16.
I was 17 when he proposed to me onstage during the final curtain call of a community theater Music Man; we played the leads. He called my father on someone else’s phone backstage in a half-assed nod to tradition, but my father was too stunned to summon any kind of coherent dissuasion. By the time it sank in and he called back angry and swearing, my imminently-to-be fiancé was already pulling the little velvet box from his pocket.
When I turned 18 a few months later, we made plans for him to follow me to San Francisco for my freshman year of college. We kept separate apartments but spent every night together anyway. Naturally my roommates hated him; we were the special kind of inconsiderate you only see in the truly self-absorbed. We tried to keep the fighting to ourselves, but those things never stay quiet. As I picked up the pieces of a shattered lamp after a particularly loud altercation, I was mortified, angry that he’d been so indiscreet. My roommates kneeled next to me, trying to understand. Why was I putting up with this? Why stay?
There was never any other option -- he was everything. It had long surpassed love; he was a basic necessity. He was heart-grafted; he was oxygen, blood. Nothing gets under your skin quite like first love mixed with sex, violence, and adolescent trauma.
When he hits you, it’s not abuse. That word doesn’t apply to you. The fight just became too heated, the argument got out of hand. Because he throws himself at your feet and sobs into your lap with his arms around your waist and begs you to forgive him because he loves you to distraction. You make him crazy. And a small sick part of you feels lucky that someone would rather tear you to pieces than let you go.
We started planning the wedding that winter; made the Grace Cathedral deposit for the following summer. The reception hall was booked at a nearby hotel and the photographer and a swing band were hired. After an exhausting search, I found the perfect creamy ball gown with silk buttons up the back. Sometimes I still wonder who ended up wearing it down the aisle, gathering it in her hand to dance with her loved ones, unzipping it for her new husband. We called off the wedding shortly before the invitations were sent out and had to eat the financial cost of the deposits; the dress among them.
When I transferred to another school in New York, it was agreed that he wouldn’t follow. We kept up a strange pseudo-relationship via phone calls and emails and the occasional visit that ended in bruises and blurry airport goodbyes. We saw other people but knew better than to talk about it, and eventually things slowed to a trickle. Distance has a way of numbing the process.
The last time I ever saw him, he’d flown me out to Oregon for my junior year spring break. He had a whole new life there; an office, a house, a car, friends I’d never met. He’d changed, too -- talked obsessively about quinoa and urban farming and ruthlessly mocked my Diet Coke habit; a real-life "Portlandia" skit before there was such a thing. Still, things between us were fairly “normal” until the day we started arguing about some guy I’d been seeing back home.
I don’t remember the details; it was always the same jealousy anyway. He shoved me into the wall, grabbed my throat with both hands and squeezed until I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know if he was trying to kill me in that moment or not; I very much doubt there was anything in his head but blind rage.
Nothing feels as frustrating, as dehumanizing, as unbelievably impotent as being physically overpowered when you’re using every ounce of your strength to fight back. It makes you want to give up, give in to the gradually slowing pulse of your jugular and let it take you away from him.
After he released me, I realized my head was bleeding. He’d pushed me into the corner of a shelf and neither of us had noticed. I was terrified; obviously a head injury meant certain death. I pleaded with him to take me to the hospital but he refused; said he’d leave me alone, go away, stay in a hotel.
I can still feel the hollow ache I got in my belly when he said that. Please. Don’t leave me. It’s a goddamn fucked up world when the person who hurt you is the only one who can make you feel better.
What follows is a blur of tears and flashing lights and police reports. The kind female cop who questioned me took me to the hospital while the other officers searched for him. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but if I could’ve gotten away with it I’d have asked them not to. I didn’t realize I’d have to tell these strangers about our relationship, about the fight. Didn’t realize everything would get so official so quickly.
It’s beyond humiliating to detail exactly how the man you love wrapped his hands around your throat and strangled you. To pose for documented evidence of the rosy finger-sized bruises around your neck. Hard to pretend it never happened if the Oregon state police have it on record.
They arrested him when they found him, which somehow made it all real in a way it never was before. His father called the next morning and asked if I wanted to relay a message. Tell him I love him, I said. I’ll always love him. And I’m sorry.
Can you believe that? I’m sorry. I’m sorry he had to go to jail, I’m sorry I got him in trouble. His father told me he’d said the same thing, that he’d always love me. I left Oregon two days later with five staples in my head (to my great relief, I did not set off the metal detectors in the airport).
The staples were removed by medical professionals a few weeks later. The extraction of him was much more difficult; the surgery imprecise. Bits of him are still left behind: memories that ache, flashbacks that throb, painful scabs I have to keep from picking. The shelf-shaped dents in my scalp don’t begin to compare to the lies he etched inside my skull. So many years of creating my own relationship battlefields to mount full-scale dramatic reenactments. The wars I lost on purpose and the patterns so obvious that even I could spot them.
But I don’t think about him every day like I used to. The unflagging loyalty I felt for so many years has long been replaced by a hard, roiling knot of fury. You know how they say you need to forgive to be truly free, or whatever? Fuck that. It feels delicious to let myself be angry after all those years complicit in my own betrayal.
These days I fall asleep next to a man who’s good to me, who makes me laugh and cooks me dinner and meets the anger inside me with superhuman patience. I know that I’ll never find peace in other people, and in my darker moments the you-don’t-deserve-this whispers get so loud. But he’s given me a safe place to take a breath before heading into battle. I am warmed by the fire he ignites in me, not incinerated.
Because nobody deserves the kind of “love” you have to explain to five police officers and three emergency room physicians.