Even if you say you haven’t, we’ve all exercised bad judgment at some point in our lives.
Maybe you blindly threw an empty vodka bottle off the balcony and it smashed into the windshield of a car below. Or maybe you cut your own bangs while you were drunk, fell asleep with a lit cigarette in your fingers (more than once) or spent four years getting an MA in art history (so applicable to real life!).
Well, on top off all those wonderful life decisions, I am also guilty of seriously bad relationship judgment. But I’m not going to talk about the 50-year-old "writer," or my professor, or even the weird Internet guys. I’m going to talk about the abusive guy. The one I stayed with for two years of my life, caught in a horrible, all-consuming, swirling fog of guilt.
In my drunken head, he looked like Canadian songwriter and owner of my teenage heart, Gord Downie. Baseball cap, jeans, three-day beard scruff, old T-shirt. But the fact that he physically resembled the dream husband of my youth was only half the attraction. He was a grad student in painting, where I was an undergrad in art history. He belonged to the coveted circle of paint-splotches-on-their-Asics, cigarette-smoking, studio-dwelling men (and sometimes a few women) who supervised our exams and drank beers at 2pm in the grad lounge.
Aside from on campus, we’d have HGS (Hot Grad Student) sightings around our small university town that we’d manically text each other about: "Saw your HGS by the fountain, he was wearing that green sweater with the holes."
At some point, I ran into him at the local bar. I asked if he was hungry, he said yes, so we left and got some gyros. He asked me to hold his gyro while he went to pee in the alley and when he reached for it back, I kissed him. We made out in the alley while other drunk students peed all around us. Ah, university.
What followed were a few weeks of getting drunk and smoking in his one bedroom apartment, which was coincidentally right across the street from mine. We sat on the carpet and watched movies on his television set, which was so old it looked like a spaceship and was perched atop a cardboard box. The coffee table was also a cardboard box. The ceiling was yellow from nicotine. We slept on his disgusting futon on the floor in the corner of the room. We ate bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches. It was heaven!
It wasn’t long until some red flags began a-waggin’. At first they were droopy red flags, like, "Oh, you eat bologna & mayo sandwiches every day? I thought that was just for fun." As well as the whole lack-of-furniture, cigarette-butts-all-over-the-carpet aspect of his apartment. Whatever, he’s an artist, I thought.
Then the flags caught some wind. Getting kicked out of bars for breaking glasses and dancing on tables (he was 34, folks) and forgetting about dinner dates because he’d been drinking since noon.
About a month into our relationship, I graduated school and moved to a city about 45 minutes away. Even though he helped me move my stuff (use your resources, girls), I was pretty noncommittal toward the relationship. I started dating someone else in the city. I didn’t tell either of them about each other. Big, huge, naive, selfish mistake. I know. But I was all, "I have a BA in art history, bitches! Imma live it up like Diego Rivera!" Right.
HGS boyfriend found out, I’m still not sure how, and was pretty upset. He didn’t go overboard though, probably because he was saving that for every day of my life for the next two years. So, I broke it off with city boyfriend because I wasn’t really into him anyway, then I took the Greyhound to meet with HGS boyfriend, thinking I’d end things with him, too.
I met him at a bar. He was clearly hurt, but we had a nice conversation over the course of maybe five or six pints of beer each. I said it was too late to take the Greyhound home, so we walked to his house. The truth was, he had on this ripped T-shirt and smoked his cigarettes like Tom Waits and it convinced me to fight to be with him. I also noticed that he was articulate, emotional and fucking hilarious. All irresistible qualities. Sold!
As soon as we got into his apartment, I sat on the carpet (no furniture, remember?) and lit a cigarette. He crouched in front of me and slapped it out of my mouth. He started yelling. Mostly I remember a lot of, "No slut is ever allowed to treat me this way," and, "You better be fucking seriously a changed fucking person who could never fucking cheat on me again."
I was shocked, but my guilt over hurting him made me feel he was justified in acting this upset. I had never been cheated on that I was aware of but I could imagine how bad it hurt. I’m not sure what happened next, but I probably said "I’m sorry" a million times and then we probably had sex and went to sleep.
I stayed in town with him for a few more days. It was a particularly hot summer and his apartment only had one small window. Obviously, he didn’t have a fan. We sat on the bed and smoked, sweated and talked. He did a lot of yelling and asking me to explain myself. He wanted details about city boyfriend. How many times had we had sex? Had we used a condom? Did I give him head? Did he hug me while we slept? Painful details.
I tried to be honest. He kept getting more and more upset. I wanted him to be happy, I wanted our relationship to have a fair shot. I was too immature to realize that he was likely not going to be able to get over what I had done, and that I was probably not ready to be in a serious relationship if I had slept with someone else anyway.
One of the mornings, I woke up early and his naked skin was bluey-white from the dawn sun and his closed eyes just had this exquisite vulnerability to them. I woke him up and told him I loved him. He said he loved me, too. We agreed that we were willing to work through this. We hugged, we cried, and our tears soaked the pillow we shared. It was one of those intensely beautiful moments that you wish someone would film or photograph because it was so pure it hurt your heart.
Weeks went by and he wouldn’t call me his girlfriend. He wouldn’t give me any confirmation that we were "together." We were perpetually in a state of "maybe" and "we’ll see." His moods were so erratic that on any given morning I wouldn’t know if I’d wake up to an e-mail from him saying he never wanted to talk to me again, or saying that he missed me.
I spent every day with a heavy, unmovable lump of anxiety in my stomach. I wasn’t eating and I was drinking a lot. I missed classes. I was in a constant state of holding back tears. The inside of my bottom lip would bleed from me biting it to stop from crying in embarrassing places. I threw up on the subway, in the bathroom, at work, once in a grocery store. I should have left him. He should have left me.
We would talk on the phone every night for 3 or 4 hours. Usually the conversation began with us discussing our days (him sober), progressed to him grilling me about every boy I had talked to (him getting drunk) and concluded with an hour or so of me crying and desperately trying to convince him I would never hurt him again.
My friends started getting concerned. They had never liked him, but the more details of our midnight to four am phone calls I released to them, the more they hated him. I should have listened. Instead, I stayed with him for another year, and it got worse.
The majority of the abuse was emotional. Sometimes I was a fucking slut, sometimes I was a stupid bitch whore, sometimes my friends were fat, ugly cunty bitches. For a long time, he wouldn’t visit me; I’d have to go to him. I spent hundreds on the bus. I knew all the bus drivers. My friendships suffered.
When I finally bought a new mattress at his request (because I had slept with other men on my old one), he came to visit. He got overwhelmed. He sat on a milk crate in the corner of my bedroom, crouched by the window smoking cigarettes, drinking beer after beer. He’d throw the empty cans at the walls, at my lamp, at my bookshelf. I’d sit on the bed and say sorry. I’m so sorry.
He finally graduated and moved to my city. We didn’t live together. He lived in a basement apartment with another artist that was only sort of habitable for human life. His drinking increased, my drinking increased. It became our most important expense.
One night he came over to my apartment four hours late for dinner. I was sad. He was drunk. He started throwing things around. I had a collection of coffee mugs, all with different drawings of hearts on them. He broke them all. He also broke several chairs on my balcony and some miscellaneous plates. I locked myself in the bathroom and called my friend on my cell phone. He kicked down the door, grabbed my phone and smashed it against the brick fireplace. I told him to leave. He said if he left, he was going to fuck this girl he worked with (he worked at a bar) and never talk to me again. It worked. I shut up.
In the morning, he got his sister to send him some money to buy me a new phone. He swore it would never happen again. I didn’t tell anyone.
My therapist had begun spending our sessions trying to convince me that he was abusive. She gave me checklists, essays, stories, whatever she could find. I maintained that maybe he wasn’t behaving in the best way possible, but I had done something horrible and unforgivable to him and I had to wait for him to get over it if I wanted to be with him. There was no changing my mind.
The abuse finally reached its darkest level. He had been drinking beer and whiskey, a combination I had learned was extra bad for him. Around three am, we were sitting in his kitchen talking with his roommate. His roommate eventually went to bed and he accused me of flirting. We argued. He grabbed my arm and made me go into his bedroom. There, under the exposed pipes, leaning against the wood-paneled wall, we fought until the sun was visible through his curtains (a.k.a. an old black T-shirt).
He punched a hole through the middle of his favorite painting. Worried that he was going to become more destructive, I ran to the kitchen, took his last two beers from the fridge and poured them into the sink. When he realized what I’d done, he yelled, "You fucking bitch," picked up a thick wooden cutting board and threw it at me.
I ran. I hid in an alley and called my friend obsessively until she picked up. She told me to go home, lock the door and turn off my phone.
I didn’t turn off my phone, but I did lock my door. He called me five times before I picked up. I let him in. We didn’t speak, just went to sleep. It was around eight am. He held me so tightly. I wondered how it could be so unfair that though he was the one who hurt me, he was the only one who could make me feel better.
When we finally woke up, we silently had sex. He had to cover up my massive bruise, which was growing bigger and more purple by the hour, with some blankets.
I wish I could say that was the fight that ended our relationship, but it wasn’t. There is a complicated, frightening pull involved in an abusive relationship. If you’ve ever swum in the ocean and felt the undertow drag you out against your will, it is a very similar feeling. I felt very strongly that people do make terrible mistakes. I had. I felt I was responsible for staying with him because he had stayed with me. I felt like physical abuse was complicated and not so black and white.
The ending was oddly uneventful. We just slowly stopped talking. We didn’t fight anymore, but we seemed to have lost the intense intimacy that had previously held us together. No more blue mornings. Eventually, he started seeing someone else, I started seeing someone else. No explosive fight, no stalking, no police calls. It just ended.
Now that I’m older, sober, stable and in a healthy relationship, I understand love a bit better. I understand respect much more.
HGS and I haven’t spoken in several years, despite him reaching out to me a few times for forgiveness. I occasionally wonder if I should have gone down the domestic abuse avenue. You know, with the police and criminal charges, etc. I mean, yeah, I think he’s a jerk, but do I need to ruin the rest of his life over one drunken mistake? Half of me says, "Hell no, the system is so fucked up anyway," and the other half says, "Maybe I should have done it, at least to warn his future girlfriends." I’m still not sure. I trust he learned from his mistake, but I’d hate to think he’s hurt another woman and that I could have helped prevent it.
In hindsight, he looked nothing like Gord Downie.