Editorial note: Certain identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.
I grew up in the South. Not only that, I grew up in the South with a mother who grew up in the 1950s. If you are familiar with that era and area of the country, you may understand that there were families in which you were raised to believe that you needed a man to “take care of you.” That was my family.
I came of age in the 1970s, the age of Ms. Magazine and Cosmopolitan, and my mother tried to go with the flow of the ERA and women in the workforce. She accomplished a lot for herself. She had wanted to be an attorney, but girls in the 1950s weren’t attorneys, they were teachers. She became a teacher and then, at 40, she got her Masters Degree in Education and became an administrator. But all the while, as she switched from skirts to knitted power pantsuits, she remained married to my abusive, alcoholic father; he was the man she met in college as a virgin and stayed with for over 25 years. He was the man who was supposed to take care of her.
Back then, women rarely left their husbands. You just didn’t leave. For any reason. You didn’t leave if he cheated on you and fathered a child with a local popular children’s TV show host, you didn’t leave if he got fired from his job for drinking and you had to support your family, and you didn’t leave him if you suspected he was molesting your daughter at night in the comfort of her bedroom, under the canopy that your mother, her grandmother, sewed for her.
So, in countless ways, it was drilled into me: You need a man, and you do not leave that man when you find him -- no matter what.
I survived a lot. I survived a life of alcoholism, drug addiction, PTSD, depression, and a load of surgeries for endometriosis that ended in a hysterectomy. I gained 60 pounds and went from a size 6 to a 14. And throughout those events, my mother would remind me (along with, “Don’t get fat”), “You will always need someone to take care of you.” The more I went through, the more she said it. To her, these weren’t triumphs, they were trials.
I came out on top, I made it through and I made the decision to try the big city on my own. I moved to New York City when I was 25. I had $500 and a temporary place to stay. I got the requisite waitressing job at an Uno’s and eventually found a roommate in Tribeca (before it was “Tribeca”). I was alone and lonely. I couldn’t let it last for too long. As strong and independent as I said I was, I was terrified without a partner. It was habit, it was instinct.
My future husband transferred to be Assistant Manager at my restaurant. He was so not my type. I liked artsy, long haired, creative types. Tom had his degree in Hospitality and Restaurant Management. He wore pleated slacks. He was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, a dreamy guy from Pennsylvania who seemed as straight as they come. He was attractive and he had a good sense of humor, but he was just not for me.
A few weeks into Tom’s tenure at Pizzeria Uno, one of our servers’ bands was playing at an Upper East Side bar and a group of us decided to go. Tom was there. I threw my leather jacket onto a pile of coats on a table and watched the band. Tom stood next to me and we chatted, off an on. At the end of the evening, I grabbed a black leather jacket off of the table and made a fateful discovery: one of our bartenders had the exact same jacket and had taken mine by mistake. My keys were in my jacket. My roommate was out of town. I was screwed.
Tom and I were both opening the store the next morning and he suggested I sleep over at his place on the couch, and as unprofessional (as chain restaurant codes go) as that would be, I agreed.
He lived on the Upper West Side, across Central Park. We walked through the park at 3 a.m., through the cold and fog. As I dodged rats darting in front of me, he sped ahead, and I laughed, “Hey, wait for me, huh?” He just kept telling me, “You gotta keep up.”
We got to his place. It was a tiny room in a three-bedroom apartment with a loveseat and a bed. The bathroom was down the hall. I curled up on the little couch and picked out the red flags: the stained carpet in the crappy apartment, the spines on a VHS series on hitting the real estate market, and his copy of The Satanic Bible and its companion… and I waited. He was taking forever in the bathroom. I could hear the shower running and as the time was ticking by, I joked to myself that he was masturbating.
He came out and crawled into his bed. “You took forever,” I said, “I thought you were jacking off.” There was silence and he said, “I was.”
Could it have gotten more romantic?
Now, the whole time all of this is going on, I kid you not, I was hearing my mom. She was saying, “He has a full-time job and insurance. What if something happens to you? You need someone to help pay your rent, your meds; you can’t take care of yourself. You get depressed. What if you get fired? What if you have another breakdown? This man is STABLE.”
I didn’t feel like I could escape it. It echoed in my head like that song you can’t shake, even though you hate that song so much you want to bang your forehead against a rail to stop it from repeating.
We started to date. I discovered many things about Tom. For example, he claimed to be a Satanist, he loved Slayer, and, when he got mad, he’d grab me a little too hard. He would subtly insult me, walk fast ahead of me, dragging me along, tell me I was beneath him and always try to get me to find another girl for a three-way. He would remind me how great I would look if I lost 20 pounds and grew my hair long. He had insurance. He had a full-time job. He paid the rent. I figured I was taking the bad with the good.
And he was there. That’s the only way I can put it. Tom was there. Despite feeling as though I was living with my tail between my legs, I was set. I had done the one thing right that I had been schooled to do: find a caretaker. I never graduated high school or college, I couldn’t have children, I didn’t have a career, but, boy, did I find someone to help me stay stocked in psych meds.
Three months later, his lease was ending and we decided to get an apartment together. I cared about him; I saw a sweet side to him. Tom wasn’t a bad guy. Actually, deep down, he was probably as messed up as I was.
We went to see his family in Philadelphia. We went to a baseball game and then to an antique shop, where he bought me a ring. Tom asked me to marry him while we swung on his parents’ porch swing. Not bended knee, but I didn’t care.
My mother was thrilled.
So, we planned a wedding to occur back down home.
My mother decided she wanted to pay for almost the whole thing. My brother’s best friend was an award-winning chef and he was catering. I found a beautiful dress for under $600. I was going to wear roses in my hair and in my bustle. This was it. I wouldn’t have to worry ever again about the inevitable day when I lost my mind and my job, gave up on ever having an acting or writing career and stayed at home, depressed and preparing healthy meals for my hubby. Because I felt my future was always teetering on that moment.
I spent the night at the B & B that was our wedding venue while Tom went out with his best man, my brother and some other guy friends. “Just no strip clubs,” I begged. We'd had an incident at a NY peep show that he went to with his best man, Marc, months before. I won’t go into details, but it involved tokens and him showing his penis to a peep show girl. He thought it was hilarious. I thought I was the only one who should see his penis. A fight ensued.
The morning of the wedding, my dress was hanging on an open armoire door, draped like a white brocade confection. I remember being grateful for the long tulle sleeves, because I hated my arms so much. I remember the sun peeking through the windows and worrying that I would fall coming down the steps in my dress.
I heard a knock at the door. Through the schmutz in my eyes, I saw Tom come into the room. “No, no, no,” I said, “You can’t see me. It’s the wedding day. You can’t see me.” He had tears in his eyes and he knelt down next to the bed and he said, “I love you.” I was still in sleep mode. “Okay,” I said.
“Remember how you asked me not to go to a strip club last night?”
“Uh huh,” I said, still not awake.
“Well, I did.” A tear dripped down his face.
“And remember how you asked me not to ever get a lap dance?”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“Well, I did.”
“Okay.” That seemed to be my pat answer for the day.
He stammered “A-a-and then…then I had sex with the stripper.”
All sound seemed to fade away. A breeze came in from the balcony and made my dress billow. That dress was paid for by my mother. My mother was paying for everything. My mother wanted me to get married so badly. Everything was ready. Everything was set. What was I going to do?
Tom was crying softly by my side. “Please. Please can we start over?”
As my head spun back into the room, the shock settled in and I said the only thing that came into my mind.
By the end of the day, we were married and driving to New Orleans, then to Gulf Shores, then to Orlando for our honeymoon. Of course, as we sped down I-10, I suddenly turned to him and screamed, “You WHAT?!!?”, as though I had paused the moment when he told me, gotten hitched, and then un-paused the movie to continue our conversation.
We argued and he won because I had, indeed, agreed to start fresh and start over after the confession. And, lucky me, he explained that he had felt sorry for the poor stripper and wanted to help raise her self-esteem by going down on her in the Champagne Room and then having intercourse. I guess a $20 tip wasn’t enough. “How thoughtful,” I remember snarking, “Good for you, honey.”
It's amazing what you will put up with when you are terrified of being alone.
In Gulf Shores, I neglected to put sunscreen on my legs and got burned so badly on the back of them that I couldn’t walk. Tom made me crawl around the rented condo to learn my lesson about forgetting sunscreen. The blood would rush to my legs when I stood and it was like needles, but he wouldn’t help me walk. At Disney World, he left me for half a day because I wouldn’t ride the Aerosmith Rockin’ Rollercoaster with him.
Back in New York, I started performing with a group of improvisers. I felt very happy and alive. Tom's verbal abuse got worse and one night, he grabbed me so hard, he left bruises. Shortly after that, he forced me to have sex with him. Shortly after that, perhaps sensing he was losing me, he hit me.
And then, I left.
I moved into an apartment with a friend in Queens and I only came back to get my things.
My marriage had lasted six weeks.
My mother called me. “What are you doing,” she cried, “You can’t leave him. He is taking care of you.”
“Mom. He hit me,” I said.
She screamed at me, “So what? He has insurance.”
Eventually, I became successful in my career. I loved and lost and loved some more and I got my own frigging insurance. But even if I didn’t, I was still in charge.
A few years ago, Tom found me and sent me an email. I had long forgiven him, it had been over 10 years. Turns out, he was a born-again Christian and happily living in Florida, managing a Chili’s. He said he was no longer behaving the way he had during our relationship.
We both acted out in our own way. I can’t be angry at him, or myself -- I just take the lesson learned. We send a Christmas card to each other every year.
I still think of my mother and her reaction to the ending of my six-week marriage from time to time. Of course, I knew she wouldn’t understand. I didn’t expect her to understand.
Over time, I slowly learned to take care of myself. I learned to like the quiet. I enjoyed sleeping alone.
And I waited for the day when someone would love me the way that I was, all messed up and fantastic, and not try to change or fix me. And I now knew that if that never happened, I wouldn’t fall apart.