"Aw, come on!" I whine, entering my friend's college apartment. My old gang's all here, clad in their usual button-downs, skinny jeans, and Vans sneakers. It's Halloween. Nobody is dressed up.
This is the first time I'm seeing them all since graduation, and I am the pink and blue sore thumb in the room, dressed as Harley Quinn.
"It's Halloween," I remind them.
I thought, at best, my costume would be my armor. At worst, I'd feel naked, mostly because I practically am, in hot pants and a midriff-baring tee, but drinking and catching up in costume is almost normal. I'm babbling about my real-life job and the difficulty of finding time to write, but, like always, I am unable to stop my cotton candy–colored eyes from sweeping the room. Surely any of my friends can smell the anxiety on me, as strong as the hairspray and Sharpie fumes.
Then it happens.
"Good thing Nick's not coming," a friend says, somehow directing the comment both to the "Daddy's Lil Monster" lettering on my T-shirt and the entire room.
Even if part of me sees it coming, it hurts like a supervillain gut punch, just a little. Nick.
"Come on, that was years ago. Really?" I respond, lipsticked mouth agape in comical shock.
I'm not exactly lying.
It was years ago to everyone else. Nick and I dated for what felt like a fate-sealing three months in our freshman year of college, but even when we broke up and he effectively dropped out, it didn't end. Every couple of months, he returned, and with him came the feeling that I had been holding my breath, waiting for him. Showing up at this party had taken considerable strength. Any friendly get-together post-relationship has involved routine online sleuthing, dodgy questions, and planning escape routes. What if he's there?
The phone in my hand buzzes with phantom vibrations. This is a side effect of Nick. His harassment via phone had been a constant — sometimes 30 texts in a night, 10 missed calls. It used to make me dizzy, all that love. After graduation, I told him that I had no intention of seeing or speaking to him again. I blocked him, but he kept calling from different numbers until I was forced to change mine. My friends don't know that sometimes I have to count the days since, like a parched alcoholic. My life has become unmanageable...
With one blue-smeared eye on the door, I can't help but imagine how it would go if he were to appear. I know that the costume would only make it worse if Nick shows up; he was never keen on any expression of sexuality on my part, and this costume surely counts. After four years, I know his game. I thought I could win by forgetting.
In my second semester of college, as my boyfriend, he tried to tell me what I could and could not wear, evaded questions about himself while pressuring me to divulge every detail about my past and day-to-day life, and acted inexplicably cold, only to text me sweet apologies as soon as he left. After our breakup, he was prone to outbursts during which he'd yell at me for the most innocent of things: bumming a drag of a friend's cigarette, popping into our friend's dorm during band practice, asking the gang to the dining hall with me. "Can't you see that we're busy?!" This birthed what he and the boys insisted was a fun inside joke. My walking into a room, my entering a conversation, my singing along to a Spotify song was met with a rounding chorus of "Bridget, shut up!" (Today, I still wince when anyone says it to me: my mother, a new friend, an unsuspecting coworker.)
My friends waved all this off, reasoning that Nick just wasn't ready for a real relationship and I was the one who was causing drama. I was the crazy girl. I thought I could overcome all of Nick's hurdles and insults and appeal to the sad, sweet boy who texted me after every angry explosion: I'm sorry and I only treat you that way because I care about you so much. I hoped we'd get back together; he was so close to really loving me. It hurt, fighting off the knowledge that I was the joke.
The horrifying thing is how I acted like the whole cycle of abuse was just another hilarious episode in the TV show that was my life or a juicy piece of gossip. His threats of physical violence, the gaslighting, the moment when he told me, alone together in the woods at night, "You never know when I might snap"... Those moments were pushed away as I began to believe that I was crazy, that I brought his cruelty upon myself. I pretended I was fine with it all, a clown's smile painted over my own colorless face.
Now I'm still waiting for the feeling of relief that should come with being free of him. I still can't understand that maybe, finally, he won't be a part of my life. Somewhere along the way I was convinced that Nick returned whenever I was about to enter a better phase of my life, a new installment, and that I needed him, my motivation, my plot, my antagonist, all in one. He always provided.
He didn't throw me into a vat of Ace chemicals, bleaching my skin and making me insane, but sometimes it felt like he might as well have.
I have always felt a kinship with Harley Quinn. I had loved Batman: The Animated Series as a kid and, in high school, Harley's jester costume appealed to my punk phase. Older now, I recognize that an important common thread is always the feeling of being constantly undermined by those around us. We are and were both excitable, cutesy, with our hearts on our sleeves. Then, with Nick in my life, I understood the scope of sadness, rejection, and confusion that accounts for Harley's main motivation, her life of crime. There is a darkness brewing under all the jokes and bubblegum that turned into a reckless rage, all of which I felt because of Nick. I was angry at him, rushing to bury him under other guys I could force myself into loving, but, all the while, I was convinced that whoever I thought I was, and whoever I turned out to be, was born to die with Nick, with his pale hands, with his wide smile.
I had, in rare moments of Dr. Harleen Quinzel–type clarity, tried my best to crack him, to psychoanalyze him. Upon googling traits of a sociopath, I found he met almost every requirement; traits of an abusive partner, even more so. He was playing a game that was bigger than me, and I was sometimes his henchgirl and most times his pawn. Like the Joker, he was dependent on my love for him, but he was incapable of loving me in return. During my time with him, I did not know this, and I soon only saw a funhouse mirror version of myself, distorted from his erratic affection, his humiliation tactics, his tricks used to turn the blame of our failed relationship solely on me.
Drawing a comparison between Harley and me allows me to forgive myself for what happened with Nick and accept myself for who I am: a feminist with flaws, a theatrical, awkward girl with a need to be listened to and loved, and who sometimes trusts the wrong people. The intrinsic comparison of Nick to Mr. J allowed me to see him for who he really was as I had known him: an egomaniac and a cold, pathological liar with a past he preferred to be multiple choice. Not exactly a "crown prince of crime," but dangerous nonetheless.
Seeing the cycle of her abusive relationship with the Joker in brash, hyperbolic art form, from the animated series to Suicide Squad, validates me in a way my own writing cannot. I still have trouble finding the words. What's more, the dark humor infused in their relationship allows me to laugh in a way that I need. My ex-boyfriend telling me to kill myself is not funny, but the Joker trying to launch Harley off in a rocket is. The over-the-top scenarios speak to the extremes I had felt, the humor undermining the seriousness in a way that levels me. I can watch the old Animated Series, read the graphic novels, and watch Suicide Squad with permission to feel all the fucked-up things I felt for Nick — the excitement, the misplaced love, the fear and drama — without contacting him, without putting myself in psychological danger.
Catharsis with pigtails and face paint, choosing to dress up as Harley makes me feel powerful. Now, I stand on our old turf, surrounded by friends that I kept despite Nick's best efforts, in a flashy costume I knew I'd have never dared wear in front of him. At the party, my phone slumbers in my hand, undisturbed by him. I am armed with the knowledge that, when he finally called to say that he loved me this past summer, he only said it to make me come back to him. It didn't work. I finally feel like I can beat my obsession with him and the relationship that scarred me, bat swinging, stiletto kicking. I am happy without Nick. It looks like the joke's on him.