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Friday, October 26, 2007

In the past

The last time someone screamed in my face and raised his hand to me, it was nine years ago—almost nine years ago exactly, and thinking about it still knocks the wind out of me.

When I moved to Chicago, I started working part-time at a cafe to meet people and make friends. I loved it. It was a Northwestern hangout, so most of the customers and workers were college students, but one night an older guy came in for coffee. I could tell he was probably about my age.

He was wearing a Dublin tee-shirt, and I asked him about it. Turned out he had studied there during college, too, so we talked about our Ireland experiences.

I remember that night so clearly. I wasn't a coffee drinker because I couldn't handle the caffeine, but for some reason I was hopped up on it that night. I was having fun and flirting with all the customers. The other worker wandered over and wondered who I was talking to, and I made a joke about Ireland or cute boys or something. I only worked once or twice a week, so I was excited to go back, hoping to see this guy again. It was a few weeks until I did, but he seemed to recognize me, and we sat and talked. Kevin was an aspiring writer, like me. We had a lot to talk about. A few meetings later, he gave me his phone number, but I didn't call him because I had a boyfriend.

I later found out he had gone to the cafe every day after our meeting in hopes of seeing me again. Not because he thought I was cute (though of course he did) but because whatever I had teased him about had angered him to distraction. He prepared a cut down for me, and went back to the cafe to use it on me. As days passed without seeing me, his anger lessened, and then I was so friendly and interesting when we spoke for the second time, he decided to save it.

(I didn't know that until deep into our relationship. I wonder if it would have made a difference if I had known earlier.)

For we did start dating. He was intelligent and witty, could debate about anything. I was skittish, though, not wanting to commit to anyone after the recent breakup with somebody I had loved. We slept together for the first time on Halloween afternoon of 1998, and lying in bed afterwards, I said, "You know we're not exclusive, right?" That evening I went to a party, made out with a much older man, and started dating him as well.

If I had to articulate it, I'd have said I didn't particularly like Kevin that much, if at all, and used my last breakup as an excuse to end things right before Christmas. There was just something about him that was dark and ugly and hurtful, and I could feel it. I didn't like him and I didn't like myself when I was around him. The breakup lasted a few weeks, though. I was lonely and needed a friend. There was also something about him that drew me near, something that made me overlook the darkness.

We got back together and got serious immediately. I got drunk at a blues club and said, "I love you."

"I know," he said.

Then came the day things changed for good. He lent me his car so I could drive him to one of his friends' houses for a party. On the way down we discussed my friend Heather. Heather had told me she wasn't that comfortable around him, that there was something about him that made her uneasy. Kevin wanted to hang out with her, he said, independently of me. He said he wanted to get to know her as a friend, not as my friend. I refused to give him her phone number and skirted the issue, for I didn't really want to tell him that Heather didn't like him.

He started yelling and pressing the issue. Said that I was insecure if I thought he was interested in her. I was surprised he brought that up. Jealousy wasn't in my nature.

I'd never argued with a boyfriend before. I'd never had one so angry at me before. I was terrified. I dropped him off, went back home, and sobbed for the rest of the evening. I decided to break up with him. I practiced what I was going to say, and picked him up again after the game was over. He grabbed me and hugged me tight, so tight I couldn't get my words out. I didn't know what to do, so I rode home with him and he spent the night.

Looking back, I could say that was the moment when I knew I gave up and gave him permission to be abusive, but what did I know then? I just didn't know what to do. (Would you believe I was volunteering for a battered women's shelter then? If I had let myself make the connection, I still probably would have thought, "but my situation is not nearly as bad as the women I'm talking to in crisis . . .")

He hated all my friends. Particularly a girl that I worshipped and adored. She was an amazing, unique individual, and I didn't understand how he could hate her. He also believed I was having sex with all my guy friends, and would yell at me about it until I'd say, "Fine. That's what you believe? Go ahead. I don't care," because saying, "No, of course I didn't sleep with them, don't be ridiculous," was like talking to a wall.

The last time I socialized with any of my male friends was a party I threw with my roommates in the spring. After I finished talking to one of them, I went to sit next to Kevin, and he grabbed me hard and said, "Tell me you love me. Say it." He had a smirk on his face like he had won something. He tried to start a fight with them when they left, and then we screamed at each other all night. We stopped going out, because I couldn't deal with being in public with him. Not because we'd argue around other people, but because I felt terrified going to a bar or club with him, like being seen in public as a couple would make it more real, and I'd have to give in to the feelings of doom and suffocation that I'd been pushing away to the back of my brain and do something about it.

We'd argue all the time. He was so good at it. I've never met anyone who could hit me so hard using only words. I don't remember if our arguments would end up with me against the wall, him in my face, or if the words just make me remember it like that. They got under my skin and tore at my flesh. I had no recourse but to batter my arms against him to push him away and leave the argument. I remember at that time some discussions with some online friends about hitting. One woman in particular I remember stating unequivocally that it was absolutely never acceptable to hit anyone, even hitting back in defense. I thought, "You lucky bitch. You have no idea what it's like. How words can hurt worse until the only way you can escape is by lashing out with your fists." But of course I couldn't say it. Of course I didn't want to make it real by telling other people.

I'd try to avoid sex with him and lay in bed feeling a huge weight pressing down on me until I couldn't breathe. I couldn't envision the future past the next day, because I'd think about ways to kill myself to get out of being with him. Yet . . . and yet? I thought I couldn't survive without him. I didn't have many friends anymore, for those connections had been tenuous at best, and he had made me sever them. One day the next fall (about 6 months after we'd started dating), I was watching a movie with Heather, and started sobbing. I couldn't lie anymore. I told her I had to break up with him.

A few days later, I told him. I said, "Kevin, I'm not happy in this relationship. I want to break up."

He said: "No. We're not breaking up."

I responded, "But I'm not in love with you."

"No. You haven't even given me a chance. We've never talked about this before. We're not throwing this away."

I said, "But I'm not attracted to you anymore. I don't even want to have sex with you."

Yet somehow he battered me down with his words. He was so good at talking. In the end, I didn't even question the idea that breaking up should be a mutual step. I didn't know I had the right to put a stop to it, by the time he was done talking. I agreed to try.

It lasted a week. I couldn't try. I knew I needed to be away from him. The next breakup was slightly better. But he lived with my roommates and I, so getting out was tricky. The night we broke up for good, he said, "it's going to be so hard to sleep in my own bed. . . ." (we still had our own bedrooms in the apartment) and I thought, "I need to hurt him as little as possible," so I could slip out as easily as possible, and let him continue to share my bed. Then it became a habit until I moved out a month later. I was never tempted to stay with him. Oddly, we really did seem to get along better as friends, and I started enjoying the time we spent together again.

Until one night when he said, "Tell me the truth. Are you still attracted to me? Have you at all considered having sex again?"

He wanted the truth? I told it, and it felt good.

No. No, not for one single second.

He leapt out of bed. "Liar!" and then he left.

A few minutes later, he came back, and poured a pitcher filled with ice water and cubes on me under the covers. I started screaming and jumped on him. He threw me off, and dragged me into the living room. I was hitting at him, half angry for the water, and half just trying to get him away from me. He backhanded me across the face, and I shut down, went numb. He grabbed me to hug me, and I couldn't move. I couldn't even tell him to get away from me, to never ever touch me again. I let him herd me back to bed, where he put new dry sheets on the bed, tucked me in, and curled around my stiff, uncomprehending body. Before we drifted off to sleep, he started laughing. "I'm sorry, but that was thoroughly enjoyable, that water."

I moved out, and we stayed in touch a little bit, mostly because I was scared of what his reaction would be if I cut things off entirely. In the end, he gave me a reason to, and I stopped answering the phone. After a very, very long while he stopped calling. After, I unlisted my phone numbers, and kept my name off apartment buzzers. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got promoted at work and got a new extension number he wouldn't know. We never spoke again.

I've seen him three times since. The first, two years later, he was walking in my new neighborhood, the second place I moved after leaving him. I kept my head down--luckily, I was wearing a hat--and was terrified that he had moved into my neighborhood. I had a panic attack every time I saw a turquoise Ford Focus driving past me on the street. It became instinct to scan the backs for the particular bumper sticker I remembered.

Nine years later, I doubt he's still in Chicago, or even has the same old car, but I still lose my breath at turquoise Ford Focuses.

The second, a year or two after the first incident, I was volunteering for a concert at my guitar school. I was sitting near the sound booth, keeping track of the set list. I was hidden in back. I saw a guy up front. He shook his hair out, raised his arms to tuck his hair behind his ears, and my stomach dropped. It was a specific gesture I will remember as Kevin's forever. It is branded on my brain. I spent the rest of the concert reminding myself to breathe, and ran out the back door afterwards.

The third and last time, I was on a date. This was perhaps four or five years after we broke up. The date was going horribly already and near the end of it, I got up to go to the bathroom and walked past the bar. Kevin was sitting there, waiting for a table with a woman. I don't know if he saw me. I went back to my date and started crying. We left. How do you explain to a second-date why you start crying after returning from the bathroom?

I don't think much about him anymore. I made pretty specific choices to date guys a whole world of different from him. I don't flinch at anger anymore and bow my head. But it's surprising how quickly I can remember it all like it was yesterday.


Blogger erin said...

Big love, Ellie.

Your story reminds me a lot of my own Abusive Asshole Experience.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Wow, Ellie. That was so honest. Thank you for sharing.

9:41 AM  

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