“No one loves you like I do. No one. Your friends don’t care about you. Look how they treat you. Why can’t you see that?”
I look down at my feet, feeling my ears warm with anger and embarrassment. How dare he?
“Darling. Look at me. I love you. Can’t we just go out and have some fun? I don’t want to fight.”
I swallow back the bile I feel rising in the back of my throat. Confrontation puts me in fight or flight mode. Staying in control is taking its toll.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
I chain smoke, something I don’t do, but I can’t make my hands stop lighting another cigarette. I don’t know where to look, what to say or how to say it. I’m still trembling from pushing down my anger.
The smoke is getting into my eyes, but I ignore it. I can see him approach but pretend that I don’t. I clench my jaw as he puts his arms around me. Because he’s only two inches taller than me, his chin rests easily on my shoulder.
“Are you okay? Having fun?”
His voice deep in my ear, his hold over me, complete.
“I don’t want to fight. Are we okay?”
I force myself to say yes. Yes, of course, we are okay.
Your jeans are too short. Your heels are too high. Your hair is too long. You have too many pimples. You stand strangely – why does your hip lean to one side? That color doesn’t suit you. You should go to the gym today. You should eat more. You should eat less. You need to drink less.
The breaking down of Me began on day two of Us. I thought he was sweet and caring.
“I’ll drive you to work.”
“I’ll pick you up.”
“Stay over. I don’t want to be apart from you.”
“Let’s go shopping. I want to spoil you.”
“Don’t meet your friends. Let’s go for a date.”
“Your friends don’t understand you. Only I do.”
A week before I met him, I walked out on a three-month relationship where I wasn’t cherished. From the start, he made me feel like I mattered. He wants to make sure I am safe. He cares about my well-being. He wants the best for me; that’s all.
I didn’t question his intentions, because why wonder about what can only be good? Who doesn’t want to be worshiped? He only wants to be with me! He loves me!
The first month felt like a year. It was so intense; I felt like we’d known each other forever. We spent every waking moment together talking about feelings, sharing our past. (He was divorced, I was a serial dater.) Hopeful for a quiet future together.
“I have to go home to get some clothes. I haven’t been back in … two weeks? I think my friends are wondering whether I’m alive.”
I am only half-joking.
Instead of dropping me off to pick up some clothes, he comes with me and picks out my wardrobe for the next month. He surveys my apartment, shared with two other single girls, and proclaims it, “kinda shitty.”
I look at my bed longingly, wishing I didn’t have to go back to his place on the 17th floor, an apartment overlooking a major thoroughfare, sounds of traffic and the television he couldn’t ever turn off lulling me to a restless sleep.
I cancel dinner plans with D again, my roommate I hadn’t seen for weeks. He is upset with me for making plans with her without consulting him.
“I thought we were going to work out then grab dinner?”
“Sorry. She called. I miss her. It’s just dinner.”
“If you want to have dinner with her so badly, go then. GO!”
He stops the car by the side of the road in the middle of a busy street, daring me.
“You’re driving my car, hon. How am I supposed to get home?”
“Hitch a ride with her. I don’t give a shit. It’s obvious you don’t care about this relationship. You just do whatever the hell you want.”
“It’s just … dinner.”
I shrink with each word he hurls at me. Of course, I’m wrong. It’s always me. I messed up. I know nothing. My friend is trying to sabotage us. Maybe she’s jealous.
“Okay, let’s go eat. You and me. I’ll call D for a rain check.”
“What do you think about this?”
Talking about getting married in the first three weeks should have set off alarm bells. The only bells in my head were wedding bells. No one had ever suggested marriage to me before. Looking at rings together solidified my belief in his devotion to me.
“What should I do with the wedding photo?”
He must be committed – he wants to know what I think about the wedding picture from his first marriage! I didn’t even think to ask why they split up in the first place. She probably didn’t deserve him. What did I do so right to deserve him?
“I’m sick. Pick me up from home, and I want to go to that soup place.”
“Um. It’s 6:00 o’clock. Traffic to your place right now is hell. Can you meet me there?”
“Are you fucking serious? I JUST TOLD YOU I’M SICK. Pick. Me. Up.”
The “or else” in his tone seeped through the phone. I drive there; my insides weighed down like cement dried in my lungs.
“Why are you driving so fast? Why are you tailing that car? Get some distance! Fuck! Good God. Who taught you to drive? A pig?”
“If you hate my driving so much, maybe you should drive yourself next time.” I surprise myself.
“What did you say?”
We eat dinner in silence, and when he orders a drink for himself without asking me what I want, something inside me clicks.
I shove food in my mouth; each bite moves me closer to my resolve.
“What are you doing?”
“Packing my things. I’m done. I’m over this. This … relationship. This is bullshit. You don’t get to tell me what to do, how to feel. I’m leaving.”
He sits on the couch, face impassive. Good. He’s not objecting. This is easier than I thought it’d be.
“Do you need help with your stuff?”
His cold politeness throws me off. Goosebumps pepper my arms. Is this how zebras feel before the lioness comes bounding out?
I need to get the hell out now.
“No. I can see myself out.”
I call D.
“Hey. It’s me. I’m coming home.”
“About time, girlfriend.”
Abuse is not always physical. It’s not even always verbal. At least, not at first. Abusers worm their way into our lives by acting normal, charming, and attentive. They do not start out slapping you or telling you how stupid you are. They court you with romantic gestures and loving words. They make you think you’re the most amazing human being on the planet.
All the signs that my “boyfriend” was an emotional abuser were there: the need to control every aspect of my life, positioning himself as my advocate and only friend, simultaneously painting my friends and family with the opposite brush. I was lucky that I got out early and unscathed, armed only with my story and a lesson.
If you’re in a relationship with these signs or know of someone: do something. Say something. Or it will be too late.