Why I haven't written about this before? Because to write about it is always to open the question. "Why didn't you leave."
But if I hear any story like mine I always ask a different question, "why did you leave," maybe, because I already know that the first question is too hard. Too easy. Too obvious. You stayed probably because you thought like I did, it's all my fault, I need to love better, and one day love will change my lover.
The thing that matters after a relationship like this is not why didn't you go for so long. The thing that I want to know is how you did.
But I have written about this. My essay, "No Other Gods," will be published next month in the Creative Nonfiction book, Southern Sin: True stories of the sultry south and women behaving badly. It's in print, I have the copy of the book's uncorrected proof here in my sweaty hand -- clutched to my nauseated breast -- I tell the story there.
So I move in. I move into the knowledge that I must out myself, I move in slowly. I move in, I bring my bags -- the photos from that time, my essays, my co-workers, my LinkedIn emails, my public statements that were not meant to be public, my accusations -- or, to be more precise, the accusations that were leveled against me. I bring, I hope, my sense of humor. I bring -- I think -- forgiveness. I bring -- I know -- the determination that the sins of the fathers, the forefathers, and almost-fathers, the someone-else's fathers, not be visited against at least these kids.
I bring the pain. On to the page. Into public. Unto you.
I was, for eight-and-a-half years in my nineteens and most of my twenties, in an abusive relationship. This is how it went: I hurt him first, by not having narrowed the field to him quickly enough, by other minor injuries that caused (for me or for him?) major shame. He was five years older than I and powerful and charismatic in a way that struck me as awe-inspiring and would later prove to be so, so familiar.
Let me unpack that bag for you. He knew people in a way that held a thrill: so that, you would say his name casually (you wanted to be casual about it, "no big deal") and the recognition would blink across someone's face. "Oh," that someone would say, and often with a rising-octave question at the end of the word that mean maybe "you and HIM?" or "how did THAT happen?" -- "Jeffrey?" and I would feel not only that he was known, but also that he was known with power and -- a little, I think I saw it even at the very beginning -- terror.
Is there such thing as just a little terror?
Thus set up, his power, my relative little power, my sinfulness, his age, my age, my violations of his love's rules; the perfect recipe for isolation, control, abuse.
I want to pass by the next part, where I say "what happened," and I mean "what happened physically" -- even though it was awful and dangerous and real, I still feel a kind of disbelief about it. Maybe I'm worried the details sound too cliche. Maybe I'm worried he'll say I made up the details. (I have no proof. Of course. How could I have proof?) Maybe I'm worried the details aren't bad enough, that other stories are worse, scarier, deserve more sympathy. Maybe I'm worried the realness, in its realness, will create dissonance and you will not believe me.
I want you to believe what was behind the physical violence more than I want you to believe that he held my head under water in that apartment on Colony Road the first year I was an investment banker, that he put a gun in my mouth, a 28 Special, that he hit me, that he forced me to have sex when I didn't want to, that he threatened to kill me again and again and again -- almost until it lost its terror -- that he, always, grabbed me by the forearm with his hand, his thumb and fingers, not pressing quite hard enough to leave bruises. For I am and was resilient, tough, blessed with beautiful skin. His holds did not take hold in my flesh. Maybe if I had bruises and broken bones, like the women in the films, I would have taken it more seriously. Maybe if he had beaten me with -- as he described, laughing -- a pillowcase full of oranges, so as not to leave marks, I would have left sooner. Maybe.
What I really want you to believe is that I was a powerful, smart, beautiful woman with, progressively, a full merit scholarship to a prestigious liberal arts college; a high-paid investment banking job in a shiny bank tower; an Ivy League MBA; a six-figure Wall Street job offer; lots of amazing friends; what-I-thought-was-confidence; -- and a boyfriend who used my love for him as a weapon and his love for me as a tool to control me. And I was ashamed. And I was afraid to tell anyone for fear, not that he would hurt me as much as that they would judge me. And I let this go on for years.
If nothing else, believe that.
And when I welcome you into my newly-exposed truth, my essay, my unwinding poem-like book of small pieces, when I invite you in and show you how I've arranged things, my memories of him, my memories of the backdrop of our relationship, my sense of self-worth, my way-I-see-relationships-now, my quest for control of my own life, my story of myself -- when you look around at what I am now, you may ask "why didn't you leave?" and I may not have an answer but what I can tell you is why I did leave and how much I love who I am now.
I am home now, I am at home now, in my skin and in my brain and in my heart and in my self. These are my truths, I brought them along with me as well as my yearbooks and my pinstriped suits and my photos and my pots and pans. Come in, my dears, my loves. Ask me anything. Stay as long as you like. When you leave, take a little of my story with you, if you like.
I am home now. I can always tell more.
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