We both worked some evening shifts. At times his apartment, our haven, bore hints of other visitors – an odd comb, evidence of a meal cooked beyond his usual culinary skills, an extra towel where only one usually hung – not definitive, but noticed. I did not ask and he did not need to deny. Instead, the possibilities were added to the pile of uneasiness already neatly stacked like firewood, kept in a place where they would be safe from the flame of fury. And then I loved him harder, to help him understand that I could be enough. That he was enough for me.
At times evidence became undeniable. I turned a blind eye, not believing the others were important to him, believing they were his defense against his fear of being hurt again. When I could no longer look away I broke up with him, and became totally miserable. Then he called or approached me, making excuses or telling me it was over with the other woman, and I flew back into his arms. Eventually I traveled the same route again and then again, did not allow myself to recognize the growing pattern. We stayed together for three years, but my tolerance grew steadily weaker. Or maybe my belief in my worth grew steadily stronger.
One winter break we traveled more than 24 hours on a Greyhound bus to sunny Florida, escaping the gray snow of upstate NY. It was a group trip and our first extended ‘vacation’ together. I told my parents I was going with my roommates. With little sleep, an aching body, and swollen feet I exited the bus, certain it was worth it. We were traveling together, away from it all, experiencing new things, nurturing a deeper connection.
I had never been to the real south – not knowing that Florida was largely the transplantation of northerners to sunshine. Warmth, palm trees, sand and ocean in January – or any time of year for that matter – were foreign to my hardcore snowbelt upbringing. The few memories of what we did included: a pool, eating cheaply, a second rate hotel room and attending a Jai Lai game that was high on his ‘to do’ list. My list included whatever he wanted to do. The stadium was crowded, loud, hot and dirty. We had cheap seats high in the bleachers –thankfully with a roof to provide relief from the intense sun. I had never been to a large sporting event and didn’t understand the game, but was content watching the ball being passed between players. He was his usual joking, talkative, flirty self – aimed at young women wherever they appeared.
He returned from a long absence with drinks and food. I had sat uncomfortably, waiting, surrounded by noise and strangers and strangeness. I was relieved to see him climbing the steps to our seats. He greeted my eager, anxious face with a casual comment: “Sometimes I wonder what I see in you, with your puffy cheeks.” I sank through the seat, the stadium, and the earth, to my own personal hell. Every ounce of self- doubt and worthlessness I had ever felt fused into one solid lump, and turned my heart to lead. It was true. I was ugly. And even the man I thought loved me couldn’t understand why he did. Later he tried to joke his way past those words, but they were too heavy to float away on laughter. I don’t remember any more of the trip – not even the long bus ride home. I am certain I went on as if the bomb had not landed – I always did.
Almost without notice my trust in his love started to drip through the holes pierced in the fabric of our entire relationship, despite the numerous stitches of denial used to darn them close. Infidelity secretly grew into a two way street. He never knew what a good teacher he had been. I was not aware that I was looking for an exit ramp, and was paying heavy tolls on my trip there. Vengeful acts piled self-hate on top of insecurity. It took more than a year of wrong turns, dead ends, and blaring horns to get past the traffic of promises, blind hope, and excuses. Following graduation I carried my diploma into his apartment along with the rest of my belongings. As soon as he left for work, I could not resist the need to rummage through his things, feebly justified by the fact that this was now our shared apartment. I found Polaroid pictures of other women, similar to those I had allowed him to take of me, and the raw truth could no longer be denied. On his return home my rage ripped through the air like a forest fire destined to burn down anything in its path. I had never allowed such anger to surface. It felt scary, uncontrollable. It felt right. I screamed. I threw things. I hit him with the table phone. He called the police. They arrived and tried to hide their amusement. I stood there, red faced with tears and snot running down my cheeks, under five feet tall at 100 pounds. He stood there, calmly, with his black belt muscled body that towered over a foot above me. They stood there, smirking, as I packed my possessions and the hard lessons etched on my ruptured heart into my car and drove away. What was not so easily visible was a more robust load of dignity than I had moved in with, along with the muscle added to the strength of me. I had graduated from the blur of innocence. Love had not healed all things. I had become my mother, ultimately controlled by my love for a man. I renewed my vow never to be controlled again.