(Photo courtesy samingersoll.com)
When I was 21, I fell in love — really in love — for the first time. Oh, I’d had my share of school-girl crushes on this boy or that, but nothing serious and certainly no dating. Truth be told, I felt like a social pariah, like the ugliest girl in the world, totally unloveable, a complete outcast. Which is probably why I fell so hard and so fast for Alex. (Obviously that is NOT his real name, nor anything like it.)
We met through a mutual friend and I fell head-over-heels in an instant. I knew why then and I know why now and lordy-lord is it an embarrassment to admit, but I fell deep into instantaneous crush because he looked like writer Harlan Ellison. Go ahead and laugh. It is funny in an altogether pathetic sort of way. I’d discovered Ellison’s work in my late teens and so much of it resonated with the turmoil I felt in my own soul that I suppose it’s natural that I would develop a crush on my favorite author. But to extend that into the world because a guy happens to bear some resemblance? That’s just sad.
At any rate, I assumed this would be another of my one-sided, unrequited attachment, but Alex surprised me by calling and asking me out. I was euphoric! Make that EUPHORIC!! Excited and terrified and not believing my luck and…saddest of all…fucking GRATEFUL that anyone would pay attention to me.
(Thankfulness is a wonderful emotion to cultivate. Gratitude is something else. Gratitude can be manipulated and perverted if held for too long in the wrong hands, and Alex’s hands were definitely wrong.)
In the beginning he was charming and funny, sometimes even sweet, but the dark side of him showed its face early on. Half-a-dozen dates into our relationship he told me, “Well, you’re not the prettiest girl in the world, but you have a good heart.” We were seated in the front seat of his car, having just gotten out of a movie theatre. I remember staring straight ahead as those words stabbed me. My vision narrowed down to a pin-point washed with grey. For an instant — only an instant, but an instant I desperately wish I’d grabbed — I considered getting out of his car and joining friends in another car. But I didn’t. I sat there and took it, and I continued to take it for the next four years. I even moved in with him, if you can believe it. And I was so pathetically excited about it, still thinking that here at last was someone to love me, someone with whom I could build a life and a future, turning a deaf ear to the little voice screaming at the back of my mind.
I nearly escaped. Alex and I both decided to return to college, but he chose SUNY Buffalo while I headed to Southampton College on Long Island. He never asked me to go with him. (Would I have? I like to think not, but I know better I’d have given anything — including my fading self-respect — to hear him say those words.) Much as I liked Southampton and made some new friends, I was despondent without Alex. I didn’t know how to function. I cried a lot and made long distance phone calls to him all the time. (You already know that he never called me.) He did, however, send cards and long rambling letters about how much he missed me and how I was his! And me, idiot that I was, drank it in like wine.
Well, you know what happened. I transferred to Buffalo to be with him. And the verbal/emotional/psychological abuse began all over again. (He never hit me. That’s not excusing his behavior, merely a detail. I like to think that even poor little insecure moi would have drawn the line at that. I hope so, anyway.) Everything was my fault. I remember him kneeling on a thumb-tack and bellowing, “Melissa, GOD DAMN YOU!!” and I wasn’t even in the same room. In every way, I was lacking. In every way, I fell short of some ideal he held in his mind. And still I stayed.
I’ve given a lot of thought to that over the years and I understand now that I put up with his shit because I felt lonely and unloved. I’d been told by my mother that a woman had to let men do whatever they wanted and just take it. (Can you imagine hearing that from your own mother, of all people? I felt so betrayed. If I couldn’t go to her for support and protection, who could I go to? Sadly, it never occurred to me at the time that I could be a source of my own protection and support.) Because I was tired of feeling like a fifth wheel and was starving for any sort of “love,” I convinced myself that a bad relationship was better than no relationship at all, and that a bad relationship was all I deserved.
As I said, it took four years for this foot-weary camel to take on that last straw that broke her back. It came from an unexpected source. Eric, a friend of mine from Southampton, had come to Buffalo to work on his Master’s Degree and moved into the extra bedroom in the apartment I shared with Alex. He came to me one day and said, “I have something to tell you.”
It seems that he and Alex were riding around doing errands and Alex was bad-mouthing me. Eric asked him, “If that’s how you feel about her, why do you stay with her?” And Alex said, “Because she’s convenient.”
Ever have one of those moments when words echo? That’s what it was like for me. Those three words rang like a fucking carillon. Eric and I stared at each other. “What are you going to do?” he said. I can’t recall if I made any response at the time, but I knew that unless I did something about this, I would never, ever again be able to look at my own face in a mirror.
Did I confront Alex? No. Instead, I told him that when the semester ended, I was leaving. It was my last semester, I could have my degree mailed to my parents’ house, and I wasn’t going to give myself a chance to back-slide. Not this time. (He didn’t believe me, although he never said so to my face. He told all his friends, “She’ll never leave. She can’t live without me.”) I spent the last two weeks of school practically living at the library, returning home only when I knew Alex was either away or asleep. The afternoon after my last exam, I returned to the apartment and packed my car. The next morning, I drove away. I cried for the first mile, but by the time I reached the Interstate, I was smiling.
And I was free.