We first locked eyes across our college cafeteria. He had a girlfriend then. When we started hanging out, he referenced a zen koan in which a man savors a strawberry while perilously hanging above a pack of hungry lions. He compared me to the strawberry.
Sitting together on a weathered futon in his dorm room late one evening, I described the battles of my youth: alcoholic parents, insomnia, child protective services. Next thing I knew, we were making out. The old cliche proves true — tragedy brings people together. He had his own difficulties of course: a recovering alcoholic father, a negligent mother, and a heroin-addicted sister with two kids. We were victims struggling for control of our own lives.
He was charismatic with a sly creeping smile. Everything was a joke. Everything was something to laugh about, to enjoy. He loved me immediately, and he told everyone so. I'll probably never feel so loved again for the rest of my life.
After a month of dating, he asked me if I would move in with him over the summer to a sunny one-bedroom over a bagel shop. The hastiness made me uneasy, but the fantasy was ripe. I dreamed of living in a sunlight-saturated apartment, eating with the man I loved, the aroma of freshly baked bagels below. But, I chose to go back home instead.
Over the summer, he would visit me often, speeding up the lush thruway on his vintage black motorcycle. The high-pitched exhaust sputter would announce his arrival in my driveway. He liked going fast and didn’t have his motorcycle license yet, so he often had stories about nimbly evading police pursuit. Once, an officer caught up to him, riding parallel and demanding he pull over. Instead, my sexy, badass boyfriend slipped off a nearby highway exit before the officer could follow.
In the fall, I moved to across the country. (I had made a decision to transfer schools before we met.) I didn't want a long-distance relationship, but he wouldn’t let me end things. “You broke up with me,” he said, “but I haven’t broken up with you.”
He called me all the time: in the morning, between classes, and always before bed. He’d leave hilarious voicemails in an old Russian man’s voice, “Hello? Ruth? This is Boris. You never call. You want I should show you how to use telephone?” He sent me drawings, postcards, and letters in the mail. It seemed like normal nerdball love. Every time I picked him up at the airport and would first see him, my heart would stop.
From the beginning, we were planning our lives together. He proposed marriage early on, but I saw something bigger for us: the opportunity to make amends for our parents mistakes. In my mind we were the heroes of our own lives, two people against the world.
Deeper into my first semester, he decided he didn’t want me drinking or going to parties. Parties and alcohol led to cheating and excuses, he said. He’d call me on Friday and Saturday nights, just to make sure I wasn’t out. We’d fight extensively over the phone. I’d defend my right to a social life, and he’d persist, “I just don’t want you to do anything to hurt me.” Exhausted from working several jobs to support myself and going to school full-time, culling my social life seemed like the easiest option.
After four months, he decided he was going to move to my city. He had a friend he could live with. I signed up for fewer classes that semester so we could spend more time together. A lot of that was at his apartment, since my place was a shared dorm room, and our visits often amounted to weekend-long sex marathons. Once we were living in the same city, there was constant pressure to have “good” sex, and he had anxiety about our sex life getting stale or too vanilla. His biggest complaint was that I wasn’t aggressive enough.
But, there was also pressure to stay submissive. We used to play fight, the way teenage boys like to wrestle. I slipped easily out of holds, but he would fight back and remind me that he could physically overpower me, and there was nothing I could do about it. Sometimes it was funny, like the time he pinned me to the ground and told me to “say 'sushi.'” But, other times, he’d pull my pants down and stick his finger in my butt.
In the early spring, nearly a year into dating, my boyfriend’s father got into a terrible car accident. Our arguments began getting violent — a hole in the wall here, a dent in the door there. He wouldn’t hit me, but he’d swing close. I threatened to leave a number of times, but never did. Our arguments got worse over time. I remember lying in bed, arguing, and him being so angry that he’d reached his arm over my head to punch the wall next to me.
After graduation, I gave up a solid position as a research assistant to move back to the East Coast where my boyfriend had taken a job making significantly more money. I started working at a restaurant and looking for another job. Even though we lived together, he wanted to know where I was at all times. One night, I got out of work early and grabbed a quick drink with some of the other servers, arriving home around 1 a.m., which wasn't unusual. My fuming boyfriend arrived home a half-hour later demanding to know where I had been. I remember him screaming and splintering a plastic container of files with the heel of his foot. Later he told me he only did it because he was worried. I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t spend much time with the ones I did have. After that, my boyfriend laid claim to all of my free time.
Some months later, I landed a job at a news bureau. My boyfriend insisted the commute was too long and cut into our time together, and tried to convince me to go back to waiting tables. Of course, he supported my career, he would say, and point to the laptop he bought me in college. I kept the job.
Throughout our relationship, he accused me of cheating. Later, I would find out he was the cheater. Towards the end, his anxiety about our sex life turned into dissatisfaction. He told me he wasn’t attracted to me any more. Soon he started attacking my intelligence. In front of his friends, he’d ask my opinion on a discussion they were having and then cut me off, loudly humming the theme to Wallace and Gromit.
Yet he still wouldn’t leave me. He said our love was more important than his sexual satisfaction. In arguments, he defused tension with playfulness that I'd found so charming early in our relationship: “[I’ll go to your friend’s wedding] in exchange for a threesome. You want more of a social life? I want a more interesting sex life.”
In the last year of our relationship, everything I did became fodder for criticism. I was five minutes late, my cooking sucked, the house wasn’t clean enough. I thought he was depressed, so I generously gave him six months to find a therapist, but he didn’t. In arguments, I was cutting, and he would get this look in his eyes that sent me running. Increasingly, I found him on my heels.
He also bought a gun. He said he was worried about getting robbed at work. I’ll spare you a lengthy digression about why I don't think guns don’t defuse tension. Anyway, this gun lived in our bedroom and, with the direction things were going, one of us was going to end up in the Inner Harbor.
Leaving was not easy. In the months after, he would show up at my house unannounced and accuse me of having stayed elsewhere the night before. He left notes on my car when I was out running errands in the city. He hacked into my email account and not only read through my messages, but watched my chat conversations as they were happening. He asked pointed questions about the talks I’d had with my friends and accused me of lying when I didn’t answer to his satisfaction — as if he were somehow psychically tuned into my life. For weeks after I discovered he had been watching my every typed word, I felt like there was a cold metal ball stuck, indigestible at the bottom of my stomach. He made me feel like a crazy person.
We were entangled for another three years before I finally managed to cut him off. It wasn’t until I got some distance from our relationship that I was able to see the abuse. Perhaps the isolation was the most difficult part. I lived in one city; I went to work in another. There was an illusion that I saw people, that I had friends. It wasn’t an easy feat — it took him years to cut me off from everyone else in my life. Maybe I should have known he was bad news when he tried to move in with me right off the bat, into the most fairytale of apartments. My own little castle above a sunny bagel shop.
If you or someone you know is suffering from any type of abuse, support groups and counseling are available. Please contact an organization that advocates for the survivors of abuse, like Safe Horizon.