I used to see him, my freshman year of college, on the path that led from our cluster of dorms to the rest of campus. He was tall. I looked for that, among other things, in boys. He had red hair and pale skin and espresso eyes. But one time in particular, I remember gazing at him and thinking, "No. No way. Never." It was the way he carried himself--the stiff set of his torso and arms, his long, almost aggressive strides that wrinkled my nose and caused me to reject him before we'd even spoken a word.
And then, toward the end of the year, Spring Term, we met at a party. Turned out that I kind of liked him. I kind of wanted a boyfriend, too. I was tired of the party hook-ups and the shortish nerds who wrote me terrible poetry (though after the endless boy drought that was high school, I was lucky to have them, I suppose). So I gave him my phone number. I might have actually suggested he take it, thrust it at him.
He took his time using it. Six days? A week, I think. An eternity when you're waiting. This should've been my first red flag. That and his tense gait. If I'd been paying attention I could've saved myself five years of heartbreak.
But, like I said, I wanted a boyfriend. And it was before I knew what I know now: That a person can convey a thousand details about his character in body language and a few minutes of conversation.
So, we dated. Which mostly meant that we talked once during the week. Then on Saturday nights, after we'd both gotten good and drunk with our friends, he'd come and find me at whatever bar I was in or at whichever party I lingered.
After about a year he started referring to me as his girlfriend. I felt like I had had to scratch and claw for the title. I had to stick with him through his immaturity (and mine). I had to argue against his breaking up with me. I had to cry a million tears. If only I could go back and tell that 21-year-old girl to forget it, that he isn't that great, isn't much, in fact. But I can't.
I continued to live through the one really bad relationship, the first love (which makes me gag to even say, but was true) I'd ever experience.
He went with me to my grandpa's memorial service. We both graduated. We moved to Washington State together for his new job as a civil engineer for the Department of Defense. We (or I) assumed we'd eventually get married.
I'm still amazed it took as long as it did for the unraveling to begin. But unravel it did, like an old piece of twine being peeled strand by strand. The tension in the apartment we shared was coffee-grounds thick. I hated that he hated my cat, how he could fake out my parents by talking to them so sweetly, then as soon as the door closed or phone clicked into its cradle, call me a bitch, his love of porn, how he'd watch sports on TV all day, screaming at the players, how he never once laughed at one of my jokes or held my hand in public, how he'd drive like a lunatic and yell through the windshield at the "candy-asses" ahead of him, how he so clearly preferred the company of men over women, how, when I expressed a concern about our relationship he'd respond (verbatim), "That's garbage, you don't know what the hell you're talking about."
I knew he was with me simply because I'd worn him down. Because I'd stayed and stayed and stayed, through many mock breakups. Because I put out and put him with him. Because I convinced him that he loved me back.
The decision to leave wasn't easy. And, to save face, he would've said it was mutual. But I knew better. I'd begun to hate him with a ferocity that sometimes scared me a little. I'd look at other men, men I worked with, and think, "He's better than my boyfriend. Anyone at all is better than my boyfriend."
But then, I remember watching him wash his Jetta one day in the parking lot of our apartment building. I peered out the window and crumpled. Five years. The only boyfriend I'd ever had. How could I be thinking about leaving?
What I thought was going to be a huge, painful choice, though, to go or stay, turned into a trail of tiny steps that led me from that apartment and into one with a co-worker who was going through a divorce. A woman who would come to be one of my best friends.
And he and I were officially apart. I felt strange and alone, exhilarated and depressed. Unsafe. Unsure. I lived so far from my family, with this one woman, Wendy, as my only real support.
The begging came a few months after we'd broken up. Thankfully, it was not I who was whimpering into the phone that I was crazy in love and that he should give me the opportunity to show how I'd changed. It was he who said that. Over and over.
But I was done. A chunk of my self-worth was still in his hands, still wandering around that tense apartment, writing in her notebook about how she was in the wrong place with the wrong person.
Not that I was blameless. Not at all. I was immature and naive and dumb. I didn't know how to listen well, how to argue constructively, how to choose. But I did know I needed to be alone, to build myself up and, that when the time came for someone new, that I would not ever, ever, ever again be with someone so misogynistic and closed. Someone who still inspires ire in me 15 years later.