There’s no way to begin this story where it started, so I’ll tell you its end first.
It ends with a night when a man – just barely a man, mostly a boy, full of jokes and laughter and passionate opinions – held me down on the thick black asphalt of the parking lot by my neck.
It ends with him driving his knee into my stomach, bursting parts of my intestines and telling me he should kill me. When I stood up, he punched me in the side and broke my rib.
We said we were in love.
I’m not supposed to tell this story; I should keep it private, I should hold it back. But this story, my story with him, has a life of its own. I know this because it’s still alive.
Sometimes, when I sleep on my left side, my ribs will ache.
If I’m worried that someone will read this and use it against me, somehow, to hurt me, I must remember that my memories already do that. A familiar song, the grass by the Charles River where we once fell asleep draped over each other, the photos of us together – they’re harsher than any person, filled with that living ghost of where he and I stood and slept and kissed.
It was Independence Day when we met, and I’ve often thought of this curious timing. After some messages back and forth, I drove from Amherst to Boston and walked up the back steps of his building and there he was, sitting on the balcony. He was twenty-four years old, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette and reading a book. His shirt was off. He was muscular and unfailingly Italian. I had never seen and will never see anyone so handsome.
We began kissing immediately and went to his room, where the air conditioning relieved the humidity and we had sex and then had sex again. In the hum of the air conditioner, we were sticky and exhausted. We talked about our lives and joked about too many things.
From there, it was four months of he and I together; back and forth, a two hour drive. Four months: looking forward, it can seem like forever. Looking back, it can feel like nothing. The black asphalt is like nothing, too. That night, there’s no world, no color. This is what nothing feels like, I think, until I feel his knee push down into my stomach.
“I should crack your skull open and leave you for dead.”
But before that night we’d walk in the morning with his dogs. They’d charge past us into the fields behind his parents’ house. They’d get lost and we’d have to find them. They’d return to us wet and happy. The mornings were cold and we’d hold hands. Those hands felt so thick.
Or sometimes we’d walk without the dogs and there were a hundred things to talk about.
Before that night, we fucked on the floor of his parents’ house. He’d just moved back, and I’d helped him pack, carrying furniture down the steps on a hot summer day. Boston was too hard on his own and he wasn’t sure what he’d do. He always thought his life was a mess.
Underneath us was the rug of the bedroom floor. We were covered in each other and cushioned by it.
“I’m so happy to see you,” he said. And then, “Please don’t ever leave me.” Those words stayed with me.
“I won’t,” I said.
That night, before he hit me, I started to cry. I knew I was leaving and moving to San Francisco. “Please, I don’t want to go without you,” I told him.
“Shutup,” he said. “Stop crying, you’re pathetic.”
I feel like it’s important to tell you, this isn’t the “complete” story. I wasn’t innocent of everything, and this is why people get confused: As if you must be completely clean and loving or else maybe you had it coming.
People would ask, “Did he hit you before?” Or, “Have you been in other abusive relationships?” The answer to both questions is no.
Is it so hard to think that the person who gets hit didn’t do anything to deserve it?
They’d ask, “What happened?” Or, more nuanced, “Why did he do that?”
What reason would have satisfied them or me? As if someone could even give a reason.
Because he was angry. Because he was hurting inside. Because he couldn’t cry and so hated seeing me cry. I don’t know. I wonder if people asked me “why” as a sort of protective amulet for themselves. If they knew why, maybe they could stop it from ever happening. Maybe it would all make sense.
But cause and effect lost its value on the asphalt.
Nothing links up, nothing makes sense, there’s only feelings and actions as you’re lost to something bigger than yourself. There is no cause.
In that way, and perhaps in that way only, it’s like love.
Once, I stole his hat. He told me he loved his hat more than he loved most people – a green Boston Red Sox hat that they didn’t make anymore. He came over and when he was drunk, I took it and hid it. I don’t even know why. It was a game or a joke or a grasp for power. I told him I didn’t know where it was, and he was furious. I returned it weeks later, but never told the truth. He knew the truth, he knew I hadn’t miraculously found it, but I never said so. And in spite of everything that happened after, I’m sorry I stole that hat.
Many times I was too upset, I was too dependent, I was too easy to unsettle. I wanted everything to be pure and happy and I shoved it out of balance so often.
Before I met him, I’d planned to move to San Francisco, and I asked him to come with me. He said yes, and we started to talk about our apartment together. We imagined a whole different city. The way the light would be different. What our bedroom would look like in the morning. Those images settled into me and they were like breathing. I became used to them and they kept me going, they woke me up.
Then a week later he said he wouldn’t come, and I had to imagine something different.
I cried and didn’t know where to turn or what to do. We looked at an apartment in Boston together, but it wasn’t the same. The motion of moving west had already seized me.
We’d sit at his dining room table and draw funny pictures together and reveal them, laughing. I was on my way, even then. I kept feeling like it was inevitable – I had to go to San Francisco. Please come with me, I asked too many times. I’m sorry for asking so many times.
And still, we’d spend time together as the end and that night rushed towards us. He told me about a book he’d read in which a lover, locked in prison, tears at the stones of his cell, bloodying his fingers and breaking his bones. He screams the name of his beloved.
“I’ve always wanted a love like that,” he told me. “Completely consuming.”
I could have guessed, then, that I was that love, and that this had no way of ending without blood and broken bones. But I thought we had something different. That maybe there was no cell, no prison, and that we were free. That we could hold each other when we wanted and that nothing was keeping us apart.
A few weeks later, after we got into an argument at a bar, he was lying in my bed.
He stared ahead and said, “I blew it. I feel like I’m losing this intense love you give me that I’ve wanted all my life.”
“You’re not,” I said. “Don’t worry, you’re not.”
I had to call the police and lawyers. There were medical bills to pay. There were charges to be filed. By a blessing, the bills were paid in another way and it never mattered. But before that, I had to call him, to try to get it settled.
“You’re not going to make me feel guilty for this,” he told me. He told me I made him do it. That was the most painful part of all. I thought, Do you hear yourself? Can’t you hear yourself saying what every abusive person has said on television and in every story?
“I’m not an abusive person,” he shouted.
I kept wanting a different outcome. I kept searching for a memory that wasn’t there; one in which he said, “I’m so sorry and I feel so ashamed and I’ll help you pay the bills and I love you.”
But the memory doesn’t exist. I wasn’t sure he ever even saw what he did as wrong.
Years later, I saw his old roommate who had moved to San Francisco. He said hello. He asked to hang out. I had nothing against the former roommate. He was always sort of defensive, but nice enough. He’d never done a thing to hurt me, and he was funny. I didn’t dislike him, even if we were never quite friends. But his presence was a sure sign that I hadn’t “gotten over it.” I could barely speak.
“I don’t,” I said, and stopped.
My sentence lingered and the friend said okay and walked away.
I took a breath and followed him.
“I don’t think you understand,” I said to the friend. “I don’t think you know what happened.”
“He’s my friend,” he said. “So even to hear your side wouldn’t…”
I cut him off.
“The last time I saw ____, he broke my rib. He put me in the hospital.”
His face drained of color – I’ve heard this expression before, but had never seen it. His face was pale. He hadn’t known.
“I don’t have anything against you,” I said. “But being around you is traumatic for me, in a way.”
“I understand,” the friend said. We hugged each other.
Somehow I thought the man I’d loved let everyone know. He was so charming, I imagined him telling people and having them simply shrug it off. Horrible, maybe, but in the past and let’s focus on the good stuff, right?
But the look in his friend’s face. Maybe I just read it there, maybe it was just a look of unknowing. But no, no, it was there. Fear, almost.
So the man that beat me up had never really confessed. He was raised Catholic, maybe confessing was unthinkable.
Perhaps, instead, he’d said he’d gotten into a fight with me. No big deal, people would think. They might even take his side.
Which means somewhere he had a sense that something was wrong, that he had been wrong in hitting me. I’d never even hoped for that before. In concealing the truth, he was admitting it to me.
Once, when we were on my couch, eating cookies, being gluttonous, he turned to me and held me. “You’re like this ginger molasses cookie,” he said. “I’m finished and I want more and more. You’re like,” he kissed me at each word, “my little ginger molasses cookie.”
When you don’t ever have an apology, you’re forced to find your own. Something that will let you rest. You will an apology into being. After you do it, you’ll still want to hear “sorry” in someone else’s voice. You’ll still want to hear that and breathe.
But you keep moving.
In Massachusetts, in the days following the assault (and I have only after years begun to understand that it was an “assault”), I could have forced him into confronting the wrongness of it.
Massachusetts has a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. He would have been taken to jail immediately. I had the hospital report: broken rib, contusions in my intestines. And the record of everything else – the internal bleeding, the fear of split-open organs. I still have that yellow piece of triplicate paper. It’s in a box, wondering if it will be used.
But if I made the call I’d have to – I was told by the lawyer – face him in a court of law. I’d have to see him again. I saw him every day and when I close my eyes I will still sometimes see him. But to see him in person – those arms and hands, that beautiful face that used to be full of love? I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave enough or strong enough anymore. I was only tired and completely broken.
I struggled for so long with that phone call, and eventually it faded away. Instead, I put all my things in my car and drove across the country alone. I met my friends in San Francisco, and I felt safe. I kept thinking – so curiously! – that I hoped he was okay. How could someone be so angry at whoever loved him? How must it feel to hate being loved, and then to have the person that loved you run away in fear?
I should have protected other people.
I should have faced him.
I should have pressed charges.
That’s what I would have told anyone else to do.
Running away was the strongest, most exhausting thing I have ever done and it still wasn’t brave enough to be right.
There’s a short story by Raymond Carver called “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In it, a character explains that he can’t figure out where his love for his ex-wife went. He used to love her, but now he hated her. She was allergic to bees and he’d imagine himself standing in front of the door in a beekeeper’s outfit, opening a hive in front of her and watching the bees sting her to death.
Another character talks about the screaming, the pulling of hair and the threats.
Of course in all cases it’s clear that the love is still there. But it’s contorted. When you hate someone so much, it’s easy to see the inversion and deformity of love. Instead of being pure and clean, it will take the strangest shapes.
The question isn’t, “Is that love?”
The question instead is what to do with love that’s changed form and that threatens you with all the force and passion that used to cradle and guard you.
We’re defenseless against it. Like a dog that turns on you and attacks you after years of being loyal – you can’t erase all those years and feelings you had because of that one moment. But something has to change because everything has.
On our last night together, I drove from Amherst to his parents’ house and we went to the bars outside of Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox game and drink and be close to each other. We were going to spend the night together and I found myself, later, trapped in that expectation, clinging to it because there was no other way to continue.
I’d told him I was going to San Francisco. I didn’t know if it was a bluff or not, all I know was that I had to tell him and start packing my things. Some sort of magnet was pulling at me and when I resisted it, I fell down.
We talked and laughed and kissed, we walked around town and met his friends. At a certain point, I saw him, standing away from me. I saw him there, on his own, talking to someone else in the loud music and dark light, and I thought, “How can this be the end?”
I saw Boston without me and San Francisco without him and the alcohol was blurring it all together the future and its places with us missing.
We walked back to the car, parked on a rooftop parking lot, totally open, empty. We were drunk and decided to sleep so we wouldn’t drive until we were sober. We got in the car and closed the doors.
I know I said I’d start this at the end. That wasn’t true, because there is no end to this story. I know he’s been to California. To LA where he worked, and maybe to San Francisco where I saw his friend.
I worry that I’ll see him around. Four years later. Would I run? Would I say hello or just open up and cry? Would I be able to move or even say a word, or would I feel pinned to the spot, hurt inside, sick the next day?
I woke up hours later and looked at him and then started crying. There he was, my love, my handsome and defiant boy who loved to be drunk and have sex and make me laugh. He’d beam at his huge muscles and I’d kiss them. He’d make clumsy artwork and show it to me proudly.
There he was, asleep.
He woke to my sobbing.
“Don’t let me go,” I said, though I don’t know if I meant it or if I was talking to him or myself or someone else.
He got out of the car and came around to my side.
He opened the door like a perfect gentleman and told me to stand up. He put his big hands, that used to hold me, on my arms.
“You’re thirty years old,” he said. “Grow up and get your fucking life together. Stop crying like a fucking bitch.”
And I had never seen such spiteful anger from him before. We’d yelled at each other and confused each other. We’d lost our way before.
I said things that I shouldn’t have said or at least that in any case at all, I’d regret.
I don’t remember being thrown to the ground, but then he was above me. He had me by my throat. He would kill me, I thought.
“I should kill you,” he said.
Why now? Why should I write about him? Four years later, it’s Independence Day again; the day I met him on his sweaty balcony. I don’t know. I don’t think about him every day, like I used to. I’ve had to work to bring some of the memories back. I’d forgot, for instance, the time we stopped at a gas station and he ran in and got me a rose. He handed it too me; it was so unnaturally red, and kissed me. I still have that rose in a little box. It’s dry now, and would fall apart if you held it too long.
I looked through letters and photos.
We’re laughing with our hats turned sideways. We’re naked in our beds.
His letters to me are full of grand sweeping statements and pained details.
In one letter, he wrote,
“If you ever did write anything about me, good or bad, I’d want it to be about love.”
When I got up, I couldn’t breathe right. I knew something in me was wrong and feverish, but couldn’t feel it. He threw his fist into my side. He screamed nothing, just a sound like a great pain; like the sound I should’ve been making.
He started to walk away.
I was catatonic and said, “get in the car.”
He got in and I drove him home, a half hour away. I pounded at the steering wheel with my hands, crying. I couldn’t think. I pounded and cried to blot out what had happened, the way you might pinch a spot that hurts, trying to overwhelm the pain.
We got back to his place and like exhausted wheels in a machine, it all worked in slow motion.
We walked up the steps to his bedroom.
We took our clothes off.
We turned the light off and lied down in bed.
I put my arm around him and he said, “You better back the fuck off.”
And that’s when, all at once, my body came back to life. I felt the pain in my broken rib, the bruises on my organs. I got up and quietly collected my clothes and walked to the bathroom. I turned the light on and looked in the mirror. Who was I?
I dressed and went back. He turned the light on and looked lonelier than I had ever seen him look.
“Where are you going?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“This will never change,” I told him. “This will never go away.”
We walked downstairs and I kissed him.
“I love you,” I said. “Goodbye.”
Once, we went to the house he grew up in. We snuck past the back yard, into the woods he played in as a little boy. There was a river there, cutting through a hill and lined with rocks. It was almost dried up in the summer heat.
“A woman lived back there,” he said, and pointed to a house farther back, covered up by trees.
“She told me that a turtle fell on its back on one of these rocks. A snapping turtle. And she told me that if I looked for it, I could find the print the turtle’s shell left on one of the rocks.”
He looked around.
“I never did find it, though.”
He climbed up the hill and stood there. The sun was lit up behind him and he looked down into the rocks, searching for the impression he’d never seen.
He was a boy up there. He hadn’t hurt anyone, he was just a boy.
In the hospital, where I spent the whole next day, in the days and months to come where I felt no trust beneath me, no life in me, no air or easy breathing through the pain of my ribs, I’d think of him standing on that hill. I still think of it, of who he was, innocent, before he hit me and would have to hide that night away.
And then, like the negative to that image, I see his face, shameful and angry, as he’s holding me down against the black nothingness of the ground.
The two are, only now, beginning to be the same person for me. The contradiction cannot be resolved or changed.
“You’ll write about this, and I’ll just be another story,” he said spitefully. “I know you will. You’ll tell everyone.”
“No,” I said. “I won’t.”