10.14: “It could have been me.”

Monday, October 17, 2005

It’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month – betcha didn’t know that, huh? – and I spent most of today designing a book for my organization’s newest anti-abuse program. When I reached the section of quotes from Jewish women who’ve been battered by their husbands I slowed down to read them. None of it is terribly dramatic; actually it’s quite concise and matter-of-fact, which somehow makes it even more powerful. I know these women. I’ve met them at our domestic violence conferences and watched them in our documentary films. But to sit alone in my office with no distractions and see their stories in stark black and white — that brought it home for me. At first I was sad. And then angry. And then I started to shake a little because I remembered how easily it could have been me.

Our first inclination is to shake a finger at these battered women and ask, “How could you let it happen? Why didn’t you just walk out the door?” We don’t understand that it’s impossible to see a situation as a “situation” when you’re looking at it from the inside. Good God, I thought again and again today, it could have been me. I am so strong, so aware, my take-no-crap policy is so firm… and still it could have been me.

All the times my ex-boyfriend snapped at me for singing in the car, when he squeezed my arm too tight and pulled me too hard while we were crossing the street, when he put me down with subtle comments only someone tuned into my deepest insecurities would know to use… The way he rushed and manipulated me the first time we had sex; I didn’t say no, but I didn’t really feel I had a choice. A few times he bit me while we were in bed – hard enough to draw tears, but not blood. He always apologized, blamed it on the heat of the moment, but my heart – and the throbbing bruise on my rear end – knew otherwise.

Even when he would tickle me it was too hard and too long until I couldn’t breathe; until I was begging him to stop. Beneath all his affectionate gestures was an undercurrent of resentment and anger that surfaced slowly as our relationship wore on. From the outside it was a clear pattern of aggression – made worse, I think, by the fact that he was nearly twice my size – but at the time, in the thick of it, I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. I was 27; I was ripe for marriage; I wanted so much to make us work.

My ex is a prosecutor, and while we were dating he was involved in the trial of a man who murdered his girlfriend in a most brutal and horrific way. In the months he spent preparing the case my ex would wonder aloud, over and over, “I just can’t understand how a man could do a thing like that.” The more I got to know him the more I could hear what he really was saying: “I understand how a man could do a thing like that. I could do a thing like that, and I hope to God I never will.” I think he finally broke up with me because he realized what he was capable of and it terrified him.

So why didn’t I leave? Why did I try harder and harder to make it right when I should have just walked out the door? The same reasons all women stay: We had as many good times as bad and he could be so sweet, so charming. My family adored him. I adored his family. I felt responsible for him, almost maternally so, and I thought that with enough nurturing I could lead him to the inner peace he so desperately wanted to find.

And there was his dream of this “perfect life”: With his connections (he had many) and my…whatever he thought I brought to the table, he envisioned us as a team that would send poor kids to college, end world hunger, and be the power couple everyone expected us to become. “You’ll be the brains of the operation,” he used to say, “and I’ll be the face.” (This is the danger in socializing children to desire a lifestyle, instead of a life of their own creation.) Most of what he promised didn’t much appeal to me, but his ambition was infectious and I eventually warmed to the idea of a number of things, most of them material, that I’ve since cleared from my vision of the future.

My ex is not an evil man, he has a big heart and a serious behavioral problem, not unlike a hyperactive child. Last winter I agreed to meet him for a drink but he canceled at the last minute saying it was too painful for him to be in the same room with me knowing we couldn’t be together. Last spring I again agreed to see him for a few hours and things quickly became uncomfortable. (I know, you’re wondering what the hell is wrong with me, but understand that it’s very easy to want to make peace with an ex when you’re 100 percent confident that you will never, ever, ever want him back. Ever.)

I curled up in a chair at Starbucks. He sat next to me with his hand resting on my foot. He ran down a list of all his friends and what was new in their lives: Engaged. Married. New house. New baby.

“I’m going to be 39 this year,” he said, tracing my ankle bone with his finger. My stomach turned. “I want to have a family. I think about you a lot and I know nobody will ever take care of me the way you could.” I stifled an incredulous guffaw – he looked so vulnerable it kind of broke my heart – and instead let my silence speak for itself.

He kept smiling but I could tell he was hurt, and on the way out the door, when nobody was around, he started to tickle me. The mean way. He dug his fist into my armpit and didn’t stop until my eyes stung with tears. A half hour later at home, I sat down on my bed and touched the tender spot he’d knuckled into my side, wondering why I hadn’t thrown my elbow into his ribs, crushed his toe with my heel, something. The answer is the difference between him and me: I may have a wicked temper, I may think nasty thoughts from time to time, but when it comes down to it I just don’t have it in me to willfully hurt another person.

He called last week to wish me a happy new year and ask if I’d like to have lunch. “No agenda this time,” he swore, “I just thought it’d be nice to see your face.” I told him I was busy, but of course that wasn’t true. It’s simply time to stop playing this game. He’s no longer my responsibility and no longer my problem. And let’s not forget – let’s not ever forget – how easily I could have become an abuse victim – hopefully a survivor – instead of a woman lucky enough to get out before it was too late.

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