No, it’s not. Can’t be. But it is. Even at a distance, even after a year, I recognize his stoop-shouldered, loping stride slicing across the parking lot. It is him. Heading for the exact restaurant where I’m sitting at a window table waiting for my friend Lucy.
My stomach cartwheels. I sit back and lower my head, hoping the curtains of my hair will hide my face. Maybe he hasn’t seen me. I hear the door open behind me. Footsteps shuffle to a stop. I squeeze my eyes shut, hold my breath. My legs wobble. I wait for the fist to close around my wrist, the finger to jab my face, the vomit of insults and warped accusations.
The feet move. Away from me.
I exhale but keep my eyes closed and concentrate on my breathing. One one-thousand, two one-thousand… The chair in front of me scrapes. Fear spears me. He’s circled back in one of his “gotcha” maneuvers. My eyelids snap open.
It’s Lucy. Thank god.
“Danny just walked in,” I say in a taut voice.
Alarm springs on her face. “Oh Cath, no wonder you look pale.”
“We should go,” I say. I want to leave, but I’m frozen in my chair. Maybe Danny didn’t see me when he came in. If I stand up, he might notice me.
“Where is he? I want to see this guy,” Lucy says. She picks up the oversize menu and peers around it as she scans the restaurant.
“This is like a cliché out of a bad movie,” I say as I gaze at my blurred words of the menu on the table.
“Clichés are based on truth. What does he look like?”
“He has hair like a scarecrow’s,” I say.
“He dyes it.”
“Got him. He’s sitting with a guy and a girl.”
“Are they looking over here?”
She shakes her head, still staring at him. “I can see why you fell for him. There’s something about him.”
This irritates me to all fuck. She’s supposed to say he looks like a nutjob, not that he’s alluring. “Can you stop doing that?” I say.
She twists back, sets the menu on the table and penetrates me with her eyes. I see curiosity mixed with disbelief. I know what she’s thinking: How could someone like me, a journalist who’s always had her life together, fall victim to something so … sordid like domestic violence? A broil of shame and embarrassment burns inside me.
“You want to know how it happened,” I blurt.
Lucy’s eyelids flutter. “You never told me the whole story.”
“It’s just … humiliating. I can’t believe it all happened,” I feel defensiveness puff out of me. It takes energy to put up a front, and I’m suddenly tired. “That I let it all happen.”
Lucy says nothing, waiting. I take a deep breath. I’ve never really explained the whole Danny thing to myself or anyone else. It’s like a plate of spaghetti in my head. I’ve tried to disentangle it numerous times, but I’ve always given up when I encounter the knots. But I know I need to separate all the strands, not for Lucy, but for myself. I guess now’s as good a time as any.
I fell in love with Danny on our first date. As I sipped a Chablis, a balmy Miami breeze breathing on my back, he leaned low on an elbow and asked me to tell him about my life as a freelance writer. The beam of his full attention focused on me. It was an unnatural feeling for a lifelong self-effacer. My childhood moving from country to country with my father’s job meant that I was always the new kid, always different. If I wanted to fit in, I never talked about my unconventional upbringing. I had never overcome that shyness about myself.
But Danny wanted to know everything about me. I talked and talked, another strange feeling. I’ve always been the consummate listener, one of the reasons that a career as a journalist fit me like a sheath. It allowed me to exist in the background, the place where I was most comfortable.
As I spoke, Danny’s lips curved into a beatific smile. I had the overwhelming sensation that he was drinking me like a glass of water.
“You know,” he said when I tapered to a close, “you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.”
The power of validation filled me.
Danny wooed me hard. He showered me with roses and figure-silhouetting evening dresses, squired me around chic restaurants and clubs where he showed me off to his friends in the movie business. He was a low-level director waiting for his big break. “You don’t realize how beautiful you are,” he’d say. “I really like that about you.”
He wanted to read everything I’d written. I pulled out folders of magazine and newspaper clippings. As the lazy blades of the ceiling fan beat the air, we sat on my living room floor and he leafed through them, reading bits and pieces. He looked up at me, his eyes large. “You’re a great writer. You’re wasting your talent on this small shit.”
“I know I can write,” I said.
“No. You really don’t understand how talented you are.” He tossed the sheaf of paper onto the floor. “No one’s seen the real you before, have they?”
His words wrapped around my throat so tightly I couldn’t speak.
He was right.
I’d never had trouble attracting boyfriends, even marriage proposals. But I’d never been in love with any of them because no one seemed to care about who I really was, just who I was to them. No one had ever told me I was beautiful, bothered to read my work, reach inside and discover the hills and valleys of my inner landscape.
But Danny did. Right away he spotted the chasm of lovelessness within me that I didn’t know was there. My alcoholic father would roar at me to get out of his sight and my mother laughed at me when I was upset. They ascribed to the rule that if you had something nice to say, don’t say it. I had to constantly strive to gain their approval and avoid their attention at the same time. I didn’t have to strive for anything with Danny. He accepted me for who I was. He even wanted more.
Our relationship quickly blossomed. Now, when I eyed couples sitting together, radiating the comfort of completeness without even touching, I triumphed that I had arrived in the Kingdom of Coupledom. I had finally made it to the summit where the world knows you are worthy because someone wants you.
One wintry weekend, Danny took me to a posh resort, tucking me up in towels on a chilled beach and fetching me drinks. In the evening, he placed a forest of candles around the bathroom, drew me a steaming, scented bath, then undressed me and led me into the tub, kneeling at the side to lather me with his mitt-sized hands. As warm water cascaded over my back, I felt Danny permeating my pores, filling my abyss. I was afraid to exhale for fear that I would breathe him out.
“You’re the angel sent to me from heaven,” I told him.
And I meant it.
When I met him, Danny was visiting a friend in Florida. He lived in California. After our romance kindled, he’d jump on a plane and be at my doorstep without warning. “I can’t bear to be away from you,” he said. After several months, I went to visit him.
We stopped to get gas one night after dinner at a high-end steakhouse with people in the movie business. When Danny slid back in the car, he had metamorphosed. His face was contorted with rage as he accused me of having sex with a waiter. “Someone saw you with him back by the bathrooms.”
I reeled at such a preposterous allegation. “What? Who told you that? They’re lying.”
He wouldn’t reveal his source. As he drove, he kept spewing. I wasn’t taking the relationship seriously. I wasn’t in love with him. I was flirting with every man at the table. I tried to defend myself, to point out the irrationality of his accusations, but he wouldn’t listen.
He was still raging when we arrived at his apartment. I had no idea what to do. I face-planted on the couch, turned myself into stone. Talking hadn’t helped. Maybe ignoring him would. I could hear him in the kitchen on the phone. “I’m with this scumbag. Come get me.”
He entered the living room and shoved me with his knee. “Get up.” I froze with fright. He kneed me again, harder. I got up. His phone chirped. As he answered, I strode to the bedroom and started packing my bag. I’d call a taxi to the airport, take the first flight anywhere. He entered the room. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going home.”
In one stride, he seized my wrist and flung me. I landed on the bed, luckily not on the dresser. I picked myself up warily, watching him. His chest heaved as his hands clenched, unclenched. Getting ready to use them or trying not to? I couldn’t tell.
“You don’t really want to give up what we’ve got, do you? What we’ve worked for?” His voice was pleading. I relaxed. “You can’t be that cold. We have a great thing going, but if you want to leave, I’ll let you.”
I grabbed my half-packed bag. He stood aside and let me pass, but he followed me down the hall, insisting over my protests that he’d drive me to the airport. I reached the foyer. He darted in front of me and blocked the front door. Then he pinned me against the wall. I struggled but I couldn’t budge the rampart of his six-foot frame. “You can leave but you’ll never find anyone who loves you like I do. This is it for you, you know that, sweetheart.”
He kept talking in a volcano eruption of pleas. My head and heart spun in a muddy centrifuge. Then he scissored through the slurry to the bright, true filament at its center.
“You love me, don’t you?”
I did. I really didn’t want to leave Danny. I just wanted the Danny who gave me my heroin-high, the Danny who adored me. I fell limp and as he pressed his lips to mine, the cracks inside me smoothed over. I couldn’t let him go.
I kissed him back, and the ocean of the relationship closed over my head.
Several months later, I boxed up my life and moved to California to be with him. “You can live anywhere with your freelancing,” he said. “And I need you.”
Danny had come to rely on me, and truth was, I relished that role. I found the keys and papers he was always losing, accompanied him to meetings, wrote his emails. I took him to the emergency room when he had a stomach infection and crawled into the gurney with him because he was cold. I stanched the blood when he picked at his earlobe and arm. “No one’s ever been there for me like you. I’ll never forget that,” he said. “You’re very kind.”
It made me feel important to be needed. I’d never felt valued for who I was. My worth came from tangible achievements, school and work, and my sense of myself was confined to being a shy, brainy bookworm. But Danny had broken through my quilt of emotional numbness by recognizing my zany humor, my compassion, my articulate speech and more. He dizzied me with the concept that I had intrinsic worth, hard as it was for me to accept.
In return, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Danny. Without his asking, I brought him an English muffin, toasted extra crispy, in bed every morning. I trimmed his toenails. The more I did for him, the more he asked of me, and he always knew exactly what I needed to hear as my reward. “I can’t live without you,” he’d say, clutching my thigh. If I balked at doing what he wanted, he also knew the barb to pierce my recalcitrance. “You’re just like all the rest. If you loved me, you’d do it.” Of course, I didn’t want to be like all the rest. I wanted to be special. I‘d never felt special before so I did whatever Danny asked.
After we moved in together, things that he’d previously talked about—hiring a maid so I’d have more time to write, getting married even—evaporated, as did the flow of money and even sex. He demanded more of me, making me run errands to fetch him things. His praise devolved into criticisms. “You’re unsteady.” “You’re moody.” “You’re secretive.” He counseled against keeping my old friends or making new ones. “They’re jealous of you. You’re way above them, Cath.”
A maelstrom of doubt clouded my head. Was he right?
I put down the changes to the start of the hard work of domestic partnership. And we still had fun. We’d twin with our baseball caps turned backwards and sweatshirts tied around our waists and laugh giddily at stupid things—the way I bit into an apple or his clumsy fingers that looked like sausages. We went dancing and Danny twirled me to disco hits until my heart beat like shaken Tic-Tacs and his back stiffened into a ramrod. Sometimes we’d quietly recap our days over dinner like any other couple.
But those heady sparks occurred less and less. I came to live for them like an addict craved a fix.
Danny hoisted me onto his pedestal one last time. For my birthday, he insisted on holding a little party at a trendy restaurant, complete with his favorite ice cream cake, although all I wanted was to go out to dinner with him, alone. So I made conversation with his friends as he sat on the other side of the tufted velvet booth, talking business with a couple hangers-on and ignoring me. Under the muted glow of a crystal chandelier, I tried to convince myself of the generosity of a gesture I didn’t want, that I was proud and lucky to be with someone so in demand. But I saw the pedestal was hollow.
I knew there was something broken in Danny, just like there was something broken in me.
“Are you ready to order, ladies?” The over-cheery server is a welcome interruption. Now we can move on to the business of eating.
Lucy waves her off then studies me like I’m the Mona Lisa. To avoid her gaze, I glug half the glass of water.
“I know from what you’ve told me before, that it got a lot worse. Why didn’t you just get up and go?”
“Why does anyone do what they do?” I bang the glass down on the table a little harder than I’d intended. I actually feel that I should get up and go now. I don’t have to undergo this interrogation. A familiar brick wall springs up inside me.
She lowers her eyes and picks up a spoon, flipping it over and over. “Sorry. You don’t have to tell me…”
I feel the bricks inside loosen and tumble. I have to tell her. Telling the story aloud is forcing me to not only confront it, but put it in order in my own mind. I have to keep going.
I fuel up on the rest of the water.
Danny’s baseless jealousy worsened even though I was living with him and working in his office. According to Danny, I cheated on him with the plumber who came to fix the sink. I arranged a rendezvous with a lawyer I sat next to at a dinner party. I was flirting when I returned a boy’s ball to a group of people at the park and a man stood to accept it.
One Sunday we went to the beach. Sitting under a brittle blue sky, he thumbed through his contacts, calling people to push scripts. I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus with his loud, profane conversation, so I went for a walk, plowing the lacy surf as I dodged babies and balls. After a while, I turned back. When I arrived at our spot, all that remained were a pile of orange peels and my sandals. My eyes darted to the parking lot. Danny was pulling away in the car. I bolted to the road. He was gone.
A police car cruised by. I flagged down the cop, told him I’d had a fight with my boyfriend and asked if I could borrow his cell phone. He rolled his eyes as he handed it to me.
Danny was in a fury. “I looked for you everywhere. You were giving blowjobs along the beach!” He wouldn’t listen to reason but said he’d come get me. I hung up and handed the phone back to the cop. I had no money, no clothes, no choice but to wait. Two women came up as I sat on the curb under a petticoat of shade. “Leave him,” one said.
Three hours later, he still hadn’t shown up. I borrowed a passerby’s phone and called him. I told him the police had come by asking why my boyfriend hadn’t picked me up. Danny was petrified of cops. He arrived within minutes. I got in the car, steeling myself for the tirade.
“How dare you call the cops on me! Of course, I was going to come get you. Is that all you think of our relationship?” He looked at my feet. “I left your sandals? I didn’t mean to.”
I accepted the hail of blame as the only way to pacify him. No, I shouldn’t have been gone so long. Yes, I should have taken my phone. Yes, I should have made him talk to me if I was bored and lonely.
I had made a mistake to move in with Danny but I couldn’t crawl back to my parents and admit I’d been wrong. I didn’t know how to say that I’d made a bad decision. I always had my shit together. I was the A student, the reporter who always made deadline, the one editors relied on in a pinch because they knew I’d get the job done. All that had trapped me in the sticky cobweb of pride in the pursuit of perfection—and approval.
Besides, I had glimmers of hope that it would work.
After one of his rages, Danny unveiled a chink of self-awareness. “I know I’m not good at this relationship stuff. I’m fucked up.” He sat on the edge of the bed, twisting his hands inside one another, his voice fracturing under the ballast of revelation. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me. I have so much pain. It’s like a black hole inside me.” He plunged his face in my shoulder and wrapped a lock of my hair around his fist, tugging on it as if it were a lifeline.
Danny told me his father would beat him then take him bleeding to the hospital for stitches. He’d go to school with bruises and tell the teacher he’d tripped when she asked who hit him. He suffered migraines from the blows to his head. He said he deserved to be beaten. “Back then that was how you disciplined kids, and I needed disciplining. My father had to hit me to keep me on the straight and narrow. If he hadn’t, I would’ve been a juvenile delinquent.” “I’ve never told anyone this. When people see the real me, they always run away. You’re the only one who hasn’t run away.”
His pain severed my heart. I wanted to crawl inside him and smooth his ragged edges, fill his black pit with love. He hadn’t deserved to be beaten. I had to rescue him, not abandon him. If he got help, we could be happy. He promised to see a therapist. “I’ll do whatever you want me to. You’re the only person who has cared enough to want to help me.”
I was buoyant on a sea of hope. I researched therapists and made appointments.
He never went.
The rages and jealousy escalated. The corkscrewing of my emotions and thinking tightened. I began to slide.
Thanksgiving Day. I made a turkey dinner and Danny invited his assistant Ned and, without asking me, a vapid friend of his who I couldn’t stand, Sally. The meal was a lot of work and so was putting up with Sally, but afterward, I got my recompense. “How did I ever live without you?” Danny asked. He gave me a petal-soft kiss on the lips as we cuddled on the couch to watch a movie. Around nine, he had to take Ned home. Sally left, as well.
“Sex when I get back?” he whispered as he caressed my hair. “I love my beautiful green-eyed girl so much.” He traced the outline of my lips with his forefinger.
I waited for Danny on the couch. I waited for him in bed. At ten-thirty, I called him.
“I’m on my way home. I’ll be right there.” He hung up.
I fell asleep and woke to an empty bed at twelve-thirty. I called him.
“I’m five blocks away,” he said.
“What happened to you?”
“I went with Sally to meet Sean and his girlfriend for a drink.”
An arrow quilled with anger, resentment, bitterness, envy shot through me as I hung up. I’d been the perfect girlfriend that day, and I still wasn’t good enough. I splintered, right down the middle.
Danny called back. He didn’t mean to hurt me. He loved me, needed me. Sobs strangled my throat. I couldn’t form words and hung up. I spotted his Oxycontins on the dresser. Danny had been taking them for years for back pain. Oblivion beckoned. I didn’t want to feel anymore. I wanted to be unconscious, for him to find me and freak out. Maybe the prospect of losing me forever would scare him into treating me better.
I swallowed a pill. Nothing. After a while, I took another. My stomach somersaulted. My muscles shimmied. My teeth chattered. But I still felt rending pain.
I rammed one of his Vicodins down my throat. I started to float but I was wide-eyed. I took another and waited vainly for the blissful knockout. I finally swallowed two sleep aids and around five, crashed into a shattered sleep.
I woke to Danny kneeling at my side, puffy pouches under his eyes.
“You scared me. You were so upset on the phone. I’ll never do that to you again, I promise. You know I’d never hurt you. You’re so beautiful. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again.” He buried my cheeks in his square palms. “But you never asked me to come home. I was waiting for you to say ‘Danny, come home.’ I would’ve if you’d said that.”
I didn’t care what his excuse was. He was there. I flung my arms around him, burrowed my face in his neck and intoxicated myself with the smell of his skin.
As always, his apologies, as well as his worry that I’d taken so many pills, faded. By now I’d learned that the key to maintaining stability was avoiding triggering his rages. I weighed every move I made against the possibility that he’d explode. I started to scheme. I lied about running into friends when I arranged to meet them. I lied about traffic jams when I was late coming back from the supermarket where I went to call my friends and family without him hovering over me. When he railed at me, I turned into a quivering, crying blob of Jell-O because I’d found that was the only way to halt his fury.
I became someone I no longer recognized.
When my next birthday rolled around, I didn’t even merit a happy birthday email. Danny picked a fight with me the day before and went AWOL as punishment. I spent the day researching on the internet what could be wrong with him. When he showed up the next day with a pair of turquoise earrings and a smile, I was no longer pretending.
“Danny, I can’t ride this rollercoaster with you anymore. There’s something seriously wrong.” I tucked his hair behind his ears as we sat on the couch. “I think it’s something called borderline personality disorder. It’s not your fault. You can get therapy for it, mood stabilization drugs.”
He nodded. “I don’t want to be like this. You’re right. I’ll go to a therapist, I really will this time.”
We held each other so long and tight that we had to let go to gasp for air.
When I woke with early morning’s pale clarity seeping through the blinds, Danny was gone. I shuffled through the living room to the kitchen to make coffee. The floor was littered with torn scraps of paper. I picked up a few pieces. Photos of me.
Dread gripped my stomach. A scrawled note lay on the table. “Nice try at brainwashing me.”
The front door flew open. Danny marched in.
“You cold evil bitch!” He towered over me, his face rabid. I shrank back. It was the worst I had ever seen him. “You’ve been poisoning my pills! I’m going to take them to my friend at the DEA to have them tested!”
The truth crashed me like a two-by-four upside the head. Danny was unequivocally mentally ill. I wasn’t safe with him. On flimsy legs, I dashed into the bathroom and locked the door until I heard him leave. Then I made the best decision of my life.
I was throwing clothes into a bag when he came in. He’d done his usual one-eighty. “Where are you going?”
“To a hotel.”
“Why? You accused me of attempted murder.”
“I didn’t mean that. I was just mad. You know how I say things when I’m mad. I take things out on you because you’re the one closest to me.”
“How can I stay with someone who thinks I would poison them?”
“I love you. You mean the world to me. I was just angry, that’s all. How can you leave me? Doesn’t our relationship mean anything to you? Don’t you want to help me?” He looked around. “Can you leave the couch and some kitchen stuff?”
I left with just my clothes and drove through a gale of sobs to a motel, where I curled up on a bed and cried myself into exhaustion.
Danny left me countless voicemails. “I just want to know you’re safe. You know I love you. I want you back. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll go to a therapist. Think of all we’ve been through together. Think of our history.”
Maybe it was the flood of tears that cleared my vision, but I didn’t fall for his entreaties this time. It was like when I got glasses in fourth grade. Suddenly, I could see leaves on the trees instead of a fuzzy verdant mass. I saw that it wasn’t photos of me strewn in pieces on the floor, it was me. Danny had shredded my sense of self. I had to gather up the shards and take possession of myself.
He didn’t make it easy. He mounted a Napoleonic campaign to win me back, phoning, emailing, messaging. He used friends as intermediaries, sent flowers, ambushed me in front of my new apartment.
Not responding to him was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I couldn’t go back to him, but I still felt as if a huge chunk of me had been gouged out. I’d erupt into crying fits while driving, shopping, showering. I longed to see him, hear his voice. Everything reminded me of him—his brand of sneakers in a store window, someone wearing a wooden cross on a string like the one he wore. I felt guilty for leaving him. Who would take care of him? I forced myself to remember the bad times. And I felt burdened with indelible shame that I’d allowed this to happen to me.
Danny’s pursuit went on for months, then I realized I hadn’t heard from him for a while. A massive weight lifted from me.
I spoke to Danny one last time. He called several months later at four in the morning, catching me fogged with sleep. “Do you miss me? I miss you,” he whispered.
It was the same tactic he’d used when I’d tried to leave him the first time. He hadn’t changed. He never would. But I had.
“I do miss you, a lot, but I will never go back to you.”
I slump, drained.
“Wow” is all Lucy says.
I nod. That about sums it up.
“Hey, Cath.” I swivel. Danny stands there, like an apparition smiling with warm eyes. “How are you?”
The restaurant bustle drops away. I stare at him, this man who was the earthquake of my life, who altered the geography of my being.
“Let’s go.” Lucy’s voice sounds faint, as if she’s down a tunnel, but I note the urgency in her tone. Now she knows the whole story, it’s she who has turned apprehensive.
But I’m not. I feel nothing. I’m not trembling. My stomach is smooth. I am enveloped in calm. I know then Danny was just something that happened to me. But it’s over. Now he’s gone. The telling of my story exorcised the ghost of it. I don’t have to run away from him anymore. Now I can stay out of strength, not weakness.
The server swishes over. “Ready to order?”
I turn to her, ignoring Danny. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
Christina Hoag is a former journalist and author of a YA novel inspired by her experience in an abusive relationship, “Girl on the Brink.” She volunteers at a women’s shelter where she lives in the Los Angeles area and speaks about intimate partner violence at conferences and groups. You can find her at www.christinahoag.com.