Image Credit: Federico Enni
“I love you.” A phrase, words we use to express how we feel about someone.
When we were baby girls, our dads said, “I love you,” with a squeal and our toothless smile with pink gums revealed itself. They bathed us, wrapping our fragile body in a warm towel afterwards. They gave us warmth, tenderness, and affection with big kisses and gentle hugs. They encouraged us when we took our first steps: the excitement on our little face, wide-eyed, smiling big, when they said, “you can do it,” cheering us on, and when we took a step or two, they shouted, “You did it,” with elation. They hid their face, then popped into view, shouting, “Peekaboo, I see you,” and we laughed out loud.
When we were toddlers, our dads said, “I love you,” and we said, “I love you,” back, but they were just words to us. They demonstrated their love with warmth, tenderness, and affection, giving us big kisses and even bigger hugs, our little body not as fragile. They kept us safe wherever we went: sitting in a kiddie pool with us, our little arms sporting floaties. They gave us praise when we pooped in our potty-training toilet, shouting, “you did it,” with excitement, and we giggled and clapped our hands, at our accomplishment. They were our biggest cheerleader when we learned our ABCs, numbers and shapes. They engaged in play: hide and go seek, dress-up, barbies, house, dollies, and antics to make us laugh.
When we were a little older, now little girls, our dads said, “I love you,” adding: sweetie, baby, honey, or angel face. So, we knew “I love you” meant something good and we smiled big and said, “I love you,” but they were still, just words to us. They demonstrated their love with warmth, tenderness, and affection with big kisses and even bigger hugs, holding us tighter. They applauded and said, “good job,” when we learned how to ride our bike or “what a pretty picture” when we held up our scribbled masterpiece with pride. They helped us work through emotions: acknowledging our anger when a playmate threw our dolly in the toilet, or sadness when our pet fish died. They still engaged in play: hide and go seek, dress-up with full makeup, barbies, and house. And they would entertain us with their googly eyes, flapping their arms like a bird, just to hear us laugh.
“I love you.” A phrase, words we use to express how we feel about someone. What does a toddler do? What does a little girl do? With words?
Years later, now a woman, I began thinking about when and how my path devoid of self-worth manifested itself: Nick was his name. I was eighteen and he was twenty-seven.
A warm, humid, summer night was usual for Miami, the intermittent blasts of stifling air made breathing a luxury. Our destination, the beach: We would frolic in the warm, salty water. Eat Cuban cuisine. And secure a secluded spot, engaging ourselves, two people quenching their insatiable appetite.
Nick pulled into an isolated area with mammoth trees surrounding us. His gray Chevy Monza came to a screeching halt.
“Why did you stop here?” I asked, staring into Nick’s deep brown, bloodshot eyes.
“Aren’t we going to the beach?” He ignored me, opening the driver’s side door.
I detached my stare, perusing the trees, feeling as if they would swallow us whole. We were in a dark, eerie, densely wooded area. I was with my boyfriend, so I was safe. Was I, though?
With the car engine off, the song “Baby, I Love Your Way” played on the radio, echoing throughout the empty space around us. The head lights remained, illuminating the darkness. He stepped onto a slab of cement, and opened the hatch, the cargo compartment adorned with a blue blanket.
“Come here!” he demanded.
I got out of the car, unhurried in my reaction, a subtle display of defiance. I couldn’t ignore the ominous dark sky as I took a deep breath of fresh air infused with pine. My pumps scraped the cement, like chalk on a blackboard. The perspiration at the nape of my neck dripped down my back. I wanted to peel off my blouse. Nick was sitting on the blanket, glaring at me. Without warning, he unbuttoned my jeans, yanking them down with my panties. I knew he saw fear in my eyes, while he disrobed my squirming body.
“What are you doing?! I don’t want to! Not like this!” I yelled.
Despite my plea, his need to dominate me didn’t stop him from executing his devious intentions. He unbuttoned his jeans, pulling them down with his briefs. Beads of sweat congregated on his forehead. I thought, why is he doing this? He was my boyfriend, privy to me being almost as sexual as he was, without being labeled a nymphomaniac. But it was more about control than sex, coupled with Nick inebriated.
“Turn around and bend over,” he demanded. Impatient, he took me by the arms, turned me around, straddled my legs, and pushed my torso down, positioning himself.
Frightened of any ill-willed consequence, submission was my body’s response. My body trembled as he entered me with a thrust. My hands found fleeting comfort in the soft, blue blanket. Tears blurred my vision, their saltiness finding my lips. My fingers grasped the blanket as he pulled my dark tresses from behind. His alluring scent invaded my nose, an unexpected aphrodisiac. I thought, is it wrong; it feels so good? It wasn’t supposed to feel good. He was raping me.
After a while, the pleasure began to wane, the realization I was confused. My eighteen-year-old self, grappled with what was happening, but there was little Kimmy, my inner child, who was getting the male attention she was starving for. Negative attention wasn’t exempt. When Nick was finished, he moaned while emptying himself.
My thoughts were racing: Was it normal, a boyfriend forcing his girlfriend to have sex? Was it considered rape? The more thoughts, flooded my mind, the angrier I became.
“You’re horrible! What’s wrong with you!?” Nick treated me like an object, a stranger he solicited on a street corner, while he used my body as a vessel for his deviant pleasure.
His olive complexion was fiery red. His eyes narrowed, bore a hole through me. The veins in his neck, blueish green, were bulging on each side, his full lips pursed. In an instant: His large hand slapped me across the face so hard, my half-naked, 115-pound body fell to the dirty, cold, hard, slab of cement. I stopped breathing. The air sucked out of me like a deflated balloon. Everything went black. Like the time my mom told me I blacked out as a kid at a roller-skating rink, from crying without taking a breath, because I wasn’t getting my way.
I opened my eyes, feeling coldness beneath my body. I wanted to scream, but the only sounds heard were me gasping for air, between hysterical, convulsive sobs. Being hit, I knew couldn’t be normal. Shocked, I laid on the cement, holding my injured face, the stinging, like a hundred bees had released their venom. I was in a daze of disbelief, staring at the ground as if a logical explanation was deep within the black dirt. If I had any self-worth, Nick would have taken it that night.
Did Nick love me? He told me multiple times a day, “I love you my Chi Chi,” his nickname for me. Possessive. He was always affectionate toward me. Clingy. He was caring and nurturing, even maternal. When I was sick, he took care of me. When I was hungry or thirsty, he made sure it wasn’t for long. When I was upset over strained relationships with family and friends, he held me in his arms. He would tell me, “You’re beautiful; your eyes change color, from brown to green” and “You have a beautiful body—you’re so sexy.” I was the only woman he had eyes for and it felt real. Didn’t it all mean something?
“I can’t believe you hit me! There’s something wrong with you—asshole!”
“Shut your mouth!” Nick yelled, anger in his eyes, his hand still shaking from his wrath.
I must have been a masochist, challenging his perverse need to control me, moments after being struck. I used the slab of cement to gain footing and raised my body. Leaning against the car, I pulled up my panties and jeans, cringing from the cold, wetness against my body. The air outside became warmer. The pine scent had dissipated, the aroma of our fluids replacing it.
Nick revealed a sardonic grin with a cold empty stare, and said, “Get in the car.”
I was in an unfamiliar emotional state. I had never experienced anything traumatic. Unless you count the flasher at a strip mall, who exposed himself to me, opening his trench coat to his nakedness. I was twelve-years old, speechless and shocked. I got into my mom’s car and sobbed like a baby, unable to speak. “What’s wrong, sweetie? What happened?” my mom asked, with a confused look on her face. I got over it, but I never forgot the creepy flasher.
He pulled into the circular driveway. I opened the car door, anxious to get out. Nick leaned over to kiss me, like cotton on my bare lips, swollen from his rage. I was listless, staggering without the drunkenness to the front door, hoping my legs wouldn’t fail me. My knees throbbed. The raw skin burned like they had been doused with alcohol.
“Bye, baby. I love you,” he said, with a smile.
I gave Nick my big signature smile, and without echoing “I love you,” said, “bye,” in my mind, giving him the middle finger.
I was humiliated and felt dirty, similar to what a prostitute must feel after her first sexual encounter. Those feelings would dissolve, my eighteen-year old self would rationalize: “It’s okay; he’s my boyfriend.” Being raped, being hit, was just a hiccup, because Kimmy was getting the attention and the all-consuming love, she desired. My innocent, carefree existence, began its demise, a little of it buried that night.
I met Nick at a nightclub, a few months after graduating high school. A belated graduation gift. Our chemistry was instantaneous. The next thing I knew, we were dancing to the song, “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa, mesmerized by each other’s presence. I found him mysterious, almost dangerous. His piercing eyes held secrets I wanted to uncover. My friends thought he was too old for me. Maybe he was. But nothing could have pried us away from each other. He was average height at five-nine, his physique, similar to a middle weight boxer. I was a teeth person, but Nick had a gap between his front teeth I found sexy, so was the dimple on his right cheek. He was my first love, but my third sexual partner, my experience with men beginning at the ripe age of fifteen. After I met Nick, I would understand the powerful feelings a first love elicits.
It was morning, the sun shone into my bedroom through the minute holes of the window blinds. My face was achy and sore, I couldn’t open my mouth more than an inch. I’d heard about lockjaw, but thought it was from TMJ or giving a blowjob for too long. Years later I realized, blunt force trauma was the culprit. Nick left me with a recurring, permanent reminder.
The reality was, in a matter of minutes: A sheltered, non-street smart, naïve, middle class, eighteen-year-old girl, was in an abusive relationship. After my first collision with Nick’s depraved, Mr. Hyde persona, abuse became an unwanted companion. I fell into an abyss and didn’t want anyone to extend a rope. Kimmy, was an innocent liaison, often whispering in my ear, he shows you love; he loves you; it’s okay.
I loved Nick. At least I thought I did with zero love for myself. I couldn’t, well, wouldn’t leave him. Being with him filled the emotional hole left in the wake of my childhood, feeling unloved by my dad, silencing any lingering doubt.
I wouldn’t tell anyone. My secrets, my suffering, my denial, would be contained in a little box for safe keeping. And if my little box was safe, I would continue to be under Nick’s spell.
Since I was a little girl, I longed to feel loved by my “Daddy” Eddy, short for Edmund. I wanted warm, tight hugs and kisses. I didn’t just want to hear the words “I love you” spoken so often, like saying, “Have a nice day.” I needed my dad to be present. To hear him say, “Sweetie, your picture is so pretty,” when I held up my stick figure drawing, wanting his praise. To hear him say, “You can do it,” with enthusiasm, as I learned how to ride my bike, wobbling from side to side, conquering my self-doubt, and to shout, “good job,” when I did. To spend quality time with me, coloring (scribbling) or watching cartoons, showing me, I was worthy of his time. To always tell me, “You can do anything you set your mind to” so it was ingrained in me. To look into an audience during a dance performance, and zero in on my dad, smiling at me with pride.
As an eight-year old, I often thought: Maybe if I was smarter, he would give me attention. Maybe if I was prettier, he would give me affection.
To be fair, my dad wasn’t cognizant he was emotionally unavailable. He couldn’t have known, feeling unloved by him, was as if he had taken my hand and led me to four years of tug-of-war with Kimmy. He couldn’t have known a sense of self-loathing was festering inside me. He didn’t know: A dad’s role in his daughter’s life is crucial. How dads treat their daughter as a child, offers her a glimpse of how in the future, she should be treated by a man. Or how she will be treated by a man.
Years later, I had profound thoughts, swirling around my head, wondering, questioning, “When does abuse begin?” What if abuse toward women, by an intimate partner, doesn’t begin when they are: punched or slapped or beaten or called a “bitch” or told they are “nothing” or told they are “dumpy” or raped, or forced to perform sexual acts, for the first time? What if it begins when they’re children, yearning to feel loved by their dad, needing more than the words “I love you” spoken? When dads are supposed to demonstrate actions, intrinsic to their little girl’s self-worth.
After four years of countless attempts, I ended the relationship with Nick, weening him off me, like a child from his pacifier. Seeing him less, speaking to him less, then not at all: I wouldn’t have to worry about being deserted in a parking lot at four in the morning, bartering my high school ring to pay the cab fare. I wouldn’t have to worry about his drug induced rapes in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t have to worry about being manhandled in front of strangers, humiliated. I wouldn’t have to worry about his crazed jealous fits, delusions I was “fucking” other men. I wouldn’t have to cover the bruises his hand left on my face, with heavy pancake makeup. I wouldn’t fear Nick’s rage after coming back from a night of binge drinking and hard drugs.
I had new worries. Nick began stalking me. I had worries haunting my waking hours, waiting, wondering each day, what atrocities he would unleash. After living with my quirky friend, Tara, for six months, I thought I’d be safer, moving back into my mom’s house. I was wrong. An ominous presence was lurking, no matter where I was.
Unnerved by impending danger, my mom had an alarm system installed. She also had my bedroom windows nailed shut. No one was getting in or out. I thought, so much for fresh air. Although we felt safer, there was still the threat of Nick, once I left the house.
My mom and dad were distressed, worried in a way parents would be, if their daughter’s life was threatened by someone they deemed “the devil.” My parents’ biggest fear: My body would be found decaying somewhere in the woods or a Florida swamp. I had no fear of death. I thought I was invincible, like most young adults. I was also very naïve.
As days and weeks passed, I became complacent in my comings and goings, to a fault as it would turn out.
On a cloudless, spring morning, I walked outside. The air smelled like fresh, cut grass. I was going to work, a posh gym downtown, surrounded by skyscrapers. I opened the car door, the rustling of leaves startling me. My nerves were frazzled. I saw a glimpse of Nick, emerging from a bush with a deranged look in his eyes, sprinting toward me, almost knocking me down.
He held a sharp object against my bare arm, and with an assertive whisper, his mouth against my ear, said, “Get in the car now. I’m driving.” I didn’t scream. I didn’t try to run. My teeth were chattering, like it was thirty degrees outside. I thought, he’s kidnapping me—is today going to be the day? And tomorrow my parents will hear about a woman’s body found in the woods, or a swamp. Nick’s hands gripped the steering wheel, his foot stomped on the accelerator. The revving engine and my muffled sobs filled the car.
“Why are you doing this!? Where are we going!?” I yelled.
“My house. We’re going to my house.”
“Don’t you get it, you’re kidnapping me!? Are you crazy!?”
“Stop talking! Stop yelling! Stop crying! I know what I’m doing.” His hands were shaking, his erratic behavior familiar, the effects of drugs flowing through his blood stream. Nick was unhinged.
When I was in a relationship with Nick, the days when my face wasn’t in the way of his large fist, or I wasn’t forced to have sex, he was loving, caring, and attentive to my every need. Violence was a distant memory on those days. We’d wake up, our warm bodies spooning. I was on the inside, my buttocks against his soft skin and generous erection. He would rake his fingers through my curls, and scratch my back, giving me goosebumps. And then, we made love. It was soft, slow, tantalizing love making on those days. We were in our own little bubble. The sweet, loving Nick I witnessed on those days, was who I wanted. The occasions without him being zonked I reveled in. The occasions that held me hostage, triggering denial after he hit me, after he raped me.
The house was vacant. No one would hear me scream. “Get out of the car and walk in front of me,” he demanded. “We’re going to my room.”
He slammed the door and locked it. “Don’t scream, you understand?” I thought, who would even hear me?
Nick rummaged through his dresser drawer, pulling out two ugly neck-ties I didn’t recognize: one with yellow stripes, the other red plaid. I thought, Neck-ties? Why in the hell would he need neck-ties?
“Stand-up and hold your arms out.” Of course.
He took my wrists, put them side by side, binding them. Whimpering, I told him, “It hurts; please loosen it.” He did.
Nick forced me to bend over, pulled down my pants and ripped off my panties. He pulled down his shorts and briefs. His hands took hold of my hips, forcing himself inside. He exhaled with a moan. I felt his thrust, nothing else.
“Stop!” I screamed. I thought, no one is home, no one will hear you. Get through this.
He took a sock, bunched it up, and stuffed it into my mouth. My stomach dropped. I was nauseous, struggling to breath. I couldn’t console myself. I wasn’t Kim or Kimmy. I was a non-entity. My being had plummeted to a vast, empty space.
He pulled my ponytail from behind, inflicting pain. Maybe he thought I enjoyed it. I didn’t. I prayed it would end, languishing before Nick, who was oblivious. His only concern was feeling pleasure, while he enjoyed his favorite pastime—controlling me.
Nick was someone I once loved in a way only an eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one-year old young woman without self-worth could. I once wanted his lips to devour mine. To feel every bone in his body against mine. For us to make love so often our bodies would collapse from exhaustion. When our bodies were wrapped around each other, it wasn’t close enough. I would have crawled inside of him, if it was possible. It was ironic: I felt safe and protected by Nick, yet he was my abuser. The relationship, the feelings, were all-consuming, like we were a drug for one another, unnatural to be deemed normal.
He took the sock from my mouth, wet from saliva. Just when I believed, Nick kidnapping and raping me was near its death, he reached his hand into my bra and caressed my breast. He took my clothes off, leaving me even more vulnerable, then disrobed himself. He pushed me onto the bed, looking down at my bare body. Was he waiting for me to say, “I want you?” or “Fuck me?” or “I still love you?” It wasn’t going to happen.
Nick didn’t care whether I loved him, his madness hinged on what he wanted. I kept my thoughts at bay, the disassociation helped. Then it would be over.
He laid beside me, breathless. He had used my body, until I felt it no longer belonged to me.
After we cleaned ourselves up and got dressed, he said, “Okay, let’s go. You drive. Drop me off at the adult video store.” No surprise there. I didn’t reveal a glimpse of my relief, afraid he would equate a reaction, with losing control of me.
I drove away from his neighborhood, following his command to “take a left at the next light.” It was a silent, five-minute drive. He brushed my check with his lips, then covered mine. I didn’t reject it, I thought, Just get through this, Kim.
“I’ll get a ride home or walk, okay, Chi Chi? I love you.” I am not your Chi Chi, asshole! I’m not your anything!
“Okay,” What I wanted to say was: “I hate you! You’ve made my life miserable and scary. The good never outweighed the bad when I was with you. You’re a menace to any society. Stay the fuck out of my life and leave me alone!” But, taking the high road was a path I preferred.
We looked at each other, me with camouflaged distain and Nick dripping with pathetic sadness in his eyes. I waited until he entered the video store. As I sat there, paralyzing fear plagued my thoughts: He’s going to run after my moving car and pound his fists on the trunk. He isn’t done with me. He isn’t going to stop stalking me. Nick was in denial, not grasping the depth of his wicked acts. In his deluded mind, I had been his possession, with ownership beyond severing the relationship.
As I drove away, I made a vow: “I will never allow him to take me against my will, or violate me again.”
I wrestled with my feelings for Nick, how they could be reduced to nil, after loving him like a magnetic force that couldn’t be pulled apart. He became a bitter taste, like a mouthful of day-old, black coffee. He was repulsive to all of my senses. The love I had for Nick was lost, somewhere between gaining a little bit of self-worth, and seeing him, who he was, from outside our little bubble.
My mom was in tears, hearing the unimaginable story of me being kidnapped, bound, gagged, and raped. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was lucky, spared from being held hostage or worse. My decaying body in the woods or a swamp. I filed a police report, but told the female officer “I’ll let you know. I’m just not sure if I want to press charges.” Call it fear. Or maybe, I didn’t have the emotional strength, exhausted from the four years it took to silence Kimmy whispering in my ear, he shows you love; he loves you; it’s okay.
After a failed second kidnapping, Nick was arrested, found a mile from my house by police officers hunting him, like he had hunted me. Pressing charges against Nick, was no longer a conundrum. To live without fearing him and the imminent escalation of violence, I had a choice: my life or perish at the hands of Nick. It was an easy choice. I wouldn’t be the victim of an early demise. My family wouldn’t be left grief-stricken, tasked with identifying my decaying body.
The night Nick was arrested, I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, a spectacular view of a glow-in-the-dark galaxy. I felt strange, but a good strange, smiling, on the verge of giddiness. A sense of peace enveloping me. I was safe. But for the first time in four years, I felt safe.
Nick stalking me, his relentless obsession, had been overwhelming. It was like the panic of being stuck in an elevator, struggling to breathe the stifling air, drenched in perspiration, pacing with nowhere to go, not having control of what was happening.
And then the door opened. I could breathe. I could breathe the same air I remembered breathing, before I met him. The raw sense of freedom I felt would never be replicated again. He no longer had control of me. His obsession would play out solely in his thoughts.
It was a windy, summer afternoon. I was lying in a chaise lounge by the pool, soaking up the sun, a Depeche Mode song playing on my boombox. My mom was gardening for the first time in months. We were enjoying the freedom Nick’s incarceration granted us.
While using her gardening trowel, my mom gasped. “Shit! There’s something buried in the ground!” she yelled, pulling grungy material out of a shallow grave.
I recognized what was once Nick’s clothes: shirts, shorts, socks, and underwear, all unrecognizable from months of decomposition. I felt my throat constrict, unable to swallow. Chills abducted my body, despite feeling the scorching sun on my back. The haunting conclusion we made: Nick had been living in the backyard for months. He had been watching me, staring into the same minute holes of the window blinds, the sun shone through. We were sickened by it.
I never questioned: How Nick was privy to my comings and goings. How his ambushes were timed to perfection, whenever I left the house. The noises coming from the backyard I ignored: The rustling of leaves. The creaking sounds coming from the shed. The faint sound of splashing water from the pool. The months of Nick stalking me, had reached a new level of sinister.
The profound thoughts I had years later, swirling around my head, wondering, questioning, “When does abuse begin?” made me question, “What if, abuse toward women, by an intimate partner, was prevented in childhood?” A significant decrease in the perpetuation of abuse. How? I asked myself: Dads demonstrating love and not just echo “I love you.” Dads giving their daughter encouragement, praise, and validation. To give their toddler, their little girl, attention and time. To see her. To be present. If we possessed self-worth to begin with, we wouldn’t have projected unworthiness, and we wouldn’t have been bound to cross paths with our abuser.
The truth is: Without a sense of self-worth, any warning signs an abusive man reveals, is not going to stop a woman from getting involved with him. A woman, will ignore blatant warning signs and those she deems insignificant.
I ignored warning signs: Nick was like most abusers: possessive, controlling, jealous, alienating, called me ten times a day. The first time my mom met Nick, she told me “there is something not right about this guy.” I thought she was crazy.
When we met our abuser, it wasn’t random; we were bound to meet him. We weren’t paying off bad Karma. We were preconditioned to perceive our self-worth as reflected in how our dads treated us as children. A sense of unworthiness brewed beneath the surface, taking up residency within us, manifested in attracting men, who treated us as the unworthy women we subconsciously thought ourselves to be.
What if life had a remote control, I could hit rewind, and go back to when I was eight-years old? What would adult Kim, tell Kimmy, to help her understand? Understand: Even though daddy didn’t give you regular kisses or big hugs. Even though daddy didn’t watch your dance performances. Even though daddy didn’t tell you “Your picture is so pretty” after you showed him a colorful mess or say, “Good job,” when you learned how to ride a bike. Even though daddy buried his face in a newspaper or televised sport, shooing you away like a dog, when you wanted his attention. Even though daddy said, “I love you,” without showing you love. Understand, he loved you. He loved you—in his own way.
If my eight-year old self had understood she was loved by her daddy, maybe she would have felt better and not cried after every weekend visit.
But I still, would have been bound to meet my abuser.
Kim Dressler is finalizing her first book, a memoir, Love From Within: A Daughter’s Journey to Acceptance. Her hope is to start a conversation as to the strong correlation that was discovered through a study she conducted, between women who have been verbally and/or physically abused by an intimate partner and unresolved father-daughter issues.