In high school, I envied girls who had boyfriends and developed crushes on football players and nerds who sat beside or in front of me and talked to me as they used my desk to do tricep dips or passed me papers. The year my mom said short stories I’d written to make her proud were “warped,” I fell for a skater boy who read them instead of his “Grapes of Wrath” homework and urged me to write more. I didn’t care what guys looked like or what they wanted to do with their life after they graduated. I would’ve followed them to the edge of the Earth—or their vert ramp—simply because they acknowledged my existence. This lack of selectivity—i.e., desperation for affection—and the fact that domestic violence survivors and children of alcoholics tend to:
- have abandonment issues
- suffer from low self-esteem
- drink or take drugs
- mistake pity for love
- date “broken” people they think they can fix, and/or
- “become an approval-seeker who will go to any lengths to keep the peace or earn the love of others,” according to Psychology Today,
set me up for a series of unhealthy relationships with “wildly inappropriate people,” to quote a Carrie Bradshaw spiel from “Sex and the City.”
Frankly, after growing up in my own private Guantanamo with a father who beat my mom and a mentally handicapped brother who made as much noise as possible and delighted in getting me yelled at by repeating, “Good morning,” until I got sick of saying it back and snarled, I don’t like people who make life harder than it has to be. Unfortunately, that’s who I attract.
The trend began with a Marine I met while working in Macy’s young men’s department at age 18. He bought jeans, complimented my smile, and asked for my phone number. After calling a couple of times from his Virginia Beach base, he sent me jewelry with cheap pink stones and a mixed tape with Silk’s song “Freak Me.” Since my father was recording all incoming and outgoing calls to catch my mom cheating on him, and he’d dragged me to his Baptist church for months after finding a Guns N’ Roses tape in my dresser, I shipped everything back with a note telling the Marine not to contact me anymore.
A few days later, I received a scrawly suicidal letter asking, “Why did you lead me so far?”
When I didn’t reply, he mailed a letter that said I should be the one who died, not him, and he’d be home for Thanksgiving.
This scared me into filing my first restraining order. It also caused me to start dating coworkers because spending 40 hours a week with them enabled me to inspect their fingernails for traces of blood or gun powder residue and ferret out personality defects in a public place. Or so I thought.
Mr. Tall, Dark, and Damaged
A week before Thanksgiving, I saw “Carlito’s Way” with a coworker my friend Angie had introduced me to during the summer with an ear-to-ear smile, sensing she’d made a love connection. He was 6-foot-5 and had the cute “Hardcastle and McCormick” actor’s curls and smile, so I’d told her I doubted this highly as we’d giggled our way back to our departments from the breakroom. But for the rest of that afternoon, every time I’d felt someone staring at me and glanced toward men’s furnishings, he’d looked away and pretended to be straightening the belt rack.
By the time I picked him up for the movie, we’d gone on several breaks together, and he’d told me about a teacher who’d molested him and made him question his sexuality, but I had no idea the 27 year old lived with his parents—or that he’d wave me in to meet them on our first date.
After sitting stick-straight in the theater with at least three inches of space between our body parts at all times, the night ended with an awkward handshake and a nagging suspicion that my four-month-long nervousness around him wasn’t butterflies.
Mark McCormick and I went Christmas shopping in December, took occasional breaks together the following year, and talked about ’80s music as we worked, but I continued to feel shy around him, and he remained stilted around me, so when a coworker in the mattress department dialed my extension to invite me to a manager’s Halloween party, I said yes.
Of course, Mark McCormick attended the party, too, making me feel terrible every time I caught him watching my date, who’d dressed in red horns, and me. But faced with the decision of dating someone who made me anxious, dying alone, or pursuing a relationship with the devil, I chose to keep going out with the 27-year-old mattress salesman I’d conversed with during his stint in the young men’s department. At the time, with his thus-far-useless journalism degree, disheveled hair, partly untucked dress shirt, rolled-to-the-elbows sleeves, Camel habit, and dark sense of humor, he’d seemed like the tortured-artist type.
He turned out to be an alcoholic.
For a while, dating him was fun because I was underage and never got carded at bars he’d frequented before we met. Then, he started passing out in restaurants and stumbling into the store drunk during my evening shifts because he’d seen me chatting with Mark McCormick earlier in the day. The fun officially ended when he began romanticizing the movie “Leaving Las Vegas,” and the caretaker part of my personality donned a cape and decided to save him from drinking himself to death a la Nicolas Cage’s character.
Once nagging him to stop drinking backfired because he ordered O’Doul’s and made so many faces and sarcastic remarks that I told him to get a real damn beer and shut up, I tried to distract him from liquor cravings by making out with him in darkened parking lots of hospitals, doctor’s offices, and parks, where every police officer in Lorain County saw me in various states of undress because I still lived with my parents, my boyfriend lived with his widowed mother, and neither of us could afford a hotel room until New Year’s Eve, when he sprang for a Radisson reservation to take my virginity.
Like the you-could-do-a-lot-better episode of “Seinfeld,” my interest in saving him waned after one cop knocked on my window with his flashlight and asked, “Do you wanna be with this guy?” It was his way of asking if I was being raped, but I started to ask myself the same question. The alcoholic’s erections were an instant return on investment of time and effort since I wasn’t attracted to two-thirds of his face, including the semicircular nicotine stain shading the bottom of his two front teeth like a child’s drawing of sunset, but even for a people-pleasing, self-sacrificing ESFJ, it’s hard to rescue someone you resent.
Throughout our relationship, he’d continued to drink, embarrass me in public, and call me by his sole ex-girlfriend’s name. He also complimented my intelligence and encouraged me to go to college but turned every conversation into a game of chess that segued into an argument. Coworkers constantly asked, “Are you two fighting again?”
Worse, I knew I’d never be able to pursue a writing career as long as we were together because although he likened his writing to Hunter S. Thompson’s, he’d failed as a reporter at “The Morning Journal” he called “The Urinal.”
I accepted his spontaneous proposal as I drove us around downtown Cleveland beneath fireworks our second New Year’s Eve together because I was 20 and naïve enough to think he would change, because I knew I’d need to move out soon and wouldn’t be able to afford rent on my $6.20 per hour salary, and because it would’ve been an even longer drive back to Amherst if I hadn’t.
I demoted him from fiance to boyfriend in title only after he saw me talking to Mark McCormick at a coworker’s Super Bowl party, got drunk, stormed out, and tossed the leather jacket I’d bought him out his car window on his way home. The look on his face—and potential drama at Macy’s, where I now wrapped gifts, prepared the bank deposit, and enjoyed my job—prevented me from severing ties because previous attempts had provoked slurred, suicidal-sounding phone calls. I had enough to worry about with violence escalating at home, so it was just easier to endure an occasional date even though the baritone voice that initially attracted me to him had turned into a mosquito-esque drone.
To cope during particularly exasperating evenings, I took a cue from him and drank to the verge of alcohol poisoning. This provided an escape hatch once my head hit the table, but after he deliberately scalded my scalp beneath his mother’s bathtub faucet before rinsing Long Island iced tea vomit from my hair, I cut the waist-length locks he loved up to my ears, buzzed the back, dyed the new ‘do red, and began dating the former coworker who’d tagged along on dates for months to carry him to the car and drive us home.
I hoped that since Boyfriend A was so smart, he’d catch on to Boyfriend B and bow out. I never imagined it would take eight months of refusing to hold his hand and a move to a one-bedroom apartment with the new beau. Then again, I didn’t realize I was exchanging one set of problems for another, that I would do so time and time again for the next 20 years, or that an eventual relationship with Mark McCormick would precipitate a 36-hour stay in a psych ward.