Breaking up with a blackout drunk in favor of a guy who’d practiced tang soo do for years wasn’t a difficult decision. Whereas the latter would protect me if my father tried to kill me as he’d threatened a number of times since he started beating my mom in 1984, the former would wake up next to my dead body and wonder what happened. Moving in and continuing to live with the guy who’d practiced tang soo do for years, on the other hand, were beyond my control.
Cohabitation Under Duress
One summer night in 1996, I made the mistake of coming home a couple of minutes before curfew. After walking into my bedroom and biting into the blueberry muffin I’d brought home from the movie theater, I heard my mom whimper. Since I’d only heard her make that sound when my father grabbed her by the throat, I froze, stared at my closet, which adjoined my parents’ closet, and strained to hear what was going on while I debated whether to call the police.
Just as I pulled my flip phone from my purse, my father grunted as he ejaculated, and my parents’ bedsprings squeaked as he rolled off of my mom.
The next day, after he backed his F-150 out of our long, gravel driveway, I went downstairs to yell at her.
“I thought he was killing you! I don’t need to hear that shit,” I said, swearing at her for the first time in my 21 years on the planet. “You know when curfew is! Do that shit when I don’t have to hear it!”
My mom, who’d given up sobriety to appease my father by this point in time, laughed at me like I was a little girl scolding her for kissing Santa Claus.
“It’s not fucking funny!” I said. “I’m traumatized enough as it is.”
Releasing the back of the breakfast bar stool I’d been gripping to retreat to my room and binge eat Banana Twins, I remembered her telling my father about a bad report card senior year, so he’d get off her case for a while. He’d yelled at me to come downstairs, ordered me to sit on the middle stool, asked me why I was so stupid, and when I’d glared at him instead of crying, he’d volleyed my face between his hands, hitting me left-right-left-right-left-right, as my mom bawled and begged him to stop.
“You’d better not tell him I said anything,” I warned. But apparently her wine cooler-addled brain translated this to: “Make sure you tell him about my tirade the second he comes home,” because I barely had time to curse at her under my breath, sit up on my daybed, and bring my knees to my chest before my father slammed my door into my dresser, rocking my 13-inch TV.
“Your mother told me what you said,” he said. “This is MY house. I’ll do whatever the hell I want whenever the hell I want. Do you understand me?”
“Okay,” I said meekly. I hated the fear in my voice, but it pacified him, so he went back downstairs after flipping me off.
He wasn’t done though. Just as he’d parked my car at the end of our yard and taped a “for sale” sign to the windshield the day after he’d slapped me repeatedly, he sat at the kitchen counter the next morning while I ironed a $79 silk skirt for work and told me to start paying rent or get out.
Despite promising myself I would never cry in front of him again, I burst into tears for two reasons. First, because I was sure he’d kill my mom after I moved. Second, because I’d spent every cent I’d earned at Macy’s on clothes, shoes, and car payments. I also owed The Limited $1,500.
If I’d paid attention all the times my father had ranted about being in debt and realized he was partly to blame because he’d bought brass faucets and accessories for the remodeled bathroom, traded his truck and my mom’s car for brand-new models every two years, and spent thousands of dollars on his bowhunting hobby and archery tournaments, I might’ve saved money for a security deposit and rent. But I doubt it. My sole goal was to keep my mom from being killed, and that required my presence. And since my father had always threatened our lives, it never occurred to me to plan for a future. Instead, once I started working, I tried to make each day as livable as possible with pretty things the same way he’d tried to stave off his own unhappiness with stuff and filled my diabetic and epileptic brother’s bedroom with every toy he asked for after doctors predicted he would die by age 17.
Rather than teach me about budgets, interest, and negative equity, he’d cosigned for a convertible when I was 19, turning my $186-per-month car payment into a $310-per-month car payment. To decrease my expenses, I tried to trade it for something cheaper. When he found out I’d gone “behind [his] back” by asking our neighbor, who was a mechanic and his best friend, to look under the hood of an Escort I was considering, he stopped speaking to the guy, stuffed everything I owned into Hefty bags while I was at work, threw them in the spare bedroom, and forced me to sleep on the floor beside them until a coworker helped my boyfriend and me move a month later.
My Codependent Protector
Intentionally or intuitively, domestic violence survivors and children of alcoholics often wind up dating alcoholics, addicts, gamblers, and people who are mentally ill, immature, or irresponsible because codependent relationships make them feel needed, in control, or superior to their partner.
I started dating Jason because it was nice to be with someone who took care of me for a change. After binge eating for years, I’d become a binge drinker to tolerate my alcoholic ex-boyfriend’s antics, and I continued to chug four or five Long Islands per night when Jason and I went to the Flats during its Mardi Gras-like heydey. Once my head hit the table, he gave me orgasmic scalp massages that melted every muscle I’d put knots in the past 12 years as I listened to my father beat and yell at my mom.
The night my enabler in shining armor charged into Trilogy’s ladies’ room, scooped me off the floor of a stall, and rushed me through the VIP room, down a flight of stairs, across the crowded dance floor, down another set of stairs, outside, and up the club’s concrete fire escape, where I rolled toward the edge and hurled, I felt like Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard.”
Cohabitation killed this sort of romance and heroism because we couldn’t afford to go out anymore. And technically, I learned, Jason never could. He’d somehow sunk $10,000 of credit card debt into his computer, and it skyrocketed to $30,000 when he neglected to pay his bills on time, so his mom—i.e., one of Macy’s breakroom biddies who’d gossiped about me for years and now resented me for stealing her 25-year-old baby of eight children—paid them from their joint checking account.
In other words, I’d unknowingly locked myself into a year-long lease with a mama’s boy whose codependent mother had zero incentive to pay his half of the utilities because if the heat got shut off, he’d have to come home. Consequently, our new pastime became fighting about his 17-mile-long umbilical cord—and the Library of Congress-sized folder full of porn on his desktop.