When I was 21, I moved home to recover from PTSD that resulted from a protracted mugging at Grand Central Station. I couldn’t take care of myself and I was a wreck. D was at a loss with how to deal with me. But he tried to be supportive.
Eventually I was better enough to move back to Tucson. D and I fought a lot. At one point he up and left for San Fransisco without telling me where he was going. Just drove away for 18 hours. I broke down. I broke things. It was not pretty. But then again, codependency never is.
I moved out of his father’s apartment complex just down the street on River. It was the first independent adult decision I ever made by myself. D moved into the casita behind Rubee’s house. It was 2001 and the tech economy had collapsed. D had bought a house in Oro Valley in times of plenty that he couldn’t hold onto now that everyone was out of work. He sold the house at a loss and applied to grad school. I spent my days applying to law school and finishing my last year of college.
The distance between us was palpable. He was drinking and I was smoking a lot of weed since I was on Paxil and couldn’t drink. Something just felt wrong. I would come to know what it was based on two tiny interactions with one of his fellow grad students: a girl we will call Anna.
I met Anna in the CS grad student offices on the ninth floor of the Gould-Simpson building. She introduced herself:
“Hi Veneranda, I’m Anna.”
It caught my attention. No one called me Veneranda. Vene, yes. Veneranda, no. Not even D. She even pronounced it correctly, as if it had been practiced. It seemed entirely too…familiar. Too intimate. As though it had been taught to her by someone who knew me intimately. D.
I tried to tell myself it was nothing. A few weeks went by in which I began to spend entirely too much time at D’s casita instead of my legitimately nicer apartment. By this time, I had Wicket, my Lhasa Poo, and it just made more sense to keep him at D’s where there was a sprawling backyard. At least that was what I told myself. I didn’t want to say that I clung to him out of fear that maybe the four years we’d spent together were not an indication of true love but of a series of wrong turns.
My only solution to this fear was to double down and be the best girlfriend I knew how to be. As if I could will away red flags through brute strength.
One night, D invited Anna and another grad student to come over to smoke pot. The other student, Soran, had never tried it. He got sick pretty soon after taking his first bong hit. He asked where the bathroom was. D was out of the room and I opened my mouth to respond but Anna beat me to it.
“First door on the right.”
Two things I knew in that instant. First, she’d been here before. Second, she felt comfortable enough in these surroundings to have pointed it out to Soran.
And that is all it took. I knew something had gone on between Anna and D. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there devastated and stoned.
I broke up with D the next day. In all the years of our relationship, I’d never done anything like that before. D, of course, had broken up with me so many times I’d lost count. Usually it was in response to me exerting any kind of independence. And usually it was accompanied by a lot of manipulation and emotional abuse. But I’d never even considered breaking up with him. How could I? My whole identity was wrapped up in being his girlfriend. In us being together forever. Without him…I was nothing.
My intuition was not wrong. He denied it at first, but eventually enough details rose to the surface to confirm my intuition. For the first time, I felt secure in breaking it off. I convinced myself that I had a future. Law school was just around the corner and I’d get in somewhere for sure…hopefully Berkeley’s Boalt Hall.
D, on the other hand, was a mess. He begged me to get back with him. To forgive him. He cried. He beat his chest. He flagellated himself in figurative ways. And when none of that moved me to his cause, he played the ultimate power move. He bought me a house.
I moved in with him when my lease was up. I didn’t have the strength to fight him off. But I didn’t…I didn’t…I just felt so controlled. Instead of moving towards independence at 22, I was now living in a house that he’d picked out and paid cash for. He got to play the hero. He was on top again, and I felt suffocated under his thumb.
Given a few months’ time, I think I would have left him. I got into Berkeley. The dean of the law school called me with the good news (he ended up being a letch and getting fired, but that’s another story). But my parents stepped in and secured my attachment to D. They didn’t even know what they were doing.
My mom hated that I was with D. He wasn’t Mexican and I was sleeping with him. I mean, of course we were having sex, we’d been together since we were teenagers. But to my mother, I was a whore and a bad example to my sisters. My father probably cared less, but he would rather isolate me than get on my mother’s bad side.
They drove up to Tucson and came to the house. I locked myself in the bedroom but they demanded I let them in. I got called every name in the book for living with Danny. I was an adult by law and financial independence, but to them, I might as well have been a child. I was a disgrace. I was a slut. I was an outcast. Only married people lived together.
And that was all it took. Danny proposed right before Easter. I rejected Berkeley for the University of Arizona after D convinced me that long distance would never work and he, a computer scientist, could never find work in the Bay Area. I entered law school engaged to D and bonded to him so as to prove my parents wrong and quiet my nagging inner monologue that none of this felt right.
My intuition, time and time again, was thwarted by my need for approval and validation from the people who, none of them, had my best interests at heart. But I was conditioned to ignore my own moral compass and concede to the demands of others. My parents had hobbled me and then turned me over to someone who’d been taught to do the same. None of this was coincidence. This is how these things usually go.
It took me a very, very long time to see this. Not until this year was I really able to exert my independence and come to terms with the fact that not all wounds are skin deep. I escaped the marriage with so much damage that I would seek out relationships that had high stakes and I’d act out of fear and react out of anger such that I seemed unstable. I’d choose men who let it be known just how little I meant to them. And I poured way too much time and affection into people so as not be rejected again. Anything but that.
How does someone so smart and strong get into such a weak position? Easy. You’re told you’re worthless enough that you start to believe it. Without any horizon to gauge your altitude, you go by the opinions of others. And they will lead you asunder every single time.
I help others now with their relationships. It’s easier to be objective when you’re not the one experiencing the trauma. But there are still days when I feel like a bottomless glass. You could fill me with affirmations and they would just leak out the bottom of me, leaving me bereft of any self-confidence. These days are fewer and farther in between, but they still come. And when they do, I have to remind myself that there are people in this world who love me for me. And they can’t all be crazy or liars or bad judges of character. For the most part though, I’ve had to build an intuition from scratch that guides and protects me. But that is a story for another night.