As an educated young woman, there were many things I imagined for my future.
I was a nerdy, mostly chubby school girl that walked out of high school with idea
I was going to make it in the world. Never did I imagine that I would spiral into an
entirely different life. With a copy of a book by Dorothy Parker tucked under one arm and my Walkman in the other, I moved out of my parents' house just shy of my 18th birthday.
I had always been overweight and awkward, the center of negative attention.
When I drank those first few beers of freedom, I felt relieved of these burdens,My parents, while sympathetic, had no idea how to deal with cycles of eating and chronic depression. In some ways, I was ahead of my time. I was a cutter before I even knew that was something other girls did when they needed relief. I discovered binging and puking with the help of a school friend. I also knew about laxatives and over the counter diet pills. I would spend hours reading books, watching movies,stuffing my face with food- anything to pass the time. I lived in a small community where nothing seemed to happen. Or so it seemed.
I took my socially awkward ass to the big city. There was living to catch up on. Drinking and fucking and drugs and shows and life. I started to feel alive for the first time in my life. I could reinvent myself, a skill I mastered in my life as a barfly. Listening intently over cheap vodka,. I became a great companion. I would help walk you home. I'd keep you awake if you swallowed too many pills. I went to some shitty poetry readings that smelled like clove cigarettes and squeeze into plaid skirts that might have been too short. I would stagger drunkenly with you to taco bell at 2am and eat leftover food from the tables when we had no money. I learned to be a friend.
I met him when I was on vacation. The first thing that struck me about him was his syrupy sweet Southern accent. “Hi y’all”. He shook my hand and gave it an extra squeeze. He offered to carry my things inside the house. As we sat down to have a few get to know each other beers, I felt his leg rub against mine. Did he do that on purpose? From that very first moment, he had me on edge. I was not used to a man being so forward. It was almost as it he knew what I liked as if he was studying me. When I would walk past him, he would touch my back so lightly with his fingertips as if he had never been there. He saw something in me.He would turn his head and smile while he talked to me. I knew something was going on. Then, in casual conversation, he dropped a comment that he liked a “bigger woman”. Suddenly, I realized this was a blind date, not a barbecue. Apparently, my southern gentleman had an idea that I was on the menu for dessert.
This man seemed to want me in a wayI did not know could even exist outside of novels. Sex had always been something I avoided until recently as it never seemed to come to any benefit for me. I was raised to believe sex was dirty and I should cover up my body. This man taught me the exact opposite was true. My body was beautiful, sex was to be enjoyed, and there was no shame. Our initial time together was a revelation. After a few days, I returned home a different person. Never in a million years, did I imagine he would follow me back to Ohio a few weeks later. My fling had turned into a legitimate "thing". I think in the first week he stayed with me, we must have used every bit of floor space and furniture for some new type of erotic adventure. I really believed that great sex must equal love. Little did I know, he was just great at sex because he had lots and lots of practice.
One night, he showed me a picture in his wallet. It was an infant, maybe four or five months old. He had a son with a woman, a child that was now much older. How could you have a child you don’t see? He pushed my head off of his chest. I was naive. I did not understand what a bitch she was to him. As he went on and on with his expletive laden rant about her, I got a glimpse into the future. If only this woman would not have been a certain way, he would not have had to mistreat her. He put my head back on his chest and wrapped his arms around me tightly. That would never be us, he assured me. I knew how to treat a man.
It was nice to skip a class and have someone to come home with him there. Many days, it was if my time away from him set him off somehow. Subtly, he diminished my accomplishments. When he would ask me questions like “Do you think you are smart?”. I was caught off guard by his anger. There was no where for him to let off steam- it was my place, my city, my money that supported us. It was clear this made him bitter towards me. The honeymoon was wearing off. Our daily life became a cycle of highs and lows that matched his moods. The high points were so much better than anything I had ever experienced that I was willing to work through a few issues. He assured me things would improve as soon as he “got on his feet”. Yet I loved him. I felt like I was loved for the first time in my life. This man was not perfect but he loved being with me. His cards, his letters, and the way he made me feel alive drew me back every time. He needed me. I never had a pet or even a plant before him. For the first time in my life, someone needed me. That need was intoxicating to me. I had gone from invisible to important because now someone loved me.
One night, we had a heated discussion about moving back to his hometown. This meant transferring schools, leaving my family, and a handful of friends. Our argument was punctuated with the stinging observation that “no one else wants you anyway”. That was always my deepest fear- not being wanted- but to have him point it out, made me both angry and afraid of him. Why would he say these things to me? He got on one knee and told me that he loved me. If I would only go back home with him. He agreed to leave for a few days so I could “make up my mind”. His phone calls, his letters drove me insane. Imagine all the things you always wanted to hear repeated back to you in an intimate voice. He also punctuated his love with creating doubt. What if he was with someone else? What if he decided he did not need me anymore? I "needed to make this change for love". It always worked in movies.
Once he had me on his terms, the verbal abuse quickly escalated into taunts about everything from the sound of my voice to my weight. As he constantly reminded me “Who would want you anyway?” and “I can leave any time I want” as he had proved a many nights by walking out of the apartment we shared with roommates. He had started embarrassing me in public by pointing out my faults in front of others. The thing I found so surprising was how little people reacted to this, as if it was normal. Is this how love is? I had never had it. Slowly, I began to wonder what he saw in me. I could not make food correctly, I could not fuck him correctly, he got so angry at me, and no one reacted to it. It was only because he" loved me", or so I was told so many times.
After a few months, he turned a threat into action.He had began telling me he would kill me or kill himself if I left, whatever got me to stay with him. After an ordinary argument, he hit me in the leg with a billy club he had laying around the house. Since we moved in together, he had started collecting weapons.He said it had been to keep other people out, but more and more, I had suspected it had been to keep me in. I don’t remember what I had said to set him off that time. I had become tired of the constant threats of him leaving me. I may have even threatened to leave that time.I ta was the same pattern over and over- threats, fights, abuse, apologizes, then sex. Now, even the sex had stopped. It was just fights. I had suspected he was ready to break it off because he had found another woman. I found out later, it was our roommate. He swatted my leg then repeated told me it was an accident. “That did not hurt, it is just a tender area Tracey “ he assured me as he rubbed it. In reality, It was strategically placed on a section of my body that was not obvious, some place that could be easily written off as an accident. I believed at that moment, he had been through this before. Soon after, I was given "permission" to visit a mutual friend—something that was ordinarily completely out of question. Yes, a twenty year old woman asking for permission. That was the end of that relationship and the start of a new chapter in my life
With no money, no dignity, and no value with or without this man, I embarked on the world of homelessness.There was no “Lifetime” television moment where I called the hotline and moved into a shelter. I did not even know what at shelter was at that point. There was no valiant effort to help me among my friends. Most of them were completely oblivious to what had happened to me. My humiliation had occurred in secret, as it often does, which makes it so easy to return to the abuser. What else were my options? I had become so isolated I was unsure where to begin. I started out couch surfing with friends, but I quickly wore out my welcome. I had started consuming heavy amounts of alcohol to drown my sorrows. I was that girl sneaking drinks at the bar. I was the girl crying in the bathroom trying to fix her mascara.
After around a month of staying with friends ended, my next move to find a place to stay was allowing strangers to pick me up in bars. I had had quickly learned that without a stable address or phone number, it was nearly impossible to get a job. I began to depend on the men who took me home to look after me. I would wake up in the morning- where am I, who are you, where are my clothes? I am not sure if they knew I was homeless the people at the bar noticed I only had a few outfits. Sometimes I would find clothing on the street corner. I imagined a man similar to the one I left had dumped out these clothes in a fit of rage just like the ones I left must lay in a pile somewhere. I learned to trust no one. When you are a homeless woman, you are seen as vulnerable. I learned not to look anyone in the eye to keep them from conversing with me. In sober moments, I would start to feel the weight of my situation- What if one of these men decides to hurt me? I would leave their homes in the morning. I would whisper aloud “I hate my life” as walked miles in the heat instead of paying for the bus. I just could not figure out how to make it without help. I had burned through all my options when I begged my mother to let me temporarily move back home. She said she barely recognized the daughter who had left home just a few years earlier.
For many years after, the drugs and the and bad relationships went hand and hand. The "I want to get fucked up" switch had been flipped. I briefly went back to college but I was not the independent minded young woman who had started a years earlier. I now had a deeply held believe that I was somehow broken. The message that replayed itself in my mind was I was fat, stupid, lazy, I was never going to be anything because no one would want it. It was simple and powerful. His voice had become my voice in my own mind. I would be out in the public yet one knew I was there. I escaped inside a world of fluffy opioid clouds and pints full of bitter kisses. I became the invisible woman, living in the shadow of what could have been.