He was not allowed in my apartment. Yet, the night he proposed, he baked a chicken there. And potatoes. The little ones, red, chopped up and coated in some sort of butter and garlic. His need to do the thing he wanted overrode what I wanted, and I had no way to stop him. I wasn’t even home; I’d been traveling that weekend, leading a youth retreat with his mother to the Thunderdome for some religious concert whose frontliner no longer seems important. His mother let it slip on our way back that he was there, because I mentioned wanting to take a nap after spending the weekend with so many young kids; when I expressed my discontent over his presence in my apartment, she called me ungrateful for the meal he’d provided.
“A better girlfriend would appreciate all of the effort he’s put in. Would say thank you.” Her precise words still resonate. A better girlfriend. I had tried to be that. I had. But nothing I did was enough.
The first time he threatened me has stuck with me in strange technicolor detail that floods me at such random times–when I see a flower, when I hear a song, when someone gives me a card. We were sitting on the couch in the apartment I shared with his sister, a red and yellow plaid deathtrap that I covered with a gray blanket, watching a movie. He pulled the blanket over us to have what he jokingly referred to as “happy movie time;” I said no. It was the first time I said no. It was the first for a lot of things. It somehow escalated from there, yelling and screaming and me wanting to cuss but not because I was still a good woman of God then, or so I thought. I remember the precise moment it occurred to me: You are unhappy here. Go.
So I did.
My keys were in the always empty crystal fruit bowl on the two-seater kitchen table, and I stood up and scooped them up without fanfare. I said nothing to him. He may have asked where I was going; he definitely paused the movie we had started. We hadn’t gotten to the pants-off stage of things, so all I needed was my coat and I was gliding out the door before he even knew what was happening, on an elated high because how had I never realized before that it was as simple as walking away?
I mean. It was never that simple.
He had me by the elbow before I was at the door to the parking lot, said some words about how I couldn’t go, how we would fix it, how I could change. Me. Me change. I didn’t want to change then. I opened the door and he dug in with his fingers as I stepped through, sinking through the coat like a falcon on prey.
“You can change, I promise you can.” He was so certain, so, so certain that it was me that needed to change.
God, his fingers hurt. Asshole.
We were suddenly at the car, a tornado of emotions and rage and something called love that wasn’t actually what it was named for. He threw me to the ground like I was nothing because I was nothing, so I screamed fire because it seemed like the thing to get people to come. He backed off; I got in the car and drove away as he banged the back hood and then threw himself down like a toddler in a fit. It was dark, but I still saw his shadow in the rear view. My elbow stabbed; I cried.
Fast forward a few weeks. I told myself that I loved his sister too much to leave. I didn’t know, then, what that love was. I thought I could go back to the apartment she and I shared and not be involved with him, just with her. We made a rule that he was not allowed inside, but I came home the week before Valentine’s Day and there he was, on the tattered couch, ready and waiting with the blanket and a very clearly planned agenda. I locked myself in my room. He came every night that week with gifts I had no need for–a teddy bear, roses, chocolate–and then the Phantom of the Opera tickets. It was a limited run engagement of the movie starring Emmy Rossum as Christine, and it was playing at one moviehouse in Wisconsin. Like the Phantom himself, he had banked on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to resist the music. He guessed correctly.
There were red rose petals on the seat of his Chevy when I opened the door; the car smelled of sickly sweet flowers layered over the normal blend of Axe and All Spice. He took me to dinner at Outback when we normally only went as expensive as Chili’s, and he told me over an onion blossom and then filet mignon that he was sorry for his part in things but he knew I could change. “You can be better. Then we can be better.”
It’s my fault you’re not better?
I didn’t say anything.
He paid, for everything, when before we had always split. Was he actually changing? Was this how it was supposed to be between us, a quiet storm held back by steak and movie candy? We got in the car to go home after, me quietly humming after Emmy’s haunting vocals and him clutching the wheel at ten and two. His hand slipped down to my thigh.
“So we’re together again, then?”
It was a choice, a simple yes or no in a car going nearly 70 miles per hours down the freeway, and I said yes because it seemed easier. I had to be with someone to be whole, and if not him, then who? I let his hand stay on my thigh. I let it drift. I forgot how my elbow had hurt and resolved that yes, yes I would change, because it was better this way.
I always went back, and that is how he knew he could push the envelope, he could bend the rules that I had set for our relationship. He could make an entire meal in my kitchen where he wasn’t supposed to be, and I wouldn’t like it, but I would say nothing. He knew that I would go home and let myself in and sit at the cheap Target kitchen table that he’d disguised with a fancy fringed red tablecloth topped with silver candlesticks and eat baked chicken and my favorite potatoes off of what I could only presume was his parents china set, because I owned nothing more expensive than a Goodwill plate I’d gotten for a dollar.
I wasn’t surprised when he got down on one knee the instant my too-fancy knife and fork touched down in their after-meal positions. A week and a half prior to my trip, we were sitting in his parents kitchen when he presented me with a ziplock bag filled with rings.
“Do you like any of these?” He opened the bag and unceremoniously dumped the collection onto the table. There were a plethora of choices—a simple gold band, a silver ring made of an ivy pattern, some random sparkly pieces that looked like costume jewelry. The one that stuck out to me was made of leather, a peace sign about half an inch high that spoke to me and slid onto my finger as if it had been created for me.
“Will you marry me?” he half laughed, half joked.
“I mean, I guess?” I twirled the ring around, admiring the fit. “But you’re joking right?”
“Yeah I’d definitely get you a real ring,” he quipped.
The peace sign ring was his mother’s. To no one’s surprise, he used the size to order an engagement ring and wedding band duo, which he presented me the night he cooked me dinner.
“Am I supposed to make a speech here?” he knelt beside me at my dining table, the real ring box open and extending in my direction. He’d done a good job picking it out, the diamonds were small and just my style. I carefully took the ring from the box and slid it on; I don’t think I ever actually said yes. It seemed like taking the ring was more than enough.
B and I sat together on my ugly plaid couch and snuggled; I clutched the remote and he clutched my vagina. He had preloaded the remake of Amityville Horror into the DVD player before I arrived, and it played and I sat and I thought about my life, and I made a choice to be less than.