Using The Word “Abuse”
By Gaby Dunn
“It’s like you’ve been in a coma for the last two years,” my college roommate says when I tell her that he and I are finished.
We’re standing in our kitchen. The shabby refrigerator is covered in European postcards held up by magnets from US party cities like Las Vegas and New Orleans. There is a bucket on top that we periodically fill with change after turning in cans at the supermarket. The bucket is labeled “Bread, Babes and Beer” in Sharpie scrawl.
“A coma?” I ask. She stirs her softening spaghetti. I remember the night she and another friend ambush-begged me to break up with him.
“Definitely,” she says.
He and I get back together two weeks later.
“Look at that girl,” he says, on a Boston train. “Her outfit is nice,” he says, “but she’d look so much better with close-toed shoes.”
I scan down her body, unsure. I grew up in Florida, where it’s appropriate to wear flip flops to a funeral so long as they’re black.
“You don’t like sandals?” I ask.
He scrunches his nose like he’s re-watching the Bill Buckner World Series fielding error and says, “No.”
Two years later, when I move out of the apartment we shared, I no longer own open-toed shoes.
Our whole relationship was on fast-forward like I had to have everything at once, or I’d never have it at all.
I am a pathetic lapdog under his spell, a child on a leash at Disneyland, a CPR dummy noosed in someone’s yard as a Halloween decoration. I think this is love.
Before him, I was confident and independent. Now, I need him to tell me what to eat and what to wear.
I need him to tell me I’m not funny.
I don’t know who I am when he is not correcting me.
The last time we talk is on the phone is after we become long distance.
A month before, I’d seen a picture on Facebook (that new-age private eye) of a small brunette sitting on his lap at a bar.
“Who?” he says, because he is smart. Brilliant. One of the most intelligent and eloquent people I will ever know. “Oh, she’s no one. A friend.”
Then, like adding Parmesan cheese to spaghetti, he sighs, “There are no cute girls here.”
I am as a thrilled as if he’d said he loved me.
When we fight, it’s splashes of red and purple behind my eyes and fear so strong I can taste it on my tongue like a fifth grader sucking on a Warhead candy.
His rage is so palpable, and so present I think it will never end; It will just harden like lava into an island.
I would rip my skin off with my bare hands to calm him down. I would eat dirt and dust to make him happy. I would lie down on a bed of nails to please him. I have been afraid for so long and in such small increments that I think I am mistakenly fearless.
Nothing anyone can say to me matters. I know this isn’t right and I do nothing. I know I need to go but I can’t. I know. I know. I know. I don’t move.
He raises his fist and slams it into the wooden cabinet over my head hard enough to knock it off its hinges.
I think it is better than him ignoring me.
The walls and furniture become my whipping boys. I need him to see me, always, even if it’s just to scrape me out from underneath his fingernails. “Are you ever going to actually hit me?” I ask. At least then I would know what this is.
He never does. At the time, I think it’s because he doesn’t care enough.
When we’re good, we’re incredible. We take down kingdoms and rebuild them in our likeness. We are magnetic. Other people fall into our web like flies and we devour them.
I am the best I have ever been when I’m with him.
I cannot fail. My writing is sharp and clean. I miss nothing. I make no mistakes. It is mania. It is drugs. It is flying.
He is my god and I wander the desert at his whim.
I am an untouchable prophet under his holy guidance. I feel nothing. I feel everything.
The next boy I date will not understand my frustration. “Just tell me what restaurant we’re going to,” I will say.
I am programmed. I am still his robot. The loudest, most critical voice in my head is still his.
Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
Don’t ever ask.
“I’m seeing someone else,” he says, casually, over the phone.
“We’re done,” I say. I have said those words before. Even I don’t believe it. “This will be the last time you ever hear from me.”
“Yeah, right,” he says.
I hang up the phone.
Sometimes I think: That wasn’t me. I think: I wouldn’t let that happen. I think: How could I let that happen?
Two years later, I ride bikes across Capitol Hill with a friend who knew us both. My friend asks if I’ve talked to him since that phone call. I say I haven’t.
“Well, good for you,” my friend says. “He was abusive.”
I have never said the word “abusive” out loud because it embarrasses me. None of our mutual friends have said it either. They don’t want to have known an abuser. They don’t want to “choose sides.”
“You think he was abusive?” I say.
My friend stares at me. “Of course.” Then: “Are you okay?”
“I just…” I take a choking breath. “Thank you,” I say. “It sounds stupid, but I just…needed to know, from someone else, that it was true.”
“It was true,” he says, riding around me in a tight circle.
I am in a coma.
And then: I wake up.
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