Sometimes, you just know when a person is bad. You can feel something radiating off of them, almost like those smelly lines in comic books that are colored green and always used on characters we are supposed to dislike. When someone has that essential, indescribable badness, it brings the whole room down with it. You can’t quite identify it, but you all know its source. When the badness has infiltrated your group, suddenly everything feels much more claustrophobic. There was a messy cloud of those green lines surrounding Chris*, and none of us really knew what to say about it.
We loved his girlfriend. We had known her for some time and she was always the girl you could count on to make the most fun out of any situation. There was something inherently her about her, something that no one else could recreate. When you were with her, everything was an adventure. She would make friends with strangers, with bartenders, with cops, with your parents. Everyone loved her because they sensed that her passion and curiosity for life were genuine, and that she was just tickled to be wherever she was at that given moment. You might refer to it as being “the life of the party,” but it applied to so many scenarious outside of parties. Going to the grocery store with her was fun because, well, she would be there.
In some ways, you could understand how this would be difficult to be in a relationship with. Her personality was, for lack of a better word, flirtatious — because she was flirting with everything. With boys, with adventure, with life itself. She flirted with the world because, to her, there was no reason to take things too seriously. And even though that didn’t mean that she was interested in any of it romantically, the hypnotic effect she had on others was likely to be uncomfortable for people who weren’t incredibly secure in themselves. When she started dating Chris who was, even outside of the relationship, an easily irritated and uncomfortable person, we could see immediately that it was a recipe for disaster.
It was as though Chris had captured some kind of rare bird and his first impulse was to clip its wings. His presence around her was one of a parent who was constantly frustrated in the out-of-control behavior of his toddler. She would laugh too loud, make too many jokes, attract too much attention, and he would quiet her. He would grab on her arm, give her a serious look, whisper in her ear about something we couldn’t quite decipher and they would immediately get up to leave the room. Sometimes they would go for a walk and come back, sometimes they would just go home. He would tell her not to drink, not to wear a certain outfit, not to go out past a certain time. When he would show up to the party, the whole group would hold its collective breath, waiting to see what was going to get her in trouble this time.
There were theories suggested for why he was so insecure with her very existence. He was short, he was not as good looking as her, he had a hard childhood. All of them seemed too shallow, and none of them came close to excusing the way he treated her. It was as though she was a vessel for all of his disdain and anger and disappointment in the world, and if he couldn’t be happy, at least she wouldn’t, either. She had come under some kind of spell, and the more apparent it became that she was dedicated to this relationship, the more frustrated we became in our collective impotence to do anything about it.
I remember telling her, “This is so unhealthy. You don’t see it, but he’s changing you completely.” I’m sure my attempts, like everyone else’s, at getting something across to her were imperfect and oversimplified and not what she really needed to hear, but we weren’t professionals. You love someone, and you see them hurting, and you say what you think is true and right in the moment. And each time one of us attempted to have a talk with her about what we saw was happening, she withdrew further from our friendship. It became apparent that our pushing was only serving to convince her that she was right in her decision, that it was Them Against the World, something she had to overcome.
Eventually, she said, “He was right about you. You just want me to be single and unhappy forever.” It was the sound of a thousand nights of poisonous words being poured into her ears, the confirmation that we had become a collective enemy to be fought against, that this wasn’t something we could stop the bleeding of with our concerned words. Around that time, we stopped seeing her.
It’s terrible to watch someone slip away — not just from you or your group, but from themselves. It feels like watching someone become very, very sick and refuse all treatment being offered to them. But the truth is that these mistakes, as painful as they may be to witness, are not made for anyone else. We love our friends, but it’s not our job to save them if they don’t want to be saved. I still think of her from time to time, and wonder if things worked out. After all, we don’t ever know what goes on behind closed doors, and the relationships we interpret as being wholly unhealthy might actually be nurturing and fulfilling in a way we couldn’t even imagine. I doubt it, but it’s nice to think about. I just hope that she takes care of herself, and realize that not a single bit of her needs to be toned down to be happy.
A year or so ago, someone told me that they had broken up, and that she had moved pretty far away because she wanted to rid herself of the whole ordeal. He told me that he wished she had figured it out sooner, before she lost so many friends. “You can’t even be like, ‘Told you so.’ It’s just too sad.” I knew what he meant, but I wondered if she’d even remembered that we warned her. Sometimes, when you already know what you want to hear, everything else is just noise.
* Name has been changed