It wasn’t technically breaking and entering. It was my boyfriend’s place; we’ll call him Jackson. I practically lived at his apartment except he never gave me a key. As I crept through the dark alley to the back door of his second-floor unit, I thought of what his apartment manager had told me earlier that day. He and his wife had taken me to lunch at Chin Chin’s restaurant. At the end of the meal, over the too-sour lemon chicken and soggy won tons, “You know he’s sleeping with that girl who’s staying with him?” he said, concerned but unapologetic. He wanted me to come to my senses.
Jackson and I had been dating for eight years. The girl, “Helen,” was a mutual friend in LA for a week-long vacation. We were all hanging out together. The three of us went to Universal Studios; just the two of them had gone to see Jay Leno when I had to work. Jackson had assured me he was sleeping on the couch, had folded blankets and a pillow and there as proof.
The apartment manager’s intervention came as a surprise. My boyfriend was a flirt, but could he actually be sleeping with someone else? And if so, why was I the only one who couldn’t see it? Jackson had a way of overriding any concerns I had over other women — and he had many female friends — with exclamations of complete devotion. I knew if I confronted him in a non-criminal way, he would laugh it off, deny everything, and make me feel completely loved.
But if we learn love in our family of origin, then I feared my love barometer was off — maybe even broken. I had grown up with women who had fallen in love with my father, an alcoholic and occasional drug user, and stayed with him, despite physical abuse.
I was eight when I found my stepmother drinking alone one night, the alcohol sloshing down the neck of a bottle of Crown Royal like water draining from a sink.
She was waiting for my father, who had not come home after work and had not bothered to call. I drew close and patted her awkwardly. My touch gave her an idea.
“You want a drink? Here, just a shot.”
She handed me a capful. I expected it to be sour like my father’s beer, but it burned. My eyes watered and I choked.
“The second one always goes down easier.”
She was right. The next cap was warm and comforting.
I waited with her. When my father came home, I ran back to bed and listened as my stepmother confronted him, “Where have you been?”
I heard a slap, then my father. “Don’t question me. I do what I want when I want.”
From under the covers, I was afraid. My stepmother had been hit; I saw love as a form of self-punishment. My father taught me not to question men or I, too, might suffer a backhand in response. Maybe that’s why I chose to find out the truth about Jackson the hard way.
At the back steps to Jackson’s apartment, I slip off my shoes to go up quietly. I know that I can slide my limb through the window slot missing a louver, and angle my arm to undo the bolt. I’d done it before when Jackson accidentally locked his keys inside. But when I reach the door, I try the knob and it opens with ease.
In the kitchen, light streams in from the street. The hall is draped in shadows. As I near the bedroom, the air becomes thick and warm with communal breath. Until that moment, it was the type of sticky, humid intimacy I thought only we had shared. I let my eyes adjust. Thin strips of light flow in from between the bedroom blinds. I make out the bed and two blanketed profiles asleep.
Helen begins to stir, her hair, a shiny oil slick over her pillow. She pushes the blanket to step out of bed, perhaps to go to the bathroom or close the door. I see her pale white skin and small bare breasts. She sees me and screams.
The scene of them naked in bed knifes me. I’m gutted like a fish. Veins still circulate blood to muscles. I move out of reflex, but no sound or tears, an occasional gasp, but the air suffocates. I bolt out the front door headed for my car. Jackson pulls on clothes and runs after me, explaining he loves me, not her. It was her doing; she seduced him.
He grips my wrist to prevent me from getting behind the wheel. There is something about the color of his skin under the orange light in the parking lot, yellow and doughy. His cologne had mingled with her perfume, blended with exuded sweat and pheromones; the mixture gives off a sweet, tinny smell, and makes me nauseous.
“It’s over,” I say, manage to pull away and drive off at 3:00 am in the morning.
But it wasn’t over. I prided myself in having a relationship with a man who was unlike the men in my family. Jackson was well educated, didn’t drink, and made me laugh on a daily basis.
We had met in college and dated since I was 18. I moved from the Big Island of Hawai’i to the cold, lonely state of Colorado.
He was my resident adviser. I often studied in the lounge, knowing I could intercept him as he came in from his morning run. I was thrilled when he planned dorm activities, and other students, too busy with studies, didn’t show up.
I was quiet and shy, but with Jackson I didn’t worry in social situations. Everyone loved him and laughed at his stories. I was made more interesting just by sitting next to him.
I thought I had chosen a man unlike my father, but Jackson’s cheating and lying resulted in hurting me nonetheless, and his heart-wrung apologies and promises that it would never happen again were also familiar. And just as I had seen the women in my family do, I forgave him.
But a year after I snuck into his place under the cover of night, I am outside his house again. This time sitting in my car, waiting for him to come home. He has taken a limo-driving job as a way to supplement his income as a writer, but I’ve grown suspicious of his out-all-night alibi.
When he gets home at 6:00 in the morning, I confront him about where he’s been. “Working,” he says. “You’re just paranoid. At some point, you have to trust me again.” My instinct tells me he’s lying, but his words make me feel like I’m the crazy, insecure one.
Eventually, the new woman he’s seeing finds my number, calls and tells me they’ve been having an affair for nine months. When I consider the timeline, I realize he’s been seeing her since I took him back.
If I had been a gutted fish before, now I’m filleted into bite-sized portions, battered and fried to a crisp. From my upbringing, I may not have had a good measure for love, but I knew it wasn’t this.
In my family, love played out as a cycle of alcohol, drugs and abuse. Big emotions made them feel alive. With Jackson, it was no different for me.
I had to break it off — for good this time. It wasn’t easy. I walked around an empty shell of myself, and — eventually — tried to date other men. Many were nice but the romance felt dull and predictable in comparison. Among the relationships I chose next, there was a recurring trend: betrayal and self-doubt.
It was easy to avoid dating an exact replica of my father. Men who drank, snorted coke, or raised a hand to hit women never came into my life, but other harmful variations presented themselves: a jealous, possessive man who only wanted me home, the seemingly caring boyfriend who took certain foods out of my hands because they weren’t healthy for me.
It wasn’t obvious because they didn’t possess the same indicators; I didn’t get my teeth knocked-out or have to deal with DUI car wrecks. But they were masked versions of the same warped affection.
It’s hard to find love when you’re starting from scratch, but it’s harder still with a distorted template. There was a feeling that romantic turmoil was what I deserved, or how love worked. Now, when I come across these thoughts, I force myself to delve deeper. Am I saying I only deserve love if I suffer through deception, jealousy, and verbal abuse to get it? Of course, it didn’t make sense, but it was the kind of love I had grown up with.
I’ve slowly learned to go against conditioning, which is a little like learning to swim without water. I’m not saying I know love now or that I have a perfect relationship, but I have an understanding of what I’m working against: the hardwired scenarios I saw played out in my family.
I’m working toward creating a brand of love independent of theirs, one in which I don’t doubt my own feelings, and the man I choose is open and honest. And it’s nice if he’s willing to express his love in an extraordinary going-the-extra-mile kind of way at least once in a while. I’m getting there — closer to a love that is not only trusting and respectful, but at times, tender and endearing as well.