It’s been five years since the last time I saw you.
Since I’ve cried myself to sleep, trying to work out how to initiate conversation that you’d listen to.
Since I’ve stood, speechless in your presence, trying to piece together the puzzle of us – desperate to figure out how I grew so weak so quickly in the grip of your attention.
Since I’ve dreamt up ways for us to make it work, working out the calculus of just how much I could give up, what I was willing to sacrifice, since you wouldn’t.
Since I defended you – and had to, constantly, against my friend’s accusations that I wasn’t happy, that you weren’t treating me well enough. “It’s not that bad,” “it’s not like that,” and “he’s never hit me, though” flew out of my mouth on repeat, like a pull-string doll with choice phrases.
Because no one could convince me that it was abuse if no one realized that it could be. No one had the words to name it for what it was – and I sure as hell didn’t have them for myself.
In fact, back then, I didn’t have any words for myself. Not ever. I hardly even had a Self.
You stole all of my words away from me – always yelling, always interrupting, always shrugging it off because I’m “too sensitive” and I’m “overreacting” and I “can’t take a joke.”
And while I’ll never get back those nine months of my life that we spent together – sharing pizza in restaurants, watching horror movies on your couch, driving aimlessly in your car – that experience gestated in me a new life that I birthed and nurtured ever since. And it grew into my realizing the necessity – the dire need – of speaking one’s truth.
And I have something to say.
But the truth is, I’ve always had something to say.
I had something to say every time you were angry with me and, wanting to prove a point, would stop communicating with me – leaving me obsessing over what I could have possibly done wrong this time. But then you would forgive me, without explanation, and surprise text “When I kiss you, do you like it better when my hand cradles the nape of your neck or the small of your back?” or “I showed a picture of you to my grandmother so she could see what I get to come home to.” The promises that you never made filled me with enough hope to ignore your transgressions.
I had something to say the time I tiptoed into your living room to find you seething on the couch, throwing grenades with your eyes, demanding to know why I was late, why I was talking to that guy, how come I didn’t come straight to you. I wanted to tell you that it was because I’d felt guilty about the time that I stood him up for a friend date because you told me that I had to. But I just stood there, watching the carpet blur in my vision.
I had something to say the night that I almost left. I stood in my underwear at the foot of your bed and threatened to leave because of your “What you like in bed is boring” and “Don’t you know that boys like it when you” and “Do you really think you look good naked” and “Don’t smile – it isn’t sexy.” I was met with “Haha, oh, c’mon, baby, it was just a joke.” And because it was late and because I knew that even if I left, I’d come back the next day anyway, I crawled into bed with you instead.
I had something to say that winter morning, nonetheless bright and sunny in the South, when you bought me caramel apple cider (with whipped cream) and drove me through that new development across town so that we could pick out which houses we loved the most. And we teased each other because you wanted mansions, and I wanted townhomes. But by nightfall, I was dodging your bloodshot dagger glances as you raised your voice about how “Of course some stereotypes are good stereotypes” and “What does that say about me” if I passively deny being a size queen.
I had something to say the first day that you came to my new apartment, the one that you told me I had to move into because you didn’t trust that I wasn’t fucking my roommate. You took me straight to my bedroom to force me into contortions that hurt, defending yourself with “This is what I like though.” Then you walked out the door after breaking me with “I’m not sleeping over” and a kiss on the cheek.
I had something to say when we finally planned a real date night, and I spent the whole day preparing lasagna and biscotti from scratch. Upon presenting you with your plate, you spat back “What is this?” and declared that you can’t eat lasagna without pasta. And although I argued that lasagna itself is pasta, somehow I ended up back in the kitchen anyway, throwing together a side of spaghetti aglio e olio. Later, you berated that I put too much milk in my tea, that I’m only supposed to put in a few drops to change the color.
I had something to say after your break-up-by-text and the subsequent discovery that you’d been fucking other women the whole time that you were accusing me baselessly of fucking other men. Only to have to face your jovial laughter every day and listen to the lies that you spread about me to my colleagues – lies that sent me into a deep depression and turned me into a pariah.
And I had something to say after the summer – when my grief-stricken spirit mourned the loss of you by taking up a strict beauty routine of self-starvation, and I came back a waif, my jeans slipping over my hipbones and hanging loosely between my thighs. All you did was toss a granola bar in my direction and smile, “I think you need this more than I do.”
I’ve always had something to say, but I could never choke the words out past the constant lump in my throat.
I’ve always had something to say, but the only remedy to my insecurity felt like your approval. My greatest fear was always that you were right about me and my unworthiness. And somehow, the only outcome scarier than being stuck in that situation felt like you leaving. So I knew that even if I opened my mouth to speak, all I’d have been able to croak out would have been “Stay.”
I’ve always had something to say, but we live in a world where little girls are told that if he teases you on the playground, it’s because he likes you. I’ve always had something to say, but growing up, I was always taught “If he hits you, leave,” but never just “If he hurts you.”
I’ve always had something to say, but where the fuck are the awareness campaigns for intimate partner violence without the bruises?
But one day, I realized that my realization was bigger than how fat you told me I was and bigger than the ego you stroke through four-hours-a-day-in-the-gym combined with “My friend said you’d be more fuckable if you worked out more.”
Because despite every fantasy/fear/fantasy/fear I’ve ever had about your face in a crowd, your voice at the end of the line, your name popping up in my inbox, I don’t have anything left to say to you.
And after five years in and out of therapy and pep talks in the shower and sit-down discussions with would-be lovers about how they have to preface any conversation about baseball with a trigger warning, I don’t have anything left to say about me either.
And I may not be able to travel back in time to my earlier self – would I even recognize her? – but I can still be a message in a bottle for anyone else who feels like they’re walking on eggshells—no, shattered glass—no, an ever-engulfing fire—every time they’re waiting for their lover/hater to detonate, exploding vile words like shrapnel that they’ll spend years painstakingly picking out of their hearts.
And my message for them is this:
They don’t ever have to lay a goddamn hand on you for it to be abuse.