Stay, stay in me, in my heart
I say it again
The way you walk in the door and I know the way you can
The way you’re telling me you’re not a dangerous man
I said it again, I’ll say again
I’m not that kind of woman
What can you do
What can you do to me
What can you do…you
“Carnival” Tori Amos
Dustin never told me he wasn’t a dangerous man-he only said he wasn’t dangerous to me. And I believed him, right down to the bone. I knew enough by then to know the difference. After decades of vicious abuse at the hands of his father, and years of rigorous boxing training and experience, Dustin was capable of great violence. But he would have cut off his own arm before he’d raise a hand to me. Protective without being possessive, he was my defender against the danger in the dark, against the ghosts of my own past. My dark knight.
However, danger comes in many forms, and I think he knew full well the risk he posed to my heart, and hoped against all hell and hope what he feared wouldn’t come to pass. But it did, didn’t it? We knew someone with his past and addictions had a much slimmer chance of dying in his bed of old age. I knew what I was signing up for, may the Gods help me. We rolled the dice, and we lost. Some would say that was illogical, love-blind. So? Sometimes you have to tell logic to take a flying leap. Although I consider myself a strong woman, smart and logical, I had spent three years with a man-which is really too good a word for him-who painfully taught me how much of an illusion that is. Most of us are only strong, smart, and logical when everyone plays by the rules. Neal* didn’t.
I met Neal at a bar, as such things tend to go. The night before I’d decided I didn’t have time for relationships. I was busy, working two jobs, had other goals in mind. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I really had the time and energy for the birthday party I’d been invited to. But at the last minute, I changed my mind, and so it was on the top floor of a Dogtown dive bar called Nick’s Pub, shortly after after midnight, when Neal crashed the party, and my life. So I met him at a party I’d decided not to attend, an hour after I’d already decided to leave, the night after I’d decided not to pursue relationships. I guess I thought it was fate. Maybe that was my first mistake.
He chatted me up, offered to buy me a drink, which I refused. I had been trying to make sure I was well into legally sober territory before heading home, which was why I was still at the pub in the first place. So he let me beat him at pool instead, and I gave him my number before I left. I didn’t realize until much, much too late how much letting me win must have cost him. He was a good pool player, very good, and competitive. Like most men with his tendencies, he only really felt tall when he was standing on someone else.
The first six months passed in a whirlwind of shimmering pink clouds. On paper, he was fantastic. Actually, he looked pretty fantastic in person, too. Five foot ten. Deep blue eyes, dark hair, perfect teeth, full lips made for kissing. Muscular without being muscle bound. An Eagle Scout, he owned his own business, and a very successful one, at that. He bought his house at 20, paid off the mortgage by 21, through his own hard work and financial savvy. He was a mechanical genius, and curious about the world around him. He was scrupulously clean, well-liked and respected by his community and his customers. There were some warning signs, but I was truly in love for the first time in my life, and I put them down to other things, blissfully unaware.
The problems started small, and by the time they blossomed into hiding the bruises, I was already much too far gone. I took too long to realize the man he had been those first six months was a sham. That person didn’t truly exist, but I kept trying to reach him, to break through, to get him back. I thought he was the real Neal, and not just the face he wore to collect someone like me. That mistake very nearly cost me everything I had.
Maybe I knew something was off. Despite his repeated requests, I never moved in with him, refusing to surrender my apartment, mostly because he insisted I’d have to give up my cats. From this, I began to suspect he was the kind of man to abuse power, but at first, he was sweet and caring. At first, he was a lot of things, and that gentleness and caring would sometimes resurface. Just often enough.
My parents were fed up with me, my brother exasperated. Why couldn’t I just leave? What was I thinking? What the hell was the matter with me?
My only answers are things are rarely that simple, so black and white, and if you’ve never stood in my place, trying to make those choices, you have no right to judge. No one really knows where their line in the sand is until they’ve been pushed to it, and some of us only find it once we’re on our hands and knees.
To be fair-since I can be brutal about fairness-the situation would never have reached the point it did if I had been anyone but who I am. He was used to being the smartest person in the room all the time, until I came along. I never made any bones about my intelligence or apologized for it, and that flew in the face of his habit of surrounding himself with people he could dominate easily. Scrappy, opinionated, and self-aware, I was as alien to him as a Men In Black cast reject. Since he was obsessed with appearances, he was thrown by my utter indifference to the opinions of people I didn’t respect-which included most of his friends, the Legion of Misfit Toys. Almost all Neal’s senses of self-esteem and worth were external, only seen when reflected by others. Alone, there almost wasn’t enough of Neal to exist. By comparison, I was the most real person he’d ever met.
So Neal saw me as a challenge, and he knew of only one way to deal with a challenge. He’d push and pull, trying to tear me down, and I’d refuse to budge. He would get angry, I’d resist, and things would escalate. By the time I left, I knew we were one more nasty incident from one of us going to prison for murder. I am not exaggerating for effect. I won’t list the bruises, the verbal abuse, the violence, the humiliations, but we were reaching a tipping point. You would think I would have developed a better sense of self-preservation, but even as I was packing to flee St Louis and his grip, I wouldn’t back down.
“You don’t understand. I’m coming back to St Louis, but I’m never coming back to you.”
To this day, I’m surprised by his shock. I am still surprised he didn’t hit me. I’d pushed him and pushed him for the better part of a year, telling him I didn’t love him, didn’t want to be with him, to leave me alone. I warned him and pushed him, until I knew he’d found someone else. Although the cheating stung and humiliated me, I knew the only way I’d be free would be if he found someone else to prop him up. I sacrificed my own self-respect, played a dirty and underhanded game, but I was only doing what I thought I had to. But even with her company, he still called for the next four months, threatening to show up at my new place well-removed from his St Louis neighborhood. Eventually the calls and threats stopped, but there are still neighborhoods I avoid, bars I won’t set foot in. I know, even now, that I’m only really off the hook as long as he’s not reminded I still exist. For him, it isn’t really over, and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m the only game he ever lost.
And yes, it does say something about me, and about the icy demands of survival mode, that I hardly spared a thought for the woman I threw under the bus. I warned her. She chose not to believe me. I never lost any sleep over it. The people who understand are a select group, and we all have the scars to prove membership.
So. I spent the winter afterwards reassembling myself, dealing with the nightmares, the jumpiness, the anger that threatened to burn up what was left of my tattered soul. I began casually dating again the following spring, but I was cautious and gunshy. Though the men I met were nice enough in their own ways, they had no idea what they were dealing with. Never a trusting person to begin with, I now trusted absolutely no one. I had always had a kind of hardness to me, but after Neal, it had calcified into something glassy and implacable.
Then the following October, over a year after I’d left Neal, Dustin walked across a parking lot and changed everything.
*Names have been changed to protect myself, as opposed to the most assuredly guilty. He isn’t above suing me into the poorhouse, or using this tale as leverage to come back into my life and make me pay in some way. Of course he’s that much of a bastard. Haven’t you been paying attention?