It was New Year's Eve 1989, and I had a leather coat.
Not just any leather coat – a black suede blazer with long fringe and a gold satin lining. It picked up the flash in my gold hoop earrings as I walked, leaving the front unbuttoned, letting the lapels flap slightly, the lining flashing here and there. It was heavy, and soft, and bad-assed, and looked expensive. Very few of my peers owned a leather coat. Those who did had nothing so extravagant as mine.
I walked into that party behind Earl, the guy I'd been dating for the past year. He swaggered ahead in Ritchie Sambora black boots and a smile so dazzling you barely noticed his receding hairline. He was short, but strong, and mean. And loud. And needed to be the center of attention. His favorite butt of every joke was me.
It had been more than a year, I suppose. We had briefly been engaged, then I had broken it off. I tried to date someone else, but Earl stalked us around town until I feared for my life, and the other guy's life. One night after a date with that other guy, Earl was waiting near my house. When I got out of the car, and my friend drove away, Earl grabbed me in my front yard and threw me to the grass, spitting on me. I tried to get up and he pushed me back down. The grass was wet. I just sat there. I don't remember the things he said. My parents were home, but sleeping. Earl was a master at hiding his violence. He never left me with bruises.
It was hard being seventeen in that town. I was a very, very sexy young girl, one of those girls who has no idea how to handle what she’s got, what it's worth. And Earl really wasn't much worse than most of the guys. He was country and unsophisticated, but when he was nice to me, he was really nice. He'd shower me with gifts, presenting them to me on one knee, often in public, his eyes piercing through me as if he could will me into his posession. Our courtship had begun when I was sixteen, and a young sixteen at that. Where most boys didn't bother with me at all, Earl made me feel like a princess. I guess Earl felt he wouldn't have to worry about competition for me. For the most part, he was right. I remember one of Earl’s buddies saying “that’s a lot of meat to handle.” Earl had told him about how I had tried to break up with him a couple of times, and he had to work hard to keep me in line.
I could never attract the attention of nice boys. I tried, but I must have made them nervous. It was always older men – much older – and bad boys who made no secret of what they wanted. They handed me roses and played love songs on the jukebox for me, and actually called me the next morning after tussling in their cars all night. This probably only hurt my image and drove the nice boys farther off... but I was lonely, and felt that I was in no position to be choosy.
Earl, at least, was gorgeous. At 21 years of age he had round apple cheeks with a sexy stubble, unruly ringlets of dirty blonde hair, bedroom eyes and that winning smile. He had played football in high school, but had bad memories of it. I always wondered if he hadn’t been kicked off the team for drinking and smoking, or more likely, fighting with the coach. When I knew him, Earl had dreams of being an actor. He couldn't sing, but that was alright, in community theatre if you can walk straight and speak intelligible English you can be in the show. He was a passable dancer, meaning that he could learn the steps and keep up. Of course he could lift a gal over his head with minimal effort, not to mention throw her across the room, so before long he was cast in the ballet company shows. Half-prancing, half-lumbering around in black tights and canvas ballet slippers, Earl made steps that should have been elegant and majestic look somehow wimpy. He claimed to hate Baryshnikov, and emulated Nureyev. I think he was jealous of Baryshnikov. The girls mooned over Mischa far too much.
Before me, Earl had dated a short, plump girl, who my friends described as dowdy. I had to admit she wasn't attractive, but I guess in the dark the sex must have been alright. Similar things were said about the two girls he’d dated before that - I had known them all. None of them were beauty queens. Everyone said I was the prettiest girl he'd ever been with.
My memories of that relationship are painful, and riddled with holes. My most vivid memories are of him holding me against the wall in my kitchen, refusing to leave my house, mumbling softly into my face for the better part of three hours about his undying, desperate love for me, and how he knew I dreamed of cheating on him. He claimed he could read my mind and see the lies and secret betrayals I was planning to commit. He squeezed real tears out of his eyes as he begged me to tell him why, why couldn't I love him the way he loved me? Nothing I said was good enough. Nothing I said would reassure him, comfort him, calm him down. Nothing I said was convincing enough. Eventually, always the sex would come, or something like sex, that I didn't want but he insisted on, to prove my love for him. I remember this, and it happened so many times. At my house, when my parents were asleep. At his house, because his family didn’t care what went on behind his bedroom door. In the car. At a rest stop once, that he drove me to, miles out of town, just to put me through this. At a friend’s house, during a party, with people banging on the bathroom door asking “are you all right in there?” as I drowned in humiliation. When we finally exited the bathroom, I was barely able to walk from exhaustion, and when people asked if everything was ok, Earl would smile, his arm around my shoulders, holding me up, and say "We're fine. Deidre's just not feeling so good. I'd better take her home."
My memories of the sex are almost completely gone. I remember it hurting, and that I never had any choice in the matter. I remember waking up from some sort of daydream to see him putting on his pants and getting up to take a phone call. I remember him pinning me to the bed, spitting in my face, more accusations of cheating.
He was my first time.
Finally I went to college, and he followed me there. He enrolled in the school, he declared the same major as me, and he was in a few of my classes. He couldn’t, however, follow me home – my parents had arranged for me to live in student housing, and blissfully, I was placed in an all-girl dormitory with restricted visitation hours for the opposite sex. I made girlfriends, and for the first time outside of Springfield, I began to talk about Earl, and the relationship. I learned that I was far from the only person to live through such things. I learned that, if I needed help, I could call my girlfriends. I learned that I had a safe place to hide.
It took a while to completely extricate him from my life. I began a relationship with another man – realizing Earl’s worst fear. I left him for that man, and though we tried to be friends, Earl never stopped trying to get me alone in his room. Once or twice I found myself there, after drinking too much at a party, and to this day I am not sure how I escaped. At some point I began to scream and shout at him, rather than dissolve into tears and a low-level unconsciousness. And then, one night, I called the police.
Earl called me up late at night. I had been on the phone with my new boyfriend for a while. I’m sure Earl had been trying to call, and couldn’t get through, and he knew who I was talking to. So when the line was free, he called and said that he had swallowed a bottle of aspirin and was calling to say goodbye. He was allergic to aspirin, and apparently, this could kill him. What did I know? He called with a suicide threat – so I called the police. I told them exactly what he had told me, and I gave a complete description. Earl had said he was calling from a pay telephone at a certain location, so I gave that to the police as well.
The police called me back. “He’s not at the payphone, ma’am. We’re looking in the local bars and alleys, but we’re not finding him. Can you tell us where he lives?”
I gave the police his home address. They found him there, clean and sober and right as rain. The police called me back. “He’s fine, ma’am. He says the two of you broke up today, and that you did this to get back at him.”
I was stunned. “And you believe him and not me?” I asked. “Well, ma’am, he looks just fine to us,” the cop replied. “Well, I guess that’s what he would say. So I guess you’re going to believe him,” I said. We hung up.
The next day, Earl was waiting for me outside the building where I had class. “You know you woke up everyone in my house last night. Everyone’s pretty pissed at you.”
“You called me and said you were committing suicide,” I responded. “What did you think I would do?”
“I didn’t think you’d call the cops,” Earl replied, taking a puff on his cigarette.
“Now you know,” I said.
“Here,” Earl grunted. He handed me some CD’s of mine that he had borrowed. “I think there’s some more of your stuff at the house.”
“Keep it,” I said. “In fact, keep these too.”
I went to class, and he wandered off, across the quad.
Earl was flunking out, and eventually he formally withdrew from school. He kept an apartment in town though, and started dating someone, an overweight blonde girl. I found out through a mutual friend that this girl was seen with black eyes and bruises frequently. I made every effort to reach out to her, to tell her not to listen to his lies and his crap.
Eventually, incredibly, through the efforts of a string of acquaintances, this girl called me. “I just wanted you to know that I don’t hate you, and I’m not plotting anything against you,” she said. “I don’t even know you – but I know Earl.”
“I’m so glad you called me,” I said. “Please, can we meet somewhere?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. If he even finds out we talked…”
“He’s a liar,” I said to her. “He’s been lying to the both of us for a long time. I’ve known him for years. Don’t believe anything he says to you.”
“I know, he lies,” she said. “He lies a lot.”
“Please, can you call me again? Call me tomorrow night. I really think we should talk. Or we can meet somewhere, anywhere, it doesn't have to be my dorm. Someone else's place.”
I got her to agree to call me back the next day, but she never did. I never heard from her again.
About six months later, I saw Earl for the last time. I was walking home from a late class, and he pulled up in a beat-up Bronco-type vehicle. He stepped out of the car and stumbled over to me. “Miss me?” he said, with that terrible smile. The smell of alcohol on his breath nearly knocked me over.
“Let me go,” I choked, realizing his fingers were digging into my tricep. He dragged me toward the car. Two other guys were in the car, whooping and laughing. “My Wife!” He bellowed at the car.
I kicked, I dropped my books, I kicked again, and I ran. “Fucking BITCH” I heard behind me, and the sound of the car revving. I ran until I reached my dorm room. I locked myself into my room on the 17th floor and cried for hours.
At some point, a boy I had been casually dating on campus knocked on my door. I tried to tell him what had happened to me, but he looked at me like I was nuts. I don’t think he believed me. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe it myself. It’s like a nightmare, like something out of a bad movie. I wish it hadn’t really happened. I had nightmares about being grabbed and dragged into dark places for about five years afterward. I'd wake up feeling my arms and legs being ripped out of their sockets and a stinging throbbing pain between my legs. I'd stare into my dark bedroom and shake until my body gave out, and I fell asleep again.
I went to the student counseling center, and began to write. I wrote poems and short stories about violence, about hitting people with steel pipes, about bashing in skulls. I wrote poems about witches casting evil spells on me, throwing cloaks of fear over me that were so heavy I was pinned to the ground. I dreamed of death and churches with gaping holes in the floor, and I wrote that down too. I dreamed of jumping off of buildings, and wrote about that, my dreams of flying, flying, flying, and finally of dying. Finally, years later, I wrote a poem about throwing myself into traffic in Manhattan.
However, I was never truly suicidal. I was a pain addict. And it wasn’t because of Earl that I wanted a grand death. It wasn’t Earl that made me feel dead inside. Earl introduced me to greed, to pain, and to the need to control others. He did not, however, teach me what loss was. I never grieved the loss of Earl. I never missed him, I never thought of him, and I never once regretted the many times I tried to get rid of him. The day I kicked him out of my life was a triumph. Losing Earl was no loss. Losing Earl made me feel alive, made me want to live.
It was the boy I met at that party, so long ago, when I was that pretty just-turned-eighteen-year-old girl in the coolest jacket ever, who made me feel dead.