When Love Turns Sour

CW: Domestic abuse, emotional abuse, violence

Everyone loved *Nathan. You could say his name in another borough and at least one person would pause mid-sentence and shriek about the world being too small, before telling you that the man you know inside and out is such a good guy. “How lucky are you?!” Their eyes would gleam, some with envy and some truly earnest.

I met him while mindlessly eating a sandwich on a park bench in the late spring, when the April showers had come and gone, leaving the trees lush. Bugs were everywhere, reaping the rewards of all that the rain had nourished.

“Hey, excuse me, can I sit here?”

I looked up, because the voice was solid, velvet, respectfully quiet – someone who cared enough to speak in hushed tones so as not to alarm life around him. He was tall – not 6 feet tall, like he said he was – but a tall 5’11, you know? It was just right. His eyes sparkled, chestnuts rolled in gold directly under the sun. Rich and warm, with darkened creases in the outer corners, which gave the effect of eyeliner.

His eyes were hidden under endless lashes and for a moment, his smile distracted me from them. I looked down at his sharp cupids bow, stubble, lean limbs under a tracksuit. I imagined them to be bronzed brown, just like his face was. I wanted to cup his cheeks with my hands.

We exchanged numbers, but when he called I wasn’t as keen – I’d forgotten the way his eyes shone, those long limbs close enough for me to smell them, ittar that smelled of lilies and dark musk on the skin after sex.

But we continued to speak a few times on the phone and one day, I was having a hard time at home – parents divorcing, the usual clichés that can send a teenager into a rebellion that should have caused alarm…except no elder figure was around to see it. For once, I had the urge to call first. He met me straight away in a chicken shop and it was nice, fun. Comforting. Like a hug, which he gave me before we went our separate ways. He hugged me for about two and half minutes. Do you know how long that is, what a luxury it is, to be embraced for that long?

He was running his hands through my hair, down my shoulders, across my upper back (nowhere indecent, how rare!). I felt so comfortable that I fell right into it; into the oblivion of him. That smell, his torso holding my collapsed body, the feeling of a tender embrace, maybe for the first time - I closed my eyes and I was gone.

I never imagined Nathan would be violent.

The joke was how textbook it all was. I’d found someone who had the worst qualities of my father. It was almost hysterically cliche. Laughable how avoidable it could all be, if our education system taught us to know ourselves a little better, to recognise the dangers within our own selves.

But so it was and one winter night we had a tiff - a nothing fight, a conversation between a pair in love. I wanted him to drop me home but he wanted to watch the football first. I was bored of waiting. I told him I was leaving and I was nearly at the bus stop, my breath coming out in clouds, a nose as red as the crimson gloves I wore. Then, suddenly, I knew someone was behind me and I looked around to see him walking down the road towards me. I smiled in smug satisfaction. I had won! My boyfriend had come to apologise, to drive me home. Yay! I felt strong – I’d made the right decision to leave. I wouldn’t be a pushover.

But then I saw he was coming towards me with a baseball bat and I went from satisfied to confused to survival mode, in a few seconds.

“Do you think you can treat me like a dickhead?” he said, pacing around a car to reach me, me edging around the vehicle. A game of cat and mouse, he is Tom and I am Jerry, but this isn’t funny. He escorted me back to his house, head down, shaken. When he was ready, he dropped me home.

And so it went, for years afterward - his way or the highway.

A guy would glance at me and I wouldn’t hear the end of it. He insisted I dress more ‘modestly’. He put me down if I did my makeup, or painted my nails. Get back in your place. He’d kick my leg under the table if I pissed him off at a restaurant. But Nathan wasn’t all bad, and most of the time he felt like all I had. I could still lie in his arms and fall asleep in under a minute, the soft warmth, that smell that had a thousand layers to it, his fingers tracing my chin, my cheek.

I once heard about a lab test performed on monkeys. The scientists gave a baby monkey two choices - a metal ‘mother’ monkey that provided milk and a teddy bear monkey that was soft, but had no milk. The test results were clear - monkeys would rather hug the soft teddy and starve.

In the times when he was just terrifying, I wished him dead – I felt like there was no other way to get rid of him. He loved me and I was his. I spent years being dragged around my house by my hair, being pinched, punched, pulled, kicked, loved, held, carried, embraced. I was a rag doll. I loved him, and I wanted him dead. I cursed the day I ever met him in that park filled with lush greenery, purple and ivory flowers, bees happily buzzing from one to the next before soaring away.

I got out when I least expected it.

My family were on holiday and we had the place to ourselves, so we took advantage like most self-destructive young love birds would - until I heard the front door open. I panicked, so he said he’d climb out of the window to escape. He did - but then I heard a wailing, and it almost made me laugh. I knew he must have fallen badly and while most of me was horrified, calling the ambulance as I watched him writhe around on the street howling like a wolf that had been shot, I wanted to laugh out loud, deeply, with my head back to the skies. HA-HA-HA- HA-HA. It turned out that he had fractured his spine and was really lucky that it would heal and he’d be fine – after a year in bed with a back brace on.

In the hospital, I helped him brush his teeth, do his hair, put his socks on, and one day he lost his patience, called me names, and I thought ‘Hang on, I don’t have to put up with this, do I? What’s he gonna do, chase me out of here?’ So I walked out. I don’t know how weak it makes me, the fact that I was only able to walk out when he was physically unable to stop me.

I’d like to say I didn’t look back, but that’s not quite true. Relationships aren’t like the movies, me walking away with my hair blowing in the wind, a chapter closed. It stays with you. I can never be that carefree girl again. I still jump at sudden movements. It took me years to walk with my head up again. I’ve had to accept that the girl I was before I met him is gone. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – I am more empathetic, cautious, wiser, softer yet stronger. In fact - although I am certainly wounded, I am better. I’m sure of that.

*Name changed