Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sticks and Stones and Chromosomes

When I was a sophomore in college, I was stalked by a crazy poet with sad eyes and an addiction. I was initially drawn to him because of his esoteric taste in music and his intellectual nature. Maybe a part of me was also drawn to his dark side. I wasn't an innocent victim. I liked his company. We often drank together. A lot. He read my bad poetry and I read his music lyrics. How was I to know he would lose his  marbles?

His emotional state rapidly deteriorated and I had no choice but to quietly walk away. I could no longer ignore the off-handed threats of violence, the clinginess. the bloodshot rants.

He barged into my place of employment, drunk, and declared that if he couldn't have me, nobody could. Cliché, party of one. The police were called to escort him out. It was humiliating.

One afternoon, he was waiting by my car after class. He placed his foot behind the driver's back tire and taunted me, told me I couldn't leave. There was much more desperation than anger. He was shaking. I was paralyzed. I didn't back up. I didn't run over his foot. He knew me well enough to know I wouldn't.

Remember the song "Every Breath You Take" by The Police? That was my life. He was watching me. He knew when my classes started and ended. He stopped me in the hallways, crying and begging, and I listened. I was sorry. I was so goddamn sorry.

Sometimes I saw him as I drove to work. He knew my route. He waited for me, his arms crossed, in a stance of dominion, on a street corner he knew I would drive by.

He often showed up at my house in the middle of the night and threw pebbles at my bedroom window. He couldn't live without me. He was going to kill himself if I didn't come out to talk to him. There was no way out. I was powerless. Trapped.

This is what it feels like to be hunted.

My parents sent me away that summer and he ended up moving across the country. Although I never saw him again, he used to call me on the phone constantly. For many years thereafter, the sound of a phone ringing did unbearable, crippling things to my heart.

I began to refer to myself in lower case. i was tessa. It was so e.e. cummings, but with less beauty and more loathing. My self worth, which was shaky to begin with, spiraled into non-existence.

But it wasn't just him. It's not just the neurotic alcoholics. There was the genuinely nice guy/boyfriend who told me I should wear jeans with a white t-shirt because he really liked that look on a woman. This was during a time in my life when I mainly wore long, hippie skirts and one-size-fits-all flowing blouses. He wanted me to trade in my Birkenstocks for Keds. I was his doll to dress the way he wanted, regardless of my personal style. He wanted to mold me into a respectable (stepford) wife.

When I gained a few pounds, tipping the scale at a whopping 110 lbs., he thought I should go on a diet because he "doesn't like fat chicks."

And there was the time when he declined an offer to join his best friend for a weekend in Chicago because he wanted to spend time with me. We went on a date to a smoky, horrible comedy bar and then back to his apartment. When it came time for the anticipated (inevitable?) sex, I told him I wasn't in the mood. I didn't feel well.

He looked at me, surprised and outraged: "I gave up Chicago for THIS?!"

this this this

The devastating smallness I felt that night has lingered. It reminds me daily that we are altered (albeit not defined) by seemingly irrelevant moments. The meaning behind those careless words dismantled my self image.

We ended up having sex after all. There was no coersion. I could have just left, with my pride. But I stayed, I caved. He told me he loved me, but I didn't believe him.

I didn't want to write about #YesAllWomen. I wanted to listen to the conversation. I wanted to feel the zeitgeist shift, safely. I resisted being another voice in the movement because I didn't want to talk about it, to relive it, to acknowledge it. I may be a different person now than I was in my early college years. I make better choices (usually) and I can fend for myself (for the most part), but I'm still a woman.

When I go on a run in the early morning light, on a trail I know like the rhythm of my heart, I'm on edge and ultra aware of my surroundings. I change my route often, just in case. I'm so thankful when I run into happy little families, enjoying a bike ride on a sunny day. The dread creeps in when the trail gets a little less traveled, a little more secluded. I've learned to quantify and analyze potential danger. Is the man following me walking his dog? If yes, the odds that he's a rapist or murderer are greatly reduced. Is he walking hand in hand with a woman? If yes, he's qualified as quite safe. Is it getting dark out and he's walking in regular street clothes, looking around suspiciously? If yes, run the hell away.

Because you never know for sure.

That's the thing. It's the uncertainty that ruins any sense of safety, any peace of mind.  But I'm not going to sacrifice what I love because of a possibility. Life's too damn short to be ruled by what ifs. I'll keep running, even if I have to look back every now and then. I've become used to the fear. It comes with the chromosomes.



P.S. I wrote this post several weeks ago but have been reluctant to publish it. Special thanks to Erica and Rachael for the encouragement.

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