Leaving Jim proved far easier than staying with him. This disturbed me at the time, more so than the arguments, the screaming matches, the blame game, and even the beatings which had become the acceptable routine of our on-again-off-again relationship.
When I first met him, I was 13 years old. He was 18 and exuded confidence as well as a rather disarming charm. It was impossible not to feel at ease when you were around him. He was sweet, hospitable, hilarious—even self-deprecating. He had run away from his father’s house in Mississippi shortly after emigrating from Ireland. His father was a bigot, his mother was shiftless. He found himself in awe of the bright lights of the big city and quickly used his charm to cultivate a network of acquaintances who had no problem letting him sleep on their couches, provided he pay them in the form of housework, which he did diligently.
The first time he slapped me across the face, it seemed almost reasonable. He was young and on his own. I was comfortably middle class, living at home with a mother who doted on me and no father in the picture, though it was preferable to knowing one like his own. I should feel guilty, I surmised. I am everything he isn’t.
These thoughts came rather naturally to me after a while.
But first, some context.
I can never claim my childhood was unhappy. I was loved ferociously by my mother and grandmother alike. I never wanted for anything. School, however, was an entirely different matter altogether. I was intelligent, thoughtful and rather precocious; these elements combined made me incredibly unpopular. The sight of me coming home in tears was a common occurrence. I was teased, mocked and beaten on a regular basis. That the powers that be typically did nothing only fueled my anger and my eventual depression.
I was especially susceptible to peer pressure. Stripped raw, devoid of any dignity whatsoever, I did anything I could to appease my tormentors, from occasionally participating in the harassment of a fellow student to sampling a few drugs, hardly believing that my thirst for approval would only make the treatment I received worse than it already was. There is a certain vulnerability I developed and it is the sort indicative of the strain lived under when someone can’t be who they are without constant, exhaustive counteraction and retaliation. I soon found myself on the cusp of adolescence without a map, much like so many others, but also without a canvas.
I was disconnected, unhuman, anything you wanted me to be.
I could say my heart was cold, but it’s interesting, the way the heart operates. I have the tendency to forget about myself. I forget to nurse my own needs, to feed myself, to drink. I give love to everyone but myself; this made me a prime target. But I do not blame myself—and over the years, I’ve come to accept constructive criticism from my own soul as easily as I’ve come to accept it from others.
Domestic violence is often presented as heteronormative. The images of victims we see in the media are almost exclusively female. The abusers, in turn, are almost exclusively male. Anything else is an anomaly.
We also live in a society which demands unrealistic standards to be upheld by both males and females.
Females are still regarded as hypersensitive, even flighty, not to be trusted in positions of power, an imposition to be placated. Females are punished for making choices regarding their own bodies, their spirits. You can see this manifested in the wage gap, the ousting of women from their jobs once they reveal their pregnancies. Women are criticized for having abortions. For having careers. For having abortions to have careers (or whatever the unsavory headline of the day might be). Women are criticized for failing to meet maternal expectations. When—and if, which is another ballpark entirely—they exhibit maternal instincts, and if, God help them, they are fortunate enough to find themselves in a position where they can spend more time raising their children, they are derided as lazy.
Men, conversely, are pathetic if they do not bring home the bacon. A man who cannot work is a waste. A man is made to work long and hard. And when this man works long and hard, racking up his obscene number of hours, he is then told he is a failure as a father. But perhaps most tragically, if women are regarded as sensitive and then demonized for being exactly that, then a man is expected to be an emotionless drone. For him to outwardly exhibit any heartache is the most grievous of sins.
How then is a gay male, already relegated to the fringes of society by the sheer accident of his personal romantic and sexual inclinations, supposed to speak openly about his sufferings without being further perceived as weak, fragile and expendable and continuously forgotten in the public discourse of domestic violence?
If violence is the ultimate form of control, then Jim understood this in spades. He knew nothing else.
His father was the quintessential homophobe, he told me, an illiberal, parsimonious fearmonger with a submissive shrew of a wife whose sole duty in life appeared to be merely to parrot her husband’s prejudices, even, at times, herself administering the fierce beatings which would eventually drive her son out on the streets. Deciding to make his way north to the big city, sleeping on the sides of roads, occasionally prostituting himself to make ends meet, sometimes finding himself brutalized afterwards, ravaged and bleeding, he’d cry out to a God that he believed had completely abandoned him. It seemed inevitable that he would continue the cycle his father had started, his self hatred manifesting itself into vicious outbursts which would typically end in the both of us drinking ourselves silly.
“You fucker,” I told him one day, after he sliced my arm with a shard of broken glass. “Why the fuck would you do that?”
“I don’t know anymore,” he said. “I just know that the more you try to love me, the more it becomes your fault.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know exactly what I mean,” he said, and the discussion was ended.
But I didn’t love him.
I could not perceive ever loving anyone who would strike me without a second’s warning, who religiously belittled me, informing me of my every indiscretion, however small. I discovered things about myself as rapidly as he could think them up: I was a man whore, a cum dumpster, a filthy punching bag one minute, the great love of his battered life the next.
I could not love a young man who thought nothing of exploiting me sexually, who developed a drug habit to drown out the demons of his childhood, who’d offer me a line of cocaine in the same tone as strangers would of the bus that’s running late or the weather overhead.
I stayed, even though it went against every principle I’d ever been taught. Over the years, I would come to understand that we are instilled with particular codes of honor without a thought of what we might actually do lest we do find ourselves in the clutches of someone as much a product of our parents’ nightmares as our own, utterly ignorant of the disastrously insidious way in which such creatures function.
People like that are awful, we’re told. They don’t respect you. They will destroy you. But there’s very little talk of psychology, very little talk of why these people are the way they are and how and why they might influences the things you do, the choices you make. We are taught to boil trauma down to something discernible, so we dilute it until it’s nothing but a string of choices, each one, the more you break it apart, the more you try to make sense of it, more disconnected from the life at the other end.
The effects would take a toll on my relationships through the remainder of my adolescence. I was wild. I was angry. I was, most prominently, vexed. Who was I?
It would be years before I could speak of this at great length, let alone write any of it down. If I did, it was often through poetry—
On the limits of my business, of its consequence,
you know nothing.
Though you see me walking down the street,
and watch the way my hips sway, you
can’t fathom the depth of its transactions,
of how hard, or how fast I can sell.
Though I could never tell you,
let alone explain,
that there’s no strength in numbers,
that I walk alone,
that the streets are dark no matter
how young the night may be,
that opening my tender mouth
would rot your dream to an apple core,
that this marriage of mine is odder than ever,
co-dependent on my forgiveness,
immune to my suffrage,
blind to my hunger,
I could never refrain
from the attempt,
for all its beauty,
though I can’t fathom,
let alone remember
how I got here in the first place.
—and I rarely, if ever, showed anyone my poetry.
The nightmares stopped a long time ago, though for quite some time, I felt I saw him around every corner.
It was a hot August day and I was just a few weeks shy of starting my freshman year of high school. “Look at you, all grown up,” he said, a walking, talking beer keg, the stench oozing off him, sickeningly sweet. “Let’s take the train and celebrate.” We hopped over the turnstiles at the station. It was late, no one around. My mother was working the night shift. We had quite some time, he reasoned, to make the night our own. I don’t recall what it was I said or what it was I did, but before I knew it, we were on the platform and almost as quickly, I was off it, face down on the trackbed.
“Now we wait,” he crowed. Now we wait. Those words chilled me then. My blood ran cold. But I had to stay rational, even as my brain panicked, as my heart shrieked.
“I’m climbing back up,” I said, my heart pounding ferociously in my chest. So I did and as soon as I was on my own two feet on the safety of the platform again, he offered me a cigarette.
“They’re Newports,” he said.
I knew what they were. They were his father’s favorites.
“It’s late,” I said. “I have to go.”
“Go, then,” he told me. “I guess we’ll see each other when we see each other.”
But we didn’t. Not after that time. Neither of us had cell phones at the time, which ruled out that form of communication. I was still technically in the closet, though my own homosexuality was pretty much an open secret, and I never felt comfortable giving him the number to the house phone.
We were each other’s dirty little secret. We met in back alleys, sometimes planning our meetings meticulously in advance, more often, as the relationship wore on, accepting that we both knew how to find the other if we so wanted or rather, that he would grace me with his presence as he saw fit. But he knew I’d come looking. It was his way, a cycle I’d fallen into without being consciously aware of it.
So one day I just stopped looking.
I turned myself over to the feverish dreams where he’d come in the night and attack me, where he’d guilt me by professing his love with the reassurance that if only he’d been understood, he’d be capable of understanding me and why I did the things I did—whatever those things were.
I allowed myself to finally accept the crushing realities of all the time I’d spent with him (and without him), of how he’d bled into every nook and cranny in my life, creating an artifice which had governed the very core of my existence. I walked and I walked alone.
In writing this, I’ve made the decision to be a vocal supporter of a faction of society that has all too often been denied the support and resources afforded to heterosexuals.
In writing this, I do not wish to deride, let alone discredit, the very troubling statistics that indicate, for instance, that female victims of domestic violence greatly outnumber the male ones. I am not for a second suggesting that these women do not deserve our attention and our compassion. I am suggesting we take a deeper look.
I am merely ending my silence, because the quiet, they say, can be deceiving, and it fooled far too many people around me. I am merely challenging a society which has conditioned all of us, men, women, children, black, white, gay, straight, and all the voices in between, not to speak up, not to open our mouths.
I am merely asking that we include everyone in this conversation, because pain, after all, is universal.
It is healing that is difficult.