Sometimes I am still afraid of Leo, even after all these years. In the early days of my correspondence with Maggie, I often feared she’d do the very thing I’d encouraged: leave him. I worried he’d discover I’d influenced her decision. That he’d find me and punish me.
In a way, I’m writing this to confront my fear once and for all. I don’t know how much of it was ever legitimate, and how much of Leo is a boogeyman created by my mind. I’ll probably never know. But I’m tired of the Leo-shaped specter that haunts me, weary of the nightmares, which persist a full twelve years after leaving him. In those dreams I find myself inexplicably back at his side. What compromises have I made? What has happened to my husband? Full of dread, I realize I’ll have to escape all over again.
This isn’t an essay; it’s an exorcism.
But that’s not all it is. It’s also a message in a bottle. Only I’m not the one on a desert island, not anymore—maybe you are. Maybe you’re somebody like I once was, trapped inside a relationship that strangles you and makes you afraid, that crushes your spirit daily. In your heart you know you need to get out of there, but you don’t know how. What will people think? Can you survive on your own? In the face of so much uncertainty, you convince yourself you’re better off with the devil you know.
Whoever you are, please hear me: You are stronger than you think you are. You are more resourceful than you think you are. You are worth more than you think you are.
I couldn’t save Maggie. I labored over my emails to her, each sentence a skeleton key crafted in hopes that one might click into place and liberate her. But she’s been with Leo as long as I was, perhaps longer. In her more recent letters, she’s stopped talking about leaving.
I don’t understand how you did it, she once wrote. How you just packed up and disappeared. The strength that must have taken, where did it come from?
It was a gradual thing, below the surface long before I ever saw it. Then one night I looked around at my bullshit life. I had no education. I lived in a place I hated with with a man who hardly noticed me unless I’d pissed him off. The television was on all the time. The rug was awful. The dog I hadn’t wanted needed a bath again. My waitress uniform was ugly.
What had happened to me? I was twenty-seven. How, I wondered, had I let things suck so bad for so long? I’d been living as though I were waiting for someone to rescue me, but no one was coming. I would have to rescue myself.
I used to stand in the window late at night, watching the constellations wheel by overhead. They seemed as remote as the possibility of a more fulfilling life. What if true love didn’t exist? Were we all just doomed to loneliness? Maybe dreams only came true in books.
There was only one way to find out. I began plotting my escape.
(To be continued.)