I met Maggie in person twelve years to the day since I’d left Leo. One of us happened to be in the other one’s city, and we arranged to have hipster coffee at a place with corrugated tin on the walls and succulents on the tables. Neither one of us had ever been there; the unfamiliar neighborhood was a kind of limbo world for both of us.
I arrived first. Maggie was late, perhaps to convey insouciance or to give me the full impact of her appearance when she came around the corner. She was very beautiful.
And younger, of course.
Her miniskirt and t-shirt looked like something I might once have put together, except she wore it with more style than I could have accomplished. She was breathless and sort of frazzled. Her eyes were huge.
At first we tried not to talk about Leo. We talked about our lives and work, almost deliberately skirting around the topic. But Leo was the elephant in the coffee shop; eventually we had to acknowledge him. When I mentioned that it was my twelfth anniversary of leaving him, she burst into tears.
I’m sorry, I said. I shouldn’t have told you that.
No, she said, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve, it feels meaningful.
We spent the next hour talking about Leo. She said they now thought he might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. He was going to be tested. She said this in a way that suggested such a diagnosis would explain a lot.
I was skeptical. Maybe, I said. But you should read up on narcissism.
I have, she said.
Or course she had.
In the end, whatever label or diagnosis is finally applied to Leo doesn’t ultimately matter because the label that’s most important is: Abusive. It was a word that never occurred to me while I was in the relationship with him; abuse, I thought, was for other women. I was too smart for that. I grew up in Sunday school and was from a nice family.
In fact, didn’t know what abuse was. Most people don’t, unless it has happened to them. We think abuse means being hit — and it does. But there’s a whole realm of emotional and psychological violence that exists in a nebulous gray area without clear language to define it. Talking about this kind of abuse is difficult, especially when physical violence is not involved. If you aren’t being hit, where’s the threat? Nobody calls the police because their boyfriend is gaslighting them or calling them ugly names.
Emotional and psychological abuse is so insidious because, unlike a physical assault, victims rarely see what’s happening to them. It’s easier to chalk a partner’s cruelty up to a bad day or too much booze. Damage is seldom meted out in big, devastating chunks; it’s a slow erosion. Inevitably, you think, Maybe he’s right, maybe I am stupid and helpless and unstable and needy.
A kind of enchantment takes over. You start to feel lucky that he tolerates you. No one else would put up with you, you’re sure. Maybe, if you love him hard enough, something will change.
Or maybe, like me, you begin to think that loneliness is an inescapable fact of being human. The kind of love you see in movies and books, the soul-mate kind, even the tender understanding your parents or grandparents may have had — doesn’t really exist. This, you think, is what growing up means: realizing that everything is ugly on the inside. And maybe, like me, you let him choke you in bed until you’re almost unconscious. You let him do other things, too. Things that turn your body inside out. Things you are ashamed to ever talk about. It’s normal, you say to yourself.
The night I met Maggie, the old desire to save her was strong as ever. I found myself wanting to say the right combination of words, an incantation to break the spell she’s under. But I don’t know what those words are. And besides, she’d have to say them herself.