by Sara Wetmore 

Even after all these years, I think I hate him all the same. Perhaps more now that I have had the time and space to dwell, like a breath of air coursing over burning ember, catching light instead of extinguishing. Though I have come to understand him a bit better in these last few years as I’ve regained trust in myself, I find it hard to move beyond the bitter memories he has left behind. Yet, I tell myself again and again, he is not solely at fault. I should have known better, should have seen myself for who I really was and not for who he wanted me to be. So many young women that came before me have had their hearts broken and repaired themselves, living delicious, meaningful lives after the fall. I trust that one day, I will be able to do the same. But perhaps before that day comes, I’ll need to learn how to forgive him for what he’s done to me, or at the very least, forget.

It began with his form drawing nearer, slowly, like an ice cube melting, pooling into its own expanding winter pond. I arrived in class so very naive and young—eager to learn about literary criticism and theory, the first of many undergraduate stops on my quest to earn my doctorate in English Language and Literature. I was still optimistic then, and had great ambitions for who I would become when I finally completed my degree.

I was fiercely ambitious, believing the pinnacle of success was conquering the academic world, staying in school as long as possible to fill my head with books, history, and theory. I wanted to be the type of person who leads in their field, with an audience for my study and pupils to guide through their own educational journeys. What’s more important is that I thought this victory was possible, and that in a matter of years I’d earn the title of “Doctor” and lead a life filled with intellectual intrigue.

The class was strenuous and commanded all of my attention. Yet, as the weeks flickered from one to the next, the professor trying his hardest to teach us about postmodern theory, I noticed this man slithering his way closer to me. His t-shirt stretched tightly across his muscled chest and tattooed arms. The corners of his thin mouth creased and the edges of his eyes pinched into the tiniest of wrinkles. Like an imposing glacier, cold and slippery, he was a man above all the other students, and he caught my eye just as I caught his. Eventually, he perched in the seat beside me, boasting of brighter days in the Air Force with tales of London fog and Cyprus beaches.

He told the class, “This reminds me of a time when I was in England and I was writing my own book…”
Immediately, he peaked my interest, though I could tell he was baiting for my attention. I wanted to see England someday and write my own book. Hungry for the adventurous life I’d not yet lived, I swam towards his lure.

I had never met anyone like him before. He was so well-traveled and accomplished, with his military experience and talk of self-published books. The worldliness and self-possession I saw in him was what I wish I had seen in myself, but he was ten years my senior, and there was so much life I had not yet lived.

Maybe if I knew then what I know now, I would have waited, wading in the dating pool of my own age group and never getting too serious. I would have focused on my studies and the arduous goal I had set for myself. I would have dabbled in art and writing more freely and taken more time to explore the world around me. I was so bored with life as it was, not yet embodying the picture of my future, that I forgot to live at all.

After class, he chased after me on campus, his footsteps falling with severity as they followed my own.
“That was a great class, wasn’t it? Are you enjoying the book?” he said. “Yeah, it’s really good so far.” I said.
“Do you ever want to read it, like, together sometime?”

Little did he know that reading was on my list of dream dates. I had to say yes. “Sure!” I said, trying to reel in my enthusiasm.

He pulled out his cell phone and looked at me expectantly, his tea-colored eyes glittering in the sunlight. I told him my number and he told me his, and thus began our tumultuous affair.
On our date, I was fascinated by his blind charisma. I would fall down and worship his every word. I wanted his approval so badly that I would tout my own little accomplishments—as many as one could have at the tender age of nineteen—but my moment in his glory would extinguish quickly, followed only by a grander example of his excellence. This would be the first of many times he would scatter the ashes of my self-confidence beneath his hallowed feet. For months, each thing I did was eclipsed by his ego, and sadly it is only now I realize there was so much for which I deserved recognition.

Over the course of a year, the abuse became more than simply ignoring or belittling my accomplishments. When his tales grew stale, I grew less concerned with what he had done in a past life and more concerned with my future.

“What do you think of Princeton University for graduate school? I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald went there. Wouldn’t that be cool?” I said.
“Not this again. If you’re thinking of applying to a school, you should at least run it by me first. What if I don’t want to move there?”

I remember thinking it was bold of him to assume he was going to join me on my journey. He hated that I ceased lauding him to focus inward and ultimately outgrow him. In fact, the more I lived in the present, the more irked he would become. He grew jealous and insecure and needed my blessing even more than I needed his.

Things I liked that did not conform to the person he had molded me to be were abhorred, and I would immediately fall victim to his bitter tongue, plagued by the most censorious taste.

Piece by piece, he became more human to me, and I began to see him for who he really was: an insecure boy stuck in the past, unable to move toward the future because he was so petrified that things might never get better, that his best life had already been lived and saw no need for self-improvement. He tore down others to maintain his superiority. Things must have been great for him once, and I feel sorry that the world moved on without him.

But I was much the opposite. The past was forgettable, and the future beckoned me with its limitless possibilities. I didn’t have to be who I once was, or who I was then. I could be anything, do anything, go anywhere—it was all terribly exciting, and I was anxious to fast forward to a time when I was less pathetically me.

He must have begun to suspect we were pulling in opposite directions, because one night I quit my job and went out to celebrate without him. He knew it was over before I did. As I was sitting on the barstool, my phone kept vibrating, pulling me out of the conversation with my colleagues. I looked at my screen and saw his name flashing over and over again. Then my phone would vibrate again. This time, a voicemail. I excused myself from the table and stepped aside to listen to it.

“Where the fuck are you? I want to know who is there; I deserve to know who you are cheating on me with. If you don’t call me back right now, it’s over.”

What’s funny is I would have stayed with him, maybe forever, if he hadn’t accused me of cheating on him that night. I hadn’t, as I was only out with work friends for no more than an hour or two, but he insisted I was lying and, unable to be convinced otherwise, demanded an apology from me for days. He waited and waited, but I never apologized. I wanted nothing more to do with him, and it took one night of furious phone calls, sharp-tongued voicemails, and a storm of defamatory texts for me to notice that I had been abused all along.

I wish we could have left things at that, but he persisted in trying to get me to confess.

And once he realized my fidelity was never in question, he tried even harder to lure me back. He would contact my family and leave flowers on my car. He would call me crying and apologizing, and then call me angry for not surrendering to his pale performance. He was such a nice guy, he would say (as most abusive partners do), and he loved me fiercely—too fierce to let me go. But I was free.

In that first week, I put on my favorite orange mandala dress and danced alone in my kitchen listening to “Jesse’s Girl” on repeat and crooned to Lana Del Rey, an act of defiance. He had once criticized me for liking one of her songs. For the first time in nearly two years, I felt happy. Happiness, though, cannot be sustained forever, and so naturally I stabilized into the ebb and flow of highs and lows that accompanies daily life. It took a moment to realize that though I was glad to be free of him, I was immeasurably damaged.

For years after we broke up, I tried to date again, but I was afraid of intimacy and attachment. I had given my love to him so freely, splaying open my chest and giving him my dancing heart without ever asking why. He had not earned it, but I gave it all the same. I was not in love with him, but rather the world he represented. He accepted this gift and bit into it like a ripe apple, devouring its fibers and juices until his teeth cut into its defenseless core, leaving nothing to plant and start anew.

I could not rid myself of the thought that each partner, male or female, was sworn to govern me. All of the red flags I missed before suddenly materialized in every new relationship I tried to forge, and I’d find myself thrust backward in time to the nightmare he once had wrought. The sound of my phone ringing induced a panic, so when someone showed interest in me, I drew tightly inward and became unreachable. Sometimes I would disappear entirely.

When I sat down to try to write again, I could feel myself sweating with his voice scratching the back of my mind, trying to break his way in, past locked doors and drawn blinds. My own self-loathing had morphed into him and his voice: deep, thunderous, and wicked. My mind would go blank, frozen by the fear he instilled. Although he was gone, I was still treading water, never to become anything more. With no way forward, neither writing nor reading could save me, though they had once been an integral part of me before I was broken.

I gave up on trying to apply to graduate school entirely. I remember he had told me not to get my hopes up. I ignored him at the time, angered by his doubt in me, but eventually he got through. So, I listened. Not cut out for graduate school. Lower your standards. The voice crept into all the corners of my body, tying itself to the synapses of my brain and rewiring me for failure. I gave up on everything.
When I graduated, I was without direction. In my hand, I held a useless humanities degree and had no prospects for a job or future. I had floundered through my last year in college, being much more preoccupied with cancelling plans than making them. I abandoned my ambitions. Instead, I cast myself into the depths of a wild and unfathomable depression; one out of which I am still clawing to escape.

I think by now I’ve realized that win or fail, I could never appease him. Nor should I continue to try after being separated all these years. He is simply a shadow of my past, and I was wrong to award him so much presence in my soul. He is just a man, and I am so much stronger than his abuse. This, I should clarify, does not absolve him of his sins, nor will my loathing ever desist. He will still haunt me in the future—and I fear I will listen instead of believing in myself. But to be hurt is not to be defeated. It inspires me to become more. And one day, I hope, I will rise above him entirely, begging question when they mention his name, “Who?”

About the Author:

Sara Wetmore is a creative nonfiction author and Lindenwood University MFA student based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her work has appeared in The Write Launch, At First Glance: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose, and Etched magazine. She enjoys experimenting with themes and form, finding deeper significance in the common and mundane.