Rediscovering My Authenticity After a Controlling Relationship

The day I gave away my wildly printed baby-doll dresses, bought secondhand in San Francisco’s Haight, has come back to haunt me for decades. What I wouldn’t give to revisit that moment and clutch that Glad bag right out from my foolish eighteen-year-old hand. My regret has little to do with the clothes themselves; it’s that I gave them away to reassure my boyfriend, Jake, that I could be tamed.

Jake liked surfaces kept clean and neat, edges tucked in, pulled tight. While he shared a dorm room with the typical college jock whose side of the dorm was piled in feral, sweaty clothing and ragged cliffs of papers, Jake’s side boasted exactly one picture frame, a small stack of books, spines aligned, and nothing else. Friends once tossed a balled up piece of paper onto the clean floor to see if he’d notice. He snatched it up the moment he walked in the door.

I, on the other hand, spilled over at the edges: my hair dyed Manic-Panic fuchsia, each day pairing one of my consignment store dresses with Doc Martin Mary Janes and loudly colored tights. While I was prepared to end up with some guy who dressed in military khaki and carried a guitar and a baggie of hand-rolled smokes, silently I hungered for Jake’s polished exterior, his precise edges: crisp button-up shirts when other dudes wore sloppy tees, pressed black slacks and shiny shoes, his Italian heritage always razored away, never to bloom into five o’clock shadow. He wafted a trace of nut-musk cologne carefully applied from glass bottles featuring chiseled male models.

In Jake I felt the promise of a life revision, the same way I believed that my mother’s exquisitely made up face and clothes as she headed to work were proof that her last drug and alcohol rehab had stuck.

Not yet schooled in the art of opposites, I did not know the inevitability of our attraction. It became clear after a Violent Femmes concert, where we spent the night at my mom’s house, bodies buzzing beside one another in my too-small high school bed, barely touching.

At a rave a couple weeks later, swollen with doubt that our night of intimate sleep (but nothing more) had meant anything, I did not know what to make of this laughing, sloppy, giddy Jake, under the influence of his first hit of ecstasy, who laid claim to me with unbridled groping, every touch chemically magnified. My finger upon his brow elicited sighs reserved for fingers tracing thighs; my lips whispering into his ear, he said, orgasmic.

Christmas vacation, all students were evicted from the dorms. Jake went home four hours north into the redwoods — while I slunk home to Marin County and poured out my pining in bad poetry.

A week in, Jake called. “Surprise,” he said. “I’m staying in Berkeley.”

In the pouring rain, wind rattling my tiny Honda hatchback, I drove with reckless speed across the bridge to see him.

Jake and I camped out in the house of some people he’d volunteered for, our whispers echoed. We felt like squatters, deliciously getting away with something until the real owners came home.

Just after midnight, rain dulled to a fervent mist, he drove me across the Bay Bridge through a realm of interconnecting highways. His Dudley Do-Right jaw cast in sharp silhouette, he told me his darkest secret, about how powerless and confused his ten year-old self had felt under an adult’s abuse, the tiny car now shrunk tight around us with the pressure of his revelation.

I didn’t offer him any “that’s terrible” or “I’m so sorry.”

“My mom used to be a drug addict,” I said instead.

He reached out and grasped my hand, our fingers tangling tightly across the protruding nob of stick shift.

A month into our relationship he asked, “What do you think my house looks like?” We were crammed into my tiny Honda civic, headed up to his home to introduce me to his family in Redwood country, four hours north.

“Hmm, Ranch-style, terra cotta floors, big spacious kitchen. A sprawling backyard?” I mused.

He raised one dark brow, but did not smile.

When we stopped at the small shack-like home with the peeling paint and yellowed yard full of potholes and junked cars, I thought we had broken down.

“Here?” I asked in a not-too-thoughtful tone of surprise. I grew up in Marin County, where, despite a mom making minimum wage at the Macy’s make-up counter, and a father with an often flagging acupuncture practice, I was steeped in a brew of spacious homes set snug in lush hills; where the nearby ocean beckoned athletic, beautiful millionaires, and parades of BMWs dropped off my couture-clad peers at school.

Jake’s house, trailer-park small, with peeling wallpaper and rows of lonely childlike figurines on tchotchke-laden shelves, was a setting for a David Lynch film. The curtains were yellowed with ancient smoke, while fresh clouds left a haze that choked my throat. The next door neighbor, a pale and flabby older man, leered at us as we entered the house, while Jake hurried me, jaw set, inside.

Jake’s mother’s mouth was pinched and lined in the way of one who has much to frown about. She spoke in a near whisper and wouldn’t look me in the eye. His father held court from a grimy recliner, diabetes having taken one of his feet. He was the source of the smoke, which billowed from a cigarette in his hand, emphysema notwithstanding. “Let’s get a look at her,” he shouted in my direction, and Jake steered my stiff-limbed self closer.

His three obese brothers stared at me from their perches on the couches — a football game blaring in the background. The oldest, Rob, with a funny too-thin mustache, crooked up a lip and said, “Don’t crush her when you do her,” to Jake’s tight-lipped glare. The youngest, Greg, with a messy head of brown waves mock-punched Jake in the stomach, saying, “You know only gay guys have washboard abs.” Jake — trim, well-muscled, smiled tightly, lips pulled back against his face until he could, at last, whisk me upstairs to the attic-bedroom.

There, he tilted his chin up high, a gesture of pride. “Not what you expected, is it?”

I felt the sweaty-palmed gravity of enduring a test with no idea how to pass.

“No,” I admitted.

The way he narrowed his eyes left me with an eerie tingle at the base of my neck.

That night Jake woke me abruptly for sex in the middle of the night. I drew my hands to my breasts, circled my nipples with my fingers, a self-consciously soft-core porn gesture, which I presumed all men desired.

His eyes shrunk to slits as he pulled out and away from me. “What the hell was that?” he demanded.

My nude body, moments before warm beneath the weight of him, now a map of cold bumps across every surface. I lay gaping up at him. “What?” My words cowered behind my teeth, crept out in a hoarse whisper.

“You know what you did,” he muttered darkly.

I did not know, but then, I never knew. I dared not risk asking for clarification — unless I should get accused of greater wrongs.

When his disapproving silences fell they were hermetic, a vault slammed shut against intruders. The silences were large as a person, occluding him from me — doors closed as he passed through them, shutting me out; he kept his clothes on until I was out of sight, rolled away from me in bed, and walked past me as though I were a ghost.

I became another dark, scarred thing for him to push down under glass, trap like superhero villains in the same universe as his own secrets.

It wasn’t long after this he began to plant suggestions of subtle displeasure with me. “You’re wearing that?” He’d raise an eyebrow at my colors and style. “Why do you always have to shop secondhand?”

Slowly I gave up my one-of-a-kind dresses and chunky shoes in favor of bland, beige, traditional prints and delicate sandals, clothes that said Nice Girl and Suburban Housewife. Clad in the white sweater set with the pleated red skirt, I reflected a normal neither of us could claim. A normal in which I did not have a mother who had just admitted, “I’ve been going to the methadone clinic because I started smoking heroin” after nearly eight years of sobriety. A normal in which his darkest secret didn’t live, leering, next door to his own childhood home.

It did not occur to me that anyone else might love me, so I clung to him despite alarm bells. To the naked eye there was nothing wrong with us. He bought me gifts (always clothes) took me to beautiful places: redwood ensconced motels, the yawning wide beauty of Oregon’s coast, Disneyland, snapping photographs at each one, his arms a tight loop around my waist in each one — a circle of capture — me, a prize to be stuffed and hung upon his wall.

The blonde in my class with the heart-shaped face, the one I thought for sure he’d choose over me, took me aside one day and asked, “Is it so wonderful, is he just as amazing as he seems?”

Burned by the ardor evident in her eyes, which I spotted in other girls when they gazed at him, I smiled politely and choked back the truth; I dared not describe the greasy nausea that shrunk away my appetite when he accused me of being “too flirtatious” if I said hello to a male friend, or “such a Marin snob” because I preferred to eat organic food. I couldn’t describe how my limbs went numb when he set his jaw with stony disapproval that signaled the coming of a lock-out chill.

His emotional winters went on for days until, at last, wild with desperation, I would fake a nightmare and wake up sobbing, begging him not to leave me, and use sex to thaw him.

Despite all that didn’t work between us, we sunk deeper anchors into each other’s lives for another two and a half years, clinched by a “storybook” marriage proposal on a Venetian gondola on our last vacation, to Europe. I woke with that ring as tight as his arms locked around my waist, leaden with dread so deep I didn’t even want to tell my mother I was engaged. Still, it would be eight more months after this, of drowning beneath the layers of this person I believed I must be in order to be loved, before the first crack in our pretty glass surfaced.

It was only when my mother left her controlling husband of nearly ten years and checked herself into drug and alcohol rehab, that thoughts of taking my own freedom finally breached my walls.

When I did leave, after he sobbed in my lap and begged me not to go for a change, my first act of surfacing from the smothering confines of his desires was to rid myself of all the clothing he had talked me into. I tossed the linen capris and the sweater sets, the childlike jumpers and pretty little sandals, all costumes for a role I would never play again.

Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of several writing guides and two novels. Her book of essays, The Art of Lying & Stealing, is forthcoming from Shebooks. Other essays and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, Modern Loss, The New York Times, Night Train, The Nervous Breakdown, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, the St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sweatpants & Coffee and more. Learn more here:

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Image by Carmen Jost