We start on Facebook Messenger, just two middle schoolers still communicating through emojis. At some point he asks me to the big dance, and a day or two later we are a genuine, Facebook-official, middle school couple. My fairly strict parents surprisingly allow our courtship; they think it will be over in a just few weeks.
Our first kiss is in Garden City plaza, beside the old wishing well. We are inseparable ever since. Everyone knows us as a pair and even vote us as class couple before we graduate. We take a picture for the yearbook, making the Titanic pose on the high school stairwell. He asks me to prom while emceeing the high school talent show, through a slightly rewritten rendition of the Pokemon theme song.
What means more to me than the external validation is the steady, regularity of our time together. After getting his license and a car, he wakes up early each morning to drive me to school. His Jeep peels into the driveway bringing music to greet me. We go through many phases of car-ride entertainment over the course of years: classic rock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the local WBRU alternative hits, Charles and Alli Trippy and Night-Vale Podcasts. We are 2014 edgy. Guns and Roses is one of his favorites to play for me: “She’s got eyes of the bluest skies, as if they thought of rain. I hate to look into those eyes, and see an ounce of pain.” There are countless memories to sift through; we date for more than four years. These memories are ghosts; they come back to me, and I can still get lost in them.
Eventually, our time is up. We realize that we will not survive a long-distance relationship in college; this will inevitably bring a messy end to us. Instead, we carefully plan out our breakup. We want to keep our happy memories untainted from a painful ending.
The day we choose to break up we have our last fight. The underlying dispute, as usual, is my not wanting to do something that he considered normal. It is silly, really. According to my parents, we are not allowed to go to a certain beach, because it is private and less chaperoned. Of course, we are driving at this point, and this is a moot point. In anger, he swerves away from the agreed-upon public beach, careening to where I told him we cannot go. After I cry for a sufficient amount of time, he turns around on the highway. I forgive him.
We finally arrive at the public seaside park and climb the cliffs overlooking where the Atlantic meets the Providence estuary. The ocean is upset. A hurricane has perturbed its peace, forcing its waves farther and farther up the cliffs. The sound echoes off of the rocks in a continuous cycle of crash and silence. With my legs crossed over the cliffside, we reminisce before saying goodbye. There are so many memories to unpack. We have quite literally grown up together. It is hard to remember a time and self before the other. But later we say goodbye, in the darkened Garden City parking lot.
The ghostly memories faded in time. I moved on, into a continuously happy bliss: my first year of college. It was exhausting and wonderful.
After a year, on home turf, we meet to reminisce. I can see our shadows still sitting at that outdoor patio of Starbucks, overlooking the Garden City plaza. I do not drink coffee. I do not understand how to enjoy its bitterness. After swapping stories, we hug goodbye, and he apologizes for treating me “shittily.” My cheeks blush with relief and pride. I forgive him again, because he used to be mean to me in his anger. Forgiveness is my greatest strength. I was naive.
It was not until more recently when I remembered. There were other ghosts. They still haunt me. My new boyfriend and I were together, and I was uncomfortable for a moment in our embrace, so we stopped. I thanked him profusely. Too much. He looked at me with disbelief.
“Of course we should stop.”
My heart dropped, and in a rush of dizziness my repressed memories came unleashed. I had my first flashback that night.
Suddenly, I am lying on a 30-year-old couch back home in my basement. I can breathe in its familiar smell of dust and tomatoes and feel its coarse grains on my neck. Some movie is on the TV; I doubt he cares which. His arms smell like Irish spring, and they snake around me. My rainbow-polka-dotted fuzzy blanket is over us.
While kissing me, he rolls on top of me, and my hand is nowhere to be found, to catch his in time. We talked about this last time. He chooses to forget. A tear rolls down my face, just enough to taste. His hands are in me, and I feel ashamed and guilty for the way my body responds. Does this mean I want it? Does this mean I have sinned, again? He moves my hand over him, jerking my palm with annoyance. More tears fall from my eyes. This has happened before; this went on for years. He has been frustrated, because we are not doing enough after dating for two years; our dates are becoming too “PG.” He feels like he is “babysitting” me. He makes me believe there is only so slow we can go; there is only so much that he can take.
“It is not even sex.”
I forgive him.
I was back with my new boyfriend, sobbing on his chest for hours. He was surprised that I had never consciously realized how badly I was treated, given what I had told him about my past relationship.
The rainbow-polka-dotted blanket was draped over the chair across the room. I had refused to sleep in it for years because I had this superstition that it gave me nightmares.
Why did I even still have it?
The sight of its painful, childish colors brought fresh tears to my eyes. Without explanation, I told him we had to get rid of it, immediately. I led us to the New Haven Green through my tears. At some hour past midnight, we came upon a homeless couple sleeping together in the park, huddled on a bench for warmth. Their faces were covered beneath a tattered blanket. I did not want to wake them or explain my tears, so I left my cursed blanket at their feet, ashamed.
Months of tears and sleepless nights followed, until I was finally able to admit to myself that I had been abused. How could it have happened to me? How did it stop hurting?
Again and again, he pushed me past the boundaries I tried to enforce. He made me believe that I had to compromise.
“I’m sorry” came out of my mouth too often. I forgave him. In the nights after he left, numbness swaddled me into a deep, dreamless sleep. Waking up, for a brief, glorious second, I only remembered closing my eyes the night before. I was a blank sheet of paper. Unmarked.
But I remember now — with growing, painful clarity. The memories interrupt my life, sometimes in exams, sometimes during meals. These ghosts do not fade. In the arms of a new boyfriend whom I love and trust, I remember. In the basement, even after my parents have thrown out those godforsaken couches, I remember. In the frequent nightmares that haunt me, waking me up in tears or sleep-stifled yells, I remember.
Initially, it was easier to think I misremembered, just to protect my past, my identity and my memories. For a time, it was my fault, because someone I loved and trusted could not possibly have done this to me. When I went home for the summer, it was easier to think I had just overreacted.
But I was not mistaken.
There is no reminiscing, just the growing paranoia that every happy moment — everything I cherished for so many years of my life — was just part of a broader pattern of abuse.
And why did I not just leave? One day it dawned on me that, eventually, I did leave, and here is a better question to focus on: Why did the person who claimed to love me ignore my pain?
A year has passed since my first flashback, and I am healing; nonlinearly but progressively all the same. I am tired of waking up in tears and muffled screams, seeing his eyes and trying to tell him that he hurt me. I decide to make this nightmare real, to make it stop.
A few days before Christmas, I text him, arranging another meeting to sit and reminisce. We meet back on home turf, at Chipotle this time, just across the Garden City plaza. The old wishing well would have been in view, but it has been torn down. My hands shake while he waits in line for his order. I try to make small talk while he eats his rice, hiding that I am too nauseous to eat a meal. I fill in the silence, talking to the eyes that come to me in nightmares. They are just as blue — denim blue — as I remember.
And then I ask what he meant two years ago by “treating me shittily.” And he knows. He knew from “the second he gave it any thought,” but it feels like a distant “past self.”
But these ghosts haunt him too.
“I’m so sorry, I could sit here all day and tell you I’m sorry, and it wouldn’t be enough.” I cannot offer passive forgiveness anymore. His past self is not so distant to me.
His admission of guilt catches me off guard. I had thought I would have to explain what consent was and how what he did to me was wrong and defend the way his abuse made me feel. His face drops, and he looks so pitiful that it is hard to pummel him with details. So I give him the Sparknotes version of my pain. I clinically list my symptoms: nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, difficulties trusting crowds and a new boyfriend. He will never understand how it feels to have nightmares so indistinguishable from reality, that I can wake up my entire suite screaming and be too ashamed to explain why. But he needs to know that I have nightmares and I have them often. He bears the weight of my words, my ghosts. His eyes cannot hold mine. He tosses garbage onto his mostly uneaten rice and, eventually, leaves.
I am met with the frightened eyes of people around me in Chipotle. At the table on my right, there is a middle-aged man staring blankly at me. He has not touched his food either. A few feet over, a group of teenage girls are nervously giggling to each other, not knowing who to look at as I cry, alone at the table now. I disturbed their peace, but I do not feel ashamed.
They can see my eyes are frightened too. My ghosts are real.
Alexandra Smith | firstname.lastname@example.org