I wrote this piece 15 years or so ago for some type of writing contest. While I did not win, I chose to keep the piece. I take it out every now and then, adjust the dates and do a little editing. The reason I hang on is that the story documents a near miss. I’d like to share this now as another opportunity to reflect on domestic violence and raise our awareness. It is a bit long–please stay with it for it speaks of a truth. I thank you ahead of time…
I come from a home where I was loved and wanted. My parents always made a fuss over my siblings and me. I remember coming into the kitchen, dressed for a holiday, a wedding, any special occasion–it didn’t matter what the event was–and Mom and Dad would say to each other (and to me) wow, is she beautiful! I’d blush and giggle and dance around the room. That was when I was little. Then I got too big for that demonstration, but I’d still blush. I kept wondering though, what it was that Mom and Dad saw that none of my peers saw. I never quite measured up in their eyes (or so I thought). All the girls had figures that were like Barbie dolls (or so I thought); their hair was just the right length, color and texture (or so I thought); they all knew how to dress just right (or so I thought). Perhaps I could have lived with that except for one thing–why did they always get the dates and I didn’t?
In 7th and 8th grade, the teacher put my desk in the back of the classroom. I suppose this was because I was a good student–smart and conscientious and she could trust me. She surrounded me with 3 of the biggest goofs I had ever met. Day after painful day, they harassed me with their jokes of me being a sailors dream–sunken chest– and a truckers delight–no curves. I felt like I was diseased. To top it off, I wore glasses and I got good grades, so I was also called “four-eyes”. Their stinging remarks made me feel stupid and ugly and terribly “out”. I was near tears every day but I wouldn’t give them the benefit of seeing me cry. My Mother (sincerely trying to soothe me) said that’s just how boys that age let you know they liked you. I found it a rather strange way of showing affection.
High school would be a brand new start. I walked into school that first day with my new books and purse and cute skirt and sweater. I was excited and nervous but confident that now things would be different. I would not be anybody’s joke anymore. Things began well. I met a lot of nice people. I even entertained the idea that I would be asked out to the Homecoming Dance. But as the days came closer to the big dance, no invitation had been extended to me. I felt homely and little and very “out”.
I went to almost every football game that same year. My girlfriends and I would have fun and cheer and giggle and flirt a little with some of the “brother-like” types in the pep band, but the bus ride home was always painful. The couples–all the “in” guys and the “in” girls–were sitting close together in the back of the bus. I was at the front of the bus, feeling homely and little and “out”.
I made a lot of friends in High School–many of them outside of the school itself. Eventually I started dating a guy I met in our parish youth group. Everyone liked him. All the girls wanted to go out with him. All the adults thought he was just wonderful. There were times in the course of the 3 years we dated that I knew I meant something to him, that he loved me. He told me once that it would take a lot for us to break up. But I always had to walk a step behind him. My dreams and ideas never really counted for much. I was laughed at and treated like I was just a “dumb girl”. We never went to any school dances at either his school or mine. He said he didn’t like to dance. He never told me I looked nice–it was easier for him to keep me down– and I fell for it. I think I actually believed that this was how boyfriends and girlfriends related. I remember going to his cousin’s wedding with him. This was a really big deal because it meant meeting the extended family. He made big point of telling me not to get too dressed up–just wear pants. Well, of course, I didn’t. I wore a little summer dress–something very sweet (gingham and ribbon in lavender and blue). When he came to pick me up, he said, “I thought I told you not to get dressed up”. I was crushed. Was I an embarrassment to him? I felt homely and small.
Why did I keep hanging out with this guy? Well, he was my boyfriend. He wasn’t a bad person; he didn’t drink and do drugs. I had seen him become physically violent on occasion. That scared me, but I chose to write those times off as the exceptions and not the rule. Having a boyfriend made me feel normal–all the girls who were anyone dated (or so I thought).
The Spring of my Senior year in High School, I was getting a little smarter–perhaps maturity and common sense had broken through my adolescent veneer. I had seen some girls my age become pregnant (one was a friend). I watched as others became potheads and alcoholics. I witnessed one popular girl making an angry and impassioned scene with one of the “in” guys–yelling at him for trashing her reputation. I hurt for her, even though I didn’t like her very much. It didn’t matter. We both had experienced feeling like dirt and that bonded us somehow.
I had already met the man I was to marry during my Junior year and got to know him better during my Senior year. He was different from any other guy I had known. He was fun to be with. He was genuinely respectful of any individual who he had contact with. I remember that he looked me straight in the eye and listened to me when I talked–and (this is really important)–he didn’t laugh or make dumb jokes or accuse me of being a lame-brained “woman”. A hope buried deep within me was being awoken. I was worth something. I had known this intellectually and had certainly experienced it from my parents, but not from my peers and especially not from my boyfriend. However, I had tricked myself into believing that the boyfriend thought I was pretty special. I really believed this EXCEPT for the times when it was okay for him to spend time with other girls and carry on with them. Oh, and EXCEPT for the time he promised to take me to see the theater production of Fiddler on the Roof for my birthday. When the long awaited day came and he hadn’t called about arrangements for the evening, I called him and he said, “oh there were no tickets left”– end of story . I had a new skirt and blouse and had been so excited (and he knew this) and he didn’t have the guts to tell me weeks before when he had found out. My friends and family knew (and were angry with him). They just kept waiting for him to say something to me. But he didn’t– I had to call him to find out that I was being stood up. I felt small and hurt. I felt angry. (Strangely enough, I didn’t feel homely). I didn’t make a fuss though, because I knew what the response would be. Any time I had expressed my hurt in the past was always turned around and thrown back in my face, like it was my fault. And if that wasn’t enough, I was further made to pay the price for being so bold as to express my feelings by being the recipient of the silent treatment. I was ignored (sometimes for weeks), and when I wasn’t being ignored, I was put down in front of my friends. I felt angrier and angrier, but I didn’t know what to do with the anger. I usually ended up apologizing for something that wasn’t my fault, just to stop the silence. Then I was told that I talked too much.
My anger made me look deeper. I was tired of this nonsense, but I still wasn’t sure about ending it. One day the light went on and I knew that I was worth something. It happened about a month before graduation. We had just pulled into my driveway and we were sitting in the car. It was still early–about 8:00 or so on a weeknight. I was being silly (so what happened was my fault, of course) I tickled him. Up came a quick and sharp elbow–right into my eye. “I told you never to surprise me!”, was the reply. We went into my house and I had a swollen, black eye. I had it for several weeks. I learned how to do a good make-up job. A great big red flag appeared in my head. I don’t even think that I was completely aware of the significance of the whole event until years later. Yet that incident made me wonder if I really wanted to stay with that guy. I think then I knew that I was worth more than that.
After the black eye, there was less and less to attract me to this guy. At the end of the summer, I had my first real date with Tom–the man I was to marry. The boyfriend ( and I use the term lightly) got really drunk when he found out, to the point of passing out cold. His buddies called me and a few other friends who then had the job of calling his parents. The next day he sent me flowers and tried to apologize. I was angry. I did not feel little but I did feel hurt. I also knew I was worth more than a drunken response.
We still dated, but more sporadically, as I was in college and busy with the academic pursuit, of which he had little understanding. (I was also seeing more and more of Tom). I knew the time had come to just end this dying relationship but I was afraid to do it. Where, how and when to say “no more”? I had been in a car with him before when he was angry, and that scared me. I did not want to be secluded with him because I feared (wow, I actually said that!) FEARED for my safety.
One day, the summer after my Freshman year in college, I called him and said that we needed to talk. He knew what was coming. He actually took my statement of “I don’t think we should date anymore” fairly well, but we were in the open and not in a car when I dropped the bomb. I had taken the initiative. A year in college with other intelligent and beautiful women, and spending time away from him and with Tom had allowed for my God given gifts to blossom. I knew I was intelligent. I saw beauty in myself. And I knew beyond a doubt that I had done the right thing. It took courage, but I knew I was worth something.
From time to time during my college career, I ran into my high school peers. My clothes and figure still did not rival theirs, but I was doing good and exciting things with my life. I was respected for being smart. Tom and I spent whole and holy time together. We studied, we laughed and we dreamed. We became close friends and by the time I was 21, we knew we would marry each other.
We had just talked about marriage a week before IT happened. I was awakened by my Mom tearfully telling me that the old boyfriend had been killed in a car accident. I sobbed. I sobbed for the good times, and I cried for the shock that someone close to my age had died so violently. I grieved and mourned with my circle of high school comrades. But as the weeks went on and so many people wanted to canonize him (he was quite the charmer), I began to feel angry. This guy was no saint–do you know the pain he caused me, the guilt he inflicted on me, the sense of shame and ugliness he caused me to feel? But no one really wanted to know that. My best friend from high school and I always wondered if he had committed suicide. I still wonder.
This ordeal took place during Lent. I remember taking a walk on Easter Sunday with Tom. The sun was out. The freezing rain from the previous night was melting and life was showing itself in the form of greenery and tender flower blossoms poking through the snow. I knew that God was keeping the promise of life and I understood about the Easter Mystery of Christ’s Resurrection, because I felt that I had also risen. God had given me a chance that a lot of otherwise pretty and intelligent girls don’t get (or don’t see it when it comes their way).
A number of years ago, my husband Tom shared with me an incident that took place at the school where he teaches. A male student had beaten up his girlfriend. She was injured–he was expelled. My husband was shocked. She was a smart girl–how could she have allowed herself to be treated that way? I looked at him and said, “I was a smart teenage girl, too. And that could have been me.”
What I know now: I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was involved with a very abusive young man. He had my family fooled as well–they still don’t really understand and I don’t care to share those stories anymore. I was then and still am beautiful. I didn’t and still do not need to look like a Barbie doll. There is a beauty that burns brightly in the knowledge that I am Gods creation and God does not make junk. I am and always have been intelligent and that is nothing to ever be ashamed of. I am capable of great love and tremendous empathy, but it does not mean that I need to be abused by other peoples anger. I am greatly blessed to have been raised by loving parents who are genuinely good people. I am extremely blessed to share life and love with Tom, who loves me, respects my intelligence, and thinks I am beautiful.
–Nancie Chmielewski updated 10/19/15