I met the person I would have a ‘co-dependent’ relationship with during a period of time I called ‘dating myself.’ I had just broken up with a guy I worked with at a discount supermarket, and dating myself seemed like the quintessential Jennifer Garner thing to do (I think I had just watched 13 Going On 30).
Dating myself consisted of 2.5 occasions in which I declined any plans that people tried to make with me in the same way a person reserves a time slot for a date. One of these times I went to Goodwill. Another one of these times I went to Teavana and sampled free tea. The third time I went to Manhattan and traded clothes at Beacon’s Closet.
On the train home from my third ‘date,’ Nick (who was only a friend by then) sent me a text: ‘hey cutie.’ This was somewhat unsurprising in that we had implied romantic interest in each other before, but prior to this instance we’d never ventured anything wholeheartedly. As we texted he moved slowly into flattering me with his language, increasing his flirtations (subtly calling me ‘doll,’ telling me I probably ‘look really good right now’), and I observed that these statements made me feel electrically charged. When I told him what I had been doing in the city he texted back ‘damn, I’m jealous. your date is so hot,’ and that sentence alone was probably all it took to cement my attraction.
He asked me to come over the next night and show him some of the clothes I had gotten in the city, and I agreed. We spent three hours talking in his living room before feeling shaken up by sexual anticipation, making out until 4AM on his couch (in retrospect this was the best sexual experience of the relationship). I don’t remember much more of the beginning, because only the beginning was good. During the days that followed we took on generalized versions of ourselves, doing what many young pre-couples do—watching cheesy movies and complimenting each other with adjectives that could be easily transferred to anybody (‘you’re so sweet’), then using sex as the only way to honestly manifest our emotions. Within three weeks of this we were in a committed relationship. Another four and we were living together in his parents’ house. I felt adult and in love and very daring. I was 19.
I had been going to a local university when we started dating (Nick took a few classes there as well, although our friendship began in high school) and was experiencing basic disinterest in my studies. As the nature of my relationship with Nick intensified I did only the minimum of what was required of me: I went to class (most times), completed my class work, made presentations, and showed up sober (most times). I was the first one out the door in every class. Within ten minutes I would be home with Nick. It didn’t seem unhealthy or even unusual to me that he was my only priority. When he told me he was having a party at his house on the eve of Thanksgiving (we started dating in October and I had moved in by December), I told work I was going away to Vermont for a week with my parents, and told my parents, who actually were going away to Vermont, I had to work. The party was only okay but proved a worthwhile reward in that I danced a lot and seemed sexy and Nick acted proud to be seen with me (I do remember this night because I wore a nude crop top from American Apparel and everybody kept thinking I’d come topless).
When Nick and I began living together I was taking a fiction workshop, but in feeling very ‘trapped’ by fiction, I started writing instead about our experiences. I pitched the idea for a series of short stories about two twenty-somethings ‘just going around living in the suburbs, doing nothing.’ A Seinfeld pitch, but more hipster. Recently I dug up some of these stories and will copy a couple lines here:
My mind suddenly felt very swollen, consumed with the heavy worries that always seemed to accompany times like these—times with Nick. I just wanted us to feel light, like we were plastic grocery bags or cheap birthday party balloons or basically anything else that wasn’t us.
The people in my workshop suggested the stories were detailing co-dependency. From my position of fiction writer I laughed and nodded in agreement so as not to appear too sentimental towards the material. I thought of my classmates as boring and responsible and generic, and reasoned that they couldn’t understand the characters’ interactions because they were only limitedly tolerant of anything eccentric—the kind of people who would perceive ‘exercise’ as a remedy for depression. My relationship didn’t concern them.
This was three or four months in. Nick and I spent the majority of our time alone with each other or with his friends, because I had very few. We smoked weed two, sometimes three, four times a day, and when I learned from my doctor I have elevated levels of lipoprotein and should avoid smoking, Nick presented me with a $250 handheld vaporizer. We spent the first six months fucking (I use the term ‘fucking’ and not ‘having sex’ very deliberately here—was more like masturbating with each other’s bodies) 5-6 times a week and, towards the butt-end of those six months, 2-3. I gauged the health of our relationship by our sexual frequency and not our actual conversations, which were quickly dwindling. When we had grown comfortable enough that I no longer felt desire to spend time doing things with him, he passed large chunks of time smoking weed and drinking Jack Daniel’s in other houses, with other friends, and I hung out with his mom.
We spent a lot of the time that we did share together watching Netflix, eating Buffalo Wild Wings, and confessing the intricacies of our depressions. Some of our most ‘romantic times’ happen to be some of my darkest and most disconcerting memories of us, times in which I drunkenly spurted ‘I love you’ and bawled in his shower on New Year’s Eve or buried road kill with him.
A year in, we drove across America. We ate jalapeño poppers at Sonic and urinated ecstatically on the desert, swam in the Pacific Ocean, purchased cactus figurines and had lots of sex. I think there was a very 500 Days of Summer moment where we jumped on a hotel bed. We also dealt with the aftermath of his inheriting road rage from his father and threatened to spit in each other’s faces. I alternated between pleading with him to be nicer and calling him an asshole flat out. He cursed at me and left for the nearest convenience store and bought energy drinks. In our hotel room in Las Vegas, I wept and fell asleep under a desk.
Nick and I spent the remainder of that summer going to parties and repairing some of the holes he had punched in our walls during arguments. At these parties he often dragged me outside and confronted me over various male friends he’d seen me hug by way of hello. There were times he ordered me to describe sexual encounters I had had before meeting him, detail by detail, until he was calling me ‘slut’ and we were both sobbing. I was by no means innocent, getting plastered until I could only gag or demand or slap and accusing him of loving other people. Sometimes he would beg me and tell me I could ‘break up with him tomorrow,’ just not tonight or else he would kill himself. We drank until our honesty either dissipated or came crashing out, and then left the party every time. We’d drive home drunk, eat McDonald’s, watch The Shining. Wait for our anger to coincide with world news, our families, our dog—anything besides each other.
I began cheating on him. I’d met a poet in one of my classes with whom I was enamored and felt an instant connection. He told me he felt attracted to me through my poems, and I observed that Nick had never read anything I’d written. J.J. and I nursed this attraction for about six months before ‘breaking the dam’ of our sexual tension in a shared hotel room in Seattle, where we had flown to attend a writers’ conference. I woke the first morning of the trip with J.J.’s head slumped into my own, he having ignored the second bed in the room after I fell asleep the night before. In this I saw him displaying a softness towards me that I felt happily challenged by and that I enjoyed earning. When he woke, we had sex for the first time.
Not long after venturing my attraction to J.J., I learned we had a shared interest in violent sex—something I had once brought up to Nick, to which he told me S&M was not for a ‘normal’ girlfriend. J.J. and I viewed S&M practices intellectually, embracing them as indicative of a power dynamic that is present in every relationship and using them to test our endurance. With his belt, J.J. gave me long, purple bruises that I photographed privately. J.J. also displayed a kind of care towards me that I had never experienced, wanting to ‘just hold me’ or show me a tree that looked like Woody Allen because he knew I would find it funny. In spite of this, I stayed with Nick for the entire next year and maintained both relationships with J.J.’s knowledge.
I started seeing a therapist, and she informed me that my paranoia towards leaving Nick and his house presented signs of Dependent Personality Disorder. She strongly encouraged me to move back home with my parents, advice I did take after nine months of therapy. Nick and I spent our last month together in Spain, a trip I found ironic in that the country’s liberating environment only seemed to increase our desire to control each other.
I ‘broke up’ with Nick three times before it stuck. The first time I did it he was eating McDonald’s and I was playing a song by the New Pornographers. The second time, I lied and said ‘I will always be your friend.’ Every single time he sobbed and shouted and employed what my therapist called ‘emotionally beating the shit out of me.’ He pulled out a photo of me on Venice Beach and said ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ He untacked a drawing I had given him for Valentine’s Day and placed it under a stack of papers. He banged his head against the wall multiple times and I yelled for him to stop. He said our dog would die without me. His eyes looked completely glazed.
The night before I left, I assured him everything was fine—that we would stay together. He seemed satisfied with this and continued to make circles against my shoulder with his fingers, even after I inched away and expressed desire for space. I spent half the night lying in his bathroom and the other half at my parents’ house, where I fell at a midpoint between devastated and indifferent.
The next day, I took work off and went back to Nick’s alone. I came at years’ worth of shit armed with empty Hefty bags, grasping endless crap with both my arms. Throwing more and more into bags and then throwing those bags into my car. I knew I would leave stuff behind. Sometimes I considered leaving all of it—at times I feared the car wouldn’t drive.
I don’t really want to talk (i.e. write) about this part so I will just say that my heart was pounding and I glimpsed the dog a few times more and then I thought about Jesus (this is true, although I don’t know why; I’m not religious. But there was a lot of Jesus involved.). I had this cross from Goodwill that I referred to as ‘the cotton candy cross’ because it was covered in stones the colors of candy pink and that bubbly kind of ‘first grade’ blue, and when I bought it I made up a story in my head about a nine-year-old girl making it and not really caring about it at all—because why should nine-year-old girls give a damn about everything they make? The cross was sticking up past my back window and I couldn’t really see beyond it. I kept thinking that Jesus Christ was blocking me. I kept thinking, ‘Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus,’ repeatedly and sweating.
This is where I say ‘I did what I had to do.’ I drove home and poured the inventory of the past 2+ years in my teenage bedroom. I took a lot of Xanax and practiced meditating and looked at Tumblr.
Since then, I have maintained my relationship with J.J.; I also continue going to therapy. Both have been fulfilling presences for me, and I feel confident towards the sense of ‘healthy love’ that I experience with J.J.—a person who has never made me feel alienated or immoral about my interests, who is enthusiastic in supporting my art— that had been absent in my previous relationships.
I have tried to contact Nick many times just to talk or to ask about the dog. He doesn’t answer, and I can’t say I blame him. I saw on Facebook he started dating a girl two years his junior—a cute brunette who seems easy to like, and more carefree than me. It makes sense (and it makes me happy). I feel good, generally.