Showboat said he'd like to take me out sometime. I asked why.
“Because I think you’re attractive, and so we can hang out somewhere other than the coffee trailer,” he said.
It was October, ten months after I moved to Marfa, Texas, a tiny town of less than 2,000 residents perched in the high desert, where life can be as breathtakingly beautiful as it is harsh. The nearest city is three hours west, yet tens of thousands of tourists travel here each year to experience some of the darkest skies in the country, the mysterious Marfa Lights, a mecca minimalist art foundation, and the unique quiet of the land. It’s a fine place to try and make some money, which Showboat was doing with his coffee shop, housed in a smartly remodeled vintage Spartan trailer pulled in from Austin.
Showboat was charming, handsome, ambitious. He had bright blue eyes, red hair and a beard, and a rotation of cowboy hats and boots. He drove around in a big diesel truck and an old black Ranchero, with a Border Collie that followed him like a shadow. I found him attractive too, but I wanted to be intentional about dating, especially in Marfa. Heartbreak is inescapable in a remote town less than two square miles wide. Even if you manage to avoid your former lover, you’ll hear from someone who heard from someone who heard from someone else something about your ex you’d rather not know. Whether or not that something is true is a whole other dilemma.
I suggested a pre-date, which isn’t really a thing when two people are drawn to each other, but I was at least able to express my wish to proceed with care. We made plans to meet up at the abandoned RV park for sunset, past the old neon Stardust motel sign off the highway heading west. There Showboat and I sat on the crumbled asphalt and talked while the sun turned miles and miles of ranchland gold to gray-green to charcoal. I told him about my life back in the Northeast, how I moved to start over, and because I felt more at peace in the desert than the woodlands I grew up in. I was a writer. I had depression, and was in a good place with it after undergoing a series of ketamine infusions that summer at a clinic in Midland. Showboat had lived in Texas for much of his life and came to the state’s western reaches to slow down. He overcame a tough childhood and had made something of himself. Both of us were romantics who hadn’t yet found the lasting love we dreamed of.
Showboat was a Southern gentleman. He opened car doors for me and helped me in and out of my coat, took me to dinners and showed up at my door with coffee in the morning. He attended a play I was in and showered me with accolades. On our fifth date we kissed, back at the abandoned RV park for another sunset. There had been an earthquake that day. We couldn’t stop kissing after that.
A few weeks into our relationship I had a vivid dream where Showboat looked into my eyes and told me he loved me. I woke up beside him in the morning and told him he had been in my dream.
“Tell me,” he said.
“I’ll tell you in 2023.”
“Was it a good dream?”
He asked about the dream weekly. I’d shake my head and smile, afraid to bring up such words so early on, or to disclose the dream as some kind of divination or expectation.
“January,” I’d say.
Showboat continued to feel more and more like a safe landing place as the weeks went by. I didn’t have to hide anything from him, he said. He wanted to know more about my depression and how he could support me. He wanted me to tell him how I felt with him, good or bad. He said I was amazing, and the way he spoke about our future was intoxicating. He was sure I would soon be moving into the house he rented, one on a hilltop with a spectacular view overlooking the plains and mountains. He inquired about my taste in cars, implying he wanted to replace my 13-year-old Volkswagen with something more fitting for the rugged West Texas terrain. He brought his Airstream back from Austin so we could go on work trips and adventures together. He loved the way his sheets smelled after I slept over. He adored my body. I was everything he had been looking for.
Both of us were romantics who hadn’t yet found the lasting love we dreamed of
“I want to take you with me everywhere I go,” he said.
Showboat always said he couldn’t dance in town because he was a business owner with a public image to maintain. One night out, the both of us all dressed up for a prom-themed party, I got him dancing and the grin on his face was a mile wide. There at the bar he placed his pointer finger on the ring finger of my left hand and looked into my eyes, smiling. We were talking about how the relationship was going, and this gesture was part of his assessment. I laughed it off, wanting to be measured in this very new romance. I said as much and told him my ring size anyway.
“I like waking up to you very much,” he texted a few days before Christmas.
“I wanna do it all the time,” I replied.
We spent the holiday together, just the two of us. He gave me a beautiful black beaver fur cowboy hat. I fell in love with him all the way on New Year’s Eve, after he drove me and my friends all over town and danced with me at a raucous house party, another boyish grin stuck on his face.
A week later I told him about my dream from months before. We were in his bed, wrapped up with each other and close to falling asleep, when I told Showboat his dream self had said he loved me.
“I could have told you that,” the real Showboat said. I wondered if he was disappointed, if he expected my dream to be something more concrete, a wedding, perhaps, or our children playing against a backdrop of cacti and mountain and sky.
I went on to talk about my thoughts on dreams, how years ago I heard that everyone who appears in your dreams is actually a version of yourself, and what I’ve come to learn about love is it’s more than a feeling but a series of actions, and that I was in love with him.
In mid-January I planned a weekend getaway for us to Elephant Butte Lake and the hot springs in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Showboat picked me up for our trip and I jumped into his truck, excited to get out of town together. He was mostly silent for the four-hour drive, staring out onto the highway ahead. He explained, saying he wished we had left town a day later but he didn’t want to disappoint me. He was overwhelmed with work, moving the coffee shop into the neighboring brick and mortar building while overseeing several other businesses in Austin and Fort Worth.
We left our lakeside campsite the next morning to get breakfast in town. Showboat was brusque and distant in the kitschy cafe, a place called Passion Pie with no pie on the menu. I started to feel anxious. This was our first time traveling together. I just told him I was in love with him. We walked through the rundown streets of Truth or Consequences to the Rio Grande, the silence between us heavy and uncomfortable.
“Did I ruin everything?” Showboat asked. The river was cloudy and choked with weeds.
“No,” I said. “It just feels like you don’t want to be here with me.”
He assured me he did, he was only tired. We went back to the campsite, and Showboat rested while I went into town and worried at a brewery, hoping to reconnect with him in the afternoon. I returned to the Airstream a few hours later, and he pulled away when I reached for him. The man who could not stop touching me, looking at me, joking with me, enjoying me, was nowhere to be found.
I panicked. I cried, a lot. I was my most messy, sad self on that trip. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t lay down with each other and reset when all our happiness was less than 24 hours behind us. I was sorry for taking his burnout personally. I apologized for being hypervigilant. I was the same person he had hinted at marrying weeks earlier, only now with a few raw imperfections out in the open.
I tried to kiss him that night. Showboat wouldn’t kiss me back.
“My mustache is too long,” he said.
I asked him to hold me. He did, with stiff, mechanical arms. He turned his back to me in bed for the first time. The first of many, many times.
Our time at the hot springs was dystopian compared to the ease and enjoyment I had imagined for us. Showboat got into our private pool overlooking the Rio and closed his eyes. I swam over and put my arms around him. He acted as though he were asleep.
“Are you needing space?” I asked.
“No more questions,” he said, and continued to ignore me.
Showboat’s behavior was beginning to feel more like punishment than burnout, an act of resistance rather than a lack of energy. I’d later learn what he was doing is called withholding. It’s a method of manipulation and control designed to leave others desperate for the affection and care that once existed, and most effective when implemented after an intense period of adoration and attention. It was the most painful aspect of the emotional abuse I was to undergo over the next several months, far worse than any of the criticism, yelling, teasing, or stonewalling Showboat threw my way.
He said I was amazing, and the way he spoke about our future was intoxicating
We left New Mexico a day early on account of the discord. Back in Marfa, Showboat suggested we take the day to chill out. I stopped by the coffee trailer early the next day, planning to pick up coffee for us and start a new day together on his patio. He was already at work, and he looked at me with empty eyes when I came in.
All I needed to calm down was a big hug, a real one, I told him, and for him to show me we were okay. He said his feelings for me hadn't changed and everything was fine, but the words were impossible to square with his tone and how he was treating me — with something akin to disdain. He said he was simply feeling off, and that he needed a partner who would understand how he had to be on all the time as a businessman. It wasn’t his responsibility to maintain our entire relationship. If I could approach him with confidence instead of fear, the kind, loving Showboat would return. He didn’t want to force our connection.
So I tried. Tried to be playful and confident and chatty and carefree while my mind and stomach churned. I tried to believe he wanted me. I did everything he asked of me and more, and I couldn’t find my way back into his good graces no matter which way I contorted myself.
We didn’t have sex on our trip, and Showboat refused to be intimate with me at all for a week. When we finally went to bed together he was rough, and not in the fun way. He tried to fuck me in the ass with no warning.
“I want you to stay with me,” I said afterward.
“I know you do,” he said, an edge of irritation in his voice.
He didn’t stay, saying he had to go home and feed his cats. A few nights later we were at his house. Showboat turned the TV on before we had sex so the employee staying with him wouldn’t hear us. At one point I looked up at him and he was staring at the screen, dissociating into the scene, his face lit up blue and cold. Then he put a pillow over my face. I laughed when he let me up for air, trying to pretend what was happening was safe and hot instead of terrifying.
My girlfriends did their best to lift me up as Showboat and I fell apart. They watched me fall in love with him, and they offered insights and strategies as I tried to right the relationship. They challenged Showboat’s requests and critiques, too. One morning, at a coffee shop neighboring the trailer, I relayed to Tess that my lack of confidence in Showboat’s feelings was repellant to him. He could feel my energy, and he didn’t want to overcompensate — he had done enough of that in his past relationships.
Tess took my face in her hands.
“That’s not yours,” she said. “Doesn’t he know he can show you why you should feel confident about him?”
Two weeks after Truth or Consequences Tess and I flew to Oaxaca with our friends Libby and Alma. Tess and I had January birthdays one day apart, and the four of us had planned a celebratory Mexico getaway on New Year’s Day, in the afterglow of the night before. The ultimate destination was a surprise to me and Tess, and our mouths fell open when we walked into the oceanside villa Libby and Alma had booked. I sent Showboat a video walkthrough of our rental, beginning with my bathing suit reflection in the bathroom mirror of my suite and ending at our garden pool deck overlooking the Pacific.
“You sexy minx!” he texted.
Mexico was magical. My friends were a blessing. We spent the morning of my birthday chasing humpback whales, dolphins, and sea turtles on a boat tour, and two nights before we celebrated Tess and me over a 10-course meal at a revered restaurant, complete with a pre-dinner sage cleansing ceremony.
The four of us ended up getting sick, most likely from a late-night swim in a bioluminescent bay where we poured the blue brilliance down our faces over and over. My queasiness stuck around for months after Mexico. I wanted to relax and shake off the unease I felt about Showboat, but my mind was often elsewhere while we swam at the beach and toured Oaxaca. Showboat and I hadn’t reconnected in a real way. From across the border I was preoccupied with emitting the kind of energy he wanted me to have, sending sexy photos, FaceTiming him, and relaying stories from our travels. Sometimes he seemed happy to hear from me; other times he was disinterested or downright mean, mocking the way I moved or spoke or touched my hair across the screen. Only weeks before he would have called to tell me how much he missed me after being apart for a day or two.
I laughed when he let me up for air, trying to pretend what was happening was safe and hot instead of terrifying
Tess, Alma, Libby and I arrived back in Marfa the day after my birthday. Showboat greeted me with a weak “Happy birthday” and a stiff hug at his house that evening. I gave him the gifts I bought him in Mexico, a pair of handmade cups and saucers and little colorful wooden animals — one representing his dog and two for each of his cats. He had nothing for me. I asked the next day what we were doing for my birthday, in a light and flirty way that opposed the sting of needing to ask. He said he wanted to take me somewhere for a weekend away, maybe to The Gage Hotel an hour east. This trip never materialized.
I no longer heard about how smart or beautiful or talented I was. Showboat did not gaze at me lovingly or speak about our shared future. There was no light in his eyes at all, no smile playing the edges of his mouth. He did notice new things about me. The way I cut onions was all wrong. I didn’t hear him correctly. I didn't understand him. My writing was too curated. I wasn’t someone who needed to wear tight clothes, nor should I wear sweatpants, which were a sign of laziness. After shouting “NO!” in my face when I asked if we could share late-night burritos without the TV on, he told me I should have been more flirtatious with my request, that I had missed an opportunity to seduce him into the bedroom. He denied this ever happened when I brought it up.
“I don't shout at people,” he said.
“Why do you keep washing the animal bowls?” Showboat asked one morning, annoyed rather than appreciative that I was looking after his pets. “They don’t need it.”
He hated how I was fun and happy in public but different when we were alone together, some kind of dim and unsure version of myself. The puzzle I got him for Christmas? A poor choice. Why did I get him a puzzle when he had to solve countless puzzles every day as a businessman? The image was of a vintage poster for Redwood National Park, a beautiful painting of a couple standing next to a red car beneath giant trees you couldn’t see the tops of. I thought it would be fun to work on together. Showboat attempted the puzzle, then abandoned it, on his own.
He critiqued others, too — past girlfriends, employees and business collaborators he had fallen out with, people across Texas who he claimed were jealous of his success and trying to take him down, the toxic and unmotivated townsfolk of Marfa. I’d listen to these criticisms closely, gathering clues for how to earn back his approval, his affection.
Why would anyone stick around for all this? Showboat wondered the same, unable to comprehend why I stayed with him if he truly was treating me as I described.
“You make me sound like a shitty person,” he would say. “Why would you want to be with someone like that?”
The real question is why anyone would treat another person the way Showboat did me. He fumbled when I asked if he thought I deserved what he was doing to me, deflecting with claims that he was a good partner and simply holding to his boundaries and refusing to overextend himself.
I’ll answer the original question, though. I stayed because I loved Showboat, and because he groomed me to stay. Abuse involves high highs and low lows that mirror the cycle of addiction, dynamically and physiologically. When someone lovebombs you then abruptly pulls their love away, it’s a shock to the mind, body, and heart. I was desperate for Showboat to look at me with admiration again, to tell me I was the woman he had been waiting for his whole life, and he knew it. He said and did all the right things to make me fall in love with him, exploiting my open heart and my most tender weaknesses. He was in control.
I caught glimpses of the man I fell for from time to time, in small moments of sweetness and care, a thoughtful text, a silly joke, a crack in the façade letting a little humanity through. Sometimes he said he wanted nothing more than for us to work. Sometimes he called himself broken, shouting the words at the top of his lungs. Although his tiny kindnesses were always followed by the silent treatment, harsh words, or total withdrawal, I couldn’t accept that the Showboat who had given me everything I ever wanted no longer existed. His love was too good to let go of, too real. I only needed to find where it went.
It wasn’t in Austin. The week after my birthday was rife with fights and spiraling conversations. Showboat asked for space, and I headed to Austin to stay with Alma. Tess was in town, too.
“I hope we can take this as an opportunity to learn about each other and grow together,” I texted him before I left. “I am the same person you felt so good with a few weeks ago. Please don’t confuse me with someone else.”
“I’m in Austin,” he wrote a few days later. “Not sure for how long but figured I’d let you know.”
It was hard to decipher if Showboat still wanted space or not, even when I asked directly. After showing Alma a few of his texts, she encouraged me to invite him out.
“He wants to see you,” she said. “Relax! Act like it’s your first date.”
We met for happy hour, then reconvened for dinner. Showboat seemed to loosen up over appetizers at his favorite Indian restaurant.
“Update: Showboat is *laughing*,” I texted Alma and Tess. I was trying to be positive. Showboat’s good mood was precarious at best.
“Yessss! YOU WIN,” wrote Alma.
“Yay!!!!! Just wait til he sees what you really have on,” said Tess.
I booked a hotel for the weekend, spending $500 on the hope of a breakthrough. Showboat never said thank you, and he appeared unimpressed by the four-star accommodations in general. He was delighted, however, when we undressed and I was wearing the burgundy velvet lingerie he asked me to get him for Christmas. The pieces were handmade, and they arrived in the mail a few days before I left for Austin.
His love was too good to let go of, too real. I only needed to find where it went
“You’re perfect,” he said as we were having sex, yet I felt he didn’t see me at all, as though he were somewhere other than our hotel room. I wept immediately afterward, the tears rolling automatically and unbidden from my eyes.
“Why do you keep crying?” Showboat asked. It was starting to happen more frequently after we were intimate.
“I’ve been having a hard time.”
He didn’t hold or comfort me. I couldn’t tell him he was the source of my pain without risking another fight. He took a shower. I curled up in the sheets and stopped the tears on my own.
“Give me my jacket back,” Showboat demanded when he dropped me of at Alma’s on Sunday, grabbing the windbreaker I was staying warm in. Then, “I was joking.”
“I know,” I said.
He resisted my affectionate goodbye and urged me out of the truck — there was a car coming up behind us on the one-way street.
Inside, I burst into tears again when Alma and Tess asked how the weekend went.
“I thought things were feeling better,” Alma said.
“Sort of. It’s all just been a lot to carry. I’m tired.”
I hugged my friends goodbye. I was headed back to Marfa to take care of Showboat’s cats while he stayed in Austin to tend to his businesses.
My appetite disappeared as the abuse continued. I began losing weight, and my dark days outnumbered the bright ones. I called the ketamine clinic to schedule a booster infusion. In my dreams Showboat walked away from me, shook his head no, took up with other women.
“Do you even see the good in me anymore?” I asked after he returned from Austin. We were sitting apart on his living room couch.
“Of course I do,” he said. “The fact that you can’t see that proves you don’t understand me. If I didn’t want to be here I wouldn’t be.”
I suggested we take a break at the end of February. Showboat agreed. A few days into our time apart Tess let me know our friend Everly had offered to talk with me about Showboat. She and Showboat were briefly involved before he and I began dating, and as far as I knew things ended amicably and they were friends. Everly had invited the two of us to her home for Thanksgiving in the fall, and she was gracious and encouraging when Showboat and I first started seeing each other.
Everly hadn’t wanted to reach out to me directly in case the relationship was going well, and because Showboat specifically asked her not to speak with me about their time together. Tess was the intermediary who knew how badly I was struggling. I invited Everly over. We shared wine and cheese on the floor of my casita, and I told her Showboat had been wonderful until everything suddenly changed.
Everly’s time with him was painful from the start. Showboat began messaging her on Instagram in August, soon after he moved to town. She asked him to stop — Showboat had a girlfriend, and Everly wasn’t comfortable with his communication. He did stop, eventually, then broke up with his girlfriend a few weeks later. He took Everly out on a date the day his ex left town.
Their relationship was mostly a physical one. Showboat took the opportunity to point out all the things he found wrong with Everly nonetheless. He homed in on her insecurities. He criticized her and gave her the silent treatment. She was part punching bag, part plaything. They had only been involved for about six weeks, yet Everly was depressed for months afterward, and not because she missed him — because he had broken her down.
I saw an adult man sitting on my couch, and I saw the boy inside him
“He’s an emotional predator,” she said, “and somehow he thinks he’s a great guy.”
Everly ended their physical relationship. It seemed like she and Showboat were moving toward something like friendship, yet he continued to disrespect her boundaries and her request to keep their relationship platonic. Until he met me.
“In some ways I was relieved, because I knew he would finally leave me alone,” Everly said. “I also felt like I was throwing you to the wolves.”
Everly asked me not to tell Showboat any of what she had told me. She was afraid he would retaliate by ruining her reputation, personally and professionally. She told me to leave him. I let the gravity of her words sink in. I understood everything she was saying. I had lived much of it myself. And I couldn’t let go. My and Showboat’s relationship was different from his and Everly’s. He had shown me love, and I craved its return more than anything.
“Are you going to take him back?” Everly asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to rest. I want some peace.”
The next weekend Showboat was knocking on my door in the middle of the night, angry that I hadn’t responded to a text message. I had been sleeping, gone to bed early to escape the day’s depression. Showboat was stiff and gruff and couldn’t really tell me what was going on. I was surprised to see him.
“I don’t know if it was intentional or not,” he said, “but you not responding didn’t make me feel very good.”
It pained me to see Showboat had no language for what was happening in his heart. I saw an adult man sitting on my couch, and I saw the boy inside him. I asked him to lay with me on the bed. He stayed the night. Later he’d tell me he had packed all my stuff in his car before driving over.
“You want to talk about this here?” Showboat said when I asked him how he was feeling about us at the bar the following week. Neither of us knew if we had gotten back together or not, and I thought we could use some clarity and communication. Twenty minutes later he pulled me away from a game of darts with friends.
“I’m not feeling social. Let’s go for a drive.”
I tried to check in again, gently, after he fucked me against the side of his Ranchero on the starlit ranch road. By ourselves under a dark sky wasn’t a good place to discuss anything either. He was angry.
“I’m done talking about this! Either you want to hang out with me or you don’t.”
He broke up with me not long after that, at the end of March. Showboat drove me to and from the ketamine clinic that day. On the three-hour drive there he belittled me for having good credit, for paying off accounts that capitalized on other people’s debt, then complained about his own inability to get a proper loan. He mentioned offhand that anyone who was in the service industry at our age was a failure, knowing full well I was contemplating leaving my corporate writing job to bartend. After my session our conversation led to how unsatisfied he was with our relationship. He wanted someone who would jump up and kiss him all over when he came home, someone who understood him and challenged him. There was some woman out there who was perfect for him, he imagined, and their paths hadn’t crossed because she was too busy doing her own thing, like him. I was tired, from the treatment and from trying so hard to please Showboat. I looked out the window at the desert and cried.
Back at Showboat’s house we lay in his bed, watching TV and not touching. I wanted so badly for him to hold me. I wanted to hold him back. He left to meet a friend for a drink.
“Is it ok if we take a few days off?” he texted while he was out.
I didn’t know what to do. I was so low, so lonely. Ketamine was a strong dissociative with psychedelic effects. I had spent an hour of the afternoon floating around in outer space, pulling stars into my brain in attempts to feel better. I wasn’t supposed to drive until the following morning.
“I’ve been focusing on the positives in you and us and how it’s felt reconnecting,” I wrote. “I wasn’t expecting to hear all of that today. I’m sorry, I just had an intense procedure and I’m not supposed to drive and feel like I’m in an extra vulnerable spot right now.”
Showboat didn’t acknowledge me when he returned home a few hours later. He put his earphones in and started a movie. I was crying again. He became enraged and told me he had had enough. We weren’t compatible. My fears and anxieties had ruined our relationship. We were over.
“Please,” I begged, “I don’t want this.”
These were the only words I could find that night. I repeated them over and over, until Showboat threatened to kick me out. In the morning he left for the coffee trailer. I sat on his patio for hours staring out at the plains. I was having trouble accepting the relationship was done.
I escaped to Alma’s house for a week, waiting for the anguish to lessen its grip. My body hurt in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I found myself screaming to release some of the pain.
It was impossible to avoid Showboat back in Marfa. The coffee trailer was on the main road, right in the center of town. I had to drive by it to get anywhere, and the sight of his truck or the back of his cowboy hat sent shockwaves through my body. In my most despairing moments I thought I would have to move.
I broke the ice two weeks in and stopped by the trailer after work. Our initial interaction was tense. I was angry at Showboat, indignant at the way he had treated me.
In my most despairing moments I thought I would have to move
Then something shifted. He was looking into my eyes again and smiling softly. He was listening, apologizing. He told me he had seen me walk by in recent days and I still turned his head. He wanted to know my thoughts on how our relationship could be different. He wanted to learn about co-regulation and relational repair. My demeanor reminded him of when we first started dating, he said, and he liked it. We sat on a pair of stools for hours, talking on and off and watching the traffic roll by.
I had been in intense pain since the breakup. Sitting there with Showboat I felt calm, even blissful. Evening rolled into night. It was time for me to go, and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was get up and leave. He felt the same way.
“Well dang it,” he texted once I left. “I wish you were still hanging out on the stool with me haha.”
“It felt good to clear some stuff away,” I replied.
“I hope so,” he wrote. “It was difficult, productive, and also nice to hear the change in your voice. Would like to hear more of that in the future.”
“It was nice to feel like you were looking at me for real.”
Showboat started texting every day. He bought me coffees, drinks, said I should take his dog for a few days. He left a snorkeling mask for me at the trailer when I told him I was heading to the Balmorhea pool. He looked at me with a warmth I hadn’t seen in months.
“You working still?” Showboat messaged the next weekend. I was bartending my first wedding, and he kept checking in to see how I liked the change of pace.
“I am,” I wrote.
“I think it’s gonna be a late one.”
“Okie dokie. I’ll be up most likely. Just carried dishes in from yalls event haha. Hope it’s going as well as yesterday.”
“I don’t think late-night hangs are smart for us right now.”
He was at the bar when I got back to unload.
“I know you said it wasn’t a good idea, but are you sure you don’t want to hang out?” he asked.
I couldn’t resist.
Back at my house I tried to establish some parameters around whatever was happening between us. Showboat didn’t want to get back together. He thought we should hang out with no pressure and see how things went.
“If that’s what we’re doing I don’t think we should sleep together,” I said.
Showboat did not appreciate this idea.
“We’re being intimate right now, holding hands and talking,” he reasoned.
I wanted him to sleep over. I wanted us to hold each other and to feel close to him again. Showboat refused, saying it was pointless for him to stay with me if we weren’t going to have sex. That familiar edge was creeping into his voice. I ended up convincing him to stay. We slept together anyway.
By morning I already felt him turning cold. He went off to work early, on a Sunday. I felt incredibly vulnerable and almost told him so in a text. I deleted the words.
“What’s the rest of your day lookin like?” I wrote instead. “Would love to sunset or somethin with you.”
The next day I had black and blue marks from his touch
Showboat picked me up that evening, pulling away when I leaned over to kiss him in the truck cab. At sunset we sat not touching in the bed of his truck miles and miles down the ranch road. The sky was beautiful. The sun met the horizon, and a small herd of deer appeared on a nearby hill, approaching the fence along the roadside.
“Don’t move,” Showboat said under his breath.
We stayed quiet and motionless for several minutes, watching the deer sniff the air and check for safety as they stepped closer. They were a few yards from the fence when Showboat yelled, pretending to tell a story in an overly loud voice. I jumped. The deer disappeared over the hill.
A few days later I posted up at the coffee trailer to work from my computer, trying to get some time with him before he headed to Austin for an indeterminate amount of time. He barely looked at me all day as he worked in the new building, yet I thought it sweet when he popped his head into the trailer and told me to text him a sandwich order — he was heading to the deli in Fort Davis. An hour or so later he returned with a pile of sandwiches for him and his employees and nothing for me.
“Sorry, I was on the phone the whole time and didn’t see your text.” I couldn’t help it. My jaw dropped.
Later, as I packed up to go home, I asked if I would see him again before he left the next day.
“I don’t know, work is crazy,” Showboat said. “Text me later.”
“How about you text me,” I joked. “You don’t seem to get my texts.”
He dropped what he was doing and pulled me over to his truck.
“Are you annoyed with me right now?”
“A little bit, yeah. I haven’t eaten all day. I did want that sandwich.”
He couldn’t believe I was choosing to be upset. Didn’t I see how overwhelmed he was? He needed a partner who would understand how unique the challenges of his life were. He had done a nice thing by offering to buy me a sandwich. He needed support, not more stress.
“Can’t you be overwhelmed and I be bothered and have that be okay?” I said. “I get how crazy work is right now. I’m not mad at you.”
“I can’t deal with this right now.”
He avoided me for days, then finally broke things off over the phone. I spiraled just as badly as I did after the first breakup a month prior. I can hardly recognize myself in the desperate texts I sent.
“I wish I handled last week differently,” I wrote. “I loved reconnecting with you and am sorry for taking it personally when you were having a crazy week. I could have been understanding but I failed to support you. I could have made things different and I didn’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Showboat. I’m sorry for letting you down.”
The following week I was more centered. I texted to ask if I could stop by Showboat’s house to drop off his stuff and pick up mine, sometime when he wasn’t home. He suggested we meet up instead.
It was clear he wasn’t in a good place when he came over. He laid down on my couch and stared at the ceiling, not saying much. I felt badly for him. His reputation was in the gutter. Key employees were quitting every few weeks. He had no friends, and no time for rest or joy. I wondered if his neverending strife would ever lead him to some kind of epiphany.
“Can I do anything for you?” I asked. “Do you need an ear? A snack? Some water? A hug?” Showboat was silent for a few moments. Then:
“Honestly, I wish we could just lay down and make love. I don’t know why it has to be so complicated.”
“Well, we’re not going to make love,” I said. “You can come lay down with me, though.”
He did, closing his eyes while I rubbed his back and ran my fingers through his hair. Showboat’s hands began wandering, first along my calves then up to my thighs and ribs. His grip was strong. His hands moved under my dress to my hips. Moments later he abruptly stood up and left.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Okay,” was all I could say.
The next day I had black and blue marks from his touch.
Showboat’s bouts of attention and flirtation and withdrawal continued all spring and into the summer. Late-night texts asking what I was up to or if I was awake watching the lightning storm, telling me he finally got his old Barracuda running again. He drove by my job on his way home. At the coffee shop he came in close to pull a loose thread from my dress, to button my vest a little higher.
“Not that I mind looking,” he said, grinning.
“I think we can learn a lot from each other,” Showboat said in our most recent conversation, at the very end of July. I was upset. The way he shunned me after Truth or Consequences still stung. His flirtatiousness confused me. I cared for him and it hurt to watch him suffer and live such a lonesome life. Showboat assured me he wanted to understand my experience with him, yet he couldn’t let go of the idea that he had been nothing but good to me.
“I’ve treated all of my girlfriends like queens,” he said. “I think we should take some space, but I’d like to revisit this in the future.”
That sweet man may never have existed
My best self believes he does want to understand and possibly can’t, or won’t. Part of what has made healing so difficult is I know enough about Showboat’s life and touched enough of his tenderness to feel more sadness for him than anger. I know people who behave the way he does do so to deflect vast expanses of untouched pain and shame within. That they need people like me to wear their inner darkness for them. That people’s brains and behaviors and relational patterns develop in the ways that best allow them to survive, and many people have survived very hard things. Our relationship ending was one heartbreak that continues to meander and mend. My heart breaks a whole different way for that tenderness, the tenderness in him that coexists with the hardness, the tenderness in him I’m still tangled up with.
It’s October again. The trailer’s gone to some other locale and the coffee shop is open. Showboat’s got a new business in town, a historic dark cavern of a bar I helped him fight for back in the spring, editing his emails so he’d stand out as the most deserving tenant in a pack of bidders. The gossip in town says he has a new girlfriend, too, someone he’s been seeing since April, back when he was showing up at my job and convincing me to hang out in the middle of the night, back when he was leaving marks on my legs and wishing we could lay down and make love, if only things weren’t so complicated.
I excused myself from rehashing our relationship again at the end of the summer. I missed him, fantasizing I would one day encounter the sweet man I knew the year before, the one I imagined was somewhere inside Showboat beneath all the anger, defense, and bravado. The unfortunate truth is that sweet man may never have existed. When I was falling in love with him he may have only been mirroring me, reflecting back my best qualities and hopes and dreams in efforts to pull me in. It’s a comforting yet sad point to consider: I might never have fallen for Showboat if it weren’t for all the goodness within me.
“I don’t think you’re going to understand what I experienced without having some kind of breakthrough,” I texted in August. “It sucks to say it — it was emotional abuse. And no, I don’t think that makes you a shit person. I care about you and mean everything I’ve said about treasuring you and your heart.”
I’ve seen Showboat a few times since then. Lately I’ve been trying to pay him as little attention as possible, but whenever we’re in the same place he beelines toward me to say hello and ask how I am. If I have my dog with me he makes a big to-do of petting her and speaking to her sweetly.
He responded to my text the way an abuser would — with no reply at all, save for following me on his bar’s Instagram account, one of many I imagine he utilizes with other women in similar ways. That’s how it began with us, afterall — first a follow from the coffee shop, then his personal account, and finally a DM. He’s watching my Stories now and again, dripping the tiniest IV of intermittent attention, a little digital invitation back into the cycle of abuse.
I love you, Showboat, and I decline.