It was cooler than it is today five years ago, but the sky was the same. A little overcast, but sunny, and it felt grey. A few days earlier we had celebrated my father-out-law’s (former father-in-law) 65th birthday at a fancy restaurant. A fancy restaurant where Liam and I got food poisoning. My 10-month-old had such awful diarrhea that he developed a weeping diaper rash. A diaper rash that was so bad that I let him roam the house in his birthday suit and followed behind cleaning up the puddles and piles.
I was tired and feeling like a ward in a nursing home but when Liam laid down for his naps that day I didn’t sleep. I started in on my coursework. It was my fourth week of school after a ten-year absence and I was getting As in all five of my classes. I had gone back to school content with getting Cs, but was thrilled and energized by my unexpected success.
A week before, we began renovations on a 100-year-old carriage house on a property my FOL had purchased in a ritzy section of a beautiful suburb where we were to be moving in a month. When the school work was finished, I was busy planning, designing, and shopping for our new home. After living in my FOL’s basement for over a year in a town I like to refer to as “the armpit of Manhattan”, I couldn’t wait to have my own roof and trees and an enormous yard for us to play in. Sure, the last year of my life had been a bitter sweet mix of baby bliss and emotional terrorism, but I was hopeful that this move was going to save my marriage and give us all a fresh start.
I was sitting at the dining room table working on my women’s studies lesson when I saw XN’s head pass the front window. I was surprised and pleased to see him. His early arrival meant I might have time to go to Lowes before picking up the antiques I had found at bargain prices on Craigslist to furnish our new home.
When he came in he didn’t look happy, but he often looked like he was trying to pass a kidney stone so I thought nothing of it. Then he pulled out a chair and sat down next to me. He never sat next to me. I knew something was wrong. It was then that he told me he was being investigated for sexual assault, but assured me no charges had been filed. He had known for days. In fact, I was with him when he got the call. He had left later that night to go see his father (who was at another one of his houses) but told me nothing was wrong, he just wanted to swap cars for an errand. I thought nothing of it then.
I was stunned, but I don’t think surprised. He told me how sorry he was and began to cry. It was the first time I had seen him REALLY cry. He was apologizing to me for “cheating”, not for assaulting a teenager, and begged my forgiveness. I stood next to him with my hands on his shoulders as he cried, clinging to me. “Please don’t leave me. I will do anything.” He begged over and over again that I not leave but that he would understand if I did.
He already had a team of attorneys working on it and they thought that they could claim consent with the security videos as evidence. The whole thing had been caught on video because the alleged victim was a 19-year-old employee at the restaurant we owned together. This had all happened at the restaurant I helped him build. The achievement he said he couldn’t do without me and asked me to turn down a theatre management offer to help make it happen. The surveillance system that had literally replaced me in his life (he would sit and watch the restaurant all night on the computer which laid next to him) had recorded my biggest humiliation.
I was silent, stoic. I heard Liam awake in his crib. I went in and brought him into my arms. We sat in the chair and rocked as he jabbered about his dreams. I set him on the floor and gave him things to entertain himself then kissed his cheek and left.
Everything that I knew had crumbled. The hope that I’d had was gone. I was humiliated. It had been over a year since XN had touched me, not since we found out I was pregnant. He said I disgusted him. When I tried to initiate he was unresponsive. All of the times he had told me I didn’t know how to turn him on, that I was fat and unattractive, that he was the best I could do and should be lucky I had him…all of those words became undeniably true. I had lost ten pounds in the last month to try to please him but it wasn’t enough.
I picked up the rental van, then I cried. I cried tears I didn’t even know I had. The pain and the tightness in my chest almost sent me to the hospital. What was I going to do? Who could I call? My family was already exhausted by the seemingly endless phone calls with me in tears over this man. They hated him and I didn’t want to give them any more fuel for that fire. I called The Ramone, the man I had been in love with when I met XN and who had inspired me to write my dating blog. We remained friends and he was often the only person I could talk to. He and XN didn’t have a relationship. They had met once and would likely never see each other again so I didn’t need to make excuses or tell lies with him.
The more I found the words the more devastated I felt. The imagery that came into my mind about what had happened actually made me sick. I was back in school because I wanted to do sexual assault response and my own husband was being investigated for sexual assault. XN told me that it was consensual. That on this young woman’s first day of work they just couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. That when he told her he loved his wife and it could never happen again she got upset and went to the police. I had visions of what she looked like and this passionate affair. Every time I thought about it the images got more disturbing. The more beautiful she became, the hungrier he was for anyone but his old, fat, undesirable wife. I had to know.
I returned home that night and said “I want to see the video.” He was confused. Why would I want to see the recording? “Show me the video. I have too many questions and I need to know what dozens of other people are watching.” There was no sound. I made him narrate it. “What are you saying? What did she say? Why are you coming back?” And then it happened. I was disgusted, not with myself, but with him. It wasn’t some romantic film. It was coerced. It was forceful. And it was all too familiar because he had done the same thing to me many times, back when I wasn’t “hideous.”
I had decided not to leave him. I didn’t want to make an emotional decision. I said I would stay through the investigation and any court proceedings but that I wasn’t committed to staying with him. I agreed to keep the situation a secret from my friends and our families. I agreed to show up at family functions as if everything was as it had been. The fact that I had long been miserable made it easier to keep up appearances. I decided to continue managing the renovation, but when it was done Liam and I would move in by ourselves and XN would have to stay in the main house with his sister. In the meantime, we kept separate spaces on opposite ends of the house.
That was 5 years ago. I like to think that if the same thing happened to the person I am today, I would have respected myself enough to leave without question. I’d like to think that I would contact the detectives running the investigation and tell them that this was not an isolated incident, that XN has a history. I would like to think that I would have stood my ground and protected myself and my child from ever having to deal with this man again. But I don’t know that it would be any different.
I have overcome so much in the last five years. I have faced the family court system on my own. I left an abusive marriage and took my lessons with me to help other women and teenagers to make smarter choices for themselves. I have fought tirelessly to protect my child. Hours, no, days of reading, writing, and hard personal work have made me someone I am proud to see in the mirror. Speaking of which, I feel more comfortable in my own skin now than I ever did. I know that even if I don’t put on makeup or skimpy clothing that I am a desirable woman.
At the core though, I am still someone who puts others’ needs before my own. I am still struggling with setting boundaries to do the things that are best for me. It is difficult for me to look at someone and say “you are wrong.” I hope I never have to make those types of decisions again and I hope that, despite my many challenges, I would be able to forgive myself enough to say “I deserve better” and to walk away. But I know I have more work to do.
So today, on the 5-year anniversary of my separation, I am committing to do the important work of discovering how I became the person who let this, him, happen to her. I am healing from my time with XN, but I need to know why I allowed him to happen. Today I am committing to the work I have avoided for many years, thinking I am fine/over it/ all better. Despite convincing myself all of the above, I have completely neglected writing about my childhood sexual abuse here and that tells me there is a lot of work to do. The challenge is to do this very difficult work while still practicing wholehearted living. With the help of my trusted and skillful therapist and my supportive and loving friends and family, I am ready.