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I’d met Dale in college. He was a friend of a friend, and one good-looking dude. I never assumed he would notice me. He was so cool, and he always seemed to have some blond sorority-type babe on his arm.
But then there was that one time, at some drunken bash; Dale and I had found ourselves off in a corner, and we stood, then sat, for a long, long time, talking about all kinds of things, kind of leaning into each other, even a little smooch or two, until some girl – obviously his neglected date – showed up and he stood up and left me with a guileless, guilt-free grin; left me to slink home alone, not sure whether to feel hyped and hopeful, or rejected and used. We never did more than grin and wave at each other after that, but the Dale Effect lingered.
So, a few years after graduation, I was passing through Denver on a work trip, and found myself at another party, some of the old CU crowd who hadn’t quite given up their college drinking habits.
And there’s Dale big as life, better looking than ever. I’d heard he’d eked his way through law school and the bar exam, joined his dad’s firm in Denver, and was doing great.
I don’t know how it happened. Was there something different about me? Maybe I was more confident. I’d certainly learned to hold my own in legislative battles (mostly lost, but still…) that we’d fought all across the country. Dale greeted me, took a second look, I swear, like a farmer deciding this crop was ready for harvest. He was suddenly into me. And it was pretty heady stuff.
I don’t know if it was Dale I fell in love with so much as it was the image I had of me with him. Everyone I knew was wildly jealous. Including my mother. I know they were all thinking he was out of my league. My parents both seemed half shocked when I told them we were engaged. They were relieved when I resigned my job, which they’d been ever so politely supportive about, but obviously hated. Mom was so happy I’d “come to my senses”. I assured myself I’d get involved with the local Denver activists, just as soon as we got settled.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. We married, got a little house in Cherry Creek. Dale went to work every day, and I somehow found my own days full of errands and shopping and house work. First, we remodeled the house, and coordinating that took most of my time. Then there were social engagements, ones we had to go to, ones we had to host in return, all of which required the right clothes, the right table settings, the right guest lists. Dale and his family ran in the best crowds.
And yeah, it was exciting for a while. Dale was making good money and playing house was fun.
Except that somehow, it just began to go down hill.
I made a few feeble attempts to get involved with the work I’d done before, the work I’d been called to, but whenever I mentioned doing something, like volunteering at the women’s shelter again, Dale somehow had so many other things that needed taking care of, little details of our lives that he needed me to handle, needed me to be a good partner and support him in his career ambitions. Plenty of time for my little hobbies, he assured me, just not right now. Right now, we needed to get ahead in our social circle, to make the right impressions on the right people. Right now, I needed to find a better dress for the firm’s annual gala, and plan another dinner party, and make sure it was better than the one we’d just been to.
The thing is, my viewpoint was that there’s a lot of crap in the world, and whether we served chicken or beef was just not a major deal. The difference between chicken and beef was a major deal for Dale. Everything, it was turning out, was a major deal to him.
Every damn thing I did. He didn’t have time to do much of anything around the house, but when he came home, he had a running commentary on everything I’d done. On how I looked and what I needed to do for myself. He was always so charming and helpful in his advice, always so absolutely certain in his opinions.
You’d think all that attention might be a good thing; a good thing that he was paying me so much attention. Then again, you wouldn’t think he’d have left for a weeklong business trip the day after I got home from having that major surgery, either.
Looking back, I suppose that was the turning point. From there it was a pretty swift progression (I’ll spare the details) from criticism to verbal abuse to – yeah, wait for it – a couple of shoves and slaps.
Me. Gone from champion of women’s rights to victim of domestic abuse. How the hell did I here?
I felt like shit.
And even worse, I realized how arrogant I’d been in the past, thinking things like this could never happen to me. Looking at other women and secretly wondering why they’d stood for that kind of treatment.
This went on for what felt like eons too long, but finally, with the help of a therapist I’d started seeing secretly, things came to a sudden and unexpected head one night, the way Life has a way of doing, kicking you out of neutral when you least expect it.
There’s Dale, sitting at the dinner table, dropping his fork to his plate, spattering spaghetti sauce on the placemat, pushing the plate away, and pronouncing the pasta overdone – again – and asking – again – why I did these things? Was I just trying to make him mad? Was I incapable of being a decent and responsive wife?
And there I am, all of a sudden shaking so badly I could barely shove my chair back, barely stand up. But I did. I did.
I couldn’t even trust myself to speak. I wanted to shout, “fuck you, Dale,” but I was terrified that my voice wouldn’t be strong enough to convince him I was serious this time. Done this time.
So I didn’t say anything, not out loud, anyway. That was probably best, probably what gave me the cover I needed. He shouted after me as I stalked back to the bedroom, how I was being childish, how I couldn’t handle constructive criticism, how if I loved him…
I most certainly didn’t love him. That realization was slapping me in the face as I silently scrambled around, pulling out the first container I could put my hands on, a backpack that didn’t meet Dale’s idea of sophisticated luggage. I shoved whatever I could lay my hands on, cramming underwear and my journals inside; on second thought, grabbing a another duffel bag I filled with God knows what. I was hardly thinking.
The remodel had included a door from our bedroom onto the back deck. I tiptoed, terrified, out the door, lugging my bags across the deck, edging open the side garage door.
By the time I saw Dale – for the last time – silhouetted in the open kitchen door, shouting some obscenities that were muted by my closed car windows, I was revving the BMW backward into the alley, obliterating our neighbor’s trash can in the process; a wild spray of gravel marking my exit from hell.
In only a few years, I’d felt myself getting cut off from my old friends. At first, there was just so much to keep me busy in Dale’s social and professional world. As time went on, I just didn’t want anyone I knew to find out how bad things had gotten.
Now I felt so ashamed, I couldn’t possibly face the old friends, didn’t want to admit my failure. I hunkered down in a faceless motel on the Boulder turnpike, and spent several days crying, cursing, soul searching. I carried on long and what seemed like very one-sided conversations with someone I thought of as God, an entity that hadn’t seemed particularly interested in me for a long time.
I did make one call, to Marissa, one of the few childhood friends I’d kept up with. I had no idea why I called her. It just felt like she might understand, and I kind of found my fingers punching the number in of their own accord. Marissa was in San Francisco, married to a Unitarian minister, of all things, with a couple of kids. Come out, she said, instantly, emphatically. You can help out with the kids for a few weeks. We’ll put out feelers for jobs. Get away from there.
Bless her heart. I thought it was a bad idea, crashing on a family like that, but she was right about one thing; I had to get free of Colorado, had to clear my head. Not to mention that I was so mired in self-doubt and self-pity at the moment, it apparently required someone else’s momentum to get me moving.
Sometimes the unseen hand happens to be the only one that’s reaching out to you.
So, I got in my car, drove to Denver International Airport, bought a ticket and called Dale, to leave him a message as to where I’d left the BMW in the airport parking lot. His problem. I couldn’t stand the thought of having anything that connected me to him.
Oh, and he would be hearing from my lawyer.