The summer before my first semester of my last year of undergrad, I started dating a sailor. I lived near a military base (Ft. Gordon), so dating guys in the service wasn’t new to me. I’d dated a soldier a year prior, with our relationship abruptly ending when he was deployed. My relationship with THAT GUY also warrants a story (for another time). In general, the military is particularly bad for those who go in with pre-existing mental illness. That’s something I know now.
But then, I was just looking for a boyfriend. Didn’t matter from where. And the fact was, if I wanted to date someone who hadn’t spent their entire life in my incredibly Southern hometown a military guy was my best bet. They came from other places, had other perspectives and were often times less conservative than a lot of the men I grew up with in school. At least, that was my assumption.
Augusta, Georgia wasn’t the kind of place where change happened. No one ever moved there because they wanted to; it was always some last resort circumstance. Being young and looking for love in a place like that was bound to be hard. Being alternative, chubby, black and visually disabled didn’t help. So when I met this sailor, it felt like fate was giving me a shot. In an effort to not call him “the sailor” through this entire piece, I’ll call him Craig. (That’s not his real name, obviously).
Craig was older, stringy and white. He was a loner who was convinced all his friends hated him. I felt the same way, and we bonded over that. I was 20, he was at least 25 (or older) but acted more immature than I did. Actually, I was the one to take his virginity. When I asked him why, he told me it was because his mother died when he was in high school. He said mourning his mother curbed his desire for sex and when he was finally ready for it he was too awkward and insecure to make it happen.
Craig had joined the military pretty soon after high school and most of his contact with women was through the service. However, he felt military women were too masculine for him. But due to his schedule, they were the only women he knew, so he decided to look elsewhere on OkCupid. That’s where he found me. He liked that I was feminine; short and soft and wore dressed. He could feel like a man around me, so it was easy for him to take charge and finally have sex.
Once we started having sex, Craig was always pushing me into it. He would even guilt me when I wanted to read or do some extra work instead of have sex with him.
In addition to all that, he was drunk constantly. He got into the military with the intention to travel, but was given a desk job instead. He drank because he was depressed about that. He drank because he felt trapped in a shitty town with nothing interesting to do. He drank as he watched this friends in the Navy get opportunitues he didn’t have access to. He was constantly trying to drown his feelings.
He would drink alone and be drunk by the time I got to his place. His constant intoxication made him even more sexually aggressive at times. Each time, I would just give in. This was before I knew about feminism. Before I knew that I didn’t owe my partner sex just because I was with him.
Are your eyes glowing red from all the red flags that just popped up? Now, at 24, I’m right there with you. But at 20, I needed more than hints. I needed anvils on my head. And I got them.
Despite his obvious immaturity, Craig presented himself like an adult. More than that, I think he saw himself as the boss of me. He enforced structure onto my days, pushed me into an exercise regime with him, and got me onto his Navy sleep schedule (going to bed at 11, waking up at 5am). Being legally blind and unable to drive, he gladly became my main source of transportation. This shaped my entire social life. I went wherever he could take me and left whenever he was ready to go. He would drop me off at Panera or Starbucks to do my homework, pick me up promptly at the same time each day, and take me home to his place. He refused to sleep at my apartment and he always wanted me around, so I was rarely in my own room for our entire 6-month relationship.
While we were together, my younger brother moved to Atlanta for cooking school. He and his girlfriend there were low on money and lived in a very cheap apartment in the ghetto to make ends meet. I never got to visit the, while I was with Craig. He refused to enter the ghetto because it was beneath him and he didn’t like my brother for (unspoken) similar reasons. In fact, Craig wasn’t much of a fan of my family. Which is no surprise if you’ve read any of my writing. My family isn’t great. But as a white man from a good family and a lucrative job as a linguist for the Navy, I didn’t really need him to point any fingers at my family for their low income existence and devastating drug use. Who the Hell was he anyway?
Craig was the kind of white guy who told me which rap was superior based on the rapper’s depiction of a struggle he would never know anything about. Craig would get offended by my mother making benign white jokes. Craig would give me money for things I desperately needed and then make me feel like he owned for it.
Which brings me to the end of our relationship: It happened after a road trip.
Craig decided that he wanted to tour cities on the east coast for his birthday. He wanted to spent time in DC, Philly and NYC. He said his friends bailed on him for the trip and that I had to come. I was in school at the time, so I had to negotiate an entire week off from classes for the trip. I was an Honors student with perfect attendance, so professors were willing to work with me. I told all my professors, got all my assignments (including grad school applications) and hopped in Craig’s car for the worst road trip of my entire life.
The first sign of trouble was that Craig insisted that I don’t look at my phone during the ride. Because my disability prevented me from driving, Craig had to drive the whole way himself. And to make up for that, I had to keep my eyes on him or the road so that I could “participate” in the driving. Why didn’t he just bring along a third person that could help with that? He told me all his friends bailed on him, but I had doubts about that. He always made his friends out to be terrible people who ignored him, but from what I could see he was the one who bailed on them all the time to mope and play video games. Honestly, I just think he wanted to be alone with me and didn’t really think it through. But I could be wrong about all that.
The second sign came when we stayed at a hotel in Philadelphia. Out of nowhere he decided to lash out at me for not helping with the expensive hotel costs. After everything I dealt with in the car, I snapped back at him. I reminded him that he knew how poor I was. He knew that every cent I made at work was used for school costs or life necessities. I reminded him that my family wasn’t helping me with school at all and I was doing everything on my own. I also reminded me that he hadn’t given me enough notice to save up for the trip. I ended with argument with reminding him that he could afford all these extravagancies, that’s why he planned the trip in the first damn place. A party would have been cheaper.
After losing the argument, he guilted me into sex. I looked at my phone while he fucked me from behind. I was done then; I just didn’t know it yet.
Luckily for me, I got an anvil: My grandfather died.
Yes, while Craig and I were en route to NYC, my grandfather died in Harlem. By the time we got to Jersey, my mother and cousin had flown in from Georgia. I managed to convince Craig to let us stay at my uncle’s house in Montclair, New Jersey so that I could be with my family. New York City was a short drive away and that way he wouldn’t have to pay for another hotel.
As it turns out, they planned the funeral for the same day as Craig’s birthday. Now, from moment one, I told him he didn’t have to go. I was never one to force Craig into family gatherings. He would usually just invite him. A few weeks into our relationship, he invited himself to my brother’s high school graduation. He had no sense of boundaries, but I didn’t know that at the time.
He decided to come to the funeral with this reasoning: He believed it wasn’t fair for him to have to spend any time alone on his birthday. I had come on the trip to be with him on his special day, so I had to be with him the entire time. Never mind that the funeral would only take a few hours. Never mind that he could just sleep in or go see a movie. Never mind that I had spent every waking moment up until that point with him and I was just suggesting a little time alone with my family who was in mourning.
Nope, he took his selfish ass and all his hurt feelings to my grandfather’s funeral and even had the NERVE to cry and carry on.
And then on the way to lunch afterwards I gave him one more out. A huge chunk of the Jamaican side of my family were all in one place and we wanted to have a nice long lunch and catch up. I told him he didn’t have to come. I reminded him that he didn’t know anyone and he didn’t know the man that died and I understood how uncomfortable that was. I suggested he explore the city and I could call him when I was done eating. Of course he refused.
We had lunch. He showed out. I got drunk and then he berated me for paying for my food (even though he offered to do so).
When we got back to my uncle’s house he informed me that I had to pack my things because we were heading back to DC. My family looked on in astonishment as a dutifully packed my things without much protest. I was ready for the trip to be over so I was prepared to do whatever he said to make the ride home as pleasant as possible.
Once we were in the car, Craig had a meltdown. He started crying and having a panic attack while we were driving. He ran a red light before I could convince to pull over and calm down. He broke down completely, yelling about how his mother always made his birthday very special when she was alive and I was doing a terrible job.
I couldn’t believe it; he was comparing me to his mother. Had everything been about her? The entire trip? Our entire relationship? Did I remind him of his mother? Was that the basis of his attraction to me?
I didn’t have time to figure it out on the road several hundred miles away from home. I did what I could. I calmed him down and most of the ride back to Georgia was silent after that. As I rode, I decided firmly in my mind that it was over and that there was really nothing he could do to convince me otherwise.
Once we made it home, I had him drop my apartment. I refused to go home with him. I spent the week in my room, getting reacquainted with my own space and the independence I had left behind. Craig called me constantly during this week. I think he knew I wanted to end it and wanted to swoop in and do something to deter me from the decision. I didn’t let that happen. At the end of the week, I had ended things. He had trouble taking no for an answer.
One day he showed up at my place while I was hungover and tried to push me into make-up sex. I complied out of weariness and lingering love for him, but while we did I could feel it wasn’t healthy. It was then that I realized that so much of the sex we had in our relationship was sex I never wanted, but felt obligated to give to him. Realizing that made me feel shame. Shame I still haven’t quite gotten over, even now.
Right before he finally accepted our break-up and stopped coming around, he gave me what he seemed to believe as a dressing down. He told me that I had abandoned him. He told me that he knew he had issues with being aggressive, manipulative and drinking too much but it was all on me for abandoning him. As his girlfriend I was supposed to stand by him while he worked through all his issues and I wasn’t fulfilling my duty to him by putting myself first. He told me I failed him. Disappointed him. He told that I left him when he needed me the most. He told me he was going to get counseling and he’d be so much better and I’d miss out on that entirely. He told me all the way he felt like I let him down.
Never mind the fact that I begged him to go to counseling the whole 6 months we were together. Never mind that I was actually IN counseling myself and practicing what I was preaching. Never mind that he had forced sex on me on nights when I had explicitly said no, even though he knew I had been sexually assaulted before I met him. Never mind that he forced me to run with him even when I told him I hated running and the way it made me feel. Never mind the fact that he forced alcohol on me when I didn’t even drink before I met him. Never mind that he made my grandfather’s death all about him and embarrassed me in front of my family.
It was then, while he was yelling at me, that I realized he had let me down much harder. I stuck around and let it happen for so long because I felt like I had to. I felt it was my place as a girlfriend and a woman to do so. It was at that moment that I realized that my compliance was bigger than me. My compliance was a learned behavior.
But where did I learn it from?
At the time, I never knew the jargon. I didn’t know the first thing about feminism. I had never even given them a chance. I hadn’t read any books or thinkpieces. I had no framework for which to assess my situation.
All I knew was that his behavior wasn’t my fault. I was more sure of that than I was about anything in my life before. And I needed to know why he insisted that it was. I needed to know why later on when I told my mother the story she yelled at me for ruining a “great thing” with a man that “provided for me”. She saw him yell at me. Why did she defend him?
It was that relationship, and my subsequent interrogation of it, that got me to examine gender roles for the first time in my life.
I was never the same. And I never saw men the same way.