by Sarah Liederman
It began as a fun flitting in my chest, smile and daydream-inducing, goofily saccharine the way most beginnings of good things are.
We began as strangers on the internet. A combination of polite questions, witty banter, and explicit flirtation (enhanced with images) kept us both delightfully entertained and engaged. After a couple weeks of messaging, we mutually expressed interest to meet in person.
I was as hesitant as I was eager. I had never met anyone online before, or even been on so much as a blind date. So I prepared myself with some liquid courage and dropped in for a drink at the bar where he worked (per his invitation, of course).
It turned out wonderfully, exceeding my expectations. He looked even better than he did in his pictures. We kept up a clever and stimulating rapport. I only felt mildly awkward – that giddy kind of awkward I think you’re supposed to feel when you care about connecting with someone new. We shared a very fun make out session - all hands and tongue - on a picturesque New York City street. And that evening when I got home, we exchanged messages of excitement and desire to see each other again as soon as possible.
The next evening we went to a bar in our shared neighborhood where we asked each other about work and family and hometowns and hobbies, and he kissed me with full soft lips on my mouth and neck. I wanted to go to his house. I wanted to do more.
So we did.
We didn’t sleep together, but we were intimate, and we both enjoyed it. When I left his house that night, at my own insistence, he told me how he couldn’t wait to see me again, to take me out for dinner to his favorite restaurant, and to go on more dates with me after that. I was smitten. Here was a man who I shared a strong chemistry with, found to be incredibly attractive, impressed me with his professional work and personal aspirations, kept me laughing and interested, exhibited a real openness and sincere interest in me, and was thus far kind, attentive, and intelligent.
The next day I left New York to return home for the holidays. A few hours into my day, I received a text from him. He told me he missed me. I was undeniably pleased yet something was unsettled in me at the same time.
I began to wonder how this man who really didn’t know me well at all could already be missing me. “I miss you’s” were reserved in my mind for friends and lovers who had seen me through at least a round of emotional highs and lows. I ignored the remark and instead responded with a filler question, trying gently to redirect the conversation. This became a pattern over the next week during our physical separation. (Red flag). Considering our short history together, my uneasiness was amplified with each “I miss you,” but I continued to bypass his declarations in attempt to continue at the pace that I felt comfortable with.
I was excited to get to know him more and see just how well our chemistry could hold up and evolve, but at a reasonable pace, not in a way that felt forced. I was happily committed to the idea of returning to New York after the holidays to pick up where we left off, and in the meantime, continuing to talk to one another about daily happenings, if we felt like it. I wanted to revel in the newness, carefree and lighthearted. That’s how beginnings work, right?
But the dozens of “I miss you” text messages soon culminated in him asking me if I was seeing anyone else. I told him the truth – I wasn’t exclusive with anyone at that point, and that yes, I had been seeing other people. He then asked me to stop seeing anyone else and be exclusive with him.
Dating, for me and many of my peers, is a process (good, bad, and ugly) where you mix/mingle/more with various individuals until you come across one that you wish to divert most or all of your energy towards and enter into an exclusive relationship with. Doesn’t it take time and a certain level of knowing (deeper than physical intimacy) to connect with someone and to make that choice to actively commit to each other? In any case, after only two instances of spending time in person with this man, I was not ready to commit to any exclusivity with him as he was explicitly asking me to do.
I told him I wanted to get to know him more and spend more time with him, but I didn’t feel comfortable making any promises to him at that point. I said this repeatedly in a wide assortment of language as he continued to fight me on my stance. (Red flag). I kept trying to meet him where he was at, trying to be kind but getting more firm as his pitch heightened and his tone darkened, and as he continued to balk at my ideas of dating. His remarks varied from “Why do you need to be with other guys?” to “But didn’t we have such a good time?” to “I don’t sleep around,” and a whole repetitive slew of the like. He would waver between machine-gun paced question after question (without room for any response), drawn-out textalogues on the subject, and then even threatening to cease talking to me completely. (So many red flags).
In retrospect it’s clear to me that, first off, his assumptions about me being promiscuous are not valid to make in response to what I told him of my dating style, and regardless, my promiscuity - assumed or not - is not reserved for his or anyone else’s judgment. Moreover, his attempts to persuade me away from my position were antagonistic and clearly meant to confuse me, corner me, and discredit the answers I had already given him. Plain and simple: the beginnings of a relationship should not feel like being bullied.
Not yet distanced enough from the situation then, I wasn’t able to perfectly articulate the discomfort I felt, but I knew I had to end the loop of conversation. I told him we could agree to disagree, but I would not make a promise of monogamy to him at that time, and I figured he would take it or leave it.
After that conversation, I began to re-evaluate my feelings about relationships. My conviction had become shockingly muddied. I began questioning my own motives, dredging up negative thoughts about myself, thinking that maybe his affection and persistence was romantic and that I was just fearful, stubborn, or a little too hurt from prior relationships to be able to receive his affection openly or even correctly. Was I refusing to commit to someone because I was scared of all the things that are scary about monogamous relationships? Out of self-preservation or self-restraint? What was really so bad about his offer? What’s wrong with wanting to be with just one person? Wasn’t I tired of being “alone”? Didn’t I ultimately want to be partnered?
I now see his insistent and repetitive professions of his desire for me and his edict to maintain only monogamous relationships as manipulative and possessive. His dogged and combative dissection of and inability to respect my stance was a refusal to accept my terms, to hear me, to value my experience – about a relationship I was (supposed to be) an integral part of.
The next day he reached out to me as though nothing had happened. To me, that meant he was taking it, relinquishing his control and finally understanding my boundaries and respecting them. I was pleased. I felt heard. I thought I had been heard.
On a walk with my mother, I told her what had happened with him in the past week. She asked me questions about him that I didn’t know the answers to – specifically romantic relationship history. She was right, there was use in knowing this information, but the truth of the matter was, we hadn’t even gotten to that basic and inevitable point yet in knowing each other. (Red flag). I figured though, as adamant as he seemed to be about forging forward with our relationship, he would be forthcoming and even pleased about my interest in such information. I asked when his last relationship had been and if he had ever been married. He answered, very openly, and without apprehension. We continued to text the rest of the day about Christmas presents and seeing family and what high-calorie holiday treat we were scarfing down – playful, easy banter and the kind of open admissions and revelations that pepper a beginning. I thought this was a great sign - our paths now closer to potentially merging.
That night I slept on my parents’ couch in a dark and quiet house filled with my mother, stepfather, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and newborn nephew snoozing peacefully just thin walls away. I awoke in the middle of the night to him calling me several times in a row and a barrage of text messages frantically denigrating and interrogating me about my questions from earlier in the day. Clearly something had been roused in him, even if his response was extremely delayed. I answered his phone call in effort to stop the buzzing and whispered in shock, “What is going on?”
He spoke in a voice that I didn't recognize - distraught, high-pitched, saturated with tears. I felt bad, truly. I had no intention of causing him any anguish, and I was dumbfounded. The questions I had asked about his previous romantic history quite obviously had upset him, but he had showed me no sign of this earlier in the day when the conversation was present. As his confession of sadness and vulnerability turned into aggression and hostility, I cut him off. I told him I was very sorry I had upset him in any way, but that this was much too intense for me, that I was going back to sleep, and to please stop texting and calling me that night. I hung up and watched as my phone lit up with text message after text message of expletive and insult.
Creepy. Cunt. Bitch. Fuck you. Fuck off.
I sat in the dark in my mom’s living room, panic rising in my chest. I was mad and sad and scared, not knowing where any of this was coming from, not recognizing this person, not understanding how I was being made to feel like I’d done something wrong.
I thought about the times I had been in physical contact with him; sitting close to him, savoring his lips on my neck, looking into his eyes. I thought about the sweet nothings and the “I miss you’s” he had said to me. I thought about how I had been looking forward to dinner with him at his favorite restaurant. I thought about how smitten I had been. I thought about the naked pictures of myself I had sent him. I thought about the sexual fantasies I had shared with him. I thought about the fact that he lived within walking distance to my brand new apartment waiting for me back in New York. I thought about when he told me he just wanted to hold me. I thought about how much bigger he was than me. I thought about the tone of his voice I had just heard over the phone. I thought about the hateful messages he was now sending me. I thought about how he was continuing to lash out without restraint as my phone buzzed over and over again. I thought about all the red flags I saw that I disregarded. I thought about how unsafe I felt in that moment, miles away from him in my family’s home where no one would let anything bad happen to me.
I thought about how all of this could have been my fault. I had first gone to him after all. I had sent the pictures. I had been flirtatious and explicitly sexual. I had gone down on him and let him cum in my mouth. I had continued to talk to him.
But then I realized, his hostility was not justifiable. No hostility which makes any person in any relationship feel unsafe is justifiable.
I stopped talking to him. I acknowledged and owned my feelings. I had already made my position clear to him, and I made it clear for myself once more. I disengaged with him on my social networks. I walked cautiously around my neighborhood. Slowly, the pit of uneasiness I carried around faded as I didn’t run into him and I didn’t hear from him. Until one night, a month later, I did.
“It’s freezing tonight. What are you up to?” I stared at my phone in disbelief. I sat alone in my apartment, the panic rising in my stomach. I looked to my cat for comfort, hoping she would, in her own cat way, understand the fear in my eyes. How could he so casually approach me, completely disregarding the happenings a month prior?
Had he no concept of the impact of his aggressions?
How could something be apparently so benign to him and so distressing to me?
I was angry and confused and scared all over again, and he was apparently all NBD. He was able to shake it off, or never even had to feel the weight of insecurity and fear to begin with. And I thought this was something I had already dealt with and conquered, but the truth is, the experience changed me. As short-lived as it was, its effects endured in me, and I felt all the feelings again very clearly that night.
I googled self-defense online and ordered pepper spray.
I never responded, and I have not heard from him since. But I “see” him everywhere: I was sitting on a subway car the other night, and I swore he walked onto my car. I hid my head in my hood and reached into my purse, clutching my lipstick-sized mace. I quickly realized it wasn’t him, and a substantial amount of tension faded away, but the panic continued to bubble inside me for the next hour.
I stumble on my step each time I see “him” in the distance, down the street. It has always turned out to be just another man that looks like him, but in that moment my stomach drops.
Many days when I walk my dogs around the neighborhood, I avoid blocks near his, and when they drag me there, I quickly tug them along, fearful to take our time, teeth clenched until we round a corner.
And even now as I write this, I realize that each time I walk down the steps from my building to the street, there is an uncontrollable tightening in my body and a hiccup in my breath as I scan the street to make sure he’s not there.
He was never once physically abusive to me and never threatened me with physical violence, but the power behind his words and manipulations were enough to make me feel unsafe, and just as I didn’t expect that, I understand the potential that any form of abuse can come without warning.
My world now feels smaller, my hands shakier, my security compromised. My sense of self was tugged at and unraveled. I can not even imagine the anguish that one carries as a result of long-term/physical/sexual abuse.
I’m learning how to feel safe and strong on my own and in the unpredictable world in which we all live. I had made myself somewhat vulnerable to this person, and he unfortunately did not enhance that journey but instead threatened it. It’s now my responsibility to take those back, to use the awareness I’ve gained from this experience to reclaim my safety and strength; to listen to myself carefully always; to use and trust my voice; to adhere to my own boundaries and my own pace. This does not mean I regret being flirtatious, intrigued, smitten. This does not mean I regret going out with him or going home with him. I only regret the doubt and condemnation I laid upon myself.
For my own journey and as a final ode to this man, I promise that in future romantic relationships: I will again engage in subtle and explicit sexual dialogue, with images, if I please, until I don’t want to. I will continue to go out to bars and to dinner and to parties and enjoy the companionship, until I don’t want to. I will again be physically intimate in exciting, arousing, consensual activities, until I don’t want to – even if that means in the smack fucking middle of any act. I will get to know someone in any and all of the remarkable ways one can get to know someone, until I no longer want to. I will not blame myself when someone else makes me feel unsafe. I will not disparage myself for not wanting the same things as someone else. I will not vilify myself for having sensitivities.
I will leave it, I will not take it.
And I support anyone who’s felt threatened to do the same.