Please don’t feel heartbroken for me when I tell you my breakup story. I assure you, I am happy. I assure you, I know with certainty that it was best that we broke up. It happened 20 years ago. My heart has long since healed.
One other thing I feel like I should preface with: The bad boyfriend is an elected politician in a major U.S. city. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call him Mr. X.
There was a lot at stake for me 20 years ago when we dated, when I knew that he would eventually run for office and I felt confident that he would win. I knew how persuasive he could be. And I was already feeling like the lifestyle of a politician’s wife would be too much. But his charm was overwhelming and made me doubt myself and my own instincts over and over again.
But the fact remained, I was already dreading being the wife. I didn’t want to have to smile through every event while the press scoured the history of our personal lives. I have empathy for politicians, even those who act inanely (*cough* Anthony Weiner *cough*). I didn’t want people looking at me.
When we started talking about getting married, Mr. X used to say, “I can’t wait to have us announced at our reception as ‘presenting the newly married Mr. and Mrs. X!’” That alone gave me the hives.
So, in the end, it was a good thing that I caught him cheating. It taught me a lot about self-possession. It clarified my lack of desire to be in the public eye. And, of course, it helped me to make better choices.
When this happened, there had already been several instances that had caused me to confront him about cheating. (I was young, and, yes, I was inexperienced.) But each time, he persuaded me thoroughly that I was the crazy one, that I was suspicious, that I was out of line.
Plus, he was filling up my answering machine, (It was 1994. Email, text messaging and cell phones weren’t yet in widespread use.) waiting outside my apartment and calling my name from the fire escape, sending me flowers at work, handwriting ten-page letters to me daily, and calling my mother and all my good friends: all techniques he used to convince me that he loved me and that there couldn’t be another. Though it wasn’t physical abuse by any means, I did feel powerless to a degree I’ve never felt since. Does it sound romantic? That’s what I thought at the time. Now I see it as emotionally manipulative and dishonest.
And, I bought it.
This particular day, I was returning to our apartment at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a Monday. (We lived together, and because I was a graduate student, he was the primary income-earner.) I had been away for the weekend. The first thing I did was listen to our answering machine.He was vindicated. We no longer had anything to argue about. Again, I was proven crazy.
The first message (imagine a seductive voice): “Hi Mr. X, this is Tracy. I just wanted to tell you how much fun I had at the movies this weekend.” What? I had never heard him mention a friend named Tracy before.
I called him at work in the middle of the day, and I said, “Who is Tracy?” He stammered,“She’s just a friend. I ran into her on the street and went to the movies with her.”
“I think you need to get home right away.”
At this point in time, March of 1995, our wedding was three months away. We had the place reserved, we had our guest list made. We had a priest booked. I OWNED A WEDDING DRESS, for god’s sake.
He didn’t hesitate. Thirty minutes later, we were together, arguing about the details of what may or may not have happened. We fought for hours. One of the tactics I now know he frequently employed to make me believe him was to tell me a partial truth. In his mind, I think now, he believed that if he displayed some degree of “honesty,” it would be harder to prove him wrong in the end. He wound up telling me her last name and the fact that she worked at Ann Taylor during our argument.
Ultimately, I decided that I would have to call her. (Yes, I know my crazy was turned way up at this point but I was desperate.) Miraculously, I found her phone number and called.
When she answered the phone, I calmly stated, “Hello, Tracy. I am engaged to Mr. X. I am not angry at you, but I do need to know what happened since we are planning on getting married in three months’ time.”
And she replied, “We’re just friends.”
He was vindicated. We no longer had anything to argue about. Again, I was proven crazy.
Now, to the reader of this tale, you may think it obvious that he was lying, that this couldn’t possibly be true given everything I’ve said, but to me it still wasn’t obvious. But I still had my doubts.
The next morning, he went to work, satisfied in the knowledge that he still possessed me.
I was scheduled to go to class, two miles west of where we lived. I was still a sniveling, crying, red-eyed mess, but I thought that if I went to class I’d get my mind off of our argument and might feel better.
It was my habit to take the bus the two-mile stretch to class. Three blocks into the ride, I realized that I was about to pass the Ann Taylor store. Four blocks into the ride, I realized that since it was 9:45 am, the store was probably just about to open. Five blocks into the ride, I thought to myself, “If I were an Ann Taylor employee, and I was opening the store, and the night prior I had received this absolutely balls-to-the-wall nutso phone call about a date I went on that weekend, I would definitely be telling the nearest co-worker what had happened to me.”
And so, I disembarked from the bus at block seven, walked to the store, and entered as soon as it opened.
Knowing his type (and, you know, being able to read nametags) I found her immediately. My pulse quickened. Keeping quiet, I tried just browsing the store as if I was any regular customer. Nothing happened. Silence. There was some talk about the folding of the clothes or the display in the window or other mundane details.
Just as I was about to give up entirely, I found a dress I liked.
And, as people do when they are genuinely shopping, I asked for a dressing room.
And then it happened.
I was slipping my shirt over my head when I heard her voice. “You’ll never believe what happened to me last night!” she exclaimed excitedly to her co-worker.
I knew it was about to go down.
I heard some mumblings, but then I heard the critical phrase, “I told her we were just friends, but it’s not like he wasn’t trying to be more!”
I placed the dress back on its hanger and calmly departed the store before crying all the way to my class.
There were women who I occasionally ate lunch with at school. They didn’t know me very well at that point, but when we gathered to go to a food truck together they wanted to know what was wrong with me.
I spilled out the entire story — what had just occurred, how he was in the habit of going to extremes to persuade me to stay with him, and how fearful I was that I would not be able to get away from him.
Then the real caper began. These four amazing women, who I barely knew at the time, recognized that I was not capable of making a plan because I was so distressed. They quickly conferred amongst themselves and said this to me: “Ok, we’re going to take Sarah’s car, and we’re going to your apartment while he is at work. We’ll pick up your toothbrush and some underwear, and you’re going to stay with Rashmi. He doesn’t know her, so he won’t be able to find you when he realizes that you are gone.”
So that’s how I left him. I stayed for three weeks, sleeping on the floor of Rashmi’s dorm room. And, yes, he did go through all the paces of calling my friends and my mother and trying to find me. When all the calls finally died down, I moved to a friend’s apartment and slept on a couch until I could find a part-time job and rent a room in a boarding house.
Months later, he and I did spend a whole night talking over all the details of what had happened. He admitted to all the past instances of cheating that I had suspected, and we went our separate ways. He’s been married and divorced since, which probably surprises no one who ever knew us.
Twenty years later, I chalk the whole situation up to the inexperience of youth. I was 27 at the time and not ready to actually be married. The experience also taught me to learn to trust my own instincts about bad, lying boyfriends. I never wanted to date one again.
But my real takeaway: I’m still thrilled by the caper of leaving him. How did I know that Tracy would be talking about me at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday? I’m still proud of my inner-Nancy Drew who took over that day. I still find myself wishing, 20 years later, that I could find a way to use those skills again.
I think for my next career, I’ll be a private investigator.