Cover Story: Bitch-Slap Ice Cream

When your boyfriend's

not your friendA blurry night from Hell. Literally. The bar was named Hell. This was the same year Hell kicked out Jesus Christ. Not for being Jesus Christ but for dressing as Him and getting rowdy on Halloween night. The kind of place where on the wall hang plastic rats framing an artistic rendering of the diseases rats carry: cholera, black plague.

His senior year, my junior year at the University of North Carolina. All my friends were his friends.

I'd come back from a semester in Paris to ... nothing. To America, where people smile too much and too big, pretending to be your best friend.

No one is your friend.

Not even your boyfriend of a year-and-a-half. But he's all you've got. And right now he's shouting. Again.

Why? Who knows. Who remembers?

You're too quiet, too shut away. He's going to draw you out. The only way he knows how.

Reuben's family did not talk, they shouted. Mine usually just got quiet when there was something to scream about.

Forgive the shifts in point-of-view. Sometimes it was I and sometimes it was not. This night it was not.

I was gone away in my head, again. And he was shouting, again. We were walking from Hell to Franklin Street, where our friends would pick us up. No, his friends.

I learned later that his friends grew to hate him for the way he treated me. Only later, of course, because no one tells you these things when you're in the relationship.

We'd be in his room and I'd be curled on the bed and there would be Reuben, shouting about something. I can't find my glasses, what did you do with them, why don't you care that I can't find them? Why don't you seem to care?

I found out later that at these times our friend/his friend, Mitch, who thought himself very clever, would say: "Oh, Reuben went to the store again and brought home another carton of bitch-slap ice cream made with salty, salty tears."

So on this night from Hell Reuben started shouting and I started crying. On the corner of Franklin Street I just stopped and leaned my forehead against a brick wall. Cool ridged brick rippling softly into flesh. That is real. Nothing else is real.

But eventually the dramatic moment passes and you pull yourself back together. You start walking again.

And then there's a knot of policemen walking your way. And you know. You know why they're walking, so many of them and so purposefully, in your direction.

Duck your head, just some more humans moving past in the dark. Happens.

They split up to split you up. Pull each of you aside.

"I know what you think," I said, "but it's not that."

That's not me, it's not that, no way. This doesn't happen to me. Intelligent, well-traveled, fiercely stubborn women are not the ones you need to be pulling away from their boyfriends.

I must have said enough to convince them to leave me alone. Not before they told me they'd come because they'd gotten a call. Someone had called the police on Reuben and me.

Reuben thought it was funny. "Can you believe they thought...?"

"Just don't say anything," I pleaded. Just don't say anything to your/our friends about to pick us up.

"OK," he said.

In the car, he started.

"You won't believe what just happened ... oh, but I said I wouldn't talk about it." He looked at me pointedly.

"Go ahead," I said. "You already started. Finish it."

He told his story. And then his friends didn't laugh. They didn't find it funny either.

A long, thick silence. Just make it home so you can disappear in bed.

But at home it was Reuben, for once, curled into the fetal position on the floor. Mortified that his friends hadn't laughed, mortified that they could think such a thing of him.

After about an hour of that, I mustered enough compassion to coax him off the floor. I comforted him.

"Selfish bitch" still rings in my ears: Reuben's favorite epithet became a refrain when, months later, I finally found the courage to leave him for good while he was living half a world away in L.A.

"Selfish bitch."

I was afraid he might be right. I was afraid to be left all alone with myself, who wasn't much nicer to me than he was.

A few months later, Reuben came back to Chapel Hill to visit his friends. We walked the back streets until dawn, rediscovering why we'd ever loved each other in the first place. He'd forgiven me for leaving; I hadn't even begun to get angry.

"People are complex," he said.

They are.

Reuben wanted connection, and he sought it in the only way he knew how. So did I.

I'm angry now. But I can't vilify Reuben.

He knew what he knew and no more. So did I.

A couple years ago on a road trip heading up the California coast on Highway 1, I looked him up. He'd mellowed. I'd strengthened. He was still hung up on me. I wasn't getting snagged on anybody again. I freely loved and left him one last time.

People are complex. I no longer think anyone's above being abuser, abused or both. ©

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