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How I Remember Him

When first love turned into brutality, the author was trapped. She's still trying to get her life back.

Rose Ryan

I had been dating him for almost a month. Short black hair, blue eyes, tattoo on his neck, a long thin frame. His own apartment and circle of friends. He was in love with me. I was beautiful, special, part of the crowd, the center of attention. I put off college to be with him. Eighteen and just graduated from high school, I was living on my own in a girls' boarding house -- breakfast and dinner included. He was twenty, only two years older, my first "real" boyfriend. My mind was filled with romantic ideals of how things were supposed to be, and I looked to him to lead the way. There he was, waiting for me on the Boston Common. The clearing was crowded with tourists and police on horseback. He ran to me and swung me around in the air playfully. Instead of placing me back on the ground, he put me in a municipal trash barrel, up to my neck. I could not get out. People turned, pointed, and laughed. He laughed. I yelled at him to let me out. Finally, I threw myself and the barrel onto the pavement and climbed out. A policewoman on horseback instructed me to pick up the barrel and put the trash back inside: we mustn't upset public property, everyone knew that. I told him I wasn't going anywhere with him and angrily walked off. He followed close behind. He had walked to meet me, his feet hurt, and I was going with him, now. We argued as I headed for the subway terminal.

Something stung the side of my head. It came unexpectedly, like a bird's dropping. He had punched me. Bare knuckles, backed by his full weight. I could not believe it. I had never been hit before -- and he said he loved me. I kept walking, now crying, hands trembling as strangers streamed by. I focused on the train -- I had to get to the train. Again he struck me, harder this time. People were staring. I was choking on tears, yelling at him to leave me alone. "Stop making a scene; people are looking at us!" he shouted. So I was causing the problem.

All I could think of was my mother. She still called my apartment every day to see where I was. What a nerve; let me live my own life. Let me make my own choices.

He was my choice. He was the adult I wanted to be. He knew his way around town, to all the exciting places I had been too shy to go. What I didn't know is that he also knew his way to a psychiatrist and a probation officer, and he knew his way around a court house and jail cell. His arms knew the feel of a needle, and his fists found comfort in female flesh. These things I did not know. I knew what he wanted me to know. He was an abused child, an orphan, a lost soul no one had ever loved. If only he had the love and support that others took for granted, he could succeed. I was his savior. I would give him that love and help him to get on the right path. I would help him get a diploma and a good job. I would take all the pain he had endured in his life and replace it with love. I had promised. If I gave up on him he would be lost. And I found the acceptance I needed in his group of admiring friends. I was no longer the nameless girl at school who walked around scribbling in a notebook. I was his girlfriend. I overlooked his flaws. He loved me. He wanted me to fit in, and I wanted that more than anything.

If I could only get on the train -- he grabbed my arm and forced me to sit down. He began to cry. He loved me but he needed help. If only I would try to help him, he would get better. I was sure he couldn't have meant to hurt me. How could I have gotten involved with someone who wanted to hurt me. "Ok," I said. "I'll help you -- but I want to go home." So we walked toward the train. "Kiss me goodbye," he said. No, I thought, don't touch me don't come near me leave me alone I don't want -- he kissed me. "See," he said, "it's all right -- besides, you don't have any bruises." I turned and got on the train. I wanted to run home and have my mom hold me. I was her baby, the baby, youngest of nine, I wanted to be her baby again. But I was ashamed. I made it happen, and if I told, I would be betraying him who needed me more than anyone else. He wanted to change. If I just gave him a chance he could change. And hadn't I kissed him goodbye? How can you kiss someone who hit you? So I rode home alone, just me and my throbbing head, and the secrets inside it. That's where I ended and he began. With that first punch I got smaller. Somehow my insides shrank, like when an insect rolls itself up for protection. Everything became him. What could I do to help him? How could I make him happy? What did he think of me? I could never measure up, everything I did was wrong. The outside world had disappeared; there were only the two of us. In that world I was transformed from beautiful and loved to ugly and unlovable. No one else would ever want me, he was doing me a favor. He needed me to help him succeed, to help him get a diploma, a job. No one had ever loved him and I couldn't abandon him. Telling anyone about what happened was impossible, the ultimate betrayal. "You didn't tell your sister, did you?!" As if my divulging our common secret would be worse than the act itself. So I stayed with him, trying not to see what was waiting for me. Accidents kept happening. I was clumsy and banged my head. He dropped his cigarette onto my thigh, twisted my arm too hard. He was just playing, he didn't mean to hit me so hard. My legs became like week-old bananas, brown spots, yellow spots. I hid them in shame. He was just playing, wasn't he? And I had agreed to wrestle. Somehow I knew he wasn't playing, and I felt the strength of his body over mine. Part of my mind seemed to be recording it all. Like a detached third party coldly making observations, that part knew I had to get out, that he was more than I could handle, that I didn't belong with him. But I couldn't make myself follow through with its plans to get away. I was held captive by guilt and fear and insecurity. Did it really matter if he bruised and burned me? No one else cared and no one else could love me. I was separate from my body. Nothing he did could hurt me really, because I was too far inside. I didn't feel sorry for myself, I must deserve this.

"Wait until you see what I got you!" Excitement mounted as we entered the elevator and were slowly cranked up to the fifth floor. I was relieved to see him in a good mood. Whenever I was away from him for more than a few days he became suspicious. As we entered his apartment, I was overwhelmed by the smell of rotting pears and apples left to the cockroaches. Using the bathroom at night had become a frightening ordeal. When I turned on the lights the walls seemed to come alive with scattering brown bodies that were as afraid of the light as I was of them.

My surprise -- a small gray kitten -- was asleep on the floor. Not just asleep on the floor, but asleep on his clothes. And, in absence of a litter pan, the kitten had used his jacket. He picked the cat up and threw it against the wall. Its body hit with the thud of frail new fur and bones and slid to the floor. I picked up the jacket and washed it off to show him that it was fine, it was not ruined. I was afraid to tell him to stop. Afraid that it might anger him further and worsen his wrath at the kitten. Again, winding up like a pitcher, he threw the kitten like a fast ball into the wall. Throughout all of this, the kitten remained silent. It tried to hide under the bed. He fetched it out and placed it in the tub. "Please, it's ok, you didn't have a litter box, the jacket's all right, I'll clean it up, you don't have to do this . . ." My words were drowned by the sound of water. Hot showerhead water that pelted down on the kitten. Then it began to scream. A shrill wailing howl, again and again. I was powerless to stop it. I stood there pleading. Afraid that I would be next. That kitten screamed and no one else heard it. I heard and stood by. Like the people who stood on the Common and watched him hurt me. Finally he relented. The kitten retreated under the bed. I could not get its wail out of my head. Why didn't it run out of the house when the door opened? Why did it just hide under the bed and pretend not to be there? I could detach myself from the blows he dealt me, but the kitten . . . it was innocent.

I knew I had to get out but I could not see any way. He was faster, stronger. Once I ran from his apartment when he refused to release me, and he ran after me and knocked me down on the pavement. I told him I wanted to break up and he locked me in his room all day and night and interrogated me. I made a break for the door and he held me down, pressing a pillow over my face until I passed out. I could not tell anyone. So I continued to say whatever would pacify him to avoid being hurt, and continued to grow smaller.

I invited N., a high school friend, to come to a concert with us. If anyone would know something was wrong, N. would. If only he would ask me what was going on, I could tell him. We used to talk on the phone every night from one a.m. on. He knew everything about me, except that I had thought of his curly blond hair, fingertips, and lips for days on end, and dreamed of holding his hand. Maybe he would help. We all jammed into an old blue pick-up truck and headed to the concert. Though suspicious of N., he was charming and polite, making small talk and bragging that he knew all the local bands and could get us into any concert for free. N. thought he was a really nice guy. He borrowed my bicycle and never gave it back. I sat in his apartment, waiting for him to come home with my bike, my only valuable possession. He stumbled in with two friends and started yelling at me. He shoved me across the room and stomped into the bedroom. His friend took me aside and said, "You better get out of here before he hurts you." As I crept out of the apartment, I thought of the kitten. In there with him, that kitten was crouched under the bed, covered with scabs and lumps from successive beatings. If I went to get it, he wouldn't let me go. So I crept out of the apartment, alone. I went to T.'s house. He said I could stay and he would walk me home after things calmed down. When T. walked me back to the apartment, police cars were out front. A frazzled woman was staring in fear and astonishment at the scene taking place in her building. He was being led out, barechested, handcuffed, grinning. An officer asked me if I lived there and instructed me to move out if I did. We later learned that he had taken a sledgehammer and knocked down a wall into the neighboring apartment. He had injured one of his friends. He had taken the kitten, shaved its infantile gray fur from its skin, thrown it against a windowpane, not once but twice, until its sweet, ravaged body broke through the glass and was finally set free -- set free for the few short seconds it took to fall five stories to its death.

He had to go to court for the apartment trashing. His lawyer was poetic, explaining that he was a product of a state-run system. A poor orphan whose mother had abandoned him. He needed a second chance. I listened, hoping they would lock him up. They didn't. They felt sorry for him and he got probation. He thought it was all a joke. It seemed as though he was right. No one could prove he had killed the kitten and I hadn't seen it happen with my own eyes. I didn't have to. I was living it.

We were at D.'s house and I wanted to leave. I tried to escape without him seeing me. He saw. We went to a pizza joint and he was angry because I didn't finish my half of the pie. "Let's go back to D.'s," he said. The street was dark, but crowded. As we approached a red pick-up truck parked at the curb he smashed the back of my head with his forearm, propelling me directly into the rear hatch; it caught me at the waist and sent me to the pavement. My arms instinctively wrapped around my head for protection. Pain burst out all over my body. Steel-toed boots that I had helped him polish now drove their shiny leather into my head, neck, and rib cage. Nameless, faceless people strode by. "Get up or I'll kill you!" he screamed. He dragged me to my feet towards D.'s house. "Where are we going?" I pleaded. "I'm going to throw you off the bridge," he said matter-of-factly. The bridge was only one street away. It was an overpass high above the expressway. I let my body go limp and lay on the ground, my only defense. Just then, a group of partygoers emerged from D.'s house. Young men we both knew. They looked at me in that state, bloody, covered with tears, lying on the ground, and continued on their way with short "hello's" directed to him. After all, I was his girlfriend and it wasn't their business. He decided to drag me into the house and forced me to stay the night. In the morning, I got up to leave. Watching me, he said, "We're still going out, aren't we?" I stayed in my apartment for a few weeks. He called, sometimes sobbing for forgiveness, sometimes threatening. He would continue whichever line was most convincing, whichever got a response from me. I still had not told anyone, now in fear of him. Most of all I was angry. Wishing that for just one day I could be a man, stronger than him, and stand up to him. Angry that I was afraid, that there was no recourse. I wanted to go to Boston and walk around happily as I once had. Now my days were filled with fear. Everywhere I went I thought I saw him. I went to the city in defiance. He was supposedly out of town. I bumped into a group of friends and we went back to an apartment that they shared. The day had gone well. Then he walked in. When I told the friends I was going to leave, to go home, they said they would make sure he stayed with them and would not let him leave the house. As soon as I stepped out the door I ran. Ran over the bridge towards the subway. Panting, I slowed down and looked behind me. He wasn't there. "I've got a gun," came from nowhere. There he was, again. He stayed close by, following me to the trolley car. He assured me that I would be dead in two weeks. He kept repeating, "Two weeks." He sat beside me on the train. He would follow me home, he said, and kill me there.

When I got off the train at the Government Center station, he was nowhere in sight. I was about to walk down a flight of stairs when I felt someone behind me. I turned and he punched me in the mouth. I stumbled and straightened myself up, just in time to block the scissors that came at my face. I screamed and he turned and ran. It was rush hour. Throngs of people shuffled by. I stood there crying, "Would someone please help me find a policeman, I need the police!" A young man with dark hair and a backpack stopped to help. "The police are just upstairs," he said. His friend urged him to leave, "Come on," he said, annoyed, "Let's go." The young man escorted me to the police who immediately put out his description and alerted MBTA personnel to look for him. They were concerned. Until they asked if he had hit me before. "Yes," I said. Their attitude changed. "Do you have any brothers?" they asked. I told them I had five. "Well why don't you have them take care of it?" He continued to call me with the same formula. First crying, then threatening. I told him I had a restraining order and he laughed at me. "That's just a piece of paper." He was finally picked up by the police. I pressed charges for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Only then did I find that he had a record and that his previous girlfriend had a restraining order against him. Throughout the proceedings I continued to receive threatening phone calls and letters from jail. There were rarely any victim/witness advocates to help me at the court proceedings. My sister helped me try to make sense of the confusion, making numerous phone calls to get information about what was happening. Most of the calls were fruitless -- we were told, "It's not my department, you'll have to call later, we can't find any information, etc." He was sentenced to a one-year jail term with two years probation. At the sentencing, he was grinning and jeering at me, asking, "How's your mouth?" I continued to live in constant fear of him, sure of his promise that I would be dead when he was released. I slept with a baseball bat and kitchen knives by my side. My nights were filled with terror, images of him coming alive during sleep.

Perhaps worse than his threats was the reaction from friends and family. I was a source of embarrassment. How could I let it happen, what was I doing in Boston anyway, why didn't I leave sooner? Some consoled me with the idea that it could have been worse. Many felt sorry for him. The poor guy, in jail just because he slapped her around. Everyone was sure that I was overreacting, he was in jail, he couldn't hurt me, and surely was not going to bother me again.

The prosecutor who handled my case was supposed to notify me when he was released. I learned through rumors that he was released early for good behavior. The calls never stopped. I had a few of my male friends seek him out. They told him to stop calling. He claimed that he was not calling me, that he had a new girlfriend. The calls stopped. I wanted to warn this "new" girlfriend, whoever she was, but no one knew her, and I didn't dare venture into Boston with him on the streets. One month later I was watching the evening news. In Allston, a college student was shot point-blank in the head by her boyfriend. Soon after, he shot himself. It was him, Michael Cartier. His girlfriend, Kristin Lardner, was a student at the Museum of Fine Arts school. They had been dating for about two months. He had beaten her in the same way, even using the same words, "Get up or I'll kill you." The news report called it a crime of passion, a friend was quoted as saying, "He really loved her." I called the station that had aired the report to let them know that this was no crime of passion. It turned out that Kristin had a restraining order against Mike while he was on probation from my case, but he was not sent to jail. His probation officer had sent him to an outpatient therapy group instead. When Kristin called the probation officer to let her know what was happening, the officer called Mike and told him to "knock it off." I guess the theory was that as long as he wasn't bothering me, he wasn't violating his probation.

When Mike was jailed for abusing me, I would close my eyes tight and think out loud, "Please God let him kill himself let him die just make him go away." My prayer was granted, but it made me sick at the same time. I almost went to his funeral to make sure he was dead, to stare at the body that was no longer capable of punching, kicking, smothering me. The last time I saw him, he was alive and well. That's how I remember him. That's how I can't forget him.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review

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