“Roll down your window.”
I was sitting in the passenger seat of Johnny’s car and he was in the driver’s seat, speeding down the highway at 80 miles an hour. It was our first date.
I mean, I guess you could technically call it a “date”. We had gone and hung out at his friend’s band’s warehouse and then Johnny had taken me to the Burger King drive-thru afterwards. By musician standards, the fact that he had bought me Burger King meant this guy was serious about me. The crumpled ten-dollar bill Johnny handed out the window to the Burger King cashier at the drive-thru might as well have been an engagement announcement.
That would have been silly. Johnny wouldn’t propose for another two days.
I rolled down the car window. He put one knee under the steering wheel to steady the car, picked up all the empty Burger King wrappers and dirty napkins and then smashed them all together with both hands as we tore down the highway.
He said, “Lean back some.”
I leaned back.
Then Johnny threw the Burger King trash-wad an inch past my face and out the passenger side window.
I gasped, mouth dropped open in disbelief. Little lines of ketchup were streaked across my face and the front of my dress.
Johnny looked at me, laughed, and said, “What?”
This was our first date, where everyone should have typically been on their best behavior. I figured maybe he was trying to impress me with some kind of “Rebel Without a Cause” attitude, or that he had some growing up to do. It seemed like such a totally bizarre and aggressive thing to do. I was so freaked out that I didn’t even know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. (I can tell you, 43-year old Maggie would have handled that differently, i.e. put a foot in his ass.)
An hour later, Johnny held my face, with tears forming in his eyes, and professed his love to me. He had never felt this way before. He had never fallen so hard, so fast.
Johnny would turn out to not be such a great boyfriend.
Unfortunately, it just took 19-year old me another year to figure that out.
What I failed to see that night, as a pile of ketchup-swirled garbage was chucked an inch past my face out the car window, was that this was Johnny on his best behavior.
Fast forward a few months, and we’re pulling away from that same Burger King, and Johnny’s motioning towards me with his hands and sarcastically apologizing to the cashier for how “slutty” I was dressed. “Sorry, I don’t know why she’s dressed like this. It’s really embarrassing for me. I’m SORRY.”
Apparently, my skirt was too short for his liking.
I tried to hide my face from the cashier, my eyes red and puffy from crying because a half hour before this Johnny had thrown a lit cigarette at me, shoved me up against my front door, and red-faced screamed at me, “Where the hell were you? Tell me where the hell you were and who you were really with!!!” because I had gotten home at 9:45 from a coworker’s birthday party. (I’d told him that I’d probably be home around 9:30.) He needed a full accounting of where exactly I was for that fifteen minute discrepancy, and threatened to call my coworkers to “verify” what time I’d left the party.
At this point Johnny had been fired from three jobs in a row and I was making his car payment every month, despite the fact that he was living with his grandparents and had no bills. He called me selfish and would storm out of the mall anytime I wanted to buy so much as a ten dollar t-shirt for myself with money from my own paycheck. Then I would cry and apologize for being so selfish. Then he would hold me and tell me how much he loved me, and that I just needed to work on myself so that I wouldn’t make him so mad.
I tell you what, being 19 years old was not at all the fun and carefree experience I’d thought it would be.
I had absolutely no role model for what a healthy relationship looked like, and I thought I had to put up with Johnny’s behavior, that this just what guys were like, and that it was my burden to become okay with it. After all, he said he loved me, right? He said he loved me more than any man had ever loved any woman in the history of the world. I was so, so desperate for a man to love me. So desperate that I took whatever they dished out as love.
Here’s the thing, though. When Johnny wasn’t acting like a goddamned monster, he was so affectionate with me. He would hold my hand and cry and tell me how he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He wanted to marry me. He said I was the perfect girl, if only I could stop “pushing his buttons” when I wore too short a skirt, cut even one inch off my hair, or spent time with literally anybody else – my own family included. So long as I did whatever he wanted, he was the sweetest guy in the room. But if I made what he called a “mistake”? There went the evening. He would slam doors and scream and break things while I cowered, and then sulk and give me the silent treatment until I cried and begged for his forgiveness.
He twisted and turned my emotions so expertly, he made me feel like it was my sole purpose in life to not set him off.
This is how you end up in a cycle of abuse.
You don’t even want to know how many varieties of Johnnys I dated over the years, ranging from physical to emotional to mental to financial abuse. It would never fail that in hindsight, when the ashes of the relationship were stinging my eyes like sulfur, there was a red flag on the first date that I had politely let go because I was too young to know any better and too afraid to say anything.
I have to believe that when weird, rude, and even straight up antisocial things happen on a first date, they’re more than a red flag. They’re a test. A big one. If someone pulls some totally weird or aggressive stuff right from the start and you pitch a fit and then walk out, they won’t be calling you again. You’ve got an excellent sense of self-worth and are definitely not going to silently put up with their shit, so they’re not going to waste their time pursuing you. They’ve weeded you out.
These types of abusers are predators and they know what to look for in potential prey. If you’re thinking, “Well, I would never put up with that!” then guess what? Congratulations! These guys know that! That’s why they’re not asking you out. They know who to go after. They’re looking for the young girl with no self-esteem who looks like she’s afraid of her own shadow.
If you go along with whatever weird shit they pull because you have no self-worth, or are too beaten down or too weirded out to speak up? Then they know they’ve got you. You’ve passed their prey test. Expect for the behavior to get worse. It’s not going to get a little worse, either. Once they’ve got you isolated, it’s going to get much, much worse. That’s why Johnny proposed after 2 days. He wanted to pin me down so that I couldn’t get away.
When I think of what my life would have become if I had married him when I was 19, I can’t even imagine. As it was, when I finally found the strength to break up with him, he threatened to kill me, himself, my family, his family, and called my house sometimes forty times an hour – for weeks on-end. He banged on my windows at night. He left terrifying letters on my door at home, at work, at my regular hangouts.
There’s nothing I can do to change the past or alter the things that made me believe I was worth so little that I had to put up with this shit, so the best I can do is offer the following advice to you, and hope it saves someone from the nightmare hellscape that dating was for more than half of my adult life.
- If someone can’t make it through your first date without throwing a pile of trash at your face, find someone else to date.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, click here to go to breakthecycle.org to learn more about how you can get help. Stay safe, my friends. Nobody should have to live in fear of a person who claims to love them.