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Who do you need me to be tonight?

Sunday, December 02, 2012

My parents used to do this, whenever an official engagement came up. My Mom is extremely smart, and assertive, and she's a scientist, but she's female and pretty delicate in stature (she used to dance ballet). She's also just 5'5".

So, whenever she and my Dad put on their war outfits and she was putting on war paint (it's what she's always called make-up, made it a lot more palatable to first-time working me), she'd ask this question: "Who do you need me to be tonight?"

She could be the dazzling, brilliant scientist. She could be the vapid trophy wife. The perfect hostess. The heiress. The leader of the pack of rabid gossipmongers, the European-mannered lady. She could be the dutiful, politically correct and conservative housewife and mother (that role, she hates. She's anything but politically correct and conservative).

My Dad, looking as though he was being tortured, sometimes asked for one of these. On the nights where they were both smiling brightly and spying little eyes could feel and touch the love in the room, he could just answer: "Yourself, that's all that's needed today."

With my first boyfriend, he always asked for one of these roles. He was an heir, and he always insisted I be the second thought, the secondary character, the beautiful decoration hanging onto his arm. He tore me down when I gained two pounds; with him, I was never worth anything unless I was made up to perfection and smiled the beautiful smile.

Not the healthiest relationship, but to dorky, too-young me it was the lure of the older man actually being attracted to someone who'd left her self-worth in a puddle of blood on an operating table and was slowly, slowly crawling from a very dark hole. He was the first one who didn't see me as a walking, talking brain or easy way to good grades.

Yes, it's that easy to fall into an abusive pattern.

I got out- my spine was bent but never broken, and cheating was the one thing I'd made clear I'd never tolerate. I tolerated being told to put in some extra time at the fancy gym he'd bought me a membership in (grad student, on scholarship, no money for gyms) even though I was running on maybe four hours of sleep in three days (grad student). I did. He asked me to at least make up my eyes even when I was relaxing at home and to stop wearing my dork glasses. Since they gave me a headache anyway and I didn't mind mascara and eyeshadow, I agreed. He asked me to stop wearing those embarrassing sweats at home, and to at least make an effort, so I donned the expensive jeans that had been a birthday gift (a size too small then, but perfect now! See, I can be good) and the cashmere sweaters my Gran sent to me.

He decided that, even with all the work I put into the relationship, putting my physical needs second to nearly everything (never my studies, I couldn't ever imagine slacking off on studying), I wasn't worth it. He'd take extended trips to the West Coast, and I couldn't come, I had classes and exams and teaching to do.

One night, he sent the wrong text message- he'd gotten the number wrong.

I broke up with him that instant, removed myself from the expensive apartment he owned, and moved in with one of my friends, who didn't ask questions, just offered me a blanket and a couch to stay on.

I never really cry. I'm not an outwardly emotional person when they are relevant emotions. I tend to close those up inside, but I did cry that night.

The next morning, I, newly single, went to class. I went through my day, got back home to my friend's, and started looking for a place to stay.

She brought some more of my close circle of friends home with her, ready to comfort me with cheesy old superhero movies, chips, ice-cream and girl talk, and were shocked to see me not being a mess.

I told them this guy wasn't worth being a mess over. If I, and what we'd shared, were worth so little to him then I wouldn't give any more thought to any of it.

My new boyfriend needs me to go with him to a ball next weekend. When I asked him today who he needed me to be, for the first time in my life I got to hear the magic words: Just Yourself.

He didn't know why I burst into tears right there on the phone. It'll take a while for me to tell him, but I think he'll understand.
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