If you and I met at one of our children's birthday parties, in the hallway at work, or at a neighbor's barbecue, you'd never guess my secret: that as a young woman I fell in love with and married a man who beat me regularly and nearly killed me.
I don't look the part. I have an MBA and an undergraduate degree from Ivy League schools. I live in a red brick house on a tree-lined street in one of the prettiest neighborhoods in Washington, DC. I've got 20 years of marketing experience at Fortune 500 companies and a best-selling book about motherhood to my name. A smart, loyal husband with a sexy gap in his front teeth, a softie who puts out food for the stray cats in our alley. Three rambunctious, well-loved children. A dog and three cats of our own. Everyone in my family is blonde (the people, at least).
Ah, if only being well-educated and blonde and coming from a good family were enough to defang all life's demons.
If I were brave enough the first time I met you, I'd try to share what torture it is to fall in love with a good man who cannot leave a violent past behind. I'd tell you why I stayed for years, and how I finally confronted someone whose love I valued almost more than my own life. Then maybe the next time you came across a woman in an abusive relationship, instead of asking why anyone stays with a man who beats her, you'd have the empathy and courage to help her on her way.
We all have secrets we don't reveal the first time we cross paths with others. This is mine.
I met Conor on the New York City subway, heading downtown, 20 years ago. I was 22. I remember it like yesterday.
The window in Kathy's office was the only daylight I could see from my presswood desk in the hallway. I snuck a look. My ugly orange swivel chair squeaked.
It was a chilly, gray Monday afternoon in mid-January. The midtown Manhattan skyscrapers were slick and dark with rain.
First thing that morning, Kathy — head of the Articles Department at Seventeen and the first boss I'd had in my life — held a meeting to dole out assignments for May. Then I interviewed a fidgety twelve-year-old Russian model who looked 29 with makeup on. After that I ran out in the rain for lunch with the wacky British astrologer who wrote Seventeen's monthly horoscope column.
I'd graduated from college the spring before on a day when Harvard Yard looked like the opening scene from a big-budget movie. Sun-dappled spring grass. My mom happy-drunk in a striped Vittadini wrap dress. My dad so proud I thought his face would split open, beaming as only a poor Oklahoma boy with a daughter graduating from Harvard could.
The day so lovely I wanted to hold it forever in my hands.
Working at Seventeen was better than a Baskin Robbins sundae. We read magazines all morning and talked about sticky teenaged paradigms on the clock. In the afternoons we raided the Fashion Closet– a huge room where the Fashion editor kept designer samples that transformed gawky teenage ostriches into goddesses. I hated the few times I'd gotten sick and had to miss a day.
Outside Seventeen I roamed New York City like my new backyard. Dinners at the Yaffa Café and Bombay Kitchen. Hours dancing with my roommate at Danceteria or Limelight. Even the most mundane activities — folding clothes at the fluorescent-lit Laundromat across 8th Avenue, jogging through the Meat Packing district — became adventures.
But it was tricky getting the whole work thing down. Putting on pantyhose like a uniform, no runs my frantic morning mantra. Getting on the E train instead of the express to Harlem. Figuring out how to eat when my paycheck ran out six days before the next one was due.
Everything seemed so new.
I wrote and rewrote that afternoon at my desk in the hallway as the rain poured down outside Kathy's window. Every girl in America read Seventeen's at some age. Nearly four million girls devoured each issue; some favorites became like bibles for girls who had only a magazine to turn to for advice.
I should know.
Every day, often with little support or guidance, a teenage girl tackled staggering dilemmas. If your boyfriend offered drugs, did you do them? Did buying birth control make you a slut? Where did you get birth control at 16, anyway? What if your best friend drove drunk with you riding shotgun? Your stepfather came on to you? Your parents got divorced? Your mom got cancer?
My piece was slated for March, meaning I had to finish it by...Friday.
"Almost done?" Kathy barked as she whizzed by in her black patent leather boots with three-inch heels. I jumped off my chair.
The story itself asked a simple enough question: why do teenagers run away from home? But after pouring over government statistics and interviewing social workers, psychiatrists and the four runaways who would actually talk to me, I'd come to an awful understanding.
Of the estimated 1.5 million teenagers who hit the streets each year, the majority bolted because they thought any situation would be better than home.
Twenty-five percent came from families with alcohol or drug abuse.
Fifty percent had been sexually or physically abused by someone in their household.
What kind of home was that?
The realization that broke my heart: all runaways start out fighting for a better life. The survival instinct that gave them courage to leave bad homes made them try to turn the streets into a new home, the other runaways their families.
Within months, two-thirds were using drugs and supporting themselves through prostitution. Close to a third didn't know where they'd sleep each night. One-half tried to commit suicide. Two-thirds ended up in jail or dead from illness, drug overdoses, or beatings by pimps, johns or other homeless people.
When I finally looked up from the computer I was the only one left at the office, feeling like I'd been ditched by the cool girls after school in eighth grade. My watch read six p.m. It seemed like midnight as I trudged to the subway in the rain.
Winnie took forever to unlock the three deadbolts on her apartment door.
We hugged; she was only 5'2" so the top of her head butted against my chin. As always, her hair smelled like honeysuckle.
I dropped my purse in the foyer and started unlacing my L.L. Bean duck boots, indispensable during the snowy Cambridge winters and slushy springs. Ridiculous footwear now that I lived in the fashion capital of the planet.
"How was work?" she asked. Winnie (short for Winthrop – I'm not kidding) was wearing a white cotton shirt with a high ruffled collar, threaded with a pale cream sliver of silk, tucked into a long brown suede skirt.
"Great ... I'm writing about teen runaways."
I shook the wet boots off my stocking feet. I had a harder time shaking off the images of the 14-year-old girl I'd interviewed for my story. The one who slept on a subway grate and blew her hair dry in a corner of the Trailways bus terminal next to the pay phone she refused to pick up to call home.
"So how was your work, Win?"
She was a salesgirl at the Polo Mansion at 72nd and Madison selling outrageously priced Ralph Lauren clothes to celebrities. She had to wear all Ralph Lauren clothes. Blonde Wasp perfection every day.
"Oh God, it's a long day when you're on your feet trying to smile at all those rich assholes."
Something on the stove started hissing like an angry cat.
"Fuck!" she yelled. Even in fourth grade, she swore like a 35-year-old divorcee. I followed her into the tiny kitchen.
She took the pot off the burner and turned back, smiling. Even Winnie's teeth were cute. That was one of the first things I noticed the day she showed up at elementary school. Over the next three years she taught me the following life essentials: how to shave my legs with Spring Green Vitabath, sleep until noon, and look up sex words in the dictionary. I loved wearing her preppy clothes, smelling like Winnie's laundry detergent even if just for a day.
The year I turned 13 I grew four inches, began smoking pot, drinking tequila and dating older guys. I totally outgrew Winnie's entire closet. Her Lacoste shirts wouldn't cover my belly button anymore.
When I drank, she was one of my favorite people to call late at night. "I love you Winnie," I would slur into the phone. She was always pretty nice about those calls.
"Look!" She held out her left hand, fingers splayed, so I could get a full view of her sparkly new engagement ring.
"Congratulations, Win. I am so happy for you."
I was even happier for Rex, her fiancé. He'd get to smell her hair on their pillow every night for the rest of his life.
"I always knew he was right, even at that Trinity frat party when I first met him," Winnie said as she spooned fresh pesto into a blue enamel pasta bowl. She didn't say what I knew mattered most: Rex loved her, but not with that "my-life-is-nothing-without-you" desperation that drove her crazy. A parade of high school boyfriends had gotten velcroed to her in exactly the same way I had as a kid. They always ended up needing her too much. I'd watched her peel them off one by one, like bubble gum stuck to her shoe.
I looked around their small apartment, filled with Winnie's Ralph Lauren fabrics and Rex's dark leather furniture. Winnie was supposed to live with me, our reunion following four years at different colleges, my chance to prove I'd become sober and responsible and likable again, right? Then at the beginning of last summer, while she waited for me to move to New York, she stayed in this apartment with Rex. Just for a few weeks, she'd said.
Audrey, the roommate I eventually found in Chelsea, was great. But here's what I wanted to ask Winnie tonight: couldn't she postpone marriage for a few years, so that we could be roommates, to give me a chance to catch up? If I weren't right for her as a roommate, how on earth was I going to meet a man right for me? A man like Rex who might ask me to stay for a few weeks and then ask me to stay forever.
Instead I said, "Wow, the ring is beautiful." It was.
We sat down to eat and she gave me the blow-by-blow on how Rex proposed on the beach during their New Year's trip to St. Barts.
As we stood side by side in her miniscule kitchen afterwards washing the dishes in hot, soapy water that smelled like lemons, Winnie asked how my love life was.
"Kind of anti-climactic compared to yours," I said. "All that matters to men here is how much money they make and where they live."
"Trust me, every guy who walks into the Polo Mansion tells me within 30 seconds about his address and income bracket. Please." She shook her head and laughed, crinkling the snub nose that was the envy of every girl in high school, including me. I reached into the soapy water and grabbed a bunch of silverware.
"I meet them all over the place, Win. At parties and clubs, of course. Just last week I met a guy on the bus. Someone asked me out while I was standing in line for the bathroom at Isabella's. Another guy tried to pick me up while I was jogging around the Reservoir. They're everywhere."
She handed me a pot to dry.
"For the first time in my life, I have this rule – one of the things I learned when I stopped drinking..." My voice cracked. I bet my face looked like a tomato. I kept talking.
"... is that I will never date a man to satisfy some need of mine or someone who wants me to fill a desperate need of his."
The words sounded like cheap cardboard. But Winnie nodded, her brown eyes big and reassuring.
"I don't have sex with them, Win. We don't even kiss. We talk. For hours. In restaurants I could never afford on my salary."
"You know, it sounds so innocent, Les. And really fun. It's just what you need right now, right?"
She flicked soap at my face and a few suds landed on my nose.
Yep, just what I needed. But not what I wanted.
After another congratulatory hug, I headed out into the cold rainy night, exchanging Winnie's warm, bright apartment for the manicured Upper East Side streets. The heavy brownstone doors of the million-dollar co-op buildings, locked and festooned with polished brass knockers, seemed to declare that everyone in New York was safe at home.
Except for me.
(Crazy Love is a personal history. The events described in this book are real. Many names, except for my own, as well as several geographic and identifying details, have been changed for the usual reasons of privacy and security. A few important characters have been omitted and combined; the character of Winnie represents an amalgam of important friends.)
CRAZY LOVE. Copyright 2008 by Leslie Morgan Steiner. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.