His Biggest Gift

Another workday had ended, most folks had gone home. I preferred to stay behind to complete travel logistics for an upcoming conference. Being home offered too much time alone to think. A stressful week at the office without hopes of stopping required auxiliary. Drowning in paperwork was one way to numb myself from the pain I’d been feeling. Drinking the problems away was sucking me into a vacuum. I was afraid to fall so deep into the rabbit hole that I wouldn’t be able to come back from one of my binges. I wasn’t ready to accept the reality of what life had become. I could stay and endure the abuse or leave, having me start all over with someone new that might be worse.

As a young girl, I grew up dreaming about a dashing prince charming would find me and sweep me off my Manolo Blahnik heels! He’d take me to his castle where we would live happily ever after. Certainly! Cinderella might have found everlasting love but life isn’t a fairytale like the ones we read about as little girls. Most definitely they don’t wear designer shoes but one can fantasize. What fairytales don’t teach is that the love starts from within. If I had been given this small piece of wisdom in my early years it might have saved an immense amount of heartbreak. My endless string of heartbreaks could design the most exquisite lariat. The story is the same for many women even if the names and faces change. Tale as old as time but I finally broke the cycle.

Having spent much of my young adult life looking for love, I grabbed just about every chance I could to fall in love! It became a race to the finish line to get the prince that would take me to my happy place. When I couldn’t find this elusive character, I tried to turn any man into royalty. Somewhere down the road, I realized the majority of my dating pool was full of frogs. As it happens, the swamp I had been dipping my heart into was toxic. It didn’t occur to me there would be a lesson in all this, the path to finding my truth was long.

When I met Charlie, I fell in love with the idea of love. During my desperate search for affection, I ran to the first man offering me protection, love and security. Biggest mistake was betraying my intuition. Silencing her advice because it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. The parade of red flags that led the march of destruction could be seen from Mt. Everest. She told me to let him go, screaming he wasn’t right for me but I pushed forward with the relationship because he had potential to be my greatest love. The honeymoon period was lengthy. It was a wonderful fantasy at least it’s the way I like to remember it. When we create our own reality then start believing it, this somehow makes it for us. Our psyche works in fascinating ways. Especially when love’s involved! It helped me sleep at night so I ran with it. The first months of courtship were full of romance-filled dinners, spontaneity and lavish gifts. His chivalry melted my heart, making me feel like a princess. We started with late nights of conversation discussing our dreams for the future with hopes for lasting love. He asked all the right questions, said all the right things, as I let him get to know all the inner workings of my heart. We became an inseparable pair of lovebirds. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better version of the truth.

A diamond goes through a transformation becoming the most beautiful of gems. I too, have gone through a process of high pressure, high temperature to find my authentic self. Relationships lived have left a trail of blood, sweat and tears. I’d do it all over again to find my truest love.

The real story was a hybrid between fantasy and reality. I had been ignoring the problems surrounding Charlie for the past year. I enjoyed the sparks shared during the nights spent together. The heat generated from our bodies was furious. When united, they ignited fire spreading its flames for hours. We melted into each other like a wax figure creating a firm and strong figure. His charming ways disguised his possessive nature only coming to light when he felt in danger of losing control. The passion was blinding, forcing me to give into it every time no matter the cost. It was hard to ignore how my friendships, family and work that I loved so much were a threat to him. Anything taking my attention away from us became an issue. He didn’t do well when I wanted to partake in other activities where he was not included. Initially, finding excitement imagining he loved me so much he didn’t want to share me. The green monster had not reared its ugly head far enough inside to make me understand I was dealing with a troubled man.

Charlie monopolized my time almost immediately after we met. Time with friends was a nuisance, as he referred to it. He didn’t care for my friends, especially Sabby. He thought they were too frivolous girls with too many dreams. They enjoyed brunches, shopping and girl chat as many of us do. Guilty as charged! Sabby was convinced she was his nemesis. She was a strong, independent thinker as well as opinionated which he didn’t appreciate. The fact she was still single was a thorn he couldn’t rid himself of. He was convinced she wanted me to find someone better than him. I thought it was more of his insecurities that led to his attitude. On the other hand, Sabby imagined his dislike was because she stood for everything he hated, transparency, success and luxury. She worked hard, played harder. Never making excuses for who she was, to the contrary. She was proud owned her identity and owned her mistakes as well as celebrated her triumphs.

The holiday season was full of fun moments. Making memories with loved ones was always at the top of my to-do list during festivities. One of my favorite events to attend was the firm’s holiday party with colleagues, as I did each year. There were no invitations extended to plus ones, something that deeply annoyed Charlie. Being complacent and tending to his every whim up to this point was my happiness. However, being absent from the event was not an option. His dismay became very obvious that night.

“Yolanda, why do you insist on going to a work party without me?” Charlie spit at me. “What will you wear? Who will be there? What if someone hits on you after one too many drinks? I think it’s better for you if you didn’t go this year. Why can’t you please me this once?”

“Charlie, I’m a big girl. I’ve attended this party every year. My coworkers are nice people,” I tried to explain. “There is nothing to worry about. Please try to respect what I want. I love only you.”

“Fine – at what time will you be done?” It sounded more like a demand than a question.

“The party usually winds down around 11:00. Sometimes, a group of us will meet for a nightcap,” I said softly. “I’ll text you when home or we can talk tomorrow.”

My words caused his fair skin to redden. His dark eyes reflected distrust and a maddening look I hadn’t seen before. I kissed him goodbye before heading out. The sinister moment stayed with me all night. I imagined it would pass and tomorrow would be another day.

It had been a long night of celebration. The next afternoon, frigid temperatures kept me inside my apartment. The thought of warm pajamas and a good movie was the ideal setting. I found comfort in a cup of hot coffee and croissants. I was in and out of sleep most of the day until receiving a text from Charlie that read “Where the hell are you and why haven’t I heard from you, Yolanda?” I jumped out of my seat after noticing my phone log had 20 missed calls from him. This fact amplified his aggressive tone. Immediately, I picked up the phone in fear and concern. I called him.

“Hi Charlie, did something happen? Are you OK?”  Charlie’s silence left an echo. “I noticed you called me bunch of times last night? I’m sorry, honey. My phone was in my purse, I didn’t hear the ringer”. His heavy breathing on the other end caused her nervous tone.

“Do you really care if I’m ok? I called you repeatedly last night. No answer to any of my calls!” Charlie’s thundering voice on the other side of the phone angered her. “Whatever you were doing must have been more important. When I call – you answer!” abruptly slamming was heard on a hard surface catching her attention.

“Well, like I said, my phone was out of reach. I came home exhausted, straight to sleep. I’m truly sorry, I upset you. I didn’t mean to. “She sighed.

Exasperated, yet eerily calm he finished his fiery rant. “You made me very angry. I don’t like being so mad at you. You can’t do this to me. It infuriates me! I don’t know what I’d do if you pulled another stupid stunt like this, again.” His voice mellowed as he finished his sentence.

“I don’t like to see you upset. I’m sorry. Can we start over? I won’t do it again” Feeling remorse yet confused about what she had done that was so extreme as to offer repeated apologies.

Seemingly satisfied with my apology, I let his erratic behavior go. My own feelings of guilt over the missed calls got in the way. He won. I was afraid of pushing the issue regarding his tone with me. Although, I knew the apology should have been enough to end his barrage of words. Charlie picked me up that night despite my request to stay home. I was tired, only wanting to rest on my couch. Reservations at a posh new restaurant usually would have me over the moon elated but not tonight. The air between us was thick. The night’s conversation was an interrogation making me more uncomfortable with each second. Date night became a deposition about the holiday party. It was ridiculously invasive, highlighting his insecurities and trust issues. The worst of it was my complacent behavior! While responding to his questions demeaned me, I didn’t say a word to stop it. I wanted to kick myself (really him) but I sat there quietly. Time at dinner was an eternity that I desperately wanted to end. The waiter checked on our table several times. He was probably confused about whether we were having an intense conversation or fighting. Surely, he knew it was the  since it takes two to have an actual dialogue. Charlie’s words seemed to be the only ones that mattered that night which often happened with him. I ordered the lightest fare on the menu. I couldn’t draw out a long dinner tonight. His presence was exhausting which concerned me because I did love being with him. Date night was uncomfortable unlike any of our previous dates. He finally took me home when I told him I was feeling sick. Surprisingly, he looked pleased. Apparently he had plans with his friends after dinner. They were attending a club opening that night—a surprise to me but I was too exhausted to care.

My girlfriend, Sabby, called the following morning, asking me to brunch at our favorite spot. We’d known each other for decades. She was my soul sister, confidant and best ally. She was one of the smartest and strongest women I knew. I admired her self-confidence; thought she believed she could fly if she really put her mind to it! The woman knew no boundaries. Being around her gave me courage. She knew and loved me for who I was, even when I didn’t always make the wisest choices. And let’s just say that my man picker needed some tweaking. She was worldly and compared to me had a solid understanding of relationships. I remember asking her early on how is it that she gets these great guys to fall head-over-heels for her. Kissing the ground she stepped on no matter how dirty it was! She thought my question was amusing but shared some interesting wisdom. I’ll never forget her response “You always make sure the man loves you a little more than you love him”. It was that simple, she never invested more than her partner. I wasn’t quite able to reach that epiphany on my own. “Thank God for Sabby!” Her support kept me sane. I continuously asked myself the tough questions. Even though, I rarely did put myself first.

“Hi love,” Sabby said in her usual upbeat voice. “Hope you haven’t been waiting long. How are you? Feeling any better about the incident with Charlie? You really need to put him out with the trash! Ha-ha”

“Sabby! He’s not that bad,” I said, trying to convince myself that my words were true. “He has some problems but deep down has a good heart. He’s had some tough breaks that won’t allow him to trust women. We’ll work things out. “

Sadly, as those words came out of my mouth, I wasn’t so sure I believed them myself. I don’t think I was fooling her, either. But she sat and listened to me while I released my fury followed by a state of sadness. Asking myself, was I genuinely happy or delaying the inevitable? If every bone in my body was feeling something wasn’t right then why did I stay? It was the one of many questions I didn’t have the answer to.

Our relationship was slowly consuming me to the point of losing my sense of self. My love for him had grown bigger than me. How could I bring myself to tell him things weren’t ok with us? I could not be the cause of his hurt, even if it meant sacrificing my own happiness. I decided against divulging my feelings and forged ahead with the relationship. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow but if love meant compromising and putting the other person’s needs first then this might have to play out. Such a difficult decision when it goes against one’s own instincts. But the heart and head don’t always agree. Ha!! The two are usually on opposing sides. My entire life, I watched as my mother put my father’s interests ahead of her own. When it’s all you know it becomes your normal. Many women in my culture and others alike would agree it’s the right thing to do. Or is it??? The confusion created an internal tug of war. Every fiber of my being wanted to believe I was making a sound decision. Unfortunately, deep down it didn’t feel natural for me. I loved Charlie but the need for self-love got stronger every day. The struggle within begged me to ask myself many things in hopes it would to lead me to truth. Was I a bad person, dare I say selfish? Or was I fair? The turmoil felt like my inner walls were closing in on me – it was overwhelming. Guilt was written all over my face without a clue of how to deal with all the negativity in my soul. My heart was living with an uneasiness that could not be shaken.

I was lucky to have great women around me while I played the role of the coward. Along with Sabby, Mariah, my sister, was my rock. Mariah had experienced life in a way I’d never have the courage to because mine was safe. She was fierce and unafraid of consequences. Her decisions produced great adventures that forced her to face many challenges. But no matter the hardship, no one ever broke her spirit. She always rose to the occasion. Life’s pitfalls helped shape her into the strong woman she had become. My appreciation for her self-assurance and tough-as-nails character was immeasurable. I wanted to be her, wishing to find that place of self-worth within me. My support circle was strong despite the one weak link who had no clue how to break the cycle – me. I found solace in my distractions from work, friends and everything that kept me sane. Things at work were picking up quickly. I juggled my time as best I could under the circumstances. Time for a personal life was decreasing by the day. A significant amount of work was being thrown in my direction. Proving to the boss I could handle the delivery of our department’s annual report was essential to my career. I couldn’t back away from the challenge. The job took everything I had, leading the relationship to suffer. Charlie picked me up at the office for lunch that day despite my plea not to do so. I was crushed with work to meet my deadline. His selfishness annoyed me, but again I did what he wanted. Pleasing him became my priority. It was a chore fulfilled against my will, wearing me down over time. The same night, the boss took the team out to grab dinner and discuss goals for the following quarter. Charlie insisted on a date which I declined. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that these proposed dates were to ensure monopolizing my time. He increasingly became more controlling. His actions were suffocating but I was unsure if telling him would make him resentful. I attended the team dinner neglecting to inform him of my plans. I had already turned down a chance to see him. It would’ve been too draining to engage in arguments about the reason, I was unavailable.

The group had reservations at the nearby steakhouse, a favorite of the boss. It was a long dinner, red wine flowing and steaks medium rare for all to enjoy. I left the office without a cell phone since answering calls during dinner would not be possible. We were all excited; talking about where the business was headed that year. In the midst of the conversation, from the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Charlie charging into the main dining room of the restaurant. I quickly excused myself before he approached our table. As he walked towards us in quick steps, I jumped out of my chair. His eyes carried an intensity that was only surpassed by his aggressive footsteps. I interrupted the path to the table swaying him to a discrete area of the restaurant where we could talk.

“Charlie what are you doing here!” I gasped in disbelief.

“You’re selfish and a lying hussy!” His harsh words were a slap in the face. “Why wouldn’t you tell me you were having dinner with a bunch of men from work? Is this why you couldn’t see me?

He was consumed with such rage that it terrified me. I was afraid of what he’d do next. And then I felt the sweat of his hand grabbing my neck, the pressure of his thumb against my jugular vein, choking me. The closeness of his warm breath smelling of cheap scotch made me want to puke all over his white polo. I felt confused, light headed and unable to hear any sounds around me. The air got away from me, when the faint spell hit me. I felt a silence and darkness over my eyes. The only other memory of that moment was what he whispered in my ear, “I love you enough to let you live. One day you will thank me for letting you go, baby.”

I was found by a restaurant staff member, kind enough to bring me back to consciousness offering a sip of water. My colleagues didn’t know what to make of what had just happened. Honestly, I didn’t either. Did I feel lucky? Yes, extremely. It was the only way to explain –it—I was the one that got away. Would the next girl have the same fate? I made a call to the police reporting the assault. He would not get the opportunity to hurt anyone again. The ordeal would bring me to my knees but doing nothing would shame me forever. As it turns out, it wasn’t hard to find him since there was an open warrant in Connecticut with his name on it. Charlie gave his last girlfriend a costly trip to the ER. He had beaten her up severely leaving her with a broken jaw – almost unrecognizable. He was on the run but it was time to pay the piper. News of his arrest came days after, creating a sense of relief, yet also a strange sadness. Early in our courtship, something in my gut told me Charlie and I weren’t a good fit. It always felt like I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. There was a genuine connection which bound me to him. But the rope was not strong enough to cling to, although, I wanted it to be different. The real answer lived inside me nudging me to stop and think about what was happening. Rose-colored glasses added beautiful color to the picture of love I had drawn for us. The mirage disappeared when truth showed up at my door.

The days ahead would serve as a retreat of sorts. I flew down to Palm Beach to find balance, hopefully myself. I had become someone I didn’t know or like without a voice. I owed it to myself to figure out why I allowed it to go as far as it did. Although Charlie and I shared a connection, we were far from love. I couldn’t help to feel guilt. I’d be lying, if I said I was unaware of the dangers that lurked in the relationship. There were signs from the beginning. I chose to ignore the red flags scattered across my lawn. Fact was my desire to find love was greater than the love I had for myself.  I wanted so desperately to be loved that I accepted giving up my freedom for the security of a relationship. In giving into Charlie’s demands, I gave up my power. The night of the incident brought me back to my truth helping find love in its purest form. The blinders had come off. Love was looking back at me all the time. I had arrived at my most poignant moment, embracing self-love without reproach.

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