Note from Ellis: I want to thank Larry Benjamin for agreeing to let me re-post this blog article. As someone who has experienced abuse in a same-sex relationship, I can relate to the difficulty of putting it out in the world. At the same time, the embarrassment and ease of sweeping such a topic under the rug is the very reason why it must be put out into the world.
The other day, my latest release, Damaged Angels, received a 5 star review from Debbie McGowan, owner of independent publisher, Beaten Track. (Read that review here: http://ow.ly/ejKk4)
In the review, McGowan says “…the author’s extensive research and meticulous attention to detail pays real dividends.” That made me chuckle. I immediately sent her a note explaining that my “extensive research” was actually a three year relationship with a drug addicted hustler, who I’ll call “Tomas.” In essence I researched the book by living the stories in it. Certainly I didn’t get involved with him because I thought I would one day write of the experience. I got involved with him because I fell in love with him. And I thought I could save him.
I wrote the stories to purge myself of the experience and maybe to warn others. I don’t know. I just know I had to write it all down. He inspired four of the stories in the collection. Though no one story is about us, about him, specifically; I abstracted actual events and tried to reduce them to their core actions then recast them.
This book made me nervous. In part because it was so different from my first,What Binds Us. I worried about what readers of that book would think of this one. And in part because this was in a very real way, my story. Readers always ask which characters are most like you. In this case the main characters in all thirteen stories are hauntingly similar to me. To read this collection, if you read it closely enough, is to get inside my head. And that scares me: do I want anyone to know me that well?
My partner and I recently saw “Keep the Lights On” and that movie, about a documentary filmmaker and a crack-addicted lawyer, really resonated with me because I’d lived that story. I admit it was a hard film to watch for that reason—I know what it’s like to watch someone you care about disappear at the end of a crack pipe. The scene that rang truest was when Erik’s sister tries to get him to eat but he can’t eat because Paul is missing and then he dissolves into tears. Yep, been there. A similar scene appears in “The Seduction of the Angel Gabriel.”
“Let me make breakfast,” Gabriel tells him, pulling away and wiping his nose with his sleeve.
“You want some?”
Gabriel turns around, eggs in hand. “I thought you told me you don’t eat breakfast.”
“I don’t usually.”
Gabriel is at once suspicious. “Did you eat dinner last night?”
“You know, as skinny as you are, you don’t need to be missing any meals.”
“I couldn’t eat,” he blurts. “Not knowing whether or not you were hungry somewhere.”
Returning from one such bender, “Tomas” confessed to me that he always thought about me when he heard Anita Baker’s I Love You Just Because. And I understood that because I loved him just because. Everyone I knew looked at him and saw someone wholly unsuitable; I looked at him and saw…something…else. A woman I worked with, a Jehovah’s Witness, asked me once why I loved him and I answered “because he looks at me and I feel like a hero.” That line actually appears in the story “2 Rivers” because it is the only way Seth can explain his relationship with the hustler Jordan to Luke, the story’s narrator.
“Tomas” tried to kill himself one night by taking an overdose of prescription medication. I discovered him in a coma lying in bed beside me when I got up to go to work. That experience became “17 Days.”
When his best friend chastised him for taking a deliberate overdose, pointing out he could have died. His response chilled me: “Larry wouldn’t let me die.”
The relationship thrived—for a while. In my care, he got “clean,” learned how to drive, earned his GED, reunited with his family. His transformation was miraculous. He introduced me to his family, he held my hand in public, he made me dinner.
Then one day he hit me.
I threw him out. The next morning I found him on my doorstep. He cried. He swore he would never hit me again. He begged me to forgive him, to take him back. I did. After all we’d both been drunk and I’d made him mad. Since then I have learned:
1. If he does not care about you enough in a moment of anger to not hit you, he does care about you enough. Period.
2. If he hit you once, he will hit you again. And again. Until you put a stop to it.
The second time he hit me, I told his psychiatrist, who diagnosed Episodic Dyscontrol Syndrome. He was medicated. The third and final time he hit me, I went after him with a kitchen knife. That scared us both. That experience became a single incident of domestic violence in “2 Rivers”:
The storm clouds gathered at the edges of his consciousness. They occasionally skittered across the sky, blocking out the sun, leaving him to stumble in the sudden dark, getting bumped and bruised. Eventually, an eclipse of the sun will blacken his universe. When the moon has completed its turn around the sun, the light will reveal blood and his own hand clenched in a fist, raw and throbbing.
In that brief description I tried to capture that feeling of bewilderment that follows being hit by someone you love. What happened? How could he hurt me?
Unwilling to throw him out, unable to trust him, I, at knifepoint, made him take a double dose of medicine and watched him fall asleep. As luck would have it, we had an appointment with his psychiatrist the following morning. I remember I had to wear my glasses because my eyes were too swollen to get my contact lenses in.
Looking at my bruised, swollen face, his psychiatrist asked, “Did he do that?” He admitted him to their psychiatric ward. “You need to get away from him,” he told me. “You deserve better.”
If you’re in that situation, you shouldn’t need someone else to tell you you deserve better. You should know that, you should feel that in your bones: I do not deserve to be hit. Or yelled at or belittled. You should know that. I don’t know why I didn’t, why it took me so long to walk away. Why it took someone else telling me to walk away.
Once years ago, while crossing a water fall over a small creek, my dog slipped and fell in the creek. I reached down and caught his harness. Then I fell in. I sank like a rock. I can’t swim. I remember it was dark and bottle green beneath the surface. The current caught and pulled him from me but I hung on to his harness as tightly as I could. I remember thinking I couldn’t swim but I would do my best to save him. In that instant I made the decision: we would both survive or we would both drown or I would drown and he would survive but there was no way I would survive and let him drown. We both survived—a passing young man dove in and dragged us to safety. But with Tomas the current became too strong and I had to let him go. Or risk us both drowning.
In the acknowledgements in “Damaged Angels,” I wrote “It takes a village to raise a child…and write a book”. I thanked several people, ending with: “And finally to all the men and boys who inspired these stories—you gave your all. I hope I gave as much.”
I realize now, in the retelling, I gave as much.
Read the first story from Damaged Angels: http://ow.ly/ejMfL