This essay was inspired by the hashtag campaign #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou, started by Zahira Kelly (@bad_dominicana) to share experiences of emotional abuse. If you are worried you are in an abusive relationship, click here to get help.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he warns you that he has a dark side he will make every effort to prevent you from seeing. You’re cuddled up in your narrow, squeaky dorm bed and it’s a weeknight, still early in the relationship, and he has these boy band dimples when he smiles. It sounds like such a cliché that you do not take it seriously. Whatever this spoiled, exceptionally dressed teenager throws at you will be no problem. He is sweet and funny and has a talent for saying exactly the right thing but in the most inventive assortment of words possible. On some late Wednesday night, or maybe it’s even the same night, he promises, “I won’t let you down” under the glow-in-the-dark stars glued to your ceiling. You are not old enough to know that this is an impossible thing to promise.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he scans each room before entering it to look for his ex-girlfriend, and you do not ask questions because everyone is allowed a messy past. It’s a self-preservation tactic he passes down to you for the near future when you will scan each room before entering it to look for his jagged frame, always humming with too much energy.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but your roommate decides within thirty seconds of meeting him that there is something off. She can’t quite put her finger on it and you sit on the loveseat from Target with the broken armrest and will her to not fuck this up for you. It’s something about how eager he is to please, how his gestures of goodwill clash with the rumors following his leather footsteps across campus. Of course, she can’t know how he stares at you, really stares, and it makes you self-conscious because you don’t know the last time a boy took the time to see you. His stare is focused, shameless, pours over your face as one of his hands finds your jaw. It feels like a borrowed embrace from a romantic comedy, the wrong genre, the wrong cadence of tenderness, but you find yourself easing into the touch.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he has apologizing down to an art. He never remembers saying that but he’s sorry, please don’t cry, Ella, do not cry. He asks if he let you down and his eyes are so wide and glassy, and he was drinking, and he didn’t mean it, and maybe he had a right to be upset? Maybe you’re not remembering this right? Maybe it didn’t happen like that, you were upset too. He sleeps over because you’re not feeling well and the covers are too heavy and it’s been a long time since you’ve had a fever—running a temperature always makes you feel like a child. Half-asleep, he kisses your shoulder and asks, “You okay, sweat pea?” He is wearing your period-stained polar bear pajama pants and you could love this boy if you let yourself, you really could.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he collects your infractions and lines them up on his desk like so many surgical knives. You have learned to let it go when his face shrivels, no matter what plans he stood up, no matter what joke he made about you in front of his friends, no matter what insults he drops like loose change. It’s devastating to watch that beautiful slash of a smile morph into a grimace, so many white teeth cut on how much he hates himself, and how much he hates you for being stupid enough to love him. Not that you’ve told him that yet, but that’s what you meant when you told him you would stay: no matter what brain chemistry he can’t contain, no matter the math he does on every rooftop about what the impact would do to a fucked up boy’s brain. “Thank you for staying,” he says, giving you that Hollywood grin, and he actually looks happy. You flush with pride to make him smile like that. You never really had a choice.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he makes you come downstairs to the lounge of your dorm to hiss about your failure to keep his secrets and how fucking dare you, how could you. His fists clench and loosen, he keeps his eyes on the ceiling, he sprawls like some foreign dictator across the stiff college sofa and you kneel on the floor to atone for letting him down. He never wants to be alone with you when he is angry.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he tells you he loves you for the first time like a consolation prize as he throws up gin and medication into a paper bag on the floor of his bedroom. It’s a Thursday night—your fingers are covered in his vomit. Later he drags you against his clammy chest, it must be close to three in the morning when it becomes clear he isn’t going to die because, in his words, “It didn’t work, I failed,” and he says he loves you again, this time in Spanish.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you because you got lucky. Because your friends pulled you out. Because fate intervened. A few months later you are waiting for your grilled cheese at the food truck and a friend of a friend of a friend of his ex-girlfriend asks you, “Didn’t you date him? Did he hit you too?” For a second you think someone has thrown a hard, wet snowball at the base of your spine. And then you get to live with that, you get to walk around with the knowledge of how close you came. You get to have nightmares about making love to him with his face covered in blood. You get to wonder what you would have done if you’d given him that one last chance and crossed some invisible boundary and heard that hard, slow, fast whoosh that is the boy you love loving you. You survived an almost. There is no judicial hearing with the dean. There is no action taken by his fraternity. Not for this. He graduates with honors, and after a few years you get a hashtag.