If I had known how Ethan would change my life so drastically, I never would’ve said a word to him.
I would have treated him the way I’d treated every other guy my friend Andrea dated—with polite coolness. After all, the guys would rarely stick around for long. Once Andrea was finished with one, she would send him on his way, confused and thoroughly fucked. It was just how she was.
Instead, I’d spoken to Ethan. Every day, he’d join Andrea, Delilah, and me at our lunch table, and we’d joke with each other. He was a sophomore, two years younger than the rest of us, but he fit in with our little group.
Over the three months that Andrea had kept him around, I had grown to consider him a friend. When she’d broken his heart two weeks before we graduated from high school, he’d stopped coming around.
Ethan and I would smile at each other in the halls whenever we passed, but that was it. With graduation coming up, I hadn’t tried to keep our friendship intact. I hadn’t seen the point. After graduation, there was little to no chance that we would see each other again.
On top of that, my boyfriend, Joey, wasn’t a fan of me hanging out with guy friends. He wasn’t rude about it, but he wouldn’t hide the fact that it made him uncomfortable. I liked Ethan, but attempting to stay in contact with him wasn’t worth a fight with Joey.
So, for the next few years, I’d forgotten about Ethan. With the exception of a friend request that I’d sent to him on Facebook, one that he’d approved, I’d had no contact with him at all.
Until one night.
Drunk and browsing through my News Feed, I had seen his name. On a whim, I’d messaged him. It was a decision that had changed everything for me. One simple message had set off a chain reaction that changed every single aspect of my future.
In high school, I was the shy girl who talked to almost no one. I had a group of six or seven friends who I stuck with, content with their company. I was free to be myself around them. While I was quiet inside the walls of our school, I would be a completely different person away from it. With my friends, I’d laugh loudly, spout more sarcasm than I’d thought possible, and act like a complete goofball. I was normal around them—well, as normal as I could be.
While I was content with my friends, something was missing, something I longed for—a boyfriend. Every single teenage girl could relate to the feeling of longing when she stared at the boys walking around her in the hallways of her high school. I’d watch the girls in my classes cling to their boyfriends. Some of them would go past clinging, as they displayed their, uh…affection for everyone to see. I’d pretend not to see them, but I did. I was a professional at keeping a blank face, but inside, I was jealous of those girls.
When I reached my junior year with not even a single boyfriend under my belt, I started to wonder if maybe something was wrong with me. I knew my shyness didn’t help, but surely, that wasn’t the only reason no guy had paid attention to me, past the point of friendship.
Every morning, I’d study myself in the bathroom mirror, noting every imperfection I could see. My boobs were too small, there was a little pudge around my waist, my nose was too big, my brown hair was too plain, my green eyes were too dull, and my lips were too big.
It didn’t take long for me to sink into a depression. I had memorized every imperfection I could see, searing them into my brain.
When I walked through the halls of my high school, I was sure that every single student was noticing the same imperfections. They were taking note of them and laughing manically about me behind my back. By the time that idea had planted itself inside my head, I hated myself.
Then, something changed a few months into my junior year. A senior, Joey Sanders, spoke to me in class one afternoon. No one spoke to me, besides my friends. I was so startled that I answered him, an action my normally shy disposition would have prevented. He seemed as surprised as I was that I could actually speak. He quickly got over his shock, throwing me a smile that blinded me, a smile that showed a dimple in each of his cheeks.
For the next few weeks, Joey would speak to me in class every single day. Starved for attention, it didn’t take me long to find myself crushing on him. He was certainly crush-worthy. He kept his dark brown hair cut short. His eyes were a warm chocolate brown that lit up every time he smiled. He was tall, too, which was a serious plus since I was a little over five foot seven inches.
Until he’d spoken to me, I had barely noticed him. Afterward, all I could do was obsess over him. I’d watch him in the one class we had together. I’d search for him during lunch. I’d learned what classes he was taking and who his friends were. I was slightly obsessed, and I knew it, but I didn’t care.
If Joey thought my questions were too probing or that I glanced over at him too often, he didn’t comment. Instead, he’d continue to talk with me, laughing at my jokes. Warmth would fill my chest whenever he was around.
Less than two months after he’d spoken his first words to me, we were together. My self-esteem skyrocketed because someone like Joey wanted me. I walked around with a bounce in my step, my heart light.
I was in love with the idea of love itself, not that I realized that then. I’d thought I was in love with Joey. I was too young to know that love was rarely instant, that it took time to truly love someone. Honestly, if I had known, I wouldn’t have cared. I had been too happy to let reality take hold.
When Joey graduated that spring, I worried that things would fall apart between us. He laughed when I told him my fears and assured me that he wasn’t going anywhere. He kept his word, finding a construction job close by. He moved into his own apartment, only a few miles away from where I lived with my parents.
Every night, after I’d come home from school and he’d finished with work, he would come to my house. He would have dinner with my family, spend his evenings with us, and even sleep on our couch every once in a while. With the exception of not having him around me at school, hardly anything between us had changed.
Our feelings grew stronger with every passing day. Even though we found ourselves arguing sometimes, it didn’t hinder how I felt about him.
After one particularly bad fight that had ended with him storming out of my house and tearing down my driveway, the cold reality that he could leave me finally registered with me. It knocked me over with the force of a ton of bricks. If he left me, I’d have no one. No other man had ever shown any interest in me, and I realized I’d be all alone again. I’d go back to being an unwanted freak.
The next day, I begged for his forgiveness. I spent hours groveling before he finally accepted my apology. I hated that I was the one apologizing since he was the one who had started the argument the evening before, but I ignored that little voice in my head, too relieved that I wasn’t going to lose him.
Things moved quickly for us after I graduated from high school. Less than a month after I had been handed my diploma, I had an engagement ring on my finger. Six months after that, when I was only a few months over eighteen, I was walking down the aisle and saying, “I do,” to the one and only man who had ever paid an ounce of attention to me.
Joey and I had both come from lower-class families, so neither of us could afford to go to college after high school. Joey continued working in construction, which brought in a decent income. I attended a technical school during high school, and I was certified as a medical assistant upon graduation from high school. I found a job working at a doctor’s office, but I was miserable.
Instead of using the skills I’d acquired through school, I decided to help my dad with his business. He did body work and repairs on cars. His business had grown quite a bit over the last few years, and it was hard for him to handle everything, so I took over the paperwork and customer service portion of the work.
Neither Joey nor I were rich, but with our combined incomes, we managed to pay the bills and even put a little bit into savings each month. We were living the typical American lifestyle.
Two years after I’d become his wife, Joey and I marked off another milestone in our life together. I found out I was pregnant. I was terrified. I was only twenty years old, far too young to be a mother, in my opinion. Joey was ecstatic. Soon, his elation started to rub off on me, and I became excited, too.
But that was when things began to change between us. It was small things at first—bickering over bills or what television show to watch. I blamed my hormones as our child grew within me. At times, I would become so annoyed with Joey that we wouldn’t talk to each other for days at a time.
Just when I felt like things were at a breaking point between us, our daughter came into the world. She arrived on a Tuesday at three o’clock in the morning, kicking and screaming like a banshee. Amelia Kathryn Sanders weighed seven pounds, six ounces. She was beautiful and healthy. I instantly fell in love with her. It was amazing how something so tiny could steal my heart with only one glance.
Amelia came home, and amazingly enough, she brought peace with her. For the next few months, things settled between Joey and me. We were even kind to each other, rarely fighting, which was the complete opposite of how we had been before Amelia was born. Yes, for those few short months, things were peaceful. I was happy, content even.
But, as they said, all good things must come to an end. I’d been battling with postpartum depression since Amelia was born, but it was manageable since things were so good with Joey. That ended abruptly. It was as if a switch had been flipped overnight, and suddenly, we were fighting again. Sometimes, things would get violent. I would smack him, or he would grab my keys or my phone and throw them out of reach to keep me from leaving him or calling my parents. The relationship I had clung to so hard was slowly destroying me.
Our relationship got worse and worse until I felt like I would never see the light again. My depression worsened until I was forced to visit my doctor. He increased my medication and scheduled several consecutive appointments because he was concerned that I was headed into suicidal territory.
The fighting between Joey and me intensified. We’d have screaming matches over the littlest things. He became controlling. If he came home at night and there was even one dirty bottle or soiled diaper in view, he would freak out. He began making rules that I would have to follow, like I was no longer allowed to eat anywhere but in the kitchen. He also threw out all the junk food in the house, telling me it was time I lost the weight I’d gained while pregnant with Amelia.
Still, no matter how depressed I was, I couldn’t bring myself to leave him. It wasn’t only out of fear of being alone anymore even though that was a big part of it. I admitted to myself that I was weak for clinging to a dying relationship because I didn’t want to be on my own. I had always been weak. My low self-esteem had been a major factor in that weakness, and it was even worse now.
If I left him, I was sure I’d be alone. No one had wanted me before, so certainly, no one would want me after I’d had a child. I had stretch marks. My clothes usually had at least a tiny bit of spit-up on them. I rarely wore makeup anymore, and my hair was almost always tied up into a bun on the top of my head. I certainly wasn’t going to win any mental health or beauty awards in the near future.
The main reason I couldn’t leave Joey was because of Amelia. I didn’t want her to grow up in a broken home, seeing her father only a few times a week or a month in the way that so many children did. No, I wanted her to see us together. I wanted her to feel like she had a family she could depend on. Even though she was only an infant, I knew she would grow up faster than I could ever imagine. I wanted her childhood to be filled with happy memories of her mother and father, together. As long as we could hide our fighting from her, I was sure she would have those memories.
The man I’d once worshipped became my greatest enemy. To dull the ache in my heart and the darkness clouding my mind, I started to drink, something I’d never even been tempted to do before. I began smoking as well. I looked forward to every cigarette because it would give me an excuse to escape outside for a few minutes.
Joey noticed my drinking but made no move to stop it. In fact, he encouraged it. Maybe it was because we wouldn’t fight as much when I drank, or maybe it was because he was almost always guaranteed sex when I was drunk, something that he usually received very little of since we fought so much. Either way, my drinking settled things between us. The fighting lessened as long as I had a drink in my hand. I would wait until Amelia was asleep in her crib before I would start. Joey, despite his personality issues, was an amazing father, and he’d take care of her if she woke up at night.
And so our lives went. Things settled, and I accepted the way things were between us.
Then, something changed again.
And it was the start of this story, the real story, the one where I fell in love with another man.