We met healthy, swimming in adjacent lanes at the “Y”.
With no pen and paper and wet hands besides, I told him he could get my phone number from my professional photographer website.
I thought I wouldn’t hear from him once he Googled me because my name would invariably pull up, as if from a swamp, the saga of my ex-husband's domestic violence arrest and conviction.
Instead, he told me, “You need some tender loving care, and I’m going to give it to you.”
In Seal Cove, he held onto my kayak from his kayak and with mating seals baying all around us, recited, by memory, Keats' entire "Ode to a Nightingale".
When he invited me to his house for dinner, candles lit the pathway. When he came to my house for dinner, he carried in a tub of lilacs from his yard.
His emails were formatted into stationery with birds and butterflies and sea dollars, and the message was sometimes just a Shakespeare sonnet to fit the occasion, written in a calligraphy computer font. After an exhilarating day together I came home to a good night song in an email link to Tim Buckley's haunting "Lilac Wine".
He pursued with passion all the sports I loved, was boyishly fun, off the charts-romantic, and handsome as a prince. He gave his full, charming attention to random people we encountered in our adventures and I was in awe of the kindness that showed.
In over six decades, he had never married. He wasn't close to any family members, didn't seem to be involved in the community or have close friends. Three good friends reported unpleasant experiences with him. But I was having the time of my life, and paid no attention.
Then, on a sailing trip for my birthday one year ago today, two months after we met, he suddenly turned cold and critical.
He denied anything was wrong. Cited the “do not take anything personally” directive of the self-help book "Four Agreements".
Maybe I was ultra-sensitive because of my past relationship.
I carried on, and back on land he was — almost — his romantic self again. Then a couple of weeks later, again on a multi-day sailing trip with just the two of us, the storm cloud returned, but 10 times darker. There was not one element in him of the man who had swept me off my feet.
The charm was turned on at a birthday dinner in Buck's Landing with two of my closest friends, but off again the second we were in the rowboat just me and him. He was ice cold in the narrow bunk; when he poked his head up from the galley at dawn while I was having coffee on the deck; and all the while he steered us home. I prayed for land, and separation. When my feet touched the dock, I told him we were done and could not get to my car fast enough.
Emails (no calligraphy font this time) and a letter followed, wanting to see me, wanting to talk, not having a clue abut what had gone wrong on my birthday sail.
I was relieved to have gotten out, and proud that I had acted so quickly, and I held firm against communicating with him. But then the exciting and fun times we shared took over my mind and with them, doubts.
I missed him. Maybe I should have been more understanding. The shift happened both times on his boat - maybe there was a dynamic specific to sailing we could have worked out.
I called a domestic abuse hotline, and gave the patient woman on the other line a detailed run-down of the high romance and scary freeze. I asked her if it was "domestic or intimate-partner abuse". She said she did not think it rose to that level, but that in breaking up with him I was right to follow my instincts.
Wanting to make sense of it, and him, I reached out to a number of his ex-girlfriends. Each told me about fireworks sex and Cary Grant romance, then sudden disinterest, and an abrupt break-up. Always there were acts of cruelty.
In my Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse exhibit, I have a vase of red roses intermingled with red flags on which are printed warning signs in intimate partner relationships. One of the red flags reads “Sweeps you off your feet.” This vase with flags was in the most visible part of my living room all the while I was being swept off my feet.
A friend of mine found her Prince Charming this year: After a series of abusive relationships she finally connected with a man who talked to her, and listened to her. He moved in to her house quickly.
Six months in, she was paying all the bills and all he was giving was excuses. I told her to get in touch with an ex-girlfriend of his whom we both know. She did, and discovered this woman left him because she was paying all the bills and he was giving only excuses.
- - - - - - / - - - - - -
A Sunday summer lunch in the garden of dear friends. Bees in the wooly thyme on the stone patio, butterflies dancing in the Joe Pye Weed. We were joined by their friend Richard, visiting from Connecticut, who for decades has counseled abusive men, often sent to him by judges in domestic violence cases.
“Fiendish empathy,” he said after I told him my story.
This is when a man puts on a veneer of being empathetic. He has no true and real feelings for her. It is all about manipulation. And this makes him dangerous.
I learned at that lunch that a man does not need to be labeled "a domestic abuser" for you to know that you need to stay away from him.
Follow your instincts.
And when in doubt, call the ex-wife or ex-girlfriends. They know.
After our lunch, my friend wrote that the group hiked Caterpillar Hill and she attached this photo (left). I looked up the quote on the girl’s T-shirt. It is by Audre Lourde, essayist, feminist, activist.
“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”