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Head over heels (in the worst sense)

VOICES - Jim Forgione
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Have you ever stayed in a harmful relationship out of fear or love? Read one man's journey to break free from abuse.

Greg was intelligent, charismatic, and an alcoholic. We'd worked side by side at a restaurant for several months and, in between frying falafel and throwing salads together, had found common interest in art, classic films, and all things Italian.

One day, a co-worker mentioned, "You know Greg's gay." Apparently, my gaydar hadn't kicked in, but I felt drawn to him. Soon after, I asked Greg out on a date. We met at The Charles to see Ninotchka and went for drinks afterward.

We later walked to the rambling two-story rowhouse he shared with a young man and woman from the restaurant. Their bedroom was in the front; Greg's in the back. After the four of us chatted in the kitchen, Greg and I, still tipsy, went upstairs where I crashed on his bedroom floor rather than walking home. He roused me out of my sleep at one point by kissing me all over my back, but nothing else happened.

I head home the next morning. We didn't discuss what happened, and our work schedules prevented us from meeting again for four days. During that time, I questioned many things but one thing was clear: I wanted to pursue it.

"Hey, cowboy," is how he'd greet me in those blissful, naive days. I got such a kick out of that. My ecstatic mood was short-lived, however.

Two months into our relationship, a darker side of Greg surfaced. We'd often compared tales about our alcoholic fathers, so when my comment, "I think you're an alcoholic" slipped out, it seemed a matter-of-fact observation. Greg's entire being visibly changed.

Six months in, Greg was in a blind rage one late and cold Friday. I ran out of his bedroom and down the stairs, a bundle of clothing underneath my trembling arms. I attempted to put on my tangled garments, desperate to escape into the winter night. He seemed to calm down long enough to allow me to leave peaceably.

I had my bicycle on my shoulder, poised at the ten white marble steps that descended to the pavement, when he kicked me as hard as he could. Fortunately, I cleared the entire staircase and landed on my feet. Pedaling off into the darkness, terrified, alternate scenarios entered my thoughts like photographic evidence: my skull bleeding out on the concrete; my cognition, perhaps even my life, gone.

The inherent symbolism of landing on my feet did little to ease the trauma, even 39 years later. Decades on, a part of me is still not convinced it was trauma; I'm thin-skinned so I must be blowing it all out of proportion.

After all, for nearly a year, I stayed.

My perpetrator felt horrible and swore he adored me. How could I not have sympathy? I can't say if I've forgiven him, but I haven't forgiven myself for protecting my attacker instead of me. If I'd simply screamed "Help!" his two housemates would have come running. Coming out as gay to friends or family, by way of announcing that I was stuck in an abusive relationship, did not seem a viable option.

So I kept it all inside.

The 11 months after the staircase incident, there were occasional good times despite the looming threat of violence. He'd always tell me to be safe going home. I'm in more danger here with you, I thought to myself. I stopped introducing him to anyone because nobody was good enough for him. He eventually was fired from the restaurant as he didn't get along with people, often blaming the waiters and cooks but never himself. I stopped telling him of my daily activities because he'd try his best to keep me as alone and trapped in our two-person drama as possible. I knew it had to end, but I couldn't get out.

Plus nobody had ever loved me like that.

Before Greg, I'd wondered why the abused party didn't simply leave. What kind of fool would put up with such behavior? But when from a young age you're told you're worthless - by Catholic nuns, alcohol-related dysfunction, and homophobia - you might just believe it.

Finding a new job was an initial step in my escape. Another was putting an end to any talk of moving in together. At the end of many long months, I cut him off, needing every ounce of energy and resolve I could summon because he stalked me. He'd show up at my new job and hide behind the shrubs at night near the front door of my building. He climbed up my fire escape and tried to force his way through the locked metal gate of my third-floor apartment window. I had to disconnect my door buzzer nightly to prevent him from waking me at all hours. Each day without him was a hard-won accomplishment.

I went to a police station and requested a restraining order, admitting that I was gay and describing Greg's threatening behavior. The cop acknowledged my fear but couldn't help me as I couldn't prove anything. But it was a step in standing up for myself. I eventually vacated my apartment and moved into a rental house with two friends from high school. This aided the healing process.

Although Greg never found me, I looked over my shoulder in fear for many years.

It's not only the trauma that haunts me but my tolerance of bad behavior. The physical abuse ended with Greg, but I subsequently dated emotionally abusive men. Years of analysis, writing, and Al-Anon have helped me decipher what led to this. However, the challenge remains; I see the red flags but only sometimes heed the warnings.

I gradually changed my romantic path, but I still worry I'll get complacent, let down my guard, and fall head over heels in the worst sense.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text BEGIN to 88788.

Jim Forgione is a landscaper who lives in California and has volunteered in the gay and senior communities for many years. His articles have appeared in the Baltimore City Paper, the Washington Blade, and the Philadelphia Gay News. He recently published his first novel, Surface Tension, about growing up gay in a colorful Italian Baltimore family.

Voices is dedicated to featuring a wide range of inspiring personal stories and impactful opinions from the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. Visit out.com/submit to learn more about submission guidelines. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on any of our stories. Email us at voices@equalpride.com. Views expressed in Voices stories are those of the guest writers, columnists and editors, and do not directly represent the views of Out or our parent company, equalpride.

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