“The bruise is shaped like a penis, Karie.”
Joy laughed to herself and shook her head. It wasn’t the sort of laugh you laugh back at, though. It was the kind of laugh meant to hold back tears. She took a deep breath and scrunched her face in a familiar way, a way I’d scrunched my own face before, a way that says, “No! I will not let myself be a fucking mess right now!” Joy, whose name, like those of the other clients mentioned in this piece, has been changed to protect her privacy, had been single for years, too afraid to date again. By the time she found herself in the chair opposite me, she was in her late 30s and had become a self-proclaimed cat lady. She told me about how, a week before, on a Friday night, while her co-workers were out on dates they’d found on eHarmony or Match.com, she’d been masturbating in the shower again. Her eyes were closed, and she was really starting to get into it, when her cat snuck behind the shower curtain, stuck his paw out, and popped her multiple times, claws out, on the forehead. Disoriented, she tried to stand up and ripped the curtain down, slipping and landing on the faucet.
She found herself standing naked in her bathroom with a dick-shaped bruise on her ass, blood dripping down her forehead, and her closest friend, a Russian blue, licking its paw in the corner. The next night, she signed up for Match.com. After only a couple of days of browsing through profiles, she was overwhelmed and canceled her account.
“That’s why I decided to come to you, a professional,” Joy said, her eyes focused on mine like a bird staring down prey. “Is my soul mate in that filing cabinet, Miss Karie?” I suddenly felt very uncomfortable. I took a sip of my stale coffee and shifted in my chair.
I’d found the ad for this job on Craigslist. It was advertised as an office manager position, which sounded straightforward. As a high school dropout, I wasn’t even sure I was qualified, but I applied anyway. During the interview, my soon-to-be-supervisor dropped the bomb. This “office manager position” was actually a matchmaker position. I had applied to a dating service. Sure, the job would include typical office manager duties like filing, faxing and answering phones, but I’d also be in charge of sorting “compatible matches.”
Every detail I’d noticed since I walked through the doors replayed in my mind: a luxury office building in a fancy area of the city, and a sign that said “Two of Us” on the door. Young people led middle-aged folks to private rooms, closing the doors firmly behind them. I was instantly intrigued.
“Like Millionaire Matchmaker?” I wondered aloud. I pictured the reality TV show host Patti Stanger, with her skintight dresses, perfectly coiffed hair, and brazen confidence. She could whip any shit man into shape and smooth any woman into something desirable.
“Something like that,” he said before offering me the job.
That night, I went home and studied back-to-back episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker. I hadn’t worn a dress in years, but I would need one. Matchmakers wore dresses.
I quickly found that my job would not resemble Patti Stanger’s in the least. This company had been successful in L.A. and then decided to branch out into other cities. The branch I worked for was brand new, which meant there were very few matches for anyone. The beautiful waiting room filled with beautiful employees was a facade. The cold-calling room in the back was stacked with filing cabinets and old paperwork. Most of the employees were just salespeople, carefully selected to be as alluring as possible.
With my ill-fitting slacks, box-dyed hair and press-on nails, I was stuffed into an office in the back, only to be seen by folks who’d already purchased a dating package. I was relatable. I was comforting. I was someone the clients could trust. And yet, I found myself matching people who had nothing more in common than their age. When I complained, I was told to make it work. When I struggled to make it work, I was told to make a fake dating profile on Plenty of Fish to lure new clients in. It would get better eventually, I was told. For now, we just needed to keep people distracted.
I imagined what I must’ve looked like to Joy, sitting at my secondhand desk, surrounded by filing cabinets, holding a blue piece of cardstock with all of her information on it. I was wearing a sweater that was covered in dog hair despite having been brushed with a lint roller twice. Joy looked more like Patti than I did.
Every day, I listened to clients talk about their love lives, and every night I returned home to another fight with my husband. My own dating history had been bleak. I’d lost my virginity to a 20-year-old at 15. I’d quit high school and run away with a boyfriend who got arrested for abusing me. I’d married a man who’d gone to war and been diagnosed with PTSD, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and become addicted to prescribed opioids. I’d found him overdosing on oxycontin once, and when he woke up in the hospital, instead of thanking me for saving his life, he yelled at me because he knew his pills would be taken away. He threw me around and sometimes threatened me with his guns. He was arrested for that once, but they let him go because he was missing a leg. I forgave him many times for that same reason. I was always forgiving him, always coming up with new excuses to stay.
I felt like a fraud. I had no right to give dating advice. And yet, strangers came to my office every day, trusting me with their stories, trusting me to find them a soul mate that wouldn’t hurt them. Many times I promised women things I couldn’t even promise myself.
“I’m looking for a good man. A kind man,” Linda told me. Linda was in her 50s, but she looked like she was in her 40s. She owned a hair salon and had long, wavy hair. My first impression of her was that she really had her shit together. She had just purchased a dating package for a few thousand dollars, hoping that I could help her find a new path devoid of men who would hurt her. She looked at me and smiled. Crow’s feet framed her eyes, her smile was wide and genuine, and her face glowed without a bit of makeup. She was beautiful. This woman deserved to be loved. She pulled out a piece of paper and held it crumpled in her hands. She told me she wrote the letter because there was something she didn’t want to forget to tell me.
“This is kinda weird. I’m sorry.” She cleared her throat and began reading in a robotic voice. “I divorced my husband two years ago. He hit me for over 20 years. I’m afraid of men, but I don’t want to be alone. I am here because I need help.” She looked up at me. “That’s it.”
It wasn’t that all of the women who came to me looking for love had been in abusive relationships. But there were many more than I’d expected, and every one of their stories clung to me. They were reminders that I was not alone, that I was not unique. I remember the urge to share my experience with Linda, to tell her that I understood, to ask her how she got the courage to leave, but it was my job to give her hope. Instead, I told her I’d do the best I could to help her find a kind man, knowing full well I probably wouldn’t recognize one even if he was standing right in front of me.
For so long, I’d thought my relationship was unique. Abuse, I thought, was black and white. It was a strong, burly man who was inherently bad. An abusive man was evil with no redeeming qualities. Abuse to me was black eyes and broken bones; anything less than that was something else.
My husband, on the other hand, moved through the world in a wheelchair or on crutches or a prosthetic leg after having been wounded at war. He had also become addicted to the opioids he’d been prescribed for his amputation, something he hadn’t had control over after so many surgeries. They made him simultaneously pathetic and filled with rage. On paper, he did not fit my image of a stereotypical abusive man. I’d known him since I was 13 years old. I remembered the boy who hugged me in tears after 9/11, the one who went to war, the boy who hoped to one day save up enough money to buy a new trailer for his mama. He spoiled me with expensive purses and told me I was the smartest person he ever knew. His friends knew him to be kind. He gave bear hugs freely. He was a good listener. He was funny.
His rage was justified, I thought. When he chased me through our yard with a gun, when he threw a curtain rod at me that shattered a glass, the shards landing in my arm, I blamed it all on the war that ruined the boy I once knew. One night, he lifted me up by the collar of my coat, his pupils like saucers, and threw me into the kitchen cabinets. He called me a bitch, his hot spit spluttering on my face, because I’d flushed his pills after he passed out in a grocery store parking lot. As I struggled to breathe, I was already forgiving him. I loved him so much, the man underneath all that damage, and I couldn’t find it in myself to blame him.
It was all justified. It was my responsibility to contain his rage, I thought, to create environments that wouldn’t trigger his PTSD, his brain injury, or his addiction. I was the healthy one, the one who’d never seen war. But I yelled at him too. I instigated things when I could’ve kept quiet. I should’ve just kept quiet. It was so much easier to blame myself when he’d sacrificed so much. How stupid, how weak, how terrible would I be if I admitted that my husband who had been disabled by war, who was loved by so many, had abused me.
Not long before I’d taken the job as a matchmaker, I’d written in my journal: As long as I am a good wife to him, I am okay with him killing me. I will have served my country well. I remember writing it down as if making the words physical would help me be all right with the thought of my own murder. He had scared me for so long, his personality shrouded by the haze of drugs and his brain injury. But I loved him too much, and I was afraid of what would happen to him if I didn’t stay. Who would take care of him? I was tired of grappling with what I should do. Stay or leave? Stay or leave? Reading the words on the page didn’t make me any less afraid of dying, but I did feel relief. I’d made a decision, and that felt good. I would sacrifice my life for his if necessary, a much better option than leaving the wounded war hero, than leaving the man I’d loved since childhood.
Now, in my strange new job, listening to other women recount their traumas, I was angry for the women who came to me with stories of abuse. If they’d written in their journals what I’d written in mine, I would have been devastated. I would have told them they were wrong. I would have said that they deserved to live. They were not responsible for their husband’s or anyone else’s rage. Leave, I would have told them. They could do better.
But then I remembered Linda’s story. On one of her visits, she told me the abuse was gradual. It began with name-calling, then her abuser started slapping her on the back of the head if she said something stupid. He threw things at her while pushing her to the ground. He hardly ever left a mark.
My husband had called me names for a long time before the abuse became physical. He hardly ever left marks. I thought that if there weren’t any marks, that I couldn’t call it abuse. I thought that using the word “abuse” would make me look like an attention-seeker, whereas other women had broken bones and bruises. Those women were the ones being hurt.
But finally I asked Linda: “What made you decide to leave?”
Linda snorted and rolled her eyes. “I got sick of feeling like shit, so I left. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Suddenly, I felt validated. I was allowed to be scared and angry. I was allowed to be tired of being treated like shit. I could leave. I could leave and find my own happiness. For the first time, I began imagining what my life might look like if I didn’t have to be afraid and ashamed all the time.
These women had come to my office looking to change their lives, but instead they were changing mine.
On the morning I decided to leave my husband, I’d come home to find all of my clothes in a pile in the front yard, multiple bottles of beer broken over them. I’d gone out the night before with some co-workers for beer and wings. Around 10 p.m., he’d called, but it went to voicemail. When I finally checked it, his voice was roaring. I could tell he was high or drunk or both. His words were slurred, shouting, “Where the fuck are you this late? You’re probably whoring around or something. I can’t believe you left me here.”
I hung up and stayed with a co-worker that night. I imagined how upset he would be when I didn’t come home. He would probably throw things. He would definitely leave more angry voicemails. I imagined him polishing his guns, something he did sometimes to intimidate me. The next morning, I pulled into the driveway and found the pile of clothes. They stunk of stale Bud Light and freshly cut grass. Before picking them up, I looked around to see if any neighbors were watching. I wondered if he was inside. In the past, when he acted like this at night, he’d be in tears by morning. I considered going inside to talk to him, then paused. The voices of all of the women who’d confided in me since I’d started working as a matchmaker echoed: “Don’t you do it! Leave! You deserve better!” I put the damp pile in the trunk of my car and drove back to my co-worker’s house, where I’d live until I found my own apartment.
Women are often raised with the rhetoric that they are lesser than their male counterparts and somehow deserve to be punished for it. If a woman is abused, it is because she said the wrong thing, or wore the wrong thing, or did the wrong thing. And there is this idea that the damaged man has simply been through things women can’t possibly understand that justify his recklessness and his rage. He is good deep down. He can be fixed, and it is the woman’s job to patiently help him do so. I always believed this was wrong, theoretically. I was always ready to advocate for others. But it was so much easier for me to see this pattern in other women’s lives. I struggled to recognize and accept it in my own. It was only after hearing so many stories from other women that I began to see that I was no different from them.
I quit my job as a matchmaker when my husband overdosed a second time and died. He was found lying facedown in a Marriott hotel, a pipe with black residue not far from his body. He’d scraped the medicine from his Fentanyl patch and smoked it, something he told me he’d learned to do in rehab but swore he would never try. When I was informed of his death, I sat in the sun, hoping my skin would burn so hot it would drown out the crippling grief. This was a grief poisoned with guilt. All I could think about was how if I hadn’t left, I could have saved him.
For so long, I hated myself for being so weak. If I’d only stayed a little longer, just a few months longer, maybe he would still be alive. When I told my mom how guilty I felt for leaving him, her response shocked me.
“Honey, I’m afraid if it wasn’t him it would have been you. I’m glad it wasn’t you.” At first, I was livid. I thought it was one of the most insensitive things I’d ever heard. But as time passed, I realized that my mom was right. I could rebuild my life. I accepted what my husband had become, accepted that the addiction, the abuse and his death were part of something bigger than us — a war, an opioid crisis, a culture that teaches boys that strength trumps kindness. I forgave him. And with more time, I understood that it had never been my job to fix him. I understood that I’d never had that power, and I forgave myself too.
I doubt anyone ever found a soul mate through me or anyone else at the dating service. Years later, the owner of Two of Us would be sued and the company would disappear. I decided I don’t believe in soul mates anyway. Who we spend our lives with is a choice, and who we choose reflects our sense of self-worth. For me, I ended up choosing a kind man who respects me, and who would never hurt me. I’m grateful for the women who taught me that that’s exactly what I deserve.