Lauren is pale, with dark circles under her eyes; her normally shiny hair, dull and limp. She gives me a quick hug and glances over her shoulder at a tall, bearded guy in the corner shooting hoops with a miniature basketball at one of those carnival games. Matt. He plays alone. Relief sweeps over her face. She can talk in peace.
We're at a bowling alley celebrating my daughter Sarah's 27th birthday. Lauren and Sarah went to UCLA together—two talented, badass, funny, powerful young women. They're best friends. Or were best friends, until Matt showed up.
Matt is seven years older than Lauren. Handsome. Smart. Successful. He has a good job and a promising future—something in software. I first met Matt at another birthday party a few years before. I found myself in conversation with him. It was a good one. We'd read some of the same books and had a shared interest in architecture. But he was preoccupied. He kept searching the crowded bar for Lauren. They'd just started dating. Lauren, gregarious and fun, was in the corner surrounded by a group of friends. She was telling a joke and everyone listened, enthralled. But when the group erupted in laughter, Matt's face went dark.
Shit, I thought. This is not good.
And it wasn't. Over the next two years Sarah told me stories about Lauren and Matt—about his sulking, his moodiness and his extreme possessiveness. He was jealous of everything and everyone in her life that stole attention from him. At a barbecue Sarah gave for a mutual friend, I watched as Matt ignored everyone, drank until he could barely walk and stalked her. Brooding and angry, he stumbled over, grabbed her arm and whined, "I want to go home." Lauren calmed him down and he floated away only to return a few minutes later and do the same thing.
My daughter was devastated at the loss of her best friend. Lauren had a new job and a list of excuses a mile long that prevented them from meeting for dinner, drinks, even a quick cup of coffee. But Sarah knew Matt wanted to squash their friendship. Even if he weren't trying to isolate Lauren, Sarah would have to go. She was too ballsy and outspoken, a bad influence on his future relationship. But Sarah was also smart. Matt may dislike her, but he liked her boyfriend, Andrew, so she invited them over for dinner. She thought a couple's thing could work.
She was wrong. They'd barely sat down to eat when he insulted, belittled and mocked Lauren. It was obvious he didn't want to be there. Exhausted, Lauren fought back until halfway through dinner Matt played the winning card. He stomped out of the house, forcing her to follow. He was too drunk to drive.
"Has Matt ever hit Lauren?" I asked the next day when Sarah told me about the dinner party from hell.
"I don't think so," she said.
"Would she tell you if he had?"
"Yeah. Of course." But she looked doubtful.
"He's going to hurt her, Sarah. He's a narcissist, possibly even a sociopath. At the very least, he's an emotionally abusive, dominating control freak."
"They're getting married," she said.
"Oh, my God."
Apparently, months ago, Matt had asked Lauren to marry him and she'd said no. She wanted to finish her master's and find a job first. And who knows, maybe she was listening to a tiny voice deep inside herself that screamed no.
But Matt wouldn't take no for an answer. He hounded her. He asked her to marry him every day for over a year. And once they were living together, he asked and asked and asked, sulking and crying and throwing tantrums until she finally gave up and said yes.
What do you do, after a lifetime of experience, when you see a young person making a horrible mistake?
I wanted to warn Lauren. I wanted to shake her and tell her to run, to dump this dude. To see his behavior for what it was—a warning of imminent danger, the flashing red lights of domestic violence waiting to erupt. I wanted to know if her parents knew and what they were doing about it, if anything.
I confessed my fears to Sarah. I told her that Lauren must be warned. That this warning could end their friendship but might save Lauren's life, or at the very least, spare her the inevitable emotional abuse that would escalate more when she was his wife.
"I can't do that, Mom. How can I do that?"
I looked back on my relationships. At my first marriage, to a man 18 1/2 years older than me who refused to let my friends visit, our group of friends consisting entirely of his; a man who would not talk to me for a week if I went shopping with my mother and sisters on Saturday; a man who forbade me to pick furniture, towels, sheets, plates or cutlery, or to shop for groceries alone; a man who planned all our vacations. (Skiing, because he liked it). I wanted to fill the garden with flowers. No. I wanted to paint the walls a soft gray. No. I wanted a dog. Not a chance.
I counted myself lucky that he didn't hit me like the guy I hooked up with after the divorce. I'll never forget being outside the New York City Library. We were at a street fair and running late for something. I reminded him we had to get going and he hit me in the face. It wasn't the first time.
My parents warned me—about my husband and my boyfriend. My husband was too old, and my boyfriend a psycho. And they were right. But did I listen? Of course not. I was in love, and what in the hell did they know? Their experiences had nothing to do with mine. It was my life.
I look back at it now and wish they'd tried harder. But I know it wouldn't have made any difference. I wouldn't have listened. My cousin Jo Ann was 17 when she announced she was going to marry her boyfriend Gary, an 18-year-old surfer. My aunt and uncle begged her to wait.
"Please don't get married. You're so young. Wait a few years. Go to college. Have some fun. We'll buy you a car. We'll send you to Paris."
Jo Ann married Gary in a huge Italian wedding with 300 people. It cost my uncle a fortune. The marriage lasted six months. Jo Ann was divorced with a baby at 18.
I don't know what Lauren endures behind closed doors, what she's hiding, if he's nicer to her now that she's said yes as Sarah believes.
At their engagement party, he said to Sarah, "I'm so happy you and Lauren are such good friends. She loves you so much."
Sarah tells me she listened to him gush about how special their friendship was in an outpouring of drunken sincerity until he finally blurted, "If you two are so much in love with each other, maybe you should get married."
My jaw dropped.
"You're kidding me, right?" I say. "That's horrible. It's passive-aggressive. It's mean."
She shrugs, then hesitates a second and tells me about a recent party, a barbecue. Everyone was taking turns target shooting BB guns at a paper bull's-eye. When Matt finished his turn, he pointed his empty gun at Lauren and mimed a few shots. "Pow pow," he said, pointing the gun at her.
"What the fuck, Matt!" Lauren shouted. Sarah, who was nearby, ran over.
"Give me that goddamn gun!" She grabbed it.
But Matt wouldn't let go. He tightened his grip. Sarah tightened hers. They locked eyes and hung on. They stayed like this for what seemed like hours, but was probably only 30 seconds until Lauren finally said, "Give her the gun, Matt." He released it with a smirk.
I've learned things in my life, most of them the hard way. In ancient times, I'd be revered for my special wisdom. Maybe I could even be a medicine woman. At the very least, my experience would be taken seriously. I want to share this wisdom now but it seems the young hold the power and the old are ignored—particularly older women.
A bowling ball hits a group of pins with a crash. Lauren finishes telling me about her new teaching job. Matt wanders up.
"Hey." He drapes his arm over Lauren's shoulders and averts his eyes. He can barely look at me. He knows, I realize. He knows I know. He takes her hand and leads her to the lanes where they bowl until he decides it's time to go.