The first few chords of this song always play havoc with my heart. Obscure memory pops up in the first few seconds. Every time I hear this song, I don't think about the first boy who really broke my heart. Not really. He was by no means a preacher's son. Nor was he the nicest guy in the world. But I loved him. Oh, how I loved him. And he ties into it, but what I really think about is a random stranger who inadvertently gave me the courage to leave him.
It was the end of April. I was coming home from college for the summer. The night I came home my boyfriend insisted we go out and celebrate my return. He had bought me a bottle of Vodka, my favorite poison at the time. I really didn't feel like drinking. I knew what was going on. He had been fucking another girl while I was at school. He thought I wouldnt' find out that she had been living with him for the past two weeks. I knew. His own friends had ratted him out. They couldn't stand to see "such a nice girl" be deceived by him any longer. And there he was, acting as though nothing was going on. My heart lurched the whole way over to his home.
We exchanged a perfunctory kiss. "Let's go out." I reluctantly agreed. "What's wrong? You must be tired from the move? Well, you're home now." He smiled at me. I felt like retching.
I knew what I had to do. But I couldn't bring myself to do it, not right then. We walked over to a friend's house a few blocks away. Pulp Fiction was on the television. Everyone was more or less ignoring the movie; smoking, drinking, talking amongst themselves. The movie was just background noise.
I didn't feel much like drinking. My boyfriend kept looking at me with a little more concern every time. "You have barely touched your drink. I make it too strong?"
Wry smile. He was drunk already. "You can't make a straight vodka any stronger than it already is, love."
"Grace, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Ok? I'm just tired. Go socialize. I'll be fine." That was all the encouragement he needed. He and a few others stepped outside to smoke up.
Across the room, someone I hadn't met before was talking to a friend. He kept glancing over, noticing I was paying more attention to the movie than to my surroundings. Absorbing myself into the movie seemed like a better idea than picking a fight with my boyfriend. I knew what I had to do. But I couldn't.
"Son of a Preacher Man" came on. Softly, I sang to myself, eyes intent on the screen. Ignore everything else, focus on this, forget for a while that there is a liar outside, thinking he has you fooled.
Nobody was paying much attention, nobody but this stranger who kept looking at me curiously.
Then he looked into my eyes, Lord knows to my surprise
The look he gave me that night confirmed what I already knew. I was not going to be somebody's girlfriend for very much longer. He didn't know me from Adam. He didn't know my boyfriend very well either. But the look he gave me was plain as day: Come to me.
It unnerved me. He and I engaged in small conversation, him slowly coming closer with each sentence. He laughed and said he always found the song funny. I asked why. He said it was because his father was a minister, and it was just bizarre to him to hear a song like that. For the first time that night, I smiled.
Bein' good isn't always easy, no matter how hard I try
Soon we were directly across from each other, talking, ignoring everything else. For the first time in months, I felt alive, desirable. The man whom I loved at the time did his best to make me believe I was undesirable to everyone but him. I was not worthy of such a thing. And yet here was this person who seemed captivated by me. He was interested in what I had to say - another rarity. Fragile thing I was, I doubted the sincerity in this stranger, but soon it was apparent that he was indeed interested.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend was getting himself very, very drunk, and very, very high. The stranger looked at my boyfriend, and then at me. And I saw a light go on in his eyes; calculating, he knew everything in that minute. Questioned me with his eyes.
I shook my head sadly, no. I whispered "I can't." Grave eyes questioning me, pulling me in. "I love him." He shook his head, and glanced at my boyfriend, who was at that point sitting beside the very woman he had been seeing behind my back. Nerve! This man had it in spades. My propositioner saw what was going on, and he saw that I knew. He murmured that I deserved more, and I knew he was right. He offered to help me, if I needed it.
When he started sweet-talkin' to me, he'd come'n tell me "everything is alright"
Realizing I was upset, he changed the subject. Soon enough we were talking animatedly again, all arms flying and eyes bright. Later was the time for sorrow. Now was the time for light. he was beautiful. We agreed on all the right things, finishing each other's sentences. It was uncanny, but felt good after a long time of receiving only terse answers and mumbled apologies.
As each moment passed talking to this stranger, it became all too clear that I was deceived in more ways than I'd first imagined. It wasn't just a betrayal by another woman. My boyfriend had betrayed me by making me believe I was unworthy of so many things that people tend to take for granted. He had betrayed my trust by abusing my body sexually, the worst possible thing to have done to me. Worse still, as he knew what had happened so long ago. He was high all the time, and rarely remembered anything he'd done, or anything at all for that matter. And now here was this stranger, making me feel more than I had felt in months with the person I was apparently in love with. What do you do with that feeling? What can you do? Impulse. I kissed the stranger.
How well I remember the look that was in his eyes, stealin' kisses from me on the sly
My boyfriend saw. He was furious. He tugged at my arm and hissed that we should go...NOW. I reluctantly pulled away. We said our good-byes to the rest of the crowd. The beautiful stranger gave me another look. You know what you have to do. He shook my hand. I held fast. You are better than this.
I nodded, once, and unwillingly joined my boyfriend on a walk home. Talk was awkward, disjointed. Suddenly we got into a heated agrument about some guy that he had heard me talk about before, someone who was in one of my classes and I had done a few projects with. He insisted something more was going on. Of course, it was a matter of the guilty trying to feel better by making accusations of their own.
I retaliated. I told him what I knew. I told him there was no sense in refuting it; too many people had approached me with surreptitious looks of sympathy, or blatant confessions of their knowledge of his deeds. It started to rain. We walked in stony silence for a few steps.
He was drunk, and I was tired, but there was no turning back once it started to come out. Tears from him, apologies, attempts at kisses that I did not want; I did not ever want to touch him again. He had been with her for months, he confessed. He was just so lonely while I was gone. But I came home every weekend, and sometimes mid-week. It wasn't the same, he said. He told me he loved only me, she was nothing to him. The old lie.
"Nothing is living with you."
More tears, from me this time. A well of years of hurt finally broke. He was emotionally abusive, yes, never physically, no, but sexually, yes. I was tired of being his plaything; I wanted to move on. I didn't need this anymore. We were standing in front of a house he had lived in when we first got together. Now someone else occupied the house. I didn't know whom. I didn't care. We yelled obscenities back and forth in the middle of the street. The rain poured down on us.
Lies, tears, threats. "I'll kill myself if you leave!"
That was the last straw. He tried to grab me and I backed away, terrified. And he saw it then, he knew he had gone too far. Lunging and grabbing at my arms, he forced me to look at him. "I will change. You will see."
He let go and I ran and ran and ran. Shot like a rocket to my house and into my room. Collapsed onto my bed and cried until I was empty.
The only one who could ever reach me...
I never saw that stranger again. Just as well, I suppose, he had that look about him that told you right away he would rip your heart in two without realizing he'd done so.
The boyfriend? It took me months to get over him. He had done so much to hurt me in so many ways it made me physically ill to think about him. Now I can barely remember his face. Sometimes forgetfulness is kind.
But I remember every line, every eyelash, of the mysterious stranger who, obliviously, gave me the courage to do what I had to do.