The first time I saw my boyfriend Wayne fight, I was at an outdoor party with my girlfriends. He drove into the parking lot in his Jeep. This was 1977. I was 15. He was 19. I’d heard rumors about Wayne’s brawls—that he’d punched out three private school boys at once and that, after losing a football game, he’d beaten up the other team’s star quarterback. I was enamored, though, by his good looks, his country boy charm. I assumed he fought only in self-defense and that, once we became a couple, he’d stop being so violent.
I was about to be proven wrong. On this early spring night, the leaves in their first tender green, I stood on the balcony of a ratty condo complex and watched Wayne get out of his car and walk directly up to a short boy in a letter jacket. He shouted an expletive, then pulled back his arm and hit the boy in the face. When the kid tried to get up, Wayne swung back his Dingo boot and kicked him in the mouth. He kept kicking until the boys lip split and blood ran onto the asphalt. Wayne strode back to his car and drove away.
I stood perfectly still, unable to absorb what I’d seen. I was horrified. I was also thrilled. The punch was like an explosion of truth. Life was boring in Roanoke, Virginia, a town that’s been called the rusty buckle on the Bible belt. The downtown was dead, subdivisions of split-levels and duplexes sprang up along the highway like bread mold. The main activity for teenagers was drinking beer and driving around in cars. There wasn’t much to look forward to. In this environment of small-town boredom and mayhem, it wasn’t only Wayne who fought. At every party, young men went at it until some boy was flat out on the asphalt with his face bloodied. It was the high Greek theater of my high school years, and now I had a part in it.
I understood my role. I was the civilizing female influence. I had worked hard to get the position, willfully transforming myself from a geek to a “pretty girl,” teasing my hair into the Farah Fawcett style and swapping my usual plaid pants and acrylic sweater for rose-colored corduroys, gauze shirts and Loves Baby Soft perfume. I’d caved to the standard Southern idea of femininity and embraced a clichéd idea of masculinity as well. A desirable man was handsome, strong, and wild. Taming and domesticating a man was a woman’s highest calling. “Whipped”—preceded by a common vulgarity for a vagina—was common slang in those days. It meant a guy was under the control of a girl. Boys said it with derision about other boys, but to the whipped boy’s girlfriend it was a high compliment.
Wayne claimed to be whipped, but though I begged him, he did not stop fighting. I knew he was frustrated. He hadn’t gotten a football scholarship like some of his teammates. Two years after he’d graduated from high school, he was still hanging around high school parties and working at the local men’s clothing shop. He’d permed his mullet and wore cashmere sweaters. He couldn’t accept that his football days were over and he receded into a dream world, talking about how he wanted to move to Hollywood. He looked a lot like the actor David Soul, who played Hutch on the TV show Starsky and Hutch. He wanted to be David Soul’s body double. I suggested he enroll in an acting class at the local community college, to take steps toward his dream. He shrugged me off and talked about how much he looked like David Soul, how unfair it was that David Soul got to be David Soul and he just got to look like him.
We fell into a pattern. I’d hear he had gotten into a fight. I’d insist, half-heartedly, that he stop. He’d say he was sorry and agree. There’d be a period of calm and then he’d fight again and the whole cycle would start over. When I asked him what provoked the fights he was always vague. Some guy had sneered while he was talking, somebody said something rude about his neighborhood. In Roanoke, the South’s honor culture was strong. A young man, when disrespected, felt he had to retaliate.
One part of me knew I should break up with Wayne—he never hurt me, but there was always the chance that he might—but my more atavistic side liked how his periods of violence sucked all of life to a pinpoint and placed me in a drama bigger than myself. This was before teens could be goths, or punks, and I had no way of acting out myself, of embracing and processing my dark emotions. I needed Wayne to do it for me. His volatility made him sexy. He was country, even redneck, as my girlfriends said, with the feral beauty of a wild animal. In the middle of the night, he often came to my bedroom window and whispered my name. He’d been out drinking and fighting. I’d recognize the burnt electric smell tinged with iron. It was not unusual for him to have a smear of blood on his shirt or hands. I’d raise the screen and he’d climb into my room and we’d lie on the floor making out. I’d feel a warm pool of pleasure rising up around me. When I’d come out of it, I was flushed, disoriented, the crotch of my underwear soaked.
Our relationship didn’t so much end as peter out. I realized Wayne had no intention of moving to Hollywood, let alone actually studying the craft of acting. I wanted to be a writer, and while I was no closer than Wayne to my goal, I was filling notebooks with my poetry and story ideas and reading one novel every week. Wayne’s fighting began to seem less dramatic and more pathetic. It was like he had fallen down a hole and I was too lazy to throw him a safety rope. I started to date an even older guy, a man in college, a hippie with a Labrador named Nella and a beat-up Dodge Dart. He loved the outdoors and dreamed of moving to Colorado.
Wayne still came every few weeks to my window and I still let him in. He was a little drunker and angrier now, but our physical connection was as primal and hypnotic as ever. When he stopped coming to my window, I’d drive by his house, hoping to see him in the front yard.
I graduated high school and went away to college, where I worked on my prose and consciously went out with skinny intellectual guys, young men who felt the idea of fighting was ridiculous. I also started writing what would become my first novel, finding a safe way to explore the sources and parameters of darkness. In one early scene, a man throws a beer bottle at his girlfriend. The bottle shatters against a fence post, shards of glass slicing her lip, cheek and chin.
I didn’t see Wayne again until the mid-1980s. I’d graduated college and was visiting my mother before I flew to California for a writing fellowship. My parents were divorced by then, and my mom was living in a one-bedroom duplex. To get out of the house, I asked if I could borrow her car, and I drove down the highway and turned off into Wayne’s neighborhood.
I’d heard he’d quit his job at the men’s store and now worked for a photographer who took school pictures. He still fought occasionally, I was told, behind the Ground Round restaurant across from the mall, in a sprawling parking lot lit by dusk-to-dawn lights. As I approached I saw his parent’s modest red-brick ranch. I’d nearly turned away when I saw him standing in the driveway washing his car. Through a spray of high hose water, I recognized his body, blurry but strong, his beautiful face and blonde hair. I felt an undeniable tug toward him, a charge fueled not only by his presence but also by the familiar possibility of violent oblivion. Before he saw me, I had the good sense to push on the gas, speed down his street, and merge back with the other cars on the highway.
Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury 2007, A New York Times Notable book) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989, A New York Times Notable book). Her new novel, Sister Golden Hair, will come out in Fall 2014 from Tin House. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited(Little, Brown 1997). Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Review, Vogue, Spin Magazine, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian. Her web-story "Blindspot" was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, The American University of Paris, and Princeton.