Nina was already at the diner when I strode in, five minutes early.
"I have a massive hangover," Nina said. "So this better be good."
"I'll tell you when Ashley gets here." I opened my menu and zeroed in on the starchy section. "What did you do last night?"
"Nothing. Just went to dinner with Brad. We only split a bottle of wine."
"Nina," I said, reproachfully.
"I know!" she wailed. "It's happening. I'm turning into my mother who gets a hangover from Penne a la Vodka."
We ordered coffee while we waited for Ashley. After ten, fifteen minutes, she was still MIA.
"Her apartment is like three blocks from here," Nina whined. "I'm starving!"
Finally, I saw Ashley stroll past the window. "There she is." I nodded and Nina turned in her seat. "What is she wearing?"
It's been cool-ish in New York these last few days, but most people are still walking around in t-shirts and sandals. Ashley was wearing a full blown chunky black turtleneck.
"Someone's a little excited for fall," Nina said as Ashley sat down next to her.
"You know it's my favorite season," Ashley said, somewhat accusingly, as though Nina was a bad friend for not knowing that.
"Relax," Nina said. "You look cute. I would be sweating my balls off if I were you, but you look cute."
"Whatever, Nina," Ashley grumbled. She opened her menu and stared it down, but I got the feeling she wasn't really reading anything. Nina raised her eyebrows at me.
"Ash," I said, "you okay?"
"I told you I wasn't feeling well," Ashley said, still not taking her eyes off the menu. "But I came anyway, like I always do. Can you just get to it so I can go home and get into bed? What's the problem this time?"
Insert hissing cat noise here!
"I thought you just meant you were hungover like this one," I said, pointing to Nina. "Go home if you don't feel good. Seriously. It's not that big of a deal."
Ashley suddenly dropped the menu and covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders shook, and I could see tears slipping out from underneath her fingers.
"Ashley!" Nina said, shocked. She put her arm around her and held her close. "Oh my God, you are burning up. Take this thing off."
"Stop," Ashley said, shaking her off. "I don't have anything on underneath it."
"Do you want us to go back to your apartment with you so you can change?"
Without saying a word, Ashley nodded.
Nina and I left money on the table to cover our coffee, and ushered Ashley out of the diner.
Once we were inside Ashley's apartment, Nina turned the AC on. "You need to change out of that blanket immediately."
Ashley still didn't say a word. She pulled the sweater off, revealing that she was wearing a white t-shirt underneath. "Why did you say you weren't"—I stopped when I realized what was going on. When I saw the purple bruises on Ashley's wrist, her upper arm, and most worriedly, an ugly one about the size of a thumb on her neck.
"Ashley," Nina gasped. "What happened?"
Ashley bit her lip. "We had a fight last night."
I seriously thought I would throw up right then and there. "Tom did this to you?" As soon as I said his name, a look of defiance passed over Ashley's face.
"I know how it looks," Ashley said. "But he didn't hit me. Things just got heated."
"What do you mean he didn't hit you?" Nina snapped. I know she didn't mean to come across as angry at Ashley, but I could tell that's how Ashley took it. "How do you explain this?"
"We were like, grabbing at each other," Ashley said. "I did it too! But it didn't, like, hurt me. There weren't even any marks until I woke up this morning."
"This is insane, Ashley," Nina said. "I can't believe you're making excuses for him."
"I'm not making excuses, Nina. I'm telling you what really happened. If a guy hit me, I would break up with him in a heartbeat."
"Wait," I said. "You didn't break up with him?"
"I just left," Ashley said. "We didn't break up. I just stormed out. I'm furious. He's been calling me all morning."
"What was the fight even about?"
"Thanksgiving," Ashley said. "I want him to spend it with my family and he wants me to spend it with his."
I was suddenly able to form the full picture of this Tom guy: Whisking Ashley away every weekend to the suburbs, alienating her from the people in her life, his non-existent interest in getting to know Ashley's friends. He was one of those scary-possessive guys you read about in Cosmo and Self! He wants to alienate you from your friends and control you. And Ashley was completely under his spell.
Both Nina and I spent the next few hours trying to talk some sense into Ashley. Well, first, we tried to convince her to go to the ER but she basically laughed at us. "I had more bruises from riding the bull at Johnny Utah's last Halloween," Ashley said. Which was technically true but it just made me nervous that someone had put that much pressure on her neck—enough to bruise it that severely. What if an important vein had been crushed?
We also tried to make Ashley see that she hadn't done anything wrong, but that Tom absolutely, 100% had. "I pushed him first," Ashley said. "You don't understand. It wasn't him abusing me, it was like a couple getting into a tussle."
"Men do not get into 'tussles' with women!" Nina said, exasperated. "Don't you get that this is not normal?"
When we'd run out of steam, Ashley thanked us for our concern in the most emotionless, clinical way possible. "I know you guys are just trying to look out for me," she said. "But trust me. If it was what you think it was, I wouldn't accept that." She shrugged. She had hardened against us; I could see it in her face. We'd somehow managed to make it worse. Now we were the enemy, the ones who didn't 'get it.' Not Tom. It was terrifying to realize just how brainwashed she was.
It was dark by the time Nina and I left Ashley's apartment. We offered to stay, to just hang out and order dinner, but Ashley insisted she wanted some alone time.
"I can't fucking believe this," Nina said, once we were out on the street. It was chilly then, and I could have used Ashley's oversized sweater.
"What do we do?" I asked, helplessly. "Do we call the cops?"
Nina shook her head. "She'll just lie for him. And if he finds out...I'm scared what he'd do to her if he found out."
We walked in silence for a few blocks. "Want to get a drink somewhere?" I asked.
"For the love of God, yes," Nina said.
We ended up at a little wine bar not far from Ashley's apartment. Once we had a carafe of cabernet in front of us, Nina said, "Oh my God! So you never even told me what happened that made you call that emergency brunch."
I shook my head. "I'll tell you, but it seems ridiculously trivial compared to what we just dealt with over the last few hours."
"Give me the most trivial shit you've got," Nina said. "Anything to take my mind off of that."
I ran Nina through the last few days—from the Social Media party up until the text I'd sent Richard. At some point while I was in Ashley's apartment, Richard had texted me back that our friendship was important to him and he didn't want to lose it. 'I've been soul searching,' he wrote, 'Which is lame but is what one does when one gets fired. And maybe you're right? Maybe I just want what I can't have. If I'm not sure, I can't ask you to be sure either. There are a lot of things in my life I want to change right now.'
We agreed to grab lunch in a few weeks, once the dust had settled and it wouldn't be awkward-city for us to be alone together.
"Um," Nina said, when I finished. "You do realize who you're acting like right now, don't you?"
"Ugh," I said. "I swear that name triggers PTSD for me."
"How?" Nina asked.
"It just makes me feel pathetic," I said. "I practically begged him to be my boyfriend and then it all blew up in my face. I honestly wake up in the middle of the night, cringing at how desperate I must have seemed to him."
"Do you ever stop to think that that's why you're keeping Peter at arm's length?"
I wrinkled my nose. "No. But please, give me your thoughts, Doctor Nina."
Nina rolled her eyes at me and took a sip of her wine. "Keep being an asshole and I won't give you my diagnosis."
"I'll pay for the wine," I offered.
"That's more like it." Nina grinned. "What I was going to say before I was so rudely made fun of was this—have you ever stopped to think that you feel rejected by your first two real boyfriends? Your high school boyfriend who swiped your v-card and then broke up with you immediately, and Eric, who cheated on you. Then you have Peter and things get fuzzy, but in your head you may still feel like he chose Elizabeth over you, and then you have Justin, who you also feel rejected you. Aren't you just afraid to go all in with Peter because you're scared you're just going to get your ass handed to you again? But you also don't want him out of your life completely because deep down, so much of your self-worth is tied to having a boyfriend? You always have a boyfriend."
"God," I said. "Your version of events makes me sound like such a loser."
"Oh, the smallest violin in the world is playing for you right now," Nina said. "You've taken down some hot pieces of ass so I'm really not feeling all that bad for you."
"Well, when you put it like that." I grinned.
"I'm really serious though," Nina said. "Do you see a pattern at all there?"
"Of course I do," I said. "But what's the answer? That's part of why I'm hesitant to just lock this down with Peter. I feel like I'm taking the easy way out. Just relying on having a boyfriend to make me feel full and complete. I should be able to feel like that on my own."
"I would tell you if you were doing this because you just wanted a boyfriend. But this thing with Peter, it's special." She finished her wine. "Shit or get off the pot." She climbed off her bar stool. "Speaking of, I'm going to the bathroom."
I signaled to the bartender and he brought me the check. I left a hearty tip—I felt like I needed all the good karma I could get. It was almost 9 PM by the time Nina and I stepped out onto the street, and both of us were exhausted. We agreed to do some investigative work over the next few days and find out how best to support/get through to a friend who is in a situation like Ashley is in. It still felt weird to call it abusive—how could someone as strong and stubborn as Ash find herself with a guy like this?
As Nina tried to hail a cab for herself, I sent Peter a text, 'Hi. I miss you. Crazy day. Brunch tomorrow?' It was true—after realizing what a bad egg Ashley had found, it made me appreciate a guy like Peter even more.
Nina climbed into a cab and waved goodbye at me. "Make good choices!" she called out the window as the car pulled away.
I'm trying to.