The burden of the monster is to kill. The veterans are precise, their lure, enticing. Their prey does the work for them, and when their prey realizes its plight, it’s too late, and their prey will blame itself.
I’m 19 years old. It’s winter, 2005.
“Don’t forget to take your medicine,” my boyfriend says. We’re at a steakhouse in downtown Raleigh. “You did bring it, right?”
He rarely takes me on formal dates. He’s romantic when he wants to be, but to dress up, open my car door, buy me flowers, take me to a nice restaurant—just the two of us—is unexpected.
I reach into my pocket and fish out a purple and white pill.
“Good. Now go on, Baby, take it before the waitress gets here.” He smiles and brushes his foot against my leg.
He’s tall and strong-jawed; his arms and chest are powerful; his presence is somehow both domineering and charming. I love these qualities about him—they make me feel safe and are especially attractive when he’s sweet.
The pill in question—my “medicine”—is ephedra: illegal in the U.S., the probable cause in many heart-related deaths around the country, and the ultimate appetite suppressant. He requires I take one before every meal, and when I do, I’m nauseous, I experience severe dry mouth, my heart races, I can’t think. But it achieves its goal: I eat maybe half of what I would.
I ask, “Can I skip this time?” I want to enjoy my meal.
“Justin,” he says in warning.
I know not to press him. I put the pill in my mouth and chase down with water.
I’m underweight for my age. He likes it that way, and that’s the way he’ll keep it, he tells me; ephedra is the delivery system. He sometimes ships it in from Canada, sometimes buys it from friends, sometimes, I think, even from strangers: whatever it takes to make sure his “baby boy” gets his medicine.
Sometimes I skip a “dose” in his absence and, my body only then realizing how malnourished it is, I eat voraciously, and then suffer regret and fear. He’ll find out. He always finds out. The consequences are harsh.
“What do you want to eat?” he asks. This question always sounds like a test.
“Um.” I look at the menu and see a $75 filet mignon. I look at him wide-eyed and innocent—the face I give him when I really, really want something. It usually works. He calls it my “puppy-dog face”; his friends call him “whipped” when he responds to it.
“Aw, you can get whatever you want, Baby Doll.”
“Can I, um, have the filet mignon?”
“I don’t have to, though. It’s expensive.”
“Of course that’s okay. Anything for you.”
Our server arrives at our table. She’s smitten with my boyfriend the moment he speaks.
Our meal is pleasant. We talk about school, how I’m doing in my classes, what kind of internship I’ll take next summer. He tells me he’s proud of me—he always does—and that I’m smart and beautiful.
My friends love him, and they’re jealous of me for having him. He is, after all, charming, gorgeous, successful, and sweet. He goes out of his way to make them believe he’s perfect, so that if I ever considered leaving him, they’d tell me what a terrible mistake it would be.
His trap is a flawless one, and by the time I realize how abusive he is (the ephedra is only the start), it’s too late. Everything is my fault, I know—his fits of rage, threats, all of the horrible things that happen in the bedroom. He apologizes after doing something awful, he promises to change, and then makes me feel guilty for it.
And maybe it is my fault. His ploy with my friends is successful; they tell me how grateful I should be for a guy so wonderful and, when I confide in them, say distrustfully, “A guy like him would never do that.”
An hour into our meal our waitress visits our table and asks and if I’d like my leftovers to go. I look at my plate and realize I’ve taken only a couple of bites.
I start, “Yes, I wou—”
He interrupts, “No, thank you. But it was delicious. He’s just feeling a little sick is all.”
She looks at us suspiciously, but for only a moment, before he sweeps her away.
He says to her, “Gosh, your eyes are beautiful. Hope you don’t mind me saying so.” His Southern accent and the subtle crackle in his voice are irresistible. She blushes as she snaps up my plate, and scurries away. He turns to me and winks.
“I love you, Little Darlin’,” he says. “I love you so much.”