Susan was halfway to my car when her father said “Not tonight," grabbed a fistful of his daughter’s light brown, shoulder-length hair, and jerked back and down. He was a big man, and for a split second I thought he had broken her neck. Her yelp—a sharp, surprised noise like the kind a sleeping dog makes when you set your chair down on its paw—said she would live. As he began dragging her into the house by her nape, I popped the trunk of my car and grabbed the tire iron. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, only that Susan needed me to do something. When I looked up, her dad was closing the front door. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said. Then Susan started screaming.
I don’t remember driving the mile-and-a-half to my mom’s house, or dialing 911, or what I said to the operator, only that an hour later someone knocked on our front door, and when I opened it, Susan was standing there clutching two garbage bags full of clothes. “My dad told the sheriff he’d shoot you for trespassing if you ever step foot on his property again,” she said. “Also, I need a place to stay."
I was 17 and Susan was 19, and no girl had ever needed anything from me before. I felt mature.
A few days later, I helped Susan move into her mom’s spare bedroom in a mobile home park just outside town. That night, we lay next to each other on her bed and tried to make our breathing inaudible. When we felt like talking, we whispered. Every few minutes, Susan would fall asleep, then start awake at the sound of a door slamming, or a pickup truck idling through the neighborhood. “Please stay,” she said when I told her I should go. “Please. I need you.”
After I graduated high school, Susan and her mom had a falling out, and she shuffled back into my mom's extra room. Every morning that summer, before I left for my construction job, I’d sneak into Susan’s bed. Sometimes we fooled around. Sometimes I’d just lay there and hold her. No matter what happened, she always said the same thing when I pushed off the mattress to leave for work. “Please don’t go. I need you.”
At the end of that summer, a hurricane destroyed our hometown. Susan and I spent the night before I started my freshman year of college essentially camping. Tucked in our sleeping bags, Susan told me she was worried I would fall in love with somebody else, that I would leave and not want her anymore. I told her she was silly, though in my heart, it had occurred to me that college did have the potential to change us. Perhaps she could read this off my face, because Susan suddenly buried hers in her sleeping bag and heaved her shoulders. “I just need you so bad,” she gasped.
Susan found her own place after the storm, and I went home every other weekend that first year to be with her. She pulled up outside my dorm every other Friday night like clockwork, and I'd sheepishly bid adieu to my roommate and duck outside. Even though I packed on 25 pounds my freshman year, Susan would grab me like a canteen in the desert as soon as I shut the passenger door.
Until I got to college, I only thought about what I needed, too. The car needed a new fan belt. The lights needed to be turned back on. Ma needed a job. My little brother needed looking after. I needed better grades. I needed money. As happens to most people during their first year of college, I changed. I started to want money, and better grades, and a job that didn't hurt my back and my knees. In our kitchen one day, Ma said to me that it was ok to feel this way, because wanting is a choice, and people are happier when they can choose. I did not tell her, or Susan, but I knew then that I wanted to be wanted, and that I didn't want to be needed.
Susan and I stayed together for another year while I tried to figure out how to want her and how to make her want me. I told her I wanted us to have sex. She said she needed a commitment from me. I said I would marry her. I got what I wanted, and she got what she thought she needed. It felt like a step in the right direction. It wasn't.
The summer after my freshman year, Susan got a toothache that wouldn’t go away. An oral surgeon concluded that she needed to have all four of her wisdom teeth removed immediately. In the days leading up to the surgery, she had panic attacks during which all she could say was, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” I wanted her to want to get better, but I couldn't make her want that. The day of the surgery, I had to coax her out of the apartment and into the car.
She was in surgery for less than 10 minutes when the screaming started. Without asking where it was coming from or who was making the noise, I shot out of my chair and ran toward the operating room. A frazzled nurse met me halfway. As it turned out, some people are genetically resistant to painkillers and other opiates: You can’t put them under. Susan was one of those people. She had awoken while the oral surgeon was extracting his first tooth from her jaw. Feeling instruments in her mouth, Susan began screaming my name at the top of her lungs.
On the drive back to the apartment, she asked me over and over again what happened, how many teeth they got out, and what took me so long to get to her. Somehow, I was never close enough, even if I was just in the next room.
A few months later, Susan called me at school just before midnight and said she was having a panic attack. Could I make the two-hour drive right then? I was at a party, talking to a girl who, deep down, I had decided that I wanted. But Susan sounded like she needed me, so I borrowed $20 for gas and tolls and drove the 80 miles home. When I arrived at her apartment just before 3 a.m., it took Susan almost five minutes to answer the door. She'd been fast asleep. I spent that Thanksgiving alone, which is what I wanted.