“Borderline: A User’s Manual,” by Marian Crotty

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Nonfiction by Marian Crotty from our Fall 2011 issue.

Admit to yourself that straight girls don’t usually spend four hours a day masturbating themselves numb to “The L Word,” stop sleeping with men altogether, and you might just find her. When you do, it will seem like fate. She will be beautiful and smart with just enough swagger to let you think she might like women. A PhD student at the school where you adjunct. Perhaps, when a friend asked what type of woman you might like, you even said her name. Maybe, years before, when you saw her for the first time, strutting across a parking lot with her long dark hair and mirrored sunglasses, you thought, “I really need this girl to love me,” and were disappointed for weeks to learn she had a fiancé.

It will be years later, after the fiancé and successive boyfriends are out of the picture, that a throwaway line from her—a stupid line you don’t believe about women being the subject of art because their bodies are more aesthetically pleasing—will make you flirt. What you say at this point does not need to be smart, is better maybe, if it’s clumsy, gross, and nervous. “Oh yeah? You like women?” Or, “So do you think I’m more aesthetically pleasing than that guy?” The point now is that you must grin at her as though she were the answer to your life. Blush a little. Fidget with the condensation on the edge of your pint glass. Say things like—“I want to know everything about you.” Or, “The more I know you the more I like you.” Declare your intentions. This display of affection would scare off another person, but she will giggle and send you an e-mail telling you what a beautiful person you are.

To increase tension, leave immediately for a teaching job at an academic summer program on the east coast. The miles apart will provide an opportunity to send each other baby pictures and poetry, to ascertain each other’s greatest fears and wishes. She will decide to visit for four days in July, during the break between teaching sessions. Over e-mail and on the phone, you will decide to take things slow. Neither of you has had lesbian sex before, and the two of you have not even kissed—but when she appears at the top of the escalator at the airport, high-heeled and smiling, she is so beautiful that you cannot breathe. While you are driving from the airport, she will tell you to concentrate on driving, that you seem distracted, and you will say, “Of course I’m distracted! You’re sitting there beside me, looking like that. I can’t concentrate on driving. I can’t concentrate on anything!” She will consider this very funny.

When you first have sex two days later, your body should feel unhinged. It will be midafternoon in the back bedroom of a beach hotel with homemade polyester curtains and a picture of a sailboat with a crooked jib, your skin still warm from bobbing along in the ocean. Undressed, she is a perfect squirming S. You will not know how to touch her, but she will moan anyway, and when it is all over, you will get to the good part, which is her body held between your arms, the air in the room gone light and buoyant, and you will know, finally, that this blind, stupid giddiness can only be love.

The night before she flies back to Arizona, she will cry a little, tell you how safe and loved she feels, how she’s never felt this way, how she doesn’t want to leave you, and even though you’ve spent just a handful of days officially together, this declaration does not seem at all like a thing that should scare you.

With the two of you in the same city, what was giddy will become electric. When you are not coiled together under sweaty sheets, applauding your love, you are holding each other with clothes on, confessing your deepest, darkest secrets.

Tell her about the eating disorders in your family—about how you first started hating your body in second grade at fifty-eight pounds, spent much of college exercising too much and more than once, because of it, fainted in class. Admit to her the handful of men you’ve slept with, what it was like trying to fall in love with them, and she will tell you that each of them is lucky for having had the chance to be close to you.

Her stories will be terrible and numerous. When she was eight years old, a babysitter cut her head open by hurling a pair of scissors across the room. When this babysitter was fired, the next woman made her play a “secret game” that involved her mouth and the woman’s naked body, a face full of soap afterwards to cover up how bad she’d been. When she was ten, the boys in the neighborhood lined up to watch her give her nine-year-old boyfriend a blowjob—her two brothers collecting entrance fees in a coffee can and keeping the money, telling her she would have to do all of their chores for them if she didn’t want their mother knowing what a little slut she was.

Her mother and stepfather hit each other with whatever was handy—fists, plates, a phone receiver. Once, her mother put a knife in his arm.

Her father, a tugboater, the hero of most stories, the one adult who took the time to listen to her, molested her when she was fifteen.

She will tell you that when she was twelve years old and old enough to know better, she used to dress up like Peter Pan. She had a sword cut out of a silver Nordstrom bag and a feather from a dustbroom. She was terrified, she says, of growing up and becoming a woman. She was convinced growing up that she had been molested out of a misunderstanding—that people had looked at her the wrong way and instead of seeing a girl, they saw a woman. She says the turning point of her life was junior high when she had her first black teacher, a big man with glasses who played records of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, and that listening to these speeches in the back of the classroom is what made her decide that she could be a good person after all.

It is this yearning to be good that will make you forgive her anything. She is wounded and damaged, and you are the only one who understands that this is the kind of thing that has effects in adulthood. A person with a background like that cannot be expected to be on time, manage her money, predict her emotions, reciprocate during sex. A person with a background like that needs to be taken care of and loved.

At the restaurant where you work, the college-boy waiters will say you must be good in bed to get a girl so fucking hot and ask if this means you are gay. “Are you going to just sleep with girls now?” they say. “Do you think you’ll ever sleep with a man again?” When you explain that you hope the two of you will never sleep with anyone else ever again, that you are planning a long life with just the two of you in it, that when you finally met her you knew you would never have to worry about being gay or straight again because who you were was a person designed to love and be loved by her, they will stop asking you questions and find something to do in the kitchen.


In October, she will slip on the phone with her brother and say, “Yeah, well. Dad is one to talk. He has done things to me that you would never believe.” The next day he will recruit the other brother—both of them successful in the business world, men in suits well practiced in forcing the sale—for a series of phone interviews, and the story will unfold. They are uncertain about what to do. “Can you see how this might be harder for me?” the first brother says. “Having to decide if I want to give up on our father?” In the moments when she is not crying—alternating between the belief that her father was a good parent except for this mistake and remembering being in high school and college and having him send her roses and brag to her that he could always, no matter what, make a woman come— she tells you that it was your unconditional love that gave her the strength to confront him. Months later when he has a heart attack and tells the family it is grief about her that broke him, she will repeat this sentiment about your love helping her make changes, but it will sound like a demand. You told me I was strong enough to do this and I’m not. Fix it.

For the most part, you will be happy to sign on for life. It is true that you rarely go more than a couple days without crying, that fights seems to explode out of nowhere—that one day reminding her to take her asthma medicine will make her feel protected and the next day feel so agitated that she screams at you to back off. Tells you, I’m not going to be in relationship with someone who controls me, but it is also true that you are an easy crier—happier to collapse than to engage in conflict. It is cowardice, really, that makes you cry so much—an unwillingness to withstand criticism and debate—a thing you can work on. When you make a bet that you can go a week without crying, she snuggles close and giggles. “My little fretter,” she says. “My little worrier. I’ll take care of you.”

She is right, you know, partly. You like to worry about things. You have an entire genre of baby pictures devoted to the fret—solemn mouth and big blue eyes staring up at the camera—age three and concerned. You have never liked uncertainty and even though her impulsivity makes your stomach drop—pounding on the car window of a drunk college kid who swerves into the bike lane at a red light, spending two hundred dollars at a bar to buy margaritas for all of her colleagues—she is teaching you to stand it. Without her, you would never have flown to Seattle for a weekend or taken off your clothes in a park. Without her you would never have fallen in love.

Decide that it is hard work to be in love—harder work the more you love, that other couples find it easier because they do not really know each other. The two of you are different—melded magnets, two lost souls burrowing toward something true and important. In the very beginning, when you first got together, you sent her a Margaret Atwood poem about crawling inside someone’s dream and keeping him safe, edging the body into the another’s subconscious—and now, the more time that passes, the surer you are that this is absolutely the most romantic thing you have ever heard—that burrowing into each other’s souls is the only thing that is real or necessary.

Only occasionally in the first eight months will  you emerge for a party or to watch a movie with friends, and even then, these appearances mostly serve as opportunities to brag about how happy you are to have found one another—a chance to see other couples who have some distance between them and who must not yet know that being in love means losing a little bit of yourself in exchange for the whole—blending two people together so that you could not say where one of you begins or ends.


Although you will fight a lot—almost every day, the kind of fighting that ends with broken dishes and heaving, violent tears—it must not occur to you that moving across the country together will be anything but blissful. She has just confronted her father about the abuse, cut ties with this man who used to be her confidante, outed him to the family as a pedophile, endured months of interrogations from her brothers about where exactly he touched her and when; it is no wonder this has been a particularly difficult year. No wonder that sometimes she screams at you for touching her arm or putting a glass on her coffee table without using a coaster. Florida, and your Ph.D. program, will be a new beginning.

When you get to Tallahassee, you must operate as a singular unit. Deposit both of your funds into one account and pay both of your bills. You are good with money, and she is not, and this means you will take care of everything. When she returns from the grocery store having spent $263 on French cheese and wine and handmade pasta, you will tell her this makes you uneasy.

“We have bills,” you will say. “And not a lot of money. We can’t keep the lights on if you keep spending money like this.”

It makes you dizzy, confronting her, because you know she will tell you she is sick of being treated like a child, sick of you monitoring the one thing in her life that makes her happy in this stupid hick town. By the time she runs up to the bedroom, you will be crying and pacing, but if you open the front door, she will scream, “If you walk away from me, I’m out of here. I didn’t move halfway across the country to be abandoned.”

It will never take more than an hour alone, hyperventilating, imagining what it would mean to unhitch your life from hers, before you crawl upstairs and beg her to love you. In these moments, you will know what it feels like to lose her—to disappear again, to become the type of person who can spend years at a time floating.


It will be hard to say who’s right. She means to be dependable—teaches three classes online to pay bills, does most of the cooking and cleaning—and so what if she can’t ever manage to be less than thirty minutes late, if she spends fifty dollars a week on dystopic indie music, if whenever she has work due for her graduate program, you must stop your own work and stay up until three a.m. encouraging her and getting yelled at? Often, she will become so stressed out by her students’ e-mails asking for clarification and feedback that she will give you the password to her e-mail account and have you respond to her students and to her professors and keep track of the departmental deadlines she needs to meet. If you complain that you cannot breathe, that you too are in graduate school, she will remind you that she moved across the country to support you, that she may seem difficult now, but that everything will soon be better—that some day in the future, she will get a good job and she will be the one taking care of you.

Decide to believe her. Decide that you are helping each other to grow up and that one day you will have two children together who will benefit from all of this progress. Tell your friends, “I’ve never had my heart broken before, and I won’t survive something like that at this age. It’s like getting chickenpox in your twenties. It’s a bad idea.” When she tells you no one else can ever love you this much, you know that she is right. When she is happy with you, you are her exalted hero—a brilliant writer and scholar, the kindest, most beautiful woman in the world. No one is happy all the time, and at least you are adored.


In January, five months after you moved to Florida together, she will get sick. At first, it will be asthma, then pleurisy, then rapid heartbeats, but soon it will be everything all at once. She is dying, she says. There is something, terribly, horribly wrong with her and when they finally figure out what it is, you will be sorry. When you are not waiting with her in the emergency room at the one hospital in town that takes the uninsured, you will be at home, on WedMD, trying to convince her that PTSD can manifest itself in the body, that you believe her pain, but that she is not dying. In one month alone, she has four CAT scans, six EKGs, two echocardiograms, more than a dozen x-rays. She is pretty and convincing, a Ph.D. student, after all, and the doctors at the free clinics and the Patients First Centers and the hospital want to help. Maybe someone has missed something.

At home in your apartment, the good times will be the moments when she is sleeping or momentarily distracted by a sitcom. She has quit her job and has the whole day to sit on the couch, shaking, worrying, and not eating.

You are permitted to leave the apartment for class, but otherwise you must comfort and strategize about treatment and how you will pay for it. When you start to get migraines and bad grades, she will sense your devotion wavering and remind you that you cannot leave her. You are all she has. She has moved across the country to be with you. In sickness and in health, she says. This is the sickness part.

When you send an e-mail to her mother, asking for help and advice—the woman who is now an executive at a major company, who now owns a house and two boats, the woman who should feel fucking wrecked and guilty for giving your girlfriend the kind of childhood that can only break a person apart—she will tell you that love is a sacrifice and that perhaps you should get another job or two and drop out of school. Being in a graduate program is a privilege and not a right, she says, being with another person means you have to make hard choices.

Make an appointment with a psychologist on campus to get information about PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder. Though she resists mental health labels and suggests that the ER doctors who give them to her without proper tests are lazy, misogynist egoists who would rather say that she is crazy than admit that they can’t help her, she fits the DSM criteria for both. If you have more information, maybe you can help her and then write a book critiquing “the system.” A memoir of healing trauma through unyielding love.

You will not have an hour to yourself in a very, very long time. Spend the one you get crying and looking out the window at the college students throwing a Frisbee on the quad like life is simple and easy. Instead of giving you materials about how to help your girlfriend, the grad-student therapist suggests you might need to take care of yourself—that it might be a good idea to learn how to make some boundaries. It is not your responsibility, he says, to fix another person. This sounds delicious but untrue.

Start slow. Say, “I cannot go to all of your doctor’s appointments with you.” Say, “I cannot support us both financially.” Say, “I need at least one hour every day for my schoolwork.” She will ask why you are abandoning her.

Within a week, she will have made plans to move back to Arizona, where she can go to Student Health every day for free. Flying is out of the question—too much air pressure on her lungs and chest. She doesn’t want to take a bus, and so you drive her six hours to New Orleans and the train station. You have brought a friend for backup, but still, at night, she clings to you and shakes. She says, “I might not be able to do this. I might need for you to take care of me a little longer.”

An hour after you have left her at the train station, she will  call and says she wants you to come back and take her to the hospital. She is breathing funny, she says. She might need another test. This is different. This is urgent. “Please don’t be another person in my life who’s given up on me,” she says. “I’m counting on you.” Decide that if you go back to Tallahassee, if you don’t turn the car around and rescue her, she will go to Arizona and get help. Instead, she walks to the hospital. After she has tests that tell her she is fine, she sits in the emergency room for three days, afraid to leave. She is dying, and you have abandoned her.


Eventually, after taking a few days off in Houston to go to more doctors, she will make it to Arizona, where she will spend most days in Student Health or the emergency room. People you barely know will call and tell you they are emotionally drained, that she is a hypochondriac, that she needs “major, major help.” Spend at least three hours every day on the phone, pleading with Student Health to get her psychological intervention, asking ER nurses if they can help you develop a longterm plan. You have memorized her health records and social security number and educated yourself about  PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder, which sometimes makes the nurses talk to you and sometimes makes them yell. In any case, no one has a solution.

When you talk with her, she will sometimes tell you that you are just like her family, that have abandoned her and are now trying to compromise her healthcare with lies about her mental health and that she will never forgive you. She is acting the way anyone would act who lost her father, her partner, and her health in one year, but you can’t cut her a break. You only loved her when she didn’t interfere with your writing and schoolwork.

Other times, she will tell you that she misses you desperately, that you are the only person who ever understood her and that she needs you.

Break up with each other several times a week, but eventually decide that you are tied together—that you helped each other get to this point of unhappiness and must undo the damage together. Implement rules. She can call once a day but e-mail as much as she needs to. She can talk about her schoolwork but not her health. You will not suggest that she needs psychological help, and she will not call you abandoner or a traitor.

You will not believe, no matter how many psychologists and helpline nurses tell you, that you must choose between sacrificing your life and cutting off contact, that untreated borderlines do not do boundaries or friendships. You require proof. You must watch her skip the appointments you’ve helped her set up with primary care doctors in favor of weekly, sometimes daily, trips to the ER. You must see her break her promises to stop calling you after midnight. You must see her most loyal friends become exhausted and scared. When you finally break up for good, you will resort to short, declarative sentences over e-mail, and a couple hours later, an old man, the former heroin-addict husband of her hippie friend and colleague—the only people who believe that your girlfriend’s health problems are real, that it is the establishment that has poisoned her with radiation and failed her—calls to scold you. “You are a sick person to crush someone who’s hurting this bad,” he tells you. “Someday you will need help. You will find yourself with no one, and you will deserve it.”

Try to, as your grad-student therapist at the university says, disengage. Focus on your schoolwork and on your own mental health. Stop using the e-mail passwords she’s given you to see what she’s saying about you. Ignore her phone calls even when she leaves messages with your friends that say things like, “I just want her to know I’m in the hospital, and they’ve found something. Probably, it’s cancer.”  Even so, you will cry so much that your eyelids swell together. You think about nothing but her, about how, if you had handled things differently, if you hadn’t moved across the country together, she wouldn’t have fallen apart. About how without her you don’t know who it is that you are. Convince yourself that the no-contact guidelines are bullshit and decide that you can check in with each other. She will like this new leniency. She has hurt you and now she wants to makes things better. She has traumatized you and wants a chance to help you heal. She takes out a loan and sends you thousands of dollars to help with the thousands of dollars she’s spent on medical bills. Instead of returning the money, pay bills and buy a plane ticket to see her in Arizona after the spring semester ends. This makes her so happy that you think it will fix things. If you can speak with her doctors and help her sort out her finances, she will be okay. You can make this work.

When you see her, she will be thin and pale, wearing a gingham sundress you’ve never seen before. She will rent an apartment in the complex where you used to live, a big stucco building with a fountain in the middle, planes hovering overhead on their way to the airport. Within an hour, you will be naked in her bathtub, crying, but she will wait until the middle of the night, snuggling on her mattress between panic attacks to tell you she needs you to move to Phoenix for the summer and take care of her.

“I have class,” you tell her. “I’m in a PhD program.”

She will nuzzle your neck and wrap her arms around you. “I need you,” she will say. “It won’t be like this forever. This summer you take care of me, and when I get better, I’ll take care of you.”

Shake your head slowly, but when she says you can think about it, tell her you’ve already decided. “No,” you say. “I’m not dropping out of school. No.”

She will jump from the bed, screaming, run to the bedroom closet and wrap a computer cord around her neck. “I’m going to hurt myself,” she whimpers. “I’m going to hurt myself, and it will be your fault.”

In the morning at student health, tell the doctor she needs immediate help, that the night before she threatened to kill herself, but instead of helping, the doctor will call in back up. Psychological services will suggest further evaluation, will tell you that they want you to drive downtown and give a statement about her mental state, and she will flee. Rent a car. Decide that if you do give a statement, she might get help. Decide that you are not a traitor. You have the keys to her apartment and so you will decide to pick up your things before she returns, but she is sitting on the bed eating Thai food.  “Hey,” she says. “That was weird, huh? Are you hungry?”

Tell her you are leaving for a bit—that you will see her soon. That you just need a minute, but when you reach for your suitcase, she will tackle you and tell you she is going to hurt herself and that it will be your fault. When a friend calls to see if you are okay, say, “Sure, I’m okay, but she has locked herself in the bathroom with a razorblade. She says I am not going to leave.”

When your friend calls the police, this will seem like a betrayal, but also a relief. You will be allowed to leave. They will arrive to find you running after your girlfriend in the parking lot, crying. She has just taken your wallet and phone and told you she will lock herself in your rental car so that you cannot leave her.  Because you are the one who is crying, the police will decide you are the crazy one. That you need to be patted down for weapons and watched. Even after you’ve given them the number of the therapist who scheduled the assessment, they will tell you, “You are not free to leave. What do you think this is, a joke?”

For an hour, you will stand on the opposite sides of the parking lot, squinting at the sun and crying, each being monitored by a different police officer, and this will seem like the hard part—like the very last thing you must get through before she is well and you are free. At this moment, watching the police officer examine her neck for ligature marks, check her pockets for weapons, you will not imagine the love letters and threatening phone calls, the messages she leaves with your boss telling her that you’ve stolen money and abandoned her. You will not think she will send you an engagement ring in the mail or drive across the country and reclaim her belongings from the apartment where her name is, after all, on the lease. You will not think that almost a year later when you receive phone messages begging you to love her the way you promised, that your heart will skip a beat, deciding. You will imagine instead that she will be taken to a hospital, where someone else can listen to her and make her well, that somehow down the line, she will become the person you fell in love with—that somehow, the two of you will walk away from this and be just fine.

Image: Chase, Louisa. “Fire and Rain.” 1982. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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