I Married Jordan Catalano
It took "My So-Called Life" to make me realize that the relationship that made me feel so grown-up was toxic teenage love
While we were walking home from dinner one night, my mother asked, “Why did you marry him?” No name, no context, as if she’d been stewing on it for blocks.
I said, “He asked me to.”
In most conversations, this would lead quite naturally to follow-up questions: sure, he asked, but didn’t you think about what you wanted? Did you have a plan for where you would live? What about money? He had no job and you were a student; how on earth were you two going to support yourselves? But my mother remembered the man, remembered the relationship and the way I was in his thrall. All she could do was change the subject. He asked me to marry him, and I did it, because he asked.
I came of age during the supremacy of the teen melodrama—think Skins, or Degrassi. Very Special Episodes ruled the day, whether they were about drugs or sex or, very rarely, a third thing. Ensemble casts were a must, the better to inflict the widest possible range of traumas on a show’s characters. Visiting such a range of trials on a single central character would have strained credulity, but spreading those trials around the show’s cast made their relentlessness more believable. Overall, the shows were riveting but hard to take seriously, even then. My fondness for them stemmed from my general inclination towards campiness. I liked big hair, big style, big problems.
As such, My So-Called Life didn’t appeal to me much. Oh, I’d watch it if it happened to be on, and I accepted Jared Leto as a heartthrob with the grace of any teenager who understands what she’s supposed to find attractive. (He wasn’t my type, but that didn’t matter—he only needed to be a man over whom I could ostensibly fawn. The particulars were unimportant.) But I had missed the boat on the show in minor but unignorable ways. It had aired for only one season in 1994, and it looked very ‘90s in a way that I couldn’t ignore from my vantage point in the ‘00s. The episodes were longish, an hour apiece, and moved much more slowly than did my beloved Degrassi. And the overall tone was subtle. On early viewings, I missed a lot, looking as I was for soap-opera splashiness. I missed the show’s understanding of youthful romantic agony, the way those early miseries echo off the walls of your life forever, dampening in intensity over the years but never really going away.
Now, of course, we’re so familiar with the timbre of prestige television that we expect realism from everything we watch. But in 1994, realism in TV for teens was a rare thing. The era’s critics adored protagonist Angela Chase, played to brooding perfection by Claire Danes, for her introspectiveness and her slangy teenage wisdom. (Sample line from Angela’s narration: “What I, like, dread is when people who know you in completely different ways end up in the same area. And you have to develop this, like, combination you on the spot.”) They’d never seen those massive teenage feelings demonstrated with such verisimilitude before. But I, full of massive teenage feelings myself, couldn’t relate to those feelings when they were demonstrated so subtly. I didn’t have an ear for the quietude in the show’s depiction of heartbreak, isolation, heartbreak, longing, heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak.
The moment I met the man who would eventually become my husband, I was smitten. I’d been waiting for him at the top of the Woodley Park Metro escalator, watching the clusters of people emerging from the trains unloading at the station. He was five minutes late, then ten; more and more trains disembarked without him on them, and I was about to leave when I heard a deep voice say, “Rax?”
Red flags abounded: he already had a girlfriend, he began borrowing money from me immediately without ever paying it back, he was interested in nothing except sex and partying. But I felt there was nothing I couldn’t conquer. The redder the flags, the richer the terrain in which they were planted, or so I thought. I was 19.
Part of me was just plain stubborn about our problems—the classic “I can fix him” attitude of beleaguered lovers everywhere. He was a fixer-upper in every sense, and I always did like a challenge. But also, he seemed utterly devoted to the art of being a boyfriend. I hadn’t seen anything like it since high school, when an early relationship feels so destined to end in marriage that its participants throw themselves into it with destructive gusto. Nobody has ever brought me as many flowers as he did; nobody has ever given as many gifts. When we weren’t fighting, he was so complimentary and adoring that it became embarrassing, which of course only made his ardor all the more charming…when we weren’t fighting.
At the time, our fights felt very adult. I’d had boyfriends before, but none who had cared so much about whether I spent time with my male friends or what I wore out of the house. I liked the monitoring at first. It felt like care. Plus, of course, the surveillance never stood alone—he always sandwiched it between gift-giving and ostentatious date nights at places we couldn’t afford. When he picked fights with me, the foundation supporting those fights was always his love for me, and my inexplicable need to reward his devotion by wearing too-slutty outfits to class.
Some part of me has always been good at being bullied. I like the sense of order inherent to the relationship between bully and target. I learned the rules, ironically enough, from the anti-bullying craze of the late ‘90s—every school assembly, every Very Special Episode in which a bully faces his comeuppance. Following rules suits me, and he rewarded me handsomely for following his rules, at least at first. By the time his behavior escalated enough that I was comfortable calling it abuse, I had nowhere to go.
Whenever we had sex, he’d burden my body with the entire weight of his much bigger and heavier one. Early into our relationship, I said, “Can you prop yourself up on your elbows or something? You’re crushing me.”
He laughed and said, “No, I’m not.” And from then on, when I felt crushed under him, I’d tell myself that it wasn’t because he was crushing me.
After a year or so, my father and I devised a way to buy me some time away from my husband. My father was already sick and, though he was too ill and broke to offer much material help getting away from my husband, had given me blanket permission to blame his illness anytime I needed to escape. “Tell him you need to take care of me and come over,” he said often. “We don’t have to talk about it. We’ll eat whitefish salad and watch TV.” As the months dragged on, I needed more and more whitefish salad and TV, until whitefish-and-TV time far outweighed the time I could force myself to spend in my marital home.
I was sleeping on my father’s living room sofa. The coffee table was littered with the debris of my temporary freedom: weed baggies containing only seeds and stems, empty contact lens cases from which the saline had long evaporated, crumpled up deli paper from the Jewish deli whose wares my husband had proscribed from our household for being too stinky and fattening. My father’s Shih Tzu kept ambling past this disaster zone and gazing up at me balefully. I didn’t know how to explain to him that I didn’t like the way I was living, either.
When my mother and I watched TV together, it was a loose, communal activity, full of chatter. Not so with my father. His hearing had gone, to the point that he kept his TV at wall-rattling volumes; he could abide no distracting chitchat. So when I came home from the grocery store one day to find him watching My So-Called Life, I knew to wait until a commercial break before offering commentary.
At the break, I said, “I used to watch this in high school.”
“What? You hated this show. You made me watch that other thing all the time. Degrassi something.”
“I didn’t hate this show,” I said. “Just thought it was boring.”
“Boring?” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
I’d walked in on a great episode. Jordan Catalano, played by Jared Leto, is supposed to swing by Angela’s house to pick her up for their first date but stands her up, displeased at the thought of meeting her parents before being permitted to go to the movies with her. Angela bustles about her house in her date outfit as the minutes drag on, never doubting him for a moment. Her parents know what’s happening before she does. Her excitement ferments into humiliation as she realizes he’s not coming.
The next day, Angela’s friend Rickie asks Jordan why he didn’t even bother to call her to tell her he wasn’t coming. His response was, “She just makes too big a deal out of everything. She makes everything too complicated.”
She makes everything too complicated. It was, word for word, what my husband had said about me when he realized I was angry at him for staying out all night with “just a friend” without calling.
The channel was running a marathon of the entire show. My father and I watched it into the wee hours, and when it replayed from the beginning, I watched it again. Every dismissive thing that the emotionally unavailable Jordan said or did was almost identical to something my husband had said to me. Not in the early months, when he showered me with flowers and gifts and adulation. Jordan Catalano was a variation on a more recent version of my husband, the guy who looked at my date night outfits and said, “You’re wearing that?”
When I returned to my marital home after my visit, I watched my husband with new eyes. I noticed the way he slouched around the house, his inability to pass a mirror without scruffing and re-scruffing his hair to his preferred degree of insouciant moppishness. His voice was low and forever unsure of itself; his insults all seemed to end in a question mark. I kept calling him out on his all-night visits to Just Friends, not because I still hoped to repair our marriage, but in order to dissect his reaction. It was always the reaction I predicted: flamboyantly astonished any time I made clear that I expected to be treated with a modicum of respect.
He’d always bestowed teenage love on me, youthful in its scale and intensity despite the fact that he was six years older than I was. At 19, I’d wasted years on guys who couldn’t even be bothered to text back half the time. My soon-to-be husband’s devotion felt so much like what I’d been searching for that I didn’t consider whether I should have been searching instead for something less consuming.
It was teenage love, and also teenage hate. As skilled as he was at showering me with affection, he was twice as skilled at despising me. He targeted my insecurities with laser precision. When we married, he immediately adopted the position that I’d let myself go since we’d begun dating, and that he was engaging in a remarkable act of charity by remaining married to me. I’d gained too much weight, I let too many days pass without shaving. Tantrums along these lines would continue for a day or two, only to suddenly course-correct if it seemed that I might leave him: he was sorry, he was so in love with me, he didn’t deserve me, and wouldn’t I pretty please consider giving him another chance?
When I’d met my husband, the order of operations had been clear. I complied with his rules, and was loved for it; any time my compliance budged an inch, the love went away. Over time, as the circumference of my life shrank more and more, compliance became not only the key to keeping his love, but also the only option. By the end, it didn’t matter how well I complied. The love had become unavailable.
One day at school, Angela and Jordan are leaning against some lockers when Angela’s narration begins. “It’s such a lie that you should do what’s in your heart. If we all did what was in our hearts, the world would grind to a halt,” she says. “Because in that moment, I would have done anything, I wanted him so much.” My marriage lived in that realization—a two year relationship that proceeded entirely within the moment of wanting to do anything for this person you want so much.
Teenage relationships obviously aren’t all abusive, but abusive relationships do have a hint of the teenage to them. To be a kid in love is to joyfully abdicate power to another person—you simply haven’t learned moderation in romance yet. Youthful relationships are based on little more than the sudden hormonal need to experiment with love. My first boyfriend was a kid with whom I had nothing in common, who happened to show interest in me. I was fortunate that the first person to show interest in me wasn’t much more objectionable. I would have tolerated anything if only it meant I could finally funnel all my hormonal churn into a willing receiver.
I joyfully abdicated power to that boyfriend and to my husband, too. And for months, it felt like I’d made the right choice. In any event, he rewarded me for making it so often that I ignored the nagging voice in my head telling me it was the wrong choice. It was only once he grew comfortable enough to stop rewarding me that I could see the relationship for what it was: a mean kids’ relationship, inhabited by two people who were, among other things, too old for such behavior. A middle school bully and a kid coughing up lunch money to him.
My husband could drive me to wail, to beat my chest, to rend my garments—in short, to throw temper tantrums like a child would. I’ve never had another adult relationship so focused on the act of provocation. Sometimes he’d poke and prod at me until I burst into tears, and then watch me loudly crumble in satisfied silence. Those moments are my only memories of him looking unmistakably happy.
In one episode, long after Angela and Jordan have broken up, Angela wakes up one morning to realize that she no longer has romantic feelings for Jordan. And her response is to dance across her bedroom to the song “Blister in the Sun” in a performance of unmitigated glee. Months after I finally left my husband, I woke up one morning to the same realization. What else could I do? I honored the realization with a tribute dance of my own, feeling like a kid again, but in a nice way this time.