Lea's Gang

(nonfiction)

"Alright, our turn. Here we go... Okay, uh, this is a woman. Singer-songwriter. Fast Car. Sings like a man."

"TRACY CHAPMAN!"

"Correct!"

This is me and my best friend Holly, in the middle of a heated round of Celebrity. It's that Taboo-esque game that people lose friends over: both wildly exhilarating and makes you want to pull your hair out. We're 19 and 20 years old, and we're on a week-long summer vacation with the rest of our friends: Lea, Nora, Sara, and Mimi, in Seattle, Washington. I'll tell you right now that none of those names are real, and neither is the location: we were, in fact, on vacation, but elsewhere, and these people are, in fact, my best friends, but I'm keeping them anonymous less so because I'm worried about who might suffer from having their identity revealed here, and more so because I'm still struggling to accept that this story is real, and that it happened to all of us.

Next round of the game. It's Lea and Nora's turn. They're dating, by the way, and have been since after high school. I've known Holly, Lea, Sara and Mimi since 9th grade. The five of us grew up together: got drunk for the first time together, fought together, learned how to drive a car together, skipped class together, graduated together. Nora came into the picture our first semester of college, after we all got spread out across the country, and her and Lea met in a class. Nora became a part of our friend group shortly afterwards. This is the summer after our sophomore year of college, so we've known her for about two years now.

Nora draws from the hat.

"Okay, so this is one of your favorite singers."

"Uhhm, I don't know... Could you be more specific?"

"Okay, sounds like... Um, okay, what's something adults drink?"

"Alcohol?"

"More specific."

"Rum? Vodka? Wine?"

"That's it! The last one! That's the start of the last name."

"Wine? Winehouse? Amy Winehouse!"

"That's it!"

"Amy Winehouse? ...I mean...I don't even like her that much," Lea told Nora.

A mess! Look, I thought we were just playing a game. Lea and Nora had been arguing for almost the whole day, and for most of the week. This silly Taboo game had just turned into a passive aggressive death match, and the rest of us didn't know what to do about it. So we brushed it aside and hung out for the rest of the night.

There's that weird feeling in your stomach that you get when something just isn't right: when you have to walk home alone and everything feels too quiet, when you smell a carton of milk that's just expired, or when you meet someone for the tenth time and wonder why you still can't trust them. I don't want to be that I-told-you-so-ass-bitch, but... I had a feeling. I had a feeling from the jump.

Nora was weird. She was weird from the very beginning. We'd all hang out, and she'd have so little to say - not because she was shy but because she felt the need to monitor and watch us and analyze every little word and everything we did as friends with Lea. Because she had no personality, no information revealed about herself unless it had to do specifically with her relationship with Lea, or her obsession with Lea. She didn't have friends. She was obsessed with Lea.

"Oh my God, Nora and Lea are IN LOVE." "Yeah, they're perfect." "They're gonna get married one day. Watch."

I was young when this started out, not yet a legal adult. My only two relationships had been with gross drop-out drug dealers who "make beats" for a living now, so what the fuck did I know about love? It wasn't my place to judge. It wasn't my place to suggest that when my best friend Lea - an ever-present force in my life - gets a girlfriend and suddenly disappears, that maybe that isn't normal.

Things got more odd as the time flew by: first semester freshman year, second semester, than fall of sophomore year... We'd all be back for winter break, and we'd fuck around and go to parties, and Lea would head out early, and nobody knew why. We'd have sleepovers, and in the middle of a movie, Lea would step into another room, and FaceTime Nora. I'd walk Lea to the subway station after we went out, and a few minutes after I dropped her off, I'd get frantic texts from Nora: "Hey, have you heard of or seen Lea? She stopped answering my texts and I don't know where she is. Could you have her call me ASAP?"

But it was fine. They were just madly in love, that's all.

And now we're in Seattle. We're on our annual vacation together. It's me, Holly, Sara, Lea, and Mimi's favorite week of the year. The week we escape our shared hatred of college, forget about parents and rules, where we remember how great friends we are.

And this time, something was different. Lea wasn't happy.

It started with the little things. We'd go to a grocery store to buy food for dinner the next night, and they'd fight: about what kind of pasta to buy and why you shouldn't spent x dollars on x food. Nora would pick outfits for Lea to wear when we went out. When we were all hanging out, and would ask Lea a question, Nora would jump in and respond for her. We had become split into two entities: me, Holly, Sara and Mimi, and then Nora and Lea.

We got catty. I'm guilty of it. Halfway into the week, at night when we'd want to watch TV or smoke a jay and Nora would jump in and tell us that her and Lea were "going to bed" (it wasn't even midnight), me, Sara, Holly and Mimi would talk shit about how boring Nora was, or how she dressed like a 2008 hot topic ad, or how she had the voice of a deranged AI robot, or some shit. We talked shit about how bogus their relationship was. How come a couple that's been together for two years had nothing to say to each other? Nora had essentially become a part of our friend group at this point, so how come she didn't have anything to ever say to any of us? Why didn't we know a single thing about her?

The four of us sat with our legs crossed on a bed in our AirBNB, talking at 3am, about how much we hated the fact that Nora was Lea's girlfriend. And how she was so ugly, and Lea was so pretty. About how Nora had no personality, and Lea was objectively one of the coolest people you will ever meet. We recounted what had gone down between them on the trip so far: Nora telling Lea what she could and couldn't buy at the grocery store, that she should wear the pants instead of the skirt to the club because the skirt was revealing, that she shouldn't smoke our weed or have more than two glasses...

And then, as we talked that night, it hit us like a ton of bricks.

This was about more than a friend having a girlfriend who was lame, or boring, or a little controlling at times. This was abuse. Textbook. Our best friend was in an abusive relationship, and we assholes were sitting here watching it all happen before our eyes, and not doing a thing about it.

It all started to make sense. We thought about it all harder, and put the pieces together. They fought in the grocery store because Nora had control over all of Lea's finances: bank accounts, credit cards, everything. We were 19 years old, still kids, and Nora was monitoring every dollar and cent Lea spent ("...so that's why Nora holds Lea's wallet all the time...") She'd manipulate how Lea dressed: a skirt and tank top wasn't appropriate because someone might look at her too closely (it was more than just fashion advice). Lea couldn't drink or smoke because maybe she'd get reckless.

And there was so much more. The four of us sat there, in silence, at 3am, dumbfounded. How had we been so blind? We were terrible friends. We had let this happen for way too long.

For the rest of the week, the four of us were cautious. We watched Nora's every move. And we figured out there was so much more to this story.

She was physically aggressive, and fuck her because she was so slick about it, too: she'd do things when she thought we weren't looking, like push or pull Lea certain ways or force her to stand next to her or PDA with her or yank her out of someone's view when she thought someone was looking at her too closely. She'd act shady when anyone, even Lea's friends would show any kind of affection towards her, because she wasn't in control. We went out one night, and at a club we ran into a friend we had met the previous year, who was now working as a bouncer. In our excitement of seeing him again, a tipsy Lea threw her arms around him and hugged him. Nora literally yelled "NO," grabbed Lea by the hips and dragged her off of him. It wasn't right. We'd go out to dinner together, and Nora would insist she sit next to Lea, and would refuse to engage with the rest of us, just whispering and conspiring alone with Lea. And... to top it all off, we realized: did we even invite Nora on this trip? She had inserted herself into a tradition we had always done as friends because she had to be in a position of power to manipulate, control and watch Lea's every move. She couldn't stand the thought of Lea doing anything on her own. She was gaslighting her: after Nora had been deliberately isolating herself and Lea from us, Lea approached us multiple times, asking if she was a bad friend, or if we hated her, or if she had done something wrong.

It got worse. There are more things. I've only listed a few of them, and it breaks my heart to recount them. Me, Holly, Sara and Mimi - in our late night conversation - stared at each other, then the tears came, then the hysteria. What we saw on that trip was only the half of it. Who knew what Nora was doing to Lea behind closed doors. They're together every night. They got an apartment and live in it together. There was nothing keeping us from believing that this relationship was violent.

Lea had lost so much weight that year. She looked sick. But most of all, she was unhappy. She wasn't the Lea we knew and grew up with.

Look. We wanted to kill her. That night, in our bed in the AirBNB, we talked about sneaking into their bedroom, and strangling her. We never wanted to see her face again. This bitch was violating our best friend.

We decided it be best to confront this head-on when we all left Seattle and got back home again. So we did. A week after our trip, me, Holly, Sara and Mimi met up at Sara's to make dinner together. We invited Lea, and only Lea. That in itself was a challenge - getting her to show up and hang out with us without Nora being there. Lea didn't know it was an intervention, at first.

We went out onto Sara's back porch, the five of us. It was one of those striking, delicious mid-summer evenings: a breeze, no humidity, not too hot, but just enough to feel the touch of sun on your skin, just the perfect golden light that kissed our skin and the trees. At this point, Lea had a feeling.

We told her everything. We told her how much we loved her, and how much we missed her, and how awesome she is, and how she doesn't deserve any of this, and how we'll do anything to get her out of it. "We're here for you, no matter what."

She understood. Not entirely at first, but eventually she did. At first she made excuses: "she just cares so much..." "she expresses herself in different ways..." "she does it because she loves me..." Again, textbook manipulation and abuse. But we called out the bullshit really quickly. And she understood. Then she let go, and told us. The whole thing was horribly and devastatingly sad. "I just miss you guys so much, you guys are my best friends, I just feel like I don't have a life anymore, I don't know what to do... I feel trapped..." 

We told her she needed to leave. Immediately. The manipulation won't end until you break ties completely - that's what Sara and Mimi told her, because they both had been in abusive relationships before. She needed to tell Nora that she was moving out and going back to live with her parents, and that she didn't want to see her again. We'd help her do it, help her confront her, help her move out, we said. She said she'd think about it. But she was definitely going to talk to Nora.

Flash forward a few days. Me, Sara, Holly and Mimi are bored and decide to get Chinese food and smoke in a park. We're sitting under a tree on a breezy Sunday night. And then, we get a threatening message from Nora.

"I want you guys to know that Lea told me all the stuff you guys said about me. I've been nothing but loving and kind to Lea and she knows that nobody loves her more than I do. I thought we were all friends. I think we should all meet up to talk about the lies you guys have told about me."

The four of us fucking geeked. This was really happening. The bitch was crazy.

So we indulged: "Fine, bitch. Let's meet up right now."

No response. Pussy.

Then, 20 minutes later: "Ok. The two of us are at my house. Come over."

Yoooo. You should have seen our faces. We were kind of drunk, full of Chinese food, and ready to fight a bitch. We were fucking ready.

"Let's go. I'll drive us there," Sara said. We sprinted to the car.

We speeded down the highway at 1am, with the windows open, blasting Lemonade and singing along at the top of our lungs. We arrived with a game plan. We were going to call her out for all the abusive shit she had done to our friend, and not take any excuses.

We walked into Nora's house, and it was tense. Nora and Lea had been living together in the basement apartment of Nora's mom's house (because that's totally normal!) Seeing their apartment, frankly, was chilling. Everywhere you looked, there was "Nora and Lea forever" propaganda, or "I love you" picture frames with Lea's face in them. Think serial killer. We thought of it this way: this girl was literally hiding our friend in a basement.

We let her talk first, out of courtesy. She spewed some bullshit about how she was the victim of our cruelty, about how "she thought we were all friends," and how "nobody treats Lea better than I do." Real abuser shit. She was devastated that we would treat her like this after how well she had treated our friend. But see, Nora. This is us you're talking to. And we know abuse.

We didn't take any of it. We fired back with all the evidence we had. But this girl was psychotic. She had an excuse for every last thing she did. All of the violence, all of the manipulation was because of "how much she loved Lea." Nope. 

We told them they needed to break up immediately. This was toxic and irreparable. That night we learned even more about how disgusting their relationship was: littered with lies, abuse, and manipulation. We'd help Lea pack up right this second. We'd move her out, take her in our car and she could stay with one of us for a while before she figured things out and found a new place to live.

So we did. Like heroines, we ran around that haunted apartment, grabbed all of Lea's belongings and tossed them into bags, then sprinted out and drove her away from that place, never to return again. She was safe.

 

...Just kidding.

Lea was gaslighted. And there was nothing we could do about it. She blamed herself for every single shitty thing Nora had done to her. "You know, I haven't been the best girlfriend either..." We had come there to do everything we could to help her get out. But ultimately, it was Lea's choice. She had to find the courage in herself to want to leave. And at that time, she didn't have it.

Now it's a year later. And I'm thankful to say that things have changed. Our friend group is back to the way it used to be - no Nora, just all of us and Lea. It feels like high school again.

Something I've learned is that things take time. In the most desperate of situations, people are still people, and people still have feelings, and hearts, and motivations. It wasn't reasonable for us to expect that Lea would come to her senses in the span of 3 hours and do the right thing. I'm 20 now and I make mistakes - and not like, forget-your-umbrella-at-home-kind of mistakes - like big, nasty, come-to-bite-you-in-the-ass-when-you're-fifty-because-they've-left-a-scar-in-your-psyche mistakes on probably a weekly basis. Relationships are no different.

I lied, by the way. Things aren't back to good again. Lea and Nora are still together. I rarely see her or hear from her. If anything, things have gotten worse: more sketchy, more controlling. And God, it breaks my fucking heart. It breaks my heart because we were fucking nineteen, and I don't have the wisdom or the character in me yet to "accept" this, or really know what to do about it. We're still kids. And this is abuse.

But I know that things take time. And now, all we can do is wait. And I know in my heart that Lea will find it in herself to make the right choice. And I'll be there for her when she does. It might be next year, in five years, or in forty. And we'll all be there. Actually, I don't know if she will. Maybe it won't ever happen. All I know now is, God, I miss my fucking friend.