By Marc Gilson
A note about the following piece:
For some while now, I’ve been wanting to stretch myself a little as a writer. I wanted a break from the wise-cracking stuff I’m known for. I’m not sure why I decided on this particular piece, other than it definitely feels like a stretch. I hesitated to post it, mainly because the subject matter is something I can’t claim to represent properly, expressing a voice I can’t own, and addressing a topic I really have no business discussing as a male. Still, in my 18 years as a “life coach,” I’ve encountered many situations like the one described below. Too many, really. I’ve tried to draw on those experiences, and to represent them in a respectful but honest way. You’ll read about the experiences of “Julia,” who is a kind of amalgam of dozens of women dealing with the challenges of domestic abuse I’ve spoken with over the years.
On the surface, the piece is about domestic abuse. I’d prefer it to be viewed as a story about choice.
As this is not my typical subject matter or writing style, feel free to provide your honest feedback, should you feel so inclined. (Please note: The piece contains some adult language/content)
She knew that the time had come to leave. The time had come, actually, long ago. But there was something different now. Something inside her had broken down. Or broken through. For three days, she had been living with the odd sensation of falling backward through space, as though down a well or chasm of some kind, watching a familiar world disappear above her.
She took it as a kind of sign that she’d let go of something, and as disconcerting as the falling sensation was, she was beginning to realize that sometimes falling was better than holding on. This, of course, was something he would never understand.
She had believed in him for so long. That he could change. She had held so tightly to that one, sacred thing: hope. She clung to it with steel, bittersweet tenacity. Hang on. Don’t give up. Keep hope alive!
But the hard truth is that hope has a funny way of turning sour after awhile. Hope, it seems, collects like unpaid bills, and eventually becomes toxic if unfulfilled. Hope spoils somehow, like a meal left uneaten, cooling on the table for too long. She remembered something from church. The Bible said, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” Yeah, she thought, that pretty much sums it up.
How it all changed from the early years, she didn’t know and really didn’t care. She always thought that if she knew her role, things would work out. But her role, that role she fought so hard to attain, of the Faithful, Loving Wife, had somehow mutated into something she herself detested; the Victim.
Her sister told her, “You’re living on a river in Egypt: De Nile!” And in response she patiently explained to her sister, who had been, and would probably always be, single, that she was NOT in denial at all, and that it took a LOT of personal commitment to make it work, and that she should stop pretending to know about a life she’s not living. You can’t just up and run the minute things get tough, for crap sake. Nobody is perfect, and when you get married, there are no guarantees that he will always remain Prince Charming. Her sister wouldn’t understand because she’d never been there, where she was. How dare she criticize him! He’s a Good Man, dammit, and she was not about to abandon him. You just have to stick it out sometimes and remember that marriage isn’t all wine and roses. She had chosen this path, after all, and it was hers. Not anyone else’s.
But the past three days, the past bloody, loud, surreal three days had made all those words ring like some hollow joke that gets told to an audience that just stares back, blankly, not getting it. Hope had spoiled and turned decidedly sour. That path, her path, seemed to lead to a precipice overhanging an abyss of tragedy. Maybe death.
Her excuses and cliche-laced arguments were now as threadbare as the old goose down comforter she sobbed into so many times in the dead of night it doubled as a sponge. The irony: that comforter had been a wedding gift only a few short years before. And its role as “comforter” was far too much to put upon a poor worn-out pile of cloth and feathers. If she didn’t do something, she’d end up the same way, a worn-out pile of a person.
She knew the time had come. She knew the salty taste of her own tears. She knew the iron-bitter taste of her own blood. She knew the glowering, disapproving nurse at the ER by her first name. And it was time to leave.
Making up her mind about leaving brought about an odd and disturbing realization. One she couldn’t even admit consciously, let alone speak aloud. When the realization first occurred to her she was folding the laundry, and it struck like a bolt from the blue, and she tilted her head, like a dog hearing an unusual sound. Curious. Uncomfortable.
The realization was that she would miss his hands on her. Both the loving, grasping, gently squeezing hands, as well as the vicious, angry, reckless hands. The sex, such as it was, sustained her need to be reminded that she was, in fact, still a woman. The sex was an animal need. Or was it spiritual fulfillment? She couldn’t settle that debate.
The fights, or, well okay fine, the beatings, on the other hand, were horrible. Violent, yes, but it wasn’t the violence itself that hurt her the most, and she knew full well he could have killed her many times, if only by accident. He lost control, but not so much that he would kill her, and this somehow seemed a silver lining. She had gotten so she could predict them, the beatings. There was a look in his eyes and a slur in his voice. After that, it only took a wrong word, or a look, or who-knows-what.
But she recognized in herself a kind of sick attraction to the deliciousness of the pain. What was wrong with her? What in the hell?? She couldn’t deny it and couldn’t entirely ignore it. That pain. So genuine, so intentional. It was a raw, red version of existence, an enlivened existence, standing in jagged contrast with the rest of the time when she was essentially numb.
Pain was her resurrection. It snapped her awake. She hated it when he said, drunkenly, tearfully, that he didn’t mean it. Of course he meant it! Why should she suffer so, both from the pain and the strange, terrible addiction to that pain, if it was all accidental, like some casual misstep on his part? What was the matter with him? The pain meant something. She meant something! She had purpose when she felt the pain. She mattered enough to be smacked; first reviled and struck, and then craved and worshiped like the Holy Mother with a tearful sinner at her feet, begging absolution.
Yes, of course it was wrong! It was horribly wrong! Sick! But, well, weren’t so many things in life? Nobody’s business, and who can judge?
Once, he kicked her, full-force, on the side of the head when she was on the floor already. She didn’t see it coming, and she’d lost consciousness. But it was just once. When she came to, she realized she’d been carried to bed, her clothes removed, her nightgown clumsily put on her like a mannequin, twisted up under her arms, and he was sitting in the chair at the foot of the bed, asleep with his chin on his chest, an empty bottle of beer precariously hanging from his fingers. Her head was dull and aching, but somehow not terribly so. Had he given her something for the pain? The room was cold. She pulled the covers up to her neck, tucked her knees up tightly to her stomach, and went back to sleep. He had left for work by the time she awoke.
He wouldn’t be home tonight. He hadn’t told her so and didn’t need to. She knew it instinctively, which is to say, she was conditioned enough by past experience, and she was nothing if not observant. He was “working late,” which could mean almost anything, except that he’d be home before 2AM. How he managed it, she didn’t know. What, with a 50 hour a week job, and then to be out drinking with his buddies, only to rise like clockwork at 6am again the next day. Somehow, she admired him for it. Look at him go!
On those nights when he did come home before dawn, she would be there, waiting in bed. She would hear him quietly enter the dark room, sometimes stumbling or dropping his keys, whispering profanities to himself. He would enter the bathroom, only turning on the light after the door was closed behind him. She would hear the toilet flush and know he’d be emerging a moment later. Then he would climb into bed, coughing once or twice, and wrap his burly, hairy arms around her small back. And she would draw those arms close, bringing his body closer, sometimes even causing her to wince as he unknowingly pushed against the very bruises he had inflicted on her only a night or two earlier. She would smell cigarettes, whiskey, and sometimes some kind of sweetly rancid perfume on him, and it would hover heavily like a ghost over them through the night.
And if he wasn’t too drunk, there might be sex. And if he was too drunk, which was most nights, he’d begin to mouth breathe, and eventually break into a rhythmic, deep snore which kept her awake yet comforted her. There he was. Her man. Home safe.
“You have to get out, Julia!” her mother insisted,” He’s just like your father, and I don’t want that kind of life for my daughter. Come back home. It’s not that far away!” In terms of mileage, her mother was right. It wasn’t really that far away, maybe 500 miles, a long drive or a short plane trip. But with the passing of time, a few hundred miles now seemed like light years. She couldn’t go back home. Could she? Going home meant failure; something Julia was taught not to accept. Failure is not an option. Where had she heard that? Some movie? She would not fail. She would not return home, at least not willingly. It was a trip to Mars. Too far. Too much old emotional baggage she would have to endure in exchange for her remittance of the current emotional baggage, which she knew so well. To trade a little unkindness for disgrace? What kind of deal is that? What’s the difference, after all? Out of the frying pan, into the fire. She could go any number of places, sleep on any number of sofas or in guest rooms of friends who, she knew, would take her in without too much questioning, or blatant judgment. But that was, after all, another kind of failure.
She never actually told her mother that he beat her. She said he was “mean” to her. But the message was clear enough. Her mother wouldn’t have really understood anyway. The beatings weren’t arbitrary events without meaning. He wasn’t just some angry gorilla. This was a man who had suffered in life. This was a man who was hurt. The world had not been fair to him, and he had to get all that out somehow. He had to flush it out, didn’t he? He couldn’t hold it in. It would kill him. So he slapped her. He yelled profanities at her. He threw a half-full bottle of beer at her and connected with her shoulder as both glass and bone shattered.
And she felt herself to be a kind of sacrifice to his clandestine pain that must, she thought, be so much more than he could inflict upon her body. He had his pain and she had hers: marriage is a partnership. So she could and would bear it. A fight was just a storm passing through.
It all seemed so reasonable in the dead of night. Less so when she had to explain herself to the girls at the office the next morning. “I’m just a klutz!” she would say to them, with the same cute shoulder shrug that only recently failed to calm him when he was drunk and belligerent. She couldn’t tell if they believed her. She suspected not, by their half-smiles and raised eyebrows. It didn’t matter, really, as long as her story kept them from asking questions.
The worst of it – the absolute worst, most detestable, unsavory, unacceptable part of the situation was this: although she had made up her mind to leave him, she knew, in the end, that it was a choice. Why? Why must it be a choice? For that, she had to assume a responsibility. For that she had to do something. She had to take on the burden of having actually deciding to do it. She didn’t have to leave. No. She could stay. Maybe she should stay. Maybe she should stay simply because she could stay.
But in the end, there was a reason for leaving. It was so ironic that after all these years of angry exchanges, the final unexpected, unforeseen straw was this: during her last visit to the emergency room she was told that the injuries to her legs would not fully heal and that she would be left with three scars running down her thighs for the rest of her life. Scars, from him drunkenly flailing at her with nothing more than a butter knife. A butter knife! But this changed things. Her legs would be scarred forever. Her beautiful, shapely, perfect legs. The one physical attribute she was the most proud of.
Some women had a perfect face or complexion. She didn’t. Or perfect hair, or firm breasts. She didn’t. But she had somehow been blessed with dancers legs, like Cyd Charisse, whose legs, her mother told her, had been insured by MGM for a million dollars. Julia had been proud of her legs going back to grade school. Legs that looked good on the beach. Legs he used to caress with such tenderness and want. And these legs would now bear the scars of frustration from this same man, this husband, who not only caused the injury, but did so without the singular awareness that he, on occasion, needed to see this bruised, middle-aged body as an object of desire?
That he would ruin that! That he would damage the very thing that made her attractive and appealing to him, after all! Wasn’t that just pissing on your dinner plate? Now what would happen? No. No! From this transgression there was no return, no healing, no forgiveness. Silly, maybe. But there it was.
Funny, she thought. That after everything, it should take the disfigurement of her most treasured physical feature to make her leave him. But now, on this humid night, and no other before it, it seemed neither good nor bad, but simply inevitable. It was a choice, yes. But now – now with her legs irreparably damaged, never again to be properly displayed in her many skirts, some tasteful, some flirty – the choice was clear. For that, and for nothing else, he would be left alone. Left to wonder, to rage, to cry, to threaten suicide. Fuck it. Let him do it.
The first step was to put on some music. She chose Sheryl Crow, who she never really liked much, but whose music seemed to provide some sort of feminine courage she desperately needed. Then she found her suitcases and opened them all and placed them on the bed, like open-mouthed chicks waiting to be fed. One still held an old piece of sexy lingerie she had packed for their trip to Hawaii three years ago. Black lace. He’d always liked black lace. She’d never worn it. As it happened, they fought the whole time and only had sex once, on the last night, when the both of them were too drunk on mai tais to fight, but not too drunk for other things.
She threw the lingerie into the dirty clothes hamper anyway, a sad but slightly mordant smile at the fact that he’d eventually find it there with the socks and towels.
She had expected the packing to take hours; it took only 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes and she had what she needed to leave. Three suitcases, a duffel bag, one Sheryl Crow CD, and it was done. She was amazed at this. All this time, she had been only 45 minutes away from having enough packed to leave for good. In the midst of those long, agonizing nights, she had always been just 45 minutes from actually leaving. It was a kind of miracle. Forty-five minutes from escape.
She loaded her bags into the old Subaru, started the rasping engine, and went back inside. Her decision had been made, or had it?
She stood in the kitchen, alone, quiet, the harsh fluorescent light buzzing like bees overhead. She stood very still for several minutes; a scarred statue. The clock over the stove ticked and tocked, and she wondered for a moment whether those tick-tocks were slowing down. She looked around, blankly, weakly. Those curtains, god, she wouldn’t miss them. Ugly orange things his mother had given them one Christmas and he demanded they go right in the kitchen window. Then she noticed his dirty plate from breakfast in the sink, and instinctively moved to rinse it off and place it in the dishwasher. But she caught herself, and instead, for some reason she couldn’t really define, dropped the plate in the garbage can.
She intended to say goodbye to this place. But she couldn’t do it. There would be no goodbyes at all, for anything or anyone. She felt herself suddenly surrounded by a host of voices or some sort of spirits begging her to stay, reminding her of her Commitments, of the Good Times, asserting the need for Hope, Dedication, and Conviction to her Values. “This is Home, Julia,” they reminded, “This is your Chosen Path.”
In the end, the ghosts could not compete with the simple fact that Julia was clad in her favorite shorts. Denim. Snug, but not obscenely so. And so, as she looked down at the faint but evident, eternal scars, the ghosts had no choice but to retreat, silenced in their supplications by a decidedly tactile reality of raised purple lines strewn along shapely legs he’d already seen the last of. For the rest of her life, she would carry palpable memories – memories she could run her fingers over and feel – like the inscriptions carved into a tombstone. But what was really buried there? She felt a shiver run down her back and she let out a long sigh. Julia brushed her dark hair from her face with the back of her hand.
No, these legs would no longer stay where they were not appreciated and loved. No, this was enough. This was home no longer. The time had come. And it dawned on her that she had really left this place months ago. She was no longer a denizen of this life. She hadn’t been. Time to go. For shit sake, go!
She left the light on in the kitchen, turned quickly on imperfect but strengthened legs, gently closed the door behind her, and drove off into the summer night.
At 2:35 AM he returned, quietly letting himself into the house. She had left the light on in the kitchen, the stupid bitch. Did she even bother to look at the electric bill? He turned it off and carefully entered the dark bedroom, relieving himself in the bathroom and rinsing the cotton feeling from his mouth with some minty Listerine before climbing into bed.
Even wasted as he was, he immediately sensed a difference. The bed was cold. Quiet. Empty. Barren. He wondered. He froze. And then he silently answered his own question.
He wanted to get up and search the house, the neighborhood, the city, the planet. He wanted to find her hiding somewhere. He wanted to track her down and hurt her. To make her feel the unbearable pain she was inflicting on him, the anguish that was already scraping out his insides. Kill her, maybe, or himself. Or both.
But instead, he didn’t move at all. His body felt heavy, but small, thick, and dead. Like a little boy, he wrapped his arms around her pillow, pulled it close to his face, and, as he would do more often than not for many months to come, cried himself to sleep.