She trudged up the familiar, worn wooden staircase to her room to find it. But she remembered it wasn’t there. She’d purposely hidden in her youngest boy’s room so no one would find it. She’d get in big trouble if anyone knew. She needed it – but she felt guilty for having it. She didn’t need to use it – yet. She was afraid to use it. Afraid of the unraveling of her life that would begin when she did. Afraid her voice wouldn’t work or make sense. Or worse – afraid that no one would believe her. Right now though, just for now, she needed to know it was still there.
The bathroom door at the top of the stairs was open and the vanity mirror reflected her coming up the stairs. When the pale blue eyes met in the mirror, her heart dropped. She forgot about that for a minute.
It was hard to see the shape her eye was supposed to be with all the bruising. The cut on her cheek was raw and tender. Still swollen. She couldn’t go out in public with a beat up face like that, but she could go home. Go home to her real home and check on things, see her beloved horses – skinny – because he didn’t feed them like he said he did while she was at work.
She’d take a few things with her he wouldn’t notice missing from the house.
The boys’ things. He never went in their room. The two houses were only five miles apart through a small mountain pass.
She looked at herself for a long time – struggling to see the light that used to shine in her eyes – for 38 years it shined. She couldn’t turn it off – she was just that way.
But the light wasn’t there. Her eyes were empty. The woman she saw – was a dead woman walking. Numb. Empty. She couldn’t even cry. Or speak. She felt like a robot. She was unrecognizable to herself even though she looked the same. Except for that eye.
She turned away from the mirror and opened the door to her son’s room. Once in, she found it in the suitcase under his bed. She flipped open the cell phone and turned it on. “It’s still ready if I need it, “ she thought. She turned it off and sat there comforted by the existence of the phone. She’d ordered it online, had it delivered to work so he wouldn’t know it existed. Yet she wondered if anyone would answer if she called for help.
Why did she never call for help? She felt invisible.
Her thoughts drifted to a previous night of terror…running through the other house – his house, not home – past the granite countertops, through the yard, past the swimming pool, out the gate and down the road in the dark rain with blood streaming down her cheek. She was only wearing flip-flops, a t-shirt and yoga pants. She still had her glasses on but they were bent.
She was going to leave for a while to read a book somewhere until he cooled off. He was mad again about something. Who knows what she did wrong this time. She headed quietly out the door to her truck.
But he followed her as she was leaving, opening the passenger side door just as she sat in the driver’s seat. He took her purse and her phone from the passenger seat of her truck. He threw her book at her head, striking her cheek, slamming her head into the driver’s side window – knocking her glasses off. He snatched her keys from the ignition.
“Where are you going? To meet your boyfriend?” he said.
She managed to grab her glasses and the door handle and run like hell. He’s a former NFL strong safety, now a sometimes-personal trainer for retired professional athletes’ kids. He can quickly do some damage. Amazingly, he couldn’t catch her – too many obstacles. She ran for a mile, walked for another, until she turned around – it was 2 a.m. and she had nowhere to go. When she got back to the house she noticed he had let all the air out of her tires in case she came back for the truck. He also blocked the driveway with his Jeep. She had nothing – no wallet, no phone, no keys.
She went inside and sat on the couch in shock for a long time. She was trying to avoid conflict by getting out of his way. She was exhausted, wet and bloody on the outside – humiliated, heartbroken and defeated on the inside.
He came in the door from walking the neighborhood and found her just sitting there, staring. He told her she’d need stitches for that cheek. She thought the blood was just rainwater. She just wanted him to hold her and tell her how sorry he was. He didn’t apologize but he seemed regretful. She was too tired to care. They both shuffled into the bedroom to sleep. When he saw her blackened eye in the morning he seemed to be mad at her for having it. He wouldn’t even look at her. She couldn’t look at him either. They did not speak.
She was shocked to see herself as well. Later in the evening, she numbly told him she’d like to go over to her old house and feed the horses while he went to the store. And there she sat, on her Kindergartner’s bed, startled out of her thoughts by a buzzing phone – the one he knew about.
“Where the hell are you?” said the text.
“Who are you with?”
“I hope he’s worth the fuck, you’re such a slut.”
“You’re a lousy fuck anyway. No one would want you. You and your loser kids.”
She texted back. “Sorry, lost track of time. On my way.”
Instantly, he texted back, “Whatever. “
This usually meant he’d be out drinking somewhere engaged in heavy flirting with yet another female. The first time he beat her was because she’d asked him why he was kissing another woman in the bar while they were out celebrating. It was St. Patrick’s Day 2008, just three days after their sunny Tucson wedding. He said the woman was an old friend. She asked, “You wouldn’t like it if I did that to you, would you?” His eyes turned dark and he was suddenly ready to leave.
He waited until they got in the car before slapping her head into the window. Saying something about her kissing another guy. She prayed quietly at first and then began shouting her cries out to God with her arms wrapped around her head. Three days – they had just gotten off the plane that afternoon before heading out to celebrate.
But today, as in many of her days, she worried if he was drunk somewhere. She usually worried that a DUI would cost them money – or worse, cause an accident that might kill someone. She’d worry he would cheat on her. Sometimes she’d go look for him, feeling insane for doing so. If she did spot his car at Capone’s, she knew he’d be inside, drunk and jolly – his phone lighting up with women’s names. Everybody loves him.
He’d insult her in front of everyone at the bar. They’d have no idea who she was – certainly couldn’t be his wife – the way he talked. He didn’t wear a ring but had a Trinity knot tattooed on his ring finger for her. She went to the tattoo place to watch him get it. He had a hard time wearing a ring because many of his fingers were swollen and mangled from playing football and basketball. And fighting.
He’d hold her tightly around the waist or her leg until it hurt. His enabling friends would smirk at her. He did that at all the Gonzaga basketball games too. She was only allowed to look at him or the game. If her eyes strayed elsewhere, he’d scold her very quietly, in her ear, in a way that terrified her. She eventually hated attending the games even though she loved basketball.
I hate the way the bartender looks at me, like there’s something wrong with ME, she thought, there is something wrong with me – I’m allowing this.
This time though, when she gets home she finds him there. He proceeds to insult her with vulgarity. A cumbucket, really? What does that even mean?” she thinks. I’ve never even thought of cheating or sleeping around. According to his logic, because she was married before and had children, she was a non-redeemable slut.
“Nobody will ever want you because you’re a whore,” he says, not even looking up from his phone, while sitting in front of the TV. The TV is always on. He quotes facts from it all the time. He even acts like he knows all the people on TV.
He continues to text in between insults. She’s learned that if she sticks up for herself he’ll insult her more, so she just takes it and pretends it doesn’t mean anything – sticks and stones and all that. If she leaves, he’ll chase her down and beat her head into something – maybe his. That hurts.
Once he tore off her shirt, leaving burns where she held on to the ripped shreds of what remained on her naked body. She frequently ran around and over the bed to escape blows, but he’d usually catch her. She only fought back once but she felt so ashamed, she vowed — never again.
The granite countertops in this house look nice but they leave a mark on her back when she gets slammed into them while he’s strangling her with her own clothing or jewelry. Of course a lot of that’s been broken, there are pieces of beads, earring backs and clasps in corners and under rugs all over the house.
That custom, hand-scraped wood floor is a scary place to be prone when he’s kicking her. She’ll get a pretty good at look at it while she’s begging him to stop. Once he stops, he begins texting old girlfriends, telling them he’s lonely, things have gone sour with the “stupid bitch” he’s with. He never mentions he got married. He always told her she shouldn’t keep pissing him off.
She has taken a gun from his hands once after a particularly brutal evening. He was going to use it on himself. Or so he said. He’s tried suicide before. He talks about suicide methods on occasion when his depression gets bad. Once she found shotgun shells in the garage and she hid them – she’d never seen a shotgun around the house but she knows he likes to hunt pheasants – he must have one somewhere.
She knows this isn’t really him – he’s just struggling to leave the past behind. He had a rough childhood. HE had a reckless dad who regarded his golden boy athlete as his future meal ticket and later, a ski and drinking buddy. And then there was his mom who swears she shouldn’t have had kids – so she left them to climb the corporate ladder. We all have issues, right? For better or worse. She loves him for overcoming these things.
She is also aware though, that this isn’t what she wanted or deserved. This isn’t what she suffered years of loneliness for – she was never this lonely. This isn’t what her kids need – they’re good kids and they need to stay good kids.
So why does she allow this?
She’s working on getting out. She managed to tell a co-worker about it. She has the phone. She’s moving stuff to her old house. Thank God it never sold. Thank God the housing market dropped. She just needs to make that break, but it’s terrifying – the way he acts when she tries to leave. It doesn’t seem real – it’s so shocking.
And it breaks her heart. She loves him. She wants to keep her vows. She meant every word. She wrote the promises herself from the Bible in the order she wanted them. She pledged herself to him with God’s words!
She wants what she dreamed she’d have with him when he designed that big diamond ring he was so proud of. They were going to build a house – with a sport court and a barn. They were going to have a business together. She remembers when they met – how handsome and smart he was. He liked that she could throw a football and run with him. They lifted weights together, played basketball, liked the same music. She liked how confident he was around her horses. He played with her kids – he went to their hockey games. He was nice to her dog. He was a great cook. He fixed things. They laughed. They were clever and fun together. The attraction was magical. It seemed like they had known each other since childhood. Best friends. Soul mates.
What a nightmare this has become in only two months of marriage. He didn’t act like this when they were dating. Then again, they spent half as much time together, living separately. Who knows what he did when they weren’t together? He was always doing something on his phone…but she respected his space.
Who loves what hurts? Who stays with that? Who lies about all these cuts and bruises? Where is God in all of this? She certainly prays a lot. She’s worried she might be crazy.
She asks if they can go back to the church she used to go to when they were dating. She loved it there. She always invited him, but he never came. “You must be fucking the pastor. That’s why you want to go there so bad. You’re such a slut,” he says.
“But the kids like it too,” she says.
“Kids hate church. They told me they didn’t want to go,” he says. The kids try to love him too. They have a man in their lives, they want their mom to be happy. He drives a cool car. He knows famous people. But she can see their discomfort when his moods shift unpredictably. He finally decides they can go to the Catholic Church in town – he’s Catholic. She agrees – anything to hear God’s word. But she doesn’t feel included there. And it doesn’t stop those comments whispered in her ear – right in front of God.
Every time he takes the boys to school on his way to the gym, while she goes to work, she worries. He tells her how awful and disrespectful they are. No one else has ever told her this about her kids – in fact she usually gets compliments about them. “I’m not taking these guys to school anymore. It’s not worth the headache,” he says.
Maybe that would be better, I wouldn’t worry so much about what he might do to them, she thinks.
And on it goes, more uncertainty. She cries in the car, to and from work. She goes to counseling, just as she did before she met him. She’s always trying to be better – she explores ways to listen better and “piss him off” less.
She requests he go for counseling, he says he will. But it almost seems to make him bolder. He finds out about the phone and becomes even more possessive and suspicious. She lies and says she bought it for the kids to use – so she wouldn’t have to talk to her ex. He seemed to like that idea.
More threats. More fear. She moves out. He cries like child, clutching her desperately, begging her back. She moves in. She moves out. A break-in. A death threat. He takes the car he bought her. Calls to police, this time from her own phone – she needs help NOW and she knows it.
Doors ruined, replaced. Locks changed. Nights at friends’ houses – friends he doesn’t know. Protection orders. She finds out later from the cop delivering the protection order, he drove to Canada for a week until things blew over. Anguish. She feels absolutely ALONE in this. No one near her knows what to say or do. His family tells her she has overreacted. His friends claim shock. She must’ve really pushed his buttons.
A court proceeding. A testimony. An acquittal. (When she finally has the courage to call police, he hasn’t bloodied her enough to present strong evidence – beyond any doubt. His lawyer casts doubt – he had a key to her house – she didn’t know. The red marks around her neck and wrists are faded after she waits an hour for the police. The other cases don’t count in court because she didn’t report them.) He’s innocent. An annulment.
He apologizes. He gets counseling. He says he doesn’t have a problem. He says he has cancer. He might die. It’s not like he put her in the hospital or anything. He names all the big name guys on Sports Center he knows who’ve done the same to their wives – like it’s normal. But unlike her, the quitter, those women stick it out, he tells her. He deserves to be loved. Really loved, just as he is, flaws and all.
But he goes to new counselor and reads books that are supposed to help people in his situation. He says he loves her. He says she’s the only one he’s ever loved. She loves him, when he’s him and not the guy whose eyes change shape and get flat when he’s about to rage. They look like shark eyes when that happens. She doesn’t even know what that guy is. She doesn’t want to die.
They try again. He can’t live without her. He stops trying. He says he can’t do it. He blames her. She’s too difficult to love.
He disappears. She lets him go. She silently grieves alone. It’s over forever. Locks changed again. She goes to grief support groups. She goes through the 12-Step Support Groups in attempt to heal or fix or rescue something – whatever it is – that hurts so unbelievably bad. She argues with God – all in an effort to fix her nagging feelings of brokenness and paralyzing thoughts of unworthiness.
God quietly answers back, faithfully, in kindness and with grace. Over and over, He whispers until she hears completely and embraces Him desperately, in a way she never has before. She is delivered, just as she begged for that March night in the car. She’s safe but she’ll never be the same.
And here I am today.
The eye doctor tells me the right eye (the one he bloodied and blackened) is one head blow from a detached retina. It doesn’t work as well as the other one. “Did you get into an accident or something?” he asked.
“Probably a crazy horse incident somewhere along the line. I’m pretty active,” I say.
“Well, wear a helmet,” he said.
“Sure thing,” I say.
Years have gone by. I’m happy. I got out. I have great friends. I’m glad to be alive.
I AM GLAD TO BE ALIVE.
But I can’t seem to get me back. The light. The confidence. Not all the way.
I don’t want to go back to me before this happened. I want to get forward to the me who moves beyond this happening. I want to feel alive with possibility and success.
The sadness and shame frustrate me. Why don’t I feel powerful and liberated?
Where does this sorrow come from? The flashbacks hit every few months like when I read about the NFL brain trauma litigation. His brain is damaged according to the experts who tested him. Every time I read a news story about a brain-damaged athlete, it sounds like him. Every suicide, every drunk, every broken, angry man-child, every self-consumed narcissist, every Chris Brown sounds like him. Every woman tortured, threatened, beaten or killed reminds me. It does not matter if it’s in Mumbai, Kabul, New York or Spokane – it’s barbaric.
Mothers, listen: There are too many like him. Every man who brutally overpowers a woman was once someone’s little boy. And little boys are born perfect and sweet. Mine were and still are. What happens?
When I think about the night Heather was shot, she was at an apartment of a woman she barely knew. This reminded me of the night my husband insisted my boys spend the night with his sister who lives in town, so we could have a night to ourselves. We had driven to Bellingham to move some furniture out of a rental.
By this point in our troubled marriage, I had learned to dread “nights to ourselves.” When we were alone there could be no witnesses. He would never let anyone see what he did to terrorize me – that would diminish his all-important image. Even if it was my kids, only five and nine-years-old at the time – I wanted someone there because there was a better chance he might not do what he sometimes did.
But we were alone and he got mad at something I said and tried to wrest my wedding ring off. It seems silly that I curled up into a ball on the floor with my fists clenched around each other, buried into my abdomen so he couldn’t take my wedding ring off. Why in God’s name was I trying SO hard to be married to that? And clinging to a ring as if it would magically keep me happily married – what is that? Why not just accept the rejection?
I don’t remember now how the skirmish ended. Did I give up and give him the ring so he could give it back later? He was so proud to have given me that ring, it’s like he wanted to keep taking and giving it. Did I ever make it into bed after locking myself in the hotel bathroom? I don’t remember now but I must have.
But I remember being scared for my life like many women have been. If he’s going to pry a ring off my finger without regard for forcing my body open and breaking my fingers, what else would he do? I remember wondering if this night would be the night he’d kill me because this struggle seemed so bizarre and childish. He had already done so much worse to me, but we were trying hard “to work things out.” Despite his sweet promises, I knew he’d never keep them.
I haven’t spoken to him in years.
A while back, every month or two, there was a text, “I miss you.”
“I thought we were forever.”
“I treated you so bad. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m doing a lot better now.”
I didn’t answer. But I did notice that everything he said was about him, not me.
Then it was, “Why don’t you answer? Boyfriend around?”
I didn’t answer. I blocked his number.
Boyfriend? How does one move casually on to another boyfriend after that? He was supposed to be my last. He has no idea of the devastation he has caused. His brain doesn’t work. But mine does
A few months later, from a new number, he texts that he’s remarried now with a baby. By the age of the child, he must have conceived it with her while we were still trying to “work things out.” I always worried his efforts were insincere. I didn’t want to see that either. He texts me that I’m, “ugly and pathetic” and he never loved me. He informs me he is with someone younger and better now.
I didn’t answer. But I cried.
Still more texts – I imagine with that child in his arms, “Would there be any way I could ever get u back?”
“I love you.”
“I will always love you.”
I still haven’t answered. I called the police one more time.
They said they could go to his house and tell him to leave me alone. He pretended it was a misunderstanding. Afterwards the officer told me, “This guy’s pretty slick. I can see why you’re scared. You should be. He’s the worst kind – a snake.” I was relieved to learn the officer is a domestic violence specialist. He sees the whole dynamic. He validated everything I’ve been through. It helped a lot to have someone believe me. But at the time, it made me hurt all over again.
Ultimately the sadness I feel comes from my inability to understand why any of this happened. It’s my unsolved riddle that I have to leave behind, unsolved.
As the past fades, I remember I’m alive, I’m healthy and I’m grateful. I have beautiful children. That’s a better outcome than many women in this situation see.
I’ll be just fine without knowing why.
I have to be.