Thirty years ago, I sat all night on the sofa in my upper flat, smoking Benson & Hedges, with my mother’s green and orange afghan wrapped around my shoulders, waiting for my addicted, unpredictable, and sometimes violent boyfriend to pull up in front of my house, get out of his car, and use the key I had given him by mistake to come in and kill us all.
After spending all night on the couch looking out the window at the corner intersection and waiting for his car to pull up, I showered, dressed, got my daughter ready for school, and went to work. As if nothing had happened.
My fear had happened. My lonely, secret, gut-wrenching fear had happened – fear so deep that I was afraid to close my eyes even for a minute lest I be taken by surprise.
When this happened, I was finishing coursework for a Ph.D. I had a job at a human service agency. It didn’t pay a lot but it was a decent job. I paid the rent. I owned a car. I had a good upbringing with decent parents. No one had ever laid a hand on me in anger. No one.
But I was terrified of my boyfriend when he was ‘off’ which he wasn’t always. Just once in a while. The rest of the time, he was mellow and funny, involved in the community, tons of friends, devoted to me.
It was hard to tell what would happen — it was crazy-making.
Women you know this very minute are in this situation. If they are really scared or, worse, physically abused, they can seek shelter, assuming they are willing and able to leave where they live. They can call hotlines and learn how to develop safety plans. Stockpile resources and make a run for it if things get bad enough. I never got to this stage. I believed I could protect myself – at least until one fateful night a year or so later – so seeking shelter, asking for help for my situation never occurred to me. I wasn’t the person with the problem.
And there wasn’t any help for him.
The question was — was I supposed to change? Change my life, my residence, uproot my child to be safe? He’s the villain and I’m the damsel in distress?
I should have retreated into shelter so he could find the next woman who would try, in vain, to convince herself that how mellow and funny he was outweighed how terrifying he could become every now and then?
I didn’t think so then and I don’t think so now.
Not long after the endless night keeping watch out the window, after a bunch of happy evenings with my boyfriend, a trip or two to the racetrack, a drive in the country with a stop at a funky bar, and, oh, maybe a concert or two thrown in, enough to make the distance between that night’s me and me now so wide that the fear became imagined and extreme, an overreaction, not long after that the phone rang one night.
It was my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, the woman he’d lived with for five years.
“You don’t know me, but I have things I need to tell you.”
It felt like a wood sliver sliding under my fingernail. “Like what?”
She told me about her twisted arm, the black eyes that kept her home from work and the pillow over her face.
She told me about the apologies and the regret. How he would ask for forgiveness and promise not to do it again.
She warned me. “That’s what he’s really like. He’s not the person everybody thinks he is.”
“Nothing like that has ever happened with us,” I told her, only partially lying because it was the threat, the seemingly imminent possibility, of something like that happening that put me into that weird watching out the window place rather than it actually happening.
“He’s different now. That kind of thing would never happen. I wouldn’t put up with it. First sign of anything like that and I’d be done – that would be it.”
I hung up the phone just as he walked in the door, holding a pizza and a six-pack of beer.
I’d been warned.
It went on like this for a couple of years. Long periods of calm interrupted by longer moments of panic and terror.
I remember….a long night watching my boyfriend sleep with a butcher knife in his hand wondering whether he intended to use it on me or himself. Being chased across town and, thinking it was the safest place I could find, pulling up in front of the 5th District Station. Being trapped in the kitchen of my upper flat which, I figured at the time, was probably the worst place in the house to be. Banging the car door against his leg as I tried to pull it closed and flee after an argument in the Dells. Listening to him tapping on my back door all night long wanting me to let him in so he could apologize.
But still he had never laid a hand on me. That had become my bottom line.
I got through the terror by convincing myself that he would stop himself from actually hurting me. But it became harder and harder to believe as time went on, sort of like thinking that even though everyone else’s basement was flooded, mine would stay dry.
It was the classic frog in boiling water. I lost sight of how out of whack my life had become. How unexplainable. How chaotic. How private.
The fight scene. Man and woman in a hotel room in Des Moines. He’s been drinking all day – beer and Irish whiskey. He wants to go out. She thinks he’s too drunk. He threatens. She grabs the keys to leave. He tackles her, pins her to the bed. And puts his hands around her neck.
Calling on angels, she gets out from under his 280 lbs and runs into the hotel hallway screaming. People open their doors and look at her standing there. He’s in the doorway shrugging his shoulders. She is ashamed.
So after the fight scene, while people from the hotel stood and watched, I got my things and my car keys and I left. Wanting to drive home but afraid to, I found an old hotel downtown and checked in to a room on the 4th floor where I pulled the chest of drawers in front of the door and sat curled up on the bed until dawn.
I drove back to Milwaukee to pick up my daughter, back from a two-week Western vacation with her dad. “Hi Mom, you’re late.”
Part 4: The Coda
Two years ago, I went to my old boyfriend’s funeral. I milled around with old and old-looking friends and colleagues, talked to his nieces, now adult women, with whom I’d spent several Christmases so long ago, and every now and then glanced over at the urn that sat on an unadorned table. There was no picture there – no montage of photos from a long happy life. His siblings were furious at him for what they said he had put them through. After so many attempts and threats, including several when I knew him, he had finally taken his own life.
A middle-aged woman standing alone was pointed out to me as his girlfriend. Thinking I should offer my condolences to the closest thing that he had to caring family at the moment, I introduced myself. She launched into a quiet explanation about why she, alone, was responsible for his death. She’d just ended their relationship because of his violent behavior, she wasn’t able to help him. “And now look what happened.”
It was in that moment that it hit me. In the many years since Des Moines, I had fallen in love and married someone else, moved into a big old house and raised a family of four children, started a business, had friends. If I died, there would be a lot of pictures.
He had circled back and started over. If the length of our relationship was a predictor, he probably had four or five more serious relationships, all ending the same scary way.
If all the women who’d known him sat in a circle, we would tell the same story, make a quilt with identical squares. And the quilt would be very large.
This man, to whom we had all been attracted because of his gentle heart and fun-loving spirit, never intended to hurt anyone. Whatever trauma or damage he had in his early life that would explain his violent episodes, no one really knows.
I do know it kept him from having any pictures at his funeral.