“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” – George Orwell, 1984
I sit cross-legged on the creamy carpeting and stare at the TV screen in front of my face. Lockerbie is the only story on the networks. It’s December 21, 1988. Pan Am flight 103 has exploded 30,000 feet above Scotland. Among the 292 dead are 38 local Syracuse University students about my age. I wonder what it’s like to see your daughter’s name scroll up the silent blue screen as SU passenger 28 — like credits at the end of a movie. I wonder how my parents would feel if I were killed in a sudden tragic act of terror. And for the first time in many years, I wonder how I feel. How does she feel?
The last thing I remember is watching the froth spill over the top of a fresh pint glass on the sticky bar in front of me. Through the slit that is my left eye, I see a slice of the curb-salvaged rug and tilt back my head to survey the room looking for clues as to why my face, taut as a drum, is tentatively held together with dried blood. There’s no sign of disruption. Remnants of last Sunday’s paper lay on the overturned blue milk carton. My boyfriend Greg’s life-sized pastel mural of the goddess Isis and a winged serpent still command the living room wall. The rust-colored brass rubbing my mom made for my third birthday hangs quietly level next to the mantel. I edge my way to the bathroom and stare into the yellow-ringed drain for a second or two before looking up to face my reflection.
My face is a problem. Shades of violent indigo and sick green pool behind a split nose and what appears to be a pair of small plums. This makes no sense. I can’t — I grip the sides of the pedestal sink and remind myself my body is merely an empty shell. An impenetrable membrane surrounding nothingness. I poke around like a med student with a cadaver. Tracing the walls with my fingers, I make my way back to the sauna of summer air in the living room. Below, on Genesee Street, a steady whir of cars head to church and Sunday brunch. Woozy from movement, I lean my shoulder against the door jamb. Every heartbeat pounds blood against my skull like a battering ram. What happened? Think. I grasp the first wispy vision that floats by and hold it tight, willing it to develop.
The harsh circle of streetlight. Thrusting my fist down by my side and stomping my foot. My voice rising loud and clear. “PERIOD!!” Yes. I emphasized a point I can no longer remember. The first fist in my face caught me off guard. Then another before it goes black. Across from the couch where I’m perched, Greg opens our bedroom door.
“Oh, Sue,” he coos. He sits next to me on the couch and takes my hands in his. “Did I do this to you?”
I may have nodded. I may have glanced at his beautiful chiseled Bowie face for a safety check. Still holding my hand, Greg stares at me. I float up to watch my body from the ceiling while my mind seals itself off like a vacuum pack. I wonder what happens now. What will she do?
“I’m so sorry,” he says. The childish tone of his voice tells me he’s blinking back tears of remorse, but I don’t look. “I was so trashed, Sue. I don’t remember anything.” I don’t think I say anything. “This won’t ever happen again. I promise.”
The blood raging through my ears is deafening. I’m vaguely aware we’ve crossed a new line, that this is a test, and I should care, but I only know someone needs to make a decision. Right now — before I budge, breathe, or say one word. Like a casino or hospital, the room is void of time.
Should I leave him? Leave him because he used my face as a punching bag? Leave him because of Hannah, Brandy, and then Lucy? Because when I dropped out of college for him, I abandoned my life-long dream of spending a semester abroad, and it’s not enough?
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “The only thing you’re doing here is wasting your parents’ money. You might as well burn it. Money you don’t deserve. What have you done to earn this free ride? Nothing. I’d be embarrassed if I were you. You don’t know what you want.”
You don’t know.
It’s true. Right? Why else would I have dropped out? How could I stay if I had no answer? I had no choice.
Should I believe him? Believe that he won’t hit me again. Believe that he was too drunk, too out of his mind. Believe that he’s sorry and that I can earn back his love. Here’s the thing. People like me aren’t victims of domestic violence. I’m too smart and too cultured for this sad, pitiful story. I’m the daughter of a professor, for Christ’s sake. No.
“What am I supposed to tell work tomorrow?” I hear myself ask.
When the deli opens at 6 a.m., when I should be there preparing chicken salad and chopping vegetables, I call to tell my manager I crashed my bike and can’t work the line. Due — I suspect — to my recent black eyes, she sounds skeptical but doesn’t push. During a conversation a few weeks ago, Greg suddenly reared his head and smashed his skull into the bridge of my nose, which may as well have been an ice pick to the brain. It’s a blow that sprays blood out the nostrils and black squid ink into the tender skin around the eyes. Searing pain so intense it morphs into numbness. I looked from the bright red blood on my fingers to Greg.
“It hurt my head too ya know,” he said and walked away.
Greg stays home this morning until he hears me lie to my boss. The bike accident. Confident he’s now in the clear, he leaves to paint houses, and I catch the 3A bus to the free health clinic. The bus is packed and sweaty, and there’s no place to hide. A woman clutching the handle above her head stands two feet in front of my face.
“I hope the guy that did that to you looks the same as you do,” she says, touring my face before looking me in the eyes, her expectant expression full of pity and indignation.
“Oh, no, no, no. I went over the handlebars on my bike.” I wave her away like a pesky gnat. Her pursed lips scream disbelief and disappointment. If only my body could be as invisible as I am. If only my body could be trusted to keep secrets.
My nose has two small fractures across the bridge, but there’s nothing to do but clean me up and send me home. Despite multiple inquiries, I decline to press charges and instead tolerate their pity.
Charges? For what?
I return to work with my feeble story held high. When a well-meaning co-worker hands me the number for a domestic violence shelter, I feel freshly attacked. She has the audacity to challenge my story? Call me a liar? First, my face betrays me, and now a supposed friend threatens my very survival? I remind her that I had a bike accident. She doesn’t budge and keeps her hand extended.
“Take it,” she said. “Please. In case you change your mind.”
I shred the card before I get home.
I edge my way through another year insulated by good behavior and the stories I continue to tell myself. We move to a sunny duplex in a nicer neighborhood. Greg doesn’t hit me again, and he doesn’t need to. By this point, I self-censor. My body goes through the daily motions of my scripted and choreographed life. Sometimes I watch. Sometimes I participate. Mostly not. As we settle into this post-assault life that he’s planned for us, Greg relaxes and lightens up with false confidence that his work is done, that I’m sufficiently trained. My internal multi-year red alert program downgrades to orange, allowing for pockets of space in which to think.
Remind me, how did I get here?
On a bright snowy Wednesday in December, I zip my four-speed white Mazda 323 up the gravel drive to our duplex, grab the $1.99 six-pack of Black Label beer, and run up the back steps. I don’t want to waste any of my time home alone. I pop open a bottle, plop myself down on the creamy wall-to-wall carpeting in front of the TV, and click the dial. Lockerbie. Passenger 28.
Something, everything is horribly wrong. I stare at the silent scrolling list and think about the parents. I think of freshly-made childhood beds and my throat closes. I think of the students and the hundreds of untold stories from lives in the making. They died living.
And me? What am I doing?
I’m dying alive. This is not the trajectory I was raised to be on. I am so much more than this. I am so much more than this. Behind these words, I hear others, whispered and scattered but gaining shape and volume. This is not my life. NO.
In a flash that could light up the night sky to high noon, I suddenly understand one staggering truth:
No one is coming to rescue me.
I’ve been waiting for someone, anyone, to remove me from what appears to be my life. The search party was called off long ago. Now, it’s so blatantly clear that if I don’t wake up and do something to change my reality, I will cease to exist.
A week later, I pick up Greg from the mall. My mind is made up.
“Oh Sue,” he coos from the passenger seat. He must see something in my face. “I’m so lucky to have you as a best friend,” he says. I nod, but my eyes don’t leave the road. Feeling an undercurrent, I glance at him for a safety check. He purses his lips and batts his eyelids like a little boy trying his best for an ice cream treat.
“What?” He says, smile gone. He stares at me.
“We just—I—we just need to talk. But—”
“Pull over,” he says, “Now. Tell me.”
I tell him what he knows and offer to move out. That night he sits cross-legged on the creamy wall-to-wall carpeting next to my head and talks into my ear, until the sun comes up. The lights stay on, and he shakes me awake every time I doze off. On and on, he drones like white noise, but I hear only my voice.
What now? What do I need to do?
I never see his face again.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/AMS