In my mid-twenties, I dated a girl who nearly cost me my life. She came from a Filipino family that included her mum and two uncles that had stepped in when her dad left when she was little. They were fiercely protective of their niece and harboured an open resentment toward the local boys of their adopted suburb who lusted after the cute Asian girl at the Main Street café.
Charlie could be confident, aggressive, impulsive, defiant, and downright manipulative but even at 22, she was still at the mercy of her mother and uncles when it came to attending church.
Charlie’s family were Catholic, but it wasn’t the garden variety Catholicism that I was familiar with. As a kid, I’d always called mass ‘stand-up-sit-down church’ and it stuck.
“So, like stand-up-sit-down church?” I’d asked Charlie after she finally confessed what she did on Sunday mornings.
Until that point, she’d made excuses about not being able to see me until the afternoon. Excuses that ranged from dubious to ludicrous before telling me she was forced to go to church with her family.
“It’s basically like Catholic church, but it’s a special denomination that started in the Philippines,” she explained. “Iglesia ni Cristo,” she said in a rare demonstration of the mother tongue she was loath to use. “It’s pretty strict. They say they’re the one true religion.”
“Don’t all religions say that?” I replied.
She explained that if you didn’t go on Sunday morning, you were expected to go on a Thursday night to make up for it. Attending both was preferable. If Charlie didn’t go with her mum to the Sunday morning service, she’d tell her mum she’d go on Thursday night just to get her off her back. That’s one of the things she’d tell her mum she was doing when she came to see me. Then she said the church started taking attendance. That made it more difficult to lie to her mum.
If Charlie didn’t attend for two weeks in a row, which had happened when she’d had an exam then got sick, a representative of the church visited her home to see what was up.
“Sounds like they keep pretty close tabs on their flock,” I said.
“They think I’m up to no good,” she replied with the mischief in her eyes that had first caught my attention at the cafe at which she worked.
“What do you tell them?”
“What they want to hear: No, I don’t drink. No, I’m not doing drugs. Yes, I believe sex before marriage is a sin. Sometimes I get one of my cousins to sign in for me if they can get away with it. The leaders are pretty onto that now, though. It’s the worst.”
“Why do you go?” I asked.
“Because it’s easier. Because of Mum and my uncles. Because the church sends someone around to check on me. It’s just easier to go for a couple of hours and not put up with their bullshit.”
Her fervently religious family and her weekly attendance to church was so at odds with her swearing, her drinking, her spirited enthusiasm for rough sex, it was hard to not feel guilty. I had been recruited into her secret life of vice; a co-conspirator in her damnation.
If your mother knew, I would think as she unzipped my fly from the passenger seat of my car.
After she told me about the elders visiting, I said, “It sounds like a cult.”
Her reaction stunned me.
Despite the fact that she didn’t believe in God, and that she hated the weekly ritual more than anything, she defended the church and her family’s adherence to its philosophy as if I’d insulted her personally. It was like it was coded in her DNA to retaliate to every slight; to attack those who she felt besmirched her or her family, whether it was warranted or not.
I didn’t want to fight—she was as unstable as nitroglycerine and was best handled with caution—so I left it alone.
She was also a chronic, habitual, liar.
She lied big, she lied small. She lied when she didn’t have to lie at all. I think she lied when she didn’t have to just for practice.
In an unavoidable encounter with an uncle, I was to say I was her boss and was giving her a lift to work. I don’t believe he was convinced. He greeted me with a limp-wristed handshake and avoided making eye contact. I imagined, in his provincial village, this was a sign of great disrespect reserved for traitors and usurpers. That was the day her uncle first saw and heard my distinctive green and noisy car.
From then, if I was to visit Charlie, I parked down the street and walked. Taking care to look out for his maroon Camry.
One night, Charlie asked me to return an apron she'd left at my house. She told me to come over as early the next day as I could. Her mum would be at work from 5 am which would give us plenty of time to fool around. If I got there early enough, I could still get back home in time to get ready for work.
When I arrived, I took off my basketball boots and put them inside the door, per her instructions.
The shower was running and I joined her, also per her instructions.
Later, as we lay in her bed, the sound of a key unlocking the front door jolted Charlie from her dozing. I had never seen her move so fast.
“Get dressed and get out,” she said.
“What? What’s the matter?”
“Fuck!” she said as she scrambled to pull on a tshirt and jeans.
“What?” I repeated.
“Get your fucking clothes on!” she scream-whispered.
“Who is it?”
I had never seen Charlie, or any girl for that matter, so utterly terrified at the prospect of seeing a family member in her own home.
“What’s the big deal?” I whispered. “I’ll just say hi. Like adults do. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
“You can’t be here,” she insisted, throwing my track pants at me.
From the front door, I heard her uncle’s gruff, accented voice. “Charlie?”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” is all Charlie could say. She pulled her hair, her eyes already red with tears. She told me to hide in her wardrobe.
I scoffed. “I’m twenty-five years old. I am not hiding in your cupboard like your husband’s just come home.”
Her contorted face told the urgency of the situation: Desperation. Terror. I’d recently read Anne Frank’s Diary, and the panic of Nazis going house-to-house came to mind.
I got my track pants on and reached for my t-shirt but she kicked my clothes under her bed as footsteps thudded down the hall.
“There’s no time,” she said as she pushed me into her wardrobe and closed the door. My shoulders were too wide and the door popped open again. Her ordinarily silky black hair was a mess, her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were wild as she pleaded wordlessly to make sure I was not discovered.
I squeezed in, turning my shoulders to fit, and squatted below the weight of hanging coats and dresses. The door was held closed by the feeblest of magnets and I knew, from having stayed one night during a storm, that even a gust of wind could suck the door open.
For a moment, I found myself smiling at my ridiculous predicament. A young man, a contortionist inside my girlfriend’s wardrobe, barely breathing, hoping the expansion of my chest wouldn’t pop the door open and revealed to Charlie’s uncle my shirtless, forbidden body. I considered what I should say if I were discovered.
“Hello, sir. I am here to inspect the wardrobe for structural integrity. All seems fine, so I’ll be on my way.”
The smile on my face vanished when her uncle barked in tagalog—his native language—something I couldn’t understand in translation, but understood in sentiment very clearly. Uncle was furious.
Perhaps because Charlie wanted me to understand what was being said, but also because she was always embarrassed to speak tagalog in front of me, she responded to her uncle’s accusations in english.
“There’s no one here!” she cried.
Her uncle bellowed with such ferocity that my heart started thumping against my constricted ribcage and thudded in my ears. Against my will, my body was preparing itself for a confrontation with this man. A man who, though small in stature, commanded respect with his seething rage.
I looked down to where a sliver of light provided enough illumination to make out some of her shoes. There was a particularly severe-looking stiletto I could use as a weapon if it came down to it.
The breathless tirade continued until Charlie responded, “They’re not boy’s shoes. Anyone can wear basketball boots! They’re my friend’s. She stays here sometimes.”
More unhinged shrieking from the uncle.
“She’s got big feet!” Charlie screamed back.
I heard the uncle step further into her bedroom and his next verbal barrage was right outside the wardrobe. Charlie pressed her back into the door and yelled back at him, “I said there’s no one here!”
It was at this point that her pleas escalated in tone from urgency to desperation.
“There’s no one in the cupboard!” she cried out as he demanded, I assumed, to open the door. I could hear her voice breaking as she replied, “No! Get out! It’s my private property!”
There was the shuffling and banging of the cupboard door that indicated her uncle was trying to wrestle her away from the wardrobe and I was thankful for her surprising strength. I waited for the inevitable opening of the door and adjusted my weight as best I could in case he came in swinging.
After a few seconds, they separated and the uncle said something that was delivered with a calmness that brought me some measure of relief. The heat of the argument dissipated and the thudding in my ears was replaced by the sound of his footsteps walking out of the room. I took my first full breath since my imprisonment.
Charlie wrenched open the wardrobe, cool air flooded in and I tasted freedom. As I stepped out, she placed her clammy palm on my chest and said, “Don’t move until I tell you,” and slammed the door shut again.
In that second I’d seen her face, I was shocked. The anguish, the stress, had physically transformed her beautiful features into something out of a horror film—she looked like a college girl that had spent the night being chased by a maniac wielding a chainsaw.
It was confronting to see a girl I cared for in such distress while I cowered in her cupboard. I was a grown man. Charlie was a slight-framed woman being accosted in her own bedroom. It was time to neck up and tell her uncle he needed to leave, that Charlie was no longer a little girl but an adult capable of and, indeed, deserving of the freedom to live her life as she saw fit.
I was about to step out when the uncle shouted something down the hall.
“You’re calling the cops?” Charlie called back. “What is wrong with you? I hate you, you psycho! Get out of my house!”
Her voice was raspy and I heard her slump down on the floor and start to cry. I tried the door, but she was pressed against it.
“Please don’t,” she said and I obeyed.
Then, coming from the kitchen, the sound of a drawer being opened and searched. The chinking sound of steel on steel. The uncle was getting a knife.
“Um, Charlie?” I muttered.
She didn’t reply. All I heard was the thumps of her uncle marching back down the hall to her bedroom.
Again, voice as calm as if he were praying, he said something that elicited from Charlie a blood-chilling scream. This is it, I thought. I have to get out of the cupboard. If I can’t reason with him, if he’s got a weapon, I can’t be trapped in here. I need space to defend myself.
But again, Charlie’s back blocked the door from being opened. But the uncle had a knife. But what if they struggled again and he cut her? What if I barged out of the wardrobe and pushed her into the knife? I felt my legs going weak as the adrenaline surge waned. If I was to put up a fight, now was the moment.
But as I put my shoulder against the door, listening for the opportunity to extricate myself, Charlie mustered what must have been every cell of every muscle in her diminutive frame into one final scream of defiance. It was unearthly and it was heartbreaking.
Whatever demon she summoned in that moment, it produced the desired result and I heard her uncle’s retreating footsteps.
After deep, guttural huffing, I heard Charlie take a composing breath followed by the protestations of heavy furniture being pushed along the timber floor. Her chest of drawers banged against the bedroom door.
Finally, she opened the wardrobe and pulled me out. Her hand was hot and damp. She instructed me in an unfamiliar, hoarse whisper, “Go out the window and hide in the backyard. I’ll message you when it’s safe to leave.”
All I could say was, “My clothes?”
“Are you okay?”
She stuffed my t-shirt out the window and pushed me out after it.
I huddled below the window and listened to the uncle pacing the kitchen, talking on his phone. He was agitated, his voice was urgent. Was he calling the cops? Charlie’s mum? Was he calling his brothers and the church to organise the disposal of my body?
For thirty minutes I waited in my t-shirt and track pants. It started to rain.
At last, my phone beeped with a message: Go down side way. He's still here. Stay low.
After a hot exfil that would make a special forces soldier proud, I reached my car and sat in my saturated clothes for a few moments to collect my thoughts. My phone rang and I suffered a heart attack. It was my boss.
“Mate, where are you?” he said. “The client is here for our 9 o’clock.”
“Shit, mate. I am so sorry. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“An hour? Not good enough.”
“I need to get a change of clothes.”
“Just get here,” he said with the finality that suggested I might not have a job tomorrow.
When I arrived at the office, I walked to the boot of my car, where I’d hoped to find a pair of jeans, maybe a dry shirt. At the very least, some footwear.
Alas, I had performed my annual cleanout just the week before and it was as pristine as the day I bought it.
I walked into the office saturated and barefoot. Though I did keep my job, I was not required to attend the client meeting and The Day Matt Came To Work Without No Shoes became office folklore.
Charlie and I barely spoke about the incident with her uncle.
We broke up a year later when her anger management issues become a matter of self-preservation.
On the night I told her it was over—at my house instead of hers a day earlier than I’d planned due to my prediction of property damage—she smashed every single item of crockery in my kitchen. She cleared the dish rack then the cupboards and launched plates, bowls and mugs down my driveway until they were nothing but glass and ceramic rubble. I stood back and let her get it out of her system.
Later, my housemate called me to see how I was going—Charlie had thrown a book at him earlier and he’d evacuated to safety—I told him we’d broken up.
“What’s that sound?” he asked.
“I’m sweeping the driveway.”
“Charlie broke all our shit. Sorry.”
“Small price to pay for your life.”
The next day, I met a girlfriend to debrief. As we approached my new red Volkswagen, I got to the part in the breakup story where Charlie vindicated my decision—that her temper was too much for me—by breaking all of my plates.
“Yeah, she’s always had a touch of the crazies,” said Jess.
“You know what they say, ‘Crazy in the head, crazy in the—’”
Interrupting my train of thought, running from the back door to the front wheel, a hideous scratch was gouged into the paint; a great slicing wound in the flank of a fine thoroughbred.
“She’s keyed my car,” I said in disbelief.
“You don’t know it was her,” Jess offered.
I looked at her with deep, unbridled scepticism.
“You’re right,” she said. Then added, “Hey, remember the time her uncle nearly murdered you?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, running my finger over the scar in my car’s side. “I should write a story about that.”