I hoist the bag over my shoulder, like some kind of ersatz Santa, but instead of delivering toys to tots, I’m bearing gently used wardrobe items to those in need.
I was once them. One in need of salvation.
There’s deadness in his eyes when he strikes me. Like those fish you see lined up in rows, packed on beds of ice at crowded markets.
I don’t recognize him when he looks this way. My brain screams, get up, get out, get away, but my body is paralyzed on the kitchen linoleum, the sting of his slap a warm tingle on my cheek.
How did I get here? My brain demands. Excuses play like a skipping needle in my head. He’s hurt. He’s frustrated. He didn’t mean it. He’s upset about his job.
No excuse, a quiet part of my brain interjects.
I flashback to happier times. His flamboyant, colorful shirts. The cool rhythm he exuded when he danced. His lopsided grin, which made me feel safe—back then.
He was courteous when I met him. A door holder, offer-your-seat-to-the-elderly-type of guy. This was why the first hit came as such a shock.
I gasped and curled into myself after his hand made contact, made myself small and tight, as though the roundness of my frame could protect me.
I’m a ball. You can’t hurt a ball.
It was an accident, my heart assured me. He didn’t mean it. How could he? We made so many plans.
It’ll never happen again, he promised.
Once a hitter, always a hitter, Logic interjected. You’ve seen enough of those after-school TV specials.
Forgive, Heart says. You can tell he’s remorseful by the tears in his eyes.
A bad person wouldn’t cry, right?
I ignored the dueling arguments in my head. I accepted his promise: never again, which he upheld for a while.
Until he didn’t.
And now I’m on my kitchen floor, in a cramped apartment, with a man I hardly recognize. He has a dead fish-glazed-look in his eyes, and I’m wondering how to turn back time to the moment before the first strike, before I swallowed his lie.
Logic chuckles. Told ya.
And look. Now he’s holding a knife—my knife—the knife that belongs in the block, with the set. He’s stabbing a roll of paper towels, and I imagine it’s my heart he wants to impale, that crazed, glazed dead fish look in his eyes. I glance at the front door, but he’s blocking the exit.
Stay calm. Breathe. Think.
Seconds feel like hours. Eventually, he orders me to get out.
I hesitate. Is it a trick?
Go, my brain demands.
My feet finally comply.
And now I’m out of my apartment, I’m out on the street, riding my mountain bike, because in this City of Angels I live with a demon, and I don’t have a car, but wheels are wheels. Wheels are freedom.
Where do I go? What do I do? He promised no more.
Quiet, Logic opines. Be glad you got away.
Lights glare. Cars honk. My lungs inhale the perfume of exhaust. I panic he’s following.
I pedal. And pedal. And pedal some more. I think of my friends and their laughter and their warm kitchens and their safety.
How did I get here, Brain/Heart repeat. People like you don’t end up like this, alone, biking city streets at night.
The word feels ugly on my tongue.
This is the loneliest I’ve felt. Los Angeles, on this warm, starry night.
My legs tire.
I return to my apartment, creep in on quiet toes. No sign of him, a small relief. Left behind, the knife—my knife—now back in the block.
Curled up on my closet floor, my knife in hand, I gasp and stiffen each time I hear a sound. A floorboard creak. A pipe moan. Is he back? No, go to sleep.
Instead of slumbering, I gaze at the wire shelf rack, inventory my things. What would I take if I had to flee again?
The next day, I call a women’s shelter. I go to a meeting. I buy the (important) recommended book. I inhale every page.
I’m not special. Others have it the same or worse or better.
Mentally or physically, rich or poor, young or old, we share the label, we hurt the same.
My shirt collar is soppy with tears, my eyelids puffy. Snot seeps from my nose. It’s that hard ugly cry that comes from bad breakups and broken hearts and losing faith in yourself.
I hide the important book. I worry he will come back. I clean so there’s no reason to upset him further.
That night, he returns. He apologizes, agrees things got out of hand. He brought flowers.
This is The Honeymoon Phase, the important book taught me.
Screw his promises, Logic screams.
He’s remorseful, Heart interjects. Look at him, his expression is so pathetic, you can see it—
Tell him to go.
And now it’s six months later, and I see him while I’m out with friends. I’m wearing my flower-embroidered shorts and an uncharacteristic smile.
As he approaches our group, I wave then retract my hand as my brain registers who I just acknowledged.
Him. Foe, not friend.
We do that sometimes, wave at a familiar face before we place the person.
I cannot undo this. Instead, I run into the shadows then berate myself for giving him back my power.
A decade passes. I volunteer at a women’s shelter. I hold back tears while temporary residents recant stories of fleeing in the night, the clothes on their back their only possessions. I remember the streets of L.A., that warm, sad starry night.
I cannot continue volunteering here; time has not healed all my wounds. I’m different now but not strong enough to stay. I slink away in shame.
Before that first strike, I couldn’t imagine how a person stayed with an abuser. Now I know better. It can happen to anyone. It happens unexpectedly. You’re in shock, you forgive, you forget, it repeats.
It always repeats.
I was lucky; I got away.
And now I’m hoisting a bag of gently used items into my trunk. Later, I’ll drop it at the shelter where I was too weak to stay.
I share clothes, I share their experience, but I don’t share the guts to go inside.
Be brave, I want to tell them.