I always loved his hands. They were strong, lean and beautifully expressive—the kind of hands that the artist in me would have loved to draw. Only now they were around my neck, applying pressure, squeezing, squeezing, unaware of my hands struggling to break the grip. Where did he get this superhuman strength when he was angry?
“I could kill you now. You know that?” His voice was surprisingly calm. It evoked more fear than his screaming had. He was in control. He had the power of life and death in his hands.
Something snapped in me. I was tired of having no control over my life. I was tired of being at the mercy of this man. I fought back with the only weapon I had—my intellect.
I slowly dropped my arms to my sides, tilted my chin up and pushed my neck into his hands. In a voice as firm as I could make it through my strangled vocal chords I said, “Go ahead.”
I saw and felt his loss of control. His eyes faltered from their previous bravado, and his momentary loss of power shook the superficial pedestal he’d placed himself on. His hold broke, and he stepped back as if burned by my skin. He threw his hands over his head, whirled and knocked the table over, sending the dishes and centerpiece flying to break across the cheap linoleum floor.
He turned back to me and said, inches from my face, “Don’t think that I can’t or won’t. If you ever think of leaving me—I will kill you like that.” He squeezed two fingers together like he was smashing a bug between them. Then he walked out and slammed the door after him.
The sound of the police officers’ radios announced their arrival long before I saw them walking up the drive. Surprisingly, I was calm as I opened the door. One officer was a young, short and stocky man. The other was in her mid-20s with blond hair pulled into a practical ponytail. They were sharing a joke.
The nosy neighbor to the left suddenly walked into her backyard to tend to her flowers.
“We received a call,” the male officer said, “that there was a strangulation in progress.”
“Yes, that was me,” I said, unable to believe their casual manner.
The female officer placed a hand on her hip and looked at me as if I was just another troublemaker.
The man scrutinized my neck pointedly. “Well, I don’t see any bruises.” There was something in his tone.
“Are you saying I made it up?” I asked, incredulous at his rudeness.
He sighed as if I was wasting his time. She smiled sardonically.
“No, I’m not saying that,” he said. “We received three reports of a strangulation.”
Three? I’d called Mom right after the incident. She told me to get off the phone and call the police right away before he came back. Mom was probably the second person. I glanced at the neighbor busily patting soil that appeared exactly the same afterward. She must have been outside the bedroom window right before he had pushed his way in the front door. She had to hear it through the open window. Without a doubt I knew who the third person was.
“Listen,” I said. “I didn’t make it up.” I couldn’t believe I had to convince them. I’d made enough calls in the past that they should know by now. “He did try to strangle me.”
“Then why are there no marks?” the male officer asked. Again, I couldn’t place the tone in his voice.
“What?” My voice rose, even though I tried to remain calm.
I didn’t care what he thought. I’d stopped caring about a lot of things a long time ago.
“Because he stopped,” I said and stared at the officer.
“Well, do you want to file a report?”
Again I got the feeling I was burdening him and they both felt they had better things to attend to than a poor woman unable to get away from her obsessive boyfriend.
“Yes.” I tried to keep the “what, are you stupid?” tone out of my voice. I didn’t succeed.
The officers shared a look between them that wasn’t meant for me to see.
Another time, one of many, a different police officer—alone—responded to my call. I will never forget the way he avoided looking at me. He stood awkwardly in the living room shuffling his incident report papers on a clipboard. Clean-cut and shaven with buzzed hair, he seemed out of place in my home.
“I’m required to ask if you’d like me to take you to the domestic violence shelter,” he said, not unkindly.
My three-year-old son made engine sounds in his room. I glanced towards the open bedroom door and saw a yellow car move across the floor. My baby girl tried to grab the officer’s pants through the bars of the crib we used instead of a playpen. He was just out of reach.
I knew I had to go. I couldn’t risk staying. I had to think of the kids.
The officer told me to pack a few things—survival bags he called them.
He carried my son’s booster seat to the car. I followed through snow with my baby girl in her car seat in one hand, and my son’s hand in the other.
“Where are we going, Mommy?” he asked.
I glanced at the police officer—looking for help. I didn’t know. “The nice police officer is giving us a ride,” I said.
The neighbor stood directly in front of the driveway, arms crossed, observing the scene. She didn’t try to hide her interest. To the left, another neighbor’s curtains swayed conspicuously back and forth. At least the officer had turned off his lights.
“I’ll tell you when we get there, honey,” I said.
The officer bent down on one knee to my son’s level. “Okay champ,” he said, “let ’s get you in there.”
I was surprised at how gentle he was. He swung my little boy through the air and deposited him into the seat.
“The door’s open on the other side for you to put your baby in,” he said, again avoiding my eyes.
I climbed into the front seat with the police officer and glanced back at my children through the partition.
The officer ignored me as he drove. He knew the way—I didn’t. I stared at the floor, the radio, the guns. We followed a long, freshly-paved driveway to the back of a huge house where he parked the car. There was no sign in the front or back. No way to know this was the shelter.
This time, he held my son’s hand and carried his car seat in the other. Before he knocked an overweight woman with a kind face and a stooped posture opened the door and greeted him by name.
She welcomed me as if I were an old friend paying a long awaited visit.
“Come in, come in,” she said. Despite the freezing weather, she stood in inches of snow on the wooden steps and held the door wider for us to enter.,”Tsk, tsk, tsk,” she said. “It ’s too cold out here for those babies.” She held the door wider and waved us in. “Hurry now.” The navy-blue skirt suit and nylons seemed out of place with the heavy men’s hunting socks that extended above her fuzzy slippers.
The sun room on the back of the house had been converted into an office with two desks, two chairs, and an ugly, lumpy orange sofa along one wall. I’d just barely set down my daughter and my bags when the woman reached out and pulled me into a crushing embrace. The smell of Chanel No. 5, musty basement and talcum powder filled my nose.
Thinking back, I had no choice. I had to leave.
“It would be best,” were the police officer’s exact words. Maybe he’d seen this before. Maybe he knew that if I’d stayed there would be no escape.
“When no one else sees what you do and no one pats you on the back or says ‘Good job,’ say it to yourself,” the counselor encouraged my domestic violence support group. “Look in the mirror. What do you see?”
“Now do it with me,” she said. “Pick up the mirror and look at yourself.”
I picked up the cheap plastic mirror and looked at the stranger reflected there. Eyes worn and heavy—rimmed in purple from lack of sleep. Hair wild, skin pale. But a glimmer of hope was reflected among the blinds of reality.
“You are beautiful.” She paused to let her words sink in. “Now say it.”
We looked at her with vague, unsteady glances. Astonished faces turned from the counselor to the mirrors as the women of the support group contemplated her words. Some showed doubt, others disbelief, while still others’ faces seemed to mock the actions or, was it…the words?
I looked again into the mirror. “You are beautiful,” I mumbled. I could barely hear myself. I didn’t mean it—my heart wasn’t in it. It felt ridiculous. It was stupid to be talking to a mirror.
Mirror, Mirror on the wall….
How could the counselor know I was beautiful? She didn’t know me. She didn’t know anyone here in this stinking, musty pit of a basement where the broken women who run from their abusers lived on the floor directly above us.
Who did she think she was?
I glared at the woman in the mirror. She glared back, defiant, alone, angry… defensive. Did I even know her anymore? She was a shell of who she used to be.
“Say it again,” the counselor encouraged in a gentle voice.
“Torie, are you going to say it?” she asked kindly.
It was stupid.
The skinny woman to the right of me with crazy hair and even crazier eyes smiled in a weird way and said, “You are beautiful, you are beautiful, you are beautiful,” to her mirror. The nervous laughter that escaped her pale, thin lips sounded a little too high-pitched and slightly hysterical. She had probably been beautiful at one time.
“Torie, you are beautiful.” The counselor was beside me. Others were looking our way.
I concentrated on the chipped ceramic pot with the purple plastic violet in the center of the table. It was the only decoration of the garage-sale table that women of all ages were gathered around. There were no social class hierarchies here. We were all bound by the familiar reality of a battle in which we had never been willing participants.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I looked at the paths of wrinkles in the little square of blue cloth underneath the pot.
“I’m sitting right here,” the counselor said. “I see you. You are beautiful.” She said it gently, yet firmly, willing me to believe it. I heard the sincerity in her voice.
Why was this so hard for me?
“Will you try it for me? Just try to say it.”
I looked again at the woman I’d become, pale, worn…broken. Nobody. I opened my mouth—nothing came out. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t believe it.
I saw my eyes narrowed in the reflection.
She placed a tender hand on my shoulder.
I don’t know when I lost the ability to say those few words. It took me years to say them—beautiful words that eventually found a way into my soul.
“You are beautiful.”
I can now look into that mirror and say them. And no matter how I am feeling, some small part of me knows it ’s true.
~Torie Amarie Dale
Originally Published in The Petigru Review
Nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2011