Some of Us
Breathe. Breathe. That’s right. Just like that—in and out, in and out. So simple. You don’t even have to think about it.
That’s what you tell yourself when confronted with his sharp gray eyes that remind you of dead leaves. They’re a cross between crazy and angry. They’re like dirty dish water in the sunlight. He gets pissed over anything: an unknown caller, burnt grilled cheese, bad satellite reception. His eyes pop and bulge and quiver. He talks through his teeth, inches from your face, with his hand gripping the neck of your shirt.
Don’t show fear. Remain calm. You make the mistake of becoming flustered and slithering away from him and his sharp gray eyes. It turns into a chase around the apartment in circles, jumping over the cocktail table, throwing kitchen chairs behind you to slow him down, shutting the bedroom door—but he’s too strong. It’s like trying to push a cracking door against a seething bull. And when it’s over, when he either passes out, gets you, or leaves, there’s a moment of relief, a state of calm like after a tough interview that went well, and you say, I survived. I’m fine. I did good. Then your rational side kicks in, if you’re lucky enough to still have it, and it says to you, Fucking leave. You can do better. And you think about the big red bag sitting in your closet underneath your scattered shoes, and how easy it would be to pack it up and leave. But something stops you and you can’t seem to get up off the kitchen chair. You can’t seem to do it. You remember the way he smiles at you when things are good. You remember your first date. You think about how good it is when you make love—he loves you so. Instead, you watch his SUV lights pull out of the driveway, bouncing and scattered like he is, and you hold the bag of ice across your cheek because it feels like a hot stove burner, and you say, Just one more chance. I swear this time.
And then he confirms that you made the right decision. Deep down you don’t believe him but it’s what you want to hear. He brings you irises (your favorite) and diamond earrings and takes you out to dinner for surf and turf. Everything’s really swell for the next few days to a couple of weeks. He says, I’m sorry. I just drink too much. I’ll stop. And you believe him a little. But then one night he comes home smelling like a winery with a six-pack in the crook of his arm, and you say, John—what are you doing? You promised.
You know what’s coming next—after your gutsy confrontation of broken promises. He’s already too trashed to admit you’re right. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear: I’m sorry. I was wrong. And he’s so good you wonder if it was your fault and you’ll find yourself apologizing too.
And then one day you get the guts to pull out the big red bag in your closet because you’re spitting out blood in the sink and it looks like the paint when you rinse your paint brushes, except it’s stringy like your period, and you can’t believe it’s from your own body—the red blood. It’s not paint. You don’t understand how it got to this point. You never saw it coming. You pity those women too weak to leave yet you’ve stayed for six years. Six years! You tell the pathetic actresses on T.V. and your best friends who live with men you want them to dump to: Leave! Just leave. What’s wrong with you? It’s easy.
But it’s not.
And you always thought it was bitter, drunk, working-class men hitting their women.
But it’s not. They’re also wealthy and successful and clean.
But you finally get that red bag out. You slam the closet door so it hits the wall and leaves a hole that you’re going to have to pay the landlord, and pull out the bag smelling like feet. Your face hurts, your tongue swells, and you swallow the salty blood because you don’t want to see it in the sink again. You want to puke. You tell yourself, Breathe, Breathe. That’s right. Just like that—in and out, in and out as you pack your stuff. Just keep packing. You think he pulls up the driveway but it’s another tenant and you’re stuffing your bag to the top and it’ll barely zip shut. You’ll get the rest of your stuff later. But you worry about it. You worry it’ll all be burned or thrown out or given away or stolen.
But when you leave, he does nothing of the sort. He’s quiet. It’s like he disappears after his sorrowful, apologetic phone calls that turn angry because you won’t return. The quiet is uncomfortable. You move back in with sweet, lonely Mom, and Sister, a junior at college. Dad left when you were in high school.
It’s been a week. You have your male friend Jerry go back to the apartment with you to get the rest of your stuff. Jerry has a bat. Jerry is scared. He says, I don’t wanna get my ass beat, but I’d do anything for you. You tell him not to worry but you’re lying. John Sundland is at the office. You make sure to retrieve your things during the day. The apartment is cool and unfamiliar—he has left the windows wide open. Beer cans are scattered, dishes undone. It smells like expensive perfume, stale beer, sweat and sex, and your stomach curdles when you see a black bra on the floor. It’s like entering a stranger’s apartment, like you’re a couple of robbers and it was never your place to begin with. It’s like you never had dinner parties there and made love on the new leather couch and laughed in bed. The sun is shining and it’s beautiful outside and it would be a day to enjoy except you feel terrible and lost and dead. You carry a large box of cosmetics and mismatched socks to Jerry’s truck but you close your eyes to block out the breathtaking sunshine. It takes you over an hour to pack up. You leave your bureau. You leave the leather couch you paid half for. Jerry pisses on it. You can’t look at the apartment when Jerry starts the truck. You close your eyes. You smell the exhaust. You feel the sun on your lap. The truck bounces pulling out of the driveway, and you feel like a rock that’s sinking.
New start, Jerry says. Leave it behind. Forget him. Jerry sounds so convincing and comforting that you want him to kiss you. You’ll do anything to take away the sick pain probing at your insides like a hot poker.
A few months later, John Sundland surprises you. You didn’t see him. You think to yourself: So this is what it’s like. This is what happens to some of us. You see his sharp gray eyes. You remember the eyes of murdered women on posters at victims of domestic violence meetings, where counselors say, You’re over the hardest part.
But they’re not standing there with you now.
You know he’s gripping something inside his trench coat pocket. You see the protracted shape of it and the way his thick, ropey wrist muscles extend out from his pocket like a contorted tree trunk. You see his crumbled dress shirt, unbuttoned at the top, messy tie. He’s like a crumbling mountain in the approaching winter dusk. He’s been drinking. You stare desperately into his gray eyes, like basins of dirty dishwater. You’re afraid to look away from them. You remember your first date. You hope he remembers, too. You don’t bother to beg. He’s too strong. You almost say, I’ll come back, but instead you recite the old familiar line in your head: Breathe. Breathe. Just like that. You’re tired. You have so many thoughts they erase each other. But you clearly remember Dad walking out. You remember Mom’s hands holding yours, and Sister’s silky smile, confirming you did the right thing by leaving. You’d give anything to see them right now. You’d give anything for them to see you.
You can’t believe how calm you are.
* "Some of Us" was previously published in The MacGuffin, Spring/Summer 2012.