**trigger warning for domestic violence**
I was twelve years old when I woke up to the sounds of my mother being abused. It was a school night, and the part of the living room I shared with my brother that also served as our room was pitch black. I laid on the top bunk frozen with terror as I heard my mother trying to fight off my step-father, screaming for me to call 911. Even now, almost 12 years later I can feel my legs tingle with the anxiety I felt that night, taste the bile that rose in my mouth and hear my heart pounding in my chest.
I was no amateur to witnessing domestic abuse. Almost 5 years prior to that night I witnessed a male cousin practically suplex his wife through my mother’s coffee table, leaving glass shattered everywhere; the poor woman lying in the mess with tremors running through her body. But that was my cousin’s wife — this was my mother…
I suspect like most families, mine has learned how to normalize violence. The next day I got up, showered, dressed and went to school as if nothing happened. That evening we all went about our lives as if those screams never echoed amongst our walls that were laden with seemingly happy family portraits, as if my stepfather who lived as a God-fearing man by day did not become a demon at night. I’ve suppressed these memories and so many others for so long, but this year they want to be known, to be remembered. They are pushing me towards the healing I need in order to move on with my life.
When I was 21, I fell in love for the third time. He was older, dark — the color of fresh, grond coffee — the kind my mother would bring from her trips to Haiti and scoop out of an old tin can that carried no label. He was so sexy, and I could not wrap my mind around the fact that he wanted me. He wanted me. From the first time I was alone with him, I knew I would love him. It was as inevitable as snow in winter. And I did love him. Very much. But as soon as I attached myself to him, the abuse started. He never raised his hands to me, he didn’t need to — his words did more damage than I reckon any fist could. My self-esteem was already lower than a dead man’s blood pressure, and I clung to him desperately hoping he would bestow the love that I craved. Looking back now, I realize that my hope was that he would love me for the both of us.
As time progressed, the abuse got worse. I kept it a secret from those around me. I’ve always been known as a spunky and sassy sort of girl. Quick with a joke and smile. I did not want people to know that how I felt about myself on any given day determined solely on what this man did or did not say to me, what he did or did not do to me, and how I did or did not react. My friends laughed at abused women and considered those who did not have a quick comeback for a man’s disrespect stupid and “slow”. I did not want their perception of me to change.
But as most of these situations do ours spiraled completely out of control and where love once resided fear and resentment took over. We stopped seeing each other, and I spent the good part of that year pining for him and praying for his return. As the months dragged on I slowly started coming around to the reality that he did not miss me and was not coming back. One November night, I logged onto Facebook to find a message from him saying he had been thinking about me, that maybe we were both too broken to be what each other needed. I fell for him. I fell hard all over again. I responded and less than 12 hours later I found myself on a bus headed to his new apartment. When I got to his door and hugged him, I melted. I missed him. I missed this. This is so good, I thought as his hands traveled up and down my back warming them. Why can’t you always be this good? Just please be like this always and we’ll be okay. I demanded and pleaded in my mind.
Our reconciliation did not last more than 3 hours. He wanted sex, I did not. I wanted affection and an apology. He wanted a nut. After I told him “no” after a good number of attempts (one in which he laid on top of me, held me down and said he was going to take “it.”) he left me alone. I tried to lighten the mood with jokes. I so desperately wanted to get on his good side again, but it was not to be. After coming to the bedroom from the kitchen where I had ventured for a snack, he looked me in the eye and told me to leave. “I think its best you go.” He stood by the door as I put on my boots and coat on and that was the last time I saw him for about a year.
That night I walked an hour through 2 neighborhoods crying. I was in shock from it all, and felt as if a veil had been lifted from before my eyes. I was forced to acknowledge his behavior for what it was, and to realize I had spent almost 2 years devoted to someone for whom I obviously held little value.
I ran into him this February as me and a friend waited to be seated at a popular eatery. He walked up and grabbed me into a huge bear hug. It was as if all that had transpired between us was simply a figment of my imagination. I took the encounter in stride, but that would be one of many times our paths would cross this year. A few months ago we found ourselves at the same Brooklyn party. As I took a swig of his white wine, he looked at me and began apologizing for everything. As his lips repeated “I’m so sorry” over and over again I felt my lower half go numb. We became something like associates and have remained cordial.
Tonight in my tipsiness, I texted him instead of another man. I made light of the matter in a friend’s inbox and twitter, but as I laid down on my bed my mind flashed back to the night I heard my mother being abused. I felt the tears sting my eyes and my heart sink and I began to wonder when did I normalize all that had happened in the past. When had everything become so ordinary that I found texting this man, even having his number saved in my phone again, okay and normal?
I stayed home this weekend and cried. I cried as I washed my hair and I cried as I washed the dishes. I cried as I looked for a film to watch on Netflix, and I cried as I walked to the bodega to buy an Arizona. This year has been one big battle in trying to fight the desensitization I have undergone when it comes to abuse. My mother is still with my step-father, I talk to my ex as if his “I’m so sorry”s could make up for the humiliation and shame that have become my soul-mates. The shame I have been shackled with is that I have continued to fail the 12 year old who laid in complete fear in her bed hoping something, anything would come and rescue her and her mother.
As I write this tonight, I am trying to come to terms with the fact that I have the power to heal all of this hurt, to set loose these demons that I have allowed to drag me from one broken man to another. When I was 12 I did not have the power nor the tools to set me and my mother free, but now as an adult I’m finally understanding and accepting that I can completely silence the screams that have kept me awake for over a decade.