I am standing in front of my closet. It is 6:30 in the morning and I am in my bathrobe, having just emerged from the shower. I am trying to decide what to wear to work. The kids are still in bed and my husband is downstairs. He has already set the tone for the day by bolting from the bed and telling my waking self from the doorway of our bedroom, "My God, you are an ugly woman."
I had not responded to this, of course. I had just lain still and avoided making eye contact with him. I have learned that it is best not to provoke. I think of him as a rabid dog; he snarls and lowers his head, barks a low guttural bark, stands poised to attack, but if one is careful and does not move, does not breathe, sometimes the threat passes and the dog backs down, satisfied with his baring of teeth, the proof of his power and strength. So I absorbed, accepted, waited for him to leave (listened until his feet thumped down the stairs) and then scurried down the hall to the shower.
I am reaching for my flowered dress, the long one that flares in great clouds around me, and mentally finding tights, black shoes, silver earrings, when I hear my husband step through the door behind me. He doesn't speak; he simply takes giant strides toward me. Two steps and he is there. His arm is pulled back and his face is a mask and I know the dog has awakened.
All goes into slow motion as I watch what is about to happen. I think in a detached way that it is just like the movies, this arm pulled back, its slow approach, the smack of fist against bone, and then I feel the hard white pain of that fist, his right hand, the hand that has held mine, that has made love to me, that has reached for me, all knotted up now with rage behind it, and he hits me high on the face, on my cheekbone, just beneath my eye, and I am lifted from my feet and knocked backward into the closet, clutching at dresses to break my fall.
It has taken 10 seconds. I land in a heap on the dusty floor. There. I am knocked down, disappeared from his view, only my feet showing. My husband is satisfied and leaves the room as quickly as he entered it. Dimly, I hear him rousing the children, calling them to breakfast.
I sprawl, propped awkwardly against the suitcase in the back of the closet, and wait for the initial shock to pass. My thoughts are scrambled, my hand held numbly to my face; I don't feel anything yet. It is funny how a blow to the head does muddle the brain. I imagine all the thoughts in my mind as little people who have been flung suddenly from their comfortable houses, who lie stunned in the street for long bewildered moments before they can gather themselves and calm their equally rattled neighbors and limp back to their proper places. I wait numbly for this confusion to pass, for all my little people to find their homes again.
And the pain, when it comes, is a sort of pure thing, focused and clean. An angry fist connects with unresisting flesh and that flesh recoils, shrinks, bulges back with blood and shock. Pain chases thought and reason away; pain is something concrete and undeniable. It helps restore order.
I feel the new bulging of my face. The point of impact is still numb, but the skin around it is hot to touch. My fingers feel the wetness of tears there, but I do not remember crying. I feel the tightening of my skin as it stretches and swells, and I wonder, again detached, removed, if I will have another black eye.
Sobs threaten in my chest; they have been waiting in the wings, gathering themselves for their predictable time in the spotlight. This is the second stage. After the surprise and the quickness of the attack comes the childlike reaction to pain and fear, the quick hysteria at an unjust act. I hold my fist to my mouth and will not let the sobs come. I will not give him the satisfaction of hearing me cry, will not hear his contempt at my "weakness," at my "pathetic mewling."
I curl my legs beneath me and withdraw deeper into the closet. I will not cry and I will leave no vulnerable part. My husband's fist has sent me into myself; it has scattered me and I hide, fight familiar panic as my shattered pieces struggle to reintegrate, to get me back to my solid self who stood just a few moments ago, getting dressed for work.
I listen to my small children ask for me and I hear the deep rumble of my husband's voice as he answers them, but I cannot hear his words. My dazed brain rejects his sounds, refuses to acknowledge them; he is nothing but a shadowy animal growling in the distance. But it is the thought of my small, sleepy-eyed children that spurs me to get up, to begin the business of fixing the damage. I will remain in this weepy stage for a while, but I must move, must try to get back to myself.
I pull myself to my feet, feel the ache in my lower back from contact with the floor and the knot on the back of my head from contact with something. I don't remember hitting my head, but I know these pains will stay with me now for days. My fingers trace my face lightly, try to gauge the damage done.
At least the skin isn't broken, I think, knowing that blood is much harder to deal with, both physically and psychologically. There is something deeply shocking about seeing one's own blood spill, something primitive and base about blood.
"At least you are not bleeding," I whisper, and the sound of my own voice grounds me the tiniest bit. "Not bleeding," I repeat, a little bolder.
I cannot face the mirror yet, so I turn again into the closet. The dramatic flowered dress will attract too much attention; now I need the opposite. I must wear something nondescript and neutral. My separate and practical brain, the part of me that deals matter-of-factly with this aspect of my life, thinks ahead: maybe 10 days of being marked this time, of wearing my husband's brand.
I pull black slacks from a hanger, a black sweater from the shelf, and dress quickly, pulling clothes on without removing my robe, until I have dressed, covered myself.
"Leave Mom alone!" I hear my husband's clear shout. "She's getting dressed!" And I know he does not want the children to see me until I have pulled myself from my undignified position in the closet, until I have hidden what he has done. I try to readjust my face as I hear my daughter's small disobedient feet padding down the hallway toward me.
"Mom!" Grace is 4 and breathless. "Mom!"
"Hey, darling girl," I answer, turning my face away to search for earrings. "Have you had breakfast?"
"Yep! Do I have school today?"
"This afternoon." I nod and approach my daughter quickly, hug her to my chest, do not show my face. "Mommy has to use the bathroom; why don't you get dressed?"
In the bathroom, I brace myself before I look in the mirror. An angry white spot square on my cheekbone, reddened and swollen skin, distorts my features, pulls my nose and mouth slightly upward. There is the faint blue of bruising beneath my eye. I am all face; there is nothing but my face.
I plunge into Stage 3.
God, I hate him. God, I hate that he indulges his flare of temper and then it is over for him. He walks into the bedroom, pops his wife in the face and then gets the kids up for breakfast. He goes about the normal tasks of his day and I, the wife, am left to cope with his indulgence, with his 10-second loss of control. My husband bears no proof of what he has done; it is I who feel the pain and hide the marks, I who duck my head and feel the shame.
God, I hate my husband.
Resolutely, I bend to my own tasks. I wash my face carefully and reach for makeup. My brain is collected and calculating again, thinking of my workday, the classes I must teach. I know the bruising will take a while to show itself. (I know the timing and the progression of its colors too: from black to blue to green to yellow.) Perhaps I can finish work today before the worst shows itself, I am thinking. I will worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
My fingers are cold on the heat of my face and I wince without meaning to as I spread coverup several shades darker than my skin tone and gingerly rub it in. It hurts to touch my tender skin and the makeup streaks unevenly. It is a futile effort for the most part anyway, I know; there is no covering it, no denying.
Many times, I have worked to come up with plausible explanations for my bruises and cuts; I have concocted what I hoped were reasonable scenarios. But I don't bother so much with that anymore. I feel a quick surge of resentment for my co-workers and friends, for those who nod and sympathize with my invented stories, whose eyes don't believe, but whose mouths pretend to.
Yet I know it isn't fair to blame them; they do not know what to say, how to react. I tell myself that I would probably do the same thing in their shoes (no, I would not; I would not. I would say, "Bullshit. That is not what happened") but I am different from them. I am different and separate from them; I am the obviously beat-upon wife, and I hate myself for this, for being known as this.
I think this morning that I will say nothing; I will offer no explanation, will just pretend along with them that there is no fist mark on my fragile face.
I have succeeded at forgetting my marks before; I avoid mirrors. I keep my head down, but there is always that moment when someone looks at me, in the grocery store, at the bank, and I see the quickly masked shock that crosses the person's face, and I remember that I look like I have been in a brawl or a car accident, or that my husband has taken his fist to my face.
Sometimes I look quickly away, too cowardly to acknowledge them, and other times I stare defiantly, wait until they look away, and think, "Fuck you."
"Going to work!" my husband shouts from the foot of the stairs, an announcement for the children's benefit, for the show of a normal existence. I don't answer, but I open the bathroom door so my children can find me. I wait until he bangs out of the house and then I comb my hair, let it fall across my face.
Grace has dressed herself and greets me in the hallway. Her large eyes take in her mother's face and I smile, distract her. "Where's your brother?" I will not look in the mirror again this day and I will concentrate on keeping my nonthinking hands from reaching in a sort of stupefied wonder to touch the tender swelling on my face. The immediate consequences have been met and dealt with.
"It is my face," I think, walking down the stairs, holding my small daughter's hand, "the part of me that I must show to everyone, you bastard, you asshole son of a bitch."
"Daddy made pancakes," Grace is saying and I think, "I hate him, I hate your daddy," but I smile. "And you like pancakes, don't you?"
I lock the back door; it is a symbolic act, locking him out, locking out my husband who has keys, who can get to me anytime he wants, but I lock the door anyway, feel a small comfort at the solid thunk of the deadbolt.
I think of him, driving now to work, this morning's fist to his wife's face already the past for him, his mind dismissing it and turning to the day ahead. If I had a gun I would shoot him next time he approached me from behind.
I dress 2-year-old Joseph and have a cup of coffee. I am past the shock, past the hysteria now, and well into anger. This is the most powerful stage, the one where I feel strongest, but it is also the most fleeting stage. I know the stink of shame will be next and I must brace myself for that. I try to concentrate on the chatter of my children, on the classes I will teach, try not to think of the faces of my students when I walk into the room.
The anger will return; the anger is always there; it simmers at a low boil every second of my life. But in the twisted way of those who endure and try to analyze why a loved one should hate them and hurt them, the anger will become self-directed, and two days from now, three, I will find myself mouthing the words he dictates: "I'm sorry I made you mad. I'm sorry I neglected you. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings."
Tonight, he will bring flowers and he will make dinner. He will be especially patient with and entertaining for the children. Perhaps he will wince when he looks at me and squeeze my arm, whisper in a choked voice, "I'm sorry that happened to you."
Friday: A hero's retreat: Sometimes the bravest warriors run away.