Early in my relationship with my ex-husband, Will, I felt afraid in his presence. I’ve often wondered why I stayed with him in these early days. My boyfriends before him generally treated me well – very well. I’d known no one like Will before. He seemed exciting and different. I think my curiosity got the best of me; by the time I’d figured him out, we were entrenched in the cycle of abuse.
I think this episode I’m sharing today illustrates what was going on in my head during our earliest abusive interactions. As you will read in the story, Will and I firmly attached ourselves together very quickly. This story happens before he asked me to be his girl.
At the time of this story, I’m 19-years-old and a Private First Class in the Army. Tommy, my last high school boyfriend, wrote a letter to me. I wrote him back, telling him I’d met someone (Will) and broke off our relationship. He’d written a reply, but instead of answering it, I stored it in a box where I kept several mementos, past and present.
This evening, I planned to meet with Will after work, and excitedly hurried back from headquarters to get ready for our date.
Entering the barracks, I jumped over every second step up to the fourth floor, and breathless, thrust my key toward the lock. But the second the key connected with the lock’s metal faceplate, the door swung open. I had forgotten to lock it, but had I forgotten to close it, too? The door contacted the wall behind it with a thud and shuddered to a stop. Now I could see Will, sitting on my bed and reading Tommy’s letter to me. I wasn’t mad, I didn’t feel invaded. I was scared.
Will sat there looking like a straight-backed 1950’s father holding a newspaper, reading my letter with deliberation. I got the sense he was reading it through for at least the second time; I thought he’d been studying it, and what conclusions he may have drawn scared me, more than a little.
I tried to remember exactly what Tommy said, his phrasing, his assumptions. I wanted to defend myself and it didn’t matter that Will was in my room without my knowledge, looking at my papers, sitting on my bed looking at my private correspondence with a frightening steely hatred in his eyes.
I was somehow wrong; it didn’t matter why.
“I came up here to take you to dinner,” he started, quiet and slow through clenched teeth. His voice now crescendoed into a yell as he said, “And this is how you repay me?!” Bellowing now, he said, “I saw you skipping to headquarters…now I know it was because of this f&+k-stick you met in training!”
And then, maybe to himself, he muttered, “Females – fucking whores.”
“No, no!” I said quietly, running to him. I got down on my knees and put my hands on his forearms, pressing down to lower the letter so I could see his face. “I wasn’t skipping – I didn’t meet him in training!”
Will had it all wrong; if I could only calm him down to hear me out! If he had asked me before, this wouldn’t be happening because I would have told him everything and now he’d understand! But there wasn’t time to be upset about that. I had to explain.
Will glared at me over the letter. His brows knit tightly together and he clenched his teeth, jutting his chin forward and forcing his ears lower by a half inch. His face turned redder, almost purple and amplified his green eyes full of glowing, crackling, hissing anger. He abruptly stood up and my face was in his crotch. I looked down at his boots, half expecting him to hit me.
I heard him crumple the letter into a tight ball. His hip bumped my face as he turned to throw the paper toward the trash can. I leaned back, caught my balance and stood up, then quickly backed away from him. I forced myself to look at his face despite my burning shame. I didn’t take time to question why I was ashamed.
My heart beat faster, tears sprung to my eyes. It wasn’t going to be easy to calm him, he was in so much pain.
I took a chance and stepped a little closer to him so I could reach the bedside table’s drawer. I opened the drawer and pulled out an 8×5 inch flat box that once delivered cookies from my grandmother and now served as my letter holder. I opened the box and sifted through it quickly until I found my and Tommy’s prom picture taken under the white arch decorated with black and pink balloons.
“Look!” I said, “This is Tommy and me – I’ve known him since high school,” and thought that I’d make a dent in Will’s assumption, get him to admit one part of what he’d said was wrong, calm him so we could talk.
Will’s voice lowered to a threatening whisper, “It doesn’t matter who he is!” and then louder, loud enough for the three people accumulating in the hall to hear, “You’ve been cheating on me and you’re not even my girlfriend yet!”
What? He thought about me becoming his girlfriend?
“No! I haven’t cheated on you! Look!” I said with a smile growing in my heart. I side-stepped Will and dumped out the contents of the box onto the bed. Pictures from high school and training. Letters from my sister, mother, father … and Tommy all in their envelopes folded just as the sender intended.
Will turned to the bed, leaned over and abruptly sorted through the pile of memorabilia, flinging what wasn’t Tommy’s letters onto the floor. He found five letters. He studied the postmarks, and I felt like he was looking for a lie. He methodically tore each envelope in half, then surreally, gently placed the torn letters back into the box. He turned away from me to walk toward the door, leaving greasy motor pool footprints on the letters and pictures strewn on the floor.
At the door, he turned back to me and pointed toward the paper on the floor and in the box. Calmly he said, “Get rid of it. All of it. I never want to see any stupid letters or pictures from any of those idiots again.” He looked big. Strong.
Did that mean he would see me again? “Okay,” I said, “I’ll get rid of it.”
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll come get you in an hour. We’ll go to dinner in town.” Rounding on the people in the hall, he yelled, “What the hell do you want?” He stepped through the door frame and slammed the door behind him. Through the door, I heard what sounded like rats wearing boots scurry away down the hall.
I dropped to my knees, scooping the papers into a pile, then putting them back into some kind of order. I took the box from the bed, looked at the torn envelopes, and threw the rest of the trash on top of them. I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I knew these scraps of paper were trouble.
Just then, my door opened a tiny crack. I heard my suite-mate say, “Kellie, can I come in?” It had been a long time since someone called me something other than Private; hearing my name seemed to pull tears from my eyes and they dropped like heavy bomb shells onto the box cradled in my arms.
“I heard what he said,” Carrie whispered as she sat on the floor in front of me. “What are you going to do?”
“I guess I’m going to throw this crap in the dumpster and get ready for dinner,” I said, not looking up from the box. I saw her two hands reach for the box, slowly, gently. I cried harder.
“Okay,” she said, “but why don’t you let me keep this box for you? Just for a while until you feel better. Then I’ll walk to the dumpster with you and throw it in myself, if you want.”
I looked up at her. She smiled. I relinquished the box filled with my past to her and wiped my eyes. I forced a smile and said, “What should I wear to dinner? The mini-dress or black skirt?”
Does my thinking seem familiar to any of you? Let’s identify the “stinking thinking” going on in this story of abuse. Please leave your comments.