The First Time It Happens

Liz Howard

Content Warning: Domestic Violence

Everyone likes to tell me: “the very first time my boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse put his/her/their hands on me, I’d be gone.”

They always say it a little bit like “I’m better than you.” They always say it a little bit like “how could you not have?” Somehow, even though they always say it like that, I know they mean it more like: “This frightens me. It frightens me that this happened to you. It frightens me that it could happen to me. I’m trying to reassure myself. I’m trying to make sense of it. I’m doing a bad job.” It still sounds like: “how could you not have?”

The first time my husband puts his hands on me, I do leave.

I’m in bed. We were arguing, and I stormed off, shut and locked the bedroom door, climbed in bed. I’m there, under the covers, scrolling on my phone, when he scrapes the door with a screwdriver, twists the lock, shoves his way in. He doesn’t make it to my side before he’s yanking the blanket off and throwing it, then yanking my phone from my hands and slamming it against the wall. I sit up, indignant because I don’t know yet who I’m dealing with; I don’t know yet what I’m bracing for.

Then his hands are on my throat. He’s choking me and yelling. He’s yelling incoherent things, warnings to be careful, not to hurt myself. Maybe what people want to hear is I fought, I flailed, I cursed, I clawed. I didn’t. I remember feeling small, so small between his hands but also small inside; I was confused, the way very young children are confused the first time they witness something truly brutal. I remember knowing I was waiting for him to stop, looking up at him like maybe he’d forgotten who I was, who he was, what he was doing, and if he could just look at me, he’d wake up. I remember wanting to reach up and touch his face. I remember wanting to say his name only quietly. I remember wanting him to stop. I remember there was no fight in me, no fight in me, just the urge to curl up and be smaller, be softer, to make him stop by showing him I wasn’t fighting, I wasn’t a threat, I was yielding. I hadn’t learned I needed to fight yet.

When he lets go, I run. There isn’t far to go. The apartment is small. I don’t have keys. So much of my life becomes clear in this moment. I can’t find my phone. I huddle by the tub. The porcelain is cold, and it feels comforting. I let it hold me. He comes in behind me, and I feel fear.

So, I leave. I text my friend and ask to stay with her. Something has happened. Something new. Something violent. She says yes.

I take the bus. He sits with me and waits for it to arrive, there at the bus stop. He brings me coffee. He holds my hand. He cries. He asks when I’ll be back. I go inside myself in a way I haven’t yet learned I automatically will from now on when I’m afraid. When I speak, I want to say things other than “you choked me,” but those are the only shapes and sounds my mouth makes now. The bus comes. I get on it. I sip my coffee.

At my friend’s house, she is gentle. We don’t talk about it, even though we’ve always been the friends to tease and torment each other. She’s making me dinner, and I’m watching The Jersey Shore mindlessly. She doesn’t ask what happened. I think she knows what happened.

We eat pasta and watch Beetlejuice. I smile except in the moments that remind me of something a bit too real, something invasive, something violent, and then I’m frowning so deeply my friend has to look away because otherwise we can’t pretend she doesn’t know, and we’d have to talk about it. We finish the movie and talk about classes. Graduate school. Her boyfriend with a girlfriend. His dick. We fall asleep on two separate beds across the room from each other, the way we slept every night for a year our freshman year, before the man I married was my husband.

When I wake up, she’s in her ducky pajama shorts, making pancakes. I smile when I see her trying so hard. It’s pancake from a box. I’m not sure she’s done this before.

We talk about it, over boxed pancakes.

I tell her that he choked me. She asks about the baby. I’m 5 weeks pregnant. That’s barely pregnant. That’s only maybe pregnant, really. So much goes wrong with cells.

I tell her I don’t know about the baby. I tell her I don’t know how to move from here. We are young. I’m 20. She’s 21. I have no business being married or pregnant. We are in a dorm room. We are trying to act like adults, but it’s so hard when she’s in ducky pajama shorts.

There are texts from my husband. He’s sorry, so sorry. He loves me. He will never do that again. He will make it right in whatever way I need. He will talk to whoever I want him to talk to. He’s so sorry. He doesn’t know what happened. There’s something wrong with him. He can fix it. He can’t wait to see me. Everything is going to be different. Everything is going to be good. Things will be better. Please come home.

I tell her I’m okay. I know I’m going back today. She knows I’m going back today. She frowns, but she doesn’t speak. I tell him he can come pick me up.

We walk across campus to her architecture studio. In that moment, it’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever been in. It’s lofty—high ceilings and exposed beams and floor-to-ceiling windows spanning all four walls. The room is lined with tables covered in crumpled paper and wood and X-ACTO knives. I sit far from her because I like the distance and the sound of our voices when we yell to each other in all this space. I spin on a stool and admire all the sky in the windows. She watches me but pretends to be working. We know he’s coming. We know something is ending for me. We know she will stay here in this beautiful building, and I will go home with a monster. We know I will have the baby. We know I will stay married for a while. We do not know when I will really leave.

I wish I’d left at this beautiful time. I wish I’d left when I was so young, when I could believe it was one bad night, when I could believe things were the way I’d trusted they were instead of learning, so slowly, that I was living a life built on a trick.

When I really leave, there are no boxed pancakes or floor-to-ceiling windows. When I really leave, he takes my son with him, now two years old. When I really leave, there’s no friend watching me quietly across tables covered in wood and crumpled paper and X-ACTO knives; there’s just me screaming on the floor pulling my hair out.

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Liz Howard is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia with her troublesome four-year-old and very loud beagle. She is a fiction reader at Little Fiction and has work in: Split Lip Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Yes Poetry, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @Mother_Faulkner.