Back when I was fertile, I had a diaphragm. Sturdy and practical, anything but romantic, it did its job. That bland rubber dam had a heightened significance during my first marriage. When I left Chris, love of my youth, father of my children, I purposely left my birth control behind, right there in the bathroom drawer next to the extra bath soap and toothpaste. That would show him, telegraphing my message: I’ve not only had it with you, I’ve had it with every man you think I’m sleeping with. Keep it. It’s all yours.
Unlike the birth control pill, it wasn’t laden with crazy-making hormones. But it wasn’t much fun to use, becoming slippery when coated with spermicidal jelly, like buttering bread with a finger, hoping it stayed put for the duration and did its job. Afterward, it had to be removed, an awkward business at best. I would stand at the bathroom sink washing, then powdering, its rubbery surface before tucking it into the beige plastic shell. Like a hermit crab, it sat silently between bouts of passion, or, too often as our anniversaries wore on, something closer to coercion. So I left it behind when I escaped our house for good.
Left behind, too, were the cursing, the choke-holds, the banging of my head against the bedroom wall while he held me firmly by my shoulders. He did it with such force I saw stars, just like in the comics. Beetle Bailey and I, we had that in common.
This was my third attempt at leaving.
The first time, I grabbed the kids and drove to a friend’s house. Within the hour, he’d called and asked Joan to put me on. Eyes wide, she held out the phone. He told me evenly, “If you come back tonight, the neighbors will never know.” Right, I thought. I can’t let them in on our secret. The shame of anyone knowing I was a Battered Wife was worse than anything else I could think of at the moment. I reloaded the car, explaining to the kids that Daddy really missed us, so we wouldn’t be sleeping over with our friends after all.
The second time was more dramatic. After years of telling only Joan – the stigma still holding me just as tightly as my husband’s hands – I confessed to my best friend. Gail would have done anything, but she lived, with her nice husband Barry, a thousand miles away. The day I called and told her I was sorry to bother them, but it really did seem he was getting ready to kill me, she told me they would send enough money so I could fly myself and the kids out to stay for a while with them. Our friendship went all the way back to junior high. Our kids were nearly the same ages. I almost refused her, protesting, “This is too easy; I’m supposed to suffer.” Logic had escaped me. I hung up, unable to move. I could not recognize the person who had said that. Evidently, I had swallowed whole his low opinion of this woman he had married.
Minutes later, she called back. Chris picked up the mail, she reminded me, and would surely rip open and rip up anything from them, and the jig would be up when he saw the check for airfare. So instead, they had already paid for tickets. Two seats: one for me and my toddler son, one for my five-year-old girl. We had to be at the Denver airport by three o’clock.
Was this me? Was I really doing this? I felt as coerced by my friend as I’d felt with my husband, though I knew she was trying to save me. Unable to save myself, I could only respond to others. Keep moving, or Gail’s money will be wasted. Keep packing, or he could take the kids. My hands shook so much I could hardly pick up things, hardly fit the clothes and toys and diapers into my suitcases. My mind roiled with fear. All my options seemed terrible, but since Gail was the last person I’d talked to, her advice – her fierce orders – drowned out anything Chris had said the night before. Husband: “Don’t even think of leaving.” Friend: “Get to the airport now.” Husband: “You will regret the moment you try to break up this family.” Friend: “I love you; I want you alive.”
As for Chris, I was sure he loved me, but just as certain he might kill me, purposely or not. It could happen – a miscalculated punch, a thrown thing landing too bluntly on my head as I ran down the hall. He could set the house on fire after too many beers and a flicked cigarette, all the windows and doors locked tight: a murder-murder-murder-suicide. So I packed, tears rolling down my face, my son frantically begging me, “Be happy, Mommy!” He rubbed my face with his chubby hand, wiping the tears away. I managed a smile. His sister would be home from kindergarten soon; I didn’t want her to see me like that. She was old enough to know what was going on, having once come out of her room during an evening of chaos, blue eyes blazing, set on putting an end to this. She pointed her finger at us and said, “I want you to stop this right now!” And we did, until her father marched her back to bed.
The plane took us away, but things didn’t go as I’d imagined. My friends had to leave in two weeks, already had a house sitter they couldn’t renege on. I would have to fly with the kids to my hometown in Iowa, after a hideous phone call to my parents, who knew absolutely nothing. I tried to explain to my mom that this marriage wasn’t quite the fantasy-land I’d been writing home about. She did not take it well, until Gail wrote her a letter that began, “We are not in the habit of breaking up our friends’ marriages,” studded with the details too grim for me to reveal.
It was not easy, being a boomerang kid before it became fashionable. I found a temporary job at my hometown library, after having stepped out of my career to raise my children, but Mom was exhausted from tending them even a few hours a day. Somehow or other, their minister found out about our situation, and gave us free tuition at the church’s daycare.
All that summer, we played at vacation, inflating a pool in the backyard, fixing up a wagon I dragged from down the street on trash day, going to the zoo, reading endless books I carried home from work. The kids slept in sleeping bags on the floor of my old room, while I made do on a sofa. Looking at photos from that summer, you would think we were having the time of our lives – Daniel holding a sparkler with glee, Allison pulling him in the wagon full of water. There is no picture, no video, of my phone calls with their father, which my own dad urged me to record with a tape recorder he’d rigged up.
Chris called incessantly, once he found out where I was. He tried sweet talking, he tried threats, he tried appealing to my endless capacity for shame. I found a counselor, someone I could talk to openly about what happened in Colorado, while also bemoaning how hard it was to live this way, in limbo between a terrible married life and a tenuous single one. I did not call the local battered women’s shelter, something I regretted ever after. They get it. They know how many times a woman has to leave before she really escapes her abuser’s gravitational pull.
We lasted till August, when Chris came out for his sister’s wedding, for which our daughter was to be the flower girl. She was too young to care, but I found myself stuck in old plans and promises. After all, someone had paid for her satin dress. After all, the bride was expecting her. I let him take both of them away for a week, while I remained with my parents, equally paralyzed by embarrassment and gut-wrenching fear for my girl and boy.
As autumn loomed, I began to waver. The temporary job at the library was ending, and no permanent positions magically opened. Allison had completed kindergarten before we left, and now it seemed terrible to make her start first grade in an unfamiliar school. This was my hometown, not theirs. I could not think straight, and the cracks in my confidence let all of Chris’s words, both sweet and enraged, take over my head, unfiltered. The counselor I was seeing wanted to meet with both of us for what turned out to be my last session. We sat there nodding, she and I, as he convinced us the scary part was over. We belonged together. I would go back to him, make this marriage work. He would bring his family home at the end of the summer She beamed. I grinned back idiotically.
We weren’t even halfway home before it started up again. As I sat in the passenger seat, watching the green fields of Iowa and Nebraska give way to the brown, crouched weeds of eastern Colorado, I knew I was making a horrific mistake. As the kids sat silent in the backseat, he berated me all the way home for the ways I had damaged our family. But it was time for our girl to start all-day school, my son to take his place at Montessori, and how could I let them miss that? Maybe things would be better. After all, I’d left the diaphragm behind. Surely I’d shown him how good I was, how worthy of his trust.
But no. I never thought that. I knew he’d soon be throwing me against walls, making me pay for all I’d put him through that summer. Each time, I made a mark on my calendar, underlining the date so he might not notice. I thought that might make it seem real the morning after, when the amnesia set in. I needed that proof, even after the night when he demanded I produce the tape I’d made of his phone calls, gripping the gun in his shaking hands. I ripped it up for him, not wanting him to have the satisfaction. A small victory, a minuscule win. I stayed another nine months. That was the year I started calling women’s shelters. When someone asked me if the abuse was “severe,” I was nonplussed, half-laughing, “Severe? No, I don’t think so.” After I described what was going on, she told me, “This is what we call ‘severe.’”
One day in June – our eighth anniversary, as it turned out, though I didn’t plan it that way – something in me that had been relentlessly trampled down began to stand up. This was it. It was over. We would leave for good. I called a friend Chris didn’t know very well, in a town 60 miles away, way over by the foothills. It was as far as we could go without scaling a mountain.
I took all I could of the children’s things. I couldn’t take the set of photos I’d snapped of the entire house, each room documented. I had stuffed them into my sewing patterns – a view of the crib and rainbow poster, slipped inside the envelope for Christmas tablecloths from Woman’s Day; a shot of the yellow kitchen with its knife block and sharp-edged stove, inserted into the Simplicity pattern for mother-daughter dresses – but like everything else I tried to conceal, he’d found them. He wasn’t stupid; he knew what they were for, and they went into the blazing wood stove. Neither did I take the gun. It had become a useful prop, something lethal to wave around at me, but in the disordered reasoning I’d adopted, I believed it belonged to him.
Just so, I left my diaphragm. It was mine, but it was ours, and far too freighted with meaning. Every time I was allowed back home to grab a few more things, I checked on it. Still there? Good. During the last, worst, years of our marriage, my extracurricular sex life had become his most vivid invention. If I came home late, he snarled, “How was your lover? Did you have a good –” just to see my face fall. He may have been checking that drawer for years, hoping to catch me out. Even if I’d been out with a friend, he made up lesbian fantasies that might have been laughable had his fist not been curled so tightly as I told him, carefully, “I was having lunch with Janet.”
Eventually, the diaphragm disappeared. On a visit to collect the tricycle and bike, I checked on it out of habit, and it was no longer in the drawer. My stomach clenched. What did this mean? Even though the children and I were safe in our own apartment now, their father was still laying mines just below the surface of any civil interaction. “How is work?” I would ask. “Fuck you,” he’d reply, with the same calm force he’d once used to break my glasses with a single slap to my face. Now I was too numb to take the bait or, maybe, too smart. I didn’t say a word about what was missing.
He found a job far away, and put the house up for sale. The day finally came when he packed up the belongings he thought were his and I drove out to see what was left in the unsold house, its value gouged with liens by our attorneys. He finished loading up, lifting heavy boxes with his usual ease, that strength I had admired so much until I no longer could. For the last time, I walked out the front door he had once opened to a pair of policemen who only took him away after he insulted them.
Chris stood in the driveway, a vista of blue sky and the whole front range of the Rocky Mountains behind him. He gave me a look, with those eyes the same blue as the Colorado skies, the same blue as the eyes of our daughter, our son. He stepped forward, his face mottling, contorted with anguish, if not apology. “Here,” he mumbled, holding something out to me. I collapsed into his arms, clutching that stupid diaphragm in its unassuming box, choking out my sorrow over the wreck he’d made of us.
I didn’t want the damned thing, but I took it, his perverse peace offering. Holding it in my hand, I felt the ground begin to shake but it was only me, and him, breaking. We hung onto each other, both of us shocked into hard, sobbing tears. Then we stepped apart, me shoving the clamshell into my pocket as he swung into the truck, his face passive and handsome again. He drove away, a gravel cloud following the U-Haul. It was a good thing our children weren’t there. How bewildering it would have been to them, all that commotion over a nondescript plastic box.
I didn’t check the diaphragm for pinholes. You’d think by then I would have known his tricks. But I no longer knew him. He left a stranger, someone completely mystifying, my sweet blond Dr. Jekyll who gave the best embraces ever, my hair-trigger Mr. Hyde whose rages could only be assuaged by throwing me around. I loaded up a few last things and got into my car, turning the corner toward the mountains, where he had turned away.
Published in Passager, Winter 2019