Thank you to guest contributor Jane Eaton Hamilton who explores the complexity of fear and love that once characterized her marriage to an abusive woman.
“I dreamed I walked under Magnolia grandiflora, and white blossoms floated down to cover me like tissues. There was a blue sky but I couldn’t see it for the waxy leaves.”
Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers
She’d left so many bruises I needed long sleeves in August, and I finally told her, quietly, that I couldn’t stand covering up through the heat wave any longer.
But the windows open now, she said, annoyed since I’d just hired people to reconstruct the living room sash and pulls.
Which is really only helpful, I said, pushing slick strands from my forehead in the thick-aired room, if there’s a breeze. What I really need is to be able to wear summer clothes.
I would look at her and just think, Who died and left me in such bliss? How did I get this lucky?
She was funny, quick, with a ready laugh. She was dependable, sweet and attentive. We could discuss politics, social justice, feminism. We made a family together. We bought a house. We grew a garden. We went to Africa, to Greece, to Paris, to Fiji, to Thailand, to Cuba. To international art museums, to lingering dinners, to dance and symphony. When she was happy to see me, which was always until she met someone who’d had a vituperative divorce and she became, herself, imitatively scurrilous–she’d turn around and wave her butt as if it was a thumping tail.
But this was how we still talked about her violence: politely, with obfuscation. We did not need to refer to where I got the bruises, since both of us knew that, or what she had done to cause them—the two or three times a week she held me by force and I would repeat, my voice sounding half dead from repetition, Stop. Let me go. You’re hurting me. Trying to wrench away, I knew, would just made it worse. As the bruises bloomed like black roses, five to each stem, she pretended I had a blood disorder, and once, once, when there were so many, she directed me to have the test to prove this, and I did that, and it came back negative.
I was replete with magical thinking. I know now that my relationship was continually under threat, and that I sensed this, and was doing whatever I could, anything I could, to protect it, silly things like putting white light around her.
Define domestic violence. Big dudes spring to mind, furious and fisted, their abuse flagrant, flamboyant, fervid. But butch though my wife was, she was not hefty, nor quintessentially angry of spirit, and if I asked you to pick out the likeliest batterer in our relationship, 10 out of 10 people who didn’t know better, I’m guessing, would pick me, because I am raunchy of mouth and untactful, and larger, and just, you know, not superficially nice (even if often kind), whereas she is small, polite, warm, and obsequious.
They’re quite lovely, most batterers.
Lovely at home, too.
Until they’re not.
Size has absolutely nothing to do with being battered. And neither does gender. All that you really need for battering to start is one person willing to batter. If the second person is not willing to batter, she won’t fight back.
The thing about batterers is that you can see what they’re not doing to you just as much as what’s transpiring. Yes, they are pinning you, but you can also see their gaze sliding sideways and fixing on the knife rack, considering. Yes, they are pulverizing the sofa, but you know by the verbal abuse that they wish it was your face. Or they throw a bunch of stuff and then come rushing at you, fist raised, even though at the very last minute they drop it.
They have their ways of letting you know where their violence could go—if they want it to.
And this is always clear: You don’t get to decide.
They get to decide.
At first we had a potted garden, but when we moved into our house, she went at the hard clay with a pickaxe, double digging, and we dumped bales of moss and vermiculite and compost into the soil four feet down. Together, over years, we made a perennial garden with different rooms and arbours and sunken pits and water features and pergolas.
Wisteria, roses, clematis, poppies, lilies, hydrangeas, palm trees. If we’d heard you could grow it in our city, we probably tried to push the zone.
They say batterers are out of control, but she did an excellent job of controlling her rages around other people, and even around our kids. For her to meltdown and storm, we had to be alone. Her stealth violence, on the other hand (her specialty—appearing loving while acting badly)—that she did around others if she could figure out how to hide it.
I was disabled, and she became my legs, and over the years, as I grew sicker, I became more and more dependent on her care-giving and support.
She always ran ahead of our lives to see whether I could handle the terrain—and I believed she didn’t mind. I thought she was in it for me, and I was in it for her, and we were in it for our family.
We made up new words or we managled the pronunciation of extant words. Our convos looped and spiralled, and we often had each other linguistically charmed.
In 1997, she adopted the kids when our laws changed to allow it. They needed independent counsel to understand what rights they were waiving and what rights they were gaining; someone to make certain we weren’t coercing them. In those early years together, we couldn’t as a lesbian couple get married, but the adoption made us family and confirmed that we would always be linked—and who would inherit if she happened to die.
She twisted my wrist when she held my hand—not once, not a dozen times, but hundreds of times. I talked to her about it often, communicating how much it upset me, and also how it wrecked my hands, wrist and elbow, gave me carpal tunnel and tendonitis etc, and for a few minutes after I said something, she’d stop squeezing, stop twisting, and we’d be just sweethearts, walking, like all the other queer sweethearts strolling around the lake, madly in love, until she started again, bearing down hard, wrenching it left.
My interior monologue ran like this:
She’s happy she loves me she wouldn’t hurt me not on purpose it can’t be voluntary.
As if sense enters into battering. As if logic has the slightest role to play.
In our longtime house, we had a hot tub, my wife and I. We had it installed right outside our back door, half roof-covered, half exposed, so that it was possible to be protected from the elements or not. We used it every day, pretty well, and that was where we decompressed from the stresses of our days—where we met in chit chat and bubbles.
When she finally told me she was leaving, she told me she’d wanted to leave me since 1998, 13 years before, when she got cancer. But that wasn’t what she’d acted like at the time: during that hellish time, she’d stood on the rocks on a Pacific beach and asked me to marry her, then we fought—hard–to marry each other.
That last year, I had a bad reaction to my yearly flu shot, so the top of my arm was three times swollen, red and griddle hot. No sleeve was large enough, so I was half-shirtless, my top jerry-rigged, part of the neck under my armpit. My wife pulled back her arm as if winding up to throw a baseball, then slammed her palm onto my wound, vigorously shaking her hand.
While smiling. Not a serial-killer-smile like TV, but a loving smile.
A smile that ultimately told me whatever was going on inside her was in code I was never going to break.
She told me I had abused her, too. I asked how and she said by rolling my eyes, my smirking. And then she said, “By making me dance.”
Jive, night club two-step, west coast swing, waltz, cha-cha, mambo, samba, meringue, rumba, salsa.
That mid-August week in 2011, we negotiated ways to beat the summer heat so she could go on hurting me in her preferred manner. She set up a fan in front of one of the new windows to push the air around, and even though I lived there, in that room, largely, all day long, because I ran my business from it, and I knew it wouldn’t work, I appreciated it.
I appreciated it.
I was glad I had a considerate wife.
This is true.
By the next Wednesday, the bruises on my forearms had faded into yellow smears, and my new bouquets bloomed only my upper arms.
She looked at my arms and said, “Well, never say I didn’t bring you flowers.”
I couldn’t help myself. I snorted and laughed. Then I sobered and said: “Hon? Short sleeves I want to wear are, um, a lot shorter. Um. You know. Not, you know, down as far as my elbows.”
I pulled my shirt back on. “I mean…” I lightly karate chopped my mid upper left arm. “They end about here, right?”
The next week a new set of marks, dark, circular, insistent, appeared, but just on my shoulders.
Her wedding vows:
“I feel so lucky. We have had ten wonderful years together. I already know that you will love, honour and cherish, that you will comfort me in illness. I know that we can laugh so hard we end up crying. I now that you will wipe away my tears. I know that we can be angry without hate, that we can confront without fear, that we can resolve without resentment. There are no doubt, no questions. There is only this love. The synergistic miracle that turns one plus one into a billion shining stars. You and I together can do anything. I feel so lucky.”
2003, when, according to her, later, she’d already wanted to leave me for 5 years.
We spent years play-wrestling, giggling our way across our bed. But then I started getting injured, a whack to the head, an elbow pushed into my back, a neck pin. “Can we just go back to how we wrestled when you didn’t hurt me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
And then she didn’t want to garden anymore. She didn’t want to work around the house. She lost 60 pounds. She couldn’t sleep. She showed signs of major anxiety—trichotillomania, pain on swallowing. She flicked her thumb hard across her chin. She was barely home. She seemed manically happy with a new “friend.”
She thought she might have cancer again, she told me, and also that she was not a lesbian anymore.
I packed to leave with two weeks notice. It was finally clear to me after six months of trying, after therapy and one more chance after one more chance, after her telling me she was going and not going, after couples’ counseling that made everything worse, after her endless gaslighting and lying and threatening and displays of hatred, after being scared out of my mind that she was actually going to kill me, finally, during those last three months, that I had to get myself safe, but still I was, as I always had been, out of my mind with love for her. I shaped it in my mind as a temporary separation just until she could get through anger management classes.
It was the only time in my life that I had loved an adult unconditionally. How do you leave someone you’re still smitten with?
But when you’re unsafe, how do you not?
I was a disabled 57-year-old, and since I was also losing my place of business, I would have no income; it was like standing on the rim of a wishing-well and jumping into darkness.
The kids were packing boxes in the basement when my wife hip-checked me from the dishwasher. She emptied the dishes I had stacked while I leaned on the kitchen counter behind her. She was more verbally pleasant to me than she’d been for weeks, because the kids were home. She restacked the dishes.
She sent me over a sweet small smile.
I smiled back, tilted my head in puzzlement. She hadn’t smiled at me in months. Many times, I had asked for hugs. Many times, I had stood in front of her and nakedly said that I admired her, appreciated her, loved her while she stood there with dead eyes staring at me.
Now she came waltzing across the black and white tile and wrapped me in a bear hug. I didn’t know how to react. I started to cry right away from my sheer dumb human need for a little kindness, and I wrapped my arms around her, too. So sweet, so long overdue.
But then I felt her thumb drilling into my left shoulder. I didn’t analyze it right away, I didn’t react except to register pain. Pain? I thought of the children downstairs-whatever else, I didn’t want to make a fuss. And then I just succumbed to it the way I had to a heart attack.
It would end because everything eventually ended.
It lasted a long time. I disassociated because I either had to scream (and I was not—was not–giving her that) or fugue out as when in labour.
It wasn’t spontaneous this attack; it couldn’t have been. She’d had to conjure it up the way she conjured up sticking pins in a voodoo doll’s chest, the way she had to pre-think wrist twists. What I knew when she finished I knew clear as a bell—she’d been planning this assault, strategically biding her time, studying up for its precision. I knew that much, and maybe it was the first time in hundreds of incidents that I saw her for what she really was. There was nothing uncontrived. She was naked before me, exposing herself.
At last she lifted her thumb. She did not look at me; she fled.
I looked down at my arm. It was—gone. My hand and arm were paralyzed.
I went slowly upstairs. I didn’t know how to loop a sling without help, and it was clumsy, but I got fabric and used my right arm, my mouth, to rig it, my teeth to help tie the knot. I went back downstairs. She sat in the living room with a packing box and looked up, black-eyed.
“I have to go to emerg,” I said. “I’m paralyzed.”
“What’s emerg going to do?” she said. “Think that through. They’ll put you in a sling. You’re already in a sling.”
I thought, Yeah, she’s right, I guess.
“Let me fix the sling,” she said.
So she did.
The kids came up from the basement. “What happened to your arm?” my daughter asked.
“I hurt my shoulder,” I said. Not, your mother paralyzed me. Not, I just got attacked.
The paralysis lasted three days in my arm, and five days in my hand, and damaged my hand permanently.
Once, she and I had danced in the milky way under the Perseid meteor shower while bats skimmed our heads, out on the yard in bare feet, the grass cool and damp and impossibly green in strong moonlight, mason bees deep in straw holes, slugs munching the hostas, snails in their soft, translucent protoconchs slithering out for calcium.
Now I dreamed I walked through Allium giganteums alone, and they were high overhead, big balls, purple and bristling. I dreamed I walked under Magnolia grandiflora, and white blossoms floated down to cover me like tissues. There was a blue sky but I couldn’t see it for the waxy leaves. Morning glory, tough, with white insistent roots, twined around my ankles and began to climb me, up over my calf and around my knee, binding me, a series of green hearts, then moved higher, higher, until it touched me where she had once put the tip of her tongue, and it stopped there, twitching.
And I stopped there, stopped.
When I woke again, it was moving day.
Jane Eaton Hamilton is the Canadian author of 8 books, most recently Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes (2014). She is the two-time winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Awards (2003/2014). She has published widely, including in the NY Times, Seventeen magazine and the Missouri Review. Her website is janeeatonhamilton.wordpress.com.