When my friend asked me after the Halloween Carnival what the lady’s name was, I couldn’t remember. I guess I must have made her ‘Anonymous” in my head because I didn’t want to ever accidentally reveal her identity to anyone. And I didn’t really know her anyways; we just happened to be stationed at the same street intersection during our elementary school’s Fun Run a year and a half before. Which is when she had told me her story.
He had been beating her for some time, but the last time was the one that changed everything. They were in the garage, and he had pinned her head down to the cement floor. He was really angry. Angrier than she’d ever seen him. And it was her fault. All of it. But then, she could hear one of her son's voice calling. The youngest. “Mom?” She could hear his hand on the garage door, getting ready to open it, and she leapt up to a standing position just as he enters. “Hi!!! Everything's fine!! I’ll be right in!!” she tells him. And it breaks it up. Her husband leaves in the car. And she takes out a pre-paid cell phone and calls 911. She is scared because she doesn’t want them to trace the call and know where she is until she is sure that her husband won’t be able to use his money and good job to take the kids away from her if she leaves. But she really doesn’t want to stay either. So she asks them—knowing they won’t be able to trace the call on this type of phone—what her legal rights are. Wanting to get real answers. A sheriff gets on the phone with her and tells her that she can get a restraining order, and that her kids won’t be taken from her. She is not sure, asks more quetsions, and they keep talking until she hears a knock on the door. She opens it and there is the sheriff—still holding the phone that he is talking to her with—and he says, “Come with me. It’s time to get you out.”
She tells me, “By the way: they CAN trace those prepaid cell phones.”
At the time of the Fun Run, it had been six months since she had gotten out, and she had been living in her sister’s basement, was very broke, and trying to start a business. He had given her nothing, and had made accusations against her, which required her to routinely collect data to prove to the judge how well her sons were doing in school. Before the day she told me this, I had no idea who she was; I merely knew that she seemed like a pleasant, confident person. Then, a mere thirty minutes together prompted a lifetime of secrets. It reminded me of when the shit in my own life had hit the fan. When I told everyone I knew what had happened to the girls and I because I was in shock, and alone, and the only thing I could think of to do was to reach out to the people around me.
I hugged her when I left her that day. At the time, I hoped that she didn’t regret having relayed her story to me. I hoped she knew that I wouldn’t spread details of her story around. I hoped she wouldn’t feel awkward or embarrassed when we ran into each other again.
And she didn’t.
Even when I saw her last week at the school’s Halloween Carnival walking with her boys, a man, and a new baby. Not even when she was telling me that the man was her husband and that they were back together.
The trauma of J.'s move away from the kids had not yet subsided by the time he started talking about bringing S. out here to see the girls. In fact, it was only 2 months since he had moved. The girls were still in a state of “what happened to our life?” and handling it as well as could be expected. Livy was irrationally afraid that something would happen to me, and Julia—because shit rolls downhill and she couldn’t say it to her dad—would routinely scream at her little sister, “I hate you!!! I wish you had never been born.!!”
Sure, J. Great timing. Yeah: Why don’t you bring her out?
J. was a level of whipped that most men would be ashamed of. I had met S.—in a collusion they hatched up during a trip to see J.'s Virginia family the previous Thanksgiving—and so I kind of knew why. Her unmedicated ADHD made her say and do things that were just this side of wildly inappropriate, and you didn’t want to look away just in case you missed whatever it was.
No matter what I said in protest, J. would not be swayed from bringing S. out to see the girls, so the plan was that James would spend Christmas Day with S. and L. in Virginia, and then—on December 27th—would come to Salt Lake with S., where the girls would open their Christmas presents in a downtown hotel room. The whole plan simply screamed “Norman Rockwell!” but there was nothing I could do about it except ask him—in an effort to keep my own boat from being rocked--to please leave S. at the hotel room when he came to pick up the girls that day. Please, I said. I don’t know if I can handle seeing her with the girls after all that’s happened. He said, Yes. That he would leave her at the hotel that day.
A week before their trip—and obviously nervous--I mentioned the situation to an acquaintance--Annalisa S.—and through either happenstance or universal master plan she told me a story which inspired me. She had had a cheating ex of her own and the first Christmas after their divorce happened to be his Christmas. She said that she'd be damned if she was going to miss her young daughter's Christmas morning because of his lying and cheating, so she took the bull by the horns and invited her ex and his girlfriend to spend Christmas day at her house. And they accepted.
It was a revelation. What she said. Because it was so brave of her. To invite the husband who broke her heart and the woman he left her for into her home for Christmas. In spite of her anger; confident that she'd be able to control herself. And it's that kind of bravery that gets people through tough times.
The timeliness of Annalisa's story was perfect because, in spite of his promise, on December 27th that unmedicated ADHD bitch stepped out of their rental car and started walking up onto my front porch. It helped so much because I certainly wasn’t going to go all “Real Housewives…” on her, but I sure as fuck wasn’t going to let her dictate how things were going to go down on my own front porch.
And Annalisa’s actions helped me realize that being pissed off and hurt doesn't mean you have to let your feelings control you. And her words showed me how it was possible to change a situation by taking control of my own feelings.
After telling me her story at the Fun Run, we had seen each other in passing several times, but I had never mentioned anything about what she had said. And then, a week ago—the week of the Carnival--we had seen each other twice. Once at the thrift store, trying to find garish Halloween costume tidbits; and then again, at the Halloween Carnival. Both times, their whole family was together and seemed happy and relaxed. It was definitely not the picture of dysfunction.
I guess I was concerned for her, and that’s why I brought it up. We were at the Carnival and she was talking about her baby, and the traumatic birth and I asked, “And everything’s okay?” And she took the hint about what I was talking about. And said yes; everything was fine.
She said that he was in counseling, and is deeply sorry. And said that she isn’t the same person either, so it’s easier for her to take him back. She said that before when she was with him she didn’t have her business, and hadn’t ever done anything alone; she always relied on him for everything, all the decisions and all the money and security. But being on her own helped her feel…she paused, so I offered—apologizing for the overused phrase—“Empowered.” And she agreed, and added, “I hate the word ‘victim.’ Because it keeps us from acknowledging the choices we made and prevents us from realizing the level of power we possess in being able to make better ones.” We agreed that feeling like a victim can eat you up from the inside, and make you unable to see—in times of crisis--an alternate path that you are able to control.
She seemed okay. She seemed honest. And my role in this wasn’t to judge. Because I want her to succeed. To be empowered to try again, and to—this time--bend the outcome in whatever direction she wants it go in.
I paused when I saw S. open the car door that day. Because I was shocked. Truly shocked. Not breathing shocked. That she would have the fucking balls to get out of the car as if this was a friendly social call. Shocked that she—and them!--had no concern for other peoples’ feelings. That she was callous enough not to care what other people might want. And had not one concern in the world about how I might react. Knowing--perhaps--that my initial tendency would be to run and hide from the situation rather than confront it.
I breathed again, though—in and out, like anyone trying to absorb the shock when faced with insensitive fuckwads—and hurried out the front door and met her before she could climb past the first step. Empowered by something. By some future “me” not wanting to regret my choices.
I said, “Hello, S.,” and the words dripped with as much disdain as I could get out. And Ballsy stopped, and stepped back from the steps.
And, then, I wanted to say some nasty shit. And accuse J. of not keeping his promise. And tell them what assholes they were. Tell them the whole world thought they were total dicks for doing this to the girls.
But instead I controlled my feelings, and remained calm. And stared at her, and talked to her, and passed off my kids. And controlled the situation. And was pissed but now not reacting to their shit; I wasn’t engaging with their dysfunction, and—instead--was going ahead and forging my own experience.