I check my phone because I have a nagging worry in the back of my mind. Physically, I’m sitting in a booth next to Kulia and across from two friends, ready to sip my wine and dig in to the appetizer that was just delivered. Mentally, I’m away, back at that tiny apartment with a dingy, rented couch. I take small, quick breaths because I shouldn’t be here. I know that. Yet I am and it frightens me.
For the past three months, I have changed. I can feel it. I’ve been exhaling with force, depleting the bad oxygen from my lungs so they can take in more fresh air. I stand taller. I’ve said yes when I never would have had the gumption to in the past decade and what I have also noticed is that the ballsier I get, the scarier I’m making my situation. I now have to walk home from work because I refuse to have him pick me up. I want the movement and the time alone so I can think about my next moves. He has noticed, too, and I see him coming to grips with the inevitable. He’s been trying to be accommodating, encouraging me to go do things that he has never allowed before. A girls night dinner with friends on a Saturday evening? I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened in the past eleven years. Three times and the previous two should be history enough for me to know better about tonight. This is why I’m nervous.
I glance down at the screen of my phone and see notifications. I’m not going to look yet at what his texts are. I can already imagine and dinner hasn’t arrived yet. I just want to enjoy dinner. I feel my pulse quickening. It’ll probably be about the boys because he knows how to leverage responses from me. Last week he allowed me to go get a pedicure and then texted me the entire time during it about how selfish I was because we could barely put food on the table. My pedicure was taking food out of their mouths. You know, it is some shit to tell your person to go get a pedicure because they deserve it (really you’re just trying to gain their favor back and are grasping) and then pull the switch after they leave and call them names for doing what you told them to. I sat in that chair shaking my head, knowing I had to shit or get off the pot soon, and not knowing how to to do it safely. Can you imagine? You need to poop or you’ll die but you’ll bleed out once you do. What do you pick?
Anyway, dinner arrives while I’m playing devil and angel in my head. I’m half here for conversations but I cannot help it. I see the screen illuminate again. Another text. Things are going to get dire. It has been about five months since he drove off before I got home and had the boys tell me goodbye on the phone while he drove them to friggin ice cream. Five months of mind games and I need to leave. I know I need to leave. Three months since I told Kulia that I loved her and meant it. Two months since he pulled Samuel into the living room and told him he had to pick who he would live with, right here and right now. One month since he told me he could tell I wanted out but I was the love of his life and I looked him dead in the face and said that was laughable. I can’t be the love of your life, because you can’t love someone you beat up. You can’t love someone you would put a hand on. You can’t love someone you would say terrible things to. I told him all of that and braced myself for his response. Which surprisingly wasn’t physical. Last week I spent every lunch break with a damn phone book in my hand, calling one divorce attorney after another. Who would have thought that zero dollars in your possession would equate to zero help? Not even one piece of advice. Every single call I made felt like the noose around my neck was getting tighter and tighter.
I want to have fun at this dinner. I want to laugh and share stories; I mean, I do a little, but I can’t fully be here. In fact, I’ve been treading water and I’m probably about to drown. I’ve been pushing him to the edge and one of us is about to tumble. Why have I been so brazen? I should have stopped myself for my boys except I feel like I’ve been trying to pull a piece of my cage off and finally have a good chunk coming up and all I feel is this desire to rip with all my might and go. Two feelings, not mutually exclusive but simultaneous. Stay but go. Breathe but suffocate.
I excused myself for a bathroom break and decide to look at the screen finally. This damn phone has been busy. There’s about fourteen texts that begin pleasant.
Enjoy your dinner.
If you have leftovers, please bring them home. I would love to try what you are eating.
The boys say they miss you. They’re going to bed soon. Maybe you can take a break from your girls night and say goodnight to them.
I guess you’re too busy to call your children. I’ll tell them that. I’m sure they’ll understand.
Abraham has a fever. Where is the medicine?
Did you see my text about Abraham? There is no medicine. Do you even give a shit?
…on and on and on. There it is. The dangerous progression that I knew was coming. As I’m sitting on the toilet, holding my hands on my head, I let a few tears escape.
Back at the booth, I tell the crew I have to cut my night short. It’s the last thing I want and I absolutely wouldn’t return if my children weren’t there, but this is life and I have to live with my choices. Kulia sees my face. She doesn’t let me chip in, gets the bill paid, and never once makes me feel bad. I ask her to drive me to a pharmacy first, so I can get Tylenol for AB. She waits as I go in, and then begins the somber ride back to my place. I say goodbye as I go to get out and she tells me to call her if I need anything. I’m shaky and if she sees it, she doesn’t mention it. Just squeezes my hand and lets me know I have her.
There are fourteen concrete stairs to the apartment that I have to climb. I take them slowly just to buy myself four seconds of piece. I reach the top, turn left and take however many steps it takes to get to the front door; it’s about twenty feet long. I see him inside and know he is angry just by his stance. He’s been waiting.
I walk in to a full blown argument that he probably began with himself the moment I closed the front door behind me two and a half hours ago. To be honest, I don’t hear most of it. I’m doing my best to prepare the dose of fever reducer for Abraham, picking up things around the living room. Anything to placate him. Its like the pressure release valve on the instantpot. I will let him release his steam and then hopefully he’ll go to bed. Except, this is different. This time, the steam keeps going.
Before I can react, he has grabbed my forearm forcefully. Are you even listening to me?
Yes, I’m listening to you.
The argument goes on and on. He wants reactions. He wants me to say something to tip him over the precarious edge he’s riding so he can blow up and hit me and feel justified in doing so. I know this so I’m mostly silent because I’ve learned my lesson years ago.
He throws me against the wall. I feel a sting and try not to react but it’s hard because these walls are made of cinder blocks. He’s now three inches from my face, saying one mean thing after another. I hear a door creek and turn to see Abraham, in his fever induced delirium creep out of his room. Mama? I move to comfort him but he slams me back against the wall. His forearm is against my throat and I’m doing my best to take short, calm breaths. He has never been physical with his boys in the room. AB is trying to hug my leg and get my attention but I can’t look down with the forearm holding me back. Since my left forearm is still being death-gripped, I use my right arm to pull him closer. He is really warm still and it’s worrying me. He can see it in my face.
Oh, you’re worried now? Your mom didn’t care you were sick when she was out with her friends so don’t expect her to care now, mijo, he hisses at Abraham. I want to tell AB to go to bed but I can’t talk. I can hardly breathe. Finally, I feel him let up. He grabs Abraham and takes him back to his room, tells him to lay down and go to sleep. While he’s in the other room, I grab my purse and put it close, put my cell phone in my pocket. He sees me moving and is pissed again.
You know what, I’m fucking over this, he tells me. He grabs my arm and begins to pull me towards the door. Get the fuck out, he says, as he’s dragging me. Stop, I plead. Don’t do this. Except, he doesn’t stop. He is using all his weight, all his force, all his anger to push me out of this house. I’m grabbing everything I can to stop him. I can’t be without my babies. I want to be rid of him, but safe in a house with them. He’s so much stronger than me that no matter my efforts, I’m almost out the door. As he gives one last shove to push me out of the door frame, I turn to him without fighting. Okay, I think, I’ll surrender. I put my hands up as if to do so but before I see it coming, he pushes me with all his strength, down the long walkway. I flew over half of it, land flat on my back, and feel my head bounce on the concrete. The wind is knocked out of me and for a second I think I’m dead. This is it, I hear my inside voice say. He killed me.
I feel my lungs trying to grab air and as I struggle to fill them, I open my eyes to him leering over my face. He’s crouched down with a wild look in his eyes that terrifies me. I hate you. You’re the biggest mistake of my life. You’re the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever met and I hate the day you were born. I hate you. I hate you. You’re a piece of shit.
I hear him but I’m somewhere else. My head is throbbing and I can’t focus. He tries to push me up a few times, kicks me and then gives up. He storms back inside the house and I just lay there on the concrete floor watching stars dance around my eyes. I’m exhausted, both mentally and physically and I don’t know what to do. My fingers feel my front pocket. Okay, my phone is still safe in there. That’s the one good thing I can think of right now.
I don’t know how much time goes by but eventually he comes back out. I see the movement from my peripheral vision and I think now, get up. Don’t stay here. So I stand and turn. I head to the stairs. Oh no you don’t, I hear behind me, dangerously close.