The first time Max hit me, it surprised both of us, but it shocked me speechless. Each of us made as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired, until it happened again nearly two weeks later.
I had burnt the rice only slightly, but as I was carrying the pot to the kitchen table, I was punched in my right kidney so hard that I nearly dropped it. As it was, I barely managed to make it to the table before slumping into a chair. Max towered over my small frame and looked at me with a face filled with revulsion and disdain. I knew then that something was seriously amiss, but I was too terrified to do anything. In doing nothing though, I caused everything that subsequently happened.
The abuse continued for five years and progressed by degrees; first in small, spiteful ways until it eventually escalated to violent episodes, but these inevitably only happened on Fridays – so that I would be fit for work on Mondays. My life was transformed in the blink of an eye by the unexpected power Max had gained over me. Whereas before I was content with my lot and accepted the stream of vituperation routinely hurled at me, I became deeply sorrowful, intensely ashamed and felt entirely humiliated. I turned into a shadow of my former self, but I kept up appearances as best as I could. The worst part of the victimization was having to lie to family, friends and colleagues. Makeup became my best ally to keep the charade alive; its use came about quite serendipitously, when Sandra, a colleague of mine, noticed my bruised cheek one morning. Initially, it was anathema for me to use it because it felt cowardly, but afterwards I realised I had already lost so much of myself, so how could this be any worse?
“Ah, you know me,” I lied when she enquired about it. “I’m a klutz. I walked into the bedroom door last night when I went to the bathroom. I’d forgotten that the door was closed, as I’m used to it being open, but lately Max prefers to keep it closed at night for some reason,” I rambled on inanely in my panic to hide the embarrassing truth.
“Here, let me do something about it so that you won’t have to explain it to each and every person you meet today,” Sandra said. She led me to her cubicle, scratched around for a while in her bag and when her hand emerged, she held a small bottle in it. On it was clearly printed “Charlie: Face Makeup”.
I stupidly asked, “Um, is that makeup?” I sounded like a simpleton.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a kind smile, “no one will notice.” I allowed her to cover up the purple skin and thanked her, loath to meet her all too knowing gaze. When I looked at myself in the desk mirror, I was astonished by the makeup’s remarkable effect. The splotch of violence had vanished.
On my way home that day, I stopped at the supermarket, determined to buy a bottle of this “magic potion”. Once again I had a life altering experience, for the makeup allowed me to cover the legion of lesions over the ensuing years. Max was always careful never to beat me so badly that I would suffer from broken bones or need the assistance of a doctor. I was incongruously grateful for this too, as no amount of foundation in the world could disguise a broken arm or snapped wrist. No, Max would bend my wrist back just far enough so that it would give me excruciating pain, but not so much that it would fracture. The psychological torment could not be salved over with cosmetics either, and this is what became more and more insurmountable as my life with Max steadily declined. I looked at the yawning abyss staring at me and could only thank whatever beneficent being there was for not having blessed or cursed us with a child. Not that there could ever have been even the remotest possibility of such an occurrence.
The relationship Max and I shared had twisted from a marriage into a Master-Slave one; a tacit understanding had developed between us over the years, one in which I knew my place even in the bedroom. I cringed whenever Max was in the mood for lovemaking, because it was anything but the making of love. It was another version of the battle between us, and in this one, too, I was a reluctant participant subjected to bites, scratches, slaps and debasement. To my utter chagrin, my body constantly betrayed me during these times, for it was involuntarily aroused by the violence while my mind reeled and shrieked against what in essence was nothing more than rape. And so we fell into a self-perpetuating rhythm of mistreatment and manipulation, both of us believing that our pretence at a normal marriage was absolute in its deception.
It was during the final year of the interminable abuse that I ran into our neighbour, Daniel Turner, while I was in the supermarket doing the monthly shopping, and on this occasion I was unable to avoid him.
“Robin!” he shouted upon seeing me. As usual, I had been too slow to dodge him. He always tried to engage me in conversation whenever he saw me, but I often simply waved at him and moved on. He tended to be excessively loud, and this was one of the reasons Max detested him. Another was his annoying habit of knocking on our door at any time with some “offering” in his hand, but which Max claimed was just his way of hoping to get invited into our house. He never was.
“What have you been up to, neighbour? I heard some raucous commotion last night. Is everything all right?” he asked me, causing my mind to take fright, my body to freeze. I wondered what he had heard, and how much of what was going on in our house he had already surmised. Had he heard my loud grunts of pain or Max’s swearing; or the occasional thuds as I was floored by a right hook to my cheek or a vicious kick that sent me reeling against the furniture? Before I could fabricate a plausible excuse, Daniel unintentionally saved me from my predicament. How could I have predicted though that he would ultimately save my life that day?
“Sounded like you were having a major party and you didn’t even invite me over,” he said and smiled. Even though I had momentarily panicked, I had become such a consummate liar to so many over the years that the excuses flowed glibly from my tongue. And I didn’t even blush anymore. Thus I recovered quickly from my uncharacteristic lapse and ingenuously said, “Sorry, Daniel. We were watching an action movie and I guess the surround sound was a bit too loud. I’m to blame for that, I’m afraid.”
Max valued our privacy, for what happened behind closed doors in our domicile was never to be revealed to anyone, or the consequences would be dire for me, as I had been told so many times in explicit terms. I thus feared the expressions that now passed over Daniel’s features, and what he said next heightened my dread to hysteria.
“You’re up to your neck in it,” he said, his face set in a frown but his eyes conveying a bottomless depth of sorrow. “The lies … I’m surprised you haven’t yet drowned in them, Robin. Don’t you think this has gone on long enough?” he concluded while I just stood there, gripping the shopping cart with hands of steel, petrified to my core. All I heard was Max telling me what the penalties would be if I ever told anyone the truth. I started to stammer out something absurd, but Daniel only held up a hand and said, “Stop. I have known for some time now what’s been happening to you, but I hoped you would stand up for yourself or seek professional help. I’ve tried many times over the years to reach out to you, but since I’ve never once been allowed inside your house, Caitlin advised me to leave things be even though my conscience bothered me and still does.”
Caitlin was his beautiful wife, another reason Max hated Daniel. “He doesn’t deserve that woman,” was the inevitable judgment whenever Daniel was spotted in his driveway.
“I … It’s not … I’m …” I tried, but I couldn’t bring myself to confide in Daniel, or reveal the sordid reality of my pretend life. I could not think coherently beyond the envisioned repercussions, and the thought that I was thankful that there was no child to consider sped through my feverish mind. I knew if there had been one, I would not have … and then the undeniable truth blossomed in my mind like an epiphany. I was about to tell myself that if there had been a child involved, I would not have admitted to Daniel that anything was wrong, but there was no child! And my mind had already decided to reveal all to Daniel before my heart had grasped it. My shoulders felt the tension ease out of them as I slumped over and let go of the cart. Without looking up to meet Daniel’s kind eyes – how maliciously Max’s perception had clouded my assessment of him! – I asked in relief, “What can I do?” Then I did look up at him. “Will you help me?” I didn’t care that I sounded pathetic and like a weakling. I didn’t feel embarrassed to give my anguish, pain and misery free rein, but allowed my distressed heart to find relief in the release of tears shored up for what seemed like aeons.
Daniel drove me straight to the nearest police station, and I made no objections. During the drive I told him practically everything; and he explained how he had known about the abuse: he was a social worker at a local clinic.
“I saw the signs from the beginning, but I had no right to intervene. The closed curtains, the lack of visitors, the strange noises at night, the fact that you always wore long sleeves; and you never interacted with any of our neighbours. And, of course, your occasional use of makeup,” he ended. I could feel the flush creep up from my neck to my face. Apparently, he saw it too, for when he glanced at me, he said, “No, don’t be ashamed. It was a survival instinct for you because it helped hide more than the bruises: it covered your violated dignity, too.”
When we pulled up at the station, I very nearly lost my courage, but then I steeled my resolve, and stepped unwaveringly into the reception area. As chance would have it, the desk sergeant was free, thus I could speak to him immediately before I faltered.
“I would like to lay a charge of spousal abuse,” I said as confidently as I could, silently thanking Daniel for standing like a stalwart pillar next to me. The policeman gave me a look of confusion, but to his credit, he said nothing and simply reached for a charge sheet.
“Your name, sir?” he asked me.
“Robin Thompson,” I answered.
“And the name of the person you are laying the charge against?” he queried as his pen hovered above the line for the required data. I hesitated, the years of conditioned subservience and forced obedience crowding around me, threatening to suffocate and overwhelm me. Then Daniel placed a firm but gentle hand upon my trembling shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze.
“Maxine Thompson, my wife,” I stated.
by Hidayat Adams