At first the jealousy seemed a testament to his affection for me, and let me tell you: it warmed my heart. Soon enough, though, the isolation began. All communication with my friends was cut off, and my world became smaller because his friends were the only ones I was allowed to talk to.
Then came the daily criticisms and the constant belittling. His lips would curl back revealing teeth that looked like fangs on a wild predatory animal about to pounce and grab his victim in a death hold. “You are the ugliest, the stupidest, the most worthless girl in this school,” he’d hiss. “I don’t even know why I date you.”
If he was particularly convincing, I would plead for him not to leave me because I wasn’t yet ready to risk being alone. Even though that was decades ago, even though my brain knows that this was part of his strategy, even though it doesn’t happen as often as it once did, I still do battle with his words on occasion, doubting my worth, my abilities, my beauty, my power – doubting anything good about myself.
I stopped smiling altogether.
The first punch came because on his way to the P.E. bus, he saw me in the school office with Johnny N. I worked in the school office during fourth period, you see, and Johnny N. was in the office because he’d been sent there for something or other. Not that it mattered. I’d been caught with another boy, and he was overcome with jealousy and rage that culminated with his fist connecting with the left side of my face as I tried to get into my car. He was SO very sorry. He would NEVER hit me again. He would make it up to me, he PROMISED.
But he did do it again. And again. And again. And eventually the apologies started not with “I’m sorry” but with “If you hadn’t” and ended with “I wouldn’t have had to hit you.” Sometimes he’d make threats – telling me all the harm he would inflict on me – then (try to) erase them by saying “I’m just kidding.”
I hadn’t been dating long enough – shoot, I hadn’t even read enough books and magazines to know how to get away. When I first thought about such things as escape, my plan was to put as much space as possible between us during the summer break. After a while, I was worn out and numb. The future – what was that? Independent thoughts were dangerous. Independent actions were unfathomable.
To the outside world he was Mr. Affability – the friendliest, most easy-going guy you’d ever want to meet. Always the guy ready to lend a helping hand, it was obvious that even if I did muster the courage to tell somebody what he did and how he behaved, nobody would ever believe me.
But then one day at the beginning of spring, I walked into the office during fourth period and was beckoned back to Mrs. Ash’s office. She and Mrs. Hopkins threw the principal out of his office, ushered me in, and closed the door behind them. “Who are you going to the prom with?” they asked, getting right to the point.
“X, I guess.”
With the most delighted smiles I’ve ever seen, they shook their heads and said, “Oh no you’re not.”
They had contacted a boy who graduated a year or so earlier and arranged for him to come home and take me to the prom. Knowing he wouldn’t have a car, they’d even arranged someone for us to double date with. “Do you have a dress?” they asked.
My body began to shake in anticipation of what would undoubtedly come if I went to the prom with another guy – the verbal and physical punches that would be thrown. I had to sit down.
I did have a dress, though. I subscribed to a mail order fabric club, you see, and from the sample card that came the month before, I’d selected some fabric in the school’s colors – gold and black. When the fabric arrived, I liked the wrong side so much that I made it the right side. I’d sewn the dress all by myself, cutting the sleeves incorrectly, leaving me with 3/4 length sleeves instead of long sleeves, but other than that, the dress looked fabulous to me. I found some shiny gold Baby Jane’s with a sparkly button on each side to wear with my new dress. I wanted an orchid spray painted black with gold glitter dribbling out from the center, but X had made it clear he wasn’t springing for a corsage for me. Flowers were for pretty girls.
“Good,” they said. “Then you go see Miss Bess about the corsage you want, and we’ll take care of it. Now, when are you going to tell X?”
With my body still shaking uncontrollably, I managed to say in a squeaky, scared voice, “I don’t know. I’ll tell him later.”
“Nope. We’re going with you to the lunchroom, and you’re going to tell him now. No sense putting this off.”
And that’s just what we did. With a secretary on each side of me, we headed straight for the lunchroom, spotted X who was laughing it up with his friends, and stopped at the end of his table. “Jeanne has something she wants to tell you,” Mrs. Ash told him.
Borrowing some strength from them, I said, “I’m not going to the prom with you.”
“Okay,” he said, chuckling in the direction of his friends as if to say “You see what I have to put up with.”
And with that, we turned and left the lunchroom. “That was easy,” Mrs. Ash said.
“He took it better than I thought he would,” said Mrs. Hopkins.
Their relief might have dripped off of each word, but my knees threatened collapse. They thought he took it well. I knew what was coming in a few hours when the last bell of the day rang.
A few weeks later, Larry P. came home as planned, and when the band sounded their first note, he grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s go. Marines always hit the beach first.” The first time I laughed that night, it felt like I’d have to pick the shards of my face up off the floor. I could talk – speak my mind, even – without fear of retribution. I danced with other guys, talked with my friends, and there was no hell to pay. My soul sang and thought impossible thoughts like wondered what it would be like to feel like this – to feel this happy and young and possible and true – all the time, every single day. We danced till the last note sounded, then we went to a fancy restaurant for dinner with our friends. School ended a few weeks later, and though X stalked me, threatened me, and tried to kill me not once but twice over the course of the summer, eventually – with the help of the local Chief of Police – I was a free woman.
I will be forever grateful to Mrs. Ash and Mrs. Hopkins, two women who didn’t ask permission; didn’t wait on somebody else to tend to it so they wouldn’t have to; and didn’t worry about any blow back or liability they might have to endure. These two women simply stepped out and stepped in. They saved my life.
Since then and for the rest of my life, I spend part of each day in search of the secret recipe, the magic formula, the what would it take to convince girls, ladies, and women of their worthiness, talent, intelligence, beauty, and power so that at the first hint of isolationism, at the first hiss of venom, at the first physical hit to their body, they’d turn on their heels, run away, and never look back – not once.
100 Days, 100 Stories – that’s what I’m doing. I’d love to hear from you – to leave a comment here, click on the title of the post, then when it opens in a new browser window, scroll down to the end where you’ll find a place to leave a comment (no need to create an account if you don’t want to, just drop off your comment as a guest). Or maybe you want to find the post on my facebook timeline and comment there. Either way, I appreciate it. Oh, and one more thing: though they arrive without orange juice or a flower in a bud vase, you can have the daily story delivered right to your e-mailbox by mashing the “right this way” button in the orange strip at the top of the screen and following the directions.
Do you ever wonder what they saw? those precious women who rescued you? How they knew that something wasn’t quite right? I love the women who pay attention… and I love you.
I do, Sugar. And despite my best efforts, I still sometimes wonder what X saw when he first decided to date me. See, there I go – making his bad behavior my fault. It goes deep and stays long, this. xxx
It does stay long. Perhaps they were survivors themselves, perhaps they just knew your beautiful blooms were drying up and correctly perceived the reason, without knowing the extent. Thanking God, whatever the reason, we can see your beauty radiating today because of them. And that handsome Marine Larry……….. (and as an aside: I often prefer the “inside” of a fabric…maybe us yankees aren’t as different as you think–at least not the fiber artist ones)
Laurie, This is one of those formerly rare (but becoming more the norm) cases where I don’t care so much about the why, choosing to focus on the what. You know what I mean?! How fun that you prefer the “wrong” side of fabric, too. The Engineer rigged a way to hang In Our Own Language 3 so folks can see both sides. There’s just something so compelling and evocative about the “wrong” side. As for the Yankee/Confederate thing, it’s long been my theory that when we sit and talk – I mean, really talk, as in checking judgment at the door and listening, asking questions, keeping an open mind and heart – we find that while we may use different words (or even the same words but say them differently), we are more alike than we are different. x