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~ THE BASEMENT INCIDENT ~
After we moved into the basement apartment, Harry cut back on the drugs, mainly speed, and for about a week he stopped drinking. Eventually, though, he returned to his old ways. The drugs flowed and the Budweiser’s slipped down his throat as if they were going out of style.
The apartment itself was rather drab. The foundation bricks of the house were exposed and despite them being painted a light ivory, it was always dark, cold, and damp, even with the heat turned up. The railway tracks were right behind the house, and the rumble of trains sounded hollow and muffled down here in this dungeon-like setting. One night we had serious storms and we’d heard the tornado warning sirens go off in the distance. Down in the basement, we felt safe from tornadoes and were glued to the TV. While watching the alerts on the weather channel I heard a train pass, and only noted faintly that it didn’t sound normal. The next day, when I left for work, I was surprised to see that just a few blocks away an entire brick building had been knocked down by a tornado. The apartment may have been safe from tornadoes, but there was one feature about it that chills my blood at the thought.
The entrance to our apartment opened onto a tiny landing that led to a very steep set of wooden stairs. The stairs weren’t much more than a glorified ladder. If I was carrying groceries, it was a balancing act to avoid toppling forward.
One night Harry and I got into an argument. I can’t remember what it was about now, there were so many arguments they all blur into one. He was drunk, and our voices rose louder and louder. I knew that the people above could hear Harry’s stream of abusive words and I tried to calm him. However, my gentle cajoling didn’t work and he swung his arm out and whacked me right across the head. I crawled into the bedroom and curled up in a tight ball on the bed. Harry came in and leered over me, disgust written all over his face.
“You little hoar, you’re a good for nothing slut. I don’t know why I bother with you, you’re pathetic. Quit your whimpering you pathetic tramp.”
“Stop it, Harry.”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it,” he mimicked as his hand came down again.
After the second punch, I followed him out of the bedroom, deciding I’d best get out if I got the chance.
“Get me another beer bitch, it’s about all your any good for.” Dutifully I passed him another beer as he sat at the kitchen table. The apartment was so tiny it was only a few short paces to the stairs. As his head tilted back I swiftly moved for the stairs. Caught off guard, he slammed his beer down on the table.
“Oh no you don’t,” he yelled and pushed himself out of the chair, making a lunge toward me. However, I was already halfway up the stairs, and as I flung the door open screamed up to the neighbors above, “Help, help, call the police.”
One of the neighbors came out on to their balcony just as Harry burst out onto the driveway where it was raining and slick. Harry looked up at the neighbor who was talking, and at the same time, he grabbed hold of my sweater so I couldn’t run any further.
“Hey up there, don’t worry. She’s just had a few to drink. She gets a little wild sometimes, I’m ever so sorry, I’ll calm her down okay.”
The neighbor looked hesitant. “Well you’re making enough noise to wake the dead, if you make any more I’ll call the police anyway, for disturbing the peace.”
“Don’t believe him,” I yelled. Rain slashed my face, and I hugged my body from the chill, “He’s been hitting me, please call the police.”
Harry turned his face to me and looked me straight in the eyes, and under that glare, I felt my blood turn cold. His look was raw with hate. It commanded me to stop talking, and as he guided me toward the front door, I knew I was at risk of pushing him over the edge.
He guided me through the door, onto the tiny landing. There wasn’t really room for both of us, and as I tottered on the edge of the top step I felt myself leaning toward the staircase. Then Harry let go of my sweater. I started to take a step down, but Harry decided he had a faster way down for me. The shove was surprisingly gentle when it came. I’d expected it to be a hard push, but the stairs were so steep, a harder push wasn’t needed.
I felt my feet slip on the edge of the top rung, and I reached my arm out for the railing, but my fingertips passed lightly over the surface of the wood. As my feet gave way, I came crashing down on my knees a couple of stairs down. Then my body flipped sideways, my head hit the wall, then rolled over my body, I landed again on my shoulders, the force on the back of my neck ramming my chin into my chest as I flipped again, scraping my hand on the rough stone wall. Then with a hard thud, my body hit the floor at the bottom and came to a stop.
I was lying on my side, the wind knocked out of me. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes, trying to focus on the legs of the kitchen chairs not far away. Slowly the chair legs came into focus, and I fixed my gaze on a breadcrumb just inches from my face. For some strange reason, I grew obsessed with that crumb, and couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Above my limp body the steady thump, thump of Harry coming down the stairs brought me to my senses. I moved to get up and groaned as my head spun. I pulled my hand in front of me to push myself up and noticed that blood covered my hand. I looked at it wonderingly. I was surprised to find that I could get up, the pain was excruciating, but I didn’t feel any sharp pains that implied something was broken. My knee popped as I straightened it out, and I flinched as I rolled my shoulders and head back into place while grasping the bottom of the stair rail to stop me from falling down again.
Harry was standing a few steps up, just watching. It was as though he were in a trance, another world. I couldn’t decide if he were really acting so calmly and slowly, or if my vision had slowed down somehow. I took a step over to the kitchen table and eased myself down in a chair. Harry just stood and watched. What the hell is he thinking, why doesn’t he do something, I wondered, and then suddenly a rush of sound came to my ears, and I realized I’d temporarily lost my hearing. Now suddenly the sound of sirens filled the room, and they were right here, right in our driveway.
Relief flooded through me, as the knock came on the door, and a police officer shouted down asking if I was okay.
The police put Harry in the back of their car and tried to get me to press charges. Truth is, I was too afraid of what Harry would do to me if I did press charges. They said they would hold him for a few hours, to give me a chance to get away, but unless I pressed charges they wouldn’t come out to this address again. They had checked his name against their records and already knew that this was the second time I’d called for help and that I’d dropped the charges last time.
Back in the basement I peeled off my clothes and looked at the bruises. The police officer had seen the ones on my arms legs and neck, but I’d not had a chance to look at the rest of my body yet. Black and blue reflected back in the mirror, and I was amazed at how fast they had appeared. My knees, elbows, and hand were bleeding from grazes, and my muscles felt like they’d been put through a laundry cycle, but despite the force of the fall, I appeared intact, which amazed me. As a teenager, I’d hated my heavy boned, muscular body, but now that extra bone density and muscle was proving to be my salvation, that along with a very thick skull.
* * * *
Why do women return to their abusers? It’s not an easy question to answer, as there are many different reasons. Here’s one example:
A woman is beaten by her husband and manages to escape him and get to a shelter for help. After a few days the shelter tells her they can’t fund her any longer and she’ll have to go to another shelter. However, all the shelters are full, so she’s reduced to living in her car. Her children are hungry, cold, sick, and she herself is desperate. She has no money and can’t work because she has to take care of her children, and she has no one to turn to. However, if she returns home to her abuser she will have a home, food, heat, her children will be safe from things that may happen on the street, and most of her problems will be solved. Abuse is way down on her list of concerns at this time, so she returns to the abuser, and the cycle begins all over again.
That is just one example. Fear is one of the primary reasons women return to abusive relationships. Often, abusive men will track down the woman and threaten her with more severe abuse, or threaten to hurt her children. They may also convince her she can’t manage on her own. Manipulative men are very good at convincing women that they are useless and nothing without a man, and can’t manage on their own. That no one would want them anyway, because they are ugly, useless, and incompetent. Sometimes, as a result of abuse, a woman’s self–esteem is so damaged that she lacks the confidence to manage on her own. When children are involved he might also convince her that the children need a father, or that she must obey her marriage vows. If a woman escapes during the argument, she may leave with no money, clothing, or a vehicle. Women feel compelled to return to abusive relationships because they lack resources or support to manage on their own.
When family or friends get involved, they may convince the woman that she must have done something wrong, and she should try to make it right. In some cases, women return because they feel sorry for their abusers. The abuser may convince her that he can’t manage without her and lead her to feel guilty and worried, and she may return to the relationship to save the abuser. Frequently, abusers are able to convince their victims they love them and are committed to change. Believing the batterer and hoping for real change, some women return to these abusive relationships.
These are a few examples, but each circumstance is different, as you can imagine.
After the incident in the basement, I tried to stay away from Harry. Once again, I stayed with Mary and Roy and the phone rang frequently. We stopped answering it, leaving the answering machine turned on and the volume down instead. It was obvious that Mary and Roy were tired of the whole thing and I felt guilty at disrupting their lives so much. They had done nothing to deserve this intrusion into their lives. I was also afraid that Harry may come by the house and cause trouble, they didn’t need that either.
One day I was driving along a rural road just outside of Elkhart when a black truck passed me. In the same instant, I recognized the truck and felt my hands turn cold on the wheel. There was a screech of brakes as Harry swerved the truck in front of me and slammed to a stop on an angle, blocking my half of the road and preventing me from moving forward.
I slammed on my own brakes stopping just inches from the side of Harry’s truck. Before I’d recovered from the shock of the near accident, I saw Harry walking toward me. Quickly I locked the doors. Harry grabbed the handle and tried to open up the driver’s door. When it failed to open he slammed the palm of his hand on the window. I cringed away, fearful that he might put his hand through it. He leaned down close to the window and I saw how upset he was. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen from crying and he had black circles under his eyes from lack of sleep.
“Look, I’m sorry for scaring you, are you all right? I just want to talk, can you open up the window just a crack so we can talk?”
“Harry, what were you thinking, you almost killed me.”
“Oh, there was plenty of room. I know you’re a good driver. I didn’t know what else to do, I have to see you. I miss you so much. Look at me, I’m a wreck without you, I need you so badly. Please open up the window a bit.”
“Look, were blocking traffic, why don’t you just move the truck and let me go.”
A few cars had passed by slowly, the occupants peering at us curiously through steamy windows. The car’s engine was still running, and I wondered how quickly I could back up and turn around. My car, a Cutlass Supreme, was huge, and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to turn it around on this narrow road fast enough to escape Harry.
“Whadya say? Look just wind it down a little bit, just a tiny bit, how can that hurt.”
“Okay, okay.” I didn’t see any harm in winding the window down just a hair. I hit the button and the automatic window started to slide down. The gap at the top was no more than a half-inch down when suddenly Harry stuck his fingers in the gap and pushed down on the window. To my surprise and horror to window went down the rest of the way, despite my not having my fingers on the button anymore. Before I knew what was happening, Harry had his arm inside the cab holding me back in my seat while reaching for the keys in the ignition. My reflexes had never been as fast as Harry’s had, and by the time I moved my hands to get a hold of his arm he’d already turned off the engine and pulled the keys out of the ignition. He took a step away from the window.
“Thanks,” he said, “Now we can talk.”
“Harry, give me back the keys.”
“I will after you promise to come and have lunch with me. Look, all I want to do is talk. I’m not going to hurt you or anything. I just want to talk.”
“I don’t know Harry, I’m afraid of you.”
“Well, you’ll be so proud of me. I haven’t had a drink for days now. It’s really hard without your help, but I’ll do anything if you’ll give me another chance. No, you don’t have to say anything now, just meet me for lunch in a restaurant. There’ll be other people around so you’ll be safe. Please.”
I looked in my rear mirror and noticed there were several cars waiting to pass. Pretty soon someone would call a cop I was sure. I looked at the house across the road and noticed a twitch of the curtains. I didn’t want to deal with the cops again, this wasn’t a serious enough situation to get the cops involved, and I was sure it would only make things worse.
“Okay, okay, I’ll have lunch with you. Where shall I meet you?”
“You promise you won’t make a run for it?”
“I promise.” Harry handed me back the keys and returned to his truck, and I followed him to a restaurant.
While Harry ate hungrily, having not eaten for several days, he told me he’d not had a drink for a few days either. He said he’d go to Alcoholics Anonymous if I’d give him another chance. He loved me and missed me so much, he’d die without me. He wanted to become a better person and he knew he could be with my help. He’d had a tough childhood, that alcoholism was a hereditary disease, that is wasn’t his fault. He told me that he needed me, that life wasn’t worth living without me, so he’d do anything to make it better again. He told me he couldn’t do it alone. If he was going to become a better person, he needed my help.
His beautiful blue eyes pleaded through obvious sadness, and being the co-dependent person I was, I finally gave in. When I agreed to give it another try, the magnitude of his relief and joy gave me new hope. With my help he would quit drinking this time, I just knew it. I believed that this man really loved me, that he needed me, and that I was the only one who could help him. Everyone else had failed him. Was I going to do the same thing now that he was truly ready to get the help he needed and repair his life?
We also talked about the accident on the stairs. He told me he hadn’t pushed me at all, that I’d slipped because of my wet shoes. I’d felt his hand as he tried to reach out and catch me. That it had all been an accident. After hearing this story a few times, I too started to doubt whether it had really been a push, or if I’d just slipped. The fact that he’d hit me beforehand faded in my memory. However, despite the seed of doubt planted around what happened, I still couldn’t bear to return to that apartment, and so we moved again.
GO TO NEXT CHAPTER
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