I had no idea Ruby’s husband was smacking her around every chance he got. If he didn’t like what she cooked for dinner, a quick slap across her face drove home his point but only if it was Friday night. That way any sign of it would be gone or able to cover up with make-up when she went to work Monday morning. Any other night, it wasn’t a slap; it was a hard punch on her arm. The bruise would be covered up with a long sleeve blouse for a few days even if the temperature was in the 90's.
If she didn’t respond to his text message within 1 minute, shoving her against the wall the second she walked through the front door would be his punishment. He would wait by the front door and pounce on her immediately, shoving her and pinning her against the wall until she cried and said she was sorry. She never knew after he texted her if she responded soon enough and would spend the rest of the day nervous and anxious and close to tears. The drive home would make her almost hysterical and close to unable to drive, but if she didn’t get home before her time was up (her drive was 25 minutes, so he gave her 30 minutes), the punishment would also entail either her hair being pulled or her thrown to the ground and kicked.
He would have periods where he was sweet and affectionate. That could go on for weeks. The longest time she remembered in their marriage that he didn’t hit her was 2 months. She didn’t know which was worse; the violence or waiting for it to erupt again.
She had been married young at the age of 15. She was from Columbia and her father had married her off to the first suitor to get rid of her. Girls were nothing more than a nuisance and a burden as far as he was concerned. Not good for anything other than cooking, cleaning, fucking, and having children.
I never knew any of this when I first met her. Battered women don’t go around and announce it. I did notice she was obsessed with her phone and wouldn’t go anywhere without it. She also wouldn’t turn it off. If she needed to mute it, she would hold it tightly in her hand to feel the vibration.
“Ruby, you are addicted to your phone!” I said one day when we were at lunch. “Give it a fucking break, will ya?” I said as I sipped my iced tea. If she wasn’t holding it, she had it in front of her and constantly looked at it. She even had the settings so it wouldn’t sleep for 10 minutes of inactivity.
She looked embarrassed. “I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that Marguerite had a science project at school today and she promised me she’d call me as soon as class was over and let me know.”
Marguerite was her 7-year-old daughter. It didn’t make sense that a 7-year-old would be doing science projects let alone have her own cell phone.
I decided not to push it. I hadn’t known Ruby for very long. We had met at a workshop for CE units a few months back and had stayed in touch for lunch dates. We both worked a lot of hours and the office she worked at was 3 blocks from mine. We were convenient for each other if either one of us wanted a break from the office and didn’t want to eat alone.
That was one thing we had in common — hating to eat alone in a restaurant. I would rather go hungry than sit at a booth by myself, eating and with no one to talk to. I could do without the looks of pity, thank you very much.
She was at least 20 years younger than me yet we had a comfortable acquaintance. We didn’t get on each others nerves which was quite an accomplishment since I am quite extroverted and she was painfully introverted.
Unlike many extroverts, I am always respectful around shy people. I don’t try to force them to talk and I am happy to carry on the conversation with a few breaks to see if they have anything to say. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
Ruby liked to listen and I liked to talk. A match made in heaven.
I suppose it was her obsession with her phone that first clued me in that things weren’t quite right with Ruby. The first thing you noticed about her was she was strikingly beautiful. She had a face that could have made millions with her flawless olive complexion (I mean poreless and perfect), cheekbones that went on forever, large eyes with thick and long lashes, and hair so dark and thick you were certain it wasn’t real. She was one of those people that you couldn’t help but stare and be envious of her looks.
What made her even more likeable was she was completely unaware of her beauty and the way people — men and women — would do a double take. She was too introverted and shy to take notice.
That was one of the things I liked about her. She was a beautiful woman yet humble and sweet. She came from a dirt poor background and was genuinely grateful for everything she had. She told me once she still wasn’t used to running water, even after living here for so many years.
I liked hanging with her because she kept me grounded. With her comfort and ease of listening with rapt attention to me, I found myself wanting to know more and more about her.
My second clue that something wasn’t right was her reluctance and vagueness when I did get her to talk a bit about herself and her life. I knew where she came from, that she was married with a daughter and also worked in the medical field. That was about it except the usual social chatter about work. Nothing significant and nothing important. Just two women who needed a break once in a while from the mundane lives we lead.
When I hadn’t heard from her after a few weeks and my two messages hadn’t been returned, I just wrote that off to her being busy. I wasn’t someone who would call more than two or three times. I figure if someone wants to talk to me, they know where to find me.
One night I got a late night call from her. I was just dozing off when my cell phone rang. I answered without looking at who was calling. I figured someone had died.
“Susan? Is that you?” she asked. I barely recognized her voice. It was soft and muffled. She was barely whispering.
“Ruby? Is that you?” I asked as I sat up and turned on my bedroom light. My cat rolled off my stomach and gave me a disapproving look as he sauntered away.
“Yes, yes it’s me. I’m so sorry to bother you…” she said and began crying. “I didn’t know who else to call…”
“That’s OK. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I…ummm…I don’t know what to do….I ran away…my daughter is spending the night at my mom’s….and…” the sobbing continued.
I waited. A slow panic was rising up from my stomach and into my throat. I resisted the urge to ask her a million questions.
“That’s OK. Take your time,” I said.
I heard her take deep breaths as she tried to get herself under control. “I’m scared. I can’t go home and I was wondering if you could just…talk to me…OK?”
“Sure. Yes. Of course. Where are you? I can come get you…”
“No! Don’t do that. I don’t want you to get in trouble…”
That didn’t make any sense, but then again, nothing in this conversation was making any sense.
“I’m not going to get into trouble, I promise,” I said. “What happened?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, it began to click. She said she ran away. She said her daughter was safe. She said she was scared. She was worried I would get into trouble
“Did your husband hurt you?” I asked.
Her renewed sobbing answered my question.
“Yes…he did…he…he…oh I don’t know what to do. I can’t take it anymore…”
My blood was boiling and my heart was racing. “Tell me where you are and I’ll be right over.”
She was at the coffee shop where we always had lunch. That fact made my heart break for a moment. She ran to the only place where she felt safe and where he wouldn’t be able to find her.
I kept her on the phone while I got dressed and drove over. I was afraid if we stopped talking she’d be lost, either go back home and do something stupid or take off into the night with nowhere to go.
I pulled into the parking lot 15 minutes later. The place was closed but I saw her car. I pulled up next to her, still on my phone and talking to her. Not until I got into her car did I disconnect our call.
Over the next hour I sat and listened to her story. It all came out in a gush, bursts of tears and agony. I didn’t question her or say much of anything. I sat there and gently rubbed her back and listened. I honestly didn’t know what to say or do.
When she was done, I asked her what she wanted to do. I told her that I would help her with anything except go back to him because I could sense that’s where she was headed. He was all she had.
Her mother had been beaten by her father for their entire marriage. It wasn’t a crime where she came from. It wasn’t even frowned upon, so when her husband began to hit her, she assumed that’s just the way things were.
But living in the United States and having a job had slowly taught her that maybe she could have a better life for her and her daughter. Our lunches and time together had become important to her and my silly stories of no consequence started to shift her point of view. So much so that that evening when he started to push her around, she finally fought back. She kicked him in the groin and grabbed the car keys and took off as fast as she could.
I smiled a bit when she told me that part. I was proud of her but said nothing.
I offered for her to stay with me but she declined. She was so emotionally exhausted and embarrassed by her call and outburst. I convinced her to check into a motel across the street and made her promise me to call me first thing in the morning. We could do a bit of shopping, have lunch and figure out what to do.
I didn’t hear from her and my calls to her went unanswered. I kept my text messages benign in case he would read them.
I worried she had gone back to him and she had. She called me back a few weeks later, apologizing over and over again for bothering me and assured me everything was fine.
I was pissed off that she would do that. How could someone be so stupid? What the hell was wrong with her? Maybe she enjoyed it and was just being dramatic.
But even as I had these thoughts, I knew they weren’t true. As annoyed and worried that I was about her, I knew that I didn’t understand. I knew she was in trouble but pushing the point or confronting her on what I thought she should do was not what she needed.
Whatever help she needed, all I could do was to do my best to not force the issue and to not withdraw my friendship.
Eventually we had lunch again. I asked her how she was doing.
“Fine, I guess,” she said.
I sighed. “Ruby, let me ask you a question, OK? Do you want to stay with him? Honestly, is this something that you want?”
She shook her head. “No, but I don’t know what to do.”
I sat back and thought for a moment. I tried to put myself in her shoes. It was impossible.
I pulled out my phone and looked up a number. It was a contact from years ago. It was a woman who knew people who helped women escape domestic abuse.
I showed the number to Ruby. “This is someone who might be able to help you. Should I make the call?”
Ruby thought for a long time. Finally she gave me a slight nod.
“OK. I’ll call her tonight,” I said.
And I did.
Over the course of the next few weeks, this woman worked slowly and carefully with Ruby to put everything into place. Ruby did each and every step so that when she left with her daughter, she could leave for good.
She got another job in another city so we never had lunch again. The woman helped Ruby file a police report and get a restraining order against her husband. She helped her find another place to live and start over.
Ruby eventually divorced her husband and he never bothered her again. I would hear from her from time to time. She thanked me several times but I didn’t feel that I had really done much.
“You stayed being my friend and didn’t push and didn’t give up on me.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that was helpful. I thought Ruby was an impossible person to help but also not someone I would turn my back on even though there were times when I wanted to throw up my hands and walk away or rush in and grab her and her daughter and drive off into the night.
It took patience and intelligence from women who knew what Ruby was going through because they had been through it themselves. Maybe that’s why many of us just don’t understand because we haven’t walked in those shoes. And maybe there are many women who just need a friend and a little bit of guidance.
Maybe that’s the first step towards helping someone get out of a bad situation — just someone to listen and not walk away no matter what.