BY ERICA BROWN
A fucking corned beef sandwich. It’s 2011. I’m at a St. Patrick’s Day parade with my family, and we’re supposed to be having a good time, but he wanted potatoes and carrots and cabbage. We’ve been together for five years, and I’m supposed to know these things. Of course. I can’t read his fucking mind. He always expects me to read his mind.
Everything I do, I take his reaction into account. I find myself tediously and meticulously putting things where he wants them, as I know that if a laundry basket or the vacuum cleaner is even a quarter of an inch out of place, the reaction from a slight stumble will quickly turn from an annoyance into a rage.
Today we’re supposed to be enjoying one another. As if we do that anymore at all. I always thought that arguments opened up the potential for positively learning about one another.
His parents are here watching the boys, and I’m not even enjoying myself.
“We need to be a family,” he says.
The boys and I…we ARE a family. Every day, I learn a little more about these two small humans that I was blessed to create. “It’s for the children,” he says.
He has got to be kidding me. Is it for the children when he comes home after work with a case of Keystone Light in tow? I know the monster that is born out of the consumption of that godforsaken shitty beer.
He tells me I’m selfish, unreasonable, irresponsible. I go to work five days a week, carry this 12 credit schedule at school, and I‘ve made sure that my child is close to me, so I enroll him in the childcare center on campus. We travel to school together. Talk. Figure one another out. Slowly. Out of love. Non-toxic love.
Now, I am standing before a man who is berating me over a corned beef sandwich. I know that look. I know those bloodshot eyes. He’s empty now. When he’s been drinking, he becomes a magnified version of that creature who towers over me, surpassing my height significantly by 12 ominous inches.
At home, when he is angry at me, he follows me, thundering footsteps at an increasing pace. I am agile. Small and quick. Usually, I can move fast enough to find a hiding spot where by the time he has checked all of the crevices and spaces that I can fit into, he’s given up and won’t bother to continue the attempt to find me.
He’s still talking about the fucking corn beef sandwich, and I can’t stop thinking about all the times I’ve been here before.
Like the time the baby was crying during the night. Our newborn needs so much of my attention. I am so tired. I love being a mother. I THRIVE off of being a mother, but a break would be so nice. So, I pump. I make sure that everything’s ready. Exhausted, I crawl into bed; baby just laid down in his crib, toddler, soundly asleep. I’m so excited I’m going to sleep! I’ve forgotten how a full night’s sleep feels.
A few hours in, as always, there is the wailing. The language of a 1-month-old. I’m sure he is saying, “Momma…momma come and get me! I’m awake! I need you.” I roll over. I ask him, “Would you mind feeding the small human? There is milk in the freezer.” He grumbles about how he has to get up for work. Appalled, I ask him again, “Please, I am so tired.”
“What do YOU do all day,” he questions. Hurt and sleep-deprived, I defend my daily routine.
A quick motion — he is up. Aggravated. Furious.
Oh no. What have I done? Why did I even bother to ask? I spring off the bed and run for the bedroom doorway. I quickly stumble, tired, down the hallway to my toddler’s room. The baby is still crying.
He won’t hurt me in my three-year-old’s room. Never.
There I feel safe. I stand there, relieved.
But I’m mistaken. The man's arm, 12 ominous inches taller than me, snaps forward, his hand catching me by my neck. He lifts and lifts. I rise. I dangle in fear with the realization that even our children have no impact on his reasoning.
I fall silently to the floor. I wonder what we’re teaching our boys. When they grow up, will their partners race away for safety to shelter themselves from this conditioned anger? Will my children find entertainment in manipulation? Are they being desensitized to domestic abuse? Will they become entangled with a sense of self deeply rooted in others’ control and abuse?
When did I allow myself to become so quiet?
Somewhere along this timeline of our relationship, I slowly ease into this false sense of comfort. The fear that rises in me more and more frequently is gradually forgotten when I’m offered the mere consolation of expensive material adornments. I walk past the fist-shaped hole in the wall now as if it’s a part of the everyday decor in every household in America. The designer purses seem to get larger in correlation to the length of distance I slide, shoved, smacking against the hardwood floors.
— Shame. I’ve been quieted by the amount of shame that I feel every day for the life that I have allowed myself to fall so depressingly and fully into.
Look at him, still babbling. How long can he go on about a corn beef sandwich? All of these people are staring. What must they think of me? Allowing such disrespect. Disrespect. Dis-re —
Self. Respect. <Takes deep breath> Self-respect. I don’t have to be quiet. Did I use to be strong? I can be strong. Sure, I’m not sure how I got here, but…he would never expect me to walk away. Calmly. Say the words. <Takes a deep breath>
I look at him and say, “I’m done.”
Ok. Turn away. Jesus, I am so tense. Look for a napkin…look for a napkin. Don’t turn around, and he won’t see your tears. <Takes a deep breath>. Self. Respect.
At this moment, my heart finally finds its voice. “Move,” it says. “He won’t follow you.”
I take a step.
“Now another…that’s it. Keep going”
I never turn around. I walk for seven miles, and I never turn around. I know that behind me is the ghost of a woman who hangs her head in shame- she is quieted by fear.
Step by step, I distance myself from the person I have come to believe I am.
Step by step, I move gradually closer to becoming who I know I am, the person I’ve always respected.
Erica’s story was originally written and performed as part of TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter program and was recently released as an episode of The TMI Project Podcast. Season 2: Black Stories Matter launched on October 28th, 2020. New episodes air every Wednesday.
Black Stories Matter provides Black-led true storytelling workshops where Black folks can write about, share, and reflect upon their experiences without having to justify, explain, or defend the truth of their lived experiences. The culminating content — written stories, live storytelling performances, videos, and podcasts — is accessible to an all-inclusive audience.