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Walk Away, a memoir


Young white woman who looks drunk holding a bottle of wine at a store counter. In the background, displays of lottery tickets
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

When I re-enrolled at Swampscott High, the vice principal went over my record with me and told me that although I’d missed almost a year, enough credits accumulated in my freshman year and in the first half of my sophomore year so that if I took a full load with an extra class or two, graduating with my class was still possible. She encouraged me to sign me up for the last round of the SAT that year. Taking a big test appealed to me; it would be a chance to kick my brain into high gear for a few hours and shut off the drip-drip-drip of my regrets.

I’d thought that once my mother moved to Florida, my father would be at home more, but that wasn’t the case. He was at work during the day, scrambling to make up the money he’d lost in a loan-fraud prosecution, and out until midnight each night playing bridge, or something like that. His house became a hangout for me and my friends, where we drank and smoked dope and played cards and listened to Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. Drinking and using drugs had been forbidden by Jimmy, my violent ex-lover, but I soon slipped right back into my old party habits with a little twist: drinking to oblivion in a deliberate program of chemical forgetfulness that would, I hoped, kill off certain brain cells, certain memories.

Even surrounded by close friends like Lisa and familiar habits from the days when I’d been free, it was hard to forget my life with Jimmy. For the first year, he stalked me in what I now know to be the boringly predictable way of an abusive man who craves the power he once had, just as he’d terrorized me in what I now know to be the boringly predictable way of every intimate partner abuser: He’d interrogated me relentlessly about my limited sexual experiences prior to the point when we met, he’d become enraged at the slightest hint of interest in another man, he’d done his best to isolate me from my family and my friends, he’d called me a slut and a whore when he beat me, and he’d sworn he would never do it again in tearful paroxysms of remorse when it was over. All this is textbook. The only distinguishing characteristic of his violence was that he sometimes framed it in a literary context. While interrogating me about past boyfriends, he’d paraphrase the soliloquy from the last chapter of Ulysses: “So you said yes, didn’t you, yes, yes, yes, as well him as another?” Smack.

He knew I’d gone back to high school, and he materialized periodically as I walked between there and home, so I varied my route. Sometimes I walked along the road that snaked along the coast.

Walking home from school one day across a series of football and baseball fields, I saw him coming at me from at least a thousand feet away. His head tilted slightly to one side, his narrow hips set wide, his long stride, the wind gusts blowing his dark curls, all this made me crave him even from a distance. Once he got close enough to be heard over the wind, he whispered, “Come back to me,” his whole body in a posture of beseeching.

“Get down on your knees and beg,” I said.

He did. For the first time, I penetrated the magnetic force field that had prevented my blows from landing. I kicked him in the face, knocking him back on to his heels.

“I told you this would happen,” I said, as I kept kicking him while he was down. “I told you you’d beg me to come back. I told you this would happen.”

When he wrapped his arms around one of my legs, I managed to keep kicking him with the other leg until he let me go and curled into a ball, the ball I’d curled into so many times when he beat me on one floor or another. But this time we weren’t in the privacy of a room or apartment. We were outside, exposed in the middle of an open field, in dreary but broad daylight. Anyone could see what I’d done. Fear of discovery flickered over me for a moment, diluting my feelings of exultation. But no sirens wailed, no mothers called condemnation from the house windows looking onto the playing fields. The sky loomed, steely and disinterested above us. The empty grandstands and the bare tree limbs withheld judgment. I’d kept my feet under me. With a well-aimed, disabling stomp to his balls, I left him writhing on the ground. I walked away. Or so I thought.

He broke into the house when I wasn’t home. My best friend Lisa and I came back from a night out partying to find him unconscious on top of my twin bed. An empty bottle of valium lay beside him like planted evidence. Lisa ran to the pink Princess phone in the kitchen to call an ambulance; I stopped her, sure he hadn’t risked taking a fatal dose.

Although fed up with his pathetic gestures — that mixture of pretension and melodrama usually reserved for end-stage alcoholics — I was still frightened, even with Lisa there, so I got a large knife out of the kitchen drawer before I tried to wake him and get him out.

I’d forgotten Carlos from the Episcopal agency, and his advice about never brandishing a blade, about pressing the knife firmly into flesh before anyone knew you held it.

Jimmy was woozy, but he staggered to his feet as I pointed the knife at him, saying over and over, “Get the fuck out. Just get the fuck out.” He grabbed my hand that was holding the knife, and pulled the knife, and me along with it, into his chest. The knife cut away a lip of skin the size of a fat minnow just below his left breast. I felt that carving sensation and let go. The knife fell to the carpet. Blood streamed. He slumped to the floor. Lisa wanted to call an ambulance again. I called a cab instead. Between the two of us, we pushed him out the kitchen door. We waited and watched out the picture window over the sink until the cab pulled down the long driveway and we saw him get in, holding his chest.

A few days later, someone threw a rock the size of a softball through my bedroom window. A few days after that, he broke in again when my father was home to hear the racket he made. The police found him hiding behind the boiler in the basement, clutching a knife, a different one than the one I’d used. They arrested him.

I went to court. The judge sat on what looked like a dais, elevated a half-story above the rest of the courtroom. For some reason I don’t recall, I was alone there, my father absent. I sat in the back, hoping to avoid being seen by the man who kept tracking me down as if I were a dumb sheep, but as he was brought in through a stage door off to the side of the judge’s bench, I jumped. The courtroom, as big as a ballroom, was packed, but my prince picked me out in the back of the crowd and gave me that blue-black, yearning look.

The prosecutor found me later in the hallway where I was chain-smoking. He told me I didn’t have to testify that day. Jimmy was sent to Danvers State Mental Hospital for an evaluation. There was, of course, no mention of threats to me, or stalking, or steps I could take to insure my safety. It was 1975, and there was no such thing as domestic violence, let alone victim-assistance programs. There was only the break-in.

Back in my parents’ house, outside my broken bedroom window, the waves kept breaking, and winter sucked the color out of everything. When Jimmy was released from Danvers State Hospital a month later, he called me, contrite, calm, rehabilitated, and hoping for reconciliation. I wanted to believe in something.

The walk along the beach to his father’s apartment almost froze me to numbness, but the waves crashing up onto Lynn Shore Drive reminded me of how it felt to be moved by a power outside of myself.

Have you ever caught a wave at the moment it’s breaking? You narrow every muscle in your body until you’re an arrow of flesh within the wave, skin to skin with its muscle, propelled forward above the skim of surface all the way to shore. And have you ever misjudged the moment of breaking? The wave slams you down into rough sand, holding you under like a massive, punishing hand. Then it pulls back and leaves your skull filled with seawater, your throat scorched raw from salt, your eyes shot with blood from the wound of misjudging. While you lay exhausted on the beach, the salt turns to dust on your skin. The dust rubs off, but you don’t forget the power of the union, or of the slamming. He stalked me, and when the chance to kick him in the face and walk away came, I was glad, but I also spent whole days, before and after that, crying over an awful loss of fusion, my skull filled with what felt like the weight of a whole ocean’s water, my throat strafed from holding back words.

His father’s apartment was a block inland from the beach, and I could still hear the waves crashing as I rang the bell. His father was at work. His hair was cut short, making the bones of his brow and cheekbones and jawline stand out more sharply, his winter-white skin emphasizing the dark indigo of his eyes. Weak light eked through the spaces between the wide venetian blinds. We were naked in no time, his taut body laid on top of mine, on top of a white sheet, on top of the daybed in the living room where he slept. On top of everything. My left cheek pressed into the healing, minnow-sized scar on his chest as I climaxed.

A clarity about what I was doing opened up in me with that that orgasm. I could use a man for sex. I could get what I wanted — physical intimacy — and not give anything back. I could be a spy in the house of love. I writhed underneath him, got my feet up onto the place where his hips met his thighs and I pushed him out of me, rolling off the daybed, pulling on my jeans as quickly as I could.

“I can’t do this,” I lied, all the while knowing that I could do it, had just done it. Backing away to the door, I pulled my sweater over my head, jammed my feet into my sneakers, and grabbed my coat. He stood backlit by the window, his face twisted in an unnatural mimicry of longing and confusion. I don’t know what he really felt, but he looked like he was imagining himself in some pretentious D.H. Lawrence novel about sexual frustration and the difficulty of women in a modern age.

That was the last time. I told one of my friends about it; after school one day, they all got together and sat me down in a wing chair, its back and arms torn up by cats, and they encircled me. They did not ask me to explain why I ran away from home with a boy who beat me. They did not ask me to explain why I kept going back to him. They told me if I went back to Jimmy again, they would kill him. They would run him down with a stolen car. No one would know.

Those friends knew what I needed to accept. There would be no transformation. The depth, the love, the brilliance, the fists, the rage, the obsession with control: It all ran on the same circuit for Jimmy and couldn’t be teased apart.

Those friends, they were the home I returned to, not my father’s house. That house was only the scene of other beatings to me. Those friends were the people who remembered who I really was.

I never went back to Jimmy. I ignored his calls and his letters the way you’re supposed to ignore a bad dog, and finally, that worked. For years, he kept showing up along some old track he knew I was following, like the road along the shore. I never went back because the part of me who was a young girl believing in true love had fallen to the ground, exhausted, while an older part of me stomped on her neck, crushed her larynx to shut her up, and then walked away without her.

This is Chapter 4 of Walk Away.

>> Chapter 5

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<< Back to Chapter 2

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Michele Sharpe

Michele Sharpe


Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe &