This is How You Leave Him

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

By the time I left Des Moines, I was ragged and raw, nerve-shot and wrung out. Every minute of my life had begun to feel like the seconds in a horror movie right before the horrible thing happens — heart racing, muscles tensed, breath inaccessible. He’d been drinking again, and when he drinks, he rages.

The morning before I left — one rare, clear-eyed morning for him — he considered me silently for a moment, and said, “Why did you get so thin?” He almost looked concerned.

I got so thin because living with a drunken raging maniac sort of kills one’s appetite. “I think it’s the stress,” I said, because it was honest but also somewhat neutral. He didn’t take it up, but he did suggest, seemingly genuinely, that I take the girls and go back home for a few days.

Maybe things had gotten bad enough that even he could tell I needed a break, or maybe he was just tired of yelling, or maybe he just wanted to drink in peace. I didn’t care. The suggestion itself, I knew, was the flash of a subway train door — pay attention and hop on when it gets there, or you might be trapped where you are for a good long while. I hopped, and fast.

I loaded up our daughters and hit I-80 West toward Nebraska with something that almost felt like hope.

We made it to my mom’s house by supper, and my peripheral vision began to return; I hadn’t even realized it had left. I guess things had tunneled down, because the fact that the world was light — light — and that there were other people in it — people who were normal, who were happy — it shocked me.

How long had things been like this? Or how long had it been since I’d forgotten what normal looked like?

The phrase “shadow of abuse” — to “live in the shadow of abuse” — is a cliche. But cliches don’t emerge from a vacuum; they are carved from collective human experience and then calcified into the lexicon, and how did I never stop to interrogate this particular phrase? Did I think it was just some pretty little metaphor? Some trivial literary decoration? Why hadn’t I understood that there were people — mostly women — around me who were clawing through their days in actual darkness?

When the shadow started to clear away for me during those totally-ordinary-but-also-stupidly-magical days at my parents’ house, when my vision opened up again, everything in its field took on a pulsing, technicolor quality that seemed to advance in space — it both bathed me in healing light and burned my eyes and skin. I was suddenly alert and awake to everything.

The first thing that made me cry was the sight of five little glass dishes of fruit, lined up in the refrigerator. My mom had put them there. She knew we were coming for dinner, and she knew the girls liked fruit, so she had washed and cut strawberries and musk-melon and arranged them in little bowls for the five of us — her and my dad and me and my girls.

For some reason, the very thought of it killed me. It broke my heart — in a good way? — to think of her quietly cutting the berries, arranging them around the melon, lining them all up in the fridge for us to have with our supper. She had no idea of the way I’d been living. She didn’t know that, for someone in my position, having the wherewithal to even think of fruit cups, let alone prepare them hours in advance of supper just because it was a nice little thing to do, felt like both a decadent luxury and a total impossibility. Its very normalcy seemed to me, supernatural.

For dinner we had tuna noodle casserole and broccoli and bread and butter. The humblest, most midwestern of meals, and I had to force every swallow past the lump in my throat — the lump that was exploding at the easiness of it all, at the simple and pedestrian love that lay beneath it.

I’d once had a life like this, I now remembered, before things had gone south, so so far south. I used to plan meals and go to the grocery store and get the ingredients. I used to make cookies and cupcakes and pies just for fun, because it made life nice.

The niceties of life, though, for me — for my daughters and me — have been set on some shelf or buried in some drawer while we try to just endure each day in peace, while we try to tiptoe amongst the eggshells and never, ever, set him off.

How had I let this happen? When had I forsaken the ability to make tuna noodle casserole in peace for my family? When had we all abandoned routine for chaos, normal conversation for alcohol-fueled drama laced with profanity and histrionics? (All those “nice” things you want to do are *superficial*, he’d explained to me, they don’t *matter*.)

But they do. And THIS is what I want for my girls — just this, this boring, predictable, tell-us-about-your-day-it-was-fine sort of non-event that characterizes the best kind of families and lives.

I knew these days were merely a reprieve, a break in the sinister circus of what our Real Lives had become. But it was enough. It was enough to plant the seed, to clarify the possibility of redemption.

We went back to Des Moines, but this time with an exit plan.