The car comes screeching to a halt. My mom screams at my Dad to get out. An 18-wheeler speeds by to our left, his loud horn makes me jump, hitting my head on the Toyota’s cold metal ceiling. My Dad, drunk and belligerent, screams incoherently back.
I am four years old and sitting in my favorite seat in the car, in between Mom and Dad. He reaches through me as if I’m not there and grabs my mom’s throat. She leans back and hits his arm out of the way, accidentally hitting me in the process. I feel scared, invisible and alone. Suddenly he turns, mumbles some irrational comment, stumbles out of the car and slams the door.
Why is my Dad acting this way and are we really leaving him on the side of the freeway?
The crazed tantrums of my father, his putrid smelling breath that made my stomach turn with its sweetness of beer tinged vomit, the blood-shot, unblinking hatred emanating from his eyes; these images replayed in my mind at unexpected places. In my dreams, at parties, working out, watching TV, in my relationships.
When I met Tom he was a recovering alcoholic. A loving and devoted image of a teddy bear. I thought that I had found my soul mate. We had everything in common. We could play together, work together, and relax together.
But then his father died.
Something shifted in Tom and nothing I did could change him. He was in a rage nearly every day, whether quiet, stewing, or in full-on blow out episode. Unless he was in the mountains, the rage was there. He would drink to bury the pain but it only intensified the problem. Our fights were becoming a regular occurrence and it seemed as if my life had come full circle.
His hands tightened around my throat.
“Shut up! I don’t want to hear another word,” roared Tom.
I struggled and pushed against him, trying to find the door handle with my hand. His grasp was clinching down like a vice. Finally I felt the solid metal lever, pushed the door open and forced myself out of his claws. I fell backwards and it flashed in my brain that now it was me falling out of the car onto the hard pavement.
I picked myself up and ran as fast as I could to the small grocery store across the street. I could hear him yelling my name, trying to force me back with his voice.
A motherly-looking woman turned from the cash register as I stormed through the door.
“Please help me! My boyfriend is trying to kill me!”
She raced towards me and locked the door.
“Oh honey, are you okay? We’ll call the police.”
“Yes, yes, I think that’s a good idea,” I said softly as I slid down to the ground, collapsing from the realization of what had just happened.
The nice woman, who eerily resembled my jolly grandma with rosy cheeks, grabbed a blanket and put it around my shoulders, trying to ease my shivering. We both knew my shaking had nothing to do with being cold.
As I sat there waiting for the police to arrive, the realization that I had lived out my mom’s history became crystal clear.
That moment sitting in the car, as a little girl, was a turning point in my life; one towards fear and the belief that it was my fault. But this moment, sitting in the grocery store, shivering, I realized that if I wanted to be free of the violent cycle I had to stand up for myself. It was not my fault that Tom could not deal with his grief. I was not his stomping ground.
It was a moment of truth and clarity. If I was to live a life of happiness and love, I could not accept this behavior and must leave. It was up to me, and I was not going to let this happen again.
I called a girlfriend after the police interrogation. She said that she was happy to let me crash at her place as long as I needed. I craved “me time” and locked myself in her guest room thinking about life and where I was going. I turned my cell phone off, didn’t check my email; I needed time away.
Two days into my isolation I heard a rap at the door.
“Shiela, you have to open the door, your mom is calling frantically for you.”
Worry washed over me. I hurried to find my cell phone and called home. It seemed like an eternity before my mom answered.
“Mom, it’s me. Is everything okay?”
“Oh Sheila, honey are you sitting down? I have some horrible news.”
“What is it?”
“Aunt Joni called. Diane was killed a few nights back by her boyfriend.”
My cousin was murdered by the man who was supposed to love her on the same night that I almost lost my life he same way. I started to cry uncontrollably.
It could have been me.
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