The day my husband strangled me
y youngest daughter Coraline’s favorite book lately has been Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. We read it in my bed at night, then she says, “Can I please have your arm?” So I stretch it out for her to use as a pillow. She reaches up to dig her hand into my armpit, and I let her, because it’s something she’s done practically since birth. Then she asks to be covered by the blanket.
I lie there, waiting for her body to start twitching, waiting for that final sigh, before I can slowly slide my arm out from under her. Before I can go out into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of wine if I have some, and stare at the floor.
When I told my husband to move out at the end of spring, Coraline was about to turn four, and she started sleeping with me again. For a couple of months, she woke up at night, crying and confused, wondering why her mom and stepdad weren’t there at the same time any more. I never knew what to tell her.
“Don’t you miss him?” she would ask me, almost desperately. “Sometimes,” I’d say, even though that wasn’t true. I have never, not even once, missed him. He hasn’t lived with us in almost six months. All I have to do is imagine him walking around the house and my body begins to show the symptoms of a panic attack.
Through the divorce process, my friends have tried to offer some kind of comfort by telling me they know there is a man out there for me. One who will appreciate me and all I have to offer. I feel like asking them: why on earth would I want that? I’ve watched my two girls take in the lasting kiss before the end credits of the movie dozens of times, and I cringe at every one.
My oldest, Mia, and I have taken to watching a couple of my favorite movies from the 1980s when we’re out traveling alone together. Back in August, we were having dinner, and I was silent for a little bit, then blurted out a couple of questions.
“What if Andie stayed with Duckie at the prom in Pretty in Pink, and didn’t go out into the parking lot to chase Blaine?”
“What if Johnny didn’t come back to do the final dance number of the summer in Dirty Dancing, and the end scenes were him opening a dance studio and Baby joining the Peace Corps?”
Mia, who’s 11, and by now accustomed to these types of outbursts, chewed her cheese quesadilla, then said: “But it wouldn’t be a story if it ended like that.”
“What do you mean, like it wouldn’t be complete?”
“Yeah,” Mia said. “It’s only a real story if people fall in love at the end. That’s how you know they’re going to live happily ever after.”
Just three months after we got married, I had called the police for help. They came to our apartment and photographed the bruises around my neck.
The police officers left me and the girls just after midnight. My husband was already down at the station. The dog was still losing her mind. I stood in my kitchen, leaning against the counter, holding a half-asleep Coraline, with Mia standing next to me, and stared at the brochures they’d left on my table, explaining signs to watch for after experiencing strangulation.
Several of the symptoms I already had: the sore neck, the bruising, the blotchy chest, pain, and difficulty swallowing.
By Monday, when detectives knocked on my door for further questioning, they measured the circumference of my neck with a string. They asked me if I’d lost control of bodily functions or consciousness. I tried to swallow and answered no, with a raspy voice. It’d been a day and a half since he’d strangled me, and I still couldn’t speak or eat well.
When the detectives measured a second time, 24 hours later, the swelling had increased a full half inch. They asked me, again, to describe what happened – this time for a recorded statement – and I physically shook, remembering the dark room, being pressed into the bed, and his face.
His hate-filled face.
We were alone for several months after that, the girls and me. Meanwhile, he told me repeatedly that he’d kill himself if he was convicted of the felony or if he had to go to prison. He made me feel like it was my fault that he hurt me.
I advocated for the charges to be dropped to a misdemeanor like it was my new, full-time job. I arranged meetings. I spoke to lawyers and the prosecutor. I wrote statements. I stood in front of the judge to plead for my husband to move back in with us, so we could go on being a family.
When the judge finally granted this, not even four months after I’d been strangled, he said it was against his own better judgment. I wish I would have, wish I could have, admitted that it was against my own better judgment as well. But the fog of the whole situation was so dense, I’d lost sight of my compass.
My desire for that happy ending – especially as a woman who’d been a single mom for almost a decade – was a rushing current too strong to fight. Though I wouldn’t admit it then, I knew I’d chosen a path filled with emotional landmines. In walking that path, one would surely detonate, possibly with my death.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]He’d been following me around the house, telling me my face looked awful, that I brought a stench of sadness into the room[/perfectpullquote]
Earlier this summer, after I started admitting in social media posts that I’d chosen to be a single mom again, a few local women reached out to me, all saying some variation of “I was so worried about you!”
It reminded me that there had been a newspaper article featuring my husband’s mugshot, and that image showed up several times in my Facebook feed as people shared it online. It made the lie that I’d been living, for the last year, parading us all over social media and town as this loving couple, it made that gaping wound hurt all over again.
I hated it that I’d done that, that I’d kept what he’d done to me hidden as much as possible. I ran from that article, and even emailed the editor of the newspaper, begging her to remove it from their online archives. I isolated myself from my community. I no longer talked to close friends about the emotional abuse that went on at home, since admission would require action, so I didn’t really talk to anyone. My whole life felt like a lie, but I was good at telling the story, even to me. Especially to me.
One afternoon, a few weeks before I finally told him to leave, we were all in the backyard together. He’d just adopted Coraline and we were playing catch on a sunny evening, feeling like the misery of winter and my husband’s court case was well behind us. Then Mia turned to me with this smile and said: “You sure know how to pick the good ones.” She was referring to her stepdad, a man she witnessed hurting me twice in one evening. I smiled at her, looked over at him, and went inside the house to cry.
Through the last few months I have been questioning why I fought so hard to keep our life, on the outside, as normal as possible. My answer has always returned to a strong desire of not wanting to disappoint. I didn’t want to let all the people who were so happy for me down. Myself included.
But when I finally asked him to leave, it was in an almost primal push for survival. We’d been arguing for weeks. He’d been following me around the house, telling me my face looked awful, that I brought a stench of sadness into the room. My four-year-old daughter had started to mimic his posturing, his finger-pointing, and even told me to go away because my face looked bad. I’d spent Mother’s Day weekend in a dark motel room after that.
Out of desperation, I asked him to go back to work, to give me some space, and he told me that wasn’t part of the deal in marrying me. He said he wouldn’t have gotten together with me if he hadn’t thought I was going to be rich so he wouldn’t have to work. I laughed at the ridiculousness and asked him if he was serious – he knew I was a writer, after all. It seemed he was, even saying 25% of the reason in choosing to be with me was because of that. In that same conversation, almost a year after it happened, he still blamed our bad relationship on him hurting me.
The next morning, I couldn’t get out of bed, but a voice rose up and said no with such agency. I told him to get out. And he finally did, for good.
In The Missing Piece, the reader follows a simply drawn line throughout the pages. On that line is a circle with a triangle-shaped chunk that’s absent from it. We follow it as it scoots along, singing this silly song about searching for the piece that’s missing, while it meets frogs and butterflies and stops to look at flowers.
After a few failed attempts and adventures, it finds a piece that fits. But it starts rolling too fast. It no longer has time to sing, to stop and look at flowers, and talk to frogs. Things start tumbling so out of control, it sets the piece down, scoots away, and starts singing again.
Stephanie Land is the author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, out in January 2019