The first time he hit me, I refused to believe it. My body felt it: my cheek stung, the sound reverberated around the room, for one slight second I could swear I saw double. My eyes took in his contorted face leaning into mine as he breathed heavily. But my brain said it was all a lie; it had to be a lie. The seconds filed calmly past as we simply stared at each other. And ever so slowly, into that shocked silence, my rage was born.
This was an unfamiliar anger. Fury in my soul usually arrives with a kind of blissful void created of adrenaline in its wake, wiping away all thought and memory and driving me deep into the most elemental part of my being as I lash out with every bit of strength I possess. This one though, brought with it a numbing sadness too deep for tears along with fear – and shock – and sheer disbelief – and an iron band around my chest that drew tighter and tighter as I tried to hurt him as he’d hurt me, yet knowing somehow that I could never make him experience a fraction of the ferocity of the pain and terror of that instant after his palm had connected with my face.
Even as I felt my nails sink into his flesh, darkly satisfying in the sheer viciousness of its grip on tissue and membrane and bringing with it fleeting images of broken veins gushing blood and torn flesh gaping in crescent shapes; even as the pressure built on my teeth as they clamped down, one jaw on another and drowned out the dulling throb of my cheek – I could feel him win this physical battle.
It only served to increase the intensity of the rage bubbling within me, and thankfully I felt myself sink into the familiar quicksand of my usual blind anger replete with tears and gritted invective. He threw me to the floor at some point and I kicked him and kicked and kicked and punched and bit and raked and clawed until all I could hear was the raspy breath in my lungs struggling alongside the sobs of hatred dribbling out of my mouth. I could no longer feel – his blows or mine. Dimly, through the blessed morphine of adrenaline, I was aware of pain washing my body in waves, relentlessly ebbing and flowing, now here – then there, but I couldn’t recognize its source: was it him and the memories of those nights spent in his strong arms or was it me and the shock of having my love ripped from me and replaced with this monster I wished to slay more than anything I had ever wanted in my life?
Was it him or was it me?
Curled up on the floor with tears (of rage or sadness, I did not know) flooding my face, my hands still instinctively sought his flesh to rend and tear. I could taste the salty sweetness of blood in my mouth and in my mind it was his blood I tasted. Muffled, as through cotton wool, I could hear the reedy wails still rising in my throat. He too was sobbing – I could hear that too but faintly. Perhaps he was simply dragging in some air. There seemed to be an impenetrable bubble of air wrapped around us that thrust away the world with its lights and sounds and other people.
I knew, or rather one distant part of me knew, I should be doing a great many things; all the things I’d thought other women should do when placed in the situation I now found myself in: scream loudly to attract attention, run to safety, so many things that seemed so simple and logical when I thought about it.
But lost in this unreal world of pain, all I could do was battle – for composure, for emotional survival and against him, against the overwhelming urge to kill.
That was what I wanted to do most – kill him. It overlay the other emotions seething within me, struggling for precedence. My brain wanted him dead for the unimaginable betrayal of his act. My heart wanted him stretched lifeless on the floor the way all my feelings for him now lay. My body simply wanted to bathe in his blood, every cell straining to experience the image painted for it by a fevered mind.
How dramatic that sounds in black and white. How melodramatic and silly and faintly disgusting. But at that moment (and sometimes even now in the dark of the night when the memory of that day is sprung upon me by a subconscious that refuses to forget) my hands tightened into claws because they wanted to shred his flesh until the blood ran over them, and my teeth tensed to bite into him and let the tongue at last experience the hot rush of blood it had already imagined.
That was not the beginning, of course. For the longest time, I dated the beginning of the end with that first day of outright violence but I was wrong. It began with the Speaking Look – a raised eyebrow, a sardonic half-smile, a tiny sneer, an expression of disbelief, a tightening of the lips, turning his head away.
Then came the actual words: don’t you think that will give other people the wrong impression – is that what you’re wearing – don’t you have something else – you can’t be serious – what makes you think that – let me tell you…
Soon, the words were deeper, sharper: you always have an answer don’t you – you may think so but – why can’t you do as I ask you – I want you to do this…
Then, came the other words: moron – idiot – bitch – slut – whore…
After that: everybody is sick and tired of you – nobody wants to be around you – if you didn’t have me…
And in a little while, the war between his world and my world: maybe that’s what your parents taught you but – you can’t think like that – behave like that – talk like that – walk like that – dress like that…
I wish I’d decided then never to see him again. I wish I hadn’t believed that it was something that could only happen this once.
But I didn’t decide that and it did happen again. Again and again and every time I cried, he cried with me – not at that moment, but later. At that moment, he only stared at me with eyes burning with hate and screamed things that were not true but were instead things that he hoped, fervently and obviously, would hurt me. But later, when he wept and clutched me close to him, hid his face in my lap and curled up on his knees to beg me to forgive him in a voice choked with sobs, he cried, I love you baby, don’t leave me.
I love you baby, he said as if that made it all right that he’d been trying to beat the parts he didn’t love out of me only a short while ago. Don’t leave me, he told me as if he had every right to tell.
And the thing that makes me ashamed to my bones, much more than what he did to me, is that I didn’t leave him. I went along with his presumption that love conquered all and that the rights bestowed upon lovers in the spring of romance can last forever. Every time I hugged him close and thought, he knows better now and every time I did that I knew I lied and that with every passing day my heart was learning the degrees separating love and indifference – and hate.
The shame was magnified a million times because the only thing that kept me with him was a kind of lethargic fear of the unknown. I had been a part of this couple for so long, I no longer knew who I would be once I left him. And rather than find out, rather than face the unpleasant task of separation and the ugliness involved in the dismemberment of a paralyzed relationship, I chose to continue life with a man whom I no longer liked, respected, admired… or loved.
To be honest in the cold light of the morning-after as well as hindsight, was to admit that the love had begun to die a long time before he raised his hand to me. It had withered under the relentless assault of his expectations that apparently could only exist upon the graveyard of my own, coupled with a chasm between our personalities that could only temporarily be bridged by sex. All that was left in the end was a rapidly diminishing comfort of the familiar and a vague feeling of irritation mixed with impatience every time I was confronted by his constant desire for reassurance. The rage, of course, was intermittent and carefully hidden at most times.
In a way, had I not been ashamed of my reasons for not leaving him, had I not been ashamed of the words of love that I gave to him week after week without meaning a word of it, I think I would never have crossed the line between disdain and hate no matter what he did to me. One didn’t hate a slug, after all, for being a slug. One hates a slug only when it touches upon something hidden deep within ourselves. My recognition of my own frailties when coupled with his attacks upon me, fed on each other to the magnification of both. And I began to hate him. As passionately as he wished me to love him.
Perhaps I would still have remained on this side of hatred had I been able to talk it over with someone. But I didn’t say a word. Instead, I chose to hold those bruises and that shallowly buried rage, which threatened sometimes to cut off my air supply when my eyes landed on his face, close within me where no one else could see them.
Why? Because I was afraid. Not of him. But, for the first time in my life (and this was his true ‘gift’ to me), I was afraid of what other people would say. I was afraid that they would either scorn me for my weakness or refuse to believe that he’d raised a hand to me. Of the two, I feared disbelief more than I feared anything else. I think I would rather have died than tell someone and then have them look at me with eyes that asked is that so? while their mouths said oh poor you!
We weren’t bad people, he and I. At least, I don’t think so.
He used to blush when I teased him about his ex-girlfriends and speculated about his wild past. I would blush when he paid me extravagant compliments, still unused to them after the teen years of braces and glasses. We loved buying each other little things – he would buy me the tiny pieces of silver work that I so loved; I would buy him the bottles of after-shave he was addicted to. He would play with my hair; I would pinch his cheeks. We made faces at each other in restaurants, embarrassing the waiters as they glided around our table. When the rains came, we bunked classes and went for long rides on smooth roads; I would hold him close for warmth as the bike hugged the wet road and the wind and rain whipped around us. We liked to eat out. We liked to dress up and go out to posh parties with all the fervor of the newly adult but we refused to color-coordinate, looking down disdainfully at the couples that did so. He was never happier than when he was in the midst of a crowd; I liked my space. He liked trance; I preferred Hip Hop. We both had a thing for classical music – Western and Indian. He liked Shakespeare; I was born on Shakespeare’s birthday.
No. We weren’t bad people, he and I. At least, I don’t think so. But something within us brought out the worst in each other.
When we first started dating, we told each other that we were meant to be. And perhaps it was true. Perhaps we were meant to be – not forever and ever amen… but to introduce ourselves to all that we didn’t want to be. Maybe we were each other’s guide to our darker selves, the ones we both hated but couldn’t break free of because they were us.
If the power of monsters lies in their name, I failed to recognize mine. I thought it was him, but in fact it was me. In retrospect, he was nothing – his presence in my life was limited to the ground I allowed him to occupy. Myself, I carried everywhere. An incubus whom there was no repelling for she was born of my own body.
The coward who refused to look life in the face; the doubter who introduced the word need into my brain; the woman who laid courage aside to live with a lie – the enemy within.
A month and a half later, it was summer break and we were both vacationing separately. He called me long distance from his parents’ house, a call remarkably free of all static, and asked me why my emails were getting shorter and shorter and came less and less often.
Don’t you love me? he asked.
Sure, I replied.
Then why don’t you say so?
I love you.
Sigh. I love you.
Like you mean it.
I love you. I love you. I love you.
You’re making fun of me.
I have to go. Absently, with my free hand, I twisted the bracelet I never took off: the one he’d clasped on my wrist the very day after he’d asked me to go steady. Hearts and flowers all around a delicate silver chain, it had broken once but he’d gotten it repaired before I’d had a chance to miss it.
What? What is it? Is there someone else?
No. I have to go. My mom wants me.
Walking into my room, I locked the door behind me. It took a couple of tries but finally the clasp came free. My wrist looked a little bare without that thin line of silver, a little tarnished now from constant use. It was astonishing how little it was, how tiny and insignificant lying pooled in the palm of my hand instead of stretched across my wrist.
Carefully, kneeling on the cold floor, I placed it in the wastebasket.
[Originally published at Chowk.com, 2005]