[trigger warning: domestic abuse]
In the bathroom, removing makeup from the night before, when his calloused monotone invades, to say:
“I’m leaving for work. Sorry I’m an abuser.”
He is positioned against the door frame, body relaxed, face calm. A calculated performance: how to place his hands, how to adjust his face for optimum apathy, how to push enough, perfectly, so I rupture.
Shock protects me—a façade, a pretend, rare moment of firm defiance. I stare back to mirror his indifference. I do not shatter. Depriving him of his ideal outcome brings a quick, unwelcome kiss to my forehead, breaking the silent discomfort & then he is gone.
I stood in the bathroom for a long time after that, gripping the hard corners of the small, square countertop for support while focusing all my energy on just breathing. I had learned breathing was ‘involuntary,’ as though it was permanent, fixed, automatic.
Yet when I think about breathing, I am stuck, focused on the breaths going in and out, forcing them to come and go at a tempo that seems almost natural to me but isn’t, until I become distracted and forget to focus on the breathing anymore and then my body takes back over and I am breathing ‘involuntarily’ all over again.
Or when my husband appears in the doorway of my bathroom and passively acknowledges the trauma I’ve suffered at his hands with a half-hearted apology, uttering the words with no real meaning and leaving me in the bathroom alone, gripping the countertop, remembering each individual time he dragged me through my apartment or wrapped his hands around my throat telling me he was going to fucking kill me, and knowing now that this hideous moment in which he interrupted a calm morning routine of removing cracked, caked-on makeup stuck to my face from a night of sleep and drool by abruptly throwing me into the reality of his violence, causing all of these memories to drown me, would mean that any time I mentioned the abuse I would be met with the defense “I apologized for that” and the accusation that my ‘prolonging’ of the discussion of his abuse was ‘controlling’ and ‘manipulative,’ because, don’t I know by now, if he’s an abuser, well fuck, so am I.
So I stood, shutting my eyes to block out the obnoxious fluorescent brightness of my bathroom so I could keep voluntarily breathing without truly volunteering to keep breathing at all, waiting for that cold-hot burning, sick-sweet rush to pass. What were my options, but to breathe? I stood in my bathroom, willing myself to breathe in and out, when every part of my body wanted to give up and sink to the floor, to stop breathing voluntarily or involuntarily or at all, to escape abuse in the only permanent way, but I stayed breathing and standing because there was nothing to do but stand and breathe and breathe and stand and think BREATHE, BREATHE, BREATHE so loudly that I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was five-weeks pregnant the first time he choked me and I wasn’t hearing his cruel voice in my head telling me he was going to make my life hell and I wasn’t thinking about giving up because I wasn’t thinking about how he isn’t really sorry or wondering how any one person could contain such a range, to move so easily from telling me not to “play that card” or telling me that no one really thinks I’m so innocent to standing in the doorway of my cramped, tiny, bright-green apartment bathroom, calling himself an abuser and calmly walking away because that’s what abusers get to do.
I wasn’t thinking about any of that because I was too busy voluntarily breathing and surviving.
Liz Howard is an Adjunct Instructor of English and a professional writing tutor at multiple colleges. She is in love with her two-year-old and the City of Philadelphia. Her writing is short and frantic, just like her. You can find Liz on twitter @Mother_Faulkner