Today I tell a story that is not as rare as we would like it to be, a story about a woman who gets herself into a bad relationship and doesn’t know how to get out. Oh, yes, there are places that will help her, but you know, a lot of women don’t know about those places, or they’re too afraid to go get the help they need. Too many women never escape.
HIDING FROM LIFE
Her hiding place had been discovered. What was she going to do now? She held her breath; the footsteps passed by. He hadn’t found her. She flattened her body smaller and tried to imagine herself squeezing through the crack at the back of the room, small, smaller, small enough…no, of course she couldn’t. That was ridiculous. But she couldn’t sit here all day, either. Sooner or later, if he kept opening doors and looking under furniture, he would discover her.
No one else knew about this space. Lauren had discovered it by accident one day when she was younger, when they first moved here. She was only eight, and brave enough to go almost anywhere. That was before she met…him. She thought he was so handsome, so smart, so…everything. She followed him like a puppy, begging him to notice her. Right. A college professor was going to notice a high school girl. Why would she have thought that?
But he did notice her. He noticed her at the grocery store, and spoke to her, asked her who she was, where she lived. He recited poetry, and she fell for him. Hard. He was the most amazing man she’d ever known, and he was willing to take time out of his busy day to notice her. Professor Jenkins…Peter Jenkins…doctor of English literature. She started reading everything she could get her hands on, even though she had never been a reader. He recommended poetry and novels. She enthused over Jane Austen, so he brought her fancy bound copies of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility…Emma. She loved them all, but especially Emma.
On her birthday, he picked her up for an outing. Her parents approved. They trusted him. He worked for the college where her mom was a student, and they knew he was only going to help Lauren improve her mind. She was only sixteen, after all. A man in his position was being very kind to pay so much attention to their daughter. They waved good-bye, and the car headed toward the mountain.
When Lauren returned in tears, her dress tattered and bloody, her parents found it difficult to believe her story. Such a nice man, he wouldn’t have done anything like that. She must have misunderstood. Did she fall down running away? Yes, she did. Well, see, she just didn’t understand a friendly gesture, an innocent remark. Lauren tried to tell them, but they didn’t want to hear. It would destroy too much of their world to know that the professor had put his hand up her dress, had put his…had put his penis inside her. That was the last any of them mentioned the incident.
Until the day Lauren came home from the doctor, her mother in shock, shaking beside her in disbelief and shame. They had to do something, this could not happen to them, they couldn’t tell Father, he’d be mortified, who was the father? No, not that again, Mom said. Not Dr. Jenkins. Why do you keep on with that story? Dr. Jenkins was Mom’s thesis advisor now, and Mom didn’t want to risk her degree, but Lauren didn’t understand why they couldn’t at least tell him, explain, and try to solve the problem.
That was a decade ago. So much had happened since then, so much had changed. The abortion had been a relief; she could deal with Mother’s disapproval, but if Dad had found out, it would have been more than disapproval. They agreed he would never know, it was her secret, hers and Mom’s. They went off for a girl’s night out, and came back two days later with new shirts and jeans for school to explain the trip. She threw up on the way back, and they stopped at the car wash to clean out the car. Dad was oblivious, like he was oblivious to most things.
Lauren enrolled at the college when high school was over, and Dr. Jenkins noticed her again. He sat with her in the cafeteria one day, asked her how her classes were going, and if she was oriented to college life. She responded politely, not sure how to deal with this situation. She had managed to get a different English instructor for her beginning classes, but if she took the English minor she had once planned, sooner or later she’d have to be in his class. She had changed her plans when she realized her parents were not going to be open to a different school. She pointed out that her brother had gone away to a distant college, but her pleas were no good. She was the daughter, and they wanted her at home. Mom reminded her that she had managed to get herself in trouble in high school, she needed someone to look after her. She stomped to her bedroom and locked herself in for two days, but it did no good. She was here, at the local college, and changing her life around to avoid conflict with men.
She barely noticed at first that he was seeking her out, finding chances to sit and talk with her. She was busy, and the continual bumping into him seemed inevitable with them on the same campus every day. It wasn’t until his hand started to brush against hers, to rest on her knee, to creep up her leg, that she realized he was deliberately seeking her company. She tried to avoid him, but he was everywhere she went. He sent her poetry, he sent her Jane Austen, and he sent her flowers. She threw them away, or gave them to her best friend, and tried to ignore him. He would not be ignored.
How did it happen? She crouched in her cramped space hearing him stomp through the room, and thought about those long nights, those desperate days wondering why she had agreed to go out with him, how he had persuaded her to marry him, persuaded her that he loved her, that she loved him. The day of the wedding was rainy; Grandma said that was a bad sign. Mom brushed off Grandma’s fears as an old wives tale, and Lauren thought the old woman was being foolish. Now she wished she’d listened. Perhaps Grandma had seen what her parents refused to see, what she couldn’t see.
Peter was proud of her. He paraded her around town on his arm, his young bride, 29 years his junior, pretty as a picture he always said. Pretty as a picture. Until that day…that horrible day…she was tired, it was finals week, and she had a lot of studying to do before bed. He wanted to have sex, but she told him later. She couldn’t right now. She had too much to do. He grabbed her by the arm, the way he had on her sixteenth birthday when she had been shy and scared and not wanting to do what he suggested. He held her and pulled her to him. She protested. Not tonight, Peter, I need to study. He insisted. His kisses were hard, punishing. He carried her upstairs and dropped her on the bed. She tried to roll away, but he was on top of her, removing her clothes, penetrating her…hurting her. Raping her.
There. She said it…or at least, she thought it. The word she had avoided for years…for a decade. Rape. What had possessed her to marry a man who had raped her on her sixteenth birthday? How could she have believed she loved him? Or that he loved her? How could she have trusted him again, after the first betrayal? She was led on by poetry and moonlight, by soft words and touches, and by the insistence of her parents that he was a good match. Mom whispered to her in her room at night. Grab him up, she said. Don’t let him get away. You’ll have so much better a life than I had…you won’t have the pain I suffered being the wife of a man like your father, a man who drinks too much and reads too little and hates his life, hates his wife. Lauren had listened. She had seen her mother’s life. She didn’t want that for herself, or really even for her mother, though the two of them could hardly be said to be close, not since that night of her sixteenth birthday when her mother chose not to believe her.
The five years since had been hell. He still paraded her around, his beautiful young wife, but he mocked her. Cruelly, publicly, he pointed out that she was an airhead, a ditz, a…woman child. That’s what he called her, a woman child. Then when they got home, his head still filled with his jokes and the laughter of his friends, he’d force her to do things she hated, things he liked and asked for often. When she didn’t obey, or took too long, he simply took what he wanted.
It was probably her fault, of course. If she hadn’t failed her finals, if she’d succeeded and graduated, gotten the degree in genetics she was trying for, he wouldn’t call her stupid, ditzy, airheaded. She had been doing so well, on track to graduate early, but that last semester…she was always tired, she hurt constantly, and she couldn’t concentrate. She wasn’t eating, she wasn’t sleeping, and her grades suffered. She had only a year left to go, and she failed. She wanted to try again, retake the classes the next semester, but Peter refused. No, he said, face failure. Stand tall and look it in the face and admit you failed. So she dropped out and became a full time wife. Peter liked it that way.
Lauren choked back a cough that would have told him where she was…alerted him to her presence in that tiny space that only she knew, that secret closet behind the closet in her childhood room, the one she was brave enough to crawl into when she was eight. It was comfortable for an eight year old, but now, at 26, it was a tight fit. She shifted to get more comfortable, adjusting her position as little as possible to take the weight off the right foot and put it on the left, hoping it would hold her a little longer, hoping he wouldn’t hear her move. She huddled in the dark, wanting him to go away, wanting him to fall down the stairs and break his neck, wanting him out of her life forever.
She heard Mom moving around, helping him look. Damn, Mom, why can’t you stand up to him? Why do you always give in and help him when he starts hitting me, when he throws shit at me? Why can’t you be my friend instead of his? Mom was scared, Lauren could tell, and she tried to work up some sympathy for a woman who had been through much of what she was now going through, but she wasn’t able to find anything in her heart any more. Too many incidents, too many dinner parties, when her husband humiliated her in front of her parents, in front of her brothers, in front of her friends, and Mom had never once come to her defense. Even Evan, her older brother who had never missed a chance to tease her himself, jumped up and challenged Peter when he was being cruel. Mom? Not a peep.
Lauren tried to remember if she had ever told Mom about the little hidden closet. She was pretty sure she hadn’t, but she could never be sure. When she was eight, she and Mom were still friends, and she would share secrets with her. They would stand arm in arm against a world that was often hostile to them, facing down the men of the house who outnumbered them and were larger, and huddle together against their collective anger. She had called the ambulance when Mom was bleeding from a bad beating; she decided she would never do that again. Let Mom die. It would serve her right.
The floor boards creaked one more time, and were silent. She heard footsteps going downstairs. Peter and Mom were gone. She knew he hadn’t given up; he never gave up. He had just decided to look for her somewhere else. She would have a chance to get out of her hiding place, crawl out the window, and get out of town before he knew she was gone. She reached for the box she had hidden in this closet a few years ago, right after he started forcing her. She had stashed any spare money she could find in this box, and now it held several thousand dollars. She had been frugal, and had managed to save a lot, and now she could leave. It wouldn’t get her a long way, but it might at least get her to Grandma’s. Of course, she wouldn’t be able to stay with Grandma in the nursing home, but she would have someone she could talk to, someone who would know how to help her. The only woman in their family who had ever escaped an abusive husband, she would help her granddaughter do the same thing now.
Lauren waited for what seemed an eternity, holding her breath as much as possible in case he was still in the room. She opened the wall a tiny crack and peeked out. The room appeared empty. She slipped out into the bigger closet and checked. There was no one in sight. She heard Peter and Mom thrashing around downstairs; good. They were still in the house. She sent up a prayer that they would stay there until she was gone; if they came outside while she was climbing down the trellis, it would be all over. She would be punished for months for her defiance.
She crept to the window and pushed, just a little. Dad wasn’t good about keeping things in the house in working order, but this window seemed to be on her side. It opened easily, without any noise, and she was outside almost before she realized it. She grabbed the wood slats of the trellis, knowing they weren’t strong enough to hold a full sized adult for long. She slipped hand over hand downward to the yard, and crouched behind the Spirea. The furor inside the house told her Peter didn’t realize she was outside. She crawled along the house close to the ground, staying behind the bushes until she had reached the edge of the property. Then she ran.
She ran all the way downtown, a longer run than she’d made in a long time. She didn’t stop until she reached the bus station. She knew she could get a ticket for Peoria, where she could find Grandma and get her help. She could escape. He would never lock her in again, never beat her again, never rape her again, not if she had any courage. She had been without courage for so long. She had been obedient, following what she thought she was supposed to do, behaving as she had been brought up to behave. Now she was going to act up. She was going to refuse. She was going to say no, and for the first time in her life, she was going to make it stick.
She settled into the bus beside a grumpy looking older woman who turned her back as soon as Lauren sat down. That was good. She wasn’t in a mood for conversation. She pulled her beat up old paperback out of her purse and began to read. She was free. Today was going to be a good day.