With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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In the middle of our Tuesday staff meeting, the red light blinks on my pager, and it sings its song. We’re debating who will cover Debbie’s shift. Sophie claims a wedding in the city. Rhonda says she has a date.
“I’m not taking this shift,” I say. I told my boyfriend I’d call about the car, be home for dinner, act like a girlfriend.
The page is from a volunteer at the Women’s Community Center. “I have a woman here,” she says. “Can you come?”
The center is in an old gray building on Geneva. It’s run by volunteers, and funding cuts have reduced it to little more than an old lending closet: musty suits and dresses and shoes that can be borrowed for job interviews, for those who need the illusion of having a normal life.
The woman at the front desk directs me to the children’s room, where two women sit on plastic Playskool chairs. I can tell which one is the client by the cliché black eye. I hold out my hand. She flinches. I apologize.
“Hi, I’m from the Outreach Center,” I say. I’m here to help. No. I’m here to pretend I can help. No, I’m here so I can feel like I’m different from you. “I’m Laura. What’s your name?” I ask.
“Her name’s Marjan,” the volunteer jumps in. “She’s in an abusive relationship, and she needs to go to a shelter, but she won’t go.”
OK, I think. Thanks for managing to break every fucking rule in one sentence: you don’t call a marriage an “abusive relationship” until much later in the game; you don’t scare the shit out of her by talking about a shelter; and you don’t say she won’t leave.
“Maybe Marjan and I could talk for a few minutes alone?” I say.
“Well, you need to understand: it took me over an hour to get this far,” the woman says. “She’s a refugee from Tibet. She won’t tell you anything.” In other words: Back off. I found her. She’s mine.
“I’m sorry,” Marjan says. Her first words in my presence: an apology for being difficult.
“Please,” I say to the volunteer.
Her knees crack as she stands from the tiny chair. The door clicks shut behind her.
“How are you?” I ask.
Marjan holds her fingers over the top button of her blouse, then rests her hands on the table, then on her lap, then on her legs.
“You don’t have to talk,” I tell her.
She looks at me and says, “Very private.”
I nod. We sit. She brings her fingers back up to her blouse. She unbuttons the top button, then the next, then the next. She holds her blouse open and turns her head away. There are small black bruises all around her bra and up the side of her neck. “Do I need . . . ?” She points to her bra.
I shake my head. “You can go ahead and . . .” I motion for her to put the blouse back on.
“I’m sorry,” I say. Which is the truth. “We have services that might be able to help.”
“Oh, thank you,” she says, “but it is OK.”
“It looks very painful.”
“Thank you. Not very bad.”
This is how our first meeting goes, the way all first meetings go: She can’t take the brochures with her because he might find them. No one else can know. He’s not so bad; it’s complicated.
I ask if there’s anywhere she can write our hot-line number. “Maybe under a fake name, so he won’t suspect anything?” We choose “Stacy.” I write that name and the number on a tissue. She buries it in the bottom of her purse.
“Where does he think you are right now?” I ask.
“Grocery store,” she says. “Thank you. I must go.”
“What will you do if this happens again?” If.
“I go under the bed,” she says. “I sleep there. He too big to get under.” She smiles.
I smile back. “I hope I can talk to you again,” I say. I walk her to the back door instead of the front. “You can call anytime, twenty-four hours.”
“Oh, no,” she says. “Thank you.”
I watch her glance up and down the alley then straighten her shoulders and walk away.
I’m working at a shelter in New York State, in a town where I went to junior high for a while. Three of the clients I end up meeting at the emergency room are girls I sat with in class nine years ago — girls who followed the rules, raised their hands in social studies (“The capital of New York is Albany!”), moved through the system, while I snorted poison, sucked off their boyfriends, fought and raged. Now I meet these women in the early-morning hours at the hospital and say, “Hi, I’m with the Outreach Center for Battered Women, and we’re here to . . .” help. I stand there hoping they won’t recognize me and throw their IV bag at my face and say: What are you doing here?
Who, me? I’m just pretending not to be you. Would you like a brochure? Support group meets on Tuesday nights. We have one bed left in the shelter. If you have a birth certificate and a state ID, we can get you emergency food stamps in the morning.
I don’t see Marjan again for two months. The next time I hear from her, she asks me to meet her at the Safeway coffee shop.
“Thank you,” she says when she sits down. She puts her purse on the table and glances around.
“I’m glad you called,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says.
“How are things?”
“Good, very good,” she says. “Do you like to see?” She reaches for the buttons on her blouse.
“Um, no. I mean, how are you?”
“Not very much better,” she says. “You said you could help. I would like to have someone talk to my husband.”
This is common for the second meeting. I let her talk, explaining to me what a good man he is, how much pressure he’s under, how he’s not like this all the time.
“I would like to help you,” I say, “but we don’t work with . . . ” Don’t say “abusers.” Never call them that. “We don’t talk to the people who are . . . perpetrating the behavior.”
She stares blankly at me.
“The ones who are doing the things — like your bruises.”
“No, he’s not bad,” she says, understanding some of what I’ve said. “He’s a good man. Someone just needs to talk to him.”
After she’s left, a cellphone goes off, and I jump. Every beep that sounds like my pager makes me jump. I don’t sleep much. I curl up on the couch and stare at the pager, waiting for whispered voices on the telephone:
“He puts his hand under my hair,” Rachel says, “on the back of my neck. It looks sweet, innocent, you know? Like he has his arm around me. But it’s how he threatens me. One jerk means I’m doing something wrong — like maybe he thinks I’m looking at another guy. Two jerks is my last warning. Three jerks means I’m getting my ass kicked.” She laughs. I hear the flick of a lighter, a deep exhale. “Fucked up, huh?”
Or maybe it’s Lopita. She tells me he twisted the cat’s neck last night: a warning. I can hear her kids screaming in the background. “Stop,” she says to them. “Please, just stop.”
Or maybe it’s Vicki, who tells me she sleeps in the stable with her horse: “I still can’t sleep in the house.”
Sometimes it’s who doesn’t call. Renee’s been silent ever since her order of protection was denied. She turned away from me at family court: “I don’t need a fucking advocate. I need people to get out of my way.” Fucking tribe of the broken. Tribe of heroes.
One night when I meet a client at the ER, she grabs my arm, forces me to her, and says: “This here will heal.” She points to a broken nose, a smashed collarbone, a red eye. “But this won’t.” She thumps her hand against her chest.
I don’t argue. I don’t try to come up with things to say anymore. Because she’s right. And sometimes the only thing that doesn’t make sense is when people keep trying, keep starting over, keep planting gardens and writing in the journals the counselors give them, keep smiling and saying, “I really feel like things are going to be OK.” I try to give the appropriate nod: Right. Right around that next corner. It’s hard not to get jaded.
At our third meeting, Marjan has marks on her arms and wears a telltale scarf around her neck. She explains to me that women from her country don’t get divorced; that she is very lucky to have found an American husband. “I can’t go home. Don’t have green card,” Marjan says. In other words, if she went home, she wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. She describes the store that her cousin, who can’t know, owns. It sells ersatz Tibetan “artifacts” for Americans: gold-painted Buddhas with “real gemstones” for eyes. I’ve bought incense there.
She says that the elder of her church told her she must protect the family above all. “The family is sacred,” she tells me. Her husband has told her that if she tries to leave him, her parents will be shamed.
I ask whether she minds if I step outside to smoke.
(You have to understand: This was right after one of my clients was sentenced to ten years, her self-defense argument laughed out of the courtroom. This was after Julie, a regular, was found dead in her bathroom, her cause of death undetermined, but ruled a “possible suicide.” Rhonda and I pulled Julie’s file from the “Current Clients” drawer, and I said, “Where do we put her now?”)
Sometimes it might feel good to let go, get your ass kicked and find an excuse to kick back — which I’m not supposed to say, not supposed to know, and which is not part of the brochures’ carefully crafted safety directives: Make up code sentences to use when he’s listening to you talk on the phone. (The brochure suggests “Woke up tired this morning” to mean “Call 911.”) Always know where the nearest phone is. The kitchen and bathroom are the two most dangerous places for violent episodes. Think about keeping all your essentials — prescriptions, Social Security card, ID — in one place. Know the red flags: Has he killed animals as a threat? Does he own guns? Know that, when he grabs your neck and shoves you against the wall for being so fucking mouthy, you can die of strangulation hours later, because the esophagus continues to swell; the airway can close. Know that it always escalates.
I’m filling in for Debbie again, covering the Tuesday-night support group. Debbie with her fake front tooth, stained brown from coffee and cigarettes. She told me the porcelain ones are expensive, “but real nice, you know. They don’t stain.”
“It sucks he took out the front one,” I said.
I haven’t been sleeping, and I can’t stand the group tonight, can’t stand to hear the bullshit, the war stories that grow cruder and sharper each time: “I don’t care. It’s all shit, you know? Fuck. When he can’t get it up, he uses the shotgun to fuck me. I don’t care.”
Did I mention how much I don’t care? I know. I’ve been there. Most of the staff has been there. One out of three adult women has been there. We could get T-shirts made up, a big piece of steel as our mascot, and run around in circles chanting how much we don’t care until some of us get “possible suicide” slapped on our death certificate, some of us black out with prescription drugs and vodka, some of us go back to the mental wards and slug Thorazine, some of us die from fourteen stab wounds in the breast. And so the divide keeps splitting and mutating: us versus the world.
There are more animal shelters than women’s shelters.
I’m sheltering Carol. When we walk into Kmart, she squeezes her girls’ hands, and they exchange excited looks. “How much can we spend?” the girls ask as they race to the sparkly eye glitter and strawberry lip creams. Carol tells them they can each pick out one new lipstick. “For our new start,” she says, smiling.
The pager goes off. The pager goes off.
At our fourth meeting, Marjan wears sunglasses. She takes them off. “You see; he makes me ugly.”
I take a risk: “Marjan,” I say, “you don’t have to live like this.” I take another risk: “We have somewhere you can stay. For free. We have food there. You’d have your own bed.” I pause. “You can sleep on top of the bed, and no one will hurt you.”
She breaks, and the tears come, finally. “I get so tired. So tired. I just want to sleep and not have him bite me. He does terrible things. Terrible. He makes me ashamed. Do you sleep with a man? Do you sleep in your own bed?”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Could I come for just one night, sleep for just one night?” She breaks again, sobbing softly this time. “I’m sorry. Thank you. I would like very much to sleep.”
And so we talk about the house where she can stay. I don’t work this hard for everyone. I’m tired too. With the repeat clients, I offer them a bed, food stamps, the Kmart essentials trip, some spending cash — but I don’t lean forward and say, “You could come tonight. Right now.” Marjan isn’t a repeat. She isn’t slapping her kids, telling me they are “spoiled shits, ruined by him,” and, if I question this assessment, “You don’t know shit about shit.” Marjan is different: She says “thank you” and “please.” So I ease her in with the details: No, it’s not a private house; other women might be there. No, I can’t promise her she’ll have her own room, and we can’t shelter her for just one night.
I know I’ll demand a single room for Marjan at the next staff meeting. I’ll plead her case over that of someone else’s client: You don’t understand; she’s not a repeat. I’ll be accused of becoming too involved, and I’ll laugh and come back at Rhonda with her “too involved” client list, or Colleen’s “too involved” list, or Sophie’s, or Debbie’s. At last Tuesday’s staff meeting I stood up, threw my casebook across the table, and said, “Will somebody please fucking explain ‘too involved’?”
Silence. Then someone said, “Laura, sit down. Take a shift off, you know?”
“A shift off? It’s a twenty-four-hour hot line, ladies. Or did I hear someone volunteer to take this goddamned pager?” I tried to whip it off for effect, but it just tore the loop of my jeans. I stood there shaky, like an abuser. I’d been bracing for the fight for too many years. Then the pager beeped. A call: Help. Are you there?
“I should leave him?” Marjan asks me.
Getting pregnant and leaving are the two most dangerous time periods for a client.
“You can get me a green card?” Marjan asks.
I will ask Stephanie for extra legal aid. I will ask to use emergency funds for an immigration lawyer. My client. Mine. Finders, keepers.
“We can work for you,” I say.
“You can promise I can stay in America?”
“No, Marjan, I can’t promise. But we can work very hard. We can try.”
“You can promise, please?”
Weekends are the busiest. I’ve had three rape calls on a single Friday shift. Fourteen-year-olds embarrassed to take off their underwear, and forty-year-olds who stare down the nurse and say: “Is there enough evidence for a charge?” I’ve had custody cases where the kids are handed back and forth, and maybe the mom notices something: the four-year-old said it hurt when she peed. Always on the weekends. The camera flashes in the ER, photographing the evidence. Everyone blinks from the glare. They have special rooms for rape examinations, special lights designed to detect bodily fluids and make them glow iridescent. The traces of saliva and semen and blood on their fingers or their cheeks or their butts glow like little stars. Sometimes the kids get excited. A couple of weeks ago a four-year-old pointed to her hairless crotch and said, “Look! It’s a firefly.”
At our fifth meeting, less than a week later, Marjan sits down. Takes off her blouse. Unsnaps her bra. Turns from me, stares at the wall, bare-chested: heavily bruised breasts. She’s finally toughening, learning to release.
“What can I do?” I ask.
“Can’t go home. No green card.”
“I’m concerned for your safety.”
“He took the bed frame,” she says.
It takes me a minute: no place to hide.
“Marjan, I am not a specialist in immigration law, but I can help once you’re out of that house. We can arrange a meeting with a lawyer.”
“He told me I would bring shame on my family.”
“When was the last time you slept, Marjan?”
“Cannot shame family.”
“When was the last time you slept?”
“I’ll have my own bed?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“No promise,” I say. No promises.
She leaves. I stare at the picture of my boyfriend’s kid. I hear my boyfriend’s voice from last night: “He needs someone stable, Laura.”
“I can’t promise anything.”
“Fuck. I want to make this work. Can you at least promise you won’t just disappear?”
What good is a promise? Don’t people break promises all the time? “I promise I’ll love you forever, baby.” “I promise I’ll never do it again.” “I promise it was just ’cause I was fucked up.” “I promise: it’s all good from here on out.”
The pager goes off. It’s Susan. I cannot deal with Susan. This will be Susan’s fourth time in our shelter, and she’s back only because the other shelters won’t take her anymore. I want to save space for Marjan; she’s almost ready to leave. Susan and her five kids take up half our shelter’s capacity. Her oldest, Shawn, is eleven. The cut-off age is twelve. That’s when New York State decides little boys can become little abusers. Happy birthday, Shawn. But Shawn is still eleven, so he can run around the shelter — a fat, mean boy with a buzz cut who takes after his father, the perpetrator: “Shut up, you fat bitch. Get your ass off the couch and make me some supper.” His little sisters run around imitating Mommy, slapping their dolls and screaming, “Not one more word out of you, Missy. You hear me?” All of us are products of training.
Marjan calls. She’s ready.
At the Tuesday staff meeting I fight for room B4, the only private room left in the shelter. I win. On the day Marjan is to leave, I bring blankets from my house. I remake her bed twice. I replace the scratchy sheets with soft cotton. I pull open the curtains. I sit on the bed and almost cry. The room is so bare. There is no pretense of home.
I walk to Common’s Market and charge flowers on my Visa, put a vase on the dresser in room B4.
I sit in my car at the corner where Marjan is to meet me. We aren’t allowed to go to the client’s residence without a police escort — not if the perpetrator might be there — and I’ve gotten in trouble before, crossed boundaries. It’s not good when an abuser recognizes your face at the grocery store, where there are no cops, no barriers.
I wait for Marjan. When she’s five minutes late, I start the car and drive around her block. She is walking along the sidewalk, a suitcase in each hand, the weight pulling her from side to side such that her tiny frame wobbles. I put the car in park and panic. She’s only ten feet away, but that doesn’t mean she’ll make it. A lot can happen in ten feet. When she reaches the car, I jump out, grab her bags, and say, “Here, I’ve got it,” trying not to shove her into the seat.
I grew up trying to save things. I started an insect hospital behind the couch for my mother’s swatted flies. I imagined little splints and IV bags. But it had a 0 percent recovery rate. I escaped the house on weekends and wandered into the woods, found the cold, dry bodies of chipmunks and moles. I pushed love on them. I made them little beds in the leaves. If I believed in them, I thought, they would come back. They just needed a reason. One time, a tiny brown mouse was gone when I returned.
When I passed construction sites and saw the young trees plucked from the earth, their roots dying in the sunlight, I willed them back to life, imagined their root veins buried in cool, nutrient-rich soil. When I couldn’t save something, when death was inevitable, I released it instead, turned off its feelings.
Three months later it’s time to cut my losses, get out. I’ve handed in my resignation letter: “I need to go,” it began. I stayed longer than a year, longer than average. I’ve left New York, the shelter, the boyfriend whose child I wasn’t stable enough for. I’m bartending in Tucson, living in a studio on Stone Avenue, bringing drinks home, lying all the time, not trying to save anything anymore. And no one gets in. In a TV movie, a beautiful actress could play me and make it into tragedy. In the real-life version, it’s just ugly.
I don’t want to lie: I never bought flowers for Marjan’s room. But I wish I had, so maybe that counts for something.
Susan was at the shelter when Marjan was coming, and I begged Susan, “Just be nice to her. She’s different.” With her suitcases full of Buddhist figures and prayer beads, Marjan wasn’t arriving on a city bus and bumming a smoke, acting like she didn’t care if you kissed her or slapped her. Marjan wasn’t like us. She didn’t lie and rage. Maybe I wanted her to prove to me that little things, like saying “thank you” and “please,” really do matter.
But I’m in Tucson not thinking about Marjan anymore — until a package arrives. I know before I see the return address it’s from her. Inside, wrapped in torn tissue paper, is a silver-and-coral necklace, with a card made of recycled paper that holds little buds in its fibers. I remember the betrayals, the things I didn’t prepare her for: The hospital. The police examination. Her stark body brown against the white wall. Two cops and a doctor, the nurse pressing a police camera into her skin.
“You need to take off your blouse, Marjan,” I said.
“No, for all of them.”
She smiled as if she thought I was kidding.
“They need to see the bruises.”
I remember how she kept smiling at me, how I walked over and pulled at her blouse, how I felt like a rapist when she covered her face. I whispered, “This is the only way.” I tried to hide behind bullshit words: Documentation. Evidence. Order of protection. Finally, desperate: “To help you get your green card.”
Now I get this package, the necklace, the card of dried flower buds. I sit on my floor, drunk, and peel fishnets from my legs. Then I open the card. It tells me that she found out after she got to the shelter that her green card had already been issued. He’d stolen it out of the mail, hidden it from her. This makes me start to shake. The card says: “God sent you to earth to be my angel.” The card tells me she’s in Chicago, a nurse’s aide. The card says, “I sleep in my own bed now.” When I’m done reading, I lean into my Tucson window. I smoke and let myself think about angels and thank you and please, because Marjan is free. Really free.
A truck grinds its gears outside. It’s hot in the Tucson desert. Heat radiates off the pavement. In the summertime the plants live off water they’ve stored for months. There is a night vine crawling toward the sidewalk, the tender new growth reaching into the cracks, positioning itself to get smashed in the daylight. It doesn’t make sense. It seems like they’d send out the strong first.
Laura Van Etten
I cried when I read Laura Van Etten’s “Safety Planning” [May 2005]. I have worked at a battered-women’s shelter for almost twenty-five years, and it was heartbreaking to hear about workers and volunteers who are so burnt out they have nothing to offer survivors of sexual and domestic violence but dubious hot-line “support” and a room at a shelter that sounds more chaotic than an abusive relationship. I’m grateful for the agency where I work. We never dismiss survivors as “repeats,” and we recognize that leaving domestic violence is a process, not an event.