Writing a book is a privilege; sharing it with others, for me, is a necessary pain, the end of a process, the final death, and also the beginning of promoting this thing I’ve already spent nearly two years wringing my … Continue reading
It is autumn in Virginia. He is a fine, tall, drink of water. Outstanding in bed, not-so-great in public, and I am only twenty when I meet him. He finds me. I work as a bartender, performing my nightly ritual serving drinks and food (mostly drinks) while on the stage of a bar flanked by a huge window to the street; it’s a fishbowl of bad behavior, really. You can buy crack across the street, just over the railroad tracks, and some of my customers do. The year is 1999 and I’m crazy about Prince; I keep his music in the rotation throughout the night in the bar until they ask for something else. Sometimes they say I look like a circa 1980’s Sheila E.–I’ll take it. My hair is long and brown and curly. I am a brown person in a place where, historically, being brown has been a problem. Sometimes they say, “What are you?”
What am I? I am I.
He lives above the bar, and after his evening run he stands outside to cool off, covered in sweat and little else: writhing, primed, sexy, staring at me working through the glass. It’s creepy, interesting. He’s out there; I’m in here. He does this night after night for two weeks. The restaurant manager asks me if I want him to leave. I say, “No, it’s fine.”
Sooner or later, we are in a relationship. Sooner or later my friends are worried. My family is too far away to know what’s going on. He shows up to stalk me on Girls’ Night Out. He is crazy and sleeping with other women frequently and my friends can see it, but I can’t. I am in love. I am in love with who he says he wants to be. He is dangerous; loving him becomes dangerous to me.
A year passes and some of my friends give up on me, give up on the drama, the fighting, the breaking up and going back for more. I give up on me. Then, I get a real job, in an office, wearing nice clothes and keeping daytime hours. It is a step up for me, but not for him. Finally, I break it off. I try to be his friend, keep the rule of only having contact with him when he hasn’t been drinking. He doesn’t like my new rules, new boundaries. He drinks, calls me, wants to pick up an old radio he loaned me. I break my own rules, then he assaults me in my apartment. He grabs me, throws me to the floor, squeezes my neck so I can’t scream and shouts: “I could kill you! I could kill you!” I don’t remember how I get free from him, but I remember getting a hold of my blue flashlight. Once I am armed, he doesn’t want to fight. He leaves. He’s never done anything this bad before. I cry, a lot, but I don’t call the police because I know he has to work in the morning and I don’t want to disrupt his life. Next morning at work my co-worker sees me. Her dad abused her mom when she was a kid. She takes Polaroid pictures of my bruises, she knows what to do. She walks me down to the magistrate to press charges. I am sad for her, for her childhood, and sad that my problems aren’t as unique and special as I think they are.
I get a restraining order. In court that day, he does not deny what he did: “Yes, I said I could kill her.” He could end up going to jail for up to six months. His mother calls me. She doesn’t want him to go to jail; I don’t either. I tell the attorney not to send him to jail. He gets anger management instead. People find out, his exes find me; tell me he was violent with them, too. I ask, “Why didn’t you stop him?”
I am seen walking with him in public one day, while the restraining order is still in effect, and word travels fast. My excuse to myself is that I miss him, and I know he won’t assault me in public. Any credibility I ever had with anyone is gone. The restraining order expires, we don’t get back together after that. I am smarter than that, finally. I know that I will never include this episode of my life in my creative work because there is no art in it.
It is the year 2012 and I am living down the street from the same courthouse where my case was heard all those years ago, and where George Huguely was recently found guilty of murdering his girlfriend, Yeardley Love. Each day of the trial I drove by the circus of reporters, vultures to our culture of sensationalized violence, because I go that way to drive my son to school.
Below is an excerpt from Expecting, available now in ebook form, in print in a week:
After telling my parents back in June about my pregnancy, and after the stuff with the police calmed down, I was barely showing. By August, there was a little bump you could see if you were looking for it, but it was nothing a baggy sweatshirt couldn’t cover up. It took awhile for me to realize that Map was really serious about not letting me have an abortion, and as my first trimester came to a close, the reality of it all settled in. Map came into my room one day in mid- August, interrupting my afternoon nap.
“Sheila, dear, wake up, sweetie. We need to get up to Target today and get your materials together. School starts next week.”
At first, in my half-asleep state, her voice becomes part of the dream I’m having about eating ice cream, and it takes me a full minute to wake up and respond, “Um, Map, I kind of assumed I’d be staying home. Being prego and fourteen and in high school just doesn’t seem like a good combo.”
“I spoke to the administration about it last month, and they’re willing to make an exception for you as long as you don’t tell anyone, because I’m an employee. Also, your father offered to make a sizable donation for the new gym fund this year.”
What the shit? “What do you mean, Map? That’s nice of them to make an exception and all, but are you all asking me to lie about being pregnant? What am I supposed to do when I’m changing for gym? A baby belly doesn’t lie, Map.”
“It’s covered: they’ll excuse you from gym class once you’re starting to show too much–just tell everyone you’ve got asthma.”
This is nuts. “Then what? What happens when I actually have the baby in February? What then?”
“We’ll just tell everyone it’s mine. I’ve committed to gaining a little weight right along with you, so I’ll look a little pregnant.”
“Are you also planning on wearing a prosthetic belly, Map? What is wrong with you–this is craziness!” Map is bat shit. And I can’t believe Dad just bribed my way in to being prego in Catholic school.
“Sheila, trust me. You just need to play along with this and it’ll be over before you know it. Of course, some people will know, but if you just don’t talk about it, they can’t confirm it, and you won’t be accused of setting any kind of example. And this way, you won’t fall behind in your studies; you’ll stay academically competitive and be able to go to college with your own age group. If you miss a year of high school, it’s pretty hard to make up. And don’t think you’re the only pregnant girl to go to Catholic school–the key is just to not talk about it. It’s like: don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Map, did you really just say that? I’m not doing it. No way. Keeping this baby is your idea, so you should homeschool me this year.” I let out a big sigh, and start to get up out of bed because I have to go pee.
“If you go along with the plan, your father and I will buy you a new car for your sixteenth birthday.”
I stop. A new car ups the ante: I imagine my sixteen-year-old self speeding down the highway in my brand new red convertible with the top down. The wind is in my hair, James is sitting next to me with his hand on my knee, and neither of us have a care in the world. “Okay, I”ll do it, but it has to be a convertible.” I think I just sold my soul.
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