My first time away from you in four months, and only because my gran has cancer.
Hope you don’t get cancer, you say, squeezing my nipples, because I’d hate to lose these.
Between ice chips and Matlock reruns, I manage fajitas with friends. My best friends, and it is lovely to feel something like myself again. Are you going to answer that? Reluctantly, I check my phone. Nine missed calls; nine biting, spitting voicemails.
You’ve lost your keys.
I’m in another state, but you need to vent, to whine. To remind me you’re more important than them, just in case I’ve forgotten in the last twenty-five minutes. You command: answer your fucking phone.
I leave it tucked between a wrinkled map and the stack of expired insurance cards for the next three days.
My holy Christian duty: to take it, however and whenever you want. Two times a day, three if I’m lucky. No lube, just as the good Lord intended.
You love watching your reflection as you rut me raw.
I fake it—the spasms, the cries of pleasure—until you roll over, finally, sweaty and sated. Never soon enough.
And every day, once you leave after lunch, I pull my $7.99 novelty shop plastic massager from between the mattresses. Although it’s hard, unforgiving, I come on my terms alone.
You tell me: come for me, baby, tell me how you like it.
I tuck away laundry quarters and walk to the QuickMart for batteries every other week. Praise be to god.
Wanted: Assistance; elder care. Cooking and light cleaning. Puzzles.
Wanted: Spending money, a purpose. A modicum of independence.
I’ll still have time to make dinner, babe, I promise. Plead. I’ll make sure the apartment stays clean. You accuse: you are a nothing but a goddamn whore. I call my mother, sobbing. (You tell her I am a whore, too.)
I leave three dollars in our joint account and purchase a one way ticket Home.
Double lines. Positive.
That’s supposed to mean good, right? Positive?
Then why can’t I stop vomiting?
I call you at work—the first rule, broken. You hug me, kiss me. You tell me: birth it, then give it away. We aren’t keeping it. It’ll ruin us financially.
You mean: you will love it more than me.
I don’t miss a doctor’s appointment. I paint the spare room green.
I enroll again—my biannual exercise in delusion.
As soon as you see the paperwork, you begin your campaign: What do you need a degree for?
Don’t you know how hard those classes are? How will you manage work, school, and dinner?
But I’ve scrimped, and I will not be dissuaded.
Your honey turns to acid: How will I get to work in the mornings if you’re at class?
I flip open my textbook and tell you to start a carpool.
My arm throbs. Funny, how even though you just can’t help it, you have the wherewithal to avoid hitting my face.
You take my keys, my purse, my phone—I shouldn’t drive when I’m this hysterical. Also: my shoes, my coat—so I don’t do something rash.
You tell me: put the baby down and let me make it up to you. Make love to you.
I walk fifteen blocks with a baby on my hip, the October cold biting my toes, until I reach your sister’s house.
Dinner. Children. Dogs. Clean. Same routine every night.
As usual, you hide in the bedroom doing who knows what on your computer. Potatoes—those awful instant mashed things you insist upon—into the oven.
Baths. Elmo. Dishes. Potatoes out.
Why are they so runny? I glance at the floor—the dog’s water bowl, our former casserole bowl, is missing.
Flashback: setting it on the counter forty-five minutes before, to scrub it clean. You tell me: hurry up, bitch. I’m hungry.
I drain the excess, fluff them in the microwave, and set them on the table. You have seconds.
One black, pleated skirt: $23.99, purchased with my mother’s credit card. No paper trail, you see.
You don’t see, and that’s the point. A summer of violence, bleeding into fall—a toy train set hurled down the stairs, a baby gate kicked to pieces. After everything I’ve endured, it is bringing our children into the fold that finally brings me to my senses.
I demand that you move out. You laugh in my face, tell me you will never leave this house, leave me. You accept that I will accept this, as I always have before.
Instead: a feigned doctor’s appointment. 90 minutes each way, delivering the answers my sisters helped me rehearse during the interview my aunt helped me score.
The ladies sitting across the table ask: And your family? Is your husband willing to relocate?
It won’t be a problem, I assure them. I can start in two weeks.
ii. reclaim. to bring waste land under cultivation.
I answer the door, blind to all but the barrel of your pistol glaring at my nose. Without fanfare, you pull the trigger. Bright light, deafening roar. I imagine this is how getting struck by lightning would feel. Except a moment passes, and I open my eyes. I’m sprawled in the middle of my living room, very much alive. A two-hour panic attack ensues.
Leaving, turns out, was the easy part.
I recognize myself in domestic violence studies, which I read compulsively—they help me feel less alone. I forward articles on the “long-lasting, often irreparable damage” caused by abuse to family.
Words provide meaning, give context. Abuse, the thing you did to me. Victim, this smattering of aftereffects that plague me. That flashback was the first, far from the last.
Even now, I cannot escape you.
Though my friends say it’s like having the old me back, I feel the breeze through the chinks in the logs. I yearn for that girl, easy to smile and love and hope. My skewed framework is mirrored in small moments: a coworker chastising me for my constant apologies, my pro bono lawyer telling me your behavior is unacceptable.
You said: you would save me from my pain, protect me.
I hang up victim—the old, defunct cardigan that never keeps me warm enough—and throw survivor over my shoulders instead.
When you read my phone bill and interrogate my friends, I stop answering your calls.
I also stop treading like the floor is made of glass, a wraith in my own house.
My own house. Although I can’t afford our little garden apartment—or anything, really—the children and I make do with thrifted furniture and hand-sewn curtains. Handprint daycare art adorns every wall.
Together, we shape our new home into a creative, vibrant chaos. No longer fearful, we play Rock Band every night, make snow and leaf angels, pull their little red wagon on meandering walks through the neighborhood. Our librarians know us by name. We name the groundhog who sleeps under our car.
You said: I’d never make it on my own, but not once have I been tempted to go back.
I change my stick figure family on Facebook to a mother and two boys.
I am a proper Eustace, unable to shed her dragon skin—the isolation I wore for seven years refuses to budge, no matter how hard I claw at it.
Yes, it’s true, I’ve lost an entire city of friends. But those still here model love from the ground up:
Boxes of tampons because I can’t afford them. A listening ear, rehashing the same trauma without complaint for months. Showing up at the ER at one in the morning. A birdcage necklace, for the symbolism. A good morning text every single day for a year. Open invitations for holidays alone. A Diet Coke and a hash brown on a Tuesday morning. A consistent knock on my door when I stop responding to texts.
Even the most distrustful, damaged heart cannot withstand such evidence forever. I learn to love, trust, and reciprocate again.
You said: no one loved me like you, I could not rely on anyone else.
I send handmade birthday cards to each of my chosen sisters.
A two-time college dropout cloaked in shame, I skip my tenth reunion—nothing to share. At least I can use my community college student card for movie discounts. Turns out the freedom to finish school and the ability to get it done are two different things.
When my grandmother tells me I need to marry a man with a good salary, I tell her I’d rather earn a good salary myself.
I mean it. Once again, I sign up for classes.
Even though social work won’t support a family, my family supports me as I switch majors and plod through economics, business law, and accounting. I walk into college algebra to find my high school teacher, working adjunct on a Tuesday night. Instead of using the FOIL method to unravel equations, I mourn the loss for today’s youth: dirty words don’t translate well on a T-84.
You had a dozen sharp words for stupid, threw them like I was a carnival balloon begging to be deflated.
I master college algebra and the idea that I’m not smart enough for school.
You move close, then closer still.
The noose tightens every time your car drives by. I look out for you at the library, post office, grocery store. You invite me casually to lunch. Stand over me at soccer games, humming our wedding song. Undermine my parenting. You have a stern talk with my pastor about getting me back in line, lightly threaten that heathens’ churches get burned down in other countries.
You weaponize my religion and our children. Your accusations—homewrecker, heretic—fall from their lips, buckshot. Speaking against you goes against everything in me, so I take it, silently weeping.
Nightmares and panic attacks, my old friends, return to visit. I don’t sleep for three years.
You said: a paper means nothing, I am your damaged thing until death do us part.
Hang yourself, if you must. I cut myself free and call a therapist.
My mom worries every time I go hiking.
How do I tell her that I do not fear a random psychopath lurking behind a tree when my worst nightmare tucks my children in eight nights a month? About my triple-checked locks, the baseball bat under my bed?
Since supervised visits have ended, my weekends are slick with worry. Instead of pacing my living room, my feet remember what my heart has forgotten and lead me to the local wildlife park.
Birdsong, alerting safety, calms my hypervigilance. My heartbeat slows, keeping in time with my steady footfalls. The overgrown trail is nearly unpassable, but I move forward while keeping the lake to my right. And as I trudge, my heart remembers: seven, running barefoot through the woods with my sisters. Seventeen, leading a cabin of girls confidently along a well-trod path.
Twenty-seven, three miles in two hours. I am exhausted, proud. The metaphor for this entire adventure is not lost on me, and I cannot wait to do it again.
You said: it was a dangerous proposition, leaving you.
I keep a dozen local trail maps in my glove box and worn out Merrells in my trunk.
I keep a mental checklist of things I’ve lost: Perfume—banned, bottles thrown out on week one. Music—you forbade it in the house. Chinese—every week you gorged at the buffet, a king, while I pecked at my lukewarm chicken strips.
Nausea, sweat, elevated heart rate, dizziness, panic. I haven’t had a fortune cookie in six years.
One day I write them down, resolve to tackle them one by one.
An $8 bottle of Target perfume rubbed on my wrists every morning, soft and subtle, like my burgeoning love for myself. In listening to Pandora, I discover my favorite type of music is indie folk. A new friendship blooms between mouthfuls of sweet-and-sour. We clink glasses, first to the dead weight we’ve shed, and then to a hopeful future.
You said as you wish when I asked you to pick up soccer cleats last week, because the divorce decree forbids outright declarations of love.
I declare a family sleepover. We stay up dueling left-handed with our dollar-store foam swords.
In childhood, writing is central to my identity. Poems, essays, novels, newsletters. Always, I have been more eloquent by pen than by mouth. In the wake of leaving you, I realize I haven’t written in years.
I can’t seem to pick it up again, despite my efforts. Five years pass. Finally, I find a community and lose myself in other people’s worlds. I develop a craft. I wear a writer’s identity again, find fulfillment I’ve long missed.
Except I avoid writing about you. This. The timing isn’t right, I’m not ready.
Until I am. And when I am, a dam is unleashed; I fill up three notebooks in as many weeks. I counter writing sessions with British baking shows to detox before bed.
On the other side, something is excised—a brutal, unflinching portrayal of what he did to me.
The truth. My truth.
He said I’d never be free of him, and that might be right.
But he won’t be central to my story anymore. I am the author of my own life.
iii. radiate. to diverge or spread from or as if from a central point.
Although we don’t discuss a diagnosis, my therapist and I tackle my symptoms, one at a time. I dissect the anatomy of trust, thank my body for its hypervigilance, set up boundaries, and mitigate nightmares. I skip Wednesday lunch for six weeks to attend a mindfulness class.
He will never change, so I rein in my reactions, understand my trauma, become my own biggest advocate. And although healing is far from linear, I’m committed.
His voice inside my head diminishes, then disappears altogether.
A TED Talk tells me humans are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Though I’m not quite there, I start to believe it’s possible.
Instructions to my friend, should I die prematurely: destroy the white basket in my closet, before my mother sees what’s inside.
(I learn to love my body).
Monday: binge the entire archive of a podcast highlighting female explorers.
Tuesday: inspired, plan a camping trip for the weekend—the only one without school or children for the rest of the year.
Wednesday: realize torrential storms bar any camping for 500 miles; despair.
Thursday: expand scope, consult bucket list, book a rental car and an Airbnb.
Friday: battle the roads for fourteen hours—not the ten Google had promised—through rain and traffic and construction to a small trailer on the Erie city limits, chat, sleep.
Saturday: rise with the sun, drive two hours more, overpay for parking, wonder at the beauty of Niagara Falls, hike the afternoon in the Allegheny National Forest, and close the evening kayaking on Presque Ilse, watching a Lake Erie sunset.
Sunday: savor the journey home—folk playlist on point, rain pattering the windshield, adventure still thrumming with every heartbeat. Vow to recapture this feeling as often as possible.
In the true name trope, learning some aspect of a person’s essential nature, and therefore that person’s true name, gives one power of that person.
In the intervening years I’ve replaced my furniture, habits, and internal narratives. Yet I wince every time I type my name—aside from our children, the last thing he and I have in common.
During the divorce my lawyer had asked if I wanted to revert back to my maiden name. I said no—for the children, for fear of repercussions, because it was easy.
Now, it’s a straitjacket.
The decision is easy: $350 poorer, and after seven minutes in front of a judge, I am myself again.
The bank teller congratulates me on my marriage. With a thanks, I pluck a lollipop from the jar.
My signature, always illegible, barely changes. Still, it’s nice to be in power again.
The frat boys behind me crack jokes about the invocation, the speakers. My family texts their love from the upper bowl. I am the oldest person for rows, but I am here after sixteen years part-time at community college, two full-time at university.
I can’t stop crying.
I weep in earnest as I walk across the stage. My friend watches online from halfway across the world, my gran from her recliner back home.
My family’s shouts are deafening. The real miracle of the day? I don’t trip on the stairs.
After, when my mom hums that this is a once in a lifetime event, my youngest deadpans that we’ll be back in three years to watch me walk for my master’s.
Both children—now teen and preteen—hug me tight, tell me they’re so proud.
I can’t stop crying, because so am I, my darlings, so am I.
Insurance companies are given ratings with an outlook for future progress—negative, stable, or positive.
My needle slides from negative to stable—I land a promotion at work. I stop apologizing. I learn to value my opinion and, better still, to advocate for it. Stability, hard-earned and not to be taken for granted.
Positive—I take a values assessment and carve out a life that aligns with them.
I weave in curiosity, creativity, and learning. I stop to smell wildflowers. I chase the sunset with my children. I indulge in art without guilt. I learn to take naps. I spend time with friends, as much as possible.
Another promotion. I graduate. I am admitted into a leadership training program. I work on forgiveness, honesty, compassion. At therapy, we discuss him less and less.
Always a writer, I transform a painful poem into a hopeful trilogy.
A piece of broken china can be mended with milk, if the crack isn’t too far gone. But the rifts he’s hacked between us are too wide to measure.
Every day is a battle. No one sleeps, and we’re all depressed, anxious, or both. I schedule a family therapy appointment.
He undermines the process at every turn, until the therapist tells him not to come back. In spite of my children’s protests, I trust my instincts and cart us there every other Monday for one year.
Progress comes quietly: a day without an accusation, a week without a fight, a month without nightmares. And one day, in the car playing guess that Disney song, we’re laughing—no anger, no combativeness, no mention of him at all.
We’re okay. We’re going to be ok.
With happy tears, I struggle to shout “Under the Sea” before my oldest can beat me to it.
I am nervous, bouncing in my chair. Imposter syndrome plagues me, always, especially here. Who am I to decide where grant money goes when I was a client for these services just a few years ago?
My volunteer coordinator tells me that’s what makes me perfect for the job.
Over two sessions each spring, twenty nonprofits tell our committee how their programs best serve our community needs. Counseling, crisis management, wraparound support. We review grants and allocate funds; a philanthropic shark tank.
In a better world there would be endless funds to heal the world’s hurts. In a perfect world there would be no trauma to begin with.
But it isn’t, and there is, so we do the best we can with what we have.
It’s jarring, to see myself reflected in this need, yet feel detached from it. It’s empowering to do something about it. Yes, this traumatized, frail woman will always be a part of my story. I am stronger now. I protect her, and in turn she reminds me to be grateful.
And to give back, now that I have the capacity to do so.
One person’s healing is always the victory of the many.
Lindsey Ingram spends her free time exploring the Midwest, taking pictures, writing, and painting. Always one to have a blanket on her lap, she believes that a warm mug of tea can improve most situations. Her writing can also be found at hikeovercountry.com.