Thursday, July 8, 2010

"The Gift" by Carol Parker

It's the morning of my fortieth birthday, and the day I'll leave my husband. He sits smoking cigarettes at one end of the kitchen table; I'm at the other, drinking coffee. "I've put up with your shit for thirteen years. I'm not taking it anymore."

But I don't say that. Instead, I say, “I’m leaving.”

A fist slams, sending shock waves through walls. As if in slow motion but faster than I can move, he crosses the table and yanks me from the chair by my waist-long braid. “You’re not getting out of this marriage.” He crashes me to the floor; I slide on my stomach toward the phone, but he snaps the cord.

I was twenty-six. My girlfriend and I spent the weekend in Montreal and were riding Amtrak home to Hartford. It was crowded, so we sat in the bar car. As I stood in line for service, I saw the bartender, his high cheekbones and almond-like eyes.

"What would you like, Miss?"

"Just some conversation," I answered, shocked I'd said it. "Two coffees, please."
He found us during his break. While Audrey napped, Barry and I talked as if we were the only people on the train and that we'd met before. He noticed me shivering so he draped his peacoat over my shoulders, insisting.

For the next three months we wove our lives together with phone calls and rendezvous in Connecticut and D.C., where he lived. I loved the way he mingled easily with people; I always felt like I was dredging my brain to make conversation. Barry knew what to say and how to gain favor. I was in heaven when he transferred to New Haven; three months later we eloped.

Newlyweds, we were going away for the weekend. On our way out of town, we pulled through McDonalds. While waiting to get back into traffic, I changed the radio station, and his hand ripped across my face.

Seven-year-old Stephanie sees us. Her eight-year-old brother is at a friend's house. "Get help!” I scream to my daughter, who's sobbing in the middle of the room.

When the children were young, we often drove to the Connecticut shoreline, where Barry discovered a perfect spot for crabbing. With Greg on his shoulders and Stephanie on mine, we walked the half-mile through woods, to the water; the kids climbed rocks or waded in low tide, while Barry and I baited the traps. When they asked how the crabs fit inside, he took time to explain. Barry and I were tender with each other. "Carol, you're my wife for life. Look at our beautiful family. It doesn't get better than this."

He drags me into the bedroom. “I’m going to kill you." Straddling me on the bed, hands cuffed around my wrists, he forces himself on me. Vacant eyes stare through me as if I'm a figment of my imagination. I cry out, but only the woods hear.

I never knew when Barry would snap. Three years earlier, he'd cornered me in the den. I grabbed the nearest weapon, a television, and flung it at him with adrenalin force, escaping down a flight of stairs. I drove in a daze, telling myself I should find the police; another voice inside said not to turn him in. I ended up at the babysitter’s; two weeks later, bruises fading, I went back.

Friends stopped calling, for friendships need nurturing and take time to maintain; I had no extra to give, what with my job, two young children, and a husband I was committed to fixing. His need to control stemmed from his parents, who trained their kids as if they were dogs instead of children.

His fingers are digging into my windpipe. I'll never see Greg and Steph again.

As if I've separated from my body, I'm floating, watching myself die.

When I was four, I found my brother in his crib. At first I didn't know he was dead. Peering through the slats, I saw yellow footie pajamas. "Jimmy," I whispered, reaching in. His fingers were cold. I saw his face and ran to my mother.

"Mommy, come see. Jimmy's blue."

I watched her scoop him up, her face shriveling as she shrieked, "Get help!"
My sisters and I were shuffled between home and neighbors. I sat close-mouthed, sobbing and rocking under their table while my parents tended to my brother's death. We never talked about it. Self-blame grew inside me, metastasizing to the need to rescue others, martyring myself. On the eve of my fortieth birthday, reflecting on the prison that had become my life, I had an epiphany: I'm not responsible for what happened to Jimmy.

I want to say, "Barry, for my birthday, I'm giving myself the gift of empowerment, so I'm leaving." But I don't tell the truth. Gagging and gasping, I spew out, "I love you, Barry. I'll never leave."

His grip softens, then tightens. I whisper, “Let me find Stephanie.” I pick up my aching body and walk out the front door, closing it gently behind.

He’s breathing on my neck; or do I imagine he's chasing me? Stumbling down the driveway, I feel him at my back. I'm at the neighbor's door, fumbling; it doesn't budge. Then it opens, at first a crack. I savor this moment, mother and daughter together; releasing the shackles, I grow my power.

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