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The house stands sturdy and straight. To us—my four children and me—it is a marvel, as surreal and unlikely as an ancient colossus. It is our home, in the truest sense. We built it. Every nail, every two-by-four, every three-inch slice of hardwood flooring has passed through our hands. Most pieces slid across our fingers multiple times as we moved material from one spot to another, installed it, ripped it out, and then tried again. Often the concrete and wood scraped flesh or hair, snagging physical evidence and vaulting it into the walls. Sometimes bits of wood or slivers of metal poked under our skin. I have shavings of house DNA permanently embedded inside my palm and dimpled forever in my left shin. The house wove us all together in this painful and intimate union, until we were a vital part of one another.
The idea of building our own home was not born out of boredom, but rose as the only possible way to rebuild my shattered family while we worked through the shock waves of domestic violence and mental illness. The dangers of our past were more difficult to leave behind than we ever imagined.
I groped for something that would weave us together with a sense of purpose, something large and profound. We needed a place to live, and one fall evening I imagined us working together, building our place, taking small pieces and fastening them together until they had grown into something much bigger than ourselves. The next day I discussed the idea with my three older children, and by that afternoon we had decided to do it.
I didn’t know yet how to frame a window or a door, how to snake pipes and wires through a wall, or how to draw up blueprints and obtain permits. But I knew my kids, and I knew we needed this.
We thought the beautiful metaphor of rebuilding our family while we were building a house would make both tasks easier. We believed we were starting at the bottom and could only rise up from that humble spot. We imagined we’d feel powerful and big because we were doing something profound.
We were wrong on all accounts.
Nothing makes a person feel smaller, weaker, or more insubstantial than taking on one thousand times more than you can handle. Building a house was the most difficult challenge we’d ever face, and so was rebuilding our family amid the trauma of abuse. We were nowhere near the bottom, but we would find it before we found the top.
One board at a time, we built a house.
And in the end, we discovered a home.
I had been married for a year and a half and was nineteen when my first child, Hope, was born. From the first time I held her, I knew I would do anything to give her a family with both a mom and a dad. My own parents were long divorced, so I knew how torn in two a kid could feel. Years later, and with three kids in tow, it wasn’t especially surprising that I married again after the failed marriage to my high-school sweetheart turned military world traveler, but after I had narrowly escaped Adam’s schizophrenia, it surprised everyone when I married Matt.
For some people, the third time’s a charm. But for other, hardheaded people, that’s just how many times it takes to learn a lesson.
Matt was younger than me but said he was eager to be a dad to my kids—I had three by then—and to have a child with me. He was controlling, manipulative, and violent within a few months of our marriage. He always had a good reason, a solution, and it always pointed to something that he found wrong with me. Even after he started drinking heavily and experimenting with a variety of drugs, I believed that things would get better, that we might be happy, that the mother hen of the universe wouldn’t send me another bad egg.
I went to sleep every night expecting to wake up to his apologies, to a happy family, to an alternate reality.
But what woke me was the sound of his breath, ragged, uneven, and no more than six inches from my face in our dark bedroom. He sucked in each lungful through his teeth and then pushed it out the same way. “Fi,” it said on the way in, and “Fah” on the way out. How many times had I heard that rhythm? Too many. But not enough. Because here I was again, Matt’s hands around my throat, his vodka breath drying my eyes, and that heartbeat-steady sound that woke me even before I felt his right hand scoop under my neck and the left hand close over my throat.
No snooze button on this alarm. “Fi-fah. Fi-fah. Fi-fah.”
My heart thumped a dozen times with each fierce breath. And my own breathing went so shallow I wondered if it would just stop altogether, wondered if I wanted it to. He wasn’t cutting off my air supply. No, not that. He wasn’t trying to kill me, for God’s sake. It wasn’t until the third—no, maybe it was the fourth—time that I figured that out. Mustn’t kill Cara. He just wanted to let me know that he could. Any time he wanted to, he could kill me.
A bit of spittle flew out between his clenched teeth and landed as gentle as a snowflake below my left eye. He squeezed tighter. It would be another turtleneck day. Had I washed the brown one? His thumbs would leave two perfect blue ovals on the left side of my neck, tilted out like tiny butterfly wings. The thick fingertips were stacked on the other side, where the bruise would form a long, jagged line, more like the very hungry caterpillar.
Real terror doesn’t come at you like a fist in the middle of an argument, or a thump on the back of the head after you do something stupid. You can see those coming. Real terror is going to sleep thinking everything is fine at the end of an ordinary day, a day where you laughed over dinner and watched a late movie, and then waking up to this reminder that you don’t have to wake up. Not ever. Not if he doesn’t want you to.
His nose and the angle of his jaw looked foreign in the thick shadows, as though his German bloodline were written in an ink visible only by moonlight after being submerged in vodka and the hot breath of his rage.
His strawberry-blond hair, cropped short like he was preparing for a Special Forces mission, glistened with a light sheen of sweat. If his hands were free just then he would have wiped a palm back over his head and flexed strong jaw muscles in a way that had once made me say, “Oh, my.” His brow was low, shadowing his eyes into a dark mask. I tried to imagine his wispy, red-yellow eyelashes winking at me over a grin that meant it was all a joke. Just pretend. All in fun. He’d draw up the left side of his mouth in a smile wickedly handsome enough to make women want him and men want to be him.
Like he was reading my mind, his mouth pulled into that half smile, but paired with the intensity of his dark eyes, it was cruel, not a joke after all.
I froze. And I hoped. I hoped this would be one of the simple nights where reminding me my fragile life was in his hands was all he was after. Even when his fingers tightened and I realized that it wasn’t, that instead it was going to be one of the long nights he would later say he didn’t remember, even then I found things to hope for. Mostly, I hoped the kids would sleep through it, the four amazing little people who kept me drawing breath down through the circle of his hands.
My arms tingled, the nerves jumping with fire from the crushed pressure points on the sides of my neck. Hoping failed, and with barely a nod to the subtle difference between the blackjack-size odds of a hope and the Mega Millions long shot of a wish—I moved to wishing. I wished for the way he had been only hours ago. I wished I could wipe away the things that haunted him. I wished I weren’t so weak. And for three slow breaths in and back out, I allowed a wish I had pushed away every time until this one: I wished I could wrap my hands around his neck and squeeze just … like … this.
My peripheral vision blackened, and I ignored the things living in those dark shadows, the monsters of sharp-toothed reality. I never stared those things straight-on—the things most likely to happen. His shoulders twitched, begging to end the tension with either a full-out, final squeeze, or a release. He wore his favorite baby-blue T-shirt, so tight it showed every taut muscle beneath the soft fabric. Hours ago, I’d pressed my cheek against that shirt, his cologne soft and welcoming, his arm draped across my back and hand tucked into my waistband. I’d felt safe, loved. I’d felt at home.
The reality monsters crawled out from their dark places and up the sides of the bed, whispering truths that for the first time I found I wanted to hear.
He sprang upright, jerking his hands apart and up like he had the sudden urge to do jumping jacks. The nape of my neck tingled where a few strands of my long, curly hair had jerked back with him, tangled in his watchband. For a moment, he hovered like Peter Pan’s shadow, like no human could possibly be attached to the dark form with the thick shoulders beefed up during college ball. I’d been holding my breath, cutting off the air myself to keep some small scrap of control, and I was so light-headed the vessels over my ears pounded louder than his breathing. Fresh oxygen stung my lungs, and I was suddenly aware of the rest of my body, which had mysteriously vanished when the only thing that mattered was my access to another breath.
I wished for words, explanations, accusations, anything to put a name to what had gone wrong enough to spin an average day into a nightmare night. Vodka had played its part, it always did, but it was more than that. Lots of people had a little vodka without turning into a human claw machine, grabbing at their thin-necked wife amid the wrinkled, cardboard-colored sheets. Something was wrong inside his head. After all these years I’d figured that out, finally; I could see there was more wrong in his head for behaving this way than in mine for believing it could get better.
“The last straw,” he said.
Which always made me picture an icy lemonade in a tall glass with slices of real lemon and an old-fashioned red and white paper straw poking out the top, stained with lipstick. “It was just the last straw.” His hands went to the sides of his head, fingers twisted like they could tangle into his stubbly hair, and then pushed until his temples must have pounded like mine.
I was so happy for the interruption of his damned “Fi-fah” that I welcomed the inevitable appearance of the straw. Even though my mind screamed the question, I knew better than to ask, “What was the last straw? What, exactly?” Because he didn’t know any more than I did. No one likes to face their own crazy, irrational anger—least of all a crazy, irrational person. I zipped my lips. Bit my tongue. Held my peace. I knew better than to apologize, agree, or make any move at all.
“Don’t you cry, Cara. You attention hound. Don’t play like a victim. Don’t. You. Cry.”
I hadn’t cried in years, at least no more than an eye-dabbing tear over a poignant movie. But I started crying anyhow. Not because I was scared; of course I was scared, but that wasn’t what made me cry. My neck hurt, too, but I’d been hurt a lot worse, and I rarely cried just because something hurt. I’d delivered babies with no medication and kept so eerily silent the doctors were afraid for me. No, these tears were for my old mantra, because it had finally failed. Most of the time he’s good. And I love him, I had always told myself. I love him enough to stay.
But for the first time, I didn’t love him. I didn’t love him enough to stay. I didn’t hate him, though I knew I would have if I’d been lucky enough to be born a pessimist; rather, I didn’t feel anything for him at all. He had become a big, emotionless, black hole in my core. A hole that didn’t even sting when I poked at it.
“Let’s talk outside,” I whispered, imagining that sparing the kids his yelling, his threats this one time was going to make them less damaged, less afraid. Imagining, too, that they wouldn’t know tomorrow’s turtleneck was out of necessity.
When we walked through the den, I angled my head just enough to check the balcony for little eyes peeking over, but saw none. Of course, the yelling hadn’t started yet. They didn’t know there was anything to be afraid of tonight. Why would they? Jada had sat on the rug during our movie, weaving a strand of yarn between Matt’s toes and around his ankle until he looked like a web-footed, living dream catcher. She’d tucked her long blond hair behind her ears and giggled the mischievous, bubbly giggle of an eleven-year-old who thinks she is making someone a fool and getting away with it. Jada was my little elf girl.
We had eaten ice cream together, sharing spoonfuls until a spot dribbled onto his shirt. That’s when he had changed into the baby-blue shirt, and I’d snuggled back in against it.
It was a wholly different man following me outside to talk about the nothingness that had happened to change everything. He saw me look up for the kids, and his breathing went through his teeth again.
The glass door rattled closed behind him, and I fell into a lounge chair before he had any new ideas of what to do with me. He stood statue-still and silent, either planning his next move or trying to remember, like I was, what we were doing outside in the middle of the night.
The Southern air smelled like school, or the way that always made me think of school in early September. I was from Wisconsin, and never completely comfortable with the food, manners, or habits just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, even though I’d lived there longer than I’d lived in any other state.
Hershey, my chocolate Lab, flipped out through her doggy door and paced the porch perimeter from twenty feet out. It was cold, but I ignored the gooseflesh and imagined the chill sizzling against the heat inside his head.
That was my optimist showing, pretending cool air was a cure for madness. Some people think optimists and pessimists are created, but I’ve always known better. We’re born into these political parties and die with an unchanged, slanted mind-set. The optimist party is erroneously considered superior, but we should have been weeded out Darwinian-style hundreds of years ago. No matter how repeatedly life draws out her doom-and-gloom conclusions for us, we find reason to stay, hoping and wishing when the more survival-equipped pessimist would make the wise decision to run. Run like hell.
“Look at your feet,” he said, wrinkling his lip in distaste.
I bent my knees and rubbed my hands over my bare legs enough to look like I was warming them, but not enough to look like I was complaining about the cold; then I tucked my feet under the hem of my short nightshirt. His mother’s feet were a dainty size six. She tried on the tiny display models at the shoe store while I dug through mountains of boxes looking for an eight, even though I really needed a nine to be comfortable. I didn’t need to look at my feet to see how unpretty they were.
“You know how hard I work. And no one appreciates it. You know that, right?” His hands cupped the sides of his head again, pulling out and then pressing in, matching his breathing, pull on the inhale, push on the exhale. “You have to stop. You just have to stop making me so angry!” He waved out toward where my dog was still pacing, tail so low it almost dragged along the dry fall grass. I imagined it leaving a fire trail behind, and I couldn’t remember what fairy tale the image came from. Had it been a fox? A tiger? A tiger by the tail.
He wasn’t talking about the dog, though. She was invisible to him, exactly like she meant to be. He was talking about the ideas that made him as drunk as the vodka. They were Big. Always, big. He left the medium-size ideas and the small ideas for others to toy with. People like me.
“I understand how hard it is for you.” I looked behind the sadness to the wildness deep in his dark eyes. I could practically see the anxious neurons zipping around and could almost understand why he drowned them with vodka every couple of months.
I stuck to the script. “Maybe you should change jobs. Get your mind on something new.” I waved like he had, out at the nothingness of the field and the forest beyond, where the only things giving us a sideways look were the mosquitoes brave enough to look away from the diving bats.
“Dammit!” He threw his head back. “Dammmmm-it!” He stretched out the word, loud and long like a song to the stars. “A regular day job is not for me. Never was. Jobs like that were for my father.”
He struck his index finger against my chest three times, and focused on it for several heartbeats, eyes narrowed. “You should try those pills again. Maybe the nausea was from something else. Have you seen Shane’s wife? Her tits grew at least a cup.” He held his hands inches in front of me, air-massaging imaginary breasts as though the proper fertilizer would make them sprout like healthy eggplants.
“I’ll try again,” I said, pretending I hadn’t flushed the pink pills he’d ordered from Chest Success to save me from my chest fail. The package included a complimentary bottle of pheromone spray, boasting a woman who didn’t need the breast pills or more than a quarter yard of fabric for any outfit in her closet. She was probably born with no body hair, and her feet were no doubt size six. “Why don’t we get some sleep? I’m leading a software meeting in the morning. I have to be on top of my game.” I stood, smiling even though he wasn’t, then walked around him to the door with my hand out behind me, hoping, wishing, praying that he would take it and follow me inside.
He took the hand and used it as a pivot point, a handle, a lever, to swing me into the wall. It was siding here, just under the porch, and that was better than the brick on the rest of the house, I told myself, twisting so my hip would hit with the next swing. It was a habit I’d developed when I was pregnant. Whenever you’re slammed into a wall, protect your belly, protect the baby. There was no baby now, and my belly would have bruised less than my hip would, but those habits, the old ones, they die hard.
Copyright © 2017 by Cara Brookins