I was ten years old when I first witnessed domestic violence. It was a hot summer day on Hobart street. Children were playing; adults were sitting on their steps and porches just watching the day go by as we often did. Suddenly the usual neighborhood noise was interrupted by the piercing scream of a young neighbor. She burst out the door with her boyfriend chasing closely behind her. At once, all eyes were fixed on her and the commotion that ensued. As she ran down the stairs and onto the concrete, he grabbed for her; sheer terror filled her eyes as well as the eyes of all who witnessed it when he began to pound on her. Neighbors watched as if it was entertainment as he punched, slapped, and kicked her to the ground. While she laid bleeding on the hot concrete, he continued to throw words of anger and accusation at her. The abuse seemed to go on forever.
There were a few things that I remember distinctly about that day. One was the number of neighbors who stood by and watched as this woman screamed for help. Although there were men and women standing and watching, no one intervened. The second thing that I remember was the chatter and gossip that followed the fight as neighbors sat on the steps gossiping and speculating about what she could have done to make him so angry. No one seemed to talk about the wrongness of his actions. There seemed to be this idea that she had to do something to deserve the beating.
One of the women used a word that I had never heard before but one that I would never forget – manhandled. Without even looking the word up in the dictionary, I knew exactly what it meant. It was self-explanatory. I had never heard such a word, but somehow it made perfect sense. It described exactly what we all had witnessed.
I was just a child, but I couldn’t understand what level of callousness had taken place in the hearts of these adults that they would just stand by and watch. There was something terribly wrong with the entire scene. Growing up in the inner city, I was familiar with the concepts of fighting and bullying. In fact, I had experienced my share of both. But this was different. I had never witnessed a man beat on a woman.
I couldn’t understand why no one tried to “break it up” which was the least that anyone could do. Later that evening, I asked my mother about the situation, specifically why no one stepped in. She just shook her head and said, “People don’t like to get involved with stuff like that.”
Fast forward. I had just completed basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama and I was shipped off to Fort Lee, Virginia for what we called Advanced Individual Training or AIT. I was training to become an Army Supply Specialist and Armor; I was among the cadre of soldiers who were responsible for all military equipment, including the weapons. Unlike Basic Training, which monopolized our time 24/7 for eight uninterrupted weeks, AIT offered soldiers a little more freedom. For example, from 5 pm on Friday evening until noon on Sunday, you could receive what the military called a pass. The pass allowed you to go off base and stay out past curfew.
However, you could lose your pass in which case you were still confined to the military rules, you had to stay on base, you had to meet curfew, and on top of that, you would generally have some ridiculous duty like kitchen clean-up. I was famous for losing my pass just about every weekend.
To say that this was an odd time for me is an understatement. I was eighteen years old; away from home for the first time in my life. Away from my family and everything that I knew. The time that I spent in basic training was still too controlled, so there wasn’t much opportunity to think about anything but the next task that was in front of you. Basic training was truly like drinking out of a firehose. I was learning things that I had never conceived before. I learned to shoot a rifle, throw hand grenades, fire a grenade launcher, and survive combat simulation training.
I was in complete student and survivor mode for eight weeks. I was told when to go to sleep when to wake up, when to eat, what to eat; it was a crazy time. Now here I was trying to learn what life on my own looked like amid the not as stringent rules, the discipline, and the little freedom that came with AIT. I was trying to come into myself and find my place in the world. Despite the structure that the military offered, my life at that time was very abstract, there was nothing concrete, and frankly, I was felt incredibly insecure most times.
In addition to trying to figure myself out, I was trying to figure out everyone else around me. I was meeting people from every walk of life. I had friends of different races and different ethnicities for the first time in my life. I had white friends and Hispanic friends. I had friends from the East coast, the West Coast, down south and from the islands. It was a whole new world. Another thing that AIT offered that was different from basic training was a coed environment. After two months of being around nothing but women twenty-four hours a day, we were intermingled with men. Most of the women were excited, but for some reason, I wasn’t moved one way or the other. I wasn’t interested in guys at that time. I was completely focused on me, and the thought of guys or dating just didn’t rise to my level of consciousness. There were just too many other things to focus on.
One day while in the chow hall, which is the military name for the cafeteria, my friend Christina* and I were having lunch when her boyfriend, Robert* came over to our table with his friend and teammate, Joe*. I had never met Joe before, and honestly, there was nothing especially interesting about him. I guess he was handsome enough. Apparently, Joe told Robert, who told Christina that he thought that I was pretty, and he wanted to get to know me. So they took it upon themselves to try and make a love connection. The plan was that I would go to their basketball game, and afterward, the four of us would go grab a bite to eat at the NCO club.
Reluctantly, I agreed to go to the game and join them for a bite to eat, but unfortunately, per usual, I ended up doing something that landed me in hot water with the Drill Sergeant, so instead of going to the basketball game, I ended up losing my privileges. However, I did get to spend the evening at the NCO club, cleaning dishes and busing tables. As planned, Christina, Robert, and Joe came to the club after the basketball game ended. Joe tried to make small talk with me as I worked, but it was difficult to really give him any attention. After all, I was not there to socialize. At the end of the night, Joe stayed around to walk back to the barracks with me. I thought that was a very sweet gesture.
During our walk back, we had a great time talking and getting to know each other. I shared stories about my upbringing in Philadelphia and my family dynamics. For me there was no immediate attraction, but not because he wasn’t attractive but because I didn’t think that it made sense to try to get close to anyone knowing that this experience of AIT was temporary, that it would only last for eight weeks and two days.
After that night, I went to one of his basketball games. As we walked back to the barracks together, he let me wear his jacket, and just like that we were an item. Joe was a great player, and that made him very popular on base, especially among the ladies. I was never one to try to fit in with the “popular” crowd, but here I was, by association hanging with the popular crowd. The ballplayers and their girlfriends would hang out all the time. It had become a thing. He was a player, and I was his girlfriend. Not only was I his girlfriend, but he chose me to be his girlfriend, and I must admit- I was flattered. I had never been pursued by someone like him.
Unfortunately for me, I was still getting in trouble most of the time, which meant that I couldn’t enjoy the luxuries that came with it. Every weekend, the ballers, along with their girlfriends and groupies, would book a hotel room where everyone would hang out and party. Meanwhile, me and one of Joe’s friends, David*, would be confined to the barracks. David and I spent many weekends in the barracks shooting pool in the day room (living room) and playing horse on the basketball court.
David was a teammate also, and he was one of Joe’s closest friends. We had a special bond based on the amount of time we spent together washing dishes, buffing floors, and other duties as assigned. We were King and Queen on the island of misfits. Despite always being in trouble, things were pretty good between Joe and me. Of course, there were girls everywhere, and I often found myself arguing and fighting with one of them because I felt they were disrespectful. It was really just one girl in particular; she was always flirting with Joe and smiling in his face. I was too silly and immature to realize that he was flirting with her too. The relationship was dysfunctional even before the physical abuse. Joe was jealous and possessive, and instead of being alarmed, it excited me. It made me feel like he really liked me.
The first time Joe showed any signs of jealousy was a few days into us dating. We had gone to the movies with the other players and their ladies to see Harlem Nights starring Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, and Della Reese. When Eddie Murphy first stepped on screen in his white tuxedo, I let out a sound to show my pleasure at how fine he was looking on screen. I didn’t think much about it, and I didn’t make a big deal about it. I said what I said, and I continued to enjoy the movie.
After some time, I noticed that Joe was unusually quiet. During our walk back to the barracks, I asked him several times why he was so quiet. After a little prodding, he finally told me that he didn’t like the way that I reacted when Eddie Murphy came on screen. He said that it embarrassed him, and he felt disrespected. First, I thought to myself, this is ridiculous, why be jealous of a character in a movie? But, to keep the peace, I apologized and promised that I would never do it again. There was something about him being angry that made me feel uneasy, so I would do anything to fix it- even if it meant apologizing for something as silly as “liking” a good-looking character in a movie.
A few days later, I received a care package from home. In the military, we lived for care packages. In my package, along with some of my favorite things from home, my mother sent some pictures. This was something that everyone looked forward to – not just receiving their own pictures but seeing everyone else’s pictures. We would pass pictures around and share stories about our lives back home before the military. On this day we were on break at the schoolhouse, I can remember it like it was yesterday. Usually, the Drill Sergeant would wait until we were back at the barracks to do mail call, but on this day, he did it while we were on break. I was thrilled.
We were all standing around, and I was sharing my pictures like so many of my friends had done so many times before. I was happy to share a part of my life; to share where I came from. It may sound crazy, but when you are homesick, just seeing pictures of your loved ones can do wonders for your soul. I smiled as everyone passed my pictures around. I couldn’t be happier as they smiled and pointed as they looked upon the images. Suddenly, without warning, Joe grabbed me by my forearm, and with a photo in hand he forcibly, walked me backward, away from the crowd behind the staircase.
Once out of sight, he grabbed me by my throat and began to tell me how I had once again embarrassed him. He was ranting about how I must think he’s a joke and how I must think he’s playing with me. He leaned in close to me, squeezed my throat tightly then threatened no louder than a whisper, “If you ever embarrass me like this again, I will break your effing neck.” With that, he pushed away from me, threw the picture in my face, and walked away. I was beyond shocked. I was speechless; I was scared, embarrassed, and in total disbelief. When I reached down to pick up the picture to see what had made him so angry, I realized that it was my prom picture. No one ever said anything about his outburst; in fact, we all acted as if nothing happened. As I went around collecting my pictures, I don’t think anyone even looked at me. Then again, I was so embarrassed I couldn’t bring myself to look at them either.
I was numb with disbelief; his words kept echoing in my head on a loop. “I will break your effing neck.” Would he really break my neck? Could he really? After I got over my initial shock, I became very angry. I had promised myself that I would never be that woman who let a man put his hands on me. Yet here I was, forced to face the reality that someone who was supposed to care about me and someone who I cared about would try to physically harm me. The reality of that was so daunting and painful. During a time when I was grappling with my identity now, I was left to figure out where this would fit in my life. Was this who I was becoming? This helpless victim.
I couldn’t bring myself to talk to Joe for days. I avoided him; I ignored him; I did everything that I could to stay away from him. Of course, consistent with the textbook abuser, he was very apologetic and did and said everything he thought he needed to say for me to forgive him. He said that he loved me, which was the first time that he ever said those words to me. He promised that he would never put his hands on me again. He cried, and he begged for my forgiveness. And just like many women who find themselves in this crazy situation, I forgave him. I was sure that it was a one-time occurrence, that he was just angry and if I didn’t do anything to embarrass him or make him angry, then we would be fine. And just like that, I made his issues mine to solve, and I took on the burden of his happiness.
Things continued as usual. I continued to walk on eggshells, and Joe continued to be jealous and controlling. The only person who ever said anything to me about the dysfunction that was our relationship was David.
One night while confined to the barracks we were playing pool, and out of nowhere, David said, “He’s not a good guy.” I knew what he was saying was correct, but I didn’t want to deal with the reality of the situation. If I admitted that Joe was abusive, then I would have had to deal with the reality that I was being abused. That was too difficult for me to deal with. David also shared some things that he had witnessed between Joe and other girls.
He sealed this honest conversation with a confession of his feelings for me which only confused things and made it awkward between us. It took no time for Joe to notice the awkwardness between David and me, and eventually, I told him everything that David had said. He was furious, and this time he took his anger out on David. They got into a fistfight, and afterward, he demanded that I not talk to David anymore. Of course, I obliged. Needless to say, the abuse continued. He always found a reason to grab me by my arms or throat, to push me against a wall or pin me down. I reasoned with myself that it wasn’t that bad because he never slapped me or punched me.
One weekend, Joe invited me to travel with him to his hometown. Occasionally, he would go home for the weekend, and during one of his visits, he brought his car back with him. I was excited to get away from the base and get some sense of normalcy. I was especially excited to meet his family. It felt good being with him outside of Army fatigues. We hadn’t had sex by this time so I was hopeful that it would make our relationship better. I wanted to show him that I could be a great girlfriend.
During the short drive, we talked and laughed. I had never sat in the front seat of a car with my boyfriend driving. I can remember how grown up I felt. The day was perfect. We went out to eat and to the mall before going to his mother’s little box house in the projects. His mother was still at work and wasn’t expected to be home until later that evening. After spending some intimate time together, we showered, changed clothes, and sat on the couch to watch television.
A short while later Joe announced that he had to head out for a minute, he said that he was going to meet up with some friends. He said that he would only be gone for a short time and suggested that I stay there. I was annoyed, but we had such a great day I didn’t want to mess it up, so I didn’t protest. He kissed me and assured me that he would be back before his mother got home – famous last words. A few hours later, Joe’s mother arrived; she was just as surprised to see me as I was to see her. We both recognize how awkward the situation could have been, but we made the best of it.
We talked while she fried chicken. She told me stories about Joe and herself. This was the first time I had heard that Joe’s father was an alcoholic and that he had been abusive toward her. She told me about the many black eyes and broken bones that she had suffered at his hands. She told me that the only way she was able to get away from him was because he left her for another woman. Her story of abuse terrified me, and although I never mentioned what I had experienced with Joe, I felt like she already knew, and in her own little subtle way, she was warning me.
I remember looking at the pictures on her walls, pictures of her as a young woman and a young mother. It was obvious that her appearance had changed over the years and now with the context to add to the pictures, I realized that it was years of abuse that had left its mark. The time that I spent with Joe’s mother was special, and although I couldn’t understand it at the time, I realize now that it had more purpose than I knew.
It was after midnight by the time Joe came home. He had been gone for over six hours. His mother and I had both retired for the night. I was pretending to be sound asleep when Joe came climbing in the bed smelling of alcohol. The best-case scenario would have been him getting in bed and falling asleep quickly, but as my mother would say, that is too much like doing right. Instead, he began pressing himself against me trying to “wake me up.” I continued to pretend to be asleep, but he was relentless. He became more aggressive as he climbed on top of me and began to pry my legs open as he kissed me forcibly. I fought to get him off me; I pushed and wiggled my way out of his grip. I was too angry with him to let him touch me. I don’t know if it was the anger that compelled me to explode, but I shouted, “Where were you? Why would you leave me here like that?” I demanded to know. I could barely get my words out before he jumped up and grabbed for me. The alcohol made him a little slower than normal, so I was able to get out of his reach. We tussled for a bit, and I kicked and screamed with everything in me. He grabbed my arms and slammed me against the wall harder than he ever had before.
My head throbbed as he slammed me from one wall to the next. I tried to fight back, but he was just so much stronger than me. He pressed me against the wall by the throat; this was his favorite position. His grip around my neck was stronger than I had ever felt it before. With his hand pressed firmly around my neck, he began kissing me. Between the pressure of his hands around my throat and his mouth covering mine, I could barely catch my breath. It was clear to me that if I didn’t calm things down, he would kill me, even if by mistake. I removed my hands from his hands and stopped fighting with the hopes that he would settle down. He responded by releasing his grip around my neck before pushing me down on the bed. After he finished doing what he wanted to do, he fell sound asleep. I lay in the darkness of the night, crying silently, and afraid to move.
The next morning when I had strength enough to move, I went to the bathroom. As I looked at myself in the mirror, the image that it was reflecting back to me was frightening. I couldn’t help but think about the stories that his mother shared earlier, and I was desperate for that not to be my story.
The thought of living my life like this was unfathomable, but I knew that if this was where we were after a few short weeks, there was no doubt that we were on a very bad path that would surely be the death of me. After I gathered myself, I headed out of the bathroom, head throbbing, face still stained with tears, and thighs sore from him forcing himself between them; I opened the door to find his mother standing in the hallway waiting to go into the bathroom. We made eye contact, but neither of us said a word. If our eyes could talk, I imagined her saying, “Are you okay?”
My eyes were responding, “Your son is a monster.” And her responding, “I know.” Instead, I dropped my head, went back into the bedroom, and climbed back in bed with him. When Joe woke up the next morning, of course, we both acted as if nothing happened. This was by far the worst that it had ever been and even though he still hadn’t physically hit me, I felt the sting of every punch not thrown. I knew that if I remained in this relationship then it was only a matter of time before he would. My heart ached, my body ached, and my soul ached. He was breaking me, and I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to save myself. He didn’t say sorry this time; we just kind of walked gingerly around each other. I don’t think either of us had the words to fix this. Neither of us knew how to make this okay. Sorry wasn’t enough, and I love you was a lie, so we chose silence.
AIT couldn’t end fast enough. Those eight weeks and two days felt like an eternity. I was elated when I received orders for a new assignment. I was heading to Kansas and Joe was heading out of the U.S. Even with thousands of miles separating us, it would take years for me to get him out of my mind.
I have heard people refer to a phase of their life as a confusing time; well, this was one of my confusing times. It was already confusing for me before Joe, and his presence only complicated things more. There was so much that I was trying to understand about myself during that time and inviting him in my life only made matters worse. I was eighteen years old; I was a child. I had never experienced anyone like Joe before. If I had to describe him, I would say, he was heavy like something you put on or rather heavy like something that falls on you. He was thick like quicksand and as discombobulating as a tornado. He was intoxicating and all-consuming. He was in me and on me at the same time. He was too much of everything bad, and he demanded too much of me, too much of my space, too much of my energy.
When I met Joe, I had only been in the military for a short time. I had never been to combat, but I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a condition commonly reserved for soldiers returning from war. And like many soldiers returning from war, I was afraid to talk about my experience. I have never called what I experienced with Joe domestic violence; in fact, I have never called it anything. I buried those memories in the deepest, darkest parts of my mind; never to be spoken.
*All names have been changed.
Are you a writer? We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how.