I knew I had six months. Even after Carl told me he wanted a divorce, I still had five months, and I considered reporting it, because I was scared that the days he spanked our son more than a dozen times would turn into something worse. But I didn’t because I was pleading with him to give the marriage a second chance, because I was molding myself into someone who could do still more and ask less, and because I was afraid it would look bad, like a malicious afterthought, a drop of poison in the well of our separation. I didn’t want to appear frivolous or vindictive or worse, dishonest. I won, anyway; after Carl threw our son across the room and left the house telling him that he was leaving because our son was bad, I got full custody, and though I had to take out the no-alcohol clause in the custody agreement to get him not to fight, he didn’t seem to want the kids anyway and so I hoped it would not be an issue. Everyone, even my friends, looks at the situation and thinks I made out like a bandit. Full custody, child support, no overnights for Carl, and the house in my name. They’re right. I’m lucky and I know it. I’m a winner. I came out relatively unscathed. But they don’t know what that odd scrape on the kids’ bedroom wall is, or why I played this intricate game of negotiation and feinting and bluffing, the longest chess game of my life, with Carl; they don’t know that I still fear he will take the kids overnight and hit them, or more prosaically sleep through an asthma attack or a fall from a balcony. They don’t know that Carl is like a werewolf or a bogeyman, that roused from sleep his passivity becomes wrath, that his arms move of their own accord and his lips are filthy and curled and ugly. “Bitch,” I still hear in my sleep. “Fuck you. FUCK. YOU.”
After the divorce was final, I tried going to therapy again. I figured I would need it, that it at least represented a concrete and dedicated effort on my part to work through the heap of disconnected tendons that was my marriage. But the therapist just wanted to talk about Carl, and I couldn’t come up with eighty bucks a week to do what I was doing with my friends for free, and then I couldn’t come up with eighty bucks a week to do what I didn’t want to do anymore, because I wanted to live.
People feel sorry for Carl now. Even my friends. He’s all alone, they say. He’s lost so much, they sigh.
This is what it means to survive: the children are doing better now. Carl comes around one afternoon a week, and they only say they hate him half the time, though the baby did tell a play date recently that her dad was a “jerk.” That’s her brother’s word. Her brother used to want to kill Carl. In fact he told me he was going to rip his head off or drive over him or lock him in our house and then run away with me and the baby to the new house; he told me that for months, but lately he’s interested in impressing Carl again. I guess that’s good. Maybe if he can like his father, his world will be whole. When he does cry or cringe, the way he does if he’s been naughty and you move toward him too fast, I take him in my arms. “Shhh, baby, shhh,” I say. “Everything is all right.” But every step he gets closer to Carl I think about the crack of that blue chair he landed in when he was three, and I think of the fact that there is no record of what happened, that I didn’t report it because I wanted my marriage not to end, and in the sunlight of our now-silhouettes, our taller selves, I can sometimes see the past: my son is the boy flying across the room, the baby has a bruise on her head and a full diaper, and I am the girl begging a man to love her as he snaps her head against the wall.
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Portland Fiction Project
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