A photo of a woman walking out the doors.

First Person

Finding the Strength to Leave My Abuser

For years her partner degraded her, beat her, made her feel unworthy. But when he hit her in public while she was pregnant, the writer found inspiration to flee—and never looked back.

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In this memory, I’m 29 years old. For four years he’s told people I’m his wife. In private he tells me I’m not worthy of the title. Alone with him, I’m not worthy of anything.

We are working one summer afternoon at a community festival in Arlington, Virginia. I’m pregnant. We sell African artifacts, and people mill around our booth, crowding the spaces between vendors. I am not someone he protects from the shocked gaze of strangers. He’s grown that bold.

He scarcely bothers to shield himself with discretion now. I don’t remember what I do, but he feels some slight, perceives another failure on my part, and slaps me hard across the mouth. I lower my head, my jaw numb from the blow, and listen to him berate me—I’m docile as a child.

By some extraordinary chance, a police officer happens to witness the assault. The cop, a burly white man, all Virginia good ol’ boy swagger, confronts him. He denies he hit me. I deny it, too. With a stern warning, the officer stalks away, failing to protect a pregnant Black woman too terrified to protect herself, a woman he saw battered with his own eyes.

We leave immediately. On the way back to Takoma Park, Maryland, he rages at me, his wrath unrelenting. Then it happens. Without warning. I break. I have had ENOUGH. God, did it take a long time to get there, but suddenly I cannot take another moment of this life with him. Not one more goddamned second.

I tell him I’m leaving. He smirks. Reminds me that I can’t take the kids. He’s already said if I did he’d kill all three of us. Or if he couldn’t find us he’d kill my mother.

He doesn’t know that weeks before Mama pleaded with me to flee. Leave the kids if I have to. She promised I would get them back. Impossible, but they’ll have a dead mama if I don’t go ghost.

He locks me inside of the house and leaves. I suspect he is waiting for my rebellion to pass. I use the time to pocket my driver’s license and Social Security card in the too-big dress hanging from my thin shoulders. I need money, but know he won’t let me out of his presence with something empowering. So I take less than $20, cloak it in Saran Wrap, and insert it into my body like a tampon while he is gone.

He pats me down, of course, before I leave. He doesn’t think me bright enough to be so canny as to hide cash in my cookie. He opens the door for me now. Tells my sad-eyed children I don’t want them anymore. They are 4 and 2, but I am going to save us all.

The battered women’s shelters in Washington, D.C. are full—a doleful societal commentary. I know if I don’t leave today, I’m going to weaken, need my babies badly, and go right back to him. Then die soon after at his hand.

My brother works for an airline, but can’t get me a voucher the same day. He calls my sister and she purchases a Greyhound ticket to get me home. The bus doesn’t leave until the next morning. It’s six o’clock in the evening. I won’t go to a friend’s. He knows them all. They are not safe with me around.

I trudge to Union Station. He won’t look for me there, if he looks for me at all. He no doubt thinks I’ll wander around the city, and return to him exhausted and defeated, like the last time. I am safe here, something I haven’t been for four endless years.

At a concession, I exchange dollars for quarters. Televisions bolted to chairs offer an entertainment respite for weary travelers. Feed a quarter into a slot, and you can watch in half-hour increments. The TV shows watch me until 11 o’clock, but The Arsenio Hall Show captures my attention. He has a special surprise guest, he says as he hypes up the crowd. A moment later, James Ingram saunters down left aisle of the studio audience, crooning the song I know him best for to screams of the audience’s pleasure.

“Compliment what she does. / Send her roses, just because / If it’s violins she wants, let them play. / Dedicate her favorite song, / and hold her closer all night long. / Love her today. / Find 100 ways.”

He is so damned beautiful and passionate, a man with a kind face and playful gaze. I cannot imagine his sweet voice hurling the vilest of insults at a woman, or his hands, cradling a microphone, striking one in the face.

In every way that counts, I am a broken woman, my sense of self in tatters, but his silken words wrap around me like safety. Here’s the magic, the kind that meets you when you make a decision and then make your move: that doing, and precisely the right moment, convinces me that love is possible. Real love, the kind that is everything, and I’m made for this love, and that healing brand of love for me.

It takes one instant. I understand that what I walked away from was pure bullshit. The real deal is out there, and damn it, I’m going to have it. James Ingram is my gateway to hope, that little word with the big impact. Hope. He restores me with the good medicine of his song.

I got my kids back, just like Mama said. Healing wasn’t instantaneous, and it took a long time. It was complicated. My life isn’t a romance novel. It’s more of an inspirational self-help manual. But there is so much love in it. Good love, all because one day I heard a soul singer, made a decision, and I decided love.

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