I listened to his heavy breathing, muffled, and magnified at the same time by his CPAP machine. A rhythmic slurping and snorting sound. He reached over and grabbed my hand in his sleep.
“What’s wrong?” he mumbled.
“I’m having trouble sleeping.”
I was going to leave him that day. I needed to pack quickly, load up my cousin’s rented van, get the twins buckled and pick up the other two kids from school, in the only hour he would be at work.
Every racing thought was a strategic one. The dim light in our bedroom brightened slowly as sunrise came through the closed linen blinds. So normal and quiet in the house, on the street. I couldn’t warn the kids. I warned them when there would be chicken instead of pizza for dinner, but I couldn’t tell them we were leaving their father for good. There’s no choice, I repeated over and over. The large hands holding mine could kill me. Strangle me, like that surgeon did two weeks earlier, when his doctor wife filed for divorce. I read the news story and crawled inside her mind. Sure, he threatened me before, but he wouldn’t actually kill me. It’s so theatrical to run to a shelter.
But it was the only way to leave someone who had woven strings of restraint all around me, pulling whichever one he thought would be the surest when I seemed about to flee. Every time I nearly wriggled out of my bonds, did an online search for divorce lawyers, he sensed it was time to be nice again, and I let him pull me back.
I’d watch my daughter galloping through the house, my babies sleeping in their cribs, my son reading comics in his car bed, and I couldn’t do it. Until the next time his face grew cold and sullen. Until my son clung to me with his skinny arms, writing little notes on crumpled pieces of paper: “You’re the best mom in the world” “I’m so lucky to have you” with the unwritten words “I need you to protect me from Daddy” visible under them. Until I finally stared at the ugly truth: he would never change.
He looked almost harmless lying there beside me. Then I pictured him catching me leaving, grabbing my neck in both hands, and squeezing. I didn’t want to die.
I crept to the cupboard downstairs with the box of garbage bags and threw things in. Toothbrushes, shoes, anything he wouldn’t notice was missing when he woke. Listening for plodding footsteps, I shoved the bags into the basement guest room closet. I went back to bed, my body rigid, my eyes fixed on his form.
He rolled out of bed and lumbered heavily to the bathroom, then to the walk-in closet. He didn’t notice my packed suitcase masked by his dress shirts. The last morning I had to spend with him. I thought I should be a bit sentimental about it. In rehearsed goodbyes I imagined asking him to kiss me before he left for work. But I didn’t want to. I wanted the mouth that exhaled harsh words to our children and the hands that shoved them, far away from me.
For months I had watched him, his gloomy face’s slow changes, his careless remarks. I thought he vaguely sensed a weakening of his hold on me, but I knew his beliefs about us circled him back to sure ground. The house. The kids. His income. The swing bench and fountain he had bought me last summer. All the times I threatened to leave but didn’t. I would never leave.
He didn’t seem to know how much I hated him. Or that I spent each day planning. I called shelters around the city for weeks to find one with space for four children.
“Hi, um, I was just wondering, because I’m planning to leave my husband and I don’t know how he’ll react, if you have room for me and my kids?”
A mechanical voice: “What are the kids ages?”
“9, 6, and the twins are 13 months”
“Can you tell me your story?”
It seemed like the right time to start sobbing about the knife wounds, but that wasn’t my story, so I recited what I’d been reciting like a postal code.
“I’ve been in an emotionally abusive marriage for eleven years. I tried to leave three years ago. He threatened to kill everyone and wouldn’t let me leave our room. Because of his history of making serious threats, I’ve been advised to go to a shelter.”
“Ok, well, we don’t have room right now.”
The shelter. That place that women ran to with no shoes on, while their drunken husbands in torn undershirts snored. A place that probably had rust on the bathroom sink and a cockroach colony. No way around it if I didn’t want to end up in a suitcase floating in a creek.
So, I summoned up my favorite survival method: romance. There could be something romantic about fleeing an abusive man with your babies, if you had a mansion to escape to in the English countryside, like Helen Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. If I pretended to be a widow, I might meet a handsome farmer. I’d hand him my diary, which he’d read with passionate absorption, my jerk husband would fall from his horse, and we’d live happily ever after once I inherited that unexpected annuity from my deceased uncle.
I threw more clothes feverishly into bags once his car disappeared. We loaded our cars with everything and then the babies. Snow was falling in huge flakes, wind whipping it in our faces, fog rising. I hadn’t realized a blizzard was coming. I ran back in to put the note on his bed, deciding circumstances were desperate enough to justify walking all the way upstairs with snowy boots. I had been planning to hug the banisters on the way out, but I was terrified he’d return. Next stop was the kids’ schools. Other mothers were excusing their children for dentist appointments. I was taking mine to run away from my husband. My daughter looked scared when she saw me because I never surprised her with dentist appointments. I hurried her to the car, saying I’d explain on the way.
“We’re not going to live with Daddy anymore?”
“Is it because he was doing all those things you asked him not to?”
I glanced at her intelligent blue eyes in the rear-view mirror.
Once we got my son and were on the whited-out road, she sang What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.
I did it! I left him! The SUV was to be my version of the carriage that smuggled Helen from Grassdale, despair behind her, hope ahead.
But the snow fell faster. On and on, whole body tense, trying to keep the car from slipping, fielding the kids’ endless questions.
“Do they have a computer?”
“I think so.”
“Where will we be sleeping?”
“In bunk beds.”
“Is this sort of like a vacation?”
“I guess we could try to see it that way.”
I could see nothing but the blurry car ahead. An hour passed, then another. I couldn’t see the street names. They were dusted with snow. The babies whimpered, the older two bickered.
“Stop it! Stop!”
I shifted my eyes from the road for a moment. The car slid off the blighted road. I saw spraying snow and the gray of the sky blend together. We came to a halt in a snowdrift, on an angle. I was stuck in a ditch in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere with four crying children and a low phone battery. I put my head on the steering wheel, surrendering to utter desolation. A passing driver stopped.
“Kind of. I have four children with me. Am I near Georgina?”
“You’re in Georgina. Here, let me give you Fred’s Towing number. He’s the guy everyone around here uses. It might take him a while, though, on a day like today.”
I squinted into the white abyss for signs of Fred. He emerged, chugging along, like a mirage in the shimmering light of desert.
I navigated the small-town snow drifts until we rounded that final corner. A stretch of Lake Simcoe glittered next to a blue, clapboard house. In imagination, this was when I fell into the arms of compassionate women who would insist I rest while they feed the children. I stumbled through the heavy, guarded doors. The babies cried, the others asked me to find their shoes.
“We need you to fill out some paperwork before anything else.”
There was no rest. There were bloodstains on blankets, a bout of stomach flu and catfights. Still, one night in that freezing lower bunk, with my son curled up beside me, I noticed there weren’t ropes around me anymore. I had lost them under a snow drift. I was free.
Batya Guarisma is an artist, freelance interior designer, and writer living in Thornhill, Ontario with her husband and four kids. She loves history, especially classic novels, and draws inspiration from the past to inform her art in the present.