The feel of the rope wakes me. Coiled above my breasts, underneath, and pinning my hips against the kitchen chair. Arms pulled behind my back; wrists tied together. The rope smells like motor oil. I have no right to be surprised by my husband. I’ve watched enough Law and Order episodes to know that behavior escalates. I feel as though I’ve been drugged. It’s dark outside and the last thing I remember is Kyle coming home last night around six o’clock dangling a bag of food from our favorite chicken place. Everything after that is a blank.
We met through friends!
I was thirty-five and hadn’t been able to find anyone. God knows I’d tried. I was nervous around men, and as a result, usually impatient for the date to be over so I could exhale and climb into bed with a Party Size Bag of Doritos and watch television until I fell asleep. As an actuary, I knew the odds of getting married dwindled the older I got. I had refused to use dating apps because I was afraid of something bad happening to me. That seems funny now.
I was thrilled when Judy and Bob wanted to set me up with an ER doctor. As a couple, they had spectacular judgment. Life coach stuff. Had accomplished a lot together. Beautiful house in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Ran a successful plumbing business. Let Bob and Judy Clean Your Pipes. Why wouldn’t this guy be everything they said he was? Right away my mind sprinted ahead, picturing the trendy restaurants we’d all frequent. The four of us sipping our way through wine country. Pictionary anyone? Could I really be lucky enough to find a guy who was already friends with my friends? It seemed like this fabulous life came preassembled. Like all I had to do was buy the kit and connect the dots and voilàhappily ever after for yours truly: one nearly over the hill, and very lonely actuary.
Judy had only tried to help. I don’t blame her at all for fixing me up with a monster. I still consider her my best friend. Last Tuesday we went for mani-pedis and Cobb salads after.
Before the night of the fix up, I’d bought a new dress. Shoes with a sexier heel as opposed to the sensible dregs I normally shlepped around the city in. Got a facial and my eyebrows threaded. Had my hair relaxed which is technically not deemed exactly “safe” by the food and drug administration, but I’ve got a cool hair guy who knows people.
The four of us met up at a nouvelle cuisine restaurant in Streetervile. Tall. Curly dark hair. Shimmering blue eyes. “Such a pleasure to meet you, Marcy,” he said, holding my chair. Talk about a gentleman. And Kyle was funny! He imitated Jimmy Kimmel during appetizers to perfection. I love Jimmy Kimmel! The jokes kept flying across the table–Kyle had enough confidence for a whole room full of actuaries! During entrees, (we both ordered the steak medium rare!) when Judy brought up pets, Kyle confessed he was a cat person. I told him about my nine-year-old Siamese, Marsha. She’s a little standoffish. Usually makes me come to her, which saddens me. Kyle very kindly offered a different take: She probably just picks her moments, which is a highly intelligent trait. I hadn’t thought about it like that.
After the entrees and wine and the joking, Bob paid the check and then Kyle asked if he could walk me home. When we got to my building, I invited him upstairs. Flourless chocolate cake. A glass of port. It wasn’t spur of the moment. Judy and I had talked about me going out on a limb this time.
We sat in my small but nicely decorated living room, he on the couch and me in a navy-blue armchair, eating our cake and drinking our port. It was awkward, now that it was just the two of us, but Kyle kept us busy with questions. Favorite books? Any hobbies? How in the world did I get my hair to look like that?
I nudged myself to keep my end of the conversation. “What drew you to medicine?” I said.
He didn’t hesitate in responding. “I’ve always wanted to help people. Alleviating suffering is the best feeling in the world. And I was so fortunate to be able to help my father when he passed away from emphysema last year. To be able to do that for someone you love is indescribable. Your parents still with us, Marcy?” he said, taking a sip of port.
I set my plate on the coffee table. Cleared my throat.. “My mother passed away,” I said. “But my father is still here.”
He held my gaze, tilted his head as if to say, “…and?”
“He’s something,” I said quietly. I emptied my glass. “There aren’t very many men like him.”
Had he perked up when I said that? At the time I hadn’t too much time to wonder because Kyle did something I’d never seen a man do. Ever. He cried. He wept as he told me how much he missed his dad. I was totally caught off guard. I lost my footing, not knowing quite what to do with this sudden and overwhelming impulse to comfort him.
He told me he loved me on our second date. It was all so romantic. The flowers. Restaurants. The hot soup and sticky rice buns when I needed to combat a nasty summer cold. He found the most amazing vet for me when my cat got sick which–tied up or not–was like a miracle and still is. We got engaged after five weeks.
The honeymoon was a nightmare.
“You’re awake!” Kyle says, sauntering into the kitchen. He pours himself a mug of coffee and leans against the sink, looking at me, grinning. “Finally! Boy. I sure wish I could sleep all day. Must be nice.”
Kyle’s secret dream was to be a stand-up comedian. He told me that he’d always been much more drawn to medicine, but I never thought that was the real reason he hadn’t tried. He could never have tolerated the criticism. His ego was too fragile, which (ironically) had been one of the qualities that originally drew me to him. In addition to the swarm of confidence I’d witnessed on our first date.
Despite the jovial manner, he looks like he hasn’t slept in days. Dark stubble. Bloodshot eyes. I smell sweat. Not the exercise kind. The nerves kind. Foul. Rancid. It nearly chokes me. Maybe it’s because I’m so thirsty. I would kill for a glass of water. He comes over to me and strokes my hair. Tells me it’s pretty. Even with all that hideous gray at the scalp.
“What time is it?” I say, my voice cracking.
He sets the mug on the counter. “Why do you want to know?” he says. “Got to be somewhere? Got a hot date?”
There was someone once. My only other relationship was with a quiet, introspective, red-headed man named Tim Blanchard. A dear man who never met a plaid shirt he didn’t buy and then wear the hell out of, even in summer. I was twenty-six when we met. He owned a small dog school intended for canines that were difficult to train. Urine Trouble. I needed help controlling the puppy I’d rescued. Alfalfa wouldn’t stop scratching my arms. Biting my legs. People whispered about the bruises. Newly healed-over flesh. An old woman doing checkout at the grocery store handed me my receipt and told me to dump the bastard. People everywhere acted like I was lying to protect an abusive boyfriend.
Anyway, Timmy. Gentle. Patient. Kind. And those were his bad qualities. Badumbum! That’s all for me folks! I’ll be here all week! Suck it, Kyle. Maybe I’m the funny one. Even terrified and thirsty and tied to a wobbly kitchen chair.
It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when I walked into Urine Trouble. I rang the bell for service like the sign said. Tim came to the counter from a room in the back. He took off bright yellow rubber gloves and explained he’d been cleaning cages. His cheeks were smudged with dirt, and he smelled of orange-scented cleaning solution, but he had this soft energy around him. He had a warm, genuine smile. It was easy to see why animals would like him. Why they wouldn’t feel threatened. He asked how he could help me. I started to explain but when Tim saw my arms, he assured me I was in the right place.
“What’s his name, bitch?”
I ask for water. And I need my insulin. Which is in the fridge. On the door so it doesn’t get too cold. Right next to one of Kyle’s seventy-dollar bottles of California Chardonnay.
He tells me to stop ordering him around; I apologize immediately out of habit. His manner has soured. Obviously. I’m schooled in tiptoeing around his mood swings and gently remind him that diabetics get very thirsty when deprived of their insulin. Then he shows me something I’ve never seen before. He shows me a gun.
I forget about the water.
Tim signed me up for a puppy class. After three weeks and little to no progress with Alfalfa, he asked me out.
On our first date we went for ice cream. I wasn’t diabetic back then–happened a year into my marriage to Kyle. I used to love ice cream. Tim had rum raisin and I had two scoops of rocky road with hot fudge and extra sprinkles. We took our ice cream and walked by the lake.
“So, what made you decide to become an actuary?” he said.
“I guess I always saw the beauty in math,” I said. Ugh. Even I could hear how pretentious I sounded. How phony.
We kept walking. He finished his cone.
“So, what’s the real reason?” he said, dusting off his hands.
I almost laughed out loud at how he obviously had my number. It was almost a relief. “Mathematics was the only way to connect with my father,” I said.
“Were you not close?” he said.
I’d opened the door. Obviously. And he was giving me the go-ahead to continue in this honest vein, but I was too scared to take the conversation to the next level. I wasn’t brave enough to let him see any more of the real me. I just couldn’t go into details about my dad.
Later that night, when Tim pulled up in front of my apartment building, he put the car in park and killed the engine. He brought up Alfalfa. My abusive puppy. Tim said that whenever the training doesn’t work, it’s because the owner is putting out a vibe that the dog picks up on. That’s why he’s acting that way. Because he can. Because I let him.
“Are you trying to convince me it’s my fault so I don’t ask for my money back?”
He laughed. But then he looked serious. “You have to tell the dog how to treat you,” Tim said. “He needs to know that you’re in charge. Punish him when he nips at you.”
“It seems cruel,” I told him.
“I think,” he said, “that you misunderstand compassion.”
It was easy to be with him. So easy. Once, I was having trouble sleeping. It was three a.m. Tim woke up and asked if there was anything he could get for me.
“A chicken salad sandwich would be great,” I joked.
He got up and went straight to the kitchen. I heard chopping and mixing and then he brought me the best chicken salad sandwich I’d ever had. With apples and walnuts and everything.
Tim would occasionally bring up our future together and, inexplicably, I would feel myself recoil. The picture I had in my mind of a life with him was akin to living in a warm sunny climate every single day for the rest of my life–at first it sounds great but then reality hits. No cold. No rain. No storms. Ever. For the rest of your life. That scared the hell out of me.
At the time, I thought that maybe I wasn’t sure how, exactly, to appreciate chronic good weather. I sensed there was an art to it. I sensed that this appreciation required maturity. I spotted it in other friends’ relationships. But I also knew without a doubt that I wasn’t there yet. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the nice guy, even-keel-ness of Tim Blanchard. King of plaid.
We dated for three months and one week, and then I told him that I didn’t think it was going to work between us. He asked why. I told him the truth: I didn’t know why. That I wasn’t exactly sure what the problem was. We both cried. Held each other. It was painful. Probably the most painful failure in my adult life. We both agreed that he should take Alfalfa. We said goodbye, but I don’t think I ever stopped thinking about him. I’m not sure I got him entirely out of my head.
# # #
My wedding was four years and seven months ago. March third. Thirty-eight degrees and a harsh sideways rain to guard against as we exited Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago. The next morning, we got on a plane headed for Hawaii. I’m afraid to fly, but Kyle had his heart set on eating poi on a beach in Hawaii with his soulmate.
Kyle said he’d write me a prescription for Valium, and I wouldn’t know a single moment of terror. But when we got on the plane he said–casually, as he was putting his bag in the overhead compartment–that he’d forgotten the bottle! I was so stunned and so petrified by this obvious betrayal I couldn’t speak.
I thought a plane crash was the biggest threat to my happiness, but it turned out that the biggest threat to my happiness was sitting next to me in business class wearing sandals, jeans and an orange and blue Hawaiian shirt.
Miraculously, our wheels touched ground, and I’d survived the plane trip. I was safe! I nearly giggled with relief! After we checked into our hotel and went for a walk on the beach, Kyle turned into such a cliché of a brutal man I thought he was kidding. Go back to imitating Jimmy Kimmel I said, laughing. That was when he slapped me. So hard I fell. My ears rang. I saw stars. You’re not going to believe this, but even after he slapped me, I still thought he was kidding. I figured the slap was part of the bit. Boy, he can really commit to a gag! A second later, as my cheek stung and my knees were burning from sinking into the boiling hot sand, I suddenly understood why my dad liked Kyle so much.
Kyle’s medical knowledge came in handy in the not-getting-caught-hitting-your-wife-department. He knew exactly where and how hard to punch and then treat any injury he inflicted on me. No wonder he was at the top of his class. He really knew his stuff!
After the initial shock of my new husband whacking me on that semi-crowded beach in Maui, behind a rickety frozen pineapple stand, I got used to the new norm. The way a person gets used to a new job that they desperately want to succeed at.
Now that the sun has come up, I can see the clock in the kitchen. Six-thirty. My wrists are tied so tight against the chair that my left hand is numb, and I’m worried about the circulation. I keep wriggling my wrists to try and loosen the rope like they all do on Law and Order. In the living room my cellphone dings. Kyle gets up from the kitchen table and goes to check who texted. My heart races because I already know it’s from Tim. And I wish with all my heart that I’d never started this whole thing.
Fourteen weeks ago, I ran into Tim at a discount carpet warehouse in one of the suburbs. Carpet World. He was just entering the store, staring down at his phone as he walked past a black and white sign advertising 70% off outdoor mats.
I froze when I spotted the comfy plaid shirt. The faded jeans. The life I threw away. He looked a tiny bit older around his eyes and bits of gray softened the red in his hair, now short and spiky. A few seconds later he put his phone away and saw me too. He did a double take. His eyes flickered some of the hurt I’d caused him when I’d pulled the rug out from underneath our relationship. For an achingly long second, he looked like he wasn’t sure what to do. But then, slowly, he started walking in my direction and soon gave me the warmest smile anyone has ever given me in my life. In my life! I almost–no I did–start crying but pretended that it was the fibers in all the carpets causing my immune system to overreact.
He stared at me a moment.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, just like that.
We headed for the coffee shop across the street where neither one of us ordered coffee, but no one seemed to care if we just sat there taking up a booth. He didn’t have to ask. It poured out of me before I could stop myself. He was the first person I’d ever told about being abused. He just sat there, listening. Then he had questions. Good ones: direct and focused. Ones I stopped asking myself a long time ago.
No police reports?
“You really think the problem is all your husband?” Tim said.
“I was kind of hoping,” I said.
Tim offered that I might want to consider seeing a therapist. I told him I had seen one in college, and she wasn’t helpful at all and then he said, “This time though, you have to be honest.”
# # #
Kyle was going to do an open mic night! It was my idea. A few days after I ran into Tim, I felt a confidence surge through my veins, and I came up with a plan to reroute Kyle’s focus away from me and into something he loved. Comedy. My plan was to help him find the courage to get on that stage and see that he could do it. After that–if I was right–the showbiz bug would probably become a healthy focus. Then, maybe, he’d let me leave him without coming after me.
At first Kyle said no to the open mic idea. But then, later, he asked if I really thought he was funny enough. The question lay still between us. For the first time I saw flecks of honesty in his eyes, and I felt like he was almost human. Like he was just a nice, ordinary husband who went to work and came home and helped his wife clear the table after dinner and coached his kids’ soccer games.
I told him the truth: he was funny, and he could do this.
I encouraged him to open with the Jimmy Kimmel impression. He practiced jokes on me. He came up with this bit about how insecure his wife was.
“Even Alexa threatens her,” Kyle practiced, imitating the wife, “Alexa repeats my commands like they’re her ideas!”
The night of the Zanies open mike came and there I was, sitting at one of those tiny round tables praying to God this doesn’t backfire on me. If you aim at the king, you’d better kill him.
I’d told him beforehand to fake the confidence, and the audience wouldn’t know the difference. So, after the master of ceremonies introduced him, Kyle strutted onto the stage with a confident swagger, grabbed the mike and started to talk. He did the Jimmy Kimmel bit.
People laughed! I exhaled. This might work!
Kyle beamed, taking in the approval. Maybe even a little more than he should have.
“Anybody here married?” he said to the crowd.
The audience responded enthusiastically! Yes! Yes! They wanted to take this journey with him, their response indicated.
But then he did the Alexa joke. About the insecure wife.
Not a single, solitary titter. I started to get nervous. I stared at Kyle on that stage picturing what might be going through his mind at that point. Then he did the other wife jokes. The jokes that were funny at home–at least I had thought so–but there wasn’t even a chuckle. Why weren’t they laughing?
The audience only stared at Kyle as he tossed joke after joke to them. The more they didn’t laugh the more wounded he became. I squirmed in my seat, looking around, quietly panicking. Then a realization came crashing down on me. The stage forgives nothing! The reason they weren’t laughing is that all alone up there, under the lights, Kyle was transparent. The real him was shining through for all to witness. The audience was seeing what I hadn’t seen until my honeymoon. By the time he exited the stage, there was complete silence. Except for a heckler who suggested that Kyle go back to clown school because he wasn’t funny.
You know what else isn’t funny? A broken collar bone. A collapsed lung. A concussion. Partial nerve damage in my left eye.
I waited until I healed.
Then I called Tim.
Alfalfa greeted me at the door! I couldn’t tell if he remembered me. He looked different: older. He moved slower. Tim told me he had arthritis in his front paws. He was blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other. Instead of scratching and snapping at me, he licked me and nuzzled against my legs. He licked my face.
“Do you still own Urine Trouble?”
“Sold it,” he said. “To one of those enormous chains. Pet Peeves.”
“They’re huge,” I said.
“They offered a ton of money.”
It was almost like no time had passed between us.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“I’ve actually applied to vet school and I’m waiting to hear.”
I stared at him. “But you’re like…”
“Forty-three,” he said.
“Why didn’t you go when you were younger?”
“I think I wasn’t ready to do that,” he said. “But I am now.”
We started seeing each other.
Kyle shoves my phone in my face, and I see Tim’s text. Your house at 9.
“Where are you two crazy kids off to?” he says.
Kyle is genuinely funny, if not for his being a sociopath, he could have been Seinfeld all over again.
When I don’t answer, he yanks my head back and I feel a pain in my collar bone, which has mostly healed from the open mic night at Zanies. I hope that Kyle hasn’t reinjured me just now.
“If he sets foot on my porch, I will kill him,” Kyle says.
# # #
Tim had gotten me the name of a therapist. Wendy Plum. I went in secret. She was short and stocky with a deep no-nonsense voice. In our first session she said I was not a victim.
I stared at her.
Children can be considered victims because they have no choices. As an adult woman you have a choice to stay or leave.
I nodded, took it in.
Then she told me how important a person’s first and second memories are. They have a lot of power and often dictate how you live the rest of your life.
My first memory was of my father screaming at me because my hair wasn’t tied back. I was four years old. When I told him I couldn’t find a rubber band, he dragged me to the kitchen. Opened a drawer.
“Isn’t this where your mother keeps them?” he said.
He told me to take one. I suddenly got the feeling that if I reached into the drawer, he was going to slam it on my hand. I hesitated, and he told me either I reach into the drawer or he was going to beat me.
Wendy Plum told me that for the first memory to develop, your brain needs repetition. She explained that my father must have behaved like this many times before for it to become my first memory. Wendy told me that from where I started in life–unless I had sought professional help–marrying a man like my father was inevitable.
“Because anyone who wasn’t like your father would have felt uncomfortable to you.”
I sat there, riveted.
“So, it was kind of like my hands were tied,” I said.
The landline rings, and it’s Judy asking if Kyle can write a prescription for their daughter, Eileen, who has strep throat again. “Oh, and we’d love to have you for dinner this weekend. Can you guys bring that potato salad you brought last time? The kind with the garlic and the shriveled-up olives in it? Bob loved it."
Looking forward!” It’s now nine o’clock. Kyle takes the safety off the gun and goes into the living room to wait for Tim.
My second memory was of my father killing my mother. Well, technically, he didn’t kill her kill her. He pushed her and it resulted in her death. The police ruled it an accident. It was one of those endlessly long, rainy Saturday afternoons, and he ordered my mother to make him lunch. She asked him what he wanted on his liver sausage sandwich. My mother never found out because instead of answering he shoved her–thinking that the door to the basement was secure–except it wasn’t. She lost her footing and went tumbling down all those steps and broke her neck. She died in front of me, as I held her hand, while my dad called an ambulance. Can you imagine your last words being, “Do you want spicy mayo or whole-grain mustard?”
Tim knocks at the front door. I know it’s him because the knock is gentle. Kyle tells me not to get up–ha ha–that he’ll get it. He orders Tim into the kitchen. We make eye contact, and he looks terrified. I try to apologize telepathically. To let him know how guilty I feel that he’s in this mess. If he dies, it’s because of me.
Kyle shoves Tim into a chair and hits him in the head with the gun. My hands fight against the rope. Hard. I clench my jaw. Stare at the black and silver gun.
The landline rings and it’s the hospital looking for Kyle. He calls back and in a charming voice tells the attending physician that he won’t be coming in because he’s taking a mental health day. While he gives patient instructions to the other doctor, my whole, stupid life parades before me, and I can’t believe that this was a man I chose and this was the man I rejected. Willingly! And I think about how my hands were tied my whole life like that therapist said. I recall every beating and dressing down and shaming in front of people that my father and Kyle ever did to me. I think about my mother lying at the bottom of the steps.
I look over at Tim. The phone rings again and Kyle answers; it’s a different doctor. He’s caught off guard when the physician tells Kyle his patient instructions don’t make sense. Lucky for me Kyle really hates criticism–especially from higher ups–about how he handles his patients. In a stroke of good fortune, he has a mini temper tantrum and rails into the phone about the ineptitude of the other doctor. It’s kind of like Hitler deciding to attack Russia. Without realizing it, he’s turned his back on us for a couple of seconds. Tim leans over and loosens one of my hands, and then I’m free. Kyle’s arm is semirelaxed and his grip on the gun has lessened. I’m able to grab the gun just as Kyle realizes his mistake. He pounces and I close my eyes and shoot.
Later, after the ambulance guys put Kyle on the stretcher and wheeled him out of the house, I cried. Tim held me for a long time. I apologized to him for getting into this mess. I said that even though it didn’t seem like it, I had been working hard on loosening the ropes. Fighting to untie my hands. Right from the start. Since the minute I first met him.