Alice Benson lives in Wisconsin with her partner and their dogs, Max and Oliver. Alice recently retired from a job in the human service field; previously she spent over thirteen years working with a domestic violence program. Her published works have appeared in a Main Street Rag Anthology, Epiphany, Scrutiny Literary Journal, Shooter Literary Magazine, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Alice’s first novel, Her Life is Showing, is set in a domestic violence shelter and was published in January 2014, by Black Rose Writing. Visit Alice’s website www.alicebensonauthor.com.
The call of the porch zinged through Monica’s blood. It pulled her up and moved her quickly through the shelter to her favorite room at the front of the house, a warm and comforting three-season porch where women gathered and she could smoke.
Three residents were already there, curled up with coffee, sodas, candy, and their own cigarettes. Monica loved sitting with the women on the porch. The conversations were sometimes disjointed, but always interesting and usually supportive. They called it “Porch Therapy.” As a counselor in a domestic violence shelter, Monica found that the porch chats were often more productive than her formal sessions.
The air was hazy when Monica walked through the door, so she flipped a switch and turned on the ceiling fan. The grandfather of all ceiling fans, it groaned a little but was able to swirl the air. Years of smoke smudged the porch’s white wainscoting and crown molding; still it managed to retain the distinction of an elegant older home, a little beaten and shabby, but in spite of everything, dignified.
Time for a good spring-cleaning, Monica thought, as she sat in a wicker rocking chair and lit a cigarette. Tiny tendrils of nicotine reached deep, and Monica felt the morning’s pent-up frustration blow out of her lungs with the smoke. For now, she could let go of the fact that the jackass district attorney, responsible for prosecuting criminals and protecting victims, believed punching a woman in the face was justified if that woman was drunk and obnoxious. Monica could deal with him later. For now, she would enjoy the cigarette, enjoy the women, enjoy the porch.
Lauren, sitting directly across from Monica, came to the shelter last week, but she wasn’t new; it was her third stay in six months. She looked tired. “David’s mother called me today.”
Beth, a resident of just two days, gasped. “How did she find you?”
Lauren shrugged. “David knows I’m here. The kids call him every night. I suppose he told his mother, and she called and asked for me. Sometimes people call here for the residents. Everything is confidential, so the staff just uses a regular line – ‘There’s no one here by that name, but if I see her, I’ll give her the message’ – and then they give us the message. So she called, and I got the message and called her back.”
“Don’t you have a cell phone?” Anna’s question mirrored Monica’s thoughts. It was rare these days for someone to be without her own phone.
“No.” Lauren leaned forward and took a handful of M&Ms. “I did have one, but David said I was using it too much, and he took it away.”
“Maybe you’re lucky,” Anna said. “Tony texted me fifty-four times yesterday. I finally turned my phone off and buried it at the bottom of my bag.”
Beth pulled her legs under her oversized sweatshirt and looked at Lauren. “Are you scared that he’ll come here and get you?” She seemed amazed that Lauren’s husband knew where she was.
“No, I don’t think so. I mean, he hits me sometimes, but he’s not that crazy kind of violent where he’s going to come here with a gun and drag me out.” Lauren’s dark hair fell in waves past her shoulders. She pushed it behind her ears. “Besides, I don’t think he’s really that worried about it. He figures I’ll come home soon.”
“Will you?” Anna’s voice quivered. “Will you go home soon?”
There was silence. Monica heard the click of a lighter, then the soft intake of smoke, before Lauren answered.
“I don’t know.”
Monica saw the slow nods from the other women. They knew, they understood, it was okay.
“So, what did his mother say?” asked Beth. Short, short hair laid flat against her small head, and deep bags under her eyes were evident even through concealer and small rectangular glasses.
“She thinks I should go home.” Lauren’s laugh was tiny.
“There’s a shock,” Beth said, snorting. Even Anna, huddled under a blanket on an old piano bench in the corner, smiled.
Then Lauren’s laugh disappeared, and her eyes clouded with tears. “She said it was all my fault. She said if I wasn’t so loud and if I didn’t talk so much, he’d be nicer. I’m always pushing him; he can’t help getting mad.”
“It’s not your fault.” Beth and Anna said the words at the same time, a split second before Monica, causing Monica to high-five internally. Most days, that was the shelter mantra; they said it, sang it, tapped it out in Morse Code. Still, no one really believed it – not deep in their souls where it mattered. Down deep, the violence was always their fault. But Monica was encouraged to see they believed it at least enough to repeat it to someone else.
“I know, I know.” Lauren’s bare foot slowly covered, then uncovered an ancient jagged gouge in the oak floor. She pushed her big toe down into it as if trying to disappear out of her life through the hole in the floor. “But still, I was thinking. I could be a better wife if I tried harder. I know I talk a lot. I know I can be irritating.”
Monica couldn’t keep quiet. “All people who know each other well, who live together, irritate each other. That’s no excuse for violence.” Shit, shit, shit. Keep your mouth shut – you’re lecturing.
But Lauren didn’t seem to mind. “You’re right, I know that. But when I’m talking to David or his mother, I don’t feel right. When she tells me that I’m breaking up my family, and I need to be the one who holds everyone together, I just feel spoiled and selfish.”
“It’s not selfish to want to be treated nice.” Beth looked at Monica as if waiting for approval. Monica nodded at her.
Lauren shook her head. She looked down at her lap, and tears dripped past her hair onto her folded hands. “He told his mother that I’m frigid.”
“That fucker.” Anna’s words were quiet, but diamond-hard.
“He told her that he had to treat me rough to make me have sex with him.” More tears dropped.
“She believed that shit?” Beth said. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. I think David’s father is pretty violent. I think she’s afraid of him and afraid of David. I think she says what they tell her to say.” Lauren wiped her eyes. She looked around the room, stopping at each woman separately, as if gathering courage to speak. No one said a word; they all waited.
Lauren hugged herself before speaking, her voice almost a whisper. “I really don’t like having sex with him. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am frigid.”
Five seconds of silence. Monica was planning her response carefully when Anna spoke. “Why would you like to have sex with someone who’s mean to you? That’s not frigid; that’s just smart.”
Her words hung suspended for a split second before the whole porch erupted. The laughter hit the ceiling, bounced off the walls, and completely cleared the air.
“Maybe it’s not my fault,” Lauren said, wonder in her voice.
“It’s really not your fault,” Monica said. Now she was going to lecture, just a little. “When abusers blame their victims for the violence, they keep everyone focused on the victim’s behavior. They take all responsibility from themselves.”
Lauren picked up a piece of red licorice and held it like a cigarette. “I’m just not sure what I should do. I mean, I know what I should do, I guess, but I don’t know if I can do what I should do.” She made a face. “I guess that makes everything clear.”
“I think I know what you mean, but let’s start over,” Monica said. “Don’t worry about what you should do. If we take should out of the equation, what do you want to do?”
Lauren pulled her legs back into the chair, wrapped her arms around them, and rested her chin on her knees. “I can’t even answer that. I’m not sure what I want to do. Well, maybe that’s not true. What I really want is to go home and be happy and have David be nice to me and not hurt me anymore.”
No one looked at Lauren. Monica needed to say it. “You know that’s not going to happen, don’t you?”
Lauren bowed her head slightly, and her hair fell forward, covering her face. “So, your first choice isn’t an option,” Monica said. “Have you thought about what else you might want?”
“I guess if David won’t stop hitting me, I’d like to live somewhere else. I’d like to leave David, live on my own with my kids and have us all be safe.” The words came out in a rush.
Monica nodded, not wanting to interrupt.
“I’d like to stay up and watch that late night TV show with Craig Ferguson. David goes to bed early, so I do too. I’d like to eat cereal and pancakes for dinner. I did that once, and the kids loved it, but David got mad. I’d like to get a kitten; David hates cats.” Lauren’s possibilities danced through the room, streaming like sunlight through the leaded glass windows; they cut through the haze with a vision of freedom.
Anna and Beth smiled at each new idea. Monica was entranced.
Then Lauren’s mood changed abruptly. “But I know it’s not as easy as just saying it.”
“No, it’s not easy,” Monica said. Beth and Anna sighed, the possibilities obscured, the sun went behind a cloud, and the future was once again murky in the smoke-filled air of the porch.
“It is hard,” Lauren said. “People think that’s stupid, don’t they? They think it’s stupid that it’s hard to leave someone who hurts you.”
Shit, be careful with this one. “Yes, there are people who don’t understand that it’s not easy to leave someone, even if he hurts you. They haven’t had your experiences. They don’t know what your life is like, and they shouldn’t judge, but sometimes they do,” Monica said.
“They really do.” Anna stubbed out her cigarette and leaned forward. “I have a friend who keeps asking me, ‘When are you going to leave? How can you put up with it?’”
“Me, too,” Beth said. “And that doesn’t help. It just makes me feel bad.”
Monica nodded. “I know. We hear it all the time when friends and family call, when we’re speaking in the community, that’s always one of the first things people ask. ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’”
“What do you tell them?” Lauren said
“We talk about all the things that keep people trapped in abusive relationships – the lack of money, of options, the guilt, the fear, the good times, and the love.”
As Monica spoke, Lauren’s hiccup turned into quiet sobs, and she buried her head in her hands. Everyone grew quiet.
“It just seems so stupid.” Lauren looked up and wiped her eyes with the bottom of her tee shirt. “But I love David, I really do.”
“It’s not stupid,” Monica said. Tears glistened in Anna’s eyes.
“Sometimes he’s so sweet, and sometimes he makes me laugh. I was only sixteen when I met him. I’ve been married to him for almost half my life,” Lauren said. “I’m not sure who I am without him.”
“People are complicated. Lives and relationships are complicated,” Monica said. “Situations sometimes seem simple when looking in from the outside. But they’re not.”
“I tried to tell my friend that I couldn’t just leave, that Ben was really sorry, and I thought we’d be able to work it out. But she just got mad at me,” Beth said. “Why does she get mad at me?”
“Because she’s scared,” Anna said. She pushed the blanket to the floor and sat up. Her thin arms shimmered with purple bruises as she popped open a can of diet cola. “She wants you to be safe, and she doesn’t know how to help you, so she gets mad.”
“I think that’s true. People want to help, and they get frustrated and scared. They just don’t understand.” Monica paused. “You know one thing that we always tell people? Asking ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ takes the responsibility for stopping the violence off the abuser and puts it on the victim.”
Lauren sat up straighter in her chair. “That’s not fair.”
“This sucks,” Anna whispered.
“It’s so hard to know what to do,” Beth said.
“It is,” Monica said. “It can be overwhelming.”
“But you know what?” Beth bounced a little on the couch. “We don’t have to know right now. We don’t have to make any decisions today.”
“That’s right,” Monica said. “Take some time to think about your life, to make plans, to look at the possibilities. That’s why you’re here. Let us help you when you can. You’ll find your way.”
A shelter volunteer pushed open the door to the porch. “Lauren?”
Lauren gave a little wave.
“I just took a message for you.” She handed Lauren a slip of paper and went back inside. Lauren opened it. “David’s mother wants me to call her again.” She laid the note on the table next to her chair and wiped her hand on her pants. “I should call her, I guess.”
“Why should you?” Beth crossed her arms over her chest.
Lauren looked surprised at the question. “I don’t know. I mean, she called me, and it seems rude not to call her back.”
“You’re so nice,” Beth said. “She’s not calling to help you. She’s calling to talk you into something you’re not sure you want to do. She’s a bitch. Who cares if you’re rude to her?”
“Who cares if I’m rude to her?” Lauren repeated. “But…”
They all waited.
“I mean, she wants to talk to me because she thinks she’s doing what’s best for me.”
Anna snorted. “She’s doing what’s best for her. And for her son.” She set the soda can down and pulled the blanket back up to her chin.
Beth lit another cigarette. “I’m sorry her life’s not so great, but that should make her want to help you, not try to drag you down.”
“Yeah, I don’t think she really cares what’s best for you,” Anna said.
“Besides, who gives a shit what she thinks is best? She doesn’t get to decide what’s best for you,” Beth said.
Lauren stared at the paper lying on the table. Monica lit another cigarette.
“You get to decide what’s best for you,” Anna said. They all smoked silently for a few minutes. Lauren’s face showed no emotion, and Monica wondered if anything they said made a difference.
The old clock in the corner of the porch cuckooed five times. Lauren pushed herself out of the chair. “It’s my night to cook dinner. I’m going to make tacos.” She turned to leave the porch, then stopped. “Oh, yeah.” She picked up the paper, ripped it in half, and tossed it in the garbage on her way out the door.
All three women smiled. The porch glowed in the late afternoon sun, and Monica’s internal high-five soared.