April 4th, my Independence Day.
I have never in my life been so afraid, the night at least sixty-eight tornados tore across the South. I wasn’t afraid of the storm outside, though – it was a welcome diversion. I was afraid of the man sitting in the kitchen with his mother, a half-consumed handle of vodka, and a fickle weather-band radio. I was afraid that he might find a reason to leave the kitchen and discover what I was doing. Depending on how much of the vodka he drank, he might just pin me to the floor, twisting my limbs into excruciating positions. If he had too much, though, he might try to kill me again.
My heart was pounding. I was packing. I had finally decided that I wanted to be wild again, like I had been in high school. I wanted to be a role model to my students. I wanted to mirror the feminist songs that I loved and he couldn’t stand. I was finally sick of lying on the floor, wondering if self-preservation was really the best decision. I had finally asked for help.
I had locked myself quietly in the bathroom and worked out a plan with my father and brother: They would come in the early hours of the morning – hours he always slept through – with a U-Haul. I spent the night moving between the kitchen, listening to the radio and having vodka poured down my throat, and the living room, “rearranging,” which was fear-speak for packing my things and strategically arranging them close to the front door.
The rain stopped in the dark hours of the morning. He went to bed soon after that. I was able to pack my car to capacity. The power had been out for most of the night, so my phone was almost dead. I was scared when dawn broke, and I had not heard from my saviors. Finally, they arrived. I was able to let them through the front gate. We packed the truck without incident.
He always slept like he was in a coma. If I were ever to wake him, he would become aggressive, violent even, no matter how important the reason, or how long he had been asleep.
Except that morning.
I had never been afraid in all my life, and all the fear was for nothing.
I insisted on saying good-bye. My brother was just around the corner, out of sight, but ready to respond. I suspect he had his gun on him, but this has never been confirmed. He was half-awake when I told him good-bye, took off the ring he had given me, and placed it on the bed-side table. That woke him up. To my astonishment, he didn’t yell, or fight, or throw me to the ground. He began to cry. He got on his knees and begged me to stay, asking me why I was leaving? Why?
You tried to kill me!
I was crying. That was almost a year ago. I felt unworthy of that reason, as if there were a statute of limitations on reasons like that. I should have left then. At least I would have been out of his reach forever – and so would everyone else.
I should have been mean. But no matter how I sometimes reacted to him, it is not in my nature to be mean.
He accused me of leaving him for another man. This was not entirely untrue: I had been reminded over the past couple of months by a steady, familiar voice of how strong I used to be. I was grateful. I had found a soft place to land, should I choose to jump.
My brother described it as the most uncomfortable moment of his life: Listening to a grown man, in his underwear, begging on his knees. It was a relief for me to realize how weak he had actually been, how pathetic, although I didn’t feel distinctly strong or brave in contrast.
The sky was perfectly clear that April morning; it always is after a tornado or sixty. As my brother drove me from Griffin back home to Smyrna, I didn’t feel strong or brave. But I felt free.