The Return

A sea-change had come over my parents’ house. The walls were still the same ice-blue. The kitchen where my father had assaulted me still had its polished parquet floor and the same Formica countertops. But once, there had been alliances. Once, my brother and I had commiserated in our rooms long into the night, plotting escape and liberation.

Now, the air was thick with cruelty. Contagious as any virus.

Once, I had confided in my mother. Now, she listened with impatience, her eyes shifting, her tongue darting out to wet her lips. Eventually, she burst out with, “I have better things to do than listen to you.”

My brother had begun to mistreat her. He insulted her intelligence and mocked her desire to learn music. “If you’re so smart,” he demanded one afternoon, “why are you stuck here doing laundry all day?” She gripped the dryer, tears wetting her cheeks, and I told him to shut up.

“Why?” He said. “It’s not like it isn’t true.”

I had been gone only nine months. Only nine months, and I was already homesick for steamed spinach floating in peanut sauce, for fish cakes and steamed crab with a side of nam jim, a spicy-sour fish sauce with lime and chilies that my in-laws packed in small plastic cups and brought surreptitiously to casino buffets. The Thai community had given me work, shelter, food. But I was homesick for the most consequential gift of all: safety. I hadn’t known before what it felt like. Now I did. And it wasn’t this.

“I told you,” my brother said to me one day in the hall. “You should never have come back.”

“Don’t worry,” I sneered before shutting my door in his face. “I won’t be here long.”

*          *          *

My university was different now, too. On my first day back, I tucked my hands under my thighs to stop them from shaking. Once, I had sat in the front row of every class, eager and friendly. Now, I slipped into a seat in the middle of the lecture hall and kept my eyes lowered on my notes. I knew that with one look at my belted jeans and my seven-year-old coat, everyone could see my wasted potential. My string of failures. I clenched my jaw to stop my teeth from chattering. I was only there to earn credits. Nothing more.

School had always been my refuge. The one place where I had succeeded. Where people encouraged me. Where I made friends. Now it was just another thing I had bartered my safety for. It, too, was no longer a place belonged.

*          *          *

My father never laid a hand on me again. He didn’t have to.

He found other ways.

The worst part of abuse is the erosion of your dignity, one interaction at a time. Facing behavior so absurd, so outlandishly controlling, your own behavior becomes absurd in response.

One night, all four of us lounged on the couch watching House or Frasier, the blue light flickering over our faces. I had curled against one of the armrests. Beside me, my mother picked at her elbow and ran her teeth over her lower lip. One of the actors on-screen cracked a joke. None of us laughed.

I couldn’t remember ever hearing my mother laugh.

“I want some cookies,” my father said to no one in particular.

My mother started to get up from the couch. “No,” my father said. “Not you. Her.”

Everyone continued staring at the screen, but we all knew who he meant.

I burrowed deeper into the sofa. “Get them yourself.”

“I asked you to get me some cookies.”

“No,” I told him. “You said you want some cookies. So go get yourself some cookies.”

“I want you to get them for me.”

“Why?” I demanded. “Because you’re a man, and I’m not? Or because you’re too lazy to walk the whole five yards to the kitchen?”

He glared at me.

I glared back. “I’m not your servant.”

“Fine.” My mother stood. “I’ll get them,” she said wearily.

“No,” my father pulled her down onto the couch. “I told her to do it, so she’s going to do it. She needs to learn some respect.”

I rolled my eyes. “You really think doing whatever you tell me to do is a sign of respect?” I snorted. “More like fear.”

“I’m busy watching the show,” he said.

“And what? I’m not?”

“If you don’t, I’m calling it a night, and everyone’s done with the show.”

“Melanie,” my mother said, her voice rising an octave in warning.

“Just get him the cookies,” my brother said.

So I heaved myself off the couch and went to the kitchen and grabbed the package of cookies from the pantry. I dropped them onto the tray in front of him. I hoped he choked on them.

*          *          *

But defiance was never going to save me. My father, like all abusers, had set up a zero-sum game where every interaction ended with a winner and a loser. He made every molehill into a mountain, and this left his target with two choices: I could just roll over and give him an easy win to keep the peace. Or I could resist and point out that he had rigged the game. I always chose the latter. From the age of 12, I believed it was the only defensible choice. I subscribed to the aphorism if you give em an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Maybe that seems strong. Maybe it seems stupid. In practice, most of the time it was just petty.

But here’s the truth: it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what I chose because choice, in an abusive dynamic, is an illusion. In the end, I always lost because I did not have power. Confronted by an abuser, the only two choices that matter are the ones you do not have when you are a child—to stay or to go.

Now I was an adult, and I had chosen to stay. And if you choose to stay, as I had, it infects you. Sooner or later, the cruelty gets under your skin. The constant power struggles take a toll. The toll may differ from one victim to another. But still, it seeps into the blood. For some, it’s anxiety. For others, passivity.

These are the responses society allows women who have survived trauma: Helplessness. Fear. Depression. Those are permissible.

But those are not useful.

I felt something useful, something protective. Something that would help me choose to go. But it was dangerous because I did not yet know how to control it.

I felt rage.

Heat-shimmering, death-wishing rage.

Cut-all-my-hair-off rage.

Touch-me-again-and-I-will-bash-your-skull-in rage.

Male veterans from war are allowed rage, to a degree. Women are not. Women are punished for it. Laughed at for it.

Assaulted for it.

But I didn’t know that yet.

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