Trigger Warning * Violence * Language
If I had to define marriage, I’d need a dictionary to find the proper meaning. What I knew of marriage was just pain – up, down, happy, sad – never anything consistent, nothing I could count on.
Weeks would pass without a word from Nate, and then he’d suddenly pop into town in the middle of the night; I often woke up to find him standing over me. I moved out of Mom’s and into my grandmother’s empty house. My aunt offered the house for me and Scott to live free of rent. My welfare check barely covered the utility bill, but at least the food stamps fed us well. Sometimes Nate would take some of them, saying I ate like a queen while he starved and how that just wasn’t right. I wouldn’t argue or put up a fight. It wasn’t worth it, and Scott and I still had plenty to eat.
When June rolled around, it was a month of celebrations. Scott’s first birthday was coming, and so was my supposed Sweet Sixteen. I was so tired of being treated like a child, I couldn’t wait to get older, but I didn’t want my sweet baby to do the same. I wanted to keep him small. Part of me feared he’d grow up and be like his dad, just like Nate was like his own, but I knew I could teach him to be better, to be good.
At Scott’s birthday party, Nate and I were cozy. It felt like old times, like we were newly in love.
“This feels good,” he said, hugging me close to him every chance he got. “You know I love you, right?”
I smiled. I knew I wanted to believe he loved me, but I wasn’t so sure he did.
“You’re my baby! And next week is your birthday. Sweet Sixteen, baby! Are you excited?”
“Yup. But right now, it’s his birthday and I just want to focus on that,” I said.
“Hey, me too. But looking at you right now, it’s hard to concentrate. Do you know what I want to do to you?”
If it was the same thing he always wanted to do to me, yes, I could guess. It felt like I had two uses to him: sex and punching bag. I wasn’t sure which one hurt me worse, since neither one felt like love.
I squirmed out of his embrace and made a fuss over Scott and his new toys. I was torn. I wanted Nate to want me, but I also wanted him to leave again. I was free to be myself when he was gone. I was free to be happy.
I loved my freedom as much as I feared being alone.
He always came and left in the dark so that the police didn’t see him. Sometimes he’d leave without telling me, and he always arrived without notice. He was sure one of these times he’d catch me with someone else. But I didn’t want anyone else. If I wanted someone, it was him. And the confusion caused by the wanting and not wanting drove me crazy. How could I want to be with someone who treated me the way he did, and then how could I not want to be with someone who loved me the way he did?
As I slept one night, he crept into the house and crawled into bed. I nearly screamed before I realized it was him.
“It’s time to fix our little family,” he said, stroking my hair. “I’m working in Jacksonville now, with Dad, and I’m making good money. I’m ready for us to get back together. I want you and my boy to come back with me.”
I didn’t know what to say. While there wasn’t much of anything for me in Williston, I knew the possibilities of what awaited anywhere I went with him. His behavior was too erratic, too crazy, too confusing. Why would I want that? But why wouldn’t I want my family to give it one more try? When I married him, I vowed to be his wife through better or worse, and surely this was the part where I was supposed to stick by his side, the worse.
Of course I moved to Jacksonville with him. I don’t really think I had a choice. But things really were so much better once we got there. And even better yet when we moved into our own little house. It was on a great street, and the whole yard was fenced in with plenty of room. I was in love all over again, both with him and with our life. I should have known that all I had to do was have faith and we would be ok.
My happily-ever-after was again not meant to be, of course. Nate raced home one day, shaken and upset. “Only you could have turned me in,” he said.
I shook my head, scared, no idea what he was talking about.
“They came to my job. The cops. Those pigs! How did they find me? Why would you tell them? You’re the only one who knows!” he said, pacing the floor.
Scott called out from his room. “Daddy!” He adored his dad and loved when he was home during the day. “Daddy, Daddy!”
“Shut him up,” he said, grabbing a soda from the fridge. “If they come here, I don’t need him telling them I was here.”
“He’s a baby. He can’t tell them anything,” I reasoned, stepping out of reach just in case.
“That would be him telling them something,” he said, growing impatient.
I got Scott out of his crib and brought him to Nate. “Just say hi and he will stop yelling for you, ok?”
“Hey buddy,” he said, taking him. “Did you have a good nap? Daddy has to go bye-bye again, ok? I’ll be back soon.”
He grabbed a duffle and filled it with clothes, and then leaned in for a kiss. “I hope you really aren’t the one who called,” he said, and then kissed Scott and left.
The police never showed up for him, so he decided maybe they weren’t even looking for him to begin with. But on a routine trip to the grocery store, we ran into a police roadblock, and as soon as they asked Nate for his license, we knew his number was up.
Seeing him sitting in the back of the police car was a sight I never thought I’d have to witness again. He never looked weaker than right then. I felt sorry for him and yet, I also felt something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was like the law had done me a favor, like the pressure was off. He couldn’t possibly watch over me and tell me what to do from jail.
But he also couldn’t support me from jail. In fact, he asked me for money. I did the only thing I knew how to do – I went back home to Mom. While she predicted this would happen, I was glad she still cared enough to make sure we didn’t end up on the streets in Jacksonville. Every time I caught a glimpse of her as a real mom, I was encouraged and felt like my memories of her were all wrong. Maybe all the hitting had been my fault, because that’s not who she was. Whenever she showed up, I saw someone who cared, even if she did gloat a little.
After serving time for driving on a suspended license in Jacksonville, Nate was extradited closer to Williston to answer to charges of theft. We visited regularly, and I forgave him his crimes, though the courts would not. He was sentenced to some real time in prison, and no amount of pleading with public defenders or judges made any difference.
I wrote him daily. It was my job, my wifely duty to be sure he received a letter every day. If I missed a day, or rather, if the mail hiccupped and didn’t deliver right on time, I caught hell for it. Otherwise, he was the model husband — writing poetry, finding God (again), and making promises to be better.
If Mom could change, maybe my husband could too.
About Angela Giles Klocke – I’m a Colorado-based speaker, writer, advocate, and princess! I am also a survivor of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and more. I would love to speak to your group, school, or organization. Catch my TEDx Colorado Springs Talk on abuse, violence, and talking about uncomfortable topics, coming soon. Contact me!