Ben parks the car alongside the four story building where he works as head counsel for Pitkin & Catelli. He hopes to become a partner soon, at which point he plans to marry me. I’m glad it’s his plan, because it certainly isn’t mine.
“Okay babe,” he says as he pulls up the parking brake. “Be here at noon and don’t be late.” He smiles, gets out of the car, and then turns back. “Oh and don’t think about leaving me here, remember I can find you.”
No, he doesn’t know what I am up to. He always makes comments like that, given his police detective background. He started at the law firm as a spy, so to speak. He conducted surveillance operations on cheating spouses, prescription drug pushers, and any other maleficent persons. He fooled his employers into thinking he was a good guy. They actually helped him get through law school so he could join the team in a more ‘professional’ manner.
“Don’t forget your sandwich,” I say and extend my hand.
He slaps it from my weak hold, sending it to the asphalt. “I’m not eating that shit,” he hisses.
Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.
I am amazed by my ability to make light of the situation. I guess I am certain I am on my way to freedom and its okay for me to laugh now. Either that or this is my insane way of coping. It’s like a bad movie starring me. It’s a sad comedy. The abuse is absurd and my sticking around is so damn pathetic that it’s funny. So why not let him enjoy his final minutes… hours… days of abuse. Yes, I am sure I will have to endure his crap for at least another week, but what’s a week compared to a lifetime?
He shakes his head and says, “Oh, and do me a favor and fix yourself up.” A sadistic grin creeps across his face. “You look like shit. I don’t want my bosses to see you like this.”
“Okay,” I say through gritted teeth.
I shift over to the driver’s seat and take off toward the Air Force recruitment center. There is no going back now, I tell myself. As I park the car in front of the white stucco building, I take a deep breath. Sickness overcomes me and I want to vomit, but I close my eyes and try to imagine myself free. But the prospect of being alone frightens me. I have never been completely alone before. Raised in a family that constantly berates me, pointing out my flaws, and critical of my every word and action has left me an emotional cripple.
I want to be able to stroll amongst strangers, and not be self-aware. Most people probably don’t even notice me, but I feel like critical eyes are always upon me. I am never comfortable in social situations and beat myself up later for forgetting to properly introduce myself, make adequate eye contact or shake a hand. Most people would shrug it off, but not me. Things like that play in my head over and over again like a bad movie.
I am told by my mother that I have an odd way about myself, and that people just don’t like me. It is tough criticism to swallow, and I wish I could just accept it as who I am, but I want to be a better person. I want friends, not the shallow fair weather types, but the good types. The ones whose shoulders I can cry on and not worry about making them uncomfortable. The ones who I can share my most pressing problems with, and get back good advice. But that’s precisely what got me in trouble to begin with.
Enter knight in shining armor. Ben is a handsome man I met in my last year of graduate studies; he was in his final year of law school. I had been rooming with my sister Katie while she prepared for her dissertation for her PhD. We did not get along, never did. We roomed for ‘economical’ reasons. She always got involved in my business and when she turned my best friend against me, I had had enough. And that was about the same time I met Ben. Desperate to get out of my situation with Katie, I jumped into his arms, turning off all warning bells in my head.
I had seen firsthand how jealous he was, but I ignored it, maybe even enjoyed it. I was flattered by the attention. When he asked me to move into his apartment I leapt at the chance. I had rid myself of Katie, but what I had really done was trade in one asshole for another.
Ben was my rock at the beginning. I shared my every emotion with him. He listened and comforted me when I felt depressed, but then all that changed. Soon he used everything I had told him against me. My family was poisonous; therefore, I needed to cut them off, he’d say. I didn’t want to be cut off. Distant, yes, but totally alienated from them, no. He hammered me into submission, and I soon became dependent on him for everything. And now, without an income, it is a dangerous situation to be in and I need out.
I pull down the little mirror in the visor and look at myself. I examine every detail of my face and whisper in my head, ‘Mia you can do this. You’re going to get out and meet new people. You’re going to walk freely in crowds and not even be aware of yourself. You’ll survive. But one thing you’ll not do is pick-up with another asshole.’
I flip up the mirror, take a deep breath and grab my purse. Holding my head high I walk into the building and introduce myself to the receptionist.
“Hello,” I say, “My name is Mia and I am here to meet with Cpt. Woodlow.”
“Please take a seat. I’ll let him know you’re here,” she says. She picks up the phone and talks in low tones. “He’ll be out as soon as he can,” she tells me.
I twist in my seat, unable to find a comfortable position. Glancing at my watch, I decide to give him fifteen minutes before making an excuse to leave. Do I really want to do this? It seems so rash and frightening. Ben, at least, is safe. I know what to expect from him…Abuse. Mia…you can get through this. Your sanity…hell…your life depends on it. You must escape!
Twenty minutes pass and I get ready to leave when the receptionist tells me he is on an important call and will be with me in five minutes. I wait, and thirty minutes later I am shuffled off to an office to meet with a thirty something year old man dressed in a smart blue uniform. The thought of a dress code irritates me, but living with Ben is worse.
We exchange introductions, and I start filling out recruitment forms as quickly as possible, wondering why they didn’t give them to me while I was waiting. My palms become moist and my heart pounds in my ears. I am uncomfortable under the stare of the man. As if feeling it, he gets ups and excuses himself. I finally finish and shake out my cramped hand.
The man pops into the room and takes the forms. As he scans them, he explains the process to me. After the medical exam, there is officer training school, but that has to be scheduled for a different day. I want to get everything squared away now. Bam! Final! Grab my shit and be shipped to another state or country even.
“How long will the medical exam take?” I ask.
“The exam itself is quick, but the wait can be a few hours,” he tells me.
“Oh and how long before Basic Officer Training?”
“A new session begins next Monday”
“And what happens after training?”
“You are immediately shipped off to your station.”
“Okay so what next?” I ask.
“I’ll get these forms processed and then call you to schedule your appointment at the MEPS.”
“Military Entrance Processing Station.”
“Okay, so how long will that take?”
“Processing takes a day,” he says. “Are you in a hurry?” He smiles like a child who just realizes something amazing.
Of course I’m in a hurry you idiot. The military takes everyone, what’s up with all the bullshit delays?
“I’d like to travel,” I blurt. “I’ve never travelled before and would love to see other states, maybe even other countries.”
“We have a base in Japan.”
“Oh, Japan,” I say, feeling my breath escape me like a balloon with a hole. I am thinking small rooms, small places, and crowds of people on a small island. No, Japan definitely does not appeal to me. But then Ben would never travel so far to find me, if he were inclined to look.
“So I will give you a call tomorrow,” he says and winks.
Are you flirting with me? Yuck!
We shake hands and I leave.
I sit in my car for a several minutes and crack the windows, allowing the cool October breeze to pass over me. Closing my eyes, the nervous tension starts to leave my body and I begin to breathe normally again.
Oh shit! The time!
I start the engine and glance at the dashboard clock. It’s ten to twelve. No time for me to relax. I throw the car in reverse, back out then put it in drive. I tear down the road like a crazed maniac, the engine churning angrily with each change in gear. I don’t want to be too late meeting Ben. It’s not just the physical abuse that worries me, but the ranting, the non-stop ear shattering ranting.
I see him alongside the building, pacing, his face in a scowl. When I pull up he makes an expression as if to say, ‘what the hell happened.’ I glance at the clock and see that I am only ten minutes late. He pulls the door open which such force I thought he may rip the handle right off.
“What happened!” he yells.
I screw-up my face in an attempt of defiance, then say, “I had an interview.”
“You’re late! I told you noon. Get the fuck over!”
I start to slide over to the passenger seat when he shoves me, sending me head first into the door. I straighten-up and rub at the fast forming knot on my head. “You know that was completely unnecessary,” I murmur.
“Unnecessary,” he says in a mocking tone. “Do you have any idea how bad you’ve made me look in front of my bosses?”
I sit speechless, bracing myself for his rage.
He gets close to my ear, “Well, do you!” he screams.
My eardrum vibrates, feeling as if it will burst. I tremble under his hot breath as I choke back my tears.
“I was supposed to have lunch with them, and you were my excuse, but you didn’t show!”
“I’m sorry,” I quake.
We drive for several minutes in silence.
“So how did it go?” he asks with a sigh as if he is bored with my childish silent treatment.
“It went well,” I say. “They may call me back for a second interview.”
He smirks and says, “Sounds like a joke. If they were interested they would’ve offered you a job right away. You’re not going.”
“What?” I whisper as I turn to him, wide-eyed and incredulous.
“You’re not going. You know it’s a waste of fucking time, and you’ve already made me look like an asshole once. No, this shit isn’t happening again.” His eyes are tiny slits and his brow furrows.
I look out the window, my head is swimming. I have a fleeting urge to jump out and let a passing car run me over. I wipe at the salty streams that trickle down my cheeks. “You can’t dictate to me what I can and cannot do,” I finally say with determination. “This is my car. You need to get your own damn car!”
He slams on the brakes, shooting me forward. The seat belt jerks me back, digging into the flesh of my neck. The car behind us comes to a screeching halt. I watch in the passenger side mirror as a red faced man with clinched fists springs out of his car and marches toward us.
Ben stomps on the accelerator and sends us speeding down the road. He weaves in and out of traffic. I start to feel queasy. I throw my head between my knees and bile shoots out of my mouth, burning my throat.
Ben pulls off the road and stops. He laughs. I blindly fumble for the window button, but it’s no use. I continue vomiting, and then the dry heaves set-in. Once my stomach is empty and calm I sit back, trying to turn off my taste buds.
“You done,” he smirks.
My hands tremble and I cannot find my voice. He grabs my hair and pulls back my head. Reaching over with his other hand, he wraps his fingers around my throat.
“Don’t you ever talk to me like that again!” he yells inches from my face, spraying me with spittle.
I feel his dark burning stare upon me, but I cannot meet his eyes. My lips draw into a tight line as the muscles tense in my face. Finally, he releases his hold on me.
I cower when he throws an index finger in my face. “You get it!”
I nod my head like a mindless puppet.
He turns the car around, and heads back to the office building. Coming to an abrupt stop, he shoves the gear into park, and then yanks up the emergency brake, making the cheap plastic handle whine in protest. He jumps out of the car, slamming the door behind him. I slink over to the driver’s seat, worried that passersby will see my red, swollen face.
Ben turns back and I lock the doors. I struggle to release the parking brake. He pulls on the door handle, screams a string of obscenities and pounds his fist on the window. He warns me that I better be there at five to pick him up.
It is difficult, but I somehow manage to pull myself together and drive home.
When I enter the apartment the smell of vomit overcomes me. I still have to clean the mess, his mess. I walk into the kitchen and rummage through the fridge for some food, knowing I must eat, even though hunger escapes me. I roll up a couple slices of ham and shove them into my mouth.
I change into some old clothes, and get a bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush. Plopping down on the carpet, and holding my breath, I poke at the vomit. It’s like crusty oatmeal, I pick at the surface until I get to the thick, moist under layer. Scrubbing, without looking, I eventually clean the mess.
I dispose of the empty beer bottles. I want to take a break and watch some TV, but I am determined to finish my chores before running out of time. Rinsing out the bucket and reloading it with fresh soapy water, I walk out to my car.
After finishing, I jump into a hot shower. Closing my eyes, I imagine myself in a remote tropical forest, bathing under a waterfall. The water caresses my body like a warm silken blanket as birds chirp a soothing song. But negative thoughts soon intrude my happy place, and I begin to worry about the time. I race out of the shower, dry off and change into tight fitting jeans and a bust enhancing t-shirt. I blow out my hair with a round brush, making large golden curls. After applying make-up and a few squirts of body spray, I head out the door.
I arrive ten minutes early to Ben’s office and he comes out ten minutes late. He leaves the man he is with and taps on the driver’s side window.
“Hey come on out and meet my bosses,” he says jovially.
I shut the engine and hop out of the car.
Ben’s eyes pop. He moves in close and whispers, “Wow, you look hot.” Grabbing my arm he tugs me along. “Hey, Mitch this is my girlfriend Mia,” he says with a giant grin.
“Nice to meet you,” says Mitch as he extends his hand.
I give him a firm shake. Mitch fidgets, and I wonder if I missed a social grace. Did I grasp his hand too hard or maybe not hard enough?
“Where’s Kevin?” asks Ben.
“Oh he’s still inside, maybe you should check on him?” suggests Mitch.
Ben goes into the building, and I feel my muscles tense. My armpits become moist and my jaws begin to ache with nervous tension. Mitch shoves his hands into his pant pockets and exhales as if he has been holding his breath too long.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” he says, “Ben talks about you all the time.”
“Really?” I say, incredulously.
“Surprised?” he jests. “You don’t think you’re every bit of wonderful he says you are?”
“Oh, no, of course I do,” I stammer, and then feel my cheeks flush.
He smiles big and glances about, his sights occasionally falling upon me. I cannot help but notice his beautiful hazel eyes, and chiseled good looks. His upper lip curls just enough to show his pearly white teeth. As my heart begins to melt, my eyes fall to his chest and I wonder what lies beneath his expensive looking business suit. For one brief desperate moment I imagine myself free of Ben and with mister hot stuff instead. He seems amiable and well off. And he is nervous around me, me of all people. I jerk back to reality when Ben appears with boss number two. What am I thinking? If the guy likes me, then he’s surely an asshole. I am a magnet for them. I remind myself that I cannot be trusted when it comes to men. After I rid myself of Ben, it will be a long time before I date again.
“This is my boss, Kevin,” says Ben.
“Nice to meet you,” I say.
Kevin looks to be in his mid-forties, making him at least ten years older than Mitch and Ben. He barely nods in my direction, and ignores the hand I thrust toward him.
What did I do? Why did Kevin totally ignore me? Did I look at him wrong? Did I forget to smile?
Mitch breaks the uncomfortable silence. “I’m heading to happy hour, if anyone would like to join me.”
I so badly want to go. He seems so nice and maybe, just maybe he will sweep me off my feet and rescue me from the horrible Ben. But what am I thinking? How can I be so stupid? My brain is screaming at me, but my heart is pulling toward Mitch. ‘He’s a stranger’, I tell myself, ‘and you know there is no such thing as a Knight in shining armor.’
Kevin politely declines the offer and says he must get going. He mumbles something about wife, kids and responsibilities.
I give in to my imagination, picturing myself strolling along an empty beach with Mitch, hand in hand. The sky is a palette of purple, pink and gold as the sun falls beyond the horizon. The salty ocean breeze brushes by me as wave’s crash and water washes over my toes.
“We’re actually expecting company,” interrupts Ben, “but maybe some other time.”
“Sure,” says Mitch with a limp smile.
I’m disappointed too, but I need to keep my emotions in check. It’s for the best. Besides, no one is going to save me from Ben, except me, and I have already set a plan in motion.
I jump into the passenger side of the car and watch with sorrowful eyes as Mitch strolls down the sidewalk. His hands are shoved in his pants pockets, head held high, and there is a spring in his step. I imagine he is whistling an old time song about a man who has found love at last.
“Wow, so what was that about?” asks Ben.
“What?” I say, playing clueless.
“You mean to tell me you didn’t notice Mitch drooling over you?”
“Yeah, he was acting a little strange, but drooling?” I wave a dismissive hand and push out a sigh.
“You’re pretending, how cute,” he says, his voice lilting with a half-taunting humor.
I am waiting for the explosion.
“Would you be willing to sleep with him if it means a promotion for me?”
“Absolutely not,” I retort.
He breaks out laughing.
“I’m just yanking your chain,” he says. “Ha, that bastard must be eating his heart out.”
Yeah, keep gloating while you can.
Ben inhales deeply then exhales, releasing an ‘mmm’, as if he just smelt something delicious.
“You did a good job cleaning the car. It actually smells nice.”