What is Abuse?

It was dark, in the middle of the night, and cold. I stood shivering in my thin polyester Scooby PJs peeking at the swollen, disfigured face of my aunt. Flashes of red, blue, and very bright lights pulled up into our driveway.

My aunt crying again with a new bruise blooming in her cheek and eye, swollen belly before her, carrying my cousin who at nine months in the womb was ready to burst into this world.

A beautiful dinner of carne asada, salad with generous slices of aguacate and tomate on top, and beans – always freshly made – on the side. As I inhaled the plate before me I heard the crack, centimeters from my ear. I coughed on flecks of porcelain dish that sprayed throughout the table once it ricocheted off the wall. The wall where my dad did not aim, my mom beside me. Was she beside me? Or standing by the comal warming tortillas as she always stood, her face hidden in the walls away from everything and everyone, away from him, from us.

The red eyes. The staggering walk and angry whispers to himself. To themselves.

All of these memories are jumbled and sometimes, hard as a I try – I can’t ensure I know whom was who and what I saw or what I was told – over and over again by my mother. Her stories. her account. Of me, my dad, my life – it’s hard to disentangle what I know to be true to what I hope I can convince myself happened, the happen she wants, her truth I hope for.

Velour pants, copper-colored, matching velour jacket hugging my body. Curled hair after hours with a curling iron, glossy lips and my eyelashes curled. I pulled the jacket down to cover the thin strip of skin exposed every time I stood up straight. I’m ironing his shirt and as I turn it over to him, I’m not sure what happens. I go back to the bed curling the last strands of hair and he makes a comment about Who Am I Dressing For? And then there’s the smell of burning flesh, the iron stuck against my hip, an angry red strip. He’s crying and I’m trying not to implode from wanting to run away but having nowhere to go. DJ is loud and everyone is drinking and dancing at my mom’s house. Oh You Know How Clumsy I am! I wave off the burn that is beginning to blister but I don’t cover it.

I can’t bring myself to share more than that.

The shame, the shame, the shame.

Shame of having failed at marriage. Of not putting up with it, of not being better, or good enough to deserve better. The oily feeling of failure sticking to your skin, the fear that your pores are emanating a stale smell of desperation. The feeling of having to depend on only yourself when you feel so broken and bone tired. The angry words of disappointment and disgust of others for not staying. Prostituta. Cualquiera. Mujer de la Calle. Desgracia.

And those two little faces looking up at me wondering, What Next? In our car in the cold nights, bundled in their car seats. The constant prickling of tears that refuse to spill because that’s not a luxury you can afford.

It’s taken me years to forgive myself for leaving, for failing. Even now, against all logic, I feel guilty, guilt intertwined with incredulity at How Did I Get There in the First Place? I left that abusive relationship only to fall into another that would take more a few more years to get out. To finally get out of the reach of the same cycle that preyed on my insecurities, my precarious financial situation, my housing instability, and low self-esteem. I grew up in an abusive home and walked on a path that naturally led me to another abusive home, this time as an adult. I was fortunate enough to have had the strength, the looks, the luck of getting out without the help of my family. The family that normalized that abuse and would gaslight me each time I had tried to leave. I’m out and have been out of abusive situations for years and all I can think of is how I would mourn that younger me if she were still in that basement being hurt in silence or in that loft in a luxury building being hurt in different ways. I mourn those still in those situations.

My aunt came to our house time and time again until she stopped. My aunt was a beautiful woman, deep caramel brown skin that shone whether day or night, and she loved me. How she married my uncle remains unclear except for the fact that she was the darkest of her family and was simply ignored and sidelined. She may have wanted what so many of us wanted, what I wanted, what my mother wanted and didn’t know how to give – she may have wanted to feel wanted. She stayed with this man her whole life, no matter how many times he beat her. No matter his illogical jealousy that resulted in a swollen lip, no matter how pregnant she was he still unleashed the same anger against her jaw and stomach driven by some slight he imagined she had committed by having another man open the door for her.

She tried to leave, she moved so many times. No one ever offered her safety and I don’t know that she even thought to ask. Each time, he seemed to find her. And each time a new child would fill her swollen belly which would make him kinder for a time.

I didn’t understand how lonely, how painful it was for her until I stood in her shoes. If you can, check in and be there for your friends and family who may in similar situations. And no matter how many times it takes them to leave, be there every single time.

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