(This impactful piece comes with a content warning for discussion of domestic abuse and use of slurs.)
I started really leaving the last time you called me cunt. I would have stayed in bed when I heard the breaking, let you wear yourself out with your anger, but I remembered an anecdote about some poet trying to commit suicide by walking on broken glass. It was something about the shards working their way into veins and floating up from bare feet to a beating heart. I don’t know if glass swims through blood that way, but as I covered my head in our bed with my lumpy pillow, I imagined those sharp, shiny shards working their way through our cats’ tiny veins to their tiny cat hearts. I got up to sweep the glass off the carpeted stairs, where I knew it would be.
I already knew what you’d broken—the black and white sketch I’d bought at the Goodwill on Sunset Blvd back when I believed we were hoping together, those first couple years. Maybe I was the only one who’d hoped. Maybe I thought I’d be able to do it hard enough for the both of us. That was before the broken glass, back when I still dreamed of decorating our lives.
Now, I am a connoisseur of broken things. I know what’s breaking by the sound of its falling apart. I have lived my life in fragile worlds. Always breaking. I can name the thick clunk of a tumbler splitting, recognize the way its pitch is different than the spiderwebbing fracture of cheap glass in a dollar store photo frame.
That predawn morning when I started really leaving, I remember tugging at the hem of my lavender Bloomsday Race participant shirt. It was dingy at the armpits. It was all I had on, and it was always worse to absorb your rage so close to naked, no underwear, no shoes, nothing for running. I used to hunch my shoulders to my ears and hold my hands like a prayer, even though I don’t pray, don’t have anything to pray to. I would try so hard not to cry. I knew you hated tears, saw them as an attack.
I didn’t say anything that morning, didn’t deflect or defend or even cry. I’d learned the discipline of silence. By then, my words weren’t the point, though. I was the point. My existence was a trigger. My chubby face, my chipped fingernail polish—enough to make you hate me all over again, to make your rage bloom anew.
I’ve thought a lot about it, and there wasn’t anything special about that last time. It certainly wasn’t the worst time, wasn’t the ugliest. It was just last.
The last time you called me fat cunt, called me dumb bitch, called me gold-digger. The last time I wiped your spit from my face. The last time I avoided your eyes because I saw my fortune there, like reading tea leaves—in them I could foretell my death.
I’d just bought a new wooden broom at the Bed, Bath and Beyond on Division St.
Wooden because the broom it replaced was metal, so to say you broke it would be inaccurate. Rather, you’d bent it around my thick body, over my wide, flat back. Bent it over and over while I knelt on the linoleum gathering half-moons of broken dinner plates from the floor. When you left for work the next day, I folded the bend back and forth until it did break.
Sometimes, in your absence, I liked being the orchestrator of broken things.
The new broom, with its sturdy wooden handle, had foolishly meant better when I bought it, scanning the aisle for the right hopeful tool. It meant better like so many things once meant better. Better like the expensive industrial trash can that had replaced the white plastic one you put your fist through on the 4th of July. Better like all the screws and hinges I drilled in place to secure cabinets and doors you’d ripped from their moorings, like the drywall patches and spackle, like the green and yellow concealers I bought to hide the bruising.
Do you remember the first time you called me a cunt?
What I remember is you, naked, chasing me from our mildewed apartment on Mariposa. I remember that fucking 9mm in your massive hand. What I remember is your voice so loud my bones rattled. What I remember in the chamber of your impossible scream is you telling me to go fuck n—s. You said it with the hard r of hatred, called me n— lover. I remember the neighbor’s faces, averted from their windows.
What I remember is the tinkling of Christmas music from the motion-triggered ornament that hung from the aluminum stair railing outside Liliana’s apartment.
I was working two jobs then, scrubbing floors all day and selling soccer balls and jockstraps to awkward teenage boys in the evening. That first time, that first night that you pulled your freckled face off and became your own demon, became our demon, I still had on my red and black-striped uniform.
I should have left then, packed my bag on that wet night so full of hard r’s. That November night when I sobbed in the rain more from shame than from fear, the teenagers in the courtyard playing ball embarrassed for me, like they’d seen this all before and knew my brand of sad was so far from special. I should have gone that night when, after you passed out on the bathroom floor, your limp dick facing up like a flaccid white flag, I pressed that heavy-ass gun barrel to the roof of my mouth and prayed to all those Jesuses I don’t believe in—prayed, Jesus, bless me with a braver trigger finger.
The next morning, I left cookies outside apartment doors at that transient complex because that was the morning I began to bear the burden of your hate, to wear your rage’s weight, and I didn’t know how to say I’m sorry.
I didn’t leave that night. I just kept not leaving and not leaving. I was so determined to be less me, to be more someone else, someone who didn’t spark anger, to be a woman whose face didn’t make men hate so hard that it poured out, molten, over whole populations, ripped open whole histories of bloody rage.
My body, scarred and broken, an encyclopedia of scorn, is no longer fragile.
My first fractured eye socket stayed black for weeks. Purpled while I sat—my feet in blue booties, my hair in a blue net—in the abortion clinic waiting room off Wilshire. It yellowed and browned like a rotting banana through our trip to Santa Cruz, the one where we rode the rollercoaster on the boardwalk for hours. Sunglasses wouldn’t fit over the swelling, so I broke the arm off a pair from the dollar store and hot glued it back on to fit my overripe melon of a face.
Do you remember when we visited my mom after that first really bad black eye, my eyeball still crimson with burst capillaries? Remember how we stood in the burnt orange kitchen of her trailer while I explained how guilty I felt that anyone would think you’d hit me; how I fabricated a story about trying to stop a teenage boy from punching his girlfriend, said she’d hit me, that imaginary teenage girl? Not you—you with your wrecking ball fists and your 6’5” body, your Marine Corps rage and grief, but a teenage girl near the Carl’s Junior on Western. I even said that part, the Carl’s Junior on Western. And you know what they say about a story with too many details.
Do you remember how my mom joked that if anything, it would be me who was doing the abusing, and we all laughed—big belly laughs because I am the worst.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I started leaving sooner. Maybe I started leaving the first time I thought: I don’t deserve to be treated this way because no one deserves to be treated this way, and I’m no one. I played that line like a skipping record in my head for a whole summer. Every time you threw a glass at me or called me a name, every time I found a new hole in a wall or new fingerprints on my throat, I thought: no one deserves to be treated this way, and I am no one.
Maybe I started leaving when that famous novelist said nice things to me, and I cried in the car for hours, because I’d forgotten how soft and warm kindness feels.
Maybe I did start leaving that first night when your hurled the n— word into the world, not because you hated black people, but because you hated me and you wanted to weaponize language, make murders on your tongue, and you knew, knew already, the ways to make words nuclear in a way that cunt or whore never quite could be because I never cared nearly as much about myself.
The morning I started really leaving, making plans and hiding cash, you kept saying: I guess you got your story now, huh, cunt? You got your story now. And I guess you’re right, cause here I am with my story, my blood sharp with the shards of it.
Jenny Catlin (she/her/hers) lives and writes in the Southwest US. Her poetry, interviews and prose have appeared in numerous publications, most recently in The Swamp and Willow Springs.