Image by Kristin Beeler
My first call to a domestic violence shelter started with a bumbling request: “I don’t really even know what I’m asking for. . . He never hit me,” I said.
The legal advocate reeled off a spiel that sounded routine: Emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse are categories of domestic violence. That triptych list seemed as real to her as the specials at Pizza Hut.
I knew that list. I knew it for others and did not know it for myself.
In my pizza mind, the fragments of knowledge layered like pepperoni and olives on a tomato sauce sea, its crust barely containing the splattered chaos of ingredients. Like my high school days as a Pizza Hut waitress, the knowledge of feminist theory and women’s lives rested alongside and yet strangely separate from other pockets of knowledge.
St. Jerry Springer clocked in as kitchen supervisor at this Pizza Hut in my mind. He didn’t want to work there either, but he staffed the shifts and only paid “smart women,” the ones who did not tell secrets. The other ones, the talkers, were just looking for attention. Smart women earned degrees and wrote books. Smart women never got themselves into these kinds of situations. Smart women and smart men at smart conferences and schools invoked St. Jerry so consistently that he barely got a chance to rest and eat a slice.
I couldn’t get that Jerry-Springer-Invocation off my skin. It clung to me like incense, like the smell of Pizza Hut Meat Lover’s Pizza would adhere to my skin after each evening shift.
I still remember how to slice green peppers to stock the salad bar, twenty years after turning in my polyester apron.
Other women were smart were myself were stupid were somehow here.
I had told a man I loved him a thousand times. Those tiny curled sentences did nothing to stop waves of text messages, emails, phone calls, tricks, lies, mutterings, threats, and blunt words. St. Jerry hovered in the corner with little practical advice. I didn’t mind him. He actually understood; I lit candles maybe half to him and half to remind myself of warmth.
One night I put my son to bed and deleted a hate-filled voicemail. I curled into the couch like a ball of Kleenex, used up and frayed.
I can’t do this anymore. I’d do anything to make this end.
The thought faded, but the poison aftertaste made me stop. I raised my torso upright in the silent living room, sensing a new level of danger: the temptation to give up.
I reached for the phone book and flipped through tissue-thin pages. I found the number for the hotline and the shelter, circled it on the page, and then forced myself to write it in a notebook.
I didn’t want to do lots of things but I did them anyway. I cleaned up puke from the Men’s Room at Pizza Hut when I was sixteen. At thirty-nine, I could make a phone call. After writing down the numbers, following a string of digits to the decision, I could sleep.
I still dream of Pizza Hut. Twenty years later I have tables of squinting customers I cannot satisfy, nonsensical orders and buzzers and ticking clocks.
We talked. I got a case file. Jerry rode shotgun.
Months later I pressed the button on the call box and was buzzed in through the heavy metal door. I sat down in the advocate’s office and replayed the latest confrontation, looking for wedges in which to insert sanity, choices I could have made, pivot points for change.
I asked her what to do the next time, hoping for a threaded retreat through a mountain pass or a secret map.
“Call 911,” she said. “That’s what people do. If someone is bothering them and they don’t feel safe, they call for help.”
My mouth and eyes widened in a blank what?
“You’re probably thinking about all the times in the past when you could have called and didn’t,” she said.
After my appointment, I sat under the oval leaves of a large magnolia tree. “I’m a smart woman,” I said in quiet wonder. The words escaped my lips and traveled the mercifully short distance to my ears.
When all else fails, do the worksheets. I filled out the blanks in the safety plan and followed the directions. I stocked my car with identification and emergency supplies in case I needed to leave. And, finally, I keyed 911 into my phone. No drama, no failure, no Jerry.
I sat on my meditation cushion, lost for a moment in the orange flames that wavered above a cluster of votive candles. In front of me, a small print of a green-skinned Buddha sat in a frame I’d found at a garage sale. I did what I had learned to do in Buddhist classes: I felt my breath gently expand in my ribcage. I felt the air around my body against my skin. I tried to be here in this moment.
Behind me, a drum solo exploded. The drum set only fit in my meditation room. My four-year-old wanted to follow me, so when I meditated he played drums. The crashing waves of sound created a force field to repel my fears like a barrage of gongs ringing in a temple.
“Ma, can you fix the cymbals?” rang a high, sweet voice. I turned to see my son with wild blonde hair and a drumstick in each hand. I leaned over to adjust the brass-colored high-hat dinged with a thousand dents, each a record of a dissipated smash.
My son had arranged smooth rocks and a small set of sky-blue barbells in careful bunches around the metal feel of the drums. He had strung gold plastic Mardi Gras beads around the bass.
“Some people put this one there, but I put it over here,” he explained in a singsong as he touched the tall high-hat cymbal. “You can have it how you like it.”
I gave up on meditation and blew out the candles, but my son’s words looped in my head.
We can have it how we like it: such a hard-earned sentence. I release it as an invocation to St. Jerry, an aspiration to compare my longings to the color and texture and taste of my life as I live it, this exact darting day.
Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (forthcoming in 2011). She teaches in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Ashland University. More info is available at www.sonyahuber.com.
Read our interview with Sonya here.