*Alex squeezed my throat tighter and tighter as time began to slow. Both of my hands clutched his, and I tried to peel his fingers away from my neck, one by one, but just as I’d pull one away and reach for another, the first would snap back to its sinking grasp. I heard myself gasp as I tried to gulp down a swath of air. I needed one to make its way past my lips and through my mouth and over my tongue and down my throat into my lungs.
He was screaming something, something that in any ordinary circumstance I’d likely understand perfectly, but I couldn’t comprehend his words and they didn’t make sense, and it didn’t matter because I just needed one simple breath before my neck caved in to the power of his hands, my skin between his fingers like Silly Putty.
It was dark outside. Quiet. His eyes glowed under the streetlights outside the windshield. We struggled in earsplitting silence. Then our eyes met, and the adrenaline came in an instant. I swung my right fist and felt contact with bone. He flew backward as if I’d electrocuted him. Holding his hand to his face, he stared at me through his fingers. Blood trickled from his nose.
One in three women has been a victim of violence by an intimate partner within her lifetime, and nearly 20 people per minute experience some form of abuse in the U.S., according to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence. The act is isolating, humiliating, and inherently silencing. It’s easy for victims to talk themselves out of the realities of the relationship—it was for me.
The first time my now ex-boyfriend laid his hands on me, his touch was forceful and angry after we’d argued about where he’d been for the last three days. He grabbed my shoulders, his six-foot-tall frame leaning over me and his face coming inches from mine as my head bobbled back and forth in his little hallway next to the bathroom before we went to bed. But I was, for the most part, unharmed. “Can’t we just enjoy our time together rather than you ruining it with your incessant questions?” he screamed. We didn’t talk about it when we woke up the next morning. When I turned over to hug him, my shoulders ached.
He and I fell in love quickly, plunging into our relationship headfirst, but as time went by, anger came faster. Fighting words became nastier, the blows lower and lower.
When we were up, though, the world swirled around us as if we were at the center of it. We had our own mini book club, where we tried to read the same book at the same time so that we could talk about it before we went to sleep at night. We made dinners together, hiked mountains together, and went to concerts together. On our third date, through a happy wine haze, we read poems from other centuries to each other. He’d make playlists of songs about love and romance and send them to me in Zip files. I was in my 20s experiencing middle-school nostalgia, receiving modern-day mixtapes with songs chosen just for me. He told me I was smart and kind and beautiful, difficult to pinpoint, and easy to love.
I loved the way he loved me in those moments.
But the arguments escalated. When he ripped off the necklace—the one my mom had given me for Christmas—because I asked why he hadn’t returned my phone call the night before, the sound of the beads echoed in the hallway as they bounced against the hardwood floor. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said, as I stood frozen, staring at him, my hand holding my chest where the necklace had just lay. I bent down, and soon I was on my hands and knees, gathering up the pieces. “You just don’t know when to stop. You drive people to these points,” he said, standing over me.
I pulled myself up and leaned against the doorframe. We met eyes. His face became redder and redder. I instinctually moved away from him. He followed my path, not saying another word, throwing me down on the bed and standing over me, his hands around my neck for the first time, violently squeezing my flesh between his fingers, pulsing my body up and down, up and down, up and down on the mattress.
“Why don’t you ever know when to stop asking questions,” he screamed as he tightened his grip. I pushed his shoulders hard and he flew backward off of me, his body slamming into his dresser.
The next morning, I awoke before dawn and walked to the kitchen for a glass of water. The curtains fluttered lightly in front of an open window. I heard someone outside walk a few steps up the stairs to his apartment and ask a neighbor who was sitting outside for directions. “Don’t go up there,” I then heard the neighbor say. “That’s definitely the wrong door. That dude screams so loud that the whole block can hear him.”
I walked closer to the wall and pressed my ear against the windowpane. I heard the person walk the few steps back down the stairs.
I began seeing a therapist because had I really become the type of person who lets someone abuse her? No, I thought. I couldn’t have. I am not. “How do I make this right?” I asked, charging through the 50-minute session.
“Make what right?” asked the therapist, unflinching. She was my age or perhaps even younger.
“Our relationship,” I said. “I don’t know why he’s doing this. It keeps getting worse. He’s a good person. Can you believe this is all happening?” I asked her, trying to sound casual as my eyes welled with tears.
She looked at me confused. She was the only person I’d told about the anger that seemed to envelop him.
“Of course I believe it.” She paused. “Do you think people won’t believe it believe you?”
“I don’t know.” No, I did not think others would believe it/me.
“I believe you’d let him kill you before you walked away,” she then said. A wave of nausea turned over in my stomach. “What do you mean?” I asked. A beat of silence.
“I mean he will kill you if you don’t walk away.” We sat quietly for a long time. I could feel her looking at me as I stared down, picking at my cuticles. I looked up at her. She held my gaze.
“It’s not like I’ve needed to go to the hospital with a broken jaw or something,” I said, immediately disgusted after the words came out. “Is that what it will take? A broken jaw to convince you this is a dangerous relationship?” she said. I didn’t answer. The silence settled between us.
“Perhaps you need to figure out why you cling to something so ugly and then turn around and call it love,” she said. Alex and I ended things on a dewy night in May, after an evening out with friends—after his anger had once again been stoked and he drove and screamed obscenities one final time. It ended after he threw the car into park on a residential street and leaned over from the driver’s side and gripped his hands around my neck cutting off my breathing, stronger than he’d ever done before, choking me for an unknown amount of time in earsplitting silence as I began to black out. It ended after a sudden rush of adrenaline hit me so fiercely that it allowed me to swing just once and punch him hard across the nose, after I ripped my seatbelt out from the clasp and ran onto a person’s lawn only a few feet from the car, where I crumpled to the ground and heard my lungs gasp for life the way I’d only heard in the movies. Alex watched me from inside the car.
I returned to the passenger seat a few minutes later. I stared forward, mindlessly rubbing my neck. The indie radio station was playing a Justin Bieber song. How strange, I thought. Neither of us spoke during the ride to my apartment. When he put the car in park outside my building, neither of us looked at the other.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said, barely above a whisper, looking through the windshield.
He didn’t respond. I opened the door and shut it behind me. I took two steps toward the door and I heard the car drive away.
I slept restlessly that night. In the morning, dark bruises around my neck and jaw reflected back at me in the mirror. I wanted to call him to let him know he left bruises on my neck. Part of me wanted to tell him to come back. I wanted to fix it. But I couldn’t.
Two days later, I wore a turtleneck to my therapy appointment. I could tell she knew why even though she didn’t ask outright. “You were right,” I told her. She nodded slowly. “It’ll take some time to make sense of everything,” she said. “We’ll work through it.”
I left the appointment that afternoon, stood on the sidewalk, and pulled out my phone. I stared at his name on the screen. A simple word. Four letters. I clicked it. Alex.
Then I pressed delete.
*Name has been changed
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence in a relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. It is open 24 hours a day.