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It Will Look Like a Sunset

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April 1, 2014

“You made me hit you in the face,” he said mournfully. “Now everyone is going to know.”

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/AlexanderTinei600.jpg
Image by Alexander Tinei, Morning Bird, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Dukan

I was twenty-six, having spent most of my twenties delaying adulthood, and he was twenty-four and enjoyed a reputation as a partier. The pregnancy was a surprise, and we married four months later.

As my belly stretched outward with the tightness of the baby, my limbs grew heavy. I napped constantly on a long hand-me-down couch, the summer heat giving me nightmares. I dreamt of a woman floating in the corner staring at me, and I woke with my heart racing. One afternoon, a hummingbird flew through the open door of the apartment to the window in the corner and beat at the glass. It was panicked, trying to turn glass into sky. I wrapped my hands around it, the hummingbird heart pulsing against my palms, then released it on the stoop.

They say that a bird in the house is an omen. It can mean pregnancy. Or death. Or both.

*

Eight years later, the police came to our door. When the younger one asked about my foot, I said that it didn’t hurt. I told him it was no big deal, but when he asked for my driver’s license, I stood up and found that I couldn’t walk, that my foot was the size of a football, and it was bleeding. The bowl Caleb had shattered on it wasn’t a little bowl like I had described. It was a heavy, ceramic serving bowl, and I would need to wear a soft boot for a month and get a tetanus shot, and there would always be a scar shot through the top of my foot like a red star.

*

In the beginning of our relationship, I slept in his cabin in the woods with no indoor plumbing. I had to pee, so I let myself out. The ground was snow-covered and cold and I didn’t feel like walking to the outhouse, so I went around to the side and squatted in the moonlight. The moon turned the snow into a million stars while my gentle lover slumbered in the warmth—such happiness.

*

We didn’t want a church wedding, but our families insisted. Faith was what made marriage sacred. Faith was what kept people together.

I had doubts about marrying him so soon. Sometimes, he would disappear for a straight week and return apologetic, smelling of alcohol. His friends gave each other looks that said they knew something I did not. One friend said jokingly, “How on earth did Caleb get you to go out with him?” Coming from a friend, the question seemed odd, but I thought it was just the way they ribbed each other.

When I met him, he charmed me. My best friend said: “You’ll love Caleb. He lives in a cabin in the woods that he built by himself.” A former wilderness ranger, I was attracted to ruggedness and solitude. Caleb was a writer, and he was funny. One day, he joked in bed about what our rapper names would be. I said mine would be “Awesome Possum.” He improvised a rap song titled “Get in My Pouch!” I couldn’t stop giggling. I had never met a man who could make me laugh like he could.

My love for him was real, and I didn’t want to be a single mother.

*

The young policeman told Caleb, “Go to your parents. Get away for a couple of days. Just let things calm down.”

The young policeman told me, “It’s alright. My wife and I fight. Things get crazy. Sometimes you just need time apart.” I nodded my head in agreement, but I wanted to ask, “Do you beat your wife, too?”

*

Before our son turned two, we moved to Caleb’s home state of West Virginia. He wanted to be closer to his family. There would be more opportunity for work there. His parents owned a rental house that they would sell to us. There were many compelling reasons for the move, but once there, he was the only friend I had. The loneliness was inescapable. This was common, I told myself. My parents had been married for over thirty years, and I don’t remember my father ever having a close friend. I told myself that he was enough for me.

*

When the older policeman saw the swelling, the black and blue, and the toes like little sausage links, his expression turned to dismay. “That’s bad. That looks broken,” he said. “Ma’am, does your husband have a phone number we can reach him at? We need him to come back.”

They waited outside, and I called Caleb. “I’m sorry,” I said. “They are going to arrest you.”

He said he already knew.

He left his phone on while they arrested him so I could listen. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t stop myself. “Did she hit you?” one of the officers asked. “Because we can arrest her, too.”

Caleb answered honestly. He said no.

*

We were together for almost two years before he was violent with me. First he pushed me against a wall. It was two more years before he hit me, and another year after that before he hit me again. It happened so slowly, then so fast.

*

While the older policeman arrested Caleb, the younger one waited with me for the paramedics to arrive. “Is he going to lose his job?” I asked.

“No, probably not,” he said.

“Is he going to leave me?” I asked.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

I wanted him to hug me so I could hide my face in the folds of his black uniform. I crumpled into the rocking chair instead.

“He’s going to leave me,” I said.

*

When our elderly neighbor developed dementia and, one night, thought a boy was hiding under her bed, Caleb stayed with her. When the child of an administrative assistant in Caleb’s department needed a heart transplant, Caleb went to the assistant’s house and helped him put down wood floors in his basement to create a play room for the little boy. When my dad needed help installing new windows in the house, or mowing the lawn, or chopping wood, Caleb was always ready to help. I was so grateful to be married to someone so generous with his time, so loving.

*

The young policeman called for an ambulance. The EMTs looked at my foot. They didn’t ask about what happened. They just told me it looked bad, that it could be broken. They asked me if I wanted to go to the emergency room, but I declined, so they instructed me to see a doctor and made me sign a waiver saying they weren’t responsible if I didn’t get follow-up care. And then I was alone in our home.

*

Two years after we moved, I started graduate school and finally made some friends, but it was hard to spend time with them. I had to lie: I shut my arm in the door. I tripped on a rug and hit my face on the table. I don’t know where that bruise came from. I think I did it in my sleep. I think I’m anemic. I just bruise so easily.

Once, Caleb said to me, “You probably wish that someone would figure out where those bruises are coming from. You probably wish someone knew, so that things could change.” He said it with such sadness.

*

After the arrest, I hobbled around in denial for a few days until a concerned friend pushed me into getting the foot examined.

I was embarrassed at the urgent care center. I told the nurse, “It’s okay. He’s already been arrested. I don’t need anything. I’m safe,” but he didn’t seem to believe me. The nurse put me in a wheelchair even though I insisted I could walk, and the doctor touched and turned my foot with such care that, out of some sort of misguided impulse, I almost blurted out, “Mom!” But I was thirty-four years old, and the distance between my mother and me was punctuated by so many mountains that she couldn’t have saved me.

*

Caleb wanted to change. He got therapy. He went to anger management. He did everything right. We were allies. Together, we were going to fix this problem.

He started taking medication shortly after our sixth anniversary. Every time he was violent with me, he would go to a psychiatrist who increased his dosage. I thought the psychiatrist could fix him.

He wasn’t supposed to drink on the medication, but he did. One night, he was in a stupor and staring at something. “What are you looking at?” I asked.

“Myself,” he said. “That’s me sitting in that chair.” He pointed at an empty chair across the room. “That me is laughing at me.” His eyes were confused, sad.

“Are you manipulating me?” I asked, worried.

“I’m not the one who manipulates you,” he said. He gestured toward the chair again, his voice quickening, earnest almost. “He’s the one who manipulates you. It’s not me.”

I was so tired. I didn’t know what to say. “You should go to bed.”

His eyes turned from sadness to rage. He stood up and went to the stairs, then turned back to me and said, “I hope you get chlamydia and die.”

*

Shortly before I left him, I told a counselor that my husband was hitting me and showed her the bruises. She held me while I wept in her arms. I then told a close friend that he yelled at me and called me names, but I didn’t yet tell her he was beating me.

My counselor said, “You are taking everything he says, and playing it on repeat over and over again. You have to stop the tape.”

But I couldn’t stop the tape. I heard over and over:

You are a fucking cunt. You are a fucking cunt. You are a fucking cunt. You are a fucking cunt. You are a fucking cunt. You are a fucking cunt. You are a fucking cunt.

And then his voice became my voice:

I am a fucking cunt.

*

“You can’t hold the things I say when I’m mad against me,” he said. “That isn’t fair. Those aren’t the things I mean.”

*

At the urgent care, the doctor said, “This will take a long time to heal. It will change color over time. It will look like a sunset.” As I drove home, I heard the words over and over:

It will look like a sunset. It will look like a sunset. It will look like a sunset. It will look like a sunset. It will look like a sunset. It will look like a sunset. It will look like a sunset.

*

I could never bring myself to leave. Instead, I was a regular at the Travelodge. I always returned home before morning, keeping the hotel key card just in case, then climbing into bed and wrapping my arms around Caleb’s back. All of the usual suspects drew me back—concerns about our six-year-old, money, where we would live, and love. I still loved him. I told myself he would get better.

In sickness, and in health. Those were my vows in that little church in Idaho where we held hands while sunlight filtered through stained glass and spring lilacs bloomed outside. Caleb was sick.

*

He only hit me in the face once. A red bruise bloomed across my cheek, and my eye was split and oozing. Afterwards, we both sat on the bathroom floor, exhausted. “You made me hit you in the face,” he said mournfully. “Now everyone is going to know.”

*

A month or so before his arrest, I thought I was losing my hair from stress. In the shower, red strands swam in the water by my feet. Chunks were stuck to my fingers. It didn’t matter. I hadn’t felt pretty in years.

When I rubbed the shampoo into my scalp, the skin was tender, and I realized I wasn’t losing my hair. He had ripped it out, and I hadn’t even felt it.

I went into a cave when he hit me. I curled into my body like a slug, then traveled into a deep darkness where I felt nothing. I heard his voice, his fists, the blasts in my ears from the blows to the side of my head. I heard my own screaming.

Deep in that cave, it wasn’t real, even as it was happening.

What was real was when we laid in bed, our son between us—my head on my husband’s shoulder, his head resting on mine—and our son said, “The whole family is cuddled up.”

*

“I’m not the type of person to hit a woman,” he said. “So it must be you. You are the one who brings this out in me. I would not be like this if I was with a different woman.”

*

The same night that Caleb pulled out my hair, he punched me in the spine with such force that my body arched back as though it had been shocked with electricity. I was jolted out of my cave. He did it again. “No,” I screamed. I could not protect myself.

My only protection was the darkness—the dissociation. I hadn’t felt him ripping out hair, but when he hit me in the spine, the pain was too intense. That part of my body was too vulnerable. I couldn’t curl up. I couldn’t wrap my arms around it.

I was present for what was happening. I stopped breathing for a moment. He paused.

It was as though he, too, felt that I was present, and he stopped.

I couldn’t have been human to him in those moments.

*

He never raped me, so there’s that.

*

I left him two days after he was arrested, but I wasn’t ready. I still wasn’t ready.

*

We were one of those couples that others liked to be around. We laughed a lot, respected each other, and supported each others’ work. We loved the same things: cooking Thai food, impromptu dance parties in the living room, Friday Night Lights marathons. We always found time for date nights. We vacationed in Greece, New York City, and Glacier National Park. We emailed each other silly videos during the day when we were at work. He phoned me from the car, five minutes after leaving the house, just to talk.

*

The day that I left him, I called Rebecca, a kind and accepting friend whom I knew would help. It wasn’t an easy call to make.

She lived with her partner, and they let my son and me stay with them for a month until we had our own place. She and I had only known each other for a little over a year. I told her about the beatings, how Caleb broke my phone when I tried to call for help, how he pulled me out from underneath the bed by my ankles, how I hid shaking in the closet while he raged, how he always found me, how there was no safe place for me.

When I saw the fear in her eyes, I understood the magnitude of what was happening.

*

Of everyone I had dated, he was the gentlest. I loved his soft hands, his embraces, his kind heart.

He wrote me love letters, rubbed my feet, took me out to lunch, got up first in the mornings with our son, so that I could sleep in. He took care of me. He was more often kind to me than unkind.

Sometimes, when I’m cooking dinner by myself, I can feel the way he would lay his head on my shoulder while I stirred a pot, the way he would turn me around and kiss me, tell me how much he loved my cooking, how beautiful I was, how lucky he was.

*

On Thanksgiving Day, Caleb took our son to his family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. While they ate turkey and dressing around the oak table I had eaten at so many times before, I returned to my home with Rebecca and threw as many things as I could fit into laundry baskets, then stuffed them into the backseat of my car. I packed my son’s Legos, enough blankets for us to sleep on the floor, and my work clothes, but I left behind anything sentimental. Our wedding photo was on a table, the glass broken. I had thrown it on the ground.

After packing, Rebecca and I ate at a Chinese buffet attached to a casino because it was the only place open in three counties. The future loomed before me like a buffet full of hungry, lonely people.

*

My favorite photo of Caleb and me is a self-portrait taken on a beach at Ecola State Park on the Oregon Coast. We had hiked down a steep trail, stopping to lunch on smoked salmon and bagels, and ended up on a beach. The tide was low, and sand dollars dotted the shore. We scooped them up like prizes. We ran into the surf. We hugged. In the photo, we are both smiling, our heads pressed together.

When I look at that photo now, I wonder, “Where are those people? Where did they go?”

Just to the right of us was a cave. I had wanted to go in it, but the tide was coming in, and I was afraid of getting trapped and drowning.

*

Six months after I left Caleb, I went home to Idaho for the summer. After that, I was moving to another state. It was over. The counselor at the domestic violence shelter was proud of me. So many women never get out. I didn’t feel proud. I didn’t want to get out. I wanted to keep dancing with Caleb, keep sending funny emails to each other, keep cuddling with our son between us.

*

There are days when I still wish that he would beg me to take him back, promise to change, actually change. This will never happen. Even if he never hit me again, my body will always remember that fist on my back.

*

In Idaho, the state where Caleb and I met, where we had our son, I drove the sunbaked streets. There was the apartment where Caleb sat next to me on the couch, nervously wiped his hand across his forehead, and said in a halting voice, “Kelly, I want to marry you.”

There was the house where our baby slept in a basket by the bed. When he cried, I nursed him while Caleb draped his arm around my waist, nuzzling his head into my hair.

There was the riverside trail where we pushed the stroller and fantasized over which fancy house we would buy if we ever had any money, where our toddler threw sticks into the river, where Caleb scooped him up and held him upside down while we all giggled.

There was the river where, in winter, our dog slid out onto the ice and into the cold water. Caleb stretched out on the ice and reached his hands out to our dog while I watched terrified. “I can’t lose you both,” I screamed.

I wondered if it would have happened if we had stayed in Idaho.

But then there was the house where he first pushed me up against a wall, where he backed me into the corner, where he threw our baby’s bouncer. The neighbor watched worried from her stoop while he put the broken pieces in the trash can on the curb, and I cried in the window.

The same house where my mother took me into the backyard and said, “Listen to me. I have friends who have left their husbands. I have seen it on the other side. It is not better on the other side. Try hard. Try hard before you give up.”

I tried so hard.

G

Kelly Sundberg’s nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, The Collagist, Mid-American Review, Slice Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Quarterly West, and other journals. A piece of her work was listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2013 and she is currently a PhD candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where she lives with her son. She blogs about domestic violence at letterofapology.blogspot.com

To contact Guernica or Kelly Sundberg, please write here.

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15 comments for It Will Look Like a Sunset

  1. Comment by Carolynn on April 1, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I’ve sat with this story for the last 20 minutes, trying to think of a suitable response. I’m afraid I don’t really have one, save awe. Thanks so much for writing this.

  2. Comment by Anonymous on April 2, 2014 at 10:25 am

    As a man who has been in a verbally abusive relationship that led to one domestic violence situation, I must tell you that this entire story sounds so familiar. Both the male and female situation is so similar to my situation. I have been on the receiving end of verbal abuse and domestic violence and also on the giving end… although no one was ever hurt in these situations, the experiences scarred me for a long time. During my relationship, my spouse and I went to therapy and worked through our issues. The healing process was NOT easy. We had “learned” tension–meaning it had become normal for us, like the writer says, and it was often very difficult not to be overcome by our emotional swings. It took a long time, however I am proud to say that we are three years “sober” of any abuse in our relationship and on a better path.

    Abuse of any kind HURTS. It is not an easy thing to deal with, especially while trying to have a relationship. I held on for so long with my wife because i truly loved her and knew that it was not “her” who did those things, or “me” who responded. We considered ourselves like recovering alcoholics to our abuse… and thank God, we got over it through a lot of hard work.

    I was compelled to write this as an encouragement to others that it is possible to heal those wounds and hurts and to have a productive relationship, however consistent abuse is not healthy. My wife and I had just one domestic violence episode, and it took months to repair and heal those emotional scars. Months for ONE ISSUE. Consistent abuse of any kind is not love. If this is the case of anyone reading this, please leave NOW. Your health and mental peace is not worth it.

  3. Comment by Tyrone Castanho on April 2, 2014 at 11:32 am

    It was particularly hard to read as a man but probably necessary.

  4. Comment by C on April 2, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    It always starts with a push, doesn’t it? He always feels so bad after. He’s always so sweet in the good times–like a totally different person, really. I’m so glad you’re out of this. I’m glad I’m out too. It took over a year for me to fully extricate myself. And another for me to be okay. Thank you for writing this. It feels good to know I’m not alone.

  5. Comment by Veronica on April 3, 2014 at 12:29 am

    The thing about this story that makes me want to cry is not the parts about the abuse, but rather the parts about how Caleb was gentle, generous, and romantic. Those are the qualities I try to focus on in my current relationship. Not the control issues, not the occasional irrational drunk name-calling, not the little flaws that linger at the edges of my mind, because I told him I forgave him for those things. He hasn’t ever hit me, he says exactly what Caleb said, ““I’m not the type of person to hit a woman.” Yes it has only been a few years since I left an abuser, and this is my first new relationship. This man couldn’t be like that too, right? I can’t keep leaving everyone, eventually I need to just shut up and put up. Maybe I’m just paranoid, maybe it could be good this time, maybe if I just try harder…

  6. Comment by Katie on April 4, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It was heartbreaking and beautiful.

  7. Comment by Wilson on April 7, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    “The pregnancy was a surprise”, hmm, I thought you were opening up here? Guess that’s the “creative” part of the “creative nonfiction”

  8. Comment by Me on April 8, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Thank you for such a courageous and vulnerable sharing. I am so glad you got out. I am so glad I got out. I hold space for all those who have yet to get out.

    I send you oceans of love. There is much to look forward to.

  9. Comment by Valerie on April 8, 2014 at 9:54 am

    We are talking about this amazing article over on MetaFilter.com. Many perple are sharing their experiences with abuse. I was really moved by this retelling. It makes clear what is obfuscated in the social science literature, that abusers often have a soft and caring and loving side and it is so easy to get confused by it. Thanks for writing this, it is so helpful.

  10. Comment by Christina on April 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Kelly I am very proud you wrote this!!!! You are brave and I hope that this helps someone else… This is very good!!!

  11. Comment by Marcela on April 16, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you for this extraordinary essay–I agree with other commenters that this piece captures so powerfully the reason that intelligent, strong women can become victims of abuse. And it take a lot of courage to tell this story.

  12. Comment by kim on April 17, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Thank you for writing this. It is such an important essay. Though I was never physically abused, I stayed in an emotionally abusive marriage for nearly a decade. I told myself I couldn’t leave. My ex had me convinced I wouldn’t be able to survive (or care for our children) on my own. That no one else would ever want me. He made me feel utterly worthless and unlovable. By the end of it all, I felt like I was dying. Were it not for my beautiful children, I might have even committed suicide. I also tried hard. And the trying was killing me.

    Getting a divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was so scared to leave, of “the other side” your mother warned you about. But it turns out that now, just one year out, I may be happier than I have ever, ever been.

    I wish you so much joy.

  13. Comment by Yana on July 7, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    This is outstanding. The author may never know the kind of power this will give many women. And the magazine can never know how valuable its contribution will be to the lives of thousands of people just because they will be able to read this. I found this on Facebook shared by Cheryl Strayed.

  14. Comment by yami on July 8, 2014 at 5:42 am

    Thank you for writing this. My experience was nowhere near this traumatic, but you capture the feeling of doom and longing too painfully well.

  15. Comment by Sarah on July 10, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Thank you, Kelly, for your beautifully-written article that so poignantly describes how an abuser can more often be kind than unkind and that the love you feel for the person is very real.

    You’re right that such a person can be loving, generous, romantic, funny, insightful and intelligent. As you describe, they can also take very good care of you.

    You seem to have found the perfect words to describe this. Tears streamed down my face when you described how the abuse wasn’t real even as it was happening, and what was real for you was cuddling with your husband and son as a family.

    Because abuse is so horrible and repulsive, it always seemed just too deeply painful and horrifying to face.

    I think you have written a very important piece that allows for a clearer understanding of domestic violence It puts words to what other women have also experienced. You are a very gifted writer.

    I wish you every blessing. Your description of what keeps you involved and your courage to end an abusive relationship is a great inspiration to others. XO Sarah

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