This is a real story. I take liberties with grammar; the strangeness is intentional, as is how familiar this story can be even to those without experience of domestic violence (trigger warning). It speaks to an illusion and delusion that lives in each of us, and that lives in America’s conception of masculine, feminine, and partnership.
I keep thinking about that night in Missouri at Cedar Creek Campground, when a storm came in the early evening. I lay in my tent staring up at the fly, intermittently dozing off. Around 10pm the sound of crying roused me. I woke halfway, and then more fully, sitting bolt upright to make sense of the sounds. Within a few seconds I realized someone was in distress. I grabbed my headlamp, running out of the tent through darkness towards the cries, shouting “Are you alright? What’s going on?”, but before I got far someone yelled from behind me, “Let me take care of it, I was talking to that guy earlier”, and started in the direction of the noise. I stood there hearing his shouts of “Hey! Hey!” as he walked quickly towards the tent, and he must have unzipped the tent flap, I heard him say, “Get your hands off her, asshole!”, and a few seconds later a young woman is running towards me sobbing, wet and muddy, her hand over her mouth, and my heart is pounding, I’m saying “Oh god, oh god” as I rush to her. I ask if she wants to come into my tent and she nods, apologizing through tears as she muddies the tent, but I don’t care. She’s curled up hugging her knees and I’m sitting next to her, facing her, rubbing her back. At some point I ask, what happened, do you know that guy, and she says, yes, he’s my husband, and it’s hard, even now, to voice to my shock. She’s getting a little calmer, calm enough to tell me through her sobs that he was holding her down, had his hand over her mouth so she couldn’t breathe, that they had been drinking, that this only happened when they drank. That earlier, he had turned to her and said, shall we drink, and she had winked and given him finger guns and said, yeah. That she knew better, she knows this is what happens when he drinks, and that earlier, there she was, winking playfully and saying, yeah.
She tells me how she slept with some famous guy before she and her husband got married, and she told him about it, and ever since he’ll rag on her, bringing stuff up from her past to hold against her, like how could you sleep with him, you barely knew him, and she’ll get real upset when he brings it up, and then they fight. He had brought it up again tonight, getting down on her about it, and one thing led to the next and he’s suffocating her.
Later she’ll say to the tall thin guy who intervened, thank you, you were there just when I needed it, and he’ll say, I almost wish I hadn’t gone over, when the police are there and she’s tight-lipped, won’t say a word against her husband, doesn’t want to press charges. The officer shrugs, there’s nothing we can do if she doesn’t want to press charges, unless the tall skinny guy wants him taken in for taking a swing at him but he says no, gesturing over at the young wife, saying, it’s just for her sake, if she doesn’t want to, I sure won’t.
After she comes into my tent, her husband comes out, following the tall skinny guy and saying, what, you want to fight? You want to fight? And tall skinny guy is like no, I don’t want to fight, just don’t treat your old woman like that, and Jeremy swings on him, and then they’re fighting. Someone’s dog gets into the mix and is biting one of their legs, and we’re in the tent together and I’m gently rubbing her back, hearing them fighting. Another woman from a neighboring campsite has driven down the road trying to get cell service to call the police, but we don’t know this yet. The guys crash into my tent as they fight and I charge out, screaming, get away from my tent, and Chloe follows me yelling at her husband, “Jeremy, he doesn’t want to fight, leave him alone”, and then he’s on top of her in the grassy dirt, pinning her to the ground, their heads are away from me and I can’t see what’s happening. Someone manages to break up the multi-person brawl, and Jeremy goes back to his tent, drunk.
I’m asking Chloe, do you know anyone else here that you can go to, she knows another couple, Marcy and her husband. They’ve been hanging out together the past few nights, so we walk over there, but Marcy is still up the road calling the police. It’s just the husband and he says Marcy would be the one to decide if Chloe can stay the night with us. He’s lighting all the tiki torches around the campsite, I think we woke him up, and I ask if we can wait there until Marcy is back, and he says sure, so we sit on a log together and chat. She’s saying how embarrassing this all is, and it turns out we’re both moving to the Carolinas, me to Asheville and her to Myrtle Beach. I’m asking her, what’s she going to do, and she’s saying, well, we just need to not drink, this only happens when we’re drinking, and she’s saying, you know, god intended for one man and one woman to be together, we need to make this work, and I’m thinking, I’ve never hated religion so much as I do in this moment.
Jeremy finds us at the campsite before Marcy is back and he is wheedling, pleading for Chloe to come back with him to their tent saying, we don’t know these people, bad people are everywhere, it’s not safe for you to stay here, and all I can think and not say is, you’re the most dangerous person here. She’s pleading with him to go back to the tent, she’s fine here, and he’s saying, but what if you leave, what if I wake up and you’re gone, and I’m trying to placate him and get him to go back to his tent and leave us alone. At one point he sits down next to me on the log and goes to light up a cigarette, offering one to Chloe, and I’m telling him if he smokes he needs to stand farther away because I can’t stand the smell, so he’s back across the firepit from us, and they’re both wheedling each other. Finally he leaves, and Marcy still isn’t back. I’m afraid he might fuck with my tent and I’m thinking of going somewhere else for the night, so I check in with her to see if she’s ok waiting there while I pack up. Before I go I say, I’m going to stay somewhere else tonight, maybe a motel, do you want to come, and she says no, I’ll stay with Marcy tonight and then figure things out with Jeremy in the morning when we’re both sober. I leave and pack everything up, making sure to lock my car, and when I get back to Marcy’s campsite she’s gone. She went back to Jeremy, and I’m cursing myself for leaving her, for being more worried about my tent than her willpower.
A few women from the next campsite help me pack up, holding a big flashlight so I can see, and their guys keep an eye on us from across the road. They’re talking to the tall skinny guy, schmoozing. I’m grateful for the women’s presence, and finally the police show up and we’re all talking. I walk towards Chloe’s tent calling for her, and she walks out of the bushes on the path from their tent. She’s looking pleased with herself, and coy, and she says, as if she’s practiced this before, “No officer, I don’t want to press charges,” and we’re all arguing and she’s saying, believe me, I can see all of your perspectives, and eventually she goes back to their tent. The rest of us are still talking and the cop is saying, this is pretty standard with domestic violence, we can’t do anything unless someone wants to press charges or make a formal accusation, and we’re all shaking our heads. The cops get back in the car and drive off, and we split; the tall skinny guy goes to hang out with the group across the street.
I go to check in with Chloe one last time before I drive off. I’m standing with Marcy when Chloe comes out of the tent, and she’s walking funny, a little bow legged like they were just having sex. She’s trying to hide a grin on her face. I’m saying, are you sure you don’t want to stay over with me or Marcy, and Marcy is saying, yes, come stay with us, and Chloe is patiently refusing. After she goes back to the tent she shares with Jeremy, Marcy says, you now, we’ve been hanging out with them for the past three nights, they were so nice, you never would have known. We shake our heads, say goodnight, and I drive an hour or two, run over a raccoon, find a state park, and sleep in the parking lots for a few hours until it’s light out. In the morning I spread out my wet, muddy camping gear, brush my teeth, have a snack, call my boyfriend, and think many thoughts about guilt, shame, domestic violence, self-abuse, and God himself.