It was two years ago that she first confided in me about her boyfriend’s behavior. We didn’t know each other well, but I had arrived at our shared workplace to find her wiping away tears, and she didn’t want to pretend she wasn’t crying.
“He isn’t very nice to me,” she said, but she was smiling slightly as though she might be joking. As though the punchline might still be innocuous. As though the next sentence might be something like “he always buys me chocolate when I’ve told him I’m trying to eat healthily”.
That was not the next sentence, of course. The next sentence was “He took my phone away from me last night because he said I’d been rude to him and I didn’t deserve it.” She explained that she had been late to work because she needed her car keys and he had hidden those, too, along with her confiscated phone.
She was still half smiling. It was a nervous, embarrassed smile. She said, “He gets so angry sometimes. He doesn’t mean it, but he does get so angry. I should leave him, shouldn’t I?”
She said it tentatively, as though it was the first time she had spoken aloud a thought that had occurred to her many times.
I recognized her embarrassed smile because I had once put that same smile on my own face. It’s a smile that says I know I’m being treated badly and I want to leave, but I’m not quite ready to admit to it all yet and I need to be able to pretend everything’s OK if I decide to stay with him after all. It’s a smile that says I still wonder if maybe I’m overreacting. It’s a smile that says maybe he’s right about me, I don’t know anymore.
I felt close to tears as I listened to her. When she finished, I told her my own story in a panicky rush. I told her that I’ve been there, I’d stood in her shoes. I told her that her life had once been my life because when I was her age I lived with a man who made me afraid every single day. I had a baby to support and no money. When I did manage to earn any money he took it away from me as my “contribution to our finances” so I could never save enough to leave.
I told her that leaving him had been the best decision of my whole life and that every day, even now, I feel so grateful that I got away.
The more I talked the more that I could see she didn’t really believe me. I don’t mean that she thought that I was lying. I just don’t think she could fully relate to what I was telling her because I’m old, now, in her eyes. I am the age, to her, of mothers and aunts. The experiences of my youth — of when I was her age — are “olden days”. She can’t apply them easily to herself.
I told her that I would do anything at all to help if she needed it. Anything. I told her about the local women’s support charity, who once helped me when I was desperate. I told her of a lawyer friend who would give her free advice. I gave her every phone number I could think of. I begged her to leave him but even as I said the words I could already see that she would not leave him. Not yet.
By the time we stopped talking she was beginning to list all of his good points and I remembered that I used to do that, too.
No, she would not leave yet.
In the two years that have passed since that day we have not worked together often, and she did not confide in me again. I tried several times to ask but she kept me at a breezy arm’s length. She was friendly, but her eyes flashed a warning if I got too close.
But I noticed things, all the same. I noticed when I locked up the office at night that her boyfriend would wait outside the door for her to leave each day and he would walk her home. Every day. He would also visit her at lunchtime. Every day.
He kept her bank debit card in his pocket and one day I heard her asking him politely, like a child to a parent, if she could borrow the card (“just quickly!”) to take out some lunch money.
Yes. I heard her asking him, carefully and politely, for her own debit card so that she could have a little bit of her own money to buy food.
Last week she was crying again and this time she had a bruise.
She didn’t talk to me about it. I am working from home and was not in the office; she talked to one of her other bosses who then told me in confidence, so I can’t ask her about it. But I do know she recorded his assault on her phone so she has video footage of what he did. It is evidence.
I desperately hope she leaves this time. I have offered, through our mutual colleague, financial help with a deposit on somewhere to live if she needs it. I don’t think she will want to take it from me, though. I wouldn’t have wanted to take anything from me when I was her. Being indebted to someone in my workplace would have broken me, then.
I can’t do anything else. And yet. It is all I can think about.
She is not me and I can’t control this situation. Those two things are true but they’re so hard to face. All I can do is wait and hope that she gets away from this relationship that’s hurting her so badly and that in another twenty years she will look back, as I do now, and feel so grateful that this week happened and that she made the break.
And she, too, will know that leaving will be the best thing she ever did.