This piece has been chosen to be published in Deakin University’s Verandah journal v.32 due out later this year. It will be available in either print and epub version or just the ebook depending on edits required. Woo-hoo, can finally call myself a published author. Go me. Not only that but it’s been chosen as the recipient of the Deakin Literary Award for best piece by a student in the issue this year! (2007). Go me.
‘It was a balmy afternoon in mid-January. Just before the heat of summer really takes hold. We were invited to a pool party at the house of one of my cousins. Richard was being his charming self. My family – well, most of my family – were impressed. I’d finally landed somebody ‘worthwhile,’ as if my previous boyfriends hadn’t cut the mustard because they didn’t make six figures. But that was my family and I’d grown resigned to it.
‘Anyway, we were having a dip in the pool before dinner when it happened. For no reason at all, my fiancé decided it would be funny to hold my head underwater. He was a strong man, too. Fit from years of cycling and going to the gym before work. I tried to swim out from under his hand but he pushed down on my shoulder as well. My lungs were starting to burn, because I hadn’t taken a very big breath before going under. I heard echo-y sounds of laughter – his laughter – and other voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I clawed at Richard’s chest and shoulders until he had to let me go.
‘It was such a relief to fill my lungs with oxygen. I backed away from him, hurt; unable to believe he’d do something like that. He didn’t think it was a big deal. Actually, he thought it was hilarious, even given the fact that I’d told him about the time I nearly drowned when I was five. It was why I tend to stay close to the side of the pool in deep water, and why I never go swimming at the beach.’
‘Tell me about that,’ the doctor said, looking up from his notes.
I shrugged. ‘I barely remember it, really. I was standing on the wet sand, and I liked the way the water rushed forward around my ankles, sucking the sand from under my feet, so I kept walking forward. My father and brother were playing cricket further up the beach and my mother was in her deck chair, reading Peyton Place. I guess she thought my father would be keeping an eye on me, if she thought about me at all. Next thing I knew I was in water up to my hips and the breaking waves were very strong. I was only little. I couldn’t keep my feet and wound up falling on my bum. The waves kept crashing over my head, and every time I tried to stand up one would knock me over again. I felt like I was in a washing machine.’
‘Sounds like you remember it just fine,’ Dr Burroughs observed. ‘Go on.’
I took a deep breath, as if I was worried that just by recalling the memory I’d run out of air. ‘Anyway, the pain was crushing, like somebody was standing on my chest. And then it wasn’t. Suddenly everything was calm. I opened my eyes and could see underwater. Not that there was much to see. A bit of litter: a Coke can; a flattened cigarette packet. Shells, seaweed, pebbles … anyway, it was very peaceful. I often wonder whether it was some kind of self-defence mechanism on my brain’s part, or whether I was actually dead. Next thing I knew I was on the beach, laying on my side. My father was slapping my back to get the water out of my lungs. My mother was having a panic attack. Or putting one on. I never could tell with her. My father actually yelled at her to get herself together and pack up our stuff, they were taking me to the hospital. I’d never heard him raise his voice like that before.’
I stood up and walked toward the aquarium built into the wall across from where I’d been sitting. It was a beautiful room, as shrinks’ offices go. Not that I’d been in that many. But it had an old world charm, like a study or library in a grand old mansion, with bookcases set into one wall and the aforementioned tank in another.
It was not at all like the cold, clinical rooms of my previous doctor. I couldn’t venture toward the floor-to-ceiling windows there without feeling an acute sense of vertigo.
‘Go on,’ he repeated.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ I said, finally.
‘Really?’ he asked, with a chuckle. ‘What am I going to say?’
‘That my childhood in an emotionally stunted household led me to choose the man I’d eventually marry. I’ve heard all the theories. “People who grow up around abuse or neglect never know any different. It’s a vicious cycle. Blah, blah, blah”.’ I stared into his aquarium, transfixed by the tiny electric-blue and neon-yellow fish darting around the plant fronds and various other decorations.
‘There’s more than an element of truth to that. Evidence backs it up.’
‘So I’m predisposed to choose abusive relationships over healthy ones. Is that what you’re saying?’
‘You can break out of that cycle, Sylvia. You just have to work on your self-esteem. It’s that – or the lack thereof – that stands in the way of meeting someone worthy of you.’
Worthy of me. Someone that was worthy of me; not the other way around. The concept was alien. I’d been brought up to believe that that my husband would choose me and I’d have to prove myself a good wife. Something I clearly hadn’t managed to get the hang of or I wouldn’t be here, in this beautiful, stately old room talking to a virtual stranger about things I would never bring up in polite company.
‘I can see you’re having trouble with that idea.’
How did he manage to get inside my head like that?! I turned toward my newest headshrinker. He wasn’t like the rest. That should have been a clue that perhaps this time things might be different. He was younger than myself, possibly mid-forties, and had a quirky way of dressing that I picked up on – and liked – right away. His purple paisley tie matched his socks. Black suspenders held up his charcoal pants, and the sleeves of his white business shirt were rolled up to just below his elbows. When I’d entered the room, he had his feet up on his desk and was chewing the end of a pencil. Now he was swinging in his leather swivel chair like a teenager bored in class.
‘Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly praised and put on a pedestal when I was growing up. I always felt as if I had to earn my parents’ love. Dad would have been happy if I’d gone to university but Mum wanted both my brother and me out of the house at eighteen. I was expected to get married and have babies. So at least I satisfied that requirement, even if it was almost a decade later than she would have liked.’
‘Tell me more about this Richard. When did the abuse start?’
I watched a large tropical goldfish chase a smaller version of itself around a clump of reeds in the huge tank. ‘My husband had a fish tank,’ I told Burroughs. ‘But he only had a couple of fish in it. And it wasn’t fixed into the wall.’ I knew I was procrastinating, avoiding answering the question, but I couldn’t help it.
Thankfully, he played along. ‘What kind of fish?’
‘Sharks. Small ones, obviously. Don’t even ask me what breed. They just looked like miniature versions of the Great White in Jaws. When he’d feed them their cubes of meat they’d rush to the top of the tank. I was waiting for the day they’d take his fingers off in the process, they were so grabby!’
‘All right, so, apart from the sharks – which tell me more about your husband than you’d think – what was he like?’
I sighed. I knew he’d get to that but I’d wanted to put it off as long as possible. ‘Charming on the surface, I suppose. He was good-looking – everybody said so – and I always felt like they wondered why he picked me. I mean, I’m no Angelina Jolie, let’s face it.’
Burroughs laughed. ‘Neither is roughly 99.99% of the population, but do continue.’
‘Anyway, he was tall – six two in bare feet – and strong. From good stock, my grandmother used to say. Physical stock, that is. The personality left a bit to be desired, as I soon found out. Almost before we were married he was belittling me in front of his friends. He didn’t try it in front of mine, though, which is probably why he accepted a transfer and we moved to Geelong after the wedding. It was his attempt to isolate me, and it worked. I saw less and less of my friends and had almost no support network when I had my son. My mother wasn’t going to commute back and forth so she was useless. Dad hated Richard from the word go. So unless I called them to talk to them, I was all by myself.’
‘That’s a major red flag, right there. Abusers always try to isolate their victims, whether by distance or by controlling their movements, not allowing them to visit friends and family and so on.’
‘I know. Believe me, I’ve read all the books. I even read Fifty Shades of Grey. I guess I was curious, because one of my friends said Richard reminded her of Christian Grey. But it triggered me too much, so I stopped.’
‘What part of it triggered you, specifically?’ I could see his reflection in the glass of the tank. He’d stopped swinging in his swivel chair. I guess I’d won his attention.
‘How he tried to control everything she did, even before she signed any contract. Everything had to be his way. It was the same with Richard. I had to look the way he wanted, dress the way he wanted … hell, I even had to like the same music! I remember thinking that if I was so woefully inadequate; that if I had to change so drastically to be the woman he wanted, why on earth did he pick me?’
‘Because guys like him almost have a kind of radar for people who they think they can manipulate. This is my theory, anyway. It’s in the body language. For instance, look at how you’re standing, now.’
Almost instantly I corrected my posture. Removed the slump in my shoulders; lifted my chin. My reflection in the fish tank looked several kilos lighter, instantly. Burroughs chuckled. ‘See, that’s better. Your husband would never have zeroed in on a woman who looked like she was going places. He needed someone who needed him, in all ways you can need somebody. So … I only got the Reader’s Digest version of how you came to be here. Care to fill me in?’
I swallowed but my mouth was bone dry. ‘Believe it or not, I didn’t get the right potatoes for a recipe he liked. The waxy ones don’t mash properly, he said. Called me a fucking idiot and said I was good for nothing. Well, I’d had enough. I’d already had a terrible day, although I won’t get into that. I just was in no mood to put up with his trivial, controlling shit. And it was always trivial. Anyway, he’d tired of me. He’d turned to his beloved fish, as he always did.’
I was shaking by now; literally trembling at the memory. I had to take a breath to try to calm myself down. ‘Normally I would have meekly turned and gone back to the shops to get the right potatoes, but on this day I stood firm. I don’t know why. My mood, maybe? Whatever it was, it took control.
Made me pick up the ridiculously heavy ornament on our coffee table, walk over to Richard, who was feeding the fish, and hit him in the back of the head, as hard as I could. I’m not that strong but I think my anger and adrenaline must have kicked in, because I damn near caved his head in. He slumped forward, his face in the tank. I don’t know if he was dead at that point, but I sort of hope so, because the water turned red real fast. The sharks literally tore his face off.’
I turned to my psychiatrist. ‘I think our hour is over. May I go back to my room, now?’