I had seen signs. They had shown themselves early and were big, bright and red. But I considered the signs a challenge. They said stop. I said go.
So, I went. I kept going after he yelled at me on our first date. I didn’t stop when he ignored my texts and calls. I kept going, even after he placed his hands around my neck and threatened to squeeze. Even after he spit on me. Even after he verbally abused me before drifting off to sleep.
Your body will tell you when you’re okay. When your blood moves along smoothly and your heart beats nice and slow, you know that you are, indeed, okay. When your blood is racing and your heart paces, however, you know that you are in the wrong place. For me, that wrong place was my life.
But then he said he wanted to get a dog and that it would be so great. I let myself believe it would lead us to more love. Less violence. More love. So I said yes, even though I feared the great amount of work involved and the enormous responsibility.
We went to the shelter and they told us there was a real gem in a cage at the end. A brown dog that had just arrived from Tennessee. I kept picturing our couch covered in her reddish hair. She was jumping up and down, so excited to know us. I was nervous, but she was a ball of love.
And then she came home. Young and exuberant, yet gentler than any creature I had never known. She started to watch us, her new parents. She watched while we laughed together and benefitted from our occasional joy.
But she watched when we fought, too, which was most of the time. She watched him scare the shit out of me, lost to his anger. And then, finally, I watched myself in her. I watched myself in the mirror of a little brown dog and when I saw the hurt in her eyes, I saw what my hurt must have looked like, too. It seemed like it pained her to hear me cry.
I remember the way she waited for him on the couch to come in after a night out. When the keys would start to turn in the door, her tail would begin wagging wildly, knocking against the couch like the strong thump of a heart. When he began his descent down the stairs, she would lift her eyes up, head gently lowered—watching, waiting—in anticipation of being touched by her the man who played the role of her dad.
I sat by for too many nights as she lowered her eyes after he passed her on his way to the fridge or the bathroom or the bed. He didn’t even acknowledge she was there.
She shook in the corner when he yelled. She hid in the bathroom when he stumbled in, drunk. She loved him so much when he was good, and feared him so deeply when he was not. I wondered if maybe she just needed to harden a little. That she would hurt less if she did, like me. But hardening has never been a dog’s job. Their love is better than the human kind. Their love is always at the ready.
She loved him like a child did. I piled resentment on top of resentment, but she loved him fresh every morning. She loved him in any moment that he wasn’t hurting her. It’s like she forgot what fear felt like ten minutes later.
But her body didn’t forget. Her body jumped constantly. A loud sound on the street, an object falling out of my hands. Her body came to know fear in its limbs.
Though I claimed I would stand up for myself, in the end, I stood up because of her. I was tired of watching her body twitch.
And so, as time passed, the question of what I deserved started to swim around in my head. She didn’t deserve this, so maybe I didn’t deserve it either. Maybe we didn’t deserve this. She showed me it was possible that my worth was on par with hers.
We left in the middle of the day while he was at work. We would not be intercepted; I didn’t want to be convinced to stay. I threw my things in garbage bags, praying he wouldn’t walk in. She was scared, watching me move erratically in an effort to get out quickly.
It was the last time I let her be scared.
We moved to a new apartment. He threatened to take her from me. I responded by taking him to court. I fought for her peace – for our peace. She helped me fight for my peace.
We moved to a new state and a new home with a new man. A man that doesn’t put his hands around my neck and doesn’t spit on me and has never uttered a disparaging word in my vicinity.
Now, she jumps only when we throw the ball for her. She twitches only in anticipation of a treat. When she waits for this man to come in the door, he walks straight to her. He tells her he has missed her and pats her back.
Now, when I turn out the lights at night, I find her, wherever she is in our home. I lean down beside her, take her little brown head in my hands, and kiss her head.
Thank you for coming to me,I say. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for teaching me how to love myself.