“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The old nursery rhyme played over and over in her mind as the barrage of insults kept coming. For hours she had sat in a stony silence with tears streaming down her face and reciting the rhyme to herself.
It was a lie. The words did hurt. They cut like a knife deep into her very soul. And each sentence cut a little deeper than the last. The rhyme wasn’t the only thing on repeat. The barrage was too. There hadn’t been an original thought for at least an hour now. At some point he had started over at the beginning.
When did that happen? She didn’t even know. Probably not long after she had stopped actually listening and started only hearing. She couldn’t even remember what had set him off this time. It had happened suddenly. And not long after he had walked through the front door.
Last week it had been the laundry. It hadn’t ALL been folded and put away when he got home from work. She had honestly been afraid he would punch her that night. But he hadn’t. Just called her a string of nasty names and told her how worthless her every effort was.
Today, she just sat staring alternately at her hands and the floor as he yelled and screamed and cursed at her. She didn’t remember starting to cry. But at some point she had. The tears were flowing freely now. Her tears always made him seem proud. It was some accomplishment for him to reduce her to contrition and crying. She longed for the day when no more tears would come. That would be the day when she won. Somehow she knew that the day she stopped crying would be the day she was no longer under his thumb. She didn’t know where the knowledge came from, but she held on to that knowledge as if she was holding on for life itself. And she was. She just didn’t know it yet.
Finally after hours of yelling and berating her and calling her every name in the book, he picked up his car keys and said, “I’m going out.”
She breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the car start and speed down the driveway. She knew there would be no more yelling tonight. He probably wouldn’t even come back home until the wee hours of the morning—if at all. She sat for a few more minutes, and then she got up and walked to the kitchen. She poured herself a drink and then headed for the shower. Maybe the steam would wash the words away. She felt a desperate need to scald herself clean.
Letting the water cascade down her back, she replayed the events of the evening in her mind. She could not for the life of her remember what had set him off. The house was spotless. All the laundry was folded and put away. Dinner had been waiting on the table. The table! That was it. She had forgotten to place the salt shaker next to his plate. She was supposed to place it at the left-hand side of his plate. She had simply forgotten to put it back after she refilled it earlier in the day.
It was always something small. The laundry. The salt shaker. Once it was that there was a tiny spot she had missed while cleaning the bathroom mirror. She couldn’t even see it. But he did. And started that night’s insults with proofs of her laziness. Lazy was one of his favorite things to call her. Stupid was another.
Any time she expressed an idea he jumped at the chance to call her stupid. Anything that wasn’t his idea or wasn’t done his way was stupid. In those moments she forgot that she had graduated at the top of her class from high school and Magna Cum Laude from college. She forgot she had graduated at all. Apparently, education and basic intelligence didn’t go hand in hand as she had always believed.
As each drop of hot water hit, she could feel herself relax a little. She knew it would be hours before he came home, so she allowed herself to temporarily forget that there was still a huge mess to clean in the dining room. Dinner had been toppled over and thrown when his anger peaked. She would be expected to get it all cleaned before he got back home.
When that thought crossed her mind, the peacefulness of the shower was gone. Fear began to come back. What if this time was different? What if he wasn’t gone for hours this time? It wasn’t long before panic began to set in.
She stepped out of the shower, dried off, and got dressed. She walked into the dining room to survey the mess. Food was on the walls as well as on the floor. Every dish was broken. There was a fork sticking out of the wall. She had long ago given up the idea of having nice or expensive dishes. Now she bought everything at the local thrift store.
Armed with trash bags and cleaning supplies, she got to work in the dining room. When she was finished, everything was so clean it sparkled. All of the broken dishes were deposited into trash bags which were then deposited into the trash can outside. No one would ever know that just a few hours earlier the room had been a miniature war zone.
After she finished her work she went into the living room and sat down on the couch. It was dark and quiet in there. She didn’t even turn on a lamp. She decided to just enjoy the dark in silence. She was exhausted and emotionally drained. Before long, she was sound asleep.