|LET ME IN By Erin McCarthy
“Where were you?” Jared asked as I came into the apartment, my arms loaded with plastic grocery bags.
He didn’t offer to help. He never offered to help.
His tone was congenial, but after six months of living with him, I knew him well enough to recognize that he was looking to trap me, to start a fight. To back me into a verbal corner where he could accuse me of some misconduct and there would be no way to argue rationally with him.
“The grocery store.” I staggered to the kitchen and heaved the eight bags onto the counter.
“It doesn’t take that long to go to the grocery store, Aubrey.” He stood up, rising slowly, unfurling himself like he had all the time in the world.
My palms started to sweat. Nerves. The cat-and-mouse game had begun, just like it had more and more frequently, where he berated me and shamed me and frightened me.
“I left work at five, sweetheart.” Sometimes, giving him a smile and using a term of endearment helped to diffuse his anger, but it was getting harder and harder to make myself smile.
It was also hard to believe I’d ever looked at him and thought he was gorgeous. Thought he was so sweet, so charming. There was nothing charming about him at all now. He was cruel and insecure and sadistic, and I was afraid of him—yet even more afraid to leave him.
He moved towards me, his arms crossing over his chest. “You fucking the bag boy, babe? Is that it? You can’t come home on time and cook me some dinner because you’re too busy in the backroom blowing some loser.”
I shook my head, saliva thick in my mouth. I took an involuntary step backward, but the cabinets halted my progress.
There was nowhere to go.
“Of course not. Why would I do that? I love you,” I said even though I didn’t. He’d killed every genuine emotion I’d ever had for him. “You’re the only man for me.”
The only man I even dared to look at for fear of the repercussions. The only man whose touch I granted, even when I wasn’t in the mood or I was tired or he purposefully degraded me. I knew that if the fear could be peeled away, there would be nothing there but pure hatred for Jared, but the terror was too overwhelming, an octopus ink that covered, hid, camouflaged all my other emotions.
“What do you want for dinner, baby?” I asked, despising the tone of my voice. It was wheedling, desperate. Pathetic. I didn’t even recognize that voice anymore—or who I had become.
I reached out to put my hands on his chest, to halt his steps, but under the guise of affection. I tried to kiss him, but he grabbed my hands and yanked one up to his face, the motion jerking my shoulder. I winced then tried to cover it. He sniffed my hand.
“What are you doing?” I asked, appalled.
He had leaned in and was smelling my neck, my clothes, my hair. It was discomfiting, and my hand trembled before I could try to control it.
“Seeing if you smell like a man.”
I didn’t smell like a man. But I was sure I did smell like sweat. It was August, and even in Maine, the days could heat up. It was almost eighty degrees outside and we didn’t have air conditioning in our apartment. Plus, fear always made me leach that sour anxiety sweat and I was truly afraid. I knew what he was going to do and I knew it was going to hurt.
The girl I used to be would have spit in his face, kneed his nuts, stomped on his foot. But for eighteen months, Jared had been grinding me down one day, one hour, one minute at a time until I was merely a powdery dust beneath his boot. I wanted to fight back. I wanted to flee, but I had left him three times before, and each time, he’d brought me back with first his tears and then his fists. He’d threatened my mother, my father, my brother, my best friend. He’d gotten me fired from my job, kicked out of my sorority house, and he had convinced me that no other man would love me.
So this me, the one with no money and no car and self-esteem that had been fed through the industrial shredder, just tried to keep the peace. To make the moment pass without repercussion.
“I’ll smell like a man once you kiss me,” I said lightly. “I missed you.” Lie. Total lie. So untrue that I actually felt bile rise in my mouth.
He saw it. Somehow, he always saw it. It was like he’d perfected the evil art of stripping me naked emotionally in front of him and he thrived on the humiliation.
Jared suddenly gripped my chin hard in his hand, jerking my head to the side.
I gave an involuntary cry. “What’s wrong? What are you doing?”
His lips came up to my ear. At first, he lightly nibbled on my earlobe. Then he whispered to me, his tender tone at complete odds with his words. “If you even so much as look at another man, I will break every bone in your body. I won’t even use my hands because you’re not worth it. I’ll stomp on you with my boot, the one I use to go riding, the one covered in horseshit. I’ll beat you so bad you’ll wish you were dead, and no man will ever look at your busted face with anything other than total disgust. Do you understand me?”
I nodded, a shiver rolling up my spine. He was big and he surrounded me, his shoulders tense, his grip on my chin so hard I knew it would bruise. He had played lacrosse in college, but he was broad and muscular enough that he could have gone out for rugby. I would never be able to overpower him, outrun him, escape him.
“I understand,” I whispered. “I am not interested in other men.” I wasn’t. I never wanted another man ever again. All I wanted was to be left alone.
He bit my earlobe. Hard.
I gasped in surprise. “Ow.” I hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but it’d slipped out involuntary.
Pulling his head back, he jerked my chin so I was facing him again. “Shut up. You are the whiniest woman I’ve ever met. I swear to God, all you do is complain.”
A hysterical laugh bubbled up inside me and escaped before I could stop it. Was he insane?
Maybe he was. Maybe he was actually totally certifiable. Because I never complained. Ever. About anything. He had knocked that out of me months ago, had silenced me almost from the beginning with his verbal disapproval. I walked on fucking eggshells now and I was exhausted.
But even though I tried to clamp my lips shut, he heard the weird giggle and it enraged him. Before I could even prepare for it, the back of his hand came up and nailed me on the cheek. I stumbled from the force of the blow, tears springing up. Pain reverberated throughout my face and I caught myself with my palms on the kitchen counter, my hands falling into the grocery bags. He yanked me back by the arm and slammed me against the cabinets so that my hip connected hard with the lip of the countertop.
Then he went for the hair, grabbing a big fistful of my blond strands and jerking it so viciously that I cried out in pain. He did it to blur my vision with tears so I couldn’t see him clearly. It was his MO. First the hair. Then a few blows. Sometimes the face, but usually the arms so no one would see bruises later.
“Give me your phone.”
I dug it out of my pocket, thrusting it at him. There was nothing incriminating on it. But that wasn’t why he wanted it. He hurled it at the cabinets, denting the wood. The phone fell to the floor and he stepped on it. I heard the crack.
This was going to be a bad one, the worst in months. I could feel it. When I blinked and my vision cleared, I saw the fury in his eyes, the flare of his nostrils. He looked…murderous.
“Why are you doing this?” I demanded, more of the old me left than I’d realized. “I didn’t do anything.” I tried to bend down, to get away from his hold on me.
A survival instinct that had been lying dormant kicked in. This wasn’t going to be a time where I could placate him, and I was suddenly frightened—but not of pain. Of dying. If he hit me too hard, I could die, and I wasn’t going to let him do that without trying to protect myself first.
“You’re a fucking slut, that’s why. I know you’re screwing around on me.” With one hand still holding me, he used the other to pull his belt out of the loops on his jeans.
I clawed at his hands, trying to get myself free. No. No way in fucking hell was he going to hit me with that. When I couldn’t break his grip on my hair, I used my arm to strike at the belt as he raised it, knocking it out of his hand. The leather stung and I let out a cry, but he was shocked that I’d deflected the blow. I used that sudden pause to my advantage, twisting out his reach and finally freeing my hair.
“Don’t you dare hit me with that,” I warned, catching my breath and backing away from him.
“Are you giving me orders?” he scoffed. “I’ll hit you with whatever I want. Pull your pants down. I’m going to beat your ass with this belt like you deserve.”
There was no way I was going to voluntarily take my pants off so he could humiliate and abuse me. Somewhere deep inside, I found my strength despite the fear, and the line I couldn’t let him cross before I lost myself entirely.
“Then I’ll take your pants off.”
When he started towards me, I bolted, knocking my shoulder into his as I took off for the front door of our apartment. My keys to his car were still in my pocket. Or I could make it to the neighbors if I couldn’t sprint to the car. But he shoved me and I fell back against the wall. I tripped on the lamp cord and it crashed off the end table onto the floor. I put my hands up, but it was too late.
The belt, buckle end first, hit me square in the jaw, and the pain was so shocking, so excruciating, that I fell onto my knees and straight onto my face. I rolled on my side, grabbing at my mouth, my nose. Everything was radiating an agonizing throb, my fingers wet, the scent of my own blood clogging my nostrils. I tried to speak, to scream, to cry, but nothing came out but a gurgling mewl of panic. I dropped my bottom lip and blood rushed between my fingers, down my arm, puddled onto the floor.
“Oh, fuck, Aubrey. Look what you made me do.” Jared sounded frustrated.
The belt clanked down onto the floor next to me, and I winced, scooting away instinctively. I scrambled to sit up, to grab the belt so he couldn’t hit me again. There were tears in his eyes, and that enraged me. How dare he. How fucking dare he.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Shit. If you weren’t such a bitch I wouldn’t get like this. But you push all my buttons.” His hands went up into his hair. “You’re going be fine. Just go rinse your mouth out. Where are the car keys? I’m going to the bar. I need a drink.”
On my knees, gripping my split jaw with one hand, I started to dig in my pocket, loathing him with every bone in my body. Every single bone that he wanted to break hated him and his pathetic limp-dick need to beat on a woman half his size. When he bent over and made to root around in my pocket, clearly impatient, I swatted his hand.
“Don’t touch me! I’ll give you the keys.” Blood sprayed across his face with my words and he reached up and wiped it away in disgust.
“Jesus, Aubrey. That’s really gross.” Then he took the keys and left as I glared at him in complete silence.
I spit out two of my teeth into my palm and put them in my pocket. Then, with shaking fingers, I packed a bag with my wallet, my cell phone with the now shattered screen, and some of the groceries I’d just bought. The rest of the food I left on the counter to rot.
Without even bothering to clean myself up, I went out the front door and knocked on the apartment immediately to the left, where an elderly couple lived, my bag on my shoulder.
When the wife opened the door, I choked back tears as her eyes widened in horror. “Please help me,” I said, my words garbled from a swollen lip and the whistle of air where my teeth used to be. “Before my boyfriend comes back.”