The slap is unexpected. Carl doesn’t usually sneak up on me. He likes to yell first, stoke the fire of his anger, watch my fear grow…
The slap is unexpected. Carl doesn’t usually sneak up on me. He likes to yell first, stoke the fire of his anger, watch my fear grow, before he uses his fists. I know better than to baby the stinging cheek. Instead I look at the kitchen floor foolishly glad I didn’t spill the cake batter. I clutch the bowl against my stomach like a shield.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m baking a cake for you.”
Carl grabs my chin and forces me to look at him. “I can see that, you stupid bitch.”
He grabs the bowl and throws it to the floor. The plastic bowl bounces, spins, and slings its contents onto Carl’s pants and shoes. “Goddamn it!” He roars. “Look what you did! Stupid bitch. Stupid, stupid bitch!”
Stupid and bitch are his favorite words. They’re his mantra as his fists plummet into my stomach and ribs. I back away until I collide with the wall. Pain outweighs the fear. My arms go up to protect my face, but it’s too late. Carl smashes my jaw. My head raps against the wall, and I slump to the floor.
* * *
“He doesn’t mean it, Mom,” I say as she applies an ice pack to my eye. “He just can’t control his temper. He works hard, you know. And I’m always screwing up. It’s not his fault.”
Mom shakes her head. “You don’t deserve this, Betty Mae. You leave that man before he kills you.”
* * *
When I wake up, I’m on the kitchen floor. Pain soaks my entire body; moving causes excruciating sensations. My face feels sticky and, even though my arm screams in protest, I move it so I can press my hand against my swollen face. I swipe my mouth. Cake mix covers my fingers. Did I make strawberry cake? The smells of vanilla and floor wax are weirdly comforting. The white tile, usually shiny and clean and perfect, is covered with cake mix and blood. I’ll have to scrub it, but not yet. Later. I’m tired, so I close my eyes.
* * *
“I’m sorry, honey. You know I can’t control my temper. I won’t do it again.” Carl’s voice is filled with misery. “Come home. We’ll work it out, I promise. Please, Betty Mae.”
I stand on my mother’s front porch, clutching the screen door. It’s springtime and the smell of honeysuckle and fresh cut grass reminds me of our first date. Carl took me on a picnic and recited silly love poems between bites of fried chicken and drinks of cold lemonade. Most of the time Carl is sweet and thoughtful.
Carl’s eyes reflect sincere remorse. I know he means it this time. And I love him. “I’ll come home,” I say. I feel hopeful and glad. Carl races to the porch and grabs me, swinging me around. “I love you, Betty Mae.”
* * *
“Betty Mae? Lord above, baby, wake up. Wake up.”
The gentle, concerned voice sounds like Carl’s. Nah. He just beat the crap out of me. He doesn’t love me. I’m a stupid bitch. I manage to open my eyes. Carl hovers over me. “You bastard,” I croak.
“Honey, you fell down the basement stairs. I called an ambulance.”
“Then why am I in the kitchen covered in cake mix?”
“I carried you up here.”
“Liar.” The edges of my vision darken. At the same time, I feel the pain receding. Then noises erupt. Sirens. Knocks. Footsteps. People in white lift me onto a cool, padded gurney. I’m almost blind, but my body is mercifully numb.
* * *
“I’ve almost got enough money saved, Mom,” I say into the phone. “Just another month or two and I can leave him. I know you want to help, but I’m not taking a penny of your social security check. He hasn’t hit me in weeks — I’ll be fine.”
I hear the crunch of car tires on the gravel driveway. My heart races and I barely say good-bye before hanging up. I grab the box of cake mix and pour its contents into the blue plastic bowl. I add eggs and milk, then stir. I hear the front door open and Carl’s footsteps as he walks into the house.
* * *
Carl sits next to me in the ambulance, his warm hand grasping mine. His look of husbandly concern is as sincere as his tale of my terrible fall down the basement stairs. I want to scream, “Don’t believe him!” But my lips won’t move. My body feels light and floaty. Noise recedes, sensations fade, and the world, the cruel, cruel world, falls away. I’m finally leaving Carl.
And nothing he does will ever bring me back.