My right hand shakes sometimes. It’s a nervous tic I’ve had for 15 years now. It happens when I am very afraid – mostly when I’m near someone who is visibly angry; who is raising his/her voice; shouting expletives; or behaving in a manner that seems physically menacing. If I am in a situation that I believe will lead to someone being angry – say, in a car with someone who is pulled over for speeding – I can feel it start to tremble.
It happens, too, when I see something particularly violent on TV or in a movie. Even when I know I’m safe, it can happen. There’s a guy here who walks down one of the main streets in town quite regularly – I think he may be homeless – who yells loudly and semi-incoherently; I wonder if maybe he has Tourette Syndrome or if he’s just full of rage. Sometimes, when I’ve spent the night at my boyfriend’s place downtown, I’ll wake early in the morning to the sound of this man’s yelling from the alley below the window. My hand always shakes when I hear him.
My tic used to infuriate my old boyfriend; the first time he hurt me was, perhaps not coincidentally, the first time my hand shook this way. We had not been dating long and I was unprepared for what happened that lovely summer evening, after an afternoon spent with friends. I certainly didn’t know that the events of that night would mark me in such a lasting and tangible way.
It had been a beautiful day and we’d gone to a popular bar where you could sit outside and order pitchers or buckets of beer. It seemed like we were all so relaxed and were having so much fun. We’d been responsible enough to get a ride downtown and, after several hours, were taking a cab home: me, my boyfriend, my roommate/best friend, and the guy she was seeing. I guess the alcohol had dulled my senses, because it took me a while to notice that my boyfriend’s mood had taken a wrong turn somewhere between the bar and the house. He would not speak to me or look at me, but I was giddy still from all the joking around, so I tried to coax and tease him out of his churlishness. He wasn’t having it, though, so when we got home I reluctantly said goodnight to the other couple and followed my boyfriend upstairs to my room.
Once alone, he didn’t have any trouble articulating his anger. My sundress was too revealing; I had been too friendly to other men; had not paid enough attention to him; and had drunk too many beers.
“You are an embarrassment,” he said, coldly.
I was taken aback. Shocked. I couldn’t believe that he was saying these things to me. Hadn’t we all been having so such a good time together just an hour before? I was confused; my mind struggled to make sense of his words.
Before I could reply, he went on, “I guess if I didn’t have to buy my own beer, I’d drink as much as I could, too. I mean, if I had someone to buy my drinks; drive me everywhere; and pay for everything; I’d be in good shape. But, I can’t do that, can I? No, I didn’t get to skip college to go to California and party all the time, like you did. I had to work to get my degree so that I could make something of myself. Not so I could end up paying for someone who’s basically a taker. Someone who couldn’t even get an education.”
I still couldn’t understand what was happening. It was as if he were a completely different person than the guy I’d been seeing: the guy who was so funny and nice, who was always the first one to make a joke, or suggest something fun to do. In fact, I had thought I was finally dating someone who wanted a healthy relationship. He had talked to me about trust, about openness, about having things in common. After years of dating a controlling older man, I was so ready for that kind of friendly romance.
But that night in my room, I couldn’t see any trace of that nice guy. Because I couldn’t reconcile the man who was raging at me with the man I’d been dating, my mind scrambled to figure out what I had done wrong. Had I really been so drunk? Had my outfit been that bad? Wouldn’t my best friend have told me? Had I been mean or rude to my boyfriend? To our friends? I replayed the afternoon in my head quickly, crazily, trying to pinpoint my original sin. I was crying by now: sobbing, really.
And then, suddenly, everything got worse.
He didn’t hit me (I can hear him say it still, “I didn’t hit you.”). But, he grabbed me by my upper arms- hard! His fingers squeezed my flesh so hard that when my knees gave out, I was still eye to eye with him. He spit into my face that I was worthless. (There was not much yelling that night, presumably because there were people downstairs. There would be years of yelling to come.)
I could feel my eyes swelling from my tears. My face was red and my nose was runny. I, who had taken such care to try to look pretty for my new boyfriend, was a snotty, puffy, pathetic wreck. I could see that he was becoming more and more disgusted by me: by my crying and my appearance.
I begged him to stop, but after a while, I couldn’t talk anymore through my sobs. He shoved me down onto the bed and stood over me, his legs locked around mine so that I couldn’t move far. I wanted to curl up, but could only hunch my shoulders in toward my chest and hide my face behind my hands.
That’s when I noticed that my right hand was moving. It was shaking so hard, it looked like I was waving. My boyfriend looked at me with revulsion and said, “Look at you… Jesus, can you not control yourself?”
With something that resembled a laugh, he released my legs and stepped away from the bed. Sneering at me, he took a final- and thankfully verbal- shot. “God, you’re a mess! Get yourself together.”
And, that’s where I stop remembering that particular night.
I know that probably he somehow worked his way into a tearful apology. That have taken most of the blame for the events of the evening, but left me with 10-15% of the responsibility for actually causing him to get out of hand. I know that I would have, eventually, ended up comforting him. Soothing him and telling him, “I’m okay; I promise.”
I know that, sometimes, as the years went by, it would take the police – even bystanders – getting involved to make him stop. That I would hide marks on my forehead; my throat; and my arms.
And, I know that- now- my nervous tic is an occasionally visible reminder of what would become years of abuse. What I don’t know is how long the invisible affects of the violence will stay with me.
This post was originally published on KaranAGoGo.com and at WestVirginiaVille.com in 2011.