This is how I learned what abuse looks like:
I’m sitting at the bar with Jesse. Nineteen years old, sipping my Jack and Coke, I think I know everything, so sure I have the world figured out.
“So,” I ask her, “why did you and Ronny get a divorce?” Marriage, for me, is a foreign concept, an event likely to occur far into the future, if ever. And so my question to Jesse is asked casually in passing, between drinks, while the band takes a break and we can hear each other talk. Her answer, therefore, comes as a shock.
“He used to beat on me,” she says, as calmly as if she’s describing a blouse she’s planning to buy.
I look at her, unsure how to react. “You mean he beat you, like… he hit you?” She looks back at me, laughing at my naivety.
“What did you think I meant?” she says, not unkindly.
My friend is beautiful, and men walking by can’t help staring. I’m used to this and, for some reason, because it’s Jesse I don’t care at all. She speaks in a Louisiana dialect that sounds like music. As I sit, trying to think what to say, Jesse tells me her story.
She and Ronny had been married for only a few months when he came home early one morning after spending the night in the bars. This was not, she assures me, an unusual occurrence. I knew that already. It was the 1970s. That’s what we all did.
She had waited up for hours before finally going to bed. At dawn he stumbled into their bedroom and shook her awake, demanding that she make him breakfast. He smelled like perfume. Instead of confronting him–like I would, I think–she got out of bed and made him a plate of eggs. This surprises me. After growing up in Northern California, where woman’s rights were debated constantly, I think about what I would say. Make your own breakfast, asshole.
Ronny sat at their kitchen table, took two bites and said, “This is shit.”
Jesse got mad, naturally, complaining that not only had she just cooked him breakfast but that he’d been out all night without so much as a phone call and, apparently, from the smell of him, with another woman. Ronny stood up and threw the plate of food in her face. And then he punched her.
“This happened all the time,” she says. “Eventually he just left me.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He left?
Being young and single, my ideas about marriage are as remote from reality as they can possibly be. But, I think, at least I know what marriage will not look like. I won’t be serving breakfast on demand to anybody, much less a man who has just spent the night with someone other than me.
All I manage in response is a pitifully inadequate, “Oh God, Jesse. That sucks.” (Or words to that effect.) Such is life when you are young and stupid.
At this point in my life, I have never met anyone who’d experienced anything like what she was describing. (Later, of course, I would learn that I had, they just never talked about it.) My parents had never fought in front of my sisters and me. None of the men I dated–or slept with—ever raised their voices to me, much less hit me. Sadly, this would change, and eventually I would come to understand Jesse in a much clearer way. But as she told me her story it was as if she were speaking a different language. I was shocked, not just because this seemed to be a normal experience for her, but mostly because I couldn’t understand why she would allow herself to be abused.
I first met Jesse in the summer of 1976. I don’t remember how, probably in a bar, but we soon became inseparable. We worked at different clubs, but we saw each other as often as we could, after our respective shifts, or on our nights off.
The differences between us didn’t seem like much, but she was a local, raised in the rural south, and I wasn’t. Sadly, this meant that our lives would take very separate paths.
When I moved back to California, not long after Jesse told me her story, we assumed we’d see each other again soon. The morning I left we stood on her front lawn taking snapshots until it was time for me to go, Jesse with her boyfriend Dan, who would become her second husband, and Trina, her daughter from her marriage with Ronny.
She was living in what would turn out to be one in a long line of rundown houses she would live in over the course of her life: an old shotgun house with holes in the floor, a leaky roof, and appliances that only occasionally worked. Filled with mismatched furniture and a single mattress on the living room floor, it was not the kind of house I ever planned on living in, but then neither had she. But for her that’s the way it turned out.
I wouldn’t see Jesse again for eight years. But during that time I heard from her often.
It’s in the middle of the night the first time she calls. I answer the phone and hear someone crying. Disoriented, I try to think of who might be calling at this hour.
“Who is this?” I begin to panic, thinking it might be one of my sisters calling, that something has happened to one of our parents.
Jesse mumbles something then, between sobs, and I finally recognize her voice.
“Jesse?” I say. “What’s wrong?” She doesn’t answer, just continues to cry.
“Jesse. What happened?”
“He beat me again,” she says.
“Who? Dan?” I’m stunned. I introduced Dan to Jesse, thinking they might be suited to one another.
“Where is he?” I finally ask.
“Gone. Probably to New Orleans.” Of course he is, I think. The bars in New Orleans stay open all night.
“Jesse,” I say. “I’m so sorry.” Meaningless words that won’t do a thing to help her, but they are the best I can do from 2,000 miles away. And so I lie there, half asleep, and listen to her cry.
After that, the calls come regularly, every few months, and our relationship begins to develop a disturbing pattern. I answer the phone and hear her cries.
“He hit me,” she says, and again I listen to her sobs, again not knowing what to say. I am horrified that my friend is in pain, but after the first few calls my responses become rote, as if I am following a script: “Where is he now?” I say. “Is Trina okay?”
She and Dan have two daughters together, but eventually they divorce. And yet the calls keep coming. Each time, we have the same conversation but one involving an entirely different person. Dan. Jimmy. Charlie. They beat her, she says, or punched her, or kicked her, or threw her against a wall. Who would do these things? I think. A lot of people apparently, judging from Jesse’s calls. It is around this time that I begin to wonder if this is a cultural thing.
These phone calls, for a time, become the basis of our friendship. Someone will beat her, and she will call me; someone else will beat her, and she will call me again; on and on, year after year. Each time we talk I feel utterly helpless. There is nothing I can do but listen, to let her cry, to tell her that I love her, until she is too tired to stay on the phone any longer. Why don’t you just leave? I say. I beg her to take the children and go to her mother’s house, or anywhere that she will be safe. Sometimes she would. But she always went back.
Several years later, no longer as naïve as I once was, I realized there were likely to be more complicated reasons why Jesse stayed in abusive relationships beyond the fact that she had three children to care for, but by then I was beginning to get angry. I had gone through some difficult years myself, and was tired of always being there for her. When had she been there for me when I needed someone? What could I do for her if she wasn’t willing to help herself? This is how my mind worked back then.
Over time she seemed to accept this life as her due. Many times I heard her say, “Well, at least he’s not hitting me right now,” when she talked about her boyfriend, or husband, as if that alone made him a good person. I’d heard other southern women say the same thing, as if this were normal behavior, something you put up with in order to have a man in your life. I was disgusted by this, not understanding it at all. I couldn’t conceive of being in that situation even once, much less multiple times.
As Jesse got older her relationships, thankfully, became less volatile. The late night calls lessened, then finally stopped. For the next few years we talked at Christmas or on birthdays. We wrote each other often, signing our letters with an acronym: YBFITWEW, Your Best Friend in the Whole Entire World. Corny, maybe, but it was a habit we’d started when we were young. (Thirty years later, we still sign our letters that way.) Eventually, though, we had such different lives, and were separated by so many miles, that our letters became scarce.
Over the years I visited Louisiana now and then, and when I did we would see each other in the French Quarter, or in the town where we’d first met. But by now my view of our relationship had changed. I had come to see it as selfish, one-sided. Why was it always up to me to take the initiative? I always went to her. I always paid for dinner. I always took her to New Orleans. I, I, I. It’s painful to look back now and realize I was the selfish one.
Jesse’s girls grew up and started families of their own. I married and settled into a stable, happy life. I thought of her often, but never made much effort to maintain the friendship. But, I reasoned, neither did she.
My circumstances changed when my mother moved to the Gulf Coast, which meant that when I visited her I was only a short drive away from Jesse. But, as it turns out, I rarely took the time to make the drive. Her life always seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis. Her phone was cut off regularly, which left her impossible to reach. I had a hard time summoning up the energy required to find her, and felt a twinge of guilt each time I got on the plane to fly home, vowing that I would see her next time. But as each trip came and went I always found another excuse not to seek out my old friend, until last year when I flew down to visit my mother for Christmas.
It is after the holiday, and I have several days before returning home. One morning I grow restless, and I tell my mother I’m going out to look up some old friends. Perhaps I’ll try to see Jesse but I’m not sure I’ll be able to find her or if I even want to. As usual, I have no phone number for her, no way to know where she is living.
When I get to the small town where I hope she still lives, I drive to the last address I have for her. An old duplex with peeling paint and barred windows, the place looks the same as every other house she’d lived in, which is to say deeply depressing.A chain link fence separates the house from the one next door, and two plastic chairs sit next to the porch steps, an ashtray on the ground between them.Despite the knot in my stomach I get out of the car and walk to the front door, half hoping no one is home. I knock, and after a moment an older man opens the door. He looks wary, clearly assuming I’m there trying to sell something.
“I’m looking for Jesse,” I say.
He hesitates, but opens the door a bit wider. Finally he says, “Yeah. Come on in.” I follow him into a house filled, literally, with junk. A mattress is upended against one wall, and boxes are haphazardly stacked everywhere. A filthy overstuffed chair, presumably vacated by the same man who had answered the door, sits across from a small TV, the volume turned low.
He motions for me to follow, and leads me to a closed door at the back of the house. He knocks and says, “Hey Jesse. You’ve got a visitor.”
It’s almost noon and she’s still sleeping? Either she worked late the night before, or she’s still involved with a lifestyle I had long ago given up.
“Jesse!” He knocks again. “Someone’s here to see you.” Then the door opens, and there she is. Groggy from sleep, it takes her a moment to recognize me. When she does, she starts to cry. We hug each other for a long time, both of us crying now.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“I drove over from Waveland,” I say. “I had no way to reach you.” I hug her again, surprised to realize how much I’ve missed her. A man standing behind her looks at me as if he knows who I am. “You must be Sandy,” he says.
Jesse turns towards him and smiles. “This is my husband, Tom,” she says. Husband? This man looks young enough to be her son. Nothing ever changes, I think.
We make small talk for a while, but finally I ask if she might like to get some lunch. The house is making me claustrophobic and I’m beginning to feel anxious. I don’t know Tom, or the man who answered the door, but I know one of them is selling drugs. Several men have come and gone already in the short time I’ve been here, each of them taking a turn in the bathroom. I know what a drug house looks like. I can only assume Jesse is also using.
She gets dressed and we walk downtown to find a place to eat. We sit at the bar and talk, laughing about things we’d done together, our times behind the bar, the friends and customers we’d known.
“They used to call me ‘Swamp,’ remember?” Jesse says.
“Who did?” I say, confused.
“Oh, my regulars, because of where I was born. They never meant anything by it.”
“But why?” I ask. “Ponchatoula’s not the swamp.”
“I was born in Manchac,” she says. “I didn’t move to Ponchatoula until later.”
“I never knew that.”
Manchac was out in the bayous between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a place you passed on the way to somewhere else. There was a famous seafood restaurant there, at least famous in south Louisiana.
The gap in meaning between ‘bayou’ and ‘swamp’ couldn’t possibly be wider, and it has nothing at all to do with their geographical differences. One is romantic and mysterious, while the other conjures up images of poor white trash, which to some people is just about the worst thing you can be.
She hadn’t been trying to hide this. She must have known I wouldn’t care one way or the other. It had just, surprisingly, never come up.
“My father threw my mother out of the house when I was five,” she says.
“Your mother in Ponchatoula?”
“That’s my stepmother. She’s the one who raised me. My real mother lives in Amite. I’ve only met her a couple times.” Amite is a small town less than twenty miles from here.
She tells me her father beat her mother for years, eventually throwing her out of her own house, taking their young daughter for himself. As she says this, I think about all the late night phone calls. My burger sits untouched in front of me as she describes her hellish childhood, one that I now knew had become a template for her entire life.
Now, many years later, she has no money and no medical insurance. She is no longer able to work. Several years before, she had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and suffered from debilitating bouts with fibromyalgia. She has no car, and is dependent on anybody who can take her where she needs to go that is farther than walking distance from the house. Her daughters live nearby but refuse to see her. I ask why, and she says it’s because they dislike Tom. I suspect it has more to do with her drug use, but I say nothing.
She lived under appalling conditions, which I’d seen just a glimpse of. She and Tom rarely had enough to eat. They shared the house with his father, who Tom had only met recently. This was, apparently, the man who had answered the door. He spent all day, Jesse said, in front of the TV. He paid half the rent, but also stole their food, and anything else they left lying around. They had no privacy, had to padlock the door to their bedroom when they left the house, to protect the few possessions they had. They were virtual prisoners in a house most people wouldn’t want to step foot in, much less live.
That night, I took her to New Orleans, because it was the only thing I could think of to do for her. We walked the streets of the Quarter, eating beignets and buying silly trinkets, things that tourists do. I took her to dinner at a restaurant that, in hindsight, must have made her uncomfortable. She looked at the menu and I saw that she was afraid to make a choice, faced with entrees that cost more money than she could ever spend on one meal. But I also saw that she was struggling to have fun, something she hadn’t done in a very long time. She tasted goat cheese for the first time, and drank two glasses of expensive Chardonnay. We laughed and laughed, as the friend I had loved for so long let go of her pain, if only for a few hours.
The next day, instead of goat cheese and risotto, we drank sweet tea and ate oyster Po-boys. That night, we stood on the hotel balcony in the cold, watching the tourists laughing below.
“You know what I want?” she said, as she lit a cigarette and watched the lights of the city. “All I want is a trailer of my own, and enough room for a garden.”
My old prejudices bubbled up again. You want to live in a trailer? Why not dream for a house, I wondered, or at least a house with a shower that worked or a front door that locked?
Later, as I listened to her softly snoring in the bed next to mine, I thought, how did I escape this? A life where the most you can hope for is a trailer on the side of a two-lane highway? Even with all the problems I’d had in my own life, it had been a winning lottery ticket compared to what my friend had lived with.
I felt my resentment towards her begin to disappear, my anger at her for not being there when I needed her, for continuing to let men abuse her. My ignorance had colored my view of our relationship for so long that I had been unable to see the truth. There were many times I had not been Jesse’s friend, and she hadn’t been mine. The difference is that I felt as if, somehow, I should have known better. Because of the advantages I’d had, perhaps, because I’d had an easier life, because I was the lucky one.
I watched her as she slept and suddenly, at the oddest of times, realized that what Jesse had given me over the years was something for which I would never be able to adequately thank her: friendship and unconditional love. Why had it taken me so long to recognize such a simple thing?
Six months later, she calls me again. She’s going into rehab. Her daughters are insisting, saying it was the only way she’d ever see her grandchildren. Before this, she and Tom had separated because he wasn’t willing to give up the drugs, and that night I think, not for the first time, how much can one person endure?
As I hang up the phone, I think about how lucky I am to have had her as my friend, and how if I could do only one thing for her, besides love her, I would buy her the one small thing she wants out of life: a trailer, with a garden. A place of her own that no one can take from her, a place where I will always be able to find her.
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her essays cover a variety of topics and have been published, or are forthcoming, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and other publications. Her essay, “The Clothes I Was Wearing” was named a finalist in both the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards and the 2012 Glass Woman Prize, in addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Cal State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is working on her first novel.
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