You never fully understand a situation until you experience both sides of it. One day last week, after a bite of breakfast at my favorite spot down the street, I spent the morning at Playa Maderas. I walked slowly five blocks and came out on a pedestrian pathway that wrapped the rocky shore and connected two beaches. I stopped at a concrete ledge halfway between both, and laid down a yellow towel. The sun was strong. I felt it beneath my skin as waves kissed the lips of the ledge I sat on. I had been there about an hour when I decided to write. To warm up my mind-to-hand connection, I wrote whatever came first. “It is a beautiful day.” I scribbled. And ironically, at that moment, I looked up to see a couple, no more than 18 or 19 years old, fighting.
It was a violent and startling sight. He hit her. In the face. In broad daylight. He swung his fist, just inches from her face, and hit the side of her neck the way a man hits a woman when it’s nothing new to him. He hit her, hard, just as he had many times before. He stayed hovering over her. Yelling, and threatening. At this point, a group of men nearby had noticed the argument. We all exchanged glances as our eyes darted over the entire situation. It was noon on a Saturday, beneath a bright and brilliant sun, and we were at a beach surrounded by families. It was a beautiful day, however; the young lovers spun, lost within their own torrential and seemingly everlasting storm. She would respond to his loud voice, softly, and turn her face ashamed. Their cycle continued.
Part of me immediately felt empathetic and out of body. At her age, I was in a similar relationship. I was madly in love with a man who controlled everything I did, everywhere I went and every single person I talked to. I swear I would have defended him until blood ran through my teeth and onto his fists. Eventually, accepting such manipulation left me clueless to who I actually was and I began to depend on his abuse as a sense of identity. That was his way of loving me, I would tell myself. Someone in an abusive relationship very rarely acknowledges that it is indeed abuse they are enduring. It is a tragic game of excuses and rationalizations. The true danger of domestic violence is not the moments of impact but rather the prolonged psychological torment. What I experienced in my past felt so similar to what I was witnessing that I could feel myself within her. I could feel the embarrassment and the shame. The self-hatred. The numbness. But most devastating of all is the instinctual defense of a man that just chose to lose his control on you.
She cried. And as tears ran down her cheeks, I thought to myself that maybe this was the only way she knew how to run. Maybe this was how her father had treated her mother and maybe, to her, this has always been a part of what love is. I watched hot water escape from her eyes, only to be dried beneath the merciless sun. She walked away. But, he followed her. They passed me quickly and continued their violent dance until… “pop!“ She wouldn’t turn around and talk to him so he swung a fist into the back of her head, striking her with the full weight of his insecurities and dysfunction. It was so hard I could feel it’s impact from a distance. My blood boiled and had I been capable, I would have kicked the motherfucker into the ocean and prayed karma would crack his head open on a rock. In all honestly, I wish I’d had my pepper spray. I yelled “ayudale!! AYUDALE, por favor!” Help her. Someone help her. The men from the water came running, as if they had been waiting for me to tell them to intervene. First two, then seven or eight men surrounded the couple and finally protected the young girl in pink.
What could anyone do in this situation, really? Someone could stop him from hitting her again, here at the beach, but no one could save her from the violence that waits at home. That is what terrified me. This was her battle and only she could surrender. To surrender is to accept that the battle is not worth fighting; to accept that not all is fair in love and war, to look at yourself and demand what you deserve. In last month’s issue of Vanity Fair, Rihanna bravely spoke about coming to this conclusion. “…You know, you realize after a while that in that situation you’re the enemy. You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I’m willing to put up with something, they think less of you—because they know you don’t deserve what they’re going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that’s when I finally had to… just walk away.”
The men surrounded the couple, but eventually they fled. Minutes passed and they were no where to be seen. My arm shook, but I still tried to write. To my surprise, the young woman came walking back and this time she was alone. I made eye contact and motioned for her to come sit with me. Her head hung heavy, the weight of her experiences pressing hard on her pride. I told her I couldn’t say everything I wanted to in Spanish because I am still learning, but that I could understand whatever she wanted to tell me. She began with, “I love him. He is a good person, but..” Between short breaths and heavy tears, her story was predictable. A jealous boyfriend, angry over texts from a male friend. Childish. Infuriating. Yet still, it’s important to put our judgements aside and recognize that this is common. This is so, frighteningly common.
A friend of hers joined us with a baby, around the age of 2. The darling little girl sat on my beach bag as if it were a chair made for her, and looked up into her mother’s heartbroken eyes. ‘Someone who loves you never objects you to violence,’ I told her, translated into Spanish. ‘No matter what. And if he is violent in public, I know he is even worse at home.’ And when I said that, it broke something in the wall she had worked so hard to hold up and I could feel it resonate somewhere inside her memories. Like beads on a string, perhaps all the incidents started to add up. The boyfriend was sitting on a bench just feet away from us. Once or twice he tried to approach and I told him to leave. “No, you can’t talk to her for a minute. No, you can’t apologize again. And no, praying won’t help because your pinche putito ass is going to hell. Fuck off.” That is when two policemen came walking down the path. Never in my life have I been relieved to see cops, but I have to admit I was glad to see someone who maybe, just maybe, would hold this boy accountable.
What is the right thing to do in this situation? Edmund Burke once said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I believe in fate to some extent. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that I was there when the fight erupted in public. As a woman who, for lack of a better word, survived something so similar, it feels like fate. I believe we find ourselves in a matrix of experiences and in our owns ways, we are all prepared to do the right thing when it is required. Perhaps, you have the power to save someone. A phone call. An offering of safety. It may not stop someone from hitting their partner, and it may not end the toxic relationship. That is not within our power. Instead, it is our duty to honor the small ways one protests. This young woman had the courage to walk over to me, a stranger, to ask for safety and that deserves to be met. It is our duty as observers to meet those small protests, to give people an alternative, to fight with them and to know when to intervene because someone else isn’t. The men I was with that day knew they should say something. They knew the right thing to do, yet they hesitated. We cannot hesitate.
Domestic violence does not have to be a punch to the face. Imagine cancerous tissue within the human body. It begins small and undetectable and then it escalates. It rapidly divides and claims more and more from the host. Emotional control, isolation, fear and a persistent breakdown one’s self-worth are all symptoms of abuse. Being in a violent relationship is not something to be ashamed of. I want to write that over and over. I want write it on billboards. It is something you can grow from. It can, with time, lead you down a path of self-discovery. Statisically speaking, there is someone in your life who has endured abuse, and maybe they still are. If this piece struck you and you feel you, or someone you know, may be in an abusive relationship, please ask for help. Talk to your closest friends, and listen to their perspective. Being in a violent relationship is not something to be ashamed of. There is a calm after every storm.
If you or someone you know is involved in an abusive relationship, the wonderful folks at Love Is Respect and RAINN are here to help: for dating abuse call 1–866–331–9474 or text “loveis” to 22522; for any other sexual abuse call 1–800–656–4673.
If you are experiencing any other type of crisis, consider talking confidentially with a volunteer trained in crisis intervention at www.imalive.org, or anonymously with a trained active listener from 7 Cups of Tea.