When I open my eyes from a deep sleep, RC Cola is standing over my head on my pillow. Her feet are moving wildly and she is pulling my hair. I reach my hands up to steady her and determine what has panicked her. It doesn’t take long.
Next to me, Rick is kneeling where he typically sleeps, punching his pillow with unrestrained rage. The breeze from his angry fist can be felt on my face. He sees me wake but does not stop.
In one motion I sit up, take hold of RC, and roll both of us off of the far side of the bed. My eyes scan the room for our other dog, SodaPop, or my Siamese, Cocoa, and I spot both under the bed, scared but safe. RC and I run for the kitchen, where I’ve left my phone and truck keys. Both are swept into the pocket of my navy blue athletic shorts—the ones that used to be his that I started to wear after we first met because it made me feel closer to him.
Within seconds, Rick fills the living room. RC moves behind me as he makes his way to the dining room table we’d converted a few months back to his business desk. Natural pine on top, with hunter green legs. The four chairs that went with it had green legs too. I thought it was a good omen because his business color was hunter green.
“It is over. I am done.”
I have no voice, and for the first time I am not interested in hearing the answer to “What’s wrong?” Above his desk hangs the large dry-erase board I bought him to help keep track of clients and work dates. Hanging right next to it is his business license, framed in a cheap glass frame but worth millions to him if his smile at the time he put it up was any indication. His fist goes through the glass and leaves an impression on the plaster behind it. He then drives his left fist into the board, sending it crashing to the floor behind the desk. With his right hand, he grabs the edge of the table and flips it across the room like a card table. It—and all the paper and office supplies piled on top of it—lands lengthwise across the front door of the apartment.
I am hyper-aware of the kitchen door behind me but am too scared to leave Cocoa and Soda behind. Always too scared to leave my animals behind. Instead, I sink down on my haunches between the loveseat and a wall, jammed tightly together with all 50 pounds of RC in a solidarity only fear can create.
I quickly try to piece things together. Earlier in the evening Rick had come home quiet and troubled. Nothing unusual. As he drank, he started talking. He grew more talkative as he sat and drank in the tub, and he called me in to hear his complaints as he usually did. I always felt like I should be cooking supper or walking the dogs or doing anything else but if I made a move as if I was impatient he would throw his hands in the air and swear at me.
“Just go. I’m obviously boring you. You don’t give a crap about my problems, anyway. You’re just like everyone else. Use him for his damn bank account but stay the hell away from him when he’s unhappy. He’s just a worthless drunk. I ain’t worth spit, and that’s a fact.”
So I would sit on the toilet next to the tub, listening to his latest conspiracy theories. There was always someone in town out to destroy him and his fledgling business. He had come out of the gate fast, but recently the jobs had trickled to almost nothing. He was convinced he was being blackballed by local contractors, and being underbid by unlicensed Mexican welders.
“I can’t even afford to live like a white man,” I braced myself for what always followed. “Damn Julios and black men are livin’ better than I am, and I work my ass off every friggin’ day. Or I would, if somebody would hire me.” I usually get up and leave when he starts the racist part of the rant, but for some reason I was too heavy to move tonight.
He paused to soap his jet black hair, sliding all the way under the water briefly to rinse it out again. My eyes always ran the length of his body while his eyes were closed for that moment. He was still physically attractive to me, and it broke my heart that the inside of him could be so corroded when the outside was so beautiful. I never should have forced him to start the business. He wasn’t ready, and it was breaking him.
“You can end the business anytime you want,” I try. “If it’s too much—you shouldn’t be under this kind of pressure. I’m doing well at the new job and…”
“And you’re going to pay our rent and our truck payments and our food and every other thing we owe. That’s great. Thanks for taking the pressure off. Get the hell out.”
I got the hell out.
I made dinner, but he did not eat it. I counted 10 beer bottles scattered around the apartment as I prepared for bed. I didn’t like the bottles. They had 4 more ounces than the cans. I always counted before I went to bed. Habit. I never collected them up until he left for work in the morning, though; because I still believed one day he’d wake up and be shocked at how much he’d had to drink the night before. Hadn’t happened yet.
Getting ready for bed, my heart pounded a bit as it usually did whenever he crossed the six beer threshold, but I was fairly certain he would pass out soon on his own. He took the last two bottles out onto the porch, where he lit a cigarette.
That was where I left him when I crawled into bed, exhausted after my forty-five minute commute and a sales job I already hated.
Now I am huddled on the floor with my dog next to a sofa. And Rick has definitely not passed out. I have no idea what time it is.
“Where the hell is your wallet? Your wallet,” he snorts. “My wallet, since it has my money in it.”
He empties my bag on the kitchen counter. He doesn’t notice my keys and phone are missing, but I sure wish now I had thought to grab my wallet at the same time.
“You don’t need my money now. Don’t need me. You have your own damn job—your own life. So you don’t need these.” He shakes out my debit card and credit card. Finding his scissors on the floor, he cuts them into pieces. When he finishes, he gathers up the shards and tosses them over RC and me like confetti. RC flinches.
“Find your own damn money.”
If he wanted to scare me, that worked beautifully. This is a new stunt for him. Now I can’t get cash, I can’t get a hotel room, I can’t do anything. I pray he won’t think to shred my driver’s license. He does not. Still, the image of him beating that pillow just inches from my face is swirling around me again like a dark cloud. He has never gone this far in trying to scare me, and I find my ability to predict his next move gone. As much as I believe him unable to harm any of my animals, I also believed him incapable of the violence he had just displayed in the last hour. I cannot gamble with my own safety anymore.
When he goes into the bathroom to pee, I push up away from the sofa and called softly to Soda, who thankfully comes running, long, slender tail tucked, from the bedroom. I say a silent prayer for Cocoa, who is too smart to leave a hiding place he can’t reach, and run with the dogs to the kitchen door. We go out through the back yard and through the gate. I watched in horror as both dogs disappear in the darkness. Not thinking, I just turned my girls loose in the neighborhood without collars, both in panicked states. If they are lost… My anger at being forced into this position brings the phone out of my pocket. Now I am done.
I call 911. I am in a marriage that is so dangerous I have to call 911. I am standing in a parking lot in Goodyear, AZ, in pajamas and no shoes, crying because I am too scared to call for my dogs because my husband might find me, and I am dialing 911. How did I get here? Five years ago I hadn’t even met this man.
Goodyear is a small neighborhood, and I hear sirens before I finish my first sentence. They cut through the still desert air like a knife.
“Ma’am. The officers are there and they need to know where you are.”
“I hear them. My dogs are loose—I can’t find my dogs…”
“Ma’am, where are you? Are you in the apartment?”
“No, I’m behind it. I’m going to walk around to the front.”
I half-run under the sweeping pines to get to the front of the building where two squad cars sit, sirens quiet now but lights flashing. My neighbors are watching crazy lights play across their bedroom walls.
“I see them, thank you,” I tell the dispatcher, hanging up. One of them turns to me.
“Are you Mrs. Dietrich?” I nod. “I’m Officer Sarah Fox, and that is Officer Jim Barrera.” I feel like an idiot standing there in front of this impeccably uniformed blonde in complete control of her life. I am a mess, in an old white t-shirt—the kind you only wear to bed because you’re still attached to the meaning behind the shirt but it’s too old to be worn in public—and no bra. I cross my hands over my chest. The other officer is Hispanic, about Rick’s size. Being arrested by a Hispanic would really make his night. “Mucking Fexicans,” he called them. I hated the expression. I had learned many such terms since meeting Rick.
“Mrs. Dietrich, we need to know if your husband has a gun.”
No... I hadn’t even thought about that. All I want is for Rick to stop yelling—to leave me in peace so I can sleep. I don’t want any of this. This is more than I’d asked for.
“Ma’am, does Mr. Dietrich have a gun in the house? We need to know before we approach the house.”
“Duckett. My husband’s last name is Duckett.”
Patiently, the officer asks again. “Does Mr. Duckett have a gun in the house?”
“Yes. A Magnum .357. But when I left it was still up on the shelf in the closet. He doesn’t have it out.” But it is always loaded, and he’s had it out before. I feel everything moving way too fast.
Both officers immediately unsnap their shiny black holsters and pull their weapons, pointing them towards the ground. I feel like throwing up. This is not happening. The first officer keeps her eyes on me while the other keeps his eyes on our front door.
I know the next question before she asks it.
“Has he been drinking?”
I am going to get Rick shot. He is scared, depressed, in the middle of an anxiety attack, and I am going to get him killed by accident. You read about it all the time.
“He has had 10-12 bottles of beer in the last three hours. He suffers from severe depression. He’s having some kind of panic attack.”
“All right. I need you to go over and sit on the grass and stay there. We’re just going to go talk to him.”
I walk to the grass and sink into its coolness. I hug my knees to my chest, my eyes glued to our front door.
Officer Fox stays back ten feet as Officer Barrera approaches and knocks on the door. The door cracks and I see Rick’s silhouette. I am embarrassed for him when I see he is still wearing nothing but boxer shorts. Why didn’t he grab his jeans when he heard the sirens? Why does it matter what the hell he is wearing?
I cannot hear them, but I see Rick nod and shut the door for a moment. The officer at the door takes a step to the side, gun still drawn and pointing towards the doormat. The door opens again and I see Rick slowly hand his handgun to the officer. He is holding it by the barrel. I drop my head to my knees. He is going to kill me for humiliating him like this. Once they have the gun in the squad car, Officer Barrera goes back up to the door. He holsters his weapon, and I let out a long breath. Officer Fox keeps hers drawn.
After five minutes or so, Barrera comes over to me. The sliver of light from the open door narrows.
“Well, he seems very much in control of himself at the moment. He says there was just a misunderstanding. Judging from your state, I am not inclined to believe that. I know how quickly these guys can pull it together when we show up.”
“He’s going to go ballistic when you leave.”
“If you press charges, he’ll go with us for the night. Otherwise, we’ll take the gun with us but you’ll still be here with him.”
“I can’t have him arrested—he’ll kill me.” The officer has heard this so many times he does not bother to point out the flaws in my argument.
“What about family, friends… Is there somewhere you can go for the night?”
I have only been at my new job a few months. I barely know anyone there. My family is all back in the Midwest, sound asleep. And my debit card is in a hundred tiny pieces.
“There isn’t anyone. We’re new here. My family is not even close.”
He repeats himself slowly, carefully, knowing what my answer will be.
“If you press charges, which you have every right to do, he will leave with us.”
“And he’ll be released in the morning.”
“Then I’ll just have to face him then. I might as well face him now. There’s no difference.” I feel utterly defeated. Not only have I wasted their time, I have been unable to close the deal. I have no more courage than the doormat in front of my apartment.
Officer Fox takes a card from one of her pockets. She writes a number on it.
“This is my card, and this is your case number. Please don’t hesitate to call us again tonight if you need to. I’m going to explain to him that you are not pressing charges but that he is to leave you alone.”
She joins the other officer and I wonder if Rick might invite them in for tea. I’m sure he is charming the pants off them. Remembering he has no pants on himself, I almost laugh. At that moment, the officer who had been talking to Rick waves me over. I cross the drive and approach the apartment, and Rick.
“I have explained to Mr. Duckett that he is to remain calm and leave you alone after we leave. Do you agree to honor that, Sir?”
“Yes sir.” He does not look at me, but I can tell his eyes are hard as the black steel he welds all day.
“Okay. Your wife has been instructed to call us again if you do not stay calm. We do not want to have to come out here again tonight, but we will.”
“Understood.” How could a man that drunk and wearing nothing but boxer shorts still manage to sound so controlled and convincing? He looks as sober as the cops before him, though not as well dressed.
And in that moment, I wake up harder than I did when he threw the first punch at our bed. Rick has blown his cover. For years he has exploded at me, near me, and when morning would come he would cry, apologize, and swear that he was completely powerless over his actions. But for the first time, I just watched him go from crazed lunatic to self-composed gentleman in the space of a few minutes. If that wasn’t self-control, nothing was. How many other lies has he convinced me to believe? I am too sober, too shocked to be angry yet, but I tuck this revelation deep in my pocket with Officer Fox’s card. This piece of news I know I will need later. This, this is a complete game changer. Five years…
As the squad cars pull out of the complex, I push past Rick and go straight through the living room (noticing that he had found time to set the table back up and shove the mess behind the door before he opened it for the police), through the kitchen and into the backyard. The gate is still open, and there is no sign of my dogs. I start running and almost run right over them, both cowering just outside of our gate. I am so relieved that for a moment I don’t care what he plans to do to me when I go back. My girls are safe.
Humbly, they follow me back into the yard and I shut the gate behind us. I lift myself as much as possible after everything that has happened and walk back into the apartment. Walking past him again, I go into the bedroom and get down on my hands and knees to check on Cocoa. Her eyes glow at me from under the bed. I can’t reach her, but she is okay. Her mouth opens as if to meow, but nothing comes out. I know exactly how she feels.
There is no avoiding it. I walk into the living room. Rick is leaning against the front door.
“What the hell was that?” He asks.
“You scared the piss out of me, and the animals. You were beating the pillow next to my head. I know very well which side of the bed you were thinking of hitting.”
“I have NEVER laid a hand on you. I am so sick of you sitting around waiting for me to start beating the crap out of you. I don’t hit women. I’m not a damn animal.”
No, I thought. I trust animals. I don’t trust you.
His voice grows louder and his enunciation is eerily enhanced. “I cannot believe you did this to me. I will never forgive you for this. Every damn one of you… turning on me…”
Soda starts scratching my bare arms to be let down as his voice reaches this higher level. RC presses up against the back of my legs. I walk back outside and sit in a canvas camp chair on the red brick porch. Soda wraps her long spidery legs around my neck; RC sits nervously at my side. Rick follows us.
“Come back in so we can talk.” His voice drops considerably once outside, as I knew it would. I can’t believe that neither of our neighbors’ lights has come one. It’s not that I know them that well—I just assumed that someone would have been concerned when the police pulled up outside our apartments. Luckily for me, the mere idea that someone might be listening is enough to quiet Rick out on the porch.
“The minute I go inside, you will start yelling. We can talk out here, if you want.”
“I don’t need every person in the neighborhood knowing our business.”
“I don’t have any business to be ashamed of.”
“Screw you,” he growls. He turns and goes back in, slamming the door behind him. Still no lights from the neighbors. He is back in less than a minute.
“I’m sorry. I have had a hell of a day and now my wife just called the police on me. I’m a little upset. Come back in and I will stay calm.”
I just sit there, thinking I am glad it is a Friday. At least I won’t have to call in to work again after being up all night. Small favors.
He puts his hand on my arm, very softly, and it takes a concerted effort on my part not to cringe. Soda tenses all the same. “Just come in. I am sorry. You are the only person I have left in this world. If I lose you, I lose everything.” He looks on the verge of tears. Tears I no longer believe. But he seems to be tiring. I am so very tired myself. Still holding Soda, I go back in with RC and sit on the sofa. RC jumps up next to me, never taking her eyes off of Rick.
“I don’t know how to make you understand the pressure I feel right now.” He starts anew. He looks intensely perplexed, as though he is cannot find a way to express himself but is absolutely determined to. He is completely unaware that his exhausted audience has heard it all before and really doesn’t care what he has to say. I wait.
“I don’t think you can understand it. You forced us to give up the road and I had to throw myself into something I was not at all ready for. And it’s failing. I’m failing.”
I am determined not to be drawn into a discussion. He is still drunk. Any opinions on my part will lead to him screaming. But as usual, I can’t keep my mouth shut.
“Rick, I am sorry that you felt forced to be where you are now. I am sorry that you don’t believe me capable of understanding the pressure you are under. Even if I don’t understand, I am not blind to the effects of it. I am telling you: Do what you have to do to get out from under it, and we’ll find a way to make it work.”
“It’s not that easy. I gave up the job that was keeping us alive.”
“I’m just saying that nothing is worth this much pressure. I want to help but even I’m the enemy, now.”
“Yeah, well friends don’t call the police on their husbands. Jesus Christ—a hundred screaming police cars. How do I explain that to the neighbors? Oh, the sirens? That was just my wife telling the police I was going to beat her up.” His voice is back in full force.
“You are yelling.”
“You’re damn right I am yelling. You embarrassed the hell out of me tonight. I’m completely alone in all of this—just like I’ve always been.” Then he remembers, “And what the hell are they going to do with my gun?”
I get up and start moving towards the kitchen. “They said I can pick it up any time after Monday. I didn’t ask them to take it.”
“No, but you called them. What did you think they were going to do when they got here? Listen to your sob story and arrest me? Jesus. I will never forget this. Never. Where the hell are you going now?”
I walk back out to the porch and the overbearing Oleander bushes. They really need trimming. I hate the way they droop over the guinea pig hutch. I’m always worried just one leaf will find its way into the cage and they’ll be dead. A few leaves can kill a horse; I learned that when I moved here. (Not much Oleander in Wisconsin, but everywhere in Phoenix.) Ten to twenty leaves can kill a man. Watch out, Rick, I’ve got an Oleander and it’s loaded.
“This is ridiculous. You’re too scared to be in the same house with me? I’m some kind of monster?” He is still talking.
“I just want to sleep. I just want you to stop yelling. I just want—“
“You know what?” He hisses. “Who cares what you want.” He walks back into the kitchen and closes the door behind him. After a few seconds, I hear the bolt shut. I can still hear him swearing inside, but not clearly. It is enough of an improvement for me.
April in Arizona is not a bad month to be outside at night. It is almost 2 a.m., and it feels around 75 degrees. I could go sleep in my truck, but I am so tired already. And not thrilled about crossing a sharply-graveled parking lot barefoot to reach it. Nor do I want to be woken up by neighbors getting in their cars next to mine in the morning, wondering what I am doing in my truck in my pajamas, with two dogs.
So we stay on the porch. If I had something to put over the bricks of the porch I could have lay down there, but this is Arizona, and I am just as afraid of poisonous spiders and scorpions outside as I am of my husband inside. I have keys (including keys to the door he just locked) in my pocket that can’t get me anywhere safe. Maybe fend off a mugger. Wouldn’t that top off the night? So Soda and I stay in the chair, while RC settles down next to us. When you’re tired enough, you can sleep just about anywhere.
And so I go to sleep, now fully awake.