The first time I met Mary was at my daughter Vanessa’s twelfth birthday party. She arrived with her son Hunter, one of Vanessa’s best friends, about an hour after the party started. Vanessa saw their car pull up from our window and squealed with delight as she and her friends hurried out to the driveway to greet Hunter and escort him inside.
Mary was right behind him, shyly reaching out her hand to shake mine.
“I’m so sorry we’re late,” she said. “We had a few things come up.”
I stepped aside so Mary could come into the house, assuring her it was no problem and that Vanessa was just happy to have Hunter here now. Mary nodded gratefully and started to take off her shoes. It surprised me. The rest of the parents dropped their kids off and said they would be back in a few hours, but Mary looked like she was settling in for the party.
“It’s okay if you have a few things to do,” I offered. “We can take care of Hunter.”
The truth was, I would have preferred Mary not stay at the party. It wasn’t personal, but my husband Matt and I were hanging out on the patio while all the kids amused themselves. It may have been selfish, but the last thing I wanted to do was entertain a parent I didn’t know for hours.
“I don’t mind staying,” Mary replied. “I’d rather keep an eye on Hunter.”
I reluctantly led Mary to the living room and sat down with her. She had a shock of red hair that cascaded down her back, and she had tattoos covering her upper body. I wasn’t judging her as I have a few tattoos of my own. I’d just never seen so many on one woman before.
I put aside my hatred of small talk and tried to engage Mary in conversation, knowing it was bitchy of me to resent her company. We talked about our kids and how much Vanessa likes Hunter since they became friends at school. Mary smiled slightly when I told her I thought Vanessa had a crush on Hunter.
With Hunter being only one of two boys at the party, he rolled his eyes when the girls got out Vanessa’s makeup. The plan was to give everybody makeovers, including Hunter. The girls giggled as they egged him on to join them in the bathroom.
“I don’t know if Hunter’s father will like that,” Mary protested in a quiet voice.
I walked around the corner to tell the girls to leave Hunter alone, but he met me at the bathroom and waved me over in secret.
“Maybe just a little makeup?” he asked me.
I gave him a small hug and told him he could do anything he was comfortable with. Luckily, the girls let him off easily with just a bit of blush. Mary seemed to relax, and the kids moved on to other activities.
Mary and I continued chatting until she got a phone call.
“Yes, we’re leaving right now,” she said. Her voice sounded rushed and anxious. She hung up and apologized that she and Hunter had to go. All the kids hugged Hunter and begged for him to stay, but Mary was insistent.
As Mary and Hunter were leaving, Mary asked what we were doing for Halloween. It was in two days, and I had made no plans for Vanessa yet. Mary and I exchanged numbers, and I said I would text her and we would possibly join them for trick-or-treating.
When Halloween arrived, Vanessa asked me repeatedly to text Hunter’s mom. She wanted badly to meet up with Hunter and wanted me to find out where they would be. I texted Mary who wanted to get together at the town square in our city so the kids could visit the nearby houses. Vanessa was so excited she could barely get her costume on.
Vanessa and I arrived at the square and sat on a nearby bench. Mary texted me and said she was running late, so we waited about 40 minutes until Vanessa spotted Hunter across the field dressed as a skeleton. The boy rushed towards us with great big hugs. Mary was behind them with two young girls dressed as fairies. They were Hunter’s older and younger sisters, and behind them was a man wearing a scary mask who I rightly assumed was Mary’s husband. We shook hands and introduced ourselves.
Mary’s husband led the way to the first house with all of us following behind. The neighborhood went all out for Halloween with decorations and scary music, and the kids ran excitedly from one house to another to collect their candy. Mary and I struggled to catch up, not wanting to lose our kids in the sea of costumed children that engulfed the sidewalks.
Mary’s husband was silent as he walked ahead. None of Mary’s kids walked with him, instead of hanging back to walk with us. Vanessa and Hunter were hand-in-hand and keeping an eye on each other as they navigated the crowded streets. Mary and I chatted as we walked, reminiscing about Halloweens when we were younger.
Mary’s older daughter suddenly approached us wearing her green fairy wings. There were tears in her eyes.
“My shoulder is hurting,” she cried. She pointed to the spot where the pain was coming from. Mary rolled up her daughter’s sleeve and looked closely. I did the same, but couldn’t see much as it was now dark.
“I don’t want to trick-or-treat anymore,” the girl announced. “It’s hurting too bad.”
Just then, Mary’s husband turned around to see what the holdup was. Mary tried to explain the situation, but all he did was sigh in disgust.
“It’s always something with that kid,” he complained.
We returned to the town square and found a patio table to sit at, Mary holding her sobbing daughter’s arm. Vanessa and Hunter ran around in the grass along with his little sister, and I walked over to take pictures of them in their costumes.
As I walked back to the table, Mary’s husband was shouting.
“Oh, what’s the matter with you now?” he yelled to the crying girl. “You‘re such a little baby! Do you want to go to the hospital and get a shot? I swear, there’s always something wrong with you every day.”
The girl hid her face in her mother’s dress, soaking it with tears. Neither she nor Mary said anything in response.
All at once I felt a chill, and it wasn’t from the cool weather. Mary’s husband reminded me of somebody from my past, and not in a good way. He was torturing the little girl because of the inconvenience she posed to him. It was clear he didn’t care if she was really hurt.
I looked at him closely for the first time since the evening started. He had a shaved head except for a thin goatee and was covered with tattoos like Mary, but his weren’t nearly as nice. He stood over all of us with his arms tightened up like he was preparing for battle, and there was a look in his eyes I‘d seen somewhere before.
He scared the hell out of me.
It all began to make sense, the way Mary acted at Vanessa’s party, not wanting to leave Hunter’s side and then rushing off as soon as her husband called. Mary looked scared when the girls said they wanted to put makeup on Hunter as if they both would be in trouble. Mary’s husband barely acknowledged her the whole time we were trick-or-treating unless it was to complain or correct her, and the kids looked both shell-shocked and afraid whenever he addressed them.
The guy was my deceased ex-husband all over again, the man who abused me in every way possible and manipulated me so much it left me not knowing who I was anymore and who stalked me until the day he died in an accident. The years I spent with that pathological narcissist scarred me for life and also made me acutely aware of signs of abuse in others, and I was sure I was seeing it again.
I wish now I’d spoken up for Mary and her daughter. Instead, I was so spooked I grabbed Vanessa and told her we were going home. I didn’t want to be around that man who made me feel uncomfortable for a second longer. I took Vanessa’s arm and ignored her loud protests to stay with Hunter, and we said goodbye to Mary and her family and headed for my car.
After we got home and Vanessa was in her room, I told Matt what happened. I was still shaking and trying to get the words out without crying. He understood completely, knowing what I’d gone through in the past. It was hours before I felt like I was okay again, but I worried that Mary was far from it.
For me, it wasn’t enough just to recognize the probable abuse going on in Mary’s household. My first instinct was to pile her and the kids up in my car and take them all home and away from that man. Still, I remember when I was Mary a long time ago. Everybody told me to get away from my ex, that he would end up killing me, but until I figured it out for myself I didn’t listen to any of them. I suspected Mary would have the same reaction.
I saw so much of my old self in her, the lowered head, the excuses she made, the weak smile that was supposed to reassure me everything was all right when it definitely wasn’t. I remember the soul-crushing anxiety and depression and the feeling of being trapped all the time. My heart breaks knowing I escaped a situation that so many women were still stuck in.
I want to tell Mary everything, all about my ex-husband and how I barely made it out. I want to show her I’m living proof she can make a better life for herself without abuse in her life. I sometimes believe I survived for a reason, to show others the way to help themselves. It may be delusions of grandeur, but by all accounts, I shouldn’t even be here to tell the tale.
Then again, what if I’m wrong? What if Mary’s husband was just having an off night and usually is a great husband and father? Do I really want to insert myself in somebody’s marriage and urge the wife to leave? Maybe it’s none of my business and I should keep my opinions to myself. I could have totally misinterpreted the whole thing.
Except I know I didn’t. That’s the part that eats me up inside. I know my gut instinct is spot on, and I can’t ignore the way my whole body reacted when I heard his cruel words to his family.
There are many reasons women don’t leave their abusers. I stayed because of financial issues, because of the fear of being alone, because I thought I could change him because sometimes he wasn’t so bad. I’m sure Mary has her reasons, too. What right do I have to challenge them?
Vanessa and Hunter are still best friends, which increases the likelihood I’ll see Mary again. I’ve already decided I don’t want Vanessa going over to Hunter’s house when his father is there, and I never want to see the man‘s face again. I’m not sure how I’ll explain that to Mary, but I’m hoping space opens up where I can talk to her honestly. If my suspicions are true, I want to be supportive any way I can.
In the meantime, I’m praying for her and also for guidance.
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