The Domestic Violence Division of Cook County Circuit Court is in a surprisingly pretty brick building. No one there seems to stare much if you sob while you are waiting for your lawyer. The guard who asked me to remove the pen in my ponytail (so I would clear the metal detector) did so with impressive grace. Everyone is gentle.
The price of admission is abuse. In this court, your ex is referred to as the Respondent. I was there because my ex beat me.
If anyone had asked me before my beating if I would defend myself when attacked, I would have said yes, of course I would.
But I didn’t hit the Respondent back. It never occurred to me that someone who claimed to love me would hit me so deliberately and repeatedly. As he hit me, my field of vision shrank to the space inhabited by his swinging fists, and I was too busy shielding my face to do much. Protecting your face takes a great deal of effort when someone is hellbent on wrecking it.
I remember thinking, “Getting punched really hurts,” as if this were some profound epiphany.
When I found myself cornered by a phone, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up and dial 911. I didn’t think about the legal or personal ramifications. But when I said, “Help!” and started rattling off the address, he wrenched the phone away, which was when I fled – down to the building’s front steps, where I waited, shuddering, for the cops.
In five minutes they arrived, eight of them. Half went up to talk to him and half stayed with me. They wanted me to press charges. They wanted to take me to the hospital. They were kind and didn’t question my taste in boyfriends.
I went to the hospital the next day, worried because I could not really open my mouth or see well. I needed a written record. The doctor was impressed that nothing was broken in my face. It felt like a win.
I couldn’t sit or lean against anything comfortably because my head was still a battered, crusty mess. I had night terrors, day terrors and panic attacks.
After one attempt with concealer I gave up and wore my battered face out. I told everyone who needed to know, which astounded the Respondent.
He called me, offended, and said, “You told your family?” As if this was somehow an affront to him.
I stopped sobbing
In trying to persuade me to file charges, my father said, “What would you tell your little sisters to do?”
I did eventually petition the Domestic Violence Courthouse for an emergency order of protection. This was easy to get after the Respondent put into writing how he would like to torture, mutilate and kill me, and then sent these details to me in the mail. He ended that written missive by reiterating his love.
I had to go to court every two weeks to renew my emergency protection order. If the Respondent showed up to accept or contest the order, I would have had to wait in the Victim Room, where you don’t have to see him until your case is called. If this happens, for the rest of your life you will know you once had to sit in a space called the Victim Room. He never showed.
After some months, I finally got to the point where I no longer sobbed at court. I made friends with a girl named Caitlyn, who shared my lawyer, and therefore, my court schedule.
On my last day, the judge made me laugh by mocking the Respondent’s death-threat love letter for being so terribly written. Which was only funny because the Respondent called himself a writer. I dated a terrible writer who beat me and sent me death threats. I dated a violent substitute yoga teacher. It seemed like a huge joke, except it was my life.
In the Respondent’s absence, the judge finally granted me a two-year order of protection; Caitlyn got hers, too. As we said goodbye in the hall, I added, “I never want to see you here again!” as I gave her a high-five.
I loved life
I walked out of court into so much sunshine, gripping my flimsy piece of paper, which I would add to the inches-thick file I already had amassed on the Respondent.
I loved everything. This feeling wouldn’t last; the insomnia would be back, the vomiting, the panic attacks and the night terrors. But right then, I loved the fast-food wrappers in the gutter, and the pigeons roosting in the bridge girders, and the river sending shock waves of sun off its ripples and the creaking rails as a train sped overhead, carrying people to responsible places like jobs. I didn’t flinch when a taxi gunned through an intersection; I didn’t feel my pulse thud louder in my ears when a stranger stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change.
It sounds so banal, but I loved my life, maybe the most in my 34 years. The Respondent could have taken it. He could have snapped my neck. He could have gotten to his guns if he weren’t so busy punching me.
I wanted to weep with joy, because he didn’t. And I did weep. And then the light changed, and I crossed.
Courtney Queeney of Chicago is author of “Filibuster to Delay a Kiss, and Other Poems.”
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