Earlier this week
I see a police officer berating a young child of color – he can’t be older than eight – in the school parking lot. He’s yelling, his shiny, decked-out car blocking a clear view of the two, only his black-soled feet visible from below. I can hear the anger in his voice, the sobs of the child, the air thick with the disbelief as we – us parents in the car rider line – try to position our ears and eyes like nosy neighbors, trying to gather understanding of the situation. I put down my book and ask myself questions. Is the child restrained? I can’t tell. His Mother has come to collect him, so he’s safe, it’s all ok…? The police officer watches them leave, and the rage that remains on his face seems misplaced. In what world can an eight-year-old child cause such anger, such bitterness? The memory of his fury sits in my gut like a heavy stone.
My phone goes bing and an alert dips down onto my screen like a lead balloon. “School Shooting Underway in Florida” or some vague wording like that. The pest control guy is here, so I put the phone down and take a sip of water. I feel like I have to make pleasant-but-inconsequential chatter with him lest I seem rude or he calls my landlord or something – the worst a woman can do is be rude to a man hired to do a job – and school shootings do not make for lighthearted conversation. We talk about snow and mice and he tells me a story about a woman who called him because there was a dead possum rotting in her wall, but that’s not part of his job so he wasn’t able to remove it for her. I can’t tell if he’s relieved about that, or guilty. After he leaves, I go back to my phone. I make the mistake of watching a video. Then another. By the third, I’m wrenched with sobs, triggered, but I don’ t know why I’m triggered because triggered isn’t a thing that happens to me, or so I thought. I need to get up and cook Valentine’s dinner but I can’t move, I’m immobile, flattened, every last bit of energy and motivation gone from me like stale air, escaped from an old balloon. The students emerging, shell-shocked, from a bullet-laden high school holding their Valentine’s Day balloons, a holiday that is now forever ruined, that they will no longer associate with candy, flowers from Mom or think-pieces about capitalism, but with gunfire and blood.
It is fitting, in a way. Love and Violence are an uneasy marriage, but a marriage it is, whether you admit it or not. Hell, it’s even in the Bible.
A few days ago
I read an article about a teenage girl who lives with her Dad, but while on visitation with her Mom, Mom gets her hair highlighted. It’s a special treat. She goes home and Dad is furious. Dad is a firefighter who has been arrested previously on domestic violence charges. He is a control freak who exacts revenge on the woman he can no longer abuse by using their daughter as a pawn. He had previously told his teenage girl that she couldn’t highlight her hair, and she and her Mom went behind his back. Naturally, he is furious. Isn’t his word supposed to be law?
He and his wife – the evil stepmother in this story, and let’s not unpack the fact that she may well be living in her own hell – drag the girl to Supercuts and force her to sit through a haircut. By the time the botch-job is done, the girl’s hair is one step from a buzzcut, gaps everywhere, and in accompanying photos, the girl holding her hand to her face to cover her humiliation and tears, the highlights are still visible.
Some of the comments suggested there is more to the story, but does it matter? I don’t really think it does. Bits of the story are probably wrong, context not given, but we all know the gist by now.
Fifteen years ago
I sit nervously on the edge of the straight-backed chair, as my partner paces. He’s on the phone with the vet. Our kitten, after a four-day hiatus, finally dragged himself home – literally – pulled himself through the lounge window with his front legs, and fell in a pile in front of us on the floor. We raced him to the vet, who kept him overnight, though we already know that his back is broken. Likely hit by a car, judging by the ragged splinters of his claws and the way his formerly straight body is now at an angle.
He hangs up the phone, walks over to me. We can go pick him up now; they are done with the tests. There is no internal damage, and he will live – but his back is broken. Since he’s a kitten, still growing, not yet neutered, he will need to be contained within our home for at least three months. He will wear a cone of shame and is not allowed to jump, as if we could stop him. I listen to this glassy-eyed, but relieved – I put far too much of my emotional wellbeing into this cat, he is all I have, in more ways than one, and all I need to hear is he will live and the rest is immaterial. To imagine such a little thing, only a few months old, his skinny, spindly little cat-self living through the impact of a heavy, blunt vehicle –
I’m still sighing in relief, a brief moment of respite, just a nanosecond, my guard let down, a thing that I rarely ever let happen anymore – I am usually a fortress, protected with moats and fences and walls so high, so impenetrable, my every thought and fear aimed outward, at the ready – but the relief is so great I forget.
The hand extends, the pale knuckles bright, lined with dark hair – so much hair for such a young man, I often think. I have wondered before if he has too much testosterone, what a preposterous, weird thing to wonder – I do not know if my eyes close from relief or if my eyes subconsciously note what will happen before my mind does, a kind of preemptive protection, but whatever, I am sightless as the hand connects with my face, the side of my cheek, just above my jaw, with a slap so hard it whips my head around and I fall off the straight-backed chair and to the thin carpet, much the same way my kitten fell to the floor from the window. The slap is so hard it feels like a punch. The slap is so hard I taste the color red. The slap is so hard that my face feels like it’s crawling with bees, buzzing from my cheek into my ear, my mouth, my eyelashes. My eyes are still closed and they stay that way, because why look?
In my relief I have forgotten about the cost. The bill. The money. Stupid me.
“Better he’d have died.” He says, but really his explanation is irrelevant, as I’ve already had the punishment. “But you’d never forgive me, and anyway, euthanizing him would probably cost even more.”
A worse betrayal than the slap is that deep down he loves the cat more than I do. I saw him pace the floors, waiting for him to come home. I saw the way his shoulders sagged with relief when he tumbled through the window. I know he’d pay every last penny to keep him alive.
But he has someone to blame, and I don’t. An outlet for his frustration. That’s just the way it is.
If I told you my former partner was a feminist, with an astounding IQ, from a middle class home with two loving parents and a number of friends, would you believe me?
If I reminded you the school shooter was failed by a system that forces boys into boxes, denies them emotions, tells them they are “owed” love and gives them permission to use their hands, would it matter? If I uttered the word “gun” would your eyes glaze over?
If most people side with the Dad who chopped off his daughter’s hair because “kids these days need to learn discipline”, would you be surprised? If it had been a son, do you think he’d have gotten the haircut?
If I told you the cop I saw berating a kid is beloved by the school and the kids literally cheer when he walks onto the playground, would you wrinkle your nose in confusion?
If I tell you that this long, emotional, chaotic piece of writing has no actual conclusion, that I won’t be tying these things together with a poignant, smart, but just-angry-enough ending paragraph that gives us cold comfort and inspires us to act, to hope, to believe that these things will stop happening one day, that the world can be better for our kids and for us, too, that there is still reason to have faith – but rather just left it like this, left you wondering, hurting, pissed off, the point lost somewhere in the middle, if I ever had it at all…just leaving this post open-ended and without a conclusion…leaving you to figure it out, do the math, try to find some meaning in all of this…
Well, then you’d know how I feel.
How so many of us feel.
Sit with it. We have been.