I had my 34th birthday in June.
I very rarely feel thirty-anything, mostly because I don’t look it, and I’m almost certain I don’t act it. I live in a world of my own creation, and I am one of the few people I know who is lucky enough to live their art and create for a living, albeit a meager one. One thing I’ve seen a lot of lately, however, from friends in my age group, is these incredibly public declarations of social media love.
I’ve watched countless proposals (and even one wedding) on Facebook Live. I’m always seeing these incredibly sappy Snapchat videos and Facebook statuses about how amazing Bae is, or what Boo bought, or how much people are in love. Flowers and balloons, and jewelry, and elaborate gifts, and rose petals... you name it, I’ve seen it. And I enjoy watching it. I love love, and my being an unmarried woman doesn’t make me bitter or upset to see other people so happy sharing their loved one’s acts of love with the social media world.
What I’ve learned in my 34 years, however, is that love doesn’t quite look the way I always expected it to.
Yes, I bought into the Disney fairy tale. The Prince Charming idea. All that “Someday my dream will come” bullshit... where the mice and birds help me get dressed to meet the love of my life, and we will fall madly in love with some cheesy Disney soundtrack playing behind us...
Okay. Maybe I wasn’t quite that delusional, but I definitely had an idea of what love should look like.
In my head, love was dinner and the movies. It was random flowers, sporadic love notes and sappy cards with happy white people on the front. Love was butterflies. Constant, swirly butterflies in my stomach. Love was bells and whistles. It was heart palpitations, elaborate proposals, fairy tale weddings, gender reveals and baby showers and large family gatherings and lots of kissing and lots and LOTS of sex.
And don’t get me wrong... because some of you have those things, and I am happy as hell for you... I really am.
But what I’ve learned in the last 34 years is that the picture I’d painted of love was all wrong.
What I’ve learned is that love is obligation. Love is showing up when you say you’re going to, even when you don’t feel like it, even when there’s something better going on. Love is honesty beyond belief. It’s that “I’ma tell you this because I love you, even though I know it will hurt your feelings.” Love is spending all night in a cold, uncomfortable chair in an emergency room. Love is patience. Even when I shrink your favorite shirt by washing it in hot water instead of cold.
Love is turning on the light switch and the lights coming on. (Or, if the lights don’t come on, love is gathering a bunch of candles, ordering a pizza, and making it an adventure.) Love is “did you eat?” It’s “did you take your meds?” Love is sitting through movies you don’t wanna watch because it makes the other person happy.
Love is responsibility.
Love is realizing that you’re responsible for another person’s feelings, and doing all you can to spare them, even at the expense of your own.
Love is loving even when the other person doesn’t deserve your love.
Even when you don’t want to be around them, and hardly have anything to say to them, it’s texting to say good night.
Love isn’t as fun or as beautiful as Disney made it look when I was a kid.
There’s no glass slipper or pumpkin chariot.
There’s just laundry, and daily life, and falling asleep on anything we try to watch after 10 pm.
There’s no constant bliss. It’s work, and energy, and effort.
And you know what I figured out? I was chasing Disney love, when I had real love in my face the entire time. I was looking for the flowers, neglecting that fact that I’ve never missed a meal. I looked for the sweeping gestures of adoration and affection, and didn’t see the fact that I get in my car and my tank is on F.
Love comes in strange forms, y’all.
Yes, romantic love is awesome.
But don’t be so caught up in the romance part of it that you miss the real parts, the not-so-glamorous parts. The parts that never make it onto Facebook.
Quietly, those are the best kinds of love anyway.
For the past two weeks, my husband has been slowly dying.
Two weeks ago, he was tall, thick, handsome. He’s now weak, feeble, and thin. The constant vomiting has taken almost 20 pounds from his tall frame.
For the past two weeks, I have rubbed my husband’s back while he suffered through fevers, severe headaches, and violent stomachaches. I’ve watched him hallucinate, followed by fits of rage that ended in me cowering in a corner and him sobbing uncontrollably in a heap on the floor. I’ve given him ginger candy to ease the nausea. I’ve whispered soothing words to him. I’ve been at his beck and call every minute for the past two weeks.
“It’s a stomach flu,” I assure him. “It’s rough, but it will pass.”
I tell him things will get better. I am kind to him, overly accommodating, and very attentive. Sometimes, like tonight, I daydream about the very beginning of our relationship, before Lonnie got sick, before things got hard. Tonight, while Lonnie’s soup cooks in the slow cooker, I sit in our marble and stainless steel kitchen and I remember those days that seem like they happened yesterday even though they were a whole lifetime ago.
I met him on August 25, 1989.
I was working as a cashier at the grocery store three streets over from where I rented a small apartment in Miss Shirley’s basement. I’d known Miss Shirley since I was a skinny child, growing up way too quickly on the streets of Brooklyn. I’d never known my father, my mother worked long hours to make ends meet, and my older sister was often in charge of us younger kids. She was a sullen and uninterested 15-year-old during the summer of 1980, the summer that Miss Shirley rescued me from the hands of the neighborhood pedophile, who had been watching me far too closely for weeks. Just as he’d convinced me that he really did have candy in his pocket that he could only give me underneath the stairwell of her apartment building, Miss Shirley stepped into the hallway with a small pistol and a straight face.
“Put your hands on her again,” Miss Shirley said with the gun trained at his head, “and I will not hesitate to blow your brains out of your worthless skull.”
The man ran screaming out of the front door of the building. I stared, speechless and in awe, at the woman who had just saved my life. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She was petite, dressed simply in jeans and a green v-neck tee shirt, and she was barefoot. She wore her hair in a huge afro, and gold hoop earrings dangled from her ears. She wore bangles on her left arm almost to her elbow that jingled wildly when she lowered the gun. Her flawless brown skin glistened in the afternoon sunlight. She looked at me and winked.
“Pretty little thing, aren’t you?” she asked me. She smiled, revealing a small gap between her two front teeth.
From that moment, Miss Shirley and I were inseparable.
She taught me everything I knew about life and about being a responsible, resourceful woman. She taught me how to take care of myself, how to dress appropriately, how to speak politely, and how to comb my kinky, thick hair into beautiful styles that made the other girls jealous. She also taught me how to fight those same jealous girls when they dared challenge me in the streets. She helped me with my schoolwork, taught me how to keep a clean home, how to cook, and how to be so ladylike and proper that no one would ever suspect that I kept a switchblade in my purse. She also taught me how to use said switchblade.
On Christmas Day 1986, when I was 16, I asked my mother if I could move in with Miss Shirley. By then, my older sister had birthed three babies fathered by three different no-good men. My mother was all too glad to get rid of one of the mouths she had to feed. She gave me her blessing and half-heartedly said goodbye to me as she fed my niece with one hand and stopped my nephew from sticking a knife into an outlet with the other. I packed the few clothes I had and went to Miss Shirley’s.
By the time I was 18, Miss Shirley had made enough money running numbers that she was able to move from her apartment into a small house near Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Because I was technically a woman, she told me I had to move from her spare bedroom into the basement apartment, and I was required to pay her rent. I walked to the small grocery store near her house and was hired on the spot as a part-time cashier. After I graduated from high school, I enrolled in community college. I took classes during the day, and worked at the grocery store in the evenings and on weekends. Life was good.
On August 25, 1989, he walked into the grocery store. He wore a navy blue Adidas track suit, a thick gold chain, and Adidas sneakers. It was hot in the store that afternoon, and I was listless in my pink sundress and cashier smock. Business had been slow for most of my shift, and I leaned lazily against the cash register, examining my nails. Although he studied me intently when he walked into the store, I paid him no mind. Several minutes later, he came through my line with a can of pork and beans and a pack of hotdogs.
“Poor man gourmet,” he joked.
“Poor?” I responded, looking at him with disinterest. “Not wearing that chain, you’re not.”
He smiled. I rang up his food, he paid, I handed him his change. I looked at my watch and frowned.
“What time you get off?” he asked.
“Nine,” I responded. It was just a little after 6.
“Okay,” he said. He picked up his bag and walked out of the store.
At nine o’clock, when I walked out the store at the end of my shift, he was standing outside on the curb. He’d added a white Kangol hat to his outfit. I was surprised to see him, but I didn’t show it.
“I’m going to a party,” he said. “I need a date. You coming?”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Lonnie,” he said. “Yours is Shawna. I read your name tag.”
I nodded. “Where’s the party?” I asked.
“In Queens. My car is up the block.”
I thought carefully. It was Friday night, and I didn’t have any plans. I decided to take a chance. If he got too friendly, I had my switchblade in my purse, and I would not hesitate to draw blood if necessary.
“Let’s go,” I said. I followed him down the street to his white Monte Carlo.
Things developed quickly between Lonnie and I. That August night was the beginning of a whirlwind love affair, and I loved every minute we spent together. The years passed. I eventually finished college and became a social worker. After completing his associate’s degree and gaining several construction certifications, Lonnie worked as a construction foreman. I was 24 when Lonnie asked me to marry him.
“You are the prettiest brown girl I ever did see,” he said. “I can live without a lot of money. I never need fame. I don’t need much. But I do need you. Be my wife, Shawnie. Because there is no life worth living without you.”
I smiled. I’ve never been an emotional woman, but my eyes filled with tears that afternoon. “Okay, Lonnie Davis,” I said. “Let’s get married.” I couldn’t even get my work done for staring at that ring.
I never saw myself as the marrying type, but Lonnie was fun. He gave me the space I needed to be myself. We got along well. He made decent money. We would have a good life together. We planned a small ceremony, and our families came to celebrate us.
During the small reception dinner at my new father-in-law’s restaurant, Miss Shirley pulled me aside to speak with me away from the rest of our guests.
“Be careful,” she whispered. “I haven’t let you out of my sight since you was 10, but now you’re a wife and I gotta let you go. I taught you how to be smart. He your husband, but don’t you dare let him mistreat you. You ain’t no fool. People treat you how you allow ‘em to. Hold that blade to his throat if he forget. It’ll jog his memory.” She winked.
I hugged her.
Lonnie and I settled into a small house in Fort Greene. Our life together was an easy one. He and I genuinely got along. I never had to worry about him not coming home. He was consistent and reliable. He didn’t hit me or talk mean to me. He took care of the stuff around the house that a man was supposed to take care of. He never pressured me to have children. He said he enjoyed life with just the two of us, and so did I. I cooked. Kept a clean home. We laughed a lot and went dancing almost every weekend. He was my best friend.
One Sunday afternoon, Lonnie walked into the bedroom, where I was engrossed in a novel. He said he needed to talk to me. I closed my book.
“Remember my cousin Ricky? The one from Chicago who was at my parents’ house last Thanksgiving?”
“Ricky down on his luck,” Lonnie explained. “His ol’ lady done found her a new man, put Ricky out on the street. He don’t have nowhere to go. Would you mind if he crashed in our spare bedroom for a few months? I can get him a job at the site with me. He’ll give us a few dollars for rent, and eventually be able to get his own place. What you say?”
I nodded. I liked Ricky enough, and I trusted Lonnie. Family is family. Lonnie kissed me. “Thank you,” he said.
Four days later, Ricky moved into our house. Things were really good, at first. Ricky didn’t make much noise. Cooking for three wasn’t much harder than cooking for two. He fit into our lives pretty well. He worked during the day, enjoyed a beer or two at the bar down the street before coming home in the evening. He kept his room neat and paid his rent on time.
One Saturday, Ricky wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from work to get some rest. I was on my way upstairs from the laundry room when I heard a loud crash come from the hallway bathroom, the one Ricky used. I dropped the hamper and pushed open the bathroom door, and discovered Ricky, naked and soaking wet, passed out on the floor. I started to panic, but then I saw the neat lines of cocaine on the bathroom sink. I backed out of the bathroom and closed the door.
I picked up the laundry, walked into my bedroom and closed the door. I retrieved Lonnie’s gun that he kept on the top shelf of our closet. I removed it from the box we kept it in and tucked it into the top drawer of my nightstand.
A few hours later, Ricky knocked on my bedroom door. Lonnie had not yet come home. When I opened the door, Ricky was so ashamed, he couldn’t look me in the eye. He stood silently. I waited for him to speak.
“I miss my wife,” he told me, “and the blow helps me cope. Please don’t tell Lonnie.” By now, he was crying. “I can’t lose my job. Please, Shawn. Please?”
I’d always liked Ricky. Who was I to judge him for his vice? I nodded and closed my bedroom door. “Thank you,” came his muffled voice from the other side.
Life went on. I noticed, however, that Lonnie was starting to go to the bar some evenings with Ricky after work, and two beers turned into four, a few minutes turned into an hour, and taking the edge off became getting completely drunk.
“Lonnie,” I said one day. “Is everything okay?”
“A man needs time,” he responded patiently, “to work out the problems of the day before he comes home to his wife.”
I was confused. In all the years we’d been together, he never had to drink to work out his daily problems before he came home. But Lonnie was a good husband. I could begrudge him a few nights a week to drink with friends.
I didn’t complain again until it was obvious that something was very, very different. The smell of beer on Lonnie’s breath and the slur of his words had become customary, so I knew immediately when his high was not from beer. Where he’d once come home playful and laughing, his face flushed, he was now coming home angry, paranoid, and mean.
My training as a social worker told me that my husband had graduated from a few beers, even though my years as a wife begged me to disregard what I knew was going on.
One night, Lonnie came home with Ricky. I was sitting at the kitchen table, dinner on the stove, waiting for them. I was drinking a glass of wine and watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air on the small television set we kept in our kitchen. Lonnie walked into the kitchen and examined the food on the stove.
“These pork chops look tough,” he sneered.
Never a woman of many words, I sipped my wine and studied him silently.
“You not gonna say shit?” he asked me.
I took another sip from my wine glass and turned my attention back to the tv. My heart was racing. I’d never seen Lonnie like this, but confronting his strange behavior now would only make things worse. I cleared my throat. “Want me to fix your plate?” I asked him.
He walked over to where I was sitting, calmly took my wine glass out of my hand, and threw it with all his strength at the television. Glass and wine flew everywhere. He just stood staring at the mess he made, speechless and absolutely still.
I was scared to tears. Despite trying not to make a sound, I let out a choked sob, which made him remember that I was still sitting there. He turned his head to look at me.
“Fuck your pork chops,” he said calmly, “and fuck you.”
He walked out of the kitchen and up the stairs. A few seconds later, I heard our bedroom door slam. I got up to clean the kitchen. Later that night, I lay on the makeshift bed I made on the couch in our living room, wide awake and staring at the ceiling. Lonnie came down the stairs. He was crying so much, he appeared he could barely breathe. I sat up on the sofa, my right hand concealed under the blanket, and he knelt in front of me and laid his head in my lap.
“Shawnie,” he cried. “I am so sorry. I have no idea what happened, why I acted like that. I will never touch that stuff again. I’d die, Shawn, if you left me. I’m so sorry. Please don’t leave me, baby. I love you more than life...” His sobs choked the rest of his words, and his speech became unintelligible.
I used my left hand to smooth the wild curls on his head as he cried and begged. With my right hand, I pushed the small switchblade back under the pillow.
After that night, I never knew what to expect from Lonnie. When he wasn’t high, he was the Lonnie I married and loved. He’d turn the music up loud, grab me around my waist, and we’d turn the kitchen into our dancehall. We would laugh and talk for hours, and life was just like it had always been.
But when Lonnie was high, life was really bad. He was mean. I’d be as quiet as I could, because I didn’t want to irritate him, which would only make him angrier.
“I married a pretty, worthless mute,” he’d say. “You don’t talk. All you do is blink. Say something, dammit!”
I could handle the jeers, the insults, and the cursing. I could even stand his penchant for throwing glasses, breaking things, and slamming doors. I’d just close my eyes, breathe deeply, and weather the storm. One day, though, Lonnie took things one step further.
This was a really, really cold day in January. New York winters were brutal and long, and the weather was taxing on everyone, especially Lonnie, who worked outside for a living. He came home in such a stupor this one particular day that he couldn’t untie his shoes. He sat down on the sofa and struggled with his shoelaces for such a long time that, despite his condition, despite my fear, I walked over to him, kneeled, and helped him untie the laces.
“You think I’m stupid, huh?” he whispered. I didn’t say a word; I continued trying to loosen the knot in his laces. That is when, for the very first time, Lonnie hauled off and slapped me across the face. I fell to the floor, holding my stinging cheek in disbelief. That was the first time my husband had ever hit me, and I had a sinking feeling that it would not be his last.
Later that night, after Lonnie had fallen asleep, I crept quietly into Ricky’s room and woke him up with the cold sting of my metal switchblade against his neck. He started to scream, but I told him I would cut him ear to ear if he did. He struggled to get away, but the more he moved, the more the blade cut into his skin, drawing blood.
When he finally calmed down, I whispered, “You did this to my husband, you lowlife. I know your wife put you out because you’re a no-good druggie. Yeah, I called her. She told me the truth. It wasn’t enough that you ruined your own life, but you had to move all the way to New York to ruin mine, too? I want you out of my house, you miserable piece of shit. Take your drugs with you. I want my life back. You have until the end of the week to find someplace else to go.”
Without moving the blade from his throat, I reached into the pocked of my bathrobe, pulled out the Ruger I usually kept hidden in my nightstand, and put the barrel of the pistol right between his eyes. I continued, “I don’t care where you go, but if you don’t leave this house, I promise you I will paint the wall with your brains.”
He stared at me, wild eyed and open-mouthed. Three days later, he moved out of our home. He took his drugs with him just like I told him to, but the damage had already been done, because as time went on, Lonnie’s addiction to cocaine got worse and worse. At first, the violent episodes were few and far between, and each one would be followed by tears, heartfelt apologies, and promises never to do it again. Eventually, the time between the spells grew shorter. I started keeping my switchblade in the pocket of whatever I wore, just in case, even though I didn’t think I’d have the heart to use my knife on the man I’d loved since the day I met him.
My husband was a functional addict, however. He never did drugs during the day while he was at work. In fact, his performance at his job was better than it had ever been, and he received promotions in record time. Soon, he was the vice president of operations at his company, and bringing home a hefty six-figure salary. He would always manage, however, to find a way to get high before he came home.
He also never slapped me in my face again. My husband took pride in my appearance. He opted instead to hit the parts of my body that I hid behind my clothes. He’d punch me in the stomach, my legs, my back. He hit me so hard in the chest once that he knocked the wind out of me. I’d go to grab my blade, but I just could not hurt him, because as soon as he’d get sober, he would cry. Apologize. Pray. Beg for my forgiveness. Twice I got him to commit to rehab, but he would never follow through with actually going. He would promise to be a better husband, and shower me with expensive gifts. He would come straight home from work for a few days, and life would almost feel normal again. And then, like clockwork, he would be late coming home, and I’d brace for the worst.
It was the day before my 29th birthday, just a few months after Lonnie and I moved into our new brownstone in Park Slope, that Lonnie pushed me down the steps, resulting in three broken ribs.
Of course, Lonnie never left my side in the hospital. When the doctors asked what happened, my concerned, dutiful husband said, “She was walking down the steps with an armful of dirty laundry, heading downstairs to the laundry room. She won’t let me hire a housekeeper. I beg her to be more careful, but she never listens.” The doctor looked at me with an unmistakable look of disbelief in her eyes. I was a licensed social worker; I couldn’t count how many battered women I saw who made up that exact laundry excuse. This doctor wore the same look in her eyes that I did every day at work, as I sat across from my desk at women who were beaten by their husbands but would say anything to protect their abusers. Just like me. At the end of our sessions, I’d give them reassuring hugs, careful not to touch the hidden bruises on their bodies, praying they wouldn’t touch the hidden bruises on mine.
I nodded as the doctor searched my face, and looked away with shame, hot tears stinging my eyes. “I’m okay,” I mumbled. As the doctor was bandaging my broken body, Lonnie became overcome with emotion and had to leave the room. He came back in long enough to tell me that a car was waiting downstairs to take me home, and then he disappeared.
When I got in the car, I asked the driver to take me to the address I gave him in Bed-Stuy. It was time I paid Miss Shirley a visit. I walked gingerly up her walkway. Every breath I took felt like a hot poker in my side. I knocked on the door and waited. I prayed she was home. A few seconds later, I heard those bracelets of hers and the symphony they made as she approached the door. I heard her look through the peephole, and watched her face as she opened the door. Her expression went from pure joy and elation to surprise to anger.
“He forgot, didn’t he? Come on in,” she said, reaching out to help me into the house.
Miss Shirley was completely silent as she walked me into her home. She got me settled on the sofa and made me a cup of hot tea. She poured some tea for herself, sat down in the chair across from me, and curled her feet under her body. It had been almost 20 years since Miss Shirley rescued me from under the stairwell, and she looked like she hadn’t aged a day since, save for a few gray hairs in her gorgeous afro. I don’t know how I looked, but I felt like an old woman. My body was tired. My heart was tired. This was no way to live.
Finally, she spoke.
I hesitated. “I imagine I’m as comfortable as I can be with three broken ribs,” I responded.
Miss Shirley didn’t flinch. She didn’t raise an eyebrow. She didn’t react at all. She just sipped her tea. “Three broken ribs,” she said. “How long this been going on?”
“Remember Ricky? His cousin from Chicago?” Miss Shirley nodded. “He was addicted to cocaine. That’s how he ended up homeless. Trixie put him out. He came here, brought his smack with him. Started sharing it with Lonnie. Now Ricky’s gone, but my husband is a full-fledged addict. And when he’s high, he’s violent.”
Another sip from her teacup. “Rehab?” she asked me.
“He doesn’t want to go,” I told her. “He has a new job, and he’s making more money than ever before. Wears fancy suits and stuff now. Bought me a house way out in Park Slope. We are the only black faces on our block. He’s worried that if he misses work to go away to rehab, his bosses will find out he has a drug problem.”
“Can you threaten to blow the whistle on him?” she asked. Another sip.
“They’d never believe me,” I told her. “Nobody ever would. He’s only violent with me, at home. He never goes to work high. Never. He makes millions of dollars for the company. They’d sweep it under the rug.”
Miss Shirley was silent. She sipped her tea. I could tell she was thinking. Finally, she said, “You good and tired of this, or else you wouldn’t have come here. You know how I handle things.”
Tears filled my eyes. I thought about the ghost of the husband I once had, how the drugs had taken the Lonnie I knew and loved away from me. I thought about all the nights I held frozen vegetables to my bruises, sometimes hurting so badly I couldn’t even cry. I thought about his refusal to get help, and the fear I felt every evening he was late coming home. I thought about how afraid I was of the man I loved. I nodded. “I’m tired,” I told her. “Tired.”
Miss Shirley put her cup down on the table. She looked at me in my eyes and, slowly and deliberately, asked, “Do you want me to help you?”
I sat in silence. I loved my husband. He was a man who became a victim of drug addiction. When he was in control of his faculties, he was the best husband I could ever ask for. I sometimes doubted his ability to control himself, and his ability to make good decisions, but I never doubted his love for me. Despite all we’d been through, his struggles with sobriety, and his constant relapse, I knew he loved me. We’d taken vows. I couldn’t abandon him when he needed me most. I put my teacup down and buttoned my coat.
“Miss Shirley, my driver is outside, waiting for me. I just came here to see how you were doing. I gotta go now.”
She put her teacup down and helped me off the sofa and to the door. She kissed my cheek, brushed my hair from my eyes, and told me she loved me. I walked slowly down her walkway and into the waiting car. I watched Miss Shirley stand on her porch, looking at the car as it drove away. I watched her watching me until the car turned a corner and I couldn’t see her anymore.
Lonnie came home that night with a pamphlet from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting he had attended. His eyes were red and bloodshot. I could tell he had been crying. Apparently, hearing my ribs crack as I tumbled down those stairs did something to my husband. He got on his knees and begged me to forgive him. He told me he’d attended the meeting and found a sponsor, and he flushed all the drugs he had stashed. He promised me that he would be clean and sober. He swore he would never hit me again.
This time, Lonnie was sincere. I believed him. I promised him I would stay as long as he was clean. There, on his knees on our kitchen floor, Lonnie declared that he was a changed man.
And he was.
For four years, Lonnie kept attending the meetings, sometimes even taking me with him. He was the kind, gentle man I married. We went dancing again on the weekends, and spent our time together laughing and having fun, like we used to before the drugs. I finished my Master’s degree, and Lonnie was promoted again at work, this time to CEO. He was making well over half a million dollars a year. Life for us was perfect. We traveled, explored remote places together, and saw the world with each other. Lonnie never came home late from work. He treated me like a queen.
One night, as we were coming home from dinner and dancing, Lonnie pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and turned to me with a sparkle in his eyes. “Let’s have a baby,” he said. “We have more than enough money to afford children. I’ve been clean for four years now. I’m a changed man, better than I ever was before. I want babies with you, Shawn. What you say? Let’s do it.”
I laughed. Nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s.”
Lonnie let out a loud yell, got out the car, ran to my side, and pulled me out to dance with him on there on the side of the road. I don’t think I ever saw him that glad about anything.
Three months later, Lonnie and I were pregnant.
The day he found out I was carrying his child was the happiest day of Lonnie’s life. He called everyone we knew, crying and yelling into the phone, “I’m gonna be a daddy!” I watched his excitement with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe how much life had changed for us in just a few short years. We started making plans for our new addition. I chose the color scheme for the nursery, selected the furniture I wanted in the baby’s room, and even started buying baby clothes. I could not wait to meet our baby.
I was so busy painting the nursery yellow one evening that I didn’t realize that Lonnie was late coming home from work.
I didn’t realize it until I had to quit painting because the sun had gone down and I couldn’t see how to paint anymore. I looked at my watch. My husband should’ve been home two hours ago. I walked to the bedroom and called him on his cell phone. He didn’t answer. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach.
When Lonnie had a meeting after work, or something came up that would delay his arrival, he always called. Always. Today, though, I hadn’t heard from him since lunchtime. Something came up, I told myself. Everything will be fine. My heart was racing, though. This was too familiar. It’s happened too many times. I kept trying to reassure myself that that old Lonnie was dead and gone, but when I noticed my hands were shaking and I couldn’t stop them, I decided to take a hot shower to calm myself down.
I was just stepping out of the shower and wrapping the towel around me when I heard the front door slam. I put on my bathrobe and, still barefoot, walked down the steps to greet my husband. Even before I reached the bottom step, I knew Lonnie was high. His eyes were wild and darting around the room. His hands moved nonstop. He kept shifting from one foot to the other. I looked at him. He was dressed in a $2,000 Brooks Brothers suit and Feragamo shoes. We lived in a house that we could only dream of as kids growing up on the other side of Brooklyn. He made more money in a year than most people I knew made in a lifetime. And, despite all these things, he was a junkie. An addict. A common dope fiend.
I didn’t say a word. I just stood, watching him, one hand protectively on my small belly. He sneered. “You’re judging me,” he said. “You old judgmental bitch. I can see what you’re thinking. I don’t care what you think of me. I made you. I own you. You can never leave me. Not even death can separate us.” He laughed a loud, scary, cynical laugh.
I turned around and ran up the stairs. My body was used to the abuse, but I had to protect my baby. I thought maybe if I went upstairs and locked myself in the bedroom, I’d be safe until Lonnie’s high wore off. Before I could make it down the hallway, I heard Lonnie charging up the stairs after me. I tried to run, but I slipped and stumbled, and Lonnie grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the floor. He then kicked me in my stomach twice, as hard as he could, and brought his heel down on my thigh. I screamed and curled up into the fetal position as pain worse than anything I’d ever experienced filled my body.
I felt the blood before I saw it.
When I sat up and saw the pool of blood I’d been lying in, I knew immediately that I’d lost the baby.
By this time, Lonnie was a wreck. He called the ambulance and begged me to allow him to help me get dressed. I wasn’t crying, but I wouldn’t let him touch me. I dressed slowly, which was hard considering I was doubled over in pain. I knew the baby was gone because I felt the life leave me when Lonnie kicked me. It was replaced by a hollow emptiness. I knew life would never be the same for me.
The paramedics were wheeling me out of the house on a gurney, and Lonnie came up beside me as they walked. “Please,” he begged. “Talk to me.” He was crying. Snot and spit were flying everywhere. “Please, Shawnie. Say something. Anything.”
Without looking at him, I said, “Call Miss Shirley and have her meet me at the hospital.” I paused to cringe as a sharp pain passed through my stomach and then said through clenched teeth, “And don’t you come anywhere near me.”
Early the next morning, I lay in bed in the quiet hospital room, recovering from emergency surgery. Things took a turn for the worse once I arrived at the hospital. There was hemorrhaging in my uterus that the doctors could only stop by performing a hysterectomy. Not only did I lose my baby that day, but I also lost the ability to ever carry my own children again. I didn’t want the tv on. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Lonnie called the hospital room so much that I had the nurse unplug the phone from the wall. I wouldn’t talk. I refused to eat. I couldn’t sleep. For hours, I had not made a sound. I felt a sadness so heavy that I couldn’t move my body if I tried. And I felt empty. A part of me died with my baby. The best part of me.
The nurse peeked her head in the door. “Are you well enough to see a visitor?” she asked me. “A Shirletta McKinny is here to see you.” I nodded.
Miss Shirley walked into the room and sat down next to me. She didn’t say a word, but the familiar jingle of her bracelets made me feel safe, the same way they did all those years ago when she first came to my rescue. She took my hands in hers and squeezed them. Together, we sat in silence. I’m not sure how much time passed before I finally decided to speak:
“I’m tired,” I said to her with tears in my eyes. “Dead tired.”
She just nodded.
It’s been three years since the hysterectomy, and, as I predicted, that one night changed everything between us. For the first two years after we lost the baby, Lonnie tried his best to hold it together and stay clean. He went back to NA. He checked himself into outpatient rehabilitation clinics. He meditated and did yoga. He went to church. When he relapsed, he was consumed with guilt, extremely apologetic, and fell into deep depressions. At one time, my husband fought like hell against the drug addiction demon. Eventually, Lonnie discovered that the addiction was far stronger than his will to be clean, and now, he seems to have completely surrendered to his habit. He uses drugs almost every single day. He’s no longer able to hide his addiction from his coworkers, and the owner of the construction company has committed to spending whatever it takes to get Lonnie the help and rehabilitation he needs, even though he doesn’t seem to be interested in getting help these days. I bought a holster for the Ruger I used to keep hidden in the drawer. Now, I wear it under my clothes. Twice, I’ve had to pull it out on him, in self-defense. Now, whenever Lonnie is late coming from work, I leave home before he arrives and check into a hotel downtown. He never knows where I am staying. The front desk clerks all know me by name.
It was on one of the rare nights that Lonnie came straight home from work and had one of my home-cooked meals that he began experiencing the symptoms of the sickness that has overtaken him.
For the past two weeks, Lonnie has been sick. Now, he’s completely bedridden. His health is rapidly declining. It’s hard to watch, but I am committed to being his wife no matter how bad things are for him. The sickness is a nasty one. His hair comes out in clumps, and he has lost vision in one eye. He has stomach cramps that cause him to cry out in pain. He vomits so violently that he falls asleep on the bathroom floor. Three of the best doctors have seen him, and they are baffled. They can’t figure out what is causing such horrible symptoms. One thing is for sure: death hangs over Lonnie like a dark cloud. A foul stench comes from his pores. His skin looks ashy and pallid.
As I am preparing his dinner tonight, my husband calls me weakly from upstairs. I wipe my hands on my apron and walk up the stairs to see what he needs.
“Shawn,” he nearly whispers once I get upstairs, “can you bring up a bottle of red wine from the cellar? I want to have a glass of wine with my wife this evening.” His eyes fill with tears. “I don’t think I’ll have many more opportunities to drink wine with you.”
I reach out and touch his hand. “Don’t think like that, Lonnie. We will have plenty of time for wine when you get better.” I agree, however, to have a glass of wine with him.
I go downstairs and select a bottle that Lonnie and I had been saving to celebrate with after the birth of our first child, and I chill the bottle in a bucket of ice. I finish preparing Lonnie’s soup, and carry it, along with some crackers and some water, on a tray into the guest bedroom at the end of the hallway. I also grab the ice bucket, the wine, and two glasses.
Spoonful by spoonful, I feed Lonnie the soup. When he protests, I say, “You have to eat it, my love, or your body will be too weak to fight the illness.” Very slowly, Lonnie eats the soup, until the bowl is empty.
“The wine now,” he says weakly.
I pour two glasses of the expensive wine, and Lonnie struggles to sit up in bed. He takes his glass in his shaking hand and raises it in my direction.
“To us,” he says. “To you, Shawn. Despite how I’ve treated you, you’re here with me, loving me as much as you always have, nursing me, caring for me. What would I do without you? I have money. I’m well-known. But you are all I need, Shawnie. You always have been. And I’m sorry for all the years... all the...”
Lonnie becomes overcome with emotion and starts weeping.
“I’m sorry. You deserved more. You deserved better. But you loved me. I love you. And I’ll toast to that.”
Tears streaming down my face, I whispered, “Here, here,” and took a sip from my glass. I helped Lonnie settle comfortably back onto his pillows, and hold his hand until he finally falls into a fitful sleep. Despite the fact that Lonnie is sleeping in the guest bedroom, I decide tonight to be close to him, and I curl up in the bed beside him.
Two hours after he’s eaten, like clockwork, like every other night for the past two weeks, Lonnie is vomiting violently into the trashcan I keep near the bed. The pain in his stomach brings him to tears. I lay close to him, trying to soothe him with my touch. He moans, and I begin praying. I pray out loud. I ask God to forgive me for not being a better wife. I ask him to forgive me for being resentful and holding grudges. I ask him to forgive me for not fighting harder to get my husband sober. Then, I pray for Lonnie. I pray and pray with my eyes squeezed shut, sobbing as I choke on the words of my prayer.
I’m not sure how long I prayed, but when I stopped, I noticed that Lonnie had stopped moaning and was lying very still. Dread filled my body. This was it, I was sure. I had the same feeling as I had the night I knew I lost the baby before anyone told me it had happened. My home suddenly felt as empty as I’ve felt since that night. I found Lonnie’s wrist in the dark and felt for a pulse. When I couldn’t find one, I screamed.
My husband was dead.
I sat on the floor next to the bed and cried until I had no tears left. I cried because, after years of battling addiction, depression, and guilt, he was finally free.
I called the police and the funeral home, then I called Miss Shirley. I went into the bathroom to wash my face and try to pull myself together before everyone arrived. The house was eerie and very still. As I was drying my face in the mirror, I heard a knock on the door downstairs.
“I’m coming,” I called out as I started down the hall.
Before I reached the top step, though, I ran back to the bathroom and fished the small glass vial from my bathrobe pocket. The label on the bottle is faded, but the words written on it are still somewhat discernable: THALLIUM SALT. I pulled out the cork, and emptied the white, powdery contents of the bottle into the toilet. Miss Shirley was right again. She told me that if I mixed just a little bit into his food each day, it would take about two weeks for him to die, and since thallium was so rarely used, it wasn’t something that coroners tested for in autopsies. She told me it would be ugly—which was an understatement-- but promised me that, at the end, we would both be free: Lonnie from his addiction, and I, from Lonnie.
I flushed the toilet, turned off the bathroom light, and headed in the direction of the front door and my new life.
I write because a lot of what I have to say is too crass and inappropriate for me to say out loud.