By May 27, 2010, I knew how to both survive and shelter-in-place. I created a brand-new life where no one knew who I was. I hunkered down with my son given all the provisions and protections I could afford and surrendered all my fancy ideas of being an artist in exchange for invisibility. Nothing to see here. I’m fine. It had been a year since I moved from Boston towards a more stable existence in New Hampshire. Hoping the green, open spaces were far enough away from my son’s biological father who was still promising to kill me, as I fought to shake away the modifier “battered” from “woman.”
I had turned thirty-seven a few weeks before during the stubborn, earthy season of Taurus, which by May 27 became the adaptable, airy season of Gemini, whose dualities manifest both light and shadow. At the time, I worked for an educational company, editing assessments for Common Core and No Child Left Behind, a nice irony to my failing the SATs decades before. I had a 401K and health insurance. My three-year-old son attended on-site daycare while I sat in a cubicle with enough spare time to think up a winning recipe to bring to the Memorial Day family chili cook-off. After work, I packed up my Subaru Forester, the first car I ever owned that had all its working parts, and headed an hour north to my parents’ lake house for the weekend. It all sounds so responsibly idyllic.
But there were shadows everywhere. The month of May marked the ten-year anniversary of my brother’s death, a Memorial Day all its own. My brother died at the age of thirty-two from an enlarged heart, a side effect of the medicine he took for bipolar, psychoses, and schizophrenia. I grew up subject to the dualities of his mental illness, and I can’t dig up his grave to reclaim the innocence he stole from me or to tell him that by the year 2020 I have finally forgiven him. I was left only with the trajectory of my life swapping out one abuser for another.
This trajectory of abusers taught me how to wear a mask.I understood that while nothing could get in, nothing would get out. The mask suffocated me everywhere I went, even to the lake that Memorial Day weekend. The calming, lapping waters during my kayak ride belied the chaos of my fractured smile. The gathering of close friends and family around the campfire, the sticky s’more fingers of my son and his cousins, the occasional fireworks long before Independence Day—all these moments filtered through the mask. Underneath, my mouth tried hard to give voice to my airways.
I never could have predicted that one day I’d be married at the very same lake where I lost the Memorial Day chili cook-off to my sister, trading fractured smiles to something more hopeful.
Now, the COVID-19 death toll washes over me with the same eerie, slow-motion calm as the moments right before a hand strikes a face, with a similarly foregone conclusion that what happens next is going to hurt. When dealing with trauma, I pretend everything is just fine. Look at us, reading, watching TV, going to school. Nothing to see here. I’m fine.
Until I’m not fine. Until I startle at any sudden movement, back to watching shadows. All the post-traumatic fairies have come out to play, asking, one more round for the lady?
Yet despite the anxiety, social distancing, and quarantine, I am the freest I’ve ever been. A few months after my son was born, a policewoman came into our apartment in response to an anonymous complaint, one of the several times I refused to press charges. She said, “I’m a mother, and there aren’t knives on the floor.” I was paralyzed to respond feeling a deep sting of both shame and anger. Nothing to see here. I’m fine. Domestic violence creates a contradiction of what you know to be normal crashing against a surreal sense of viewing your life from above. A portion of you is simply not there, as the remaining self struggles to figure out how this became your circumstance. That is the closest I come to finding a logical, compact answer for those who ask why I stayed.
I no longer have an outer body experience of my reality. My witty, generous son, now thirteen, enjoys all the provisions and protections of an idyllic life with two siblings and the only father he’s ever known, my husband. We adore each other in a heightened awareness of having together survived a great ordeal.
I now breath freely behind a different mask made of purple and white cloth and reusable coffee filters. I finally returned invisibility to its rightful corner in exchange for those fancy dreams of being an artist.
This universal pause is our moment of silence, marking the beginning of another Memorial Day for those we have lost to COVID-19. It is important to me that living through pandemic does not become normalized, as is oftentimes the case with living under violence. There are millions of people right now who are floating above themselves, telling policewomen that everything’s fine, trapped not only in a relationship but inside a home, where no mask will save them from what comes next. I want to tell them the mutable season of Gemini comes next, that there is enough fresh air out here for everyone.
Jocelyn Winn lives gratefully ever after in New Hampshire and owns the editorial services business The Eleventh Letter. She is an MFA in writing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a nonfiction reader for The Maine Review.
She requests for readers to please consider donating to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.