This week at Guernica’s newly re-designed website, author Jean McGarry has a short story, “Come to Me,” about an abusive relationship and the tangled dynamics of power and devotion that can hold its victims in place.
That was day four; on day one, I found underwear, not my own, in my underwear drawer. Are you talking to me? he said, when I asked. Speak up, he said, and I was yelling my head off and draped the underwear, a silky thing of threads and holes, over my head. See this? I said. I’ll never understand you the way you want, he said; and besides, I can’t sit still that long, and don’t ask me.
I was put in my place, and my place was way in the back behind the plant, making shadow puppets on the wall. But, I also clean the kitchen, and run to the store for ice cream, and whatever he needs that minute.
The relationship in “Come to Me” is not a physically abusive one (at least at first), but rather emotionally or psychologically abusive, which can be just as damaging as and even more insidious than its more outwardly violent counterpart. From the start, Henry is aggressive, manipulative, and demanding. McGarry’s unnamed narrator recounts how she met him; she was swimming laps when he stopped her, pulled her out of the pool, and asked if she lived close by. The exchange is chilling to read as Henry’s manipulations snap closed around this woman whose life is about to change for the worse.
I said, he said, do you live around here? What are you deaf?
I kept looking through my glasses, while brain—my weakest part—interpreted.
I’ve lived many places, and lives to match, I said.
With that, he jumped into the pool and swam a lap. I’m going to ask you one more time…
I know, I said, do I live around here? Who wants to know? I said.
And, with that, Henry was in the locker room, putting off and putting on. When he was dressed, I was still sitting there, starting to dry off and evaluating in that slow way I had.
One more chance, he said, pulling me by the hair to look into my upside-down face.
Across the street, I said, and it was true.
Quickly, Henry exerts his control over the woman’s life. He moves her into his house in the woods and does not allow her to bring any of her own belongings. He has her take care of the house and the grounds and the pets, do the cooking, and pay the bills. Henry works seven days a week from dawn till dark, and the woman is left alone for long stretches of time in isolation. When he is there, he criticizes her, gaslights her, deprives her of affection. In McGarry’s dream-like (or nightmare-like) prose, this reality in the woods seems sometimes like a grim fable, especially as the abuse escalates, the victim’s mind bends, and she makes desperate attempts to please her abuser and win back his affection.
What was left after my careers was loving, the X inside the fence, now mon plaisir. I devoted myself to its discipline. Waking early to refresh my skin in the springs of the earth, oiling my hair and eyebrows, inking my fingernails, and wrapping myself in the last of the gorgeous remnants. I paraded across the lawn . . . in my veils and soft shoes. I mounted the ladder to peer into Henry’s den, perched above his workshop. Resting my arms on the windowsill, I made delightful faces and licked the glass, tapping with my blood-colored nails. Hey, there, you with the stars in your eyes. Henry laughed to see me in my act, and pulled down the shade. Go way, I heard. Don’t haunt me.
This isn’t a feel-good story for your holiday season, but it is a necessary one for spreading the awareness of emotional abuse, which often isn’t recognized by its victims or others as domestic abuse. “Come to Me” will disquiet with its twisting emotional landscape, entrance with its darkly lush prose, and maybe, hopefully, open wide some eyes.
Is this it? I said, salt tears tracing a zigzag and dripping off the edge.
Bye, bye, blackbird.
I’d come full circle and was ready for the shot to the moon.
But, I opened wide my dripping eyes and saw: nothing, zip, a box of air. Where, why, who, how, how come, whence, why for, what, how long? I sang, and repeated, mutating the order.
Logo art by Max Winter.