In August, I disappear into a fairy-tale woodland for a week with other women writers. I set aside my responsibilities as a book publisher and a mother and a school board member for this one golden, seven-day stretch. In the buggy evenings, we gather around the cookhouse table to exchange reports of wildlife seen and pages multiplying. The solo dance-work of story.
While my friends write their truths in nearby cabins, I wear my silence like a bulletproof vest. Even alone, without Internet or any link to the outside world, I zip my lip, button my mouth, lock the truth up tight with a twist of an invisible key. Just in case. Safety first.
This self-imposed silence: a twenty-five-year-old ritual that has saved my life. It’s why I’ve always veered toward fiction instead of memoir or essays.
One morning, a few days into the retreat, I sit alone in a room with bunk beds and a comforting slice of homemade zucchini bread, staring out the window as I flip the coin of possibility back and forth: tell / don’t tell.
I have an opportunity, with these twinned permissions of silence and time, to put my ex and his gun on the page for the first time. To add my voice to the chorus of women who have said, I survived.
But I’m not sure I’m brave enough. If I catch my fear on a hook, reel it in, sentence by sentence, and then land the piece in a journal, I will only feel surer of my status: hunted.
I decide to work on an easier subject when a young boy stalks past my window holding a rifle. He’s nine or ten, between the ages of my daughters. Maybe the gun is a toy. The knife handle sticking out from a leather sheath in his belt looks real, though. The boy pauses, separated from me by glass, just a few feet away. He’s secure in his right to linger here with a weapon. His right hand grips the rifle, easy, as if it’s a lunchbox.
It seems improbable but I must have somehow conjured him.
A boy with a gun, framed in my cabin window, means it’s time to tell.
My ex and I met at the beginning of my freshman year in college, in those first heady months far away from home; he claimed to be a senior. But he kept going to classes the following year, and the year after that.
In those first heady months, I fell for his easy charisma, his worldliness, his willingness to correct me. He transformed his tiny dorm room into a lounge with a lava lamp, comfy seats, and a full bar with Blue Curaçao and other sweet and pretty offerings guaranteed to lure a gullible young woman like me.
A few upperclassmen showed up regularly to debate ideas and unpack the mystery of human behavior. I never drank much, but I liked it when he handed me an ocean-colored cocktail in a stemmed glass. He considered me worthy of an orange-slice garnish. And I understood this magnificent speakeasy setup to mean he believed what I did: that life ought to be a celebration of the mind. Together with his friends, we poked holes in each other’s logic, reckoned with our own misconceptions, and listened to jazz.
Then he bought a vintage Colt handgun and loaded it full of bullets.
It didn’t take long for me to realize he didn’t believe in discourse at all; that had been another lie, part of the trap he set for me, or a girl like me. I had grown up sheltered, cared for, privileged with a loving home and my own dog. My parents always told me how proud they were of me but deep down I felt terribly certain my brain worked differently than everyone else’s. It didn’t matter much at home because my dad did everything his own weird way, and I could mumble fine and great with enough conviction that my mom didn’t press for more. But at school and everywhere else, hiding my neurodivergence became part of my everyday routine. If I could pretend to be normal, maybe other people would like me. It never occurred to me to pursue a diagnosis or that my difference could be anything but a weakness, a flaw, a mistake.
My ex picked up on these fears and exploited them. Once he had earned my trust, he assured me I was not worth anything. That I should, at all costs, hide my difference from other people because they would never accept me if they knew the real me like he claimed he did.
He laid all this manipulative groundwork before showing me the gun. When he bragged about how he shouldn’t have a weapon on campus, I’m sure I responded with a negative comment. Something unsupportive. Something bitchy. Because by then, the dreamy Gatsby-like setup had faded. He quit playing bartender. His friends didn’t come by as often. He removed the extra chairs, leaving me, a virgin, to sit on his bed.
Maybe when he showed me the gun, I said, Please take those bullets out. Or, I don’t like guns. Or, I need to go back to my room. Anytime I had an opinion, he shut me down. Sometimes with lies. Sometimes with his body. Then with a gun. He pointed it at me. He released the safety. I held my body still through the snap of the trigger, the bam of release.
A bullet thunked into the historic wood flooring, an inch or two away from my feet. I couldn’t yell or run for help because then others would know how bad my life had become. I knew how to handle him, how to pretend to be in cahoots, and that would keep other women safe. Women other than me.
I opened the door and stuck my head out like everyone else up and down the hall, wondering aloud, What happened? Did someone shoot a gun? I hoped they wouldn’t suspect my status as a target. I remember feeling culpable. I had made him mad again. It was probably my fault he pulled the trigger. That he had felt obligated to warn me with violence.
He slipped another bullet into the chamber to replace the one he shot at me.
You can’t say no to a boyfriend who keeps a loaded handgun under the bed. You say, Yes. You say, Sorry. You say, Whatever you want is fine. You blame yourself for swallowing the hook of his interest, getting caught open-mouthed. Those blue drinks and those smart, snappy conversations where everyone leaned in to hear my thoughts. Good bait. That’s all it took.
The person with the gun gets to control the narrative.
He can swear you are worthless, and what choice do you have other than to agree? Arguing only makes him want to wound you.
An accident, he swore after he shot at me. But he had been practicing at the range, learning how to steady his arm, aim, and fire with accuracy. He liked me to accompany him on those outings so I understood the situation: he could send a bullet into my heart if he wanted.
I can’t see the boy with the rifle from my cabin window anymore. He has plunged into the woods. I take a long shower. There’s a high window in the bathroom. If he comes back this direction, he’s not tall enough to shoot across and into the bathroom, even if he wanted to, which I’m sure he doesn’t. Even if he did so by accident, the bullet would graze the ceiling.
The water helps me climb back into my body. When I release myself from the steam and heat, the fear judders back. Even though I am fine here in this cabin in the woods, I begin to shake.
Instead of confiding in a friend or alerting the college administration that my boyfriend shot at me, I moved into his dorm room. He wanted me where he could keep an eye on me. It seemed safest to follow his commands. To say, If that’s what you want. I covered the lodged bullet with putty, filling in the hole in the wood, wanting to hide the evidence. I stepped over that mismatched blotch on the way to and from class.
Through the rest of my college years, I hid from friends and classmates, inventing excuses when they extended invitations. I spent hours on the bathroom floor, sick to my stomach at the thought of appearing in public with my boyfriend. He might yell or humiliate or hurt me. He often became more dangerous if a stranger interfered. I wrote false, cheer-filled notes to old friends on other campuses. I lost weight, became bones and savage bile. The doctors couldn’t figure it out; I didn’t give them any context. My parents worried about me and paid the medical bills and never suspected the cause. Or, if they did, they didn’t confront me about him.
When I turned twenty-one, my boyfriend proposed at a fancy restaurant and called me stupid for not noticing the gold ring shining at the bottom of the champagne glass. He had gone to all this effort.
You could have swallowed it, he accused. It cost me a lot of money.
I had been pretending not to see the ring because I didn’t want to get married. I apologized for being dumb and then fished around with a spoon, already having said sorry for throwing up before this special occasion, for not being hungry, for not even wanting this celebratory glass of champagne. The ring didn’t fit, so I said no with a smile. Not yet with a smile. I cited my youth and our current happiness, hoping this lie might placate him.
Smile, smile, smile.
He took my refusal better than I expected, urging me to keep the ring and think about it. I promised I would. We kept living together, and soon I realized he didn’t get as mad at me when I wore the ring. He didn’t scream as much. He didn’t clean his gun as often, or pour the bullets onto my palm so I could feel their weight. Or leave for hours, then lurch back in the door, unstable on his feet and furious about something I said or did weeks ago.
Playing at being engaged kept me safe. I hid the ring in a pocket and pulled it out whenever his mood dipped, waving my hand around until he noticed the diamond and brightened.
Aren’t you happy with me? he said when I didn’t wear it. Are you ashamed of me?
Sometimes he’d fold his accusations back on me: It’s all your fault. I should take that ring away from you. I gave it back in those moments, until he reversed course, calling me ungrateful, reminding me my parents only loved me because they didn’t know how much of a bitch I really was. I had fooled them, he told me, but I couldn’t fool him.
Other times he pressured me to tell everyone about our engagement. I didn’t want to marry him. I had refused his proposal. But what he argued was true; I wore his ring on my finger whenever I needed its protection.
Instead of confessing about the gun and the gaslighting and how he often overrode my no, I told my parents and my best friend: We’re engaged!
The boy in the woods comes back down the path, looks around, and stops at the same place as before: framed by my cabin window. Does he see me, an orange-and-white striped towel on my head, the sweet-burnt custard smell of my hair gel, my hands on the keyboard writing about guns?
Orange means don’t shoot. If it’s a real rifle, someone has taught him this. I find myself ducking away from the window, scurrying on all fours into the center of my cabin, just in case.
In mid-1999, soon after Columbine, my newsroom in northern Virginia spent several months working on a comprehensive gun control series. The county reporter wrote about laws, the editor-in-chief let her voice blaze in a searing editorial, someone went to a shooting range and wrote a feature about wielding that kind of power over a target. The rest of the staff worked on stories about families whose lives were changed by gun violence.
I interviewed a woman whose daughters, ages two and four, were kidnapped and killed by her estranged husband. He had taken the girls away, buckling them into their car seats before shooting them. Safety first. The mother had her babies buried in the same casket so they could keep each other company. She sprinkled wrapped pink bubblegum over their bodies.
I reported this story at my first real job after college while still living with my supposed fiancé. Hearing about this murder-suicide only confirmed I couldn’t leave him. Better to manage his anger at close range, to know his rages, to predict his fury.
During that interview, my shoulder ached from the pen I kept moving across the page. The ex-husband killed himself, invoking God in the suicide note. He claimed death would keep his babies safe for eternity. He believed in his mission to deliver them to heaven. After the murders, the mother and grandmother went to work for the county, doing background checks for weapons. They had never talked to each other about the details of the tragedy until my request to meet. I became not just a witness to grief, prying into a loss that didn’t belong to me, but a switch on the engine of a stalled conversation between a mother and a daughter.
I didn’t tell them that the end of every workday meant unlocking the apartment door to find a prowling, angry man. He called me bunny, making me prey. I apologized when I worked late on deadline. I said wow when he cooked pasta from a box. I pretended to believe him when he claimed he had a job.
Every time I said yes to him, what I meant was, Please don’t shoot me tonight.
“Did anyone see a boy with a rifle this afternoon?”
My women writer friends shake their heads. They hadn’t. Kids in the country grow up wringing chickens’ necks and hunting, they remind me. Nine isn’t too young to have your own rifle in the middle of nowhere if you’re a white boy.
I saw him twice, I tell them. That makes him real. Doesn’t it?
Throughout our “engagement,” my fiancé made a show of cleaning his weapon regularly, taking the bullets out, oiling all the parts, then putting it all back together. Sometimes he narrated the process to me so I understood what he knew about guns. I had messed up by getting lured in by a psychopath. We both knew he had made a decision that day in his dorm room: to shoot at me, not to hit me. His message was clear: If I behaved, he would let me live. If I messed up, argued back, told him anything that didn’t fit within the scope of his delusions, he could shoot me. If he wanted to. If I gave him a reason.
I lived this way for six years.
Silence took root as safety, even though my heart yearned to tell, to find someone who could help me, to confess to my best friend and my parents. Sometimes, I locked myself in the bathroom to write in my journal, but most of what I lived through isn’t on the page. I feared he would find my truths, read them, and punish me. Still, using my voice in secret—even in a limited, stilted way, more code and shorthand than story—helped me come back to myself. Summon the courage to go.
I had wanted to leave for most of our relationship but feared the consequences. My parents and friends might not forgive me for making such a big mistake. For the lie of assuring them, He makes me happy. When he took away the modem and the landline, isolating me from all outside contact, I knew I had to act. I decided I would rather leave and risk him murdering me in a week or a year or five years, because I couldn’t continue to shelter in place. Absorbing the physical and emotional blows of his ego-fueled rants didn’t really count as sheltering, anyway.
It took weeks to disentangle entirely, with him waking me up in the middle of the night to scream insults at me and stealing my favorite objects after I left for work. I never knew what would be missing when I came home.
For six years, I weighed my value against the worthlessness he saw in me. Slowly, this daily assessment helped me pull away from his view of me and see myself again. I regained my appetite and started brushing my hair. I tallied my strengths. I began trusting that the people closest to me would accept me back into their lives.
He used to tell me detailed stories of how mobsters got rid of bodies. Lye, a favorite for dissolving evidence. What he meant was, I can make you disappear. He couldn’t keep my heart, though. Not even at gunpoint.
He chose to use his time and his smarts to wreck another human being so he could feel that power course through his veins. So he could feel better about himself. Leaving was worth the risk of him killing me because it meant choosing myself. It meant saying, I matter. And believing that I did, at last.
Promise you won’t ever tell anyone anything about me, he said as I moved out.
And I promised.
So he let me go.
As soon as I could, I moved three thousand miles away.
Until now, I’ve kept my mouth shut.
This boy outside my cabin is just a kid in camping pants and a baseball cap.
Just a kid.
Just someone’s son out there, playing with a toy rifle. Or hunting with a real one. But not hunting me. He’s not going to hurt me. He doesn’t have any reason to shoot me.
My ex spent the first decade-plus after our breakup reaching out to my parents and my friends every month, stalking them to get information about my whereabouts. Ten or fifteen years of regular harassment, and occasional direct approaches to me, often with pseudonyms or random email accounts so I couldn’t trace his whereabouts. He wanted me to know he hadn’t forgotten my betrayal. He would never really let me go.
It’s been quiet lately.
Is he even looking for me anymore?
This essay’s public appearance may move me back up to the top of his agenda. But I have been his primary target before. I have, so far, survived his wrath.
Maybe he’s pawned that gun. Maybe he’s too busy being angry at other people to bother with me. Or maybe he’s right where I left him, pacing in a colorless rented room, that loaded Colt cleaned and oiled and ready. He has waited for all these years for me to cross a line, and now I have done it.
But that gun cannot obliterate my words, now that I have written them down. He doesn’t get to control the narrative anymore.
This telling lets me turn the barrel of scrutiny around on him. To consider the scope of his life: a man who used a loaded gun to keep his college girlfriend because he knew himself to be unlovable. With my words, I put him in the white-hot spotlight of my anger. My account may be twenty-five years late, but as a writer speaking up, finally using my voice to shout I survived, I can withstand the next round of his vitriol. If he sees it and reacts, this will only be more proof of what kind of man he is.
My words make him less than he’s ever been.
Look at how small and far away he is now.
Rumpus original art by Lea Wells.