She had what my mother would have called "underprivileged hair." Scraggling halfway down her thin back, it was home-dyed and home-permed to a reddish-black crisp. A pretty freckled child, about 4, snuggled against her bony side. The child and, occasionally, with great delicacy, the young mother, eyed me from time to time. In turn, I sneaked a couple of looks. The young woman and I had only one eye apiece to ogle with. Each of us had one eye swollen shut.
My own hair, long, heavily straight and dirty-blond, was wrung into a tight bun. Like the woman across from me in the waiting room of a local emergency room early on a Sunday morning, I had thrown on a pair of jeans and a shirt. Somehow, though, I must have looked different from the other woman. The child huddled closer to her mother and whispered something. I pretended I didn't, but I heard it.
"Mommy, I didn't know them kind of ladies got beat up."
Neither did I. Neither did I.
Looking back on that day, those quite-a-few days of lugging my battered-wife's body into an emergency room, I realize that the other battered woman's child had succinctly expressed the reason why, a decade ago, I had so completely bought into the textbook cycle of the batteree (furiously claiming ownership of responsibility for the battery -- it only made sense if it was my fault!): The beating of women was totally alien to my family tradition. Physical beating simply did not happen to "us kind of ladies." So -- if only I'd stop doing whatever it was that produced the beating -- the beating would stop, and no one would know it had ever happened.
Of course, the part of me blood-related to the generations of blond ladies who, indeed, would never get battered, never-in-a-million-years -- that part took quite a different view of my swollen face and hurting ribs. That part whispered -- the whisper of a slaver's whip -- You can't leave him now. That poor sick fool is your husband.
(On the police tapes, I heard Nicole Brown Simpson identify her batterer to the 911 operator as "my ex-husband. My husband." They had been divorced a year.)
I had bolted from the emergency room -- "You want me to be dead next time you see me?" -- and had turned the key in the door of my car when the emergency-room receptionist caught up with me, caught my bruised arm. "Forget the rule. Come get examined. You'll probably need the results later in court."
The rule I was supposed to forget was the one that stated E.R. staff could not examine a patient for injuries sustained in a domestic dispute without making out a police report.
Every other time, I'd made up a fall downstairs, an auto accident, whatever. But on this particular day, I hadn't been able to think of a household disaster that could logically have produced both my swollen face and my funny-shaped chest cavity (the latter being the reason why I'd gone to the E.R. in the first place).
"Somebody hit me," I told them. That's when they told me the rule.
"Come back. Let us look at you. No police will show up at your door."
I hesitated for a while. For as long as it took for the receptionist to decide to take me into her confidence: "Look, it happened to me. And without hospital records, I might have lost custody of my kids."
(The 911 operator sounded genuinely sympathetic as she told Nicole Simpson to stay on the line. "We're really busy tonight," she explained, apologetically, while Nicole's ex-husband broke down the door and howled threats at her. "You know who I am," Nicole Simpson cried. "You know how many times I've called before. No, I'm not upstairs. The kids are upstairs. I don't want them to hear this. I'm in the kitchen.")
I got away. I waited almost 10 years. The police never came, but I got to know the E.R. receptionist pretty well. Still, I waited till my sons were almost teen-agers, almost ready to fight to protect me. At last I realized I had to make sure that never happened. Luckily, I didn't haunt my ex's imagination the way beautiful Nicole Simpson did hers. After I changed the locks, after a few years of weird, pathetic phone calls, I was free.
("Legally, what could we do?" asked the L.A. police. Legally, nothing.)
I was lucky. One of the main reasons is that receptionist's advice. She got past her shame, and mine, to make sure I knew what did happen, what happened over and over, to "us kind of ladies."
("Maybe," murmured a talk-show guest today, "these ladies will get some kind of better protection now.")
Maybe. As long as we keep talking to each other. As long as we chase our sisters out onto parking lots and coax them back in to where somebody can do them some good. And more of it. Much more. Then, perhaps, I and women like me will feel safe enough to state our names.
This article was written by a 50-ish Baltimore free-lance who asks to remain anonymous.