I have never worked in an office before, but I imagine it is something like existing inside of a dead whale eight hours a day. The women’s limbs are so narrow and useless. This one, Peg, scratches and jots nervously like a sparrow with a pencil—even her smile barely raises her lips. A shock of wiry red hair probes out from the woman’s chin; she has no idea what to do with me. I get up and I leave the shelter: Peg barely tries to stop me. I am a thirty-eight year old male runaway. The rules are different. I made this decision one evening over a bowl of bloody ice cream. It was just plain cruel: Didn’t know Bens & Jerrys made a flavor like that, no? I buried my head in the bowl, never once looking up at her. Then my wife took my head in one hand and buried my bloody nose even deeper.
Domestic violence is the Super Fudge Chunk of marital problems.
It has been this way from Day One.
My wife, Nat, is a power-lifting champion from the Ukraine. I ordered her from an on-line catalog; she looked much different on the computer screen though. Smaller, more delicate. I hardly even recognized her when she arrived at the airport. Her bear hug greeting was my first red flag: two arms compressing my ribcage, one meaty knee pressing my testicles back inside their cavity. My legs swung above the ground, merely ornamental. Her teeth were stucco with complimentary peanut bits lodged in the gaps. Milton! she cried out, I am home! She set me back down, flung her carry-on over one shoulder and began toting me vigorously through the terminal. We were married that same afternoon. It took me two weeks to learn who Milton was.
Nat settled into her new home immediately. Her English was heavily accented but passable and for the first few weeks we got by okay. I knew from our correspondence that she was athletic—something I’ve always been attracted to—so I had a gym membership waiting when she arrived. The membership was to Fit, an all-female gym within walking distance of The Luxor, the casino where I worked as doorman. Nat’s membership was immediately transferred to their male counterpart, Flex, across the street. No one seemed to mind though. And that’s when her serious training began.
Within a month of our wedding Nat had bulked up to 228 pounds. Her appetite was audacious: proteins, protein shakes, vitamin supplements, powders, dairy, raw vegetables by the bushel. Sex, when it did occur, was terrifying. Penises fracture. Enough said. When it dwindled down to occasional oral I was thankful, and then, finally, nothing at all. That’s when the real abuse started. Hello my little man, she’d say, tossing her gym bag down too close to my feet, and what is for dinner for Nat tonight? Instead of a kiss it was an abrupt slap on the back—not loving. I cleaned and cooked; I worked the casino and paid the bills. Milton, Nat’s training coach in the Ukraine, emailed a detailed menu that Nat was to eat from every night; this was followed by a deep Vicks rubdown and, before bed, an email from Nat to Milton updating him on her workout progress. That’s usually when I left for work. I was home by seven a.m. to scramble her eggs and squeeze the juice.
Over time I grew weak, frazzled. Nat’s booming voice had me shaking all day. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, never knowing when that powerful hand would come whapping down across my shoulders. Between working the casino and tending to Nat’s needs I barely slept, and when I did, fitfully. I ate little. In short, I was a wreck. And then the real abuse began. Nat brought Tony home first, and then Mark: they were amateur bodybuilders and they were hungry. I had no choice. I cooked for them too. Nat rifled menu orders at me while Mark and Tony flexed unconsciously. I knew I was finished. This went on night after night: different muscle heads, different menus, same degradation. It was two weeks of Nat bringing home different men before it finally happened: I snapped, complained, and Nat hit me. Instantly the kitchen full of bodybuilders froze. It was the hardest I’d ever been hit, ever. I palmed my swollen cheek and walked it into the bedroom. Finally I heard Nat say, How else will they learn?, and then a roomful of laughter. I closed the door and sat down on the bed.
The marriage was final. The only way out was divorce. And I was too terrified to bring that up.
Nat grew stronger.
Six months after her arrival Nat entered her first competition. She pressed 410 pounds over her head, shattering the competition, and winning her first American paycheck—which she mailed directly to Milton. But I didn’t care. The competitions were held out of town and the more Nat kept winning, the longer she’d be gone from home. Plus she was nicer when she was winning. It was the nights before the competitions that were the scariest: all her anxiety balled into a knotty, hair-trigger fist.
It was the night before Regionals that Nat broke my nose.
I had five minutes until I had to catch the bus to work. I was eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream at the kitchen table—a little treat to myself—when the punch came out of nowhere. I’m still not sure why it happened. One minute I was eating, the next my blood was pouring down over the ice cream like boysenberry syrup. My face dropped into the bowl; I pulled it back out. I sat there, dazed, hurting. I knew it was broken. I was down to 150 pounds and getting tough. I was tired. Too tired. I was almost finished. And then Nat made the Bens & Jerrys comment and pushed my face even deeper. I could hear her snickering from inside the bowl: Wonder Bread, she called me. And I knew it would never get better. Cold vanilla ice cream forced its way inside my nostrils and blood pumped through my ears and out my nose. This is not love, I thought, her fist gripped tight around the scruff of my neck, trying to breathe calmly, evenly through the ice cream. This is not the way it was supposed to be.
Peter Conners writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and book reviews.