I was nineteen the first time I hit Katie.
It was just like the way I used to hit my brother when we were kids: I clenched my tongue in my teeth and punched her, hard, in the shoulder. One time. It wasn’t a beating, or a punch in the face, or anything like that. It was a childish thing, an outburst of frustration, of powerlessness, of juvenile male rage.
She flinched, her eyes wide with surprise. She had brown eyes, sweet warm beautiful eyes, and they looked back at me with such pain and sadness. I don’t think she had ever been hit in her life.
It happened several times that year.
But that’s being evasive. It’s harder to say it outright.
I hit her several times that year.
She told some friends about it once and they were shocked. They said she should leave me. She laughed when she told me, like they were blowing things way up out of proportion. I laughed too. It’s not like I was dangerous, for Christ’s sake.
It’s not like I was a wife-beater.
I met Katie at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. She was a freshman, blonde and quirky and sexy in all the right ways. She was a not-very-rich kid from a posh school back East, who grew up around preppy white boys headed for Princeton and Yale and Duke where they would pledge the fraternities their fathers had been in.
I was a not-very-rich kid from a public school in New Orleans, raised mostly by my mom. My father was an alcoholic, a merchant seaman who grew up in the tough Irish section of East Boston and who ran away to sea when he was fourteen. I did not pledge a fraternity because the only place I would be considered some kind of legacy would be on a North Atlantic haddock boat or an oil tanker running the Kuwait-Singapore circuit.
I dressed like a punk, chopped-up hair and a bunch of metal in my ear, which made me come off like more of a bad boy than I really was (which I suppose was at least part of the attraction for her). I was angry a lot of the time, angry at everything except for cute blonde girls with tiny boobs and great asses.
I had an apartment a few blocks from campus which had no heat other than the gas heater in the bathroom, and no furniture except a fold-out couch in the bedroom that we used as a bed. After dark Katie and I would watch through the window as the rats ran along the utility wires from house to house, and late at night we could hear them skittering and squeaking in the wall above where we slept.
She taught me how to cook, and how to dance out on the floor with an actual girl instead of in the corner with my beer. I helped her with her calculus homework and shoved Bowie and Joy Division and Sonic Youth records at her. When the weather got cold, we had an electric blanket and each other. We fucked at every opportunity. We were just teenagers. Children. At home we baby-talked and had cutesy nicknames for each other.
But out in the world, I was still angry at everything and everyone. Cops. Republicans. Preppies and frat boys and urban cowboys. Stupid college parties with their stupid dance music. Professors who didn’t take me seriously because I had fucked-up hair. Kids who had money, kids who had normal parents, kids who were excited to go home for the holidays.
If you’d asked me back then why I was angry, I don’t think I could have told you. It was just…well…come on, I mean look at these assholes!
Katie got more earrings, bleached her hair and cut it short. I got a mohawk. We went to punk shows in shabby warehouses and falling-down buildings in desolate areas of post-oil-bust Houston that don’t exist anymore. We took a lot of acid. We drank some. I drank more. I cheated, a couple of times. We had a threesome once. I punched a window. I flunked out of my major and lost most of my scholarships and my mom threatened to cut off my money.
By spring Katie and I were arguing a lot. I was slipping further down into that angry, hateful place, a place I didn’t understand but that made more sense to me than dealing with people, or love, and she was making normal friends and wanted to do normal college things and not just go to punk shows or walk around campus hating on everything and everybody.
Near the end of the school year, on my birthday, I spent the night at the student pub getting beers bought for me and wondering where Katie was. At closing time, I staggered over to her old dorm room, where she still slept sometimes, to look for her. She wasn’t there, but when I passed the window of a room a couple doors down from hers, I found out where she’d been. The blinds were open. I could see everything.
She was making out with a guy we both knew. Matthew. His shirt was off, he was behind her, kissing her neck, and her bra was on its way off.
Matt was blonde, hairless and ripped, with a James Dean smile and a tan and dimples. He was nice to everybody, and everybody loved him. He was smart. He read books that were way over my head. And he was never angry at anything.
I stood and watched until she saw me, until I knew she saw me, and then I walked away.
I went home and waited up all night, because what was I going to do, sleep? I dusted the filth and dust bunnies off the bottoms of my feet and climbed into the bed, and then I lay there and listened to the rats in the walls, and I waited for her to come back, or at least call.
She didn’t come back. They fucked all night. I made her tell me all the details. Thirty years later and I can remember everything she told me. I can see it.
I can see my earliest memories from childhood only as random bits and pieces, like the strobe of images you see from a subway train as it passes through a station.
Most of these memories are nice, or at least benign. Most of them. But there are others.
In one, in our upstairs hallway, my father is holding my mother by the shoulders, shaking her, banging her into the wall, yelling at her. She’s crying. I’m angry. I’m going to stop him. I run up behind him and raise my fists as high as I can and pummel him over and over, yelling, “You stop it! You stop it!”
My fists hardly reach above his belt.
My mother says it never happened. That I imagined it, or that it was just a dream I remember as something that really happened.
I never got up the nerve to ask my father about it.
I’m four years old and we’re living in a rural area on Cape Cod. There’s a panicked banging on the front door and my mother opens it, it’s one of the neighborhood kids, and he’s crying, he’s hysterical. Across the street a pine tree goes up in a column of flame.
I remember my father in the yard with other men, screwing garden hoses together to make them reach across the street from our faucet. I remember him over there shoveling dirt onto the fire. I remember how the fire was pretty much out by the time the fire trucks arrived.
My dad doesn’t remember it. My mom says that’s because he wasn’t there, he was at sea when the fire happened and those were just the other dads in the neighborhood.
But I remember it. I saw him. I can still see him.
I’m fifteen. I’m sixteen. I’m seventeen. It doesn’t matter, it happened all the time. I’m sitting at the bottom of the stairs outside the locked master bedroom, listening to the sound of my mother being beaten by a man who is not my father.
Some nights I thought that if it got bad enough I could break down the door and save her, and I wondered if I would know what bad enough sounded like when it happened. My stepfather was a Vietnam vet and outweighed me by at least fifty pounds, so I don’t know what I thought I was going to do.
I’ve told this story to friends before, how I would sit down there, sometimes armed with a baseball bat, just waiting. My back against the wall, one foot on the carpeted floor, one foot on the step, the bat resting between my legs.
But as I’ve started writing these stories down, I’ve been scrutinizing these memories, even the clear ones, forcing myself to think them through. And I’ve realized, I am almost positive, that I didn’t actually own a baseball bat.
I remember the bat very clearly. I can see myself on the stairs, holding it. A green aluminum Little League bat with black tape on the handle. But I am also sure, now, that logically it is unlikely I could have been holding a bat.
After Katie dumped me and school got out, in the summer of 1984, I went back to my hometown of New Orleans. My mom and my stepdad had just moved away and I wouldn’t have wanted to move back into their house anyway, but I didn’t know where else to go. So instead of going home to my teenage bedroom, I went back to a state of semi-homeless couch-surfing, worked part time in a shitty trophy shop, and hung out with my previous ex-girlfriend Darcy and her new boyfriend. We took lots of drugs, acid and Quaaludes when we could get them, glue and paint and recreational overdoses of Dramamine when we couldn’t. We drank too much and went to punk shows in people’s garages and tried not to get into fights with strangers or each other.
And I wasn’t really conscious of the extent to which I was slowly losing my mind.
Like, at one point that summer I decided that sucking my gay boss’s dick for money after hours was a reasonable way to pick up some spare cash.
Like, one night while I was drunk, I couldn’t get Darcy to get off the phone with her boyfriend to talk to me, so I broke open one of her disposable leg razors and cut my wrists to get her attention. It worked, for a couple of days. She bandaged me up, and paid attention to me, and everybody cared about me. For a couple of days.
I still have the scars. I did a shitty job. Bloody mess everywhere but never any danger. Turns out cutting your wrists is hard because it really fucking hurts.
Thing is, in those days there wasn’t any such thing as PTSD, at least not for people like me, and certainly not for kids. Vietnam vets had their shell shock, but that was it. Battered women’s shelters and child protection laws had not made it to Louisiana yet. Those didn’t arrive until years after they would have done me any good. And back then you sure as shit did not call the cops on your parents, or the people your parents were married to. If you grew up in a house full of violence and rage, it was just because that was the sort of house you were born into, and you accepted it as normal, the same way I suppose kids who were born into houses with swimming pools thought every kid got to swim all the time.
All I ever heard when I misbehaved, when I drank too much or broke something or screwed something up was, “You’re just like your father.”
These days researchers and clinicians talk about the cycle of domestic abuse, but it means the same thing.
You’re just like your father.
My grandfather, my dad’s father, used to get drunk with his best buddy and go brawling in bars in East Boston, and then beat up the police who were called to break up the fight. “Brendan Shea and Pat McCarty,” my dad would tell it, with pride. “The Terrors of East Boston.”
And Brendan used to take that violence home with him at night.
My father was a hard case like any other Irish sailor, who spent his share of time in overseas jails and military courts martial. And there is a litany of things about him my mother won’t talk about, some which I remember and some which I only have hints of. Later, when I was a teenager and my parents had divorced, there were many drunken incidents I recall all too vividly. He smashed in windows, kicked in doors, vandalized our car, followed my mom’s boyfriends and tried to run them off the road. One time he abducted me and my brother, but just for a weekend.
I never asked my father about any of this, and I wondered how he remembered it. Or if he remembered it at all.
My mom eventually married my stepfather, a guy who also drank too much, who also had a temper, and my mother and I were the primary outlets for his rage.
And no matter how far away you try to get when you’re an adult, no matter how much you drink, no matter how thoroughly you self-medicate, if you lived through that kind of thing as a kid it’s always there in the back of your skull. Wife-beating has a unique and unforgettable sound, especially when it wakes you up in the middle of the night. It’s like a simultaneous slap/thunk/squeak. Slap of skin striking skin. Thunk because it was a closed fist, not an open hand. Squeak because if you’re a mother, you don’t want your kids to hear and so you stifle your cries any way you can, but sometimes they slip out.
I’ve typed and retyped and revised that last paragraph many times over the past year, and even tonight, right now, my stomach hurts as I describe it.
Many years later, when I myself was married and a father, my drinking got bad enough that the wheels of my life began to wobble a little. I went out and got help and got sober. I went to meetings, I got a sponsor, I did the steps, the whole bit. This meant that I had to call up the people I had hurt and make amends to them.
I had to call Katie.
Because in the years since college, I had started to think about that year with her, think about it in ways I had not thought about it before.
Society had changed around us in the intervening decades. Now there were names for what I had experienced, and for what I had done, and a new narrative began to take shape in my head, about what really went wrong between me and Katie.
I remembered that her friends had told her to dump me, and I remembered why. I began to think about what I did. I began to think about what I am.
You asshole. You beat up your girlfriend.
I was one of them. And I couldn’t take it back.
I hadn’t seen or talked to Katie since college, but I managed to track down her phone number, I called her, and we talked about it. Summer of 2004. My first year of sobriety, exactly twenty years since she dumped me.
And she swore that she didn’t remember me hitting her. At all.
She remembered we used to argue a lot, but mostly she remembered good things, she said. Fun things. Dancing. Punk shows. Hours naked under the electric blanket listening to New Order.
I had spent twenty years slowly coming around to the idea that I was just like the men who raised me, and now Katie was telling me it never happened.
I didn’t believe her. I knew I did it. I could remember it. I could see it.
One night I was at a bar with friends, buying drinks, my round. I’d been sober three years at this point, so it was Guinness for them and a Red Bull and cranberry for me. As I carried the drinks back to the table, some Guinness spilled down my wrist and automatically, without thinking, I licked it off.
The alcohol burn shot down my throat and up my spine like electricity, up and out through my eyes, my fingertips, the hair on my arms. Through every nerve ending.
I no longer drank, but I was still an alcoholic. I did not have a drinking problem, but I could get one, that fast.
During the last months of my failing marriage, a few years after I quit drinking, it was increasingly common for me take out my anger by beating things, by breaking things. Just things. Like punching a wall, or putting my fist through a window. But the anger would fade with the first crash, with the new broken object that I now had to throw away or replace or sweep up before somebody came home and found it. And after that I would feel only disgust and remorse. Anger to self-loathing, in an instant, like flipping a switch, like energy being transferred and dissipating.
I did it again, I’d think. I broke something else. I’m so fucking stupid.
That it was an inanimate object and not a person was intentional, but in the shame of the aftermath I would forget how much worse it could have been if it had been the other way.
When I was twelve or thirteen, after my parents had split, my mother came home from a date and my father arrived right behind them, drunk, as he had done in the past. He yelled and banged outside, while my mother pleaded with her boyfriend, “Don’t go out there, he’ll kill you.” I walked out of my bedroom just in time to see the plate glass of the side door shatter from the outside. It was probably a boot. Maybe it was a fist.
Then my dad went away.
Was he trying to get inside? To my mother? To her date? Or was the door just the thing he needed to break to no longer feel anger, to transform the anger into something else?
Years later, when I took care of him while he was sick in a nursing home, I never asked him about that night, or others like it. Maybe it’s because we’d been estranged for so long I didn’t want to fuck up our current relationship with uncomfortable topics. Maybe it’s because he was dying then and it didn’t seem so important any more.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t know if I would trust his answers if they were different from my memories.
One night during the last months of my own marriage, I slammed dishes into the dishwasher in a low-grade rage, hoping one would break by accident.
There was an open bottle of wine on the counter, left over from the daily happy hour my wife and her friends still had on my front porch without me. It was more than half full.
I uncorked it, held it to my nose.
I would be four years sober next week.
I held it to my mouth. I tipped the bottle up.
This will show them.
I stood with the bottle tipped up against my closed mouth, the wine against my lips, daring myself, for a second, two seconds, three. Seconds that were years.
Then, without opening my mouth, I tilted the bottle back down, gently set it back on the kitchen counter, and recorked it. I went outside for a walk, flipping through my phone contacts, looking for a sober person to call while I licked the taste of red wine off my lips.
I was still an alcoholic. But I did not drink it.
The report by the court-appointed custody evaluator for my divorce said:
Other than an apparent “shoving” incident, physical violence does not seem to be an issue for this family.
That one time, at a Mardi Gras parade four months before we filed for divorce, she shoved me first, and I shoved back harder. And there was nothing else around to break, no inanimate object to beat until I no longer felt anger. And I was ready, so ready, this is it, take a swing so I have an excuse, I want to so bad, I have been so fucking angry for so fucking long. I am one of them. Do it.
And she stormed off.
It didn’t happen. I did not beat my wife.
But I wanted to.
A landmine which has not been triggered has only the capacity for violence. It has wounded no one, it has committed no sin. But if a landmine sits in a field for decades after the war is over, because it has not been stepped on in just the right way, is it not still a landmine?
If the fields are still full of mines, is the war really over?
Is a “batterer” something you are? Is it like alcoholism, a chronic condition, a part of what defines you, a permanent part of your being? Or is it something you do? Is “wife beater” defined by your actions, or your nature? What makes you one of them?
What if you only hit one girlfriend, decades ago?
And what if she claims you never did it?
My grandfather. My father. My stepfather.
Last December I went to New York because I needed a vacation from taking care of my dying father, and while I was there I got to see Katie in person for the first time since college. We went out to dinner in Brooklyn and got caught up on each other’s life stories. I told her I was trying to write an essay about her, and she was mostly OK with it, as long as I smudged her name and some details a bit.
What she wanted to make clear, to reiterate, was this: she did not remember me hitting her. She remembered one time taking something physical I had done, something she remembered as harmless, and throwing it back in my face in an argument in order to hurt me.
She said that I had the right to tell my story of us even if it didn’t match her story of us. But she had no memory of me striking her in anger.
Like I said, I remember doing it more than once. And I can see one time vividly. It was in the kitchen. It was night. She was wearing a flannel shirt.
I remember the shock in her eyes.
I still don’t know what to do with the suggestion that I never did it. I’ve always maintained that I remember it, therefore I did it. And yet…Katie insists.
I don’t know why she doesn’t remember it.
I don’t know why my mother doesn’t remember the things that she says never happened.
I don’t know why I do remember.
Do we choose our memories? Or do our memories choose us? Do we believe ourselves to be a certain type of person and remember accordingly? Or is it the other way around?
I have the capacity for violence. But I still don’t know if I am one of them.
After dinner Katie walked me to the subway to put me on the right train, to make sure I didn’t get lost going home in the middle of the New York winter night.
She hugged me goodbye. She said I’d always been too hard on myself.
It snowed the next day, and the day after that my father died. He took his stories and his memories with him, and left me to make sense of my own.