I remember the day my sister said the words, “Until death do us part.” On that day, looking into her 19-year-old husband’s eyes, she didn’t know that vow would be a mortal choice: death or parting.

I’m 22 now. At this age, my sister Amber filed for divorce and bankruptcy and got her left front tooth capped after being pushed into the glass door of her shower.

We sit on the porch at Panera Bread in Owasso, Oklahoma. Amber’s friend Bethany, who is nearly 20 years her senior, tells her, “You need to get on Match.com. Plenty of Fish is full of guys looking for a booty call.”

The relationship between three friends, Bethany, Amber and Lauren, began as one of support – an informal therapy group of sorts. Each one admitted that life was not easy, but with one another, it became bearable. Then slowly, and not without effort, life became what they hadn’t let themselves hope for in quite a while – good.

Amber holds up her phone, showing me a Channel 8 news article entitled, “Oklahoma Awarded Grant To Help Domestic Violence Victims.” The federal grant of more than $1.3 million will support Oklahoma shelters and support programs, according to the site.

Bethany hands me a napkin, “Here you go, baby.” Bracelets cover Bethany’s wrist like a cast. One bracelet says she loves Jesus. Another says she loves boobies.

Bethany’s hair is blonde, purple and black. It’s the color that the skin around her eyes used to be. She pulls white rhinestone sunglasses from her eyes to prove that they aren’t even a little bruised. It’s a gesture she often makes for her mother, just to check. It’s just a sunny day in April on the Panera porch, and her eyes are “very sensitive.”

 “Extensions,” she says, pointing a manicured finger at her hair.

She says that the last time she was with Robin, the father of her children, he pulled chunks of the natural blonde out of her hair, leaving wisps and wads on the floor of his Jeep.

___

 

Bethany still thinks about the night she got the worst of Robin’s wrath. It was Thanksgiving of 1999, and in spite of the 42-degree Midwestern air, Bethany was wearing a sleeveless shirt, her pajama shorts and no shoes. She saw a certain dignity in country living. She recalled a time in her teenage years in Skiatook, Oklahoma, when she began drinking and partying. Her parents stuck her on a weed eater and gave her only enough money to eat. It was the best character building she ever had.

On this Thanksgiving, she and her friend Travis stood alone in a grass field under the vast expanse of unpolluted night sky as cicadas sang their lullaby. She took a drag from her cigarette and looked beyond the brush and fields of Skiatook. The town’s name, legend has it, came from a phrase Osage Indians would say when looking out across vast fields that rolled out into the horizon, “The sky-uh-took-me.”

Travis, Bethany’s friend, flicked his cigarette onto the ground and pointed out toward the dark skyline. “Is that Robin?” Bethany was poised to tell her friend that there was no reason Robin should be coming.

But with only a glance into the expanse, she knew. She saw the frame of this man, the gait of his walk and the swing of his arms –the arms that had once broken hers.

“Run.” Though Travis was only her friend, and a gay man at that, she knew all men were the same to Robin. He believed she had somehow accomplished the feat of sleeping with all of them.

Bethany started toward the father of her children. “Drunk,” she thought.  He reached out and grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through the brush like a rag doll. He pulled her faster than her feet could keep up. In the cab of the Jeep, Robin peeled out, hitting her head onto the dashboard as he went. Driving fast out of the land, the sky took her.

When blue and red lights flashed behind them, he leaned to her and growled, “If you don’t tell him you came with me willingly, I’m gonna go to jail for a long time. If you don’t tell him, you’re gonna be sorry.”

Bleeding and disheveled, Bethany regained composure. Robin rolled down his window, and Bethany leaned over Robin’s shoulder and yelled into the wind to tell the officer that her husband had forcibly taken her.

___

 

The three friends met at the bank. If there’s one thing they all knew – abuse takes a toll on everything, including the pocketbook. They think they found one another the way people believe soul mates find each other, but without the romanticism. Their relationship was more, it was, in large part, survival.

My sister felt like it had taken seven years to finally see her husband clearly. She saw her marriage with new lenses. It was as if she was at the eye doctor watching blurred photos click and click until the image was clear. Once she saw it – she wished she was blind.

Amber checked her desk calendar, June 6, 2011. It was three days until her wedding anniversary and several months since she had eaten a full meal. The words, “You’re just not fit to be a woman,” filled her stomach when she was hungry and pushed her to skip one more lunch break.

She had been following a strict diet plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She followed this diet plan with a cardio regimen of running until her eyes spotted and the ground tilted.

She kept going, remembering the face of a friend, whom her husband did find fit to be a woman. She found their text messages, and when she threw her husband’s clothes out of the house, he picked her up and threw her out with them.

She just kept running, mindless and numb, the way she felt the past few months.

 

When she fell from malnutrition next to the used treadmill that she had gotten for free and loaded into her husband’s white Silverado, she woke to the nudge of a boot. “Get up off the fucking floor already,” he said as he stepped over her and into the kitchen.

She felt like this was a metaphor for her marriage. She was running, reaching, only to be nudged aside for someone else. The sound of a hunting rifle boomed off the walls of their small living room. Their home, which was guaranteed through Section 184 of the Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program, filled with the dust of drywall and plaster.

Amber awoke, wondering if that was her only warning shot, and scrambled to her feet. The next time he left to drink or play pool, she was gone.

___

 

Lauren is preparing to marry her second husband, Tyler, who owns a small auto-repair empire. The women talk color schemes and flower arrangements. The wedding will be in Tyler’s front yard in a town called Wagoner, Oklahoma.

Her mother and father died five years ago, the same year her first marriage ended. The wedding won’t have sides, at least not for her.

“When times get hard, I hear my mother in my head,” she says. ‘“Lauren, let go and let God. When the devil starts messin,’ God will start blessin.’”

She believes her husband is that blessing. Her bachelorette party is this evening. The itinerary includes a lot of hibachi and a lot of drinking. Though this is a time of new beginnings, she still dwells on her last ending.

Lauren worked two jobs: one at the bank and the other at Old Navy to support her husband’s addictions.

“At first, there was a little verbal abuse, but then that little bit of verbal abuse turned into a lot of verbal abuse,” she said. “Then he had a lot of anger that caused physical abuse.”

Her husband, Robin, who had chosen alcohol and drugs over his wife, soon began seeing another man.

Lauren walked through the door of her home. Her husband, who was always looming over her, was in a drug-induced sleep and looked small.

She remembered the days before the drugs and alcohol. As he lay there, she kicked him – once, twice and then she lost count.  

After a while, she wasn’t sure how long, she became tired, in every sense of the word. She was finished.

Bethany credits the strength she has found to her children.

“People tell me they can’t believe I haven’t killed myself, but I have three girls that are the light of my life. Why would I?” she asks.

She thinks of the time when she would have had another child, but the same man who gave her those children, took another away.         

A decade earlier, she lived in a house she was selling, probably the 30th house in her lifetime. Working in real estate meant she was never able to settle for long.  Robin and his brother came to her temporary home on a rainy day in Oklahoma.

The copper clay turned to a thick, red liquid that pooled like blood and creeped into the cracks of the sidewalk pavement.

“He was basically seeing how far he could throw me across the yard for some reason or another,” she said. “What he and my parents didn’t know is, I was pregnant again.”

Bethany said she thought God might have even intervened that day when she lost her baby. Bringing another child into the world she was living seemed like an unkindness.

___

 

Bethany and Amber talk about mortgages and credit scores. Bethany tells us, earlier that morning, she was buying her twin daughters two matching white SUVs for their 16th birthdays.

“I made a deal with them,” she says. “They can have a car when they graduate or when they turn 16, but that’s the only car they’ll ever get from me.”

Three years earlier, Bethany’s oldest son, Greyson, had waited until he was 18 for his car. He was nearly graduated but still young enough to get sent to his room when Bethany found him drinking.

His mother knew it had been a difficult year for them both.

“My daddy, who was like Greyson’s daddy, died. They were real close.”

But Bethany didn’t know just how difficult a year Greyson was having until he took his own life.

Bethany didn’t hear the gun as much as she felt it. Standing in her bathroom, she paused. Her heart felt heavy like metal in her chest. She walked to her son’s room. He wasn’t there. Turning on her heels, she opened the door to the room where her father used to stay. Lying on the floor was her son, next to him was a shotgun.

“Grey, I’m going to change your sheets to your bed,” she said. “We’re going to Seattle in three weeks. I’m surprising you with it.”

She rattled off unimportant words, normalizing the situation as much as she could.

“He’s OK, girls! Stay away,” she yelled to her daughters. “Grey, keep walking. You’re going to see Popsy soon.”

Finally facing the situation, she instructed Grey to walk toward the elusive “light” she had heard people talk about.

In strangled words, she talked to fill the air. Somehow, the quiet seemed heavier following the shot. She knew that if she didn’t push the silence away, it would swallow her.

___

 

She looks down at her phone and holds up an app called, “Tie the Knot.” It shows a countdown of six days, 11 hours and seven minutes until the moment Lauren says, “I do” again. Six days before her wedding, Lauren remembers the anniversary of her mother’s death.

“I miss my mom every day, and I’m reminded that she and my father won’t be at our wedding,” she says.

She and her husband are spending their honeymoon on a cruise ship leaving out of Galveston, Texas. Her last cruise trip was with my sister. It was not yet a year after Amber had filed for divorce. They weren’t just gal pals. Each one was the other’s source of strength.

“Sometimes we would just go out and not talk, just be together,” Amber says.

Before she met her friends, Amber did anything to forget. Weekends alone were her worst enemy. Rifling through her bathroom, she found leftover hydrocodone pills and went to sleep as long as she could, willing herself unconscious until Monday. She told me only recently of her hazy weekends. My parents are still unaware.

On the Carnival cruise ship, Amber dropped her husband’s wedding ring into the Atlantic Ocean. He had thrown the ring at her outside the courthouse after they signed the divorce papers four days before her birthday in January 2012. The ring and bankruptcy were his last gifts to her. Leaning over the railing, she gave herself a burial at sea for the person she used to be. With a loud, “Screw you!” she unclenched her fist and let it go.

___

 

The women consider themselves survivors, but headlines of Ray Rice and Floyd Mayweather, remind them that one woman’s greatest fear is also America’s greatest hero.

“The bruises, they go away, it’s everything else – the emotional abuse, the verbal abuse,” Bethany says.

The women still carry their pasts like purses on their arms.

“Everyone thinks you enable it. You heard Dad this morning,” my sister says to me. “People think there is a self-destructive nature inside women like us that goes looking for someone to hurt her. It’s not inside us.”

She repeats it, as if to remind herself.

“It’s not inside us.”

*Some names have been changed.

 

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