Today, September 16th, marks 20 years since I left my exploiter and started a new life. I told his part of my story in my memoir, Scars and Stilettos. In memory of this special day, I decided to share that exert with you …
As I sat waiting for my grandmother’s and aunt’s flight to arrive, the Los Angeles airport was filled with the quiet, steady hum of commuter traffic. Men and women in tailored suits were contently waiting to get where they were going, while sipping coffee and reading the morning paper. A man with a briefcase whisked by, with his tie slung over his shoulder, going as fast as his feet would carry him without breaking into a run. No one seemed to know what day it was.
Caught up in their sports sections and lattes, nobody noticed my life was changing before their very eyes. It was the morning of my baptism. This wasn’t going to be just some ceremony where some preacher man would dunk me in a miniature swimming pool and splash water on my face. It marked the beginning of what would be a new life for me. Everything that had been happening over the past six months, since I first set foot in church, was leading to this day. I had been in a process of becoming. And that evening, I was going to leave all the pain – all the things I never wanted to be – right there in that water, and I was going to emerge a new person.
To prepare for my fresh start, I had to cut the final tie to what was becoming my old life: Derrick. Before I made the call, all morning I had been calling credit-card companies, removing his name from accounts, canceling his cards. Once he found out I was cutting him off, I didn’t want to take the chance of him going on one last shopping spree and running up my credit cards.
My family’s plane was due to arrive in 15 minutes. I couldn’t put it off any longer. What would he say? What could he say? He had no say any more. This was my decision. God, give me the strength; give me the words, I pleaded silently.
I stared at the payphones lining the wall. A woman in a jogging suit leaning on her suitcase occupied the one in the middle. I would use the one on the far left. I can do all things. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. I walked briskly to the phone and fished for some coins in my wallet. Without hesitation, I dropped the change into the phone and dialed the number. The phone rang; and rang; and rang. Please pick up! Please, please pick up! I have to do this, I thought to myself.
‘Hello?’ His deep voice was slow and lingering; so unsuspecting.
I began to wonder if I could really go through with it.
‘Hey, it’s me…’ I can and I will, I told myself.
‘Yeah… what’s up?’ he said, with his usual ‘What do you want?’ kind of tone.
‘I’m just calling to let you know that I can’t have you in my life any more, and from now on I will no longer be supporting you financially.’ I spoke with more confidence than I knew I had. ‘It stops here. Please don’t call me. Please don’t try to get in touch with me.’
‘What? I don’t understand,’ he stammered.
I knew the look on his face without seeing it. It was the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you-have-you-lost-your-damn-mind look.
‘You don’t have to understand. You just have to accept it. Please don’t try to call me,’ I replied calmly, as though I had rehearsed it a thousand times. In actuality the words just came to me. I knew that if I gave him reasons, he would have a chance to get back in my head and try to convince me I was making a mistake.
‘I have to go.’ And with that I hung up the phone, and with it an era of my life. Steadily, I sat down and looked towards the gate to see if my aunt’s and grandmother’s plane had landed. It hadn’t.
That’s it. After seven years, a two-minute phone call was all it took to end it. And I am alive. The world has not stopped for this moment. Life goes on. My life will go on. Some days I had tried to imagine my life without Derrick. I had tried to picture the end of our relationship. I had always thought it would come by death – his or mine. And if he had died first, I would be sure to follow.
He was gone from me, and I was still very much alive. There was something else, too; a chain around my neck that needed to be removed. Long ago, Derrick had given me a rare gift: a gold rope necklace with a tiny gold cat, sitting delicately with its tail poised in an S-shape at its side. That unexpected thoughtfulness – he knew I loved cats – made it extra precious. The fact that he thought enough about me to pick out something that I liked was one of those small threads of kindness that I hung onto with all my might, hoping that they were an indication of some deeper measure of love for me that would one day surface. These tiny threads were still all I had. The tighter I held, the more they wound themselves around me and sliced their way into my skin.
I reached around to the clasp and struggled to open it. When I couldn’t get my thumbnail to hold the lever long enough to unlatch the chain, I pulled the clasp around where I could see it. With my chin pressed against my chest, I finally forced it free. I noticed that there was an area of rough skin where the cat had been resting against my neck for all those years. Now my skin can finally breathe! Now I can finally breathe, I thought. I wanted to break all the chains that bound me to him.
I caught a glimpse of my grandmother’s perfectly set, silvery-cotton hair through a crowd of people. Walking beside her, with her hurried pigeon-toed walk, was my Auntie Krissi. As they got closer, I could see by the looks on their faces they were growing impatient with the slowly meandering passengers blocking their path. Lollygagging was never their thing.
I waved to get their attention. Auntie Krissi spotted me first and made a beeline for me, with her arms outstretched. Her brown eyes were rimmed with tears, as though I hadn’t just visited her in Phoenix two months before. She took me in her arms, and I caught the subtle smell of fabric softener and expensive perfume. Equally excited to see me, but more reserved in her expression, my grandmother stood waiting for her turn to hug me, while Auntie Krissi smushed my cheeks between her manicured hands.
‘I’m so proud of you, baby,’ my aunt gushed. She had been praying for this day for years. When I called to tell her I was being baptized, it was her idea that she and my grandmother fly out.
My grandmother’s hug, strong yet quick, came standard with a firm series of pats on my back.
‘Well, look at you! You cut that hair of yours. Now that looks smart,’ my grandmother began her commentary on my appearance. ‘It’s not hanging down around your shoulders like a hippy any more.’
I smirked to myself, knowing what she would never know: the haircut had nothing to do with looking smart for Grandma, and everything to do with cutting off the past. How many customers had my long sandy-blonde strands of hair brushed across? How many times had I flirtatiously flung my hair around, letting it cascade over my naked body? She would never know. As I stood before my grandmother’s adoring gaze, I finally felt like the person I always wanted her to think I was. I wouldn’t have to pretend any more.
‘Yeah, Grandma; I figured it was time for a change.’
I am standing barefoot in my light blue, breezy, cotton ankle-length dress. I lift my chin and look up – past the rafters and the skies above them – beyond. If I close my eyes, I can feel the warm, damp sand of the Jordan River beneath my feet. A wild, locust-eating man named John the Baptizer stands before me. The words of a prophet ring out into the warm air: ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert. Make straight the way for the Lord.’ There is a gentle breeze on my neck, the fluttering wings of a dove. Eyes open, feet climbing the carpeted stairs leading to the tub of water, I know that God is with me. I know with everything inside me that my life was both unraveling and raveling at that very moment.
In the crowd I see my aunt’s face. She is beaming: holding back tears, rejoicing in this moment. Yet she could never fully comprehend the weight of all I am taking with me into this pool; all I will leave behind. I am led into the tepid waters by the strong and tender hands of a man in dark purple slacks. The bottom of my dress becomes wet and heavy, gently guiding my descent. The pastor’s smile is subtle and reverent; he is standing ready to lead me into this plunge of faith.
He prays for me, but his voice is distant. I am on top of a cumulus cloud, the face of my Love shining upon me. Then, all that I am and have been is covered. I am submerged in Him. Rising, only the best of me emerges. Arise, I am new! Today and every day.
I am standing before a cheering crowd, my family among them. Even my mother and Daddy Russ are celebrating for me, though my faith of choosing was hard for them to accept. No one is taking from me with their eyes. They aren’t giving accolades for pole tricks or a perfect tan line. They are celebrating with me, for me.
On the night of my baptism I had a dream. It was a break from the violent reoccurances where I am chasing and being chased by powerful creatures sent to destroy me; where I wake up tired from fighting with all my might, my weapons as puny as toothpicks. In this dream I was free and flying, inches above sparkling indigo waters brushed by winds into miles of tossing waves. Beneath me I saw the reflection of a kind face, compassionate and knowing. He is my Jesus. Swept up and carried across the vast unknown, I was filled with a peace I have never known, awake or asleep. I knew that He is with me.
To read more of my story, check out my memoir, Scars and Stilettos…
LET’S CONNECT! XOXO, Harmony