The Hummingbird's Cage
Author:Tamara Dietrich

But I wasn’t listening. Wouldn’t listen. All mounting evidence to the contrary, I believed Jim truly loved me. That I loved him. Sometimes people are that foolish.

I bought books on passive aggression and wondered what I could do to make our life together better because I loved him so. The first time he backhanded me, he wept real tears and swore it would never happen again. I believed that, too, and bought books on anger management.

When I was two months’ pregnant, one of his friends winked at me when we told him the news. After he left, Jim accused me of flirting. He called me a whore and punched me hard in the stomach. It doubled me over and choked the breath out of me till I threw up. Two days later, I started to bleed. By the time Jim finally took me to the clinic—the next county over, where no one knew us—I was hemorrhaging blood and tissue. The doctor glanced at the purple bruise on my abdomen and diagnosed a spontaneous abortion. He scraped what was left of the fetus from my womb and offered to run tests to see whether it had been a boy or a girl, and whether there was some medical reason for the miscarriage.

I told him no. In my heart I knew the baby had been a boy. I’d already picked a name for him. And the reason he had to be purged out of me was standing at my shoulder as I lay on the exam table, silent and watchful and coiled.

That was years ago, before the spiral constricted to a noose. I have a daughter now. Laurel—six years old and beautiful. Eyes like cool green quartz and honey blond hair. Clever and sweet and quick to love. Jim has never laid a hand on her—I’ve prevented that, at least. When his temper starts to kick in, I scoop her up quickly and bundle her off to her room, pop in her earbuds and turn on babbling, happy music. I tell myself as I shut her bedroom door that the panic in her pale face isn’t hers, but my own projection. That it will soon be over. That bruises heal and the scars barely show. That it will be all right. It will be all right. It will be all right.

January 7

Jim has started probation—ninety days for disorderly conduct, unsupervised. Before that, ten days in lockup that were supposed to make an impression. That was the idea, at least. But old habits—they do die hard.

He’s working second shift now, which is not to his liking. Or mine. It throws us together during the day, when Laurel is at school and there’s nothing to distract him. He tells me if the eggs are too runny, the bacon too dry, the coffee too bitter. He watches while I wash the breakfast dishes to make sure they’re properly cleaned and towel dried. Sometimes he criticizes the pace, but if I’m slow it’s because I’m deliberate. Two years ago a wet plate slipped from my hands and broke on the floor. He called me butterfingers and twisted my pinkie till it snapped. It was a clean break, he said, and would heal on its own. It did, but the knuckle is misshapen and won’t bend anymore.

I clean the house exactly the same way every day. I time myself when I vacuum each rug. I clean the dishes in the same order, with glasses and utensils first and heavy pans last. I count every sweep of the sponge mop. I spray polish on the same corners of the kitchen table, in the same order, before I fold a cloth four times and buff the wood to a streakless, lemony shine. It doesn’t mean he won’t find some fault—the rules are fickle—but it lessens the likelihood.

Around two p.m., after he showers and pulls on his freshly laundered uniform, slings his Sam Browne belt around his shoulder and holsters his Glock 22, I brace as he kisses me good-bye on the cheek. When the door shuts behind him and his Expedition backs out of the drive, my muscles finally begin to unknot. Sometimes they twitch as they do. Sometimes I cry.

It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning I was content to be a homemaker, even if I felt like a throwback. And Jim seemed pleased with my efforts, if not always my results. I learned quickly he was a traditionalist—each gender in its place. At the time I thought it was quaint, not fusty. I called him a Neanderthal once, and he laughed. I would never call him that now. Not to his face.

He had his moods, and with experience I could sense them cooking up. First came the distracted look; then he’d pull into himself. His muscles would grow rigid, like rubber bands stretched too tight, his fists clenching and unclenching like claws. I’d rub his shoulders, his neck, his back, and he’d be grateful. He’d pull through to the other side.

But over time the black moods stretched longer and longer, the respites shorter and shorter. Something was rotting him from the inside out, like an infection. The man I’d married seemed to be corroding right in front of me.

I learned not to touch him unless he initiated it. If I so much as brushed against him, even by accident, he’d hiss and pull away as if my flesh burned.