“For a long time, I used to go to bed early,” said the only man in the room. Not only was he the only man, but his height was staggering. He spoke without looking at me and clenched his jaw shut as soon as the words were out.
When I first arrived I hadn’t noticed him sitting in the back of the room, but once I did I recognized the uncomfortable posture of nearly every woman there. There looked to be about thirty chairs in the small room, arranged in six neat rows, and roughly twenty of us. The man in the back, without meaning to, had kept a buffer of empty seats around him.
It was the second meeting and I sat where I’d sat the first week near the front of the room, consciously keeping my head from turning around to peek at him. He reminded me of Paul, the way he hung back away from everyone. That, and they had the same color hair. I loved Paul’s hair, its peculiar color of what I can only describe as rusty chocolate. Paul was a very tall man, too, and this man, the man in the room with us, still appeared a good five feet tall, seated and hunched.
At seven o’clock our group leader, a woman with short, dark hair stood before us, hands clasped loosely in front of her and a relaxed smile smeared across her face. The first meeting, she’d begun with a crisp, Good Evening, and then proceeded to give us a synopsis of her method of emotional healing. We hadn’t begun by introducing ourselves like you usually do at these kinds of groups; we first paired up to tell just one other person exactly why we were here. She’d said it was an exercise of trust and that she was sure we would all see the benefits of such an introduction to one another later on. We’d spent the whole two hours opening up in partners and I was surprised at how easily it happened once I let it. It was cutting open our wounds and airing them out, that’s what we were doing.
“Good evening, everyone,” said our so far nameless group leader. “Last week we made some really good progress and I’d like to start there tonight. We’re going to get right back into it, so don’t be shy.” And then she gave a subtle nod toward the back of the room, a private signal meant for just one.
I looked back and he was staring right at me as if he’d been waiting for me to turn around. I held my breath for a second and then quickly turned my attention back to spotting my partner from the first week, one who didn’t so closely resemble my ex-husband.
Her name was Gloria and she’d only been married a year when she left her husband. She’d shown up to our group seven months pregnant and seemingly ready to put the past where it belonged. I envied her courage; I couldn’t imagine carrying not only the burden of my painful past, but the life of a child inside me. Gloria didn’t understand why I’d stayed with Paul for so long, and the truth was, neither did I. As soon as we had our chairs pulled over to one side, Gloria excused herself to visit the restroom before we got started, the curse of the pregnant woman. I sat and watched others greet each other, smiles not as forced as last week and wide eyes all around. A little bit of hope mixed with a lot of anger and pain. You could already feel it in the air, the anticipation of the coming flow of stories and their still bleeding wounds.
“For a long time, I used to go to bed early.” I hadn’t even heard him approach. Immediately I searched the room for our group leader, but she offered me nothing but a soft but quick smile before returning her attention to her clipboard.
I didn’t know why he was speaking to me, in fact, I didn’t even realize he was speaking to me at all until I noticed a few other people staring at me, awaiting my response, I assumed.
“Excuse me?” I suddenly felt pressured to maintain my composure under the not so subtle gazes of the other women in the room. I straightened my skirt in my lap and had to crane my neck to look him in the eye, though he wasn’t looking back.
“I said that for a long time, I used to go to bed early.” His eyes, from what I could tell at such a distance, were strained-looking and sad.
I looked at a woman near me for help, not sure what to do with this information, not sure what to do with him, but she escaped me by continuing her conversation with another group member. I learned quickly how helpful this support group really was then, and made a mental note of whom it was that left me stranded in a giant’s gaze. As I looked around the rest of the room, it seemed everyone was at once immersed in conversation, unwilling to come to my aid. Cowards, I thought.
“Is that so?” It’s all I could think to say. Surely, he wasn’t here for the same reason that I was, that we all were. He was a man. I wondered if he was some kind of guest speaker, some kind of doctor, but that still didn’t explain why he was telling me about his sleeping habits.
As I stared up at him, massaging my palm with the opposite thumb, something about him made me hold back further questioning. He seemed to sway a bit, his arms hanging as heavily as thirty-pound limbs readying themselves to fall from their trunk to the hard ground below. His forehead crinkled and his jaw seemed to sink upward into his head, pushing his bottom lip into a swollen pout. Suddenly unaware of where I was, I watched in horror, unsure of what was happening, terrified he was about to throw into a rage and tear me to pieces. My muscles tightened instinctively. I turned my head to see how far I was from the wall, how hard I would hit at this close a range.
But his arms remained at his sides, his fists left un-balled. I stared up at him, afraid to move, as his shoulders rose toward his ears and his eyes disappeared into an exaggerated squint, revealing the very same left cheek dimple I’d once found so charming in Paul. The man was crying.
“Come on, why don’t you sit?” I stood and motioned to the chair beside mine, where my partner had been just a minute before. “Come on, sit down,” I coaxed him stiffly, this man gasping in tiny convulsions that jerked his shoulders even higher.
He didn’t make a sound, other than gasps that seemed too delicate for a man of his substantial size. It was as if he was afraid to make a noise. He opened his eyes and looked down at me, tears now dripping from his chin. When I saw his eyes I felt it was okay to touch him.
My partner reentered the room and saw what was happening. She joined another pair.
I tentatively laid my hand on his forearm, fingers spread and reaching, and nodded. At first his skin jumped under my touch and eyes widened enough for me to see something wild in them, but then he took in a breath and seemed to relax. Suddenly he was a child in need of encouragement. Still wary of who this man was and what his reasons were for being among us, I kept my distance despite the physical contact. He took small steps without lifting his large feet toward the uninviting metal chair, then moved his arm free of my hand to steady himself in order to sit. The chair held him, but barely, creaking beneath his weight. His convulsions had quieted to hiccups and sniffles, his hands folded in his lap. He hunched and stared at his curled fingers.
“Now what were you saying about going to bed?” I could feel their eyes on me but ignored them. I felt sorry for him more than I feared him at that point.
“I’ve never done this before, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to do this.”
“To do what?”
“Talk about it.” He glanced up at me, but only for a split moment. “I used to go early, to bed, I mean. To hide.” He didn’t look up.
He waited before answering, as if unsure about the information, himself. “Yes.”
I was confused. Was he slow? “Do you mind if I ask from what?” I watched his facial muscles twitch as he spoke so quietly, it was almost a whisper.
“From her.” His face spasmed for a moment but then recomposed itself. “From her anger.” He paused again, now looking up, looking for something. I suppose he found it, for then he continued and actually spoke in longer sentences. “She always got so angry, at her boss or at her mother, and when she came home she would just scream at me. Every night. Yelling and hollering at me for all the things they did to piss her off, and I didn’t know what to do. Then she’d get so mad at me for not doing anything, she’d start to hit me.” His voice cracked and his shoulders bounced up. He sniffled and fought off another facial crinkle of a cry. “I’m sorry, this is really hard for me to talk about.” He took a deep breath. “She punched me all over, and sometimes she’d hit me with the rake or beer bottles, or shoes even. Whatever was lying around. And all I could do was stand there and take it.” He stopped, this time making full eye contact with me. His eyes were suddenly very large, very round and clear. He turned over his hands, palms up and showed them to me. “Look at these hands – if I’d have swatted at her I would’ve knocked her clear across the room.” Then he returned his gaze and his hands to his lap.
“She beat you up? But you’re so big.” I immediately felt sorry for what I said, but more so when I saw how his hunch deepened.
“That’s what she said, too. But I was raised to understand that I was different, and that I wasn’t allowed to fight back. I could really hurt somebody as big as I was.” He paused to look at me, then looked right back down to his hands. “I got picked on at school, you know how kids are, and there was this kid, Danny Pullen who wouldn’t leave me alone. One day I couldn’t take it anymore and the next time he tripped me I got up and I hit him. They had to take him to the hospital because he’d hit the ground hard enough to get himself a concussion. My mother bloodied my lip for that, and I never fought back after that.”
“So that’s why you’re here? Because you’re actually a battered spouse?” I couldn’t grasp how someone of my size could possibly abuse this giant, whether or not he hit back. It didn’t seem possible. I noticed other conversations had either hushed to whispers or stopped. Everyone was surprised.
“Of course, what’d you think?” His eyes met mine again, but only for a moment.
I didn’t answer. “If you don’t mind my asking, is she still around?”
His eyes rolled around the room before he replied, “No, but only because I moved. It’s been almost a year now. When I tried to move out she’d threaten to hurt herself and I’d go back. I had to go far enough away so she couldn’t track me down.”
“Did she hurt you, badly I mean? And couldn’t you have at least protected yourself, being so much bigger?”
“You don’t think I tried? I blocked as much as I could, but she was relentless. Broken ribs, a black eye once or twice when she got me on the ground and could reach. One time, someone else at work got the promotion she was gunning for. She was so mad that day. Sometimes I knew there was nothing I could say to calm her down or make her feel any better, but she took a chair to my back when I tried to walk away. She never let me walk away.” He started to cry again, his shoulders jerking with every tiny gasp.
I felt rotten. What had I thought? Well I’d thought he was a guest speaker, a therapist or perhaps someone writing an article on the center and the support groups held therein. Maybe he was a counselor in training. It’s what everyone thought, I think.
“You said you went to bed early, why?”
Through his hiccupping whimpers, he replied, “Because… if I was asleep when she got home… even if she was drunk… she’d leave me alone… She’d holler at me to wake up, and when I didn’t move… she’d eventually just go away… slamming things around the house instead of at me… Sometimes she’d sit… and watch TV and drink… until she fell asleep. Either way… it was better if she thought I was unconscious… which… eventually I was… having gotten used to going to bed early.” At this point he was outright sobbing, wiping furiously at his running nose. “I never thought… I’d be able to talk to… anyone… about any of this.” And then it almost sounded like he laughed in the midst of his sobs. “You just look so much like her!”
I reached out instinctively to touch him again, to comfort this shaking man, but when I did he flinched and actually yelped, jerking away. Startled by his reaction I pulled back, holding my own hand, bitten by his rejection. I only wanted to comfort him. And then I realized why he had hung back at the beginning of class, why he hadn’t spoken to anyone before class and why our leader probably hadn’t called attention to his presence tonight. Now I understood that wildness I’d seen in his eyes when I first touched him: Panic. He was afraid, afraid of us. We, the emotional, bruised women who had come to this group to vent our frustrations, to voice our fears and cry about our triumphs in overcoming spousal abuse together had scared the daylights out of him. We were angry women.
It seemed the knowledge passed on from me to the next woman watching in silence, then to the next, and the next. We looked at one another and in some kind of ache to help this poor man, surrounded him. He peeked up from his hands and seemed to cry harder when he saw the bodies suddenly so close. His sobs grew louder and deeper and I worried the chair might collapse out from under him. I pulled in a deep breath, braced myself for his weight and strength, and reached for him. There was something so helpless in him, the mother in me couldn’t ignore the urge. I gently took hold of his wrists, too large for my fingers to halfway surround, and pulled his hands from his face, exposing his shiny, red cheeks. His eyes squinted at me; his hands trembled. Scooting my chair right up close to his so that I was almost directly facing him, I pulled at him. His whole body stiffly rocked forward as his arms were locked in bent fear. He resisted at first, but then surrendered to the comfort I was trying so carefully to administer and fell forward. I flinched but didn’t move, ready for the impact.
His forehead floated delicately to my shoulder, his nose resting at the top of my left breast, and he seemed to deflate. His arms lifted from my grasp and threw themselves around me, so that he actually cupped his own elbows as he shook.
“Why me, then? If I look like the woman who hurt you, and you’ve never talked about it before?” I asked before I realized it might not have been the best moment.
But he answered. Without lifting his head, he replied, “Because she was the only one who ever listened to me. Even though she hit me, she was the only person who made me feel important.” And then I felt a subtle tightening around me.
So there I sat with this great man leaning over to be held by me, hardly a quarter his size. The other women slowly inched closer until someone finally reached out and placed a hand on him. And then, one by one, the hands fell softly onto his back, his shoulders, and his head and we were all holding him. My shirt felt suddenly wet with what I could only assume to be snot and tears, but I ignored it. In those moments he was nothing more than an injured, tiny soul, and we were the great arms about him, letting him empty himself, letting him air out his stale wounds. In those moments, I was the giant holding him in my great big hands, and he huddled into them, completely swallowed. He shook and wept for over an hour, and we, well, we just stayed until he was through, I only moving occasionally to pull at my shirt to keep it from sticking to my skin.