Thursday, April 20, 2017

Good Morning, Tahel: A Short Story of Fiction

courtesy of

Chana begins the story:
It was the most assertive thing I’d done in my life. My finger shook as I punched in the phone number.
“Good morning, Tahel. How can I help you?”
As soon as I heard her kind voice my whole body began trembling. How could they help me? How could anyone help me?

“Hello?” I heard her voice break the silence.
“Uh,” I couldn’t speak.
“I’m here,” the woman said.
“Um,” I blinked back tears. “I’m afraid…”
“You’re afraid?”
“To call you…”
“But you did call. You overcame your fear and made the call.”
“I did, didn’t I?” For a moment I felt a feeling of empowerment. Then despair took over.
“Would you like to tell me why you’re calling?” Her voice was so kind. “I’m here to listen to whatever you have to say.”
“Okay,” I took a deep breath. It was now or never. “My husband got angry last night. He slapped me. On my face. This morning he was so sorry. He didn’t mean to get so angry. He didn’t want to hurt me. He loves me. This morning he put cream on the bruise and told me he was so sorry and he wants to take me out for dinner tonight to make up. But I can’t go out. Everyone will see the mark…” I began sniffling.
“Do you need medical treatment?” she asked.
“No, no, it’s not that bad…”
“Where are you now?”
“At home…”
“Do you feel safe there?”
“Oh yes!” I love my little apartment.
 “Tell me,’ the woman asked. “Does your husband often get angry?”  
“Not too often…”
“How long have you been married?”
“Ten months, I really love him and I know he loves me. He just sometimes loses his temper.”
“I see,” her voice was soft and caring. “Has he hurt you before?”
“Uh, um, well…”
“I’m here. I’m with you.”
I groaned, exhaled and decided to tell the truth. “When I first became pregnant I wasn’t feeling good and I didn’t make dinner and he threw a chair at me…”
“That must have been very frightening.”
“It didn’t really hurt. But then two months ago I spilled bleach on his favorite shirt. I was in a hurry to get to work and I had so much to do and I don’t know. Things happen sometimes but he got so angry and he hit me.” I started crying in earnest.
“Oh, my dear, is there anyone you can confide in? Family? Friends?”
“I don’t want anyone to know!”
“I understand.” It really sounded like she did. “I want to protect your privacy but perhaps you’d like to make up a name I can call you so it will feel more personal.”
“What name?”
“A name you’ve always liked. A character from your favorite book.”
“Uh, how about Chana.”
“Chana, it is! And you can call me Rena. Tell me, Chana, are you worried he might hurt you again?”
“Maybe…But if I make sure to have dinner ready and the house clean he won’t get angry.”
“That’s a lot of pressure. Perhaps, Chana, you’d like us to set up an appointment with a counselor who can help you protect yourself when your husband gets angry?”
 “Someone can help me do that?”
“Yes, I think so,” Rena said.
“Can I see her now?”
 “You might be able to get an appointment today but there’s a good chance you’ll have to wait a day or two.”
“But today’s my day off. What can I tell them at work if it’s not today?”
“Do you have a lunch break?”
“Only a half an hour…” Now that she’d mentioned counseling I knew I needed it badly and as soon as possible. “Maybe I could tell them I have a doctor’s appointment?”
“Great idea! It is a doctor’s appointment of sorts.” She chuckled. “Let me give you the information so you can call and set up a time with them.”
“Chana, there are a few other things I’d like you to do. I’d like you do start a diary of times your husband has threatened or hurt you…”
“Why?” I interrupted.
“So you can see if there’s a pattern to his behavior. And, Chana, I know you love your husband and we want things to work out but it would be a good idea to think about where you could run to if he ever becomes really violent.”
“He won’t!” I was adamant.
“Probably not,” Rena’s voice was soothing. “However, it’s always good to be prepared for the worse. It’s a good idea for you to make copies of all your important papers like your driver’s license, identity card, health plan card, and have some cash, extra keys, and clothing tucked away in a private place. Do you think you could do that, Chana?”
“I guess so… Do you really think my husband’s dangerous?”
“I hope not but as I said it’s good to be prepared. Don’t you think?”
“Yes,” but I don’t know if Rena could hear me through my tears. 

Rena’s turn:
It was concern for battered children and helpless rape victims that made me decide I wanted to volunteer for Tahel. I didn’t have much sympathy for abused wives. If any man laid a hand on me I’d be out the door before he could blink. If I didn’t give him a good right hook first. During the training course, though, they kept telling us not to judge and that being a battered wife was far more complicated than I thought. Still, I was ambivalent and hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with any of them.
Wouldn’t you know it, my first day as a volunteer was when Chana called. As soon as she said “My husband got angry last night” my pulse quickened. This was the real thing. A battered wife!  I almost panicked but managed to catch hold of myself and look at the chart on the wall with the guidelines of what to say to an abused woman. What a relief that she agreed to go for counseling. She called the following week when I was on duty.
“Rena, I really want to thank you for helping me last week.”
“My pleasure,” I replied warmly.
“And I want you to know that my husband’s really sorry. You should see the necklace-earring set he bought for me.”
“Oh,” I kept my tone neutral. This was the honeymoon phase we’d learned about in the training course. First there’d be a period of tension, then violence, then regret, and then the honeymoon stage until the tension started all over again.
“So,” I found my voice. “You like jewelry?”
“Don’t most women?” She laughed. “And this isn’t cheap costume jewelry. It’s the real thing.”
“That’s nice. Tell me, did you begin a diary.”
“You really think I need to?”
“It can’t hurt,” I tried to keep my tone light.
“I guess I can keep it with my files.”
“Your files?”
“I’m an accountant.”
“An accountant?” There went my stereotype. I’d pictured Chana as a minimum wage worker who’d barely graduated high school. “Did you put the copies of your important papers with your files?”
“Yes,” but her voice was weak and I wondered if she was telling the truth.
“Tell me,” I took a deep breath. “Were you happy with the counselor?”
“Yes,” this time her voice was adamant. “She gave me some good ideas and I’ll go back in two weeks just to make sure things are going well.”
“I hope they will be.” I said fervently and said a prayer for her as I hung up the phone.

Chana Again:
Things were going well. I’d been by the counselor twice when I got caught up in a bad traffic jam and came home from work after my husband. Of course dinner wasn’t ready but I didn’t let him intimidate me. Instead I told him he had two choices. He could help me in the kitchen and we’d have our meal ready in half an hour or he could go chill out in the living room and we’d eat in an hour. He decided to help out and we had a good time in the kitchen together. That’s when I decided that I’d keep going for the counseling.
We had another good month. I was in the middle my third trimester and we were both getting excited about the birth. And then he came home on Friday and told me the school’s main contributor was behind with his donations and he wouldn’t be getting paid for a month, at least. He asked for my earrings to pawn just to get us through. I gave them to him without hesitation, with an encouraging smile and reassuring words. All I got from him was a scowl. And his mood worsened with each day.

Now Rena:
Chana’s voice was definitely stressed when she told me about the jewelry.
“He’s not getting paid for the month?” I asked.
“Hopefully next month…”
“I see. What does he do?”
“He’s a science and math teacher at a high school for troubled teens. They love him!”
The drop of enthusiasm I heard in Chana’s voice did little to reassure me. Many abusive men are extremely charismatic when outside the four walls of their home. That’s why so many battered women think no one will believe their stories of abuse.
“Tell me, Chana, is your bank account already in minus?”
“I don’t know.” The tension was back in her tone and I cringed. She’s an accountant, probably making more than he was as a teacher, and yet he was in charge of the family finances.
“Do you have enough money for food?”
“Oh, yes! He gave me grocery money before he left this morning. I can make it last for two weeks, at least.”
“That’s good.” I took a deep breath. “Do you have some emergency money on the side?”
“Yes.” This time there was no protest from her that she wouldn’t need it. I could sense that she knew she was walking on eggshells.  

 Now Chana:
The tension had been mounting and mounting. He slammed and banged but never laid a hand on me. I think it was because of the techniques I’d learned from the counselor.  Still, I was nervous and tried my hardest to make sure everything went smoothly at home.
It was two weeks before my due date when I began my maternity leave. On my last day my co-workers surprised me with a baby shower. It was supposed to only last half an hour but we were having a great time and the next thing I knew it was after five. By the time I thanked everyone and loaded up my car and said goodbye it was late and I didn’t get home until almost six. He was standing at the top of the stairs outside our apartment pacing.
“Where were you?” he called out as soon as I exited the elevator.
I began to explain and his face turned cloudy. “Do you know how worried I was?”
“I’m sorry, I should have called you.”
“You sure should have!” His fist shot out. I ducked. He clipped my chin. I lost my balance and tumbled down the stairs. 

And Rena:
“I have a mazel tov.” Chana’s voice sounded weak.
“Mazel tov! A boy or a girl?”
“A girl.” I didn’t hear any euphoria.
“Is everyone healthy?”
“She is. I have a broken arm.”
Chana began weeping. “He pushed me down the stairs. I broke my arm.”
“Oh, Chana, I’m so sorry.” I listened to her weep for a while.
“Falling brought on the labor.” Now she was sobbing. “I gave birth a few hours after they set my arm.”
“Does anyone else know about this?”
Chana sniffled and controlled herself. “He told the nurse I’d tripped on a toy left on the stairs and was so solicitous I was sure she’d believe him but she didn’t. She spoke to the hospital social worker and after he left the social worker spoke to me about Bat HaMelech.”
“Are you going to go there?” The shelter for abused women and their children wasn’t a bad idea in my eyes but Chana had a surprise for me.
“No, I’m going to my mother.”
“Your mother?”
“Yes, she was with me for the birth, as planned.” Chana took a deep breath. “I found out she’s been worried about me for a long time. She saw through my husband but didn’t think I wanted her to know so she kept quiet until now.”
“You’ll stay with her for a while?”
“Until the cast is off.”
“How does your husband feel about all of this?”
“He really feels bad…” Chana sighed. “I wish he’d go for counseling, too.”
“Not together?”
“No, my counselor told me there’s special counselors for men and we should each see someone separately.”
“So,” I asked. “Have you suggested that he go for counseling?”
“Not yet…” Chana’s voice trailed off.
“Chana,” I spoke strongly. “You know Tahel is here for you whenever you need us.”
“I know.”

One more time Chana:
While I was by my mother my husband showered me with gifts and apologies so I went home as soon as the cast was off. Things were calm for a while and then he had a blow-out with his brother. However, I wasn’t as scared as I’d once been. Between my mother, my counselor, and Rena I had a support group whom I didn’t need to pretend with. 
Three times I ran to my mother with the baby and the emergency kit Rena had told me to prepare. Three times I came back to my husband.

Lastly Rena:
It had been almost two years since Chana first called me. We’d spoken off and on probably a half a dozen times and I’d seen a big change in her. Still, I was surprised at the resolution I heard in her voice when she called that Monday morning.
“I’m back at my mother’s,” she announced.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“His mother stopped by unannounced and there was unfolded laundry on the couch and no cake in the kitchen. I saw in his eyes he was angry and when his mother was ready to leave I told her I needed to take the baby for her well check and I’d drop her off on my way. He couldn’t stop me in front of her.”
“Now what?” I asked.
 “I just called him. I told him I want him to go for counseling. My counselor has the names of several men who specialize in domestic violence. If he goes and I can believe he’s changed I’ll go back home and try to make our marriage work. If not, well, I have to protect my daughter.”
“Chana, I’m impressed with your decision.”
“I couldn’t have made it without my counselor and you and Tahel. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” I spoke spontaneously and sincerely. “For letting me help you.”

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