I think we all know that battered women exist. We know the stories of abused wives and girlfriends. We know of resources to help them. We're sad that so many women are abused on a regular basis. We tsk about why they don't press charges. We shake our heads about laws that allow the violent men in their lives to continue to target them. There is a shimmering bubble of outrage-lite that surfaces whenever there's a particularly horrible news story, and then that bubble sinks back into the morass of all the other outrage that exists when one considers how shitty humans can be to other humans. And so you watch that news story, or you read the article, or you skim the statistics, and then you focus on something else while you make your kids' lunches for the next day – while you move on to the next topic.
You do this until that abused woman, that nameless statistic, is standing on your front doorstep at 1:30 am, in the pouring rain, bleeding and shaking, and ringing your doorbell, crying uncontrollably. Until she manages to say, "Can I use your phone?" and then pauses to qualify her request in a heaving sob, "I'm your neighbor. I'm so, so sorry to bother you." Until she says, "I've been to three houses and you're the only one who answered the door. I know you have kids. I'm so, so sorry." And then she nearly collapses into you, sopping wet, staring at the phone you've handed her like it might be an alien device, the signs of shock so apparent you leave her there in the doorway so you can get towels that might work like some kind of swaddle so she can settle down and focus and tell you what has happened, what is happening.
Until THAT happens, domestic abuse is just A Bad Thing That Happens. Then suddenly, it's A Bad Thing That Happens Next Door To This Shivering WomanChild On My Porch.
You get her a glass of water, and wrap her in a towel. You ascertain that yes, someone needs to call 911, and she can't do it. So you call and try to get her to relay information through you to the dispatcher. You lock the front door, both the deadbolt and the button lock. You move away from the windows. And as the dispatcher asks about the abusive boyfriend's history of violence, whether he is suicidal, whether he has weapons, you begin to hate yourself for selfishly starting to feel terrified for your own family now. Because you opened the door. Because you're in this now. This woman – this girl, really. (She was born the year before you graduated high school!) – needs someone, anyone to hide her and calm her and get her help. And the person to do that? This person is weirdly, spontaneously, you. You, who are home alone with three sleeping children, you who almost didn't open the door because you thought it was some drunk person fooling around, you who saw the crying woman and thought, "what if it's a con? what if I open the door a crack and someone kicks it down so they can rob us?" You are not a person who always gives other people the benefit of the doubt. You are a person who keeps her distance, who observes and then acts. You do not invite strangers into your house in the middle of the night.
Except when you do.
You keep her on your couch even though she wants to dart back out in the rain to see if he's coming for her. You distract her by asking her about her baby (who is with relatives for the night, thank God). She calms down enough to ask about your piano and whether you play. She manages a wistful glance through her shock to say that she has always preferred the piano to the guitar because it's so much more beautiful to play. She cries and cries and realizes her wrist might be broken. You get her ice and more water and you awkwardly one-arm hug her.
As the responders arrive, the street lights up like a carnival. You go outside and wave down the firetruck. Then the ambulances, then the three police cars. She comes back out on the porch and is mortified by the scene. "I'm so, so sorry," she says over and over again. And you repeat to her over and over again that she has nothing to be sorry for. She is so smart for finding help. So brave for getting the hell out of there. She's done everything right. Everything. There is nothing to be sorry for. You are thankful to be able to help her. And then you offer to sing the COPS song and you almost get a smile.
The night spirals into questions and statements. Did he drag her by her hair before or after he broke the door in half? Did he kick her head and face or just her head? Awful, horrible questions the police have to ask, while other officers are next door questioning the person who did this to her. The person who, it turns out, had hurt himself as well which was the only way she was able to get away.
And this whole time it's pouring down rain, just buckets of rain. And there's thunder and lightning, making the whole scene even more surreal. Three hulking police officers and two EMTs are in your living room, dripping on the floor. Two of your children have slept through the whole thing, and one needed some assurances before she fell back to sleep, door closed.
Until these men arrived on the scene, you and your neighbor have been sitting in near darkness, side-by-side on the couch, your knees turned in to face her, both of your voices quiet. She's calming down, opening up. This is the first time he's done anything like this, though he's threatened. He attacked her unprovoked, making the whole thing even more bewildering. You tell her that even if she had provoked him, that's no excuse for him to hurt her. You tell her that being drunk does not excuse beating the shit out of her. She has a quick reaction to not press charges and to dismiss the EMT guys who want to check her over. You tell her that pressing charges gets him out of the house tonight. Pressing charges starts a ball rolling where maybe he gets the help he needs. You feel like this part is a lie because you've read the articles and the stats, but you hold out hope anyway. She begins to nod. She begins to feel her injuries. She says yes to having the EMTs look her over.
But when the three hulking police officers and the two EMTs come inside, they begin to fill the room like parade floats, like caricatures from TV shows. They turn on all the lights. Their faces are stoic, dripping from the rain, all business. They shine flashlights in her hair, inspect down her shirt, up her shorts noting visible injuries. The scene becomes male-dominated, female subordinated. Even though the officers and EMTs are polite, they have absorbed the gentleness in the room and turned it on its end. Even with so many law enforcement officers, it begins to feel less safe. The dim, quiet murmuring – the nurturing moments of just sitting quietly and thinking mutual what the fuck thoughts – all of that is lost to booming voices and clipped tones, and mansplaining about photographing injuries in order to create a paper trail. Of course these guys are just doing their jobs, and they can't get emotionally involved in every incident or they wouldn't be able to do their jobs. You know this, but it's still hard feeling the lurching shift in this young woman's responses. Her transition from the first tiny inkling sparkles of empowerment to sudden yes and no answers, to crying again, to more apologies, it's frustrating and scary.
You know no one has any fucking money these days, but it doesn't stop you from wondering how things might be different if police departments had people they could send with the police to domestic abuse calls. What if there was time and means to sit quietly with a woman while she's in shock, rather than immediately asking if she's pressing charges and if she wants to go to the hospital, and where her ID is, and has she been drinking? What if there was a way to make her feel truly protected by the protectors?
There is more questioning and you get her to agree to go to the hospital. She will be able to stay for the rest of the night. She'll be treated for her injuries. The mansplained paper trail will be started in case she decides to press charges. The police and EMTs are taking the boyfriend from the house next door to the hospital, and then to jail. They ask if, now that he is gone, the woman can accompany them into the house to find the boy's ID. She says yes, and that is the last you see of her.
The rain is still pouring when you run outside in your pajamas and wave at one of the policemen who is in his car, readying to follow her ambulance to the hospital. He rolls down the window and you hand him a crumpled and wet piece of paper. It has your name and phone number. "Will you be seeing her?" you ask. "Can you give this to her? In case she needs anything, in case they let her out and she can't or won't go home?" He nods and tells you that you've gone above and beyond. And that you should go inside because you're getting soaked.
You go inside. You mop up the mess on the floor from the police and EMT boots. You put the ice packs back in the freezer. You put the bloody towel in the laundry. You turn the lights off and sit on the couch. You cry. Because have you gone above and beyond? This girl has lived next door to you for three months. You didn't know her name. She didn't know your name. Unless she's gotten the slip of paper, she still doesn't know your name.
All you did was open the door.
Is opening the door going above and beyond these days? Are we all so insulated and alone even while living in ticky tacky houses that are zero lot lined? You could practically shake hands with her through your windows and you didn't even know her name until she showed up bleeding on your doorstep in the middle of the night.
And so, after a harrowing night, this woman has become more than just a statistic. She's become a woman with a name. She's a musician who loves to play the piano. She's a mother who's so proud of her infant son that she has assured you he's a genius (a fact you do not doubt).
The abused woman in the news stories, in the articles, in the statistics… she is a musician, a mother, she is your neighbor.
And now? Much to your own shame, now you know her name. You will never forget it. And you won't stop thinking about her for a very, very long time.