Content Warning: Mentions of physical and emotional abuse.
Sometimes I think that if I start being angry, I’ll never stop.
This is what’s on my mind as I watch Grace walk towards the door from where I’m sitting inside the Starbucks. There is something about her that—if I let myself get angry—would infuriate me. It’s even in the way she walks; each step forward appears to be a painful choice that only further weakens her already fractured, nervous disposition.
But I don’t get angry, so I am cool, calm, and composed. I relax my shoulders and let them drop as I straighten my spine.
Grace’s eyes are scanning the room before she even opens the door. Her hand hovers over the handle, unwilling to open the door until she is perfectly able to assess the situation in front of her. It’s a small store, nestled in between a Pilates studio and a LensCrafters, and it’s so under-trafficked that they’ve yet to remodel it. I swallow the bitterness that rises to my throat as Grace’s eyes find mine. She swings open the door and walks straight over to me.
Cool. Calm. Composed. After reviewing my mental list, I decide to add another word for good measure: Kind.
We both nod at each other, unsure how to say hello in a moment like this. I offer her a soft smile with my nod and hope it’s enough. She offers me a soft smile as well. She pulls back the dark oak chair, and I grimace as it scrapes against the floor.
“Color corrector?” I ask after Grace has sat down across from me.
She looks at me, confused. “What?”
I gesture at her face, before tapping the right side of my nose and my right cheek. She winces.
“Oh. No, it’s just concealer.”
“You should try a color corrector. Green cancels out red, and red cancels out darker colors, like purple,” I explain. “It’s quicker, and it’ll give you better coverage.”
“How do you know that?” Grace asks.
I stare at her, confused by the honest-to-God stupidity of her question. I’m thankful, for her sake more than my own, that I don’t get angry.
“Right.” Grace says after a moment, lowering her eyes. “I’m sorry, that was a stupid question.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I say. I reach into my bag and grab my old palette. It’s a small circle no bigger than my palm, neatly divided into four colors: pink, yellow, green, and red. When I bought it four years ago, the sales lady promised me it could cover up any and everything. She was right. “Here, so you don’t have to buy one.”
“You don’t have to—”
I place it on the table between the two of us. Against the dark table, the gold rim of the palette and the colors within it pop. “It’s not like I need it anymore.”
She hesitates, then takes it, turning it over in her hands. She plays with it, her head lowered. Strands of her blonde hair fall in front of her face, obscuring her from my view and me from hers. I don’t say anything, instead venturing to try a sip of my coffee. It’s a flat white without sweetener—something I have never ordered and have no desire to order again. Just like this Starbucks, which I have never been to before and will never come back to again. Although, I note, the lack of renovations makes it look just like the Starbucks I used to go to three years ago, with the same dark furnishings and dim lights.
“I’m sorry,” Grace says, her voice beginning to quiver. “I’m sorry for calling you that night. I didn’t have anyone else to call. I didn’t know if anyone else would believe me.”
As I listen to Grace apologize, my thoughts drift over to the last (and first) time we spoke, two years ago. She had just started seeing him, and even though I’d blocked him on every imaginable platform, he still managed to get one of his friends to tell me about how he was seeing someone new. It had only been three weeks since I had finally left him, and I was everything—hurt, devastated, depressed—except angry.
I combed through the internet and found Grace’s Instagram, her Twitter, and even her LinkedIn. But unlike a typical new-girlfriend stalking session, I hadn’t done it to see if she was prettier or more successful than I was. I’d done it because I wanted to know what he saw in her that he had also seen in me all those years ago when he decided I would be the perfect victim. And somewhere in the middle of her old tweets, I had realized that regardless of whatever quality we shared, I could still help her by reaching out and giving her the heads-up I never got. So I spent two days drafting and editing the following message:
Hey Grace, I know this is coming out of nowhere and we don’t know each other, but the guy you’re seeing now is my ex. We were together for three years and he was controlling, manipulative, and abusive. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but I just wanted to warn you, because I would hate for you to go through what I went through.
I never expected Grace to reply. To be honest, I didn’t have anything else to say to her, so I’d hoped she would just read it, leave him, and have that be that. What I hadn’t expected was her response:
Hey, so I wasn’t going to reply to this, but I wanted to ask you to never reach out to me again. We talked, and he told me what really happened between you two. Clearly you have a lot of issues you need to sort out. I hope you get the help you need, but please don’t make your damage my problem.
When I first read the message, and even later when I read it again and again, I found that I was more embarrassed than anything else. I still have no idea why, but I felt shame crawling and slithering its way into every nerve of my body.
I remember sitting across from my therapist during our session that week. I remember that, to the best of her ability, she had attempted to help me understand why. She asked me question after question about my embarrassment. Have you always felt embarrassed when standing up for yourself? Did your parents make you feel like standing up for yourself was disrespectful? Why do you always blame yourself? Why aren’t you angry? Are you using shame to hide from your other feelings? Are you using shame to cover up your anger? Why? She asked me question after question until all of them started to bleed together. Until they all started to sound like, Why are you so exhaustively and exhaustingly broken? And then I stopped repeating, “I don’t know,” and I started crying.
I know Grace remembers our messages, otherwise she wouldn’t have called me, because how else would she have known I’d been through the same thing as her? If I got angry, I might be angry about that. But I don’t get angry, and therefore I don’t hold grudges. I am cool and level-headed.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” I say, my voice level. “It’s not your fault.”
We fall silent again, and I watch as she slides her thumbnail under the latch of the palette, before clicking it shut with her index finger. Click, snap. Click, snap. Click, snap. Click–
“Grace,” I ask. “What are we doing here?”
She takes a deep breath and tucks her loose strands of hair behind her ears, steadying herself.
“I just wanted to know... how you got through this.”
It’s an interesting question. But it’s not a fair one, and it’s not the right one.
“How I got through it, or how I got out of it?”
Grace won’t meet my eyes. “I’m not sure I want to leave him,” she murmurs.
If I let myself get angry, I might just snatch the color corrector right out of Grace’s hands. I think about all that she’s put me through. About how I haven’t been able to sleep for the past two days because of her phone call and her numerous texts asking me to meet. How I almost blocked her number, but even the thought of doing so made me feel so guilty I caved and agreed to meet her instead. How I’ve been preparing myself for days to be the kind, sympathetic support she needs. And how she is throwing all of that back in my face right now by asking me to relive my own trauma so she can minimize the lifetime of her own that she’s setting herself up for.
But I don’t get angry, so instead I place my hand on hers.
“Grace. You need to leave him.”
“You don’t understand. I’m nothing without him.”
“Wrong,” I say, my voice deliberate and careful. “That’s just what he’s been telling you. You are nothing to him.”
“He proposed,” Grace says, still refusing to look at me. “Three months ago. We’ve already set a date and put down a deposit for a venue.”
Her voice rises and hardens. “My parents like him.” Her blue eyes jump up to meet mine with a glare that borders on hateful. She pulls her hand out from underneath mine and crosses her arms over her chest, hiding a rather beautiful engagement ring I’m only now noticing. “And they’re the ones who paid the deposit, and they’re going to pay for most of the wedding. And I’ve been with him for two years, so it’s not easy, okay? It’s not easy to leave someone you’ve been with for that long and just start over. I’m twenty-seven, and I want to start the rest of my life now. I don’t want to be alone. I want a husband, kids—a family.”
I almost laugh. Kids? With him?
“I get that,” I say instead, sticking to the talking points I came up with earlier to help me get through this conversation.
“Yeah. It's not great, I know, but no guy is perfect, right? I could leave him and find another guy, but odds are he might treat me badly too.”
“He might,” I say, “to be honest. Another guy who loves you might still treat you this way, but a guy who really loves you definitely wouldn’t do this to you or enjoy doing it this much. That was always the worst part,” I continue. “How much he enjoyed it. Not just doing it, but getting away with it.”
I once told my mom about the small stuff, during our first year when we were just leaving the honeymoon phase. He had yelled at me again for breaking a rule I hadn’t even realized existed (in this case, it was that the dishes should always be done right after dinner) and I called her, crying and panicking. She told me that this was the sort of thing that happened in a relationship—she said I wasn’t allowed to be angry with him. He was a man with a great job, good looks, and everything else I could possibly want. So, she asked me, was I really going to get upset over something so incredibly tiny in the grand scheme of things?
I suppose that if I ever got angry, I’d be mad at my mom too.
But what I’ll never forget about that conversation is what happened after. How he poked his head into the room I was in and, visibly nervous, asked me how the call with my mom went. I’d said it was fine. But right before I turned away, I saw a twisted smile spread over his face. The moment he realized I was utterly, truly, alone. The moment he realized he could probably do whatever he wanted to me.
If I were ever to get angry, today might be the day.
“You’re wrong,” Grace says. “He doesn’t enjoy it.”
No, you’re wrong. And you cannot possibly be this stupid, I consider yelling at her. Why
can’t she understand that I’ve been where she’s been? That I’ve felt what she’s felt and worse, and all I’m trying to do for her is be the person I never had, even if it breaks me even more than I’ve already been broken? I want to slam my hands against the table repeatedly while screaming all of this at her, just so Grace might actually listen to me for once.
But to do that, I’d have to get angry, which I never do. No, I am not angry; I am calm, so I take a deep breath.
I smile at her. “I know exactly what you’re going through right now.”
Grace sighs and accepts my words with visible relief. “Thanks. It sucks, but that’s life, I guess.”
I think about how I never contacted Grace after she asked me not to. I think about how she never said sorry for what she said about me. Even when she called me a few nights ago, she never apologized or acknowledged that I was right. She simply called me and recounted every triggering detail about that night and begged me to listen, to be there for her.
Even now, for everything she is dumping onto me, she is refusing to even acknowledge my pain beyond the parts that mirror her own. She doesn’t even realize that despite the fact that I haven’t needed it for two years, I was holding onto that color correcting palette because I was convinced I would need it again. My heart twists, and my fingernails leave small crescents on the cardboard sleeve of my coffee cup. Whatever life Grace claims to be comfortable living, it’s not for me, not anymore, and I refuse to let her drag other people into her delusion. My anger begins to simmer and swim underneath my skin.
“Is that really the kind of life you want for these hypothetical kids you’re so obsessed with?” I ask before I can stop myself.
Grace looks at me, shocked and hurt.
I think about how messed up it is that if he gets angry with Grace, she’ll stay with him. But if I get angry with Grace, she’ll still stay with him. That I need to be—for my sake and for Grace’s, too—composed.
“Think about it, Grace,” I say, fighting every urge in my body to sharpen my voice. I point to her face. “Why did he do that to you?”
“Because you didn’t listen, right? You didn’t follow one of his stupid rules.” I lean in closer to her and drop my voice, terrified that if I don’t, I’ll start yelling. “Grace, what do kids inevitably do?”
I take a deep breath and relax my grip on the coffee cup as I wait for her to answer.
“Kids break rules,” I explain softly. “You don’t think I wanted kids too? I thought about it all the time. We would’ve made beautiful kids.” My eyes flood with tears as I push through my thoroughly rehearsed you-can-do-better-and-you-need-to-leave-him monologue. “I was with him for three years, Grace.”
She looks down, tears silently sliding down her face. I grab her hands with my own and hold them, imploring her to connect with me and hear me out.
“When I first thought about leaving him, I used to read all of those articles online about abuse and getting out of a bad situation. And so many of those articles reminded me to love myself more than I loved him. To be honest, I couldn’t. I didn’t love myself at all. He made me think I could only be loved by him, to the point where even I couldn’t love myself more than he did. But you know who I did love more than him? My hypothetical kids. I thought about what he would do to them when they inevitably made one too many mistakes, or broke one of his stupid rules. I thought about having to pick out their clothes not based on the weather, but based on what I was trying to cover up. I thought about how if I couldn't stand up for myself and leave now, I definitely wouldn’t be able to when we were married and we had kids. And that’s how I got out of it, which is what you need me to tell you, because you already know how I got through it. What you've been telling me is exactly what I used to tell myself to get through it. And even though it made me stay for longer than I should’ve, it never soothed me enough to justify everything he put me through.”
I lean back in my chair, the low backing of it digging into my spine. I allow Grace a moment to process this. I don’t push her, even though a part of me wants to. I am kind, I understand that these things take time.
I think back to another, later therapy session, when my therapist asked me why I could never let myself be angry. She didn’t ask me why I wasn't angry. She asked me why I couldn't be angry.
I didn’t have the answer to most of her many, many questions, but I did have the answer to that one. So I told her. I told her I would only ever know anger as a terrible, volatile thing. I reminded her of how scary it was for me to be on the receiving end of anger. I told her that I tried to be angry, but it didn’t help me at all. I told her I hated the way anger soothed my pain, covering my exposed and sensitive nerves like a thick balm. It soothed me deep under my skin where I was hurt the most, but on the outside, it made my skin hot to the touch, which hurt everyone around me. I hated the way it made me lose control—how it made me do anything necessary to get my point across. I told her that anger made me everything I hated. It made me him.
My therapist had called that a breakthrough. She tried to tell me, with an accomplished smile on her face, that there were healthy forms of anger, and I told her that while she might be right, I didn’t have it in me to figure out how to be angry in a healthy way. It was too painful to even think about being angry. I would rather not be angry at all, because I was better off without it.
Grace’s voice shakes again. “I think you might be right.”
“Hold onto this feeling,” I squeeze her hands. “Because the moment you leave, it’s going to get harder and harder to remember how you feel right now.”
She nods her head. Her eyes are shining, but no tears fall.
“I have to go,” she says after a moment, sniffing and pulling her hands back. “I have to go, but thank you. Thank you for this.”
“Yeah, of course.” My hands remain on the table. “I’m glad I could help.” I watch as she gets up and grabs her stuff.
“Do me a favor?” I ask.
“Just don’t send me a wedding invitation.” I’m serious, but I give my words the cadence of a joke and so she smiles.
“I don’t think anyone’s getting a wedding invitation.”
Though I want to be happy and relieved, a more guarded part of me remains cautious. I smile encouragingly at Grace, offering her a wave as she walks out the door.
About the Author:
Subha Sivakumar is an undergraduate student at New York University studying Economics, and minoring in Business Studies in Creative Writing. An enthusiastic storyteller and dedicated writer since middle school, she has twice been recognized for her work with a Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, once in 2016 and another time in 2021.