Turn the other cheek, she always said to me, my mother, as she turned her face away from my abuse.
That’s what love is. Forgiveness. My identity is formed upon this, upon the way I choose to believe the best in people, give second chances and forgive. Turn the other cheek, she always said to me, and I do. That is how I will come to understand love. No matter the cost. No matter the cost.
And so the first time he hurts me, the first time he calls me a whore, slut, cheat, liar, I reel back at the words as if I have been slapped across the face, my heart knifed by the sharpness of his words. I tell him he overreacts; I do not know the man who smiled at me. But he cannot hear me. His words shred me, they slice at my very core, but I absolve his anger through my forgiveness. I love him through his pain, that way he will know he is wrong about me. That way he will love me better.
Later, he is ashamed as he whispers promises against my neck. I taste saltwater on his cheeks and I know he will change for me, he will see my love and he will change, I know it. We walk in golden light and carve our name in the tree where orbs spin their webs and the dank smell of earth reaches our nostrils as we walk hand in hand back to our house. That night there are no more tears, instead I taste his sweat as he loves me, he loses himself in the soft folds of my skin and I am lost to him.
But weeks later jealousy rears his temper again. He assaults me with more than just words and I feel the sting of his calloused hand against my fragile face as the two come into collision. I steady myself against the wall, against his rage, against his voice as he spits vile words at my face. They bypass my face, intercepted by my heart, and the imprint of words is deeper there than the fingerprints upon my face will ever be.
Yet I still have another cheek to turn, and when I see the glow of a cigarette outside later that night, when I know his anger is appeased, I approach him. Timid hands rest upon rigid shoulders before I wrap myself around his chest and lay gentle kisses upon his back. He softens, turns to me, and in the gleam of the streetlight I search fragmented eyes. My face reaches closer to his and I grab handfuls of wild hair and as our mouths touch I taste nicotine and we kiss until we suffocate in one another. He awakens me and we grip each other’s bodies there under incandescent light and I know I cannot walk away. He needs me. He needs me.
But too soon fallen leaves are replaced with grey sleet and the pastel light that once illuminated us disappears, and we too exist in shadow. I have turned both cheeks so many times there is no longer any cheek left unmarred, my body now embellished with bruises from the very hands that once caressed me. My heart is rife with verbal bullets and I try to stitch the wounds with hands that tremble but the cotton is threadbare and won’t hold under the weight of his cruel tongue.
Winter leaves me laden, my face as downcast as the slate-grey days that have no end. I know what I am now; I have heard the words so often they echo through the hollow cavities of my soul. I am a whore, a slut, useless and worthless. Without him I am nothing, I know this. There is only he and I now; my family no longer reach out to me, my friends no longer try. He tells me he is all I need, I don’t need them, and I am thankful for the way he carries me when the weight of my shame is too heavy for everyone else. He stays with me when we both know he could do better. And even though he hurts me, he says he loves me and I believe him. I will never find anyone who loves me the way he does and though his soul is as broken as the bones in my chest I cling to him as we both drown.
Soon the burden of winter lifts and surrounded by fallen blossom and beams of sunlight in his hair I tell him of the baby we have made. I wait for joy to light his face and mirror mine but I am met with cold eyes. Whose is it? He grabs my wrist and pulls me to our home. I am thrown in the door and fall on cold tiles, instinctively I place an arm around my middle but he kicks my stomach, each kick aligned with a foul word, and when he leaves and slams the door behind him I lay, unmoving, until I feel the first cramp.
I bleed and I am worried for my baby and I think of nothing else as I clamber down the front stairs and onto the street. I take two steps, maybe three, before my body makes impact with the warm asphalt and I remember nothing more than the smell of birth while the sun burns into my eyes and I gladly close them and surrender to the darkness.
When I wake there is monitors and lights and the stench of disinfectant, but there is no baby, I know this without having to ask and another piece of my heart turns grey and I wonder how it still beats in my war-torn chest. I inhale a jagged breath, a connection to life, but not hope.
The doctor examines me. I am asked many questions, many more of which I do not answer. Silence envelopes me, and they move me to a private room where someone comes to speak to me. She tells me I am safe. She tells me he will never hurt me again. That there is a place I can go where I will be looked after, where they will find me a house to live in. I shake my head, no. I don’t want to leave him. He loves me, I know he does, he has just worked long hours lately, he’s tired, stressed over money. Things will be better again soon. I need him. I need him.
Except I look down and there is an empty space where our baby once grew, and I know I can no longer fool myself. My voice, so child-like, what if no one ever loves me again? I look away as she takes a step closer to my bed and her hand grips mine and she is strength.
“Everything he told you. Everything he said you were. It was lies, all of it lies.”
The words sound like a gift and taste like hope and I don’t yet know how to receive them but I grasp them close to my chest as something inside of me cracks open. My shoulders heave with sobs while this kind woman holds me like a child and I lay my head against her bosom as she strokes the hair back from my face and tells me everything will be okay.
I begin to heal in a shelter with many other women, to the sound of magpies as they warble throughout quiet spring days. Here, I hold the hand of other women and they hold the hands of mine that shake through my grief, through my letting go. And when I long to go back to him, they grasp tighter, and like rivers that rage they out pour words of truth into the barren wasteland of my heart.
Here, I began to understand the ferocious spirit contained within a woman. The way, though broken, she is never defeated. The way she will rise. She will become unstoppable, she will know her worth and there will be no force of hell or earth that will hold her down. She will hear the song of her tribe and she will respond with a voice of her own and she will be reckoned to her providence, never to look back. She is change, she is hope, she is life.
And as morning sun begins to intrude through Eastern windows while kookaburras scorn in the distance, I step upon mossy stones that lead to the path I found imprinted on my soul once the rubble had been removed. I am still haunted by the reminiscence of my mother, her words still snare around my heart and cause me to wonder if I will ever know true freedom. But soon the warmth of the sun destroys the moss and my steps no longer falter upon their slippery surface and my feet are sure, my strides certain.
The world stands before me and I walk directly toward it. I face it head on.
There is no need to look down, for I am no longer ashamed.
And there is no need turn my face away.
For I no longer turn the other cheek.
“Turn The Other Cheek” is a short work of fiction I wrote for the hearts of women who have been, or are trapped in, abusive relationships. Whether that be emotional, verbal or physical. It matters not. The scars are still the same. What matters is that you are not alone. And you are worth more than you could ever know. May you find the courage that leads you to freedom, and may you never look back.