We came to Utica in a station wagon and moving truck at the end of spring break, 2002. Fortunately for me, my husband Vinny had had the good grace to be absent when I arrived. However, my “babies” were there. George, Audrey and Maggie Mae all came tearing down the stairs to greet me. Vinny and I had adopted George and Audrey from a litter at the SPCA and had raised them from puppies. He looked like the Springer Spaniel of their mix and she looked like the Beagle. Maggie was his friend Chuck’s 2 year old lab whom Vinny and I had agreed to watch when Chuck moved to Virginia Beach to be a firefighter. When Chuck returned less than a year later, he neglected to take his dog back, so she had remained ours. The three of them were full of barks, tails wagging, paws on my chest; they showed how much they had missed me. Mookie, the three-legged Maine Coon cat, was slower to arrive; not because of his three legs, but because he was a cat and liked to make an entrance. My mom, my sister, Jillian, and my 7 year old nephew, Carrick, started hauling in the boxes we’d brought to pack up my half of the marriage.
My mother can be as daunting as a four star general, so I went to her for my marching orders. She sent me up to my bedroom to start packing. The dogs followed me upstairs, around the curving staircase, past the beautiful stained glass windows needing repair, past the new drywall hung in the hallway, in the door next to the upstairs fireplace. The animals leapt alternately on the bed or the two hand-me-down couches flanking the fireplace.
Entering the bedroom, hell, entering the house, was torture. I was swamped with memories that we’d shared, my hopes and dreams for our marriage, my expectation that I would be married forever, just like my parents. I couldn’t believe that I was leaving. Was I wrong? Maybe I just needed to try harder. Give it more time. See how things developed. Surely I was being rash – I was often spontaneous and this was obviously just me being reckless. Being stupid. Being selfish. Right? I felt totally and completely lost and broken. I wanted to call it quits right then. It wasn’t like I could ask Vinny for advice or input – I hadn’t been able to rely on him to help make decisions in quite some time. But, that reality, the fact that I felt alone in the marriage, didn’t enter into my thinking right then. I was “home” and I wanted to stay here. Part of my heart was in this house, in our things, in the gardens out back, in the dogs… I wasn’t just leaving Vinny, I was leaving our life, his family, many of our friends, our past and the future we’d once planned together.
I had painted this room a warm lemon yellow to reflect the sunlight pouring into the north-facing windows. I could never have enough sunshine. As it was still early in the day, there was only a subtle glow, like a low burning candle, bathing the room. I walked to the mantle and put my hand to the landscape hanging over it which I’d had framed from our honeymoon in Vermont. It was a print, an original, and soaked in greens, purples, and browns. We’d found it at a winery outside of Bennington where we’d bought half of a case of blueberry, apple, pear, and strawberry wines. I’d gotten into a conversation with one of the winery’s employees and he had taken me around to discuss the different works of art displayed in the showroom. I had enjoyed printmaking, myself, in high school and college, so I was drawn to the work of a British artist who’d come to stay nearby and had asked the vintner to sell his work. They were all rich with infusions of color and texture. I chose the one I liked and Vinny had agreed with me. It looked so like the Vermont that Vinny had loved for years and had also taught me to love.
I rubbed the dark green frame flecked with gold and felt the tears stat to choke me. Looking around, seeing my jewelry, our wedding photos, pictures of our annual Christmas tree hunt, the Celtic stone cross my cousin Brendan had given us, I found that I could hardly breathe. I sat on the edge of the bed and George snuggled next to me, putting his head in my lap. I started to weep and weeping became sobbing, sobbing became moaning. “I can’t do this. I just can’t. I give up – I can’t leave.”
Luckily, my mom showed up then and hugged me, held me. She told me that I could do this. I was strong and if Vinny and I were able to work things out, then I could just move right back. She got me started, telling me to take what I wanted and not leave heirlooms behind, because Vinny and I could always renegotiate later. So, I began.
I stopped thinking and started to box things up. Hours later, having wrapped things that I refused to contemplate, to mentally place on the timeline of our shared life together, my hands were black from newspaper ink, and my hair was a sweaty, curly mess. I finally closed the flaps of the last box. We’d all packed my things, from attic to basement, porch to garage, and it was time to head to the city of Rome, just twenty minutes west, to my new apartment.
I don’t remember lunch, though I’m fairly sure we had it. I do know that unpacking the U-Haul seemed incredibly fast, and then it was nine o’clock at night and I got a call from Janel, my co-teacher. She was seven months pregnant and had spent the past week, our spring break, sick in bed and visiting her doctor. She had yet another doctor’s appointment tomorrow, the first day back to school. Because about half of our students had special needs, one of us really HAD to be there, sub or no sub.
At that point, my family rolled out their sleeping bags onto the living room rug and wished me good night. I was still running on adrenaline and went out to the ever-present Wal-Mart Super Center: open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I loaded up on cleaning supplies, as well as milk for my British mother’s de rigeur tea.
When I got home, the house was black as pitch and I navigated the apartment by the streetlights outside. I went to my bedroom, where we’d set up my bed against the far wall, by the window. I could see the outline of a lamp over there, but when I hit the switch, nothing happened. Eh, no big deal, I thought, I’ll just slowly pick my way across the very crowded and jumbled room. No problem.
One, maybe two steps into the room and Whack! I flew face-first into something. I yelled in surprise and pain, but luckily, no one woke. I was on my hands and knees and swiped at something tickling my forehead. I put my hand down to the carpet after, to steady myself. I needed more light, so I retreated to the bathroom to see the damage I’d done to my face.
Most landlords put dark, heavy-duty carpeting, if any, into their apartments for durability and the hiding of dirt and potential stains. For some ungodly reason, my landlord had carpeted this one room in a soft white rug. In the doorway, after turning on the bathroom light, I saw a bright red ribbon striping the carpet next to the pile of dresser drawers I’d obviously fallen into.
I felt something on my face again and touched it. Blood coated my hand. Running to the mirror, I saw I’d sliced my forehead wide open. And I’d done so almost exactly on top of an old scar already running above my right eye and across my brow bone. I swore softly and saw that opening my mouth drew the cut open – turning it in to a macabre grin splitting my face. The perfect cap to a shitty day.
I grabbed a wad of toilet paper and went to wake my mom. I needed her to get the blood cleaned out of the white carpet while I ran over to the ER to get stitches. Oh no, no such luck. “You can’t go to the hospital alone! No one should go to the ER alone,” she cried. At that point, it had to be right around midnight. I knew my mother was going to pass out in exhaustion while we, undoubtedly, waited to be seen. So, lucky Jillian got the duty of cleaning the white carpet while I brought my exhausted mother with me to the ER.
The hospital in Rome is a small one. The ER had only one doctor on duty that night, so every senior citizen with any kind of chest pains went in first. A little girl and I, bearing nearly identical wounds, sat and bled in the waiting room. Around 4:30 in the morning, I was brought in, given 4 stitches and sent on my way. Mom snored quietly throughout the entire procedure propped up in an uncomfortable molded plastic chair in the waiting room.
There was no point trying to go to sleep, so I showered and readied for school. When I looked in the mirror, I saw eight long black spiders’ legs stretched across my face and yellow bruises pooling under my eyes. I trimmed up the stitches while cursing the ER doctor for his lack of sewing prowess, and applied makeup with a heavy hand. I was sure the kids would be on me, asking questions, as soon as they saw me with my obvious head wound, so I did my best to appear relatively “normal.”
Remarkably, even without Janel, it was a quiet day. I was about half an hour from freedom, teaching merrily along, when one of my students raised his hand. This was Wyatt, one of my favorite and most challenging students, because he was very bright and yet very lazy. “Yes, Wyatt,” I asked. He said, “Ms. Sekella, why do you have stitches across your face?”
Holy Toledo, Batman! The flood gates were opened and, in an uproar, my kids peppered me with questions. I explained that I had cut myself while moving into a new apartment and was then asked if my husband had beaten me. This was followed by offers from 13 and 14 year old boys and girls to protect me and “get” my abusive husband. Although I had repeatedly told my students that there was no abuse, their offers were very sweet – coming, as they were, from some children who were very rough and tumble.
The announcements, thank Heavens, came on and then I started to hustle my eighth graders out the door. Wyatt was the last one to leave and told me, “Great April Fool’s joke, Ms. Sekella.” As he left, I looked at the calendar and laughed. It was April 1st.