The room is going dark and the baby is in my arms. “I just wanna feed the baby,” he slurs in his thick alcohol laden voice. I don’t remember what happens next, maybe someone shows up in the nick of time, maybe he just leaves of his own accord. It’s a memory buried and it doesn’t want to be re-opened. I know I’m left jittery, shaking any time someone even slightly resembling Sam shows up at the fast food place where I work. I’ll remember the second time though, in a clarity so brilliant that it might be a film I can project any time, starting, stopping, rewinding.
Sam and I were a couple, tumultuous and angry in that raw-edged way only teenagers can be. Sam refuses to believe that he’s the father of our baby. I cheated on him, but it was several months too early for anyone to be the father but him. He’s bitter and makes me pay for it as often as possible. Sam spends nine months telling me I’m a whore, a no good slut. I hold his baby picture up next to the photo of our baby, identical save for the yellowish cast and the outdated clothing Sam’s mother is wearing. He still has doubts. I finally tire of the constant barrage and tell him to get lost. A couple months later, he appears at the foot of my bed and tries to kill me.
Nearly six months to the day of the last assault, I decide that maybe I can leave the door unlocked again. I live with my mother and my younger brother. We don’t have a house key. Our house is way out in the country. No one locks their doors out here, the nearest neighbors are separated by a cornfield. My mother has to wake me up by standing outside and shouting so I can let her in when she comes home from third shift. I think “I’d like to sleep in for once,” so I leave the door unlocked with a note taped to the window telling her to just come in.
At three in the morning, there he is, again, drunk and standing at the foot of my bed. I think I’m dreaming, but I can smell him, all anger and alcohol. I switch on the light, his eyes are wild, his face red and chapped from walking miles in the cold. The baby stands up in the crib, not crying, just looking. “I want to feed the baby,” Sam says, just like before. He snatches the baby up and goes downstairs. I follow quickly behind.
“You…” my voice quivers, “you need to get out. Now.” He’s trashed, stumbling around the kitchen, ripping open cupboards with one hand, holding our baby in the other. “Where’s the bottle?” he yells. Crash. Clank. Dishes break, the floor is covered with slivers and shards of ceramic plates, like an ugly mosaic.
“Leave,” I say. “Go right now and I won’t call the cops.” I’m not sure why I think I can reason with him, it rarely works even when he’s sober. His hand is bleeding now, leaving wide smears of blood across the white counter top. Sam finds a bottle and overturns the can of formula into it, nearly filling it with powder. Holding the bottle under the tap, the powder transforms into a thick goo. Sam tries to get the baby to drink it, but the sludge is so thick it won’t penetrate the nipple. The baby finally starts to cry.
“Goddamn it,” he yells and throws the bottle across the room. It explodes on impact, a splatter of white formula and green plastic sticks to the wall. I run for the phone hanging on the wall. Our town doesn’t yet have 911 service, so I have to enter in a six digit phone number. Before I can complete the call, Sam appears next to me and rips the entire phone out of the wall. I’m still holding the receiver as the whole thing crashes to the ground. The only thought in my head is “I’m so fucked.”
Suddenly, my brother Will, yells “Hey!” I didn’t know he was home, he was supposed be staying at a friends house. He’s only fifteen, scrawny, all limbs and angles. “Hey,” Will yells again, his voice cracking. Sam spins around. The baby hangs loosely from his arm, I grab him while Sam is distracted. Sam doesn’t even seem to notice. Will sees the phone on the floor and glances toward a low cupboard then back to me. I nod.
“You fucking pussy, fuck you,” Will shouts at Sam. Then Will runs. Sam chases. With the baby in my arms, I scramble towards the cupboard. An ancient black rotary telephone rests there, the cord carefully wrapped around it. I silently thank my mother for being such a pack rat and look for a place to plug it in. The plug where the wall phone hung is smashed, I can’t use that. There’s another plug in the other room, the room that Will and Sam are in. I hear glass breaking and shouting. I set the baby in the high chair. I can’t risk taking him into the other room where his cries will alert Sam. I crawl along the floor with one end of the plug into the next room. Sam has Will cornered against the wall with all our school pictures. Sam throws a punch, Will ducks and Sam’s fist plunges into my third grade photograph.
Holding my breath, I fish along under the desk with the phone cord, stabbing at the connector on the wall until I hear the faint snap of it clicking into place. I crawl backwards from the room. I get the baby from the high chair and take the phone into the bathroom. I lock the door with the little eye hook and latch, hoping it will hold.
I’m shaking. I stare at the dial on the phone and try to recall the emergency number until I realize it’s on a little orange sticker on the handpiece. I start to dial and it takes an eternity watching the dial spin all the way back to the beginning for each number. I get nearly all the way through, then realize I made a mistake, transposing the numbers. I start over. 5…..2…..6…..
Sam bangs on the door. It shakes against the hinges. The baby screams. I dial another number and watch it rotate slowly back around. Sam starts to jab through the door with a butter knife, trying to jostle the fragile lock open. I dial the last digit, hoping the call will connect before Sam opens the door. “Let me in, goddammit,” he bellows. I pray that he doesn’t see the thin grey cord running under the door.
“Police, what is your emergency?” a familiar voice answers as Sam kicks the door inward. “Mom,” I say to the operator, “He’s back.” Sam yanks the phone from me and wraps his hands around my neck. “It’s so absurd,” I think, “this is just how he did it last time.” I hear the baby cry, I’m still cradling him in one arm. Will is trying to pull Sam off me, but Sam just tightens his grip. I can’t scream, I try to kick, but Sam is sitting on me, pinning me down. I can feel my pulse thudding against his individual fingertips. It’s oddly quiet, as if I was suddenly plunged underwater. Sam looks streaky and distorted. Suddenly, the sound all comes whooshing back. Two pairs of arms clad in navy blue seem to reach from the sky. Sam is lifted away. “I love you,” he screams as the police drag him out the door.
At the police station, they take Polaroids of my bruises. I see Sam on the fuzzy black and white monitor, stalking around the holding cell, pounding a bandaged hand against the wall. “Would you mind turning your neck to the left?” the officer with the camera asks. Someone else hands me a paper to sign. I’m tired and achy, I just want to go home. Sam collapses in heap on the cell floor. As I watch the flickering monitor, I wonder if anyone will ever love me more than this.