Britani remembers vividly. It was 7:28 in the evening, now the heavy numbers of the square digital clock flicking into 7:29. It was one of the nights Josh didn’t lay a hand on her. She remembers. How he took a step forward and his right sneaker was unlaced. How his eyes seemed to glint under his smudged glasses. How he turned away from her slightly, and how she relaxed into the door with her first exhale in what felt like minutes. And then he pivoted and flung his key ring at her.
Britani remembers the keys flying through the air after they left his hands at 7:29. It wasn’t the key ring to her green sedan, the one with the Donald Duck bottle opener, which he had been driving for weeks without her permission. It was his work key ring. Josh was the handyman of the Depot, the subsidized housing community off an abandoned railroad track where Britani had been living—“just until I get on my feet”—for the past four years with Josh, her boyfriend, and their two daughters. His key ring was loaded with keys to every door in the Depot. Dozens of razored keys. They flew at Britani’s head. Slowly, she remembers. They looked like a spaceship. The keys thudded into the door, slicing one, three, five, six, seven deep rivets into the panel where her head had been moments earlier. She felt the thud, but she wasn’t counting the rivets then. She was looking at Josh, her body tense, heart in her ears. He looked through her, then his eyes focused, narrowing; his expression contempt. He walked out of the room, kicking chairs over as he thudded down the short hall to the bedroom they shared.
“He was upset because I aborted his child,”she says.
Britani is beautiful. She squints at me through steely blue eyes, lined with mascara and by neatly plucked eyebrows. Her face is young, fragile and round, with high cheekbones, a freckled nose and thin lips. A thick, black braid runs down her back, four feet long and four inches wide. She shakes out the braid and a heavy wave of neatly combed, coconut-scented hair falls down below her waist. “My hair is a pain in the ass,”she says. “Isn’t it beautiful though? The problem is the teeth.”Britani gets another tooth pulled every time Josh gets paid. “I have to get them all pulled except these bottom,”she says, opening her mouth. “It’s genetic.”Her younger daughter, Emili, is four and has had more than a dozen teeth pulled. Mary, seven, has had at least five pulled. People say Britani will never have good teeth, but she thinks once she gets the dentures it will be okay. “I will have good teeth,”she says. “Anytime somebody says ‘you can’t,’I’m like, ‘watch me.’”
Britani proves people wrong. Her former boyfriend told her he didn’t think she would be able to grow out her hair; she hasn’t cut it in 17 years. Doctors told her she would never have children; she has two girls. She told herself she would never follow her mother and grandmother’s footsteps into an abusive relationship, but she proved that wrong, too.
Britanidoesn’t need free lunch, but she will take some gas money, if I will spare it. I don’t, and she shrugs. “I was counting my change this morning,”she says. “I’m dirt poor, but I don’t give a damn.”She checks the bus schedule to see if she has time to run home before a doctor’s appointment. “Ha, home,”she says dryly. “Whatever that means.”
Britani and Josh have been together 11 years. He is ex-Navy; patriotic, but slow to climb the ranks. Josh is upstanding, with a button-down shirt and everybody believes him. “One of the things that really attracted me to Josh—and this probably has its bad sides too—but he’s very old fashioned,”Britani says. “He opens doors and protects his women.”A real gentleman. Two hundred fifty pounds, very strong and all charm. “My old man,”Britani calls him. Also: asshole, motherfucker, idiot. A good father.
Josh is one of those volcanoes that doesn’t erupt. It explodes. “He abuses and manipulates in every way,”Britani says. She says he punches holes in the wall and throws chairs. Gives Britani an itinerary, exact change for the grocery store and calls her 76 times in an hour. Britani believes Josh cheats on her with a number of girls, among them Christie, who Britani says slaps the kids and has track marks running up and down her arms. Josh checks Britani’s phone. The children say he is scary. When Britani threatens to leave, she says, Josh threatens to shoot himself in the head. He says it’s all because he cares. “He…”Britani sighs. “I read a lot of big words but I don’t know how to pronounce them. He…”She sighs again and abandons the attempt. “Well, he makes it seem like it’s all out of concern. It’s nice, like, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you, I have a gun,’”Britani says. “Yeah. You have a goddamn gun.”
Britani and Josh broke up for five months, beginning in January 2013. “He asked me how it felt to live at rock bottom. ‘How does it feel?’he said. And I told him I’d rather hit rock bottom than put up with this shit. I was like, ‘I’m done, I’m leaving.’And he couldn’t wrap his head around that,”Britani says.
She says Josh began stalking her, installing hunting cameras around the apartment and enlisting friends to watch—to “help.”Her prescriptions—Oxycontin and Oxycodone and Ritalin—began to disappear. When she ran out of pills, Britani was bedridden. Withdrawal. She lost 30 pounds in two months and couldn’t eat. “Josh thought if I was sick I would need him,”Britani says. Instead, she filed a restraining order. But Josh was the handyman at the Depot. He had the keys. And the kids. He put them on the phone when he called her. “They would say, ‘Mommy come here now,’‘Mommy I miss you.’I was scared. The kids were telling me they were being hurt. I think he was doing this to get me to come over, because he knows my kids are first.”
It worked. One afternoon, Britani and Josh had lunch, trying to make peace. The Coca-Cola Britani drank with her chicken salad sandwich tasted foul. The next day she tested positive for cocaine in a family court drug test. They had been to court eight times—or at least the six times for which I’ve seen court documents—and this was the last. “He said to me, ‘if you leave me, I’ll take the kids from you and I will take your prescriptions,’”Britani says. “He said to me, ‘I’ll drop the custody battle if you drop the stalking order.’”So she did. At the hearing, the judge asked her if she was being forced or coerced into dropping the order. “I said no,”she says, nodding her head up and down. “No.”
With Josh, “everything is a bargain, is a deal.”Britani cleans the house and he buys her a phone card. She watches the kids and he allows her to see her sister. “He keeps me as isolated as humanly possible. I don’t like being under his control again.”She pauses. “I don’t want to be in a relationship with him. But right now I don’t have a choice.”She nods resolutely. It’s been eleven years. “But it’s not permanent.”
Residents of the Depot define people by building and apartment number. Britani and Josh are Building D, Apartment 22. Her sister Rebecca is directly underneath, Building D, Apartment 12; her brother John is across the hall, Building D, Apartment 24.
Building D, Apartment 22, is a mess. The kitchen sink overflows with greasy plates, cheeseburger wrappings and an empty bag of orange ripple potato chips. The counter is littered with a messy bottle of leaking ketchup, half a bottle of sauvignon blanc and a splash remaining of Absolut. A mirror with bars over it fills one wall of the kitchen. I gesture at it, perplexed, and Britani rolls her eyes. “Josh says the Depot is a golden cage,”she says later. “It’s a cage, anyway.”In the living room, many of the green plastic blinds are bent or missing. Ten goldfish—five bubble-eye and five comet varieties—swim in a cloudy tank. “They got ick,”Britani says, concerned. She bends over and kisses at the fish through the glass. “I-C-K. It’s a mold. Grows on them. Kills them.”
Everything in the bathroom seems to be wet—stacks of romance novels dripping off a shelf above the toilet, a large bottle of Crest mouthwash that Josh uses to conceal his smoking habit from the landlord. The sink is cluttered with toothbrushes, prescription bottles, lotions and Britani’s bright blue eye shadow. Cleaning chemicals spill from the cupboard under the sink and bright children’s clothing cascades over the bathtub. In the bedroom, Britani lifts bulky stacks of dark clothing to uncover her art portfolio, spread across four binders. She leafs through the binders: most are looseleaf sketches of beautiful girls, but every few drawings a bloodied woman stares out of the page. I look at the walls. A hunting calendar hangs by a chipped thumbtack, a photograph of a deer hanging by its neck displayed, two months behind. A Father’s Day card, hand drawn with blue and purple stars. “Josh, happy fathers day. love, Britani.”An American flag; an Elvis poster that reads, “When I was a boy, I always saw myself as a hero in comic books and in movies. I grew up believing this dream.”
I point at the poster. “What are your dreams?”I ask. Britani snorts. “I don’t have any dreams.” I think she won't continue, then she says, “I’m working towards things. Getting my teeth fixed, that’s a big deal. Before getting them all pulled, my mouth looked really bad. I’d like to go back to school.”She got her GED when she was in jail this winter. High Honors.
“Sorry it’s such a mess in here,”Britani says. We walk downstairs to Rebecca’s apartment. A few children watch a blaring TV sitcom—the mothers in the Depot rotate babysitting—and Rebecca and Britani talk crockpot cooking strategy. Britani takes a sip of her iced coffee, grimaces, and runs upstairs to get some extra sugar. One of the little girls, Autumn, asks politely if she can borrow my notebook. She sits with it in front of the TV, coloring quietly next to a carefully arranged stack of broken crayons.
Rebecca stares at me. “The apartments aren’t great,” she says unapologetically. Her voice is gravel. “Every apartment is the same. In my last apartment, the dishwasher worked. There was even a food disposal.” She laughs. “It’s cheap though. Eight hundred dollars. And there are a lot of closets.” We stand in silence a moment. Rebecca has chipped lime green nail polish on her toes.
Autumn wanders over to us and hugs Rebecca's leg, handing me my notebook. “What did you draw?” I ask. “I draw Aunt Britani,” she says. “And this is her hair.” Athena points to her picture, long hair flowing down the back of a green stick figure in thick strokes of black crayon.
“You can really tell that is Aunt Britani,” I tell Autumn. “It’s beautiful.”
Britani pops her head back through the door a moment later. “We were only going to have one hour to talk, but Josh just called and said if I make him a sandwich now he can have an early lunch, and then we can go for two hours. Want to go for a hike? I can talk and hike! I can talk and do everything!”She runs back upstairs.
Britani grew up in a grey house with green shutters on Route 24, one school district over from the Depot. She believes her family is related to royalty—Princess Diana on her father’s side and Mary, Queen of Scots on her mother’s. She says the family is also related to Queen Katharine, “who of course was beheaded by King George. You know how they all like to intermarry.”Her mother’s name is also Brittany, so she spelled hers differently. Britani likes to be different.“It’s supposed to be something special,”she says about the spelling, then laughs. “It’s never gotten me a dime.”
We’re sitting in tank tops at a picnic table next to a river. Emili has been sitting on a nearby rock eating the chocolate chip cookies we picked up at the gas station. Britani turns away from our conversation as Emili wanders over and pulls on her arm, presenting her with a bouquet of dandelions and grass clumped in his fists. “For me?”she laughs and takes a drag on her cigarette. “That’s not how you hold flowers, honey. Honey, make them longer, make them all the same length. Can I help you?”Britani leans down and arranges the flowers. “Here, hold them. Hold them the right way. They’re for you!”Emili smiles. Britani kisses Emili’s wispy blonde hair. “We don’t have time today, but maybe next time we can have a campfire,”Britani says. She turns back to me. “Fire camp, I mean. I keep getting it backwards because Mary talks backwards.”
Britani attended Fairview High School through tenth grade. Her childhood house burned down, leaving only a large vegetable garden out front, lettuce leaves burned through by embers. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was three—“alcoholic 'til the day he died”—and her mother remarried to a man who gave her black eyes and, once, a broken collarbone. Britani was responsible for raising Rebecca and two younger brothers, Nick and Joe. “I was parentified, and I tried my best,”she says. “It was a lot.” She says now Nick deals heroin, and Joe is doing time. Rebecca has two kids from two dads. “She has a big sign over her head that says, ‘victim, victim, victim,’”Britani says.
She says her stepfather forced the children to split wood until three o’clock in the morning without jackets in February, kicked them with steel-toed boots, slapped them in the back of the head. But when an uncle tried to rape her during a thunderstorm when she was 13, she said no. “I threatened to rip his dick off,”she says. “He left.”
It probably started at the beginning, Britani guesses, but it also started eleven years ago, when Britani and her then-boyfriend, Greg, drove home in their cream-colored Chevy Cavalier. “You know they say you don’t die in a dream?”she asks. “I have. I had this dream where I was in a car crash. I went through the windshield and got decapitated. I remember lying on the windshield and just bleeding out. It was really vivid.”
She’d been having this dream for 10 years, she says. “Three days before the accident, I woke up screaming. Greg lay there holding me, rubbing my back. I told him about the dream, about being in a car crash, and you know what he said? ‘Over my dead body.’”Britani shudders. “That’s what he said.”
It was a young driver. Seventeen, maybe 18. He had worked the night shift and fell asleep at the wheel, crossing the median and slamming into their vehicle. Britani watched Greg throw his arm out to protect her. She believes she watched the engine of the oncoming car—slowly; like a spaceship—slam Greg out of his seat and crack his neck back against the headrest. It was April 12, 2004. Britani was 20 years old.
Britani came out of the wreckage. Greg did not. Josh was Greg’s brother. “Josh pegged me right then as a victim,”Britani says. “And the weird thing is, he’s not the first person to do that. I’m a really outgoing person. I like to be liked. And guys who are looking for a victim take me for one, because I’m a people pleaser.”
She leans back and shrugs. “I have a lot of guy friends,”she says. “I don’t usually get along with girls as well because they are, in one way or another, jealous of me. Which is stupid. There’s really no reason to be. I have a pretty fucked-up life.”
With the crash came a misaligned back, broken knee, torn ACL, MCL, PCL and shattered wrist and hips—four metal rods. And with that came opiates. “Opiates," she says, sighing. "I don’t know what the human race would do without them.”
“Now here’s the thing,”Britani says, pausing for her heavy smoker’s cough to pass. “I have ADHD and PTSD and all sorts of initials of like, it’s crazy, social affective disorder, oppositional science disorder, so it’s ODD, SAD, another SAD. Social anxiety disorder as well, seasonal affective disorder. Obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s also really, really hard to deal with the amount of pain that I’m in.”
She also has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that leads to frequent joint dislocations, pulled muscles and organ problems. Ehlers-Danlos makes her click and pop. “You should hear me when I get up in the morning,”she says. Her knees click, snapping with every step. Her hips pop, which is more of a thunk, a much deeper noise. Her ankles creak when she turns. “I bend my hands and toes in the morning and it’s like pop pop pop pop pop.”
No one has heard of Ehlers-Danlos, so Britani tells people she has Lupus, which she says is essentially the same thing. “For what I have, there’s no getting better,”she says. “Every doctor I’ve seen, especially specialists, has said there’s nothing you can do for the conditions I have except take pain medication. I have some amazing x-rays.”
She says she’s not taking anything for it now. Back then, she was on 40 milligrams of Oxycontin eight times a day, 30 milligrams of Ritalin to keep her steady. It was all prescription. But still, it was drugs. “I don’t have an addiction. I mean of course I’m addicted—I’m addicted to not being in pain.
“I stopped taking medication cold turkey so Josh can’t use it against me to get my kids.”She pauses, thinking about how to describe opiate withdrawal. “It’s like the worst flu you’ve ever had. You lay in bed and you sweat and you feel like you’re going to die. You wish you would. Shaking and sweating and diarrhea and you can’t eat anything. Horrendous fever. The stomach cramps alone prevent you from standing up straight.”It took about 20 days. After that, selling her drugs became the seed money of a fund stored in a tuna can in a hole in the bedroom wall. Behind the cage of the hamsters, Firestorm, Lionheart and Redtail. A fund to take Mary and Emili and the green sedan with the Donald Duck keychain and make a break.
She was never supposed to have children. She tries not to. “Black tea makes you fertile,”Britani says. “That’s why I don’t drink tea. I have no problem getting pregnant. I’ve been pregnant probably 20 times in my life.”Birth control doesn’t seem to work. She's Irish. She gets pregnant, but then quickly has a miscarriage. Just once since Emili, her body didn’t “get rid of it”and she had an abortion. “Josh got me pregnant on purpose,”Britani says. “He constantly tried to get me pregnant because that’s the number-one way to trap a woman. He knew after the car accident that all I wanted was a normal life. All I wanted was to have kids, be a mom, be a family. He used that against me. He knew I wouldn’t leave him if there were kids.”
It’s raining and I’m driving Britani back to the Depot, Building D. Her eyes light up when I ask her how much she used to sell drugs for. She leans forward. “You’d be surprised,”she says.
I pull into the Depot’s driveway and park in front of Building D. Britani gets out of the car, still talking. “You’d be surprised. Almost enough to get me out of here.”To where? “Who knows.”She unbuckles Emili from her seat in the back—“technically she should be in a carseat, but she’s big for her age”—and grabs her iced coffee. “If we didn’t have kids together, I wouldn’t put up with it,”she says. She slams the door, grabs Emili’s hand and begins walking towards the door. “But I have no money, I have no income and I can’t pay rent. So he set up this situation where I don’t have a choice.”Britani walks Emili up the six chipped concrete steps to the door and turns around. “Text me...”Her voice trails off as she and Emili enter Building D. She doesn’t look back.
I sit in the parking lot in the rain in the Depot driveway and breathe out until there’s no air left. Noses peek out of thin curtains, figures silhouetted behind. The plastic blinds of apartment 27 on the first floor crinkle as a calloused hand lifts them. Gently, so they don’t crack. A small boy’s face peaks from window 25. Just another rainy day at the Depot. A PT Cruiser, two dumpsters overflowing in the parking lot. The rain thuds heavily on the roof of the car. The shrubs are green and the buildings white. White buildings, black roof; white doors, gold handles. Shutters that used to be red but have faded brown. Pine trees. My windshield wipers squeak and the white building comes into focus through the rain. But I feel I don’t see clearly at all.
This is where the facts end. Two years since I first interviewed her and many more after Josh threw the key ring, Britani sits in the same kitchen and frowns as she strains to describe the scene. Then she shrugs, at a loss for detail. “The clock was ticking,”she says. “I could hear the ticking.”I write this in my notebook and gaze up at the same clock. It’s 4:39. 4:39, then the digits turn silently into 4:40.
We’ve only made a quick stop by Britani’s apartment. By 4:42 we are out the door. We buy iced coffee—hers with extra, extra cream, extra, extra, extra liquid sugar—and then decide to take a hike. Britani smiles at me. “I like taking you places you haven’t been,” she says kindly.We walk down a woodland trail; dried leaves crunch brown under our feet. We take a break in a clearing, and Britani shows me her and Josh’s initials, BR + JS, carved cleanly into an oak trunk. A double arrow shoots through the heart on either side. “Josh and I have been carving our initials into this tree trunk since we’ve been together,”she says. She gazes at the heart and her eyes glaze over. “I’m not trying to be a jerk,”she says. “I don’t expect Josh to take care of me.”Then Emili’s voice comes, asking for potato chips. She looks away. “Alright sweetie, I’m listening.”
Britani says she has been healthy. We walk around the pond. Britani talks about the lock and key theory, which says that addiction is partially genetics and partially environment. “So if you have the right key, which is the genetic makeup to be an alcoholic or an addict, when the opportunity presents itself, which is the lock, it fits. I have that personality. Whereas other people, who don’t have the genetic disposition, they can take it or leave it.”
We cross a bridge. Britani asks me to take a photograph. “Come on, Em,”she says. “For Facebook.”Emili continues wandering. Britani’s voice hardens. “Go stand in the middle of the bridge, Emili,”she says. “You are so difficult to explain anything to.”
After the hike, we sit at a picnic table next to a pond. Emili watches fish from the side of the pond, arms around her stuffed puppy that would dance if there were batteries. “Do you dare disturb the…”is carved into the table, but the last word is hard to make out. Britani squints at it. “Universe. Do you dare disturb the universe, it says.”She laughs. “I do not.”
Britani puts another cigarette in her mouth and flicks a lighter in its direction, but doesn’t light it. She drops the cigarette once, then places it firmly between her lips and lights it with both hands. Her freckled arms and weathered hands beat down on the wooden picnic table as she speaks. It seems more natural for her hands to be holding a cigarette than to be sitting empty. “Yeah, Josh’s an asshole,”she says.
I see a younger Britani through the face of the woman I’m looking at now. Her face is round, aged and weathered beyond 30, yet still a baby face. Her eyes are sparkling with fluorescent blue eye shadow that globs in the creases of her eyelids and runs down the sides of her nose, trailing glitter down to her chin. Bits of mascara flake under her eyes. A blue stone that’s just a little too vivid to be real rests on a chain above her heart.
I ask Britani how she’s been—how she’s been really.
She rolls her eyes. “In reality, I am stuck,”she says in a voice that seems unconcerned. “But I realized that it’s better to be stuck. I can work with him, you know?”
Britani gulps her iced coffee. She has aged a decade in the last two years. Wrinkles have formed around her mouth and cheeks, and two deep creases have etched themselves between her eyes. She’s gained weight. She looks at me through those steely blue eyes, now rounded with deep crows’feet. Her eyebrows are now neglected and wild, a product of the weak bare bulb lighting the Caribbean blue bathroom, painted during one of the good times, when Josh bought a bunch of $1-per-can premixed paint that someone made in crazy colors and no one wanted. “Josh is like a dog. I can train him.”She shrugs. “He needs me.”
Sometimes Britani talks like this. Sometimes she’s a different woman in the same situation.“Even if you don’t start out as a victim, in reality after eleven years of this, you learn to be a victim,” she says. On these days, it’s a mad world and Britani is the victim. Victim of Josh, of her two children. Of ADHD and PTSD and the alphabet soup of other disorders she lists off effortlessly. Britani likes to talk. She likes to hear herself talk. And when she talks long enough, she can justify any situation.
Britani has been hooked on painkillers for twelve years, and hooked on Josh for eleven. She takes a deep drag on her third Camel cigarette in fifteen minutes and blows the smoke into my face. “I’m hooked on these, too,”she says.
One day, we drop Emili and Mary off at school, four hours late, then sit in Lakeview Park as Britani snorts lines of codeine through the shell of a pen. I look at the cover of the book she’s used as her surface, Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon.“It’s about a girl thrown back in time to eighteenth century Scotland, right before the Battle of Culloden,”Britani says. It’s the fourth of the eight-book Outlander series. “I love series. Anything that lasts.”
“How do you feel?”I ask.
She grins. “Euphoric,”she says, scratching her shoulders. “I feel euphoric.”
“Can you tell me more about it?”
She looks thoughtful. “To me, it’s a feeling of ‘I’m going to be in no pain really soon.’”She fiddles with the hollow pen, crunches some pot between her fingers and opens a Tupperware box with a glass piece inside. “It makes you pick at your skin, makes you smoke like a fiend. Makes you hot. It makes you itchy. After my crash I scratched gouges into my face.”Her pupils are blown out, but her irises shine a brilliant blue.
“How much do drugs cost?” I ask.
Dope is cheap, she says. $20 a bag, which is a tenth of a gram. A user might do bundles, which is 10 bags. A brick is five sets of 10. “My brother, he shoots 30 bags a day. Me, I would take one bag. A tenth of a gram would last me three days.”
She’s done speed before, called Vyvanse. It’s like Ritalin, which she likes. Adderall tastes foul, like Flintstones vitamins up your nose. She shudders. “I have kids, so I’m always super careful about cleaning up.”
“When I did heroin, I was moderating,”Britani says casually one day. “I was doing it as medicinally as possible.”The way she tells it, it’s been a straight line from here to there, from April 12, 2004 to now. But as we spend more time together, the line blurs. Inconsistencies emerge. Prescriptions become Oxy off the street. One day Britani isn’t taking anything, the next we sit under a pavilion as she smokes concentrated THC, telling me in a gravely, coughing voice that she’s done 60 milligrams of Oxy today since she woke up. Never trying a drug becomes once or twice becomes “I’m a pretty heavy user. But I’m not an abuser.” I meet Firestorm, Lionheart and Redtail, but there is no hole in the bedroom wall behind their cage. There is no tuna can and there is certainly no seed money to break away. The abortion wasn’t Josh’s baby.
And Josh becomes the victim. “Well, I’m the asshole,”Britani says, laughing. “No matter what Josh’s and my problems are, I can stand him. I cannot stand for a guy who’s a pushover. I ask for what I get. I stay with Josh. And yes he’s extremely controlling and can freak out over the stupidest things and be jealous, but if I was with someone who would let me do whatever I want, I would walk all over them.”She pauses to take a drag from her cigarette, then a sip from her sweet coffee.“It took me a lot of growing up to realize that a lot of the issues I have with him are not just him choosing to be this way,”she says. “I have to stop and look at how he grew up as well. What his family structure was like, that he learned from.”She doesn’t want to put her kids through that.
“We both grew up with abusive fathers,”she says. “Josh isn’t like that. He’s never hurt me on purpose. He’s just so big and I have these bones that dislocate.”
Britani leans her head back and exhales a line of smoke, eyes closed. Her mouth has left dark red lipstick stains on her smoking cigarette. “I love him, yeah. He’s hurt me so much I don’t trust him. I’m not a vindictive person. I can hold a grudge like a motherfucker. But I don’t want to ruin his life.”
“Josh drives me crazy,”she says. “But then again, he does provide for me. He buys me a phone card every month, that’s $45 bucks. But then, if I don’t answer my phone when he calls, holy shit. All hell breaks lose.”She pauses, taking long drags on her cigarette and lapsing into a rare silence.
“Is he the asshole?”she says. “Maybe I’m the asshole. I don’t know. I can be a big jerk. But I don’t think he should be punching holes in the wall next to my head."
“What I do know is I’m never going through this court shit again. They failed me. I’d sooner take my kids and leave the state. I don’t think that the justice system is very just. At all.”
Britani shakes her head, crushes her cigarette against the coarse wooden table and lights another. Poverty, violence, Josh “laying a hand”on her. Small words. Easy to say. The stories are different. Messy. Rusty. Bruised around the edges or rotten at the core. Britani is rusty. She’s bruised around the edges—literally—and her teeth are rotting. Is that genetic? Britani’s kitchen clock doesn’t tick, but it might as well. Britani's stories contradict, but they point to the truth. Maybe as long as she keeps talking, she doesn’t need to do anything about the tuna can that isn’t in the wall.
I breathe out until there’s no air left. “Anyway,”Britani says, shaking her head and breathing in smoke. “I have pretty amazing scars.”
*Names and identifying details have been changed.
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.