By: Kayla Meyers
When Katelyn Ackerley met Stephen Braithwaite, they were both into the college party scene. Just past twenty-one, living on their own for the first time, and free of any financial or martial responsibilities, they were eager to experience this new thing called freedom. While days were spent in lecture halls listening to professors drone on about nothing they particularly cared about, at night they lived it up in the swanky nightclubs and bars near campus. Of course, this meant their freshly laminated IDs got their fair share of usage as they sampled everything from cheap beer to the most expensive of wines. It was a rite of passage, and with no one around to stop them, they were free to run as wild as they wanted with little or no consequence. And they took full advantage of it.
In fact, it was because of alcohol that Kate and Stephen even met. If on that fateful Saturday night she'd decided to stay back at the dorm to study instead of giving into her friends' prodding that she needed a break, and if he'd gone home instead of making just one more stop, they would've probably never seen each other. But, as it happened, they did end up in the same club, and just as Kate decided it was time for her to leave, Stephen was on his way to the bar to order another round. The result of their collision was a ruined satin dress and shattered glass.
"I-I'm sorry..." He stammered as he bent down to pick up the broken remains of the glasses he was carrying. He saw the dark stain trickling down the front of her dress, seeping into the fabric. "Oh, God... I'm so sorry... Here..." He quickly grabbed a few napkins from the table beside them, beginning to blot her skirt.
She snorted, a mix of revulsion and humor. "It's all right, don't worry about it. I never liked this dress anyway, my mother sent it to me," she told him while stooping down to help him clean up the mess. "Are you all right? Did you cut yourself on the glass?"
He smiled a little as he watched her, admiring the way her light brown hair cascaded down over her shoulder. "No, I'm okay."
After picking up everything she could find, Katelyn straightened up to find Stephen checking her out, none too discreetly. She gave him her best winning smile, blushing furiously. "Hi. I'm Katelyn, but pretty much everyone calls me Katie. I don't particularly like it, though - it sounds like I'm a little gap-toothed seven year old in a flowered dress and pigtails."
He laughed. "I see your point. Well, how about Kate, then?"
She smiled. The skin around her eyes crinkled at the corners, evidence of the all-nighters studying for exams or writing thesis papers. She had all the usual symptoms of an overworked, exhausted college student, but her slightly disheveled appearance somehow made her even prettier. "Sure, I can live with that."
"Then Kate it is," he said and smiled back. "I'm Stephen."
"Stephen," she repeated with a nod. "Nice to meet you."
"You, too. So, are you in a rush to leave, or will you let me make this whole thing up to you and buy you another drink?" He asked, eyeing up an empty booth in the back corner.
Kate chewed her lip thoughtfully, glancing over his shoulder at the door. Typically she wasn't the kind of girl to follow after someone who she'd just met, but she didn't like the idea of going home by herself either. Plus, he seemed nice and safe enough, and he was the only person to speak to her all night since her friends abandoned her in favor of a group of fraternity boys. Now it was her turn.
And, come on, just look at him. You'd be a damn fool to pass this up, the youthful indiscretion in her mind argued. She looked back at him and nodded. "No rush, a drink sounds great."
He grinned and took her arm in his, leading her back to the booth. They drank while they chatted in the easy manner of good old friends, and by the end of the night, Kate found herself climbing into the front seat of his Mazda, allowing him to bring her back to his place. She awoke the next morning at his side, lying on flannel sheets in a king-sized bed in a master bedroom. They opted to skip classes that day, and soon Kate knew she was beginning to fall for Stephen.
Everything was well for the first couple of weeks after they met; Kate spent more and more time at his place during the week, and she finally had someone to go out with instead of always playing tag-along with her unreliable girlfriends. They were free to go off and do as they pleased, as long as she and Stephen found a quiet spot to sit and talk. He made her laugh, and there was something about him that reminded her of home - she felt comfortable and secure around him. It didn't matter where they were or what they did, if he was there with her she was more than content - he'd fast become the best friend she'd had since moving here, and possibly ever.
It took over a month for Kate to notice something different about Stephen, something wrong. She began to understand that whenever they went out, he wasn't there simply to have a good time, but rather it was a personal mission of his to always leave completely drunk. She and her friends were known to let loose, but they generally knew their limit and stopped just short of going too far. Not that any of them were angels - there were plenty of times each of them had a little too much and paid for it respectably the following morning, but those occurrences were few and far between. Stephen, however, didn't have a limit. Long after the others had cut themselves off he kept going, practically drinking the place dry. Eventually Kate would attempt to pull him away, but his already stubborn nature was only magnified when he was intoxicated and it always ended in an argument. Afterwards he was usually talked down by one of his buddies, or got too smashed to protest anymore, so they'd call a cab or get a ride home where Kate would clean him up and put him to bed. It bothered her, but she didn't have the heart to say anything to him, so she decided to only look after him and make sure he didn't get hurt. Besides, she would reason with herself every time she found herself getting fed up with his unwillingness to slow down, I'm not really much better than he is. None of us are, so who am I to preach to him about what he should do? She was his girlfriend, not his mother - it was her responsibility to love him and be there when he needed her, not judge him or scold him like a child. He was a grown man, capable of making his own decisions. Kate figured that eventually he'd reach a point where he'd decide he needed to settle down, and things would be fine. All she had to do was ride it out until then.
But things only worsened as time went on, and soon Stephen's problem became an everyday issue. Beyond going out on weekends, Kate began to find bottles of hard liquor and wine hidden in various places around the house, and it was obvious he was drunk more often than he was sober. Kate tried having a talk with him, but he completely denied the idea that he may have a problem, telling her she was overreacting. His behavior became more erratic and worrisome over time, until Kate began to hate going out with him and dreaded each night they accompanied their friends to a club. Sober, he was kind and gentle, never raising his voice or losing his temper, but under the influence his quiet self-assurance turned into complete arrogance, and he became unhinged and combative. Many evenings resulted in full-on brawls with Stephen at the center of it, and it wasn't until security forced him and the rest of the people they were with out that he backed down. Kate, increasingly embarrassed and hurt by his actions, would sit next to him in the back of whatever car they took home with her face buried in her hands, tears of humiliation streaming down her cheeks.
One night as someone helped Stephen inside, holding an icepack over Stephen's the shiner he'd gotten from his chosen opponent of the night, Kate's best friend pulled her aside.
"Kate, this has to stop," Jess told her gently. "He can't keep doing this to us, and especially to you. What happens if one time he ends up hurting you? He's not the same when he drinks, and you can't trust him."
Angry, Kate quickly stepped back, glaring at her friend. "Stephen would never dream of hurting me. Ever. He may get a little out of control sometimes, but he loves me, and he wouldn't lay a finger on me. He just wouldn't, Jess."
Without another word, she turned around and ran into the house, slamming the door behind her. Inside, while Stephen's friend helped him into bed, she sat at the bottom of the stairs, thinking. With all her heart she wanted to believe what she'd told Jess, but something inside told her she was wrong.
Stephen didn't hurt Katie until a few months later, the second to last week of December. They'd been invited to a Christmas party, but of course Stephen couldn't leave the house without a few shots of vodka first, so by the time they arrived he was on his way to being wasted. Certainly Kate was concerned about getting in a car with him, especially when there was a fresh coating of snow covering the ground, but he was unreasonable and refused to listen to anything she had to say. They made it there all right, however later she wished she'd been more adamant they not go. The issue of her going back home to spend Christmas with her family had been the topic of many disputes lately, and while Kate never remembered which one brought it back up, they started arguing once again in the middle of the party. Unable to control himself in his impaired, cloudy state of mind, Stephen became increasingly agitated and began yelling at her, causing everyone to stop and look at them with a mixture of distaste and fascination.
"Will you keep your voice down?" Kate whispered harshly. "You're being ridiculous."
Apparently, that was the end of Stephen's patience. Before she had a chance to move away he brought his hand up and smacked her across the face. There was a stir of horrified gasps behind her. Kate stumbled back, covering the spot on her cheek that was already reddening, staring at Stephen in disbelief. More than anything, what frightened her was the absolute blackness in his eyes - there was no apology, no remorse whatsoever, only pure contempt and rage. She could feel everyone's pitying eyes on her, judging her and thinking how incredibly stupid she must be for allowing this to happen. Quickly she turned and bolted from the room, darting into the bathroom. Once there, hunched over the sink and cried. She cried until her stomach churned and she threw up. An hour later when she finally emerged, pale with mascara running down her face and the bruise on her cheek deepening to dark purplish-blue, she saw Jess standing there waiting for her.
"Jess," she sobbed, fighting to gain composure. "Please just... Don't say ‘I told you so', okay?"
Jess hugged Kate tightly and wiped the black streaks off her face, then looped her arm around Kate's waist and took her out to the car, driving her home. When they got back to the house that Kate and Stephen now shared, Jess took Kate inside and led her up to the bedroom. The girls sat together on the bed while Jess tended to Kate's wound.
Kate's sobbing had begun to subside, tapering off into small whimpers. "I'm sorry, Jess..." She whispered. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you..."
"Look at me, Kate," Jess said, raising Kate's chin so she could look in her eyes. "You don't have to be sorry for anything, okay? This was not your fault, so don't you dare apologize for something he did. This was on Stephen, not you. Understand?"
Kate nodded slowly, breaking down again. She buried her face in Jess' shoulder and cried herself to sleep. Jess stayed with her for a while, then put Kate in bed and left. As she was leaving, Stephen pulled in and came walking up the driveway. He could barely stand up let alone walk straight. Jess stopped him.
"Get out of here, Steve," she told him firmly.
"Look, Jess," he slurred, faltering a bit and catching himself on the hood of his car. "I know I made a mistake -"
"Damn right, you did," she retorted angrily. "Who the hell do you think you are, Stephen? Good God, you hit a woman tonight, the woman you claim to love! You don't love her, you're just scared because you know you'll never find someone better than her. Because nobody wants to date a drunk, do they? That's all you really are, Stephen, and you know it. I don't know what the hell Kate sees in you, but I do know one of these days she's going to wake up and realize how much better she deserves, and then you will be alone. And I'm going to make sure that day is sooner rather than later, because I'll be damned if I'm going to watch her get pushed around by a loser like you. "
Stephen gritted his teeth. "Get out of my way, Jess. I just need to talk to her."
"Oh, that's it, huh? That's how you're going to fix this, by talking to her? Tell her that you're so sorry, then maybe you can go out and buy her some make-up to cover the bruise she's going to have to walk around with for the next three weeks, if it ever fully heals." Then she caught sight of the way he was clenching his fists at his side. "What are you going to do, Stephen? Now you're going to hit me? Well, be my guest if that's what you want. Because if you do, I can assure you it'll be you making a trip to the hospital with gauze shoved up your nose."
He glared at her for a moment, poised to strike out at her, then slowly he loosened his fists, dropping his head and sighing. "You're right," he said quietly. "About everything. I am a drunk, and I have no idea what Kate sees in me. But...God, Jess, I don't know what to do anymore." He slumped against the side of his car, raking his fingers through his hair.
Jess let her breath out slowly, relaxing a little. "Just leave her alone for tonight, okay? Go somewhere and sober up, then come back and talk it over with her. She needs time right now, and I think you do, too. You both need to figure out how you're going to handle this. You know how Kate is - I'm sure in a little while she'll be willing to listen and forgive you."
"But you don't think she should, do you?" He asked.
"Personally, no," she answered truthfully. "But it doesn't matter what I think. She loves you, Steve, no matter what anyone else says about it. And even though I can't see why, I know there has to be something about you she's not willing to let go of. So, even if I think it's wrong, all that matters is what she thinks. And maybe someday, you'll prove me wrong about you."
"So...Does this mean I can stay with you?" He asked, looking up at her with a little smile.
She laughed. "No. But, come on, I'll drive you to a motel."
He laughed as he stood up. "All right. Thanks, Jess."
"It's okay," she said, then whirled around and poked him in the chest. "But, you listen to me: If you ever touch her again, I'll kill you. Got it?"
He looked at her earnestly. "I promise; never again."
‘Never again' was approximately three months later. Stephen fell deeper and deeper into the abyss of his addiction until soon it consumed his entire life; when he woke up, he drank. Before he left for school or work, he drank, and then hid another bottle in his bag. The second he got home, he went up to their bedroom and locked himself in, although Kate always knew he was downing another few shots. They fought constantly with Kate begging him to stop and finally threatening to leave if things didn't change. Then Stephen would break down and cry, apologizing and swearing he would change, he'd stop for her if she'd only just stick it out with him a little longer. Everything would be different, he promised, and he'd do anything to prove his sincerity to her. Sometimes Kate would play tough, saying this was his last chance, but she always went upstairs with him and lay at his side. It wasn't that Kate was dumb, or even in denial about Stephen's addiction, there was just something inside of her that refused to give up on him. As ridiculous as it may have been to other people, she had faith in Stephen, a faith so deep and strong that even if she wanted to wouldn't allow her to walk away. Most of all, she couldn't let go of the hope that, if no one else, she could be the one to save him.
The next day, Kate went to her morning classes and then came home on her lunch break to run some errands before Stephen got home. He was at work and promised to come home right when he got off, but when Kate checked her wallet for the hundred dollars she was going to deposit into their savings account, the money was gone. It only took her a moment to figure out what had happened: he'd found his stash completely gone, stolen the money and gone out to get more. Without hesitating she grabbed her jacket and ran back to her car, driving to the bar on the corner of the street that she knew he'd been prowling around most often lately. By the time she got inside, the chaos had already gotten underway. As usual, he'd gotten too cocky and arrogant for himself and started trouble with someone he was no match against. The guy had Stephen backed against the wall, and from the doorway she could see that Stephen's nose was bleeding heavily.
"Oh, Dear God..." She moaned under her breath, her eyes filling with tears.
She ran over, pushing her way through the crowd that was surrounding the men, finally reaching Stephen who had managed to wriggle free and was now the dominate one. "Steve, no! Stop, come on -"
Instinctually thinking it was a friend of the guy he was fighting coming to rescue his buddy, an incoherent, angry Stephen whipped around suddenly, knocking Kate back with his elbow. Kate staggered backward, tripping on the feet of the spectators and fell into the bar, smacking the back of her head into the corner. The last thing she heard was a commotion of voices and running footsteps, and in the distance the sound of police sirens.
When she awoke Kate was lying in a hospital bed with Jess by her side. She squinted her eyes against the brightness of the lights and touched her forehead gingerly. Pain shot through her eyes, and she yanked her fingers away quickly, groaning.
She looked over and saw Jess sitting with her arms crossed over herself. The expression on her face - the kind someone has who is attempting to stay calm but ready to explode in anger - made Kate shrink back. "Jess, this was -"
"Save it, Katie, I've heard it; it was a mistake, right? Just a little accident? You've had quite a few ‘little accidents' lately, haven't you?"
Kate sighed. "You just don't-"
"Understand?" Jess interrupted coldly. "Oh, you're right, I don't. I don't understand how an otherwise intelligent girl can't see what's going on right in front of you. You don't understand, Katie; Stephen has a problem. He's a raging alcoholic, but worse yet, he's abusive - maybe he doesn't always hit you, but he's sure as hell emotionally and mentally abusive to you. Just think about this; you aren't sleeping, you don't eat, you look like death because all you can think about is Stephen. When are you going to wake up, Katie? What's it going to take? Look at you now, he gave you a concussion and the doctor said you're damned lucky you didn't break your neck with the way you fell. When is it going to be enough for you? Next time? Because if you do wait, next time you might not be so lucky."
Kate didn't answer. She pulled her legs up and buried her face, her shouldering trembling. "I'm sorry..." she cried, her voice muffled.
Jess sat forward and raised Kate's chin. "See, that's just it, you shouldn't have to be sorry. You haven't done anything wrong. This is his battle, and you shouldn't have to fight it for him. It's his choice, not yours - You can't save him, not by yourself. He needs help now that you can't give him."
Kate pulled back, turning away. "Just... go away, okay?"
Jess stood up without another word and walked to the door. Before she left, she turned back to Kate one last time. "There's a room at my place for you. Please, come stay with me."
Kate watched her go without saying anything, then curled up on her side and cried herself to sleep.
She was released two days later - the doctor told her she could leave sooner, but she needed time, she needed to think. She didn't call Stephen to say when she was coming home, although he'd left her about twenty messages, begging for her forgiveness and asking if she was okay. Instead she took a bus home and found the house empty. In a way she was glad. Going straight upstairs, she found her suitcases in the closet and began folding up her clothes. After everything she could fit in her bags was packed away, she called Jess and left a message, telling her she was coming. Looking up at the clock, she calculated that Stephen would be off work in a little over an hour. Just long enough for her to do what she had to.
Putting her bags down by the door, she went into the kitchen and found a pen with a few pieces of paper, then sat down in the living room. It was more difficult than she thought, and she erased and scratched out things as she went along, having to stop a few times for another piece of paper because the other had been stained by tears. Finally she finished and tacked it up on the wall by the front door where she knew it would be seen.
Doubling-checking to make sure not to forget anything, she gathered her things in her arms, reaching for the doorknob. Before she did she turned once more, looking around the empty apartment. The quiet flushing of the central air was all she could hear. She took in the sight of everything slowly, the bits and pieces of the life she was leaving behind; the brand new furniture they'd gone out looking for together, art pieces they'd bought from neighboring towns, gifts he'd given her for special occasions, and sometimes just because. Everything they'd done to make it theirs was laid out before her life a 3D photo album, and for a moment she was so lost in the memories that she couldn't remember why she was leaving. Then, as she turned, a twinge of pain tightened the muscles in her neck, and it came back to her at once; the nights she'd laid on the couch with the phone at her side, praying he'd call to say he was okay; the times she'd pleaded with him not to leave and watching him leave anyway; looking in his cloudy, vacant eyes, thinking she'd do anything for him to really see her. She wanted so badly to believe that she was enough for him, he wouldn't need to drink because she was there. But it was foolish to keep holding onto that, and she knew it. For now, he'd made his choice, and now she had to make one, too.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and walked out, leaving her key under the mat.
In the early morning hours Stephen came home and found a letter pinned up by the mirror when he walked in:
I'm sorry, but I need to go away for a while. I need some time for myself right now, and I think it will be good for you, too. We both know there's nothing more that can be done as long as we're together. I can't make you want to change, you have to make the decision for yourself. As much as it hurts, there's nothing left for me to do but tell you goodbye. Hopefully it won't be for good, but that's really up to you. Everything is in your hands.
I'll be at Jess' house for a while, but after that I don't know. Maybe I'll go back home for a while, and see my family. I think it's best if you don't contact me for a little while. If something changes, I'll call you.
There's some AA pamphlets on the counter for you - Please, just take a look at them and consider it. Don't do it for me, do it for yourself.
I love you. Remember that, okay?
Nearly six months went by without any word from Stephen. There were times when Kate almost called, or was tempted to drive by to see if he was there, but Jess put a stop to each attempt. It was for the best, she knew, but it still hurt. A week after she left Stephen, she quit her job and transferred to another smaller campus, staying away from places she knew he'd come looking for her. She did go home for a couple weeks, then came back and moved into a house close to Jess. Aside from missing Stephen and wondering how and what he was doing, she was doing pretty well. There was even someone who she was interested in that had asked her out a few times. She didn't feel the same way as when she'd been with Stephen, but she was happy and it felt nice to have someone who cared for her. And the best part was he wasn't a big drinker - they went out every now and then and still had fun, but it never went beyond social. Whenever she wanted to leave, he left with her. She never had to wonder if she was going to be called in the middle of the night by the police, or even worse, the hospital. He was a good man, and she felt safer with him than she had in a long time - but in the back of her mind she always wondered about Stephen and wished he would call.
Then finally one day, she got a letter addressed to her in an unmarked envelope. She took it inside and sat in the recliner, the warm sun on her back. Tearing the envelope open carefully, she took out the paper and read:
I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write, but I'm just now finally getting settled. I've missed you - every day, in fact, but I understand why you left and I don't blame you for it. Actually, I'm writing to say thank you. It took losing you for me to decide that I couldn't go on the way I was. You were right; I couldn't do it for you or anyone else, it had to be for me. And I did it.
After you left I went on a three-day drinking binge and was found by a friend passed out in the bathroom. I'm lucky he found me when he did, or I honestly don't know where I'd be right now. Anyway, things were terrible after that; after I was released from the hospital, I hid out in a hotel room for two weeks - didn't eat, barely slept. I took your letter and some of the booklets you left me, and one day I picked up the phone and called one of the clinics. Really, I don't know why, but a few days later I was on a plane to Wyoming. I stayed there for two months, and now I'm back home staying at a friend's house until I can get on my feet again. It's still hard, but I haven't touched a thing since I've been out. It doesn't guarantee that I'll never relapse, but one day at a time, you know? And today, I'm doing really well. At least, I feel better than I have in a long time, with the exception of missing you.
With everything I've put you through, I'm not expecting this letter to bring you back, and I've apologized to you so many times that it probably wouldn't mean anything now to say I'm sorry. Whatever you decide to do, I'll understand. But more than anything, I want to tell you I still love you. I didn't always show it the way I should have - or at all, really - but I have always loved you. Hopefully we'll see each other again someday, and I can prove it to you like I should have from the beginning. I'll be waiting for that day. But until then, take care of yourself, all right? I really hope you're well and happy.
Thank you for everything you've done. I could never tell you how much I appreciate it.
Love you always,
Kate stared down at the page in her hand, her eyes misty with tears. On the bottom in small print, he'd written the phone number of the place he was staying. Outside, her boyfriend's car pull up to the curb. Slipping the letter back into the envelope, she went over to the chest were she kept warm blankets and quilts for the winter and tucked it underneath the pile, then stood up and wiped her tears. Two more weeks, she decided. She'd give him two more weeks, and then she'd call. Whatever happened from there would happen on its own. But one thing was certain, there would be no more time wasted for either of them.