In Sylvia’s new life, she has composure and self-assurance. None of this wallflower bullshit anymore. She’s proud of herself, and rightly so. Or at least that’s what her counsellor keeps telling her.
Sylvia’s not certain at what point she began to be brave. But slowly she listened to her inner voice, the one that said Ryan’s behaviour was not normal. She made friends with Sahara, her work colleague, learnt to trust her, and by piecemeal disclosed what she put up with. The taunts, the belittling, the control.
‘Sylvia, hunny, that’s not normal,’ Sahara said, when she let slip that her wage went directly to Ryan’s account, and from that, he gave her $80 a week for housekeeping.
‘Mmm, I know. But what can I do?’ Sylvia asked.
‘You can get out of there.’
Sylvia shook her head. ‘No, it’s too risky. He’d track me down.’
Sahara shuffled papers around on her desk. ‘Nah, it can be done. Let’s grab a coffee from the cafe. Plan it out. You got time now?’
Over coffee, Sahara scribbled a timeline on a napkin, and when they’d finished, she took Sylvia to the bank to set up her own account. Slowly Sylvia added ten dollars here, twenty there. Whatever she could afford. She noticed that there were a few deposits not made by her. $100. $50. Once, $500.
‘Sahara,’ Sylvia said nervously after she’d discovered the third deposit. ‘I know you’re giving me money. I can’t afford to repay you.’
‘Who said anything about it being a loan?’ Sahara replied. ‘Hun, Bert and I want to help you. You need to get out of there. And sooner rather than later.’ She reached across their work desks and lightly squeezed Sylvia’s hand.
It took months, over a year, to save the bond for a shabby rental. The real trick, though, for Sylvia was playing along at home with Ryan.
‘There’s no fucken peanut butter!’ Ryan yelled, three days before she was due to escape. Sylvia was a nervous wreck. Her fingers were always shaking; she dropped a plate as she unloaded the dishwasher. ‘I told you it was running low. You’re fucken useless. Can’t even get your shit together to stock a pantry.’
‘I didn’t have enough in housekeeping this week Ryan,’ she mumbled, avoiding eye contact.
‘You get plenty.’
‘Not this week. I had to buy meat for your steak night.’ She had actually deposited the entire housekeeping amount into her account and used her new, secret credit card to buy enough provisions to not raise Ryan’s suspicion that anything might be askew. Escape was so close now. She could taste freedom, but equally she feared discovery and what that might entail.
‘I guess you’re going to tell me that you had to buy tampons too, hey? And that ate into the money I gave you?’
‘You know the punishment, babe. Don’t you?’ He puffed out his chest and pushed her against the cupboard before dragging her into their bedroom.
She nodded again. A fire in her belly was stoked anew, and as he jackhammered on top of her, she mentally ticked through her plan for the next three days: advise payroll of the bank details, pick up key to the flat, confirm the short-term lease of the DIY moving truck that Bert would drive to transit the few possessions she’d bought second-hand, stored in Sahara and Bert’s spare room.
Seven months have passed since that night. Now, Sylvia potters happily around her flat that’s been decorated with art from the op shop, pot plants, and a gorgeous wool throw, a housewarming gift from Sahara and Bert. Light filters in through the sheer curtains; the north-facing front window is always warm, caressing. She sips her coffee, and flicks through a magazine.
‘What’s this?’ she asks out loud, reading a headline in the magazine.
It’s an article written about gaslighting, by someone who’s clearly not been through the experience. Sylvia’s head explodes as she reads. The author has not accessed any research at all, and actually advocates on behalf of the narcissist, advising the abused to stay in the relationship. Sylvia’s eyes pop wide in disbelief as she skims further into the article; the suggestion from the author that gaslighting is a means to subconsciously compensate for the narcissist’s own shortcomings and therefore the one who’s abused should look past their own trauma and provide unerring love.
What the fuck?
‘How does this shit get printed!’ Sylvia is fuming. She tosses the magazine against a wall and sees herself being thrown against a wall. Ryan’s controlling methods flood her once more.
‘No!’ she yells, pushing back against her past. She’s in control now. She stands upright. Reminds herself of how far she’s come, of her self-worth. She corrals her composure. Once her breathing is under control, Sylvia makes a call to the publisher, and before she knows what’s happened, she’s speaking to the chief editor who offers her a monthly column in the periodical. A self-help guide for those who’ve been through the same experience as her. One that, Sylvia hopes, will help others to build a new life.