Jesse Lee by Sandy Ebner
This is how I learned what abuse looks like:
I was sitting at the bar with Jesse. Nineteen years old, sipping my Jack and Coke, I thought I knew everything, was so sure I had the world figured out.
“So, why did you and Ronny get a divorce?” I asked her. Marriage, for me, was a foreign concept, an event likely to occur far into the future, if ever. And so my question to Jesse was asked in passing, between drinks, while the band took a break and we could hear each other talk. Her answer, therefore, came as a shock.
“He used to beat on me,” she said, as calmly as if she were describing a blouse she was planning to buy.
I looked at her, unsure how to react. “You mean he beat you, like… he hit you?” How naïve I was. She looked at me and laughed. “What did you think I meant?” she said, not unkindly.
My friend was beautiful, and men walking by couldn’t help staring. I was used to this and, for some reason, because it was Jesse I didn’t care at all. She spoke in a Louisiana dialect that, to me, sounded like music. As I sat, trying to think what to say, Jesse told me her story.
She and Ronny had been married for only a few months when he came home early one morning after spending the night in the bars. This was not, she assured me, an unusual occurrence. I knew that already. It was the 1970s. That’s what we all did.
She had waited up for hours before finally going to bed. At dawn he stumbled into their bedroom and shook her awake, demanding that she make him breakfast. He smelled like perfume. Instead of confronting him–like I would, I thought–she got out of bed and made him a plate of eggs. This surprised me. After growing up in Northern California, where woman’s rights were debated constantly, I thought about what I would say. Make your own breakfast, asshole.
Ronny sat at their kitchen table, took two bites and said, “This is shit.”
Jesse got mad, naturally, complaining that not only had she just cooked him breakfast but that he’d been out all night without so much as a phone call and, apparently, from the smell of him, with another woman. Ronny stood up and threw the plate of food in her face. And then he punched her.
“This happened all the time,” she said. “Eventually he just left me.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He left?
Being young and single, my ideas about what marriage might be like were as remote from reality as they could possibly be. But, I thought, at least I knew what marriage would not look like. I would not be serving breakfast on demand to anybody, much less a man who had just spent the night with someone other than me.
All I could manage in response was a pitifully inadequate, “Oh God, Jesse. That sucks.” (Or words to that effect.) Such is life when you are young and stupid.
I had never met anyone who’d experienced anything like what she was describing. (Later, of course, I would learn that I had, they just never talked about it out loud.) My parents had a loving marriage, and never fought in front of my sisters and me. None of the men I dated–or slept with—had ever raised their voices to me, much less hit me. Sadly, this would change, and eventually I would come to understand Jesse in a much clearer way. But when she first told me her story it was as if she were speaking a different language. I was shocked, not just because this seemed to be a normal experience for her, but mostly because I didn’t understand why she would allow herself to be abused.
I met Jesse in the summer of 1976. I don’t remember how, probably in a bar, but we soon became inseparable. We both worked at different clubs. We saw each other as often as we could, after our respective shifts, or on our nights off.
The differences between us didn’t seem like much then, but she was a local, raised in the rural south, and I wasn’t. Sadly, this meant that our lives would take very separate paths.
When I moved back to California later that year, we assumed we would see each other again soon. The morning I left we stood on her front lawn taking snapshots until it was time for me to go, Jesse with her boyfriend Dan, who would become her second husband, and Trina, her daughter from her marriage with Ronny.
She was living in what would turn out to be one in a long line of rundown houses that she would live in over the course of her life: an old shotgun house with holes in the floor, a leaky roof, and appliances that only occasionally worked. Filled with mismatched furniture and a single mattress on the living room floor, it was not the kind of house I ever planned on living in, but then neither had she. But for her that’s the way it turned out.
I wouldn’t see Jesse again for eight years. But during that time I heard from her often.
The first time she called in the middle of the night, I put the phone to my ear and heard someone crying. Disoriented, I tried to think who might be calling me at that hour.
“Who is this?” I began to panic, thinking it might be one of my sisters calling, that something had happened to one of our parents.
Then I recognized Jesse’s voice.
“Jesse?” I said. “What’s wrong?” She didn’t answer, just continued to cry.
“Jesse. What happened?”
“He beat me again,” she said.
“Who? Dan?” I was stunned. I had introduced Dan to Jesse, thinking they might be suited to one another.
“Where is he?” I finally asked.
“Gone. New Orleans I think.” Of course, I thought. The bars in New Orleans stayed open all night.
“Jesse,” I said. “I’m so sorry.” Meaningless words that wouldn’t do a thing to help her, but the best I could do from 2,000 miles away. I pictured her huddled over the phone, alone and in pain. I lay there, half asleep, and listened to her cry.
After that, the calls came regularly, every few months, and our relationship developed a disturbing pattern. I would answer the phone and hear her cries.
“He hit me,” she would say, and again I would listen to her sobs, again not knowing what to say. I was horrified that my friend was in pain, but after the first few calls my responses became rote, as if I were following a script: “Where is he now?” I would say. “Is Trina okay?”
She and Dan had two daughters together, but eventually they divorced. And yet the calls kept coming. Each time we would have the same conversation, but one involving an entirely different person. Dan. Jimmy. Charlie. They beat her, she said, or punched her, or kicked her, or threw her against a wall. Who would do these things? I thought. A lot of people apparently, judging from Jesse’s calls. It was around this time that I began to wonder if this was a cultural thing.
These phone calls, for a time, became the basis of our friendship. Someone would beat her, and she would call me; someone else would beat her, and she would call me again; on and on, year after year. Each time we talked I felt utterly helpless. There was nothing I could do but listen, to let her cry, to tell her that I loved her, until she was too tired to stay on the phone any longer. Why don’t you just leave? I would say. I begged her to take the children and go to her mother’s house. Sometimes she would, in fact, take the kids and go. But she always went back.
I was no longer naïve (that had long passed), and I knew there were more complicated reasons why Jesse stayed in these abusive relationships beyond the fact that she had three children to care for, but by now I was beginning to get angry. I had gone through some difficult years myself, and was tired of always being there for her. When had she been there for me when I needed someone? What could I do for her if she wasn’t willing to help herself? This is how my mind worked then.
Over time she seemed to accept this life as her due. Many times I heard her say, “Well, at least he’s not hitting me right now,” when she talked about her boyfriend, or husband, as if that alone made him a good person. I had heard other southern women say the same thing, as if this were normal behavior, something you put up with in order to have a man in your life. I was disgusted by this, not understanding it at all. I couldn’t conceive of being in that situation even once, much less multiple times.
As Jesse got older her relationships, thankfully, became less volatile, and the late night calls finally stopped. For the next few years we talked at Christmas or on birthdays. We wrote each other often, signing our letters with an acronym: YBFITWEW, Your Best Friend in the Whole Entire World. Corny, maybe, but it was a habit we’d started when we were young. (Thirty years later, we still sign our letters that way.) But we had such different lives, and were separated by so many miles, that eventually our letters became scarce.
Over the years I visited Louisiana once or twice, and when I did we would see each other in the French Quarter, or in the town where we’d first met. But by now my view of our relationship had changed. I had come to see it as selfish, one-sided. Why was it always up to me to take the initiative? I always went to her. I always paid for dinner. I always took her to New Orleans. I, I, I. It’s painful to look back now and realize that I was the selfish one.
Jesse’s girls grew up and started families of their own. I married, and settled into a stable, happy life. I thought of her often, but never made much effort to maintain the friendship. But, I reasoned, neither did she.
My circumstances changed when my mother moved to the Gulf Coast, which meant that when I visited her I would be only a short drive away from Jesse. But, as it turned out, I rarely took the time to visit. Her life seemed always to be in a perpetual state of crisis. Her phone was cut off regularly, which left her impossible to reach. I had a hard time summoning up the energy required to find her, and felt a twinge of guilt each time I got on the plane to fly home, vowing that I would see her next time. But as each trip came and went I always found another excuse not to seek out my old friend, until last year when I flew down to visit my mother for Christmas.
After the holiday I had several days before returning home and one morning I grew restless. I told my mother I was going out to look up some old friends. I thought I’d try to see Jesse but wasn’t sure I’d be able to find her or that I even wanted to. I had no phone number for her, no way to know where she was living.
When I got to the small town where I hoped she still lived I drove to the last address I had for her. The place looked the same as every other house she’d lived in, which is to say deeply depressing. Despite the knot in my stomach I got out of the car and walked to the front door, half hoping that no one was home. I knocked, and after a moment an older man opened the door. He looked wary, clearly assuming I was there trying to sell something.
“I’m looking for Jesse.” I said.
He hesitated, but opened the door a bit wider. Finally he said, “Yeah. Come on in.” I followed him into a house filled, literally, with junk. A mattress was upended against one wall, and boxes were haphazardly stacked everywhere. A filthy overstuffed chair, apparently vacated by the same man who had answered the door, sat across from a small TV, the volume turned low.
He motioned for me to follow, leading me to a closed door at the back of the house. He knocked and said, “Hey Jesse. You’ve got a visitor.”
I waited for her to appear, happy to finally be seeing her again, but really just wanting to leave. It was almost noon and she was still sleeping? Either she had worked late the night before, or she was still involved with a lifestyle I had long ago given up.
“Jesse!” He knocked again. “Someone’s here to see you.” Then the door opened, and there she was. Groggy from sleep, it took her a moment to recognize me. When she did, she started to cry. We hugged each other for a long time, each of us crying now.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“I drove over from Waveland.” I said, “I had no way to reach you.” I hugged her again, surprised to realize how much I’d missed her. A man was standing behind her, looking at me as if he knew who I was. “You must be Sandy,” he said.
Jesse turned towards him and smiled. “This is my husband, Tom,” she said. Husband? This man looked young enough to be her son. Nothing ever changes, I thought.
We made small talk for a while, but finally I asked if she might like to get some lunch. The house was making me claustrophobic and I was beginning to feel anxious. I didn’t know Tom, or the man who had answered the door, but I knew one of them was selling drugs. Several men came and went while I was there, each of them taking a turn in the bathroom. I knew what a drug house looked like, and I had to assume Jesse was using also.
She got dressed and we walked downtown to find a place to eat. We sat at the bar and talked, laughing about things we’d done together, our times behind the bar, the friends and customers we’d known.
“They used to call me ‘Swamp’, remember?” Jesse said.
“Who did?” I said, confused.
“Oh, my regulars, because of where I was born. They never meant anything by it.”
“But why?” I said. “Ponchatoula’s not the swamp.”
“I was born in Manchac,” she said. “I didn’t move to Ponchatoula until later.”
“I never knew that.”
Manchac was out in the bayous between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a place you passed on the way to somewhere else. There was a famous seafood restaurant there, at least famous in south Louisiana. To go there meant parking, having a nice meal, and getting the hell out and back to wherever it was you came from.
I knew that the gap in meaning between ‘bayou’ and ‘swamp’ couldn’t possibly be wider, and had nothing at all to do with their geographical differences. One was romantic and mysterious, while the other conjured up images of poor white trash, which to some people was just about the worst thing you can be.
She hadn’t been trying to hide this. She must have known I wouldn’t care one way or the other. It had just, surprisingly, never come up.
“My father threw my mother out of the house when I was five,” she said.
“Your mother in Ponchatoula?”
“That’s my stepmother. She’s the one who raised me. My real mother lives in Amite. I’ve only met her a couple of times.” Amite was a small town less than twenty miles from where we were sitting.
She told me that her father beat her mother for years, eventually throwing her out of her own house and taking their daughter for himself. I thought about all the late night phone calls, my burger untouched in front of me, as she described her hellish childhood, one that I now knew had become a template for her entire life.
Now, many years later, she had no money and no medical insurance. She could no longer work. Several years before, she had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and suffered from debilitating bouts with fibromyalgia. She had no car, and was dependent on anybody who could take her where she needed to go that was farther than walking distance from the house. Her daughters lived nearby but refused to see her. I asked her why, and she said it was because they disliked Tom. I suspected that it had more to do with her drug use, but didn’t say so.
She lived under appalling conditions, which I’d just seen a glimpse of. She and Tom rarely had enough to eat. They shared the house with his father, who Tom had only met recently. This was, apparently, the man who had answered the door. He spent all day, Jesse said, in front of the TV. He paid half the rent, but also stole their food, and anything else they left lying around. They had no privacy, padlocking the door to their bedroom when they left the house, to protect the few possessions they had. They were virtual prisoners in a house most people wouldn’t want to step foot in, much less live in.
I took her to New Orleans that night, because it was the only thing I could think to do for her. We walked the streets of the Quarter, eating beignets and buying silly trinkets, things that tourists do. I took her to dinner at a restaurant that, in hindsight, must have made her uncomfortable. She looked at the menu and I saw that she was afraid to make a choice, faced with entrees that cost more money than she could ever spend on one meal. But I also saw that she was struggling to have fun, something she hadn’t done in a very long time. She tasted goat cheese for the first time, and drank two glasses of expensive Chardonnay. We laughed and laughed, as the friend I had loved for so long let go of her pain, if only for a few hours.
The next day, instead of goat cheese and risotto, we drank sweet tea and ate oyster Po-boys. That night, we stood on the hotel balcony in the cold, watching the tourists laughing below.
“You know what I want?” she said, as she lit a cigarette and watched the lights of the city. “All I want is a trailer of my own, and enough room for a garden.”
My old prejudices bubbled up again. You want to live in a trailer? Why not dream for a house, I wondered, or at least a house with a shower that worked or a front door that locked?
Later, as I listened to her softly snoring in the bed next to mine, I thought, how did I escape this? A life where the most you can hope for is a trailer on the side of a two-lane highway? Even with all the problems I’d had in my own life, it had been a winning lottery ticket compared to what my friend had lived with.
I felt my resentment towards her begin to disappear, my anger at her for not being there when I needed her, for continuing to let men abuse her. My ignorance had colored my view of our relationship for so long that I had been unable to see the truth. There were many times I had not been Jesse’s friend, and she hadn’t been mine. The difference is that I should have known better.
I watched her as she slept and suddenly, at the oddest of times, realized that what Jesse had given me over the years was something for which I would never be able to adequately thank her: friendship and unconditional love. Why had it taken me so long to recognize such a simple thing?
Six months later, she called me again. She was going into rehab. Her daughters had insisted, saying that was the only way she’d ever see her grandchildren. She and Tom had separated because he wasn’t willing to give up the drugs. I thought, not for the first time, how much can one person endure?
My friendship with Jesse has lasted for over half my life. I have resented her, been angry with her, ignored her, and thought less of her for her weaknesses. But I have also laughed with her, cried with her, and shared the deep love that only true friends can. She will turn 60 this year, still beautiful, still turning heads. I know that beauty has nothing at all to do with domestic abuse, yet I often wonder if that same beauty that has drawn so many men to her over the years has been more of a curse to her than anything else.
I have been lucky, truly lucky, to have her as my friend. My only regret is that it took me over thirty years to realize it. If I could do only one thing for her, besides love her, I would buy her the one small thing she wants out of life: a trailer, with a garden. A place of her own that no one can take from her, a place where I will always be able to find her.