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All I wanted to do the night before Thanksgiving was get a few drinks and dance with my friends, preferably to Whitney Houston. It was an overly ambitious plan, given that all three of us were exhausted.
It was supposedly the biggest bar night of the year, but after only a few drinks and a little dancing, we gave up on dreams of getting our Whitney on during one of the few times we were all in town together.
Only a handful of people were out on the street as we walked to the car. When I heard yelling across the street, it stood out above the relatively quiet night.
I stopped and stood on my tiptoes, surveying the area. I could see a man and woman across the street, shouting at each other. They were pacing in front of an empty building, illuminated by the lights from the parking garage nearby.
I can’t even tell you why I stopped. It was a compulsion — some kind of gut reaction. I guess hearing a man and woman fighting so loudly in public made me think maybe someone should pay attention.
I told my friends to continue on to the car, that I’d catch up with them in a minute. For a moment, I just watched, hoping the situation would resolve on its own. It didn’t.
They continued shouting at each other. At times, she seemed to dominate the argument, her voice booming across the street. But I knew that having the loudest voice doesn’t always mean you have the most power.
I waffled, trying to decide whether or not I needed to intervene in this situation.
A group of other partiers formed behind me. I could hear them asking aloud some of the same questions I’d been silently asking myself. What’s happening over there? Are they OK? Does anyone need help? But they didn’t make a move.
Walking on was not an option, I realized. I couldn’t go home if there was even the possibility that this unknown woman had needed help. I may not have been 100% sober, but I was sober enough to do the right thing.
I crossed the empty street to where the couple was huddled in a corner against the building.
“Hey, do you need anything?” I asked the woman gently, trying to seem friendly and not like a weird stranger who had been watching them from afar. It seemed like an innocuous question. If she said no, I’d just catch up with my friends and go home. If she said yes… well, I didn’t really know.
“She’s fine,” the guy said sternly and dismissively. His tone made me wary.
“I wasn’t asking you,” I told him. I turned back to the woman. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I just want to call a cab so I can go home.”
“OK. Do you want to step over there and I’ll wait with you while you call the cab? Does that sound OK?”
She nodded and followed me to the curb. She stood between two cars; I stood between her and who I assumed was her boyfriend. As the woman dialed cab companies, he kept trying to get close to her, pacing back and forth from one car to the next, waiting for me to look away so he could reach her.
At this point, I still had no idea if I needed to be there or not, but waiting with her for a cab to arrive seemed simple enough. I’d act as a buffer between them just in case. All I wanted was to make sure she got home OK, and then do the same myself.
After a few minutes of unsuccessful dialing (likely because everyone else in the city also needed a cab) her boyfriend started to get angry. He yelled that she was a whore, a bitch, and a slut, and he called me the same.
My uncertainty disappeared. This woman didn’t want to go with him, at least not right now, and he was calling her names and refusing to respect her boundaries.
“You are not a bitch or a slut because you don’t want to go with him,” I told her. “Don’t listen to him.”
Her eyes were wide and frantic. She seemed glad to have some support. I hoped that my presence might prevent things from escalating beyond name-calling.
At some point, the group who’d been talking behind me had followed me across the street and were watching nearby, along with one of my friends.
The boyfriend started behaving erratically. His pacing became more hectic, his yelling more desperate. Each time he moved or turned, I scanned him up and down for a weapon.
Suddenly, he got very close to me, screaming, “Look at me! Look at my face! Look at my face!” He was bouncing around like he’d totally lost it.
Usually, in confrontational situations, my heart pounds and my voice cracks, despite my best efforts to appear strong. For once, I was totally in control, calm and authoritative. I felt plenty of anxiety on the inside, but my voice and body language, at least, were not betraying it.
“I see your face,” I told him calmly. “I’m not impressed. You don’t scare me. Now go stand by the wall.”
We seemed to go on like this forever. Him trying to get past me, me trying to stay between them, her dialing endlessly. She just kept trying, saying she needed another minute.
He got in my face again. I repeated over and over that he needed to stay back, keep his distance, leave her alone. He wasn’t listening.
I put my hands on his shoulders and walked him back to the wall and told him to stay there. I heard my friend telling me not to engage with him. I hadn’t even thought about it, but I should probably, definitely, not have touched him.
He just laughed like it was all a joke.
I went back and stood by the woman.
“Are you calling the police?” I heard someone ask. I turned and saw one of the bystanders, another young woman, on her phone.
“Yes,” she said. “They’ll be here in a minute.” She seemed really worried. I realized maybe I should be more worried.
He started freaking out again.
“You’re going to let them do this to me?” He called the woman’s name over and over. “You’re going to let them call the police? They’re going to put me in jail! You’re going to let them do this to me?!”
I looked back at the girl for only a second and all the sudden I heard the other female bystander screaming. I turned to face her and saw the boyfriend and one of the other guys rolling on the ground fighting.
I blinked, and by the next second there were police rushing into my field of view, breaking up the fight and pulling the boyfriend off. It was so fast I couldn’t even understand what was happening. When had the fight started? Why?
I turned back again to see if the woman was OK. Already, she’d crossed the street and bolted away from us.
“Can you make sure she gets home alright?” I asked a cop standing next to me.
“Was she involved?” he asked. I think I nodded.
He took off across the street. Shit, I thought, as I followed. For personal reasons, I didn’t exactly trust the city’s police to treat her with respect. She’d looked scared, possibly drunk or high, and dealing with the cops is hard enough. I’d been trying to help her, not make things worse.
“Ma’am, is she the victim in this incident?” the cop asked when I’d caught up to them. I looked at her, her eyes wide, looking like she was about to run. “Ma’am? Who is the victim here?”
“Just a second,” I told him. I stepped between them to talk just to her. “Are you OK? Do you have a way home?”
“Yes,” she answered. “My uncle is right around the corner.”
"OK, great," I said. "Have a good night."
She took off. I waited until she was far enough away before I told the cop that the guy they'd arrested was her boyfriend. If she didn’t want to speak to the police, I certainly wasn’t going to force her to.
I had to give a statement to the officer, which is about when my adrenaline quit pumping, the reality of what had happened set in, and my feelings turned back on. I struggled to get through my statement, coughing out the story while holding back tears. The cop shook my hand, thanked me, and told me I’d done the right thing.
As soon as he walked away, I totally lost it. I found my friends and started sobbing hysterically. I didn’t stop the entire drive home. I’d dealt with abusive boyfriends and police personally, and maybe the experience was a trigger. I’m not sure.
I’m also still not sure how to feel about the experience, and I don't know what was going on between them, but I am glad that I offered my help.
As a woman, it’s not enough for me to be strong and stand up for myself. We need to look out for each other, too.