Maybe it's because I had just finished re-reading a news story about a family member's murder. Maybe it's because I had just written up a press release about a homicide investigation. Maybe it's just the road — it's such a terrible, long, pock-marked, winding, bone-jarring road. Whatever the reason, I did not want to drive out to Honeydew on Thursday night. But I was expected and so I went, stress-eating a sleeve of small, cheap donuts as I took the Dyerville exit that has signified "home" for 35 years. I was thinking about the woman I had picked up near the gravel switchbacks a few months earlier.
I always stop for women on the side of the road, whether they flag me down or not. I stop because I recognize them as former versions of myself. They are sometimes shoeless, drunk and crying, or sober and grim. Eleven years ago I was in a relationship like that, although I didn't know enough at the time to call it abuse. If the women want to talk, I ask them the questions I have learned are universal. Does he want to know where you are all the time? Are you allowed to see your friends? Does he go through your phone? Does he show up unexpectedly when you're out someplace? Does he threaten to kill himself if you say you're leaving? Has he hit you? He will. Do you have kids? You know that if you stay they're going to think this is normal, right? Yeah, it sounds shitty and interrogatory, but for me those were the small questions that helped me get to the big answer, rather than the Big Question we always get asked: "Why don't you just leave him?" There's an answer to that one, too, but it doesn't take you anywhere.
I am so lucky. I got out with shoes on my feet and money in the bank. It took a decade of hard work but I learned to tell good love from bad. The women I've picked up are rarely that lucky. Their lives and finances are bound up in their partners' and when I drop them off at a sister's or a friend's house, they often only have what they're wearing. For many, including the woman I picked up several months ago, there are kids involved.
She was sitting on an old-fashioned suitcase, wearing clothes just a little too summery for the late fall weather. Before I could even stop my truck to let her in she was talking. Could I turn around, she asked, and give her a ride back to her broken down car? She'd called for a tow and could ride with the driver back to town, but her husband had run her off from their driveway. I ask if she's sure she wants to go back and she says yes, so I find a wide place on the side of the road and turn back, headed up the hill. Honeydew is a long way from anywhere and I wondered how long she had been waiting. She left her kid with her abuser, she says. She's going to go to court to fight for him, but she's done it before and lost. Her husband has all the money. I don't have time to ask her the questions in between her story. I'm sad to say my bullshit meter pinged.
That's why I was dreading this latest trip out to the 'Dew. My hometown has changed. I didn't know that woman or her husband. I used to recognize every truck on the road, every person on the store porch. It hasn't been that way for a while. That's only half the coin, though. I dread finding out how much I've changed because of what I now know. I've always been the trusting kind. I've never carried a gun. When I meet a stranger, I always assume their intentions are good. But in the last five years my trust has been eroded by anecdotes like the elderly couple hogtied and burglarized by men who mistakenly thought they had a grow. I read about car jackings and robberies and stray bullets. I read press releases about people shot and dumped on the road. I listen to a friend tell me that he no longer lets his daughter stay alone at his (legal) scene because home invasions have become so rampant he worries for her safety. And because of this, I drop the woman off across the road from her car. She promises me she will be fine and that she will call the crisis hotline I recommended for help. I don't wait and make sure she's OK. I am thinking about her husband or someone else who might be lying in wait.
This suspicion, I consider it a moral injury. I don't know if the injury falls to the ills of cannabis culture or if it's just a natural hardening as I slouch toward middle age. But I resent it. I resent that it has blurred the part of me that was once helpful and empathetic, and that it's made me uncertain if my bullshit/danger meter is pinging for a good reason or just from the cumulative effect of so much bad news. I dread the day I see another woman on the side of the road and choose to keep driving.
On this night, my ethics go untested. My little car judders on the bad roads, I get to my meeting bloated with junk food, I exchange hugs and gossip. It's dark when I get on the road again, close to 11 by the time I get back to town. I text my boyfriend from my driveway: "Home safe."
"Good, I love you," he texts back. He says he can't sleep on the nights I drive out there. He always wants to know where I am. When it's good love, that feels OK.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.