It’s known as Bystander effect. My therapist told me at our first meeting after my honeymoon. I sat in her office, staring at and counting all of my newly acquired freckles. Eye contact impossible.
“You shouldn’t have had to see that, especially on your honeymoon, Fina,” she said. “It’s so unfair.”
And she was right.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” I replied.
And I was right, too.
It was the third day of our week in Oahu. JF isn’t a certified diver but I am, and I wanted to spend some time underwater on our trip. When I found an introductory dive, for people without certification, I immediately bought two seats on the boat. Our training would begin at 2:30 and our dive would follow. We’d be done in time to find a nice place for dinner.
We spent the morning at Pearl Harbor, touring the memorials while gripping pride and humility. Those people sacrificed so much. So many still do. It’s hard to wrap words around what standing on their war ship will do to your heart, but it changed me for the better, I think.
I bought a beach bag before the trip, big enough to carry two beach towels and anything else we wanted to stuff inside. It is navy blue and white chevron and my new last name is proudly embroidered in mint across the front of the bag. So we filled it with our swimsuits and flip-flops, threw in sunscreen for the day and extra clothes for the ride back, and tossed it into the trunk of the car.
We arrived to the dock about thirty minutes early. The truck for the dive company parked across from the dock, wet suits laying over the bed, drying out from an earlier dive. Two men sat on park benches, facing one another. They were talking about dives and wildlife, and J sat laughing at me while I, in anticipation of what was to come, eavesdropped on their conversation. We sat on the ledge of the pier, looking away from the water toward the park and beach. It was full of people, some homeless and sleeping under the shade of the trees. Others tourists, Japanese and American, all taking pictures of themselves as the ocean waves crashed into their ankles.
“Are you J and Sarafina?” someone asked. It was one of the blondes who was sitting on the benches. He obviously worked on a boat, his rough, thick skin red and taut against his temples.
“Why don’t you guys steal our spots on those benches. Stay out of the sun while you can, you know?”
I grabbed our bag and headed to the benches. We sat there, waiting for the rest of the divers to show up. J had to fill out some preliminary paperwork and read through several documents. I watched people from the benches. The pier to my left. The park and beach on my right.
And then I heard her scream.
It startled me at first, but nobody else around me seemed to notice. I tried to calm myself down, to remind myself why I might respond so differently than most. Maybe it was just a kid at the beach. It sure didn’t sound like a kid’s scream. J wasn’t startled. Neither were the two local diver instructors. So I sat back down.
Until I heard the next one. And I knew that scream. I knew it like it was coming from my own stomach. Suddenly, without any warning, my throat started to close.
“J. Something’s wrong.” I said, barely loud enough for him to hear me.
“You alright?” he asked.
“I heard a woman scream.”
I was turning in circles, surveying as much of the area as possible. Cars pulled past us and speed down the main roads along the park, the sound of brakes and horns, crashing waves and tourists, all muffling what I could hear. My vision blurred I was turning so fast.
J put down his papers and began to stand, and just as he did I turned my back on what was happening, tears streaming down my face.
She was on her back in the park, and he was standing over her, punching her in the chest and gut. She was kicking to get him off, but he was relentlessly pummeling her body.
The divers saw it too, but they stood there watching, shaking their heads in disappointment without moving to help. Other people saw it too.
“What do you want me to do, Fina?” J asked, “Can we stop him?”
“I need you right now,” I said. “Please don’t leave me.”
I knew exactly what I asked J, before he even had time to respond. I asked him to strip himself of power, to feel what I was. Asking him to do nothing was unfair and uncomfortable. But had he left me, I have no idea how I would have handled the rest of our day or trip or year.
What felt like an hour only lasted thirty seconds. The monster walked away from that beautiful woman when he noticed people were watching. Through the blur, I saw each of them look back at one another, eyes dropping from one person to the next, then back down at the concrete.
“It’s over,” he said, his arm grabbing at my waist, gently guiding my body toward his. “He left and she’s already walking around. Sit down, babe. It’s over.” Scott crept in through it all, hovering over me in the same way I just saw. He had been so contained, so powerless for the last year. But this. This gave him life again.
The diver instructors went back to their preparations, laying out boots and snorkels.
And I sang a song to myself silently, hoping not to ruin Joey’s experience or my entire trip, embarrassingly wishing I hadn’t seen what I just did. My reaction was selfish and shocking. I really thought I was getting somewhere in my recovery. I’d played ‘what if’ so many times. This wasn’t supposed to be how I reacted. I was supposed to be a hero.
Leaning into my new husband, praying any real deity existed, I asked for her safety and my inner peace. And I turned up the volume in my head so I didn’t have to hear myself having an anxiety attack.
I planned to write the entire post today, but there’s too much story to share. This woman deserves more than one post from me. Come back next Monday for the second half.
Take care of yourselves until then.