My best friend sits across from me nursing her cappuccino and her bruised ribs and explaining for the 20th time just why she can’t leave the man who has beaten her up for the past four years. She picks at her croissant, licking the flakes from her delicate fingers, as she reels off a list of excuses: “He doesn’t do it very often….I started it by being so bitchy….I’ve never had to go to the hospital.” And the showstopper: “I love him.” She concludes, “We just need to learn to communicate better.”

As usual, stunned by this recital, I nod mutely and think how odd it is to classify a fist as a means of communication. It has always seemed like more of a conversation stopper to me.

I don’t say this aloud of course. I am trying not to sound judgmental. That’s what the counselor at the battered women’s shelter advised when I called in a panic after my friend first shared her little secret with me. “If you come on too strong she’ll just stop talking about it,” the counselor advised. “You’re probably the first person she’s told, and that’s a big step. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open.”

That was three years ago, and as far as I know I am still the only person my friend has told about her situation. I am still trying not to sound judgmental. I have stopped begging her to leave him. (I don’t think she ever will.) I have stopped telling her that he has no right to hit her. (She knows that.) Now when we meet after one of their quarrels I say very little.

My friend reaches for her coffee cup and winces as her rib cage brushes the metal edge of the table. For the hundredth time I note the perfect symmetry of her face–a flawless oval framed by blond Botticellian curls. Her skin is perfect, pale satin. There are no marks, no telltale cuts or bruises, only faint smudges of weariness under her eyes. He must be careful where he hits her.

It is clear to me now that despite the hidden bruises, the screaming, and the nights of terror, my friend doesn’t think of herself as a battered woman. She doesn’t fit the stereotype. She isn’t poor or uneducated. She isn’t financially dependent on the man who hits her. Owner of a small but successful design firm, she talks a good feminist line and contributes heavily to feminist causes. She still subscribes to Ms., but when she reads articles about battered women she thinks they’re talking about someone else.

And yet the stories keep coming. Last week during an argument he pushed her to the floor and kicked her in the ribs until she managed to scramble into the bathroom and lock the door. She sat cowering on the toilet as he tried to kick the door in. (Fortunately, kicking in a door is harder in real life than it is in the movies.) During their previous fight he screamed at her to get out of the house, but every time she tried he blocked the door and violently pushed her away. Once he followed her around the house with a butcher knife. She says he was just bluffing. “We both knew he wasn’t going to use it,” she told me, dismissing the whole event with a roll of her eyes. “He can be so overdramatic.”

A week after the butcher-knife incident I sat across from her boyfriend at a dinner party. I laughed at one of his jokes and wondered how it was possible for this charming man to engage in the sort of brutish behavior my friend has described. Urbane and sophisticated, he bears not the slightest resemblance to the coarse, beer-swilling wife beaters of TV docu-dramas. He is too smart, too well-read. A slight man with fine, delicate bones and artistic hands, he considers himself a good liberal–a pacifist even, and in his own way a feminist.

Looking at him across the dinner table, listening to him discuss the fine points of a Yo-Yo Ma recording, I found it impossible to imagine him hitting anyone. I watched his hands as they speared a shrimp and tried to imagine them curled into fists. I looked at his mouth, set in an endearing grin, and tried to imagine it twisted into something else.

Then I offered him another glass of wine and asked him what he thought of the new Mamet play. There was nothing else to do. Or was there?

From the moment my friend shared her secret with me I have tried desperately to think of something I could do to help her, something besides offering sympathy the morning after. I called the women’s shelter for information and gave my friend the telephone number for a counseling program that specialized in treating domestic violence. They went twice but quit because they didn’t like the 26-year-old counselor. She was too young, they said, and not very bright. They didn’t appreciate her insistence that the therapy focus on the violence and not on the more comfortable issue of their failure to communicate.

I have thought of confronting her boyfriend myself, as his friend as well as hers. I have, after all, known him for years–bicycled with him, hiked with him, drunk innumerable bottles of wine with him. But I can’t confront him without betraying my friend’s confidence. Besides I know he’d be furious to discover that she’s told someone about their problem, and it is she, not I, who would suffer his wrath.

I have imagined calling their therapists–his, hers, and theirs–and telling them outright that the problem in this relationship goes far beyond a little difficulty with communication. I don’t know if her boyfriend has ever told the psychoanalyst he’s been seeing for ten years about his violent tendencies, but I suspect he hasn’t. My friend has never told her therapist. They’ve been going to couples’ counseling, but neither of them has brought up the issue. My friend says she doesn’t want to embarrass him. She’s also afraid that he would simply deny it and that the counselor, a man, would believe him.

More than once I have asked myself how I, knowing what I know, can continue seeing this man socially. “If we found out he burned crosses on people’s lawns for a hobby we wouldn’t ask him to dinner,” I tell my husband. I have wondered if our inability to take a public stand against his behavior means we, like a lot of people, don’t take the issue of domestic violence seriously enough. But I don’t think so. We could hardly invite her and not him without explaining why. Besides she wouldn’t come without him. Ultimately cutting him out of our life would mean cutting her out, and that would leave her more isolated and dependent on him than she already is.

As far as I know, my husband and I are the only ones who know about our friends’ terrible secret. All their other friends think they’re the perfect couple. When they announced their engagement at a party a few months ago everyone was thrilled. “Isn’t this great?” a mutual friend gushed. I smiled weakly.

In my frustration I have built an elaborate fantasy in which I expose the whole charade. I see myself as a bridesmaid at their wedding, standing by their side at the altar. When the minister asks, “If there is anyone here who knows any reason why this man and woman should not be joined,” I see myself raising my hand. Then I say aloud the truth I know–that he has beaten her for years, that he has threatened her life, that unless someone does something he may one day kill her.

I realize I will never say such a thing. I cannot betray my friend’s confidence. I cannot publicly humiliate her. I cannot by any act of mine expose her to the wrath of the violent man she has chosen to live with.

Because I do not know what else I can do, I will keep her secret. But in doing so I know I am complicit. I know that if she ever shows up with something more serious than bruised ribs and a battered ego–or worse, if she turns up dead–I will bear some responsibility.

My friend will be shopping for a wedding dress soon. I know she’ll expect me to help. I will of course. What else are friends for? But I will feel like I am shopping for a shroud.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jim Flynn.