Bianca Fungaloi remembers the night before she planned to leave her husband as if it were yesterday. She remembers the time: around seven p.m.; the temperature: bitter cold; the way she heard him approach their house in Ozone Park, Queens by climbing the dozen noisy porch steps.
It was late-January 2008 and her husband had just gotten home from work. After entering their house, he leaned his tall black body to the left, finding his wife fixing dinner on the U-shaped black stone counter. She may or may not have said hi. She could hear the roaring traffic from the highway leading to JFK airport. She was almost free.
Her husband murmured that he didn't like what she was fixing, a usual complaint. She ignored him; not so usual. He went into the bathroom, took a shower and came back a few minutes later, wearing shorts and a fresh t-shirt. He wanted something else to eat. He was louder now. This time, she responded.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
"I don't care what you want or don't want."
And then he did it: Grabbing a butcher's knife, he held Fungaloi's petite body with his left arm, and put the knife against her neck.
"I'm gonna show you who's the man!" he said. '"You think you're wearing the pants in the house? I'll show you who's the man."'
Fungaloi didn't scream. Her eyes met with her son, Josh's, whose name, along with those of his siblings, have been changed at Fungaloi's request, in order to protect their identities. At the age of 10, Josh was the youngest of the three children. He stood a couple feet away, silently watching as the tension built in his father's muscles and a contained panic took over his mother's round face. Fungaloi tried to stay composed and offered to make him whatever he wanted. He put the knife away and she went back to cooking.
Fungaloi says she had been a victim of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse by her husband for two decades. The two were married in Suriname, her home country, on November 15, 1994, on their daughter's fourth birthday. Fungaloi moved to the U.S. with her three children in 2001, hoping to get away from her husband, but he and the abuse followed. He had the documents to work legally; she, having entered the U.S. with a tourist visa that expired within a few weeks, was undocumented.
Three weeks before the knife incident, Fungaloi, who was 39 at the time, told her husband, Sheik, a practicing Muslim from Guyana who went by Jeff, that she was divorcing him. Fungaloi says he didn't take it well.
"I wonder where you're gonna go?" he mocked her, in front of the children. "Who's going to take you with three kids?"
"I don't need anybody to take me," she responded. "I can take care of myself."
For many of the 24 years they had spent together, and especially since their daughter Cassey and the two boys were born, Fungaloi had struggled with how to end a relationship in which she was not only a victim of abuse, but also financially dependent on her abuser. Her husband's job as a tractor-trailer driver supported their entire family. Even though she held a degree in math — she had studied in Suriname, and later at York College in New York — she stayed at home doing housework and taking care of the family.
"Because of the abusive lifestyle my husband imposed on me, I did not have a job, or a circle of friends that kept me away from him," says Fungaloi. After he saw that she might indeed divorce him, she says he became even more possessive.
"After I told him I was leaving, everything started to get out of control," says Fungaloi. "When we had sex, I would have to call it rape, because I would say 'no,' scream 'no,' and he would still do it and hurt me."
Everything was about to change. Two months before the knife incident, Fungaloi had contacted Safe Horizon, a non-profit that helps abused women rebuild their lives. They told her to start preparing to leave and to wait for instructions. If things became violent, she was told to head to one of the NGO's shelters with her children. But she needed a game plan: she left her passport in her brother's house in Brooklyn and started preparing mentally. Once she sought refuge, no one would know where she was.
As Fungaloi felt the knife on her jugular, she thought: As soon as I have a chance, I call Safe Horizon and let them know this is really bad. That same night, she waited until her husband, teenage daughter and two sons had fallen asleep, then made the call.
"Tomorrow morning," the woman on the other end of the line told her. "Don't make him suspicious. Do nothing out of the ordinary."
Fungaloi obeyed, and the next morning she meticulously made her husband a breakfast tea and packed him a salad for lunch. Nothing out of the ordinary, she repeated to herself as she drove him to his trailer a few blocks from home. She said goodbye to him, for the last time, she thought, and drove back to their house.
But something kept her from taking the step she had so thoughtfully chosen. Instead of taking the kids from the house, she let them go to school and she went to class at York College herself that morning. Soon, her husband called and asked where she was. Jeff made calls like this to her and the kids often. He liked to know where they were and who they hung out with at all times.
In the afternoon, Fungaloi returned home with her children. Back in the house, she asked her older son, Shawn, who was 14 at the time, whether his father had called or texted. He hadn't. Her daughter Cassey said he hadn't called them either. That's odd, Fungaloi thought.
A few hours went by, and Fungaloi stayed at home. She did not go to the shelter. "I needed a couple more hours, maybe a couple days," Fungaloi says. There was so much on her mind: the money, the kids; they didn't know anything.
Fungaloi's daughter Cassey says her mother would have never had the courage to leave her father. "Never," she reiterates. "Maybe back home," but the environment was too hostile for her in America, where she lacked the papers to work or even live legally.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of Time's 50 Best Websites of 2013.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.