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A woman was bracing for her boyfriend's anger. Then a stranger stepped in

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else. Today's story comes from Renee. We're using her middle name only at her request because of privacy and safety concerns. In 2016, Renee was struggling to leave a relationship. She felt her boyfriend put her down and made her feel small, but she found it hard to stand up for herself. One day they were at an airport, waiting to board a flight when things reached a boiling point.

RENEE: My boyfriend was searching for his passport, but he couldn't find it anywhere. So his frustration began to build, which is understandable. But I became nervous because I was mentally bracing myself, knowing that he was going to take it out on me. We tried to retrace our steps as best we could. I was trying to help him. And at one point, I asked a question, probably about, you know, where he last left it. And that's when he aggressively snapped at me. I don't even remember what he said, but it was sharp. It was hot. It felt horrible. And when he was aggressive like that, it just hits you like a punch in the stomach. Like, you just - you feel so alone. And it was a feeling I felt way too often. I knew it wasn't right.

But then suddenly a man approached us, and he wouldn't keep his eyes off my boyfriend. And he politely asked my boyfriend if he had checked the pockets on his backpack. When my boyfriend responded, my boyfriend's voice was quite quieter. And the man looked back to me, and he looked at me as if to say, I see you. And it was such a brief moment. It was seconds. But him stepping in - it just immediately defused the situation. It was like a bubble had burst, and I just felt instant relief. I felt validated. I felt stood up for. I felt cared for by a total stranger whom - I don't know his name. I don't even remember what he looks like. But it's always been a memory, and it reminds me that it wasn't my fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE: He showed me in mere seconds that there are good people out there who are looking out for you. He was a bright light in a very dark tunnel, and he was my hero. And I truly thank him for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Renee says she is now in a healthy relationship. She credits the stranger in the airport for helping her remember that she is worthy of compassion. You can find more stories like this on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast and to share the story of your unsung hero, visit myunsunghero.org for instructions on how to send a voice memo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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