by Melissa Grunow
There is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance.
—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”
I park my car in front of the house and climb out slowly, not knowing what to expect. The grass is soggy beneath my feet as I walk across the yard toward the open front door, though no sound is heard from within. Halfway across the lawn I pause to get my quickening breath under control. Water seeps into my shoes, and I pull my cardigan tighter around my body to ward off a chill. I wipe away the rain water rolling down my temple and onto my cheeks like cold tears, take a deep breath, and step toward the porch.
The door opens and my niece runs to me with her arms outstretched. I’m filled with relief as I pick her up, her little arms warm against my cold, wet cheek.
“I yelled at my dad,” she whispers in my ear. “I told him I was going to your house.” She pulls back and looks to my face for approval.
“Are you hurt?”
She shakes her head and wriggles.
“Stay on the porch and out of the rain.” I set her back on the ground. “Don’t go back inside.”
Moments later my sister steps through the open door. She isn’t crying, but looks as though she has been. I’m surprised by how skinny she is, how skinny she has become. Her long hair is pulled back, but strands have fallen out of the rubber band and are hanging loose around her face.
“He said you can’t come in.” William. Her boyfriend. Keeping me outside and in the rain is his way of reminding my sister, and me, that he’s the one in charge. He’s the one in control.
I don’t protest because I know how quickly his temper will escalate. Instead, Mary Beth passes boxes to me out the front door, and I pile them into my car and her minivan. She and William are still fighting. I can hear them, though their voices are chopped by the opening and closing of screen doors. My niece sits on a bench on the covered front porch and stays there, just like I told her, sheltered from the rain. I am afraid if she goes back into the house she will never come out.
* * *
I was brand new to my position writing technical manuals for a software development company when I met Raul. I was recently slender, recently out of a four-year marriage, and recently without a hint of self-esteem or self-assurance.
I don’t know what drew me to him initially. He wasn’t particularly attractive. Tall, yes, and Hispanic, his skin tone a smooth, almost caramel color. He was younger than I, by about four years or so, but his body wasn’t aging well. His hair was thinning already, even in his early 20s. He dressed more like a used car sales manager than his own peers. His sense of humor was terribly immature and he believed himself to be much smarter than those around him. An introvert and a recluse, he sheltered himself, the ruler of his own tiny world.
But he also had moments of kindness, of thoughtfulness, moments where I felt connected to him because he said something insightful or did something unexpected. He had me hooked on the hope that I would catch him being a good person, that I would be witness to a different sort of man, a better man than he presented as himself. So instead of refusing him, I pursued him.
He made it clear from the very beginning that he wasn’t interested in me, that I wasn’t good enough for him. I was thin, but not thin enough. “Suck in that brisket,” he would tell me as he poked my stomach. My hair was long, but not long enough. “My ex had hair all the way down her back.” I was a woman, but not feminine enough. “Why don’t you ever paint your nails?” I was too pale, too stumpy, too opinionated, but also too easily influenced. His criticisms were a challenge; if I just tried hard enough to please him, I would win him over. It was a test of my virtue and my self-worth to pursue him in the first place. It was a test that I ultimately failed.
Less than a year after I met him and a summer of sleeping with him, I moved from New Mexico to Ohio to start a doctorate program. I spent those first nine months flying in and out of the El Paso airport trying to keep the relationship going, but my efforts often backfired. If I stayed longer than three days during any given visit, we would fight. It normally started with him disapproving of my hairstyle, my clothes, or that I never wore enough makeup to cover the imperfections in my skin. They were the same criticisms over and over until I refused to listen any longer.
When Raul and I fought, we fought without resistance or regret. Our fights were slaughterhouses of words. “I have really high standards. I deserve better than you,” he once said to me. It was four hours into an argument. He was seated in his computer chair in the corner of his bedroom, hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, his giant frame sinking into himself.
I was standing next to his open closet, pulling clothes off the hangers and stuffing them into my rolling duffle bag. Scattered on the floor were objects he had thrown at me when I had started packing my bag. They were mostly gifts I had given him and framed pictures of us, memories created where the smiles hid a rigid system of rules that I could never seem to follow.
I had suspicions that he was not entirely committed to me, but I couldn’t prove it. Whenever I brought my suspicions to his attention, he managed to convince me that I was crazy, that my instincts were wrong, that I was just jealous. That was until I found naked pictures of Verna attached to his emails during one of my weekend visits. I didn’t confront him about the pictures. Not only was confronting him useless, but I strangely relished my discovery. It finally gave me something real, something tangible, to cling to so I could convince myself that I had to leave him. Those pictures gave me certainty.
My body told its most convincing lie ever the night I found the pictures. I was affectionate, loving, attentive. I offered him a drink, a snack, a hug each time I moved from room to room, gathering my things and packing them away for my flight home the next day. I moved slowly, cautiously, trying not to seem too eager to leave. I had to be careful to not start an argument that would devolve quickly into him criticizing and me pleading with him to see that I wasn’t fat or disgusting or stupid or worthless, as he had told me so many times before. No, I wanted that night to be calm and quiet so that I wouldn’t relapse into being desperate for him to keep me.
His suspicion came the following afternoon when he drove me to the airport. It was the first time I didn’t cry over the thought of leaving him and returning to Ohio, back to the doctorate program that I would ultimately abandon after the first year, partly because of him, and partly because the program made me feel worse about myself than he did. As much as I tried, I couldn’t fake tears. I sat in the passenger seat of his black Viper, dry-eyed and silent as we crossed the New Mexico state line into Texas, the last time I would travel eastbound on I-10. I wanted to remember the distant shacks positioned on the side of mountain, just on the other side of the river, but still Mexico, still a foreign country.
I turned to look at him, his face hidden under the reflection off his glasses. “I’m going to miss you,” I lied. But in the weeks ahead, it would become true. I would miss him. I would believe I needed him as I struggled with myself not to go back. I had given up so much to be with him that I had nothing left to fill his absence with when I tried to move on.
“I’ll miss you, too, Tubby.” Tubby. His nickname for me. A constant reminder that his idea of affection was to insult me. He hadn’t called me by my real name in months.
I checked my watch as we approached the terminal. After nearly a year of traveling back and forth to visit him, I had experienced every travel delay and disruption imaginable. This time, though, the sky was clear, and I was nearly two hours early for my flight. For once, the weather was on my side.
He took my bag out of the trunk and set it on the ground, avoiding eye contact. He was angry again, quiet, shifty, and distant. Typically I would start to panic and pester him with questions, trying to figure out what triggered his mood. It was always something I did; I just never knew what exactly. “I’m sad to leave,” I lied again, hoping to soften him up. I hadn’t cried at all that morning, and I was worried he had caught on to my untruth. I was also determined for him to remember me as a good person and to feel regret for letting me go. He knew exactly how to keep me clinging to him. By the time I leaned in to give him a hug, he barely put one arm around me.
“Goodbye, Tubby,” he said with irritation in his voice. I wanted to slap him for that infernal nickname.
I hated him for carrying on some internet romance with a woman I was always highly suspicious of, and I hated myself for not paying attention to my suspicions. I walked up to the ticket counter, pulling my duffle bag behind me, feeling duped and defeated, another relationship failed, another promise broken. So I did what any self-respecting women who had no other idea about how to take control of her life would do: I spent $90 I couldn’t afford and upgraded my seat to first class.
On the plane, the cabin darkened around me, and I looked out my window at a single pink streak across the blackening horizon. The shifting clouds flashed over it, and I caught my transparent reflection in the window. I turned away, not wanting to be reminded of all the times I stared for hours into a mirror, smoothing my hair, studying my skin for blemishes, determined to see the flaws he could see and desperate to fix them. Raul reminded me all the time that he believed my tattoos and my upbringing made me trashy and worthless. I bit into a warm cashew and washed it down with a sip of chardonnay. I reached up to turn on the light above me and sat back in my seat. I immersed myself in first-class perks, smirking inwardly at how easy it was to pretend. I was a graduate assistant teaching one composition class a semester and making about $16,000 a year. I didn’t belong in first class then or ever, but nobody around me had to know that. For a few hours I could pretend that my life was different, that I was deserving of more.
I had deceived myself for an entire year pretending my relationship was something extraordinary, that it was worth the cruelty, the infidelity, the name-calling, the insults, the mood swings, because I believed that I had won him over in the first place, so I just had to try a little bit harder for his affection, I just had to be a little bit better to be deserving of his love.
It was time to stop lying.
* * *
William comes out the front door, and I stiffen. His rage is printed all over his face, and his eyes are dark and darting around until they settle on my niece. I’ve managed to keep her outside for an hour, and as long as I can see her, I know she’s safe.
I pick her up and turn away from him. “Leave her alone,” I say. “I don’t trust you.” I murmur reassurances to my niece. She clings to my neck and doesn’t look at her father. He stares me down. I brace myself for a shove or a punch. He finally goes back into the house, and within minutes I hear my sister screaming.
I run to the door just as she is coming out onto the porch.
“He won’t let me take Madison.” She puts her palms to her temples, her fingers spread wide.
I had screwed up. I had taken my niece from him for a moment, and now he was going to take her from my sister for the night—or longer—just to remind us both that he has the power.
I feel that same churning in my stomach that I had felt every time I had given in to Raul’s demands, every time I had conceded his point just to avoid an argument.
“She can’t stay here,” I say to Mary Beth. “You don’t know what he’ll do to her.”
“She’ll be fine.” My sister is scared, but her words don’t reflect it. Even in the process of leaving him, she is still convinced that William subscribes to some kind of moral code, that he isn’t a man-shaped monster.
Williams comes out of the house and stands on the porch, waving the court paperwork at me, a demonic smile on his face. I approach him and stand on solid legs, legs that Raul had once measured the circumference of as evidence that I needed to lose weight. My sister, waifish and shaken, stands behind me with her arms crossed.
“You’re not taking my daughter.” He leans over me from the top of the porch, his narrow-set, beady eyes darkening. “If you do, it’s kidnapping.” He had what the courts called the right of first refusal. He could, at any time and for any reason, refuse a caretaker for my niece, even if that caretaker was family, and in this moment, especially if that caretaker is me.
Legally there is nothing I can do, and he knows it.
“She’s terrified of you,” I say, calling his fathering abilities into question, knowing it will anger him. I’m stalling, trying to think of a way out of this.
“Do you really think I would hurt my own daughter?” he narrows his eyes at me. “You have no right to talk to me like that. This is my house.”
“You let her go,” I say. “Or I’m calling the police.”
He laughs. Right in my face, he laughs. My sister shifts from one foot to the other, visibly nervous. “Go ahead. They were already here, and they left. You’re just wasting your time.” He stands up straight. “I’ll make sure they know that if you keep running your mouth, I won’t hesitate to put you in your place.”
For a moment, I try to think of a way to make him hit me. His temper is bubbling just beneath the surface, and I know that if I could get him to lose control, then I could press charges. But it wouldn’t be enough. Even if I could get him arrested for the night, he would be out tomorrow and ready to retaliate. I look over at my niece. If I don’t get his permission to take her for the night, who knows when I would see her next? Getting him to hit me wasn’t a long-term solution. In so many ways he is Raul, and I know it isn’t possible to outwit him with words or antagonize him to violence.
Being with Raul for so long had equipped me with the knowledge that the way to calm down a man like William is to appear to give in, to lose. So, I exhale, soften my face, and look directly at him. I force an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.” My voice cracks, and I even manage to force a few tears into my eyes. “I know you would never hurt her. I know you’re a good dad. But imagine if you were me, and you came into this situation when I did. Wouldn’t your greatest concern be for the child? I don’t know what else to do. I’m just here to help my sister.” I turned and looked at her, then back at him. “Because she asked me to.”
On the corner of the porch my niece sits with her legs crossed. She smears dirt from a spilled flower pot, muddying her clothes and shoes in the process. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone but me that she is there witnessing all of this.
“You’re right. You’re totally right. I’m sorry,” I say again. “I’m just trying to do the right thing. For everyone.”
He searches my face, and for a moment I think he is going to call me on my bluff. I’m not the least bit sorry. But I have to let him think he has complete control. I have to let him think he has won.
His eyes shift and I swear a shadow has been lifted behind them. He blinks and takes a step back. “I’m sorry for giving you attitude.”
It isn’t until I exhale slowly that I even realize I had been holding my breath. I smile a soft smile. “Won’t you let her come with us? Just for the night?”
He turns and looks at his daughter, dirt smudged on her cheeks. She should be wearing a jacket, but she isn’t. “Madison,” he says. “What do you want to do?”
She looks at him, then at my sister, and then at me standing in the rain. I stare at her, hard, as if I can force my thoughts into her head. Finally, she says, “I want to sleep at Miswissa’s house.”
Without a word, William stomps inside, letting the screen door slam behind him. My sister and I face each other, and she looks shocked, betrayed. I’m confused until I realize she believes my apology is sincere, too. Like him, she was expecting me to match aggression with aggression. She had never seen a woman take on an abuser and win.
William returns with Madison’s jacket in his hand and tosses it at my sister. “I want to talk to her before she goes to sleep,” he says, his jaw rigid.
My sister nods in compliance, and I’m already scooping up Madison to strap her into the car seat before William can change his mind.
The sky darkens as we drive home that night. I shiver in my wet clothes and turn up the heat. Rain water rolls in rivers on the windshield just before the wipers smear them away. The twenty-minute drive to my house is the beginning of a long journey ahead of us. But it is one that I have traveled before.
Melissa Grunow’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New Plains Review, The Quotable, Ohio Edit, The Adroit Journal, 94 Creations Literary Journal, The Dying Goose, Wilderness House Literary Review, and others. She teaches college-level English and creative writing courses in Michigan, and recently finished writing her first book titled “River City, A Memoir in Essays.” Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com/.