By: Gillette Hall
No, Cesar had never struck me before. Yes, there were signs. Signs that until that moment I had explained away, or willfully disregarded.
The room is dark, except for the triangle of light falling through the half-opened front door, in which he stands. Its yellowish light casts a glow on my husband’s profile, highlighting his chiseled cheekbones. I cannot see his eyes.
“Where have you been?” I rise to confront him.
“Why does that matter,” he says, “when I know you are safe at home?”
His words slur one into the other. The hair on my skin runs up my arms and the back of my neck.
“You are drunk.” My voice comes hard and flat through the tightness in my throat.
“Calmate.” Calm down. He rustles the car keys in his hand.
My heartbeat thumps in my ears. My body pulses.
“You are drunk!” I yell. “You are destroying everything! How can you do this?”
He doesn’t answer me. Instead, he turns to leave.
I can’t let him go. He could have an accident. He could hurt someone.
“Give me the keys,” I say, forcing my body between him and the front door. He tries to push past me. I move my hand towards his and get a brief grip on the keys. His fingernail presses into the softness of my palm. I cannot believe this is happening. My stomach fizzes and tugs at my insides. I swallow hard, as Cesar tries again to push me away. My knees quiver and I am knocked off balance. I will not give in. I am fighting for the life I believe I can create for the two of us. I grab again for the keys. I see his left arm rising.
The signs were there. Like the time he asked if, instead of me driving to work at the University, he could have our car for the day. He said he would be waiting for me on Alder Street in front of my department building. I descended the steps and looked around. I walked up and down the street, as my shoulders tightened around my heart. He wasn’t there. My back teeth clattered and my jaw ached. I need to calm myself down. I sat on the bench in the bus stop, rubbing my temples. He’ll be here any minute. He cannot have forgotten me.
He never came. I don’t remember how I got home that day, nor the story he told me. I do remember the window of doubt that opened as I listened to him. And how, calling on muscles I had been growing since childhood, I cranked that window closed to continue believing in him. In us.
My mother once dropped me off at my piano lesson after school and forgot to pick me up until nightfall. I sat by the front window holding back tears, watching the other mothers come and go with their children. The teacher asked me if everything was alright. I straightened my backbone and nodded confidently.
My mother used to lie on the breakfast nook bench in the evenings after my younger brother and sister went to sleep, with bits of regurgitated food clinging to her nightgown. She had been vomiting and purging. I would beg her to stop and let me take her to bed. She was ‘hitting rock bottom’, she would tell me, waving her wine glass through the air for emphasis. Come morning, she always promised me, she would ‘turn over a new leaf’. Looking into her glassy eyes, I heard her slurring words and desperately wanted to believe them.
The signs were there when I picked up a voicemail from Cesar’s course instructor at the University of Oregon, stating that he had missed so many classes that he was being dropped from the international student program. We had invested our entire savings, $500, into this course, which was designed to teach him the English and study skills he needed to enroll for a college degree, and I had believed that he was going to school each day. I stared at the phone in disbelief. I listened to the message again. There was no mistake, the message was for Cesar. Hot breath propelled the words from my mouth as I confronted him that evening. His eyelids narrowed and darkness fell across his irises; for an instant I didn’t recognize the man before me. He said he stopped going because he couldn’t do the lessons. Maybe I am expecting too much. Maybe I am being unreasonable. Maybe I want this for him more than he does.
Then there was the time the police came looking for him. It was Sunday morning. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table and saw the cruiser pull up. She took pride in being able to say, ‘no, Gill and Cesar are not home. They are at church’. We were. I told myself the police had made a mistake. He was issued a drunk driving citation. He told me the police were lying. A list of possible reasons this could be true ran like a ticker tape through my mind. I so desperately wanted to believe him. I hired ‘the best’ attorney in Eugene. He asked Cesar a series of questions about what happened when he was taken into custody. I translated the lawyer’s questions to Cesar and relayed his answers back. I realized the attorney believed Cesar to be lying. The lawyer must not understand what Cesar is trying to say. He wouldn’t lie. Not to me. Our love is stronger than that. Stronger than anything.
Or the time we traveled back to his village in Peru over Christmas to have another wedding ceremony to include his family, for whom we couldn’t get visas to the U.S. I knew the village like the back of my hand. I had gone there as a community development volunteer after college, and lived with his grandmother, Mamita. When Cesar’s job in a mining town in the Andes ended, he came to live with her too. He helped her with the laundry to spare her aching hands. Soon he was doing mine. In the evenings he made tea for us over the woodfire, sweetening it with sugar he brought from the corner store wrapped carefully in brown paper. We were separated by culture, custom, education, habit. But in the flickering light of the kerosine lamp the room was soft and beautiful, and so was he. I felt adored as I had never felt before. As if he would do anything for me, and never leave me.
As I walked along the dirt roads through town to the church for the nighttime ceremony, the seams of the dress – which I had worn comfortably the summer before in Eugene – rubbed against my sides in a nauseating way. I told myself it was tight around my abdomen because of the heat. In the darkness I felt the dress dragging on the ground. I gathered its white, gauzy folds into my hands as best I could, but by the time I arrived at the church the hemline was etched dusty red, its delicate material ragged and torn. Something doesn’t feel right. Nimbly I forced this thought out of my mind, into the Peruvian night. The church lights glowed warm from within. Mamita was waiting inside, and so was Cesar. He loves me. It’s just a dress.
When we got home to Eugene, I went to Planned Parenthood. They did a test and told me I was 12 weeks pregnant. I cannot have a baby. I yearned to have a family with a primordial ache in my bones. But even more than that, I wanted my children to have a different childhood than I did. If I brought a human being into the world, it had to be into a safe place. I can’t do it. Not with his drinking. Not with the fighting. I can’t knowingly bring a child into circumstances anywhere close to what I went through. I won’t do it. They told me I had 2 weeks to decide – after 14 weeks they could not perform an abortion. I didn’t give Cesar a choice. I told him I was scheduled for their earliest appointment. I felt no pain. Standing in the shower afterwards the water ran over me like warm tears. My body shuddered; grief twinned with relief. I have saved a child. Rain fell through the milky-gray sky that is February in the Pacific Northwest. I dressed and went for a walk, allowing its pitter-patter to drown out the whisper of a question I was not yet ready to face: can I remain married to a man with whom I don’t feel safe having children?
I didn’t want these things to be true. I didn’t want to fail. I couldn’t fail. I feared that failing at this marriage would show me to the world as a broken person. A not-OK person. A person like my mother. I was following my father’s footsteps, not hers. He left my mother to find true love, and he found it with Becky, my stepmother. Love saved him.
Love will save me, too. It’s the only thing that can. I would never make a misguided choice at marriage.
Any thought that it could be otherwise would mean I was not okay – that maybe there was some lingering skeleton in the closet, and maybe it’s a big one. Maybe by opening that door and shining a light on what was really going on with me, I would discover the closet had a false bottom and would drop me straight “down the rabbit hole,” as my mother used to say. My mother was ill – physically, mentally, or some more terrifying combination both. My worst fear was this: Maybe I am like her? Maybe I am her? No. I had hammered that door closed long ago.
We left Mom in my sophomore year of high school and went to live with my father and new stepmother. I ran hours of track and I took the hardest classes, but at night, I lay awake, worried about Mom. I was told she was in a hospital. Then she was in a halfway house (what is that?). In the echoes and whispers of my father and grandparents, I thought I heard that she had tried to kill herself. Then I saw the track-marks, a thick line of raised skin crossed by stitches running vertically up her arm. But she told me she had an accident with a kitchen knife. I tried hard to believe her. If you were going to kill yourself, I asked myself, wouldn’t the cut go horizontally across your wrist?
I stopped seeing her. I put inspirational quotes on the inside of my closet door. I started losing weight. I got a pair of white painter pants, size 6, and I was pleased when they became baggy where my legs met my thighs. I controlled my eating, which filled my mind with thoughts about what I was going to allow myself to eat next. I felt superior to girls who filled out their pants. And then my aunt confronted me, her upper lip trembling, and told me I was too thin. So did my best friend Liz.
“Dad, am I like Mom?” The words came out in a hot and cloudy burst.
His eyes widened, as if stunned by the question. He answered as if to him the answer was obvious. “Gillie, you two are very different people.” It felt like a thunderstorm finally broke, hundreds of muscles in my body going slack at once.
I don’t remember how I ended my disordered eating, but I know that slowly I allowed myself to eat naturally again. Nor have I reached full understanding of why I did it. But I wonder if part of me needed to know: am I condemned to be like her? If I flirt with her demons, will I have the power to walk away?
Love saved Dad. Cesar loves me, and if I love him enough this marriage will save me, too.
What if it turns out I have to save myself from this marriage?
I close my eyes in disbelief as Cesar’s left hand rises to strike my face. I feel the sting of contact and then the full force behind it.
Everything I didn’t want to see, I suddenly saw.
About the author:
Gillette Hall grew up in Latin America. She is a former World Bank economist and professor at Georgetown University, focusing on reducing poverty in Latin America and among Indigenous peoples. She recently completed the University of Washington Certificate in Memoir Writing and is working on her first book. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA with her husband and twelve-year-old son.