Listen to an Excerpt
The woman sat across from me. Her long dark hair fell around her like a cloak. She looked at her feet. I took a deep breath, hopefully not revealing that I was as nervous as she was.
“¿Cómo puedo ayudarte?” I asked. She shook her head. “Por favor.” I said. “I need to know how to help you.” She shook her head again. I looked at the file in front of me. Check for bruises. My heart started to beat faster. “Necesito,” I began. Bruises? I didn’t know the word, I didn’t have my dictionary—I hit myself lightly on the arm, raised my eyebrows in her direction. I hit myself on the leg, on the other arm, anywhere that would get across what I needed from her.
She pulled back her hair.
I turned away, heat blazing in my cheeks. I felt like I was watching her undress. Her hairline was a soiled cocktail napkin; purple and yellow bruises spilling under her skin. The bruises got bigger as they leaked towards her ear. I tried to look at her eyes, to make her understand that what she was doing was a brave thing, a good thing, a strong thing. Her eyes slid to the floor, tears dripping from them and running down her cheeks and chin. I handed her a tissue. When she looked up to take it, I saw that the tears were not from fear; they were not from anger. All I saw were floods and floods of shame. She crossed her arms over her abdomen and pulled her knees up to her chin, dropped her head to her chest. She was naked again, even though she hadn’t taken off her clothes. I fought an urge to escape, reject and pretend. I trembled, weak in the face of such strength. She had come this far; I would not leave her alone.
I took another deep breath. Calm down, I said. This isn’t the first time. Women come in for help all the time. Remember the one from last week? She came in; you did the interview. She’s safe now; even the bruises around her eyes have faded. This is just like that. You can do this.
I ignored the woman’s screaming eyes. They kept looking to the door, voy a escapar, voy a escapar. My stomach twisted around my intestines. This time was different. This isn’t going to end well. I curled my fingers around the seat of the chair, clenched my teeth. I was ready; I was going to do whatever I could. Beneath my resolve, I wanted to give her an ice pack and run out the door, pretending that stuff like that never happened to people like her. Unfortunately, stuff like this happened a lot to people like her. I reconsidered the option of flying out the door.
I swallowed, tried not to look at her hairline, which was suddenly the only thing I could see. “Está bien,” I told her, even though that was the biggest lie I’d told that day. What had happened to her was far from bien. Try horrible, temoroso, terrible. Try that man is a cabrón.
“Necesito que salir,” she whispered. I looked at her, fading away against the upholstery of the chair, her hair drawn around her.
“Leave where? Where do you need to go? ¿A dónde?”
“Mi esposo.” She put her hand to her face like it was a telephone.
“You need to use the phone? To call your husband? To go back to him?”
I gestured towards the phone and then to the door, and then pointed at her. “Sí?”
She nodded. “Necesito que salir, necesito que regresar a él.”
The phrase pounded in my head. Regresar a él. Regresar a él. Go back to the man who hit you, who held a gun to your head, who called you worthless, who told you that he would kill you and no one would notice. Wrong, cabrón, I would notice. People would notice. You can’t get away with this.
And then I laughed at myself. As if my saying anything to him would change anything he would do. As if I could do anything really, except play cleanup crew, except pick up the pieces. I felt like all the king’s men, when I really wanted to just tell Humpty to never climb the wall in the first place.
The woman was using the phone. Talking in rapid Spanish to her husband. Sí sí, she kept mumbling. Sí, por supuesto.
She looked at me with eyebrows raised, hope in her dark eyes.
Funny, I thought. Qué cómica. She gets hope in her eyes when she thinks about going back to him, when she thinks about leaving here, the safe place where no one hits her.
“Él habla inglés. ¿Puedes darle a él las indicaciones?”
My throat felt like a coffee stirrer. I couldn’t get enough air. She wanted me to talk to him? To talk to someone who abused his wife? Who hit her and kicked her and treated her like a dog? Why would I want to talk to someone like that?
A little voice inside of me whispered. Why wouldn’t you? Isn’t this the reason you joined the shelter? To have the chance to actually change something? I wished I was back at school with my books, where abuse was a concept, and rape victims were ideas. They weren’t people, they were abstractions, statistics and stories that I would tell myself. Like you tell yourself about the 24 car pileup on I-25 or the woman who thought she had a wart but really had brain cancer. As if thinking about the worst-case scenario would keep it from touching me. I had been building a wall around myself, and now this woman was asking me to knock it down.
I was sucking and sucking through the coffee stirrer and I couldn’t get enough air. The room began to spin. The woman’s face was on my left, then on my right, then on my left. I closed my eyes, waited until my feet were on solid ground again. I could do this. I couldn’t get enough air to answer her, so I nodded and took the phone. He needed directions, so he could come get her. That’s all, that’s it. You’ll talk to him for maybe 30 seconds.
The black cord twisted around my wrist, the coils chafing my skin, cutting into it. I tried to untangle myself but I couldn’t.
“¿Hola?” I asked.
“Hello.” A deep voice answered. My throat was a wrung out towel that someone was still trying to squeeze dry. My lips and tongue buzzed, and I clenched my teeth shut to keep the bitter biting comments to myself. That last thing I wanted to do was to make this man angry. I didn’t want to make it any worse for the woman when she went back to him. I’d heard a story about a woman whose husband had threatened to scrape all her skin off with a knife and hide her body in a wall in the basement.
“You need directions?” I asked.
You need a jail sentence? You need a gun at your head? You need a kick in the ass?
The words curled into my ear like smoke, and lingered. I could see him suddenly, kneeling down on the floor beside her after he had pushed her there, whispering things to her, cariñosamente. Cielito, amor, princesa, corazón. I could see them on the kitchen floor; her leg twisted like it was made out of rubber, not bone. Her shaking shoulders up against the cabinets under the sink, his muscled arms trying to hold her, her bloody face twisted as she buried it in his neck. I could see her wanting to believe him, wanting him to be the man he promised he would be, wanting him.
I could see her leaning into the hand that had struck her, wishing that it was the touch she used to know. I could see her watch his face discreetly, trying to gauge when and where it would happen next. If his eyes blazed, then she could bet on another attack soon, and she would stay out of the bathroom. The tile was hard, the edge of the tub was solid. There were razors in there.
If his eyes were tearing, she knew she was going to be ok for a while. She would breathe again, she would begin the process of lying to herself again, she would pretend that he was just having a bad day, that he was really the man she had married on the beach at home in Veracruz, with his midnight hair and sparkling smile, his nunca voy a salir, and voy a amarte siempre. She had thought the promise that he would never leave her was romantic, that his promise to her to love her forever was sweet. So she would pretend that things would get better. I could see her brushing the crumbs from her shirt, wiping the blood from her lip, whispering, lo siento, amor. Es mi culpa, mi culpa.
Mi culpa. Yeah, right. Cabrón.
“Directions?” he asked again.
“Where are you coming from?”
What gives you the idea that you think that you can treat her like that? What did her eyes look like when you shoved her up against the counter, when she “tripped” and hit her head on the side of the tub? When you slapped her from the refrigerator to the stove to the cabinets? Was it like playing pinball? Did you enjoy it?
“The Publix on Spruce Street.”
“Take Center, turn right on Palermo, left on Miami. Go straight until you see the parking lot behind the McDonalds. You can meet her there.”
“Gracias.” He paused. “¿Cómo está ella?”
My hand gripped the receiver. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Do not throw the phone against the wall. Do not throw the phone against the wall. I wanted to pretend that it wasn’t just his voice on the phone, but that there was a miniature version of his body in the black plastic curves. His mouth was the curve between the ear and the mouthpiece. His promises were the coils of the cord. I wanted to imagine this and then slam the phone against the wall. Again and again and again. But she was already fragile. She didn’t need to see me flip out.
But ¿cómo está ella? Really? He wanted to know how she was doing? I thought about taking a picture of her and sending it to him. Maybe this time he wouldn’t see the woman who he thought did everything wrong, the woman who he thought understood nothing, the woman whom he thought was too stupid, too scared, too simple to leave him. Maybe this time he would see the hurt, the anger, the helplessness, the hopelessness, the rage and the strength like I did. The strength that took a quiet form, perhaps, but the strength that had come from somewhere inside her and had willed her fingers to pick up the phone and dial our number. Or maybe he would see the bruises at her hairline and regret what he had done.
I didn’t hold out much hope.
“Ella está bien.” I lied. I would not give him the satisfaction of knowing that she was actually shaking in the chair, that she was using her hair as a shield, that she looked like she’d been crying. I would not give him that satisfaction. Él no la merece.
“Gracias.” He repeated. “Nos vemos.” I actually hoped that I wouldn’t see him later, that I would never see him. The image of him in my mind was already etched there permanently. I would have to do nothing except close my eyes to conjure up his blazing eyes and his guilty hands.
The dial tone pounded dully in my ear. I turned to look at her. My head hurt, my heart hurt, my stomach hurt. It felt like there was a dead body on the floor between us, one that neither of us would look at. I was afraid it was a before and after picture, the before on the chair, the after on the floor.
“Gracias,” she whispered through her hair curtain. “Muchísmas gracias.” I nodded, sick to my stomach. She got up from the chair, her hand brushing my shoulder lightly as she left the room. “Nos vemos,” I whispered, “See you later”. I realized that it was a hope and a lie, and useless.
– Allison Pinkerton recently graduated from Furman University with a degree in Sociology and Spanish. Through her studies, she realized a passion for social issues and the underserved. Recently, she decided to use fiction as a vehicle to bring those issues to the public. She attended the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop in 2011.