The screaming is what woke me up. First I saw him, his fist up in the air. Cocked and ready. A rocket. A sledgehammer. A wrecking ball. Then I saw her, the nene in her hands, my sister was screaming. I don’t remember what exactly. I just remember the piercing sound of it. The grating on my defiende tu hermana nerve.
This was my sister Dee screaming. The sister I never let anyone fuck with. Up until I left for boarding school when I was thirteen, when my sister had a fight, so did I. I let the girl she fought clean herself up. “You have five minutes,” I’d tell her. Then I’d go in, leaving her with a black eye and scratches, hair yanked out. That’s what you do for your sister.
That night, I was fifteen and home for a vacation, which one I can’t recall. Mom was in Puerto Rico or Honduras or somewhere but Bushwick, Brooklyn. I was staying with my sister while mom was gone. Dee was 17 and had just had her son. Her then-boyfriend, we’ll call him Carl, stayed over because mom was gone. She never would have allowed that. “Tu quieres estar con tu macho, tu hace eso en la calle. En mi casa, no.”
When I woke up, my sister was shrinking under her man’s fist.
(Those lines from my poem “Wild” have always been for her. My sister. “And so I write for her/ The woman shrinking under a fist.”)
Dee was screaming.
A loud scream.
A terrified scream.
An “Oh my God, he’s gonna kill me” scream.
Then that wrecking ball came down. So fast, so hard, Carl’s fist went right through the door of mom’s room.
My sister had ducked. Thank God.
We’d learned a lot growing up in that apartment.
Mom and Millie were vicious to each other when they were angry. They cut each other with their words. Millie called mom ordinaria, tu no sirve’ pa’ na. Vete al mismo demonio. Mom would call Millie a maricona and Millie’d shrink into herself. Her bottom lip quivered and she’d pound her chest, “Yo no soy maricona, puñeta, yo soy butch. Yo soy butch.” Over and over like she was trying convince herself, sobbing the whole time. Then she’d storm out. “Me voy pa’l carajo.”
Sometimes, too many times, it got violent. In my memory it’s mom who hit Millie. She’d hurl herself at her, five feet of fits and a rage, a blind rage that was aimed at me so many times. All fists and fuck yous, Mom clawed and screamed and cried. Millie tried to grab her arms but mom was fast and she was angry. So much rage. We jumped in, me, my sister, and brother, to defend mommy, of course. Always to defend mommy.
I didn’t want to defend mom. Mom’s rage was directed at me so many times, I could relate to Millie. No, Millie no era facil, but Millie loved me, she defended me, she didn’t attack me like Mom did.
When I was blamed for all of Dee’s mischief, Millie told mom, “Eso no fue la nena!” Mom would just hit me harder. One day, Millie turned to me, “¿Porque no te defiendes, carajo?” She looked at me the same way she did that time I refused to hit my frenemy from the block, Caroline, after she’d seen her yank me by my hair. That “tu eres una pendeja” expression, as if to say “You punk,” the worst insult Millie could hurl at me. I just stared at her deadpan and shrugged, “She’s not gonna believe me anyway.” Millie’s face fell. I walked to the bathroom where I stared at my body in the mirror of the medicine cabinet. I had to assess the damage mom had just done. I was maybe eight years old.
I jumped on Carl’s back and started wailing on him. I punched him in the face, I scratched him, I think I may have even bit him. It gave my sister time to yank open the door and run. He peeled me off of him and pushed me hard onto the bed. I was just a rag doll. Dee ran through our railroad style apartment, through the room we’d shared as kids, through the living room and the kitchen into the bathroom, where she locked herself in with her son. The bathroom wasn’t big enough to hold a sink. It was just a bathtub and toilet.
Carl banged on the door. The veins in his neck were so thick and hard, I think I saw them throb.
I ran for the machete mom had hidden on the side of the stove. I wielded that shit so high in the air, so hard, so strong that I could almost hear my Mayan ancestors scream a collective fuck yeah complete with whoops and hollers. I slammed the machete’s flat side onto the washing machine next to where Carl was banging and acting crazy. It clattered loud and hollow like an empty aluminum container does. Carl stared at the machete, then up to me like I was the one that was crazy. Then he made ghost, like I knew he would.
Not a half hour later, my sister was outside in the front of the building with her man and their baby, both of them wet-cheeked, exchanging I love yous and I’m sorrys. I glared at him and said, “Don’t you ever put a hand on her in front of me again.” To her I said, “you a dumb bitch” and I walked back into the house. It wasn’t the first time he beat her. It wasn’t the last time he beat her. It was the last time he did it in front of me.
I thought of my sister a few years later when my drug dealer boyfriend attacked me while I was in the shower. I caught him that night in his sleep. I hit him with his blue bottle of Jean Paul Gaultier “Le Male” cologne. I hit him on the temple or maybe it was his jaw. I just swung and scratched and screamed fuck yous and you son of a bitch, you will not hit me. I hit him until he pinned me to the mattress. He ended up lumped up. I ended up with defense wounds.
But I didn’t leave him. I never pretended that I would.
I’ve been silent about the whole Ray and Janay Rice domestic violence thing for so many reasons. One of them is because I also stayed and I haven’t had the energy to defend her or myself. See, it’s so much more complicated than “she’s stupid for staying.” None of us deserved it. Not one of us, you heard? I’mma let Roxane Gay take over the discussion here:
And, of course, we have rather grand and indulgent ideas about what women in abusive relationships should do. We have opinions about what we would do in her situation, as if our hypothesizing bears any resemblance to lived experience. She should leave him, we say. She should press charges. She should get a restraining order. She should go to a shelter. And when a woman doesn’t make the choices we approve of, she, rather than her abuser, must bear the responsibility for her suffering.
We demonstrate so little empathy or kindness for women in abusive relationships. We don’t want to hear real stories about what it’s like to endure such relationships. We don’t want to hear how love and fear and pride and shame shape the decisions we make in abusive relationships. We don’t want to hear the truth because it is too complicated. We leave these women with nowhere to go. We force them into silence and invisibility unless they make the choices we want them to make.
In a perfect world, yes, a woman should leave an abusive relationship. She should have the emotional, physical, and financial means to do so. She should be supported by law enforcement and the justice system. She should receive counseling and emotional support. She should be given safe passage to a new life. The perfect world is made up of so much should. ~ Roxane Gay “Why I Hate Writing about Janay Rice”
On my daughter’s first birthday, in the stifling, humid heat of a late August day in Van Cortland Park of the Bronx, I had to wear a long sleeve shirt because I had bruises on my arms from where my daughter’s father had dug his fingers into me and shook me. Shook me hard. He threw me up against the wall where he spit the most vile shit into my face.
He was rabid when he was angry. Malicious. You know when you’re angry and you think the worst shit in the world? You wish death and pestilence and some real sinister shit that you know you don’t really mean but you’re just so fucking mad? Well, this man would say it, all of it. He’d spit it into my face, “you’re a rat, you’re a fuckin’ ho, now I know why you were single for so long before I met you, ‘cause you a fuckin’ ho, cause no man wanted you.”
One day I went up the block, literally one block away, to have a drink with my then best friend. He called and yelled, demanded that I come home. I’d left him with the baby. Our daughter. He said I was a bad mother. A fuckin’ ho. A lesbian. I was there fingering my best friend while he was at home with our daughter where I should be. He threatened to leave our daughter in the house alone. Then he swore he was going to put her out into the cold. I hung up and put the phone on vibrate.
A half hour passed. Then I heard him. Boseando like I was a little girl out passed her curfew. “Vanessa. Vanessa. Vanessa, I know you fuckin’ hear me!” I was so embarrassed. I looked out the window in disbelief. He was alone. He’d left the baby in the apartment alone. She wasn’t a year old yet.
I ran outside. Yeah we fought. We fought loud and hard. He shook me up a bit. I pushed him. Our fighting woke up the baby.
Then, one day, I took our daughter to a kid’s party, the kid of a friend of mine from back in the day. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in ages, guys and girls, a clique I’d hung out with hardcore before my baby daddy and I had even met. We wanted to hang out. I dropped off the baby with him. He started calling and texting maybe an hour later. The same accusations. I was sucking someone’s dick. I was drinking and smoking and doing drugs. I was a rat. A ho. A terrible mother. He was going to call ACS. He was going to leave the baby out in the snow. I better come home now.
I turned off my phone. I didn’t get home until like five in the morning. I was already 31 years old. A grown woman.
I was calm. He was flippin. He slammed my mug of hot tea against the kitchen wall. He woke up the baby. He yelled into my face while I held her, she was shrieking, I was trying to calm her while heating up her milk. She was just 14 months then. She’d just learned how to walk. I remember I was holding her on my hip, bouncing my body in that rhythmic, soothing way that moms just learn how to do out of nowhere, like it’s part of a package deal that comes with pregnancy.
That’s when he did it. He slapped me. It wasn’t hard but it wasn’t soft. And it was the first time he had ever touched my face like that. I just stared at him. I slid my nena onto my other hip to free up my right hand, and I slapped the shit out of him. Just once but enough for him to know. His face was priceless. Pure and utter disbelief. Open mouth and all.
Then I pushed passed him, warm bottled milk in hand; I locked myself in the room with my nena. I put her to sleep. Then I tied my hair up in a tight ponytail like my brother had taught me back when I was eight and getting into fights all the time. I went out into the living room and started throwing blows. He screamed, “You’re crazy.” I screamed back, “Tu a mi me vas a tener que matar” because that’s how it was going to be. He was gonna have to kill me first before he put another hand on me.
I put the futon that was in our bedroom on my back and carried it into the living room. He apologized the next day, of course. He cried. I told him I was done. I never let him sleep with me again. I slept on the futon in the living room with my daughter for months after.
We still fought. We fought a lot. I kept telling him to get out. He wouldn’t. Then one day, during an argument over the stupidest shit, so stupid I can’t remember what it was beyond that it was some really dumb shit, he screamed, “That’s why Millie died, because she was a fuckin lesbian.” My Millie, my second mother, had died not a year before. I lost my shit. I clawed him so bad he had to wear turtle necks for a week. I’m not excusing what I did. I’m saying that’s how bad it got.
The next day I packed a bag while he watched and paced. More apologies. More let’s work this out. More, “We have Vasia, Vanessa.” Then, when I didn’t listen, it turned to “you don’t know how to have a fuckin’ family. That’s why you been alone, cause you don’t know how to keep a family.”
I was calm. That eerie calm that scared the shit outta me.
I packed the nena up, bundled her in her red goose down coat to protect her from the January cold. I put on the black Northface that he’d given me for Christmas one year, then I looked at him, looking all sad and pathetic and said, “I’mma go to my mother’s house for a few days. When I get back, I want you gone.” “This ain’t your fuckin’ house.” He didn’t scream it this time. He was trying to grab his cojones, ponerselos bien, as my mother would say. “No, this is Vasia’s house and she’s going where I go.” He just stared. I walked off and took two trains, an hour and fifteen minute ride from the Bronx through Manhattan to Brooklyn to my mother’s house, that same railroad style apartment I grew up in.
“¿Que pasó?” Ma asked when I walked in. I’d called my brother Carlos to tell him I was on my way. An unplanned visit. Carlos didn’t tell her what was going on. My brother was the only one who knew how bad it’d gotten.
I explained. Told her how abusive he was. That I wasn’t happy. I was crying. I was crying because I was exhausted. Because I was about to be a single mom and it terrified me. Because this was not how I’d planned it and I was ashamed. I was so fuckin’ scared.
“Tu no pensaras que tu vienes a vivir aqui, verdad,” Mom said. She stared at my tear soaked face, holding her one-year-old granddaughter and told me I was not welcome in her house. That if I wanted to leave him, I would have to figure it out on my own.
My baby daddy was gone when I got home two days later. I’ve never looked back.
This is what it took for me to finally end that relationship so who the fuck am I to judge these women who stay? I can tell them what happened to me. I can tell them that they can be safe, that they’ll be okay, that they are not alone, but I know what it took for me to leave and I know what those eyes are saying. “I can’t leave him. Where will I go? What will I do? How can I live without him? How can I raise my kids without their father? How will I?”
A few days into my entry into single mom-dom, I went to my homegirl’s house to tell her what happened. I needed someone to tell me I was going to be okay even if I didn’t believe it. She and I were pregnant together. She was still with her man. He was at work.
I sat in her kitchen while our kids played on the rug. They stacked building blocks. They danced to The Doodlebops. They giggled.
I sipped on my coffee and cried. Her eyes grew wide. “Oh my God, how will you pay the rent, Vanessa? Y la nena? Pero Vanessa, you’re not working!”
I wasn’t sleeping or eating. How was I going to do it? I’ve been doing it the same way I started nine years ago: one day at a time. Being a mom on my own is the hardest thing I have ever done. I get why so many woman are terrified of it. I get why some stay. I get why some leave. I ain’t nobody to judge.