Author Heather Siegel was a Mom living in suburbia looking for a babysitter when she met Peruvian care giver Elena. Through this working relationship grew a deep friendship in which, for better or worse, Heather empowered Elena to break free from a domestic violence situation. What happened next one may never expect. This is a story of best intentions and heartbreak.
“Hello Heather Siegel,
It has come to our attention that you have funds in WePay that were collected through online payments for Elena Huanca. The total balance is $9.50. These funds have been dormant in our system for quite some time so please withdraw these funds immediately . . .”
I slam my laptop closed. I am not entering that account. Not facing that news story. A motorist reported seeing a disturbance in the van. Or her picture. I likely posted one, captioned something like, Help support her children. She would have been smiling, centered between her two girls. She was always smiling with them.
Which is why it took so long to see her true face.
It’s over, I remind myself, snatching my car keys from the countertop and slinging on my pocketbook. Opening that link will accomplish nothing. Thousands of dollars raised did nothing for her children; what good will $9.50 do? I need to push the whole thing down, as I’ve learned to do. Distract myself and get groceries. Walk away.
I palm the garage wall for the fat button, and realize too late I’ve misjudged my ability to handle this split second of darkness before the carriage door lifts. I may not want to open Pandora’s Box, but Pandora’s box has arrived in my inbox. My pulse quickens, my arm hairs shift; that fear I’ve worked so hard to repress creeps down my throat and spreads through every last nerve ending. And in the way it must have happened for her, I sense someone lurking.
It’s been six years since the incident, the last three of which I’ve been getting away with not thinking about her, and by default, not thinking about him, or that recurring dream, in which this feeling, and he and I, consistently starred.
In that nightmare, I’d step into this garage, knowing I was dreaming, even knowing how the dream would play out, and still I’d exit my car, and head for the interior door. On cue, he’d spring out from behind the family bikes, or the patio furniture, and lunge for me . . .
You stupid bitch . . .
Actually, there were variations, I’m suddenly remembering. Sometimes he had a gun. Sometimes his hands were the weapons, outstretched for my throat. Always, I wanted to fight back. But all I could do, each and every time, was freeze up, unable to move or speak. That’s when he would pounce and clutch my throat, the blood would pump in my ears; I would try to form the words: I hate you for hurting her, for victimizing her, I hate you for winning. Only my mouth wouldn’t work.
Now, standing in my garage fully awake, as the door inches open, I try with brute force to say what someone once told me you should say to an uninvited ghost:
But besides that my voice won’t carry outside my throat, I don’t know if I believe anymore it works telling a ghost to leave.
Truthfully, I’m not even sure anymore it’s a ghost I need to confront.
The first time I heard her voice, I heard what I wanted to hear.
“This is Elena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She was lost down side streets, worried she’d blown the babysitting interview. I heard: she wants this job.
The grandmother I’d hired via a babysitting service before her had wanted to get out of the house, but not to change diapers or wash bottles. The teenager before the grandmother had wanted to text her friends, but not to return my texts, prompting me to return home early more than once, frantic. I was a 38-year-old first-time-mother, with no local family. I wanted a person with common sense willing to do the basics, and above all this, someone who loved kids. Elena had found my ad, requesting help for two mornings a week, and one weekend night, but could not find my house.
“Then you make your first left,” I continued.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“No worries! Take your time. These streets can be confusing.” They were actually planned and ordered streets in N.Y, suburbia, but I’d botched my own share of interviews over lateness in this lifetime, and was a sucker for an underdog.
In this way, I suppose I began to root for her before even meeting her.
She entered the house, offering to remove her size six comfort flats in the foyer. I appreciated the gesture; my daughter had started to crawl, if not also develop an oral fixation. I guided her to the living room, and offered iced tea, but she was too polite to accept it. Instead, she bee-lined to my daughter, who had dropped her building blocks, and handed them back to her. She then sat down on the edge of the couch cushion, as if not wanting to take up space, and complimented the horse art on the walls, the coffee table made from a Costa Rican tree trunk, the arrangement of books on the side table.
“I never think to put them like that,” she said. Her shoulders hunched in a way that spoke of hard work. She wore slacks and knee high stockings and a bowed rayon blouse she tugged over her curved hips; the room filled with the smell of fresh laundry detergent (and faintly, fried food). My daughter crawled to her and offered a wooden block, perhaps sensing what I sensed: a kind, nurturing woman who loved kids. Elena bent down to take the block, letting my daughter touch the ends of her shiny black hair.
During our small talk, I learned we were the same age; I would have guessed she was a few years older than me—I think it was the blouse. Learning this, I felt the sudden desire to tell her that it was enough: her manners, and eagerness, her panic over getting there; that she was enough. But this was also my kid, so I straightened my thoughts and asked questions, continuing to see and hear the story I wanted to see and hear, just as she constructed the story she wanted me to see and to hear.
She worked full time at a clothing store, rented an apartment locally, and had two daughters– a six-year-old and an eighteen-year-old. A funny look crossed her face as she told me that her youngest, Little Elena, had been unplanned. I mistook this as an elbow nudge from one suburban American mom to another, cracking a joke about their kids being bothers, when meanwhile, we would kill for them.
But she wasn’t a suburban American mom. She was a Peruvian citizen who had come to the U.S. on a work visa six years earlier to earn money to send home, only she’d decided to stay, as her oldest daughter, and her husband, ended up moving here.
“He got jealous I make money. He want to earn more too,” she told me. Unfortunately, he’d recently lost his job (pushing carts at the Stop and Shop), and having let his visa expire, he’d taken to driving an illegal taxi for the Peruvian community in town. She rolled her eyes and shook her head in such a way to suggest, Husbands, right? What a pain.
“They can be clueless without us,” I added.
She tilted her head, offering a half smile. I read it as confirmation. And she let me. The alternative—of clarifying, no, I’m not suggesting that husbands are clueless without us, I’m suggesting that my husband has become a desperate man—would likely not get her hired.
Still, because I didn’t see a lot didn’t mean I saw perfection in her story. Money was obviously an antagonistic force in her life, as was circumstance. And both pricked at my heart.
I knew what it felt like firsthand to struggle. The first half of my life had been rife with poverty and shame. But in my trajectory out, I’d had help—from teachers who told me I could rise above, mentors who pushed me to make smarter choices, and maybe most importantly, a sisterhood of women, in books and in person, who had collectively shaped my view of the world, and formed a cultural given for me: women needed to lift each other up.
“Any chance you can be flexible for mornings?” Elena asked.
“Of course. Whatever you need.” By the time she drove away, I’d not only worked out her ideal schedule, but an unconscious plan to improve her life.
Answers are murky and burrowed deep; yet somehow, a word buoys up: Americanize. I enter my kitchen, arms full of groceries, and look up its meaning in Merriam Webster:
1: to cause to acquire or conform to American characteristics
2 : to bring (something, such as an area) under the political, cultural, or commercial influence of the U.S.
Is this what I’m dodging? That I might have helped Americanize Elena?
Or was it she who sought to Americanize herself?
“I want to ask you . . . ” she queried me one afternoon, spooning pureed blueberries into my daughter’s mouth.
I dropped my grocery bags down, still reveling in solo time spent running errands. “Of course.” I pulled out jars and cans and set them on the counter. “Ask me anything.”
“You think I should take ESL class at the high school?”
“Definitely. Why not?” I offered, a proponent of self-improvement, stemming back, if not from reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography as a teenager, then afternoons, as a twenty-something watching Oprah.
And so it went, on each visit:
“I want to ask you.” She pointed to a magazine picture. “You think I should cut my hair like this?”
“Ooh, it’s nice. Very ‘Vogue’.”
On another night: “I want to ask you…you think I should let Little Elena get those sneakers that light up?”
I waited until Little Elena was out of sight. “Actually, no,” I whispered. “They’re beyond annoying.”
We’d added Saturday nights to her hours, and she brought her youngest with her—I insisted, once I learned she paid half her hourly wage earned with me to a sitter at home. Sometimes her oldest, Alejandra, would come to spend time, too—and, I soon realized, to also get advice.
“Tell her what you told me,” Elena urged her.
A mirror image of her mother with sleek black hair and perfect skin, Alejandra shifted her feet and admitted her grades were terrible, and was thinking of dropping out of community college.
“Maybe I can help tutor you?” I suggested. By far, education was at the top of my values list, and so for the first few months I tried; but eventually, understanding academia was not for everyone, I talked more generally about passion and happiness– and capitalism too, hearing all those American motivational speakers I’d listened to over the years whisper in my ear.
I learned that Alejandra loved doing hair, and knowing a few hairdressers who made a great living, I suggested she try a job at a salon to see if she liked it. She loved it, and soon enrolled in cosmetology school where she pulled straight A’s.
From there, Elena brought me documents, letters for her daughter’s school, citizenship paperwork.
“I hate to be a bother . . . ”
“You’re never a bother,” I’d say, sensing she needed the encouragement. Hours after she’d leave, I’d continue researching for her.
“Are you coming to bed?” my husband would ask from the den doorway. But he didn’t wait for an answer. He’d married a woman who’d once sat on the side of the road with a dying raccoon until Animal Rescue showed up. Elena wanted to become an American citizen. I had to help.
I toss an old jar of pickles into the trash, and dig out an empty ketchup bottle with remnants of vinegar sludge, to make room for the new groceries. Two stalks of wilted celery hide in the back of the vegetable drawer. I scoop them out, and wipe away their slug-like trails, my heart thumping. Yes, I helped Americanize her. And yes, she wanted to Americanize herself.
But did she ask to be feminist-ized?
There is no verb for instilling feminist ideas into another’s head. And yet, I did this too.
I’d never been a radical— radicals would have balked at my choice to stay at home for a few years, maybe even to get married. But even in that temporary traditional role I inhabited, I couldn’t help but express a basic philosophy during our talks, one I’d absorbed from my own sisterhood: a woman needed to advocate for herself.
“Yeah?” She asked, when I opined that her landlord had no right to raise the rent, as he’d done nothing to remedy the broken ——– fill in the blank. “Maybe you think you can help me talk to him?”
We went together, and he didn’t raise the rent.
“You think so?” She said, when I suggested she assert herself to become assistant manager at the clothing store.
She asked, and got the position.
“You know, you my Gringa,” she said to me one Saturday night, as I walked her to my front door. “I tell all my friends.”
I laughed. “I think I’m supposed to be insulted by that?”
“What? No, no, no. It’s the best compliment. My friends so jealous. They all want a Gringa.”
Dread gnaws at me as I tie up the garbage. I had loved that title because she had loved that title. And in some ways, that designation gave me license to do even more for her.
But was that a mistake?
I return to my laptop, and make a quick foray into cyberspace, confirming what I didn’t think to consider in those early days: Peruvian women don’t have a history of standing up for themselves. Their history is one of oppression. Their Constitution doesn’t offer them specific protections, and yet, nearly half of Peruvian women in partnered relationships have reported domestic abuse. More, discrimination and violence against women is a cultural norm, and the patriarchal culture seems content with that.
In other words, in Peru, men don’t like their women to have Gringas.
She couldn’t hide everything, she knew, so when she slipped up on occasion and answered the phone that wouldn’t stop ringing, or came to work distressed, she scrabbled to tell me something, landing on “he’s a cheater.”
Survivalists are good liars, and naïve people believe good liars, especially when the lies are told with intricate detail. There had always been someone, she told me; in Peru, there had been many women. Here, many more. The latest was a young woman Elena’s husband had picked up as one of his taxi fares.
“He rubs it in my face,” she told me.
I remember thinking—even mentioning to my husband, “What does this husband of hers look like that he’s getting all this action?” But mostly, I didn’t understand why Elena stayed. And so, gently, but in the only way I knew how, from my direct, American, feminist perspective, I asked her.
“Is he a good Dad? Does he help with the girls?”
“I stay because of the money,” she told me, explaining that he barely helped with the girls; their care was all on her, including her daughter’s tuition. He also didn’t bring in much money to the household, but the small contributions helped.
From there, my own path was clear, illuminated by years of inspired feminist reading that told me money was not only empowering, but necessary. “A woman should have enough money within her control to move out and rent a place of her own even if she never wants to or needs to…” the line from Pamela Redmond Satran’s poem rattled in my head.
Solve the money issue and she can leave him, I thought.
I whipped out an Excel spreadsheet. What were her expenses? What was her debt? I stopped in my tracks at income. I had no idea she’d only been making $8.75 an hour at the clothing store. Was that even legal?
“I thought they promoted you to assistant manager?” I asked.
She said they had given her a promotion, with a fifty cent raise.
“We have to get you a new full-time job.” I didn’t have more hours for her, now that my daughter had entered pre-school.
“Believe me. I wish I could find one,” she told me. “But where? How? What about benefits?”
I went to Monster.com and began scouring ads. Within a week or two, I came across an ad for a full time nanny/housekeeper, twenty minutes from me. I helped Elena draft her resume, and write a letter of application; I wrote her a letter of recommendation.
She interviewed and, no surprise, got the job. It paid $25 dollars an hour and included benefits.
“I never in my life think I can make this kind of money.”
“You deserve it,” I told her. And then, instinctually— maybe because of my own lessons learned in my own American marriage—I added “Don’t tell your husband how much you really make.”
Elena caught up with bills. A year went by. Her bank account grew by the thousands, and then by more thousands. She loved her job. She loved the three well-behaved kids, and they loved her. She lost weight. Her eyes brightened. Her shoulders didn’t straighten, but a secret thrill seemed to possess her.
“I don’t tell him,” she whispered to me one Saturday night, when I returned home. She beamed, proud of herself. “I tell him Alejandra get a scholarship. I tell him the new family I work for give me all those nice things for Little Elena.”
She held her chin high as she straightened the countertops, and I felt the moment was right.
“Is he still with that woman?”
“He says no.” She rolled her eyes.
“You know, Elena, you could get your own place. I could help you.”
“Yeah?” Her tone was dreamy. “Who knows. Maybe one day I do it.”
“We can look right now…I’ll get my computer.”
“Not yet, not yet.” She laughed, holding out her hands in a stop sign, so that I had to laugh, too.
“Okay, but just say the word.”
“Oh, believe me, I know you do it!” She wiped the joy from her eyes. “You so good to me.”
“He needs to be good to you.”
“You know, I tell him that. We see if he tells the truth this time. I give him one more chance.”
I hated that, and couldn’t understand, but held my tongue.
My daughter is sleeping, my husband showering. I’m sitting on the couch, laptop warming my thighs, looking for something in the blue light of cyberspace. Answers. Connections. A way to appease this terrible and nameless feeling that won’t go away. A quote from a Peruvian violence website leaps out: “Mas me pegas, mas te quiero.” The more you beat me, the more I love you.
I shut the den lights, and head upstairs.
Gargling sounds come from behind the bathroom door, signaling my husband is near finished with his routine. I climb into bed, and tuck myself safely in this life I’ve been lucky to share with him: this kind, gentle man who only called me a bitch once.
“You’re being . . . a bitch on wheels!” he’d yelled one afternoon over some small grievance, and I’d crossed my arms and looked at him.
“Really?” And like that, we had both cracked up laughing.
Before him, though, there had been that one time.
I fluff my pillow and turn over…had I been twenty? Twenty one?…
A fellow Astronomy classmate had asked me out to a Fireman’s dance. He wasn’t my type. Too much of a loner? Too sad? Perhaps because of this, against my better judgement, I agreed. We dressed up and mingled, drank beer in red plastic cups. Afterward, I went back to this place, where I’d parked my car, to listen to music. He sat next to me and kissed me. He wasn’t a terrible kisser, but I didn’t know if I liked him enough—and I didn’t want it to be weird in Astronomy study group. His hands pressed down the space between my shoulder and collar bone; he pushed me to the couch. It wasn’t fun or sexy. It was scary.
I pushed back and wrested myself upward, with forces behind me, helping. A constitution that recognized my rights. Gloria Steinem. Audrey Lorde. He pushed down harder. I pushed back harder. I had a sister. A sisterhood of friends. I rolled out from under him.
“Come back,” he called. He’d had more beer than me; I had that in my favor too. I grabbed my car keys and fled. As I cut across the lawn, I heard: “Give me another chance.”
But there were no second chances in my culture. Because I knew what would happen next. The books and stories and the movies told me.
He would get worse. They always get worse.
They trap you to stay in your home country by impregnating you; and while you are pregnant, they beat you to blackout in your bathroom. They beat you with their hands, and when you accept that, they progress to weapons. A soap dish, their cell phone, whatever is on hand. They beat you in places no one can see, like the back of the head. And of course, they verbally abuse you before, during and after, so much, and so often, that your own voice diminishes and your self-esteem shrinks until you feel unworthy; and because of this feeling of unworthiness, you lie to everyone you know. Including your sister. Including your Gringa.
Then they get even worse.
They cry to you, and tell you how much they love you, how they can’t live without you; and you take them back because when you are with someone for that long, and you are worn down from the beatings and the drama, you believe it is easier to try to keep the peace; you believe and hope they will change.
My husband turns down his side of the covers. “What are you thinking about?”
I swivel to face him, my cheeks damp. I want to tell him about the mas me pegas quote, and all that I’ve been reading and thinking about inside and outside the boundaries of Peruvian violence, into pandemia. I want to tell him about the story I stumbled upon about the Canadian woman who had her abusive husband imprisoned, only to have him get out and beat her into a coma. Or the French woman who got an order of protection against her husband, only to have him stab her to death. Or the American woman who fought for full custody of her kids, only to lose and have her husband call her the first weekend with the kids, and live video killing them. I want to tell him that legislation, like the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, here in the U.S., and the enforcement of such a precept, can only do so much. Or that therapy—what experts recommend for these men—seems too slow a fix for such drastic personalities, and that killing them seems to be the only answer. And how is that the only answer?
But I can’t even bring myself to talk about it all, so instead, I say: “I got an email this morning from WePay that there is $9.50 in the account.”
“WePay?” He searches my eyes for answers. It’s been six years. And then, slowly, the name of the website registers. “Why are you doing this to yourself? Don’t think about that now. Not before bed.”
“I feel like maybe I could have done more,” I say, skimming the surface.
“That’s ridiculous. No one helped her more than you. And besides, none of us knew.”
But I knew something. I have friends whose husbands have cheated. My own pre-marital past is not pristine snow. But this was not what I saw, or felt, the day I met him.
Elena’s mother had passed away, and sending flowers seemed wasteful, so I’d decided to bring groceries to her home.
He opened the door a crack to reveal dark, slicked back hair, a square jawline, and a machismo quality I didn’t want to see as attractive to his cab fares, but saw just the same.
“Hi, Marco. We wanted to stop by and give our condolences, and bring these.” I kneed a grocery bag higher. “Heather and Jon?”
He looked us up and down as though we were peddling these groceries for him to buy. “How you know where I live?”
I chalked up his caution to being a cheater.
“Your wife works for us,” my husband said.
Marco forced the corners of his lips upward. “Come in. come in.”
The heat rushed at us as he opened the door. Inside the kitchen, the air hung oppressively. Elena emerged from the other room, her cheeks flushed.
“Oh, this so nice of you.” She smoothed her clothes, straightened papers, apologized. “I wish you tell me you coming. I so embarrassed it’s so messy.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, refusing to validate her shame or let her see me looking at the cockroach-repelling foam piped in at the base of the cabinets, mouse traps jutting from corners, trash overflowing with Colt 45 bottles, papers, junk, and clothes strewn over chairs. I didn’t judge it. I also didn’t like it.
Continuing to wipe and rinse things, Elena bombarded us with questions, like a doctor trying to distract a patient before the needle goes in. “Is it still warm outside?… Did we have a nice morning?…Can I get you a drink?”
My husband sat and accepted a glass of water, and I fell in love with him over again for having good manners. Truth was, he’d also grown up poor, and could likely sense Elena’s discomfort.
“Elena, please sit with us,” he said.
She finally relented and sat. We asked about her mother, and she told us about the funeral she would attend in Peru without the girls so they wouldn’t miss school. I wondered if it was a given that Marco wouldn’t attend. But I didn’t ask. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know more about him. And clearly, he didn’t want to know us, retreating, as he did to the den to watch television. But when we announced we were leaving, he emerged, and joined Elena to walk us out.
“Very nice of you,” he said, and shook our hands. Maybe it was the human touch of his skin against mine, but I saw things in his eyes I didn’t want to see. His eagerness to find work. His desperation for Elena to give him those second chances. His inability to stop seeing other women.
I didn’t want to have pity for the man, and yet there it was.
“Thank you for the groceries,” he said.
Unable to sleep, I scroll through my phone, and read late into the night. Most violence is perpetrated by men who feel powerless, a website tells me. By men who drink. By men who are prideful. By men who come from cultures in which abuse is a way of life.
And then I stumble upon the flip side to the mas pegas quote that disturbs me, from his perspective: Cuanto más te golpeo, más te amo. The more I beat you, the more I love you.
I don’t want to understand this inextricable relationship, but I am starting to—as well as my own jumbled feelings, surfacing from the depths.
“He wants you dead,” Elena’s sister, Felisa, told me after the incident, when I shared with her the recurring nightmare I’d been having about him waiting in the garage. Felisa was younger than Elena, more Americanized. She worked as a manager for AT&T, and was married to a man of Indian descent who treasured her every move. A year before the incident, she had moved from Oklahoma to our town, to be closer to her sister, and to start her own family. She was tight with Elena, and still Elena did not confide in her.
“Why would he want me dead?” I’d asked her, wishing the words hadn’t left my mouth. Because the answer I already knew, even before she spoke it:
“Because you helped her.”
I shut my phone and stare at the bedroom ceiling. Maybe it’s not that I could have done more.
But wish I’d done less?
More thousands in the bank. More “cheating.” More encouragement from me.
Another year rolled along. Elena’s girls turned 21 and 10; my own daughter 6. Sometimes Elena would arrive by herself, and then later, I would come home to find Little Elena had materialized beside her.
“Marco take her to the movies, and then drop her here,” Elena explained. “I hope it’s okay?”
“And now he doing who knows what.” She shook her head.
“You know you don’t need him.” I continued to coach her. “Imagine if the tables were turned. How fun would it be if you went on a date?”
She laughed and batted her eyes. “Yeah? You think so?”
“You’re gorgeous, Elena. You’re nurturing, sweet, sexy . . .”
“Let’s not go crazy!”
“Why not? It’s true!”
Then came the day—five years since the day she sat on my couch, not wanting to take up space—when I would hardly believe my ears:
“I am ready,” Elena told me. “I am done with second chances.” She stood straight, held conviction in her voice.
“Say no more!” I hugged her; we laughed; and when the intoxication wore off, I set to work with my trusty laptop, and pored over the Multiple Listing Service.
We found an apartment on the top floor of a house, one town over: it was cockroach free and had two bedrooms. Little Elena would join her, Elena said, but Alejandra would stay home with Marco since the salon she worked at was close by, as was her new boyfriend.
“Her boyfriend, Ricardo, he very good to her,” Elena said, as if this explained more. I nodded, unable to see Elena was trying to distract me with this information.
We went to Ikea; she pointed to what she liked. Creams and taupes and soft whites and dark woods. We picked out furniture, mirrors, artwork, curtains, plants. I hired a painter to cover the walls in a soft linen color, a carpet cleaner to wash the cream-colored wall-to wall carpet, and an electrician to swap out the harsh lighting for soft, ambient chandeliers and ceiling lights with linen drum shades. I transformed Little Elena’s room into a purple fuzzy paradise, and Elena’s room into a monochromatic cream and white sanctuary. Over her headboard, I hung a print she’d picked out of a budding rose. Around the windows, I draped creamy sheer curtains.
“I never live in a place so beautiful,” Elena told me. “It’s like a magazine.” She touched the artfully arranged collage of photos in the open-shelved television cabinet, ran her hands along the taupe velour couch, and the dark wood kitchen table with its cushioned upholstered chairs.
“Every woman needs a room to call her own,” I told her, borrowing from Virginia Woolf, as I sat on the kitchen floor cutting into a box full of new white, square plates. She joined me, and helped undo the plates from their padding.
“I can’t wait to sleep here,” she said. “Tomorrow, hopefully.”
“Why not tonight?”
“I don’t tell him yet.”
“Right now he think I stay with my sister. I don’t want him to know yet. I want him to get used to me not there first. I know him since we are 17. He will need time before I show him.”
My phone pinged: my own husband. “Are you ever coming home?”
It was late. Two weeks’ worth of cuts and bruises from assembling and arranging furniture covered my arms. There was so much I didn’t understand through the veil of her words, but I trusted she knew him.
I give up trying to sleep, and throw off the covers. It’s 2:00 AM. The house is dark and quiet. My husband sleep-breathes. My dog snores, possibly having her own recurring nightmare. Squirrels chasing her in an unnatural twist of fate?
“It’s OK.” I nudge her front paw with my foot, then rise and creak down the stairs to the kitchen, turning lights on as I go, and feeling like a fool while doing it. But, even outside of my garage, the dark still unnerves me.
Elena moved into the apartment a few days later. Soon after that, Little Elena “mostly” moved in.
“Marco and me alternate weekends with her,” Elena told me. I took this as a good sign: that they were being adult about their separation, and were working out the details.
“And how did he react when you told him about the apartment?” I asked.
She took a glass to my kitchen sink and rinsed it. “He still thinks I with my sister. But I think he is starting to know. It will be okay. He knows now I won’t take Little Elena from him.”
I was shocked how Little Elena, Alejandra, and Felisa, for whatever reason, felt the need to dole out the news to him in increments.
“He very emotional. I tell Little Elena not to say anything yet, and she understand.” Confidence crossed her face, and I remember thinking that being alone might already be changing her for the better.
“And how do you like the apartment?” I asked.
“Oh, Heather, I love it. I wake up in the morning and I don’t believe it. It is so quiet. So nice. It’s… like…heaven.”
I glug water, and hightail it back to bed, reluctantly shutting the last of the lights. ” . . . in the end, a woman, as a man, has the power to choose, and to make her own heaven or hell,” Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique. Staring at the shadows of my bedroom ceiling, I want to believe that. And I do.
But what happens when hell comes knocking on your heavenly door?
How he found out remains a mystery. Maybe Elena finally told him. Maybe Little Elena caved one night, feeling guilty about deceiving her father; apparently, they had kept up their white lies to him for an entire month. It must have been a lot for Little Elena to hold in.
“He come see the place,” Elena said to me one night as I readied myself to go out.
“Wow, how did that go? He must have been in shock.”
“You know what he say to me, Heather? He say, ‘you have a man now?’ He so angry. I say, ‘no, I don’t have a man.’ I tell him that you help me. He don’t believe me I don’t think, but then Little Elena tell him, and Felisa.”
“He still don’t like it. But . . .” she shrugged.
“Oh well,” I said.
She smiled a genuine smile. “He too late, right?”
“Exactly,” I said, thinking, now she’s getting it. “He should have thought of that before he disrespected you for, what’s it been… 30 years?”
She laughed. “You right. You right.” She shook her head, perhaps thinking of just how crazy it had been she had stayed with someone like that for so long.
“But . . . the thing is . . . you know, I think he more mad it not a man who help me.”
I stopped pulling on my date-night sandals. “Wait. I don’t get that. Why?”
“I don’t know . . . maybe he more . . . embarrassed?”
“Well, tell him that’s silly,” I said, as if she might actually do that.
As if I could change centuries of patriarchal culture.
Birds squeak and bay outside my window, although it is 4:00 AM. Other than owls, I didn’t know nocturnal birds existed. In this strange, gray space of insomnia, between night and morning, between nightmares and sunrise, one in particular won’t relent:
“Kee kee kee keee Coooah,” it loops, over and over.
My mind loops too.
Why do we tell ourselves because we’ve spent time with people that we know them?
A Saturday night in June—June 30th, 2012, to be exact; a night like the previous five years of Saturday nights as we flitted about in my kitchen. I checked the chicken cutlets cooking in the oven, and glanced through the kitchen window to see our daughters jumping on the trampoline. Elena set the plates on the counter, then pulled forks from utensil drawer.
I smiled at her: my friend, my counterpart in progress. I was proud of her with her full-time job with benefits, her apartment sanctuary, her now twenty thousand plus dollars in the bank, and her future before her, with plenty of grandchildren in the picture for sure, as Alejandra and Ricardo had given birth to a baby boy, gotten married, and recently found out they had another one on the way.
“I need to tell you something,” she said. “Please don’t be mad. I so afraid to tell you.”
A pit opened in my stomach. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “Tell me anything.”
“I feel so bad. I had to, I can’t even tell you.”
“Elena, tell me. What is it?”
“I had to. Oh, Heather, I had to let the apartment go.”
I stood still. “You did not.”
“I so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry . . . just . . . why?”
“I had to. But I stay with my sister. Please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad. I’m just . . . really disappointed for you . . . I thought you loved it.”
“I love it so much, I really do. He just so mad, Heather. He act crazy. He can’t get it out of his mind I live alone like that. He think I don’t need him. I don’t want him anymore.”
“Well. You don’t.”
“I know,” she tried to summon a smile, but couldn’t fake the conviction. “He too upset. It make me feel bad for him.” She folded two napkins, set them under the forks, and wiped at something invisible on the counter.
“Elena, it’s your choice. I can’t tell you what to do. But . . . if it were me? I would . . . just let him deal. . .”
My husband entered, said hello, and seeing that we were in the middle of something, told me he’d wait for me in the car.
I slung my bag over my shoulder. It was a blow, but not total defeat I told myself.
“Elena, listen, you have to do what makes you happy. If staying at your sister’s is want you want, then you should do that. But not because he wants you to.”
“I know . . . Just . . . ” She stopped wiping the invisible spill. “I want to ask you . . . If . . . if my husband say . . .” She looked at me, and the room went static.
“If he say . . . he do something to me if I don’t come back, you think I should believe him? No, right?”
My fist clenched the strap of my pocketbook. “Well, when you say ‘do something,’ do you mean, harm himself?” The next words tasted like bile, but I needed to ask: “Or harm you and the girls?”
“He never harm them.”
“But . . . you?”
She looked down, and for the first time I saw that not only did I not know everything, she had purposefully been keeping a veil drawn down between us.
“I would absolutely take any threat of violence seriously, Elena.”
“But you think he could? You think he would do that?” She was lifting it now; the veil was halfway up. My heart quickened, and instinct guided me forward.
“Elena, tell me. Has he ever hit you?”
She looked straight at me, and removed the veil. “Yes.”
I knew the next question. “More than once?”
She nodded, her eyes glassing up, five years of dishonesty between us revealed. 30 years of her own silence broken.
“Elena, listen to me. Any threat is a real threat. Especially from someone who has been violent towards you. Do you understand what I am saying? You need to call the police. And get a restraining order. And keep away from him.” We all need to keep away from him. He comes here. He has come here to pick up and drop off Little Elena for five years. “And you’re sure he has never hit your girls?”
This was the truth, I knew, not just from her swift convictive response, but how well-adjusted Little Elena was. But Alejandra, she seemed to struggle more, and she had stayed behind in the apartment.
“Little Elena doesn’t know, please don’t tell her.”
“I think she know.”
“Elena, let’s call the police now.”
“No, we can’t. They will deport him.”
“Honestly, that’s his problem now.”
“But . . . he get madder, I think.”
It was a valid point.
My husband called to me from the garage—insisted we’d miss the movie if we didn’t leave now. I yelled back I’d be down in a second, though I didn’t want to go down. I wanted to pack us all up and go to the police station.
“He will calm down. He just too upset right now… Please don’t ruin your night. I don’t want you to worry, Heather. I always such a bother.”
“You’re not a bother.” But this was a lot to take in. And I wasn’t sure what to do.
“Ok, listen, we are going to think about this. We are going to figure out what to do. In the meantime, I’m setting the alarm.”
“He won’t come here. Please don’t think that. He won’t do anything. He would never do something like that. I know him since he’s seventeen.”
“Elena. I’m going to set it. Have the girls come inside.”
I went down to the garage, sat in the car, and explained.
“He hits her?” My husband waited for me to tell him I was kidding. He had met the man the same as me. He had known Elena for five years. Little Elena seemed so happy. “I thought he was just a cheater.”
“I think he’s also a cheater.”
We sat there, deciding what to do, and as we did, we still didn’t want to believe, or maybe we needed to normalize.
“He’s probably just feeling depressed,” my husband said, finally, backing the car out and driving us to the restaurant. “People say stupid things when they are upset.”
But I had seen beneath the veil, if only for a split second, and in glimpsing that truth I’d been blind to for five years, the narrative began to add up: her hunched shoulders, her lack of self-esteem, her shock at being given a fair wage and being treated as worthy, her disbelief over her nice apartment. And him: “How you know where I live?” That wasn’t a cheater’s suspicion. It was an abuser’s suspicion.
Our Chicken Tikka Masala entrée arrived. “Let’s skip the movie,” I said.
“I was about to suggest the same thing,” my husband said.
I called Elena on the way home.
“Yes, everything is okay. I told my sister. I will sleep there again tonight, and she will help me. She said he would never do anything. Please don’t worry.”
“Did you tell her he hit you?”
“You need to tell her, Elena.”
Back home, more assurances. “It’s okay, I promise it’s okay. Sorry I worried you. I know him. He would never do such bad things. And I call my sister back and I tell her. She know he would never do something bad.”
I wanted to have the sister’s confidence. I wanted to believe Elena, but I worried the veil was back down.
“You know what me and my sister thinking? He just needs money,” she insisted. “I will give him money. He needs to pay the rent. Once he does, it will be okay. He just stressed.”
The money again. Entwined in their struggle. Would paying their rent fix things? What about that he’d hit her all these years? And where would she go from here? Where would we all go from here? I’d ostensibly placed my own child in danger—and knew this was in part why she’d hid her dark secret. She was afraid of losing her job . . . or jobs.
“You have to tell the other family you work for, Elena. Maybe… you even need to take a week off to let things settle down between you guys?”
“Okay, I talk to my boss Monday.”
“And will you talk to your sister some more? And think about calling the police? I hear you about deportation, but this isn’t about him anymore. It’s about you. And no one has the right to threaten you.”
“I know, I know.”
“No one has the right to hit you.”
“You right. You right.”
“Yes, I know, my Gringa. I really do. But it’s going to be okay. You’ll see.”
Did she believe herself?
4:10 AM. The bird is relentless. “Kee kee kee keee Coooah.” For some reason, I keep hearing: I think he more mad it not a man who help me.
I called Elena the next day; they’d had a long talk, she said. She’d given him the rent money, and it had helped. He still wanted her to come home, but for now, he’d calmed down.
“He going to get used it,” she said. “He told me he understand, and he sorry for everything.”
Did he believe himself?
Monday, June 12th, two days after she told me it would all be okay, my phone rang as I drove home from the preschool.
“Heather, it’s Ricardo.”
But I knew the name, and my stomach folded.
I slowed the car to the side of the road. I didn’t want to know, but I knew. I took the phone off Bluetooth, watched my daughter through the rear view mirror tap a plastic dinosaur against the glass window.
“He did it.”
Tap tap tap tap.
“What are you saying?”
I knew what he was saying.
Tap tap tap tap.
“I don’t believe it. No one can believe it.
I believed it.
“He killed her. He shot her in the head.”
Tap tap tap tap.
“Where were they?” I asked, as if it mattered.
“She was driving to work. I just don’t believe it.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s dead. He shot himself . . . I just can’t . . .”
I don’t remember if I uttered the next words or just thought them:
“What a fucking coward.”
I throw off the covers and pull back the curtains, trying to identify the noisy creature out there, somewhere in the branches, calling to me, keeping me awake.
“Kee Kee Coo.” Your nights may be sleepless, it tells me, but you still have them.
I am grateful for this, which is why, looking into the dark night sky, I am beginning to understand that confrontation is not a choice, but a necessity—and maybe even a responsibility to those who are not here. Even confrontation of the hard and scary truths we try to hide from and push down and bury.
And my truth is this: I feel complicit for what happened to her, not because I didn’t know for five years that he beat her, but because I helped Americanize, feminist-ize, and ultimately empower her.
I feel complicit because her empowerment was what led to his further emasculation, which led to his total desperation, which led to him buying a gun from a neighbor and hiding in the back of her van, where he would drink a bottle of wine and wait for her. I feel complicit because her death while arguably might have been inevitable, arguably might not have been.
And so I have to ask myself: Would she have been better off had she not met me? If, say, she’d never found a Gringa, but instead had continued to work for $8.75 an hour at the clothing store. Would she have been better off if she had gotten a second job with someone who did not try to embolden her, but instead encouraged her to shrink and hide and accept his behavior and rage?
Alejandra had witnessed the beatings, I would learn at some point. She would confess this to Felisa: that there were many days, too many to count, when she would come home from cosmetology school to find her mother blacked out on the bathroom floor. Perhaps she lived in fear that she was next, and that is why she did not move in with her mother? Perhaps he threatened her? And Little Elena—though she hadn’t witnessed her father beating her mother, she probably would have eventually.
Which would have been better for them? Watching a mother who endured beatings and forgave her offender? Or having a legacy of a mother who broke the cycle of a culture, and pushed back?
I tiptoe into the den, and open the WePay email, reminding myself that she had that month in the apartment. “I wake up in the morning and I don’t believe it. It is so quiet. So nice. It’s like heaven.” As the site loads, I imagine her stretching out in that double bed we assembled together in that place of her own: soft pillows, the budding rose over her head, the sunlight glinting in, the stretch of a day before her at a job that valued her. Maybe dinner that night with her girls and her sister and her grandson. Maybe a movie ahead on the weekend.
The article pops up, and I read it.
Murder-suicide . . . No clear motive . . .
A motorist reported seeing a disturbance in the van.
I stop there, at that line that has haunted me for so long, and realize why. It’s because in thinking about this “disturbance” I saw her struggle unfold in a certain way. I saw him punch her and tear at her hair. I saw him point the gun and pull the trigger, killing her. I saw him cowardly turn the gun on himself as a way to win.
But in thinking about her empowerment, I realize that I can also see this differently. I can see him punch her, and her punch back. I can see him tear at her hair, and her scratch at his eyes. I can see him demand that she come home, and her refuse. I can see him point the gun and pull the trigger, unable to kill her spirit. I can see him turn the gun on himself, not only because he is a coward, but because he has lost.
I can see that if I am complicit in her death, I am also complicit in his.
I scroll down to her picture. I was right in thinking I’d posted one of her with her girls. Her shoulders are hunched; thirty years of apology doesn’t disappear in a few years’ time, just as centuries of culture doesn’t fade away with a new job and apartment.
But the newer version of her is present as well.
In the photo, her eyes are bright and full of a future; she has money in the bank, her girls doing well, and not yet, but soon, she will have a place of her own with a budding rose over the bed: a place that she will call heaven; a place that, even if she leaves, she will carry with her as a mindset. And in this place, she will wake up and listen to the birds outside the window, and know more good days are on the horizon in this land of America, where feminist sisters look out for their own.
Sleep may not happen again tonight, or for many nights in the future that I am lucky enough to still have. But I know I will be ready to face him if he comes, ghost, or figment of my consciousness, in the darkness of my mind, in my dreams, or the garage shadows of my memory; I will face him again and again and again. I will do it for myself, and for my sisters. I will do it for Elena’s daughters and their daughters. I will do it for Elena.
Lo golpeé porque te amo.
I beat him because I love you.
Heather Siegel is the author of the coming-of-age memoir, OUT FROM THE UNDERWORLD, depicting her absurd, dysfunctional childhood with humor and compassion. Her newest work, THE KING & THE QUIRKY: A Memoir of Love, Marriage, Domesticity, Feminism, and Self launches in April, 2020. This essay originally appeared in Entrophy Magazine. The author has anonymized the names.