THE INQUISITION, DECEMBER 1974
The morning blurred into view. I tried to suppress a retch as I bolted toward the bathroom. I threw up in the toilet, then leaned over the sink and rinsed my mouth with faucet water. This wasn’t the best way to spend Christmas break, but at least I didn’t have school. I’d already embarrassed myself by puking at the bus stop. I never saw kids move so quickly, dodging the chunks and spray that convulsed from my body. Luckily, I hadn’t hit anyone. After dousing the sidewalk with my breakfast, I had rode to school with Betsy, turning various shades of green while enduring hushed gossip and indignant glares from my fellow students.
At first I thought I had caught the flu. But deep down, I knew that wasn’t it. So I looked through my mother’s old high school anatomy books, stored in a moldy box in my father’s workshop down in the basement. The unfinished room had a workbench on a cement floor with a single, bare light bulb swinging from the ceiling. Old boxes full of rusted tools (many with faded price tags still attached) sat on top of the workbench. I do not ever recall my father using that room. Yet we’d been warned never to go in there, because the table saw and drill were so dangerous.
I feared that dark, dank space, but not because of the power tools. It was the spooky shadows cast by that naked bulb, the cobwebs lurking in every corner, and the strange gurgling and lurching sounds that emanated from both the sewer line beneath the house and the boiler sitting opposite the thin wall. Mustering all my courage, I had positioned myself squarely beneath the light bulb and began reading furtively about pregnancy and childbirth. In the end, I self-diagnosed my morning sickness.
After I’d swished and spit, I went downstairs to make myself a cup of hot tea. It was Saturday morning, so my mother sat at the kitchen table preparing her shopping list and coupons. She looked up briefly. “Good morning,” she said in a clipped voice.
“You want breakfast?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously. Before now, she’d been oblivious to my increasing weight, frequent need to pee, and ballooning breasts. I could see snowflakes starting to fall outside the curtainless kitchen window. I couldn’t tell whether it was the draft or the unusual chill in my mother’s tone that made me shudder. I gulped, trying to tame my still-churning insides.
“No, Ma, I’m okay. I just want some tea.”
I filled a small pot with water and put a Lipton tea bag in a cup, all the while trying to keep my back toward my mother. The grease on the stove was thick, so I swirled my middle finger through it as if it were a glob of finger paint.
“Don’t make a mess, Millie.”
I turned slowly, attempting to slide inconspicuously into my chair at the table. It was getting to be a tight squeeze.
“You heard about Jakie’s fight yesterday?” she asked.
“Yeah. I saw his black eye. It was with Jeffery around the corner, right?”
“He was fighting because of you.”
“’Cause of me? Why?”
“Jeffery called you a name.”
I had a pretty good idea what he’d called me, so I didn’t ask. I had more important things to agonize over, like how and where I would give birth to this baby, and how in the world I would care for it afterwards. I feared going into labor in some inopportune place, like the school bus. I knew that, sooner or later, I was going to have to push that thing out of me, and I was terrified. I fantasized about the driver or a passenger presiding over the birth. In my fantasies, the baby was never actually born. Yet some caring person always stayed by my side, wiping my forehead and calming my screams.
“Jakie said the two of them rolled around on the ground—like a couple of hoodlums—until Jeffery’s blind grandmother came out and broke them up with her cane. What a disgrace, a spectacle like that! I feel so ashamed.”
I said nothing, but I sensed things coming to a head. I couldn’t hide my pregnancy from my family much longer. I’d have to run away from home.
I had briefly entertained the idea of confessing my predicament to my parents. Maybe they would forgive me and let me live at home with the baby while I finished school. But that was a pipe dream. My mother loved her job too much to give it up to care for my baby. Besides, even if I could persuade her, my father would never go along with this plan.
I also considered telling my parents I didn’t know how I had become pregnant. I could deny vehemently ever having had sex at all. My mother was Catholic, and superstitious. She might buy into this type of fable. But no, even Ma wasn’t stupid enough to believe I was the second woman in human history to conceive a baby without a man. She might think the Virgin Mary could do it, but not me.
So my plan, nebulous at best, was to live in that vacant house where I had sex with Tony. Only I had no idea where it was or how to get there. I should have paid more attention when he took me there again on his motorcycle last weekend. But Tony had talked me into giving him the gold necklace I’d stolen from Elise while house-sitting. When he rode up on the motorcycle, he asked what I’d gotten him for Christmas. When I didn’t have anything, he said he would take that and call it even. After that, I’d been too upset to pay attention to where we were going. I only knew that the empty house was somewhere in Jamaica, Queens.
Nonetheless, in preparation for my big move, I’d begun shoplifting baby things from the supermarket where Artie worked. I swiped bottles, booties, socks, and little one-piece undershirts with snaps at the shoulder and crotch. I didn’t have nearly enough stuff to care for a baby. Much of what I did have was impractical, if cute. But acquiring things for my baby made me feel grownup. I would live on my own in the glow of my baby’s unconditional love. How cool was that? I kept the bag containing all of the stolen baby things hidden in the back of my closet.
The water began to boil. My mother looked at me as I got up to prepare the tea. She went into her bedroom to get dressed without another word. My mother was definitely acting weird, suspicious. I shook off the feeling. I probably felt guilty thinking about being pregnant, stealing baby clothes, and running away from home, with Ma sitting right there. I usually reserved such thoughts for when I was alone in my room.
While I sat drinking my tea, I debated whether to seize the opportunity to sneak out after my mother went shopping. If it didn’t start snowing too badly, I could take the bus to the last stop of the Jamaica line and search for the vacant house on foot. The prospect of such a journey overwhelmed and terrified me. I decided to escape to my room and play with my Barbies instead. Just because my future as an unwed teen mother was an ever-present concern, that didn’t mean I couldn’t still do all my usual twelve-year-old things. Besides, I didn’t play with dolls like other girls my age. I created intricate, detailed stories that progressed in soap-opera fashion, day by day. These were adult stories, and I enacted them compellingly.
I lit a match to one of my Barbies in the bathroom sink, pretending she was in a fire. I burned that doll until she turned charcoal black, her hair singed beyond recognition. Then, to treat her burns, I took a razor blade from the medicine cabinet and hacked the charred skin off her face, breasts, and legs, leaving her with a very uneven, shiny skin surface flecked with leftover burnt spots. I imagined this is what a woman might actually look like if she'd been in a fire. I was quite satisfied with the results.
Then I played with another doll, which was filthy and old and had a big head. From years of ground-in dirt, this particular doll had the appearance of being of mixed race, what we called mulatto in those days. To finish the look, I lit a match and singed her ash-blonde hair until it turned kinky. Then I tried to tame it with Vaseline. I had used the same technique on the straight, black hair of her younger sister, a little Hawaiian doll my father had given me. It was one of Lee’s samples, of course. All of the toys he ever gave me were free samples. The Hawaiian doll had beautiful, dark skin (she had a different father—this is why her complexion was so much darker) and a round, pregnant-looking stomach hanging over a grass skirt. In my story, the old doll was a prostitute, but the younger sister was trying to stay out of that life. The one time she’d let her older sister talk her into trying it, she had gotten pregnant. Hence, the belly.
I fashioned a highly suggestive, trashy, and seductive outfit for the older sister to wear on the job that night. She supported her younger sibling with the money she earned hooking, so she couldn’t give it up, even though she was getting old and was no longer attractive enough to entice the higher-class johns. After her "shift," I removed her makeup, fake hair, and halter-top. Off went the hot pants and fishnet stockings. She was once again an old and dirty, homely-looking doll.
At twelve years of age, I was unaware that my dolls’ stories mimicked the fearsome tragedy unfolding in my own life; the parallel between their turmoil and my own pathetic situation escaped me.
Hours later, my mother returned from grocery shopping. The air felt foggy and filled with tension. Without a word, she unpacked the grocery bags. Then she served my brothers and me lunch. I sat in the living room with Jacob, eating my cold-cut sandwich in front of the TV. Jacob was watching Creature Features, eating his lunch, and sporting the infamous shiner. He hadn’t said a word to me all day.
Ma approached me unexpectedly. “Millie, I want to have a little talk with you,” she said firmly. “Let’s go into the bedroom.”
“Yes, now,” she said, with uncharacteristic resolve. I put down my half-eaten sandwich and followed her. She closed the bedroom door behind us. I stood, mute, in front of my father’s monstrous purple bureau. Ma settled herself on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs. She looked comical, sitting with her chubby, short legs overlapping in what she obviously intended to be a motherly-yet-authoritative pose. Any other day, I might have laughed. But today, I instinctively knew this was serious. I leaned silently against the dresser and kept my eyes glued to the floor.
“Millie, your brother told me kids are saying some very nasty things about you,” she began. My stomach tightened. “Jeffery called you some awful names yesterday. That’s why Jacob hit him.”
“Yeah, you already told me.” I said.
“He got a black eye, defending you.”
“I know, I know!” I wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but I hoped she wouldn’t take a lengthy and evasive route getting there.
“Do you know what Jeffery said to get your brother so upset?”
At this rate, our little “chat” might take all afternoon, and I wanted to get back to my sandwich. “Yes,” I answered. No point in lying. Ma would only recount what kids were saying. I suffered their name-calling every day. I didn’t need to hear it from my mother’s mouth.
“He called you a ‘slut’ and a ‘nigger-lover.’” I cringed. “He said you were pregnant by a colored man.” There. She’d finally gotten to the point, and I was strangely relieved, although I winced at the term “colored.” Nobody who knew anything about race relations used that term anymore. Ma was not a racist, unlike my father and brothers, and she rarely, if ever, used the “N-word.” But her characteristic benevolence toward “colored” people did not excuse her daughter being pregnant by one of them.
“I want you to know, I don’t believe it. I know it can’t be right. But it’s not good for a girl to be talked about that way. I can’t understand why people are saying these things about you.”
“How can you be so sure it’s not true?” I asked. My eyes immediately filled with tears. Large droplets rolled from my face and fell heavily onto my pink, flannel nightgown.
My mother gasped in disbelief. “You mean to tell me. . .” Her voice was barely above a whisper as her eyes fixed on my stomach. I must have been nervous, because it gave a weird twitch right then. “You’re pregnant?” I nodded silently. “And the father is…” Franny could hardly form the words, “…a colored man?” I nodded again.
She fidgeted and her eyes flashed in anger. “Millie, you’re only twelve years old, for God’s sake! What do you want, a man already?”
In a rare moment of insight, I shot back angrily, “No, I want a mother!”
That caught her off guard, and for a second she was taken aback. But then she raised her voice and said sharply, “You got some nerve saying that! You got a mother! And a damned good one!”
Now tears formed in her own eyes. “What are we going to do, Millie?” she asked in a panicked tone, flailing her hands. “You can’t have this baby! You realize that, don’t you?”
“Why not?” I begged.
“What, Millie, you want to keep a Negro baby?” It sounded so ridiculous and pitiful the way she said it. I felt instantly foolish. She didn’t wait for my answer. “You’re just a child yourself! You can’t raise a baby. A mulatto baby,” she corrected herself. “It’s a disgrace! What would the neighbors say?”
“Well,” I answered lamely, “we could put it up for adoption.” I had no intention of putting my baby up for adoption, but that seemed like a good answer. If I could bide some time and have the child, my parents might let me keep it. They might even fall in love with their grandchild, once it was born. And, if not, well, then at least the baby would get to be born. I knew I would be heartbroken if I had to give it away. But I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Franny glared at me, as if reading my mind. “No, no, you can’t have it!” She was surprisingly steadfast as she declared, “You’ve got to get an abortion!”
“No, Ma, I don’t want an abortion.” I cried harder than before.
“Millie, this isn’t some doll you play with,” she said, crying, too. “Having a baby will ruin your entire life! You have to get rid of it, do you hear me? It’s the only way!” Ma seemed genuinely terrified, and intractable. I thought she would have misgivings about abortion, supposedly being Catholic and all. Why was she acting like this? Was she only trying to spare me a life of shame and hopelessness? Or was there more to it? Perhaps, in hindsight, she felt she’d made the wrong choice by having me. Maybe she wished she’d listened to my father, years ago. That must be it. After all, I had wrecked her life and destroyed her marriage.
“We’re going to have to tell your father,” Ma continued, thinking aloud.
“No, Ma, please! He’ll kill me!” I was truly panicked. Bad enough dealing with Ma. If she was going to make me have an abortion, the least she could do was keep my secret and protect me from Lee.
“There’s no other way, Millie,” she said. “An abortion’s gonna cost a lot of money, and I don’t have it. I’ll need money from your father. There’s nothing else I can do.” There it was again. My mother’s life, and now mine, sacrificed for my father’s cash. I was crestfallen but said nothing.
“You stay here until I get home, do you hear me? Don’t move from this house! I’m going down to the Place to talk to him.” A week earlier, Lee had given Franny an early Christmas present, a used Chevy Nova bought with her earnings. Not only could she now shop for food at four different stores to snag the cheapest sales, she could drive herself down to the Place to inform her husband his twelve-year-old daughter was knocked up by a “colored” man.
I stayed in the bedroom wiping my tears as my mother dragged herself into the kitchen. “I need to talk to you right away,” I heard her say. “No, I’ll come over there.” That was it. I heard her thrust the receiver into its slot. Then Ma immediately left the house.
I was genuinely terrified as I waited for Franny to return. I don’t remember what I thought or did during that interminable length of time she was gone. It seemed like a hundred lifetimes passed while I waited, alone, in her bedroom. I shut down to the world around me and slipped into a soft haze of imagination. In my other world, there were no babies or classmates or brothers to bring me down. Most of all there was no Lee. Unfortunately, as in all good fantasies, life came barging in and reared its ugly head. I heard Lee’s car pull into the driveway and rattle to a stop, even before he pushed his way through the bedroom door. He was not an agile man, so I was surprised how quickly his massive frame burst into the room. He smacked me, hard, in the face, first on one cheek, and then the other, sweeping his hand up and back like a pendulum. Immediately I lost control of my bladder and peed all over the floor like a scared puppy. I was still in my flannel nightgown, so nothing absorbed the warm liquid squirting involuntarily from my body and streaming down my legs.
Franny went quietly to the kitchen sink. She grabbed a roll of paper towels and just as quietly began soaking up the puddle. Lee, meanwhile, yanked me by the arm and pushed me onto the living room sofa. My stomach twitched as I tumbled into the cushions. I righted myself, then sat quaking as he towered over me. Whiskey followed at Lee’s heels, yipping frantically and nipping at his pant leg. Lee kicked the small dog across the room. After letting out a high-pitched yelp, Whiskey limped away in defeat.
“You little piece of shit!” Lee raved. “You make me sick! How could you do such a stupid, disgusting thing? Some women fight to the death for their honor, but you—you’re nothing but a two-bit tramp. And with a nigger, no less! My fuckin’ daughter is a nigger-lovin’ whore!” Lee, unlike Franny, had no qualms about using the “N-word” and peppered it liberally throughout his speech.
He turned to my mother. “You send this piece a shit to take piano lessons?” Lee wiped his brow as he continued. “This is your fault, dammit. She’s your daughter. You shoulda been keepin’ an eye on her.” Franny didn’t say a word. She didn’t even look his way as she gathered the wet paper towels and threw them in the garbage. He turned to me. “Did you at least get paid for it?” I looked up. I don’t know why, but I was stunned. “Well, did you?” I shook my head.
Lee punched the back of the sofa, close enough to my face that I felt the cruel swoosh of air. My body jerked involuntarily as he yelled to no one in particular, “She didn't even get paid for it! This is fuckin’ unbelievable! You go out and act like a whore, and you don’t even have enough sense to get paid for it!”
“Lee, come on …” Franny feebly attempted to intervene.
“Come on what?” Lee motioned toward her. “You go out like a whore and open your legs to some nigger, you should get paid for it, no?”
“You’re another fuckin’ idiot,” Lee proclaimed. “You were supposed to be watchin’ her. But no, you had to go to work! Didn’t you teach the kid anything? How is it she runs off and gets herself pregnant as soon as you go back to work?” He waited a few seconds for an answer, but when none was forthcoming, turned his venom back on me. “This could make the papers,” he declared. “I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do with you. I should have you sterilized and sent to reform school!”
My stomach flipped. As much as I did not like my home life, I certainly didn’t want to be packed off to reform school. And the thought of being sterilized terrified me. It sounded like something awful from one of those science fiction shows my brothers liked to watch.
I sat quietly and said nothing. There was nothing to do but ride this out. Lee would eventually finish his tirade and leave, as he always did. But first, he put me through a depraved Inquisition.
“So who is this guy?” Lee wanted to know. “What’s his name?”
“Freddie,” I answered in a whisper. He was the last one I’d slept with before missing my period, so I figured it must be him.
“What? Freddie who?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“You’re pregnant by some nigger and you don’t even know his last name? Beautiful!” Lee spat. “How do I find this Freddie?” he demanded.
I looked up at Lee blankly.
“Well?” Lee roared. “Do you know where he lives? Where he works?” Lee was in my face, a blue vein bulging in his neck. He was a frightening sight. I knew I’d better answer.
“He works at the print shop on Union Turnpike . . .”
“The one up the street from the Place?” Lee asked in disbelief. “For Christ’s sake, I have an account with them!”
I nodded. “. . . and he lives over on Huron Road in Bellerose,” I finished.
“Great! The nigger who knocked up my daughter works two doors down from me and lives half a mile from here. Ain’t that a fuckin’ kicker!” Lee took a moment to digest that. “So where’d you do it?”
“We went to his house.”
“What’d he do to you?” Lee waited. “Well? Answer me!”
“What do you mean?” I asked anxiously.
“What did he do? Did he kiss you? Go down on you?”
“He kissed me a couple of times.”
“Did he go down on you?” Lee persisted.
“No.” Whatever that meant, I was pretty sure Freddie hadn’t done it.
“Did you give him a blow job?”
“So, after two kisses you’re ready to go? You’re such a whore you’re fired up after two kisses?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I said nothing. Lee waited. He seemed to be enjoying himself in a perverse way, irate though he was. He stayed in my face, waiting for my answer. Finally, when I could stand the uncomfortable silence no longer, I said, “I don’t know. I guess so.” I cried silently, realizing I’d just handed Lee my last shred of self-respect.
Satisfied, he continued with his line of questioning. I didn’t understand much of what he asked. Despite my vast experience with men, apparently there was more to this sex business than I’d realized. Be that as it may, this much was clear: Because I’d fucked up so badly, because I had pissed him off so royally, Lee got to thrust himself where he didn’t belong—up in between my legs. Perhaps not literally with his body, but with filthy, deranged questions. I felt so violated, he may as well have fucked me himself. But I had no choice but to surrender my dignity to him.
“So was that the only time? Did you go to his house more than once? Were there others?” Lee broke into my thoughts.
“Yes, I mean, no.” I did not know how to answer these multiple questions. Whatever I said, it would be the wrong thing and make Lee even madder.
“Which is it, yes or no?”
“That was the only time.”
“There weren’t any others?”
“No,” I lied.
“Don’t lie to me!” Lee exploded.
“There was one other guy,” I conceded.
“So how do you know Freddie is the one that got you pregnant?” Lee demanded.
“Oh, because the other guy was sterile,” I answered categorically.
“The other guy was sterile? What are you, a fuckin’ moron?” he shouted at me. “No woman with half a brain believes a guy when he says he’s sterile! So now we got another guy—what’s his name?”
“—Bo-ob,” Lee drew out the name in two syllables, sing-song fashion, “who could also be the father?”
“I don’t think so,” I pleaded. “It was a long time before.”
“I don’t know, a few weeks, maybe a month?” Okay, so there were all those times with Artie in between. But no point bringing that up.
“She doesn’t even fuckin’ know.” Lee let out an exasperated breath and looked at my mother. “It keeps gettin’ better.” He turned again to me. “Did you have a period in the meantime?”
I was crying now. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. My “checking out” mechanism was failing, and my head pounded under the barrage of Lee’s angry questions.
“Well? Did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Are you fuckin’ retarded? Did you get your period between your little escapades with ‘Bob’ and ‘Freddie’?”
“I—I’m not sure. I think so, yes.”
Franny interjected. “When this is all over, we’ll circle your periods on the calendar with bright red Magic Marker!” She smiled, proud of her ingenuity, but I was mortified. The calendar was taped next to the refrigerator. I could picture it broadcasting in bright red to my father and brothers when I menstruated. Lee ignored her.
“Didn’t you realize you were pregnant when you stopped havin’ your period?”
“Not at first, no. But eventually . . .”
“Eventually? What did you ‘eventually’ plan to do about it?” Lee interrupted.
“I don’t know,” I began. “I tried to call Freddie, but he never called me back, and—”
“You tried to call Freddie?” Lee repeated in disbelief. “Why the fuck were you tryin’ to call him? What did you expect him to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I just thought—”
Lee interrupted again. “You didn’t ‘just think’ anything, because if you had used your brain at all, you wouldn’t be in this mess. You never called me in your entire fuckin’ life. I call you every Goddamned afternoon, and you clam up on me like I’m some kinda monster! You tried to call Freddie. Un-fuckin’-believable!” Lee turned to Franny. “Are you listenin’ to this bullshit?” Franny nodded her head and said nothing.
The Inquisition wore on all afternoon. Lee repeated the same questions for Bob as for Freddie. I confessed to having sex with Bob once in the laundry room, which infuriated Lee even more. So I didn’t mention having sex with Bob in the truck.
After surviving the drill with Bob, I was spent. I was relieved I’d managed to leave Artie out of it. Besides not wanting to fan the flames of Lee’s fury, I figured Artie couldn’t have gotten me pregnant, since he “pulled out.” And the last two were beside the point, since I was already pregnant by then.
Finally, when Lee could drag no more responses out of me, he raged at Ma for a good while. He threw the dish containing my half-eaten lunch at the wall. Emboldened, he went up to my room and tore it apart. I stayed downstairs, helplessly cowering on the couch and shielding my ears from the banging and slamming emanating from my bedroom. Finally, I heard Lee’s heavy steps marching down the stairs. Without looking in my direction, he barked, “Go upstairs and clean your room.”
I was relieved to be dismissed but alarmed when I saw Lee retrieve his pistol from the top shelf of the linen closet. “What the hell are you lookin’ at?” he shouted.
I ran up the stairs, but instead of cleaning my room, I lay on the floor with my ear pressed hard against the tile, trying to hear the goings-on below. I heard my father telling Franny that he planned to drive to Huron Road, lay in wait until Freddie showed up, then kill him on the spot. I was horrified, so I got a piece of chalk from my desk drawer, crawled under my bed, and wrote “Millie ♥ Freddie” over and over on the pink tiles. What else could I do in the face of such lunacy?
I heard Lee yell, “It’s all your Goddamned fault! You let the kid turn into a fat slut like you.”
Franny, surprisingly, had a comeback: “No, Lee, it was that ‘pep talk’ you gave her last January. That’s when she started sneakin’ around. I don’t know what you said to her, but she hasn’t been the same kid since!”
“She was headin’ for no good long before that. I tried to talk some sense into her. Besides, a kid don’t run out and get pregnant from talkin’. Millie got pregnant because she’s a tramp, and her pathetic excuse for a mother’s too stupid to keep an eye on her!”
“I did the best I could, on my own all these years while you were out gallivantin’ around town with your little whoo-re!” my mother cried.
“In case you forgot, I never wanted these Goddamned kids. This whole disaster of a marriage was your idea. If you’da listened to me thirteen years ago, none of this would be happenin’ now!”
As my parents continued arguing, I lay under my bed, avowing my newly-professed love for Freddie in chalk. I surrendered to the knowledge Freddie might die at my father’s hand that night. And I implored God to keep Freddie safe and not let him fall into Lee’s trap.
Eventually I cleaned my room. It took my last ounce of strength. When I finished, I curled up on my bed in a ball. A little while later, Ma came in. I didn’t want to talk to her. I felt sick and exhausted from my ordeal with Lee.
“Your father blames me for all of this,” my mother began from the doorway. “He says it’s my fault. But that’s all right. I take all the blame for my kids, anything you do.”
When I didn’t answer, she came and sat next to me on the bed. Franny leaned in and hugged me, stroking my back and my hair.
“You have gained weight lately, haven’t you?” she said in a sympathetic voice. I nodded and began to cry in her arms.
“My Millie’s a good girl," Franny said tenderly. “A good girl.”
I nearly choked on my own spit when she said that. In Franny’s world, the only difference between a "good" girl and a "bad" girl was the preservation of one’s virginity. So her declaration was not only pitiful, but patently untrue. I knew she meant it as an offering of support, but I cringed and pulled away. If that was all she could come up with, then Lee was right. At that moment, she was a pathetic excuse for a mother. Dejected, I rolled over and faced the wall.
“Go to sleep,” she said, unfazed by my silent rebuke. “Your father will tell us what to do tomorrow.” She left the room. I didn’t sleep the entire night, worrying about Freddie. In my mind’s eye, I followed my father’s movements as he stalked Freddie, feeling more alone and afraid than I had my entire life. . .
THE MORNING AFTER
Arturo lit a cigarette, then looked around for an ashtray.
“Could you not smoke in here?” Risa said. “I mean, it’s bad for you and the smell gets into the bedding.”
“Oh,” Arturo said, continuing to probe each item on Risa’s bed stand. “Lo siento. En mi pais, siempre fumamos despues de hacer el amor.” (Arturo apologized, explaining that in his country, people always smoke after making love.)
“Well, we do that here, too. Just not in my house, okay?”
“So what I do weet dees?” Arturo held the burning cigarette butt between his thumb and middle finger.
“Give it here. I’ll throw it in the toilet.” Risa took the cigarette and got out of bed, naked. She wanted to put on her silk robe, which lay draped over a chair, but she couldn’t do that while holding Arturo’s still-smoldering butt. Risa took a furtive drag and grabbed the robe off the chair before flitting, sideways, into the bathroom.
Although sex with Arturo had been quite good, especially for a first time, after the incident with Mitch, Risa had no intention of giving Arturo a full-on view of her ass just yet. Even though she had all-too-willingly succumbed to Arturo’s enthusiastic explorations while in bed, now that she stood upright, Risa felt a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious.
In the bathroom, Risa locked the door and sat down to pee after disposing of the lit cigarette in the toilet. It landed in the water with a hiss. Risa tinkled yellow on top of it. While she sat there, Risa wondered exactly how she had wound up in bed with Arturo, after knowing him exactly two weeks. Kat, ever the skeptic, had had raised one eyebrow at work when Risa told her about their tutoring appointment. “Yeah, right,” she had laughed, knowingly. Recalling Kat’s discerning cynicism, Risa had inserted her diaphragm before meeting Arturo, just in case. But that was only because Risa wanted to be prepared for anything. She had not planned on having sex with him.
They had stopped at a local coffee shop for lunch, then came back to her apartment for his first English lesson. Facing each other cross-legged on the sofa, Risa had quickly become frustrated. She had tried to teach Arturo to conjugate basic verbs, but he just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand, for example, why the past tense of “bring” was “brought,” instead of “bringed,” or why, that being the case, the past tense of “sing” was “sang” and not “sought,” or simply, “sing-ed.” Risa had given up all too quickly. She’d handed him the list of irregular verbs that she had prepared for him, and ordered him to memorize them for their next lesson.
Instead of taking this as his cue to leave, Arturo had placed the list on the coffee table, leaned in, and pulled Risa close to him. It was a bold and unhesitating move, which Risa could not help but admire for its sheer ballsiness. Nonetheless, her instincts told her she ought to feel insulted by Arturo’s presumptuousness.
She did not deliberate over her quandary for long, however. Arturo was all over her, kissing her passionately, licking her face and neck, unbuttoning her shirt and burying his face between her bra-clad breasts, drinking in her scent. He possessed a raw, unapologetic desire for her which Risa found irresistible. Who was she kidding, really? She had craved him since that first night in the restaurant, but couldn’t quite bring herself to admit it.
Like the stereotypical Latin lover, Arturo had been no less than fervent in his eagerness to find out what pleased Risa. For her part, she had given herself over to his escalating encroachments one by one with increasing abandon, until he’d flung open the last of her tightly-sealed doorways to let loose a fevered explosion from deep within. Drenched in sweat, Risa had been startled by this most unexpected outburst. She’d felt like a parched wanderer on a suffocatingly hot day, lured robotically toward the intensifying hum of an unseen river, only to be shocked by its icy spray hitting her damp skin moments before she languidly quenched her thirst in its rhythmic, flowing waters. (This is admittedly a rather flowery way of saying that Risa had, for once in her life, climaxed powerfully and willingly, while paradoxically experiencing the liberating event as completely involuntary. But sitting there on the commode, she chose to mentally relive her perfect orgasm in these poetic terms.)
Risa sighed as she wiped herself. She realized that she had never before come her first time with a man. Risa hadn’t had too many sexual partners, but her former lovers had all needed practice and hard work to get the job done.
Risa chuckled softly as she flushed the toilet, recalling the sweet-Spanish-nothings Arturo had whispered in her ear while working his magic on her: ¿Te gusta, linda? (You like that, beautiful?); dámelo, cariño (give it to me, darling). And finally, ¡Suéltalo! (Let it go!). His other directives she could no longer recall, as they had dissipated in the throes of such heated passion.
Of course, there was the matter of that weird skin covering the tip of Arturo’s penis. Risa could not bring herself to ask what it was, but she surmised that he must not be circumcised. She decided to view this as exotic and primitive, in keeping with the “me-Tarzan-you-Jane” theme of their budding affair.
Risa’s reverie was interrupted by strange singing coming from the bedroom. Risa wondered if Arturo had found a Spanish-language station on the radio. She slipped on her robe before opening the door.
There Arturo sat, bare-chested and propped against all four of Risa’s bed pillows, which he had inconsiderately confiscated and stacked behind him. He waved his arms rhythmically like a conductor as he sang in Spanish:
"Comrades, we march forward, advancing the revolution; our country is the owner of its history and the architect of its liberation. Combatants of the Sandinista Front advance forward toward our future, our red and black flag protects us. We’ll be a free country or we shall die! The children of Sandino neither sell out nor surrender; we fight against the Yankee enemy of humanity.
“Comrades, we march forward, our country is the owner of its history and the architect of its liberation. Today, the new dawn ceased to tempt us; tomorrow—someday—a new sun shall illuminate the entire land, bequeathed to us by the martyrs and heroes, with flowing rivers of milk and honey. Comrades, we march forward, advancing the revolution; our country is the owner of its history and the architect of its liberation!"
(Only this is what he really sang:
“Adelante marchemos compañeros,
avancemos a la revolución,
nuestro pueblo es el dueño de su historia,
arquitecto de su liberación.
Combatientes del Frente Sandinista,
adelante que es nuestro el porvenir,
rojinegra bandera nos cobija
¡Patria libre vencer o morir!
Los hijos de Sandino
ni se venden ni se rinden,
luchamos contra el yankee
enemigo de la humanidad.
Adelante marchemos compañeros,
avancemos a la revolución,
nuestro pueblo es el dueño de su historia,
arquitecto de su liberación.
Hoy el amanecer dejó de ser una tentación,
mañana, algún día, surgirá un nuevo sol
que habrá de iluminar toda la tierra
que nos legaron los mártires y heroes
con caudalosos ríos de leche y miel.
Adelante marchemos compañeros,
avancemos a la revolución,
¡nuestro pueblo es el dueño de su historia
arquitecto de su liberación!)”
Risa stood frozen in place, perturbed and speechless, while she endured this lengthy tribute. When Arturo finally finished, before Risa could even ask him what the hell that was, he proclaimed gleefully, “¡Eso es el Himno de la Unidad Sandinista, loca!”
“My song. It’s—ju know—¿como se llama?—¡Una canción de triumfo! A song of glory!”
“You mean, like, an anthem?”
“¡Sí, sí! Of de Sandinista party. Es una canción bella, loca.” Arturo was quite pleased with himself; he clasped his hands behind his head as he praised the beauty of the Sandinista party anthem.
Risa felt her face flush. She was becoming annoyed. Seriously, what man sings a revolutionary anthem after sex? “Why do you keep calling me ‘loca’?” she finally asked. “Doesn’t that mean ‘crazy’ in Spanish?”
“Pues, sí,” he affirmed, suddenly shy. “But I mean in good way. Es una expresión de mi cariño, like what ju call ‘pet name.’”
“I see,” Risa answered stiffly. Despite Arturo’s explanation, Risa’s insides felt shaky all of a sudden. In the face of Arturo’s claim that he called her “loca” as an inventive expression of his affection, Risa wondered if he might be crazy. She barely knew him, after all, and was beginning to regret having given herself to this man so impetuously.
Arturo, unfazed, continued to ramble in Spanish about the Sandinista revolution, the subsequent war with the contras, and his small but (according to him) significant role in it. Arturo spoke like a Central American history expert. He jumped out of bed and put on his T-shirt and underpants, while lecturing excitedly about how Somoza had resigned and fled to Miami, como un cobarde (like a coward), and the guy he had handed power to—otro cobarde (another coward)—seceded his position to the junta and, two days later, fled to Guatemala. He explained how the provisional Nicaraguan government organized an effective democratic regime, with the goal of promoting a truly egalitarian and revolutionary socialism.
Half expecting to be quizzed, Risa stood wordlessly by the bed, fighting back tears. She found Arturo’s diatribe to be completely off-putting, despite his zealous and well-worded delivery. Arturo, not seeming to notice or care that he had offended Risa, continued his State-of-the-Nicaraguan-Uprising-Address: “Two days later, loca, de FSLN entered Managua. La guerra dejó aproximadamente cincuenta mil nicaragüenses muertos, y unos cientos cincuenta mil en el exilio. ¡Pero vencimos! ¡Se llevó a cabo el primer objetivo de la Revolución nicaragüense.”
Arturo smiled and pounded his chest with his fist as he talked, rattling off statistics like a newscaster. He’d just informed Risa that the war left approximately 50,000 dead and some 150,000 Nicaraguans in exile. But the Sandinistas had won! They had carried out the first goal of the Nicaraguan revolution!
Too excited to attempt to speak in English, Arturo prattled on: “La junta de cinco miembros entró a la capital nicaragüense al día siguiente y asumió el poder. Reiteraron su compromiso de trabajar por el pluralismo político, un sistema económico mixto y una política exterior neutrál. Efectivamente nos habíamos derrocado el gobierno de Somoza.”
Arturo sounded like one of those Spanish-language programs that Risa sometimes heard on Univisión, blaring from an overhead TV in a bodega or a burrito place. His face flushed with arrogance, and his chest swelled, as he bragged that his party had effectively overthrown the Somoza government. He recounted proudly how the five-member junta had entered the Nicaraguan capital the next day and assumed power; how they reiterated their pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a neutral foreign policy.
Arturo’s passion soaked through his entire body along with the sweat Risa now noticed dampening his shirt. It was the same passion he’d exhibited toward her naked flesh not ten minutes earlier. Risa didn’t understand everything Arturo said. She grudgingly allowed herself to be impressed by his cultured vocabulary and easy command of the subject matter; but still, what normal person talked like this? Risa again wondered if Arturo might be insane.
Breaking into her thoughts, Arturo finally asked, “¿Qué piensas, loca?”
Risa didn’t quite know what to make of this ambiguous question. Did Arturo finally intend to convey some concern for her feelings, as in, “What are you thinking, darling?” Or did he merely seek praise for his own rhetoric, as in, “What do you think about that?” Risa simply could not tell. Through the language barrier, his voice conveyed neither tenderness nor insensitivity; his facial expression betrayed neither thoughtfulness nor egotism.
That was when she realized a sad truth: However fluent Risa might become in Spanish or Arturo in English, there would always be this palpable barrier between them. Having been raised in a war-torn country with a completely different mindset, the things that concerned and excited Arturo were, to Risa, as alien (and unimportant) as the numerical names of the distant stars in faraway galaxies. After such an intimate encounter, she wanted Arturo to admire and adore her and no one else. Certainly not the Sandinistas. She needed for him to validate her impetuous choice of having given herself to him—someone she barely knew, and a foreigner no less!—by being attentive and solicitous toward her now. Instead, he’d made her feel like an invisible speck of humanity in her own bedroom.
Risa felt robbed, cheated, stripped. She’d foolishly succumbed to Arturo’s advances. Now, after having his way with her, this near-stranger treated Risa like a spectator at a Sandinista pep rally, spewing a potent and fanatical oratory as though lecturing to thousands. Arturo must have fancied himself the virtual second-coming of Che Guevara—this is how insignificant his self-proclaimed righteousness made Risa feel.
Risa couldn’t quite articulate these feelings, yet in that instant, they overwhelmed her. She didn’t dare try putting her emotions into words—in English or Spanish. How could she express such thoughts to the irrational madman standing before her now? Instead, feeling abandoned and cast off, Risa vowed to cut her losses, lick over her wounds afresh, and never see Arturo again.
“You got any more bacon, Dad?” Jan-eece called out to her father, who stood flipping pancakes at the stove splattered with batter. Though small, Oscar’s two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope was light and modern. He lived on the first floor of an old-fashioned brownstone whose walls were a soothing shade of peach with strong tan undertones. The place had gleaming cherry wood parquet floors, which Norma had admired when they arrived the previous night.
Savoring the aroma of bacon still wafting in the air, Norma sat with Oscar’s daughters at the oval dining table just beyond the kitchen doorway. The modern, black, high-backed chairs did not match the table, but the combination worked, in an avant garde sort of way. In fact, Oscar’s entire home had a similarly tasteful quirkiness to it. Norma couldn’t tell whether this was the brainchild of some hip interior designer, or whether the haphazard scheme was the result of a bachelor allowing his teenage daughters too much influence over his selections.
Oscar grabbed a dishrag from the counter and wiped the stove and oven door. “All gone, sweetheart. But I’ll make more, if Norma or Donna want some.” He turned to hear their answer over the soft whirring of the range vent. The narrow kitchen, whose floor was tiled in black slate, had stainless steel appliances lining one side—all of them spotless, including the small, stacked washer/dryer in the corner. Oscar’s intimidating array of cooking utensils, pots, pans, and spices hung in an ordered display on the opposite wall, above the eye-catching, butcher-block counter constructed from industrial remnants.
“Not me, Dad. You know I’m on a diet. And frankly, I’d prefer not to look at any more of that greasy stuff,” the anorexic-looking Donna said in a surly voice. She stared Norma straight in the eye when she said it, challenging her to show where her allegiance lay on the obviously charged issue of Donna’s eating. It had not escaped Norma’s notice that Oscar tried to ply his younger daughter with food from the moment she’d walked through the door; now the girl was implicitly asking Norma to take sides.
Norma debated, shifting her eyes from Donna’s glare to Janice’s crooked smile. Whereas Janice had been civil to Norma (though not quite friendly) since their arrival that morning, her sister had been openly hostile. Donna barely grunted a hello when Oscar had introduced them. Perhaps if Norma turned down the artery-clogging meat as a gesture of solidarity, she might score a few points with the emaciated girl.
But Norma did want more bacon, after how she’d been plundered from all ends last night. Sitting at the breakfast table trying to act normal, her senses felt oddly stimulated, her appetite on high alert. Having already downed a stack of pancakes drenched in maple syrup, her nerves now craved the crunchy, chewy comfort of cured pork. “I could eat another piece,” she finally answered. “Maybe two.” Norma giggled nervously. Attempting a friendly overture she added, “I’ll eat your piece, Donna,” but the girl rebuffed Norma by dropping her fork with a loud clatter.
“Did I say something wrong?” Norma asked diffidently.
“No. But you are wrong. You are so wrong.”
“Donna, that’s enough!” Oscar appeared in the kitchen doorway wearing an angry look along with his “Hail to the Chef” apron. “You don’t have to like Norma, but I won’t have you bein’ rude to her. If you can’t act civil, then get outta here and go sit in your room.”
“Fine. I don’t know why I came in the first place. I shoulda stayed with Mom, seein’s how you already got company.” She shoved back her chair and stormed off.
“Norma, I’m so sorry,” Oscar stood behind Norma and massaged her shoulders. He removed his hands when he saw Janice’s disapproving eyes.
In contrast to Donna’s dark complexion (similar to her father’s) and angular profile (which she must have inherited from her mother), Janice had medium brown skin, a wide nose, and thick, coarse hair gracing her round face. When she smiled, her face lit up and she became strikingly beautiful, like a teenaged Michelle Obama. But now, she wore a harsh, puzzled look that even her plump cheeks could not soften. Oscar cleared his throat. “I’ll go whip up another batch of bacon. Janice, honey, there’s more pancakes, too, if you want.”
“Thanks, Dad.” She rose with her plate. As an afterthought, she turned to Norma. “You want more?”
“No, I’m okay. But thank you for asking.” Norma drained her coffee cup. She wanted a refill, but decided to wait until Janice exited the kitchen, so she would not collide with her and Oscar in the small space.
“Don’t mind my little sister,” Janice said, returning to the table with a stack of hotcakes. “This is kinda strange for her. Seeing our dad dating, I mean.”
“Well, I’m sure it’ll be a bit of an adjustment for all of us,” Oscar remarked from the kitchen, looking directly at Norma when he said it. Before she could rise for more coffee, he came to the table balancing a platter of bacon in one hand and the coffee pot in the other. Then he went back to retrieve the cream and sugar.
“Oscar, sit. You haven’t eaten a thing,” Norma said. He might be a thug in bed, Norma thought to herself, “but he’s a good host. The man knows his way around a kitchen.”
“The chef’s supposed to eat last,” he answered, smiling and winking at her.
Norma felt suddenly shy, picking up his double meaning. She felt the burn of Janice’s frown, not-so-subtly checking the two of them out. Norma wondered if it was obvious that they had slept together. Oscar had not mentioned to Donna or Janice that Norma had spent the night. As far as they knew, she had come for breakfast that morning, same as them. But these girls were not babies, nor were they stupid.
Sipping her coffee, Norma recalled how ill at ease she had felt upon entering Oscar’s bedroom the night before. A low ceiling fan hung directly over the bed. A wide wicker armchair stood in front of the window and, next to it, a funky-looking sailor’s trunk covered with stacks of books. The room was neither distinctively masculine nor feminine, with just enough colorful, comfortable touches to feel inviting. And yet Norma had felt like a death row inmate entering the gas chamber.
She had looked out the bedroom window over a small, fenced-in backyard housing a barbecue grill. She’d pictured Oscar back there grilling hamburgers for his daughters—or perhaps the entire building. Then, with Oscar busy in the bathroom, Norma had furtively checked out his books. He had an eclectic assortment; Still Alice by Lisa Genova sat on top of one pile. Norma would have figured that for a women’s pick. At first she’d wondered if Oscar had read the book to understand her mother’s dementia. But then, she stirred with jealousy, picturing an old girlfriend reading in that wicker chair with her feet propped on the bed.
She’d carefully replaced Still Alice on top of the pile just as Oscar emerged from the bathroom in his robe. He’d immediately taken Norma into his arms and begun kissing her. When it became obvious that he wasn’t wearing anything underneath, Norma had panicked and ran to the other side of the room. “I should probably shower, too,” she’d said, grabbing her small bag. She couldn’t look him in the eye for knowing that she was clearly stalling and searching for a means of escape.
“Okay. I left a clean towel in there for you. Let me know if you need anything else.”
Norma had sequestered herself in that bathroom for nearly half an hour before Oscar knocked softly. “You all right in there, Norma Rae?” he’d asked through the door.
Not sure she had heard right, she’d called in response, “Yeah. Give me another few minutes, okay?” Then she’d noticed the small vase filled with yellow daffodils and wondered if Oscar always kept fresh flowers in his bathroom, or whether he’d put them there specially for her. Seeing the steam dripping from his chocolate-brown tiles, Norma became flustered and tried to wipe down the walls, only to make a drippy mess while completely saturating his clean bath towel. Then she noticed, too late, the switch for the overhead vent. She sat on the beige-colored toilet for ten more minutes, trying to steady her breath and feeling like an ill-bred simpleton while waiting for the room to dry out.
When at last Norma found herself in bed beside Oscar, she’d gone to pieces as soon as he reached for her. Humiliated, she’d jumped up and begun gathering her things to leave, trying to understand why she dreaded consummating their relationship when she’d been all-to-ready to sleep with the man after their second date. Over the course of her adulthood, she’d had sexual liaisons with several men (Angelo among them) whose bad-boy ways had attracted her. But this was different. She’d actually become close to Oscar in the intervening weeks, viewing him in turn like a brother, advisor, and partner-in-crime. And because of it, the intimacy of his bedroom had felt too intense. Oscar’s touch, the way he’d looked into her eyes, bore an uncomfortably incestuous, familial quality.
“Where’re you goin’?” Oscar had asked, genuinely perplexed.
“Norma, c’mon now,” he’d said, extending an arm. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s ten o’clock at night. Just come back to bed and relax. We don’t have to do anything if you’re not ready.”
Shaking, Norma had dropped her bag in the middle of the floor and gone to him.
“Talk to me,” he’d coaxed. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I don’t know. Well, maybe I do. But I can’t talk about it with you. I’ve never told anyone, not even my sister.”
“So tell me. Get it off your chest. I’m not gonna judge you.”
Though haunted for years by nightmares and flashbacks, never before had Norma dared speak of her disgraceful secret: When she was fourteen, her father—who had lost the tip of his right index finger in the Korean war—had molested her late one night, after drinking too much and hitting her mother. Breathing in deeply, Norma could actually smell the pungent aroma of rum spicing her father’s breath as she pictured his small, dark figure standing in Oscar’s doorway, just as he had done that night. Before she could stop herself, words tumbled from her mouth in a torrent. She recounted in vivid detail how Claudio Reyes had come into her bedroom and diddled her relentlessly until she’d climaxed for the very first time, all the while eyeing his younger daughter asleep in her bed (or pretending to be). Norma—terrified and ashamed—went along with the ordeal, silently praying that Inez (whom their father had always called la bonita—the “pretty one”) would remain still and silent, so he wouldn’t be tempted to finish the job on her.
“It was the first time any man had touched me there. And when he finished, he went back to his room and had sex with my mother.”
“Oh man,” was all Oscar could manage. But he had held her tightly and did not recoil, so she pressed on.
“Throughout the whole thing, I expected my mom to burst into our room and put a stop to it. I could hear her on the other side of the wall, doing nothing. I could actually hear her breathing. I remember thinking—” Norma stopped midsentence.
Oscar pulled her in closer. “What? Tell me.”
“It sounded like she was listening.”
“My God, Norma.”
“I know he’d smacked her around earlier that night, but still—shouldn’t a mother protect her teenage daughter from a perverted monster? Even if he is her husband?”
“Of course, Norma. Decent parents never stop tryin’ to protect their kids.”
“So how could she just lie there in bed and let him do that to me? It turned him on, touching me with that disgusting half-a-finger. He knew how much I hated it—he used to tease me with it when I was a kid. He’d beckon me with it if I did something wrong, then wiggle it right in my face, to scare me. And that night, after he fingered me with that revolting stump, he got off on my mother. And she let him! Do you think she was in on it?”
“I honestly don’t know, Norma. Could she have been afraid of him?”
“She didn’t sound afraid when I heard them doing it through the wall a minute later! I heard the bed squeaking—heard him grunting like an animal. And believe me, you don’t ever want to hear your parents fucking—or anyone else, for that matter.” Oscar gave Norma a puzzled look, but she buried her face in his arms, sobbing, so he silently began stroking her hair while she recalled another time when she’d heard those awful noises—the night she’d foolishly intervened in Angelo’s and Juanita’s big fight.
Before that, Norma had spent many nights comforting Juanita on Angelo’s sofa while she’d cried her eyes out. It was always the same story: The prick had ignored her numerous voicemail messages and texts, even as her due date drew nearer. But as soon as he waltzed through the door—usually well after midnight, Juanita would bolt from the couch like a hungry dog greeting her master and fling herself into his arms.
On this particular evening, like so many others, Norma had quietly retreated to her own apartment when Angelo came home. But when Norma heard commotion coming from downstairs—shouting, high-pitched wailing, dishes breaking, she became concerned. After hearing Juanita’s cries, she’d gone down to rescue her from what turned out to be her own unhinged outburst. Food splattered the walls and shattered dishes covered the kitchen floor. Juanita, then eight months pregnant, was practically hysterical, but Norma had managed to pull her upstairs by the arm and settle her in the extra bedroom. Barely an hour later, Angelo had appeared at the door pretending to be contrite (but still drunk and wearing his gun in its holster), and Juanita had all too willingly returned to his unworthy arms.
After the two of them left, Norma had gone back to sleep, only to be awakened by muffled groaning and whimpering. It sounded quite different from the shrieks she’d heard earlier, so Norma worried that Juanita might be hurt. Getting out of bed, she’d quietly pressed her ear to the floor. Her subversive act was rewarded by a veritable cacophony of lovemaking sounds—what Norma could only describe as a rhythmic bass-line grunting that she recognized firsthand as Angelo, topped off by Juanita’s penetrating, choral moans.
Her voice had started out a subdued but steady whisper (“ay, Angelo; ay, papi”). Then her appeals swelled into a rich, mezzo-soprano, interspersed with long, hissy inhalations. When she could no longer control herself, the little cunt let out a staccato of shrill, breathy wails: ¡AY PAPI!—¡¡AY!!—¡¡¡AAYY!!!—¡¡¡¡AAAYYY!!!!
Who knows? Maybe Juanita had been faking. (And Norma wouldn’t do that for any man, ever again.) But just the same, it was horrifically arousing in the most licentious way. Norma could not begin to describe the disgust she’d felt, even as she’d stewed with a quiet, jealous rage. Admittedly, Norma had been as much resentful that Juanita actually took pleasure in whatever Angelo was doing to her as revolted by the image of him fucking a woman eight months pregnant. Regardless, Norma had jumped up, gotten into bed and covered her head with a pillow, vowing to stay out of their mess from then on (and fighting the urge to masturbate).
Although Norma hadn’t had the guts to bring up her disastrous triangle with Angelo and Juanita just then, a light bulb went off nonetheless: She had stoically suffered her father’s defilement so Inez would be spared. And as a result, Norma had acquired a lifelong propensity to act as protector of women and gatekeeper of men’s secrets. She’d done it with those two downstairs, by never breathing a word to Juanita about her own, contemporaneous relationship with Angelo. And she was doing it even now, by procuring Jonathan’s hookers while running interference with his wife.
Finally, she spoke: “I’ve felt ashamed and unattractive my whole life because of what that man did to me. I’ve been stumbling around like the ugly duckling, in search of my real mother—the one who should have rescued me that night. That’s probably why I took her in. After all that time, for as much as I hated her, I was still trying to make my mother love me. Because no one else ever did.” Oscar silently stroked Norma’s hair while she buried her face in his shoulder, sobbing until she had no tears left to shed.
Then Oscar had kissed her. He’d dried her cheeks and neck with a tissue, and began unhurriedly rummaging his hands through her hair, massaging her scalp and twiddling her curls until she had relaxed completely. With her dark hair splayed across the pillow, Oscar had slowly unbuttoned her top and kissed her freckled shoulder. “You’re beautiful, Norma Rae,” he’d murmured, exposing her breasts and taking her in. Searching her face, he’d propped himself on one elbow and said, “You’re absolutely beautiful, no matter what anyone did to you. Nobody can ever take that away.” He’d touched her cheek and made her look at him. “You hear me?” Norma had nodded, interlacing her fingers behind his neck and pulling him toward her. Yes, she’d meant it as a signal to proceed, but he must have taken it as his license to humiliate. After baring her soul so completely, how could Oscar have seized that opportunity to demean her so brazenly their very first night together? And that’s exactly what he had done, wasn’t it?
Seeing Oscar’s crafty smile at the dining table now, Norma did not know what to make of him. She looked away in embarrassment. With the very effort of trying not to remember, her perineum muscles slackened involuntarily. Norma gulped. What is it with our Goddamned bodies? she wondered. How is it they always remember the things we’d rather forget? And truth be told, Norma didn’t want to think about what Oscar had done. Not yet, anyway. She had tucked it away in the recesses of her brain to examine later, when she was alone. But there he was, sitting next to her, smiling across the breakfast table like nothing at all untoward had happened. Obviously, she was the only one who had a problem with it.
Norma now forced herself to recall how, once inside her, Oscar had slid a hand underneath and began lightly probing until he’d found what he was looking for—an unexpectedly sweet, sensitive spot. Shocked by this unprecedented infringement, Norma had tensed and given a quick squirm of protest. At that moment, Oscar had stopped and opened his eyes, the unexpected attention like an electric bolt from out of the blue. He’d then punctuated their silent encounter with a passionate and reassuring kiss before resuming.
At once startled and comforted, Norma had tried not to constrict in the face of this unwelcome yet powerful new sensation. She’d yielded gradually, letting Oscar tease her open bit by bit with his finger as he gently made his way in deeper. All the while, his mouth engulfed hers, even as he rhythmically infiltrated her body through a gateway of spread legs. Denuded, defenseless, and permeated thrice over, Norma wished she could vanish into thin air. Instead, her intensifying responses carried her helplessly to orgasm with a spontaneous, embarrassing yelp. And in the next instant, she’d felt Oscar flooding every inch of her.
Norma had been caught completely off-guard, ambushed like a spellbound toddler lured to the car of a deviant pedophile proffering a red lollipop. Only Oscar had bulldozed her with his disarming familiarity and utter lack of self-consciousness. Was the man a total freak? Even now, under the harsh light of a new day, she simply did not know what to make of him. He’d remained so composed and self-possessed throughout the entire episode; somehow or other, despite such an unparalleled breach, he’d managed to arouse her spectacularly while lulling her into total submission.
Still, Norma could not help but contrast Oscar’s unperturbed manner to Angelo’s rapid, frenetic choreography in the sack (much as she hated to draw such comparisons). Angelo had always tried to impress Norma with his clever, acrobatic positions, and Norma now realized that she’d felt under intense pressure to perform with him, if only to validate his deluded belief in a self-professed expertise with women. And once the show ended and the curtain fell, there’d been no easy lingering.
Oscar, on the other hand, had an oddly comforting quality about him. He was as plainspoken and unswerving in bed as out, without uttering a single word. Even after that desecration, he’d lain silently on top of her, playfully intertwining their toes while holding her tightly in an unapologetic assertion of possessiveness. When he finally did speak, he’d looked her dead in the eyes and whispered, “I love you, Norma Reyes. I have from the first day I laid eyes on you. Maybe I’m an impetuous flake for sayin’ it so soon, but it’s how I feel, and I’ve been needin’ to say it. I miss you like crazy whenever you’re outta my sight.”
Okay, maybe he’d taken a bit of advantage their first time together, but never in her life had Norma heard a man declare himself so beautifully, so purely. Who was she kidding? Never once had a man expressed his love for her, period. Not ever—and certainly not after sex. Norma supposed it a small price to pay for such an outright proclamation of devotion. She had once again been reduced to tears—this time, joyful ones. “So you do know my name,” she’d finally said once she’d managed to stop crying.
“What are you talkin’ about? Of course I know your name.”
“I meant, how you pronounce it. I thought I heard you call me ‘Norma Rey’ a couple of times.”
“I did, Norma Rae. ‘Cause you’re my gorgeous, tough, Chicana rabble-rouser. And I’m proud of you.”
“I’m not Mexican—” Norma had started to protest. But Oscar had simply kissed her and laughed.
Their eyes met across the table. Amazingly, Oscar’s face revealed not the slightest hint of embarrassment or apology. And yet, Norma knew he was remembering their night together, just as she was. He might as well have reached up in between her legs for how effortlessly her panties dampened under his gaze. How did he do that, with just his eyes? Even Janice knew what was up—she wordlessly took her plate of untouched pancakes and bacon into the kitchen, placed it on the counter, and retreated to join her sister in their bedroom.
“So how did things go with Razia this evening at the masjid?” I asked my wife in bed that night.
She let out a troubled breath. “I don’t know. She seems rather flighty. And insolent.”
“This is how the Americans raise their children. This is why we need to assume a positive role in her life!” I noticed a desperate edge to my own voice; apparently, Fadwa heard it, too.
“You have never before mentioned this ‘business associate’ who is her father. Is he a friend of yours?”
I hesitated. I had already fabricated a father for Razia, thereby desecrating Allah’s blessing with my latest taqiyya. Must I now elevate my impious fiction to the status of close friend in order to preserve my marital peace? I sighed. “No. He is not a friend. He is no one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Just that he is insignificant. It is Razia who’s important.”
“Why? Why do you feel such concern for her, if both her parents are mere acquaintances?” My wife’s eyes widened then, as though possessed of a horrible notion. I feared she was already on to me, but I kept my mouth shut. Better I should wait for her to reveal her discovery on her own. “Are you having an affair with her mother?” she finally whispered.
I laughed, relieved. “Don’t be ridiculous. I have absolutely no interest in the girl’s mother. I told you, she is a student. I barely know her.”
Fadwa nodded, as if considering whether or not to believe me. “Then why the sudden concern for her daughter?”
I turned onto my side, with my back toward her, and did not answer.
“This is quite an attractive girl,” she pointed out, trying to keep her voice flat and steady. Instead, it came out a shaky squeak.
“I suppose,” I answered noncommittally, pulling the covers around my shoulder.
“Developing nicely for her age, too,” she added. “I’d say she’s in full bloom.”
“Is she? I hadn’t noticed. Besides, I wouldn’t know how a twelve-year-old is supposed to look.”
“You can see the difference between her and Aleyah, who is almost eleven.”
“Razia is more than a year older, habib. Closer to two. And puberty is a time of great transformation. But what is your point? Why are we comparing our daughter’s body to this other girl’s?”
“What is your interest in her? You are not thinking of taking her as a second wife, are you?” Her accusation came out a whispered chirp.
I sat up and faced her. “Of course not! Why would you even think such a thing?”
“Why else would you have taken such an interest? Do her parents endorse this—this—courtship?”
“Fadwa, stop. I am not thinking of taking a second wife, much less a twelve year old girl. This is the farthest thing from my mind.”
“Then why—? I don’t believe you! I—I demand to speak to the girl’s mother!”
“I won’t allow it.”
“Why not? What is the big secret?” Now she sat up and stared pointedly at me. “I insist. I demand to meet the mother again,” she repeated. “I am entitled to know the woman whose daughter is accompanying my family to masjid.”
“And if I refuse?” I challenged.
I could see her eyes machinating frantically like a trapped animal’s, perhaps thinking of ways she might locate Razia’s parents on her own. My mind began to machinate, too. Had I told her my daughter’s last name? Had Razia? Might they have exchanged telephone numbers or email addresses before or after tonight’s service? Would she dare call the studio and embarrass me by asking Claire about my students—or worse yet, speak to Razia directly on an afternoon when she worked there?
“I will take the matter to the Imam,” she answered quietly. “We shall see what he thinks about you wooing a child.”
“I do not intend to marry Razia!” I thundered.
“So you say. Then let us see what Imam Al-Qasim thinks about you pandering to your lust for a twelve year old by feigning concern for her!” She met my volume and raised me one.
“Fadwa, please. If you were in Kuwait you would not say such things to your husband. You are becoming completely irrational. Is this your time of month?” I reached for her hand but she snatched it away.
“Yes, but I am in America now. I thought I left such antiquated notions behind. I am an educated woman. I did not emigrate to America to marry a man who lusts after twelve-year-old girls.” She jumped out of bed.
“Where are you going?”
“To phone Imam Al-Qasim.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It is eleven o’clock at night!”
“I consider preventing the ruin of your mortal soul a sufficiently important matter for a late-night phone call!” She choked back tears.
“Habib, please. You are working yourself up over nothing. I swear to you on our children, I do not have designs on this girl.” I softened my voice, and her eyes met mine. “Please, come back to bed.”
“Do you promise to tell me the truth?”
I sighed again. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
Fadwa put on her robe and cinched it tight around her waist. She sat on the edge of the bed and folded her arms, waiting.
“Am I to speak to your back?” I asked. “Won’t you please come to me?” I extended my arms.
“I will not allow you to touch me until you tell me what is going on.”
“Look at me then, at least.”
“I cannot bear to look at you,” she shot back.
“Okay. Fine. The truth is, I am Razia’s father.”
Fadwa turned to me in one quick motion. Her mouth dropped open. “But—how?”
“I had relations with her mother exactly once—before you and I married.”
I could practically see the mathematical equations computing in her head like a high-speed currency counting machine. “But—she is not yet thirteen years old. We would have been engaged at the time.”
“I am not sure we were,” I lied.
“When is her birthday?”
“September eleventh, of all the inauspicious dates,” I chuckled, trying to lighten the moment.
Fadwa’s eyes darted around the room, and settled on my crotch. She shuddered. “We were married in June of 2001. We would have been engaged when you committed this—this sin of fornication. You were unfaithful to me before we even married! Have you been adulterous with her the entire time?”
“It isn’t like that, habib,” I answered. “The woman seduced me when I foolishly accepted an invitation to have dinner at her house. I should never have agreed to it. I was young, and stupid. I succumbed to a wicked woman’s temptation in a moment of frailty, at a time when I was feeling lonely and, yes, a bit ambivalent perhaps about our upcoming marriage—nothing more than what the Americans would call ‘cold feet.’ But I told Razia’s mother immediately afterward that you and I were engaged.”
“Yes, but you have lied to me all these years.”
“No—no! I only learned of the girl’s existence for the first time the night I drove her home. She appeared at the yoga studio that evening and announced that I was her father.”
“Then at the very least you have been untruthful from the moment you found out!”
“No, habib. I am not even certain this is so. I intended to do a DNA test first, and tell you only if the results were positive. I saw no point upsetting you otherwise. I was trying to preserve our marital peace as long as possible.”
“So, are you saying you don’t believe her? And yet, you brought the girl into our home, to our dinner table, and into our masjid?”
I sighed once more. “No. I suppose I do believe her. But a part of me was still hoping it isn’t so. Not because I am not fond of the child, mind you. But because of how it would affect you.” I reached my arm out to her again, but Fadwa rose from the bed and began pacing the room.
“More than ‘fond,’ it would seem. You will be disappointed—devastated even—if the test were to come back negative. Is this not so?”
I did not answer her.
“Admit it! You already love the child, as much as our own Aleyah, whom you held in your arms the moment she was born.”
“Yes, I imagine this is true.”
“I do not know. Possibly because I missed her entire life, and she needs me. Perhaps I am trying to make it up to her now by loving her more than I should.”
“So, you have had a secret child all these years,” she pondered aloud. “For thirteen long years we have been living a lie. Our entire marriage is a farce!”
“How can you say that? We have built a strong and successful life, Fadwa. Allah has blessed us with two beautiful children; we have made this home together. I have nurtured my business with the sole purpose of furthering our marriage and securing our future, you and I, as one.”
“I want you to leave. Now. I want you out of here,” she cried.
“All right,” I answered. “If it will help you calm down.” I grabbed my pillow from the bed and went to the closet to look for an extra blanket.
“No,” she said. “I did not mean for you to sleep on the couch. I want you out—out of this house. You are nothing but a liar and a coward and I cannot stand to look at you.”