Last August I wrote this story about a friend I made back in 2008. Wherever she is, I hope she's well.
She would never forget that look on his face. That hungry gaze in his eyes when he would move his hands in the places she was told never to let anyone touch. He slapped her hard when she resisted, pummeled her face until she submit. One time he busted her lip open and she had to tell the teachers at school that she fell down the stairs. By the teacher’s estimate, she fell down at least twice a month, sometimes more.
But with time it appeared that she finally learned how to climb down stairs as the bruises slowly disappeared. Now when he crept into her room at night, she’d lay motionless. Silent. The only sounds were his grunts, the heavy panting, and the light sniffling of tears back into her nose.
No one told her that fathers weren’t supposed to do that, but it always felt wrong to her from the beginning. The moment she grew old enough to earn her own money, she moved into a small house that her aunt owned on the outskirts of town.
But she wouldn’t settle there. She would go on a few adventures. One time, she even made it to the United States. She met a man and married him, even carried his child, but he ended up being just like her father. She forgot how to climb down stairs when she was with him too. She came back to her small house on the outskirts of town to remind herself how. She vowed to never again forget how because of a man.
Normally, she wouldn’t talk to men she met at dance clubs. She wouldn’t be sitting outside on a park bench chatting about her life with a stranger. But he’s a foreigner and she thinks foreigners are different. He explains to her that he’s been looking for a place to rent, but failed to find anything.
“I have a spare bed at my place,” she says. She’s surprised at the words that come out. His eyes are intrigued. “But my place is ugly,” she shies.
They pull up to a small house thirty minutes later. She undoes a flimsy lock and creaks open the corrugated sheet metal door. There is no carpet, no flooring, just dirt. She flips on the switch. There is a single 60-watt bulb lighting the entire place. He looks around. A two-burner hotplate supported by an old wooden table stands against the main wall. In the corner is a 12-inch television propped up by a cheaply made DVD player. There is a hammock stretched across from the entryway to the backdoor, and two thick garbage bags that separate the bedroom.
“Livable,” he thought to himself.
Behind the garbage bags are two beds. There is a thin mattress spread across each frame. Both are hard as a plank of wood.
“This is my bed. You can take that one,” she says, clearing the folded stack of clothes to a corner. He moves in closer and kisses her. She doesn’t resist. For the next two weeks, the one bed remains as a wardrobe.
He learns a few things as the days pass. Lizards scurry through the cracks of the concrete walls, there is a barbed wire clothesline outside in between the house and the outhouse, and the bare aluminum roofing make the mangoes that fall at night sound like gunshots. Each time one falls she clutches him tightly and trembles. The first time he’s scared too. “It’s only a mango,” she tells him. He asks her why she trembles if she already knows. “Noises in the dark frighten me,” she says.
He treats her differently than the other men in her life. She never forgets how to climb down stairs while she’s with him. She feels safe, safe enough to eventually stop trembling when the mangoes fall. Then she remembers that he’s leaving.
They argue about it every morning like they’re a married couple. He doesn’t understand why she makes such a fuss over these small things. He’d be gone in a week. Enjoy the moment while it’s there. That’s how he lived.
“Imagine what it’s going to be like when I’m here by myself!” she screams at him.
He stands there and doesn’t know what to say.
On his last day he waits at the door with his bags packed. He asks for a final farewell hug. She dangles lazily on the hammock. She pretends like he isn’t even there, and continues to watch the telanovela blaring on the 12-inch screen. She’s making it easy for him. No messy goodbyes, no guilty conscious, just clean cut from something that never was.
He steps over the small concrete rise and moves out the door. She descends from her hammock and says one last thing to him before he leaves. She tells him that if he ever feels lonely to remember that she loves him, wherever he is. He says ‘thank you’ and that he loves her too. She turns around without a word and lets him disappear down the road.
She crawls back into bed and cuddles under a blanket. It is over 100 degrees with humidity. Moments of vague regret run through her mind. All these years. From the first man she ever knew to this man that just walked away, that familiar void, that same vacancy of meaning, was still there. She told herself she’d never let herself feel vulnerable, never let herself feel this way again. She risked it for a man, for what she thought was love. But he didn’t stay.
A mango crashes down on the roof in a loud clang and she trembles at the sound. She cringes into a ball and tries to sleep. Now, it is all a bit more unsure. The other men gave her reasons to leave, a reason to believe it was better to be on her own. It was easy. It was clear. But this one was nice. This one was sweet. But it was only that his poison was different. His poison just burned slower.