Originally published in the April 2013 issue of the St. Somewhere online journal.
‘I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.’
As she stirred the soup, she imagined that she was hitting him with each turn of the spoon. She watched her hands move in the remnants of daylight seeped through the kitchen window. She was mesmerised by the dark lines that criss-crossed the back of her hands and wondered when those lines had appeared.
She felt old, but she didn’t remember getting old. It was as if she had crammed 80 years of living into her 25 years on this earth. She avoided mirrors now; her once much-admired almond-shaped eyes had been dulled with the pain she experienced almost every week; her full lips once always ready to smile now twitched with worry about what would happen next. Even her hair, always her pride and joy, was thinning prematurely and she had recently resorted to wearing weaves to make it look fuller, a step she had dismissed disparagingly just a lifetime ago. To top off the pile of insults, the last time she went to the salon, her hair dresser had cheerfully pointed out some gray hair.
‘He’s sucking the life out of me,’ she had to admit.
She refocused on the swirling soup. In the movement she could almost see him sauntering in from his day of conducting business on the stoop. With a few steps he would cover the ground from their front door to her customary position in front of the stove and then, after giving her a dismissive pat on the bottom he would swivel towards their dining table and drop into the chair in front of his dinner. His sharp eyes would dart left and right searching for even the slightest error in her preparations, the wrong placemat, a slightly overcooked dish, a dish cloth out of place. If all was not to his liking, if it was not the way his sainted mother would have done it and she was within reach, he would slap her again, this time with vengeance. Depending on how his day had gone, she might escape with just that slap or a sounder beating later. It was the same thing every night.
‘I will leave if he hits me tonight,’ she resolved, then she sighed.
Leave to go where? She had tried to leave but love, or something, always led her back to this house, this kitchen and this pot of soup. She couldn’t say that she didn’t know why she returned. He had taken her in when she had arrived in Port-of-Spain, a run-away from down south, 19 and full of ideas about independence and dreams of a life in the big city. She had taken one look into his light-brown eyes set in smooth dark brown skin, run her hands once through his black wavy dougla hair and she had been lost, or found, depending on one’s perspective.
They had met at a restaurant. He sat at her table uninvited and inquired if she was lost. She knew that she stuck out, dowdy in comparison to the Port-of-Spain girls who glided about confidently with perfectly made-up faces and skirts that swung on their hips like pendulums, hypnotising any man who dared look too long. So when he lowered his slim, muscular body into the seat next to her and asked his question in that direct way of his that demanded nothing less than the truth she answered:
“Yes, aren’t we all?”
He had laughed, and if she had not already been captivated by his eyes and the raw maleness that flowed unchecked from his persona, his smile put the final lock on her soul. She was 19, a woman, and she had seen enough of life to know that she should not let him hear the quickened beat of her heart or feel the sweat forming in her palms. Later on when he wanted to make her feel small, he would claim that he knew he had her from the moment she laid eyes on him. On a good day, he would admit that he had wanted her just as much.
That afternoon he asked her name and when she responded, he laughed again.
“Jenny? Just Jenny? Not short for anything?”
“Just Jenny,” she responded, readying herself for an argument that did not come.
“That’s a baby name. I’ll call you Genevieve. That name suits a beautiful woman.”
She did not protest after all. She absorbed the name and Genevieve she became.
They sat and talked for hours. She had not had a real conversation since the last fight she had had with her father, a fight that ended with her throwing a few things in a bag and slamming the door on her way out. She basked and blossomed in the way that he listened to her. He wanted to know who she was and how she felt about important things in life and before she knew it, she had canceled her tiny room at the hostel, jumped on the back of his motorcycle and ridden off into the sunset with this man she had just met. In hindsight, hindsight that only came at the end of the first year when the beatings started, she had simply traded one domineering male for another.
‘I should turn on some lights,’ she thought, but she did not move away from that pot of soup. The darkness was forgiving, allowed her to ignore all the components that, like the yam, pumpkin, and sweet potato in the soup, came together to make her life a complex mess.
At first, life had been idyllic. They spent many long mornings in bed, after which he would dress unhurriedly, always immaculately, and disappear for several hours each day, leaving her alone to putter around their small house. After a while, the walls began to feel oppressive and she longed for something else to do. A few times she brought up the idea of looking for a job, but he would purse his lips, his face would crease into the beginnings of a storm and she would quickly pacify him seductively:
“You know you give me everything I need.”
She had occasionally asked herself how he did this. He provided cash for groceries and the bills and he was never stingy when she wanted something extra. Often he came home with a little something like some jewelry or a bit of fluff for the house, usually after she had brought up the idea of going to work. When she asked about his work, he described himself as a paper-pusher:
“The last thing I want to do now is to talk about that boring office.”
They had drifted along in this pattern for about a year. Occasionally she would question her life; she would lament the fact that she had settled, the fact that they were not married, but for the most part she felt happy. Love, financial security—what more could a woman want?
One evening he came home, she could see that he was upset and for the first time ever, he reeked of alcohol. He stormed past her, entered the bedroom and slammed the door. She knocked and called out in a soothing voice:
“Richard … baby … what’s the matter?’
There was no answer. Eventually, half an hour later, she remembered that she could use a thin object to toggle the lock on the door. She jiggled the door and found him curled up in the bed like a fetus. She crawled in behind him and cradled him, spooning her body into his.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she repeated in a soothing tone. “Whatever it is, we’ll make it okay.”
She kissed his back until she felt him relax and then respond to her. He turned over and pulled her roughly to him, pressing his lips against hers. He kissed her hard and she tried not to cry out as he tossed her on her back, pulled off his pants and her panties and entered her. When he had exhausted himself, he rolled over and said crudely:
“Go clean yourself up.”
She went to the bathroom in shock. Their lovemaking had always been passionate, but he always prided himself on being considerate, on satisfying his woman in every aspect of her life. She got into the shower, already beginning to feel sore between her legs. She bathed slowly, scrubbing herself thoughtfully, planning her next move. She put on a robe and returned to the bedroom ready to confront him about his treatment of her, but he was already fast asleep, a turbulent sleep. As he tossed, he spoke. She had to lean close to his mouth to hear what he said, but she finally discerned the words:
“She’s dead, Mommy is dead.”
The woman that Jenny had never known existed in life was her tormentor after her death. She surmised that Robert had never told her about his mother because allowing the two women in his life to meet would have made it impossible for him to keep his life compartmentalised. Now that there was no need for secrecy, Jenny found herself with a much longer list of chores. She didn’t mind, but her performance was compared to this apparently perfect woman at every turn and it was never favorably.
“Why can’t you …
… seam my shirts straight?
… remember all the groceries?
… cook the soup right?”
There was never any relationship between the transgression and the punishment. It depended on his mood, his sales that day, the weather… She never knew what to expect, but she braced herself for anything from a slap to a beating that would send her to the hospital.
‘I will leave if he hits me tonight,’ the thought popped into her head again. She lifted her head from the soup and looked out of the kitchen window but instead of seeing the yard outside, she saw a reflection of the small sitting and dining room behind her and she focused for a minute on that one spot where it had begun.
It was one week after his mother had died and she returned late from the hairdresser and found him at home. He was livid, screaming for his soup and about the untidy state of the house. He pushed her up against a wall, his elbow across her throat and slammed his fist into her eye. He stepped back and she slid to the floor.
“What have you done?” she screamed.
She had run out of the house and sought refuge with a friend, but when the rage of the moment subsided, she convinced herself that she had overreacted. She rationalised his behavior. His mother had just died, he was in mourning, and he had never acted like that before. Instead of walking away forever, she had returned and he had welcomed her with open, repentant arms promising fervently, feverishly that it would never happen again.
And so it began. Her friends said it was not love if he hit her, but her friends eventually abandoned her, no longer willing to accept excuses for her swollen face. He was her only constant.
His mother’s death created a second situation. Apparently his place of “work” has been at his mother’s house, and now that she was gone, he brought the work home. At first she was shocked at the idea that her lifestyle was supported by the sale of illegal drugs. He never used drugs, hardly even drank, and so she had never suspected that he was a significant dealer in the community. She was indignant in her shock and made several plans to leave, but again that something held her back, kept her in this house, this kitchen, stirring this pot of soup. She began to accept the beatings as her punishment, her just desserts for living the way she did.
She often wondered why people had difficulty understanding love. It was clear to her that it was like a piece of silk wound around the blade of a knife. At first you only saw the silk and you were fooled into believing that the strength of your emotions came from that soft, yielding fabric. You clung to this illusion and by the time your tight grasp had worn away the silk, you were so dependent on this crutch that you were unable to let go even when the underlying steel was exposed and cutting into your hands. In fact, you barely realised your pain until you had nothing else to hold on to if you chose to let go.
That feeling of futility, of being trapped made her angry. She could feel the anger building in the pit of her stomach, like the soup, boiling and bubbling on the stove in front of her. When it was too hot for her stomach to handle, it formed a ball that travelled upwards through her esophagus, past her rapidly beating heart until she felt like she was going to suffocate and, without thinking, she drew that ball into her mouth. She was surprised to find her mouth filled with bitter saliva. She pursed her lips, gathered it together and without really planning her next move, she spat it into the soup.
“Serve him right,” she thought as she watched the liquid wad swirl around and then disappear among the vegetables.
She heard a movement behind her and she swung around. He was standing on the other side of the kitchen, or at least she thought it was him. Same lithe body, in the same clothes that he had been wearing that morning, but his face was contorted into so much anger that she was sure she saw the devil himself in his eyes. He covered the distance between them in three quick strides.
“Oh God,” she cried, bracing herself for a beating, but it did not come.
“God can’t help you today,” he roared. “You spit in my food?”
He stepped forward and put his hands around her neck.
“I didn’t mean to,” she pleaded but her words could not penetrate the rage that filled him.
“You bitch, you spit in my food,” he repeated.
His face was now right in front of hers and when he shouted, droplets of saliva splattered over her face. He pressed his fingers into her throat and she felt the air supply being cut off. She grabbed his arms and pulled, trying to reduce the pressure on her wind pipe. She dug her nails into his forearm, but he was so far beyond her that he did not flinch, even when her digging drew blood.
“Stop,” she gasped, “I’m sorry.”
Her voice was weaker now, her energy sapped as her body was starved of oxygen. She could not believe she was going to die at his hands. Through all the punches, slaps, excuses, he had always come back like a petulant, naughty puppy, repentant and irresistible in his need to be loved. She always thought that she could cure him with her love and that although it was a life in hell, it was a life. Now she knew that it was the end, she did not think of herself. Whatever would happen to her soul on the other side would happen. The only thought she gave to the after life was whether or not she would know what happened to him next. How would he cope? Would he be jailed? She opened her eyes briefly and focused her waning energy to look deep into his.
“I love you,” she breathed, “I forgive you.”
She wasn’t sure if she had spoken aloud and if he could hear her or not, but with that, she let go.