.Jessica N. Arzola-Grissom lives in a small Texas town with her husband and son. Her story, The Meaning of Ascensión was published in SAGU's literary journal The Image. Her poem Fireflies was published by the Logo Sophia magazine. If she isn't writing, she spends her time recording a podcast called The More You Know: Honest Ideas and Practical Tips.
It was dark. Too dark to see a hand in front of your face. Too dark to see if anyone else was there. She needed to turn the light on to check the damage. She needed the comfort of the light like a mother provides a nightlight for her sleepy child. Carefully, she pulled herself off the kitchen floor and shakily made her way to the bathroom.
Estanislada looked at herself in the mirror and tried to determine who she was looking at in the reflection. Tears threatened her eyes, but she clenched her jaw. She would not give in to tears right now. No, she needed to hold onto the anger for a bit longer. Maybe the anger she felt would propel her to action. Lately, she’d been trying to pay more attention to her body.
What am I feeling inside now? My heart is racing. My stomach is in knots. My hands are shaking. Mama always said I could come home. She’s going to say, “I told you so.” I hate that she was right. I wish she hadn’t been right about this. Maybe I can wait until next time. Or maybe it is time to start the process. Oh God, what do I do?
Estanislada looked intently into her rich, brown eyes and whispered to the mirror. I am strong. I am smart. I am capable. I am beautiful. I deserve to be treated with love. I deserve respect. So does my daughter. She sighed heavily and pressed a cool cloth to her face and then pulled her turtleneck down to look at her neck. Her skin was red, and she could still feel the pain. Contemplating calling the police, she decided against it. The faint imprints would be gone by the time the police arrived and if he came home while she was there, then there would be hell to pay afterward. No, it was better to not call the police right now. She washed off the rest of her tear-stained makeup and climbed into bed. She wished for sleep to overtake her, but her mind would not shut down. She knew she could no longer live in the dark. It was too gruesome. It was too daunting. She knew she was fading into it every time she lost a piece of herself.
The sound of rain woke her up along with the noisy cries from Olivia. She looked over at her husband’s pillow, but Don wasn’t there. The pillow looked like it hadn’t been slept on at all last night. Forcing herself out of bed, she walked into the nursery. Olivia was standing in her crib with tears streaming down her face. “There now, my baby. Are you hungry?” Olivia wasn’t talking a lot yet, but she knew the word “hungry” and “milk.” Estanislada picked her up and made her way into the kitchen.
“Hey! I brought your favorites – pineapple empanadas!”
She nearly jumped when she heard his voice. He was sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee and devouring an empanada. He stood up, and said, “Come here my little angel,” as he gently took Olivia out of her arms. He flashed her a charming smile and kissed Estanislada on the cheek.
The difference between last night and this morning made her question if anything had happened at all. It wasn’t a nightmare, right? No, her neck felt bruised. She quickly made the bottle and tried to take Olivia to feed her.
“Don’t worry, Darling. I can feed her while you get your coffee.”
“Oh. Okay, thanks,” she responded dazed and confused.
She poured her cup of coffee and sat down, staring out the window.
“Hey, I’m so sorry about last night. Really, I am. It won’t happen again,” he said, and his voice cracked. She looked at him carefully. He seemed genuine and his eyes flared with emotion.
She nodded but had no words. She felt shaky and willed herself to breathe deeply. There. That helps a bit.
“What do you have planned for today?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. If it were nicer outside, I’d take Olivia to the park, but I guess I’ll go see Mom.”
A concerned look came across his face and he looked down at his coffee cup.
“Did you have anything you needed to do today?” she inquired.
“No. It’s just that every time we have a fight, the next day you always go hang out with family or friends. Like you are trying to get away from me. You don’t tell them the details of our marriage, do you? I mean, everybody has problems, but your family and friends shouldn’t be your therapist.”
“I don’t think I’m treating my family or friends like a therapist. It just gets difficult not having adult conversations when I’m here all day with our baby. That’s all.”
“So, you don’t tell our family what happens between us? I don’t spew all your flaws to others. I would never betray your confidence like that, and I’d hope you’d do the same for me.”
“Sure. Yeah. I don’t blab stuff or gossip to people. You know that.”
“You know I love you, right? I’m sorry I got too stressed last night. Work has been killing me and I’m exhausted. Things just built up.”
She nodded again and couldn’t find words to say. She felt like if she said anything, nothing would be taken the right way. He wouldn’t really listen. Or he would pretend like he was listening and then in the future he’d use her words against her. The cycle would start again, and it just wasn’t worth it. Not now.
“I’m just going to go to my mom’s for lunch. Olivia likes playing in their new playroom. It gets us out of the house for a bit,” she replied as cheerily as she could. My God, I should have been an actress with these performances I have to put on. She met his eyes again and willed herself to believe she was calm, cool, collected, and in control. And that nothing was really that bad.
Estanislada walked up to her mom’s front door and let Olivia push the doorbell. Her mother, Inez, opened it and cheerily said, “Hola! Come in out of the nasty rain! It’s so dark out there! Has it been rainy all week? How are yáll doing today?” She reached for Olivia and Estanislada set the diaper bag on the shoe bench.
As Inez took off the baby’s raincoat and shoes, she looked up at Estanislada. “Want a cup of tea and a chat while she plays?” Estanislada sighed. She teared up and whispered, “That would be great, thanks, Mom.” She could fool everyone but her mother. She wished sometimes she could fool her mother, but she was relieved that she couldn’t.
“What’s wrong?” Inez gently asked as she set a cup of tea in front of Estanislada.
“Well, we had another big fight last night. It feels like if I’m disagreeing then things escalate quickly. I guess I just don’t know how to handle conflict well. I don’t know, but I get angry, and I guess I pushed too many buttons.”
“Was he drinking again?
“Yeah, but it wasn’t that much.”
“What are you going to do?” Inez asked cautiously.
“I don’t know, Mom. Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy because it isn’t all the time. We have good times together. He loves our daughter, but then after nights like last night…”
“Did he hit you?”
“No. He never has done that.”
“Was he physical in any way?”
Estanislada was silent.
She met her mother’s eyes.
“I don’t ever want to tell you what to do. You are a grown woman. I’m here for you whatever you decide, but I think it might be helpful to talk to a professional about these things.”
Estanislada nodded her head.
“Do you think I should go ask Pastor Will about it?”
“I said a professional, Darling. You know I go to church, but pastors are just as wrong when it comes to stuff like this. They say if you just do more or be less of yourself then things will get better. It isn’t true. It’s complete bullshit if you ask me.”
Estanislada arched her eyebrows. Her mama never cursed, so when she did, she meant business.
“All right. I will make an appointment this week with a professional. It can’t hurt talking to someone, right?”
“Right. You know you can always come back home if you need to, but you’ve got to be careful since y’all have Little Bit. You don’t want him to accuse you of kidnapping or crap like that. Find out what your rights are when you are talking with whomever.”
“Thanks, Mom. I never thought…” Estanislada’s voiced trailed off.
“I know, Sweetheart. We never do. You are only responsible for your actions. Not the actions of others, remember?”
“Yeah,” Estanislada said smiling through her tears.
Several normal weeks passed, and Estanislada felt her previously heightened emotions returning to normal. Still, she went to see a counselor and talked through her concerns. Estanislada found the sessions beneficial and the more she learned, the stronger she felt. She always thought she was somewhat stronger than other women physically. Her dad had towered over most people in a room, so she gleaned some of his features. She wasn’t a large woman but could hold a presence so that no one had ever tried to threaten or bully her. Until lately.
The counselor, Beth, leaned back in her chair and asked, “What happened before this incident?”
“We are both tired and on edge. I mean, who isn’t when your sleep gets interrupted with a little one, right? He’s had moments where he’s been more reclusive, but I’ve not seen him this angry. I asked if there was something we needed to do to change things and he said no, that’s just the way life is right now. I feel resistance anytime I mention changing things.”
The counselor continued to ask open-ended questions and Estanislada took notes on a tiny little notebook that she kept hidden in a safe place at home. She knew Don was aware she was seeing a counselor, but she didn’t reveal a lot about their sessions, nor did she ever want him to read through her notes. The last question she wrote in her entry was, “Where does this become my responsibility?” Beth asked her to think about the question and they could discuss the matter over on their next appointment.
When Estanislada arrived home, she could tell Don was in a mood.
“Hi, Don. Bad day?”
“Always. It’s never-ending.”
“Yeah. Just sick of it all.”
Are you sick of your life with us too? She thought as she began measuring ingredients for tortillas. Sometimes, she imagined what would happen if she woke up one day and he was gone. Before, there was always a feeling of sadness. Failure and guilt would overwhelm her, but lately, she also started sometimes wishing he would leave. She imagined her life without the tiptoeing around his moods. It would be rough trying to be a single parent. She’d never envisioned herself parenting alone, especially since her own parents had been married for thirty-five years. Still, when the thoughts crossed her mind, it wasn’t all gloomy like it had been before. She’d told the counselor about her mantra that she repeated to herself in the bathroom that night. I am strong. I am smart. I am capable. I am beautiful. I deserve to be treated with love. I deserve respect. So does my daughter. Beth told her it was a beautiful mantra and to keep repeating it daily or as often as needed to get her into a good headspace.
Estanislada was feeling a bit guilty, but she’d started taking bits out of the grocery money every week and had opened a separate bank account only in her name. She wanted an emergency fund just in case she ever needed to use it. Beth gave her a pamphlet with the hotline for a domestic violence center. It sounded so daunting calling it that because she’d only had a handful of times where she felt he wasn’t listening to her, “No. The counselor reminded her that it should only take one partner saying no once and not two, three, four, or more times. Estanislada agreed even though she still had a hard time admitting it to herself”, that she’d been a victim of domestic violence crimes. She was going to have to figure out what her breaking point was. Before he tried again and broke her.
“Are you even listening to me? Or do you have mom brain again?” Don asked sneering at her.
“I’m sorry. I was lost in thought.”
“Thinking of leaving me for another man?” he jeered.
Estanislada laughed and exclaimed, “No!”
I can’t imagine getting back into another relationship again after all this. If this ends in a disaster, that’s it for me. She kneaded the remaining tortilla dough and covered the bowl with a warm dish towel. It’s going to take a bit for me to get my skills back up to par, but in the meantime, I sure as hell could make tortillas. I’m a damn good cook if I do say so. Maybe I should apply at the new event center in town. I think I will. It won’t hurt to apply.
A couple of weeks passed and this time she was shaking from excitement rather than fear. Hearing the words, “You’re hired!” sent her to the moon. Inez was going to watch Olivia. Most of the events were later it the day on weekday evenings or on weekends. Estanislada could still spend most of the day with Olivia. She didn’t know what she’d do without her mom. Now, she just had to tell Don. Fear gripped her heart. It shouldn’t affect him in any way other than occasionally be absent at dinner time. She would prepare a heat-and-eat dinner for him and then make it home by their normal bedtime. Inez was going to try to keep Olivia up until Estanislada picked her up, but said she could drop her off at bedtime on the nights that Estanislada got out later. She even offered to keep Olivia to her own house those nights. Olivia adored her grandmother so it would be fine.
“Hey, Don. I want to talk to you about something.”
He looked worried anytime she started a conversation this way, but managed to look interested. She proceeded to explain to him how she felt like it was time to get back into the workforce and about her job offer.
“You did all this without consulting me?”
“I didn’t accept it just yet. I didn’t even think they would say yes. But they picked me! Our lives don’t have to change much at all, really. I need an outlet though. I love our little gal more than anything, but this will be fun and give us a little extra.”
“So I’m not providing enough, is that it?” Don was infuriated.
“Not at all! I appreciate everything you do for us! I think it would be fun to save up for those little extras though. Don’t you?”
“Do whatever you want. I’m not going to control and stop you.”
“But you aren’t okay with this? What’s your biggest concern right now?” she asked timidly.
“You just ever seem satisfied. Nothing I do seems to matter to you,” he said dejectedly.
“This is more to do with me than you. Can you try to be happy for me? Let’s say we do a 60-day trial and see what happens? If it is too much, I’ll do something different.”
“Sure. Like I said, whatever you want. Why do you think they picked you? They must be pretty desperate to find somebody.”
The words stung her and she became enraged. She willed herself to remain steady and calm.
“That’s hurtful. I’m a good cook. The town is small. We all had to cook a sample dinner and mine won! Is that so hard to believe?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that’s not what you’re qualified in so I figured they didn’t have a lot of interest or something. Whatever. Do your thing.”
She wasn’t satisfied with that answer, but let it go. She needed this opportunity to have a way to move forward if needed.
A few weeks later, she realized she’d made the right decision. This time, he’d left marks on her neck. This time, he shoved her into the bathroom and had his way. This time she woke the baby up and took her to Inez’s house. This time she drove to the police station. Enough was enough. It was time to move forward.
“Estanislada! Oh my gosh! You look amazing! Girl, you look ten years younger than when I saw you last. What have you been up to lately?” gushed Sue, one of Estanislada’s high school friends.
“I got divorced.”
Sue’s face fell and she murmured, “Oh Estanislada. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was the best decision I made. I’ve been hired full-time as the chef here; Mom is watching Olivia. I’m still very involved, and my ex has a restraining order. He’s allowed supervised visits with Olivia. Things are going to be dicey, but I feel better than I have in five years.”
“Wow. I’m proud of you, Estanislada.”
“Thanks. I’m proud of me too.”
Estanislada went back to school and worked tirelessly for several years. She is now Dr. Estanislada and teaches at a local university. In her spare time, she still manages a catering event or two. She loves her daughter, Olivia, with her entire being and hopes to someday share her story of resiliencia.