Published in The MacGuffin (Fall 2012)
Rosa digs a small hole next to her mother’s headstone and plants a dark-leafed geranium, still not sure whether it is out of love or defiance or both. Geraniums, red and pink, bursting out of the ground and flowing out of window boxes, are what she remembers missing first when her parents moved from East LA into a manicured development when she was five. Every Sunday they had returned to the barrio for dinner with her mother’s parents. And each Sunday as they left, her grandmother would offer a large pot of her unruly and joyous geraniums, as if she knew it was the geraniums, with their scalloped leaves like a flamenco dancer’s skirt, that would bring joy to Rosa’s new, sad neighborhood. Each time, though, Rosa’s mother refused them.
Her abuela clearly knew after the first dozen refusals that the offer would be rejected. Yet, week after week, she offered them anyway. Rosa remembers itching to accept when her mother would not, and that she never did, sensing even then that this was not a conversation about geraniums. Still, it would take her another twenty-five years to accurately translate the exchange.
As a child, she could not think of a Spanish explanation for her mother’s inexplicable refusal, and so had resorted to English. “No, gracias” (when you waved your finger just so and picked up geraniums and put them back in the sun room as you walked out the door) meant: “They will get the car dirty.” What else could it mean? As a teenager, she developed a less forgiving translation in which the offer of geraniums meant: “Don’t forget your roots,” and “no, gracias” her mother’s assimilationist, bourgeois answer.
Now, her back against the cool stone marker etched with her mother’s name, Dolores Lopez-Castellano, she pats down the earth around the freshly planted geranium and considers her new translation. The offer of geraniums (eyes cast down, chin tucked) meant: “Forgive me.” Rosa cannot imagine how she mistook her grandmother’s gesture for anything else. And, well, having cracked the meaning of the offer, there was no misunderstanding the curt “no, gracias” anymore, either.
Looking back, she marks the new translation as having started to buzz in her ear the day she began her job as legal counsel for DC’s Domestic Violence Project, the pinch of her new shoes feeding her apprehension that she was squeezing into a bad fit. She had arrived with a giant pot of pink geraniums for her sparse office, and then felt ridiculous for it, like the surprised guest who mistakenly thought it was a costume party. Rae, her new boss, had met her at reception. “How cheery,” she had said. “Staff meeting starts in five minutes. Just leave those with Eva for now.” It was the first time in years she had thought of the exchange over the geraniums.
Then, at the staff meeting, Rae started to fill her calendar with tasks.
“October 10th, the DC Clothesline Project will go up on the Capitol Mall. Rosa, I’d like you to staff the legal information booth. Have you ever seen a Clothesline display?”
“Yes, before we moved east I had a client who painted a shirt for the San Jose Clothesline. There must’ve been at least two hundred shirts stretched out on the line.”
“It’s a brilliant idea,” Rae commented. “The proverbial airing of the dirty laundry.”
“Definitely,” Rosa said, nodding agreement but feeling the pinch of her shoes and thinking of the geraniums waiting at reception, accusing her—you belong here as much as we do.
Yes, she had found The Clothesline powerful, but not in the way Rae meant. It had infuriated her, as had poor Lizette—thirty but looking forty, weeping as she explained to Rosa that her children had been placed in foster care because she had been unable to protect them from their father. Rosa had wanted to empathize, but could not. “One punch,” she told Ben that night. “How does any man get more than one punch? Couldn’t protect her children? Bullshit. You scoop up your babies and you walk. End of story.”
For two weeks after that first staff meeting she thought of Lizette and worried that her lack of empathy made her hopelessly deficient for the job. Finally, her first paycheck arrived and she and Ben got a night out. She had kept her misgivings to herself, waiting for an evening insulated from the noise of daily life, for Ben to help her past her doubts. But once she had his undivided attention, she hesitated. She could already hear his response, grounded in facts she already knew, and the awaited evening was suddenly anticlimactic even before it had begun.
“So, how’s the law biz?” he asked.
She tried to frame an answer, but two weeks and she still struggled for the right words, words that would invite understanding rather than analysis. The irony had not been lost on her—that she wanted empathy for her angst about not feeling empathy. But she wanted it nonetheless. She looked at her husband. Never much attracted to brawn, it was his reserved bookishness that had caught her eye; her feeling that his memory was older than he was. Just as she carried a whisper of Aztec in her broad cheekbones, she could see Ben’s people in the soft curl of his shoulders as he leaned in too close when he read. And she did love him for it, although in this moment she wanted something entirely different. Finally she just said, “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.”
“Why?” Ben shrugged and buttered a roll. “You’re a good lawyer. So it’s DC instead of San Jose. Can’t be that different. You’re overanalyzing.”
She suppressed her annoyance and tried again. “Do you remember Lizette?”
“Sure, that’s my point. You got her kids out of foster care. Got her safe.”
“But the whole time I was so, shit I don’t know…unsettled. Remember? You nicknamed me ‘Juana Poncho’ because I said it so many times. ‘Just one punch, that’s all you’d get.’”
“Oh yeah, Señora One Punch,” Ben smiled.
“Seriously, Ben, I’ll be working with survivors all the time. How can I do that if I can’t help judging them?”
“So don’t do it.” Ben shrugged and poured the wine.
Not the answer she wanted. “Ben, we-don’t-have-enough-money-to-pay-the-bills.”
“Oh, here comes the guilt trip. Look, you know I wouldn’t be making much more at a large paper.”
“Who said anything about you working for a larger paper? We moved to DC so you could have this job, remember?”
“Yes, I know; it was a great sacrifice.”
“It wasn’t an accusation and you know it!” Rosa heard her voice rise and was peripherally aware of heads turning at the next table. She leaned closer and hissed, “Why are you turning this into being about you? We were talking about my job, remember?”
“Yeah, and how you’ve been forced to take it because I can’t cover the bills.”
She couldn’t believe they were fighting. But then, she never saw their fights coming. She took a deep breath. “Look Ben, don’t lay your self-inflicted guilt on me. When have I ever complained about the money?”
“You didn’t have to.”
“Oh, great. So you don’t need me to have this fight. ‘The part of Rosa will be played by her husband.’” She almost added, “Maybe I should just leave you two alone,” but caught herself. She never won chicken fights with Ben. He would just say, “fine,” and mean it.
They sat in stony silence, glaring at the table. Then, as quickly as it had descended, the tension evaporated.
“You’ve got a glob of bleu cheese on your chin.”
“You’ve got a banana in your ear.”
“What, I can’t hear you; I’ve got a banana in my ear….”
The next day, she had gone to the Clothesline Project planning meeting. Rae drove and talked about her early cases—winning custody battles against richer, more lawyered-up abusers. She looked at Rae, mid-50s, with the relaxed, unadorned grace of an athlete, and liked this marathon-running mentor who took on the Big Boys and won. For the first time she thought, “I can do this.”
But then during the introductions she tripped over herself again. They were in a circle of folding chairs in the living room of a local shelter, the mismatched sofas pushed against the walls to make room. Rae started the introductions, “Hi, most of you know me. I’m Rae Ballard, lawyer, founder of the Domestic Violence Project, survivor.” Rosa felt shocked, then foolish, then shocked again.
On the drive back to the office, she wanted Rae to explain and tried broaching the subject. “I didn’t realize the meeting would be so…personal.”
“It’s always personal.”
Rosa tried again. “So, it seems like most of the women who were there…”
“I know this shouldn’t be so hard for me, but I don’t get it,” Rosa finally confessed.
“I mean, you? You’re educated, financially independent.”
Finally, Rae let out a long breath and started talking.
“We met in law school. Jim was my TA and from the beginning he was the grown-up, and I the worshipping law groupie. He was a runner too and we started running together. God, he was a beautiful runner. Effortless, confident, blond. We got married the summer I graduated and it was awful from the start. He was a different person—possessive, jealous.”
She pulled into the lot by the office, but made no move to get out of the car. “Pounding tables and hitting walls turned into smacks and pinches, and before you knew it I was a classic, telling everyone what a klutz I was.” Rae’s voice trailed off for a moment as her hand came up to her face and lightly stroked a faint scar below her right ear that Rosa had not noticed before.
The car started to get warm and Rosa thought about opening the window, but was afraid it would break whatever spell had moved Rae to tell her story. So she just listened, enveloped in the heat of the car, her hands in her lap.
“Anyway, ten years ago, I was out doing Christmas shopping and ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen since law school. I’ll never forget how his face changed as we approached each other. First he recognized me and made a big smile. Then the smile just froze. I must’ve had a black eye. I kept trying to pooh-pooh his concern with this awful high-pitched cheeriness. But Cam wasn’t buying it, and something in that moment saved me. Maybe it was seeing someone who knew me from before. Seeing his reaction to what I’d become. Anyway, I finally found the strength to leave.”
Rae was silent a moment and then got out of the car. The story was finished. But Rosa wanted her to say more. She needed her to explain what had made her succumb to this brutality—that she was an alcoholic, that her mother had been abused, something, anything. But Rae offered neither excuses nor explanations. Finally, Rosa left the car and followed after her, trying to keep up with her relaxed, flat-footed stride.
Driving home that night, she tried to figure out why discovering Rae was a survivor had left her so shaken. Part of it, she knew¸ was disappointment in her own reaction. Rae’s matter-of-fact acknowledgment that she had endured years of abuse had not jump-started in Rosa the emotional connection she had hoped for. She still felt like an impostor who had landed a job she was profoundly inadequate to perform. But there was something else, just out of reach.
Perhaps if she could imagine herself actually in the situation, she had thought. But just imagining being hit at all was difficult. She had no memory of being struck, ever. Once, when she was very young, she remembered her cousin Lalo getting smacked for something by her father’s sister, Tia Angie. She and Lalo had been sitting very close together, maybe in a car, and the sound of it had made her jump. Her mother, who never lost her temper, got furious at her sister-in-law. And poor Lalo, eyes still full of tears from the smack, got no sympathy from Rosa. With the mothers distracted, she had given him a hard pinch, jealous that he had been able to evoke such emotion from her reserved mother.
She pushed aside the memory, and, feeling absurd, tried to suspend disbelief and picture her recent bickering with Ben spin out of control—Ben’s “here comes the guilt trip” comment punctuated by his fist in her stomach, the back of his hand across her face. She pulled over, closed her eyes, and tried to feel what she would feel if the unimaginable actually happened. With each scenario, rage won. She tried adding tender remorse and fervent promises to the scenarios. But she knew with absolute certainty that he would get one swing, and one swing only. Then, she and the girls would be gone.
She opened her eyes and barely made it out of the car before she started retching. She leaned against the door, berating herself and feeling like an idiot. It was just dusk and she walked the familiar block to settle her stomach, watching the lights start to come on in the small brick row houses as other families turned to their dinners. She suddenly missed the girls terribly and quickened her pace while counting the days to her period. Either this was PMS, or she was really going crazy.
Arriving home, she scooped up Lena and Sara, hugging them until Sara scolded that it was “too tight” and Lena told her she “smelled like old cheese,” which threw both girls into a laughing fit. Ben suggested a glass of wine might settle her stomach and she almost barked out a “no,” still possessed by the emotions conjured by her dark fantasy. Catching herself, she decided a little wine might help, and savored the sweet taste of relief that comes with realizing something awful was just a dream. A few sips, though, and exhaustion overcame her. So she crawled into bed, leaving Ben with the cleaning up.
The next thing she knew, she was awake, heart pounding and drenched with sweat, the only sound in the dark room her own breathing. Careful not to wake Ben, she peeled off her wet nightgown and pulled the blankets around her. She needed to keep hold of the threads of her dream and weave them back together.
She closed her eyes, remembering. She was a child, crouching in the corner of a small room. Boxes or crates surrounded her so that she was hidden in her own secret place. It must have been some sort of shed because the walls were made of wide, rough boards, with streaks of light darting in from the slits between them. She was holding something in her hand, smooth and very special. And there was a strange sound like a hinge scraping, but all around her, low and constant. Then there was the sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel outside, a voice in Spanish, “por favor, no, no.”
Rosa opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling, knowing she would be able to remember the rest now, but not sure she wanted to. She wished Ben would wake up and pull her away into his arms. But she did not move to disturb him. The dream was replaying in her head. Two people, a man and a woman, stood in the dim room, their bodies pierced by the shafts of light. The woman was whimpering. The man was growling as he pushed her around the room. The woman crouched and cowered. The man kicked her and spat on her.
Rosa knew that the faces were there in her dream too. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and peeked out from behind the crates in her dream. It was her grandparents. Her abuelita, the wise storyteller, transformed. She pleaded and wept, crouching to make herself smaller than her grandfather. Normally, she stood about three inches taller and outweighed him by fifty pounds. Her abuelo was also possessed. This wasn’t her playmate, the great balladeer who sang heart-wrenching rancheros until everyone wept. He stood rigid, snarling in a voice she did not recognize. “Don’t run away from me!” he ordered in Spanish. “You loud-mouthed bitch!” His kicks punctuated his words while her grandmother kept apologizing and telling him to hush or people would hear.
Rosa looked at the clock. It would be twelve-thirty in LA. Her father, the night owl, would still be up. Without giving herself time to change her mind, she pulled on a robe and went downstairs. It had been at least a month since they last spoke. They had enjoyed a sweet closeness when she was little. Her mother’s stiffness had weighed on her, and her father was always there to balance each raised eyebrow with a wink, each seeming cold shoulder with an embrace. But they grew apart after her mother died. Rosa had avoided examining why, telling herself it was just a function of being sixteen. But at a certain point she was forced to admit that she was long past sixteen. So she had rationalized that her father’s tenderness could only exist in response to her mother’s distance, and so had died with her.
“Hola, Papi, it’s me.”
“Rosa, is everything all right? It’s the middle of the night for you.”
“Everyone’s fine, Papi.”
“So what are you doing up?”
“Papi.” She paused, thinking what to say next. She considered asking him directly, and couldn’t. “Papi, I had the oddest dream. I was a little girl, and I was playing in this strange room. It felt more like a memory than a dream.”
“Everything is fine and you’re calling me in the middle of the night to tell me about a dream?”
“It’s important, Papi. Bear with me, OK?”
Rosa felt a moment of delight so intense it hurt. She couldn’t remember the last time her father had spoken to her in Spanish. For him, English was the language of commerce, politics, discipline. Spanish the language of love, music, tenderness.
“The room, Papi, it seemed like a shed. The walls were rough, and you could see light through the cracks. I was hiding behind some crates playing with a ball. Not a ball, but something round and smooth. And there was the oddest sound, like hinges squeaking, but all around me.”
“I think you just described your grandmother’s chicken coop,” he laughed. “Though I’m not sure I’d describe clucking hens like squeaking hinges. But then again, maybe I would!”
“Nana had a chicken coop?”
“You don’t remember? That surprises me. You loved that coop for years. You would collect the eggs, loved holding them. No matter how many times you did it, you were surprised by how warm they were.”
“An egg!” she said, understanding a piece of the dream. “I was holding an egg.”
“Then you just stopped. Wouldn’t go in at all. Outgrew it, I guess.”
“I don’t remember any of this.”
“You must have been about eight when you lost interest. We’d already moved away.”
“Papi….” She stopped, not ready to ask the next question.
“Rosalita, qué pasa? What have you seen in this dream?” His voice was gentle and low.
“Papi, did Yaya ever hit Nana?”
Rosa’s father didn’t answer for a long time, which was an answer in itself. Finally he responded. “Yes, Rosa. That is what you dreamed?”
“I was in the chicken coop playing. They didn’t see me.”
“Ay, pobrecita. You poor thing, you must have been terrified. But you never said anything.”
“No, I guess I didn’t.”
“Of course not. What would you have said at your age?”
“But he was so fun and playful. He seemed so happy.”
“Oh, the whole barrio loved your grandfather. But the truth is he was a bitter man. He loved you though, Rosa. Don’t doubt that. He adored you. He was furious when we moved and took you farther from him. I’m afraid he took it out on your grandmother. Told her that she drove us away.”
“It was so real, you know? I woke up shaking and I think I already knew it was a memory.”
“Funny it would just pop up like that after all these years.”
“Yes,” she said, realizing she hadn’t bothered to tell him about her new job, and too tired to explain now how it had conjured up her own, deep memories. “So, I’d better let you go.”
“Wait, before you hang up, Rosa, there’s more.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you—”
“Tell me,” Rosa cut in, needing to know it all.
“It wasn’t just Nana.”
“Mami!” Rosa gasped, shocked and at the same time not at all surprised.
“She had an older brother, Jaime, that your grandfather adored. He died when he was ten. Your grandfather was never the same after that.”
“A brother? Mami never spoke of him.”
“No. There’s a lot your mother didn’t talk about, I guess.”
“How could people not know?”
“What makes you think they didn’t? Of course they knew. The whole barrio knew. It wasn’t that unusual, Rosa. It was a family affair. Nobody wants to get involved in family business.”
“I’m so sorry, Rosa. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, I’m glad you told me.”
“Well, you should get some sleep. Maybe our talk will keep the nightmares away?”
Rosa hung up the phone and sat very still for a long time. She had so many memories to re-remember, conversations to re-translate. Her parents’ decision to leave the barrio; her mother’s undercurrent of sadness and awkward mothering; the ritualized offer and refusal of geraniums. For the first time, she began to understand why her mother had taken her young family out of the barrio. She was ending the violence there, with her parents, with herself and her father. She also got her first glimmer into what it took out of her mother to do it. Of course her mother had loved the music pouring out of the houses, and bursting gardens, and tamales steaming in the kitchen. How could she not? But the same barrio that sang and danced had turned up its radios not to hear, cultivated violence along with her abuela’s geraniums.
Rosa reaches into her purse for last year’s Christmas photo, the family her mother did not live to see, and props it against her mother’s headstone. She looks at it with fresh eyes, sees her own straight back and forced smile, stiff as she always is for family photos, while Ben mugs with the girls who had been squirmy and bored. And for the first time in a long time she weeps. For Lizette, for Rae, for her mother, for herself, for her daughters. She pours out the bottle of water around the geranium, smells the wet earth, considers her new translation.
“No, gracias” (while you wave your finger just so, and your grandfather snaps the newspaper and grumbles under his breath, “Toma los hijo de puto geranios”—“Take her fucking geraniums already”) means “walk away.” It means “no matter the price.” It means, “If you have to, chew off your own foot to protect your daughter.”
“I was watching, Mami,” she whispers. “I was watching.”