October 25, 1972
There were times when she wished he were dead. Not that she’d never met him, or that he’d never been born, but that he’d get hit by a car or get himself killed in some other violent way like a bar fight, or his arm would get caught in a machine and he would bleed to death before anyone could save him. And she wished that in those final moments, when he felt his life draining from him, that he’d understand what a bastard he was, what a waste of life. She could envision him, his blood pooling in a black kidney-shaped puddle beneath him as he repented in terror, understanding with a final clarity that he was about to pay for the man he was. In those dark moments he’d be sorry, so sorry. But it would be too late. That’s how she felt about him.
She lay alone in the dark, on the old pilled quilt atop her bed. The radiator was cranking dry, hot air, making an occasional loud bang as if someone were hitting one of the pipes with a metal wrench. She strained to hear the soft, measured breathing of her daughter down the hall. A strong wind rattled the window. She knew it was cold outside, colder than it had been yet this autumn. But she was sweating a little. The heat in her apartment always ran too hot. In the night the baby (though she really wasn’t a baby anymore at almost two years old) would kick off her covers. She was listening for that, for the sudden shift the child made in her sleep when she pushed the blankets away. But she was listening, too, for other noises.
Her heart had finally stopped racing and the baby had finally stopped screaming, but she knew he would come back. She lay fully clothed in a gray sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers, the phone in her hand. A baseball bat lay beside her leg. If he came back, she would call the police again, even though they’d already come once tonight after he’d gone. She had a restraining order. They had to come no matter how many times she called.
She couldn’t believe it had come to this, her life. If it weren’t for her daughter, she’d think what a mess she’d made of it, how many mistakes, how many broken expectations. At least she knew that she did one thing well, that in spite of everything, her baby was happy and healthy and loved by her mother.
The clock beside her bed cast a green glow and the only sounds now were the child breathing and the hum of the refrigerator down the hall. It was old; there was a low groan and a slight rattle to it. She hardly noticed anymore except when she was listening closely to the darkness, worrying about where he was and what he would try next.
Their relationship had been all but over when she told him she was pregnant. If you could even call it a relationship. They’d gone out a couple of times. He’d pick her up in his Monte Carlo and take her to a pizza place where people seemed to know him. He’d pull out her chair and tell her she was pretty. He’d tell her that a couple of times over dinner, using it as filler for a conversation that faltered more than it flowed.
They’d seen The Candidate with Robert Redford and The Getaway with Steve McQueen, neither of which she had particularly wanted to see, not that he’d asked. He’d just drive them to the movie theater and walk to the ticket window, tell the clerk what he wanted to see. Maybe that should have been her first clue. If you’re going to the movies with your date, shouldn’t you ask her what she wants to see? In the darkened theater with a bucket of popcorn between her legs, he’d play with her ponytail and whisper in her ear how pretty she was…again. The second time, during The Getaway, she’d let him touch her breast and almost liked it, felt herself go hot between the legs. That night, he’d come back to her apartment and they’d slept together. But he didn’t stay the night. She’d slept with him again a few times after that, but he stopped taking her out for pizza and movies. And then, just as she was starting to count on hearing his voice on the phone, feeling his arm on her shoulder, he faded out of her life. They all seemed to do that, didn’t they? Seemed like one week they were together, but by the next they were strangers. For a while she had heard from him every night, which turned into every other night. Then her phone stopped ringing altogether. She’d look at it, sitting there on the kitchen counter, pick up the receiver to make sure it was working.
She hadn’t been raised to chase a man, to ask him out or ask why he’d stopped calling, so when she didn’t hear from him, she never tried to reach him. Of course, she’d not been raised to let a man grope her in a theater and then sleep with him, either.
Anyway, he was nothing to her but a way to pass the time, a way to get over the man before him. How different the two men had seemed on the outside. The one before had been wealthy, treating her to fancy evenings in the city, buying her gifts, dresses and jewelry. He’d spoken French to her, and even though she didn’t understand, she was impressed. Her mistake had been that he’d been her boss. And when he’d tired of her, he’d suggested that he’d make it comfortable for her to find another job. They were so different, this one and the one before. But in the end they were all the same, weren’t they? They got bored and wanted her to go away. Or they became distant and cold. Or violent like this one.
Her parents, both heavy smokers, had died within two years of each other, far too young. Her mother died slowly and terribly from emphysema and her father from a sudden heart attack. She had no brothers and sisters. So she had no one to shame with her unwed pregnancy, but no one to turn to, either. Maria was her only friend; a woman downstairs known to everyone as Madame Maria. The older woman made her living reading tarot cards in her apartment, giving guidance from “the Goddess,” as she liked to say. Madame Maria had told her that a gift was on its way to her. Maria always said that. This time she was right.
When she was sure, she went to see him. He asked her how she knew it was his. She started to really hate him then and wondered how she could have ever given herself so cheaply to someone so undeserving. She assured him that she wanted nothing from him, had just wanted to give him the opportunity to be a father. He left her standing in a dark parking lot. It started to rain, just a light mist, as she listened to the rumble of his Monte Carlo driving off into the distance. It had been a mistake to go see him; she’d misjudged him. Had thought he might do right by her. Wrong again.
Then, maybe it was guilt haunting him, or curiosity, or maybe even some latent capacity to love, but he started coming around when the baby was a few months old. And it seemed as if he might be taking an interest in being a father. But after a while, it was just like the movies: He thought he could start picking the show and the time, and cop a feel while he was at it. The battles started. The police were called. Apologies offered. Forgiveness granted for the sake of the child. Over and over…until the unforgivable afternoon. Then the battles really began.
She spent many nights like this since then, lying in the dark fully clothed, waiting. And she’d had so much time to think about why it was happening. She’d gone over every interaction they’d ever had, dissecting and analyzing all her words and actions, wondering what she might have done differently. But the only thing she came up with was that she should have noticed about the movies, how he never asked her what she wanted to see. That should have told her what kind of man he was. Sometimes it’s the little things that tell the tale.
She remembered that afternoon; it was seared into her like a brand on her skin. “B” for bad mother. She remembered getting the call from Maria at work, racing home to her apartment, where she’d let the baby stay with him during her shift. She remembered hearing the wailing, unmistakable, heart-wrenching, a connection directly from her child’s heart to hers as she took the stairs two at a time. She remembered bursting