Isabella learned far too young how cruel love could be. Then she met Celeste Garza. He was much older than her, but he represented maturity, a chance at love, and freedom from her tyrannical father. Marriage was better than the life she’d led for 18 years.
The way she told Rebecca the story, every so often, it sounded like papa was her savior. Mama had needed someone to take her out of her home, out of a place that was unhappy, and though she never spoke much of it, a lighter version of hell. There were so many secrets in Isabella’s life, and she found it hard to speak up. She too, had been raised to be obedient, and meek, and quiet. There was no way that she would speak out of turn, whether as a little girl, or as a grown woman. And when she married, she was a girl.
The beatings didn’t start until two years after the wedding. The way Mama told Rebecca, it was an ordinary day. She had gotten up to cook breakfast, and she went to scramble eggs as usual. The fry-jacks were browning beautifully in the oil, and the flames licked at the frying pan where the eggs scrambled fragrantly. Isabella heard before she felt a thwack upside the head. She cried out, and horrified, turned to see who was assaulting her, and she met Celeste’s ugly, contorted face head on. He hit her repeatedly in the face with a closed fist, and while she cowered and cried in pain, oil spattered on her forearms, smoke filled the air as the food burned.
Every time Rebecca heard her Mama tell the story, she could almost smell the burned eggs, and flesh, and blood. She would trace the burn marks on Mama’s arms, rubbing it gently, and willing herself not to cry. She wondered aloud why, and Isabella said, with a weary smile, resigned to accept her fate, “He didn’t want scrambled eggs and fry-jacks. He wanted sunny side up eggs and tortillas instead.”
It was a few weeks after the power cord incident, and Rebecca lay on her mattress thinking of Mama. She thought of the job she’d secured, she thought of saving her money, and being able to leave. What many people didn’t know, and what she had learned the hard way, money made everything work out, especially in situations like this. Having a place to go meant paying to stay; not being able to continue work until the trail had been cooled – that meant having money saved to last a few months. She had to start somewhere.
Work started from 8 in the morning until past 5 in the evening. Those hours spent away from home made Rebecca blossom. She felt free, and without the burden of dealing with Papa at all hours of the day, she grew carefree and happy. But always, before closing off at the office, she grew morose at the thought of having to go back home. She still had the night to deal with.
She tried to get home after Papa, but there were times when she would be home for an hour before he came in. It seemed to her that they were both doing the same thing, avoiding home until the other was home. One lonely soul, the other tentative, each afraid of different things, under one roof. She hated having to tend to him, almost like a slave. He would sit, and she would bring a wet rag for him to wipe his brow, then she would kneel to take off his shoes and socks, then place slippers on his feet. She would put his things away, then she would bring him a hot cup of black coffee, and he would sit and sip, belching every so often as she bustled about fixing dinner. And dinner could not be the same thing two nights in a row. Often Rebecca wondered what it would be like to defy him and do exactly that, cook the same thing twice in a row. But then she would imagine what he would do to her, and really, it would be like playing a trick on him. He had raised her, when she could be somewhere else, probably dead if Mama’s stories were anything to believe. With those thoughts, she put more energy into making creative dishes, willing him to notice.
Life ambled along in the same manner, until one day she got wind of a new evening school providing classes for people like her. She already had a degree, but not like the one being offered. She thought it would be the perfect getaway for evenings, and she knew Papa would agree to let her go. There was nothing that would stop him from supporting her education. She knew his biggest heartache was being unable to afford sending her further than Junior College.
For Psychology class, she brought up the issue of her father’s contradictory attitude: she was a female. Papa thought women’s place was in the kitchen, at home. Yet, when it came to his own daughter, he fought tooth and nail with her, demanding perfection in school, and always dangling a carrot in front of her – higher education was possible for her. Her teacher wondered aloud whether Papa was living his dream through her. He was a horribly uneducated man, he couldn’t read or write, and even his job was precarious as he had to deal with measurements and geometry. Every day was a minefield for his brain, and in return, he lashed out to avoid being caught out.
Rebecca tried not to think much of what her teacher had said, and focused on convincing Papa that night school was a good idea. She brought it up over a dinner of broiled pork chops and hot corn tortillas. As she flipped the hot tortillas on the Comal, she remembered how her mother had taught her to make them. There was always the threat of pain from the hot griddle, and there was always a story from Mama.
When Isabella’s mother was a young girl, she and her sister were being taught to bake corn tortillas. The thin and fragile cakes were easy to tear and had to be lifted quickly from the Comal (griddle), so the girls had to be quick. They started off using knives and spatulas, but gradually they had to use their hands. The girls’ mother had little patience, and pretty soon, burned fingers were the order of the day. As Mama told the story, it seemed that one sister was too slow to catch on, and her mother took her hand and flattened it (palm down) onto the griddle. The young girl screamed in pain, but still, her mother held down her palm. Isabella smiled sadly at Rebecca’s horrified look, “My aunt became the best tortilla flipper after that.”
Now, Rebecca employed a spatula or the flat of a spoon handle, or whatever came in handy when she couldn’t flip her tortillas, and sometimes, she could see a look of annoyance on Papa’s face. Rebecca wouldn’t put it past him to broil her hands as well; she’d seen him thrust her cousin’s hands into a roaring fire, holding it there until flesh melted. All because he slept with his hands down his pants.
Everything seemed to have a memory, and Rebecca sighed at the drama. Celeste looked up when she sighed. “What?”
“Oh, nothing; I was just thinking about this new night school that’s starting up soon.”
“You will go.”
“Well, I was thinking of it.” Rebecca answered his question. His English was broken, and she often tried to speak properly around him, still trying to teach him.
“You will go. How much?”
“Oh, you mean I can go? I’ll pay for it.” Rebecca realized he was not asking, he was telling her that yes, she was going.
“Okay. I go find you at school after, or I wait by street.”
“Well, I am on bike, so I can just come straight home.”
Rebecca knew what that meant. He didn’t like what she was saying, and that was all she would hear on the subject until he came up with a proper answer.
School shaped up to be relatively simple. Registration was a breeze, and after her deposit was done, she relaxed for the first time since she’d come back from the city. She smiled when she remembered how her father had to go looking for her when she didn’t come home for a week after graduation. He was nice enough about it, but she wondered when he would bring it back up. She tried to shrug it off, feeling like she was over thinking everything. Some things were just over and done with, and she had orientation to look forward to. Meeting new people, freedom from the oppressive atmosphere at home – all waited for her. She just had to step up.
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