Debbie Weingarten | Longreads | April 2016 | 10 minutes (2,609 words)
The winter that I leave, the desert nights become so cold that cactuses uproot beneath the weight of ice. Old saguaros the size of trees lay like fallen men in front yards and on medians. Under the ink sky, it is so dark that the mountains disappear—even the wall of the Catalinas to the north—and I lose my compass entirely.
I am standing at the door, my breath freezing in punctuated wisps beneath the porchlight. The sky is a low-hanging ceiling, and the city lights have swallowed up the stars. If I could, I would make a bed from the clouds. I would turn like a dog in a rounding ritual before lying down.
Don’t go inside, thrums my heart, and so I stand, idling, inspecting bricks and mortar, the very bones of the house. I do not know it, but the thought of leaving has made a home in my body. It is an animal scratching toenails at the walls.
The lady at the Motor Vehicle Department has done-up fingernails stamped with tiny chevron lines. I feel underdressed. She says I need to take the car to the emissions testing center, even though the check engine light is illuminated and we both know it will fail. But she needs proof that it will fail so the car can be transferred out of the ex-husband’s name and into mine. Besides our children, this is the last thread that connects us, and the rope will not fray.
There are inspection and penalty fees, extra paperwork, countless people meddling in one 1998 Volvo station wagon. I am consumed by the work of untethering. I consider giving up, abandoning the car on the side of the road, gifting it to someone in need of a dry place to sleep.
The seat belts snap apart while driving. The driver’s side door panel falls off. The glove box is secured by a jumbo paper clip. The rearview mirror will not adjust. Everything in this stupid car is coming loose. When I clutch the steering wheel, mine are the white knuckles of vulnerable mothers.
Don’t go inside, something says, and in the cold, my breath makes arms that look like ghosts. There is the baby fluttering in my belly and the sound of my son in the bath, his voice twining through the gaps in the bathroom window.
Inside is a brick wall and the husband’s boots in the dim yellow lamplight. Inside is the sky blue tea kettle set on the stove, the box of ginger tea, the yellow shelf bought at a vintage store for too much money, the child’s table and chair, my face in the mirror like a stranger’s.
I am five when we first move to Cincinnati. We live in an apartment near a creek while our house is being built. It’s just a cleared lot at first; then, a skeleton of wooden beams; wires and electrical outlets; drywall; sod rolled out in rectangles to make a suitable suburban front yard. We spend evenings wandering through the almost-house, climbing the stairs without railings, pocketing nails left by the construction crew. Watching as the house is built is like seeing something gutted in reverse. My brother and I take turns jumping from the top of a green electrical box in the neighbor’s lot over and over again.
I have clouds in my head, birds, entire worlds. The suburbs of southwestern Ohio are a patchwork of streets bordered by small sections of woods spared by the bulldozers. I am knobby-kneed and small. I don’t talk to strangers and I am startled by the way my voice sounds out loud. I tuck myself in the leaves between fallen logs. I climb trees like an animal, perch in Y-shaped branches. I am not afraid of the dark woods.
In the fall at the farm, the needle grass would turn yellow and barb itself into the pads of the dogs’ feet. One October, the male became so infected that he could no longer walk. We carried him in from the goat pasture, and I shaved the hair on his paws, spent hours picking out the barbs with tweezers. He snarled, but he did not—would never—bite.
When people ask about the marriage, it is as though I have rocks in my mouth. Psychological abuse is the absence of shape. How do you explain the slow erosion of your spirit, that you were deprived of something so basic—like a color or air or the smell of grass?
How long can a dog walk on needles? How long can a person bear to be without her soul?
The spring that I meet the husband, we crouch in the mud and pull beets in a field overgrown with weeds. On our days off, he begins to ride on his bike to the parties I host with friends. He leaves me saguaro fruit on my doorstep. He buys me a cheesemaking book and mesophilic starter for making chèvre. I am sawed open.
That summer, I read about the medicinal properties of prickly poppies. They grow wild on the side of the highway, big white heads nodding in the wind. We find one near the farm and cut it down. The stalk is covered in spines, draws blood from my fingertips. He watches me crush the stem, the swollen ovary. I expel the guts into a resinous paste that begins to sting.
He will not let me turn up the heat. He will make fun of me for being cold. I will rock our baby at night in the cold part of the house, instead of the warm bedroom, so that he will not wake up angry. When it dips below freezing, I will secretly let the dog inside, and we will sleep together on the floor of the bathroom until dawn, when I quietly let her out again. He is upset if I go to the wrong grocery store. Once, he interrogates me for half an hour about why I made our sandwiches on a subpar kind of bread. I begin hiding receipts, stopping at the gas station to throw away evidence that I have eaten something I shouldn’t. I bury food wrappers at the bottom of the trashcan.
It is easier this way.
Years later, I will look at one of those graphics about abuse. It is some version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid layered to describe the basic needs of a human being.
Food, it says.
Heat, it says.
I did not realize all of the ways I had been kept, contained.
For 18 months, the Volvo is a closed tomb, a relic of the life I have fled. It sits parked in a driveway while I leave the husband and then have our second baby, in that order. When the car is pried open again, it smells musty and slightly sweet, like tree sap. The guys on Car Talk say it’s coolant leaking.
The things inside the Volvo have stayed. Dust has settled. The battery has died, been replaced, has died again. The car detailer collects all of the objects from the car in a giant box. In a moment of dark humor, I tell a friend that I should probably down a shot of something strong before looking inside. But there is nothing funny about a marriage like a hijacked train.
That evening, mosquitoes swarm around my ankles and the kids splash in a baby pool on the patio. The sky turns the orange-pink of childhood sherbert. A military plane flies overhead, drowning out all other noise. I make wide dog-like circles around the box.
A windshield sun visor.
An orange whiffle bat.
One blue baby shoe.
A manual for building composting toilets.
A shopping list, written in the husband’s precise hand.
There is no one to see him block my movement with his body or throw my boots across the room. No one to see him puff out his chest so that I feel small. No one to hear me yell, trying to match his size with my voice. No one to see him chase me from door to door as I try to escape barefoot. No one to hear him threaten me, even as I hold our toddler to my chest.
When he holds me down, all of his weight is on my legs, in the space just below where the baby is floating in my belly. He takes out his iPod and begins filming me. He says This is so you’ll see how mentally unstable you are later. I stare at him in shock.
I want to say so many things: Do you remember the wedding flowers in my hair? The bottles we hung from the tree? My hand on your knee? The 4th of July that we watched fireworks from the bed of the truck?
But I will turn my face from his eyes and stare at the wall instead. I will cry for my mother. I will call him an asshole. I will alternate screaming and not screaming. A scream, of course, is at the mercy of breath. And breath is a thing that can be snatched right out of the air, scared away.
When my children are infants, I imagine car accidents in great detail. The sick crunch of metal, the flipping of the car body, the smash of a windshield. I imagine having to hold back my panic, using nothing but adrenaline and mother-beast strength to pry open the door and pull my son out of his upside-down car seat. In another version, the car bursts into flames. In another, my legs are crushed; there is blood everywhere.
In another time, in another car, I am saying out loud, “Why are there so many songs about love?” We drive a tan Omni, beige interior, and my girl legs stick to the vinyl seats. My dad is driving, and Here Comes the Sun is playing for the umpteenth time, and I am vexed by the obsession of artists with love. Through the window, the grass rushes past in a green swath. My dad gives some kind of answer, but as hard as I try, I cannot remember it. I remember instead the side of his glasses, the shape of his ear, his shoulder shifting as he turns the steering wheel.
Every so often they appear. Small voices on the end of phone lines, Facebook messages while their husbands are at work. Women I have known for years, women I have barely known at all.
I don’t want to raise my kids like this.
He gets so angry.
How did you do it?
How do you leave a husband?
I lay awake all night, trying to figure out how to leave. He is sleeping on the couch, a sentry guarding the door. I play out the possibilities of escape, but I know that each door will squeak or groan. And even if I made it out the back door, the wall would be too high to scale, pregnant, with a sleeping toddler in my arms.
Hours pass until the black becomes gray becomes pink through the blinds. His alarm goes off, and he shuffles to the bathroom. The shower turns on, and I can hear him humming beneath the water. I pretend to be asleep until he leaves.
The morning exposes my unwashed face, my unbrushed teeth, the mismatched clothes grabbed in the dark. When I look in the mirror, I am startled by the dark circles under my eyes and my puffy face. I can hear the hum of traffic, a car horn, the wheeze of a city bus as it rolls to a stop.
The toddler asks what we are doing today. The park? Storytime at the library? I do not know how to answer him, so I hold him against my chest. He lets me stroke his blonde hair again and again while I try to think.
I kiss his heart-shaped face. We leave.
Months pass, and I do not go back. When I see him on the street, it is like looking at a familiar stranger. He wears a T-shirt I don’t recognize. His hair is pulled beneath a new crisp hat. His cheeks are fat, his hands—like mine—missing a wedding ring.
I am enormously pregnant with our second child; he does not mention this. He traces the groove in the black metal of the lamppost with an index finger. We stare at each other. He is heavy snowmelt on my chest, a brick shoved between my shoulder blades.
Near the city of Phoenix, a man drives his wife and three children under the age of four into a lake, killing them all. I am driving my two children to daycare and preschool when I hear the report on NPR. My body stiffens, mind goes blank. There is trauma etched in my muscles, shooting through the synapses of my brain. My 3-year-old is talking about super heroes and his friends at preschool, and suddenly I am aware that children have drowned in a lake just north of here.
Yes, I say, I’m listening. But all I can hear is the sound of mothers screaming. The desert around me is dry as a bone, but I see water rising. Every car is a loaded gun.
That night, the water does rise. The rain spills over the roof—inches in hours. I lie in the dark next to my 3-year-old, watching the lightning through the curtains, my son crying out Mama, and then succumbing to sleep again when I lay one hand softly on his chest. The thunder wakes the baby, and I bring him into bed with us. The dog shakes at my feet.
In the morning, the sidewalk is covered in gray wet. The gutters drip politely. When the boys toddle out into the sun, a colony of snails is spread across the cement, leaving glistening trails behind them.
Matchbox cars appear beneath my feet like metal blades of grass. I learn to walk, feet cupped, just in case I step on one in the dark. They are everywhere—under the couch, on my computer keyboard, in the bathtub. There are entire baskets filled with monster trucks and fire trucks, sports cars, a beat-up ambulance.
My oldest son parks them next to his dinner plate and takes them to bed as security items. The baby is indoctrinated in this culture before he can walk. The trading of matchbox cars becomes a currency of love between brothers—sports car for monster truck, Jeep for miniature school bus. They scream and holler for the wanting of these cars.
They are still young enough to trade open-mouthed kisses. I watch them engage in the careful bending and the exaggerated pursing of lips, culminating in an audible smacking sound. They do this as we walk around the duck pond, the baby holding tightly to his brother’s hand. My oldest son explains various life lessons he has learned in his three years—to be careful of the water, how emerald green coloring connotes a male mallard, that turtles and ducks can live in the same pond. He helps his brother navigate the roots of an enormous tree, and the baby stares up at him with an entranced expression. It is like watching love in slow motion.
That summer in the Volvo, the road vibrates beneath my feet, and I make promises to the asphalt and the sky and Our Lady of Safe Passages for Single Moms Driving Old Shitty Cars Won in Divorce Settlements. We travel back and forth along the summer highway.
This gray ark, my rattling ship.
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Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer and a food/farm activist based in Tucson. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Vela, Guernica, Aeon, Mutha Magazine, Terrain.org, The Establishment, Rodale’s Organic Life, Cook’s Science, Modern Farmer, Civil Eats, and Tucson Foodie, as well as the 2016 Best of Food Writing anthology. She is a regular features contributor for Edible Baja Arizona and a writing partner for the Female Farmer Project. She has received Arizona Press Club awards for her journalism and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Dzanc Books Best of the Web.
Editor: Sari Botton