I was a teenager when he hit me.
I don't even know why it happened, but he slapped me across the face, hard enough that my glasses flew across the room as he yelled I wasn't welcome in his house. In one breath, my mother shouted to my father, "Dejala!" then she yelled to me, "Que hiciste?"
She seemed always torn in her loyalty between her children and the monster of my father's rage.
I stormed out the door, freezing, with no shoes, no glasses, and no coat. Wearing faded, black cut-off jeans one of my sisters had made into shorts, I made my way across the street, ignoring the gravel underneath the soles of my feet. I didn't care that it was the middle of winter. I just wanted out. I wanted this emotional and psychological torture to end. I wondered, again, for the millionth time, what I was going to do if I decided that this was the time I would leave. If this was it, I had to have a solid plan.
What would I do? Where would I go? How would I survive? I felt so powerless and helpless, so I surrendered and did nothing but build a harder wall around me, a wall that would endure the blows I knew would come again and again.
In the absence of a plan, I latched onto the only person who seemed to understand me, my older sister. Within ten minutes, she showed up at the park across from our house and found me sitting on the bleachers in front of the empty baseball field. She brought me my glasses and convinced me to go back home, and I waited for the next time the rage monster would explode.
On the phone with my second boyfriend in high school a year later, I related to him my traumas. "You're too sexy to be fucked up," he said. He broke up with me within a month, telling me he was "too busy" to date. He was a senior and I was a freshman, and he just had too much going on. Soon after that, with his graduation date rapidly approaching, he started dating one of my friends and I heard through the grapevine he dumped me because I was "boring." I took it as code for, "she didn't put out."
"Mom, how do you know when you're in love?" I asked one day, when I was young. She didn't have an answer for me. I knew intuitively, just from observing my parents' relationship, that she was trapped in a loveless marriage, but I never realized until I was trapped in my own loveless partnership just how little oxygen there is in that cage.
There was a boy I had a massive crush on, and I wanted to know if what I felt for him was love. When I talked to him, I felt like he listened to me. I felt heard and important. I felt valued, seen for who I was as a human being. I told my sister about my crush and she said, "That just sounds like a friendship to me." I thought, "Of all the boys around me, this one knows me. He sees the person I am and he's not constantly looking at my chest. He must be special."
What I didn't know then could've filled an entire ocean.
In a world where misogyny and objectification of women are seen as "normal," or at the very least, common and "no big deal," the fact that a boy saw me as an individual human being and treated me with respect and basic human decency stood out to me. In my microcosm of the universe, he was the only boy I had ever known who respected me, and that made him unique and wonderful. What I wanted most in the entire world was to find someone to love me like I thought someone like him could, and since I hadn't seen anyone else in my life who was respectful like he was, I thought there could be no one else like him in the world.
We grew up and grew apart.
I staggered my way through boy after boy after boy after boy, hoping to find a special someone who might look at me with the same respect his eyes had once conveyed to me.
I established a pattern: date a guy for a while, give and give and give and give and give with no indication I had any needs, finally speak up about a need, and promptly get dumped. I used to pride myself on how independent I was and how little I needed and how much I could give. I used to want to be the cool girlfriend, who could fuck all night long and cook breakfast the next day and never once ask to cuddle or be pampered.
Over time, the world showed me how badly I was disrespecting that little girl inside me who once wanted a man to give her everything she desired, and as my heart continued breaking, I grew into a woman who had lost all hope.
My worst nightmare when it came to relationships was to be caged, like my mother. I shied away from commitment because I never wanted anyone to enslave me as my father had done to her. Between high school and college, she would tell me stories about her life, and I would listen with a detached curiosity, like a historian collecting stories from an elder. She told me about her "wedding," and I recalled a photo she had of this "special day" where she wore a green dress and had long, straight hair down to the small of her back. She was thin, and she looked like my older sister, to whom she gave her middle name.
My mother would say, "Well, too bad. I wanted to get dressed in white and have a big wedding, but instead, I wore the green dress and signed a piece of paper."
I, too, wanted to get dressed in white. I wanted to be married in the church, how we Catholics were "supposed" to do, and I wanted my heart to swell with joy when I looked at my handsome husband. Instead, I got knocked up by an alcoholic and slipped into the cage, eventually hovering in the corner like a petrified mouse.
"Get out! We don't need you! I'm gonna change the locks and you're never welcome here again!"
It's funny how often my ex insists he is nothing like my father when he is a mirror image with silver hair and lighter skin. He threatens to take away my children one day and the next, he will tell me he needs me and that our children need me. "How could you abandon them?" he pleads. No matter how many times I've tried to stay out of the whirlpool, he keeps sucking me back in, and I don't know how to break the cycle.