In early 1972, when I was almost 19 and my parents were divorcing, I chose to live with my father. He was a man who loved everyone unconditionally, but was passive beyond all reason. He had never managed, and hardly tried, to subdue his paranoid, unpredictable Italian wife. Our attractive West Texas home was a prison and she was warden. Rage and violence were the tools of her demons; so, no one was safe, not him, not me or my sisters, and not anyone who might unwittingly come to call. Perhaps because in the 50’s and 60’s a father was very unlikely to get custody of three little girls, my father endured – always present, but never intervening.
As we had each turned 18, we were allowed only “coke dates” with anyone willing to brave the warden’s blatant cruelty about how they dressed or spoke. We were too embarrassed to have visitors; school and little part-time jobs were our places of refuge – there we were valued and respected.
As a young woman, I was naïve, but knew a few things for sure. I would find a way out and never again witness her abuse; I was willing to harm her to protect myself, or someone I loved; and, because I knew what a bad wife looked like, I would someday be a good wife. What a bad man might look like was unknown to me.
My eldest sister, the closest thing I had to what a mother should be, had died tragically three years earlier. Without her good counsel, I was adrift at sea. Even living with Dad, I just wanted to be free and as far from my mother’s domination as possible. The same town was not far enough.
Other things happened in, or had happened prior to, the year 1972 that would matter to me very soon:
Research showed that untreated, abused children tend to find partners who will continue the abuse they have come to expect, and might believe they deserve;
Serious discussion of the concept of “informed consent” before a medical procedure was just beginning;
Medical doctors allowed husbands to give consent for a fully conscious and competent wife’s procedures;
Police officers could do little or nothing about threats of, or actual, domestic violence;
In October, a young female Texas attorney argued Roe v. Wade before the US Supreme Court, with a 7-2 opinion legalizing abortion handed down in January 1973; and,
A high school friend of my eldest sister needed a female singer for his country band. So, in the summer of 1972, with only the chance to leave West Texas and make my way alone, and no one to stop me, I fled to New Mexico, to sing and make what I thought was real money.
When December came, I announced plans to marry Marco.
“You sound like such a nice girl. Please don’t marry my son.” His mother’s voice over the pay phone was so kind through the heavy Italian accent. I would surprise her, I thought. I would be a good wife and everything would be as it should. I ignored her warning and when I met her in person, I was her son’s wife.
My parents and I believed everything: He had owned a building contractor business in Louisville, where his mother lived; he had attended M.I.T. (a university we knew nothing about); and, he would build us a home to start our new life together.
As it turned out, we spent the first few months of our marriage at his mother’s home. I loved her but was thrilled when she politely told us to leave. Clearly, she believed he would not earn his own living unless forced to. He told me he could find work in Tucson and there we headed.
What I learned from his mother was that Marco had spent many days as a child tied to a tree. Nadia had come to New Mexico as a very young woman with a new husband and a child on the way, only to find that her husband had another wife and family. She had no child support, no ability to speak English, one child after the next because of his random visits, and no option of abortion. Her sole support was working two jobs as a small town waitress. She felt she had no choice, and with the agreement of the local sheriff, Marco, her oldest child, was physically restrained in order to prevent the serious mischief he caused otherwise.
Within weeks of our time in Tucson, I realized I had married my mother. Nothing I did was right – the way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I talked. Verbal abuse became physical abuse. Even in my sleep I was punched in the face. “I dreamed I was fighting,” he would say.
His days away from the concrete-floored, sad house became longer and longer, until he was arriving in the night, drunk and crying, begging forgiveness for losing money at billiards. I was determined to be so good for him that everything would change. Every morning I was up early to cook his breakfast, draw his bath, iron his clothes, and send him off like June Cleaver, then walk as far as I could walk, in hopes of finding my own job.
“You should beat her if you need to,” pronounced my mother when she surprised us with a visit on a hot day in summer. “You’re her husband now, Marco.” I recall them laughing together, conversing as if I weren’t there.
I finally turned to my father. In a letter, I described how miserable I was, how I detested sex. I hoped he would call, thinking over the phone it would be easier to say how fearful I was, how rough Marco was. But my father was not a man to discuss sex with anyone.
He sent flowers, and broke my heart.
What I needed, Marco and a male doctor decided together, was a female circumcision. I did not understand then that this was a form of genital mutilation. Needless to say, it made no difference; sex was painful and unwelcome.
The violence continued to escalate.
One lovely day as Marco was driving, he suddenly slammed on the brakes and his right hand flew across my face, dislocating my jaw.
“I saw that! I saw you looking at that man!”
“That black man on the sidewalk! I know you want to be with him!”
He reached across me, opened the passenger door, and tried to push me. The car was still moving at a good speed but I was able to struggle against falling out.
With my first attempt at leaving, Marco caught up with me and I was lifted off the ground by the seat of my jeans as I came out of the bank. I had withdrawn exactly half of our balance. I managed to loosen myself from his grip and run toward the street. I approached a group of construction workers screaming for help. They shook their heads, looked at their steel-toed boots, and turned away.
Then I flagged a passing police officer. He heard my story and followed me to where Marco stood, then directed me to the back seat of our El Camino, telling Marco to drive home and he would follow. There, he told us to sit down. I had no history with anything remotely similar, certainly not with “good old boy” scenarios, but Marco smirked. The officer smiled at Marco, advised him to be a good husband, and turned to me, saying what Marco did in our home was a private affair, marital business, not government business.
Within weeks I learned I was pregnant and tried again to leave. This time, in desperation, I called my mother. That same day, she called saying she had paid for my flight to Houston and I needed to be at the airport right away. When I arrived at the Continental Airlines counter, I was barefoot and had spaghetti sauce on my yellow T-shirt, not your typical passenger. Airline agents were able to make their own decisions in those days. They ushered me over the baggage scale and into the baggage storage area, out of sight. I made it to Houston where my mother expected me. Where else could I have gone?
She told me she had arranged an appointment with a gynecologist the next day. She and I discussed the now legal option of an abortion. I thought I would receive information from the doctor and would then make a decision, but that’s not how it happened. Shortly after what I told myself was merely a pelvic exam, the doctor told me the abortion had been performed. I would not need to return. Sometimes I feel relief that I didn’t make the decision myself, other times I suppose I need to admit that I did. But every October since that October, I think of a child who might have been. And, I wonder whether I could have protected him or her.
I’d like to say the story ends there, but there were more apologies and more pleas. He had nothing to say about losing our child and I guessed I was not the first woman to abort his child.
“I am moving to Austin to go to college. You will have to buy me a car, make a living, and let me focus on my education,” I made clear. And, he did make a living, by filing what I imagined was a false claim for Workman’s Comp against his Arizona employer. Then, he spent his time on the sofa watching television.
It took Marco shoving the refrigerator at me, then slapping a flat hand against my ear, to get my attention for the last time. I spent days with hearing loss in one ear, not knowing whether it would return. I began to secretly pack every dish and pan into boxes and hide them in the one place I knew he would never find them, in the kitchen cabinets he had never opened.
So, on the sofa watching television is where he was when my dad and step-mother arrived one Saturday. They were ready to take me and the boxes I had hidden. Marco was completely befuddled, unwilling to show his true nature to my family and shocked that there was nothing he could do. I last saw him sitting in the over-stuffed chair he had spent close to every moment of the last six months in.
It was a glorious plan. I had just finished my semester at the University of Texas and now I was on my way to ditch the trailer at a family member’s home in San Antonio and head with my dad and kind step-mother to their destination – a week at the Texas coast! More clearly than anything else, I remember my euphoria. I was barely 21 and it was over. Finally, and completely, it was over.
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