She wanted to kill him. She could have. But she didn’t.
She told me that and patted her handbag.
You’d never have guessed, but she had killed more than once. It haunted her sometimes. I know because she would call me up now and then, buy me a coffee. I would listen to the substance of her nightmares.
Description: Middle-to-late-aged, to her continuing amazement. She had never expected to survive so long. She lived her days as surprises and miracles and I loved that about her. Streaks of grey through thick and unruly hair that was once deepest black. It still kept its loose curl though she usually wore it braided and coiled at the back of her neck. Maternal, with a kind face and ready laugh. Too thin, she had always been too thin, even through her three pregnancies and after. Jeans or loose skirts and flat sandals. Her sister-in-law had bought her some polyester pantsuits and patterned blouses to accentuate her feminine side. They stayed in the closet.
Aliases: Maria Carmen, la Morena, Flaca. She’d once had a Mexican boyfriend who would only call her popotitos and chuckle, flashing his white teeth in the most handsome face she had yet kissed. She tried to find being called a straw sweet, but couldn’t manage it for long. It ruined otherwise excellent sex.
Occupations: Domestic worker. Assembly worker. Guerilla. Private detective.
Prize possession: A picture of Fidel shaking her hand.
Favourite colour: Red
I’m a therapist, yes, but not hers. I was her client in fact. She helped me to find my father, that son-of-a-bitch may he rest in peace. She has dealt with much more than my own fears and insecurities.
So we buy each other café de olla or sometimes champurrado, two traditions that have eased our time in this difficult place. We sit and chitchat over the aroma of cinnamon and pan dulce about all the things normal people can’t talk about. For us it is chitchat. Together we can sit and feel normal too. That is one of the best feelings in the world.
She’d had one of her nightmares, one of her regulars. She was under fire and couldn’t get out, and images came before her one by one the way people say they do before you die. Damn the people who have said that. If it were not for them, she thinks, perhaps she wouldn’t see so much better forgotten. The faces of young earnest men brutalized into becoming killers. Her daughter without a face at all. Flies filling a murdered village. Her mother making pupusas. Rubble where so many memories had been made. A burning church. Goats eviscerated and strewn as warnings. Her old compañero laughing and splashing her with water before he was disappeared. Eyes gauged out and hands broken by torture.
She’d cowered in her bed, trying to dig into it when the helicopter came, its harsh blades chopping the air as it dispensed death and fire. Juan-Jose shook her awake and held her as she cried onto his shoulder. She would do the same for him when his turn came. Funny how nightmares earned in Nicaragua could be just the same as those from El Salvador.
Neither of them could bear the sound of helicopters. It sent their eyes shifting, seeking cover. Los Angeles was the worst possible place for them, yet they stayed.
She hadn’t dreamed of Julio for years. She remembered that day from the dream, a day stolen from work and family. In the days when people still went to the river to play, instead of to look for the bodies of those they loved. Like them, she had once looked for Julio there. She’d looked for him everywhere in the dark time. It was the heart of everything, this story, something I had been waiting to hear for a long time.
I asked her once, long ago, how she had got into her business. I was met only by silence and her shadowed face, and then a joke about how Phillip Marlowe could never have picked out a Salvadoran from a lineup, much less found one on the streets of Los Angeles.
She’d loved him with such intensity she would have done anything and gone anywhere he asked her. They married officially two years later and nothing seemed more important in life than he did. That never changed, not even in the months that followed with their more frequent fights, when it started to become hard. After Yulisa was born.
When she talked about Julio and her teenage years, her eyes would brighten and her whole face change, would become rounder and softer and I would hardly recognize her Her time in the mountains would peel away and leave in their place the woman she might have been without a civil war. I loved both the women who was, and the one who might have been that lingered there beneath, but they were very different.
She could never forget what might have been. The space between the two carried a world of anger and grief.
Noemi, aka Maria Carmen, aka la flaca, would sometimes curl into a small ball, hugging her knees into her stomach, once full of a hungry, kicking life that she bore with pain and joy and gave a name. She’d left Yulisa behind in her parents’ village to keep her safe, but the war had rolled through and killed her anyway. Nothing haunts her like that, not even the soldiers she killed whose eyes follow her from the shadows.
The men came first during the day, came driving up in a huge cloud of dust and squelching of tires in a car that screamed power and death through tinted windows. They wore camouflage and carried guns and demanded she tell them where they could find Julio, information on his activities, his friends. They told her they knew he was a subversive; that Tomás had given him up.
She told them nothing and they punched her in the face. She told them nothing and one of them ripped her blouse, exposing her breasts. She told them a place where he had been working two weeks before, fixing fences, and they left in another cloud of dust. They also left Tomás’s head on a stake in the middle of the village.
The body washed up on the shores of the river a few miles down. Her neighbor’s boy went to warn Julio and he fled to the mountains. Life became hell then—grief and fear, entrapment. Julio would not tell her how he himself lived, but she could see the new hunger in his face when he would creep back to her sometimes, very late at night.
One night she’d realized his face was nothing more than a mirror of her own, reflecting the new and terrible adulthood that had overtaken both of them.
The men did not return and did not return, and Julio came more often, he stayed longer. She should never have believed that they would never come back. Such frail hope betrayed them both and so Julio was there when in the middle of the night there was a new pounding on the door.
He’d scrambled up, his face white as a sheet. He grabbed at his shorts and Noemi threw her dress over her head, grabbed Yulisa, who had begun screaming in terror. Noemi cradled and rocked her, but her heart rocketed with the same terror as her child’s when the pounding started again.
Their eyes met in long anguished glance, and Julio moved to answer. There was nowhere to run, nothing but the single door and tiny windows, nowhere to hide but beneath their single bed. No options. It was the last place Noemi would ever live that had no options.
Julio opened the door and they grabbed him. They took turns punching him in the gut, in the face, in the balls. They mostly used the butts of their guns.
One of the men looked over at Noemi cowering in the corner, holding so tight to Yulisa that her screaming was almost choked. Above the blindfold that covered the lower half of his face, his eyes stared at her black and bright. She could tell he was smiling from the laugh lines. He winked. Watching him, she did not see them march Julio away. She looked to the door and he was gone. Disappeared.
They left her in the corner sobbing her heart out with a shameful mix of emotions. Relief, she still remembers the strongest was relief, and then guilt and anger that she had missed her last glimpse of the man she loved, a last goodbye, because she was staring into the eyes of his probable killer. The memory of those eyes above a red bandana can still make her scream out in her sleep.
She strips this story down to nothing when she tells it, her words flat and cold. Fact is words fail all of us in the face of violence, torture, death. She will forgive me for that failure here. It is easier to be clinical.
Noemi moved in with her sister the next day, numb and empty of all emotion but for two that revolved around a knock on the door, they followed one upon the other depending on the time of day:
- Morning: Fear, an anxiety that would leave her unable to even get out of bed as she waited for someone to arrive with news of his body.
- Afternoon and evening: Relief mixed with the hope that Julio would arrive to tell her he was safe, or send a message with someone he could trust.
She has days now where she still relives these patterns of hope and anxiety, wakes up anxious for no reason. Finds relief in the late afternoon. Sometimes she just grits her teeth until that relief comes.
She knew Julio was not involved with the guerilla, that he had done nothing subversive. She held fast to that fact: They could prove nothing and so they would have to let him go. But in her heart of hearts she knew that it did not really matter to them. Days passed, one week and then another. She went about the village like a shadow, oblivious to the pitying looks, to the fact that people would often shy away from her like bad luck, like infection, like danger.
One night two broncos growled slowly through the village again, a hush and a fear surrounding them. Men broke down the door of someone’s home, crashed and smashed everything within. The daylight revealed it was Noemi and Julio’s old home, but she’d known it before the coming of the light. She’d known it as she lay awake listening to the susurrus of her sister and her husband in the tense darkness after the broncos had driven away, just soft enough she could not hear the words of the argument. She had prepared herself for what was coming.
Still, it hurt when the next day her brother-in-law asked her to leave their home. He had pity in his eyes and a bundle of food in his hands. He would not relent. She did not blame him, she walked slowly to the house where she had been raised and with her heart breaking in two she left her young daughter, and then she left her home for the mountains. She would not go North, not when her love was still in El Salvador and the possibility existed that he was still alive.
She joined the guerilla then, if only to eat. She thought if Julio escaped, surely he’d head first to the mountains. Always that hope burned that she would one day look up and he would be there with Yulisa in his arms. She imagined how he would laugh at her cropped hair, how he would run his hands through it and kiss her and say never mind, she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She imagined it whenever she couldn’t bear what was happening all around her.
There is much to laugh about she says, when she tells those stories of her joining, the early days there, the intense camaraderie of the mountains, her hands fumbling with a gun that always felt too big and the fact that they could never practice actually shooting because of the noise and the value of ammo. She learned how to shoot and shoot well, but not through practice.
Her muscles that ached and the blisters that blossomed on her feet and the terrible food that they would eat and the afternoons they spent learning to read. But there was also the fear and the pain and the death of their own and the killing of the enemy. It was something, that time in the mountains. It was something.
Yulisa was killed just before the Final Offensive, by a stray bullet. Noemi’s parents escaped, God be thanked, fleeing the village only to return months later to live out their days there. Peaceful now. You could almost forget how it was then.
But in 1989 Noemi’s will to fight died with her daughter, though she soldiered on a few more months. Good pun that one. Soldiered on for a few more months of death and killing and sore muscles and unwashed clothes and dirt and hunger and stone beds and not enough sleep.
She was good for very little killing though, and she found her grief terrifying. She wondered why it had never translated into blood lust and vengeance as she had seen happen time and again, but it didn’t. It meant she couldn’t continue.
Everyone believed in it, in the Final Offensive. That it would be final. She hoped and hoped but it dragged on, and she knew it wasn’t. So she left and it was hard, even missing half of her heart the way she was and the rest of her numb and nerve dead.
Even as the day of her leaving approached she considered and reconsidered, thought about being nothing but a cook, a messenger, a general hand around camp. But she left, with a handful of numbers carefully written of friends and family who could help her when she reached Los Angeles.
They had helped her, welcomed her with warmth. Even so, she had hated Los Angeles at first. It stretched on forever. Everything was covered with grime, dirty minutes after you had washed it. A river that was not a river, and so little green. She could not sleep.
She went through a succession of apartments shared with many others, full of roaches and the scratching of rats in the walls. Paint peeling, always the smell of mould. The fixtures were so old and unloved they would never be clean again.
She had a succession of jobs as well. She only took orders from someone she respected, and she could respect none of these managers. Cabrones, some of them even dared pressure her for ‘favors’. She would pull out her gun and tell them exactly who she’d been and what she had done, just so the fear crossing their faces could lighten her heart. Then she’d have to go look for another job, suck her pride down into her stomach and force herself to smile. She could tell during the interviews when her smile was not working to cover up what she carried inside.
She eventually settled into an assembly factory, putting trophies together. There was minimal management there. She did her job and she did it well and they didn’t fuck with her.
She’d met Juan-Jose after a long string of failed love affairs and a bitter loneliness which left marks she could still see on her face. With him the loneliness ended, along with the desperate scrabble to live as a single woman in a city too expensive for her to afford.
They had two children together, Beto and Mari, and she was able to feel happiness again even though a new scrabble began. It seemed that all that was left of her previous life amidst diapers and volunteering at her children’s school and keeping house and home together were:
- A fear of helicopters and men in uniform
- A piece of her heart cordoned off forever for Julio and Yulisa
- Night terrors and bruises under her eyes
- A certain hardness and pride in her carriage
- A temper that sometimes scared her
- The gun she shouldn’t own in her purse
- An occasional nostalgia for the old rush of action, which surprised her every time
She had been to a lot of county-provided therapy, though she’d never swallowed their pills. She counted the corpses from her previous life on her fingers but always stopped at seven. It was lucky.
It was late afternoon and she’d stopped into El Superior to pick up a few things for dinner and refill the water jug. She’d walked quickly down the aisle, her eyes tracing the shelves, as she never could bother with a list. She almost ran into him, stopped herself just before impact and looked up in apology.
Julio. He whispered her name. Her real one.
Julio. He looked just the same, making her feel unfairly older and harder and changed. He blinked and his long lashes were shadows along the top of his cheeks the way she had always loved and her heart clenched in her chest.
Yulisa’d had the same lashes. He could have saved her, brought her here.
Julio. Alive. Not disappeared by the death squads, oh no. He had simply left them to hunger, to despair, to death.
She drew a deep breath. To bigamy.
Julio was already inching away when a woman came up beside him to take his arm, looking at Noemi with curiosity and hostility both. Noemi remembers only dyed blonde hair with dark roots, lipstick almost orange. A wedding ring on the hand that possessively gripped Julio’s arm.
Noemi slapped him, all her force behind it. He stumbled. His wife supported him as Noemi swung out the door, her groceries strewn behind her on the floor.
Juan Jose found her sitting at home in the dark with a bleak expression. Their children perched nervously and unnaturally on the sofa watching her, quiet as mice. She couldn’t speak.
She told me she wanted to kill him. She could have. But she didn’t.
Me, I’ll swear to anyone she didn’t kill him when she found him again. She’d discovered an unexpected talent for finding people, a way to lift her family from a working poverty. She needed an ending, as so many of us do who have been maimed and misshapen by those we love.
No, she didn’t kill him, though she could have. But he’s still just as dead.