A story from New Domangue
Maldito sea, she cursed mentally. She’d been doing this for weeks now without fully realizing that she was doing it—cursing her husband, her life, this city. If only she were home, a place where she could turn to friends, to family. Two years in New Domangue, with a major hurricane slashing into those years like a scythe into cotton sheets on a clothesline, had not been enough time to make friends. Not that Esther would have made the effort in that time, even if there was no hurricane. She was naturally reserved and quiet. She rarely spoke up to her husband, even to defend herself in an argument.
But these two years in New Domangue had been terrible. At least in New York City she could walk into Spanish speaking shops and be understood. When she needed to run a fast errand, she could leave her children with second cousins she had grown up with in the DR. In New York City, she could walk or take a taxi right outside her apartment door to get where she needed to go.
Pero no en esta maldita ciudad, she thought to herself, complaining about New Domangue. Getting around was impossible without a car, and she didn’t know how to drive. She couldn’t go anywhere without her husband taking her, and the closest grocery store was more than a mile away. So many times, she had to wait for him just to buy some milk for kids because the walk was just on the other side of too long, especially in the suffocating humid heat. Once, when her husband was gone on some business for five days, she considered taking that walk, heat or no heat. But then she realized she didn’t exactly know how to get there on foot. She believed she knew the way, from the many trips in the car, but it was enough to make her hesitate. It wasn’t so much any personal fear she had for herself that kept her from trying the trip. She believed herself to be capable. Doña Castilla had said so once when Esther was a teenager, and if Doña Castilla believed in her, then that was enough for Esther. Everyone back home knew that Doña Castilla’s observations, when made, carried the most solemn weight. Still, that truth, so far away, felt feather thin now. So, she didn’t step out, mostly out of worry that with her poor English she might get lost and then have no way to communicate where she lived or what she needed.
But it was also to do with her children. The effort would be difficult to take with two little ones to worry about. They were too young to leave at home alone and not old enough to give Esther confidence that the long trip on foot wouldn’t be an ordeal. She chose to stay home, always. This is how she had lived the last two years. From first arrival, through the evacuation weeks after the big storm, to the return to this place, she felt alone and trapped. Her children, for whom she lived, gave her strength. This is what she told herself while she explored in her heart the reasons for keeping her marriage.
José, in most ways, was a good husband, she thought. He cared for her in ways even her own mother had not. But lately, it had become different, soured. Ever since they came to New Domangue. No, wait, that’s not correct, she reminded herself. It started in the months before leaving the Heights. It started when she began her crying spells after he informed her that they were going to Louisiana, to a city she’d never heard of called New Domangue.
¿Por qué diablo vinimos aquí? She recalled complaining to him. The job he took wasn’t an improvement over what he had in New York City. What drew him here?
It didn’t take Esther long to figure that out, at least, in her own estimation. She wasn’t born yesterday, she told herself the day she realized what was going on. However, she did doubt herself—for months, then the big storm hit, and her silly thoughts were thrown away with everything else she thought that was banal and ill-conceived. They drove to friends and family in New York City. Stayed there four weeks before driving back. Esther pleaded with her husband to forget New Domangue, but he forced his family back down to this place. What could she do?
Their small home had some damage, but nothing they couldn’t live with. Life took on a surreal aspect to it when they returned, living as they did among debris, limited supplies, boarded up houses, missing neighbors, and fear of the next hurricane season. It didn’t flood where they lived, and with the exception of wind damage, most of the homes in the neighborhood she lived in were filled with people six months after the storm. She noticed this around the same time she noticed José acting strange again. Whatever short respite the storm had offered her family, it came to an end. This time, when it came back, rather than begin to accept her place as a wife and a woman with little recourse or alternative, she began to think that she should consider leaving him.
At first, these thoughts were filled with exciting fantasies in which she angrily expressed an ultimatum to José, and which he always accepted, pledging eternal faith and commitment to her. The scenery changed each time she dreamt it, but the result was always the same. She would savor these little fantasies while she went about her household business. Often, during dinner, she would quietly envision her husband, who would be sitting across the table from her, apologizing for not being what she had hoped him to be in their marriage. But these visions didn’t satisfy her growing displeasure with him, which had in all honesty been growing for many years now, though Esther hated to admit this to herself. Her mother knew before she agreed to the marriage, and had even said so on her wedding night.
“Esther,” her mother said quietly. She was busy pinning up a portion of Esther’s hair that refused to stay in position that night. “¿Sabes que José es como tu papá?” Esther tried asking her what she meant, but that was all she would say. The way her mother said it was intended to be understood as an unfortunate and potentially unsettling similarity. José was like Esther’s father? This could have meant many things, but Esther believed she knew what her mother intended to say and chose to ignore it. José loved her, and that was enough. She loved José. But now it didn’t seem so easy to believe this. Yes, she still loved him, even enjoyed him when they took their clothes off beneath the sheets, but even this was changing. It was changing in an unexpected way. Making her feel, in the last few months, as if she were an unwanted house cat that required the occasionally petting. Yes, it was changing, and she knew it. She knew it even before it began to manifest itself in the extra hours at work, the mysterious new smells on his clothes, the suddenly protective manner in which he emptied his pockets as he undressed.
At first, she thought it was the storm, that they were both suffering mental stress—exhaustion from living in a world that bore little resemblance to the normal life they led before the storm. She tried to not pay any attention to it, knowing that when the water comes in, it’s best to learn to float than try to keep it off the sand. But it began, ever so slightly, to gnaw at her, eating at the thin film she’d created over the years, the film under which she had lived out her fiction, until eventually, it hurt.
This happened suddenly, taking her by surprise. When her husband announced he had to go on a last minute two-week trip to Santo Domingo on some supposed business deal, she clutched her rib as if she’d been kicked. It was an involuntary reaction, which for a moment created a humble scene—Esther stumbling backwards against the bedroom wall, gasping for air while her husband reached forward, his heavy body almost graceful as it leaned in her direction with sincere concern and alarm. But this lasted less than three seconds. Disgust, which didn’t go unnoticed by Esther, flashed across José’s face, ever so slightly, when he realized she wasn’t ill, and was just reacting emotionally to his news.
“Coño, mujer. No te pongas así. ¿Por qué diablo lloras?” He was beside himself with quick anger when Esther burst into sudden tears. He looked at her, paced the room back and forth in front of her, left the bedroom to check on their children, returned and stared at her a while longer, until at last he spoke, this time calmly, without anger. “Mira. Es una gran oportunidad. Tengo que ir.”
Esther, however, was not buying it. She didn’t believe him when he explained that it was a business trip. Didn’t believe for a minute that it was as important as he tried to make it sound. From the moment it came out of his mouth, she knew it was a lie—two weeks, and without his family. Two weeks—as if it were something he did all the time. Two weeks—as if it were as simple as driving down the block. Why couldn’t they all go? Why couldn’t he take his family? Two weeks—which he said as casually as saying her name. Last time he had an extended trip planned, the entire family went. As soon as it came out of his mouth, Esther knew something was different, wasn’t right. She knew everything those two words signified. She knew that for him to utter them as casually as he did, that it was the end of whatever it was they had been trying to build for the last ten years.
That night, as he made his arrangements on the phone for the first flight out the next morning, Esther slept with her children—falling asleep beside Junior on the bottom bunk. She dreamt in fits, having bouts of nightmares and euphoric fantasies. Her children, who slept deeply in the same room with her, were spared their mother’s dream battles as she raged with herself long into the night. In one dream, she lay exactly in the same place and in the same way her real body did, on her side beside her son. She opened her eyes and there was José, smiling at her with his arm outstretched, imploring her to take his hand. Rather than lift her arm and place her fingers in his, she closed her eyes and dug her nose deep into her son’s neck. When she looked up again, José was gone.
Esther didn’t know how it happened. She had not set an alarm clock. From within a deep dream in which she was back home, a carefree teenager from the back country fields of La Romana who was being courted by a big city Dominican, she heard noises. Sounded like someone moving around, someone doing things in the house. And it came to her that José was packing. It was not quite dawn yet, with still no sign of light from the arriving morning.
For a moment she considered letting it all pass, the way she’d learned to do so over the years in a marriage that grew increasingly difficult to accept. When the small infractions began, when the little oddities took shape inside her mind, giving her cues to the growing scents of displeasure and contempt that began to characterize José’s behavior toward her, she often became even more subservient, quieter, and hoped that she was dreaming it all, that she was imagining it all and it would pass. But it never passed. It quieted down sometimes, but it came back. It came back in little instances so difficult to capture that she often wondered if she was going crazy. This time, however, something inside awoke. Maybe it was the storm. The ordeal of having lived through the nightmare, the suspense, the trying return, the disappointing return, all of this had taught her something that she’d been unable to act on all her life—that she was made of something grittier than she’d ever admitted to herself or ever shown. It was inside, and she was prepared to let it out, to show it. She could not allow this moment to come into and out of her life quietly.
When she heard him enter the bathroom, she moved into the hallway and inspected what he’d done so far. His luggage was in the living room, some of his clothes thrown onto the back of the dining chair. Esther felt an urge to take his clothes and throw them into the garbage can. She wanted to go into the kitchen, grab a knife and slash into the luggage bag. But she resisted. Fixing her eyes on the picture of the Virgin Mary they had conspicuously placed behind the entertainment center, she waited. She stared at Christ’s mother while her insides ignited into a frenzy of molten activity. All her life she’d lived a devout, Catholic wife’s life, following what she believed was the correct way to take on her marriage. Living in New York City, and maybe even more so in New Domangue, she’d begun to see how differently life could be lived. She saw how men certainly were not interested in upholding any old religious traditions. Questions began to enter her mind; questions she’d never dared ask back home when she was still under her mother’s roof. At the same time, she felt the excitement of this newfound strength, this potential independence, which weaved its way through her body. She fully understood how frightening life in a city without a single relationship outside her husband could be. She didn’t know the language, didn’t drive and didn’t have any money. Supported completely by her husband, she was incapable of living on her own in this place. What would she do if they separated? Return to La Romana? Go back to her mother? Go to New York City, where her aunts could take her in?
Esther lost herself in these thoughts and when José emerged from the bathroom, she went to him not as an angry woman demanding his attention—which in their marriage was still something Esther had not brought herself to demonstrate, but as the woman she had always been.
“José, por favor,” she said. “no podré,” she half whispered. He knew this. He knew that she couldn’t go it alone in this town without him.
“Esther don’t be ridiculous,” José answered, switching to English. He grabbed her hands, which had thrown themselves onto his muscular left arm. “Now, let me finish packing, or I’ll miss my plane.”
“¿Pero porque no podemos ir? ¿Porque no traes tu familia?”
“You know,” José answered, “that we have to watch our money. We can’t just buy four tickets as if money flowed through the faucet. Besides, if all goes well from this trip, we’ll be able to go back and forth anytime we want.” In the past this comment may have been enough to calm Esther down, but not this time. This time she merely slapped the noise of it down before it even reached her ears.
“¿Y mientras?” she said, “¿como esperas que yo viva sin ti?”
José didn’t answer. He moved to the living room and began to hurriedly pack up. Esther stopped just paces away from him; her arms crossed now, her insides gurgling, bubbling. José noticed this. He stopped, only briefly, and looked at her.
“Esther, please,” he pleaded—a hint of concern in his voice. “Don’t get like that. I’ll be back quick. You’ll see.”
Esther surprised herself. She snorted a half-repressed giggle. It was the sort of giggle a worldly person makes when confronted with a scam, no matter where it takes place. The wizened woman’s contempt for simple lies.
“¿Y que hare por dos semanas?” she asked, but not in the same pleading way she had only recently spoken. This time, she wasn’t asking him in order to get an answer. She was simply asking it aloud as a practical matter, repeating into the universe what she’d been thinking and worrying about only minutes before confronting him.
José returned to his luggage. He hurriedly packed the few remaining items that were left. “Don’t be ridiculous. The same as always—take care of Junior and Carmen.”
Again, the same surprised, contemptuous small laugh. “Que lindo,” she said, “mientras tu te vas a putear en Santo Domingo.” It came out suddenly, despite herself. It was the first time she’d ever openly accused him of being unfaithful. “No te lo perdonaré,” she added, knowing as she said it that she meant this—meant it no matter what happened, if he walked out of that door.
José didn’t seem to pick up her intent. He simply went on, impatiently, now obviously frustrated with her. “Look, for the last time, it’s only business. Only business.” He turned around and closed his luggage after putting in the last item of clothing. While he did this, Esther studied his large back and wondered why the hell it was that she ever married him. For a minute, while she watched him, she felt both the sadness of the situation and the anger bubbling from her new self, the new self on the verge of emerging. José, however, seemed to suddenly not be in as much of a hurry. Esther waited, curious about what he was trying to do, trying to think about. She knew that this sudden quiet moment meant that he was trying to say something, thinking of a way to break in a difficult suggestion.
He turned around and held out a yellow scrap of paper. “Here, take this,” he said.
Esther didn’t move, her arms still crossed. “¿Y esto?”
“It’s Eva’s number.”
Esther had heard the name before. José had mentioned her in the same conversations about work meetings and work dinners. He’d mentioned her in the context of party invitations and other social affairs. Even threw her name out once when in anger he asked Esther why she couldn’t be more like Eva. Esther had not thought much about these individual incidents, had accepted them as she accepted everything else in her life—with stoic silence. But not this time. At the mention of her name something that was bubbling inside Esther erupted and rose to her head. Her reaction was swift and it surprised her.
“¿Para que?” she asked.
“In case …,” José began, but was unable to finish because Esther quickly cut him off. His voice sounded meek, too soft to be the voice of the large man who had protected her, cared for her for so much of her life.
“¿En caso que?” she demanded.
“You know. In case you need…,” but again, Esther cut him off.
“Maldito,” she laughed. She watched him as he dropped the yellow sheet of paper that he was trying to put in her hands. He picked it up and again feebly tried to give it to her, but Esther had had enough of this. She was not going to accept her husband trying to offer her the help of one of his women.
José tried again, still pleading his case. “I’ve told you, Esther. Eva is only a friend. You’re going to need her. Please take this and call her. I have to go.” He took one of Esther’s hands and put the paper in it, cupping it closed with his own large paws.
Esther took the paper and threw it on the floor. What was she, she asked herself, a child? She could get along fine without some whore of his coming by to help the little helpless, subdued wife.
José reacted with quick anger. He picked up the paper and again placed it in her hand, this time grabbing her closer toward him. “Damn it, Esther, please,” he said, not pleading this time but urging nonetheless, his fear for her evident on his face while he angrily spat out that she shouldn’t be stubborn, that she didn’t speak English, that she didn’t know her way around, for crying out loud, she hadn’t even learned how to go to the grocery store nearby. He knew that she would need help. Esther could see this in his face sitting just beneath the reddened, taut cheeks and clenched teeth.
For a moment she considered speaking aloud the ultimatum she had already decided in her heart.
Sales por esa puerta hoy, José, y nunca te lo perdono, she thought. If only he could see what she was thinking and keep himself from walking out of that door because if he left, now, as he was certainly intent on doing, she would end the marriage. She knew it as sure as she knew that today was the beginning of a new life, as sure as she knew that Esther Carmen Marmol de Vidriano, only daughter of Consuelo Marmol from La Romana in the Dominican Republic, would get out of this hell hole of a town called New Domangue where a Latino had as hard a time as a fish on land. She would move on and learn how to make it. And she would do this alone, if she had to.
As her husband gave her a perfunctory kiss on the cheeks and turned his back toward her, she made an amusing observation. She may not like it here, but New Domangue had taught her how to face this man’s back who at some point in her life had been her husband.
About the Creator
I'm a Dominican immigrant living in the New Orleans area since the 70s. A father of two, I've been a service worker, war medic, ER tech, pro fundraiser, nonprofit leader, city bureaucrat, and now a PhD'd person, but always a writer.
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