The Mistress Movement
Who has the right to tell your story?
My father was the kind of man you’d respect.
An honest man, a well-known judge and academic. A family man, careful with his private life. A congressman, one of the best-known legal minds of the entire country and a strong contender for the presidency, if he ever decided to pursue it. A stable leader, the kind of politician needed to pacify Argentina after decades of political divide.
The great Daniel Domenici.
But all his good qualities were firmly in the past when I found myself sitting in that uncomfortable metallic vessel, shooting through the air at five hundred miles per hour. I closed my eyes and let the scotch warm up my throat and release the tension in my shoulders. Flying was uncomfortable as hell for me, even in Business Class, but at least the booze was better here.
A chuckle dragged me out of my drowsy state and forced me back to reality. Olivia was next to me, her bleach-blond hair messy under her headphones and her fire truck-red lipstick smudged at the corner of her mouth. She had been staring at the tiny screen, but now she sensed my glare and turned to me, raising her glass of champagne.
“Mistresses of the world, unite,” she whispered with a mischievous smile, her words already slurred.
I emptied my own glass and leaned back. I’m not normally much for drinking, but sharing an 11-hour flight to Spain with the person single-handedly responsible for ruining my life and my family was hardly a best-case scenario. I would need an intravenous drip to erase the vicious thoughts from my mind.
Olivia’s hand began tapping on the armrest, a restless rhythm that did nothing to wipe away the memory of our last encounter from my mind, or the marks of Mom’s nails from her neck. I’d bet she had thought about it, too.
The quest to bring Dad to justice had not started well.
I was at the gate, handing my passport and ticket to the clerk, when I noticed the commotion. There she was: Olivia, in all her five-foot nine glory, plus five inches of heel, dark sunglasses and a designer bag casually hanging from her arm, the portrait of a femme fatale.
From a marketing standpoint, it seemed to work for her. From a human perspective, she was even more repulsive than before.
A twitch at the corner of her lip informed me she had recognized me. She had only seen me once before, and it must not have been a pretty memory. Me dragging my mother off of her, her lying on the ground, screaming, Mom’s nails clawed deep into her neck. Now she was wearing a scarf, I noted before I turned to the clerk. Even if we did have to share a plane, I could spend my time imagining my mother’s masterwork showcased on her.
I managed to force a smile as I made my way through the sleeve to the plane, but it wasn’t easy. We would share the same air, the same four or five rows of seats, the same bathroom. I threw myself on the window seat and closed my eyes.
What was she even doing here?
“Excuse me, Valentina, I’m fairly certain that one is mine.” I looked up to see her, now with a sly smile on her lips, standing next to me.
“There must be some other seat available, anything,” I pleaded as the blood rose to my cheeks.
“No, I’m afraid not. The plane is completely booked,” the flight attendant said. “Is there something wrong with your seat, miss?”
“No, it’s a personal issue. God, I can’t believe this is happening. Can I switch places with somebody? I’m sure anyone in Economy would love to be here.” The flight attendants, three of them, were now gathered around Olivia and me, all staring at me like I’d lost my mind. And I probably had, to be honest. Who would want to downgrade?
“Never mind,” I said, glancing at Olivia, who snorted. She had taken her sunglasses off and was already putting on her headphones.
“I’m not going to bite, girlie. Ask your father,” she said, giving me a wink and an obscene hand gesture.
The flight attendants looked shocked, but still stood by us with smiles frozen on their faces. They must have understood the problem by now, knowing who she was. The scandal with Dad had been very much publicized, reaching even international news, given his political relevance. And now, everybody there knew without a doubt who I was.
“Can I get some alcohol, please?” The flight attendant was clearly starting to doubt her decision of keeping us sitting next to each other.
“Better make that two,” Olivia shouted gleefully.
I glanced in her direction and caught her eye.
“I knew you’d stay,” she said, with a smirk.
I doubted the smile was anything more than a mask. Just like she brought to life my worst memories, I probably did the same to her. No matter how many followers her Movement now had, I had been there at her lowest moment.
When she was just the girl in short skirts who’d slept with the politician, who the media had loved to drag down. I had been there when she had been about to turn into just another statistic. A victim of a crime of passion, as they called them to legitimize the perpetrator. In this case, my mother.
“And how did you know I'd stay?” I tried to put on the same smile she had, to see if it affected her.
“Because it’s so clear there’s a part of you that yearns martyrdom. Always the one suffering, just like your father,” she said and turned away from me.
I should have just let Mom go through with it.
I still remembered the first time I saw her, in a work event of Dad’s I had attended by surprise. He had been so uncomfortable, laughing way too loud and constantly looking around. There was something in that woman that made him tense and joyful at the same time.
She had looked so different then. Just a twenty-something intern with her hair up in a ponytail, in a beige skirt and light-gray blazer, trying so hard to look professional but still so out of place. She had looked a lot like me, actually, with that strange air of innocence. Now she must be in her mid or late thirties, I assumed, a construct of what a strong, confident woman should look like. Her makeup, hair and heels, and her Mistress Movement behind her. I wondered if she believed in it herself.
For one second, I couldn’t help imagining what Dad must have looked like when he was seducing her, when he saw her for the first time. Hungry, looking at her like she was a piece of meat. Men all look the same when they want you.
I emptied my second glass of scotch and left it on the tray in front of me. Olivia’s head was tilted to the side, her eyes closed. She was snoring slightly. I only resisted the urge to reach for my purse to grab a waterproof eyeliner and draw something blasphemous on her face because the flight attendant was watching us.
And Olivia was the powerful one now, whereas I was the daughter of a corrupt politician, a man who had scammed the country. I was a bad apple by proxy.
The plane started shaking. I tried to calm myself down by looking at the other passengers’ unbothered faces while putting on my headphones and finding a romantic comedy to take my mind off it. They were just bumps on the road. I tried to imagine traveling next to Dad, his hand always on top of mine, calming me down when I was scared. But I couldn’t see him now, it had been too long since we’d talked.
Was that lightning? I grabbed my armrests and looked around. Everybody else was still acting normal, as if they hadn’t even registered it. I leaned back and closed my eyes.
“Hey, come on, don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little turbulence?” I heard Olivia’s voice but didn’t look. “You know this is way safer than…”
“Than driving a car, yes, I do, everybody does,” I snapped. “But it doesn’t make it any less unnatural that we’re suspended seven thousand feet up in the air in a pressurized tin can.”
“Well, you know, at least you know you still want to live, right?”
“I mean, if you’d lost your will to live like me, you wouldn’t care about it. So this is kind of good news. You’re not severely depressed!” she yelled, prompting a couple of nasty looks from across the aisle. “Oh come on, people, you’re not sleeping. Miss, could I have one more of these, please? And another for my friend here,” she pointed at me.
In a few minutes I had another glass in my hand. The flight attendants were now eyeing us non-stop. If there ever was a risk for an in-flight fistfight, anyone would put their money on us. Olivia had taken my acceptance of the drink as an invitation for conversation, and I needed somebody to take my mind off the shaking plane. But boy, did she love talking.
“The thing is, you’re already up here, okay?” She explained, gesturing with her hands, moving her champagne so much I couldn’t believe there was still some in the glass. “They can’t turn this thing back now. And you’re not going to be able to prevent anything, are you? Last time I checked, you were not a superhero but a law student. And that means you’re ill-equipped to deal with any kind of an airline emergency, sorry. You just might be able to talk to your father, but that’s it. So just enjoy the little time you have left.” She raised the glass. “What? What’s with the glare?”
“Are you going to Spain because of my father?”
“I thought you knew.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
She scoffed, turning back from the talkative drunk to her femme fatale-personality. “We’ll see.” She turned to look out the window, raising her glass again, and this time I knew it was coming.
“Mistresses of the world, unite!” she shouted, loud enough for the whole Business Class to hear.
The plane was moving again, but my body was starting to relax, fade away into that sweet alcohol-induced slumber I knew I would wake up from with a headache. I stared at the screen, where the figure of the plane was off the coast of Brazil, heading towards the western point of Africa in a straight line, and felt my eyelids get heavier and heavier.
But the only thing on my mind was still the woman sitting next to me.
A few weeks after the incident with my mother, Olivia had decided to speak up, throw a press conference and everything. I had expected her to be sitting down at a table without makeup and dressed in white, looking virginal and shaken, with an endless supply of paper tissue to wipe away her fake tears.
When she’d appeared in that hotel room in towering heels and a figure-hugging bright blue dress, with her nails and lips painted in that fiery red that had since become her trademark, I had become aware that she was not planning on being a victim.
She had taken her time to walk to the center of the room, those heels making their rhythmic sound as she’d walked, announcing to all that she wasn’t going to be afraid. She’d taken a look around, as if measuring her opponents, before dropping each word before us like ice cubes into a glass. Slow, cold and calculated.
“Good evening. I’m sure you all think you have an idea of why you were invited here, but you might be surprised.” She had taken a breath, her face losing the tension it had carried so far. She lived for the fame. “Tired of the speculation that has been surrounding me, I decided to do something. I want to tell you,” she paused for effect, looking around the room, “that I’m not going to be here and play the part of the whore or the victim. I am not going anywhere. I have made the decision to create something for all of you out there who have been told that you have to stay quiet and keep your story to yourself.” She paused for effect.
“I have created the Mistress Movement.”
A commotion broke out as journalist started yelling their questions at her, and she waited, relishing in the attention.
“The Mistress Movement is a space for all of us who have been taken advantage of by these men and women, misled by their cynical promises. It is not vengeance, nor a place for us to hide our heads in shame. It’s a space where we can tell the stories we are entitled to, where we reclaim the right to tell them instead of protecting the people who have done us wrong. It’s where we take back our creativity and empower ourselves. I am here for you, my mistresses, and I invite you all to go to join the Movement.”
And then, I heard a voice I knew, a voice everybody in Argentina knew. A so-called journalist, a famous sleazebag who had interviewed everybody who was anybody in the entertainment industry, and brought down many starlets. You did not want to get on his bad side.
“Why’d you do it, Olivia?”
Her smile froze. “I just explained it to you.”
“Why would you do this to a family? Daniel Dominici is a well-respected politician, don’t you think you have ruined him for your own little fun?”
The cameras were pointed at the journalist standing in the front row with a smile on his lips, knowing his questions would get him where he wanted: showing the world another crazy, hysterical woman.
That was the question that broke through her defenses. And then, before Olivia had been able to answer, he had dug the knife even deeper, directly attacking her. “You’ve been called promiscuous by these previous partners, even…”
“A slut?” Olivia had still been smiling.
He had chuckled. “Well, that is certainly a term I wouldn’t have used on television, but yes, it is a word I’ve heard from several men.”
“While I am certainly not shocked to see this kind of misogyny from you,” she’d said, “I’m not here to talk about my personal life which, by the way, I have a right to live as I choose. Whether it’s having sex with anybody in sight or being celibate for the rest of my life.” She had turned around then, about to terminate the press conference.
“What’s going on, are you bothered by the questions?” he had kept yelling after her.
She had turned back to the journalist, smiling. “Oh honey, I’m not bothered by the questions. I’m bothered by the fact that I am in the company of such mediocrity.” Then she’d turned to address the camera. “And I’m bothered by the fact that all you people still think Daniel is somehow a good, innocent guy. Let me tell you something, people: Daniel Dominici is a person with a lot of secrets. And if there are any real journalists out there, unlike this guy,” she said, pointing at the journalist, “then I’d invite you to look a little closer at Domenici’s finances and see what a great guy he really is. Especially the bank accounts he keeps in the Bahamas.”
She had turned away and taken two steps away from the podium, while the uproar had started. But almost out of sight of the cameras, she had turned around and returned to the center of the room, shouting out with her exquisitely manicured hand clenched up in a fist raised in the air: “Mistresses of the world, unite!”
The image and the video had gone viral, as had her website.
She had started a podcast, where she was inviting women and men to tell their stories of toxic relationships, and talking to them about the creative outlets they had decided to pour their stories into. She'd started selling merchandise, from coffee mugs to t-shirts with her catchphrase and the image of her, in that vamped-up look behind the podium and with her fist up in the air. She must have made a fortune with it.
For my family, that was the moment everything officially fell apart. The phone calls had been endless, there had been reporters parked outside my family’s home day and night for the next few weeks. Dad had denied everything, but then more people had started coming out with their stories, telling about the weird details they had seen or heard.
It was total humiliation. They had found properties I’d never heard of, money stashed in our backyard, some paperwork about the Bahamas bank accounts. This was all money taken from contributors to his foundation, from normal taxpayers, from everybody. Dad’s political opponents had capitalized on it, too, making sure his dreams of becoming President would never be a reality.
Thanks to our inefficient justice system, the investigation would take years. It would most likely turn out to be enough to lock him up for a long time, and he deserved it.
Now, I just had to find him in Spain and convince him to come back home.
Olivia moved, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to open my eyes and take a glance. She was staring at me with her eyes wide open. Before she could find her words, I beat her to it.
“Why are you here? Why won't you leave us alone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you so obsessed with my family?” Before she could answer, I got up and headed for the bathroom.
When I got back to my seat, she was sleeping, with her head turned against the window and her eyes covered with a mask.
There was an envelope on my seat. “Valentina,” it read on top.
I held it in my hand for a while, then gestured to the flight attendant for another drink. With the glass in my hand, I opened the envelope and took out some pages typed on a computer.
I started reading.
You knew it was impossible when it started, and that’s why you tried to tell him you didn’t want to be a part of it. He said he respected your decision, but you knew there was still much left unsaid.
You were just another pretty young thing. You knew the other woman is always the wrongdoer, the butt of the joke, the sad spinster, the one who ends up with nothing. But you did it anyway.
You were never fine with it, of course. You never learned to share. You couldn’t understand how he kept up with it, being with two people at the same time. How could he respect someone and lie like that? How could she not see it? Why don’t you?
This isn’t a game for young women like you. This is for men like him.
He is only going to do the same thing to you that men like him always do. He’s only going to break your heart. You let him, because you’re the same. You’re not a good person, either.
He’s so good at convincing you he loves you. He makes you feel special, calling and messaging you every day. He says you’re intelligent, that you have talent. But he also tells you to leave him. He wants you to carry the responsibility of the affair, to make the decision that was never yours to make.
Neither one of you is in love, really. You’ve said it so many times before, but you know love is more ephemeral than that expensive perfume you put on religiously every morning, the one that evaporates faster every time.
Go now, when you still can. Run. Don’t keep making the same mistake.
You can still get out.
A year later, you’re still there. You hardly see him anymore, not after he got elected. But he still comes to see you to your apartment, to talk, and you’re desperate to be with him.
You only understand the tragedy a month later. You ask to speak to him, but he doesn’t want to. He wants you to know it’s all over. Your relationship has prescribed, he says, and you know what that means, coming from a former judge. It means you are a crime. That what is growing inside you is a crime.
But you demand to speak to him, hoping for something to have changed. You tell him about your problem, and he is all action. He wants you to take care of it, he finds the place, he pays for it. He will not take you there, he will not hold your hand. He wants you both to disappear, and he he refuses to take your calls.
And you realize you’ve fallen in love with a very, very bad man.
The sadness is locked tight in your shoulders for a long time. Months, maybe years, even. Then it starts changing places: on some days you carry it around in your jaw, on others on your eyelids, the soles of your feet. It makes it harder to speak, to see a better future, to walk past it.
But it keeps you moving, too. People underestimate the power sadness has to keep you on your feet, if only to be able to rise above it one day. But you can’t, not if there’s something still left unsolved.
I finished reading Olivia’s letter, feeling heavy. I emptied my glass and leaned back.
God, I hated her. I wanted to hate her, but I didn’t know if I still had it in me.
“I’m sorry,” I heard her voice and turned to look at her. “I want to help you. I'm partially responsible, and I know it’s going to be worse if we don’t take him back home. Besides, your mother asked me to go.”
"Yes. She called me, asked me to give you a hand. To see if there's any chance he'll listen."
I had no way around it. “I guess if Mom is fine with it. And I know this is not all on you.”
Olivia snorted. “It felt like it for a while. But no, nothing is ever on just one person.”
“Yeah, I guess we just have to listen to all the stories,” I said, forcing out a smile.
I had no answers. I didn't know how we'd do in Spain, and if we'd be able to help Dad. But she was there. She had suffered, just like we had, and she was still giving Dad a chance.
Maybe I owed her a chance.