Christopher Neugebauer CC
We signed the divorce papers. It was a no-contest mutual agreement where two breaking hearts showed as much compassion as they could. In our twelve years together, we lost each other a few times but we always managed to find our way back. I was his home. He was my anchor. In our five years of marriage we had grown, but not together. I was ready to pull up anchor, head out to sea. He felt his home had become a strange and dark place.
My own heavy teardrops splashed onto the document as I signed my name in the judge’s office. The little puddles pulled ink from the page, drowning the words. I wiped at it and divorce decree smeared across the page. I had asked for the divorce. He was the one who made it happen.
I howled long animal-like cries into empty closets, an empty medicine cabinet and his empty sock drawer when I came home and he had moved out.
The chiva pulled off the rock-strewn road to let another car pass. While we were waiting, one of the guides jumped from the cab of the truck and leaned into our open-air trolley to explain that “much rain, so much… make to fall… the mountain… thirty minute more… we is rafting.” Shaking his head, he gave up on English and repeated himself in Spanish. Of the six of us, I was the only one who didn’t speak Spanish, but his black eyes held mine while he explained the landslide and how much travel lay ahead before our world-class whitewater-rafting excursion could begin.
I’d been in South America a week. My friend Kat had summer travel plans in Ecuador and because I needed to run from my pain and also, “find myself” – I went with her. Her olive skin, her thick, long dark ponytail and perfectly rolled “r,” convinced everyone she belonged wherever she was. I was sad, sickly and could barely ask for agua. I sorta held onto her hem like it was a rescue line and buoy.
A day earlier I had scuttled into a farmacia and asked the young Ecuadorian woman behind the counter for tampons.
“No se.” She shrugged.
“Okay, um, taaaamp-on?”
Her head waved “no” like a screen door flapping on its hinges.
“Okay… when it’s… um, rojo? Down here? When it’s your time of the month? You know, like, blood? Maybe?” I stretched out every word, like that might help.
She stared at me the same way you stare at your sister’s ill-behaved children.
I began to act the drama of a mime realizing she’s on her period. Mime is walking along and oh! What’s this? Stomach pain? Blood? I pantomimed opening a tampon wrapper and squatted for an exaggerated insertion angle. Feeling confident the international bond of womanhood would unite us, I jumped up like a gymnast who just stuck her landing.
“No se.” She said.
I drug Kat out of the trinket store she was buying one of everything in and stood her in front of the most helpful pharmacy clerk in the world. “What is the Spanish word for tampon?”
“Tampón.” Kat said.
“Quieres tampones?” Said the woman in her blue smock. She handed me a box from inside the display counter between us.
After a few days in Quito, we’d made our way to the mountains of Baños de Agua Santa and like a couple of good tourists, we joined a group of eager college kids for whitewater rafting. I had the flu, conjunctivitis (pinkeye), and had just started my period. Our trolley bounced over cobblestone roads, while rain pelted us from the sides and LMFAO “Party Rocking” repeated without mercy. Kat and the five juvenile travellers chirped together in Español while I regretted the trip and tried not to look too sour.
At the rafting launch, our guide handed me a wetsuit with a hole in the crotch and slapped a helmet that was too big onto my head. I was made the assistant for his “how to rescue a body that has fallen out of the boat” demonstration. As I pretended to be drowning on dry land, he showed the others how to pull a flailing body back into the raft. With his hands on my lifejacket he yanked me toward him and my face landed in his lap. I looked up at him – coffee skin with action scars, straight teeth, sharp eyes – and I froze. I concentrated on trying to hold in my fluish shart and the helmet slipped down over my eyes, thunking my nose. The group laughed and while I righted myself to reclaim some dignity, Kat whispered, “Oh my gawd, he’s hot.”
I rolled my eyes. “He’s too short,” and I went into the bushes to deal with my flu symptoms.
As our raft left the bank I remembered I couldn’t swim. And that I hated cold water. I did indeed fall out of the inflatable boat that afternoon and I was rescued by our guide, just like in the demonstration. He blew me a kiss as I lay shivering on the inflatable floor.
Back in the raft, bouncing over class-four rapids, the rain stopped and the fierce sun filled the sky. He called out, “Rema! Rema! Row! Row!” and we put our backs into the rowing. “Un, dos, un, dos!” We chanted in unison. My rema was very determined. I forgot about the flu, my pinkeye and my cramps. We stopped at a waterfall and the guide painted our faces with wet clay.
The sun was wide and warm as we sped along the snaking mountain road back to town in the chiva. I held my head out of the open bus, consuming the pure air. Each waterfall we passed was like a fountain of holy water, misting my face with divine healing. I was cured. My eyes were white, my stomach and uterus were no longer in protest. Un milagro. A miracle.
I was dancing as one can only do after a gut-punch divorce, far from home and in paradise. After “4 for $4” mojitos, my hips and shoulders found their full range of motion. The lights from the clubs twinkled at their own reflection on the wet pavement. Merengue was pulsing from one street corner and Goteye dubstep from another.
Rum set me free and I was dancing alone in a tiny disco when the river guide, the one that was too short, grabbed my hand and suddenly – I wasn’t dancing alone. His name was Fabricio.
The Spanish word for hangover is chuchaqui. The sunlight sliced through the curtains with the ringing of a sharp blade. My brain turned in my skull like a flat tire, my teeth felt wooden. There was a quick knock and I heard, “Hola cariña? Twenty minutes… we is rafting. Come!”
Fabricio, somehow not at all chuchaqui, convinced me to be ready and waiting outside the hostel for another trip to the river. The thought of being tossed around in the chiva again was excit… no, nauseating. It felt like someone was throwing stones at my head. Twenty minutes later I was squinting from the street corner as the sounds of LMFAO and a bus full of tourists ready for adventure came around the corner.
This time I sat in the cab of the truck. Wedged between Rolo and Fabricio, I held a tight-lipped smile and tried not to look to sour. Rolo was driving and reaching over me to slap at Fabricio who was recalling antics from the night before, poking me in my ribs when something was particularly funny. I was miserable. I took long, slow breaths and clenched all my muscles so nothing would come out either end. When the truck finally bounced off the road into jungle and eventually beach, I flopped out of the cab like a Jello-o mold left out of the fridge too long and I hobbled off to the bushes to deal with my hangover symptoms.
“Un, dos, un, dos, adelante! Rema. Rema! One, two, one, two, forward! Row! Row!” Icy waves struck my face. I was baptized and made new once more. The river cured me again. Another helmet, (still too big), another wetsuit with ill-placed holes, moments of adrenaline punctuated by moments of wispy dandelion suspension, being held by the rushing river like stem and seed by the wind.
I stood on the balcony of Casa del Sol drinking white wine from a box and eating a green apple. Mt. Tungurahua was venting and my balcony was one of the best views to see Ecuador’s most active volcano pitch a fit. I’d spent the last month rafting everyday and playing house in a casita with a name. A new house in a new country is a fresh start and brings so much hope for the future. There is a sense of optimism and expectation. Everything is going to be okay. It’s going to be better.
“If we is to train you for rafting guide. You must to be serious.” Fabricio handed me a line of rope as we practiced tossing it into the river and wheeling it in. “You must to aprender how to read the river. Dejale take you – pero no too far. You must to work with el rio. No en oposición.”
He threw the line to me as I fought the current, kicked like mad, cupped my hands, fingers together, pulled hard. “You is learn to swim. You no is best swimming, but you is best trying.” He winked, then he gently pushed me from the raft again so I could practice hoisting my own weight back into the boat. After every failed attempt, after saving my life over and over again he would say, “Esta bien! Otra vez!”
We sat on the bank eating fruit and cookies, “El rio, the river, she never to let you be her boss, everyday she is different mysterio.”
On an all-day training expedition into the Amazon, a monsoon began suddenly as we came into the final hour of rowing. Giant raindrops bounced off the river as if a strand of pearls broke in the heavens. Thunder clapped above our heads, his sharp eyes cut through my watery ones and we let out guttural animal cries. Laughing and screaming, we rowed faster and harder until the last eddy was in sight. We dove out of the raft and swam in the jungle rain. We were the only people on earth.
We spent our time rafting and cooking and making love. My heart was always racing; from the height of the bridge we would jump off together, or the power of the waterfall we would climb together or his sure steps and warm arms during hours of salsa. One evening, after a day apart, he returned to my house on the hill and as we kissed, fireworks exploded red and blue. Real fireworks. It felt like a sign. A new love is a fresh start and brings so much hope for the future. There is a sense of optimism and expectation. Everything is going to be okay. It’s going to be better.
Kat was traveling back through Baños on her way to Columbia and she stayed with me for a few nights. I cranked up The Ramones and did a catwalk in my own wetsuit, helmet that fit and a real water guide’s PFD. We stood on the balcony smoking and marveling at my almost fluent Spanish.
“Christ. Do you remember that tienda girl and the TAMPONES?” She was already laughing at her memory of it.
“Uh yeah. That girl is still pretty much una puta! Oh, I’m soooorry! Did I forget the accent? Is it Tam-PONE?!” I pantomimed my dramatic one-act play of insertion and Kat held her side in painful ecstasy. “Speaking of, where is my period?”
We walked to the farmacia for an ice cream, another box of wine and una prueba de embarazo.
With each plastic stick, the second pink line became darker and darker. I wouldn’t be rafting anymore.
My long, floral maxi-dress framed my tiny baby bump. Rollo, in his board shorts and rafting agency t-shirt, stood by Fabricio’s side as a witness in the quick, rapidly spoken ceremony at the Registro Cival. Then we went for sushi.
I sat alone on the balcony and heard Fabricio stumble in the front door. It was four in the morning and cold.
“Como estaba tú noche, mi amor? How was your night, my love?” I asked.
“Nothing! You is stupid! Why ask me questions all times?” He snapped.
“I’m just asking how your night was. No tienes que ser un niño. You don’t have to act like a child.”
“You want know where I was, who with! You don’t need know this. You need go to sleep!” Each word was like a poison he was spitting out of his mouth.
“I wasn’t asking that. Should I? Who were you with?” I felt heat rising in my gut.
He turned, looked at me with his sharp eyes, and stomped on my laptop. He grabbed clothing from the closet, ripping sleeves off shirts and pockets from pants. I jumped up to stop him and he wrapped his hands around my throat. I felt like a wet kitchen towel being used to wipe down the counters while he dragged my body across the bed. My head thudded into the stucco wall and I hung off the side of the bed while he squeezed and squeezed on my neck.
The next day I wrote in my journal, He was drunk. He doesn’t remember. He is under so much stress. It’s this country. It’s this culture. When we’re in the U.S. he will be better. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay. That was just a thing, a one-time thing. Never again. “Nunca mas, mi amor,” he assured me.
The truth is, we fought a lot. He was so passionate and I was irrational. Right? For every volcanic fight, middle finger held up, “callate puta” shut-up bitch, there was something equally romantic and tender. There had been words before. He had stormed out many times, staggering home drunk and usually sorry. But that night was the first night I slept like a bad dog on the floor.
I went to my first OBGYN appointment. The peeling turquoise paint hung over me while I watched the flickering black and white image of a little bean. The bean was healthy and doing fine. I felt like it was a sign.
I’d returned to the states to do pregnant and work on Fabi’s visa, so I was wading though paperwork when he called just to tell me he was thinking about me. He called a few minutes later to suggest we leave Skype open all night so that we could sleep next to each other. Then he called again so he could talk to my belly. I held the phone close to my melon sized belly and sang “Moonriver” to them both.
It was like that then. There were calls and notes, letters and texts. He was a writer. His poor spelling and broken English seemed so pure, so honest. It allowed so much space for me to put what I needed in there. He was a romantic. The constant calling was the expression of his aching heart, his insatiable yearning. Wasn’t it?
I had the nurses set up Skype so Fabi could be there for the birth. With the same gentle coaching he gave me when we were rafting, he cheered me on while I gave birth to a robust baby boy. He was purple and hairy and hungry. I held him and kissed the tip of his nose that entire first night. A new baby is a fresh start and brings so much hope for the future. There is a sense of optimism and expectation. Everything is going to be okay. It’s going to be better.
Fabi passed his interview at the consulate, so I flew to Ecuador wearing our newborn. We walked through the streets proudly showing off the cutest baby in the world. Everyone was so happy for us. We took our little bear to the river and dipped his feet in the cold water. Fabi sat with him on a rock and whispered, “I will to teach you el rio mi niño. I will to show you her secretos. You will see.”
After a few weeks, the three of us said goodbye to the mountains and flew home to the Midwest.
Fabi turned up the stereo and we danced salsa in the dining room. When our little bear woke up, we took him with us to wander thrift store aisles and Fabi made jewelry out of the old flatware he’d found. When it was good, it was good.
When it wasn’t good, it was terrifying. He would stand over me while I slept and squeeze down on my throat. I became used to being choked, so he started kicking, pushing and dragging. During one fight, he grabbed a school picture of me at eight years old, blunt brown bangs, a little green jumper with yellow ribbons in my hair, and he began stabbing it.
My back grew accustomed to sleeping on the floor. I had a system. I kept a pillow under the baby’s crib, a thick blanket to lay on and a soft one to cover with.
He was always sorry the next day. “I don’t know… why I do. I hate me sometimes.” And “I never to hit you in the face.” He would lay his head in my lap and sob. I stroked his hair and remembered how gentle he was as my instructor in the river.
“Tell me in your words what you think the problem is, Fabricio. Dime lo que tú piensas es la problema.” The bi-lingual marriage counselor asked.
“No is problem. Sometimes we is fighting but no pasa nada.”
“And what do you think is the problem?” The counselor looked at me.
“I – I think we are not communicating well, and I don’t know what he wants. I don’t know how to make him happy.” It sounded so pathetic coming out of my mouth like that. There was a class four river rushing behind my eyes and if the counselor poked a pin in my inflatable answer, the whole thing would come whooshing forward.
“Hm.” The counselor said.
I prayed. I read books. I cooked meals that would remind Fabricio of home. Because that was it. Wasn’t it? He was so far from home. It was this country, the culture shock. The Midwest is so hard, so flat. With time everything would settle. Wouldn’t it?
Something was pulling on the frayed end of his happiness and he began to unravel, poking at me with the usual insults. A pizza box flew through the air, “You is crazy and boring, so lazy. I don’t want waste my time with you.”
I stood at the top of the stairs, holding the baby and clutching a small bag I had pre-packed. “I’m just going to go stay with Kat for the night. No pasa nada. We can talk in the morning.” I tried so hard to look soothing while I said it.
Fabricio ripped the bag from my hands and used each of its contents as a whip. Our screaming one-year old son held onto my legs while Fabi pinned me against the wall and pressed an eight-inch kitchen knife to my throat. “Never you will leave!” His animal eyes vibrated in their sockets.
That night, I sat at little bear’s activity table and wrote in my journal. “I should call the police. God, help me. How do I get out of here?” Before I could dot the question mark, he stood in the doorway, glaring.
“You is thinking to leave? Nunca. You never leave.” And he leaned against the doorframe.
I’d learned not to say anything, so I shrugged. Red and blue flashed in his dark eyes and he rushed toward me, slapping my face. The ringing in my head was so loud and I listened to it while he yelled at me. I shrugged again. He punched me this time and my head snapped back taking the tiny chair I was sitting in with it. My head thudded the floor and his hands closed in on my throat.
The day we met I found my face in his lap, looking up at him while his hands yanked on the shoulders of my lifejacket. I was caught by his coffee skin, straight teeth and dark eyes. He looked like a god.
He always stopped just before blackout. That was his kindness.
I called 911. The police arrived and arrested him. I looked out of the window, down into the police car, and saw his face – his black eyes – as they took him away. I fell to the floor, howling long animal-like cries.
He promised he was a new man. He was going to be so different. It was the Great Plains. We needed mountains. We needed water. We needed the river. Our apartment did have a great view of a parking lot with a dumpster. Diapers and old clothing were stacked inside like a layer cake. I just knew that was the problem. The view.
So we moved deep into the Ozarks. On one of the last warm weekends of the season we took a kayak out to the lake and we cried, “Un dos, un, dos, rema, rema!” We laughed and swam together. We held each other and agreed that a new house in a new state is a fresh start and brings so much hope for the future. There is a sense of optimism and expectation. Everything is going to be okay. It’s going to be better.
It wasn’t better.
I was sweeping up shards of light bulb and pieces of broken lamp when he said, “You know, I think I’m go home. You is no good for me.”
I looked up, “Yes. I think that’s a really good idea.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d said that, but I decided it should be the last. I bought him a ticket and called him a ride. I sat at the kitchen table, ate a green apple and listened to “February Seven” without mercy.
Three days later he began sending death threats from Ecuador. I found an attorney and filed for divorce.
“Oh, thank God. I was so afraid he was going to kill you.” John said. My first husband and I had stayed in touch. Because some assets took longer to untwine, we spoke two or three times a year and we were a fine example of two people finding friendship after divorce.
“Call you tomorrow?” He said after another night of long conversation. Our old language had returned with ease. We made playlists for each other. He texted me Paulo Coelho quotes. I sent him funny videos of little bear and our cat. He listened to me work through my confusion and pain. I listened to him long for a family, wanting to be a father.
“Yes please! Talk tomorrow, have a great day!” He was so grounding. He was like dry land, stable and solid.
My son and I drove six hours west and John cooked us dinner. There was a big box on the table with a red ribbon. Inside there were toy cars for little bear and a bottle of wine for me. After we ate, the three of us took a walk through his neighborhood. He chassed little bear along the sidewalks and caught him in an attack of tickles. John was so tall and broad shouldered. My heart began wiggling like a fish in my chest. In the evening we sat on the couch talking and I buried my cold feet in his armpit.
We visited John several times. On one visit I opened his closets, sock drawers, medicine cabinet – all full.
He sat at his piano and played all our old favorites. And then he played “Moonriver.” I stood behind him and smoothed my hands over his shoulders.
“Oh! I should tell you! I think I’ve started dating someone. I mean, we’ll see where it goes, but I’m pretty into her right now.” He began listing the details of their first date like an eyewitness being quizzed by the cops.
I felt heat rising in my gut.
“Okay. That’s, like, awesome.” And then I babbled in a high-pitched squeak about all the reasons that I thought we shouldwouldcould try again. Hot tears bubbled out. “I thought I had more time. I know what happened to us and I know how we can fix it.”
He sighed and said, “I like where I’m at and I am going to see where this goes.” After that, we agreed we shouldn’t talk for a while.
The next day I wrote in my journal, “It has to be him. We were meant for each other and it is only now, after everything, that we can know it, right? What will I do without him?” I started biting my nails again. I couldn’t eat. My heart slid deep into my stomach. I sat on the floor and sang “Moonriver” to little bear. I held back the sick and tried not to look too sour.
I stepped out of the shower. I reached for the bath towel. And there it was. No monsoon, no freezing rapids, no hot tears. No salsa, no strong peaceful jaw or sharp eyes. I felt the fibers of the towel with my hands, pressed my face into the loops of cotton and took a long, deep breath. Water droplets cooled and my skin contracted. I pulled my shoulders back, stood up tall. I looked at myself in the mirror. I smiled at her.
A.A. Jones is the operations manager for an independent journalism nonprofit called NonDoc and a break-up coach living in the Midwest. Her non-fiction work appears in The Momentum of Hope and her poetry appears on sticky notes all over her own walls. She is both uplifting and irreverent, and if you like that you can find her at www.indiangelajones.com.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.