Content warning: mental health; substance abuse; physical violence, gore, abuse; suicide, self harm.
Maria was having a nice, quiet morning when she heard the car in the driveway. She had been enjoying the way the early sunlight filtered in through the eyelet lace curtains. Even upstairs, she always kept the windows covered so that no one could see in. She put down her cup of tea and opened a sliver in the curtains to look below. There was a black car, and two men were getting out of it. They wore dark uniforms with bright pins on the collars and little colored rectangles on one side of the chest, and when they slammed the car doors shut, the small Army flag on the hood shook.
Her hand jerked back from the curtain and flew instinctively to the back of her neck. She caught herself as she touched the place where her hairline started. This was where she used to tear her hair out, a bit at a time, back here where no one could see her anxiety. She ran her fingertips over the fine, soft hairs that had been growing in for the past two years. Delicate, like the first wing feathers of a baby bird.
A knock from downstairs startled her out of her reverie.
She took a deep breath and got up. The morning light continued to float in through all the curtained windows she passed on the way down. There was almost no dust in the air. She kept the house very clean now, clean and smelling nice. Like flowers.
She could see the dark shapes of the two men through the panel of etched glass in the door. One of the shapes shifted and there was more knocking, a hammering sound that pounded against her as she approached, crashing past and around the corners to shake the whole house. She unlocked the door and pulled it open before he could knock anymore.
Maria, the man said, fist still raised. She blinked in the harsh sunlight.
Can we come in? Both men took off their black berets and the one who spoke gave her a weak smile. She recognized that smile, and shook her head no. He looked very polished in his dress blues today, but she knew who he was behind the military uniform. He seemed surprised for a moment, but both men did stay outside on the front step. As the same man began to speak again, his voice faded to the edges of her awareness. Instead of listening, she was thinking of all the times he, and so many others just like him and just like her husband, had come over to their house with their loud drinking and their horrible smells, to spit into her cups. Brown slime seeping out of their teeth as they smiled at her, gums packed and bleeding, so many of her nice tea cups they stained with their spit, she’d had to clean up every single one, every single time–
Maria, do you understand? The man was saying now through yellow teeth. The other man looked at him and whispered uncertainly, I don’t think her English is good?
Yes, she replied, though she didn’t really understand. She had caught the words your husband, explosion, very sorry. The two men glanced at each other and shifted on their feet. The line of duty, one began to say, It can be…
You are saying my husband does not come back? she asked. Another exchanged look. Well, no–
She had heard enough. She picked up her keys from the neat little entrance table behind her and stepped out. The men shuffled back down the steps in surprise. She closed the door with a snap and locked it, willing her hands to be steady. Thank you, she said without looking up at them, Please leave now.
She hurried past them down her front steps and turned sharply onto the sidewalk, ignoring their shouts behind her, assuming they wouldn’t pursue. Up ahead she saw a neighbor, one of the women with the blond hair and the prying blue eyes. The woman was pushing a stroller and walking a dog, and smiled and waved when she saw Maria. But then her blue eyes flicked to the black car and the two uniformed men still standing in the doorway, and her plastic smile cracked. Her hand fell to the side and she started to speak but Maria scurried past before she could.
Maria turned at the end of the block and passed two more streets of the same small, cookie-cutter houses and square lawns before she allowed herself to break into a run.
She was free of her husband.
She wanted to throw her head back and laugh, she wanted to jump and twirl and shout for joy … but all she did was smile, a small smile to herself. Because she was still passing houses, and she could still feel their eyes on her. Always on her, on her black hair and brown skin, whispering about her behind manicured hands. How lucky she was that he’d married her, how he must have done it so she could stay in the country. Yes, she wanted to shout back, I married for a green card and now I stay in this prison and all of you are my guards.
She should be ashamed, she’d heard them say, not giving him any children after so long. It wasn’t shame that she felt, but sadness. She had always wanted children of her own, and perhaps they could have brightened up her life here. But then she would feel the terror when he drank, too afraid to upset him further by locking the door between them, knowing she was always a step away from the wrong end of his fist, or his belt, or whatever else happened to be nearby. Like his guns. No, she would not bring children into this. And so she snuck the pills that kept children away and tried not to think of how they were wrecking her body.
By now she had slowed to a walk. A widow at thirty. What would it mean? She would probably have to give up her special ID card, which was a strange thought to be having in this moment. It was the card that gave her discounts at the grocery store and made the cashier look questioningly at her and say, Thank you for your service? Yes, she had been making sacrifices, but not in the way people thought. And not any longer! She could leave this town full of people who were thanked for their service, she could go anywhere. She had dreamt of this day a million times over the past two years of his deployment, hopeful in his absence.
She walked up to the water, the deep man-made river. They sailed the ships through this, out to the ocean. She looked up at the tall footbridge nearby, the one that crossed the river and was high enough for the ships to go under. She absentmindedly touched the soft hairs at the back of her neck again. She had been standing right here on that day, in this same spot, when the biggest ship was leaving. People had been lined up to watch it go, and the most important people stood on that footbridge, saluting as it came.
One of the wives had been pushing past the crowds to get onto the bridge, and heads had started to turn at the noise she was making. Don’t go, she had been screaming, I told you not to leave I told you I can’t do this again I won’t wait for you anymore. She finally made it onto the footbridge … and she jumped.
Maria remembered how the woman had looked, suspended in the air for a moment, like she was taking flight. She remembered thinking, freedom.
The men around her had shielded their wives and children from the sight, but hers had not. He had already run off towards the ship, always desperate for a chance to look the hero. So she’d seen everything in slow motion. How beautiful and at peace the woman had looked as she fell, the sound she made when she met the deck of the ship far below, the bright color of her insides under the midday sun. The sound of her husband’s scream.
Maria had seen a woman who loved her husband, but not as much as she hated the pain it brought her. And, Maria had seen a way for her to escape her own husband, her own pain.
After so much time being surrounded by all these men and their flag-waving, on that day it was a woman who finally taught her that the price of freedom, in this country, was death. Every day since then, she had accepted that she would eventually pay for hers like that, with one last flight, and that all the quiet mornings she was enjoying for the moment came on borrowed time. But today, ironically like so many of the strangers she hated here, she knew what it was like to be grateful that someone else had paid that price for her.
She turned and started walking back home. She could call it that now, home. Even though she had been the only one living there for the past two years, patching the violent holes in the walls and scrubbing out all the stains and smells, she never felt safe knowing he could return at any moment. That was over now, and she could scarcely believe it.
She was so lost in hopeful thoughts of her new life that it wasn’t until she was almost home that she saw the small crowd gathered on her lawn. The car was still there, even though she had asked them to leave, and now there was even a van parked behind it. Someone saw her and shouted, and the crowd parted in excitement. In the center was a man in a wheelchair, his head was bandaged all around but he looked like–
It couldn’t be. Had she … misunderstood those two men?
Her husband waved away all the hands that reached out to help him, feigned a look of pained sacrifice, and lifted himself out of the chair. One of the women watching burst into tears.
“Maria,” he said, reaching out a dramatic hand. But he was not looking at her and he was not speaking to her, his eyes were on everyone else. On his audience. “I came home. For you. You were all that kept me going!” he announced to the crowd, sweeping his arms wide over their adoring faces.
Amidst all the cheering, Maria felt a sharp pain at the back of her neck. She looked down at her hand and saw a clump of soft, delicate black hair.