This is the story my mother told me, when she thought I was old enough to understand:
Once, there was a young and beautiful girl who came from a distant province to study in the city. In her first year in college, she was a success with her teachers as well as the student body, who admired her enough to crown her as a beauty queen. There, she met a man not much older than she was, but full of bravado and charm. She could not resist his easygoing manner, boisterous sense of humor and large hands, and agreed to his invitation to attend a party. There, he gave her drink after drink and, not wanting to seem ignorant, the girl emptied glass after glass, until she fell into a deep sleep. She woke up when he violated her, unable to scream because she was afraid of throwing up, her confused concerns about shame trumping her present reality. After he had his way with her, the handsome man took the girl back to her dormitory and told her that, because of what had happened, they were destined to be together. That night, she wept in silence, anxious not to disturb any of the women who shared her room. And she thought about how things can change so violently, how he now possessed her, and how she could – or if she even should – keep everything a secret from her parents. But most of all, she thought about how she now needed to marry him, for there were no other choices left for her to consider. She was one week away from her eighteenth birthday.
They married immediately, both leaving their studies behind for a new life. He told her three things: that he would find work, that getting married was right thing to do, and that he loved her anyway. On their wedding night, he insisted that she do what a wife should do, before throwing her down on the bed. That was the first night she fought back, curling her fingers into a fist like her father had taught her in the province; she struck him in the face, but he just laughed. He displayed his growing excitement and overpowered her. This would continue almost every night for as long as their marriage lasted. The man would demand satisfaction, she would resist, and he would take her in whatever position she landed in, on the bed, on the floor, on a table, in the bathroom. Her tears were an aphrodisiac, the screams he muffled with his large hands intoxicating.
When she learned she was pregnant, she told him, thinking it would deter his desire. It did not. When the girl miscarried, she blamed him, adding the death of her unborn child to his litany of sins.
This is the story I told myself, when I was a little boy:
Once, a handsome soldier and a beautiful girl met at a ball. He wasn’t a prince and she wasn’t a princess, but when they danced together it was as if they were. They knew immediately that their love was strong and true, and their magnificent wedding was the talk of the town for a long time. They were blessed with a baby boy whom they showered with love. The man held him in his large hands and taught him the name of things, laughing as he held the little boy against his broad chest. The woman taught her child how to read, coaxing sound and meaning from pages and pages of countless books, offering him the comfort of her soft embrace.
One day, the soldier was called to war. He told his wife that he had to go, his warrior’s heart brimming with courage. With tears in her eyes, his wife told him that his duty to his country was greater than his duty to her or to his son, and that they would wait for his safe return. The man took his son in arms, kissed him on the forehead and promised him he would return.
That is the reason they continued to wait and wait, both believing that the next day would be the day of his homecoming. Because a husband’s vow to his wife was just as true as a father’s promise to his son.
This is the story my father told me years later, when I was a father myself:
Once, a man met a beauty queen in college. He took stock of what he possessed -dark good looks, towering height and large hands – and took the next possible opportunity to get to know her. They became immediate friends and soon their friendship transformed into something deeper, something that could only be expressed through intimacies. Because they were both young, they mistook the attraction for love and left a crowded varsity party for a quiet room, moving quickly to consummate their passion. He tried to be a gentleman, expecting nothing more than to feel her softness through her clothes. The girl, however, wanted more. And so he gave her what she longed for.
Afterward, she surprised him with angry tears, accusing him of robbing her of her innocence. She threatened to tell her parents, her friends, the school administrators and the police, if he did not do the right thing. His sense of honor admitted him no option and so he agreed to marry her, though he knew it was an act they would both regret.
The man’s mother did not take kindly to his new bride, who took pains to tell her that she was the first woman in the man’s life now. She forbade the man from inviting his mother to visit them. Three months later, the woman began to exhibit her growing belly, and grew more and more unreasonable until the day of the miscarriage. The man tried to comfort his wife, but she pushed him away. She had scarcely recovered from her loss when she demanded that he give her a child. He did, and once again her belly grew, and once again she miscarried, and once again she demanded that he give her a child. This time, she gave birth to huge baby boy covered in black hair. She did not permit her husband to hold the child, and claimed only she had the right to love the little boy.
Cast aside in his own home, the man decided to join the military, where at least he would be of service. In his heart he loved the child, and would always regret leaving him behind. But he felt nothing but sorrow toward his wife, who, in three years of marriage, had transformed from a beauty queen to a beautiful monster, who had no love for him.
The day he left, he made no plans to ever return.
This is the story my mother told me, on the day before I was married:
Once, there was an abandoned woman who had to support her young child all on her own. Her husband, whom she married for all the wrong reasons, had decided to join the armed forces and found ways to be stationed oceans away. Part of her was relieved, because she no longer had to endure his unquenchable lust. But part of her was angry, because he had left her with nothing, except for a mother-in-law who took it upon herself to act as her grandson’s protector. The woman, whose strength had grown through her husband’s previous nightly violations, would have no interference, and ran away with her little boy. She found distant relatives who were willing to put the pair of them up for weeks at a time, while she sought work of any sort, hampered by the missing college degree she had traded for what she mistakenly had thought was the right thing to do. What little money she earned as a waitress, dishwasher, temp, clerk and assistant, to anyone who have her, she gave to whichever relatives she was living with, to help take care of her son. This went on for a few years, until she had exhausted every relative’s kindness.
She thought about returning to province, to her parents, but did not wish to bring them physical proof of her shame and failure. She was certain that they already knew, their knowledge and obvious judgment emanating from all the unopened letters from them that found their way to her wherever she lived. She kept her humiliation only to herself, finding her son utterly blameless. She did what she could to show him love, although circumstances were often very difficult.
One day, she applied to be a photographer’s assistant. When he asked her if she would model privately, she refused, not wanting to compound her dishonor. When he offered to pay her for every intimate portrait, she refused. When he showed her the generous amount, she told him that she would never do such a thing. The photographer mounted a gentle campaign, appealing to her vanity and, when that failed, to her hope of a brighter future for her son, promising to buy an apartment where she and the boy could live. It was five months later when the woman finally relented, drained by his appeals, and desperate for security for her son.
She never smiled in any of the photographs. With each frame, she cast off parts of her that she no longer wanted. By the last shot, when she had nothing left to hide behind; she was a different woman.
This is the story I told myself, when I was growing up in my stepfather’s apartment:
Once, there was a boy and mother and they were desperately poor. Nobody wanted to help them, and they lived briefly in places, and left before they could become homes.
A man took pity on them and took them to his apartment. In exchange, he spent a lot of time with the boy’s mother. He wasn’t unkind to the boy, but showed him little affection.
Secretly, the boy waited for his true father to return. Every morning, he would look out from behind the jalousies of his window for a sign of the soldier. He learned how to drown disappointment with hope.
One day, he asked his mother if she was happy. Her mouth tried to form words but failed, and she began to cry instead. The boy decided then that one day he would find a way to make his mother, the only woman he loved in the world, happy.
The night that his mother told them they were leaving the apartment forever, the boy questioned her decision. She told him that she had become hollow, that she had nothing left for the owner of the apartment, that sometimes people were replaced without their knowing by someone younger, prettier or more desperate. She showed her son all the money she had been secreting away, and told him that she would buy them all the tomorrows she could afford. He started to tell her about his fantasy, of his true father returning to save them, but stopped himself when he realized how brittle her heart had become. And so they left in the dead of the night, carrying a suitcase of clothes and a photographer’s satchel filled with money.
He wondered exactly how much each tomorrow would cost, and how long their ability to buy days would last.
This is the story my mother told me, when I kept the company of friends she disapproved of:
Once there was an ungrateful boy who was as selfish as his father was absent. He took for granted all the sacrifices his loving mother endured for his sake. She tried her best to teach him how to be good but the malign influence of his father’s blood was too strong, even for a woman of her virtue.
With each day that passed, the boy began to transform into someone else. First, coarse dark hair erupted all over his body, then his hands grew larger, followed by his feet. When his bones began to stretch, the selfish child howled in pain, causing his mother to weep in helplessness. His mother begged him to look at himself in the mirror, hoping that he could stop what she could not. But he did not listen to her.
And that is how, little by little, she began to die, watching her son become a replica of his father.
This is the story I told my wife, when she asked why we didn’t visit my mother:
Once there was a boy who believed in every word his mother said. She was all she had because his father left them for another life in a foreign country. He yearned for his father to return but she told him he never would. Every time she’d speak of the man, an unwelcome stench would permeate the room and make the boy grow dizzy and sad.
It was only years later, when he became a man, that he realized that the terrible smell issued from his mother’s mouth, and that all her words were poison. This was because each utterance originated from her shriveled heart, which could only produce bilious vapors.
This is the story my father told me, when he came to my mother’s funeral:
Once, there was a man and woman who married each other for different reasons. They had a difficult marriage, marred by miscarriages, misunderstandings and misaligned sexual appetites. When they finally had a son who survived pregnancy, he thought it would bring them closer and heal the great rift between them. Instead, the child served to further draw them apart. The man resented the child who had effectively taken his place in his wife’s heart. He ran to his own mother, who proceeded to rain contempt on his wife.
When an opportunity to join the American military presented itself, through the reward of US citizenship for his own father having fought for them in World War II, the man embraced it. He planned one day to reclaim his son, and thought of him every day in every country he was stationed in. Even when he remarried and sired three sons, he imagined that one day he would petition for the first child he had left decades ago. He kept the dream alive, even as his own children grew up and had children of their own.
One day, the man became an old sick man, and his American wife left him for another man. His grown sons and daughters-in-law kindly offered to pay for a nursing home but he refused, filled with sorrow at the culture that wanted to discard him because it was done with him.
He flew back to the country of his birth and tracked down his first wife. He planned to forgive her and to ask forgiveness in return, but of greater concern was the boy whom he knew was now a man.
He did not recognize the woman he had abandoned, when he finally found her. She was old and tired and grey. She took one look at him and told him to go away, to remain consistent in his absence because he was a ghost, and ghosts had no place in real life. He asked about his son. She told him the boy had died. He told her he knew she was lying to hurt him, and to protect her son from his return. She asked him what he wanted, what he expected after all this time, unleashing the torrent of sharp words and curses she had kept sealed within her for many years. She told him of her hardships, hinting at the things she had needed to do, to become, to survive. He waited for all her words to subside before telling her he wanted to make amends. She laughed and told him with finality to leave.
He did find his son, despite her efforts to keep him in the dark. He wrote a brief note and passed it to the receptionist where his son worked, asking to meet at a nearby restaurant.
He sat at an empty table and waited and waited until at last, at the end of office hours, a man walked into the restaurant who looked like he had when he was younger. He raised his hand and beckoned the man to join him. His son stood, refusing to sit down, so the man stood up as well. He told him who he was, and his son simply nodded. He began to tell a story, but the younger man stopped him with an embrace. And in that moment, it was enough.
This is the story I tell my children, when we visit each of my parents’ graves:
Once, a man loved a woman and a woman loved a man. They had a little boy whom they both loved more than anything in the world.
The man had to leave but promised he would return. The woman became, for a time, both mother and father to the boy. The boy loved her very much.
One day, after a long time, the man returned.
Then the boy was happy.