By Mona LaVigne © 2003
I had sold the ring. The answers to my prayers was the cash in hand. I had not eaten in three days, and I had finally given in. Bartholomew would have killed me if he’d known that I’d profited from his grandmother’s diamond, but fuck it. I kept telling myself that if he really wanted it, he would have cut off that finger, too.
I sat in the Blue Star Diner, dunking cheese-coated french fries in congealed brown gravy with my left hand. As I sipped the Tab from the glass, I glanced at my right hand. The bandage was crusted with blood, dried, brown, and flaky. Stupid Bart. I’m a lefty, you idiot! Cutting off my right thumb was of little or no consequence. I had tucked my left hand, bearing Bart’s grandmother’s diamond ring, into my pocket as I slept in the Shelter. This left me with strict contemplation of my right hand, thoughtfully recalling the way my husband had methodically cut through skin, muscle, bone, muscle, and skin again to remove my opposable digit. The pain had been unbearable at first, but I soon learned Battered Women’s Shelter Etiquette, which dictates that for cigarettes, one can get just about anything. Pharmies are everywhere, and five cigarettes for three unmarked, unnamed painkillers seemed a fair trade. The first night, I slept like a baby. A baby, that is, with a two-carat diamond on her finger, surrounded by thieves.
The nights at the Women’s Shelter were the easy part. The days were tougher. You can’t trust anyone in these non-profit places, they all want something, even the people who work there. I was one of the only women there without a child. That made sense to me. If you don’t have to worry about potentially losing your baby to the government, why would you leave an abusive husband in an otherwise cushy situation?
During my second day at the Shelter, I met Carlita. She was a young Puerto Rican woman with a three-year old son who never left her side. I was washing my face in the large, impersonal bathroom, when she approached me.
“Where’s your child?” I felt her voice wrap around me in a strange accusation.
“I don’t have one.”
“What the fuck you doin’ here, then?”
I did a half-assed rinsing job of my cheeks and chin, and turned to face her. She was taller than I, her hair twisted back into a loose, black bun. She was at the Shelter when I arrived, and I saw her when I came in, sitting on a bench, carefully applying bright streaks of hot pink blush to her dark, bony cheeks. Her son had been sitting next to her, singing to himself. When I smiled at him, she had noticed, and said something in Spanish. Something not so nice, I imagined.
“My husband cut my thumb off.”
I had watched Carlita giving me dirty looks the day before, as I’d sat in any clean place I could find, smoking.
The next morning, when I told her what Bart had done, she seemed amazed.
“No shit? Can I see?”
Leaning against the sink, I held up my bandaged right hand. She touched my other fingers very gently, and looked at the bandage job as though it were a rare and beautiful Conch shell.
“Damn, mami. That’s fucked up.”
I nodded, but before I could say anything, Carlita’s son came running into the bathroom. Wearing only a shirt, his little boy penis was flailing. He stood between his mother’s legs and stared up at me with a gappy grin. he hid his eyes behind Carlita’s leg and peeked out at me, giggling frantically.
“Danilo don’t like nobody, but it looks like he likes you. I’m Carlita.”
“Amelia,” I replied, extending my left hand to shake hers. Carlita noticed the ring before I could pull away.
“Holy SHIT!” she exclaimed, and a few women in the bathroom turned around. I yanked my hand out of her grip and shoved it in my pocket. It seemed that everyone in the room was watching me, including Carlita. I began to panic. Grabbing some paper towels, I turned from my new friend and quickly walked outside. I was only a block or two away when I heard,
“Amy! Amy! Amy, wait girl!”
I turned around and saw Carlita running towards me, holding her son in one arm, while pulling his little pants up with the other. I was scared, and I sped up my pace. When I got to the corner, the cars were moving, and I hesitated long enough for Carlita to catch up with me.
“Amy,” she said, panting.
“Amelia, look, girl, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out.”
I glanced from Carlita to the streetlight, and as soon as the latter read “Walk,” I started to cross the street. Carlita grabbed my arm and yanked me back to the sidewalk. I could have pulled away and made it across to the other side. But I looked at her, and something about her eyes entreated me to stay.
“Look, I ain’t gonna steal your ring. There are a lot of bitches in that place,” she pointed over her shoulder, “who would. But I ain’t one of ‘em.”
“What happened to you?” I asked, freeing my elbow from her grasp.
She shrugged, shifting Danilo from one arm to the other. “Enrique likes to slap me around. I’ve been in and out of that Shelter for months now, stayin’ there for days at a time, goin’ home, comin’ back, goin’ home again. A couple of days ago, Enrique held a kitchen knife to my throat and called me a ‘stupid whore.’ So, I left again.”
She paused and stared at the city skyline. “Hands and fists are one thing. But when you start pullin’ knives an’ shit, you ain’t gonna see your son no more, you feel me?”
I nodded. Even though Bart and I never had any children in five years of marriage, I could understand what Carlita meant. I, too, had been a victim of slaps and punches. I had even been pregnant once. I had wanted to keep the baby, but Bart wanted me to have an abortion. When I refused, he punched me in the stomach. I miscarried two days later.
“Why your man chop off your finger?”
I looked at my stump. “I didn’t want to give him a handjob, and he got pissed, so…”
This was a lie, but Carlita laughed anyway.
“Come on, girl. Let’s go back to the Shelter. I gotta grab some more free diapers for my little papi.”
I reluctantly followed her back up the street. I had only been gone for five, maybe ten minutes, but there was already a pretty good chance that my small bag of a few clothes and underwear was already gone.
I went to the cot where I’d been sleeping, and sure enough, no bag. I sat on the edge of the thin, frail mattress, and tried not to cry. My efforts were in vain, however, and the tears began to stream down my cheeks in silent sobs.
“Your stuff gone?”
I looked up, and a woman was standing over me, her hands on her hips. I nodded slowly. She shook her head.
“Yep, that’s why they all go back. Stuff gets stolen, gotta go home, man is there, the cycle starts again.”
I ran my hands through my hair and sighed. There was no way I was ever going back to that apartment, to Bartholomew, to his stupid football fanaticism, to his foolish material possessions, all of which he loved better than he loved me.
“Is that your real hair color?” the woman before me asked. She was still standing with her hands on her hips, staring at my blonde hair the same way Carlita had stared at my ring.
“It’s really beautiful,” she said before I could answer her, and sat down next to me on the cot. She placed a cold hand on my leg, and I looked at it. A chill swept through me.
“How long you been here?”
“Two days,” I groaned, not quite believing it. I had been so eager to get out of the apartment, that I had just thrown some shit in a bag (now stolen!) and ran out the door. I had gone to the hospital, had them bandage my hand, and had asked one of the nurses where the nearest Women’s Shelter was. That seemed like weeks ago, but it hadn’t even been 24 hours. The hand of the woman sitting next to me was slowly creeping up my thigh. I looked at her.
“It doesn’t take long to get lonely, you know,” she said, her bloodshot eyes glistening. I snapped into reality.
“What the fuck?” I yelled, and at that moment, Carlita appeared out of nowhere.
“Fay, you get off that girl before I have Danilo shit on your face again.”
“Whore,” Fay whispered, as she stood and walked past Carlita. She glanced back at me. “Now you know my name, if you need me,” and she winked. Carlita sat in the dent on the cot that had been made by Fay’s ass. Her son sat on her lap and pulled at the loose hairs hanging out of his mother’s bun.
“You ever been to jail?” she asked me. I shook my head no. Carlita ran her finger slowly over Danilo’s ear. “Thank Jesus for that, Amelia.” She suddenly became very serious. “Jail is a fuckin’ ugly-ass place. And there are women like that everywhere. ‘Cept in jail, you can’t go no place. You’re fuckin’ stuck."
Danilo began to cry. Carlita pulled up one side of her shirt and held her left breast out to her son. He began to suckle, and Carlita winced.
“You still breast feed him?” I asked, staring shamelessly at her enormous tits. She squeezed her breast and sucked air in through her teeth in pain.
“Well, at home he eats normal. But here, I ain’t gonna give this slop to my little papi. No way, man.”
“Do you even have any milk?”
She looked down at Danilo, who was sucking frantically and staring up at her with tear-filled, pleading eyes. She shook her head. “Not really.”
“Well, that’s no good, Carlita.”
She stared at me and laughed in a shocking burst that made me jump. “You got a better idea, mami?”
I pried Danilo off of his mother’s breast and held him while he wailed. “Come on,” I said.
“Come on where?”
I stood up and started walking to the door. “Grab your shit and let’s go.”
She had to follow me. I had her only prized possession.
Mona LaVigne is a writer from NYC.