After I escaped from my husband I found this place on a street with no name. Luigi the landlord calls it his street. He plays village headman, doling out advice and anisette from his kitchen with shrewdness and devotion. Luigi was suspicious at first when I showed up on a snowy night with the baby and two suitcases, but when I pulled out the cash he veiled his eyes and chucked the baby under the chin, asked his wife to lend us blankets and helped me get the wall heater going.
Luigi’s place is a renovated whorehouse cut into twelve distorted apartments. Mine has two bedrooms with high-riding beds and no partition between them, a narrow living room lined with chairs like a dentist’s waiting room; a tiny kitchen with a plastic-top dinette set, an electric stove and a refrigerator. The house is bordered on one side by a neocolonial motel, on the other by a frozen lake with summer cabins, deserted now, dotting the shore. This is the coldest spot for miles. Across the narrow street is a drive-in movie, closed for the winter. The wind howls across the bare plain, rattles against the deteriorating movie screen and then whips around the corner of the house.
I measure my state of mind against that eerie, screaming wind. Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, whoosh. Baby crying, fix bottle, mash banana, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dumn, whoosh.
The first morning here, I went out and scooped up a bowl of snow, brought it inside and ate it with sugar and evaporated milk for breakfast. It slid coolly over my shrieking nerves. The baby crowed in his improvised high chair, and I poured a little on his morning cereal. We laughed together and I let myself relax a bit.
I had escaped. Laid the plans all alone, hidden away the things we would need, one by one, in my lingerie drawers; prepared one last complicated Thanksgiving dinner for the in-laws, topped off with sherry and six varieties of cookies, all his family’s recipes, served before the fireplace. Sid’s mother had smiled at me over her second sherry, and as she left with his father she took me aside. “My dear, you haven’t looked so well in months. You seem to be doing so much better.” Mistaking my sparkling eyes for good will, missing the core of my mood. And all the while I was thinking, This will be the last damn Thanksgiving dinner they’ll get out of me, the very last. And I was laughing inside.
Luigi stopped me in the parking lot for a long talk that first morning after I moved in. I had the sense he was checking me out more thoroughly than he’d been able to do the night before. I got a good look at him, too. He is five six and wiry, and wore old jeans, a red stocking cap, a parka. He told me he was raised in a tiny village near Naples. He said he remembered Mussolini coming to his village when he was a young boy. He left after the war, moving first to Montreal, where he learned French and apprenticed with a master carpenter, then to New York, where he learned Spanish and bought up a couple of old buildings on the Upper West Side to renovate. Now he was retired on that profit, but bored, so he continued to buy and renovate buildings.
No one would take Luigi for a real estate mogul. He looks more like a workman. He told me with pride that he had just finished renovating my apartment, all by himself. He knew how to do everything–plumbing, electrical wiring, sanding, installing appliances.
“You should see this in the summertime,” he said. He pointed behind the building to the lake and the garden, where I could see a trellis trailing icy thorns. He told me he grows grapes in the summer, and makes wine in the fall. He wanted to know how long I was going to stay.
I didn’t know what to tell him.
Most of the people around here work in a reconstructed colonial village across the highway and down. They wear long linsey-woolsey skirts and six-button trousers and work at obsolete crafts: making pewter, blacksmithing, tinsmithing, spinning thread, weaving by hand, baking beans in brick ovens or stirring stews over the fire in two-hundred-year-old houses. I think of them as the colonials. They move back into the twenty-first century gingerly each night, slipping back like shades of the past, and quietly await the next morning. Some of them have lived this way thirty years or more; they know little of the outside world.
This is a hiding-out, deserted place–no mail delivery, no sidewalks, no garbage collection or maintenance. You can’t even see the house from the highway. Luigi told me that the man in the apartment next to mine is in the witness protection program, hiding from someone vile. Luigi implied it might be a Colombian drug gang he’d gotten mixed up with. The man sits behind closed Venetian blinds with a loaded rifle, ready to protect himself if one of them comes after him. Sometimes I hear him pacing, or hear his door slam in the middle of the night, but I have never seen him.
Yesterday, with a light snow, the fear was weaker, and I thought we might be safe but at dawn my husband broke in the front door while I was sleeping and took a butcher knife to my back, slicing all the way down my spine neatly, exposing the layers of pearly vertebrae, and hauled me out into the snow, trailing red across the frozen lake. All morning my fear kept me from sleeping off the memory of the dream.
Later, as I was drawing a bath for the baby, a gush of dark reddish-brown from the faucet erupted like old blood and stained the water. Even forewarned by Luigi that the pipes were rusty, I was startled, disgusted.
But I feel free inside this place. I have a radio, my Monet lily pond coffee mug from home, the baby and deadly quiet. Surely he can’t find me here.
Last night the cards told a story of sudden misfortune, calamity and quarrels, but foretold happiness and peace, with The Star in the future position. I looked a long time at the image of lightning striking The Tower. This was happening now. I was falling, my universe turned upside down. There also was a warning: someone is going to steal something from you and you will never get it back.
But I am immune to all that. I have lived with my misfortune for years. I know it well. I am careful where I go, and by what route.
I shop for food at a supermarket nearby. It’s called the Big Bunny. I wrap us up in heavy coats, mufflers, boots, even furry red ear muffs, before we venture out. When we drive past the giant bunny holding the week’s specials–CARR TS, 2 BCHS $1.39 CHUCK STEAK $3.19 LB–between its gaudy paws, I choke with laughter. Furry big bunny, I point out to the baby, and he laughs with delight. His laughter is young pealing; mine hurts my ears like the icy air. There is an edge to my voice that brings back our worst fights.
Today it is warmer-close to twenty degrees, the radio says, so I finally take the baby out to walk on the lake. Or around the lake. I am afraid to walk on it at first. I can’t believe it can hold my weight. And I feel so responsible for the baby. THIN ICE MOTHER AND CHILD DROWN. It would be my fault if anything happened to him.
Then I notice Luigi has a bonfire going right in the center of the lake, and men are standing quite safely around it. A lake freezes at the edges first, where it is shallow, and the center, the core, is the last to give in to the cold. I calculate potential depth, days of sub-freezing temperatures, the heat of the bonfire, and convince myself it must be frozen solid enough to be safe.
So we step off the shore and onto the lake itself. I hold my breath at first, not trusting. But it supports me, and I let the baby toddle after. My boots make a peculiar rasping sound. I want it to be beautiful–the snow, bare trees, and people bundled up in red and blue and green. I show the baby the tiny bird tracks in the snow and he coos and chuckles, but I am too cold to enjoy it. My feet feel like blocks of ice. I am grounded in utter chill, my hands are stiff and painful.
I talk to the baby in a low, soothing voice, proud of myself that the fear doesn’t leak through. It is like a recording, a calm, rational voice. I tell the baby how water freezes into ice in the winter, how in the summertime the lake must be lovely; if we stay until then we can picnic by the side of the lake but we won’t be able to walk onto it. He doesn’t understand much, but water is one of his words, and he seems to like the talking better than silence. I try, but I can’t imagine the lake in warm weather. I can’t visualize spring or summer here. It seems cold forever, the cold is so overwhelming. And I can’t imagine myself in six months. Where will I be? What will I be doing? I can’t stay here, frozen in time, but it is the only place I feel safe at the moment.
I tell the baby about ice skating. That when he is older he might learn how. Then I realize that is absurd, we won’t be here when he’s old enough to ice skate. Surely we won’t. I tell him how my mother used to make us cocoa and peanut butter crackers in the winter and then I flinch at how normal that as, growing up in a family with brothers and sisters and a mother at home when you came from school, waiting for you with peanut butter crackers and cocoa. And he won’t have that. Surely by what I’ve done I have denied him that normalcy.
But he is oblivious, scraping up snow with his mittened hands, a little square padded creature trailing footprints across a frozen lake, red muffler covering his face, falling down and laughing, struggling against the bulk of his leggings and parka to get back on his feet. For some reason he seems far away from me, like he isn’t mine. I feel responsible for him, and guilty, and I believe that he is beautiful and loveable, but that he has nothing to do with me, really.
I don’t remember when that started, that distance. But I take good care of him. I swing him around in the air to make him giggle, and take him back inside because his mittens and bottom are wet, and strip him down and give him a hot bath because I know it will feel good, and feed him cocoa and peanut butter crackers and put him down for a nap under several blankets and kiss him sweetly on his chubby cheeks. But I’m somewhere else while I do it. It isn’t the same as it was when we were all together.
I have a phantom lover who comes to me each night, creeping into my tall bed after the baby is asleep. He wears different faces and has a sure intimate knowledge of each inch of my body that is capable of pleasure. I call out his name in my sleep, but I can never remember it in the morning. I think of putting a pad and pencil by my bedside to write it down, like I used to write down my dreams, but decide I don’t really want to know. And these days my sleep is too precious to interrupt.
There was a knock on the door this morning. I shushed the baby and pulled aside the blinds to see who it might be. No one had ever come to my place before.
It was Luigi. I didn’t owe him rent again for another two weeks. When I opened the door, he presented me with a paper plate brimming over with cookies still warm from the oven.
“My wife made these,” he said. He stepped inside and looked around, as if to inspect the place. I hadn’t washed the breakfast dishes yet. He was waiting for something.
“Thank you,” I said.
“When you finish, return the plate,” he said. “I need to take some next door.”
The baby has been sick. He woke in the night screaming with pain, rubbing his ear with tiny knotted hands, burning me when I touched him. I called every doctor in town but not one would come here on a sub-zero night and I refused to drive a sick baby twenty miles to the nearest hospital in a car with a broken heater, so I accepted the last doctor’s refusal, forcing myself to be civil, and took down his instructions for bringing down the fever: 104, 103, 102, a degree at a time. I coaxed the baby to take a tiny piece of baby aspirin in apple juice, then I took his feeble flushed body into the bathtub and sponged him with lukewarm water. I found myself sobbing, remembering his birth. And now he was limp as a stuffed doll, so frail. His eyes had withdrawn to another place; they were glazed, delirious. Finally he slept, still whimpering off and on, and I sat up the rest of the night drinking tea and wondering why we can never really feel another’s pain, and crying for all of us alone. And feeling helpless.
That is my favorite word, right now. Helpless. Helpless to keep my baby from feeling pain, helpless to fix my life, or start a new life, to do the things I have to do. I don’t have a family I could go to and admit defeat finally and be comforted. No friends here. And I’m afraid to approach people–afraid that in the middle of a casual conversation a seam will split and inadvertently, uncontrollably, I’ll spill out my miseries in a rage that won’t stop and they will have me locked up. Afraid it will all show in my eyes–the sick, self-indulgent excesses, the failures, the hidden weakness.
There are lines on my face I didn’t have six months ago. In the mirror my eyes look bruised, demented. I smile at myself, testing for normalcy, but I can see it all behind my eyes, like maggots under a rock, all the ugliness and shame. He said I was sick. Hysterical. Maybe I am. I am a master of self-delusion. For ten years I told myself I had a good marriage. I would not allow myself to fail at anything.
I sit here at the table trying to remember. I know I am terrified, so afraid inside, but I cannot remember the horrible fights, the unforgivable things we said to each other. They have been burned out of me. Too shocking? I don’t have the courage to face them? I don’t seem to have control over my memory. Sometimes I try very hard–I set the scene, what I was wearing, where he was standing, where we were going that day, what I fed the baby for breakfast. I can remember it all. But not the subject matter of the argument or the thrust of our words. Meaningless curses and threats going nowhere. I can see his back stiffening, and hear the tone of my voice, how shrill and out of control it was, but I can’t remember what I meant. Or why.
I think if I could remember I wouldn’t feel so afraid, so helpless. It seems important to figure it out so I can start something new for myself, facing being alone. But my mind races in circles and ends up always at the same point. I have left and I am alone and I don’t understand why it was so horrible, but I couldn’t bear being in the same house with him anymore and there must be something terribly wrong with me. Not necessarily in that order. And I hate myself for allowing it to go wrong, and I hate him for not trying to figure it out and fix it. I can’t believe it couldn’t be fixed, with effort. Why couldn’t we fix it?
That’s not fair. We could have, but I couldn’t do it alone, and he blamed me for everything. I can feel it now, that urge I had to annihilate, that overwhelming hatred for him. I can remember the feeling if not the context. He would say something–never mind what–the details are not important. To me it would mean, You are worthless, you are ruining everything, there is something wrong with you and I am blameless, a victim of your vicious moods. And I would see red. One time I picked up a chair and would have broken it over his head if he had not stepped aside, horrified. I remember feeling a great sense of release in that physical gesture. The strength in my arms as I lifted the chair, swung it over my head and toward him; the jarring thud as I brought it down on the floor, hard. The fear in his face. My power. And the terrible–no, excruciating–guilt I felt when I realized what I had almost done. That I could have injured him badly, and the anger had been so powerful that it had short-circuited my judgment. I could not see the consequences of the action at the time; it was impulsive, irrational. He said that. Irrational. Dangerous. And he said he didn’t know if he could trust me with the baby when I was capable of violence like that. He used every lever he could to dig it into me–his moral indignation. How could I stay with him?
But I didn’t see that for years. So how can I know if I am not deluding myself again now? I just can’t figure it out. And I can’t seem to calm down. Any sudden car sound, bang on the wall or grotesque vision sends a jolt of panic through me. I stay alert, waiting for the day my husband comes to try to take the baby away.
The baby has a new word: “Clock clock clock,”he says, clicking his tongue with delight. I repeat after him, loving the feel of the word in my mouth.
It is snowing again. Maybe it will warm up. For days it has been so cold, it could only spit ice crystals. I sit at the window, watching the birds dip down to pick up crumbs around the garbage cans before they are encased in ice. If I listen carefully, I can hear Luigi outside, giving his remedies for heartburn, frozen carburetors and rust in the pipes. I can imagine his healthy eyes sparkling at the challenge of each new problem and narrowing in judgment of each new member of his court, and somehow that makes me feel I might be safe here for awhile.
“Hiding Out” first appeared in The North American Review.