At twelve years old, after I had started menstruating, mother warned me never to be alone with men. I needed to hide my body. She was ashamed of both my body and hers.
But when she talked about marriage and connection, I thought there might be more than this—more than the burden, sorrow, and regret she talked about. Perhaps the female body was hallowed. Women’s bodies were sacred—covered with a text only their husbands could read.
The women in our family got one chance at marriage. Happiness didn’t matter. Self-worth didn’t matter. Validation didn’t matter. What mattered was that only their husbands shared the written word of their body. If marriages failed, our women spent their lives alone. They stayed on the shelf, dusty and unread.
In 1994, my maternal grandmother cooked in the hazy light of morning in Mexico. Every other day, she dragged out her tortilla table. She poured flour into a plastic bowl. She scooped in lard and salt, then water. She squeezed the lard and flour between her palms, working silently this way until she had a round mass. She began the rhythm of making tortillas. Her rolling pin knocked on the table and scraped the tortillas thin.
The flour powdered her in white. Her arms were marked with burns and injuries both current and from years past. Her veins were a stark purple, visible between other spots of color. The landscape of her flesh was a mix of her own pink skin, angry red burns, and brown age spots.
She lived in a house-full of people but she was alone. She played her part as the matriarch, mother, and wife. She made those tortillas. Even after not speaking to her husband for 20 years, she made sure he ate.
Grandfather lived in a separate home across the small patio from the main house. They’d had eight children together. Three had died as babies. Their mutual experiences bound them. Their bodies had been intimately connected. But now, they couldn’t even lock eyes.
I didn’t have to wonder how alone that felt. I knew, but I also understood that loneliness comes in many flavors. I wondered how her loneliness compared to mine.
“No seas tonta. Nunca sabes quien te va tocar,” my tia Lupe started saying to me when I was 14 years old.
This mantra bound us. Her words rang like a beat in my bones while I was married, like the kind of buzzing that vibrated my body after it slammed up against a wall. My shoulders hit first then the back of my head bounced, cracking the plaster. The buzzing continued until the adrenalin kicked in. The pain would come later after the fear caught up. But at that moment, I wrapped my arms around my pregnant belly and tried to curl into a tight ball—to make myself small.
My husband yelled, “Look what you are making me do!”
In 1994, I was twenty-one and divorced for the first time.
In the years that span the life my grandmother spent with my grandfather, she loved him. He expected his steady presence to be enough. But she wanted him to be devoted. She wanted him to work hard for her and for the family. She wanted his love to cost him as much as it had cost her.
And when my mother was four years old, my grandmother left to the United States and worked in a factory. My grandfather couldn’t or wouldn’t work, and she wouldn’t let the family starve. In the United States, she must have felt alone. That loneliness must have been the massive weight that curved her spine with osteoporosis.
Tocar is a funny word. In Spanish, it means “to touch,” but it also means to play, to finger. It refers to contact and, depending on how you use it, it has implications of both sensuality and violence. When the women in my family wondered “quien te va tocar,” they wondered who I would end up with. In marriage, I hoped it meant more than that. I hoped it meant “Who will touch you?” Who will move you? Who will make you sing?
I hoped that marriage would provide intimacy and connection—that when my husband touched me, it would be with love. I wondered whether the women in my family had wanted the same for themselves.
What I didn’t know is that marriage is a long-term commitment that takes more than touch. I thought it had a lot to do with luck, with chance, with what you deserved. I thought that good women deserved and got good men.
But our women chose poor life partners. My mom was unhappily married to my father. My tia Frencis was a single mother who never married. My tia Lupe was married to a horribly violent person. Her mom, my tia Belia was alone. She’d been married to a man who had beat her for twenty years.
The immediacy and temperature of love made it difficult for our women to see who their men might become in ten or twenty years. Or our women lacked imagination. Perhaps they had not heard the narratives around them that taught the grueling pace of love, the burnout. Perhaps also believing in the sanctity of the female body, they thought they were beyond logic and common sense. This belief in sanctity brought them closer to god. This belief made them think that god might treat them well. That if they followed god, they might have a better life.
“No seas tonta. Nunca sabes quien te va tocar,” my tia Lupe said to me when I was 15 years old.
“¿Porque te casaste?” I said.
“Por mensa. Le creí lo que me dijo. Los hombres dicen cosas bonitas,” she said.
Was the chemistry fickle or the dedication? Or were men truly filled with lies? When did god just leave you alone to deal with this? Or was god a man too?
I saw my grandmother eight months after my first divorce while visiting in Mexico.
“That marriage didn’t count,” she said, “He wasn’t even Catholic.”
I held her arm as we walked towards the back entrance of her house. She said this to me quietly. The other women in the family walked behind us. In line, or arm in arm, the way they were supposed to, hanging on to the rules our matriarch, my grandmother, had instilled in them.
She loved me, and I knew she was trying to expand the rules for me. The rest of the women were alone. They worked difficult jobs and came home to their children. If they were privileged to have a husband, they might not have to work. But the others worked themselves raw. They tiptoed around grandmother, trying not to let her in on separations or divorces. Why did I deserve any different?
My grandmother passed away when my son was four. I broke down with grief. No one loved me the way that she did. No one would love me like that again.
I also remember the loneliness of never being touched. I remember the loneliness of not being able to touch my son, who had special needs and didn’t like the sensation of other people’s hands on him. But more than anything, I remember the lack of connection with anyone.
I wondered how our women had done this. Did they all feel as alone as I felt? I wanted big things, but I also just needed to not feel alone in the decisions I was making for my son. I was making medical and school decisions and I wasn’t even sure if they were right. I didn’t feel like I was enough for him. Every decision I made, I made with the false certainty and courage of youth.
“Uno nunca sabe quien te va tocar,” my tia Lupe said to me.
By the time grandmother died, Lupe had full blown schizophrenia and was making up stories about people breaking into her room to harvest her eggs. She said she had a daughter who’d been born to another couple about three years ago. A year later, she committed suicide and I was left even more alone with her words.
My second marriage was even more violent. I remarried in 1999. He was a wrestling coach for high school students. He trained young men to use their bodies to conquer others
Those moments when he let loose his skillset on me weren’t nearly as scary as the other times when he overdosed on alcohol.
There was another time when he was so drunk and upset, he caught my body from behind. He wrapped his arms around me tight. One arm wrapped around my waist. The other one, the one holding the chef’s knife, wrapped around my neck.
“I love you. I love you. I love you,” he said.
“I know,” I sobbed.
“I love you. I love you.”
“How about we get into bed? You look like you need rest,” I said.
Blood was puddling on the carpet, though I can’t remember if it was his or mine. My skin doesn’t remember and my mind refuses to recall.
“Okay,” he said, “Are you coming, too?”
“And you won’t call the police?”
“No, of course not,” I said, “We are going to sleep, right? We can think more clearly in the morning and talk.”
“Okay,” he said.
I walked him down the long hallway that led to our bedroom. There was a large vomit stain on the carpet where he had almost died some months ago. I settled him, then crawled into bed.
“I need to use the bathroom,” I said, after I had pulled the covers up.
I crept out and into the bathroom. I remember that long walk down the hallway and how the floor was cold against the pads of my feet. I held myself tight and walked slowly, so he wouldn’t suspect anything. I locked myself in. He had destroyed the house phone when he had thrown it against the wall. Now I looked for the cellphone I had hidden. The floor was splattered in blood. I sat on the toilet and called the police.
I can tell other stories about that time, but what is most vivid in my mind isn’t the body pain. I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is the slightness of my body as I trembled down that hall. My body remembers that. Not only on that night but on all those previous nights, when I tried not to sob as I realized I was terrified of the person I had to lie next to and whom I called husband.
“Quien te va tocar” Lupe wondered. Well, it wasn’t about luck. It was about me and all the fucked up ways I had learned how to hurt my body. The touch I had given myself had never been kind. And I expected the same from my husband. I reenacted again and again what I had been taught. And no one I knew had kind relationships with their partners.
I got divorced again.
There is hope stored in the body, just like there is pain that hides within the creases of my wrinkles or folds of my body. It doesn’t matter if I can remember or not. My body remembers.
On a road trip with my husband of thirteen years, I take out my knitting.
“I don’t know how to start this. I don’t remember,” I say.
“Maybe once you start?”
His hands remain at the steering wheel. But his voice caresses me. I take in his words. His words settle on my flesh. I stop thinking and feel instead.
My hands remember what the mind won’t. If there is something I have learned from abuse it’s that the mind and body are not one. In times of crisis, they float away from one another like water droplets in the car windows. They come from the same rain, but they split, each taking its own path.
My skin remembers scraping and rhythm. As I start to move, my hands know what to do. Soon, I have started casting on. After that, my fingers know what to do. I breathe in and breathe out.
“My hands remembered,” I tell my husband.
“Yeah, that can happen,” he says.
“My brain didn’t remember. My hands did.”
He squeezes my hand gently. I’m in wonder for a bit. I revel in that wonder of touching that has been so meaningful in my life. My hands continue to knit. My logic kicks in and I think about all the times knitting has felt like a strand of beads getting counted through a mantra of hope. My fingers touch each strand and with each loop and release, my tension gives way. This kind of touching is as close to prayer as I ever get.