"Restraining Order" by Marianne Villanueva

I always knew you thought I was crazy.  I imagined the way you probably talked to your friends about me, telling everyone how I cut her pictures out of our photo albums when—how could I not?—she had nearly destroyed me, us, any possible future.  And she was in so many pictures, huddled there with her face pressed against your shoulder, her arm around our only child.

Throughout all this, I couldn’t help marveling at your lack of concern, your utter indifference to my feelings.

So now our albums and scrapbooks have only photos with jagged edges.  You and I and sometimes our son are smiling, but it’s always what’s not in the picture that people wonder about.  There’s the outline of a shape, for one thing, her shape.  You can see from the outline how trim she was, how slender her hips.  So this shape that I tried to make sure no one can see, is there all the same—an outline, a negative presence.

And, in all the pictures, she was standing so close that I had to cut out part of our son’s shoulder in so many of them, or part of your cheek.  It angers me to see that the evidence was all there in the pictures.  I mean, her growing closeness:  the hand on your arm, the leaning in toward our son.  But, at the time, I didn’t know how to read them correctly.  I thought only of how happy we were, how blessed our life.

After I had removed her from our albums, I looked at the pictures again.  But this time, you and even our son looked different.  There was a new expression on your face.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but it was there.  The jagged edges at your shoulder seemed to imply some physical hurt.  You looked querulous or unhappy.  Your fingers, with which you used to grip our son’s shoulders, looked grasping, like claws.

I saw that we were not complete, and perhaps never would be.  After that, I couldn’t look anymore; I had to close the album.  I thought of throwing everything in a dumpster.  What was left?  A part of us, a part of you, will always be missing.

Once I saw what I had done, I regretted cutting up the pictures but it was too late.  I tried filling in the edges of the places I’d cut with stenciled words:  Carmel, Summer 2004.  Or Christmas Holidays, 2005.  But each time I worked on a page, I felt I was being caught out in a lie.

Yes, your face just never looked right, even when partially covered up by words.  You looked—diminished, somehow.  Even frightened.  As if old age was coming straight at you and you were looking at it down a long dark tunnel.
*****

I only decided to file the temporary restraining order last week.  The lady who answered the phone put me through to an Officer Smart (Is that a real name?) Officer Smart told me I had to come to the station and write a formal statement, so I went.

I must admit, it was harder than I expected it to be.  Officer Smart had me sit at a table in a room by myself, and he asked me if I wanted a glass of water.  I nodded, and he came back with the glass and left without closing the door all the way.  I sat and looked at the wall.  I picked up the pencil he left for me and pulled the yellow ruled pad closer.  For a moment, I felt like forgetting the whole thing and walking out.  Because in writing about her, I’m also writing about you, and by extension our marriage, which—I hate to admit it, but this is the truth—was over perhaps 13 years ago.  If I hadn’t been so busy with the Mother’s Club, and hadn’t convinced myself that I was living a normal life, I would have known this.  Instead, we just went limping along, limping along.  I think our son knew before we did.  When he was eight — I never told you this – he looked at me and said, in that calm way of his, “Mom, Dad doesn’t love you anymore.”

After I signed the restraining order, which Officer Smart bore away with what (I thought) was a look of marked contempt on his face, I went and did the groceries and attended the last Mothers Club meeting I would ever attend.  All the women were yapping about their Botox.  Their faces were tanned and smooth, but they didn’t look healthy.  The streaks in their hair made them look hard.  And I saw for the first time the way they looked at me, the way they all avoided looking at me directly, but had to tilt their heads sideways, as if needing to see me from the side.  I kept thinking and thinking of how you left for work each day, in that glass building across the Bay.  In the early mornings, while I still had some of your attention, I’d complain about this or that parent, how enraged I was at her refusal to speak to me, even if we were seated directly across from each other at meetings.  You would nod, as if you understood.  Now I see that you weren’t listening at all, that your body was present but your mind was already looking forward, to the time when you would leave the house (with a sigh of relief?  Is this beginning to sound too much like a cliché?) and see different faces, one of them hers.

It wasn’t my fault the insemination didn’t work the second time.  I tried and tried.  You got tired, perhaps, of masturbating into a cup.  And the doctor injecting me between the legs with what felt cold and clammy.  I never told you this, but once the doctor rested his hand (without a glove yet!) on my privates.  He kept it there and continued talking to me, as if unaware where his hand was resting.  But I knew.  And I felt I couldn’t go back to him any more after that.  I just couldn’t.  And you didn’t understand.  You kept asking me, why?

Why?  I knew deep down that it wouldn’t be good.  I’d be tied down at home with the children, and you’d be off somewhere, having a good time.

It was she who gave us the name of that doctor, do you remember?  And I remember feeling so grateful, I used to tell myself, how lucky we were to have a friend like Diding.

But if I’d had my wits about me, I would have known—lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.  What are the odds that two friends would end up pregnant after seeing the same fertility specialist?  Those are like no odds at all.  I should have changed doctors immediately after Diding had her first child.
But we held on, still tried for another two years.  Then you were laid off from your job and there was no question that we could not continue the expensive treatments.

Well, after that, we just muddled along, and after a while, without either of us saying so, we lost interest in having another child.  Anton was in the third or fourth grade, he was into Little League and soccer and I was worn out already, just driving him here and there.  And so, without either of us saying a thing to each other, we just dropped it.  One day I forgot to call the specialist to book my next appointment, and you didn’t even ask me about when we would see him again.

And anyway, that was so long ago and I’m a completely different person now.
*****

I’m still in the room, still trying to write something on the yellow ruled pad.  I never expected it to be this difficult.  To write, I mean.  I was always an A student in English class.  The teachers said I had a way with words.  And I attended Sacred Heart Prep, where such praise is never meted out indiscriminately.

I’m sorry now for cutting her out of the album pictures.  Was it that that made you realize you didn’t love me?  Or was it later, when I threw all your clothes in a heap and left them in the middle of the driveway?  You never returned from the office that day.  It was a very rainy fall and in a day or two your pants and shirts and socks were damp and sprinkled with dead brown leaves.  Finally, someone came one day, not someone I recognized, collected them and took them away to God knows where.  I watched her do it from the window.  I remember the slow and tender way with which she picked up each item of clothing, folding each one neatly before going on to the next.  Did I mention she was Filipina?  I have a kind of radar about these things.  When I saw her, I wanted to run out, do something, assault her with the frying pan, maybe.  There was a terribly hot pain in my chest that seemed to irradiate out, as from the center of a burn.  I know what a burn feels like, from the time an uncle waved his cigarette too closed to my face and the ashes landed on my cheek.  It left a mark, too, a tiny scar.  My mother was talking and laughing with my uncle and she didn’t notice.  I told myself that if she didn’t look at me, nothing had happened.  And she didn’t, you know.  She never looked once.

After the woman had left with your clothes, I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror.  A flush was slowly spreading over both my cheeks.  My eyes held anger or hate or humiliation.  I looked different, and I’m not even 40.

So, I’ve been sitting here now for the better part of an hour.  The pad is still empty.  What can I say?  Out in the corridor, a young woman sits at a desk, looking over some papers.  Officer Smart, after he left me alone in this room, went out and chatted with her.  I overheard bits of their conversation:  he started telling her about a good sushi place nearby, and, next thing you know, they were talking about karaoke night.  Karaoke night?  In a police station?

It’s unfortunate that, in spite of her starched blue uniform, the woman just looks so young.  She reminds me of all the young women in the world, so many of them, whose chests jut out just like hers does, and who all feel sorry for you.

I leave the room and ask the young woman where Officer Smart is and she asks me why I’m looking for him and I tell her I have to give him a written statement.  Just then, he comes walking around the corner, really slow and casual, but I have the feeling he’s been waiting and watching all along.  He has this smirk on his face.  “Finished?” he asks.

“No,” I say.  “I need a little more time.”  I walk slowly back to the room with the table and the yellow pad.
*****

On February 26 she made a phone call to you while you were in the shower. I crouched down and reached for your cell, where you’d hidden it under the bed, and looked at the vibrating icon on the tiny screen, the number that I knew was hers.  I thought of picking up your phone, but I knew you’d be angry.  I touched it with the tip of my index finger—such an insistent ring!  As if she knew you’d want to hear from her, were in fact dying to hear from her.  Whereas when I call you at work, and you don’t pick up after the fourth ring, I immediately hang up, thinking that you’re in a meeting or something, not wanting to disturb you.

Why, why, why was she calling, when you worked in the same place and if she waited just half an hour you’d be with her?  It was 7:20 AM and if I hadn’t heard your cell phone ringing, I’d have been down in the kitchen with our son, having breakfast.

But, that day, it was Anton who had to call up to me:  “Mom, are you coming?”

I jumped up guiltily and ran down the stairs to take him to school, my face unwashed and my hair uncombed.
*****

On March 17 she called again.  This time even earlier than before.  Not even 7 AM.  And on March 19, shortly after midnight.  At that point, I picked up the phone—you were dead asleep, snoring—and screamed “Puta!!”  I lay there all night, looking at the ceiling, listening to your heavy breathing.  The next morning, you got up and got dressed to go to work. As usual, we exchanged a few pleasantries, and then, looking as staid as ever, you got into your silver Volvo and took off, giving a small wave without even turning your head.  When you got home from the office that day, you wouldn’t speak to me.
Driving home from the police station, I keep thinking of your face and wondering what you would make of the whole business.

*****

On April 18, I went shopping with Anton in Safeway.  A woman banged her cart into ours, and for whatever reason, a carton of eggs fell off hers and the eggs smashed and spilled their yellow yolks all over the floor.  She looked up at me and began yelling.  All I could do was stand there open-mouthed.  Anton dragged me away.  We were almost out the door but she was still screaming.

“Mommy, why is that lady so mad at us?” Anton kept asking.  His little face was scrunched up in anxiety.

“It doesn’t matter, Anton, it wasn’t my fault.  It was an accident,” I said.

“But why doesn’t she like us?”  Anton persisted.  “Why doesn’t anybody like us?”

“That’s not true, Anton,” I said.  “Lots of people like us.  And you have lots of friends.  But you haven’t had any over lately.  Want to give some of them a call when we get home?”

He shook his head and looked away.
*****

The day you finally sat down and told me everything, I noticed that it seemed to have made you lighter.  At least, you seemed to walk with more energy. That must be what people mean when they say, “Get a load off your chest.”  But my chest felt like it had just been hit by a ton of bricks.  I moved slowly around the garden like an old woman.  And even when I left to pick up Anton, I didn’t see people, they were moving oddly in all directions and once or twice I had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting someone.

There were times when I thought of buying a gun.  I thought I’d kill the both of you, like that headmistress who killed that diet doctor.  I watched that old movie on TV one day.  By then, I’d taken a leave from teaching.  It was too much, looking at all those bright, expectant young faces and having to tell them things I knew they wouldn’t remember in a year or so.

So, I was sitting in the living room, watching TV on the large flat-screen HDTV, the last thing you purchased before you moved out.  And there was a movie about this middle-aged headmistress, played by Annette Bening, and her diet doctor lover, played by Ben Kingsley.  And yes, yes, I could understand the satisfaction of wanting to kill someone, someone you loved very much.  I tried to imagine her at the moment she pulled the trigger.  Yes, it must have felt very good.
*****

I once went to her house, when no one was home, and snipped off all her roses.  Whack!  Whack!  She had lovely bloomers, all along her white fence.  I wondered how she’d explain that to her husband.

She must have called the police, or maybe one of the neighbors saw, because the next day a policeman came to our house.  You were in the office again, so it was just me and the officer, nice and cozy, in the kitchen.  He was big and kept his shades on, the whole time we were talking.
*****

The Officer who took my statement took her statement as well.  In fact, he had gone to see her first, which I thought was typical of the way things turn out.  This man, Officer Brown, reported that Mrs. R flew into a rage and began accusing me of “wanton cruelty” (her exact words) and of “child neglect.”
I told Officer Brown, I love my son.  You have seen him.  Remember, last week I took him to the police station and, before witnesses, had him remove his shirt?  You saw for yourself—no blemishes.  And were his ribs sticking out?  No.  What you saw was a healthy, well-fed boy.  One who has been much loved, caressed by his mother and spoiled by both parents.  Yes, you no doubt saw that.

I do not deny that I left threatening messages on her phone.   Officer Brown knew of the time, early in the morning, before first light even, when I snuck to a public phone (the one outside the Safeway) and breathed into an answering machine my fervent wish that she would die.  I did not mean it literally, of course.  But I did ask myself why it was that some people had all the luck in the world, and I had none?  Here was Diding, with a loving husband, two little boys, and a lover (my husband).  Whereas I was incapable, it seems, of generating any respect for myself or my plight.  I was requested to make no further calls to Diding or to my husband at work.

But I persist.  You see, I have no shame.  My harassing calls to her home continued, to wit: on 3/21 at 1:01 AM, on 3/22 at 3:12 AM, on 3/23 at 4:02 AM, at 3/26 at 2:14 AM.

These calls, unfortunately, did not seem to be having an adverse effect on her appearance.  I still see her, days when I am parked near her house, coming out in a beautiful leather jacket and fashionably high heels, her perfect hair smooth and shiny.  And her kids trot out obediently after her, and obediently get into the car, and I remember how sad Anton looks, and how many times I have to repeat a question now before he will answer.

In the last year, my students had begun to remark on the change in my appearance.  I have gained 17 lbs. in the last month.  When her caller ID appears, it upsets me and I am contemplating asking my doctor for a prescription for Xanax.  Her random early morning calls are clearly harassment.  One night, on 4/2, she called our home 9 times during the course of the night, only to hang up when my son or my husband answered.

My final summation is to tell you that my husband and I met with a family counselor.  This counselor is well acquainted with Diding, as we took her to the counselor when she was still living with us.  At the time, Diding was recovering from the tragic annulment of her marriage to an American man who she claimed physically abused her.  As I never saw any evidence of this abuse myself, I have only her word for it that she was repeatedly punched, kicked—once in the head, she told me—and shoved by this man who she frequently referred to as a brute.  When we took her in, she was a basket case.  She did not want to live with her parents, who were constantly telling her:  I told you so.  Having nowhere to turn, she begged us for assistance.

I am, I don’t mind telling you, a middle-aged woman of 38 years.  Diding is barely 30.  Out of the kindness of our hearts, and because she was a fellow kababayan and from the same hometown as my husband, I agreed to take her in.  I provided her with every comfort, shared my kitchen, even my clothes!  Many times, Diding asked to borrow this or that item of clothing, and because I did not like to appear selfish—or, as they say in my culture, swapang– I lent her whatever she asked for.  But one day my diamond ring disappeared, and the next month, my Gucci wallet.  Where are these items now, I ask you, Officer?  She has never returned them to me.

The counselor met with Diding during several sessions.  Her assessment was that Diding had extreme difficulty controlling her feelings.

The counselor told me a little about Diding’s family background.  Apparently, Diding’s father was a lecher who used to make passes at her girlfriends whenever they visited her house.  Moreover, Diding’s mother strongly favored her elder sister, a sister who died tragically at the age of 17, shortly after graduating valedictorian from her convent school.  Diding’s mother was inconsolable at her elder daughter’s death, and continues in a depression to this day.  As a result of what the counselor calls this “extreme family dysfunction” (though I have to say that it sounds like a normal Filipino family) Diding is apparently suffering from suppressed grief for her sister and anger at her mother and sister.  This anger is the cause of her current obsessive behavior.

For instance, this whole business with my son began with the matter of tickling.  Yes, tickling.  Diding began by playfully tickling my son’s feet and—well, things just developed from there.

With my husband, it was different.  With him, she would put on stiletto heels and a short skirt, and then, while polishing the kitchen counter, she would bend over—oh!  I can’t tell you exactly what she did, but let me say that the poor man was in quite over his head.

After the counselor had met with Diding a few times, I asked her if she thought it would be a good idea for me to obtain a restraining order.

The counselor stated firmly that she believed I must join a support group.  She gave me an 800 number for a counselor.  By this time, I had asked Diding to move out and this she had done with very bad grace.  She caused a terrible scene, shouting at me from the sidewalk so that all the neighbors heard her baselessly calling me a liar, a shameless woman.

It is not my wish to put Diding in jail, though I firmly believe she must be prevented from harming any other families with her little peccadilloes, her little games.  My husband was not the first, oh no.  She seems to make it a habit to collect Asian men.  Before my husband, there was another Filipino in the office who fell head over heels for her, and even ended up divorcing his wife, who was pregnant with their third child.

I have had to request a leave from my job.  My son’s school principal has called to inform me that my son has been “acting out”, and in the course of our twenty-minute conversation he strongly inferred that my son was perhaps suicidal.  The counselor said my son had been doodling in his notebooks and when she showed me the drawings, I did see there the many stick figures of people falling over cliffs or being ejected from airplanes.

“Yes, counselor,” I said, but these are all scenes he sees on TV every day.”

“Then I suggest you limit his TV watching to more family-oriented fare,” the counselor said, without missing a beat.  I felt this was rather indelicate of the counselor but I was really not surprised, as there are very few students in the school who actually come to see her and I really think she has no idea what we are, she so often confuses me with Mrs. Yuen, the only other Asian parent in the Mothers’ Club.

We are from the Philippines, Ma’am, I want to tell her.  Look it up.  Look it up on a map.

Respectfully Submitted,
Teresa Lorraine Concepcion (previously de Vera)



Marianne Villanueva has an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Stanford University.  She is the author of the short story collections Mayor of the Roses:  Stories (Miami University Press) and Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Press), which was a finalist for the Philippines’ National Book Award. In 2007, her short story, “The Hand,” won first place in the Juked Magazine Contest, judged by Frederick Barthelme.

1 Comment

  1. Eugene

    Now everyone is talking about the American economy and eclections, nice to read something different. Eugene

    Reply

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