They meet on Saturday night at a party in San Salvador. They are introduced by one of my mother’s older nephews. My father is skinny, with good posture, and all nose. He chews gum as he flirts with my mother. He’s not attractive except for his dark eyes, but somehow she finds his awkwardness endearing. He tells her a story about traveling overseas to Madrid on official business for his family. (The truth is that he was drifting in Barcelona aimless and without his father’s money, because he’d been cut off; sleeping on park benches and inebriated all day.) But he doesn’t tell my mother that until after they’re married. She thinks the story is interesting but strange. Then my mother takes a sip of wine straight from the bottle they sneaked out of the party. The wine tastes fruity and bitter. She smiles at him, and he kisses her in the courtyard below a cloudy, drizzling, purple sky and right next to a noisy street gutter.
They start dating and fool around a lot, but her brothers are always near. All five of her older brothers don’t like him because they know he’s lazy. Despite her brother’s feelings, my mother slowly realizes that there are more things she doesn’t like about him than she does. After three months of dating, my mother decides on a break one night after seeing him drunk, chasing after a promiscuous girl at a party. She ends the relationship before leaving on vacation to Guatemala with her sister Gabriela. My father gets upset because he has no other girls on queue except for a prostitute named Christina, and he doesn’t really want to marry a prostitute. When my mother arrives in Guatemala, she meets an older, well-off bachelor that is enamored with her at first sight. His name is Roberto and he’s a medical student. Roberto takes her and Gabriela on a tour of Antigua Guatemala.
My maternal grandmother, who is on the side of my father because she thinks my mother is getting old and should marry soon, sends her an overnight letter asking her to return to El Salvador and reconsider. My mother ignores the letter and has a short romantic fling with Roberto. They go out every night to restaurants and clubs and pretty soon she stops thinking about my father. My grandmother sends her a second more urgent letter telling her to hurry or my father will marry another. My mother decides to return home one cool, breezy afternoon after spying Roberto engaging in rough sex with a local indigenous girl on a small hill near his father’s house. She hides behind a tall, Caribbean pine tree and watches them with the curiosity of a child visiting the tigers at the zoo. She is disappointed, but not at Roberto, for she realizes she wants to be the wild, dark skinned girl under him. She does not see Roberto again.
When she returns to El Salvador my father hires mariachis to perform under her bedroom window. She never goes to the window but cowers under her bed sheet in the darkness holding on to a doll my grandfather bought her during a business trip to New York City before he passed away. In a month, she and my father are back together, sitting next to each other on a couch at my grandmother’s house. He chews gum like a camel and snatches her right hand roughly asking her to marry him. She tells him that she wants to think about it, but she knows she has already said yes inside. She is convincing herself to marry my father by listening to a deviant voice that tells her that this is the right decision, it whispers in her ear saying things like, ‘he’s an interesting man, perhaps not the best looking, but honest and interesting, with worldly experience and you are 28 now, and nearing that certain age when there’s no other choice except to settle down and put away those dreams about soul mates and all that romantic nonsense that poets and composers espouse.’ But there is another voice that she hears which is much softer, but also loud, (if that makes any sense) telling her the opposite but she shuts it away pretending not to hear.
They get married at an old cathedral in San Vicente but only two of my uncles attend the ceremony. At the reception, her new husband gets too drunk partying with his friends. There are fireworks, there are toasts, there is a band, and there are guests representing the 12 richest families in El Salvador. And they laugh and celebrate and toast the newlyweds as bombs explode in the mountains and gun battles rage near the US Embassy.
My grandmother buys them a house. They go on honeymoon to San Andres Island, Colombia. On their 4th day, they go to Johnny Cay off the Northern Coast of San Andres to dive. It’s just the two of them on a small rented boat. She doesn’t dive and stays on the boat waiting for him. My father is gone for at least 10 minutes when two dirty looking men show up on a skiff and seeing her by herself ask her if she’s a tourist. She acknowledges that she is a tourist, and that she’s from El Salvador. The two men act shady like thieves. They are also ragged and their teeth are yellow. One of them, the taller one, stares at my mother for a little too long. Her heart pounds against her chest and she wants to look away but she can’t. The other man has his hand on the scabbard of his knife, and he begins to talk about a beautiful beach where the three of them can go; a beach that not many tourists know about. She tells the men thank you but her husband should be coming up soon and they will be leaving the island shortly. The one man with the knife tells her that her husband is a very lucky man. My father comes up suddenly, and the men leave. Who where those men, my father asks, as he takes off his tank. She tells him that they were fishermen, that’s all they were. At the end of the day, back at their hotel, as my father sleeps, my mother cries in the bathroom. Back then she thought she was crying because she was afraid of those men.
When they return from their honeymoon she opens her own design boutique working from home. He doesn’t work, but pretends to be interested in attending college. He spends a lot of time with his drunken friends riding motorcycles like a big child. Meanwhile, she gets pregnant and has a baby; my older brother Rene. She gets pregnant again but has a miscarriage. She gets pregnant a third time and I am born. She gets pregnant one last time, but has another miscarriage. He treats me and my brother like if we were his friend’s kids but I don’t remember any of this. After much pressure from my mother, he decides to go to college just to get her off his back. He also decides to take a correspondence course from Argentina to learn hypnotism. He has sex with the maid, forcing himself on her after a night of very heavy drinking and a failed private hypnotism session. My mother pretends not to hear it, just hoping we won’t wake up.
One day she tells my brother Rene, who is six at the time, to point out a want ad for a bank teller position she saw in the newspaper to my father while he’s watching television and having a beer. He gets really mad at this and yells at her. Why are you trying to use my son this way, he demands of her. Their argument gets heated and he slaps her in the face right in front of me. And this I do remember, for it was the slap heard around the world. My mother scolds him, telling him we could use the money. He walks away to his “study” slamming the door behind him. The Civil War finally begins and she has a black eye that she tries to hide from her family with Jackie O sunglasses he bought for her on a trip to Mexico City. The following day while sitting upfront at a friend’s fashion show, she has on the same black sunglasses, and when she crosses her legs while reading a big fashion magazine, she almost covers her face with it, but elevates her head instead, facing the models on the catwalk who reflect off her pitch black lenses.
For three whole months there is relative peace, until my mother decides to take the entire family to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. My father begins to act strange upon hearing this and tells her he wants to go, but without the kids. They get into an argument that doesn’t make any sense to her at all. He ends up staying home while my mom takes me and my brother to the Magic Kingdom. When we return from the trip, he serves her with divorce papers prepared by a crooked lawyer, letting her know that he’s moving out because he can’t live with her and her constant nagging. My mother gets really depressed and with help from my uncles, she moves back in with my grandmother. Our house stays empty.
A year after they separate my father passes by my grandmother’s house to visit us. He sits next to me and my brother in the living room sofa and I don’t recognize him, but I’m happy to see him. He takes us to a skate park and as he watches us play, he sits back on a bench, smoking a cigarette. We are disappearing right before his eyes and him before ours. The day ends and he drops us off back at my grandmothers’. He’ll be back next weekend he says. We kiss him at my mother’s behest. He smells like Old Spice and citrus. We don’t see him again. Their divorce is finalized in 1981, as the first major guerrilla offensive in Northwestern El Salvador is underway.