By Carmen Calatayud
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. ~Vaclav Havel
Plain brown hair in pigtails with light-blue cat glasses, the kind with silver stars in each corner. That’s what I looked like in grade school, and if you’re wondering about the cat glasses, well, it was the late 60s and early 70s. If you met me then, you would have thought my life was full of hope. I lived in an upper middle-class neighborhood. I went to a Catholic school and got a good education. We had plenty of the necessary stuff, like food (Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, tater tots and Twinkies) clothing, and the non-essentials: board games and shelves filled with books.
There was one major hitch: my dad was crazy violent and I never knew when he would explode.
Dad’s explosions equaled yells, screams, face slapping, punches to the shoulders and a belt he pulled from the top, thin drawer of his Ethan Allen-esque dresser. The dormant brown and black belts were curled into stiff snakes that laid next to each other.
During the fourth grade, when my weakness in math became clear, my father tutored me at the dining room table for two to three hours a night, yelling at me and slapping or punching me each time I got the answer wrong. I have a habit of leaning to the right whether I’m sitting or standing, and I finally figured out that this is because my dad punched me on my left side during these tutoring sessions. Every night that school year was a one-sided war I lost. My mother was usually doing laundry downstairs and acted as though she didn’t hear what was going on. A few times when my screams were impossible to ignore, she came upstairs and asked my father to stop. Please, that’s enough! By that point I was shaking, sobbing, and bruised.
Each morning, we pretended that nothing had happened. Pretending to be normal became my ritual, and the ritual developed into a mask. Wearing the mask is so ingrained as a facial habit that I don’t even realize how much I look like a manikan in the display window at Sears.
In high school, I suffered through freshman algebra and got a D for a final grade. I hid my report card that June, terrified of what my dad would do. When my mother told my dad—without warning me—that I had hidden it, he came to my sky blue bedroom and asked to see my report card. I was standing in front of the dresser, the off-white one with grey and blue birds painted on it.
Well of course, I lied, and said that it hadn’t come in the mail yet. That lie triggered one of the worst beatings he gave me. My arms and legs were covered with welts and blue bruises from the blows of his hands and belt. I imagined that these bruised looked different than the usual ones. I watched them turn purple, the royal purple of an Arizona sunset. Struggling to recover in my bedroom, my mom came in to soothe me, or so I hoped.
“I’m gonna call the police. I’m gonna report this abuse,” I said quietly to my mom. At 14, I was starting to access chunks of anger in my brain and body.
“C’mon, it’s not that bad. You’ll be fine,” she said. Yes, I hoped that she’d agree with me, that she’d sit next to me with her arm around me as I made the call. Existing in my skin in that moment, I half-expected a bone to pop out from the pain. But nothing popped and I began to focus on the hope that in 4 years, I’d escape.
So back to math. I received a B in sophomore geometry without any help. Because geometry used shapes, words and phrases, it was easier to grasp. That year I was free from my father’s beatings and screaming, at least about my grades in math.
By my senior year, I was faced with taking trigonometry. I opened the book and knew I was reading hieroglyphics. After getting Cs and Ds on the first few quizzes I felt hopeless, but then my friend Grace offered to tutor me. Grace had a talent for math and science, and the thought of someone helping me who wouldn’t scream or hit me was wild. After several tutoring sessions with Grace, our class had a test, and I received an A-. I chuckled inside at this miracle and the reaction on my classmates’ faces. Margi scrunched her forehead and whispered, “YOU got an A-?” The truth was that Grace worked hard to help me, and I had studied hard. I could do this.
About a month after getting that A-, I dropped the trig class without telling my dad or my mom. Yeah, I quit. I knew I didn’t need it for college, where I planned on majoring in English or Communications. I realized that I no longer had to prove my math skills. I could do well if I really had to, given that I put intense energy and time into studying, but now I could say no more. I was free.
With that decision at 17, the fear I experienced the first time I saw a number line above the chalkboard in kindergarten started to dissipate. The fear of my dad was dissipating, too. I hoped that if I moved away from math and what it symbolized, maybe I could move away from my father and the memories of purple bruises and brown belt blows.
That I can do anything in this life that’s connected to math—which usually means paying bills—is something I now count as an achievement. At times I had high hopes that I would conquer math. I would stand at the math mountaintop after a long, arduous climb, glowing with sweat, and plant my flag. I would show everyone that I could master numbers.
My hope for math has changed. Now I hope that I can respond gracefully instead of react or shut down when numbers arise in my life.
My hope for my life has changed. Now I hope that those long-faded bruises will give me the strength to offer kindness—or at least a goofy-looking smile to everyone I meet.
Hope is a lens that we look through, and if we look far enough we see Faith. Actually, Hope and Faith are sisters.
If hope is your watered-down version of faith for now, so be it. Even if your way of coping right now is what others may call false hope, fine. You can’t lose hope. It’s still here, in a precious little box on your nighttable and mine, quietly waiting for us to open it.
Hope is the beginning of healing. And yes, it makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Carmen Calatayud’s first poetry collection In the Company of Spirits was published in 2012 by Press 53. In the Company of Spirits was a runner-up for the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She’s a Larry Neal Poetry Award winner. Her poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, La Bloga, PALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art and the anthology DC Poets Against the War. She’s a poet moderator for Poets Responding to SB 1070, a Facebook group that features poetry and news about Arizona’s immigration law that legalized racial profiling. Carmen is a mind-body psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and her memoir is in progress. Visit Carmen online at carmencalatayud.com.