Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.
Both of us would have suffered less.
I write this as the #MeToo movement becomes unstoppable in the United States as it topples decrepit old men with too much money and too much privilege. Today, right now, there’s a possibility that a rapist will end up on the US Supreme Court, which is horrifying to me even though I am not an American. We can see you, America, see what you are doing. See what you haven’t done. See what you are letting happen.
I don’t know where the #metoo movement will go, but I hope that all of the horrible men who cheat, steal, hurt, beat, rape, molest and destroy girls and women will receive their comeuppance. I hope more strongly that the next generation of boys will grow up thinking such that behaviour is inconceivable in themselves or others.
Enter Martha Bátiz’s short story, The First Cup of Coffee. It is not the first story to deal with domestic abuse, and it won’t be the last, but for me it came at a time when I was particularly primed to read about the hidden horrors inflicted upon women across the world. And they are always hidden. These men aren’t stupid, they know what they are doing; they can control their emotions until they are in the safety of their own home, and they are more than willing to turn their home into a place that is unsafe for the women in their lives.
But first, the plot – Greta has married Tobías, who is wealthy, at the behest, or at least encouragement, of her father. Greta was fair of face and body but has become fat and ugly with age and wealth and circumstance. Tobías restricts her movement, her communication, her employment, her access to money, her life. And he beats her for any provocation, or no provocation, without cause, with cause. It doesn’t make it right if there’s a reason, does it?
Oh, she fights back in the ways that she can. She taunts him, she yells. It isn’t an excuse for his behaviour or, even, a reason, as very often he’ll hit her before and during and after. It doesn’t really matter if she insults him or not, though it can be somewhat cathartic for her.
“Don’t you want to have kids?” I asked him one day. Man, did I regret that. He said if I thought he wasn’t man enough to make me a bunch of kids, he’d show me how wrong I was, and he hit me. He pulled down his pants and…nothing. He couldn’t do it, just like on our wedding night. He hit me so hard he had to take me to the hospital because my head split open. Look, I’ve got the scar right here. And no hair grows around it.
The text is matter-of-fact. It is. This is what happens and this is how Greta reacted and this is how she tells the story of her life. Why dress it up? Tobías himself comes across as a weak man, prone to astonishingly indulgent bouts of self-pity and -loathing. At times, after abusing Greta, he will take out a gun and shoot himself in the head. Click. There’s one bullet, see, and the rest are empty – fate will determine if he should die. Fate has determined that he will not die just yet, and that Greta’s suffering will continue.
Greta’s story is framed around drinking a cup of coffee, the first that she has ever had. This follows on from a long bus ride and, we are reasonably certain, Tobías’ death – or at the very least her escape from him. A new phase of Greta’s life has begun, and through the drinking of the coffee she thinks back on her life and her time with Tobías.
During these past few months I wouldn’t even wait up for Tobías, because I got used to him arriving in the wee hours of the morning. I stopped worrying about him and asking him to install a phone in the house or buy me a cell phone so he could let me know where he was. As if the master of the house was going to listen! Not a chance.
Rather curiously, the beginning of her relationship with Tobías is glossed over in a very few words. Her father wants it and so it is. Done. Arguably, it doesn’t matter, because the terrible and endless present of her abuse became the primary focus of her life. There was nothing different over the years, not ever, just fighting, yelling, hitting, pain, suffering. The permutations change but it’s the same, the same, the same.
This is a difficult story to read because Greta accepts her life – at least, up until she doesn’t. It’s difficult because we’d like to think that, say, if I were in an abusive relationship, I’d recognise it quickly and – be out! Begone, abuser! And so our natural empathy for the victim decreases and fades. If we think that way then we make it their fault, at least a little, don’t we? And maybe a lot.
Greta’s personality appears more strongly during the framing story around the cup of coffee, representing that she has, finally, broken free from her abuser and can perhaps start to discover the woman she is today. The other time she truly sparks into being concerns the life and death of her pet. Here, because it is another life being impacted, Greta surges and says no to Tobías. And how often do we hear of that, a woman presenting her face to be hit in lieu of a child? Both too often and not often enough.
This is a strong story. The clearness of the language means that the story needs to rely on the strength and impact of its plot and characters and here, Bátiz is quite effective. I knew, because the story was narrated by Greta – and spoken to a nebulous ‘you’, which cleverly inserts the reader into the narrative, making them somewhat complicit in the silence, or not, of Greta’s life story – that she was not going to die, but nonetheless there were times when I worried and wondered if she would make it.
She made it. At least for now. But I wonder if the ‘you’ of the story, the reader – do we become complicit if we say nothing? If we remain silent? If we fail to listen to these women when they talk and rage and demand justice?
The First Cup of Coffee is a short story written by Martha Bátiz. This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.
Other stories from this collection include:
Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.