Dios Esta con Nosotros

Photo by darkday/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by darkday/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The passenger jet’s engines roared as it took off. Gisselle felt its force pull her deeper into her seat. She cried out and hid in her father’s arms, refusing to open her eyes. It was her first time flying in a plane and she was afraid the plane would crash. Every time they hit turbulence, her heart sank to her feet. She knew the República Dominicana was sinking away beneath her. She could not believe she was leaving the only place she had ever known. She opened her watery eyes and looked up at her father.

“Que paso,” her father asked.

“Tengo miedo, papi,” she squeaked, still nestled under his arm.

No te preocupes, dios está con nosotros,” he told her.

Upon hearing his words, her stiffened body relaxed. Her father reached a hand out and rubbed her leg. “Look out the window to see the clouds,” he said.

Gisselle shook her head, still hiding under his arms. As she cried into his arms, he spoke about how differently things were going to be in the United States. He told her that she was going to meet all the family she had never met before.

Gisselle De Jesus Polanco spent her childhood in the Santo Domingo with a large family in a very small house. Teresa, Gisselle’s mother, feared for the safety of her daughter and her older son. In Santo Domingo, when the sun hid behind the horizon, Gisselle was not allowed to go outside to play. The daylight was just as dangerous as the dark. In 2000, organized crime was on the rise in Santo Domingo and her family heard story after story at the dinner table. She knew there were those who would rob you outside for everything, no matter who you were, how old you may be, nor how little you had.

Teresa still shuddered at her sister’s supposed encounter with a dark-eyed mugger. She had been held, facing the snub muzzle of gun, in the middle of a cloudy day. The man wore a hard look, like a mask, while he yelled at her, asking for her purse. Teresa thought she was crazy, but her sister had stood there, anger welling in her throat. She just yelled at the thief, “Shoot me,” she screamed. “Just shoot me, then!”

She pushed and shoved him, meeting his dark gaze, until his hard mask broke. The once stoic face turned to fear, and he turned on his heels, sprinting away.

Teresa soon learned she might never see the men who might attempt to make her a victim; she always believed she was careful. One day, while walking amongst the crowded Santo Domingo streets after work, the roads became packed with people, each pressing into one another. It wasn’t until she got to the bus stop that she realized her purse had been stripped from her arms. She knew then that nobody, especially not her children, should have to grow up with that kind of fear.

Gisselle was the second born child of an affair. She loved Santo Domingo in spite of all the harsh truths about it. She rarely saw her father, Chino, a married man living in America. At night, Giselle slept in-between her mom and her aunts. There were too many of them and the bed was too small. One of them would always fall onto the cold, unwelcoming floor. Gisselle, the littlest, would often end up there, but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed sleeping with her family, together. Even on the floor, even in Santo Domingo, she felt safe with them.

Chino had come to their small house in the summer of 2001, announcing that he would bring both Gisselle and her brother to the U.S. Teresa was furious. She stood in front of him, seething in the foyer of their tiny home.

“You’ll only take one of them—Carlos. He’s the boy. He’ll be safer over there than her. Then you can take Gisselle.”

“I can’t do that,” he explained in exasperation. “It would be unfair.”

“You’ll take Carlos first, then Giselle. Carlos is older. He will be able to take care of himself, but you’ll give him back to me, you understand. When I come. You’ll give him back.”

They argued, but in the end Chino had his way. Teresa feared that Gisselle would have a difficult time with her new family because of her troubled birth. She was only ten years old. In spite of this, she relented to her children’s father. She looked at her life, at the cracked, peeling wood and dirty faces around her. She knew she could not raise her children crammed next to fifteen others under one leaky roof. Teresa decided she wanted Gisselle and Carlos to have richer lives, to not be terrified of stepping outside even in the day. She wanted to give them a real childhood.

So Teresa did the hardest thing she had ever done. She kissed her children goodbye. “You’re going on a vacation,” she lied. “It will only be for a while. I’ll see you both when you come back. It won’t be forever.”

Upon arriving in the American airport, Gisselle heard echoes from the intercom in a language she did not understand. None of it made any sense to her, the way these people dressed, the way they looked and moved. They wore baggy clothes and walked as if they were always in a rush. Gisselle did not want to be in a place where she knew she would not understand anyone. She already had trouble enough understanding her dad’s English. All she heard was gibberish. All she saw were the American’s contorted faces as they spat unfamiliar words. After what seemed like the longest walk of her life to the airport’s exit, she was greeted by all her family.

They all ran up to her and gave her hugs. The warm August air and the press of their bodies felt warm and comforting after being on what seemed to her a near death experience on the plane. They all greeted her in English and Gisselle could only stammer, “que? No entiendo lo que dices.” Giselle told them, “estoy feliz que el avión llego bien sin complicaciones.”

They laughed and told her she needed to be brave because she would have to get back on another plane when she went back to Santo Domingo. Hearing this sent tears running down her face. She believed she was not truly leaving her country forever.

Although it felt nice knowing there was family here, she soon realized it was not the same as what she had back in Santo Domingo. Her father lived in Pennsylvania, in a house bigger than the one she grew up in. She thought her father was rich. Yet in that great, rich house she felt solitude; separated behind imaginary walls. Everyone in the house spoke English. She wandered throughout this large house, filled with her father, stepmother and stepsiblings, never quite sure what was happening, what anybody meant by the alien words flooding from their lips. Despite all the people that lived in one house, she felt lonely. All the extra space meant nothing to her. In Santo Domingo, only family mattered.

She noticed, in America, her family put on a show, as if they were close. They kept the name of “family,” never understanding its real meaning. The family never gathered, never spent time together. They never even ate together. Each of her family members ate in their rooms or left the house, eating and walking at the same time. Her American family refused to knit themselves together. Her family in Santo Domingo was a tapestry. Her family in the U.S. grated against each other like sandpaper. They didn’t know real love. They didn’t know the definition of gratefulness. She heard them in the halls of her big, new house, complaining that they wanted more shoes or more toys. None of it meant anything to Gisselle. She never had any of those things to begin with.

Yet like in Santo Domingo, she managed to find the time to eat home-cooked meals. She had tried fast food a few times but she was disgusted by the unnaturally large, tasteless chicken and tired condiments they tried to serve her. Home-cooked meals were the only thing that reminded her of how things were in her home country. It reminded her of family and being together. Even in their small house, their large family always made time to eat together.

Throughout that summer, Gisselle asked her father again and again when she would return home, but he avoided the question, slipping past her moist, searching eyes. When the summer came to an end, her father couldn’t avoid it any longer. He told her, “you’re not going back to the Santo Domingo. You live here with me now.”

She cried for many days after that. She had been betrayed, so she thought. Betrayed by her father, her family and especially her mother. She began to think that she would never see her mother again. Without her mother, without the rest of her family, she felt alone. She felt vulnerable.

During Gisselle’s first year in the U.S. her grandfather came to their house frequently. She had never met him before coming to Pennsylvania and when he came for a visit, no matter where she was, she could never feel comfortable. She could hear her grandfather’s bellowing voice. Vulgar, dirty jokes that her grandfather shared with Chino, echoed through the house crawling into her waking thoughts. She had never been around men who talked about women as if they were objects.

In Gisselle’s family, a kiss on the cheek was a gesture of love, a friendly means of saying, “hello.” For her grandfather, it was something else. Gisselle had never experienced anyone like him: so repulsive. When the time came to greet her grandfather, Gisselle tried to back away, tried to keep his crawling, dry touch away from her. Chino always made her draw closer.

“It’s a sign of disrespect if you don’t say hello,” he told her, his voice soft, anxious as he whispered in her ear, glaring at her.

“He scares me. I don’t like the way he looks at me,” she could barely keep herself from shrieking back.

“Don’t worry,” whispered Chino. “You’re daddy’s little girl. Grandpa can look all he wants but I can keep you safe from any man..”

Chino’s words writhed in her ears, making her feel sick. She knew that Chino also looked at her in ways he did not look at his other daughters. Gisselle remembered her time on the plane, his hand stroking her leg, the way his eyes fell across her body, dilating, surrounding her.

One day, Gisselle was alone with her grandpa in the living room of the Pennsylvania house. He moved next to her, kissing her neck, telling her he’d give her one hundred dollars, if she let him suck on her breast. He said, “we can keep it a secret, just between us.”

Gisselle cried and ran to her room. She closed the door, hoping it would be a barrier between her and this man, but this was her father’s house, her father’s door. She felt like she did not have anyone.

The one person that made her feel welcome in this new place was her father’s new wife, Sarah. She was the only one that believed Gisselle about what had happened with her grandfather. Her stepmom made sure that she never left Gisselle alone with her grandpa after she found out. No one else seemed to protect Gisselle or make sure she was doing well. Yet this attention grated on her siblings. One of Gisselle’s sisters told her she was a child from, “the other woman.” Her sister hated the fact that her mom treated Gisselle as her daughter. The rest of her siblings spoke mainly among themselves in English so Gisselle barely spoke with them.

Gisselle couldn’t sleep. It was the U.S. that did that to her. She hated sleeping in her own room, alone. In the house in Pennsylvania, she lay awake, eyes burning with images of her grandfather, as she imagined him creeping into her room to touch her. She missed her crowded home and her bed, overflowing with people. The spaces in Pennsylvania grew in her mind, expanding and engulfing her. From every corner of her room, all she felt was danger.

In the summer of 2002, her dad told Gisselle they would be going to Santo Domingo for summer vacation; a real vacation this time. Her heart seemed to float inside her and she could not stop smiling. She jumped on her dad and hugged him tightly, saying he was the best dad in the world.

Her face filled with tears the first time she saw her mother again. She cried with joy all the way from the airport in Santo Domingo to her old home. The same crowded streets, the same small old house girded her soul. For too long she had felt like she was choking, but here she could breathe. Although, her mother’s lie still nagged at her. All she wanted to do was ask her mom, “Why? Why did you do this to me?” but she did not want to ruin their happiness. She held her tongue.

Her mom cooked her some arroz con pollo y habichuelas, just the way she liked it. She even made Giselle pastelitos con queso because Gisselle loved cheese. Gisselle once again ate in rooms filled with people, so packed she had to stand and eat; the table was full.

She felt whole again. The sight of her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins filled in the missing parts of her. The things she longed for were real, still alive in Santo Domingo, as if they would never change. Gisselle looked around the house and saw the same chipped paint by the door. Her dog lay on the couch, lazy as always. She could hear the kids from downstairs running and playing outside, the same kids that she had grown up playing jump-rope with. The house was still falling apart but it did not matter to her. Being with her family was all she cared about. Her new room, dolls, clothes, giant chicken with artificial growth hormones, and all the candy she had in the U.S, were not enough for her.

On the day she was supposed to depart, Gisselle cried out, “No, I’m not going back.” She yelled at her mother and wrung her small fingers around the old wooden doorframe of her house: she couldn’t go back to the U.S, not again. This was where she belonged. Her mother and father grabbed her, wrenching her from her home. Her fingers left the wood’s surface, she felt as if each piece of splintered wood, was another piece of her heart were being ripped out of her.

The plane barely frightened her anymore, but as she left Santo Domingo, for the second time in her life, she knew she’d never felt sicker. The first time she left she had not known things were going to be terrible. Now Gisselle knew what she was going back to.

In 2002, after coming back from the D.R, Gisselle’s father officially moved his American family to the Bronx. In the Bronx, just like she had years ago done in Santo Domingo, Gisselle slept on the floor. She had her own room in Chino’s apartment, but the nights grew to terrify her more than they ever could in her old home. She was scared of being alone and crawled through the door to the foot of her sister’s bed. Her sister grumbled, but in her half-dazed sleep simply waved her hand, as if allowing her to sleep there on the cold, wood floor at her bedside.

Nightfall in the Bronx brought horrors. Gisselle, during most of the nights she slept alone, in her bed, waited for the sound of her door creaking open to reveal the silhouette of Gisselle’s father haloed in white, fluorescent light. Chino would slither into her room, closing the door slowly behind him. “I’m just checking on you,” he would say. It was a sickness that crawled underneath his eyes and gurgled at the back of his throat. He would come close and kiss her neck as she lay, paralyzed by terror.

Night by night Chino invaded her space and her life. It began as kissing, but for six years it went on, becoming more and more as his appetite grew. One night he would grab her breast, another he would dry hump her. One night he started rubbing his hand between her legs with a sick grin on his face, saying, “Daddy loves you.”

When Gisselle was seventeen years old, she finally calls the cops. She held the beeping phone in her hand, staring at her father with hatred. She threatened to send Chino to jail and tell her mom everything, but as the police arrived, Chino, swerving and twisting, fainted onto the cold wood floor.

Gisselle did not know what to do. Suddenly, she became terrified of ruining her life, that of her stepmother’s, mother’s and entire families’ as well. So she lied to the cops. She kept her dad out of jail. She was so happy that she was almost eighteen, because then she would be able leave the house and be anywhere, anywhere but with her father.

In 2007, the same year she called the cops on her dad, her mom called and told her she was coming to live with her. Gisselle counted down the days until she arrived. Her mom came with permission to visit the U.S., but stayed illegally, working under someone else’s name and Social Security number. Gisselle was supposed to move in with her mother as soon as she arrived, but her father wouldn’t let her go that easily. He looked longingly at her and said, “I don’t want you to live with her. She’s married again. That new man isn’t your father.”

“You’re sick,” she thought to herself. “You’re sick in the head.” This man was not her father. No father would do what he did to their own daughter.

In 2008 Gisselle turned 18 and moved out of her father’s house. She lived with her brother and his wife for 2 years, later moving to New Jersey with her mom. Teresa had already divorced her new husband by then. For the first time in ten years, Gisselle felt like she had a home. The thoughts of Santo Domingo released their desperate, wooden grip on her mind. She started, finally, to live.

The roads in Santo Domingo were still crowded years later. Gisselle had returned. It was her first visit since her vacation almost a decade before.The small houses no longer glistened in the sun. They were old and fraying at the seams, falling apart. Her family told her to leave all of her belongings at home. They told her to stay away from the roads for fear of the people who would drive by and snatch a woman’s purse. Gisselle felt wealthy. Everything was so much cheaper here than in America, but all that meant was her family expected her to pay for everything. They expected her to treat. America had tortured her childhood, but seeing the D.R for what it truly was, broke her heart. It was a country falling apart and no matter which direction she looked up and down those crowded streets, she could never find the same beauty she had tried to hold onto tightly, when her hands were wrenched from her home’s peeling wooden door.

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