Tomás pushed open the door to the community center and slipped into the crowd of male bodies in the lobby, waiting for the evening’s group session to begin. “Que paso?” he inquired of Roberto who was in conversation with someone else and didn’t answer. Tomás threaded his way through more bodies to reach the coat closet. He stashed his motorcycle helmet on a shelf and hung up his jacket. He had arrived at exactly the right moment because the door to the meeting room was soon open for everyone. A single file line soon formed to enter the bigger room.
He lined up behind Esteban and inquired, “Do you know what is happening tonight?”
Esteban answered, “Sí, la película, The Burning Bed.”
Tomás commented, “Es una película del gringo. Never is it a film about machismo.”
“Nunca,” agreed Esteban.
Tomás had been coming to Domestic Violence Therapy at the community center for three weeks of an eight week, court-ordered course with group sessions twice a week and case management with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker once a week for which he was billed. It was his first offense. Tomás had recently turned twenty-one years of age. He entered adulthood with this offense, hitting his baby mama, Sylvia. To Tomás, his offense was about control and not unjustified either.
The room went dark for the duration of the two-hour movie. When the lights came on at the end, many in the room were blinking and rubbing their eyes. The group leader asked them to think about what happened in the movie because at their next meeting, on Thursday, they would organize into small groups to discuss some of the interpersonal dynamics in the relationship. Tomás couldn’t imagine Sylvia burning him in bed while he slept like the movie depicted. Sylvia wasn’t battered like the abused woman in the film.
Tomás retrieved his jacket and motorcycle helmet from the coat room. He meandered through the exiting crowd and through the door. The night air greeted him with its strong embrace, leading him to where he had parked his bike. He dialed Sylvia on his cellphone. She put their son Julio on the phone so Tomás could tell him goodnight. Julio was only two years old so it didn’t count as much of a conversation. As always, Sylvia sounded sexy even when she talked with her maternal voice about Julio.
After their phone conversation ended, Tomás started up his motorcycle and eased out of the street parking space. He admired Sylvia for owning her own business cleaning other peoples’ homes. She had applied for a Small Business Administration loan which she had received to start-up the enterprise. In contrast, Tomás had been working as a Journeyman Apprentice, learning fine skills of cabinetry design. His arrest for assault had ended his apprenticeship because he missed work for several days. His boss called it a no-call, no-show situation. Now, he worked downtown cleaning outside windows of high-rise office buildings. The mayor had pressed minority business owners to create jobs for the unskilled. It was just a marginal job and dangerous in the air with wind gusts sometimes reaching as much as twenty-five miles an hour.
When his alarm awoke him in the dark of early morning, he struggled to get out of bed with a certain lack of motivation that might have made him late. Tomás talked himself awake anyway. He arrived at the job site downtown just in the nick of time. He greeted the project manager, Larry. Larry was a thirty-something African-American who knew how to match available human resources with opportunities. Larry told Tomás that he would need to take up a new employee and make sure the new hire understood safety guidelines for the lift and the building. The new hire’s name is Willis. Larry introduced Tomás to Willis, an African-American that had never cleaned windows before. Willis was very thin, almost scrawny, and in his early twenties. He seemed scared to death to go up on the lift. Larry coaxed Willis into the safety harness and tried to reassure the new hire that there was no risk to his safety.
Tomás said, “Don’t look down,” as the lift began it’s ascent with Tomás and Willis in tow.
Willis began to talk about how he couldn’t find any other suitable employment and has to do this job. They ended their climb about twenty-five floors up. Immediately, Tomás began to show Willis how to work the squeegee against the glass as professionals do. Then, he tried to speed up Willis’ movements and get a little competitive comradery going so Willis wouldn’t look down or think about how high up they were in the air. They had only completed two floors of windows when a big gust of wind roared into them. Willis hung on to the vertical line next to him through the gale and didn’t let go when the wind ceased. He looked away from Tomás.
“Are you okay?” Tomas asked.
Willis admitted glumly, “I pissed myself.”
Tomás laughed and remarked, “The wind will dry your pants.” Tomás regretted that he was down-wind from Willis for the next hour and a half until lunch because a strong stench of urine was what he had to inhale until lunchtime. Willis disappeared during the lunch hour and didn’t return to the job. Tomás had suspected that Willis wasn’t a good fit which proved true. He went back up alone after the lunch break and absorbed the strong afternoon sunlight on the back of his neck and forearms. The air was polluted downtown though, and his thoughts began to reflect on the therapeutic philosophy of domestic violence treatment. He would go this evening for case management and to talk with the social worker. The intake questionnaire had asked him many questions about his family of origin and how they resolved conflict. Did he witness violence when he was a child? How does he personally resolve conflicts with others?
Tomás hadn’t thought about his mother in a long time. She actually left them when he was nine. His younger brother was five years old then and his sister was four. Their mother was an undocumented immigrant from Guatamala. His mother only spoke Spanish. Tomás spoke Spanish before learning English as a second language. He had wondered at the time where she could have gone when she disappeared. Then, a few years later, his father told him that she had run to Father Joseph at the parish because she didn’t want to be beat up anymore by her husband. Subsequently, she had gone to live in a shelter, and then he didn’t know where she went. Suspended in air while he cleaned windows, Tomás realized that his mother had been a battered wife. Social learning was what Tomás had learned by watching his father role-model conflict resolution through violence. Tomás had never questioned alternative methods of resolving conflicts, but this domestic violence therapy seemed to want him to think about nonviolent means.
The day’s heat was at its peak when Tomás shift ended at 5pm. It was 73° Fahrenheit according to the bank’s digital display. He debarked for the center and arrived there by 6:30pm after eating a burrito that he purchased on the way. The social worker asked him what he thought of the movie The Burning Bed. Tomás told her that he thought Sylvia was not battered but that his mother had been. After asking about his parents’ fights, she asked Tomás why he was so angry with Sylvia when he hit her. He said that he was angry because he was jealous. She had let some other guy buy her a drink at the club, and she even danced with him.
“I needed control of the situation,” Tom exclaimed.
“I don’t want to lose her,” he answered.
“You’re going to keep her by punching her?” the social worker asked and went on, “Anger is a secondary emotion to the primary emotion which is your fear of loss.” Instead of reacting to possible loss, we want you to think about a constructive response for your anger so that you can reach a resolution that will work for you not against you. Assert your feelings, don’t aggressively strike out.”
He was mulling that over when she added, “We’re going to talk some more next week about how to respond instead of react. It’s called anger management.”
Tomás navigated through women in the lobby to exit the center. Women’s substance abuse groups met on Wednesday nights at the community center. He approached one of them saying, “Rosie?” He couldn’t believe it could be the Rosie he knew from high school. She used to look so fresh and perky. Now, she was really strung out and not even clean. She said, “Hey Tomás.” Then, he saw Donna who he had already known to be street-savvy. He greeted Donna, and asked about Rosie. “Is Rosie on Meth?’ he asked Donna. Donna rolled her eyes and answered affirmatively saying, “Meth became Rosie’s master. She’s been running with an awful crowd and down the slope of that kind of life.”
“How about you, Donna?” Tomás asked.
“I got busted. Now, I’m on probation,” replied Donna.
“You can turn your life around, you know,” encouraged Tomás as he walked toward the exit.
He called Sylvia to inquire about her plans for the night ahead.
“Bueno,” she greets the caller.
“Bueno, mi amor,” croons Tomás into her ear.
“Where are you?’ she asks him.
“At the community center, but I’m leaving. Shouldn’t we spend the night together?”
“Yes, hot stuff. Come over now and play a bit with Julio before he goes to sleep,” she proposes.
“Bueno, he agrees and hangs up. “We should spend every night together,” he thinks to himself.