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Eloise had been pretty then, and young, something of a beauty, and there was a coolness about her that drove him into a frenzy. He begged, he pleaded, he courted, he wanted desperately to marry her, and the more he pursued her, the more aloof she was. It took him almost two years to convince her to become his wife. He had wanted children almost immediately, had bought her a lovely house, and he was so proud of her he almost crowed every time he introduced her. But it took him nearly another two years to convince her to have a baby. She always said she needed more time. And although she never said it openly, having children wasn't really what she wanted. Her own childhood had been so unpleasant, she wasn't particularly attracted to the idea of having children. But it meant so much to John, that eventually she relented. And regretted it almost immediately after. She had a difficult pregnancy, was violently ill almost to the very end, and the delivery was a horror she knew she would never repeat and always remember. In Eloise's mind, despite the adorable pink bundle they placed in her arms the next day, it simply wasn't worth it. And it annoyed her right from the first to see how much attention John lavished on the baby. It was the kind of passion he had once had for her, and suddenly all he seemed to think about was Gabriella . . . was she warm enough . . . was she cold . . . had she eaten . . . had someone just changed her diaper . . . had Eloise seen how sweet she looked when she smiled. . . . He thought it was remarkable how much she looked like his mother. Just listening to him, Eloise wanted to scream every time she saw her daughter.
Shewent back to her own activities rapidly, shopping, going to tea parties in the afternoon, and having lunch with friends. And more than ever, she wanted to go out every evening. She had absolutely no interest in the baby. She admitted to several of the women she played bridge with on Wednesday afternoons, that she found the child incredibly boring and quite repulsive. And the way she said it always amused them. She was so outspoken they thought it was funny. If anything, she was less maternal than she had ever been. But John was convinced she would come to it slowly. Some people just weren't good with babies, he told himself, each time he saw her with Gabriella. She was still very young, she was twenty-four, and very beautiful. He was sure that when the baby started doing more interesting things, she would rapidly conquer her mother. But that day never came, not for Eloise, or for Gabriella. In fact, when Gabriella started crawling everywhere, pulling at things, standing up next to the cocktail table and throwing ashtrays on the floor, she nearly drove her mother crazy.
"My God . . . look at the mess that child makes . . . she's constantly knocking things down and breaking things, and some part of her is always dirty. . . ."
"She's just a baby, El . . ." he said gently, scooping Gabriella up into his arms and hugging her, and then blowing raspberries on her belly.
"Stop that, that's disgusting!" Eloise said sternly, looking at him in revulsion. Unlike John, Eloise hardly ever touched her. A nurse they had early on had figured it all out easily and shared her thoughts with the baby's father. She said that Eloise was jealous of the baby. It sounded ridiculous to John, but in time even he began to wonder. Every time he talked to the child, or picked her up, Eloise got angry. And by the time Gabriella was two years old, Eloise slapped her hands every time she reached out to touch something in their living room or their bedroom. She thought Gabriella should be confined to the nursery, and said so.
"We can't lock her up in there," John objected when he found her in her room, whenever he came home from the office.
"She destroys everything," Eloise would answer, as usual looking angry. But she was even more so when John commented on what pretty hair Gabriella had, what lovely curls. It was the next day that Gabriella got her first haircut. Eloise took her to Best and Co. with the nurse, and when they returned, the curls had vanished. And when John expressed surprise, Eloise explained that having her hair cut was healthy for her.
The rivalry began in earnest when Gabriella spoke in sentences and would run down the hall squealing to see her father. Sensing danger near at hand, she generally steered a wide berth around her mother. Eloise could barely contain herself while she watched John play with her, and when he finally began criticizing Eloise for how little time she spent with the child, a chasm began to grow between Eloise and her husband. She was sick of hearing him whine at her about the baby. She thought it was unmanly, and frankly disgusting.
Gabriella's first beating occurred when she was three, on a morning when she accidentally knocked a plate off the breakfast table and broke it. Eloise had been sitting uneasily beside her, drinking her morning coffee. And without hesitating, the instant the plate fell, she reached over and slapped her.
"Don't ever do that again . . . do you understand?" Gabriella had simply stared at her, her eyes filled with tears, her face a mask of shock and sorrow. "Did you hear me?" she shouted at the child again. Her curls had reappeared by then, and the huge blue eyes stared back in confusion at her mother. "Answer me!"
"I sorry, Mommy. . . ." John had just entered the room and saw what was happening with disbelief, but he was so shocked, he did nothing to stop it. He was afraid to interfere, and make things worse. He had never seen Eloise so angry. Three years of anger, jealousy, and frustration were erupting from within, like a long-overdue volcano.
"If you ever do that again, Gabriella, I'll spank you!" Eloise said ominously, shaking the child by both arms until her teeth shook. "You're a very, very naughty girl, and no one likes naughty children." Gabriella glanced from her mother's face suffused with rage, to her father standing in the doorway, but he said nothing. He was afraid to. And as soon as Eloise was aware of him, she scooped the child up in her arms, and took her back to her room, and left her there, without her breakfast. She gave her a sharp slap on her bottom before she left. Gabriella was lying on her bed, whimpering, when her mother left her to go back to breakfast.
"You didn't have to do that," John said quietly when Eloise came back to the breakfast table for another cup of coffee. He could see that her hands were shaking, and she still looked angry.
"If I don't, you'll wind up with a juvenile delinquent on your hands one day. Discipline is good for children." His own parents had been kind to him, and he was still startled by Eloise's reaction. But he was also well aware that their daughter made her extremely nervous. Eloise had never been quite the same since Gabriella was born, and nowadays she was always angry at him about something. His hopes for a large, happy family had long since vanished.
"I don't know what she did to upset you, but it couldn't have been that awful," he said calmly.
"She threw a plate on the floor intentionally, and broke it. I'm not going to put up with tantrums!" Eloise said sharply.
"Maybe it was an accident," he said, trying to mollify her, and succeeding only in making the situation worse. There was nothing he could ever say to defend their daughter. Eloise simply did not want to hear it.
"Disciplining Gabriella is up to me," Eloise said through clenched teeth. "I don't tell you how to run your office," she said, and then left the table.
Within six months, "disciplining" Gabriella became a full-time job for her mother. There was always some fresh crime she had committed that required a slap, a spanking, or a beating. Playing in the garden and getting grass stains on her knees, playing with the neighbors' cat and getting her arm scratched, or her dress dirty, falling on the street and scraping her knees and getting blood all over her dress and socks was a particularly heinous offense that cost her her most serious beating to date, just before her fourth birthday. John knew of the beatings, and saw it happen many times, but he thought there was nothing he could do to stop Eloise, and even comforting the child afterward made it worse, and it became simpler to accept Eloise's explanations of why she had to beat, slap, or spank her. In the end, he decided it was best to say nothing, and he tried not to think about what was happening to their daughter. He tried to tell himself that maybe Eloise was right. He didn't know. Maybe discipline was good for children, if she said so.
His parents had died in an auto accident and there was no one he could talk to, no one he would have dared tell what Eloise did to Gabriella.
Gabriella was certainly a model child, she barely spoke, cleared the table carefully, folded her clothes neatly in her room, did everything she was told, and never answered back to her mother. Maybe Eloise was right. The results were certainly impressive. And when she sat at dinner with them, her eyes were huge in her face, and she remained completely silent. It was only unfortunate that her father came to mistake terror for good manners.
But in Eloise's less generous eyes, Gabriella always fell far short of perfection. There was always something more to scold her about, punish her for, or a new reason to give her a "spanking." Eventually the spankings became longer and more frequent, the slaps seemed to punctuate every exchange between them, the shakings, the sharp blows, the resounding slaps to every part of her body. There were times when John feared that Eloise might seriously hurt Gabriella, but he kept his comments to himself about the way his wife was bringing up their daughter. To him, it appeared that discretion was the better part of valor, and he did his best to convince himself that what she was doing wasn't wrong, and he was careful never to see the bruises. According to Eloise, the child fell constantly, and was so awkward they couldn't let her ride a bike or learn to roller-skate. The deprivations her mother inflicted on her were clearly for her own protection, the bruises a sign that she was as clumsy as Eloise declared her.
And by her sixth birthday, Gabriella's beatings had become a habit, for all of them. John avoided them, Gabriella expected them, and Eloise clearly enjoyed them. If anyone had said as much to her, she would have been outraged. They were for the child's own good, she claimed. They were "necessary." They kept her from becoming more of a spoiled brat than she was, Eloise would have explained. And Gabriella herself knew how truly bad she was. If she weren't, her mother wouldn't have had to hit her . . . if she weren't, her father would have stopped her mother from beating her . . . if she weren't, they might have loved her. But she knew better than anyone how unworthy she was, how truly terrible were her crimes. She knew all of it, because her mother told her.
And as she lay on the floor that summer afternoon, and her mother dragged her off the floor by one arm, and slapped her one more time before sending her to her room, she saw her father watching them from the doorway. She knew he had seen the beating and done nothing about it, just as always. His eyes looked mournful as Gabriella crept past him, and he said nothing. He didn't reach out to comfort her, he didn't try to touch her, he simply looked away, refusing to see the look in her eyes, unable to bear it any longer.