A man called Rodriguez flew out of Los Angeles on Thursday to live in Spain, leaving behind a driveway stained with his wife's blood and the angry memory of an episode of brutality that transformed their dream into a nightmare. "Criminals took our future," he said to me the day he left, "and they tore it to shreds. I don't know if we'll ever come back." And then he cried.
Rodriguez isn't his real name. He was afraid to have me use it, he said, because he still has relatives living in America and doesn't want them hurt, an irony not lost in a nation long glorified as a haven for the oppressed. You might recognize his real name if you heard it. He was a soccer star for 20 years in Latin America and Spain, and at his retirement was being paid $1 million a year.
After months of searching, Rodriguez bought a house in an affluent area of the San Fernando Valley and took a year to turn its 6,000 square feet into the kind of home he had always wanted for his family. They moved in two days before Christmas: Rodriguez, his wife, a teen-age daughter and a younger son.
"This is where we would stay," he said in a voice that trembled. "This is where we would put down roots." But on Thursday, Jan. 12, on a driveway that has come to symbolize his family's anguish, the dream died. It was only 20 days old.
We'll call his wife Elana. She left their dream house at 2 in the afternoon to shop and meet their daughter. Rodriguez was visiting friends. Later, he would pick up a car that had been shipped from Spain. Colombian-born, he had lived in the United States for 22 years but also held Spanish citizenship to play for Spain's national team, a situation that kept him continually on the road. But now all the wandering, all the road trips, all the instability was over. They were family again. They were home.
Elana parked her 1987 Mercedes in the driveway. She and Maria, 16, were about to get out of their car when both doors were abruptly jerked open. Two men in their 20s pulled them onto the driveway, grabbed their purses, ripped off their jewelry, punched Maria once and began a vicious and unprovoked beating of her mother. Not a word was said. They took the Mercedes and left Elana unconscious on the driveway, her blood staining the concrete. Maria screamed, "They've killed my mother!"
Both women suffered concussions. Maria's eye was blackened and an ear torn when her earrings were ripped off. Elana's shoulder was dislocated by the fists that pounded her with lunatic frenzy. Rodriguez says there wasn't six square inches of her body that wasn't bruised. "'When I got to the hospital, the first thing she said to me was 'Let's get out of this country.' "
Elana was hospitalized for three days. On the day of her release, she and their two children left for Spain. They never set foot in their dream house again.
Rodriguez went back to the house last Sunday. He saw his wife's blood on the driveway, like crimson patterns of evil etched in concrete. "I went crazy," he said. "I smashed doors, I kicked walls. When I left, I knew I would never go back to that house again. I had movers take everything and ship it to Spain. I gave the keys to my brother. I don't care what he does with the house. The dream is over."
In two hours Rodriguez would catch a plane to Madrid. Would he ever return to America? Had the violence against his wife and daughter translated to hate for the country he once loved? There were tears in his eyes, but his jaw was set in anger. They would surely come back to visit relatives, but as for living in America again . . ." I don't know," he said. "I just don't know."
What he hates is not the country. "There is crime all over the world," he said. "We are just another statistic. I don't accuse the United States. I accuse those men who took my future in this country away from me."
The tendency is to mock a rich man fleeing from an incident that most likely will never be repeated; to chide him for so hastily abandoning the dream of a lifetime, like a soldier surrendering a hard-won mountain top. But who am I to judge the depth of his family's terror? Fear, someone wrote, leaves a rusty taste, and anyone who has ever been afraid, either for himself or for someone he loves, knows how long the taste can last.
I keep thinking about the stains of blood on the driveway and the tears Rodriguez shed for his dream in America. In ways we may never understand, he cries for us all.