My mother can only fall asleep with a hitachi wand tucked between her legs. It is big and white—the thick handle alone is the size of an adult humerus bone, and atop it rests a large bulb the size of an adult’s fist. The bulb is made of a material that is probably plastic but feels like leather, and has myriads of small indentations that collect dirt, fluid—i.e. color, yellow-brown dots that, when the hitachi is turned on to the low setting, make the whole head appear yellow, like a crude pointillism; but on the high setting the opposite effect occurs, somehow the vigorous high speed vibrations, which are so rapid as to be insensible, like strobe lights which give you the impression that a rotating object is actually perfectly still, cause the discolorations to vanish completely, and the bulb is all white, pure white all over, the same color as the handle. My mother, I know, prefers the low setting—but even so I worry that overuse will make her completely numb, which would be a disaster, since it is the only way that she can fall asleep.
Usually when I come home from school, I can hear the rumbles of the hitachi from the corridor outside our apartment door, and I know my mother has fallen asleep. She does not like to use the hitachi at night, I am not entirely sure why, but as a result she sleeps only fitfully, restlessly, for an hour or so at a time, and it is good for her to take a nap in the early afternoon while I am at school. I suspect that she feels safer using it then in the belief that, given the context of the time of day, early afternoon when nothing exciting happens, our neighbors will assume that the electric growl that vibrates the walls adjacent to our apartment is just the sound of vacuuming. When I unlock the door, for a brief moment the whine of the hitachi trapped between my mother’s legs gains voice, as if imbued with newfound hope of escaping out the door, fleeing in echo down the corridor outside, but as soon as I shut the door behind me again, closing off the avenue of the sound’s reverberant escape, it becomes choked and flat again, though still petulantly loud. I lock the door behind me and twist the handle once to check. The kitchen is right next to the door; first I go there and check that the stove is off and no faucets have been left running; then I walk back to the door and take my shoes off and hang up my keys; then I walk past the kitchen again to the dining table and set down my backpack and jacket on my chair, the one closest to the kitchen; then I go the bathroom and wash my hands; then I go to the bedroom where my mother is lying on her side, legs tangled up in a blanket that is half on the floor, and I carefully reach over her body to unplug the hitachi from the socket in the wall next to the bed.
After that I close the bedroom door softly and go to the kitchen to make some food—my favorites are udon noodles with beef and chicken stock, or waffles. If I make udon noodles, I make twice as much as I want to eat, and leave one clean bowl with two clean spoons and two clean sets of chopsticks in it next to the stove; if I make waffles, I plug in the toaster, make two waffles, which is exactly as much as I want to eat, and unplug the toaster. Then I sit down with my food at the dining table and either read, or start my homework. Usually I have time to finish all my homework and get through at least a few chapters before my mother wakes up.
Sometimes the doorbell rings, which is okay. Usually it is either the mailman coming to deliver a check or a package for my mother from her agent, or it is the Watchtower pamphlet man who comes around on Tuesdays for Bible study. But today is not a Tuesday and my mother did not shower this morning; usually my mother is happy and lively on the days she is expecting something from the mailman, on those mornings she wakes up even earlier than me and I hear her showering as I get ready for school, and when I come to the dining table she is dressed in a lovely flowery gown that is so loose and formless that it insistently suggests the nakedness of her thin frame underneath, the places where bone makes its shape known and the places where it does not, and she shows me a painting or a print from a book of art she has written, and chatters on about the people she was with when she saw the piece of art first, and what thoughts it made her think, and which bits of those thoughts she shared with the people she was with and which bits she decided not to share with those people at that time but which she ended up sharing with the whole world by including it in her writing, and which bits she had not shared with anyone for all this time and which I must be absolutely careful not to divulge to anyone because they were such naughty, important secrets. But this morning, as usual, I did not hear the sound of the shower when I got out of bed, and so I knew she would never get out of bed for the rest of the day except to go to the kitchen and eat udon noodles standing up and naked, her bones so starkly visible in their unlovely angles that they obscure the general form of her body, and she appears all over merely a quaint collection of kindling, naked because she refuses to put on clothes when she feels she is dirty, the clothes are too clean and thus too good for her sweaty, bed-sticky body.
So today the doorbell rings, and it is not necessarily okay, because today is not a Tuesday, I am sure, and today, my mother did not shower, and she is asleep. Today is not as usual, there is something wrong with today.
Today when the doorbell rang I sat very still and straight in my chair for a minute. It was five pm and the light that came through the window was very yellow and made striations in my eye, in which dust particles slid like so many Irises down the rainbow lines. Instead of answering, I watched a squirrel outside the window nibble insistently on the trunk of an oak tree, as if it would find a treasure trove at the center. The doorbell rang again, and only a second later, again. I stood up and walked through the kitchen on the way to the door and picked up a small knife in my right hand.
I walked carefully, but not too carefully; I don’t have to walk too carefully, because I know how to place my feet so they never make any sound against the floor; once I arrived at the door, I saw and subsequently remembered that the peephole was about a foot and a half above my head, and required a small lever to be pressed down on the side to open it up, so that even if I stood back to compensate for my lack of height, which I would not have been able to do anyways due to the wall of shoes and shoeboxes stacked up behind me as barrier between threshold and home, I would not be able to see anything through the small oval hole at all, not even a bit of light. Realizing this, I put down the knife on the floor next to the door and walked back to the dining table, and carefully carried my chair back through the kitchen to the door, taking extra effort this time, since the chair gave me extra weight, to ensure my heavier steps made no sound against the floor, and I carefully set down the chair between the door and the wall of shoeboxes behind it, and climbed up onto the seat of the chair on my knees, then my feet so that I could face the door, press down the lever with my right hand and steady myself against the door with my left hand as I looked through. To my disappointment, there was nothing there to be seen, only darkness that straining did not alter in the slightest, as if my eyes were closed. I could not tell if this was my error, if there was another latch somewhere which I was meant to depress, or if the peephole had been covered up from the outside. Or perhaps the peephole never worked at all; although I had seen my mother use it and she had always seemed satisfied, so perhaps it was the kind of thing that only worked when you knew what you were expecting to see.
There was nothing to be done. I had to open the door now, there was no way to delay it.
Once when I was much younger my mother gave me a book of Japanese prints by an artist named Hokusai, and she told me, “This is Hokusai, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, he was one of those people who lived in two centuries, and not just a few years in one and mostly the other, either, but nearly half in each, like me.” Then she added, kneeling down to see my face better, since I was very short on account of being so young, though even then I looked exactly like her, and even more so by now, as I have grown to nearly her height, and especially so today, on account of the flowery gown I am wearing, “You will never live in two centuries, you’ll be lucky to see the second half of this one,” which just sounded like gloating. There were many interesting prints in the book, and many pictures of naked women who looked very different from my mother, and sometimes both pleasing categories overlapped in a single, extremely pleasing, print. My favorite print was one called “Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife,” in which two octopi, one big and one small, with dark sideways-lidded eyes and bulbous heads like my mother’s hitachi, wrapped their tentacles around a reclining woman as if to make a soft bed for her with their own strong limbs so that she might have sweet dreams. It was my favorite print from the book because my mother said it was her favorite print, and she often closed her eyes and shuddered a little all over when staring at it, as if shaking off a dream or memory. Because she stared at it deeply, as if there was much meaning to be gleaned, I often stared at it too, and started to notice small details I hadn’t noticed before—for example, it took me a while before I even noticed the second, smaller octopus, which was at the reclining woman’s head and wrapped its tentacles around her neck as if to hold it up, but did so ineffectually, since the woman’s head was nonetheless tilted far back at an angle that must have been uncomfortable, and even after I noticed that detail it was a while before I realized that what the octopus was doing with the tentacle between its eyes was meant to be kissing her, and then it took me even longer after that to notice that the little octopus had the tiny end of one tentacle curled around an erect nipple. When I noticed that final detail, I became suddenly disgusted with the print, and tore out the page so I would not have to look at it again, because there was something about the insidiousness of that single thin talon curled possessively around the woman’s nipple that made me want to tear off the entire limb with my bare hands and eat it, chew it to string, as it wriggled against my teeth. As a result, it had been several years since I had looked at or even thought of the print, but I suddenly recalled it in exact detail as I stood at the door which I had just now opened and compared my perfect memory of the print to the figure I saw before me, in shocked amazement that the comparison did not fail or outshine the reality, as at the door now stood the exact embodiment of the smaller octopus from the print, in a suit, which nonetheless did not disguise his long, beaked nose and circular eyes wide open with shock, in which his pupils stood out like dark crescents, and his enormous, mushroom-shaped head, where wrinkly folds stood out on a glassy, nearly gelatinous forehead.
The little octopus cleared his throat nervously. “Excuse me, you’re not… you wouldn’t happen to be,” he whispered, so softly I could barely hear. “Not… Tamako?”
“No, of course not,” I informed the octopus. “That’s my mother.”
The octopus sighed deeply and drew his hand over his shiny, wet forehead, then held it out to me at the end of an improbably long arm. “Little girl,” he said, and hesitated when I made no motion to shake his slimy, insidious hand. “What a nice little girl,” he started again, and he lifted his long tentacle to my cheek, and licked me with it from temple to collarbone before retracting it, leaving a sweat-trail down the right side of my face. I shuddered in anger and wanted to slap the tentacle away but it was gone already, and the octopus was much taller than me and stood far enough away that to reach out and strike him, I would have had to let go of the door I was holding open and step through it, which was unacceptable.
The octopus seemed to be emboldened by my inaction and became suddenly businesslike, straightening himself up and crossing his long arms across his chest with many tortuous twists. He began to speak again, without hesitation, and, in a slow drawl that managed to convey that there could be no more surprises for him, that every word he spoke was coupled to all those preceding and succeeding by gluey strands of salivary jelly, he explained to me that he was here to see my mother, to investigate complaints lodged by the neighbors that I was too often seen unsupervised, and that if I did not want the wrath of the august governing body of the Child Protective Services to fall down upon our household, I must absolutely allow him to enter into our home and look around wherever he liked and wait for my mother to come home, so that he might inspect her to his discretion.
I told the octopus, in the same supercilious tone with which he had spoken, that he must go away immediately, that my mother was home and only asleep in bed, and that he should be more concerned for his own wellbeing as my mother and I liked to eat seafood very much and very well might eat him if he wasn’t careful.
The octopus did not take this remark very well; the color in his massive face darkened and his iris-less pupils seemed to grow larger in his wide, lidless eyes. In a sudden, violent show of strength, he shoved open the door, tearing it completely out of my hand, and it knocked over the chair that I had placed behind the door, which in turn toppled the stack of shoes and shoeboxes behind it.
For a moment we both looked inwards, past the overturned heels and half-open boxes strewn across the floor, waiting in anxious anticipation to see if the commotion had awakened my mother. When, after a moment, the door to her bedroom did not open, we turned our attention back to each other with renewed intensity. The fear that had momentarily struck me, when the octopus drove the door open with far greater strength than I contained in my entire body, disappeared in the next moment as I contemplated what disaster he might wreak on my mother if I allowed him to pass through the threshold. That was the octopus’ mistake—he might have handled me alone, a weak young girl without illusions of invincibility, if he had not reminded me what was at stake. But in the moment after his transgression I knew instantly, and the knowledge thrummed through my whole body, that at no cost could I allow the octopus to wriggle his way into our home and our lives, for my mother’s sake. I pulled the door in sharply, so that it was only open a small crack wide enough to be completely blocked by my body, and braced it with my foot, prepared to have it broken rather than give way. “You must leave,” I hissed at the octopus fiercely, letting all my anger show in my face. “Leave now, before you get hurt.”
The octopus uncrossed his arms, and the hard superciliousness vanished from his body. He became fluid, boneless, seemed to expand to twice his original girth, so that the suit nearly burst off of his body, as if he no longer cared to uphold the disguise. I gathered that he had decided to treat me as a worthy adversary, rather than a lowly gatekeeper. In a persuasive, almost sycophantic tone, he conceded that I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and had an admirable fierceness of spirit that would serve me well in the world, but that “a woman like your mother has needs, you know, needs that a young girl cannot possibly understand yet… A woman has dreams, which she can never share with an innocent young girl, and all the same she cannot help having such desires… Would you hold her back from that? Would you be so selfish as to prevent her from ecstasies you could never be a part of? I know you care for her more than that…”
“Let her go,” he whispered, his tentacles caressing my ears. “Let her go, let her go, you are not enough, let her go…”
I was afraid to move my arms from the door in case he took the opportunity to burst it open again, but his tentacles were moving over my whole face now, blocking up my nose and eyes and lips, and I shook my head madly to free myself, to breathe, but it was relentless.
“She doesn’t need you!” I gasped out, as a tentacle wormed its way next to my tongue. I could taste the salty sweat that covered it, and gagged. “I help her with everything, anything she needs,” I told him, still gagging.
“You don’t know everything,” he hissed, and swaddled my entire head as if to wrench it off of my spine in the next second. I pulled back, but he was much stronger than me, and had so many more limbs, while I had none free as long as I maintained my hold on the door. I began to see darkness, as if my eyes were closed even though I was straining to open them, and was suddenly afraid that I would die like this, a swollen head without a body, stuffed up and tossed around like a toy, and a sudden strength surged through me, borne not of my will but my body’s simple desire to remain attached to itself, to remain one whole inviolable object even if it no longer carried my life. With the sudden, nerveless strength that pulsed through me, I pulled the door open and slammed it as hard as I could against my own head, which loosened the tentacle hold on me just enough so that I could wrench my head free and slam the door closed.
But a few tentacles were still wedged in the crack, wriggling around the door to lash my hand and lick the door handle. And a voice from a head I could not see intoned, “I have owned her long before you were even born,” but it was so loud that I could not tell if it came from within, from behind the bedroom door where my mother surely lay asleep, or if it echoed through the crack in the door. I knew it must be a trick, the octopus meant to distract me, make me look behind myself rather than focus on the danger in front of me, so I did not respond, only inched the door closer and closer shut. The tentacles retreated one by one, until there was only one tiny finger left, curled in on itself as if trying to withdraw, and I realized the only reason it could not withdraw was because there was no room to. With no tentacles left for leverage, the octopus could only rely on my mercy, on my decision to open the door again and potentially sacrifice my victory.
There was nothing left to do. I braced the door with my whole body, picked up the knife that I had left on the floor next to the door, and in one swift move sliced the writhing talon off. The door clicked shut, and I swiftly locked it, twisting the handle to check. The bloody member spasmed on the floor, wriggling as if it could be reunited with its genitor if it was only brave enough to struggle a little longer.
I left it—it was a mess I would prefer to clean up later, when all the struggle was gone.
I went to the bathroom to wash my hands; then I went to the bedroom, where my mother lay still sleeping on her side facing the wall, her black hair splayed out all over the pillow, a few sticky strands glued to her pale cheek. I stood by the door watching her for a moment, a possessive urge to do something rising in my gorge, but I did not know exactly what it was I was supposed to do, so I breathed deeply to release the emotion from my chest.
I approached the bed where my mother lay and carefully set my body down next to my mother, arranging my limbs so that I was embracing her from the back. As soon as I touched her, she startled for a moment, a panicked look in her eyes, but then she realized her hitachi was still tucked between her legs and hidden away out of sight within the tangled blankets, and she relaxed. As usual, she lies to herself that she must have managed to turn the hitachi off on her own before falling completely asleep, rather than allow herself to consider the possibility that I might be willing to help her with her needs. It’s a silly instinct, but a tender one.
My mother snuggled into me with a sigh of pleasure. “My, you’ve gotten strong,” she purred, her voice husky with sleep. “Your body is so hard, like a man’s—you should not play so much with the boys, it’s not becoming for a girl.”
My mother says things like this often, but she does not mean it, not really. After all, she is bony herself, not all soft curves like the naked women in the book of Hokusai prints. And we both know she is very pretty.
I moved her hair gently off of her cheek and behind her ear.
“I think my father came to the door, today,” I whispered.
“Did he really? Did you slay him as I taught you to do?” she murmured back, half-asleep.
“I did… I did,” I told her.
“Good girl, that’s my girl,” she said, not even knowing what she was saying, and rolled over into me to sleep some more.
One day in June, Dad found a foot in a men’s size 11 Adidas shoe lying out near the salt flats. My first thought was that there must be an ocean around, even though I knew that was impossible, that the salt flats had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’d never even seen the ocean outside of a magazine or sometimes a TV show, and even then I had the feeling that I wasn’t really seeing the ocean, that it wasn’t the same as actually being there. But the foot seemed like the kind of thing that could only wash up on shore from a faraway land, like a message in a glass bottle with a cork as a cap.
Rosemary and I bent our knees slightly to look at it, pinching our noses. I stayed slightly behind. I couldn’t help but think about who the foot would belong to, what a man in the Mojave would look like hopping around with a foot missing. Maybe he’d post a sign – Missing: Size 11 foot in a size 11 shoe. White. Hefty reward if found and returned to rightful owner in original condition. Dad bent down to look closer. He reached out and touched the shoe softly, rubbing the untied white laces between his thumb and forefinger. After a second, he looked up at us, squinting in the bright sun. “It’s a left,” he announced.
That summer, I was always on the lookout. I couldn’t help it. Mothers with daughters, mothers with sons, mothers with twins, mothers with their mothers, mothers with fathers, mothers with pets, mothers in swimsuits, mothers pushing strollers, mothers expecting, mothers eating hamburgers, mothers with broken bones, mothers with spit-up on their sweaters, mothers wearing white dresses, mothers wearing lipstick, mothers with slicked back ponytails, mothers drinking coffee, mothers with tennis rackets, mothers with damp hair, mothers driving vans, mothers singing, mothers with pearl earrings, mothers crying quietly, mothers wearing aprons, mothers with their hair pinned up, mothers alone that were inexplicably still, above all else, mothers. I couldn’t help but stare.
On the last Thursday of May, right after Rosemary and I finished school for the summer, we all drove north from St. George to Bonneville for the summer. Dad had a job helping prepare the salt flats for Speed Week at the end of August, when people descended from all over for the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials. It was rumored that one contender, Guy Martin, was hoping to break all records with a 1,000 horsepower motorcycle. I was mostly excited to spend the summer on the salt flats. Dad said that in the early morning on really hot days, the heat waves rose up and shimmered until it looked like a shallow lake again.
The drive was almost six hours long, and the whole way up we listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, our toes pressed against the windshield. To our left, the highway curved steeply and grasses in shades of green, yellow, and purple seemed to stretch on forever. As we drove, the canyons ahead of us seemed to ripple, faster as we drove closer.
This summer, Dad announced, our project was going to be learning Spanish. We were going to do a word each day, and then by the end of the summer we would be able to say a few sentences each. I loved watching Dad speak Spanish more than I loved hearing it, the way his mouth moved differently when he said words like amor or vidorra, how it changed his whole face. Spanish words never sounded right when I said them, like I was trying to talk with my mouth full. Rosemary barely even tried.
Sometimes, Dad would take us out to see the strange things he found in the desert. Mostly me, because after Rosemary turned seventeen she started staying in our room more, sometimes reading or watching TV even though I could tell part of her secretly still wanted to come with us. Sometimes I find her lying in bed, one cheek resting on her bent palm and her legs crossed behind her, thumping one heel after another on the dark wooden headboard of the bed.
“What’re you looking at?” I’d ask her, standing next to her and gazing out the window, wondering if there was something she was seeing out there that I wasn’t, but never more than the occasional lizard or spiny mouse scuttled across the salt flats as far as I could tell.
“I’m just thinking,” she’d say. “That’s all.”
The salt flats were in the center of Bonneville, the only thing left over from the Pleistocene lake that once covered half of Utah, spilling over into Idaho and Nevada. No one knew exactly when it was first discovered but Dad told me it was sometime in the 1830s. A U.S. Army officer exploring the mountains stumbled across the white and dried up land, stretching on for miles of nothing to the South. He must have thought for a second that he was on the surface of the moon. In the summer, the light reflected so brightly off of the flats we could barely keep our eyes open.
One Sunday, around the first week of June, we made our first trip into Salt Lake City, driving across the cracked flat surface of the flats before turning onto the highway. The truck moved up and down slightly as we drove over each crack, and Bob Dylan’s voice warbled in time with the motion. Dad told us about a restaurant he loved called The Blue Plate Diner. It served breakfast all day and stayed open past midnight for truckers driving home late. He and Mom had gone there once, before we were born, which made even Rosemary smile. We piled into the truck – first Dad, wearing an old grey baseball cap, then Rosemary, her long blond hair swinging in a ponytail, and then me. As he pulled onto the main road, I looked over at Rosemary and realized how different from me she looked. She was wearing a yellow sundress with a blue ribbon belt tied around her waist, and her lips looked too red for chapstick. I wrapped a loose string on my short hem around my index finger and pulled, but it only crinkled the fabric more. Today’s Spanish word was el cuervo. Crow.
I studied our feet against the windshield. Rosemary’s feet were softer and her toes were longer than my own, her toenails carefully painted a shade of pink so light it was almost white in the sun. Mine were chipped and mostly red and slightly different sizes, I realized, pressing them and releasing them against the windshield so they left little white marks on the glass. I crossed my ankles before Rosemary noticed.
Dad grew up in Cuba before and during the revolution. He was only in elementary school, a few years younger than me, when Fidel took over. Nothing much changed until one day, his father, a tailor who owned a small shop on the side streets of Havana arrived at work to find the doors and windows bolted shut, a sign taped to the glass: Property of the Government.
Fidel’s soldiers would march into his school, the kids sitting upright in pressed white and blue uniforms with matching vests and knee-high socks. The soldiers would burst in the classroom without warning, sometimes when the teacher was in the middle of a lesson, and then he’d have to stop whatever he was saying and stand to the side while the soldiers filed into the front of the room. Sometimes, kids would cry out, and the soldiers would laugh and laugh until finally someone, maybe the Captain, would say that there was nothing to be afraid of.
“Close your eyes and ask God for a piece of candy,” they would command, and Dad and the rest of the boys in his class would press their eyes closed and knees together under the desk while the soldiers walked up and down the aisles of desks as if they were preparing an army for battle. Upon the soldiers command, they would open their eyes and look down, and find nothing on their desk but papers and their pencil boxes. “Now close your eyes and ask Fidel for a piece of candy,” they would say, and once again command them to look and they would look and sure enough there would be a piece of candy on their desk, a fat toffee wrapped in translucent white paper twisted closed on both ends or a round red gumdrop in black paper dotted with tiny gold flecks.
Dad came here when he was only thirteen along with more than 13,000 other Cuban kids. They came alone. It was called Operation Peter Pan. He was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Wyoming. Their parents were all supposed to come join them just a few months later, but some took years to come and some, like Dad’s parents, never came at all. “The nuns who ran the orphanage taught me two rules,” Dad said. “Don’t lie, and don’t steal. Of course, they never said don’t fight and so the older kids used to pick on us all the time, especially when we first got there and only knew Spanish. But I’ve never forgotten those two rules, and you girls should live by them, too. Everyone needs something to live by,” he said.
“Says who,” Rosemary said, crossing one ankle on top of the other and pressing all ten toes against the windshield.
“God,” Dad said.
Dad was always finding things out in the desert. Mysterious things—like a concrete arrow seventy feet wide and crumbling a little around the edges, so massive we thought was a mistake if the greasewood hadn’t grown so patchy around it so we knew it was there for a reason. I thought it was made by aliens, a pathway that could lead across the entire Mojave to some kind of buried treasure, like an underground city.
Rosemary always said that was stupid, but she was five years older than me and was always telling me what I didn’t know even though I didn’t really think she knew much more than me. But that never stopped her from always reminding me that she had spent five years and two months and twenty-seven days longer on this planet than I did, and didn’t I know how much more she had seen than me? To which I always thought, with some kind of vicious joy that scared me a little bit, that it was only fair that Rosemary would die before me.
Rosemary and I sat on the couch side of the booth with red pleather seats and Dad sat in a chair across from her, his arm resting across the empty seat next to him. The menus were as thick as phonebooks, with carefully laminated double-sided pages divided into neat sections with little tabs on one side.
At the front of the diner, there was a young mother with short red hair tucked behind both ears sitting with a young girl and boy at one of the booths, dishes of applesauce in front of them. The boy said something and she laughed and laughed. She reached over and tucked her daughter’s hair, red like her own, behind her left ear. I didn’t blink; I didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
The waitress came, and smiled wide so you could see all of her teeth, even the bottom ones. Her nametag said Molly in capital letters. I ordered a double cheeseburger with a side of half French fries and half onion rings, and a chocolate milkshake. Rosemary ordered next.
“I’ll have a diet Coke,” she said, “and a side Caesar salad.”
Dad picked a chicken-fried steak and a piece of banana cream pie and the waitress smiled at us again, her red lipstick seeping into the cracks in her teeth as she gathered the menus. Women like Molly always smiled at my dad when they saw him with us. Like they felt sorry for him a little.
Dad disappeared sometimes, usually for a few days and never more than a week, unhitching his red truck from the front of our trailer and waving to us until he pulled away. It was kind of fun when he was gone—like we were two orphans, like the Boxcar children or Dad when he first came to Wyoming. No one told us when to go to bed or to close the windows so bugs wouldn’t get in or not to eat ice cream sundaes for breakfast. When he did have to leave without telling us, he would leave a note on the kitchen table and some extra groceries on the counter or in the freezer—12 or 13 clementines with tiny, sharp seeds wrapped in bright pink netting, cans of Pepsi for Rosemary and Coke for me, five or six boiled eggs on the counter with a plate over top to keep them warm, tubs of mint chocolate ice cream in the freezer.
And he always came back. He brought back souvenirs from his trips—creosote bush, honey in little glass jars with a piece of blue and white checked cloth over top, black t-shirts that read Peppermill Casino in red and yellow curly letters. My favorite gift was a tall white, blooming flower with glossy leaves that came in a glass jar with a little soil sprinkled at the bottom. It was a ghost flower, he explained. Instead of chlorophyll, it got energy and life from tree fungi. It looked like a strange plant that could grow only on the moon or miles underwater.
Above all, Dad loved adventures. Sometimes, Dad would come into our room all excited, his cheeks red, and ask us to go on an adventure with him, like we were part of a secret plan. Even Rosemary couldn’t say no. Dad was like a child sometimes, the way he asked for things so you couldn’t refuse. Sometimes Rosemary seemed older than Dad, or at least more serious than him. But Dad was serious, too. Sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t looking I would catch him. His mouth turned down in a little upside-down U as he drove or sat with his feet up on the kitchen counter, and he would run his fingers through his hair five or six times in a row. But eventually he would notice me looking and as if waking up from a dream he would grin wide, a smile that seemed to change his face entirely, change him back into our father again.
“Girls,” Dad said, stretching back in his chair and lifting his arms like he wanted to touch the ceiling. For a second, I thought he would tip over but then gravity pulled him back to the table again. “I have some news.”
I picked up my water straw so it was just above the surface of the water and blew, watching the air ripple through the water and splash against the far side of the cup. I wondered if that was what it felt like to feel waves on your feet. Dad shifted in his seat. He kept staring behind our heads, at the door. When neither of us said anything, he continued.
“I—well, girls, there’s no easy way to say this. I wanted to tell you that I’ve met someone.”
Rosemary put down her glass of water. “What’s her name?” she asked. I stared at her.
“Stefanie,” my Dad said. He took out his wallet and unfolded it. He looked through the main compartment for a second and then pulled out a picture from between two tens, flattening it against the table with his thumbs and sliding it over to us. A woman with brown bangs held a tiny baby wrapped in white blankets, laughing at something behind the camera.
“What is this,” Rosemary asked, picking the picture up. There was something written in curly blue pen on the back.
“That,” Dad said, “is your sister.”
I picked up the picture and looked at it again. I looked up at my father and back down at the photograph. I put the photograph flat on the speckled, shiny surface of the table and smoothed out the rolled up corner with my thumb. I slid it back across the table to him. Molly the waitress arrived and set down plates, first Rosemary’s and then mine. I dipped an onion ring into the milkshake and popped the entire thing in my mouth. The onion was hot and oily on the inside, the milkshake icy and sweet on my tongue. I wanted to throw up. Rosemary stabbed a crouton with her fork and then dropped the whole thing back into the bowl with a clang.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “A sister?”
Dad smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Luciana. Luciana Mariana. You’ll love her. She just turned one. And Stefanie – she’s so wonderful. She wants to meet you girls so bad.”
“But I don’t want a sister,” I said. Dad’s mouth turned into an upside-down U, and he looked at me strangely. It shocked me how much I could hurt him. It delighted me.
The steak arrived, bathing in gravy. “It looks like an intestine,” Rosemary said quietly.
“Girls,” Dad said, “Chiquitas. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I didn’t want to keep this from you, I was just waiting to – figure out a plan.”
“I knew you were having an affair,” Rosemary said. “But we don’t need a sister.” I looked sideways at Rosemary and then across at Dad. I didn’t know who I hated more.
“I don’t want to hear about this,” I said. Suddenly, I realized I was yelling. “I just want to go home.”
I watched the family next to us stare, forks frozen in mid-air like they were watching a riveting TV special. It felt good to yell. It was like taking off tight pants.
Dad sighed. “Let’s have lunch first,” he said. “And then we can talk when you’re calmer. Okay?”
I said nothing.
“Rosemary,” he said, “please. Say something.”
Rosemary looked up at him. “You can fuck whoever you want,” she said. “You’re the adult.”
I had never heard Rosemary swear before, and Dad turned pink. I could tell she had done something that she could never take back.
“Don’t speak to me like that,” he said, and now he was yelling, too, even though his voice was barely a whisper. “I’m still your father.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Molly the waitress approach, stop, and turn on her heel, disappearing behind the counter.
“Yeah,” Rosemary said coolly, “whatever.”
She picked up my milkshake and drained the glass, her red lips a perfect circle around the thick white straw. She was looking at Dad like he wasn’t our father anymore, like he was a man she didn’t even know at all.
I started to cry. Rosemary jabbed my side under the table.
“Girls, I have to take another trip after this. It’ll be longer than usual, maybe two weeks, but maybe more. There are some things I have to help them with. You girls should come, if you want—but I figured you might have more fun here.” He looked at me. “I know you love the salt flats.”
“But why do you have to help them?” I said. I knew I was being selfish, but I didn’t care.
Dad suddenly looked very tired. “Because,” he said. “Stefanie might get deported. She doesn’t have the right kind of papers.”
“So she’s illegal,” Rosemary said. She crossed her arms over her chest. She was looking at Dad like she had never seen him before in her life.
“She’s not illegal,” Dad said. “People can’t be illegal. She came here illegally, when she was very young.” I knew only one illegal immigrant, a girl in my class named Maria. Her dad was a gardener and she wore her hair in two braids tied with pink ribbons at the ends. I was jealous that she had a mother to do her hair, even if she was illegal.
“I care about her very much,” Dad said. “And about Luciana. Kids need their fathers.”
“It’s not our fault we don’t speak Spanish,” Rosemary said.
“Of course it’s not,” Dad said. He used his fork and sharp knife to cut a bite from the steak, put it in his mouth, and chewed.
“I need to help my family,” he said finally.
“But we’re your family,” I said.
Dad reached across the table. Rosemary and I put our hands down in our lap.
“Of course you are,” he said.
Once, when we were really little, Dad spotted an old Chevrolet on the side of Highway 374, white paint peeling silver and the driver’s door flung open like someone was going to come back for it any second. He took Rosemary and I out to see it, waiting until dark because he said a fire is always more beautiful at night. The moon was huge above us, and Dad held the match while Rosemary and I doused the windshield and all four doors in lighter fluid from an old paint can. I climbed on top of the hood to coat the roof.
And after Dad finally dropped the match through the passenger window, the heat chased us away faster than we had ever run from anything before, like it was already under our skin. We heard it blow before we stumbled around to see, dizzy, and saw the whipping flames now twice as tall as us. And after all his talk, Dad didn’t even turn around to watch the show. He just crossed himself, lit a cigarette, and started walking home.
First, Rosemary and I wandered through the produce section, pulling fat red grapes off their dusty stems before popping them into our mouths. She didn’t speak to me and I didn’t say anything to her. Then we walked back and forth through the freezer aisles, past boxes of yellow and blue frozen food: chicken fingers, chicken strips, chicken tenders, chicken drumsticks, popcorn chicken, popcorn shrimp, mac and cheese in big zipped bags, black rectangular cartons of strawberry ice cream, cherry pie, apple pie, banana cream pie, chocolate lava cake, cheesecake, green beans, mashed potatoes, cubes of corn and carrots and peas, cylinders of pink lemonade, ice cream sandwiches, strawberry shortcake bars, red white and blue push-up pops, pepperoni pizza, corn dogs, chicken pot pie, enchiladas, Chef Boyardee lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs. The cold air felt good on my arms. I wanted to climb inside a freezer case until it was so cold I wouldn’t be able to feel anything.
In the center of the Food Lion was a display of chocolates, towering high in a pyramid as tall as a Christmas tree. They were individually wrapped in gold and silver paper, no bigger than a pair of dice each. “Rosemary,” I said. I didn’t know what I was going to say next. She turned to look at me and something in her face changed; it got soft for a second. “Wait here,” she said.
I lingered by the frozen section and watched Rosemary walk up to the chocolate pyramid, turn her head a little to the left and then to the right, and then slip a small gold piece into the pocket of her dress before turning sharply to the left and walking away. I sped around the display and found her reading the ingredients on the back of a carton of yogurt.
“Rosemary,” I said, and grabbed her arm.
“Try it,” she said, and for a second I saw her eyes light up again the way they did when we used to play out in the desert as kids, chasing lizards or creosote bush, making up stories about our mother in a big house by the ocean. “Go on,” she hissed, pushing me forward a little bit. Around us, tired-looking mothers pushed carts full of boring groceries: broccoli, milk, white bread, square packets of green and red jello. I sidled up to the pyramid, looking for a perfect spot. Slowly, I picked up a piece, weighing it in my palm and pretending to study the gold letters printed on the packaging. When the man in the red Food Lion apron in front of Aisle 3 turned around to rearrange the shelves, I quickly stuffed it into the back pocket of my shorts and raced back to Rosemary. She seemed proud.
We linked arms and continued walking through the store, a few steps faster than our first round. Past the towering pyramid of chocolates again to the deli, which reeked of brine and hot dogs. Pallid halves of turkey lay in a glass mausoleum, wrapped in plastic netting and nestled in fake leaves.
“You girls need anything?” We looked up. A man smiled at us from under a red Food Lion baseball cap. He stopped right in front of us, so close I could see every detail of his face. He had birthmarks like mine, but more raised.
“We’re fine sir,” Rosemary said with a wide smile, a copy of Dad’s.
The man took another step towards us. His shirt, short-sleeved and plaid like the kind my teachers wore, strained slightly around his biceps as he leaned his elbows against the glass casing. His hands trembled a little above the block of provolone, something wet collecting in the holes.
“We don’t need any cheese,” I said. He moved away from the meat and around the glass casing. He wore clear plastic gloves that were too big for him.
“I’ve seen you girls here,” he said.
Rosemary grabbed my elbow and we took a few steps back. I looked around but the aisle was suddenly clear of people, the whole store seemed empty. “You like chocolate, don’t you,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“We really should be going,” Rosemary said. He put out his hand – he didn’t touch us, but I stopped as if he had hit me across the face.
“Listen,” he said, “I won’t tell.” His face split wide into a grin, but it looked nothing like our dad’s. “But you’ll have to do something for me back. Pretty girl like you.” He was looking at Rosemary. She wasn’t moving.
“Rosemary,” I said, tugging her arm. “Let’s go.” I grabbed her hand and began pulling her towards the front of the store. As we turned the corner, I could hear him laughing and the sound of the meat slicer whirring on again.
Outside on the concrete, Rosemary was trembling. It felt good to feel the sun on my arms again. “Where’s Dad?” he asked, and I scanned the parking lot for him while Rosemary watched the sliding doors of the Food Lion open and close behind us. I spotted the red truck parked at the other end of the plaza and Rosemary and I ran towards it, weaving among cars and trucks and shopping carts. He looked up as we were running towards him, and he broke into one of those giant smiles that changed his whole face, and I had never been happier to see it.
“Daddy,” Rosemary said. “I have something for you.” She put her hand in her dress pocket and pulled out the goldwrapped chocolate, holding it in her open palm. I did the same. Rosemary opened her other hand and inside was the twenty-dollar bill, crumpled like an old receipt. Dad looked at us and then down at our outstretched palms, and for a second I thought he might hit us. In one motion, he grabbed both pieces of chocolate and held them in his fist. For a moment, his eyes filled with something like tears, but when I looked again they were gone.
Most people know about Houdini. He was the illusionist who locked himself up in a milk can, filled it with water, and advertised that failure meant a drowning death. Few people know about his brother, Theodore Hardeen, who continued to perform the act long after Houdini died of appendicitis, a protracted, unnecessary illness that could have been cured had Houdini not been too proud to seek treatment. I used to wonder if it was an act of love or hate that impelled Hardeen to replace his brother. Now, I know why he did it. He did it because he could not do otherwise. He had lost an un-loseable person.
When my brother was ten years old, he convinced me to tie him up with fishing line and dump him into the pool. He fought so hard to get free, the wire cut into his skin. Blood blossomed in the water like ink. My mom jumped in with her clothes—hat and all—to drag him out. As she untied him with careful fingers, she shouted in French, looking lunatic with mascara streaking down her face. Merde, Luke! Tu vas te faire tué! Rage had a way of hijacking the part of her brain that knew English. Years later, he did the same trick with chains and emerged dry. Chilling stuff. He never was old enough to get famous, but he was gifted—a genius, too. He ate magic mushrooms before the SATs and fell just short of a perfect score. Later, he said he would have gotten a 2400 if his writing hand hadn’t turned into a Mackerel right at the end.
My brother was certifiably obsessed with Houdini, knew every single one of his escape acts. Once, when we were smoking in the basement—him, a joint, me, a cigarette—he told me, in that condescending way of his, that the brilliance of the act was in the wait. I can still see him on that ugly corduroy sofa, lanky body sprawled out, smoke rising up in the half-light, video game music in the background. His dark, almost grayish hair had grown so long that he peered through bangs. “You know he could instantly break free of those handcuffs—specially commissioned by the Daily Mirror, no less. He’s Houdini. But the audience waited for a whole hour while he struggled behind a curtain. That’s how you make them love you. You make them agonize, make them hate you, before you emerge, victorious.” In retrospect, I think Luke had a fanboy crush on him.
My parents probably knew that he was gay—it was in his voice and mannerisms—but no one ever talked about it. They were aristocratic French Catholics whose immigration to Massachusetts had done nothing to water down their conservatism. If this bothered my brother, he rarely let it show. The closest we came to broaching the subject was the night after prom when I brought my girlfriend home. She spent the night in my bedroom and left early the next morning, dressed in my sweats and clutching her silk dress in a turquoise ball. The moment she left, my father burst out laughing. My mother pursed her small mouth. “C’est pas un peut tot pour tout ca, George?” My brother sat at the marble kitchen counter, hunched over in his hoodie, likely hung over from some expensive drug, courtesy of my parents’ inexhaustible inheritance. “Du calme,” my father said, “he’s a healthy boy. It’s about time he started experimenting with” — I held up a hand. “Ok thank you.” My parents simultaneously glanced at Luke, who stood up and walked toward me, red eyed. “You are a lucky man, George Maillot.” Then he continued on past me, through the door, up the stairs and—slam—into his bedroom. That was the only moment in my life when I felt myself superior to Luke, something that shames me deeply now.
It would be wrong to say that my parents faulted my brother for his sexuality. To them, it did not exist at all. He never confronted them with it and was, as far as I know, completely celibate. I may have been the only one to notice the occasional crushes he had on his friends, which he expressed in sullenness and, often times, the sudden abandonment of the friend in question. He had no time for relationships, anyway. There were escapes to be conceived of, to be mastered. No teacher would have allowed him to perform such dangerous acts at school but he had a cult following who gathered in unexpected places—a lake, a rooftop, a shopping mall—to watch him perform feats of evasion that were slightly amateurish but always successful. Meanwhile, he nonchalantly aced every class.
In a way, my family worshipped him. We loved him in the only way you can love an imbalanced person: with crippling anxiety. There was something wrong with him, but he wouldn’t let us take him to a therapist. During his low points, he would spend hours sitting by the pool, stirring the water with his foot. “I don’t believe in therapy,” he’d say. We’d carefully tip toe around him, talk in low voices, offer him sandwiches, foie gras, cigarettes, pot, hard liquor, anything to make him happy again. We loved him so hard it felt like a hand squeezing our hearts. He would stop going to school, start failing tests. He would scream at my parents if they came into his bedroom—a cavern of mysterious objects: chains, cloaks, a saw, a large red box, a glowing fish-less fish tank. I was the only one granted admission and, when I cautiously entered, there was a moaning, whimpering lump under the blue comforter. “When will it be over, George? What if it never ends this time?” He was sixteen, then. I was fourteen, a child. I didn’t know when it would end. “Just escape it,” I whispered. “Faut l’évader completement.”
Then, for no reason at all, he would be himself again. He’d come downstairs, showered, eyes bright with Adderall. “I’ve got it! I’ll have the audience hold their breath with me while I’m submerged under water.” Dad would sigh and say that he should really discourage this obsession. But I could tell by the way he glanced at Mom that he was happy. They believed that Luke was perpetually planning an act he would never carry out. They had no idea that he had already risked his life many times. I’m not even sure they would have discouraged it. They were always cautious to protect anything that made Luke happy. There was something magic about his highs, those sharp, fragile bouts of ecstasy. Our house filled with the shouts and laughter of many friends who adored Luke and tolerated me. But his joy had the intensity and the lifespan of a flame. Remembering that time pains me now. It flares up in my memory, unbidden, a fire that burns.
It was during one of his highs that he mastered the swimming pool escape. He didn’t let me watch him practice but he let me be his assistant during the final rehearsals when his performance day drew closer. My role was to hand the long chain and the three padlocks to the audience so they could verify their durability. Then I would wrap the chain six times around his tall, thin frame, and lock the ends three times. The key I’d used would be tossed into the audience. I knew how he broke free of the chains—a second key under his tongue—but he never told me how he emerged from the swimming pool dry. Back then, I whole-heartedly believed it was magic. I realized later how he did it, very shortly after he died, but that’s between him and me.
The first and final swimming pool performance was on a weekend, a bright, hot Saturday, just a few weeks to summer vacation. That morning, when I went into Luke’s chaotic bedroom, I found him sobbing. It was so foreign to me that it took me a minute to understand the animal sounds coming out of his throat. I was instinctively disgusted, as anyone would be to see something unnatural: a missing limb, an open wound. I sat down beside him and waited for him to stop. When he quieted down, I reminded him that we were supposed to be rehearsing. We only had a few hours to the main event. Was he ready to go? We were so maddeningly ineffective at saying anything real to each other. As I recount the event, I find I have an irrepressible desire to put the right words in our mouths. Why are you so sad? Why are you so sad for no reason? His dark eyes reminded me of a panic stricken animal—wide and shining.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he said.
It occurred to me later that he wasn’t referring to the swimming pool escape. He turned his head and wiped his face with an old tee shirt that lay crumpled on his bed. A silence dragged out between us, a widening chasm across which no words could travel. I’ll always wish I had been different in that moment, had touched his shoulder, had said the embarrassing thing: I love you. Instead, I was sullen and quiet, angry that Luke could take no pleasure in being extraordinary.
The sun screamed off the surface of the pool, a noonday brightness that attacked the eyes. Our friends, all boys, drooped over lawn furniture and talked about girls with a world-weary knowingness that none of them had earned. Luke, who had never mastered the dramatic entrance, stood at the head of the pool in a faded orange bathing suit, waiting for everyone to quiet down. When they did, he gave me a nod.
“Ladies and gentleman,” I announced to a heckling crowd, “prepare yourselves for the premier of the great swimming pool escape, where failure means a drowning death! Hold your breath along with him and see how long you last.” I, on the other hand, had a real flair for drama, something that would serve me later in life. After a deep bow, I went to retrieve the chains from Luke’s red box.
There were a few hitches in the beginning. Nervousness got the best of me and I performed my role a bit too quickly, snatching back the chain and locks before anyone really had time to inspect them. My fingers were swollen from the heat and had lost all their dexterity. I wrapped the binding too loosely and Luke, usually obsessively precise, did not tell me to do it again. I chalked it up to nerves and went to join my friends. “Nice work,” one said sarcastically.
Luke stood a moment at the head of the pool, a lanky silhouette against the glare. I desperately wanted to be him in that moment, to stand before an adoring audience, backlit by sunlight, courageously trapped in shining chains. The drama of it was intoxicating. For a single, cutting instant, I hoped he would trip, fumble, do something that would make him ridiculous. If only for a moment, I wouldn’t have to feel the ache of my own comparative ineptitude. Then he dropped into the water with an anticlimactic plunk.
We gathered near the edge. The chains were much too loose and the boys started to complain, simultaneously forgetting that they’d been instructed to hold their breath. This was such bullshit! He could just wriggle free! But he didn’t wriggle free. He didn’t wriggle at all, just sank to the bottom and stayed there. Light patterned across his body, distorted by turbulence, giving the illusion that he was swelling and shrinking before our eyes. I tried to make out his expression, as if that would help explain his stillness. There had always been something powerful, almost wolfish, about his face. The dark skin, the long nose, the expressive mouth all spoke of a brutish, dynamic brilliance, a kind of primal knowing that seemed at once enlightening and dangerous. Now, his wide, thin, mouth was grinning in a way that could mean joy or pain or concentration. I felt a chill prickle the hairs on my neck. It seemed a long, long time that he lay there like that—a stretch of waiting that certainly hadn’t been necessary during rehearsal.
Then he began to struggle, moving his shoulders back and forth as I’d seen him do many times before. I realized that I had been holding my breath and took a long gasp of air. But then he hesitated. His head drifted as if listening for something, and he was still again. It’s strange, the things you’re capable of when overtaken by terror’s adrenaline. I leapt into the water before I’d ever decided to. A jolt of cold shocked through me and there was the splash of someone, Martin, following suit. We each grabbed an arm and kicked our legs furiously, exasperatingly slowly. As Luke struggled away from us, the chains dropped easily off his body. We broke the surface and he gasped, then jerked away, climbing out of the pool himself.
The boys scattered after that, escaping from something dark and frightening, something too terrible to look at squarely in the face, especially on a Saturday. We lay panting a while on the impossibly hot pavement. The beat of my heart was so furious, I could hear each surge of blood pumped out of my pulmonary artery—boom, boom, boom. Or so I imagined. Unnamable emotions hemorrhaged out of me, gushing out of invisible wounds. Something that had been coiled tightly in my chest, some heavy knot of fear, had come unraveled. Trembling, moaning, crying, I was so overcome that the bright sky, the blistering pavement, the cold, cold water, all seemed a fevered outward expression of my own agony. There was the sound of movement and then the feeling of Luke’s wet arms around me, squeezing me as if to save me from something.
His mouth was so close that his whisper vibrated painfully against my eardrum. “Don’t cry. I’m so sorry. Je t’en supplis, George. Don’t cry. I love you. I love you. I love you.” That was the last time Luke ever planned or performed an escape act. I think giving it up was the only way he really knew how to apologize.
Long before Luke began to suffer for no reason, our parents took us to New Orleans on spring break. We went on one of those ghost tours that, at the time, frightened and thrilled me. The guide told us that, in Louisiana, it was commonly believed that people had the capacity to leave an emotional imprint on a place. We stood in a wet park at night and it was true. It was as though some ghost’s suffering had forced a new frequency on the landscape. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion but we all shuddered with an alien sadness, one that passed through us but did not come from us. I think something similar happened at the pool that day. Except instead of sadness, the pavement we lay on was branded with love. Whenever I go home to visit my parents, who still rattle around that vaulted, haunted house, I always go and sit by the pool. If the weather’s okay, I’ll stir my foot in the water, and let it melt away the hardness that’s inside me.
Yes, I know why Hardeen attempted to replace his brother. The only way to bear losing someone you love is to become them. That is why, years after I found Luke in the garage, after I had gained some distance from the dark and reeling sickness, from the nightmares and the feeling of hard shelled insects scuttling inside my skull, I could think of no way to endurably live a single moment that wasn’t spent in homage to my brother. If Luke was a wild fire, I was the small flame he collaterally ignited. I ever burned for him because I owed him my light.
I have performed the swimming pool escape in New York, Las Vegas, Paris, and, when unavoidable, Boston. Whenever I jump off the diving board into the clear, glass tank of water—lit up in blue, red, purple lights—there is always a moment, once I’ve sunk to the bottom, that I decide I won’t come up. My fans have come to believe that this is a part of the act, equivalent to Houdini waiting behind the curtain. I lay still until the pressures of suffocation squeeze against my temples. And then, every time, I think of my brother squeezing his arms around me on the burning hot pavement and I begin to struggle free.
While my mother dozed I sat there thinking about Wamblan, which I’d also been thinking about on the commuter train that morning, a jungle river town near the Nicaraguan border with Honduras, and about Jacinto, who thought this mole in the middle of my left hand was a stigmata. Jacinto commanded the small FSLN base in Wamblan, a sort of special forces unit that would head out into the tropical forests and mountains hunting the Contra for weeks at a time. I’d ridden up from the Wiwilí base to Wamblan with a convoy of supply and IFA trucks, and almost as soon as I got there, Jacinto had agreed to let me accompany the troops headed out in pursuit of Contras who’d ambushed another Sandinista patrol in the area, the one true experience of jungle warfare I ever had. Over one night and two days, we chased them, marching in a long single column of troops through often dense jungle, crossing rivers where the currents came up to our chests, so close on the enemy’s trail that we were constantly in danger of falling into an ambush ourselves, and sometimes, when the German shepherd tracking dog leading the column had picked up a scent, or when the scouts up ahead had sent back an alert, we’d slow to a crawl, barely inching forward for hours though the soft green leaves and steamy buggy air. Once we came across a still smoking campfire, a lean-to of freshly hacked branches, we even found a piece of rolling paper tremblingly clinging to a spindly blade of grass, glowing in the sunlight like a tiny snow princess, I remember how Jacinto and some of the other soldiers stood around the piece of rolling paper staring at it as if it might blow us to smithereens, until Jacinto brought his boot down on it and everybody laughed. I saw an emerald toucanet, and imagined myself on a sixth grade morning telling Mrs. Tollander about it and earning my silver star. The Contra escaped into Honduras, deeper into that country than Jacinto wanted to follow, we’d already crossed the border anyway. The night after we got back to Wamblan, I lay in my bunk in the cramped little barracks, covered in insects bites and scratches, feet blistered, my bad knee stiff and swollen, listening to the pulsing electronic-sounding pandemonium of the tree frogs out in that jungle pitch darkness and stillness. Was that really me, lying in that bunk, having made it on my own to a Sandinista special forces base? Yes, that was you Frankie Gee, only a bit more than twenty years ago. And so what. What proof is there that a remembered event is any more meaningful than a fantasy that resembles it? Prove it. Prove the lasting value of experience. How is it better than reading about it? In the predawn dark, I was woken by a stirring in the barracks, someone had abruptly come inside, a light was turned on and I saw them, three soldiers, they wore the long beards often sported by Contra fighters and fatigues with the grey-beige-green tiger stripe pattern and pale green floppy hats of Contra uniforms, and I glimpsed haggard faces, one much paler than the other two, with long orange beard. They spoke in low voices to some of the other soldiers, by then the lights had been switched off again, and I heard a low voice say, The bodies are up on the hill, and another voice mumbled, though I was less sure of this, Son nueve, maybe he’d said, No mueven or No les mueven. The intruders slept in the barracks with the rest of us, quietly sliding into empty bunks, maybe with their boots and uniforms on. I was exhausted and slept deeply, and when I woke the trio of bearded soldiers dressed as Contras were gone and nobody in that barracks of mostly teenaged draftees said anything about them. Later in the morning a mist lay over the river, and Jacinto, his torso muscular and slender as a male ballet dancer’s, stood in the gleaming green water up to his waist, holding a tiny round mirror up to his face and shaving, while the Cindy Lauper cassette with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” I’d donated to the base was blasting from the base’s loudspeaker, I’d given them my DEVO cassette too, the soldiers were happy to have rock music to listen to. I undressed on the riverbank, and, carrying my own bar of soap in a little sandwich bag and a razor, waded into the cool, slow moving river water, so green and rich with jungle minerals. Finally I asked: So those are dead Contra up on that hill? I heard them say there are nine. Jacinto held my gaze for a moment, then barely shook his head no in a way that somehow suggested he really meant yes, maybe it was the way his eyes slightly widened. Do you remember what Jacinto did next, Frankie Gee? How could you ever forget. He held up his left hand, and with his razor touched the back of that hand in the same place where my mole is and held it there, and speaking emphatically if softly, he said: Nuestro Señor watches over you, and I responded: I wish, but it’s not true, Jacinto. That lunatic Sandinista—but a lot of them were religious like that, crazy Catholic Marxists—responded in that same calm tone: No Goliberg, God doesn’t do that by accident, put a mole like a nail head in the same place where the Roman’s nailed the Son to the cross. I was thinking, But didn’t those nails actually go in closer to the wrists? But I also knew that it’s popularly believed that people with stigmata bleed from the middle of their palms. Does this have anything to do with what happened last night? I asked. Sometimes what we call an enigmatic smile in reality is a loud shout, that’s how Jacinto smiled, and he pointed his index finger at me and went: Ahhhhhh, voice rising as if he was saying, You’re not going to trick me into talking. Jacinto thought my stigmata and the dead men on the hill were connected. Oh come on, vos, I pleaded, tell me what happened. Jacinto said: We came close to being ambushed the other day, chavalo, they were all around us. We had another column out on patrol on the other side, but I didn’t think they could reach the area in time, but joven Goliberg, they did, so it was the Contra that had to retreat, but not all of them, some followed us back to Wamblan, do you understand? We shouldn’t be here right now, Goliberg, in the river having our bath, and Jacinto gave a little shrug, as if it was obvious. I said: And this has something to do with the soldiers with the beards? They looked like Contras. Jacinto didn’t answer. But obviously they weren’t Contra, I went on, because they came into our barracks. Jacinto visibly laughed, or chuckled, but no sound came out. I said: So there were nine Contra up there on the hill. Plus three more who were ours, said Jacinto, his voice slightly louder than a whisper. Twelve Contra up on the hill, I repeated, and I posed the dumb question: Doing what? Jacinto said: They’d set up their mortars, they had RPGs, and they were about to fuck us, Goliberg. Jacinto held up his left hand again, and again tapped the middle of the back of his hand with his razor. I thought, He thinks Jesus intervened to save us, but then who were those three infiltrators, were they the Divine Swords of Our Lord or something like that? Jacinto had already turned and was wading out of the river and up onto the bank. So there are nine contra lying dead up there, I said to his back. Jacinto held up a hand and tick-tocked his index finger side to side. I looked over the rooftops of the little base, over the whitewashed headquarters built on sturdy stilts, “Uncontrollable Urge” blasting now from the loudspeaker nested beneath the bent eaves of the metal roofing, and up at the steep forested ridge or hill overlooking the town and the river, and up higher into the morning sky that was still a pale gray, where I don't recall seeing vultures still circling over the blood soaked ground where the bodies of the dead Contra had been left by their killers, ground I imagined swarming with ants and maggots and other insects, which made me wince. Probably they’d already been dragged off and buried by soldiers sent up at the crack at dawn, Jacinto must have supervised that operation, then come back down to have his contemplative bath in the river, following whatever trail of thoughts had led him to the conviction that the mole in the back of my hand had some relation to those Three Divine Swords of Our Lord, as if beaming them strength and blessing in their swift deadly work, saving us from a mortar and rocket barrage; three bearded Sandinista soldiers, infiltrators who’d been living at the side of those Contras, marching and fighting with them in the mountains and jungles on both sides of the Nicaraguan and Honduran border for who knows how long; in the Contra camps they would have undergone training by CIA masters in killing and infiltration long after they’d undergone similar training in Cuba, or East Germany, even Lebanon or Angola, their destiny being to finally arrive one night at their moment of ultimate testing on a hilltop overlooking Wamblan. Had they turned into whirling dervishes who slit the throats of their brothers-in-arms in a matter of seconds, snapped their necks with lethal karate blows, or was there was gunfire and we didn’t hear it? Later that afternoon I found out from some of the soldiers that the bearded men had left Wamblan by jeep just before sunrise, headed down to the military base at Wiwilí and back to Managua. To be debriefed by Sandinista intelligence, one impressed young officer told me, he said that probably there’d be secret ceremonies too, honoring their heroism and the success of their mission. “Now they’re going to pull in the net,” he said. He meant that the three bearded infiltrators would have collected information on Contra collaborators throughout that sweep of northern Nicaragua, and when that net was hauled in it was going to full of spies and informers drawn from the rural, mountain and jungle population, and I thought about what that was going to mean for many of them, and for those they left behind. A jungle Cold War spy novel set entirely among peasant farmers, I thought, imagine it written by Juan Rulfo, how cool would that be. I’ll always remember standing in that cool green water up to my waist after Jacinto got out, while Devo blasted out over the river, and looking up at the ridge and thinking about those nine who’d been killed up there, and about the children that at least some of them would have gone on to have if they hadn’t been killed that morning, and about the children those children would have had and so on, an infinitely-branching tree of non-existence climbing into the sky, war’s cosmic orchard. I wondered what the tree of my descendants was destined to be like, how high it was going to rise into the sky, or if this was as high as it was going to get, just me and my shimmery reflection in the river water.
“Maybe I will be more explicit about why is it that I am reticent to speak about love. It is because the discourse of love has continued absolutely unbroken through the transformation that interests me. America was conquered in the name of love. Today, people can be bombed in the name of love. So, if everything is love, if religion is love, and if love is everywhere, and, you know, all you need is love—then fine. It’s just that it appears that much more than religion and Church, people have killed each other in the name of love, in a way that is… brutal. And you would think by now it’s time that, rather than rave against the Church—not that there’s nothing to rave against, I am in agreement—why is it that no one is against love? Because it’s about time—no?—that we recognize the damages that love has done. Now please don’t construe me as some kind of pessimistic, solipseric whatever. But I don’t see any reason why it’s more justified today to criticize religion than it is to criticize love… I have people who tell me that they love so much that they will burn me to death. Then I say you have a peculiar way of love, but I’m not going to say, oh, you were lying. No, fine, this is your love. It’s one that burns and kills. You’re strange that way.”
– Gil Anidjar, FMK Beograd, On the Christian Question
In 1965, Tomás Paoli made love to a ciguapa on the sandy banks of the Ozama River. He would say later that he fell in love with other women, but my uncle is the kind of man who lies to himself. He would go on to survive several tangles with death, and no matter how many cigarettes he smoked, no matter the kind of trouble he got himself into, he lived to tell the tale of each dance with mortality. “God loves me,” he says these days, to himself as much as to the family. “I ain’t never gonna die!” Sixty-something and counting, he remains unmarried. Picks up women at the Port Authority GW bus stop on 178th Street, where he hangs out with his homeless friends, druggies and rehab rejects discarded by their families as he was by his. I’ve learned not to listen to Uncle Tomás, no matter what he tells me about the women he meets. He hasn’t fallen in love since 1965. In the end, the ciguapa was the only woman who reached his heart.
In 1958, Tomás and his brothers spent their days swimming across the Ozama River. Tomás was eleven, and his brothers were about the same age. They raced the neighborhood boys into the distant water, through the sun and heat, and by the time they reached the other side their friends would have only traversed two-thirds of the river’s breadth. The Paoli brothers were fast as barracuda in the dark blue waves. They had the stamina of bluefin and the lungs of whales. No one on the island could swim like they did, could lay strokes through the waves and kick into their wake without a splash, could last that many minutes beneath the surface.
Uncle Mike describes this to me at Thanksgiving. His four other siblings, their spouses, and their children have gathered around Titi Lourdes’s living room in the apartment on 169th, plates filled with steaming chicken and moro. Some of us sit on the couch or a chair, and others are standing. Conversation has scattered. Mom, Uncle Tomás, Uncle Carlos, and I listen as Uncle Mike describes one of the days they raced their friends in 1958. He relishes the memory. It looks as if he is about to close his eyes.
“Tomás was always ahead of us,” he says, shaking his head but smiling. I picture Tomás’s arms moving in and out of the river with the efficiency of a trained rower’s oar. The water would flow around him, filling his pores, eyes, mouth, ears, and nostrils with its cool touch. “But Carlos and I, we were close behind,” Uncle Mike adds. “Más o menos.Not that far. He thinks he was.” The neighborhood boys remained pricks of foam far away.
But young Tomás didn’t know that.
“He never looked back,” Mom explains to me from across the couch. There is salad stuck between her teeth. “Like those brothers in that movie. Gattaca.”
Uncle Tomás, seated beside me and smelling of cigarette ash, nods to her, swallows a glob of plátanos maduros, and points his fork into an invisible distance.
“Straight ahead,” he says, nose raised.
He kept swimming, already five-foot-three with arms as long as the trunks of baby trees.
The Paoli brothers climbed onto the opposite bank and collapsed into the sand and grass. Caked with grains of coral, salt, and seashells and basking in the sun like breaded fish on the frying pan, they turned onto their backs and watched the river of sky overhead. Tomás had never seen an ocean without waves, a river without rapids, a pool without ripples. The Dominican sky was not like this. This sky was a body no one, man or nature, had tampered with. One day, Tomás thought, I will swim those waters.
He turned to his brothers and smiled. “Too slow!” he stuttered. “I b-beat you again!”
“You had a head start!” Miguelito yelled back.
Carlos nodded, quiet but in agreement.
“You shoulda started faster,” Tomás replied.
Miguelito and Tomás stumbled to their feet, swinging at one another madly with arms heavy from exhaustion. Still they fought. “There are no Indians in our family,” their father, Rafael, used to say. “There are only Chiefs.” Miguelito tackled Tomás to the ground, dispersing sand as Carlos watched on. Mud and sand clung to their wet skin and their water-clogged swim trunks.
They wrestled until the other boys’ uneven, noisy strokes reached their ears. Tomás and Miguelito rose, bustling shoulder to shoulder, until the boys hobbled ashore, legs quivering. The three brothers stood.
These were the same boys who taunted Tomás when he was seven-years-old and mute. He still spoke funny to them. He still used the words they taught him. The bad words, words for maleducados. They were jealous that he was so blond. “Tan hermoso,” the mothers in the neighborhood would say. “The girls will go crazy for him.” Sometimes they would pay him to sit on their porch for an afternoon, a living decoration, because his hair was so blond and his skin so pearly white. Mom tells me the other boys didn’t like that someone their age, someone as blond and tall as Tomás, could be so slow to understand, that at first he could not distinguish their insults from praise. They didn’t like that he could outswim them and, eventually, beat them in a fistfight, a skill previously their exclusive domain.
In the long run, they won. Tomás may have been bound for handsome, but he didn’t stay that way. I know that now as I stare into my uncle's misshapen face beside me, a face that reminds me of fried plátanos, with a scar along his cheek like a ragged Martian canal. These days Uncle Tomás is loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, grimy, unshaven, and accompanied always by the ineradicable stench of cigarette smoke and smelly feet. When I’m walking with him down the street and a pretty woman passes, he points and says, “You gotta look, man! You gotta fucking look!” Mom makes him shower before entering the house and wash his hands before plunging them into popcorn at the movies. She doesn’t even want him to show his face when her suburban friends knock on the door because she complains he’s feo and nosy and smells like old wet socks.
But at age eleven in 1958, Tomás believed he was destined for greatness. In fact, he would spend the rest of his life believing this, as if, now a registered senior, he can find the time to grow up. He still smokes voraciously. He invited prostitutes into this apartment, where he used to live with Titi Lourdes until the TSA arrested him for smuggling Colombian heroine into JFK. And he buys bootlegged DVDs from his friend in the Bronx. I can see it now in his eyes, determined but elsewhere. The way he chews his chicken and rolls the moro around his mouth with his tongue, as if he’s got all the time in the world. If he was never going to die, as he saw it, what fate could he look forward to? His destiny was not ahead of him but behind, in the circumstances of his birth. But, as when racing the boys across the Ozama, Tomás never looked back. He was a man pinned to the present, running circles around it, a whirlpool in the flow of the Ozama River.
“You were f-fucking slow!” he told the neighborhood boys when they collapsed onto the sand.
“Yeah, what took so long?” Miguelito demanded. “Had to adjust your bra strap?”
Carlos grunted assent. “You swim like girls.”
“That’s right,” Tomás said, pounding his chest. “I’m the R-R-Road Runner. You better b-believe it!”
Miguelito stepped forward. “I’m the Road Runner!”.
Carlos nodded again. He didn’t mind. He was the least Chief among the Chiefs. “Yeah,” he said. “One of them’s the Road Runner.”
The other boys shook their heads and glared.
Tomás and his brothers knew they were the best swimmers in their neighborhood. This meant they were the best on the island. Chiefs of the Dominican Republic, here to reconquer the place where Columbus spoiled the virginity of the New World. This place that was now theirs.
At the Thanksgiving party, Titi Gloria, overhearing from her seat on the arm of the couch, grips Uncle Tomás’s wrist and leans toward me. She tells me this was only the banter of pubescent boys. In their way the neighborhood boys liked the Paoli brothers. And the brothers—except for Tomás now and then—liked them. “Next time I’ll beat you,” the neighborhood boys would say, and next time they’d try. And next time they’d lose. They lied to themselves, told themselves they could compete with the Paolis, but beyond the machismo they regarded them as brothers. After all, the Paolis owned the TV. When the cartoons went on, Tomás, Miguelito, and Carlos would call from their front door: “The cartoons! The cartoons are on!” Children would pour from the streets into the Paolis’ living room, where my abuela, Milagros, resident matriarch of the block, would cook them okra and sancocho and my abuelo, Rafael, would ruffle their hair. The Paolis weren’t filthy rich, not Trujillato rich, but the neighborhood boys valued their role in the community. Rich and poor walked the same streets, sweltered in the same gecko-infested homes, shared the same meals, waited out hurricanes behind the same concrete walls, watched Bugs Bunny on the same kiwi-fuzzy screen.
But the Dominican Republic in 1958 was no utopia. “If Trujillo or his generals pointed at you and said, ‘I want you,’ ” Titi Gloria tells me, “then you didn’t complain. You said, ‘With pleasure.’ ” There were three sisters in the Paoli family: Gloria, Lourdes, and my mother, Dolores, who was four-years-old. Gloria was the eldest at sixteen. “I was very pretty,” she tells me. Trujillo would’ve plucked her from the curb if he spotted her. If he so much as smelled a whiff of her. If he so much as heard a rumor of a rumor. “The man was a giant chick radar,” a cousin interrupts, smirking, “as if to compensate for something smaller.” Milagros said she would wear a burqa and force her daughters to follow suit, if it came to that. Rafael’s mother, of German descent, had fed Trujillo’s family when they were living off scraps. In fact, she was Trujillo’s midwife. She carried him into this world with a generosity equal in magnitude to his otherworldly evil, a wolf birthed into the arms of a lamb. Had she known, then? Until she died, she would intercede on behalf of Trujillo’s many prisoners, delivering food and prayers to the bodies of the violated. Rafael’s cousin was a prestigious lawyer, one of a handful of notables in the DR who openly opposed the regime. By guilt of association, the Paolis were denied access to food and Rafael lost his job. “It got to the point where we didn’t even have milk in the house,” Titi Gloria recalls. No one would help them, as others feared a similar fate. “Because of my German grandmother’s history with Trujillo, my dad could’ve held any position in the regime,” Mom tells me. “But our family doesn’t do that kind of thing.”
In 1961, conspirators gunned down Trujillo in his ’57 Chevy. Trujillo’s son, Ramfis, continued his father’s dictatorship. The Paolis lived between two army strongholds, and every few days Ramfis would ride by in his military convoy and peer into their home. Gloria would cover herself and hide in the depths of the house; she would not allow him to undress her with his gaze. Against her mother’s prudence, she joined demonstrations opposing the regime. She describes herself to me as a prophet, a radical, sacrificing the security of her livelihood for the cause. “Not a prophet,” she amends. “Prophet-like. This is the kind of thing prophets did.” She gives me a needs of the many speech and recites her father’s words. “I want you to be your own person,” he always told his children. But Milagros knew the punishment reserved for the family of open dissidents. Gloria ignored her mother’s warnings, and Milagros beat her with escalating intensity until one day she cracked open Gloria’s skull. “You will not ruin this family!” Milagros bellowed. “I will sacrifice my daughter for the lives of this family, if it comes to that.” But Gloria was as stubborn and stupid as Tomás. That’s how Mom puts it, anyway.
Titi Gloria and Uncle Tomás snort in Mom’s direction. She is the only child, “the spoiled brat,” Titi Gloria teases. Mom waves a hand and continues the family history, this time with my abuelo.
She explains that during all this, Rafael was forging ground in America. His grandfather was an Italian-American soldier in the DR during the U.S. occupation; he’d fallen in love with my half-German great-great-grandmother and settled on the island in 1918. Six years passed before the country declared its independence. Despite being born in the DR when it was under American occupation and spending a few years in the States, Rafael had voted in Dominican elections. He could not claim American citizenship. He had to work connections, travelling frequently between America and the Dominican Republic, although no one in the family knew precisely what he did. He was supposedly a businessman, the first employee of the Alcoa mining company, but they suspected he worked for the CIA. Eventually, he arrived in New York with four dollars in his pocket, about to live the American dream he had perhaps, in one way or another, already lived. One by one, Rafael and Milagros shipped their family to the land of the free, ladies first, beginning with Gloria and Dolores.
Arriving almost half a century after his Italian-American grandfather, Abuelo’s connection to this place felt like something to be read in a book. That’s how it sounds when Mom tells me this story. Distant. But this is her favorite part.
“Were we leaving or returning?” she asks me over the dwindling piles of food on our plates. The chicken is beginning to cool. She asks me this question each time she tells this story, as if the thought is born anew.
“Mom, I know,” I complain. “You always say the same thing.”
She smiles. “Every day is a new day for me. I wake up, no regrets, no memory, nothing! Rasa tula.”
“Tabula rasa,” I correct. Her Spanish is about as bad as her English. She doesn’t have an accent, but her vocabulary requires years of practiced interpretation. Dad and I tease her. We say she only preserved half of each language.
“Yes, tabula rasa,” she replies. “You know the Renaissance guy got that from the Muslim guy?”
“You say that too.”
“Oh, I do?”
“Yeah. It’s Locke and Ibn Tufayl.” I wave a hand. “Keep going.” I want to know the family history. I want to know how Uncle Tomás became who he is.
Before Mom can continue, Uncle Tomás interrupts. “No, no,” he says, bits of avichuela spewing from his lips. “She doesn’t know about the ciguapa. She doesn’t believe that shit.”
Mom rolls her eyes. The other siblings groan.
“Coño, Tomás…” Titi Lourdes says from across the room. She trails off the “s” in Tomás so that it sounds like “toma.” Take. Everyone has a habit of saying his name that way, often when exasperated. “You never met a ciguapa. There’s no such thing.”
He laughs. “I more than met that chick,” Uncle Tomás replies. And then, as if it isn’t clear already: “I banged her!” There is a collective sigh. My aunts wring their hands. He turns to me, eyebrows jumping. “I’ll tell you the rest, boy, you listen up…”
He tells me how Abuelo settled the family in Spanish Harlem. In the family apartment on 135th Street across from City College, Tomás missed the days when he and his brothers would swim and swim. The water in New York was cold and polluted, dark like the night sky, not blue like the day. Even the days were cloudy, tarnished by plumes of smoke that rose over the skyscrapers. Someone had tampered with this sky.
In the summer of 1965, the Paolis returned to the Dominican Republic. Tomás and his brothers dove back into the Ozama River, into the warm water and the grassy sand and the sky that could not be tampered with. They raced each other and the neighborhood boys until the sky blushed.
One day, Tomás told the others to go home for the night.
“Gonna cross one more time,” he said, surveying the currents with an unthinking gaze. Was this home? He liked it better than Manhattan. The air here was fresh and salty. But he didn’t live here anymore, did he? He lived in the streets of Spanish Harlem, where the space between buildings hummed, where the air was thick and loud and smoke tarnished the brick-and-metal-pricked sky.
They jeered. “You won’t cross before it gets dark.”
“I will,” he said. “Watch m-me.”
“We’re not gonna watch some pendejo drown. We got bellies to fill, eh? We’re going to go eat your mama’s ropa vieja, eh?” The boys and his brothers clapped each other’s palms and beat their chests. “Eh? Watch TV and shit.”
“Go to hell,” Tomás said. “I’ll be b-back. Watch me. You’ll see. I’ll be b-back,” he repeated, like Schwarzenegger’s T-800 on a feedback loop.
I’ll be back.
He watched them laugh and swagger home as he turned toward the Ozama, breathing through his nose. He stretched his arms, swung them around his torso, gazed for a moment at the colors overhead, and ran headfirst into the water. This time he looked neither behind nor ahead. He simply closed his eyes and swam until his muscles grew numb and until the sand of the opposite bank came running down his torso. He beached himself like a canoe and lay face down for a quarter hour, waves crashing around his ankles.
When Tomás flipped onto his back, the sky was dark.
He dusted himself and climbed to where the sand was cool and dry and breathed heavily through his mouth. He decided to rest before making his way to the bridge a mile down. While his chest rose and fell, stars began to appear overhead. He hadn’t seen stars in so long. He couldn’t see stars in New York.
As Tomás reclined, he heard a splash interrupt the sound of flowing water. At first he mistook the noise for a small animal in the surf, but when he turned absently to the bank, he spotted what looked like a thick wad of hair crowning the waves. The figure emerged from the water, revealing a bony face, then broad shoulders, and finally a tall, slender body swaying in the breeze. It was a she. She wore a thin, wet shawl that wrapped around her torso and legs. The shawl, Tomás realized, was a long band of algae. Fine gills, pink in the starlight, perforated her neck and fluttered along the exposed sides of her torso. Her face was narrow and filled with broad angles, occupied by long niches of shadow along the ridges of her cheekbones.
She stepped forward, moving with care over the sand and grass, as if treading the surface of an alien planet. Her backward feet laid a trail of footsteps leading into the ocean.
His mother had told Tomás and his brothers stories about the ciguapas when he was small. That they had backward feet. That they lived on the seafloor and riverbeds. That they emerged in the night and returned in the night, the pattern of their footsteps made to deceive the unthinking eye into believing someone had entered and left rather than left and entered.
Her jade eyes glimmered, and she spoke in a voice like falling crests.
“I have never seen a boy as pretty and stubborn as you.”
He stood. He didn’t talk to girls other than his sisters. Not yet at least.
“You have hair like the sun,” she whispered, taking another step.
His heart began to thud. The night air settled into his damp skin. He shivered and struggled to part his lips. What could he say? What should he say? He was the brutish, handsome retard on the block, the hermoso with a brick for a brain and gold for hair. Ridiculous, beautiful, and speech-impaired.
She stepped again. He could smell her now. Fresh soil and a fragrance heavy and sweet that he could not identify. The bare, slick skin between her sternum and her gilled neck reflected constellations.
Are these stars the same here as there? he wondered, remembering New York.
He moved his tongue between his teeth. “Who…”
She placed her backward heels against the tips of his toes. Her heels were smooth, not calloused and hard as most feet are. They were cold. Colder than the sand. Colder than the night air or the black between the stars or the Hudson River in New York.
“You could not pronounce my name,” the ciguapa murmured in stilted Spanish, almost Catalan.
She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and scratched her heels against his blunt toenails. She moaned softly.
“That feels better.” She smiled and opened her eyes, looking down to where their feet touched, his toes to her heels, before meeting his gaze. She bit her lower lip. “I had an itch.”
“Who...” Tomás repeated. Her reversed feet confused him like an impossible staircase.
She rested her elbows on his shoulders and crossed her wrists behind his neck. Her arms were hard and cold and stretched a distance longer than her legs.
“You have never met a ciguapa, have you?”
“No," he managed.
“Well know this, my friend: Few do. But I decided to break a promise. I broke my promise for you… Who are you, my friend?”
“Rafael Tomás Paoli,” he said, confidence growing, adopting for the first time his father's tenor. His great uncle was Antonio Paoli, one of history’s great opera singers, nicknamed The King of Tenors and the Tenor of Kings. His ancestor was General Pasquale Paoli, who founded the first constitutional democracy when he freed Corsica from Italy, only for it to fall into French hands. Titi Gloria has told me that Napoleon was Pasquale’s bastard son, but the dates don’t quite check out. What I do know is that if not for Pasquale, Napoleon wouldn't have been born French, so there's that blunder for the family name. Abuelo, the tenor, and the general—they blundered occasionally but they were grandiose men always, spoke of failure like singing opera from the Senate Floor. This is the voice Tomás used to pronounce his name for the ciguapa.
They stood, breathing one another’s air, until she raised her arms and laughed.
“What are you going to do? Rafael Tomás Paoli.” She stopped laughing. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
He frowned and looked away. She returned her elbows to his shoulders.
“You have never fallen in love, have you, Rafael Tomás Paoli?” She stepped back and skirted in a circle, drawing a moat in the sand. Her hair spun round her, sprinkling him with water. “Do not worry,” she said. “I will teach you how to fall in love.”
She strode toward the shore, toenails glimmering behind her in the starlight.
“How—” Tomás began and stopped. She turned, forehead raised. “How do I, uh, f-f-find you?”
“Tomorrow at midday, look for the city beneath the church.”
Before he could think to ask What church? she turned and flared her gills. Uncle Tomás tells me that, if he looked only at her legs, it would’ve seemed as though she were doing the electric slide into the surf.
“Shoulda looked just for her legs,” he says to me. He’s finished his meal and his siblings have already migrated to the kitchen to drop their plates in the sink. It’s only the two of us now. Uncle Tomás looks away. “Damn, those legs.”
I roll my eyes. “And she spoke like that?” I ask him. “Who speaks like that?”
“Oh, that chick did!” he says. “Just like that. All formal. Like she was dressed up or something. You know. Like an old lady. But that body, boy...”
“You’re old, Uncle Tomás,” I say, smiling.
The family’s discarded him, yet somehow he was once loved by this impossible creature. I can’t help but wonder how he pulled it off, how he attracts the strangest friends. There is something in him not worth discarding, something I think the ciguapa knew better than any of us, perhaps better than Tomás himself.
He chuckles and gestures as if batting flies.
“Aaah, fuck that, boy,” he replies. “I’m not old. You’ll see. I got the angels watching over me. I got plenty of time. Don’t listen to your mother. You’ll see. I’m gonna live forever!”
He pushes aside his plate and finishes the story.
The next day, heart beating and face red, Tomás left home at dawn. He scoured the river banks until he found what he was looking for: a decrepit church hanging over the Ozama. Footsteps led to and from the river’s edge. Here the bank did not slide into the water. This was a straight drop, a rocky but vertical cutoff that, for what Tomás could see, descended as far as the riverbed several tens of meters below. Even in the clear water, shadow and natural detritus blocked his sight.
The church itself was wide but overgrown, so much so that he realized he had already passed it several times that morning without noticing. Trees covered the walls, branching from the earth as if reaching their tips toward water instead of light. The edifice beneath the overgrowth was beige, brown, and crumbling, interspersed with tall, stained-glass windows. Ancient pillars rose along its sides. Tomás didn’t think he’d ever seen a thing this old. There was an old man the Paolis knew, a neighbor Milagros had made him visit. She said it was important to visit the elderly. They remembered forgotten histories. They were wise. But this church did not speak. It could not remember. It could not dispense wisdom from its cracked walls.
During a family vacation, I find the place. It is old. But the water beneath it is not as blue as I imagined. Perhaps time has aged the river as it has the church. I wonder if time has aged the memories of my family also. Uncle Mike has told me stories about this church and the city beneath it, of swimming between skeletons of rubble in the murky water, but Uncle Tomás never mentions that his brothers visited this place. He insists that he met the ciguapa when he was seventeen, but he exaggerates. Mom says he was twenty when they returned to the island, but she prides herself on forgetting, on each day being born anew. Hardly anyone in the family seems to remember the year he or she was born. Each time I ask, the answers change. They confuse their birthdays with their birth certificates—they’re different, they tell me—and their dates of citizenship with their college diplomas, if they have either. My great-great-grandmother was from Santo Domingo, not San Cristóbal, where Trujillo was born, but my aunts unanimously agree she was his midwife. After all, she did pull weight with the dictator. Their stories are inconsistent, my narrative patchwork and invented.
As I stand over the bank and smell the river’s mud, I wonder if I can draw a line between my imagination and theirs. Does it matter that they lived these lives and I have not? I do not want these memories to become history in my mind as my great-great-grandfather’s have become in theirs. I want so badly to live these memories as they have.
1965 is a good number, I decide. There was a civil war in the DR and America was occupying the country again, so I’m not sure if my abuelos would have allowed the family to return, but I think about my cousins on Dad’s side these days, travelling to and from Pakistan like it’s no big deal. Titi Gloria insists this was the year, and Titi Lourdes says not to listen to her, but it feels right.
1965, I say to myself. Let’s call it that.
And so it was on that fateful day in what I will call 1965 that Tomás filled his lungs and dove beneath the church. He swam and swam, swam as only a Paoli can swim. The detritus cleared and the darkness gave way to distant lights. Beneath, a city glowed from the slitted eye of a crevice. Through the gash in the riverbed, he glimpsed pulsing, emerald towers and rows of huts. Figures moved through the aquatic borough.
When he felt his lungs begin to pound, he kicked to the surface, breathed, and dove again. Each time he narrowed his distance to the crevice.
The fourth time, someone squeezed his torso. He spun, blinded by the bubbles swirling from his nose. It was the ciguapa. Her hair circled her scalp, and her gills fluttered as if dragonflies had perched along her neck.
She gestured. This way.
He followed her through the particulate water and beneath the shadow of the church, where she led him into a cavern. Dresses, tattered and wrinkled, were scattered across the rocks.
“The priests used to smuggle girls here,” the ciguapa explained. “Not for the priests. For the congregation. From Trujillo. He made alliances with the rest of the Catholic Church. But these priests were not like the others.” She pointed at the dresses. “They left in a hurry. El Jefe found them.”
She touched the wall where someone had labored words into rock:
GOD IN HEAVEN,
TRUJILLO ON EARTH
She took his arm and helped him out of the water. As she spoke, Tomás watched her with an intensity he’d reserved only for his kiwi-textured cartoons, Clint Eastwood, and WWII movies. Where once he had stared, mouth agape, he now looked, truly looked, with the concentrated effort he usually reserved for a long race across the Ozama River.
“But El Jefe never found us,” she was saying. “He is another kind of evil, Rafael Tomás Paoli. Just as we are another kind of people. He is not like any man. He is more than a man and less also. Thank God he is dead."
Tomás was a survivor. He would grow into the most dysfunctional man I’d ever meet, the kind of sixty-something-year-old living on government disability checks and the financial benefits of his siblings’ more prosperous lives. But no love would repeat what he had with the ciguapa. He was lucky. Very lucky. Perhaps he knew this. Perhaps, although he would spend the rest of his days attempting to fall in love as he was about to with the ciguapa, he knew that it was futile. Perhaps this was why he would later search for love in mirrors of himself, people on the edge like he was, heedless survivors, as if to allay the hurricane that was the reincarnating series of dances-with-death that would sum to his time on mother earth.
For now, Tomás was about to waste a lifetime's affections on the ciguapa from the Ozama River, the woman with backward feet whose name he would never know.
They began to spend their evenings on the banks of the Ozama. Night by night, she taught him how to love. She taught him how to hold her face and how to hold her hips. She taught him where to run his fingers through her hair and when to wrap his arm around her shoulders. She taught him how to fondle her.
“Melons!” Uncle Tomás says to me when he tells this story. He gestures with dirt-stained fingers as if he's a kid describing to his friends the menu item at Burger King with the coolest toy. “Breasts—they are like big, soft melons!" he exclaims. "You should go out with some girls sometime, eh, boy? You should! C’mon, boy, do you have a girlfriend? You can touch their tits. Like fruit.”
He smiles through his yellow teeth and cigarette-worn lips. His eyebrows leap to kingdom come.
“Sure, Uncle Tomás,” I say. “Working on it, Uncle Tomás. Yeah.”
“No one? Ah, you’re not my fucking nephew.” He chuckles. “C’mon, tell me really, you fuck…” He trails off and winks. “Italian? Chinese? Chinese girls… Do you like Chinese girls?”
“Chinese girls are nice.”
Somehow this filthy old man was once the prize of a ciguapa’s eyes, so beautiful that she had spotted him from the depths of a river. So strong and fast in the water that she had at first—she admitted this to him shyly—mistaken him for a dolphin. Tomás grinned as she ran her hands through his golden hair and told him this, oblivious to the fact that it was a compliment.
The ciguapa’s gaze fell into the distance.
“I am afraid for you,” she said.
“Nothing to, nothing to, nothing to—” he stuttered. “Nothing to b-be afraid of.” Tomás flexed his muscles and smirked.
She shook her head. The niches of shadows around her jaw flickered across her face.
“No. I”—she pointed at herself—“am afraid”—at him—“for you. I am not afraid. You should be.”
He laughed. What was there to fear? He was the tough kid now, not the bullied fool. He was the one who had swum drunk across the grimy Hudson, who had taken an ice pick in the chest to fight an alleyway crook for a nickel. He was six-foot-one and growing. She was the one bound to the waves and delicate above the surface as a butterfly who’d newly shed her cocoon. She would never survive New York.
Her eyes followed the movement of his jaw.
“Here I am vulnerable,” she acknowledged. “But in the water, you are.”
“I can swim,” he protested. “I can swim b-better than anyone!”
She curled her body and sat up. “It is not about the swimming,” she said. “It is about what you cannot control. The current, the tide. The other creatures in the water.”
I want to know this moment. My uncle doesn’t have more to tell me. I only know the ciguapa through him, filtered first by his adoration for her memory, filtered again by his lifelong refusal to understand. I want to know why she fell in love with him, and why she stayed with him. Tomás didn’t think about any of this. He assumed her love, as he would assume the support of his family, as he would assume his inability to die, as he would assume God’s favor. All I do know is that, despite the odds, the two remained together. His stutter even disappeared for a few short months. The match was too peculiar for them to be other than true lovers.
What I see in him today are only slivers of the young man she knew and loved. These days, when he showers and wears his cleanest clothes, he’s very handsome. I can see the blond beneath the grey and white, a young man in a suit too old. I’ve watched his face illuminate when my little cousins run past. I can remember the hours he spent playing basketball with me when I was their age, how he huffed and puffed until the cigarettes made it impossible for him to play. I want to know that man. What I think I see in him, the ciguapa knew. I can only guess. Perhaps she too assumed his adoration.
As she expressed her affection, he expressed his in the only way he knew. He would climb coconut palms and crack open their seeds, feeding her their clear milk and white meat. He would pick fruit from the nearest tree and place them in his lips, then hers. This was a practice he had adopted as a boy and that he had taken as a habit. If there were fruits on a tree, why not pick them? They were usually sweet. He had never shared the fruit he picked until now.
“You are an anomaly,” the ciguapa said gravely, sliding her fingers through the hairs on his barrel chest. She paused and opened her mouth, drifting between awe and adoration. “You are of this land, but you have hair like a white man.” She placed her palm flat on his breast. “You have the heart of child.” She tapped his lips. “But you have the tongue of a tigre.” She gazed into his eyes; hers remained quiet and dark. “There is none like you, Rafael Tomás Paoli.”
Tomás struggled to make sense of this, let alone to formulate a reply. He could not digest words the way he climbed trees or swam. He hardly knew how to form them. He had only begun to speak at the age of seven. Words embarrassed him. He preferred the words the boys in the neighborhood had taught him. They were comfortable in his ears and on his tongue. Putita, the name of the local stray and the girl who wouldn't kiss any of the boys, not even a peck on the cheek. Hijo de gran puta, the kid with the lazy eye, the father with the alcohol problem, the man who wouldn't give them back the baseball they'd sent crashing through his window. Coño, the word to be used when something hurt or someone hurt him. Cabrón, the name for the guy on the other end of a fistfight.
But that day an angel whispered in his ear and told him exactly what to say to the ciguapa. The whisper pronounced the words in his mind syllable by syllable so there would be no mistake. Say this, the voice seemed to say, as if it were a spell.
“There is none like you,” he replied and took her in his arms.
As the summer aged, so too did their affections. The ciguapa used to emerge nightly from the waves. Now, she did so only every other evening, and then every second evening, and then every third, leaving Tomás alone for many nights on the cold banks. He admired the night sky and reminisced, surprsingly, of the filthy streets and black water of New York. The dirt from that place clung to him like nicotine.
Tomás missed the ciguapa’s intimacy. The ease with which she smiled. No man or woman in his life had loved him as she did. She had brought him wonders from the river. Fish the shape of boomerangs, sponges the color of red peppers, weeds that smelled of fruit and slid like silk between his fingers and hers. The boys on the block had abused him, his brothers competed with him, his sisters teased him, and his parents were too busy acclimating a family of eight to the streets of New York City to devote their hours to him. These people loved Tomás in their ways, but only the ciguapa demonstrated her affections. Only she cared for him with such gentle ferocity, as if she had blinded herself from any sight except his. I think she saw in Tomás the gritty beauty of the earth but also glimpsed her heritage, displaced from itself and borne from the world above, for he swam with the elegance and purpose of the most dedicated creatures of the river.
As the ciguapa saw in him the earth, Tomás saw in her the river, the island, the uneddied sky. She exuded calm and constancy, with eyes that did not blink and skin that did not wrinkle like raisins in the water. But something of the earth followed her as something of the river followed him. It lingered beneath her formality and the steadiness of her gaze, churning and mucked as Tomás himself.
Yet Tomás remained alone on that beach for countless nights. Had she pretended to befriend him like the boys in his neighborhood? Had she abandoned him? What race would he have to win to show her who was number one? Against what obstacle would he need to demonstrate his tenacity? He could refuse the boys on the block a look back. But he could not refuse her. How strange that to watch her move toward him was, if he didn’t check his senses, to watch her walk away. As if she were grinding up to him, ready to dance merengue to a tune only she could hear. With the ciguapa, movement was a backward thing.
I like to think she still loved him. I believe she did. I know she did. She was protecting him. Not his body, for his body would always survive, but his spirit, for his had not yet taken form, had not yet developed the barnacled hull that would ferry him from each tragedy to the next. The ciguapa loved in him what I have only had the opportunity to pity: the simple heart beneath the shielded exterior; the ease of his smile, like hers, no matter how old or ugly or improperly timed; his colloquial relationship with God; his irreverence for the Devil and his trials. Below the choppy waters of Tomás Paoli, beneath the cat-calls and the cheap booze and the Marlboro Reds, was a child’s attachment to life, a perseverance of wonder that could not implode with puberty or break with adulthood or peter with old age. As he took long walks on the beach and dawdled for hours climbing trees during his youth, he spends these days—the only days that I have ever known him for—enjoying long strolls across the length of Manhattan. And if he tries to love again, as he has, he does so with every charcoal breath he’s got. Tomás Paoli cannot erode.
But he is a very difficult man to love. “He doesn’t think,” Titi Lourdes told me once. “He just does whatever! He believes he owns the world.” In this, I think the ciguapa believed she could be of service. Something had changed beneath the river, and she wanted him out of it. She would swim to the depths of the oceans for him, battle the fiercest demons of the sea and of her people, but not if doing so let these demons loose upon him. She believed he would understand that her distance indicated their time together had reached its end.
Tomás, being Tomás, did not understand. I suppose, like the rest of the family, he has as many problems making sense of distance as a ciguapa does. He took her absence as a call to arms. He remembered Gloria’s bravery against Ramfis Trujillo, his father’s words—“Be your own man,” he recalls to me—and, it seems, chose to forgo his mother’s prudence.
As the summer of 1965 reached its end, he swam beneath the church and entered the cavern. There he rested until his lungs were to capacity, climbed to the highest rocky perch, and dove. He narrowed his body like a sparrow piercing through wind, conserving energy through the intuition of his muscles. For seconds he sped through darkness. Seaweed and minnows brushed against his figure. As his ears began to pop, the blue light of the aquatic borough revealed itself through the crevice, interrupting the blackness.
Tomás angled his form so that he passed through without stopping to maneuver. He blinked as he sped into the luminescent borough, as if he were staring into the irregular, flashing heart of Times Square. But the place below was no city. No looming edifices or gargantuan monuments stretched in either direction. The buildings were stout and round, squeezed against one another at irregular angles like oysters. Tomás observed no streets; the ciguapas emerged from orifices laid atop the buildings like blowholes and swam above the roofs and between the coral, vegetation, and rock scattered across the unending floor. He tasted salt in his mouth. The ocean had somehow reached this place.
Only the occasional tower rose to the pulsing ceiling, circled by thousands of bioluminescent plankton, like power cords running the largest disco this side of the Americas. Did they dance bachata here? he wondered. Behind him, jellyfish the size of MTA buses and tuna the size of taxicabs clung to the rock ceiling. These creatures glowed, pulsating blue, green, and yellow, shedding light on the population below. Several crevices lined the glowing mess, visible as streaks of black across the makeshift sky.
His lungs began to ache. He kicked upward and through the crevice, rested for twenty minutes in the church cavern, and dove again.
He explored further this time, touching the smooth blue surface of a building. The ciguapas stopped around him, eyes wide. He smiled and waved. They retreated into their buildings. Tomás allowed the smile to drift from his face, but before he could return to the surface, someone snatched him by the ankles. He whirled in a flurry of bubbles, struggling against his attacker. But his lungs, already exhausted, collapsed and invited the river to fill him.
He woke to the whimpering of tortured dogs. As his vision cleared, he realized they were not dogs at all. “They were the ciguapas,” he tells me. “Giant fat ones with crazy hair and superhero muscles and metal clothes.” His eyebrows jump as he recalls the memory. “Boy, those sons of bitches were it. And they were giving each other shit. I could see it in their faces. Those guys were pissed. But my girl, she’s there and she’s giving it back to them. I have no idea what she’s saying, but she ain’t taking their shit, you know? And I’m starting to breathe, coughing water and shit, and they give me this crazy-ass look and they start screaming like the fucking Predator, boy, taka taka taka RAAAAAH!—”
The men stomped their heels, knees bent, torsos reclined, alien in posture. The woman gave him a look somewhere between consternation and relief.
“You get yourself into too much trouble, Rafael Tomás Paoli,” she said. “You are nosy, my love. One day, I will not be here to get you out of the mess you make for yourself. One day very soon.”
Tomás retched and then gasped for air. He scoped the room. The walls and floor were featureless turquoise, smooth as a retro spaceship, except for a triangular opening that seemed to block the water beyond with a membrane like Saran wrap.
She approached him. Her hips swayed one way, her torso the other, balancing the pressure from her toes. Her movement was insectile, each foot placed ahead of the last with uncomfortable precision, arms extended this way and that like antennae. He had never seen her on a flat surface. She was as unsettling in this place as the cockroaches in the family’s Spanish Harlem apartment, angled and skittering on the white tile, earthly yet not. The other ciguapas looked at her but she waved a hand and spoke in a voice that stung his ears. She leaned over him and dragged him up by his armpits.
“These brutes cannot understand us,” she said. “They are the Viceroy’s Guard. They think I am about to drown you. You are lucky. They wanted to have your head. They will have to wait for that. You are very lucky, my love.” She smiled purposefully. “Tell me, now. Do you have your breath?”
He coughed again and rubbed his forehead.
“Do I have my b-breath?” he repeated.
“Yes,” she hissed. “Do you have your breath?”
“I g-guess I—”
“Good.” She pushed him toward the triangular opening. “Take care, my love,” she whispered, her eyes sullen and her gills deflated. The other ciguapas screamed again, impatient. They marched toward her, awkward but menacing, like giant beetles on their hind legs. She continued to speak, jaw clenched. “You are the last man I will ever love, Rafael Tomás Paoli. You must believe this with all of your heart.”
Tomás opened his mouth, about to say, “I do,” when she shoved him through the triangular frame and kicked him into the passing current. Her last words were, “Swim! Swim, love, swim!”
He flailed, losing air, until his blood calmed and he could make out the aquatic borough sprawled in all directions, foreboding in its volume and light. He swam up toward the nearest streak of black overhead, but already his lungs were pounding. Mere moments passed before he began to see spots and stars and his arms refused his will. His strokes lost their precision, his legs their strength. Each advance took a heavy, trembling effort. He held his body still and concentrated on every movement until he had pushed into the river overhead.
Once again, he felt blackness crawl into him through his sinuses, the blackness of drowning, of suffocation, of meters of pressure. The blackness he knew from the tricks the neighborhood boys once played on him in the shallow water. Quiet entered his veins and stilled their frantic beat.
As his eyelids fluttered, someone slid against his torso and carried him upward. He recognized the slick feel of the ciguapa’s algal shawl and the thick cloud of her black hair. “I never saw her swim so damn fast!” he exclaims to me. “Whoosh!” He makes a swiping motion with his hands. “Like a fuckin’ torpedo. The other bastards were down there, just staring, wondering what hit ‘em.”
She flew into the belly of the church, trailing bubbles and seaweed, his body clutched in hers. They sailed through the cavern and collided with the rocky floor, crunching fingers and toes, before rolling into a stalagmite. The ciguapa knelt over Tomás, pressed both hands on his chest, and pushed her lips against his until he began to breathe.
“I was, uh, you know, uh, pretending,” Uncle Tomás tells me, giggling. “Just a little bit. It was a while, you know? But she, uh, she wasn’t happy—”
As soon as he began to breathe, she leapt to the water’s edge, placed one palm on the rock, clumped her hair at her nape, and stared into the river’s abyss. Her gills flared and her toes bent, strained at a paradoxical angle. She assumed the poise of a mantis about to strike, mandibles retracted, hind legs quivering. A minute passed with her back to Tomás as he heaved water. She exhaled and whispered something that tingled in his ears until at last she faced him. She knelt backward, resting naturally on the hind support of her toes, and spread her arms in exasperation. Her skin was riddled with bruises and lacerations, oozing blood and puss. Her jaw was dark as mamey, and the gills on her neck were the color of sugar cane.
“What do you think you are doing?” she demanded. “Do you believe you can go down there and knock on doors? Would I do the same to you? Your people would burn me as a witch.”
Tomás perched on his elbows and knees, waiting for his heartbeat to steady.
“I could help y-you,” he offered. “I w-w-want to help you,” he said, louder.
She looked away and laughed. “Help me? This is not any old sticky situation, Rafael Tomás Paoli. This is life and death. For you and me. When Trujillo found this place”—she indicated the moonlit cavern—“my people did nothing. Such are my people. There are reasons for what I do.” She paused. “You could not understand, my love.”
Tomás’s lips curled and uncurled, his tongue searching for words he could never find.
“No,” was all he could conjure. “No! That’s not t-true!”
She crawled to the water’s edge and faced him on her knees. No longer did she hold a shield between them. No longer did she raise her guard or put on airs. She faced him as she was, her expression contorted by wounds deeper than the pain in her bones.
“I am sorry,” she admitted. “I am sorry that I ever met you, Rafael Tomás Paoli, that you eclipsed the sun above me, that I ever saw you skirt the waves overhead like a bird your sky. Have you ever fallen in love with a bird, Rafael Tomás Paoli? You spend so much time in trees. Are there men above the earth who fly as you walk? I loathe walking. I cannot move on land as I can in water, and my ankles begin to ache. But I yearn for the feeling of ground against my soles. Not riverbed or plaster, but the thick, dry soil of the forest. Beneath the water, I cannot feel the weight of this planet. Most of my people feel this weight only for its pain. I find it reassuring. More so than the weight of the river on top of me. The water is…suffocating. God gave us legs for a reason. Not fins. Our people came from the mountains, you know. We have forgotten who we are…” She sighed and craned her feet to dip her bruised toes into the waves. “You long for water, and I for earth. Our people do not.”
Tomás stumbled to his feet. “No, you can’t g-go!”
“I am going,” she murmured. “It will be safer for both of us. You will see. Be ready. A time will come. It will be easier if we end it now instead of then.”
She plunged, and Tomás followed suit but soon lost her in the darkness. His lungs were too weary to bear his search. He clambered into the cavern and waited until the sun rose. For the first time since he’d moved to New York City, he shed tears. At first they were scarce but as the sun illuminated the sky, they flowed with the effortless movement of the Ozama River.
He admits this to me shyly, hiding his crooked teeth with long, yellow fingernails. He shakes his head and looks over my shoulder.
“I was in a baaad place,” he tells me. “A real bad place.”
Several nights later, Tomás again found himself alone on the opposite side of the river, waiting for the ciguapa. Minutes passed. The stars gathered. The water departed his skin, and he could feel his pores fill with air. He began to shiver. He knew she would not come, though he had yet to understand why. A man like Uncle Tomás does not respond to trauma. Warning signs have always taken post on roads beyond the map of his vocabulary.
After an hour, he rose and dusted the sand from his swim trunks. He spat into the water and turned toward the bridge when he heard a splash and a grunt. He began to spin round.
A figure leapt from the water and dove into his back, knocking the wind from his mighty lungs. Tomás swallowed sand, felt the particles fill his eyes. The figure landed blows into his spine before turning him and pinning him by the elbows.
It was a ciguapa, a male. “A big, ugly motherfucker,” Uncle Tomás tells me. A burly giant with shark eyes and a silverback’s lumpy sixpack. Heavy as lead. His hair long and black, the remainder of his body sleek as blubber. Gills spiked from his neck, larger than the female’s, webbed and throbbing red. “Like one of them freaky dinosaurs,” Uncle Tomás tells me. “One of those crazy bastards with the things that go like this.” He folds his wrists against either side of his neck and flaps his fingers, bearing his rotten teeth. It looks like he’s doing a silly face for one of his younger nephews. The scar across his left cheek keeps it real. “The guy stares at me like this is it and he goes—”
“You fucking her, boy?”
He struggled, muscles writhing, cursing into the air. It’s just like Uncle Tomás to shatter relationships. It’s very funny, you know, if you don’t take into account the fact that he was about to get nearly pummeled to death by Aquaman. The ciguapa’s boyfriend. He looked like Aquaman. Ludicrous and noob—if there were noobs in sixties aquatic culture—but buff as hell. This is how Uncle Tomás describes him to me, as if he has molded this new adversary from his childhood comics. He thinks his life is laughable and that, like his favorite superheroes, his Creator will resurrect him from one edition to the next, Vol. 1 to Vol. 2 to Vol. 3, battling foe after foe, generation after generation, ageless and molted to some fantastical and endless present. Striding backward against the progress of time.
But he is not leaving the suffocating waters of his past, as he believes he is. He is bound to them. Tomás can’t avoid trouble. This is his curse. Nothing in his life lasts very long. That is why he seems to live so many of them, as if the universe thinks it can make up for their brevity with quantity.
“Who?” Tomás screamed. “Fuckin’ who, man? Fuck y-you, man—”
“You know who.”
“Who?” Tomás asked, eyes wide.
He didn't wait for the reply. Tomás never knew a lot of things. He never quite finished school. He never figured out how to read a book cover to cover or got past algebra. But he knew how to survive. He saw a fight when it was coming, and he knew he could never talk himself out of one. So he talked himself into it.
“She didn’t tell me her name.” He blinked away sand and grinned. “Why?” he jibed. “Are you fucking her, man?”
The boyfriend’s gills flared the wingspan of a hawk. He released Tomás’s left arm and pressed his knuckles against his own hairless jaw.
“See this, cabrón?” the ciguapa said and raised his fist. “This is dy. Na. Mite.”
“You’re the fuckin’ cabrón, man—” Tomás managed, before his opponent’s knuckles collided with his chest.
The blow sent him to a dark place. Tomás lingered there, bobbing in the ether of his soul. But he was a Paoli. He had the lungs of whales. It was as if all those years in the Ozama had been spent to spare him this moment, to give him strength as he treaded the dark pool between this life and the next. As if God truly loved him. As if Tomás was not about to learn that his curse was not death but living.
Tomás grappled in the darkness, wrestled with it. He tells me the Devil was there. “I messed him up real good,” he tells me. “I gave it to that son of a bitch. I told him I was outta there. I told him, I’m on a mission from God.” Tomás climbed through the ether, feeling his body return to itself, feeling his lungs return to air, his eyes to light—
He emerged before his opponent’s shark eyes, gasping, smelling sweat and dead fish. The boyfriend’s eyes bulged in shock.
The ciguapa raised his fist again and swung.
This time Tomás rolled, taking the ciguapa’s other arm under his body and kicking forward, cracking it. The creature bellowed and faced the moon. Tomás kept rolling, pushing the body facedown and then mounting it, the ciguapa’s toes wiggling in the air. He sat on his opponent’s upper back and pressed the bare soles of his feet into the ciguapa’s head, forcing his face into the sand. Uncle Tomás paints the picture for me blow by blow like he’s trying to convince Dad that the bootlegged DVDs he bought from his friend in the Bronx are tip-top, narrating the detail of every swing, block, and duck as if to prove that he really did see Iron Man 2 or Terminator Salvation or The Expendables kick ass in perfect detail.
The ciguapa thrashed, arms stretching to reach Tomás around the bulk of his body, legs spazzing, gills going full dinosaur, kicking sand skyward. The boys on the block had done this to Tomás in the river several times. This was how he developed his underwater stamina. You thirsty, pendejo? You fucking thirsty? Now he reverse-engineered the process without a moment’s hesitation. It was easier to understand drowning from the perspective of the drowned.
The body slumped. The dino gills receded, limp as wet feathers.
Exhausted, Tomás fell onto his back and watched the stars, remembering the first time he laid here at night, when the woman with no name first approached him. You are an anomaly, Rafael Tomás Paoli. You have a mane of gold. Are you a white man, Rafael Tomás Paoli? You do not have a white man's name. You are an anomaly…
Soon a second ciguapa stepped onto the sand. This one was gaunt and short. His hair was silver and his eyes were hidden by folds of skin. Several more emerged from the shallow water, including the woman with no name. The first and last woman Tomás would love. The rest of the ciguapas would make sure of that momentarily.
He began to stand but their heads turned from the dead boyfriend to him. The silver-haired ciguapa shook his head. Tomás knew not to fight back, that the cost of fighting exceeded the gain. It was not a calculation for him. It was a feeling in his gut.
Silence, said the voice in his head, his brother Carlos's. Quiet.
The silver-haired ciguapa knelt and picked the corpse by the balls of its feet, then dragged the body on its belly backward—forward?—into the water. The others rose wordless from the surf and paced the bank, ruffling the footprints. Only the woman with no name remained in the water, watching Tomás with her jade eyes. He thought he noticed a sad smile on her lips.
The ciguapas returned to the waves, and the silver-haired one faced Tomás. He nodded to him and spoke in a voice high in pitch but resonant, from a place deeper and grander than his tiny, haggard body, as if bearing the music of whales.
“Rafael Tomás Paoli. I condemn your soul to the place outside of space and time, to the place where the great aspen grows to the weight of a metropolis, nourished by the flame it feeds. I banish you there so that you may wander this world and serve those you have not. I render impossible your erasure. I curse you with survival—”
The silver-haired ciguapa cut himself off and tilted his head. Behind him, the ciguapa Tomás had come to love placed a hand on her mouth, stifling laughter.
Up until this night, Tomás had only survived one death. The near-fatality of infant meningitis, the thing that had rendered him mute and, later, stuttering. His curse would be to suffer several more deaths, and it was in this second death, this second second coming, the encounter with the boyfriend, that Tomás Paoli would be cursed to survive the rest. Mom likes to say that he’s got so many lives it’s like he’s a cat. Nine lives, a series of resurrections to rival Jesus Christ himself. With each rebirth, Tomás would visit upon his setting an Armageddon. With each, he would come to dive in and out of time and space according to the merits of his cosmic affliction.
I know this is why the ciguapa was amused at even so dark an hour. What was the purpose of cursing a man already cursed? The act was so futile as to render its cosmic proportions irresistibly laughable, as pointless and ludicrous as “forty-two” was the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The silver-haired ciguapa had just realized what the female already knew, and what I have come to know, by bothering to care for this man’s damaged soul.
“Oh dear,” the silver-haired ciguapa continued, stating the obvious. “It appears you are already cursed. Who did this to you? Did you do this to yourself? Poor boy.” He waved a hand. “No matter. I curse you anyways, killer of cuckolds.”
The silver-haired ciguapa nodded once more, looked left then right as if startled from an ambiguous dream, and dove. The water gurgled with the sound of departing creatures. The woman was the last to dive, gaze averted, hair sparkling in the moonlight, the sad smile returned. But, seconds later, she too submerged.
“That was it,” Tomás tells me, shaking his head. “Don’t know what that old guy was talking about. Weird-ass son of a bitch.”
He looks down, eyebrows jumping again. I’ve never seen eyebrows jump so high.
As the ciguapas retreated to the place from which they came, Tomás retreated to his future, to 135th Street, then 175th, and finally 169th and Fort Washington Ave, to packs of Marlboro Reds and, until his liver ballooned, bottles of Bacardi. He’d left his home but his footsteps pointed the other way, kept saying he was bound for a better time and place.
I ain’t never gonna die. God loves me! I ain’t never gonna die…
Uncle Tomás was a fighter and a swimmer but never again a lover. He would try, but trying does not count in the game of love. He was a poor learner too. Shit went through one ear and out the next like smoke in a cartoon on his old block in Santo Domingo. What he did learn he easily forgot. Instead he continued on his trek for love, hitchhiking on kindred, apocalyptic souls along a road without direction.
Perhaps this was the nature of the silver-haired ciguapa’s curse. Perhaps this was the nature of Tomás Paoli. It’s hard to say. He’s oblivious to both. He is nature, after all. Lions don't contemplate their consciousness. He doesn’t realize he made love to a myth, a Dominican siren for all I know. That he killed her badass boyfriend with the mad determination of a shit-out-of-luck Jason Bourne. I don’t think he’s registered the meaning of it through that hard head of his, stubborn and anomalous and no longer draped in gold. People don’t make love to myths every day. It’s a very stupid thing to do anyway. What other outcome could Tomás have expected other than tragedy? A lack of foresight, that's what it was. From a ciguapa’s point of view, a lack of hindsight.
“Never saw that chick again,” he tells me, like she was just another one.
When I visit the church, I search its crumbled walls for an entrance, but there is none. I discover a narrow staircase leading under the foundation. I take it, inhaling mold in the claustrophobic dark, and stumble into the cavern beneath. I shiver. Although the sun peaks from irregular gaps in the rock walls, the geography of this lair generates a breeze that whistles between the stalagmites and stalactites.
Someone has chiseled the face of Santiago Matamoros into an outcropping of stone. The face is gnarled, contorted like a tear-stained painting. It bears tiny cavities for eyes, a nose the size of my thumb, and the outlines of a conquistador’s morion. By its side, the artist etched a sword the size of a pencil, and flecks of chipped stone mark its beard. The locals tell me mystics attend to the figure as a Catholic shrine, for it possesses properties of the unseen. They spend days fasting in this place, clutching their rosaries and searching for God. A woman with breast cancer lived here for a year, and the disease left her. Others, the locals say, have entered never to return. They tell me the face moves a few centimeters every year, creeping away from the water as its eyes peer in the direction opposite its igneous crawl. “Perhaps it’s yearning,” a man tells me. He shrugs. “Maybe conceited.” Over time the face shifts along the wall with a speed as gradual as the erosion of a riverbed. Uncle Tomás has not mentioned it to me.
“It’s from Santiago Matamoros,” Mom explains to me. “Santiago, Killer of Moors and Jews, from the Inquisition. Santiago is that guy from Othello.”
“Iago, you mean.” She’s told me this before.
“Yeah! That’s it,” she says. “The slimy one.”
I wonder if Nazis etched this shrine, a relic from that strange era when Trujillo opened his arms to the Third Reich. Did they curse this stone or was it born cursed, like Uncle Tomás? It perplexes me that the locals pray to this hideous thing, the emblem of the conquistadors who raped their ancestors—the Moors in Spain, the slaves from Africa, the Taínos of this island. Do they curse themselves with their prayers? I imagine the day that the face of Santiago Matamoros will slip through the tunnel and fall backward into daylight like a ciguapa who’s lost balance, unleashed upon the world with the fury of a caged jinn.
Someone has scrawled letters into the wall. The phrase is the reverse of what Uncle Tomás has described to me:
TRUJILLO ON EARTH,
GOD IN HEAVEN
I dip a finger in the water. It’s warm. I consider stripping to my underwear and taking a dive, but I don’t know the currents. I’m a swimmer, but I’m not a Paoli, not like Uncle Tomás. I want to be. I don’t know if I want to see what’s below, if I want to learn whether his account is real or not. I want to believe it is.
I climb from the cavern. Beside the church, I observe a fresh pair of footsteps leading to the vertical drop of the bank. The toes point to the river, as if someone has left for a swim, but the waves remain undisturbed. The trees behind me are obscured by leaves and shadow. I realize, then, that this place no longer reeks of mud. A steady wind unfurls from the depths of the forest, and I can detect a hint of jasmine. It is a scent as alien to this place as I am to its memories, as Tomás to death.
“Did you ever smell jasmine?” I ask him when I return to Manhattan.
“Jasmine?” he replies, after cursing and demanding I convince Mom to pay the airfare for a trip of his own. “What the hell is jasmine?”
I spend weeks looking for a jasmine flower that carries the same fragrance, and I forget about it for a while. Months later I recognize the scent in the back of a florist’s downtown. They are bunched in an open cardboard box, the petals of each spread into a cone the circumference of a fingernail, white along its edges and orange near its center. When I see Uncle Tomás next, I offer one to him. He lifts the flower into the air, pulls away as if bitten, looks at me, and sticks the grimy tip of his nose between the petals.
“Damn, boy,” he says, fumbling with the stem between dirty fingernails. The stamen has dusted his nostrils with bright yellow pollen. There is wonder in his eyes, big and clear as a newborn’s in the carcass of his skin. I can glimpse the hermoso my aunts have described to me, the tall boy with skin as smooth as sand and hair the color of the sun. The most beautiful boy on the island. He grins stupidly. “Damn, boy,” he says again, eyebrows jumping. Just another one. No big deal. He shakes his head. “Damn, those legs…”