We’d pull the curtains from their rods above the large living room window when we made love. This was when we were our own gods.
Isn’t every woman who lives outside of the traditional or stereotypical world destined to experience the accusation of being a man? She eventually realizes that this is an insult to her womanhood, her very being cannot be accepted for who she is but only as an imitation of who the speaker is. A man cannot say “I empathize with you,” instead, they will say: “Oh, you must be me.”
I am becoming this chair
I am still not a man
I am wearing the same skirt I wore the day Umberto crashed into my life in the parking lot of “Jogo’s,” the used car spot where Mama sent me when my old car met its final mile. The skirt is made of a crinkled pale yellow linen; the bottom lined with old dirt stains. When I stand in the sun, my entire body is illuminated.
Jogo knew better than to say anything smart about my exposed shape, that I am quick to snap at anyone whose gaze is too long. I think he may have warned his customers against saying anything about it because everyone who passed me kept their eyes on their shoes. I walked along the row of cars inspecting price to mileage ratios with such intensity that I crashed right into Umberto. The scent of decapitated grass and saccharine sweat overwhelmed me. I hated him immediately.
“Oye! Watch out for her,” Jogo yelled, “she beat up all the boys in school when she was young.”
Umberto raised an eyebrow to me as Jogo yelled to him, in front of his yellowing office windows, that I was so good at it that the boys asked me to be one of them.
Within the hour in Jogo’s lot, Umberto had swindled me into sharing a chicken sandwich at the tiny café across the street. Maybe it was the scent from the coffee pots lined up behind the counter or the plates of eggs, sunny-side up with yolks bubbled and ready to spill across their crisp white bodies, that overpowered his pungent greenness. I wasn’t sure why, but his scent no longer bothered me. He wanted me to choose my half of the sandwich. The table vibrated. He held the sandwich out to me but never dropped his eyes. His cell phone case, which resembled a Polaroid camera, continued to shutter against the tabletop.
“Uh, are you going to answer that?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed, “I’m waiting for you.”
“Waiting for me to what?”
“To choose which half of the sandwich you’d like.”
“Waiting for me is a mistake,” I told him but his smile remained.
“Are you going to beat me up too?” he asked.
By the end of the day, I saved his number in my phone and drove off the lot in a beat up piece of junk with just the right amount of use for its price. Umberto texted me the same night and I spent the week turning my phone over and back to look at the message until I finally gave in and answered, not quite sure of what would come next.
“You’re not supposed to be sure,” Tia Blanquita told me when I brought up Umberto for the first time.
“No, I know. I don’t want to make it sound like a big deal, it’s not a big deal, we’re just, like, friends. He’s a new friend. I only brought it up because he has this garden, like you did when I was a little girl. I thought it was a cool coincidence.”
“Ah. A new friend,” she replied, and I hoped that our poor Skype connection blurred out the redness I felt on my face.
“What does he have in his garden?”
Umberto’s garden is full of color. There are flowers in the planter outside his window that spiral down from the ledge of his apartment. He has yellow tulips and California poppies, which he manages to keep very much alive despite the drought. He has herbs and vegetables planted in a perfect line on the side of his garden—onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, basil, and dill. There are raspberries sprouting from his wired fence. There is a half-dead lemon tree that he and his ex-girlfriend bought together and planted in the corner. I keep telling him he should probably chop it down because it reflects poorly on his otherwise phenomenal gardening skills but he says he just can’t bring himself to do it yet.
“Can’t cut down a dead tree? Mira, he sounds like he just needs a little healing and frankly, Mija, so do you. So take your time and tell yourself whatever you need but I think you are both a little more than new friends. Don’t always be so terrified of liking someone.”
“Tia, I’m not terrified and nobody likes anybody,” I said.
How many a great love have been lost due to the consequences of inaction? I want to ask this to Umberto every time I sit in his backyard. I want to see a lemon tree bursting with life, with leaves to give shade and yellow orbs ripened by the sun that we could pluck off when we needed their refreshing bitterness. Umberto’s lemon tree hasn’t made fruit for—
“How long?” I ask him.
“Two years now,” he says.
I wonder if he thinks she’s inside that tree. That if he cut it down, he would be killing her in some way.
“What happened,” I asked
“She left,” he said.
That’s all he told me when we first started dating but later I found out that she had not just left, she had invited him and he had chosen not to join her. So whose fault is that? She left, and he stayed and the lemon tree died.
“That’s life,” he said with a smirk, “Sometimes we let things we care about die.”
Umberto gave me a space that no one else had been able to comfortably provide. When we ventured out with friends, he would leave me to my mingling and go about with his. There were evenings I forgot that he was around, until we caught each other’s eyes from across the room with captive glances of appreciation. We were aware that both of us were the type of people who were very capable of changing their minds quickly, that despite what we’ve said to each other, one of us could feel differently in the morning. That’s a scary kind of person to like, an even scarier person to love, though there was not a person who didn’t love Umberto. I began to wonder who his enemies were. What he was like when he was angry. What sins followed him. We would find each other at the end of the evening and indulge in our curiosities about each other in the darkness of my bedroom, legs intertwined beneath the sheets.
Other times, we fell deep into ourselves and curled our bodies into strange positions, trying to search for an escape away from each other but our energy exploded into the space where we attempted to create distance. There are moments in the night, once Umberto’s breath becomes deep and his limbs have quit their jolted dance, when I secretly surrender and turn to face his back. I trace the outer lines of his tattoos with my eyes; I arrange them in order of how much I like each one. I even include the Tweety bird on his shoulder that is barely visible beneath the scorpion cover up. I can see the outline of his lifted skin intersecting with the newer rises—something soft trying to break through. He says he got the tattoo on a dare. Sometimes Umberto is wrapping himself around me the most in these moments but I never admit this to him.
I am squeezing the grapes between my teeth, breaking through their delicate skin with a pop of sour juice. My stomach should want something more but my body is not craving anything. I click out of my self-addressed email and bring up a spreadsheet on the screen. I add in numbers from my meals with clients, or rather the meals I pay for. I haven’t had much of an appetite for the past few weeks, ever since that awful morning.
When Umberto returns to his position beneath me, I don’t notice that his hands have moved to my knees. After a few gentle attempts at separation, he puts both hands on my right knee, leaning his body beyond them to break them apart. They stay grounded.
I am a woman now. I am in control of my own body. I am in control.
“I didn’t want to use this, but it looks like you’re at it again,” he says trying to mold my feet like clay before moving in closely with a chisel.
I am nine. I am standing in the freezer aisle in Costco, the one where Tia Blanquita laughed her laugh that echoed against the walls. We are shopping for one of the many parties she hosts. Her dark brown hair bounces as she throws back her head; her brown eyes bursting with sparkles. Her laugh hits the oversized packs of popcorn stuffed into each other, then ricochets off the industrial-sized coffee cans until it reaches someone’s ears in the aisle and they, too, break into a smile. No one is immune to her charm, even the sour-faced folks who man the free samples at the end of the aisle. The staff laughs along, their own hair contained in a plastic covering, while handing us little cups of prepackaged chicken stir-fry.
“Mamacita, here’s a coupon for a free pack, take it, por favor.”
Tia always takes their offerings but never keeps them for herself. She lets me pick the person to pass along this coupon to.
“You should learn how to identify need, mija,” she says.
“Like how they look? If they look poor?” I ask.
“No, mija, not how they look. How someone looks says much less than how they make you feel. There are other ways to identify need,” she replies, “and sometimes, when you know how a person makes you feel, then you can discover some of your own needs. But for now, observe, and you will see the person who needs it most.”
I wander the aisles feeling out the energy through the stale air of the Costco warehouse, trying to find the person it will be, the one that needs this coupon. I stand in the same aisle that the chicken stir-fry lives in. When someone tenderly reaches out to pick up a bag of prepackaged chicken stir-fry the size of a small child, I watch to see if they place it in their cart. Eventually, someone lifts the chicken stir-fry and reluctantly places it back down after looking at the unit price. This is the person I hand the free comp to after proclaiming,
“TODAY IS YOUR LUCKY DAY!”
Tia Blanquita falls into laughter all over again.
I still give people discounts, except those people are businesses and the discounts are wholesale prices.
“You’re really quite stiff. I don’t think it’s been this bad before,” Umberto says to me, pulling my skirt off his face.
I am trying to move my legs but they remain where they are.
When was the last time I stood up? I’ve done it before, haven’t I?
Umberto looks at me without concern. It isn’t his fault that I keep my pain to myself and he mistakes it for strength.
“I think I’ve got it,” he says, as the Dremel machine in his hand turns on with a whiz.
I am nine and sitting beneath the food table with my cousin sneaking cucumbers on the tops of all the party guests’ feet who are passing by. We are laughing tears while the feet dance, balancing the food unknowingly, our squeals hidden within the beat of a bachata song. Everyone is singing the lyrics loudly, moving their hips in time with their feet. Their bodies so connected to the music. The cucumbers eventually fling onto the carpet and Princess, Tia’s little black dog, consumes the evidence. Princess usually has shaggy, matted fur, but Tia Blanquita has brushed it straight and placed a little pink bow between her ears.
It’s not until we become adults that life becomes deliberate. When we’re children, it just happens before us and we go along. Occasionally, we feel urges to take freedom into our own unprepared hands but there comes a fear with these freedoms. We think we know what’s in front of us. We grow older and we realize that there’s much more out there in the world and we can choose to be a part of it or we can choose not to. There are darker parts of life we could still feel as children, but were told not to, not yet.
My cousin’s eyes are the same brown as mine; we both have eyelids like a giraffe’s, with eyelashes that tickle the tops of our cheeks. We stare at each other to see how quickly we can mirror one another’s movements or see what the other was thinking. The only difference between us is our bodies. The line of her goes straight down and her floral dress hangs loose on her in a way that looks effortless. My sweater hugs my upper body and pants that are meant to be relaxed are stretched tight over my thighs.
The carpet we sit on is shaggy and thick. All the guests are in their socks and I imagine that must have made them feel calmer, more relaxed. Their feet step in line with the dance’s beat; men grab women’s hips and swing their own just as fast. “Take off your shoes, relax,” Tia Blanquita would always say, as if it were a choice on your part. People should always feel as if they have a choice. I asked Tia once why we had to take off our shoes and my mama smacked me quick and sharp, which my body had already tensed for. I wanted Tia to see me being strong.
I am a woman now. I am strong.
“She has a question, and she wants it answered,” Tia said to Mama, “Well, mijita, the closer you are to the ground, the better you can feel your roots.”
After all the cucumbers had been consumed, we watched the guests dancing with each other. As soon as I realized boys existed, I wanted to dance with one. My cousin is tiny enough to throw around in circles. All the men twirled her while I sat on the side longing to be light enough to fly through the air, to be appealing to someone.
Tia Blanquita saw me staring at my cousin. She came over and asked if I wanted to help her with something special. I followed her into the kitchen and Princess followed close behind.
“She is really taking a liking to you, mija. It’s like you’ve become the hand that feeds her,” Tia said with a wink.
Tia told me that she made a special dessert and she wanted me to try it first. She said I could pick who could have the first slice, anyone I’d like. I thought about Fernando, the neighbor boy that sits in the corner reading at the parties. I remembered pretending not to see him when I walked in. I imagined myself giving him the piece and him looking away from the book, to the cake, then to me. I pictured our eyes locking, and him thanking me and asking how could he ever repay me. Then I’d tell him we could dance some bachata, but no touching or anything.
“I’ll be right back with it,” Tia said as she headed down to the basement refrigerator.
Princess and I waited in the kitchen. The counter was covered with bottles and pitchers of sangria filled with fruit. I touched the copper plates that hung on the wall and counted how many mangos I could find in the mini clay trucks that lined the window above the kitchen sink. This was the best way to pass the time when you were excited. There was a cheap light blue clock that hung above the door and I was waiting for the small hand to go all the way around when my Tio’s friend Chico walked in.
Chico wore button-down shirts even when we weren’t at church. He was loud and knew all the lyrics to every song. He made everyone sing karaoke and drank big gulps of brown liquor from a heavy glass. He watched me with a look that I never understood; in a way that no one else had ever looked at me before. It always made me feel funny. He started to merengue his way closer.
“Ay, mijita linda! Bailame, bailame!” he yelled.
He ran over and took my hands into his own calloused ones, pulled my arms back and forth to get my hips to move like his. When they didn’t, he used his hands to move them. He pulled one of my arms to his hip with such force that my resistance made no difference. I was staring at the clock waiting for the little hand to go. Any second Tia would be here. Any second, Tia would come back and save me.
“Ay, cabron!” Chico yelled suddenly, so loud that one of the guests turned the music off.
Chico shook his too tight pant leg to loosen Princess off, but she held on until her teeth broke through the fabric and she ran off before he could retaliate.
She left him behind kicking and cursing. I slipped quietly behind the other side of the counter and crouched down. Tia came rushing up the stairs with a tres leche in her hand. She closed the front door behind her as she pulled Chico out but I could still hear her yelling. Everyone left the music off and filled their glasses with sangria as I sat on the kitchen floor. I listened to Tia speak Spanish in a way I’ve never known; screaming words I didn’t understand.
Tio tried to offer me a bowl of food but I kept my eyes away from it as he placed it down beside me. He waited for Tia near the door. When Tia came back in, she put both hands on his chest and gently brushed him away. He nodded and turned the music back on. Tia came over and sat down on the kitchen floor beside me.
“Are you okay, mija?” she asked.
I nodded my head but did not pick it up from my knees.
“Would you like to sit here for a while?” she asked.
I nodded again. Tia put her hand on my back and when she felt my body trembling, she pulled away.
“Let’s try something,” she said, “Is that all right? Can we try something together?”
“Perfecto, mirame. Then do as I do,” she said.
Tia removed her high socks and placed both feet on the floor with her knees bent.
“It’s your turn.”
I slowly moved and pulled one sock off and then the other. I placed my feet where they were before.
“Now feel your feet on the ground, tell me how the ground feels.”
“It’s cold,” I said.
I started to wiggle my toes and rocked my feet back and forth as Tia did the same. Princess came over and quickly ate from the bowl Tio had left. When she finished, she licked my feet and Tia started laughing, then I started laughing.
“I think she’s trying to tell you that it’s time to stand up. Do your feet feel good and solid on the ground now?”
I nodded and finally stood up, picked up the empty bowl, and walked with Tia back into the party while Princess followed closely at my feet.
But now Princess is gone and Tia is gone. All those other people remain, including myself, but I never count myself in these things. When do our longings leave us? Princess is now only a moment, a thing, a dog, that existed when she was here. But now she isn’t anymore, so when does she become unremembered? When does Tia? Once I am, I think. I am now much closer, though; an inanimate object is so close to obsoletion.
Umberto is sawing my legs in two because they’ve become welded together like thick weeds. My lower half is the hard foundation of a tree trunk and he is destroying me with this saw but I was a person before, was I not?
Is he making me better? Is this healing me?
I have finished going through my work inbox and to keep my eyes focused on the screen. I click into my personal inbox. The note I sent earlier to myself sits there in the bright white glow, unread.
“Ugh, finally,” Umberto says while pushing the two pieces of me apart.
The email reads, there was a time where you always wanted to have sex. This was called your 20s. You have had wonderful, wild, beautiful sex with strangers. You have conquered beasts. Your orgasms have claimed castles. You have been a goddess within your sadness. Wrecked the waves with your pure, bodily joy. But as you grew older, as you grew sadder, this faded so much that it was only a dim light blinking far beyond the past ocean of yourself.
“I have to respond to something,” I tell him.
Umberto nods and waits by my feet.
It’s okay to let it wash away, I begin to type.
The last time I saw Tia Blanquita she didn’t look sick but maybe it was because she was so pixelated. My cousin helped her figure out how to set up Skype once she moved back to Puerto Rico for her retirement. I had been meaning to visit her, but it’s hard to take a vacation when you’re your own boss. Tia said she understood, when the time was right we’d see each other again. Her skin was pale despite being back in her sun washed country five years. Her hair was slowly growing back beneath a floral headscarf. Her laugh was still the same. I started interviewing for assistants that same week so I could buy a round-trip ticket to Rincón to stay with her in the sun and talk about things like desire and need.
How do you prepare someone for your death? What hints do you drop? How do you curate your conversations? How do you know what someone will feel before they feel it? Do they know? Can they smell it coming? Did I smell it coming?
A few days later, I woke up to warm light on my face. I stretched my limbs and took some extra moments for myself yet reached for my phone to check emails that came in through the night. I started scrolling through photos, double tapping things that appealed to me. I let myself sink into my bed, images of cups of coffee, plates of food, and carefully placed products in beautiful color schemes appearing before me. Then there was a photo of Tia in my palm. It was an old photo of her when she was the age I am now, which still hangs in my childhood home. The post came from my cousin’s account and the accompanying caption read something along the lines of “la vida bonita” and eternal resting place. In my mind, I threw my phone into the wall. In my mind, I ripped apart my sheets, threw my laptop through the window. In my mind, I had called my cousin and screamed at her for not calling me. In my mind, I had cried but my body never moved.
Umberto slides himself away from me, abruptly abandoning his efforts, when I cover my eyes and yell into the day beyond those tall, tall trees. Tears stream into a great flood from my eyes, my body is lashed by uncontrolled breath. My feet push into the ground. I want to feel the ground that was there before these wooden floorboards. I need the earth between my toes; my veins want to break soil. I want to scream all the bad out of me. It bounces off the bark, one tree after another. It ricochets from branch to branch, striking the leaves like rain. It falls down, down, down into the valley and rises back up into my own ears. I want to apologize, but I don’t. I want Tia to come back and apologize to me, for leaving me alone.
Umberto gets up; he fills the bowls of grapes beside me. He kisses my wide yelling jaw and says,