His name is Michael. Sometimes, on Fridays, we
leave Chicago for the upper coast of Lake Michigan and lose the city pace to the
gentle sway of green trees. Up there he's the man I married. He's the one. But
Sunday afternoons, on the way home, we fight. No matter the outside temperature,
it's hot in the car, and my enthusiasm for water and wind shrivels and wants to
fly out with the air he sometimes lets splattering out through the cracked window.
There are little things, stupid things. Always, by Michigan City, I have to pee,
and he says if we stop we'll get stuck in the weekend traffic returning to the
city, so for a while we are quiet and I hold it. Then he trains his stalking eyes
on me and I tense. I touch my hands to my lips and ridge the underside of my nails
"Stop biting," he says and slaps
the hand away from my mouth. "Sit up straight," he says and I do. Then
I get angry that I've done it, as if he's some kind of an authority figure. "What's
happened to you?" he asks. "You used to be so poised." I look out
the window, but my eyes already smart with wet and I think of the self-help books.
They categorize him as passive-aggressive, as a typically socialized male. At
least that's what I can make out from all the examples and testimonials. The books
say not to react at all, or at least not with emotion or anger but I can't help
it. My anger starts at my shinbones and eats my head, because he has a different
story every time: short jabs about my big Cuban ass, the money thing, that he
doesn't want my parents to come for a week at Christmas.
my luck, stuck in the car with Miss Congeniality," he says. He grabs my forearm
and squeezes hard. "You gonna talk to me?"
being nice," I say.
"Jesus. I was just
There are two options then:
the smothering silence, or sometimes at home, we fight all night. I hide new shoeboxes
and cut tags off my suits before I bring them home, but he finds them anyway when
he ransacks the closet for new purchases. Sundays, from my perch on the couch,
I hear shoes fall from my shoe rack. He comes into the living room with six of
my mismatched shoes in his arms as if he can't possibly carry them all.
it necessary, Maria, to own seventeen pairs of shoes to succeed in the legal profession?"
He says this calmly, as if he is initiating a discussion.
have seven pairs of shoes. Blue, black and brown heels." I count on the fingers
of my hands. "Blue, black and brown flats. Tennis shoes." I hold up
seven fingers. He dives back into the bedroom, dropping all the shoes in the hallway.
He comes out with a pair of sandals dangling from his fingertips.
are these?" he asks.
I say quietly. "One pair of sandals."
to me how we are going to repay the loans."
mean your loans."
"That's so selfish."
He throws the shoes across the room then, one by one. He turns back to me, out
of breath, and we stare at each other. I don't have loans for which he is now
responsible, but I don't have to tell him that. We both know my parents paid all
their lives so I could have the immigrant dream, so I could speak perfect, unaccented
English. On these Sundays, by the time he ransacks the closet, we will have been
fighting all day, but the money thing's different. It has history, the trappings
of reason. And for me it's the jugular. I think love is stronger than money, so
eventually I take his hand and look cautiously into his face.
sorry. They're mine too," I say. " When I married you I married your
loans." But it hurts to say it, truly, physically hurts the glands at the
top of my neck. He's told me that a hundred times, that the cat must eat the cheapest
cat food because when I married him I married his loans. Pero trago. That's
how we say it in Spanish: swallow. Take a little. Traga. Put up with a
little more. Traga. Laugh when he says your fat Cuban ass is disgusting.
Hasta que te mate.
I've never lived in
a city. Not like this. I was born in Miami, which looks like the Chicago suburbs
except with palm trees and ranch houses. Miami's not exactly country, but as a
kid I heard enough about the Cuban countryside to fill every night with dreams:
banyan trees with droopy roots that hang from their arms; the smell of jasmine
in ancient courtyards; the rattling breeze of the coffee plantation. So the city
tires me, the drone, the constant high-speed passing of life.
live in a loft. From our windows, we see the plain backs of the buildings on the
next street: ugly Brooklyn-style fire escapes, rusty black against grimy brown
brick. Inside, everything's new and hand-picked: the Corian counter-tops in the
black and steel kitchen, the marble tile in the bathrooms, the bright paint the
realtor said evidenced the Latin in me. I keep a tomato plant on the roof, and
when I prune it, I remember my Cuban grandfather. The city air fills with sharp,
natural smells and I remember my grandfather's coarse hands, his dirty fingernails
and the way he ate every meal my grandmother ever put in front of him. Even if
it was burnt to a crisp. Even if it was asparagus. I think of my grandmother's
roses too. She kept a rosebush that climbed the house, and though it was the envy
of the neighborhood, she never did a thing to it. My tomato plant, by comparison,
seems to take everything I have. I lug impossibly large jars of water up the stairs
what seems like four times a day.
Michael's mother says the first time she sees it. It is a Saturday, and Michael's
family is visiting the loft for the first time. It takes one, maybe two entire
minutes for Michael's grandmother to make her way up the flight of stairs to the
roof deck. She leans heavily on Michael's arm, and when she gets there, out of
breath, Michael kisses her on the cheek.
is great," Michael's father says. I go downstairs and make mimosas, come
back precariously up the stairs again with a tray. I hand them their drinks, and
for a moment we are silent. The city is splayed out below us, skyscrapers on the
horizon, small like toys. I smile a lot, and half way through brunch at the trendy
restaurant down the street, my face starts to hurt.
the loft expensive?" Gramma wants to know. Michael's father chuckles at her.
He gives her that condescending look, and then he raises his voice because he
fathoms she's losing her hearing.
"It cost two
hundred thousand dollars!" Gramma's face puckers. Her eyes grow large. In
that family of secretaries and social workers the sum is staggering. I look around.
I worry that people may have heard. The conversation suddenly lapses to awkwardness,
and when the bill comes, Michael grabs it quickly. His father stands up and clamps
his fingers onto the end of it.
father says sternly.
"Dad," Michael says,
"I'm going to pay. Come on." Michael grabs the bill out of his father's
hands. "Come on," he says. "I want to. You paid for enough brunch
in your lifetime." Michael's father looks dissatisfied as Michael takes out
his wallet. Then he sits down and a slow smile spreads across his lips. He looks
at his wife. She nods.
"All right," he
I never know, when I wake up in the morning,
which Michael he's going to be. Some days he runs his fingertip along the elastic
of my panties and giggles like a schoolboy. Sometimes he follows me into the shower,
lets his glasses steam up, then blindly gropes me.
oh, excuse me," he says in a nasal voice when he "accidentally"
cups a breast or a buttock.
Other days it goes like
this: I am sitting at the kitchen table, editing contracts, and he comes and stands
in front of me.
"When are you going to clean
up your shit?" he asks. It always catches me off guard.
cleaned the whole place yesterday."
breakfast dishes are in the sink. Your shoes are by the front door." He is
angry, angrier than seems appropriate to me for these little infractions.
"Just ask me nicely."
know better, Maria. It's like living with a four year old." I wait for a
minute. Find some way to change the direction of the negativity, the books
"Maybe we should get a cleaning lady."
"We can't afford a cleaning lady."
it be worth it to you, to fight less?" For a moment, he considers this, his
face opens. Then he looks away, looks at my papers spread out on the table.
"Why should I have to pay someone to clean up your
mess?" He gestures to the tabletop as if my papers stay there every day,
as if I don't put them in my brief case when I'm finished. This is better, though,
than the days he ignores me. He is capable of not saying a word to me for two
days, or of speaking in monosyllables.
tired," he says if I ask him what's wrong. "Am I not allowed to be tired?"
So I clean the house meticulously. I stay out of his way.
shouldn't be doing all that housework," my mother tells me repeatedly.
"It's easier than fighting, Mom." She is always
quiet then, and I can hear her disapproval in it.
then don't take everything so personally. That's how Americans are," she
says. "They're different than us, less emotional. But it's nothing."
Then there are the weekends in Michigan. We sleep
in up there, spend the whole day lounging on the beach.
a little pink," Michael says and rubs suntan lotion on my back without my
asking. His hands are warm against the muscles and all the neglected parts of
me perk up. At those moments I wonder if my mother isn't right: are Americans
so different from us? I know it doesn't connect, but the contemplation makes me
miss my Cuban grandfather. My grandmother died years ago, in a year when we couldn't
go the funeral for fear the Cuban government wouldn't let my father back out,
but I still call my grandfather when the Cuban phone system's up. More often I
get letters from him. They never come by mail. A stranger always brings it to
"I was just in Cuba," they say.
"Your grandfather asked me to give you this." But it's been a long time
now. No one answers the phone, not even salesmen knock at my door.
someone so nostalgic, the truth is I've only been to Cuba once. That entire summer,
we played endless games of canasta and wagered my grandmother's unwanted earrings,
her hard, brightly colored candy and her mismatched flip-flops. Sundays my grandmother
boiled water and set it steaming on the dining room table.
day for cards," she said. "Carlos, wash up for church."
heard the woman! Wash up!" my grandfather would say in a mock frenzy. We
grandchildren would scatter, throw cards, run circles around the dining room table.
My grandfather would whisper, loud enough for my grandmother to hear it. "You
better do like she says. She might give me a spanking." While he spoke he
stuck his butt out to the side and paddled himself with one of the cards. He would
wink, and my grandmother would try to hide her smile from us. Sunday nights, she
would send me on a mission. "Go get your grandfather. Tell him supper's ready,"
she said, and he always came willingly. The bar where I always found him was a
quarter mile down the street, in the block-long town. Inside, stray cats and dogs
rested underneath the bar stools.
I don't know why,
opposites I guess, but I always think of my grandfather back to back with Michael.
Even Sundays when he hasn't worked Michael smells like fabric starch and stale
skyscraper smoke; in that bar on Sunday nights, my grandfather smelled of mint,
sugar cane juice and spoiled fruit.
There has been
no talk of leaving, but it's there, hiding from Michael underneath all the furniture.
He doesn't seem to know what I'm thinking. He calls me to make plans for Christmas,
saying that if I can take the extra day off he'd like to stay and see his brother
who's coming in from the West coast. I looked in the etiquette book while Michael
was at work, on a Sunday afternoon with Fall crisp against the windows of the
loft. If the separation occurs within the year, all the gifts have to be returned.
I find this daunting: the dishonest explanations, the boxes left on the front
porch as if I have not found the gift to my liking, or as if I am not capable
of gratitude. The thing that keeps me most still is that no one will believe me.
My excuse is the same as that of every person I have ever known to leave a marriage:
Once, we were civilized with each other.
More than civilized, gentle. I met him in law school, in a nowhere Southern town.
He was a year ahead of me in school, and he took me to the foreign movies no one
else was interested in. I was satisfied with the little taunting strokes of his
thumb against my palm, with the subtitled Spanish. I found him earnest, and what
appealed to me most was that it never seemed to have occurred to him that a woman
might be interested in him. He asked me to a study group, and afterwards, when
I asked him to dinner his eyes widened, the meaning of my question shocking to
him, and pleasing.
When I visited Michael in Chicago
my last year of law school, first thing, right outside of baggage claim: the cold
slap of winter. For a split second, my lungs froze in my chest. No air went in
or out. Michael found me, buttoned my coat and wrapped my scarf around my neck
before kissing me lightly on the mouth. That night he took me to a restaurant
called Eat Your Hearts Out, a tiny, romantic place tucked into a corner of the
"I've missed you," he said and smiled.
"You don't know how much I've missed you." Everything was blood red
in that place, decorated with cupids and Valentine's Day hearts. Michael took
credit for everything, as if he had set the table and painted the walls red and
thought to add a wine sauce to the vegetables. And later, in Michael's apartment,
wind seeped in where the windows had shrugged away from the walls. He lived in
a building with an indoor pool and we snuck in past midnight. We made love on
the dark pool deck, all my bones grinding against concrete.
first night in Chicago, I woke at three in the morning. I walked to the window,
wrapped in sheets, and looked out on the cold lights of the skyline. I walked
barefoot through the sparse apartment, by his carefully arranged desk, into the
kitchen where I found all the spices in alphabetical order. I knew what would
happen. For him I would leave my parents. For him I would leave the sun. I can
say this so honestly: I would have gone anywhere he asked me to.
now he baits me. He overturns my purse looking for receipts. He accosts me with
the credit card bill and posts notes to the refrigerator saying I owe him thirty-five
dollars and sixty-two cents. I sit at the kitchen table and crunch numbers. I
add them up over and over and calculate the things he wants: his loans paid off,
the four-bedroom house in the suburbs, 10% of our yearly salaries for retirement,
$300,000 saved by the time he is thirty-five. On the last thing, he never says
what for. To start a business, but he can't say what kind of a business
or draw up a business plan or give me any numbers on how much it might cost to
start. I add the numbers. I add them over and over. Always, as if in compensation,
I think of my meringue and lace wedding. I remember four things distinctly: it
took me three months to settle on the right dress; we had a thirteen-piece Latin
band; during the ceremony, my mother wept as if I had died; and in the honeymoon
suite, before I was out of my dress, he paced the floor.
the matter?" I asked.
"This room's not
worth $300," he said. I laughed.
it to you?" I asked. "You didn't have to pay for it." I started
unbuttoning my dress.
"Your parents would pay
$300 for any piece of shit that makes them feel American." I stopped cold
and turned to him. He looked at me with the eyes of a predator and I knew then
that the human self is the size and consistency of a canned grape, easily crushed
between thumb and forefinger.
This time the fight is about work.
I have blamed work all along. Too much pressure, too many nights eating dinner
in front of law books. He calls me to tell me and he calls me at the office, where
I cannot yell because other people can hear me. He says he is going to trial.
He says he will be gone at least three months. They have been doing this, shipping
off twenty and thirty associates at a time for a colossal mass torts suit. He
will be in a different state, in a hotel, in a different bed from mine.
you say no?" I ask. He doesn't answer. "This isn't good for us."
On the other end of the phone line I hear a slow release of air.
can't you respect my career choices?" he asks. "Are you jealous?"
I hang up and I stay at work late, on purpose. When I get home, the lights are
off, everything in the loft flickers in the artificial sheen of the television.
The cat comes quietly, rubs soft and needy against my ankles as I walk into the
living room. He is slack-jawed, so entranced by the television I approach him
with caution, the way I might approach a sleepwalker. "Michael?" Still
he doesn't look at me, doesn't answer. For a split second, I wonder if I have
actually spoken. I stand there, feeling at once too big for the space, at once
invisible. A year ago I didn't understand this about marriage: every fight is
three, four or even twenty years worth of fights and you know the script before
it starts. Make your own reality, the books say, don't ruin your relationship
by making assumptions about what your partner is thinking. So I chose to believe
that he didn't hear me. "Michael?" He doesn't respond. "We need
to talk," I say more sternly, and he looks up without any malice on his face,
slightly annoyed, as if he has just noticed me. He looks me up and down, then
settles his eyes lazily on mine.
to talk about." I turn off the television. We are in darkness for a moment
before I turn on the light. He squints, the anger flutters on his face and he
"Maria," he says. "Damn it."
"What do you mean they don't know when you'll
be back?" I don't mean it to, watch your tone and your body language,
the books say, but my voice bristles.
what they told me."
"What about weekends?
You have to come home weekends." He looks around at everything but me, but
mostly at the blank screen of the television. Then he leans back into the couch,
splaying out one leg to the side and sighing.
the Texas trial no one came home for four months." The summer before we were
married, he complained about the work. He used to crawl into my bed at three in
the morning and wake me, his hands smooth and fast against my drowsy body. Now
he throws his hands up in the air.
telling you what they told me," he says. His face cringes for a second, the
edges of his eyes crinkle. It is the first sign of his helplessness, that he doesn't
want it either, but in a split second it's gone and he reaches for the remote.
I slap my hand onto his. The cat goes running; her claws skid against the wood
"Who's they?" I say.
"Stop it." Our eyes are locked, my hand is still
on his. "You know damn well why I keep this job."
pay your loans," I say. It hits him where I meant it to, and this
softens me. I sigh it out. "We can pay them slower, over time." He takes
two short breaths, baby's breaths, and pulls his hand violently away from mine.
"I want to get out from under this debt, Maria.
I want it for both of us." His face looks helpless for a second and he's
present, my Michael. I can see him. "Why do you always make this an issue?"
he asks. "We agreed on this." What I want to say is that it's harder
than I thought, but there's no room for that. Michael's face hardens. "What
did you study so hard for if not this?"
we pay your loans, will you quit?" He glares at me. Then his face loses all
its hard edges and he shrugs.
"I've been thinking
of going for partner." For a moment we are silent.
we agreed on was two or three years max. We both know what these jobs do
"We're doing fine," he
says. My throat constricts. A weakness flares up in me and I hate it so much I
want to cry.
"I don't feel fine," I say.
Michael rolls his eyes. I want to yell that three months away at trial is almost
longer than we've been married, that I don't know anyone in Chicago, that he is
stretching me too thin. I hold it. I hold it. And then I am yelling. I am yelling
that he ignores me, that I ask him questions and he doesn't even answer. He takes
the remote and throws it against the wall. It smashes simply, mechanically, and
for a moment, I am quiet.
"When I say you don't
support my career path," he says slowly, "this is I what I mean."
He gets up and walks away. Then he locks himself in the bedroom, and provides
a smooth, white door for me to pound on so hard I bruise the soft part of my fist.
Five minutes later, when he unlocks it with all that paternal authority, the couch
cushions sigh out shame. I am crying, seated on the floor. He looks at me with
a stoic face. "You're not going to get your way by crying." His bare,
thin chest makes him seem harmless and I marvel at how small he really is. I drop
my eyes and bring my hand to my mouth. He swats my hand away, but then he takes
a good look at my face. He sighs and extends both hands to me.
on," he says. He lifts me up and pulls me into his arms.
In the morning, the phone wakes me at 5:30.
me, cachita." My father's voice is strained and soft. My head still
hurts from the tears and yelling, and my throat constricts again, ready for the
tears that will choke it again. "I have bad news." I can hear my father
sigh, I can hear him hold something back. "Pipo died." I understand
then. I understand my unrelenting nostalgia. In my family we are all connected
like that, through dreams and invisible umbilical chords.
I hang up, there is no discussion on whether Michael will come with me to the
funeral, none at all. That night I fly to Miami and then, the next morning, my
parents and I fly illegally into Havana via Mexico. In twenty years nothing has
changed, not the cars, not the buildings, not even the bright paint, but everything
is crumbling. In Havana, my father buys a shiny, lacquered coffin for my grandfather.
Our rented 1957 Ford rumbles and shakes, but with the coffin strapped to the roof
of the car with twine, it takes us deep into the Cuban countryside, to my grandparents'
house. We get out of the car, all three of us, and stare. It is tiny and dank,
so reduced from the house of my dreams, and apparently exactly and alarmingly
as my father remembers it. He looks despairingly at the crumbling, stone walls.
"Look how they lived," he says. We go inside
the empty house and examine it silently, room by room. In the kitchen, my father
picks up an antique of a frying pan. He shakes it and holds it up so I can see
the hole that has rusted its way through the bottom. "How the hell can you
cook with this?" he asks. His face is distraught, his anger at his father
still so sharp. He sent American dollars, stubbornly year after year, but my Communist
grandfather never accepted them. I look at the frying pan and my face involuntarily
folds into a frown. I take my father's grief from him involuntarily. I can feel
it overwhelm me, and then I consume it slowly, like a dry, baked treat. Finally,
I take the frying pan from him and lead him away.
neighbors come to my grandfather's wake by mule or by foot. My father stands calmly
then, in front of his father's cold body.
him," he says when he sees my strained face. "It's all right, cachita.
It's alright." I can't answer, so he takes my hand and places it on the spot
where once I might have heard my grandfather's heart beat. This is normal in Cuba,
to touch a dead body, to weep on it and kiss it, but I can't do it. I turn away
and go back to the kitchen. I find myself opening all the drawers, looking, I
realize, for the one where my grandfather kept the cards. When I find the peeling
deck it surprises me, as if I have found buried treasure. I pick it up. The red
and black designs are faded. Over and over I run my fingers along the smooth edges.
"Do you remember me?" I hear the neighbors
ask my father from the other room.
"You don't know
me," others say to him, "but I have relatives in New York." My
grandmother's rose bush is blooming. Her government-issued bicycle, two sizes
too small for her, still leans against the kitchen table. Someone has filled the
bicycle's basket with her blood-red roses.
leaves for trial, Michael packs all his clothes in document boxes and the office
Federal Expresses them to Kansas. He takes all six of his suits, his casual clothes,
almost nothing is left in his closet. He leaves on a Wednesday, in his jeans with
a small duffle bag on his shoulder. He looks like he's going for a workout, but
the cat howls at the closed door after him for fifteen minutes and then falls
asleep there, waiting.
"That's what happens
when the honeymoon's over," my mother jokes later, on the phone. But the
truth is, even the honeymoon fell far short of my expectations. On my honeymoon,
the attendant at the Mexican pharmacy found it amusing I had contracted a urinary
infection: everyone always thinks it's related to sex. Then he charged me the
equivalent of $50.00 for three days worth of antibiotics.
awfully expensive," Michael said. I looked for the cash, feeling like I was
going to pee in my pants, in too much pain to stand still. I thought he said it
to the attendant, but when I looked up, Michael was looking at me, waiting for
"I don't have any pesos," I
said to him. He scowled, dug into his wallet and paid.
we can't buy pottery," Michael said outside on the sidewalk.
course we can still buy pottery," I said. "It's fifty dollars. It's
a third of your hourly rate."
Maria. We'll go over budget." In ten seconds flat I was yelling my head off,
screaming that I didn't go to law school so some man could tell me when I could
afford to buy medicine. Michael stayed perfectly calm.
you know what a budget is Maria?" he asked. "Are you familiar with the
concept?" Then he walked away. I stood there in the dust of a Mexican street
and waited for him to come back. Nobody will believe me when I tell them this
either, but in the three years Michael and I were together before we got married,
we had only one fight. Discussions, sure, difficult days, misunderstandings. Not
fights. And that gave me confidence. I had observed unhappily married couples
for years, convinced they had chosen wrong. I could tell they were married without
seeing their ring fingers, solely by the fact that ridiculous things were cause
for a fight: that the husband would not drink Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola, that
the wife forgot the coupon for the oil change. But Michael and I had never before
crossed to meanness or pettiness.
I waited on a bench,
convinced it was the sunburn he had suffered, or the fact we hadn't yet eaten
lunch. I waited thirty minutes convinced of this: he would come back; he would
apologize. And then a new desperation came over me. I made excuses: he couldn't
possibly have understood the tone in his voice; he didn't realize I was really
sick; maybe he only wanted to find a cheaper pharmacy. I went back to the hotel
room and found Michael lying against the bed, reading his beach book. I got in
next to him.
"I'm sorry," I said. It pleased
him. He put his book down and I waited for him to apologize to me.
you want to go back down to the pool?" he asked. I didn't answer and he started
running his fingers along my forearm. After a moment he kissed me. I didn't stop
him, and though it wasn't what I wanted, it got kind of heated.
okay for this?" he asked. His face was tight, so much riding on my answer,
and I wondered if it had been the rejection that brought this out in him, something
so simple as being rejected for sex?
know." He looked away, sighed and reached for his book. I pulled on his forearm.
"Maria," he scolded.
okay," I said. "I think I'm okay." He considered me carefully.
"It'll be quick," he answered, but he moved
slowly, unbuttoning my oxford the way he had in law school, kissing my neck. I
let things go for a while, not moving, not breathing.
hurts," I said finally. He didn't miss a beat.
almost finished." It froze every intangible thing inside of me. I couldn't
understand. I just couldn't understand.
Now I know:
it had nothing whatever to do with culture or money. There are gestures in marriage,
as in life, that determine things for a long time. That honeymoon day I tensed
everything from my neck to my toes. I was patient, and silent, and still, even
though it felt like a grenade to my abdomen, even though it felt like coral shards
against burnt skin.