Mercedes Evades Danger
I. One thought and a nimble action
Mercedes was so lost in thought that she walked right past the subway station. She turned around. She was already running late. There had been a long line at Toys “R” Us. Her parents would both be there for her nephew, Ricky’s birthday. Her father had insisted on coming. Her mother had feigned apathy. Gabriela, her sister, would need her help keeping them from each other’s throats. Hearing a train pull into the station, she hurried down the stairs.
“Where’d he come from?” There was only time for one thought. He must have been watching the street, waiting for a woman alone. He must have hidden once she approached. He must have planned to knock her down or grab her. This she would put together later, though she would never learn what he wanted, if it was her shopping bag, her purse, everything on her, or worse.
There was only time for one thought, and a nimble action. With the palm of her hand, she pushed herself off the wall. She spun around the massive figure, a foot taller than herself, twice as wide, in the process smacking his back with Ricky’s Xbox. He grunted, but he was too huge to have been hurt. She ran. She leapt onto the subway. The doors closed behind her.
Gasping for breath, she was astonished by her own swiftness. She wasn’t an acrobat. She wasn’t even a good dancer. She chalked it up to a strong survival instinct. Her childhood had demanded it. After finding a seat, she carefully unwrapped one side of Ricky’s present. She opened a flap of the box. With all the Styrofoam padding, it was unlikely the Xbox was damaged. She leaned back and gradually calmed down.
She was surprised to find herself looking forward to Ricky’s party. She hadn’t seen Gabriela or her parents since her poem, “Today, I’ve Succumbed” was published online. Finally, she felt vindicated for pursuing her passion. Gabriela couldn’t scoff that she lived with her head in the clouds anymore.
While she wrote plenty of poetry about her boyfriend, Alberto, “Today, I’ve Succumbed” was about Javier. Javier seemed to make for better poetic material, or so thought the editors of Heart Rhythms Quarterly. It must have been because her love for Javier was sad, based upon shared sadness and doomed from the start.
The first time she met Javier, she was a high school senior. Her guidance counselor had taken an active interest in her college application process, probably sensing turbulence or neglect at home. He had gone so far as to pay her bus fare to the college that Javier attended, though she ended up enrolling at a school that offered better financial aid.
During her overnight stay, she was hosted by Sara, a freshman. Sara was put off by her immediately. Mercedes wasn’t like other teenage girls. She didn’t use makeup. She wore mismatched clothes. She hardly spoke. As much as she tried, she couldn’t force herself to look others in the eyes. It was no wonder Gabriela had nicknamed her “Rain-Woman.”
After trying and failing to unload Mercedes on her roommate, Sara brought her to her boyfriend, Tom’s dorm room. She didn’t bother introducing Mercedes, except to say, “she doesn’t talk.” Mercedes wasn’t consulted either when they ordered Chinese takeout or when they put on a DVD. She didn’t mind. Anorexic at the time, she was content with a few broccoli spears. While the insipid action film played, she was transfixed by the paintings hanging on the other side of the room. Each canvas was a sea of fractured faces and body parts. Images combined into larger ones and scattered into smaller ones. What looked like a face might turn into an eye atop a leg and a fist, with knuckles for teeth. It was grotesque, yet oddly beautiful. Though there were only four pieces in total, they captivated her for hours.
The artist himself didn’t arrive until the movie’s even worse sequel was underway. Carrying a sketchpad, he walked in without greeting anyone. He had the crooked posture of a caveman. He was skeletally thin. Still, he was handsome, with delicate features and huge, brown eyes. Mercedes was enrapt, by his looks, his talent, and because something in his demeanor struck her as familiar. Averting his gaze from everyone, he frenziedly searched for a place to set down his pad. His desk was too small. His closet was too full. Upon shoving it under his bed, he snatched his backpack from the floor. Painfully self-conscious, he seemed desperate to get away as fast as possible.
“You sure you don’t feel like catching the end of this?” Tom smirked. Mercedes was ridiculed often enough herself to recognize that Tom was mocking him. She perceived the artist was like her, incapable of simple conversation and utterly alone.
“Thanks, but I’d rather give myself a lobotomy than watch that mindless crap. Maybe then I’d enjoy it,” the artist said. Mercedes sighed disappointedly: he talked. She had felt less pathetic thinking there was someone as socially bewildered as she was. His eyes darted to her. He kept staring at her intently even as he left.
“Don’t let Tom’s jerk roommate scare you off. Most of us are friendly here,” Sara said, addressing Mercedes directly for the first time in hours. Still, it was more like she was speaking to the artist. She was so loud that he had to have heard her from outside the door.
“I had a class with him last year. He never spoke, just doodled creepy drawings in his notebook. We joked he’d come in one day with a rifle. Now I wish that smartass went back to being silent,” Tom said. Perhaps the artist had left, perhaps he lingered in the hall. Regardless, Tom’s words would stay with her for years. She made sure to note the artist’s signature, “Javier Guzmán.”
Her relationship with Alberto began far more promisingly. For one, she didn’t have to wait two years before seeing him again. She was living in a tiny, Astoria studio apartment. Thirty and unpublished, she was close to giving up on her dreams of being a poet, and had long since given up on love.
He approached her at work asking to be directed to the cookbooks. His eyes reflected kindness. His age, refined demeanor and Armani suit suggested he was financially secure. She felt something instantly. It was less a spark than a hunch, like a detective might get. She felt he would take good care of her, and also that he was hers for the taking.
“I assumed all Italians already knew how to cook,” she remarked. He laughed.
“Is so obvious from my accent? I look through for ideas. I probably don’t buy,” he said.
“You’re not supposed to tell me that. Why would I help you now?” she smirked. Entranced by her beauty, he hardly seemed to hear her. Although he gave no reply, she walked him over to the cooking section. Following a brief conversation, he asked when her shift ended. “In twenty minutes and this display is making my stomach grumble,” she said.
She owed all of her present happiness to a flirtatious comment made unthinkingly. Yet, if one read “Today, I’ve Succumbed,” one might believe she regretted it. Nothing in her poetry was a lie. She deliberated over each word, often for hours, to find the most accurate. Still, no poem could capture the whole truth. Considerations existed beyond emotional whims. Following one’s heart blindly could lead straight to danger.
Suddenly, the conductor’s voice jarred her from her thoughts. Realizing he had announced her stop, she rushed out. The doors closed behind her. She sighed in relief. She was late already and knew to expect an earful from Gabriela.
IV. Don’t forget we’re family
“Hermanita!” Greeting Mercedes at the door, Gabriela threw her arms around her. Mercedes tensed up. They may have been sisters, but her body responded to Gabriela as if they were strangers. Alberto was the only person from whom she didn’t automatically recoil. It had taken her a while to reach that point with him.
“Sorry I’m late,” Mercedes said.
“Don’t worry, I’m just happy you could make it. Ricky, Vanessa, say hi to your titi!” Gabriela called. Mercedes was baffled. Gabriela never passed up the chance to rebuke her. “Alberto isn’t with you?” Gabriela asked nonchalantly.
“He’s in Milan for the quarterly meeting.” Mercedes smiled at that word, “quarterly,” her accomplishment still at the fore of her thoughts. She half-expected Gabriela to say, “speaking of ‘quarterly’ congrats!” Gabriela only scowled.
Catching sight of her seven-year-old niece, Vanessa, something painful stirred within her. While Ricky ran up to her, gave her a forceful, but cursory hug and flitted off again, Vanessa approached timidly, fidgeting with her bracelet. Pretty and slightly built, she resembled Mercedes more than Gabriela. It was impossible for Mercedes not to remember what she had been subjected to at Vanessa’s age.
“How are you?” Mercedes knelt down.
“Good!” Vanessa beamed, flattered by even this small bit of attention. With a hyperactive brother like Ricky, she probably settled for crumbs. Would that make her an easy target? Would she feel so grateful to be noticed that she didn’t question what was happening? Evil could find its way to her so easily, as a teacher, a stepfather, a neighbor, a priest.
Mercedes stood. Seeming confused by Mercedes’s expression, Vanessa slunk back to her and Ricky’s room. Alberto promised Mercedes she would get over these feelings. One day, she would look at a child without trembling from the dangers he or she faced. If she never came around, it was fine too. He agreed not to even bring it up again until they were married.
Mercedes’s great aunt, Amalia sat beside Mercedes’s father, Miguel. Since Amalia only spoke Spanish, everyone would be expected to do the same. Gabriela’s boyfriend, Hector sat beside Mercedes’s mother, Paola. Though Hector was likeable enough, his ripped physique, conceited grin and the gallon of cologne he poured on worried Mercedes that Hector was a player like their father.
Once Mercedes set down the gift and her purse, she paused in the foyer. She knew she could provoke a fight just by choosing to greet one parent before the other. Paola took for granted that her children favored her. Miguel, after all, was a lying, cheating pendejo. Miguel secretly suspected he was Mercedes’s favorite, and would be hurt by evidence to the contrary. Mercedes diplomatically approached Amalia. After lamenting how long it had been since they last saw each other, Mercedes asked after the health of Amalia’s invalid husband. Miguel joined the conversation, discussing his own bad back, which made custodial work increasingly difficult. He mentioned he was looking for a new job, prompting a loud, skeptical snort from Paola. Other than the venomous glares Paola and Miguel traded, there was no further drama. Still, Mercedes couldn’t feel too relieved. Disaster wasn’t averted so much as deferred.
No one congratulated her on her poem right away. She wasn’t offended; it was Ricky’s party, not hers. She waited an hour or so before casually alluding to it. Paola held Gabriela’s baby, Diego, but Diego kept squirming. Hector suggested reading to him. He said it worked like a charm. Mercedes remarked, perhaps they had another writer in the family. Paola sneered, just because he played with keys, it didn’t mean he’d be a janitor, and thank God: Gabriela shouldn’t have to bear that shame from father and son. Miguel exasperatedly threw his hands in the air, but held his tongue. Paola then added, there were no writers in the family.
Mercedes shouldn’t have been surprised that Paola hadn’t read her poem. Paola wasn’t on Facebook. Mercedes had emailed her the link, but she hadn’t responded. Distrustful to the point of paranoia, Paola reported any email address she didn’t recognize as spam. Mercedes sometimes wondered if Paola married a serial cheater because it was secretly gratifying to have her worst suspicions confirmed.
While Gabriela gathered the kids, Mercedes and Miguel went into the kitchen to prepare the cake he had brought.
“Want money for the cake?” Mercedes asked as Miguel lit the candles with his lighter. Miguel nodded. He was always barely scrounging by, though he still managed to support his smoking habit. He used to blame it on the stress of being married to Paola. Paola blamed it on the stress of keeping so many lies. Slinking over to her purse, she discretely removed a twenty and returned.
“I have a few extra bucks. The check came for my poem.” Even as she spoke, she realized how obvious it was that she was fishing for praise. She never worried about money anymore. Alberto took care of everything. The check from Heart Rhythms Quarterly wouldn’t buy an appetizer at his favorite restaurant.
“Oh, Sadie, I didn’t read it. You know that stuff makes me sad,” he frowned. By “stuff” he meant what Father Ruiz did to her. Her poetry often alluded to it. The truth first came out when Mercedes left behind her journal during spring break. Following the divorce, Paola had to direct her snooping tendencies somewhere. Unsurprisingly, her parents reacted by blaming each other. If she upset him by reminding him, she refused to feel guilty. What had happened to her wasn’t her fault.
“I’m proud of you,” he said, sensing her anger. He took the twenty and placed it in his wallet, serving up a reminder of his own. He was just a middle-aged janitor barely making ends meet. Even if her resentment was justified, she should know not to expect much from him. That had always been Paola’s mistake.
“Thanks,” Mercedes said, grateful for even that scrap of approval.
“That’s not my cake!” Paola jumped to her feet the instant she spotted the box in Mercedes’s arms. Mercedes scolded herself for not realizing Paola’s cake was the one wrapped in tinfoil, which she had surely spent hours baking. It was probably too late now to prevent the imminent screaming match. Nonetheless, she tried.
“It’s my fault. I grabbed the wrong one,” she said. No one bothered to acknowledge her.
“Ricky likes plain, regular chocolate. Why would you make tres leche? Every time, you make the same thing. Just give Ricky what he likes. It’s his birthday,” Miguel said. He must have done it on purpose. With everyone else, he played the submissive failure. Perhaps tearing Paola down was his way of feeling powerful.
“Why do you love to humiliate me? You brought some cheap supermarket cake just so no one would taste mine! I always bring the cake, you know that!”
“And it’s always tres leche! No one likes it but you!”
“I like it.” Mercedes gave it another useless shot. She wondered if she had actually succeeded in prolonging their marriage. Regardless, she wished she had Amalia’s attitude. Amalia grabbed a Spanish language tabloid from the table and flipped through the pages. No doubt, she had brought it herself in anticipation of this moment. Her hearing aid sat on a napkin in front of her.
Since childhood, Gabriela would always yell at them to stop. Not that it mattered: they would have kept going at it over a screeching fire alarm, as the house burned down. Remarkably, Gabriela held herself back. The last time their parents fought, Diego’s christening in March, Gabriela let out a holler that vibrated the stained-glass windows of the church. Today, Gabriela only scooted the kids off to the bedroom, then sat patiently on the couch until the fight ran its course.
At last, tears streaming down her face, Paola darted into the kitchen. A moment later, she emerged with her purse slung over her shoulder and the tres leche cake in her arms. She strode to the door. She paused in front of it. She set down the cake. In the old days, Miguel would approach her cautiously. She would turn around to face him. She would collapse into his embrace, perhaps giving his chest a few weak shoves. Now Paola swung the door open. Snatching the cake up again, she stormed out. The door slammed shut behind her.
“¡Está loca!” Miguel proclaimed. He glanced around the room for expressions of consensus. Finding only bemused shrugs, he muttered he needed a cigarette. He went into the bathroom, the only place Gabriela let him smoke.
“Can you believe them?” Gabriela huffed. Walking over to the dining room table, she blew out the birthday candles. She cut three slices of cake, placing them on paper plates. Following Gabriela’s cue, Mercedes and Hector sat. Amalia’s diabetes kept her from joining them.
“They do it every time,” Mercedes noted.
“You’re right!” Gabriela said, in a tone which suggested Mercedes’s remark was extraordinarily perceptive. Gabriela wanted something, or she would never have been this nice. It occurred to Mercedes that this whole moment had been planned. Paola and Miguel fighting was inevitable, as was Paola storming out and Miguel slinking away for a cigarette. Conveniently, the only relative remaining didn’t speak English. Gabriela’s conniving ways were well known amongst the family. Dysfunctional though they were, they typically looked out for each other around her.
“Shouldn’t Ricky get to have a piece?” Mercedes asked.
“We won’t eat it all. Besides, he doesn’t like cake. He’ll only eat ice cream,” Gabriela laughed. Even Amalia sensed something was up. Grimacing, she grabbed her cane. Mercedes raised her hand, gesturing for her to stay.
“Do you need money?” Mercedes sighed. Gabriela had never asked her outright before, although she had been awfully obvious when mentioning Ricky’s broken Xbox.
“I would never ask you for that,” Gabriela said in a deeply offended voice.
“Hector needs a job,” Mercedes said. It was her second choice. Alberto’s company owned several warehouses. Hector was a construction worker. It was the same skill set.
“He has a job.” Gabriela put on an indignant face before at last dropping the ruse. “But it pays nothing, and his hard work is unappreciated. He keeps getting passed over for a promotion.”
“My boss is a total pendejo,” Hector chimed in. Gabriela shot him a silencing glare. She worked alone.
“He needs somewhere that will allow him to grow. He has real leadership potential that’s going to complete waste,” Gabriela said. She must have really been in love to believe Hector was such a go-getter. “You have so much now. Can’t you share?” she pled, appealing to Mercedes’s compassion.
In truth, Mercedes would lose nothing by asking Alberto to hire Hector. Nonetheless, Mercedes couldn’t forget those years when she was of no use to Gabriela, except as someone to ridicule, to feel better about herself. When had Gabriela ever shown her compassion or kindness?
“Did you even read my poem?” Mercedes asked. Of course not: Gabriela didn’t care about her. She only cared what she could get from her.
“No, I don’t want to read about what you should be over by now. You’re thirty-two-years-old.” Perceiving Mercedes wouldn’t help her, Gabriela lashed out. Though Mercedes had already assumed Gabriela felt that way, it was still hurtful to hear.
“I suppose,” Mercedes said. She wasn’t like Gabriela or their parents. She wouldn’t be drawn into a fight. She had never been anything like them at all.
“I’ve been a driller for four years. My boss only promotes Dominicans,” Hector said, oblivious to the turn the conversation had taken.
“You suppose?” Gabriela said, mystified, as usual, by her sister.
“Yes, I should try to catch up with Mom, make sure she’s okay. I’m afraid she might hurt herself.” Mercedes stood. After retrieving her purse, she said goodbye to Miguel through the bathroom door. He opened the door a crack.
“Bye Cariña,” he smiled. She couldn’t say he didn’t love her, or that Paola didn’t love her. She forgave them for their fighting, and even their subsequent neglect of her. She only wished she could forget the horrific consequence.
“Happy birthday Ricky! Bye Vanessa!” She poked her head into the room where they were playing.
“Bye Titi Mercedes!” Ricky and Vanessa said. Even in that brief exchange, she couldn’t help thinking how vulnerable they were. No matter how well-acquainted one was with the dangers out there, there was no way to keep a child completely safe. Perhaps, in time, she might accept that she could only do her best. She just hoped Alberto was as patient as he claimed to be.
“Cuidate!” she called out to Amalia.
“Adios Mija!” Amalia gave Gabriela a dirty look, surmising she was to blame for Mercedes’s abrupt departure.
“Don’t forget we’re family!” Gabriela called out as Mercedes shut the door. She didn’t just mean that Mercedes should feel obligated to help them. She meant, if Mercedes ever needed to, she could turn to them as well. Yet, Mercedes’s family had been totally oblivious to her when she had needed them most.
V. Broken Bodies, Broken Minds
She headed to the subway station. Paola would be fine. If she tripped and hurt herself, she would be thrilled. It would give her more ammo against Miguel the next time. As she waited on the platform, she brought up Javier’s Facebook page. She first found him on Google years ago. His work was featured at a Downtown L.A. gallery. By now, his Facebook page had thousands of followers, including herself.
As evidenced by “Today, I’ve Succumbed,” she never outgrew her need for him. When she felt alone or misunderstood, she scrolled through his posts. She felt a kinship with him; they were alike in so many ways, and so different from everyone else. It heartened her now to see how well he was doing. There wasn’t more to it than that. It wasn’t like sophomore year at college. She knew nothing could happen between them now.
By the end of her sophomore year, Mercedes had undergone a complete transformation. A suicide attempt during the summer before was the turning point. She stopped after one wrist. She wrapped the wound with a rag, which she hid under baggy clothes. If she seemed a bit unsteady and pale, it escaped her parents’ attention. On the cusp of their final break up, their fighting was relentless. Realizing she didn’t want to die, yet nor could she go on living in her current hell, the only option was change.
Before returning to school, she invested in a new wardrobe and hairstyle. Once there, she began to talk. If not for that chance encounter with Javier two years earlier, she wouldn’t have known change was possible. He saved her life simply by existing. She wrote a poem to thank him. Though he inspired many, this one she needed him to hear. She found Javier’s dorm on his school’s online directory. When she arrived, it was Saturday night. She was positive he would be home.
Slipping in behind a group of girls, she wondered how long it would be before she was like them: laughing blithely, perfectly at ease in each other’s company. She never went to parties. She had no friends. If she conversed with someone, it was to practice her social skills or track her progress. Although she acted more normal, she felt as alone as ever, except when she thought of Javier.
Arriving at his door, her stomach twisted in knots. The last year had taught her to be courageous. The alternative was to give up, finish what she started over her bathroom sink at home. She knocked. Javier opened the door. He had grown a goatee. She hated it. When she thought of his face, which she did so often, it was clean shaven, as he appeared two years ago. It was that face she had come to revere. Nevertheless, it was still him, and she ached with longing at the sight of him.
“Yes?” he said, brusquely.
“I’m Mercedes. We met when I was a prospective student.” She spoke exactly as she had rehearsed it.
“I never took in a prospective student.” Already, he was pushing the door closed.
“It was Tom! Not Tom, but Sara, I was with Sara!” she said frantically. Squinting skeptically, he held the door halfway open.
“You decided not to come,” he said, stated as a fact, not a question. That implied he did remember her.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
After deliberating for a long, awkward moment, he opened the door for her. As she had assumed, he was alone. Judging from his expression, he expected an immediate explanation as to why she was here. Originally, she had planned to let her poem do the explaining. Now, doubt crept in. His suspicion threw her off guard. She wondered how he would react to her poem, if he would think she was crazy. Glancing back to the hallway, she considered running away. He shut the door behind her.
“You okay?” he asked, warily, yet not without compassion. Her hands were trembling. “Sit.” He gestured to his bed. She did. She caught him glancing at his desk phone. He was debating summoning campus security: she could tell. She felt indignant. How could he think she was dangerous? She would never dream of hurting him. He meant everything to her.
She gazed up at his paintings. They hung across his whole side of the room. They were new. She remembered the ones from before precisely. These were better, bolder, yet subtler, more imaginative and more stirring. Nonetheless, each piece, both now and two years ago, could fittingly be titled “Broken Bodies, Broken Minds.”
“You were sexually abused.” She said it aloud without thinking. She hadn’t intended to bring it up. There would be no need. Her poem would say it implicitly. They shared this terrible commonality, but now that they were together, it wouldn’t matter anymore.
Stunned, his knees buckled beneath him. He sat beside her. Though his eyes stared at his paintings, he seemed to see nothing. His mind was lost to bad memories. She felt sorry for taking him there.
“But you’re okay. You got past it,” she said. His despondent expression cast doubt on her statement’s accuracy. “The same thing happened to me,” she said. He turned to her. That admission shouldn’t have made her smile, but it did. She saw recognition in his eyes. She felt from him what she felt herself, a sense of finally not being alone.
“You could tell just from my paintings?” he asked. She nodded, though it wasn’t only that. It was also his defensiveness, his alienation from others, his thinness and his haunted eyes.
“It’s weird. I didn’t remember what happened to me until college. But I’ve been doing drawings like this since I was six. It’s all there, isn’t it? Even when I didn’t realize it, it’s all about that.” He shuddered. “Did you always remember?” he asked.
“Kind of,” she said. He looked fascinated. “Bits and pieces: I would think of him randomly, looks we shared, places we went. It didn’t make sense, but my thoughts never did. I couldn’t put it together. I was too crazy.” She put her hands to her head, recalling and evoking that mental disarray which had felt like a prison.
“It’s over. It’ll never be as bad as it was,” he said.
“I hope not,” she said. She smiled, remembering there was proof. “The nightmares stopped. For ten years, I had only nightmares. Now most of my dreams are good. That has to mean something.”
“Same here, after so long, I grew numb to them. When the first good dream came, I thought it was a fluke, or that I woke up right before it turned bad. I’ll never forget it. I was on a white horse, of all things, riding along the beach. I’ve never even been on a horse,” he said with an awed chuckle.
Mercedes didn’t reveal her first good dream. In hers, she approached a derelict house. She was both curious and cautious, having heard rumors it was haunted. Inside, she discovered Javier on a rickety chair, appearing dejected. Upon seeing her, a huge smile formed on his face. He recognized her like an old, dear friend. She ran into his embrace. As she felt his heartbeat against hers, she realized there were no ghosts here. Sunlight streamed in. The walls disappeared, and they found themselves in a lush garden teeming with life. Ever since she awoke, she knew to look to his example, and knew they were meant to be together.
“What brought you here?” he asked. He didn’t sound suspicious. He seemed giddy, from both recalling that dream and encountering another who understood why it was so wondrous.
“The poetry open,” she said. Poetry had become her passion. Her pain affected her less when she turned it into something beautiful. “It was this week. It’s a big, annual reading. Students from lots of schools participate.”
“You read your poem in front of everyone?” he asked, impressed. She nodded.
“Can I read it?” he asked. It was the opening she had been waiting for. Nonetheless, something held her back.
“I don’t have it on me,” she lied. It was written out on a piece of paper folded into a neat square in her pocketbook. She was afraid it would make things weird between them. He was just starting to trust her. She didn’t want to ruin that.
“One day,” he smiled. Seemingly, her plan had failed. She had caught the afternoon bus, spent six hours too anxious to do anything but stare at the seat in front of her, sat outside his dorm another hour inventing an excuse for her visit, only to lose her nerve once she was finally face to face with him. Yet, it felt like this couldn’t have possibly gone better. They had shared a special moment together, had bonded so quickly, so deeply.
“Do you ever think you might be gay?” The question seemed to come from nowhere. She even let out a giggle, thinking he was joking, but his face was serious. He was eager for her answer. She couldn’t give it. Anguish choked her voice.
“I just wonder sometimes, who I’d be attracted to, if…” He didn’t have to finish his thought. She understood. She understood that she wouldn’t have loved who he might have been, and whoever he might have been, he couldn’t love her now. She felt betrayed. His love was supposed to make her whole, replace all she had lost. Tears formed in her eyes. He had known so much suffering; only she could grasp the depths of it. He didn’t need her crying in front of him, making him uncomfortable. She had to leave. She stood.
“I didn’t mean to offend you.” Standing up, he held out his hand beseechingly. He wanted her to stay. But why? Not to love her, to ask more questions about her sexual abuse. Talking about it was hard enough. Talking about it when she would rather be kissing him was unbearable.
“I’m not offended,” she said. Suddenly, his hand clasped hers. Warmth emanated between them. His touch was light, yet it felt so powerful. She gazed down at his fingers wrapped over hers. This was love; she was certain of it. Apparently, though, it was platonic, like the love between siblings. Her mind accepted that, but her heart couldn’t.
“Thank you for opening the door. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you so much,” she said. She continued to hold his hand. It was hard to let go. This was the first time she could ever remember a touch feeling good.
“I’m glad you stopped by,” he said. He pulled his hand away.
She left. She held in her tears until she reached the stairwell, where she sat down and wept. If there hadn’t been a big clock on the wall, she might have cried there for hours. She might have had to sleep there. Realizing she had ten minutes to catch the last bus before morning, she got up and ran. She cursed her own stupidity. She had actually assumed he would let her stay over. With wild hair and mascara-stained cheeks, she jumped onto the bus before it left. Once she sat, she resumed her sobbing. Caressing her hand, she remembered how lovely Javier’s touch had felt. Her own was a pale imitation: any other’s would be too. She would never stop loving him, even if he was incapable of loving her.
Despite her feelings for Javier, she left him alone after that. Over time, she came to realize how crazy her excursion to his campus had been. She was just lucky he hadn’t called security. While his posts never mentioned his sexuality, she assumed he was gay; most “questioning” men turned out to be. She wanted him to be happy. She always hoped to find him pictured beside a sweet looking man who clearly thought the world of him. Alas, today she was disappointed again.
His most recent post did pique her interest. A Chelsea gallery was exhibiting his work. The opening was this Friday. The artist would be there to speak briefly about his collection. While entry was free, guests were asked to register online. It wasn’t his first show in New York. Insecurity had kept her from going before. He was a renowned artist. She was the assistant manager at a bookstore. As of three weeks ago, however, she could officially describe herself as a published poet.
VI. What happened?
By the time the train arrived at Columbus Circle, she made up her mind to go. Alberto wouldn’t return until Sunday, so she would attend alone. Exiting the station, she sat down on a bench outside Central Park. A link directed her to the gallery’s website. She tapped events. She tapped Javier’s name. An image came up.
The first emotion she felt was joy, so powerful her hands shook. Then, there was disbelief. She had to be imagining it. But there it was, right in front of her. Had she been wrong this whole time? Putting her phone on her lap, she placed her hand on her chest. Her heart raced. She grabbed her phone again. The image went black. Suddenly, it was Alberto, the photo she had taken of him in her Astoria apartment two years ago.
“Yes?” he said. She had called him. She had pulled up her contacts, chosen his name, right on top. It hadn’t been an accident, yet she hardly remembered doing it.
“Amore Mio?” he said. She couldn’t speak; nor could she hang up. For two years, he had been calling her “My Love.” A moment ago, all of that had vanished. “You are there?” he asked.
“Sorry,” she said. Her voice cracked. She was sorry that she still wasn’t over Javier. She was sorry that her and Javier’s timing was so off.
“What happened?” He sounded concerned.
“Nothing,” she said.
“You didn’t call for ‘nothing,’” he sighed. Anytime he sensed something bothering her, he pressed her to talk about it. He always said he wouldn’t be mad. He never was. Silently, she laid out the story in her mind. With Alberto gone, she was feeling lonely. Her family upset her. She felt like a misfit among them.
“Hmmm?” he said.
“Today was Ricky’s birthday party. My parents fought again. My sister…She wanted me to ask you to give her boyfriend a job. I got mad, and…” She wasn’t expressing herself clearly. That image had so rattled her.
“I hire him, problem solved. If he’s bad, I get rid of him,” he said. She could tell, from his voice, he was grinning. It pleased him when he could make everything better. He asked nothing in return, except for her love. She couldn’t withdraw it. It would devastate them both.
“I love you,” she said.
“Me too, I call you tonight. I miss you.” His face disappeared.
Once again, she saw the photo of Javier’s painting, presumably featured in his upcoming show. She made out a face resembling her own, but thinner, with stylish bangs, the way she looked thirteen years ago in Javier’s dorm room. There was a wrist that might have been hers. A raised scar extended down it, like the one she’d had for years before it faded. Possibly, she saw a second her, peeking up at Javier shyly, the first time he laid eyes on her. Perhaps, she saw his young face too, goateed, but still so handsome. Almost certainly, there were slender bodies with crooked postures, exuding self-doubt and shame. Who was to say they were hers and his? Definitely, she saw hands clasping, in a beautiful, fleeting moment of unity. Yet, such moments were common in life, weren’t they?
VII. Today, I’ve succumbed.
She closed the webpage. The painting could have been about her, or not. Regardless, she would never know for certain. She would never attend Javier’s gallery opening. She would never run, compelled by his smile, into his arms, like she had once dreamed. What she had with Alberto was good and secure. Of course, it was still gratifying to think that one day Javier might come across “Today, I’ve Succumbed.” He only had to Google her name, follow the link.
Today, I’ve succumbed. I am dead.
Funny how it can all turn so fast.
Just yesterday, I said:
“That ship has sailed.
Fate led me to another, alas.” Yet I am here.
I fail you not to be there, with him.
Was it so small to you then,
When you offered your hand?
Now I may crumble, fall on your shoulder.
You’d say, “You are known. You are a soldier.
You can’t stumble. See how far you’ve come.”
You’d try to guide me.
I’d only need to be soothed.
We’d placate each other, let our touch disabuse.
He’d be crushed by the weight of my sorrow.
You find hope in the horror.
He cherishes me like gold. In his embrace, I glow.
What’s it worth to me, though, if I can’t make you whole?
I imagine your face,
Wary, anguished, frightfully thin,
His, bright, full and humane,
You capture me with your shame,
Like your art, steeped in rape.
Give me your cheek, your frown, your quivering chin, your haunting sins.
In your despair, I’ve found my faith.
We must share the same blood, the way I feel your pain.
Drain me of all I have if it heals what aches.
By you I am slain.
Over and over, you obliterate.
Every time your sweet image fades
I relive our demise, revisit the grave.
You promise me life, only to take it away.
I become a ghost in a desolate place.
My heart grows cold.
My home is a tomb.
You abscond with my soul, leave me hollow.
I am buried here
In thoughts of us, dreams I couldn’t hold onto.
Tomorrow, if I’m not still dead,
I may just succumb again.
I’ll let go, or give you up,
Give up, or let you go,
Die, or deny my love.
That had to be enough, that though their love never materialized, it existed somewhere, and would forever. She hoped he would understand; she couldn’t let this comfort turn to danger. Determinedly, she took out the journal she kept in her purse. She would find the right words to explain it.
About the writer:
Scott Bassis has had short stories published in Poydras Review, The Acentos Review, Image OutWrite, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Quail Bell Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Rainbow Curve and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly. Scott Bassis currently works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.