This was originally published at The Rumpus on March 28, 2018.
When I think of you, I see only what is left, what I can hold in my hand.
Two ferry tickets worn thin from stain and age, round trip tickets from Fajardo to Vieques Island, where we swam at midnight under a starless sky passing over us like dark glass. We’d scoured the weather reports for days and left when conditions were perfect for swimming among the bioluminescent plankton. I swam out ahead for a time, and when I came back, the plankton formed a ring around my head. A celestial blessing, you explained, an affirmation from the patria, that I belonged only to you. My hands found yours, and I prayed for the sea to whisper to me the same way it whispered to you. I waited and waited, a cocoon of dryness forming in my throat.
The print on the tickets is faded and mostly illegible now, though I can still make out my handwriting. I scribbled the word Loìza—the small town where you lived until you were six and your father brought you to Harlem—in squat, block text on the back of one of the tickets so I wouldn’t forget. I see Loìza, and when I see it, the first thing that comes to mind is your voice. How you called every day for a week after I left, but I let the phone ring and ring. Once I picked up to say stop, and I heard you speak, low and serious before I hung up. “Aura,” you pleaded, “say something.” A few years have passed since you last asked me to explain, to come up with a reason why I left. The small corners of the tickets are bent. More than once I ran my fingers along the dull edges, and thought of confessing, of unfolding, but the words curled over themselves and I thought better of it until now.
We sneak around, the new boyfriend and I.
There are no islands, no plankton, no entreaties to the universe beneath an inky sky. By day, we work together as internal auditors at a stale bank downtown, prohibited from seeing one another by way of a two-line provision in the employee manual. Fraternizing, it provides, will not be condoned. By night, we drink wine until we forget the policy, until we forget who we are. We use separate exits after work—me, onto Madison Avenue, the boyfriend onto 23rd Street. We meet six blocks away and walk to my apartment together. We don’t question each other about our time apart. We don’t complain. We trade smiles when no one is looking, a yellow moon winking at us thin as an eyelash.
We can’t mention our dating to anyone if we want to remain employed. I tell the boyfriend he should be prepared to lie if someone at the bank suspects us. He thinks it a good precautionary measure and asks me to lie as well. I play along. “No,” I practice, putting up a hand. “I am not seeing anyone at the moment.” Next, I vow not to discuss the relationship with my friends or even my Nonna, who speaks no English and lives a whole world away in Bivona. I make additional assurances if he prods, and he did so with frequency in the beginning, a time before we were sure of each other, before our days and nights became a refrain we recited as easily as we threw off our shirts. “No, I am not bothered by our arrangement.” I say it now by rote. When I ask him to promise the same, he resorts to theatrics, invoking a god he doesn’t believe in with one hand across his heart. I see through his thin, light hair to the pink of his scalp.
No one will find out about us, we agree.
Last night the boyfriend ripped at my skirt and used his strength to pin me to walls and position us next to mirrors. This was our dance, our routine—he blew words into my ear that didn’t stay with me, and I pretended to like watching us as much as he did. Every movement reminded me we were something that should end.
In the six years we’ve been apart, I’ve dated only the boyfriend. This is what passes for love.
When it’s done, I can’t sleep. I struggle to free my legs from a tangle of sheets and tiptoe to the living room to read. You know I’ll read anything when the mind won’t hibernate, and this is what I plan to tell the boyfriend if he wakes up with questions. I slide my fingers across a few spines on the top shelf. I choose this chunky, old college text I vowed never to open again in hopes that the essays will bore me to sleep. My hands are heavy and in the dim light, I drop the book. I lunge to catch it before it thuds to the floor. The ferry tickets slide out from between the pages, your memory falling slowly, gracefully, brushing first my elbow then my foot.
The boyfriend floats out of bed after some time to get a drink of water and catches me staring out the window, fingering the tickets gingerly, as though they might disintegrate. It is a night with a heat dense enough to juice up your clothes and empty the streets of people, a night I spend trying to recall why I decided to bury those tickets between the pages of an old text. He stares at me for a short time and surmises that something feels off. That’s how he puts it. Off. He is nothing like you, nothing like me. He is pale and blond and makes calculated statements about everything he sees.
“I can’t sleep,” I shrug.
He spies the tickets next to me and picks them up—Vieques? He asks, inspecting.
His Spanish is terrible. I know he is trying to assess what the tickets mean to me, why I’ve held on to two items that appear to be junk, how they could keep me up at night.
I can think of a hundred holes in the Caribbean I’d visit before Puerto Rico, he says finally, kissing my forehead.
I’m not sure what you might say if you could see us, but I know what I would say to you. I’d steal a line from my Nonna in Bivona. Come si comincia, si finisce, the way it begins is the way it ends. Me and the boyfriend, we lie to everyone, even to ourselves. I can’t tell where we are anymore, beginning or end.
You and me, we played a game in the winter. Do you remember? When the mornings were dark, and the roads were frozen over with patches of blackened ice, and neither of us would get out of bed without punching the snooze button at least twice? You kissed my eyelids until they fluttered and asked me to imagine. “Suppose we met tomorrow for the first time,” you’d say, starting from our script. I never said so, but I knew you expected me to finish the sentence differently each day. New ways to promise that nothing about us would change. The last time we played, I traced the grainy lines along the palm of your hand and played my part with conviction. “I would still ask you for a secret,” I said.
That girl talking blah blah about minimalist art stood between us at the bar when we met. You turned toward me, but I held out my empty glass as a barricade before you could introduce yourself. You wore a crisp guayabera and a smirk, crossed your arms over your chest to appraise me, a standoff. I never gave you enough credit. Offering to buy a round of drinks would have been too generic to hold my attention.
You wagged a finger at me like a warning shot. “I’m not interested in your glass,” you said.
“When my drink is empty,” I explained, “I deal only in secrets. For five minutes of my time, you’ll need something steamy. And for my name—”
“Yes,” you smiled, “for your name?”
“It will cost you a confession.”
“A confession?” You laughed at the ceiling and made an elaborate show of poking yourself in each of the cardinal spots before taking my hands in yours. “Father, forgive me,” you continued, closing your eyes. “I will do this for Oshun.”
“Do it for any deity that blows your hair back,“ I said. “This is for the win.“
You opened your eyes.
“My confession is that you’re not as clever as you think, Aurora Galloway.“
Before I thought to ask how we knew each other, you tapped a finger to a name tag pinned to my sweater. I’d been to a mixer at work that day and hadn’t remembered to throw it away.
“I don’t care much for secrets,“ you said, kissing me on both cheeks.
When you finally left my thoughts, the last piece of you to leave were those words. There was no way for me to know then that you had been untruthful that night at the bar. You had secrets, and reasons for keeping them to yourself. I learned about them months later and felt wounded that you’d kept them from me. You waved the whole episode off and said, “even the moon hides behind tall buildings sometimes.“
In the morning, the boyfriend hums to himself in my kitchen, slicing banana into a small pile. The circular slices form a mound. It reminds me of the hill of your ankle, how it used to stiffen when you walked barefoot in the sand. I lay the Vieques tickets on the countertop and hear your voice in my ear, remembering how furious you were that I lost your mother’s recipe for cremita de maiz, our typical breakfast.
The boyfriend looks at me sternly as though I am in trouble. I hold his gaze. He studied the Vieques tickets last night. He now understands what they are. We make no attempt to end the silence between us, the sound of his eggs burning as quiet as a falling leaf.
I start for the stove to attend the eggs, but the boyfriend blocks me and knocks over a glass of pomegranate juice onto the countertop. The tickets become a soft, gummy, pink. The boyfriend makes a show of throwing them in the trash.
The fighting sounds like this:
“That was unnecessary,“ I say.
He crosses his arms to his chest.
“Didn’t you tell me that you have awful memories of that trip, Aura? Didn’t you tell me that you were sick with food poisoning for days and now you’ll never eat pork again?“
“It didn’t happen exactly like—“
“And didn’t you tell me what a fucking head case he was?“
The boyfriend steps in front of me and my throat tightens. I want to make this conversation stop. I don’t tell him that you wouldn’t have reacted this way had the situation been reversed. I don’t tell him that you were never provoked this easily.
I say nothing. If there is one thing I gleaned from my father’s law practice, it’s to be silent in times like these. Sniff out the opponent, gage the evidence he produces. Admit to nothing until you must.
“Pine away for some asshole whose uncle played grab ass at family reunions if it makes you feel better, Aura.“ He sniffs. “If that’s how you want to spend your time, I couldn’t care less.“
The boyfriend doesn’t keep spare clothes in my apartment. He wears yesterday’s suit even though today is a rainy Saturday. His cuff links catch the dim light in the kitchen. I see my reflection, distorted and small. In that moment, I know I have to reach you.
The boyfriend was my idea. That’s the thing I should’ve mentioned right away.
The fact is, I’ve only given you one side of the story. For a time, me and the boyfriend were good for each other. He is refined and strong. Took my mind off of those crazy dreams I was having back then. Once, your face appeared as a cloud bearing down upon me, hardening. C’è il duolo, sorrow, Nonna told me after I struggled to interpret the meaning. In another dream, you appeared as a white barracan tightly woven into my flesh. I flailed, yelling your name to the sky.
The December we met, the boyfriend and I volunteered to work nonstop through the holiday while our boss drank rum and vacationed on a string of Caribbean islands. He shuffled papers around on his desk the first night we stayed late—a thing he does when nervous—and told me he was in it for the bonus.
“Me, too,“ I said.
“It’s good to keep busy,“ he added. “I don’t like to be alone with my thoughts.“
“Who does?“ I nodded, passing over a pile of documents. I didn’t press for more because I understood what he was doing: burying his loneliness in a labyrinth of papers, subverting it away from direct articulation. A professional act. I made a mental note that he seemed shrewd.
He flew to Toronto a week later to meet with some clients. He was philosophical when he texted good morning: What is a life lived in the sky? I considered the question seriously and wrote it down in my journal. It was overcast and grey out that day—the kind of sky that kept answers to itself.
You unraveled in the rain once.
The night you told me about your uncle.
Had I known this was the only secret that ever mattered to you, the one that made you sick, I would’ve left my hand on your lips and told you not to trust me with it.
We lay in bed in our old apartment listening to a thunderstorm, discussing a healing ceremony we’d seen during our trip to Puerto Rico. A small colony of Yoruba priests and priestesses chanted and prayed to expel the energy of past lives. “It’s ancestral,“ you explained. Everyone needs that sort of healing.
“I believe, too,“ I said, “I do.“ I lit a few candles and watched the glow of the flames flicker across your face.“ Once my father told me that he thinks he’d have been a better father to a son, and I—“
“Aura,“ you asked, “can I tell you something?“
Here is what I remember. You said the abuse began when you were twelve—a great uncle who didn’t come around much afterward. Later I learned that he was still around; you just found ways to avoid him. He’d come to Harlem from Loíza to stay with your family as soon as he arrived. That summer, you’d sprained your ankle wrestling with your brother and spent your days moping around the house.
When you finished, several minutes passed before we spoke. You dipped a finger in a pool of candle wax. How could I know this was the only real secret you’d ever kept?
“Have you told your family?“ I asked finally.
You titled your head as if listening to a message I couldn’t hear, something beamed in from afar. I knew the distant look meant that you didn’t want to discuss it anymore, so I didn’t press. We let the candles burn to their nubs and held on to each other in the darkness.
A few hours later, you began to pace the length of our room in your underwear and I began to panic.
“I didn’t think my family would understand.“ You said this not to me, but to the ceiling.
“Maybe,“ I said quietly, “we should look for help. You should really talk to someone qualified to hear this.“
“He made a game of it,“ you spat. Touching you and making you touch him, too. The first to come won a piece of candy. I didn’t know what to say. You filled the silence with more pacing that turned to a sprinting that only stopped when you charged the wall, slamming yourself against it again and again with renewed intensity. You thrashed and swiped until we heard a baby crying next door followed by a knock on our door and the sound of footsteps outside. You collapsed in a chair and promised to stop, your face swollen and flushed.
I never spoke of your secret again, but you did.
You spent your days in graduate school and your nights tending bar at your father’s restaurant in East Harlem, Santurce. To help your family, you said. I spent my days working long hours at the bank and often received news of you secondhand—an unprovoked fist fight with some guys you didn’t know after an event at the restaurant, a midterm exam you promised to make up the following semester, a grade of incomplete in Spanish, your first language.
“Maybe you should talk to someone,“ I urged again one night. “Therapy, a trip back to the island for a healing ceremony?“ We stood on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building. You coiled your fingers around a few stray threads on my wool coat.
“Now that I told you about what happened to me,“ you said, “I think about it every day. I don’t know what to do.“
“I don’t know what you should do either.“
I never told you then, but something about the way we interacted made me feel embarrassed for us. In those days, our conversations were heavy with stolen privacies in public places, like that moment outside our apartment. I couldn’t always say where you went at night, couldn’t always get you to tell me how you were feeling and when I did, I wished I hadn’t pushed you to talk because I didn’t know what to tell you. I no longer knew how to talk to you.
“Knock knock,“ the boyfriend says.
“No,“ I tell the boyfriend, “he was not a stranger.“
“We are talking about you.“ This morning, the boyfriend wants to discuss the reason your problems have become our problems, tethered to his back like a tumor on a spine.
“He may as well have been a stranger,“ the boyfriend continues. “Did he ever tell you why he wouldn’t seek professional help? Why he overdosed on pills? Why he started getting black out drunk? Why he started stumbling into allies? Why he couldn’t get up and dress himself in the morning? Did he ever tell you that?“
“He didn’t do all of those things when we were together,“ I reminded him. “Some of it happened after I left.“
“Knock, knock,“ he says again.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore,“ I scream, throwing the pan of burnt eggs against the wall.
“No, you’ll want to hear this,“ he laughs. “It’s the moon. The moon who sees all you do at night, all you wish for when you think no one is watching.“
“You are sick,“ I tell him.
But I am wrong. The real sickness belongs to me. It took a joke to convince me to leave though I should have gone much sooner.
I don’t tell the boyfriend my plans for the rest of the morning. Instead, I leave him in my apartment with the burnt eggs on the wall. I walk to the train station a few blocks away. I don’t heed the warning of the nimbus clouds forming above me in the sky; I don’t think to warn you before I set off for Santurce. I heard a rumor once that you and your siblings inherited the business in equal shares after your father retired, gutted the insides and renamed the business, but I can’t be sure; I never called you to find out, and I haven’t eaten there since we introduced our parents there over dinner years ago. That night, my mother taught your father a few words in our Sicilian dialect—dilizziusu, delicious, she said after each course—and your father chided mine about who looked more like Billy Dee Williams. A successful meeting.
I get off at the 149th Street station and stop for a moment at the small dance studio a few blocks from the restaurant. It is filled with couples dancing salsa. Nights we danced endlessly and happily at Santurce until the early morning, until the band knew our names and folks wondered if I was born in Loìza, too. I always appreciated the diversity among patrons, even though many of them referred to your skin tone as “indio“ and mine as “mulatta.“ My hair and face whispered “Catalinà“ to them, and theirs whispered “Africa“ to me. In that way, I felt we were part of the same diaspora, one that leads a fair amount of ladies to shop for relaxers every six weeks. I never understood why some of the crowd at Santurce didn’t feel similarly. You often dismissed my nickel-and-dime ethnographies when I raised the point. The last time I tried you smiled and curled a finger through a belt loop on my jeans. “We come from different worlds,“ you said, waving a hand around the room at Santurce. “No,“ I shook my head, “we don’t.“
I watch as couples fight their way to the front of the dance studio, crowding around the small stage. It is raining heavily by the time the instructors demonstrate a slow bachata. I take cover under an awning and watch the sun wrestle with the clouds for positioning. Eventually, the sun wins and beats against the windows of cars parked along the street. I make a wish to know exactly what to say when I see you.
In the final days, we ignored each other skillfully, our conversations reduced to scribbling on small notes we smoothed across the clunky mirror by the front door. Do you remember? They were mostly reminders—pay the water bill, sign a holiday card. But they were also the way we communicated. You were much more of an artist than I was and had mercy on me when I developed a code of stick figures and shapes. A circle meant you were bringing dinner home. A vertical line meant I was thinking of you. A pair of wavy lines was a show of affection.
You drafted the final note—something about a family birthday party, followed by four wavy lines. You hoped I’d go with you. I responded a few times in my head. You should know that. I revised it again and again until it was ten shapes, then two. Before the time I left our apartment that day, I threw the note away. There was nothing left to say about the nights you spent away from the apartment without me, the drinking, the bar fights. There was no way I was going with you to a family function, only to pretend that everything was fine. That’s when I found a blank Post-it and stuck it on the mirror next to your note. That was how I told you it was over.
A man with a pockmarked jaw wipes the tabletops at Santurce while another mops the floor. Bomba music spills out of the kitchen when your brother opens the door. For a moment, I believe I am looking at you, but I now know I have imagined it—you were always thinner and slightly taller. Your brother mentions something in Spanish to the man mopping the floor, and everyone laughs. I take the opportunity to tap on the glass, hoping he would see me. Your brother cups his hands to his forehead and squints. Once he realizes who it is, he takes his time walking over to the door. He stops midstride to straighten the napkins on a table, to reorder the silverware. “What are you doing here?“ he says to me through the glass.
I tell him I’ve come to make amends, to explain myself.
“You abandon my brother during the worst time of his life and now you want us to know why?“
I nod and press what’s left of the Vieques tickets against the glass. “I know I’m late,“ I say. “But I think he’d want to hear me out.“
It takes some time to convince your brother to let me in. When I finally wear him down, he opens the door and pours two glasses of ajonjoli. We sit at the bar and tell each other how it’s been. His voice is deep and measured, just as I remember it. He says you’ve gone to Spain for the year. You’re now at NYU working as an adjunct professor of Spanish literature. Last month you left for Sevilla with a small group of students. You’ll be there for the rest of the year. The conversation is casual, but I can tell your brother is still cautious.
“I didn’t come just to catch up,“ I say, “I promise.“
He takes a long sip and searches my eyes for a time.
“Well,“ he says, standing up. “You missed him.“
He is ready to usher me out the door.
“Wait,“ I say, “wait.“ I grab a pen and few sheets of loose paper from behind the bar. “Can I please leave a message? Can you make sure he gets it?“
“No,“ your brother shakes his head. “Leave your information and I’ll pass it to him. If he wants to get in touch with you, he will.“
“Please,“ I say.
We glare at each other in silence and I know I have won. Your brother doesn’t grab the paper and pen and ask me to leave and he doesn’t say that you would refuse a letter.
“Please,“ I say again. “I owe him. Let me say what I came here to say. If you don’t approve, you can always throw the note away and never tell him I was here.“
He sighs a quiet sigh.
“Write,“ he orders. “I’ll give you fifteen minutes.“
For a long time, I sit and manage only to scratch out a few lines. I think of starting with something clever, but the words catch in my throat, and I taste them on the back of my tongue. “This is no good,“ I say to myself. I start again.
This time I begin with what I remember—the Vieques sea, boundless and dark. How I fought with the new boyfriend and left him in my apartment. How I eventually hid the ferry tickets in a book because they followed me around the room like Mona Lisa’s eyes. How I should have listened when you said you didn’t want to fight anymore. How I was afraid of the person you became once your secret was out. How I curated secrets without stopping to think about whether I could handle them. How your secret ended up being bigger than I could have ever imagined. I tell you I am sorry for all of it. That maybe you are the only person between us who has not made a mess of his relationships.
By the time the man with the pockmarked jaw begins to clink glasses and plates around the tables, your brother puts a hand on my shoulder and mentions that the restaurant is opening for lunch. My fifteen minutes have expired. I scribble a brief parting, the one I might have written on a Post-it and stuck on our mirror years ago had I foreseen this moment. I tell you another secret, too. I say it first to myself behind a napkin before I write it down. It seems silly now, an admission of fault I refused to make years ago because it belied the cruelty of my limitations. I wanted to stay there, I write, but I didn’t know how. I fold the paper over itself and leave the restaurant before I remember to tuck what is left of the Vieques tickets into the page.
Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.