This spring, Saw Palm released a very special, 10th-anniversary issue themed around the Florida-Cuba Connection, recognizing two places with a complex, interdependent history. The issue addresses the experiences of Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Florida, including explorations of cubanidad and cubania, exile, geographic and temporal nostalgia, and the tension and relationship between English and Spanish. This short story is excerpted as part of our Florida Lit Mag Series. After reading, we encourage you to learn more about this excellent literary journal.
We spent what would end up being our last wedding anniversary apart. But that was the case for—what, most of them at least? Neither of us can rightly claim we ever made a big deal of the day, and we were always proud of being the kind of couple that wrote off Valentine’s Day and things like it, the kind that always remembered a week too late that we’d passed some couple-dom benchmark: our first date, our first kiss. Some vague ache would haunt one of us—like the onset of the flu—and then one of us would realize, Oh! Wednesday was eight years since the day we met. The other would ask, Should we do something? and the first would say, Probably, the ache suddenly lifting with the accompanying shrug. Our running joke: anniversary cards that said, Congrats on being halfway through our marriage! Does it mean something good or bad that neither of us pointed out by how many years, with that last card, we’d overshot? Does it matter, the answer to that question? Let me begin again, as I’m imagining you reading this and rightly saying I’m only delaying my admission of what you’re sure you already know. Here it is, then: I need to tell you where I really was and what I was really doing on that day, our last anniversary, spent apart.
You know, yes, that I was home in Miami, with my aunt (when did I start saying aunt instead of tía?), deploying my malformed set of social worker skills on the woman who raised me when my own mother could not. Her son, a cousin who came long after my own stint as her almost-daughter, was in trouble again—this time serious enough that we needed legal help that you rightly refused to let us pay for. So the trade-off was me going down there for a while.
You know all this. You took me to the airport.
You know I was there to help my Tía Cela sort through reports and documents, to calm her and reassure her, and to keep my cousin away from her and his girlfriend and their baby. You were as convinced as I was that this was all a big misunderstanding and that once someone with some sense got involved, everything would quiet down. We were both convinced that someone was me. But you were the only one convinced this cousin was destined for criminal behavior long before any of us related to him by blood could bring ourselves to admit it. And you reminded me of that even at the airport, dropping me off, as you pulled my suitcase from our car’s trunk, handed it to me to haul.
So yes, I was where you thought I was, technically. Technically, I never lied about that. But when I got home, you knew within hours that something was wrong—newly different in an irreversible way—and it took me half a week to admit you were not crazy for thinking so. I told you I’d seen Gabriel a while back in Miami (by accident! I said) and that admission was enough to stop your questions, as Gabriel had become a kind of shorthand between us. It meant, between us, that the fate from which you’d supposedly rescued me (from which! Of course I first wrote rescued me from) had crept up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and I’d turned around before I could think better of it. You asked what you always asked when something from back home shook me loose: Do I have anything to be worried about? And I said no, the first of many new lies.
On the day that was our last anniversary, I was with my cousin (that cousin) at the church I’d grown up in but—did you ever see the inside of it? I wasn’t supposed to be in contact with him—none of us were—but I had too many questions and he’d all but begged to see me once he found out I was back home, and even though I should’ve said no (you would’ve told me to say no), my heart was like Stop fronting already and do it, and to my own shock, I recognized the cadence as mine and I listened.
(I’m sorry, I know you are expecting an easier explanation: an affair, something with Gabriel, a kiss that changed everything and maybe more than a kiss. You said as much and I shrugged a Sure—let you think it because what had really happened didn’t, on paper, lead to us ending things. Me, making a mess of it all: wasn’t that always our story, the version of us that made sense? Me, with my volatility—oh god, that graph you once made, back in college, of my moods! My feelings represented as spikes, the area under them to be calculated, solved—the vague blame that in those early years we let each other write off as me being Cuban and you being a sturdy blend of every kind of Anglo. But no—I want to say, Nope! This didn’t go the easy way you’ve learned to use, the version of the end of our marriage that you recite like a whole new shorthand for the women who’ve come after me—and I can’t blame you for it, as it’s a version I pretty much gave you and let you have until now.)
So here: My cousin Ruben and I sat in a pew that Tuesday and he answered every one of my questions with I don’t know, Mel, I don’t fucking know. I tried to stay calm. I tried to be like you—I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth. Tried to be rational, to let the muted years of our marriage settle into my voice. I really did remind myself that every I don’t know hid a fact I wouldn’t have to hold inside me and decide later whether or not it was something that needed reporting.
My cousin kept his sunglasses on until I decided this actually wasn’t okay with me and so I asked him to take them off. His throat bobbed a swallow, and then he did—he took them off— and I was surprised that asking for more could work that simply.
Two black eyes is what he’d been hiding.
—Don’t tell me you don’t know who did that, I said. And he said, It was Julisa.
—Well, did you tell the cops she hit you, too?
The first time since getting home that I’d said cops and not police, not officers.
—Of course not, he said. I’m not a fucking pussy.
And I didn’t cringe at his word choice—at that word—at all.
Ruben told me the story behind the black eyes, and for you, it’s only interesting insofar as it serves as evidence that we never should’ve gotten married; you and I already agree that we never should’ve met, that only a series of coincidences (you) and government-sponsored programs (me) dropped us on the same college campus twelve years ago in the first place. It’s the kind of story that, had I been trusting enough to let one of its type spill out in our early days together, the latter days might not have come. If I hadn’t been trying so hard to be someone else (or maybe just less me) we would’ve known a lot sooner what a mistake we were making.
The black eyes came as Julisa did, my cousin implies.
—That’s sorta how we fuck, he tells me, and I lean away, a whole new layer to my not understanding anything, but wishing I did.
It’s here that I should’ve said something smart and reasonable.
But the whisper I only hear when I’m home said, What’s that like?
The word you and I used was tradeoff. It worked for a while.
The words my cousin used were, Some seriously fucked up shit. But he said they couldn’t stop it, couldn’t stop going there—or he couldn’t, and he’d kept his fist around her throat too long and Julisa had freaked and screamed in new ways until someone in their building called the cops, and she’d said for no reason except she was pissed that he’d hit the baby too, and You know that shit is automatic now, so there’s the two weeks away, no contact, nothing he could do about it. Julisa had since doubled-down, said she would show at the hearing, would make sure Ruben never saw Tyson again.
—I can’t believe you named your kid Tyson, I said (no, my gut said). Me and my gut, we said, Like the fucking frozen chicken.
—Like the fighter, he said. Fuck you.
And I said fuck you back and knew that ten more minutes with him, hearing details about him and Julisa and what you would call the mess of them—and it was and is a mess, it is, it is—would make it hard to go back to our life together. It was like watching porn, listening to him (though you and I only did that once together, one Halloween, with all the irony we could muster and with our very smart comments about the improbability at a modern-day Frankenstein having that big a cock). Ten more minutes would do us in, and I knew it.
I stayed there for two more hours.
So it was an affair—call it that, it’s accurate enough—a kind of affair. On our last anniversary, with me in my Miami church with my cousin, I was seeing the other end of the spectrum of passion. I know that’s not fair. I know it the same way I know you would’ve said exactly that to try and talk me down from the ugliness that night revealed about how far from myself I’d wandered. And really, by the end of his play-by-play, I didn’t want— will never really want, I think, but I will never rule anything out again—what they had anyway. But I could no longer pretend I wanted what we had either. I wanted so much more that I still don’t even have a name for it.
I’m trying to find the name now, writing this to you, somewhere in this confession, this giving over of a thing I thought I needed to keep for myself, but no: all that comes to me is I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry and fuck you. The answer is somewhere in there.
There’s no graph this time. (You should’ve never even drawn it; can you admit that, at least, the way I’m admitting all this?) There’s only this mess I’ve made and keep making. I am rolling in it, punching my own eyes out, and between blows I’m trying in new ways to make sense of my heart. This confession is only one; is it working? Is it hurting you the way I want it to even though the last thing I should want is to hurt you more?
Wait, wait—this is how I brought us here in the first place. Let me begin again: There is no making sense of any heart. Trying to get these feelings down—here, like this—is only another mistake.
Because this is the kind of thing you’d write to me, if you knew where to send it.