The Shrine at Altamiraby John L’Heureux
‘mesmerizing . . . a powerful and affecting story about love’s most anguished and disturbing permutations.” –Timothy Hunter, Cleveland Plain Dealer
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John L’Heureux “should be a household name,” the San Francisco Chronicle has written, and his novel The Shrine at Altamira has the simplicity and power of Greek tragedy. When Maria Corazon Alvarez meets Russell Whitaker at a school dance, she sees his blue eyes and solid American name as a ticket out of the ghetto into a better life. They dance, they touch, they tumble into a love so strong and elemental it should last forever. But gradually the balance shifts; he loves her more, she loves him less. When their son is born, Maria gives him all her love and Russell is pushed aside. Wild, obsessed, Russell runs mad and his desperate love becomes a fire that consumes them all. The Shrine at Altamira is a harrowing, masterful examination of love and its darker shadow that bears deep and lasting resonance.
“L”Heureux’s most ambitious novel.””Kathryn Harrison
“A powerfully effective piece of drama.””Patrick MacGrath, The New York Times Book Review
“A moving book about the strange zones of intersection between love and cruelty”from one of our finest writers.”‘scott Turrow
‘mesmerizing . . . a powerful and affecting story about love’s most anguished and disturbing permutations.””Timothy Hunter, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Maria saw Russell for the first time at the Halloween Hop, and she fell in love with him. She was in her junior year and he was a senior, a transfer student, so he didn’t know anybody. He was sitting alone, an Anglo, big, and very quiet, and his name was Russell Whitaker. Russell Whitaker, she said to herself. She repeated the name, Russell Whitaker, the sound of money. For fun, and because it was Halloween, she had brought a pair of joke glasses with her, the ones with fuzzy eyebrows and a false nose, and after a while she put on the glasses and went over and stood in front of him.
“Russell Whitaker,” she said, ‘do you want to dance with me?”
He looked up at her, smiled, and then blushed, and said, “I don’t dance.”
She took off the glasses and stood there.
“I don’t know how,” he said.
“I could teach you,” she said. “Or I could just sit with you.”
He looked away, and then he shrugged, so she sat down.
His left hand was twisted a little, and the fingers were smooth and pinkish, as if they weren’t real. When he saw her staring, he covered his left hand with his right one.
‘my hand,” he said.
He had pale blue eyes. Looking into them, she could see he must be very gentle. She leaned close to him. He was wearing Old Spice.
She said nothing, but she was excited and happy.
Until that moment Maria had wanted only one thing: to get away–from her mother and from the purple house and from the rotten neighborhood. To get away from being Mexican-American. To get away from being nobody. But that night at the Halloween Hop, she decided she wanted something else. She wanted Russell Whitaker–who knows why?–and she would get him. She would get away too, but first she would get Russell Whitaker. Everything else could wait.
More than a year passed and they had been lovers for almost that whole time. She was eighteen now, a senior in high school, and Russell was a freshman at San Jose State. He was doing badly, he might flunk out, he was not as smart as she was. But if he flunked out, how would they get away? How would she get away? She thought about this all the time, though she wasn’t thinking about it now, because they had just made love and she was lying on her back, waiting for her heart to start beating again. She felt him move in the bed, felt his twisted hand lightly at her breast.
“I’ve got a job,” he said. “I’m going to quit school.”
He said, “We can get married.”
‘maria?” he said. “What do you think?”
She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “I’m breathing again,” she said.
‘so what do you think? We can get married now.”
It was him she wanted, and she didn’t have him yet, not completely. He didn’t love her the way she loved him. So when he said again, “We can get married now,” she stretched beneath him–thinking Mrs. Russell Whitaker, Maria A. Whitaker–and she said, “Anything. Whatever you want. Only love me,” and she twisted her body from beneath his, kissing his shoulder, his neck, his chest.
“Love me,” she said, and she fixed him with that look: she made her eyes a little wider as she thought, You are the only thing in the world I’ll ever love, and she kept on thinking it until her eyes grew soft and wet, and for that minute he was hers, complete.
“Oh,” she said, loving his sudden pain, “love me.”
Russell had been sent up to paint the dormer, but as soon as the foreman was out of sight, he scrambled to the top and stood on the peak of the roof, one hand on the chimney for balance. He wanted to get a look at where he was. All around, below him, were rich private homes, with pools and flower gardens and trees everywhere. At a distance, past the freeway and the foothills and the long ridge of mountains, somewhere out there, lay the steely blue of the Pacific Ocean. He stood on the roof, looking. It was another clear winter day in California. Turning a little, he could see the miles and miles of flat-roofed houses, all alike, stretching north and south along El Camino. And he could see the thick cluster of buildings that was San Jose State. He had quit a week ago. He had not waited to flunk out. He turned back to look at the Santa Cruz Mountains, imagining the ocean that lay beyond.
So he was going to marry her. He would move out of the broken-down house he lived in with his father, that drunk, that lunatic, and he would get a little place somewhere that would be their own. He’d be married and have a job and they’d have a life together. They’d be in life instead of just watching it. They’d be a couple.
There was something wrong, though, he knew that. He loved Maria, but she loved him more than he loved her. She said so herself. He did love her. He tried to. He just didn’t feel it the way he should. But she was almost beautiful, and she was sexy, and when she looked at him the way she did sometimes, he knew she was the right one for him. When she looked at him, he had a feeling that he was somebody. Was that the same as being in love? And who else would have him anyway?
He took off his cap–a white painter’s cap, stiff, not yet shaped to his head–and wiped his forehead with it and then put it back on. He looked over at San Jose State.
Maybe he should wait until he fell in love with somebody the way Maria was in love with him. Because, after all, what was the rush? He could go on living with his father; he wasn’t afraid of him anymore, and his father knew it. He didn’t have to worry about any crap from him. He could save money, and wait. It was scary to get married and have your own place to live and somebody to support. But he would never find anybody better than Maria. And he wanted something to happen.
He wanted to make something happen.
He looked out toward the mountains, but he was seeing her face beneath him as they made love. “Russell,” she said, like magic, like casting a spell. He repeated it now, standing on the roof, saying it the way she said it to him, in bed, in love. He saw her face. “Love me,” she said, adoring, sexy. “Love me.”
“Hey, peckerhead,” the foreman shouted. “You’re supposed to be painting that dormer.”
Russell waved at him and began edging down the slope of the roof to the dormer. It was his second week and he was still not comfortable with heights.
‘sometime today!” the foreman yelled, and went to check on the others.
Russell stood on the scaffolding now and stared into the bucket of paint. He sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He hated the smell of paint.
This was going to be his life from now on, for good.
Between history and English periods Maria was standing at her locker, pretending to look for a book. Actually, she was thinking and didn’t want anybody to see her doing it. It had just struck her once again, at the end of history period, that sex and love and marriage were completely different things and the other kids didn’t seem to know it. She knew it, and she knew what she was getting into. She’d marry, which would be one kind of life, and then she’d finish high school and win a scholarship and go to college, which would be another kind of life, but she’d be Mrs. Whitaker by then, with a husband who was a housepainter, and this is where it got too complicated for her. She’d miss the fun of college, and dates, and late nights in the dorms. She’d miss being young and free like the others. Her life really wouldn’t be her own. But she loved Russell, she wanted him, she wanted to marry him. Why?
She stopped thinking and leaned her head against the locker door.
Why should she marry him? The question kept coming back to her, stupidly. She loved him, that’s why. She pulled herself up straight. She had to think.
She stared into her locker, thinking.
Somebody was standing behind her, but she didn’t turn to look. To hell with them. She bent over and searched through the books and crap on the floor of her locker as if she expected to find something she’d lost. She stood up. They were still there. She turned around to face whoever it was. She was ready with her fighting look.
It was Marcy Sherman, whose father owned the Sherman department stores, and she gave Maria that thin smile of hers and said, “I was looking at your hair. You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen.”
Maria stared hard at her and saw she wasn’t joking or being mean or putting her on.
“Like silk,” Marcy said.
Maria softened. She drew a strand of hair through her fingers, looking at it, and then she looked at Marcy. For that minute, she couldn’t speak. The bell rang. “Time for class,” Maria said, and tried to smile.
But she did not go to English class. She went down the corridor to the girls’ room where she locked the stall door and, huddling against the back wall, she cried. She didn’t know why.
For the hell of it, just playing a game, Maria told Russell she would not marry him. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “I can’t go through with it.”
She had been doing this, off and on, for the entire month since he’d first asked her. She explained herself differently each time.
A month ago she had said yes, she would marry him, but the circumstances were different then–they had just finished making love and his eyes were so soft and pleading that of course she had said yes–so it didn’t count. The next day she had decided not to marry him. She wanted more than he could give her, she said, she wanted out and up. She didn’t want to be a painter’s wife. Besides, she had taken the SATs and might get a scholarship. She couldn’t give up her future. She had to have a life too. Russell was crushed and for days he wandered around in a deep depression, attentive as always but saying almost nothing. Then one afternoon he showed up at her house and he was furious. He could barely speak, and he looked mad enough to strike her, so she gave him a glass of iced tea and told him to have a seat and calm down. He sat there at the kitchen table, staring, squeezing the glass, hard. There was a sudden popping sound as the tumbler shattered in his hand, a tinkle of glass, and then tea flooded the cloth and there was blood on his palm. So she said yes after all, she would marry him. She wanted him, more than anything in the world. She gave him that look. He was elated.
A week later she said no, and once more he was depressed. But the next day she got her SAT scores, and they were very bad. She could forget about Stanford or Harvard or Yale, she could see that, and maybe about every other place as well. What if she couldn’t get in anywhere? What if she just didn’t have it? She burned the College Board letter and told her friends Michelle and Benni that her scores were 740 Verbal and 699 Math. She told Russell yes, she would marry him, yes, again. And again he was elated.
A few days later, resentful that she was sacrificing college for marriage, she told him no, and watched while his dumb anger set in and he grew silent and furious and powerless, and then she said she was only teasing. Yes, she would marry him.
She didn’t know why she did this, except that it was a wonderful game, wanting him and pretending not to want him–Russell Whitaker with his pale blue eyes. It was terrible to do this to him. She was simply terrible, she told her friend Michelle, the way she tortured him with her love.
Mrs. Russell Whitaker, she thought. Maria A. Whitaker.
Later, a full month since she first agreed to marry him, Maria said for the last time, “I’ve made up my mind. I can’t do it.”
There was silence for a moment, and then a remarkable thing happened. Something in Russell changed.
Maria saw the change as it happened. She had just refused him, and she watched as his jaw went rigid and a red flush mounted from his neck to his ears, and his pale eyes narrowed in fury. Then slowly the blood drained from his face and she thought he was going to faint, but he only stared at her, speechless, white, his eyes nearly closed. This wasn’t like his usual anger; he looked sick; he looked like he might die. She put her hand on his arm. His skin was wet and cold. There was an acid smell to him. She wanted to run and hide, but she waited, her hand on his arm, and gradually his color returned. He opened his eyes. After a moment, he shook his head a little and smiled at her as if nothing had happened. He loved her, he said, he couldn’t live without her, he was crazy for her.
She had no idea what had happened to him, or to them, but she decided she would not play that game anymore.
Seven years from now, in jail awaiting sentence, Russell would think of this moment and smile bitterly, because he understood at last what had happened to him. He had fallen in love. The balance had shifted, and he loved Maria more than she loved him. At that moment he had loved her so badly he wanted to kill her.
Sitting in his jail cell, waiting, Russell would think of her and smile, and sometimes he would laugh–a short, harsh bark with no pleasure in it. At these times his cellmate was moved to strike a match and toss the burning flame at him, halfheartedly, a reminder, just to keep him on his toes.
It was a beautiful winter morning–not a hint of rain–and Ana Luisa was on her way to Blackberry Heights in Los Altos to clean house for the Jacobsons.
Ana Luisa cleaned house for nine families in the San Jose area, one house in the morning and one in the afternoon, five days a week, with Friday afternoon off. She made a good living. The women she cleaned for thought she was the old-fashioned kind. And, mostly, she was. She wore a scarf on her head and tattered espadrilles on her feet, and she pretended to understand only a little English and to speak none at all. ‘s’,” she answered, ‘s’, s’,” to whatever they asked her to do, and then she was free to ignore them or not, depending on how she felt. And what could they do about it? Cleaning women were not easy to find.
In other ways, of course, she was not old-fashioned. She liked to dance and she liked men. Her ankles were getting thick, and her waist too, but her breasts were still fine and she was still young enough and good-looking enough to go dancing Saturdays and pick up her share of men. She could have another husband anytime she wanted one, but who would want one? Men were good for only one thing, and that was the truth. She thought of her Paco and how proud he was of his big cosa, down to his knees almost. It was the only thing about him that she missed.
She blessed herself; she was a weak woman. She would rather die than have Maria know some of the thoughts she had, let alone the things she did on those Saturday nights. She should make a pilgrimage, filthy sinner that she was, no better than a whore. Well, a little better. A lot. She should go back to the shrine at Altamira.
She had gone there once, right after the fire, and in many ways she dated the beginning of her life from that time. Paco had died in the fire–half the trailer camp had died–but she and Maria had survived. For no reason. It was a miracle. She had thanked the Virgin, leaving at the shrine a little silver crucifix she’d worn as a necklace, and then she set about building herself a new life.
Her picture had been on the television: her dress torn, the baby in her arms, she stood dazed and beautiful among the ashes of the trailer camp. When she returned from Altamira and went to City Hall for aid, she found a packet of letters from people who had seen her on TV. There were offers of money and blankets and–best of all–the offer of a job with Your Third Hand Housecleaners. She took the job at once, and all the overtime she could get. In a year she left the agency and went to work for herself.
She had done well. She had a big Chevy, a junker, that she drove back and forth to work, and she had a nice little house, cement blocks painted a good grayish-purple color, with petunias in the front yard and an old tree in the back, and a low fence that kept dogs from running through her flowers. The neighborhood was bad, people said, but it seemed okay to her. There were a lot of drunks around, and those teenage kids in the summer, but you could expect drunks and wild kids anywhere, and if drugs were sold on her street, she didn’t know about it. So she figured she had done well for herself. And for Maria.
Maria had her own room and big ideas, too big maybe, but she was going to get out of here and go to college and have a better life. Maria was different from her; she wanted other things, Anglo things, and she was afraid of nothing.
For Ana Luisa the thought of going away to college–just being with all those rich kids and the way they did things always right and never having fun–it was enough to make her thankful that she herself was just a cleaning woman. She scrubbed toilets and tiles and vacuumed thick rugs in their houses, but she did not have to be with them or live like them and she thanked God for that, and the Virgin. She was lucky to be just herself.
In this way, too, she was old-fashioned: she knew it was the Virgin who was responsible for her good luck. She had always been lucky. And pretty too. In her living room, and never mind what Maria said about it, she kept a little shrine to the Virgin. Her statue stood in a plaster grotto made to look like stone, with a sort of altar in front of her where Ana Luisa placed a vigil candle at special times, and around the sides were family pictures and some postcards and three mementos Ana Luisa never talked about: a shell and two small stones.
She smiled to herself as she pulled into the circular drive at the Jacobsons’. When Maria graduated in June, they would go back to Altamira, and together they would thank the Virgin for their good luck.
She parked the car and sat for a moment, gathering her strength for the morning ahead. Three toilets, two bedrooms, the family room, the kitchen floor and counters, a little dusting, and she would be done. The house was new. If Mrs. Jacobson left her alone, she’d be out of there by eleven. Then she could go to the shopping mall and get something nice, something pretty, for Maria.
Maria had followed directions with great care, and there was no doubt about it, she was pregnant. She stood, staring at the tiny dish as the stuff in it turned from white to pink, and for just a second she felt thrilled, powerful. She was going to be a mother, she was going to give birth to a son. She knew it was a boy. She could feel it. But a second later her excitement gave way to something else, a vague dread, a kind of guiltiness. She should have an abortion; that’s what her friends would do. They’d get rid of the baby, and then cry about it, and after a while they’d joke about it in the girls’ room, and pretty soon it would all be over. They’d go on to college and never think of it again. But her mother would kill her if she had an abortion. And besides, who cared what her friends thought? They weren’t her. They weren’t living her life. She was. And she’d live it her way.
The next day, in English class, she tried to call back those first feelings of excitement and power, but they escaped her now. Nonetheless, she told herself, she was glad she was having a baby. She would marry Russell. She would be a mother. A mom.
‘maria?” the teacher said.
Maria looked up and saw that the other kids were all staring at her. This was the second time her name had been called, and everybody was ready for the big laugh.
“I’m sorry,” Maria said, “I wasn’t listening.”
The teacher, for once, had nothing sarcastic to say. He raised his hand to his forehead as if he had a headache, and then he lowered it, saying softly, “What is the use? Why even bother?”
Maria ignored him. She wouldn’t have to put up with this kind of humiliation ever again. She was choosing her own life. She was choosing what she wanted.
It was an hour since Maria had kissed Russell goodbye. She aired her room as soon as he left, but it still smelled of lovemaking, and so she lit an incense candle they kept for the living room shrine, and set the candle on her bureau. She had not told Russell about the baby. But she would have to tell her mother. Now.
Maria showered and put on a Sunday dress–a Mexican blouse with ruffles and a full skirt–and though she usually wore lipstick, she made sure there was no trace of it on her mouth this afternoon. She examined herself in the mirror, trying to see what her mother would see. She fluffed her hair out in curls. “God,” she said, but left it that way. Her mother would like it.
“I’m getting married,” she said into the mirror. “I’m pregnant.” She shook her head.
Pinned to the wall above her bureau were snapshots of girls in her class, and a school pennant, and the joke glasses she had hung there on the night of the Halloween Hop. The glasses had a false nose attached, and wild furry eyebrows, and for no reason at all she put them on and looked into the mirror. “I’m getting married,” she said. “I’m pregnant.” She reached behind her ears and made the glasses waggle up and down. She felt a queasiness in her stomach, a momentary nausea spasm, and then everything was fine again. “I’m very happy,” she said.
She was still standing at the mirror when she heard the car pull up in front of the house. She took off the glasses. She went to the living room and looked around quickly to make sure it was tidy. She sniffed at the doorway to her bedroom. The air seemed all right now–that sourish smell of sex was gone–and so she brought the incense candle into the living room and set it down before the shrine.
She looked out the window. Her mother was getting out of the car, gathering up her string bag and a sack of groceries, and God knows what else. Why was she so slow? Maria wanted it all to be over, the shouting and the fighting and the tearful reconciliation, the whole ethnic mess.
‘mama,” she said, holding open the door for her mother.
“Qu” bonita,” Ana Luisa said, “Qu” adorable te ves,” but she saw Maria’s look and said, “Okay, no Spanish, querida, not tonight. I’ve got the nicest chicken for our dinner. Plump, but not a lot of fat. Like me. Take this, Maria,” and she put the grocery bag into Maria’s arms. She turned to make the sign of the cross before the shrine, and at once she saw the burning candle.
“What is this?” she said. She stepped over to the kitchen door. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing’s happened,” Maria said. She continued to take things from the bag and put them in the cupboard. “I just thought you’d like to see the candle lit in front of the shrine.”
Ana Luisa said nothing.
Maria folded the bag and stooped to put it in the cabinet under the sink. She was determined to control this situation, so she stood up slowly and turned toward her mother with a defiant look.
“What, Maria?” Ana Luisa whispered, taking Maria by surprise.
Her mother was helpless, Maria saw. Her mother was completely at her mercy. At once all the hardness in Maria melted and she threw herself into Ana Luisa’s arms, sobbing.
Ana Luisa held her close. She knew. Maria was pregnant.
“Oh, Mama, I’m so scared.”
“It’s all right. Everything will be all right.”
They held each other, hard. After a moment, Maria pulled away from her and said, “I’m going to get married.”
Ana Luisa nodded, but she said, “No, Maria. No, querida”
‘s’, Mama,” Maria said. And then she edged past her and disappeared into the bathroom.
Ana Luisa stood in the doorway, her face hard, expressionless. The baby would have to go, that much was certain. Maria had her whole life ahead of her, and she would not let her throw it away because of one mistake. She heard Maria throw up, she heard the toilet flush, but she was not listening. She was thinking, Here it is, my life all over again. A little fun, a dance maybe, kissing in the car, his hand on your breasts or the inside of your thigh, a few minutes letting him have his way, and then you’re pregnant and married and your life is over. After that, it’s all fighting and drunkenness, with a few sweaty nights of love. That’s it. You spend the next forty years scrubbing gringo toilets so your daughter can have a better life. You pretend you don’t even speak English, you put up with their shit and their shitty wages and their contempt, and what’s it all for?
Sometimes she felt she could curse God.
Instead, she poured herself a tumbler of red wine and stood at the sink drinking it. She heard Maria go to her bedroom and shut the door behind her and she thought of going in after her and telling her a thing or two. Laying down the law. As long as you are in my house, you’ll do as I say. You’re not getting married, ni”a, and you’re not going to have that baby. Who is the father anyway? I don’t know him. No boys ever come here. Then a thought struck her like a fist at her heart. Maybe Maria didn’t know who the father was. Her daughter playing the whore? She pressed her hand against her breast and drained the glass of wine.
She must be very calm. She must be reasonable. She poured herself another tumbler of wine. No screaming and swearing. No wild threats. No giving in to the temptation to beat her senseless, the little fool, the little whore. Whore of a whore, it was always the same.
When she’d drained half the tumbler, Ana Luisa pulled herself up straight and, ready for business, went over to the shrine and knelt down, heavily. She said an Ave kneeling upright and had started in on a second one, when suddenly it all seemed hopeless, and she sat back on her heels and groaned. She looked up into the pink face of the Virgin and said, “Help me.” She let her bosom slump forward comfortably. “It’s my Maria,” she said. ‘soc”rrame.”
She knelt there for quite a while, her heels grinding into her buttocks and her knees killing her, while she let her mind wander back to Paco, how handsome he was when they first met, and how they had made love in the bushes and in his mother’s house–that terrible old bruja–and once even in broad daylight down by the railroad tracks. A train had gone by, but they’d kept right on and Paco never missed a stroke. When you were young ” She made the sign of the cross and asked the Virgin to forgive her, she was such a whore, and help her daughter Maria because it was not too late yet. Maybe she could have a miscarriage. Maybe she could be crossing the street and get hit by a truck, only gently, gently, so that she wouldn’t have even a bad bruise, but she would lose the baby. These things happened sometimes. Was it too much to ask?
She continued to kneel, praying, and then her mind wandered again, and she found herself thinking that the greatest miracle would be if Maria wasn’t pregnant at all. She tried to remember what Maria had said. She had said she was scared. She had said she was getting married. But she hadn’t said she was pregnant, had she? Ana Luisa felt her heart lift for a moment. Could it be? Another miracle? Girls knew things these days. It wasn’t like in her day, when all you had were those rubber safeties that no real man would even buy. Maybe marriage was just a crazy idea Maria had picked up after she did badly in those college exams. “Ay, Virgen Sant’sima “” she began, and almost at once she was on her feet and tapping at Maria’s door.
“Querida?” she said. “It’s Mama.”
Maria was lying on her bed, but she sat up as her mother opened the door and came in. She got up and stood on the far side of the bed next to the bureau.
“It’s Mamacita,” Ana Luisa said. She could see Maria was expecting the worst. “No fights, querida, no screaming or anything. Listen, how low I’m keeping my voice. You can’t even hear me. s’?”
“I’m getting married,” Maria said.
‘s’, s’, my little one, but not now. Later, when you’re older and you’ve graduated from high school, and maybe college, and you meet some nice boy, one of our own kind but with a good job and very handsome and–”
“I’m pregnant,” Maria said.
Ana Luisa’s heart stopped. Her breath stopped. She expected any minute to drop dead.
She watched as Maria turned away from her to the bureau and picked up those glasses with the false nose and the fuzzy eyebrows. She watched, stupid, as Maria put them on and looked at herself in the mirror and then turned back to her and said again, “I’m pregnant. I’m getting married.”
She took a step toward Maria and, numb with anger, she felt her hand rise from her side and crack down hard against the girl’s face, catching her on the left cheek and sending the glasses spinning into the air and across the room. It happened so quickly that neither of them moved. Maria stood there–her face raised to her mother’s hand, and the hand suspended in the air–as if what had just been done could never be undone, and they would hold these positions for all eternity.
It was Ana Luisa who cried out, a sharp piercing wail, half fury and half despair, as she grabbed Maria’s shoulders and shook her and shook her. “Puta! Puta!” she screamed as Maria fought against her, and suddenly she had Maria by the hair and was pushing her and then dragging her from the bedroom to the living room, where she threw her to her knees before the shrine. Ana Luisa’s screaming gave way to tears finally and she looked around, confused, and then fell to her knees beside her sobbing daughter. ‘dear Virgin in heaven,” she said, “forgive me,” and she threw her arms around Maria and wept.
Maria collapsed against her, grateful, because she knew how these things went. The scene was nearly done, and in a while they could be reconciled, and in the end, after all the screaming and crying and making up, nothing at all would be changed.
“It was pure ethnic,” Maria said, “you should have seen it. She’d had some wine, of course, to get her energy up, and she was screaming “Whore” at me, and slapping me around, and then she dragged me out to the shrine–can you believe it?–she dragged me, like by the hair, like this was some kind of movie or something? Then she collapsed and started hugging me, and saying, “Holy Virgin, forgive me,” and stuff like that, because she was getting tired, I suppose, and she figured she’d better make up with me while she still had the strength left to do it. God, that woman!”
Russell listened and said nothing. He had picked Maria up after work and they’d driven to San Gregorio Beach, where they were parked now, sitting in the car, facing out over the ocean. Rain beat hard against the windshield, making it impossible for them to see, but they could hear the crash of the waves below them. The place seemed right for their mood. They huddled together against all the noise.
“It was an incredible scene,” Maria said. “Pure ethnic.”
‘she loves you, I guess.”
“Well, of course she loves me. But what a way to show it. What a way to, you know, carry on. Other families don’t live like that. It’s something in their culture, Mexicans; it makes me ashamed to be one. They have to scream and yell about everything. They’re insane. They’re simply insane. I wish I had blue eyes, like yours.”
He moved his hand higher and could feel the swell of her breast. He touched it gently with one finger, caressing it. He was not aroused. He was hollowed out, empty of everything except this ache, this need for her. To be with her. To hold her.
“If we have a baby, I hope he has your eyes.”
“We won’t have a baby.”
“Everybody has babies,” she said.
He felt a knot tighten in his stomach, or maybe it was in his heart.
“What?” she said. ‘don’t you want babies at all?”
“I want you,” he said, pulling her close, holding her so hard that she could barely breathe. “I don’t want anything or anybody else. Just you.” He pressed his mouth down upon hers, his teeth cutting into her lip, her tongue, and he seemed to be gasping for air, as if he could draw her breath into his lungs and thus possess her. She shifted her body so that they could make love, and she reached down to touch him. But he brushed her hand away. It was not sex he was after. It was something else, beyond sex.
“What?” she said, whispering. “Russell, what?”
“I want you,” he said.
It was a voice she did not recognize. She stared into his pale blue eyes and saw what looked like steel, but as she continued to stare, she saw only emptiness. She was frightened at first, and then excited, and then filled with a completely new feeling, a kind of power. She laughed.
They made love, fierce and hard, like animals in heat, and then they rested, separate again, looking out through the rain at the broken ocean beyond.
“Let’s get married soon,” he said.
She smiled, content, and said nothing.
Russell had begun once more to gnaw at the dry flesh of his little finger, something he hadn’t done in years. The skin was hard and flaky, as if there were only bone beneath it and no flesh at all. He had been doing this since the night she refused him, and he’d had that fit, and then she never refused him again.
They were going to get married and the girl didn’t even know him, she didn’t even know who he was. He was Russell Whitaker, an Anglo with a nice Anglo name, and that’s all she wanted to know. He had been thinking of this for days and wishing he could do something about it. He resolved to tell her now, tonight.
They had been to the Old Mill for a double feature–Rocky I and II, or maybe it was III and IV; he couldn’t remember–and then they’d driven in silence to Skyline Lookout, where they were going to park and make love, but she was very quiet tonight, distracted almost, and so they didn’t make love. He was glad not to. They just sat there in silence, her head nestled in the crook of his shoulder, his right arm cradling her, and his right hand resting softly against her breast. He wanted to tell her, and now was the perfect time. The pressure had been building in him for weeks–to tell her, to come out with it–as if there were another person inside him who wanted to get out. He decided he would do it now, he would do it now, he would do it now, but they continued to sit there in silence, until finally she whispered, “What?” and, grateful, overwhelmed with love and trust, he held out before her his left hand. It was pink, deformed, the fingers more like a plastic glove than like flesh and bone.
She had asked him about it that night at the Halloween Hop, and he had told her it happened when he was just a kid, five or six years old. A bunch of them were playing around a fire and two of the older kids dared him to pour a can of Quik Start on the flames and he did it. The can exploded, turning his hand into a kind of torch, and ” well, this is what happened. He had told the same story to the doctor who treated his hand, and he had told it many times over the years since the accident. He told it so well he almost believed it himself.
But now, for once, he wanted to say the truth and let her know him. He held out his hand so she could see it in all its ugliness–pink, slick, deformed. He turned the words over and over in his mind–My father did this–but no words came out, and before he could force them out, she lifted the hand to her lips and kissed it. He sucked in his breath, he choked, and she turned the hand over and kissed the hard smooth palm.
He wanted to crush her into his body, he wanted to enter her and fill her full of him until they were only one person, he wanted ” but what did he want?
She placed his deformed hand between her breasts and held it there. She smiled at him.
He could never tell her now.
“We have to talk about the wedding,” Ana Luisa said, looking up from her ironing. “We’ve got to make preparations.”
“I’m doing my homework,” Maria said. “On Sunday we’ll talk about it.”
“If you had spent every night doing homework ” ,” Ana Luisa said, and left the thought suspended.
Maria made a show of not listening.
She and Russell were getting married on Saturday, at City Hall, so her Sunday talk with her mother would never have to take place. She felt bad about excluding her mother, but what could she do? The woman simply wasn’t reasonable, and Maria was damned if she was going to have a Catholic wedding: going to the priest for instructions, making her confession, and then the Mexican fiesta with bridesmaids and pink dresses and tuxedos and everybody drunk. And for what? To prove she had a man and was not going to college and would never get out of this place? To prove she was a good Mexican girl? Fuck it all. She was going to get married at City Hall on Saturday, honeymoon until Sunday night, and go to school on Monday morning. Marriage was not the end of her life; it was a stop on the way. Her mother would just have to get used to that.
“A nice white dress,” Ana Luisa said, “with the bridesmaids all in pink. Or in different colors each one, whatever you like.”
“I’m just thinking ahead,” she said, deftly maneuvering the iron under and over the ruffles of Maria’s blouse. “We’ll talk about it Sunday. Muy bien”
They were happy. They walked along the beach hand in hand, an innocent young couple in love. They had been married the day before, they would be together now forever and ever, they would never be apart.
Mr. and Mrs. Russell Whitaker.
There was nothing more that either of them wanted. They had each other. They had everything.
They were married and in love. They were happy.
They were living in sin, Ana Luisa thought, but they were so happy and so adorable, who could say it was wrong? They came over every evening for dinner, and afterward as they watched television–she in her chair, Maria and Russell on the couch–she spent more time looking at them than at the TV. They were so cute. Maria was in her third month and hadn’t begun to show yet, but she had filled out a little in the face, and her breasts were larger, and she had that look some women get when they’re pregnant, as if they’re concealing some wonderful secret. And, for sure, Maria had a secret–she hadn’t yet told Russell about the baby. What was she waiting for? Russell would be glad to be a father; he’d like it. Some men did, and anybody could see Russell was manly without being macho like a fool. He’d be gentle with a baby. She looked over at him, sitting there with an arm around Maria’s shoulder, her head nestled against his cheek. Such a cute picture. Russell was big, six feet at least, and maybe two hundred pounds. Even with that burned left hand, he would know how to please a woman, she said to herself, and for a moment she could feel his weight on top of her. What an idea! What a whore she was! No wonder her daughter had married outside the Church. No wonder they were living in sin. She made a tiny sign of the cross and forced herself to concentrate on the TV.
Maria nudged Russell in the ribs. Her mother had just made the sign of the cross, furtively, which meant she must be thinking about them again. Living in sin. Her mother was old school; what could you do? Maria herself felt free of all that: free of the Church and its rules and superstitions, free of her mother’s old-fashioned ideas, and free of this house and this neighborhood and of being Mexican. Hispanic, they called it now, but it meant the same thing–second class. She and Russell had their own place, a trailer, but at least it was a home of their own. She carried a key to her old house, a key to her new one, and a key to their car, a three-year-old Ford, not a big old junker like her mother’s. Some mornings she dropped Russell off at his job and then drove the car to school, like a working woman, only different. At school she was now Maria Whitaker. She was practically an Anglo herself. And she was going to have a baby. The baby would make a big difference in their lives, so she had decided not to tell Russell until she had to. He was in love with her, but she wasn’t sure how much. He wasn’t ready to hear about any baby yet. She shifted closer to him on the couch. She put her hand on his lap, palm up, and he put his left hand in hers. She could feel his dick move the tiniest bit beneath the back of her hand. She pressed down a little and moved her hand forward and then back. At once she could feel him begin to get hard. She giggled, and he crossed his legs, moving her hand away, embarrassed in front of Ana Luisa. They all continued to stare at the screen. So far as she was concerned, Maria thought, life could go on like this forever. She loved him, and he loved her more and more–he acted silly sometimes just to make her laugh–and the other things, like college and a good job and everything else, didn’t seem to matter anymore. Because in a way she had escaped already. At school they all envied her. And she had begun to like the idea of being a mother. She rubbed the tough pink skin of his hand with her own perfect fingers, and she sighed. Mrs. Russell Whitaker.
Russell leaned harder against Maria so she would feel his weight and know he was there beside her. He was not going to look at her until the next commercial. He rationed his looks, because each of them mattered and because what he saw in her eyes allowed him to get through the boredom of his day. Standing on a roof or a scaffolding or a ladder–always balanced somewhere, half expecting to fall–he would feel like tossing his brush to the ground and taking off, but instead he would turn away from the paint, take a deep breath, and think of her. In a minute he was able to go on. He hated painting, he hated the smell of the stuff, but at the end of the day he would have Maria, and then he could be happy. He had never been in love before. He’d had sex, once, in his sophomore year of high school, with a girl who wanted to feel his hand in the dark, and though she said the sex was fantastic, he had only felt bad. At her insistence, they tried it again to see if the second time might be better. But he hadn’t felt anything for her either time. ‘doesn’t it just feel good?” she asked, and he didn’t know what she meant. Sex was not the same as love, he knew that much, and he had never loved anybody. He had never even liked anybody. Could that be true? Even before the accident to his hand? He could remember only Billy Muir, with his high voice and his little short pants that were always too small for him. They had played together every day. But after Russell’s accident, Billy was never allowed to play with him again, though he came over once to borrow a sack of marbles–or were they Indian beads?–and never gave them back. Sitting here watching television with his wife and his mother-in-law, Russell ached for the little boy he had been. It was cruel to do that to a child, isolate him, refuse to let your children play with him. It was punishing the victim a second time. Because of course they must have realized it was not an accident, that his father had simply grabbed his hand and held it to the flames. Everybody knew his father was a drunk. Russell felt the anger building in him, the taste of rust in his mouth, despair, and despite himself he turned to look at Maria, and she looked back, and he was saved.
He saw in her eyes that he was loved and he did not, finally, have to die.
At lunch hour Maria and Michelle walked down to the practice field where they could sit on the bleachers and talk in private. Everybody wanted to be Maria’s friend now that she was pregnant, but she remained faithful to Michelle and Jennifer, who had been her friends since grammar school. Jennifer had cheerleading practice during lunch, which was nice, because it gave Maria a chance to talk about everything twice.
“Are you still not throwing up?” Michelle asked. “By now you should be throwing up all the time.”
“I never throw up,” Maria said.
‘do you have pains at least? You should feel nauseous and everything.”
“I feel fine. I haven’t had morning sickness once.”
“I don’t see how you can be in your third month and not have morning sickness,” Michelle said. ‘my sister just had a kid, and for the first three months she threw up all the time. She was like a barf machine. She’d get up in the morning and ” oooops, up it came. It was like a fountain or something. I’d hear her in the bathroom, and I’d think, Jesus, I’m never gonna have a kid. Barf city.”
‘do you mind, Michelle? Like I’m eating?”
“That’s another thing. You’re supposed to throw up before meals all the time. No shit. What does your doctor say? Who do you go to anyway? Is it a man or a woman?”
“Can we stop talking about this? Please?”
‘sorry. Touchy, touchy. You are in your third month.”
Maria said nothing for a while, and then she said, “I haven’t seen a doctor.”
Michelle looked at her, and looked away, and then looked back. “Are you serious? You mean you went just by the home test kit?” She waited. “You did, didn’t you. You just used the home test kit. Maybe you didn’t do it right. You know?” She drew in her breath sharply. ‘my God, maybe you aren’t pregnant at all.”
Maria folded the plastic wrap around her half-eaten sandwich and stuffed it back into the bag. She stood up and brushed crumbs off her skirt.
“You should see a doctor right away, Maria. Or at least the school nurse.” She put her hand on Maria’s arm. ‘maybe you married him when you didn’t even have to.”
Maria pulled her arm away and started up the hill toward school.
“Well, you don’t have to be mad at me,” Michelle said, following behind.
“Leave me alone,” Maria said.
“Well, it’s insane to get married because you’re pregnant when you aren’t even sure about it.”
Maria rounded on her. “I married him because I love him, and I would’ve married him even if I wasn’t pregnant, but I am pregnant, so just leave me alone.” She turned away from Michelle. “The truth is you’re just jealous.”
She continued on up the hill. She was fed up with high school kids. Those idiots. Those assholes.
Russell and Maria were on their way to Ana Luisa’s for dinner. Two days earlier Maria had gotten the doctor’s report: she was not pregnant, nor had there ever been any reason to think she was. It had taken her this long to accept the fact.
“Russell?” she said, putting her hand on his leg.
He put his hand on hers and squeezed it. For some reason, she had been very affectionate these last two days. She had said little, but she was all over him and he liked it.
“I’m not pregnant,” she said. “I’m not going to have a baby.”
“Good,” he said, and looked at her. “That’s a relief.”
She took her hand off his leg and shifted away from him on the front seat.
He began to whistle.
When they arrived, Ana Luisa took one look at them and concluded that the honeymoon was over. Marriage, she thought, it’s just another form of hell.
Russell and Bog were painting a seven-room pool house in Atherton, and the super had left to check on another job, so they sat down by the pool and Bog broke out the Camels. Russell shook his head, no.
“This is the life,” Bog said, getting comfortable in the chaise longue. The pool had a black bottom that made the water look like ink. “Look at that water.”
Russell had been looking at the water. Since he first saw it this morning he had been thinking how good it would be to walk down those steps into the water and never come up again.
‘so how’s married life?” Bog said. “Free nooky all the time ” I envy you. I’ll tell you, though, you don’t look like you’re getting much. You look like you’re getting shit.”
Russell gave him a sour look. “What do you know about marriage, Bog? What do you know about life? Jesus.”
For the past week Maria had scarcely spoken to him. When he asked her why, she would say, “Figure it out,” or “Go to hell,” or “You make me sick.” He was waiting for her to come around and tell him what was the matter, what he had done wrong, but he was tired of waiting and he wanted to make something happen. He had felt the rage building in him all week.
‘so I guess you’re not getting any,” Bog said, and flipped his lighted cigarette into the black water.
At once Russell was out of his chair and leaning over Bog. He grabbed him by the shirtfront and, with one powerful yank, got him up out of the chaise longue and onto his feet. Bog wavered a little, and Russell pitched him headlong into the water. There was a splash, and then Bog surfaced, sputtering. “What’re you, crazy?” he shouted. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Russell stepped to the tile border of the pool and said quietly, ‘don’t throw cigarettes in the water.”
Bog had one hand up, ready to hoist himself out of the water, but Russell loomed over him still. Bog put his other hand up, waiting. Russell did not move. “What?” Bog said. Russell pressed his foot gently against the top of Bog’s head. He held it there, pressing harder. Then harder. Bog ducked away and, carefully, moved back in the water. He looked up at him. He saw that Russell’s eyes were dead and his face had no expression at all. He looked very, very dangerous.
“Let me out of here,” Bog said.
There was a long silence while Russell stood above him, looking, and then he said, “I get what I need, Bog. Don’t you worry about me.”
Maria hadn’t spoken to Russell for a week. But for the next week she worked hard at trying to cheer him up, win him over, make him laugh a little. She had forgotten how much fun it was to try and please him. Besides, she needed him if she was going to get pregnant. As the days passed she discovered once again that Russell was what she wanted and that pursuing him was fun. It was fun and it was easy.
“Listen,” she said. “I’m going to learn to cook. Then we won’t have to go to Mama’s all the time.”
They were sitting in McDonald’s, having the Big Mac Combo. She put down her Big Mac and started to wipe her fingers on her napkin, but instead she reached over and put a dot of ketchup on the tip of Russell’s nose.
“What do you think?” she said.
Russell stuck his tongue out, trying to get the ketchup, and he crossed his eyes and lowered his head to the table. Maria laughed, delighted. He slipped low in the booth until only his head showed, and finally his head disappeared and he was under the table. Maria giggled, and then she laughed, and then she let out a little shout of surprise as his head burrowed between her legs. She pushed him away, laughing, and in a moment he came up from beneath the table and was sitting beside her. ‘disgusting,” someone said, but Russell and Maria ignored whoever it was and went on snuggling in the booth. Together they ate her Big Mac and then they ate his. She had forgotten how good their good times were.
Afterward, in the car, Maria said, “I’ve got this Sunset cookbook and they explain everything? With pictures of what it’s supposed to look like, you know, when it’s halfway done and then when it’s all done? Chicken in a white sauce and coq au vin. Flank steak. Everything. It looks like anybody could do it. So what do you think?”
“Well, hell, why not? Maybe I could learn too, and do it when you don’t feel like it, or just to surprise you?”
“I want to do it for you,” she said.
Russell gave that little gulping sound he made–half gratitude and half passion–and, putting his arm around her, he pulled her close. She settled against him, her hand on his knee, her arm resting on his thigh. They drove in silence, very happy.
That night they lay in bed, quiet, after making love. Russell was no better at it than he’d ever been, but he did his best not to hurt her and to slow down before he came because she seemed to like that best. He had slowed down tonight, slowed almost to a stop, and withdrew nearly his full length, and as he was about to plunge in for the last hard thrust, something in his brain went black and he saw himself looking into a dark, deep pit and he heard himself say, “I’m gonna pour my soul into you,” and at once he saw that if he went on, he would plunge into that pit, lost, without a soul of his own, and be damned forever. He thrust hard into her, and they came together, and it felt very good.
Now, as he lay in bed looking at the ceiling, he called back the image of this black pit, this pouring out of his soul, and he wondered what this vision could have meant, and what he had chosen, and what the consequence would be. He turned his head on the pillow and looked at Maria. Her eyes were closed, and he could see she was pretending to be asleep. She had hated him for a week, and then she had tried to love him, and now she loved him again. It was all too much for him. He closed his eyes and slept.
Maria noticed finally–and how had she missed it before this?–that sometime during the past month or two Russell had begun to love her the way she used to love him. She pushed the thought aside. It would be something to think about later. At the moment she had her high school graduation to think of, and her morning sickness–she was pregnant for real this time–and getting the beef braised just right for her daube de boeuf ” la Marseilles. Her mother was coming to dinner tonight and she wanted to show off a little. She dropped another gob of butter in the pan and it sizzled up and turned brown. ‘shit,” she said, and her heart sank. The heat was too high. She put some chunks of beef into the pot, tentatively, as if she feared they might bruise, and waited as–miraculously–they began to brown. Her heart rose. Cooking was easy.
Russell was so happy he couldn’t stand to be with Bog during lunch break, so he invented an errand–a trip to the bank–and drove off without bothering to eat. He was happy because of the way things had turned out. Maria loved him, and he spent every waking minute thinking of her, and he spied on her. He did not consider it spying. He just wanted to see her, to be near her.
He decided he would drive, just once, past her school, and if he saw her he would wave and keep on going. He slowed down as he approached the school, but he saw only a postman wheeling a huge sack of mail up the front walk. Nobody else. He drove down the block, then three blocks, and made a huge square and came back once more. He wanted only a glimpse of her. A tiny little look. A couple teachers were out front now, smoking, and there was a black kid sitting with his back against a tree, but nobody else. Russell slowed to a crawl, and when the teachers turned to look at him, he stepped on the gas and got out of there. He would go back to work. His mouth was dry and he was getting a terrific headache. He shouldn’t be doing this anyway. She’d hate it if she knew. But he decided–his head pounding–he would circle one more time, just in case. Nobody was there. He parked, letting the motor idle. He was sweaty and frightened and he wanted to see her. He wanted her to be with him, only him. If he let her out of his sight, she would go, the way his mother had gone, leaving him alone, with nobody, with nothing.
A bell rang, long and loud. At once all the doors were thrown open and kids began to come out, at first only a few and then crowds of them.
Sick, disgusted, Russell stepped on the gas and drove away. He didn’t belong here. He didn’t belong anywhere.
The cooking phase had not lasted very long, and once again they were at Ana Luisa’s house for dinner and TV. Maria had begun to show, and she had filled out quite a lot, and this time it was clear she was pregnant. She and Russell sat on the couch holding hands, and from time to time he would look deep into her eyes and she would look back at him with a melting look that made Ana Luisa turn away in embarrassment. She was glad they were so happy, but she knew that love like this couldn’t last. She waited until Maria got up to go to the bathroom.
‘so, everything’s fine again with you two?” Ana Luisa said.
Russell nodded. “Wonderful,” he said.
“You’re glad about the baby? A baby is nice.”
“Of course you’ll have to share Maria with the little one. A baby takes up a lot of time.” She waited for him to say something. “I wonder, perhaps, if you love Maria too much.”
Russell looked up at her, sharply.
“Just a little bit too much. Tantito?”
Maria came out of the bathroom then. She sat on the couch with her legs tucked under her and her shoulder against Russell’s chest. He put his arm around her and they folded into one another easily, naturally, as if it would always be this way.
Maria was six months pregnant and desperate to get out of that damned trailer. She had decided she would not go to work until after the baby was born, and so she was alone all day with nothing to do except watch television and pace up and down the tiny living room. It was impossible, she said.
“Look!” She got up from the table, put her dish in the sink, and then lay down on the bed. She hadn’t moved more than a foot in either direction. “I’ve got to get out of this tiny place,” she said, “or I’ll go out of my mind.”
“It’s our home,” he said. “You used to like it.”
“It’s a trap,” she said.
He tried to think.
He was already working overtime whenever he could, and he worked Saturdays at handyman jobs for people whose houses he had painted, and he would gladly work nights and Sundays if he could, but there still wasn’t enough money. Where was he going to get the money? The doctor bills were covered, more or less, but his medical plan was shitty, and he had to get together all that extra money for the hospital and for shots and for God knows what, and how was he going to do it? And now she wanted to move.
“Okay, sure,” he said, because she had to have whatever she needed. “But where?”
“I want to live with Mama.”
“We can’t live with Mama. There’s no room. There’s no privacy. Her place is not much bigger than this.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be both of us.” She let that sink in for a moment, and then she looked up at him from where she lay on the bed. “You know?”
He stood there, uncomprehending.
“I mean I could go myself. And just live there with Mama.” She could see him beginning to understand. “There’s more room there, and I wouldn’t be trapped in one tiny trailer that wherever I move I’m still in the same place. I’ve got to move around. I can’t live like this. I can’t live in a trap like some animal.” She paused, and then rushed on. “I’m not like you. I’ve got to have air. I’ve got to get out once in a while and see people and feel that I’m alive. It’s too much, you can’t ask this much of me, who do you think you are anyway?” He was just standing there, sunk into himself. He looked old and shriveled. “Listen,” she said. “I’ve thought about this, Russell, and it’s the right thing to do. I’ll move in with Mama, and she can take care of me and everything, and you can come over nights to see me. It’ll be just like it was, except that I won’t be going crazy in this place. Okay? Okay?”
She got up from the bed and put her arms around him.
“It’s for the baby,” she said, whispering.
She kissed him on the neck. She had him now. He would do whatever she asked.
“Okay?” she said.
He pushed her away, hard, and she fell to the bed. He stood over her, white with anger, his whole body trembling with rage, and he shook his fist in her face. Still no words came. He turned from her and, swinging wildly, blind and speechless with frustration, he drove his fist into the wall. There was a crunching sound and a dull thunk as his fist went through the wood paneling and struck the metal shell of the trailer. He punched the wall again and again. When he turned back to her, his fist was bleeding, but the worst of his anger was gone. “The baby,” he said. “It’s always the goddamned baby. That’s all it was right from the beginning. You don’t care about me. It’s just him. It’s just that thing. It’s just that little ” nothing.”
She huddled on the bed, silent.
“You haven’t looked at me, you haven’t paid attention to me once in the past six months. You’ve used me and let me wait on you and work overtime and scrape around for money, just so you could be alone with that ” thing.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “Russell? That’s not fair.”
“It is true. You never wanted me. You never cared about me.”
She let him say it.
“It’s been you and him all along. Just you and the baby. That’s all you ever wanted.”
“Russell,” she said, looking at him.
“Come on,” she said, “look at me.”
‘sweetheart,” she said.
He looked up at her finally. ‘sweetheart,” he said, and his voice was bitter, but he kept on looking at her.
She concentrated hard, looking. You are the only one, she thought, you are everything in the world to me.
She repeated these words to herself, waiting for them to take their place in her look, so that her eyes would shine and he would see she loved only him, and then he would be hers again.
You only, she thought, it’s you only that I love.
But her attention wandered and she thought first of the baby and then of her mother’s house, and suddenly she realized she had lost him.
For a brief moment, though, he had convinced himself that she loved him and only him, that everything would be all right, and so at least he wanted to be saved. He still had some hope left in him and she could work on that.
“We’ll both go,” she said. “Okay? We’ll both go stay with Mama.”
He hugged her hard, grateful, terrified. Would he ever have her to himself again?
Maria’s life was good now. By the time she got up each morning, Russell had already left for work, so she didn’t have to deal with him and his incessant need for attention. If Ana Luisa was still there, she would make Maria a breakfast of eggs and toast and raspberry jam. It was important, she said, that Maria keep her strength up and have something sweet with each meal. Maria ate whatever her mother cooked. She was always hungry. And it was nice to be waited on. If Ana Luisa had already left for work, Maria would make her own breakfast–toast and jam, some cookies or sweet rolls, whatever was around–and then for the rest of the morning she would watch the game shows on TV. In the afternoon she had the soaps and the great maternal satisfaction of lying on the couch and feeling the baby move inside her. Getting comfortable, she imagined. Sometimes giving a kick.
This was the real reason she had wanted to come back to her mother’s house: to be alone and at peace with her baby. Sometimes she would lie for hours, softly caressing the mound of her belly, talking to the little boy inside. It was a mystical experience, and it lifted her high above the boredom and ugliness of ordinary life. The old saint stories she’d heard as a child came back to her now and she recognized something true in them. This is what Joan of Arc must have felt when she heard voices, or Saint Teresa when she levitated. The experience was beyond words, but it left Maria feeling holy, chosen. At these times she could forget she had ever married. There was no Russell, there was no life at all outside of her and the baby. For all her advanced ideas, she admitted to herself now that this was what she had always wanted.
In the evening, if Russell didn’t have a night job, she would sit with him and her mother, watching TV. He drove her crazy, looking at her with that big moony face, expecting, demanding that she return his look, stupid, full of love. She was fed up with all that. She had the baby to think about, and she deliberately refused Russell’s look, and to hell with him. That’s why she liked having Ana Luisa there while they watched TV. It kept Russell in his place.
Sometimes Maria would glance at him while he was eating or getting her a drink or shuffling around the little house, and she would wonder what on earth had ever made her love him. His Anglo name? His blue eyes? They were a pale blue, a milky blue. She hated the sight of them, to tell the truth. They were like everything else about him, weak and needy. Only his name was any good, and it was hers now. Hers and her son’s.
On nights when Russell didn’t have a job and there was no TV worth watching, they would get in the car–Ana Luisa too–and go out for a drive and an ice cream. The summer was unusually hot, and it was nice to drive up over the mountains and out to the coast. Russell would deliberately park the car at places where they had made love–on promontories with the sea crashing below them, or up above sandy beaches–but Maria pretended not to recognize the places, and even when he leaned close to her or tried to put his hand on her leg, she’d give him no response. She’d just chatter on about game shows and money and buying a summer house on the beach. She could feel her mother’s anger directed at her from the back seat and she could feel Russell’s neediness and despair, but she was carrying a baby, she was about to give birth, and she couldn’t worry herself about them. Why did everybody want something from her?
On the way back, they would always stop for ice cream, which was stupid, but it was something to do. And then, finally, they would go home. Maria continually surprised herself by her eagerness for home. When she was a kid, hanging around with Michelle Gross and Jennifer Benniger, she had never let them see where she lived. She went to Michelle’s house or to Benni’s, but she never invited them to hers. They were rich girls, with nice families, and they lived in big houses with clipped lawns in front and back, with bushes and flowers all around and lots of trees. The girls understood why they weren’t invited to Maria’s, and they didn’t seem to mind. Back then, shy and ashamed, Maria knew how they’d see her house: a Mexican nightmare, a pile of cement blocks painted purple. The road out front was unpaved, with no sidewalks, and there were big old American cars–some just beat up, some completely abandoned–parked every which way up and down the street, in driveways, on front lawns. She had seen it that way herself. But now, married and with a baby due any minute, she saw it all differently. The place was messy, yes, but it was filled with life. The people were poor, but they knew who they were and they had values and family traditions that mattered. They weren’t white-collar criminals like some people. They had no pretensions. And her house itself was warm and cozy. A perfect place for a baby to be born. Approaching it at night, seeing the living room light left burning, she felt a surge of warmth and love that included even Russell. She would touch him at these times, just a hand on his arm or even a little nudge, and she could see him shed his despair for a minute or two and be happy with her. But these moments were unimportant, really. What mattered was the baby. What mattered was the coming birth of John.
Russell woke her in the night. He leaned above her in the secret dark and said, “Listen to me.”
“Listen,” he said. ‘my father did this to me. He took my hand and held it in the fire. There was never any accident. He did it to me. He made up the story about a bunch of kids playing around a fire, and I told it to the nurse at the hospital, and I told it at school, but the truth was he did it himself. Maria?”
‘did you hear me?”
The night was black. The room where they lay was black. They could have been alone in the world. They could have been at sea.
“I don’t want to hear this. Why are you doing this?”
“You’ve got to know me. You’ve got to know about me.”
“I know you.”
“You’ve got to love me.”
Silence and darkness.
She put her hand up and touched his face. It was wet, with perspiration or with tears; she couldn’t tell. She let her hand rest there for a minute.
“I love you,” he whispered over and over.
She fell asleep, her open hand against his cheek.
“I love you. And I love the baby,” he whispered. “I love you.”
John was born with a halo of blond curls and eyes as pale and blue as Russell’s own. Russell looked at the baby through the glass window, tapped at it, got his attention. The baby seemed to smile at him. Russell was relieved to find that he was very happy. He loved his son. He would be a good father.
Later he saw Maria with the baby, a fat little blond thing wriggling at her breast.
“John,” Maria said, “because it sounds so American.”
Russell smiled at her, and at the baby, and at her again, but she did not look up at him.
After a while, though, she did look up, but vaguely, distracted. She did not see Russell at all. He could have been anybody. Or nobody.
She had eyes only for the baby.
That night–late, late in the night–Russell stood before the bathroom mirror and drew a razor blade, hard, across his chest in a huge X, as if in this way he could cancel out his heart.