And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her. Ecclesiastes 7:26 KJV
A few days ago, you told me you were going to disappear, that you were going to show me what I always wanted. Last night, you left without incident. There was nothing I could do to keep you from stepping over the threshold and looking into the ominous water below your feet, hankering to be satisfied like you, like me. She’s misunderstood, I recall telling myself on our wedding day, a sharp echo pounding between my ears. I’m sitting in a waiting room now, and I remember something good. We were standing over the Pacific coastline one autumn evening when you pulled your arm away from me to slip into the cool fog. I had my thoughts prepared for you, waiting for the right time. My words were unwound out of my mouth, falling over the pickled breaks of water below. I told you that none of this would matter to you if you truly believed I loved you, but instead, you packaged me into the idol of your illness, a rottenness to my bones.
You threw away all your medication. You said distractions and work were the antidote to help you keep it all together. It’s easy to escape the stigma when you indulge yourself in pretty things, expensive clothes and pendants, pretty friends on a social media list who’ve never heard you cry. You avoid getting pegged at church to coordinate baby showers by burying your hands in work and excuse yourself on Sunday mornings when a baby is presented at the altar. You prefer to celebrate yourself with your own milestones—a jock you helped get into college, a recruitment event you spoke at without sweaty palms, a skirted disagreement with your boss. We know it’s vanity because there is something more tempting, more ambitious to pursue. Another accessory for your wardrobe perhaps. Chubby toes and folded legs over your hips to add color to the muted hues you wear on your face. I know the feeling, I know the longing.
I swallow my words because God has dealt bitterly with you. Her pregnancies were a punishing disruption for you, I know. Ten minutes before leaving, your feet would get cold and you’d cry hysterically. My brother’s new baby—his second child—at my parent’s house was a serving of gravel under your tongue like your eyelashes were splinters to my lips. For years, I’d grip my arms and inch my fingers through the unnerving electricity of my elbows where my senses would rub against themselves, sitting beside you in the presence of my brother and his growing family. I listened to you in the open air kitchen. I’m in the living room watching your head as a bulb of a spider, and your mouth is bent in rhythm to the hurried placing of a pot for tea. Toma tu tila, I tell you. It will help you calm down. I say this and you pause to pick up your cup, like a game we play, like you’re saluting me, telling me in no words that we own a calculated synchronicity. Your voice is tremulous, taut and brittle. See, do you see? Don’t you see? you insist. She was holding her child, looking so happy, as if to mock me. I say, None of that would matter if you truly believed I loved you.
At times, we walked in step with each other. I’d appease your guilt by carrying all that luggage you’d pack on our trips to Disneyland as you’d clutch your closed womb like a veiled contaminant. No child could ever grow her toes or suck her thumb inside of you, or shift your back into an arch forming the glorious circumference of a swollen belly. No child would ever be found in the protection of your arms, or mine. I took you there anyway. Two grown ups, inhibiting the infantile amusement of screaming children detached from their anxious mothers. I humored you with this annual pilgrimage, strolling through Main Street with my arm around your waist, your albatross wings flapping in delight upon entering your favorite gift shop with windows glazed in artificial frost. It was so perfect, wasn’t it, to feign a longing for children of our own. Years ago, in the church, you would gather the toddlers of the nursery and have me shoot a picture of you holding one of the Andrade children. The cutest one of the bunch, you’d tell me in the car. You insisted your heart would suffer a blow whenever a new baby was announced in the church bulletin and I’d draw you under my arm, your only refuge after years of tears and months of counseling with the Pastor who would shake his head and suck his lower lip.
It serves no purpose to imagine what could have happened if I had kept you from leaving; if I had forced my will on you to prevent the disastrous consequences. Pero, sin embargo, aquí estoy. Over and over I say I will not leave. Over and over I say I will stay. I bleat this repetitious prayer to the throne of your ears, despite its direct violation to our faith as was read in morning service: But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith. I memorized that passage, open over my legs until the haze of your parting covered my eyes, your back a blur into my sleep.
My two nephews. My one niece. This one I’ve never met. All of them were reason for your words to turn to glass. I was concerned about you so I kept myself from drawing closer to them. This familiar dismissal of my brother’s progeny took your hands to the shears. I hear you clip one bloodline and then another as I look in the mirror to touch the lump sitting in my throat like a stone ready to drop to my chest, as I stroke a hand through the crown you’ve placed over my head, that grizzled grayness I’ve lost count of, like our years together which pass in secret, like a bottle left on the shore where I found you. A shipwreck I needed to unhinge, plank by plank. You were there under it all, buried in sand and I stood over you, steady with a hammer in my hand.
Bread eaten in secret is pleasant. I met Ai on a trip to Japan. My briefcase and work clothes left hanging over a chair in the hotel room. She didn’t have a life planned out for when things should happen. No bucket list, no achievement plan with check boxes. No timeline for when a new career should transition her to another country, nor when a new car should be purchased. No plan for when a baby should fit into her calendar. No, Ai wasn’t paralyzed by the pursuits of affluence. It was possible, from that distance, to allow catastrophe to rise without a single consideration to consequence. Whatever happened was never attached to a promise.
My parents and you. And me. When we arrive to visit, you don’t know that they know. They are able to sit still during a good performance. I used to play house well. I used to perform through the final act like a good harlequin. Now, we throw ourselves in the pit of a well and there we are, for everyone’s pity. We stay there only to agitate ourselves. There is no where to go—not up, not down, not over there or far away. We stay in the well because only in the cold do we find ourselves closer together, and only in this chamber can we keep from escaping each other. We go home after my parents break the frost from our backs and we lie together on our marriage bed because how can we be warm by ourselves? You sleep, dreaming of a life without me, suffocated by your sorrow, the acne on your cheeks tracking your tears like a ledger. Over the tusk of your Babar pillowcase, you were able to sleep until the sun would beat through the window, but not anymore. You don’t even know when it’s daylight outside.
Sometimes the chameleon changes color, fuses right into our natural walls, sitting quietly in wait for that prey to draw near. You never catch anything with your articulate resumes, despite all your diligence, holding out for that one move that would satisfy another climb upward. You throw the dishes in the sink and they break, and your hands collect the shards, the flesh of your fingers uncovered. You do this after I tell you we tested the DNA and yes, the child is mine. Ai gave me permission to be the proxy father you would prefer me to be, or to be no father at all, your better choice. Do whatever you want, you said and then you went back to covering the sun with your finger. For weeks you burned the midnight oil. For months, you locked me under the rotting planks where I found you. You mumbled words like marshmallows and retched when I read email from my laptop. You flipped through your phone’s screen and I was sure I heard you correctly when you leaped off the recliner. You said you were going to throw yourself off the Golden Gate Bridge. I believed you were responding to something you’d read on your phone. I knew I heard you well because after all, it had been days since I’d heard you speak at all.
Now you’re here, dry like a cucumber garden. You left me after I dozed off and I can’t remember what happened. My every waking hour pressed on your chest like the weight of a cross. Under the warm blanket and sheet, your feet lie in the same position they were in since you were brought in and I can recall a barefooted blur crushing smithereens of glass. Your face doesn’t recognize how your body is parting away from your soul. Your cheeks are a bed of raw spices and your mouth is a desert furrow. Only a beating heart tells me you are still alive. I wait for you to shift as I pass my hand over your feet, tracing tendons, searching for bandages. Under those hideous padded socks too large for your feet, my fingers slither over the smooth arch of your sole where creases cross in daggers. I weave between your toes and into tight spaces. The flakes consuming your hair are sprinkled over the alabaster pillow and I remember gripping you into a gentle evanesce over the floor, catching you, as I always have done, without forcing my will as you writhed, your wings poised for flight. Your eyes were like those of a translucent insect, your mouth full of spittle over my face, and the salt of your tears dissolved your lips like the body of a snail. I silenced the quivers of your body, petrified by the red on my palms like stigmata. Don’t cry crocodile, don’t cry, I thought, confounded by how late I was in getting to you, and how long I took to see you.
Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega writes fiction and essays, reviews and interviews. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, Other Voices, Calaca Review, The Review Review, Front Porch Commons: A Project of [CLMP], and is forthcoming in Tishman Review. A home school mom and former adjunct, Eréndira lives in southern California with her husband and three children. She is writing a novel.