The Devil Has No Shadow
Iwas fourteen when I began to believe in our family curse. It started when Number 1 fingered me that one time in his car. I remember a stabbing sensation all over that wasn’t quite my own yet, like I was catching bad reception from someone else, a painful vibration just past the edge of my fingertips. I didn’t worry then. I assumed he was doing it too rough that time. A pinched nerve. I don’t know why it started then. I had already hooked up with him before, a few times, not much past third base. But that’s the thing about curses. If you knew how they worked, you would be able to break them. Instead, you let yourself believe pain is normal.
Back then, I got all my sexual wisdom from Cosmo. I read that it was common to feel uncomfortable at first because you were new to it. There were all these body changes: your hymen breaking, your parts expanding, and hormonal stuff happening. It made sense. It took practice, the columnist said. I’ve always been diligent: gifted program in elementary, top ten percent in my high school class, graduated cum laude from UM, head of the marketing team in less than a year. If practice was what it took, then that was what I would do.
Jenny from my support group has told me multiple times that if having sex with a bunch of men were going to cure me of the curse, it would have already. I can tell she’s like my aunt Zoraida, who thinks talking about sex is the same as doing it right in front of everybody. “You can stop your pain,” Jenny said. “Some of us don’t have a choice.” I would sympathize if she actually had the guts to tell us what her curse is, but everyone’s supposed to take their own time. Dr. Stein, our mediator, followed her lead, of course. He leaned back in his chair and said, “Tell us why you can’t stop. There’s a reason.” He was trying to make me verbalize some hidden hurt, point to the doll and talk about bad touches. But there isn’t another issue. I know if I just stick to my plan, I can win somehow. That, or I join the only Catholic order of nuns in the city (celebrating twenty-five years). If there’s an end to this pain, I will find it. That’s why at the end of our date, I ask soon-to-be Number 29 back to my place.
I sit on the edge of the bed. I pretend I’m nervous and shy — brief eye contact, a smile over the shoulder. My blue bra strap slides and dangles past my blouse sleeve. He gently pulls it back up.
I met Number 29 at the Starbucks of our shared work building. His name is Alex Acevedo, and he’s an accountant for a firm two floors above mine. I told him that I’d only been with three guys. We were talking about his bad breakup from last year, and I just blurted out how inexperienced I was, and he asked what I meant, and that was when the lie began. I told him about Number 27, my last serious breakup, and suddenly I was acting like I was some naive thirty-two-year-old who’d only been in long-term serious relationships. After about a month of flirting over text and coffee, he finally asked me out last night.
“Alex,” I say his name, like I do for all the others, just before it begins. It’s my little prayer against the curse. I’ve been doing that since Number 18.
“Pendleton,” he says.
“I like how you say my name,” I say. I don’t really. He puts too much emphasis on the second syllable, like he’s going to hurl.
I try to focus and relax my body completely. Number 29 grabs me by the shoulders and moves my body toward his. I pull my legs up onto the bed and fold them under me. His long legs surround me.
“Have you seen this movie called The Mustache?” he asks me. “It’s about this guy who shaves his mustache, and he expects his wife to be surprised, but she doesn’t notice any difference.”
He begins to undress me, unbuttoning the blouse first, while he recaps the movie for me, his tone soft and casual. His voice is soft and casual. I begin imagining my body as a series of edges wrapped in skin. I look at his brown hair and hazel eyes. He’s one of these Cubans who’s surprisingly white, a huge contrast to me. I focus on his skin instead of mine. I hear my mother’s voice — don’t trust the duende.
When I was little and my mother was actually around, she would tell me these messed up old folktales as bedtime stories. She enjoyed scaring to me to death, and I liked watching her transform into the characters of the story. She would mimic the moans of the zombie-like white men who found children on the street and stole their baby organs. Or she would wrap a blanket around her body pretend she was La Mepesa, a deformed witch with a broken back who was condemned to roam the woods moaning her regret.
I always felt sorry for La Mepesa, who starts out as a beautiful woman. She loves to go to the parties in town every night. But she keeps doing this even when she has children. One day the grandmother gets fed up and tells her daughter she will be cursed if she leaves her children one more time. But La Mepesa goes anyway. When she’s alone in the woods, her horse loses control. She falls off. With her broken bones, she tries to crawl back home. She becomes lost forever and turns into La Mepesa.
“We are cursed just like them, my little pea,” my mother would say to me. She would suddenly collapse by the bed, and when I was brave enough to look over, she would jump up and I would scream. She would laugh and laugh, and I’d laugh too, the fear still tight in my chest and stomach.
I was nine the last time I saw Leti, my mother. She was holding a teddy bear with a yellow polka dot dress. My grandmother and aunt were standing behind her by the door. I thought then that they were blocking it, so Leti wouldn’t escape. I hadn’t seen her for two months before that, but she showed up when she heard I had to have my appendix taken out. I woke up to a pain in my lower abdomen that stabbed and itched at the same time. There she was at the edge of my bed, smoothing my hair, and I remember thinking she was pretty with her wide brown eyes and perfect teeth. Leti told me one last tale that night, quietly, a tame one that I’d heard before. I should have known she was saying goodbye.
The story goes that a little girl sees a doll in her friend’s house, and she wants it for herself. At her friend’s birthday, she leaves the other children and sneaks into the birthday girl’s room, but there’s another little boy there. He is blond, blue eyes, skin like milk.
You don’t want that doll, he says. I have a better one. I have hundreds.
You don’t, the little girl says.
I do. Come see.
He shows her this large bag that she hadn’t noticed before. It’s velvet and pink. He opens it and pulls out a beautiful porcelain doll.
See, see, he says and jumps up and down from excitement. Her heart races. He has a little bell in his other hand. ￼
He rings it. Come see. She moves in closer and closer, and then she looks inside. She can’t see anything because it’s too dark. The boy grows larger, into a man, grabs the girl and stuffs her into the bag.
“Then she’s gone,” my mom said.
“Forever?” I said.
“It was the devil,” I said.
“You know, little pea, one day they’ll tell a story just like this about us.”
“I’ve told you. Because we’re cursed.”
She must have seen the worry on my face because she laughed.
“I’m joking. It’ll be all right. Go on, go to sleep.”
I’m thinking of that story as Alex, lucky Number 29, begins to fuck me. I’m waiting because sometimes it hits right away, and sometimes it’s not until the very end. The pain can be so powerful that I get nauseous or dizzy from it. It’s not the thrusting that hurts. It’s a current right underneath my ribs. The heat that feels so great moments before begins to prickle. Any random point of contact will either feel like the best pleasure I’ve ever experienced or like God is pulling me apart by my veins. I never know which, so all I do is keep track of the breaks between us — hand to back, thigh to hip, shoulder to neck. The pain doesn’t end until the guy finishes. I learned my lesson with Numbers 4, 9, and 16. It doesn’t matter whether I finish, but he has to. I must commit to the end, or the pain stays for days. I’ve never told the group that part of the curse.
I clench every part of me as I move on top of Alex. The pain hasn’t begun yet, and I’m beginning to become too distracted, a little frightened that maybe this time it’ll wait until the very end, and it’ll be the worst I’ve felt. I hate myself for doing this. I haven’t told the group that, either. Sometimes I do want to stop, but somehow I always end up here.
Alex stops and looks at me, and I think he’s about to tell me I’m beautiful or something cheesy like that, but he doesn’t speak. He holds my face for a moment and then slides his hands along my sides until they’re back at my hips. He guides my rocking. In that moment, all I feel are his hands, the varying pressure of each finger, the warmth of his palm. I stare at his eyes, and I want to be closer, so I lean toward him. He climaxes, but he doesn’t stop. The warmth spreads to every part of me, and he keeps going until I come.
I become fully aware of my body again. I think I am shaking, or we both are.
“You’re pretty great,” he says.
I don’t say anything. I cup my breasts in my hands and quickly fold over on my side. He wraps his arm over my body. We’re silent for a while. His condom sticks to my thigh as he’s going flaccid.
“What?” he says.
“I didn’t say anything,” I say. I rub my arms and my stomach, consumed by the absence of pain. In my mind, I revisit every moment of our sexual encounter. I look for the curse.
I don’t dare move until morning.
I’ve been told our curse begins in Panama and the pact my great-grandfather Rafael made with the devil. The devil is said to have no shadow, to be a man no one can describe. That’s the mutable face my
grandmother sees on that Sunday in 1941, the Sunday that changes everything. She walks by the stable — she doesn’t remember why — and sees them there. Don Rafa is shouting, but the face of the man he’s talking to is calm. His body is still. His demeanor fills you with a kind of relief, like everything will be all right. But Don Rafa doesn’t act that way. He points aggressively.
“This is not what you said,” he shouts. “You bring him back!”
My grandmother’s never seen Don Rafa shouting. No one has. He’s the type that stands over you, scrutinizing. He lets you linger in an unnerving pause after he is done addressing you. Then he smiles and tells you to leave. He is, after all, the renowned Don Rafa, whose lands stretch a bit further with each dawn and whose cows always birth twins.
“You bring Elias back to me,” Don Rafa says. My grandfather is the oldest of his children, and Elias, the youngest.
“You know I can’t do that, Señor Rafael,” the calm man says.
“Carajo you can’t,” Don Rafa says. “You were supposed to keep him safe.” ￼
“Your son is an alcoholic, an addict, expelled from the Institute for being belligerent. Not even your influence could restore him. I kept my word. I kept my word regarding everything, even your son.”
“Bring him back,” Don Rafa says. His voice is quieter. His hands are clasped in front of him.
The house dogs roam toward my grandmother and make noise. The man looks through the slit in the stable wall, like he knows she is there. He turns back to Don Rafa.
“I can’t promise you will like what you see.”
“Just bring him to me.”
“One last time then.”
That night the whole family is tense. Don Rafa sits on the stoop by the kitchen door, like the help, smoking a cigar. He watches my grandmother, his wife, and daughters cooking Sunday dinner. He watches the two maids grab chickens by their necks, flicking their wrists so the birds each die in one swift snap. Then he just disappears. He returns at five through the morning fog, goes into his study, and closes the door. He skips breakfast and lunch. His wife doesn’t dare knock on his door, so it is my grandfather who receives the telegram about Elias that Monday evening, my grandfather who goes to Don Rafa’s door, my grandfather who hears someone inside the room, and Don Rafa saying, “You lied to me. He wasn’t right. I had to — my youngest son.” And some other man says, “I tried to warn you.”
My grandfather knocks four times before Don Rafa finally answers the door. Don Rafa takes the envelope, looks down at his eldest son, and then hands it back to him unopened.
“Take it to your mother,” Don Rafa says.
The house fills with wails. People come from all over the town that night as the news spreads. Elias has been found dead, poisoned by his drugs. When they finally get the courage to talk to Rafael, his two remaining sons discover their father with his wrists slashed, sitting up in his chair, eyes open, and the Bible on his lap soaked with blood. They say Don Rafa’s disappointment with Elias is too great, his shame too much, for him to live.
We all must live with a version of his pain, and that’s our curse.
t’s around six a.m. when Alex leaves. We kiss goodbye briefly but don’t say anything. I call in sick to work. I spend half an hour naked in front of the mirror. I take a bath. I hold my breath as I gently clean between my legs. I’m waiting, like anything might set it off, a delayed reaction. It’s 7:30 a.m. when I check my phone and see that I have a missed call from last night. My grandmother left me a voicemail. I forgot to pick up her cholesterol pills from the pharmacy and drop them off at her place.
“I can have Zoraida get it,” my grandmother says when I call to apologize. “You’re just so busy, Pendleton.” She can’t help pronouncing my name like it’s an insult. She’s hated it all my life, doesn’t know what my mother was thinking. I’ve heard so many stories as to how I got it, but the only one that’s stuck, and the one I tell, is that I’m named after the camp where my father was stationed when I was born. He died in the Gulf, I add, because the truth matters little. It’s closure people want.
“No, I’ll bring it by right now.”
“Don’t you have work?”
“No, I have the day off,” I say.
“Oh, but you don’t have to on your day off.”
I hate when she lowers her voice, like she’s reminiscing about something sad. It subtly induces this guilt in me, like I’m not living up to the daughter she lost when Leti up and left.
“No, I will get it.”
“You’re so good to me,” she says. “I’ll make you breakfast.”
hen I enter my grandmother’s house, I can smell the morning coffee mixed with the frying oil.
“Good morning,” I say. I hug her and give her a kiss. She looks so small in that awful housedress pelted with tulips. She has a rosary bead pressed between two fingers. She takes a pause before the last Our Father to say hello to me.
“Buenos días, mi cielo. How are you?” My grandmother’s voice is soft and low in the mornings, each syllable so crisp, like Spanish is made for the early hours, only to grow rougher and louder as the day progresses.
“I’m good I think.”
“Good,” she says. ￼
I want her to ask me more. Instead she has me get the eggs, ham, and corn dough out of the fridge. I hear her whispering the Glory Be as I begin helping her with breakfast. After Leti left, I used to accompany my grandmother to El Santísimo. I would stare at the glass-encased Host and naively pretend I was agnostic when the hate I felt for God was as real as my hair, my tongue, my fingernails.
“Do you still go to El Santísimo?” I ask.
“Of course. Why?”
“Oh, no reason.”
“I pray every week for you, for Zoraida, for your mother, for your grandfather, may he rest in peace. I pray that God will have mercy on us.” She takes a piece of corn dough, rolls it into a ball, and slowly pats it to a thick flat disk.
“I hope you’re still praying,” my grandmother says. “God is still listening.”
I sweep the cracked egg shells into the trash. I stop a moment and stare at them nestled in old coffee grounds. Something comes over me because I start hysterically laughing, and my grandmother is asking me to sit down. Tía Zora walks in. She takes one long look at me while biting her cheek like she’s trying to decide something.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she says finally. She walks over and kisses my grandmother on the cheek.
“She just started laughing like this,” my grandmother says.
I take deep breaths. My eyes are tearing up and my nose is running a little. I calm down long enough to say, “It’s nothing. I don’t know why.”
“Get yourself a cup of coffee,” my grandmother tells Zora. “I need to get the tortillas.”
Tía Zora sucks in air and rolls her eyes. She goes to get a cup. She has squeezed herself into size-twelve jeans, and she wears a faded green shirt that has loosened in all the wrong places from overwear. She manages the late shift at a pawn shop and does their accounting, so she always comes over to my grandmother’s for her morning coffee and gossip.
“Why are you here anyway?” Tía Zora asks me.
“I have the day off.”
“Must be nice.”
“I’m going to go wash my hands,” I say to get away from her for a moment.
I run the faucet and realize I have to pee. I sit down, and the bathroom door opens. Zora stands by the door.
“There’s nothing wrong.”
I pee and flush.
“Come on, Pende, just say it.”
“Everything is great, actually.” I move toward her. “More than great.”
“Right,” she says.
I look into the mirror.
“I mean it. I had sex last night and there was nothing, Tía, not even a tiny cramp.” I watch her reflection, waiting for her reaction.
“Wash your hands,” she says. She stares at her nails, flicking each one with her thumbs. Aside from the people in my support group, Tía Zora is the only one that knows about what happens to me. I’ve regretted telling her for most of my life.
“That’s it?” I say.
“You want to me to congratulate you? Let me tell you something, pendejita, so you don’t end up as dumb as your mother. These migraines I have, they blur my mind, and if I sleep through them I dream I am skinned alive. Every week someone is peeling me and throwing my skin in a vat of boiling oil, or selling pieces of me, like chicharrones, for people to eat. And despite all this, I am not idiotic enough to blame it on a curse.”
Once, when I used to stay with her after school because my grandmother had work, Tía Zora had the worst migraine I had ever seen. I brought her tea, held her hair as she threw up in the dark in her bathroom, gave her a wet towel as she wept on the tiled floor.
She points to her head. “It’s a nightmare that comes because my head is on fire. I don’t take drugs like your mother to escape.” And then quietly she says, “Have you ever considered that whatever is wrong with you is just you?”
I wash my hands, and then I stand, waiting for her to move out of the doorway.
“I’m done now,” I say.
“Oh Pende, if this really is your curse, then it won’t stop just like that. How many times have you fucked already and now it stops?”
“Okay,” I say, but I have this horrible feeling that she’s right. ￼
“Where did you meet him?”
“He works in the same building I do.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“It sounds like the stars are aligning, all right.”
I push past her to go back to the kitchen. My grandmother is placing the fried eggs and tortillas on plates lined with paper towels, which wilt and turn translucent under the weight of the grease. Tía Zora sits down and gets two tortillas, lets American cheese melt on top. She’s eating with this satisfied look on her face. I serve myself, but I feel nauseous after the first bite of egg.
“What’s wrong?” my grandmother asks me.
“Pende got a magic kiss.” Tía Zora laughs.
“You’ve made your point,” I say.
“Dios, you two, don’t fight,” my grandmother says.
I force myself to eat most of the food and then tell my grandmother I have to go. I kiss her goodbye and wave at my aunt. My grandmother frowns at us.
Idrive off in my car, but I park in the Walgreens lot around the corner. I should be happy. But thoughts of the curse are balled up in my throat. I reach for my wallet and fish out Dr. Stein’s card, our
mediator. It just has a phone number on it, so I call it. His secretary, I assume, tells me that on Tuesdays and Thursdays he works at his family practice. He’s a proper MD with a counseling degree. I didn’t know that. The office opens at 11 a.m. and allows walk-ins.
She gives me the address. My GPS tells me it’s a few side streets off LeJeune Road, but I keep passing it somehow. I start to think I must be in the wrong place, but then I find it, this salmon-colored little house. On the door is a white plaque with Dr. Stein’s name and some other doctor. I walk into the waiting room lined with plastic deck chairs around the three walls. The place is decorated with a cheap square coffee table with the lacquer peeling off, magazines and a box of tissues on top. In the corner, there’s a laundry basket with toys, and blocking the hall is a desk with a sign-up sheet on it. There are no names written down. I open my mouth to call out, but I hesitate. I write my name, sit down, and stare at the only painting on the wall. It’s a small town scene, crowded with pastel houses all the way up this hill, and at the top is a blue church steeple jutting out.
After fifteen minutes, I’m beginning to feel like an idiot. I stand up and look down the hallway. All the doors are closed. I can see the fridge in the kitchen at the end, but that’s it. I consider leaving, but I hear a noise in the back. I quickly go back to my chair. I see a dark hand lifting up the foldable side of the desk.
An old man walks out wearing a light blue guayabera. He smiles, says hello.
He picks up the sign-up sheet. The veins on his hands bulge out, swollen like worms trapped on the sidewalk after rain.
“Pendleton?” He calls out like there are other people in the room.
“I’m looking for Dr. Stein,” I say.
“Ah, he’s not coming in today. I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” I say. “I guess I’ll come back some other time.”
“What a shame after you came all this way. I can try to help.” He speaks in a thick Cuban accent, the R’s so forced.
“I’m okay really.”
“You’re from the support group,” he says. “I can tell you’re not here for a blood test.”
I try to laugh, but I choke a little. I clear my throat.
“No, I’m not here for a check-up.”
“Why are you here? Why now?” he says.
“I — ” I’m not sure what to say. I think of where to start, what excuse I can give to leave, but then I start hysterically laughing for the second time today. This time it’s mixed in with crying, and that’s what I do in front of a total stranger and in some house that doesn’t even look like a real clinic.
“Come on in. No sense of staying out here exposed.”
I follow him to a green door with “Exam Room 2” written in permanent marker. Inside the room, it looks like a normal doctor’s office with a sink, a glove box and a hazardous disposal box installed on the wall. I feel like I’ve been transported elsewhere. I sit on the exam table lined with paper. The doctor excuses himself for a moment and comes back in carrying one of those plastic deck chairs. He sets it in front of me and goes to the sink to wash his hands, but very carefully, one over the other, like a priest. He sits. He has a chart I didn’t notice before. He’s reading over it. I don’t know what it says. He looks up at me.
“Feeling a little calmer?” he asks. He’s tapping his foot, one —one, two, three, like he’s listening to some salsa song I can’t hear. That’s when I notice the ground, the window next to him letting in the sun. There’s nothing at his feet. No shadow of the chair, no amorphous blob with a little round tip for the head. There’s just sun and nothing. I keep thinking of his question. Why now?
I stare at the veins of his hands. I think of all the blood inside us, how what we touch is not skin, but a pulpy receptacle of fluid keeping us alive, flowing hot and fast through us. I am amazed by how vile our bodies are.
“It’s what people do with their bodies that is vile,” he says and begins massaging both hands.
“What?” My stomach folds in as I try to breathe steadily.
“It’s all right. Yo sé. I know why you’re here. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“You’re not a doctor,” I say.
“Of course I am. Would you like to see my degree? It’s framed in my office.”
He gets up, and for a moment, I think he’s going to go get it. Instead he reaches into the cabinet above the sink, takes out a stethoscope, an electronic thermometer, and one of those things doctors use to look in your nose and ears.
“You look a bit pale. I better check your vitals.”
I want to move, but I don’t. My eyes sting. He checks my temperature first, then my throat, ears, nose, and eyes. I notice the way he moves, like he’s fluid, not fully formed.
He takes the stethoscope and places the chest piece on my back.
“This is how I listen to your thought’s thoughts,” he says, then laughs. “Take a deep breath.”
I try, but I can’t. I’m hyperventilating and laughing at the same time. I realize this is fear. The most movement I can manage is to tremble.
“Everything sounds good, like new,” he says. “It’s a relief. I never know with cases like yours.”
“What do you want?” ￼
“That’s a silly question. You came to me.”
“No, I came to see Dr. Stein.”
“Oh yes, that silly support group for the cursed. Where did you ever find it? Supportgroup.com? Find others who feel like you feel?” I’m dizzy and falling back into the exam table when his arms catch me.
“Oh, oh, steady,” he says. He pulls a red and white mint in a clear wrapper from his pocket. He hands it to me. “You’re hypoglycemic like your mother.”
“How do you know my mother?”
“I know everybody, Pendleton. Let’s not pretend.”
I can’t breathe. I’m trying hard, but my body is rebelling like it usually does. My heart is rattling inside, sending that current I’ve only experienced when I’m naked, until now. I pull at my shirt, twisting it in front of me, like my grandmother does when she’s anxious.
“It’s all right.” He puts his hand on my back and the pain stops immediately. He motions for me to pull up my legs onto the exam bench. He bends my neck forward so my head is between my knees.
“Just breathe deep,” he says.
I imagine plucking his fingers off like weeds.
“Why now?” I ask.
“There you go,” he says. “Now we’re getting to why you’ve come here.”
“Why now?” I say it again, this time louder. I sit up and put my legs down.
The doctor helps me up, leads me out of the room into the kitchen. I see a small breakfast table and two chairs on the other side of the fridge. He asks me to take a seat. The kitchen looks so clean, like it’s never been used. From the cupboard he pulls out a metal kettle, a floral cup, and a matching saucer. There’s nothing else in there. He puts water in the pot, sets it on the stove, which he turns on. From the drawer he gets a teabag plump with herbs. He drops it in the cup and takes his place across from me.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t cause your curse. That was all your great-grandfather Rafael. But I can make it better, as you can see.”
“But? What do you want in return?”
He smiles. I try to look at his face again, but it’s not a fixed point. It moves in and out of focus. The kettle whistles, and the doctor goes to pour my tea.
“I don’t believe you,” I say.
“Let’s just say I’m tying up some loose ends.”
I’m about to speak, to tell him to leave me alone, when he stops me. “Enjoy yourself while you can. When you’re ready, you know where to find me. Just use your little GPS.”
“When I’m ready for what?” I say.
“To be one of the lucky ones.”
I laugh, but the fear is tight in my chest and my stomach.
wake up in my bed late in the afternoon. I don’t remember leaving the doctor’s office, but I have slept for hours. I check my phone. I have a couple of missed calls from Tía Zora, no messages. I get in my
car and go over to her apartment. I want to tell her I was right. When I arrive there is no one in the kitchen or living room, but I can smell the cigar smoke wafting through the curtains. I head to the balcony where Zora sits in one of the yellowed plastic chairs, eyes on the street. Tía Zora loves her orchids, and they hang, numerous, all around us, bloomed and staring, wide faces taking in the last of the afternoon sun.
“The box is by the TV,” she says and waves her cigar at me, still looking toward the street.
“No, thank you.”
There’s a long pause as she inhales cigar smoke two more times. “Do you have a pet?” she asks.
“No, I don’t really think —”
“I’m thinking of getting a dog—you know the little fluffy gold ones with the tail?” She makes a curved motion in the air.
“Like a Pomeranian?
“Yes, exactly, those guys.”
“They’re expensive,” I say. Tía Zora makes a gruff sound and taps her cigar on the crystal ashtray.
“People are mistaken, you know, saying I don’t got children because I don’t know how to — ”
I can tell she wants to say “love,” but she doesn’t. Instead she says, “Nurture.” But the way she pronounces it sounds like “nature.”
“I met the Devil,” I say. “I think he’s the one that cured me.” Tía Zora finally looks at me, licks her lips, and then laughs.
“Don’t,” she says.
“You’re a piece of work.”
“I met him.”
She scoffs out a half-laugh. I get up. She sets down her cigar on the ashtray. She hits one of the hanging orchids as her hand grabs my arm. She squeezes hard. The orchid pendulums between us.
“We’ve all met the devil. You’re not special, Pendleton. One day you’ll realize we’re not any more cursed by the devil than anyone else is, and it’ll be too late.”
“I’m not talking figuratively,” I say. Tía Zora lets go.
“You really are just like Leti.”
“I’m nothing like her.”
She looks away from me, and picks up the cigar that went out and lights it again. I stand.
“Your mother used to say that one day they would make a leyenda out of us.”
“I remember,” I say. I can’t imagine Leti and my aunt ever speaking to each other.
“But truth is, those folktales are already about us. Your mother and grandmother are in La Mepesa. You are La Sirena del Río waiting in the water for the men to come to her.”
“And who are you?”
“Me? I’m the little girl who was tricked and got trapped in a bag by el duende.”
“It was the girl’s greed that led her to be tricked,” I say.
She gives a quick breathy laugh and shakes her head a little. I turn to leave.
“The pain will come back,” Tía Zora says. “It always does. Because who are you without it?” She puffs on her cigar and lets the smoke out slowly. She rubs her thigh like she’s wiping something off.
“I’m nothing like you, either.”
After visiting my aunt, I drive in my car for a while. I want to go to St.
Margaret’s, my grandmother’s church, and walk into El Santísimo. I want to kneel and let my voice rise and fall in the discernible rhythms of the prayers I’ve been taught. But I don’t. Instead at a stoplight on US-1, I text Alex. I keep driving toward Miami Beach, and I park the car and walk to the sand. Alex sends me a message. He asks me where I am. I turn around to face the Art Deco strip. I tell him the name of the restaurant directly behind me. He’ll be there, he says, in twenty minutes. I sit and draw circles in the sand. I tune out the sounds of the people, the traffic, the music. I watch the waning moon, mutable and shapeless, reflected on the water.
There are two versions of La Sirena. In one version, her actions stem from revenge. In the other, she’s searching eternally for her lover. In both, she is cursed to the river after her lover disgraces and abandons her. But she wanders out during street parties and festivals. La Sirena stands there until a man takes notice of her and her beauty. He falls in love with her, and then she disappears. The poor idiot is desperate to see her again and finds himself at the edge of the river with this inexplicable desire to jump in. To his joy, he sees her at the deep end through the clear waters, and he swims. She holds him in her embrace and doesn’t let go.