The giraffe swung in the breeze, a bruise-colored tongue hanging from its mouth. The wind carried the smell of roasting hot dogs and the sound of niños screaming, either laughing or crying.
“We were surprised.” Neil’s sister-in-law, Meredith, handed Luisa a margarita in a glass rimmed with chunky salt crystals. “Pleased as punch, but surprised. We all thought Neil was… and you’re so pretty, too. Me gusto the guac, by the way.”
Luisa didn’t bother telling Meredith that she’d bought the guacamole at Walmart or that, as Meredith probably suspected, she’d originally married Neil for immigration purposes—or that their marriage remained no consumado despite her best efforts. In fact, Luisa ignored Meredith, focusing instead on the circle of children gathered by the nearby cherry tree. Neil was in the centre, blindfolding Meredith’s son, Jeffrey. The blue bandana Neil used was the same one he wore to keep his floppy graying hair out of his eyes when he was painting miniature ogres. She imagined Neil’s smell, pleasantly sweet for a man, like baby powder, all over that bandana, sneaking its way into the boy’s nostrils.
Meredith followed Luisa’s gaze. “Do you like the piñata? I thought of you when I got it.”
“Sure.” Luisa breathed deeply. They’d filed for a green card when she first got there seven months ago, so it would be another five or six months at most, but the prospect no longer excited her.
“That party store is so disorganized,” Meredith said. “I didn’t even ask for a giraffe. I wanted a penguin—they’re Jeffrey’s favourite—but they screwed up the order.”
“Yes,” Luisa said.
“I watched this documentary about giraffes on the Discovery Channel the other day. Did you know they’re gay?”
Luisa took a swig from her margarita, the cold rushing to her head. “Si?”
“The males do this thing called necking where they rub their necks together and sometimes it’s a violent head-butting type situation, but a lot of the time one of them will mount the other and…you know. Pretty perverted, huh?”
Pretty perverted, huh?
When Luisa was growing up, the neighbourhood boys used to follow her home begging for blow jobs. They would call her late at night, panting and laughing and asking if it was true that she liked it in her culo. She’d been the first girl in her class to develop breasts, which everyone—including some of her teachers—seemed to blame on her, as though her early puberty was proof of an insatiable sexual appetite.
“Actually,” Luisa said. “I think it proves homosexuality is natural.”
“I never thought of it like that,” Meredith fiddled with the tiny diamond-encrusted tennis racket dangling from her charm bracelet. “Maybe you’re right. But it would’ve been nice to get a penguin. Penguins mate for life.”
The baseball bat passed from Neil to the boy, and Neil crouched down until he was right in the boy’s face. Luisa froze, letting her glass tip, clumps of neon green slush plopping onto the lawn.
“Can you see me?” Neil waved his huge hands in front of the boy’s covered eyes. “Can you see me?”
“No,” Jeffrey said.
Neil squeezed the boy’s shoulders, spun him around and around beneath the giraffe, its neck exaggerating the distance between head and heart.
Luisa had met Neil through a website that paired American men with Mexcian women. Even though she’d found Neil’s hometown (Eden, New York) and his interests (comic book collecting, larping) strange, he’d seemed harmless, not the boring macho type who slapped women around or called them putas for talking to a lost tourist.
When Luisa first started chatting with him, her only real concerns had been escaping her on-again, off-again relationship with Carlos and moving to the United States. Part of her always believed she was destined to live there. As a teenager she wore Levi’s and white T-shirts. She ate cheeseburgers and Twinkies. She memorized every line from American Graffiti and could sing the entire soundtrack of Grease. For her quinceañera, she and her friends choreographed a dance to “Summer Nights,” trying not to trip on their enormous sequin-laden gowns as they mimed revving motorcycles and tossing pom poms.
That’s why when Luisa accepted Neil’s proposal, she hadn’t imagined a mini bride and groom on a tall, white cake. She’d imagined a milkshake slurped out of a chrome cylinder. Endless green lawns. A blond girl at a baseball game crunching peanuts open, dropping the shells at her feet.
a milkshake slurped out of a chrome cylinder.
The baseball bat nudged the giraffe in the neck, poked him in the eye. The hits were so soft it was as though Jeffrey were stroking the piñata rather than attempting to spill its guts.
“He’ll make an excellent father,” Meredith said before noticing the margarita seeping into the lawn, a glob of the drink freezing on her pinkie toe. “Let me get you another drink.”
Luisa handed Meredith the glass without even looking at her. “Thank you.”
“You’re a natural,” Neil said to Jeffrey. “One more big swing and then it’s someone else’s turn. Here let me help.”
Neil reached around the boy from behind, a bear hug, his hands on top of the boy’s hands. Her uncles in Guanajuato used to hug her, pinch her cheeks, pull coins out from behind her ears, and there was nothing sinister about it, so why did she suddenly find herself sprinting the short distance to the cherry tree, adults and kids parting before her, staring?
“Darling,” Meredith yelled after her. “What about your drink?”
For the first month in Eden, Luisa had been grateful for Neil’s reluctance. He was so kind and generous, so unlike Carlos with his permanent quasi-erection and empty wallet. Neil took her on a honeymoon getaway to New York City, didn’t laugh when she gasped at the Statue of Liberty, held her hand as they wandered up the Guggenheim spiral. He complimented her incessantly, and not for her ass or her tits, but for the musical twinkle in her laughter, the delicate bend in her wrist when she swirled milk into her coffee. He suggested she might want to go back to school and offered to cover tuition costs. In the evening, after he did the dishes, he would sit with her on the couch and read her Tolkien or Le Guin. He was so gentle that she wanted to repay him, to fulfill what she thought was her end of the bargain.
By the third month, she began to worry. Every time she reached for his belt, he would tense and flinch and say he was tired. She hadn’t expected to feel so frustrated, hadn’t expected to feel anything beyond obligation, but something about Neil’s physical largeness coupled with the tenderness of his personality, the softness of his skin, made her ache.
By the fourth month, Luisa had convinced herself she wasn’t living up to Neil’s expectations. She left her Levi’s in her drawers, started wearing dresses again for the first time in a decade. White and black peasant dresses with bright flowers embroidered around low necklines, the closest approximation to her idea of an American’s idea of how Mexican women dress. Unconsummated. Scarves billowed around her head and waist. Bangles shivered on her wrists. She lined her eyes in coal. Went to tanning beds to darken her skin. Unconsummated. Bought sexy lingerie but nothing too trashy. Tried to get Neil to take shots of tequila or to pull him off the couch as she gyrated to the salsa music she’d bought at Target. She exaggerated her accent, throwing in Spanish cuando sea posible. Unconsummated, unconsummated.
Luisa yanked Neil’s arm off Jeffrey, not sure who she was protecting. What if Neil’s issue was something else completely? Maybe impotence. Maybe a vitamin D deficiency. The momentum sent the boy reeling and the swinging bat hit Neil squarely in the head.
“Fuck,” Neil screamed. It was the first time Luisa had ever heard him swear.
The bat thumped onto the grass. Luisa knew she’d have to explain herself, but she wasn’t sure whether she could force the words out.
Jeffrey’s father, Gary, pushed his way through the ring of children and adults. “What’s going on here? Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine.” Neil rubbed his head. “Sorry about my language.”
Jeffrey pulled off his blindfold and began to cry, snot dribbling down his nose. “It was an accident, Daddy.”
“Daddy doesn’t blame you. Daddy just wants to know what happened.”
Meredith scooped the boy into her arms.
“Are you okay?” Luisa’s fingers brushed Neil’s temples. Without answering, he looked at the ground. Red blotches spread across his cheeks and collarbone. She longed to smother him in kisses.
Once the children knew their cousin wasn’t going to be punished, they grew bored with the scene. They wanted their candy. A girl lifted the bat off the ground.
“Luisa, why did you do that?” Meredith was still holding her son, rubbing his back.
Luisa tried to think as her heart hammered in her chest.
“Can someone please get me some ice?” Neil mumbled. “My head is a bit…”
One of the other adults jogged towards the house, and another one said, “Someone better take him to the hospital. He could have a concussion.”
“I still don’t understand why his wife did that,” Gary said.
Luisa stood there with her mouth open, clearing her throat. She clenched and unclenched her fists.
She clenched and unclenched
It had been a week since she’d found the crumpled photograph. Neil was normally so fastidious about keeping things neat that seeing anything on his bedside table surprised her, let alone a photograph that looked as though it had been rescued from the trash. In the picture, Jeffrey stood beside a pool. His stomach was pushed out, his bellybutton a raspberry, and he was wearing tight red swimming trunks. Yellow water wings encircled his upper arms. A person’s shadow darkened the right side of his body, dividing him in two, and he was further divided by the creases that crisscrossed the picture, creating a spider web. Something about those creases, the boy’s trusting smile, the bedside table had made Luisa’s blood feel hot and thin. But how could she explain it? She had to say something. “I was worried?”
“Worried about what?” Gary says.
Worried that Neil could never love her, not the way she loved him. Worried that every decision she’d ever made was the wrong one.
“Ice,” Neil said. “Ice.”
The girl didn’t bother with a blindfold and all it took was one sound smack for the giraffe’s belly to explode, sending coloured discs flying everywhere.
“Lemon,” a boy yelled. “Grape.”
“Trade you for an orange,” a girl said.
Jeffrey wriggled free of his mother and joined the others. Picking a red-coloured disc off the ground, Meredith blanched. A cherry-flavoured condom.
“Kids, bring those all to me.” She tried to grab as many as she could. “Spit them out. Those aren’t for eating. I’m going to kill those party store employees! Gary, help me out here.”
Some of the children had already opened the wrappers and begun sucking on the latex. The parents tried to collect the rest, pocketing some, throwing others in the garbage. Neil put his hand on Luisa’s shoulder, and she shrugged it off. Mascara-darkened tears streaked her cheeks.
“For once,” he said. “For once I thought I wouldn’t be the freak at one of these things. Why did you grab me like that?”
“I found the picture,” Luisa whispered.
Neil swallowed hard, his eyes widening. “I’ve never been anything but patient with you. I know you’re going through something, but I don’t know what you want. You expect too much.”
Before Luisa could answer, he turned and headed for the house, his shoulders slumped.
Luisa stared after him, feeling chastened and ashamed. She wondered if she’d made up all this drama as a way of justifying why Neil wouldn’t touch her. A picture, what did that prove? Maybe sex wasn’t a major force in Neil’s life. Maybe he’d just been doing her a favour by bringing her here. Maybe she really was expecting too much. She’d left Carlos for good, like she’d wanted. She was in the process of becoming an American citizen, like she’d wanted. She lived in a nice house with a kind man. She should be happy.
A picture, what did that prove?
With his mother close behind him, Jeffrey galloped over to Luisa, his hands full of gaudy currency.
“Want one?” he said. “Where’s Uncle Neil?”
“Inside,” Luisa said, remembering how every Friday Neil would bring home tulips, cut their stems sideways, and ease them into a vase.
“Does he want one?” Jeffrey said.
She ruffled his hair. It was unbearably soft.
“No,” Meredith said. “Now hand those here, mister.”
Wails rose out of Jeffrey’s throat as his mother pried the condoms out of his tiny fists. “Gary,” she yelled. “Gary, come deal with your son.”
Luisa smiled at Meredith, suddenly certain this would be the last time she saw her sister-in-law. The decision to leave was as inevitable as the cherry tree’s shadow, a botched and simplistic rendering of the original, heavy on the lawn. She sighed. Losing America now seemed less important than losing Neil.
On the way to the house she tripped on something. The giraffe’s head. To get a closer look she picked it up by the neck, and it felt so fragile in her hands she was afraid she would crush it. She turned it around, curious to see every angle: its crêpe-paper mane and the backs of its floppy ears, then its left googly eye and the profile of its snout, until finally she was staring at it head on. The giraffe’s tongue—which, she now realized, was actually a purple condom—stuck sideways out of its mouth, and Luisa stared hard at it, unable to decide if it was mocking her. Or trying to cheer her up.