After maybe thirty hours of phone conversations I finally asked him if he was gay. I don’t usually have to ask, either I know or it doesn’t concern me. But this was a man who staged his selfies in historical fashion: Milan in the 70’s, New Orleans in the 30’s, you get the picture.
Are you gay?
How come you almost exclusively hang out with gay friends?
Well you know, straight friends my age have pretty boring lives. They’ve gained weight, lost their irony, their big aspirations are now to be cool parents, contemporary adults wearing flip flops in their five million dollar Tribeca apartments.
That sounds pretty cool.
Well. It’s not.
And what about gay guys your age?
Those guys keep it together, they stay fit, they still know how to have a good time, don’t give you the moral crap about family.
How old are you anyways?
Fifty, Wow. I paused, my mom is fifty-three.
Yeah, but she’s much older than I. He was totally serious.
What do you mean?
In her mind, I mean, from the things you’ve told me…
After the summer holidays, I called him as soon as my husband left town, as if I’d been counting the hours. I suspected by now, to my distress, there were designs involved (I had designs on him.) It was a strange time. My husband was traveling constantly for work. I’d just settled into a job as a translator for an art magazine, a high-end Latin American graveyard for the better pitches killed by Frieze or ArtReview. It was the first job I’d had in Miami, the first job since graduating college. Charlie was born so soon and we didn’t need the money.
The work was easy but I found myself rewriting a lot of the material entirely. Most articles require a delicate balance of futility. If you get it right, the reader feels like he has a suitable dinner conversation at his fingertips, if you get it wrong, they’ll sigh and flip the page. English has a surprising resilience to inflationary language, which Spanish, basically exuberant, does not. I’d spend hours on the pieces. Once, I divided the time I labored over an article by what they were actually paying me and discovered I was making less than Gladys per hour.
This streak of marginal income acted as a monthly reminder of my real place in the world of modern, emancipated individuals. It didn’t bother me, though it made me aware of all the things that Tomas was paying for; furniture, food, trips, all our baby’s equipment, clothes, endless check-ups with the pediatrician. How did he make so much money?
Around this time too, my warm homely touch had started to slide. I stopped watering the orchids, I’d forget to withdraw the nanny’s cash on Fridays, my closet was getting sloppy and little black specks of dirt and sweat started to appear on the insoles of my everyday ballerinas. I even stopped paying attention to the bedtime songs I sang for my son, and caught myself singing “Gloomy Sunday” one night, when the line “where the black coach of sorrow has taken you” creeped me to the bone. Slowly the household started to slip out of my hands into those of Gladys, our nanny. First it was the small things, the order of the cutlery drawer, the fridge. Then it was groceries, planning meals for the week, getting Charlie ready in the morning. I asked her if she felt the workload was too heavy, if she was ok with everything. She was fine with it.
Señora Paula, this is what I’m here for, you are young, pretty, enjoy it. It goes by quickly.
Hers was a voice filled with the calm satisfaction of hard work, but muted with resignation. Hearing her speak I often wondered what my own voice revealed. I didn’t really know much about Gladys, but I trusted her with the expediency with which one trusts someone indispensable. She had a younger sister with serious problems living somewhere in Texas and talked about her sometimes, while I was having breakfast trying to read the news. She’d stand over my shoulder talking into her horizon line.
Ay señora Paula, how I pray to Diosito for my sister. That’s how it always started.
Ay señora, I don’t know what my sister sees in that man, why he has this hold on her. Es que si usted lo viera! If only you saw him! Skinny, skinny, skinny and white like milk. He looks like a muchachito, like thirteen. And some pretty blue eyes too. But he’s got a demon inside. What white man can’t get a job in Texas, some job, any job.
She had a point.
Pero no! they have to live like animals. In the street. On the floor. My sister was a good girl. Sensible. She came here to United States before me. At fifteen she was sending dollars to our mother. Can you imagine that señora? A girl so good, so hardworking, ending up like this. In the middle of it she’d reach across my face to wipe Charlie’s peach drool with a paper towel.
A few years back the sister became evasive with her family, stopped sending money home, stopped returning calls. …One day it turned out she was living in some kind of run down communal flat, probably a crack den, with the skinny white guy, pregnant with his baby. When Gladys started to work for us the baby was already two years old. She’d never met him.
One night, as I worked on an article about the neon revolution in contemporary art I heard uncontrollable sobs coming from Gladys’s room. I tiptoed across the dark living room unsure what to do. I didn’t want to bother her, but I couldn’t just sit in front of my laptop. I knocked on her door gently. In a muffled whimper, she told me to come in. Gladys was face down on her bed, shaking and letting out long sharp whines. I stiffened, it felt similar to when my mother cried…I comforted her almost mechanically, a little sternly, holding my breath. It made me afraid to see Gladys so upset.
They took my sister’s baby. The judge took the baby away.
I held Gladys as she cried and her tears ran onto my skin, soaking the neck of my t-shirt. She smelled like Charlie, steamed broccoli and baby powder.
It turns out the sister had been homeless for months. I don’t know exactly what Gladys said to me that night, but I got the gist of it. Child Protective Services found the sister and white guy unfit to be parents. They wouldn’t get their child back until they could prove in court that their situation had changed. Sober, jobs, a place to live etc.
I couldn’t sleep that night. For hours I flicked blankly through image searches of neon Raysses, Flavins, Naumans…The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths. I imagined the sister, the trailer junky and their toddler living in our garage, our guestroom even, and Gladys making eggs for all of us in the morning. I’ve always had a vivid imagination.
But life resumed its natural course. I didn’t forget about Gladys’ sister, but the tragedy went quiet. My husband came and went.
My visits to Edgar became frequent. At first he didn’t talk about the divorce at all. But the ghosts were too restless, too many, and before long they started making rounds in his mid-century apartment. I would catch their drifting reflections on the polished marble floor, or trying to escape the sleek extractor as he cooked for me. Time would reveal his phantoms of femininity. He was terrified of the default professions of the well-off housewife. Housewives, Edgar began:
You know it’s happening to a woman when she starts saying things like, I should start that line of jewelry already. Or take a course in interior design, that way I could really commercialize my taste, my know-how, you know? Everyone marvels at what I do with a place. Or start that catering business with Antonietta, she’s brought up the idea more than once.
He took great satisfaction in his nasal whine, the same voice he used to mock millennials. It sounded ambiguously close to real hysteria. It’s possible that what first attracted me to him, sexually, was that vast and untapped repository of sadness that his parodies gave me glimpses into.
His wife was the soft-spoken artsy type, probably really cool when they started dating. They hadn’t managed to have children. I inferred this the first time I was in his room, as I scanned the spines of his bedside books. The books that accumulate in a bedroom are like a geological study of personality, layers and layers of human experience fossilizing into views we call our own. I could tell from the height of the pile that it hadn’t been touched in a while. Anyhow, towards the bottom between The Greek Way and De Kooning, lay the arresting Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I was suddenly embarrassed about being there. I know they had just split, but still. It felt like I was insulting this woman just by having a child, a home, and as if it weren’t enough, fooling around in the wreckage of hers.
What’s up with the fertility book, I asked nonchalant, we were still in the total disclosure phase. The bizarre neutrality of an undefined relationship makes for conversational bliss. He was chopping onions for a tomato sauce.
Without a second thought he said, it belongs to Gabrielle, she hasn’t taken her books yet.
What a prick!
Edgar asked me how the nanny situation was going: I’ve thought of your predicament a lot, it’s not a simple thing.
The domestic thing again. His recently bachelorized apartment, cold, equipped, was hungry for the petty quandaries. I was ideal for him in that sense, none of the real annoyances, only theoretical ones. I liked to hear him theorize about my help, my kid, my future. In these conversations only our voices mattered, our eyes, our irony. When we spoke of serious things I’d become overbearing to compensate for my ignorance, which made me anxious, but when we spoke of frivolous matters it felt like the world was a juicy roast we could slice between us with ease.
What about an au pair? He said. Perhaps it’s simpler to live with someone like that?
I’ve thought of it, can’t bear the thought of some Russian chick walking around my kitchen in pajama shorts and runny mascara. Too much for eight in the morning.
Then one night he invited me for dinner with friends. The more formally he treated me, the less he suggested, or flirted, the more serious I knew the thing was getting. Perhaps we started having dinner with other people as a proxy for intimacy. It was sort of exhilarating, making me feel responsible because we were chaperoned and nothing would happen, but it also legitimized our thing. Other people knew about it in a safe, casual way. Does that make sense? We were no longer an encapsulated relational oddity, worn out newlywed and weary divorcee. We were Edgar and Paula, we could go out for dinner and hold conversations with people. The first time we went out with another couple it was with Darren and Julio. They didn’t know my husband.
It’s strange how useful genders look when people know how to wear them. Julio was the hot one, his worries not strictly practical, worked as a freelance graphic designer and hit the gym every day. He was fun. Darren was a senior editor in some reputable publication, he also owned a small art logistics and insurance company. I think mainly he had family money. Darren let Julio make the social conversation but made all the definitive interjections, still he looked at Julio with true admiration, like he didn’t understand his luck.
I got to the dinner almost an hour late because Charlie wouldn’t fall asleep. I had told Gladys to go to bed early that night, she looked exhausted and I wanted some time alone with my son. But by the time I had to leave, Charlie still wasn’t sleeping and I just couldn’t dump him on Gladys again. I sang every song in the book but nothing would do. So, I tickled him to sleep. I dug my nose into his chest and shook my head, kept it going, making him laugh so hard that after a few minutes he was spent. I felt a little guilty afterwards, just because it was laughter it didn’t mean it was pleasurable, or that it wasn’t torture.
There was a portion of lime roasted grasshoppers waiting for me, but aside from this my lateness wasn’t taken harshly. Little in the world is more fascinating to a gay man than a good-looking woman, and I’d made an effort that night. I was wearing a silk slip dress and a thin emerald choker. By the end of the night they were kissing me on both cheeks.
Darren and Julio found their saviour when they met Maria Clara. Maria Clara was a social worker specialized in same-sex couple adoptions. She must have been quite beautiful in her youth judging from her bone structure and esa melena negra, they said, but in Michoacán, Mexico that could only get you into trouble. So, she grew up leathery and fierce, came to America and became a social worker. I learnt all this after Julio looked up from his iPhone totally bright eyed and said:
Good news. Maria Clara wrote us! The family seems to have accepted us. It’s really happening. He looked like he’d popped out of someone’s birthday cake.
It’s so exciting. This kid is perfect for us, it’s like, it’s destiny. The dad is white and blue eyed like Darren, and the mother is Latin, morena, like me! he said me making a big ta-da gesture.
Oh, that’s great you guys. You might not even have to tell him he’s adopted.
Edgar winked at me. I looked at his fingers forming circles on the table, his broad clean fingernails. I took a large swish of wine and stared at the couple through the bottom of my glass, a wash of tannin over their faces. What do they want? I wondered. To love it? Give it a college education? Pass on their name? Whose name anyways?
I imagined the social worker’s speech to this poor pregnant woman: These are smart men, professionals. A doctor and a lawyer. They have a bright future ahead of them, your son will go to Harvard, your son will become whatever he wants to become. And all I could think about was this mother, who came to America on the back of some freaking vehicle, wrapped up in fabric, sweating alive, smelling dead people’s farts, maybe it never got so bad. But still.
What did this woman think about handing her baby over to a couple of guys? I admit this stayed on my mind for days. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. These men had spent the best years of their lives preparing, training, applying for parenthood. They were professional adults. I was just surprised by such a cradle of tolerance in a woman like this. Like what, though? I was disappointed in myself, felt like my freshman year Lit professor when Rashanique all the way in the back, cornrows and athletic scholarship, happened to know all about Rabelais. Poor Dr. Whitaker, his jaw unhinged. It was Miami, we should give him that.
Then one night Edgar finally fucked me. We were in his living room and I was sitting in one of the innocuous armchairs with the Jetsons legs. Mid-century furniture always made me think of my mother’s body language when she moved through a place of suspect hygiene. He was asking me about my childhood, spooning it out really. And then spurting out all this prepackaged garble…
Well you know, it’s a good thing she was that way, because nothing is more character defining than an antagonistic mother.
And I was like, No, you don’t understand, my mother was antagonistic towards the bad shit, that’s what she ended up reinforcing.
Still, you will learn with your son that someone has to be the bad guy. There must be limits and as a mother…
Listen, if I learnt anything about limits or power it was from my father who never said no. But when he did, it wasn’t that demagogic, I’m only doing it for your sake kind of shit. It was NO and it was final, because he’d arbitrarily decided so. And that my friend is a good, healthy relationship to power.
He laughed. You’re great.
I stared at him blankly. I resented his compliments. What happened next was strange. A very specific urge took hold of me and I asked him to get on his knees and crawl to me. My face grew hot and probably very red, from embarrassment, but I raised my chin and pouted slightly, so that it would pass for arousal. And he did, got on all fours and made his way to me in his suit over the glistening marble. I was wearing a button down linen dress; I undid the last three buttons and separated my knees in front of his face.
My husband came back home on a Friday. I felt curiously empty. This had been my first infidelity, since the very beginning, five years of courtship included. It felt like being awake in a dream, to watch everything go on the same way, confirm that it changed nothing at all. Between us it was ok. I still knew he looked good, we took turns to shower in the morning, even made love at night. His voice no longer coaxed me. His sentences stretched out between us like a long winding line in a bureaucratic office of the global south. I think he could sense it too. Still whatever joy Charlie gave me was amplified with Thomas around. We were giving him love now that would still live mingled inside him long after we were gone. For some reason, I thought about death a lot in those days. I was erratically happy too, like when I’d see them napping together on the couch and feel overwhelmed by the abundance of flesh and bones in my domain. I felt no turmoil, no guilt. But in spite of this or perhaps because of it, the affair seemed terribly momentous. Like an initiation into the world of the living dead. My actions were autonomous, they belonged to me and they meant nothing at all.
One morning, after taking Charlie out for a long stroll, Gladys came home smiling quietly, her eyes looked beady and she kept sighing and flashing moist little glances at me through her downcast lashes. What’s up Gladys? I asked finally, irritated.
My sister is pregnant again señora Paula.
What do you mean Gladys? How can she be pregnant again?
I can’t explain. She won’t say anything but something is happening. Something changed. Perhaps the lord has heard my prayers. She is pregnant again, but now she has a place to live in. And the husband too is working very hard to be well. She called me from somewhere and told me that they’re better, if they stay like this, well… maybe they get their boy back soon.
The last thing I could have imagined was this scenario getting any better. When it all happened, I gave Gladys two-thousand dollars to help her sister. I told her to use it in whichever way she thought best and not to worry about paying it back. I preferred not to imagine what would happen with the money.
My goodness! Gladys, this is a lot of news.
My goodness I thought. A second kid, and she wants to get back the first? What does she think? That they’re all going to grow up and work the campo? That afternoon I took Charlie and Gladys to the beach to celebrate.
It was past midnight, everyone was sleeping and the only sound to be heard was the buzz of electric current through a lamp dimmer. I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I walked into my bedroom, but the sight of my husband sleeping in bed has always given me a sharp brand of insomnia.
I stepped out to the garden to call Edgar. The full moon surprised me. It had an aura of darkness around it. A circular black vacuum in the sky and the moon perfectly concentric. Immediately I regretted calling. I wished to contemplate the thing in silence, but the phone had already rung a few times, he’d call me back if I hung up. I’d never seen anything like it. It looked like god had taken a compass and carved a circle out of the vault above us. And the edges of the vault, of a vitreous consistency caught some of the light, forming a whitish halo. I looked up at it, rapt, it really was impressive. Clouds of pink earthy smoke hung low, almost within reach. When Edgar picked up I told him to go outside and look at it, immediately, I said. It was ten thirty and I asked him if he was sleeping.
It’s ten thirty, of course I’m not sleeping. I’m not that old.
I would if I could.
That’s because you get woken up at six.
Actually no, my kid wakes up at eight.
We were talking like this while the end of the world expanded outwards from the center of the moon, all visible to the naked eye.
Dude, look, it’s incredible.
Yeah, wow, what is it?
The circle was expanding slowly but surely. A large cloud, tight and powdery, was making its way over the phenomenon, but only to confirm it, it left a sliver in evidence and there was nothing dubious about its geometry.
I don’t know, I said.
It could be some type of cloud.
Cloud? Did all that reasoning burn through your corneas?
What? Why? He sounded hurt.
Of course it’s not a cloud! I felt bad. But he could really be helplessly unempirical.
As we spoke, without telling me anything, Edgar googled the ring around the moon and sent me a screenshot:
Later on I was able to see the poetry in this definition. The poetry of facts. Moonlight is refracted in millions of hexagonal ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. Wasn’t that in fact some type of cloud? But right then it only annoyed me. It seemed obtuse. A wave of nausea came up from the bottom of my stomach. And the call, as if embarrassed for us, broke up. I turned off my phone and sat cross-legged on the ground. I looked up at the sky, the moon ring was finally blending into the atmosphere. Maybe I’ll wake Thomas up, I thought, or I’ll get my notebook. No, I’ll stay right here.