This is not about you.
Decades ago, my maternal grandfather Rodolfo laid down tracks for the railroad — in the summer, in the winter, in the bitter-biting Chicago cold.
He would come home chilled through to the bone some nights, so frozen he wouldn’t even relinquish his coat. When he did, there was a ritual:
My grandmother would pour a measure of his favorite blackberry wine into a little plastic cup: yellow and transparent as stained-glass Christmas stars, the perfect size for a child’s grasping hands. He would take it and he would drink, until the alcohol sailed down his throat and settled like warm sunbursts at the core of him. Only then could he shrug off his coat, and his day. Only then could he return to the land of the living. Anabasis, it’s called. Return from the
underworld. Persephone, come back to life.
I have sipped from that cup, in an apartment that looked like a jungle, in a neighborhood called the Back of the Yards, the sort of place that inspired The Jungle — or its writer, at the very least. History adorned in its walls, the history of twelve children, the history of family — a
sprawling indoor tree, both improvident and impossible in its excess; rainbow-bright caged parrots I used to believe were real; varnished wooden mariachis; stairs slanted above a laundromat, too tall for little legs and no grandfather to lift me up them. Because by the time I could stand and climb, he was gone. Only the cup remained. So I drank from it, in communion, like the wine that warmed him from the inside out, the wine that allowed him to take off his coat and feel like a person again.
The same wine I’d planned to give to you.
Cheap wine, too sweet, my favorite. Such an easy exchange. Four dollars for my history. Four dollars for my family. Bottles wasted on shelves in supermarkets; all I wanted to do was keep you warm. My hug in a glass. Tipping down your throat, in your belly, my ancestors in a sip. This is the blood of Christ. This is my blood, too.
But you didn’t want it. You didn’t want me. Love bubbling out of me, bursting at my precious unzipped seams, the richness and pigment of blackberry wine. You’re the only one who’s ever refused.
How hard is that — Merry fucking Christmas?
The apartment is sold now. The yellow cup is gone. My grandfather held me as a child, he must have. I don’t remember holding him. I just remember holding you.
Perhaps you’ve taken those trains. Walked over the tracks he touched. I hope so. It would make me feel better. See the tracks at least, if you can’t try the Manischewitz.
The man my mother loved the most — yes, more so even than her husband — was him. She tells me I inherited his auburn hair. She says this with such bittersweet dreaminess, such heart-rending nostalgia. She tells me his cheeks tickled pink when she presented him with her ultrasound. Twins, like he was. Me and my sister. How he loved my mother, his youngest daughter, his last of twelve. How she loved him.
Like a president had died, she tells me of his funeral. A pillar of his community. He helped build the neighborhood church, worked on carnival rides, threw Tex-Mex parties — bruised his fingers, froze his bones. He was one of those good, upstanding men you hear about — well, heard about. Not anymore. They’ve gone extinct, I think. I don’t know anyone like that. I used to think you were one. I certainly wanted you to be.
That was unfair of me, I know now. You are just you. And that’s always been enough.
But I wanted you to be to me what he was to my grandmother, and to my mother. Beloved. I wanted my mother to meet you. I wanted her to adore you. She would have. How could she not? I did.
Her on the phone at your apartment, worried for me, do you remember? The closest she got to meeting you, her echo a tinny voice while I listened, telling me to be safe. I can’t remember if I shed a tear in your shower, but it was a close thing. Couldn’t get the water to turn off, or the sink to drain. Remnants of your stubble on the tile. No tissues. You don’t cry? Or perhaps you don’t wipe your tears away. Perhaps you simply let them fall.
Beautiful, wild mane of hair, thick hands and fingers, broad enough to encompass me. Sleeping beside you was like sharing a bed with a tame lion. Apartment like a shoebox, barely big enough for your cat — I don’t know how it fit you.
It fit me, though. Pillowed on your chest. The first man I have slept beside. I didn’t sleep at all, though. I absorbed your warmth like wine. And I didn’t sleep a wink.
You had a table in your apartment that looked just like my grandfather’s. Glass panels I used to sit underneath, panels the size of grandchildren, the size of plates filled with tamales and the hope for seconds, and thirds. Beautiful red ornaments I remember on the tree in December. So grand, they looked. I wanted to look at them forever. Merry Christmas.
I say my grandfather. But in my memory, the apartment was only ever inhabited by my grandmother. Too young to remember his wine, or his twin, or his auburn hair.
But oh, I remember her.
She would sit me on her lap and call me mija. Everything smelled like mold. A bathroom so small you could barely turn around in it. Thirty miles in a car, my father in his rusted purple van I spilled ink in the backseat of, bundling up three little children, taking us through space and time to the jungle in the Back of the Yards: crunching gravel parking lot, a bribed attendant, us clambering up all those stairs to my grandmother wreathed in black.
After he died, she wore black. Every day, every night. Jet-black hair she made my uncle take her to weekly appointments to maintain, black shoes, black creased pants, black button-down shirt, and — because she was that sort of woman — red lipstick.
Car ride, gravel, stairs, jungle, mija. Black hair, black shoes, black pants, black shirt.
Each visit the same. Every birthday, every Christmas, every ‘just came to say hello.’
Car ride, gravel, stairs, jungle, mija. Black hair, black shoes, black pants, black shirt.
A decade of mourning without a color palette.
But then came spring. Then came a car ride, gravel, stairs, jungle, mija. Then came black hair, black shoes, black pants, black shirt —
With white flowers.
A polyester pattern, like a particularly macabre vacation shirt. I didn’t know what to make of it. But it stuck with me. It seemed significant.
Our next visit, much of the same: Car ride, gravel, stairs, jungle, mija. Black hair, black shoes, black pants, black shirt —
As if she knew she was going to see him again.
‘Together in Paris,’ proclaimed a movie we watched — Anastasia with my head in your lap, while they two — him and her — sat together in paradise.
A summer funeral; prayers at camp. I cried. A decade without her soulmate. A decade of black shoes.
God, how terrifying to love someone that much. God, how I wanted that with you.
Because that’s what love is, to me:
A bouquet of white roses I imagined in my hands. I never indulged in this fantasy as a child, like many girls do. I couldn’t envision walking down the aisle — all powdered cheeks, all pressed lace — to meet a faceless man.
But you. I imagined it with you. The aisle. The dress. Your smile. A future. You turned your head once, I can’t remember where, and the light hit your hair and for a second it looked white. I had the future in my grasp and it shined like roses.
Beautiful idiot, a phrase you introduced me to once. Should have known you were talking about you. Should have known you were talking about me.
I would have been a good wife. Would have mourned you for a decade like her. Maybe longer, even. Black is a small sacrifice for eternity.
But I don’t want that aisle or those flowers. Well, I do. God, do I want an ‘I do.’ God, do I want a love as deep as roses, as Manischewitz, as a wardrobe that looks like death.
But not yours. I don’t want your kisses now, but I do want your hugs. I don’t want your body, but I do want your mind. Friendship is such a devastating thing to take away from someone. Bereft does not contain the horror of a scar in my heart. Maybe katabasis does. That
means falling. It means packing my wounds like meat, Upton Sinclair couldn’t have predicted this. Who knew ten months could leave such an impression? Feet on hardwood, pencils pressing on pads. Frozen mariachi smiles. A decade of black hair dye.
I think I might love you forever. Manischewitz leaking out of me — not romantic, but the kind of love that has nowhere to go, that doesn’t demand kisses or touches, only time. The sand I still find in my bookbag, remnants of our days at the beach. The ghost of hugs you gave me, the tacky warmth of your skin. The painting you did, back in our summer of endless promise. The kind of love that comes from fruit, from fruitfulness, from family, from four dollars. Blackberries reaching toward sunlight. A bottle of wine at Christmastime.
Of course it’s about you.
It’s always been about you.
Rudy, white flowers.
Catarina—25, MBA. Hopeless romantic. Flowery writer, vociferous bibliophile, uninspired graphic designer, vituperative cryptocurrency investor. I collect Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and phone screenshots.