When he got home hours later, Felipe confirmed, with astonishment and dread, that his wife had actually left. According to their agreement, Julia had taken half of everything, plus what they had gotten together to create a home that would have the flavor of her homeland: the Talavera jars, the dinner set from Tlaquepaque, the Oaxacan rugs, the rattan dining room set. Also a rustic bookcase, a stately hutch with rusted hinges. The trunk that served as a coffee table and their marriage bed, where they lost all the battles they began in search of happiness.
—Keep the cat if you want, but Milagros is coming with me. She said it just like that, defiant, without a bit of remorse. Trying to get him up off the couch to shake her, to come at her with his words or his fists, force the question, asking her to just leave already, or to stay.
It wasn’t fair. He had given in with everything. With the value of the house. Their joint savings. The car they had just bought the year before. So he played his last card with the same amiability that he had been faking for three months to get her to sign the divorce papers.
—Don’t be stubborn. Staying here is what’s best for her. How could you keep her in such a small apartment? You work all day and she is used to running in the woods. Her friends are here, and the lake where we swim. The river. Stop trying to find ways to punish me and do it for her. She’s terrified.
It was useless. It’s you who doesn’t want to share her, she challenged him with calculated dignity. And he would have given in again, if it weren’t for the assistance of an ancestral voice. Don’t do it, dear. How are you going to share custody? Stop making a fool of yourself, hijo. She’s just doing it to make you feel sorry for her. So that you take her back. Can’t you see she’s a dog?
He grabbed her head with both hands and threw himself to the ground with her. He whispered in her ear that he would always love her, even if she threw up in his car on the way to the vet. Come soon, he told her. Barking like the devil and licking my face until you knock me down.
He wanted to bite her. To have sharp canines to skin her without mercy. But he just slammed the door and told her to go to hell.
Alone among the scratches left by the move, he thought someone had robbed him. Not the furniture or the TV. Not the painting of calla lilies that had left its silhouette on the wall, but something else. As nebulous as the echoes that surprised him with every step. Or the ineffable memory of the dog.
He lay down on the floor after drinking a few mezcales, intending to sleep for a month. He held on to one of the pillows like it was her he was hugging. And he rolled on the hardwood floor imagining that they were playing in the grass, that Milagros was pretending to bite him while he scratched her belly, her ears. It was a fleeting illusion. In his dreams, he searched for her in a dog park, barefoot in his boxers, surrounded by strangers telling him they’d seen her with another bitch, hidden between the pines, until he was awakened by the yowls of the cat, who had destroyed the bedroom screen to force her way in.
Fucking cat. He wanted to throw her out the window. Or stab her. He dreamed then that when he grabbed her by the back of her neck, she became his wife and came in again. After a fight of blows and scratches, he got her into a pillowcase. He dragged her down the stairs trying to cripple her, crossed to the lake out front and gave himself over to the pleasure of drowning her.
It was impossible to get rid of her. The same day that they’d arrived to the house with the moving van, they found her lying on the patio. And even though he tried to chase her off, there she remained, defiant, prepared to stay.
—Poor thing, the other owners must have abandoned her, sighed Julia, looking for a grain of compassion in him.
—Don’t even think about feeding it, he reminded her before leaving for work the next morning. But that’s what she did. That same afternoon she bought her kitty kibble and two ceramic bowls so that she could eat like a queen.
He didn’t like it, but he let Julia play house with the cat so that she would feel less alone in that town of tall trees and snowy mountains, where neither of them knew a soul.
From then on, they fought about the cat. Her grey hairs appeared in the bed, and he would swear he could feel them in his lungs. She had destroyed the back of the chair where he would sit to read. A lamp with a crocheted shade. Also the living room curtains and the entryway door. The worst were her wild yowls whenever he would caress her. At night. In the early morning. And she would beg him to let the cat in.
—I don’t understand you, he would say, sitting at the foot of the bed, hugging his lonely knees in to his chest. She would respond, her pale face, wanting him to shut up so that she could seek refuge again in the cat’s arms. No. I don’t miss my sister. What is it, then? What’s wrong? What do you need? He would promise to understand, would ask her to trust him. But that just increased her nausea. Her desire to run away, to bury herself in the snow where no one would ever find her.
I can’t, she said. But her sister convinced her in a split second. You’ve been waiting for this moment since you came. You have the opportunity to be with a man who is offering you papers. Who loves you. And you’re telling me you can’t? Don’t fuck around, sis. Do you know how I crossed? What thirst is, to be let out in the desert, to have them tell you to run like crazy? To have to duck and hide so that the helicopters don’t find you? It took me months to cross and to do it I had to do everything. That too. Do it for our parents, who went into debt to get you that passport. Don’t you remember?
Of course she remembered. It was the first thing they thought of to revive her. Send her to the other side with Ignacia. She was a bloody rag when they found her in that clinic. She went months without speaking, without wanting to eat or go out on the patio. They even sent her to her grandmother in Tapalpa. And nothing. My baby is dying, Anselmo, her mother would cry. And he knocked on every door until he found that shack where they unstitched passports and sewed them up again with real visas. A badass technique, Meco assured him, launching a glob of black spit at his feet. Until the gabacho computers learned to crosscheck: names, birthdates, the places that issued visas and their numbers, and the whole business went to hell.
I can’t, she said. But she did it anyway. When she handed the passport to the immigration officer, she was certain that she had studied journalism, that she was the author of a series of articles penned by someone whose name she had learned by heart. The trip to Los Angeles, she explained in a firm voice, was to cover the new anti-immigration policies for her home paper. She said it without a hint of fear. Serene. Accustomed to reporting from the eye of the hurricane.
Marry me, Julia, he said to her when he heard that she had entered the country on a humanitarian residence permit because she came from a warzone. Where dead women are found every day. Under a bridge, in the shower. At the maquila, an American woman took her under her wing. To process her papers as an exile. Without her being one, of course. A lawyer took her case and her aunt –that’s what she called her– had assured her that in a few months she would have a work permit.
He didn’t believe a word of it. But he was touched by the need to legitimize herself with impossible stories that wouldn’t do jack to protect her from ICE, but that let her build a little fantasy world for herself. Sewed by hand and double stitched. Like the one his parents invented before having him at Memorial Hospital, where his fat little feet had sealed his legality on a birth certificate. He wanted to love her. Have many children with her, this woman with mysterious eyes who he had met two months back at the bar called Paradise.
She said yes, hiding her discomfort when his hands touched her and ruined the moment. His lips that urged for affection. His torso, cruel and hard, so much at odds with the guileless smile that promised to shelter her from all harm.
—I don’t even recognize you, man, Tomasito teased him. The only thing left is for you to start knitting sweaters with your old lady. It was true. He had abandoned him to be with her, watching soaps. He interpreted her lack of acrobatic skills as inexperience. And he liked to be with a woman like that, innocent, demure even. Who could redeem him.
They dreamed together about making a dollhouse for themselves. Full of bright colors and tile. With furniture made of wicker and wrought iron. And a kitchen with lots of light, to make mole in clay pots.
—Only you could come up with something this stupid, hijo. Now that you’re about to move, now that you finally got a good job, you go and marry a complete stranger.
—I love her, mom.
—It’s one thing to be kind, quite another to be a fool.
Lying on the floor, with the cat at his feet, he wonders if his mother was right. Or if he worked too much, always being on call, or because they didn’t have a child. He never understood her aversion toward intimacy and her incompatible desire to be a mother and take care of a baby. They visited doctors, tried all the treatments. Pills. Injections. Lifting up her legs and holding them there, doing bicycles to facilitate the passage of sperm. Tomato diets. Inseminations. They even went to see a curandera, who massaged her furiously to reset her womb, while she prayed and spat on her with holy water. In two months, she said, you’ll get pregnant, dear. Now go on, and you keep those hips busy all you can. And ask our sister of the prayer cards to grant it to you.
—That’s a load of crap. Just buy her a dog, his nurse friend advised. They use therapy dogs here in the hospital for the kids with cancer. And she’ll probably forget about the cat. I know what I’m saying. He saw her crying so many times in the living room, in the threshold of the kitchen. Or in the bathroom, as she confirmed that the doctors and the healer had deceived her, that he couldn’t take it anymore and listened to his friend. A dog, for fuck’s sake. A dog that would get them out of the house. To go camping in the mountains or to rent a cabin where they could sit and drink coffee, looking at the scenery, all three of them wrapped up in a blanket. Like in the movies they watched together when they stopped fighting.
He gave her the dog one February fourteenth, at five in the afternoon, when it was already dark out and it was snowing like the world was ending. The cat was the first to attack her, showing her with a couple of scratches who ruled the house. Julia looked at her from afar, with that same distance as when she looked at him, complaining that he hadn’t even asked if she wanted a dog before adopting her. If you knew me at all, she said, you’d know that I can’t stand them. Not their smell, nor their nauseating breath. Milagros is going to be our therapy, he responded. Laughing at his own foolishness.
She never got used to her. Her presence bothered her, the fleas that she didn’t have, the slobber that hung from her snout every time she drank water. Her eternally wet nose. Her eagerness to lick her. Only when they fought would she take her out, jerking her along, with the excuse of taking her for a walk. And then she hated her more. She detested her urine, yellow against the snow. Having to pick up her shit. Hot.
He tried to leave her on seven different occasions, close to some anniversary, when he realized in silence, or fighting like cats and dogs, that there was nothing to celebrate, that he stayed late at work to flee that sepulchral silence. The evasive glances. The agonizing reproofs of a cat that couldn’t be tamed.
They always ended up giving it another chance. The last one, for real this time. For themselves and for the family they were going to start. And he consoled himself with the dog. He told her about the child that was born in the maternity ward with a badly formed back. About the teenager who died of uterine cancer. And about the deaf husband sobbing inconsolably in the waiting room because he hadn’t heard his wife when she fell down the stairs. He took her camping, leaving behind the cat and her mistress. And with her, he learned to cheat and to forgive her for rejecting him. To forgive himself for her. For those adventures that lasted just as long as they needed to. With someone from work. At the gym. Or in the parks with overgrown trees, where dogs could play without collars or chains, while their owners would hide themselves in the foliage and leave stains on the snow or the dirt.
He was just like them. Well dressed and polite, but an animal who only wanted to consume her, use her up, she would think in circles during her sleepless hours. Like the nasty man who licked her while the other one peeled apart her buttocks. So you learn what a real cock is. Like the other one who spat on her face. Because she was a whore and didn’t loosen up. Here you’ll learn to be a real woman. Make you stop being so uppity. No, please, she kept begging. But they didn’t stop beating her until she was unconscious. Unable to speak.
It’s a miracle she’s alive, they told her parents. Some dogs found her in a pile of garbage. Whispers went around that she was walking the walk, like her whore of a sister. Those things don’t happen to good girls, she heard through the window. And she cursed the fucking dogs that had supposedly saved her from misfortune.
She put up with it until the papers came, when it wasn’t worth it to keep trying, or to say anything about the hickies that appeared under the collar of his shirt. The condoms discovered in a pocket. The missed calls. The late nights out with Milagros. Just to walk her a little bit, while she was watching her soap opera and praying to all her saints that he wouldn’t come back.
It’s fine, she said, without a fuss. Putting an end to the miserable years of taking happy pictures and learning each other’s foibles for the green card marriage interview. How he drank his coffee. With lots of cream, no sugar. Her favorite shows. The solitary walks. Gym routines. Just give me the half that belongs to me, she demanded. And he didn’t put up a fight, even though he could have flung the piled up bills in her face, the papers and treatments.
They divided their assets in peace, as if they were sealing a new kind of marital relationship. Until the day the dog left, leaving behind the cat, knowing that her teats were red and swollen, that she ate at all hours and slept more than she used to. Because she was about seven or six weeks pregnant. By who knows what alley cat. Because she’d been walking the walk.
Translated by Rhi Johnson