Chicago, city of crabgrass and gleaming lakeshore, listen.
Yanet was a bride when she first saw you, with a craving for babies like a craving for a smoke. She loved your margins, those peripheral neighborhoods where botánicas hid like spider webs in corners. How many times she passed and thought of a trabajito, a red candle for Santa Barbara (patron saint of the disenchanted), or a cigar for Changó (Yoruban and now Cuban god of revenge), and of course the foreign incantations that would vanish you for a moment like the fog that sometimes engulfed downtown completely. She loved your Aztec virgins, the ones who paraded up and down Western Avenue in red dresses so tight she could see every ripple on their thighs. She loved your seedy jazz clubs and the old foreign women no one bothered to stop and listen to.
But let’s be honest with each other. Your men, your know-it-all armchair quarterbacks, were fifth-string, no-string men. One, she knew, forbade his wife from singing. Another was so obsessed with lingerie models his wife resorted to six plastic surgeries. And hers. Hers could barely talk of love, only of mutual funds.
Your main stream started to smell of the beef carcasses men once threw into your river, of the chemical waste seeping invisibly and silently into the ground water. Babies, so fragile in their little, padded carriages, began to terrify Yanet the way porcelain figurines and wedding photographs terrified her—set so confidently on pedestals and fireplace mantels—waiting, like willing martyrs, to be kicked down.
Ofelia still remembers her first married street, gaslight and jazz at the Green Mill, the minimalist loft, skinny-dipping in a darkened pool and afterward, on the rough cement deck, a chicken salad sandwich shared bite by bite. That first year, the skyline beyond their roof came alive with Fourth of July fireworks. She thought of la Revolucíon and then of Pop Rocks, the ones she used to let patiently die on her tongue. Below them in the gentrifying neighborhood, unsanctioned Roman candles somersaulted through the air, and people ran through the streets in exhilarated mobs.
Then the cold made its way under the doors, and her husband started to monitor her weight as if to see what price he could get for her at market.
“You don’t need that,” he said one day as she bit into a Mexican sweet roll. She was leaning against the black marble counter in the kitchen. He was getting a glass from the brushed aluminum cabinets. “You don’t need that.” He said it calmly, with an outstretched hand, as if his concern was for her health.
Ofelia ate it anyway.
A gaseous distance expanded between them.
After that, she started going to the bodega for just the sound of Spanish. Her Nicaraguan friend from high school said she had the same question-mark face as every other Cuban she’d met, but they never recognized Ofelia there. She was too thin to be one of them and too white. Those Mexicanos, or Salvadoreños or Guatemaltecos, they held up their pinky fingers and called her flaca as they tried to sell her pupusas and frijoles. When she responded in Spanish, they looked as stunned as if she’d spoken Mandarin.
At home, she ate the oozing guava shells she brought back from the bodega with hunks of cream cheese. She spread dulce de leche on crackers and then sat down to watch sitcoms with her husband. He didn’t look at her. He crunched down on carrot sticks.
“Do you want to end up looking like your relatives?” he asked, the first time he went through the cupboards and threw out all the sweets.
One evening, they stood in the shadows outside a house for sale. Mexicans lived there, with toys thrown gleefully on concrete. Everything else in his cold city felt so foreign to her that she wanted to rub her fingertip along the roundness of the little girl’s brown cheeks. Cómo te llamas?—she wanted to ask. But he was there, so silently full of judgment. For the girl’s plump little form. For the way her feet were stuffed like pillows into her black Mary Janes. By then, he’d purged the cheese from their double-sided refrigerator and asked Ofelia not to wear unflattering sweatshirts. She thought of how sterile he would make that Mexican house. She thought of herself passing the weekends there: speaking English, eating lettuce.
No, Lola didn’t make this up. Yes, the souvenir plate with the wedding scene her husband bought on their Mexican honeymoon broke exactly in half, at O’Hare on their way home. It broke cleanly, not between the cartoon bride and groom but across their torsos, as if neither of them would survive. And much later, after one of their fights, Lola peered through a shop window at the horoscopes as three black cats rambled among witchcraft books and amulets.
“Help you?” a man’s voice said when she walked in. A store-front psychic.
“You sell spells?” Lola asked, laughing.
“What kind?” he asked, no smile at all, voice twisted and dry like the snake he kept under a sun lamp.
She hesitated. “Love spell.”
He moved away from the tarot table and the screen of beads. His boots were lime green, high-heeled and vinyl. When he got close enough to look into her eyes, his face froze and his pupils exploded outward. He lurched forward and fell to the floor, quivering and kicking.
. . .
Read the rest of this story in the Kenyon Review Jan/Feb 2016 issue, on sale now!