BY KACY CUNNINGHAM
These days I find myself splitting small ripe tomatoes in my hands, their soft skin caving to my dirty, calloused claws, and I stare at the gold seeds in the red center like they’re stars, and I can’t decide when exactly everything changed – I used to eat tomatoes like apples, the seeds dripping down my chin and drying in the sun, disguised with my freckles.
When I was in Tulum last month, I was eating very wet eggs in the sun, and before noon I helped rake the steaming seaweed from the beach, my feet burning, sand like glass like tar, and in the afternoon, my hands were shaky, reaching for alcohol, but I reached too fast, and the tall piña colada wobbled and came crashing down, spilling over my chest as I tried to catch it, glass and ice and cream between my toes, between the wood floor slats, and my first reaction was to move to the floor to lick the wood dry, and the middle-aged European couple looked on in disgust and I said, still on all fours, I said, “Americans, am I right?” but they didn’t laugh, just plucked out some coins from their white linen pant pockets and curled their lips at me as they backed away, and I see Riccardo shaking his head at me, always asking before touching me, “Did you wash your hands?” A man beats down on a coconut in the center of the bar, sweat dripping into his eyes, and I can still taste Riccardo’s sweat, can still taste the sour resin underneath my tongue. A different summer, and we’re on our second cross-country road trip, on our way out to San Francisco. “I bet the sky is always pink in San Francisco,” I say, driving fast. “Everywhere else in California is less foggy, you know,” he said, his ugly feet on the dashboard. He said, “Are you sure this is right?” But I didn’t answer, just held the button down to spray windshield wiper fluid, but it wasn’t a spray, just some spritzes, so the wipers scratch across the glass, leaving streaks, and he shifts, sighs, like I should have known, like I should have filled the windshield wiper fluid. But it had to be better than Florida, Florida where I worked sixty plus hours a week and he stayed in the air-conditioned apartment all day and all night, toast crumbs stuck to his sweaty ankles. “You have to keep looking,” I said over another meal of boiled, tasteless chicken. “I will,” he said, so soft, and I should have touched his hand, but his hands disgusted me; they were too clean. “We should go for a swim,” I said later, trying to cheer him up. It had been six months, only six months. It was a new country. “You swim,” he said. “This sea scares me.” So I bought him a kayak, blue like the Mediterranean he was used to, and he smiled with his teeth for once, and I swam and he paddled next to me.
I let him drive on the road trip too, of course. He’s brake-happy, but he’s a good driver otherwise. “New Messico,” he said. “Oh, I like it here. I like New Messico.” It was only 5pm, plenty more hours of driving, but we decided to stop and stay the night in Albuquerque. The motel was out of the town center, next to an abandoned gas station and a closed liquor store. After sex, we walked out the front door – our room was on the third floor – and we pretended the walkway was our own private balcony. We were both wrapped in that awful floral comforter. It must have only been 8pm. He tiptoed behind me, pulling me back slightly. “When do you think they last cleaned here?” His eyes were on the ground, and when I laughed, he actually laughed too, and I drew his chin up to show him the sky, the low, fat, yellow moon, and the small, bright stars. “Whoa,” he said, childlike, and I slipped out of the comforter, naked, and I reached over the railing, the crease of my breasts on the cold metal, and the rail creaked and he grabbed me fast by the waist, too tight, he grabbed me with both hands, but I leaned forward, still reaching for the moon and the stars and I’m not religious but I was praying to something, to someone, to stay forever, to stay in New Mexico — but the next day on the road was okay too. We had this one story we always told at parties, the only story we both enjoyed. We had the road to ourselves – somewhere in the New Mexican desert, 10am on a Tuesday – and I was driving while Riccardo was scanning radio stations, growling because there was nothing but static and he kept saying, “Where are we? Where are we?” And then these wild dogs, deformed dogs with ragged fur and hyena bodies and pointed ears and black eyes, there was a pack of them, maybe six, and they were running across the desert, foam at their mouths, white spit coating their necks and dripping down their legs, and the radio static shouted back at us, loud, and Riccardo leaned forward, eyes wide, hands on the dashboard, and he said, so matter-of-fact, but so hushed and serious: “Devil dogs.” They were headed straight for the highway. I started braking. “Hit them!” he said, hitting the dashboard. “Hit the devil dogs! Hit them, hit them!” “But I have time to stop,” I said, but he was yelling now, “Just hit them!”
When we fought in the early days of San Francisco, we could always make each other laugh by whispering, “Hit the devil dogs.” But it wore off, like everything does. I said it once at Ocean Beach, on our wedding anniversary, but he just pushed his sunglasses further up his face, dark glasses that hid his eyes, and he said, “Yeah,” just that, and I knew he hated me for bringing him to San Francisco, and I think I hated him too for letting his love turn to hate, but we didn’t know how to speak these truths because we had to be married and so we had to be in love and our language didn’t include these truths, and two months later, we’ll return, sunglasses over both of our eyes now. We have just found out over Skype that his father died so I’m rubbing his back, licking away his tears, and I stay longer, what else can I do?
Once, back in Florida, he went to the grocery to buy me flowers and he said, “flower, please,” so the worker took him to the baking aisle and pointed to a bag of flour, and I wasn’t there, but I imagine Riccardo was too proud to try again so he just said thank you and looked at the bags of flour, hands stuffed deep in his pockets, jaw clenching rapidly.
Have I even told you how we met? And all this time, I wanted to tell you a love story. Because it was a love story once, you know. Before the abuse. After all, if there’s hate, there was love once.
I met him in Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Arms folded over his chest, he was watching me like a hunter, and I liked it. His deep brown eyes and too-red, too-pouty lips, I liked him too much, and it scared me so I turned to leave, but then he was there, right in front of me, “Come ti chiami, bella mia?” And two days later, my things are mixed with his on the cold tile floor of his studio apartment. There’s mold in the corners of the tall ceilings and most tiles are cracked, but at least there’s roof access, and two weeks later we build a tent, more like a fort I guess, right on that roof with thick blankets and old kitchen towels, and there, under our messy creation, he asked me to be his wife, and I said no, hell no actually, I said, “I belong to nobody,” but I knew I would, and after he asked two more times, I said yes like I knew I would all along. I knew in Santa Croce.
Oh! But I’m forgetting the best part. After we spoke a few words in front of Santa Croce, standing so close that we inhaled each other’s breath mixed with the warm June breeze coming off the Arno, after, he took my hand and he twirled me, and I couldn’t stop smiling, feeling like my life was finally like a movie, and his hand rested on my lower back like he had known my body for years, and I wanted him to know all of me. “Ti voglio,” he said in my ear. “I want you,” and I closed my eyes, letting him twirl me again, trusting him, dipping into his arm, and following his lead, feeling his body.
It only took a couple of months for him to drink too much. When I came home from the bar where I worked, he was drunk and jealous, smelling my neck for signs of other men, and when I said he was crazy, he tilted his head back and laughed then took my water glass and broke it in his hand, and he opened the back door of the communal kitchen where we lived, and he pointed outside, “Vai,” he said, “Get out, leave,” and I cried, I had nowhere to go, no phone to make a call, no real friends, and he was yelling back in Italian that it wasn’t his problem, and I went to the river – Ponte Vecchio at 1am – and I sat, ashamed and angry that I was here, how could I be here? But I didn’t let myself cry there, I just focused on that first dance, on the tent, and I shook my head, trying to wake myself from this bad, bad dream, but the lights in the river stayed, and the night air kept cooling, and I couldn’t erase his words, and he came with flowers and wine and apologies and he carried me back home, but it was never the same again. I always had one eye on his whiskey bottle.
Maybe letting go starts with a trip to Tulum, I don’t know. Maybe letting go is dating a musician you know you’ll never love, or trying opium and dancing nude in empty streets, maybe it’s swimming in ice water, alone, or fucking strangers in alleyways, and fighting with lovers and slamming car doors outside of familiar diners, and screaming under water, or just screaming at all. Letting go is selling that blue kayak once and for all. It’s forgetting a language. And I’m letting go. The tan line from my ring has faded, and my heart is beginning to beat without trying to sync to his—but, where is he? Is some version of him still in New Mexico too, catching me by my waist? Is he still dancing in Santa Croce? Did any part of him survive when his own darkness swallowed him? Where is he, and how can I mourn if I know he’s actually still alive –no, damnit, no. Maybe letting go is an illusion, a delusion, just like falling in love. Maybe it’s just a prayer that we keep chanting because what else is there to believe? I’m letting go. I am.
I’m letting go. I am. I’m letting go. I am. I’m letting go.
Born in Chicago, Kacy Cunningham is currently an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University. Her recent work has appeared in PANK, Euphony, and Transfer, among others.