From The Death of Lorca
Anna’s ex-husband used to say it’s the things you never saw coming, the things you didn’t even think to worry about, that’ll take you out in the end. He said it when she got nervous before a transatlantic flight, or when she’d get that squirrelly panicked feeling in a big crowd where someone might start shooting. He said it when she got called back for a follow-up scan after a routine mammogram (which, yes, turned out to be fine). He said it when the pandemic first hit and she began to fear the air around her and the proximity of strangers and the thought that a single, careless breath could lead to complete collapse. The thing he would never hear, could never admit, was that every one of her fears was valid; that being dismissive of a danger is not, in itself, a protection against it.
But now? What’s riding her now? She lies awake on her friend Lina’s couch, eyes closed against the morning light streaming in through the window, and she pretends to be asleep as Lina and José bustle as quietly as possible between bedroom and bathroom, trying not to wake her as they go through their morning motions in the small apartment. Anna lies still and her heart pounds in her chest, her breath gone tight, and she acknowledges the fear coursing through her, charging her body electric, and acknowledges, too, that it has no name, no specific trigger. Just simple fear. Fear of whatever it is that’s coming that she doesn’t even know to expect.
Maybe it’s the lack of sleep. She’s too old to sleep on a couch like this. All night with the sofa buttons cutting into her back, and the streetlight nearly bright as day through the too-thin curtain. After five year of living in Portland, her brain has forgotten how to filter out the sounds of traffic. All night she reaches again and again for her phone to check for the email that never arrives, the text. Álvaro, gone silent on her again.
But no. Take a deep breath and start over. Eyes open.
Here she is on a Saturday morning in Manhattan, in the home of a dear friend. On the table across the room she can see the remains of last night’s dinner: empty wine bottles and crusts of bread, crumpled cloth napkins. They had all been too tired, too sated, too warmly drunk to clean up before bed. They would do it in the morning, they’d promised each other. The dirty dishes would keep overnight, no harm in it. Anna lets her eyes fall closed again. She breathes. The fear goes slack and fades.
“It’s on the dresser,” Lina whispers, coming down the short hallway toward the living room. “I meant to show you last night.”
And José whispers, “Yeah, okay, I’ll call on Monday.”
Nothing important, nothing they wouldn’t say if they knew she was awake, but there’s a softness in their voices, an unthinking intimacy to the simple business of shared lives, that makes her not want to open her eyes and intrude. And there’s a pleasure, too, in bearing secret witness to this quiet space of their marriage, how they are for just each other.
But then she feels Lina draw close to the sofa and she does open her eyes, and Lina is there smiling at her. “You’re awake,” Lina says. “How did you sleep?”
I lay awake for hours thinking about the mom who lost her three kids when that Black church in Mississippi was firebombed last month, Anna wants to say. I was thinking about how she collapsed at the funeral, how we all saw it online, how we played it over and over, consuming her grief.
“Eh,” Anna says. “My brain, you know? Always out to get me. How about you?”
And after that firebombing, the shooting at the Florida mosque. And then a shooting at a synagogue in Kansas. Then at a Black church in Texas. Then at an Islamic culture center in California. All in the space of a month.
She hoists herself up to make room for Lina, who sits, curling her legs beneath her. Down the hallway in the bathroom, the shower sputters on and José starts to sing in Spanish. Something about a dead dove, something about making a crown of flowers for it with his hands.
“I wish you would stay longer,” Lina says.
Just three days, this visit to New York. Anna flew in from Portland for the panel about politically engaged fiction that she and Lina had been part of last night at the New York Public Library. It had been a good event, a quiet success, and tonight she’ll fly home. But three days is a stupidly short amount of time to spend in the city where she was born. She should have allowed herself a full week here, at least. There hasn’t been enough time to see even half the people she wanted to see. There’s never enough time.
“They’re doing Bernarda Alba at the Workshop in January,” Anna says. “Maybe I’ll come back for that.”
“You and Lorca,” Lina says, clucking her tongue.
“My dead boyfriend.”
It’s an old joke, but one that feels true, in its way. She was introduced to Federico García Lorca’s poetry when she was fifteen, became fluent in Spanish solely (at first) to be able to read his work in the original language, and still feels a feverish sort of longing for him. That he died decades before she was born, and that he would have had no romantic interest in her, a woman, doesn’t matter. It isn’t a sexual longing; it’s a soul longing. The longing for a sibling never met, or for some obscure part of her own self that can only be seen by his light. Now, at forty-six, she carries all the urgent tenderness for him that most at her age would feel, she supposes, for the memory of a first love.
Lina laughs and Anna remembers their video call of a few months ago when Anna confessed that in her next novel she would finally write about Lorca. Lina had paused and pursed her lips and said, not unkindly, “But don’t you think the Lorca thing has already been very...done?”
“Not in English,” Anna had said, but what she’d really meant was Not by me.
“So listen,” Lina says now, coiling her damp hair into a neat bun. “José will be out of the shower in a minute and you can hop in and then we’ll go out to get some breakfast.”
Anna nods and Lina pats her knee and stands. “I’ll make some coffee.”
Anna checks her phone again. Nothing from Álvaro.
It’s a little past 9am in New York. A little past 3pm in Spain.
She pictures Álvaro at his desk in the writing studio in his apartment in Madrid. She’s never been there, because it’s his wife’s apartment, too, but he’s sent her photos of the studio with its assorted animal skulls, its fetal pig in a jar, its collection of 1950s erotica. Late one night his time, early evening Anna’s time in Portland, when his wife was out of town, he’d taken Anna on a video tour of the whole apartment, holding things up to the phone’s camera for her to see: a taxidermy starling, a portrait of his mother painted on a walnut shell, a spoon stolen from Franco’s palace. She’d shown him around her house, too, and he’d exclaimed over all of it—her overloaded bookcases, her old family photos, her collection of maps. She’d begun then to dare to imagine him in her home, sharing that space with her, but she knows it will never happen, likely not even for a visit. His next novel to be translated into English might bring him to the US, but not without his wife, Elena, along for the ride. Not that he even bothers to travel to the States to promote his books in translation. He doesn’t need to do that bookstore song and dance anymore, like Anna does. He’s Álvaro Cienfuegos, after all—Spain’s bad boy literary darling now aged into an internationally beloved eternal-enfant-terrible cultural icon.
A cultural icon who’s gone silent on her. No matter how many times she refreshes her inbox, she can’t seem to make a response from him appear.
She’s forty-six years old and in love like a teenager. Pathetic.
She hears Lina in the bathroom now with José, the shower turned off. She can make out the gentle play of their voices, but not the words. How good they are, how much sense they make, the way they’ve fit their lives together.
Somewhere out there in the city, Anna’s ex-husband, Daniel, is either awake or still asleep, either alone or with someone else. She has no idea. When they divorced five years ago and she moved to Oregon, she let him go entirely. Daniel blamed the split on the quarantine, the endless months bleeding into more months. They were on top of each other and at each other’s throats in their small Brooklyn apartment when the virus was still raging full force, but that wasn’t really it. Anna had never been wholly herself when she was with him—she couldn’t be; he made no room for it—and if anything the lockdown had held her even more in place.
That’s how you do it, Álvaro. When a marriage isn’t good for you, you walk away.
Lina’s voice chases José’s down the hall to their bedroom, the door latching closed behind them.
Anna brings her things to the bathroom, starts the shower, and steps in. Water sluices down the curve of a breast, the jut of a hip. Her white skin blooms up pink from the heat. Álvaro’s mouth on that breast, his hand on that hip. How small she is beside him, beneath him. How soft and open, how humming with power. He touches her—has always touched her—as if she were a beautiful surprise.
“This Lorca novel,” he’d said to her back in July, when they were last together in Madrid. “It’s the best idea you’ve ever told me. You have to write it.”
They’d been lying in bed, her cheek on his bare chest, and she’d felt his baritone rumble gently through her as he spoke. There had been pride in his voice. He was proud of her. To be proud of someone is to lay a certain claim on them—you can’t be proud of what you don’t consider, to some degree, your own.
She should remember his gentle claim on her good mind; she should remember his eyes and hands and mouth on her body; she should remember who and how she is each time she and Álvaro are finally returned to each other in the flesh, how they are for each other, skin to skin. She should hold fast to that, and not count the days that run into weeks each time he goes silent.
The morning light is doing that golden thing it does some days in New York, making everything go sharp-edged and true so you catch your breath at the hard beauty of it all. José peeled off straight away after breakfast and now it’s just Anna and Lina walking together from Morningside Heights down into the Upper West Side of Anna’s childhood. They walk just to walk, to be outside and in the sun and together.
They cut east to walk along Central Park West, the massive pre-war apartment buildings a cliff wall above them and across the broad street the park and its insistent trees, and the low stone wall border to hem in all the memories. With each block Anna sheds years, decades. Here, she’s a sullen sixteen, walking as far behind her parents as they’ll allow on a forced Sunday walk to the park from their apartment off of Riverside Drive. Here, she’s eight or nine and racing her big brother, Todd, down this very block, from 93rd to 92nd, on the way back from a family lunch with Aunt Barbi.
Here, The Ardsley, Aunt Barbi’s building with the same red awning as ever, the same heavy art-deco doors as ever. Beyond those brass doors, an ornate marble lobby ends in a massive mirror. When Anna and Todd were little they liked to pretend that they were visiting Aunt Barbi in a palace, and that the huge mirror was a portal to another world that one day, always some other day, they would step through.
As an adult, Anna would travel up here from Brooklyn to see Aunt Barbi at least once a month, which at the time seemed like plenty but in hindsight was not nearly enough. No amount of time is enough once someone you loved dearly is gone. You get greedy for it, looking back.
Aunt Barbi died of cancer at the peak of the first wave of the virus. She’d been sick for nine years, but when someone is sick for that long, with cycles of illness and remission, it’s easy to forget where they were always headed, and so the loss felt sudden and cruel. The city was in lockdown by then, and Anna hadn’t been able to visit her. And then just a week later, Todd had died of the virus. That loss truly sudden and unquestionably cruel. He was only forty-one, healthy and good. He was so good. Both of their deaths ghost through her now, their losses reverberating fresh and fierce, seven years later, on this known and surrendered territory. She swallows hard against the memories. Not now.
Anna nods to the doorman as they pass. He nods and smiles, then leans back in to his conversation with the building’s private security guard. The guard, like all of the private security hired by the luxury buildings in the city these days, is kitted out in tactical gear and carries an assault rifle. The doorman, unarmored in his crisp white shirt, his black pants with the stripe down the leg, looks like a quaint, too-vulnerable throwback to another era.
These armed guards are all over Portland now, too. They’ve multiplied over the past year, since the shootings and bombings really picked up pace. Things change so quickly. Anna’s eyes just skim right over the guards and the guns now, and she has to work to remind herself that it isn’t normal, it shouldn’t be normal.
When they’re out of earshot Anna says to Lina, “My aunt used to live there.”
“Fancy,” Lina murmurs.
Anna bites back the justifications, the urge to say Yeah, but the rest of the family never had that kind of money. That doesn’t matter now.
She didn’t recognize the doorman; he must be new. But of course, it’s been seven years since Anna last walked through those doors. She forgets how much time has passed and how much has changed. She forgets because she went away. She was one of the ones who ran. There’s a shame in that, being one of the ones who left New York.
In the distance, from the south, a cracking sound like gunfire. Not just one or two, but a barrage, and then a pause, and then another run. Then another. Lina stops, reaching out to catch Anna by the shoulder. The guard outside of the building just ahead of them whispers into his radio, but doesn’t leave his post. “Guns or fireworks?” Lina says.
“I mean—It would have to be a whole box of fireworks, that many pops in a row,” Anna says.
“Or a whole box of guns,” Lina says.
“Yeah but on the Upper West Side?” Anna says.
“Whatever it is, it’s stopped.”
It’s a box of fireworks set off by accident by some kids, and hopefully no limbs lost. It’s some kind of industrial machinery gone haywire. It’s a movie set, just another goddamn movie set closing off an entire city block.
They start walking again, but slower now. Whatever’s happened is somewhere ahead of them. Probably they should turn around, go back to Lina’s apartment, and wait to read about it online. That would be the smart thing. But still. They don’t even know for sure that there’s anything to run from.
The sound of sirens now, but this is New York. There are always sirens.
“It stopped, anyway,” Lina says again.
An armored police vehicle, cops in riot gear clinging to the sides like beetles, rolls slowly past them, headed north, away from whatever the gunshot sounds were. Used to be you’d only see those types of heavy police tanks at protests. Now they’re as common on the street as taxis.
She shakes her head. No good down that path. “Hey,” she says to Lina. “Tell me how your new novel is going.”
Lina grimaces, but Anna knows not to read too much into that. Lina never says the work is going well, but the resulting books are often brilliant. “Eh. It’s like unpacking an old trunk, this one. One dusty photograph after another and I’m running out of room to put them. I’m bored of it, really. Tell me about yours.”
Three short, sharp cracks ring out. And a fourth. A fifth. Then silence.
“Those were gunshots for sure,” Anna says.
Sirens and horns swell up behind them and two police cars go rushing by, lights flashing, followed by an ambulance and a firetruck. More flashing lights ahead in the distance, moving north toward them. The lights converge three blocks down at 83rd, some emergency vehicles turning in at the corner and others stopping right in the middle of Central Park West, blocking traffic in both directions. Blue police barricades are pulled from a van to close off the intersection completely. The sirens don’t stop, more police cars, more ambulances. Cops step out into the street to redirect a stream of confused drivers.
“Should we turn around, or—?” Lina says.
“Let’s maybe—Maybe we keep going another block and just see what we can see. It should be safe enough behind the police lines, right? Or they wouldn’t be letting people stand there.”
People crowd the barricades, craning necks, holding up phones to video whatever it is that’s going on. Lina and Anna walk on, now part of a growing number of people streaming toward the scene. There’s a sick familiarity to this, a particularly American curiosity in the face of presumed disaster. You’d think we’d have learned by now that we are in no way immune, Anna thinks. But everyone wants a firsthand glimpse. She’s no different.
“So, your Lorca novel,” Lina says, her voice straining toward normal.
“Right. Well,” Anna says, “I’ve started working on it. I’ve got this scene with Lorca at a dinner party at Neruda’s place in the Casa de las Flores. Lorca and Neruda, and Luis Cernuda is there, too. A table full of poets. And it’s just before the civil war breaks out—which of course they don’t yet know for sure is coming, but they’re worried—”
Lina shades her eyes with her hand, trying to make out what’s going on up ahead. “You know about Neruda, right? You know his reputation in Chile is no longer—how do we say it? His reputation isn’t so great these days. There was a daughter who had some kind of mental incapacitation and he abandoned her and the mother completely, but the big thing that turned people against him is that he raped a teenage servant when he was a diplomat in Sri Lanka.”
“He even wrote about it in his autobiography like it was a funny little mistake he made. We Chileans—we’re not so proud of him these days.”
“Fucking Neruda,” Anna says. “Damnit.”
“But he should be in your novel,” Lina says. “He was there, with Lorca. He should be there in your book. But when we write about the past, we have to explore it with what we understand now, in the present, no? The present interrogates the past.”
At the corner of 83rd they step out into the street and weave through the crowd until they’re up against the police barricade. Anna leans out over it to try to get a view down 83rd.
“Keep behind the line,” a cop says, a hand drifting toward his baton.
“What happened?” she asks, nodding toward the mess of flashing lights.
He looks her over, decides she measures up, and says, “A shooting at the synagogue.”
“Rodeph Shalom?” she says.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he says, and moves on.
“I heard the whole thing, I swear to God,” a woman is saying somewhere behind Anna. “I’m just over there on the sidewalk, okay, gonna meet my friend, and then all these shots pop off, right? And you can hear the screaming from here. Those poor people. And then the first cops come and bust on in and you hear more shots. I think they got the guys? I guess?”
“Rodeph Shalom,” Anna says, a spike of fear hitting first at her jaw and then flooding through her. “That’s where my family went to temple when I was a kid. It’s just—” She gestures toward 83rd.
She feels Lina’s arm around her shoulder, Lina’s cheek pressed to her own. “Shh,” Lina says. “Shh. You’re okay,” and Anna realizes that she’s clinging to the barricade, that her body is shaking.
The synagogue is on the north side of the street, so Anna can’t see it from where she stands. She only sees ambulances and police cars, and the brownstones across from the synagogue. The stoops of the brownstones are crowded with people. People weeping, holding each other, making frantic gestures as they speak to cops. People dressed up for Saturday morning services, sitting on dirty brownstone steps.
EMTs push a gurney out onto 83rd. There’s someone in it, dark hair against a white pillow. The EMTs guide it down the street, past two ambulances and then out of view. There must be a line of ready ambulances, like an airport taxi stand. More ambulances line up along Central Park West, empty and waiting.
“Yeah they took ‘em out,” an older cop is saying to the one Anna talked to. “Three of them. All clear now.”
“Lina,” Anna gasps. Lina guides her away from the barricade, through the crowd and out into the open, the middle of shut-down Central Park West. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, and another and another.
Sitting with her parents while the rabbi droned on, her dress stiff and itchy, wishing she was old enough to sit in the back of the sanctuary with Todd and the other big kids, wishing the service would just be over and they could go finally go home. And then a gunman—or gunmen...
Three of them. All clear now.
An older woman stumbles against Anna, who catches the woman’s elbow to steady her.
The woman is weeping, and she looks at Anna and says, “I should have been there. I’m there every Saturday, but today I didn’t...”
“Oh!” Anna says, clapping a hand over her mouth. This woman, her kind face. Her living face. The sanctuary would have been full of living faces. A hundred or more.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” Lina says.
“Safe,” the woman says. She could be Anna’s mother. She could be any Jew at all, devastated but unsurprised.
“Are you okay?” Lina asks. “Do you want us to see you home, or...?”
The woman shakes her head, squeezes Lina’s hand, and says, “You take good care of your friend here.” She cups Anna’s cheek with a warm papery hand, and says to Lina, “This is a bad day for the Jews. You take care of this one.”
Anna kneels beside Lina’s coffee table, the contents of her small suitcase spread out around her on the floor, her body angled away from the TV screen. José has tuned in to a news channel, even as he’s scrolling through the same news on his phone.
“I thought you already packed,” Lina says, stepping over a stack of clothes to set a tray of coffee mugs onto the table. She hands a mug to José and settles down next to him on the couch.
“I just want to make sure I have everything,” Anna says. She shakes out a rolled t-shirt, rerolls it, and wedges it into a corner of the suitcase. She can feel Lina watching her, waiting for her to speak. Lina’s concern falls thick over her, and she shrinks beneath it, folding closed around the pain.
“Authorities are already calling this morning’s shooting at the Rodeph Shalom Synagogue in Manhattan an act of domestic terrorism,” the newscaster says. “A representative for the FBI says the shooters have been linked to a known white nationalist militia based in rural Pennsylvania. A manifesto—”
“Of course, there’s a manifesto,” José says.
Lina says, “There’s always a manifesto.”
“My grandfather told me once that by the time our civil war started in Spain, there were as many manifestos circulating as there were guns,” he says.
Anna takes the rolled-up t-shirt back out and stuffs it inside one of the dress boots she wore for the event at the library last night, then nestles both boots into the bottom of the suitcase. Yesterday, walking with Lina into the New York Public Library past those stately lions, Anna had felt strong. She had been excited to have been invited there, to belong there. There’s a validation in events like those that you aren’t supposed to admit to needing or wanting, but who doesn’t want to be one of the ones up on the stage being asked questions on important topics because they’ve been identified as a person who Knows Things, who should be listened to. A thinker. Who doesn’t want to be respected as a thinker? And there were those library lions of her NYC childhood to welcome her. A pleasure, that panel.
And then today. And now this.
“The three shooters,” the newscaster says, “all killed when police arrived on the scene, are reported to have been private security guards hired by the congregation in response to the spate of recent attacks.”
“Are they saying how many dead yet?” Anna says.
“No, querida,” Lina says. “I think all I’ve heard so far is—”
“Dozens,” José says. “At the beginning they just said dozens.”
Murdered by the people they’d paid to keep them safe.
Anna shoves the rest of her clothes blindly into the bag and zips it shut.
“Hey, come sit next to me and drink your coffee,” Lina says.
Anna sits and takes up the mug. She sips the coffee. She focuses on the good coconut scent of Lina’s shampoo. She follows her breathing. This crisis is not new. This fear is not new.
The news segment about the synagogue shooting ends and the stories roll on: an effigy of the current president, a Democrat, was burned at the West Virginia state fair, the match lit by the Republican governor. A twenty-year-old Pakistani food-delivery driver was dragged from his car at a red light in Boston, and hasn’t been found. A small town in Idaho has announced its intention to secede from the Union, and is angry that the federal government hasn’t yet sent officers to try to stop them.
“They’re not taking us serious,” their representative tells the reporter. “But we’re serious. Dead serious. We do not recognize the illegitimate government occupying the White House.”
“Can they do that?” Lina asks.
“I mean, they can try,” Anna says. “It usually ends in a shoot-out with the feds.” Which this group in Idaho knows even better than she does. Maybe that’s what they’re hoping for: To make enough sparks to start a fire.
This America of deep, angry divides—of generations-long blood feud and resentment—terrifies her. Maybe every generation has worried over that divide, but these days it feels like the country has reached a true breaking point.
A Black church firebombed in Mississippi.
A shooting at a Florida mosque.
A shooting at a synagogue in Kansas.
A shooting at a Black church in Texas.
A shooting at an Islamic culture center in California.
And before that: A Mexican-American family executed in their own home by a vigilante border patrol in Arizona. And before that: Subway bombs that failed to go off here in New York. And before that: Bombs that did go off on a commuter train in Chicago.
And today. The shooting today.
Anna leans back against the couch and closes her eyes. Lina takes her hand and holds it, and they sit like that, quiet, as the newscast drones on.
At her gate at the airport, with a half hour until boarding, Anna sits with a habitual book open on her lap even though she’s too distracted to read. She’s got a cup of coffee on the floor next to her feet, but her stomach is already churning with nerves. The high ceilings of the concourse amplify the voices of the crowds, the echoes, the harsh light and hard edges. Everything feels sharp and dangerous. Bad things happen in crowded spaces like this. Bad things happen all the time.
There’d been a knot of guys ahead of her in the security line, four of them talking loud in flat midwestern accents. They wore the red hats of the deposed regime, and American flag patches on their matching black duffel bags. They were young and white, taking up space. One of them flashed a swastika tattoo on the back of a calf as he bent to take off his shoes—military-style boots, the tan desert-war kind, not the black boots of the Left. Military-style haircuts when they had to take the hats off to go through the body scanner. It’s hard to tell if guys like those are immediately dangerous or if they just want to look like they are. Either way, they made Anna nervous.
Fifty-seven dead in today’s shooting, twenty more injured.
Anna tried to scroll through the photos of the victims in the Times. She didn’t recognize most of the faces—even before she left New York she hadn’t been to temple for years and years—but then there were Bev and Larry Schwartz; there was George Klein; there was old Mrs. Messinger. These had been the grownups when she was a kid. She stopped scrolling after Mrs. Messinger. It was just too much.
Later, when she’s home alone, she’ll sit down and take her time with it, find some way to bring respect to the digitized faces.
But not here, sitting in an airport, swiping through the photos with her thumb like they’re just so much content.
Any shooting is a tragedy. Of course. Of course. But always at a certain remove, always in the abstract. A horrifying story on the news. Today...this is how it feels when it could have been you. Jews were targeted this morning. Jews have been targeted for centuries. It’s okay for Anna to admit that she, too, feels targeted right now. Here she is, with her Jewish name, her Jewish face.
These white nationalist groups have been threatening big trouble for decades. They’ve been threatening for so long that Anna, like most who’ve been paying attention, never really thought they would or could make good on it. But the attacks just keep piling up.
She wasn’t going to write to Álvaro again until he responded to the email she sent six days ago, but...
She thumbs a quick note into her phone.
Hey you. Greetings from JFK airport. I’m safe and sound, whatever that means these days. I did that event at the big public library—the fancy one with the lion statues out front—with Lina Meruane last night, and it went well. You would have liked it, I think.
Things are heating up here in the States, with the militias and all that crap we talked about the other week. You probably saw the news about the shooting today. That was my old neighborhood where I grew up. My family’s old synagogue. Not that I’ve been there in years. Not that I’ve been to any synagogue in years. But still.
Things feel precarious in a new way. I don’t like it.
(I’m on sabbatical for the whole school year, remember...Maybe I’ll come visit you a little earlier than we planned. Ha!)
Bueno...I’m here at the gate for the next little bit, if you feel like talking.
Besos y besos, tesoro
She hits “Send,”
knowing he probably won’t write back before she boards the plane. Knowing he
might not reply for days.
Álvaro told her that he loved her once, in a text message the day after their last night together, back in July in Madrid, when he was still drunk, maybe, on the pleasures of their stolen time in her rented bed. He took that “I love you” back three days later as a slip, a mistake. Love isn’t something the mistress of a married man gets to insist on.
Twenty-six years ago, when Anna was studying in Madrid for her junior year in college, a Spanish friend dragged her to a reading, the launch of the latest book by acclaimed novelist Álvaro Cienfuegos. Though she hadn’t yet read any of his books, Anna had ideas of how Álvaro would be. She was wary of writers who were treated—and were rumored to behave—like rock stars. But at the event he’d sat on a stool at the back of the bookstore and read a passage that shocked her with its candor and humor, with its intelligence and near magical ability to draw the listener in and make them complicit. She’d been utterly won over. Her voice shook when she spoke to him as he signed a copy of the book for her; her palms went sweaty when his blue eyes met hers. And then he’d done the unthinkable and asked her to have a drink with him afterward. She was in his bed only a few hours later (he was between marriages at the time) and she stayed there—leaving only to go to class—for two weeks.
And then the semester ended and she’d had to fly home. There had been letters for a while, and a few expensive phone calls, and then he’d faded away and she’d let him go. He belonged to her life in Madrid, and she was back home in New York. He was a lovely ghost. She’d held fast to his memory for a while, and then had let him sink into history.
Their first night together, after they’d fucked, lying together all sweetly spent, lacing fingers like you do when everything is new and you’re dazed by each other, they’d traded life stories. He, the Spanish atheist Catholic that he was, had been fascinated—almost turned on—to learn that he’d bedded a Jew. “Jewish Princess,” he’d said proudly. (He’d learned the term from a Frank Zappa song, and he was so pleased with himself that she hadn’t had the heart to explain that it was an insult.)
“No,” she’d said. “I’m not the princess. I’m the dragon.”
In June of last year Anna had gone to the Feria del Libro in Madrid to promote the Spanish edition of her fourth novel, and she’d seen Álvaro from across the room at a reception for authors. He was older, she was older, but there they were. Her stomach roiling with nerves, she’d gone up to him prepared to say, “Hi. I’m Anna Berman. We knew each other for a little while twenty-something years ago,” but even as she opened her mouth to speak he looked at her with those same blue eyes and said, “Hello, Dragon.”
Because he’s married now, it was Anna’s hotel bed they fell into that time, and he would leave it just before dawn to slink back home each of the five nights they had together, blaming book festival commitments for his absences. Five nights together in Madrid, and then countless emails and texts and secret phone calls after she’d flown home. She’d gone back to Spain in March, over spring break, to do research for the Lorca novel (and to be with him), and he’d managed three full days and nights away from his wife in Madrid, and two more in Granada. And then she’d gone back again in July, and they’d had four sweet, stolen nights.
And then that “I love you” that he rescinded three days later.
What happened was that she’d texted “Trust your dragon” in response to something they were joking around about, and he’d replied, “I love my Dragon.”
“Oh!” she’d typed. “Oh, I love you, too!”
Then he’d abruptly had to sign off—which wasn’t unusual. Then two days of silence, then when they were texting again she said she loved him and he said, “I like you very much. No digamos amor.”
“But you said you loved me,” she’d said, feeling pathetic and childish as she typed it, such a sad little protest.
“Yes,” he’d said. “I used that word.”
But he hadn’t meant it. It had been a slip. They’d been texting mostly in English, and love doesn’t always mean “amar” or even “querer.” It had been a question of translation, he said. What she’d heard as his love for her had fallen into that slippery space between the two languages. He claimed that he had meant to say “me encantas”—you enchant me—and she had heard instead what she wanted to hear: That she was loved. Which was—she still insists—what he actually said. He said love. He said it. He used that word. But no.
That was two months ago, and since then the space between emails and texts has grown. He’s been less available, and signs off in the middle of conversations—particularly if she gets too sentimental. He doesn’t want to sext much at all, when before they would fuck via text for hours, sometimes until well after sunrise in Spain. Now it’s been six days since she’s heard from him. He’s ignored two emails, not including the one she just sent, and several texts. He’s distancing himself. He’ll say he isn’t, but he is.
Her phone rings. Not Álvaro. Her mother.
“Mom,” Anna says. Gunshots. Dark hair against white sheets on the gurney. The long line of ambulances, waiting.
“Oh, baby.” Her mother is crying. Nothing rips such a precise hole in Anna as the sound of her mother crying. “You’re okay? You’re still in New York?”
“I’m okay, Mom. I’m at the airport.” And Anna, who’d been holding tears back for most of the day, is crying, too.
“Oh thank God.” In the background, she hears her father saying, “She’s okay?”
“Mom, I’m okay, but listen. Mom, I was there right after. I was just a few blocks away from the synagogue when—And I walked there to see what—I didn’t know—And oh, Mom—”
“Thank God you’re okay.”
“And Bev Schwartz, Mom. And Larry. And Mrs. Messinger and—”
“I know, baby.”
And that other woman, the one who was supposed to have been at Saturday services, but who stayed home. And all of the others who hadn’t stayed home, who were there and who died, or had been shot and lived but would maybe die still, and all of the others who hadn’t been shot, but will have to live out the rest of their lives with the stain of what they survived, with the absolute knowledge that what their grandmothers had always whispered was true—that we aren’t safe in this world, that we have never been safe in this world.
She swallows hard, tries to force back the tears. She shouldn’t cry in public like this. Ceding even a few inches of ground to those assholes, letting her self-control slip, is intolerable. Her tears would please them. They want her scared. They want her sad and broken.
After today, Anna understands the urge to kill all of your enemies. It’s a survival impulse. She wants to kill them right now—all the racist, fascist, anti-Semitic assholes—before they can kill her and the people she loves. She wants them dead because they scare her.
Except she couldn’t kill anyone. A gun in her hand right now, and a militia man with a gun in front of her? She couldn’t, and she knows it. But the militia man probably could. And that difference, the gulf between Us and Them, is where terror is born.
Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, which won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. A fellow of Yaddo and Ragdale, her writing has appeared in The Nation, Guernica, Salon, Jacobin, Electric Literature, Catapult, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.