Love Letters to Vegas by Sofía Margarita López
Love Letters to Vegas
Sofía Margarita López
Part I: Nevada
From the bed of the truck where you and I sat, we saw the eyeballs roll across first. Except, from far away they didn’t look like eyeballs at all; they looked like golf balls surfing through the Nevada desert.
“What’s that?” you asked, biting into your mustard and pastrami sandwich.
That’s when we saw the two children—couldn’t have been much older than ten—running after their eyes, one of the kids stumbling and bumbling and lagging behind.
I jumped from the truck bed, you and your sandwich always a step behind, and we ran after the golf balls that tumbled through the air, touching down only to spring back up, looking like dolphins.
But we caught them.
I got two and you got the third. When you opened your fingers and saw that it wasn’t a ball sitting in the palm of your hand, but an eye, you dropped it with a yelp.
The desert had to be one of the worst places to lose an eyeball. Deserts and beaches and knife drawers were all horrible places in which to lose eyeballs. The two I held were so coated in sand that they looked like sad little chicken nuggets, recalled for accidental inclusion of body parts.
I picked up the eye you had dropped before the wind could send it rolling again.
The children were not far behind. They were dressed in unfaded jeans and Easter-colored Polo shirts. They had full cheeks and unblemished skin and, where their eyes should be, gaping pink cavities like fresh wounds.
One of them still had one eye, and he reached us first.
“Those are ours.”
“I wasn’t going to keep them or anything,” I said, handing the eyes back.
He took them greedily. “Thanks, lady.”
He smiled at me. I smiled back, but the hole in his face caused an unease in my stomach I couldn’t bear for long. So I turned to you. “Come on, we should head back soon.”
You had vacuumed up the last of the sandwich and your cheeks stretched chipmunk-like, bringing out the thin scars along your jaw.
With your mouth so full, you only managed a nod, and we set off in the direction of the truck. Behind us, the children hunched over the eyes, blowing on them gently, trying to determine which were whose.
You and I got back in the truck. I drove because, ever since the accident, your knee locked up weird. So we drove back into the heart of Vegas, me at the wheel and you hanging your head out like a dog.
Few restaurants would cater to us. Certainly nowhere fancy. We wound up in a grimy worst-meal-you’ve-eaten-since-Elmer’s-glue diner where the french fries weren’t worth the skinning of a potato. The floor was sticky and the light blue wall paint had drooping bulges where water leaked through. There was a fine tinge of decomposition mingled with the scent of over-used frying oil and cheap ocean-scented detergent.
“The sandwich wasn’t enough?” I asked.
“Not even close.” Your eyes traveled down the laminated menu. “Steak and eggs with a side of hash browns? Whatcha think?”
You leaned the menu down, looking expectantly at me. I smiled. This pleased you enough so that you retreated back behind the menu and I went back to surveying the griminess of the diner. A few tables away a middle aged woman with big boobs and bigger hair exclaimed, “Oh Bernie, not again,” as small red dots appeared on the back of her companion’s shirt. In a matter of seconds, scarlet blood poured from him. I looked away.
“Why don’t we find a nicer place?”
Your head appeared over the menu. Wild black hair; a large forehead bisected by a thin scar; eyes so dark that when light reflected in them they looked like galaxies as bottomless as your stomach; a straight nose and thin lips.
“What’s wrong with here?”
“Don’t you like it here?” you asked.
“It’s kinda shitty, dontcha think?”
“Yeah, but we’re not gonna be able to find anywhere better. You know how it is.”
I looked away. The moment I heard you sigh, I knew it had been the wrong thing to do.
“Oh, I get it,” you said. “You can find somewhere nicer. It’s me who’s the problem, right?”
Part II: Marriage
We were married at nineteen. Who the fuck knows anything about marriage at nineteen?
I remember it was a cloudless, summer Sunday, when the universe conspired to give us everything. There we stood facing one another, me in my thrift store short white dress, you in your old brown suit. I had spring blooming in my heart and shooting stars coursing through my veins, and all I needed was to see you standing there, handsome and young and so alive, and I knew we would make it, that whatever love we had was the world-shattering, soul-healing kind.
Our marriage was a venture that could only be undertaken passionately, stupidly, as if there were no limits to what we would sacrifice. We entered wedlock with the wrecking force of a bulldozer, swung in with ruthless bravery, determined to prove there was nothing that could pull us apart. And for a while, we proved it. We had nothing, yet we lacked nothing. There was freedom in the absence of possession, in having nothing to lose, and it was in this freedom that we grew intertwined, you and I and our endless nothingness. We didn’t fall in love—we consumed it, grew in it, and, burning it like infinite fuel, we flew into our private heaven.
And what a heaven it was. Newlyweds, broke and too young to give a shit, we moved into what must have been the crummiest apartment in west Heartville. It was a broken-down studio with a ramshackle kitchenette and a small bathroom where the water ran a pale shade of ochre. There were stains on the carpet shaped like various bodily functions and a single window, sealed shut, looking into a trash-filled alleyway.
We had no bed. On our first night as husband and wife, we lay on a pile of cushions, under Salvation Army blankets, and we drank six dollar André like it was Dom Pérignon. We washed out the bottle and used it as a vase for a bouquet of bright forget-me-nots. Sitting cross-legged on our cushions, we stared at them, letting their color pierce so deep into our corneas that we never again saw blue the same way.
Perhaps because of some drug, or because of the chemicals in the bug spray that so frequently perfumed our apartment, or perhaps simply due to euphoria, I remember our first year of marriage as if in a haze. My senses were dulled in a way no pharmaceutical has been able to replicate. As if it was too much for one person—the everything I felt— my body allowed me to feel it only a little at a time, dragging it out so that I’m still feeling it now.
I was at home in the way we were always naked, always more than naked; we were unshaven, smelling of musky skin instead of perfume, lying in odd positions, careless with the placing of our limbs.
And you kept me climbing deeper into the fantasy.
You walked into the apartment one day and said, “Get dressed and follow me.”
I was high, floating on helium, eating raw cherries by wrapping my tongue around them and plucking them from the stem. I popped one cherry in my mouth.
“Where are we going?”
“Follow me,” you said. I popped another cherry in my mouth.
I slipped on denim shorts and a dark camisole sans bra and popped another cherry in my mouth.
You took my cherries from me. “Where are we going?”
“Trust me.” You smiled.
You led me a few blocks down the street, to where you had located the headquarters for a small journal—the something poetry review of something. They were closed. I hadn’t noticed how late it was, but the sun had set and the air was dark.
Behind the building was a green metal dumpster. “Look inside,” you said, handing me a cherry from the jar hidden in your jacket.
“Inside where? Inside there?” I asked, pointing to the dumpster.
You nodded. I wasn’t tall enough to peek inside, so you hoisted me up with a violent hug until I saw over the dumpster wall—a white ocean of unwanted poems. Hundreds and thousands of rejected words printed on crisp white paper. Marvelous.
With your help, I climbed inside and a minute later you followed. That night, we dined on cherries and rejected poems. We ate them up greedily, ravenously, devoured them and sucked them dry. In our wake, we left a trail of stems and well-read verses. One poem we took home. It was an angst-filled sonnet by a heart-broken teenager titled “Soul Mates Don’t Exist” and underneath in your handwriting, “but if they do, then you’re mine.”
Once, we got the idea we needed furniture. We drove to a store and walked among impeccably decorated living sets. We agreed that they looked like clean gallons of bleach, and why the fuck would we want to live there? So we bought more cushions, a thick blanket, and a red tiki mask that we hung over peeling paint.
We didn’t go on vacations, weren’t seduced by gym memberships, boats, art classes, or electronics. Penny after penny we saved because we had all we needed.
Two years later, something changed.
It was the new apartment that rattled us out of orbit. No. Honestly, it wasn’t the new apartment. We were twenty-one when it began; new concerns incubated like bugs inside our guts. By twenty-two, they’d hatched.
Anxiety and Ambition, twin infant monsters inside us, constantly demanding, feeding, growing. And the more they grew, the harder they flapped their monstrous wings and sank their poisoned fangs into our organs. We both felt it, the pressure of the monsters within us. We weren’t growing apart, but we were growing up.
Perhaps it’s unfair to say that it began with you. It might have been that your monsters flapped harder than mine, and, almost out of your control, your fingers began to ache to type. Perhaps all you did was let them type and what came out was code.
It wasn’t long after you found a permanent job that I got one too, working at an art gallery.
I was the one who said we needed to move, you said, “Okay,” as if that was all that needed saying. So we moved into a one-bedroom house across a dog park, and we bought a dark wood, four-poster bed with a thick mattress and plush white bedding.
We never desired more than this. Not until one night when you walked through the front door, nursing in your arms a packet of information in a dark purple folder. On the front it read, “Fear losing your loved ones? Guarantee them for up to five years after death with LivProof!”
Part III: Death
When you died, it ruined your day like accidentally using two coffee filters in the morning.
You were on your way to work, driving down 86, when a bug hit your windshield and its remains splattered, leaving a blob of gunk directly in your field of vision. The wipers wouldn’t get it off. Distracted, you were pressing buttons and levers, messing with the different kinds of sprays and wiper speeds, your thoughts with the splattered bug—and you didn’t notice the light was red, when—WHAM.
It was one of those big old trucks that hit you. Your car rolled over obediently, and, somehow, you spilled out like dice from a cup and before the momentum of the crash was spent, it was you under I-don’t-know-how-many wheels. Totaled. Cranium smashed against hard metal, brain like moldy tofu visible through shattered skull, ribs broken, bones pulverized, bladder burst, limbs hanging by exposed bands of tissue.
“He was young when it happened, thank the Lord,” the LivProof representative said to me.
“No lord had anything to do with this bullshit.”
The man, bald and short with a tummy round like Buddha’s, cleared his throat and glanced down at the policy papers. He must have been accustomed to dealing with angry spouses.
“Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a good thing what happened. The um…accident, I mean.”
Death, I thought. My husband’s death. Your death. His tongue evaded the word. It was a dangerous word. People everywhere held it between their lips like an egg on a spoon. One couldn’t be dropping it just anywhere.
“The two of you have absolutely the best policy offered anywhere. Full service.”
He smiled too widely. “And since he was in his twenties, his body will likely resist the degeneration for a good four or five years.”
“Can I see him?” I asked.
“There’s just a bit of information that I need to go over first.” He looked down at his clipboard. “Mm, let’s see. Let’s cover financial first, shall we?”
“Because the two of you purchased our highest coverage, you qualify for E.R.A.—early retirement access, that is. If your husband continues to work full-time at his current position for the duration of two years’ time, then he will be eligible for early retirement with full government benefits. Including, of course, pension checks.”
“It’ll require some paperwork, all of it minor.”
“Can I go see him?”
“I have a few more points to touch on. Mandatory procedure.” He must have then seen the defeat on my face, how every star in my world had dropped from the sky, because at that moment he seemed to take pity.
“Look,” he said. “To speed things up a little, I can give you these pamphlets. All the important information is in there. Just make sure to read them thoroughly, okay?”
I nodded. I was turning to go when he stopped me. “You do understand that there will be some changes, right?”
I nodded with some effort this time. The lump in my throat was also causing stiffness in my neck.
“I wouldn’t want you to expect that this is a perfect solution. Or a permanent one. He will begin to dwindle.”
“I know,” I said.
“And one last thing. With the um…reactivation that we’ve had to perform, there is of course some um…reprogramming.” I could hear the words being dragged from his lips like thorns pulled out with grooming tweezers. “We try to assure that our customers will be more um…comfortable with their situations. It will ultimately be better if we don’t make a big deal out of the incident your husband went through today. If it’s natural to him, it’s better if the rest of us accept it as natural too.”
Your eyes were the same dark universe, your nose the same straight slope, and your lips the same thin line above your chin. Your hair had been shaved in order to glue your cranium back together, but it grew back in all its usual unruliness. It was like a bad haircut you had to put up with for a few weeks. The only differences in your face were the two scars, one running down the middle of your forehead, the other along your jawline.
I walked into the hospital room and found you sitting in bed, flipping channels on an old CRT television mounted in the corner.
“Oh finally. They let you through,” you said. “I called the office and told them I wasn’t coming in. They were very understanding. Apparently, the wreck was on every news station. Did ya see me on TV?”
I smiled. I’d found my stars, still glowing bright in your eyes. It was like some dam burst in me, and I was filled by white light from the top of my head, down to my pinky toes. There you were: perfectly good, mostly intact, still so clearly you.
“You okay?” you asked. Letting the tears fall freely, I walked into your open arms and you held me tight as if you knew that at that moment you were the one thing keeping me together.
Part IV: Degeneration
You lost an ear. Just like that. You got up to make coffee and left it on the pillow so that neither of us noticed until I was making the bed and you had already left for work. It lay there, a splash of color on white bedding, a mass of tissue like a crumpled piece of paper that should have been thrown away but instead spent years stuck to the side of your head.
It wasn’t the first sign we saw of the degeneration. I first noticed it on your mother’s birthday.
We never celebrated with your mother—she wouldn’t have us after we eloped. But every year on her birthday, we would make your favorite of her recipes: peanut butter chocolate pecan pie. One sweet, gooey, crunchy slice would leave us stuffed for days, yet every year we managed to consume it all in one sitting. Stomachs extended, we’d lay in bed with heavy limbs, complaining about how we were too bloated to have sex, yet all we wanted was more sex and more pie.
On my way home from work, I’d stopped at the store to buy pecans and brown sugar and butter and the largest available ready-made Nabisco pie crust. I walked through our front door with a grocery bag on each arm and immediately saw your form standing in the shadows.
“Can’t wait?” I said with a laugh. “Lets get us cooking some pie.”
You didn’t move. You were standing an inch from the wall, facing it, your eyes staring at it forcefully, as if you’d lost something in the wallpaper. You seemed entranced by something beyond anything I could see. “Honey?”
You didn’t hear me. You couldn’t hear me. I set the bags down by the door and walked closer. If you felt my presence you didn’t show it.
“Honey,” I said again, this time placing a hand on your shoulder.
You blinked. Life returned to you, the Milky Way flooded back into your eyes. You were suddenly wholly, completely there.
“Did ya get ‘em? Did ya get the pecans?”
I nodded and you grinned your big grin and kissed me with your hands soft on my hips.
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Just now, what were you doing?”
Your eyebrows drew together and your hands dropped away.
“What time did you get home?” I asked.
“Same as always. Like at five. What’s with all the questions?”
“It’s eight now. What have you been doing for three hours?”
You paused. “I don’t know.”
I wish I hadn’t googled LivProof degeneration. The images were crawling-bug-kind of creepy, like when you see one spider and for the rest of the day feel thin, spindly legs moving on your skin. And I saw not one image, but four or five pages worth of degeneration. For years to come, every time I stood, I checked for limbs lost under chairs, I checked my socks for toes and my clothes for skin.
In the early stages of degeneration, usually beginning a few months after death and lasting anywhere from one to three years, small body parts often detach. Ears and nails and noses. Eyes can sometimes pop out of the head. It’s extremely rare that genitals fall off, but a few cases have been recorded.
In the advanced stages of degeneration, what was put together falls apart. The wounds that killed you would slowly return.
The LivProof representative had said you were lucky. In the course of one to five years, your body would split open, your guts would spill out—until you were back to how they found you: dead and scattered, with bits and pieces stuck to the underside of a truck. How in fucking hell is that lucky?
And then there was the rest, the cherry on top, the Kraft parmesan sprinkled on your mac n’ cheese.
“In cases where there is extensive brain damage,” and there was no denying that your case included extensive brain damage, “certain behaviors can be disturbed.”
“Like what?” you demanded. “I’ll just stare at walls for hours at a time?”
“Your brain is spending a lot of energy in keeping you together. Your body is fighting the degeneration and that can tire your brain out. It likely took advantage of a low-activity moment for a rest. Like a power nap.”
“Can this happen while I’m out? What if I’m driving or something?”
The representative fidgeted. “Like I said, these are rare cases. We haven’t had to deal with many brain damage cases so a lot of the theories are untested.”
“What does that mean?”
I laughed. “It means they don’t know shit.”
After your ear, it was your stomach. You began to suffer from an unquenchable hunger and, after going through a Costco burrito pack in three hours, I drove you to the emergency room. They wheeled you down the corridor, past dark blue double doors where I was told I couldn’t follow. The doctor returned an hour later and said a large gash had opened on the bottom of your stomach.
“Food’s falling right out. We found twenty-two burritos in his left leg. It’s okay, we got them out.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
“Well, we stitched it up as best as we could. But you know how it is with degeneration. The wounds want to come back. They feel it’s their right. He’ll probably continue to have a big appetite. If his leg begins to feel heavy, just come back here and we’ll empty it out for you.”
It started with the church. Activist groups began to rally for the sanctity of life. They picketed in Washington and formed prayer groups outside of the LivProof headquarters in Seattle. A commercial began to run on every major news station so that every hour the right-wing party leader would pop into the monitor to declare that “When God almighty decides my life is over, I will gladly remain dead.”
Before long it was a world-wide cause. The undead were unwanted. Internet articles linked death to cancer. Dr. Oz declared that being dead was bad for the skin. Teenagers demanded to be spared from the family policy in case they ever decided to take razors to their wrists.
By the time your retirement finally rolled around, we’d had to superglue on both ears, bolt down a few limbs and toss out all your flip flops because of a lost toe incident somewhere between 16th and 18th streets.
Your company was likely glad to see you go. You suffered from memory loss, incontinence, unexplained bursts of weeping, and R.A.P.—randomized activity patterns—which had caused you to strip down to bare skin during a board meeting.
On your last day, your co-workers arranged a last hoorah at a grungy Irish bar. I was invited, even though I’d never met most of them. Admiration was in the air. It seemed, at least for the night, everyone overlooked recent developments and instead grieved for the programmer you had once been.
We sat at a long table, passing around pitchers of light beer, and you introduced me to a dozen people.
“So this is the wifey, huh?”
“We finally get to meet her!”
The cold beer washed down my throat.
“Now you take good care of our boy here,” they said to me.
“Don’t let the times get you down. That is a good man, right there.” They pointed to you.
I could only handle so many introductions and so many glasses of beer before I excused myself to go to the bathroom. And when I came back there was a blonde woman sitting in my place. She had short hair, pale skin, and your hand on her thigh.
I cleared my throat. Both of you turned and when you looked at me your eyes were vacant. It took a few blinks before the galaxies returned. Your hand shot back as if her leg were a hot pan.
The blonde smiled as she stood. Looking smug rather than apologetic, she returned to her seat on the other side of the table. Few of your co-workers noticed the incident, but those that did fidgeted in their seats and reached for the pitchers.
On the way home, you broke down crying in the car.
“I have no idea what I was doing. I can’t remember if she put my hand there, or maybe I thought it was you. I just don’t know. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Her name was Nina. She was a project manager for a team you’d once worked with. Yes, she’d flirted with you. She flirted with all the guys; she was perpetually looking for a new boyfriend. No, you had never flirted back. In fact, she’d always made you a bit uncomfortable; she knew you were married. No, you didn’t know why you’d never mentioned her before. She hadn’t seemed important.
You answered all my questions, never faltered, never hid, looked into my eyes when you spoke. When we got home, we sat cross-legged on the bed and I continued asking while you held my hand softly. Your voice was low and smooth. Your eyes were the saddest galaxies I’d ever seen, every star a tear drop frozen in celestial space.
Eventually, my well of questions ran dry. You looked at me expectantly. When I said nothing, you pulled me closer, testing whether I would willingly go. I let you take me, let you wrap me up as if absorbing me straight into your chest and through the heart. With my head against your skin, I felt your lungs expand as you breathed deeply for the first time that night.
We held each other for a while, then made love and fell asleep without ever releasing each other. We were glued like wet paper to glass. You were the paper, I was the glass. But in my sleep something became disturbed.
We were in an airport, walking along the terminals as one would walk along the beach, watching the come-and-go of planes like one would watch the come-and-go of waves. From an incomputable darkness following at a distance—the final brink of dreamworld—there emerged a screaming zealot.
It was an old hag who spoke with the voice of one of the presidential candidates. “When God almighty decides my life is over, I will gladly remain dead.”
My heart beat fast. “We need to get out of here,” I said.
“Come on, we need to leave.” I pulled on your sleeve, but you wouldn’t shift. My bones jangled like wind chimes in a storm. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. The zealot’s eyes fixed on us.
“You,” she said, raising an accusatory finger. She advanced on us. “Heralds of Lucifer. Rapists of morality. Murderers of sanctity.” She came closer. Her voice grew louder.
I stepped in between you and her. “Stop.”
“Spawns of hellish flame. Scum full of wretchedness!” she continued.
“Let’s go,” I said in alarm. I turned to grab you and run, but you were gone.
Beyond the happy families converging in the gate area, on the other side of the plexiglass, I saw a mammoth white plane lift into the air. It rose and disappeared from my line of sight. Somehow, I knew you were on it.
I woke up in the only way I knew to wake from a nightmare—shaking like a washing machine, heart racing, adrenaline flooding. Instinctively, I reached out in search of your warmth, only to find that the bed was empty. Fear was pressing on me like an anvil on my chest.
Rising to my elbows, I saw you standing as a shadow framed by the bathroom doorway. The light behind you rendered your features undistinguishable.
“Did you sleep well?” you asked.
“No. I had a nightmare.”
“I know. I could see you.”
“I could see you,” you repeated. “Thrashing in bed. I could see you.”
Part V: Carnival
In the days following your retirement, I took a month vacation from work so we could go to the places we’d always meant to go and do the things we’d always meant to do. Carnival Street was first on our list.
We got on the train at midday, the sun straight above our heads, our shadows reduced to nothing, and we rode to the last stop in South Heartville, emerging into Carnival District, a vivid world of cobblestone roads, where all food was deep-fried and tequila was a dollar an ounce.
You were starving.
We stopped down a side street set up with plastic tables. They were selling beer and taking orders through a house window, servers emerging through a door carrying platters of oily food, the kind that can only be enjoyed during certain stages of inebriation. We ordered two Micheladas, and, within minutes, tall glasses with chili powder on the rim were placed before us. I had a sip. The cool of the beer slid down my throat and the warmth of the spices rose up my nose.
I took a deep breath. We’d figured long ago that if we breathed deeply right after drinking Micheladas, we could feel the cold and the warmth course through us once more.
“My God, I needed this.”
You nodded in agreement.
We took seats at a long, shared table and watched as servers rushed about. We ordered two dozen chicken wings. I ate three and you absorbed the rest. The server gave us complimentary glasses of cheap beer, and when the bubbles burst in our heads, I asked about dessert and you ordered a triple decker burger with bacon flavored cheddar.
We had more Micheladas. We took tequila shots with the old lady who sat next to us.
It was you who made conversation with her; whenever we went out, you got social where I got shy. I loved that about you.
Your new friend told us the best place in the district was a small theater bar right on Carnival Street.
“Mojitos to die for and dancers to live for.”
You turned to me. “We should go.”
I drank the remainder of my Michelada in two large gulps, slammed the glass down and said, “Let’s go.”
We rushed down a sea of cobblestones. Hours must have passed since we had first arrived because the sun hung straight ahead like a beacon, bathing the air in yellow. The color seeped into me, into my organs. And from the sky I absorbed blue, from the vivid street, green, pink, and orange. We were breathing rainbows into our lungs. With each heartbeat my color wheel spun and spun and landed on the color of champagne, yours on the color of love. You danced me like a top into your arms. My color mingled with yours and when you kissed me, it tasted like champagne.
From the moment we entered the theater bar, it was clear that “small”—as the woman had described it—referred strictly to physical size. In presence, it was overwhelming.
We were in a dance club from Hollywood Hell. The inside was wallpapered in red velvet, an invitation for sex against any visible surface—bare buttocks against cold concrete would not be an issue. The floor and ceiling were black, with tiny bulbs set to mimic the stars. On one end, a stage filled with voluptuous dancers. Tight corsets caused thick thighs to explode from cinched waists. They danced with an expression equal parts seduction and reservation. The Pandora’s box of seductive glances. They seemed to harbor secrets that, if revealed, would ensnare me so securely, I would forever be in love with the gyrating vixens.
A similar reaction must have occurred in you. I had to shake you to get your attention, then I pointed at two empty seats at the bar.
The bar was lined with liquor bottles and erotic paintings—an array of windows into a world where backgrounds had the coarseness of pubic hair and subjects the vulnerability of raw skin. Over the beer tap hung a landscape painting: a field done in pastels—colors like a lullaby. But rising from the blades of grass, instead of flowers, there were penises. Small ones, big ones, circumcised, uncircumcised, dark skinned, light skinned—the artist had not been choosy.
“I’m sure the drinks are great,” you said.
A bartender brought copies of the cocktail menu. Whatever charm the dancers possessed, she had threefold. Smooth skin, plentiful curly hair, and lips the color of hibiscus.
“Can I start you off with anything?” she asked. “I’ve got beers, wine, snacks…”
“Um, could I have a gin and tonic?” I said.
“Sure can. And if you look down here on the menu, you’ll find one of our signature cocktails is based on the gin and tonic. It’s a kind of lemon-lime-blueberry variation.”
“That sounds great. I’ll have one of those.”
“Anything for you handsome?”
“I’ll have the lavender-infused old fashioned,” you said, pointing to an item on the menu.
“An old-fashioned man. Mhm,” she said. “There’s something special about that.”
“Oh well, I’m dead.”
I kicked you under the counter so that you bent down awkwardly to rub your shin.
She laughed it off. “And the rest of us are dying. Will that be all for now?”
I nodded. When our drinks arrived, mine tasted like candy and yours like a Glade Plug-in. I didn’t like the old fashioned, the way the lavender reminded me of shampoo, but you derived some primal pleasure from sipping a drink that traveled like a well perfumed punch.
As we drank, we watched the dancers unfold on stage. There was no art in the seductive shimmying, nothing but a carnal come-and-go. But through my haze of candy and champagne kisses, I was so entranced that, even now, when I recall that night, my mind conjures a collage of swiveling hips, breasts like ice cream scoops peeking out of cones, and slim fishnet legs pin-pointing to sharp stilettos. We forgot there was such a thing as worries in the world. We forgot it all—poverty, hunger, violence, and even death.
We finished our drinks. You signaled the bartender so we could order seconds, and she came and set down our bill.
“No, no,” you said. “We wanna order more.”
“Oh,” her eyebrows drew together. “I was told you were gonna be closing the tab. I’m so sorry about that. Let me go fix that real quick.” She retreated. You smiled at me, clueless.
It was not the beautiful bartender who returned. A man, large and conical shaped, with the arms of a bear and shoulders twice as wide as you, approached the table bearing the check.
“I believe there’s some confusion,” he said. I was surprised at his ability to enunciate. I’d expected grunting. “You see, I understand the two of you will be leaving soon.”
“What? We never said that.”
“Honey,” I said. “Let’s just pay and go.”
“No. I want another drink. I’ll have another old fashioned, and my wife here will have another one of those blueberry thingamathings you serve.”
The man acquired a deeper resemblance to a bear. He was morphing right before us. “We’re out,” he said. “You’re gonna have to go someplace else. Here’s the bill.”
“I don’t want no fucking bill.”
I placed a hand on your arm to hold you back but you shook it off.
“Look, I don’t know why you won’t just serve us our fucking drinks. One old fashioned. One blueberry gin. Why is that so fucking hard?”
The transformation to animal was complete.
I couldn’t tell where they’d come from, but in a matter of seconds four or five more bears surrounded us. They grabbed you, one on each arm. You tried to fight. They had me too. They dragged us, kicking and screaming like children, and threw us on the cobblestones. My knee hit the ground and I knew the skin had split. Besides me, your ears, nose, and an eyebrow popped off like a Mr. Potato Head. You were on your feet, but the bears had disappeared back through the doors.
The whole thing had happened in seconds. It had been nothing but a small distraction to other patrons.
“Why’d you have to go and talk about being dead?” I said.
Anger and embarrassment had burst the champagne bubbles in me. I sat on the cobblestones—sober, bearing the weight of the poverty, violence, and hunger we’d previously forgotten. I was painfully aware of everything bad in the world.
“Assholes,” you said. “They’re all just fucking assholes.”
You looked at me and saw me still sitting on the ground. What features were still on your face softened. You sat beside my slumped form and said you were sorry.
I shrugged. “I’m sorry too. They are assholes.”
“Forget this place. I’m ready to go home. Whatcha say?”
We walked down the street to the setting sun. The sky was bright red, angry red, violent red, the color of blood. People say a red dusk means blood had been spilled.
Your blood, my blood, the blood of a thousand innocent lives, the blood of birth, the blood of death, your blood smeared on the asphalt and the underside of a truck. It didn’t matter whose blood, there it was, dripping from the clouds.
Part VI: Las Vegas
Las Vegas was like honey to the degenerate—a place where the bizarre was ordinary and the trashy was elevated. We joined the hordes of migrating undead, lured by promises of acceptance, but when we got there, there were no degenerates in the casinos. They were not in the hotels, high-end shops or over-priced restaurants. They were not getting married in 24-hour chapels or watching death-defying acrobats at Cirque du Soleil.
We found their community—your community—congregating on the outskirts of the city, beyond the side-show freaks. Bearded ladies and bark-skinned men were too happy to find people more marginalized than they.
We stayed with them for a week in the desert. Below us, grains of sand, above grains of stardust, and in between nothing but crisp air. Air and the undead, often seen carrying body parts in reusable grocery bags. The woman who ran the motel where we stayed explained that many residents had grown tired of reassembling themselves every morning.
“Dirty slobs,” the woman called them. “Nothing’s gonna stop me from trying. I ain’t walking around with no missing nose.” She showed us her dumpster-full of empty Gorilla glue tubes.
I imagine somewhere on the inside of your skin there was code tattooed. It was your internal programming, configuring all you did, all you believed. For each joke in jokeBook, slap knee and laugh loudly. Your every action and reaction outlined. If orgasm stop, else repeat. It was you, spelled out in numbers and symbols. While hunger greater than or equal to burritos, keep eating.
The day you died, some part of the code must have broken. Or perhaps when the doctors sewed you back together, they left out a series of lines. You behaved like a glitched operating system. You would smoothly execute command after command, until you stumbled on the fallacious code, then mayhem. You’d stare at empty walls; you’d strip in boardrooms; you’d break down and wither; and all I was left with was an unresponsive blue screen where my husband had once been.
While staying among the degenerate, we had picnic lunches in the desert, driven into Vegas when you could hold yourself together, stayed away when you could not. On our last day among the degenerate, I awoke to someone else’s eyes staring at me from behind yours. Your head still lay on the pillow. So did mine. But you were wide awake, eyes open. Except it wasn’t your eyes, it was alien gray eyes that stared at me.
“Good morning,” you said. “I love you.”
I didn’t reply immediately, and suddenly you were pillow-punching, wall-slamming, foot-stomping, hollering angry. You rose from the bed, making growling, howling noises. The bedside lamp broke against the wall and I heard the moment the bulb smashed—not a splintering, but a clean break like the snap of a bone.
And just as if someone had flipped a switch, the anger dissipated. You looked at your hands as if they weren’t yours, and then you looked at me, the one thing remaining that was definitely yours.
You crawled back into bed and pulled me in tight. “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t,” I tried to comfort you. But my words wouldn’t appease the storm in your eyes. You pulled me tighter, you bound me till my bones dug into my guts, and I swore you were trying to kill me with you.
Part VII: The End
This is my love letter to you—a love letter you will never read, written too late, written perhaps as much for me as for you, written to convince myself that our love was as prodigious as I believed it to be. I loved you how one can only love once. We weren’t the type to say it often, “I love you.” What need was there to say what we were living? I didn’t say it then, when perhaps I should have, in your final moments.
You wanted to drive from Vegas to the sky-scraper-and-yellow-taxi land of New York City. You wanted to detour through Yellowstone (“We can see bison and caribou,” you said) and the Grand Canyon (“We can ride mules!”), through Texas for hearty meals and Chicago for pizza. You wanted to pick an attraction from each state we drove through (“And let’s drive through as many as possible”). You would have had us zig-zag across the country to finally arrive in New York City, where you would have suggested we then buy tickets to Paris (“Paris! Isn’t that romantic?”)
But the more we drove, the more alien you became. You grew unfamiliar. Strangers frequented your eyes. You would blink, and I would catch glimpses of them glimpsing back at me.
I fought for you to stay—whatever remained of you. But not enough remained of you for you to stay. You didn’t make it to New York. You didn’t even make it to Dallas. We were two hours away from the city when you complained your leg was heavy like lead. It was the platter of subway sandwiches you’d devoured for lunch. I drove us to the emergency room, and, once again, they laid you on a gurney and wheeled you past closed doors.
It was not you I walked away from. I would not have walked away from you. But what they wheeled away, a shell haphazardly reassembled, vacuous save a tray of sandwiches—it wasn’t you. It was some twisted version of you, translated and retranslated so many times that what remained was a jumble of incongruent parts, so clearly not meant to fit together. And your mistranslation I walked away from.
When I was asked to wait, told you’d be back shortly, your leg re-hollowed so that not even sandwiches composed your essence, that moment I stopped believing you were anything but a bad metaphor for your old self. You were nothing but a word repeated so often it lost its meaning.
While you were on the other side of the double doors, I walked out of the hospital, got in the car, and drove in the general direction of Dallas, pulling into the parking lot of the first church I passed. Inside, a fat woman wearing habits greeted me with a kind smile. I told her my undead husband belonged dead.
Amid soothing pats and consoling words, her nun friends emerged from the back rooms of the church and led me to an office where they offered me a seat and gave me peppermint tea with milk and honey. The fat nun disappeared into another room and returned saying she’d made a call and everything was taken care of. The doctors would take care of your unassemblage.
I drank more peppermint tea.
Once my shaking was somewhat under control, I got back in the car, handing out promises of returning on Sunday to share my testimonial. I would never go back. I felt a little sorry for lying. They were kind women despite being nuns.
I left Texas and tried driving home, but under the spreading vastness of a cloudless sky, no roads seemed to lead there.
There is something about grief—the way it permeates your life and saturates your being. I existed with the knowledge that you no longer were. It pressed on my chest with the force of one thousand oceans. My every inhale was painfully blasphemous, every exhale a cry for help. Part of me died with you and part of you lived in me, so that neither was fully dead or fully alive.
Unable to find my way to Heartville, I pulled into a drive-through and ordered a chicken sandwich. I took a single bite and never ate a chicken sandwich again. I tried a different route, following some invisible map printed on the clouds. At some point, the road became familiar. I’d seen these trees before. I pulled into the parking lot of our first apartment, got out of the car and walked to the door.
I’d become your loss. The road I drove on was the road of your death; the sun collapsing on the horizon was the sunset of your death; the sandwich I’d ordered was the chicken sandwich of your death. Your death was loud. And in a desperate attempt to escape the buzzing, I broke the rusted lock with a well-aimed body slam and stood in the doorway to our damp, dark old studio. As if nobody had moved in after us, some essence of us hung in the air like mold-scented perfume.
For so long I had known you would one day be gone. It’s not like it took me by surprise. I had imagined my head would be filled with a montage of bittersweet memories, like a nostalgic movie clip. It was nothing like that; I relived none of our happy memories. Instead, peering into our old apartment, the words “He is gone” repeated over and over in my mind. The words dug in, chiseled in my bones. They surrounded me, became the only sound in my universe, clouded all my senses. They became my galaxy. I heard them over and over, breathed them, saw them, swallowed them. And finally, I became them.
© Sofía Margarita López
Sofía Margarita López was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She received her BA in English from Cornell University before moving to San Francisco to pursue a career in writing. She is currently an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University.
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