The First Time We Met
By Maria Deira
16 February 2009
Elena eats the same way she makes love: quick and neat. She's curled up in the armchair, sucking on a mango sprinkled with chili powder. Her lips part and a slice of fruit disappears between her teeth. Seconds later, her tongue pops out to lick away the red dust that clings to the corners of her mouth. When Elena eats, she never loses a crumb, never allows the tiniest drop of juice to dribble down her chin.
"Why are you staring at me?" she asks, keeping her eyes on the television. On the news, a boy who looks to be about fifteen years old is showing the reporter his leg, which is bandaged because of a dog bite. The kid, his hair plastered forward so that it hides his forehead and ears, grins into the camera. His face is pitted from acne, so he looks like he has multiple, inflamed dimples on his cheeks. He reminds me of how I was at that age. I can't stand to look at him.
"Hector?" Elena mutes the sound to the television. "Do you have a fever again? I told you to take another aspirin." She's wearing an old pair of pajamas—the pants and top too big for her underweight frame—reminding me of a child dressed in her older sister's hand-me-downs. "You've been on that couch too long," she says. "You need some fresh air." She pulls a small pillow from behind her back and throws it at me. I catch it. It's a blue microfiber pillow, still covered in cat fur even though our cat, Tango, disappeared a year ago. I almost say, "I wonder whatever happened to Tango," but I don't really care. It was her cat more than mine.
The first time Elena and I met, we were both riding the elevator up to a party on the fifth floor of some dormitory. She looked familiar and I assumed we'd met before, so I said, "Are you going to Marcos's place?"
"Yeah," she said. "He's my boyfriend." She was tiny, five feet tall, definitely less than 100 pounds. She didn't even look like a college student with her limp ponytail and round baby face. Marcos was twenty-two, two years older than I was, and a little too old for this girl, or so I thought.
"How old are you?"
"Nineteen." She didn't seem surprised by the question.
"You look a lot younger."
Elena pointed at my forearm where a deep cut was still healing. "What happened to your arm?" she asked.
"Skateboarding," I said. "Landed on a cactus. That was two weeks ago, but I keep splitting it open."
"Let me see it." She moved toward me and took my hand. She leaned her head in close to my arm, so close it made me uncomfortable. But before I could pull away from her, she licked my forearm, her tongue pressing hard against my skin as she dragged it over the wound. Her saliva stung worse than alcohol, worse than the time I burned myself with a cigarette, worse than anything I'd ever felt.
"What are you doing?" I yelled, pushing her back. Her hair came loose from her ponytail.
"Look at it," was all she said.
I glanced down at my arm. The gash, which had been raw and red just a few seconds earlier, was gone. The only trace of the wound was a thin white scar that curved along the muscle.
"You're welcome," she said. She removed her ponytail holder and snapped it around her wrist. Her hair was black and long and coarse, and at that moment, she reminded me of a witch. I stepped away from her, backing myself into a corner. The elevator shuddered to a stop. As the doors opened, she slipped out and hurried down the hallway. I inspected my arm more closely now that she was gone. The pain had subsided, but a drop of spit glistened on my arm. I touched my finger to it and then tapped it against my lips. My mouth tingled.
When I got to Marcos's room, about ten people were standing around, talking, drinking. The music was some old-school Banda group, the beat heavy and intense, the tubas keeping perfect time. I overheard someone ask, "What is this shit?" Marcos was on his bed, and Elena sat next to him. At six foot three, with huge arms and legs from all the weight-lifting he did, he was a giant next to her. "Hey, primo," he said to me, his Spanglish tinged with an American accent. "¿Qué onda?"
"You're cousins?" Elena asked.
"Hell, yeah," Marcos said, standing up. "We got the same abuelita and everything. Yo, Hector, come with me outside. I need to talk to you, man."
We left Elena on the bed and went into the hallway. "Mira, I gotta break up with that girl," Marcos said. "We were in microbiology together, lab partners. I invited her to some party and we made out and now she thinks I'm her novio."
"And?" I asked. "What? You want me to take her off your hands?"
"Por fas, primito. She's not my type, but you'll like her and she'll like you."
"I already met her on the elevator. She's weird."
"Nah, she's cute," Marcos said. "And nice. So I don't want her feelin' too bad when I dump her."
"Did she do that tongue thing on you?"
"What?" Marcos squinted at me. "Okay, what happened in the elevator?"
I lifted my arm. "My cut," I said. "It's fucking gone. She did that. With her tongue."
"Are you high?" Marcos laughed. "Shit, Hector. Just do me this one favor. C'mon, bro."
When it came to doing favors for Marcos, I didn't feel like I had a choice. My mother had died from diabetes when I was fourteen, and a few years before that my father had run off to Mexico with a younger woman and their baby daughter. At some point in his life, my dad had decided it was okay to trade in a defective wife and son for a newer, better family. I can't say I ever wished him well. But after my mother passed away, Marcos's parents took me in. Marcos watched over me like I imagined a big brother would. He never said no to me. He was never mean to me. So, there was no way I could deny him a favor. I owed him more than my life: I owed him my loyalty.
"Fine," I said. "I'll talk to her. Whatever."
Marcos and I went back to his room where he flirted with some blondie in a mini skirt. Elena watched from the bed, and I felt embarrassed for her. At the same time, I was curious, about who she was, what she could do. I walked over to her, but before I could speak, she said, "I guess your cousin doesn't like me anymore."
"He's drunk," I replied.
She stood up and rushed from the room, pushing people out of her way. I followed her down the hallway and into the elevator.
"Here we are again," I said.
She hit the button to every floor.
"So what are you?" I asked. "A healer? A curandera or something?"
"I don't know," she said quietly. Her eyes met mine. "Don't tell anyone."
Fourth floor: the elevator door opened and shut.
"You could help a lot of people," I said. "You should be a doctor."
"I'm not into diagnosing and handing out prescriptions. But maybe a nurse. Maybe I could help people that way." She tilted her head and looked at me.
Third floor: a girl crying, the make-up around her eyes smudged. She turned around when she saw us.
"Who else knows about it?" I asked Elena.
"About me studying to be a nurse?"
"No, about what you can do. With your tongue."
Second floor: open and shut.
"Don't make it all sexual now," she said. "Besides, it's my saliva that heals. And other than you, only my roommate and parents know. Okay, and maybe everybody in my hometown. Jesus, I don't even know why I'm telling you this." She closed her eyes, like she wanted to disappear. Her dark lashes fanned out against her cheeks.
First floor: We entered the lobby.
"Want to go get some non-sexual coffee and pie?" I asked.
She smiled then for the first time that night. Her lips were brown and pink, and I wondered if a kiss from her would burn or taste sweet.
"Poor Marcos," Elena says. "I just wanted to party. I mean, I'd been in college for two years and never went to one single party until I met him. I was such a nerd."
"Plus, you looked like you were twelve."
She flips me off.
"See? You even act like you're twelve," I say. I'm lying on the couch, a red fleece throw covering my legs. She leaves the armchair and steps toward me quickly, climbing onto the couch and then straddling my torso between her legs. "I'm definitely full grown," she says. Tonight, her kiss is soft and tender. Benign. So different from when we first met. "I love you." I slide my hand under her pajama top and touch the small of her back.
And then she says again, "Poor Marcos. I can't believe he's in Iraq again." She places her head on my chest and I know she's thinking about all those hundreds and thousands of wounded soldiers and Iraqis that she could be helping, wondering if Marcos will return in one piece or if he'll come back a completely different person, someone more damaged than she is.
"You can't save the world," I say to her because it's the only thing I know is true.
After I walked Elena home that first night, we kissed in front of her dorm room. Her lips were like fire against mine. I forced them apart with my tongue, sliding it against her teeth. My whole mouth was aflame. The pain made my eyes water, but I couldn't stop. It was like eating jalapeños with a meal: at first they're unbearable but after a while nothing tastes right without them.
The door to her room flung open. A chubby girl with light brown hair and penetrating blue eyes stood in the doorway. She wore a long-sleeve sweatshirt and folded her arms tightly across her chest. She eyed me hatefully, her nostrils flaring as she took both of us in.
"Where have you been?" she asked Elena.
"Who is this? Your mother?" I joked.
"I'm her best friend. I was worried about her, okay? Worried some jerk was taking advantage of her."
"Julie," Elena said. "I'm not helpless. I can take care of myself." Without saying good night to me, she turned and walked into her room. The door closed behind her, but I still heard her say, "Oh, Julie. What did you do to yourself?"
I stepped nearer to the door, almost pressing my ear against it. Someone was crying, but it wasn't Elena. Soon, those cries turned into soft moans. My stomach tightened and I wondered whether Elena and Julie were more than just friends or if Elena was working some of her healing powers. I imagined her licking Julie's wounds, and I felt betrayed.
I didn't ask her about it until we'd been going out for a month. She started sleeping over at my place more often and, when she did, she'd be up all night, answering phone calls from Julie, trying to calm her down or promising she'd see her first thing in the morning. Eventually, I started to disconnect my phone whenever Elena came over.
"I'm sorry. She has a lot of problems with her family," she tried to explain. "She's going through something right now. She needs a friend."
"She needs a counselor. Not you."
"Maybe," Elena said. "But when she cuts herself, she's so ashamed about it. I have to help her."
"Why?" I asked. "Why do you always have to be the one there for her?"
Elena's eyes darkened with frustration. "Don't you see? I have this gift. And if I don't use it, then I'm just another freak."
"But you don't have to use it on everyone."
"I don't use it on everyone. I use it on my family and my friends. Julie is my friend. So get over it."
"I'm sorry," I said. "You can do whatever the fuck you want with your gift."
"That's right. It's my gift. It's something I've been dealing with my whole life. If I don't help people, I hurt. I start to burn—and not just my tongue. My whole body, my mind, my skin, it burns." She grimaced. "You can't understand, Hector, so don't ever tell me what I should or shouldn't do."
For the first time, I saw how tired she was. There were circles under her eyes, and she seemed even thinner than before. Elena wasn't like any other person, I reminded myself. And she was right: I could never understand the burden of such a gift. "I'm sorry," I said, meaning it this time. I pulled her close to me, but her body was stiff against mine. We didn't argue about it again, until the next time Julie cut herself too deep.
"I was always jealous of her," I tell Elena. She's sitting on the floor now, and her hair—fifteen years later—is red and short and messy. Her pajama bottoms have disappeared somewhere within the couch cushions. Her legs look smooth in the television's flickering glow.
"I know," Elena answers. "But she's dead now." She pinches her nose as though to stop a sneeze. Her voice is hard when she speaks. "Sometimes I think, maybe I could have helped her."
I pull the throw up to my chin. "Look. Here I am coughing up a lung, and you can't do much for me."
She doesn't say anything, offers no retort. Her shaggy hair has fallen over her eyes, so I can't see what she might be thinking or feeling.
The television is still on and we focus on that instead. The late night show is coming to a close. A band I've never heard of is playing. All five members of the band are bald, even the female lead singer. Her lips, outlined in black, mouth the words, but the sound is still muted so I don't know what she's saying. I've never seen so many young, bald heads—not since the time I went with Elena to the pediatric ward of the county hospital. She made me dress up like Clifford the Big Red Dog. I was a hit—silent, but lovable, waving and hugging all those children, making them forget for a little while how sick they were. The kids who were undergoing chemotherapy or stricken with some sort of autoimmune disorder had no hair, and up close their heads were even smoother, even softer, than a newborn baby's bottom. Not one single strand of hair, not one little bump blemished their innocent scalps. I thanked God that I was wearing a costume because I didn't want the kids to see me cry.
Elena and I had chosen long ago not to have children. And I sure as hell never saw myself as a father, never trusted myself enough to be one. But I was still surprised when she told me she didn't want children either. Now, seeing those kids sick and helpless, I finally understood something: she was a healer, yet if her own children fell ill with cancer or any other incurable disease, she wouldn't be able to save them.
The problem with Elena's gift is its superficiality. She can heal cuts and scrapes, puncture wounds, and blisters. But when it comes to life and death, she's like the rest of us: powerless, afraid, and alone.
One night, during the fall of our senior year, Elena got a call. I could tell from her face that something bad had happened. As soon as she hung up the phone, she asked me to drive her to Julie's place. I drove her there, of course—no questions asked—but waited in the car. After about half an hour, Elena walked out of the apartment with Julie, whose arms were wrapped in dark T-shirts. It wasn't until I opened the car door for them and the cab light came on that I realized those T-shirts were soaked in blood.
We stayed at the hospital until the next morning, even though they wouldn't let us see Julie. Hospital staff told us we'd done the right thing by bringing her in, but they couldn't let her leave for 48 hours. They needed to contact her parents and make sure she wouldn't hurt herself again.
When we got back home, Elena stripped off her clothes and tossed them in the trash. She took a long, hot shower before joining me in the kitchen for breakfast. She didn't say anything as she stirred her coffee, staring at the black liquid swirling around in the cup.
"Do you want a cinnamon roll?" I asked.
"Just half," she said. "God, I can't believe I can still eat."
I cut my cinnamon roll in two pieces and placed my portion on a napkin. I left the remainder on the plate and slid it to her.
"I didn't even try," she whispered.
"I didn't even try to help," she said. "When I let myself into her apartment, she was leaning over the kitchen sink, watching the blood drip down the drain. 'I knew you'd come,' she says." Elena took a fork and flaked off icing from the cinnamon roll. "I don't know why, but that pissed me off. Like she controls me or something. Like God put me on this earth just for her. I know she's hurting inside, but that doesn't mean she has to make me suffer too. So I told her, 'I can't help you anymore.'"
"What did she say?"
"She screamed. She just screamed her head off. I'm surprised none of the neighbors called 911. She was waving her arms around, splashing blood on everything." Elena sighed. "I finally got her to let me put pressure on the wounds and try to stop the bleeding. I wrapped the T-shirts around her wrists. The whole time, she's saying to me, 'You fucking cunt. You selfish bitch. You wouldn't care if I died. You could save me right now if you really wanted to.' That's when I decided we needed to get her to the hospital."
"You did the right thing."
"I know," Elena said. "I'm glad it's over, but I just feel so dirty right now. And sick. I don't want to see her anymore."
But I didn't know if she could really stop being Julie's friend. And for a while, I hated Julie for her selfishness. I couldn't understand why she hurt herself. I didn't understand why she wanted to suffer. I'd seen real suffering, watching my mother's health deteriorate, out of her control. My mother had been a large woman, full of strength and vitality, able to pick me up in her arms and swing me around. Sure she had a temper, but she was passionate about everything. She should have lived forever. Instead, I watched her shrink, watched her body unable to heal itself. She lost her eyesight. She lost a leg. She even lost her voice. When she died, I lost everything.
Fortunately for Elena and me, Julie dropped out of school that term and moved back in with her parents. We never saw her again. Every six months, Elena would get an email from her—just one of those generic, mass forwards that don't really mean anything. Each Christmas, we'd receive a glittery greeting card with nothing personal written inside. Then, about five years ago, she and Elena started emailing each other more frequently. Julie had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As far as I knew, neither one attempted to call the other. Last year the emails stopped. Around the time Tango disappeared, Elena received a letter from Julie's mother confirming what we already knew—that her daughter was dead.
Elena yanks her pajama bottoms from my hands. She puts them on backwards, but I don't say anything. I like it when she's sloppy.
"I feel old, disgusting," she says. "I'm falling apart."
"Yeah, you're thirty-four. Ancient."
"You know what I mean." She points to her tongue. It looks pale and weak, like a drowned earthworm. Most nights, she complains that her mouth is dry, and when we kiss the sting isn't what it used to be, sometimes only a slight tingle against my chapped lips. "Maybe it's this place, making me lose my power. Maybe I've been working too hard." Then she adds, out of the blue, "You want to leave me, don't you?" She's not mad or upset. She says it matter-of-fact, like she's telling me that it might rain.
"I don't know," I say. And that's true. I don't know. I still love her, but when she talks about feeling old, I know what she means. I'm tired of this small-town life. I'm tired of Elena crying over things she can't fix or change. I'm tired that I can't do anything to help her, to ease her sadness. But who am I? I'm just a high school history teacher. No special powers there. And I'm a terrible person. Some days, I hate my students. I hate teaching the same subject, photocopying the same book excerpts and worksheets day after day after term after term in the same old dusty town. So, yeah, maybe once in a while I do think of leaving. Maybe I fantasize about starting over and living a different life. Maybe running away is in my blood. Maybe my father could give me tips on how to make a quick getaway, how to leave in the middle of the night when the person who loves you most in the world is sound asleep, never knowing that in the morning they'll be all alone.
The only problem is this: What would I do without Elena? I'm addicted to her healing saliva, addicted to the pleasure of that searing burn, which allows me to forget for a moment that I'm an orphan, alone in this world, someone without purpose or duty, someone who is easily replaceable, someone who would float away and disappear if the day became too windy.
Now the burn is fading as her power weakens, and I'm scared to live without it. But I'm more scared to live without her. I'm still addicted to her love, to her commitment and support, to the way she looks at me when a student writes me a thank-you note or when I make her dinner after a long day at work. One time, a school bus had rolled over, leaving the children inside bruised and scraped and scared. She was the first person on the scene, the one to give them their first moments of relief. She spit on her fingers and smeared her spittle on their torn skin. That day, she was a hero. She came home exhausted, but when she saw the salmon dinner I'd prepared—her favorite—she cried and cried. I held her. With our faces close together, I tasted her tears, and they tasted of love and desire and gratitude.
"I'm just tired of this place," I finally say to Elena. "It's so isolated and quiet and—"
"And safe," Elena interrupts. "I'm safe here. I don't want to move."
"I don't want you to move either."
"You mean, you don't want me to go with you." She sits back down in the armchair, folding her legs underneath her. She doesn't look like a child to me anymore. She just looks like Elena. She's hunched over like she's bearing the weight of the world on her narrow shoulders. Suddenly, she looks afraid. "Is there another woman?" she asks.
I want to say, "Yes. The ghost of Julie. Yes, my father's new wife and daughter. Yes, my mother. Yes, you and all the rest. I'm haunted by women," but instead I say, "You're not making any sense, Elena. There's no one else."
After Julie dropped out of school, Elena spent her time focusing on me and my problems. At the top of her list was my relationship with my father. A few weeks before Father's Day, she really pushed me hard to get into contact with him.
"There's nothing to fix," I said. "Because there wasn't a relationship to begin with."
But Elena couldn't bear the thought of a son and father being separated. "I just don't think about it," I told her. "He has his life and I have mine."
She called my aunt anyway, who was still alive at the time, and asked her for my father's address. That same day, Elena handed me a slip of paper with a post office box number and name scribbled on it. "Roberto Jimenez Arredondo" was written at the top. Roberto Jimenez Arredondo. My father. Roberto. The name of a true motherfucker.
"Just write him a letter," Elena said.
"I can't write in Spanish, and I don't think he can read English."
"Well, get Marcos to help you."
"All he knows is Spanglish, slang."
"Fine, we'll go to Target and buy him a Father's Day card. They have them in Spanish."
And that's what we did. She chose the card: a simple blue card with a picture of a lighthouse and "Papá" written in gold lettering on the front. Inside, the message said something about how "even across so many miles a father and son are still connected."
I felt stupid buying that card, but I couldn't say no. So I sent it to Mexico, and a few weeks later I received a small, flowery card from my father. Inside, I found a picture of my father at the beach with his wife, an attractive woman with yellow hair, and his daughter, a chubby little girl holding a plastic bucket and toy shovel. On the back of the photo had been written "Roberto, Lorena y Lupita." Lupita, my half-sister, had light brown hair, which was much curlier than mine. She wore a red sundress with green flip-flops and was grinning at the camera. I noticed we shared the same flat nose and wide smile.
"She's cute," Elena said. "What does the card say?"
"I'm not sure. Most of the message is in Spanish and I can't understand it."
"What did your father write?"
"Nothing, just this little part."
Elena took the card from my hands. "Con cariño, tu papi," she read. "With love, your daddy."
"With love." The words stuck in my throat. "Con cariño, tu papi." I shoved the card back into the envelope. "She wrote it," I said. "His girlfriend, wife, whatever. She felt sorry for me and wrote out the note."
"Maybe he couldn't write it," Elena said, "but that doesn't mean the sentiment isn't true. You're his only son, of course he thinks about you. Write him another letter and watch. He'll write you—"
"Just stop it," I said. "Stop trying to fix a part of my life that no longer exists."
I folded the card back into the envelope and dropped it into the trash.
"I get too much mail anyway," I said, trying to lighten the mood. "Junk mail, bills, letters from Marcos, letters from my aunt and uncle, cards for Christmas, Thanksgiving, my birthday, my baptismal anniversary."
Elena smiled. "What? You were baptized? I don't believe it." She kissed me, sticking her tongue into my mouth, swiping it against my own tongue, licking the insides of my cheeks, massaging my gums, setting me on fire again and again, setting me free for a moment from the real pain, the kind of pain from which you can never really heal.
Elena disappears into the kitchen. Cabinet doors open and slam shut. Drawers pull open violently and utensils crash to the floor. I don't say anything. I turn to the television. I don't even know what's on now, some man with short black hair is waving his arms. I want to ask Elena where the remote is. I want to hear something other than us talking. I want to throw something. Break a lamp or smash a vase. Punch someone in the face. Punch myself in the head. Jesus Christ, I want to fuck her again, just so we can both shut up and stop analyzing everything.
And then, as though she hears my thoughts, as though she agrees with my thoughts, she's on top of me. But she doesn't kiss me. This time she's holding a paring knife in one hand. She slices my right cheek. I curse because it hurts, because it scares me. But I start coughing again and I can't get her off me. She cuts my hand. Then she makes a third cut and a fourth and another little slice on my neck and my shoulder and my left cheek. I stop fighting back. Maybe I let her cut me because I think I deserve it. Maybe I let her cut me because she needs to.
My T-shirt and shorts are stained with spots of blood. My entire body itches and stings and soon all those jagged cuts feel like one big gash. I've never seen her be so intentionally messy, so careless and hurtful, so cruel. Seeing her like that makes me hard. But she doesn't cut me there, and I don't know whether I feel relieved or angry.
"I remember the first time we met," she says, throwing the knife to the floor. "That cut on your arm tasted like peaches."
She places her mouth against a cut on my face.
"Now you taste like metal. Like sucking on a penny." She licks my cheek, but it doesn't burn or sting any more than it already does. Nothing happens. "This is why you're leaving me," she says. "Because I no longer work. I'm no longer me. So who am I then?" she asks, speaking more to herself than to me. "If I can't heal people, if no one needs me, then who am I?" She touches her mouth with her fingers. "It's like I'm finally free but I don't know what to do with myself." And, suddenly, I'm the one helping her. I run my fingers through her tangled hair, gently, softly.
"You're Elena. A wife. A daughter. A nurse," I say. "You're a great nurse. That doesn't have to change."
She places her head down on my chest. "I can hear your heart beating," she says. She sighs, but I don't know if it's because what she's hearing is good or bad. "You don't want to leave," she says.
I don't know what to say. She's both right and wrong. I'm right and wrong. At this moment, I can't go anywhere. I'm too tired and weak and she's nestled on top of me, perfectly balanced, our bodies pressed together like two magnets. I imagine a forcefield around us, making it impossible for us to separate from each other. Stronger than an umbilical cord, beyond biological ties and family loyalty, the field around us pulsates and lives, a force of attraction beyond reason and fear and fate.
On the television, the same man is still mutely talking, holding a small bottle of pills in one hand. Behind him the silhouette of an overweight woman is rotating, her belly shrinking with every turn. Drowsily, I wonder if that woman shares a forcefield with someone.
"I should get some antiseptic and clean those wounds," Elena says.
"No, it's okay. Stay here." I touch her hair and she doesn't move. Fifteen years, I think to myself. How long did my parents stay together? Eight? I'm already twice as good as my father.
Elena falls asleep on top of me. She sleeps the same way she lives: quietly, gracefully. Her mouth never drops open, she never drools or mumbles in her sleep. I stay awake the entire night, watching her. As my wounds stop bleeding, my skin finally begins to burn. I know that when I get up in the morning, the cuts will still hurt, but not as bad.