By Annie Kuster
This Story Won Second Prize in Our Contest
Her back is to the bed, staring towards the steeples of the Catedral as she sucks in smoke. She used to joke that she only smoked so she’d die before him, her husband, fifteen years her senior. Yet, as she stands in the Spanish sunshine inviting death into her lungs, his breath grows shallower in the dimly lit room behind her. She wants to scream but takes one last hit instead.
She throws the cigarette to the ground and crushes it beneath the heel of her boot. She runs her fingers through her long curly black hair—dyed; she’s fifty-seven now—and takes a deep breath. She leaves the balcony door open as she walks inside.
“How are you doing, cielo?” she asks. My angel. Marino smiles weakly. The IV in his arm drips slowly, and she wonders where the nurse has gone off to.
“Alfonso?” She yells because she thinks she should. She’s new to all this wife stuff, though it’s been twenty years. Maybe what feels new is lifeless love, sober and dull.
Dreamily, she pushes what’s left of Marino’s stark white hair back off his face and absent-mindedly notices he looks both younger and older without his beard. Like a baby with wrinkles.
“Yolandita,” he murmurs. She recognizes the glazed look in his eye. A few years ago, his youngest grandchild took ill with leukemia. Laire’s deep eyes took up half her face; like mirrors to her sickness, as their light returned, so too did their owner’s. Yolanda sighs. She forces herself to stop thinking about Laire, whose recovery was slow but sure, whose hair grew back in thick clumps of brown until Yolanda learned to braid to tame it.
“What should we have for dinner tonight?” she asks, knowing full well he can’t stomach anything solid anymore. Marino laughs heartily, like he used to. She didn’t mean it as a joke (or not entirely), but she’s pleased that he found her amusing.
“Something edible,” he says. “Think you can manage that?”
“Ma-ri-no,” she scolds joyfully, and retreats down the stairs to the kitchen. It’s a small space. There’s a refrigerator in the corner empty, except for big glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Marino’s liquor that he makes from the grapes growing on the roof. The jamón ibérico sits on the counter delicately, next to the long, serrated knife used to slice off strips, piece by fragile piece. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but that rings true for Yolanda too.
Marino made food into magic and memories. She loved him more with each bowl of arroz con mariscos he fashioned carefully between his calloused fingers. Watching him made her think of pianists, the way their hands danced. Marino would chop and juice and slice all at once and then turn around and present her with something gorgeous and steeped in meaning.
“How do you know what to do?” she asked him once, and he grabbed her ass, giggling—she swore, a grown man who giggled—and growling, “How do you?”
She stares at the jamón. Could that have been so long ago?
Marino’s diagnosis had not come entirely by surprise. Despite his morning swim laps, he’d come to host a belly that was one quarter ham and three quarters wine. His deep respect for food came with a blatant distrust for healthy translations; butter and oil, he swore, or nothing at all. And then there was the wine. Big goblets, at every meal, and occasionally—when he felt up to it—mojitos the size of her head. On their anniversary, liquor de café. Or when he wanted to go dancing—which was often—cognac. More often than not, they would dance in the kitchen up to the bedroom and fall into each other there. As they grew older, the falling became less physical and more intimate. Mi cielo, she thinks, remembering. My sky.
When the symptoms started, a few months ago, she was hopeful.
“Prostate cancer,” the doctor explained, “is curable in ninety percent of cases.” Marino was not young or in particularly good health, but his humor was high and his vigor strong; he had to outlive his wife, if only because that was their plan.
Two weeks later, it hit while they weren’t paying attention. She can’t remember now what they were doing. It wasn’t like a bombing or an assassination, where you’d sit frozen on your feet and realize you were never going to forget, whether you were half naked after a long night or six years old on the kindergarten carpet. This crisis crept. It let them think they were safe. And then—all of a sudden—they weren’t.
“We’re sorry,” the doctor told her. “We’ll do our best to continue his treatment at home.”
She bawled, but the man was adamant: this new disease was killing people just like Marino. Over the age of sixty. Immune system compromised. Pre-existing conditions.
The doctor spoke quietly until she understood: either certain death in the hospital, or delayed death at home. It was her choice, only it really wasn’t, because they had to conserve beds for the wave of pandemic cases they would be handling before the week was out.
“Vale,” she had breathed. Okay. They would do this step by step, like they had their whole lives, moving in time to no music at all.
In her kitchen, Yolanda studies the jamón ibérico she knows neither of them have the appetite for. Still, she pulls off long strips the way Marino taught her years ago. She puts them on a plate with some French fries and pauses. She is not sure what she is waiting for.
“You hungry yet?” Yolanda calls up the stairs. She holds her breath but then—
“Been hungry for decades,” Marino croaks back.
She laughs and wipes tears from her eyes.
“Almost ready, mi cielo,” she manages. My heaven.