When you finally take a wife, make sure she’s white, my father told me. Go to college, become a professional, take a wife, and make sure she’s white. Even though my mother had been white and she still ran off with the ranch hand. The one whose Spanish was better than his English even though he’d lived in America since before I was born. My father raised me by himself in a small Texas town where there was nothing to do except ride horses, go to church, or study. And our horses didn’t trust me much. They whinnied and whined every time I tried to fit them with the brown saddle I’d gotten for Christmas. It was sleek, smooth, and shone brilliantly after being oiled and conditioned, but it didn’t get much use aside from being admired. Instead, I spent Sunday mornings in church and the rest of the week I would study. I needed to go to college, become a professional, take a wife, and make sure she was white.
Moving into my dorm at university, I mistook my roommate for one of the movers. Back home, my father taught me that America was the land of opportunity. Opportunity for Mexicans to come, not pay taxes, and use up all our resources. And yet, all of our ranch hands were Mexican because he could pay them so little and work them as hard as the horses. My father must have also seen opportunity. My roommate corrected me, helped me build my bed anyway, and then I helped him unbox his things into drawers. He didn’t have a lot of things, so it went by quickly. We walked down to a cafe nearby and drank lemonade to cool down. I told him how hard I worked to get here. “That’s nice,” he said, “but I probably worked harder.”
I had been teaching for many years before you walked into my classroom, your dark skin and dark eyes that immediately drew me to you. You were different than those before you. Your skin the color of freshly oiled leather and smelling sweet as a flower. But just as one must let a dog come to you, otherwise it becomes all frightened eyes and snapping teeth, I waited. Finally, you approached me half way through the school year for extra credit. It wasn’t extra credit you wanted, was it, Clemencia?
I took you under my wing, I showed you what could be possible when you saw yourself the way I did. You were my Malinalli, my Malinche and you loved it. Do you remember? How much you loved being tangled together in my white sheets, your brown skin glowing more and more the harder I kissed you? I kissed you like you’d never been kissed and I loved you like you’d never been loved. A girl your age didn’t know love, what it meant or how it felt. Someone had to teach you. And wasn’t I was your teacher?
I was married when you and I met. We were married in a church, said our vows under the watchful eyes of God, and signed our prenuptial agreement under the watchful eyes of our lawyers. It was just a precaution, because I loved her. Did I? I loved parts of her. She was as pale as the milk from her father’s dairy farm and her hands were soft with pink-painted nails that never chipped. She was a porcelain doll and she was mine. But I did not like to touch her like I touch you for fear of her breaking. You, my Malinalli, I was never afraid of breaking. Not you, who would call my home at ungodly hours of the night and my wife next to me would answer. Excuse me, honey, it’s for you. And I put the phone to my ear and you were just laughing like that was the funniest thing you’d ever heard. I couldn’t break you, I realized, because you were already broken.
And now you see, that’s why I had to marry her and not you. Because she understood the importance of image just like my father did. I was up for a position on the school board. “What would they say,” I asked of you, “If I had a young, wild brown girl for a wife?” You said nothing. You must have known I was right. You said nothing as you took me in your arms, held me close enough I could hear your heartbeat, and drew me in deeper under your spell.
I was trapped under your spell that day, too. That day my son was born. I’d gotten the call, your wife is at the hospital. She’s going into labor early. It was shocking for everybody, but inconvenient for me. I didn’t want that child, she did. You did. And now they both think they can interrupt my day? They wanted me to come running, but stayed here, with you. You were the only one I’d loved amongst the others before you and the few after. It was you, only you.
My surprise when I saw you at the museum. She was with me, but you were the most beautiful work of art in that whole exhibit. Even the students with you watched with admiration while you spoke to them about one of the photographs. Briefly, I wondered which among them you’d taken into your bed to teach the way I taught you.
I knew it was a bad idea, but I needed to speak to you. Not even the strongest of conquistadors could resist the allure of your golden skin. Greedy bastard, I was, but some men really can have it all, only if they’re willing to take it and make it theirs.
“This is Megan,” I said as my hand rested on the small of her back. She was all skin and bone and some plastic. Nothing like you at all, my Malinalli.
I invited you over that week she was gone. She took the boy to her family’s for Christmas and a part of me hoped she would never come back. What a gift that would be! But she would and that’s why it would be best if we made this the last time. Surely you understood? You’d told me to give her a baby so I wouldn’t be tempted to leave her. But this day, I told you about my responsibilities as superintendent, as father, as husband. I could never marry you then. I could never now. Still, we spent one of the holiest days of the year together. Oh God, you cried out, but it was me, not God, picking you apart, putting you back together, and watching you sleep after.
I suspect it was that last night together when you’d vandalized Megan’s things. Am I right? The gummy candy? She was finding them for two weeks after, victim to such a childish prank. I bought her new things because a red lipstick is easy to replace, blood red, rose red, ruby. But you vandalized her life, as well. You left your mark on her and she was never happy again after that. Even after the last gummy bear was found, she was afraid there was always one more lurking, where she couldn’t see it just yet.
When you asked me, son, if you could go to your friend’s house, I knew. Right away, I knew. You were in high school, you said your band was getting together to practice. You lied. I didn’t even have to ask her to know that’s where you were. It was no coincidence I sent you that school, knowing the art program would catch your eye, just like she caught my eye all those years ago.
I gave her her job. I gave her my love. I gave her you. Your mother needn’t know. She’s happiest living her life wrapped in ignorance like it’s that silky Italian robe she loves so much. She loves her things, you most of all. So I won’t tell her.
Sometimes, I lie awake at 2 a.m. and wonder if we can’t see God because he’s afraid of us. He looks down upon the Earth, upon the streets we roam, upon the sheets we lie in. And he sees what he created and is afraid. Or maybe, he’s proud of us that we can leave so deep an imprint that others can stand at the edge, look too closely, and fall in.