It is in the middle of my third week working at Columbia Law School’s career services office when he finally comes in. I’m standing in front of the brown filing cabinet—the one that has a dent in the top right corner because a law student flipped out a few years ago and threw one of those heavy-ass case law books at it—and I smell his cologne. Obsession. And when I turn around, there he is. David.
My heart remains flatlined, my anger, like his, is private. I had made half-hearted attempts to find him. Vanessa, my old college roommate, told me he had transferred to Columbia as an L2. When we were undergrads here, I was pleased that he hadn’t been accepted into a first-tier law school. Things would not be well for him either. I walked around campus hoping to spot him, but I knew sooner or later he’d have to come in here. He stands in front of me now, and all I want to do is catalogue how much he’s changed.
Or. Or, remained the same.
He is five foot eight, light-skinned, and stocky. He’s wearing J.Crew khakis, a striped blue-and-white shirt from Brooks Brothers that he probably got on sale, and a navy peacoat. Like everything else about him, he dresses for the man he thinks he should be, not for the man he is. He no longer has the fade he had in college or the goatee. The scar over his left eyebrow is barely discernible. His fingers are still stubby, but his nails are now clipped, clean, and I imagine he has spent his morning rubbing lotion into his hands. When he first started Columbia as an undergrad, he wore Timbs, wifebeaters, and a small diamond stud in each ear. David is now a law student here, but a year and a half ago we were inseparable. Incredibly, he looks untarnished, he is still very attractive, and I am unrecognizable.
Even though Lala’s voice changed when he came into the room—more giggles and uh-huhs—she is clearly on a long call, so David just comes up to my desk. His heart doesn’t skip a beat; his thoughts don’t fuse two contradictory images. I am begrudgingly pleased that the face I once had has melted away under these layers upon layers of fat.
“I know it’s kind of early, but do you know what clinics are going to be offered in the fall?” he asks. His voice remains unchanged. It’s the voice that tells you he is from East Harlem, hard and raspy, a voice I imagine won’t bode well in Corporate America.
“I want to plan my schedule early because . . .”
I lean forward a bit. Does he really not recognize me?
My heart accelerates because the more he talks, the more I realize my answer cannot be a simple yes or no, and I begin to wish Lala would get off the phone. I always imagined this confrontation, but never past this point. He finishes his questions; I look at Lala. I know he will recognize my voice. I open my mouth wondering if I should attempt to disguise it and shuffle some files around my desk. He stares at my silence; he looks at Lala. I can hear him cracking his knuckles in the pocket of his peacoat, a nervous habit when he is annoyed. Old Belinda reappears and smiles at him. Then the tiniest smirk appears on his face as he steps back and slightly rolls his eyes. Even though that breaks the standoff, I realize he thinks I’m flirting with him. I eye him rudely.
Lala hurries off the phone and eagerly steps up to help him. “Oh, she’s new,” she says as she points to the stupid “Hi My Name Is” sticker she’s had me wear. I touch it, remembering it says “Carmen.” I have told everyone to call me by my middle name. I gave them no options; I didn’t even mention Belinda.
I lower my head and try to read through the files on my desk, but everything in me is in tune to his movement, his sounds. I feel him looking at me, seeing a large hump of a humiliated girl. Forcing myself not stare at him, I train my eyes on the student files in front of me instead. I try to focus on the names, on separating the applicants based on if they are going to spend part of their summer doing pro bono work. He unwraps a piece of gum, and I hear him smile when he talks to Lala. He lowers his voice, and I can imagine the brightness in his eyes. His body is masculine, but his eyes are feminine. Sharp brown eyes, outlined with shiny lashes—as if wet with tears—that curl up.
I remember how he used to love me . . .
I shuffle and reshuffle the applications, and when he leaves I mumble something, anything, to Lala and trail behind him.
He treks across College Walk, crosses 116th Street, and waits outside of Ollie’s. I follow him to the benches in the median between the downtown and uptown sides of Broadway, knowing I shouldn’t get closer, and I hunker down and watch.
I started calling him five months ago. Some days he’d pick up, but it was rare. When he picked up on his birthday, he sounded like he always did—joyful. There was a crowd of revelers in the background, and I imagined pretty, slim girls and the whole of New York on his side. And it was like after a funeral, how you can’t imagine how everyone else can go on with their lives.
But like anything overused, the effects of the calls started to wear off and the shame started to dissipate. I didn’t want to forget the pain. That Belinda. Old Belinda could come skipping back and who knew what she would let happen to us. And I thought that if I was around David, if I went back to New York and found him, the shame would come back. Running scared.
The hood of my black North Face jacket tightly sandwiches my face. Unlike most overweight Latinas, I have not decided to sass it up and be big and beautiful; instead, I have chosen the conventional TV look for fat people, big and ugly. It’s the look that most suits me. I wear the most nondescript clothing I can find: no-name khaki pants, bland, unicolored T-shirts that cascade over the distorted orbs that are now my breasts. I’ll never enter Lane Bryant, Ashley Stewart, or a sassy store called Torrid. I butchered my hair last week. Long, sturdy brown hair reduced to boyish strokes. David used to love when I lay on top of him and my hair would fall in his face.
I wanted all traces of hope gone.
David picks up his phone and when an unremarkable Latina gushes by me a few minutes later, I recognize the look of his body when he answered the phone—it was smiling. She might as well squeal and clap her hands when she gets to him. Their newness is evident. They rush toward Ollie’s, hand in hand, but then he stops her by the door and gives her a kiss.
She has no body: thin, flat chest, no ass.
My body grieves down my breasts, my hips, my thighs.
Watching her in his arms, I know he could crumple her. She touches his face, and I am sure she’s thinking, watching the traffic going down Broadway, that she is part of this moment, that the excitement of New York City is not just relegated to those people in those taxis. She has no reason to envy the passengers. She has what all those people heading downtown are looking for. They, her and David, are part of the world, the wide wider world.
* * *
The sting of the slap still splatters across my face. I keep my hand on my cheek to localize the pain. All the rage displayed in his face, in his hands, gone. He is slumped, empty, depleted of all anger. Just like that. Like a faucet turned off and on by careless hands. He kneels in front of me and nuzzles his head toward my stomach. There is no sound in the room because I stopped crying as he moved toward me. His hands touch me, not the same hands of a few minutes ago or even a few hours ago.
“Belinda,” he says.
I used to love when he touched me with those hands. But now they sting and make me someone else.
“Belinda, sweetie, I love you. I’m so sorry.” His words catch in his throat. Belinda, Belinda has melted down between our fingers.
“I love you, I love you,” he keeps saying.
Even though my face is covered, my protective hand on my cheek, the pain runs through me. This pain and my body meet and bend me at their will. A silent reel begins to play in my head. There is a girl, smashed, imploding. There is stop, start. There is before. There is after.
Soon his head on my stomach turns into his mouth kissing my belly, his lips crawling upward until he gets up from his kneeling position in front of me, and I have to move so he can lie next to me.
I used to love his hands. They are stubby, almost incomplete. Masculine, chalky, dry hands. But how they held me firm. His kisses, his touch—now surface-level. But how they seal my shame.
“Open your eyes,” he says. “I love you. I really do. Do you love me?” I don’t want to answer. But he keeps asking, so I nod my head.
“Say it,” he says.
I turn my face to the wall. This is my hour of grieving. But there is no privacy. I am watching this happen. Two bodies on this bed. I am this girl. Her cries pick up again and are a whisper. Her eyes are closed. She wants to be alone. He lies back down, his hands neatly folded on his stomach, gentle, almost asleep, before he turns to his side and puts his hand on her leg, kisses her back. Soon his hands are fondling her breasts. His insistence grows. He turns her face to his. Doggedly kissing her lips.
He stops kissing me, sits up and says, “You can hit me. Here. Hit me right here.” I ponder the offer. Would we be on equal footing again? In number theory there are perfect numbers. A six divided by one, two, three can also be a six added from one, two, three. What divides can also add back to the original whole. I watch my movie instead, and I hit rewind. Untrueness wins out. Let us enter a new world. A world where what has just happened does not exist. My hand slithers toward him. I am no longer this girl. I don’t know him, I don’t know me. I slide my hand over the cracked shell of his face. It all disappears, falls apart under my touch. My lips part slightly as his inevitably inch toward mine and I kiss him like that night he took me to Ollie’s and asked me to be his girlfriend. He seems relieved, like I have forgiven him. He is more shattered than I thought, a man made up of pieces that don’t connect. He tries to get on top of me, but I push him away. I get on top of him. As I clap my thighs around him, I try to hold us together.
Excerpted from Love War Stories, forthcoming in July 2018 by the Feminist Press.
Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. Her fiction chapbook The Belindas was published in 2017. She has also published fiction in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, Obsidian, Label Me Latina/o, Kweli, the Boston Review, the Bilingual Review, Aster(ix), and other publications. She is the founder and editor of an interview series, published in Centro Voices, the e-magazine of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, focused on contemporary Puerto Rican writers in order to highlight the current status and the continuity of a Puerto Rican literary tradition from the continental US that spans over a century. She was a senior fiction editor at Kweli and is a Kimbilio fellow and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel ‘The Last Salsa Singer’ about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico.