Again, a naked woman in the living room. This one is pantless, diminutive, with a lavender bob cut just below the ears. I know she sees me because she scurries from the bathroom across the hall into Jorge’s room, pulling the open sides of his hoodie around her.
I never felt weird about meeting Jorge’s conquests when Rafael was here. It seemed natural to bear accidental witness to our roommate’s one-night stands when I could duck into our bedroom and snicker about it with Rafael. He’d pull out his phone from under the pillow and text something congratulatory like bien, huevón!! across the hall to Jorge, and before the lovers emerged from Jorge’s room looking high and sweaty, we’d already know her name was Luiza and she was half Brazilian and they met in Williamsburg smoking outside Union Pool and nah, he didn’t think we’d see her around again.
When the four of us met face-to-face in the cramped kitchen of the loft, we’d look around and nod awkwardly at each other like we were all in on some private joke. Hey, there you guys are together and here we are together. Good for you guys! Good for us! Sometimes we’d all smoke a bowl before the girl got dressed, but usually she’d leave and we’d order pollo a la brasa from the place on Irving. Rafael and Jorge and I would put the whole chicken on the table between us and tear it apart with our hands.
Now I make pancakes. I make them almost every time Jorge brings home a new girl, which means I make pancakes two or three days a week. This way, when the girls stay late into the morning, lounging on our furniture and smoking our weed, I have some motive to make conversation instead of waiting alone in the bedroom for Rafael to call.
Today the pancakes are blueberry and the girl is Aoife, an Irish bartender at some place in the East Village. Jorge’s telling a story I’ve heard before:
“So I’m at a jam session with Rafael and I go outside for a smoke. Rafael’s my best friend, by the way. And he’s Emma’s boyfriend,” he says, pointing at me.
Jorge takes a hit and passes Aoife the glass pipe. She shapes her mouth into an O to exhale in rings, but her lungs kick in and she coughs it all into an amorphous cloud. I track the movement of the smoke as it lingers and rises, up toward the rafters and out the loft window onto Flushing Ave, where it hangs momentarily, then dips into a passing breeze.
“Bro,” says Jorge, his mouth stuffed with pancake. I realize my eyes are locked on the empty space where the smoke slipped out. “Tuki?”
“Ta,” I say.
A few hits don’t usually make me this dumb. That’s how I know last night’s Oxy is still in my system.
Jorge continues: “So I’m just smoking and talking to my sister back home and minding my own business. Suddenly this huge bald dude comes out of nowhere and tries talking to me. He has tats all over his head and his fists are like frying pans. He’s like, sorry, bro, you speak English? and he seems chill, so I say yeah and he’s like, you know where I can get a good burrito around here? Rafael comes out looking for me and hears this shit, but instead of backing me up he just stands there sweating and making everything more tense, so I go sorry, bro, no idea. The guy just keeps coming closer and I can tell he’s wasted because his breath reeks. I think you do, he says, and I’m like no, brother, sorry, and he goes, what good’s a couple of beaners with no fucking beans? And honestly I would have torn this guy a new one, but I could tell Rafael was freaked, so I just said, listen up, I’m not Mexican, you fat piece of shit, but if you like ceviche I’ll fly some up from Lima and shove it up your asshole.”
I’ve heard several iterations of this story, usually in front of women Jorge’s trying to impress. But this time he tags the end with something new: “The guy backed off when the bouncer came over. I thought for sure we were getting kicked out, but he went get inside or get the fuck out, so we went back in and saw the end of the set. Rafael was pissed. He’s always saying we shouldn’t pick a fight because our hands are our livelihood or something, which I get, but how is it my fault if some dipshit gringo calls me the wrong racial slur? Anyway, Rafael was convinced I was asking for it. He was like, brother, when are you going to learn to stop speaking Spanish outside the house?” It became an obsession of Rafael’s after the election to avoid Spanish in public, which disappointed me more than I let on.
Jorge’s phone rings and he springs up to see who’s calling. “Speak of the devil,” he says, before sending it to voicemail. “I’ll call him back.”
I look down at my phone, expecting to see a message or missed call from Rafael, but nothing.
“That must be your boyfriend, then?” Aoife says. “Is he traveling?”
“He went home to get his hand fixed,” I tell her.
“Home to Peru? They couldn’t help him here?”
There’s a danger in feeding delicious things to strangers — it makes them feel entitled to the intimate details of your life.
“There was a serious accident,” I say, as gravely as possible. I don’t want to get into the problems with his visa.
I watch as Jorge returns his phone to his pocket and the two rearrange themselves on our futon, already practiced at accommodating each other’s shapes. Once again, Aoife drapes her legs over Jorge’s, arching her torso so he can tuck one arm between the couch and the small of her back. Once again, he rests his free hand on her knee. She begins stroking the nape of his neck with teal lacquered fingernails chipped at the tips. I try to calculate how many days it’s been since someone touched me where Aoife’s touching Jorge.
“I’m sorry,” she says, passing me the pipe. “It must be really hard for you.”
“Hard for me? Why?”
“You know. It’s not easy to have the person you love so far away, is it?”
I think of telling Aoife I’m not selfish enough to complain about doing long distance while Rafael is struggling to find a way back to his life. Instead I stand and clear the butter and maple syrup to the kitchen, leaving Aoife to contemplate the dry pancake still on her plate.
I stand with my hip against the kitchen sink, dragging the last strip of bacon through a puddle of syrup. On the night Jorge so enjoys recounting, I was at home. I’d had fusion surgery for my scoliosis a few weeks before and was wiped out from the Oxy when Rafael came to bed smelling like cachaça and cigarettes. I’d never seen him smoke, not even while drunk. He kicked off one shoe and it crashed against the music stand in the corner, tipping over a dilapidated Real Book held together with masking tape. A few lead sheets came loose from the binding and floated onto the floor.
He said, “Your country is a piece of shit.”
“What?” I said, groggy and surprised he was speaking English in bed.
“Piece of shit,” he enunciated. Rafael searched under the sheets until he found my torso, avoiding the fresh scar. He slapped me twice on my ass, first lightly, then harder.
“Did something happen?”
I tried to turn around and face him, but the weight of his shoulder on my hair kept my scalp pinned to the pillow.
“After,” he said, and he took my hips into his hands.
“Oye, bro,” Jorge says once Aoife’s gone. “I think it might give them the wrong idea when you feed them.”
“Maybe it’s the part where you fuck them that gives them the wrong idea and not the part where I make them pancakes, no crees?”
“I’ve never thought about it that way.”
Jorge and I have our own language. When he wakes up at noon and wants to know if anyone is home, he rolls over and calls out TUKI? If I’m there, reading or napping lightly, I call back TA!
And then he says, Eeeemma!
And then I say, Joooorge!
He comes across the hall and says buenos días, brother.
I tell him, good afternoon.
We go about our days separately but with a quiet awareness of one another, occasionally emerging from our bedrooms to offer each other a hit from a joint or a bite of a cold taco al pastor but mostly keeping to ourselves. That’s how we manage when Rafael is gone.
Sometimes, when I’m napping, I have nightmares about the accident. I hear the muffled crash of wood on flesh, Jorge’s bare feet slapping the hardwood as he runs to free Rafael’s hand. When I’m conscious, I remember gazing down at Rafael’s skin as I changed his bandages, the secret relief I felt at knowing that, for once, he and I were both in pain.
I know I scream in my sleep because Jorge usually comes to the door and yells tuki! to wake me. He never opens the door. He stands there until I can give him a feeble taaaaa in return, and then he pads off to his room.
Rafael calls several times a day from Lima and holds his bandaged hand up to the camera. He used to alternate which one of us he calls, probably so neither of us felt neglected, but lately he’s been choosing Jorge more than me. I don’t read into this. He knows we’re almost always in the same room. Jorge can’t earn money while he’s waiting for his paperwork to clear, and since I went on medical leave, I’ve been doing a translation project so I don’t lose my university funding. Jorge and I understand Rafael doesn’t call us to chat about his life and the vicissitudes of the visa process. He wants to be left on our screen in Bushwick, to play us the Peter Bernstein solo he’s been transcribing one-handed, to stand by while we cook or smoke or sweep. From time to time he calls out oye, querida when he sees me walk by, just so I won’t forget he’s there.
“Oye, querida! A ver la cicatriz,” he says.
I move in close to the camera and lift the back of my shirt so he can see.
“Uff,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut. “Is it supposed to look like that?”
The scar is still a little crusty at the edges, but the doctors tell me not to worry. When I scrub it with a loofah, it just pusses up and crusts over again. For the inflammation, I take 800 mg of ibuprofen every six hours on the nose. Five mg of Oxycodone as needed. Ten mg of Flexeril or Baclofen for the nerve stuff, if I don’t have anywhere to be. A Valium, as needed, for the shooting pains down my leg. That tends to knock me out for about twelve hours so I can at least get some sleep. When I wake up, my mind feels soft and empty like a felt-lined box.
The pills they give you after this kind of operation usually don’t last more than a couple of weeks, but if you go into your post-surgical visits with an Ivy League t-shirt on and say the words doctoral candidate when they ask, prescriptions have a funny way of refilling themselves.
Rafael says the drugs are poison, so Jorge and I tell him I’ve been smoking for the pain. This is just a lie by omission, which is the only kind I allow myself. Deception is a hallmark of addiction. I just take the drugs that were prescribed to me at the recommended intervals — maybe half an hour early, but only if my head is starting to hurt. And I get high sometimes, to help with the pain while the pills go to work, but I have a medical card for that.
Usually the Oxy makes me want to walk around the neighborhood and be social. On my way back, I go to the used bookstore on Flushing, browse the clearance cart, and make recommendations to the customers. They seem more excited than you’d expect to talk about books with a stranger, but it might just be the Oxy that makes me think so. When the drowsiness kicks in, I listen to Jorge practicing the drums in the kitchen. If he takes Rafael’s guitars off the wall, I tell him to play the blues and I sing along.
A week after Aoife’s visit, Rafael lets me know Jorge’s family is coming into town. Jorge doesn’t talk about them, but Rafael once told me in confidence that Jorge’s older sister died when Jorge was six, at the tail end of Peru’s “época del terrorismo.” Those were the words he used, died and terrorismo, which I took to mean that she was murdered but that they didn’t know why or by whom. Terrorism stands for the messiness of a moment when the police were just as likely to have killed you as the insurgents.
When the family finally arrives, I watch them through a crack in the bedroom door: the mother frantically tidying, the father prodding at a tablet with a plastic stylus, the sister who’s still alive playing “Chopsticks” on the jazz organ setting of Rafael’s keyboard. She’s the thinnest woman I’ve ever seen in person, the sister; when she lifts her arms to play, her clavicle looks like the handlebars on a bicycle.
What I really want is to make her some pancakes, but instead I go into the bathroom and take the maximum dose of Oxy. I get in bed and arrange myself in the fetal position with my knees curled in, a pillow tucked between them. This is a trick they taught me at the hospital.
In the afternoon, the family returns from lunch with an air conditioner and a man from the hardware store they’ve hired to install it. Jorge’s mother explains to me — as if we’ve already been introduced — that walking through our loft in July is like wading through a jacuzzi, and even if that’s the way New York is, there’s no reason her son should get heat stroke on top of everything else he’s suffering.
“You know what’s funny?” says the man from the hardware store. He surveys the massive windows, which open by swinging out toward the street. “These units don’t typically fit into this kind of window.”
“Funny?” says Jorge’s dad.
“I mean funny like… too bad.”
“What are you saying? You can’t do it?” asks Jorge’s dad.
“Yeah, no, I don’t think so.”
Jorge’s parents look at me to clarify, but I don’t have it in me to explain the apparent contradiction-in-terms. Jorge’s mom saws open the box with a dull knife from the kitchen. Together, they set the machine down in the frame of the open window. I walk over to help, but Jorge’s sister meets my gaze and her eyes widen in warning.
“Ma’am, I’m not sure about that!” says the man from the hardware store.
“Careful, Sara, be very careful,” says Jorge’s father, in English, more to signal his own reluctance to the rest of us than to influence his wife, who is balancing the unit on the edge of the windowsill.
She slackens her grip on the unit and pushes down on the top, as if that will lock it in place.
“Ya está,” she says.
For a moment, calm.
“Oh Christ,” says the man from the hardware store, but it’s too late. The A/C unit tips forward out the open window. It’s briefly possible to imagine that the forty-pound box has conveniently dematerialized — a six-story fall takes longer than you’d think. Then we hear the muted crunch as the plastic splinters against the sidewalk, followed by the blare of dueling car horns.
The bird-boned sister starts wailing in the corner saying we could have killed someone, the father says this is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and the mother says odio este país de mierda. The hardware store guy types frantically into his iPhone. Through it all, Jorge sits on the fire escape smoking a cigarette with his headphones on.
Jorge calls Rafael after they all leave for the hotel. This time, Jorge doesn’t hand me the phone. Instead, he goes into his room and closes the door. A few minutes later, I get a text from Rafael.
Amor, Jorge lo está pasando mal.
Then he asks me to get Jorge out of the house. I’ve never heard anything like this from Rafael. His usual refrain is that Jorge is a grown man and I shouldn’t have to look after him. He says I’m only enabling his lack of work ethic and self-destructive habits by feeding him and doing his chores and entertaining the women he sleeps with. He’s probably right.
I take Jorge to the West Village. It’s 8:30 on a Friday and people there will be happy, I think. Happy, tipsy people in work clothes looking to blow off steam.
We wander down into a bar and avoid the cover fee, saying we’re with the band. Inside, we drink Pilsner and eat free peanuts. Jorge’s phone is on the counter, and I can see Rafael is calling. He reaches over and sends it to voicemail. Then my phone starts to ring. I let it.
“Tuki?” I ask Jorge.
“He shouldn’t be calling us,” he says. “He should be here.”
“He would be, if everything weren’t so fucked up.”
Jorge squints at me like he’s trying to read my mind.
“You’re acting like he doesn’t have a choice, Emma.”
“How is any of this visa stuff his choice?”
“In a month or two his paperwork would have cleared and he could have gone home any time. All that work to move here, find the apartment, get a freaking guarantor. It was working out, you know? And he fucked it up.”
I take a sip of beer and swallow hard.
“That’s not fair,” I reason, like I always do. “He didn’t choose to get hurt.”
“No, but he chose to leave. It’s not like he was dying, Emma. You think a New York hospital can’t handle a couple of stitches and a bag of ice? Things get just a little shittier than usual in America and suddenly he’s running home like it’s any fucking better just because we have a shiny new Ivy League president who’ll turn out to be a fraud a year from now just like the rest of them. I don’t buy that he left because of his hand. I swear he wanted to get stuck there.”
“That’s bullshit. You know how hard it is to get a visa right now. The system is stacked against you guys.”
“Who’s you guys?” Jorge asks. “There’s no you guys. There’s no Latin America, whatever anyone thinks that is. There’s just stolen land and borders and dirtbag presidents. People who have power and people who don’t, just like here. You think it’s an accident all our friends from high school are in the States? If you’re white in Lima and you come from a certain kind of family with a certain kind of money, you can find a way to be here. All you have to do is follow the rules and pay the lawyers and not piss anyone off. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than he makes it seem.”
A cold pain surges down the length of my sciatic nerve from my hip all the way to the heel of my foot. I reach into my jacket for a Valium, then remember I left the bottle at home because I knew we’d be drinking. Learning to outwit ourselves is so often the dividing line between safety and ruin.
“You seriously think he’d rather be in Lima than here?” I ask.
“You don’t know what it’s like there for him, Emma. He has a cook and a car and a driver and his parents will make sure he gets whatever he needs. He’s someone there, you know? And what does he have here? A janky-ass apartment, two gigs a month, if he’s lucky. All he really has is you.”
I try to picture Rafael in Lima. For years his home has existed for me as a grey smear of sea, a cliff-face shrouded in clouds. I’ve never thought too much, I realize, about why he gets panicked driving in the city or why his culinary repertoire doesn’t extend past boiled eggs and hotdogs. Maybe I’ve wanted to believe what Jorge says is true, that Rafael only has me, that we belong only to each other. But how can you belong to someone whose life you’ve misunderstood?
Jorge sets both elbows down on the bar, gazes into the bowl of peanuts, and says, “Pucha, brother. I’m a dumbass. Tuki?”
I can’t bring myself to look Jorge in the eye, but I also know he’s not the one I’m angry with.
“Stop hoarding the nuts and we’re fine,” I try to joke.
He smiles and pushes the bowl down the bar. “Fucking Rafael, man. Every time I get really pissed, I just think about his messed up hand and I end up feeling sorry for him.”
“Me too,” I say, draining the last sip of my beer. “I still dream about his fingers.”
“TMI, brother,” says Jorge, his smile widening.
“Oh, fuck off, you know what I meant!”
“Hey, no judgment. I lived with you guys, remember? Our walls are not that thick.”
Jorge laughs and I blush. And then I laugh, too, for what feels like minutes, or years. It happens wordlessly: this agreement that we will not stop laughing until the other does, because to stop would mean depriving the other person of that extra fresh oxygen pumped into the lungs, the assurance that happiness can take up residence in the body as pain does.
When we get home, we’re a little drunk and my leg isn’t working. Jorge tells me to wait in the lobby and goes down to the basement to wake up the super, who curses us out but agrees to take us up to our floor in the service elevator.
I go straight to the bathroom and consider the contents of the medicine cabinet. I haven’t had that much to drink. It’s been seven hours since my last dose of Oxy, which means I could take another, if I wanted to. I could also take a Baclofen, or both, but if I do I’ll sleep until three and get nothing done all day. I’m about to bite off half a dose of each when Jorge knocks.
I open the door a little and he sticks his hand through. In it is a packet the size of a postage stamp.
“Don’t take that if you’re going to take this,” he says.
I’ve never done acid before, but I’ve seen Jorge on it half a dozen times. He usually ends up lying starfish-style on the roof, his guitar strapped across his chest like a seatbelt.
I ask him if it will help with the pain.
“Honestly,” he says, “it might make it worse.”
Twenty minutes later, I’m staring at the neon sign of the Popeye’s across the street, positive the acid isn’t working. But then Rafael calls me and I realize I can hear the marimba echo long after I shut off the volume.
“Do you ever feel like he’s watching you?” Jorge says.
His phone starts ringing, too, and the guitar riff splits through me like a migraine.
“Shit,” I say. “I think it’s working.”
I text Rafael: amor, I’m passing out early. mañana hablamos, ok? un besote.
“Oh, it’s working. Why aren’t you answering?”
“Why aren’t we answering, you mean?” I say.
“I talked to him five hours ago. What’s your excuse?”
“I can’t call him on acid. I’ll sound psycho and he’ll be pissed.”
“Let him be pissed, he’ll get over it. He always does with me.”
“Yeah, well. It’s different when you do something and when I do.”
“Why should it be different?” Jorge asks.
Soon it’s past midnight and I’m bent over the stove, trying to judge whether the grilled cheese is done by pressing my ear to the bread in the pan and listening to how quickly the particles move.
“The velocity is right,” I say. “Our sandwich is cooked.”
I flip the thing over and it’s black.
“Tuki?” says Jorge.
“La cagué. Look at this shit.”
“I’m looking. I’m seeing.”
“What do you see?”
“I see a sandwich. He’s been to war, but he’s being honest about it.”
“I think your sister is very hungry.”
“Mhm. She’s not hungry. She’s just always been that way, since we were kids.”
“No sé, pues. I think it was my parents. I think they never really tried that hard.”
“To get her help?”
“To feed her.”
I stare at the sandwich and see the butter oozing out of its bread pores and believe that, if I eat it, the butter will start leaking out of my human pores.
“If I cook tomorrow, will they come for lunch?”
“Nah, not after today. But I’ll bring her some of this monster sandwich, if you don’t want it.”
“How can you even eat on this shit?”
Jorge turns one sandwich half around in his fingers. “There is a fuckton of cheese in this thing. You could nourish two people with this much cheese.”
“Some of the cheese saw the rest of the cheese going into the sandwich, so all the cheese had to go in together. Do you know what I mean? It wasn’t for me to decide which cheese got to go in and which cheese got left behind.”
“Pucha, brother. That is fucking beautiful.”
Jorge and I are enormous and the universe is a sesame seed. Then the world expands and we are two grains of sand.
“Bro,” Jorge says, after a minute or twenty. “Where did we come from?”
“The West Village.”
“I’m from this hemisphere,” I tell him, “and you’re from the other one.”
“And then where did we come from?”
“Where you’re from doesn’t change. We only get one origin story.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” Jorge says. “I think we’re born and we’re from one place, for a while. And then, one day, you’re in pain. And if it hurts enough, that’s the place you’re from, even if you don’t remember it. And what fucking sucks is that from then on, if you want to go home, that’s the place you have to go to.”
I feel a heat climbing from my center toward my extremities. I feel I’m on the edge of knowing something essential about Jorge.
Instead he turns to me and says, “Do you remember when they cut you open?”
The question doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t he know that’s the whole point of anesthesia? To build a bridge between the person you are before they cut you open and the person you are afterward so you can skip being the person in the middle?
But then I see Jorge, his thin frame bent over the sandwich. He’s looking at me the way someone who is hungry looks to someone who might feed them. That’s how I know he’s not asking about a medical event. He needs to know I can’t name where I’m from, not any more than he can.
The acid pushes a fat bead of sweat into my eye and I think about the surgery. The anesthesiologist who smiled as he knocked me out. The laminated pain scale with the cartoon faces. Then, hours or days later, I was sitting in a plastic chair in the shower, my torso wrapped in cellophane, and Rafael was behind me in his boxers, humming a Monk tune and washing my hair with the hospital soap. It is, I think, a testament to the morphine that the sensation I remember best isn’t the tight ache of my flesh pulling at the sutures, but the haptic frenzy — hot water rushing my scalp, Rafael’s hands on my head, the bass hum of his voice flooding the space between my temples — all of it building to a new, glittering conviction that was born from the first high and would plead to be renewed by every other: your body is not yours alone to carry.
Jorge sets what’s left of the sandwich down on his right knee, and it balances there, wobbling slightly. Someday, when we don’t know each other any longer, I’ll remember him like this. I’ll remember the night ahead of us felt open, interminable, and that Jorge was sitting just far enough away that I couldn’t reach him even if I’d wanted to.
Hannah Kauders is a writer-translator based in Brooklyn. She was a finalist for the Iowa Review Award in fiction, and her translation of Iván Monalisa Ojeda’s Las Biuty Queens is nominated for the 2022 International Booker Prize. She is at work on a memoir grappling with questions of faith, love, and translation leading up to her father’s death.